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.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Soup Supper multi-culturalism

The child's eagerness was as remarkable as it was darling. You could barely finish your coffee without her asking for your cup.  I told our friends that this kid was really in training to become the queen of Dutch Calvinism, not for her theological strength but because she was a living, 10-year-old embodiment of that ancient text "cleanliness is next to Godliness."

She was quintessentially blonde, charming pink glasses over her nose; but her eyes rarely met ours because, well, there was just too much to clean up.  She'd been assigned our table at the Christian school soup supper, and she was not--listen to me!--she was not going to let a teaspoon-full of sinful messiness get left unretrieved.

Truth? I'd have hired her in a heartbeat if she'd told me she cleaned houses, but it wouldn't have been legal. I'm not a judge of age, but I'd guess maybe fifth grade. Just a kid, but a blonde whirling dervish with a cleaning rag.

"I just love to clean up," she told me when I told her I was mega-impressed by her breathless energy. "I really do." Zeal?--way, way, way beyond her years. Cleaning up at the soup supper was a calling.

Our visitors were impressed too. The one wearing the big black cowboy hat, the one with the middle-of-the-back pony tail, couldn't help chatting to Ms. Cleanliness. "Ever meet a real Indian?" he said, being one himself.

Honestly, she could barely stop working. The question didn't seem to register. She didn't get it.  Then she pulled back the rag, stopped and looked at him as if she hadn't heard.

"You ever meet a real Indian?" he asked again, or something close.

She went into one of those kid-like stalls, wheels churning inside somewhere as she tried to determine what on earth was going on with this grandpa with the wild silver mane.  She looked at him, eyes narrowing, that handy-dandy rag still in her hand but motionless.

Seconds passed. More. She'd become something akin to Lot's wife, without the tragedy.

Finally, what was in her came blurting out innocently. "You mean you're a real Indian?" she asked, as if he might have been spoofing.

"A Navajo," our friend said, reaching out his hand to shake. "You ever meet one before?"

She shook his hand, but once again seconds passed. Her mind was a slot machine, the symbols still spinning.

And then, finally, she says what comes up. "I'm going to be an Indian on Halloween," she told him boldly, as if he really ought to be proud.

We just about fell off our chairs.  What a sweet little hoot. 

And now I've got this little necklace our Navajo friend picked up at Pipestone yesterday. He wants me to find that little Dutch Calvinist girl who's going to hit the streets as an Indian on Halloween. It's just a little thing, but he says he thinks it'll help that costume along.

It'll be a joy finding her in school and getting it to her before she gets herself into her getup. She won't be hard to find. I'm sure she'll be the one cleaning up the classroom.

Friday, October 24, 2014

"Out of Africa" (vi) -- bottomless filthy lucre

It's blessedly impossible not to notice what's happening at gas stations. Even the Coop up the street is selling its liquid gold at $2.85 a gallon. Unheard of. The price may well be even lower south of here--always is anyway. Soon enough, gas prices will be a buck less per gallon than it was not all that long ago. Amazing.

Obama's huge 2009 payroll tax cut, the largest in history, put $400 into the pockets of every American family, money the government hoped people would spend and thereby right the economy after the worst dunking it took since the 30s. Barely a memory right now, but true.

That's nothing, a story on NPR said a few days ago. What economists claim, the story reported, is that "Americans spend so much money on gas that for every penny you drop the price and keep it there for a year, you've increased American spending power by $1.4 billion." Every penny. 

Really. Incredible. Let me run through that again--for every penny the price of gas drops and stays there for a year, American spending power rises by $1.4 billion dollars, a huge amount, far bigger than the biggest tax cut on record.  

I'm sure someone will dispute that, but I'm going to let it sit for a while, knowing darn well that the $2.85 I paid last weekend is a dream. I'll let you do the math. If the price stays there--and I know that's a big if--massive shifts will occur in the economy. They already are--at least for now.

I wish I were smart enough to determine what drives oil prices, what role, for instance, American oil successes have in dropping prices or how the Saudi's cut in production--or at least distribution, for all we know--fits in to the sign outside the station. I don't get it really, but I know more about piles of money oil accumulates.

Lots of it ended up in Africa, where lots of oil comes from. 

 There are places in west Africa where stunningly beautiful buildings leap out at you from areas that otherwise suffer the peculiar characteristics of African urban blight. Some of those buildings look as if they've descended miraculously from the north, where their design is more typical, in Arab Africa. They're beautiful--they really are. They're business class or better, not really high rises, but four and five and six stories at least, all of them in a stunning set, almost like toys.

To say Omar Gaddafi pocketed a fortune during his misrule in Libya is an obscene understatement. At the time of his death, he was thought to have 200 billion amassed in all kinds of places, including a goodly chunk in South Africa. He had enough to give each of the 6.5 million people in Libya $30,000, if he wanted. Which he didn't. But he did give it away. He did a lot of building in west Africa, trying to buy favor, trying to rule, just like every one else who's invaded the place.

I don't think I'll ever understand what kind of wealth oil production has lavished on those who control it, in the Middle East or elsewhere. The super rich live in ways I can't even imagine. What I do know, after traveling in west Africa, is that Middle Eastern oil has done unbelievable things.

The highway between the capital of Niger, Niamey, and Maduaoa, is maybe 200 miles of agricultural land and a hundred villages, the last one indistinguishable from the one before. Somewhere central in those tiny towns is a well, a public well, maybe with a pail and rope. The women are there, dressed in fabrics that seems astounding amid all of the earth tones. Mud huts with thatched roofs mushroom all around; and, up close to the road, a half-dozen skinny arbors lean in contrary directions, the places where the merchants set up trade and stay out of the sun. Kids play all over. Mopeds buzz around like flies.

Most of those hamlets have no more than 100 people--or so it seemed to me. But just about every one of them had one brand new building, bigger than all the rest, cleaner than all the rest, more tidy than all the rest. Those buildings weren't always the same size--some were no bigger than a double garage--but all were new and all were well-kept. Mosques. There may well have been some exceptions, but it seemed that every last village had a brand new mosque.

It seems they were gifts from afar, most of them from oilmen in Qatar. Think of it this way, it was as if the state if North Dakota had determined to build a brand new Baptist church in every hamlet in Mississippi. In every town imaginable they'd construct a tidy new house of worship. No matter how run down, no matter how ailing, where there was a town there'd be a new church. 

Gaddafi was a madman whose wild dreams included someday becoming the King of Africa, "the King of Kings," he called himself. He gave himself ridiculous titles and gave lots of African countries immense gifts to help him ascend to the unwieldy dreams he believed would certainly come true, including a United States of Africa.

Gaddafi, like Ozymandius, is gone. Look on, ye mighty, and despair.

But all that oil money, more than I can ever imagine, is still stuck in all kinds of places, including real estate in countless African places.  There was no end to his fortune.

There is, in the Middle East, in North Africa, so much oil money that it's no wonder the world can't leave the place alone. Nor is it a mystery why that immensely well-heeled corner remains a a boiling cauldron. 

Thursday, October 23, 2014

"Out of Africa" (v) -- Ebola

Power point Ebola warning mounted in a Mali airport
That we were going to west Africa in the company of not one, not two, but three doctors, helped relieve at least some of the fears that would have otherwise attended our travelling to an area of the world so much in the news this fall. Some of the fears. West Africa is no haven for tourists.

Besides, the horrific Ebola virus hot spots were war zones not all that far removed from Ghana and Mali and Niger, three countries on our itinerary. "Yes, we're going to west Africa," we told people.  They'd respond with a half smile maybe, half grimace. "No kidding," they'd say, and a minute later, "You're serious?--really?"

Now don't get me wrong. Medical professional companions or not, I didn't waltz through African customs as if my American heritage carried superpower immunity. 

That there was a crisis not all that far away was perfectly clear all over west Africa. Precautions were taken. Every airport greeted its incoming with a team of nurses, sometimes in masks, who pointed temperature guns at our heads to determine whether or not we were feverish.

Health workers in West African countries have been checking arriving passengers for fever, as this woman does in the Ivory Coast. The U.S. ordered Embassy families out of nearby Sierra Leone on Thursday.

The walls on all the gates were thick with posters displaying the suspect symptoms--stick figures experiencing blowouts from both ends, drawings far too graphic for public consumption in America, where, oddly enough, there would almost always be far more skin on display than you'll see in any African airport.

Once, we were lined up and ushered past a monitor. "Look here," the nurses said, and pointed at a fish-eye camera that brought the image on the screen in front of the nurse--and in front of us. Some kind of infra-red technology put an apple-like shine to our faces, which, if too bright, I suppose, would mean a trip to the doctor on call. 

Ebola, as just about everyone in the world knows by now, is not an airborne virus. It can only be spread--and it can and does spread alarmingly quickly--by contact with bodily fluids. Clean up a victim's mess or just touch him without precautions, and you could be in trouble, in danger, as we've all been told. Experts claim that if medical professionals don't get the disease under control in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, those countries, soon, could lose 10,000 victims a week.

Ebola is the worst mass murderer the world has seen in a while, which explains the extremes some people have taken in the U.S.: a middle school shuts down because an administrator had traveled to and from Tanzania, where no cases of the Ebola virus have even been recorded. There are other such horror stories as well.

I came back from west Africa a week ago, turned on TV news, and couldn't believe my eyes when the network interrupted normal programming to show us a nurse who'd contacted the virus, one of only two cases in the U.S.A., at the moment she was walked, dressed like an astronaut, from an ambulance into a Atlanta hospital. The whole country was watching! You'd have thought she was OJ.

What C. S. Lewis had to say about Satan, the Devil, always struck me as being solidly to the point. Honestly, I don't know where to find the quote, and I didn't dig it up myself. I'm only repeating what I've been told.  But what he said went something like this. When it comes to the Devil, we frequently make two mistakes: we can far too easily underestimate him and far too easily overestimate him. 

Somewhere there's balance. Somewhere there's reason. An old proverb, German, I think, says that fear always makes the wolf bigger than it is. It's almost November, too, when fear makes it so easy to create political capital.

In this morning's NY Times, Nick Kristof quotes Paul Farmer (anyone who's read Mountains Beyond Mountains has to listen) as saying: “A ban would be worse than ineffective, and would certainly hamper the efforts of groups like ours [Partners in Health] — and worsen the epidemic.”

When we walked through customs at New York's JFK Airport, no team of nurses or med techs were standing there with fever guns checking. As of this morning, there still has been only two cases of Ebola in this country, both of them in nurses who'd cared for the only man or woman to die here of the virus.

The rhetoric was inflamed last week, to say the least. Thank God, things are calming down.  

Here, at least.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Beaver dam, sort of

Raccoons sometimes don't make it across the road this time of year. Road kill mounts up every night as those lousy bandits in their silly masks load up on corn until they can barely waddle. If the dead ones you see on the shoulder is a tenth of the populace, as a demographic, coons almost outnumber hogs. I'm serious. 

Still, I can't help but feel sorry for 'em--they just can't lumber across the highway fast enough right now without getting whacked.

You never see dead beavers on the shoulder, although they too must number in the dozens in the neighborhood. They may be smarter than raccoons, but I'm still not sure I know the truth, whether a beaver is actually nature's own finest engineer or generally just as dumb as a box of rocks. 

When we first moved out to the country, the beavers just upstream built a dam just east of here, where the Floyd takes a hairpin turn. It was a beautiful thing to behold really, at a spot where the river was wide. Trees, rocks, corn stalks--they used whatever building materials they could to stop up the river, and it worked wonderfully. A neighbor claimed the river backed all the way up to Hospers. 

A flood came by the next spring and ripped out their workmanship, and whatever corps of beaver engineers put it up didn't bother to rebuild. They must have looked elsewhere for the perfect spot, I guess. 

A year ago or so, two of them came up out of the water and sat on the bank one night when we were standing right across the river, as if they couldn't care less about the humanoids gawking on the opposite bank. I think they were mating. Don't know if they were married, but the heat they were generating left them blind to the crowd they'd drawn on the other side. They were intense.

You got to love 'em, big fat guys who look nothing like olympic swimmers, but are. We see them occasionally, cutting a vee in the water, nose up, eyes out. Even when they step out of the muddy Floyd, their fur can shine. It might be fun to have a beaver coat if the PETA people would leave you alone. That fur is glorious, even legendary.

Yesterday, we were looking down at a creek that, in dry seasons, is not even there, And there it was, just upstream, a full-fledged earthen dam composed of little more than mud and corn stalks, behind it a little pond of water that wouldn't have been there if some brainy fur-ball engineer hadn't completed his pet project. Poor farmer couldn't get his corn out from that corner of his field because it was way too muddy, thanks to the beaver.

I'm still not so sure of their genius. My word, what kind of water park does he think he's going to build in that pint-sized creek? Couldn't have taken him long either. Maybe he's just lazy. Maybe he was alone--that wife has of his (if he was a wife) left him high and dry, so to speak.  

Then again, maybe he's just plain brainless. For the life of me I couldn't begin to guess why he'd spend his dam time patching up what he did in what's barely a babbling brook. 

Still, it's fun. We stood there for a while, hoping we'd see him; but he wasn't about to appear. He must have seen I had a camera. They seem to hate the paparazzi. 

Away on the other side of the field stood a combine, a tractor and a wagon, as if the farmer was stalled, trying to determine just how to lay waste that lousy, two-bit dam. 

And the dam itself wasn't beautiful, wasn't fancy, wasn't even ambitious--at least in my book. 

But it was fun. Poor old furry beast--today or tomorrow I'm betting that dinky dam will be gone, and the beaver will have to look elsewhere in the back 40. 

I bet he's an old guy. That's what he is, an old guy. Just tinkering maybe. Just putting up something to stay out of trouble, kind of like a bird house or some lawn ornament. Just trying to stay busy. 

Still smart enough, however, not to try to cross the road.
Update: Sadly enough for the engineer, yesterday his hard work was gone.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

"Out of Africa" (iv) -- Stranger

We stop in a village, get out of the car and walk over to a circle of men sitting in thick shade to avoid the impossible African sun. A lump of charcoal or maybe a fist-sized hunk of wood is burning in an scorched steel sleeve the size of an old coffee pot. On top of that sleeve sits a tea pot, heating.

The men are watching the pot, but not thinking much about the tea that is to come because they're yakking about something I'd love to be able to understand. But I've been in a circle of guys like this often enough to recognize good, old-fashioned They laugh, rib each other, yuk it up but good. In Africa, where two or three are gathered, there's almost always a bushel of belly laughs.

They don't seem to be bothered by these strangers who've come out of nowhere. In fact, a minute or two after we arrived they offered a couple of low-slung lawn chairs, and I took one. If I'd known French, I might have been part of the company.  

They offered me tea but I waved it off politely because I didn't know the ground rules--tiny little cups full of frothy stuff dark as chocolate. I didn't want to embarrass myself.

It wasn't quite noon, and I guessed we were going to be here for awhile. Even though the guys sitting beside me were heartily welcoming, I'm a stranger in a strange land.

A young woman walks up. Even though the world is, I'm quite sure, entirely Islamic, she's not hiding her face, as I would have expected. There's no birqua. Islamic women are not supposed to be showy, I'm thinking, but this one is wound up in a gorgeous robe so profligate with color it's almost blinding.  You can't look away. It's beautiful, as she is--young and pretty. She smiles at the men she's serving. It's clear she knows them.

She's working, trying to make a buck. The food she's lugged up brews in a couple of pots that fit atop each other. There must be standing orders because she ladles out some stew for one of the guys sitting there, then flops some meat in a long, thin French roll, a kind of Maliean hot dog, I'm thinking.  

She looks at me as if I might want some lunch. I smile, shake my head. She doesn't seem nervous in the least. She's the only woman anywhere near the circle of gents in the shade, but she goes about her work as if this is everyday, which is what it probably is.

She doesn't say much, but it's clear to me that she's perfectly at home; and what I don't hear is the kind of cat calls I would have expected. There's at least a half-dozen men a good deal older than she is, and she's a woman, all alone, standing there in front of them. I don't know French, but I swear I don't hear a thing that I could translate as sexual innuendo.

Here's the way I've been trained to generalize. Islamic women hide themselves in flowing black robes with slits for their eyes only. 

Not this one. You can hardly look away from her dazzling robe.

And the American in me would have expected the guys to toss out a comment or two. The numbers were right--a pack of middle-aged men sitting in a circle with a pretty young thing leaning down and spooning out the goods. I'd have expected her to take some hits.

Mali, Ghana, Niger--hard as it is to believe, the lands I visited don't have significant drug and alcohol problems because the price for such iniquity, for such sin, is just too high--thus saith the prophet, after all.  They let the short-order cook alone--I really think they did. I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it myself. Civility, after all, is not a word I would have associated with Islam. But I'm learning some things I never thought I would. 

I don't suppose that one incident in a village is enough to generalize, but I know the feeling of being in a little handful of men when some young thing comes along and brightens the day. I saw none of what I expected.

I didn't understand a word they said, didn't drink their tea, didn't sample the grub she spooned up from those pots she put back together after she'd sold them the lunch they wanted. I wasn't part of their world really, but as I sat there they showed me things I honestly didn't think I'd see.

In that little circle of gents I remained a stranger in a strange land, but I wasn't the same man I was when we'd pulled up in front of those guys having a good time and waiting for tea.

Monday, October 20, 2014

"Out of Africa" (iv) -- Worship wars

Years ago, some friends took us along to a Sunday night youth rally. The theory, if I'm not mistaken, was to show me some warm Afrikaaner piety. The rally was on campus in a big chapel area at what was, back then, the Pochefstroom University, Pretoria, South Africa. The Mandela era had just begun, the New South Africa.

What I remember of the youth rally is that it was really cute. I'm serious. Okay, cute is a strange way to describe religious piety, I know, but I'm not lying because it was really cute. Four hundred kids, maybe five, just about every last one of them doubled up with a sweetie. Think of it this way--250 couples, every last one of the males hanging one muscular Afrikaaner arm around his pet squeeze so that the rally looked like a huge blonde in-looped flag. It was cute. Really.

Some pastor's sermon got 'em all astir, and the eagerness was palpable. Love was in the air. Some of it was agape--sure; but you couldn't miss a touch of eros, too. Okay, maybe more than a touch. I'm not quite so old as to have forgotten the kind of rapturous zeal that can arise, even on a church bench, maybe especially on a church bench.

It's possible, I suppose, that all that youthful piety would have shown more brightly if the snugglers had been separated: males on one side, females on the other. The ardor might have been more pure if those guys had kept their arms and hands at home.

Sitting separate is the old way, the way things were done in church more than a century ago, and not just in Dutch Reformed churches. Most every northern European Protestant fellowship would have kept an aisle's width between the sexes lest communion descend into carnival.

Okay, I'm overstating. But I know very well that my ancestors worshiped in churches where, like some synagogues yet today, men and women keep a safe distance. Do women even pray in mosques? I don't think so. Put 'em together and you got a volatile mix, you know?

I don't think I'd ever worshiped in a church that split people up by gender until two weeks ago at the evangelical church on the top the page, a little church in a town predominantly--overwhelmingly--Muslim. Still, there we were--praising the Lord with men on one side, women on the other. Only the choir was integrated--well, one bench anyway.

It seemed strange, but then I remembered that crowd of kids in Pretoria, and even my own youth, the sheer bedlam of chemical reactions that will hardly stay in the test tube, even in church. Maybe--or so I thought--splitting up wasn't such a bad idea, silly as it seemed. Besides, it's a tradition as old as the hills.

Still, I just wondered why.

"I don't get it," I said to a man appointed to be my translator. "What's the deal here?--the women are all over there--" I was trying not to point, "and we're all over here." Billy Graham would never be alone in a room with a woman--I remembered that. Maybe we were missing something back home. Maybe we'd wandered.  "Is there a reason for separating everybody up?" I asked him.

"It's for our neighbors, the Muslims," the man told me. We were singing, I think, and I didn't know the words. Besides, he seemed to enjoy using his English on me.

"You split up for them?" I said, only half in a whisper.

"If they 'd walk by and see us all mixed up together," he said, then halted, as if there were no words to explain, ". . .it just wouldn't be worth it. They'd think it was terrible."

I suppose the word is taboo.

It was, I thought, a price to pay to get along in an Islamic neighborhood. Given what's happening elsewhere in the world these days, keeping men on one side, women on the other is hardly the "supreme sacrifice." One could suffer far worse.

Besides, Eugene Peterson likes to say that worship is really about learning to live with that bawling kid in the pew in front of you who just won't stop, learning to praise God in the middle of the mess of real life.

So I didn't question the man or the practice of that little church. I didn't try to enlighten him or press him to engage the Muslims. It seemed to me, right then, one of very few Christians in the community around me, that keeping men from women in church was a prudent thing to do, a wise move.

Besides, it didn't really matter a whole lot. In that little church that Sunday morning in Niger, both sides and the choir--we were all praising the Lord.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Sunday Morning Meds--End times

But all sinners will be destroyed; 
the future of the wicked will be cut off. 
Psalm 37

I believe there will be an end to the world as we know it, but, unlike millions of fundamentalists in America today, I have no idea what that end will look like nor when it will occur.

Years ago it was Hal Lindsey, a prophet who still has a website, even though I thought The Late, Great Planet Earth had all the believers delivered by 2005—lock, stock, and barrel—to the precious right hand of God, the Earth imbroglioed in pre-Armageddon politics or already aflame. He was sure that “the bear” in some minor prophet had to be Russia, which meant we were on the brink of the last days. Russia today isn't what it was, despite the chest pounding Putin regularly delivers. 

 In all fairness, I’m not sure exactly what Lindsey was forecasting thirty years, but neither do I care, one bit. All I know is he sold a ton of books. There’s always a market for end times.

And now there's yet another movie about the Rapture. Don't go.

After Black Sunday, that Sunday in the Thirties never to be forgotten by old-time Great Plains residents, the day the first of the dust storms arose like some great black fist in the western sky, lots and lots of good, God-fearing folks, sand-blasted suddenly into farming oblivion, got themselves convinced we were not all that far from The End.

And it’s not difficult to understand why. A woman I know told me she’d never forget that day because she was in church—afternoon service—when the dust first rolled in. In a matter of minutes the dust was so thick, even in church, that all she could see was the pastor’s white collar.

Is it any wonder people looked up to Lord and asked him to come quickly? No one could see a thing.

Today new natural calamities appear weekly—record hurricanes, huge earthquake, now and then some catastrophic tsunami, and always, wars and rumors of wars. That people would look to their God as a deliverer makes all kinds of sense. It’s a joy to imagine an end to suffering, to know He won’t tarry.

Prophets of doom, like the poor, we will always have with us, even though history has proved their sure-fire prophesies and end-time scenarios—every one of them—little more than swamp gas. Think Mr. Harold Camping, the radio star, who's long gone even though the rest of us aren't.

Some American Christians say it about abortion too, and gay marriage, and evolution in schools—all signs of The End. When the sky is falling, and faithful seem few, the last trumpet can sound far more comforting than fearful.

My mother went there too often, by my estimation, so often I tried to coach her out of her fears, a job at which I was never particularly successful. Who knows? Maybe a couple decades down the pike, when I’m pushing ninety, I’ll be listening intently for a blast of that trumpet myself.

In this long 37th psalm of bellowing confidence, David can’t stop singing about how good it is to know that the righteous are loved and the wicked aren’t—how just rewards are a given to those who do and don’t do the will of God.

Someday, I assume—because I believe—one of the seers with the crystal balls will get it right, and the world will end, not because it was predicted, but because the Creator of Heaven and Earth wants it done.

David isn’t wrong. Some day—maybe even this afternoon—every last knee shall bow.

That I too believe.