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.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Love and (sigh!) death

Sir, I love you more than words can wield the matter,
Dearer than eyesight, space and liberty.
She doesn't. It's all made up. Don't believe her. They're beautiful words, an unforgettable tribute, but it's plain old stinking bull. The speaker is Goneril, King Lear's eldest daughter, and the stakes at the moment are very high. The old man--think of Donald Trump at 90 or so--is divvying up his kingdom. Not a smart thing to do, by Shakespeare's standards. He's putting his three daughters to the test--"which of you love me more?" he's asked with a smirk on his face. Goneril's answer is simply gorgeous.

But not much else. It's a whopper, an ugly one too, so gaudily rendered. What's more, it's even more than a little prophetic since Lear will lose all three--eyesight, space, and liberty-- by tragedy's end.

Still, have no doubt, Shakespeare could lay it on: three words--Romeo and Julie. Those two characters have come to embody love in Western tradition. West Side Story backdrops the story with a New York tenement and peoples it with flashy Puerto Rican immigrants, but right there at the heart of things is human love, plain and (un)simple. 

At love, Shakespeare is the master, right? 

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? 
Thou art more lovely and more temperate. 
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May, 
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date. 

That famous sonnet is the first poem my heart ever heard.

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines, 
And often is his gold complexion dimmed; 
And every fair from fair sometime declines, 
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed; 

Not one thing, it still says, can possibly compare with you, my love. I was in a high school English class, otherwise totally forgettable; and he had me--Shakespeare made love as gloriously fleshy and yet eternal as I ever dreamed it could be.

But thy eternal summer shall not fade, 
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st, 
Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade, 
When in eternal lines to Time thou grow’st. 

Be still, my heart--that is drop-dead wooing. Shakespeare didn't make me want to write, but he brought me into a starry heaven of words I didn't want to leave that morning.

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, 
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

He's right. It's exactly 400 years since the Shakespeare's death, and I just typed out the very words he scratched out long, long ago, words that still pay tribute to his love, to their love, exactly as the love prophet in him claimed those words would. Incredible.

Then there's this. No one knows how the bard met his end. We know the date and the place of internment. We know he hadn't yet reached his 60th birthday, and we can guess where he finally laid his head--or where his head was laid. But nothing else.

It would be so nice to think of him beside his Juliet somewhere, the two having aged beautifully and residing these days in Downton Abbey, maybe? She's a Julie Christie, and he's a Richard Gere, the two of them still a feast of beauty.

But nobody knows. Chances are, he drew his last breath in a (un)holy different world altogether. Speculation has it that he might have died like Poe, in a stupor; that he was a bad drinker has never been proven, but his characters are hammered just about as often as they are love-smitten. Some claim syphilis could well have done him in, profligate as he might have been with all those pretty words. 

Nobody honestly knows how he died, a mystery it would be a joy to unravel. We care, finally, don't we? One's last words were, for a time in human history, something of a fetish, scrupulously recorded as if to testify, I'd guess, to many theories about living and dying. The bard himself shared that fascination; great characters rarely die without grabbing one last soliloquy. 

But no one knows exactly how William Shakespeare died. That's a tragedy of its own, really, isn't it? I'll leave the judgments up to God. They're not mine to make.

Still, it would be nice to know that the man who could pen such perfectly divine protestations of love died in the arms of someone he spent them upon. I'd like that.

But we'll never know.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Political stardom

I was warned. I'll admit it. Their teacher said it in passing--"If I know them, they'll probably ask you about Duck Dynasty," she said.

I was in a small town in eastern Washington, the visiting writer about to step into a class of ten-year-olds, among whom a "visiting writer" was about as interesting as a wasted magic marker. But I'd held forth in front of kids before, and it wasn't all that difficult to keep them entertained. I wasn't sweating, really.

"What's Duck Dynasty?" I asked her.

"You've never seen it?" 

"It's a show about ducks?"

"Just act as if you like it," she said, rolling her eyes.

She wasn't wrong. Fifteen minutes later, some kid in the front raw, only half serious, asked me about Duck Dynasty. Giggles all around. 

I told him I really didn't watch it. "What's it about?" I asked. Engage the kids, right?

Laughter. Howls of laughter. 

Mental note: watch Duck Dynasty.

I never have. And, truth be told, I never watched The Apprentice either. It was televised for 12 whole seasons, attracted millions of viewers, and made Donald Trump a TV star even though he'd been a real estate mogul on the big stage--New York--for decades. 

And the fact is, I watch--which is to say we watch--vastly more TV than we did before we retired. Not even close. Every night, in fact. Somewhere around nine, we turn on Netflix. Last night, forgive me, four--court 'em, four--episodes of West Wing. (Zoey was kidnapped--we had no choice.) The West Wing is ten years old, absolutely ancient via TV time, but we never watched an episode when it came out. Now, as we're about to begin season five, we can barely get up from the couch.

In the Washington Post, Joe Scarborough (whose Morning Joe is hardly Duck Dynasty) says "the media elite," which is to say the talking heads that populate cable TV news and most of Sunday morning, have exotic viewing habits, so exotic they know nothing about a huge other America. A woman named Chyna died a couple weeks ago, and her face and burly body were all over the media. I'd never heard of her.

When the Duggars went through some family horrors, I had to look them up, and I'm an evangelical Christian (most mornings at least). I hate to admit it, but somehow I missed Prince's legendary Super Bowl performance in the rain, even though now it's become more of heaven than earth. 

Joe Scarborough doesn't explain the Trump phenomenon on the basis of TV viewing habits, but he regales the elites (of whom he is one) for rolling their eyes at the America of Let's Make a Deal or American Idol. 

He may well be right. No one appears to understand exactly how Trump has rolled into all his successes. He does absolutely everything the rule books say shouldn't be done. 

No matter. He's a star. 

I don't care. Long ago already I determined to vote for Martin Sheen. 

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Brother's keeper

He was a fool in the sense that he didn't or couldn't or wouldn't resolve, intellectualize, evade, the tensions of his faith but lived those tensions out, torn almost in two by them at times. He was a fool, I suppose, in the sense that he was an intimate of the dark, yet held fast to the light as if it were something you could hold fast to; in the sense that he wore his heart on his sleeve even though it was in some ways a broken heart; in the sense that he was as absurdly himself before the packed lecture hall as he was alone in his office; a fool in the sense that he was a child in hihs terrible candor. A fool, in other words, for Christ (Now and Then, 16-17)
That's how Frederick Buechner pays tribute to Prof. James Muilenburg, a role model and one of the 20th century's most influential theologians, a scholar who helped translate the Bible into the Revised Standard Version, and held a chair on the faculty of Union Theological Seminary during Buechner's years as a student. Other names on faculty offices loom larger today--Tillich, Niebuhr; but none affected Buechner as deeply as James Muilenburg.

James Muilenburg was born just a few miles from where I'm sitting, just north of Orange City, Iowa, about twenty years after his parents moved to northwest Iowa from Pella, along with the original band of immigrant Dutch to settle here. They were looking to homestead good and what they considered to be open land. In a sense, such humble beginnings makes the James Muilenburg story quintessentially American. The estimable theologian came from little more than bare ground.

Which might be true, but the facts suggest something more. That the Muilenburg family was not rich does not mean something valuable didn't happen in that farm house, something that didn't happen in thousands--no, millions--of other frame dwellings in 19th century rural America. The Muilenburg children got educations, and not simply a high school education, a rare commodity anyway in those days. They were also sent to college, even the women, something almost unheard of even in Dutch Calvinist Siouxland. 

Prof. James went off to Hope College, then the University of Nebraska, then Yale. Among the neighbors two miles of gravel roads from town, he was likely the only one with a Yale Ph.D. That he was a deeply religious man has to be in part attributable to his Dutch Reformed upbringing. After all, his immigrant grandparents claimed they had both economic and religious motivations when they explained their reason for emigrating. The Muilenburgs were people of the book, people of faith.

James's brother, Cornelius, was also a Ph.D., and pastored most of his professional life in Michigan. Two of their sisters, both college-educated and never married, taught school during their entire lifetimes. Another sister, post-retirement, became a dorm mother at Northwestern College and is remembered even today for her quiet personal faith.

Then there's Walter J., a brother who went off to the University of Iowa in 1915, and became a writer, a novelist who achieved some hefty status early on in his professional life. Walter's Prairie, now almost totally forgotten, even here where he grew up, is a pioneer story in the tradition of Giants in the Earth. Prairie is depressing saga that embraces the literary naturalism he must have come to know during his education, a determinism that transforms human beings into laboratory rats. Two hundred pages into the novel, Walter J. Muilenburg is still calling the central character, "the farmer," as if Elias Vaughn had no identity of his own.

Because "the farmer" didn't. Not, at least, according to Walter J., and naturalist tract he's peddling in the novel. We are, none of us, no more than the sum of our parts, the simple pawns of powers so much beyond our perceptions that human choice, free will, the opportunity to change or alter the direction of our lives is depressingly futile. Reading Walter J. Muilenburg's Prairie isn't fun because the story is almost totally joyless. The central character, Elias Vaughn, is driven to cut out his fortune from the endless open spaces on the American Great Plains, a landscape that he clearly loves. What he can't know is himself, his motives, or those he thinks he loves.

Early in the novel he stamps the dust off his boots when he walks away from his unforgiving, Bible-reading father to strike out on his own out west, but then obviously turns into a living, breathing, unforgiving recreation of everything he despised about his father. He becomes what he hated because, well, Muilenburg would have you believe that's the way it goes. Prairie is a novel of ideas--maybe even brother Walter's own sermon.

His testimony in Prairie, when contrasted with James's, as Buechner remembers him, seems polar opposite. Imagine the two of them, day after day, milking a half-dozen cows together, sharing stools, forking manure, haying, cultivating corn and beans, listening with to their father read the Bible to them and their sisters after every last meal. Think of all three boys together in a bedroom in the unheated upstairs of a farm house just south of town. Two of them will become dedicated men of the cloth. One of them will seemingly walk away. 

Did Walter leave the faith, become the prodigal? I don't know. I wish I did. He's buried here, just a mile or so from where he grew up, the only one of the three brothers who is. He left few traces, never married, no children. When he was dying, he had nowhere else to turn, no other place else to call home.

Was Walter J. Muilenburg happy? I honestly wish I knew. 

There's something quintessentially American about the whole tale of the Muilenburgs too, don't you think? They are not all alike and neither are we. Walter J.'s life is itself proof that his literary naturalism is bogus. The Muilenburg brothers were not rats in a lab. They had choice. In important ways it seems, they walked away from each other, seemed fully different. We are not pawns, not helpless victims of some power more vast than we are. Our destinies are not somehow jerry-rigged to self-pilot. 

What's more, it seems clear that Brother James the theologian knew the darkness very well, the darkness his novelist brother might well have felt. Buechner says his beloved professor used to tell his students to live in a way that wouldn't allow anything like blind faith. 

"Every morning when you wake up, before you reaffirm your faith in the majesty of a Loving God, before you say ‘I believe’, for another day," Prof. James Muilenburg, younger brother of Walter, used to tell his students, "read the news with a record of the latest crimes and tragedies of mankind and then see," he'd say, "if you can honestly say it again."

I can't help wonder how brother James thought about brother Walter. What he had to know very well was something about problems of being a brother's keeper.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Not of this time

A friend of mine, now deceased, used to tell a story about a renowned preacher with an outsized adam's apple (always part of the story), a dominie who, in a fit of religious enthusiasm, all too often messed up words, did so with such frequency in fact that his flubs made him a better preacher because his congregants paid close attention. No one knew what he might mistakenly say. 

This tall preacher with a ponderous adam's apple was cranking it up in a feverish heat one Sunday morning when he referenced Satan's "fiery darts" (Ephesians 6:16) and, unfortunately reversed consonants to form a barnyard phrase that little boys--and others--had to stifle their giggles, which made it more hilarious and unforgettable. 

My old friend told it so often I sometimes wonder if I wasn't there to hear it myself. 

I'm no linguist, but the NIV has graciously replaced the KJV's "fiery darts" with "flaming arrows," which means the story, told today, would today require a footnote, death to any great joke. 

We ran into Satan's "fiery darts" in an old translation of the Canons of Dort (or Dordt) a couple of weeks ago. In the early 17th century "fiery darts" were prescribed biblical language. But coming on that phrase reminded me of my friend's tale of the long-necked preacher of yesteryear.

I wish that weren't so, but if you read through the Canons in the form the old preacher must have, you'll be amazed at the style, which is simply not of this time, not at all. Sentences are huge, ungainly, almost impossible to gather in, diction incredibly high and mighty. 

But even in a more contemporary translation, you can't help but be amazed at how people thought 400 years ago because the Canons seem conspicuously irrelevant today. The reach of its arguments is astounding, but seemingly useless. What it argues is absolutely fascinating, but so is the Hundred Years War. Even when Satan's fiery darts are flaming arrows, what the Canons so rigorously argue is quite clearly from and for another time. 

Once upon a time, the battles it waged--between election and free will--were in actuality life-and-death issues: in salvation, what role do we play as fallen human beings? Do we choose or are we chosen? The Canons attempt to answer a question most of us would say is largely unanswerable. We simply acknowledge the mystery. 

Nobody brings fiery darts along to theological battlefields anymore, or flaming arrows for that matter. That doesn't mean the issues the Canons address is somehow settled. They're an amazing body of work that for centuries affected the world I come from. For me at least, the Canons are heritage. In many churches I know of, even today office-holders must pledge fidelity to the Canons as one of the "Three Forms of Unity." I can't imagine that most of those men and women know much about what they're saying.

The Canons of Dort, soon to celebrate their 400th birthday, are amazing, but they're not of this time.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Urges, Christian and not

R. I. P.

It happens a whole lot more than it used to, but that's not news--for me or anyone else my age. I'm on the street somewhere or in a restaurant or, like Saturday, in a grocery store, and suddenly, without due warning, I've got to pee. Just had a physical, blood test, most of the whole nine yards--I'm fine. Don't be worrying. But more often than not these days, suddenly what matters more than anything is that I find a bathroom.

Saturday I was hunting down bulk granola in Hy-Vee when some switch got turned on inside. It's not as if I can simply wait it out. When you got to, you got to. So, looking for relief, I followed the outside walls of this massive grocery store and found nothing. Once upon a time it may have been an embarrassment for me to ask. No more. No sweat. 

Two kids--16 barely, I'm sure--are stacking a thousand cereal boxes. Now Hy-Vee puts employees' portraits on their trucks, for pete's sake--the chain wants to be known for their helpful help. Most people in the region know the tune to "a friendly smile in every aisle." One of these cereal-packing kids is not only campaigning for employee of the month, he's bucking for Eagle Scout at the same time because he as much as takes my hand and brings me there, even though I'm not wielding a walker. That kind of sweetness was unnecessary, but then to him I probably looked more than a little ancient. 

Just off the bakery is a hallway where there are two water closets, two doors, both marked simply "Rest Room." They're right beside each other. Two of them. You have a choice. Neither is "gendered." I got to go. I choose the first. Door's not locked. I go in. Case closed.

Right then, I couldn't help feeling sorry for Kohler Company, Kohler, Wisconsin, although they don't need my sympathy and never have. If Hy-Vee is the new normal, Kohler will be turning out far fewer urinals in the future, and someone's going to be out of a job. As you can likely guess, there warn't no urinals in that Hy-Vee "Rest Room," which means the next customer to stop by could well have be someone named Rosanna.

The American Family Association, who knows more about fear than almost anyone on the planet, has determined that the good Christian people of this nation should boycott Target stores because Target has made it clear that everyone can use the restrooms in their stores. They're not going to station one of their red-t-shirted employees beside the john to check your and my genitalia. 

No good Christian people were protesting or handing out leaflets near the Hy-Vee grocery pickup when I walked in, although I'd bet even money that lots of the customers last Saturday afternoon were buying buns and hamburger for Sunday dinner after church the next morning. This was Sioux Falls, not Sodom. 

Maybe some righteous South Dakotan should write the sanctified few at the American Family Association to let them know that the only choice I had when I had to pee in the east side Hy-Vee was between two "Rest Rooms," no gender distinctions. Can you imagine? Right here in the Heartland. If the AFA knew, they'd be asking for a Hy-Vee boycott too.

When so much heat rises from something that's really never been a problem, someone somewhere is blowing a lot of hot air.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Sunday Morning Meds--A Sanctuary for Sparrows

 “Even the sparrow has found a home, 
and the swallow a nest for herself, 
where she may have her young—
a place near your altar, O LORD Almighty, 
my King and my God.”  Psalm 84:3

One Sunday morning years ago, I sat in a big Afrikaner church in Pretoria, South Africa, a beautiful place, new, spacious and worshipful. The church was full, the liturgy was familiar--I was struck by how much the worship itself was akin to a Sunday in my own hometown, thousands of miles away. Even though the pastor spoke Afrikaans and I had no clue what was going on, our mutual Dutch roots were unmistakable.

For all its problems—then and now—South Africa has to have one of the most accommodating climates in the world. Behind immense security walls, doors are frequently left open, as they were in that beautiful church—big doors, openly admitting more than sunlight and warmth that Sunday morning, as you can imagine.

Language prevented me from following the sermon, but so did what looked like sparrows flitting across the front of this huge church. I worried about what the English call “poo,” but no one else seemed to; few seemed as distracted as I was, in fact.  Those sparrows appeared to be not unwelcome guests. Rather accommodating, I thought, for the architects of apartheid. Perhaps the memory sticks in my mind simply because no one else seemed to care. In a way, inviting sparrows to Sunday worship was sweet.

That Afrikaner church comes to mind when I read this verse because that church was, on that Sunday morning at least, a sanctuary for sparrows. I didn’t see nests in the uneven bricks of that soaring front wall, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t any. What the exile (the singer of this psalm clearly is not where he’d like to be) envies is the fact that, while God’s dwelling place is a sanctuary for sparrows, it’s certainly isn’t that for him because, simply enough, he’s not there. And he wishes he was—even the sparrows and swallows have a place there, after all. Call it “righteous envy” maybe.

But not long ago, coming back from a little Sabbath at a waterfall, my wife and I spotted what might have been a muskrat, although he looked rather gray, more like a beaver. I was driving, so I couldn’t look closely; but we both saw him toddle along until he got to a furrow in the river bank, tucked in his legs, and zipped, kid-like, down into the water, where he was undoubtedly more at home.

We both had to giggle at what a waddling tub of lard he seemed to be on land, how painfully graceless as he trudged along the road. Once in the water, however, he stroked himself well beyond the reach of coyote or fox or even eagle. Once in the water, he was as lithe as a loon.

That muskrat/beaver would be an unwelcome guest in any church in the township. But I’m wondering if I can’t push the psalmist’s intent a bit because nobody knows for sure what joy he is invoking here: is he thrilled at swallows in the belfry of his temple, or is he simply observing God’s creatures at home in their elements, the places where they can nest, where they can have their young? 

That Sabbath, I’d have chosen the second option.

If it’s a mark of my age that I can take more joy from a fat old muskrat than I could have a decade ago, then there is some joy in growing old and knowing in my soul that even sparrows have their nests and beavers their marshy sanctuaries.

That’s a sermon all its own.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Morning Thanks--moral change

People who know such things claim there are better than 8.6 billion twenty-dollar bills in circulation in these United States, compared to 1.9 billion tens. Seems counter-intuitive, but the facts don't lie--simply stated, daily we use more twenty-dollar bills than we do ten-spots. Go figure.

That we do figured into yesterday's dramatic decision to alter the currency all of us handle from day-to-day, some more than others of course, some much, much more than others, Bernie would say, and isn't that a crime? 

Politics aside (can politics ever be put aside?), it's big news when the bills we all carry put on a fresh face, as soon (in a few years) they will.

For a long time, the seventh President of the United States, President Andrew Jackson had his day on our twenties. That day is over. Andrew Jackson was a war hero--War of 1812 at the Battle of New Orleans, a member of Congress, a senator from the great state of Tennessee. His family worked underground in the American Revolution.

Let me add that he was also, as such men were in his day, a slaveholder, not a few slaves either. Many. He was a Southerner when rich, white Southerners owned slaves and became rich because they did.

Jackson was, to be sure, the people's President. In that role, he invited the masses to attend his inauguration ball, the first to do so. So many came that the unwashed masses stood on fancy White House chairs in order to get a glimpse of the man who came to be known as "King Mob." Slaves weren't invited. In order to get some of the masses back outside, White House aids dumped the celebratory punch into tubs out on the lawn. 

In May of 1830, just a year after he was elected, President Jackson stood before Congress, thrilled with what he'd accomplished in such a short time. The Senate had just passed The Indian Relocation Act, which pushed "the Five Civilized Tribes" (the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole) out of centuries-old homelands and removed west of the Mississippi. Of the 16,000 Cherokees forced to leave their homeland, 4000 died on the cold and deadly long walk to what would become Oklahoma, "the Trail of Tears."

Listen to Jackson's announcement of this "happy consummation":

For the record, President Jackson's replacement on the nation's twenty-dollar bill will be Harriet Tubman, an African-American woman, someone who escaped the slavery that Jackson not only condoned but perpetuated. When she escaped from her slave-owner, he put this ad in the Cambridge newspaper.

Ms. Tubman is Minty, "fine looking and about five feet high." Reward? Yes, of course--$100, about $3000 today. 

Ms. Tubman's accolades go far beyond having escaped slavery. She was an abolitionist, and an operative, a leader, on the underground railroad for others like her looking for freedom. She was a Civil War nurse, treating Union as well as Confederate wounded. She was a spy who passed military information along to Union forces. Some African-Americans consider Harriet Tubman their own Moses.

If I go looking, I'm sure I'll find dissenters from so dramatic a change in our currency--our twenties will now carry the face of a slave and not a President, after all. Besides, such radical change clearly results from (shudder!) political correctness. That's right. 

Some conservative lunatic out in the cheap seats is, right now, bemoaning the sad demotion of "the people's President," Old Hickory. How sad to see the seventh President of these United States so visibly defrocked. 

But just a few years ago, during a visit to the Civil War battlefield at Pea Ridge, our family discovered that the park was actually on "The Trail of Tears." We were touring, three generations of Schaaps, when there it was, defined and described by a sign along the road. My grandkids knew nothing about the Trail of Tears, so their grandpa had to tell them.

Then another voice interrupted. their aunt, an Oklahoman, who told the kids that her ancestors, Choctaws, could have walked once long ago on that very path of suffering, a victim like so many of a peculiar American version of ethnic cleansing. 

I don't know that her nephew and niece will remember that moment clearly, but that day "the Trail of Tears" took on some meaning, I'm sure.

This morning I'm thankful for billions of 20 dollar bills. Someday each of them will carry the face of Harriet Tubman.

And, yep, I'm thankful for political correctness, too.