For a Celebration of Gerald Vandezande’s hope and life

An unusual person has left our company on this earth, he who was a relentless, indefatigable and blessed peace-maker. Gerald changed the direction of my life for good, as he did for many others.

So as friends and acquaintances we mourn the loss of Gerald with you family members who will now miss husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, brother, uncle, and fellow believer. But we also offer joyful thanks to God for Gerald’s stimulating life among us these years as he championed the cause of bringing compassionate justice to others, especially those who had no advocate, like the poor, in the circles of governing power.

There are two Scripture passages Gerald chose for us to hear at this time after he passed away, to remember him by. The first one is the testimony of the apostle Paul in God’s letter to Paul’s son in the faith, Timothy. This is the biblical passage which the influential pastor in Sarnia Christian Reformed Church, A.B.C. Hofland used to challenge 21 year old Gerald when he made public profession of his faith in Jesus Christ (I Timothy 6:11-16):

…But you, O man of God, run away from such matters [slippery teachings and gunning for money]! Instead, pursue doing justice, simple piety, faithfulness, selfless love, steadfast endurance, a gentleness of spirit. Wrestle the good struggle of being faithful: [that is,] get a good grip on the everlasting life to which you were called when you made the right public profession in the presence of many witnesses.

I, (Paul,) charge you, (Timothy,) in the presence of God who brings all things to life, and in the presence of Jesus Christ who made the right public declaration to Pontius Pilate: I charge you to obey the ordinance(s) [of God just mentioned] unbesmirched, irreproachably, until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ which he, the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of (all other) lordly rulers, will bring about at precisely the right time. Jesus Christ is the only one who has immortality, dwelling in unapproachable fiery light whom nobody has ever seen or is able to see: to him be honour and everlasting ruling power, Amen.

This biblical injunction, as I see it, both motivated and protected Gerald throughout his life. When he and Wynne fostered and adopted children, negotiated as labour union representative with hostile management and antagonistic unions, made submissions to the hands-off Canadian government, he did not have to insure the consequences. All God required of him was to wrestle the struggle of being faithful to what counts in the long run: simply testifying to the loving, healing, just-doing that Jesus proclaimed in practice.

Gerald’s deeds were never subversive but, in line with Scripture, were thoroughly, bluntly ingenuous and winsome, because he never considered people of other faiths or of radically different positions to be enemies! They were all neighbours you tried to help see the needs of the weak and disenfranchised — cannot we rally around that in God’s world?!

The gospel passage Gerald asked me to read is from the Newer Testament recorded by Matthew (9:10-13):

…And it happened that as Jesus was reclining at a meal in (despised Jewish tax-collector-for-the-hated-Roman-government) Matthew’s house, what do you know! Many tax collectors and low-down sinners were coming to recline at dinner with Jesus and his disciples. Seeing this the Pharisees said to Jesus’ disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with the tax-collectors and scummy sinners?” So when Jesus heard this, he said, “The healthy have no need of a healer, but those who are sick need a healer. Go and learn what this means (and Jesus quotes the Hebrew Scriptures to the rabbinical leaders, Hosea 6:6): ‘I, (the LORD God,) desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I did not come, (says Jesus) to call out righteous people, but to invite sinners.”

This true story captures something deep in the life attitude of Gerald. And I do not intend to imply that all the MPs in Ottawa, provincial politicians, and veteran journalists Gerald thrived on meeting with are “sinners.” But Gerald was driven by the Spirit in Jesus to make all kinds of people, especially those who were ignorant of redemptive wisdom, sensitive to the godsend of freely distributing mercy to those unjustly injured (rather than do-gooding which gives you yourself credits.) Gerald could and did meet and mix with anyone, persistently presenting with self-effacing humour that which would help those who were being denied the means to be responsible persons living in hope. Confronted by hard-hearted opposition never phased Gerald, since he had nothing to lose: he was only a spokesperson for those who had no voice on the civil social-economic and political scene.

What did irritate him, I know, in his later years, was the distrustful criticism of close fellow Christians who were too slow of heart to accept the practical implications of co-operating with others — Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Humanists — actually doing restorative justice, actually showing loving mercy in public deed, while simply walking humbly with and trusting God (Micah 6:8). Why do so many confessing Christians fail to put the gospel of loving enemies into correcting societal practices? Disbelievers often seem better than Jesus people in the project of bringing tangible renewal for God’s creatures….

Gerald was not an arm-chair follower of Jesus Christ. He was also not politically partisan, not a pressure lobbyist. His generous gift was, in circumstances where no good alternatives seemed possible, to counsel whoever would listen, a normative step which when taken might bring structural change, a shift in policy or vision, that could lead to openings which would engender fruits of shalom.

As Moses was told by God to raise up a bronze serpent so those who looked at it would be healed of their plague (Numbers 21:4-9), so I take the thrust of the Scripture passages Gerald selected to be his living testimony for us today as a banner to take away our sadness, and gird our loins to bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ (Galatians 6:2).

God’s Word for Timothy and the young Gerald, and Jesus’ dining with Matthew and Jesus’ terse instruction to the orthodox leaders, mean that not death but life with and in Jesus Christ may be our focus today, thanks to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Gerald is not in the grave. He is with Jesus whom he loved and served while he sparkled here on earth.

Let me say a Word from God particularly for you younger family members, who all have been baptized as God’s adopted children.

Jesus loved your grandfather and uncle even more than your grandfather and uncle loved you. The happy way he took Jason to Europe, Jesus is taking him now on a trip to heaven — no more bleeding, no more stroke-difficulty to read, no more need to use a walker. Like earlier days, without depression, no longer feeling neglected, and without frustration at seeing his good ideas remain unfulfilled, he is now free…to rest, believe it or not.

Life is a gift we humans have on loan from God. At a certain time God asks for the loan back. Therefore, your life time is a rich treasure, because you live on God’s time given to you. It’s hard to give back such a good gift, but when God asks, it’s okay.

You young ones who are baptized: God wants you as well as your believing parents and grandparents to live thankfully with God present with you now, in this life with its troubles and joys. Enjoy this living on God’s time by listening to the Lord talking to you in the Bible, showing you love in the company of believers, Christ’s meeting you in the face of every neighbour you come across (cf. Matthew 25:31-46). Someday you too, like me, will need to give our borrowed time back to God, and go to be with the Lord forever.

I should like to end by telling you just one simple early memory I have of Gerald, the kind of moments of grace I shall sorely miss.

With a group of others I went swimming with Gerald in Lake Simcoe in the mid-1960s after an exhausting couple days of conference meetings. We changed our clothes to swim suits in a public open shelter. As an American I was trying un-handily to gather up my belongings and notebooks to take along to the seaside since there were no lockers in the change shelter. But Gerald said about our clothes, “Oh, leave them here. If somebody really needs them and takes them, that’s fine.”

That was my unforgettable introduction to the spirit of the Christian Labour Association of Canada, which was of a piece to understanding in later years the need for us personally to repent of Growth economics, the insight of a necessary National repentance for past unjust treatment of aboriginals in the land, and the many sweet consternating, trenchant proposals Gerald could come up with in Citizens for Public Justice endeavours, along with his mischievous under-the-breath motto: gewoon gelovig doordonderen (just normally keep on faithfully pushing forward).

I am deeply grateful to God for Gerald and Wynne’s having fostered in me as an academically trained person with a fishmonger background a societal conscience that has greatly enriched my life on earth and made it a joy with my wife and children to wrestle to be faithful in seeking first of all, the Kingdom Rule of God.

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