By Robert Winslow
Editor’s Note: This short story by my friend Robert Winslow is both beautifully written and deeply theological in its reflections on theodicy and the Reformed tradition. Enjoy!
He came into the church and sat down in a pew, pausing a moment before he recited the prayer by heart: “Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.”
When he had finished, he looked around the sanctuary and then at the altar. Speaking to himself, but not to himself, he said: “I want to raise again my claim pertaining to the loss of three family members. I do this in spite of certain misgivings about filing the suit in the first place. It occurred to me that perhaps it should be a class action suit, but I decided I would be able to control the discussions much more if it were just me making the claim. For me it still is a clear case of breach of contract and damage claims.
“You have to realize that you brought this on yourself. First you introduced the idea of a covenant with mutually binding obligations. Then you let the Calvinists interpret it by means of all sorts of decrees and laws. Whatever you intended got translated into legal stuff and it is binding. You said we would be a community of life and love and I accepted that as the basis for my life. So when my son was killed in the war, my wife died of cancer and my daughter was killed in an auto accident, those were violations of the contract.
“Since the original claim was filed I have received a ruling from the lower court, which I appealed several times, since more information seemed to be relevant than at first seemed to be the case. The issues are mounting up and I want to discuss them with you before it all gets lost in the mysterious workings of the layers of courts. I must say, you really do have a large organization.
“Now the first ruling which came down from the lower courts simply said the claim was frivolous, since lots of people lose loved ones, and unlike Job, I have not been struck by diseases or lost all my possessions. All of that is simply legal subterfuge, refusing to take my claim seriously. The deal was that we would have life, were supposed to be fruitful and multiply, and enjoy the gifts of the earth and life together. That clearly has not happened. So I have filed an appeal, which I hope would make it up to the highest court of the Almighty Judge.
“I know some in your organization want to argue that you also lost a Son. They even go so far as to argue that since it was your Son, that one life has infinite value and therefore would exceed the value of my three loved ones. But that is claiming that one life is of more value than others, or that the pain of losing one is less than if you lose six or a hundred. These are all claims based on false premises. The value of loved ones cannot be quantified, but if they could be, I have you three to one—if you will pardon me for using the numbers 3 and 1 in a slightly different way.”
“You will have to excuse me for a few moments since the service is about to begin. I will return to this matter when I am home this afternoon.”
After Ed had a light lunch and read the paper, he went out on the deck with a cup of coffee and said a brief prayer. Then he resumed the conversation: “Before I return to the case itself, I have to interject into our discussion a comment. During the service the choir sang the familiar words from Romans as part of our prayers: ‘If God be for us, who can be against us… Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God that justifies; who is to condemn? Is it Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us?’
“What in the world are your people talking about? Who cares whether anyone can bring charges against me? You have already taken everything I valued. I already made this point to some of your representatives, and they replied that it is most important that we hear the good news of your grace. Without forgiveness we suffer the condemnation of hell. My answer is: Where do you think I am now? Could anything get worse? What astounds me is that there is this obsession about sin and condemnation when the world is suffering from all manner of disasters and people are dying by the thousands. Something is amiss here.
“Let me now return to my brief. You have to realize that I was raised in old school Presbyterian traditions. As a child I had memorized large sections of the Heidelberg Catechism and was quite adept at finding answers in the Westminster Confession to every conceivable question. I was a juvenile lawyer for Reformed legalism long before I went to law school and learned the ways of arguing the law. You may have been the one to introduce the covenants, but the people readily agreed to it. It was sort of a religious version of the Magna Carta: the people accepted the idea that you would govern the universe in a certain way. But that only got you into trouble because you promised too much. You should have insisted that the Romans Catholics were right—it all has to do with authority and who has the power. You should be able to do whatever you want. But when you agreed to all that stuff about covenants and decrees, then you are required to give an answer. And that is the point of my brief: What is your answer to my losses?
“Now I have received further rulings from the lower courts which try to squelch my complaint by traditional arguments. One is that I don’t understand: since I am only a wretched human, there is no way I can comprehend the secret mysteries of the divine plan, so I should respectfully withdraw the complaint. A second is to shame me into silence: I ought to realize that I am a miserable sinner and that my sufferings are not nearly as bad as those of millions of other people. Well, I reject both arguments because they do not speak to the basic issue: my loss. It is not speaking to my loss if you tell me that it is inconsequential, or that it would be acceptable if I saw it from your perspective. I see it from my perspective and it is a grievous loss.
“Going over all these arguments wears me out, so I think I must ask for a recess until tomorrow. Thank you for your attention to these matters.” As he sat in the soft chair, pondering what he had said, his thoughts ranged from the specific arguments to memories of Margaret, his wife. Soon the efforts of the day caused his eyes to blink and he was lost in his usual afternoon nap.
On Monday morning Ed was off to his weekly gathering of men for coffee at Al’s diner. Al was kind enough to let them occupy a large table in the far corner for over an hour every week. If they only ordered coffee and a donut or sweet roll, they usually came back during the week for a full breakfast or lunch. This group had been together for over five years, half from the Presbyterian Church, the others related by neighborhood or family connections. They talked family news, sports and the weather, but were close enough to argue politics, economics and even religion. But what everyone enjoyed the most was the spontaneous good humor and friendly insults shot every which way.
After the usual topics had been dealt with, Ralph reminded the group that First Church was thinking of buying a handy-man’s special small house for a refugee family, which meant that they needed a work crew to do whatever needed to be done. Most of the guys, including Ed, were adept at some aspect of home repairs. So they talked it over, with several indicating a willingness to help. When Ed remained silent, they looked at him. Finally he said: “Let me think about it. I am reluctant to get involved in too much stuff right now. But I will let you know.”
When Ed’s daughter, Anne, was killed in an auto crash two years ago, Ed had been overcome by grief. It took him several months before he could even return to the Monday Coffee Club. His daughter was divorced, and upon her death her son had gone to live with her ex-husband, who had remarried. It is hard to say which loss affected Ed the most—his son, wife or daughter. At this point the cumulative effect of the three seemed to be the growing problem. When his son was killed in the First Iraq War, it was a terrible blow. Ed remembers everything about opening the front door and seeing two officers of the Marines standing there. Their purpose was of course well known, and Ed could hardly bear to call his wife to come into the living room. When she entered the room, she too immediately knew what the message was and almost collapsed in Ed’s arms. But through all the grieving they had one another. Then years later, Anne had been the one to be with him during Margaret’s illness and then her death and the weeks afterward. Now she was gone and he had no one. With his grandson living with his estranged son-in-law, his day had no order except for the few appointments he might make. The only sure things were the Monday Coffee Club and Sunday worship. Now, however, his claim before God had become his major concern.
It was for good reason that the guys worried about Ed. He always had been in good health and loved to argue issues, which he was trained to do. But in the last two years, his interest in that seemed to wane and he was preoccupied with his losses. No one knew how to help Ed except for trying to get him to be with people or getting involved in some project or activity. All of these overtures were resisted by Ed, with vague excuses. What he never said was that he knew what they were thinking: if he could find some purpose or be with people, perhaps he could move on. Ah, that awful phrase “Move on.” As if grief and the pain of loss were confined to a geographical place, and all one had to do was vacate that place and go to another place and grief would be left behind. He hated these pop-psychology remedies. At this point in his life, his purpose was to confront God with the devastation visited upon him. Yes, he did have a purpose, but he was not telling them about it. His purpose was to present his claim to the Almighty in hope for some relief—though he could not imagine what that might be.
The next week proved to be uneventful. The simple routine was basically repeated each day: some shopping, preparing meals, doing a few things around the house, a nap in the afternoon, then relaxing after supper, with a final drink before bed. Each day he worked on his notes in preparation for filing another appeal. Sunday morning he went to church, but did not open the case before the service started. As best he could, he entered into the worship. His claim would have to wait until later.
After his lunch he went out to his deck with coffee and said: “I want to return to the lower court rulings, which also referred me to some recent perspectives on losses in general, which argue that the answer lies in the fact that your Son suffers with us. Actually this is a well-known theme but it strikes me that it is now being used to replace the older approach which dominated my childhood and younger years. Whether you agree with this shift in thinking is something you may wish to reflect on and advise me as we proceed.
“To be specific, in my childhood, when a terrible thing happened, or someone died, the minister said that our beloved friend and relative has died and we mourn his loss. Even though we cannot comprehend why this happened, we must recognize by faith that this happens according to the mysterious plan of God and we should take heart that in the end all will become clear to us and we shall be reunited with him in heaven.
“But the newer approach, so common among the younger generation of preachers, makes no mention of the secret decrees or wisdom which you have used to order things. It jumps forward to Jesus suffering on the cross. This is laid before us in the midst of our grief to help us see that Jesus suffers with us in our suffering. I am struck by the seriousness of this shift in emphasis—that preachers would totally skip over the decrees and secret wisdom is amazing. Don’t they realize that we are trying to understand what is going on in this terrible world? Instead, they simply ask us to remember that Jesus is suffering with us.
“While I recognize some value in this new approach, with its reliance on key passages of Scripture, there are also some problems which I take rather seriously:
“First, I don’t understand how one can simply drop all reference to the decrees and the infinite wisdom of God. Are they conceding that the current state of things cannot be explained now or ever? If that is the case, then one is acknowledging that the world really is fallen, or as Hobbes is supposed to have said: Life is ‘nasty, brutish and short.’ That is hard for a Calvinist to accept. Are we conceding that the world has gone mad or that you are totally powerless in changing the sufferings of this world?
“Second, while it may be a powerful rhetorical device to focus attention on the Son of God suffering on our behalf—thereby shifting our focus from our suffering to his–that still does not speak to the issue of my complaint, i.e., my loss. As I have said before, I refuse to allow this to be moved from center stage, or to be made to feel guilty for wanting to speak of my loss rather than yours or anyone else’s. That just gets us back into a contest as to whose loss is greater, which does not solve the problem. Once we decided whether my loss or someone else’s is greater, that would still leave that person with legal standing to file the greater complaint.
“I must say, there are times when the intricate nature of these arguments causes my head to spin. They also wear me out. Why can’t we talk in simple terms? But I am repeatedly drawn into these elaborate arguments because of the rulings of the lower courts. I am not sure they have any interest in my situation, but only in denying my right to present this claim. With that I shall leave the matter for today.”
The coffee gang met as usual the next day Al’s Diner. This time everyone was there. Ed was greeted by six other men, all retired, with ages ranging from 67 to 85. After the usual greetings, bad jokes, comments on the headlines, the weather and sports, there was actually a pause in the conversation. Ralph, who also went to First Presbyterian, saved the group from an extended silence by asking Ed to come to the Seniors’ monthly supper. Ed shook his head and said: “I don’t like casseroles. They look good but when you take a bite, they never are as good as they look.”
John immediately replied, “Are you talking about food or women?” This evoked laughter and more encouragement for Ed to join the group.
“It will do you good to get out of the house and meet some people—men and women. You never know what will happen. Just look at Ron here. He came away with the best looking single gal from the group and look at him now. Happy as can be. Tell him, Ron.”
Ron’s story was actually well known and something of a legend. Whether it had been embellished was unknown, but Ron enjoyed the telling and everyone seemed to enjoy hearing it. Ron held up his hands for silence. “Yes, I am happy to testify on a stack of Bibles before our learned barrister here that it is a great group. Jean and I met at the supper, and then would see one another at the coffee hour on Sunday morning. We would talk about the cookies and the weather. After nearly exhausting these subjects for about three weeks, I finally asked her to have lunch and talk about something other than the weather, coffee and cookies.” This of course prompted the first round of laughter and comments. “So we went out to lunch and had a very nice conversation. When I took her home she asked me if I would like to come in and have a piece of chocolate cake.”
This brought a loud response, which included: “If he crosses that threshold, it’s all over.” Another chimed in: “Does he have any idea what is happening?”
But Ron continued: “We were having cake and coffee, and she says: ‘Ron, you were married for a long time and I knew Mary very well. I was married for years and you knew George. Now they are both gone and we are sitting here having chocolate cake and coffee. I would like to propose…no, that is not the best choice of words for this…I would suggest that we go out for three months without any entanglements of any kind, if you get my meaning. At the end of that time, we will sit down and see what is the temperature of the water, but we will not keep asking before then.’”
Now the comments flowed freely, directed at how he was being led down the path, or his inability to see what was happening. Someone said, “Can you imagine this, she has him hooked and is going to reel him in quicker than you can imagine.” Everyone laughed until Ron insisted on finishing the story.
“Well, I said, ‘Jean, that sounds like a great plan.’ So we would have breakfast on Tuesday, lunch on Thursday and brunch after church on Sunday.” Again, the guys could not resist commenting on how he was in deep trouble, with lots of laughter. But Ron continued: “Finally after two months, I said to her: ‘Jean, I can’t stand this anymore.” She said, ‘Oh, I am so sorry. Do you want to end this?’ I said: ‘Of course not, I want to kiss you now.’ Well, she looks at me and says: ‘Actually, the plan has a clause that allows the three month period to be terminated at any time if both parties agree. It would appear that both parties are ready to do that.’ More laughter occurred, with pounding on the table so that they were in danger of spilling coffee. “So when we got to her place she kissed me on the cheek. I looked at her and kissed her on the lips, and the rest is history.”
Cheers erupted, followed by applause. Ralph immediately jumped in to make the point: “So you see, Ed, this could be a great opportunity for you to have some company.”
Ed, who had enjoyed the story, tried to regain a serious tone when he said: “You guys ought to know by now that I have no intention of getting into an entanglement with someone from the Seniors club. So just drop it and let’s go back to spring training.” The guys saw that Ed was not in the mood for this, but actually he never was, since they had tried many times before. The conversation went back to sports.
On the way home Ed was annoyed at how they could make serious relationships a laughing matter. He knew they meant it all in good fun. On most other subjects he was as ready as any to engage in light hearted banter and even some foolishness. After all, how else could one survive? But they ought to know by now that something had gone wrong with his ability to find relief in these sorts of things. He had never really gotten over grieving Margaret’s death. He had not spoken to them about his claim before the heavenly court, but he just could not think about starting all over with someone else. He was still trying to figure out why his first marriage had come to an end. Now, without Anne to at least give him some encouragement or be a buffer against the burden of despair, he was left unprotected. His grief had continued and he discovered that the only way he could deal with it was to prepare his complaint for the heavenly courts.
Two days later at around noon Ed answered the phone. It was Mike, his ex-son-in-law. Mike reported: “Ed, things are not going well at all with Jimmie. He just can’t get along with Arlene and the two girls. And he has been acting up in school so much that yesterday they sent him home. We have to do something to break this cycle of behavior. Could he come and live with you for a few weeks?” Jimmie was Anne’s son who had been living with Mike and his new wife Arlene, and her girls. The report surprised Ed because in general, Jimmie was well behaved and had not seemed adverse to living with his Dad’s new family. But apparently things had gone bad. Sizing up the situation Ed realized that there really were not any other options. He was in fact Jimmie’s grandfather. And he could not think of any valid reason for saying no. “Well, that would be fine. When were you thinking of having him come over?”
“If it is o.k. with you, the sooner the better. Could I bring him over this afternoon?
Ed was a bit surprised. In five minutes he was moving from a single old man living alone to a new family of grandpa and grandson in a medium size house. The good news was that Ed’s house was in the school district Jimmie attended as a 12 year old, so it would not involve a change in schools. “Sure, bring him over and I assume you will bring enough clothes and things that will make him comfortable here. I don’t have an extra computer or much stuff that relate to Jimmie’s world.”
“Ed, thank you very much. Yes, we will bring some of the things he needs for the stay. We will see you in about two hours. Take care.”
When Ed had put the phone down he began to think of how this was going to change things. Not only would he have someone living with him, but it was his grandson—a 12 year old boy. For months people had been hinting and suggesting that he needed some new project or purpose. Suddenly here it was. But this was not like what they had been suggesting. If he went out and found something to do, that by nature would be limited in terms of time and emotional outlay. Plus, this was not a choice—unless you consider taking in a grandson in need of a safe home a choice. Ed did not feel he volunteered for this, but amazingly he did not regret the decision. All he could hear was that his grandson—the only living member of his family—needed his help. And the help needed was quite unlimited. There would have to be changes in the house, the food supply and menus, waking up and going to bed—just to name the obvious. And it would start in two hours!
He thought the best thing to do was run to the store for some things for dinner and breakfast. Trying to recall what Jimmie liked, he decided on fried chicken and potato salad, with green beans (a question mark), ice cream and cookies, plus peanut butter and jelly, dry cereal and granola for breakfast. When he had put the food away back at the house, he went upstairs to decide which room to give Jimmie. Two of the bedrooms had been transformed into guest rooms, while the third had been used as a work room for his wife. Neither bedroom bore any ties to their son or daughter, except in his memory. He was not even sure if Jimmie knew which was which, but he decided on giving him the room his son had used. One advantage was that it had a small desk, looking out on the back yard. This might be a good place for him to do his school work. After making up the bed, he thought he was ready for Jimmie’s arrival.
At about 5 o’clock Mike arrived with Jimmie and one large suitcase and several boxes of stuff. He told them which room was for Jimmie and they took everything up to it. When they came down Mike again thanked Ed and turned to Jimmie with instructions to listen to Ed and spend time on school work. He gave Jimmie a hug and said he would call, then left. Ed looked at Jimmie and asked: “Are you hungry?”
“Yeah, I suppose I am.”
“I usually have some cheese and crackers. Would you like that with a soda before we have dinner?”
Upon an affirmative, Ed laid out the food and drinks on a tray and took it out to the deck. As they munched on snacks, Ed asked: “Do you want to tell me about what happened at Mike’s?”
“Arlene was always on my case and telling me I was not treating the girls nice. I told her I did not want to babysit the girls and then things were not going well at school. She blew her lid. But that was three weeks ago.” Jimmie said this with a smile, to see what mood Ed was in. When Ed chuckled, he continued, “So we kept going round on this kind of stuff and then my Dad had to go out of town, and Arlene started saying I was not helping. So that kept going on—stuff about my radio and TV—and then I had more trouble at school and Dad really got upset. So yesterday he proposed I come and spend some time with you, because he had to go out of town again.”
Ed saw quickly that the story probably left out some things, but all in all it sounded like a mutually caused chain of events. He had never been sure that Arlene was happy about Jimmie coming to live with them. And he knew Jimmie well enough to know that he could be sharp tongued and had a short fuse. Perhaps he should add to his claim against the Almighty an inquiry why children had to bear the brunt of divorce and the death of parents. But that was for later. “You are welcome to stay here but I am an old man living alone and I must tell you that you will have to follow certain rules. I expect you home for supper by 5, unless you call me; you must do your homework before lots of TV or games; you must go to school and behave; and there will be some simple chores around the house that need to be done. Can you do these things with a smile?”
Jimmie looked at him: “That’s it? Gee, Grandpa, I thought you would have lots and lots of rules. Sure, I can do those.”
“Then let me get things ready for supper. You can relax until it is ready.”
They ate together in the kitchen at the table in front of the window looking out on the yard. Ed asked about Jimmie’s classes and he reported that his favorites were history and math. He liked soccer but needed to work at it, but he and some friends usually played after school. He hoped he would get better so that he could be on a team. Over ice cream they settled on the schedule: Jimmie usually went to bed around 9:30 to 10:00 and had to get up at 6:30 in the morning. They calculated that the school was about six blocks from Ed’s house and Jimmie did not want to take the bus, but preferred to walk. Ed agreed to that and offered to drive him on any day there was bad weather. He also suggested he drive him in the morning and asked Jimmie to go to the office and tell them about his new address and Ed’s name and phone number.
School days the rest of the week went according to plan. Ed had picked up some food high on Jimmie’s list of favorites, Jimmie was home between 3 and 4, spent time relaxing or on homework. The walk to school was not too long and presented no problems. Ed was a little concerned about the weekend. On Friday he asked Jimmie what they would do. Jimmie looked a bit surprised, not realizing he would be spending the weekend with his Grandpa. Ed caught the surprise and rephrased the issue: “Usually on Saturdays I do a few things to clean up. I do most of the shopping during the week to avoid crowds. Sunday we will go to church. Tell me what you normally do on weekends?”
“I usually sleep in on Saturdays but Dad always got me up for church and drove me there. Now I can go with you. Sometimes I would see a couple of friends, maybe do something like a movie or play soccer. My Dad says he will give me my allowance while I am here, so I will have some money for stuff. He also said he would take me shopping for clothes if I need something. If I have homework I usually do it Friday or Saturday so most of the weekend is free. Did you know I have a cell phone? I talk to my friends with it—usually texting. I’ll write down the address so you can call me. I have your number.”
When they had finished the planning and Jimmie had left the room, Ed began to realize what was before him. Shopping for food, meal preparation and cleanup, probably some transportation service, adjusting his schedule to be available, and in general, looking out for Jimmie. He had observed Anne and Mike raising Jimmie over the years, and he and Margaret had done their share of babysitting. But grandparents are one step removed from all the responsibilities parenting involves—including the emotional trauma. He remembered how nervous he was when his son went through all the stages of childhood. There were concerns for John but also for himself. It was easier with Anne because she was the second child, not because of the gender difference, though he often wondered if Margaret had a different set of problems than what had occurred with John. So here he was again in the thick of things with a child, though he was one step removed as grandfather. Would he react to seeing Jimmie’s report card in the same way he had upon seeing John’s? Would he be disturbed if Jimmie was late after school? Welcome to the world of parenting, in the mode of grandfathering.
On Sunday evening he sat with a drink on the deck at about 9:30. Jimmie was in his room—either on his cell phone or reading or already in bed. The weekend had gone quite well—at least in his opinion. Saturday he drove Jimmie and two friends to a movie and then picked them up. Sunday they went to church and Jimmie went out in the afternoon. Food selection and preparation had gone well, if eating what was on your plate was any indication. Now they faced a full week of school. He had asked Jimmie if there was anything he needed for the week. All that was in place and he was, not surprisingly, exhausted.
After resting a few moments he recited a prayer and then said: “You will have to excuse the delay in my responding to the latest ruling. My new family responsibilities prevent me from dealing with the case. I think it best if I request a delay and I will report to you when I am able to resume. Peace.”
Ed had been apprehensive about this full week. Last week only involved three days. Now he had five. When a rain storm hit on Tuesday he drove Jimmie to school. On Thursday he took some boys to a park where they could play. Another parent would bring him home. Cell phones were actually great. From Ed’s perspective, Jimmie was his normal self and seemed to be getting along well at school. His teacher had even sent a note saying just that and thanking Ed for being such a good grandparent. Ed concluded that teachers were more aware of family situations and problems than he had expected.
On Saturday Jimmie asked if Ed would pick up some kids and take them to a soccer field. He also mentioned something he had forgotten to tell him. Last Sunday at church in the Sunday School, the Syrian family was there. They have five kids included a boy Jimmie’s age, who was also at his school. He was going to play soccer with them and his name was Sam. Ed took this in, remembering the reference to the family at the Coffee Club.
At the Coffee Club everyone was in good form and the discussion moved from the great triad of weather, politics and sports. This reflected this age group, since a younger age would put cars and sex in the triad, omitting the weather and politics. But the group was not adverse to talking cars whenever someone was shopping for one or curious about a repair matter. As for sex, that entered the conversations primarily when it came up in the news or politics, the exceptions being some tame jokes, especially about the failings of male organs. When all the big news had been covered, Ed volunteered that he was back in parenting, with his grandson staying with him. He was glad to report that things had gone well for almost two weeks, though he confessed he was winging it. Of course they wanted to know how long Jimmie would be with him, and he did not know. He also mentioned that Jimmie had met one of the children of the Syrian family. They were glad to hear the family was getting settled, but that still left the issue of rehabbing that house.
The week proceeded without any problems, making Ed wonder if he was just lucky or if he and Jimmie were just a good match. To his credit he was approaching this matter with a certain laid back attitude. He did not watch over Jimmie or insist on knowing everything that happened in his day. But then on Saturday the first crisis arose. In the afternoon he got a call that Jimmie had banged heads in the soccer game and was in need of assistance. Ed drove over to the field and found Jimmie on a bench with two other players, holding a shirt to his head. Jimmie said: “The guys looked at it and think it needs stiches.”
Ed felt he ought to assess the matter himself, and asked him to slowly remove the shirt. When he saw the cut, he agreed and told Jimmie to come with him to the ER. The other boys said they would get home by themselves. As they walked off the playground, Jimmie said: “That tall guy is Sam.”
To their surprise the ER took Jimmie in rather quickly and the doctor determined that he needed to be sewn up. Jimmie had never had this happen before. The cut was on the left side of his forehead, below the hair line. When the doctor and nurse had assembled everything they needed, they asked Jimmie to sit on the side of the exam table. Jimmie looked apprehensively at Ed. Without asking Ed sat down next to him on Jimmie’s right side and held his hand firmly. He suggested that Jimmie look straight ahead. The doctor went through the basic steps and in no time Jimmie had five stiches. They held up a mirror for him to see—his first soccer injury, meaning that he was now an official soccer player. After giving him something to drink and checking that he did not have a concussion, they said he could go. Ed kept an eye on him as they walked out to the car, lest he faint or become ill. But he handled the whole thing well and in 25 minutes Ed had him lying down on his bed. When Ed went downstairs he called Mike and told him what had happened. Mike said he would come by Sunday afternoon to see Jimmie. A few minutes later Ed returned to find Jimmie was sleeping. At about 7:30 Jimmie came down from his room and Ed suggested some chicken soup. After the soup and crackers, they watched television for a while and Jimmie said he was ready for bed.
If Ed thought they might be staying home from Church on the next day, he was quite mistaken. Jimmie was up early asking for something to eat and ready to go to church. Ed complied, thinking that maybe Jimmie wanted to show everyone his bandaged head. In the afternoon Mike came over with his two step-daughters to visit with Jimmie. The girls were actually glad to see him and they enjoyed the ice cream Ed served. Mike quietly thanked Ed for all that he was doing and said he would talk to him in a week or so. When they left, Ed thought he should think about supper.
As expected Jimmie went to bed early, indicating that he would go to school on Monday. Ed found himself with his evening drink on the deck. Since he had not thought much about his claim, he felt he ought to make sure the heavenly court realized the case was still active. After a prayer, he then said: “I am sure you are aware of what has been going on here for the past three weeks. How could you not know? Given my responsibilities here, I have not been able to proceed in drafting a fuller response as part of my appeal. But I will get to it and want to insist that the claim not be placed in some in-active category.
“It has occurred to me that some of your lesser representatives may have thought this development was just what I needed to take my mind off my losses and thereby drop the case. Nothing could be farther from the truth. But if it is true that this was some kind of ploy to turn my attention to other things, I would be deeply disappointed. It is too late for me to ask how these things could have happened without your knowledge or participation, so I will let that go. I have repeatedly resisted attempts by friends to get me involved in some kind of romance or hobby or project, which would take my mind off what has tormented me for so long. But I guard against that, though I must admit my grandson has needed by attention. Therefore, given all this, I shall speak with you at a later time to re-open the complaint.” He realized it may have been a bit brash to speak that way, but it annoyed him to think that he would suddenly have a different outlook on life because he was taking care of Jimmie. Plus, this was probably not going to last much longer, so he would be right back to where he was before.
The next Wednesday Mike picked up Jimmie for dinner at his home, since he wanted to visit with him in the context of his current family. This had dangers, but it was something Mike felt he had to try. If Jimmie was going to return, they all had to develop some workable plan. Then on Saturday he stopped by to visit with Ed and Jimmie, which extended into lunch. This pattern was repeated the next week. At leaving Mike said privately to Ed that they needed to talk about the summer, since it was only a month before school let out.
Ed did not say anything to Jimmie but he started a process of thinking about the entire matter. That was Ed’s way: when confronted with a serious problem, he allocated blocks of time over several days to consider it. Unlike his work, there were no cases to study up on or calculate the application of the law. But he did need to estimate the needs of Jimmie and Mike, as well as Mike’s family. And did he have any needs relating to this matter? That would be something to discover.
His first exercise was to lay before himself the facts of the case: His daughter and son-in-law had divorced, leaving Jimmie in the custody of Anne. Subsequently, Mike had married a woman with two daughters and then Anne had died. In one sense it was a simple case: the father has full rights and custody of the son. But that had not worked out, to the frustration of nearly all parties, including the school, where Jimmie had acted out his anger toward his new family. The matter was not so much a legal issue but a practical matter: what would be needed for the members of this family to live together? Counselling? Strict leadership from Mike? More rules? Visits to Grandpa as a way of relieving pent up frustrations? Long visits to Grandpa? Certainly no one would propose permanent residence with Grandpa—that was out of the question.
What Ed could not understand was why Mike had so little interest in Jimmie. Yes, he had started the once a week dinner and several hours on Saturday. But he was not acting like a Father who missed his son, or who wanted to play a determining role in his son’s life. Had the divorce from Anne so affected his ties to Jimmie that he did not have normal feelings toward the boy? Or was it Arlene, who married Mike on the assumption that he was coming into her life, with her two girls, to start a family of four. In that situation, Jimmie represented Mike’s past marriage and family. He was an intruder, always reminding everyone that the new life they wished to create was built on a former life, broken by divorce and death. Ed had to admit that the most Arlene had signed up for was occasional visits from Jimmie, not full time membership in her new family. And Mike probably did not want to be reminded of his past.
When he factored into these thoughts the additional point that Mike had not been over to see Jimmie in the first three weeks, he had to assume that he was in damage control back at Arlene’s, or he really was moving in the direction of very little contact with Jimmie. What options did that leave: Very few. Parents—even single parents—did not usually give 12 year old boys to adoption agencies or foster homes. With only one relative in the extended family, that left Ed as the likely candidate. All Ed could think was: “What a bastard. The son-of-a-bitch is going to ask me to take him.”
As June 1 approached Ed had still not heard from Mike. He and Jimmie were getting along. Jimmie was doing more things around the house, including cutting the grass, and earning some money for what they called The Special Fund. After the rocky period in the middle of the semester, Jimmie had raised his grades and was likely to end the year quite well. Finally, Mike came over and spent some time with Jimmie. When they both came out on the deck where Ed was reading the paper, Mike said: “I would like Jimmie to come over and spend a week with us in July. I am going to take the week off and we will do things together that week.” There was a pause and Jimmie and Ed waited for what was coming, though both suspected the direction this was going to take. Mike then said: “I would like Jimmie to come back and live with you, Ed, if that is o.k. When school starts we can do a weekly dinner at our place. So, Ed, what do you think?”
Ed looked at Jimmie, who seemed stunned. His father had just told them he did not want Jimmie in his house. The boy was about to explode or run out of the house. Before that could happen, Ed moved forward and put his arm around Jimmie. “I think that will be just fine. Why don’t you go on home to Arlene, Jimmie and I have some things to talk about.”
Mike was taken back by both comments—Ed’s ready acceptance and his dismissal. He knew Ed was a tough lawyer and had no interest in tangling with him, especially since he was asking so much of him. But it did annoy him that he was kicking him out. Without saying good bye he left. No sooner was he out the door, Jimmie muttered “Go to hell,” and ran upstairs.
Ed let him go, knowing that there was not much he could say or do right now. Since it was going on 5, he decided to make supper. Meatballs and spaghetti would probably be a good choice, since it was one of Jimmie’s favorite. Around six o’clock Jimmie came down and rather cautiously came into the kitchen. He saw the table set for two and Ed putting the dry pasta into boiling water. He went over to the table and sat down. After a long pause, he asked: “What are you going to do this summer?”
Ed let the question hang there for a moment, noting especially how it had been phrased. The he said: “I thought we would take a trip out west. There are some national parks I have not seen and I doubt if you have either. I also have a brother in Michigan who still lives on a farm, but his son runs it. It is near where I grew up. We could go stay there for a few days, maybe you would decide to be a farmer. Then the Coffee Club is forming teams to work on Sam’s new house. I would like you to be on my team. This would be when school lets out.”
It was obvious that the wheels were spinning in Jimmie’s head, though he did not say anything. They ate in silence and finished the meatballs, with a little pasta and sauce left for lunch. When they were having ice cream, Jimmie asked: “Could Sam be on our team working on the house?” Ed told him he thought that would be a good idea.
Next Sunday evening, after Jimmie had gone to bed, Ed opened discussions regarding his claim. As usual, he offered a prayer and then said: “Every week seems to be drawing me farther and farther away from the case. I don’t regret what I am doing but I am concerned that the case will get lost. May I say again for the record that I have no intention of letting that happen. The issue is as real and important for me now as it was when I raised it a year ago.
“I do not have any new material to be added to my claim, though I do want to offer several comments in light of the sermon presented today in church. You will recall that some time back I noted the shift in emphasis regarding the trials of this world. The older Calvinism resorted to the mysterious workings of your covenants and decrees, which, though we may not understand them, will finally be proven to be wise at a future time. This we are to accept by faith, trusting in your eternal love. The newer approach moves quickly to the cross of Christ, reminding us that Christ suffered as we suffer, died as we die, and in that we take comfort. As your anointed one, so even you share in our sufferings. I still am not sure I want to abandon the older approach, since I think the new approach appears to concede that the Almighty has lost control of things.
“Now my purpose in returning to this debate is that there would appear to be a variant on the new approach, which I think makes more sense. It has to do with the Great Commission in Matthew, which I am sure you know. Now of course, the emphasis in the sermon, and throughout the ages, is that here we have the marching orders for the church: make disciples, baptize and teach. Nothing could be clearer when it comes to what the church is to be about. The fact that churches have tended to emphasize only part of the mandate is of interest, but not relevant to the matter at hand.
“What struck me about this morning’s sermon was the complete lack of attention to Jesus’ final words: “…and remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” That hit me as a most profound affirmation. Of course it is close to the theme that Christ suffers with us, but the two are not entirely the same. If the one points to the unity of Christ with us in our sufferings, the other simply affirms an eternal presence. I confess I had not heard, with my head or heart, this part of the Commission. Now I mention all this simply to say that perhaps your people might want to give more attention to this powerful theme. In its simplicity it is so easily missed, as I in fact have done. When I heard it this morning I found myself deeply moved and did not know what to say, except to receive this, not as a future promise but as a present fact. For reasons not clear, it affected me greatly.
“When time allows I shall return to the claim already before you. In the last few years I have been through a lot and do seek a resolution of the matter. But for now there is a young person who feels very alone and there are things I must do.”
Copyright © 2019 Robert Winslow