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, September 22, 2014

The Land of Goshen V

When I read through this section of this long story, I realize I'm talking about a time that's largely come and gone, a time when it was possible--and it happened--that people maintained a relationship to a church even if they actually had little faith and little or no spirituality, when, in fact, "a personal relationship with Jesus Christ" was, well, suspect. 

Institutions of all kinds have taken a hit since then. We all value liberty more than commitments.  I sound like an old man, I guess, but when I read what I'm saying about old man Branderhorst, I wonder if people like him exist anymore. Don't know.

"You turn men back to dust, saying, ‘Return to dust, 0 sons of men. For a thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night.’” 

Today, prairie towns are full of old people. The Branderhorsts have built a kingdom out here, but most families lose their kids; they're ex­ported, often unwillingly, by the scarcity of jobs, and what's left are so many old folks that any new preacher learns funeral homiletics in­side of a year.

"You sweep men away in the sleep of death; they are like the new grass of the morning-though in the morning it springs up new, by even­ing it is dry and withered."

Heerema was unpracticed at funeral preaching. Maybe that inex­perience contributed to what happened. If you stick to the text, there's often no need for application because the Word itself delivers its message with a power that no preacher, not even the greatest of orators, needs to compliment with relevancy.

"We are consumed by your anger and terrified by your indignation. You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence."

With that verse Heerema looked up and into the faces of the people.

He stopped momentarily as if he needed to build up his own courage, and he leaned over the pulpit, his right hand coming up over the front and locking there. "We all know that Earl Branderhorst's life has been full of financial success," he said. "He's supported this congregation generously throughout his lifetime."

One could feel the beaming from the boys down the bench. "We all know that he has a strong family who loved him dearly, a family that will miss his presence, generous as he was in love for them.”

I can't remember the words exactly, but the sermon itself began with that kind of homage, a testimony to the kind of powerful image that Earl had built and maintained in the community. But then things changed.

"But for Earl Branderhorst, life itself was war."

I remember that line because it struck me as perfect.

"The man found himself, throughout life, at odds with his fellow believers, angry, sometimes even belligerent with those with whom he prayed on Sunday, here in this church."

At that moment, my immediate impression was that what he said was inappropriate. I never once doubted its truth or his sincerity, but the truth made me uncomfortable, sitting there with the family.

"He never lacked means to pay for his joy, but as long as I knew the man, he seemed forever seeking true happiness, contentment, the kind of peace that comes with love and forgiveness."
Julia has this way of rocking the baby in church, back and forth, back and forth, her whole upper body swaying against the back of the bench. When I glanced at her just then, she was at it, her face tucked up close to the baby, as if she were whispering something in his ear.

"Earl Branderhorst's life should be a lesson for us—for you and for me, for all of us in this church. Let us come to understand the prison of our own guilt when we can't settle our old scores. Let us see for ourselves the way in which a lack of forgiveness rides each of us, keeps us from the kind of peace we all search for throughout our lives. My prayer is that each of us may feel the heat in our own lives when past sins-our own and those of others-are left to smolder in our souls."

By that time I knew that Heerema would be in trouble. He had never once said a word about Earl Branderhorst's salvation, but what he had done was proclaim the truth and he’d done so publicly. That was the deadliest of his sins. He took his cue from the Word and set my father-in-law's secret sins in the light of Goshen's presence.

“His death is an opportunity to all of us, because it serves to teach us something about ourselves, our motives, and our lives. Earl Branderhorst's life and death is a mirror in which we can see the strife on our own faces, a story in which we can feel our own unburied ani­mosity; a portrait of rock-solid pride that is rooted too deep to admit weakness.”

There's a story about the old Calvinist Jonathan Edwards. When he took the pulpit at his grandfather's church for the first time, he spoke in an almost effeminate way, clutching the sides of the pulpit, his voice strained to reach the corners of Northampton church. But the congrega­tion waited breathlessly for every word. That's exactly the way it was with the folks in the Goshen church. The fact is, the man spoke the truth.

“God is Earl's judge, just as he is ours. God's mercy rises so far beyond our own that we can't but feel humbled at the measure of his grace. But let's use this man's life to change our own. Let us all learn in patience the lifelong task of forgiveness.”

Forgiveness is what I remember, the linchpin between Earl's death and our lives. But I kept thinking then of how they were hearing it, the boys and my own wife. Even at the time, I was measuring the effect of his words in their lives. I thought even then that it was a perfect ser­mon for them. They're hearing what they need to hear, I thought.

"Listen to the words of Moses, the man of God," he said. "'Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”

With that he came back to the text again and ended with the last verses of the Psalm: "May the favor of the Lord our God rest upon us; establish the work of our hands for us-yea, establish the work of our hands.”

He left the text for no more than five minutes, but the sword he wielded for that short time cut to the quick.

Politically, I suppose, Heerema was wrong. But he wasn't thinking politics at that moment. He was speaking in ways he thought, I am sure, to be prophetic. Nothing in what he said wasn't true.

When it was over and the long line of cars headed out to the cemetery for the graveside service, Herm and John didn't even go. Someday they may regret not standing there at the open grave, but I'm sure they'll always blame Heerema for what they didn't do. Around here people say, "The apples don't fall far from the tree."

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