Philippians 3:8: “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ.”
For Hank and me, Johnny was the cool cousin. Older enough to be always cool, but closer in age to us than the Vermeulens. One time my parents had to go to General Synod and they farmed us out, so I stayed with Auntie Jo, which meant good food. But I was jealous of Hank going to Uncle Bert’s, and getting to sleep in Johnny’s room on that trundle bed.
Our admiration for him was absolute. I have an early memory of him with an old truck in the back yard on Prescott Avenue. Was he driving it? Was “A. Hartog” written on it? I remember not knowing who A. Hartog was. All I knew of my uncle’s name was Bert, so Johnny had to explain it to me.
Johnny was funny and smart, and he had cool stuff, especially tools and cars. Wasn’t it true for him that all stuff was cool, all stuff had value? All stuff had stories, and the stories fascinated him. How remarkable that this Jersey boy should have been the one to learn and tell the stories of the rocks in this landscape, these streams and ponds and mountains.
Down this road at the first little creek he showed me a depression in the ground where once a house had been and a family lived. Further down is the stream where he showed me a mill pond and he could read in the rocks the change from cross-cut saws to radial saws. This very building, once derelict-–he heard its story of a sacred space. Some broken rusty piece of metal that you thought was junk he could tell the story of. For Johnny there was no such thing as junk, but everything had “surpassing value.” How many examples could I multiply?
Which is why our text from Philippians 3 is contradictory. “For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse.” Refuse. Garbage. Trash. It’s “dung” in the KJV. These are all attempts politely to translate the Greek word σκυβαλα. Let’s go with “junk”. Could Johnny count nothing as junk?
Or, precisely to count all things as junk in order to gain Christ is why he built his barn and filled it up. St. Paul meant it for negative, but how about if we treat it as positive: I count all things as junk in order that I may gain Christ. How about if the junk is how you get to Christ?
I know that Johnny saw things differently than I did, than most of us, and he saw things we did not see. I think this was often for him a frustration and distraction, because if the world fit together differently for him, then how did he fit in? Was it distraction or abstraction? What is there after all to gain? And to gain, what must I count as loss? To count as loss brings things to conclusion.
How do you conclude things when everything has more to say, and its own thing to say? Including God? How do you draw conclusions about God, the way that other people seem to do, the way that we, his family, are always doing? To draw conclusions means you end the story, but everything has more to say and more to see.
I came lately to understand how he much an observer he was. Let me read from a letter that he wrote to Melody and me eight years ago. It’s dated 12/13/09. “Needless to say, but I have to speak about how wonderful our gathering at Maria’s was. I was watching all the participants, and both youse guys came up golden. Each particular characteriza-tion of the involved folks seems to change a bit a every year. I believe myself to be a sensitive observer, watching the coolest “cats” in my life. I’ll admit the outcome is always spectacular. It’s tough to get down, & tough to go back — Friday rain ruled, puddle to puddle. But, I’m back, & the cat still loves me.”
If you’re always observing you’re likely abstracted and a little removed, but maybe not at rest. He was a restless guy. But not from fear, and I don’t think from an internal itch. He wasn’t ever trying to prove something or even solve something, just keep open to everything as long as he could. Not at rest does not necessarily mean not at home. He was at home on this pocket of a mountain, in this landscape whose story he made his own.
And he prepared a place for himself. A home for his soul. A suitable church. I wonder if it put his soul at rest when he was alone by himself that he had this church to belong to. Especially in those last weeks of his life as he was contemplating the loss of all things, and suffering the loss of all things. This was the Johnny Hartog way of gaining Christ, to have a church for him and for himself to end in. Surpassing value. Johnny Hartog, rest in peace and rise in Glory, and God be with you.
Copyright © 2017 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.