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, August 16, 2017

Morning Thanks--What won the day

Let's just think of what's happening all around us on a line graph. If we were to create an arc that somehow documents or illustrates the stress level of the American voting public since Donald Trump's surprising victory, the line would be almost consistently rising. Makes no difference if you're right or left, black or white, old or young, Republican or Democrat or Independent. The sides that exist today in this country and this culture are so are Grand Canyon-ed, it's scary.

There have always been conservatives and liberals, always been those who believe government is good and those who consider it malicious, but the distance between those basic views has only rarely felt so unbridgeable. We've become the Hatfields and the McCoys.

After yesterday's news conference, nothing's changed, even though for the first time since the Civil War a President of these United States made clear that to him some kind of moral equivalency exists between the actions of men and women who marched in torchlight, chanting Nazi slogans and racist chants, and those who came to protest against those beliefs. He called the people chanting "Jews will not replace us," good people, at least some of them. 

Some of us choose to differ. Some claim that "good people" would not have walked beneath a flag with a swastika or a flag of the Confederacy,  wouldn't have chanted things they did.

I don't know that we can recover from views Trump had suggested previously but now simply came right out and said yesterday at a news conference his handlers obviously wished over long before he walked off.  I don't know that many Republicans can sit still for them either.

This President seeks favor from only the 35% of the American public who will back him even if he guns down his enemies in the street. His malicious retorts yesterday to the CEOs who resigned from his council, as well as the totally unnecessary shot he took at Sen. John McCain were unseemly but characteristic, what keeps him popular with his base.

The temperature all around us is rising dangerously. No one knows where this will go. Don't figure on peace any time soon.

But pardon me for taking particular joy in one small bit of news in the storm, a new world record Trump will covet like none other. Last night, a few startling sentences became the most beloved tweet in Twitter history--liked somewhere close to three million times. Here it is, in its entirety.
No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion … People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love … For love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.
In case you missed it, those words belong to Nelson Mandela, the South African patriot who spent years in prison for fighting apartheid, then emerged with forgiveness in his heart to become both a national hero and President.

The man who tweeted those words is Barack Obama.

There's reason for morning thanks when the sentiment of those words becomes the most loved tweet of all time. At least on Twitter, what won the day is love. 

If you can't agree with that, there's nothing ahead but darkness.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The True Believer

Peter Tefft, Fargo, ND

My son is not welcome at our family gatherings I pray my prodigal son will renounce his hateful beliefs and return home. We do not, never have, and never will, accept his twisted worldview.”
So said a man named Pearce Tefft, Fargo, ND, when asked about this man, his son Peter, who was identified as one of the men who took part in the Charlottesville protests last weekend, one of those who gathered to insist on the rights of white people.

When the story first broke last night, I thought Dad's bitterness a bit over-the-top. I mean, we're talking about his own child, his son. To tear the kid out of the family, just like that, seemed not only ill-tempered, rash, but wrong. The father in the biblical story let the prodigal son be, let him go, let him sleep with the swine. He never tossed the kid out.

And then I saw Peter Teeft in a local tv interview, and I couldn't help notice the shining eyes of a true believer, couldn't help hear a dozen memorized answers in the clever word-play he employed to disavow being a racist since his only goal is to advance the cause of the beleaguered white race.

The men and women who met in Charlottesville last weekend under "Unite the Right" banner were the only real Americans in the city, the ones doing nothing more than innocently exercising their right to free speech. The police, the National Guard, and of course those who opposed the march were the real enemy of the people, even communists, standing as they did in opposition to free speech. Nazis were the heroes, in case you missed it, the KKK the red-blooded American people. He smiled as he said it, not as if he's hiding anything but because he's that blessedly sure of his guiding light.

Charlottesville, he maintained, was only a beginning. What happened last weekend is going to fuel his cause--the defense of white people--because once the lawsuit is filed, it'll handle the fund-raising for years. That's why he claims Charlottesville is the beginning of brand new era in American civil rights, a time when white people make a stand for their cultural values, which is to say, I suppose, his cultural values.

The confidence in his rhetoric is scary, as is what he sees in his skinhead crystal ball. He glows when he describes what he sees. That shine in his eyes arises from a conviction that's so strong it obscures reason. He's a true believer, and, like all of them, he has moved well beyond doubt, even and most especially of himself and the ideas that ferment in his mind and imagination.

What distinguishes true believers that kind of undying confidence. The only thing they doubt is doubt itself. Really, if you want to see what happened to Germany with the rise of Hitler, all you need to do is look into the flaming eyes of Peter Teeft, who is, as we speak, planning yet another rally right there in Fargo. He expects hundreds to come out.

Last night I thought his father rash. This morning I don't think I'd want his son home either.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Where pride meets fear

If you can make out what's in the background here--hills and woods--you might not believe the old street scene could be right here in northwest Iowa, but it is. That's downtown Peterson, and Peterson's just down the road, Hwy 10, about an hour east. Peterson is much older than most Sioux County burgs, largely because it sits along the Little Sioux River, and, mid-1800s, the rivers were freeways. Besides, everyone needed water. Thus, Peterson, circa 1918. 

Downtown Peterson doesn't look at all like this today, of course. For one thing, there aren't as many cars. The place just seems much smaller. Peterson may not be dying, but neither is it booming. Some of those stores are long gone, most are boarded up. It's been years since downtown was bustling, so long I'm not sure anyone who lives there remembers.

The picture itself is one hundred years old. . .well, 99 to be exact. It's an Armistice Day parade, a day of celebration because the war was over, the "war to end all wars," "the Great War." World War I was history, and the doughboys were coming home, at least those who hadn't died in France. What's in the old photograph is a victory parade. 

And it's led by the KKK. I wasn't surprised to see them here because I remembered reading long ago about the public face of the Ku Klux Klan in northwest Iowa, surprising as that may sound. What was surprising to me was the front-and-center role they played in a big victory parade. It's likely there was no Peterson Chamber of Commerce back then, no Lions Club or Kiwanis. I suppose the only social club for men was the KKK, who thought it only right to lead the celebration downtown, two by two. 

The elderly guy who showed me the picture has it up in a museum, his museum. I told him I couldn't imagine there were any African-Americans in Peterson, Iowa in 1918, and he agreed. "Oh," he said, "they found other people to hate--Catholics and immigrants."

The propensity to fear seems to be in us from the factory--our first utterance is a cry. There's hardly a time in life when we don't cower a bit in the face of something we see that's bigger than we are. Weather will do it out here on the edge of the plains, a beastly sky on a hot summer afternoon, clouds arising out west in brutal fists. 

Change will do it too in small towns especially, change of all kinds, anything to disturb the liturgy we're accustomed to and comfortable with. We cower easily, most of us. And we get handsomely proud of what we've got, what we've built, what we are. Pride comes pretty easily too, strangely enough.

But I'd like to think that hate isn't standard equipment. It rises in darkened hearts, especially when fear and pride commingle. What the orderly march these hoods created demonstrates is a commitment to orthodoxy, to us, to things staying the way they are. What it says is, nothing is going to change without a fight around here. Take note!--we're here to hold back the heathens and keep things pure.

Today in Peterson, there's no one around to lead parades--but then there are no parades either. Today Peterson, Iowa, is a museum, open only by arrangement, and there is no Ku Klux Klan.

Wouldn't it be grand if hate would die its own slow death? 

Dream on. It doesn't. Not here, there, or anywhere. Hate still meets where it always has in the heart of man, at the intersection of pride and fear.

And that intersection is just off Main, never all that far away. 

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Sunday Morning Meds--Cut free

But the LORD is righteous; 
he has cut me free from the cords of the wicked." Psalm 129:4

On his way home from his job at the packing plant, Phet had to cross the Missouri River, then travel up the freeway toward his home in Morningside. Along the way, stood—well, floated—a huge and comely riverboat casino, the finest, fanciest gambling joint in the region. Sometimes—often, by his recounting—he’d stop and spend the rest of the day and night amid the smoky jangling slots. He wasn’t stressing his marriage; often as not, his wife was right there at his side.

Then he became a Christian, left the casino, lost his wife, and gained another. When I asked him what it meant to be a Christian, he answered by drawing out the dimensions of his new life. Although he was still working at the packing plant, he was living in a new house with a new wife, and he was going to church, had become a deacon. But mostly, to Phet, being a Christian meant he no longer stopped at the riverboat. He was done with all that, done with gambling.

Deacon Phet got himself enabled.

Sasumu Nashimoto, a petty thief from Yokohama, Japan, used to listen to Christian radio while doing all kinds of late-night petty theft. One night he was going after some stuff behind a factory when he started to think about the clear plastic that stretched over waste materials, the stuff he grabbed and sold elsewhere, putting the bucks in his own pockets. If that plastic were black, not clear, he thought, he could really turn a profit. But who could create a miracle like that, he thought, chuckling. With his truck radio playing a sermon, he kept mulling over the question—who turns black to white? who can create miracles? Why, only God can. It came to him as a revelation, he told me. Today, no longer a criminal, he’s a leader in his faith community.

Elder Nashimoto got himself enabled too.

Walker Percy’s genealogy of distinguished ancestors still overflows with grim sadness--Civil War heroes, Mississippi statesmen, and two unforgettable suicides. Both his father and his grandfather ended their lives with a shotgun. Two years after his father’s death, Percy’s mother was killed in an automobile accident. For a profession, Walker Percy, a medical doctor, chose to be a pathologist, someone whose daily work meant working over corpses. But early on in his profession, he contacted tuberculosis, spent some years at a sanitarium, read Kierkegaard and Dostoyevsky, among others, then converted to Christianity in 1947.

Walker Percy was enabled also.

I don’t know everything there is to know about Walker Percy; but I believe I can guess, given the outline of his life and the themes of his novels, how Percy too might think about this line from Psalm 129, because he must have felt himself, in his own way, enabled.

A cloud of witnesses all around profess their faith through a spacious library of stories, none of them exactly the same except in divine trajectory. What astonishes me is the sheer breadth of the experience of the Christian faith; there’s a million stories because the faith itself is immensely spacious, even though all of those stories end in redemption.

There is so much elbow room in how it is we come to faith, space enough for all our stories. Nobody’s stripes are exactly the same, but somehow we all get healed—we all are enabled, we all get cut free from the cords of the wicked.

We read the same words here, but we piece together that meaning with an unending list of experiences, each of which recount just exactly how it was that we too found ourselves so cut free, so divinely enabled.

Friday, August 11, 2017

My roundhead past

St. Francis, Rosebud Reservation

News from this week's Christian Century:

Iglesia Ni Christo, a fast-growing church based in the Philippines, has agreed to buy an abandoned village in rural Connecticut that has been vacant for months, even though the town has problems with its septic system and deteriorating buildings. It is also rumored to have been haunted. The town Johnsonville, was home to twine mills in the 19th century. Iglesia Ni Cristo, founded in 1914, is a Roman Catholic-inspired sect that rejects the ritualism of Catholicism.  It has millions of members in the Philippines and over 7000 congregations worldwide, including three in Connecticut. 
Adherents of the Shinchonji Church in South Korea view themselves as the one true church. Other Christians label it a cult. It is accused of breaking up families and being secretive and manipulative. Founded in 1984, Shinchonji has 200,000 members in South Korea and thousands of followers in over 20 other countries. Lee Man-hee its founder and leader, considers himself the "promised pastor" (advocate) from the New Testament and a peacemaker who has a plan for ending global warfare. The church's name is based on the Korean translation of "new heaven and earth" in he book of Revelation.
I don't remember which old Dutch cathedral we might have been in when I thought of it. We've visited several, loved them all. It might well have been Westerkerk, whose bells Anne Frank could hear from "the annex" where her family hid during the war. Or maybe it was Pieterskerk, Leiden, where Rev. John Robinson is buried, a man so loved by the Pilgrims of Mayflower fame even though he never made it to Plymouth.

What I remember was being struck for the first time with the mindset of my own Calvinist past, those old roundheads, hundreds of years ago, who angrily rejected so much of what I thought, standing there at that moment, was perfectly gorgeous, the spectacular accouterments of those ancient cathedrals, elaborately dressed up, floor to ceiling, amid flying buttresses and ornate towers, the sheer spectacle of those spaces and places. I loved 'em. Would visit today if I were anywhere close.

But I also understood that one person's grand visions can be another's monster. For just a moment, I remember understanding the Calvinists' deep desire to "purify" the spectacle before me, to get back to something personal and vital, something not so overwrought, something real. Long before, I'd come to understand the saints, the St. Christophers of the dashboard. Long ago, I told myself that Catholics were right--nobody prayed to the marble statues, but only through them to God.

No matter. I was in one of those immense European cathedrals when I felt a brace of real sympathy for all those ardent souls with round heads who scraped artistry from cathedral walls and beheaded statues with the soul purpose of purifying the church. I understood.

Just last week on the Rosebud Reservation, in the little purple church at the St. Francis Mission, I couldn't help but feel a shot of the same impulse. I loved the church, had been there before, often, in fact. The gorgeous Native colors of its Lakota designs create a beauty in the sanctuary that's unique and wonderful, as close to divine as humanly possible. I could bring all the world to that old church. It's stunning, and it leaves foreigners (white folks especially) speechless.

Of course, I'm not so stout a Calvinist to want to change the place, to whitewash those walls or paint over what must have taken a decade to finish. But that I love St. Francis church doesn't mean that a portion of my heart and soul doesn't remain thoroughly and convincingly Calvinist. To wit, it doesn't mean that I don't prefer my worship simple.

Most of the world knows that, come October, millions will remember the Reformation, 500 years old, thought to have been born the day Martin Luther, a brilliant and stubborn young priest, nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church at Wittenburg, Germany. Some will celebrate; and others will mourn because the Reformation changed everything, really. What it didn't leave in the dust, it left altered like nothing that came before. 

Lots of scholars suppose that what Islam never had and should have is its own Reformation. Times change, after all. My great-grandfather, the eminent theology professor, saw a different world in 1885 than I do, or my daughter does, or her sons will; and it's just as likely they saw a different God, too, a God who may not be any different, but who generations of believers view differently, minds and hearts and eyes modified by time and place and circumstance. 

In a very vivid way, the Protestant Reformation cleaned us up but good. It grew from an impulse that insisted no other person or institution, nothing material at least, stood between the believer and God. Too violently perhaps, the Reformation determined neither the church nor its saints were intercessors, that people didn't have to stand in awe before what was, no matter how gorgeous and inspiring, just another human institution. 

But the Reformation also fractured us, created a thousand sects when just about every Tom, Dick, and Harry determined his or her revelation closer to eternal truth than yours and mine and every other Tom, Dick, and Harry. It created endless squabbles, and more visions and versions of spiritual truth than you could fit on a flash drive. Worldwide, it created--and still creates--what's way up there at the top of the page.

Let's be perfectly clear: the Protestant Reformation, 500 years old, is an event worth celebrating.  But it wouldn't hurt to keep your voice down, to hold back the enthusiasm, to be somewhat hushed. Nobody's still got it all right.

The Lord still is in his holy temple. Let all the earth keep silence before him. 

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Band of Brothers

The Brits, some of them at least, were peeved, not simply because of the price Dreamworks set for British broadcast of Band of Brothers, but because HBO's 10-part series followed the war experience of a single company of GIs as they traveled the bloody road to Germany. By featuring a single company, the Brits whined, HBO suggested that Yanks had single-handedly won the war.

As our President would say, "Sad."

Band of Brothers is story-telling at its finest--relentless in its pursuit of authenticity, determined to give honored dues to every human emotion, every bit of what Easy Company was and what we are, even as we witness the wearying experience of war from the ease of our armchairs. It is simply marvelous television, a war story so compelling that I couldn't look away long enough to remind myself that it wasn't unfolding in front of me, that it was staged and scripted, that it wasn't real.

The objecting Brits are wrong. Band of Brothers is not about who won the war, it's about who fought it. It's about the truly extraordinary heroism the Second World War drew from very ordinary people.

Years ago, near Arnhem, the Netherlands, we stopped at a World War II cemetery some travel agent suggested we take in. We showed up just as a bus full of British tourists appeared, old vets in dressed up in their uniforms, some in wheelchairs, most with walkers. They gathered just outside the rows of graves, then marched--or attempted to--up toward the tall, white monument at the far end. There, militarily, they paid their respects. It was immensely moving to be there right then, a stroke of luck or providence to happen along when the vets who remembered what they couldn't forget honored those who didn't return. The Brits suffered immensely during Operation Market Garden, where the goal was "a bridge too far."

But Band of Brothers' immense strength is that it doesn't tell everyone's story, doesn't use only a wide-angle lens. Band of Brothers stays with "Easy Company," the 101st Airborne's 506th Regiment, from their unique paratroop training, through the monstrously dangerous drop behind the Reich's massive defenses on D-day. It stays with the guys who fought their way into Germany, who walked blindly into a concentration camp, a human wasteland, then risked sporadic fighting all the way through to the Bavarian Alps, to Berchtesgarden, the place where so many Nazi officials had summer homes when finally the war ended. Band of Brothers is a Second World War drama that's only secondarily about the war; what it's really about it the hearts and souls of the men who fought it and their selfless, harrowing heroism.

When Easy Company was formed at Camp Toccoa, Georgia, it listed 140 men. Throughout the war, some 300 served under its insignia. At Normandy, the Battle of the Bulge, Operation Market Garden, and the company's push to the end, 49 had been killed in action. Band of Brothers doesn't skimp on the wrenching horror of seeingbuddies die. It doesn't glorify war, not in the least; but it does glorify those who fought it. None of them are armed with superhuman powers, but all of them heroes of the highest rank.

Easy Company has no women. Not one of the men is black or brown or red. They're all white males, and they're all heroes, even the ones who lose out to their own fear or leave so much of themselves on the battlefield that they simply can't go on. The red caps--"Make America Great Again"--mean to conjure this world.

I get that. In the time that we watched the ten-part series, I couldn't help thinking of my own father-in-law just behind those lines, an Iowa farm boy plucked out of cornfield and put down on European soil for an experience the likes of which he'd not see again. Just last week, in the throes the senility that's threatening him, he asked me, "Were you in Germany too?" What he knows and what he doesn't can't be known, but he does know is that he was, for sure and memorably, in Germany with his own "band of brothers."

But I know a woman who was there too in the medical tents just beyond the snowy Belgian forests at the Battle of the Bulge. I know a woman who, like so many others, heard "buzz bombs" overhead and waited in icy fear for them to hit, like everyone else, waited to die. I know a woman, a Lakota woman, who was cited by the French government for her work as an army nurse on the same roads to Germany.

And I know also know that, when she returned stateside after the war, when she took a job not all that far from her home on the Cheyenne River in a hospital in Rapid City, South Dakota, she was repulsed, sickened to read a sign in a window of store downtown said "No Indians."

Band of Brothers is all about the Second World War, a time and a series of places and the people who were there. But more importantly it's about heart and soul, and selflessness, about people giving more than they ever thought they could or would. Finally, it's about peace and what it requires of us.

I'm not someone drawn to war stories. There were moments when I turned the volume down because I couldn't stand to hear what Easy Company heard so much of. 

But I loved Band of Brothers.  

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Me and you and the Mormons

The news from Salt Lake City is not particularly comforting if you’re Mormon. One of the mighty has fallen, a saint from the inmost circle of the Latter-Day Saints. For the first time in thirty years, a man from the First Quorum of the Seventy was told to pack his bags. He was excommunicated.

When I was a boy, the word excommunication was used with fear and trembling. Only once did I sit through a reading of that form from the back of the Psalter; but I remember it well because the whole affair was difficult and therefore dramatic.

Once upon a time, many churches would assess their determination to remain on the paths of righteousness on the basis of their commitment to what we called “church discipline,” a function of the body of Christ recognized as one of the “keys of the kingdom” (Q and A 83 of the Heidelberg Catechism). People believed that if you didn’t exercise church discipline, you weren’t really the bride of Christ. And way out there at the far end of “church discipline” sat excommunication, a ritual no one joked about. It was a different time, a different age.

Except in Salt Lake City, where yesterday a man named James J. Hamula was excommunicated, even though he’d been a member the church’s most saintly circle since 2008 and had served as a missionary—full-time, and an elder, a stake leader.

Following accepted tradition, no reason was given, although church authorities did say it was not occasioned by apostasy or disillusionment. That leaves little but scandal, what size and shape will eventually out, I’m sure, as those things do. Simply, the council of discipline reported Hamula was no longer an officer and no longer a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Ladder-Day Saints. Nope. Out.

Seems brutal, doesn’t it? Seems medieval. To our eyes, the perfect is often the enemy of the good. And it is.

Four times in my life I’ve been proselytized, a Book of the Mormon placed concernedly in my hands. Thrice in museum visits: once, years ago, in Salt Lake City, at the Tabernacle, where my children—just kids then—went slack-jawed when someone tried to save their souls; a second time at Palmyra, New York, where Joseph Smith discovered the golden plates that held the Book itself; a third time just recently at a fine museum commemorating the Mormon Trail and the Winters Quarters, where hundreds of houses were built almost overnight for thousands of Mormons who would spend the winter of 1846 across the Missouri from named Omaha.

(By the way, it's okay to sing "Come, Come Ye Saints" at my funeral, even though it's deeply Mormon. It was penned on the Great Trek, not that far from here; and to hear the Mormon Tabernacle Choir's rendition makes me weep. Listen yourself sometime.)

The Mormons do museums with the same righteous diligence with which the keep the church—okay, maybe a bit over-the-top by my estimation, but there’s no accounting for taste. Each time, each place, I was handed a Book of the Mormon and beckoned to read it to discover its eternal truth. Each time, I told those decent docents that I already had one, thank you.

And I do, and it’s inscribed, a treasure really, a gift—read on.

It’s from two of my high school students—I liked them, they liked me. There were a lot of LDS kids at Greenway High School, Phoenix, Arizona, when I taught there. One of them, Carrie Smith, had conversion on her mind back in 1976, as most Mormons do (she was no relation that I know of to Joseph Smith, although the man had forty wives).

Sadly enough, her mission with me failed, even though I remember her darling personality, her thoughtful smarts, and her intense Mormon work ethic. A whole class of Carrie Smiths and I could have been teaching in northwest Iowa.

Via the wonders of social media, I stay in contact with Carrie Smith, who’s a grandmother herself these days and, amazingly, evangelical Christian. That's right, no longer Mormon. I didn’t ask why. She seems happy.

Yesterday, to her Facebook friends (which includes me), she sent out a note with a url linking to a Salt Lake City TV station, who had run a story titled thusly: “Losing their religion: Millennials, including Utahns, leaving church.” (The story’s in the title. No need for me to quote chapter and verse).

But that that news came from her, from an actual “jack” Mormon, as the fallen are often called, was somehow notable in my book, in my soul. I bear no grudge, no enmity for her confidence that, way back then, I wasn't among the elect. That she was the one sent out the url, just made me smile.

Why? I suppose it’s just another reminder of two basic truths basic. Good Lord, we all have sinned and stand in need of grace, every last one of us.

Somewhere along the line, in one way or another, all of us have been poor James Hamula.