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.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Land of Goshen IV



And now, finally, the funeral. It's taken a while. Writing in the first person, as I did here, generally risks being way too talkative, at least it does with me. I'm sort of embarrassed to say that we're finally getting to the precipitating incident of this whole, long story--the sermon. But we are.  

As former colleague whose father was a pastor told me, long ago, that his favorite services were funerals because a parson almost always had full attention, or at least as much attention as he (back then only he) would ever get. "I just read the word," he told his daughter, my friend. "That's all you need to do."  

His favorite, he said, was Psalm 90, one of the greatest poems in the English language, methinks. That's why it appears here.


II

Jeff Heerema, is a youthful thirty-five; he's a late-sixties type who spent half his life being altruistic-first the Peace Corps, then several years in a hospital for kids with emotional problems-before taking on the ministry. He grew up in a manse himself, but he claims he fought the call to the ministry with a raised fist for a nearly a decade. He says he finally left the hospital and went to the seminary because he grew so tired of trying to work on symptoms that eventually he became confi­dent that God was telling him to retool and go for the disease itself. I've been around the Calvinists long enough to know the language-disease means sin. What he meant is that the best way of handling the emotional problems wrought by broken homes is by wrestling pride itself to the canvas.

Goshen was his first charge, even though there are no broken homes around. It's a record people are proud of. I've been a member of the church council long enough to know that there have been more than a few indiscretions, but divorce is unheard of, for the most part, because the price one pays is simply too high. Where such heavy pressure to stay together exists, the real problems, quite literally, go away-that is, families in significant crises simply pick up stakes and move to Sioux Falls or Denver or Phoenix, where the divorce occurs, out of sight, at least, if not out of mind. Thus, Goshen stays clean.

Heerema began his ministry in Goshen with the objective of minister­ing straight for the sinful heart; what my wife's family felt at the funeral was an outsider with an education going for the jugular. Heerema grew up in Michigan, in a time when a preacher was still looked upon like Moses the law-giver, just descended from the mountain with an arm­ful of God-ordained truths; and he came to the Plains full of righteous passion, and found Aaron and the Israelites dancing around a golden calf-which is the perfect image for Goshen's kind of idolatry. But understanding Heerema is easier than that; simply, Heerema still has a rookie's zeal. I remember teaching with the same kind of emotion.

What he never understood was that in a little church like Goshen, the power battles have been fought long ago and will never be forgot­ten. Today Goshen doesn't want a Jeremiah; all they want is someone to perform their religious rites, a witch doctor maybe, a voodoo man—someone to baptize their children and dole out the bread and the wine, someone who can deliver sermons that harmonize with their own sense of truth.

Heerema operated under the mistaken notion that he could change things in Goshen, when the natives needed him only to perform their tribal rituals. I don't want to misstate all of this. Maybe I'm getting too sarcastic. I've been "in-but-not-of" the land of Goshen for so long that sometimes its strengths and weaknesses become indistinguishable. My own wife is so thoroughly "Goshen," that she hasn't a clue what I mean when I tell her she is.

And perhaps I'm overstating the case. What I'm trying to explain is why Heerema said what he did at Julia's father's funeral. If you under­stand the man himself, what he said was consistent with his own ap­proach to the problems of life itself. And if you can see that, you'll ac­cept his explanation. His sermon was in no sense at all vindictive.

The church was packed, of course, full of family, friends, and enemies. Even if some folks hated the very ground Beagle worked, they would show up to see him off. It was a matter of common courtesy.

At the family meditation downstairs before the service, Heerema was soft and loving, empathetic and gracious, meek in a New Testament way. Herm, Julia's oldest brother, sat next to his mother, who had balled-up handkerchiefs in either hand but wasn't crying. She spent most of her life in silence. It took me ten years to understand that she wasn't a vic­tim, some caricature farm wife with no power outside of the kitchen. Silence was her power and her witness, her means of illustrating to her children that her husband's way, all shoulders and elbows, demanded a counterpoint. At our fifth anniversary, she took both my hands when we were alone for a minute in the kitchen. "I'm so happy that Julia got you," she said. That's all. I've always thought that there are only X-number of words in her, which means that everything she says is carefully measured.

The rest of the boys—John, Adrian, and Randall—followed down the row with their wives and the little kids. Behind the kids sat the older grandchildren, and the aunts and uncles and cousins, anyone who counted themselves among the Branderhorst clan, even those who had fallen from grace. Uncle Pete was there from South Dakota. Thirty years ago he had left Goshen because he couldn't compete with his brother Earl. Beagle never hated his brother really, he just wrote him off for the lack of bite in his blood. They never talked again that I know of. Of course, Pete had a bad back. "You can't trust nobody with a bad back," Beagle used to say.

But downstairs in the church, Pastor Heerema didn't say anything the family didn't expect, so everything went smoothly. "We have confidence in the Lord's promises," he said. What he did was leave the door wide open for Beagle's salvation. He didn't try to judge that way, because he knows what he can't know. What the family doesn't remember was that Heerema never once said that Earl Branderhorst wasn't saved, not even when he got upstairs for the funeral sermon.

Downstairs his words had the traditional ring of a Calvinist eulogy, and the boys sat there approving, as if what he said were the patter of soft rain in mid-July, the time the corn gets thirsty enough to whisper in the wind. Upstairs, the public filed in solemnly, Earl's own favorite organist playing through familiar hymns that came through the floor as if the whole church was a wood-framed speaker.

But everything changed upstairs. My point is that he spoke the truth, no matter what anybody says. The Beagle was my father-in-law, and I think it's fair of me to say that no one knows his strengths and weaknesses as well as I do, not even his own flesh-and-blood-perhaps least of all his children. He was a loving father, a handsome provider, a grandfather my own children will forever remember fondly. But he was a bigot and a chiseler, a man who knew the law so well he could turn it with a flourish to his own advantage. He despised weakness, scorned the powerless, and never forgot-or forgave-those who trespassed against him. He was a giant of compassion to those he loved; a despot and a crook to those for whom he had no regard. Everything Heerema said that day was true.

"Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations. Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God."

He took his text from Psalm 90. Traditionally, funeral sermons stick tenaciously to the text. Comfort is the antidote to grief, and to Goshen people nothing brings comfort like the Word itself.

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