Fear and apprehension propel me, like a priest approaching the Ark of the Covenant, toward the cardboard box perched on a wobbly card table. Instead of winged cherubim, faded red letters on the lid hail Budweiser as King of Beers. My sister, having diligently triaged our late father’s earthly debris, had placed the holiest objects in the Budweiser ark and brought it to my kitchen for final disposition. From bottles of Bud to books by Bavinck.
Dad had been a staunch defender of a somewhat cramped version of Calvinism formed by his upbringing in the Gereformeerde Kerk in the Netherlands. Early on, his parents had put the kibosh on his aspirations to ministry; unless he had a distinct call from the Lord, he had a duty to help his father run the farm. But disappointment did not snuff out his enthusiasm for the cause of John Calvin. He read commentaries and wrote essays that he read at men’s society meetings. Dad eloquently argued points of doctrine, articulating and defending each letter of TULIP. He collected cassette tapes of sermons by Dutch dominees and those Christian Reformed ministers who shared his passion. In retirement he pored over black-bound tomes and cobbled together sermons, reading them to the captive audience in a nearby retirement home. He had become a preacher after all.
Now, 10 years after a preacher committed him to the earth from which he came, my sister opens the lid of the cardboard ark. Inside are books, bulky manila envelopes, and, on top, a cigar box veneered with wood and dust in nearly equal proportions. Inside the box are two rows of cassette tapes labeled in Dad’s inimitable handwriting. The labels reflect predictable themes: “The means of grace.” “The broad and narrow ways.” “Predestination: delight or despair.”
My sister calls for a timeout. “We need coffee!” she exclaims. I suggest a Bud might be more appropriate. We agree that peering into the holy box is a paralyzing pastime. As long as we contemplate the remains of past orthodoxy, see Dad’s righteousness in the slanted handwriting on stored sermons on election and reprobation, Sunday observance, worldly amusements, adultery and divorce, we cannot come to a decision.
The brief coffee klatch gets us talking about the new “normal” in church life: praise teams, women clergy, seeker-friendly services, interfaith dialogue, acceptance of divorced and gay members. We put down our coffee cups and get down to business. The ark has become a beer box with relics of a bygone era. Emboldened, we transfer its contents into a black plastic garbage bag. The cigar box with cassette tapes goes in last.
Tomorrow a smelly truck will rumble to our curb. A man in a yellow coverall will jump out, grab the bag, and toss it among the garbage. The truck will roar away to the city landfill and consign outdated orthodoxy a place among the broken bedsprings, naked dolls, and used paperbacks of our throw-away society.
Are these reflections on the means of grace, the Heidelberg Catechism and pious living, no more important than a broken-down hobby horse or a six-pack of empties? Do those old sermon tapes at least deserve a respectful place in a preacher’s bookcase? I don’t know if it really matters. I keep to myself the gnawing ambivalence, twist the bag shut, and drag it to the curb.