Walking the Walk

“You’re not going out in all that
wind, are you?” Wanda was
cropping pictures for a memory-book page.

“Can’t let a little wind keep me from
my Sunday-afternoon walk.”

“Well, at least tell me where you’re
headed. And take the cell phone with
you.”

“I’ll drive to Palmer Park and do
my loop in the woods. And I’ll take the
phone, but if a tree falls on me, I doubt
that I’ll be doing much dialing.”

Although I had acted nonchalant
with Wanda about the dangers associated
with the wind, once I got under
the red pines in the park, I was edgy.
These were old trees, probably planted
back in CCC days. Some had lost their
crowns, leaving jagged splinters to accuse
the sky. Many had come down,
lying around me in chaotic deadfalls.
And none of those intact and standing
were gently swaying; every so often
they were whipped violently by gusts of
wind.

So I couldn’t do what I usually do
on my Sunday excursions–settle into
a rambling meditative reverie. I was
alert, my eyes scanning all around for
branches or sections of trunks plummeting
toward me.

And then a spot of white, just there,
to my left, right on the edge of my peripheral
vision. How could something
so white be a part of a tree, and–I now
could tell–a cedar tree at that?

When I drew close to the tree, I understood
what had happened. Someone
had used a shears or a heavy scissors
to cut out a little niche, a niche remarkably
well protected from the wind, in the
cedar’s foliage. And then that someone
had snipped off the top of a small upward-pointing branch near the center
of the base of the niche, had sliced the
remnant down the middle for about an
inch, and had inserted a card, somewhat
larger than a business card. That
was the spot of white.

As I freed it from its holder and
brought it close enough to read, I realized
what it was: a witness. On one side
were words in boldface: Sin, Death, and
Curse. These words were accompanied
by Bible verses, many of them from
Romans, verses about the fallenness
of humankind, the certainty of death,
and the terrors of eternal punishment.
On the other side of the card was a citation
of John 3:16 above a tiny current
calendar.

My first response was guilt. Here
was evidence of someone doing something
that I had never really managed
to do. Ever since I was old enough to
understand why ministers were getting
worked up in pulpits, I remember
being exhorted to go into the world, to
share the faith, to save others from the
burning. But throughout my early life,
I always felt either too awkward or too
frightened to witness to others. I didn’t
even know exactly how others talked
about witnessing and its hoped-for effects.
Once, while visiting Bethel College
in Minnesota, I was in a group that
had its conversation interrupted by two
students who had burst into the coffee
shop exalting, “We got one! We got
one! “

“What? Did they catch a fish in the
campus pond? ” I asked.

No, I was politely told, they must
have gotten a convert.

As I grew older–and somewhat less
awkward and frightened–I occasionally
tried to witness but always picked
the wrong people. One, for example,
turned out to be a Unitarian Universalist
minister. When I described for
him the core of my religious beliefs, he
smiled almost imperceptibly and told
me that that was “fine if you’ve worked
it out in detail for yourself and can find
a way to accept it.”

“Maybe,” I thought as I held the
card in the woods, “since I’ve been able
to do nothing with others face-to-face,
I should get some witness cards and
leave them along the way on my walks
throughout Kent County. Maybe even
throughout the state.”

But then another side of me, the side
trained to question everything, started:
“How effective can such a card be when
no one can tell who put it here? Isn’t it
true that many people come to faith because
it is recommended by those they
know, admire, and trust? More important,
how are people likely to respond
to a god who is introduced to them primarily
in terms of terror? And does
faith motivated by fear last? Finally, if I
had not plucked the card from the tree,
wouldn’t it in time have become a piece
of litter in an area that’s supposed to
remind people of wilderness?”

Musing about these questions, I
wondered whether I shouldn’t feel somewhat
ashamed. After all, who could argue
with such an approach to witnessing
if it nudged someone to take steps
toward salvation?

Just then, though–I must have
relaxed my hold on the card a bit–a
lick of wind took it from my hand and
carried it eastward between pines and
out into an open area, marked here and
there with patches of grass fanning out
amid sweeps of sand. Several yards
into that area, the card, like a dazed
moth, plummeted erratically and fell to
the ground, still in sight.

“Should I go after it, pocket it, and
trash it when I stop for chili on my way
home? ” I asked myself. Beyond the open
area was the park’s central road, which
was lined by fairly high snow banks,
the results of some plowing weeks earlier.
If the card were to be picked up
and whipped farther to the east, those
snow banks might catch and hold it,
just where some of those who walked
dogs could spot it. If the snow banks
didn’t catch the card, it would be swept
down a hill and into the swamp, where
not one of the living beings I had ever
seen was human.

Before I could answer my own question,
though, another rush of wind lifted
the card and carried it toward the
road, and within seconds I lost sight of
it in the washed-out light of late afternoon.
“It’s not up to me,” I decided; “the
wind bloweth where it listeth.”

William Vande Kopple is professor of English at Calvin
College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.