Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

"One's own hearth"

My wife and I … have purchased a little land upon which we can raise enough food — and we have built a house upon it. We are going to live by ourselves. I can work that land myself. Our Johan and Arend Jan and Jenneken are paying for that land from their earnings. Now they say we have our own home, and my wife and I are happy to have it. There is nothing better than having one’s own hearth — isn’t that true? … My wife is very happy.
I don't know the woman, but I know the story that's somewhere behind this note from an old letter--or some variant thereof. The woman who posted this on her blog got interested in family when someone, somewhere, asked her if she knew how an ancient grandmother of hers once learned how to bead from the Sioux neighbors she had when she was a girl way out in South Dakota long, long ago. Or maybe this: someone told her how a 19th century, great uncle lost a wife and two children to the Spanish Flu in 1918. The woman who posted that paragraph was amazed--more than that, she was shocked--that she didn't know. So she started reading whatever she could get her hands on.

Maybe an 80-year-old aunt or grandmother told her that her sister in Indiana had some letters that a great-great-great grandpa wrote back to family in the old country. Maybe that's where it started. That old aunt told this woman that she herself had never read those letters but had once heard they were kind of fun, if you're interested in that kind of thing. She'd never been, she'd said.

That's how the woman who stumbled on this paragraph found it, then posted it, just one paragraph of many that left her stunned with the knowledge of what she had never known about herself. All of a sudden, unpredictably, she was fascinated by an unraveling story that was uniquely hers, a strange and varied chain of events that had somehow led to be her being who she was, and where and how. 

Most everyone who reads these words and that paragraph at the top of the page have similar stories--blood relatives 150 years ago or so who lived the American Dream as innocently as the man who wrote those words back to his old country relatives: "There is nothing better than having one's own hearth."

The truth is, this old-country granddad, now at home in a new world, never really wanted much more than he had once he was self-sufficient in a house of his own on land of his own, at the foot of his own hearth. 

"Such humble beginnings," she must have told herself when she read that paragraph, "such incredibly humble beginnings."

"History," Kurt Vonnegut once wrote, "is merely a list of surprises. It can only prepare us to be surprised yet again." 

That kind of knowledge is humbling, as is faith itself, instruction for the soul. 

Here's Joyce Sutphen from this morning's Writer's Almanac.

Grandma Clara
By Joyce Sutphen
About noon she arrived in her blue-and-
white Bel Air by Chevrolet, in which she
did not see the USA but only
the road from her house in town to the farm
she built with her husband, who died as soon
as they retired, and that is why she came
each day—just to have something to do, to
help us with the work we had inherited
from her: the strawberry fields, gardens,
apple orchards, and grapevines, rhubarb stalks,
potato patch, rows of sweet corn; wild plums,
and gooseberries—and all those fields of com
and oats and hay, pastures too, above the
house and woods or down by the meadow where
the green grass grew. Who would not return to
such a place? I see her walking across
the lawn in her straw hat, hoe in hand,
ready to chop away whatever weeds
dared grow between the perfectly mounded
hills of potatoes, those rows that would feed
us all through the cold white winter when she
would come less often though we would see her
every morning in the back of church—
praying, no doubt, for the whole crop of us.

Monday, August 19, 2019


Randall Van Gelder was born on June 9, 1919, the second child and first son of John and Anna (De Vries) Van Gelder, who lived at that time a mile east of Ireton, Iowa. He attended Ireton Christian School as a boy, and, with some fondness, remembered those long walks back and forth to town.

In the late 1920s, his father determined to relocate the family to a farm north of Orange City. To get his family there, father and son drove two horse-drawn wagons loaded up with farm tools and household goods, a highly responsible job for a ten-year-old boy, but a task he enjoyed remembering.

Moving to Orange City meant changing schools, which he did, graduating from eighth grade at Orange City Christian. It was the height of the Depression, but it wasn’t poverty that kept him from going on to get an education; the family’s farm was, back then, a way of life, maybe especially for the oldest boy. That Randall Van Gelder loved farming goes without saying, but throughout his life he couldn’t keep himself from wondering what his life may have been like if he’d been able to keep going to school, to learn more about the world he found himself in as a young man.

Along with two of his brothers and millions of other Americans, he went to war after Pearl Harbor. One of those brothers, Charles, would not return. Before going overseas, Randall, the farm kid, went to mechanic’s school, where the International Harvester Company taught him and others how to service tanks and tank engines specifically.

In England, like so many others, he awaited the massive invasion that would be unleashed on the beaches of Normandy, France. Two months after June 6, 1944, he and the 555th Ordinance Tank Maintenance Company crossed the English Channel and set up the motor pool in France, just behind the lines of warfare. That’s where he and his buddies stayed, following the front all the way to Germany.

His military experience meant a great deal to him. For many years after the war, he kept in touch with several army buddies.

On July 5, 1946, he married Bertha Visser in Orange City, Iowa, less than a year after he was discharged. Together, they moved to a farm just down the road from his father’s place, put in a crop, and began their lives together. A sudden freakish hail storm virtually destroyed what they’d planted so hopefully that spring, forcing him to find work in town, where for two years he took a job as a mechanic to stay afloat.

Two years later, Randall and Bertha welcomed their first and only child, Barbara Kay.

When he returned to the farm, Randall ran a standard operation for the time: he milked some cows, raised some hogs, harvested some row crops and kept a big garden. Barbara’s first memory is of her dad hoisting her up on the back of one of the big work horses he used until he could afford a first tractor.

Randall and Bertha began their life together at First CRC, Orange City, but, later in life, became charter members of Immanuel CRC. For him, church wasn’t just a brick and mortar place, it was a family. He believed in the covenantal family of faith, treasured his relationship to Immanuel, felt loved.

Randall and Bertha moved to Orange City in 1983, some time after he told himself and those he loved that he simply did not want or need the stress of another harvest. Bertha was greatly pleased to move to town.

Randall was “handy,” could fix anything—or, if he couldn’t, he’d devise and build some alternative way to get the job done. He worked for farmers and apartment owners, and with Bertha did occasional volunteer work for church relief organizations. But he also took some well-earned time to fish with neighbors and friends, and always had time for kids and grandkids. He even worked for Bertha, rebuilding the chairs she’d been asked to upholster. For a time, they were a team.

In 2001, always having to be busy, Randall began volunteering his days to Hope Haven where, for almost fifteen years, he loved the rebuilding wheelchairs. They were a far cry from tractors and Sherman tanks, but needy folks thousands of miles across the globe got new mobility because of what went on in that volunteer shop. He enjoyed paging through photos of overseas recipients blessed by a wheelchair he’d repaired or reconditioned.

After moving to Landsmeer in 2003, he devotedly tended Bertha’s needs as her caregiver through a progressive, rare nerve disease. She died in May of 2009, but Randall lived on, alone, to reach 100 years old—and two months. His death was unhurried and quiet, as peaceful as death can be.

He is survived by his daughter, Barbara, and her husband, James Schaap, both of Alton; by two grandchildren, Andrea and her husband Piet Westerbeek IV, of Sioux Center; and David Schaap, and his wife Kristina Davis, of Perkins, Oklahoma, as well as four grandchildren: Jocelyn Westerbeek, Pieter Westerbeek V, Ian Westerbeek, and Olivia Schaap.

Randall Van Gelder was the second oldest of the children of John and Anna Van Gelder, but the last of his ten siblings to pass away: sisters Jennie Schalekamp, Margaret Reinders, Johanna Hofland, Agnes Van Gelder, and Mary Vlieger; and brothers George, Charles, Gary, and Ken Van Gelder.

His pastor says Randall, in these last years, was interested greatly in what heaven might be. Today, we’re greatly thankful that he knows.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Sunday Morning Meds--What is man?

“What is man that you are mindful of him?” Psalm 9

Few people would list Charles Mix County, South Dakota, as an American vacation paradise.  There’s just not much happenin’.  Like much of the Great Plains, it has a museum-like quality because the landscape of abandoned farms on its hills suggests a far livelier past than present.
Two hundred years ago, Lewis and Clark were there, following the Missouri River that is western border of its 110-mile expanse.  Should you happen to follow the trail, you may something of a ghost town, a nearly abandoned settlement named, simply, Academy.

One day in 1892, a pioneer preacher named Rev. L. E. Camfield and a friend were out among the sod-busters of Charles Mix, collecting donations for the education of black children down South.  When they tallied the purse at the end of the day, they were thrilled:  they had $20. 

Here’s what they thought.  If a couple hundred dirt poor prairie farmers and ranchers could come up with that kind of money for needy kids hundreds of miles away, shouldn’t it be possible to create, right there in Charles Mix, an academic institution which would serve their own children in the best possible way? 

Camfield said he’d try, and just a year later, Ward Academy opened its doors to 23 students.  In a few years, the place had admirable facilities and close to 150 enrolled. 

The Rev. Mr. Camfield was a Christian, a dreamer, and deeply committed to the cause of Christian higher education.  For a time, this educational jewel on the Great Plains of South Dakota must have seemed, in its hustle and bustle, an answer to prayer.

Today all that school has is a relatively good paint job.  It old chapel is big and sits up high on a knoll as if still proclaiming the absolute importance of education.  But it hasn’t seen a student in years.  It’s a sepia-tone tintype of itself.

Out front is a stone memorial to the Rev. Mr. Camfield, to his diligence, his vision, and his commitment.  Behind that memorial is a building that, quite honestly, looks ready to be torched.  It’s Shelley’s “Ozymandius” come to South Dakota—with this significant difference:  Camfield was no swaggering despot. He was, instead, a firm believer and a tireless advocate of Christian education. 

To me, someone who’s spent his whole life in Christian higher education, there’s something chilling about Academy, South Dakota.  So much good was there at its birth, and it likely served its students well.  I think I would have liked Camfield, a firebrand for quality education in the Christian tradition.

But Academy, South Dakota, reminds me that even when we believe we’re in His service, our best may not amount to a hill of beans.  Academy is no more.  What’s left is little more than a ghost town.  In the cosmic scheme of things, we are just what the singer says we are in Psalm 8—not much.

But once again, here’s the miracle.  He loves us.  That’s the essence of this great old Psalm.  Even though our best is sometimes bountifully silly, He loves us.  That’s the realization that knocks David’s sandy socks right from out of his sandals. 

Think of the heavens, then think of us—just so many field mice.  But he loves us.  He honestly does.  And that makes all the difference for time and eternity.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Words for a Father

Words for a Father

And this is the consolation:
that the world doesn't end,
that the world one day
opens up into something better.
And that we one day
open up into something far better.
Maybe like this:
one morning you finally wake to a light
you recognize as the light you've wanted
every morning that has come before.
And the air has some light thing in it
that you've always hoped the air might have.
And One is there to welcome you
whose face you've looked for
during all the best and worst times of your life.
He takes you to himself and holds you close
until you fully wake. And it seems you've
only just awakened, but you turn and
there we are, the rest of us,
arriving just behind you.
We'll go the rest of the way together.

Scott Cairns

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Randall Van Gelder--1919-2019

It must have been stressful. What did I know?--a son-in-law who didn't know a thing about farrowing or markets, combines or rotary hoes? He was leaving, even though neither his daughter nor I guessed he ever could. He was having a sale, a farm sale, everything in the machine shed, three old tractors, Nipco heaters, air pumps, whatnot--it was all going.

It must have been stressful, but I don't remember it being so, in part because I knew the decision to leave the farm and go to town had been made. There was no looking back. One Sunday afternoon, he and I had gone out to the barn, just as he must have since the day he and his wife moved out there decades before. "I'm retiring," he said. Not much more. He wasn't a man who liked to talk. In his life, he never jabbered. 

I was shocked. I'm guessing I looked it and likely said it. 

His reason was right there when I wondered why: "I don't care to go through another harvest." 

Harvest stressed him, so he was putting it behind him, having a sale, a farm sale. 

A ton of people showed up. All men. Lots of farm caps. Lots of coveralls. It was a cold, gray day on ground that got slippery and wet, a muddy mess. 

And there was a lot of the kind of seriousness on that face in that picture on top, lots of worry, lots of his life going up on the auction block for prices that got nowhere near to matching what that old Allis meant to him through all those years. 

But whole deal had to be done. They were moving to town. His wife would be happy finally--she never really liked hogs in the back yard, or the farm itself for that matter. He comforted his stress by telling himself, I imagine, that there'd be no more harvests any more. That he'd be done with all that stress. They were moving to town, and--he didn't know it then--they'd have many years together off the farm, as many as on.

My father-in-law died last night, as quietly as he'd ever lived. He'd been in decline for weeks already. When, two months ago, we celebrated his 100th birthday, he was only sometimes with us--and not often. But the nurses claimed that right up until an end no one witnessed, he wasn't particularly restless. They did what the could to keep it that way, so that his passing went easily. He was alone, Who knows but he might have preferred leaving that way. His wife did.

This morning he's gone. He's delivered. No one knows exactly what's to come, what Glory really looks like. Me?--I'd like to think his soul soared a bit last night when he left, that once he got above the trees he thought it would be good to check the crops. It was a late spring. Things didn't get in until late. 

If he did soar through the clouds and look down at a bright, moonlit earth, he would have seen his acres full of a good crops--tall corn, handsome beans all around. He would have looked down and smiled, I think. After all, he would have said to himself--and maybe to God too--there was, after all, so much good to remember. There was Bertha and Barbara and the grandkids and great-grandkids. There was church and wheelchair and those years in town and fishing with Arie and working with the Haarsmas. 

I'd like to think as he soared to wherever Glory is, he'd have looked down and remembered those he'd loved, and told the Lord, once again, maybe with a giggle, that there certainly was so very much good to remember, so very, very much.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Morning Thanks--a Calvinist heritage

It's an age-old ritual: before worship, the consistory meets to pray for what is about to happen, to pass along whatever news is current--who needs prayer and the Lord's good mercy. My wife is an elder now, so we go to church a bit earlier than we did, maybe five minutes--they don't meet long.  

I could mill around the back of the church, but I take a seat. There's very little solemnity before worship in church these days. Few sit in silence, as most did once upon a time. Friendly chatter fill the air.

A month ago, I grabbed a book from a library outside the sanctuary--books yours for taking. This one looked noble: 365 Days with Calvin, meditations from the theology of a man whose name is baked into my life's heritage. I am a Calvinist--I fully and unequivocally accept that, for better and for worse. I'm Calvinist in predilection, and not necessarily by choice. I think and feel and perceive in ways formed unmistakably by a worldview that is, whether I like it or not, shaped by John Calvin.

I read the Institutes of the Christian Religion when I thought of myself as being as far away from its influence as I could go. In graduate school it became clear to me that I lived in the august Reformer's shadow even though I'd never read a word of his before, heard about him often but never read a page. Even though I hadn't, I came to recognize I couldn't escape the fact that I was somehow "of him."

I read The Institutes as a scholar, not an apologist. I read it to discover what all the fuss was about. I read Calvin when I couldn't help knowing that I understood Jonathan Edwards in ways the other graduate students could not--and wouldn't hope to. That was true of Melville and Dickinson too, of Thoreau and Emerson. 

So a month ago I picked up 365 Days with Calvin before taking my seat in the sanctuary. There's no librarian. The books are free--just bring 'em back when you're finished and add your own. I grabbed 365 and opened it to yet another story.

365 Days with Calvin was once a gift from Cornerstone URC consistory to someone named Kara, who, I'm guessing, "joined the church," made a public profession of faith.

I was thrilled--honestly--to think that somewhere in the neighborhood was a church who thought enough of its kids and its heritage to get Calvin's own words in their hands. 

I couldn't believe it. That Cornerstone church adds URC to its name means it willfully took itself out of the church family I'm a part of, largely for reasons that have to do with my wife being, at that moment, a woman elder in the church consistory. That church wouldn't think of ours as a friend. 

No matter. I thought both book and story wonderful.  I read the first meditation, which argues that God is light; he created light, but he was light before there was any, Calvin says. Loved it. Isn't that a great thought? I was sure we'd love 365We'd just finished a book of meditations by Eugene Peterson, and finding good stuff isn't particularly easy. I took it home.

It didn't last a week. Listen to this, from Day 7:
Should anyone object that this passage proves that God respects works in saving men, the response is that this is not repugnant to gratuitous acceptance, since God accepts those gifts which he himself has conferred upon his servants. 
Too often the prose is really muddy yet full of sharp object; too often we simply couldn't wade through it. Didn't take a week, and we quit.

The book's binding makes it look read. I'd like to believe Kara, likely a teenager, went all the way through and have no reason to believe she didn't.  And I'm still thrilled there's a church around here who thinks enough of its own theological heritage to suggest to its kids--by way of a gift--that they need to understand something I had to walk away from in order to treasure. 

So I'm still a Calvinist, will always be, for better or worse. One of these Sundays, when my wife is praying with the elders, I'll put 365 back where someone else may pick it up. I wish it weren't so.

But I'm thankful for the book I'm returning, thankful whether or not it was the blessing I thought it would be--and thankful for elders who challenge their children and pray for them. 

This morning and every morning I'm thankful also for a legacy of Calvinist theology that is almost ritually scorned, even by devout fellow believers, a heritage I will honestly hold dear for as long as I live. 

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Trump on immigration

C. C. and Neeltje Schaap, circa 1870
Decades ago, I visited a little Christian school in Inwood, Iowa, and read a story or two to kids, middle-schoolers, as I remember, stories from my first book, a collection of tales about Dutch Reformed people from the region. Occasionally, I'd used Dutch words in those stories, especially when I guessed--and sometimes knew--that Dutch-Americans would do the same thing. Words like vies and benauwd, and huis bezoek had no good English equivalents, so those words hung around subsequent generations even when the old country language had departed.

When I read the stories, I'd use the Dutch words, then stop on a dime and ask the kids if they knew meanings. The vast majority of students were of hearty Dutch-American stock, but what happened over and over again was that southeast Asian refugee kids--Vietnamese, Lao, Tai Dam--knew meanings far better than the Vissers, the Ipemas, and the Hoogendoorns. 

None of them had grown up with those Dutch words, and it was highly unlikely they'd regularly heard them, since their families spoke a different language. Still, those kids were the ones with ready answers.

A friend, a linguist, a Dutchman was not at all surprised. "They do it all the time," he told me. "They're constantly determining meaning by context because they don't speak English well. They have to listen carefully, make snap judgments," he told me. "They get really good at it."

Last week, I had lunch with a man who grew up in the area, part of a large family, a farm kid, who claimed that, like other Dutch immigrants at the turn of the 20th century, his father loved theology, even though he'd never had much of an education in the Netherlands. 

They'd been renters. He told me how his father had moved the family, often thinking there were more opportunities elsewhere. His father didn't own land, didn't reach that level of the American Dream. 

But his kids got an education. This kid, this man, eighty years old or so, claimed he wasn't a terrific student. He quit high school in the mid 50s, when that wasn't totally rare, but then swung a deal to get back into Western Christian High, just down the road and finished up just a year later than his class.

I don't think he'd say his family was impoverished. Besides, they had an abundance of other gifts, including the determined ability to be happy with what they did have and a hearty work ethic. 

This man was being courted by a local institution as the kind of donor who could reach into his pocket and fund a new building or an academic chair. He himself had kicked around a bit in life, done a number of different things, accumulated an education, learned a trade, earned a Ph.D., in fact, then became an entrepreneur, the son of immigrant parents who'd come to this country with nothing but expectations and a robust hope to have a better life.

Maybe we dislike immigrants because we know they work harder and do better than we do--or our own kids. 

The most significant motivation for my great-grandfather Schaap to come to this country in 1868, was religious. A man I met from Parkersburg, Iowa, told me he'd looked at old plot maps of the town in the 1870s and found C. C. Schaap's name on a small lot down by the river. "He was likely poor," the guy told me, sweetly, as if breaking bad news. 

They lived in four or five different regions of the country before ending their lives here. It's doubtful they ever learned English. They're buried in Orange City. 

Yesterday, Donald Trump, who was given millions by his father, announced plans to drastically reshape legal immigration in this country. Here's the lede from Fox News: "The Trump administration on Monday issued a long-awaited rule strengthening the ability of federal officials to deny green cards to immigrants deemed likely to rely on government aid." And that's Fox News. For different spin, have a look at the way the American Friends Committee explains the new policies

With Trump's new rules, I wouldn't be here, neither would the vast majority of Euro-Americans. It's that simple, and what our President is doing is that wrong.