The Joseph Sittler Archives — The Expanding Scope of Grace
The Joseph Sittler Archives — The Expanding Scope of Grace
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Stories of Joseph Sittler

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In about September of 1982, Joe Sittler visited Columbia, Missouri. He spoke to the congregation of St. Andrew's Lutheran Church, focusing on the discussions about a new Lutheran Church (which became the ELCA in 1987), but he also spoke to a freshman class in Religious Studies, a new department at the University of Missouri-Columbia. The founding chair of the Department, who invited Joe, was Jill Raitt, who had been a student of Joe's at Chicago. As I recall, the class was entitled something like "Death and Dying in Western Religious Tradition"; I sat in the back of the classroom, with about 15 freshman students sitting in a circle with Joe at one end. The young people were all young, vigorous, healthy. Joe was frail, walked with a cane, was quite hard of hearing, and nearly blind. The contrast was amazing, as Joe talked about the nature of dying to these young people who surely were immortal.
Joe said "Most of you think about life and death like a light switch on, you are alive; then at some moment, the switch goes off and you are dead. But it's not like that at all. Rather," Joe said, "life is like a piece of fabric hanging on the wall. At some point,"he continued, "a grandmother dies, and a thread comes out of the cloth and floats to the ground. Then a friend is killed in an automobile accident, and another thread floats down through the air. After a few years, your grandfather dies, and another thread comes out. Later, you father dies, and then your mother, and more threads fall gently to the floor. As the years go on, soon, there are only a few threads left, and, one by one, they drift to the floor and the fabric is gone."

The students were absolutely silent. It was one of the most profoundly moving moments I have ever experienced.

Mel George, Columbia Missouri

Gerry Hubbarth, Director of Food Services at LSTC, tells a story about Joe, who used to sit at the table nearest the cash register when he came into the refectory. Some 30 years ago, jazz from a local radio station was piped into the refectory. One day Joe looked particularly troubled and Gerry asked him what was wrong. Joe replied, referring to the music, "This is not a nightclub; it's a Seminary!" That very day, said Gerry, he cut the wires into the refectory, so from henceforth the radio played only in the back room!

Mel George, Columbia Missouri

On one occasion, Joe was coming up to preach at the baptism of Pip, our son (this sermon is on tape in the Archive). Since grandparents were coming for the baptism and would stay with us, we arranged for Joe to stay (for two nights, as I remember) with one of our parishioner families, Don and Nancy Nord of Goodhue. JoeÆs first question to them was, ôAm I taking your bed away from you, because I wonÆt stay anywhere if it means you have to move out.ö He was assured he would be in the guest room and Joe settled in. Later Don told me that Joe wanted a full tour of the farm and hog operation. Joe followed Don around through the mud, observing everything and asking lots of questions, about feeding the hogs, their inoculations, and all other details about the operation of the farm. He specifically wanted to go into the farrowing house to get the full aroma as his sight might be failing, but his ôsmellerö was perfect! This is typical of JoeÆs interest in everything.

Gerry Gengenbach, Northfield, Minnesota

This is a story from Paul Westermeyer, told to me on January 5, 2011.

Paul Westermeyer, Professor at Luther Seminary and St. Olaf College, tells of his first encounter with Joe Sittler. When Paul was deciding about a PhD program that would enable him to do both theology and music, as he desired, it was suggested to him that he contact Joe Sittler at the Divinity School, U of Chicago. So Paul called Dr. Sittler, explained what he was looking for, and asked Joe's advice. Joe said there were plenty of opportunities there at Chicago, that Joe would be happy to be his advisor, and Paul could indeed do both theology and music. Joe suggested that Paul fill out an application for graduate work at Chicago and send it to him. So Paul did.

After some time, having heard nothing, Paul called Joe again, saying "Dr. Sittler, I sent you my application but have heard nothing." Joe replied that he was very sorry, but he had lost Paul's application. "But," he said, "I'd still like you to come to Chicago, so please fill out another application, but don't send it to me."

So Paul did just that, was admitted, arrived at Chicago to learn that Joe had just announced his retirement and would not be taking any more students — so Paul worked with Martin Marty instead.

Mel George, Columbia Missouri

This story was sent to me by The Rev. Charles Lewis of San Francisco, who was a student in Joe Sittler's systematic theology class at Maywood in the late 1950's. Pastor Lewis remembered three things from the class:
First, "Joe came to each class and delivered his lecture. Sometimes it was 40 minutes. Sometimes it was 50 minutes. In every case, he said what he had to say and that was it. Many times we appreciated the extra 10 minutes just to absorb his creative use of language and interpret it in contemporary terms.

One Sittler phrase I will always remember. 'Keep your categories clean.'

And finally the final exam in one systematic class was this: "You are sitting on a bus reading the religious pages of a newspaper. A man sits down next to you and asks, 'What do you believe about all that stuff?' You have 3 hours to tell me what you believe about God, Christ, the Church, etc." With that, he left the room and returned 3 hours later to collect our blue books."

Mel George, Columbia Missouri

This story was told to me by Pastor Victor Victorson, First Lutheran Church, Albany New York.

Pastor Victorson is an LSTC graduate who attended an LSTC event (perhaps a Leadership Conference) in 1986 or so. During that event, Joe Sittler spoke in the old chapel to a group of the attendees, and one of the participants, likely a young alumnus pastor, asked Joe to recommend a list of books for pastors to read. Joe replied that he was not going to do that, because he'd recommended books to read before and they hadn't read them!

Mel George, Columbia Missouri

When I was serving in my first parish in Liberty, North Carolina (1973-1976) I led a synod-wide campaign to increase the awareness of the importance of having the Eucharist weekly in worship. I recommended one year that all the district assemblies that year have as their program a biblical-theological study of the Eucharist and its place in worship and that Dr. Sittler be invited to make all the presentations (about 7 scattered over a week in geography spanning the entire state). My recommendation was accepted and I was appointed to contact Dr. Sittler. He agreed to come for round-trip airfare and $200 for the week! I was his chauffeur. He was lecturing in a liturgical environment that did not value weekly Eucharist and, as might be expected, never came across as judgmental, but seductively inviting. He focused more on community and what it means and the Eucharist as an expression of that than the rote repetitive act of a weekly worship ingredient. He did it as a humble servant of the Word.

Pr. Tom Ford, Arcadia, California

One night Dr. Sittler was to conduct a seminar at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. I was the first student to arrive and Dr. Sittler was already there and smoking his pipe. The scent of the tobacco was not particularly pleasing. I, a pipe smoker, asked, "Dr. Sittler, what kind of tobacco do you smoke?" As he reached for the tobacco pouch, he retorted, "Anything that burns." Then he pulled out a pouch of "Buglar" cigarette tobacco, the kind you use to roll your own cigarettes.

Pr. Tom Ford, Arcadia, California

Joe Sittler preached at the 1985 installation service of John Buchanan as pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago. John told me that at the beginning of the sermon, Joe, who was by that time in his life blind, told a joke. When the congregation laughed, Joe remarked "Good. Now I know where you are!"

Mel George, Columbia, Missouri

Albert Keck (born in 1910) met Joe in 1927, when Pastor Keck started at Wittenberg College as a freshman. At that time, Joe was a student at Hamma, who was also doing some teaching at Wittenberg. The two met at a fraternity at Wittenberg. Later, Pastor Keck himself attended Hamma. There was a professor at Hamma (Evejen) who "set the students on fire", particularly a group of students called "Ne Plus Ultra", in which Joe was a leader. According to Keck, Joe "was rather rebellious"! Albert was invited to join "Ne Plus Ultra" and so continued his connection with Joe.

Keck told two stories about Joe as preacher. A fraternity brother of Keck's who was a member of Joe's congregation (in Cleveland Heights) reported that Joe "had quoted Shakespeare in every sermon for a year." Joe once preached at an all-student convocation at Wittenberg, and he began his sermon, "Blessed Are the Poor in Spirit," this way: "Preachers normally start their sermons, 'I'm a preacher but don't worry, I'm not going to preach'". Joe continued, "I am going to preach, and if I don't, it won't be my fault." That sermon was handwritten by Joe, given to Keck by Joe following the convocation, and later sent by Keck to the Archive where it is now.

Years later, Keck (then a parish pastor in Sterling, Illinois) was Secretary of the Board of Trustees of Maywood Seminary. The seminary had reached a low point, and the board decided to ask for the resignations of most members of the faculty (with the exception of H. Grady Davis). The board then called Joe as part of a new group of faculty, and Keck had the honor of calling Joe to tell him the news. He then saw Joe more frequently, through the Maywood connection.

Sittler was very "commonplace," Keck recalled. He said Joe had once remarked, "If I ever were to build a house, I'd have one room that is all concrete with a drain in the floor. Then when the kids come in from playing outside, I'll put them in there and turn on the water."

After Keck moved to a parish in North Carolina, his congregation planned a new organ and Joe and Jean (who was an excellent organist) sent quite detailed directions as to the kind of organ, the best builder, and so forth. Keck says that Holtkamp organ from Cleveland, Ohio, turned out wonderfully. Later, when Keck was called to be the Professor of Practical Theology at Southern Seminary, he contacted Joe for advice. Joe responded "You'll feel lonely as hell to begin with û more lonely than in the parish. But you don't have all the mess of the Ladies Aid Society." Keck served at Southern for 5 years.

When asked about a theme of Joe's that he especially remembers, Keck replied it was Joe's emphasis on 'genuineness' and 'purity of effort' in the role of the pastor.

The Rev. Albert Keck (reported by Mel George), Hickory, North Carolina

I graduated from LSTC in 1979, way before the seminary courtyard was enclosed. In fact, there had been nothing planted in the courtyard since the building had been constructed. It was a non-descript expanse of crab grass.

Joe thought some trees should be planted. I don't know how he raised the funds to buy the trees, but I joined a couple of classmates in helping him plot out where to plant the trees. Of course, by 1979, he couldn't see across the courtyard. He spoke of his idea for a design, and we helpers tried to lay it out.

But where to begin? How to orient ourselves for the beginning of the design? Joe had an idea. He marked out the first corner of the arrangement — by jamming his umbrella into the soil and placing atop it his pork pie hat!

One of the things I appreciated about Joe Sittler was his absolute lack of pretension!

Andy Ballentine, Williamsburg, Virginia

Joseph Sittler is my grandfather. I met him when I was a young child, when he was already blind. I don't remember much about him, but this website is an invaluable resource, in that it allows me to get an idea of what he was like and what he meant to the people who knew him. I hope that this site continues to be a beacon of his teachings, and a preservation of his memory. Although I am not religious, I know that he has deeply influenced my upbringing in the moral values that he instilled in my father, and the rest of his children. If only I could meet him today, I know we would have much to talk about.

Edward (Chumley) Sittler, Austin, Texas

My husband Krister and Joe Sittler were two of the major speakers at a conference at Luther College, Decorah, Iowa, in 1981. At the time, Krister was in a wheelchair, awaiting a double hip operation. He and I had never met Joe Sittler, but we found that the three of us were intellectually alike, and we had so much fun together. On our walks together on campus, Joe insisted on "driving" Krister in his wheelchair. As Joe took off each time with Krister, my heart was in my mouth as I watched this blind man pushing the lame, I knew not where. I always ran after them, quite afraid of an accident, but all was well and we continued to enjoy the conference and each other's company.

Told to Mel George by Brita Stendahl, Cambridge, Massachusetts

After Joe died, the time came to clean out his office at LSTC. Before the furniture was moved to the basement or dispersed to other rooms, my mother asked permission to buy an old wood chair that had been in Joe's office. In and of itself the chair is nothing remarkable. Camel back. Sturdy arms. Fading finish. There were probably others just like it in other offices on campus. But this one was Joe Sittler's chair! It now sits in my mother's home in a place of honor. I have been told that some day it will be mine. What a treasure!

Heidi Rodrick-Schnaath, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

I recently attended a memorial service for a good friend and mentor, The Rev. Clyde McCormack, who had been a student of Joe's at Maywood Seminary and, for 25 years, the campus pastor at Northwestern University. It was there that my wife and I, as undergraduate students, knew "Mac" in the mid-50's, and it was Mac who introduced us to Joe Sittler, which was the beginning of our lifelong friendship with and admiration for Joe.

At Mac's service in Ohio last December, the liturgy was constructed as Mac had instructed, and the pastor preached a fine sermon. During the sermon he told of having attended a funeral years earlier that had been conducted by Mac for a "good Lutheran." In the course of that earlier funeral, Mac had told this story - Luther was once asked, "What is the duty of a Christian man?" Said Mac, "Luther replied, 'Drink your beer, love your wife, and say your daily prayers", emphasizing that the Christian man can live easily in God's grace.

After that funeral, the pastor went up to Mac and asked where in Luther's writings did that story appear. Mac replied that he really didn't know, as he had only heard the story from Joe Sittler. The pastor continued, in last December's message, by reporting that he had carefully checked Luther's writings and did not find such a story. At that, there were broad smiles on the faces in the congregation of those who had known Joe and his penchant for attributing to well-known persons things they really SHOULD have said but probably didn't. And it was typical of someone who respected and loved Joe as much as Mac did to "sin boldly" by repeating the story publicly.

Mel George, Columbia, Missouri

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The Joseph Sittler Legacy…
“The Extraordinary in the Ordinary”

On October 2nd, some of Joe's friends gathered to remember, share stories and to consider the future of his legacy.
Learn more, view pictures and watch the videos


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The Anguish of Preaching by Joseph Sittler

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