Life in a Sycamore Tree: A Catholic Friend's Tribute to Harald Bredesen
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“At that time, Jesus came to Jericho and intended to pass through the town. Now a man there named Zacchaeus, who was a chief tax collector and also a wealthy man, was seeking to see who Jesus was; but he could not see him because of the crowd, for he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree in order to see Jesus, who was about to pass that way. When he reached the place, Jesus looked up and said, "Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house." And he came down quickly and received him with joy. (St.)
I received the news that on December 26, my friend, Harald Bredesen, fell on his stairs at home, fractured his skull and, on Friday, December 29, went home to the Lord. My heart breaks but my spirit rejoices, because I know that Harald has finally found the longing of His entire life, full communion with the Lord whom he loved so dearly and the fullness of that Beatitude to which we are all invited. I can even hear him crying out his favorite prayer “Jesus, my Lord!”
I extend my solidarity in sorrow to his dear bride Gen, of whom he could not even speak without smiling, along with his beloved family, and the thousands whose lives were forever changed through their encounter with this dear saint. We will all miss him. But the best consolation I can give to those who mourn is to spend a bit of time reflecting on Harald’s role in my own personal life. I know that this will be only one of hundreds of stories. I remember almost two decades ago commenting to a friend that there are so many “Harald stories” someone ought to write a book. I think the time has come.
I began this tribute to my friend with the biblical story of Zacchaeus because one particular experience is a frozen picture frame among the many memories that I cherish after all these years. It is only one of many “Harald” experiences from my earlier years. However, before I continue I feel like asking my readers “May I tell you the story?” That was what Herald would always do; ask before telling his wonderful stories. He always told the story anyway.
At the time of this experience I was a Dean at the then College of Steubenville. I traveled to Washington D.C. with Harald, to participate in a national gathering of Christians on the Mall. I would often accompany him as the “Catholic guy” when he asked me too. The work and ministry in which he was engaged was openly and authentically ecumenical because Harald was openly and authentically ecumenical. Oh, he did not always like the word because it had been sometimes abused in such a way as to water down the real distinctions between Christians of different traditions and confessions. However, I always reminded him that we needed to take the word back because it actually meant promoting Christian unity and that was, after all, a response to the Prayer of Jesus “May they be one”. () He loved to hear it! “Jesus, my Lord” he would respond.
Harald Bredesen was an apostle of unity. He fostered it by focusing on the centrality of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in the Church, the believer and the world. Many contemporary ecumenists could learn a great deal from the manner of this great man. He worked with Christians of various confessions. His ecumenism always began with, continued in, and ended with, prayer. He was one of several men and women who, very early on in my own work for the Lord, taught me that prayer is a continual conversation with a living God. He also taught me that nothing of any value proceeds in ministry without prayer. This truth has informed my life and become one of my greatest treasures. Oh how Harald loved to pray! He lived in a unique kind of “stream of consciousness”, moving from conversation with you to conversation with God, and then back to you… all “in the Spirit.” For him, this was how he lived his life in the Spirit. And, when you were with him, you believed and entered in.
Harald was an apostle of the Holy Spirit. He lived as though the Lord was always at work because he knew that he was and is! He looked to see where the Lord was moving so that he could be right there. He wanted anything that would obstruct his vision to be cleared out of the way! The reason for the title of this piece arises out of this particular incident wherein I came to see Harald as a modern day Zacchaeus. We had just finished one of many experiences “in the Spirit” that day. It included praying with former Attorney General Ed Meese, who was about to undergo some difficulties. We were there to invite him to the event. However, we also had to tell him how much the Lord loved him and offer to pray with him. After all, that was Haralds’ mission, no matter what other tasks he had to accomplish within it.
Praying with an Attorney General of the United States was not abnormal. Harald met with world leaders. He was a man comfortable in his own skin and well aware of his missionary vocation, even to the rich and powerful. He would tell world leaders all the same thing - that Jesus Christ was sent from the Father to be their Savior and that God loved them. He would also tell them that the way to authentic peace was through the Prince of Peace. We traveled from this “divine appointment” with the Attorney General over to a meeting of various leaders from many different Christian confessions who were gathering to pray for the event. We were also late. Harald had little concept of time. The leaders were all seated on a large stage which was removed from the rows of chairs in the hall. It was impossible to get up on that stage because it was too high.
On the stage, seated along with other Christian leaders, was my friend Father Michael Scanlan, then President of the College of Steubenville where I served for years, now the Franciscan University of Steubenville. Harald had great admiration for Father Scanlan but had never personally met him. He did not care that he had missed the opportunity to join the other leaders on the stage; he never really cared about his own placement. However, he simply had to meet Father Scanlan! Harald had a special love for the Catholic Church and loved Catholics who truly lived their faith like father Scanlan did. He looked over at me, assessed the situation, excitedly grabbed my hand, and pulled me through the crowd to the foot of the stage. He then said forcefully “Give me a boost!” I was flabbergasted! This man of such small stature simply wanted to be where the Lord was moving and nothing was going to stop him! “You are like Zacchaeus” I told him as I boosted him up. He ran over to Father Mike and hugged him. His face glowed with the childlike joy that so often emanated from Harald.
We sometimes think of the Christian life in terms of our own efforts to reach and to know God- and to do His will. However, almost the opposite is what really occurs. God seeks us and we respond. Yet, we need to “position” ourselves for the meeting. Zacheus climbed that tree to see Jesus; he positioned Himself for the encounter; the call, the vocation that was given to Him that wonderful day. The words of the Master, "Today salvation has come to this house because this man too is a descendant of Abraham. For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost." would forever frame his future responses to God’s continuing invitation. Zachaeus would never be the same. Harald did the same kind of thing before my eyes. Jesus reminds us “You did not choose me, but I chose you” (). Zacheus’ story reminds us of who does the choosing and who does the responding. So did the entire life of Harald Bredesen. He was a man who was chosen by the Lord with a special vocation which he lived to the full.
Harald taught all who encountered him that faith is not a vicarious experience. While it is true that others can help to bring us closer to Jesus, the Lord calls our name and we must personally respond to that call. Not just once, but every day, every moment. Harald knew that and taught others that faith is a call into an ongoing, intimate dynamic relationship with a living, loving God who, in Jesus Christ, has come to seek and save the lost. Zacheus climbed that tree in order to see the Lord. He did not care what the crowd thought of a grown man climbing a tree! He went after the encounter with Jesus Christ with a childlike simplicity and a reckless abandon. Harald had me “boost him up” that day out of the same kind of abandon. The Sycamore tree created a clear line of vision for Zacheus. It helped him to rise above the crowd and see the Lord clearly. It placed him in the right position for the invitation that would follow. The Sycamore tree is a symbol for that place which enables us to have a clear vision of Jesus. That is the place where Harald Bredesen lived his life.
I met Harald shortly before his friend, Pat Robertson, announced his candidacy for the Presidency of the United States. I was a Dean at a Catholic College, a lawyer and a participant in a movement for Christian renewal within my Church. Harald was a leader in that same movement, mostly in the evangelical world. Yet, he had a heart for the whole Christian people. I had heard of his work with Catholic students at Duquesne University. As a “revert” to the Catholic Church, I came back to my Catholic Christian faith after teenage years that were filled with wandering and searching for truth. My journey home to the faith introduced me to many different kinds of Christians and began what has been a lifelong commitment to Christian cooperation. Though I loved all genuine Christians, I really knew I wanted to be a Catholic. Unlike some other Evangelical folks who I had encountered, at least back then, Harald respected that.
Harald knew that the Lord lived in all Christians. He began our relationship with a deep conviction that Catholics were indeed Christians. For some of my readers, that may seem an odd thing to say. However, those were the days when too many evangelical Protestants doubted it. Harald started out believing it. Of course, he always wanted to help whomever he met, no matter what Christian tradition, to draw closer to the Lord. From the moment I met him we became very close friends. Our difference in age and our differing Christian placement mattered little. We had found one another as brothers in the Lord. I dedicated my first devotional book entitled “Titles of the Holy Spirit” to Harald, David DuPlessis and Pope John XXIII, all of whom were apostles of the Holy Spirit. Harald commented that he was glad to be in such “august” company.
Several years later I wrote what was then considered to be “controversial” book entitled “Evangelical Catholics”. Harald wrote an endorsement to the book, as did Chuck Colson. The term “evangelical Catholic” is now pretty common, but back then, it was nearly radioactive to suggest even connecting the words, among both Protestants and some Catholics. Harald was thrilled when he was soon invited to the College of Steubenville to be honored for his wonderful work and ministry during my time there.He had a deep respect for the Catholic Church and would regularly ask me my thoughts on theological issues, the Pope and all things Catholic.
Just before I left the University to reenter a pro-life law practice, Harald had an idea. He loved to be a “connector” in the Spirit. He called me one day, before his dear friend, Pat Robertson, announced his candidacy for President. He asked me what I thought of his decision. I told him that I thought it was wonderful that a man like Pat Robertson, who unequivocally supported the right to life for children in the womb, would seek this vital office. Harald said “Hold on for a moment would you?” I quickly found myself on a three way call with Dr. Robertson! It turned out to be an important connection. Several years later I accepted Pats’ invitation to move to Virginia Beach, Virginia, to help him to build the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) and do pro-life public interest law. I served as the Executive Director of the ACLJ for seven years. During those years, Harald was a continuing support and very dear friend. Also, during those years I was invited to be ordained as a member of the Clergy in my Church, a Catholic Deacon. Harald supported that life changing move as well, with great joy. He was, and is, a true friend.
I could tell many, many more stories. But, so will many, many others. My life will always be filled with memories of this wonderful Christian servant. I want to conclude with some personal words to Harald Bredesen, my dear friend and brother, from his Catholic friend:
“Harald, the Lord has now boosted you up - as you boosted so many of us up in life. However, He is not just coming to your house, which he did for so many, many years. No, this time, you have gone to His. He promised you that in His Fathers house there were many mansions. () You believed it with all your heart; rest now dear brother, in the Love of the God whom you served with such beauty, simplicity and power.”
In a photo that the family has offered on a Web site established for tributes, www.Haraldbredesen.com we see Harald smiling that wonderful smile that brought joy to every heart it touched. The photo also captures those eyes, like those of a child on his first Christmas. I can almost hear Harald now, laughing that contagious laugh that filled the room, crying out “Jesus, my Lord.”
I know that he has heard those long awaited words, “'Well done, my good and faithful servant. Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities. Come; share your master's joy.” ().
I will miss you my friend.
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