The Present Tense
an Alumni Board devotional
by Stu Greydanus '72

The Calvin Alumni Board meets three times a year and works hard at planning and programming. But worship is also an important element of each meeting and Board members often deliver eloquent reflection and praise. Here is one such example. — Ed.

Stu Greydanus
Stu Greydanus '72

October. October evokes memories, is nostalgic, turns orange with Indian summer days and evenings that adumbrate winter. Not quite Thanksgiving for Americans but enough to be thankful for—for Canadians.

My memories of October are vivid. In 1957 my dad took us out beneath the evening sky in Hawthorne, N.J., to see Sputnik. Now I show the video "October Sky" to my high school classes who think of 1957 with a more distant perspective than I did the Great War.

In October all of us elementary kids in North 4th Street Christian School would sit on cast-off carpets in the basement and see the black-and-white, 16-mm Reformation Day movie of Martin Luther nailing his 95 "feces" on the Wittenberg door. That was our joke—95 feces.

Once at an Honors Convocation, John Timmerman told us to remember these stories—these stories being all the liberal arts to be learned at Calvin. Here's the October story I remember best.

Every time I have come to the meetings for the Alumni Board, I have carried a copy of Ben Jonson's "To Penshurst" in my folder. It is the touchstone reason why I am here. Without October there is no sense of timelessness. "Octo"-ber is a trick—the eighth month after the ninth. It is the month when I think of the present tense that invades the past and future or as T.S. Eliot wrote:

"Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past."

In October of 1969, I was sitting in a class on the Franklin Campus, 17th Century English Literature with Stan Wiersma. It was the time when students would register for classes on Franklin Campus just to touch the past—there was something heroic in making Franklin relevant during the nascence of Knollcrest. We were studying Ben Jonson's "To Penshurst." Stan asked, "What is the key to the whole poem?"

There were incredibly bright people in that class—people who went on to make movies and write and think for a career. Conversely me—I usually sat next to my cousin, Connie Steensma. She was at least a familiar face, and we were both feeling nostalgic at the time for all the things Spyksma and ancestral back in New Jersey while wanting to rebel against all things nostalgic and home.

Stan was in fine form, and the students' insights into the poem were manifestations of cerebrations beyond metaphysical comprehension. But with each suggested insight, Stan would laugh and lean back and say in a high, drawn-out sigh, "No."

I whispered to Connie, "Jonson changes tense in the last lines of the poem."

She looked at me in a somewhat exaggerated gesture of awe. "That's it."

I said, "Go ahead, tell him," nodding toward Wiersma.

She said, "No, you tell him."

I said, "No."

She hit me.

Stan looked somewhat surprised by this show of violence in the 17th century and asked why Connie was hitting me. She said, "He knows the answer but won't say."

So Stan asked, and I had to answer and explain the poem. The key is in the present tense.

Ben Jonson is lamenting the passing of Penshurst, which will go the way of urban development or at least a move from Franklin to Knollcrest. There will be many people at dedications of buildings and architects and engineers who will successfully divide or proportion the estate. Here's what Jonson wrote:

"Now, Penshurst, they that will
     proportion thee
With other edifices,
     when they see
Those proud, ambitious heaps,
     and nothing else,
May say their lords have built,
     but thy lord dwells."

But the essence of what is Penshurst dwells—is continuous, is perpetually present tense.

And so I was introduced to Stan Wiersma and he to me. Later classes at Knollcrest, one in the basement of Rooks Hall, lacked the view of October-colored Franklin trees and the creak of wooden desks and well-worn risers. But that which was Stan Wiersma dwells.

Think for a moment of Stan Wiersma's "Streets of Franklin," and of Sietze Buning's "Style and Class" and "Purpaleanie."

That which is Calvin dwells.

Here we are suspended, as it were, timelessly between two Thanksgivings, ready to give thanksgiving for new bricks and mortar. How similar to the proportioning of Penshurst! How similar to the images of light and music and the metaphysical conceits of the 17th century.

Stan's love of the 17th century was based in his love of the Psalms. It was in his living room at 1330 Logan that we sang Psalms while he played the piano. Mary and I got engaged there. We drank sherry there with Stan on happy and sad occasions. We wrote our wedding litany with Stan, and later he wrote Calvin's first graduation litany—inspired, he said, by our wedding.

We took our daughters to visit Stan's grave in Amsterdam and to visit Stan's friend, Christopher Fry, at his home in England. There Fry told us of his mentor, T.S. Eliot, and the timeless connections of poetry. It is the poetry that makes the mortar immortal.

Psalm 98 plays this game so well—it's all present tense yet we are inclined to sing it, thinking we celebrate a past event, forgetting that even in song it is in the present tense. In the Psalm there's music, and rivers clap and mountains sing. So with buildings, so with brick and mortar. The builders have built, but what is there sings and the lessons dwell.

Psalm 98

Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth,
     burst into jubilant song with music;

make music to the Lord with the harp,
     with the harp and the sound of singing,

with trumpets and the blast of the ram's horn—
     shout for joy before the Lord, the King.

Let the sea resound, and everything in it,
     the world, and all who live in it.

Let the rivers clap their hands;
     let the mountains sing together for joy;

let them sing before the Lord,
     for he comes to judge the earth.

He will judge the world in righteousness
     and the peoples with equity.