The final Sunday at Grace Presbyterian Church, my first call in the dairyland of Wisconsin, Chuck Dykstra came up to me before worship and said, “I’m angry.”
Surprised, I said I was sorry. We looked at each other with love. No other words passed between us—we both understood. We hadn’t talked about it before and didn’t again. Chuck did me the kindness of expressing his firm disapproval of my action and that was the end of it.
The process of resigning the call had been done decently and in order. After getting counsel from others, praying and (I believed) receiving the Lord’s answer that I was to take the new call, the matter was put to the congregation for their decision and they voted to allow me to resign my call, and promote my assistant pastor, Nathan Kline, to replace me. Nathan was there sixteen years and was a faithful shepherd to the flock.
Leaving for Bloomington, Indiana, I took up the call to a church which was in deep turmoil, and had been for years. Hundreds of souls had left in the previous three years and the session was so badly divided that one of their first actions when I arrived was to bring in an older pastor to work with them in conflict resolution. He failed, meaning they refused to make peace with each other. The point is the new congregation was no plum to be picked; no good ship to which I was jumping.
Yet Chuck was angry, and he was right to tell me so. He hadn’t told others. He spoke directly to me. He didn’t argue. He said it and that was that. He did me the dignity of expressing his disapproval and anger and I did him the dignity of receiving it in love, and not trying to change his mind.
We saw each other a number of times in the years that followed, most recently when Mary Lee and I went up to join in the weekend celebration of the church’s thirtieth anniversary. Grace Presbyterian Church had been founded when the yoked parish of First Presbyterian Church and Rosedale Presbyterian Church of Cambria had voted on leaving the Presbyterian Church (USA) and joining the Presbyterian Church in America.
It had taken two years of joint elders meetings between the two churches to make the decision, and in the end the decision was unanimous on the part of the elders of both congregations. Still, the process had been painful. Small towns and farm communities go back generation after generation. They live next to each other, do field work and milk for each other, marry their children to each other, belong to the same church and are buried next to each other in the church graveyard, so they fiercely resist change which inevitably means conflict.
The elders made their final decision after they all attended a meeting of our John Knox Presbytery over in Dubuque. It was a critical time in the life of the PC(USA) and the presbytery meeting had demonstrated the commitment of the local presbytery to follow the denomination’s leaders in showing (as they saw it) compassion for gays by voting to approve gays serving as pastors and elders.
After the meeting, we went into a room and sat down to talk before climbing in separate cars and beginning our long trip home. All the elders were sickened by what they had seen and heard. The pastor who preached in the presbytery worship service was Craig Barnes, a known evangelical who served the church in Madison where a number of leaders from Inter-Varsity’s national office held their membership, and his sermon was carefully nuanced while making it clear he would be no obstacle to the repudiation of Scripture’s condemnation of sodomy. Our time together was characterized by the silence of the disheartened, and in the end, one elder spoke for all, saying to me, “Tim, we thought you were exaggerating how bad the denomination is, but it’s even worse than you said.”
So the elders all reported their judgments to our congregations and each congregation took a vote on leaving for the PCA. The vote was split in the town church, but in the country parish where Chuck served, the people voted overwhelmingly in favor of leaving. Still, both churches were divided with friends and relatives on both sides of the vote. It was painful, and this was the context of the two years before I asked to resign my call. All this to defend Chuck’s anger and condemnation: as he saw it, I was abandoning the ship while it was riding the storm and taking on water. I have explained above some of the reasons for the decision, as well as trying to clarify that the ship I was moving to was in much worse shape. Yet, loving and respecting Chuck as I did, there was no question he might be right in his judgments, and I might be wrong.
Why did I have such love and respect for Chuck?
Chuck was maybe 6’ 4”, and likely the best hunter, trapper, and fisherman in the county. For forty years, he served as Cambria’s barber, and he was famous for his excellence at trap shooting, again and again being named “Top Gun.” A man’s man, I’ve often explained his manliness by saying that, every church potluck or picnic, Chuck would quietly approach the most recent mother, asking if he could hold her little one, then stand and talk for fifteen or thirty minutes with the baby nestled in his strong arms, peacefully asleep. No joke, I watched and rejoiced in this countless times. What a testimony of Biblical manhood. What loving care for the ewes and lambs of his flock.
Before I came to know Chuck, I came to know his mother, Josie. Soon after arriving at their church, I was greeting the congregation in the doorway after morning worship and a very tall elderly woman stopped to say a word to me. Later I learned who she was, but all I knew at the time was her saying to me quietly, “Here’s a list of some Old Testament Minor Prophets. We don’t ever hear sermons from the Minor Prophets. Maybe you could preach from them?” She shook my hand, pressed a scrap of paper into my palm, and with a smile, was gone.”
Not long afterward, Josie died and I was privileged to be in her bedroom as her brother, Sam Westra, bid her goodbye. Sam was even taller than Josie and Chuck, although in his nineties, his stoop had long since robbed him of some of his glory. Sam was godly, too. My first home visit, I entered his little house and noticed his Bible. It was large print, so the spine was maybe four inches thick. It sat on a shelf under his telephone hanging on the wall, and the page edges were dirty with use. What joy that gave me. Later, I heard from neighbors that, during the years Sam’s wife was in the nursing home, “We could set our watches by Sam driving by every day on his way to brush her hair.”
The family was attending Josie’s death in her bedroom at home. Chuck was there with his dear, godly wife, Sharon. Sam had an eye condition that left him unable to drive after dusk, so as the evening set in, Sam went to Josie’s bedside, leaned way over, and kissed her. Standing back up, he lifted his right hand, waved, said “I’ll see you there,” and was gone. Soon Josie was gone, too.
When Chuck died three days ago, I had just received a picture of him in his bed with his wife there at his bedside. What tender love they had for each other. Sharon was one of a few women of those churches who led the women and families of the church in wisdom and godliness. And as such women do, by God’s design, Sharon led her husband and pastor in godliness also. As her mother-in-law had done before her. When Chuck passed into the presence of the Lord, he and Sharon had been married sixty-seven years.
While I was serving as their shepherd, we shared the terrible grief of their loss of their daughter, Julie. A young mother who suffered through a sickness and was taken by the Lord, leaving her husband and young children utterly forlorn. It was so painful, holding Julie’s funeral out in the little country church, then burying her. But all of it was done in faith. The prayers for healing not answered as we wished, there was not bitterness and resentment at God’s decree, but by faith, solemn acceptance and the hard work of serving their son-in-law and his children through their grief. Too, a granddaughter was born with special needs and the family showed to any and all that life was precious. They had tender love for her and her family, and they cared for her.
Were they against abortion?
Oh yes, relentlessly and publicly and biblically so.
In the end, one moment in this godly, humble, kind, faithful, and manly man’s life stands out to me, his pastor.
At the time, there were four elders serving the church. It was a session meeting just a couple years after I took up the call, and we were meeting that evening in an elder’s home at her dining room table. She was in her eighties and had just started serving as an elder, but as soon as she was elected, I learned that she didn’t believe in the inspiration of Scripture. The first session meeting of her term, I’d given her a ride, and after the meeting when I pulled into her driveway to drop her off, before opening the door she turned to me and said, “Timothy, you and I are going to have problems with each other. You believe the Bible is God’s Word and I believe the Bible is men’s words.” That was all, and she got out of the car and went into her house.
This was a few meetings later. Meeting in her house around her table, she asked if she could talk, and producing maybe five or six pages of a legal pad covered in red ink, she explained the church was not doing well financially. She did so in great detail, although all of it was bunk. The church had less than a hundred members and its budget was small, not presenting much of a challenge at all to the congregation to fulfill. Nevertheless, it’s always possible and often undertaken by the faithless to use money as a weapon to oppose the preaching of God’s Word. Of course, this was her conclusion: “Timothy, if you keep preaching the way you are, we’re going to go bankrupt.”
What was I to say?
Nothing. It wasn’t possible or even right to defend myself at that moment, so the five of us sat there in silence. Only in the pastorate a couple years fresh out of seminary, I was young and inexperienced, and sat there fearful that she would intimidate the three younger men.
That was foolish and faithless of me.
After a minute or two, Chuck opened his Bible and said, “I’d like to read something.” With no other comment, he began:
I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths. But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. -2Timothy 4:1-5
Closing his Bible, he said quietly, “This is what’s going on here.”
Now you know the godly influence of Chuck Dykstra and his wife, Sharon. Good reader, it should now be clear to you why I felt nothing but love and respect for Chuck when he condemned my action and told me he was angry with me. There are few men whose anger has ever been as important and treasured by me. What a man. What a dear brother in Christ. What a shepherd of God’s sheep.
This is a tribute I’m writing to comfort and strengthen Chuck’s wife and family who are now mourning his absence, and you are privileged to here meet him secondhand. His family knows Chuck’s sins as you know the sins of your own pastors and elders, as well as your own. God is pleased to use sinners to build up his church, and this is the most important work Chuck and Sharon did. They were not alone in this work. I have many other stories of the godly men and women of those churches, and now Grace Presbyterian Church (PCA).
Here and now, though, it is time to tell Chuck’s story so those who never knew him might be strengthened for their own work. Meanwhile, I praise God Who sent this young pastor such godly men and women to lead and rebuke and teach him. May God bless the memory of Chuck Dykstra to all who knew and loved him, that they too may make a good confession in their blessed Savior Jesus Christ, and do so publicly so that many will see and hear, and be strengthened for the fight of faith.