Morning Thanks

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

Friday, August 28, 2015

Book Report--Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman

The man in the middle with his hand up is unmistakable. The man to his right is his top military general, Ulysses S. Grant. To his left sits Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter. The man holding forth across the room is General William Tecumseh Sherman, remembered (and vilified) still today primarily for "Sherman's March to the Sea."

The story goes that this meeting was somewhat serendipitous. It was March of 1865, the war was drawing to a close, and President Lincoln was aboard a river boat somewhere close to Grant's headquarters. It just so happened that General Sherman was in the neighborhood. Thus, the meeting of "the peacemakers," a meeting Admiral Porter later described like this: "I shall never forget that council which met on board the River Queen. On the determinations adopted there depended peace, or a continuation of the war with its attendant horrors."

The painting, done by George P. A. Healy, is titled The Peacemakers and meant to celebrate this moment, "an occasion upon which," Admiral Porter wrote, "depended whether or not the war would be continued a year longer. A single false step might have prolonged it indefinitely."

In Fierce Patriot: the Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman, military historian Robert L. O'Connell, claims this famous portrait captures Sherman perfectly. He is obviously holding forth. The others, each of whom outrank him, of course, are his audience. Lincoln seems spellbound, but Admiral Porter and General Grant seem, well, wary. O'Connell says where Sherman was there were always words. Sherman could fill and room and did so, time and time again. And he was good at it.

As you can imagine, no one was better at telling the stories of the March, and everywhere Sherman went once his men cut the South in half and basically ended the war, people--important people--wanted to hear them. O'Connell says the system of warfare that Sherman created was, for all intents and purposes, brand new to military history. General William Tecumseh Sherman was, O'Connell says, an innovator, a man who not only created basic techniques of modern warfare but also designed what O'Donnell claims is the unique strength of American military units ever since, the indomitable strength of a democratic army.

Whether all of that is true I'll leave to military historians who know the history of the American military far better than I. But have no doubt about O'Connell's purpose in this fascinating biography: he is determined to show that Sherman's March to the Sea is the forerunner of every great American military victory since 1865. Sherman, known lovingly as Uncle Billy to his men, was the man and mind who created it.

What O'Connell marshalls to the fore in his retelling of the March is Sherman's methodology. He gave his men a very clear and abiding sense of the purpose of their mission, but turned them loose to get there on their own, four separate military movements through the heart of the South. His troops knew the direction, but how they got to the destination was up to them. 

It was, in some ways, the beginning of a species of guerrilla warfare, O'Donnell says, and when it worked--and it did--Sherman's democratic strategy, letting his troops determine their own fate, living on the land as they did, that strategy ended the bloodiest war in American history. 

In war, Sherman was fierce and unrelenting; but the moment his men brought a measure of peace to the country they conquered, he became, O'Connell says, a paragon of virtue, dispensing aid as if he were a father dispensing discipline to rebellious kids whose abominable behavior required a strong hand.

During the "summer of  Trump," it's good to be reminded that men with over-sized egos have manipulated the press and the public for more than 150 years in this country. Sherman hated the press but had a knack for ringing banner headlines from them and stories that created respect, even adoration for him in the minds and hearts of American people. He was beloved as a military leader, but he could be a shyster.

He was subject to depression that at times took him out of the character he wanted to show to the country and away from the kind of rule he needed to maintain as a rising star in the American military. He had to have been a strain on those around him, up and down like the war effort itself in those early years. But Grant wouldn't have been without him. Neither would Lincoln.

Sherman's relationship with his zealous wife was on again, off again. She was herself no wall flower, but her passion was her Roman Catholic faith and she fought him, tooth and nail, for the love of their children. Like a famous recent President, General Sherman wasn't above an occasional roll in the hay with other women.

That O'Donnell admires Sherman is not only clear by the central argument of his biography. But his admiration blind him to Sherman's humanness. I have relatives in Ringgold, Georgia, a small town just outside of Chattanooga that was in Sherman's sights as he began his Atlanta campaign, My relatives say their neighbors don't hold General William Tecumseh Sherman in such high esteem. I'm sure that's true.

General Sherman is undoubtedly worth a dozen biographies, maybe more because there's likely always more to be said about a man who himself always had more to say. To Robert L. O'Connell, William Tecumseh Sherman was to many in his day an American hero. And still is. Or should be.

Fascinating character. Fascinating reading.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Morning Thanks--Highway markers

When finally we came to the place on the highway where he was killed, I realized neither of us knew exactly where it was--specifically, under which overpass.  I had deliberately avoided the stretch of road in previous trips up and back to Wisconsin, but this time I decided it was time that I passed the spot where it happened. 

Being told of my brother-in-law's death was the kind of experience one wishes never to have, and, once experienced, more boldly wishes never to repeat. It was a call. Cell phone. We'd just come out Knobloch's Nursery, out in the country, a car full of plants, on a sunny spring day. We were ambling down country roads on the way home, no more than a mile from a tiny once-upon-a-time town named Alvord. 

"Is this James Schaap?"

The caller gave me his name, claimed to be the hospital chaplain at Mauston, Wisconsin.

"I am very sad to report that there's been a terrible accident," he said. No preliminaries. "Your sister is not in any danger, but your brother-in-law didn't make it. He died."

That's all I remember. Hard-edged, no formalities. Firm yet considerate. All business, but not at all thoughtless. Merciful even in its economy. 

It would have been out of place for him to ask about the weather, wouldn't it? He had only one reason to talk to me, so he went at it with considerate immediacy. No one can dress awful news in niceties. 

When the conversation ended, we happened to be at Alvord, the little town my brother-in-law listed as his hometown. I turned in and we drove through just a few minutes after being told Larry was killed in a horrible accident.

Sometime later I learned that the rescue squad had taken him to Lyndon Station, the closest town along the interstate, where there was a good place for a helicopter to land. But the helicopter never came because the love of my sister's life was killed right there on the highway, killed instantly, at some spot we were passing. 

It happened in highway construction. The man who hit them was ticketed for inattentive driving. They were hit very, very hard from the rear, and it happened, I remember from news photos, somewhere beneath an underpass.

There are three along I-90/94 just south of Lyndon Station. That it could have been any of three somehow diluted the sadness and horror. 

Which is not to say I won't remember. I will absolutely never forget those three overpasses every time I'm there on an otherwise featureless stretch of Interstate 90/94.

We were on our way back to Iowa. Early that morning I'd visited my parents' grave at an obscure cemetery a mile north of Oostburg, Wisconsin. They're all there--all the grandparents too. I always stop, but it's not like I have to make a visit. I want to.  I wouldn't call it a pleasure, nor do I feel it an obligation. It's just a visit I want to make. 

R. T. Wright says--and everyone knows--that what happens when we die, what happens in the now once we've shucked this mortal coil, is total mystery because no one has been there and back, despite claims aplenty.

Christians believe--as I do--in the resurrection of the body, but that my great-grandparents will peel themselves from the earth beneath that tipsy stone is as much fancy as any other view of death. We don't know.

I don't know that anything of Larry abides at the underpass where he was delivered from this life. I honestly don't think so. Nor do my parents await the second coming from muddy seats given them in the terra firma at Hartman Cemetery, a place named, almost certainly, for my own great-great grandparents. The people we knew and loved are certainly not there at a spot on the highway or a graveyard little more than a mile from the shore of Lake Michigan.

But something abides, doesn't it? Something startles the memory. Something won't let us forget. Highways all over the nation wear crosses in unusual places, some of them unmistakably ornamented. You see them everywhere. They celebrate lives most of us don't know but loved ones won't ever forget.

Something abides there, something is very much alive as long as we are.

I don't know where the accident happened exactly, under which underpass of the three just south of Lyndon Station; but to me and all of Larry's family that stretch of ordinary interstate will never be anything the place where Larry died. 

That it's unforgettable is a blessing. What's more, it's a blessing for which I'm thankful this overcast Iowa morning.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

JFK, the Pope, and Netanyahu

It was Sunday night, after church. We stayed because my uncle was going to speak on a topic he was carting to Dutch Reformed churches throughout the county, a topic that drew a crowd among all those Republicans. It was 1960, and one of the candidates for President of these United States was a young and handsome senator from Massachusetts, a war hero blessed with a striking wife, both of them drawn charmingly from the nation's elite.

That candidate was known affectionately as JFK, and he was Roman Catholic.

My uncle's traveling soap box was created to warn Dutch Reformed churches like ours, how Kennedy's election to the nation's highest office would spell the end of American democracy since the nation would be run thereafter by the Pope, who our Calvinist ancestors considered the anti-Christ. Etc.

I was 12 years old, just beginning to take interest in politics. Honestly, I don't remember what I thought about Uncle Jay, but I was proud of his startling witness. I'm sure I was thoroughly Republican myself back then, and I likely nodded my approval throughout the hammering he gave the Catholic Kennedy.

We all know how that worked out.

But last week I thought of my uncle up there in front of church years ago, trying to rip the camo off a Roman Catholic conspiracy when I read Roger Cohen's NY Times op-ed, a piece which mentioned almost off-handedly that he was among thousands of American Jews invited to watch a webcast produced and broadcast in Israel, by Israel, to oppose the administration's treaty (in fact the world's great powers' treaty) with Iran.

I remembered Uncle Jay's patriotic (and anti-Papist) passion because the scenarios seem somehow similar, except this one was real: a foreign power was doing what it could to affect American politics and culture. I'm unaware of the Pope every campaigning JFK.

The two scenarios are not the same, of course. The papacy was not at risk; Isreal is--or so Netanyahu fervently believes. What's more, my uncle's argument was theological (and Republican): because JFK was a practicing Roman Catholic, he had to listen to the Pope. Thousands of American Jews asked to view the webcast are ruled by no similar theology.

Still, I wonder whether any other ethnic or religious group might operate similarly. Would the Dutch government contact everyone with Dutch surnames if some trade American trade bill put the Netherlands at risk? Polish? German? 

Churches attempt to influence political thinking certainly. Most muster troops for one side of another of whatever culture war is raging, but none of those who do are foreign-grown.

Even if the most aggrieved of our minorities were fighting legislation they found disdainful, their criticism would be home-grown. African-Americans don't get together to watch webcasts from Kenya or Nigeria, and Native people have no foreign roots.

Good people, thoughtful people, disagree about the Iran nuclear deal. But I found myself in church again, circa 1960, when I read Cohen's article, and I couldn't help feeling like Uncle Jay did back then because what he thought was going to happen with JFK--and didn't--is happening today with American Jews.

I hope I'm not anti-Semitic when I say that, somehow I can't help thinking, 
like Uncle Jay, that it sort of stinks.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

A Victory

"Temple of Baal-Shamin, Palmyra" by Bernard Gagnon

Anyone familiar with the Old Testament--well, anyone who takes it seriously, I suppose--might well think of what ISIS did last week as almost righteous. After all The Temple of Baal-Shamin was at one time a temple to Baal. Most orthodox theologians summarize the entire New Testament as an exercise for Israel to learn that there is only one God, and He is their God, Jehovah, a word sometimes thought too divine to even spell.

I don't know what Pat Robertson says, but I would suppose that the super-righteous might just think ISIS was merely accomplishing what the Israelites didn't or couldn't accomplish thousands of years ago: they took out a temple to a god who is not god. If you don't know Baal, read the Old Testament prophets sometime. Start anywhere; the Bible's prophetic literature rumbles along with the same turbo-charged animus: Baal means enemy.

When Elijah's Mt. Carmel Championship sacrifice blew up in flames, 450 prophets of Baal must have crawled into the innards of their own sacrificial pyre because, embarrassingly, theirs hadn't (see I Kings 18). Elijah destroyed 'em. Google the story sometime. You'll find dozens of Sunday School plans. Why not? It's a great story to tell. "Maybe your god is on the toilet," Elijah taunted when 450 holy men couldn't get their bull lit. I've always loved that line, Elijah as a kind of 1000 B. C. Bill Maher.

See that temple?--reportedly it's gone, a temple to a what ISIS and Elijah both would call a pagan god. So ISIS got the job done two thousand years later.

But we mark our years with an A.D. and not a B.C. Along came Jesus Christ, and threw everything off balance, as the Misfit says in O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find." Things have changed in the post-Jesus world.

I'm a believer, always have been and likely always will be, and I think what ISIS did is perfectly barbaric. ISIS wants only one story told--theirs. Every other story is pagan. Every other story is evil. That doctrine allows them to behead their enemies. Nothing has worth but what they say has worth. They live in a vile and violent world of righteous us vs. evil them.

So this week, as yet another Sunday school lesson in orthodoxy, they drilled dozens of holes in what's left of this bit of Canaanite antiquity, filled those holes with explosives, then blasted away, bringing the temple down. It's pagan, after all--always was and always will be.

Perfectly bright people, men and women who grew up in the West, have signed on to barbarism, to rape and murder in the holy name of their god. It's madness.

And that's why what three men did on the train from Amsterdam seems Elijah-like. They took down some ISIS would-be martyr confessionally-bound to kill pagans on their way of Paris. They saw the AK-47, recognized the madness, and ended the carnage before it could begin, right there on the tight quarters of the train.

In Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman, Robert L. O'Connell makes a claim that might well be outrageous to Southerners, but it's the thesis of the biography. Sherman's famous March to the Sea was undertaken with a strategy that made war democratic. Sherman's men were often separated from the command structure and therefore free, within guidelines, to operate on their own. Sherman left crucial decision-making up to individual platoons and soldiers, O'Connell says, in a way that foreshadows what happened in Normandy in early June of 1944.

I'm no more a military historian than I am a theologian, but it's clear to me that three American military men--none of them in fatigues, none of them armed--acted completely on their own when they wrestled the would-be assassin to the floor of that Paris-bound train.

Last week ISIS planted dynamite in one of humankind's grandest antiquities, an ancient temple with Old Testament roots. Blew it up. I'm sure they killed people too, likely hundreds of them. The treachery spawned from their evil orthodoxy knows no limits.

But this week, blessedly, three American military, off duty, and one French-American musician brought down a ISIS fanatic on a train to Paris. When they did, for a moment they disregarded their lives for the sake of the hundreds on board that madman had in his sights.

"He who saves one person," an old Jewish proverb says, "saves the world."

Greater love hath no man than this," Jesus says, "that a man lay down his life for his friends."

Somehow, this week, what they did feels like a great victory, a raging fire on Mt. Carmel. 

The assassin's god must have been on the toilet.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Descent into God's Country

It would be interesting to know how often I've made the trip between northwest Iowa and southeast Wisconsin, hundreds of times, I'm sure. And again last weekend, leaving Alton just before six. 

Leaving that late in the day may well have been a first, but we're retired folks now, and there were late afternoon commitments so we simply figured we'd go half way on Thursday, take a motel, and journey on the next morning. Leisurely. You know, like old folks.

That trip takes most of nine hours, sometimes more, depending on what you eat and where; and brings you through goodly chunks of two geographic regions--tall-grass prairie (mostly corn as long ethanol production is so amply blessed), and the bushy, woodsy Great Lakes region full of sneaky curves on a thousand roads once upon a time laid atop deer tracks and Indian trails. 

The seam of those two geographic regions is a place Old Style beer used to call "God's Country." The assertion that the Mississippi River valley is God's country and Anywhere Else, U. S. A. isn't is entirely arbitrary, but I've often thought about Old Style beer when I-90 begins an awesome descent on Minnesota's eastern border. I love that sudden drop off, always loved the way the highway courts the river for a dozen miles or so, finally crossing it and all its tribs just west of LaCrosse. I've no quarrel with Old Style.

Other places on the globe may resent a brewery for making the outrageous claims that it used to, but when you come off the bare-naked plains and descend into those gorgeous wooded hills, you can't help thinking they've got it right. But then, for me, the Great Lakes region, the shore line coast of Lake Michigan, is home.

And that's why, Thursday night, on our way to a halfway motel on the Mississippi's French Island, I suddenly and for the first time got scared. It was pitch dark when we made that steep five-mile long descent, and in the sheer darkness, the highway's otherwise familiar meandering seemed foreign. I could see no farther than the reach of my headlights. I was tired, too, but I was jumpy as I've never been before, not in all of those trips through the hills.

I'd probably never driven that stretch at night. 

I didn't feel like I normally do when the prairie ends and the highway drops out from under the car. It didn't feel like another wonderful homecoming because the hills were lost in the darkness. The winding road seemed treacherous because I didn't recognize it, couldn't. In a hundred trips back and forth, I'd probably never driven into God's Country at night. Not once, and the way home seemed almost dangerous, not like home at all.

It was scary, not simply because the highway demanded so much of my attention but because I honestly thought I knew that road like the back of my hand. And I didn't. Not in the darkness. What seemed so beautiful and so ordinary seemed suddenly a stranger.

It's not a pleasant feeling to know, suddenly, that that which was familiar is somehow not so, when what you see before you is new even though it really isn't. I don't know that I can explain it exactly. Things shouldn't have been the way they were. 

Don't get me wrong. We had a great time at a short little reunion, a celebration for my sister and brother in law's "golden" anniversary. But for a moment last weekend, I felt something quite scary, something this old man is guessing there will be more of down the road as they say, an uncomfortable fear that what should be familiar somehow isn't.

The motel was just fine, the visit was short but sweet and greatly blessed, the weather was perfect, just a touch of fall now in the air. It's just immensely clear outside my window this morning because a northwest wind came by and blew out all that cloudy summer humidity. Colors jump. This morning, once again, just outside my window, I can see for miles.

But that strange and even scary descent through the dark hills and into the deep of the valley, a trip I thought I knew, is something I can't help remembering, even in the soul.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Sunday Morning Meds--Harmony

“I will praise you, O Lord, among the nations; 
I will sing of you among the peoples.”

Strangely enough, I have but two memories of an early childhood trip to New York City, and both of them emerge from kinds of fear. I had to be less than ten. We visited the United Nations, because I have some kind of memory of standing in front of that building, but no memories at all of being inside.

What I’ve not forgotten, as I said, is two images, both from the street. In one a woman who is apparently mad is shouting and screaming wildly. The words make no sense, as I remember; but the scene is distressing, largely because no one seems to care. People—thousands of them—walk right past on her sidewalks 
wider than I’d ever seen. Someone should tell her not to scream, I must have thought. But no one did, and she kept it up. Finally, we were out of earshot.

The other memory is also from the street—a man in a sandwich board saying “Repent” or something. I was just a kid, but I remember being kind of embarrassed, almost the same feeling I had when that mad woman wouldn’t stop screaming. This guy was preaching, and I knew it; but I found him and his preaching rather nuts. I didn’t want him drawing such distressed attention to a faith I knew better by way of the Christmas eve programs or morning prayers over Sugar Pops.

Those two memories are filed away in a scrapbook--memories of a trip to the big city.

Gratitude is the beginning of the Christian life—that’s what I believe; and gratitude makes us sing. No question. Gratitude makes David pipe the dawn in this psalm, or believe he can—or at least make the outrageous claims he does. 

Our thanks for the salvation that has come so shockingly into our lives sends us cartwheeling into the world. “I will sing of you among the peoples,” David shouts, ecstatic, and some guy in New York in the early fifties adorns himself in a sandwich board and stands out on the street where he scares the children and the horses.

Our pastor used to talk about an adult male in a previous church who wasn’t blessed with full cognitive abilities (I don’t know how to say it). This man had a special love for a certain organist’s playing. Whenever she’d play, he’d dance in the aisles.

Maybe we all should. Maybe we all should pull on sandwich boards or paint “Jesus Loves me” across the side of our houses. There’s a man just down the block that loves to sit outside on Sunday afternoons, his stereo cranked, the sounds “The Old Rugged Cross” being sung by a men’s quartet with bluegrass roots taking over the entire neighborhood.

I know David’s impulse here. I know what’s in him. He’s almost gone in his deep affection for the God who has saved him from death so often, and here, in the cave, has done it again. The Lord almighty has delivered him, and it makes him sing.

But how? And what tune? And how loud? Snare drums or Native flutes?  Pipe organ or ukulele? Bold type or fancy font? Stories or poems? Amish romance or dirty realism? Classical or folk rock? Johnny Cash or Mahalia Jackson? Flannery O’Conner or Pat Robertson?

One man's deliverance can be another boy's embarrassment, right? There's just no accounting for taste. 

The older I get, the more I think the answer is simply, “Just sing.” Just sing and let the Lord almighty do harmony.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The latest evil

This man, Khalid al-Asaad, 83 years old, a resident of the city of Palmyra, Syria, was taken to the city square and beheaded on Tuesday by ISIS. They'd been holding him for weeks, having overtaken Palmyra some months ago.

Al-Asaad was the city's archaeologist, the man responsible for keeping up and taking care of Palmyra's extensive archaeological treasures. “He was a very important authority on possibly the most important archaeological site in Syria,” according to a specialist on Islamic art. Virtually self-taught, al-Asaad regarded the wealth of antiquities in Palmyra as his passion.

His head, his glasses still on his face, lay between his feet as his bloody body was suspended by red twine from a traffic light right there where he was executed, an old man, an expert in Islamic art and antiquity, an enemy, apparently, of the jihad.

Speculation has it that ISIS wanted information on the whereabouts of the very treasures al-Asaad had studied for many, many years. The horror of his very public death some attribute to the strong possibility that al-Asaad died doing what he did all during his life--protecting those antiquities, not revealing their whereabouts.

If you think that ISIS cares about antiquities from its own Islamic faith, you're wrong. The history ISIS wants told is the history they write. Nothing else matters because everything else is the work of infidel apostates to whom death is due.

News was released last week that Kayla Mueller, the American relief worker captured and then killed by ISIS months ago already was likely repeatedly raped by her captor, a man who was said to have married her, a jihadist named Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. ISIS, I guess, rapes in the name of Allah.

Anyone who's seen pictures of the flotilla of Syrian refugees washing up on the shores of Greek islands has seen fear, despair, and finally relief on Syrian faces. They believe--and who can doubt--that the only way for them and their children--and their babies--to stay alive is to find sanctuary in the west. More than 21,000 have already come ashore on island coastlines.

Although no religious group has suffered more at the hands of ISIS jihadists than fellow Muslims, an article in the NY Times last week legitimately questioned whether Christianity in the Middle East would soon simply disappear. Every atrocity known to humankind has been perpetuated by jihadists on Christian believers, "crusaders," as some militants call them, bloody persecution beyond imagination simply because Christian believers confess the name of Jesus.

That the rest of the world can't seem to stop ISIS is incomprehensible. But that young people from all over the world daily continue to pilgrimage to the Middle East, where they volunteer to join their ranks of jihadist rapists and murderers is as mystifying as it is horrifying.

An 83-year-old archaeologist from Palmyra is just the latest evil. 

It's easy to feel that way, isn't it? An old man is beheaded--that man in the picture at the top of the page. It's just the latest evil.