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.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Morning Thanks--A Pastor


I didn't know my grandfather well. He died when I was five years old, and I have but one curmudgeonly memory of him, a time he yelled at me for wasting water--I was standing with my arms up over the sink, my fingers in the stream from the faucet, waiting for the temperature to cool.

I have a audio tape of him preaching, which I've listened to more than once. He's not a preacher I would have loved week after week, but a Dutch Calvinist preacher, back then during his career--early to mid-20th century--was cut from a sharp and well-drawn pattern, and not always interested in being loved. Grandpa Schaap, the Reverend J. C. Schaap, was a dominie, a Dutch word I heard once in awhile as a kid, often enough to know it meant, the preacher.

Dominie meant more than that, really. In a community still thick with old country ways, the dominie was often the only one with education. He was someone to be admired, certainly, but respected, more so. Loved?--maybe, maybe not. He was to be feared, as the Lord our God was to be feared, back then.

I'm not so sure any of the preachers I had as a boy was a bona fide dominie. After all, by the 50s, with all those GIs back in churches and communities, men who'd fought their way across Europe or the South Pacific, it had to have been more difficult for preachers to be the only real big men.

When Dutch was finally abandoned for English, dominie was traded for reverend. "How are you doing, Reverend?" people might ask. Language had changed, but, substantially, attitude hadn't.

Today, "Reverend" is also something of a relic, jettisoned by the kindler, gentler "pastor," as in Pastor Schaap, a title my grandfather might have had trouble recognizing.

Rev. John Olthoff was my first real "pastor," and I say that because he was in office during the Sixties, when I wasn't so easy to deal with and neither were my friends. From me at least, the Sixties demanded my taking positions--on war, on race, on the place of women, on the culture--positions that almost always were troublingly contrary to my parents and to my church, even to the staunchly Republican community in which I was reared.

Here's what I remember: him taking hold of my arm during those years, holding me just below the elbow, his head nodding slightly, his face enriched with an edgy smile. He was not a large man, and I think I towered over him; but he wouldn't judge--that's what I remember very well. He wouldn't judge, he'd simply talk--and listen; he'd simply ask me about things. He was being a pastor, my first.

Throughout my life, people have told me about Grandpa, who was said to have a wonderful sense of humor and may have been more gifted at giving funny speeches at weddings than dour sermons from the pulpit. If there ever was a strict, standard image for Dutch Calvinist preachers, for dominies, then, I'm sure, my own grandfather probably wasn't it--if, in fact, any ever were. We're humans, not caricatures--all of us.

Nonetheless, when I think about it now, Rev. John Olthoff, who taught catechism very well to a gaggle of hormone-rich high schoolers, me among them, became, in the next few years, my first pastor, when the precepts I began to embrace weren't exactly those of my parents'. He listened, smiled, nodded, and never let go of my arm. Oddly enough, the preacher didn't preach.

And now the Reverend John Olthoff is gone. For the most part, after I left home for college, I heard him hold forth only when I'd come back, so he hasn't been my preacher, my pastor, for forty years. But he died just a few weeks ago, well into his nineties. I would have liked to thank him. I should have.

This morning's thanks are for John Olthoff, who was my very first pastor. I only wish I'd told him.


5 comments:

Anonymous said...

I’m in my eightieth year, but I still remember John Olthoff, delivery person for Nichols & Minnema, grocers on Archer Ave. in Chicago. For John, it must have a summer job in the late 1930s, when he was a college or seminary student. He came down our two-track Kostner Ave. lane in Oak Lawn in his brown Dodge panel truck, with boxes of groceries ready for delivery to his customers. Jovial John always had a few minutes to chat with his customers—and their children. Unless my imagination has gotten the best of me, I believe at times he handed out pieces of candy or a sucker. A “jolly good fellow” was he. From your account, this friendly trait must have carried over into ministry.

Gordon De Young

Anonymous said...

John Olthoff was a patient listener. He listened to me as I headed off to the US Army during the Vietnam.

God Bless him and his family.

Meredith Morgan said...

What wonderful tributes. The thing that strikes me most is the gentleness and love in these posts about Calvinist preachers.

Raised a Roman Catholic and, later, rooted in Anglicanism, I am delighted to be touched and inspired by these posts. It underscores what we have in common.

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Jim for your piece on Reverend Olthoff as we used to call him. I also had the same response when I saw his obituary. He was my first pastor as well, and one who made a lasting impression on me. I also would have liked to say Thank You, and someday we will.

Randy Gartman

Harry Olthoff said...

Thanks folks for sharing your memories of Pops. If I remember correctly Jim's "youthful" behavior may have required a bit of extra grace (of course mine did not!) Pops gift of being non-judgemental of others is a trait that perhaps more than many others reflects Christ most clearly. I do miss him.