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, August 31, 2007

Muslim Reformation

It's the thoughtful opinion of Mark Lilla, in a new book titled The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics and the Modern West (excerpted last week in the Sunday New York Times Magazine) that what Islam needs, more than anything, is something of a reformation. What it doesn't need, he says, is a some kind of liberal, democratic reform--someone to come along and simply teach Muslims to keep their religion at home, after the pattern of the Christianity.

He's quite sure that Islamic radicalism can be cured only from within, and not by way of what he calls "the miracle" of American political thought. It's impossible to understand just how a place like America can exist--a true melting pot of religious people (80% of the American people consider themselves religious), who, for the most part, are somewhat content to refrain from flexing their spiritual muscles when it comes to politics. Just exactly how so many religious people can keep their religions in their back pockets in a system that deifies the separation of church and state is a mystery--and we shouldn't somehow hope that that kind of miracle will occur again in the Middle East.

Thus, he says, what they need is renewal, reformation. And what we need to do is understand.

And that's why my students are reading the article. We'll see if they do. It's not an easy read, and I'm not sure that they can. In about three hours, I'll know.

Maybe for too long I've been too easy as a teacher. I'm too much a late Sixties type even in how I handle my students. If the earth is a flat as Tom Friedman claims, then we really can't afford to be flabby. We've got to understand, Lilla says. I think he's right. The price of liberty is vigilance.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

First day of gridiron

. . .the first day, that is. Made it through. So did they. Or so it appears. None of them died in the classroom.

The college where I teach has a football team for the first time in its history this year, and we find ourselves in a brave new world. Suddenly we are beset with bicept-y male-types. What's more, our demographic profile has been radically transformed: the proportion of men to women reversed itself in one year; our percentage of Canadian students went way down (football isn't a draw north of the border); and population of kids from our denominational constituency dropped ten percentage points. We're on the gridiron, baby.

What's more, we've got guys from Texas, Oklahoma, and all over the country, meaty guys who eat, sleep, and drink football. They're at Dordt College for football and football alone. They wouldn't have thought of coming here otherwise. That's new.

I'm not sure we own a sweeter word today than diversity, and now we've got it. We're cross-cultural in ways no soc class ever envisioned, beset by beefy men who love to hit. We've had hockey for years, of course; we've not been without men who like to bang others around. But we've now got 50 or so more Rambos hulking around, and everything just looks different. Calvinists aren't known for sweetness, of course, but these guys lug in an entirely different dimension.

Ought to be fun. Tailgates Saturday--all kinds of them. Go ahead, bang bellies, raise a fist. We're arrived. We'll be on the field this weekend. Don't miss it.

Yesterday in class, a half-dozen of them showed up. We'll see if they can write too.

That would be nice.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Sunday Morning Meds--Babbling

“You have made him 
a little lower 
than the heavenly beings” Psalm 8:5

I suppose it is a mark of our humanity to bridle a bit at coming in third here. First, God; then his angels; then, somewhere in the back 40, humankind. The entire natural world is at our feet, according to David; but somehow it stings a little to know that some folks are more heavenly endowed than we are.

That’s not David’s point. In fact, I think he’s attempting the opposite. What amazes him is that the Creator of the Universe (and all universes) actually dallies with measly little us. That’s what’s amazing to him. More, that’s what’s shocking.

And the point here is that we’re part and parcel of Him. The point is that, being so nearly divine, we’re endowed with splendiferous character. The point is that God’s incredible love endows us with so much of him that we can’t help but fall, well, speechless, when we try to understand it.

The basic paradox of the poem is here again, in spades. “God,” David seems to be saying, “for the life of me I can’t get my words around your magnificence.” That he can’t do the job, however, doesn’t stop him from trying. He still gives it his best shot, but the result is a kind of yo-yo—and we’re at the end of the string.

“What is man that you’re mindful of him” makes us seem so enfeebled that it would be difficult to overestimate our insignificance. Yet—and up we go again—a verse later he’s seemingly awed by the fullness of our own (can I say it this way?) human divinity. One translation renders this verse this way: “you have made him a little less than God.” That big. That blessed.

The incredible cartoon image of verse three—God’s fingertips play with constellations as if they were key rings—makes us, in comparison, almost laughable; and yet, David says, we’re part and parcel of the divine. That he stoops at all is a miracle. Try to hang on to the incredible modulation in this psalm: we’re minute, but we’re glorious; we’re Lilliputian, but we’re behomoth.

The utterance given to David by the Holy Spirit comes from the depths of his reverie for the Lord God Almighty. He just can’t say enough about the love of God; but that he can’t doesn’t stop him for a moment. Don’t you love that?

He is talking about man, pre-fall, or so it seems. We might speculate that whatever our Edenic ancestors looked like before one savory apple, it was more ethereal, more divine than it was when the snake sauntered off, snickering into the ooze. We got ourselves dirtied, smudged, our knees scraped—and worse, much worse.

But no matter, David seems to say. We’re still blessed.

Honestly, in this psalm he seems incapable of sobriety. He’s drunk with love.

We all are strange and volatile mixes of divine love (the image of God) and human fraility (sin itself). Our best deeds may be filthy rags, imputed as they are with sin; but every day good people run into burning buildings to save total strangers. We are, at once, saints and sinners.

Psalm 8—when it’s all written up—is about our divinity, our being loved, our being blessed. And how incredible that is, how amazing, how downright shocking.

That God loves us doesn’t so much leave David speechless as babbling.

But then, David’s babbling is itself a blessing beyond words.

No clue

Saturday, I sat in front of a crowd of parents at the college where I teach, and saw a goodly number of lined faces I recognized from a two-decades' earlier manifestation, a time when they--like their kids--were about to start college. I've been an academic grandfather for quite a few years already. Spotting the kid of a kid for the first time was like noticing a swatch of silver in your beard.

I'm just a bit less than three hours away from walking into a classroom of kids who are, well, almost young enough to be my grandkids. Who the heck am I to talk to them? I don't even own a cell phone. I haven't a clue what's cool.

What one loses throughout a lifetime of teaching is bearings. For a long time--all the way through my own children's college years--I thought I could relate to students, almost as if I were one of them. I knew how to talk to them because on some lifetime linear scale I didn't feel all that far away.

When my own kids graduated from college, everything changed. I became something else--I'm still not sure what.

The closest approximation I can conceive of is a grandparent. I am one, of course, to two sweethearts who are as dastardly and delightful as any human being in their scale of small packages (four and six). I'm not a grandpa to a 19-year-old. Nonetheless, when I walk in this morning, I think I'm going to be a grandpa.

I won't try to speak for others, but it seems to me that we all have a bevy of roles we play from day to day--parent, friend, lover, comic, comforter, minor prophet, and (not too often) Tony Soprano.

Just one of the disconcerting things I feel just a few hours away from my first class, first semester of my thirty-something-th year (and all freshman in the most hated class on record: freshman English) is flat out confusion. I don't know my bearings--I don't know who I am in connection with who they are, largely because I don't know who they are. At 59 years old, I think I know who I am, mostly.

In the grand scheme of things, they don't change. From the days their parents sat in the same chairs, I have changed--at least I know that much. But they don't.

Oh, we can make a case for differences, and I could list a half dozen without raising a sweat: these kids are not their parents. But by anthropological and theological (Calvinist especially) standards, there's nothing new here. These are kids who carry the image of God, but still have a goodly chunk of that apple they shouldn't have eaten affixed embarrassingly to their front teeth. They are composed--as I am--of equal parts sin and grace. Well, maybe not equal . . .

What'll they think of me? (And here's this morning's goodly helping of grace.)

I don't think much about an answer to that question anymore. I used to. The answer to the question was a mystery that created all kinds of perspiration. No more. If they don't like me, I'll live. If they don't like me, I'll walk away. If they don't like me, I know this--a long time ago at least, their parents did.

There's more than a little swagger in that line, maybe. After all, why am I even sitting here thinking about all of this? The fact is, I'm still a little nervous. Not like I was for years.

But I'm still worried. I just want it all to be good--for them to be able to say that it was a good class, that they liked it, that they learned something, that it wasn't a waste of time.

That'd be fine. That'd be cool. :)

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

A difficult faith

Seems to me that life itself is hard on believers.

Yesterday's news cheapens expressions of faith. First, an Idaho senator, previously accused of cruising for homosexual partners, gets clipped at the Minneapolis airport for playing footsie beneath the walls of a toilet stall--after a fashion police claim is the behavior of choice of soliciting restroom males.

That he's got those urges is one thing. That he's yet another social conservative, a firebrand in opposition to gay marriage and "the homosexual life style" is quite another. The playing field is littered with fallen heroes like him, heroes become hypocrites.

And then there's Michael Vick, who, allegedly, with his bare hands, kills dogs who don't kill other dogs. Oh yeah--he gambles and arranges dog fights too. Yesterday he threw his reputation down and asked for forgiveness from football fans, told them, "We all make mistakes. Dogfighting is a terrible thing and I reject it ... I found Jesus and turned my life over to God. I think that's the right thing to do as of right now."

Vick and Paris Hilton--and a ton of others. What a great out.

There ain't no question about forgiveness, of course. When people ask for it, you give it--thus saith the Lord.

I'm just tired of "finding Jesus" being played like a singleton ace.

People "use" faith, and it happens most frequently--and most obscenely--in a culture in which people wear their faith on their lapels, for good or ill. It might be a good idea for some Christians simply to shut up a little more--to do more and say less.

At times I think we're in the death throes of this Great Awakening we've been in for the last twenty years. I know there will be things we'll miss when it dies off--as all awakenings do; but I also know that I'll find it easier to hold on when faith isn't just another store front on Main Street in Vanity Fair.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Morning Thanks--Plains weather

You got to love it. In a small town named (appropriately?) Dante, South Dakota, Charles Mix County, hail fell last week, including stones the size of this monster, 5 1/4 inches. They're killers, of course, so I don't want to make jokes.

Should I leave my grassland home, one aspect of life I'm going to miss is the unmistakable fact that, on the Great Plains, absolutely everything comes in spades--heat, cold, and every last manifestation of weather. No one ever called South Dakota a "land of enchantment."

I'm not sure anyone--even those rooted for generations--can really say they love the Great Plains. People who live out here--out there, really, because I'm here on the relatively safe eastern shore, the emerald cusp of all of that--learn finally to co-exist, to respect the pummeling fists of an environment that fits the definition of "extremist."

I don't care. I'm going to miss it.

Me and Mother Teresa and Doubt

"The letters paint an astonishing alternate portrait of the nun revered for her selflessness and serenity. In reality, she was tortured for decades by her inability to feel even the smallest glimmer of the Lord's presence."

Or so says Helen Kennedy of the New York Daily News, in reference to a new book, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, excerpted in Time magazine.

I'm not at all surprised, even though I'm sure many believers are. The psalms are full of doubt. The psalms are teem with anguish and darkness that is not even always relieved. Psalms are the songs we really sing, not the ones we use to sell our joy.

I find it comforting to know that the Christian believer most of the world regards as the greatest of contemporary saints could in actuality "feel abandoned by Christ," as Kennedy says, could refer to Jesus as "the Absent One," and call her smile "a mask."

There is so much silliness in contemporary Christianity, so much fluff and kitsch that sometimes one starts to think that if one's face isn't pasted with the 24/7 smile, one simply isn't part of the elect. It's nice to know that Mother Theresa, like King David, wouldn't make it either.

Impugning others' faith is a business I try to choose not to go into; we've all got our own stories. But the Christian life I've known for close to sixty years simply isn't a bed of roses.

If Mother Theresa, in pain-filled moments, looked up but never saw much past the ceiling of her Calcutta home, if she sometimes found herself wondering how long God was going to be absent from her life as David did in Psalm 13, I'm gratified. She and I are fellow believers.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

If I were younger

My father's been gone for five years, but I miss him lately because I'd love to go to him with this problem of mine and spell it out. I'm thinking about leaving a place I've been for more than thirty years, a position, a profession, and a landscape. I'm sixty years old--almost--and change doesn't come easily.

Yet, because he was my father, I suppose, I think I know what he'd say. He'd tell me to leave, and he'd say it because he'd think of where I'm interested in going as the mission field. That doesn't mean that he always wanted me to be a missionary, but I think he'd tell me that I've done well at what I've been called to do for all these years--and now God has another calling for me to do, to bring the Word the Navajo Indians.

Unfortunately, it isn't that easy. That isn't--at least glibly--the reason I'd like to go. I'm not interested in being a missionary; I'm interested in being taught, in coming to a greater understanding of the sad history of Native and European relations on this continent. I don't want to go there to tell them what to believe, even though--there's no doubt on this score--I know what I believe myself.

There's such a history of abuse--European abuse--of Native people in this country, so much of that abuse done in the name of Jehovah, that to think of my being a "missionary" is almost impossible.

I don't know that my father would understand that. Furthermore, I don't know that I'd like to try to explain. I think he'd be suspicious of me and, at some level at least, he'd question my faith. It's a conversation I don't think I'd care to have--I certainly would avoid it with my mother.

But maybe I'd like to try--if he were younger.

"If he were younger," the man wrote, nearing his sixtieth birthday.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

A grey morning sky

It was either going to be boom or bust this morning, the darkened sky thick with clouds, a few jagged slashes northeast where the sun would eventually rise. I had decided to go early and get out a long ways away; but by the time I got around to getting packed and coffeed, it was already a little late.

What's worse, the movement of those thick clouds wasn't promising. Rather than get 45 minutes out, I turned off the blacktop and went back to a favorite spot of mine, betting that the sun wasn't going to poke itself through all those clouds--remnants of a storm somewhere.

Still, it was beautiful--a big passionate sky, full of drama.

The little road I usually take was wet and muddy, but I started down until I came to a gully I figured I'd never get out of without four-wheel drive. So I backed all the way out--half mile maybe--and went back down the hill to a bridge.

There are a couple of great old stump cottonwoods along the creek at the bottom of the section, but they stand halfway across the field, a full half-mile of mid-thigh grass, heavy with last week's constant rain.

I went in. Inside of 50 yards, I could feel the water squish between my toes.

But I got there. I slogged through the long grass, all the while telling myself that the first rule of Saturday morning landscape photography is "be there." So when the sun finally peeked out--not for more than three minutes--I was well-positioned, even though it wasn't the show I was hoping for. Got some interesting shots anyway. Didn't go home empty-handed.

Check for yourself.

The morning sky was about an inch and a half from being a real stunner. I did what I could.

What I've noticed about myself through the last five years is that the joy of hunting isn't as great anymore. If I get skunked, I'm disappointed. Never used to be that way. For a couple of years, just being out there was the great thrill.

Got to get that back somehow. How? Don't know. I need a great awakening.

Friday, August 24, 2007

"God's Warriors"

Just about when I'm ready to say that the TV is the vast wasteland Mr. Minnow claimed it was years ago, something comes along to renew my faith, not only in the media, but in humanity itself.

For the last three nights, Christiane Amanpour's special, "God's Warriors," airing nightly at eight on CNN, was tremendous. Every believer of any stripe or color or totem ought to see it (the entire series will be repeated again Saturday night--and probably often in the future, I'm guessing).

Who cares? Well, a ton of people. This thoughtful and balanced series of stories just about beat out "The O'Reilly Factor" in that time spot, yet another fact which renews my faith. The incredible ratings that "God's Warriors" achieved is an indication of the hunger the American public has not only for religion but about religion. (Religion is hot--I'm told the most hit sites on the web are those offering either sex or religion.) In this case, millions of people watched tremendous television--and Lindsey Lohann wasn't even on the show.

Ms. Amanpour's three-part special outlined fundamentalism in three of its favorite outfits--Jewish, Islamic, Christian. When it comes right down to it, each of them are remarkably alike. But nothing was backhanded away, and she didn't dump on faith. The shows were responsible, thoughtful journalism, proof of the importance of media news programming staffs. Drudge can't do what CNN did.

Television at its best. O'Reilly should have excused class and sent them all over to CNN. Honest.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Misguided Warrior

Tonight, in front of a wildly enthusiastic VFW crowd (shades of Nixon), President George W. Bush brought down the house with a defense of his Iraq war strategy, by drawing on a unique historical perspective on the Vietnam War.

Whether or not he's right about Vietnam is something I'll let others decide. From my point of view, however, he illustrated clearly once again how bereft he is of what the Bible calls wisdom.

And while that's not a trifle, what concerns me is that he drew the parallel in the first place. He's a boomer, just as I am, and both of us are time-locked in the era that defined our maturing years, the Sixties. His referencing Vietnam reminds me that both of us (note my reference "shades of Nixon") are incapable of seeing the world that exists without tying it somehow to the unresolved differences of that entire era.

I've often felt that at least one reason for his superhuman stubbornness is that other war, the one that's still not over in his soul, a war he basically dodged. What happened in Vietnam may well be instructive in how we choose to go on in Iraq. But to argue that we hold forth in this one because we quit in the last is not onlyh silly, it's sad.

It's early, early, early in the campaign. But Bush's odd arguments today make me more sure that right now, more than a year from the general election, Barack Obama is the best candidate. Say what you want about his lack of experience, at least he's not fighting a war that ended 25 years ago.

Having said that, I should reveal my own history in Presidential elections: frequently, I'm not sure who I'll vote for until I get into the booth. Getting out, I'm still not sure.

Nonetheless, I believe Bush was not only wrong in his argument today; he was--and is--misguided.