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 31, 2007

Halloween and the End Times




We actually have a two-holer out back, part of ye olde barn that's been standing right there for a century. For years, as an employee of a state park, I cleaned pit toilets, often twice a day. I guess I could say I've always been around outdoor toilets. But only rarely used 'em, and never once--not in my whole life--tipped 'em. 

Today is Halloween, and if there's any storied yarn that accompanies the holiday, at least in ye olden days, it's the famous tipped outhouse, a single story festooned with countless inelegant variations, like the farmer who moved his six feet back and thereby caught the prankster, knee deep in doo.

But it's the outdoor loo that I think of this morning, because even though I'm not old enough to have attempted such havoc with the neighbor's facility, I remember a completely different Halloween, a time when darkness spread its wings over the small Dutch town where I grew up, erasing the shadows of those downtown church spires, it seemed, a time when the tightly religious village in which I grew up evolved into some entry-level demonic chaos that was otherwise totally unknown.

I remember dressing in black to take my place with other young males on the streets of the town. I remember wandering in gangs, looking through gardens to find pumpkins or tomatos or whatever else was still clinging desperately to thin October vines, then flinging the bounty at no particular targe--just flinging them because, after all, it was Halloween and the mission of young men was to be. . .to be what? to be, well mischevious, to be naughty, to pull pranks, to upend outdoor johns, to move farm machinery into the middle of the road, to block traffic, to mess gardens, to dirty the streets. It was obligation of youth, a ritual, a test of manhood, like climbing the watertower.

When I was even younger, I remember waking up on November 1 and being anxious to look around town to see if I could still read the public record of the hijinks created by all those naughty boys. I remember the myths: "Twenty years ago, Fred Inglesma disassembled Turkey Vander Tuin's wagon and then put the whole blasted thing together on his barn roof." We'd all marvel at the epics, wishing we had time and guts to get our own best shots up there on the mythic leader-board. Closest my culture ever came to a real live oral tradition. Nobody wrote those stories down. They were passed along on October 31.

When I was younger, we'd go door-to-door begging for sweets. Never once donned a costume that I can remember, but where we didn't get what we'd want, we'd soap windows. I remember that too. That was part of Halloween. Teachers regularly got blasted on October 31. Seems to me that I remember many of them standing vigil, late.

When I was 18, I moved to another small Dutch town 500 miles west, in Iowa, where, on this night, I still donned dark clothes and wandered uptown to observe the goings on, to watch roving bands of men--some of them married even, some of them mythic themselves--roaving about, set on mischief.

Nothing of that darkness exists anymore. I don't want to sound as if I'm given to incurable bouts of nostalgia either--things happened that shouldn't have. I'm sure there are folks here who remember their loos being dumped, but some of the old guys probably remember fires that shouldn't have been lit, cattle that shouldn't have been unpenned. Halloween pranks weren't always just cute.

But that those pranks could go too far was part of the mystique. All those darkly-clad young Calvinists were thrilled to live life on the edge for one night, me too. On just one night of the year we could forget the catechism and dance over there on the moonlit wildside. It was the closest Oostburg, Wisconsin, and Sioux Center, Iowa, ever came to Bacchanalia--even though I don't remember a bottle anywhere in sight. And I honestly don't remember young women being a part of things--the gender lines were that clearly drawn in those days. If there had been women around, I'd say Halloween was the closest I ever came, in my teen years, to a Calvinist Carnival. Of course, this was Oostburg, not Rio.

Some claim we all need the Carnivals, our Mardi Gras, our spring break flings, our excesses. Lent has more meaning when Fat Tuesday goes wild. Fasting demands more spiritual oomph from people who can wear only XXL.

And all of this excess I remember, this naughtiness, this ritual sin was assigned the very date (it is said) Martin Luther broke with the Roman Catholic Church, the official birthday of the Reformation. All that Calvinist sin on the Day of Reformation. Go figure.

Something in me just can't help loving life--it's such a wonderful nest of hooks, as we all are.
Still, there's something about all of that nasty naughtiness I just like. Call it nostalgia. Tell me I'm an old man whose glory has long ago departed, a man whose only great joy can be trying to call it back by telling stories.

And, after all, it was a young man's sport and we do have an old two-holer out back, and even though no one could tip it, attached as it is to the barn, if Sioux Center, Iowa's young males still don black and roam dangerously through this town's backyards, this old guy, to be sure, would be on edge.

Tonight my grandchildren, like hundreds of others, will go to a huge church party, where they'll be given all sorts of treats and sweets and party favors, I'm sure. Maybe they'll sing "A Mighty Fortress"--I don't know. I know they won't go door-to-door, begging for Snickers, but I'm quite sure they'll get 'em. I dare bet there won't be a single kid dressed in black looking to walk on the wild side. Not one.

It just ain't right. Who knows where this could lead? You wonder sometimes about where all this will end, don't you? Geesh--could be the end of the world.

Postscript: After writing all of this, I walked out to the barn, only to find our garbage can upturned. I'm not kidding. Could be those endless prairie winds. Then again, the ghost of Halloween's past. 'Tis that very day :).

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Comeuppance






























Several years ago, in an airport, a friend of mine and I were charmed by the members of a high school choir returning from a tour in San Francisco, where they’d sung at a number of places, ate fortune cookies and sourdough bread, and did, they said, all kinds of other fun things. Coming home, those kids were both tired and pumped, as only high school kids can be--full of spirited life.

And they were remarkably talkative. We asked some young women if the whole bunch of them had behaved throughout the trip. They said yes, except for some boys—“but you know how guys are.” We asked them if there were any tour romances. Only one.

“Maybe that’s okay,” I quipped. “After all, it’s probably just as good that none of you 'left your hearts in San Francisco.'”

Those three kids sort of half-smiled. Okay, it wasn’t a line that would land me a job writing comedy, but I was trying to be catchy. Trying.

At that moment, my friend, a guy half my age, looked at me and winced. “Jim," he said, "I don’t think they got that one,” he said.

Right then, I felt like donating myself to a museum.

Last night, that same young friend of mine said he was chatting with a new employee at the bank where he works today, a young woman not quite half his age. They were making small talk, he said, when the subject of music somehow arose, and this young banker was lauding some music he used to love when he, like the young woman, was 21.

"So what music do you listen to on the radio today?" he asked her, trying to be nice.

"Oh," she said, dead serious, "my generation doesn't listen to radio. We have iPods."

At that moment he said he remembered the airport gate and Tony Bennett and the thud my joke created. Just like that, Mr. Time--caped in black and lugging a scythe--walked through his imagination like some Halloween trick-or-treater.

There really is no comeuppance here. My friend didn't somehow get what he deserved. After all, it wasn't his fault those high school choir kids never heard of "I Left My Heart. . ."

But still, there was some justice in those cool new iPods. And we both had to laugh.

Sort of.

Monday, October 29, 2007

A vacuum-sealed Sacrament



Yesterday, 3500 people showed up in a local gym to commemorate 150 years of history of the denomination of which I am a part--the Christian Reformed Church of North America. The size of the crowd was reassuring to the skeptic in me. I've thought long and hard about the future of the CRC--and denominationalism in general--and I'm quite sure there are many good arguments to assert its imminent demise. See http://www.dordt.edu/publications/pro_rege/crcpi/Pro_Rege_Sept_2007.pdf

But there are also good reasons to believe that the CRC will continue--maybe even grow--and yesterday's packed house was just one of them. The music was very, very good and the sermon was fine, but the grace abounding yesterday afternoon was in the fellowship, not the coffee and cookies afterward but the sheer size of the crowd who chose to celebrate together on a beautiful fall Sabbath afternoon. It was good to be there together--it was very good.

An Ethiopian choir from meat-packing Worthington, MN, was the show-stopper. The beat of their music was electric. A couple dozen bulky male deacons delivered the offerings to the front of the gym, and just for a moment I thought they were infected themselves. It would have been an unforgettable moment had the deacons been transformed into a conga line. I swear it almost happened--a handful of bulky Dutch-American males just about two-stepped right in front of a couple thousand worshippers.

And then we had communion. I had no idea how that job was going to get done, but a couple of dozen elders--all men--handed out slick little disposable communion doo-dad cups, complete with a paper-thin, tasteless wafer layered into the first level of a foil cap that vacuum-sealed the grape juice beneath it. I'd never seen anything like it, and, if I had my choice, I hope I never see one again. Communion, convenience-packed. Not even Jesus Christ could have imagined that his Last Supper meal could become assembly line-packaged.

It was someone's wonderful idea to take communion--all 3500 of us--and it must have seemed to the committee who planned it that there was no alternative to get the job done: we had to order up those cute little, convenient packages. 

I hated them, just hated them. Honestly, we could have all gone to the front in a dozen stations, taken the bread ourselves from a split loaf, and had ordinary cups--but that would have meant more work and more time. And some of the old fashioned would have thought it wrong, I'm sure--going to the front like that. Hence, McSacrament, the ultimate in protestant packaging.

Of course, if the bread and wine are only a symbol, as our creeds claim, then who needs the real thing because it's not the real thing anyway? We're talking Reformation principle here, of course. The bread and wine isn't Christ's body and blood, an argument over which Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Calvinists have gone to war.

But yesterday's commemoration was communion reductio ad absurdum. Really. All over the packed gym, people finger-nailed their sacramental vials in unison as the preacher said "This is the body," and "This is the blood." This? Give me a break.

The sentiment here is instructive: it's more important that we do it than that we do it meaningfully, and that idea itself is a hybrid legacy of our steeply Protestant past and our indulgent American pragmatic present. It was more important that we "had communion" than that we vitally celebrated the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ--and the body we've become as a church. By my standards, we came dangerously close to profanation.

But then there's this: Maybe I'm just old-fashioned. I think of that a lot lately.

And there's this other thing. I wonder if, my aesthetic rant aside, the uniting spiritual blessing of Lord's own supper can and does transcend even our worst celebrations. If I'm right about profaning, all we really profaned was the practice, not the Supper itself. What was most mightily affected and offended was my own precious sensibilities.

And I'm not the church. We are. The church--the chosen--is always far bigger than the sum of its parts or the silly paucity of its public piety. I don't doubt for a moment that a couple thousand people were blessed, even by that vapid bread and the thimble-full of wine.

I suppose it's like the church itself. Who knows what it's future is? Who knows how it will celebrate communion a century hence? Who knows if anyone will recognize the initials CRC? Who knows if we've got another fifty years? Nobody. But some things will last, despite their evolving forms.

Every last thinking soul in that gym yesterday knows very well that God almighty will have his way with us, that he won't abandon believers, even though he may see fit to re-congregate, re-allign, re-model our most precious designs, all in his own interests. Because we are--CRC or RCA or ELCA or PCA or whatever clump of initials--we are His to a far greater extent than He is ours.

It's Reformation week, time to sing Luther, who wasn't wrong: "If we in our own strength [or wisdom or aesthetic perception] confide,/Our striving would be losing./Were not the right man on our side,/the man of God's own choosing." Sure, I can sing that.

But I think I'm still going to have trouble with vacuum-sealed sacraments.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

The Moral Values Crowd



For some of us, the last eight years have been merciless. As evangelical Christians, we've had to suck it in with every last Bushism, to genuflect to Dobson and his ilk or be damned by his zealous followers, to worship at the altar/platform of Karl Rove's strategically assembled "religious right." When you live within evangelical America like I do, trying to distinguish oneself from those rabidly bitten by the moral values crowd has been as difficult as it is dangerous.

I sometimes wondered which side was less gracious: those who hate the Christian faith and assume all of us believe that exactly where one stands on gay marriage is the first question Christ will ask, come Judgment; or, on the other side, the teeming throngs of right-wing believers, who, basically, believe the same thing, slightly rephrased for their own comfort.

Two articles in this morning's New York Times trace what the writers see as waning of the light of the religious right. Frank Rich, in his column, says the power brokers have simply lost thier audience: "But the most significant — and happiest — explanation for the values czars’ demise as a political force is that white evangelical Christians and a new generation of evangelical leaders have themselves steadily tacked a different course from the Dobson crowd."

Won't somebody here say amen!

Everyone from Frank Rich to James Dobson predicted Rudy Giuliani's imminent demise, but it hasn't happened, despite the fact that he looks no more like a Christian conservative than Dan Rather. Despite Dobson's pleading to the contrary, many of the evangelicals who used to march in line to the good doctor's admonitions have, it seems, left the building.

Also fascinating is David Kirkpatrick's long Magazine article, "Evangelical Crack-up," in which he documents that very phenomenon--preachers getting booted from their pulpits because the faithful have become tired of being hectored on abortion fifty Sabbaths a year.

In Wichita, Kansas, Kirkpatrick says, where one of evangelicaldom's stars, Terry Fox, lost his pulpit for a similar reason recently, two other evangelical stemwinders lost theirs too. "And in the silence left by their voices, a new generation of pastors distinctly suspicious of the Republican Party — some as likely to lean left as right — is beginning to speak up," Kirkpatrick says.

If that's true, then I say, Hallelujah!

Their demise, it seems to me, runs concurrently with a new interest in Reinold Niebuhr. Everywhere you look, you see his name these days--one of the last Christian power-brokers, really, but a man pitched headlong into social issues, issues he thought of as "moral issues" too, of course.

But one of the reasons Niebuhr is back (Krista Tippett is repeating a show she did on him a couple of years ago this week on Speaking of Faith) is the seemingly equal and heavy criticism he laid on himself and all efforts at change and reform created by good people. The man had a healthy sense of human depravity, or original sin, of the darkness of all human hearts--something Dobson and his crew frequently seemed to forget, especially in their ascent to power, a journey darlingly orchestrated, after all, by Karl Rove, from whom we still await any sort of profession of faith. Strangely enough, Niebuhr used to question himself and his own motives, a behavior notably absent among the evangelical headliners.

I think it's a good thing. If we've left the George W. Bush Great Awakening somewhere in our rear-view mirrors, I say, praise the Lord.

The moment we think we've codified God's mystery into a few hard-core precepts we can wield like jungle machetes, we've started to believe we have no more need of Him.

A new day is dawning, as it always is.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Midwestern Silliness






























There's a kid gone from my class. He showed up the first day, and he was, from the get-go, someone unlike almost any kid I've ever had in a class at this college--and I've been here for 32 years.

He played football. He was a "people of color." He was from a high school where I'm quite sure we had never recruited another kid. Geographically, he was from another world altogether, another climate. His faith, it seemed, was practiced on the gridiron; he believed in football--that's all I knew of him.

Now he's gone. Obviously, he didn't believe in schoolwork. I'm not sure he believed in Jehovah, but he may have. All I know is he's gone.

He was the only student of 46 in ENG 101 who did absolutely nothing all semester--nothing. Once, in class, we did an exercise. He was there that day, and he handed it in. That's the only real proof I have that he was ever in my class. I don't even know if he was capable of doing the work.

I tried to be open with him. I tried to bring him into the flow of a class, joked with him--he wasn't shy. When he didn't hand in his papers, I sent him e-mails he never answered. I tried to urge him to be a part of things, told him I'd help him with his work. I'm not at all sure how much talent he had; he never showed his hand.

I heard his name often that first football game. He was a linebacker--seems to me he may led the team in tackles.

Now, he's gone, and I feel somehow as if I've failed him.

Years ago, in a high school in Phoenix where I was teaching, I once believed a young kid who told me he couldn't get his homework finished because his parents were fighting all the time. He was a gymnast, big shoulders, and when he stood before me he cried. I told him he didn't have to have to homework done--that things would get better, etc. I tried to be good, tried to be loving. It was the only thing I knew how to do.

A week later or so, a guidance counselor came down the path, laughing. "You small-town Midwest Christians," he said, "you're so blasted sweet." And then he chewed me out. Seems the crying gymnast had an operation going. "The kid's been doing that for years," the counselor said, "and when he gets away with it, it only encourages him to do it more. I don't know what I'm going to do with you." He was laughing.

So I got whacked. I feel the same today, 35 years later.

I wanted this kid in ENG 101 to succeed. I would have done anything to get him through, sans fix grades. I would have bent over backwards to give him extra time, to read his essays for him, to make sure he learns to write. I would have busted my tail, but he's gone.

He pulled some shenanigans after getting failure notices--one of them mine--and the powers that be put him on a plane and sent him home, a couple of thousand dollars poorer, I suppose, maybe five or six football games under his belt.

Now I'm kind of angry because I invested in that kid. I wanted him to do well, this kid who wasn't like most other, far-above-average Midwestern white kids in his class. I wanted him to make it.

And I don't know who to be mad at. The kid made his own decisions, didn't he? He can't be absolved. He did things he shouldn't have and didn't do the things he should--like write essays.

What about the football team that brought him here, a place he would never have thought of it if it weren't for the gridiron? But football at least gave him the chance to get an education, right?--that's what the administration would say, I'm sure.

That having been said, he was, from day #1, a bad bet at this college, a place he'd never heard of in a state he likely didn't know from Ohio or Idaho. He'd probably never even been close to a small Iowa town and likely never smelled the peculiar roses in the air. The high school he'd come from--like the one I used to teach in--was probably twice as big as the college he'd found himself in. He was a bad bet at this little Calvinist school on the edge of the Great Plains. He was bad bet right from the get go.

But I invested, and--dang it!--I feel bad having lost him. I feel as if I've failed him.

Maybe I'm just another one of those Midwestern bleeding-hearts. Maybe so.

I'm much older now--I'm 35 years older than I was when I got chewed out for my Christian idealism.

I'm sorry he's gone. Maybe I should just be happy that silly idealism is still here--still getting a beating maybe, but still there.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Missin' it



Last night, on NPR’s Fresh Air, I heard Terrance Blanchard, a composer and jazz musician, hold forth on art as I was driving home from a speaking gig. Blanchard got much of his training at the hands of Art Blakey and his Jazz Messengers.

Blakey told him, Blanchard said, “the mantra” that he’s carried around in his heart ever since, a mantra that goes something like this: “Look, man, you can never become too arrogant in this business [or jazz or art]—you have to remember that you don’t speak above—you don’t play your music above anybody’s head or you don’t play beneath them. You play right to them.”

Okay, so I was just then telling myself how I’d just now missed.

But there was more: “And that means just to be honest, just to be yourself. Trying to do something that you think people want or you think people want you to be is not being true to you soul and to your responsibilities as an artist.”

Easy for him to say. Lately, I get the feeling that I miss somewhere at the heart of that paradox. I can’t be true, both to the voice of my soul and the need of the audience. Can anyone? I don’t know.

There’s some kind of empty space in literature and art and even in entertaining, a space that I need to control as best I can, but a space that’s ultimately not mine to fill. It’s the space that belongs specifically to the audience—the reader, the listener, the music lover. It’s the empty space they need to bring themselves into, to make the whole communication process work, in order for their to be a lively circuit created in the room, in order to make whole what is only a fragment without a listener, a lover.

So last night I faced an audience older than I’d guessed; but I’d committed myself—because I thought it would work—to a particular story that had been really successful with an older crowd before. I was determined to read that story because I was sure they’d like it. I honestly thought I was playing right to them, as Blanchard says Blakey used to insist.

But I missed. Their age made it difficult for some of them to fill in that empty space that makes something come alive in performance. It wasn’t just their age either—it was probably, for some of them at least—mostly the men—lack of education and a depleted reserve of imagination. Some simply lacked the resources to imagine themselves into the story—honestly, almost any story, I think.

What I read them was too subtle for many of them, which is not to say that the story was subtle. So it didn’t work.

Most performers I know understand what I’m suggesting when I say that performance is like sex. You honestly want to please an audience, not simply because you’re pandering, but because, finally, when that empty space gets filled perfectly, when two souls hum the same tune, something happens that’s just plain good.

And, like sex—if there are two different songs, you’d just as soon you hadn’t tried.

Last night, it wasn’t “good for me” because I knew—I saw their faces, read their eyes—it wasn’t "good for them" either.

The tough paradox of performance—of music, of story, of theater, or even teaching—is that while a speaker or a writer or a musician can’t simply “play to the audience,” that performer had better have a sense what the listeners can handle because some trees do fall in forests and make no noise. Trust me, I know. That’s the kind of silence I heard on the way home last night.

So much of life is balance, paradox, art.

Sometimes I wish the Creator of heaven and earth would have made it all a little easier to master. Would have saved me from the hoarse voice of that stern reviewer giving the lecture in my head last night, telling me that I didn’t get it right, that I missed, that I didn’t give the people the space they needed to make it memorably good.

But there will be another day—and night, I’m sure. There’s always more to learn, and that’s a blessing. I’m young enough. I’m sure the urge won’t disappear.

Not yet anyway.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

An Old-Fashioned Giveaway



If I were Lakota, I wouldn't have the problem. If I were Native, I wouldn't look around and despair.

My wife and I are at the age where it's not hard not to accumulate. We don't even open the stacks of catalogs that come in the mail almost daily now, on the run-up to Christmas. Eventually, they hunch on the table beside the chair, untouched. L. L. Bean or Eddie Bauer or whatever--makes no difference. We don't buy furniture and rarely buy clothes because, Lord knows, we've got enough. At our age, hoarding isn't among the seven deadlies on our list.


Our problem is cleaning house. Our problem is getting rid of stuff. Our problem is somehow making the load we carry--our lifetime's accumulation of things--something less of a massive burden.

A couple years ago, I was sitting the basement typing something when I heard a rather consistant crashing noise--time after time and time. I got up from the chair, got up on my tiptoes so I could see out of my basement window, and watched as a man next door--our neighbor's son--persisted in, literally, cleaning house. They'd moved their mom off to the home, and the kids--all of them from out-of-state--were going through that old place, cleaning up, and out. The guy would walk out, his arms full of stuff, and then shove the goods out and away from him into a pile of junk that was growing like something from a sci fi movie. The ritual was nicely timed. Bang, bang, bang, I'd hear--then silence, then another round.

I told myself that my son and daughter would likely someday do the very same thing: go through all the vestiges of a perfectly normal life and the trinkets I surround myself with--old sports trophies, accumulated souvineers (a little clay donkey from Brazil, a sumo wrestler from Japan), at least a hundred audio tapes and assorted CDs, all kinds of books, many of which I've never read. Maybe some of those would go off to the library, but most of the detritus will end up on a pile I can imagine mushrooming between the house and the old barn out back. Big pile--huge. Even an army surplus file cabinet, full of old student papers, black and white photograph (art!), hundreds of pages of useless correspondence, and dozens and dozens of editorial rejections. All of it--out!

That kind of clean up is not the essence of the Lakota Giveaway, however. I just read a student's paper--all about the old Lakota Giveaway. It was no garage sale, no flea market. A Giveaway offered the good stuff, put it out in front of the teepee for anyone to grab, as a show of love, of regard, of respect, of thanksgiving. If you wanted to be good, you gave your good stuff away.

I remember clearly the day that I first read about a Lakota Giveaway. It was a Sunday morning, and I was reading a book about the Yankton Sioux, some of whom, 150 years ago, likely passed through our neighborhood--when the county really belonged to the Sioux, when it was theirs, not ours. I remember being somewhat surprised by the fact that white folks outlawed the Giveaway, wouldn't permit their Native neighbors to practice such abomination, just like they prohibited the Sun Dance--and for a similar reason. They wanted the Lakota to be good citizens, good Christians, good people, in every way like their white neighbors. What tomfoolery, after all--giving your precious things away. In the real white world, after all, the one with the most toys wins, right?
So the Giveaway was banned, made illegal. The Lakota would get tossed in the clink if they clung to the old ways.

Then I went to church that morning and heard a fine sermon on stewardship, on selflessness, on giving to the poor, on using wealth wisely, on rich men and needles's eyes, a wonderful sermon on the very earth where good white people, good Christianized white people, once made Giveaways illegal. Amazing grace.

At important events like births or weddings or funerals, a Lakota family would gather their belongings--lots and lots of things--and set it all out for anyone in the community to take. Listen to this old Lakota wisdom: "What you give away, you keep; what you keep you lose."

I think I've heard that before somewhere. Something like it anyway.


Once upon a time, I tried to update the medieval allegory Everyman, tried to bring its ancient moral admonition into contemporary life, an exercise in futility, I suppose, but fun. Besides, I loved the play. At a certain time, the man who is us, Everyman, goes to Worldly Goods and begs him--a character often cast as a big, fat guy--to come with him to the grave. Worldly Goods will have nothing of that, of course. On that walk, nobody ever "comes with"--certainly not our sweet trinkets.

Lakota moral lessons and medieval drama notwithstanding, nothing much has moved from the stacks of stuff in my basement since the day I read about the old custom or heard the man next door dumping the trash. Giveaways are much easier to talk about in concept than they are to practice. Shoot, I honestly couldn't toss all this stuff, couldn't even pile it up like my neighbor's son. I'm still far too attached.

But maybe, with God's grace, in a few years, out to the north of the house, right there under those beautiful, towering lindens, maybe I'll put on a full-fledged Dutch-Calvinist Giveaway. Everything--couches, beds, chairs, what not--we'll put it all out on the lawn and whoever wants it can have it. We'll slim our lives down.

Not a flea market either--a honest-to-goodness Giveaway. How incredible would that be, how newsworthy? I bet I could get local papers, maybe even a Sioux Falls TV station. It's man-bites-dog material.

But then, a real, honest-to-goodness Giveaway would be--here in Sioux County, in Sioux Center--perfectly fitting because it would be really, really, really old-fashioned.

I like that.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Morning Thanks--Sleeping Alone








































I woke up alone this morning, the woman I've slept with for 35 years parked comfortably, I'm sure, in a single bed a dozen blocks away, across town at the hospital. She called me last night when I was at the office, told me to come home. I told her I'd be there in five minutes. She said, "No, now. I'm not feeling good."

Not long after we pushed open the big glass door marked Emergency and waited. She was woozy, now and then feeling as if she were going to pass out, a cramp-like pain in her chest, she said, something she'd felt for an hour or so.

On her mother's side, all of her uncles are long gone, several by way of bad hearts. The problems manifest in her blood line mean she doesn't fool around with chest pain.

The nurse called the doc on call, who happened to be our family doctor. He said when he heard the name, he came immediately. Barb doesn't haunt doctor's offices. I didn't marry a girl just like the girl that married dear old dad--my mother has spent far too much of her life hovering around men with stethoscopes. Not so, my wife.

She had the ordinary battery of tests and remedies given to almost-sixty-year-old people who show up at Emergency complaining of chest pains: EKG, chest x-ray, a chip of nitro under her tongue, a vial of four children's aspirins, a blood test. But everything they looked at suggested that our major worry was seemingly unfounded. No injury to that chunk of muscles that drives us all.

But he kept her over, he said, told me to pick her up after class this morning.

We know it wasn't a heart attack, at least that's what the tests proclaim. What we don't know is what it was.

And that's the story.

And now the Christian in me begs to put a bow around it, to give it meaning, to draw some gorgeous landscape around the whole event to make this moment in our lives say this or that or something else. What prompts all this key-tapping, in me and in others, is the human desire to make sense of sleeping alone.

The penchant to write is rooted in the desire to believe, I think--we want to make order out of chaos. I could say that the Lord was with us last night, and I could draw assurance from that testimony; but there we sat for an hour or more in an emergency room where this week not everyone's tests proclaimed joy. Was the Lord not with them? Of course he was.

So maybe this morning, the writer in me--like the believer in me--won't try to make sense out of what happened, to make a story or a meditation, to bring what's fuzzy into focus from these keys beneath my fingers.

I'll just say I'm very thankful, big-time, that, a dozen blocks away, my wife is probably sleeping comfortably, and I'll say how good it is to know that, after class, I'll pick her up and bring her home.

I slept well last night, after Emergency; but I don't like sleeping alone. No one does, I suppose.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Carver-Lish Flap

A quarter century ago, when I was a grad student, a friend of mine told me that Ray Carver was going to teach a summer course in fiction, that his coming was really something, that I really should read his work.

I did, and found it remarkable--shards of life so cutting that when you read the stories they felt as if simply to handle them was somehow dangerous. They were stories that were cut to the bone, cut to almost nothing, cut to the very tenuous essence of story.

I found them immensely disturbing, not only because they almost always featured characters who were a step away from total dissolution, but also because his attitude toward our humanness itself seemed such a continent away from my own. His stories felt dangerously deterministic; they actually made me afraid.

Then he came to the university, and I enrolled in his class. He seemed to me--and he was drinking then--a completely different human being than the writer I felt behind the stories. Kind, generous, soft-spoken, even loving, he required Flannery O'Connor's Mystery and Manners, a requirement which thrilled me because so much of that book swells with her strong Christian faith. It seemed to me there was some kind of disconnect somewhere: Ray Carver didn't feel to me to be the man who turned out those shards of human anxiety.

Let's put it this way: I didn't like his early stories, but I did find them immensely impressive because they were so unforgettable. They made me shivver.

A few years later he published his best collection, Cathedral, which includes the oft-anthologized story of the same name--the story of a man who learns to love through the tactile guidance of a blind man. But it wasn't just that story--the whole collection takes the reader in a different direction than the early work, a direction that obviously a national readership admired. The early books are footnotes, today, to Cathedral.

And now it turns out that Carver's editor, Gordon Lish, no small potato himself, is the mastermind behind the early Carver. He's the guy who cut Carver's work to the bone, brought it to the sharp essence so many of those stories manifest. The early work, in conception, wasn't real Carver; they were Lish's Carver.

And now the Carver camp wants full publication of the early stories in original manuscript, and that desire has set off a firestorm. Who is the real Carver?

The answer isn't all that difficult. The real Carver is the one who preceded the Carver that Gordon Lish made; the real Carver is the one who wrote "A Small, Good Thing" and not "The Bath." The real Carver isn't the one who is stripped to the bone. The real Carver isn't Gordon Lish.
The irony here is that may well not have been "the real Carver" if there weren't, first of all, "Carver-according-to-Lish." It was, after all, Gordon Lish's Carver who got him noticed. It was Gordon Lish's Carver who drew my attention. It was Lish's Carver that got him a job teaching fiction one summer at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

The complications of this story are wonderful--and intriguing.

I don't doubt for a moment that without Lish, Carver would have never found the audience he eventually did. Lish did what good editors do--or good agents: they get their folks published and snag them an audience.

But I much, much prefer the Carver of Cathedral, which includes stories in which people actually learn something, stories in which people can change, adjust, find meaning. I prefer the unLished Carver because he's much, much closer to the Carver I knew--and because the people he drew in his later stories actually had a soul. The unLished Carver was far more a believer.

Judith Shulevitz, in Slate, http://www.slate.com/id/1000906/ , actually pulls into her column the two different introductions to a story originally published as "The Bath," subsequently as "A Small, Good Thing," then says to her readers--read them for yourself and tell me which one is better. The whole act is rhetorical with Shulevitz; she's absolutely convinced that "The Bath," the Lish Carver is self-evidently superior.

Not rhetorical with me--not at all.

But the difference is interesting and instructive. Lish's Carver made headlines, startled readers, created a school called "minimalism." Lish's Carver became the most well-known short story writer in the late 20th century. Lish's Carver actually brought life back to the genre, a genre that is just about dead today, practiced only in MFA programs and obscure literary journals. Lish's Carver was a winner.

I don't care. I still prefer the unLished. I like the Carver I knew, the man I meet in Cathedral and "A Small, Good Thing."

Carver died of cancer years ago already. His death makes all of this more interesting. If he weren't gone, the whole story of he and Lish would have different dimensions. His death created a new direction in his reception with readers. There will be no more Raymond Carver stories.

Quite frankly, it's a good story all the way around. Lish may well have made the man, but the unLished will be the Carver that lives on. Cathedral is his masterpiece, and that's, well, no small thing. But it is, I believe, very good.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Blessed Assurance


Years ago, when I was revising a novel, Romey's Place, I didn't know exactly how the plot would end. What I knew when I'd started the revision was that I was off in a new direction, writing a different story really because I'd been reading Phillip Yancey and Kathleen Norris and came to realize that that story I was writing had much more to do with grace than I'd ever imagined. 

That manuscript was ten years old already, had made the rounds to publishers. In the early drafts, the kid's father had died while away in Europe, making it impossible for the two of them to talk about differences the narrator couldn't help but feel. But in this revision I knew I wanted the two of them to have that talk. I didn't know where it would take place, nor why or how it would turn out, only that something had to be said. Somehow, the protagonist and his father were going to talk to each other in a way they never had.

Right about then, my parents came out to Iowa to visit. One Sunday morning we went to church, and that morning's liturgy included the old hymn "Blessed Assurance." There I stood, beside him, watching him--and hearing him--pour his heart out and I knew right then how the novel would end. The protagonist, now a father himself, understands that what all of his pent-up antagonism doesn't have to be spilled, doesn't have to soil his father's love. So he doesn't tell his father the story he'd wanted to, doesn't say it because he's learned--after all those years--something abiding about grace, a lesson he'd learned from a tough kid he hung around with in those turbulent years when they grew up together.

That Sunday morning, my father gave me the denouement of Romey's Place at the moment we were stood there singing "Blessed Assurance." That moment informs the final scene of the novel.
Just as he was for so many others, my father--bless his soul--was forever a peacemaker. Throughout all of my life, in a hundred varied ways, my father showed me the paths of truly selfless righteousness. Even now, in his last years, I still thank him for offering me a witness of what is pure, what is holy, and what is true.

But now that I’ve walked through those years again, now that I’ve gone back as deeply as I could into a story that ended in Cyril’s death, I’ve come to believe that Romey’s place in my life has become more consequential in the decades that have passed than that place may have seemed at the time. What my own foolish soul has come to understand is that while my father taught me goodness, it was Romey who taught me grace.

And that’s why I don’t need to tell my aging father the long story I couldn’t bring myself to tell him years ago. There’s no need to explain what role he played the night I lost a friend, no need to remind him of what, for years, I might have called his sin. All I need to say is that no matter what, he is my father. That’s part of what Romey taught me.
When my father died, I remembered that moment clearly and told myself that at his funeral I wished we could sing again "Blessed Assurance." I didn't push that wish on anyone because I couldn't help feeling that some witches' brew of motivations was at work: life and art and ego subtly and fearfully mixed. Had I told my sisters we should sing I wanted to sing the old  hymn, I would have felt idolatrous after a fashion, as if my story of my father's story was more significant than his story, his life.

I had no part in planning his funeral. My sisters did it while we were on our way to Wisconsin. They told me what they were planning once we arrived, and one of the hymns they'd determined to sing, they said, was "Blessed Assurance." 

My sister said that Mom had claimed her husband's deep faith was something she'd always admired and even envied; he'd never really doubted God's love, and she'd marveled at, or so she told my sisters, because there were times she did, she said. My mother chose that old hymn for reasons all her own.

Was that okay? my sisters asked me.

Sure, I said. Of course it was.

So we sang "Blessed Assurance" at his funeral. Of course, I will never again sing that hymn without thinking of him. There it is on his gravestone--Mom made sure it was there. 

Part of my inheritance includes that same assurance. Like him, I don't doubt my Father's love. Never have--hopefully, never will.

He never took me hunting, never took me to ball games, never did a whole lot with me really. By today's standards, he didn't work at building a relationship--just as his own probably hadn't, a preacher with ten kids. But my father taught me a great deal about this life and the next by his own humbling blessed assurance.

That's his story--and mine.

And it's also our Father's story, or so it seems to me.

Sunday, October 21, 2007


My Father's Death

My wife says that while I was gone she was awakened with a vivid dream of her father's calling her and telling her that her mother had died. So real it was, she said, that she checked the time to make sure that, should that very call happen later that early morning, she would know if it had been some kind of extra-sensory perception-like event.

Neither of us are into ESP-type happenings, but she knows I suffered such an experience, strangely, when, five years ago right about now, my own father died. I was awakened by an intense roiling in my stomach--nothing to get sick about, but enough to get me up. I walked around a little, then went back to bed and slept soundly the rest of the night. That morning, early, my sister called to tell me that Dad had died somewhere around two, at the very time I was awakened by an upset stomach.

My wife's mom is in hospice. She wouldn't have been shocked had her father called. But he didn't, and we're going there today, I'm sure, to visit.

This morning's Writer's Almanac offering is a poem by Barbara Bloom titled "Making Things Right" and it reminds me, sadly, of my father, whose death five years ago left me fatherless--I don't know that there's a better way of saying it than with those very words: "he left me fatherless."

When I think of him now (he's a boy in the picture above, far left), I think of a man who likely didn't always understand his son, a man who certainly never helicoptered me, but who never once made me doubt his love, not because he showed it all that much, but because he was it, if that makes sense. His manner towards just about everything, including his wife, his job, his church, the community and school he served, was never business-like, never cold--he had no "functions," no offices, even though he filled many. He was a man who knew knew how to give.

In the Christian circles in which I live, we like to talk on and on about "servanthood." Cal Schaap--the man I knew, my father--should have been a poster boy.

"What I remember most from that time
is standing by your bed
as you grew smaller and smaller,
less and less of you
who had so frightened me as a child,
and looking down at you
lying there quietly
when it was too late to talk."


I can't say he frightened me, although I would have died than let him down, his aspirations for me, even though those aspirations were never cut in stone at all. I knew he was proud of me, whether I was 12 in Little League or writing the history of the denomination he loved.

The poem rings true because I sat at my father's bedside for several days, waiting for him to die, a lonely but wonderful vigil that I rank with some of the most profoundly gratifying days of my life. I don't really believe he ever knew I was there. But I was. I watched him suffer, helped him pee. What he knew or experienced in those days, I don't know. But my simply being there, even though I did nothing, was a blessing to me whose nuance there are no words to describe.

I miss him in short bursts of memory these days. All of a sudden, a few days ago, I was standing out near the garage when I thought of him gone. When that happens, I feel suddenly as if there is no roof over my head.

It's fair to say that we weren't buddies. We never hunted deer together, even though I grew up in Wisconsin. I can't imagine him with a rifle in his hands. He could fix everything, and loved the enterprise. The only time I remember disciplining me, he cried.

We weren't really much alike, but he was my father. And when I think of him now, when I remember he's not there on the other side of some phone call I should make, the world seems vastly emptier.

I have the traditional Christian's consolation, of course--that he's in glory and someday we'll talk. I'm happy for that assurance.

She missed him--that's the upshot of a poem that reminded me, once again, just this Sunday morning, that I do too.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Travails



Somewhere along the highway between South Bend and Valparaiso, IN, on Friday, I followed a truck whose home base--according to the back door panel--was Cedar Rapids, IA. Don't know why, but that's when I thought of how good it is to remember the world is not only flat, but big, in fact, huge. There's life--real life--in places my own busyness doesn't give me time to even think about.

Years ago, in Arizona, at the end of my ill-fated coaching career (lasted only two years), another basketball coach annointed my grief and anger after a loss with a line I'll never forget. "Schaap," he said, "just remember this: there are a million people in San Diego who could give a s___."

I still laugh when I remember that line. But it's uplift was something I felt when being triangulated by semis on the Indiana tollway, one of those beasts carrying the address of Cedar Rapids. Good night, the world is bigger than your worries and your silly stress.

But as good as it was to be away, on this trip, I couldn't stand the idea of being away a day longer than I was scheduled to be gone. Bad weather and who knows what not else cancelled my flight out of South Bend on Friday morning. United rebooked me for Saturday, this morning, a day later, eventually getting into Omaha (final destination) somewhere around four or five--a day after I planned on getting home.

But even if I could have found my way out of South Bend yesterday morning, I could not have flown to Omaha on Friday because Big Red, who's suffered some major bleeding this week, is facing off against someone in Lincoln today, and Nebraska fans from all points east had filled every available flight from O'Hare to Omaha.

Okay, I'm locked in.

So I asked the woman at the gate for directions to a hotel. "There are no rooms," she said. "Notre Dame is playing USC."

Somewhere up above, I honestly think the Lord is smirking. I'm hijacked and bedeviled by football.

So I rented a car and drove home. Took me 12 hours, but I'm here, not waking up in some hotel around O'Hare--and I like that.

The speeches?--sure, fine. I think I did okay. The couple of days off?--it was good to see a semi from Cedar Rapids somewhere along a tollways just south of the bottom of Lake Michigan and be reminded that, for whatever griefs and anger and worries I carry, there are three million or more Chicagians who really could give a s___.

But traveling? I'm not sure I've ever had a worse time here in the States. Did I mention sitting on a runway for two hours beside men--on both sides!--with shoulders like Cornhuskers? I felt like a sausage. And it was the last row of seats, and the cabin was hot, and . . .

Hey, why complain? In just a few hours there will be 200,000 people in football stadiums in Lincoln, NE, and South Bend, IN, who've got a lot more on their minds that my problems. Hey, they could care less, right? They could give a s___.

Makes me chuckle.

Friday, October 19, 2007


Numbering


I visited last night with a woman married to a man who's already on time he didn't think he'd have. They're old friends, but I haven't seen them since the onset of the lung cancer that will take him, eventually. Right now, off both his oxygen tank and a daily regimen of morphine, he's doing well. But his wife says the one thing that's constant in his physical condition is that the tumors won't be gone and that they will grow--or so says the oncologist they respect.

It's impossible to imagine this chapter of their story together, even though there's not a beating heart in this world that isn't someday going to be stilled. All of share their fate; the two of them just have a clearer sense of when.

They're holding up remarkably well, I'd say. I had a wonderful bowl of chili last night, something she brewed up, she said, because she was getting anxious for colder weather simply to be able to soup back in the menu. As it turns out, it was a warm day, very summer-ish, and stormy. I drove back to my motel in a driving rain storm that was enough, at one point, for me to take refuge off the freeway.

Now all of this reminds me of Psalm 90, so I looked through my own devotionals, looking for something especially fitting. I chose this one because Dennis, in the meditation, and Walt, my friend, both discovered their lung cancer at the same time. Dennis is gone, six months ago already. The Lord giveth, he would have said, the Lord taketh away--blessed be the name of the Lord.

The Word tells us that God almighty will not give us more than we can handle. Walt's wife says there have been times when they told God they'd reached that point. But both of them--this couple and Dennis and Sharon of the meditation showed more heroism and faith in their distress than I believe I'm capable of. But I'm not there. I'd say that I'm not sure who's the lucky ones, but that would be deceptive. There are days when for a nickel I'd walk out the classroom and never return; my life isn't always a bowl of cherries; sometimes I get sick of the whole mess--but doggone it, for better or for worse, I still love living. I don't want to die. Not yet. I wouldn't change places. And that's a blessing too.
Sometimes our blessings come in strange packages, I guess. Often, in fact.

Here's the meditation:

“You turn men back to dust, saying, ‘Return to dust, O sons of men.’” Psalm 90

I received a note, five years ago now, from a couple who claimed they wanted my help. She was dying of ovarian cancer. She’d kept a journal throughout her life but had continued to write during her affliction, thinking about issues she was facing immediately, issues of life and death. She and her husband wondered whether I might help her—and them—bring something together in book form. Lots of people appreciated her e-mail reflections, they said; many urged her to collect them. “They should all be in a book,” people told them.

The cancer was terminal. Since the verdict had been handed down, the two of them—with a little help from a financial benefactor—had decided to do their own “make-a-wish” adventure and travel to places they’d always dreamed about. They’d had four kids—two of them were in college, all of them in their late teens and early twenties. Extensive travel hadn’t been an option earlier in their lives. They’d chosen to live frugally, in a fashion they would have called, themselves, “stewardly.”

But Sharon was dying, and there were things she wanted badly to see, places she’d always wanted to go. So for a year or so they’d lived almost nomadically, and she’d kept that journal, pages and pages long.

Would you help us? they said. Her reflections would make a good book.
I get dozens and dozens of such requests, and it’s always painful to have to tell people that I can’t—or won’t help. I could have spent every moment of my writing life helping people with their own great stories or writing those stories myself. I could have done that and never once seen a publication or made a buck. Everyone has a story—everyone. But most of us don’t care to read everyone else’s.

But something about this story seemed especially compelling, so I told them I’d like to meet them and have a look. I did, and I took the job on. That was six years ago, and finally, maybe a month or two from now, the book will be published.

That it’s taken a long, long time is attributable, in a way, to the fact that the project is—and has been from the very first scribbling—a labor of love. I don’t want to appear angelic, but it’s unlikely that I’ll ever make a dime on the book. Nor will they.

And that’s understatement. Sharon is gone, of course. Three years ago already, her cancer took her. The book includes her final jottings, as well as the detailed plans she’d made for her own funeral. Sharon’s earthly musing is history.

Last week, while we were on vacation, another e-mail note appeared in my in-box, a note I didn’t read until yesterday. Sharon’s husband, Dennis, has cancer himself—I knew that. I didn’t know how bad. Yesterday’s e-mail made clear that his condition is terminal. It’s lung cancer, a killer. He never smoked in his life.

An old friend of mine once told me her preacher/father loved to do funerals because he felt he never held people’s attention so fully as he could when he read Psalm 90 with a coffin—open or closed—set conspicuously in front of the sanctuary.

“Dust to dust the mortal dies,” the old song says. Not just Sharon, but now, shockingly, Dennis too—and, lest we forget, you and me. What is inescapable about Psalm 90 is inescapable about life: it ends, for all of us. That’s everyone’s story.

Thursday, October 18, 2007


Look, Benjamin Franklin is not my favorite American patriot. I really like the humor of The Autobiography, I admire everything he did for this country--including becoming really America's first world celebrity--and I can't help but respect him for establishing libraries and being, in some ways, the godfather of American journalism. At the same time, my BS meter goes off when I read some parts of the Autobiography. Maybe it shouldn't, but it does. I just don't trust him.

Maybe that's why the story I remember as well as any in the story of his life (also, a literary first, by the way) is his memory of George Whitfield, the English stemwinder who, more than anyone else, lit the fires of the Great Awakening. Franklin, by that time in his life, not a church goer at all, wanted to here Whitfield light up a crowd so he went, stood on the outskirts of the town that surrounded Whitfield (a man like that held forth to hundreds, two centuries before anyone ever thought of a public address system), and listened to his passionate preaching. I don't have a text available right now, but the kicker is this--Franklin, the compassionate cynic, was so moved by the sermon that when the hat was passed he willfully gave up some of his own hard-earned silver because the man was so good.

I like that story.

Today I heard just that kind of stemwinder. Tony Campolo can light up a crowd like few others I know, and he does it with a gospel message that moves me--concern for the poor and the marginalized. He knows how to infuse something close to fire and brimstone with just enough humor to keep a crowd--today he had a couple thousand--sitting on the edge of their chairs. He's an incredible speaker, a man who bleeds passion--and love and commitment. I could listen to him for hours.

They didn't pass that hat after his speech/sermon or I'm sure I would have reached for my billfold. I'm not the cynic Franklin was, of course, but I could have listened to Campolo for another hour at least. Wow.

One of the questions on the written part of my masters program was to compare Edwards and Franklin and their respective contributions to American letters. What a pair! Edwards so resolvedly spiritual that he can barely bring himself to write--it seems--of the real problems and New England faced; the man seemingly lived in another, higher world. Franklin, his contemporary, disdaining such heavenly aspirations for this world, debunking contemporary theological posturing on the nature of lightning, for instance, showing the world that it wasn't so much God's hand as it was a dangerous mix of electrical impulses. Nope, no God there. Edwards, in his personal narrative, is EXACTLY the opposite.

You'd have to nod to Jefferson, I suppose, but it's hard to think of two greater minds that Franklin and Edwards. Fascinating.

Anyway, today I'll vote for Tony Campolo. I'm not sure about minds with him--he didn't trumpet wisdom and he certainly didn't debunk anything holy. But he shot a couple thousand people through with commitment. There may well have been people not moved, but I wasn't among them.

A great morning.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Business Model











News outlets have been reporting the emergence of a brand new force in journalism, an outfit called Pro Publica, a group of a couple dozen journalists who will work in investigative avenues, even though they will be unaffiliated with any major newspaper or news outlet. This brand new institution is funded by Herbert M. and Marion O. Sandler, who have some deep pockets, to say the least.

The Sandlers--and many others--are concerned that in news bureaus today, investigative journalism is losing, big-time, because of an economic pinch created by the new media and a profession that is changing--and has to change--radically. They feel--as do many, many others--that when the profession of journalism is treated as if it were only a business, investigative reporting will go first simply because it costs big bucks to keep a reporter or two on a story that may take a year or more to break. Think Watergate. Think the Washington Post's recent expose on the veteran's medical affairs, a story that took months to write (and won the Pulitzer).

Publishing itself has become more of a business--book publishing too. Journalism is becoming more of a business, as everyone knows. Even churches--when operating on the "church growth" paradigm--become more fully "business propositions": if a church plant doesn't show profits--numbers--in a certain tally of years, the roots are pulled and away we go to another teeming field.

Higher education too is becoming more of a business than it ever has been. Students demand professional training, and that's what they get. At the college where I teach, grief and anger was created by the administration, who have been flailing around, trying, in vain it seems, to establish a criminal justice program. With good reason, of course. In my trash mail, I get just as many bogus e-mails from sleazy places touting viagra as I do from other sleazy places offering an education so, "you too can find a career in criminal justice." I don't know the sudden urgency for cops, but what's clear is it's there. Us too. We ought to have a good program, even we can't get the people to run it. It's a good business decision.

All around, the world is adopting "the business model," and human beings are being recognized more fully for what they are in that kind of culture--"consumers." Honestly, I think I can live with that, as long as those who run our institutions--those who run our businesses--continue to see themselves as servants.

Having said that, however, I need also to say that it's painful to see basic functions and strategies change or adapt or radically reposition when the only thing that appears to matter, finally, is "the bottom line." Humanities divisions all over the country are suffering today because "you can't make money with an English or history or art major"--or so the saying goes. At the college where I teach, the art major has been fortified as of late by the computer; everybody wants to go into computer graphics. There's far less call, of course, for a in-depth study of the Pre-Raphaelites.

Okay. Time changes things. On my wall, my grandfather's high school diploma--1898, Parkersburg, Iowa--includes a list of courses no high school in the nation teaches anymore--Greek, Latin, Cicero, all kinds of wonders. Nobody believes in that kind of educational diet, and that's okay. Times change, and I suppose, in a way, my years are showing.

But what I don't understand is why leadership who adopt the business model don't also adopt what seems to be abundantly clear among those who study "leadership" within that business model. Everything I read about "leadership" today asserts boldly that those at the top must be responsive to the needs and the desires of their workers; they have to know their people, have to allow those who work for them to find dignity and trust in what they do from day to day. Even in the vaunted "business model," those who lead have to follow--or so it seems to me.

When that doesn't happen, the whole structure breaks down. When the bottom line shapes itself into a noose, those who labor in the system become timid, then afraid, and then angry. Eventually they see no hope. Some leave.

Yesterday I sat through a meeting at which a kind of rebuttal proposal from the workers--a proposal created by cuts required by economic necessity, the administration told us years ago--was summarily dismissed. We were thanked for opening a conversation, told it was written well, in fact. Then it was dismissed.

No one was terribly surprised.

But I left that meeting feeling flattened and powerless, abandoned. My soul was rent--I swear it. And it wasn't simply the defeat of our unanimous proposal that left us all paralyzed. It was something else, something even worse.

Doesn't a "business model" require management to nurture relationships with its employees, to listen, to discuss, to seek the will of those it serves--not just the customer, but also the worker? Don't leadership seminars all over the nation tout the importance of listening to workers, of giving them the dignity they deserve as human beings, much less image-bearers? We respect people by believing in them--isn't that true?

I'm not only disappointed, I'm deeply and sadly disillusioned. If what I feel this morning is the effect of "the business model" in operation on a college campus, then I'm totally against "the business model." But I don't think it is.

I wish I didn’t want to say this. I wish my professional life didn’t feel oppressive. I wish I could simply think about teaching or making a big speech.

Like the toy monkey, we live in a series of consecutively fitted barrels—and often we can’t see the big ones because the little ones lock us in, emotionally at least.

And that’s the way I feel this morning.