Still

Relics of a Bygone Era

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.

About the Author

Hank Ottens is a retired orthopedic surgeon and an active gardener, photographer, and singer. He attends Second Christian Reformed Church in Grand Haven, Mich.

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Comments

I fear I may be misinterpreting this article. It's difficult to decide whether the author is simply making observations about a transition from "traditional orthodoxy" to current thinking or embracing this transition. As it's in narrative form, it's hard to pinpoint exactly what Mr. Ottens is trying to say. Whatever the case, the terms selected and the literary characteristics of this article seem to shed a general disdain on "outdated orthodoxy."

It seems that the author views not only the physical manifestations of "traditional orthodoxy" (cassette tapes, etc), but also "traditional orthodoxy" itself as a relic. These two are clouded into one nebulous entity. The word "orthodox" means "right or true belief." So orthodoxy per se cannot be a relic, because truth is timeless. I'm not claiming that traditional theology is purely orthodox, but I think there is more than enough orthodoxy in it to justify discarding it on a whim, just as the author seems to have a sudden resolve to be rid of the cassettes.

I apologize if I've morphed the intent or meaining of this article. If this is advocating a wholesale rejection of the rich tradition from which we've arisen, I'm disheartened. If it's simply a narrative asking probing questions about our relationship to our theological heritage, I think those are questions worth asking. How do you interpret this article? Perhaps even Mr. Ottens himself would be willing to offer some clarification.

My prayer, even if not my expectation, is that this article is not intending to advocate the discarding of the church's rich theological traditions but merely reflecting on the extent to which this may already be occurring. Either way, I am saddened.

I would suggest that these are indeed reflections of grace -- a grace to his family. Appropriate for some preacher's bookcase? Ah, no. In very human terms, these belong on his bookcase. The hand that pens the sermon title was the same hand that ran the farm and first guided him as he learned to walk.

Behind it lies another story: what does one do with one's life? This was a retirement spent in keeping the mind alive, a retirement spent in caring for others, a retirment spent in a pursuit of godliness; it is  the shape of that fidelity as much as its content that is remarkable and worthy of marking. I would have kept the tapes if only as a reminder that there is more to life than travel and gardening.

First alerted to this article in the social media, I figured I needed to at least browse its contents- indeed just "popping the lid" intrigued me.  Mr. Ottens states an interesting case and the image he presents in the article while a "mirror of himself," also reflect what we see as we gaze into the looking glass called the CRCNA.  No, I am not shocked or incensed with denominational rage over his reflection, actually I find it quite interesting- hey a folks, the “kitchen table” as the editor now calls this magazine, is surrounded by its own "seekers" as we slide back and forth from it and live our lives!  Look at the results of the most recent Synods- in many ways the remnants of 150 years of heritage have been "bagged" for a new approach and where the contents have been “slid or been deposited” remains for your imagination.  We as a denomination have been rolling up the carpet and repainting the walls of this windmill at least since the 60s- so Ottens is not too far off!  However, what we see as a church today still has life- albeit somewhat different.  I embrace and imagine quite a few outside the "donut hole" of our nucleus- whether that be GR or its immediate area, a heritage that includes the past neatly wrapped in what is the best of the present.  So thanks Mr. Ottens, or "doc" shall we call you; when I went to college we had a place called "Doc's" that we could grab a "bud and talk"- for you have indeed got us thinking.  Whether you wrote an article intended to be sarcasm, reflective, or prophetic, you indeed accomplished a stirring up of the "souls" of your readers- if not putting them on their "soles" headed for the door.

Or, this wonderfully evocative piece is offered because it is so hard for us to discard icons of things we hold precious.  What is truly precious remains.  But each generation must find its own voice.  To continue trying to communicate the precious faith through timeworn phrases and formulas--no matter how much they may have been revered by our fathers, mothers, and grandparents--does not honor either our relatives who passed the articles of faith to us, or the timeless faith itself.

I appreciated this look into the connection between faith, orthodoxy, family ties, the changing of times and technology, and the personal questions about how then must we live.  I did not find myself wondering whether the author was trying to throw orthodoxy or the present circumstances in the organized church into question.  I allowed myself to be swept along with his train of consciousness - and how these and similar themes play out in my life as I try to give witness to a timeless faith that is housed in my aging, but hopefully not irrelevant vessel.

I found this piece of story-telling engaging and evocative.  Thanks to the author for sharing!

 

Dear friends -- I'm not a member of the CRC, but of a large, mainline Protestant denomination, not of the Reformed tradition, far from GR. Please forgive my presumption in commenting, but I was moved to do so.

 
This piece has provoked some interesting discussion. Some of my sadness about this topic stems from my hobby as a family historian who reveres old objects more than I should, but some is also from a deeper place and not mere sentimentality. I was drawn to Reformed theology through family history research and found in it a unique voice that gave me strength. It was a crashing disappointment to learn how far the tradition had eroded, even in the CRC. My disappointment was eclipsed by a conviction that a sovereign God is in control of the church -- a comfort that, ironically, would not have been as readily available to me had I not engaged in some study of the Reformed tradition.

 
Sometimes the treasures closest to us are the hardest to see. I don't embrace every belief of the 19th century CRC -- not by a long way -- but my plea to today's church, in its good and inevitable march forward, is that it not forget to save the good and perfect things, that it take care not to absolutize and revere above all else the present day, which is but a blip in history, and that it honor the special role of its heritage in the long sweep of God's plan for and story with His people. Maybe the writer of this engaging article and I are not so far apart on that. Thanks for hearing me out.
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