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, December 31, 2008

A War Story

We were in the Belgium, a city named Bastogne, the very center, I believe, of an incredible German offensive late in December of 1944, a quarter million troops and a thousand tanks that came as if out of nowhere, stormed the relative peace of the Allied front, and created a horror story since named The Battle of the Bulge. Historians make very clear that while it didn't have the effect Hitler hoped, without a doubt it lengthened the duration of the war.

Right in the city center a large sign tells the story of that city's destruction during that surprise attack and the subsequent six-week battle. There we stood, five of us, trying to match up the pictures with the reality of what we saw all around us, a small Belgian city fifty years later. There we stood when an old man and his wife came up to us and started explaining, started pointing, started talking. I wish I could remember his name.

He and his wife had charted a return visit for him, his first after those fifty years. He was an American, from Chicago, I think, one of the thousands of kids, just kids, who unexpectedly found themselves attacked in a winter battle that was often waged, it seemed, hand-to-hand. Just up the street, he'd said, he remembered losing a friend.

For a couple hours, there in Bastogne, as well as at the museum a couple miles east of town, he became our tour guide, his wife following along, often in silence. They weren't young, of course, so our rental car helped them get around. Our chance meeting was a blessing, if that word can be used in such a place; the man was not only an eye-witness, he was a participant in the snow and ice and cold that made that German offensive even more horrific.

In the Bastogne Historical Center, he made the visit come alive. I only wish I could remember more of what he said, more of his stories, more of his own eye-witness account. That second visit of his brought a rush of memories, some of which he himself hadn't considered or remembered in the many years that had passed. I don't think I've ever before been privy to an account of a battle told by someone who was there and couldn't forget.

You can read for yourself the accounts of that battle, if you desire. War's brutality creates its own wily fascinations.

Strangely enough, the only moment I remember by image--that clearly--is a moment that took place after all the recitation. We'd returned from the museum to the city center, where we stopped to eat at an outdoor cafe. It was early June, and the sun was hot that day, but we sat outside--seven of us, five from a Dutch summer study program just doing some sightseeing, and the aging war veteran and his wife from the States. They were staying in town at a bed and breakfast they'd found on-line.

The waitress who took our orders couldn't have been more than nineteen, and in her defense, the cafe was overflowing with hungry customers. I say that because it was obvious that she was overworked and the sun, as I remember, was hot. She was not interested in small talk, and what I remember more than anything else from that day was how short she was with the old man and his wife, how she grew irritated at the turtle's pace of his choice of sandwich, how her being annoyed showed in a way that we read very clearly, in a way that seemed even to offer us the shared irritation of youth with the elderly. She rolled her eyes at us, as if we'd understand.

I don't know--and I didn't then--whether the old GI even recognized what we saw. Age offers benefits that way, I guess. His concentration on choosing the right sandwich from the menu left him no time or opportunity for picking up the cues we did. I honestly think he didn't catch her incivility. That may well have been a blessing too.

But we saw it--or at least I did; and the irony of that moment somehow found a way into my own memory vault, so that sitting there and feeling her disdain is the only immediate memory of that afternoon. I remember the landscape, too, and the museum. I remember standing beside him and listening. I remember reading the displays, and I remember very well thinking how much suffering must have gone on in the hills and forests of the Ardennes.

But what sticks somehow is that young woman's snarling irritation toward a man who was once a terribly young GI with frostbite and battle fatigue, a man who remembered the very street where the cafe stood when all the buildings as far as one could see stood in ruin, a man who risked his life for her when many, many others like him were dying all around.

The stories that don't somehow dislodge from our memories often find a permanent place because we can't locate a fitting theme for them, a file of similar stories by which they can be identified and understood--processed is the word some psychologists use.

There's easy morals to what happened, I'm sure--like, "how quickly we forget." But there's more to that story somehow, I'm sure, because she was young and innocent herself, in a way, a victim of the blessed thoughtlessness of youth. And she wasn't there fifty years ago, so it wasn't her war.

But right now, a decade later, I'm just happy that specific story is there to be told, there to be remembered, because I find myself, right now, not wanting to forget it--the look in her eyes, the old man's relative innocence, along with the memory of him standing at the sign and pointing west, up the road, toward some horror, as if it all had happened just yesterday.

It's Old Year's Eve, maybe just the right day for that old story to be told.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

December Carnival

a year of morning thanks
Afternoon Acrobats

They're so fat that I'm not sure I can call them "cute." They fluff this time of year, keeping every btu they can muster thick inside that blanket they wear. Even though they stay barefooted all through the winter, they never seem to complain.

To us, they aren't a plague or a curse; they aren't the enemy they are to bird watchers who try, often vainly, to keep them the heck away their precious feeders. And they're acrobats--that's for sure. They pull stunts no human being would think of.

Nonetheless, their bulk makes the squirrels outside our windows seem more like circus clowns than those buff high-wire acts. Fat as little pigs, they fear nothing and will climb aboard the thinnest branch if they have a notion to satisfy their ravenous appetites for the wilted crabs left on our trees.

Sometimes they'll be out there for an hour, pigging out. They high-wire and dive and hang upside down, risking life and limb, it seems, to gorge themselves. They're ferocious little furry fat guys whose sheer grace is downright shocking.

This morning I'm thankful for the winter carnival they put on just about every afternoon outside our window.

Monday, December 29, 2008

a year of mornng thanks

Wounded Knee, 1890

I wish I were there right now. I've been there a half dozen times at least, but this morning I think it would be wonderful to be standing in the wind and cold at Wounded Knee. On December 29, 1890, the final "battle" of the Sioux Indian Wars took place eight hours more or less straight west of here at a lonely stretch of short grass prairie, right at the heart of the Great Plains. I wish I were there.

I've told the story so often that I don't care to go through it all again, but it's always sad to know how few people--even here in 'Siouxland'--know anything at all of the story. It wasn't a battle at all; it was a massacre. Who knows how many Sioux died--200? Maybe more. It's almost inevitable that my own great-grandparents, Dutch immigrants then living just on the east side of the Missouri River in the brand new state of South Dakota, took refuge with many of their friends, fearing a major hostile uprising. Repurcussions of the "battle" ran out for hundreds of miles, like circles in a pond where a stone's been thrown.

If you want to understand at least something of the way in which Anglo homesteaders took over what was then Siouxland, start your study with the massacre at Wounded Knee. It's all there. After the massacre, after a freakish snowstorm that turned the whole place white, some locals got together and tossed the Sioux dead into a trench at the top of the hill above the battlefield. Still today, it's marked--that mass grave on American soil.

I was there, even in the picture above. I was there, just as we all were. That fact is inescapble--or so it seems to me. We were all there, every one of us, red and white.

It's a moral lesson I'm honestly thankful to have learned. I'm not Native, and I was born after the Second World War. No matter. I was there at Wounded Knee. We all were.

This morning, even though the story is rife with horror, I'm thankful to know what happened there, just east of Pine Ridge--thankful at least to know.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

a year of morning thanks

Lightning rods

Amazon sales rose 2% during the just-past Christmas season, quite a phenomenon given the fact that most retailers are moaning the horror of what some call the worst Christmas season in a half century. According to the Wall Street Journal, spending was decisively off, most depressingly in the category of "high end" items, the kinds of big ticket presents ordinary people don't regularly give--like new cars.

But amid all of that, Amazon, the on-line super-store, raked in their best season ever. Not good news for malls.

And topping Amazon's sales list for 2009 is the Sarah Palin Calendar, featuring over 50 photographs of America's most famous Vice-Presidential candidate, all of them taken by long-time Wasilla friend, Judy Patrick. Check it out for yourself at . Good night, the cover is worth the price--check her out shouldering that double-barrel shotgun. Takes your breath away.

When I saw the story this morning, I was time-capsuled back two months to the wild political season just past. November's candidates included two hotties unlike any others in the recent past: Obama himself, whose bare pecs made the news this week; and the lovely gov, whose smile must be sufficient to make the sun rise smack in the middle of the dark Alaska winter.

Both of them are lightning rods and living, breathing Rorschach tests. We take both of them in our hands as if they were modeling clay to shape to our own philosophical, religious, political ends--and for our grand entertainment.

I have no trouble believing that Sarah Palin's 2009 calendar would be an Amazon best-seller because she is, after all, as much beloved as derided. Of those who ripped a bow off a Sarah calendar this Christmas morning, half hate her and half love her--with equal levels of heart-felt intensity.

Makes me laugh, really.

And it makes me happy--and thankful, this morning--that all of that is behind us.

Well, maybe. Far enough, at least, so I can smile.

Friday, December 26, 2008

a year of morning thanks


After sleeping in a bit longer than normal, after a wonderful Christmas worship service capped by a impromptu choir's rendition of the Hallelujah Chorus, after a splendid meal of Iowa ham, mashed potatoes, corn and beans, after opening Christmas presents and a quick trip to the home to visit Grandpa and Grandma, after an hour or so of sledding down a mountain of snow scraped off college parking lots, after late-afternoon brunch of ham sandwiches and a dessert of warm apple pie--after all of that we retired to my kids's house to watch a movie, Wall-E.

Okay, maybe watching a cartoon video wasn't my first choice to cap off a Christmas celebration, but being the captain of the ship means knowing when not to be Ahab.

So we watched Wall-E--well, most of us did. I must admit to fading once in awhile, but I think that somewhere the Bible itself says old men may nod off when the spirit moves 'em--if it doesn't say that, it should anyway.

The antics of a environmentalist junkyard robot who is just about the last living thing on earth kept me awake most of the time, but what thrilled me were the darling giggles of my grandchildren at that robot's antics. I swear, yesterday I couldn't have opened the bow on a present any better than those rippling giggles--so quick and free and generous, so well-meant, so enduringly innocent and child-like.

So this morning, the morning-after, I'm thankful for Christmas--all it means, all it brings; but this old man is especially thankful for the delightful laughter of children, a chorus fully as memorable--yesterday, at least--as anything Handel ever penned.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

a year of morning thanks


Yesterday, the Baltimore Sun and Washington Post decided to officially share stories, which means, I take it, to publish--substantially--the same content, at least in part. That move, like the Detroit Free Press's switch to every-other-day delivery or the Des Moines Register's new smaller sheet of paper, is designed to save bucks--which is to say, to save the industry. That's how bad it's getting.

On Sunday, the Post published a lament for the book written most endearingly by André Bernard, himself a former editor at Harcourt. "I can't help thinking that as this year gasps its way to its merciful end," he writes, "something terribly sad is happening, that a vague, general shift in the cultural landscape will alter how or what we read in some still indefinable way." What he's talking about is not the death of an industry, but the death of a kind of religious calling, an caring industry that created masterpieces in a process that sometimes seemed a crap shoot. Bernard goes on to say "that a quirky, creaky, financially insupportable business that in spite of itself produces that most desirable and perfect of objects -- the book -- is perishing, and that we are yet to fully feel the loss."

This screen before me has an insatiable appetite. It's eating newspapers left and right, and books too, or at least, if we believe the eulogy, the book industry. It's transforming not only how content is delivered, but how we read and even, I suppose, why we think the way we do.

Last year, I was working on a novel set in rural South Dakota at just about this time of year, mid-deep freeze. I was more than one hundred pages in before I realized that this contemporary story was lacking one required feature of contemporary life, a feature that would alter the entire story--the cell phone. Much of what I'd written had to be entirely recast because the cell phone transformed the whole story.

Technology has done that, changed our landscapes and changed us. I don't think anyone can argue with that assertion. I am a different human being because of this machine in front of me, a landing strip for the ideas my imagination brings to the screen. The internet links me with people and ideas anytime, anywhere, around the world, and delivers information in such vast quantities that one doesn't really need to leave the chair. Libraries, in many ways, are rapidly becoming dinosaurs.

It's easy to understand why some voices sound like Chicken Little because, with respect to some of our most cherished notions and foundations, the sky is falling; our lives are being transformed. Some things are being left behind, and one of them (may our own Ben Franklin rest in peace) just might be the daily newspaper. And the book. I've got no crystal ball, but right now there's an identifiable death rattle in the way those industries are breathing.

But honestly, I don't think the sky is falling, even if the weather, out here and everywhere, is changing dramatically. Maybe I'm just an incurable optimist, but I don't think so.

But let's say I'm wrong and we're becoming some deviant, decadent culture worshipping at the shrines of celebrity and power. Let's say the Barnes and Nobles of the world will soon close their doors. Let's say Ray Bradbury was right about most things in Fahrenheit 451. Let's say libraries soon become, at best, museums.

Even if all of that is true, this dark winter morning, I know this much at least, down here the darkness of the basement, I've still got a keyboard.

Just now, after reading André Bernard's eulogy for the book, I'm almost ready to cry. Yet, if I listen closely, I swear I can hear the cry of the phoenix bird, rising from the ashes.

And I see no reason to stop typing these very words.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Morning Thanks--Intruder

a year of morning thanks

This year Mother Nature had her ducks in a row. Outside my window this morning the world is pitch black; for almost three hours it'll stay just that way because we're in the thick, deep freeze of the year's longest night. The wind has stopped now, after about a fierce, day-long siege that locked up just about everyone in what Emerson called "the tumultuous privacy of storm."

Winter solstice--just as pagan in usage, I suppose, as Mother Nature--came and went angrily, as if offended, like an old queen who believes her subjects are becoming spoiled, indolent. The shortest day/longest night piggy-backed on a rush of bitter cold straight from the artic, coldest temps of the year, maybe even of the season (we can hope)--wind chills near -40 below.

I have no idea if Jesus Christ was born in December 25. I'm not a biblical historian, and, quite frankly, I don't care if he wasn't. But this morning, in the pitch darkness of winter solstice, I'm thrilledjust that somewhere along the line someone decided (maybe God, maybe man) that late December was the right time for a baby king who would be saviour. Because it is the right time. Is it ever.

July 4 is sort of mid-term too, just a couple of days after the summer solstice; but July 4, at least in Siouxland, wouldn't be the same because right now, Good Lord!, we really need him. Right now, we need hope and joy and a release from the cold bondage of a natural world that seemingly could care less for us or any other living thing.

Last night, our preacher talked about Christ the intruder. He's right, of course. Jesus comes into our lives willy-nilly most often, doesn't bother to knock, the king of serendipity. He intrudes into our humdrum, shocking us with his sudden presence.

But last night I couldn't help thinking, as the few of us who could make it to church sat there listening, about how good it is that he chooses late December to intrude--how his story, his music, his grace, his very presence, somehow pierces the swarming darkness that sits so arrogantly outside my basement window this bitter mid-winter's morning.

Some 15th century German hymn writer knew it too, or else he couldn't have written as well as he did.

Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming
from tender stem hath sprung!
Of Jesse’s lineage coming,
as men of old have sung.
It came, a floweret bright,
amid the cold of winter,
When half spent was the night.

I'm sure it's true in Bermuda too, or the Ivory Coast or Dominica; but there are some moments in the bitterly cold hands of a Great Plains winter, when Nature herself cries out for a Savior, someone to intrude into the horrid cold, someone to set us free from the deep darkness. This year, Christmas can't arrive any too soon.

It's still a dark night outside my basement window, longest and coldest night of the year--20 below, this morning.
But there's an intruder a'comin, like a rose a'bloomin' because as the Bible says that just about now "the true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world." He has.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

a year of morning thanks


Doesn't happen often out here that snow comes straight down and puts an angel food cake on your car--or on the table on the deck, something I should have carried off and into the barn a month ago--or on the rails, like this. Very rare.

Friday, we got dumped on, heavy snow, as if the Great Lakes were just a short amble down the road. Out here on the edge of the Great Plains, it's an unusual snowfall that doesn't come down sideways and make the wind feel like a ratchet against your cheeks.

The northwest wind came yesterday, blowing all that fluff into terror, turning open fields into moon-like landscapes that offer their own kind of rare beauty, a vision that would be worth looking at if you could stand being out there for more than ten minutes. But the weather right now is--literally--killing; and your body tells you that in no uncertain manner, even if a man or woman shows no more flesh than a Zorro-mask leaves open, everything else layered in wool or down or fleece. The only beast known to thrive in such horror is the buffalo. I'm not kidding. Even the squirrels scramble, pulling all kinds of acrobatic stunts in our trees to get what few berries remains.

When it's bitter cold, it's sometimes hard to understand why anyone--me included--would choose to live here on the Plains, or anywhere in the Upper Midwest, for that matter. January puts us all in prison. If you have to go out, you amble along as fast you can, risking a blowing an ankle or cracking a rib on one hand, and rigor mortis on the other. Sure, if you listen long enough, you'll hear a chorus of whiny snowmobiles--some people thrive, too, I guess; but it's lock-up time right now.

It's ugly here right now. Maybe that's why the Lord gave us sun dogs. They don't come out of their kennels until it's -20 or so, but when they do--and when people take the time to spot them--they light up the sky strangely, refracting the sun's own immense brilliance.

They're miniature rainbows, sort of. That's what I tried to tell my granddaughter yesterday, when the two of us went Christmas shopping. She wasn't impressed when I stopped at the cemetery and took this shot from an open car window. She hadn't gone out in the horror to hear her grandpa talk about the beauty of sun dogs.

No matter. Someday she too might just have to look up from some frozen wasteland to see something beautiful. There are times in our lives, I'm convinced, that we simply have to look and have to see. Keep a place in your heart for beauty, Pascal once wrote--or something like it. One of the great blessings of living here, any time of year--even now--is the great sky.

That's what I tried to tell her. Then we went to Wal-Mart.

Friday, December 19, 2008

a year of morning thanks

No posing

I read somewhere long ago that the man known as Squire Dickinson--the devout and austere father of Emily Dickinson--"was known, once, to have smiled." Most assuredly, he was a Calvinist.

And then there's always Mencken's ascerbic wit about Puritanism (which is to say, Calvinism) as the sneaking suspicion that someone, somewhere is having a good time.

Sometimes I wonder if even even a nominal adherence to Calvinism doesn't, all by itself, impede smiling. But then, I'm Dutch, too, and traditionally, the Dutch don't easily give their hearts away--at least not Dutch Calvinists. Hang around the Dutch Reformed long enough, and one might come to think that our favorite fruit is the prune.

But then, smiles can be faked. What's more, they too easily morph into smiley faces. Fake smiles are the self-righteous accessories of good Southern Baptists, not Great Plains Calvinists. We're cut from the same stock as those famous WPA Dust Bowl photographs.

Here's the deal. My son--bless his heart--has not been easy to photograph. He comes by that characteristic honestly; in fact, I can trace the penchant back into multidinous generations of Dutch Reformed sternness. Let's put it this way: he's not as easy to photograph as his seven-year-old niece, who can--if she wishes--drop whatever she's doing, put her chin in her hands, and look like a dream. Our son has traditionally had some trouble with the word cheese.

Sadly, my family suffers at the hands of a father, grandfather--whatever--who hauls out a camera at the drop of a hat. In fairness, no one likes his or her own pictures, right? The shot I attach to my profile on this blog is only a shadow. Most people hate their pictures--me too. Who wants to set themselves up for such pain?

Besides, I think it's only right that Calvinists don't pose well. A pose is, by definition, something of a lie. Ask people to pose, and you're acting them to display actual falsehood.

Whatever. I'm trying to be nice. Here's the bottom line: traditionally, our son doesn't pose well.

But then, last week my mother called. "I just love that picture you sent of David and Kristina," she told us. "It's just beautiful. They're so cute with their stocking caps." (Fortunately, my son won't read this; he'd skin me alive.)

But get this--my mother is right. They are cute. It is a sweet picture.

Fools rush in where wise men fear to tread, so I'm not going to push this too far; I am, after all, his father. But here's an outline of this practiced photographer's armchair theory on all this.

Oddly enough, this young lady has made him a better subject for the camera. Like I said, I'm not going to speculate how or why. All I know is that right now he's far better at smiling, maybe because--sheer speculation on my part--I don't think he's posing.

Therefore, even though he's smiling, his father says he's still a Calvinist.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

a year of morning thanks

An old letter of sympathy (ix)

But there's one more page.

It's as if he told himself that there was more to say, and what he had in mind again was yet another lyric, a hymn with somewhat crooked roots, it seems. It's most popular form seems to have been anthologized first by George Nelson Allen, professor of music at Oberlin College in the mid-19th century, because it's found in it most persistent form, at least originally, in his memorably titled Oberlin Social and Sabbath Hymn Book.

Must Jesus bear the cross alone,
And all the world go free?
No, there’s a cross for everyone,
And there’s a cross for me.

How happy are the saints above,
Who once went sorrowing here!
But now they taste unmingled love,
And joy without a tear.

The consecrated cross I’ll bear
Till death shall set me free;
And then go home my crown to wear,
For there’s a crown for me.

Upon the crystal pavement down
At Jesus’ piercèd feet,
Joyful I’ll cast my golden crown
And His dear Name repeat.

O precious cross! O glorious crown!
O resurrection day!
When Christ the Lord from Heav’n comes down
And bears my soul away.

Strangely, Grandpa Schaap chooses to write only two of the stanzas in this note --the first and the third. Why?

It's possible, of course, that the grieving family would not have recognized what likely was, within American Christendom, a fairly well-known hymn, at least it's clear that Grandpa Schaap knew it. In the churches Grandpa served at the turn of the century, hymnody would have been psalmnody--and almost exclusively Dutch. The churches he served would have looked exclusively to the rulings of the Synod of Dordtrecht, exactly 300 years earlier, who had set down what seemed eternal guidelines for what is good a proper in Christian worship--and the menu little more than Psalms, Genevan at that.
Significant change came following the First World War as the Dutch church became, as it inevitably would, far more "American," but at the time little Nelson died, it's quite possible that an ordinary Dutch Reformed family would not have known any version of "Must Jesus bear the cross alone?" Nelson's parents may well have read these two verses for the very first time when they came to the end of Grandpa's note and never wondered why he cut so liberally from the original.

All of that doesn't answer the question of why he did, however, why he whacked away at a standard American gospel hymn.

I wonder if one answer might be suggested by the roots of the hymn itself. According to some sources, the original text belongs Thomas Shepherd (1665-1739), a separatist, like the pilgrims, who published some poetry in 1693 under the title Penitential Cries. A minister in the Church of England who left to become minister of the independent Castle Hill Meeting House in Nottingham, he published several poems in 1693 under the title, "Penitential Cries." In that volume, the first stanza of the poem reads like this:

Shall Simon bear the Cross alone,
And other Saints be free?
Each Saint of thine shall find his own,
And there is one for me.

What I would like to believe is that Grandpa Schaap read the old hymn's sentiment in a slightly different way than it might have been either intended by Shepherd's original or understood from the well known hymn of his day. If Simon is the model for "cross-bearing," then Nelson's parents could have some trouble determining just exactly how their grief compares with his, with Simon's. Simon "took up the cross" to help Christ along the road of suffering; in no way could they have associated their son's tragic death with Simon's helping an exhausted Jesus on his way to Golgatha. That would have been a stretch.

Grandpa likely sees cross-bearing in a wholly different way than the old hymn, and for that reason, I'm guessing, he's not taken with the verses he cut. The cross he and his wife bore after the death of their first-born, Agnes was an altogether different thing and not something he suffered willingly, as Simon had in the biblical account. He and his wife, who may well be still wiping away tears, had shouldered a different cross altogether, a cross simply of profound human suffering. In Agnes's death--as in Nelson's--they hadn't taken up Christ's cause or furthered his kingdom, they'd simply shared in his suffering.

I find the comparison itself really staggering. What Grandpa is saying to Nelson's grieving parents is that by way of Nelson's death you know better what Christ himself went through. Nelson's death brings you closer to Golgatha. . .

But Easter too. After all, he chooses only to write in the poem's third stanza. Nothing else. What's in the letter--look for yourself--is simply the first verse and the third. And this is what he says: "I also have in mind these stanzas." He doesn't call it a hymn, even though he almost had to know it was. He doesn't advise them to sing it. He simply says that he "has in mind" these stanzas, then gives them just these two:

Must Jesus bear the cross alone,
And all the world go free?
No: there's a cross for every one,
And there's a cross for me.

This consecrated cross I'll bear
Till death shall set me free.
And then go home, my crown to wear,
For there's a crown for me.

Aesthetically, he made a wonderful choice is cutting the extra stanzas. The close approximation of the two words, cross and crown, create an almost eerie comparison, even though one suggests torture and the other, victory. But cutting the other stanzas, Grandpa Schaap quite meticulously nurtured what he believed the best consolation from the old hymn: the ironic but absolutely biblical character of that particularly stubborn juxtaposition: somehow, someway, the cross you bear will be someday a crown.

As a stubborn Calvinist in the Dordtrecht tradition, I don't think Grandpa Schaap would have wanted to suggest that because Nelson's parents are suffering, they would reign eternal at God's right hand; that kind of equation would be a form of works righteousness that essentially denied grace.

What he didn't want the boy's sad parents to miss is his assurance that there will be, someday, an end to horror, and end to grief. That's the truth, I think, his editing is meant to serve. There is hope in suffering, and it's there in a promised crown.

But, once again, this whole note of sympathy is a hall of mirrors, for within lies not only his preacherly advice to a family suffering the very worst of tribulations, but also something of his own and his wife's, my own grandparents, the outlines of story about how in their suffering they stumbled finally on some consolation. What he must be drawing out to those grieving parents is a pathway he and his wife were walking, even as he sat there and copied all the poetry.

Undoubtedly--as he admits--they came to him to write down because they'd come to him as consolation after the death of his daughter.

"Well, dear friends," he says in conclusion, "may God uphold you and strengthen you. This is our wish and prayer. J. C. Schaap & Wife.

Upper-case W.

I'm thankful, this morning again, that I have a copy of this note on the desk. That's why I've spent all this time reading through it.

And now it will go in a drawer with other family things. Someday soon when my wife and I move to a smaller place, I'll run across it again and wonder whether anyone will care, wonder whether I should simply toss it, along with so many other things.

It seems we all find our own paths to consolation. I can't be Grandpa, and my daughter can't be me. She may well judge her father's nine long days of meditation on an old letter as something, well, silly. That doesn't mean, however, that she won't someday--as all of us do--face the darkness and look around, as her great-grandparents did--for whatever light she can find.

Truth be known, this morning I'm thankful that just a few weeks ago a woman in Michigan took it upon herself to send me a 90-year old letter her parents could never bring themselves to toss. When she did, she made me a recipient of a beloved sermon on five small sheets of paper, a sermon my grandpa wrote from the very heart of his own profound experience.

He couldn't have imagined that someday, almost a century later, his grandson would be reading that note or writing these words.
For that miracle, too, I'm thankful.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

a year of morning thanks

An old letter of sympathy (viii)

I know that Grandpa's father-in-law, a seminary professor, frequently penned what some call "doggerel," poems written in rhyming verses and traditional meters. Grandpa too had a penchant for such things too. Perhaps in the days before TV, many did. My father inherited the same poetic wit and agility, and often wrote epic stanzas for weddings and banquets and what not else. Funny things. He was good at it.

The note my grandfather sent to grieving parents is five pages long, three of which are poetry. It's remarkable to hold that note in your hand and realize he took the time to write out eight four-line stanzas of poetry that, he says, meant a great deal to him and to Grandma. But he did.

For a time, I hoped that maybe the verses were his own work, but they aren't. They belong to a 19th century Scotsman named John Dickie, who has his own story. Google him sometime. The poem is five stanzas long, has no title. Here's the first stanza:

I am not sent a pilgrim here,
My heart with earth to fill.
But I am here God's grace to learn,
and serve God's sovereign will.

Sure feels like a Calvinist's poem. There's more.

He leads me on through smiles and tears,
Grief follows gladness still;
But let me welcome both alike
Since both work out his will.

The strong man's strength to toil for Christ,
The finest preacher's skill
I sometimes wish,--but better far
To be just what God will.

Why?--I don't know, but Grandpa chooses to fill the page with this poem. The paper is lined, and on all the other pages he observes the boundaries; but here--see the page above--for some reason he fills the page by writing top to bottom. I don't know why.

But there's more to this title-less, author-less poem.

I know now how this languid life
My life's vast ends fulfil;
He knows,--and that life is not lost
That answers best his will.

No service in itself is small,
None great, though earth it fill;
But that is small, that seeks it own
And great that seeks Gods' will.

The word doggerel has an elitist edge to it--the word carries with it some defamation. Doggerel implies silly, cheap, elementary poetic practice. But poems, originally, were little more than memory devices, means people used to remember significant stories or sentiment because rhythm and rhyme helped people hold on to what they chose not to forget. It's obvious to me that that's why Grandpa spends almost two pages copying out this one poem.

But why this poem?

It reminds me of an old American poem from the Puritan era, a poem by Anne Bradstreet, our first poetess--in all likelihood our first poet. Bradstreet's poetry shows up in anthologies because she spun her work from her ordinary life. In it, we not only see craft, but also history.

Contemporary critics laud Ms. Bradstreet for her scrappy nature, her soul's rebel character. They claim she couldn't buy the rigorous Puritan way. I'm not so sure. In a poem she wrote about the death of a grandchild, contemporary critics locate that unrulyness in the fabric of the lines.

No sooner came, but gone, and fall'n asleep
Acquaintance short, yet parting caused us weep;
Three flowers, two scarcely blown, the last i' th'bud,
Cropt by th' Almighty's hand, yet is He good.
With dreadful awe before Him let's be mute.
Such was his will, but why let's not dispute,
With humble hearts and mouths put in the dust,
Let's say he's merciful as well as just. . .

Here's the proof: See the way "Cropt" breaks the iambic rhythm? In her anger at God, she pushes that word up to the front of the line, snarling. Three times, she seems to want to rally the troops, using the same command form: "let us." Internally, she's undoubtedly rallying her own doubt. Either that or simply echoing what she's been told by her preacher, "Well, Anne, let's be sure we see this for what it is--God's own will"--the smarmy and generic editorial we. So argue the critics.

When I read this poem Grandpa thought so much of, I feel a similar kind of tethered anger because every last stanza marches the reader relentlessly back to God's will. Time and time and time again, the poem corrals unrulyness, as if should it not, the human soul would simply take some other path, some profane path. And the truth is simple--life is all about God's will.

Yet, some readers might say this poem deconstructs its own theology, urging a degree of comfort it can't quite accept itself.

Here's the final stanza of the poem Grandpa sends to the child's grieving parents, and note the way he underscores bear in the final line:

Then hold my hand, most gracious Lord,
Guide all my goings still;
And let this be my life's one aim:
To do or bear thy will.

Grandpa underlined that word, the time he underlined anything in the poem. That punctuation feature itself underscores the unavoidably resolute character of the poem--it's all a matter of God's will: sign on or your lost. Bear it.

Look, that bothers me--that driving pressure to conform to something I don't know well or understand. And it likely wasn't easy for that grieving family to accept either; in fact, it may well have been hard for Grandpa too.
Here's what I'm thinking. Perhaps my grandpa's real humanity is on display here, in his use of this particular poem because what he's telling those grieving parents is exactly what he's felt ever since the death of his own six-year-old--that he must--he simply must--herd his own doubt and anger onto the corral of God's own will.

Theologically, Grandpa had to have told himself that this poem's obvious theme was absolutely right; but it's own relentless rhetorical style suggests the immense difficulty of some quick and easy reception. Its theme is probably as true-to-life as its form.

I treasure this poem--and I'm thankful for the note itself--because it offers the truth both theologically and emotionally. If you doubt it, "Read the psalms," as another grieving father once told me.
In this poem I see my grandfather and likely my grandmother too more clearly, 90 years later. And myself.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

a year of morning thanks

An old note of grief (vii)

Feels like a sermon almost. It starts with something of an anecdote meant to convey sincere sympathy ("Mrs. Schaap burst out in tears when I told her what had happened at your place"), then affirms the family in the bond of their mutual loss by bringing up "our own Agnes, of about the same age," then moves into consolation with a fairly long confession of faith ("God is a covenant God. . .who has said that He would be your God. . ."), then attempts the difficult job of answering the doubt both Grandpa and Grandma must have felt themselves when their daughter died.

And now, this precious note moves smoothly into benediction: "May you believe the truth of the text that I had New Year's morning in Rom. 8:31-32."

I should have guessed that an old Calvinist like Grandpa Schaap would try to draw the grieving back to Romans 8, just as he must have been drawn back himself in his own grief: "What shall we then say to these things? If God be for us, who can be against us? He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?"

It's an either/or proposition that would have been difficult for God-fearing people to doubt: if He is on our side, there can be no opposition. And, there's always the consolation that even if most of those around us don't seem understand what it is we've felt at the loss of our baby, God does. He suffered, after all, the very same loss.

That those two verses carried deep currency with my grandfather is suggested by the date of the letter--April 8, 1918. Do the math. He must have preached twenty-some sermons since New Years morning, explored twenty-some passages during weekly preparations. He had to have been much more fresh on many far more recent passages, but the one he included in what feels like the letter's own benediction is one he remembered preaching on four months before on New Years Day--Romans 8: 31-32.

I don't know what Grandpa Schaap would have said if I suggest it must been some kind of favorite; I'm not always taken by the language of having a "favorite bible passage." But it's clear to me, some four months after his study of that passage and just a few years after the loss of his own daughter, that the choice of those verses clearly suggests how important they had to have been--and still were--especially to the region of his soul that still ached. All of that makes sense.

There's a bit more to this benediction: "May the God of Comfort give you through his H. Spirit what you may be in need of in this hours of tribulation," he writes.

His grandson, the English teacher, has spotted a couple of errors in this little note, but I think it's telling that he so unnecessarily puts Comfort in upper case. Having grown up in the same theological world, I'm quite sure I know why: it's because he--and the grieving parents he was addressing--held a particular poetic line at nearly the same level of awe as the Word itself, that line from the first q and a of the Heidelberg Catechism:

What is your only comfort in life and death?

"That I
with body and soul,
both in life and death,
am not my own,
but belong unto my faithful Saviour
Jesus Christ;. . ."

That he would point the family in the direction of the catechism's first and most famous assertion is not at all surprising either.

But, even though the benediction has been sounded, there's still more to the note.

Monday, December 15, 2008

a year of morning thanks

An old letter of grief (vi)

If I've been coached on what happens to parents who suddenly lose a child, I learned what I know from a young father who also lost a son, but lost him in a farm accident. Two stories that young father told me have stuck with me, even though I wrote his story more than a quarter century ago. One involves being on the tractor after the accident, after the funeral--how especially, he said, moving up and down the back 40 begs the mind to travel places far afield. During those times this fiercely religious man told me he used to scream at God for what had happened. And then he said, "But so did King David. Read it yourself in the psalms."

The second lesson he gave me about grief involves answers that come too easily--specifically, answers that people offered him and his wife, lines like, "Jesus just wanted a little jewel for his crown." Answer like that made him angry, he said. "The best way to offer sympathy in a time like that is simply to be there," he told me. Silent presence, he taught me, is always best. Cheap answers are exactly that.

But Grandpa Schaap's silent presence wasn't possible when a boy named Nelson died of scarlet fever, back in 1918. The grieving family were no more his parishoners, so he had to write. And he did, and I have in my hands a copy of that old letter.

And, as I've already said, the preacher can't simply sympathize; in the world in which he lived, people looked to the Dominie for solutions, for remedy. This is how Grandpa's remedy for their grief begins:

You may ask yourselves the question, "Why did the Lord give us the child so short a time, only to leave us in grief"? We answer, "God wants children as well as adults before His large white throne, and if you look at it like that, you would not dare to demand your child back to this sinful earth, and not to giving your child to praise and adore God better there than he would ever be able to do in this world. God sent out his angel to reap the sheaf that was ready, though you did not know it and God plucked him away so suddenly and unexpectedly as a flower that bloomed in the field.

Grandpa's explanation lists three images or associations, one after another, all three of them, some might say, maybe a bit too easy, almost cheap. The first is God's desire to people his court with young and old alike. He wanted the boy, Nelson, Grandpa says, for his own court, an answer that can, at worst, makes God seem almost covetous. The second association is to ripe what--i.e., Nelson was simply ready to be harvested. The third equates the boy with a precious flower blooming.

I was once told that if you can give ten reasons for not doing something you should, it means you don't have one good one. Honestly, I don't want to judge my grandfather's theology, nor may I properly question his propriety--after all, I have not lost a child. He did. Who on earth am I to judge?

But I wonder if the rapid succession of associations here, one after another (God's court, a wheat field, some lovely flower), doesn't suggest his own sketchy estimate of the very answers he offers. He tried, as his grandson might yet today, to throw words at the problem, to fill the emptiness with a tumble of ideas, one after another, hoping either that one of them might fit, or that the barrage itself could bring solace. All of this may be revisionist history, but I'm wondering if his saying so much doesn't suggest that he knows he has very little to say.

But he must say something. So he does. Because there are no good answers, he hands out a whole, bounteous bouquet of cliches.

One line he offers the grieving parents here holds a truth to which he will return however: ". . .and if you look at it like that, you would not dare to demand your child back to this sinful earth. . ."

He will have more to say, much more, on authority.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

a year of morning thanks

An old note of sympathy (v)

"But what should comfort you now, is the comforting fact that God is a covenant God (Verbonds God), who has said that He would be your God and the God of your children."

Now things get delicate. Sitting there at the table, the Reverend Schaap has written a page and a half of empathy wrung from their own shared experience. Both the letter writer and recipient lost children.

A century ago, however, it was assumed that a preacher would do more than sympathize; he was, after all, the dominie, and his words carried authority second only to scripture itself. Dominie Schaap could not simply say, "I feel your pain." The grieving family would have expected the preacher at least to point the way out of their profound grief, and he does, by the way of what Dutch Calvinists used to call "covenant theology."

Honestly, I can't know what that family was going through, just as I can't know how deeply my own grandparents' grief still manifest itself in their souls. For that reason, it's likely a ton easier for me to say this than it would have been for them, but I don't find my Grandpa's words as reassuring as he would have meant them to be, largely because God's promise of care ("He would be your God and the God of your children") has just been painfully broken anyway; if he had been, in fact, "the God of your children," would he have let that little six-year-old succumb to scarlet fever?--would he let that child die?

The remedy for their painful grief is God's promises--that's what my Grandfather is saying, even though those very promises had to have been what they held onto during that child's own last hours. They had to have been pleading with God for their son's life, on the basis of those very promises.

And now we've arrived at the most difficult question believers ever face: if God both loves and rules this world, how is it that we suffer as immensely as we do? God loves us, right?--now explain the Holocaust, Rwanda, the killing fields, the death of my aunt in a car accident. To such profound questions, there are no simple answers.

I don't think Grandpa would have asked for our pity or sympathy, but we've come to the moment in this letter when he knows he must offer resolution, offer a means by which to put this immense pain behind them; and I do feel sorry for Grandpa because I believe there are no good answers.

What did he believe? How did he square the loss of a child--of his own daughter--with the sovereign love of God? I may be reading too much into it, but I think the answer is here, in the letter, for better or for worse.

There's more to come.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

a year of morning thanks

An old note of sympathy (iv)

Who knows why, but somewhere along the line, probably in college, Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach" stuck to my innards. It's a poem full of sadness really, Arnold and some beloved companion looking out over the white cliffs of Dover and thinking about the way in which faith itself seems to be receding from the shore of England's soul. When such great authority loses hold, human beings are left in a kind of empty sadness.

There's a remedy, of course, in that old poem, and that, Arnold says, is human love:

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;. . .

Arnold doesn't so much reject the Christian faith as feel its impotence. "Dover Beach" is not a theological poem, even though it has theological implications; instead, it's a poem which, ostensibly, accurately reflects what Arnold himself was thinking some night during the late 19th century.

Somehow, my students have the opinion that a poem like "Dover Beach" presents a moral lesson, for Christian readers especially--and it does. It clearly offers us the portrait of a thoughtful man trying to determine how to live in a world in which the old testimonies have lost currency. From an orthodox Christian point of view, Arnold is wrong in advising that human love is the only recourse ". . .on a darkling plain/Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,/Where ignorant armies clash by night." To believe that we can somehow garner all we need from human love is, well, romantic.

But the poem offers more too, more than moral lessons we can slap on a t-shirt or leave behind in the dust. There are plenty of true-and-false quizzes in life, but to read a poem like "Dover Beach" as if it were only theology, stifles the poem's own heart beat.

I'm still sort of reeling from what I said to a class last week, something I've never said before. We were reading three stories from Andre Dubus, and I was getting the sense--by way of their formulation of theme statements--that my students were of the impression that these stories were simply exercises used by English prof to determine grades.

"This is about us," I told them. "If there's one thing I want you to understand about what we're reading it's that: it's all about us." So is "Dover Beach." So is Lady Macbeth. So is Dorian Gray and Huck Finn and John Ames. "It's about us," I said again, "about us as human beings."

I don't know that all my preaching got through. I doubt it. They probably figured I'd just had a bad day.

I don't believe for a minute that my classroom preaching carried the imperitive of the sermons my grandfather claimed to create "time and time again," sermons that advised his congregation that "such is life." After all, school is exercise; it's not real life as much as it is preparation for real life.

And I say all of that because what my grandfather tells this grieving couple after explaining the nature of so many of his sermons feels very much like what I felt this week. Here's what he says: "Though you agreed with it then [meaning, when he was preaching that suffering is in the order of things in this life], you will be more convinced of this truth now better than you ever were before."

Such is life, says the fellow sufferer. This is us. This is our lot. What's he thinking is that now--in the deep hurt of deep grief--his sermons have real meaning. That I understand.

And I'm thinking that his use of you here is generic. For a moment at least, he may have lost focus on the grieving couple and marched directly into the rhetoric of the pulpit, addressing many, many more than than those who were living in that quarantined house. I may be wrong, but I think he's even talking to me here.

Truth may well feel relative until it is lived. Sermons may well feel like exercises until they aren't. "Dover Beach" may be little more than bad theology until, sometime, we too sit somewhere abandoned and alone, as if there is no God.

Friday, December 12, 2008

a year of morning thanks

An old note of sympathy (iii)

A colleague--a blood relative--lost a son in an accident years ago. At what people here call "the visitation," I was, as far as I knew, the only true family relative in attendance. I was much younger then; and as we slowly marched up to the family at the casket, I wondered how he might react to my greeting, the only blood kin there.

It didn't seem to matter at all as I remember, because his eyes were on the man behind me, a man who, once we had politely expressed our condolences, hugged my cousin mightily. In a flash, I understood why: the man who followed us in line had also lost a child. Blood kin meant little; shared experience made all the difference.

So when Grandpa says what he does in this note to a grieving family, I'm guessing that both writer and recipient recognize the bond of shared experience. What I'm saying is that my grandfather, the preacher, might have written the same words he did that April day, having not lost a child; but the fact that he had changes the way we read the solace in the words, lending as that experience does incalcuable gravity.

"This certainly is a shadow in your life which will never be entirely taken away on this side of death and the grave," he says. Today, I would love to ask Grandpa Schaap whether he would have written those same words thirty years later, when his many kids gave him dozens of grandkids. I'd like to ask him whether, in his own consciousness, the horrifying profile of his own daughter's death eventually lost some of its jagged edge. I don't know that.

And then a stunning line. "But such is life," he writes. Such here is feels something like a vague pronoun, its exact antecedent only vaguely assumed. Most readers would guess that he's suggesting we suffer agonies throughout our lives, hurts that, like open wounds, never really heal and therefore accompany us right through own final days. "Such is life."

Let me put the two lines together again: "This," he says, speaking of the death of their son, "certainly is a shadow in your life which will never be entirely taken away on this side of death and the grave. Such is life."

I can't help but think that what he says here feels immensely dark, but then I've never lost a child.

He goes on. "I have made mention of it [presumably, that "such is life"] time and time again in my sermons, . . ."

My grandfather baptized me, but I don't remember ever seeing him in a pulpit; he died when I was six years old. Through the years I've heard stories from countless people who knew him, and most everyone told me that he was a kind and loving man, nothing close to the caricature Calvinist hellfire preacher.

But the way he characterizes his own preaching here makes him sound fatalistic, as if life itself is, end to end, is little more than a long shadowy valley. "Time and time again," he says, he's preached that.

And that makes me wonder how long it took him to get back into the pulpit after the death of his daughter. When he did, I wonder if, time and time again, he told his parishoners that "such is life."

And I wonder if that changed--the character of his preaching--once he got to that new church in Lucas, Michigan, once he could hold his head up once more and, suitably at least, hold his grief at bay.

Undoubtedly, what happens in church is different today. A century later, worship is often a bit short on lament, brimming as it is with praise. Maybe our perception of preaching has changed too; maybe our well-heeled affluence demands the fulfillment we need from the joy and hope of the gospel. It seems to me that today a preacher--even a young preacher, as Grandpa was--who tells us, "over and over again" that "such is life" would soon enough wear out a welcome.

But then, I need to remember my psychologist friend, who told me that the rest of us should give a grieving parent a five-year window of forgiveness. Presumably, even preachers.

Such is life. Over and over again.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

a year of morning thanks

An old note of sympathy (ii)

In John Gardner's story "Redemption," a little boy dies in a farming accident. In the awful wake of that death's horror, the boy's father steps out of the house and runs wild for a long time. A Christian psychologist once told me that, following the death of a child, parents should be excused--which is to say, forgiven--of just about anything they do for five years. It takes that long for grief to find its own level in the heart. I don't know.

This 90-year-old sympathy note was written five years after Grandpa and Grandma Schaap had buried their own daughter. If the note had been written six months after Agnes's death, it might have a different tone; but then, if twenty years had passed, Grandpa might have responded differently too. Not in substance--I'm sure the theology by which he interpreted his sadness wouldn't change; what might change is how he accepted that theology.

But it takes the preacher a few sentences before he begins to do what he must. First, more empathy.

"Our thoughts were with you continually," he writes, after referring to their own loss. And then, this rather strange sentence: "What a gloomy Sunday you must have had!"

His own story could not have left him unfeeling, but, to me at least, that last line seems almost callous. To call the day of the boy's burial gloomy risks understating the family's horrifying sadness.

But there's a footnote here that helps me somehow. The woman who sent the note along to me explained that, because of the boy's fever and the risk of his fever spreading, the family had been under quarantine.

Somewhere in the fog of my earliest childhood memories, I see a sign that says "Quarantine," but that's all, just an image way back somewhere. If families and their homes are quarantined today, I don't know of it. Ninety years ago, both word and practice were routine, immigrant ships and their passengers regularly subject to inspection and quarantine. From 1780 to 1820, not all that far from where I live, the population of Arikara Indians, once 30,000 strong, fell to almost nothing at the hands of smallpox. Containment was a necessity, and quarantine meant containment.

Imagine it this way: there is a sign on the door of house, a legal notice that makes you shivver with cold, maybe like this one. No one enters, no one leaves--save the dead.

"What a gloomy Sunday" in all likelihood refers to the fact that this loving, quarantined family, despite their grief, could not attend their little boy's funeral. Ninety years after the fact that story is still carried along by descendent family members. The family couldn't attend the funeral.

I can not imagine being Mom or Dad, locked up in the very house of death on that day, the house with the sign, while somewhere down the road the body of my child is being lowered into a small grave. Neither could Grandpa and Grandma Schaap imagine that particular pain, I'm sure, its immense isolation. What an incredibly gloomy day that must have been.

But there's more.