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I’m away today, finishing preparations for next week’s Festival of Faith and Writing. But I’m so privileged to feature a contribution from Nancy J. Knol, who gave this testimony at her church on Easter. I thought her beautiful words deserved a wider audience.

The poet Emily Dickinson concluded one of her poems with these haunting words: “Parting is all we know of Heaven/And all we need of Hell.” Whenever I taught that poem, I spoke about how we were not created for separation—that perhaps the biggest curse of the Fall was the fact that what had been whole had been fragmented, and God no longer “walked in the garden in the cool of the day” with Adam and Eve.

It has often been said that a single, important event has a way of dividing our lives into two categories—before and after. In the case of our family, this important event was most unwelcome—our second child, Adam John was diagnosed with a childhood cancer called “Wilm’s Tumor.” His illness changed our lives dramatically. Life revolved around doctor appointments, surgeries, hospital visits, and desperately trying to find some semblance of “normal” for the sake of Adam and our two other children, Jane and Luke. So a wiggly tooth, or learning to ride a bike, or a trip to the beach or reading a book together became spectacular—far more noteworthy and delightful than they would have been in the absence of the shadow of death. My husband John hoped for a cure—I have to confess that when I heard the word “cancer” I did not expect a happy ending.

In preparing this testimony for Easter, I kept remembering an event that happened two years after Adam’s death. Luke, age 7 was looking for something to do one lazy summer afternoon. His sister, Jane was visiting a friend, and John was working. I was earning a little extra income by proofreading for a local publisher at home. Luke told me he was working on a “big project,” and I couldn’t see it until it was finished. He occasionally raced into the house to get some item of clothing or some old rags, and I could hear the slight “bang” of the toolshed door from time-to-time. When he had finished, he pulled me down the hill to the driveway so that I could look up and get the full effect. He was very proud.

Ah…yes. It was quite a view from below. Perched on the fence, leaning against the house for balance was a smallish figure. He was wearing a grey sweatshirt, navy sweatpants, and old tennis shoes. His head was the tether ball, long ago stuffed away in the toolshed after the rope broke, gently discoloring and deflating over the years of banishment among the cobwebs. Upon his head perched a bright red baseball cap. The hands were stuffed mittens. It was an impressive little person indeed.

What my little son did not realize was that he had spent the afternoon recreating his brother. The clothes were mostly Adam’s, and the baseball cap especially had become a kind of symbol for Adam’s fight with cancer as it covered his bald little head—a head as bald and round as a tether ball. No, Luke was unaware of what he had done, but the rest of us all drew in our breath every time we drove into the driveway and looked up at that drooping, yet somehow stalwart little figure resting against his home, waiting at the gate for us.
Unconsciously, Luke had valiantly worked at resurrection. And this is what we all do, or try to do, in the face of great loss. How do I become whole again, with that big gaping hole in my life? If it is a marriage that has been lost, do I dare try again? If it is a loss of reputation, do I work hard to polish it? If I have hurt my friend, do I try to repair the damage I have done? If I can no longer pray, do I go through the motions of prayer anyway?

And in asking these brave questions, we are wondering—aren’t we?–if our attempts can possibly “make all things new”… Better perhaps, but not new. Only the “big Resurrection,” the Easter Resurrection can do that. But, just as our gathering around this table each and every Sunday is a rehearsal for our gathering at the great feast of God, practicing resurrection this side of heaven is an echo, a shadow, a lower case imitation for that day when, as we are told in I Corinthians “in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye…the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will all be changed…THEN the saying that is written will come true: Death has been swallowed up in victory! Where, O death, is your victory? Where O death is your sting? …Thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

A few lines from Wendell Berry may give voice to how we show the world that we are an Easter people as we wait for that final Resurrection:

Love the Lord. Love the world…
Love someone who does not deserve it…
Ask the questions that have no answers…
Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest…
Listen to carrion—put your ear close,
and hear the faint chattering of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world.
Laugh. Laughter is immeasurable.
Be joyful though you have considered all the facts…
Practice resurrection.

Just moments before his death, Adam regained consciousness. He opened his eyes WIDE and said, “ I see EVERYTHING! I see EVERYTHING!” And we have wondered so often since: What did he see? We will not know until it is our turn to go Home, but I would like to think that Adam saw a garden, glorious and colorful beyond our imagining, and standing in the middle of it– the Tree of Life, and God Himself reaching out his hand to my beloved son, Adam, in the cool of the day.

Jennifer L. Holberg

I am professor and chair of the Calvin University English department, where I have taught a range of courses in literature and composition since 1998. An Army brat, I have come to love my adopted hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m also the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture. My book, Nourishing Narratives: The Power of Story to Shape Our Faith, was published in July 2023 by Intervarsity Press.


  • Diana Walker says:

    Thank you, Nancy, from one who has traveled the same road. Their journey has, indeed, taught us EVERYTHING.

  • Henry Baron says:

    Thank you, Nancy. You made Adam come “alive” in my imagination through Luke’s resurrection creation, and through Adam’s resurrection vision.
    “Practice resurrection” has more meaning for me now.

  • Dave Stravers (Calvin '71) says:

    Thanks Nancy. This is right on in so many ways, a fantastic balance of the “already” and the “not yet” of the kingdom. I am forwarding to family and friends.

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