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.

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Silliness?--or not so?

The guy's name is Jestin Coler. He voted for Hillary. But he and his buddies haul in some extra dough by a game they've created, a game called false news. Coler is a fiction writer. He and his friends created a story about a Texas family contacting Ebola (you can read it here), and hauled in the take from five million hits when that fiction went viral. Slap a few ads on the page, and there's money to be made.

A story Coler wrote about Hillary--remember, he voted for her--got a half-million reads in just one day, just three days before the election. It was a stinker of a story, but all kinds of people read it. Went like this--an FBI agent died mysteriously after investigating Hillary's emails. Never happened. Pure fiction. Pure bullshit, but Jestin Coler made about eight grand on that one. Just telling stories. (Some videomaker cranked out a You-Tube using the story--be sure to read the comments.)

I'm in the wrong racket. 

NBC found Jestin Coler. They were looking for someone like him because a North Carolina man named Edgar Maddison drove up to D. C. last weekend, got himself heavily armed, and then Lone Ranger-ed into Comet Ping Pong, a family pizza place to "self-investigate," he told police. He'd read on line that the joint was center stage for a child porn and sex trafficking ring created by Hillary and her buddy John Podesta. Those emails Wikileaks were releasing before the election?--they proved it, or so Maddison claimed. 

He carried in a rifle, did a little shooting. Thankfully, no one was injured. He wanted to free the poor children.

He didn't find Hillary, nor Podesta, nor any child sex racket. It was and is all fake news. 

No matter. Some souls believe it. They badly want to.

Let me do the math. Jestin Coler, who's a nice guy--he's got a wife and kids and a Christmas tree--created and armed Edgar Maddison, another nice guy with a wife and kids. Jestin Coler, and others like him, bears responsibility for what happened last Sunday at Comet Ping Pong, to say nothing about shaping the election. Jestin Coler ought to go to jail, but right now technology's myriad opportunities are only beginning to be charted. We have no laws governing what he did. Besides, it's free speech, right? First Amendment.

Jestin Coler is picking up extra cash for his kids for Christmas. Buy 'em a drone maybe, something he couldn't have afforded otherwise. He's what we call an "entrepreneur," isn't he? He didn't break any laws. Look for yourself.

"It's addicting," he told NBC news, meaning creating fake news. He loves it. Hits come up his screen and he laughs all the way to the bank. 

"Don't sweat it, lady," the serpent told the woman. "You certainly will not die." 

False news has a long history. People want badly to believe.

And it's not over. Almost immediately another story went up. In this one, Hillary's people hired Edgar Maddison to get arrested. It was all a set up, a diversion. She and Podesta's people paid him richly to cover the evil racket that's still going on at Comet Ping Pong Pizza. 

No, don't go. Please don't go. Leave Comet Ping Pong alone. There's nothing there but pizza.

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Morning Thanks--Count your blessings

Some psychologists want to drop the last initial in PTSD. They claim that to call PTSD a "disorder" makes the condition appear unusual. It isn't. They claim that if you've been to war, you have post-traumatic stress because war is trauma.

I can't help thinking such distinctions wouldn't have mattered to the woman in the casket yesterday. She had a husband who took Nazi fire at the Battle of the Bulge and came home with a purple heart from wounds that were visible--and some that were not. "He just wasn't the same when he came back from the war," one of his relatives said to me some time ago. Then the guy shook his head with a kind of inevitability.

Her husband died already 32 years ago, but he could have gone to his Maker at least twice before that, once in a cold winter battle in Europe, then again by a truck accident that did almost everything but kill him. She suffered through that also. It was cancer that took him finally. He was always a heavy smoker. She was there too.

She died last Thursday, her 96 years it's own kind of Life magazine. She'd seen a whole lot more than most of us ever will, a whole life of trauma, if you count the trials. 

She had a baby boy in 1945, when she received word that her GI husband had been wounded in Belgium. She had to have understood that all three of their lives wouldn't be exactly as she imagined. I don't know if she ever talked much about getting the news--where she was or how it came. What her family knows is that she got that telegram with a little boy, six months old, in her arms.

The obit says she was born in Estelline, South Dakota in 1920. She went to country school through eight grades, then "worked out," which is to say moved into farm homes whenever and wherever women needed help, generally after having babies. Thirteen, she may have been, maybe fourteen, doing every last thing farm wives did back then, and they did every last thing. 

The Dutch Reformed of Estelline in the 1920s were not affluent. Most had moved west and north to homestead cheap land, hoping to make a life on a landscape that wasn't particularly tamed. She was a child when the stockmarket crashed. I'm sure she remembered the Dust Bowl, when whole skies full of Oklahoma and Kansas dust drifted into every corner of a farm house. 

Chances are, when she got married, she wasn't thinking about her sweetheart going off to war. It was eight months before Pearl Harbor, and it would be two years before he was drafted. They were in Iowa then, right up close to the South Dakota border, hilly Sioux County country, not prime land, but greatly livable. Knowing her, I can't imagine she wasn't happy.

Then came the war. And then the man she loved returned, not exactly the man she'd married. Back then no one knew the initials PTSD, and she probably wasn't the only woman who nursed all kinds of wounds. Back then, they just didn't talk much about it.

She and her husband had another five boys, six in all. Six boys trying to make a go of it on a hardscrabble farm.

In 1965, that oldest son of hers was killed, a passenger in an accident the newspaper described this way:
Early morning fog covered Highway 18 as the local men attempted to pass a gasoline transport. As he pulled around the truck he was driving east a milk truck. . . was approaching from the east. The Rock Valley man attempted to slow down and pull back into the right hand lane but in doing so he collided with the rear of the transport which tossed the pick up broadside in the path of the oncoming truck.
 She was likely at home on their farm when she and her husband got that news. 

Fifty years later, she buried yet another son, my brother-in-law, after he'd been killed instantly in a construction zone on a Wisconsin interstate. He and my sister were on their way to Minnesota to visit their kids and grandchildren. He was killed instantly.

She was a resident in the old folks home. That time, her remaining four sons delivered the news.

By a country mile, her allotment in sadness and death exceeded what most of us will ever suffer. But yesterday, at her funeral, when the pastor spoke and her family reminisced, the sweet face that appeared right there in church was smiling because she always did. One after another, her grandkids claimed her giggle was perfectly infectious. And it was. I swear when they spoke, her smile lit up the sanctuary.

One of her sons told the audience that with six rough-and-tumble boys growing up on a hard scrabble farm, there were weeks and months, even years, when there was no end of trouble. Once, he said, when he was in it, when he was right there in the heart of horror, his mom offered him that smile and said just three words: "Count your blessings."

That testimony plays in a league all its own.

Funerals do good work when they concentrate attention. This one did. 

Once upon a time, in a moment that doesn't need to be detailed, she looked at her boy, one of six, and this woman who'd suffered so much sadness, so much trauma, gave him a line to live by, a line that to me, up until yesterday, when he repeated it, seemed little more than an empty cliche. 

"Count your blessings," she told him, smiling. 

Never in my life have those three words carried so much love.

Monday, December 05, 2016

Morning Thanks--Vets at Standing Rock

It was an unusual prayer request. Most all of the members of the little church up the road are steadily getting up there in age, so requests almost always have hospital settings. Most people know other people who are dying, often relatives. It's fair to say, that political consciousness isn't high, in part because life itself is the major concern.

So yesterday when the widow a pew over raised her hand and said what she did, her prayer request was unusual, but understandable too. It had to do with the veterans on their way to North Dakota, a couple thousand of them, she reminded us, to protect the protesters. "We should be praying for them," she said, robustly, holding a little lapful of attentive grandson who seemed greatly satisfied with his binkie.

The standoff at Standing Rock started months and months ago. There's nothing new about it. Yesterday, after church, the whole congregation could have got into cars and taken a gravel road three miles north to see the swath where the black snake has been already laid beneath precious Iowa topsoil thoughtfully returned to the corn and soybean fields the pipeline transgressed late summer. 

I'd wondered about the news story of the veterans. I'd wondered what locals might think about 2000 vets heading up to all those protesters thereby giving the whole movement a cutting edge it hadn't had as long as it was only a bunch of Indians. In our church, I didn't remember anyone asking for prayers for the Lakota people. After all, right here, a block from church, dozens of travel trailers belonging to the Dakota Access pipe crew inhabited downtown for months. The workers were honored guests.

What changed up north was the attention of "the veterans," a couple thousand of them, due to arrive yesterday in North Dakota. What charged that grandma's passion was safety for "the veterans." She didn't mention the protesters. She wanted the Lord to look out for the veterans. 

Just so happens that I know a veteran who's been there more than once in the last several months, one of the protesters, in fact. I rather doubt local law enforcement fears her much, nor did she go up to Standing Rock simply to protect peace-loving protesters. She's no strong arm, after all. She's 96 years old, a protester herself. 

She's Lakota, from the Cheyenne River Reservation, just south of Standing Rock. She's a highly decorated vet who served with Allied forces once a beachhead was established at Normandy, once it was safe enough for her and her unit of army nurses to put up a makeshift hospital on ground only recently freed from the Nazis. The French people rewarded her with a medal for her heroism a few years ago, flew her to Normandy to pin that medal on her.

That vet's been to Standing Rock before.

I think it's wonderful that the grandma with the toddler asked for the prayers she did. It wasn't all that much later yesterday when my phone lit up with news service headlines about the Corps of Engineers determining the time had come to search out alternative routes. Reportedly, great rejoicing erupted at the protesters' camp. 

Maybe it was that grandma's request that registered with the Creator of Heaven and Earth. Or else it may have been the rabbi from Oregon, who told the protesters yesterday that what was happening right there before their eyes was a "battle in a greater war. It’s a war for the hearts of humanity. And the only way to win that war is through prayer," she said. "You can’t win by fighting. They can take away your gun. But they can’t take away prayer."

Today, it's still Obama; tomorrow it'll be Trump. Who knows what'll happen? After all, you can bet Trump's got money in oil.

Just the same, what happened yesterday in North Dakota was an answer to prayer. I don't know if the Army nurse was out there yesterday in the cold--I don't think so. But I do know her well enough to know that today she's rejoicing. 

And so am I. This morning's thanks is simple: peace. 

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Sunday Morning Meds--Miracles of Light

He wraps himself in light as with a garment; . . .” Psalm 104:2

I know when it came to me. I remember that morning well. I still have the photo that goes with the story, and while it holds no particular attraction to anyone else, to me it’s a reminder of what I learned that morning.

It was a Saturday, and I was somewhere north of here on the bluffs above the Big Sioux. 

Dawn was arriving and I was still in the car, trying desperately to find something, anything to shoot against. Some dawns are gorgeous all by themselves—the eastern sky a whole gorgeous palette. But others—mid-summer and mid-winter dawns especially—can be, well, boring, the sun rising from the horizon as if unattended in a sky that’s clear and undistinguished, buttery, at best.

Honestly, I don’t remember the sky that morning, but I remember my own frantic search for a setting because I ended up in the river hills, in someone’s driveway. Across the road was an open valley, some woods, and a little late fall color. The sun was just starting to bump above the horizon, so I jumped out of the car, took off running for a wood pile I’d spotted, hoping there were maybe some angles I could bring into composition. I was almost an hour from home, and I was starting to think I was going to get skunked. What I saw in my camera wasn’t much.

No matter how you cut it, it wasn’t a memorable dawn.

Then I turned back toward the east and saw the guy’s garage. A garage—that’s all. Not an old one, not something adorned with knotty, antique wood. Just a garage with plain, wide siding, neatly painted, off-white, and saplings he’d planted alongside just a year before, a half dozen at most.

When I looked through the lens, there was absolutely nothing for great composition—I swear it. I wasn’t going to make a million selling that picture, but I shot—six, seven, ten times because what I saw was somehow gorgeous: the light was extraordinary, wonderful. It spread parallel lines from the saplings over winter grasses frosted heavily enough to sparkle with life. The picture I took—and I love it—captures the soulful gorgeous essence of the side of some guy’s garage.
That morning, I learned something about landscape photography: it’s all about light. Standing just beyond the driveway, I felt as if I’d seen a vision. I had, and here it is: it’s all about light. While composition is important, capturing something breathtaking in a photograph is all a matter of light.

It took me nearly sixty years of living to realize how precious and priceless light really is—not just for photography, but for beauty itself. What is darkness but the absence of light? The night sky is memorable, not for its dense blackness, but for its pinprick sparkling jewelry, for its light. 

Every imaginative writer knows we draw a reader into a story we create with by way of the senses—all six. Want to make a character live? —don’t tell us, show us. The senses are the beginning of apprehension, in children too.

And where does our apprehension begin? Where did creation begin? In light. Let there be light, and there was. It’s all about light.

And this God, our God, takes this most gracious blessing, light itself, and wraps himself with it, as with a garment, verse two of Psalm 104 says. Want to see him? —check out his garment. When you want to see him, look at his light.

There he is now, honestly, just beside the garage.                 

Friday, December 02, 2016

Our post-truth world

I don't want to think it was always this way, but maybe it was. I'm enough of a Calvinist to believe that even our fanciest duds are filthy rags--and that the only way we wash up clean is an eternal love far beyond our means and grasp, a God of grace who stoops to conquer. 

Maybe it was always this way. Could be. Think about it: what was going on in Jerusalem a couple thousand years ago had Pilot's head spinning. "What is truth?" he asked Jesus. Ever wonder what tone of voice he used? Was he pleading? sincere? I don't think so. I think he was exasperated. That overheated crowd of choleric Jews outside his window made no sense. "What the heck is truth anyway?" he might well have intoned. "Sheesh." 

Maybe lying is a constant we've always lived with. I'll buy that. 

But it sure seems that right now there's more of it. 

After all, the people who create Oxford dictionaries determined that their Word-of-the-Year this year is the hyphenated rookie "post truth," an adjective to which they've given this meaning: "relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief."

This year, they say, that yearling word created a life all its own. 

Now to those of you who believe that what I'm saying is just the prelude to some "dump Trump" effort, Oxford had more in mind, specifically a 2000% rise in the use of that word "in the context of the EU referendum in the United Kingdom." They also mentioned the U. S. Presidential sweepstakes.

Hillary's about-face on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreements, supporting them as models for opening markets around the world before the primaries, then doubling back and stomping on them once she realized Bernie was painfully close to taking out her achilles tendons--that's vintage post-truth too.  

And what are we to make of former Presidential candidate Mitt Romeny. Just six weeks ago, Donald Trump was "a sniveling coward," and "a serial philanderer" as "entertainer-in chief." Little more than a month ago, he was "a con-man"; yesterday, Trump was the man who can lead America "to a better future."

But the President-elect himself is Prime Minister of the post-truth world. After the election he tweeted that millions of people in this country voted illegally--millions. When all kinds of people, Republican and Democrat, laid bare the silliness of that claim, his staff put out a 42-page catalog of facts that proved nothing at all but supposedly documented the truth of his word. It failed. Our President-to-be flat-out lied.

Maybe you've seen the CNN segment in which Allison Camerota asks a gallery of long-time Trump supporters about the election. Incredibly, they simply repeat the President-Elect's allegations, convinced they're right--millions of people in this country having voted illegally, all of them, one would suppose, for Hillary. When Ms. Camerota asks them where they heard it, they said, simply, "the media." 

And when they insist President Obama had deliberately and specifically instructed undocumented workers to go to the polls and vote, the CNN panel claimed they discovered that he did it on-line. 

Allison Camerota couldn't believe it. "Where?" she said. 

"Just google it," one of them insisted. 

This old Calvinist finds that scary.

Yesterday, one of the President-Elect's long-time surrogates told a panel on NPR's The Diane Rehm Show that there's a whole new world order right now: “One thing that’s been interesting this entire campaign season to watch is that people that say facts are facts. They’re not really facts,” Scottie Nell Hughes said. “It’s kind of like looking at ratings or looking at a glass of half-full water. Everybody has a way of interpreting them to be the truth or not true. There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts.”

I guess that's the brave new world. 

What the heck is truth anyway, right?

Thursday, December 01, 2016

What Ms. Parks did in 1955

One can only imagine how annoyed white folks were on the bus that afternoon. After all, it was the end of another working day and nobody was making all that much money. They were all tired and weary, and a bunch of them had no idea what was on tap for supper--they'd still have to figure it out once they got home. "Get out of work and get on the bus and get home and put your feet up," was just about all there was to it that afternoon, 61 years ago today, in Montgomery, Alabama.

I'm betting no one even saw her get on, none of the white folks anyway. Why should they notice. They were busy, had their own heartaches, they're own crappy stories. They didn't need any colored woman's problems that late afternoon. 

Some of them didn't even like the pushy driver. He had a history of pissing people off--black people especially. Some people just got airs, you know? Some people aren't content with having it their way; they just want to do nothing more than poke a sharp stick in the eye of someone else, like that colored lady especially. She wasn't breaking any law sitting in the middle section. The whole world knew it was "first come, first served." Stupid driver.

And, sure, it would have been right for that white guy to just give up the seat that lady had. After all, he was younger and she had a hard day too that day. I mean, you could see it on her face. She was beat, and he didn't have to make a point of lording it over her the way he did. The way most of the people on the bus saw it that morning, there wouldn't have had to be a dust-up, no arrest for pity sake. The whole mess simply wouldn't have had to happen.

And,  yes, she could have moved too. The other Negros sitting beside her had moved after all, when that pushy driver commanded them to. And he didn't have to yell at her that way either, if the truth be told. He could have just said it kindly, not screamed. He's an ass really, and I don't mind saying it. That driver is an ass. He bears responsibility for the whole bus boycott thing. Why can't we all just get along?

If I were some white guy from Montgomery, circa 1955, there's a good chance that's what I might have thought and how I might have thought it.

Sixty years later, we've made a hero out of Rosa Parks, even a Christian hero. People today claim say she emitted some kind of "Christian glow," a mystic presence so moving even white people in Alabama saw it, a kind of aura. Even if they're wrong about the glow that day, it makes little difference because she's become what we've made of her, a saint. Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a younger white man and thereby broke the back of certain kind of segregation in the Jim Crow South. 

She did it all alone and without violence. She did it without saying much at all. She took it upon herself to stand up for justice she saw violated every day of her life. That day, 61 years ago, she simply told herself and that bus driver that she wasn't going to take it anymore. She insisted on staying right there where she was. 

And that's what started it all.

Sometimes white people like me don't realize or remember what a bother Rosa Parks must have been, what a squeaky wheel, what an "agitator," my father's favorite word for Dr. Martin Luther King. Before he died, I should have asked him whether he'd changed his mind about MLK; it would have been a tough question, I'm sure, one he might not have wanted to answer. 

People like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King upset things, got people riled up, raised cane, made trouble, put things off track when all any of us wanted was to make a living and provide for our families. White people just didn't want to be bothered by black people's problems, not when they had their own. Turn on the news and what do you see but people in the streets when they ought to be at work. That sort of thing.

"Black Lives Matter" gets tiring, doesn't it? Sometimes you just want to tell 'em all to go get a job somewhere--go home and make a family or something, make something of yourself. It's such a bother, such a mess. I know the feeling. Besides, this is America, land of the free, home of the brave, a Christian nation. 

Sometimes we laud heroes and forget what made them heroic. 

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Morning Thanks--My own first noel

Truth is--and I'm proud to say it--my wife's gift is somewhere in the mail. I'm way ahead-of -time on that one. And it's a dang good choice. Not only that, but this year she's not going to know what it is before Christmas because I'm keeping my mouth shut. She's not going to know until she opens it and it's nothing she asked for, so in every way it'll be a surprise, and that's rare and that's good.

But I haven't thought much about Christmas.

There's a tree planted--so to speak--in one of our garden boxes just outside my window, a nine-foot reject from my daughter's attic. I put it out last week already, and it blew down the first night so I piled up a bunch of boulders beneath it, stuck in some stakes and wired it back up.

Hope springs eternal. 

I can't imagine that prairie winds won't tame its temerity--and mine. The lights are bad, all green with an odd white girdle. I've got to do something about that, if the old thing stays up.

That little candelabra up top stands in my window down here, an old plastic thing from the 40s, I'm sure. But its age and history make it priceless. It belonged to my wife's grandparents, and I'm blessed to have it down here next to me. She put it up a week ago already. I love it. Isn't it great?

That does it, really. Upstairs, there's a wreath on our front door and a few things around, here and there. There'll be more, I'm sure. We've got ourselves a tree the day after Christmas, but we haven't decorated yet. That'll get done.

We're not big Black Friday people, never have been and probably never will be, so that passed largely without notice.

What I'm saying is we hadn't done Christmas yet, not that we're off to a late start. We'd had a first snow, but still--it wasn't even December. I didn't think we were far behind.

And then came Sunday. The church up the road was full of Christmas trees. Someone spent serious Saturday time getting the sanctuary Christmasy. It was nice, but no big deal.

But then the organist started in on a prelude-- "The First Noel," and when she did she just about took my breath away. Simple old carol, no huge chancel organ, no inspiring cathedral, no Mormon Tabernacle Choir--just a few bars of "The First Noel" and I got planted far more sturdily than that shaky nine-foot tree outside, right there in the heart of Christmas. 

No precious old stories rise mystically from the bars of that old hymn. I didn't flash back to a living room moment long ago around a tree or the Christmas Eve my parents hid a J.C. Higgens 26" bike, with streamers, behind the couch. Nothing like that. In church on Sunday morning, in that quiet time before things really start, it was just the idea--"the first noel," no caps, no upper case, the old hymn became very much my own carol. And it was good. It was very, very good.

Advent, I know, is supposed to be all about waiting, but right then I felt far less anticipation than deliverance. It's been rough on everyone, this whole election season, very difficult. We've all taken a beating. I have, and it's still not over. 

But Sunday morning in church on the chorus of that old carol--you know, when the line reaches way up for a moment?--right then, my heart broke into its own"The First Noel" because once upon a time in a old town barn outside a cheap hotel in Bethlehem, an unmarried girl, little more than a child, tired and beat from travelling on a donkey, gave birth to a King who still last Sunday made all things new--old candelabras, reject trees, and beat-up pilgrims.

All of that in just a few blessed bars from the chorus of "The First Noel." This morning, this brand new Christmas season, I'm thankful for the first noel.