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, April 30, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks


When I listened to the Reverend Jeremiah Wright hold forth before the National Press Club on Monday, I thought that much of what he said made sense. I thought that his defense of what he called the tradition of Black Prophetic Preaching was helpful in understanding the nature of his rhetoric, especially that which got played endlessly when video clips first showed up on You-Tube. Furthermore, I thought the defense of his church itself was strong; he outlined numerous programs--for the elderly, the homeless, the poor--that Trinity United Church of Christ, Chicago has not only started but run successfully, often for decades. In short, Wright garnered no small part of my sympathy.

And then he got sarcastic.

My wife tells me that in my own verbal rants, I lose listeners when I start rubbing my words on flint of my anger, when comedy is really mockery. She tells me people hear nothing when there's a sharp stick in their eyes. She's right, of course, but sarcasm comes rather too easily to me--as it does, obviously, to the not-so-good Reverend.

Jeremiah Wright wasn't wrong, of course: white marching bands often do their thing in a wholly different way than the band at Grambling or Florida A & M. Lots of black folks are lots better dancers than lots of white folks. Lots of black men run lots faster than lots of white men, jump lots higher. But he's an inch away from having to concede to a host of stereotypes that work the other way, of having to concede, for instance, that most white people would put money on a white chess team in a tournament of Blacks. His thick sarcasm brought him dangerously close to outright racism. The best we can say of that whole performance is that he was good enough to provide the media with a whole new catalog of Jeremiah Wright soundbites.

It would be interesting to know how successful he would have been if he'd simply have cut the sarcasm, if he'd proceeded with grace and dignity and reason to work through the issues that have arisen since his preaching became a political issue. My guess is he could have done that. My guess is that something evil got in the good Reverend's craw and turned good stuff into invective.

I'm not particularly thankful for him. I like Obama, and it seemed at times as if this pastor of his carried some kind of vindetta to end his own parishoner's campaign and career. The fact is, he could have done us all a world a good--he could have been a pastor. Instead, he fell to sarcasm and his sermon became just another hellfire and brimstone rant. He gained no converts, and, in my estimation, lost his own soul. By reputation, he's a man who knows about forgiveness. Now he'd better ask for it.

I saw, in the flesh, those warnings my wife has given me over the years. I saw, in the flesh, the harm sarcasm can create, even to the long tradition of Black Prophetic Preaching. The man's sound bites are firebrand machetes.

This morning I'm thankful to have seen what not to be.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

from A Year of Morning Thanks

That it's not just a job

End-of-term means I spend most of my days reading student papers—yesterday, short stories. Read one last night, written by a very good student, a second draft that still had major problems. Sent it back to him last night, full of comments, and this morning I found his long reply in an e-mail, a note that carries more than a little defensiveness. That's understandable. Good stories don't just come from the head; they come from the soul, and the soul doesn't take criticisms easily.

I happen to be among those who believe that the sheer weight of assignments for college students these days is excessive. I'm not about to call the work we expect of them excessive--we could probably expect more than we do. In fact, I often fear I'm too easy, especially when it comes to grades.

It's been 25 years since the landmark study, A Nation at Risk; yet, it seems, little has changed. Grading scales are way up there in the soprano range. Today, students--and, likely, more importantly, their parents, demand a level of day-to-day accountability that would have been unheard of 40 years ago, when I was a college student. Hence, more assignments, even though I'm sure the risk of failure was much higher back then, the grading sale vastly lower. I'm not sure more assignments make for better education.

Imaginative writing--like a short story--demands something of them that other classroom responses--research papers, for instance--do not. Imaginative writing comes, mostly, from the inner resources of heart and soul. Many other courses--and I'm not criticizing--are head games. The fact is, one can't create a scene or character from a reference book; "felt life" emerges only from the heart of one's experience, even when that experience is imagined. What I'm saying is that I think I understand why I got blitzed this morning from a student's reply to my criticisms--the source of the story itself is the student's heart, not just his brain. His defensiveness is understandable.

Students believe, I think--many of them anyway--that writing short stories will be easy and fun, even if they’ve never tried it before. When they discover that it’s not just fun but hard work, that it taxes parts of their character that other homework doesn't touch, they get frustrated easily; and that's not fun. Really, writing stories should be fun--what we're creating, after all, is recreation. Only English teachers and book reviewers read professionally. The rest of us do it on free time.

What's more, what confuses them is that there's all-too-often an inverse relationship between time spent on a story and the success of what results. Some kids hammer out a story in hours, and the story works. Others spend endless hours trying to craft something that has meaning and unity and sense, only to end up with a nest of hooks. I tell them over and over that success in imaginative writing isn't necessarily a finished product. I want them to learn how to do it, what it demands, what it takes to write fiction. Another thing they don't understand is that results are always mixed. I've had some successes, but tons of failures is something they don't understand. In school, most of them are accustomed to winning.

Anyway, today I'll read more of their stories, and I know I'll find some that thrill me, often from students who I may not have expected to turn out things that good. Always happens.

And when I do, I'll suffer mood swings that might well threaten to propel me into schizophrenia. Comes with the territory.

But there are no winners or losers in this class--not really, not unless there are quitters, and I've got none of those this semester. This morning, I’m at the edge of the Slough of Despond when I read over a note that's full of barely concealed injury. This afternoon, I'm sure, I'll be amazed at the talent of my students. It's an old merry-go-round I get on every year, end of term.

I’m thankful to have a job that' s more than a job. I'm thankful for profession and a calling that matters deeply to my soul.

Monday, April 28, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks

End-of-Term Blues

According to Time magazine, George W shouldn't mind his tanked ratings; after all, he's in good company. His father's ratings--end of term--were only a percentage point higher than his: 28% to 29%. Carter's had fallen to the very same level, and Harry S. Truman, a man now frequently acknowledged as an especially effective President, was a heady six points lower--a record 22%. Maybe there's reason for the wide, Texas smile.

"End-of-Term Blues" the article said, a toss-in filler on the "Dashboard" in this week's Time. What drew me to the article was the title because I feel it--"end-of-term blues."

I'm not sure why I've got it, but at least I'm old enough to recognize the syndrome: I feel like some kind of eighth-rate teacher right now, facing my last week of the semester. I remember hearing about some world-class prof somewhere, someone so good that on the last day of class, his students gave him a standing ovation. I'll be lucky to crawl out of the classroom without being dismembered.

Look, if the truth be known, many of my students don't care a whole lot anymore, and neither do I. If the truth be known, I just want it over. I'm tired of selling goods to customers who look at me as if I'm in their way. I'm tired of all kinds of things, and, Lord knows, those students are more than tired of me.

And all of that would be depressing--really depressing--if I didn't realize that it's a syndrome. Just about every semester it happens: by the end of the term, I'm always singing the blues; by the end of the term I'd always just as soon have it all over. Maybe, by end of term, we all simply know each other far too well, just as we all know (or think we do) George W too well right now. Maybe there's no better reason for terms than end-of-term.

At least I'm old enough to remember the syndrome. It's not new. I've felt it before in early May, recognized it in my students too. It happens. A couple of days ago I announced my malady to my colleagues, who, I think, were thankful that I came out of the closet. "Sometimes at the end of the term," I said, "I feel like a real piece-of-crap teacher."

That admission brightened their day. Strangely enough, they all thought it encouraging. They claimed they had it too.

And now Presidents. Makes a guy feel good, in fact. Maybe I'll even live through it.

Just one more week.

This morning, I'm not at all thankful for "End-of-Term Blues," but I am thankful to know, slouching along toward graduation, that at least I'm not alone.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks

That Life Goes On

I remember his interview, more than twenty years ago, a high school music teacher with aspirations for bigger things. Back then, he reminded me of myself at a time when I came to understand that teaching in college would offer opportunities that high school would not, would never.

In the years that have passed, he's done wonderful things here--band, orchestra, various ensembles, even nurtured a flourishing community orchestra, something difficult enough to maintain these days in cities and almost unheard of in a rural area like our own. Nurtured?--he created that organization by selfless infusions of inspiration and perspiration.

We Calvinists have only so much time for recreation, so conflicts abound in all our neighborhood venues. Here, at the college where I teach, and in the world where I live, sports reign. In sheer bulk, half the pages of all the weekly local papers feature high school games at incredible length. Soccer moms are everywhere. We're religious folks out here, but our most ornate temples are built to honor the many gods of athletics.

Here, the new football program gets all the ink, the staff, and the scholarships. A visitor told me yesterday that on a tour of the college she herself attended 20 years ago, her group was brought into the weight room to ooh and aah; at the art department, the tour guide merely pointed. Such is life in rural America.

Last night, the maestro we interviewed almost a quarter-century ago staged his swan song, his last concert. He's my age, and he's leaving. He's tired of fighting, and he's going to a place where he's closer to his children--understandable, but sad. We've lost a leader, and it's hard not be angry, even though I'm happy for him, that he got himself a place.

The concert was wonderful, the offerings stirring. I'm no judge of musical excellence, but it seemed to me a triumph. During a medley from West Side Story, my grandson decided to be either a dancer or a director himself, and he had to be restrained. It was a joy. But I was distracted, thinking of other things, of culture wars, of loss; but then, I know the story.

His successor has been chosen. Somewhere on this campus, the new man interviewed and may well have said the same things the old maestro did nearly a quarter-century ago. People say he's a good fit. Next year, wounds will heal, as they do.

Still, it's not easy to forgive because we lost a champion.

Life goes on, as it will, and that it does is the bitter-sweet blessing for which I'm giving decidedly grudging thanks this morning.

Friday, April 25, 2008

from A Year of Morning Thanks


I walked through a student lounge in Calvin Theological Seminary a couple days ago, where a massive portrait of my great-grandfather hangs, a man who was a professor there in the mid-to-late 19th century, a man who was gone long, long before I was born.

Professor Gerrit Hemkes doesn’t look like at all like me, and he’s got far better hair. His nose is thin and sharp, but there’s a round face that reminds me, in a certain way, of what I see in a mirror.

I’ve got a beard; he must have his loved his lamb chops. Could he wiggle his ears? I can’t. Touch his tongue to his nose. I can’t do that either. Did he laugh hard? Have to watch his weight? Was he by nature a conservative?

The truth is, I don't really know much about him. I know that as a teacher he didn't light up the classroom, but I've also learned he frequently edited the annual denominational book of facts and figures; a little volume called, shockingly, Jahrboek (it's Dutch--I'm not sure of the spelling), to which he often amended little stories and poems he created himself, I guess.

Years ago already, I discovered his proclivity for writing when an uncle gave me some ancient books. It was something of a shock to see those scruffy old things full of Dutch Calvinist ponderances my own great-grandfather had spun out of his imagination. Nobody else in my immediate family has ever had any interest in writing--nor reading, really. I don't know that my parents have ever quite determined where I come from.

Where any of us come from is a conundrum, a beguiling paradox. Simply enough, we come from our parents, but that doesn't mean we look like them, act like them, or share their tastes, their moods, or their dispositions. No bundle is so beloved as a newborn, nothing so humbling as watching them grow.

I don't really know what I owe Great-Grandpa Hemkes, but it's probably some odd package of proclivities and presentments, including a few personality traits I'm likely not proud of.

Whatever. This morning, I'm thankful I know him--know of him anyway; thankful that his picture is up there in Seminary; thankful that the old theologian likely taught me, in a number of ways, that I'm not alone.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks

"The New Emergence"

A veteran kindergarten teacher told me, last fall, that she doesn't look forward to teachers conventions because, after 35 years, she's already heard it all. After a grand weekend literary festival--and it was grand--I come away with just a bit of that sentiment. Some of the faces were new this year, but I've heard the advice--"how I wrote my novel"--just a few times too often.

Maybe that's why the most interesting sectional I attended--or at least the one that sticks with me--was a conversation with Phyllis Tickle, long-time Religion Editor at Publisher's Weekly, who held forth about "the new emergence," a movement in American Christianity that, she says, was created by and is indicative of a kind of ecclesiastical rummage sale God almighty puts on just about every 500 years. Go back 500 and there's the Reformation; go back 500 more and you'll find the Great Schism; the fall of Rome was 500 years before that. It's a fascinating theory, and just as questionable as anybody else's favorite. But it's interesting.

This "new emergence" is presently wildly seeking meaning, and thus drawing what it considers best of all the separate Christian traditions--political momentum from the evangelicals, religious fire from the Pentecostals, social concern from the mainlines, and the sacramental from the Anglicans and Roman Catholics.

In other words, "the new emergence" picks and chooses in a sweetly post-modern fashion. What that means, she says, is that in the next 50 years or so we'll see all kinds of dead ends and cull de sacs, as such emergence careens about like a drunken sailor. Nobody knows where this is going, she says. All we do know is that we're now in a new world, a media-driven, highly technological age; and people are shopping for meaning, inspiration, and expression that are contemporary with this new pulse.

I think she's spot on, even though I'm hardly a sounding trumpet of change. I dodn't care much for praise bands and praise teams. I'm not interested in pushing people out of envelopes or comfort zones. If I fantasize in church these days, I go back to my childhood church, oddly enough--but I also know, for sure, that's fantasy. Our church doesn't even flash images on the wall, and I'm fine with that. In many ways, I'm a classic conservative--if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

I'm not sure things are broken either, but that doesn't mean that I don't recognize that there's some ossification in the way we "do" church, that doesn't mean I can't recognize that things haven't gotten old, stuck in a rut.

If I long for anything, it's for some kind of return to our ecclesiastical roots--the sacramental tradition. I'm quite sure that, at least in my tradition, we don't do enough in worship to make people feel they're in the very presence of God. I think the world of our pastor, can't imagine a better one; but sometimes the institution stands in the way of worship.

I don't know if Phyllis Tickle is on the money with her prognostication, but I found her rambling explorations very interesting. There can be no doubt that something is happening in North American Christianity, something really huge, something upsetting to traditions like mine, something that will change the way we do things and likely imperil almost everything that has institutional presence right now.

And it's always interesting to hear really thoughtful people take a guess at the contours of what's only sketchily before us. That's why Phyllis Tickle stays with me more powerfully than, say, whatever Michael Chabon said. In her presentation, she talked about a bigger world.

This morning, a couple days later, I'm thankful for those ideas. They stayed.

Here's the url of a CT interview with Phyllis Tickle:

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks

One Blessed Mess

Not long ago, my daughter wandered down here in the basement, and asked me a question that must have bloomed, just then, on her heart. "Would you ever think of asking someone to organize all of this?" she asked, looking dolefully on the mess.

It was a wonderful question, but, to my mind, silly. Obviously, she was wondering whether that esteemed privilege might actually belong, someday, to her. My immediate response--although I don't think I said it--was to wonder how on earth she could do it. I mean, I can't. How would she--someone who rarely walks through the basement door--know what to do with all the flotsam? I don't know how she'd do it. No matter. It seemed to me she was job-hunting.

Why? is an even more unanswerable question. It's impossible for me to imagine why anyone would want to make sense of my mess, to "organize" it somehow (on what principles? by what methodologies?), and thereby rein in the terror. Why would anyone want to do that? I don't even want the job.

I'm thinking this morning that I really should take her up on her compassionate offer. After three weeks of constant busyness, endless travel, far too many speeches and etc., I really haven't lived in the basement. I have a desk--I think--but it's buried under the detritus that somehow accumulates despite my absences. Stuff seemingly lumbers down the basement steps and ends up here in the landfill.

The desk is buried beneath a ton of debris. The floor is scattered with shoes and socks. The shelves are full of junk. A fine coat of dust makes the place look like a third-rate museum. There is, let me tell you, stuff in the basement.

No matter. What I know this morning is that after nearly as harried a month as I've had in recent years, my life can settle into the mess. What I know is that speaking engagements and trips elsewhere are finally history, and I'll be here, in residence, for several weeks.

Nothing could be finer.

This morning's thanks is a piece of cake amid the mess. I'm thankful to have been rescued from madness, thankful--finally--to stay put, thankful to be home, despite the blessed mess.
I should call my daughter.

Monday, April 21, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks

The Immigrants

Our economy’s overall balance is immensely fragile. Honestly, disaster awaits us with only a bit of a shove either way.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of illegal immigrants live here, in or near this small community. I'm not sure anyone really knows just exactly how many, and I'm quite sure that most of them are illegal. A couple of years ago at this time of year, national Hispanic leaders threatened a huge strike. If that would happen, even here in a little prairie cow town of 7000 people, many businesses--whole industries--would shut down. It’s that simple. Illegals do tons of work, much of it ugly, everyday, much of it no white people will do. Were they suddenly to walk, the town would be struck dumb, stupified, shut down cold.

And yet, there are those who scream.

Illegal immigration is an incredibly complex problem, but whatever strength or balance our economy still has is, at least in part, occasioned by our own law-breaking, hiring them on the way we do, as well as theirs. Some 140 years ago all of my ancestral Dutch Calvinists came here with nothing at all--and no language either.

It's not as easy a problem as a sky-high fence, and doing something about it will require more political will and clout than almost any candidate can muster.

Regardless, I am thankful, really, for the immense contribution of those many, new Hispanic neighbors of ours.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks

Traveling Mercies

But another facet of growing older is simple care with which I walk these days. I'm not so much afraid of falling as I am simply conscious of less youthful balance and strength. Someday soon--if not already--I'll resemble ye olde kneeless guys, bent over and staggering.

Maybe it's simple age that prompts my thanks this morning, but yesterday I spent 12 hours in a van with a bunch of students eons younger than I am. In a rush, we made it to our destination right on time, me at the wheel for a goodly portion. Meandering between the monster 18-wheelers that dominate our interstate system, I sometimes forgot I was getting old--and sometimes didn't.

This morning, after arriving far later into the night that I'm used to being up, I'm more conscious of the blessing of a safe arrival. This morning's thanks are, therefore, not particularly difficult. We zipped through 700 miles in good time, the van full of college student jabber, which itself makes me both tired--and feeling younger.

When I stepped out of the van, my knees were still gimpy; but I'm glad to be here in Michigan, even more happy that our sojourn was blessed by what old preachers always used to call "traveling mercies." We got 'em.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008


I live in a region that has been draining population for more than a century. From a time just after the Civil War up to the turn of the century, white folks deposed the Native people and set up Old McDonald farms hither and yon throughout the land. That story is clearly told by abandoned barns and houses and groves of, smudges on what remains, for the most part, an otherwise treeless landscape of row crops where once stood the old tall-grass prairie.

I don't think farming has ever been particularly easy, and some European immigrants, including my great-grandfather, a North Sea sailor from Holland, were dead wrong in thinking it was. He tried for a decade or two but eventually threw in the towel. My father-in-law farmed his whole life--and loved it and made a decent living at it, and today owns enough acres of rich Iowa soil to be a rich man, if he sells.

It wouldn't be foolish, I suppose, for him to do that right now; land prices have never been higher. Right now, his kids--that's us--would reap a grand harvest if he were to sell because we're in one of those parenthetical moments when farming--grain farming especially--is bringing in the sheaves. Most often, or so it seems to this non-farmer, farming itself is nip and tuck, one huge gamble. Casinos came to Iowa awhile ago already, but gambling has been a part of life out here since the first plow cut a swath through virgin prairie.

The cause of the windfall nowadays is ethanol, combustible fuel boiled up from corn. In the last decade, prophets here claimed that unless we used a hefty amount of our corn to generate liquid gold--fuel for our cars--we'd miss out royally on the sumptuous feasts that awaited those blessed with rich, productive land.

So farmers around here have been winning as of late, corn profits soaring to heights even those prophets wouldn't have dared to guess a decade ago. Beans are up too. The old Iowa tall-grass prairie eco-system, long gone, has for years been nothing but corn and soy beans; so today our coffers are running over, as are our grain bins, and land auctions bring in venture capitalists from this country beyond, people who really could care less about who lives here or why or how.

And now, this morning, one reads about resentment growing against the ethanol industry. Some of that resentment is misguided. Long ago already, field corn was fodder for animal fat. Nobody ate what grows here, except in their hamburgers. Sioux County corn hasn't been pulled from the hands of hungry children in order to poured down into empty gas tanks. That's silly.

But the price of food itself has risen dramatically; and it's easy to point at an industry (farming is an industry) which has, in the last ten years, directed its energy and product into powering engines and not feeding people. Even though the twinning of higher food prices with the greater production of ethanol isn't exactly fair, when people go hungry Siouxland producers, like those elsewhere, can start to look like bandits and shysters as they truck new-found profits off to the bank. It's a problem. All that glistens is not gold.

Not until I lived in Arizona did I know people who seemingly worshipped "private enteprise." Maybe, before those years, I wasn't old enough to think about such things, but in Barry Goldwater country, almost forty years ago, "free enteprise" was a mantra. But it's here too, in Siouxland. One of the virtues of our culture is that, truly, we can be who we will make ourselves. It's true.

But what if what we make of ourselves isn't responsible to others, to the land itself, to creation? What if, in all of our getting, we consider only ourselves? I don't know that the virtues of capitalism always outshine the virtues of social welfare. Look, by all accounts the U.S. of A. avoided economic catastrophe two weeks ago when the government bailed out a huge financial enterprise named Bear Stearns. Government to the rescue. Social welfare for the rich. So much for the free market.

I'm no socialist, but an unbridled free market has created a medical system that is just plain nuts in this country. We may well lead the world in medical research, but we also strangle people and their lives in the process. What everyone understands is that it can't go on the way it is. It just seems to me that in medical care as well as agriculture today, we need responsible social policy that looks out for the good of everyone. Even out here, now and always, we need somehow to balance freedom with justice.

I don't doubt for a moment that right now at the huge ethanol plant west of town some of the honchos are scratching their heads and trying to pencil out a plan for the future. According the NY Times this morning, "Biofuels are fast becoming a new flash point in global diplomacy, putting pressure on Western politicians to reconsider their policies, even as they argue that biofuels are only one factor in the seemingly inexorable rise in food prices." Things are not looking good just west of town.

Even though greed, or avarice, is in fourth place on the list of the seven deadlies as I learned them, it's there. And what we're talking about anyway, really, is pride--me first.

I don't know that any of us face a harder task in the whole world than putting others' welfare before our own. Selflessness is true virtue, practiced by saints. What I do know is that it doesn't come naturally. It is, of course, the central Christian virtue, whether or not Christians practice it. When Native people lost this land, many of them taught their children that they couldn't trust the white man's God because the actions of those who claimed they loved that God seemed to them to be, well, damnable.

I wish I were smart enough for answers to all these problems. I'm not. But I know, from experience, that, strangely enough, sometimes the lies we tell to others, we actually believe ourselves. And I know this too, from the wisdom of the ancients, that pride almost always goeth before the fall.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

from A Year of Morning Thanks

For Madness

"I'm 71-years-old and I've never seen spring come this late," or so said a man in a news article I read this morning. He's talking about Iowa. "When it starts getting into mid-March and April, then things should change fast, but not this year," he said. Blasted cold sunk its teeth into us like a frosty pit bull.

A friend of mine who grows champion irises said he was, at least two weeks behind. "At least," he told me.

Last weekend, we had three days of horribly annoying snow squalls that didn't leave a whole lot behind but made life miserable with low temps and insane winds. But today, the story is, we're finally going to get the glorious seventies, the very first day of real warmth, in many ways the first day of spring. There's cause for rejoicing--if it wasn't almost summer. Next week, it'll probably snow again. Stranger things can happen out here.

I'm wondering if South Sea Islanders, in their glorious consistent balmyness, experience less emotional amplitude. Do their moods spike and flatten in a heartbeat? I wonder if, given the gorgeous climate, they are more capable than I am of living at even keel, just steady as she goes.

Maybe that's why so many people move south. I wish I could live with less stress. I wish my problems were simply created by the fluctuating weather because then I could just begin to invest in June, which isn’t all that far away.

The truth is, a tardy spring and April snow aren't my problems. My burden is being pulled hither and yon by things I have to do, good things, too, important things, for which I’m thankful—and busy, and anxious, and, I suppose, moody, a roller coaster.

Really, I wouldn't doubt that a lot of really great blessings begin their lives as burdens. I should be thankful for the madness which is my life—yeah, I should.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Black Sunday

from A Year of Morning Thanks

Black Sunday

Today is the anniversary of Black Sunday, the day in 1935 when a windstorm picked up a part of the Great Plains and blew it elsewhere, as far east as New York. Tons of drought-stricken topsoil that had been plowed up, often for the first time, by thousands of mechanical tractors on the southern Plains, were carried elsewhere by mighty winds, the advent of the Dust Bowl. Then, as always, people were looking to get rich. No one thought much about the land.

Once the cloud arrived, people saw it wasn’t hail or rain, but dust so thick some of them got lost just a few yards from their homes. Some died, months later, when it filled up their lungs. Timothy Egan's The Worst Hard Time tells the story as well as any book I've ever read.

Last year a woman from South Dakota told me she was sitting in church when it came that day. Soon, all she could make out at the front was the shine of the pastor’s white shirt.

I’m not thankful for Black Sunday or the Dust Bowl, but I’m very thankful to know that history is capable of teaching us very specific lessons, out here on the Plains as elsewhere, moral lessons we neglect, as we do so easily, at our peril.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Sunday Morning Meditation


“Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven. . .”

There was once a little girl with bad dreams. She grabbed her teddy bear and walked down the hall to her parents’ bedroom. They told her to pray to God.
More bad dreams. Another walk down the hall. They tell her again, “Just pray to God.” You’ve heard this story.

The bad dreams don’t stop. She returns. “Daddy,” she says, “I need someone with skin.”

Don’t we all.

I treasure two unforgettable novels about forgiveness.

The first is Oscar Hijuelos’s Mr. Ives Christmas, the story of a man whose precious son was murdered on the steps of a New York City cathedral for a ten dollar bill. Deep shadows stretch over Mr. Ives’s life after the senseless slaying, haunted as he is by God’s seeming indifference and his own roiling hate. Yet, astonishingly, by the end of the novel, Mr. Ives forgives the murderer.

And there’s Frederick Manfred’s Lord Grizzly, a book I read years ago, an old prairie saga. Hugh Glass, a fur-trapper, is mortally wounded following a skirmish with Sioux warriors and left for dead. But he doesn’t die. He stays alive, his fevered resolution to live nourished by his desire for revenge. He literally crawls back to health and eventually locates those who deserted him. But when he does, he doesn’t pull a knife or gun. Miraculously, he forgives.

Neither novel ever won a Pulitzer. You’d have to hunt for both of them—Lord Grizzly is long out-of-print. They aren’t classics; they aren’t read in classrooms, not even mine. But those two characters, characters with skin, come to mind with the colossal trumpet fanfare of first line of Psalm 32: “Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven.”

The focus of the verse is on having been forgiven, my soul as recipient of God’s forgiveness. Hugh Glass and Mr. Ives stay with me, not because they were recipients of forgiveness but because, amazingly, they forgave the underserving others.

You might say I’m that little girl. I need somebody with skin. God is, after all, God; his blinding divinity makes such incredible behavior—forgiveness—somehow less astounding. I can believe it of him, but I’m stunned by Mr. Ives.

I am forgiven. I live in the grace of his blood shed for my sins. I know that. Honestly, I do. I’ve never really doubted his love for me or the reality of my destiny in his loving and forgiving hands.

But this line about forgiveness—this absolutely central line of the Christian faith—is somehow made more astonishing when the very idea is given flesh, when a war-torn mountain man sheds his hate like last year’s hides.

I need something with skin.

Don’t we all. Maybe that’s why God almighty, the great forgiver, sent his son to us to pull on a suit of human flesh. That’s how we get it. That’s how we learn. We need something with skin.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks

The Gift of Love

Fundamentally, we are not angels but creatures of time and space. We inhabit our inch of territory, and always the clock is ticking. Last year I made a t-shirt with a famous Thoreau quote over the front--"Time is but a stream I go a fishing in." But the truth is, we lump Thoreau in with writers we call "the Romantics" because they were--romantic and not always real. All of us live in parenthesis, and the older I become, the more I can feel those curvy bookend restrainers.

Last night, our time and place was a sabbat at a synagogue in a city not far from here, a religious celebration hosted by the Jewish community, an unlikely place, perhaps, for a contingent of sworn Calvinists. We were there because Tolerance Week had ended--a few days of memory, of sadness and celebration and reflection about the Holocaust; we were there for a summation, a few last words on the week.

A couple months previous, the leaders had asked me if I could get a pastor from the community to say a few words to this community of Jews. I knew our pastor had lived among close Jewish friends in a previous church in Toronto, and I knew--even though I didn't know why--he deeply admired the religious tradition of his Jewish friends and the Jewish faith itself. "It's what we come from," he might have said, if I'd asked. So I called him, asking him if he'd like to participate. I wasn't surprised when he assented.

I'm not sure at all of what the Jewish community thought they'd get from a small-town pastor from a rural community up the road, but I'm guessing that they held--for whatever reasons--very low expectations; they may have even feared being evangelized. Of course, the recent history of Jewish/Christian relations holds images we all know from Nazi treachery.

We may well be first and foremost creatures of time and place, but there are moments, thankfully, when what we do and what we say breaks through those limitations and reaches something greater and higher; and I witnessed one of those moments last night. Quietly and graciously, our pastor walked our Jewish hosts through the history of his own life with Jewish people, starting with memories of his parents reading through the whole Bible, and ending the meditation--for certainly that's what it was--with honest and loving reference to his daughter-in-law, who is not Christian, but Jewish.

Joy shown on the faces of his audience as he spoke. Eloquence is nearly too cheap a word because it implies a rhetoric, a strategy. The Jewish people may well have been surprised that he knew as much as he did about the very heart of their tradition, but that wasn't the reason they were moved. They were moved because his simple words offered them something few of us ever get enough of--verifiable, heartfelt dignity.

The best way I can describe what happened in the synagogue last night is to say it was transcendent. That speech in time and place ranked with the finest speeches I've ever heard, not because of its splendid rhetoric but because of what it offered, simply and openly: love. What he gave them was the greatest of these, nothing less than love itself.

Last night, Tolerance Week ended in joy and life and love, exactly--precisely--the very best way it could have.

Maybe I'm wrong about time and place. Maybe sometime--with an ample measure of God's own grace--we can be almost angelic.

My wife said, when we returned, that she couldn't think of a place in the world she could have been where the blessings were as bounteous. This morning, my thanks is simply to have been part of an eternal moment.

Friday, April 11, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks

That I can be dead wrong

On this day--April 11, 1945--Allied forces found the concentration camp at Buchenwald, near Weimar, Germany, where, during World War II, 56,000 prisoners were "eliminated," the flatest of all synonyms for Nazi treachery. Up until this day, rumors of death camps had circulated, but none of the Allied forces knew for sure that such places existed. Today, 53 years ago today, there no longer was a question.

It so happens that this whole week I've been deeply engaged in Holocaust stories, by choice really, but not by preference. Long ago, I put together the biography of a war Resister, Diet Eman, and that biography, Things We Couldn't Say, became the heart and soul of a documentary film, The Reckoning, whose initial script I also wrote. That film was the feature event at Sioux City, Iowa's annual Tolerance Week.

I had a choice to attend and participate, and I did; but after teaching a course in Holocaust literature in 1995, I hit some kind of wall with respect to Holocaust studies. My mind and soul seem incapable of admitting more, as whatever human capacity I have for reviewing the immense horror of the period has been reached. I sat through the movie again two nights ago, but I had no wish to see it again.

When American troops entered Buchenwald, Edward R. Murrow was with them. He didn't break the story. Honestly, he couldn't. His heart and mind and soul were so rent by the experience that he couldn't write.

That's been a problem for all the years that have passed since "The Final Solution" went into effect in Hitler's Germany. Writing about the Holocaust--what I'm doing right now--is fundamentally impossible because, really, what language can I borrow? There are no words for the inhumanity Jews--and many others--suffered in those hellish dens.

Yesterday, in a lecture, I tried to show the thoughtful and systematic way in which the Nazis went about "dejudification" in the occupied Netherlands. Early on, before the Dutch Jews were almost totally deported to Auschwitz, when members of the Jewish community would beg Nazi officials for some news of their departed loved ones, the Nazis would tell them that, should anything happen to their fathers and mothers, their parents and children, those left behind would certainly receive some kind of notice.

That, of course, was a bald-faced lie. Those deported Jewish folks--100,000 of them from the Netherlands--never returned. How could ordinary people--the German people--cooperate in such horror? I don't know.

I've long ago lost my ability to peruse all those famous Holocaust pictures--you've seen them; everyone has: emaciated bodies stacked like cord wood, cadaverous human beings in ragged, striped uniforms, children jammed in box cars. It's hard for me to look anymore.

But when I think about how systematically the German people went about their demonic task--how thoughtfully, really, how perfectly logically they created an industry with no other purpose than murder--then, once more, this old-line Calvinist is struck with an almost crippling realization of how dark our own purposes can become--all of us.

There are so many lessons of the Holocaust that the story simply demands retelling, despite my weariness. We all need reminding, even those who have long ago had their fill. But here's one moral truth that I can't hear enough of: I am capable of treachery. That humbling moral realization is a good reason for the relative discomfort I've felt this week, returning, once again, to what happened back then.

I can be dead wrong.
This morning, once again, I'm thankful for having been reminded.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Morning Thanks--The Secret Place*

It came in the mail not long ago, direct from an Amazon-linked, used bookstore somewhere, a forty-year-old paperback titled A Secret Place, the novel which single-handedly changed the course of my life.

That may be overstatement, but not by much.

Years ago, I picked that novel up in a bookstore, almost on a whim, when I’d just started college. I’d heard of the writer, a man named Frederick Manfred, a tall novelist born and reared in the area, this area actually, a writer who'd become, I'd heard, deeply hated by the real locals, a Dutch Calvinist writer who wasn't highly regarded by Dutch Calvinists. Imagine that. I knew I had to read him.

For reasons I only partially understand, when I read it I loved it, studied it closely, wrote a paper about it for my Freshman English class, and then determined—on the basis of my reading and study of A Secret Place—that someday I wanted to write books myself.

The Secret Place--also published as The Man Who Looked Like the Prince of Wales--is a real Siouxland book, featuring real Siouxland characters, Dutch names, Dutch Reformed conflicts, and, for the time at least (late 60's), some considerable and fleshy steaminess, all of which I found mesmerizing. In it, I found my people--I guess I'd have to say it that way, now, in retrospect. In it, strangely enough, I found me.

It cost me $2—I mean, last week when I ordered it. Cost me $.75 forty years ago.

I read it again recently. Honestly, the novel simply wasn’t all that good, a fact which made me chuckle a bit at my own 19-year-old, impressionable self.

Here's what I think: how lucky I am—and thankful too—that God almighty doesn’t let me make all the significant decisions of my life.

It's on the shelf now, with the rest of Fred Manfred's books, a man who became, later on, my friend.

Only cost me two bucks. Someone else's trash, I suppose. Not mine. Not at all.
*First published April 9, 2008.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

from A Year of Morning Thanks

Just Fine

I've just finished writing a couple of major speeches/presentations, and I think--I hope--they're going to work out just fine. Two of them in the next few weeks. Knock-'em-dead-wonderful?--of that I'm not sure. But good?--sure. They'll be more than competent. I mean, I’m still nervous about them. Don't get me wrong. But I’ve just got the comforting assurance that they're going to work out just fine.

And I’m thankful for that assurance—not only that I think they're going to be winners, but that I honestly believe they will--because it’s taken me quite a long time to develop that sense, the ability to determine what's going to shine and what won't. I just hope that perception doesn’t warp or somehow get moldy with every passing year, now that I’m getting old. The only thing worse than a real bore is an old real bore who thinks he isn't. Retired profs and preachers are among the worst, too.

This morning, I'm thankful for some mysterious inner resource engine cranking out the assurance in me that things will be fine. It’s a blessing one can list about gifts of a life's experience: “Things that are okay about getting old: 1) at least you know what's going to work and what isn’t.”

Maybe for a while anyway.

Monday, April 07, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks


Today, a committee of which I am a part will discuss a paper about the nature of theater, a very thoughtful paper written by a colleague. Her point, written with resolve and more than adequately resourced, is that theater, as art, is most itself when it challenges the status quo, when it makes us think, when it pushes us to new understandings of self, and art, and social issues--when it pushes us to have to see life itself in new ways. The best theater, she asserts, is always cutting edge. It's a convincing paper.

This weekend we attended a play put on in the clubhouse of a local golf course, a dinner theater presentation of Arsenic and Old Lace, staged by some local folks who annually get together for a long weekend run of some goofy comedy. The cast was wonderful, as notable for their beef as their enthusiasm. Not a one of them got paid, I'm sure. Seems to me they were up there performing for two reasons--first, because they enjoyed it; second, because their friends enjoyed them enjoying it.

This play, in the corner of a golf course clubhouse, didn't challenge my politics. It didn't make me rethink my worldview or somehow test my too comfy sensibilities. It was just plain fun, and would have been even more of a ball had I known the cast, as most everyone else in attendance obviously did.

Was it art? Don't know. Probably not. Later today, I'll ask the professor.

But this morning I'm thankful for community, for those who build it, who give their precious time for it, who go to outlandish ends to bring their neighbors joy. Lord knows it warn't professional, but this morning I'm thankful to the Otter Valley Country Club Theater for their rollicking gift to building community.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Here I Stand

When you're born and reared a Calvinist, theological squabbles--even wars--are never either particularly abstract nor far away, even if to the rest of the world they may seem so. The biggie in my lifetime, of course, revolves around the role of women--where they may and where they may not serve in church. Conservatives like to say that the issue isn't about women, per se, but about how to read the Bible, and they're right.

But to argue that opposition to women in ecclesiastical office is fueled only by a high regard for scriptural authority runs up a bit shy of the whole truth. I'm not interested in fighting about that issue, only in asserting that, very frequently, personality plays a significant role in skirmishes that have characterized much of the history of my particular people.

Perhaps that step in my maturation is yet to come, but on points theological, as I've aged, I've not become more of a grumpy old man, but less of one. As I enter my seventh decade, I'm far less willing to draw lines in the sand; what's more, I'm increasingly impatient--even intolerant, I guess--with those who want to.

I've got enough of the old man in me yet, however, to feel some guilt about the joy I feel these days in the apparent demise of "the religious right." I read an article yesterday in World magazine, an analysis of the fall of the ancient, lion-hearted, evangelical right-wing giants, and it just got me depressed, largely because some of its befuddled followers woefully bemoan that fall rather than rejoice in the fact that evangelicals themselves are growing in every way, including in vision. I'm just tired of beating dead horses.

An article in the latest student newspaper here made me weary all weekend long--a rant by a colleague who is leaving the college, a man who feels very strongly that this place has taken a great fall from his own sense of verifiable righteousness. Geesh. Good riddance. May he find peace elsewhere--more importantly, may he and his family find a company of good Christian people just as righteous as he is.

That kind of "I'm righteous, you aren't" talk is a rhetoric that exhausts me. What strengthens me, what sustains me, what fills my heart with joy is a poem like this one by Anne Porter, from this morning's Writer's Almanac:


Nobody in the hospital
Could tell the age
Of the old woman who
Was called Susanna

I knew she spoke some English
And that she was an immigrant
Out of a little country
Trampled by armies

Because she had no visitors
I would stop by to see her
But she was always sleeping

All I could do
Was to get out her comb
And carefully untangle
The tangles in her hair

One day I was beside her
When she woke up
Opening small dark eyes
Of a surprising clearness

She looked at me and said
You want to know the truth?
I answered Yes

She said it's something that
My mother told me

There's not a single inch
Of our whole body
That the Lord does not love

She then went back to sleep.

from Living Things, Zoland Books (2006).

That poem is wonderful. It thrills me.

What thrills me still is Abraham Kuyper: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’”

Or Calvin: "There is not one blade of grass, there is no color in the world that is not intended to make us rejoice."

Or even that unCalvinist, Ralph Waldo Emerson: "All I have seen teaches me to trust the Creator for all I have not seen."

By my soon-to-be ex-colleague's standards, I suppose, all of that puts me on the other side of his line in the sand.

So be it.

Here I stand, or so said Luther. Makes me feel more like a Calvinist to say it, but the older I get, the more I know I cannot do otherwise.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

from A Year of Morning Thanks

Mesowe Apostles

The Masowe Apostolic movement is an indigenous African take on Christianity that rejects many accouterments of traditional Western Christian ecclesiastical life. Instead of worshipping in church, for instance, the Masowe Apostles gather in fields and open spaces, where they believe they can experience the Holy Spirit, who, they claim, rides on the wind and, I suppose, finds church sanctuaries claustrophobic.

Five million people throughout Southern Africa belong to Mesowe Apostles. Their hybrid faith incorporates elements of pre-colonial African religious traditions (the sacred nature of the wind and the elements) as well as traditional Christian doctrine (they believe in Christ and the Trinity, for instance). Like many other newer forms of Christianity throughout the developing world, the Mesowe's practice a faith that is, strangely enough, part-indiginous and part-colonial.

Their four-hour services would be tough for me to take, so I'm not about to convert. What's more, I'm not sure there is a Mesowe congregation anywhere between here and the Missouri River. But after several days out and about once again on the Great Plains, I was reminded, despite the unseasonable snow, how much I too love the open spaces.

I’m thankful for their witness to the spirituality of plains, American or African. On many a morning out here where I live, I think I could join ‘em.

Friday, April 04, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks


When aging teachers become exhausted, they'll sometimes grab a huge breath and say things like, "Well, at least it keeps you young," it meaning working with kids. Even though this old teacher has "worked with kids" for just about forty years, I'm not always so sure the old line holds water. I feel ancient, withered, shell-shocked--just plain wiped out.

For several days I hung around a high school choir from Rehoboth, New Mexico. On Tuesday, they did three assemblies in elementary schools on the Rosebud Reservation--three school assembles BEFORE noon. Just watching them mix it up and hold those kids' attention through all sorts of shenanigans made me feel like a dishrag. And then this--the moment they were through--even before they had lunch!--someone picked up a basketball in the gym at St. Francis, and a ton of them started playing ball.

After four days with them, I swear I'm no younger. It's taken me about 48 hours to feel as if the ship of my state has been somehow righted.

I don't know that I've been as thrilled to the core of my soul in a long time, however, as I've been by these kids. Some people say that in our post-doctrinal age, a time when people are eminently spiritual but sometimes not particularly religious, a time when people search for meaning but may not look too diligently in churches, the future of evangelism may well lie, simply, in bringing the world beauty. What may attract people to belief in God almighty is not reason or truth but, in an often gray world, the brilliance of a rainbow.

I've got no crystal ball, but it seems to me that these indefatigable kids brought fun and joy and exuberant life into the schools they visited--no matter what color the kids. But that's not all. They also brought sheer, voluminous beauty, in great abundance.

This morning, still in recovery and back home, I'm deeply thankful for being able to hang around for awhile. I can't speak for the hundreds of kids they've touched, but, even though I'm no younger, I certainly have been deeply blessed.