Telling the truth, marking a death

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note from Jamie Howison:  What follows here is the text of the sermon preached by Calvin Seerveld on June 6 at the memorial service held to mark the death of Gerald Folkerts.  As I listened to Cal preach, I thought to myself how much I hope that words like this might be preached at my own funeral, whenever that might come.  The context here, of course, is for someone who has died too young; at 51 Gerald should have had more life to live.  Yet he did die well – reconciled, prepared, and finally in a place of acceptance.  At the end of the sermon is a list of the other articles and material that were posted on this site over the course of Gerald’s nine month battle with cancer.


S

ong for the Gravel road journey: Psalm 121

I lift up my eyes to the range of mountains (there).
From where will my help come?
“My help comes from the LORD God!
the One who made heaven and earth.”
The LORD God will not suffer your foot to slip and stagger you.
The One who is caring for you will not fall asleep–
That’s right! the One who is guarding (God’s people) Israel
shall never fall in sleep, never goes to sleep!
The LORD God is (permanently) taking care of you.
The LORD God! is a protective shadow over your right hand.
The sun shall never strike you during the day,
nor the moon strike you in the night time.
The LORD God self shall keep you from all kinds of evil.
The LORD God is caring for your very life breath.
The LORD God will watch over your goings-out and your comings-in,
from this time onwards and for ever and ever and evermore.

Psalm 73
1 Yes, certainly, God is good to those in Israel who are at heart pure.
2 But as for me, my feet almost tripped me up;
because of almost nothing, my walk stumbled somewhat off track….
21 …when I got all riled up in my inmost gut of a heart–
when I let myself be stabbed in my kidneys,
22 why then, I got so burned up I didn’t have a clue–
I was like a growling maddened beast there with you!]
23 Nevertheless, I was/I am continually there with you, (O God):
You hold me tight by my right hand;
24 You did/You do keep on leading me with your wise counsel;
and afterwards, finally…You shall take me along (to) glory!
25 Who do I have in heaven (but You)?!
and so long as I have You, there is nothing else earthy I want to have.
26 My flesh and the heart of me may give out,
but God is the rock-strength of my heart and my inheritance for ever and ever and ever!
27 Yes, take a good look: those who pull back from you, (O God,) go to pieces and get lost;
You finish off all those who let themselves be seduced and play false with You.
28 But for me it is so good when I snuggle close to God.
I have decisively made my Lord, the LORD God! my refuge,
in order to tell forth all your establishing deeds!

(Psalm translations ©Calvin Seerveld, used with permission)

This is not easy, but Gerald and Arlis’ decision to have us meditate on Psalm 121 and Psalm 73 is a gift, because we would like to snuggle close to God at this time. Gerald’s walking the gravel road journey has ended, and we hear the Psalmist’s exultant cry:

You held me tight by my right hand;
You did/You do keep on leading me with your wise counsel, (Lord),
and afterwards? finally…You shall take me along (to) glory!

When a 51 year old man coming into the prime of his life with artistic gifts is stricken by a cancerous brain tumour, as one of my friends said, “Unfair!”

What does Psalm 121 mean:

The sun shall never strike you during the day,
nor the moon strike you in the night time?

The Folkerts family read Psalm 121 every time they went on a trip. Not like a spiritual CAA insurance against accidents, but as a straightforward testimony: take good care of us, God; we know You do not fall asleep at the wheel.

But now we are gathered to hear our Lord hold us tight by the hand, so we can firmly believe and say, “Yes, we are not our own, but belong–body and soul, in life and in death–to our faithful Saviour Jesus Christ” (Heidelberg Catechism, 1563, Answer to question 1).

Psalm 121 is a simple childlike song pilgrims trekking to and from Jerusalem for the big annual feasts sang to one another on the way. Jesus probably sang song #121 on his 12 year old walk to the temple with his parents for the Passover (Luke 2:39-52). You walked through spectacular mountainous territory that could also be dangerous. So it was comforting on the road to know the Almighty LORD God who created the heavens–the hot sun and the strangely mysterious night moon–the mountains, and us humans breathing, walking, coming and going: the LORD God is taking care of you, guarding you as a people of God and as yourself from all kinds of evil.

God is a night watchman, an all-day guardian, an untiring care-giver, the faithful all-powerful One who holds your very life in that powerful, gentle grip of God’s hand. So don’t be afraid! Even if you don’t know exactly whether you are coming or going, the LORD God knows, watches, and shall take care of you as a child of God. That’s a fact, and a promise you can count on, says our Lord in Psalm 121.

Psalm 73 is tougher than 121, because Psalm 73 struggles in detail with actual life and death experiences, as the Job figure in the Bible did; and that’s where we are at today, as those who mourn that Gerald’s trek with us on the earthy road has ended.

We didn’t read all of Psalm 73, just the key last part which started with “Nevertheless”– Psalm 73 begins with the psalmist declaring, as if reassuring everybody in the worship setting:

Yes, certainly, God is good to those in Israel who at heart are pure;

and then goes on to confess:

But as for me, my feet almost tripped me up;
because of almost nothing, my walk stumbled somewhat off track.

And then the psalm takes us through the turmoil believers often have when seeing godless people enjoying all kinds of satisfactions (vv.3-9), while God’s children who try to be pure at heart still suffer and do not get an answer from God as to what’s going on? anyhow! (vv.10-16).

Suddenly the psalmist gets the insight, upon listening to the Holy One, that it is what happens finally at the end to people that makes the big difference. Sorry, God, when I was hollering at You like a stupid bellowing animal, without a clue as to what the score really was (vv.17-22); nevertheless I was then and I still am…continually with You! What follows (vv.23-28) is the moving testimony of God’s child who had almost gotten off track:

You hold me tightly by the hand, precious Lord, even when I slip.
My flesh and the heart of me may give out,
but You, everlastingly faithful LORD God, my Lord,
your presence–to be near You, O God [nabij God te zijn]–is all that I really want and need (v.28).

And You shall take me finally to glory, to be with You permanently (v.24)….

I have not known Gerald to holler at God. He was too settled into the faith, and quietly, surely knew Jesus Christ, the Son of God who walked this earth and himself sang Psalm 121, was his Saviour. The Gerald I knew was not bitter about the success and riches of others: he just consistently showed compassion himself toward those who seemed to be misfits in society, the forgotten ones. Artist Gerald Folkerts had decisively made the LORD God his refuge in order to tell forth the love of God which forgives sinners, takes care of the weak, and establishes a communion of unlikely saints.

The good news of the last part of Psalm 73 which we read is particularly fitting for this occasion, with its significant testimony to God, verse 24:

You did keep on leading me with your wise counsel;
and afterwards, finally…You shall take me along (to) glory!

Many years ago my wife and I bought one of Gerald’s early pencil drawings that ties into this very verse today. The drawing is about Elijah’s being taken up in a fiery chariot to glory, to be near God, after a tumultuous life in calling God’s people to worship the LORD faithfully, forsaking the idols of Queen Jezebel and King Ahab. The stars and planets of God’s heavens twinkle like little Christmas tree ornaments, and the big black ravens God had used at times to feed the forlorn prophet fly soberly past like huge airplanes over the earth filled with earthenware pots needing cooking oil. The drawing is titled “a double portion.”

That’s Gerald for you: the only other personage who like Elijah was “taken along to glory” without going through death was Enoch, who was “continually” walking with God, says the Bible (Genesis 5:21-24). But Gerald’s faith-filled point is not Elijah’s unusual assumption, but the request of his successor, the scrawny Elisha still on earth who earnestly and somewhat brashly had asked to inherit “a double portion” of Elijah’s spirit (II Kings 2:1-18, especially vv.9-18).

The drawing intimates that should be our request, we who still remain on the earth: give us…if not “double” (the first born’s portion of an inheritance), at least an adequate portion of the Holy Spirit, Lord, to carry on the gravel road journey, being held tightly by your hand.

Although Gerald did not get a fiery chariot direct and had to pass through “the last enemy,” death (I Corinthians15:26) — disappointing for him and extremely difficult the last while for Arlis and the family–Gerald is now secure. Just as Jesus Christ born on earth in the flesh, who died, was resurrected and “taken up in glory,” is a mystery, says the Bible (I Timothy 3:16); so too we mortals, our going to be with the Lord…finally…as God’s repentant, adopted children for ever and evermore is also a great, vindicating mystery (I Corinthians 15, especially vv.35-57)! Gerald testified with his life and his artistry that indeed “nothing–unfulfilled aspirations, losing your balance on the gravel road, heartache–nothing in life or even death can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:31-39).

Psalms 73 and 121 tell us that as we wait for the day “when our faith shall be sight…and the Lord shall descend” to reunite loved ones and wipe away all tears, remember that everlasting life can begin here on earth when in the communion of saints a person by faith knows your hand is being held by the LORD God, and you are safe despite appearances, come what may. “The LORD God will not suffer your foot to slip and stagger you.”

Arlis, Jared and Dana, Janis, Jesse, Brendan, Xavier and Shaela, mother, brothers and sister, and friends too many to count: may the peace that passes understanding–snuggling close to God–be with you in the lonely days which will come, and remember Psalm 73 and Psalm 121:

Though flesh and heart may give out,
the LORD God is the rock-strength of our life, and our inheritance forever!
The LORD God revealed in Jesus Christ shall watch over your goings-out and your comings-in
from this time onwards and for ever and ever and evermore.

Amen.

The following are links to other writings and materials connected to the life, work and death of Gerald Folkerts:

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