The book pens a journey with Mary, the mother of Jesus, as a framework for pondering life lessons, or songs, of grace-filled "yes" to God.

This blog continues to explore the implications of these songs in daily life. Here you will find ten additional reflections on each of Mary's "songs." May they continue to encourage your heart. ~Carla

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Unintentional Legacies

My father, Carl Christenson, died last week at age 75. At his funeral we celebrated his productive life as a “surgeon’s surgeon,”—a man who both loved to work and loved to be generous. His life was rich with intentional legacies. But life wasn’t simple for my dad or our family, and I ended the funeral with these thoughts on the unintentional legacies he left us through nearly half a lifetime of suffering.

In 1976 our father contracted a neurological disease that was never diagnosed. For the next sixteen years he managed the pain with a lot of exercise…and standing on one leg while he operated. He could have written “He giveth more grace” –he certainly sang it as though it was his own. But in 1992 the pain became an intolerable snare. He shut his Unity Medical Center office door, said good-bye to his faithful nurse, Jo, and never went back.

Life would be much more to our liking if every legacy was one that we could willingly initiate. But it doesn’t always work out that way. It didn’t for Carl.

Yet, without minimizing any of the tangible legacies he left, I wonder if one of the most life-changing legacies he offered those closest to him was the unintentional legacy he left through his suffering. For while the all-encompassing suffering he experienced was certainly personal, it was not private. No one close to him remained unaffected, beginning with our mom who described the situation well when she would say: “I’ve been married twice—both to the same man.”

As his family, we, too, had a couple of different dads in Carl, and have been saying good-bye for at least twenty years. Several years ago one of my young nieces said it best, “Grandpa lives locked in a room all by himself, and no one can find the key.”

But while Dad was, in his latter years, incapable of giving us the key to himself, he gave us other keys, other legacies. And telling his story would be incomplete without acknowledging the life-changing, if unintentional, legacies that Carl’s suffering left those closest to him.

· We have been left the legacy of honest questions and genuine responses. When I look at my mom and my siblings and their spouses, I find a group that is refreshingly, authentically human. We have cried hard together—and laughed harder. We have learned, especially in the face of so many unanswerable questions and so few answers, that “we” is much more important than “I.” We’ve learned to work together and to deeply respect and love each other.

· We have been left the legacy of our inadequacy in controlling much of anything having to do with our father’s decline. And that inadequacy has sent each of us, in our own way, back to the cross of Jesus. For while there many techniques to release pain, there is only one effective place for the pain to go—because Jesus has already swallowed up the sting of our pain, and we have been learning, in ways most personal, to let him carry our pain, for weight of it has been just too heavy for too long, and any hoarded resources were long left behind.

· We have been left with the legacy of genuine repentance and forgiveness from God and each other. Carrying for Carl has been messy at times, and perfection went out the window a long time ago. In the stress of the moment we have often said things we didn’t mean—or least “in that way”, or, in my case, “not that strongly—and “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you” has been flowing freely among us for a long time.

· And we have been left the legacy of gratitude for simple things. Dad knew this one. He delighted in a poorly crafted cross-stitched bookmark from his eldest daughter, and a well-turned bowl from his son. He carried Pam’s picture with the shepherd’s crook with him to all five health-care facilities that cared for him during the last two years. He sang until days before his death. And, especially when my sister, Karin, was with us, he would sing all the verses to all of the hymns, and could never understand why anyone would not want to sing Amazing Grace.

When we have suffered awhile, good moment become so sweet, and one of these is a final Dad moments. We were together at Paul and Karen’s last Thanksgiving—Carl’s presence made possible by a makeshift ramp my brother built for his wheelchair. It was not the best example of Paul’s craftsmanship, but it worked—and between the ramp and the strong men of my family, Dad was there. At least in body…until we began to sing, and my fingers gravitated toward the music he knew. And suddenly, Dad was THERE. We sang every gospel song we could think of, and my fingers kept pace as my heart was filled with gratitude. Thank you, Lord, for this gift of music that transcends words and cognitive ability, and even, for a moment, the dreadful power of pain.

As one great spiritual guide once said, “I think we have got our values all wrong, and suffering is the crown of life.” In medicine, our father was for a time, known as “the king.” Throughout his active life he displayed the generosity of a king. And by his suffering he taught us to know the King of Kings. This is a life well-lived, and we rejoice in the full measure of Carl’s legacy.


  1. Thanks for sharing.It's good cross theology.

  2. A wise observer once said, "A joy shared multiplies and a grief shared diminishes." Thank you for sharing the joys and griefs of your family's journey so vulnerably and beautifully with us. May they multiply and diminish respectively. Love to you and all your dear ones. May the peace of the Lord be with~

    darrell a. harris

  3. Carla, thank you for sharing so graciously about your Dad. Life is never without hardships, but you and your family have walked through them together hanging onto Jesus's strong hands. It shows! Praying for you, Nancy

  4. Beverly MagnusonJuly 29, 2009 at 7:47 PM

    Thank you, Carla dear, for this beautiful writing which expresses so well what our family knew and experienced personally regarding your father, Carl. He was such a faithful, caring friend who gave of himself tirelessly and generously. Every person in our family has his /her own stories about "Doc Chris".
    I wept as you presented this powerful piece at the funeral. I miss him for so many reasons. I am so grateful for the friendship since college years with your parents and for the privilege of
    watching you 4 "kids" grow up into such amazing adults. Your mom has been a model for me as I struggled with Norris' illness. I have done a great deal of thinking about suffering. One of my conclusions has been that to experience suffering can help us, at least in some small measure, to identify with Jesus' suffering for us. To do so can be considered a privilege though we do not seek it. God bless you and continue to work through Carl and Margaret's entire clan for His glory. I love you all. Bev

  5. Thanks for the post, Bev. I know my sibs and I have found it so meaningful to have the love and support of those of you who knew Dad before he "went away". Thank you for giving a bit of him back to us--every comment helps us fill in a picture that had lost much of its center. So thank you--for the generations of friendship and wisdom that is such a blessing to us right now. ~Carla