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, May 24, 2017


Image result for wing biddlebaum grotesque

"The story of Wing Biddlebaum is the story of hands," so saith Sherwood Anderson in the first story of his famous small-town tales, Winesburg, Ohio. From the very first time I read that story, long, long ago, I was taken by Biddlebaum's fragile existence and the very thin line that separates good and evil, love and sin.

As if he were leprous, Old Wing lives just outside of town. He was once a schoolteacher, a man who loved children too much maybe, so much he couldn't keep his hands off of them. He'd always had active hands, fingers that moved with an agility that was, even to those who disliked him, almost mythical. Already as a child, he'd picked berries with precision and speed that exceeded everyone else in the berry patch.

For reasons known only to Sherwood Anderson, strange Wing Biddlebaum opens up about life and living only to George Willard, the boy who becomes a man in Winesburg, Ohio, the kid who is fascinated by the community's eccentrics. George Willard somehow trusts the old teacher, so the two of them walk together out into the countryside, and when they do, Wing, once a teacher, finds himself back in a kind of classroom. Once again, as they had years ago, his hands begin to move.

For once he forgot the hands. Slowly they stole forth and lay upon George Willard's shoulders. Something new and bold came into the voice that talked. "You must try to forget all you have learned," said the old man. "You must begin to dream. From this time on you must shut your ears to the roaring of the voices."
Pausing in his speech, Wing Biddlebaum looked long and earnestly at George Willard. His eyes glowed. Again he raised the hands to caress the boy and then a look of horror swept over his face.
That look of horror is rooted in his own dark experience as a teacher, when he was accused of using his hands improperly, of doing things with them--and with his students--that were untoward. Accusations were made, and the sentence he was handed was banishment from the classroom. Years later, on summer nights he sits alone on his porch outside of town, restraining his hands, a forlorn but not forgotten "grotesque," as Anderson calls the him and the other misshapen characters in Winesburg.

Was Wing what today we could call as abuser, a sex offender? That question is never answered fully in the story. All we know is that once upon a time those too active hands prompted an accusation that got him removed forever from the classroom, and that kills him.

Sounds awful, but I thought of Wing yesterday again because a couple dozen third and fourth graders came by the museum and wanted to know about Indians. I walked them through the gallery of beaded moccasins and ceremonial shirts, past buffalo skins decorated with stories of fights and battles, past tools crafted from bone and stone, and wherever we stopped they stuck their hands in my face, full of questions, full of life, full of joy at learning, the kind of patrons museum docents adore.

Their enthusiasm was so high that more than once in the bedlam, when I'd call on one one of them, they'd momentarily forgotten what they were going to ask. A straggler or two didn't much care about keeping up with the rest of the group, but mostly they were something of a team, maybe even a mob in their enthusiasm. They wanted to know everything. If there were more kids coming today, I'd go back and walk them through in a heartbeat.

The truth? This old grandpa wanted to touch them. I did. When they'd stick their hands up in my face, full of questions, I wanted to grab those hands and squeeze. One little girl with braids and huge brown eyes told me, "My grandma is an Indian." I could have hugged 'em, every one of them. I could have touched them, would have loved to. They were excited to learn, and I couldn't keep up with their questions. It was a joy I wanted to touch.

But I couldn't, could I? 

All I know is the kids were darling, and I wanted to touch them. That's what made me think of old Wing Biddlebaum, a sad story really, as many of them are in Winesburg, Ohio.  That grandpa impulse in me made me wonder again about the fragility of our lives, of the terrible tension created between hands that love and hands that don't.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The story it's meant to tell

That the hide is mislabeled is no one's fault, really. Somewhere along the line, the painting was given a title that was, in all likelihood, a slip of the tongue. That slip got typed up and inserted in the display box to identify the story--the Battle, the note says, of Twin Buttes.

There should be a "The Battle of Twin Buttes." You can almost see Big John Wayne scan the horizon from his saddle, a hundred Lakota braves, bedecked for war, awaiting a chilling scream from Crazy Horse to reign down terror. If there isn't a movie titled "The Battle of Twin Buttes," there should be.

But there never was a Battle of Twin Buttes, not in the American west or tucked away on some shelf in a Hollywood film library. There's only one Battle of Twin Buttes, and that's on the wall at the Sioux County Museum, Orange City, Iowa.

But the story that hide tells is distinctive, not generic. After all, up there in the right hand corner four cavalry are positioned behind some kind of structure pouring led down on a village. The Sioux or Lakota would never have chosen to fight inside their village, where their women and children could be hurt. All signs point to a U. S. Calvary attack on a village, something that happened during the Great Sioux Wars more than once, but not all that often.

What the historian was drawing is the story of an attack on a village, probably--given the position of the sharpshooters--a surprise attack. And there were, he or she notes, women and children among the victims. That line of cavalry with rifles is taking aim at a brave in a flowing headdress who appears to stand in front of woman, who appears already dead, and a child. The warrior is notably unarmed.

In the fights going on all over the painting, the Lakota appear to be getting the upper hand, even though only one of the warriors (the one bottom center) has a rifle. All the others are armed with bows or tomahawks or long knives. Still, the artist unmistakably presents the warriors as taking the upper hand.

Here's my guess. This incredible piece of Native American history tells the story of the Battle of Slim Buttes, a fight--a surprise attack on a camp that was not at war--which took place in the far corner of South Dakota, the very first bloody engagement between U.S. Cavalry and "hostiles," as they were called, bands of Sioux people who wanted no part of reservation life, wanted only the freedom of the old ways--old ways that put them in the way of what the white man called "progress."

Under the command of General Crooke and an army that had just lost the most significant battle against Native people ever, at Little Big Horn, a Captain Anson Mills, along with 150 troopers, by pure happenstance, ran into the village pictured on the hide, and, contrary to Crook's orders, decided to attack.

Mills and his men were thirty miles from the General's half-wasted army, a haggard bunch of survivors who'd been slogging through the mud for more than a hundred miles with nothing to eat but their horses. Crook had advised no fighting because he knew his men were in no shape. In truth, he was next thing to fighting mutiny.

But Mills determined to assault 48 lodges of two Miniconjou leaders, American Horse and Red Horse. It was--and this can't be said enough--a peaceable village. But after Custer's massacre, no white man in uniform was in the mood for peace. Soon enough the people were cleared out of the village, some of them up in the adjoining hills, some in a gully, where American Horse determined to hold his ground.

Once the firing ceased, famished troops filled their larder and themselves with five thousand pounds of dried meat, the first time some of them had eaten anything in days. When Crook's own troops arrived, he lost control of them--all 2000--very quickly.

Twenty troopers volunteered to go down into the gully and get American Horse. They did, "cursing and yelling" through the shrieks of terrified women.

What followed was a grueling and horrifying several hours of unending volleys into the gully, the cave where American Horse and a dozen of his people--women and children-- remained. " “The yelling of Indians, discharge of guns, cursing of soldiers, crying of children, barking of dogs, the dead crowded in the bottom of the gory, slimy ditch, and the shrieks of the wounded," one who was there remembered, "presented the most agonizing scene that clings in my memory of Sioux warfare.” American Horse came out of that gully holding his intestines in his hands. He died soon after.

That afternoon, after the fighting, Crazy Horse and 400 Sioux came up on the bluffs, but after some exchange of gunfire the fighting ceased.

All that buffalo meat was there from a buffalo hunt--a summer hunt. That's why American Horse and his people were there. Because they were "off reservation," they were considered "hostile," even though the whole band was on their way back to their home.

The cavalry got themselves fed and took 300 fresh ponies to replace the mounts they'd eaten.

Three cavalry were killed, 27 wounded. Exactly how many Native people lost their lives isn't known. The Sioux themselves indicated there were ten dead.

That's the story of the hide up on the wall of the Sioux County Museum, the story it pictures, the story its was created to tell, the story of the Battle of Slim Buttes.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Morning Thanks--what Luther discovered

I don't know that anyone cares, really, about the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Sure, there are committees (I'm on one) tasked with caring, but that doesn't mean that in the pew on Sunday morning anyone is thinking about what might be happen when the big birthday arrives (generally assumed to be the day Luther nailed-up his theses on the Wittenburg church door). Could well be that churches will simply put a note in their church bulletins: "Hey, this morning just a shout out to Luther. . ."

But we're there, almost. Will be, at least, in a few months.

A review in the Weekly Standard last week got me to thinking, after a note on-line made a claim that seemed totally outrageous, to wit, that after book shelves full of material already written about Martin Luther, after the tonnage he himself produced in a lifetime of writing, it's almost impossible to imagine any one might have anything new to say about the founder of a movement that, quite literally, changed the world.

Someone actually writes something new about Luther? Seriously?

James R. Payton, who taught history at Redeemer University College in Ontario, claims that Lyndel Roper's Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet does just that. He says Professor Roper, who teaches at Oxford, judges Luther, "raw edges and all," as a man of his time and place, putting him and his sometimes blushingly shameful utterances, "raw edges and all," squarely into the world in which he lived: "Roper looks at "the Saxon reformer in terms of his sociocultural milieu," Payton says, with a special regard for "the development of his views in terms of his relationship to father-figures—and his own sense of paternal authority for the movement he had unleashed."

But then Payton makes a claim about Renegade and Prophet I thought interesting and itself new, at least to me--someone sure as anything a child of the Reformation. "She does not acknowledge, or wrestle with, the driving impulse that both dominated and enervated the young monk." That's quite an indictment, but Payton pursues his criticism with dedication: "By entering monastic life, Luther sought to place himself in a situation where he could best prepare to meet his Maker; but his efforts, while exceeding even the strictest, most demanding, counsels, did not result in the slightest confidence that he might find peace with God."

The story many children of the Reformation know is Luther dragging himself up the holy stairs to the Cathedral in 1510, bloodying his knees in the process, creating all that anguish to purify himself in his quest for atonement. That extreme religious discipline, Payton says, brought Luther "no relief in his search—until his labors brought him to wrestle with the words of St. Paul in Romans 1:16-17": 
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.
"There," Payton says, the apostle Paul "rejoiced in what terrified Luther ('the righteousness of God,' revealed in the gospel)" until Luther discerned the emphasis that "the righteous one will live by faith," the very heart of the theology of the Reformation. 

What Luther discovered, as a monk, Payton says, was that all his diligence and dedication to that spiritual task would not bring him where he wanted so badly to be, a man beloved. "Luther had stumbled upon the teaching from then on associated with him: Justification sola fide, being accounted righteous before God by faith alone," Payton says [emphasis his].

What Luther discovered was that salvation wasn't something he could do. That truth left Luther free to be Luther, for better or for worse--and God to be God. Salvation comes by faith alone. 

Okay, maybe it's not totally new, but I for once will certainly admit that it's been so long since I've thought through that idea that Payton's whole take felt fresh as the morning. 

This morning I'm thankful for a few old words, freshly served up, from the Weekly Standard.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Sunday Morning Meds--A shocking end

But may sinners vanish from the earth and the wicked be no more.” 
Psalm 104:35

Whoever it was that wrote Psalm 104 didn’t have an MFA, didn’t study at a prestigious writing program with celebrated writers for teachers. How was he to know that introducing a whole new subject at the very end of the poem here is just simply not done?

He needed an editor badly. Someone should have told him what’s perfectly obvious—that taking a cheap shot at the wicked—(whoever that is)—at the end of this breathtaking survey of all creation is not only sophomoric but gauche. After all, “the wicked” are not at the heart of this poem, for pity’s sake; God’s providential hand in his beautiful, natural world is. That's what the poem is all about. 

In 35 verses of one of the most beautiful and comforting poems in the whole library of human literary achievement, there’s not one mention of “the wicked.” Not one. And then, here, in the last verse, with the poet's final breath, as if out of nowhere, the wicked come into the picture only to get thumped. If he wanted to explore “the wicked,” he should have pulled out another sheet of whatever it was he was writing on and started in on another song, don't you think? 

I’m a writing teacher. I know better. I edit papers, have for years. I know what works and what doesn’t. Listen. Isn’t this preferable?-- “But may sinners vanish from the earth and the wicked be no more. Praise the LORD, O my soul. Praise the LORD.”

Cut the ending, sir. It comes out of nowhere, a sucker punch.

Scholars like Phillip Jenkins say uppity Christians like me--educated, acculturated, tasteful believers--will face some difficult adjustments someday when Christians from what we’ve traditionally called “third world” countries will outnumber us (they already do). One of those adjustments will arise from their wholly different life experiences, lives like that of Pastor Jwala in Madhya Pradesh state, India. 

Hindu extremists on Sunday beat four Christians, including a pastor, who were later arrested on charges of “forced conversion” in Madhya Pradesh state.
            A group of about 15 extremists punched and hit the Christians with hockey sticks soon after worship ended at about 10:30 a.m. After the initial attack, the extremists dragged the Christians to the Sheopur police station about 500 meters away, beating them en route. The police promptly arrested the Christians, as a complaint against them had already been filed.
            The officer in charge of the police station, Hukum Singh Yadav, also allegedly beat up Pastor Jwala at the facility. Yadav was not available for comment. 

Jenkins says that when those we’ve “missionaried” will come to the secular west to missionary us, we’ll have to recognize that the Pastor Jwalas among them have suffered at the hands of “the wicked.” The plain truth is, that which I can only imagine is as real as water to many believers around the world.

I need to understand that I want to cut the second-to-last line of Psalm 104 because—it’s true—I don’t know “the wicked” all that well, nor have I experienced their wickedness. My disregard makes the psalmist’s comment extraneous. Thus, I want to strike it.

But it’s likely that Pastor Jwala can’t imagine the blessed world of Psalm 104 unless that world is scoured of the God-haters who persecute him.

My prejudice is showing, as well as my naïvete. I am, after all, an American.

God’s word is so much bigger than I am, so wide and encompassing, so much broader, so much deeper, so much richer than the parameters of my small world. That's the truth.

Thank goodness it’s his Word, not mine.

Friday, May 19, 2017

What's there is telling

We visited Stratford-upon-Avon, of course, toured Shakespeare's house and watched the Royal Shakespeare Company perform Julius Caesar in the Royal Shakespearean Theater. I vaguely remember the grave of Jane Austin, but Piccadilly Circus is gone completely. We happened to visit Westminster Cathedral just at the moment the Latin mass was celebrated.

But for reasons I can't explain, nothing in jolly old England left as hearty an impression with me as the bombed-out hulk of Coventry Cathedral. For a moment, the Battle of Britain was more than a history lesson on grainy newsreel, more than an whole album of old black-and-whites.

There the cathedral stands, open air, a ruin that despite its shambles outperforms a dozen museums at telling unforgettable stories. At Coventry, I don't know that I ever felt closer to World War II.

But it's not just the war that halts speech. If you're born and reared in a church, a ruin seems especial sacrilege because you stand at the confluence of dreams on one hand--beside aspiring cathedral walls--and a nightmare on the other--the mess of brokenness all around.

Any church in ruin is a sepulchre. Even if no human being is buried beneath, when you stand inside broken walls, nothing but sky above, it's impossible not to say that something alive has gone. 

Some might consider it pretentious, maybe, for a tiny Kansas burg to let their old cathedral ruin stand, utterly disrobed, as if Greenbush, Kansas, were Coventry, England. It isn't.

Greenbush is less of a town than an an momentary interruption aboard endless Kansas prairie. Winston Churchill never visited St. Aloysius Church; no buzz bombs fell in the neighborhood, no Luftwaffe laid waste the limestone blocks church members had quarried from nearby Hickory Creek to build the place. It was lightning, a prairie storm, what insurance companies used to call "an act of God," that brought down St. Aloysius church, but there it stands, in ruin, yet not so, its silence still speaking.

And St. Aloysius has its own history. Legend has it that right there where those walls stand a Jesuit priest on his way to the Osage Mission just down the road hid under his saddle during an 1869 thunderstorm. The weather was so wild--in a pure Great Plains way--that Father Phillip Coalleton made a deal with God, lest he get struck himself by some errant bolt of fire. It was as if he were in foxhole, as, I suppose, he was. "Lord," he must have muttered, scared to death, "save me and I promise I'll build a church right here at this very spot."

So he did. The church was wood, and was silly really, there being no one within a day's walk, the whole neighborhood having been placed off limits to white settlement. But a promise is a promise, or so Father Phillip Colleton, S. J., determined, so he held up his end of the bargain. He built a place of worship. Nothing gaudy.  There were no frills in the foxhole contract. 

Ten years later, when the "Neutral Strip" set up as a barrier between white folks and the Osage tribe disappeared, European immigrants homesteaded the region and found, to their delight, a little church already there, the place Colleton owed God.

Even though Great Plains history includes nothing like the Battle of Britain, life in rural Kansas can be downright dangerous because in 1871 yet another storm brought down Colleton's little frame church. 

When the good folks of Greenbush looked at those ruins, they determined, in typical small-town fashion, that their next church would be bigger than any other in the county. So church members began mining limestone for a second church. A French stonemason did the exacting detail work, the rest of the community the heavy lifting. That church, the second, was dedicated in 1881. 

Stay with me here. That church is the one you can't help but note when you're on old Mission Road; that's the church in ruin, itself destroyed by yet another lightning storm, this one a century later in 1988.

That's the church that begs comparison with the cathedral at Coventry, England; and those are the ruins that sit ominously along Mission Road, ruins that somehow still inspire. Sometimes silence speaks, just as walls do. Sometimes what's not there is all you can see. Sometimes nothing is really something.

Take a walk in the ruins some time. They're not that big. There they stand, in the sun and amid the storms, on a lonely old Kansas highway to nowhere, where they will be sturdy and strong, for a long time.

Thursday, May 18, 2017


Image may contain: cloud, sky, outdoor and nature

"One killed in Parkersburg," the Des Moines Register says this morning, above the fold. 

For most of Iowa, the town of Parkersburg will, for a lifetime, be associated with tornadoes after a monster ripped out half the village in 2008, killing five while destroying almost 300 homes and 22 businesses with unimaginable winds of 230 miles per hour.

A decade later in Parkersburg, people mind storm warnings, I'm sure.

Yesterday, I didn't.

It was raining. It was cold. Wasn't particularly windy, wasn't tornado weather. Tornadoes rise from swamps, from massive afternoon heat and humidity so dank you can feel 'em before skies even threaten. Yesterday felt like jolly old England, Seattle on a good day. Tornadoes?--bah, humbug.

Which is why I didn't mind the warning, didn't turn around when my phone went perfectly berserk and told me TO SEEK SHELTER. I was in the car, my father-in-law beside me, a man whose hearing is so bad he never heard the phone's insane braying, didn't know a thing about tornadoes threatening, was thrilled to get out of the home for a ride in the country. 

We'd just left the home. Turning around would have been prudent, but bringing him back into a place just then going into tornado mode seemed even more disturbing--who knew what they'd do with all those old folks? He still doesn't feel at home there and was thrilled to get out for a ride. After all, the corn is up. There's things to see.

Besides, the skies looked brighter out west, so we left. Go ahead--tell me I'm irresponsible. Instinct told me it was the right thing to do. I know--Trump listens to instinct and look where it gets him.

When we got to Sioux Center, the road was almost dry--that's the truth. We stopped off at a friend's house to pick up some plants and found her out back, where she told me how great it was to garden in light rain. No problem.

Got back in the car, and the phone went blindly insane again. The skies had darkened by this time, and I was less sure of myself. My daughter called from some basement shelter on campus where, by directive, all employees were sitting out the warning. She let me have it--after all, I had grandpa along too yet. Go home, she told me. I was just a few blocks from her house. 

So we did. Grandpa and I sat out what remained of the tornado warning, watching the whole weather mess on a giant screen with my son-in-law and grandson. And the dog, Gus, who jumped up in Grandpa's lap and was thereafter greatly loved. Once the warnings died, we went home.

I don't know how much of all of that my father-in-law understood. He didn't hear my phone or my daughter. We tried to show him what the TV was showing, but I'm not sure he understands that close-up weather radar any more. 

But my word, he was proud as anything when the two of us marched back into the home.  "Out chasing tornadoes, eh, Randall?" one of the nurses said, and as big a smile as I've seen on his face spread cheek-to-cheek. For a moment there, I think he felt himself a man.

You're an idiot, my daughter would say, and she's probably right. My friends in Parkersburg would certainly call me a fool, and they wouldn't be wrong. So I'll repent. I should have turned around and brought my dad back into the home when my phone went bonkers. I know I should have.

Just the same, the truth is, we had fun. Just ask him. 

Did I mention? The corn is up.
Photo from Siouxland Severe Weather Network.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Trump fatigue

I suppose it's possible to think that the ship of state would right itself if we'd just let him be. If no one would say a thing about his blasting "sick" Obama for wiretapping him, about crowd size at his inauguration, about three or four million unregistered Clinton voters--if we simply shrugged our shoulders and said, "Well, that's our man," and went on with our lives. Maybe that's so. Maybe we just ought not watch or listen or read.

We could just give him a pass when he fires the head of the FBI, the man charged with looking into Russian interference in the 2016 election. We could just let that go and breath more easily.

But the irony is so rich: Gen. Michael Flynn, in serious trouble with the law, screaming "Lock her up!!" at the Republican convention; or Trump himself insisting, day after day, that Hillary willingly gave away national security secrets. I guess we could not care.

We're 120 days, give or take a few, into a Presidency that has just about killed off the rest of us, the spectators. The high drama is unending. For just about all of that time, surf's up on breaking news. We used to say that among the Republican candidates, Trump daily takes all the oxygen out of the room. Today, it's different. Today, he takes it out of the whole nation, the culture. I'm tired. We all are.

"At certain times Donald Trump has seemed like a budding authoritarian, a corrupt Nixon, a rabble-rousing populist or a big business corporatist," or so wrote David Brooks in yesterday's NY Times ("When the world is led by a child"). But Brooks rejects all those descriptions and calls up his own: "At base, Trump is an infantalist," he says, a little boy. "Immaturity is becoming the dominant note of his presidency, lack of self-control his leitmotif."

David Brooks, a conservative, is right about a ton of things, and once again he's on the money here. He's been reading the latest Presidential interviews, and what he finds is that, like a child, Trump can't hold on to a thought. Because he can't, he has great trouble getting hold of the complexity of the problems we face ("No one knew that health care was as complex as it is"--oh, really?).

Like a child, Brooks says, Trump creates a life from his famous falsehoods in order to live in a world he's fashioned for himself. He lies about just about everything. "I'm a very smart man," he says, perhaps to convince his audience, but just as definitively to remind himself of his being a very smart man.

He appears to have no idea how he's being read and lacks the ability to see himself as others see him. He simply assumed that Democrats would love his firing of FBI Director Comey, Brooks says, because of what Comey did to Hillary right before the election. That Democrats felt cheated in Octber is not at issue; that Dems would tolerate a President who cans his FBI chief under the circumstances the President finds himself in requires a level of smarts Brooks says is beyond boy Trump.

President Trump didn't give away national security secrets to the Russians because he is an agent of the Russian government. He did what he did because he was bragging. He lacks the self-control to restrain himself from his own worst tendencies. "There is perpetually less to Trump than it appears," Brooks says.

A friend of mine, a retired woodworker, told me he meets with a round table of other old bucks every Tuesday at a greasy spoon in some town near his home in central California. They get together to hammer out world issues over a cup of coffee. He says there are lefties and righties in the bunch, so for the last year their conversations haven't lacked ardor. Passions soar.

But lately, he says, the Trumpians aren't saying much. They're not dissing their man yet; they're not turning on him, but neither do they beat up any more on those who do. Their silence, he says, is telling.

For President, we have a man who is a child, David Brooks says. That's why no one knows what'll happen today. No one. Not even the President. And it's why the rest of us--supporters and not--are getting tired. It may not be a high paying job, but child care
 is dang hard work.