Albert Brunsting on his wedding day

My grandfather died in 1971. He was “only” 74, but he seemed ancient to me. I was twelve years old.

My memories are hazy and might better be called impressions. My grandfather wasn’t really scary, just somber, a man of few words, but actually gentle in his ways. Except for the last six months of his life, he lived on the same 160 acre Iowa farm in the far northwest corner of the state. He had a sixth grade education. His favorite hymn was Sun of My Soul. He wore hickory striped bib overalls. When he was going to town, he would put on a white shirt and a tie with his overalls.

I now deduce that religiously he was quite conservative. He was an innately cautious man. The Reformed-Christian Reformed split wasn’t so far in the past when he was young. I gather that his family had dwelt near the fault line. They eventually sided with the Reformed, but my mother and her sisters attended Christian school through eighth grade. The Reformed church where he was a life-long member was the staid, unwavering congregation in town. We joked it was the congregation of whole milk, while the other Reformed congregation was skim milk.

Consistory, 2018

This past year, our Consistory has been reading Paul’s letter to the Galatians for our devotions. So many times I’ve been struck by Paul’s conflicted, complex relationship with his Jewish heritage. Often Paul boldly asserts that trust in Christ and freedom from the law are the rightful trajectory of Judaism. At times he is so vehement you wonder if he isn’t trying to convince himself. Then only a few verses later he can seem to denounce his ancestry as confining and lifeless. Perhaps his thoughts are an early version of the mash-up, masterpiece that is Romans 9-11.

In our conversations as a Consistory, I asked them, “Can you think of examples in your life that might look like a radical departure from your traditions, where you seem to have thrown your past, your upbringing, your heritage overboard, but actually, you would maintain that your apparent radical departure is precisely because of your heritage?”

I ask you, wise reader, the same question.

Just as Paul claimed faith in Christ was not a rejection of his Judaism, but instead its obvious destination, what in your life has been driven by a profound inner compass, even if it led you far off the expected path?

Grandpa & sex

I doubt my grandfather ever uttered the word “homosexual,” definitely not to me. I suppose he knew what homosexuality was—kind of, although in rural Iowa in the early 20th century certainly no one was out. Really for my grandparents, sex was never an appropriate topic of conversation. According to my aunt, neither of my grandparents ever had “the talk” with their children.

I can’t imagine him using words like abomination or repugnant. He wasn’t bellicose guy. Still, I have no doubt that if asked, he would have called homosexuality a sin.

Picking up on my encounters with Paul in Galatians, I tried to imagine what I might say to my grandfather to explain to him that, at least partially, he is the quiet, indirect cause of my belief that LGBTQ persons should be welcomed and affirmed in the Christian Church. My conclusions, which seem so different from his, are due, in part, to what I saw in and learned from him. In other words, we don’t really disagree. My views are a result of the trajectory that he launched me on.

Valuing scripture

Grandpa, I can still see you pulling the Bible off the little shelf on the wall in the corner of the kitchen. I believe it was after every meal. Big, black, and floppy, little bits of paper sticking out here and there, some scribbles in the margins. I have your copy of the Heidelberg Catechism with similar scribbles and notes, but I wonder what happened to that Bible.

When you read the Bible to us, it was a solemn occasion. Even as a little child, I could tell the Bible was a big deal, a pillar of daily life. I absorbed that. It is precisely because of your valuing the Bible that I have come to welcome and affirm LGBTQ people. Our conclusions may seem different. Some might think that I have rejected your reverence for scripture. But the opposite is true. So many stories, threads, and themes in the Bible, the same Bible I learned to read with you, push me to make the church a place of welcome and affirmation for LGBTQ people.

Valuing ministers

Grandpa, I could always tell you honored and esteemed ministers. Actually, you deferred to them. I was too young to hear the stories from you, but later family members told me of bullheaded domines who hurt you, with whom you disagreed. Yet you always kept the disagreement or injury to yourself rather than publicly oppose a minister.

I thought of you a few years ago. A discussion at church was growing a little heated when a respected member of our congregation said, “Our pastors are highly trained. They are ordained. We pay them to explain and elucidate scripture to us. When they say something, I believe we should listen to them rather than believe our opinions are equal to theirs.”

I wondered if you might not have said something similar. Of course that sort of thinking can lead to all sorts of danger and abuse. And I realize that my views about LGBTQ people are not held by all ministers. But I do know that you would be very proud that I am a minister, and it isn’t hard for me to imagine you saying, “Stephen, if that is what you believe, then I concur.”

Valuing the undervalued

Albert’s daughters in the late 1930s

Grandpa, I wonder how badly you wanted a son, an heir-apparent, a co-worker, someone to pass the farm on to just as your father had done to you. Instead, you had four daughters. Then, back in the 1940s, you sent every one of them to college, where they graduated, married, and went far, far away from Iowa.

I know you were teased, derided really, for wasting your money on college educations for women. If they had stayed home, they could have married local guys and no doubt one of them could have taken over the farm.

I get that you treasured education, but it was more than that. You saw value in people that others didn’t think were worth it. You thought my mother and her sisters deserved the opportunity of a good education, of seeing the world.

I remember that you often had “hired hands,” local young men who helped you on the farm. Back then we called several of those young men “slow” or “a little odd.” I don’t know how they might be diagnosed today. But I was watching and learning from you. These were unappreciated people to whom you offered welcome and opportunity.

A respecter of persons

Grandpa, you were a serious man. But you were not hard, unkind, or uncaring. When I rode along with you to town—at the store, the gas station, the post office, the co-op—I saw that you treated everyone with respect. You were never sharp or dismissive. I would say that you truly thought more highly of others than you did yourself. Somewhere in your respect and decency were the seeds that came to fruition in me affirming LGBTQ people. Underneath it all, I think that you treated all people with respect because you saw them all as children of God.

Grandpa, we never talked about LGBTQ people together. Your 1918 views and my 2018 views seem pretty far apart. But like the Apostle Paul, I haven’t rejected what my heritage or upbringing. For the ideals and insights you gave me, I thank you.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

13 Comments

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    First thing I read this morning after my Daily Office, the second reading of which, in the Daily Lectionary, happens to be Galatians. Steve, this is magnificent.

  • Sarina says:

    Beautiful, Steve. Brought me to tears.

  • Phyllis says:

    What a lovely way to begin a Tuesday morning. Thank you, Steve. Grandpa taught you well.

  • Lynn Japinga says:

    Great piece, Steve. Thank you.

  • Dale Buettner says:

    I love this. Thank you, Steve.

  • Jim Schaap says:

    Gentle and caring and loving, Steve. Thank you.

  • Marty Wondaal says:

    It sounds like your grandfather was a good man. It also sounds like you are a recipient of Reformed Covenental Privilege. Embrace it. It’s a good thing.

    Your essay is filled with grace toward your grandfather. You demonstrated that same quality with me. It is very admirable.

    I would challenge the readers of this blog to emulate SMV. Those of us who adhere to an orthodox and historic interpretation of the Bible are not motivated by fear, hatred, misogyny, xenophobia, etc. We also know very well the sins we struggle with ourselves. That is why, I suspect, most of us would rather not even have these arguments. You couldn’t pay me enough money to get me to go to a Synod and fight these battles. Nobody wants to stick their neck out, say something, and be called a bigot or a homophobe. We just keep our heads down and tolerate things until we can’t anymore. Then we, most likely, leave the denomination and join an Evangelical church. Maybe that’s the best option. Just don’t hold it against us.

    We are only standing up for ideas that, up until approximately a week ago, was what everyone believed for the last couple thousand years.

  • Rev Arlyce Schiebout says:

    “Can you think of examples in your life that might look like a radical departure from your traditions, where you seem to have thrown your past, your upbringing, your heritage overboard, but actually, you would maintain that your apparent radical departure is precisely because of your heritage?”
    I ask you, wise reader, the same question.
    This is a very provoking question. Traditions are those beliefs, customs, that are passed down from generation to generation, praxis as well. Singing “Jesus Loves Me” and “Jesus love the little children, all the children of the world” and being taught the Heidelberg Catechism by male elders in preparation for profession of faith was the tradition and theology of the CRC community. Despite a theological belief of a loving God whose Son showed this love in word and deed, the actual practice in the community did not appear as such. One’s theology and practice need to be consistent. Examples of radical departure: integrity of humanity regardless of orientation, gender, race, socio-economic status, abolition of slavery, non-violent protest, whole world ecumenism, justice for First Nations, ordination of women, care of creation, opposition to war, to name a few. The apostle Paul encourages the reader in Romans 12:1-2, to be about transformation by the renewal of one’s mind. Trying to understand the presence of the One who is Wholly Love in a changing world (A Song of Faith, 2006, The United Church of Canada) encourages people to verbalize and practice a faith that reflects God’s presence in an evolving world, and acknowledges that future generations will write a statement of faith that will reflect their time. Sing a verse or two of Amazing Grace. Calvin’s words paraphrased “being re-formed and always re-forming by the Word of God” also give strength to open the door to reflection of practice and theology that lift up the theology of the Living Word of God.

  • Arika Theule-VanDam says:

    Steve, this has renewed my hope today—hope that has its roots in the past and its full fruition in the future. Thank you!

  • JoAnne Wagner says:

    Thinking along these lines holds hope for our establishing deeper understandings between those in radically different political camps as well, moving beyond the rancor. I was impressed that your grandfather was a respecter of persons, particularly the odd or slow fellows he hired to work on the farm. The bottom line with LGBTQ+ persons as a Christian is: what does love say?

  • Norma says:

    Thanks for this thought porvoking read.

  • COLLEEN JANSSEN says:

    Steve, thank you for this piece. My grandmother was open and affirming and a strong believer of everyone is a child of God and deserves to be respected and loved. She was 69 when I was born and she pretty much raised me for the first 9 years of my life. Her beliefs back then have stuck with me. Our home was always open to whomever needed a home and everyone was welcomed as if they were family. She lived her faith and I know she would be quite emphatic about this issue and the need for love and care and respect.

  • Fred Mueller says:

    Thank you, Steve. I am especially grateful for how you love and follow the Bible just as did your grandfather. How it led you to a place he might not have gone, but if you could talk with him, you might get there together.

    I was at a conference with Walter Brueggemann who said, “The problem with fundamentalists is they don’t read the Bible.” You READ the Bible, as did your grandfather.

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