I don’t recall the first time that I met Dan Hertzler. I do know that well before our first face to face introduction, I had come to know him through his weekly editorials in the Gospel Herald, at that time the news magazine of the Mennonite Church. For this newcomer among Mennonites, Dan’s columns became a short course on how this community of faith engaged in a living conversation between the meaning of its confession and the living of life in this world. Dan’s columns, whether musing on decisions facing the church or current global events, persistently, patiently, and humbly probed the question of how we follow Christ in this time and place.
Coming from a triumphal version of mainline Christianity that had not yet recognized the impending demise of Christendom, I found the character of Dan’s writing both striking and instructive. His words were typically understated, made colorful by a wry sense of humor, and used to tell truthful, modest—rather than inflated, heroic—stories about ourselves. In a culture where Christian faith is often turned into a commodity and marketing strategy, Dan taught me to value the community of faith that is—to remain restless for greater faithfulness but never to disdain the fallible nor to make too great a claim for our achievement. Long before Brian McLaren wrote his book, Dan demonstrated the nature of a “generous orthodoxy.” Inherent in his writing was (and is) a leaning toward trust in God rather than certitude.
Now, in a second memoir focused primarily on life beyond his professional work, Dan uses words with that same character. Each chapter traces an element of life over time—be it reading the Bible, building a home, keeping bees or a garden. In Garrison Keillor-esque fashion, Dan introduces a theme then invites us on narrative walk and brings each stroll through time and experience back home to lessons learned and hope that endures.
Deeply embedded in this memoir is the story of life with his soul mate, Mary. From naive meeting—“a girl in the college library caught my attention. How does it happen? It is a mystery, but there she was in the library”—then follows the story of a journey together, a lesson in fidelity and uncommon love in the commonplace. Like the shared task of gardening the story is patient, persistent, fruitful.
There is joy, deep prizing of his Mary, and yes, sorrow. For this is truth-telling. Dan does not sensationalize trauma but poignantly gives us a glimpse of the sadness late in life’s journey, the onset of Alzheimer’s for Mary. “The house is empty without her despite its being filled with her artwork and handiwork.” Yet goodness remains, a sixtieth anniversary celebrated in the face of decline—gathering families, photos, memories—summed up with the simple doxology, “A good time was had by all.”
Years after Dan and I first met in person, along with longtime friend, Carl Keener, we went to hear the French philosopher Jacques Derrida speak on the Penn State campus. After enduring a three-hour lecture that deconstructed the history of Western civilization and knowing, Dan, with what I had come to prize as a slightly sardonic grin, summed up the evening: “Well I guess words can’t mean anything anymore.”
Gratefully, Dan did not give up on words! He has written here story and testimony—not as one seeking to make a great universal claim but rather writing as a witness (which even Derrida would appreciate) to faithfulness, foibles, fidelity, and love. Dan has once again offered us words that are modest, truthful, engaging, and wise.
B. Miller, Elkhart, Indiana, is Associate Professor of
Leadership Development, Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary
Copyright © 2013 by Cascadia Publishing House LLC