Listen To Article

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.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.

12 Comments

  • Jane brown says:

    I love that song! I usually find it coming to mind as I walk at night watching sunset-
    Just rises out of heart and seems right to sing-
    Such a wonderful memory from childhood in my grandparents church- such a peaceful spirit filled sanctuary and heart as we headed to grandmas home-
    So enjoyed picturing you and congregation singing it

  • Phyllis Palsma says:

    Thanks, James. This brought back comforting memories of Sunday evening worship in my childhood church – First Reformed, Pella, Iowa. Like the Oostburg congregation, we sang two verses after the benediction. We were blessed into the week. Rich memories!

  • Mary Huissen says:

    Oh my, thank you.
    We’re about the same age, and although my home church was across The Lake from yours, everything about your story is familiar to me, including the dominie Grandfather.
    I have such strong memories of my parents harmonizing together on this hymn at the close of the Sunday evening service.
    Even though it may not be the very best hymn, the text and the setting work powerfully together. The words that open the final verse: “Grant us thy peace throughout our earthly life; Our balm in sorrow and our stay in strife…” are a great example of why Martin Luther understood the power of hymns. They become a part of you. The melody helps you remember the words and the words inform and enrich your life.
    Especially today, I’m grateful for the reminder.

  • Andrew Rienstra says:

    Wish I had been there! Have many wonderful memories of that place, people and especially your parents and grandfather!

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Thank you so much for this. There is so much to love in that rich Dutch Calvinist post-immigration experience. I did not have that experience myself, growing up in a black RCA church in Brooklyn NY, but I have learned much about it and I honor it.

  • Fred Mueller says:

    May the children of our congregations have this same potent, lifelong blessing. I have it too from my boyhood church, North and Southampton Reformed Church, Churchville, PA, and godly parents, thanks be to God.

  • Cathy Smith says:

    Oh, thank you for this. I love the church. But I love the CRC fiercely. Maybe even idolatrously. (Grin) Your post, actually all of your writing about the church, captures the “why” so concretely, crystallizing all those inarticulate seminal feelings of loyalty. And I love “Saviour, Again” also …

  • Willa Brown says:

    Thanks for sharing this. I grew up at Newton Zion Reformed Church in Illinois and we often sang this song so it brings back many good memories of my growing-up years.

  • Abigail van der Velde says:

    Your post resonated with me even though I didn’t’ grow up in the church and I’m not of Dutch descent. I married a Dutchman and lived in The Netherlands eight years. While we lived in NL, the old and the new blended together in Dutch history and geography, culture and family life, art and architecture became something like living history. It all intrigued me so much that I became a Dutch history buff and eventually wrote a biographical novel about Abraham Kuyper’s wife Johanna and their eldest daughter Henriette. (P&R Books, 2017).
    In your post, you mentioned Kuyper, so I thought you might be interested in my book that shows his story from his wife and daughter’s POV.

  • Sarah (Schaap) Troxell says:

    Jim,
    What a wonderful tribute to Grandpa Schaap and our Dutch heritage. I only wish I could have known him and Grandma Schaap, but I was born too late. Going to church on Sunday evening was a way of life for our family, too, at the First Reformed Church in Cedar Grove, WI. The service didn’t start until 7:45 so the farmers could do their milking and get to church on time.

    I love those hymns and I wish they were used today. There is a depth of meaning that many contemporary songs do not contain.

  • Gordon Kamps says:

    This hymn was the closing for the evening service of my youth in Rehoboth, NM, CRC.

  • Debra Rienstra says:

    We sang it, too, at Alpine Avenue Christian Reformed in Grand Rapids. Thank you for expressing so effectively my own deep affection for those days. The hymn is right there in my memory, and your post brought it back.

Leave a Reply