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.

Monday, May 17, 2021

Book Report--Torn by Justin Lee

“Blondes do have a certain allure, don’t they?” 

It was just the kind of question a father asks if he's interested in a man-t0-man with his teenage son, or so says Justin Lee, in Torn, his memoir of growing up gay. 

And yet, for the first time in my life, I felt something I couldn’t say to my dad. How could I tell him what I was really feeling, that I didn’t care that she was blonde, or what she looked like at all, that I never thought about any girls like that, but that there was a blond boy I couldn’t get out of my head—a classmate with a shy smile and cute dimples and bright green eyes? Argh! How could I even think such things about a boy?

That Justin Lee suffered greatly as a child goes without saying. Not only was he somehow inexplicably attracted to boys, his wonderful family was and is devoutly evangelical, Southern Baptist, among whom being gay is something akin to anathema. What makes Torn such a good read is that Justin Lee's story doesn't fudge on either side of the dilemma he clearly faces: he remains as deeply committed to Jesus Christ as he is to his being born with an orientation most evangelicals actually denied and self-righteously abhorred. 

It would make all sorts of sense for him to cut and run from a church in which he had no place, but he doesn't; he stays and attempts to figure out--almost always on his own--how he's going to live as a gay Christian. Torn is more than a memoir; it's a textbook for those who, like Lee, find themselves unwilling or unable to renege either on their commitment to faith or their own sexual orientation. And it's a Bible study on passages that have been the standard ammunition of those who've gone to war about gay marriage.

Recently, the governing body of the Christian Reformed Church, of which I have always been a member, voted to drop Bethany Christian Services from its list of approved agencies. Bethany decided, some time ago, to open up its services to same-sex couples, a move contrary to the CRC stance on gay marriage. The vote was close, 23-21. 

It is still possible to feel the whiplash from the incredible change in American culture's attitude on LBGTQ issues. When ex-President Barack Obama began his presidency, he disagreed with gay marriage, then changed that view only when it was undercut by his Vice President, Joe Biden, who admitted in an interview that he favored it. Ex-President Clinton suggested "don't ask, don't tell" in the armed services as a covert means to deal with the reality of same-sex orientation--"just don't talk about it."

Suddenly, things changed. Culture realigned itself on the issue for reasons that still have researchers scratching their heads. Being gay was no more anathema. Gay marriage became acceptable almost overnight.

But not among those evangelicals who read the Bible as if all of scripture's power originates in The Ten Commandments. 

Nothing in Torn really surprised me. The biblical arguments are neither new nor totally convincing. What makes the book as interesting and readable as it is, is Justin Lee's indominable faith, his religious commitment in the face of so much withering criticism from fellow believers. He holds fast in faith, even when the church won't have him. 

Torn does suffer from basic differences between story and sermon. The book is best when it's a story, but it is, finally, more of a sermon, a fine sermon, one that is needed today in certain circles, like my own, where a denomination erases an adoption agency it once birthed itself. 

I would have liked to hear more of Justin Lee's story. Eventually he came to favor gay marriage. What his memoir conspicuously avoids is any mention of a lover. One can't help but believe that by avoiding sexuality--eros--and clinging to agape, he kept the book free from the most difficult area heterosexuals face in accepting gay life, the physicality of same-sex relationships. There are none in Torn. I couldn't help wondering if there are none in the life of Justin Lee. That I don't know is, I think, a weakness of the narrative.

Still, Torn is a very, very good read for those who are struggling with the issue that threatens most fellowships who claim to find their strength in the testimony of the scriptures. 

And that's a lot of us.

Sunday, May 16, 2021

Reading Mother Teresa--Cheerfulness

A cheerful heart is good medicine, 
but a crushed spirit dries up the bones. 
Proverbs 17:22
Cheerfulness is a sign of a generous and mortified person who forgetting all things, even herself, tries to please her God in all she does for souls. Cheerfulness is often a cloak which hides a life of sacrifice, continual union with God, fervor and generosity. A person who has this gift of cheerfulness very often reaches a great height of perfection. For God loves a cheerful giver and He takes close to His heart the religious He loves. (33)
Someone once asked Nelson Mandela, whose years in prison reached despairingly close to a lifetime, why, when finally he was released, he wasn’t more angry. Reportedly, he smiled. “If I thought it would be useful,” he said, “I would be.” A generous spirit was more blessed and more useful.

Cheerfulness had to have been a way of life for Mother Teresa. It had to, for even that immense recognition given to her and her work late in her life was difficult for her accept. She claimed to dislike crowds, and it’s clear that she did. She felt uncomfortable with the adulation showered upon her in foreign places and loved nothing more than returning home after meeting with presidents and potentates and even the pope.

Still, what she found back home in Calcutta was ever more of the dying. She ministered to the lowliest of the low, the most despised of the despicable – the poor, the infirm, those approaching death totally alone. Her terrain was the torn edge of our existence, the seam where life slips painfully into darkness. The landscape she loved was the beaten shroud of human suffering. The faces she looked into were beautiful only because she saw in them the very image of her suffering Savior.

What’s more, impossible as it may seem, she often felt herself despised by God, forgotten, left behind, alone and terrified that the Jesus she so loved had no time for her, her pains or her triumphs. She was, as some call her, a “saint of darkness” (336).

And yet, throughout her life, there is this persistent cheerfulness, this effervescent sense of humor that could, at any moment whatsoever start an entire audience to slapping their knees, or double-up her friends and acquaintances in laughter.

Some of all of that emerged from her belief in providence, in God’s own unmistakably cagey guidance. And while some might bicker about God’s blessings in this particular situation, Mother Teresa loved the often astonishing juxtaposition of human need and divine largesse. “Three days ago,” she once wrote her Archbishop, “we picked up two people eaten alive with worms. The agony of the Cross was on their faces.” She says they proceeded to make the two of them comfortable, when one of them, the old man, asked for a cigarette. “How beautiful of God,” she says, because “in my bag there were two packets of [the] best cigarettes. . . . God thought of this old man’s longing” (254). When with those she served, she seemed never unwilling or unable to smile.

It would be difficult, if not impossible, to nominate a single human being more worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize than Mother Teresa, an award she was given in 1979. In her much heralded – and much hated – acceptance speech in Oslo, Mother Teresa related told a story she’d often related elsewhere. She was asked, she said, by a “very big group of professors,” to “tell us something that will help us.” She told them, in response, simply, to “smile at each other.” One of her learned audience must have been a little skeptical. “Are you married?” he asked. “Yes,” she told him, without missing a beat, “and I sometimes find it very difficult to smile at Jesus because He can be very demanding” (281).

Or this. She confessed to one of her spiritual directors that she simply lacked the wherewithal to accomplish much: “I can do only one thing, like a little dog following closely the Master’s footsteps.” And then, “Pray that I be a cheerful dog” (236).

Comparing my suffering to yours or yours to hers is futile. All suffering is suffering. Besides, what good are such comparisons anyway? “It is a curious fact,” said Oscar Wilde, “that people are never so trivial as when they take themselves seriously.”

Not so apparently, the cheerful dog.

Friday, May 14, 2021

Tulip Festival 2021

I can admit it now, but it's likely I would have back then too because I was proud of being haughty about it, proud of my sinful condescension and scorn, my being downright snooty, a snob. I was demonstrably proud of my Dutch heritage, had written about it extensively. In fact, lots of characters in my fiction carried Dutch names. It wasn't as if I was a heretic. But Tulip Festivals?--spare me.

If you live in some adjacent village here, come May you can't help but smirk at an entire town in short pants, silly hats, and downright painful klompen, for pete's sake. Street-scrubbing? Give me a break. And whose ancestors, really, danced in the streets? Dancing got you thumbed out of church. Get a life, Orange City. Just think--mid-May comes along and you could be putting your dock in up at the lakes. Instead, you're slobbering over cotton candy, spending half your fortune on goofy rides for the kids, and watching waves of marching bands toot down Main, a half-note flat. 

All of it seemed more than a little silly, when the real deal about being Dutch Reformed is the "Reformed" part, the part no OC people talk much about, maybe because, these days especially, it's just about gone.

Don't know that I'd trace my journey as something from the Damascus road--after all, I've not been struck blind or dumb; but since moving to Orange City's suburbs, I've come to appreciate what happens here mid-May. It's a vast and trying community exercise that requires incredible teamwork, buckets of sweat, and even some considerable history study. OC people take it very, very seriously because it's a sprawling enterprise that won't happen without great bands of people working together to pull it off. Silliness? Sure. Funnel cakes? all right, you got me there. But there's also saucijzenbroodjes and poffertjes, itty-bitty pancakes to die for.

My feet and I spent three long hours in the newly refurbished Dutch-American Heritage Museum yesterday, answering all sorts of questions about our collection of Native American artifacts, while, up front, hundreds of people came in and wandered through displays and exhibits featuring all kinds of ethnic stuff that together tell at least something of the story of Dutch-Americans in this far corner of Iowa, of whom I am one. I had to park three blocks away, a considerable distance in small-town U. S. of A., so all I saw of the parade was it dis-assembling. Never got near the rides or the truly sinful cuisine. But the tulips are everywhere, and they're gorgeous this year, perfectly timed, very Dutch; and it goes without saying the town is clean.

I've never donned a Dutch costume, not even a shirt or neckerchief. Not even a hat. It's time to admit that this last vestige of ye olde stubbornness is a vestige of the old man of sin, the Sioux Centerite who sat for years in the seat of the scoffer. 

I'm too old and my feet are too sore for wooden shoes. But at least a neckerchief, maybe a hat? It may be time for the new man of righteousness to edge his way out of the closet. 

Thursday, May 13, 2021

The Mountain Meadows Massacre


You can name a place "Zion," but naming it doesn't make it so. 

It took a century or more for the LDS to come to terms with what happened at Monument Mountain in September of 1857, when, in 35 wagons, more than 140 emigrants from Arkansas, on their way to California, camped in this very field, while several hundred head of cattle, horses and oxen were out here grazing.

The emigrants were, like so many others, bound for what they believed would be a new life out west, on the trail--the northern route--to California, when they were accosted by revengeful Mormons and the Paiutes the settlers recruited to aid them in a fight the Mormons considered defensive. About that they were wrong.  

For several days, there were skirmishes. Several men died. 

And then, a truce. The locals walked into camp beneath a white flag, determined, they said, to bring hostilities to an end. The deal they cut was easy enough: you give up your arms and we will guarantee your safety. The hostilities will end. It's that simple, that easy.

A system to bring the fight to an end was created. The Mormons said the emigrants would leave the encampment in groups--the wounded and small children first, in wagons, women and other children following on foot; then the men and boys, followed by the Mormon militiamen, of course, to make sure things were done right and in good order.

And then, unsuspectedly and on command, the militiamen simply pulled out their rifles and sidearms and murdered the Arkansans--all of the wounded, the men, and the boys, and all of the women, many of whom died trying to protect their children from fire. Only a few children remained.

Two years later, the badly mangled bodies of the victims were buried by a delegation of U. S. cavalry. Two years later. 

Historians estimate that as many as 50 militia and an untold number of Paiutes shed all that blood. It took twenty years, but one of them, a man named John H. Lee, was tried, convicted, and executed not far from the scene of the massacre. 

That door up top of the post is just one of many in what appears to be some kind of dormitory in Colorado City, Arizona, on a big house built by Warren Jeffs to hold his many wives, some of them as young as 12. Jeffs today, you may remember, is in prison for rape.

But the truth, I believe, holds for everyone, not just the Mormons: You can call a place Zion, but that doesn't make it so.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

The Incredible Stories of the Bible

The Rape of Dinah by Sebastiano Ricci

Old Christian Reformed missionaries couldn't do Navajo mission work by ushering out their finest theological rambling. Trolling through the weeds of the consubstantiation/transubstantiation thing wasn't going to offer much reward and could well leave the lost more so. Same with, say, proof texting for the doctrine of common grace. Good luck with that.

According to the old missionary novels, the central mode of mission outreach was cold turkey camp visits: you walk up to a hogan and introduce yourself. If asked, you sit around the fire with other family members, shuffle through your best Bible stories, and pick one or two you hope will be stunners.

What follows, if the old novels tell the truth, is a spirited competition to determine who's got the best stories? If the missionary, via his translator, spins more compelling yarns than locals, well, then, maybe the locals will lend more than an ear to the song-and-dance the white man is slinging. 

In Beyond Words, Frederick Buechner's witty commentaries are presented by topics introduced alphabetically. So last night, on Elijah, for devotions, we read two substantial chapters from I Kings, 18 and 19, and sat spellbound once more by the awesome comedy. Elijah and the prophets of Baal pull on their battle uniforms and go into competition, each conjuring the best work they could from their respective gods. You know the story--three times Elijah tells his troops to soak the sacrifice. Three times. No matter. The Lord descends in all his might and puts a match to the mess that makes Baal's first team look like dried-up phlegm.

Now that is a campfire story. 

A week ago Buechner hauled out the Dinah story. I'd forgotten the prologue, the rape; but no boy can forget the massacre. When I was a kid, I went to a Christian school. I'm not bragging--I'm stating the truth: I know the best Bible stories better than most people; but Dinah's rape was a saga I'd lost or forgotten, not the aftermath.

The story begins with rape. In the chronicles of the Lord, that's not particularly unusual. In the Dinah story, this heathen guy named Shechem did evil in the eyes of the Lord when he took, without asking, Jacob's comely daughter Dinah. Just took her. Rape. 

The complication? He, well, fell in love, or so the story goes. At least, he decided he wanted Dinah's hand in marriage and told his father so. Dinah's brothers weren't thrilled with the idea, even though this Shechem of the infidels and his old man offered a package of goods only a fool could turn down. Jacob was, we know, a chiseler. You wouldn't expect moral outrage from him, even though he was the girl's father, not when there was some heavyweight dollar signs around.

It's not an easy story. Just imagine yourself around a fire, multiple generations of Navajo sit around you, but you've got the floor. It's your job to tell spin the yarn.

Buechner says Shechem and his old man simply won't take no for an answer. Apparently, no one asked Dinah, but Jacob's boys tell him that he should bargain thusly with Shechem: he can have Dinah on the condition that the heathen men, all of them, give themselves over to the knife--get circumcised.

You're in a contest, remember. You have the mike right now. You're telling the story, and right now you can bet they're all tuned in, men and women.

All of 'em? Yeah, all of 'em. They all get worked on and over, get snipped. The whole freakin' bunch, a surgery that lays the heathen up but good. None of their warriors are ready to fight with their goods bandaged and bloodied, so Dinah's brothers just take 'em at the moment of the misery, every last Hivite. Soon enough, they're history.

Revenge killing. Vengeance is mine, says the Lord.

What an incredible story. The campfire might well be going out because it's been forgotten in the spell of the incredible saga. There's no internet, no TV, no computer games. There's only the stories you lug in your rucksack. 

But there's a problem. You've got to tell the men on the other side of the fire to stop holding the family jewels. It's just a story, after all.

If you can do that, I'm thinking you win, hands down. Seriously, the Bible has monstrously incredible stories. 

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Rev. Thomas Hann Cleland

The second member of the trio of Presbyterian clergymen to walk to the top of Prospect Hill and pledge and pray themselves into a commitment to "win the west for Christ" was the Rev. Thomas H. Cleland. 

The entire family of Presbyterian denominations would have to look far and wide to find fitting exemplars of mission fervor than the first, Rev. Sheldon Jackson, whose life is an action movie that would could be made, if his bio wasn't so determinedly religious. 

Jackson's very first seminary sermon used Second Corinthians 5:14 as a text, a verse which reads in more contemporary versions of the Bible this way: "For Christ's love compels us [emphasis mine], because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died." The English Standard uses the word controls instead of compels: but the KJV, which Jackson and Cleland would have recited, goes a step further with constrains. There's something almost unAmerican about the word constrains, something biting at our liberties. To say that the love of Christ constrains us risks making God's love into a bad pair of diabetic socks. Jackson seemed to have lived that way, for better and for worse.

No one else's life can square up to Jackson's, so we shouldn't expect the lives of the other two pastors noted on the monument to come close to the marks Rev. Jackson's. Three men ascended Prospect Hill that night, after a long church meeting. Three men pledged themselves to bring Christianity to the west, being helped in that cause by the golden spike laid into the iron tracks of the recently completed transcontinental railroad.

No doubt on Jackson's request (or demand), Thomas Hann Cleland went to Alaska too, then very much a frozen frontier, where he became active in education, as Jackson had. There is little written about his time there, but he didn't stay in the Great White North. Instead, he returned to the States, where he was involved in education, specifically Presbyterian education, even more specifically at higher education in the Presbyterian church. He served on the board of Macalester College, St. Paul, MN, and McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago. 

Most primary to his profession, however, were the churches he served here in the lower 48, fellowships in Council Bluffs and Keokuk, Iowa; Springfield, Missouri; Duluth, Minnesota; and New Albany, Indiana. When he died, he was living in and serving yet another congregation in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

He and his wife had five children, one of whom became yet another Cleland Presbyterian minister.

The meeting held at the place the monument stands today was not a community affair. Only three men were present, all of them ministers of the Word, the three men listed on the monument's face. A story claims that after attending denominational meetings for most of the day, the three of them ascended Prospect Hill. As they did, they passed by a body hanging from a street light, what they considered--and they were probably right--a lynching. 

There were tears, it seems, at the top of Prospect Hill that night, tears wrung from constraints, commitments, the compelling call each of them felt at the unbroken frontier far out in the broken and bountiful west.

Monday, May 10, 2021

Rev. Sheldon Jackson


It's formidable but obscure, prominent but hidden, memorable, but somehow forgettable--much ado about nothing maybe. Most of Sioux City has absolutely no idea it's there, even though it sits at a place that once made it seem kingly.

When I dropped by there was no one else around. I was likely the sole visitor all day, despite the perfect sunshine. 

The monument celebrates three men no one in town remembers, men who happened to embark on a mission that took off from a Sioux City that once thought of itself the doorstep to a wild and dangerous frontier. Those three are listed plainly--"Rev. Sheldon Jackson, Rev. T. H. Cleland, and Rev. J. C. Elliott."

Preacher Jackson may have been totally forgotten anywhere in Sioux City and on Prospect Hill, but he's a man not to be forgotten elsewhere, most specifically in Alaska. Don't know that he "won the west," but he certainly gave it a whirl.

Sometime before his seminary days at Princeton, Sheldon Jackson, a blue blood if there ever was one, got himself called into Christian missions, which was, mid-19th century, as adventurous an occupation as any. When he was turned down for a place on the foreign mission field (he was slight, really, not an inch over five feet, and just a hair pale and sickly), he stayed home instead and ventured out into regions of the country inhabited only by First Nations and a couple hundred tough-guy trappers and mountain men.

He spent a year among the Choctaw in Indian Territory, then kept going west by whatever means he could travel--horseback, railroad, Conestoga, and, when necessary, on foot. He was the quintessential mover and shaker, planting churches by the dozen. 

Deliberately, he migrated to whatever open spaces still existed, which brought him to Alaska, where Good Book in hand, he kept birthing Christian fellowships and bringing what he considered "development" to the Native people, doing what he likely promised when he and his two cohorts departed so gloriously from Prospect Hill. The Reverend Sheldon Jackson took his calling seriously. Without question, he was out to "win the west."

To say he traveled extensively throughout Alaska is laughably understated. On one of his trips he made the acquaintance of Capt. Michael A. Healy, the very first African-American to run a government-owned ship, a man who loved booze as much as Jackson didn't. An odd couple if there ever was one, the two of them determined to save both the Aleuts and the Inuits from utter starvation by importing domesticated reindeer, by the hundreds, from Siberia. I'm not making this up. Captain Healy and Reverend Jackson literally saved indigenous people from extinction by herding domestic reindeer in their homelands.

I'm not lying. Here's some of his own pictures, from his papers at Princeton.


The man in the hat and the vest is the preacher.

That's Captain Healy's Bear out there delivering reindeer. 

Give some folks a reindeer, and they'll eat for a week--how does that old cliche go?--bring them a herd and they'll beget an industry.

All though his life and ministry, it seems, the Reverend Sheldon Jackson preached the Good News, but also delivered the goods that let people live. 

Rev. Sheldon Jackson is the guy the Sioux City prayed for one April day in 1869, when he and couple other men of the cloth left Prospect Hill to "win the west" for Christ. They could'a done worse.

Just thought you might like to know.