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.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

"Out of Africa" (ix) -- Living water

Only once, that I can remember, did I see anything like this--a man, a male, at the community well--and this time there was good reason. We were in an isolated village in Mali, far off any traceable beaten track, when the men, the powers-that-be, insisted that we, their honored guests, visit their wonderful village well, something of a gift, by the way, of the Japanese. 

They didn't say it, but it was crystal clear they were bust-your-buttons proud of that well's modernity. No ropes, no pulleys, and no buckets, save the buckets they used--the women that is--to lug all that precious cargo back to their huts.

We had to walk a ways in a desert sun so intense I wished I'd worn a cap or cape. Emphasis on had to--there are things honored guests simply have to do, and we had to witness the glory of their blessed village well.

"We don't really have a choice, do we?" I said quietly to my U.S. travel companion as we walked in heat that was almost unbearable.

He tipped his head and smiled knowingly. "No question," he said, "but out here,  you know, water is life."

What came to me immediately, right then and there, was a Samaritan woman, a woman with a history of five husbands and, most recently, a live-in partner, the woman at the well, the gospel story.

At dozens of villages along the road only women did the drawing. Gender roles in an Islamic society are, to say the least, well-defined. I don't remember ever eating a meal with an African woman at the table. They prepared the food and served it all up, sumptuously poured it or spooned it onto our plates, but never sat beside us. Such is Islamic life even in Christian homes.

All of which simply enriches the old gospel story, doesn't it? That Jesus was there at a well like this one was quite something, if I can extrapolate a bit. That he, a man, actually talked to her, a woman, had to be almost shocking. But what trumped everything was the fact that the woman was a Samaritan, and a tough one at that, a "hard woman," my mother might say, a woman with a vitae she'd rather not print up. The man who was God, Jesus the Christ, the only human being with divine parentage, trashed all the rules, broke every last one of them.  

But then, at places like this, I had to be reminded that water is life.

It goes without saying that if you travel abroad, almost anywhere, you just don't drink the water, a rule especially difficult in overheated sub-Saharan Africa, where you simply have to drink even if you're not thirsty. After all, water is life.

The village elder up there at the top of the page offered us a drink of the water that blessed pump poured out richly. Warning lights flashed in my head, alarms blared in my ears. But when our African guide hunched over and drank from the well, then insisted to me that this well was a very deep and therefore safe, I drank too, hesitantly but, eventually, bountifully, the only time I actually drank the water in Africa.

Water is life, after all, I reminded myself.

When finally we walked back to the village, I couldn't help but wonder what the Samaritan woman thought when on that exceptionally strange day she met the exceptionally strange Jew at the well, a man who actually spoke to her and told her in no uncertain terms that he was, of all things, the Messiah, the promised one. When she got back to the hut, I couldn't help but wonder what exactly the Samaritan woman said to that guy she was sleeping with. I wonder how she might have explained to him the living water because she had certainly heard something and seen someone she'd never, ever heard and seen before.

Right then and even now, a few weeks later, that whole wonderful gospel story is clearer, more vivid, peopled by characters I can see at wells I've visited firsthand. 

Like anything else, the phrase "living water" can wear itself out into cliche. Maybe it goes without saying, but I'll say it anyway: when I stood there in the hot sun, at that very precious village well, I was, that afternoon, greatly refreshed.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Getting along

Lindneaux Painting

It's getting close to exactly 150 years ago, that Col. John M. Chivington led 700 members of a rag-tag outfit named Third Colorado Calvary onto an open field of the broad Great Plains, where approximately 500 men, women, and children, Northern Cheyenne and Arapahos, were camped. Under the leadership of Chief Black Kettle, these Native people had signaled their intention to live in peace; but Colorado was aflame with hate because white folks had been attacked in prairie schooners on their way west, murdered and mutilated.

Governor John Evans wanted them out, every last one of them. Even though what was then called "the Sioux Uprising" in Minnesota had taken place two years before, memories of the unspeakable horrors by hostile Dakota braves had lingered. In August, Gov. Evans had authorized “all citizens of Colorado . . . to go in pursuit of all hostile Indians [and] kill and destroy all enemies of the country.” Those who, like Black Kettle, had indicated their intention to live on reservations, should be spared, he said.

But very early in the morning on November 29, 1864, Rev. Chivington, a fire-and-brimstone preacher who'd founded a Denver seminary, led those 700 troops into Black Kettle's camp and killed--massacred--50 men and 110 women and children, wounding scores more. Bullets ripped through human flesh as howitzers reigned horror down on an encampment totally unprepared for any attack, on families who had already made clear their intention to move to a reservation in peace.

Today, 150 years later, there's very little at Sand Creek to catch the eye, but there's ever so much to stop the soul. What's there is endless prairie, not a woman or woman in sight. To get to the place the massacre took place, you take blue highways through cow towns that may well be dying and ten miles of dusty gravel roads because no one lives at or near the site of the Sand Creek Massacre. A couple of park rangers will be there to answer your questions. You want to listen to them. They'll tell you the whole story. Quietly.

Colorado, in the national mind, means Rocky Mountain highs: Vail, Loveland, Telluride, Breckinridge, and Powderhorn, winter wonderlands, skiers paradise. Colorado has master class hiking trails crawling up the whole range of "Fourteen-ers," rocky paths that take young and old closer to heaven than you can get almost anywhere on the North American continent. Colorado means Coors, the Broncos, John Elway, Payton Manning.

But if you want to stop at the Sand Creek Massacre, you have to go in the opposite direction down roads you wish you hadn't taken, and when you get there what you'll find is mostly nothing at all: a half-mile hike through wide open Great Plains prairie to a spot on the horizon that looks over a valley not much deeper than a dish pan.

There's no blood anywhere to be seen, no rags, no dead bodies. Aside from a few trees there's nothing to see, but so much to remember.

High school students in the Golden (CO) School District walked out of class earlier this month when the school board, packed by conservatives after recent elections, determined that the curriculum for Advanced Placement History was too radical, too anti-American, to, well, "liberal," touting civil disobedience far more than free enterprise.

I think I have a solution. Bring them all to Sand Creek, all those patriotic board members and all those striking students, their parents and their teachers. Drive them all out there in small groups of a half-dozen or so, mixed company too--rugged conservative business people and mouthy progressives. Introduce them to one of the rangers out there in all that silence, and ask them to tell the story.

Then make them walk together in a group, in silence, to a sacred place where many innocent human beings fell in an assault as evil as anything ever perpetuated in the name of the Lord.

Let them out there for a while. Let them stand there in the silence, in the wind that never dies.  Let them create the pictures their imaginations will certainly conjure once they hear the story.

Then lead them in prayer, ask forgiveness, pledge love instead of hate.

Once that's over, let them go back to Golden, carful after solitary carful, a long and dutiful procession, and see if then we all can't somehow get along.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

"Out of Africa" (viii) -- Me and cousin Henk

Maybe it really happened, but I think it's just a Dutch-American urban legend. Cousin Henk comes to America, flies from Amsterdam to NYC, and calls cousin Jake, who's out in his wood shop in Newkirk--that's Newkirk, Iowa. "I'm here," Henk says, "'ven can you come pick me up?"

Or this one. Henk and Neltje are here at Henk's, their first visit to America. They dine on huge Iowa chops then sit back, their coffee, with cream, set out before them on the table. Henk says he was hoping that during this trip they could see some sights--"Tomorrow maybe, Niagara Falls, and Thursday I 'vas t'inking maybe da' Grand Canyon."

Paris is only a few hours drive from Friesland, after all.

Just call me cousin Henk. I was flabbergasted at the sheer immensity of the African continent. I'm not sure how far we traveled in the weeks I was there, but the total had to be substantial, miles and miles of countryside that, for all practical purposes, didn't change much at all. We ambled around three countries in west Africa, in very limited regions of each, but tallied hundreds and hundreds of miles--four flights one day, three another. 

Get this--the country of Mali, a place I'd rarely heard of before we left, is twice as big as Texas. Folks in Dallas/Ft. Worth may resent my saying that openly, but you can't dispute plain fact so let me say it again: the landlocked nation of Mali, west Africa, is actually twice as big as Texas.

Mali. Don't know where it is? Look here. It's in western Africa, just east of Mauritania. What?--never heard of Mauritania? Idiot. Okay, Mali's in yellow, see it?--just below Algeria. Now you got it. That place is--I'll say it again--twice the size of Texas.

Okay, much of it is desert, but so is west Texas, right? I'll give you the fact that El Paso isn't in the middle of the Sahara, but neither of them is exactly Edenic.

I couldn't help wonder--and still can't-- why I was so dumbfounded by the endless length and breadth of the African continent. I'd been to South Africa previously, traveled around that huge country, in fact, through hills and valleys and mountains, coastal regions and open plains, all of that beauty one huge continent away. But look at South Africa way down there, little more than a hefty plug on the bottom end of a massive continent.

Africa--the continent--is the size of the U.S. and China and India and most of Europe all together. Look at that map at the top of the page. Africa is the leviathan.

Maybe you're not surprised, but I was, and I'll admit it.

Why? Consider for a moment my oversized, factory-equipped ego--we consider ourselves first because we're, well, exceptional--you know, "American Exceptionalism." It's not just tough for Texans to tolerate things even bigger than they are; we're all Lone Star folks really.

We're the city on a hill, God's all-time favorite. If we were to draw up a map of the world, it would look something like that goofy cartoon the New Yorker once featured, the Big Apple, at least in the minds of its residents, taking up half the continent, the rest of it basically pastureland, here and there maybe a memorable hill.

I watched Noah on the plane to Africa and enjoyed it greatly. But what rattled around in my mind as those strange stone people staggered, Transformer-like, through the land was a review I read, something written by a evangelical Christian who wondered what it is that makes Christians believe we own the story. Millions of people from other cultures and faith traditions include the Genesis story as theirs too, not to mention millions more who claim the flood. 

My shock at the immensity of the continent was created, in part, by my home-grown ego, a species of pride I would have certainly told you I didn't have when I left.

But I do.

Monday, October 27, 2014

"Out of Africa" (vii) -- Agriculture

Just outside my window wide sections of razor-cut farmland run to the horizon in every direction, corn and soybeans all around, real "agri-business," especially this time of year. Massive combines have been inching over the fields for a month already, harvesting what looks to me to be yet another bumper crop. Farming is business here, big business.

Very few farmers in Siouxland put things they grow on their own tables. In gardens--yes; but not in those wide sections of ground running all the way to sky. Subsistence agriculture--the economic system that drew all European immigrants to the region 150 years ago--has been dead for just about that long, if, in fact, it ever existed.

Starting communities here, I once read, wasn't a long process. Ten years is what it took, basically, from breaking ground on a brand new homestead to creating a functioning village where crops could go to market. Railroad traffic past our place this time of year is as endless as the tracks are ancient. 

Call it ignorance or stupidity, but I was surprised at how much of the African countryside was being farmed. Maybe I expected a continent-wide game preserve. In long road trips we took through Ghana and Mali and Niger, almost everywhere we traveled people grew the crops they needed to survive--corn, millet, sorghum, as well as exotics like peanuts and watermelon.

You read that right--watermelon. Amazing as it might seem in area where rainfall can be as slight as it is, people grow watermelon.  In Mali, they were everywhere.

Where I expected to see nothing but veldt, there were crops, thin crops, stunted corn by Iowa standards, but noticeable green crops from ground that would make most Siouxland farmers wince. A few tractors made their way along the highways, but most agriculture I noticed seemed subsistence, often primitive. Here and there, workers wielded hoes to break ground, as they might have for too many generations. 

But agriculture was there, almost always, even in the farthest regions of Mali, where all the roads, trust me, are less traveled. Crops get eerily patchy, even though I'm sure our being there in rainy season gave the landscape more flashes of green than it normally shows at dry times of year.  I was amazed--there was no end to fields of grain.

The world is beginning to recognize, once again, that burgeoning opportunities exist in Africa. Most experts seem to argue is that agriculture throughout the continent has to become more of a business, and it can, simply because vast regions of rural Africa could, if handled efficiently, produce more for its own people--and even for others.

Pushing that agenda isn't simply some hybrid 21st century colonialism (although that exists too), but a realization on the part of most world powers that the growing population of the planet will require more food than our harvests now reap. International experts look to Africa as a place where more can be produced to feed many more hungry people.

Images like this will exist only in scrapbooks if African farms are to become businesses; and that's unsettling, to say the least, to people who've lived like this woman for generations. In all likelihood she earns no more than a dollar a day for her work, if that.  Will she benefit from a pronounced emphasis on agriculture? Yes.

Will life change for her? Most certainly.

The row crops all over rural Africa came as a surprise to me, but it's difficult to imagine scenes like this transformed into what I see right now outside my window.

Will it happen? It may have to, not simply for Africa's sake but for the stomachs of the world's hungry people.

Such radical change will require a level of community the world's powers have rarely been able to create. Something will have to be done to make this woman's transition to a whole different way of life just and sustainable.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Sunday Morning Meds--Strongholds

“The salvation of the righteous comes from the LORD; 
he is their stronghold in time of trouble.” Psalm 37

I’ve never taken a particularly glorious shine to the praise team phenomenon, four or five people from the congregation standing up and leading singing. It’s been hot for years in evangelical culture, a sort of earmark of a church's with-it-ness. They’re no burning issue with me, and I get along just fine every Sunday when a new praise team stands up there and does its thing. I'd better--my granddaughter is part of one these days.

I remember one years ago, in a big auditorium, a praise team greatly enlarged, maybe twenty folks strong. I liked that, perhaps because with more of them singing, they were a forest, not trees—if that makes sense.

Several of that group were just kids, two or three of them a bit too young to know most of the music. But they knew one song, an old kid ditty that I hadn’t heard for a quarter century. I don’t know if the song has a title, but it’s created on the parable of the house built upon a rock: “The wise man built his house upon a rock” (repeat three times), “and the house upon the rock stood firm.”

In case you suffered a deprived childhood, the next verse compares the efforts of the foolish man, who built his house upon the sand; once the rains fall, that dwelling went “splat." I don’t remember a “splat” when I was a kid, so I'm guessing the song has been oomphed up a bit.  That's all right.  I'm not hopeless. 

Actions too, actions galore—lots of pounding because there’s lots of building.

But the final chorus made me go splat: “The blessings will come down as the prayers go up (repeat three times)/. . .so build your life upon the Lord.”

Don't I wish that were always and forever true.  It’s so blasted easy, simple as a kid ditty. First-grade math forever makes sense, doesn't it?  The more we pray, the more we’re blessed. Pray a ton and wonderful blessings will shower down.  

I suppose bringing those little kids into worship that night was important, but, honestly, the spiritual transaction "The House on the Rock" offers as undeniable truth simply isn’t as easy to believe as it is to sing--and that's exactly what I remember thinking back then.

Those of us who know depression, know blessings don’t fall upon us that simply. Back then, if I could have tallied all the prayers we brought up to the Lord in those years—and I know others who have suffered far longer—it wouldn't have been no gentle shower; it would have been a storm, I swear. 

That night, while we were singing that little sweet children’s ditty, someone we loved deeply was off very much on his own, looking frantically for himself. That night, despite this swarm of praise singers, it was impossible for me not to feel that my life was built on sand. No answers came in refreshing showers of blessings.

Years ago, in the Superstition Mountains of Arizona, I remember hiking to a place called “Cochise’s Cave,” a stronghold the old Apache chief used more than a century ago. Standing there, I had a sense of what it meant to think of God almighty as a fortress, a stronghold, even a rock. From Cochise’s Cave, you could see for miles. A fugitive could get some sleep in Cochise’s Cave, surrounded as you are by solid rock.

And I know that King David isn’t wrong when he sings what he does here, no more wrong than the kids pounding their hands through that little ditty. I know. I know. I know. I know a stronghold when I see it, when I’m in one.

But it’s just not as easy as 1-2-3, or as fun as a praise team, even when its a whole crowd up there with you. Sometimes life is just not that cute.

How does the line go?—I believe, Lord; help thou my unbelief.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Soup Supper multi-culturalism

The child's eagerness was as remarkable as it was darling. You could barely finish your coffee without her asking for your cup.  I told our friends that this kid was really in training to become the queen of Dutch Calvinism, not for her theological strength but because she was a living, 10-year-old embodiment of that ancient text "cleanliness is next to Godliness."

She was quintessentially blonde, charming pink glasses over her nose; but her eyes rarely met ours because, well, there was just too much to clean up.  She'd been assigned our table at the Christian school soup supper, and she was not--listen to me!--she was not going to let a teaspoon-full of sinful messiness get left unretrieved.

Truth? I'd have hired her in a heartbeat if she'd told me she cleaned houses, but it wouldn't have been legal. I'm not a judge of age, but I'd guess maybe fifth grade. Just a kid, but a blonde whirling dervish with a cleaning rag.

"I just love to clean up," she told me when I told her I was mega-impressed by her breathless energy. "I really do." Zeal?--way, way, way beyond her years. Cleaning up at the soup supper was a calling.

Our visitors were impressed too. The one wearing the big black cowboy hat, the one with the middle-of-the-back pony tail, couldn't help chatting to Ms. Cleanliness. "Ever meet a real Indian?" he said, being one himself.

Honestly, she could barely stop working. The question didn't seem to register. She didn't get it.  Then she pulled back the rag, stopped and looked at him as if she hadn't heard.

"You ever meet a real Indian?" he asked again, or something close.

She went into one of those kid-like stalls, wheels churning inside somewhere as she tried to determine what on earth was going on with this grandpa with the wild silver mane.  She looked at him, eyes narrowing, that handy-dandy rag still in her hand but motionless.

Seconds passed. More. She'd become something akin to Lot's wife, without the tragedy.

Finally, what was in her came blurting out innocently. "You mean you're a real Indian?" she asked, as if he might have been spoofing.

"A Navajo," our friend said, reaching out his hand to shake. "You ever meet one before?"

She shook his hand, but once again seconds passed. Her mind was a slot machine, the symbols still spinning.

And then, finally, she says what comes up. "I'm going to be an Indian on Halloween," she told him boldly, as if he really ought to be proud.

We just about fell off our chairs.  What a sweet little hoot. 

And now I've got this little necklace our Navajo friend picked up at Pipestone yesterday. He wants me to find that little girl who's going to hit the streets as an Indian on Halloween. It's just a little thing, but he says he thinks it'll help that costume along.

It'll be a joy finding her in school and getting it to her before she gets herself into her getup. She won't be hard to find. I'm sure she'll be the one cleaning up the classroom.

Friday, October 24, 2014

"Out of Africa" (vi) -- bottomless filthy lucre

It's blessedly impossible not to notice what's happening at gas stations. Even the Coop up the street is selling its liquid gold at $2.85 a gallon. Unheard of. The price may well be even lower south of here--always is anyway. Soon enough, gas prices will be a buck less per gallon than it was not all that long ago. Amazing.

Obama's huge 2009 payroll tax cut, the largest in history, put $400 into the pockets of every American family, money the government hoped people would spend and thereby right the economy after the worst dunking it took since the 30s. Barely a memory right now, but true.

That's nothing, a story on NPR said a few days ago. What economists claim, the story reported, is that "Americans spend so much money on gas that for every penny you drop the price and keep it there for a year, you've increased American spending power by $1.4 billion." Every penny. 

Really. Incredible. Let me run through that again--for every penny the price of gas drops and stays there for a year, American spending power rises by $1.4 billion dollars, a huge amount, far bigger than the biggest tax cut on record.  

I'm sure someone will dispute that, but I'm going to let it sit for a while, knowing darn well that the $2.85 I paid last weekend is a dream. I'll let you do the math. If the price stays there--and I know that's a big if--massive shifts will occur in the economy. They already are--at least for now.

I wish I were smart enough to determine what drives oil prices, what role, for instance, American oil successes have in dropping prices or how the Saudi's cut in production--or at least distribution, for all we know--fits in to the sign outside the station. I don't get it really, but I know more about piles of money oil accumulates.

Lots of it ended up in Africa, where lots of oil comes from. 

 There are places in west Africa where stunningly beautiful buildings leap out at you from areas that otherwise suffer the peculiar characteristics of African urban blight. Some of those buildings look as if they've descended miraculously from the north, where their design is more typical, in Arab Africa. They're beautiful--they really are. They're business class or better, not really high rises, but four and five and six stories at least, all of them in a stunning set, almost like toys.

To say Omar Gaddafi pocketed a fortune during his misrule in Libya is an obscene understatement. At the time of his death, he was thought to have 200 billion amassed in all kinds of places, including a goodly chunk in South Africa. He had enough to give each of the 6.5 million people in Libya $30,000, if he wanted. Which he didn't. But he did give it away. He did a lot of building in west Africa, trying to buy favor, trying to rule, just like every one else who's invaded the place.

I don't think I'll ever understand what kind of wealth oil production has lavished on those who control it, in the Middle East or elsewhere. The super rich live in ways I can't even imagine. What I do know, after traveling in west Africa, is that Middle Eastern oil has done unbelievable things.

The highway between the capital of Niger, Niamey, and Maduaoa, is maybe 200 miles of agricultural land and a hundred villages, the last one indistinguishable from the one before. Somewhere central in those tiny towns is a well, a public well, maybe with a pail and rope. The women are there, dressed in fabrics that seems astounding amid all of the earth tones. Mud huts with thatched roofs mushroom all around; and, up close to the road, a half-dozen skinny arbors lean in contrary directions, the places where the merchants set up trade and stay out of the sun. Kids play all over. Mopeds buzz around like flies.

Most of those hamlets have no more than 100 people--or so it seemed to me. But just about every one of them had one brand new building, bigger than all the rest, cleaner than all the rest, more tidy than all the rest. Those buildings weren't always the same size--some were no bigger than a double garage--but all were new and all were well-kept. Mosques. There may well have been some exceptions, but it seemed that every last village had a brand new mosque.

It seems they were gifts from afar, most of them from oilmen in Qatar. Think of it this way, it was as if the state if North Dakota had determined to build a brand new Baptist church in every hamlet in Mississippi. In every town imaginable they'd construct a tidy new house of worship. No matter how run down, no matter how ailing, where there was a town there'd be a new church. 

Gaddafi was a madman whose wild dreams included someday becoming the King of Africa, "the King of Kings," he called himself. He gave himself ridiculous titles and gave lots of African countries immense gifts to help him ascend to the unwieldy dreams he believed would certainly come true, including a United States of Africa.

Gaddafi, like Ozymandius, is gone. Look on, ye mighty, and despair.

But all that oil money, more than I can ever imagine, is still stuck in all kinds of places, including real estate in countless African places.  There was no end to his fortune.

There is, in the Middle East, in North Africa, so much oil money that it's no wonder the world can't leave the place alone. Nor is it a mystery why that immensely well-heeled corner remains a a boiling cauldron.