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, April 18, 2014

"The Long Obedience"

I have to admit it. I was distracted at last night's Maunday Thursday worship service, not because the worship was somehow off-key or because I was out of sorts. We celebrated communion, as did Jesus on the night he was betrayed; and it was moving, more so maybe than ordinarily. Once upon a time I thought it was gimmicky to walk to the front of the church to receive the elements; now I think passing them out in the traditional manner is nowhere nearly as effective as our having to walk up front to receive Christ (as our Roman Catholic friends might say).

The pastor talked almost exclusively about the Passover meal, reflected on what was happening that night as Judas took the bread furtively and drank the cup with the others. The Passover itself, bloodiness and all, has always seemed a triumph of the ages to me--free at last, great God a'mighty, free at last. The liberation of God's chosen people sets hearts on fire.

There's a scene in Gone With the Wind that stretches our understanding of the great appeal of human liberation. Is it after the war?--I don't remember when it happens, exactly--but a group of freed slaves are on the move somewhere outside Atlanta, apparently unsure of where they are going and what they are to do, suggesting that freedom is one thing, but knowing what to do may well be another. 

Now Gone With the Wind has been greatly criticized for its romantic depiction of slavery, including the charge that the movie perpetuates an image that freed slaves had no clue what to do with their newly discovered freedoms.

But the story of wandering ex-slaves is repeated in a thousand circumstances, or so it seems; the wicked witch is dead, but that doesn't mean that with the next dawn life gets rosy. Get rid of a dictator, get liberated; but, often as not, old rivalries and conflicts raise their ugliness because the recently liberated, no matter how happy, have to find their way in a brave new world--which isn't easy.

Once the Berlin wall fell, I remember good Christians making the case that Russia was ripe for the love of Jesus because the Russian people were clueless about how to live in open society. With despotic communism gone, they needed to know how to be.

I was thinking about the character of Passover because David Brooks spoke so eloquently about it in the New York Times this week, in a piece he titled "A Long Obedience."  If you have the time, I think you'll find it interesting. What Brooks argues is Americans scratch an itch when we think of the Passover because getting freed mixes so richly with our national narrative. 

But there is another side to the biblical account, forty years worth, in fact. For an entire generation, a mightily generous God determined that his people needed to learn how to be a people before they were ready to alight, as a people, on the land of promise. The Pentateuch isn't always exciting reading because so much of it is the new code for a freed people, a thousand laws that require obedience. A new nation had much to learn about how on earth they were to be a godly nation. They had to learn a "long obedience."

I think Brooks has a point, quite frankly, and I'm not sure it was in the mix last night at the Maunday Thursday service--which, as I can't say enough--was perfectly wonderful. I was the one distracted. Brooks distracted me.

But honestly, He knew, didn't he?  As he sat there with the troops at the table, as he broke the bread and poured the wine, Jesus Christ knew it wouldn't be long and the whole bunch of them would desert, turn their backs on his naked self nailed to a blasted, crooked tree. In fact, they'd be gone long before he hung there.

It was being freed that He and the disciples celebrated that night, freed at last; but Jesus knew painfully that an immense price for freedom would have to be paid because he understood that those who promised their allegiance, knowing nothing about obedience, would, in a twinkling of an eye, get lost into the crowd.  

Life is a long obedience, a long and mostly often difficult obedience. 

That's there too, in a cross, this Good Friday.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Main Street empties

Once upon a time, my father-in-law says, there were more farms just outside our windows, more families and bigger families living right out here. Once upon a time, country schools dotted the townships, one every couple of miles, schools that became less viable as sections of soil slowly were emptied when people left. Those schools are long gone, but here and there some of the better ones still stand, even though they haven't been schools for close to fifty years. The rural Midwest, save for the North Dakota oil fields, sometimes feels more like an open-air museum than any kind of brave new world.

It just so happens we live in a bona fide anomoly, Sioux County, Iowa, where somehow the populace is capable of keeping its kids at home, not shipping them out like its numberless cattle and hogs. Sioux County, Iowa, boasts a median age that's among the lowest in the state, topped only by counties that are home to the state's major universities. Why do they stay here?--is a good question.

Most of the rural Upper Midwest looks as if it's lost heart, thrown in the towel--downtown businesses departed, streets and avenues gapped by emptied lots where once upon a time real families lived in thousands of tiny frame houses. 

Factors too abundant to mention created the demise of an active rural culture, and of small-town life, which is not to say such things don't exist here and just west on the Great Plains. Instead, the broad and seemingly endless place where I live is called "fly-over country."

People still live here. I do. When I die, I will have lived in small towns for a lifetime, minus four years.

I've been reading John E. Miller's Small-Town Dreams: Stories of Midwestern Boys Who Shaped America, a title so old-fashioned and politically incorrect you might wonder whether anyone will read it save those who, like me, got one free. If you like history, it's a marvelous book because it tells you more than most of us know about household names--Henry Ford to Sam Walton, Bob Feller to John Wooden, James Dean to Meredith Wilson, small-town boys who made it big in the city.

Carl Sandberg is here, a token writer (although most all of these people did some kind of autobiography), as is, as you might guess, Sinclair Lewis, a novelist who may well have done more to bury small-towns than anyone else wielding a pen. Miller claims that Sherwood Anderson was complicit in the war against small towns; Winesburg, Ohio is hardly celebratory. But no one's pen was as icy as was Sinclair Lewis's. Main Street (1920) didn't just pillory the sheer little-ness of rural folk, but pinned them (us) up before the world as if we were a donkey's behind.

Miller commends Lewis's sophisticated wit when he tells the story of Main Street, a true publishing phenomenon, "one of the most sensational publishing events of the twentieth century," he says, and he's right. What the novel features is "droll depictions of the stultifying conformism and the mindless complacency that characterized small-town living." 

And America's reading public, including many residents of its own then still-plentiful small towns, ate it up.  As did the world. Ten years after the publication of Main Street, Sinclair Lewis became America's first Nobel Prize winner, which is more than a little odd today, given Lewis's near disappearance from the canon.

Miller tries to save the man by saying that such acidic reportage was undertaken by a man who really loved what small towns could be, which is to say Lewis was bringing 'em down just to build 'em up. I don't know if I'd call that analysis sweet or silly, but I don't buy it.

He also says that that novel was everywhere, and it was.  In 1966, my high school English teacher, a woman we called "Granny Goehring," assigned it to our senior English class. The fact that I didn't read it wasn't her fault or Lewis's; I didn't do my work. I didn't feel like it, I suppose. But I don't remember reading a word--and I still haven't.  

Here it is, my own high school copy--I kept it because I defaced it, not because I didn't like the novel, but because I was a senior in high school who could care less about English class. (Not all the handwriting is mine, by the way.)

But I do wonder, now, so many years later, why Granny Goehring determined that if we were to read one contemporary novel during our senior year, it should be Lewis's bitter Signet Classic diatribe against small towns exactly like the one in which we all were living. She wasn't critical of her world. I don't remember cynicism or irony or anything less than a desire to communicate what she thought of as the blessings of literature.  

Why would she require a novel that made us look really stupid?

I'm guessing it's because, as Miller says, Main Street was a phenomenon.  And even English teachers can succumb to a real, tsunami-like phenomenon. 

Lewis isn't responsible for the death of hundreds of small-towns in the Upper Midwest. It would have happened without him or his Nobel Prize. He didn't empty our streets.

Maybe today I should read the novel. After all, I spent 40 years teaching literature, not Main Street but other Lewis novels. Granny Goehring, I'm sure, would be shocked to know I may well be her only graduate who spent his whole professional life doing her own work.

I've got the old copy right here. Who knows what I'll learn? Might be fun. Millions thought Lewis was fun. Millions.

Once upon a time Main Street was an assignment. Maybe it's time I get down to work.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Not so secret sin

A phone call from my mother years ago--I think I was in college--included other news, I'm sure, but what she said after a deep breath is something I've never forgotten, even though it was then and it remains today something of a cliche: a pastor in town had run off with the organist.  

My mother's piety created no shadows. I lived most of my life simply assuming that I never could be as holy as she tried to be, and she had lots of not-so-subtle ways of letting me know that it was, to her, quite evident.  But this scandal had her brow-beaten, even though it hadn't happened in her own church. The whole town felt sunless, darkened. When a man of God breaks trust, things fall apart, she said. What's damaged can't be mended easily, so the holy fortress around God's people felt to her somehow left unguarded.  

I may be wrong, but I think I remember her breath staggering when she told me all of that. I'm not even sure she knew the preacher. No matter. The heart of the community was staggering in an unholy atrial fibrillation. 

Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale uses the potential plight of the community as an excuse for not owning up to what he did with Hester Prynne, a lonely and vulnerable young woman who came to him in the night for love-making Hawthorne tastefully keeps in the antecedent action of Scarlet Letter. Hester suffers very publicly for what the two of them did, but Dimmesdale appears to get away with it and tells her that he really can't confess because of the moral pain the community will suffer. That's why he keeps his blasted mouth shut.

I rarely if ever stumbled on a student--especially female--who bought Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale's community-ethos excuse, and I'm not sure my mother would have either. But she would have understood what Dimmesdale argues: that him--the preacher--confessing his sin publicly would have violated trust and faith itself among the people.

Similar stories occur with such regularity that they can't really be considered news, and it's now happened again in Florida, this time to a preacher with a church of almost 20,000 members. I'm sure it happened more than once in the last month, but most fellowships don't have that many souls, and most of those who preach-and-cheat don't write hot selling how-tos about sweet and holy marriage. This man knows what God wants in a marriage. He wrote the book on it, authored a series titled Building a Godly Marriage. You can probably still pick it up at your local Christian bookstore. Stimulating reading, I'm sure. 

It's almost impossible not to say, what the hell does he know?

My mother would cry. Maybe I should.

Hawthorne found it rather interesting that phony-baloney Dimmesdale gets better in the pulpit after his secret sin, an effect which is understandable because once his own heart knows its own darkness, he speaks more vividly into the hearts of others. 

Becoming a more effective preacher is not a reason for any Rev. John Doe to look up a woman's skirt of course, but Arthur Dimmesdale becomes the finest preacher in town, gets the nod for the Election Sermon, and does it all because he damned well knows how damned he is. Seriously.

According to Christianity Today, this Florida preacher's sin created a run on his holy podcasts until his church pulled them off the web site because some sinners were already starting to use them sinfully--think, say, of Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert. But CT claims that many who were requesting the preacher's how-tos, post-revelation, still felt them current and even beneficial. Maybe even more so. Isn't that interesting?

What was true for Dimmesdale may well be true for the mega-pastor, after all. I wouldn't mind reading through his godly advice on your and my marriages, knowing that when he wrote them his heart had to be wrenched into something grotesque by his own blessed guilt. He probably wasn't lying one bit. He simply wasn't living by the principles he was telling the rest of us to take to heart. 

"How to's" sell today.  As a culture--as a Christian culture especially--we simply can't get enough advice from between the covers of the books we buy and read by the thousands. This fine Florida preacher--he had to be terrific from the pulpit as well as from the podcast--authors an entire course titled Building a Godly Marriage at the same moment in time he's screwing up his own. 


Still, what I remember best about that long-ago phone call is my mother's hurt.  Seriously.  I don't even remember the preacher's name. 

And this is Easter week, as my father used to announce at our family devotions. It is Easter week and that may well be the best reason for me curb my sharp tongue and try to imagine instead what Jesus Christ our Lord would almost certainly say about the hypocrite preacher caught in the wrong sack.  

I think I know, and this is no how-to.

He'd point gently and tell Florida's Dimmesdale to go and sin no more. I bet he would. He did it before after all.

He'd probably turn to me too, pull up an eyebrow, and say, "Let him who is without sin--." Then he'd get down on his haunches, grab a handful of gravel, and give me a lordly smile, maybe a little bit wry, because he'd know very well that I know and you know too.

Holy Jesus. When he walked the dusty streets, and when he hung there on that cross of shame, he had to be divine.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Book Review--Orphan Train

Often enough, what you read in reviews of Christina Baker Kline's Orphan Train, is that readers, totally taken by the two narratives so perfectly twined in this wonderful novel, say they simply don't want the book to end. Well, I did, not because I didn't like the novel--I did; not because I thought the novel sometimes stepped over the edge--I did; but because I wanted, so badly, for the two young women at the tender heart of this novel to find, well, sigh, happiness.

Both are orphans, both have suffered immensely, both show immense intensity that make them really compelling.  Molly, a high school senior whose been tossed carelessly between foster homes, is saddled with a public-service rap for stealing Jane Eyre (yes, you read that right) from the local library (she took the oldest copy, a worn-out paperback, and the dumb library had three anyway--how can anyone foist punishment on that crime, pray tell?). 

Her public-service hours will be spent helping an old lady clean out an attic full of life's memories she hasn't aired out for years. This old woman is not shrewish or bitchy or in the least demented, but a perfect sweetheart who, decades ago, was one of thousands of street urchins from New York City and/or somewhere out east, to be taken, by train, out to the Jeffersonian Midwest, where all the close-to-the soil farmers are saints, and sunsets glow in skies that never end. 

Well, sure.  Many of the children's very strange placements ("come to the Grange Hall on Saturday morning and pick up a free kid!") didn't, as they say, "work out." Some did, I'm sure. Christina Baker Kline, in one of her historical asides, generalizes that many of the kids ended up working in the same fashion as biblical Joseph, who was sold into slavery in Egypt by his brothers, only to become Secretary of State. Okay, that's an exaggeration.  But late in the book, Kline asserts that many orphan train stories have similar trajectories--lots of initial, pitiable, horrible suffering, but eventually a good,good life.  

Such is the story if Vivian, the child of Irish immigrant parents, a father who found it difficult to leave a tavern and a mother as brow-beaten as any one might find in D. H. Lawrence. Vivian's first Minnesota placement should have been outlawed by even the most lenient child-labor laws; her second thrusts her back into a family as sordid (no Minnesota-nice here, btw) as her own, the mother a despairing monster, the father a backwoods bloody hunter who terrorizes Vivian sexually.

The sweet, sweet irony of the story is that Vivian, the old lady, tells Molly, the second orphan in the novel exactly the medicine young Molly the goth (with a Native American heritage), needed to hear. Solomon couldn't have devised a better punishment for Molly's unthinkable crime of stealing Jane Eyre.  It's perfect.  Maybe a little too. More than a few things are perfect in this novel.

Somewhere in the John Gardner scripture of good writing he says that the finest fiction around always comes something like a fingernail away from gushing, overwrought sentimentality.  It flirts with syrupyness so seductively that we can taste it, but it refuses finally to dip itself in because sentimentality, in literature, can be a killer. Sentimentality does our emotional work for us, bulldozing us into emotional reactions when the very best writing prompts us to do the emoting for ourselves.

There were times in this novel when I heard the diesel engine of some piece of  heavy equipment telling me what to feel. More often than not, it seemed, characters were altogether too evil or too good; I couldn't be one of the faithful. I couldn't suspend my disbelief. 

That having been said, the book holds us, stem to stern, in part because of Christina Baker Kline's ability to create lively characters. Molly is really fun, a joy, despite her own clear desire to be more wretched than she is. She's Huck Finn with a nose ring, a heart of gold beneath all the trappings of her well-earned anger.  And Vivian is what Anne of Green Gables would have been at 91, still just about perfect.

Sometimes too much. Sometimes too over the top. Sometimes I couldn't help rolling my eyes.

But there's no accounting for taste. When this novel shifts gears and becomes "inspirational," it makes me wince a little.

But it's worth reading. It's mightily worth reading. Let me just say this, I don't have to type in  "spoiler alert" to suggest that, in Christina Baker Kline's Orphan Train, all's well that ends well. It's a terrific read, but not a great book.  

Monday, April 14, 2014

Morning Thanks--Calvin Festival


What makes sin, sin, or so it seems to this filthy Calvinist, is that even when I see right there before my eyes, even when it's up-close-and-personal in 24 megapixel-vividness, even when I know by tragic experience what it offers and how it'll best me, even when all of that is true, it still dances into my life looking so dang comely that I just can't turn away. Oh, I sidestep a ton of sin, but some of 'em get me even when I see 'em comin' a week away. Seriously.

I sat in a panel of old folks on Saturday at the Calvin College Festival or Faith and Writing and heard a skein of silver-haired writers, my friends, tell an audience far larger than I thought it would be how getting old offers this blessing at least: that we just don't care as much as we used to, that some of the spit 'n vinegar is gone, but then so is competitiveness, the dire need to succeed, to publish, to get reviewed, to get noticed, to have one's work out there in the upper case. What dies, they said--and I'm amen-ing all the way through--is a certain edge of competitiveness that settles down, finally, with the years, into something like C'est la vie.

I know it. I feel it. I'm old. I'm free.

But never totally, and I bring it up now, having just read, once again, some reference to Johnny Wooden's first rule of life--not to worry about being better than anybody else; instead, to strive to be the best we can possibly be.  Yes. Amen. For sure. I know. I know. I know.

It's not that I haven't heard that before.  It's not that I haven't said it before. It's hardly headline material. But it just doesn't go into the heart of darkness.

Dang it anyway. 

When I go to the semi-annual Festival or Faith and Writing, I know I shouldn't feel jealousy. I sure as heck shouldn't be coveting my neighbors ox or his ass or his book awards or splendiferous reviews. But I do, dang it. You know, Romans 7: "For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate."

Still, a day after returning, a day after leaving that personal den of iniquity, I'm thankful for having been there. It's also, oddly enough, a virtual paradise for three days, a place where swelling crowds of people, all of whom love to read, come together to talk books and writing and faith. It's not heaven, at least not for me; but it elbows its way up close, that's for sure, if I can stay away from seductions or else at least feel forgiven.

I left--as I always do--inspired and brimming with new ideas.  Not only that, I was, once again, pampered by people I don't even know who stop me as they walk out of restrooms or through crowded hallways to tell me that this or that thing that I wrote has been unforgettable.  It happens.

Yes, I coveted. I always do. Yes, the green-eyed monster rages in my sinful heart.

But still I know the joy of redemption, too; and I know it was good for me to be there; once again, a blessing, not only to me but to the thousands who attend each year, one of the biggest literary conferences on the continent, if the not the biggest--and all over the place, believers too. This morning's thanks are for a inspirational weekend on the campus at Calvin College. Once again. 

Now if I could just rid myself of sin. I'm still working on that one.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Sunday Morning Meds--Covenant deal-making

Commit your way to the LORD; 
trust in him and he will do this. . .Psalm 37

My kids went to Christian schools, and so did I.  So did their mother.  Christian school was—still is, for that matter—a significant part of the faith tradition in which I was reared.  I hope my children are continuing in that tradition, not because it’s a tradition but because I still think teaching children—even college students—that this world belongs to God is the foundation of the very best way to learn.

I’m preaching.  Sorry.

At the core of my faith tradition lies something people have called “covenant theology,” an idea that is rooted in the Old Testament covenant:  if you will be my people, I will be your God.
Historically, I share the theological heritage of the 17th century American puritans; our part of the Christian mosaic is historically called “Calvinistic.”  My heritage in the Christian faith isn’t Roman Catholic or Lutheran or Anabaptist; the theological principles of my heritage come from the theology of John Calvin.
Perry Miller, the great American Puritan scholar, makes the point somewhere that covenant theology (the Puritans called it “federal theology,” but it’s the pretty much the same idea) really spelled the demise of the Puritan theocracy because it made God, well, understandable.  If one lives by the promise of covenant theology—if I’m good, he’ll be good to me—it’s almost impossible not to believe that we aren’t the architects of our own righteousness.  It’s a swap, right?  If I’m good, I’ll get a Christmas present.

You may not have noticed, but today’s verse, as well as yesterdays (and the promise of tomorrow’s too), is a promise:  “if we do good things, God will do good things.”  Listen to them:  trust in the Lord and you’ll live well; take joy in the Lord and he’ll take joy in you; and today—commit to the Lord and he won’t let you alone.  Each is propositional—your joy is contingent on your faith.  It’s up to me.

I think Perry Miller was right.  It’s not at all hard to get the sense here that we control our own destinies, that we devise the plot lines of our lives.  If we love him, he’ll love us.  If we do good, we’ll get the goods we need.

But then Job comes along to foul things up.  We’re reading the story right now, my wife and I.  In our world there’s no end to suffering.  I know a warm family of believers who, right now, as they greet the morning, know all too well that one of the kids is gone, dead. 
I’m a hearty believer in covenant theology.  I take the Lord seriously when he promises what he does.  I’m thankful my grandchildren are in Christian schools.  I believe that my striving for good—that my writing these words—are part of what I owe to my Lord for his inestimable gift of life eternal.

But I honestly don’t believe that my writing these words—or my grandkids going to Christian school—guarantees anything.  Seems to me that the Christian life isn’t the stock market; we don’t go to the bank with our faith.

But God will bless.  I know that.  I know that because he does.  Now.  Right now, in fact, as I write he blesses.  As I live, he blesses.  As I babysit this afternoon, he’ll bless me too.  But he doesn’t bless because I’m writing these words or babysitting.  He blesses us because he loves us.

Blessed be his name. 

Friday, April 11, 2014

Splendor in the grass

Last night, for the first time, I saw something emerald emerging from the countryside. It's been the world's longest winter out here, and it's hard to imagine anything that could have sung such sweet music to my soul than the lightest, palest sheen of spring green.

Garrison Keillor featured this Wordsworthian poem on Wednesday, a paean to spring.

Darlingly fitting. 

Written in March [well, April]

The cock is crowing,
The stream is flowing,
The small birds twitter,
The lake doth glitter
The green field sleeps in the sun;
The oldest and youngest
Are at work with the strongest;
The cattle are grazing,
Their heads never raising;
There are forty feeding like one!

Like an army defeated
The snow hath retreated,
And now doth fare ill
On the top of the bare hill;
The plowboy is whooping- anon-anon:
There's joy in the mountains;
There's life in the fountains;
Small clouds are sailing,
Blue sky prevailing;
The rain is over and gone!

If I were Wordworth's teacher, I'd have to change rain to snow in that last line, but to heck with editing--all around, life is returning.