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, February 08, 2016

Saturday Morning Catch--Just south of town

The idea was to wake up early and go chase the dawn somewhere east on Saturday morning, somewhere close to the rolling hills above the Little Sioux; but the fog was so thick outside my windows that I could barely see. So I left the camera in the bag, stayed in sweats, sat here behind the computer, and simply determined that there'd be no opportunities in the gray sea poop outside the window. 

But by sun up, the curtain looked like it could rise or fall with a little solar nudging. By then it was already kind of late, relatively speaking--maybe 8:00. Shapes were beginning to emerge eerily from the ooze. The sun was doing its heat thing.

What all that fog would leave behind, I knew, was the kind of frosting winter blesses us with occasionally, a fragile coating of grace over just about everything. We'd had a bit of snow on Friday night, so all the old dirty stuff was, well, whiter than snow. It would be the an act of apostacy to stay inside. 

It's February now, and the groundhog, people say, saw not his shadow. That's great news. New snow, even a blessed fringing hoarfrost isn't new at all in February. In another month, I won't point a camera at what's out there no matter how heavenly. In two months, we'll all be cursing our fat if--no, when--we get more.

But 'twas a sweet February Saturday and not to be missed. 

I never got more than two miles from home and came home blessed. That being said, nothing that comes off that memory card is as perfectly gorgeous, as shiny bright, as what was out there. Trust me. 

Sunday, February 07, 2016

Sunday Morning Meds--Questions

“My heart mused and my spirit inquired: 
‘Will the Lord reject forever? 
Will he never show his favor again? 
Has his unfailing love vanished forever? 
Has his promise failed for all time? 
Has God forgotten to be merciful? 
Has he in anger withheld his compassion?’”
Psalm 77:6-9

I knew the couples up front. Three of the four of new moms and dads had been in my classes at one time or another during their years in college. Grandparents and uncles and aunts—some of them from far, far away—held down honored places on adjacent chairs.

Both couples were holding was their first babies, and those two towheads were also both first grandchildren from both sides of both families. Pride may well be the first of the deadly sins, but our church sanctuary last Sunday morning was overflowing with it, and there wasn’t a dime’s worth of sin and no guilt.

If either of the fathers had shown as much concentration in his schoolwork as he did when the preacher drenched their babies’ foreheads, they would have had far less trouble in my classes. Their focused attention on the baby and the baptism was a blessing—I swear, simply the way they were attuned to what was going on was revelation.

I don’t know why, but when the baptisms were over and the couples both were standing in front, husbands holding the babies, we sang “When Peace Like a River,” an odd hymn to sing right then, given its history. It must have been by request because I doubt our preacher would have chosen it. My guess is that it was someone’s favorite.

I can’t sing that song without getting choked up. One of the reasons is the story of Horace Spafford, who wrote the hymn after losing his four daughters when the ship they were in went down in the Atlantic. That’s another story.

The morning of the baptism was not the time to tell the story of the hymn.

Anyway, the sacrament was gloriously accomplished, the music resplendent. That Sunday morning, in our church there was good reason to be smilingly overwhelmed.

But just beside me sat a couple who, a year ago, lost a grandson who, one Sunday, walked away from his father for just a second, fell into a swollen creek, and was never seen again.

Those first-time parents up front prompted the grandparents beside me to dig out Kleenex, and there I sat, somewhere, like all of us, somewhere between heaven and hell.

Most good writers say rhetorical questions are, well, sophomoric, a cheap way to incite interest. Asaph lines them up like dominoes here in the mid-section of Psalm 77, one after another—six in all, six that when read together feel less like simple rhetoric than the consecutive blows of a cudgel. There he is, beating away on God’s own chest. “Are you there or not?” he’s saying—brash and impudent and pushy, even sophomoric, I guess, just as all of us are.

In Asaph’s barrage of questions, I hear what I felt in the muffled breaths of those bereft grandparents last week in church, in the tears they tried to wipe away in the tumult of joy all around.

What I know as I come ever closer to seventy years of life—as well as from a single worship service just last Sunday--is that Asaph impassioned questions are not his alone.

God never promises a rose garden, only a presence; and when that presence seems an absence, even Mother Teresa turned into a sophomore. We all do, when there’s nothing but questions.

Friday, February 05, 2016

Me, and Lent, and God For Us

Whether or not the church of my youth really believed in "the holy catholic church" is not as obvious to me as was our repetition of that phrase in the Apostles Creed at every Sunday evening worship. We were--as most churches and most denominations were back then--quite thoroughly sure of where we stood in God's favor but a whole lot less confident about where anyone else stood. We were in--that was for sure. Whether or not others were was not ours to judge. Which didn't mean we didn't.

Knowing darn well what you stand for almost always means knowing darn well who certainly doesn't. Good stout definitions keep people together--and, sadly, apart.

When Greg Pennoyer sent me a note asking me to contribute to God For Us, I was literally speechless. A few of the other contributors are friends, but they're all big-time, and none of them are cut from the same Calvinist cloth I am. What's more, in the church of my youth, most of the champions of orthodoxy considered Lent a practice just on the other side of "foreign," even, well, Roman Catholic, something akin to fish on Friday or bingo (gambling!) at church picnics. Lent belonged to them, not us.

But I wasn't about to turn down the opportunity Pennoyer was offering, so I went to Amazon the same day and ordered half a shelf of Lent devotionals (second-hand), and started in. I mean, I knew what "Lent" was, but I could hardly be judged a devotee, not because I was a'gin it but because it was something that congregations I'd been a part of had only recently--maybe a couple decades ago--begun to edge into the conversation about worship.

Whether or not my contributions to God For Us are worthy is not my determination to make, but I was and am deeply honored to be a part of this collection, not simply because of the prominence of the other contributors but because God With Us, in the original, is a book that is devotional in every sense of the word: gorgeous art work combined with thoughtful and rich meditations. The book is itself a work of art, a blessing created by the writers, the editors, the artists, and, finally and perhaps most bravely by Paraclete Press, who took it upon themselves to create it, to publish it, and market it. 

God For Us is not for everyone. But if you, like the Schaaps, have trouble finding devotional literature that moves you, that makes you grow, that asks you to bring your mind and heart and soul to what's there on every page, then trust me, God For Us belongs beside the toaster or the salt-and-pepper or the napkin holder, during this season especially.

Paraclete has now released a Readers Edition of God For Us--same text, less visual art, which makes the collection more affordable and more user-friendly. It's still a work of art, but in both price and style maybe just a little more homey, something that fits in a purse or pocket. 

You can find it here

Hurry. Even this old Calvinist knows that Lent is upon us.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Morning Thanks--Frolic architecture

Yesterday, we woke to find a killer whale the size of Jonah's beached way up on the driveway, circumference of four feet or so, dorsal fin intact. This 30' sea monster got left there by a north wind that rattled windows most the night and constructed a snowy siege around the front door, beautiful stuff really, except that it had to be moved, grain scoop by grain scoop.

People say we had a foot of snow, but I don't know how to measure output when the wind plays its perfectly artful tricks. There was nothing on most of the front lawn. Out back, however, that wind left massive ornamentation.

During my years as a teacher, if I was really lucky--if I was blessed--we'd be well into Emerson when the first snow would fall outside the windows at school. It didn't happen every year, but it did happen often enough to make me think that God may have loved Ralph Waldo more than Old Lights who had him banned from Harvard after a now famous, off-the-wall speech at the Divinity School. 

If we were lucky, if we were blessed, my American Lit class might just be reading Emerson's "Snowstorm" on the morning the whole campus donned its first ermine shawl. Gorgeous snow + impeccable timing = literature lives.

We're into February now, and snow is no novelty. We've had three storms already, all of them quite gentlemanly actually, not the kind of blizzard that takes your face off and doesn't make romantic poetry. 

Yesterday's tightly-wound winter storm was much leaner and meaner than the three already behind us. It pushed sandpaper snow along, that "driving o'er the fields,/Seems nowhere to alight: the whited air/Hides hills and woods, the river, and the heaven,/And veils the farm-house at the garden's end." 

No school--two days. That kind of winter storm.

Once the wind died, our corner of the world was little more than "frolic architecture," the profound shapes blizzards deftly create.  

Come see the northwind's masonry.
Out of an unseen quarry everymore
Furnished with tile, the fierce artificer
Curves his white bastions with projected roof
Round every windward stake, or tree, or door.

Emerson called the work of the heavenly mason "astonished art," not "astonishinig" art but art that seems so much alive that it is itself astonished by its being. 

Maybe you have to be crazy to be thus astonished, but February or not, what was out there yesterday at dawn takes your breath away. 

Emerson was, to his age and yet today, something of a loon, a dreamer, a philosopher of the "Over-Soul," that divine oneness he claimed made us all brothers and sisters, that oneness that was itself God--well god, although he would have certainly kept it upper case. The Civil War took the wind out of the sails of the transcendentalists, most of whom were still doing battle with the dark old tenets of Calvinism. 

Love him or hate him, I couldn't help thinking of Emerson and his "Snowstorm" yesterday, our backyard a gallery of "frolic architecture." Old Waldo makes God out to be a snow mason in that old poem, an artist. On that score, he wasn't dreaming.

And it'll all be gone by this weekend. Amazing. Incredible really. Enough blessed beauty, certainly, for this morning's thanks.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

"The Old Rugged Cross"

You may or may not be aware that there's a long-standing fight about "The Old Rugged Cross"--not the cross but the hymn. Three small towns claim to be the place where a dapper George Bennard penned the old soul-stirring favorite. All three celebrate the hymn as if the cross itself stands yet today in Albion or Pokagon, Michigan, or Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. 

It doesn't, of course, but Bennard's very famous text makes the rugged cross seem almost alive.

On a  hill far away stood an old rugged cross,
The emblem of suffering and shame;
And I love that old cross where the dearest and best
For a world of lost sinners was slain.

Childhood hymns play back often in my head, at odd times and for no obvious reasons. Suddenly, I'm singing "'Give,' Said the Little Stream," three complete verses. Somewhere in my aging synapses a DJ spins out Sunday School recordings willy-nilly.

"The Old Rugged Cross" is there too, and it came back Sunday morning when we sang that old hymn, for me maybe the first time in a half-century. I've never taken up arms in the fights over the music we sing in worship, not because I don't have an opinion, but because I'm just more and more sure that there's no accounting for taste. 

So I’ll cherish the old rugged cross,
Till my trophies at last I lay down; 
I will cling to the old rugged cross,
And exchange it some day for a crown.

I get it. Makes heaven a pawn shop, doesn't it?

"We don't worship the cross," I remember someone pointing out years ago, someone who wanted that number cut from the new hymnal. "We worship a risen Lord, not a piece of wood." 

Strikes me as being right. What Bennard's precious old hymn does is profess a kind of idolatry. 

End of argument. Sort of.

Theology rarely trumps beloved familiarity. And I wouldn't have bothered explaining that argument to my mother, who would have listened but then wandered over to to her piano once I left and played it anyway, rapturously too. Sung along even, and loved it.

Some Sundays these days we worship with a handful of Presbyterians, often enough for them to make us feel like we're family. That's PCUSA, by the way, the liberals. That old congregation is so firmly set in its ways that it hasn't updated its hymnal since the boys came back from the war. It's an aging congregation where no one worries about sketchy theology or whose church has what going on this week across town. We just sing. Oldies. Not well either.

Idolatry or not, something got stirred in me when we sang "The Old Rugged Cross," even though I know the KKK had a nasty habit of borrowing those lyrics for their own evil purposes. For many thousands of old folks, "The Old Rugged Cross" is almost as precious a symbol as is the cross itself, don't you think? I'm betting somewhere in the last several centuries Garrison Keillor had some massive audience singing along.

The Omaha tribe, just south of us, got a gift a decade ago when Harvard's Peabody Museum returned their Sacred Pole a century after it had been given to them for safekeeping. During that homecoming, some elderly tribal members, none of whom had ever seen it, openly wept when the box was opened, even before they laid eyes on their Sacred Pole. Tears flowed.

So I'm talking to a bunch of elementary school kids about our neighbors, the Omahas, and I thought it might be interesting to bring this Sacred Pole up--how a whole crowd of Omaha people went silent when it returned.

I was afraid the kids would laugh. I might have myself when I was their age. Lord knows, white folks have done so for a long, long time--and worse.

Last Sunday morning it struck me right there in the pew that the very sentiment that enamors "The Old Rugged Cross" to those of us who treasure that old hymn isn't that far afield from the tears those Omaha tribal elders shed when they first put eyes on Umoⁿ'hoⁿ'ti, the "Real Omaha."

They're not the same, of course. A cross that holds the broken body of our Lord--or doesn't--is not a soft and slowly rotting branch of cottonwood, no matter how ritually decorated or adoringly venerated. Besides, it doesn't stand in Sturgeon Bay or either of its rival burgs; it's not in a museum somewhere or really "on a hill far away." 

But go ahead and sing "Old Rugged Cross" again sometime and consider how spiritual veneration lives in a variety of colors and textures, shapes and sizes, some white and some not, some bloody and some clean, some old and some new.

I could take my old crucifix along to school, I thought, and, right in front of the whole bunch of kids, fling it up against the wall. That might get the kids' attention. 

Don't worry--I didn't.

You have to worship in a really old church to sing "The Old Rugged Cross." But then, you don't have to go looking for that kind of church because there's likely a DJ in you spinning that hymn right now. Listen. The version you're hearing may well be something close to one I do, from my mother's piano. And it's probably equally precious.

Sometimes I wonder about falling church attendance, about millennials walking away from the church, about rising numbers of people who choose against attending worship, when all of us--white and red and green and brown--want so very badly, so very humanly, to worship, really want to believe.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

An angry, hungry night

It was, quite frankly, amazing. Honestly, Trump went down--against expectations. The eight most trusted polls taken here in the waning days of the caucus' buildup all pointed at the billionare to sweep. Not so. R.I.P.

Instead, Iowa's famed evangelicals found their man in Ted Cruz, a pol so disliked by party regulars that it's hard to find anyone--save Iowa's own head-hater, Steve King--who backed him. Even Terry Brandstad, our Governor-for-Life, tried to shoot him in the leg. No matter. Just as the evangelists consecrated Rick Santorum and Gov. Huckabee in past caucuses, they went with the candidate most willing to words sacred to piety, such as, "To God Be the Glory," the kind of utterances that warm evangelical souls. 

But on the other side of the aisle, a kind of non-Democrat challenged and beat (dead heat, really, but an incredible victory nonetheless) the "establishment" Democrat, a woman so well-heeled in every way that she was the only candidate in the whole catalog who had an ex-President on stage with her when she claimed a win she really didn't get. 

Given the score of candidates from both parties, Iowa decided to cherry pick at the ends of the political spectrum, picking the most progressive and the most conservative candidates. Amazing. If Iowa's choices become America's--which rarely happens, by the way--the American electorate is going to have a choice that's crystal clear--would you like a lifelong socialist or a crypto-facist? It will be an election like none other. 

Just before the caucuses, Politico outlined the counties to watch when the totals would start jumping. One of them was Sioux County.

This Republican stronghold in northwestern Iowa will be a prime place to gauge Ted Cruz’s traction with social conservatives.The region has a heavy concentration of Christian conservatives: Huckabee blew out the doors here and in neighboring O’Brien and Lyon counties in 2008. (This was Gary Bauer country in 2000.) How conservative is Sioux County? It delivered a 72 percent to 23 percent win for Bob Vander Plaats over Terry Branstad in the 2010 GOP primary for governor — Branstad’s worst drubbing in the state.
What is the Sioux County Republican box score now that all the percentages are in the book? Cruz 32, Rubio 32, Carson 15, Trump 11. The biggest story there, methinks, is not Cruz's win but Trump's road-side flat-tire. And that's encouraging. If I was given to excesses in piety, I might just say, "to God be the Glory," but I'm not as sure as Cruz that He's got a favorite.

Politico was right. Sioux County was not only a harbinger, it was a clean-up hitter. An amazing night, really. Still, maybe it's encouraging that the Iowa Caucuses so rarely chooses someone who turns out to be a winner. The chasm separating the two candidates we crowned last night seems Royal-Gorge-ish. 

The two really big winners--Cruz and Bernie--offer one heckuva dramatic choice. 

An amazing night, and incredible end to a massively fascinating campaign here in Iowa and especially here in Iowa's far northwest corner.  

We'll see if what seems true here is true elsewhere. If Iowa's any kind of a barometer (and it often isn't), then the American populace is bounding off in two totally opposite directions linked only by this--overwhelmingly massive distaste for the status quo. In Iowa at least, we'll have no more of "the same."

The Iowa electorate, have no doubt, is angry. They may be poles apart, but they're hungry for significant change. 

Monday, February 01, 2016

Old Scans--"Marking Time"

[Another essay--this one published but unfinished--from 35 years ago. I like the accessories here, but I don't think, way back when, I understood what I was talking about. Really. I was just a kid.]

For years I've envied Henry David Thoreau. 'Time," he said, "is but the stream I go a-fishing in." Of course, his 19th America didn’t look much like ours. "We are so institutionalized," a man once told me, speaking of his church, "we organize meetings just to organize meetings." But then Thoreau exiled himself, he said, simply to avoid the rat race:
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
We’re all creatures of time, and often its slaves. Even Thoreau marked his Walden sojourn by the metronome of the seasons, a more "natural" rhythm than the digitals that light up our dark corners, just another means of marking time.

Chaucer's characters lived under the reign of their own strange notions of time. Folks in the Middle Ages saw themselves in an egocentric world where the circling planets were thought to control certain segments of time--not the hours of the day, but the "hours unequal," the hours from sunrise to sunset, and on from sunset to sunrise again. These "unequal hours" were thought to be governed by the character of the planets. We’re heirs to that ancient vision of planetary control at least in the manner by which we name our days: Saturn-day, Sun-day, Moon-day, for instance.

You might think that medieval notions of time were even more tyrannical than our clocks, for a birthdate in the middle of some planetary configuration was thought even to determine the careers of a person’s children: for instance, butchers, hangmen, tailors, barbers, cooks, cutlers, carpenters, and physicians were clumped together under the aegis of Mars.

Silly. But then every generation creates its own tyrannical timepieces to mark time. Not long ago I sat in the home of a woman whose living room decorations explained both her past and her personality. Hung above her library was what she called, in Dutch, her schipperke, a time-keeping, handcarved allegory that was at one time pretty much standard front room décor in the Netherlands of her youth.

An Atlas type--huge, rippling muscles--bears the weight of the entire world on his right shoulder, and he is grimacing, one knee already down, the other bent beneath him, near collapse. Two angels float on either side of the planet, trumpeting their prophecy in the ticking. “Hear ye, hear ye. Atlas weakens, so number your days. Make the most of the time, the end is near.”
Perfect living room accessory for a sweet Calvinist family.

Recently I bought a digital watch with a little bell lit up on its face; after an hour of reading instructions, I discovered the little bell meant that one silly chirp would sound every hour on the hour, all day and all night, as long as the tiny battery would juice the thing.

Every hour of the day that cheap watch chirps a reminder that another hour of my life is gone. It’s intimidating. Right in the middle of my morning it emits one silly high-pitched bark to remind me  that counting only our days is not enough in the 1980s--I'm even counting hours.

I'm not alone. A gent in our Sunday School has watch is more musically accomplished than mine. When mine chirps, his sings a chimed chorus. Right in the middle of a discussion, an hour's passing triggers a performance, and we go on as if nothing has happened, even though we can’t help be reminded that it’s time to wrap things up.

Time still pushes us, structures our days and nights--and sometimes locks us in cages we seem as powerless to identify as escape. Timepiece noise isn't news at all. Batteries and electricity put pendulums out of business. Years ago, every home had a ticking clock. There's no significant difference between my chirping wristwatch and an really expensive tall grandfather in an cherry cabinet.

Anyway, who says the chirping or the ticking or the struggling Atlas is moral admonition? Maybe it's just my sense of guilt that creates a scolding. I still haven't decided whether this chirping signals another hour gone or another hour coming--whether I should confess my laziness or firm up my resolve to accomplish more. I’m just way too much a Calvinist.

Once upon a time there was a man called by a whole village of offspring simply "Grandpa Pete." Because his hearing was gone, he never seemed to understand that he talked much louder than anyone else. One day Grandpa Pete buried one of his own sons, a man who was himself a grandfather. A second son helped him to the funeral home, up the steps, and through the room to the open casket where he saw, for the last time, his own boy's face.

He turned to the man holding his arm. "Yeah, John," he said, "Matt beat us to it, didn't he?" loud enough for the whole world to hear.

Grandpa Pete doesn’t have a chirping watch. If he ever had a schipperke, I’m guessing he tossed it or brought it himself to St. Vincent DePaul.

We all know there is no atlas holding up the world. Time is a wonderful gift, or so says Abraham Kuyper; but it’s not even real. Only eternity is.

I’m guessing Grandpa Pete never heard of Thoreau. But I can't help thinking he would have got along just fine at Walden Pond, with the man who said time was just the stream he went a’fishing in.

I know this much--he liked to fish.