Toe the Mark

by Don Wierenga
October, 2001

We are what we learn to be. No, we have the genes of our parents and and ancestors so we must be like them. Someone told me we are what we eat! God created us so we are like Him or at least He lives within us . . . so the church says. Or are we all of the above plus much more and perfectly unique. Well, not perfectly.

Sometimes one can gain comfort by looking back and being thankful that the issues our ancestors thought to be important are in the past and can be forgotten. O.K., maybe learned, or should have learned, from them. On the other hand comfort can also be drawn from understanding that the basic quests of all generations are the same. The really big questions are the same, and in reality have no answer. Enter faith: trust in God and all will be well, says my Christian belief. Maybe in the end, but not always in everyday life. Answers become personal and can only be found within. With this realization comes freedom,

My grandfather died before I was born but it was very clear in my mind that when we went to Glen Lake we were not to swim on Sunday. He set the rule and it was to be passed down. The first generation, my parents, respected and upheld that tradition and since radio was now upon us, added no listening to Tiger baseball on Sunday. The second generation (me) respected the wisdom of our parents and grandparents, but went swimming at nearby Lake Michigan where we wouldn’t be detected (often finding cousins doing the same thing). We allowed not only listening but watching baseball on Sunday. But drew the line at riding a bike and playing golf. The third generation (my children) respected their parents, loved their grandparents but had trouble understanding this Sunday thing (and a lot of church doctrine, as well.) They accepted Sunday as a family day. The next generation, (my grandchildren) respect their ancestors but wonder what all the fuss was about and set out to make sense in their own way of their own world. The life and death issue is there, but will be dealt with later.

My grandfather in the last hours of his life wrote a letter to his son John, a missionary living in China.

“The thought has often come to me in my healthy days that if I was to be called home -where would I stand? Because while I was well my mind was on earthly things, I had a deeply religious feeling all the time, but when the hour of parting would come I hardly know, but trusted that I would be saved only through grace, that when I looked down at myself I fell so short of the mark, which every Christian does.”

As I read those words it occurred to me; “Yes that is true. We have all fallen short including non-Christians, but especially non-Christians? And fallen short of what?”

He makes the point again:

“I always felt that I did not toe the mark, that I fell far short, therefore my dear son I wish you God’s Blessing, and trust in him to the end and all will be well.”

I wonder if “Toe the mark” had something to do with swimming on Sunday. Perhaps failing to live to the accepted standard set by his church, and that he is hoping his son will be more successful. What does it mean “To fall short?”

Two months after his fathers death, on Nov. 15, 1929 John the eldest son had a tribute to his father published in “The Banner,” a Christian Reformed Church publication: (
Photo; Left Baldwin, Nettie, Melvin, John)

As a lad I accompanied father to church. Rev Berkhof (who had just recently been appointed professor at the seminary and apparent preached on occasion at his church) drove up back of a spotted pony. Father touched me on the shoulder--I can recall it as though it were yesterday--pointed to the distinguished preacher, and with respect, yes even awe and reverence in his voice said to me: Look John, there is Dominie Berkhof. He is going to be a professor at our school. He said it in exactly the same tone of voice he would have used had he been pointing out the president of the United States. The attitude revealed in this and similar instances always made us feel that the College and Seminary belonged to the bigger and finer issues of life and were those worthy of respect and support.

Just what are those “bigger and finer issues of life?’” Are answers to be found in the church, its creeds? Did Dominie Berkhof have the answers.

He goes on to talk about the many “Humble members of our churches who have served their generation nobly and well. They do not do the spectacular things, but they do the things that need to be done nevertheless.”

At a family funeral I had a conversation with my cousin Baldwin, John’s eldest son. We were discussing my recent retirement, and what I was going to do with the rest of my life. I was thinking new career, making more money. -- I can recall it as though it were yesterday--he put his hand on my shoulder . . . “It’s about service, Don, nothing more, just service”

So, has “Falling short, and “Not toeing the mark” filtered through three generations come to have more to do with 'service' than the words of Dominie Berkhof and our church leaders of today? Is it a sign that we are letting go of dogma, shucking off do’s and dont’s and searching for the answer in a new place. Like within ourselves.

I perceive “Toeing the mark” as a threat. Toe the mark of else . . . you can expect a dire consequence. If you rob the bank you will go to jail. If you don’t study you will fail. If you sin you will go to hell. Just toe the mark, go to church, keep your nose clean and all will be well. Simple and straight forward. But it just doesn’t work that way. Robbers get rich and don’t go to jail, students fail a class and become CEO’s. Christians and others sin, but don't go to hell . . . at least I don't think they do.

From all accounts my grandfather lived a Godly life. He was a man with exceptional carving skills. His work ethic was beyond reproach. He fathered and supported 12 (13?) children. He served his church and community. He said he had “a deeply religious feeling all the time” and I believe him. He also expressed regret that his life was not lived as well as he had wanted. I wonder what it was that caused him to believe he had fallen short? I think we all seek a “Religious feeling.” I catch a glimpse of it once in a while . . . more frequently as I grow older. Often it happens in very ordinary ways . . a sunset, watching birds, walking my dog, giving away something I have crafted, helping a total stranger. Some would argue that that is not religion. . . it’s something we all do, but I think it’s what my grandpa had in mind. I think it’s called being born again . . . and again and again. How else could he (or we) experience God? I have an idea. Nowhere in his letter did grandpa express love for John or his family. He did say he wished “I could see you once more or get a last handshake.” Could it be that though he was surrounded by love and obviously loved his family, that he just didn’t know how to express it? I wonder if he understood that God is love and expressing God is expressing love. My dad was much the same way. I know he loved me, but I don’t remember him telling me that. My mother certainly understood love in the purest Dekorne tradition. She died when I was nine. I don’t remember her ever telling me either. I tell my kids I love them every chance I get.

My religion is now defined in a much broader and practical way. Freedom is a big part of It. It’s about getting rid of all that stuff, all that baggage I’ve been toting these years. Freedom to find God within. It has everything to do with living a “good” life, what ever that means, and not much to do with defending a theological (or political) position. It has everything to do with universal acceptance and nothing to do with separation and exclusiveness and cousin Baldy was right: “It’s about service Don, nothing more, just service.” Simple.

My grandfather concluded his letter. “And now I say goodbye. Goodbye to John, to Nettie, to Baldwin and to Melvin, and grant that our lives have not been in vain, and that they may follow up (namely the boys) in the footsteps of their father, and now I would like to be relieved, am so tired, I am so tired,

from your dying Father.”

I never knew my grandpa, I wish I had. I wish even more, knowing what I know, how he and my parents would want to live their lives in 2001.