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.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Sunday Morning Meds--Our telltale hearts

You have set our iniquities before you,
our secret sins in the light of your presence.”
Psalm 90:8

I don’t know why, but I’ve always thought of Edgar Allen Poe as “junior high-ish.” Even though I taught American literature for thirty years, I never knew what to do with him. He fits on a standard Am Lit curriculum like an elegant barnacle. Is “The Fall of the House of Usher” a study in unremitting madness, or, simply, as some critics have often claimed, “an elaborate way to say ‘boo’”? I don’t know.
“The Tell-tale Heart” may well be his most famous yarn.  A delusional man-servant murders his boss and covers the crime perfectly. Yet, he’s so wretchedly haunted by what he’s done that he confesses, as a means by which to end the horrifying echo of the old man’s heart in his own demented mind.

Remove the 17th century details from Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, and you’ve got the same story. How about this?--set it in 19th century Russia, and title it Crime and Punishment. Tell the story in apartheid South Africa, and you have To Late the Phalarope. I’m sure I’m missing a dozen or more cousins. Same story—right?  Maybe. Maybe not.

Years ago, I judged a junior high forensics contest in which kids gave memorized readings; one of them did “The Tell-Tale Heart.”  The performer did well but scared no one. Mostly, he got giggles. Nobody used Hawthorne or Dostoevsky or Alan Paton that day; but if someone had, I’m betting no one would have giggled. That’s why I can’t help but think there is something somewhat “junior high” about Edgar Allen Poe.

Just as there is something somewhat junior high about a verse like this one—at least, in the way an idea like this has been manipulated by believers throughout history. “Beware—your secret sins will find you out.” Or in my own faith tradition a half century ago: “What if Jesus returns and find you in the movie theater?” Shudder.

Fear has always been an effective, if temporary, motivator. Somewhere I read that adolescent boys have fleshy sexual fancies about dozen times per hour, on average. I don’t doubt it. I was such a character once myself. Tell a junior high Christian boy that Jesus knows his secret sins, and you’ll get his attention.

But some of us don’t have as much of that kind of steamy seamy-ness, nor much of a criminal record—and I’m not bragging. My testimony wouldn’t inspire anyone around a campfire, certainly not a TV producer. Any memoir I’d write would be woefully short on narrative drive. I’m nearing seventy, and the burden of my sins would be filed under “Spirit,” not “Flesh.” From Hollywood’s perspective, my story is not going to spin turnstiles.

And yet this verse holds some fear for me—especially if I think about it in a, well, fleshy way. To be buck naked before God almighty gives me the bejeebees.  To imagine him seeing me, inside and out, 24/7, claws at my guilt. I’m not haunted by the heartbeat of my latest, sorry victim like the terrified murderer in “Telltale Heart,” but when I imagine myself splayed before the God of love, I can feel the jagged edges of my very own pride. After all, I know very well what I want. I know where number one ranks in my daily to-do list. What’s worse, when I think about it, as I am doing now, I remember all that arrogance is hugely set already in his perfect presence. Do I believe he doesn’t know?

And that scares me. Which it should. And I’m long, long past junior high.

Historically, the sins of the spirit have always been considered deeper and more vile than sins of the flesh, probably because they’re not front-page material. Even I don’t bother to read that kind of story, maybe because it’s my own.   

Friday, August 26, 2016

Morning Thanks--God's little cheerful dog

Cheerfulness is a sign of a generous and mortified person who forgetting all things, even herself, tries to please God in all she does for souls. Cheerfulness is often a cloak which hides a life of sacrifice, continual union with God, fervor and generosity. A person who has this gift of cheerfulness very often reaches a great height of perfection. For God loves a cheerful giver and He takes close to His heart the religious He loves.   
Someone once asked Nelson Mandela, whose years in prison reached despairingly close to a lifetime, why, when finally he was released, he wasn’t more angry. “If I thought it would be useful,” he said, reportedly with a smile, “I would have.” A generous spirit, he'd determined, was more blessed and more useful.

Cheerfulness seems to have been a way of life for Mother Teresa. It had to be, for even that immense recognition given to her and her work late in her life was difficult for her accept. She always claimed to dislike crowds and felt uncomfortable with the adulation showered upon her. She loved nothing more than returning home quietly after meeting with presidents and potentates and even the pope.

Still, what she found back home in Calcutta was ever more of the dying. She ministered to the lowliest of the low, the most despised of the despicable—the poor, the infirm, those approaching death alone. Her terrain was the torn edge of our existence, the seam where life slips painfully into darkness. The landscape she loved was the beaten shroud of human suffering. The faces she looked into were beautiful only because she saw in them the very image of her suffering Savior.

And yet, impossible as it may seem, she often felt herself despised by God, forgotten, left behind, alone and terrified that the Jesus she so loved had no time for her, her pains or her triumphs. She was, as some call her, “the saint of darkness.”

Even so, throughout her life, there is this persistent cheerfulness, an effervescent sense of humor that could, at any moment whatsoever start any size audience to double-up in laughter. "The saint of darkness" was somehow radiant with light. 

Some of all of that emerged from her belief in providence, in God’s often incredible and sometimes cagey sense of humor. “Three days ago,” she once wrote her Archbishop, “we picked up two people eaten alive with worms. The agony of the Cross was on their faces.” She says they proceeded to make the two of them comfortable, when one of them, the old man, asked for a cigarette. “How beautiful of God,” she says, because “in my bag there were two packets of [the] best cigarettes.. . .God thought of this old man’s longing.” 

In her much heralded acceptance speech in Oslo, Mother Teresa told a story she’d often related elsewhere. She was asked, she said, by a “very big group of professors,” to “tell us something that will help us.” She told them, in response, simply, to “smile at each other.” 

 One of her learned audience must have been a little skeptical. “Are you married?” he asked. “Yes,” she told him, without missing a beat, “and I sometimes find it very difficult to smile at Jesus because He can be very demanding.”

Once upon a time she confessed to one of her spiritual directors that she simply lacked the wherewithal to accomplish much: “I can do only one thing, like a little dog following closely the Master’s footsteps.” And then, “Pray that I be a cheerful dog.” 

Today happens to be her birthday. Were she still alive, she'd be 106. 

Even today, hers may well be the most recognizable face on earth, in great part because she was so much of that which she asked God to make her, just a little cheerful dog. 

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Who's out back at RiverBend (5)

Whether or not Rev. John Flute was musical, I don't know; but his name itself is multi-cultural. His father, or so says this marvelous slab of Sioux Quartzite, was Flute Player, described here as a "chief." What little I could find Dad indicates he was an early signer of treaties, maybe the 1851 Treaty of Traverse des Sioux, signed on the Minnesota River just outside of St. Peter, MN. Chief Flute Player probably didn't name his son "John"--I'd guess that naming came later, probably when John himself became a Christian.

By the way, that 1851 treaty created the Dakota Reservation, the twenty-mile wide strip along the river that became, thereby, the special reserve for the Dakota people. If I'm right about the chief's having signed that particular treaty, it was signed the same year the good Reverend Flute, the chief's son, was born.

The inscribed wooden cross at the head of the grave is relatively new, as is what looks to be some kind of votive candle holder beneath it. The beautiful stone is too. It's lovingly hand-decorated and bolted to what appears yet another slab of Sioux Quartzite beneath it. 

Look close. I'll adjust the color a bit so you can read the careful lettering more easily.

Reverend Flute died in January of 1933 ("D.O.D. 01-03-1933"), but what's perfectly clear by way of the sweet tribute of this renewed grave site is that someone out here in rural South Dakota is making perfectly sure great-grandfather is not forgotten. Honestly, it warms the heart.

In 1909, a comprehensive article in the Assembly Herald, the official magazine of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, describes that denomination's Native American mission efforts across the length and breadth of this country and includes a roster of preachers and evangelists in the church's many, many mission outposts. "Christian Indians in the Making," it's titled, and the roster it includes describes this very pastor, John Flute. 
The church at Mayasan is under the care of the Rev. John Flute. He has a large family of children whose mother is totally blind. The devotion of the girls to their afflicted mother is very touching. Mrs. Flute is a lovely character and the home is a fountain of hospitality. 
It couldn't be the children who keep up the gravesite, of course; it almost has to be grandchildren these days. But the writer's glowing admiration of Mrs. Flute's attentive children must be a trait that didn't disappear through the generations. 

There's more:
John Flute is nearly a white man in appearance. His features are fine and his smooth, silvery hair gives him the effect of some old-time German musician. Especially in prayer he seemed to lead the hearts of the people. When he speaks, the steady, wise counsel of the matured pastor is manifest. He is deeply beloved as a preacher and a brother.
And great-grandfather, we might add. 

There may well be more to the story--there always is, I'd guess. But that dear description sounds just right at this beneficent grave site. Someone really cares. That's very dear.

Rev. Flute may well have been baptized as an infant in 1851, but it's unlikely. Converts to the Christian faith existed within that newly created reservation on the Minnesota River, but there weren't many, despite almost three decades of mission work by dedicated people. The oldest Santees remembered in the cemetery at River Bend Church in Flandreau, South Dakota, are almost certainly among those hundreds who, as if en masse, converted to Christianity when their uprising failed. Even at the time, some who saw what happened claimed those hundreds and hundreds of Santees came to Jesus because it seemed to them their own gods had failed them in a war that ended almost as quickly as it had begun.

Rev. John Flute was a missionary among his very own Native people in Sisseton, South Dakota, at a time when Native missions were flourishing, churches being born and led by indigenous preachers like himself. Read over those passages about them. There's rapture in the writing style. The author is describing an outreach that's as sturdy and strong, as beautiful--and as red--as the stone a loving family proudly placed over the grave of a man whose memory is too precious to be forgotten.

Seems ironic really, doesn't it? The old cemetery at First Presbyterian, the RiverBend Church, is perfectly alive with stories.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Morning Thanks--teachers

Strangely enough, his name was Morningstar. He was, when I knew him, anything but. What I remember most strikingly was his free hour, the one class period during the teaching day set aside for planning, but used by most of us, Morningstar included, as recovery, a time for drawing a breath, teaching being what it is.

The high school where we taught wasn't an easy place to live, but then none of them are. I could well have been in worse places. It was a new school on the edge of a city growing so fast it had trouble keeping up with itself. It's newest residents had just moved, so if I asked kids where they were from, they'd answer, "Michigan," or "New Jersey," or any of dozen other states. Even though the vast majority were white, they were just about all immigrants.

Many suffered from dislocation, but most, we were told, walked out of broken homes when they left for school. Arizona, like the American West has always done, offered a new start for weary pilgrims. The point is, the high school where we taught--me and Morningstar--was full of kids with problems. I could easily have been in a tougher school, but this place was no safe haven. None of them are.

The faculty had just been recruited; the school was just that new. We were young, I remember, and I thought--and still do--immensely creative. We were energetic and bright and hard-working. I taught with people whose classroom skills were greatly impressive, people whose lifestyles, this young Calvinist sometimes considered a little questionable. It was the mid-seventies, the romance of the Sixties' revolutions were pretty much over, and American culture felt something akin to those Woodstock hills a couple days after the music died.

I honestly didn't understand why Morningstar was hired. He seemed so much unlike the rest of us. He couldn't have had more than a year or two left before retirement, and he seemed so beat up that I hated to sit there in the faculty lounge if he was there--and he was, day after day after day.

Smoking. It's hard to believe now, but the faculty lounge a smoke house back then, and lots of us smoked. Yet today, if I want to relax, I can't think of a better way to sit back and let the nerves settle than with a cigarette, even though my smoking days are far behind me.

Al Morningstar chain-smoked, a behavior so far behind us that I doubt my children even recognize the phrase. Maybe a few minutes passed--I don't remember; but in that "free hour" of his he may well have smoked a half-dozen Winstons, chain-smoked. 

And that was the image we taunted each other with. A friend of mine who taught history--the two of us used to say that if we stayed in that high school for the rest of our lives, we'd both become Morningstars. "See that, Schaap?" he'd say. "There's got to be a better life than this, man. That's what we'll be."

Morningstar, I'm sure, retired soon after; and my friend left to get another graduate degree. Today, he's retired from a position as a VP at a university in the Twin Cities. I left for Iowa after two years. Neither of us became Morningstar, working hard at staying alive in the classroom, killing himself in the process.

"Imagine what it must be like to get beat up in every class you teach," my friend used to say when we'd come out of that smoky lounge. 

Morningstar is the teacher Donald Trump's son was talking about in that convention speech he gave last month, the kind of teacher, the kind of loser unions somehow support--a classroom veteran who does nothing well except smoke Winstons. Maybe forty years before he was good, but today he's a mess. He shouldn't be teaching. Morningstar is a Republican dream. When they want to bust unions, Morningstars become poster boys.

I spent the rest of my working days in education, as did that friend of mine. We didn't leave classrooms, but we both left that school. Trump's kid wasn't wrong--Morningstars are around, people who get beat up in a lifetime of classrooms. They exist.

But what they prove too is that teaching is hard work often accomplished to the tune of a pay scale that hardly registers. The weight coach at the University of Iowa, a news story said yesterday, earns just about $700,000 per anum. I'm sure there are legendary teachers in Iowa City who still don't get six figures. 

Yesterday, my grandchildren walked away from the house, left the dog behind, and headed out to school for the first time this term--a high-schooler, an eighth grader, and a first-grader. There they are, up top the page, great smiles.

God bless 'em. And God bless their teachers too, who don't have an easy job. Rewarding? Absolutely. But often frustrating and difficult. Last Sunday at church, the preacher invited all the kids up to watch a baptism. I wondered whether that was possible anymore. Really, it isn't. Those kids went off as if shot from guns. 

Imagine dealing with them all. day. long. Bless 'em all.

I am confident there isn't a Morningstar in the bunch. This morning I'm thankful for them--all of them, all those teachers. Bless 'em.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Who's out back at River Bend? (4)

If the inscription on John Moore's grave site didn't give away the story, you could walk right by and simply assume that in 1899, when he died, he was just another pioneer settler in eastern South Dakota. He could have been a white man. "There's John Moore," you might say, the stone bearing no Dakota language or Indian name. 

But there aren't many people that fit that description in the River Bend churchyard. River Bend is a colony of people from a similar homeland just like any other--Dutch, Norwegian, German, Bohemian--with this  exception: it was Santee Sioux.

John Moore's year of birth (1826, "in Minn." the stone says) means he was about forty years old when "the uprising" began in 1862, when hundreds of Santees determined the life they were living was more painful death than dying and therefore attacked the Lower Sioux Agency near Morton, Minnesota, where food was stored, food that belonged, by treaty, to them. 

Not all the Santees drew blood. There can be no doubt that this man, John Moore, did not, a conclusion we can reach on a great deal more information than simply that he's here, that he wasn't one of those who was killed or hung or starved. We know he didn't join Little Crow and the crusaders because the stone says John Moore spent the next three years of his life--1862 to 1865--somewhere out front of a cavalry unit hunting down the Santee warriors he didn't join. 

In 1862, not all the Santee men was some stock 19th century Hollywood Indian. When the war began, more than a few had already tossed the old blanket and dressed up like the white man. They'd cut their hair and started to farm pretty much at the time they decided to come to church and listen to the missionary talk about Jesus. In all likelihood, John Moore was just such a man, just such a Santee. 

Before the war, more than 6000 Santees made their home along the Minnesota River. Two thousand of those were captured and killed, while 4000 fled either to Canada or North Dakota, where eventually General Henry Sibley, who'd commanded the cavalry during the Dakota War, hunted them down. He and his army located them finally on a hill named Big Mound in Kidder County, North Dakota. 

I don't know it's true, but perhaps John Moore was among the sixty or so scouts who Sibley recruited and sent up there to parley with their brother Santees. Some of those scouts met with their own tribal members, reps of the encampment, a meeting that finally turned into a bloody fight. 

Sibley estimated his troops met as many as 1500 warriors out there at the Battle of Big Mound, few of them armed with anything that shot straight. Sibley's force, meanwhile, was the biggest army ever to mounted to fight Native people--over 3000 well-equipped troops. 

That John Moore--or his family--wanted the line about him being a scout inscribed on the stone suggests that he was among the scouts Sibley employed to find the Santees who'd fled the Minnesota valley after the war. That he was among that group strongly suggests he was a Christian, that he'd claimed to know the Lord already before the war. 

And there's more of Mr. Moore's life inscribed on the stone. 

"Took claim in 1887," it says, "near Lake Benton. . ."

Some Santees were rewarded for their work as army scouts by a homestead plot in the state of Minnesota, where legislation immediately after the war banned all Indian people. John Moore died there, near Lake Benton, the stone says, but his remains, somehow, are here behind the church at River Bend. 

With his people. 

What isn't at all complicated about Native American history is this: Euro-Americans took most all of the land its original occupants once ruled. We did, my ancestors among them. There is no other way of summarizing what happened across the face of America. That's indisputable fact.

All of 143 years after the Flandreau Sioux put the first logs together for a place to worship the Lord, set them down on a hill looking over the Big Sioux, the story told in its ancient cemetery is more complicated than anything Hollywood ever dreamed and most of the rest of us know or can imagine. 

Someone perhaps knows a whole lot more about this man John Moore, some descendant maybe. I really hope so. Other than what's here, what I've told you is conjecture, well-founded but only presumed to be true.

Nonetheless, his stone speaks volumes, and the story it tells, like the story it suggests, is far more complex than all of us might wish it to be. 

Rest in peace, John Moore. 

Monday, August 22, 2016

Morning Thanks--a blessed cartoon

It's a great blessing  simply to be able to attend one's 50th high school reunion. Not everyone can. 

Within a year of our graduation, one of my classmates, a friend and teammate, was killed when his Corvette went head on into a ditch culvert and virtually exploded into a hundred fiberglass shards. There were no seat belts back then.

On a country road just outside of town, I remember passing that spot with a degree of awe I hadn't felt before because at that moment of my life his funeral was the only one I'd attended meant to honor the death of a kid, a kid I knew.

A number of our classmates didn't make the reunion. They were gone.

But a goodly number were there. I was apprehensive about walking in, and I'd guess I wasn't alone. Long ago, my mother had been shocked, she told us, at the 50th reunion of her teachers college class. In her endearing naivete, she'd walked into the restaurant and told the matre d' she was looking for her class reunion. He pointed her, graciously I'm sure, at a back corner of the restaurant. She shook her head. "Those are old people," she told him. What could the poor guy say? He must have told the same story for as many years.

Fifty years is a long time. Biblically speaking, we're not factory-made for a whole lot more--threescore and ten, saith Psalm 90, that stirring funeral ode Moses wrote. These days, the line requires some updating maybe because seventy, some say and I hope, is the new fifty. I was never all that good at math.

But in fifty years, people change--things sag, get round, and go bald, knees buckle, there's ear hair and jowls. Would I recognize people? How do you act a half-century later towards old men and women you haven't seen for a lifetime, some of whom you didn't really know all that well in high school's hallowed halls? Do you hug people you never would have back then? I didn't read the handbook on 50th reunion etiquette, which is why the scariest moment of the OHS Class of '66 high school reunion was simply stepping up to the door. 

Where I was hugged. That was helpful. At least I had a clue.

So here's the review. I had fun, a great time. Fifty years is no trifle. There are, all around, more obvious scars and a scrapbook of dark corners that don't stay hidden too long when you're approaching seventy and the big story is bypass surgery or chemo. I sat--stood, really--through several intense recitations of long near-death moments, events that make almost anything else in your life fade and pale, save grandkids.  I listened closely to those who'd suffered because at our age you can't look the other way when the grim reaper is close by. 

A few of were terminally ill. We heard. 

But the reunion was no dirge, and the place didn't feel like a funeral parlor. All night long, we laughed. I thought more about high school football in that one night than I have in a half century. A half dozen people called me by my German name from a German class I've tried to forget for lo, these many years. I relived a time in my life that I'd sometimes considered pretty much gone.

The reunion was over in one night, but I traveled up and back with a wonderful old friend and teammate, two long days of a trip I've taken a hundred times but never finished so quickly. The two of us had our own blessed time, a reunion in and of itself.

Time is relative, said old Einstein, and he's right, isn't he? I spent most of this weekend in a time warp, as if my life had a barely appreciable present, as if basketball games and submarine races were still my great inspiration. It was a good time, sheer romance to be back, even fleetingly, in a reunion that became a kind of blessed cartoon. 

Many, many people I know can't say what I humbly can: I have been richly blessed by a wonderful childhood and high school experience. In a way, I lived in the home of Ozzie and Harriet. 

I long ago stopped believing I could say with any exactness what the Bible means, but I can't help but think, having returned from a long and joyous high school reunion weekend, that most of that weekend I was doing what Moses asks in that great psalm about time--I was "numbering my days," remembering, valuing, counting them all as blessing. 

I can't speak for everyone in OHS Class of '66, nor for everyone who's ever attended a 50th, but I had a great time, a blessed time, for which, this morning, the time warp in the rearview mirror, I'm greatly thankful.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Sunday Morning Meds--Consumed and Terrified

We are consumed by your anger and terrified by your indignation.”

I loved it when our preacher held forth on one of the great stories in the Old Testament, Elijah’s hands-down whacking of those 450 prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel, as recorded in I Kings 18. Nothing in the OT comes even close in shock and awe.

Elijah set the whole contest up. It’d be nose to nose, the World Cup of deities—two gods having at it for the respect and worship of an entire nation. Baal’s team had first raps. The objective?--to consume a sacrificial bull, already butchered and dressed. For hours, Baal’s team pleaded and cajoled. Nothing. Not a spark.

At noon, Elijah gave the bad guys the what-for. “Maybe your god is visiting the toilet,” he jeered. Still nothing.

Some significant blood-letting followed, as those 450 Baal prophets started slashing away at themselves. Bull-wise, however, there was still bloody nothing—all day long.

Come evening, Elijah asks the people to edge up a little closer, then incites a little crowd participation when he has them douse his bull with buckets-full of water, the old man chortling a bit, methinks, as he’s very plainly stretching the odds. No self-mutilation, no conjuring, no wailing, however; because once the scene was set, Elijah prayerfully suggested that the God of Israel make it clear that he was, in fact, God.

Whoosh. Barbeque.

And all of this in a crowd of hundreds of seekers. We could scour the Bible, not to mention human history, and not find a more spectacular display of sovereignty than the searing Mount Carmel conquest God ignited before his people.

Our young preacher focused on the choice Elijah lays out in verse 21 to the idolatrous Israelites:  "How long will you waver between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him." The sermon was about choices, tough ones, the kind we all make day-to-day, even moment-to-moment. There is the straight and narrow, or the interstate. On which path are you? That sort of thing.

Psalm 90:6 is one of those verses that makes you shake when you think about it, not at all unlike what happened at the very end of this most impressive grudge match, a part of the story our young pastor didn’t touch. Once the match ends, Elijah tells the just-now-pious Israelites to grab all 450 prophets of Baal and drag them down to the river and slay them, all of them. Turn the beach into a slaughter house.

Which they do.

That’s scary. A whole host of people hacked to death, righteously. Seems so out-of-character for the God I think I know and love.

A verse like today’s rings somewhat hollow in modern life—or post-modern life. It’s not easy to see God almighty as terrifying, which may be why our young preacher didn’t touch the massacre right there in the story. 

Today, God doesn’t scare us much—or at least he doesn’t scare me. He scares some TV preachers who believe they know why God sent a flood to New Orleans or other such miseries; but for me and my house, being consumed by God’s anger and terrified by his wrath seems, well, more than a little “Old Testament,” something that doesn’t really need to be said if you’re looking to bring in the unchurched. Even that young preacher of ours wasn’t buying it totally or he have mentioned the holocaust at the river that ends the story.

Seriously, what scares me is hate and divisiveness. What scares me is fanaticism—the ideology of Islamic terrorism and the anger of the religious right. What scares me is what we all too easily do to each other and ourselves because we quite righteously believe God wants the bloody work done. What scares me is what we chase, what we dream, what we desire.

Today, quite honestly, God doesn’t scare me as much as I do.