From the Heart
by Don Wierenga
Reflecting on his youth. Dick recounted his early years when each week he was required to memorize passages from the catechism. In those days Instruction in religious doctrines and beliefs was primarily the responsibility of parents The church provided more formal instruction in what he and I remember as catechism class. The class consisted almost entirely of recitations from a book that summarized the basic beliefs of Christianity in a question-and-answer form. He went on to become a noted scholar and theologian. A man who fully understood both the questions and the answers. I never understood the questions, let alone the answers.
I remember my catechism book. It was a thin pamphlet with a dull brown cover. It was given to me at my first catechism class. Having my own book helped me feel grown up. I could even write my name in it, something unheard of with other books I had read. The answers, I was told, to all of the important questions of life, would be found in this little booklet. I thought it must be something like the Bible and wondered why we needed to read such a thick book with its strange language and unpronounceable names, when we had all the answers right here in front of us. I doubted that I would ever understand the Bible, but I just might be able to handle this. Then I realized they expected us to memorize all this stuff.
My catechism book was soon lost. The only good part of catechism class became the night before. My friend, who still had his book, would come over to help me study. If we put in enough time we were allowed to listen (on the radio) to the Lone Ranger. Sitting together in a large over-stuffed chair, listening to the drama unfold, I became faithful Tonto, who didn’t speak good English and would probably also have a hard time learning the catechism.
Over the years Dick and I ran parallel courses searching for ways to validate a religion that seemed to pit the head against the heart. For example, how were we to believe a literal interpretation of the biblical creation story when science kept producing evidence that life has evolved over millions of year? He even searched for answers to the “big” question, the meaning of life and death, in light of what was going on in the world around him. I bumbled on, trying to keep the big question from surfacing too frequently, striving to maintain the status quo.
Sitting in the pew of his church week after week I found myself starting to pay attention. Rather than counting the pipes in the organ, or trying to figure out how they got those beams in place a hundred years ago without a crane, I began to understand what he was saying. He often spoke of his early years, growing up in a loving family where religion meant the Christian religion, and the only pathway to the eternal . . . not unlike my own upbringing. How he excelled at giving the right answers as he sailed through college and seminary and on into his first, and only, ministry . . . a small congregation in a small mid-west community. (we differ here, I seldom had the right answers, and struggled to ge through college. How he was moving from a safe, traditional and conservative perspective, toward freedom to discover a new religion,or perhaps a new meaning for an old religion. Was I becoming a liberal? The thought scared me. I taught kids, built houses and tried not to think about religion.
Dick is tall, rather handsome with premature gray hair that had slid from the top of his head and settled into huge sideburns attached to a full beard. He didn’t knot his tie in the conventional way, in fact he didn’t knot it all. Just looped it over once, as if he were in a hurry. I remember police officers used to do it that way. He started wearing a robe when he preached, I think to avoid having to wear a tie. He still doesn’t wear ties. . ever. The congregation soon sensed his restless spirit and sent him on a sabbatical to the Netherlands, the land of his ancestors who came to America looking for more freedom of expression. There he came into contact with a learned scholar and theologian who would profoundly change the course of his ministry. A man who raised even more questions and had even fewer answers. They became life long friends and challenged each other to think deeper about the eternal. I continued pushing the traditional, expecting my children to learn the catechism, obey the no riding bikes on Sunday rule . . all the things I had failed miserably at in my own adolescence. My explanations and defenses were lame and usually based on what I had been taught and had nothing to do with how I felt. My parental role was to simply pass this tradition on to them in hopes they would someday be able to attach feelings and make better sense of it than I did. Storm clouds were gathering.
Dick returned to a broken marriage, but also to a supportive congregation. His new ministry had begun. Sensing acceptance by his congregation, he plunged into his work. Soon the church was bulging with new faces. Three morning services could not handle the growing flock and so a beautiful new sanctuary was built. I found comfort in not needing to answer questions. He taught me that you don’t need to memorize answers, just speak from the heart. He had the uncanny ability to stand in the middle of the stage and give an extemporaneous sermon without any notes. Once I went to all three services, and while the sermon topic was the same, I felt I received a different message each time. He was speaking from the heart. I began to see flashes of where this ministry was heading. It felt comfortable. He lived just a few houses down and we became good friends. He wasn’t much good at working with his hands, and I didn’t understand theology so we helped each other. Over the years he put on some weight and seemed to tire easily. I suggested he start jogging with me, that delivering a sermon without a pulpit to lean upon required a person to be in peak physical health. The next Sunday he produced a bar stool to sit on, and has been using it ever since.
People were coming from different walks of life and various religious backgrounds. Inside each of us, something was brewing. His marvelous intellect and clear teaching style produced far more questions than answers. But that was his objective. Together we began to wonder if this God that had always been the focal point of our lives, just might also be the God of Jews and Muslims, in fact, of all of us. Jesus often went out of his way, he would say, to explain to his followers that his Kingdom was not of this world but could only be found within the heart of the believer. Dick felt that same yearning and suspected that I and many others did as well.
The storm clouds were thickening. He had a family, needed a paycheck and worried that this kind of thinking just might not fly in conservative Western Michigan. I knew it would not fly in my circle of friends and certainly not with my family.
I really wanted to talk with them about these matters, but found if I challenged their answers there really wasn’t much to talk about. For example, a minister should stand behind the pulpit, symbolic of preaching from the infallible word of God and uphold the dogma and acceptable creeds upon which the church was built. I was searching for something different, a feeling that would somehow make my life better. I was impressed with someone like Dick who could speak from the heart and the head. Religion, I discovered, was not about being right, it was about being good. I would no longer argue religion, I would try to do good.
When Dick failed to give the prescribed answers his candidacy for a position at the theological seminary hit a roadblock and his drem of becoming a resident theologian came to an end. His views of an inclusive God, the giver of unconditional love and gracious acceptance irrespective of race gender, economic status, age . . . or sexual orientation, caught the attention of the church hierarchy. Eventually it led to sanctions and separation from the denomination that had been the heritage of his family and the source of spiritual direction for over 50 years. Some of his parishioners also left.
In a way I think it was fortunate that I couldn’t learn the catechism.
After the initial euphoria of getting my free book, I discovered there were no pictures and I was expected to memorize answers to questions I didn’t understand. I couldn’t even memorize answers to questions I did understand. I recall in the fifth grade being told that if I wanted to pass, I would need to memorize names (including middle) of all the presidents of the United States. I resigned myself to being a fifth grader for ever. So, never being good at reflecting the right answer, I always had to make up my own, hoping it would come close to being correct or at least acceptable. I was beginning to experience freedom.
Often, my dad’s catechism book, worn and coffee stained, was read for devotions after the evening meal. Questions were asked and my older siblings would always be able to provide the correct answers. Since I didn’t understand what they were talking about, I asked the first dumb question that came to mind. when it was relevant and they couldn’t produce a satisfactory answer, I began to realize they didn’t have all the answers either. Nevertheless I was thinking. This served me well in later years. When I simply ignored questions, people, especially teachers, became annoyed so I developed the habit of asking what the question meant. After trying to rephrase it several times they would give up and go on to the next person. This worked for a while, but as I grew older I realized if I wanted to avoid that embarrassing silence I would need to say something.
Gradually I learned how to think for myself. I didn’t need to depend on the catechism book, my teachers, even the Bible. Nor did I need to be afraid of giving the wrong answer. Especially to the life and death issue, where there was no wrong answer. I was free. The same feeling Dick had when he was freed from denominational restraints, dogma, doctrine . . all the little systems that kept getting in the way of preaching and teaching from the heart, the very source of his ministry.