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The church where I grew up had no altar, no altar boys, and no priests. It had no wall-size oil painting of Jesus, and certainly no images of Mother Mary. It didn’t look at all like this one. But the hymn these folks are about to sing (you can hear it at the bottom) is, in my mind, just about divine because, with me at least, that old hymn is almost eternal.
Wherever and whenever it’s sung, somewhere it conjures holy memories from somewhere in my soul. My family and I were steadfast and pious church attenders. My parents loved church; they were all-in at Oostburg Christian Reformed. They gave of themselves. My mother sang in the choir–she was a soloist, and my dad was an elder who was also blessed with enough tinkering talent to fix the organ if the organist called Saturday night to say something was foul. By Sunday morning he’d have it humming. He was, as church people might say, a pillar. So was Mom.
They were devout. They believed what the church said and taught. “My dad used to say that if you had doubts, it meant you didn’t, because wrestling with God means you know He’s real” –those were my dad’s words, quoting his dad before him. Once upon a time, the Reverend John C. Schaap, my grandfather, spent 15 years in the Oostburg pulpit. He was, I think, a soft-spoken dominie whose seminary diploma, 1903, in the Dutch language, is rolled up somewhere in this house, along with lots of books that once belonged to him. I have his old beat-up King James and his copy of Kuyper’s Near Unto God.
He opened the Word at Oostburg Christian Reformed Church from mid-Depression until just a few years after the Second World War, a long time. There were five stars in the parsonage window–five kids in the war, and his loving wife died in 1944. I remember my grandfather only faintly, in the shusshing sound my own house slippers make when I walk on the kitchen floor. I I was just a child when he died, but he remains a presence. My dad used to quote him, in reverence, too. “’I’ll be able to tell what kind of father I was by looking at my grandchildren'”–that’s what Dad used to say his father would tell him, a haunting line I’ve never forgotten. That it’s still with me signifies his legacy–as well as my father’s.
Some psalms and hymns will always conjure my boyhood church, especially “Savior, Again to Thy Dear Name We Raise,” not a great one, even somewhat obscure. But I remember it because it came at the end of the Sunday evening worship. We’d stand for the benediction, then sing two verses of “Savior, Again. . .” in harmonies more gracious and beautiful in my memory than they might well have been.
All of that comes back, not because I remember thinking that Sunday worship was finally over, but because I just had the conviction that something good had been done that Sabbath, something worth singing about. I don’t remember ever telling my parents that I wouldn’t or even didn’t want to go to church. Honestly, I don’t remember even thinking that. I certainly wouldn’t have dared to say it, not because it would have meant a fight but because with words like that, I would have darkened my parents’ souls. They loved worship, and I knew it, even then, even when I knew no different. Every Sunday evening, “Savior, Again. . .” That hymn somehow sealed up Sunday worship. When I hear it today, I can’t help realize it’s never left.
Not long ago, the church I grew up in, Oostburg Christian Reformed, celebrated its 150th birthday, no small thing. What began with a thrown-together meeting of a dozen or so contrarians–they were leaving another fellowship behind, after all–has lasted for seven or eight generations. Judged by the numbers, the church I grew up in may be as strong today as it’s ever been.
I was honored to have been asked to speak to them about all of that. The presentation was not a sermon but a history, a personal history because I know best the church where I grew up by way of the chapters of my own experience, stories that include my mother, my father, their parents, and theirs before them, all the way back to the first wooden-shoed immigrants to drift up the lakeshore to Town of Holland, Sheboygan County, Wisconsin, a dozen years or more before the Civil War.
It’s where I grew up, the church that nurtured me, a church my parents loved.
I hope that if members of my family happen to drop by that night—they’re just about all in the cemetery just north of town—if they dropped by, I hope they left feeling proud. I hope that if old Rev. Schaap listened in, standing there amid the cloud of witnesses, he told himself that, judging by his grandson, he wasn’t all that bad a dad.
A week before, I asked if they wanted me to suggest music to go with my presentation, but the selections were already chosen, I was told.
That was fine with me.
Wouldn’t you know it? –they sang “Saviour, Again. . .” anyway, for me I think. In the program, it preceded my little power-point homily, a “parting hymn of praise” at the very beginning of the night. Imagine that. Made no sense.
No matter. To sing it again, then and there, was–dare I say it? —almost divine.