Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The blessings of ends and beginnings

A novelist I once knew used to say that if there was a birth in a novel it had to come at the very end because nothing--absolutely nothing--could out-climax brand new life. Think that's a stretch?--watch a two-year-old take over an Old Folks Home. 

In art as in life there's simply no accounting for taste, so the rule that novelist set up can't be cast in stone. But the idea he sold us on has stuck with me ever since that writing workshop forty years ago. Even if what he said about birth isn't true, I like to think it is.

And yet, birth is not an end. It's only ever a beginning.

Meet Olivia Lynn, daughter of David and Kristina, from Stillwater, Oklahoma. She's their firstborn and much beloved. Every last human being old enough to see anywhere into the future knows this little package of darling-ness will soon occupy their lives in ways that no one can explain until new parents experience that diapered occupation for themselves. It's coming. No, it's already begun.

If Olivia hasn't already begun to make music, soon she'll sing while she nurses, hum her way through some baby praise song, a line or two of her own sweet composition--and they'll love it. Then, once those eyes open wide enough to sweep over her mother's face, the two of them will be star-struck when she addresses the world around her for the first time. Then there's that first smile--oh, my word, was there every anything more beautiful? they'll say. She'll simply have taken over.

If they're truly blessed, in a week or so this pudgy little cherub will sleep through the night. Don't count on it. Right now, she's still in IC for a slight case of jaundice, but this morning, for the first time, she'll go home to a freshly painted room with a changing table beneath a window alongside a book rack that once belonged to her mother and is also freshly painted. Oh, and did I mention the name Olivia up on the wall above the crib?

This child will go home to a place her senses will recognize long before she can say the word or begin to understand its meaning, a place she'll soon know is like none other, peopled by faces and lovingly outfitted with hands and voices she'll come to know and love in ways babies do.

Her father went to Oklahoma almost as if on assignment. He'd been living for too long in the darkness, so long that the counselor he was seeing made an application to graduate school something he simply had to do as an investment into a future he couldn't beg himself to see.

When he got in, he determined to go. We worried a great deal. Just a few months after he'd arrived, his apartment complex went up in flames, most of what he owned, most of what he didn't have in his school backpack that day, was gone. The Red Cross gave him money to go to WalMart for socks and underwear. Students he knew--and many he didn't--got him what he needed to get by.

We worried a great deal. It took a couple years, but he shifted graduate programs when he determined that film theory wasn't going to get him out. He transferred over to professional writing, a course of study that held some possibility of employment.

His assistantship assigned him to a mentor who'd been teaching for a while. The two of them got along, got along better, even began to date and eventually got engaged, then married. She kept teaching, but he took a job writing educational materials for a fire safety program run out of the university. He liked what he was writing so much he got interested in the profession. Today, he's a fireman in the city where his first apartment burned to the ground.

And today, he and his teaching mentor will bring that blessed child home to a house with three cats, a dog, and a freshly painted room that belongs to someone whose name is up there on the wall above the crib.

I don't know if that old novelist friend of mine was right or not, whether new life can't be outdone as a climax of a novel. But in life, it never is. It's only ever a beginning.

Praise the Lord.

And please forgive me for yet another picture. This Olivia is, after all, my brand new granddaughter.

End of story.

No, just the beginning.

Monday, January 22, 2018

It's out, and I hope it's good. I don't have any yet, but you can get it on Amazon. A sacrament in snow.

Small Wonder(s)--"Osawatomie Brown"

No longer do those two arch-rivals play football. They did for almost a century, but they quit some years ago, the Paola High School having grown to almost twice the size of Osawatomie. Things got a little out-of-hand towards the end, Paola winning twenty of the last twenty-two gridiron tussles, the last one a blow out--73-20. That was 2013, the very last game.

Since 1920, the Osawatomie/Paola game was the Super Bowl, the game no one missed, the big one that shut down both Kansas towns and most all the countryside. For 93 years it went on.

But the rivalry got started long before that, if you read the history. For a time in the 1850s, those two burgs did a whole lot more than mount great passing games. Kansas was bleeding in the 1850s. Just about everyone opening up the sod on the new state's eastern edge did so because they wanted to fight, wanted to win, sometimes at all costs. 

Back then, it was the Free-Soilers vs. the Border Ruffians, the abolitionists vs. the slavers; the sides couldn't have been much different. The abolitionists were New Englanders, Puritans at heart, if not in confession, men and women dedicated to righteousness, sworn into God's army to end slavery. Some wanted a new life, but around Osawatomie especially, most newcomers arrived because Congress had ruled that whether Kansas were slave or free would be decided by those who lived there. Some came west--John Brown among them, the John Brown--because they were doing the Lord's work, fighting the curse of slavery.

When you're south of Kansas City some time, stop at Osawatomie, Ground Zero of the Bleeding Kansas of the 1850s. Follow Main Street all the way through town to a park where you can't miss an odd, old stone edifice that encloses the log cabin John Brown--"Osawatomie Brown"--used as headquarters during the twenty months he spent at war in "Bleeding Kansas. 

The enemy Border Ruffians were equally determined, even if they invoked God's name a good deal less than the holy abolitionists. They were Southern folks, determined to protect a treasured way of life from the Yankees they hated. Once upon a time, neighboring Paola, just down the road, was populated heavily by Border Ruffians.

On August 30, 1856, a couple hundred or more Southerners rode into Osawatomie, intending to burn out the New Englanders, then keep on riding to Topeka and Lawrence and leave the whole region in flame. First, they shot John Brown's son Frederick dead. Then, a couple dozen armed abolitionists tried to hold them off, but their numbers were pitiful, more meager than their bravery. Soon the Free-Staters, out of ammo, scattered, and the Slavers torched most every building in town. 

There was more terror in Bleeding Kansas, more blood in the neighborhood, more killing, some of it--much of it--cold-blooded on both sides. All of that right there in the countryside. That old cabin looks far more comfortable than it likely was. 

Some historians claim what happened in little Osawatomie, and throughout the border region, was the opening salvo of what became the Civil War. It's hard to argue with that assessment, even though Beauregard didn't fire on Ft. Sumter until April 12, 1861, almost five years later.

You can see John Brown's hat there in the cabin--the one he was wearing at Harper's Ferry; and his saddle, and a broad portrait of the man, a likeness nothing at all like the wide-eyed fanatic who jumps off the mural in the Kansas State Capital. 

All the John Brown things are in the back room of the cabin, a back room once hidden from view, frequently--if the stories can be believed--a temporary stop on the Underground Railroad. If you stand there, even for a moment, try to imagine what simply can't be imagined, especially if you're white.

For almost a century, when the Osawatomie Trojans took the field against the Paola Panthers, the fiery rivalry grew out of differences far older than oldest discolored cup in either school's trophy case. After all, Paola's roots were slave, Osawatomie's were free. Yankees and Rebs right there, neighbors in eastern Kansas.

Maybe it's a good thing they don't take each other on anymore. Either way, some old bloody fights may well a blessing to forget. 

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Sunday Morning Meds--We have his word on it

He has revealed his word to Jacob, 
his laws and decrees to Israel.” Psalm 147:8

Most of the mornings I worked at Psalm meditations, I read a little Spurgeon first, followed his wonderfully aphoristic comments on all the psalms in a huge work he titled The Treasury of David, three volumes, a set a bookstore owner gave me years ago, assuming, I guess, he’d never sell them. The Treasury of David has been a boon, a joy, a revelation all its own.

Verse by verse, Spurgeon takes each psalm apart and riffs, tells me and all who read him, in his peculiar 19th century voice, what he thinks about every last line from the songs.  Spurgeon has been in many of these meditations, even though they’re my own. 

After spinning his own takes, Spurgeon cuts and pastes a section of comments from others he’s appreciated in a section titled “Hints to Preachers.”  For Psalm 147, comments come from John Trapp, Genebradus, A. S. Aglen, J. N. Pearson’s Life of Archbishoop Leighton (1830), Christopher Wordsworth, J. J. Van Osterzee, William Bates, Thomas Manton.  I don’t know a one of them.

I rather doubt Charles Hadley Spurgeon assembled enough other voices for me to characterize them as “a cloud of witnesses,” but there are enough here to make me know my meditations haven’t plowed any new ground. How many millions have read the psalms? The only way to appreciate the numbers is by God almighty’s sands-on-the-beach or stars-in-the-sky comparisons. Billions, literally.

It’s still dark out this morning. The windows reflects the lights from inside this mess. But the sky is patchwork, which means that the dawn, soon to arrive, could be another masterpiece. The sun rises late this close to solstice, but often in a blaze. I may just grab a camera, go out, and hunt for this morning’s recitation of glory.

We’ve got sky out here on the edge of the plains. We’ve got more sky than any of us know what to do with—more heavens to declare God’s glory, to preach and sing his presence. He’s here and he’s huge. I hear him proclaiming almost daily, I swear.

But I’ve also got Spurgeon and this cloud of witnesses to show me how they sang the psalms—excellent coaching, perhaps a little museum-ish but heartfelt, thoughtful, and pious, often more so than I am. Without them, I wouldn’t have made it.

And I’ve got the Word, the book of Psalms itself, David and Moses and who-knows-who else. So I’ve got the dawn and I’ve got the songs, the world and the Word—day-in, day-out reminders of what he does and what he says. Not bad preaching, one way or another.

In 147, David’s panoramic vision closes down with verse 18, then goes on to say that those who love him are witnesses, not only to what he does but also, just as gloriously, to what he says. We’ve got his Word on that.
I’m sorry to have to say this, but it’s part of the world I see:  not long ago, I found the old bookstore owner’s picture on-line, among the list of local sex-offenders. I wish that weren’t true, but it is.

But if I’ve learned anything from slugging through the psalms, it is that God is far greater, far more loving than any or all of his readers—Spurgeon, Schaap, and sex-offender. 

He’s given us his word and his world.  Even more amazing, he’s given us his love—sinners, all. Count me among those sinners, but count me too among the blessed.  

Friday, January 19, 2018

A Snapshot of Ray Milland (iii)

Ray Milland on the wall at the Anne Frank House

Here’s what I’m thinking. In a fifty-year career of almost 150 movies, Ray Milland was as well known as any Hollywood leading man. Think of the publicity his pictures generated when they were released, the many who saw them back then; then imagine–try to compute–how often he’s been seen on TV in replays of the old classics. Turn on the Turner Movie Classics channel almost any week of the year and you’re likely to strike an old Ray Milland.

Even though perhaps few knew the Welshman personally, even though his life story really is his film credits, his face is still recognized by thousands today, although the numbers are likely slipping, year by year. And even though some might say that Ray Milland’s craft as an actor was unexcelled; some might praise him for the dignity by which he carried himself on the set, and some might claim his legacy includes a deep commitment to his profession, what I’d like to suggest is that in the cut-out snapshot on Anne Frank’s wall, up there in the annexe where she and her family attempted to wait out Hitler’s genocide, in that picture he may well have played his most memorable role.

And he knew nothing about it. I like to imagine what he must have felt like if and when he discovered it glued on the yellowing wallpaper of Anne Frank’s room. I never knew the man, but on the basis of my own sense of human character, it would surprise me if, after walking through the gaping portal left by the most famous fake bookcase in the world, then negotiating a set of incredibly steep stairs, Ray Milland himself didn’t break down and cry to see his own face on her lonely wall. What I’m thinking is that despite the array of rewards he received for his many films, despite an Oscar for his portrayal of a drunk, despite the fact that during the war he made over twenty movies, his snapshot on an annexe wall may well have been the most important performance of his career.

After all, annually more than a half million visitors step through the annexe at the Anne Frank House on Prinsengracht in Amsterdam, and all of them pass through her empty bedroom. And when they do, they spot his photo. That picture, like his film credits, say nothing about who he was–whether he loved children, beat his wife, drank too much, or was a sweet and good man. Just as he did in all of his work, in that snapshot he plays a role--but perhaps his most important role, bringing joy and comfort.

I’m not interested in making a pitch for Ray Milland’s soul. In our tradition we’ve likely been far too quick with such judgments–both to claim some for sainthood and to relegate others to hell. I certainly won’t claim that his picture on Anne Frank’s wall grants him grace.

But I know one thing about the only gospel story concerning end times, the only narrative Christ himself ever delivered about the judgment: where we end up eternally has apparently little to do with tenacious doctrinal fortitude. I’m not arguing for universalism or campaigning for a doctrine-less faith, but in that passage in Matthew where Christ describes the ultimate in discrimination, he points the sheep to his right and the goats to his left on the basis of criteria which seemingly have everything to do with love.

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit,” he says to those of us he earmarks for eternal joy.

And here comes a grand mystery. “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

Apparently, the truly righteous don’t know a thing about what it was they were doing. They only did. They saw and acted–and loved.

I didn’t grow up Jewish or Roman Catholic or Lutheran. I don’t know about Mormon life, or the minutia of the day-to-day existence of Seventh Day Adventists. But after fifty years within the Reformed tradition, I think I know something about what it means to grow and live among those believers in the Calvinist tradition, and I dare say that among us, should is a great big word. We all feel the clarion call of that word’s obligation–I should really do this or that or the other blessed thing.

Yet Jesus Christ’s own description of what will happen at the outset of eternity is as revealing as it is mysterious because even at the very moment of judgment the sheep remain as unpretentious as they’ve ever been. They look at the Judge, quite befuddled. “When on earth did we do all of this?” they say. Their gifts were apparently given away unconsciously.

If our best deeds are as filthy rags, they can turn crystalline only with the grace of our God, often enough when we don’t even know it ourselves. The fact is, we get used, as did Ray Milland on a secluded fortress on a busy street in Amsterdam. God uses us for his good, whether or not we know it or approve it or even like it. Grace itself tingles in the inklings we sometimes receive of his own mysterious and divine plan.

Ray Milland may never have seen his photograph on Anne Frank’s wall. He may have gone to his grave without knowing what a half-million people every year see when they tour the secret annexe. Certainly, in 1944, when he was making The Lost Weekend, which would become the vehicle for his own greatest performance, a piece of stark realism, he knew nothing of the real life of a young woman hiding from the Nazis in Amsterdam and looking up at his picture daily.

There’s nothing new in all of this, of course, only mystery. We are most the Lord’s when he works his will, mysteriously, through us. We are most the Lord’s when we give, in love, without considering why. We are most his own when He is most of us.

As always, when it’s all said and done, He gets all the credits.

This essay originally appeared in The Banner.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

A snapshot of Ray Milland (ii)

But you’ll also find the place without the church, because 263 Prinsengracht will undoubtedly sport a huge phalanx of tourists from nine in the morning till five in the afternoon. It is, if you haven’t yet seen your way through the mystery, the place where, in July of 1942, Mr. Otto Frank, a Dutch Jew who ran the spice business downstairs, carefully and secretly tucked away his family and that of his business partner, Hermann Van Pels, as well as a Jewish dentist named Fritz Pfeffer, in an attempt to avoid extradition to and forced labor in Germany–at least that’s what the Nazis had announced would be their fate. Otto Frank knew better. He’d already left Germany in the 30s, when Nazi strategies became all too apparent. In ‘42, he went into hiding.

What he and his wife did in taking refuge in those formerly uninhabited upstairs rooms behind the shop was not unlike what thousands of others did in Holland at the time. What was unique about the Frank family was a daughter, Anne, who took it upon herself to write a diary in order to remember their seclusion in the back of her father’s business. Initially, she described life in the annexe for herself, detailing daily life in a secret place where movement, during the day especially, had to be strictly curtailed so that no one would realize the presence of the eight inhabitants. But in 1944, a man in the Dutch government in exile announced on British radio that after the war he hoped to collect eyewitness accounts of what had gone on during the Nazi occupation. When Anne Frank heard that announcement, she decided she would publish a book.

She did.

But her plan didn’t work as she had anticipated. To this day, no one knows exactly who it was that turned in the Franks and Van Pels to local authorities. But someone did, and all of them, with the exception of Otto Frank himself, eventually died before the Allied liberation. Auschwitz took both Mrs. Frank and Mr. Van Pels; and in 1945, when the Allies approached the camp where their mother had died, Anne and her sister Margot were transported to Bergen-Belzen, where in horrific conditions, both of them, like many, many others, succumbed to typhoid.

There really is no need to tell the Anne Frank story. Her diary may well be the most read book of the twentieth century. It contributes to the most memorable single story of the century we’re now looking back upon, the saga of World War II, a five-year campaign to stop the century’s most distinguished mustachioed madman and his mesmerized countrymen.

Upstairs in the annexe, in Anne’s own room, you’ll still be greeted by the gallery she pasted up on her walls; and there you’ll find, among pictures of flowers, of art work, a poster of her father’s ill-fated business, and a collection of snapshots of other Hollywood stars meant to bring some joy in her seclusion, a photo of Ray Milland.

It’s ironic that perhaps the most read story of World War II was written by a teenager, a girl who never saw a Allied soldier, who didn’t know a thing about the Battle of the Bulge or the marine assault on Iwo Jima, or “Little Boy” and “Fat Man,” the two atom bombs that flattened Japanese cities and changed the world. Spielberg’s Schindler’s List was a tremendous Holocaust movie, and his Search for Private Ryan captures the horrifying brutality of war like few other films; but it’s likely that Anne Frank’s unpretentious diary, her day-to-day evocation of life in hiding has become the quintessential World War II story. Her innocence and hope, in the middle of suffering, remains an inspiration, creating its own private habitation in the hearts and souls of millions of readers world-wide.


Tomorrow: conclusion.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

A snapshot of Ray Milland (i)

Even a true film buff might be hard pressed to name actor Ray Milland’s most famous Hollywood role. In his day, after all, Milland was no mid-list actor; he was a full-fledged, box-office star. His half-century’s worth of film credits include almost 150 movies, several of which he directed himself.

He had just reached eighty when he died in March of 1986, not all that long after his final role in a movie titled Masks of Red Death, a who-dun-it in which Scotland Yard persuades an elderly Sherlock Holmes to come out of retirement and clear up the lingering questions about–well, you guessed it–murder. His first cinematic appearance was a bit part in The Flying Scotsman, a 1929 movie shot as a silent film, then later dubbed with sound and dialogue.

During his fifty years in the business, his career had some highlights, including an Oscar for Best Actor in 1945, the year World War II ended, for his performance as a boozed-up would-be writer in The Lost Weekend, a film known, back then, for its daring realism. But those who study cinema would likely claim that the role in which he can be seen most frequently today would be the 1954 classic, Dial M for Murder, in which he starred alongside starlet-become-royalty Grace Kelley, a film undoubtedly made famous by the considerable skills of its portly director, Alfred Hitchcock.

Some may remember his portrayal of Oliver Barrett II, a rich and snobbish father in the adaptation of Erich Segal’s hugely popular, tear-jerking novel, Love Story, (1970); or as the evil millionaire Aristotle Bolt in the Disney classic Escape to Witch Mountain (1975). How about this? Milland and Robert Cummings play rival news reporters and love interests for the affections of skating superstar Sonja Heinie in Everything Happens at Night (1937), a film reviewed on-line with this memorable phrase: “one of Heinie’s best romantic skating vehicles” (must have been before the Zamboni).

In The Man With X-Ray Eyes (1963), a sci-fi classic with pretensions of Greek tragedy, Milland played a scientist whose discovery of x-ray vision lands him rather unceremoniously in a circus sideshow. There were some dogs, of course. In 1972, he took on the role of the wheelchair-bound patriarch of the Crockett family in a horror flick titled Frogs, a whacko chiller in the tradition of Hitchcock’s Birds, featuring obscenely excessive reptillian revenge.

I know very little about the man’s life, other than his films. I know that in 1905 he was born as Reginald Alfred Truscott-Jones in Wales, England, that throughout his long life he was, in rather unHollywood-like fashion, the husband of but one wife. The internet sources I scanned say nothing about his children or his past-times or his breakfast preferences. Umpteen different search engines will fill you in on his long list of flicks, but say nothing at all about his politics, his family, or the nature of his faith. In Hollywood today, I’m sure there are those who remember Ray Milland, who won’t forget his jocularity or sobriety, who recall some zany moments on the set or off; but, the vast informational riches of cyberspace define Ray Milland, one of Hollywood’s leading actors during his long career, only by his albeit extensive film credits.

But he appears elsewhere, and has for more than fifty years. Ray Milland’s snapshot graces the upstairs wall of the annexe of a building where two small trading companies, Opekta and Pectacon, once maintained a considerable business in spices, an annexe that was not in use at all in 1942, the year it was then clandestinely remodeled to support a family and more. The address of the building is Amsterdam, the Netherlands–263 Prinsengracht--and if you’re ever in Amsterdam, you’ll find the address most quickly if you look for the Westerkerk, a wonderful old cathedral just a few steps down the block, whose bells ring as richly today as they did more than a half century ago.

Tomorrow:  Anne Frank and Ray Milland

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

"Go milk cows"

In the preface to Little Heathens, her memoir of growing up in Iowa during the deep recesses of the American Depression, Mildred Armstrong Kalish, says one of her earliest memories is her Grandma Urmy strong-arming Mildred's little sister Avis, then about a year old, right out of Avis's mother's arms while she was nursing, sending the child into some endless wailing.

"Let her cry!" Grandma Urmy said. "You can't begin character building too soon."

It's no wonder Ms. Kalish didn't forget. Sounds fiendish, doesn't it?  Still, I can't help but smile, especially in an era of helicopter parents. 

My mother-in-law, who grew up poor, used to say, "It's not what you want, it's what you get," a little parable that summarized all the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Here's another old salty line, similar genre: "Praise God, but pass the ammunition." 

Ms. Kalish claims her grandmother's near-truculence was a gift from her authentic Puritan heritage. The Urmys were, after all, New Englanders, not native Iowans; and what baggage they hauled with them in the covered wagon they took out west in the 1850s included a really tight grip round their emotions, something of a fist. 
To them, life was a serious challenge and they brooked few frivolities. They read the Bible, prayed every day, and entertained themselves by critiquing the minister's and quarreling over his interpretations of the Bible. 
All of that may be true; but if it is, what's amazing about the book is its charm, its sweet nostalgic look back at a way of life made want skedaddle. Little Heathens is perfectly darling because it opens up a world that's long gone.  It's such a dear evocation of life amid the Thirties that you can't help think we all could use a Grandma Urmy and a good shot of poverty. 

I grew up in a home where the Bible was read every day, where the preacher's sermons were critiqued, where faith was presumed elemental. But it was never cold or unfeeling. My mother used to sit at the piano with one of her students at eight o'clock in the morning (she taught piano most every day) and demand a kiss on the cheek before I'd leave for school. For my part, she could have done with less warmth. You know--yucch. 

I'm not questioning Ms. Kalish's judgments. In her case, it may well have been a Puritanical brand of faith that made her grandma's heart into an anvil. But I can't help thinking there was more to it. 

Not long ago--and I won't go into detail--it became necessary for me to stand by when my father-in-law used the bathroom. Age thoroughly demolishes some dignities, as everyone knows. What was most striking to me about that moment was how incredibly little Charmin he used. I couldn't believe it. Waste not, want not. 

But he too grew up in the Depression. He didn't have indoor plumbing until he was 40 years old. Whether his parental home was strictly religious, I don't know; but when he graduated from the eighth grade, his future was determined. As the oldest boy in a family of ten kids, mid-Thirties, he was needed at home, on the farm. 

"It's not what you want, it's what you get." For that kind of life, the stern emotional character of Grandma Urmy may well have been a prerequisite. Who knows? She may have been right to snatch that child from her daughter's breast. 

I don't think so, but I think somehow I understand. And that's why I smile.

Long ago in the classroom, we were talking about "showing" love in families. Some kids claimed that a mom and dad couldn't be good parents if they didn't hug, if they didn't demand goodbye kisses, if they didn't hold their kids in their arms. 

One guy said that was all hooey. 

"Then how do you know if your dad loves you?" someone asked him.

He shrugged his shoulders. "I don't know." Clearly, he was scrambling. "When he tells me, 'Go milk cows,'" he said, "what he really means is 'I love you.'"

That's a story I've never forgotten. Still makes me smile.