The Night Grandpa Dirkse Came Back

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.

—Hebrews 12:1

Sunday night we sang one of those old hymns in a worship service, and suddenly it was as if my grandfather had stepped out of that cloud of witnesses to sing those precious words. As if he stood before me, heartily singing out with the whole congregation on “My God, How Wonderful Thou Art,” a hymn my grandma once told me was among his all-time favorites.

I didn’t know my Grandpa Dirkse all that well—he died of a heart attack when I was nine years old. My earliest memories place him in a blacksmith shop at the very heart of his hometown and mine: Oostburg, Wisconsin. I remember the dark, smoky interior, the eerie light of the flickering flames, the rhythmic ring of his hammer on that immovable anvil.

Grandpa was a respected man, an elder in his church. The church in those days seems to have been little more than extended family. Native folks are given to call good friends “brother,” and that same kind of intimacy seasons small-town churches like the one I grew up in. It’s an intimacy that can be immensely caring—and occasionally almost toxic in self-righteousness. And sometimes both at the same time.

My grandfather was “spiritual” in an old Calvinist sense—he simply didn’t take his own redemption lightly. He was, instead, clamorous about sin and had a melancholy penchant for talking about the darkness of his own heart, to the point of tears. He was gifted at something my mother calls “talking spiritual.” Historians might say he was deeply affected by the nineteenth-century Romantic pietism of his immigrant roots, his parents and grandparents who likely met in small groups where they could and did go on and on about their sins and miseries
—and God’s abundant grace.

Grandpa Dirkse was a blacksmith, sturdy and stumpy, with powerful arms. When farm horses disappeared from the scene, his business morphed into the care of the new medium of work and transportation—trucks and automobiles. Right at the heart of the village stood Dirkse Service Station, pumping Mobil gas. Way in the back of the garage, a calendar featuring scantily-clad women never failed to catch my eye. I remember not being able to square that calendar with my deeply religious grandfather. Who knows?—his leaving it there may have been my introduction to the maze we call “the human condition.”

But what brought Grandpa back last Sunday night, seemingly right into our midst, was “My God, How Wonderful Thou Art.” Just for a moment he returned to the sanctuary to sing an old favorite by Frederick Faber (1849) that includes a verse about “penitential tears:”

O how I fear thee, living God,
with deepest, tenderest fears,
and worship thee with trembling hope
and penitential tears!

Honestly, I think Grandpa knew “trembling hope” and “tenderest fears” in ways that I don’t. If the stories about him hold true, there must have been times in his life, times he likely loved, when he wept “penitential tears”—because penitence was a passion with him.

But I carry some of Grandpa’s DNA. I’ve got his physicality; and somehow I know, I recognize in my heart, something of his fervent spirituality. I am his grandson. And somewhere, as I write these very words, he’s singing.

Two beautiful renditions of “My God, How Wonderful” are available on YouTube, but neither has any “penitential tears.” I think I know why. How many of us these days talk about fear, or, more so, about tender fears or trembling hope? I don’t often worship the Lord with tears.

That’s what I thought about when Grandpa suddenly showed up Sunday night, way out here in Iowa, a day’s travel away from the heart of the village he loved. He was dressed in his suit, not that sweaty gray tee I remember from the blacksmith shop, or the Mobil shirt he wore later on. Once the music stopped, he was gone.

But then, I suppose, he’s never all that far away. Not really.

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