My Dad and Prayer

Grandsons carry the casket to the gravesite
Praying To Lester? by Steve Clemens

He approached me at the end of the luncheon after the burial of my father. We had a time of sharing after the meal and many of those who took the microphone were members of Christian Business Men Connection, CBMC, an organization my dad had participated in and financially supported for dozens of years. This man, however, had a different message. I had spoken about how my dad's courage in traveling unarmed to the capital city of our national enemy  was one of several things that inspired me to choose the path of conscientious objector to the Vietnam War and my own later travel to Iraq and Afghanistan. The man, appearing to be in his 80s, told me how my dad had looked him up at a CBMC gathering after hearing he was a pacifist (and a distinct minority among that evangelical group).

"I'm committed to nonviolence too", he exclaimed to me and then told him how my dad shared with him that he had a son in prison for his protest against war. He told me my dad wasn't real clear about understanding "why" I had chosen that path and wanted to talk with others who shared his faith but also chose nonviolence as well. He told me he wore a shirt with a picture of a former nun who was protesting nuclear weapons and I smiled broadly and told him about my year-long Bible Study group with her and her husband, Liz McAlister and Phil Berrigan and how helpful they were to me on my own journey.

It got me thinking about my many radical Catholic friends.

When I was growing up, I was taught to shun Roman Catholics because they "prayed to Mary" and many also prayed for their dead friends and relatives in order to shorten their time in "purgatory". As I got to know Catholic believers for myself as an adult, I discovered that many suggested that we should also pray to saints who have gone before us to intercede on our behalf with the Divine. I had been taught to always pray " in Jesus' name" as he was the only intercessor "between God and man[sic]".

Well, Jesus calls all of us to join him as "sons and daughters of God" and we are called to " be like him".

My dad told me several weeks ago when I traveled east to say my goodbyes that "every morning I pray for Micah and Andrea and Zach". In fact, many of the CBMC men who spoke at the luncheon noted how "long" my dad's daily prayer list was - not only my sons but all his sons, their children and great grandchildren, missionaries, and many others. So why should I think he'd stop praying for all of us when his heart stopped beating?

It brings a smile to my face just thinking that dad continues to intercede on my behalf as he, according to his own vision and dreams before he passed, converses with "Jesus and his disciples". He'll even get a chance to meet with the Berrigan brothers and get more clarity on the attempts at faithful nonviolent witness of his youngest son.

Lester, please keep me and Christine and our families on your list.

My Dad, The Diplomat

Remembering a Hog Butcher Diplomat by Steve Clemens

Not many years had passed since the demagoguery of Senator Joe McCarthy when President Eisenhower embarked on what he called “People-to-People” diplomacy. I don’t know the details because it happened before my teenage years but my father set aside his butcher’s apron and knife to travel with a group of other business leaders to East and West Berlin and Moscow.

Dad returned home with photos and stories of the stark contrasts between grocery stores from “the East and the West” but what I remember most from that trip was not the bravery it must have taken for my Dad to travel to the capital city of our “national enemy” but rather the fact that he brought home seal-skin hats that we had seen many Russians wore in the winter in the National Geographic photos we looked at as kids.

I sit amazed nowadays at the courage he embodied to take such risks. We regularly read the virulent anti-Communist propaganda tracts put out by the John Birch Society so to be seen by others as one who would travel to meet “the enemy” was in reality, my Dad’s embodiment of the Jonah story. Nineveh was the Moscow for Jonah and I’m sure my Dad’s theology probably included Jonah’s “repent or risk divine destruction” message even though in those days I think it was forbidden for him to take his Bible “behind the Iron Curtain”.

I do remember our church supported some missionaries who “smuggled Bibles” to the people ruled by “godless Communists” but wonder now how my father’s friends and work colleagues reacted to his willingness to travel to the enemy’s home turf unarmed as a people-to-people diplomat. I wore that beautiful seal-skin hat with pride – after all, it was a novelty and it fit in well with the “coon-skin Davy Crockett” hats my brothers and I wore a few years before.

Dad left school after the tenth grade to help in the family butchering business. He was very proficient with the knife – from boning out hams at work to showing his sons how to skin a rabbit or gut a deer on our hunting adventures. It is easy to remember those typically “macho” scenes of a father and sons bonding together while fishing or hunting but from my vantage point now of fifty-five plus years later, it is his willingness to stretch out his hand to embrace an enemy is a memory I want to cherish.

Rest in Peace, Dad. Your lessons to me as we sighted-in our shotguns or rifles before going hunting in my teen years always came with your proviso: “never, ever, point your gun at a human being; never shoot anything you don’t wish to kill; and eat what you kill.”

It was those messages in the back of my mind when I turned 18 and registered for the military draft and fired the rifle assigned to me on the Wheaton College ROTC rifle range that caused me to declare I was a Conscientious Objector as it dawned on me that my targets were no longer pheasants, deer, or rabbits but rather “Viet Cong”.

You never bragged about your role as part of what our culture deems “the Greatest Generation” as you followed General Patton’s troops through France and into Germany trying to recover the bodies of dead and wounded GIs off the battlefield as German snipers aimed at the spotlight you operated. I never got the message from you about the heroism of going to war – even against the Nazis. Granted, you were only in your early 20s and I remember how invulnerable I felt at that age. But real courage was modeled for this son by your un-armed attempt at diplomacy to those you saw as “trapped behind the Iron Curtain.”


It is my prayer that I, too, have found ways to model such leadership for my own sons in some small way to help heal the wounds of war and division.

Remembering My Dad

The Passing of My Patriarch: Remembering Lester S. Clemens  
Dad at 95

I know - patriarchy is not in fashion these days- and rightfully so. But my father was the patriarch of our family. Actually, his father, my paternal grandfather, John C Clemens was more of a patriarch- having fathered 14 children, 10 surviving past infancy; my paternal Grandfather was the more classic model but I was only 9 years old when he passed and had only spent a few summers with him when he lived in our small basement apartment when he came north from his winter, spring, and fall home in Sarasota, Florida where he moved after retirement. He is the one who started the family business and provided the vision that was followed by 4 of his sons in what is now known as the Clemens Family Corporation but was merely Hatfield Packing Company in my childhood. 

My dad's patriarchy was over his 3 sons, 9 grandchildren, and 18 great grandchildren (with one on the way). His passing, at age 95, leaving only his youngest sister, my Aunt Betty, age 92, marks the end of that generation. He provided the spiritual leadership, the financial stability, and the discipline for our family. Although my mom co-parented- especially when he was away on business trips during my pre-teen years, we three sons knew who had the final word. 

Dad's faith and belief was a central core to his identity. Yes, he was also a veteran (having survived World War II as an Army infantryman), a quiet philanthropist, a businessman, and a community leader - but all of those identities were subordinated to his desire to be known as a disciple and follower of Jesus. 

My father was a Veteran. Dad never talked to me about his military service until I asked him direct questions after his 80th birthday celebration on the way back to the airport for my return trip to Minnesota. "I did some things I'm not proud of because I wasn't a Christian then. But I told the Lord, if I made it home [from Europe] safely, I'd go to church and change my life," he told me. And he did.  As a boy, I marveled at the German Mauser rifles, replete with removable bayonet bearing the  swastika,  and officer's Luger pistol, he had sent home from the battlefield.  We used the rifles for deer hunting in our earlier teenage years. Not once did he ever give me the impression that he was proud of his military service – he did it out of a sense of obligation.

Even though he and some of his generation eventually left his Mennonite tradition disagreeing with the ban on jewelry, musical instruments in worship, the need for women to wear head coverings, ... he still retained much from that pietist heritage. He identified as an "evangelical" because he felt he had an obligation to share his "good news" about his relationship with Jesus with others. His faith in and commitment to Jesus was the most important thing he wanted to pass on to others.

Yes, Dad was a philanthropist- he gave the bulk of his wealth away to many dozens, if not hundreds, of organizations, causes, or people. While never living extravagantly, he and my mom traveled to many distant places after his retirement at age 65, primarily to visit missionaries they supported in prayer and financially. Yes, a few organizations recognized Dad for his donations - including been given an honorary doctorate by a local seminary, despite having only a 10th grade formal education. But he was content not to make a show of his generosity- he was merely passing on "the blessings he had received from his 'Father in heaven'". I would be surprised as a young child to see someone from our church who had recently lost his job now working as an employee at the meat packing plant which was a mere 50-100 feet from our front door. He strongly insisted that his sons continue his practice of giving to others. Even his personal checks bore the scriptural verse, "For what shall it profit a man to gain the whole world but to lose his own soul?" That made a real impression on my brothers and me! 

Dad was a businessman - but here too, his ethics and values of his faith, also shared by his 3 brothers in the meat packing business, took priority over profit. Even though the plant employees were not unionized (unions were considered corrupt and too confrontational for my Dad and uncles), they instituted a "profit sharing" plan that eventually lead to a very comfortable retirement for many of the men I worked alongside of as a youth. [Dad had us working at the plant starting at age 7 before and after school. I started at 15 cents/hour and was elated when I turned 15 and could then command $1.15/hour.] Having grown up as "the boss' son - my Dad was Vice President to my Uncle John as the company President until I went off to college and he succeeded my uncle - I knew I was in a privileged position even though when I was assigned a job of bagging kidneys and livers, making scrapple, boxing frozen chitterlings, or assembling corrugated boxes I sometimes felt his desire to make us appreciate the work we had was trying to make us "too equal". I look back now on those days and lessons with deep gratitude and appreciation for his leadership and direction. 

Dad was a community leader. He regularly served on the church council and the missionary board. We often hosted missionaries in our home when they were on home leave as well as hosting special guest speakers who came to our church for the annual "Missionary Conference". Dad served on the Board of Directors for a Bible Conference, a local seminary, and other local businesses and organizations. 

But most of all, my Dad was an example of how to live a faithful life. Even though we have parted ways theologically, politically, and geographically, I still see my Dad as a role model. Sure I have some regrets: he wasn't very expressive emotionally as I was growing up but he was much more effusive as his health started failing him - maybe causing those stoic Mennonite genes to relax a little more. In his evangelical zeal, he was not affirming when I chose a different path - yet I knew he still loved me despite what he saw as my "rebellion". We certainly have some diverging philosophies when it comes to "charitable" giving with my predilection for social justice and his for evangelism but we both agree on direct service to the needy both at home and abroad. Without his generosity to me, I'd have a lot less to share with others as I've chosen to spend my vocational years with non-profit groups and organizations. 

He has left big shoes to fill. But he has blazed a path for his sons and their offspring. And he couldn't have done all this without his loving partner, my Mom - now slowly disappearing into her Alzheimer's. 


Waiting ... Waiting

Waiting, Waiting by Steve Clemens, March 12, 2017
“We are waiting, waiting, restless but waiting” was a refrain our faith community sang each week during Advent. It is not the kind of refrain one would normally sing during the season of Lent. But in my family, it has been now about 6 weeks of watching my father, 95 years old, slip closer and closer to his death. Having fallen and fractured both his pelvis and a hip socket, his decline health-wise seemed precipitous as he needed two blood transfusions and then increasing amounts of pain medications, slipping into signs of dementia or confusion.
Knowing his healthcare directive wishes expressed to my brother, I heeded his advice and flew into eastern Pennsylvania to say my goodbyes. He was very glad to see me and for the four days I spent there he was relatively responsive for part of each day but lapsing further downward as the day progressed. Phil told me dad called him “Frank” and he often made references to things or places that made no sense to us. Other times he responded gratefully to hearing my son Micah talk to him via Facetime from Afghanistan when I thought he might not survive that day.
It is difficult to admit to wishing for someone’s demise but seeing my dad’s continuing deterioration with virtually no medical hope of recovery, I don’t want to see his suffering prolonged. In the hospital just after he fell, when being positioned for x-rays or MRIs, my brother told me he screamed, “Jesus take me now!” When I visited several weeks ago, he tells me and my brothers of “seeing Jesus and his disciples” in his dreams and clearly expresses his desire to “be with Him”.
His hospice nurses have been puzzled by how he remains alive each of the past several mornings, having expected that he would pass over during the night. He stopped eating more than a week ago and doesn’t even accept a drink of water or juice when offered. It has been a rollercoaster ride of ups and downs. My brothers, sister-in-laws, or nieces bring my mom upstairs to see him and sometimes he knows her but other times he just keeps his eyes closed. He hasn’t spoken in the past three days and my mom, despite her Alzheimer’s where she rarely initiates any conversation said to him, “Les, why won’t you talk to me?”
Dad has lived a full, productive life. Despite three strokes in the past few years which has confused some of his language – especially mixing up his pronouns – he has been relatively physically and mentally healthy for his age. To see him recently with his wrists so skinny that his watch goes almost to his elbow is painful for me to see. I feel his pain as he winces when he tried to sit up in his hospital-type bed. More than a week ago, along with his cessation of eating, he started removing all of his clothing. The hospice nurse reassured us that both of these behaviors were signs that he was ready to pass. Yet each morning since I’ve returned to Minnesota after telling him I loved him and that he should “rest in the arms of Jesus” and that we would “take care of mom for him”, I have received a text message from one or both of my brothers telling me that dad has survived the night and updated me on his continued status among the living.
I love you, Dad. Your work is done. Please go to your eternal reward and rest in the loving embrace of the Jesus you tried to follow and emulate for the past 70 years or so. Yes, we will miss you and mourn your passing but part of you lives on in all of those your life has touched.