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.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015


I don't know how this machine's vast connections determine I'm a Democrat. I'm not. These days, I'm more anti-Republican than I've ever been, but I've never shouldered a sandwich board for either side and probably never will. It's not principle with me, just the way I live.

But some nerd's logarithm determined that I'm more donkey than elephant, because I get loads of political mail asking for money for leftie causes, a never ending stream, in fact, from a gang of beggars that should know better. Every day, in fact. Several times. You know.

Anyway, Office 365 has now bestowed upon me a thoughtful new gift called "Clutter," a culling tool that grabs e-mails right out of my inbox, notes from addresses I've waved off in the past, then sticks those e-mails in a new bushel basket they've created and asks me every few days whether those notes are anything I had thoughts of reading.

Which they're not. Thusly, I now get polite notes from "Clutter" every three days or so, asking me to open their specially constructed folder and scan the list of mail they've so cleverly pre-dumped. Very nice of them. And it's all free.

I've clicked on a couple dozen from Travelocity and Expedia, even more from a couple of shopping sites I should have shut off long ago. But I have to giggle a little every time because whenever Clutter invites me down the road to the dump, there's always--always, always, always--some distinguished names. For instance, the President of the United States.

Click. Gone.

His fine wife.

Click. Gone.

Vice President Joe Biden.

Click, Gone.

That bald confession should bring back a ton of my conservative friends, but be warned that it's nothing personal--I just know perfectly well what POTUS and FLOTUS and Nancy Pelosi and any other crusading liberal militants want--bucks. of course. Trust me, Obama is not inviting me to a Rose Garden beer summit.

I get conservative stuff too. Those big names are even more gleefully tossed. Rince Prebus or Ounce Prevus or whatever his name is--he's even a Packer fan. No matter. Click. Gone.

My very own distinguished congressman, Rep. Steve King, probably had his own Clutter account before Microsoft sent theirs around. He deleted the POTUS already in 08, two terms ago.

But then he deleted me too--click, gone--years ago after fielding the third or fourth letter on gun control or immigration. To him, I'm what they call in big oil, a dry hole. Click. Gone.

Anyway, just thought I'd mention that maybe twice a month with nothing more than my pointer finger I delete the President of the United States. That's not as often as some of my old friends would like, but to them, I'm sure, it's a start. 

Maybe there's hope. But I doubt it. Post Boehner, it's going to get really ugly.

Click. Gone.

Monday, October 05, 2015

Morning Thanks--Autumn Leaves

One of America's favorite 19th century poems describes death as a thoughtful gentleman caller who accompanies the poet on a leisurely drive in the country that pauses at certain places as if to allow her to remember moments that shouldn't be forgotten. 

Most literature teachers would say that the reason that poem is in every high school lit book is not just the virtuosity of the poet, Emily Dickinson, but also the odd virtue of the subject she chose in that little verse--the memorable portrayal of death as a gentleman.

I don't think Ms. Dickinson got the idea from autumn, although she might have. She lived in Amherst, Massachusetts, where hardwoods must be glorious come October, glorious even if the leaves are dying, glorious because they are.

Yesterday, we walked in the almost heavenly northwoods. When the sun shines on all that approaching death, it turns a forest path into a pageant. This time of year, an autumn landscape is a horizon-wide bouquet. But sometimes I think the real beauty of the season is in still life portraits that abound--sunny day, deep woods--with almost every step you take.

The woods are full of the intimations of mortality, but what a way to go.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Sunday Morning Meds--A friend prays

O you who hears prayer, 
to you all men will come.” Psalm 65:2

The man played a significant role in my life from the moment I bought a book of his, a novel that subsequently altered the courses of my life.  To him, actually, I need to attribute most every blip that runs across the screen in front of me.  I was interested in writing before I read his novel, but when I came to the last page of his, I was sure I wanted, someday, to write books. 

Was he a Christian?  I don’t know.  He was liberally educated in the Christian tradition.  His formal education was undertaken in schools that defined themselves as Christian.  His mother was devout, ever close to the Lord.  His father was the son of an atheist, but, warmed by the joy of his wife’s faith, became devout himself.

But the real matrix of his life was the difficult years of the American Depression, the intellectual world into which he walked once he’d graduated from college—union struggles on the East coast, where he fell into company with the folks who became what we used to call “leftists,” the kind Sen. McCarthy, a couple decades later, would seek to out and purge from all government positions.  In the company he kept during the American Depression, it would have been impossible for him not be among those who were, quite simply, communist.  Many, many thinking people were.  He was “thinking people,” as proud as he was ambitious to merit that descriptor.  He loved ideas.

I’m quite sure that his own character was created by a world in which the Christian religion of his youth and education was considered scant residue of primitive notions that soon would simply disappear.  He was, without question, what we could call today, a modernist. 

Even more, he was a free thinker.  He used to tell me that the two most important writers of early England were Geoffrey Chaucer and John Gower.  He loved Chaucer, because Chaucer chased the story wherever it went, interested only in truth.  Gower, he said, wanted only to preach.  Chaucer loved every last pilgrim, including the Wife of Bath, loved the feel of dirt in his fingers, an earthiness my friend knew growing up as a farm boy on the edge of the Great Plains. 

Once was upbraided at a family dinner when an aunt chided him for sexual explicitness.  In the barn with the men later, one of those who’d been silent at dinner told him how much he loved the passage on page whatever—“when that guy and that girl. . .” 

Was my friend a believer? I don’t know. He became, in many ways, a kind of father figure, and I remember once, before he died, when he said I was more talented than he was at my age.  I’ll never forget that.

Was he a believer? I don’t know. When he was dying, his children made it clear that they wouldn’t allow any local do-gooder missionaries into his room; their father’s IQ was 150, they said, meaning he was above such silliness.

But the morning he died—and I have this from an unimpeachable witness—the nurse who was attending him noted his agitation.  “Can I pray with you?” she asked him. 

He said yes, and they did.

I’m not a universalist, and neither was David.  What he promises here in verse two of Psalm 65 is really praise to the Lord.  I know that. 

But I also know that my friend, on his deathbed, came, on his knees, before the throne.  And that fact—that story—brings me great joy. 

Saturday, October 03, 2015

The Pope and Kim Davis

After the latest mass shooting Drudge led with a story that appears to be true--the Oregon killer actually asked students in the classroom he entered toting all that firepower, whether they were Christians, then killed those who claimed they were. 

I don't want to take anything away from those who were killed, those who, after determining the outcome of the madman's questioning, professed their faith anyway. Some might even call them martyrs. 

But to lead with that story--after yet another mass killing on campus--is to major in minors. Worse, Drudge's intent, or so it seems to me, is clear: what he'd like to do is wave the flames of the Huckabee theory that pledging the Christian faith can put you at great risk in our horribly secular culture. It makes good political sense to scare Christians. Haul Sharia law into the argument, and you start tallying real votes.

If there's anything the Pope's incredible visit to the U. S. makes clear is that such theories are bogus. Catholicism is alive and well in this country, broader Christianity is too. In fact, if there's a brand of Christianity that appears to be holding its own these days, it's Huckabee's particular Bible-belt brand. Pew made very clear not long ago that church directories risk becoming as thin as Time (the magazine--remember it?) or your local Sunday paper because many who profess being Christians choose not to affiliate with any church at all.

That's overstatement. But what Pew's broad survey revealed was, in there in their lede: "The Christian share of the U.S. population is declining, while the number of U.S. adults who do not identify with any organized religion is growing."

Seventy percent of the American public considers themselves "Christian," although the second-most populace bunch don't darken church doors. That--or so it seems to me--is a church problem. The only hostility is that generated by the unaffiliated themselves. No one is prohibited. No one is persecuted. 

Except Kim Davis. I don't happen to be one of those who believe that a bust of Kim Davis needs to be placed somewhere near Stephen, the Bible's first martyr. From my point of view, she has a government job that requires her to carry out the law. She's totally and forever free as a Christian to maintain her beliefs, even to practice them and not marry someone of the same sex. 

But because she is in the government's employ, she is obliged, by law, to carry out the law. I think I understand her deep antipathy for gay marriage, but her position requires adherence to the law of the land. She is still free to accede to her conscience and walk away from the job. 

Always, the reward for conscientious objection--objection built on faith--is the blessing of a clear conscience, and rarely the right to hold a job. If I opposed the war in Vietnam and would have chosen to rip up my draft card in 1968, I couldn't fault the government for coming after me. My reward, even from a jail cell, would have been my clear conscience. 

The ungodly stink raised when it was revealed that the Pope met with Ms. Davis while he was here has still not dissipated. I don't understand that either. He's the Pope, for Peter's sake. He can and will meet with anyone and everyone, if he so desires. Shouldn't he? Aren't we all in need of grace? Don't we all covet prayers? Didn't he show in a thousand ways, when he was here, that he thinks of his mission, first and foremost, as love? 

He also met with a gay ex-student of his and that man's lover, old friends. Whether he lectured them on their sin isn't known, but all accounts seem the contrary. Should he not have met with that ex-student? Of course not.

The great blessing of the papal visit wasn't him kissing babies or riding in that darling little Fiat. The real blessing was his reminding us that what life is all about is to love others as we would ourselves want to be loved. 

That's the mission that defines the actions, including his meeting with Kim Davis. 

The real problem is ourselves. We could chant "the golden rule" 24/7, each of us could--and we'd still have all kinds of trouble living the precept.

All of us, me and Drudge and Kim Davis and the Pope  himself, I'm sure he'd say.  

Lord God a'mighty, we all stand in need  of grace.

Friday, October 02, 2015

Short Fiction--Iron John comes to Willowdale Church (ii)

Yesterday, Frank Knol, full of enthusiasm having been at a camp celebrating men and maleness, returned to his church steering committee, sure that Willowhaven Church had to change with the times. Only one member, the only woman, sort of gets what Knol is saying and thinking. 

In the second half of the story, Knol unveils his dream.

"I think we here at Willowhaven ought to dream," Frank said. "I mean, are we so caught up in tradition that we can't change?"

"What, pray tell, is the dream?" Mona said, pulling her coat up around her shoulders.

"I didn't assume you'd like it," Frank told her. "But I want you to remember how we supported you."

"Me?" Mona said.

"Women," Frank hissed. Both hands, open palms, came up in front of him. "I propose we turn the youth room into a place for men‑‑open every night. Put a neon sign out by the basement door. A couple of tables. Short beer and wine list.

"A bar?" Mona said.

"A man wants needs a place like that, a place where everybody knows his name," Frank said.

"Cheers!" Butch said.

"Yeah, Cheers," Frank said. "A men's place."

Nausea inched up the back of Mona's throat. "You know, there are women in Cheers," she said.

"But they work there‑‑think once," Frank said. "What I'm saying is that in churches today‑‑and Willowhaven is no exception‑‑there's no place for Iron John."

"I thought he went to Westminster Pres," Butch said. "He used pitch for ‘em at least."

Frank stopped, shocked. "You mean they beat us to it?"

Mona reached over and grabbed Butch's wrist. "He's talking about the hairy man," she told him.

"The hairy man?" Butch's eyebrows furrowed. "In church? We got to have a place for a hairy man, is that it? Is that what I'm hearing here?" He wasn't angry yet, but he was well on his way to being annoyed. "We ought to have a bar down here for this hairy man‑‑is that it, Frank? Is that what you got in mind?"

“For too long, men have learned about being masculine from their mothers‑‑"

"This hairy man a preacher, is he?" Butch said.

"He's not a preacher," Frank said. "He's a prophet."

The only prophet Butch knew was Billy Graham.

"He says we have to go down into that dangerous water and bring up what we've lost‑‑we've got to rescue Iron John," Frank said.

"The hairy man," Mona corrected.

"Someone here give me a break and tell me who on earth is the hairy man?" Butch said.

Frank threw up his hands. "He's locked up in the castle, and the Queen's got the key."

"Where's the castle?" Butch said. "And what on earth does this have to do with Cheers?"

"Doesn't anyone here understand?" Frank screamed. He tried, quickly, to calm himself. "That water is feminine, see, Butch?—and we have to fight through the feminine to the Iron Man down below."

"Is this a war?" Butch said. "Are we talking war here?"

Mona put her hands up over her face.

"No!" Frank screamed. "It's the feminine in us!" he said, "not them," pointing to Mona. "The woman in you," he said, turning his finger toward Butch.

"You're saying I got a woman in me?" Butch said.

Frank stopped and sat back. He looked around—first at Alan Simpson, then at Butch, then threw a token glance at Mona, whose eyes were firmly placed on the ceiling lights. "Doesn't anyone here understand what I’m saying? We're talking major cultural movements here, and the church is‑‑as always‑‑" he stared at Butch, "Neanderthal."

Mona kept her lips sealed to avoid emitting steam. Alan Simpson was petrified, and Butch just shook his head.

"I've had it with the church," Frank said. "Ten years I've come to Willowhaven, but no one ever listens to my opinions. The place is medieval," he said. "I'm serious." He slammed his fist on the cushion. "If the church doesn't get the men, it'll be the end of civilization as we know it!"

"This hairy man," Butch said, "--what is he? He a Baptist?"

Frank's eyes fell. He pulled a hand up to his face, then stood, buttoned his coat with one hand and straightened his tie. "Listen," he said. "You're supposed to be long‑range here, aren't you? This is the planning body of this church, and I'm offering you this idea. Turn this youth room into a place for men. What better place for men than a church?‑‑that's what I'm saying. Let them come down here and find what it is they're missing‑‑"

"How is it exactly I got a woman in me?" Butch said.

Frank never skipped a beat. "What I'm saying is, take the lead here for once. Let's be a church and minister to men." He stared at Alan. "I got a vision here of the church that takes hold of culture with a vengeance in its teeth‑‑"

"That's it," Butch said. "We lost this dog somewhere in the woods. I was with you during that part."

Frank Knol closed his eyes, took a series of heavy breaths drawn deeply and with great difficulty from the pit of his soul. "Butch," he said, "it's a bloody thing for each of us to have to reach into that pond and find Iron John back again." He rolled up a fist. "But it's got to be done, and we can do it. We can take it back!" he said.

Butch grinned. "Oh, you're talking softball?" he said. "I'm tired of it too‑‑Willowhaven always gets pounded in that church league. I'm tired of that too."

That was it for Frank Knol. He stared, silently, at the ceiling, as if pleading for patience, then he raised his hands. "I'm leaving," he said, relatively composed. "I can't even talk to you. I'm taking my membership elsewhere." Without looking at any of them, he lifted his chin proudly and made an exit from the den of lions who hadn't so much as laid a paw on him.

Willowhaven, that night, lost a ten‑year member.

Once Frank was out of the youth room, Mona exhaled so deeply that the picture of the missionary family on the bulletin board across the room trembled visibly on its single tack.

"Did you understand any of that?" Butch asked her. "I didn't catch a word." He shook his head as if clearing his vision. "What I want to know is‑‑where on earth did that guy go skiing?"

The End

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Short Fiction--Iron John comes to Willowhaven Church (i)

Since we're on our way to northern Minnesota, I thought I'd run an old story I'm not sure was ever published because we're soon to be in the backyard of Robert Bly, who I've always admired and whose writing career soared when he came out with a book titled Iron John. I read it. Very strange stuff.

That book was (and still is, I suppose) an attempt to revitalize maleness by creating a new mythology for men, most of whom have been taking a hit since the advent of women's lib (talk amongst yourselves). He advocated some odd stuff in that book, which Frank attempts to communicate to the steering committee at Willowhaven Church. After I read Iron John, I thought it would be cool to have some heady male converted to Bly's macho faith, then try to bring that madness home to his evangelical church. 

It's strange, I know, but so is life. Anyway, here's the story of Frank Knol's departure from Willowhaven Church, a sad day.

Sort of.  

The night Willowdale lost Frank Knol, Pastor Buntz was out of town at a seminar on relationships held, of all places, in Las Vegas, so he couldn’t make the meeting. Diane (the "other woman," as Butch like to call her) had season tickets to the symphony, so she wasn’t there either. Grady Fisher was at his daughter's Girl Scout banquet.

That left half a steering committee and no quorum: Mona, owner/operator of a highly successful bridal shop in Calumet Mall; Butch, a self‑made man, a plumber with a fleet of six Roto‑Rooter trucks; and Alan Simpson, a mortician who Butch thought as short on guts as he was long on sweetness.

Maybe things would have been different if the steering committee had been operating at full‑strength. Then again, maybe not.

When Frank Knol came in, he shook hands warmly all around—too warmly, Butch thought, since the only men he knew who pumped with two hands were truck salesmen and politicians. Frank was wearing what Mona thought of as the painted smile of a circus clown.

"Folks," Frank said, "I'm here to say that I've been to the mountain."

Butch thought that was great. "How's skiing?" he said.

Frank shook it off with a smile. "That's not what I mean." He gave Butch a consoling nod. "I have a dream."

Frank Knol came to the meeting on recommendation of Pastor Buntz, who had passed Knol's proposal along to his steering committee, a hybrid group of church loyalists Buntz created to supervise what he called "the vision thing." A steering committee was an idea he had picked up during a weekend in Cleveland, where he'd scouted a blossoming mega‑church.

"What I mean is," Frank told them, "I've seen the future, and it is us."

Mona folded her arms over her chest because she'd already caught wind that Frank had been out in the woods beating his chest, bonding with other males, behavior she recognized immediately as very, very dangerous.

"Now you know that I've always supported women's issues at Willowhaven," Frank said, deferring to Mona, "and I don't want you to misconstrue the direction of this great idea."

Butch stared blankly. Alan, who sat alone in the love seat, hid behind his coffee.

"This has nothing at all to do with women," Knol said, sitting back and adjusting his shoulders. "But it is a fact that the church today‑‑in many places‑‑is proportionally heavy with women.You all know what I’m saying."

Butch didn't know what that meant, but was quite sure his wife would have thought it shouldn't have been said like that in public.

"Now gentlemen‑‑and lady," he nodded to Mona, "what I see coming is a church like the former Soviet Union's‑‑nothing but old women‑‑and I shouldn’t have to explain the repercussions of such a thing on society." He looked around, seriously. "What I'm saying is, the church has to make bold moves in these perilous times, and, Lord help us, we're in perilous times."

"The recession," Butch added.

"No, Butch," Frank said, "worse—the loss of men, the loss of manhood."

"Loss of men?" Butch said. He was trying to line all of this up with a weekend ski trip.

"That's right‑‑you see it everywhere around you in our society."

"You do?" Butch said.

"Everywhere‑‑take a good look at mainline Protestant Christendom." Frank sat forward on the soft chair and used both his hands like paper cutters. "Today, it’s all women.” He pointed a finger. “I want you to try to see it this way. A man goes into a dangerous forest and sees a pond. And suddenly a hand comes up out of the water and grabs the man's dog."

It's a horror movie, Butch thought. The guy's seen a horror movie.

"So he goes back to the castle," Frank said, "and rounds up some men who empty the pond for him. And down there at the bottom, they find a hairy man‑‑a man named Iron John."

Mona moaned audibly because she knew he’d read some kind of macho book.

"See, we've buried this hairy man—all of us men have. We’ve buried the hairy man—that’s what I’m saying."

Iron John, sure, Mona thought--she’d read a review of that book. Lots of chest-pounding around camp fires, male bonding, blood brothers and all of that. "And you think we ought to unleash the beast," she said.

"It's not a beast," Frank said. "that's where all you women are dead wrong."

Butch's mind scrambled—an economic depression, a hairy man, a beast in a castle, dead dogs, and a ski trip? What’d any of that have to do with church?

"We need a place where men can be men," Frank said, still up on the edge of his chair. "In this church, we need a place where men can help each other find Iron John."

“Iron John,” Butch knew the man, knew him well. “Sure, pot‑bellied guy,” he said suddenly. “Used to pitch for Westminster Presbyterian. Mean riser. An old guy.”

Alan Simpson coughed lightly into a soft fist, kept that pointer up.

"So what's the point?" Mona said.

"The point is that if we're running a truly alive church here, we've got to respond to the spirit of the times," Frank said. "And one of the great tragedies of the time is all about the loss of manhood in our culture."

Loss of manhood? Butch could feel his cheeks fall into a deep blush.
Tomorrow: Frank reveals his plan to refurbish maleness at Willowbrink Church.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

A new "Battle for the Bible"

I say, you can't blame Mark Galli, Editor of Christianity Today, for setting out to do what he says needs to be done. He's right, and it's a noble effort he's begun in the latest issue of the magazine (October, 2015). Christians today are all over the block when it comes divining God's will and Word in political issues especially, often quoting passage after passage in reference to and as proof of the righteous character of their own attitudes and aspirations. 

It's not hard to be blackballed, not hard to be thought of as being sinfully contrary to God's word and thereby outside the circle of his love when the boundaries are set by those of opposite political persuasion. It's easy for people from both sides of the theological/political spectrum to be considered heretics and consider their detractors the same.

What Editor Galli says is necessary among Christians is a new look at orthodoxy (lower case), a new look at theology, a new "Battle for the Bible." For the most part, what separates Christians today isn't theology--it's not Roman Catholics vs. Protestants, or free-willers vs. predstinarians. Theology has been all but jettisoned from church life, or so it seems.

That disappearance needs to end, he says.

When I was a boy, the important questions at confirmation (we called it "Profession of Faith") were drawn from the Heidelburg Catechism, the doctrinal summary most Christian Reformed elders would have considered, a half century ago, the heartbeat of our witness. 

Today, when kids (and they're often dramatically younger) make "profession of faith," knowledge of the catechism has just about totally disappeared and been replaced by "Do you love the Lord?"--a question whose best answer may seem most clearly decipherable in body language. Head knowledge is suspect. Heart knowledge is what elders want to see.

What's more, most evangelical churches today act alike, think alike, worship alike. We've become vastly more ecumenical than anyone could have guessed a couple decades ago. That convergence is a blessing. But it's also a curse; it yokes many fellowships to whatever fad waltzes playfully up the street or down the block. Today, in church and in life, what's preeminent is choice--ours. 

We simply find ways to satisfy our desire to be "scriptural" by locating chapter and verse to substantiate what we already have determined to be true.

I couldn't agree more with Editor Galli:
We understand the temptation to talk about the Bible mostly in terms of "what it means to me" and its "practical application to daily life." But when this hermaeneutic dominates [italics his]--as it does today--Christianity becomes little more than self-help therapy. And it leaves people ignorant of Scripture's deeper meaning, and therefore unable to spot false teaching.
I think the world of what he's proposing, but I'm not optimistic. We don't trust in authority of any kind today, save our own. Institutions of all kinds are tottering. Power has become, perhaps more than previously, a function of wealth. 

At the same time, the internet has democratized everything. We all have our favorite websites. If don't, we create our own. We've abandoned the gate-keepers in every form of discourse. Galli's appeal is being read by a much smaller audience than CT probably had just twenty years ago. 

Then again the Bible's own immense elasticity creates what seems to me to be a far larger tent than most of us would have pitched when Harold Lindsell edited CT and (in my context) The Banner arrived every week to an audience ready to tune in.

End times? No. Don't mistake me for Jeremiah. Besides, I hope he's successful. I hope some believers get together and work out how to read the Bible because basically I think he's right. We need to learn. Once again. It's that important.

Me too.