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.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Italy xiii--A ministry of presence

The crowds in Rome are massive. In the Sistine Chapel, of all places, for the very first time in my life, I felt what the Dutch call benauwd, textbook claustrophobia, a drumbeat panic to get the heck out of the press of humanity--far too many people, far too close.

But then, the Vatican is one of the premiere tourist sites in the entire world. People come from every continent, some of them very "religiously." Heavy as the crowds are, one of the blessings they extend is the omnipresence of men and women, in their regalia, men and women traditionally called "the religious." When I was growing up, us Protestant kids--boys especially--got a ton of laughs about nuns. "Hey, who let the penguins out?" That kind of thing.

In 1996, Pope John Paul insisted that "The Church must always seek to make her presence visible in everyday life, especially in contemporary culture, which is often very secularized and yet sensitive to the language of signs." To that end, "the Church has a right to expect a significant contribution from consecrated persons, called as they are in every situation to bear clear witness that they belong to Christ." The change in language in his Vita consecrata loosened the rules: "the Church has a right to expect. . ." is a healthy shade less demanding than "must."

A woman I know out on the reservation, a "religious" who has been so for fifty years, met us in jeans and a fun-run t-shirt not long ago, and apologized for her outfit. I'm quite sure she didn't mean a veil. I think what she meant was she thought she should not have looked as if she was painting the bathroom. 

So veils and habits, for the most part, are rare in North America these days, despite the specifics John Paul II stipulated. There is, here at least, far more freedom and, as a consequence, on the streets, far fewer "penguins."

In Rome, not so. You can't miss them, and I loved noting their presence. In Rome, there are hundreds, maybe thousands of "religious," many, I'd guess, actual "pilgrims"; and most of those are dressed, well, more traditionally than their North American counterparts.

Their presence, all over, was a visual reminder of the the catholicity of the Roman Catholic Church, the stretch of its place and power throughout the world. Like the crowds in Rome, the Roman Catholic Church is immense.

I may well be seeing all this through guilt-ridden, rose-colored glasses. Perhaps, when it comes right down to it, there's little to separate these tourists, in their habits, from the ones in shorts and tank tops. Perhaps they just eat less expensively and go to bed earlier. Perhaps they pull on the habit unthinkingly because it's simply expected. Perhaps they too go home with postcards and museum books, maybe a new Christmas tree ornament and beautiful new scarf. Maybe they too make sure to return with their own bottle of good wine. 

Maybe they're no more special than anyone else in the huge crowds around the Vatican. Maybe they too struggle to know what to use to see oh, so much history, whether to use the close-up or the wide-angle lens. Maybe at the end of the day, they have sore feet and think lovingly about home just like everyone else. Maybe Rome is no more of a religious experience for them as it is for any of the others thousands on the subway.

But this old Protestant couldn't help seeing them in their differing habits and thinking of them--"red and yellow, black and white"--as a wonderful, observable presence in the Eternal City, their ministry just about exactly what Pope John Paul II meant it to be twenty-some  years ago, a blessed ministry of the presence of Christ.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Small Wonder(s)--Bank Heist, Sioux Center, 1929

Image result for 1929 graham paige for sale

It seems to me that you can know a ton about this story just by knowing the guy that robbed the Sioux Center bank in October, 1929, was driving a Graham-Page, a automobile that was not exactly rare, but scarce enough to draw a crowd when it was parked right there on Main. 

If you're going to rob a bank in 1929, in a burg like Orange City or Sioux Center, it's not a good idea to leave your escape wagon, a brand new Graham-Page, a block down. Seems to me that there lies the tale. 

What was the guy thinking? The plain truth is he wasn't thinking, not at all, didn't use his head. He parked that buggy down the street, walked into the bank, pulled a gun, emptied a cash drawer, walked out, and got back in his Graham-Page. Couldn't have taken all that long, but the car drew a crowd of people, who put two-and-two together once the news of the heist got told. "Must have been that guy in the Graham-Page," people said.

They even knew his name because some nosy guy climbed inside where they spotted something akin to a registration--"Rex Something or Other, LeMars, Iowa."

I'm not making this up.

Rex pulled off this heist in a fever. He didn't think. He had to have a bundle of cash, and he had to have it now. Hefty gambling debts probably, although to this day no one knows for sure. Anyway, he climbed into his fancy car and took off south to LeMars, to his wife's house, which may not have been a good idea because he hadn't been living with her for quite some time, once again for reasons no one really knows, which doesn't mean people didn't speculate because he kept a place in Sioux City, where he also ran a radio station.

Now some of those Sioux Centerites who'd read his registration got on their high horse, so to speak, and went to the address they'd seen. "Vigilantes," the local paper called 'em, a bunch of hot-head Hollanders looking to snare the sinner. Credit them this--they went to the law, the local Sheriff, and let him know what had happened.

There's some back story here that has to be examined. This Rex was, locally, a celebrity, a war vet, a football star, a comely champion man-about-town with a radio voice, even a sometimes preacher of the Word--a Richard Cory type. Let me quote the old poem

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.

People loved Rex, loved his walk, loved his talk, loved his wake. He could walk downtown and part a crowd like Moses at the Red Sea. They didn't want their star robbing banks. Maybe that's why the sheriff lolly-gagged when the Sioux Center crowd demanded him arrested. Maybe that's why Sioux Center gets the bad rap in the local paper, when outlaw gets nothing but tears. You can read it for yourself.

Anyway, Rex took that Graham-Page out west of town to a farm his wife owned, where he grabbed that roll of bills, gave it to his tenant, and told him he was going into the barn to end it all, which he did, right then and there, those Sioux Center vigilantes rolling up just then, close enough to hear the shot that killed him.

Broke LeMars' heart because Rex wasn't a bad man, just down on his luck, you might say. Way down. Unmercifully down. If he was really a crook, a bad man, he wouldn't have pulled that heist in a Graham-Page parked right there on the street. He was crazy, is what he was.

All this happened ninety years ago, but it's still hard to talk about, and I'm still not telling you the man's last name. He has family after all.

But let me say this. Rex and his estranged wife had adopted two kids from a broken, boozy home, a home that wasn't a home. Those two kids, both deceased now, turned out just fine even though their birth parents were irresponsible and their adoptive father robbed banks and did himself in once it was clear to him what he'd gone and so thoughtlessly done. 

Many years later, Rex's adopted son, after a forty years of teaching school in a number of places in Siouxland, used to tell people, "I could not have had a more wonderful life."

Isn't that something? It's just the way you want your bad stories to end, don't you think? "I could not have had a more wonderful life." How many of us can say that?

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Italy xii--San Miniator Church

"You really should see it," the guy said. "It's the most beautiful place in Florence, especially at sundown. It's way up there, but even the kids made the climb," he told us retirees. "You can do it." Maybe a wink.

He wasn't wrong. The Abbey of San Miniato al Monte offered a most grand panorama of all things Florentine.

And he was right that a bunch of retirees could make it all the way up the hill. We did, although there was, at least for me, some question. Just simply to arrive was a religious experience, a pilgrimage in reverse, not a blessing but a test of faith. All those stairs reminded me of Luther, on his knees at Wittenburg, his cloak in shreds, right there determining the time had come for revolution.

By the time you walk through the door of your fifth or sixth Italian cathedral, on'es sheer astonishment is proportionally decreased. Even though guidebooks insist San Miniator Church is one of the most beautiful cathedrals in Florence, it's hard to go all agog when your lungs are prune-sized and you're sweating like a blacksmith on the Chisholm Trail.

Yes, The Abbey of San Miniato al Monte was gorgeous, unfailingly so.

But we'd come for Gregorian Chants promised by a tourist guide. We'd ascended all those stairs to hear the music sung here since the 1200. Yes, you read that number right. But nothing was happening really, and the time the chanting was supposed to begin passed without announcement. 

So we went downstairs to a chapel whose altar was strangely protected from the public by an iron gate. And there we waited. And waited. And waited--mostly, in silence. Here and there enough movement suggested that something-or-other was in the offing, so we waited longer, until  a monk or two finally appeared, recited the mass in Latin and sang, the real thing, the Gregorian chants sung here almost forever in The Abbey of San Miniato al Monte. 

For as long as we'd been in Italy, we'd lived in the chambers of the very heart of the Roman Catholic Church, its theology, traditions, and culture. It's difficult to explain exactly how it felt, right then, to witness the monks in a thousand year-old liturgy and listen to haunting melodies echo throughout the stone walls of the Abbey. 

James Joyce, the Irish novelist, had more than his share of problems with the church. For most of his life, he stayed away from the mass, from the nourishment of the host, of the body and blood of Christ. When his mother was dying, he went to her bedside; and she asked him if, for her sake alone, he could attend to the sacrament--for his dying mother's sake.

Joyce thought about what it was she wanted, about how his receiving the host would be a blessing to his mother. But he decided against it and told her he wouldn't because he couldn't, not because he wanted to hurt her, not that at all. He couldn't because he felt he would be profaning a ritual so sacred that his participation would do the sacrament disservice. 

And thus--or it so it's always seemed to me--James Joyce, in his refusal, may well have honored the sacrament more than many hundreds who participated that day without giving the bread and wine a second thought. 

I couldn't help thinking of James Joyce when we were up there at the top of the hill above Florence, in a darkened chapel where two monks did what has been done way up there in the Abbey for more than a thousand years, the sacrament Joyce honored, oddly enough, by his refusal to participate. 

That's the music I heard up there at the mountain top. That's who and what I thought of through the chanting. That's what I experienced at The Abbey of San Miniato al Monte. 

Honestly, when I left, I felt blessed. All those steps--they're much easier going down.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Armistice, 1918

Image result for world war 1 armistice

One hundred years ago, in cities and towns around the nation, Armistice Day was a joy. In France, however, the roaring engine of battle was difficult to slow or stop. Robert J. Casey remembered exactly—almost to the minute—how the armistice went in a journal he published after the war. 

~   *   ~   *   ~   *   ~

And this is the end of it. In three hours the war will be over. It seems incredible even as I write it. I suppose I ought to be thrilled and cheering. I am merely apathetic and incredulous.

We got the word about 5:30 this morning amid a scene of great anticlimax.

The little wooden shack [where we took shelter] was silent—or at least as silent as it could be with shells, friendly and hostile, just clearing the roof. The hillside along the east wall cut off most of the light of dawn and the tenants, undisturbed by daylight, were sleeping like dead men.

A telephone switchboard had been installed at one end of the old brick stove. Before it an operator was fighting to keep awake. Near by, the adjutant lay in a chicken wire cot. Beyond the board partition four lieutenants of the regimental staff lay draped on tables that had once been part of the [German] officers’ mess.

The officers did not stir in their sleep as the 77s cracked down on the road, or even when the shells of the 11th F. A.’s 155s started over toward the roads behind. . .with detonations that jarred choking dust from the rafters. . .

Then the big scene:

The telephone clicks.

The adjutant snores.

The operator hesitates.

A second click.

The operator plugs in:

“Hello, Yes, hello, radio!”

I sat up. . .

“He’s asleep. I’ll take the message. . . .”

Delay. . .Rustling of paper.

“An armistice has been signed and becomes effective on the eleventh of November at 11 o’clock.”

I rolled out of my blankets.

“At that hour hostilities and advances are to cease. Hold the line attained and give exact information as to the line attained at that hour. No communication nor fraternizing will take place with the enemy. . .Signed. . .Pershing”

“That all?. . .Sure, of course, it’s enough. . .

I jumped over and grabbed the message.

The adjutant sat up in his cot.

“What’s that?”

“Armistice signed,” I reported. “Cease firing at 11:00. . .Radio from Eiffel.”

The adjutant: “Good! Now all we have to do is stay alive until eleven. I know where there’s a culvert half a kilo down the road. You’ll find me under it if I’m wanted.” Rolls up his blankets. “Wish they could have decided this thing before we had to dope out that barrage.” He goes out in a hurry.

The Medical Officer [says] “Quit the noise and let a fellow sleep.”

The medical officer seemed to have the right idea. We all crawled back into our blankets again and stayed there until the smell of frying bacon awakened us.

Nine a.m.—Heinie has some ammunition to dispose of. He’s dropping 150s on the road, Not hitting anything so far.

Nine-fifteen: Order from General Hall to lessen rate of fire and cease firing in thirty minutes. Runners sent out to spread the glad tidings.

Nine forty-five: Sporadic shots. Distant shelling and machine gun chatter. Ambulances still going forward. Nobody on the road who doesn’t have to be there.

Ten: Whiz-bang just burst at the bridge over the creek. From the doorway. . .one can count seven bodies in a stack at the side of the road.

Ten thirty-seven: Heavies. . .are dumping everything they’ve got. G. I. cans are tearing up the road. The sector has become another [bombed out] Romagne. . .

A shell just lit the old sawmill. Men are . . .running madly about, [some] staggering out of the wreck and dropping. . . Ambulances have been stopped and litter bearers are on their way across the clearing.

There is a tinkling note, somehow familiar and yet like something out of a life we can barely remember: moisture is dropping from the eaves.

The pontoon engineers are swinging down the road to the crossing singing: “and we’ll all go back ‘cause it’s over, over here.” Maybe they’re right.

There is some cheering across the river—occasional bursts of it as news is carried to the advanced lines. For the most part, though, we are in silence. The air is full of half-forgotten sounds: the rustling of dead leaves, the organ tone of wind in the tree tops, whispers through the underbrush, lazy echoes of voices in the road.

With all is a feeling that it can’t be true. For months we have slept under the guns. For months, the smash of the 75, the boom of the 155. . .has been a part of our lives. We cannot comprehend stillness. 

~   *   ~   *   ~   *   ~

And that’s how a soldier named Robert Casey remembered it.

That very day, in London, New York, and Paris, millions swarmed into the streets to celebrate. But at the fronts, 3000 men died as the War to End All Wars drew bloodily to a close.

One hundred years ago, the war, the Great War, was over.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Sunday Morning Meds--My Rock

“I say to God my Rock, ‘Why have you forgotten me? 
Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy?’"
Psalm 42:9

You can't help but be struck here by the use of the present tense in this sentence. The psalmist is not reporting some strange moment, a weird epiphany-gone-awry. What he’s saying is, “Whenever I feel estranged from God, I say to him, 'Why'?” Every darn time.

If that’s true, then what he says makes better sense. “I say to God my rock—my fortress in times of trouble—‘why aren’t you my fortress in times of trouble?’”

It's a hybrid pain only believers feel, because only someone who knows God as a rock can feel the terror of sudden quicksand. Only a believer continues to talk to a God who seems to be out of state.
Makes no sense, really, but then neither does faith itself, often enough. The paradox of the psalmist’s supplication is understandable only to someone who knows, who says “been there, done that.” Like me . . . and you, probably.
And the question, this time at least, isn’t “how long (as it is in Psalm 13, for instance),” but “why?” “Why” is a question that also suggests significant distance. We don’t have time for “why” in the middle of battle. “Why” arises only when the battle doesn’t quit, or when we begin to look at our wounds and realize the pain.
In “The Wonders of the Invisible World,” Cotton Mather, the firebrand Puritan prelate, makes great claims for New England’s founders. They were “a chosen generation,” he says, “so pure as to disrelish many things which they thought wanted reformation elsewhere, and yet so peaceable that they embraced a voluntary exile in a squalid, horrid, American dessert.” They were saints.
But, alas, Mather says, along came their children, who like “many degenerate plants,” were altogether “otherwise inclined.” The founders were grain; their children, weeds—that’s what Mather sees and how he explains why the Devil is rampaging through New England. Everywhere he looked, after all, he saw witchcraft.

Why? “We have all the reason imaginable to ascribe it unto the rebuke of heaven for our manifold apostacies.” Mather, unlike David, appears to know the answer to why. It’s all our fault. Lo and behold, we’ve departed from righteousness.
But Mather’s explanation fed the madness that filled prisons around Salem, Massachusetts, and finally took 25 lives. Thank goodness God isn’t Cotton Mather.
All of us want to know why; all of us seek understanding for what can’t be fully understood. It’s a human thing, and it’s been a great blessing. Why is the source question of science, the foundation of education itself. Why is the beginning of knowledge.

But the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. And some questions we ask, questions from the heart and soul of our lives, may not have easy answers, and that’s the phenomena David is describing. Remember—it has happened more than once. Why have you left me alone?

And really, that’s the story of the psalm: even when he doesn’t seem to be our Rock, he is. It’s all here in this lament, in his pain and his joy. Even when there are no answers, he is.

Makes no sense at all unless you know it too.

Friday, November 09, 2018

Morning Thanks--Eugene Peterson

Image result for eugene peterson

It was, I think, one of the scariest moments of my life, in great part, I suppose, because what created that moment was an honor I didn't think I'd deserved. These were real writers, men and women whose work sold thousands, even millions--Luci Shaw, the dean of thoughtful Christian poetry; Walter Wangerin, a National Book Award winner; Philip Yancey, a household name among Christians; Keith Miller, A Taste of New Wine; Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline; and, good night! Madeline L'Engle. Twenty distinguished Christian writers had asked me to join them and, as an intro, read a story. It was one of the scariest moments of my life.

It didn't need to be. This confab--the Chrysostom Society--was an odd thing, something of a love fest. They got together to talk about writing, but they also loved each other. That too was a little scary. Keith Miller, Texan, a Southern Baptist, kept hugging me because, he said, those dang Calvinists are cold fish. About me, he wasn't wrong.

One was working on the Bible, rewriting it. I knew him by reputation, but, back then, I hadn't read a thing he'd ever written. This man--tall, gaunt, slightly stooped, wearing a fleece vest over a plaid shirt, and silvery comb-over atop an naked scalp, seemed especially reserved, thoughtful, even, in a very good sense, preacherly. Eugene Peterson seemed to me to be the softest touch of the bunch. 

My wife and I have been reading the book of Isaiah for a while now, for about as long as any human being can. Eugene seemed to me to have none of that, not a bit. He was quiet, his wife, Janice, more social, nimble in conversation. Sometimes I thought he entered the fray only at her prodding. He was no more aggressive than he was judgmental. I told my wife had the bearing of as a saint.

I don't need to sell anyone on that perception. For the substance of his thoughtful work, his commentaries and expositions of scripture, he was greatly loved. 

But I haven't read much of that. I page through commentaries only when I need to, so this little eulogy for Eugene Peterson may well be unique because I knew him far better than I know his work. We've been friends for 25 years.

Maybe a decade ago now, he told a story--the two of them did. Out of nowhere, they got a call from someone doing the legwork for a rock star who'd read The Message, found it wonderful, and wanted to meet Eugene. The man's name, they said, they didn't recognize right away.

It was Bono. 

The two of them told that story the next year at Chrysostom. They were flown out, had dinner, rode in a limo, went backstage, then sat up front for a concert unlike any they'd ever experienced. The Petersons laughed and laughed and laughed, mostly at themselves. As did we. That too was the Eugene Peterson I knew.

Once, we were talking about the place of self in what we wrote--the perils and temptations--just chatting about how we looked to those of love us most, our families, how difficult it must be for them to read us because they know us too well. 

But it's impossible not to write without self, we said--isn't that true?  So I asked Eugene how much of Eugene is in The Message. "Every word," he told us, nodding. 

So I have this to say to those many thousands who know Eugene through his work. If you believe you've heard his voice in what he's written, then be assured that you would not have been at all surprised by the Eugene Peterson who lived outside his book covers. His warm and loving presence always was and yet remains an abiding blessing to us all.

It's now been a couple weeks since his death. Much has already been written and remembered. But this morning, I'm giving thanks to God for the gifts Eugene Peterson so abundantly gave to all of us.

Thursday, November 08, 2018

Italy xii--Sacred and Profane

The riddle it begs seems a no-brainer, or so I thought when I stumbled on this charmer at the end of a tour through the Borghese Gallery, one of Rome's most stunning museums. The title, the audio tour related, was The Sacred and the Profane; the artist was Titian; the story of the painting itself?--a wedding gift commissioned in 1514 by some nobleman. 

Okay, so it's one of those Renaissance paintings, mostly classical (but note the church in the background), but also one of those fascinating works of art that springs an allegory. One of the women represents "the sacred," and the other "the profane," or "the human."

Like I said, a no-brainer. One of these sister deities is quite unabashedly naked, just some lazy loincloth twisted about her privates. She's got to be "profane," right? The other, gorgeously dressed in what could possibly be some kind of bridal gown, is "sacred." There's sheer wantonness in all that flesh on the right, or so I thought, the old Calvinist. The woman on the left of whatever they're seated on is that model of womanhood from the book of Proverbs. I stood there and told myself that with just an hour-long tour of the Borghese, I'd become an art critic.

But the audio flashed "WRONG, WRONG, WRONG" to the obvious answer. It didn't really. I wasn't being quizzed. But the guide in the voice box made very clear that jumping to immediate conclusions underestimates the subtlety of the artist, as well as the thoughtful and even theological currents of his day. 

So there. 

Truth be known, the voice in my ear told me that what's obvious is waaaaay wrong. "The sacred" is naked as a jaybird, "the profane" is outfitted in that billowing gown, not because that billowing gown is the wardrobe of a harlot, but because Renaissance artists, with all the abandon of old died-in-the-wool Platonists, loved to worship "ideals." See, the naked woman on the right isn't nude, she's pure or ideal love. Go ahead and look--you'll not go blind.

Anyway, I stood corrected. And confused. Which is okay, I guess, because five hundred years (504 to be exact) which have passed since Titian, still a kid, painted this well-ordered collection of images for someone's wedding present, real art historians still go roundy roundy about who's what and why so.

And, you might ask (as I did), that little fat kid with his hand in the water?--who's that? and what is it they're sitting on anyway, a baptismal font? The cherub almost has to be Cupid; after all, this whole colorful project is about love. But what is it they're sitting on? It looks like a pretty standard sarcophagus. So death is in here too? And what's going on with the figures in the front--looks almost porn-y. 

Somehow--I don't know how--all of it took me back to Dante, who, when he was little older than that cherubic cupid, saw a sweet girl right there near the church he attended and was so blown away by her perfection that she remained, despite his marriage to a"real" woman, his perfectly human symbol of "the ideal," which is to say not just beauty, but the very essence of the divine (deliberately lower case, I would point out. If you're like me, you have some trouble with that jump, but Dante didn't.)

Look, if you get this painting, if you understand it from background to foreground, congratulations: you're the first. For 504 years, young Titian's intent in this stunning work has prompted endless debate between real, storied art historians. The Sacred and Profane offers an arrangement of symbols (trust me, there are many more than I've listed) that seem deliberately delivered confusingly on the canvas. 

What I know is this. All that fleshy stuff isn't porn-y. It's perfect. It's ideal. So there.

People in the know insist the riddle remains, after all these years: Sacred or Profane? Your answer to that question, I hate to say, is just as good as anyone else's. Or bad.

And thus the masterpiece, let me say, perhaps like love itself, remains a gorgeous mystery.