Friday, October 28, 2011

My Wallet

            Just over forty years ago my grandfather, Arend Schuil--Opa, as we used to call him—put on a heavy apron, picked up his sheers, and cut into a piece of rawhide. He knew what he was doing, since he had spent his life cutting leather to make the special orthopedic shoes he sold to customers all over the Netherlands. But now that he was retired, the shoe molds and rubber soles that used to fill his shop were long gone. Instead of leather uppers, this time he cut the leather to make wallets for his grandchildren. I received mine, my last gift from him, in 1967.

I still have that wallet in a drawer of my desk. I keep special papers in it. Opa sewed it together using tiny, perfectly symmetrical, stitches. Even now, the leather is soft and supple—the softest thing I own.

I only met him twice, for a few weeks each time, on his rare visits to Canada. He taught me to play chess on long summer afternoons under a shade tree beside our house. We didn’t talk much, since my Dutch was poor and his English non-existent. Still, it never felt awkward. Quiet with him was restful, relaxed and happy.

Genealogy is my hobby, so by studying old church and civil documents in the Netherlands, I’ve learned that my Opa’s ancestors had been making shoes in the Dutch province of Groningen for the better part of three hundred years. But now my wallet is the only tangible link I have left to all those centuries of toil.

I’ve also learned that some Schuils wanted more out of life than making shoes. Among my great- and great-great grandparents there was one who helped buy a new house for the local preacher. Others were volunteer organists and choir directors. My grandfather would have loved to become a preacher himself.

But back then most people didn’t have a choice about what they would do with their lives. Formal education was a luxury. Most people did what their fathers did; you took up the business and learned as unpaid child labor. And that was if your family had a trade. My grandfather on the Suk side had to quit school to work the potato fields as a day laborer by the time he was eleven or twelve. His father peddled groceries door to door out of a dog cart. They got by, but sometimes only barely.

And my wallet reminds me of all that. My wallet is like a hinge, really. It connects me—with all my opportunities, choice, and postgraduate education—to an era in the very recent past when what you did with your life, workwise, wasn’t a unique “calling” you had the luxury of making a decision about. No, in those days, people didn’t have “callings.” They had “tellings,” and did as told, workwise, whether they wanted to or not.

That wallet reminds me that having the opportunity to go to school, and choose a career is a big privilege. Thinking back on my family history, my hope is that my grandkids will understand just how great a privilege that choice is. Of course, they’ll have to study hard borrow money and work hard to make their dreams come to pass—but I’ll urge them to do so.

             But, at a deeper level, that wallet also reminds me that whatever job I land on God’s good earth, my ultimate vocation there—and always—is to “do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with [my] God,” (Micah 6:8). Just as my grandfather, the last of the shoemakers, always tried to do no matter what he did to earn a living.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A Wretch Like Me

            I just paid a big speeding ticket in New York State. The officer pulled me over at the Gananoque bridge, wrote a ticket, smiled and left. He was pulling over people at a sneeky speed-trap where drivers have to slam on their brakes to slow from 65 to 40. This officer never gave me an opportunity to argue my case. The bill arrived in the mail two weeks later. I felt wretched—the dollar damage was more than I dare admit in public.

            This reminded me of a speeding ticket that I talked my way out of, a few years ago. One Sunday, when Irene and I lived in Manila, The Philippines, we were on our way to a lunch engagement on the other side of town, after church.

Unfortunately, on Makati Avenue I ran an amber light that turned red by the time I was through. A guy in a funny yellow t-shirt tried to wave me down. Without thinking I swerved round him and continued on. I said to Irene that he looked an awful lot like a street-sweeper. But deep inside I suspected he might be a policeman. Like an idiot I made a few unscheduled turns in the hope of losing him. Soon I was stuck in traffic.

Unfortunately, my intuition was rewarded when my yellow-shirted policeman on a 100 cc scooter pulled up beside me, easily weaving in and out of the cars that surrounded me. He motioned for me to roll down my window.

            I told him I mistook him for a street cleaner. This did not impress him. He asked me to hand over my license. I refused, knowing that he could demand a huge bribe if I asked for it back. So I said the law did not require me to ever hand over my license, even to a policeman. This was true, but made him angry. He suggested we ride over to the police station to resolve matters. I asked him if there was anyway we could avoid the trip and settle matters now. I was hoping he would just write me a ticket. He looked up at me with narrowed eyes and asked “what do you mean?” He was hoping for a bribe.

I suddenly remembered how, years ago, a Nigerian driver I was with had refused to pay a bribe to a teen-aged soldier who just happened to be waving a machine gun through our car window, roughly in my direction. “Christians don’t pay bribes,” my driver said. The soldier scowled and let us through the roadblock. Inspired by the memory,  instead of offering a bribe, I said, “Please officer, forgive me.”

The Manila policeman was even less impressed than the Nigerian soldier had been. I forged ahead with the him anyway. “Sir, forgive me. I did wrong. Kasalanan ko. It is my fault. Will you please forgive me? I will not ever go through a red light again. I have learned my lesson. Sir, please forgive.” All in one breath.

Ask and you will receive, says scripture. I’ve never heard a sermon that tried to explain those words as literally true, and strictly speaking, they didn’t apply in this situation anyway. All the same, they came to me as the police officer told me that if he ever saw me go through a red light again, he would throw the book at me. Then, shaking his head, he got back on his bike and left.

I’m not sure what went through his head. Was he sad to have missed out on a bribe? Did he figure a day in the police station, arguing about fines, would cut into his opportunity to extract bribes from other, more willing, traffic violators? Was he utterly amazed by my non-Filipino willingness to lose face by admitting guilt and begging for forgiveness? Or perhaps I just misread the situation from the start, and he wasn’t looking for a bribe at all. Maybe, he was just a gracious person.

I’ll never know, for sure. But I guess a wretch like me was saved!