Heavyweight January

(Christian Courier column, February 27th, 2012 issue)

Last month was heartbreaking for our community. Four weeks, four successive deaths, waves of sorrow attending the birth of the new year like labour pains. I had connections to each person who passed away.

One was my dad’s best friend. When Dad was ill, battling his lymphoma for a decade, Hank visited him weekly. Theirs was a robust friendship, cemented by their shared roots in Groningen, shared immigrant experiences in Canada and shared faith in the Lord. Hank’s jolly outlook boosted Dad’s spirits and Dad’s spiritual calm steadied Hank. Before Dad’s death in 1996, Hank took him back to Holland on a guys-only road trip. Bedum, Ten Boer, Noordpolderzijl – scuffed places, humble beginnings. Hank gave a moving tribute at my dad’s funeral and I attended his as my own quiet tribute to the sacredness of their friendship. 

Two others called home to glory were lifetime members of our church. Again, strong ties laid these losses at the door of my heart. They had been pioneers members. I taught their children and grandchildren. I know their great-grandchildren by name. When you live and work in a small town your whole life, and you confess the communion of the saints, everyone is family. You suffer loss to the third and the fourth generation.

Jessica, 21, passed away, too, a dearly-loved child of our church. Paralyzed at age five with a virus, she had been tenderly cared for at home by her family and faithfully remembered in prayer throughout sixteen years of illness by both our congregation and the local Christian school community. My class once created a hallway bulletin board with a huge tree in the centre. Every student and staff member in the school wrote Jessica a caring note, a hundred or more leaves of love tacked to the branches.

These are the days when I cling to my Calvinism. Oh, I’ve struggled with election and free will, grappled mightily to resolve tensions between limited atonement and universal salvation, sought to balance God’s omnipotence and goodness with sin and evil, tragedy and death. Two particularly fine and helpful books were Gerald Sittser’s A Grace Disguised and Richard Mouw’s Calvinism in the Las Vegas Airport. 

Over time, I developed a couple of my own simple illustrations to unify what seem to be opposing concepts. Here’s a coin, I’d say to my  catechism class. It’s one whole thing, but it has two sides. My human vision is capable of taking in only one side at a time. It’s simply not possible for me to see both heads and tails simultaneously. But God, being God, isn’t limited like I am. His divine gaze can merge what I can’t. Or I’d show one of those optical illusion drawings that include two faces or scenes. You focus your attention on one set of details and see a witch. Re-focus your eyes and voila, there’s a beautiful woman. Two conflicting portraits in one design. Ok … I’ve already admitted they were simple illustrations. But they do embody the idea that it’s possible to combine polarized truths in a kind of “willing suspension of disbelief,” to borrow a phrase from Romantic poet, Samuel Coleridge. That willingness to suspend disbelief, to swing contradictions like so many buttons on one string, is faith. It’s acknowledging my own limitations and ceding to God’s grander abilities and plans, not God as abstract deity or “the force”, but the God who brings himself to the bargaining table, who is, as Sittser describes him, a “suffering Sovereign.” Not a God who sticks it to you, but the God holding your hand, sitting beside you in the ashes.

I cling to my Calvinism because it offers the best comfort at the graveside. Here is where I stand, not denying that cancer, pneumonia and stroke cause death, but not granting them the final say. God is in control. In life and in death. My favourite psalm, an amulet around my neck, is Psalm 121, a psalm I memorized originally because it was short. (Yes, because it was short.) But it’s become an everyday touchstone for its extravagant confession about God’s solicitous concern for my life.

It took me awhile to get it. How can it be true that my foot will not slip or that the Lord will keep me from all harm? I’ve slipped many times. I’ve been harmed a few times, too. But the key is to choose to look at the psalm from another angle – the aerial view, not the close-up. To squint deliberately at the summative focus. My daily life will surely be crashed by storms, as Jesus’ parable of the wise and foolish builders so graphically portrays, but the epilogue of my life will be this: that I was deemed a royal heir, guarded vigilantly by a sentry God who never slept, protected from the sun’s burning rays by a God who, slave-like at my side, shaded me with palm branches. 

Dad. Hank. Jessica. Pioneers of the Wyoming CRC. Israel. All who have eyes to see and ears to hear. A sovereign God watches over our coming and going, both now and forevermore. A quixotic God, Omnipotent Servant, worthy to be worshipped, even at the open grave.


Heron River: It’s about what’s real

(Christian Courier review, February 27, 2012)

Promise me you’ll read this novel twice. Don’t worry, you’ll want to. The first time through you’ll be so caught up in the dramatic tension that, like me, you’ll simply gulp it down in unseemly drafts, impatient to discover how these disparate characters, who reside in a “small safe town,” are connected. There’s Madeline, a middle-aged teacher battling multiple sclerosis and other multiple losses. Her son Adam lives in a group home, developmentally-delayed from an accident she thinks is due to her own “critical error.” Imaginative and likable Jacob, an adopted kid, proves susceptible to the adrenaline of slipping into his customers’ homes when they’re away. Nineteen year old Orrin is a powder keg. Tara, a dedicated cop, serves and protects. The lives of these five individuals intersect, but not until the gathering dread reaches a gripping level.

 “The details are not the details,” said Charles Eames, noted mid-century modern designer. “They make the product.” His insight certainly applies to Hugh Cook’s achievement in this meticulously-constructed novel. Acutely observant, Cook builds an authentic community out of precisely-rendered and scrupulously-ordered details. The barbershop with its “slightly curved oak pew that Tony picked up when Sacred Heart installed an elevator several years ago,” the Native reserve, the mill and the river itself – all granite solid, crafted with measured description that’s spare and sinewy, never fussy. 

Such attention to detail informs Cook’s characters as well. No slap-dash here. Even minor characters are drawn with a particularity that implies more, like the fisherman with eyes “the colour of the beer bottle.” Every conversation, glance and gesture positions the characters in a real world, one we recognize as our own. And, familiarly, the currents of life along Heron River create a mash-up: callousness, sadism, and physical deterioration log-jammed with compassion, caring and courage.

In an Art Waves radio interview Cook remarked that the writer’s job is, first of all, “to tell stories.”  In Heron River he does just that, and it’s a compelling tale. But read the book again. Like a painting whose subject runs off the canvas, suggesting a wider plane, the narrative expands, probing our perceptions of what’s real. The small town of Caithness is indisputably real, but a spiritual reality hovers there, too, as patient and determined as a heron fishing, waiting to pierce the surface with sudden and irresistible energy.

The story opens with malevolence intruding on an ordinary Monday morning. It’s “garbage day.” The “stealthy, shabby” crows are cawing. Madeline listens to the Mamas and the Papas on the radio: “Oh, Monday morning, Monday morning couldn’t guarantee, That Monday evening you would still be here with me.” Prophetic lyrics. By evening, the Adam she knew was no longer with her, and successive revelations of compounded sorrow establish the wide-ranging effects of his fall, a spreading misery evoking a more cosmic fall.

Intimations of grace and hope
But there are other ripples, too, intimations of grace and hope. Madeline’s friend Donna has a smile that “continually plays at the corners of her mouth, as if she’s the perpetual recipient of good news.” When Madeline finds a photo of the mother she never knew in her father’s old Dutch Bible, she unearths an even better surprise – comfort in a place she’d overlooked. After a suspect punches Tara in the mouth, she must undergo the painstaking restoration of a front tooth. Her trusted dentist expertly affixes the new crown, the procedure containing within itself the faintest outline of another terra waiting to be restored.

Jacob’s quick-witted lying covers his misdeeds, his cunning (his surname is, in fact, Cunningham) reminiscent of that archetypal biblical deceiver who, nonetheless, was chosen and marked by the mysterious wrestler at Peniel. Young Jacob is likewise chosen, first in his adoption, and then again when he is recruited to be an altar boy at St. Paul’s. Leaving the sacristy after his first service, “invisible choirs of birds raise a riotous, chirruping psalm as if today were the first morning of a new creation.”

Adam, perennially on the lookout for the majestic heron as he walks along the river, is afforded a close-up view at last. As he approaches the bird, he realizes with amazement that the heron is moving ever so  deliberately to keep him in its sight as well. Eager to follow the bird as it flies off, Adam begins to cross a dangerously high railroad bridge above the river. He panics when a bystander’s warning shouts cause him to recognize his foolhardiness. Fortunately, his Native friend Keller is nearby to talk him back to safety. Before Adam reaches the bank, however, a grey shadow startles him, “large as the shadow of a moving cloud,” another allusive Old Testament nod. It’s the blue heron “flying over the water larger than he has ever seen it. As large as something he might see in a dream.” Rescued from the depths of a well, Adam has conquered the heights, thrilled with this rapturous meeting in the air.

These transcendent glimmers are not a facile overlay. Cook’s tenacious exactitude, whether it’s about baking a pie or cleaning a gun, that same truthfulness from which emerge his textured settings and fully-dimensioned characters, lends an equivalent veracity to these flickers of redemption. Nor are all questions tidily answered. Madeline wonders who is watching the 99 while the shepherd is out searching for the one lost sheep. Orrin, raised by an addicted mother in a highly dysfunctional home, is a complex figure whose actions and culpability challenge easy assumptions.

There’s so much more. Read this multi-layered book twice. Maybe even a third time. I will.