One Less Prophet

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In Memory of My Friend, James Arne Nestingen

Yesterday, I received two calls in succession. The first was from one of the sons of Jim Nestingen, and the second was from my friend and colleague, Steve Paulson. They both were calling to tell me the same thing. Yesterday, December 31, 2022, James Arne Nestingen died of an apparent heart attack. I was dumbstruck during the original call with Jim’s son and in tears by the time I talked to Steve. Steve opened his conversation with me by saying, “Our great prophet is now with Christ.” So, my dear friend Jim is in glory, sitting face to face with Christ Jesus, and here on earth, we are left with one less prophet.

To say that Jim was a prophet is not to puff him up as a sinless or guiltless man among other sinners. Rather, it is an attempt to describe a man who was a preacher sent to so many by God Himself in order to, as Jim would so famously say, “hand over the goods,” or the gospel. This was what made Jim unique. This is what made Jim famous (or infamous) to the degree that he was. And this is what made Jim a prophet of the Lord.

My friendship with Jim started in 2009 when he agreed to be filmed as a part of a Wittenberg Institute project. He and Rod Rosenbladt sat in the fellowship hall at Faith Lutheran Church in Capistrano Beach, California, and recorded some Table Talks. My role was tangential at best. In the videos, a much younger version of myself can be seen at one end of the table asking what I thought were very profound questions. (Students always think their questions are both unique and profound. Most aren’t. Mine certainly weren’t.) His answers were profound, but I experienced something even more powerful that day. During the filming, I was introduced to a gospel-oriented character, the likes of which I had never met. Jim answered questions not just pastorally, but––listen to me here and be careful not to misunderstand––non-systematically.

I had, by that time, I thought, become very familiar with the gospel and how it is distinguished from the law. But when I listened to Jim, something was different. He wasn’t as much explaining things to me, the crowd gathered, and the camera; he was proclaiming. You see, Jim was, as Steve Paulson explained to me yesterday, a prophet, and a prophet is one who speaks for the Lord. Jim’s concern was that those who had academic and theological questions received not just “head knowledge” but also the good news itself—that we are forgiven and free. Jim was especially concerned with proclaiming absolution, the forgiveness of sins in the name and in the stead of Christ. Jim was an absolution machine, and I was in love forever–in love with the absolution of sinners and the one who was about to change my life by teaching and giving me that absolution repeatedly.

After that recording, I asked Jim if he would serve as supervisor for my Ph.D. thesis. To my surprise—and I’m pretty sure to his wife’s (maybe original) consternation—he said yes. (Jim’s wife, Carolyn, has become a dear friend to my family through the years. She has time and again welcomed us into her home and cared for us as only she and Jim could.) And then we set off. It’s not a lie to say that I only finished the thesis because of Jim. It’s not a lie to say that I learned as much in those four years of studying theology with Jim as I had in all my years studying to that date. It’s not a lie to say that I have only stayed in this line of work at all because of Jim’s encouragement and eventual pride in me, his last Ph.D. student. It’s not a lie for me to say that I find myself wondering exactly what I’ll do without his wisdom and guidance. It’s not a lie to say I miss him already. I certainly do.

If I could be so bold as to pass on one piece of wisdom that Jim gave to me, it would be this: try to tune your ears to hear a confession when it comes your way.

So why write something like this? Because it is important for us to remember those whom God has called into our lives as they lived in and fulfilled their vocations among us. Jim was a preacher and a teacher, and if you have been influenced by the work of 1517, you have been influenced by Jim’s two vocations. To the degree that I have led 1517 in a way that we single-mindedly proclaim the good news that you are forgiven and free on account of Christ alone, we do so because Jim taught me the importance of doing no other. The mission of 1517 would not be what it is without the guidance, love, care, and proclamatory character of Jim Nestingen. We who survive him would do well to remember this if we wish to keep handing over those goods to others.

If I could be so bold as to pass on one piece of wisdom that Jim gave to me, it would be this: try to tune your ears to hear a confession when it comes your way. You see, Jim found that people are always confessing their sins. They confess in casual conversations and in serious ones. They confess when sharing stories and when telling jokes. They confess in churches, in living rooms, and on airplanes. They confess intentionally, and when they don’t even know they are confessing. Our job is to constantly tune our ears to hear these confessions, not for the purpose of sanctimony or gloating but for absolving.

Christ has put us in this world of sinners and surrounded us with them. They have names, and we know them. They are fathers and mothers, wives and husbands, children and parents, and friends and enemies. And when they confess their sins, God, who is faithful and just forgives their sins and cleanses them from all unrighteousness. How does God do this? He sends preachers into the world. The world needs preachers. You need a preacher! Some will wear collars and are called pastors and priests. The rest we just call fellow Christians. The rest are you and me.

Tune your ear to hear these confessions, and when you do, swoop in with the voice of the gospel, the voice of Christ, the absolution. “In the name of Jesus, I forgive your sins.” And they are forgiven in Christ Jesus. Really! This is just one of the many things that Jim taught me, and hopefully, we will all go on teaching the wisdom of this prophet of the Lord to others.

I’m going to end this little note with some comforting words that show how far Jim’s legacy has extended. Ken Sundet Jones, Jim’s friend, former student, and a 1517 contributor, received these comforting words from Ryan Stevenson-Cosgrove, who is in turn one of Ken’s friends, former students, and also one of our contributors: “Jim is now with his Lord and Savior Christ Jesus. Now Saint Jim receives the fullness of the promise he preached. And as fine as he preached, it can’t compare to the sermon Christ hands over to him today. Now the promises are no longer promises. Now they’re fact. Jim is welcomed into the fellowship of the saints in light. He’s with his friend, Gerhard. He gets to meet his mentor, Martin. And he gathers around the throne of the one who has won it all for him, Jesus Christ himself, in the flesh, and in all his glory, too. And oh, so much more.”

It’s truly hard for those of us who are left behind because we are left with one less prophet. Yet, our prophet spoke the words his Lord sent him to preach, and now his work is done. Now he can finally rest with Christ. We will surely miss him. We will weep as we say goodbye, but we do not mourn as those with no hope. We mourn as those who know we will see our good friend James Arne Nestingen again in glory, face to face, for we who are left behind live in the sure hope of the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Amen.

Jim is survived by his wife Carolyn, their three sons, and a boodle of grandchildren. Please pray for Carolyn and Jim’s family as they mourn but mourn in hope.