He Did Something With His Life
My grandpa was born on August 9, 1918. He died last Thursday on April 12, 2012. His funeral, which I have the privilege to lead, is today.
One of the best parts about writing Just Do Something is that I got to include stories about both my grandfathers. In honor of my Grandpa Van I thought it would be appropriate to forgo Monday Morning Humor today and reprint what I wrote about him in Just Do Something back in 2009. Fittingly, the chapter is entitled “The End of the Matter.”
I have two living grandparents—both old Dutch men with sharp minds, strong wills, and a full head of white hair. Peter DeYoung is my dad’s dad. I’ve mentioned him a few times already. Menser Vanden Heuvel is my mom’s dad. He was born in 1918 in a small farming community outside of Zeeland, Michigan. He was one of nine children and, from what I gather, did not suffer fools gladly. As a young boy, after a friend and he were being picked on, Grandpa Van told his friend, “If they start something tonight, I’m going to knock the tar out of the younger guy and when he’s down, you hold him down.” When I think of my Grandpa Van now, I think of how proud he is that I’m a pastor and how warmly he smiles at all his grandkids and great-grandkids. But I’ve known him long enough to imagine that back in the day you probably didn’t mess around with Menser.
Grandpa Van didn’t go to school past the eighth grade, but he never stopped learning, and he certainly never stopped working hard. By age 12, at the beginning of the Great Depression, he was splitting time on the farm and at a machinery shop in town, where he was paid in bundles of green firewood. (Grandpa has always had a knack for mechanics and fixing things, a trait that landed squarely with my cousins more than me or any of my siblings.) At sixteen or seventeen, he and a buddy went to wait in line for work at American Seating Company in Grand Rapids. They waited through the morning and afternoon, only to hear, “Sorry, nothing today.” So they came back the next day, and the next, and the next. Finally, the foreman said, “If these two want to work that bad, let’s put them on.” So they got a full time job building church furniture during the Great Depression for the princely wage of forty cents an hour. “We were rich,” Grandpa told me.
Within a few years, Grandpa owned and operated several service stations in town. He was only twenty or twenty-one at the time—the age most “kids” today are still playing video games, sneaking off to parties, and trying to “find” themselves. In talking with my Grandpa about his life, I asked whether he wrestled with God’s will, or remembered waiting for a sense of direction in taking so much initiative in life as a young man. “No,” he said, “I felt like God was waiting for me to get involved.” I wonder how many of us are just the opposite – waiting for God to tell us what to do rather than assuming He’s waiting for us to go out and be obedient.
Grandpa Van was thinking specifically about Christian Endeavor (CE), the cutting edge youth program of the day. Grandpa felt called to work with the young people in CE. The only problem was he belonged to the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) and CE was a program in the local Reformed Church in America (RCA) congregation. Now, to most outsiders, these two denominations seem almost indistinguishable, but if you’ve ever lived in West Michigan or Northwest Iowa or any other Dutch enclave, you would know that the CRC and RCA are siblings separated by a common history. They are kissing cousins that have never kissed and made up. So when my grandpa told his CRC elders that he wanted to work with the RCA-sponsored Christian Endeavor, they let him have it (I’ll take his word for it). No CRC boy had any business collaborating with the RCA. They pointed fingers, read him the riot act, and did a masterful job of ticking him off. So Grandpa stood up straight and spoke right to their faces: “And I suppose that you have a special corner in heaven just for the Christian Reformed.” And that’s how my Grandpa became an RCA man. He’s told me the story of getting kicked out of the CRC more than any other story I remember from him. And he always tells it with a bit of a smile. I should add that after more than sixty-five years away, he’s now happily rejoined the CRC, going to a fine church that sits just behind his suburban condo.
Grandpa married a wonderful Lutheran woman named Mildred from northern Michigan in 1941 and got drafted less than a year later. He left for Fort Custer in Battle Creek. There he was examined to see which branch of the armed forces suited him best. He had never even seen the inside of a high school, but “God’s will carried me through those exams and put me in the Air Force, which is what I wanted all along.” Because he had been in the National Guard for three years, Grandpa was put in charge of the drill at basic training. He eventually wound up in the South Pacific, working on B-29s and taking heavy fire from the Japanese. When he came back to Michigan and Mildred in 1945, he went to Grand Rapids to be an airplane mechanic. But he needed a civilian license. So he maneuvered his way into college – quite a trick since he had never been to high school – passed some classes and got his necessary credentials. Several years later, Grandpa started his own airfreight business, which he owned and operated for over twenty years, and made a pretty nice living doing it. Through it all, he raised three kids and stayed very active in the church—teaching high school Sunday School, having the youth over for hay rides, and even working with a Japanese ministry later in life.
At some point in the story, I’m not sure when, he got twenty acres outside of Battle Creek in exchange for a plane he had fixed up. Then he got twenty more acres and another twenty, until he had enough to start farming and get into the cattle business. As he accumulated more land, he would dredge up the swampland and sell the soil. The whole marshy lowland became a man-made lake dug out by my grandpa and his trusty crane.
He always made sure I had some good work to do when I visited during the summer—hauling rocks from the peat, helping to plant a few trees, and standing by scared stiff as my grandpa killed an occasional snapping turtle that threatened his swans. (In my memory I actually participated in the heroic deeds of turtle carnage, but according to my brother and grandpa, my contribution was more akin to tiptoeing away backwards and crying like a little girl.)
He lost Grandma to heart trouble in 1990 and remarried a year later.
Not long ago I asked my Grandpa, “Is there anything you think younger generations of Christians have lost that your generation understood.”
“Oh yes,” he said quietly.
“Like what, Grandpa?”
He thought for a moment. When he opened his mouth, he didn’t answer the question directly, but I got his point, and it was good one. “I started with nothing,” he stated. “What right did I have to hope for all these things that fell into place? Hard work, sure, but I know it was from God.”
Compared with my affluent, lazy, trivial, tinkering generation, my grandpa would be a remarkable man, except that so many from his generation seem to have been so remarkable. He had his faults to be sure, but my Grandpa Van, like most of the WWII crowd, certainly did something rather than nothing. He worked hard, took chances, showed constant initiative, and, by his own account, lived a pretty fulfilled life – all without searching desperately for fulfillment. He prayed, but didn’t hyper-spiritualize his every move. He had several different jobs, but never in hopes of finding the next best thing.
More importantly, growing up in the Depression, he expected little from life, so when he got little he wasn’t surprised, and when he got a lot, he chalked it up to God’s doing, not his. I sense from talking to my grandpa that he labored hard at everything except trying to discern some mysterious, hidden will of direction from God. Not that he didn’t believe in God’s providence. Far from it. But the providence he believed in helped him take chances instead of taking breaks. And now that his life is almost done, it helps him trace God’s hand of blessing over nine decades gone by and trust the Lord for whatever years lay ahead.
That’s Grandpa’s life in God. And that’s how it should be for the Christian: active in the present, grateful for the past, and hopeful for the future.