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, January 16, 2019

Me and bad news ads

I'll admit that when it comes to this incredible machine in front of me, I mostly stumble along like some stooge, knowing only what I have to keep my nose to the digital grindstone. This Dell will do a gadzillion tasks I don't know a thing about, but if someone were to show me the brave new world I'm missing, I'd forget the route inside of a day and a half anyway. 

There's this, for instance. Lately, these ads appear with annoying regularity. Mostly they try to grab my attention in the hallowed old way of the National Enquirer, spouting juicy stuff. at the grocery counter. This particular one simply assumes I'm all agog at royalty. I'm not. Princess Meghan is fetching--I get that; and I think there's some chatter about whether or not she and her sister-in-law hit it off, but I don't need her foibles in my life so I stay away (Oh, yeah, her dad's a jerk too, right?). 

But until I swipe it away, a couple times a day ornery pop-up headlines appear in the lower right-hand corner of my screen. I didn't ask for it, but then I don't doubt some errant keystroke of mine may have given it birth. "" it says for some reason I don't know. And Google Chrome. Maybe once an hour some celebrity--just now Steve Harvey (who's Steve Harvey?) will show up beneath the same title: "Sad news for. . ." I guess "enquiring minds want to know."

I don't. 

But the approach is arresting. It's always "sad news for," or some browbeaten equivalent. Here's one:  

Never cared much for the Clintons, and I'm certainly not going to start right now. 

Whoever dreams these things up and wedges them into my daily grind wants me to push that little green button. Well, I won't. But that doesn't stop the ads from jumping up out of nowhere to bless me with their gift of sad news.

What I can't help wondering is what ad guru determined that me and a million others would click on "sad news," as if we were hungry for someone/anyone to say something really dismal about some starlet's rocky marriage? Who thinks of these come-ons anyway, and who do they think we are? 

Here's my theory. Some Silicon Valley wonderboy's logarithm long ago determined my age. Whoever did, creates these things with this premise: I'm an old fart, prone to exasperation with a world I no longer understand. He thinks I'm as useless as a cream separator and therefore get pouty, prone to indigestion and the kind of windy exhortations one hears only in the minor prophets. I'm 70 years old and a pessimist--we all are. I get these blasted ads because I'm old. If I were 19 or 29 or even 49, I'd be on a whole different listing. Maybe I'd get bosomy females, but I wouldn't get a chorus of sad news takes.

How about this?

Only old farts think much about flushing their bowls. Someone with loads of money honestly believes I'm charmed by this stuff. Someone thinks I'll click on the darkness because at three-score-and-ten, real light has gone out of my life. Someone believes I love sad news. 

Well, I don't, dang it. Bring on the bosoms. 

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

On the birthday of MLK*

To say he came out of poverty would be a stretch. His family wasn't poor, the neighborhood had standing and the house had character. His parents were by no means rich, but neither were they ever destitute. For a black man in the American South, growing up in the Depression, he and his family had a certain amount of privilege. 

As a kid, he played across the street at the local fire station, where the squad--all white--was entertained by neighborhood kids.

They went to church up the block at a place made famous when, as a preacher, he came back to lead the congregation. 

It's called the Martin Luther King National Historic Park because the whole neighborhood seems holy now. Inside Ebenezer Baptist, no one talks much--mostly whispers because his sermons changed everything really. 

That assessment may be exaggeration. After all, this isn't Charlottesville, but it could be.

And the truth is, certain aspects of the old way are gone now, never to return.

But all of that took some doing, and lots of it wasn't pretty. Millions of white Christians considered him a communist. He was trying to upend the system. One of those assessments was true. The other was created from fear and hate.

He spent some considerable time here, thought the cause worth the suffering. 

He wasn't alone.

Eventually, with his inspiration and leadership, thousands marched.

He took his inspiration from world leaders who preached non-violence. 

This is his copy;' those notations belong to him.
* First published a year ago. One additional story: yesterday, Iowa Fourth District Congressman, Steve King, who has, for years, said things most people thought racist, was yesterday stripped of his committee assignments by his own Republican party. Racism isn't gone, but many of us can celebrate that his own colleagues eventually had enough of his race-baiting.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Green Book: a review

Family of Black Man, Don Shirley, Portrayed in “The Green Book” Blasts Movie and Its “Lies”

Just in case you haven't seen it, let me say that Green Book is a marvelously entertaining movie. It's won all kinds of accolades and is an almost certain Oscar nomination. 

The story is in that ad picture above. It's the Fifties, and there's this New Yawk Italian stallion, a street tough, an enforcer, who's out of a job. As unlikely as it sounds, he gets himself hired by this super-educated African-American musician who wants to tour the Jim Crow South. A highly accomplished concert pianist, the man is an artist who deliberately puts himself in a region where rich white people delight in his Rachmaninoff but detest his race.

There will be trouble, and there is.

The story is episodic, one concert appearance lined up after another; all firmly set in America's racial history. Even though today we like to think Jim Crow is gone, racism isn't--witness our own Fourth District King. But Green Book is not just about history or racism or politics or hate. It's about two human beings who begin the pilgrimage one way, and end it another. The events of the world they experience change both of them, and there lies the trouble.

This marvelously entertaining movie has taken some shots it probably earns. Some feel it's just another story of how white people save black people, a cliche, a stereotype in and of itself. Some think it melodramatic, overdone, sappy--its travel stops deliberately underplayed to keep white audiences happy. Some claim it's just plain too cute, another Disney movie.

I loved it. Then I read the negative stuff and felt guilty that I did. 

The two men at the heart of things are instantly recognizable characters. Tony Lip (Viggo Mortenson) is a Mafia thug from a thoroughgoing racist part of town. Dr. Don Shirley is something of a diva, a Black man sworn to break through racial barriers but, by his own life experience, somewhat estranged from ordinary black folks--or their world. When the story begins, both are tenderfoots who, in the trip they take, have to come to grips with the limitations they carry but don't or can't acknowledge or even understand.

Green Book features two dynamic characters, two human beings who have to suffer before they grow. They do--both of them. Just one of the strengths of the movie is that their individual growth happens simultaneously. Their journey through Dixie hatred pays real benefits to both the white chauffeur and the black virtuoso. They both learn--and from each other.

And that makes Green Book into a human drama, not just a racial drama. And that characterization, to some, makes the movie feel like a Mardi Gras mask, a delightful smile to cover the grim darkness of American bigotry, its systemic racism. Because it makes us laugh when we should be crying, some consider Green Book to be fairy tale falsehood.

I'm white. I don't have a doubt in the world that if I were black I would see things differently, but I thought it was a terrific movie, a joy--and there lies the nature of the attack on the film: the racial problems this country faces are not a joy. 

Green Book showcases well-earned racial reconciliation. Ironically, and sadly, it has also come to illustrate the very problems it wants to address, specifically how difficult racial reconciliation actually is.

It's a beautiful piece of work that'll have you laughing and crying, doing what movies are meant to do. If you don't know Jim Crow, you can't leave the theater without witnessing a history lesson on what it was. 

But if you think all of that is behind us, you're dead wrong. Witness the controversy. Green Book may well be nominated for an Oscar, but don't look for it to win. 

We've not put the problems it addresses and creates behind us. That'll be some time.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Sunday Morning Med--God's language

“There is no speech or language 
where their voice is not heard” Psalm 19 

“Israel’s singer of songs”—that’s what old King David called himself just a chapter or two before he died. If it wouldn’t be for the medley of great tunes rising from every Bible printed on earth, we might think the old monarch a bit forward about his abilities. But the Psalms speak for themselves. As do the heavens, the triumphant subject of Psalm 19.

You can feel David’s poetic soul here in Psalm 19, the gift which made him Israel’s greatest singer. It’s not enough for him to say that the heavens preach God’s glory. For David’s rhapsodic sensibility, it’s not enough to sing out the joy of knowing that heavenly sermon is aired, literally, day after day. He’s on to a truly divine idea here, and the poet in him is not about to let go. He’s thrilled. He’s awed.

What he might have said in verse three is that there is no nation or tribe where the voice of the heavens is not heard. He might have said there is no city or town, no country or habitation where the sky can’t sing God’s praise. But Israel’s best singer lovingly tweaks that savored metaphor one more time and says that there is no speech or language where God’s heavenly word isn’t there just for the listening. God’s awesome heavens speak his glory in every last human tongue.

There’s no Babel of languages here, no multi-culturalism, no quilt of ethnics. The sky creates a divine melting pot all over the world because everyday, on every square inch of the globe, people can hear God’s glory preached in a language that has no verbs or nouns or retained objects. That’s what’s astounding. That’s what makes him sing out the glor again and again.

What Psalm 19 offers is truly radical theology. God speaks by way of Orion, the Big Dipper, and a harvest moon. His sermon is the dawn, the dusk, and searing heat of midday. He’s speaks, every minute of our lives, in a language we might simply call azure.

What is at once most amazing and most triumphant is God’s true democratic disposition, the fact that his word surrounds all of us every day. Out here beneath the open skies of the prairie he preaches divinely, let me tell you; but the grace of his word is accessible absolutely anywhere, to all tribes and all nations—even to our enemies.

Not long ago I listened to a woman from Laos tell a frightening story of her escape across the Mekong River. Five adults swam alongside a boat barely bigger than my desk, a leaky little skiff that filled with river water just about as fast as the children inside could bale it out. She prayed and prayed and prayed for deliverance, she said.

Only recently had she become a Christian. When I asked her who she was praying to in those years before she knew the Lord, she told me that she didn’t really know—not even then, up to her neck in the waters of Mekong. She says she didn’t know who was listening.

Now she does, she told me. Now she knows Jesus Christ.

On that scary night on the river, I’m guessing that she was praying to whoever it was she’d heard in the sermons preached by the sky. And I’m thinkin
g—and I certainly want to believe—that preacher, the Lord God almighty, was listening.  

Friday, January 11, 2019

Morning Thanks--Union/Dunkard

"Asleep in Jesus"

Two years ago I stumbled on an old unkempt cemetery, miles from any main road, surrounded by Iowa corn. Few stones remained upright, many were gone. But the stones that were there and still readable told an incredible story of children and tragic death, and I knew at that moment that a significant, unrecorded human drama had once occurred here, far from the cities, at this isolated spot in the garden of America. 
That's a chunk of the first paragraph of my first book, published just about forty years ago. We'd been out to eat somewhere with my in-laws, and were traipsing around the country where my father-in-law grew up when we happened on this ancient graveyard, a place far more distinguishable for what wasn't there than what was, just a few stones hither and yon, all of them leaning precariously.

But I knew also that just as the stones themselves had been lost, many of the old stories would not last the passing of a generation, unless someone tried to give them the life they deserved, not only as interesting tales, but also for the strength they illustrated and the wisdom they carried.
I didn't take any pictures back then, but it seemed to me yesterday, when I walked around out there again for the first time in forty years, that there may well have been more stones back then. Several are toppled, some grown over with weeds, whatever name they carried or remembered long ago undiscoverable.

The kids out there still chills the soul. Of the readable few, there's lots of children. 

"AGED 7 Ys.  11Ms. 3Ds

"Children of Chas and Mrs.(?) French
"The angels called him."
Annie Dau. of E.W. and M.Willey Born Dec. 7 1887 Died Aug. 23, 1888
There are more, but there's this one too.

Just "Infant"
Forty years after that first visit, at least I know the name--Union/Dunkard cemetery. Its constituency, like its populace, has vanished. No one's left to regard what's out there. No one puts out flowers in late May. What's knowable about anyone out here diminishes with every passing season. 

The "Union" in the name signifies this hallowed ground holds a Civil War vet. Maybe this man, Aaron Willey.

It's the Union/Dunkard Cemetery because a Dunkard church once stood not far away, the German Baptist Church of Pleasant Valley, a fellowship who came and left in less than thirty years. 

Union/Dunkard, like so many country graveyards sits up on a knoll, as if communication between this world and the next were somehow aided by elevation. The sun was shining, but there was nothing to slow a persistent numbing wind out of the southeast. It was cold out there for an hour or so. No one came by.

Forty years ago, the nameless graveyard was a place full of stories. I was younger I'd hear them if I'd read and listen. I'm less sure now, all these years later. But then, I'm 70 and soon to have a birthday. 

These days there's nothing around Union/Dunkard but hogs, all of them inside, out of the wind, temperature controlled, hundreds of them in two neighboring confinements. The people who once lived there--and their descendants--are gone, and along with them, the stories they knew and told. What's left is a jumble of stones, the only straight line, the horizon far, far away.

Funerals are strange things. You cry your eyes out, then, a minute later, laugh and sing with a gorgeous conviction. Forty years later, out there Union/Dunkard was cold and unwelcoming, barely an upright stone to be found, a dozen unreadable, and it'll only get worse. 

But if there was a better spot to be yesterday in Sioux County, Iowa, I wouldn't have known it. I loved being out there alone, mid-morning--which is why I can say that this morning I'm thankful for the place, wind-driven and uninviting as it was and is. It was a good place to visit, a good place to be.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Morning Thanks--a mentor

Every kid had a choice, probably still do. For their final year of catechism, every kid in our church could choose to have a mentor, or to attend a class. Back then, twenty years ago or so, one of the kids said he'd like a mentor--me. 

I should have been pleased, should have been proud. At the time, I was teaching, full-time. I don't remember exactly, but I'm sure I had to have been a little proud. The kid chose me, after all.

So we started. He came to our house one Sunday morning, and we talked, came up with a curriculum, the Heidelburg Catechism, a foundation of the church and denomination we were a part of, then started the next week with the first q and a. 

Many years before, an editor had asked me to team up with a theologian and write a book of meditations for middle-schoolers. Didn't seem tough. The theologian chose the passages and sent me overviews. It was my job to make those ideas sing. Back then, our own kids were that age. 

I soloed on a few more books, little ones, all of which did relatively well. After a couple of hundred meditations, you get accustomed to the genre. Writing devotions for kids wasn't particularly difficult, and what I wrote somehow found enough of an audience that what I did was worth my time--and theirs presumably.

So when this kid wanted me to mentor him, and we decided on content, I wandered back into the genre I knew quite well. I sat down and wrote meditations for some time, walked and wrote my way through the whole Heidelburg Catechism. What I wrote came out some time later--a book, devotions for teens. That's it, up top.

That was 2001. I know it got read; sometimes I even heard from happy readers--let me correct that: "the folks of happy readers." Maybe I should say "happy folks of kids." But I'm proud of it--was then, still am. When you write something like that, you're in it, and I am. Today, it's shelf life is well behind it. It's up here on my shelf along with a ton of other books that are long out-of-print. 

Well, I take that back. I just looked. Amazon has one left. Better hurry!

Yesterday I got a request from a broadcast ministry I used to know quite well, The Back to God Ministries, who would like to translate the Every Bit into Chinese and eventually run it on line, a e-book, free to gadzillions of Chinese speakers around the world.

Eighteen years ago, two of us sat in our living room on those Sunday mornings. He'd have read the Heidelburg q and a on tap that day--plus a meditation or two I'd written. And we'd talk--I hope all of that did some good, my year as a mentor.

Every Bit of Who I Am is a book, like so many others I'd written in the basement of a hundred-year old house in a small town in the northwest corner of Iowa. Soon enough, technology will outfit those ideas in a whole new wardrobe, an ancient language, then put those words up in a screen the whole world can see. 

Through nothing less than an act of God, those words will be out there once more looking for a continent of new readers, all of which makes this morning's thanks a slam dunk, doesn't it? Nobody's coming to our house. We don't even live there anymore. But I'm still a mentor.

I'm awed really, awed and very thankful.

Wednesday, January 09, 2019

Morning Thanks--Mouse beans

Image result for amphicarpaea bracteata

"I loved working with my grandma in the garden," she told me. "Sometimes we'd pick potato bugs off the plants. And mouse beans too--she'd take me along when she'd gather mouse beans." That memory seemed to jar her, the way almost-forgotten moments can when they suddenly reappear. "Nobody ever talks about mouse beans anymore." Seemed almost a mystery to her.

She was a little girl when her grandma died, and that was two years after her mother passed away, which means she grew up without either of the two most important women in her life. Her father was devoted and strong, she says, determined to keep his children together after their losses. But she says he used to tell her, his oldest daughter, that there was so much he
, a white man, couldn't teach her because she'd lost two beloved Lakota women while she was still a child.

"So how is it that nobody talks about mouse beans?" 

My job, the writer, is to answer that question. It's amazing what a little research can uncover. 

Once upon a time mouse beans were a staple of the Sioux people, so much a favorite that Lakota women would sing songs for the gathering, songs passed on through generations of mouse bean harvesters.

In an article in Indian Country Today, Mary Annette Pember, who teaches ethno-biology at Sitting Bull College on the Standing Rock Reservation, says gathering mouse beans was once an honored seasonal task, even though today what was once done ritually seems, well, disgusting. Lots of mature beans could be found in the nests of field mice. Gathering them from those nests made the work considerably easier than digging them in less volume from the soil where they grew. 

Mouse beans grow from a vining plant in the bean family, an annual that is both common and unique. It looks very much like poison ivy and is often considered a weed. Because it produces not just one but two "beans" or fruit, one of which is above ground, the other beneath, it quite unusual. For many tribes, hog peanuts--mouse beans--were a common, healthy food source, high in protein, low in fat.

Professor Pember says that through the years gathering mouse beans became a seasonal cultural event, "a ceremony in which the women first sang beautiful songs of their intent to take some of the rodent’s harvest.” The songs honored the mice. They “asked for the mice’s permission to open their caches and reassured them that they would leave enough beans for them to survive the winter.” But those songs also "included words of thanks and honoring for the animals.” Frequently, Professor Pember says, those who harvested mouse beans left dried meat and fruit behind.

Gathering mouse beans was lost to the people along the Missouri River, when Pike-Sloan created four dams that changed the river forever. The rich gumbo soil beneath the trees at the banks disappeared, and along with it went not only the native beds of mouse beans, often called “hog peanuts." Music and ritual that gave life and meaning to everyday experience of the people have virtually disappeared.

That last paragraph might well make white folks shrug their shoulders. "Isn't that just the way things go?" they'd say. Native people from along the Missouri River might well use the very same words with a whole world of different meaning.

This morning I'm thankful--but sad--about mouse beans and hog peanuts.