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.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Prof. Merle Meeter

He was a man of immense passions, as he was an immense man. A friend of mine remembers meeting him for the first time in the gym, where he was likely doing one-arm push-ups somewhere in the center of things. What my friend remembers is his being shirtless--t-shirtless too, his pecs, to die for. Merle Meeter was built like a steel nail, his upper body molded by the heavenly definition of its own musculature.

And he was a poet. Somewhat odd combination--a tenderness that fine in a body that massive. He was a writer, a thoughtful armchair philosopher, and a theologian whose pointed wanderings came, he believed, straight from the God he loved.

Once, after he missed a spike in a faculty volleyball game on a Friday afternoon, a match that meant nothing to anyone, he was so angry at himself that he hit the wall with his fist and broke fingers. But during the years that I knew him--both as his student and later as his colleague--I never saw him angry at anyone but himself. Often he was embarrassingly self-righteous about his theological opinions; he never doubted the spiritual reality he saw as perfectly clear. He was sure, as if his words were from God, that his positions were the sole version of the truly orthodox. But I never saw him spit and fume, except on paper.

When he left the college where we taught together, he left because he was sure the college itself had left something of the gospel's own truth behind. His was the voice crying in the wilderness, and the rest of us must have seemed no more or less than a decadent remnant.

Sometime in those years he must gotten angry at someone, but I never saw it. He could turn out theological treatises as easily as the rest of us in the English department wrote summary comments on lit essays, but his anger, like his humor, seemed to me to be far mostly self-depracatory.

I don't think I would have wanted to live with him back then. When I think about that time in his life, the parameters suggest the very strong possibility of depression. His highs were heavenly; there had to be dark and dank cellars.

He was impetuous and thoughtless about some things, the quintessential absent-minded professor, quite impossible to control. The word is, once upon a time the college President took him aside and told him to stanch his theological furies. He felt that advice to be demeaning and contrary to God's own word. He left.

But give him a piece of fiction--as I did in often those early years of my own writing life--and he'd have it back the next day, marked up like a plowed field. He was extraordinarily generous with praise, even when I knew what he was reading wasn't the of the evangelical substance of what he'd have written himself.

He was, back then, adamant about literature's service to the Lord. I thought of his own work as being somewhat too preachy, instead of shrewd or artful in its delivery of the hope of the Christian faith. He was as powerful in his witness as he was with barbells. He hammered home the truth that leant meaning to his life--that Jesus Christ was Lord of all; and he did as relentlessly as befits, I suppose, a man of his mega-passions.

But he was, to me, an inspiration. His life was a mission. He poured huge chunks of his personal bank account that into permission rights to poems he was simply sure had to be part of an anthology of vividly Christian poetry, an anthology he eventually published, titled The Country of the Risen King. For years, publication of that anthology--he wanted to show the world the devoutly Christian writers--was all he lived for. To me, that passion was impressive. Back then, I wanted like nothing else to be the kind of writer he was--not in the substance of what he wrote himself, but I wanted to bring that same immense passion he brought to his work.

When he left, it was for a teaching job in a California college whose theology he favored, a college that simply fell apart not long after. I heard, out there in California, that he ended up working for a lumber yard. I found that amazing, a man so passionately committed to literature.

Somewhere in the bowels of Dordt College library, there exists the manuscript of a novel I wrote in the summer of 1976, the summer before I came to teach at Dordt College. Back then, I told myself I was going to do it, write a whole novel, just to see if I could--and I did. When I think back on that now, that strategy almost sounds like Merle Meeter.

That manuscript is marked like a plowed field. He read it, probably in a night or two. I don't really think anyone will ever see that novel, but somehow I'm happy the manuscript is there, in someone's care, because, in a very, very literary way--and in a very personal way--the two of us, Merle Meeter and I, are both in the manuscript.

My old friend Merle Meeter died last week in California. One of my colleagues googled him and found a treasure of wonderful accolades from some of the nation's best--and I'm sure, most passionate--arm-wrestlers. In California, he'd taken up the sport with Meeter-like drive and become one of its finest coaches and champions. But just about everything he ever did was immense.

That his legacy may well be greatest among the arm-wrestlers is itself a story I could not have imagined, a story that whose truth leaves me staggering, quite frankly. Did he still write poetry in his late years? Did he still still begs fights about theology?

I'm sure, in his last years, he did more one-arm pushups than I could ever imagine. But what was he like when finally he went to meet the Maker he so passionately loved? I don't know, but I can't imagine his leave-taking was fraught with horror; there was, in him, just too much passion for the Lord.

Still, the idea of Merle Meeter having shed his mortal coil--those thick-rope biceps and perfect shoulders--the thought of him somehow spiritually bereft of his body just makes me smile. I can't imagine it. He'll still find some way to get in his push-ups, to take on some six-packed buff comers in sweaty match of arm-wrestling.

I'd like to think that he'll sing, make music with the poems he wrote and the ones I'm sure he's penning now, full of the praise and immense passion that was always there, this world and the next.


ricknieklikebike said...

does a novelist truly know the end of the story before the story ends?

elegant graphics said...

I was thinking about poetry this morning. And my thoughts came to Merle Meeter. And I thought about his anger directed at one of his children during a church service, his muscular arms and his desire for Christian literature.

To Google I go with Merle's name. First entry is your blog that describes so much of what crossed my mind.

Merle read one of his stories in a world literature class. A story about him, his car and his girl friend. I told him that I liked it. He said it was not Christian. He said the same about my writings.

The burden to be Christian in "all areas of life" is heavy, too heavy. My grandparents were busy with their election and predestination. Another group is busy establishing the Kingdom of God in "all areas of life." And others are busy knowing God's plan for their lives.

Merle can rest in peace and quiet.

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