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.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Won't You Be My Neighbor? -- a review

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There may be other teachings more central to the Christian gospel--I don't care to fight or argue. But I can't help thinking that no tenet is so radical, so "out there," so impossible, as this one: every last human being, not some but all, even the villains and most vile, have somewhere within them an authentic fragment of the the Most High, the likeness, the very image, of God. We are all image-bearers. All. Every last one.

Its corollary is equally unreasonable: because we carry that image, we deserve respect, even love. All of us. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you"; "love your neighbor as yourself."

Really? Get serious.

I spent time in front of the TV when our kids were little. In the morning I watched my share of Sesame Street because they did. It was the eighties, and every afternoon Fred Rogers would walk into his cheap, utilitarian set, take his jacket off his shoulders, pull on a cardigan, feed the fish, and sing some silly ditty. Our kids were mesmerized. 

And I giggled because Fred Rogers' TV presence was totally absurd. He should not have had millions of viewers. Nothing happened in his blessed neighborhood. No fireworks. No pratfalls. None. No conflict. No Oscar the Grouch. Just  a few neighbors who dropped by and a couple of hand puppets leaning out from the same old holes in the wall. 

I never gave him mind really, but I often sat there in astonishment at my kids' astonishment. By any measure at all Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood shouldn't have even been on the tube. Fred Rogers had to have been the only person in TV land who believed that helping kids understand themselves and the world around them meant quiet reassurance in the repetition of ordinary things accomplished in love and tolerance. He should not have had so many viewers. My kids wouldn't miss it.

Right now, it's difficult to imagine a more worthy contemporary beatitude than Won't You Be My Neighbor?, a documentary film on the life of Mr. Fred Rogers. It's a wonderful testimony, as beautiful and moving a sermon as Michael Curry's remarkable address recently at the royal wedding, a shocking reminder, seriously, that the Truth of the Gospel is as stunning as it ever was. 

The Christian world would do itself and its Lord a favor next Sunday to simply forget worship for a week and gather instead to watch this movie because Won't You Be My Neighbor? delivers the goods in a fashion that preaches a gospel beyond words. 

Fred Rogers was as human as any of us; Won't You Be My Neighbor doesn't skimp on his weaknesses. But it directs us all toward the central value of his life and work, the doctrine of Jesus that insists we are all image-bearers, all of us, even the least of us. 

Behold, I have a dream--that all of God's children, evangelicals and Catholics, Mormons and Pentecostals, Trumps and No-Trumps, evolutionists and creationists, black and white and red and every hue between, gather in churches some Sunday morning soon and, all together, watch a movie about a strange guy who tried to live the gospel truth. Forget liturgy and music and performance. Every believer from every tribe and nation simply watch, together, "Won't You Be My Neighbor?"

Oh, happy day.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Morning Thanks--?????


This shot stays on the shelf. Down here in the basement, the walls are full of canvas photographs. In a spare room behind us, a couple dozen wait to rotate into the lineup next time I change the set. In the last 15 years, I've taken hundreds, even thousands of shots, just like everyone else with a cellphone. 

But this shot, now 17 years old, stays in a frame on the shelf, not because it's the best photograph I've ever taken, but because the moment was so profound and so unique, that like the photo itself the moment stays, front and center, in my memory.

We'd been adequately warned. People had told us we'd go stark raving mad being grandparents. Time and time again people would say it. I wasn't a Doubting Thomas exactly--I didn't pooh-pooh their obvious joy. I just smiled as they were braying and waited for the conversation to steer itself elsewhere.

Then it happened. Sure enough, they'd spoken the unvarnished truth: there are no words to describe what it felt like to see my daughter hold her own baby, my own--our own--first grandchild. That picture conjures the thrill of that moment. I'd been warned, but I was still unprepared for the flood of whatever grand emotion washed through me.

And now there's this one.


The truth is, we've already got a hundred pictures of this little dear. They flow magically into an on-line album full of precious shots I've never touched; but here the two of them are on a double-wide screen in front of me, an image of yet another firstborn, my son's. Like I said, I've got a hundred pictures already, and she's barely six months old.

But this one does me in. This one is special, not because it is clearly some talented photographer's creative genius, but because my daughter-in-law's cellphone-shot from the bathroom fills the screen with joy. He's vacuuming, he's smiling, and that darling grandbaby couldn't be happier.

Gorgeous.

If I knew exactly how to say it, I'd give thanks this morning for what last night's new picture does to my soul, filling it with an emotion that's as fully human as it is gloriously divine. It's life. And life itself is such a gift.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

When Hitler wasn't Hitler

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Hitler, you know, wasn't always Hitler. 

His boyhood wasn't ideal. The old man used to beat on him, used to think his son didn't have a clue about life. When Adolf told him about wanting to do art, the old man sent him to technical school, where he became, quite predictably, a failure.

During the war, the First World War, he was a hero. He suffered significantly, gaining the Iron Cross, the German equivalent of a purple heart, and more. He loved the war with an affection that isn't wholly unusual among some vets--nothing in life, after all, tests the spirits like the actuality and immediacy of death. And he came back angry, confident Germany lost the "war to end all wars" because pointy-headed intellectuals--Jews and Marxists and whoever else--signed the damned armistice.

He took on his anti-Semitism despite the fact that his wartime commander, the man who had recommended he be decorated for bravery, was Jewish. But he wasn't alone. Anti-Semitism in Europe--and America--wasn't rare. As early as 1919, historians claim he held the belief that Germany's problems began somewhere inside its Jewish population. But Hitler still wasn't Hitler. 

He took up with the fledgling Nazi political party when he left the military in 1920. That infamous red Nazi flag with the swastika against a white background in the center?--Adolph Hitler, the artist, designed it. The party itself inflated its rolls to make it appear much bigger than it was. In the political system post-war Germany, it wasn't really much of a player.

He started doing some public speaking when party official noticed his oratorical skills. When conflicts arose in the party, Adolph told the others he was leaving the Nazis. His superiors knew very well that no one else had Hitler's speaking skills. They capitulated, and Hitler took over the party. That's when Hitler began to be Hitler. People--in significant numbers--began listening when his fiery oratory played on nationalist themes, when he derided the scapegoats who kept Germany down, when he appealed to people's sense that they were being left out of the game altogether. 

President Donald E. Trump is not Adolph Hitler. There are no plans in his desk drawer for crematoriums going up behind forests, human death camps. He isn't about to invade Canada and Mexico, our neighbors. He isn't thinking seriously about ruling the world.

But unlike any President in memory, he has an ego that seems insatiable. His absurd apology yesterday was as well-meant as any other falsehood he's fabricated, thousands of them. His performances throughout last week--NATO to Helsinki--made clear that he respects only one person, Vladimar Putin, for reasons no one understands. 

You can say what you'd like about any past President, from Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who wanted to pack the Supreme Court, on down to Barack Obama. What you won't find is anyone so willing to consistently bend the truth as President Donald E. Trump. No one comes anywhere close in sheer voluminous ego. I think Donald Trump would believe, if he thought about it, that he, like no one else, could rule the world. 

That's new in the pantheon of Presidents. Time alone will tell if its truly scary.

Right now, there are moments when it's risky not to believe it is.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Small Wonder(s)--Freedom



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Seems easy enough, doesn't it?--simple and true: once you're free, there's no going back. You're free, free at last. Makes sense. Even a kid would understand. 

Well, not so. In the case of more than one slave and former slave, being free for a time, or having been free for months or even years, was not a ticket to ride because, by law in these United States, it was altogether possible and perfectly legal for a free man or woman to be locked up in slavery once more, improbable as that may seem.

And yes, in case you're wondering, I'm talking like a white man. To describe this change--from freedom back into the slavery--as improbable is unfeeling, even racist. Slavery was not a condition, like athlete's foot. It was evil, inhuman.

In the 1830s, historical records make clear that Minnesota's Fort Snelling was home to a dozen slaves, maybe more, people who cooked and cleaned and did whatever work white military brass, their masters, deemed beneath them. Technically, they weren't slaves at Ft. Snelling; in the Wisconsin Territory, slavery was banned. But when officers were reassigned, they took their help along; and, if they went south, those free men and women once again, by law, became slaves.

Dr. John Emerson, a physician, owned slaves, two in fact, a married couple, Dred and Harriet Scott, whose basement apartment you can visit if you stop sometime at Ft. Snelling. It's not a hovel--it's tiny, but then, in the 1830s, Ft. Snelling wasn't the Hilton.

It wasn't there where Mr. and Mrs. Scott started down the long road toward freedom, but it was where they two of them met and married. For the record, Mr. Dred married Harriet, but Dr. Emerson bought Harriet Robinson. (Stunning kind of sentence, isn't it? Dr. Emerson bought Harriet Robinson.)

Slave genealogies get complicated, so stay with me. Dr. Emerson died when they were all in St. Louis. By law, his wife inherited her husband's property, including their slaves. When she chose to hire them out, Dred Scott tried to buy his freedom, to pay to be free, but the widow Emerson wouldn't sell him to himself, or them to themselves. They were slaves.

It was 1843. To call slavery an issue back then understates too. Even though the American Civil War was still 17 years off, true believers on both sides of the issue of slavery were ready to die. Dred and Harriet Scott, slaves once more, took their case for freedom to the courts.

But for them, justice was neither speedy nor justice at all. The Dred Scott decision, handed down from the U. S. Supreme Court on March 6, 1857, denied freedom to the Scotts and their two daughters, when Justice Roger B. Taney, writing for the majority, determined that Dred and Harriet Scott and their daughters, Eliza and Lizzie, were, simply stated, not human. 

It's not complicated. Dred Scott and his family were kept in slavery because fourteen years after the Scotts began to suit for their freedom, seven U. S. Supreme Court justices ruled that black people could not be citizens of the United States of America because in 1787 the U. S. Constitution maintained that Black people were not citizens.   

There are a ton of reasons to visit Minnesota's Ft. Snelling. It's a huge place with canons that still rock the stone walls when lit and fired. There's eats and treats galore on any weekend.  Visit the hospital, the officer's quarters, or take a stroll on the grass of the parade grounds. The Mall of America isn't far away. 

But it will do your soul well to step into a little basement apartment--it's neat and clean, the walls adorned with utensils of the age. It's the place where a slave couple lived, long ago, in another age, a man and a woman who spent fourteen years fighting to be free, only to be denied by the most appalling verdict ever laid down by the highest court of our land: "no, you can't be free." 

There's a tour guide who'll tell you about Dred and Harriet Scott. She'll tell you the story. She does a good job. Get the kids to listen. 

Seriously, get the kids to listen.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Dreams and sweat

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Things were more loosey-goosey back then. What I remember is that he was there for just a week or so before announcing he had to go to a funeral or something, not just across town but out in Idaho or Montana, halfway across the country. He'd be gone for a couple days. 

Must have been a long funeral. He didn't get back for a month--which meant I was stuck with his students--me, the student teacher. His leaving me alone like that would be unthinkable today.

I must have been cocky because I don't remember going pink or anything. He told me what needed to be done, and the task must not have seemed particularly daunting: teach high school juniors and seniors something or other or speech and theater--theater history. That was a half century ago.

I didn't need a supervisor to know I was doing okay as a teacher. I knew I was okay because students thought I was okay. Their attention, their caring, clearly registered. By the time the guy came back, I'd learned what student teaching should teach--that I could do it and like it.

Six months later, when I stood in front of my own classroom for the first time, I was more nervous than scared. I sort of knew that teaching was something I could do. 

It became something I did for the next 42 years. Only twice in that time did I consider leaving the classroom, and not once in all that time did I feel trapped; and, for 37 of those years I was in the same place. You'd have thought I'd rot. I don't think I did.

For some reason, it's not easy to type out this sentence, but I'm going to: I loved teaching.

Did I know that going in? No. I had to learn to teach and learn to love it.

Carol Dweck, a psych prof at Stanford, claims that one the phrase "find your passion" appears nine times more often in speech and writing these days than it did a quarter century ago. "Find your passion" has become, she explains, the clarion call of career councilors, who tell kids looking for a place in life that finding a profession is something you'll know when you see it, something, well, like falling in love.

Dweck and her research buddies claim that's hooey. People get good at something, become experts, not by some vision, some unsolicited epiphany. Interests develop by use and experience. Passions bud and flower from curiosity and plain old experience. I think I learned to love teaching by teaching. Whether or not teaching was "in me," was less determining than my standing up there, day after day, having to get the job done. 

In those early years, we lived just a few blocks from campus, close enough to walk, which I did, often with a colleague and friend. We were both young, both writers, both people who loved literature. More than once as we were telling each other stories about what had happened that day in the classroom, one of us would bring it up. "Just think," we'd say, snickering, "we get paid to do this."

Not much, but a salary was icing on the cake. 

I think Professor Dweck is right: Loving teaching, at least for me, was not an instinct. I learned to love it. I found my passion by going back, day after day, into the classroom.

Passions aren't discovered; they're developed. 

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Sunday Morning Meds--Wants and Needs




“I shall not want” Psalm 23:1

My friend Diet Eman, who spent more than anyone’s fair share of time in a concentration camp in the occupied Netherlands during World II, won’t forget, too, more than anyone’s share of atrocities.  She remembers a time every day when the job description of the guards in the prison camp at Vught changed significantly:  instead of beating up on the inmates, the guards had to keep inmates from beating on each other. 

Food.  There was so little of it, that when what little of it emerged, the guards stood by closely.  She describes those moments in Things We Couldn’t Say:
The only time they watched us closely was when we got our bread because resentments could grow and tempers flare. If you were assigned the duty of cutting margarine, you had to be very careful that all the lumps were exactly the same size. Margarine was all we had—no jam, no marmalade, no nothing—just bread and a little pad of margarine. You had to be very careful slicing it because the others would watch very closely to be sure that no one pad was any thicker than the other. If one slice would have been a bit thicker chunk of margarine, there would be bickering for sure; when you’re hungry, such bickering comes up easily.
I don’t need to document the extremes to which good human beings will go when hungry. Reason gets tossed like cheap wrapping paper in the face of real human need.

Truthfully, I’ve never been hungry. Neither have my parents, although, during the Great Depression, they came much closer than I ever did. My mother told me about my grandfather, a squat big-shouldered blacksmith, crying at supper because during the Depression neither he nor his farmer customers had any money. There were times when he didn’t know where his next dollar was coming from. My father, whose father was a preacher, remembers his parent’s cupboards being filled only by the largesse of his congregation. There was no money for a salary.

In my life, “I shall not want” seems a given. I don’t need a God--I’ve got an Amazon Rewards Card. In the many years of our marriage, our economic problems have arisen not because of lack of money but because of too much: if our kids need something—our adult kids—should we buy it for them, or make sure they learn some basic lessons in economics? Sometimes—often—our hearts lean a direction our heads tells us isn't smart. That still happens. Most the time our toughest questions concern what to do with extra.

I just now horribly misspoke, of course. We have money all right, but our cushioned pocketbooks don’t mean we don’t need God. If we'd like, every week we can eat the America's finest steak (we live in beef country, after all); what’s more, Sioux County has the finest pork loin in the world. Food is no problem. 

But we want—good Lord, do we want. We want our kids happy. We want a deeply fractured nation healed somehow. 

We want to ease into old age. We want another good year for ourselves, a good life for our kids and grandkids, strength and patience and grace for our dad who's 99 years old.

“I shall not want” may be the most audacious claim in all of scripture because, good Lord, do we ever. 

 Good Lord, do what you can to help us not to.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Tutu's Treacherous Flight*



Maybe it's just me, but it seems that the world has almost forgotten Archbishop Desmund Tutu. In the 90's, when apartheid South Africa was being transformed into the new South Africa, there may not have been a more universally admired human being in all of Africa or all of the world, save Nelson Mandela himself.  The two of them seemed South Africa's truly righteous.  Why stop there--the seemed the world's truly righteous.

In a immensely enriching interview aired last week on On Being, Krista Tippett offers listeners a reprise, another look at a man the world considers to be among it's most amazing and wonderful heroes, a man who, like Mandela, was somehow remarkably able to suffer immense horrors without ever losing the hope that comes by faith alone.  

So much of the uncut interview is memorable that choosing any one chunk does the whole an injustice, but one story Tutu tells goes so deeply to the heart of our sin and sadness that it bears repeating.  He says he was in Nigeria, where he boarded a plane to go back home to Johannesburg.  

When he'd boarded, he says he'd seen, up front, that both of the pilots in the cockpit were black.  Once airborne, turbulence on high made that homeward journey the mother of all apocalyptic flights.  Passengers were sure they were going to die.  In the height of the shaking and rattling and rolling, Tutu says he discovered his own fears when he couldn't help but wonder whether those two pilots, both black, were going to be skilled enough to pull that jet out of mess they were in.  Neither of them, after all, were white.

Desmund Tutu, black African Archbishop of Capetown, freedom fighter, champion of the oppressed, a man who won the Nobel Peace Prize already in 1984, in the middle of the apartheid madness, who was also awarded the Albert Schweitzer Prize for Humanitarianism in 1986, the Ghandhi Peace Prize in 2005, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009--that Desmund Tutu, on a flight home he'll never forget, discovered himself a racist.

Sadly, Archbishop Tutu's turbulence story is not beyond belief.  That he would have those deep prejudices after his people had suffered racial discrimination for centuries is actually perfectly, tragically, understandable.  

What's remarkable about the story--or so it seems to me--is how deeply it reaches into our own human character to reveal unmistakably how each of us--me too--has a a thinly concealed reserve of emotion and attitude that is, and probably forever will be, determinedly racist.  Racism is nothing anyone sheds easily.  Scratch us deep enough, and it's there.

Archbishop Tutu is 81 years old now, retired, he says, but if there was a school for Christians, if there was one huge learning center under whose curriculum everyone who claimed the name of Jesus would enroll, and if I had anything at all to do with the determining course content, I'd make his On Being interview  required listening.  I'm serious.  Just to hear the man's exuberant laugh enriches the soul.

Short on hope these days?  Listen to Desmund Tutu.
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*Published March 2, 2012.