At age 80, American Lutheranism's poet laureate is still writing
Herb Brokering has had over 100 book titles published, with a new one on the way
As a child, Herbert Brokering played a game in which he explored the world through common objects. He’d stare at a blob of grape jelly until, in his mind’s eye, he saw a bunch of grapes. The grapes became a vineyard, then a vineyard in France.
The unfolding jelly tale is an apt metaphor for his life, which began on the Mid-western plains and unfolded to embrace the world. St. Stephen Lutheran Church of Bloomington celebrated the much-loved author, pastor and educator on the occasion of his 80th birthday last month. (The celebration took place on May 21.) His latest book, I Will To You, will be published by Augsburg Fortress later this year.
For one unacquainted with Brokering’s work, meeting him is an adventure. His tidy Bloomington home is filled with family memorabilia and travel artifacts. He wears the pressed oxford shirt and neatly trimmed white beard one might expect of a retired pastor. But once he begins speaking about his life, all illusions of Brokering as a sober, conventional theologian disappear. The mind that has produced some 30 devotional books and countless lyrics, poems and prayers is lively, seeming to formulate new adventures while recounting past ones.
The son of a country preacher, Brokering has addressed audiences in 27 countries. He draws profound insight from things as mundane as the weather or, yes, a blob of grape jelly. There is a hint of mischief in his expression as he tells how his choices often defied convention. One gets the feeling that Brokering manages to surprise even those who know him well.
Life began for Herb Brokering in Nebras-ka, where he was baptized and confirmed in his first language, German. Among the 11 children in his country grade school was Melvin, an artistic boy whose drawings Brokering still treasures. Melvin, he says, taught him powers of observation that developed into writing skills.
“I write with my eyes,” he said. Melvin “gave me an eye for strengths, beauty, exaggeration.” As a writer, “my most formal training was looking at nothing.”
Brokering seems to come by his nonconformity naturally. Unlike most in his farming community, he went on from a one-room school to attend high school and college. He graduated at 18 from Wartburg College, Waverly, Iowa, with a degree in Greek. When he began his master’s level studies he made it a point, he said with apparent delight, to take classes from professors some deemed subversive.
There’s a chance that, years later, the same might have been said about Brokering. As an adjunct professor at Luther Sem-inary in St. Paul, he departed from the typical semester-ending requirement of a term paper. Instead, his students created “term irons” — sculptures they designed and welded from scrap iron to illustrate theological concepts. Brokering still engages in this hobby, a product of his rural, Depression-era childhood.
Brokering began participating in cross-cultural exchanges — now a common part of higher-education curriculum — long before the practice came into vogue. After completing a master’s degree in child psychology, he filled in for a vacationing pastor in inner-city Detroit.
Later, Brokering joined the Lutheran World Federa-tion refugee service, helping provide physical and spiritual nourishment to residents of 30 refugee camps in post-war Germany.
Once back in the United States, he pursued a theological degree at what is now Trinity Seminary in Columbus, Ohio. While there he met his wife, Lois, who was studying psychology and education at a nearby university.
After he was ordained by his father in Nebraska, the two married, then moved to Lois’ hometown of Pittsburgh for his first call. His next parish was a small Lutheran congregation in a Jewish community on Long Island. He became a popular speaker in the neighborhood, preaching at seven synagogues.
He was told, “Preach like a Lutheran, a Christian. Don’t preach like a Unitarian — they act like we’re all alike,” he said. Such an invitation to preach Christ resulted in rich discussion with his Jewish neighbors. After another brief stint of relief work in Germany, Brokering returned to his parish, recruiting sponsors from among the faith community for Baltic refugees hoping to come to America.
After next serving a congregation in San Antonio, Texas, Brokering became the first Director of Confir-mation for the American Lutheran Church. His first task was to create a three-year confirmation curriculum. He did so, with the philosophy that confirmation is not just a one-time event.
“Confirmation begins at baptism and is lifelong,” beginning in the womb, he said. “A two-year-old is already renouncing.”
Long a sideline, writing became a large part of Brokering’s work. His first published book, In the Rustling Grass, appeared in 1964. It was the first of nine collaborations with Roman Catholic Sister Noemi Wey-gant. The series paired Brokering’s inspirational verse with Weygant’s nature photographs.
Brokering was asked to develop vacation Bible school resources, worship materials for submarine captains and scripts for the ALC radio series, “I Think of Jesus.”
He has turned church minutes and lecture series into song lyrics.
He’s collaborated with more than 50 composers, including jazz legend Dave Brubeck, on cantatas and musicals.
“Earth and All Stars” was the first of his 170 hymn lyrics to be published (see sidebar, page 20).
To call Brokering a writer is to overlook many other equally appropriate titles, including speaker, peace activist and tour guide. Yet it may be safe to say that it is his hymns for which he is most beloved. Brokering has offered comforting verse in the wake of tragic events such as the September 11, 2001, attacks and the arrest of a serial murderer from among the members of an ELCA congregation in Kansas.
Indeed, he seems to find solace in words in the face of a personal tragedy — his wife Lois’ death — nearly two years ago. The preface of his forthcoming book speaks tender words of his wife of 54 years.
“Lois had earth life for 75 years. She loved being of earth. She dug her hands into earth in gardens and yards and mothered whatever would grow,” he wrote.
“I couldn’t have done any of this — or very little of it — without her,” he said. A recent illness, he declared, was “postponed grieving … I felt that I was in a black hole.”
But now, he said, he’s seeing with her eyes, tasting with her taste buds. When he notices a bird, it’s because she would have noticed it.
He played harmonica and cut the umbilical cord at the birth of a grandchild shortly after Lois’ death “because Lois would have,” he said. In this way, “she’s magnified, she’s more like air,” he said, waxing poetic and smiling.
The creative gift that once transported a small boy from the prairie, in the wings of his own imagination, to France has now brought him from despair back to hope.
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Schmitt, a freelance writer, lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.