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.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

a year of morning thanks

An old letter of sympathy (ix)

But there's one more page.

It's as if he told himself that there was more to say, and what he had in mind again was yet another lyric, a hymn with somewhat crooked roots, it seems. It's most popular form seems to have been anthologized first by George Nelson Allen, professor of music at Oberlin College in the mid-19th century, because it's found in it most persistent form, at least originally, in his memorably titled Oberlin Social and Sabbath Hymn Book.

Must Jesus bear the cross alone,
And all the world go free?
No, there’s a cross for everyone,
And there’s a cross for me.

How happy are the saints above,
Who once went sorrowing here!
But now they taste unmingled love,
And joy without a tear.

The consecrated cross I’ll bear
Till death shall set me free;
And then go home my crown to wear,
For there’s a crown for me.

Upon the crystal pavement down
At Jesus’ pierc├Ęd feet,
Joyful I’ll cast my golden crown
And His dear Name repeat.

O precious cross! O glorious crown!
O resurrection day!
When Christ the Lord from Heav’n comes down
And bears my soul away.

Strangely, Grandpa Schaap chooses to write only two of the stanzas in this note --the first and the third. Why?

It's possible, of course, that the grieving family would not have recognized what likely was, within American Christendom, a fairly well-known hymn, at least it's clear that Grandpa Schaap knew it. In the churches Grandpa served at the turn of the century, hymnody would have been psalmnody--and almost exclusively Dutch. The churches he served would have looked exclusively to the rulings of the Synod of Dordtrecht, exactly 300 years earlier, who had set down what seemed eternal guidelines for what is good a proper in Christian worship--and the menu little more than Psalms, Genevan at that.
Significant change came following the First World War as the Dutch church became, as it inevitably would, far more "American," but at the time little Nelson died, it's quite possible that an ordinary Dutch Reformed family would not have known any version of "Must Jesus bear the cross alone?" Nelson's parents may well have read these two verses for the very first time when they came to the end of Grandpa's note and never wondered why he cut so liberally from the original.

All of that doesn't answer the question of why he did, however, why he whacked away at a standard American gospel hymn.

I wonder if one answer might be suggested by the roots of the hymn itself. According to some sources, the original text belongs Thomas Shepherd (1665-1739), a separatist, like the pilgrims, who published some poetry in 1693 under the title Penitential Cries. A minister in the Church of England who left to become minister of the independent Castle Hill Meeting House in Nottingham, he published several poems in 1693 under the title, "Penitential Cries." In that volume, the first stanza of the poem reads like this:

Shall Simon bear the Cross alone,
And other Saints be free?
Each Saint of thine shall find his own,
And there is one for me.

What I would like to believe is that Grandpa Schaap read the old hymn's sentiment in a slightly different way than it might have been either intended by Shepherd's original or understood from the well known hymn of his day. If Simon is the model for "cross-bearing," then Nelson's parents could have some trouble determining just exactly how their grief compares with his, with Simon's. Simon "took up the cross" to help Christ along the road of suffering; in no way could they have associated their son's tragic death with Simon's helping an exhausted Jesus on his way to Golgatha. That would have been a stretch.

Grandpa likely sees cross-bearing in a wholly different way than the old hymn, and for that reason, I'm guessing, he's not taken with the verses he cut. The cross he and his wife bore after the death of their first-born, Agnes was an altogether different thing and not something he suffered willingly, as Simon had in the biblical account. He and his wife, who may well be still wiping away tears, had shouldered a different cross altogether, a cross simply of profound human suffering. In Agnes's death--as in Nelson's--they hadn't taken up Christ's cause or furthered his kingdom, they'd simply shared in his suffering.

I find the comparison itself really staggering. What Grandpa is saying to Nelson's grieving parents is that by way of Nelson's death you know better what Christ himself went through. Nelson's death brings you closer to Golgatha. . .

But Easter too. After all, he chooses only to write in the poem's third stanza. Nothing else. What's in the letter--look for yourself--is simply the first verse and the third. And this is what he says: "I also have in mind these stanzas." He doesn't call it a hymn, even though he almost had to know it was. He doesn't advise them to sing it. He simply says that he "has in mind" these stanzas, then gives them just these two:

Must Jesus bear the cross alone,
And all the world go free?
No: there's a cross for every one,
And there's a cross for me.

This consecrated cross I'll bear
Till death shall set me free.
And then go home, my crown to wear,
For there's a crown for me.

Aesthetically, he made a wonderful choice is cutting the extra stanzas. The close approximation of the two words, cross and crown, create an almost eerie comparison, even though one suggests torture and the other, victory. But cutting the other stanzas, Grandpa Schaap quite meticulously nurtured what he believed the best consolation from the old hymn: the ironic but absolutely biblical character of that particularly stubborn juxtaposition: somehow, someway, the cross you bear will be someday a crown.

As a stubborn Calvinist in the Dordtrecht tradition, I don't think Grandpa Schaap would have wanted to suggest that because Nelson's parents are suffering, they would reign eternal at God's right hand; that kind of equation would be a form of works righteousness that essentially denied grace.

What he didn't want the boy's sad parents to miss is his assurance that there will be, someday, an end to horror, and end to grief. That's the truth, I think, his editing is meant to serve. There is hope in suffering, and it's there in a promised crown.

But, once again, this whole note of sympathy is a hall of mirrors, for within lies not only his preacherly advice to a family suffering the very worst of tribulations, but also something of his own and his wife's, my own grandparents, the outlines of story about how in their suffering they stumbled finally on some consolation. What he must be drawing out to those grieving parents is a pathway he and his wife were walking, even as he sat there and copied all the poetry.

Undoubtedly--as he admits--they came to him to write down because they'd come to him as consolation after the death of his daughter.

"Well, dear friends," he says in conclusion, "may God uphold you and strengthen you. This is our wish and prayer. J. C. Schaap & Wife.

Upper-case W.

I'm thankful, this morning again, that I have a copy of this note on the desk. That's why I've spent all this time reading through it.

And now it will go in a drawer with other family things. Someday soon when my wife and I move to a smaller place, I'll run across it again and wonder whether anyone will care, wonder whether I should simply toss it, along with so many other things.

It seems we all find our own paths to consolation. I can't be Grandpa, and my daughter can't be me. She may well judge her father's nine long days of meditation on an old letter as something, well, silly. That doesn't mean, however, that she won't someday--as all of us do--face the darkness and look around, as her great-grandparents did--for whatever light she can find.

Truth be known, this morning I'm thankful that just a few weeks ago a woman in Michigan took it upon herself to send me a 90-year old letter her parents could never bring themselves to toss. When she did, she made me a recipient of a beloved sermon on five small sheets of paper, a sermon my grandpa wrote from the very heart of his own profound experience.

He couldn't have imagined that someday, almost a century later, his grandson would be reading that note or writing these words.
For that miracle, too, I'm thankful.


Todd said...

Not knowing your grandfather, but knowing mine and what his response may have been, I can't help but wonder if your grandfather would have been simply amazed to have his letter deconstructed and analyzed as closely as you have. I can imagine that he did not take as much time to write it as you did to write about it.

I mention this not to be critical, but to reinforce the importance of our words--certainly the spoken ones, but the written ones as well. No matter how they are recorded, even if they are digitally rendered on a screen, our words have the power to endure.

Thanks for sharing this narrative over the past few days. I have enjoyed it. What a treasure I would feel I had if I would receive something like this from either of my grandfathers. I hope you consider the letter you have as such, and I hope you pass it along to a child or a grandchild someday.

Brett said...

Thank you for sharing my great-grandfather's note and giving me a glimpse of who he was. And, for sharing your thoughts. Would it be possible to get a .pdf of the note? Thanks again.

jcs said...

Brett--I'll make it possible. Send me your e-mail address, and I'll send it out. jim