The lunch date was July 15, so it's been a little over six months now. We were at our annual youth camp, held every year at Gordon College, and just a hop, skip, and a jump from Lars and Elisabeth's home in Magnolia, MA. Elisabeth had passed away in June, we'd been to the memorial and graveside services, and even spoken with Lars there (he all but begged us to come over to the seminary and help them eat some of the 500 chocolate chip cookies he'd asked a local friend to make), but I really wanted to see him again and see how he was doing. I also wanted him to know that our friendship over the last 15 or so years wasn't just about Elisabeth.
So, I called him from camp. The line was busy. A few minutes later I called again. Busy. I waited a while longer and called again. He answered. He asked if I'd been trying to call earlier, and I said that I had been. He explained that he'd been on the phone ever since he'd gotten up that morning, and could he get dressed and eat some breakfast and call me back? I said "Of course!"
Lars ALWAYS does what he says he is going to do. If you call him, he will always call you back. If you write him, you WILL get a handwritten note in return. It might be in a few days or it might be few months, but a response is a guarantee with Lars. And not only that, but the response will be a specific response. He will remember why you called and follow up with that, or he will address something specific in his written correspondence. Last week this came:
He had received our Christmas card, read the accompanying letter, related to Cooper's work on a golf course, and shared something from his own youth and experience with golfing. How nice. Really. In this age of technology and efficiency and urgency, I love picturing Lars sitting down with our letter, reading it thoughtfully, and then taking the time to write back in his own hand and from his own life experiences. Truly a treasure to me, and something I aspire to. It communicates true care, concern, and Christian love.
Lars called back several hours later. I told him we were at Gordon College for the week and would love to come by and take him out for lunch sometime. He said he would be available on Wednesday and asked Kea (the lovely live-in caregiver to Elisabeth) for some restaurant suggestions. Kea had told him that she and her dad had been to Cala's in Manchester-by-the-Sea and that they have Root Beer Marinated Steak Tips on the menu. That sounded quite delicious to Lars, and so we decided that Cala's it was.
We met Lars there, and were offered a table near the back of the restaurant. There was a bar in the center of the restaurant and unfortunately, even though it was fairly empty, it was pretty loud. At one point, Lars requested that they turn the music down. The waiter agreed to that request, but we still had to talk pretty loudly in order to communicate.
We looked at the menu and quickly found the Root Beer Marinated Steak Tips. Robert decided to order them, but Lars went for the Chicken Caesar Salad. When we acted surprised that he turned down the steak tips, he said he was sure Robert would not be able to eat all of his and would be happy to help him finish them off ~ ha!
Over lunch we asked Lars about how he had proposed to Elisabeth, and he happily and hilariously recounted how she made him move out of her house as soon as she sensed a romantic connection and how that made him mad. (He had been a boarder there.) He told us about how he was still at the house every day painting something or fixing something. He explained how Elisabeth would spend summers writing on Cape Cod and how he had proposed in a letter during one of those summers while she was away. "I'd like to have you for a wife," was the horrific way (his description) he had put it. "I don't recommend that approach," he said dryly. She did not respond to that letter right away, which also made him a bit angry.
She wasn't necessarily playing hard to get. Rather, she was concerned about the "scandal" of getting married a third time. The very idea lacked propriety in her mind. But Lars was not easily deterred, and she eventually gave in.
(There is a MUCH better rendering of this story by Lars and Elisabeth themselves which you can find here! Worth every minute to listen! Lars had a copy of this in his pocket on CD and gave it to us at lunch. We listened to it on the way home from camp and couldn't believe we'd gotten the story from him at lunch and then again on the way home. That's the other thing about Lars - he always has a book or recording of Elisabeth's to pass along to you.)
Lunch was filled with catching up on the Krum kids and what Lars had done before (a hospital chaplain) he became Elisabeth's book manager. When we finally asked how he had been doing since Elisabeth's passing, it seemed to dawn on all of us at the same time. It was one month to the day. An anniversary. He had lost her on June 15 and it was now July 15. There were tears (his and ours) as he recounted the night and early morning of Elisabeth's home-going, and we knew it was a holy moment. A true privilege to have a glimpse into both the love of a husband for a wife and the raw pain of losing a spouse.
I had made him a card with pictures from our past lunches together, my visit to their home two summers ago, and some quotes, verses, and lyrics from the memorial service. Here's what the front looked like:
I re-read Passion and Purity on the days leading up to the funeral, and was tickled to find what she had written in the preface. If you can't read it from the bottom of the above photo, here's what it says:
"In the providence of God, I have had three chances to reflect on and try to practice the principles I write about here. I have been married three times: to Jim Elliot, killed by Indians in the Ecuadorian Jungle; to Addison Leitch, killed by cancer; and to Lars Gren, who is feeling fine on the day I'm writing this. Lars has lasted nearly six years which is longer than either Jim or Add, so he says he is the 'front runner.' May he outrun me!"
I shared this with Lars after the graveside service and he cried. He had outrun her, but he was grieving that reality. They were married for 37 years in all, I believe.
On the back of the card I wrote this under a picture of our family:
Dear Lars, Thank you for loving Elisabeth, and thereby Christ and His church so well.
Love, Melanie and Robert
The family photo overshadowed some of the words, so I decided to read it out loud to him. This brought more tears. For a moment, it felt wrong to ask questions and share sentiments that made him cry. I felt bad about that. I really don't think he minded, though, and I don't think I would have either. I think I'd much rather people delve into authentic conversation if I'm suffering a loss or facing a trial, than try and keep things unrealistically happy or not bring up the obvious out of fear or discomfort. I think I would be comforted by their interest as well as their shared memories. It seemed that he was grateful for the encouragement, even if it contained moments of grief.
Lars was getting down to the final bites of his Caesar salad, and so I motioned to Robert to be sure and leave him a couple of steak tips. He did, and Lars was more than happy to help Robert clean his plate. They both agreed that it would have been nice to taste a bit more of that root beer marinade.
Deep pain, hearty laughter, great loss, treasured memories, loud music, and root beer marinade. The ordinary and the extraordinary. All of it sacred though. All of it holy. I couldn't help thinking that this is what life is all about ~ especially life in Christ who uses it all to His glory and to our good. Participating in these moments together as believers. I came away understanding better how to love and how to grieve and how to look to Christ in all of it ~ resting in Him, trusting Him. And oh, how I long for these examples and experiences! I often feel so ill-equipped for life in general, and so to have this older, godly man share his frailty and as well as his strength was a great source of grace and equipping to me.
I regret to tell you that it wasn't until we said our goodbyes and began driving back toward Gordon College that I realized I had forgotten to take a picture. I hardly ever forget to take a picture in case you hadn't noticed, and so I wanted to turn around and track him down in order to capture the moment. But then it occurred to me: the moment was not to be captured on film or by pixels. It was a moment to ponder, not visually, but in the heart and mind.
And that's sort of been a theme the Lord keeps bringing up in my life: the need to ponder, to reflect, to remember. I'm always moving on to next things at the speed of light, and consequently I often miss the message, take for granted the answered prayers, have to re-learn the lessons. I don't want to do that anymore. That the Lord took my thoughts off the phone and camera and kept them swept up in the holy moments with Lars was good for me. Writing it all out here is good for me, and maybe for you, too.
So, there's no photographic evidence, but I'm hopeful that there's some heart evidence from the time spent with Lars over salad and steak tips. I am so grateful for those moments and look forward to many more.