Remodelling: How tearing down the church brought comfort to Carl Westenberg

When Carl Westenberg drove up to the church on Friday afternoon, he deliberately backed his truck up onto the sidewalk that led to what was once the west entrance. He told his wife he’d backed it in because he wanted everybody to see the bumper sticker his grandkids had picked up for him for his birthday—“I’d rather be fishin’,” it said, but he wouldn’t have dared to say it aloud because the work was being done for such a good cause.

That’s what the council had said to him. He told Nan their exact words: “We think the congregation should take a hand in our remodeling project—a hand, not just a wallet. We think there’s work our people should be able to do—maybe it’s grunt work, but if the people put their hands on bricks, they’ll take ownership.”

So they’d asked him to supervise the volunteer crews, not only because he was retired (and he had nothing to do but fish, they said, chuckling); but also because he’d worked construction most of his life. “You know the whole works, inside and out, Carl,” they’d said. “You could knock this church down yourself and build it up again.” Odd ring to that, he’d thought then.

What he knew very well was that most builders disliked knocking things down, because taking out walls, ripping the place apart brick by brick wasn’t a builder’s idea of a good time. Besides, he hated supervising—always did, always would. The last thing he wanted to do was supervise a work crew of volunteers with baby-soft hands, and that’s what he’d get—teachers and other such—and all of them gung-ho.

The real purpose was not work exactly but fellowship, the council told him, something he thought worked a whole lot better over coffee and punch after worship. They wanted him to build up the congregation as they tore down the church. He told Nan they should have hired another preacher if they wanted fellowship. Good people, after all, didn’t always make good workers.

Not that the work had been all bad. Some nights he’d come out to talk to Nan and tell her he actually enjoyed himself. Once, when they were ripping out the flooring, someone broke out with “How Firm a Foundation,” a song they hadn’t sung in church for a decade. Those who knew the words came in with harmony that rang so brightly through the place that it seemed for a moment to be a real sanctuary instead of a dirty mess.

But that was the exception, because you can’t get hard work done and grow in the Lord at the same time, he told his wife when he visited her. If OSHA people had come around, they’d have shut down the whole enterprise for a list of violations as long as your arm, he told her. He’d seen people send their kids into corners while others were up on scaffolding, ripping out walls, brick halves falling willy-nilly, and not a hard hat to be seen. Illegal as all get out.

And sometimes it got to be a contest. Men whose hands hadn’t seen a callous in thirty years kept their backs to the flooring all night long, got themselves in some macho heat just to be sure everybody knew they were still worth a bucket of sweaty righteousness. One night he’d started to shut things down a full half hour before he could get the last hammer to shut up. Nobody wanted to be the first to quit, he told her. Just like a bunch of little kids, he said, the only difference being how sore they were going to be the next day, when, of course, only their wives would hear them bellyache.

He himself spent most of the day wishing his wife would talk back to his own bellyaching. When the consistory had asked him to supervise the project, no one knew about Nan’s cancer. That was late November, and nobody could have guessed Nan would get the news she did just after Christmas and be gone by Easter. Once it was over, he’d got to thinking that nobody knew exactly what he’d been through either, losing the love of his life so quick and so final.

Every night he visited her out at the cemetery. He knew people would think him looney if he made it a practice for too long, but it was the only way he felt he could talk to her, even though he knew her soul was long gone and seated in some upfront chair in the heavenly choir, because that woman could sing. Good night, how she could sing! And she’d have a perfect voice now, he’d tell himself.

“If you were around, Nan, it’d help me a lot,” he’d tell her after dark out there on the cemetery lawn. But he didn’t tell her about the anger that sometimes welled up in him during the day when he’d have to get soup or spread himself a sandwich without her. Anger. Real anger—because he loved her so much that he couldn’t help being spiteful about the way she’d up and left him alone so fast. The truth was—and he wouldn’t have told anyone this either—sometimes he really wondered whether he cared to live without her. That’s why it helped to go out there in the darkness and the wet grass.

Fishing helped him through some tough times too. He and his buddies would hook up the boat and get themselves out on the lake in the mornings and just troll through the weed beds picking up bass and pan fish, now and then a walleye. “I’d rather be fishin’,” that bumper sticker said. He told Nan how he’d poked it right up in the face of his ragtag work crew on Friday night, hoping somebody would read it and realize that he was paying a price for supervising this army of do-gooders.

That same Friday night they’d been working around the old entrance, ripping an overhang of masonry put up maybe forty years ago, the last time the church was remodeled. When he drove up about four in the afternoon, three construction guys were on a lift, blasting away at that overhang with jackhammers and cement drills, while that night’s volunteer gang was already starting to pick up the mess—right underneath. Any minute, any one of them could have caught a chunk of something on the noggin and been carted off to emergency or worse. He knew the crew understood that much, but he also knew they weren’t about to say a thing because they didn’t need the extra hassle.

It was Ed Silverhorn, professor of something or other, who’d come up to him first, pointing at the construction guys, who were coated in dusty sweat and blasting away at the stubborn front overhang. “Miserable chunk of stuff,” Silverhorn told him. “Can’t believe how tough it is. What we could use here is a well-placed tornado.” He said it loud enough so they all could have a good laugh.

Carl hadn’t been in the mood for that kind of joke. It reminded him of that day a half century ago when a twister came through and took out the neighbor’s place, and it was he who had found their little girl.

“Tornado,” Carl said to Nan that night. “We sure don’t need a tornado. What we need is something to knock down that church lickety-split so nobody gets hurt, and I don’t go completely nuts.” He rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand. “What we need is something to wreck that church in a night so that the crew can come along and build it right up again.”

Right out there in the cemetery, something popped into his mind, and he started fishing. “Bring it down and raise it again,” he said. It was in the Bible somewhere, Jesus’ own words. “Where was that verse, Nan?” he said. “You always knew the Word better than I did. Was it after the water-into-wine thing?” He tried to remember.

And then it came to him. It was after he threw out the gamblers and such, wasn’t it? Sure it was—the Lord got himself in a righteous fit and tossed over the tables like some western sheriff. Then the words came back to him whole. “Destroy this temple, and I’ll raise it again in three days.” He liked the sound of it.

They asked him who gave him authority to clean the place up, and that’s what he said—“Destroy this temple, and in three days I’ll build it back up.” It came back clear as anything. They didn’t understand, did they? Because it wasn’t the building he was talking about at all—it was his body.

Carl looked down at Nan’s grave, his cap in his hand, the break in the sod still visible, even in darkness, and he remembered that she wasn’t there either—not really, that her tomb was empty. They could break the Lord Jesus up with automatic drills and nail him to a post, and he’d come alive again—that’s exactly what he meant.

And so would Nan, all that horrible cancer gone in an Easter magic trick.

“And he did it too,” he told Nan, “just like he promised. He sure enough got the job done.” And then he got to thinking about her. “And you too—he did it on you too, didn’t he?—and it didn’t even take three days. Boom, just like that.”

A light wind cut through the junipers, almost like a whisper that he wished badly were the sound of her voice. He poked at the corners of both eyes.

The miracle was a real live body—even a body full of cancer, he thought. The real miracle was taking this house of flesh—bones that ached every morning when he got up, muscles that tightened no matter if the toughest work he’d done all day was getting the boat in and out of the shed. The real miracle was remodeling himself—and them.

“Someday I’ll be coming up too, you know. In the middle of all that singing, just don’t forget who you left behind.” The very thought of that reunion was almost too good. “I got a miracle coming too, don’t I?” he told her. “I’m going to get myself remodeled,” he said. “So when I come, you remember that I get the first dance.”

He wondered whether there would be dancing in heaven.

And at that moment he knew, even though he never heard her voice, that she was smiling. There’s things that don’t have to be said when you’re married, he told himself.

It was almost too good, the idea of their reunion in remodeled bodies. But right now he had to leave, and he knew it, even though he wanted to stay there forever, up there on the hill with what she’d left behind. But you don’t just quit on a job. That he knew too.

So when he left, the stones in the cemetery shining like bright faces in the glare of the truck’s headlights, he wheeled back to church. It was dark, but he pulled up in front the right way, not tail-end first, and he got out of the truck because he had to figure out what had to be done tomorrow, because tomorrow would be Saturday and he could figure on a ton of volunteers with soft hands and big hearts.

He’d miss a few bass probably, but he had to be ready in the morning. That was the whole thing, about supervising and breaking things down and building them up. A man just had to be ready.

Tomorrow, maybe, right in the middle of it, he thought he just might try to start a chorus of something they all could sing.

James Calvin Schaap (jschaap@dordt.edu) is a writer and professor of English at Dordt College, Sioux Center, Iowa.