Morning Thanks

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

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Morning Thanks--deus ex machina

duale US

Frank Bruni's column in the New York Times yesterday is perfectly frightening. In it, he marshalls out poll data and survey results that in his estimation establish that this country has, in no uncertain terms, lost faith--in government, it the future, in itself, in anything.
Americans are apprehensive about where they are and even more so about where they’re going. But they don’t see anything or anyone to lead them into the light. They’re sour on the president, on the Democratic Party and on Republicans most of all. They’re hungry for hope but don’t spot it on the menu. Where that tension leaves us is anybody’s guess.
He cites, for instance, a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll that came out amid the Ferguson story and the madness created by ISIS or ISIL or whatever the name is, a poll that got jammed to the bottom of the grocery bag. Listen to this: 76% of the American public feel that the country holds less promise for them than it did for their parents. In other words, three-quarters of all Americans, regardless of age, believe the American Dream simply no longer exists.

It may well be that those most sure of America's promise are it's illegal immigrants, who certainly have not lost faith. The rest of aren't sure at all. It's not hard to walk that statistic back and ask a more fundamental questions--if America doesn't dream, is it America? And it if America isn't America, what is it? Who are we?

Bruni isn't the first to point out the irony in our deep hatred for Congress--only seven percent of Americans feel what happens in that branch of government is of any palpable worth. Yet, 9 out of 10 representatives and senators consistently win re-election, time after time after time. Is that crazy or what?

“'People are mad at Democrats,'” John Hickenlooper, the Democratic governor of Colorado, told me," Bruni writes. “But they’re certainly not happy with Republicans. They’re mad at everything.” And yet, almost shockingly, the unemployment rate in Colorado is waaaaay down, 5.3 percent.

Go figure. There's something really wrong here. The stock market is going gangbusters, the economy is healthy and prime, but America seems to have resigned from something called faith. A full sixty percent of us believe this nation is in decline.

This morning's headlines somehow follow, don't you think?  The New York Times runs a front page story about a man named after one of America's WWII heroes: Douglas McArthur McCain was killed this week in Syria, while fighting for ISIS or ISIL, who make Al Qaeda look like cub scouts. He carried an American passport, grew up a suburb of Minneapolis named New Hope (I'm serious), was known as a joker and a rapper and a big-time basketball fan.  That's him up top.

But he never finished high school, and during his early adulthood, found his way onto the police blotter with ease and frequency. Eventually he "reverted" (his word) to Islam, where he found the Lord (that's an evangelical phrase, but it may well be helpful for us to think in those terms). “Allah keeps me going day and night," he wrote on line. "Without Allah, I am no one.” And this: "The Koran is all I need in this life of sin."

He went to San Diego, lived there for a time, visited Canada and Sweden and then left for Syria, where somehow he joined up with the most heinous of Islamic militants and last week was killed with two other ISIS members when they ambushed a rebel Syrian army unit--in other words, a band of fighters who might well have been fighting the same enemy. D
oes that make any sense at all? 

The terror of Bruni's essay is that we don't believe in anything anymore. Anything. 

Oddly enough Douglas McArthur McCain appears to have agreed. That's why he went to Syria. He wanted so badly to believe.

I told myself that this week the blog was going to return to thanksgiving, to finding something everyday for which to be thankful. Garrison Keillor wasn't wrong--if all of us would give thanks for something every day, this world would be a better place. I've been doing that--off and on--for almost ten years. 

But this morning, Bruni in my head, McCain in my soul, it was a real chore. 

But just now I stepped outside my door into this revelation to the east--deus ex machina.

This morning, after thoughts of death and unbelief, I'm thankful for the divine landscape on a heavenly canvas just outside my door. 

Sometimes the heavens preach, David said, sometimes the heavens declare.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Morning Thanks--Jumpin' Jehosophat

National Geographic calls it "In(vasice) Vogue"--this woman is wearing museum-quality accessories fashioned exclusively from invasive species: the ring and the earring are from a Burmese python, the cuff is what's left of a cane toad, and that necklace once had a place in the jaw of a wild boar--and all of the above animal species are tempestuously out of control.

No one asked what PETA thought of the new chic', but it's not hard to guess. What "in(vasive) vogue" has going for it is a the sanctified notion of taking ridiculously overpopulated varmints, getting rid of them (thank goodness!), and creating art from whatever's left to piece together. Don't know that my wife would buy the bracelet, but the ring would create some conversation and that necklace is daring. Wonder what they want for it?

All of which prompts me to think about silver carp. In case you're wondering, they're here in Siouxland by the thousands. They swam up the Old Muddy from somewhere down south, then took a sharp left in Sioux City at the mouth of the Big Sioux and now they're going like weeds up here. Seriously. Don't know if I could kick up a few dozen on the Floyd, but I suspect I could. 

The Great Lakes are keeping them out by way of a tottering electric fence of sorts at an Illinois River dam about 50 miles from Chicago, where they get jumping mad (that's a kind of pun) because they can get no further. It must be dangerous to float a boat there because they are.

My grandson and I saw a bunch last week on the Big Sioux, a couple dozen at least, a whole street gang of 'em right beneath the bridge north of Hawarden. Out of nowhere, they just started jumping, like a fish circus. You're canoeing along with nary a care in the world, like Huck and Jim on the Mississip, and just like that a dozen come up from the water, leaping four, five feet in the air before splashing back in. It's a hoot.

Watch a couple minutes of the video these guys made:

Silver carp were, at one time, some guy's bright idea (no woman is capable of such idiocy) to get rid of the algae forming in catfish ponds. And how'd that work for you? Way too well as a matter of fact. 

Suffice it to say those carp had no intention of staying in the cage--shades of Animal Farm. They eat like sumo wrestlers, devouring most of what any other ordinary river fish might call supper.  Around here, the only fish they threaten are bottom-feeders just as ugly as they are--bullheads and their distant cousin carp, maybe a catfish or two.

Some people eat 'em. NPR quotes a guy who stopped fighting 'em and just started filling nets. He gets all of 12 cents a pound for silver carp, but when you bring them in by the tens of thousands--and you can do that just south of that Illinois dam--you can put real food on your table.

Apparently, lots of Asians love 'em, but it'll be a while before I order up silver carp and chips with a side of slaw. I got way too much distaste in me yet from a Wisconsin childhood, where I was taught that there was only one way to eat carp: take the fish, nail it to a board, put it the sun for two weeks, toss the fish, and eat the board.

But they're here, I swear. They'll smack you upside the head if you're not careful, and even if you are. Keep an oar handy. Think seriously about a baseball bat. A tennis racket won't do--asian carp aren't mosquitoes or bats. They'll jump right in the boat, or worse, canoe. And, they're big, waaay big.

Think about wearing a helmet.

But they are fun. Good night, are they fun. If I could wear 'em somehow, I would. Maybe make some kind of jewelry out of their jawbones. But it's really hard to think of them as delicate. They're huge, every one a trophy, but who'd want 'em on your walls? They'd probably take over the house.

It was me and my grandson out in the canoe last week amid that flying circus. Okay, I know it's a stretch for me to say I'm thankful for silver carp, given the mess they've created up and down rivers across the continent; but just between you and me, last weekend my grandson and I had a ball on the wide and slow waters of the Big Sioux River, all around us a wild-eyed carnival of carp.  

And for that good time, this morning, I'm thankful.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Morning Thanks--Pretty rocks

When I went out back with the mason, he took one look at the river stones we had piled up and said that they were going to do just fine. "Yeah," he said, "these are really pretty."

Could have fooled me. That those rocks were dug up out of our own back yard--I liked that; but calling them pretty seemed something akin to saying some corps of linebackers are darling. They were, after all, entirely dirt-coated. "Rain'll wash 'em up nice," he said, "and they'll be really sharp."

Seemed a strange kind of sweet talk to call those massive shotputs "pretty."

But today, lined up like this in our retaining walls, I've become a believer.

How they got here makes them flat-out beautiful. They belonged to the neighbor, who dug them from the river out back. Another neighbor grabbed a bunch with his skid loader and dumped what he hauled here out back. But that's barely an inch of the epic that got 'em here.

Their incredible story begins with a glacier. We're not talking about a massive ice pond here, we're talking about ice so huge it's more like an event, even a place, like Wisconsin. In fact, the glacier we're talking about is sometimes called Wisconsin, which doesn't mean that cheese or Packers had anything to do with it.

Hard as it is to believe, this huge thing, this "event" moved, as all glaciers do, and when it did it wreaked havoc on the land--"the land" as in "God created sea and land." Crushed it, carved it, cut it up, and carried it along, here and there creating valleys, here and there filling other valleys up with what some people call "glacial till," the undigested stuff broken off of mountains or whatever, and then disgorged hither and yon over the land, as in "God created sea and land."

Here's the way I think of it. This behomoth land mass, this entire region of ice, creeps along on its own slippery base, not far and not fast, but powerfully, immensely powerfully, once upon a time (or twice or thrice upon a time). When it crept along, it disgorged some excess baggage, and left tons of rocks and stones behind in what eventually became a river when the ice started to melt. Now this river, the one out back, is not much more than a creek really, a little stream Lewis and Clark kindly decided to name after Sgt. Floyd, the only guy to die on their three-year escapade to the Pacific and back. No matter, it's got tons of glacial till.

Who knows where these very pretty rocks call home? Northern Ontario? Green Bay? Duluth maybe? Niagara Falls? 

And when did this whole operation happen? That's not a tough question if you're a young-earth person--somewhere in the area of 6000 years.  

But those who don't draw those lines--some of whom Christians too--say our lot here north of Alton was covered in ice anywhere between 10 and 85 thousand years ago (which, some say, is a good deal older than Adam, who was only a day older than Eve and no wiser thereby, it seems). 

So the pretty stones stacked neatly in my backyard got here through no doing of my own. One neighbor dug 'em, another delivered 'em, and I just stacked 'em. They're glacial till, and they got here in the neighborhood because that massive, benevolent Wisconsin glacier simply left 'em behind. 

Just thought I'd mention it this Monday morning, because the late Sabbath sun blessed this retaining wall so beautifully last night when I sat outside, all those pretty rocks.

This morning I'm thankful for 'em, thankful, strangely enough, for their beauty and the wild epic that brought 'em here.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Sunday morning meds--Covenant

“They are always generous and lend freely; 
their children will be blessed.”

Most people in our church wouldn’t think it was a proper worship if we didn’t do “Joys and Concerns" every Sabbath, an open-mike opportunity for people to air their griefs, list their needs, and announce their happiness. It's quite sacramental—that may be overstatement; but it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that most of our congregation—Covenant Church—thinks of the public, weekly prayer bulletin board as a signature of our fellowship. It’s part of how we’re us.

I don't like being Scrooge, but I'm not always so fond of it, not only because only certain joys and concerns will get mentioned--others are too personal. Some folks don’t get any air time because their timidity keeps them seated; boldness animates others. Who knows why, but I’m always cautious about public righteousness—I know, I know, that’s my problem.

Most basic to my hesitation is my sense that communal prayer becomes, by way of “Joys and Concerns” almost entirely supplication, which may well be the least significant aspect of prayer in worship. 

I know I sound like a professor. And I’ve been wrong before. Besides, I’d likely be banished from the fellowship if I ever dared say what I just have publicly.

What's more, nice things happen in “Joys and Concerns.” We rejoice with births, we cry with those who watch their spouses go to war, we know and feel others’ heartaches—some of them at least. Going public has bountiful rewards, and I’m no longer itchy about it. Sometimes I even enjoy it.

One woman offers the same petition about once a year because she, like other parents, carries the burden week after week, when others’ plights and exaltations come and go. She stands in the middle, where she and her husband sit, and asks in her slightly quavering voice for the congregation to remember those children of the fellowship who aren’t living in faith.

No Christian parent is ever joyful about raising that concern, no matter how constant it weighs on the heart; and this woman is thinking of herself when she says it—everyone knows that; but she’s also thinking of others, probably more than a few who aren't saying it aloud.

David’s claim in this verse is no hollow promise, but neither is it absolute. Who can forget the priest, Eli, whose sons were holy terrors? David himself had a boy who in blind lust raped his half-sister. And then there’s seditious Absalom, ready to kill his own father, a really handsome kid whose life ends when he hangs by his hair from a tree. David was heartbroken.

So why does David say what he does here?  It's an if/then premise that wasn’t even true in his own life, for pity sake? Who’s he trying to kid?

Maybe—just maybe—the woman in Covenant Church who stands up annually to ask us to remember all the wayward sons and daughters holds, tooth and nail, to “covenant” theology, the idea, as Spurgeon says, that “the friend of the father [and/or mother] is the friend of the family."

Covenant theology on this score is the only comfort in her—and our—heartache. That’s what’s there to hold on to, when there seems so little else. 

King David, the world’s foremost poet, sometimes wrote better than he knew. That’s certainly one definition of inspiration, I guess, isn’t it?

Friday, August 22, 2014


Count me among the millions of those who watched the agony of Kunte Kinte a half-century ago and were deeply, deeply moved.  Roots, a story--a novel, really--by Alex Haley, affected me so powerfully that it sent me scurrying to uncover my own. Sometimes people wonder why I care about my own Dutch Reformed background. Alex Haley made me wonder who I was when I really didn't know, and ethnicity--even the lack it--is one ingredient in the identity cocktail. 

[I spent too many years reading term papers not to say anything about Haley's shameful plagiarism in that book; but that's a story for another time.] 

Kunte Kinte's story was very bitter but incredibly wholesome. White folks don't fare well in Alex Haley's portrayal of the lives of his ancestors. Roots was a main stage production that wouldn't let America look past the rising action of its own story. Me either. And even though I'd spent a number of years outside the church back then, it still hurt me to see that sometimes--oftentimes--the madmen spouting scripture did the most savage bloodletting.

That phenomenon is front-and-center in 12 Years a Slave, too, a great film that likewise creates downright beasts out of bible-toting Christians from south of the Mason-Dixon, men as deft with a whip as they are quick with proof texts. When it comes to slavery, the sullied past of evangelical America is haunting.

And it's there again in Sue Monk Kidd's bestseller, Oprah-blessed, The Invention of Wings, a powerfully plot-driven novel of two women, one of whom Ms. Kidd pulls from the pages of real American abolitionist history, Sarah Grimke. Sarah and her sister Angelina turned their back on their family, went north from their home in Charleston, and became marquee lecturers on the abolitionist circuit by forswearing their own slave-holding past. 

Fascinatingly, Ms. Kidd's novel creates something of a twin character, a slave girl named Hetty or "Handful," who is all of that. Hetty's mother teaches her that the only way to live with slavery is to keep a live portion of yourself in all-out revolt, a spitfire revolt that doesn't kill you--because it can--but maintains the fire of her own authentic human spirit.

The villians of The Invention of Wings are evangelical Christians like the Grimke's mother, who requires her slaves attend a Sunday School she serves up using a slaves-and-masters curriculum designed to perpetuate servitude. It's awful--not the book, but once more having to realize that men and women used the Bible to justify a way of life that would not have existed if it hadn't been fueled on blood.

Just once, I'd like to read a book about good Christian slave-holders. Did they exist? I'd like to see a movie that told stories about Bible-believers who bought into both Jesus and slavery, who didn't lock people in leg irons cast from their own damned fire and brimstone. There had to be some like that, don't you think? I have to think so.

A book some might call "the greatest American novel" doesn't have any either. When Huck Finn finally decides that staying with the slave Jim as Jim makes a break for freedom, he knows, inside and out, that his decision to keep going down the river, to not turn Jim in, is not only a crime in the South he's leaving behind, but, much worse--a sin. 

And that's why little Huck utters the most famous line in all of American literature:  "All right then, I'll go to hell." 

The book my parents read from when I was a boy, the Bible specifically designated for kids, an early version of Catharine F. Vos's The Children's Story Bible, made it perfectly and memorably clear that that son of Noah named Ham got himself cursed for laughing at his soused father and then went south in the family's diaspora, to Africa, where his people would live and prosper as servants of the other brothers. Slavery was that clear, that biblical.

I put out a note to faculty years ago, just to see if anyone had that fat old blue book around somewhere, and I found one. I photocopied the passage and, as long as I taught Huck Finn I brought that passage up in class to college students who seemed nowhere near as shocked as I had been at the way I'd been reared. It was a passage I remembered hearing as a boy, a biblical interpretation just as dangerous as anything those Southern Christian bigots could spout. 

It was in me too somewhere, this despicable theology of race and faith. 

Dutch immigrants to this country, I'm told, deliberately steered away from the American south in the immigration wave that populated west Michigan, southeast Wisconsin, and south central Iowa before the Civil War. Despite their own slave-trading past, those wooden shoes wanted no part of an institution that America held onto longer than most in the Western world because it clearly empowered the American South. 

A century later in a small town in Wisconsin, when the Schaap family finished supper, my father would grab our well-worn copy The Children's Story Bible and read a story or two to us kids, our own family altar.

I never had a slave, never owned a whip; but, as a boy, I knew something about slaves because I knew the story of Noah and his sons, and where specifically one the boys, that one named Ham, had gone, where he went and what he did and why it was he served us.

That's what I was told.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The juggler last night

It took him three times to accomplish what he announced to be the big finish. It wasn't smooth as silk in other words, twice he fell off the rope. Because it didn't work, he had us all on the edge of our lawn chairs. He'd pulled out a big steel frame maybe 12 feet wide, the kind of gizmo people put up in their back yards if they don't have a couple of trees for a hammock. 

I have no idea what kind of rope he had strung between the ends because he wet it down with something akin to lighter fluid. There was going to be fire. Then he got up on that rope, a tightrope walker, and actually climbed an aluminum ladder set ON THE ROPE (I'm serious!) and started into juggling burning torches while a hastily drafted volunteer from the crowd--a young lady!--lit the whole blasted rope up beneath him. Got it? Listen, fire is lapping at him, running up and down the rope and even up the sides of the ladder (how'd he do that?)' and all of us, a whole park full, are guessing he's got asbestos shoes or really, really hot feet.

Twice he failed before he actually pulled this big-time final act, before he finally gets himself and all that mechanism up and moving in what some circus barker would have likely called "a den of fire." Right there on the stage at the Orange City, Iowa, right there in the town's own band shell. I'm not lying. It happened just last night. Took our breath away. Had us clapping like a crowd full of great seals. 'Twas a joy.  

The real story yesterday was no magic show. The real story is these ISIS madmen (I'm not sure what they demand to be called today), who'd already a month ago proved they were, what?--animals is too good a word, soulless maybe, men and women whose hearts are little more than shards of cut glass.

"Part of the problem with these conflicts," James Foley said in a forum several years ago, is that "we're not close enough to it, and if reporters--if we don't try to get really close to what these guys--we don't understand the world, essentially." That's why James Foley became a journalist. He'd started his career as a teacher and ended it in that way, trying to help us all "understand the world."

James Foley was murdered, butchered alive.

In so many ways, what these masked killers did was pure, unsullied evil. In beheading James Foley, they murdered free speech. In beheading James Foley, they spit on anything approximating Geneva Conventions. In beheading James Foley, they did everything but behead "the Great Satan," the U. S. And they did it on video they made sure the world could not miss.

Weeks before, they'd killed anyone who didn't believe their version of Islam--anyone. Buried them alive. Beheaded them. Men, women, and children--infidels. Thousands of innocents ran up a mountain with no food, no water. ISIS makes Al Quida look almost peaceable, the Taliban seem choir boys. 

They've already slaughtered Christians whole sale, turned those who could flee into refugees, tens of thousands of them. 

It rained late yesterday afternoon, but an e-mail announced bravely that people should bring umbrellas because the juggler was going be on stage outside. The act wasn't moving. He was going to be appearing in the park, as advertised. My raincoat stayed in the car. There was no rain.

We went and watched and smiled, laughed, gasped, paid rapt attention, loved it, kept telling ourselves that our grandkids should have been there--that kind of thing. It was great fun. 

Maybe it was pure escapism. Maybe the guy was, yesterday, a real sideshow to horror. Maybe no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people--wasn't that P.T. Barnum? Maybe it was ridiculous to be there in the middle of what will now certainly escalate into something that, once more, is going to cost American lives. Maybe I was fiddling while America burns.

Maybe so. 

But this morning, it wasn't the clown's goofy antics I woke up with. I wasn't thinking of him and his wild, flaming torches. Just before five this morning, it wasn't the juggler I saw before me up there balancing on that rope, everything beneath him aflame. 

It was me, the Christian, the one who wants, more than anything, to understand, the one who can't forget Christ's beckoning forgiveness for that jeering crowd who wanted yet more of his precious blood. "Forgive them for they know not what they do," he said. 

Forgive? These soulless men in black masks must die. Or we will.

When I woke up this morning, I saw a man's throat cut.  And I was the juggler trying to make sense of what was in the air before me, while everything beneath me was in flames in a world in which there was no rain.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

An American story

In middle school, he played on a traveling basketball team, one of those who goes from burb to burb, later on even played a little high school football. His mother often sat in the stands. You couldn't miss her--she was the only one in the hijab.

The kid was no star, but he had a great laugh and the rest of the guys thought he was a scream, a fun guy to be around. Truth be told, he and his family--his father was a Palestinian, his mother a converted Irish-American--lived in a quiet, gated Florida community. They were not poor. That's no answer here. They weren't poor at all. Some reports maintain the family owned several grocery stores.

The mosque where he worshiped was so small they had no imam, just a dozen believers getting down on their knees together, operating as if they were some old country church with an elder reading the sermon. In fact, because they had no regular leader, this kid sometimes became one because he seemed to know his way around the Koran as well as, if not better than the handful of others who came together to pray.

He liked cats, and he was a big fan of the Miami Heat, which means, almost certainly, that he, like millions of others, loved to watch LaBron James toss crushed chalk into the air in James's own never-miss pre-game ritual. Who knows?--a navy blue Heat jersey, number 23, may still be hanging in his closet.

Back in June, he made a video of himself eating chunks of his American passport, then burning the rest. “I lived in America; I know how it is,” he said. "Just sitting down five minutes drinking a cup of tea with mujahedeen is better than anything I've ever experienced in my whole life," he said. "You have all the fancy amusement parks, and the restaurants, and the food, and all this crap and cars. You think you're happy? You're not happy. I was never happy. I was always sad and depressed. Life sucked. ... All you do is work 40, 50, 60 hours a week."

So much for the American Dream.

And then, "You think you're safe where you are, in America or Britain,” he adds. “You think you are safe. You are not safe."

All of this from the cut-up, a kid with a sparkling sense of humor often seen dribbling down the street in Vera Beach, the kid who turned a rock-hard pillar of faith. "I want to rest in the afterlife," he said in an earlier video. "There is nothing here--my heart is not resting here in this life." He told others that his transition into the violence of the Middle East was relatively easy, not difficult at all because "Allah made it easy for me," words of a true believer.

"Glorious is God, and thank God--this is a grace from him," he says in a tape released later. "When I came to Syria, I had nothing. I had no money to buy a gun and ammunition, now God granted me all of that and much more." 

Just a few moments before he and four other suicide bombers ran their explosive-packed truck into a target in Syria and killed an as-yet undetermined number of Syrian soldiers, he radioed his accomplices, "I can see paradise and I can smell paradise."  

Those in the know, fear that while Moner Mohammad Abu-Salha was the first American suicide bomber in the war in Syria, other Americans have been recruited, which is to say, there may be more.

And this:  "I have one word to say ... we are coming for you. Mark my words. You think you killed Osama bin Laden? You sent him to paradise. Just know that we are coming."

He was 22 years old.