(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.