Essay

Tests

By September 4, 2020 8 Comments

“It was a test,” he told me, after pulling me aside. “It’s a story I thought you’d like, a story I wanted to tell you.” We were in the den, a couple rooms away from the jabbering coming the family reunion that had arisen around the visit of our distinguished relatives from California.

My uncle was an accomplished academic, a Ph.D. in chemistry, who had worked on the Manhattan Project during the war, then moved into administration to eventually become a Christian college president. He’d carried himself with sophistication that distinguished him from anyone else in the family, even though he was born and reared just down the road. He was a proper old gentleman now, retired already for some time. He took me aside because he knew his nephew liked stories and even wrote them. We were out of earshot of the rest of the tribe so he didn’t seem particularly furtive, nor should he have been. 

“This was way back when I was courting your Aunt Trudy,” he said.

Let’s give his story an approximate date: maybe 1935, give or take a year. 

“Your grandpa told your Aunt Trudy that he believed it might be nice if her suitor–that’s me–would accompany the family to Winona Lake, to some Bible conference–lots of singing and speakers, a rambunctious bunch of believers for a staid Christian Reformed preacher like your grandpa.” From his chair across from the front window, he clearly held back a smile. I was sitting on the piano bench. “Jim, you know, maybe, something about Winona Lake?” he asked.

I did. My parents took the family to Winona Lake once when I was a boy. Some extended family went along, including a couple of cousins my age, all of us Christian Reformed children of warm and pious parents. We knew what it was like to feel “power in the blood.” Like our dads, all of whom were vets, we loved singing “Onward Christian Soldiers”–that’s number 449 in the old hymnal.

But what happened under the tent that weekend was unlike anything we’d ever seen or experienced. Scrambled end punctuation on the stemwinder’s every sentence rose from those wooden chairs in a chaotic chorus so goofy that we doubled up with laughter. “Hallelujah!” some crazy just down the row would yell, and we’d try to hold it in, which only made it worse. 

“Grandpa Schaap?” I said. “My grandpa the preacher, went to Winona Lake with the family?” I said.

“And me with,” he said. He was trying to tell it straight, but a smile undercut his resolve. “It was a test,” he said, and he was serious. “That’s what it was–it was a test.” He shook his head. “Your Grandpa Schaap never asked me a thing about that weekend, didn’t talk about it on the way home even, and it never came up in any conversation thereafter.” He shrugged his shoulders. “It was a test.”

“And you passed?” I said.

He shrugged his shoulders, chuckled a bit. “I married his daughter,” he said. A wink.

Uncle Roger was raised in the Reformed Church, six miles away in another wooden shoe village named Cedar Grove. What’s more, he’d gone to Hope College, not Calvin. But the test wasn’t a denominational thing. Grandpa himself had gone to Hope. It was a bigger test.

“Your grandpa never brought it up, and for years it seemed to me to be something of a puzzle. Why did he want me along?”  Broad smile. Huge smile. “It was a test,” he said, and then, “I should get back to the other room.” He bounced his wrist on his knee. “I told myself that Jim would like that story,” he said.  

What Grandpa wanted to find in his upward-bound son-in-law to-be was a certain largess of character. What he wanted to feel in him was tolerance, grace really.

Uncle Roger was right about the story. It stuck with me so fast that forty years after he told me, I’m telling you right now. It came back to me when I was reading Steve’s Tuesday piece about “concentric rings of purity” and his own “tangled relationship with evangelicals.”

And then, too, Michael Sandel’s essay in yesterday’s NY Times. It’s a Jeremiad on “disdain for the less educated” as “the last acceptable prejudice.” The piece did more than suggest how hard it is to get along. And then once again this morning with Kate’s confession of near hopelessness–like my own–on the state of the world and the church within. What the heck is wrong with other people?

It’s a chore, as sweaty as it is impossible, to fight the pride that did-in Adam and Eve. It’s the battle of a lifetime.

Kent Haruf’s warm-hearted Benediction features the life and death of an ordinary man who ran the local hardware store. But a subplot concerns the ministry of a pastor sent to the ignominy of dusty eastern Colorado because behind him too many apple carts are lying on their sides. 

It doesn’t take long before the pastor has offended the locals, and all hell breaks loose when he preaches a sermon on the Beatitudes. I read that novel when it came out and was put off by the unlikelihood of a preacher getting bushwhacked–for preaching the Beatitudes? Give me a break. How could that happen?

But since that book came out seven years ago, I’ve changed my tune. What the Beatitudes promise–“blessed are the peacemakers”–is simply not possible because even when I might want to be a peacemaker, I don’t have it in me. I think it’s a test.

A sign just outside of town these days, a sign I pass daily, rips open my chest because even though little witty moralism weighs in at only a sentence, it outs the pride in my heart.

Here it is.

I try to think of it this way: it’s a test.

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.

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