Friday, March 6, 2020

Tribute to Bishop Tom Aitken

ELCA Conference of Bishops
March 6, 2020

Our Lord is pleased that we have gathered here to honor and give thanks for our colleague and friend Bishop Thomas M. Aitken….and I thank Tom for asking me to offer these words.

After eleven years of sharing responsibility for the wandering woebegone Lutherans of northern Minnesota—God’s  “frozen chosen!”--I give great thanks to God for both Tom and his wife Beckie (who has become a good friend of my wife Joy)—and I rejoice in Tom’s outstanding service to the people, the congregations and the ministry partners of the NE MN Synod….not to mention the thousands of folks who are in that synod’s mission field

So in the next few moment I want to thank God for five of Tom’s finest gifts as a bishop, colleague and friend:

1.    First of all, Tom has been given an extraordinary gift for storytelling.

I got my first taste of this in 2008 when newly installed Bishop Bill Rindy of the Eastern ND Synod, Bishop Aitken and I all headed west on Interstate 94, like the pioneers wending our way across the stunning prairie landscape of the Great State of North Dakota in order to participate in new Bishop Mark Narum’s installation.

We stopped for a stretch break in Jamestown ND, home of the world’s largest concrete buffalo…..and as we stood there together, gawking at this amazing statue of a bison…..Tom shared a few hilarious observations with us, and I knew that the next twelve years would be filled with fun and laughter, thanks to Tom.

When Tom spins a yarn his hearers often laugh so hard that they leak a little—whether from their eyes, or their bladders, or both..  

To make his stories all the more memorable Tom often veers off into a spot-on impersonation of someone—his impersonation often being a better rendition of the person than the person herself or himself could offer.

Last June at my retirement banquet in Moorhead MN Tom even did an impersonation of me….which I thought was “so-so”….but the other 499 guests ate it up and howled with laughter.

What we in Region III have come to realize is that Tom Aitken is much like a human Juke box:   just stick a nickel in him and he’ll tell you one of his many funny stories. 

Tom is a storyteller, and thank God, he uses that great gift in service to the greatest story of all, the story of the Gospel

2.    Second, God has lavished on Tom (and his dear Beckie) a superb gift for hospitality….not just in their home in Duluth but throughout all the arenas of his service as synod bishop:  whether Tom is holding forth at a little Friday afternoon theology brew pub on tap at one of Duluth’s many watering holes…or whether he’s serving up his latest Bishop’s Brew beer at a synod assembly or pastors’ conference…or whether he’s planning the gustatorial delight of our Region III dinners at COB events.  

Off-the-charts extravert that he is, Tom often “inflicts” his hospitality on total strangers…whether they’re seat-mates on planes or buses….or some poor, unsuspecting Uber driver who shows even a hint of interest in matters of the spirit, paving the way for evangelist Tom to recruit  said Uber driver for the nearest friendly neighborhood Lutheran congregation!

3.  Third, our Lord is pleased with Tom’s deep dedication to connecting with virtually all the middle-school youth of his synod driving out of Duluth into the hinterlands of northeastern MN for Bishop’s visitations with confirmation classes:  teaching, communing, anointing and blessing these dear teenage brothers and sisters in Christ.  A relentless “road warrior” Tom has made his way to virtually all the congregations in NE MN.

4.  Fourth, our Lord has made of Tom a consummate colleague, who doesn’t hesitate to ask a fellow bishop for advice….who generously shares  good ideas with  colleagues….especially around issues that challenge us all:  whether it’s pumping new life into a neglected global companion synod relationship….or inspiring synod teams to address the timely and pressing issues of creation care, reconciliation with our Native neighbors, or helping congregations warm up to the idea of calling a pastor or deacon who identifies as GLBTQIA+.

5.  Fifth and finally, our Lord has inspired in Tom a compelling public voice and presence….regularly authoring timely op-eds for the regional newspaper….co-hosting Catholic-Lutheran gatherings in and around Duluth…or building on his work with the board of LSS of MN to help birth the Center for Changing Lives in Duluth:  a safe, central site where young people who are at-risk or experiencing homelessness can find holistic guidance and support.

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