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Sietze’s Gamble and His Big Heart (a Memory of Stan Wiersma)

By March 1, 2013 No Comments

by Ronald A. Wells

I began writing this story on All Saints Day, but I didn’t finish it then. Now, looking forward to Easter and to our communion with those for whom death has been conquered, it still seems appropriate. It is about the best storyteller the Dutch community has produced in the past fifty years. Stan Wiersma was a professor of English at Calvin College for many years, a career that ended with his untimely death twenty-seven years ago. His scholarly life was showing the results of the promise many thought he had. The fruit of his sabbatical year in England— working on, and with, Christopher Fry—was published by Loyola University Press as More than the Ear Discovers: God in the Plays of Christopher Fry. It is a pity we didn’t hear more from Stan as a scholar, because he was developing some very good ideas.

At the same time, I am grateful that we heard a great deal from Stan as a folk poet. Writing under the pen name Sietze Buning, Stan found his voice, as one scholar suggests, “from the past and the present…a voice of embarrassment and admiration, simplicity and sophistication.”1 Readers who don’t know Sietze Buning, or who haven’t read him for thirty years, would delight in reading Purpaleanie and Other Permutations (1978) and Style and Class (1982).

I thought of Stan recently for two reasons. He was godfather to our son, Christopher, who was born and baptized in England the year that Stan, Irene, and their boys lived in Chichester. I am sorry that Stan didn’t see him grow up to be a promising theologian. I also thought of Stan recently when there was a story on the news about people who had won the lottery and how it changed their lives. I smiled in remembrance of a time, I think in the early 1980s, when Stan bought a lottery ticket.

As I later heard the story from Stan, he had not intended to buy a lottery ticket, though he had thought about doing so several times. One day when he was at Meijer Thrifty Acres, a local grocery store, he needed to go to the service desk for something. People were lined up to buy lottery tickets because there was a big jackpot pending. The clerk asked Stan how many tickets he wanted. Before he could think much about it, he said he’d buy one. He paid a dollar and put the ticket in his pocket. And so began, innocently enough, an agonizing four days until the drawing.

Over the next few days Stan was in turmoil. As he later told me, he thought of his parents and what they would say if they had known their son was involved in gambling. He said he’d tell them it wasn’t like playing poker or going to a casino, but he knew they wouldn’t buy it. Stan asked me if he should call his pastor, Rev. Clarence Boomsma, for advice. He’d offer to give half the winnings to Calvin Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, and wouldn’t that make it okay? I thought it would be better to wait on calling Boomie (as we all called him, but never to his face) until the lottery winner was announced.

Stan, a man of fully orbed Calvinist conscience, thought of the ways this whole thing was pulling him. He foresaw the headlines in the Grand Rapids Press: “Calvin Prof Wins Lottery and Gives Half to Church.” His creative and imaginative mind could also see the letters to The Banner that decried this son of the Christian Reformed Church—and from rural Iowa at that—having sinned so badly. His soul was troubled by all this. Stan speculated about a new career that might await him if he had to quit his job at Calvin. Even in his dreams he was tormented. One night he dreamed that he won a large sum—too big to give away—but not enough to sustain his family if he were fired from Calvin.

This small event seems insignificant now, some two and a half decades since his passing. But I tell it because it reveals so much about the unique person, and expansive soul, who gave us so much in his too-short life. Stan, especially in the voice of Sietze, was a man of immense tenderness and vulnerability. Even though he spoke often of grace, he was all too aware of the pull from the things of this world. Therefore he was slow to judge, and showed compassion to those who had fallen. This came out in the poem “Excommunication,” about the young man, Bennie Ploegster, who was to be excommunicated for repeated alcoholism, but who remained loyal enough to the church to attend his own service of excommunication, and continued to attend church even after that. One also sees it in the poem “Obedience,” about his own family losing a crop of oats to a forecasted storm rather than work on Sunday. The family knew the Lord would provide if they were faithful. But Stan was still a bit troubled by his father’s choice.

Stan was very relieved when the winning lottery number was announced on Saturday and it wasn’t his. He could go to church the next day and listen to Boomie, glad he hadn’t troubled the dominie. But later Stan told me with his characteristically wicked wink—both of us with Heinekens in hand—that he still sometimes wondered about what sort of interesting life might have beckoned him after the disgrace of being fired from Calvin College.

This son of British immigrants to New England is glad to have known that son of Dutch immigrants to Iowa. We shared a great deal because of Stan’s expansive spirit, which gave us all so many insights into our humanity and our lives in God’s grace. I think of him regularly now that he is with Johanna Veenstra and William Spoelhof by the Sea of Crystal. As he taught me to appreciate in a new way, singing it for me one day, I say of, and for, his life: “Ere zij God in den hoge.” Glory to God in the highest.

Ronald A. Wells is emeritus professor of history at Calvin College. He is now mostly retired in Tennessee, where he also directs the Symposium on Faith and the Liberal Arts at Maryville College. His recent book, coedited with James D. Bratt, is The Best of the Reformed Journal (Eerdmans, 2012).