He said what he did twenty years ago, when we were young—or so it seems today, even though pushing fifty didn’t seem so youthful then. If you think him a heretic, keep a forgiving heart. Some theological statute of limitations is in order, and he probably said what he did on one of those days when the classroom turned echo chamber—lights on, nobody’s home.
“I think sanctification is a myth,” he mumbled, this good Calvinist, a Reformed true-blue Neo-Kuyperian. The rest of us laughed, although his mock-seriousness betrayed some resolve. “Listen,” he said to any member of our department within ear range, “just about every old man I know is a grouch.”
It was the kind of hasty generalization for which he’d have deducted points were he grading a student essay. We didn’t climb all over him, but then grace abounds in an English department after a long, hard day.
Truth be told, he was growing older himself, as was I, as are all of us.
But that heretical notion stuck with me, in part because the proof seemed incontrovertible: just about every old guy I knew was noticeably cantankerous. What was worse, I could feel myself growing more crotchety through the years, morphing into Walter Matthau. Sanctification?—bah, humbug.
Now stay with me here. I’m aging and given to hopeless wandering, but there is some method here.
Just about then, as I remember, technology was racing into a new world. I bought my first digital camera on e-bay for waaaaaaaay too much money, but I couldn’t pass it up because digital photography promised free pictures-no more negatives, no more Kodak. I wanted to be another Ansel Adams, and why not? If an infinite number of monkeys snap photographs on an infinite number of digital Nikons, one of those pics is going to catch Yosemite like the master, right?
I want to shoot pictures, I told myself; and these days it’s not going to cost me a thing.
Besides, doing landscape photography out here in Siouxland seemed a challenge. Most emigrants—as I was—take one look at the excrement-rich agricultural paradise we live in and turn away. I grew up on the western shore of Lake Michigan, surrounded by hardwoods that make October a kaleidoscope, sunrises perfectly divine.
What, pray tell, does Siouxland offer for wilderness? Endless rows of corn followed with six months of “farch” over flat earth and sky. You just can’t do landscape photography in an armpit. So what if the place grows great corn? Want beauty? Leave. You know the argument.
I started into landscape photography because I thought I couldn’t. Beauty here? Where?
But I also wanted to believe in sanctification, wanted to believe that I didn’t have to evolve into an old turdism, that I could walk up the paths of righteousness and avoid the surliness seniors come heir to. I wanted to prove my heretical colleague wrong, and I hoped the what wild stuff I could find outside of town could do it somehow—if I could actually get something worth seeing in my camera.
One Saturday morning I went out to Broken Kettle Grassland, not far from the confluence of the Big Sioux and Missouri Rivers. I got up in the dark, drove west to Hawarden, south on Highway 12 to a gravel road I knew ascended one of those northern-most, muscular Loess Hills. And there I sat, like some Yankton warrior of old, looking west, waiting to watch the way the dawn spreads its sorcery over yawning flatland running out as far as I could see.
My first big safari turned into something of a failure photographically. See for yourself.
But the vivid story of that first morning is the sun’s Midas touch sweeping over the big blue stem beneath my feet. It was incredible. Nothing like it. In an instant, the earth bronzed with a heavenly patina. The whole world glowed. I felt Moses-like at a burning earth.
What this aging, over-the-hill-er learned that morning was that I didn’t have to hunt beauty, that it wasn’t up to me to find it. I simply had to sit still and let it find me. I had to learn how to see.
So, call me sanctified.
Here’s what I shot last Sunday.
Still no Ansel Adams, but there’s a bit more here. Pure Iowa.
After retiring from Dordt, my wife and I built a house—no, not with our hands. I wish I could claim such skills, but if I grab a chisel my wife frets. I watched as others built our house and was struck, time and time again, by how hard they worked—masons, framers, roofers, insulators, plumbers, electricians, insulators, painters, not to mention the general contractor. They all worked like nailers– power nailers, mind you, not rubber mallets.
But then, we’re in Siouxland. I shouldn’t have been surprised. Here we are in the heart of legacy Calvinism, and Calvinism’s great gift to Western culture is capitalism, right? I should not have been stunned by the industry of the tradesmen and women because in this square inch of God’s kingdom industriousness may be closer to Godliness than cleanliness. My word, those people worked hard, blessedly hard.
Which put me in mind of my own forty-year classroom career. Dordt College profs worked more and harder than any profs I ever knew in graduate school. We’re at the office in the morning and there all day. Most of my grad profs rarely showed up, even for office hours. What’s more, for most of my life in the classroom, I spent much of the night before going over the next day’s assignments or reading endless papers. We’re Siouxlanders, for better or for worse, and we’re Calvinists, true and tested. The whole state envies our work ethic because we do work here. We really do.
Now listen to me. Some cultures deeply respect their elderly. They listen when the old fogies see visions or dream dreams or whatever our lot is. Age bestows wisdom that needs to be respected; we’re sanctified, right?
You don’t have to take off for Hawarden every other Saturday morning, but I’d just like to mention that finding beauty in wild things is a gift photography gave me. It’s a wonder I hadn’t learned that lesson before because I should have known that all work and no play makes Jim a dull boy-not to mention a sinner. But hey, I was born and reared a Calvinist. What’s your excuse?
Sanctification, says the Shorter Catechism, “is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man, after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.”
My colleague’s jeremiad two decades ago was not wrong. Sometimes sanctification looks like a hoax.
When it does, Wendell Berry says it’s time to rest with the wild things. If you don’t believe me, listen to him.
The Peace of Wild Things
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
“In the grace of world” and sanctified.