He was God’s Herman
Remembering my father, and surrendering judgment
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On a package-deal vacation to Italy in 1996 I met an old woman in Florence named Rose who told me she saves every thank-you card she gets so that people will say nice things about her at her funeral.
Hope that turned out well. I heard lots of nice things about my father at his memorial service, though he never saved cards. Or got cards, come to think of it. Even his first boss in town, who disliked him (not entirely without cause) said nice things at the service, and by all accounts meant them. People generally speak well of the dead because they have already started revising the departed’s image in their minds.
I can’t seem to keep an image of my father straight in my head for more than a minute before it shifts like the lady-and-vase optical illusion: “He loved me, he loved me not”—pointless children’s game set to the music of plucking petals off the oxeye daisy. A bane of adult children is this constant reevaluation of one’s childhood: “He was a good father, he wasn’t a good father.” If it’s Tuesday it must be he was good.
Funerals can be comical, especially when there’s not much to say about the person lying in the casket. Brooding farmhand Jud Fry’s funeral in Rogers and Hammerstein’s 1955 Oklahoma! is an awkward affair sung by neighbors looking at their shoes trying to think up something polite as befittin’ the occasion: “He had a heart of gold, and he wasn’t very old … his fingernails have never b’en so clean.”
Then the preacher tries his best: “Jud was the most misunderstood man in this here territory. People used to think he was a mean ugly feller and they called him a dirty skunk and ornery pig stealer. … But the folks that really knowed him knew that beneath them two dirty shirts he always wore there beat a heart as big as all outdoors.” Curly also takes a crack at a tribute: “He loved the mice and the vermin in the barns, and he treated the rats like equals. … He loved everybody and everything in the whole world! Only he never let on, so nobody ever knowed it.”
A good name is the best thing you can have—Rose was right about that: “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches” (Proverbs 22:1). But it must be based in truth, or it will rot in the end (Proverbs 10:7).
Soviet nuclear physicist Andrei Sakharov, 31 when Stalin died in 1953, wrote: “You might say that I lost it in those days. In a letter to [my wife] … I wrote, ‘I am immensely impressed by the death of a great man. I keep thinking of his humanity.’ … It was very soon that I would blush thinking about those words. How could I explain writing them? To this day, I cannot understand it fully. I already knew a lot about his terrible crimes.”
God does not make emotional errors of judgment. He shows no partiality. He judges justly and yet mercy triumphs over judgment (James 2:13). How does He do it?
My husband happened to say two words in the course of our prayer one night that arrested me. “Your Herman,” he said to God. (Herman was my father’s name before his childhood friends changed it, peremptorily and forever, to “Babe,” after George Herman “Babe” Ruth). When David said “Your Herman,” I suddenly understood that it was not my business to be judge of my father’s life. He was God’s Herman, not mine. I am out of my depth.
Sometimes all men will speak well of you at a memorial service (Luke 6:26); sometimes all men will revile you in life without cause (Psalm 69:4). What does it matter? We who are Christ’s have an Advocate, Jesus Christ the righteous (1 John 2:1-2). We rest in the fact that, as Abraham said on the road down to Sodom, “Will not the Judge of the whole earth do right?”
I hope Rose got to know the truth in time.
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