Story Magazine - Second Quarter, 2006

Mark Hillmer: Reconnecting Life and the Gospel

by Shelley Cunningham, '98

Mark Hillmer, Louise Grunow Professor of Old Testament

In Psalm 71, the writer describes the twists and turns life can take-- highs and lows, youth to old age. But all along, one thing is constant: God's help and presence every step of the way. That image fits the teaching career of Mark Hillmer, Louise Grunow Professor of Old Testament. Hillmer, whose philosophy about teaching evolved as his own life took a different turn, retired this spring after 39 years at Luther Seminary.

Hillmer grew up in the shadow of the church. His father was a Wisconsin Synod pastor. Hillmer was the youngest of four boys, all of whom went into ministry.Was that his dad's doing? No, he says. "My father didn't care what we did. But we really were products of the Wisconsin Synod system. After years of parochial school, high school and college, we were totally unequipped to do anything else but go into seminary."

After graduating from Northwestern College in Watertown,Wis., in 1956, Hillmer received a Fulbright scholarship to Heidelberg University in Germany, which led to both "the best and worst year of my life," he said. "It was the best year because I was immersed in the depth of biblical scholarship and I absolutely loved it. It was a new way of reading and interpreting the Bible. But I also saw I couldn't go back" into the Wisconsin Synod. He tried, enrolling at a Wisconsin Synod seminary after returning from Germany. But after two years, he transferred to the Missouri Synod seminary in Springfield, Ill.

Did his leaving the Wisconsin Synod bother his father? No, he said. "Blood was thicker than theology in our family." Eventually, his brothers followed him into the Missouri Synod. Hillmer continued his studies, earning a Ph.D. from Hebrew Union College in 1966. He joined the LCA (one of the predecessors of the ELCA) shortly after joining the Northwestern Seminary faculty as a Hebrew instructor in 1967.

Through the first decade of his career, he was the only professor of Old Testament at Northwestern Seminary. Over the years, he came to focus on Isaiah and Ezekiel in the classroom, and participated in numerous digs in Israel. His classroom style was old-school: "I was probably more militant and discipline-oriented in class." He took his subject seriously and expected the students would too.

In 1991, though, he met and married Bonnie Littlefield, who had been recently widowed. It changed his heart both in the classroom and outside it.

"Since that time, I have found a strong bond to reconnecting life and the gospel. I see my mission as a teacher differently. It's not just about passing on the subject matter; it's about seeing the students as people. In the last 14 years, I said, 'I never want to have a student disappear as a number. I want to know who they are.'"

This attitude has changed the way he's taught his classes. Every course involves having the students share an autobiography, especially as it is framed by scripture. It's transformed the atmosphere in the room, he says. "When we tell our stories in class, it breaks down barriers between students. It's preparing them to be real people in the parish." And Hillmer includes himself in this assignment. "I tell my story, too. I want them to know I am flesh and blood; I have sinned and fallen short of God's glory."

Part of his quest to rediscover himself led him back to the theater. He has acted in a number of community plays, and has earned quite a reputation as an excellent portrayer of Martin Luther. For a number of years, Hillmer (as Luther) led the Mukula Mass parade and worship for children during Luther Seminary's Reformation Festival. Now, he says, he's invited to visit local congregations in costume several times a year.

It's also renewed his participation in the parish. A longtime member of the Lutheran Charismatic movement, he enjoys exploring the gift of the Holy Spirit. "There's nothing like what the Holy Spirit can give you in preaching," he said. "Every Christian's text for acting is the Bible. When we work with that script, it works its way into us."

Hillmer, an avid reader, values texts both ancient and modern. "Luther is the sun and C.S. Lewis is the moon on my theological horizon," he said. "I appreciate Lewis' quote, 'For every new book you read, read two old ones as a mouthwash.'" It's one reason his own spiritual tending involves spending time with the Psalms in both English and Hebrew. "Luther said that if you read and the Holy Spirit starts talking to you, stop and listen. I'm sure I'll keep hearing new things even now."