Richard B. Steele, PhD
Professor of Moral and Historical Theology
Associate Dean of Graduate Theological Studies
School of Theology, Seattle Pacific University
January 14, 2016
Back in 1978, fresh out of seminary, I was appointed pastor of the United Methodist Church in Orfordville, Wisconsin, about thirty miles south of Madison, near the Illinois border. About thirty people attended worship at that church on a normal Sunday, one of whom was Mrs. Eva Penkert. Eva was 77 years old when I met her, and she had been a lifelong member of that church. She was a widow, bent nearly double with the cares of a long, hard life, and her fingers were twisted by arthritis. Yet she was in church every Sunday, without fail, occupying the third pew from the front. Even severe winter weather wouldn’t deter her, and on snowy mornings other members of the congregation would pick her up and drive her to the service, fearing that if she walked the steep hill between her home and the church, she might fall and break a hip.
Eva loved to worship, and she especially loved to sing hymns. Among her favorites was “The Rock that Is Higher Than I,” which she would specifically ask for whenever I took requests. Verse 3 runs as follows:
O near to the Rock let me keep / if blessings or sorrows prevail,
Or climbing the mountain way steep / or walking the shadowy vale.
O then to the Rock let me fly, let me fly / to the Rock that is higher than I.(1)
I think she loved the image of Christ as her Rock because she herself was like a gnarled old scrub oak, clinging tenaciously to a granite cliff, blown by the fierce winds of life, yet finding protection and nourishment enough for her modest needs.
I often visited Eva in her home, and I think she took pride and pleasure in welcoming the preacher into her parlor. She brewed strong tea in a china pot, and served it with homemade almond cookies. Her conversation was rich, too, of the sort that pastors enjoy, polite but earnest. She would tell me of her trials and troubles, not in a tone of bitter complaint, but as a way of explaining the strength she had found in her Rock.
Toward the end of my four years at Orfordville, I paid Eva a final visit. After we had finished the tea and cookies, Eva said to me, with a twinkle in her eye, “Pastor Steele, I’m going to do something I usually don’t do when gentlemen come to call.” “And what’s that?” I asked. “I’m going to invite you upstairs.” “Mrs. Penkert,” I replied gamely, “lead on!” At the top of the stairs stood a walnut bookcase, its shelves lined with old volumes—gigantic Bibles, tiny pocket hymnals, well-worn copies of mid-nineteenth century Methodist Disciplines, assorted devotional tracts, and a six-volume set of Bible commentaries by the great Methodist theologian, Adam Clarke (1762-1832)(2). “These books represent my life in Methodism,” Eva told me. “If they’re still here when I die, they’ll just be thrown away. I’d rather they go to someone who can appreciate their value. Would you like them?” I told her that I did appreciate their value, that I would treasure them and put them to good use, and that I would think of her whenever I looked at them. I have kept that promise. Eva died two years later at the age of 83.
Most of the books that Eva gave me that day were in remarkably good condition, given their age, but Clarke’s bulky tomes—over a thousand octavo pages each—were another story. The pages were intact, but the leather covers were disintegrating. So I had them rebound in buckram, and have proudly displayed them in my office ever since. And they do get used occasionally! Recently, my colleague, Dr. Sara Koenig, who is studying the history of the interpretation of the David and Bathsheba story, borrowed the volume on I-II Samuel. And during a recent visit to campus, the Rev. James Kearny, Pastor of the Capitol Hill Presbyterian Church in Seattle, happened to tell me of his admiration for Clarke’s Commentary, whereupon I invited him to inspect my prized 1881 edition.
I have loved these old books for over thirty years now, and intend to keep the smaller items—the hymnals and Disciplines—for a few more years yet, as I often show them to my church history classes. But shelf space in my new office is limited, and I don’t use Clarke’s volumes enough to warrant keeping them. On the other hand, they are surely worth preserving for posterity—and I have that promise to Eva to keep.
Thankfully, the Seattle Pacific University Library contains one of the finest collections of antique Wesleyan, Methodist and Holiness materials in North America. So that’s where they’re going. And I think that Adam Clarke and Eva Penkert would be pleased to know that there are still people who revere their beloved tradition, and institutions dedicated to preserving not only the physical artifacts of that tradition, but its spiritual riches as well.
(1) The lyrics of this great hymn were written by Erastus Johnson, and the tune composed by William G. Fisher. For details, see http://www.hymntime.com/tch/htm/r/o/c/rockhigh.htm. The opening line of its first verse, “O sometimes the shadows are deep,” sometimes serves as its title, as in the 1964 edition of The Methodist Hymnal, the one used by the Orfordville United Methodist Church during my pastorate and Mrs. Penkert’s last years.
(2) For a thumbnail biography of Clarke, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adam_Clarke. For a longer account, see “Memoir of the Rev. Adam Clarke, LL.D,” in Adam Clarke, The Holy Bible, Old and New Testament, with a Com-mentary and Critical Notes, Thornley Smith, ed., 6 vols. (London: Ward, Lock & Co., 1881) Vol. I, pp. v-xii.