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.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Morning Thanks--Soldiers of the Cross

Edward Hodder, author of
"Thy Word is like a Garden, Lord"

It's all gone now, even the church where it happened, Sunday morning after Sunday morning. As soon as the house would clear, kids would wander back in and find a place in the pews. It was the early fifties, before most churches had education wings, so a number of Sunday School classes in the old church I attended would simply meet in the sanctuary and talk over each other. My class sat up front left. 

The superintendent would smack a little bell that sat just beneath the pulpit, hit it three or four times to bring us to relative order. Some woman would pull out the piano bench, west side, take a seat and reach for the Psalter. Then, before prayer, the super would ask for favorites.


Week after week, someone would choose "Onward Christian Soldiers"--that's what I remember, and that's why I even remember the number.  "449!"--week after week after week. 

I plugged in an exclamation point because I may have been too young to recognize a prank. I don't wince when that number chimes up from my memory, and I would have if I knew some naughty kid was deliberately driving the Super crazy by choosing it every last Sabbath morning. 

I may be wrong but I think those kids who yelled out that number made sure to choose "Onward Christian Soldiers" because they just plain liked the song. I did. No one chose the plodding old psalms (The Psalter Hymnal" the purple cover said in ancient gothic lettering); basically, it was "Stand Up for Jesus" ("ye soldiers of the cross") and "Onward Christian Soldiers" every Sunday, both of them old, red-blooded fightin' songs, a genre of hymnody dead as a doornail today. Only those fellowships ball-and-chained to the past would sing those old hymns anymore, but "Onward" got us second-graders up from the old pews, blasting away.

Yesterday, we happened to sing a hymn I'd never sung before, a song whose origins are rooted in the American Civil War, which would make "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," an army buddy. "Thy Word is Like a Garden, Lord" describes the Bible with four memorable similes, the first is the title. Then in succession come three others: "the Word is like a deep, deep mine," ". . .a starry host," and ". . .an armory." The last one has no grammatical parallelism because, unfortunately, armory lugs three syllables into the meter all by itself. 

Here's the line:
Thy Word is like an armory, where soldiers may repair;
And find, for life’s long battle day, all needful weapons there.
You've got to be at war to use language like that comfortably. America happens to be, of course, but not in the way we were during the War Between the States or WWII.  I'm not complaining, but I wonder whether any other evangelical fellowship in the nation sang that hymn yesterday. Military weaponry are certainly no metaphors of choice these days and haven't been since, well, since I was a boy.

The final stanza of this 150-year-old hymn retraces the steps of its similes, two of the four lines given to the military:
Oh, may I love Thy precious Word, may I explore the mine,
May I its fragrant flowers glean, may light upon me shine!
Oh, may I find my armor there! Thy Word my trusty sword,
I’ll learn to fight with every foe the battle of the Lord.
It's a mixed bag of similes, don't you think?--flowers and stars, battles and gold mines.
But it got me thinking. I'm guessing kids don't choose "449" anymore because they don't--we don't--think of ourselves as soldiers of the cross. Some do, I'm sure, but in the thousands of new songs that amateur musicians rain down on the rest of us every Sunday, few ditties, if any, will steadfastly affirm that we are "in the Lord's armyyyyyy" flailing away "in the battle of the Lord."

No Mennonites anyway, but very few of the rest of us either, you think?

We just don't talk that way. But when we sang those words yesterday, a single hymnal number appeared in full battle gear in my memory.  And for that memory, this morning I'm thankful.

I'll let the task of determining whether our acculturation is (or was) good (or bad) up to you. 

Talk amongst yourselves.

Better yet, sing. 
Here's a rather nice setting of this old hymn. It runs four minutes, but you might just find it sweet.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Sunday Morning Meds--In the bones

“My bones suffer mortal agony as my foes taunt me, 
saying to me all day long, 
‘Where is your God?’"  Psalm 42:10

I am, regretfully, descended from a distinguished line of fulsome hypochondriacs.  A former minister of ours, who was once my grandfather’s preacher, once told me that a half century ago, when my grandfather was felled suddenly by a heart attack, an old friend of both of them appeared shocked. “Maybe he was sick—we should have believed him for all those years,” that friend said.        

It’s in the genes, I guess.  Maybe I shouldn’t go that far.  Can hypochondria be in the genes?  Talk amongst yourselves.

My mother had it too, as any of her kids will tell you.  There was always something ailing her, for as long as I can remember.  The doctor could never quite find it, which meant she just saw more of them.  My mother—bless her soul and I loved her dearly—was a good argument for nationalized medicine.

Maybe I have it too—I’d like to think not, but who knows?  When first we were married and living in Arizona, I started thinking my arrhythmia, a condition I’ve had for as long as I can remember, was developing into something awful.  It’s embarrassing to admit it, but I was under some stress at the time, adjusting to my own newly married status and unsure of myself in graduate school, neither of which, today, seem all that life-threatening. 

I went to see a doctor—we’d just moved so someone I’d never seen before.  He took some tests, shrugged his shoulders, and said that I needed someone to tell me I wasn’t sick.  Which he did.  End of symptoms.  Just call me my mother’s child.

Maybe David’s talk about pain in this verse—“bones in mortal agony”--is overstatement.  He’s trying to make a point about his spiritual anguish, drawing on his poetic license.  It’s a figure of speech.

On the other hand, maybe his physical pain is hypochondria.  The tentacles of his stress reach into his joints, his muscles, even his bones.  He hurts all over.

Maybe depression—his deep sense of alienation from God—is the occasion for his physical ailments.  Maybe he’s got thyroid problems, a frequent association.  Maybe he had some chronic pain—an old war injury—before he felt “down in the dumps.”  Chronic pain often accompanies or even triggers depression.

My sisters and I often shook our heads in wonder at our longsuffering father, who always appeared to believe my mother’s phantom pains were real.  He must have learned—as we had to—that denying those pains was never going to get him or her anywhere because what Mom felt in her bones—real or not—was always real.

Good doctors will admit that we are all more than the sum of our physical parts.  In hospitals all over the world, miracles still happen; and we call them that because we don’t know—nobody does—how human will intersects with our physicality.

That’s why I believe David, even though I’m a veteran scoffer.  The pain he felt in being seemingly abandoned by God crept, cancer-like, into every atom of his fiber.  He could feel God’s absence in his bones, in his cartelage. 

I don’t think it’s overstatement.  God seemed gone, and that pain, to him, was real—as it can be to us, hypochondriacs all.

Can there be a great pain for those who believe he’s always near? 

Friday, January 23, 2015

"Out of Africa" -- Covenant children

The Christian Missionary Alliance says that its people first brought the gospel to the west African country of Mali in 1923. But if you think of Mali as just a bit smaller in size than Alaska, then you have to realize that CMA missionaries couldn't exactly swarm the place. Even today, almost ninety years later, less than one percent of Mali is Christian, a fact which suggests that while the CMA's work has not been in vain, Mali has been, traditionally speaking, stony ground. 

When exactly those missionaries got to the Dogon people, I don't know; but it's not likely the Dogons were first because Dogon people live in small communities of several hundred or so built into the Bandiagara Cliffs, a sandstone geological anomaly that belongs to the Bandiagara Escarpment, a ridge 500 feet high 150 kilometers-long in southern Mali. Some of those villages look greatly like those created long ago by indigenous cliff dwellers in the Southwestern United States.

There's no freeway to get to those villages and never has been. Because the only way to get there is walking paths, even today the Dogon people are significantly isolated and have therefore a long and proud history of staying out of the picture when it comes to change of any kind. 

And they've had opportunities. Most of Mali--90 percent of it--is Muslim. Not the Dogon. They didn't fall under Islam's spell when, in the ninth century, Muslim merchants began spreading their faith throughout the region. The Dogon people held fast to their nativist religion, still do.

But sometime after 1923, at least one Dogon man converted to Christianity by way of CMA missionaries. Just imagine the rejoicing.  

To him, conversion was costly. When he became a believer, his two wives simply walked away. Such behavior was conventional, even assumed. He paid a price for his faith, but he believed, and didn't stop believing.

That man had a son, who, marvelously, became a preacher, missionary, a circuit rider, an itinerant among his own. He traveled extensively along the escarpment, village to cliff-dwelling village, bringing the gospel with him. Gradually, over time, more Dogon converted, but not hoards or hundreds. Thousands of years of self-imposed isolation made the Dogon deeply resistant to any outside interference, even the slavers who came down and raided black African villages to take all kinds of tribal peoples back as little more than cattle. 

But there was this one man at least, and then there was his son, too, who also became a committed Christian and eventually a powerhouse Dogon missionary, a man sometimes so devoted to bringing Christ to his people that he managed to forget his own family. This good man preached and preached and preached but brought home so very little daily bread that his children far too often went hungry.

That's something the great preacher's son remembers all too well. Once upon a time, he says, he came home from school depressed, skin-and-bones, absolutely nothing in his stomach. Starvation makes for a sorry life, and he remembers all too well having nothing to eat for far too long. Think, if you will, of a thousand photos of starving African children--any one of them could well have been the preacher's little boy. 

Here's the thing. That little boy's uncle--another Dogon Christian--had managed to bring over a bundle of food that morning, enough to quell the anger in the boy's stomach. When today, almost 50 years later, he remembers that startling discover, food sitting there on the otherwise barren table, he thinks of that gift as a miracle brought into their starving lives by none other than the Lord God almighty.

Twenty years ago, that boy had become an adult, trained nurse professional named Indielou Dougnon, who along with his wife, used to pull on their rucksacks and climb on a dirt bike, the two of them together, to visit scattered villages you wouldn't even know were there if someone hadn't shown you, villages so far out in the bush there were no paths at all to get there. Together, they'd bike vaccinations to people whose children were suffering from the malaria that's endemic to the region, especially in the after-throes of the rainy seasons. 

Picture that--the two of them bringing medical aid, bringing relief, bringing life to children--and those childrens' parents--from the banana seat of a moped.

Today, with the financial help of the Luke Society, Indielou Dougnon runs an impressive medical clinic in rural Mali, just outside of a village called Keyes, where people of different tribes and different tongues come for medical help from miles and miles around--Indielou Dougnon, a Christian, a Dogon medical missionary who once was a stranger in a strange land himself, the only Dogon within hundreds of miles. 

I'd like to be able to go back to those first CMA missionaries, circa 1930, men and women who spent most of their lives camped out on really stony ground trying to deliver the goods of the gospel. It would be sweet to be able to tell them the story of this man, Indielou Dougnon. 

I'm sure they'd smile. I'm sure they'd be thrilled.  "Sure," they'd say. "Sure, praise the Lord, we knew his grandpa."

This man and his family--they're good reason for morning thanks.

Indielou Dougnon and family

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Morning Thanks--January

I know, I know--there are places on earth where at some times of the year day is night and night is day. I shouldn't complain. A long January thaw has done great mischief to the perfectly white quilt the wind spread over the land a couple of weekends ago. Our new snowshoes languish in the garage like last summer's badmitten rackets. But no one likes bone-chilling cold, so despite the dirty would outside my window, I've shouldn't gripe. Lately, winter-wise, we've been greatly blessed. 

Besides, the long johns are back in the drawer. For the last couple of days, a hoodie and a fleece vest are all you need if you venture out. In the last two weeks, Alberta's famous clippers stayed put in Yellow Knife or never brewed at all. We've been greatly blessed.

January days are still short, but the long reign of nightly darkness is receding. By the end of February, from our north windows we should be seeing the sun rise again, the bridegroom, King David called it; but it'll be a while before we see him retire--May, I suppose before we come anywhere close to another sunset right out here before our eyes. 

For the time being they're quite a ways out of the range of our windows. Once in a while as of late, I've been out at dusk and seen the landscape art God almighty puts up on his heavenly easel. I happened to catch the sky in all its stunning array and realized how much I was missing.

They're still there, but I just don't see them. Won't be long and I will. Won't be long and I'll stand just outside my door or sit on the chairs now stacked up in the back room, just sit in wonder and awe as if we just happen to live in an art museum. 

Won't be long.

Our neighbor came over yesterday to tell me what he'd discovered about the rocks they've been digging out of the quarry alongside the river out back. It seems they're the detritus of not one but two glaciers that spread thin over the region sometime between 11 and 85 thousand years ago. The most important player in that saga was the ice sheet that covered most of Canada, the Upper Midwest, and New England, in addition to other sundry parts of the North American continent, something called  "the Wisconsin Episode" (which must not be confused with what happened there after the Seattle game last week). 

Those rocks--including the ones I stacked into retaining walls around our house--are just little guys in comparison, the neighbor said, to the boulders--big ones the size of our deck, the size of our house!--that are down there beneath the ground, sometimes fifty feet or more beneath rich top soil, a "boulder train," it's called, he said, that itself marks the reach of that glacier's life and death.  Right out here.  Really. Right outside our door.

There's much more to that history, most of which I don't begin to understand; but somehow the story only enhances the miracle of creation, doesn't it?--I mean to know that there's been an art gallery here long before the Yanktons started hanging out in neighborhood of the Big Sioux; and long before a thousand Oneotas or more lived in a city of their own just an hour or so east and north, a city much, much bigger than Chicago back then. 

Even before that, the sky here and everywhere was kaleidoscopic art museum. From the day of creation, it has been. 

That's it's just now out of my view doesn't mean it wasn't there. It's been there forever in human time. 

Somehow just knowing that makes us all asterisks, don't you think?

Calvin thought that we human beings catch a glimpse of our finiteness only when we begin to see and appreciate that kind of infinity. I think he's right.  The story's in the sky and in the rocks too.

And that, this dark and cloudy morning, an hour before dawn, is itself abundant reason for morning thanks.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Communications 101

I'm not an expert, but it seems to me that those who are claim that communication requires three component parts--a sender, a message, and a sendee. Someone has to voice content, and someone else has to receive it. It's the old "if a tree falls in a forest," right?

So goes the lecture. Three parts makes a whole.

Don't believe it.

Ninety years separate these two. When my grandson is fifty years old, he'll show his grandkids this shot and let them know the old guy beside him actually farmed with horses and didn't have indoor plumbing until he was middle age. He'll say that this great-grandpa of his was born just after the First World War. Slack-jaws all around. 

That's not the lecture. Here's the lecture. What's seems to be going on here isn't. The boy is explaining Angry Birds to his great-grandpa. Ostensibly. 

In reality, at five years old, the boy isn't much of a teacher. He has absolutely no idea that his student has absolutely no idea about what happens in a computer game. See that hand up at Grandpa's ear--doesn't help. See that look of rapt attention? That's fake. Great-grandpa wouldn't understand the little guy in a thousand years. An iPad is as other worldly to him as World War I is to his great-grandson.

What's worse, even with hearing aids in, Great-grandpa is just about stone deaf. You have to yell. The boy isn't yelling. What Grandpa needs is an old-fashioned ear horn. I wonder if I can get one from Amazon. 

So let's review communication theory. The speaker is bright and precocious, but he's oblivious to his grandpa's cluelessness when it comes to Angry Birds and he doesn't understand anyway that Grandpa can't hear a word he's saying. 

Theoretically this is not communication.


Now look again. Closely.

Who gives a hang about theory?

Certainly not the boy. Certainly not Grandpa. Certainly not me.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Heavenly tourism

To call it fraud somehow gives it heft it doesn't deserve. Fraud requires some craft. This thing was like taking candy from a baby. You just had to lie well.

You can call it a hoax because what the book says never never happened. Hoax is fraud's miscreant uncle, a seedy character way up there on the yuck chart. Listen, the book is a hoax

And a scam. Because it was. Right from the getgo, The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven got itself nicely packaged and set on bookstore shelves with other testimonies in the genre of some call "heavenly tourism," stories from the beyond. (Some people use that phrase without smirking.) It's a scam. It was meant to make bucks and it did. The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven book sold a million copies to sweet, soft-hearted Christians who drew their Visa cards from their wallets the moment they heard how a darling paraplegic kid had actually seen the Lord. 

It was a fraud. Never happened. Someone, presumably the boy's father, created a hoax, a scam; and the world's largest Christian publisher, Tyndale, fell for it even though the whole tale was malarkey, which is really a heavenly irony because that's the authors' name. Seriously. The Boy Who Came Back from the Home was written, by Kevin and Alex Malarkey, or so the cover says beneath a banner headline that claims the book is "a true story."

Here's the news. It ain't. It's baloney. It's a lie. The kid never went to heaven. 

Not only that, it turns out that Mrs. Malarkey has been telling the publisher that fact and writing about the deception on her own blog for quite some time. But there are no saints in this saga, so don't think Mrs. Malarkey is Karen Silkwood toting a New Testament.

But right down there at the bottom of the mess with the father, who seemingly wrote the story, is the publisher for not jerking the book the minute a question arose, for buying the manuscript in the first place and then marketing it for nutty customers hungry for heavenly crapola. And right down there too are Christian bookstores happy to see silliness empty their shelves and ring up some profits. Times are tough, after all. 

The publisher and bookstore owners knew at least something of the hoax, but, hey, the book was selling, right? People loved the book.

Once upon a time I was a member of the board of a broadcast ministry. We were told that when we returned home we were to do everything in our power to squelch the ancient rumor that Madelyn O'Hare, even though she'd been dead for a decade, was still petitioning the FCC to ban Christian broadcasting.

Good Christian people wouldn't believe that she wasn't. By the hundreds of thousands they were writing letters to the FCC, as they had been for years when the rumor passed through a community, like a stadium wave.

Maybe I'm just being mean. Maybe this whole tale is just sad. That's all, just sad.  But once again, the church really looks foolish, from writer to publisher to bookstore and a million deluded buyers looking for "heavenly tourism."

Heavenly tourism. Heavenly hoax.  Lord 'a'mercy.

Full disclosure: My last book, Up the Hill, is, well, heavenly tourism. . .sort of. 

But it's fiction and it's more than a little goofy, and, sadly enough, it hasn't sold a million copies, nowhere near a thousand for that matter. Neither does it have a Christian publisher. 

Forgive me for my envy. 

Hey, buy the book :).

Monday, January 19, 2015

MLK Day (again)

If you scroll back through the years, you'll find this post appears twice previously. But, as the post itself insists, bringing back the story is something that needs to be done annually at a predominately white college that uses Christian as a modifier.  This morning, I'm saying it again, third time, even though I'm retired from teaching and the college.

Not until I came home from school yesterday, walked to the front of the house, pulled back the brass door of the mail box, and discovered it empty did I realize that it was a holiday, Martin Luther King Day.  Not until then.  

We don't celebrate MLK Day at this Christian college for a good reason--because the semester began just a week ago, and if we were to give the students their first Monday off, a ton of them would simply stay home for the first half week or so, some of them for good reasons, others for bad.  Furthermore, if the college would shut down on MLK Day, boat loads of students would head up to the Twin Cities or west to Denver or wherever, putting literally hundreds on the roads, mid-winter.  Students would spend all sorts of cash goofing off, and risk their lives in what could well be horrible travel weather.  They could be killed.

What's more, our non-compliance isn't really racist since we don't celebrate Labor Day either.  School always starts before summer's last fling, so for thirty-some years I haven't had a Labor Day when I wasn't laboring.  I teach on Labor Day.  I teach on MLK Day.  It just makes good sense not to shut things down, good economic sense.

When I was a college sophomore, four of us went to Florida over spring break to catch some sun.  We pulled into Ft. Lauderdale late at night, had made no reservations, so ended up looking for a place to stay at an hour--and a time of year--when finding a room wasn't exactly a breeze.  

I don't know how on earth we ended up where we did, but I remember the place very clearly--it seemed to me then to be an abandoned military barracks, at least that's what it looked like, rafters for ceilings.  We went into the office.  We were third in line.  I remember being anxious and we sure weren't picky, believe me.

The group in front was from Notre Dame--I remember that.   Four guys.  The seedy old man behind the desk gave them a key.  But then, horror!--the couple in front of us got turned down. "Sorry," the guy said.  "You saw it--that was the last room."

That meant, of course, we had to look elsewhere.  Once the couple left, there we stood, bereft.  We too started to walk out.

"Where you going?" the guy said.  "I still got a room."  Wink and a smile.  "We don't take their kind here."

That young couple in front of us were black.  

I'd never experienced anything close to that before.  I'd heard about it, read about it, wondered about it--but it had happened right in front of me.  Besides, my father had believed that MLK was an leftie agitator who people claimed had buddied up with known communists.  I grew up in Wisconsin in the early Sixties, when the shadow of Joseph McCarthy still loomed over politics.  I'm sure that my wonderful, God-fearing father--one of the sweetest men I ever knew, honestly--probably believed that Joe McCarthy was a far better man than this Martin Luther King.  

Were he alive, my father would probably still have all kinds of trouble celebrating MLK Day.  It would bug him no end.  He might well appreciate the fact that we don't celebrate.  Yet, no one I know would doubt my father's deep and abiding Christian faith. 

There are good reasons why this Christian college doesn't celebrate the holiday, and I understand them.  But I also know that historically for my people, who surely do like to watch the dollars, it's much, much easier to work on MLK Day than it is to remember the man or his vision because what there is to remember of King's time for many, many white evangelical Christians isn't pretty at all, it's racist. 

David Brooks is in South Carolina now, and yesterday, on Martin Luther King Day, in the New York Times, he speculated about the folks he'd been meeting, especially the mood of their rallies, like last night's debate.  He says that the audiences want "a restoration" because they're sure that American once had strong values, "but we have gone astray."  They believe we need to return to the values we once had, Brooks says.

Brooks doesn't disagree with that assessment, but he also says he wonders if the people he's been visiting have become "the receding roar of white America as it pines for a way of life that will never return."

There are many good, good reasons for our not celebrating Martin Luther King Day, but at this mostly white Christian college, it behooves us, every year, to rethink our motives because there are also many, many good reasons--moral reasons--to remember both who he was and who we were and maybe still are.