September 29, 2015

I guessed she was in her fifties, but I’m hopelessly American and have no way of judging the years in the face of a Laotian refugee grandma. She was telling me her story, her testimony, conducted through a translator. She would tell me about her life, and I would write the story in a book we were doing, stories of Laotian Christians.

She had come to the moment when she was crossing the Mekong. I had heard enough Laotian stories to know that most of these folks never forgot the time they crossed the river. In fact, I’d decided to title the book Crossing Over because of the might and centrality of that experience, and its metaphoric quality — the Jordan, baptism, a new life in Christ.

She’d crossed alone, she told me, kids in tow in a dinghy that my imagination fashioned to be little more than a balsam banana peel. She spread her arms to show me how long and wide. With this tube full of kids, she waded across, frightened nearly to death to hear the rattle of gunfire. She and her family would have been little more than target practice.

It was late and dark at some unremarkable span of the Mekong, and she was in water sometimes chest-deep. ”I prayed and prayed and prayed,” she told me through the translator, anguish written all over her face.

She made it. They all did.

Respectfully, I then asked her who was she praying to because I couldn’t help wondering who might have been listening. Did Christ deliver her and her family, even if the woman praying was Buddhist and didn’t even know Jesus’s name?

Those kinds of questions form inside of me because of my identity– difficult questions that nonetheless make me me.

Or this story—another.

I’d known him for years, as reverential a man as I could imagine in God’s wondrous world. He knew the grasses around him, felt the touch of seasons as deeply as anyone I knew. The house he built with his own hands was hung with woodcuts from Psalms, some in English, some in his beloved Frisian.

He was brought up in my church and educated in our schools, but during the Great Depression he surrounded himself with politics and ideals of the time and shed the orthodoxy he once idolized in his God-fearing mother.

Was he a Christian? I don’t think he’d have called himself that. In the churches I’ve attended throughout my life he would have had significant trouble professing faith, and the couple dozen novels he wrote suggest no clear answers.

But as he was dying, his belabored breathing prompted his nurse to ask him politely if she could pray with him. He said yes, please.

I felt deeply blessed when that nurse told me the story of that prayer.

My questions about my old novelist friend’s eternal destiny are created, I think, by my identity. I care about such things because of who I am.

Here’s one more story, totally different.

When my darling granddaughter was a third grader in the local Christian school, we were on Main Street for the annual Memorial Day parade when she suddenly stood and faced the opposite direction, going out of her way not to watch the high school band.

“What’s the deal, sweetheart?” I asked her.

“They don’t know Jesus,” she said.

What she wouldn’t watch was the kids from the public school.

It’s impossible for me to imagine any adult ever teaching her that kids down the block who walk to the public school are pagans, but somehow she picked up an us vs. them paradigm I recognized, because once upon a time I’m sure I had it, too. Still do, in fact, although it’s greatly loosened. Still, it’s not difficult for me to become a sheep-and-goats man, because, for better or for worse, making judgments is part and parcel of my identity. It’s what I do, part of who I am.

“What does it mean to be a Christian writer?” For most of my academic life I attempted answers to the foremost question the Board of Trustees required forty years ago when I interviewed for a job. “Go ahead and practice some discernment for us, Mr. Schaap. Tell us, please, what’s good and what isn’t. Show us good critical thinking.”

I am thankful for an education that imparted the importance of discernment. I really am. I spent most of my life in Christian education, a commitment I have never second-guessed, even though sometimes the judgments felt almost eternal in nature.

Maybe that’s why today, a lifetime later, I practice this pervasive element of my identity – judgments – with far less frequency.

Does God Almighty answer the fervent supplication of a nominal Buddhist with her kids in tow as she wades through the Mekong?

I say yes, He does.

Will I meet my novelist friend again someday? I believe I will.

Do those answers make me a universalist, or are they simply a sign of sanctification’s long haul in this sinful soul? Go ahead— think critically. Discernment is part of your identity, too. Make your judgments.

What I know is I take great comfort from what he tells us in his Word, that we’re his handiwork, every one of us, his workmanship. I am and you are no more or less than what he does. And this I know – he’s still working in me.

That’s my identity.

About the Author
  • James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who spent 37 years teaching literature and writing at Dordt. When he retired from Dordt, he pulled up stakes in Sioux Center and pitched his tent north of Alton, where he lives out in the country with a broad backyard of fine Sioux County land. We’re cat people, he says, but can’t help thinking there are dozens of dogs in any nearby shelter who’d love to call their country place home. Who knows?

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  1. Thanks Jim. Your article reminded me of what I think is one of the best things that I read while in seminary and in training for the ministry: “The Crucified One Is Lord: Confessing the Uniqueness of Christ in a Pluralist Society” (https://www2.rca.org/sslpage.aspx?pid=1611) from the Reformed Church in America’s Commission on Theology. I commend it to you and to all those who read your article.

  2. I don’t see it as a question of whether you are a “universalist;” it is a question of whether we think God plays favorites, and in our vain pride and arrogance, do we assume we are specially favored? Do we assume that to be specially favored, others must not be — or worse, that they must be specially disfavored? Do we assume that “we” means people who look, think, and act like us, who pose no threat or challenge to us?

    It used to be that families and nations of European people were held together — and in permanent ethno-religious strife — by this presumptive antipathy for their neighbors, their minorities, and their resident aliens. Probably even the most privileged felt the nagging fear that they too might come to be othered, cast out, rejected, and despised. Surrounded by Christianity so long, still Christ had not penetrated the heart.

    The desire to define family, church and nation in our own image, with our own imagined image of God is a deep and dangerous idolatry. The neighbors and their children who yours turn your back to, they are me and my children, and this is no way for us to live.

  3. Thanks for your comments. I have come to the opinion that most European-based fellowships in this country (and maybe especially in the rural Middle West–one of which mine surely was), tended to manifest similar characteristics, often defining themselves by those who they (thankfully) weren’t. My Dutch Calvinist for-bearers weren’t alone, I’m sure.

    1. I’ve read that our continental European roots explains our difficulty with pluralism. The English common law system the US inherited is about pragmatic solutions to local problems. It doesn’t want to constitutionalize everything and force every decision to harmonize with every other — but we do want that. This tends to erode any possibility of friendship in the community as disputes are maximized and individual cases are ignored. As our fidelity to principle is applied with a rubber stamp to others’ lives we are unfaithful to a savior who reached out to people in a personal way, as individuals.

      We have our legal-ish confessions which make the church an idea and a contract that offers penalties and rewards for breaking or keeping the contract. We say this is also a community of friends and family under God — that is always taking its disputes to court. We imagine God approves, because we see him as the ultimate judge and anchor to the moral order. We try to sell him as good for business and a society where everything runs on time. We don’t give much weight to Jesus’ last instructions to the church, to be united in love because love doesn’t push problems through a legal process to a resolution by the book. We want that resolution. We’re anxious and impatient until we get it. We need to know who is in or out, broke or solvent.

  4. It’s not just how we treat others beyond our social group — it’s how we threaten to other our own with our “we.” “We don’t ______” is reflexive traditional parenting and catechesis, but if we show children that “we” is a very small subset of humanity — the good ones — then we are telling them they had better conform and fit, or else out in the darkness they go with the pagans. You don’t have to lay it on that thick but some do. Looking back many years later, it’s easy to see how different friends and siblings were scared into a life of pantomimed faith, or simply crushed and needed decades of therapy and real grace to heal and grow. But the spirited “rebels” who refused to be abused made real choices and wagers like your novelist friend, and isn’t that really what it is to have, like David, a heart after God? I will not judge, but I will hope…to be surprised.