I knew death was part of life when I was 9 and ended up in the hospital severely underweight and weak, having suffered malnutrition due to a digestive issue. Fear of death was part of my being, but the idea of life and its impact on others was not.
A year or so before that time, my grandparents moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, to begin a business venture. It never came to pass, and my grandfather, an ordained Presbyterian pastor, went back to work as a visitation pastor. My grandfather is an old school, traditional reformed pastor. Since he grew up in the Swiss Reformed church, you really could not expect anything less from him.
Every summer, my mother and I would spend time with my grandparents. By the time I was around 12, I started to go alone. Through junior high and high school, I dedicated a good portion of every summer to my grandparents. While much of our visits were focused on eating out, watching M*A*S*H, and playing cribbage, the struggle with the deeper faith questions always seemed to come up. As I listened and learned, I began to grow in my emerging adult identity; my grandfather was there to give a spiritual direction to my life.
The most surprising discussion started when my grandfather proclaimed, “I do not want a eulogy at my funeral.” It was one of those discussions you feel in your stomach, profound and moving in every way. As a teenager, this was not a discussion I was expecting to have, or really wanted. You never want to think of people you love dying. Sensing this, he asked me if I had ever read the Heidelberg Catechism. I had not. At that point, I doubt I knew much of anything about the confessions.
His demeanor soon changed as a new spark came into his eye. The sense of the room changed as he started to speak about the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism.
Q. 1. What is your only comfort, in life and in death?
A. That I belong—body and soul, in life and in death—not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ, who at the cost of his own blood has fully paid for all my sins and has completely freed me from the dominion of the devil; that he protects me so well that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, that everything must fit his purpose for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life, and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.
He talked about how the Heidelberg Catechism was written by two young theologians from Heidelberg. He taught me how it reconciled the traditions of the Reformed movement of southern Europe with the Lutheran (or evangelical) movements of northern Europe to help form the Evangelical and Reformed tradition. He related how it became the primary catechism for much of the reformed movement. Like many in the Swiss Reformed Church, he had to memorize it when he was confirmed.
But this was only setting the stage. For my grandfather, this statement gave doctrine to a church and tradition. It was a witness to the way we are to understand our lives and purpose in this world. While some can make a big deal about this statement and salvation, for my grandfather it was simply about how we as Christians order our lives.
As a teenager, I began to resonate with that message. It showed what was important and what was not. It reinforced the idea that the things that matter in life are not what we want, but what God wants for us; things that are kinder and more full of pleasure than what we want for ourselves. However, getting to that point can be difficult. For most teenagers, including me, that was a reality – a part of life. Through this teaching, my grandfather instilled an understanding that when we put God first, then and only then are we making our way down the right path and celebrating the gifts that God has given to us.
Now that I am much older, I do find it fascinating to look at that question brought up in the Heidelberg catechism, because even today, it is not a conservative statement; it is a radical one. In American society, the belief that is stated requires believers to completely let go and give themselves over to God. In my heart, I now read the statement as one of hope. As a typical, awkward teenager, a young seminary student, or a settled pastor, there is always a part of me trying to figure out who I was, am now, and am going to be. I, like my grandfather, find a certain comfort knowing that my identity was not something that depended on me alone or what others thought. My identity was, is, and ever will be bonded to my belonging to God.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen