“How long will you assault a man? Would all of you throw him down – this leaning wall, this tottering fence? (Psalm 62:3)
“…he is my fortress, I will not be shaken.” (Psalm 62:6)
The giants in my world are toppling. Their hip bones are snapping, their eyes are clouding, and their songs are growing faint. They are succumbing and I cannot bear to watch. Lately I keep going to their funerals.
They were the pillars of my childhood – post-war Dutch immigrants, rising fresh-faced from the aftermath, confident men and capable women, galvanized by their belief that in Canada hard work could engender opportunity. In a wave of brash togetherness, they challenged an uncertain future, crossed the ocean headlong, and framed their churches, schools and new lives at full tilt. The men smoked pipes and Players, read De Wachter and The Calvinist Contact, and declaimed their strong opinions about church and politics to each other, Canadians not being particularly interested. The women curled their hair with bobby pins, wore aprons and cherry red lipstick, hung out the laundry on icy clotheslines until frozen stiff, polished the Sunday shoes every Saturday, and wrote letters home.
We laid to rest another one today. Husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather. A Christian man who served the Lord as best he could for as long as he could. Like those other colossal figures of my youth, he was a proud man, driven to be a success in his adopted country, firm in his role as the head of the household, determined to keep his church pure. He had his tempestuous side, even more so when a stroke six years ago robbed him of his vigour and abilities.
His stricken body was a prison. There was no gradual resignation to his condition. He raged against his infirmities and frailties until the end. His impassioned refrain: “I want to go home.”
Siep’s funeral today reminded us of his gentler side and happier days. He had an artist’s love of nature, drawing close to God in the craggy Rocky Mountains and in the lilacs and hummingbirds of his own garden. He nurtured show pigeons with tenderness. He was a woodworker with a meticulous hand. A businessman and risk-taker. My brothers, who spent a lot of time with Siep and his son, Steve, remember a worm farm in their garage! He enjoyed watching hockey with the boys on Saturday night. But, most of all, at his core, like so many others of his immigrant generation, Siep was a churchman.
That fiercely possessive love for the church is what chokes me up at all these funerals. These immigrants eagerly mortared their sweat, dollars and souls into their churches. The original members of my church logged 2,910 hours of free labour to construct our building. The countless hours donated by the wives who made the meals and tended to the children so their husbands could hammer and nail a “house for God” were not logged. 🙂
This was not the “let’s worship God in the great outdoors” generation of the seventies, nor the church-hopping generation of today. They loved their church so much that they almost forgot it was God’s church. They were invested in every detail of the building – from the colour of the drapes to the tulip varieties planted in the front flower-bed. Men served countless terms on “consistory.” Four years in, one year out. Women bustled their large families to church twice a Sunday, in neatly pressed shirts and immaculate dresses, hair slicked back or tidily braided. At one time I might have dismissed it. Snubbed it as habit, tribalism, works righteousness. I’m older now. Now I call it love.
Siep was responsible for constructing the parsonage that stands next to our church here in Wyoming. As an elder, he took his turn reading sermons in Dutch when a pastor wasn’t available. He served as a volunteer treasurer for twenty consecutive years. Two decades of painstakingly entering numbers into the books by hand and personally delivering the paycheques to the custodian and the pastor.
He sang in the choir for decades, too. My brothers and I will never forget his singing face, his mouth a perfect oval as he sang the hymns he loved with unparalleled gusto. We didn’t know anyone else who could sing that way! He never learned to articulate the English th. “How’s Caty today?” he would inquire at church, smiling at me with big friendly brown eyes.
The pastor preached on Psalm 62 at Siep’s funeral. After the message, we sang “When Peace like a River.” The voices of the congregation swelled mightily, united in love, love for Siep and his family, love for the church, love for the Lord. The surge in volume was unmistakable.
Not me. I wasn’t singing. My throat was clogged. Struck dumb like Zechariah by the glorious audacity of that crescendo. In 1954 when my forebears positioned the concrete blocks in the trenches, proudly laying the foundation for their new church home, sin, heartache and tragedy moved right in, too. Today, at Siep’s funeral, more than fifty years later, every pew in the sanctuary could groan with a heavy weight of sorrow. A score of widows and widowers mourning their own losses. Parents grieving children taken too soon. Children struggling with life-long impairments. Betrayals by brothers and friends. Pre-marital sex. Unplanned pregnancies. Divorce. Bounced cheques, skewed tax returns, and loans never repaid. Suicide. Adultery. Spousal abuse. Straying family members. Alcoholism. Gossip. Envy. Even murder. Siep’s own niece lost her life at the hand of her husband. No reason why Job’s wife couldn’t stride right into our fellowship at that very moment and legitimately cry out her bitter advice: “Curse God and die.”
But there we were anyway, bruised and bleeding, defiantly belting out a song about peace like a river. Leaning walls and tottering fences absurdly claiming victory. Not resigned to our aching woundedness, but raging against the prison of our own sorry lives. Daring God to free us and affirm our hope: “O Lord, haste the day when our faith shall be sight.” All of us together one desperate Jacob: “I will not let you go until you bless me.” All of us one stubborn Job: “I know that my Redeemer lives.” All of us together one anguished Siep: “I want to go home.”
They weren’t giants, after all, Siep and his generation. They served the Lord as best they could in the world they were given. His children and I are doing the best we can in the world we find ourselves in. Sin still easily entangles. Trouble still plunks down uninvited beside us. But we sing, we believe, we wrestle with God brazenly until he leaves his mark on us. We rise up from our Peniel pews and go forth, re-named the Redeemed. We take our turn at mortaring love into a spiritual house.
Siep’s suffering was consecrated with that love. There were cards and prayers from the classmates of his granddaughter at the Christian school, cards and prayers from his grandson’s catechism class, cards and prayers from his church family. A large-print bulletin was produced for him every week. There was his daughter’s friend who faithfully wheeled him around the nursing home, on days when he was cheerful and on days when he was anything but.
There was the housekeeping aide, my sister, who sought to connect with Siep as often as she could while at work. He called her and everyone else “lieve” (little loved one), that sweet Dutch diminutive, a touchingly affectionate echo from the past. Once, on her coffee break, she joined him at a Sunday chapel service. His wheelchair was in the back row, so it was a simple matter to slide in beside him for a few minutes. He was slumped and uninvolved. She held the hymnbook and sang, embarrassed at how loud she sounded amongst all the other spidery thin voices. Then, to her amazement and shock, Siep suddenly began to quaver the familiar lyrics along with her: “Sometimes ‘mid scenes of deepest gloom, Sometimes where Eden’s bowers bloom, By waters still or troubled sea, Still ’tis God’s hand that leadeth me.” An old song now gilded with a sacred patina. She says that moment will stay with her forever.
There was old Mr. Batterink, a long-time fellow church member, who also lived at Meadowview. Lefert, or Lee, as he was known by the staff, befriended Siep every single day of his stay there, a calming anointed presence. In the beginning, when Siep could still communicate and would strongly voice his displeasure, Lefert would remind him, “Remember, Siep, remember, we look up.” And, I’m crying as I type this, at the end, when Siep was in a place far beyond speech or response, Lefert simply sat with him, holding his hand.
There were his children, freely forgiving his outbursts and anger, time after time. Hugging him, reminding him with every embrace who he was, their beloved dad and opa. There was his wife, Atty, who for six years daily came to sit with him in the sun, her chair as close to his wheelchair as possible, sharing a thermos of tea and some grapes or apple slices.
These acts of love are not to be weighed on a scale. It’s not about balance, levelling the evil in our lives with the good. The cross absorbed all our evil and the empty tomb secured all our good. But God plies his own mysterious audacity – using his own sinful and desperate followers to perform ordinary wonders.
It was hard to say goodbye to Siep at the cemetery today. It was cold. It was windy. We wrapped our jackets around us tightly and huddled in. Flecks of snow slipped down from the grey clouds massed above. But, oh, if those clouds had been rolled back like a scroll, we would have seen the angels laughing and skipping with joy to usher Siep to the Master. We would have seen Christ himself smiling in welcome, leading Siep to his place in the choir. And Siep’s mouth would have been open in that perfect oval, singing “It is well, it is well with my soul.”
(with thanks to the family for their kind permission to share some of Siep’s story)