Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Sunday, May 03, 2015

Sunday Morning Meds--Sin

You speak continually against your brother
 and slander your own mother's son.” Psalm 50:20

Of all the Shakespeare plays I’ve read and studied, none of them—none of the big names, as least—seems so difficult and distant as King Lear.  All that filial villainy, the screaming at heaven, the degradation, the spectacle of the old man’s nudity, the blubbering idiocy—it just seems somehow over the edge, or did until Jane Smiley’s Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, A Thousand Acres, a story of horror in the heartland.  That novel helped me understand King Lear.
Right from the get-go, Jane Smiley wants to turn the play’s narrative inside out, to write the story from the point of view of those wretched daughters, who would likely see what happened in a wholly different way.  She added incest, at a time in our culture when the whole idea of repressed memory seemed to make incest itself something of a national phenomenon.  I don’t think she needed to.
But I loved her fidelity to small-town Iowa life.  The givens of that novel are right on the money, so much so that you might believe Jane Smiley was once kicking over milk pails in a straw hat and bibs.  She did her homework, created a world in that novel that was so rich you could smell rural life on every page.
When the book came out, the local library asked me to lead a little study group, so I did.  Maybe a dozen people showed up—all women.  I told them how much I loved the novel, but that I had these questions, and one was whether kids could fight as horribly as Larry Cook’s children did.  Those women—most of them with deeper roots in rural Iowa than I have—looked at each other as if I’d misspoken.  They seemed to wonder whether they dared to tell the truth. 

Then one of them did.  “When it’s inheritance at stake,” she said, “when it’s land and money, that stuff almost always happens,” she told me, reluctantly, as if it were her own family’s secret.  “I’ve seen it again and again.”  They all agreed, nodding, albeit apprehensively as if the monster was right there in the basement room of the library with us.   
What’s at the heart of King Lear and A Thousand Acres is what God obviously saw in this verse—brothers hating brothers, sisters despising sisters. 

When I think of our church fellowship, it’s really hard for me to imagine who God might talk to us the way he talks to some in this verse.  Honestly, I don’t think I know people who hate their brothers and sisters.  And I’m happy I don’t.
I suppose we can err in two ways with a Psalm like this.  We can see the sinners as others—the ones who deserve it, Lear’s daughters and trailer trash.    

Or I can troll for guilt in my own soul:  do I really hate my sisters?  Is there something evil in me I’m not acknowledging, some repressed memory?  Maybe “brother” is a metaphor.  Who is my brother?  That’s a question with  far more resonance.

How do we read God almighty’s vituperation in Psalm 50?  Is he talking to me or those wretches down the street?  Tough question.

We’re all sinful—all of us.  We all need a Savior.  No two of us are exactly alike, but in the very core of our souls we’ve all been corrupted by sin—not a particular sin, but sin, the virus.  All of us.  We all lie.  We all hate.  None of us is perfect. 

Maybe the easiest way to say it is the old way:  we all need a Savior.  

Friday, May 01, 2015


The ticking of the clock sounds different, but then nothing's quite the same. The feel of the house around you--our home, our new home--is altered; there's somehow less luster, less thrill. The glory of a warm spring day is less joyous. I'm somehow less excited right now to end another school term, and far less interested in doing the hard work it takes to finish.

Everything's changed.

The only headline we could find yesterday said it this way:

Fatal 3-car crash delays interstate traffic near Lyndon Station.

The accident held up traffic along an otherwise non-descript spot on Interstate 94 for three hours while the site was cleared. Travelers going west found themselves bound in traffic that wasn't moving at all, not one bit, which had to be irritating. Meetings were missed, I'm sure, reunions postponed. No one arrived on time.

The delay was the story. There was a fatality, by the way--the story didn't mention who because next of kin. . .well, you know. Besides, he wasn't a local man, just another traveler in the interstate's constant stream. In truth, there may been a dozen like him across the face of the country yesterday.

But this one just wasn't just a fatality. This one was my brother-in-law. He was family. He was a grandpa from Georgia who, with his wife, my sister, was on the way to visit kids and grandkids in the Twin Cities, on the way to celebration.

He was a teacher, an educator, a Christian school
administrator in Wisconsin, in Florida, in Alabama, and in Maryland--and a good one. He was a man who spent too much of his precious retirement (his wife used to jibe) helping other Christian schools find good fits when they needed a leader.  You might say he never stopped working for education, for Christian education.

He was one of six brothers, and he wasn't the first to die, nor the first to be killed in a car accident. He lost a brother when he was just a kid.

He was tough back then. He was mighty tough, and those who went to high school with him still claim that if back then he was coming down the hall, other kids found ways to make room.

But he went to college and everything changed because ideas stirred him greatly. He campaigned for Eugene McCarthy in 1968, took off from school, and hit the streets a state away. He fell in love with my sister, was Dad to three wonderful and talented kids who are, as we speak, in the maelstrom of grief no one can really share. Their mother's injuries are not life-threatening. Even though it was only yesterday they were on their way to birthday parties, she has no memory of the accident.

I suppose we all delay traffic when we pass away, but this fatality is more than simply the one who held up travelers yesterday on a Wisconsin interstate. This is one I knew. This is one I loved, a gracious and loving husband to my sister, a beloved father to three kids. Five grandkids will somehow have to be told they won't see him again real soon. I wouldn't know how to do that, but someone is doing it right now. Lord, bless those parents and their kids. They're all little, but somehow old enough to understand when he will no longer return.

Bless us all in our loss, in our losses, Lord. Each of us is so much more than a delay. We're your children.

Bless those grandkids, bless my sister, bless three kids who find themselves fatherless.

Nothing's quite the same, Lord. Bless us all. And receive Larry Kooi bountifully. He was always one of yours.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Morning Thanks--a day's work

The word is that, as we speak, the death toll has reached 5000 and is bound to go up. How far?--no one knows. But the character of the region--villages no one has yet visited, significant poverty, no earthquake-proof housing--and the magnitude of the quake make it likely that 5000 will, soon enough, seem like, well, a blessing.

According to the New York Times, people who study such things predict the death toll will climb as high as ten times that. What happened in Nepal is catastrophic, the death toll immense, the toll of human suffering beyond imagination. As the letters so magically appear across my screen, hundreds, even thousands of people in Nepal are screaming for help.

Baltimore seems to be in civil war. The death of a black man--yet another in an endless string of brutality--has created riots, cars and buildings burning, people being hurt, hundreds of peacemakers working--often losing--to anger and sheer madness. The mayor called the looters "thugs," but the thugs, at least for a time, were school kids, which promises only more trouble.

West Baltimore is a sad place--unemployment, drugs, educational systems where even good teachers have to fight, literally, to succeed. People took to the streets in Baltimore because a man named Freddie Gray went into a police van for an infraction of some kind and came out dead. To say such things have happened too often is understatement.

The world's awash in chaos. There are good reasons to be sad, to be fearful, to wonder about the world's tipping.

But yesterday, with my very last class of all time nearing completion, the luminescent dawn promised a blessing in no uncertain terms: it was going to be a perfectly pure spring day. It's still a shade early for us to put in the garden, but all the plants that used to sit here at the window and feed off the morning sun are now happily lined up outside. My desk was cleared, my obligations at a minimum, so I decided to work outside. All day. 

"People who don't put things in the ground don't know God," an friend of mine told me once, quoting some old farmer. It could be bigotry, but neither he nor the original theologian meant it that way. What he meant was polar opposite: people who plant seeds live in adoration of the miracle of spring. When the cold siege relents, when a human being can work all day in a bath of warm sun, you know you're blessed, you know God.

What I actually did yesterday would sound like nothing, so I won't make a list. Suffice it to say that for the first time this spring I spent the entire day in our backyard acre, putzing around. That's right, just putzing. And loving it.

How many times haven't I heard stories about grandpas and grandmas who leave behind patiently tallied notes on dog-eared calendars: Feb. 26--first robin; March 5--lovely rain. 2 in.; Good Friday--potatoes. You know. That kind of thing.

Yesterday, this Grandpa thought about noting it, writing it down. Just outside my window  a couple of jetstreams had already marked the morning sky. 

But I had a grandpa's sense that something needed to be written down somewhere--"Yesterday for the first time this spring, I got my hands dirty. Hallelujah."

Baltimore is seething. People are searching for hundreds, even thousands of men and women and children who almost certainly have perished beneath the rubble. Places in the world exist where human beings couldn't rejoice in a pure dawn or a warm sun, were people couldn't take joy from little more than a windless morning.

But I could, and I did and it was a revelation, a gift, a miracle right here in my hands.

"April 29--worked outside."  


Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Long Journey Home--"Pushkin"

Some claim there are only a half dozen plot lines available to writers and story-tellers, that once you break down any good story there's really nothing new under the sun. How many great plots are just variations on "the love triangle," for instance? How many plots aren't just some new take on "the good Samaritan"? 

I don't know that I've ever seen a list, but the idea strikes me as worth considering. Honestly, we may think we're highly inventive about the stories we write and read and tell, but we're not. Whatever we're up to has likely been done before. Most everything has.

And that's okay. Most any Elizabethan England audience knew the Hamlet story long before Shakespeare put a pen to paper or cast the first performance. The bard wasn't inventing something new, only trying--with some success, I might add--to spin something old in a new direction, give it a new paint job or even drop in a new engine.

The first story in The Long Journey Home, Lawrence Dorr's most recent collection of stories, is titled simply "Pushkin." At the heart of it--as he is at the heart of so many of Dorr's stories--is a young Hungarian soldier at the end of World War II, this one named Pierre-Terrail, a kid who's been conscripted into Hitler's army and sent to the Eastern Front, to Russia, not the kind of assignment to be coveted.

But there he is. Around him, is chaos, the final days of the war. 
The wind swirling trash on Kirov Street, the main thoroughfare of the district of Perchersk--an extension of Kiev--rose unhindered from the Dnieper, the river masking the smell of war, a mixture of the exhaust fumes of trucks, tanks, mobile artillery pieces, horses, wet uniforms, field kitchens, dead bodies rotting under collapsed masonry, and the smell that shook him with fear: the odor of singed hair and burned bodies. 
What he sees in Kiev is no postcard. It's the detritus of death. Who can blame him for wanting to go home, for thinking of home. Somewhere in the city he knows there's a statue of Pushkin, the famous Russian poet, whose work and life had been the stuff of legend to his boyhood Russian tutor. Back home, Madame Ivanovna's recital of Pushkin's narrative poems had made them both cry, he remembers, so he sets out to find the Pushkin statue. 

"And it was then that he saw the girl." They speak because he knows Russian. She fawns in his appreciation of the man she calls "our Eternal Poet," but the young soldier tells her, "Only God is eternal. Pushkin is dead." And then, "Chances are I'll soon be dead too."

If you're wondering, that last dark utterance will do as a pick up line, and it works beautifully. The two of them talk intimately, passionately: "From time to  time the girl's face was turned up toward him like a sunflower." Love gets hurried and breathless in war, it seems. Perhaps it was childish of him, he wonders, "to think that he loved this girl he had met only a half-hour ago."

She's come to the statue for atonement, she tells him as she makes the sign of the cross, atonement for her ancestor's role in his poet's death years ago, "the duty of the women of our family," she explains. Together the two of them rehearse an old Pushkin poem about love's first overpowering glimpses.  

But all such things must pass in the fist of this deadly love triangle: a young Hungarian soldier, a Russian girl who loves Pushkin, and that most horrific antagonist/villain, war. 

They two plan to meet again, but long before the appointed hour the young soldier, who will soon be 21 years old, is called back to the front. As he passes the park where they sat, he remembers a line from Pushkin: "

But on a silent day of sorrow
Speak my name in your grief. Just say:
There is a memory of me, there is
In the world a heart in which I live.

Lawrence Dorr makes that line bigger than it seems because Pierre-Terrail happened upon a church service when he'd left the girl he'd met, a church service where he'd heard a word of Eternal peace. I won't rob you of the joy of discovering that word when you read the story yourself.

"Pushkin" is a rose in a desert, a moment of grace in cascading darkness, beauty in death. 

There's nothing new about the story. It's been told for centuries, a story from the bleeding heart of human flesh. Love in the ruins. 

Lawrence Dorr's first short story in The Long Journey Home has been told before hundreds of times, but always adorned with a host of difference markings. No matter. It's a story that never, ever gets old because at one time or another in all of our lives all of us need badly to hear it.
Few of us will ever read Lawrence Dorr, and, pardon my moralizing, more should. He really is one of our finest Christian writers. I'd like to go through The Long Journey Home, story by story, listening to his tales and then talking about them here. He is an excellent short story writer and a wonderful human being.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Book Review--Prairie, by Walter J. Muilenburg

The shocking headline makes you wince. This year--this school year--three boys from Palo Alto High School, one of the nation's best secondary schools--walked across the street to the railroad tracks and stood in front of passing trains. Three kids, in Silicon Valley, where the average home is worth three million.

Such suicide clusters are real, and they don't happen only where the pressures to succeed are mammoth. But in a place like Palo Alto, where material success is both assumed and required, the pressures are heightened by what some call "doublespeak": 
on one hand parents claim they're allowing their kids to just be kids, while on the other they hold relentless expectations.

“They say, ‘All I care about is that you’re happy,’ and then the kid walks in the door and the first question is, ‘How did you do on the math test?’ ” Silicon Valley therapist Madeline Levine told Matt Richtel of the New York Times. “The giveaways are so unbelievably clear.”

The problem, David Brooks says, is a reduced definition of what love is. 

Children in such families come to feel that childhood is a performance — on the athletic field, in school and beyond. They come to feel that love is not something that they deserve because of who they intrinsically are but is something they have to earn.
Brooks says we live in a "meritocracy," created by the deep desire parents have to help their children "succeed." But "the meritocracy is based on earned success," he says. "It is based on talent and achievement." Then he moralizes in a fashion that few cultural commentators do, but a way that is both refreshing and, IMHO, enlightening. "But parental love is supposed to be oblivious to achievement," he writes. "It’s meant to be an unconditional support — a gift that cannot be bought and cannot be earned. It sits outside the logic of the meritocracy, the closest humans come to grace."

There's been no suicide clusters in my neighborhood, but Lake Woebegon has known all its children are above average for the last quarter century already. And if Walter J. Muilenburg, a son of one of the founding fathers of Orange City, Iowa, is to be believed, the overt pressures to succeed were perfectly capable of making life miserable for young men and (presumably) women way back in the days people here broke virgin soil.

Muilenburg's novel, Prairie (1925), follows Elias Vaughn, the prodigal son of his father's stern religiosity and the sheer bigotry that such bone-headed spirituality creates. Elias turns his back on his father and his father's ways and marries a neighbor girl, a sweetheart whose family clearly lacks old man Vaughn's determined industry to create "the good life" on a Siouxland farm. Elias's father shuts the door on his son for marrying down; and Elias, looking to be free, sets out west to Nebraska, where, despite the odds and the opposition, he makes a life for himself basically by becoming as fierce as his father.

Somewhere along the line, Muilenburg clearly picked up an infusion of the literary naturalism still fashionable at the time. Prairie is not Laura Ingalls Wilder. Elias seems to understand that he's treading treacherously close to his father's way of life. He has moments when he tries to love his Lizzie, but too often he simply can't because she, like her father, lacks the wherewithal to handle the hard work and loneliness of the prairie frontier. They succeed in building a farm but not a life.

She can't. He can and does. The marriage suffers, but Lizzie dies.

Literary naturalism is satisfying only to those who truly believe that we're all somehow victims of powers that grind us up into mush. In Prairie, it's a climate of stifling heat and brutal cold, a contagion of storms, tornadoes, grasshoppers, grass fires--and unending loneliness. The only way to "make it," Muilenburg suggests, is by becoming a force of nature, which is to say by giving up one's humanity and moving a long, long ways from living in a loving way, as David Brooks says, "the closest humans come to grace."

Elias Vaughn isn't an animal. In some ways, he gets it--he understands what's happening to him. He tries not to be what rugged prairie life is sculpting him to become. He doesn't want to be his father; but when all is said and done, he's planted a homestead as successfully as his father had, but just as clearly lost the capacity to love.

Muilenburg documents the phony religiosity of his forbearers, a spirituality of hard work, back-breaking work, the soul-rending work of making a home on the prairie.

I loved the book, not because I liked the novel. I loved the book for what it lays claim to about the world I still live in, a world an entire century and one gargantuan bankroll removed from Silicon Valley, but a world where success is still immensely expensive.

Those Palo Alto parents certainly have a problem, but Walter Muilenburg's Prairie makes very clear that they are not alone.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Morning Thanks--Requiem

I don't think the pews were in yet, and the clouds--those v-shaped echo reducers way up at the ceiling--were still down on the floor being painted and awaiting their hanging. The place was very much under construction, a grand mess; but you couldn't help see what it was going to be, and what it was going to be was nice, really nice.

It would be called the B. J. Haan Auditorium, and it would eventually boast a massive organ, a gift from a wealthy Iowa widow. It was, right then, going up on the east edge of the campus where I taught, and I was giving an esteemed visitor a tour because I thought he'd want to see it for himself.

We walked up from the back of the auditorium in silence, took the unfinished steps up to the unfinished stage, turned around, and looked over what workers likely might have considered a huge and holy mess. 

He was a picture of sheer awe. "You know," my guest said, "if you would have said when I was a kid that someday my people would have a place like this, I wouldn't have believed you." Frederick Manfred--Feike Feikema--a Siouxland native and American novelist, was talking about Siouxlanders, among whom he counted himself, a prodigal maybe, but one of them nonetheless.

And he was very proud.

I thought of him on Saturday night, thought of that moment in time, not because I was seated in one of the pews of the B. J. Haan, but because of the awe and even some of the pride I witnessed in his face that day so long ago. Manfred is long gone, and Saturday night I was in a different pew and wholly different space--St. Mary's Catholic Church, just down the road in Alton. 

Once upon a time, the eastern residents of the county were almost exclusively German and Luxembourgian, all of them Roman Catholic. The difficulty of making a new life on virgin prairie and the extremes of what can be a very trying environment ("maybe ten good days a year," an old resident once surmised) probably took the edge off the differences the region's separate ethnic and religious groups carried with them from their "old counties." I don't think any of them ever went to war out here on this verdant soil.

But it's fair to say they lived their own style of cloistered lives. Likely as not, they met in the Coops and coffee shops, but their separate existences kept them out of their separate houses of worship, save a funeral now and then, a marriage perhaps.

St. Mary's Catholic church, built largely with volunteer hands and offerings, cost $60,000 when it went up in 1908. Bishop Garrigan, from Sioux City, laid the cornerstone. From the outside, its Romanesque style is unlike anything in the region. It stands head and shoulders above most everything at the highest spot in the entire county. Inside, however, it's all High Gothic, pillars and arches reaching heavenward in architectural aspiration that's meant to be just about divine. When you're seated inside St. Mary's, it's hard to believe that just outside farmers are feeding 3,000,000 hogs. It's remarkably beautiful. Around the nave, the Stations of the Cross, imported from Germany, feel like monuments.

On Saturday night it was the right place for Mozart's Requiem, not simply because a requiem, by definition, is so profoundly Roman Catholic, a kind of prayer for the dead, but also because that arching ceiling created sound from a choir and chamber orchestra unlike anything to be heard anywhere in the neighborhood--including Dordt's B. J. Haan Auditorium and Northwestern's gorgeous Christ Chapel. 

I've been reading old novels about the region--Josephine Donovan's Black Soil (1930) and Walter J. Muilenburg's Prairie (1925), both of which tell stories of 1870s, when the last of the Yanktons moved west and white folks started arriving, in droves. Both novels offer central conflict quite unknown in contemporary fiction: man and woman and child vs. nature itself. In both novels, the abiding question is nothing more or less than "will they make it?"

On Saturday night The Sioux County Oratorio offered Mozart's Requiem in a setting that couldn't have done the work any greater honor, St. Mary's, Alton, full of people, many of whom--probably most of whom--weren't Roman Catholic. The event was not just a concert, it was a meditation, a wonder, a blessing.

In that incredible Catholic church, this old Calvinist offered his own kind of prayers for the dead. With that glorious music filling the air with beauty, I couldn't help thinking of Fred Manfred and how amazed he would have been and how much he would have loved to be there. 

Maybe he was.  He and B. J. Haan. And Bishop Garrigan. And maybe Dominie Bolks from the local Reformed church too.

Who knows? It was that perfectly beautiful.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Sunday Morning Meds--When?

“What right have you to recite my laws or take my covenant on your lips?  
You hate my instruction and cast my words behind you.”  Psalm 50

Not that many years ago, a student of mine who liked to haunt my office was talking about her church, one of the new ones, full of raised hands and happy faces.  “You’d like it,” she told me.  “You really would—you ought to try it sometime.”

Like a new flavor cappuccino.

She shrugged her shoulders.  “But every once in a while—when I get all up or something—then I need to go back to Bethel,” she said, referring to a far more traditional worship style, “just to get my nerves settled down—you know what I mean?”

That was my introduction to a phenomenon the New York Times used on the front page of their on-line edition not long ago:  “Church to Church—Teenagers Seek Church That Fits.”  What the article explains is the kind of church-shopping—church-hopping, really—being done, reportedly, by hundreds of thousands of evangelical Christian teenagers, including my own students.

Their parents approve, of course, the Times reported.  Believing parents long for nothing on this earth more than their kid’s growing relationship to Jesus Christ.  One mother, whose name suggests she was born in the same Calvinist order I was, is quoted this way:   “I saw that my parents' relationship to Christ and my relationship to Jesus Christ were different, and my kids aren't going to relate to Jesus Christ the same way we do,’ said Emily's mother, Tracy Hoogenboom, 49. ‘And that's to be expected because Jesus Christ is your own personal lord and savior.’"

Makes sense.  But sometimes I wonder how people like Tracy Hoogenboom read passages like Psalm 50.  Oh, forget the vituperation and the lines in the sand God Almighty draws so succinctly.  Forget false recitation and the bogus covenant-making.  Forget vanity, and snake oil. 

I wonder, simply, what some fine believers do, simply, with the tone of voice of the God Almighty of Psalm 50.  Does Tracy Hoogenboom ever think about the snarling God of Psalm 50 as her daughter’s “personal lord and savior”?  Or is that just Jesus?

“All that’s left is ego,” a friend of mine, a preacher, told me recently.  In the withering of established institutions (church, school, and bowling team) created by our incredible affluence, all that’s left is ego, is self.  Almighty “choice.”  It’s the only real commodity.  We all got to get our needs met.

When Jesus describes moving people to the left and right at the judgment, he explains what he does on their behavior toward the needy.  It's odd, isn't it, that neither the sheep nor the goats have a clue why they’re being sent to heaven or hell?  “When did we see you hungry or lame or in prison?”—that’s what they both say.  “I just don’t remember any such thing.” Both sheep and goats. Neither.

What strikes most terror in my soul about Psalm 50’s irate God is that it seems virtually impossible for me to see myself as the recipient of his rage in these verses.  After all, when did I falsely recite God’s laws?  When did I not treasure his covenant?  When did I not take him seriously, for pity sake?  When did I slough off his words?

I just don’t remember any such thing, I guess. . .