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, July 24, 2017

Vale of Tears

There they sit, packed into what seems little more than a toothpaste tube, two long rows of GIs, helmets festooned with brush, faces blackened, each so loaded with equipment it would seem the jumps they were all about to take would be their last even if there were no machine gun fire. Band of Brothers does its best to put viewers there with those paratroopers, high up over Normandy, the night skies full of flack, all around them other C-47s getting hit, some going down.

It's June 6, 1944. Beneath them, the Normandy beach assault had begun. But up above, almost 7000 paratroopers aboard 432 C-47s sat, one beside the other, waiting for the signal to jump into hell. Here and there, one or two may have been thirty years old; but for the most part, they were kids who knew that night might well be their last on earth.

The farther we get from war, the more difficult it becomes to imagine, especially mammoth events like Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion at Normandy. Once in a while a movie comes along that helps us all imagine what it could have been like for our own kin to be there. By 1944 almost forty men from First Christian Reformed Church, Orange City, Iowa, my father-in-law among them, were either overseas or on their way, the contribution of one church in one small town. 

Dad wasn't with the 101st or 82nd Airborne, but he crossed the English channel some time later with his own band of brothers, the motor pool, gear heads commissioned to trail the front wherever it led and keep its tanks and jeeps and troop trucks running. While he never came under fire, he was always close enough to the ravages of war to know the world he was in was unlike anything he'd ever see again or wish to in rural Iowa.

It seemed very strange last night to watch Band of Brothers, having sat at his side for most of the day after he'd suffered another spell of infections--they come frequently these days--put what life is still within him at significant risk. Things are going down now, as they have been for a long time for Second World War vets. Once upon a time we drove him and his wife to a motor pool reunion in Toledo, Ohio, where a bunch of a old men laughed and told old insider jokes when they weren't remembering the toll of buddies who went down in just the last year. That Toledo reunion was, they'd determined, the last; and it was twenty-some years ago. 

Dad went to the hospital because the nurse at the home asked us if we'd take him, then called again a few moments later to let us know they'd called the ambulance because they'd determined our getting him out of his room would be pretty much impossible. So we went straight to the hospital, got there before the ambulance, and sat with him--he really wasn't aware we were there or even that he was--while the nurses and doctors had a look.

I was introduced to a new word yesterday--septik. Five years ago we were told that out here at the edge of town we couldn't connect to a sewer system; we'd need a septik tank and field. I've always been a townboy. Definitions were needed. 

As they were yesterday. What that little vial of blood the nurse drew from Dad's arm indicated was that he was "septik." And what that meant was that a certain regimen of treatment--water and antibiotics--would be given by IV to fight bacteria that this time had seeped into his bloodstream and would have eventually taken him, if nothing had been done.

By the end of the day his color was back, he'd regained partial consciousness, and he could talk a bit with us. But yesterday's hospital experience was new for us and him, even though he doesn't understand it himself. It was new because for the first time we understood that, whether we like it or not, we have a weapon in our hands, a weapon we are likely to have to use, a decision that will have to be made eventually: whether to let him live or die. 

By giving permission to bring him to the hospital, we were signalling we wanted him to go through at least one more fight, one more battle. What the doctors told us--and there were two--was that we needed to know that from here on in that decision would be ours alone. 

At the end of the second episode of Band of Brothers, after a prolonged firefight, hard to watch, Maj. Richard D. Winters steps out alone into the night, a roster of Allied troops behind him, endless combat ahead of him; and he tells himself that someday--I wish I had memorized the line--he's going to get himself a place somewhere outside of town and live the rest of his life in peace. 

I heard my father-in-law's own dreams in that line, a man who followed the front all the way to Berlin and lost a brother in World War II. I even heard something his wife, now deceased, a woman who lost a fiance that June 6, 1944, and, three years later, married an ex-GI who always wanted to farm.

Yesterday, I had quite enough of this vale of tears, of life and death, as did my wife, I'm sure, Dad's only daughter and only child. 

And as did he, or so he's told us. He'd like to go where he knows there is peace. He's ready.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Getting our needs met--a story (iii)

My wife appears at the back door in shorts and a cut-off sweat shirt. She stands there, her arms over her chest as if chilled, and she spots me sitting on this cold hard chair. "Keith," she says. "I got some hot water on."

And Sarai laughed too. Both of them must have looked up into a sky that probably looked almost identical, a sky where right then some distant star might well have fallen apart only to show up tonight--right now, as I'm sitting in my own backyard. "Crazy," they must have said.

"You'll catch your death 'a cold," my wife says. She's bare-footed, and I feel her cold toes in the grass as she walks over. "You want to talk about it?"

"You sound like a therapist," I say.

"What else is new?" she says. "I hear it was quite the meeting--Katy says Pedro really unloaded. She said she couldn't believe her father didn't explode."

"No kidding," I say.

"She says Pedro seems self-centered--"

"Really?" I say. "She say that?"

"She says he just talked and talked and talked--too much. Tough?" she asks.

So I told her about the stars and the absurdity of Abram's promise--all of these pinpricks would be God's people. "Look at 'em," I said. "There's millions of them."

"Millions," she said.

"They're not all alike," I told her. "Some of them wear grey fedoras."

"Every last one is different," she said.

"But if we believe the promise, they're all his," I told her, "every one of them."

"All of them," she says. And she grabs my shoulder. "Even Pedro?"

"That's a stretch," I tell her. "Abram and Sarai laughed too."

She looks up at the open blanket above. "They were old," she says. "What's your excuse?"

"So am I," I say. And then, "With a sky like this, it's not hard to believe in God," I tell her. "What I have trouble with is believing in his people."

"So does he," she says. "But the truth is, He loves us."

"More power to him," I say. "I couldn't."

"And isn't that wonderful?" she says. "He's a whole sky bigger than we are."

I reach for her arm and hold it. "Lucky thing for us," I tell her.

"Don't know that luck's got anything to do with it though," she says. "Come on in. The tea pot's blowing its lid."

Today is another day. And what I find myself saying, all day long, after reflecting on everything that happened last night, is that one of those millions of stars--meaning me--sure enough got his needs met.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Getting our needs met--a story (ii)

So the committee met at Durward's right after our time with the kids, the restaurant down the street from church, where the consensus was clear that we'd better include them. "If this is what the kids want," somebody said, "we better give it to them. Do we have a choice?"

Yeah, I wanted to say--we have a choice

But I didn't. Just like I didn't say a thing in the youth group. Suffer the children, right? You don't say no to kids anymore, do you? That's something that went out with spanking butts and "seen but not heard." Today, you give 'em videos and Nintendo and a thousand athletic trophies to build self-esteem. Today, you send them to theme parks and CCM concerts, and call it "youth group activities." Today, you send them to San Francisco on a projects and make sure their nights are heavily scheduled with fun. We got to meet their needs.

What I would have liked to ask is how to square this needs business with C. S. Lewis: "I was dragged, kicking and screaming before the throne of God"? How do you fit my needs into the old-fashioned paradigm of God loving a broken spirit and a contrite heart? Where in the Bible do we find "getting our needs met" other than in stories like Aaron's ad-hoc golden calf blow-out, or King David's surreptitious date with a nearby rooftop bathing beauty?

Does Paul's admonition to be all things to all people mean Alma Draayers has to give up the Psalms so Pedro can beat his bongos? Does Christ's last words, "Go ye into all the world," mean to advise Alma Draayers--and, okay, me too--to leave behind everything we've held dear? That's what I'm thinking when we leave Durward's.

I get home, and it's 10:30 and I'm not in the mood to go in the house because my wife will want to know how it went, having already heard our kids' rendition in the excited tones of true discipleship--discipleship to Pedro. They'd have told her everything, I'm thinking, and she'll look at me with the kind of gracious pity she offers our cat when it suffers hairballs. She'll know very well that I didn't say a thing through the whole meeting, and she'll understand that whatever it is in me--anger, envy, pride, nearly half the seven deadlies--needs only a nudge to spill out all over the house.

So rather than go in the house, I stay outside for awhile. We live on a cul-du-sac with a big backyard full of weeping willows, the kind of trees reminiscent of the poplars where the Israelites hung their harps in Psalm 137: "By the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept when we remembered Zion." And I have to laugh to myself, full of sin as I am, when I think, just then, of the blood-and-guts anger of that imprecatory Psalm. I've got a little of that in me right then myself--the desire to bash some heads. If it was okay for the Israelites, isn't it okay for me to feel the way I do? That's what I'm thinking.

I sit out back on a plastic lawn chair and look up into a perfectly clear sky, millions of stars. It's early spring, and the air has the sense of change of seasons, but it's still cool enough to make me pull up the collar of my jacket. My wife appears at the back window. She's heard the car, but I know, out back, she can't see me. And I like it that way. King David used to beg God not to discipline him in His wrath. There's something about that story that's sweet right now, too--the idea of God himself cooling off somewhere, blowing off steam, taking five for a breather. That's exactly what I need.

So I tell myself I've got to think about other things, like the news story about a chunk of Mars that may indicate there's life where we really believed it never existed. From the back yard, away from the street lights out front, the sky above me is a giant black sheet spread with a million diamonds. So there's life out there, too, I'm thinking. Some scientists think it's a big hoax because this meteorite got picked up from Antartica or something, where it could have ingested nothing less than good old earthly bacteria.

But who knows? Maybe there are funny-looking men and women out there--even though we now know that the moon isn't green cheese. And I tell myself that all those stories about the millions and millions of miles of space, the hundreds and thousands of constellations and galaxies, the almost infinite size and depth of space is something to make anybody sit still and think--be still and know.

And I think of Abram, the old man, and his wife, Sarai, no spring chicken herself, and the cosmic joke the Lord laid on them when he told them, long after their childless retirement, that he was going to make a great nation from seed they didn't have. Somewhere, half a globe away, the father of all believers must have sat outside on a night like this, maybe a touch of cold in the desert air, and listened to what Sarai thought was the biggest whopper she'd ever heard.

Maybe Abram was mad, too, after everything the Lord had said. Maybe Abram was ticked when he looked up at this sky full of what appeared to be empty promises. Maybe that's why he laughed--absolutely preposterous. That's what I'm thinking.
Tomorrow: conclusion.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Getting our needs met--a story (i)

[Out of town again for a couple of days, so I thought I'd run another old story, this one from a magazine titled Reformed Worship, years ago. I know its genesis well--I can remember the very moment of the story's birth. I was in a meeting with a kid, a drummer, and we were talking about worship. He said he needed contemporary worship because he wanted to worship in a place where "he got his needs met." I didn't think I was all that old at the time, but I guess I felt like an old fogie because I thought that line to be very strange. That line is the heart of the story--and its title.] 

He calls himself "Pedro" even though he's not Spanish but Anglo, from the John Lennon tin-rims, to the half-baked goatee and turtleneck, to the gray felt fedora he's never without, even in church. But I can live with that. I'll grant you there are some in Riverside that can't, but I can live with a hat. Our own kids have been sporting caps for a decade.

Some of our kids picked him up from a Christian rock concert or a weekend rally somewhere. He's a convert--and I know I should say that with more emotion. He's been saved--there, that sounds better. He's found the Lord--but I'm not so sure the Lord found him. To me, he's strange--and terribly pushy.

I know this: what he's found at Riverside Church is kids who fawn over him and his wicked (their word) body piercing. Pedro's the guru of our youth group. And he wants change--and he wants it now.

"When I got converted, man, I got saved because I walked into a church and saw a set of drums. Once I saw that, I like knew--you know, that this was a place for me."

Behind him, our kids smile.

"We're a generation raised on a beat, see? We don't respond to this old slow stuff you play. I mean, our music is our life, man. I mean, every kid I know is plugged into some kind of show."

I remember the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. The Stones' "Satisfaction" was the theme song for my high school football team. Years ago, I danced twenty minutes straight to the Iron Butterfly. Don't tell me about rock music, man. That's what I wanted to say.

"I got to use my talent for the Lord, see? I mean, I got to use my gifts--you know what I'm saying? My generation's got needs, and I don't think Riverside's meeting them right now. We got to have a place in the worship is what I'm saying. I got to use my talents in worship."

He plays the drums. His buddies play guitars. I think what he wants is a gig.

"Organ?" he says. "That's no problem. Lots of bands got good organs. We can use them right in the music."

And I'm thinking, "Alma Draayers in a rock band--now don't that beat all?"

"And we can do things, too--I mean, your stuff. Like 'Amazing Grace.' Shoot, we can do that stuff."

Stuff, eh? What I love about youth is their reverence.

"I mean, what we do doesn't all have to be rock. We're willing to compromise, you know," Pedro says, Pedro of the big heart. "But the bottom line here is that we're not getting our needs met."

The youth group had asked the members of the liturgy committee to talk to them about changing our worship style. They're not alone, of course; even their youth group leaders are taken by Pedro and his band. It's not that we're Neanderthal in our worship. I'll admit we're not Willow Creek, but then--my goodness, we're not Willow Creek. Does that make sense?

"That's what we're saying," Pedro says, "--We're not getting our needs met."

There were times in that meeting that I would have liked to take the kid on. I even thought seriously about returning to an era when the church allowed no instruments whatsoever just to starve him out and send him somewhere he could, for all I care, get his blessed needs met.

I'm sorry, but I thought the kid arrogant, and even though I'm hardly retirement age, I didn't have a clue where this idea of "getting our needs met" comes to play in the nature of worship. "Getting our needs met" sounds to me like a frustrated husband--or wife. "Getting our needs met." That's the language of doper in need of a high. "Getting our needs met"--what about Alma Draayers' needs?

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The secular erosion of motorcycling

I started very small. When it came, I remember it sitting on the driveway in a kind of box, remember taking it out carefully, trying to get everything right in the set up, then pressing the starter and hearing that little buzz-saw whine. What a joy.

Only on a long hill could I hit 50 mph with that little Bridgestone scooter. Only with a tailwind. No matter. I loved it, and it took me where I wanted to go around town. Occasionally, I took it farther, all the way to Sheboygan down Nine-Mile road, humming along at forty mph tops.

Once upon a time it tossed me. I hit both brakes, and that tiny little cycle stopped but I soared up over the handlebars, somehow curled myself into a ball, and hit the pavement with my right arm up over my head. From wrist to shoulder, I got burned. Hid all of that pain from my parents, who didn't really like that Bridgestone from day 1.

A 350 Honda, an old orange bike bedecked in a For Sale Sign stood on the sidewalk outside a used car dealership just two blocks west of our place. A quarter-century had passed. I was married, with two kids, grade-school age. Every time I went by, lust awoke in my eyes and my heart. The woman I married, the woman I love, was not at all keen on a motorcycle, so I didn't stop down the block to look, didn't stop and didn't stop and didn't stop. I gave in to her unstated disapproval, which was, nonetheless, perfectly clear.

Finally, I told myself that if I wouldn't buy it, I'd resent her having the last word, so I did. On warm summer afternoons, I'd make that little engine whine out in the country on half-hour rides through pockets of air you could feel in ways you couldn't in any other way. Loved it.

A friend thought it hilarious that a guy my size rode around on an orange 350 Honda, but he mocked me because he really wanted me to buy his Yamaha--a 750. He was leaving the college where we both taught. I thought about it, but figured my little half-hour rides west to the river weren't worth the bucks he wanted me to pay for that bike.

After he left, I put a bid on a 750 Honda Nighthawk repossessed from a local bank, and I won. I had that cycle for another decade maybe, but never went any farther than a half-hour away. Still, riding that bike was a joy.

My short life with motorcycles ended on a windy hike out west when I swore I could feel my own sense of balance declining. I told myself since I didn't have a licence--never did get one--it was time to clean out the garage. I haven't been on a bike since.

Yesterday I read that my home state's pride-and-joy industry, Harley-Davidson, isn't doing well. For years they were riding high. There's barely a city in the States that doesn't have a dealership, and it's not hard to understand why: boomers like me, for reasons that are likely unexplainable, love motorcycles, and real motorcycles are Harleys.

But the sad truth is that there's fewer of us every day, and some who are still around likely start to feel what I once did on that Nighthawk--that maybe biking through the country was for young bucks. Harley-Davidson cut its full-year shipping forecast and announced the necessity of cutting workforce in its beloved plants. Sadly, sales are slipping.

The language of the market goes like this: "We are downgrading Harley-Davidson to 'market-perform' based on increased conviction that motorcycle demand in the United States is in the throes of secular erosion."

Secular erosion? Think of it this way. Generation Y's are not hopping on Hoggs the way Boomers once did; and millennials--well, no one understands millennials. Business outlook is not good for Harley-Davidson; i
f they ship between 39 and 44 thousand bikes this year, that's a decline of twenty percent. Wall Street calls it "secular erosion." To a boomer with a past, it's just all very, very sad. 

A couple nights ago we followed an old couple on a big Honda three-wheeler, and I mentioned to my lovely wife that any problem I thought I might have had with balance on a bike would be taken care of on a big, fancy trike like that one.

She said nothing, and I didn't need to look to see her roll her eyes.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

What's so amazing. . .

Twenty-some years ago, Phillip Yancey was finishing up a manuscript he titled What's So Amazing About Grace, a book that would go onto sell millions. Yancey was--and still is--a member of the Chrysostom Society, a gathering of Christian writers who meet annually as friends and professionals to talk about just about anything having to do with writing and the world in which we all live and breathe and have our being. Members quickly become friends.

Annual meetings regularly feature individual members reading from new work. That year, Yancey read a chapter from What's So Amazing, the chapter which details his relationship Mel White, a Fuller grad who'd "come out," as people used to say back then, declared himself gay, openly so. Mel White himself was a writer, a ghost writer for evangelical super-stars including Francis Schaeffer, Billy Graham, and Jerry Falwell. He and Yancey were friends, a friendship put in jeopardy when White walked away from his wife and two children and defined himself as gay. 

I was there when Yancey read that chapter, a new member at that meeting of the group. Yancey's reading was one of the most memorable moments in my own scrapbook of experiences with the Chrysostom Society, not because his writing was so elegant or lyrical, but because what he was saying, back then, was so controversial. Simply by talking about homosexuality, Phillip Yancey was walking into a chamber of horrors, not because he'd given Mel White a pass but because the subject of the chapter challenged the very thesis of the book--that grace was really and truly amazing. I remember Walt Wangerin giving his approval, but also drawing a deep breath as if to say Phillip would have to gird up his loins for a battle.

Wangerin spoke only after a deafening silence that grew, not because the members of the group were offended--not at all; because at that moment in time everyone in that circle of friends knew Phillip was playing with fire. 

What's So Amazing About Grace went on to sell 15 million copies. That chapter--as difficult as it might have seemed when Yancey read it that night--must not have wounded too many souls. Of Yancey's many books, What So Amazing still ranks as a best-seller. 

The responses that night came slowly. All agreed Yancey was right in telling the story of Mel White; all agreed that he'd handled it with, well, grace. Still, everyone knew how cobustable things were at the flash point of what we've now come to call LBGTW issues.

Then, as now, Eugene Peterson was the father-figure of the group, the oldest and, arguably, I guess, the wisest. If Gene Peterson isn't a saint, I'm not sure any human being can be. He's quiet, unassuming, and loving. Even in ordinary conversation, he chooses words as if life in every moment is a never-ending quest for truth. He smiles radiantly, has a blessed sense of humor. Even if you never read a word of from the shelf of his many books, it's impossible not to love Gene Peterson.

That night, just after Yancey read, I asked Gene what he thought about the issues at stake in the story of Mel White. He smiled, looked at me, waited, nodded his head and said, "I don't know what I think, but I can tell you that not a week goes by without someone from one side or the other begging me to get into the fight."

Last week, Gene Peterson got into the fight, and when he did he soon became a casualty. He told an interviewer from the Religious News Service that, if asked, he would marry a gay couple. In half a day, the war not only came to his home, it barged through the door and knocked him down. 

At a meeting of the Chysostom Society just two months ago I was asked to say goodbye to Gene and Jan Peterson, who had announced they wouldn't be returning. His age is taking a toll. He told me when he couldn't come up with my name that not remembering was a symptom of his senility. He wasn't joking, and I wasn't surprised. 

Eugene Peterson loves the Lord, loves His church, loves His people. "Being a good church means continuing to worship the Lord even though the young single mom behind you can't control her child," he once said, smiling. What he meant was that being a Christian means caring for those around you, a task that remains, in many ways, the most difficult calling of all. 

A day after the interview ran, Christianity Today put a story on-line titled "Actually, Eugene Peterson Does Not Support Same-Sex Marriage," allowing evangelicals around the country to gather a collective sigh of relief since they didn't have to purge their libraries of Peterson's books. 

A quarter-century ago, President Bill Clinton wasn't wrong when, in a private conversation with Phillip Yancey, he asked Phillip, "Why do Christians hate so much?" That question, Yancey says, is what pushed him to write What's So Amazing About Grace?"

But there was another reason, too, one that Yancey himself has said left a forever imprint on his heart and may well have prompted almost everything he has ever written: his memory of the day his pious parents and their church rejected the membership of a black couple because they were black. 

It's a never-ending question, I guess, because it's somehow a never-ending story. 

Monday, July 17, 2017

Sermons of Rev. D. R. Drukker--"A New Song" (ii)

Rev. Drukker was 23 years old when, with this father's family, he immigrated from the Netherlands. It was 1869, so he never experienced anything, first hand, of the American Civil War. Before becoming a pastor, he taught school in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in a tight community of other Dutch immigrants who were, without a doubt, like-minded in theology, a community more Dutch than American and probably didn't include many Civil War veterans. 

So it's somewhat surprising to hear him use such a long Civil War tale at the end of "A New Song," the second sermon in The Beauty of God. To call that story an "illustration" is an understatement; it takes up most of the final two pages. 

It goes like this. Very soon after Appomattox, Rev. Drukker says, Union veterans marched in force up the street in Washington," the famous Avenue," he says. Almost had to be Pennsylvania, but probably neither he or his congregation knew. 

No matter. Federal officials had all come out for the parade--"Generals and colonels, admirals and commodores, statesmen, diplomats by the scores and citizens by the thousands." The war had ended. 

Then, Drukker carefully describes the composition of the paraders themselves--first, the latest to be drafted, then the yearlings, then those who'd served for two long years, at which time people "could feel a thrill pass through that mighty host of applauding citizens."

The climax of this lengthy sermon illustration follows, when he describes the final corps of vets: "Their uniforms were torn. Many were in rags. Some were bandaged. Others were crippled," he says, "some were walking with a crutch or a cane, while not a few carried empty sleeves." 

"Tumultuous tears," Drukker says, were wiped at that moment from the faces of everyone there, he says. "The President could not restrain his tears and he with others on the reviewing stand wept openly at the sight of these returned heroes." 

"A New Song" is a sermon about heaven's glories. It has nothing to do with patriotism. What's more, it was delivered to a congregation of Dutch immigrants, most of whom, like Drukker himself, probably spent the Civil War years in their native Holland.

No matter. "If the sight of these veterans who fought to preserve the Union filled the people with such enthusiasm," Drukker told his congregation, "what will not the multitudes of heaven do when they, as the redeemed, meet their Lord face to face?. . .the Crucified One, the Lord with the scarred brow, whose extended hands still bear the imprint of the nails?"

This man, this preacher, the good Reverend Drukker, Dr. Henry Beets says in the intro to this little book of sermons, "may well be called the most popular preacher of the denomination in his days."

Rev. Drukker's use of this single story from the pages of American history, maybe sixty years after the fact, may well illustrate, in part, why Henry Beets makes the claim he does. The story set on Washington's "famous Avenue" focuses our attention most powerfully on the battered heroes who gave everything for the Union cause. In this sermon on heaven's glories, if you're like me, you simply might have assumed that the illustration would focus on us, those beaten and weary from a lifetime in this vale of tears. But it's Christ who is wounded and hurting. It's his scars we're witness. We're the people crying in the reviewing stand because he is the hero.

His audience was, I'm sure, anti-slavery; the Dutch people who came in mid-19th century deliberately avoided the American South. The illustration Rev. Drukker uses to conclude the sermon on Heaven is drawn from a history that isn't as deep for a congregation of immigrants as it might have been in what those immigrant people would have called "an American" church.

It's simply a memorable story with universal appeal and a deft reversal that features a crucified Jesus as a war-weary Civil War vet. 

Even today, it's not only incredibly strong, it's still vital. Even today it would be memorable.

There have to be dozens of reasons why Henry Beets makes the claims he does for Rev. D. R. Drukker's preaching. But I think his skilled use of that striking story at the climax of "the new song" he says we'll all be singing at heaven's gate, bears some witness.