Morning Thanks

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

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Sunday Morning Meds--Essays to do good

“Turn from evil and do good; then you will dwell in the land forever.”
Ben Franklin says in his Autobiography that he was deeply influenced by Cotton Mather’s Essays to Do Good. Wow.

In the early years of this republic, it would be a chore to find two human souls more different than those two . Cotton Mather was the child of theological giants, as predestined as any Calvinist ever was to take up the heavy lifting of the learned divines from whose loins he’d sprung.  No one else in American literature is quite as sober as Cotton Mather, but then who’s looking?

Ben Franklin, on the other hand, was anything but sober, which doesn’t mean to imply he hit the bottle.  Witty, urbane, sophisticated, Franklin the ambassador was the first American to charm European courts.  A new Franklin biography claims that the entire Autobiography needs to be read, as Emily Dickinson might say it, “at a slant.”  Franklin is, this new bio argues, tongue-in-cheek throughout. You really can’t always believe him.
I never dared to think that was true, even though I smelled it in the many times I’ve been through Franklin’s Autobiography as a teacher.  I always had this odd sense of him pulling my leg. 

That’s heresy, I know. When pols fight, they always reverence “the founders,” those sagacious bewigged men whose brilliant energy churned out the Constitution.  Jefferson, Hamilton, John Adams, John Hancock, George Washington are American saints. And Franklin?—my word, he wrote the Declaration, igniting all the fireworks.  And we can’t take him seriously?

That is heresy.

Still, I’ve always suspected he was more cunning than we like to think him. So was he lying when he said that the imminently pious Cotton Mather was so influential in the life of a man who couldn’t have been less of a Puritan? 

Don’t know.  But I’m happy to read that I’m not the only one who’s thought Franklin was scratching out his life story with a wink and a smile.

Franklin liked Mather, he says, because Mather taught him morality, and the entire Autobiography, begun as a moral lesson to his son, proposes to teach his son to be good—if we can believe him.  I’m not sure.

But Franklin’s moral urgings, unlike Cotton Mather’s, promise that the way to wealth and happiness is sobriety and industry. Franklin tells his son that if he wants to get ahead in life, he should do so as his father had: take a good strong hold of his own blessed bootstraps and pulling the boots on himself: do it yourself and do it well.

That’s not what David says—David, remember, whose hands were too bloody for God’s own approval. And it’s not what Cotton Mather would have said either.

Doing good and living well are not a matter of bootstraps. David says God almighty promises that turning away from evil and doing good instead means a long and blessed life in the land.

There is a third party in the cause/effect sequence in this promise, and that third party, the creator of heaven and earth, isn’t talking about bootstraps. He’s talking instead about obedience.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Sermon and symbol

To me, that morning he seemed more adamant than he normally is, more given to narrow his eyes and speak with his hands. He's not pushy. He's given to smiles more than scowls. There's normally no grimacing in his pulpit demeanor. He's endearingly off-the-cuff about things.  He'll stop the liturgy of worship service if he thinks of something funny or simply decides he should say what he's come up with behind the pulpit. He's a great guy and a fine pastor. We like him a great deal.

But he seemed a few shades more "the preacher" that Sunday morning, more "thus-saith-the-Lord." The subject was the Bible itself, the Word, the Holy Scripture. He was for it, of course, and adamant about our need to study it, to know it, to gather in and live out of its eternal wisdom. No hellfire and brimstone--he didn't warn us of turbulence in days to come if we didn't study it hard and take it to heart. He was just more adamant about things than he usually is. He wasn't being cute and nice or sweet about the Word--he was serious. It was our calling to know the Bible.

What he pointed out needs to be said. The Gallup people made it very clear when they researched Bible knowledge in the U.S. of A., not long ago: "Americans revere the Bible--but, by and large, they don't read it," their study said. "And because they don't read it, they have become a nation of biblical illiterates."

He might have said that but he didn't. He could have.

Now hold on to your chair. Less than half of all American believers can name all four gospels, while more than half can name only four (or even fewer) of the Ten Commandments. Seriously. I'm not making this up.

Most Americans (82%, in fact) believe that one of Poor Richard's sacred aphorisms,"God helps those who help themselves," is found somewhere in the book of Proverbs, not in Ben Franklin. Surveys also discovered that lots of folks think Joan of Arc was Noah's wife, and half of all high school seniors believe that Sodom and Gomorrah were a married couple.

But our pastor that Sunday wasn't talking about accumulating Bible knowledge. What wrinkled his forehead was his deep desire to make sure we knew how crucial it is to our lives to know the Holy Scriptures' eternal truths. He was less concerned with whether or not we could list Israel's sad line of kings than that we understand why God really didn't much care for the idea of human kingship from the get-go.

He was preaching an old saw, of course, the genre of sermon that couldn't really go south--like fighting sin and loving Jesus and being kind to your neighbor. You can't go wrong when you tell people they need to know and live the Word; we know; sometimes we just don't do.

It may well have been a class in the works of John Milton of Paradise Lost fame--I don't remember exactly. I was in my first semester of graduate school, I think, doing some secondary reading on the Reformation. My mind leaks info like an old inner tube. I swear I read it back then somewhere but don't have a clue where. I wish I could stick in a footnote here, but I can't. You'll have to take my word.

Somewhere in England, a Protestant government created a law to force every church in the kingdom to turn the pulpit copy of the Holy Bible around, the big one, the grand one, do a full-180 up in front of the congregation so that its face was radically open to the people and not just the priest. 

I would guess that all over the country those huge pulpit Bibles were swung around and opened, not so the congregation's most pious congregants could stroll up front and read mid-worship, but because of what that Bible's open face said--so plainly and fully--in the center of worship. The Bible belongs to the people.

It just so happens that the preacher holding forth on the efficacy of the Word that morning was doing so while standing right behind a huge open Bible blessedly opened to us, to the people, 500 years later. So amazing.

There's so much story in that huge open Bible, so much truth without really turning a page.

Right there in front of all of us was the sermon, open to any of us. Right there, without saying a thing. There it was as it is every Sunday morning, wide open.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Morning Thanks--what's to be forgotten and what's not

Could be mouse tracks, but the ground seems the color of mustard almost, strangely enough. At least it doesn't seem to be snow, or mud for that matter.  But something's been scurrying across the surface, don't you think? Looks oddly dimpled too--maybe some golf ball-sized hail went on a rampage. Seems to be tracks though, some kind of rodent leaving trails in the mud or whatever that odd surface is. 

But trees in the upper corner? and a road up on the left?--at least it looks like a road, gravel. The whole thing is a map or something, isn't it?  No, it's an aerial photo. Somebody flew over this moon-like landscape and shot a picture. I know! It's one of those images people claim clearly document space aliens, right? "They were here, whoever they were, and it can't be denied! We've got the photographs."

I'm guessing most people could stare at this image for a long, long time and still have no clue what on earth is going on. I did and didn't.

It's now an entire century since an archduke was assassinated and Europe's powers-that-be--Germany, Russia, France, and England--got their collective danders up, determined that national honor was at stake and that it was, therefore, jolly well time for their rivals to eat some humble pie, to teach each of their dishonorable enemies moral lessons they would never forget in "the war to end all wars." All of it sounded so noble, so honorable, even righteous.

Here, on this field, lies the evidence for an event--an ordeal--we could only wish was alien. Here, at the river Somme, the Brits lost 60,000 men in one day, most of them in the first hour of battle, when a thoughtfully conceived offensive turned  into disaster in just seconds, thousands upon thousands of British troops leaping from trenches, bayonets ready, running madly into machine gun fire from the deeply fortified German defenses, fire that was supposed to be taken out by the shock and awe of a bombardment that had simply failed. 

Sixty thousand men in one day of battle, the bloodiest day in British military history. What scars that image is what still exists of trench lines and pockmarks from bombing and artillery laid across an otherwise empty field. 

But the Brits weren't alone in suffering. During the war, the Russians lost men at a 76 percent casualty rate, topped only by the much smaller army of Austria-Hungary; only ten percent of its fighting men returned untouched--if anyone could be by "the Great War." It was a war that was absolutely devastating. I lost a great uncle when America entered late in 1918. It's doubtful that anyone there was left untouched, even those who didn't bleed, even those who didn't fight.

Here, on this field and others in about a six-mile swath of French countryside, 1,000,000 men were killed or wounded. Perhaps it's a blessing that, one hundred years after, that level of carnage simply can no longer be imagined.

I hope this year, in schools, a special attempt is made to cover in detail what happened 100 years ago in Europe: the introduction of the tank, the first use of aerial warfare, poison gas, and wholesale disillusionment, loss of faith. Eyewitness accounts exist in quantity and character that almost make you bleed. There is no lack of sources.

Still, this morning, I'm thankful for this particular picture of the Somme battlefield and others like it--what things look like today. 

I'm thankful for what it doesn't show; some things we probably need to forget. But I'm also thankful for what that picture documents, because other things, painful things, must always be remembered. 

Look again.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Morning Thanks--deus ex machina

duale US

Frank Bruni's column in the New York Times yesterday is perfectly frightening. In it, he marshalls out poll data and survey results that in his estimation establish that this country has, in no uncertain terms, lost faith--in government, it the future, in itself, in anything.
Americans are apprehensive about where they are and even more so about where they’re going. But they don’t see anything or anyone to lead them into the light. They’re sour on the president, on the Democratic Party and on Republicans most of all. They’re hungry for hope but don’t spot it on the menu. Where that tension leaves us is anybody’s guess.
He cites, for instance, a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll that came out amid the Ferguson story and the madness created by ISIS or ISIL or whatever the name is, a poll that got jammed to the bottom of the grocery bag. Listen to this: 76% of the American public feel that the country holds less promise for them than it did for their parents. In other words, three-quarters of all Americans, regardless of age, believe the American Dream simply no longer exists.

It may well be that those most sure of America's promise are it's illegal immigrants, who certainly have not lost faith. The rest of aren't sure at all. It's not hard to walk that statistic back and ask a more fundamental questions--if America doesn't dream, is it America? And it if America isn't America, what is it? Who are we?

Bruni isn't the first to point out the irony in our deep hatred for Congress--only seven percent of Americans feel what happens in that branch of government is of any palpable worth. Yet, 9 out of 10 representatives and senators consistently win re-election, time after time after time. Is that crazy or what?

“'People are mad at Democrats,'” John Hickenlooper, the Democratic governor of Colorado, told me," Bruni writes. “But they’re certainly not happy with Republicans. They’re mad at everything.” And yet, almost shockingly, the unemployment rate in Colorado is waaaaay down, 5.3 percent.

Go figure. There's something really wrong here. The stock market is going gangbusters, the economy is healthy and prime, but America seems to have resigned from something called faith. A full sixty percent of us believe this nation is in decline.

This morning's headlines somehow follow, don't you think?  The New York Times runs a front page story about a man named after one of America's WWII heroes: Douglas McArthur McCain was killed this week in Syria, while fighting for ISIS or ISIL, who make Al Qaeda look like cub scouts. He carried an American passport, grew up a suburb of Minneapolis named New Hope (I'm serious), was known as a joker and a rapper and a big-time basketball fan.  That's him up top.

But he never finished high school, and during his early adulthood, found his way onto the police blotter with ease and frequency. Eventually he "reverted" (his word) to Islam, where he found the Lord (that's an evangelical phrase, but it may well be helpful for us to think in those terms). “Allah keeps me going day and night," he wrote on line. "Without Allah, I am no one.” And this: "The Koran is all I need in this life of sin."

He went to San Diego, lived there for a time, visited Canada and Sweden and then left for Syria, where somehow he joined up with the most heinous of Islamic militants and last week was killed with two other ISIS members when they ambushed a rebel Syrian army unit--in other words, a band of fighters who might well have been fighting the same enemy. D
oes that make any sense at all? 

The terror of Bruni's essay is that we don't believe in anything anymore. Anything. 

Oddly enough Douglas McArthur McCain appears to have agreed. That's why he went to Syria. He wanted so badly to believe.

I told myself that this week the blog was going to return to thanksgiving, to finding something everyday for which to be thankful. Garrison Keillor wasn't wrong--if all of us would give thanks for something every day, this world would be a better place. I've been doing that--off and on--for almost ten years. 

But this morning, Bruni in my head, McCain in my soul, it was a real chore. 

But just now I stepped outside my door into this revelation to the east--deus ex machina.

This morning, after thoughts of death and unbelief, I'm thankful for the divine landscape on a heavenly canvas just outside my door. 

Sometimes the heavens preach, David said, sometimes the heavens declare.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Morning Thanks--Jumpin' Jehosophat

National Geographic calls it "In(vasice) Vogue"--this woman is wearing museum-quality accessories fashioned exclusively from invasive species: the ring and the earring are from a Burmese python, the cuff is what's left of a cane toad, and that necklace once had a place in the jaw of a wild boar--and all of the above animal species are tempestuously out of control.

No one asked what PETA thought of the new chic', but it's not hard to guess. What "in(vasive) vogue" has going for it is a the sanctified notion of taking ridiculously overpopulated varmints, getting rid of them (thank goodness!), and creating art from whatever's left to piece together. Don't know that my wife would buy the bracelet, but the ring would create some conversation and that necklace is daring. Wonder what they want for it?

All of which prompts me to think about silver carp. In case you're wondering, they're here in Siouxland by the thousands. They swam up the Old Muddy from somewhere down south, then took a sharp left in Sioux City at the mouth of the Big Sioux and now they're going like weeds up here. Seriously. Don't know if I could kick up a few dozen on the Floyd, but I suspect I could. 

The Great Lakes are keeping them out by way of a tottering electric fence of sorts at an Illinois River dam about 50 miles from Chicago, where they get jumping mad (that's a kind of pun) because they can get no further. It must be dangerous to float a boat there because they are.

My grandson and I saw a bunch last week on the Big Sioux, a couple dozen at least, a whole street gang of 'em right beneath the bridge north of Hawarden. Out of nowhere, they just started jumping, like a fish circus. You're canoeing along with nary a care in the world, like Huck and Jim on the Mississip, and just like that a dozen come up from the water, leaping four, five feet in the air before splashing back in. It's a hoot.

Watch a couple minutes of the video these guys made:

Silver carp were, at one time, some guy's bright idea (no woman is capable of such idiocy) to get rid of the algae forming in catfish ponds. And how'd that work for you? Way too well as a matter of fact. 

Suffice it to say those carp had no intention of staying in the cage--shades of Animal Farm. They eat like sumo wrestlers, devouring most of what any other ordinary river fish might call supper.  Around here, the only fish they threaten are bottom-feeders just as ugly as they are--bullheads and their distant cousin carp, maybe a catfish or two.

Some people eat 'em. NPR quotes a guy who stopped fighting 'em and just started filling nets. He gets all of 12 cents a pound for silver carp, but when you bring them in by the tens of thousands--and you can do that just south of that Illinois dam--you can put real food on your table.

Apparently, lots of Asians love 'em, but it'll be a while before I order up silver carp and chips with a side of slaw. I got way too much distaste in me yet from a Wisconsin childhood, where I was taught that there was only one way to eat carp: take the fish, nail it to a board, put it the sun for two weeks, toss the fish, and eat the board.

But they're here, I swear. They'll smack you upside the head if you're not careful, and even if you are. Keep an oar handy. Think seriously about a baseball bat. A tennis racket won't do--asian carp aren't mosquitoes or bats. They'll jump right in the boat, or worse, canoe. And, they're big, waaay big.

Think about wearing a helmet.

But they are fun. Good night, are they fun. If I could wear 'em somehow, I would. Maybe make some kind of jewelry out of their jawbones. But it's really hard to think of them as delicate. They're huge, every one a trophy, but who'd want 'em on your walls? They'd probably take over the house.

It was me and my grandson out in the canoe last week amid that flying circus. Okay, I know it's a stretch for me to say I'm thankful for silver carp, given the mess they've created up and down rivers across the continent; but just between you and me, last weekend my grandson and I had a ball on the wide and slow waters of the Big Sioux River, all around us a wild-eyed carnival of carp.  

And for that good time, this morning, I'm thankful.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Morning Thanks--Pretty rocks

When I went out back with the mason, he took one look at the river stones we had piled up and said that they were going to do just fine. "Yeah," he said, "these are really pretty."

Could have fooled me. That those rocks were dug up out of our own back yard--I liked that; but calling them pretty seemed something akin to saying some corps of linebackers are darling. They were, after all, entirely dirt-coated. "Rain'll wash 'em up nice," he said, "and they'll be really sharp."

Seemed a strange kind of sweet talk to call those massive shotputs "pretty."

But today, lined up like this in our retaining walls, I've become a believer.

How they got here makes them flat-out beautiful. They belonged to the neighbor, who dug them from the river out back. Another neighbor grabbed a bunch with his skid loader and dumped what he hauled here out back. But that's barely an inch of the epic that got 'em here.

Their incredible story begins with a glacier. We're not talking about a massive ice pond here, we're talking about ice so huge it's more like an event, even a place, like Wisconsin. In fact, the glacier we're talking about is sometimes called Wisconsin, which doesn't mean that cheese or Packers had anything to do with it.

Hard as it is to believe, this huge thing, this "event" moved, as all glaciers do, and when it did it wreaked havoc on the land--"the land" as in "God created sea and land." Crushed it, carved it, cut it up, and carried it along, here and there creating valleys, here and there filling other valleys up with what some people call "glacial till," the undigested stuff broken off of mountains or whatever, and then disgorged hither and yon over the land, as in "God created sea and land."

Here's the way I think of it. This behomoth land mass, this entire region of ice, creeps along on its own slippery base, not far and not fast, but powerfully, immensely powerfully, once upon a time (or twice or thrice upon a time). When it crept along, it disgorged some excess baggage, and left tons of rocks and stones behind in what eventually became a river when the ice started to melt. Now this river, the one out back, is not much more than a creek really, a little stream Lewis and Clark kindly decided to name after Sgt. Floyd, the only guy to die on their three-year escapade to the Pacific and back. No matter, it's got tons of glacial till.

Who knows where these very pretty rocks call home? Northern Ontario? Green Bay? Duluth maybe? Niagara Falls? 

And when did this whole operation happen? That's not a tough question if you're a young-earth person--somewhere in the area of 6000 years.  

But those who don't draw those lines--some of whom Christians too--say our lot here north of Alton was covered in ice anywhere between 10 and 85 thousand years ago (which, some say, is a good deal older than Adam, who was only a day older than Eve and no wiser thereby, it seems). 

So the pretty stones stacked neatly in my backyard got here through no doing of my own. One neighbor dug 'em, another delivered 'em, and I just stacked 'em. They're glacial till, and they got here in the neighborhood because that massive, benevolent Wisconsin glacier simply left 'em behind. 

Just thought I'd mention it this Monday morning, because the late Sabbath sun blessed this retaining wall so beautifully last night when I sat outside, all those pretty rocks.

This morning I'm thankful for 'em, thankful, strangely enough, for their beauty and the wild epic that brought 'em here.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Sunday morning meds--Covenant

“They are always generous and lend freely; 
their children will be blessed.”

Most people in our church wouldn’t think it was a proper worship if we didn’t do “Joys and Concerns" every Sabbath, an open-mike opportunity for people to air their griefs, list their needs, and announce their happiness. It's quite sacramental—that may be overstatement; but it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that most of our congregation—Covenant Church—thinks of the public, weekly prayer bulletin board as a signature of our fellowship. It’s part of how we’re us.

I don't like being Scrooge, but I'm not always so fond of it, not only because only certain joys and concerns will get mentioned--others are too personal. Some folks don’t get any air time because their timidity keeps them seated; boldness animates others. Who knows why, but I’m always cautious about public righteousness—I know, I know, that’s my problem.

Most basic to my hesitation is my sense that communal prayer becomes, by way of “Joys and Concerns” almost entirely supplication, which may well be the least significant aspect of prayer in worship. 

I know I sound like a professor. And I’ve been wrong before. Besides, I’d likely be banished from the fellowship if I ever dared say what I just have publicly.

What's more, nice things happen in “Joys and Concerns.” We rejoice with births, we cry with those who watch their spouses go to war, we know and feel others’ heartaches—some of them at least. Going public has bountiful rewards, and I’m no longer itchy about it. Sometimes I even enjoy it.

One woman offers the same petition about once a year because she, like other parents, carries the burden week after week, when others’ plights and exaltations come and go. She stands in the middle, where she and her husband sit, and asks in her slightly quavering voice for the congregation to remember those children of the fellowship who aren’t living in faith.

No Christian parent is ever joyful about raising that concern, no matter how constant it weighs on the heart; and this woman is thinking of herself when she says it—everyone knows that; but she’s also thinking of others, probably more than a few who aren't saying it aloud.

David’s claim in this verse is no hollow promise, but neither is it absolute. Who can forget the priest, Eli, whose sons were holy terrors? David himself had a boy who in blind lust raped his half-sister. And then there’s seditious Absalom, ready to kill his own father, a really handsome kid whose life ends when he hangs by his hair from a tree. David was heartbroken.

So why does David say what he does here?  It's an if/then premise that wasn’t even true in his own life, for pity sake? Who’s he trying to kid?

Maybe—just maybe—the woman in Covenant Church who stands up annually to ask us to remember all the wayward sons and daughters holds, tooth and nail, to “covenant” theology, the idea, as Spurgeon says, that “the friend of the father [and/or mother] is the friend of the family."

Covenant theology on this score is the only comfort in her—and our—heartache. That’s what’s there to hold on to, when there seems so little else. 

King David, the world’s foremost poet, sometimes wrote better than he knew. That’s certainly one definition of inspiration, I guess, isn’t it?