J. Hawk

Jim Hawkinson
Rev. James R. Hawkinson (1930-2011)

My friend Jim Hawkinson passed away two months ago today. In that time, he’s been honored by two memorial services (the one at our church, where he served as visitation pastor, drew something like 700 people) and several excellent essays. And while I promised my own appreciation a few weeks ago, I wasn’t sure that I could or should write it until our congregation’s annual meeting last Tuesday, when his name came up time after time and his memory helped to inspire some comments I shared.

Unless, like me, you’ve spent most of your life in the Evangelical Covenant Church, you probably don’t recognize Jim’s name. I think it’s safe to say that Jim was about as influential a figure in our small-ish denomination as any one person was in his or her denomination in the second half of the twentieth century. A pastor for over five decades, he edited the ECC magazine (The Covenant Companion) and devotional (The Covenant Home Altar) for nearly thirty years, headed Covenant Publications from 1970-1994, oversaw the development of two editions of The Covenant Hymnal, and, in retirement, compiled Glad Hearts: The Joys of Believing and Challenges of Belonging, a reader featuring “voices from the literature of the Covenant Church.” And none of that reflects perhaps his chief legacy: as a mentor and friend to countless Covenant clergy and laity.

I’m honored to count myself a member of that group. Jim and I first met in 2005-2006, when he came to Salem to serve as our interim pastor. Having read his words and sung hymns he helped to select for my whole life, I was more than a little intimidated. But two things helped to break the ice.

First, one of my former students at Bethel visited one Sunday. We chatted after the service, and it turned that not only did Peter know Jim, but he had all sorts of stories to share about “J. Hawk.” (You know, like J. Lo. Or, um, C. Gehrz.) At first the nickname was something that I would snicker about, but “J. Hawk” has since become affectionate shorthand between my wife and me, though nothing I ever shared with Jim.

The second, more important thing is that Jim decided to make a point of getting to know me. I’d like to think that this happened because he once snuck in for the last few minutes of an adult Sunday School class I was teaching and liked something I quoted from Martin Luther King, Jr. (Something that he’d included in the appendix of the 1996 hymnal we still use.) But I know now that he wanted to get acquainted with as many of the younger adults in our congregation as possible. (“Keeps me young,” he said.)

Jim at Feed My Starving Children
Jim and our other staff on retreat in 2009, getting ready to pack meals at Feed My Starving Children

After we called a new senior pastor, Jim graciously stayed on as visitation pastor, and we got to know each other much better, having breakfast, coffee, or lunch regularly (though never as often as either of us would have liked), chatting on the phone, and even taking part in the same book group together. When my wife and I showed up at the hospital for our twins’ scheduled C-section, we didn’t get two steps into the ward before hearing Jim call out from the waiting room—he had driven half an hour through several inches of snow to greet and pray for us—then he returned again to meet our babies the last night before we went home. I don’t know how infant memory works, but I hope that our children have some glimmer of recollection of Jim Hawkinson, who so dearly loved to see young ones toddling around the church on a Sunday morning.

Having been blessed by the friendship of a man who was forty-five years old when I was born, closer in age to my grandparents than my parents, teaches me all I need to know about the importance of belonging to a multi-generational church. It’s not the kind of diversity that most twenty-first century churches seek or advertise (and I do wish that our congregation had greater heterogeneity of socioeconomic class and ethnic background), but it specially underscores the familial nature of the Church: brothers and sisters gathered as children of God, in the Father’s House, “in it together” (as our current ECC president likes to repeat) as the Body of Christ, the Son.

Yes, Jim taught me to cherish the Church as I cherish my wife and children, parents and siblings, grandparents and cousins: not because it’s perfect (we who are a part of it know better than its many critics that it’s not), or because it makes me perpetually happy (nope), but for reasons he laid out in his greatest essay, a 1965 piece for The California Covenanter later reprinted for the whole denomination:

Will no one stand to defend my church? Will all her friends be silent? Is criticism all we shall hear? Is none being redeemed? Are none being nurtured? Is there death only at the heart, and not life? Where are the patriot’s voices? Where are the friends?

I will be a fool! I love her, the Church. I love my church. I love her institutions, though I am not unaware of their faults. I love her worship. I am revived daily by her quiet, yet constant fellowship. I love her hymns, and the Word she proclaims. I treasure her celebrations of the sacraments. I honor her teachers. I salute her servants. I stand behind her leaders. I laud her achievements and I love her aspirings.

…in this climate of unrest, when she suffers so much from foe and friend alike, let me raise a song from the heart. I stand gladly in her battlements. I participate joyfully in her wider ministry, and in the seeking with her of that renewal we all so sorely need. (p. 590)

(Jim was a Pietist, not just a Covenanter, and that last sentence is as good a summation of Pietist ecclesiology as I’ve read.)

Perhaps by coincidence, that essay appears in Glad Hearts back-to-back with a poem of his that illustrates the second lesson Jim taught me: (how) to value one’s heritage.

Our inheritance flows
Like a fresh, clean stream
From the heart of God.

Who knows where it begins
Or finally ends
In oceans of time?

Whatever we may say
Is inadequate
To trace it clearly,

Except that God once gave
And still is giving
Out of love for us.
(p. 591)

This spirit animated Jim’s work with Covenant Publications and in editing Glad Hearts itself. It also led him to teach many classes and workshops on the subject of Covenant history. You can see three such presentations from last year’s ECC annual meeting (the 125th such affair) in St. Paul, MN. (I think I make a cameo in #2.)

Now, I have to admit that I rolled my eyes more than once when Jim’s love for the Covenant Church was expressed too adoringly, without that critical distance that we professional historians strive to cultivate. After hearing one too many David Nyvall quotations (mentally, I always added “St.” to Nyvall’s name when it came from Jim’s mouth), I e-mailed a complaint to a colleague who knew Jim far better than I did. He understood my frustration but shrugged, “He just loves to reach out his big arms around the ECC with a hug and a ‘How are ya?'”

Jim leading a 2008 workshop on Covenant history
Jim leading a workshop on Covenant history in 2008 – Evangelical Covenant Church

I think this response helped me better understand two important aspects of Jim’s dedication to the history of the Covenant Church. First, it was motivated by the same, pietistic thirst for fellowship that led him to seek out my friendship. I’m sure that he would have loved to have taken David Nyvall to Perkins to share conversation over potato pancakes and a bottomless cup of coffee, too. Sharing stories of old Swedes like Nyvall was his way of drawing Covenanters dead and living, old and new into an enormous, decades-spanning, denomination-encompassing hug. (A warm-hearted approach to doing history that might have no small corrective value for a discipline too influenced by the Enlightenment and eager to proclaim itself a science.)

Second, that “How are ya?” question… In churches like the Covenant, which remained ethnically homogenous well into the twentieth century, the old stories about the heroic first generations can serve to isolate the newcomers, who hear them and don’t know when/whether to laugh or smile, or shake their heads in disbelief, or tear up. But when joined with an extrovert’s thirst for conversation and a pastor’s attentive ear, Jim’s passion for passing down the heritage of his church became uniquely generous and magnetic, drawing people into the story and making it their own. And for a denomination that has grown so rapidly of late that more than half of its current membership wasn’t in it ten years ago (and increasingly comes from populations other than Euro-Americans), that’s hugely significant.

One of the ECC’s rising young leaders, Efrem Smith, made this very point in a sermon at the denominational annual meeting last month, preached in part as a “hymn” to Jim Hawkinson. (Watch the sermon here; stories about Jim start at 16:25. You can also see Jim interview Efrem in this video.) Efrem talked about growing up in an African-American Baptist church, founding a new congregation in north Minneapolis, and then joining the Covenant. Jim decided to get to know him over a series of lunches. At first, they struggled to find anything in common. But after hearing Jim’s stories and reading the books he recommended, Efrem found himself appreciating that the church they shared—though many of us easily forget this—is an “immigrant church.” Founded by people who gave up all that they knew and possessed and, in poverty, covenanted with each other to pool their scant resources and proclaim the Gospel in word and deed, near and far. People who truly understood that “here [whether that means Sweden, Africa, or Minnesota] we do not have an enduring city” (Heb 13:14). This was a church that a descendant of people taken across an ocean in chains could make home.

And I think immigrantness (sojourning, I’ve called it in an earlier post) was central to Jim’s understanding of heritage, as well. Much as he loved the stories he told and the hymns he so loudly sang, Jim also understood—as someone with the familial memory of having left a land and language behind could do—that a heritage provides no “enduring city” either. Rather, it furnishes roots that nourish growth—and change. Here’s how Jim put it in the last paragraph of his first blog entry: (and that alone should squelch any notion that Jim was some hide-bound antiquarian—he blogged three years before me, and had more than twice as many Facebook friends)

Gathered by history—my own as well as the whole story of God’s people—I want also to be gathering others like you, that together, out of our roots and life experience, we may move forward thoughtfully and purposefully, in penitence and faith, under the wings of God’s Spirit.

As little sense as it makes to tether oneself to such roots and act as if the church as it was remains so and always will (Jim called his blog Rooted Wings, implying movement, not stasis), it is equally foolish to waste the resources that a heritage can provide. Jim’s brother Zenos (who inspired this blog’s name) explains well how this can work, in an essay excerpted by Jim in Glad Hearts:

If we are to recover our ancestral experiences, we must unsheathe our imaginations, enter into the past as participants, and measure its meaning in a realistic but inward way. Are we alive in vast and confusing currents of cultural change? So were they! Do our resources seem limited and poor by the measurement of all that needs to be done? They had almost nothing at all! Do we seem few, pitted against the vast armies of darkness? They were a handful! Are we inadequate? They, too, were ordinary people! Are we confused about the future? So were they!

It is by God’s mercy that we do not know the future, so that we may live and act in faith. And faith can be fed by memory, above all the memory of the mighty acts of God. (p. 442)

Living and acting in a faith fed by memory. That seems to encapsulate Jim Hawkinson, and it inspires me.

Two months removed from his passing, I continue to miss J. Hawk. (Right now I most miss his professional abilities as an editor; they would have helped me polish this tribute into something truly worthy of such a gifted communicator!) But the sting has faded, and gratitude for his life in this world and the next remains. Peace be to his memory.

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