Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Fish Fry Fridays March 28, 2014

GROWING UP LUTHERAN, I knew Catholics couldn’t eat meat on Fridays during Lent. They ate fish. I never understood that because I consider fish to be meat.

But, still Lutheran today, I respect the Catholic Friday Fish Fry tradition.

Photographed in Omro, Wisconsin, eight miles west of Oshkosh along the Fox River.

Photographed in Omro, Wisconsin, eight miles west of Oshkosh along the Fox River.

This time of year, you’ll see advertisements and signs galore calling the faithful to feast on fish on Fridays.

These weekly Lenten fish fries should also remind believers of their calling to be, like Jesus’ disciples, fishers of men (and women and children). If I remember my bible facts correctly, Andrew, Peter, James and John were fishermen by profession and fishermen by discipleship.

Throughout scripture, you will find numerous references to fish, beginning with the beginning. In Genesis 1:26, God says:

“Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

What a great responsibility.

Then there’s the story of Jonah being swallowed by a great fish. I remember as a child reading Sunday School bible lessons and how impressed I was by this. To think that the prophet Jonah would be swallowed by a whale, remain in the whale’s belly for three days and then be spit out alive seemed pretty miraculous to me.

And that’s exactly as it should have seemed. The apostle Matthew writes in the gospel of Matthew, chapter 12:40:

For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.

Jonah’s experience connects to Christ’s resurrection from the dead after the third day, as explained by Matthew.

At VFW Post 2778 in Appleton, Wisconsin, they apparently attempt to feed the masses as the Friday Fish Fry runs from 11 a.m. - 10 p.m.

At VFW Post 2778 in Appleton, WI., they apparently attempt to feed the masses as the Friday Fish Fry runs from 11 a.m. – 10 p.m.

Finally, the other significant mention of fish imprinted upon my memory comes in the feeding of the 4,000 and the 5,000 plus. On both occasions, Jesus multiplied miniscule portions of bread and fish to feed the masses:

Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the people. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children. (Matthew 14: 19-21)

I think Jesus would have appreciated a Friday Fish Fry.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The Passion of Christ in scripture and art April 22, 2011

When evening came, Jesus arrived with the Twelve. While they were reclining at the table eating, he said, “I tell you the truth, one of you will betray me—one who is eating with me.”  Mark 14:17-18

Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. “Abba, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”  Mark 14:35-36

Now the betrayer had arranged a signal with them: “The one I kiss is the man; arrest him and lead him away under guard.” Going at once to Jesus, Judas said, “Rabbi!” and kissed him. The men seized Jesus and arrested him.  Mark 14:44-46

They put a purple robe on him, then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on him…With a loud cry Jesus breathed his last.  Mark 15:17 and Mark 15:37

When Jesus rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene…  Mark 16:9

“He has risen! He is not here.”  Mark 16:6

(Scripture from The New International Version of the Holy Bible.)

© Photos copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling of paintings by Faribault, Minnesota, artist Rhody Yule, copyrights reserved

 

Presenting Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper at a Minnesota church April 19, 2011

The parking lot at St. John's United Church of Christ, Wheeling Township, is nearly full 20 minutes before the congregation's annual performance of The Last Supper Drama.

AS THE FINAL wisps of daylight dissipate into darkness, the church windows glow with the subtle warmth of welcome on this Palm Sunday evening.

Inside, worshippers are already gathering in the tightly-knit pews, eyes focused on the long table before them.

As I wait, seated in a pew tucked under the rim of the balcony, I study the stained glass windows, the suspended ceiling lights where lady bugs cling, the golden cross high above the altar.

Then, shortly after 8 p.m., after the hymn and the invitation and recitation of The Lord’s Prayer, the drama begins unfolding—for the 49th consecutive year.

St. John’s United Church of Christ, Wheeling Township, is presenting its annual The Last Supper Drama.

The Rev. Lora Sturm provides brief historical background on Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper painting, the visual basis for the evening’s drama.

Leonardo da Vinci's painting of The Last Supper inspired the dramatic presentation at St. John's. This print was donated to the church in memory of Arnold Keller.

And then the lights fade, slowly, until a spotlight shines only on the cross. Soon that light and the organ light are extinguished, plunging the sanctuary into near darkness save for the remnants of daylight filtering through the stained glass windows.

A quiet reverence, a sense of anticipation, falls upon the congregation in the moments of silence and darkness before the actors begin filing into the church. Small clusters of men, seemingly engaged in conversation, without words to be heard, walk toward the table set with bread and a chalice and a bag of silver, although I am not sure whether the betrayal money was there initially or was carried in by Judas, the betrayer.

In darkness, these actors, these 12 disciples, pose themselves, replicating the positions da Vinci painted into his famous The Last Supper painting. But no one plays the role of Jesus, represented instead by an empty chair draped in white cloth.

The actors position themselves to replicate da Vinci's The Last Supper, except for Jesus, who is represented by the empty white chair in the middle of the table setting.

When the lights flick on, the frozen scene catches me off guard, even though I’ve previously seen the performance. The stillness fills me with a certain sense of peace, yet uneasiness.

I know what is coming. Words from Scripture that will tell of Jesus’ forthcoming death. The accusation that one of the 12 will betray Christ. It is the moment da Vinci depicts in his art—that moment when the disciples learn that one of them will give up their Lord to death.

Yet, in this script penned by a St. John’s pastor, Walter Rasche, 49 years ago, it is the depth of faithfulness that causes me to pause and look inside. Would I be so faithful as to become a martyr, to die, like the disciples, by stoning or crucifixion or beheading?

In their monologues, each disciple speaks honestly of his struggles, his lack of faithfulness, his travels to preach the gospel, and, then, the blessed words of a better and more abundant life found in following Christ.

The actors freeze as they role-play the disciples.

Five of the six disciples sitting to Jesus right with Christ represented by the empty white chair.

The disciple/actors to Christ's left, including first-time actor, 13-year-old Kyle Keller, the youngest cast member.

Judas’ words—that he regrets betraying Christ with a kiss, turning him over to the authorities for 30 pieces of silver—sting.

Judas, front, betrays Jesus with a kiss and 30 pieces of silver.

But the pastor’s prayer afterward encourages and uplifts me: “…hear your voice calling us to follow you…you call us to simply follow…”

And then her benediction blesses me with peace: “The Lord bless thee and keep thee…”

As the actors exit, as the worshipers file out of the sanctuary, I linger, waiting for the opportunity to shoot photos, which weren’t allowed during the performance. The men return, pose at the table, some of them telling me how they watched this drama as boys and now role-play as men.

This year a boy-becoming-a-man, 13-year-old Kyle Keller, plays the part of Philip, standing behind his father, Keith, who has assumed the role of Matthew. The seventh grader is the youngest participant ever in the St. John’s re-enactment. He was talked into playing the part, but says now that he’ll be back.

With two casts, the actors (most of them) return every other year to assume the same character roles. Some travel from the Twin Cities back to this, their home church near Nerstrand Big Woods State Park. They speak and gesture like seasoned actors, some growing beards for the occasion, others sporting fake, glued-on facial hair. Sharon Meyer jokes that she has the shaver charging at home, ready to shave off her dairy farmer husband’s beard. Alan Meyer has played the part of Andrew in the evening’s performance.

Occasionally, a new cast member like Kyle is recruited. He’s the grandson of Elsie Keller, who stands after the service next to a print of The Last Supper angled onto an easel in the church narthex. The Keller family gave the print to the church in memory of Elsie’s husband, Arnold, who died in 1999. On Palm Sunday the print is moved from its usual spot in the fellowship hall to this place of honor.

Elsie Keller, 85, stands next to The Last Supper painting given to St. John's in honor of her husband, Arnold.

The evening takes on special significance for this 85-year-old as she watches Thomas and thinks of her husband. Arnold played Thomas in the debut performance at St. John’s and continued with that role for many decades thereafter. Elsie, who was baptized, confirmed and married at St. John’s, as was her husband, hasn’t missed a single performance of The Last Supper Drama.

Her son, Craig Keller, the church organist, tells me that the drama originally was staged on a Wednesday during Lent. At one time there were two evening performances and even an afternoon presentation with the windows covered in black plastic to block out the light.

On this evening, some half-dozen church pews remain empty and I wonder why this place is not packed with a standing-room only crowd.

I’ve been deeply impressed with so many facets of the drama—by the level of commitment within this country congregation to continue a nearly 50-year tradition, by the professionalism of the actors, by the words they’ve shared that make the painting and Scripture and apostles come to life and, certainly, by the actors’ ability to freeze without barely an eye blink or a twitch. How do they do it?

The congregation's original chalice is used each year in the drama.

"Take eat, this is my body..." bread on the table during The Last Supper Drama.

FYI: Next year plan to attend the 50th presentation of The Last Supper at 8 p.m. on Palm Sunday. St. John’s United Church of Christ, Wheeling Township, is located about a 15-minute drive east of Faribault on Minnesota Highway 60 and then north on Rice County Road 24. At this point, I expect organizers may add activities to commemorate the 2012 anniversary production.

Credit goes to the following for their parts in presenting this year’ production: directors Shirley Little and Kelly Dahl; co-director Pauline Wiegrefe; organist Craig Keller; narrator Don Katra; prompter Steve Wille; lighting, Ben Heil; greeters Steve and Deb Wille; the youth fellowship ushers; the church council coffee hour servers; pastor Lora Sturm; and actors Alan Meyer, Grant Meese, Craig Mueller, Kyle Keller, Todd Lien, Thad Monroe, Keith Keller, Doug Spike, Marty Budde, Brian Little, Randy Tatge and Paul Meyer.

Thank you all for this exceptional gift during Holy Week.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The Last Supper at St. John’s April 14, 2011

Rhody Yule, a 92-year-old Faribault artist, painted this version of The Last Supper.

LIVING ART. A tribute to Christ. A contemplative event to mark the beginning of Holy Week.

However you view it, a dramatic presentation of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper by a rural church should be on your must-see list for the weekend if you live in my area of southeastern Minnesota.

For 49 years now, St. John’s United Church of Christ, Wheeling Township, has presented Drama of the Last Supper in the old limestone church set among flat farm fields and scattered farm places near Nerstrand Big Woods State Park in Rice County.

At 8 p.m. on Palm Sunday, April 17, as darkness falls upon the land, the sanctuary too will darken and the spotlight will shift to 12 men seated at the front of the church. Alan, Grant, Craig, Kyle, Todd, Thad, Keith, Doug, Marty, Brian, Randy and Paul will assume the roles of the 12 disciples.

Christ, if I remember correctly from attending a previous performance, is not portrayed by an actor.

When evening came, Jesus was reclining at the table with the Twelve. And while they were eating, he said, “I tell you the truth, one of you will betray me.” Matthew 26:20 – 21

The Betrayal, a painting by Faribault artist Rhody Yule.

So the scene unfolds with a monologue featuring each of the 12 disciples and their relationships with Christ.

“I tell you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it anew with you in my Father’s kingdom.” Matthew 26:29

Enveloped in darkness, listening to the somber words of forthcoming betrayal, worshippers experience the tense emotions that marked The Last Supper, setting the mood for a week that leads to the crucifixion of Christ and then, on Easter morning, to his glorious resurrection.

It is a thoughtful, serious drama presented by the local men, many of whom are repeat performers.

It is worth seeing, worth hearing and worth contemplating as Holy Week begins.

And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” Luke 22:19

St. Johns United Church of Christ, Wheeling Township

FYI: St. John’s is about a 15-minute drive from Faribault. Take Minnesota Highway 60 east and then turn north onto Rice County Road 24. The church is located at 19086 Jacobs Avenue.  A fellowship hour, with food, follows the presentation.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling