This issue of the Companion is dedicated to Paul Carlson, who gave his life in Congo fifty years ago this month. However, this column is dedicated to Lois, his widow. I never knew Paul. But I was Lois’s pastor for eight years. She remains a good family friend to this day, always good for a bear hug.
After Paul’s death, Lois returned to Southern California and the ever-supportive embrace of the congregation that had sent them, Rolling Hills Covenant Church. There she set out to raise her two young children, Wayne and Lyn.
Sometime later, she met Hank Bridges. They married and moved even farther south to San Diego. A son, David, was subsequently born. And later yet I would arrive as pastor of Clairemont Covenant Church, their church home.
I reflect on three things I learned from Lois.
First, we find fulfillment where a need, our gifts, and our passion intersect. Paul and Lois could have easily settled into the secure life of two medical professionals, he a physician and she a nurse. But comfortable and contented are not the same. Passion was missing. In Paul initially, but ultimately in them both, there was a restlessness of soul, stirring them, beckoning them, to serve in an area of intensified need. And so to Congo they went. External inconvenience will never dissuade anyone when need, gifts, and passion fuse deep in the soul.
I am always suspicious of people who say ministry is supposed to be fun. I cannot square “fun” with Jesus’s words to “deny yourself, pick up your cross and follow me.” But a sense of fulfillment is a different story. Paul’s journals make clear that he gained a profound sense of meaning through his service in Congo. My favorite quote about ministry is this: “No one ever said it would be easy, just that it would be worth it.”
Second, I learned from Lois how to use attention to bring attention to others. Lois has always resisted the pedestal. Without fail, whenever someone would bring up Paul’s death, Lois would quickly point out, “But he is not the only one who gave his life in Congo.” On my first trip to Congo I asked to visit Paul’s gravesite. What I found instead was a cemetery with the graves of seven people from the Covenant missionary community, from young children to veteran missionaries, who had died while in Congo. Perhaps the violent nature of Paul’s death was unique, but not his spirit of sacrifice for the people. Lois understood that, respected that, and called attention to that so the life-giving sacrifice of others would also be remembered.
Finally, Lois taught me that the past does not define us or confine us. I met Lois Bridges, not Lois Carlson. When we’d take our kids swimming at their house, David would throw them into the pool. You could count on Hank to barbeque ribs poolside and then to crumble bleu cheese on the salad. The point is: Lois let God carry her to a new future, not forgetting the past, but not isolated in it either.
I was in the church office when I got the devastating news that Hank had died abruptly of a massive aneurysm. The church was overflowing for his memorial service, one of the most difficult I have officiated. For a second time, Lois listened to person after person pay tribute to a husband who died too young and too suddenly.
There’s a lot of attention these days around Paul and his widow, deservedly so on this fiftieth anniversary. But whenever I see Lois, I make a point of asking how David is. It is my code for “I know you loved Hank, too.”
I am convinced that all that God wants to accomplish through one’s life does not necessarily happen within one’s life span. God is still accomplishing much through Dr. Paul Carlson through his legacy ministry Paul Carlson Partnership, which serves medical and micro-enterprise initiatives in Congo. In no small part it is due to an irrepressible women named Lois Carlson Bridges enlivening us still—laughing, smiling, not forgetting the past, but confident in God’s tomorrow.