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.

Monday, December 15, 2008

a year of morning thanks

An old letter of grief (vi)

If I've been coached on what happens to parents who suddenly lose a child, I learned what I know from a young father who also lost a son, but lost him in a farm accident. Two stories that young father told me have stuck with me, even though I wrote his story more than a quarter century ago. One involves being on the tractor after the accident, after the funeral--how especially, he said, moving up and down the back 40 begs the mind to travel places far afield. During those times this fiercely religious man told me he used to scream at God for what had happened. And then he said, "But so did King David. Read it yourself in the psalms."

The second lesson he gave me about grief involves answers that come too easily--specifically, answers that people offered him and his wife, lines like, "Jesus just wanted a little jewel for his crown." Answer like that made him angry, he said. "The best way to offer sympathy in a time like that is simply to be there," he told me. Silent presence, he taught me, is always best. Cheap answers are exactly that.

But Grandpa Schaap's silent presence wasn't possible when a boy named Nelson died of scarlet fever, back in 1918. The grieving family were no more his parishoners, so he had to write. And he did, and I have in my hands a copy of that old letter.

And, as I've already said, the preacher can't simply sympathize; in the world in which he lived, people looked to the Dominie for solutions, for remedy. This is how Grandpa's remedy for their grief begins:

You may ask yourselves the question, "Why did the Lord give us the child so short a time, only to leave us in grief"? We answer, "God wants children as well as adults before His large white throne, and if you look at it like that, you would not dare to demand your child back to this sinful earth, and not to giving your child to praise and adore God better there than he would ever be able to do in this world. God sent out his angel to reap the sheaf that was ready, though you did not know it and God plucked him away so suddenly and unexpectedly as a flower that bloomed in the field.

Grandpa's explanation lists three images or associations, one after another, all three of them, some might say, maybe a bit too easy, almost cheap. The first is God's desire to people his court with young and old alike. He wanted the boy, Nelson, Grandpa says, for his own court, an answer that can, at worst, makes God seem almost covetous. The second association is to ripe what--i.e., Nelson was simply ready to be harvested. The third equates the boy with a precious flower blooming.

I was once told that if you can give ten reasons for not doing something you should, it means you don't have one good one. Honestly, I don't want to judge my grandfather's theology, nor may I properly question his propriety--after all, I have not lost a child. He did. Who on earth am I to judge?

But I wonder if the rapid succession of associations here, one after another (God's court, a wheat field, some lovely flower), doesn't suggest his own sketchy estimate of the very answers he offers. He tried, as his grandson might yet today, to throw words at the problem, to fill the emptiness with a tumble of ideas, one after another, hoping either that one of them might fit, or that the barrage itself could bring solace. All of this may be revisionist history, but I'm wondering if his saying so much doesn't suggest that he knows he has very little to say.

But he must say something. So he does. Because there are no good answers, he hands out a whole, bounteous bouquet of cliches.

One line he offers the grieving parents here holds a truth to which he will return however: ". . .and if you look at it like that, you would not dare to demand your child back to this sinful earth. . ."

He will have more to say, much more, on authority.

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