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, February 11, 2013

Dr. John B. Hulst, 1930-2013

I wasn't proud of what I'd done, what we'd done.  The phone calls had come for more than a year, even though we lived in different apartments. They'd come during vacations, when the likelihood of it being some insanely playful student buddy was not only unlikely but impossible.  They'd come always at the same time, late afternoon.  They'd come from the same trembling voice, someone, a male.  

Being the target of twisted sexual come-ons was a mystery and, finally, a really bad joke.  Had we been responsible, we would simply have hung up; but we weren't. After a half dozen bouts of heavy breathing, we played the caller, told him we were anxious for some backseat action.  "Where?--Where do you want to meet"?" I'd say, trying to get him to do more than simply call.  We wanted badly to know who this guy was.  

The night we did, there was three of us in the car, me driving, two others in the back seat armed with baseball bats, as if we were going to roll a queer.  

That night we chased him for miles on a gravel, then lost him in an adjacent town.  But we'd seen the station wagon he was driving clearly enough to identify it when we sat along the highway waiting for him to drive back home. And when we did, we gave chase, both of us pushing our speedometers close to 100.  There was no doubt this was the man.

A red light stopped us, the one in the heart of Sioux Center, right downtown.  It was a man we knew, not well, but a man we clearly recognized when, in the right lane, we simply drew up beside him.  What I'll never forget is the baby seat beside him, one of the old ones that hung over the front seat.  What we'd made fun of, what we'd played like a game, what we'd thought was sick but miserably funny, was a secret, furtive passion that would slay this guy, this businessman, this churchman.  

It was the end of our senior year, spring of 1970, and seeing who it was and recognizing what it must have taken to prompt him to call us and then to listen to us wring more from his own  forbidden secrets was horrifying.  Our play had become this man's demise.

At that point in my life I was sick and tired of the Pharisaical community of foolish Christian people I'd been living in for four years.  In May of 1970, four college students were shot at Kent State University for marching against the war in Vietnam. On this college campus, jam-packed as it was with young Republican Nixon-backers, I'd sided politically with hippies and Yuppies, the radicals who wouldn't trust anyone under 35, kids in bellbottoms, long-haired freaks who sat in parks, crossed-legged, smoking dope as if it were worship.  

I had no use for the Christian college I'd been at for four years because I knew very well most of its sweet children had no time for me.

But that night guilt brought us to the office of the campus pastor, where we told the whole story in lurid detail, a recitation that didn't skimp on our own sin and misery, a recitation that was at least partly a confession of sin.

We went to the campus pastor, not because we thought he'd be sympathetic. We went to him, honestly, because we knew that the man driving that station wagon needed help and the campus pastor went to the same church.  We went to his office because something ached in us, something had broken.

We told him how this man's calls had come for two years, how we'd learned how to crank up the lust that must have driven him to pick up the phone, time after time after time.  

The campus pastor said very little.  He didn't scold, didn't berate us, didn't make us go before the Discipline Committee.  He thanked us for coming and and promised he would deal with the man on the other side of that baby seat.

And he did.  A week later, he told me that he'd gone to the man and told him the story we did, and that the man owned up to it and swore he would get help.  That's what he told me.  

I'll never forget thinking about how insanely difficult it must have been for him even to approach the burning in that man's soul.  It was impossible for me not to see and hear how radically different what the campus pastor must have said to that man was to what I had said, far too often, on the other end of a phone line.  I couldn't imagine doing that.  In a way, I needed to learn what I couldn't imagine.

I've told that story before. What happened to the business man isn't pretty.  In the sad and pitiful journey of his life, we didn't help.  Lord knows, we didn't help.

But what prompts me to tell the story this morning is my recognition of grace in the caring faith of that campus pastor, a man I honestly thought, back then, to be hamstrung by small-town self-righteousness, the very symbol of pietism gone to seed. He and the college he served were worried about beards, for heaven sake, what they might look like to the locals paying the bills. He and the college he served would toss kids from dinner lines for wearing jeans and not the obviously more Christian khakis. He and the college he served were fiddling some two-bit hymn while cities and college campuses across the country were aflame.  

That night, however, the enormity of what we'd done put us on our knees; he must have recognized that because he handled our confession as if it were as heartfelt as it was. 

Something in me changed when I imagined those two conversations--mine and his.  The difference--the eternal difference.

Two years later, he married my wife and me--he was her childhood pastor.  Six years later, ironically, we became colleagues at the college whose ethos I so despised when I'd left it behind.  A dozen years later, he became the second President of that college.  Two decades later, when he retired, he and his wife and I worked out together in the weight room of the college gym in the early morning hours of the day, three times a week, bouts of laughter amid bouts of thoughtful conversation.

What began in a late-night impromptu visit to the campus pastor's office ended in profound respect, in deep friendship, and abiding love.  

Last week, John B. Hulst died. Sincere, trusting, moderate, judicious, he led by example, by precept, by principle, because he was, first of all, a deeply principled man.  He was--and he'd deny it vigorously--the Calvinist version of a saint.  Honestly.

There are a ton of stories I could tell, but none of them is quite as memorable to me than the one I've tried to tell here, the one in which Dr. John Hulst showed me clearly what it meant to be a man of grace.

This morning, I'm more than thankful for his blessed place in my life.


Anonymous said...

And we are also thankful that many Navajo Native Americans were finally freed from total childhood slavery by a federal court order about ten years after Lincoln was assinated. They still reside on the Alamo Reservation in central New Mexico far from Din'e Land.

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