Essay

Blessed Assurance

By March 20, 2020 11 Comments


Years ago, when I was revising a novel, Romey’s Place, I didn’t know how it should end. What I knew when I’d started the major revision was that I was off in a new direction, writing a different story really because I’d been reading Phillip Yancey and Kathleen Norris and came to realize that that story I was writing had more to do with grace than I’d ever imagined. 

That manuscript was ten years old already, had made the rounds to publishers. In the early drafts, the narrator’s father had died while away in Europe, making it impossible for the two of them to talk about differences the narrator couldn’t help but feel. But in this revision I knew I wanted the two of them to have that talk. I didn’t know where it would take place, nor why or how it would turn out, only that something had to be said. Somehow, the protagonist and his father were going to talk to each other in a way they never had.

Right about then, my parents came to Iowa to visit. One Sunday morning we went to church, and that morning’s liturgy included the old hymn “Blessed Assurance.” There I stood, beside my dad, watching him–and hearing him–pour his heart out. I knew right then how the novel would end. The protagonist, now a father himself, understands that his pent-up antagonism doesn’t have to be spilled, doesn’t have to soil his father’s love. So he doesn’t tell his father the story he’d wanted to, doesn’t say it because he’s learned–after all those years–something abiding about grace, a lesson he’d learned from a kid from the other side of the tracks, a kid he hung around with in those turbulent years when they grew up together.

That Sunday morning, my father gave me the denouement of Romey’s Place at the moment we stood there singing “Blessed Assurance.” That moment is the novel’s final scene.

When, years later, Dad died, I told myself that at his funeral I wished we could sing “Blessed Assurance.” I didn’t push that wish on anyone because I couldn’t help feeling that some witches’ brew of motivations was at work: life and art and ego subtly and dangerously mixed. Had I told my sisters I wanted to sing that old  hymn, I would have felt idolatrous, as if my story of my father’s singing was more important than his story, his life–or, for that matter, blessed assurance.

I had no part in planning his funeral. While their brother was on his way to Wisconsin, my sisters created the liturgy. They told me what they were planning once we arrived, and one of the hymns they’d determined to sing, they said, was “Blessed Assurance.” 

My sisters said Mom had claimed her husband’s deep faith was something she’d always admired and even envied; he’d never really doubted God’s love, and she’d marveled at that, she told them, because there were times she did. My mother chose “Blessed Assurance” for reasons all her own.

“Would that choice be okay with you?” my sisters asked me.

Sure, I said. “Yeah, that’s just fine.” They didn’t need an explanation.

So we sang “Blessed Assurance” at my father’s funeral. Doubtless, I will never again sing that hymn without thinking of him. And Mom made sure the first line of that old hymn is right there on his gravestone. 

Part of my inheritance, I think, lies in that same assurance. Like him, for some reason I don’t doubt my Father’s love. Never have–hopefully, never will.

My father never took me hunting, never took me to ball games, never did a whole lot with me really. By today’s standards, he didn’t work at building a relationship, just as in all likelihood his own father hadn’t, a preacher with ten kids mid-Depression. But my father taught me a great deal about this life and the next by his own humbling and blessed assurance.

That’s his story–and mine.

And it’s also our Father’s story, or so it seems to me. Even today, wherever we’re going with this madcap virus or however long it takes to get us to peace, there’s always sufficient blessed assurance to get us there.

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.

11 Comments

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    I connect with this at so many levels. Father, son, assuming reconciliation, accepting the story rather than needing to tell it, and, not least, the way he sang Blessed Assurance, even on his deathbed, and the way we sang it for him a few days later, and I hope they sing it for me.

  • Dale Cooper says:

    Thanks, Jim, for this piece–and thanks be to God for prompting you to write and post it. Having read it, I find my heart echoing your gratitude. For, like you, I too have received the Spirit-sent gift of parents who, by their word and their lives–and for me–sang their “Blessed Assurance.”

  • mstair says:

    “… pent-up antagonism doesn’t have to be spilled, doesn’t have to soil his father’s love.”
    “And it’s also our Father’s story, …”

    And ours.

  • Jan Zuidema says:

    Thanks for a another resonant story. Isn’t it strange, but filled with grace, that so many of our parents did not talk about it with us, nor helicopter our lives, yet passed on a strong faith and a moral compass that we saw in their everyday lives and in their unspoken devotion to the Lord and to those around them. Perhaps a faith lived is just as, or perhaps more important, than a faith spoken.

  • Loren Veldhuizen says:

    Well said, Jim. I had a similar insight when I heard my Dad sing “What a Friend we have in Jesus…” as a teen, questioning everything else in my small world. And we sang it at his funeral.

  • Gary Vander Veen says:

    For me it was my sisters funeral a few years ago. The hymn was “Beams of Heaven as I go”. Here’s the course

    I do not know how long ’twill be,
    nor what the future holds for me,
    but this I know: if Jesus leads me,
    I shall get home someday.

  • Mary Jo Liesch says:

    This gives me a new appreciation of that old hymn. I may put it on my own funeral list!

  • Karl VanDyke says:

    How can anyone settle for just one favorite? I’d like to pick enough good songs to sing for an hour or more. Come to think of it, being sung to heaven sounds pretty good.
    I do agree music has an ability to cut through so many barriers with a few notes and bury them deep in my heart. Thanks, Jim.

  • Thank you for this. My father died 29 years ago, but I still feel his joy and hear his voice when I sing this hymn and “Living for Jesus.” He was a humble country preacher, but his authenticity was as great a message as any he ever preached.

    • Lois Sanchez says:

      I’m Deb’s sister. Remember how many hymns Mom had chosen for her funeral? So many that Paul had to abridge the list. And someone, maybe him, decided to ask the organist to use some of them as part of the music she used for the service. She would have loved the idea of being “sung into heaven!”

  • Lois Sanchez says:

    I’m Deb’s sister. Remember how many hymns Mom had chosen for her funeral? So many that Paul had to abridge the list. And someone, maybe him, decided to ask the organist to use some of them as part of the music she used for the service. She would have loved the idea of being “sung into heaven!”

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