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James Calvin Schaap

The Professor's Death Song

What wasn't said at the funeral.

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Psalm 121

The Lord Is Thy Keeper

1 I will lift up my eyes unto the hills.
From whence cometh my strength?

2 My help cometh from the Lord,
which made heaven and earth.

3 He will not suffer thy foot to be moved:
he that keepeth thee will not slumber.

4 Behold, he that keepeth Israel
shall neither slumber nor sleep.

5 The Lord is thy keeper:
the Lord is thy shade upon thy right hand.

6 The sun shall not smite thee by day,
nor the moon by night.

7 The Lord shall preserve thee from all evil:
he shall preserve thy soul.

8 The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in
from this time forth, and even for evermore.

A little over a year ago, a one-time colleague of mine died, although I can't say I knew him well. He was older than I am, much older, and his tenure at the college where I teach had ended many years earlier. The psalm he wanted read at his funeral was 121; had he been Lakota and not Dutch American, we might say he chose Psalm 121 as his death song.

The preacher was retired, a fill-in, he told us. Chicago born-and-reared, he spoke in a clipped, Windy City-slicker accent that seemed the wrong pitch for a vastly empty sanctuary out on the Plains. The church's real pastor was in Hawaii, where the rest of us should have been, the temperature outside somewhere close to 20 below.

Because there was nowhere else to look, I felt like this pastor's wife: I wanted to run up to the front, lick my fingers, and plaster down a rooster tail that, all funeral long, had him resembling Alfalfa from the old gray-tone movie vignettes. He seemed somehow wrong for the job, but then so much was. By his own admission, the preacher had only known the deceased for five years. I couldn't help wondering how much he didn't know.

What was most remarkable was what wasn't said, what couldn't be, or shouldn't. A funeral simply wasn't the time to flesh out the story printed on the memorial program. (In this man's life the devil was, without a doubt, in the details.) I suppose even in my telling there are things that still cannot be spoken in that church, no matter that the funeral is long past.

But then, had the preacher mentioned that the old man had suffered immensely during his lifetime, none of the few who gathered would have been surprised; most, I'm sure, knew the story. His back-breaking burdens didn't need to be recounted to friends and certainly not to family. Still, that none of that difficult life was even mentioned seemed, to me at least, somehow remarkable, turning the event into something of a parody of itself.

That parody had begun with the notice of the professor's death a week before, an email note from the college president, who typed "passing of pioneer" in the subject line. His note began with the news, but went on to say this:

As this first generation of faculty pass away, may we remember with gratitude to God their contributions and leadership in laying a foundation for the strength and vigor that Dordt College enjoys today as a quality Reformed Christian institution of higher education. Please join in giving thanks for the blessings of his life and pray as well for the peace of Christ to be experienced by his family at this time.

Nothing of what that news offered wasn't true, but such scant note of the man's incredible story made the cynic in me—the writer—shake my head at the near absurdity of remembering, simply, that the deceased was one of the institution's pioneers.

Once upon a time I picked him up off the sidewalk, picked him up literally after he had fallen—I didn't see how. It was clear he couldn't get back on his feet by himself. His trusty black labrador sat at his side as he had been trained to do. The professor was a big man—6'4" or 6'5", well over 250 pounds—and there he was, nearing eighty years old, sitting in the grass just off the sidewalk across the street from our house. I had to introduce myself because he'd already gone blind by that time; but once he heard my voice, he knew who I was. I got him in our car and took him home, then called the secretary of the church to advise her that it might be prudent to send someone to his house—he lived alone, a widower—because he seemed quite unsettled after the fall. I thought I'd done what I could.

He knew me because occasionally, long ago, I used to visit him in the office of the bookstore he ran, a place out of the way of almost anyone, not to mention the bookstore which he, by administrative fiat, was designated to run. In truth, the store's authority was a hard-working woman whose curse it was—as it sometimes still is for women in evangelical circles—to have to deal with less competent male superiors.

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