Goodbye, Stratopastor

Last Saturday, Rusty King and I were honored to sit in on a little “family time” at First United Methodist Church of Sachse. It was a time of prayer and song that the church had shaped, as people began to deal with their shock and grief over the death of Russ Noland two days before.

Those who had gathered had set up a beautiful make-shift altar to Russ at the front of the chancel area. It had all sorts of momentoes of Russ’ life. There were religious object, as you might expect. But there were also things like a vinyl copy of the Blue Brother’s album, an Elmo puppet, and some Ray Bans. And, of course, Russ’ stratocaster.

Brady Waters spoke (btw: he’s another in a long line of fine ministry products to come out of fumcr. I’m just sayin’) and did a nice job balancing the sense of grief people were feeling with the message that those left in life will continue on in their work. The most amazing thing of all is that Stephanie Noland, Russ’ wife, spoke for about 15-20 minutes. She talked about Russ. She joked about Russ. She tenderly and beautifully addressed the Sachse Church, and even some individuals there, telling them how much they meant to Russ and to her. Frankly, I don’t know how she did it, but it was beautiful.

Russ was a blogger. Somedays I think, “Isn’t everyone?” But Russ had blog-fans scattered out around the country….folks who’ve been going to his Facebook page to leave their condolences this week. They talk about how, even though they never met him, they felt like they knew him through his blogs. The name of his blog was “Stratopastor.”

IMHO, this is one of the best blog names ever. Not only is it catchy, it really describes Russ.

Russ WAS the Stratopastor.


Like most of us, Russ was many things other things too. His official obituary tells it this way:

Russ Noland died Aug. 14, 2008, in Garland, Texas. Pastor Russ Noland had been the lead pastor of Sachse First United Methodist Church since June 2005.

A 1997 graduate of Asbury Theological Seminary, Russ preached for over 25 years and had a passion for communicating God’s word in a relevant and dynamic manner.

Russ is survived by his wife, Stephanie, a first-grade teacher in the Mesquite Independent School District and nationally recognized staff development consultant. Stephanie is active in the children’s ministry of the church.

Russ served as the vice president of the board for the City Core Initiative, an urban ministry resource group in Dallas. He was also a member of the Creating Congregations Team of the North Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church and chaired the Missional Church Task Force for that group.

In his spare time, Russ played lead guitar with the Connections band, a group of United Methodist pastors and laypersons who are passionate about using their musical skills to raise money for great causes. Russ and Stephanie have one spoiled dog named Kinsey.

This past week, I have heard several of my colleagues (higher ups in the UM system) say that Russ was a pastor who “got it.” He understood, in a visionary way, the kinds of ways that a church needed to change to keep pace in the current world environment. I have heard people at the Sachse Church say the same thing. Gathering from what I saw at Sachse on Saturday, Russ was also able to simply be present with the people there, and to love them. And sometimes, even more than visionary leadership, that’s what people need most.

In recent weeks, Russ and I had talked about how his own theology and politics have changed over the years. He was a graduate of Asbury Seminary; which, for some, would be an indicator that he was an ultra conservative. But, as you can clearly see from his blog, his own politics and social views had turned steadily more to the center (and even left) as he grew and changed.

Like all of us in Connections, music was one of Russ’ passions. Russ joined the band earlier this year, at the suggestion of our drummer Michael Sheehan. And what an incredible addition to the group he has been.

In fact, we (meaning: me) have redone almost all of the soundclips that are featured on our website. Almost all the Chicago/Eagles clips now come from the great show at FUMCR, where almost 550 people packed the hall.

Under any circumstances, I’d probably refer you to those clips this morning, because they highlight how the band has matured. In fact, that was originally going to be the gist of this blog entry today. But as I edited them this week, I was struck by several cuts that feature Russ, and I listened carefully to his wonderful playing.

So, with Russ’ death, these new soundclips become even more poignant, because you can really hear the depth he brought to our sound, and hear what a fine player he really was. An I want you to hear them too.

First, check out this clip of Russ on “25 or 6 to 4.”

This is one of the great songs in all of rock n’ roll history. Chicago’s original guitar player was Terry Kath (who, btw, met his own untimely death too). Russ does Terry Kath proud. Seriously…just listen. This is a seriously rockin’ solo, and I can hear the influence of Kath and other greats in there.

But Russ didn’t just hack at the guitar. He knew when to pull back and play in a beautifully nuanced way. Check out this clip from “I Can’t Tell You Why.”

That’s Russ for most of the song….Barry Carroll joins him at the very end. But just listen to how smooth it is. Know who it reminds me of?

BB King.

Or perhaps –and I know Russ would dig me saying this– Eric Clapton playing with the “slowhand.”

Or, listen to “Best of My Love” and hear the quiet way that Russ (and Rusty) blend in with the quieter sound.

To be blunt, a lot of guitar players don’t how to lay back, and blend in on songs like this. But Russ nailed it.

Well, as people continue to deal with their grief in different ways, I just wanted to put these clips out there, and call your special attention to them. Maybe giving them a listen is one of the ways you can honor Russ in your heart this week?

One of the old-timey preacher expressions is ” the heavenly band.” Seems to me it takes on new meaning in our day, when you think about Russ. I’m sure he’s up there with the heavenly band right now. He and Kath are probably now officially drawing straws to see who gets first lead on “25 or 6 to 4.” And, despite our grief here, I trust he’s have a whale of a time there.

Goodbye, Stratopastor.

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Eric Folkerth is a minister, musician, author and blogger. He is Senior Pastor of Kessler Park UMC United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas. Previously, he was pastor at Northaven UMC in Dallas for seventeen years. Eric loves to write on topics of spirituality, social justice, music/art and politics. The entries on this blog reflect that diversity of interests. His passion for social justice goes beyond mere words. He’s been arrested at the White House, defending immigrants and “The Dreamers,” and he’s officiated at same sex weddings in his churches, in defiance of what some believe is Methodist teaching. Eric is an avid blogger and published author, and 2017 recipient of the prestigeous Kuchling Humanitarian Award from Dallas’ Black Tie Dinner. (Human Rights Campaign) Eric has led or co-led hundreds of persons on mission trips around the globe, to places such as Mexico, Haiti, Russia, and Nepal. He has worked with lay persons to build ten homes, and one Community Center, in partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Dallas. He’s a popular preacher, and often tackles challenging issues of social justice in his writings and sermons. His wife, Judge Dennise Garcia, is a State District Judge for Dallas, County. As judge of the 303rd Family District Court, she consistently gets high ratings from area lawyers, and was named “best judge” by The Dallas Observer. First elected in 2004, she was the first Latina ever elected to a county-wide bench in Dallas County, and is currently the longest service district judge in that district. She was re-elected for a fourth term in 2018. They have the world’s best daughter, Maria, and an incredible dog, Daisy. Find links to Eric’s music-related websites, at the top of this site’s navigation menu.

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