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, October 21, 2020

"Why They Loved Him"

It's a provocative title, intriguing, because to me, understanding how it is that good, good people find Donald Trump so appealing remains the mystery of the Trump era. I like Joe Biden. I voted for him (by mail), but the truth is, I could have been faithful to any number of Democratic candidates this time around. I was pleased to hear every one of them speak.

But I'm not madcap bonkers about Biden, not as crazed as Trump's panting fans, not obsessed or bewitched, willing to risk Covid just to welcome him mask-lessly on a cold airport tarmac. What on earth makes Bible-toting evangelicals buy into a grotesque storyline that a cabal of heinous Democrats and RHINOs, plus some Hollywood star types, and any number of "elites" (of whom I must be one, I guess) gather together ritually to kill children and drink their blood? QAnon anyone?

But let's leave the madness out. Why do ordinary people slavishly pull on their MAGA caps or hoist Trump flags for a Trump flotilla? On that subject I read because I just don't understand.

An opinion piece in the New York Times some time ago made some limited sense. It doesn't explain the evangelical swoon, but abortion IS the Trump card there--and I understand. I don't fall in line, but I understand. If Democrats are baby-killers, as my five-year-old son said of Obama in 2008 as he crawled into my lap, I get that. I don't agree, but I do understand.

In "Why They Loved Him," Farah Stockman, an editor at the Times, took a close look at a man named Tim, who, like dozens of men and women she'd interviewed, lost his job and his way of life by way of NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, when thousands of blue-collar jobs went south to Mexico and made fatter cats out of men who had been loaded already.

"A machinist named Tim," she claims, "carried his steelworker union card in his wallet for years after the factory closed, just to remind himself who he was." NAFTA didn't simply steal his job, it robbed him of something far more important--identity. "Tim grew up in a union household. His dad had been an autoworker; his grandfather, a coal miner." He lost his job, AND he lost his way of life.

That Tim would drop his own, generations'-old commitments to the Democratic party, a party that, he said, once stood up for the little guy, and instead surf a big orange wave behind a man with weird hair who promised to bring those jobs to boarded-up main streets all over the rust belt makes good sense. Men and women like Tim have every right to say, "Give me back my life." It wasn't only the living wage those steelworkers wanted returned, it was a loving community, a way of life that gives meaning and order to any of their/our lives.

What resonated with me was that union card, something he couldn't and wouldn't toss. Somehow that union card meant more to him than the unemployed or underemployed guy he saw when he looked in a mirror. Enter Donald J. Trump.

I've been helping a World War II nurse--she's a century old--write her memoirs. She's Lakota. She tells me that the 1868 Ft. Laramie Treaty essentially "unmanned" her grandfather. When he signed onto the treaty inaugurating the reservation system, everything changed. No longer would the buffalo roam through the heart of their lives, their culture. As long as he could remember, he'd been nomadic--the Lakota had never cities, even towns. Reservations changed everything.

To understand the significant social problems of our reservation, my Lakota nurse told me, start there--with a way of life entirely erased by way of an inky thumbprint, a way of life ended forever.

What Trump offered Tim and so many others is hope, as Stockman says, "false hope, but false hope is better than no hope at all." 

But it was false hope, as Tim--I do hope--has now perhaps come to understand.

The title of the article takes the past tense. In two weeks, we'll see.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Morning Thanks--not just any Puritan preacher

Somehow, or so it seems, this portrait catches what I can't help but believe was the true Jonathan Edwards, the justly famous Puritan divine and one-time President of Princeton University. His eyes seem fixed, but there's nothing haughty or haunted about them. He appears not to be hectoring anyone, but listening, something only accomplished by capable men and women.

His lips are thin, which might signify the kind of tightness one always associates with Puritans; but they're not arched into either smile or frown. Instead, his whole face--his eyes are slightly widened--makes him appear healthily attentive. He wants to know, wants to learn. If Puritanism is the sneaking suspicion that someone somewhere is having a good time, as H. L. Mencken so famously said, this Edwards at least does not appear "Puritannical."

And he wasn't, though he was. For better and/or for worse, he will always be perceived as preacher who ranted on "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," perhaps the only sermon right there in the canon of every high school anthology of American lit. And "Sinners" was his--of that there's no doubt. Edwards, more than any other Puritan prelate, awakened spirituality in the hearts and souls of his countrymen, and he did it, oddly enough, in a soft, almost feminine voice. He was no Billy Sunday, no Billy Graham, no Jerry Falwell. He didn't preach like a locker-room coach, or attempt to mimic the greatest pulpiteer of his time, George Whitefield, whose traveling salvation show packed city squares up and down the colonies.

The story goes that when he actually preached that sermon, parishioners might have found it difficult to hear, so quiet and unassuming was Edwards' voice. However, some claim that no one couldn't listen because the quality of his ideas--"There is nothing that keeps wicked men at any one moment out of hell, but the mere pleasure of God"--somehow resonated with the sleepy moral consciences of New Englanders who, in their quest for material gain, hadn't quite yet lost the cultural memory of what they all still recognized as their own "total depravity."

And thus, Jonathan Edwards "awakened" American's first "Great Awakening," which explains why the quintessential Calvinist theologian--none better during or immediately after his era--so honorably sits on display (or at least did, some years ago) in the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College. Quite simply, Edwards lit 'em up big time. From the pulpit, he lacked the crusading presence of a George Whitefield, but not the theological fervency, and he surpassed absolutely everyone is pure intellect.

As a brand new high school English teacher, way back when, I tried turning my classroom into Puritan meeting house, men on one side, women on the other. I borrowed a choir robe from the music department, put a cross up on the podium (probably not a Puritan affectation!), and told the kids that when I'd enter, I wanted them in austere silence before I'd deliver the most dramatic moments of "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," which I then did, yelling and screaming like a third-rate tub-thumper.

I had it all wrong. Edwards didn't scream out the horrors he wanted to use to introduce his people to their own dark and sinful selves, he let what he said do that work, rather than how he said it.

When I met with a bunch of them last year, a half-century later, some of them brought it up and broke into laughter. That's okay. They weren't derisive. What's soothed my soul was that they remembered the wild-eyed preacher at all.

I wanted them to understand this moment in their own American history because it was so powerfully formative, even if "the Puritan era" can be and has been blamed for just about every social ill from which this culture of ours suffers. And, I suppose, I wanted them to understand me, their first-year teacher, who, at 22 years old, was still wrestling with the twin towers of Edwards' faith, and mine--the sovereignty of God and the depravity of man.

That's a biggie, whether we're talking 17th or 21st century. 

How about this?--Jonathan Edwards on Donald J. Trump. Oh my, that's a sermon I'd attend.

This morning, this old Calvinist gives thanks for a theologian of towering intellect and significance in the American story, a famous Calvinist divine named the Reverend Jonathan Edwards.
The bow of God’s wrath is bent, and the arrow made ready on the string, and justice bends the arrow at your heart, and strains the bow, and it is nothing but the mere pleasure of God, and that of an angry God, without any promise or obligation at all, that keeps the arrow one moment from being made drunk with your blood.
Been a while since I've heard a sermon like that. Maybe that's good. Maybe not.

Monday, October 19, 2020

Monkey Mind and Mine


Monkey Mind

When I was a child I had what is called an inner life.
For example, I looked at that girl over there
In the second aisle of seats and wondered what it was like
To have buck teeth pushing out your upper lip
And how it felt to have those little florets the breasts
Swelling her pajama top before she went to sleep.
Walking home, I asked her both questions
And instead of answering she told her mother
Who told the teacher who told my father.
After all these years, I can almost feel his hand
Rising in the room, the moment in the air of his decision,
Then coming down so hard it took my breath away,
And up again in that small arc
To smack his open palm against my butt.
I'm a slow learner
And still sometimes I'm sitting here wondering what my father
Is thinking, blind and frail and eighty-five,
Plunged down into his easy chair half the night
Listening to Bach cantatas. I know he knows
At every minute of every hour that he's going to die
Because he told my mother and my mother told me.
I didn't cry or cry out or say I'm sorry.
I lay across his lap and wondered what
He could be thinking to hit a kid like that.

 by Steve Orlen, from The Elephant's Child: New and Selected Poems

This poem too--I like it, not because I have some memory of abuse, because I don't. But this Writers Almanac poem opens up the crap shoot that growing up is--really, that life is. Who knows what sticks in our minds and souls? Nobody. Nor does anyone know why. On the basis of some undefinable permutations, some impressions and perceptions from each of our pasts simply won't die but knock around in our conscious minds as if they had their own life, which they apparently do.

 Little more than a week ago--and I wrote it here--I got up early in the morning in an unfamiliar cabin and heard, from my own feet, the sound of my grandfather's slippers shuffling over the kitchen linoleum in our house fifty years ago. My grandfather died when I was six. In what crack or crevice did that memory hide for all those years? And why did it stay? 

He knew one joke, or at least the Grandpa in my mind knew only one joke. He likely knew more, but my five-year old memory held on to just one. So a couple walked into a railroad station, looking to get away. "Two to Dulut'," the guy says. The station manager thought the guy was kidding. "Well, tee, teetle, ee." He thought that was blindingly funny, and I laughed along, obligingly.

There's nothing particularly untoward about those memories or my grandfather, but the sound of his slippers was there as if I'd just heard it yesterday. It just happens that last week, for the first time in my life, I was in Dulut'.  Of course, Grandpa's knee-slapper showed up. 

Nothing about his funeral has stayed. I have no memory of it. Or do I? Perhaps some morning, brushing my teeth, some artifact will emerge from whatever primordial ooze holds the catalog of our strange impressions and perceptions. 

In "Monkey Mind," some thorny issues of a whacking he have never really left the narrator's consciousness, even become obsessive. He remembers being swatted unjustly for what he's always assumed was simple, childhood curiosity. Made no sense. Today, he's old enough to understand all of that, but he can't forget, he can't. The whacking has hung in there from the day it happened so long ago, even though today his father is dying.

I'm a victim of all of this too. I suppose we all are. Not only that, but I can't help but wonder what injustices I inflicted on my own children--and have likewise forgotten. The old man likely remembers nothing of the events which haunt the kid. What don't I know about what I said or did when my children were simply curious--or simply kids? Maybe I'd rather not know.

A mind's storehouse of memory is a curious mystery. Even a little scary. What makes "Monkey Mind" a poem, what makes it art, is not it's soaring beauty. This morning this odd little story awakened in me an otherwise forgotten moment of my own life, as, I'm guessing, it did yours.

"Monkey Mind" belongs to Stephen Orlen, but to me and, if I'm right, to you too. It's ours. 

That makes it good.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Reading Mother Teresa--Possession

“Hear my prayer, Lord, 
listen to my cry for help; 
do not be deaf to my weeping. 
I dwell with you as a foreigner, 
a stranger, as all my ancestors were.” Psalm 39:12 

There is, within me, more than a smidgen of my grandfather’s DNA, more than a pint or two of his fulsome, brooding Calvinist blood. I think of him often really, a man so driven by the depth of his own sinfulness (he was really a good man) that he would take a kind of perverse pleasure in recounting the darkness of his soul – as in, “if I had one thing to do with my salvation, I’d burn in hell.” That kind of thing. Complete with tears. 

He likely had a family background in the old Dutch conventicles, those hotbed small groups where intense devotions ran so emotion-laden that their house meetings became, in no small measure, the church. Some people believe that house churches are the wave of the future. Good night, they have a history, a past – intense meditations for intense sinners whose long prayers in an intimate circle stretched on endlessly. Grandpa had a heavy dose of that.

Back then, in the early years of the 20th century, I don’t think he was unusual. In most churches there were more Harry Dirkses per capita, I’m sure, than there are today. That kind of exhausting, abject confession promised and likely delivered abundant blessings. After all, the finest means by which to glory – seriously! – in the marvelous grace of God almighty was to lie prostrate on the floor in abject selflessness. Grace, for even lowly me!

By all reports, that was my grandpa. It’s easy to parody.

But I’m saying that sometime he’s in me, too. Maybe more than sometime. Maybe far more than I care to admit.

My mother, his daughter, always wished to be Pentecostal, to speak in tongues, to be ever closer to the Lord than she was, no matter that her son thinks she’s dang well close enough. Her son thinks such unquenchable longing is almost a disease. For someone who talks constantly about the love of God, it sometimes seems to me that she’s ever an arm’s length away, maybe even farther.

She wanted “Blessed Assurance” sung at her husband’s funeral because she knew he never shared her more tremulous faith. My father never worried much about his salvation, even though he was, as most who know him would say, something of a saint. She’s never quite understood his confidence because she was never herself so blessedly assured. If she were, the drama would be over; and I think greatly liked the drama.

Her son can giggle about all this, but what I’m confessing this morning is that, like it or not, I’m still my mother’s son – and my grandpa’s grandson. And I feel it most when I read something like this from Mother Teresa: “Why must we give ourselves fully to God? Because God has given Himself to us." 

Just blows me away. That logic is so airtight that its undeniable truth makes mincemeat of my feeble attempts at being faithful. She is so absolutely right. Just to be sure, let me say that there are no tears here – I’m not my grandfather’s clone. But the way Mother Teresa says what she does here casts a long, sickening shadow over my sinfulness. I admit it.

See, there he is – Grandpa Dirkse,  ye olde Calvinist. In the flesh.

“I live for God and give up my own self, and in this way induce God to live for me,” she wrote. “Therefore to possess God we must allow Him to possess our soul” (29).

Wow. Let me tell you, on that one I’m in the cheap seats watching--even maybe, once in a while, wishing too.

Friday, October 16, 2020

What you see is what you get


The thing about October is that, on a good day, just about everything is beautiful. Okay, part of the reason this shot strikes me as attractive is lighting. Had the day been rain besotted, had the woods not been mottled by dark and lurking shadows, this plain old maple leaf would likely draw nothing but flies. If that. But the sky was clear, the sun was bright, and the season itself provided that glorious rusty yellow. 

Or this. A bouquet of aspens, tall as naked ladies, a bevy of them amid some maples, all of it way down there beneath us somewhere.

By rights--or so it seems--the autumn of the year shouldn't be so beautiful because if this shot witnesses anything, it's death and decay--"death and decay in all around I see," but, gulp, it couldn't be more beautiful. People go "up north" almost any time of year, but fall trips call out the thousands because in October the world is an art gallery, full of masterwork accomplished by the Master Artist. 

I forget how the line goes, but it's operative here too--"success is 90 percent sweat and ten percent talent" (maybe the numbers are off, but you get the picture). Photography requires some skill, but the most significant component of any slough of great pictures is being in the right place at the right time. And what I'm saying is that, in a bright October sun, plunked right in the middle of the woods in some northern clime, you're there. You've got to try really hard to screw up on autumnal glory. Just fire away. 

Here's a shot I knew the moment I looked was going to be a winner.

So let's review the facts. It's October, the leaves on those hardwoods absolutely could not be more flashy--factor numero uno. Secondo?--the lake is calm tonight. If there were any more of a ripple, this shot wouldn't be this shot. Three: the sun is dying in the west, bathing the world in its own glorious gold glory. Four: I'm there. I'm not inside the cabin reading my email.

Five: the distance between me and the other side of the lake is perfect. If the channel was just twice as wide, the stretch of all that glorious color wouldn't cover the water like it does. Six: I got a camera in my hand. 

What I'm saying is that beauty is only partially in the eye of the beholder. You see it when you're permitted to. I was, right here, outside a cabin at a Minnesota lake, the passive recipient of grace. Sure, I had a camera, even if it was only my phone), but the Creator of heaven and earth served me up this delicious autumnal salad. All I had to do is click the shutter.

Fall is a blessing, the grandest momentary reprieve we could ever be granted. How sweet it is of the Creator to soften the blow, how tenderhearted. If I were standing right there today, just a few days and some untidy winds ago, what that camera would see would be absolutely nothing like this. 

That's the story. "Not what my hands have done can save my guilty soul"--or something like that. It is, really--it's very much like grace itself, all this beauty is. 

Yesterday, it was there in spades. Today, it's gone.

For just a while, thank the Lord.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Father Baraga

You've got to go a long ways to find a sandy beach along Minnesota's north shore. On almost any beach, the hard and humpy stuff roiling beneath your feet looks and feels a whole lot like lava--which it is, surprising as that may be with not a mountain in sight. Hardened lava, basalt, is unforgiving and almost impossible to walk on--if you're into your 70s anyway. It's pretty much unforgiving. 

"There's a cross just up the beach a ways," some friends of our told us. We'd rented a cabin on the north shore, a little ramshakle thing built in the 1930, but it stood right on the beach, a rocky beach, the one in the picture. 

"A cross?" I said.

They'd hiked up there earlier in the week. "Some priest who came to minister to the Native people," they said. They'd forgotten his name (they're our age). 

I know enough about missionaries and medicine to conjure a story out of some stone cross up the beach somewhere, in all that basalt, even if I'd never heard this story. Father Jean deSmet, a Belgian Jesuit, had blessed Lakota people with whatever medical help he could during a terrible reign of cholera and become much beloved. Andrew and Effa Vander Wagen, native Hollanders, gained blessed acceptance among the Zuni they came to serve when, in 1898, the meager medical provisions they had brought with them created inestimable good will. Besides, Effa was a nurse. Narcissa and Marcus Whitman had tried valiantly--and tragically--to help people deal with a plague of mumps that killed far too many Cayusas in Washington.

The mix of medicine and missions invested in a granite cross just up the rocky beach--a Catholic priest, a suffering people--was more than enough to get me up early to have a look.

Father Frederic Baraga (and, yes, there's a commemorative statue in Grand Rapids, Michigan) was coming over to the north shore of Lake Superior because he'd heard the Chippewa people (Ojibwe) were suffering--thus, at least, the story goes. He and his friend Lewis, a Native, took a birch-bark canoe forty miles across Lake Superior, a trek that would have been 200 miles by land, to get to the north shore. It may be difficult to extract history from myth, but it's not hard to imagine the two of them in a canoe, waves rising, finally coming to shore on a trip during which Father Baraga spent, literally, praying without ceasing.

And so the story goes that Lewis, who did most of the paddling, looked over at the land warily--nothing but basalt, nothing but stony shoreline capable of crunching the canoe. Father Baraga, with the confidence of Jesus himself, assured Lewis they'd be all right and directed him to carry on to sidle up to the shoreline. 

Divine intervention?  Judge that as you will, but by luck or Design they'd rowed up to shore at the inlet of a small, calm river where the landing was somehow manageable. Today, "Cross River" is so named for the wooden cross the two of them erected to signify the blessed answer to prayer. 

All of that happened in 1847. The birch logs they used for the wilderness cross they erected back then was long ago replaced by granite, still there, just up the beach from the cabin where I'd slept the night before. 

And, yes, someone placed a bouquet of fall mums at the base of that cross--purple as the robes of royalty, as if to remember--or not to forget. I am thrilled to report that two bouquets graced that cross that Saturday morning. 

Father Frederic Baraga, "the Snowshoe Priest" fluent in six languages, came to America from Slovenia in 1830, and once crossed Lake Superior on a very treacherous forty-mile passage in a birch bark canoe to a surprisingly easy landing on shore of a land that would become Minnesota ten years later. He came to help a suffering people.  

The story was too good not to tell, but the mums were, for me at least, a special blessing. 

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

A few moments from the North Shore


At dawn's first blush, the world is magical. Fall colors create a cartoon world that slowly becomes even more showy, more outlandish with every passing minute. The plains have an earthiness that's wondrous, maybe especially at dawn. But "up north," as they say, during the gaudy days of late fall, there's barely any room on the palette for the wide and amazing spectrum of bright color. 

So, once you get back your balance, you start to take aim rather than simply firing away. 

Takes some time. For a while you're punch drunk amid the glory all around, but once you regain footing, you don't just look, you see. We're "up north," on Minnesota's glorious North Shore, and while--or so people say--the oaks and maples have already been undressed for the season, bright yellows take over the stage.

Everywhere you look there's something glorious.

Soon enough, even though dawn's Midas touch has lifted, absolutely everything says "praise." 

"Abide with Me" is partly a lament. But fall colors like these give a whole new meaning to "change and decay in all around I see," because change and decay colors the world around. 

Moses was in the desert when he determined God would accept alternatives. So rather than speak to the rock to produce water, he hit it. I'm guessing that if he'd been here instead, he wouldn't have doubted at all. 

"The bedrock was created during the Midcontinent Rift," the science says, "a failed rift which occurred some 1.1 billion years ago. As the continent sundered, magma and lava flowed upward, which cooled into the present-day rock of the Duluth Complex and North Shore Volcanic Group." 
That's the textbook answer. Not for a moment would I doubt that "the continent sundered." 
But what I know is the hands that created this immense bouquet of fall color--even though so much of the extravagance was gone just a day or two later--those hands clearly fashion artistry that can't be assumed to be anything but divine.