A year ago today I lost Gerrit.
I thank God for his life,
and I thank God that his suffering is over.
Below is the homily our minister gave at Gerrit's funeral.
The language doesn’t seem to matter. Whether in Dutch or English, Swahili or Mandarin, just the tenor of the preacher’s voice of Ecclesiastes is able to speak to that part of our soul that is hungry for truth, wisdom and perspective. For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven. With the wisdom gained from age and experience, the preacher reflects back on life and offers his assessment. Seven pairings of opposites call to mind the seven days of the week, and the opposites of night and day, and the opposites contained in them as well – the shadows cast by the sun and the stars which punctuate the night sky. All of life is covered and uncovered. As we reflect on our own lives, and today on Gerrit’s life, we do so with humility, limited vision, and a sense of awe in the setting of time, from beginning to end, that God has created for us to live in, think, act, play, weep and work.
There is for all of us a time and a place to be born. For Gerrit, it was August, 1933, Amsterdam. Netherlands means “low country.” Over twenty percent of the land area is below sea level. Generations of extracting peat from an already flat terrain resulted in sunken land levels vulnerable to flooding. But ingenuity and hard work created a system of drainage and dikes to control the forces of water. Holland is a land of cities and urban, sophisticated culture; it is the home great masters such as Van Gogh and Rembrandt. Unlike mostly royals, The Dutch Queen Beatrix rides a bike as do most of her subjects. Holland is known for its windmills and tulips the world over. The national color is orange. Last year, Holland was ranked as the happiest country in the world. Hoe haat het? Ja goed. Gerrit was through and through Dutch – his DNA containing the strong elements of his nation’s character – curiosity, humor, creativity, and regard for welfare of all humankind.
There is a time to grow. Gerrit was just six years old when Nazi Germany invaded Holland on May 10, 1940. Young children adapt quickly to their circumstances, however grim and frightening. For a young boy, there was the excitement of streets with tanks and soldiers with guns. But then neighbors began to disappear and the strain of occupation to weigh on psyche and soul. There were food shortages and hunger. A family connection to a local bakery was a lifeline. It was Gerrit who risked riding his bike after dark in violation of the curfew laws to retrieve a loaf of bread set aside for his family. Gerrit was twelve when the war ended. Hopefully, you will hold in your memory the image of a smiling man, who held within a deep joy for life. But in that face was also the experience of war, indelibly marked with sadness and loss on a personal and national level.
There is a time to build up and break down. After the war, Gerrit served in the Dutch navy. He violated his own rule not to volunteer for anything when his unit was asked if anyone knew some English. He raised his hand, knowing at least some words in English, which led to training in the United States and an assignment on the other side of the globe in Dutch New Guinea. During this time, he was married and had two daughters – Karin and Lestari, who now each have three children of their own. Gerrit’s military background and language skills helped him begin a career at KLM, the Dutch national airline. As a purser, or head attendant, he worked in what was then the glamorous world of international air travel, with roundtrip flights between Amsterdam and New York and other world capitals. After seven years of the jet set life, and the toll it was taking on his family, Gerrit left KLM and opened a small restaurant with his wife. If you want to spend more time with family, this wasn’t the way to do it. After a year, Gerrit started in industrial sales, which was the path for rest of his career.
There is a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing. For many reasons known and unknown, Gerrit’s marriage to his first wife unraveled. Relationships with his daughters were strained. There were arguments, distance and separation. But in time, with Karin and Lestari, there would be reconciliation. It would be the genuine and heartfelt words, “I’m sorry” coming from the man who once seemed so formidable and so large - words that healed and transformed their relationships.
There is a time to love. In the late 1980s, the lives of Ginnie and Gerrit would intersect. Both working at the same global corporation in different countries. A meeting in England is where their paths would cross. In a cold meeting room, Gerrit offered his jacket to Ginnie. Christmas cards were exchanged. A romance began and led to the altar to my left. The picture of Ginnie and Gerrit on their wedding day says so much about a time of joy and happiness, two people who found each other and made their vows to hold, to cherish and to love. So much fell into place that was right – experienced so wonderfully in the times that they would just sit together, tell stories and laugh for hours. It was also at this altar where Gerrit was baptized and marked as Christ’s own forever. A time for Gerrit to know God’s love for him – both unconditionally and complete.
There is a time to love even more. The symptoms began to appear in odd and vexing ways. Gerrit’s tools in the basement workshop were no longer impeccably sorted. A household project that normally would have been easily accomplished became difficult and unfinished. He was more irritable and lost interest in many of the hobbies he enjoyed. It was several years before the diagnosis was vascular dementia. A referral to Rush University and involvement with a support group was a godsend for Gerrit and Ginnie. Breaking the isolation and connecting to others in a similar situation was healing in itself. The passage from 1st Corinthians that we have heard today was read at Ginnie and Gerrit’s wedding and was lived out so extraordinarily in their marriage. For the second half of their marriage, the spotlight shifted clearly to Ginnie, who practiced the essence of love, in self-giving, patience, kindness and endurance, in the face of her beloved’s inability to reciprocate as he would have so desperately wanted to. Ginnie and Gerrit’s family and this church community have witnessed their journey with awe, and as we commend Gerrit to God’s rest, we stand and surround Ginnie with our love, our thanks and profound respect.
The preacher tells us that we have been given minds to have a sense of past and future, but we cannot and never will comprehend the totality of a given life let alone the expanse of time that God has set forth. But even with limited ability, we see a life before us of all that is under heaven, of birth and death, building up and breaking down, weeping and laughter, of joy and anger, of what is Dutch and what is American, of what is health and what is illness and what is love, and we give thanks to God for Gerrit.