I’m quite sure I didn’t leave them an option. I sent them off on a Saturday afternoon for a performance of Purpaleanie, a stage play put together by a friend of mine, Verne Meyer, based on the book of the same name by another friend, Stan Wiersma. Years before, when the play and the book were hot stuff, Purpaleanie had scored big-time with me and most everyone I knew. I loved it.
Our kids were maybe ten years or so out of college by then, and Dordt was celebrating its fiftieth birthday by staging of a bold and endearing CRC classic. Our children and their cousins from out-of-town went off to the play together–at my insistence, I’m sure.
They came back grim, unmoved. “I didn’t really get it,” my daughter said. She winced, as if fearing her father’s displeasure.
Wiersma would not have been surprised, I suppose. After all, the poems in that book put evaluative questions of what is real and what is phony front-and-center and ask his readers to decide questions he may well not have wanted to answer himself, questions that probe differences between “the old way,” “the new way,” and “the right way,” a genre of questions we still ask and assess and likely always will.
My kids came home a bit ashamed of their boredom–and probably of their father.
It’s Good Friday, but I can’t help thinking today of one of those Wiersma tales, a long one with a cumbersome title: “That Stone on Five Easters: 1946, 1947, 1954, 1969, ????”
Sietze, our hero, takes lessons from a feisty organist from the American Reformed Church, where she plays “The Hallelujah Chorus” on Easter morning, followed by “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.” Sietze’s Middleburg CRC insists on the old stiff and cumbersome Psalm 118. She suggests that when he gets to be church organist, he put a stop to playing that dreary old psalm on Easter. “Your preacher is well-meaning,” she says, “just not quite with it about Easter music.”
A year later, Sietze is at the church organ, so he does as his teacher instructed, tells his preacher they should worship in English on Easter, just so he can play and they can sing the lively “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.”
Dominie loses it with peculiarly CRC orthodoxy: “She is an ex-Calvinist who has given up her Calvinism for provincial reasons,” he says, of the teacher, at which she rages back a few days later during Sietze’s lesson: “You Christian Reformed people all think you’re God-on-wheels.” What’s more, she says the preacher is “a pharisaical whited sepulcher.” She tells Sietze he should get a new organ teacher, “and tell your pastor that as for him and his congregation, they can all sit on tacks.” That meme I’m sure went viral.
That takes care of the first two years in the long title of the poem. The third, 1954, puts Sietze in a military uniform playing the organ for an Easter service at a chapel in still-occupied Japan. Half a world away from the old dominee, he gets to play the forceful and triumphant “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” but when he looks around, no one is singing but the choir. A sad and shallow commitment he’d never felt before had simply brushed off seriousness in that Easter worship. Woefully, he admits he “felt nostalgia for Middleburg as I’ve never felt it, where a dwindling congregation would be singing ‘De Steen Die door de tempelbouwers,'” Psalm 118.
That leaves only the last year of the title, 1969. Sietze is in the Netherlands now, at Easter, looking forward to singing Psalm 118 with truly traditional endearment, the way it was always sung at home in Middleburg. Instead, the opening hymn is–well, you guessed it–“Christ the Lord is Risen Today.”
But that’s not the end of the poem.
My parents used to think Sietze Buning’s Banner poetry carried a smidgeon too much spotten, that he was too obviously making fun of the old ways. The old ways, to them, were, well, not sacred but just about, mind you. They read Sietze faithfully, but occasionally clicked their tongues, at times repeatedly.
But Stan Wiersma poetic sins reach far beyond spotten in this seven-page saga, when he leaves the long final section in the Dutch language and provides, startlingly, no translation, no hint at what the Dutch preacher, a real dominee, told Sietze when Sietze lets him know that he had been looking forward to hearing Psalm 118 at real Dutch Easter Service.
If you have to, run the whole speech through Google translation sometime–it’s worth it. The dominee raises a finger, it seems, and, in typical Dutch fashion, gets in Sietze’s face, telling him that wanting Psalm 118 at Easter is nothing but nostalgia on his part. It’s not principle, not at all.
If you read the Dutch, you come to understand that the dominee is missing an eye. He had been arrested, Sietze tells us, during the Nazi occupation, imprisoned by the SS. In those years of his absence, with no clear sense of her husband’s return, his wife turned to drinking. That’s all explained in the Dutch language. You’ve got to figure meaning out for yourself.
But what Sietze takes away from coffee with the dominee that morning at the Leidseplein is that, given the preacher’s war experience, his deep and personal suffering during the occupation, Sietze’s longing for the old ways in Middleburg was, really, as the dominee has said, not principle at all but a big slug of warm-hearted nostalgia. That’s all.
That having been said, the last line of the entire seven-pager, in Dutch, is the dominee’s own concession. “Personally,” he admits, “I like Psalm 118.” It’s a sweet and touching moment in what, for some time, seems a comic-book.
Yesterday, our children sent a video of their four-year-old at day-care. They were having an easter egg hunt, and Olivia was having a ball, carrying a bag to take home all the loot, running around, like all the others, retrieving what she could. She’s a sweetie. Trust me. Easter eggs.
I remember Good Fridays when I was a boy. Our church was downtown back then, and what I’ll never forget is the ghost sense of the day because everything was closed, noon to three–grocery stores, meat market, Knotty Pine, Grandpa’s Mobil station–it was all shut down. “For the hours when Jesus was on the cross,” my mom explained. The whole town shut down.
Nostalgia, I guess. Not principle. Maybe. Hence that row of “????” in the title.
I don’t need to say, I suppose, that unlike my kids, I get it. Fifteen years later each of them with their own kids? –my guess is today they do too.
And here, this Holy Week, for Easter and Sietze and a Middleburg church that is no more, is just three minutes of Psalm 118.