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.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Morning Thanks--a Christian education

I'm not blind to the limitations. It's not hard at all for us to get a little snooty. In fact, it's pretty easy to get to thinking we're somehow better than others. You don't even have to hear that being said to start thinking it either: there's us and there's them. You got to fight the old "holier-than-thou" thing.

Because there's an inherent exclusivity to the entire operation. Not everyone goes, after all. Only some. Lots don't. Most don't. But we do. We're blessed, aren't we? 

You know?--that kind of thing.

Thank the Lord that there are more people of color these days, many more. For way too many years it was only white kids--and of a certain ethnic flavor too. For too many years, the whole business was monochrome and wooden-shoed. For too many years, Brown vs. the Board of Education seemed entirely irrelevant, as if we were immune to charges of segregation. We weren't. We aren't.

Here below, it's a chore for most of us to stay humble, not to think we've got all answers the world hungrily awaits, to look at others as if they're truly un-blessed. It's very hard for us to be reminded that there's as much sin and darkness in us as there is in that woebegone family just down the block, to have to swallow the pride the human heart, no matter what model or vintage, quite regularly serves up to all of us.

And it's just as hard to have to say you might have been really judgmental about things--about dinosaurs or evolution, about a whole host of nay-saying: about the devils and dancing, or card-playing, or a glass of wine or beards and bell-bottoms. It's difficult to have to confess we're not always right and not always righteous.

It's hard to admit that might just keep some people away simply by way of the high cost of admission. Guess what? we're expensive. Maybe too much.

Last night I parked a football field away, walked into a stuffed-to-the rafters college chapel, then watched and listened to 500+ kids dressed in ten different-colored t-shirts on a huge stage, all of them standing and singing their hearts out, telling a packed house the story of what they'd learned--each of them, each of the grades--about living in God's world throughout this school year.

It was a ball, a joy, a blessing to be there and to sing along.

This morning's thanks is primary-school easy. I'm greatly thankful that my grandson, a second-grader, was up there among 'em. This public high school graduate spent four wonderful years teaching in public high schools, four years I wouldn't trade for anything. I've never rejected or feared American public education. It's free and it's an immense blessing for all of us.

But neither have I forgotten the scripture verse printed on the report cards we lugged home every six weeks of my own grade school years sixty years ago. What that verse maintained is what I still believe, even if, back then, the marks inside weren't always God-glorifying. "The fear of the Lord," the old card said, "is the beginning of wisdom."

You can parse that sentence a dozen different ways. You can wage theological warfare with the word "fear." Go ahead and interpret it your way.

But to me what it means is what it says, and that's why this morning I'm thankful my grandson, last night, was one of those rambunctious kids up in front (in a robin's egg blue t-shirt), rockin' and rollin' through the story of his year in a Christian school. 

Monday, May 21, 2018

Lean on Pete--a review

Image result for lean on pete

With most of the movie behind us, my wife leaned over and whispered that if things didn't get any better, she was on her way out. The unrelenting darkness is almost overwhelming.

There's this kid, and he's immensely sweet. His mother is nowhere to be found, and his father is a piggish adolescent who dies in a fight about a woman from work he sleeps with. The old man cuts up his insides when he's thrown through a window and dies, the doctor says, from septic shock his whole system took when it could no longer prevent infection. For a while at least, his father's death feels like a metaphor for this entire sad story. 

Lean on Pete is really three stories, as one reviewer says, chained together inexorably by the kid's excruciating misfortunes. The first is a father-and-son story, which includes a couple of the film's only blessed moments as the kid, Charley (Charlie Plummer), finds some refuge in the employ of a horseman named Del (Steve Buscemi), who is himself at the end of his rope. 

Then, the movie becomes a boy-and-his-horse western, set and shot in perfectly endless expanses of the American west, as the two of them run away once Charlie determines that this gorgeous quarter horse he's come to love is on his way to the glue factory. It ends with most horrifying moment in the film, when the storyteller determines, for some reason, that Lean on Pete needed to die.  

That the horse's death seems as willfully random as it is makes the story seem Thomas Hardy-ish: things are bad to start with, and then they get worse and worse and worse and worse, and then they end. That description may be overdoing it, but there were moments when I too thought I couldn't take any more. 

Some see this film's sheer pitilessness as an attribute. I get that. It simply refuses any scent of sentimentality. But that refusal is its own form of sentimentality, really. When life continually takes turns for the worse, over and over and over again, we simply have trouble believing the world we inhabit is that blasted dark. 

Once Lean on Pete is dead, deus ex machina, there's nowhere for the boy to lean, and Charley's flight--he wants badly to find an aunt who, long ago, cared for him--takes him into perilous places with ugly characters, one of whom, in a fit of righteous indignation, he may well have killed with a tire iron. The third story in Charley's pilgrimage ends when he takes the money he had to kill to get back and gets on a bus to Laramie, Wyoming.

Way back when I wrote more fiction, I came to believe that stories had to somehow balance darkness with light. For a writer who believes in a loving God, someone who is, by inexorable faith, committed to a worldview in which there is hope isn't fantasy, now and forever, a story can go searingly into the tortured soul of human depravity as long as that descent is somehow balanced by a similar degree of light at the end of the tunnel. You can't really have redemption without damnation.

But a story that languishes in damnation without a hint of redemption is as false as any cheap Christian morality tale, as sentimental as Kum-bay-ya. What prompted my wife to seriously consider walking out was what we might well call the sermon of the story: for some of us at least, life is just plain bad. Really ugly. Just about bereft of hope.

Hundreds of movies never make it to your local theater because they're not created for 17-year-old kids on dates. Lean on Pete won't be coming any time to soon to your local cineplex. It's way too dark. To call it an art film suggests that it's not as "real" as it is. Lean on Pete a film that someone believed in, a script created from a novel that was much read and much beloved. 

I wasn't surprised when my wife whispered what she did three-quarters of the way through because I recognized something in myself that was kin to what she felt--I wasn't just hoping for something redemptive, I was begging for it, a move the film simply won't deliver until the very, very end--and even then life seems so very tenuous.

To say I enjoyed the film simply doesn't ring true. 

But am I glad I went? Yes. I'm guessing Charlie Plummer is on his way to stardom, and the American West always has star power. But I'm glad I went because Lean on Pete is not simply entertainment. It begged me not simply to feel, but to think about a kid and a horse and life itself. That's not all bad.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Sunday Morning Meds--Bewonderment

 Be exalted, O God, above the heavens; 
let your glory be over all the earth.” Psalm 57:4

The basic paradigm by which I’ve always seen the Christian life is a series of ideas that rise from the Heidelberg Catechism, the handbook of doctrine with which I was raised.  Those steps are not difficult.  They go like this:  “sin, salvation, service.”

The story line begins with sin—our knowledge of it, as it exists specifically within us.  Calvin starts even a bit earlier, with the heavens, specifically with our sense of God as manifest in his world in what we see and experience.  Because humans can’t help but see God’s marvelous work in the heavens and earth all around, we there is something, someone, larger than life itself and much, much greater than we are—there simply has to be.

When we know we aren’t God, we know something about sin.

That conviction draws us closer to him. Knowing our limitations is a prerequisite to knowing God. Sin precedes salvation, or so the story goes, through the second chapter.

There’s one more step. That he loves us in spite of our sin makes hearts fill and souls rejoice; we can’t help but celebrate, and that celebration leads us into gratitude and service, into offering his love to the world he loves so greatly. 

Sin, salvation, service—that’s the story line, the narrative by which I was raised.

Mother Theresa’s take on a very similar tale was a three-step process not totally unlike Heidelberg’s narrative line, but colored instead by her experience in the sad ghettos of Calcutta.  Our redemption begins in repulsion—what we see offends us, prompts us to look away. But we can’t or shouldn’t or won’t; we have to look misery in its starving face, and when we do, we move from repulsion to compassion—away from rejection and toward loving acceptance. 

And the final step is what she called “bewonderment,” sheer wonder and admiration.  Compassion leads us to bewonderment.

“Bewonderment” is one of those strange words no one uses but everyone understands, probably because, like reverence, it’s simply hard to come by in a culture where our supposed needs are never more than a price tag away.
Bewonderment is hard to come by for me, perhaps because it isn’t so clearly one of the chapters in the story I was told as a boy, the story which is still deeply embedded in my soul. “Service” is the end of the Christian life—or always has been—for me, not “bewonderment.” 
Maybe that’s why I’m envious of David’s praise here. What he says to God in prayer is something I rarely tell him.  I don’t think I’ve ever asked God not to hide his little light under a bushel, to display his radiant grace from pole-to-pole. I’m forever asking for favors, but only rarely am I adoring, in part, in part, I suppose, because I’m so rarely in awe. 

Bewonderment is something I’m learning as I age, and for that I’m thankful—for the book, for the song, for David the singer, and for the God David knew so intimately that he could speak the way he does in Psalm 57. 
It’s difficult for some of us to be intimate with God—to be so close to a being so great and grandly out of reach.  But intimacy is something a song can teach—and the heavens too.  Bewonderment is something even an old man can learn, if he has eyes and ears. 

Friday, May 18, 2018

Remembering Ike

Those in the know were not particularly surprised to see Kaitlyn Bennett come on campus around graduation dolled up as she was--her mortar board darlingly decorated with a dare, and her brother's assault rifle, with scope, slung over her shoulder. News stories claim that she was an outspoken 2nd amendment advocate during her tenure as a student and that she wasn't at all shy about shooting off her mouth about the subject. Get this--she was a student at Kent State University.

Still, there was enough in the photo--she hired a photographer--to grab on-line attention: that incredible mane flowing mightily over her back and a doll-like, sleeveless dress, hemmed several inches up from mid-thigh. Somehow, it's not a particularly collegiate composition. Then again, maybe it is, sex and violence never really going out of style. 

The photo went viral, more than 40 thousand retweets and twenty thousand likes. If the scope on your rifle sees the second amendment as most crucial of all our rights, then Kaitlyn Bennett's commencement get-up is drop-dead gorgeous, I guess. Even got her a spot on Fox and Friends, I'm told. 

Couldn't help but notice the image myself, to be frank; but another place and time flashed by just then, a place we visited just a couple of days ago, the meditation chapel on the grounds of the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum, Abilene, Kansas, Ike's hometown. He's buried there, as is his wife, Mamie, as well as their son, Dowd, or "Ikky," as they called him, who died at just four years old from scarlet fever in 1921. The biers of Mom and Dad are outlined in the floor of a quiet place lit mainly by what hues come in through stained glass.

I don't know whether Kaitlyn Bennett knows much about Ike. Maybe she does. I hope so. But those of us who remember him or have spent much time thinking about World War II know Dwight David Eisenhower not only as the 39th President of these United States, but also the Supreme Commander of the Combined Allied Forces in Europe during that war. If you remember him well, you may well remember this, too. 

That's General Eisenhower talking to GIs on June 5, 1944, the day before many of them--perhaps many of them in this photograph--were going to die on the beaches of Normandy. He knew that far better than they did, because he knew what lay in store for them when they came off those amphibious landing craft in the biggest sea-going operation in the history of mankind. Ike knew war.

And that's why it shouldn't be ironic, I suppose, that someone who knew death--death at his hands--better than almost anyone, would have, up there on the wall of his tomb, and that of Mamie, a line from a speech he gave.

Here it is:
Every gun made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed. . .This is not a way of life at all. . .Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of gold.
"The Chance for Peace" Address, Washington D. C., April 15, 1953
It's not surprising at all, I suppose, that when I read Kaitlyn's story, I thought of Ike in England, one night in early June, waiting for the skies to clear over the English Channel, waiting and hoping and praying.  And then, I'm sure, praying some more.

I feel obligated to say that I wrote this BEFORE what happened this morning in Sante Fe, Texas. 

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Small Wonder(s)--Battle of the Spurs

There's something vintage Old Testament about the whole story, something that feels decidedly like myth. But it happened; and just a bit north of Topeka, atop a hill along the road, a somewhat unkept highway marker tells part of the story, the part that can't be doubted. What can is far more fascinating.

That John Brown (yes, that John Brown) was willing to die to put an to end slavery is not news, either to us or the "border ruffians" who, for a time at least, ran the government in Kansas. John Brown was willing to die, but he was also willing to kill--and did, not only at Harper's Ferry, but also in eastern Kansas. Because slavery was of the Devil, fighting a holy war was his calling. 

That historical marker on the hill is all about him. He was, after all, at the reins of a prairie schooner full of runaway slaves that ended up in the neighborhood of that highway marker--ten--no eleven--runaway slaves to be exact, Mrs. Daniels having just had a baby. It was cold, not unmercifully so, but it was January, 1859; and for all intents and purposes, in Kansas the Civil War had begun, even though Ft. Sumter was a year and a half away.

For more than a year, Kansas had become a checkerboard of areas controlled by the slavers, who wanted to make Kansas a slave state, or the abolitionists, the "free-staters" who'd gone west to homestead land but mostly to fight slavery. 

When a pro-slavery bunch, then in power, got wind of John Brown and his runaway slaves, they formed a posse--thirty men, well-armed--to stop that criminal activity. They called themselves "law-and-order" party. 

Meanwhile, John Brown sent word into nearby Topeka, where, on Sunday morning, Col. John Richee and family had taken a pew in their Congregational church. When Richee, an abolitionist leader, got whispered the news, he stood up and said, "There is work for us," then walked out. The preacher quietly told his flock there'd be no worship. Something had come up.

A dozen church-goers hurried to the Fuller cabin just outside of a tiny town named Holton, where they found John Brown gearing up for a trip to Tabor, Iowa, the next stop on the underground railroad. Brown told the Topekans that he and the others were going to ford Straight Creek and head north, according to plan. Col. Richee, et al, suggested that because the creek was high, it might be wise to go another five miles up, where the ford was less demanding.

John Brown had mission in his soul. He was going to cross Straight Creek where God intended him to cross, come hell or that very high water, even though he knew that pro-slavery posse had assumed battle stations for an attack. Brown could not have missed them. He knew. He had to.

No matter.

He climbed into the seat, took the reins, aimed the team up the road toward Straight Creek, fire in his eyes, the straight and narrow out there clearly in front of them, as if there were no guns at all, only the arms of the Lord.

Here's the Old Testament. For reasons forever unknown, the pro-slavers held their fire, then turned and got the heck out of there, took off and ran without firing a shot, which is why, today, up there on the hill above the creek, that weathered highway marker is titled "The Battle of the Spurs." The only weapon the slavers used that wet January morning was the spurs they dug into their horses' flanks.

By the way, the Topekans were right about the ford. That prairie schooner got stuck in the creek. It took several hours to get it out.

Less than a year later, John Brown and his men, after a failed rebellion at Harper's Ferry, were behind bars, facing the hangman's noose. One of his men, Aaron D. Stevens, wrote Jennie Dunbar, his friend, to say his wounds were healing and that he wasn't feeling guilty in the least "for there was no evil intention in my heart." His note from death grips the heart. "Slavery demands that we should hang for its protection," he wrote Miss Dunbar, "and we will meet it willingly, knowing that God is Just, and is over all."

True believers they were--perfectly true believers.

At what point does faith become fanaticism? Answer me that. 

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Mother's Day at the Eisenhower's

Don't need a caption here, I'd guess.

The man on the grass is the 34th President of these United States, Dwight David Eisenhower. Even though you're not likely to have seen the woman before, you can guess--and you'd be right--that the woman on the throne is his mother.

Here she is again, this time with six of her sons, a sort of "before and after" shot--the Eisenhower boys and the Eisenhower men. And Mom.

It hangs on the wall of the Eisenhower home in Abilene, Kansas, the town where Ike--and all of his brothers--grew up on the Midwestern values so evident in President Eisenhower's personality and character. All six of them, in their own ways, made significant contributions, some to country, some simply to neighborhood. She must have been good at what she did.

Strangely enough, especially for time and place, when each of the boys left the home, they were well-versed in women's work. She made each of her sons learn to cook and sew and mend. On Sundays, two of the boys would leave church a shade early to get home to be sure the dinner was in the oven and ready to go, a dinner they'd prepared. Mother insisted on a day off.

Mid-Depression, she refused to sell the piano, even though there was no money and it could have brought some much-needed cash. Each of the boys took lessons, too, even though only a few of them ever stayed at it. One of the boys worked his way through college by tickling the ivories in a whole host of different venues.

She was, in certain ordinary ways, extraordinary. Here's her bread box, where she put the dough she kneed (excuse the can't-miss pun) when she'd bake bread, three times per week, nine loaves per prep. You do the math. That radio in the corner?--short wave. Her son, the Commander of Allied Forces in Europe, got it for her during the war so she could hear his voice.

The host looked nice, although the docent claimed it was, at best, modest in Abilene, and definitely on the wrong side of town. It wasn't in the oldest part of town, but built on what was once a cattle yard. Abilene was once full of cattle, the market for every single longhorn up from Texas. The 34th President of the U.S. of A., was born on a cattle yard. 

We just happened by Abilene on Mother's Day, didn't choose specifically to tour that day. But it may well have been the right day to walk through the house, to take note of the pictures, and imagine the mother of six boys--seven, really, but little Paul died of diphtheria at just ten months--managing the entire affair. She must have been overworked, and proud. 

But, seriously, nine loaves of bread, three times a week? You've got to be kidding.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Morning Thanks--the death of one who loved

Montana sunset from his pics
To call him a friend would be a stretch, but in some substantial ways he was a kindred spirit. The notice came via Facebook, or it's likely I still wouldn't know he's no longer with us. He was not much older than I am, and he left a record of teaching in a Christian school that was just about as long as my own tenure at the college down the road, a college he attended just a few years before I enrolled. We both were lovingly engaged in the study of literature. He was an English teacher. 

I knew and respected people who knew and respected him. The two of us shared an era, an age in which people who loved books and poems and did a little more self-reflection than may be thought commonly necessary, lived by the conviction that a little learning wasn't a bad thing, a little Hemingway and Hawthorne, maybe a shot or two of Edgar Allen Poe--all of it, good for the soul. Both of us, I think, lived by the conviction that a day or two in contemplation of beauty--even the beauty on the page of a book--was never a waste of time. 

The only conversation between us that I won't forget is the time he took me aside and told me how much he loved his granddaughter, that she was coming to college, and that he just wanted to say that he wanted me to pay her some attention because she was, to him, very special. He wasn't asking for favors, simply asking a friend, a kindred spirit, to give a little extra to someone he loved dearly. 

It may well be true that I know better what he loved, than I knew him. I couldn't have been around him more than a couple of times in my life. His obituary says he coached wrestling--I had no idea. He was born and reared in Montana's Gallatin River valley, not far from Yellowstone, as beautiful a place in the West as you can imagine. Even though he hadn't lived there for more than a half century, he chose to be buried in his ancestral home. Somehow, I'm not surprised.

His Facebook page is still a gallery of photos that probably say more about him than who or whatever stood on the other side of his lens: tons of family pics, kids and grandkids; lots of friends here, there, and everywhere: some shots at football stadiums or in gyms; flowers, lots of them; and a bevy of sunsets. I think it's fair to say--although I don't know--that he lived a good life, a very good life. People who left notes on his obituary claim they won't forget his smile.

He was a teacher--even as a father, he was a teacher; and, most likely, as a teacher he was also a father. 

Even though it's likely our paths would not have crossed again, there may be a dozen reasons why his death, far away, set my soul to grieving. Foremost among them, I think, is the sense that this week, this world is peopled by one less fine, fine man, someone who loved his work, his family, his God, and the wonderful world God made.

This morning thanks is for his life--and for his abundant love.