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, July 27, 2016

Morning Thanks--What history does

When in fact it's all said and done, I don't know that it makes much difference. There's no erasing the outcome, no deleting what actually happened, no second chances coming round the bend. What did happen can't be somehow reversed, and the horrifying death toll still stuns us today. In the Great War had 10,000,000 casualties. I didn't write out the number. I wanted you to see all those zeroes. Because they weren't.

An article in the latest Smithsonian, an article titled "Battle Scars," works hard to dispel myths we've lived with and passed along for a century--to wit, that the real dunderhead, the man on whom many millions of those casualties can be blamed is a Brit General named Haig, Sir Douglas Haig. 

On July 1, 1916, 120,000 British troops rose up out of their trenches and struck out for "no man's land" and the German lines just beyond. What they ran into is a form of technological warfare no one reckoned with, something called "the machine gun," a weapon that begat terror and death like nothing ever seen before. One chaplain wrote his wife on July 4: "Nobody could put on paper the whole truth of what went on here on Saturday and during Saturday night, and no one could read it, if he did, without being sick."

Thousands died. What people still call "The Great War" was a muddy slaughterhouse. When the Brits just kept coming in the face of fire that came from German lines, each machine gun capable of firing almost 500 rounds of ammunition in a minute, the Germans thought the English had gone crazy: "The English came walking as though they were going to the theater or were on a parade ground," one German soldier remembered. One Brit company had an 89 percent casualty rate.

For that carnage, historians have blamed Sir Douglas Haig, one influential article calling him "The Worst General."

But Andrew Roberts claims we've been wrong. Recent scholarship, he says, has presented "a new view of Haig and his commanders: that they were smarter and more adaptable than other Allied generals, and swiftly applied the harrowing lessons of the Somme."

Most Americans, Roberts says, claim John J. Pershing, the American general, as a hero because the late entry of the American fighting forces appeared to end what had dragged on in endless bloodletting for four long years. Pershing brought in the Yanks and cleaned the mess up, or so we tell the story, Roberts says.

But Roberts says research clearly shows that it was Haig who determined immediately that old-line battlefield maneuvers were deadly, that tactics, new tactics, had to be improvised and utilized to stop the carnage created by what Brits began to call "the Devil's paintbrush." 

"Despite the British example," Roberts says, "Pershing took an astonishingly long time to adapt to the new realities of the battlefield, at the cost of much unnecessary spilled American blood."

My great uncle among them.

Edgar Hartman was killed in France, on the battlefield, in August of 1918, just a month after he arrived in Europe from a little Wisconsin town where he may or may not have ever fired a gun. He was one of 115,000 Americans who died in the Great War; 200,000 were wounded in less than six months of military action.

Before American forces had arrived, a fact-finding mission had been sent over to France to look over the situation on the ground. They had made clear that American forces needed twice as many guns, and especially "medium-sized field guns and howitzers," Roberts says, "without which the experience of the present war shows positively that it is impossible for infantry to advance," so states the original report, "the bayonet is as obsolete as the crossbow."

Pershing wasn't buying it, and as a result thousands died when we entered the horror.

Was Uncle Edgar adequately prepared? Mostly likely, no--but then no one could be, really. Was he cannon fodder? Probably, but in warfare, many are. In our own finest hours, we call what he did sacrifice. Disillusioned WWI veterans--and they were legion--called it something else. Battlefields in WWI were little more than graveyards.

Who cares? Can Uncle Edgar's descendants, me among them, prepare a law suit against the great-grandchildren of Gen. John J. Pershing?  Is anything that Andrew Roberts says in "Battle Scars," any new research he has discovered ever going to bring Uncle Edgar or ten million (10,000,000) human beings back to life? Of course not. 

So who cares?

I do. The truth won't set us free from the fact that somewhere just outside of the Ville Savoy Uncle Edgar's blood was spent in a war effort he hadn't even been part of long enough to know or understand. The truth doesn't set us free from the fact that he never returned. 

But history has meaning, everyday meaning; and we'd better listen because we call those who have lost their memories, their own history, senile. Even if Pershing's hopeless battlefield conservatism led to deaths that didn't have to happen, it's important that we know the truth, that we remain thoughtful and vigilant so history doesn't repeat itself, as it does, when we don't.

I'm grateful this morning for knowing more than I did yesterday about the death of a man I never knew but would have liked to.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The sermon on Hwy 75

For a time at least, the Schaaps--me mostly--toyed with the idea of keeping rabbits out back of the barn. Our kids were just kids when I saw a hand-painted sign along the highway--"Bunnies for sale"--at a farm somewhere east of Doon. I was looking for Dutch bunnies, those darling belted ones, little miniature things you couldn't have shot in your garden even if they'd just finished off the entire crop of lettuce. 

That's why I stopped--to look at bunnies. I'm quite sure there were two little Schaap kids in the car, so I rolled into the yard of a farm family I didn't know at all when I saw the sign.

They weren't Dutch--the rabbits, that is. The woman who came out to talk certainly was--and of the Calvinist variety. Didn't take long and I left without buying bunnies; what they were selling were your garden-type variety, not sweethearts like the one up top, and believe me neither was she.

What I remember yet today every last time I pass that farm place is that she'd read a book of mine, my very first, in fact. She told me she'd just read it and she somehow recognized me as the author. I was thrilled. 

But she didn't like the book and she made it very clear she didn't. I can't resurrect the conversation--it was a Jeremiad--but I know its genre. She was convinced that books like mine were an abomination, so convinced that her assault minced no words. 

Honestly, I don't remember why she was so angry. There isn't a dime's worth of sex in that book--a collection of tales about Dutch immigrants to the rural Midwest. There was maybe a nickel's worth of foul language, but just about all of it was in the same Dutch language this farm wife, or her husband, might well have spit out loading hogs.

What I remember of that moment was shock, not only because she was so almighty unpleasant, but also because what I thought I'd done with that book was tell stories Dutch-Americans from her neigborhood might well enjoy. It was the era of Roots, and I thought every tribe and nation--mine especially--would appreciate at least something of their own Kunte Kintes. 

But in her brand of Calvinist mind and soul I was dead wrong, and she let me know it. 

I've never forgotten that trip to the woodshed. Every time I pass that farm I think of her righteous hectoring. I don't remember her face or her words, but I remember knowing that I had just met the kind of dour caricature Dutch Calvinist the rest of us have prove we aren't, someone so convinced of the darkness all around that he or she actually delights in misery.

That was almost forty years ago. Yesterday I had to read stories at a Bible League gathering, so I was driving north on Hwy 75 when a half-mile up the road a car turned out of her driveway--red car, sporty thing. I couldn't help chuckling that it could be that woman, forty years later, driving right out of my own bad dreams. The story came back once again, as it always does, less in pain than amusement.

She was going north. I was a car behind her. 

Ten miles up the road, she turned off the highway and down the street of the church where I had to speak. Then she slowed at the parking lot, and I followed her in. Both of us looked to park in shade. I parked in the back, she didn't. I got out of my car, walked past hers and into the church. She was going to be there in church.

I didn't look at her--I wouldn't have recognized her anyway. But I was sure--still am--that she was the righteous scourge who came after me, teeth bared, almost forty years before. 

I did well yesterday afternoon. That doesn't always happen anymore, and no one understands when it doesn't better than I do. But both stories I had chosen for the Bible League were the right ones, and I think I read them well too. The people--all of them women--laughed at the first one, laughed in a way Calvinists aren't supposed to; and they were moved at the second story too. After a hundred readings like the one I did yesterday afternoon, you come to know when you win and when you don't, and yesterday I won.

But when I went back to the parking lot, I couldn't help seeing that sporty red car that'd come out of driveway of a farm place that once had bunnies for sale. I couldn't help wonder what that woman thought, whether she remembered chewing me up and spitting me out right there in front of a cage of bunnies years ago, my own kids in tow. I couldn't help wonder whether it pained her to have to listen to that guy whose book she hated so long ago, whether she wondered why on earth the Bible League ever asked me to read stories anyway. 

One woman walked out during the second story I read. Maybe it was she. Then again, maybe it was only someone who needed a restroom.

And maybe she didn't even remember me. The bunnies were a long, long time ago.

But I want to say that I remembered. And I wondered what she thought or said when, around those tables, those women started talking after I left, and one of them might have said, "That Schaap guy can sure read a story. Wasn't that good?" I couldn't help wonder what she'd said. I'd have paid to listen in. 

If you're wondering, there is no sign any more. There are no bunnies. I'm sure her kids are grown, as are ours. We don't have rabbits either, except the ones in the garden. 

Things have changed. They always do.

Then again, I'd like to think that maybe she enjoyed the whole thing. That'd be nice. I'd like that.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Obama the listener

Mr. Norman Brown, Hyattsville, Maryland

I don't listen to Fox News, but the Washington Post claims no one, not even the President's sworn enemies, have said much about Obama's penchant for releasing prisoners, granting clemency. It seems he does it wholesale, and, oddly enough, no one--not even Hannity--raises a stink. 

The Post claims no one cares. They claim the widespread distaste with the fact that we have so many more men and women in prison than any other country, free or not prompts people to let the open prison doors go. Mr. Trump may well aspire to Alexander Putin-type powers, maybe claim the title of being "the law-and-order" President; but the truth is, crime is way down in America, despite people's fears or perceptions. 

Still, numbers of released convicts are amazing. "To date," the Post says, "President Obama has commuted more sentences than his seven predecessors combined." Perhaps Trump hasn't seen the numbers. It's surprising he didn't use it in his doomsday acceptance speech.

The story in yesterday's Post was rich. Reporters interviewed a dozen of Obama's commuted felons, asked them how their lives were going. Some said not good. Some reported pure joy. Most made it clear that just being out is no picnic in the park, given laws that apply to convicted felons. Some are unemployed, but some have jobs. All are happy to be out. 

But I admit to being surprised at how many of them were having real trouble starting another life. I guess I see people bounding out of prison into the arms of loved ones who help them back to once stifling jobs that now, given what they've learned, are perfectly fulfilling.

Not so. 

Norman Brown, of Hyattsville, Maryland, convicted drug dealer, happened to mention something that seemed striking, if for no other reason than I'd not heard it before either. It seems President Obama asked several of his commutees to come to the White House to talk with him about their lives. If that was a photo op, it didn't make the news. 

"President Obama," Brown said, "he wanted to listen."

Brown went on to talk about how he'd thought some of the men's concerns had already begun to change as a result of that meeting, but I found that single line to be so incredible that I want to repeat it just to savor it: "President Obama, he wanted to listen."

It reminded me of his chat with Marilynne Robinson, the Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist from Iowa, who visited the White House at Obama's request and then for a couple of hours, answered his questions. Let me repeat that line too: "answered his questions."

This morning's news is amazing. Trump bests Hillary by five points--44% to 39% in CNN's latest poll. If anything seems clear, Mr. Donald Trump, who is not a reader, is also not a listener. 

Right now, 44% of the American voting public want a Putin. 

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Sunday Morning Meds--Dust to Dust

You turn men back to dust, saying, 
‘Return to dust, O sons of men.’” Psalm 90:3

I received a note, years ago, from a couple who claimed they wanted my help.  She was dying of ovarian cancer.  She’d kept a journal throughout her life but had continued to write during her affliction, thinking about issues she was facing immediately, issues of life and death.  She and her husband wondered whether I might help her—and them—bring something together in book form. Lots of people appreciated her e-mail reflections, they said; many urged her to collect them. “They should all be in a book,” people told them.

The cancer was terminal. Since the verdict had been handed down, the two of them—with a little help from a financial benefactor—had decided to do their own “make-a-wish” adventure and travel to places they’d always dreamed about. They’d had four kids—two of them were in college, all of them in their late teens and early twenties.  Extensive travel hadn’t been an option earlier in their lives. They’d chosen to live frugally, in a fashion they would have called, themselves, “stewardly.” 

But Sharon was dying, and there were things she always wanted badly to see, places she’d always wanted to go.  So for a year or so they’d lived like nomads, and she’d kept that journal, pages and pages long. 

Would you help us? they asked. Her reflections would make a good book, people said.

I get dozens and dozens of such requests, and it’s always painful to have to tell people that I can’t—or won’t help. I could have spent every moment of my writing life helping people with their own great stories or writing those stories myself. I could have done that and never once seen a publication or made a buck because, honestly, just about everyone has a story—everyone. No one has time to read everyone's.

But something about this couple’s story seemed especially compelling, so I told them I’d like to meet them and have a look. I did, and I took the job on. That was years ago. Eventually, the book was published.

From that first phone call to publication was a long, long time, attributable, in a way, to the fact that the project is—and has been from the very first scribbling—a labor of love.  I’m no angel and I don’t want to suggest some blessedly big heart; but to be truthful, I knew I'd never make a dime on that book; and I didn't. Neither did they.

Sharon never lived to see the publication. Her cancer took her, so the book includes her final jottings, as well as the detailed plans she’d made for her own funeral. Her lifetime of earthly musing is history, has been now for years.

Just before publication, I got an email that reported Sharon’s husband, Dennis, had cancer himself too. Not long after, Dennis died too. Lung cancer. Dennis never smoked in his life. 

A good friend of mine once told me her father, a preacher of the Word, loved to do funerals because he felt he never held people’s attention so fully and completely as he did when he read Psalm 90 with a coffin set right there in front of him. That's when people listened to the Bible.

“Dust to dust the mortal dies,” the old song says.  Not just Sharon, but then her husband too—and, lest we forget, you and me.  

The book? I have three or four copies in a box in the back room.

What is inescapable about Psalm 90 is inescapable about life: it ends, for all of us.  That’s everyone’s story: "Return to dust, O sons of men." 

And all of us do.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

The Occurrence at Delaney Street--a story (iii)

Soon our congregation outgrew even our own brand-new facility. True believers came from all corners of the city, hoping that they would be present when another such occurrence took place. Our new oak pews were full of pilgrims.

Imagine, if you will, the complete shock to all in attendance when the fourth occurrence was no more than two sentences from a woman explaining something about the role played by mythical feminine gods in the lives of some sub-Saharan tribe centuries ago. But Smithson never wavered, quickly turning the line into a kind of celebration of the universality of God. He talked about how all human beings are born with an innate God-concept, and how our need for the divine is often temporarily satisfied when we build images of our own imaginations, but is eternally satisfied only when we come to the God of the Bible.

No one in the church that day found Smithson’s ideas startlingly fresh. What made that sermon unforgettable was the effect that once again sudden and unexpected voice from outside the sanctuary had created on the service.

The fifth occurrence took place three months after we moved into our new sanctuary. A piece of African folk music whose lyrics no one understood became the occasion for a Smithson homily on finding our own unique way to speak to God.

And the sixth occurrence, equally memorable, was some male voice who claimed that politicians of old seemed driven by a sense of public good, not political expediency. It went something like this: “The early leaders were men of committed principle. They were philosophers as well as very practical people. That’s why we had that sunburst of leadership some two hundred years ago.” Smithson used it, as you can imagine, to charge us with the necessity of being strong leaders.

Let me quickly point out here that no one at Delaney Street Church is hysterical. More than a year has passed since the new church was built, and already we’ve broken ground for a new addition. Months ago already Herb Rollins determined that the voices that entered our worship so vividly were actually interview material from National Public Radio. (Herb has since left us--one of the very few--for a small Lutheran fellowship in New Hope.) The point is: no one really believes those voices belong, distinctly, to God. We all agree that what we hear is not “the word of the Lord.”

Smithson himself is, as I’ve said, very sincere. He is no charlatan. But he says, and we know, that the occurrences have made him more receptive to the motions of the Spirit. He’s more capable of departing from his text, and he’s happy, he says, with the kind of spontaneity these radio voices give him.

So we’ve made this collective and unspoken decision not to fix the sound system, even though we know, technologically speaking, there’s no mystery to the sudden interruptions of our worship. 

 And we’re growing. That in itself is proof of something, isn’t it? More and more and more people from the burbs are coming in and kneeling before the Lord. When we come into our sanctuary today, there’s real excitement, because no one knows exactly what kind of occurrence awaits us.

And yet something itches in me. Believe me, I don’t want to be a doubting Thomas. After all, why couldn’t it be that God is using our sound system for divine purposes? No one deliberately wired the system to pick up radio broadcasts (and it’s been NPR--not pop!). Besides, even if everyone knows it’s not God’s voice, who’s to say it’s not God who takes control of the radio waves at exactly the moment we worship?

Sometimes I think we’re convinced that today, in the 21st century since Christ, we cannot be oracles. Who knows but that we’re dead wrong? Who knows but that my own doubt isn’t actually planted in me by none other than the Author of Lies?

Believe me, ever since we’ve put up the new sanctuary, we’ve prospered at Delaney Street. It’s been an extraordinary experience.

But I haven’t slept well for a long, long time.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Occurrence at Delaney Street Church--a story (ii)

The effect of that first occurrence was so powerful that when, on Monday, the men assigned to control the system from the glass-front booth in the back of the church talked about getting out the kinks, Pastor Smithson balked just enough for them to put off the job.

The “second occurrence” a few weeks later was much shorter. The sermon topic that day was the dynamic nature of love. Smithson stressed how difficult it would be to be a Christian and not live in community with others. Our profession of faith, he said, needs to prompt a kind of activism. Suddenly, another male voice came over the speakers: “If you think of the true pleasures of life,” the voice said, “very few of them involve the isolated individual. Even reading is a shared activity--you are sharing with an author who has the capacity for getting into you and grabbing you.”

“Exactly!” Smithson said immediately, pointer finger raised. He never missed a beat in that sermon, whose concluding paragraphs some people can recite yet today, months later.

Something happened with the “second occurrence.” Because its place in the process of worship was so seamless, few parishioners even questioned the coincidental nature of the “radio event” when they left the sanctuary. What had happened, the collective mind of Delaney Street Church reasoned, was that God Almighty had steered a radio conversation from local station WOBR right into our brand-new sanctuary to highlight the truth. Needless to say, such special favor has immediate rewards.

The “third occurrence” was even more remarkably--probably because the radio voice was much less “fitting.” The subject of the sermon (the occurrences all have happened at approximately the same time in the service) in this case is immaterial. Smithson had trouble starting, as he sometimes does. He was looking for the right impulse, much like a pianist looking over the keyboard and flexing his fingers before beginning in earnest.

Suddenly, there came a voice, male again, this time pitched dramatically in the manner of someone reading poetry. “The blackened ash is planted as a covenant with spring,” it said, the words on a slow march, “but in its dead loins lies no life but the seed of fire.”

This was only the third occurrence, mind you, but the congregation had already become so accepting of the phenomenon that no one exhibited the least bit of annoyance. Rather, all eyes came to rest on Smithson, who understood instantaneously that this third quite unexpected and singularly elusive transmission had become, on the basis of what had happened already twice before, his text. He had to explicate because all of us, and all the new people who’d come to visit Delaney Street--and even Smithson himself--had already convinced ourselves that these transmissions were unique manifestations of the hand of God Almighty.

So, without thinking, he began to move into a detailed analysis he hadn’t planned on, delving into what he determined to be the truth of the line so almightily delivered into our sanctuary: that in this world of woe, death is always and only an end, never a beginning; only with Christ can life emerge from death. Or something to that effect. That morning, everyone in the congregation felt assured that they had been in the presence of something more than ordinary.

Tomorrow: Conclusion to "Occurrence at Delaney Street"

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Occurrence at Delaney Street--a story (i)

What happened at the Delaney Street Church is so remarkably fascinating and yet unsettling that it’s impossible to understand the phenomenon without a summary of the initial events. Please, allow me.

Pastor Smithson is a fine man. If humility is the first of virtues, one could call him a saint. He’s neither a showman nor a shaman. And believe me, he doesn’t enjoy controversy.

What’s more, the beautiful sanctuary the Delaney Street congregation recently built was not something he dreamed up. It was our doing--the congregation’s. We wanted something big and attractive, and I guess we got it. It sits, Monticello-like, on the end of Delaney Boulevard. You must have seen it on the road to the airport.

But that’s another story. What I was explaining was what is now called, almost reverently, “the first occurrence.” It happened on the fourth Sunday of our worship at the new sanctuary, and, when it occurred, the cause was no mystery at all: the new mobile mike system simply picked up some radio or television transmission. Everyone knew that. But knowing what caused the “malfunction” didn’t diminish its effect on us.

Pastor Smithson’s sermon that Sunday dealt with--how should I say it?--God’s power and magnificence and our unworthiness. He was just moving to the second point when words suddenly emanated from the giant speakers. And they fit so perfectly into the weave of the sermon that--well, what can I say? The event was mystifying, the effect miraculous.

“I don’t understand how to explain that music is beautiful,” the radio announcer said. “It’s a taste for wanting to understand why things are the way they are and where they came from.” The voice was clear and resonant and lyrical. “If you don’t have the taste, talking about it can’t give it to you. Most people, I believe, have that taste because most people are fascinated with questions of origin. Asking those questions gives us a sense of discovering exactly what kind of drama we’re actors in. I don’t know how anyone could not want to know that.”

Then the transmission stopped. Smithson paused, pursed his lips, then smiled and tilted his head almost eagerly and nodded, as if what we’d all heard had punctuated his sermon perfectly. And it did. Had he arranged just those words to be transmitted via the new and expensive sound system, he couldn’t have chosen better. That’s why no one laughed. The coincidence was enough in itself to make an atheist jump aboard the freighter of providence.

“We have this hunger,” Smithson ad-libbed. “It is in the marrow of our bones, this desire to know God. You and your neighbor too. We all deeply desire to listen to the music of the Almighty.”

Joy--how else can I express it, other than by that word? What Smithson had done was incorporate the sentiment of the radio voice perfectly, as if it were God’s own voice. That moment, “the first occurrence,” is remembered today with a kind of joy, a magic that people reserve only for things profoundly mysterious and thus almost holy. You can secure a tape recording of that sermon, but there's a waiting list.
Tomorrow: Yet more "occurances" at Delaney Street Church