Tuesday, April 12, 2016

lasting impressions and do-overs

Is it possible to retire from retirement? Last week my grandparents moved from their retirement home in the mountains to a retirement facility just one block away from my childhood home. This time it's for real -- downsizing, purging, relinquishing memories and positioning themselves closer to medical care, meals, and household assistance.

This move to Denver brings my grandparents back into the orbit of those who made such a mark on my childhood. Men and women who filled the pews on Sunday morning, and whose names filled the address book we kept by the phone. Our perpetual problem was that address books never allowed enough pages for the letter "V": VanderVeen, Vermeer, Veenstra, Verstraate, VanderHorst, VanHeukelem, Van Stelle, Vander Ploeg, Van Dusseldorp, and on it went. We managed to surround ourselves almost entirely with other Dutch families -- our Christian Reformed Church, the Christian school started by CRC families where my brother and I attended, the businesses run by CRC families, and even Dutch neighbors who, like us, had settled close to all these things.

We lived just 4 doors down from Third CRC. Stepping out the front door in the morning, we could see the brick corner of the church, with windows to the nursery where we began our childhood (and the mural our mom painted of Noah's Ark), the library where we filled our arms with Christian books, Sunday school rooms, and the consistory room where Dad participate in deacon's meetings and where I sat nervously at the big oval council table, being interviewed by a dozen men in suits before my public profession of faith. Now the men and women who used to shake our hands and pat our heads shuffle down hallways one block to the East, in that brick building that was once new, heading to meals, their frames bent and their skin too loose. Among them is our pastor from so long ago. My grandparents are their newest neighbors.

I remember Reverend Kok as tall and broad, with a booming voice. I knocked on his door once, hands trembling and gasping for breath. I had run to the parsonage with an urgent confession. While playing in the church yard mid-week, as we often did, I had broken a basement window. Looking back, I would like to give Reverend Kok a "do-over." What he ought to have said was, "Don't be afraid, Carmen. It can be fixed. It took a lot of courage to come tell me the truth. Thank you for your honesty. Well done. This mistake doesn't define you, your integrity does." What he really said was, "I hope you have plenty of money in your piggy bank." This terrified me. He didn't intend to be mean, but by the time my 10 year old feet had pounded the pavement all the way to my house almost a block away, I was a mess. The tears burst and I blubbered my confession to Dad, who told me not to worry. He could fix it, and I didn't need to pay for it. After that we didn't skateboard on the wheelchair ramp any more.

Two other memories of Reverend Kok cast him in a different light. The first showed his insecurity, perhaps. I don't remember the context of his sermon, but I remember him suggesting that none of us young people would want to become pastors when we grew up. It was almost a rhetorical question, I think. "None of you wants to be like me when you grow up. (Right?)" He meant that we probably didn't want to go into pastoral ministry. Unbidden, and without any hesitation an unspoken response welled up inside me. "Oh, but I do!" I'm not sure that I thought it was actually possible. After all, I was a little girl, not a little boy, so pastoral ministry was not an option. But I couldn't think of anything more wonderful to do with my life. Reverend Kok represented the pinnacle of vocational excellence to me. I'll never forget his angst the Sunday after televangelist Jimmy Swaggart was caught with a prostitute (mostly I remember it because he said the word "butt" from the pulpit, as in, "today we [Christians] are the butt of every joke." I still feel the shock of hearing that, almost 30 years later.).

But my favorite memory begins one Sunday morning when I was distracted during the sermon, studying the maps in the back of the pew Bibles, because they were the only pictures available. It was a New Testament map that grabbed my attention -- a New Testament map that included the city of Jericho. My little brain couldn't quite wrap itself around that one. Didn't the walls fall down? Wasn't it destroyed? At the end of the service all the grown ups filed out of the sanctuary, shaking Rev Kok's hand. I carried the pew Bible along with me, open to the map, and planted myself right beside him. Craning my little neck (I told you he was tall!), I asked if I could ask him a question. His attention divided, he kept shaking hands and nodding at folks while he listened to my question about Jericho. Then he gave me an answer I didn't expect. "I don't know, but I'll try to find out."

The next Sunday I waited impatiently until the end of the sermon. I filed out with everyone else and planted myself beside him again, intensely curious. When there were no more hands to shake he turned to me. "Well, I looked at a book on Jericho this big [here he held out a bent finger and thumb probably 3 inches apart, thoroughly impressing me], and here's what I learned. After Jericho was destroyed, it wasn't supposed to be rebuilt, but somebody did it anyway. He lost both of his sons for disobeying God, but the city has been there ever since." (See 1 Kings 16:34 for the story)

I went away with a full heart and a dawning appreciation for biblical scholarship. Rev. Kok had taken me seriously. My questions mattered. And they had answers. There were books full of them.

I wonder how instrumental that conversation was in setting me on the trajectory that led me to Wheaton. My insatiable fascination with the Bible has only grown with time. What if Rev. Kok had waved me aside and told me my question was silly? Where would I be?

My Dad spoke with Rev. Kok last week, when my grandparents were signing papers on their new apartment. Rev. Kok wanted to know if I was still a good Calvinist. (I've forgiven Dad for lying in response, as he was answering the more important question that Rev. Kok ought to have asked.) I'd like to give Rev. Kok a do-over when I make it to Denver to see my grandparents in their new home. I'd like to hear him ask, "Do you still love Jesus? Are you walking faithfully with him?" For that, my answer is a resounding "YES!"

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