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, June 28, 2017

Anniversary Confessions

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It had been two years since I'd lived anywhere close, but Orange City was her hometown. That we would be married there was beyond question, and that was okay with me. A few of my old friends came around, along with a few old profs, and of course my family from afar. But that hot day in late June, First CRC, Orange City, Iowa, held hosts of her family, she being the oldest cousin in a hoard of Vissers, her mother's side.

We drew a crowd, all right, most all of them seeing, for the very first time, this soon-to-be husband, not a farmer, of their drop-dead gorgeous cousin. After all, we got married in a fever. Stem-to-stern, first date-to-alter oath took six months total. We spent our first Christmas together six months after we got married. How's that for heat?

The college chaplain married us, the Rev. John B. Hulst, who wasn't always sure I was driving down along the straight-and-narrow; but I found him trustworthy, and, more importantly, he'd been my soon-to-be-wife's childhood preacher.

Truth be told, I don't remember much about the wedding itself. It was hot--that I know, late June, rural, northwest Iowa, the reception in Northwestern College, Fern Smith Hall--that I won't forget, the first time I'd been at the college itself, not in the gym or baseball diamond.

What I do remember is that I wanted it over. Two reasons--first, the whole business was a bit over-the-top for someone who regarded himself as being, well, "counter-cultural," non-traditional. We fooled around a little with the oath, I remember, but already back then I had a firm enough grasp on my abilities--or lack thereof--to determine that I wasn't about to memorize what I'd written. I suppose that marriage vow is around somewhere, but I honestly wouldn't know where to look. That day I'd decided that weddings are really for women.

The other reason was another kind of heat: I was aching for the honeymoon. Oh, not the flamboyance extravagantly charted today--Cancun, Bermuda, Hawaii, France; that would have been far too "kitch-ish," far too "traditional." Less was always more to hippie types.

The truth is, I hadn't even reserved a motel room. 'Twasn't laziness either. It was principal. Fancy-schmancy honeymoons were Nixonian or some kind of evil. The world was marching into chaos--Vietnam, cities in shambles, etc., etc., etc. You can't dance in a bonfire. Power to the people. Whatever.

So I got what came to me, a cheap little dive in Worthington, Minnesota, a motel long ago torn down, a squalid place barely more behind a flimsy door than a bed and a toilet. That's where we spent our first night. The truth can be told now, all these years later: we should have gone to Vegas. It was not a night to remember.

And it got off to a horrible start because once the festivities were over, once the guests were beginning to go home, the two of us went out the car (I'd parked it at church like an idiot), got in after wiping out mounds of shaving cream, started the engine, put it in reverse, and went nowhere. We were up on blocks. Yes, there was a crowd who thought the whole mess richly funny. Me? I couldn't get away from that church fast enough, and when we left the church I couldn't get away.

I don't remember her wedding dress--she still has it--but I do remember that clingy "going away" outfit, maroon, I think. True. I do. There I was, cranked for the honeymoon, and our orange VW was going nowhere.

I was livid.

When fifteen--maybe twenty--minutes later, we finally got off the blocks, the shaving cream wiped up, when we finally got on the road, right then in our first moments alone as man and wife, 45 years ago just last night, my gorgeous bride heard language no man just married in a church should have uttered. And lots of it too.

So it's time I apologize for that unrighteous honeymoon outburst. I'm sorry, Barbara Van Gelder Schaap, for a tantrum far worse than any I ever threw in the next 45-year marriage; a
nd I'm oh, so thankful you didn't tell me to turn around and bring you home. I got us off to a shaky start, but you're the one, my dear. You're the only one.

Even if this morning, the morning after our anniversary, you're waking up as I write in a tiny little farmhouse in some obscure place in rural northwest Missouri, a couple dozen Angus neighbors right there in our backyard, three days of leadfoot museum trudging behind us.

Next year, Cancun :).

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Jonah and the Visitor--a story (ii)

(continued from yesterday)

When finally that bat found a roost on a beam, he hung there, wings tucked, upside down, like a fat blot of tar. I was on the whale itself just then, Melville-like in my thoroughness, I might add. No matter--I could have just as well been out to sea. Once that bat stopped its swooping, every last eye was glued to the ceiling. Women pulled hankies over their heads, turned what was left of my sermon into something that resembled a funeral.

Every minute of what I’d written got lost. Jonah comes up out of the belly of that whale a changed man, but nobody in my church even heard the truth. Jonah takes the good news to the wicked people of Ninevah, and nobody heard a word.

When it was over and I was standing at the door shaking the hands, some of the people chuckled about that infernal bat; some of them, giggling, told me it was surely the Devil come in to wreak havoc.

Slim Murphy, perfectly poker-faced--excuse the expression--said to me, “Heckuva sermon, Pastor Angus.” That’s exactly what he said, “a heckuva sermon.” I could have held forth on the plague of toads, and Slim Murphy wouldn’t have stayed awake.

Some of them didn’t say a word, either, just skedaddled.

My righteous indignation stole away my better sense away when it was all over. I found my Jimmy’s old pellet gun in a corner of the basement, one of those air rifles you pump with your arm, and I marched back to church, slapped on just a few lights, even took a flashlight along to find that miserable thing--and when I did, I took aim.

Could well be I’ve lost some of the ability I once had to hit the mark with sermons the way I did when I was young and full of dreams, but I still have a steady trigger finger. So he came down in three shots--flop, like a dead bird. I picked him up in my handkerchief and deposited him just on the other side of the parking lot, where, if I’m lucky, some varmint will come along and help himself to a wicked lunch.

That’s what I did. I say you got to take the Devil down yourself if you’re going to beat him. You can’t wait for others if their out puffing on a LaPalina.

Burt the janitor said to me this afternoon, “Wonder where that bat went? I looked and looked and I couldn’t find him anywhere. Must have a secret place.”

I didn’t tell Burt I shot him. I just said, “I don’t want that bat ruining any more of my sermons, Mr. Blankenship. You find him, hear?”

So all afternoon Burt looked, neck stretched up like a goose. That’ll teach him not to skip out for a puff of his month-old cigar. That’ll fix my janitor. Dirty, cancerous things anyway, those cigars.

And a perfectly good sermon, too, just ruined. Maybe I'll just preach it again this week. Why not? 

Lord, have mercy.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Jonah and the Visitor--a story (i)

On old story from Reformed Worship, many moons ago, describing an event that lots and people remember in a lots and lots of churches. Just for fun.
I don’t care what anybody says, I’m mad. I’m not writing another sermon for church next week because nobody heard a word of the last one.

I’ve been holding forth for so many years I’ve lost track of time--80 or 90 or 150 years old is what it feels like. After last Sunday, maybe most all of Methuselah’s 900.

Sometimes it feels like a curse to be a preacher because you see every last sleepy eye from up front, in my years dozens more than my share. And this was a Jonah sermon, one of the great stories of the Bible, a real slacker gobbled up by the whale and spit out on shore like bad sausage.

The blame for what happened lies squarely on our frightful guest—I know that. If it wouldn’t have been for him, I would have had the people’s attention under lock and key. Last night we had one in the sanctuary--what I want to know now is how many more uncles and aunts and cousins will flit in uninvited and ruin sermons I’ve spent half my week planning. A bat--one of those black-winged, horror-story blood-suckers flew in Sunday night, uninvited, and destroyed everything.

Bats chirp, but mostly you don’t really hear them, but you see them just fine. They swoop in and turn on a dime as if they’re being dangled by one of Satan’s own evil puppeteers. I spotted him first during the hymn, saw him float around against the stained glass above the empty balcony before anyone else saw him, turning on a dime, coasting on unseen drafts. Everyone else was looking down in the hymnal at the words of a song I probably shouldn’t have picked because no one knew it. This time at least, it was half a blessing.

Burt the janitor wasn’t in his usual spot right then either. I looked for him, but he’s got a way of sneaking out once things get started. When the sanctuary temperature is just right and the speaker system’s operating the way it should, he sees things are moving and just like that he’s out for a puff on one of his fat black cigars he relites, Sundays only. He won’t admit it. If I ask him, he’ll tell me he was in the basement for a toilet running over.

So what could I do but hope that little devil with wings would find some nice warm spot to hang on and not make a run into the sanctuary.

Wishful thinking.

I read scripture, started in on the sermon, and everything looked fine. Through the story of the storm at sea, even the children were attentive. But when I came to the part where the affrighted sailors hoist Jonah overboard, I started to see those same kids looking straight up, a penguin chorus. That bat was somewhere in the peak of the ceiling, looking to perch.

Now First DeKalb is an old church, high ceilinged, with sanctuary lights suspended above the benches from long poles. This much I know about bats--like the little devils they are, they love the darkness. This one--he had wings a foot across--stayed up in the peak for most of my exposition, except for an occasional sortie towards parishoners’ heads, once right for beanpole-ish Durword Blankenship, whose bald pate always beckons lightning by pointing so way up high.

At that, the whole crowd sucked in a deep breath so deep that could have sucked the flame off votive candles, if we were Catholic. Mothers clenched their children, and little girls placed tented hymnals over their heads so the sanctuary looked like military camp. Reggie Gullikson, who’s been out of control since he was three, start flicking paper wads every time the bat made a dive.

But if you’d have seen their eyes, you’d have thought the whole assembly had lost their wits--everybody, young and old, all of them following that demonic bat’s every last dip and flip, tracing every corner he cut, every dive and swoop, a hundred whites of a hundred eyes, a chorus of rolling eyeballs.
Tomorrow: The visitor comes to roost.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Sunday Morning Meds--Always there

He will not let your foot slip—
he who watches over you will not slumber; 
indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.” Psalm 121

About couple of decades ago, when my family and I were being shown around the old central city of Leiden, Holland, we were taken up on some kind of ancient battlement that has stood there for centuries. 

Hundreds of people were about, as they say.  Our guide, a historian, was narrating the story of the ancient city from atop from the battlements, which, as I remember it, was a huge concrete angel food cake.  Dozens of people were strolling on it, enjoying the sun and the Sabbath. 

I couldn’t help thinking about the fall one might take if one lost his or her balance or was somehow nudged off the edge.  There were no fences, no wires, no plexi-glass, and no warning signs.  If you would fall, you’d simply splat on the ground beneath it, maybe eight or ten feet, as I remember.
“So I’m amazed,” I told our guide at Leiden, “that there’s no wall.  What happens if people fall?  I mean, someone could sue.”

He laughed. “The court would say, ‘You’re a fool for falling off the edge.’”

I found that answer really strange because it wouldn’t happen here, and certainly wouldn’t be said. In fact, it’s possible that someone might stage a fall just to reap the dividends. We are a litigious society.

I don’t need to go back farther than fifty years or so in my own ethnic tribe to locate theological arguments that questioned the righteousness of insurance.  I mean, what God appointed to happen, happens, or so the tenet runs. Insurance, theological purists argued, weakens dependency on God by pushing the insured to take comfort instead in an financial portfolio.

Today that argument is dead in the water.  It would be impossible to live without insurance these days, a high-wire act without safety nets.

But Psalm 121 minces no words.  In its eight short verses, it insists five times—count ‘em yourself—that God watches over us, and he does so without blinking.  He neither slumbers nor sleeps.  He’s always there.

Affluence is a buffer, keeping us from need.  From when comes my help? —from my 401Ks, my retirement fund, my nest egg.  It’s probably fair to say that in terms of heat, clothing, fuel, and food, in the west at least, we’re warmly taken care of.  That God watches over us is nice, but get real and keep your eyes on the Dow Jones.

All of which would be true, if it weren’t for the tortures of the soul, the pain that come from wounds within.  Far be it from me—a citizen of one of the richest countries in the world—to say that those hurts, sorrows of the heart, are more crippling than the sorrows of the flesh.  I’m in no position to judge.  We’ve got food in our new refrigerator.

But I know something about heartache, as does everyone who’s ever lived, including the only one of us who was sinless.

Fat or thin, rich or poor, what remains the greatest comfort is not a good lawyer or a bountiful insurance payoff. What Psalm 121 won’t allow us to forget is that our God is always there, vigilant, caring, protective.

The poet can’t say it often enough. He’s there, he’s there, he’s there—and he won’t fall asleep on the job.  You can’t buy that kind of insurance. Someone, the sinless one, already did.           

Friday, June 23, 2017

Morning Thanks--Baling Hay*

I've never been a late-sleeper, so I remember very well lying in bed and hearing the telephone ring. I knew what it was, and I knew that it would only be a minute or so before my mother would put down the receiver and call upstairs with news I could have forecast. The dew was going, the sun was shining, and soon enough we'd be bailing hay. The next fall I'd be in eighth grade, I think, maybe seventh.

Today, there would likely be child-labor laws to prevent my going, but what I understood from my mother's call was that in just a matter of minutes I'd hop on my Bridgestone and ride to some out-of-the-way farm somewhere, where I'd meet the family of the old man who'd hired me to buck bales. They'd already be there, checking the baler, poking the elevator up into some weird barn door that hadn't been opened since last May, some wooden squeaky thing festooned with cobwebs thick as yarn.

I hated baling hay. I would much rather not have gone. The guy we worked for was a God-fearing man, a fact I'm sure my mother relished. What she didn't realize was that baling hay also meant being packed into a mow with a gang of other sweaty adolescent boys, all of us boiling over with hormones we couldn't begin to negotiate. What I learned baling hay was a lot more than she ever bargained for when she called upstairs.

No matter. Today, a half-century later, when I look back, I know baling hay was a rite of passage I wouldn't--not in a month of Sundays--be without. Baling hay has made it into more than one story because the experience was rich with life, as rich as the smell of cut alfalfa on a lake shore field, a smell, oddly enough, I still love.

I was a town boy, no farm background whatsoever. I was not--nor have I ever been--blessed with any kind of mechanical aptitude. That I may have been a better student than at least some of the crew back then, was no matter. I was, on the farm, a klutz, an embarrassment. No matter. I worked, often until late into the night. Such was life back then.

The boss was one of those men who believed, wholeheartedly, in the sanctity, the redemptive power of work. He was tight as a fist, and, by my estimation, could care less for the kids he employed at a slave's wages. But he gave me more vivid life's experience than I could ever have learned in town on those sunny days, doing nothing at all.

This morning, our neighbors are putting on a roof, employing their two adolescent boys. Today, I must admit, I find that fact absolutely wonderful. Roofing, like baling, is hard work--hard, hard work. But when I look over there, beyond the alley out back, and I think it's a great thing to see those town boys up there scraping off shingles and nailing down new ones, wearing out their jeans. They're working. Bless 'em.

I wonder what my mother knew back then when she'd open the upstairs door and call up to tell me I had a half hour to get to Cedar Grove. She couldn't have known everything. What I learned were things I'm not sure she could imagine, even today.

But this morning, I'm thankful that, back then, she got me out of bed and on that little scooter, put my lunch in my hands so I could strap it to the seat, and sent me off--way too young to work as hard as we did, and far too lazy to know clearly enough how important, how life-bringing it was for me to have to get up in that almost hellish hay mow, to hear the infernal clanging of that orange elevator delivering those twine-d up beasts, to brush away the cobwebs and start packing bales six-high, seven-high.

This morning--the sound of hammers coming from just next door--I'm thankful my mother called. I really am. Not that I liked it then. Not that I'd like it today. Nope. But working for that praying skinflint gave me lessons for life that I remember far more poignantly than what went on that year in school. I'm thankful for an education that included scratched-up arms and worn-out gloves and jeans that come with the sweaty, dusty work of putting up bales.

Once upon a time I did a story on a man who invented the round baler. He told me his motivation was simply this, to keep his neighbor, a good farmer, on the land because, he said, that neighbor of his hated baling hay so much he threatened to quit. I understood fully. In actuality, I hold little nostalgia for the arduous work myself. But I'm glad, thankful, I'm a veteran.

So this morning's thanks, with the sound of those hammers coming into our house from next door, is for my mom's persistent voice coming up the stairwell of our little house, telling her boy what he already knew--that this morning there'd be hay to bale and I wouldn't be home until dark. Sixty cents an hour, I remember--that was my second year, when I got a ten-cent raise.

The truth is, on those mornings the boss would call, I was already awake; but that didn't mean that she didn't have to get me out of bed. Today, I'm glad she did.
*First published June 3, 2011.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Book Review: Killers of the Flower Moon

Even if you're just passing through, you'll likely stumble on places in northern Oklahoma and southern Kansas where history is writ large in abandoned downtowns, some of them featuring four-story buildings in outright disrepair and remarkable therefore for ghostly impression of what once was. Oil made those place big and muscular, and oil, when it died, shut 'em down. Today, they're big cemeteries, people still make a life there, but not as many as once did. 

The difference between dying small towns in the upper Midwest and their counterparts in oil country is that up here people never were particularly wealthy. In Kansas and Oklahoma, where gushers bullied their way up from the earth, people were. Some at least. But no more. 

In Killers of the Flower Moon, David Grann tells a story that out-perplexes most murder mysteries, a story so not-to-be-believed that most readers might think the book came off the fiction shelf. But it's not a novel; it's narrative non-fiction, and the tale it documents is not only spell-binding, it's devastating. 

I don't know about others, but once upon a time I thought all the Native people who ended up in Oklahoma were banished there. Many were. Most were, in fact. American history has more Trails-of-Tears than a Rand McNally. But some tribes went voluntarily to Indian Territory, took it upon themselves to take up residence there. Beaten by disease and loss of tribal lands and heritage, they took up residence in the Oklahoma Territory in order to survive. The Osage, for instance, once the dominant people on the central Plains, bought land from the Cherokee, land they chose because they assumed no white folks would ever want it enough to take it away. 

They were wrong. Then there was oil. Which is to say, money. Gobs and gobs of it, more money than anyone needs, more money than the Osage people knew what to do with, so much, in fact, that white people helped  them--by law. White folks decreed that in order for the Osage to get the money they earned simply by owning the land where oil was discovered, they had to employ white people to handle it. You read that right. 

Even though the story David Grann tells in Killers of the Flower Moon isn't something he uncovered, I dare say it is, to the vast majority of Americans, totally unknown. At least it was to me. I knew some things about the Osage, had been on their reservation. I knew of their 18th and early 19th century strength, about the diseases that devastated them, knew how they got kicked around the region by the Feds and the Rebels during the Civil War. I even knew they got rich when oil gurgled up one morning in the 1890s. 

What I didn't know is the ways white people designed to get that wealth; and then, more greedy, systematically murdered the Osage to get every last bit of what bubbled to the top of the ground no one else ever wanted. Murder, in a dozen different ways. Murder by husbands who killed their spouses, the mothers of their children. Murder, for nothing less than the love of money.

Local authorities were powerless to stanch the blood because local authorities were part of the conspiracy of death. There's another story in Killers of the Flower Moon, and that's the story of the development of the fledgling FBI, a story in which justice could be served only by way of federal intervention. That's right--only the feds could bring people to justice.

It's a devastating story, full of grief and pathos. Read it, and you may not pull on those red Trump caps quite as proudly. What you will hear is the awful truth about the roots of the love of money.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

What can't be lost

I'm not sure where it came from, or even what relative gave it to my parents, but tucked away in a bank vault in Sioux Center, Iowa, in a strongbox under our name, is a cloth banner--just a small one, maybe eight inches square--adorned with an eagle, wings unfurled, above a small, black swastika. I'd show you, but it's locked up.

When I was a kid, I thought it was an armband, but if it were it would have to have belonged to a child. It's the size of the numbers marathoners pin to their shirts, no bigger.

I'm not sure why it's in a bank vault, but I know why it isn't down here among a thousand other artifacts--Dutch books, old Bibles, yellowing pictures, and even a samurai sword my dad took home from the South Pacific in 1945. That one Nazi artifact is not here, framed and up on a wall, because putting it up somewhere down here, seventy-some years after Auschwitz and Dachau, still seems obscene. 

Back in grade school--I couldn't have been older than ten or so--the teacher asked us to bring in things from the war. All of our fathers went, after all. By the time we'd lugged our stuff to school--I'm sure my samurai went--the back counter was full of swastikas, even a German flag as big the any Stars-and-Stripes the school owned. All of that Nazi stuff is, I'd guess, still tucked away in Oostburg attics sixty years later. Nobody'd toss it, but only very scary people would unfurl a Nazi flag across a wall as den decor.

So it's not surprising that Argentinian officials had to step through a hidden doorway and make passage down a secret hallway to find a stash of Nazi artifacts unlike any in size or character since 1945. According to yesterday's Washington Post,  the objects included "a bust relief of Hitler, magnifying glasses embossed with swastikas (as well as a photo of Hitler holding the same or a similar instrument), a large statue of an eagle above a swastika, silverware, binoculars, a trumpet and a massive swastika-studded hourglass"--75 items in all, and not just any grunt's war booty.

Some big names--Eichmann, Mengele--slithered away to Argentina in the final days of Third Reich, several of them taking up residence in the neighborhood where the collection was located. Included were photographs of Hitler holding some of items, as if to authenticate their value.

School kids who visit the Sioux County Museum can't help but notice backward swastikas on a wall-sized, horsehide Native American painting. They adorn a wigwam under siege during a battle between the U. S. Calvary and the Sioux, the Battle of Slim Buttes. Bloodied Natives and soldiers are all over, but inevitably some mystified kid will raise his hand and point at the swastika. That symbol remains powerful, even today, even with kids so young their great-grandparents were born after the war.

The only item from that incredible Argentinian collection I'd ever think about owning is the hourglass. Even though 75 years have passed since a little mustached man determined the world would be a better place if he ruled it and the Jews were all dead, someday--maybe a hundred years from now--maybe der Fuhrer will be forgotten. That would be a good thing. 

But I don't know that we should ever stop tipping that hourglass over, that we should ever forget what happened. Losing our fear of him may well be a blessing, but we do ourselves wrong by ever losing track of the darkness in each of us, the pride at the heart of our fallen humanity. 

When we forget our need of grace, we need to take that hour-glass and turn it over once again. We always will.