A half dozen years ago or so, when I thought seriously about leaving Dordt College, I went over to the their place to talk. My father had died, and I knew that talking to them was the closest I could come to getting the guidance I would have otherwise asked of my father. After all, John Hulst had been the President of the college, retired now and still living in the same town a dozen years or more after leaving office.
He'd married us. At one time or another, he'd been my pastor, my colleague, my boss, and, in the later years especially, along with his wife, my friend. So we talked that morning for some time, about what would have been dramatic and even traumatic for me after some thirty years--leaving. And I remember thinking that it was somehow surprising how quickly he--and they--recommended that leaving for New Mexico could well be what God wanted me to do.
I doubt John Hulst ever considered alternatives without considering what he might have called "the Kingdom," Christ's; and their advice came couched in that comfort and assurance, that God would bless the decision for his Kingdom.
I didn't leave, and we stayed for a good reason, a family reason. But Saturday I was reminded again of that little discussion, of why I went to them for what I'd characterize as "fatherly" advice, and I was also reminded of what they'd suggested, that maybe God was telling me to leave.
Not long after, they moved away themselves for their own good, family reasons.
We'd become friends after his retirement through early morning workouts at the gym, where we and others, many of them our age, spent time lifting weights. Both of them were victims of polio long ago, and John's walk was deeply affected ever since.
As the 2008 Presidential campaign rolled along, conversations frequently sparked over politics; and there, in that place it was evident that showing any sympathy for candidate Obama was heresy. I was dressed down by former colleagues and friends who became deeply emotional because Obama was an abomination--he advocated the death of babies. I didn't turn the other cheek; I might have, so I might have brought it on myself. A t-shirt I wore just once, Obama's name across the front, made others' blood run cold.
Back then, privately, the others gone, the former Pres and his wife would assure me that they didn't believe Obama was a baby-killer or the anti-Christ. They were on my side.
But they wouldn't say it aloud. In the political heave-hos in weight room, it was me against the rest.
In a way, I understood and was even proud of them. I brought on the condemnation, wearing that t-shirt. I could have restrained myself more than I did. There was nobility in their silence, I thought, because it was one thing for an old Vietnam-era rebel to take the side I did, and it was quite another for the former President, a man everyone honored and admired, to lean toward a candidate who whose birth in these United States was questioned.
In the last weeks of John Hulst's life, those moments came back to me. Five years later, I'm no less sympathetic to their silence, but it's been difficult not to perceive that their not pitching themselves into those bloody battles may have suggested the two of them were being imprisoned by their standing, by reputation, by the office he once held. The weight of the institution they'd served so nobly may well have felt, at times, like a ball and chain.
I may be wrong, and others, deeply committed, may see this all as heresy and likely have; but this morning I'm wondering if this isn't a story about being reformed, which is to say, always reforming.
Thirty-some years ago, as members of the congregation the Hulsts attended, my wife and I were members of a monthly Bible study group, rich experiences I'll never forget because back then, no matter what scripture we were studying, we'd soon enough drop the gloves and go to war over the question of women in ecclesiastical office, a heated discussion about hermeneutics or how we read the Bible. The other couples--all of them decades older than we were--would say no. We'd simply say, not so fast. And off we'd go. Oddly enough, those old couples became good friends.
In subsequent years the denomination I am a part of lost tens of thousands of members over the issue of whether women could be deacons or elders or pastors. I don't know that we'll ever recover.
But Saturday afternoon, in a town five hours away, Rev. Dr. John B. Hulst was commemorated in a warm and lively celebration of life, a wonderful ceremony honoring a wonderful man, and a sermon was offered--thoughtfully, beautifully--by a woman. She told us that while she hadn't know him long, she was impressed by the fact that in his later years he seemed clearly to grow.
Some would disagree mightily. The old weight-room antagonists no longer rise with the sun to get their exercise at the gym, so I don't really know what they're saying; and all of this is not at all about politics.
But I thought that woman's part in the commemoration was blessed, not only because of how beautifully and comfortingly she said what she did, how she celebrated his life, but also because of how her saying it from the pulpit of that church finished an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.
An old friend of mine used to say that sanctification is a myth because most old people he knew were grumpy and bitter, frightened, less capable of living in the bright and open air of God's bountiful grace.
Not John Hulst. If I'm right, that explains why he suggested to me that leaving the college he'd served throughout his life might well have been what God wanted. That explains how it was a woman preacher, a friend, who did his homily.
This is what I'm thankful for this morning--that John Hulst didn't get worn or fearful or bitter.
This morning especially I'd like to think that's true because yesterday was my own 65th birthday.