My God and I: A Spiritual Memoirby Lewis B. Smedes
In this moving spiritual memoir, finished shortly before his death in December 2002, Lewis Smedes, beloved teacher and best-selling author, takes readers through his own lifelong walk with God. In My God and I Smedes gives voice to both the struggles and the joys of his life, revealing his deepest questions to a God who would never let him go and expressing his eager anticipation of the day when, as God promises, all things will be made new. "It has been 'God and I' the whole way," Smedes writes. "Not so much because he has always been pleasant company. Not because I could always feel his presence when I got up in the morning or when I was afraid to sleep at night. It was because he did not trust me to travel alone." Yet My God and I is more than Smedes's personal account of his travels with God -- the theological odyssey that was his life. Like all his writings, this book also models and instructs. Through his honest confessions on the nature of Christian faith, Smedes offers gentle insights not just about God but also about human life and how it can and should be lived. And for those interested in the particulars of Smedes's professional life, these pages include many anecdotes by one whose career was linked closely with shifting currents in modern theology and with some of America's premier educational institutions. Above all, My God and I will provide a source of spiritual comfort to those who, like Smedes, continue to strive after the presence of God. It will also be a cherished good-bye for the many people who have been touched by the wisdom, wit, and charm of Lewis Smedes.
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MY GOD AND I
A Spiritual Memoir
By Lewis B. Smedes
William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
Copyright © 2003
Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
All right reserved.
My grandfather, my Pake, on my mother's side, was
Wytse Benedictus, a peat farmer and a Mennonite.
He lived near a small village called Rottevalle, which lies in
the center of Friesland, the northernmost province of the
Netherlands. While Friesland is indeed a province and not a
country, its people know that they are a race and culture
apart, with their own language and their own history, the
fiercest warriors of all the Gauls, according to Julius Caesar,
who knew what he was talking about. But since then, according
to Baedecker, the travel guide man, they have produced
nothing more interesting than an uncommon lot of
schoolteachers; he said it in mild derision, but most
Frisians would have taken it as a fine tribute. It was here
that the forebears of the Frisian Mennonites had settled after
their flight from persecution by the Swiss Reformers.
The Benedictus family had been Mennonites from before
the time the Mennonites named their movement after
the converted priest Menno Simons, the greatest of their
leaders. They were a peaceable people, these Mennonites,
radical children of the Protestant Reformation whom the
Calvinists and Lutherans contemptuously called Anabaptists
(ana being the equivalent of "again") because they baptized
adult converts by immersion even though they had already,
as newborn babies, been baptized by sprinkling in
the Reformed Church.
The Swiss Calvinists, in the words of a contemporary
wag, figured that if these Anabaptists wanted so badly to be
immersed, the Reformers would accommodate them by
By the seventeenth century, the Mennonites in Friesland
had begun to prosper, mostly because the land was ripe
with peat, which was used as fuel and sold mainly to Germany.
By the early sixteen hundreds, the Benedictus family
had become wealthy owners of a considerable peat estate
and by 1620 had built a modest manor on it. Pake Wytse is
in his early forties - the year being uncertain, but sometime
in the early 1880's - when we come upon him in the
Benedictus manor, unmarried and apparently destined to
remain so, a man highly regarded among the faithful for
both his Christian character and his worldly goods.
Not far from the Benedictus estate, in a hovel near
Rottevalle, lived a dirt-poor Frisian by the name of Reinder
van der Bij, not blessed with any land but well cursed with
many daughters - seven of them. Reinder could see no future
in daughters, certainly not in seven of them, so, as
most serfs in his circumstance did, he shipped all but the
oldest out to work as virtual slaves on richer people's farms.
One of the sisters was my grandmother Tjitske, who was
sent off at age twelve or thirteen.
For Tjitske's fourteen hours of daily labor she earned
two and half guilders (roughly four dollars) per year as a
supplement to the food she consumed and the space in the
barn that she occupied. She served one farmer until she was
nineteen, when she was seduced and made pregnant by a
roving carpenter. As soon as her belly betrayed her condition,
she was pointed to her master's door and told to carry
her baby along with her shame back to her father and
Reinder van der Bij, however, was not a man to be publicly
shamed by a harlot daughter, and so, with a proper Old
Testament curse, he sent her packing. No other Frisian
man was likely to open his door to a fallen woman, and she
took to begging in the streets. Her weeks or months on the
streets are blacked out; we know nothing of her until she is
rescued by Wytse and installed as a servant in the
Benedictus manor. However she came to the manor, Wytse
provided her a place to care for her newborn daughter and
then left her on her own to keep house in a manner proper
for a pure-of-heart Mennonite bachelor.
Sometime after he took her in from the streets, Wytse
discovered that she could be of even more help to him in
business than she was as a housekeeper. The trade in peat
was carried on by spoken words, a handshake, and an exchange
of cash. It was the spoken-words part that gave
Wytse trouble. He stuttered. He stuttered even more than
usual when he had a deal to make. So he was not offended
when the servant girl he had taken in off the street offered
to help him.
"Why don't you write your words down and let me speak
them for you?" she asked.
Good idea, he said, and so it was that the two of them became
working partners. Wytse swiftly became dependent
on Tjitske, who gradually took over the peat negotiations as
well as the management of the manor. Their working partnership
flowered into personal attachment, and on the 26th
of July in the year 1884, Wytse and Tjitske - destined now
to be my grandmother, my Beppe Tjitske - were married.
Both the Calvinists and the Mennonites assumed that the
obedient bride would convert to the religion of her benefactor
husband. But it was Wytse who pulled up his Mennonite
roots and replanted them in his bride's Reformed faith.
Wytse knew the Mennonites well. A single Mennonite
would never raise his hand against anyone, but a community
of Mennonites could make a person's life miserable
simply by ignoring her. So Pake Wytse and Beppe Tjitske
left the Benedictus manor in the hands of a caretaker and
moved into a smaller and rougher farm house that Wytse
owned at the edge of a Protestant village called Ureterp,
where their graves are still marked. Here the couple created
a family of six children. Renske, the third born, would one
day, in another world, give birth to me.
When we pick up the story again, Pake Wytse was sixty-four
and, on this particular day, was ice skating, probably on
a canal that edged the farm. He fell and broke his hip. He
did not mend; he got rapidly worse, and he died, in agony it
is said, within a few weeks of his fall. The widow Tjitske,
braving Mennonite rejection, moved her seven children
back to the great house in Rottevalle. She inherited all of
Wytse's assets, land and cash, and managed them as well as
she was able.
Being lady of the manor and manager of the peat farm
was, however, a tough task for a novice widow with seven
children. But an offer of help came soon in the guise of a
charming widower named Wiebe Geksma. Wiebe, who
posed as a man with the most honorable intentions and
with money enough to care for both their families, offered
himself to Tjitske, and Tjitske took him in. Wiebe promised
to take care of her and seek her happiness, so they were
Wiebe waited no more than a few months after the wedding
to show his hand. He told Tjitske that, since he was
now the head of both the house and the wife, it was her duty
to transfer the entire estate to him. Tjitske balked; the
money was meant for Wytse's children, she said, and only
his children were going to get it. Wiebe then tore the cover
of charm off his pathology and his demons flew free. The
children were his first victims, especially the girls; the boys
he terrorized, the girls he assaulted. My future mother, the
teenage Renske, was, I learned many years later, his favorite
Wiebe tyrannized Beppe's family until, one Frisian winter
night, he went one step too far: he threw Beppe Tjitske
and her children out in the cold. When morning came, she
went to the village police and begged them to come and rescue
her brood. They went, evicted Wiebe and his children,
and provided the Benedictus family with police protection.
Tjitske obtained a legal separation and, soon afterward,
spurning the shame of both the Mennonite and the Reformed
camps, arranged for a divorce.
The Benedictus manor was, like all things Frisian, plain
and rough. Barn and house were under one thatched roof,
separated by a kitchen door that hung in two sections so
that the woman of the house could open the upper half,
speak to laborers and yell at the animals, while the lower
half stayed locked against invasion by livestock. One
Sunday morning at Beppe Tjitske's Reformed church, with
the dominie well into his sermon and the congregation already
smelling their Lord's Day coffee, the custodian
rushed into the sanctuary yelling: Vuur bij Benedictus!! Fire
at Benedictus - words dreaded by every farmer more than
a prognosis of his own imminent death. And words that
emptied any packed church in two minutes flat.
By the time the men of the congregation could get to the
farm, the entire building, house and barn and every living
thing in it, was aflame. The next day the villagers came with
butchers' knives to slice off prodigious chunks of barbequed
pork and beef, enough to provide them with a month
of feasting. The ancient manor was gone.
Meanwhile, Beppe Tjitske's single source of income
dwindled as coal began to replace peat for use as fuel in Europe.
To make matters sadder, her first daughter, the carpenter's
child, had married, and her husband had swindled
Beppe out of a large amount of cash. So by the time the
manor burned, the Benedictus estate had already been
My mother Renske had by this time sailed off to America
with her new husband, Melle Smedes, a village blacksmith,
the son of generations of blacksmiths before him. In
1932, Beppe Tjitske died a few minutes after whispering her
favorite verses from her favorite psalm:
The Lord preserveth the simple:
I was brought low, and he helped me.
Thou hast delivered my soul from death,
Mine eyes from tears,
My feet from falling. (Psalm 116:6, 8)
Later, a money-order for two hundred dollars signed to
my mother came in the mail from Rottevalle, and the last of
Beppe Tjitske's modest fortune was spent to pay for a new
roof over a new set of Frisian heads at 774 Amity Street in
I think of Beppe Tjitske's and Pake Wytse's mixed marriage,
a rare and suspect thing in their time and place, as a
parable of the religious mix in my own spirit. I like both ingredients
in the mix. I like the tough intellectual side of the
Reformed faith. And I like the gentle affections of the Mennonite
faith. I share the Reformed wariness of radical piety.
I share the Mennonite suspicion of rigid dogmatism.
My father's Frisian name was Melle and the name-changers
at Ellis Island let it stay that way. He built
our house on Amity Street in Muskegon during the fading
hours of daylight after he came home from his nine- or ten-hour
shift at the foundry. He had never built anything before;
the only use he had ever put a hammer to was nailing
shoes to horses' hooves.
The front porch of the house he built for us was studded
with pink and white Kelly stones, which, I always felt, gave
it a touch of distinction in our plain neighborhood. The
porch was almost as wide as the house and deep enough to
hold the army surplus cot that my brother Peter had found
at the junkyard where he scavenged regularly for stray
items that might come in handy around our house. At the
other end of the porch was our one conspicuous luxury, a
two-person swing hanging uncertainly from hooks in the
If we walked straight from the bottom porch step, we
would run smack into the finest maple tree on our maple-lined
Amity Street. Its trunk was almost four feet through
the middle, and its full-spread branches shaded our entire
porch, making it bearable for us to sit on the swing and
dream through the hottest of summer afternoons. The few
moments that I would spend alone with my mother during
the week were on late Sunday afternoons swinging cool in
the shadow of our maple and greeting the neighbors finishing
up their Sabbath walks; they were the happiest moments
of my childhood.
The rest of the house, to be honest about it, was not the
work of a craftsman. Window sills and door frames were
not plumb, and, except for a flushing toilet, it lacked all the
amenities normal for the time. But we did have one luxury
in our living room that only a few houses could boast of - a
pump organ, the kind that depended on a robust pair of legs
to fill the bellows. I do not know how we came to have such
an instrument in our house. None of us ever had an urge to
learn to play it, and it came to a bad end. My mother decided
that it was doing none of us any good and was made of good
wood, so, short as we were on kindling for starting our fires,
she had us lug the organ down to the basement, where Peter
hacked its panels apart and chopped them into slender
sticks that got the fire going in the coal stove in whose oven
we warmed our feet before putting them into our socks and
Being but two months old when he died, I have no memories
of my father, but he stands handsome on the one or
two snapshots my mother saved, a strong angular face,
thick black hair, and a Ronald Coleman mustache. My
mother did not speak much about him, but more than once
I heard him called a rolling stone; he evidently had a penchant
for taking on more than he could handle, dropping it,
and moving on to his next dream.
My mother used to deplore his initial decision, before
Amity Street in Muskegon, to settle the family in a "one-horse
town" called Reeman, which had almost enough
horses to provide him with one day's work every week. How
could he feed his growing family on that? The only other occupation
available around Reeman was farming, so he
rented a piece of ground, bought two pigs and a few chickens
from a land-rich neighbor, and tried farming for a season,
keeping the smithy as a sideline. But he was no farmer,
and he gave it up. He gave up Reeman, too, and moved his
family to Muskegon, a bustling foundry town a morning's
wagon ride away. There he worked himself to an early death
in a foundry designed to crush the dreams of all who labored
My father was not what you would call a practical man.
He and my mother had what was supposed to be an untouchable
three hundred dollars salted in the bank for a
rainy day, a good-by gift from Beppe Tjitske. But, while they
still lived in Reeman, he took a shine to an electric automobile
- an original O'Henry - owned by an itinerant physician,
and when he was given a chance to buy it for three
hundred dollars, he hustled off to the bank, took out the
family funds, and bought the car.
He loaded his family in for a trip to Grand Rapids, a
good forty miles from Reeman, to show their Henry off to
another immigrant Frisian family. A few miles out, the engine
stalled. So Melle sent Renske to the rear of the car to
push until she got tired enough to risk setting her behind
the wheel while he got in back to push. With his head
pointed downward between his shoulders, his frontward vision
was blocked by the car, and he could not see the valley
directly ahead of them, nor the downhill track of the dirt
road. Renske and the car started coasting down the hill before
Melle had a chance to stop it. He yelled at Renske to
step on the brakes, but she had no idea of what a brake was
or where it was or how she was supposed to step on it.
Excerpted from MY GOD AND I
by Lewis B. Smedes
Copyright © 2003 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co..
Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
(1921–2002) Was professor emeritus of theology and ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California. Among his many books are Forgive and Forget, Shame and Grace, How Can It Be All Right When Everything Is All Wrong?, Love within Limits, and Mere Morality.
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