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.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

from A Year of Morning Thanks

The Procreant Season

Today is Walt Whitman's birthday, a man whose work I've always liked but not loved (there's no accounting for taste). I think of him often this time of year because, really, spring is upon us. It's sheer joy to walk past our flowers and bushes and tomato plants because it's that time of year when growth can be calibrated in afternoons, I swear. It's the time of year when Iowans say, famously, that you can actually hear the corn grow.

So I think of Whitman these days—that lusty chant of his: “Urge and urge and urge,/Always the procreant urge of the world.” It’s from Leaves of Grass, that ridiculously obsessive yawp, and it's exactly the kind of sentiment that got him in trouble with mid-19th century drawing room literates; but right this minute, the line is on the money. As someone far less famous once wrote and millions copied: "spring is busting out all over."

For more than a week I'd seen a robin on our back lawn, a young lady who looked for all the world a bit too interested in me, like a mom might. But I didn't spot her nest until a couple of nights ago, when the jamboree was such that I couldn't miss it. She had three kids, whose ample mottled chests made it clear that the apartment was itself bursting at the seams.

Yesterday already they were gone. I didn't even see the mom, who must have been out somewhere trying to keep her kids alive. I wouldn't guess that, although they were out of the nest, they'd yet gained all that much moxie, street-wise. I'm no birder, but the likelihood of all three of those insanely hungry kids making it into adulthood probably isn't good. Not all the cats around are bell-ed.

But it's happening, wherever you look, the procreant urge.

Our yard will soon be yellow with maple seeds, those fancy little helicopters that flitter to the ground, head first, and clutter the place. They're starting to descend already. The big maple back there is as lusty as Whitman, tossing off tens of thousands of seeds in a valiant but vain attempt to procreate. Won’t happen, if I have any say. I’m the abortionist—me and the broom and the lawn mower. They're such a mess.
It’s a lusty time of year. Everything is popping. Good time to be alive. And I’m thankful to be part of it, even though my procreant days are behind me. Just got to do something about that cloud of seeds.

Friday, May 30, 2008

from A Year of Morning Thanks

Caring people

I may be silly, but I honestly believe I got a real e-mail from an internet seller from whom I bought rechargeable batteries. It said, quite simply, that they cared about customers and wanted to provide the best possible service. It was signed and I felt—I swear it—as if the guy, Mike, had typed it up himself; it wasn’t junk mail. Maybe I’m wrong.

That note reminds me that there are tons of good, good people in every walk of life who care about their customers, which is another way of saying that they really do care about people.

The internet carries lies and porn and hate, but like any media it also offers a bounty of blessings.

So this morning I’m thankful for an e-mail note from a guy named Mike who represents a company who sells rechargeable batteries. I'm thankful for their care and the reminder that people often do.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks

Rumbles and Robins' Songs

If I were seated on some cloud high above the neighborhood where I live, looking backward on the storm that's just now passing overhead, what I'd see--I think--would be some George Lucas-like monster plodding along the prairie on long legs of lightning. This storm, like so many out here, announced itself fifty miles west already in a slow grumble that finally crescendoed into window-rattling cymbal crashes. Where all that electrical power is going to smack down, no one knows. And there's nothing we can really do, so--for the most part--we sleep though. Unless we're children.

Years ago, when a little earthquake shook the California retreat center where we were staying, the kids ran to the window to watch the swimming pool because, we were told, pools get unruly and therefore wonderfully entertaining during earthquakes. My daughter, an Iowa girl--maybe nine or ten--was petrified. When all those California kids came back the table and the earth stopped shivvering, my daughter was white with fright. "What's the big deal?" those kids asked her. "Shoot, you've got tornadoes."

She looked at me as if I had some kind of explanation.

Yes, we do have tornaodos, and neither me nor my daughter had thought about them in exactly that way before. We have tornadoes, and we have electrical storms like the one walking by right now, storms that threaten and often deliver immense violence. But we live with it. I may be wrong here, but no one--at least now one I know--every left Sioux County, Iowa, because of electrical storms--or tornados.

Last weekend an F-5, the monster, wiped out one-third of Parkersburg, Iowa, the central Iowa town where my grandfather grew up, a place where I spoke just last fall. The devastation was immense and unbelievable. It will be years before that town looks like anything more than a war zone.

Four people died that night in Parkersburg, two of them elderly members of the church where I spoke last fall. They were eighty years old and on their way to their basement when the monster struck. They just didn't get there fast enough.

When TV cameras caught some of the survivors standing before the mangled wreckage of their homes--if there was any home there--some of them praised God for sparing them. It's a natural and wonderfully pious impulse, to thank the Lord for keeping us in the palm of his hand. It's an expression of blessed relief and immense gratitude.

But the flip side of the argument--or so it seems to me--is to blame the Lord God almighty for not protecting the elderly couple who died, by keeping them from the safety basement by inflicting them with gimpy knees or whatever. How can the God of heaven and earth be responsible for the safe-keeping of some, but not for the deaths of others?

I don't know.

The storm has passed now; the land has been refreshed, not only by the rain but also the nitrogen passed along by way of the light show. Somewhere, maybe, someone is fighting a fire ignited by an errant bolt; but here, just outside my basement window, the robins' songs are already lighting up the morning.

We've been spared. We've been blessed.

I don't think I get it all exactly, but I'm glad the storm has passed, the screen before me is lit, and the sky just outside the basement window is beginning to brighten with morning light.

But there are still some wandering rumbles--I hear them off to the east. I guess we never really escape the rumbles, do we? This morning in Parkersburg, they're huge, I guess, even though the sky may be crystalline.

Yesterday, good friends told me about their daughter, who's left her husband because of abuse. The kids don't understand and are angry, very angry--too angry even to talk to them, their grandparents. These are immensely good people, God-fearing people. At their age, they shouldn't have to be troubled by such horrors, but always there are rumbles, it seems.

The sky outside my window is still rumbling, but the robins are singing. If we can never be fully delivered from the darkness and the rumbling, give us ears, Lord, to hear the music.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks

Ancient Wisdom

A Midrash tells of a rabbi who asked his students how one can be certain the night is over and the dawn has come.

One student suggested, "When one can tell the difference between a fig tree and an olive tree."
Another said, "When my eyes can distinguish a sheep from a dog."

The rabbi replied, "No. When you can look into the eyes of another and recognize your sister and brother. Then, truly the night is over, and a new day has dawned."

--from Munib Younan, bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan, as qtd. in Context.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks

". . .cross the wide Missouri"

My wife is into natural foods. We get our meat from a local producer, sliced and diced by a local butcher. Our eggs were laid by freerange chickens, a bunch of hens and roosters in stetsons. Our greens come from a local grower, who sells her produce at weekend markets as well as by subscription; sometimes we get vegetables we have to look up to pronounce, much less cook; but then, as another subscriber said last year, "When in doubt, stir fry." She's right. Everything tastes pretty good stir fried--okay, with a touch of garlic. Lately, we've been buying milk (expensively) from a organic dairy. That may be pushing it.

I'm not militant about it, and neither is she, although she knows something about carbon footprints. She loved Barbara Kingsolver's book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, but we're not trying to be Thoreauvian about our food independence. Besides, both of us rather like the idea that so much of our food dollar is staying local. I'm starting to sound self-righteous, like so many other granola geeks--oh, yeah, I love granola. Geesh. I'm becoming annoying.

Anyway, that penchant for natural foods may well be why the highlight of my Memorial Day was a visit to a place on the South Dakota/Nebraska border where the Missouri River looks most like what it must have 200 years ago, when Lewis and Clark were in the neighborhood. With some friends last evening, we climbed Spirit Mound, then went down to the Missouri, south of Vermilion, SD, and just stared for a while, standing atop one of those Great Plains promontories where it seems the entire world is at your feet.

The Missouri isn't so much a river anymore, as it is a spillway for a series of dams that have wrought miracles throughout the Dakotas--created electricity, provided water for people and cattle, and made great areas of the region something other than the Great American Desert it was once named on most all national maps. Those beautiful lakes have become a recreation bonanza, too, turning a ritually undisciplined river into a series of crystalline salmon and trout ponds.

Okay, but they've also turned The Mud into sausage links. Once upon a time--when Lewis and Clark were here--the river wasn't just sassy, it was downright delinquent. It went where it wanted, when it wanted. It so regularly overflowed its banks that its banks weren't even its banks. Brash and gutsy, it was a force to be reckoned with. Today, mostly, it 's a pussy cat.

Last night we stood high above one of the few places on the Missouri River which at least looks like what it did a century ago, when it was fearsome. In truth, it's just as controlled by those upriver dams as any other spot, but the Mud isn't channeled here, isn't controlled, isn't put to work; and it seems, in spots, a mile wide, not so much a river as a broad wash of water, lined and spotted with sandbars and islands. The Missouri is braided south of Yankton, and even though it isn't "natural," it feels original, which is to say wild.

And there's something about that look. To be out there at sunset is to feel the kind of inspired awe that lifts the soul.

So this morning I'm thankful for that particular leg of the Missouri River because somehow it's a downright blessing to stand there humbled, speechless in that rich kind of awe.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Morning Thanks--Memorial Day, 2008

One of the most famous short stories of all time is a little parable by titled "The Lottery," by Shirley Jackson, a chilling tale about a community which ritually slaughters one of its own every year even though no one remembers why anymore.

The story does a little reducto ad absurtum job on small town life and culture--or at least this small-towner has often thought. No matter--it's an unforgettable story and often, I will admit, on the money with its criticism. Ms. Jackson wasn't wrong: sometimes small-towners do things in the very same way, week after week, year after year, because, well, it's the way they've always been done. Things get set in stone quite easily in the very human quest for ritual and the meaning such things afford. You don't even have to live in a small town either, methinks.

Okay, this from an old anti-war protester. The annual Memorial Day celebration in town where I live had long ago become wooden. The same man reads the names of the dead while surrounded by a profusion of flags. The same men's quartet sings the same patriotic songs. Some pastor gets up and offers a homily/Jeremiad about how the country will shipwreck if we throw in the towel on this, that, or the other moral value. Memorial Day doings have been the same since I started attending them here, almost thirty years ago. The speakers have always been different, but even their messages were the same.

Maybe that’s okay. Any small town's Memorial Day celebration is a solemn recitation. It's not the occasion for a carnival.

But then, just two years ago, things changed dramatically. Beneath the same half-circle of flags, the same men's quartet sang, the same retired radio announcer read the list of vets who didn't return . Some pastor roared for patriotism.

What changed was that a name was added to the list of fallen. Not long before that year's celebration, a local kid was killed in Iraq by an IED—a roadside bomb. The addition of a name made the otherwise staid and worn ritual into something both immensely fresh and painful.

This morning there will be another change. That hero's sisters will sing; the men's quartet is out. There will be more change--and more aching pain.

But all of that is fitting, or so it seems to me. That we ache about war is only right.

This morning, Memorial Day, I am thankful for those whose lives allow me to sit here and type these words, thankful for their sacrifice, for their gift.

And I’m sad, so very sad. This most recent hero is buried out there in the town cemetery, same graveyard. He left a wife and family.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks

Ralph Waldo Emerson

The man was soon to be a victim of senility, and he knew it. It wouldn't be long, he understood, and the mind that had given him a rich life--writing and lecturing throughout the country--would be irrevocably altered by nothing less than time itself. At that moment in his life, he wrote the poem "Terminus," which ends with this short stanza:

As the bird trims her to the gale,
I trim myself to the storm of time,
I man the rudder, reef the sail,
Obey the voice at eve obeyed at prime:
'Lowly faithful, banish fear,
Right onward drive unharmed;
The port, well worth the cruise, is near,
And every wave is charmed.'

What he's doing is coaching himself not to throw in the towel on the ebullent optimism that has sustained him through the years and made him famous for essays such as "Self-Reliance" and "The Poet." As he looks into the darkness not that far up ahead, he steels himself with the text of a lifetime of sermons--that "every wave is charmed."

Really, they're silly, these eternal optimists, their own genre of holy fools. Like the most famous Siouxlander of them all, the good Reverend Robert Schuller, Ralph Waldo Emerson would be a buffoon if we didn't so greatly need his bouyant cheerfulness--many of us at least. When the darkness comes, you can always buck it up somehow with unmeasured doses of Emersonian rhetoric: "What lies behind us and what lies before us are small matters compared to what lies within us."

Sometimes I have to laugh at how much I enjoy reading him, as I have, time after time, for all my years of teaching. I get a kick out of getting a kick out of unbridled hope of Ralph Waldo Emerson.
We need him--or what he offers. On Broadway this Memorial Day weekend, the ticket you can't get is to South Pacific, a resurgent old musical that makes WWII look like a romance. Astounding, within the context of a never-ending war in Iraq--or maybe, for that reason, not so.
Today is the 105th anniversary of his birth at First Church, Boston, where his father was the pastor. He was likely the most influential writer of his time, even though the horroes of the Civil War did much to mute his soaring transcendental cheerfulness.

I like him, always have. Some of us have to be reminded, time and time again, that every wave is charmed. Emerson has always been a charmer.

Friday, May 23, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks

Good Literature

"Family Group, Late 1930s"
by Christopher Wiseman

My grandmother, the family elder, stood
Here that day, her husband, recently buried
In the grass outside, not twenty yards from her.

Strange emotions, I'd guess, it must have stirred
In them, the body and the baby so close,
But they crowed round this font, watching the show,

As Christopher Stephen Wiseman was named and blessed,
Validated, readied to go forth.
I'm sure she prayed for me, that vicar's widow.

I'm sure they all did in their different ways.
I'm sure they smiled as I screeched at the cold water,
Was hurriedly passed back to my mother's arms.

Today I'm alone. Same church. Same font. And I think
All that crowded family's dead. All gone
But two, my grandmother's children in their nineties,

And they will never come to this place again.
All gone, and my life well along, my children
Married, thinking of children of their own.

I look at it, the dark oak lid with its black
Iron ring, the stone carved all around
Suffer the Little Children to Come unto Me

For of Such Is the Kingdom of Heaven — and I feel
A weight, as if I've been transformed to some
Sort of reluctant representative,

Helpless, filled with demanding generations.
The oldest man. The family patriarch now.
But how much wiser than when I was that baby?

I lift the heavy lid. Two inches of old
Stale water lying at the bottom — hardly
The stuff of legend. I smile, though why in God's

Name I should, I don't know. Between me and my car
Lies my grandmother, next to her husband,
And how have her prayers for me turned out,

and why, I wonder, do I walk past her so quickly?

--from Crossing the Salt Flats. © The Porcupine's Quill.


Yesterday, I wrote three stammering pages as a means to get into an essay I'd like to write about Native American boarding schools. In those three pages, I didn't mention a boarding school; I'm at least two pages away. Instead, I went into detail on a Navajo rug that hangs here beside me, an heirloom from my grandfather, who spent thirty years in the early years of the 20th century on "Heathen Mission Board" of the denomination he and I were and are a part of.

I'll probably cut the whole business, but I needed to say--even if it's only for myself--that what I'm going to write in that essay is personal, very personal. It's about a part of me, "some sort of reluctant representative"--and about my grandfather, the preacher, who prayed stedfastly, I'm sure, for a Navajo boarding school where he was sure God almighty was blessing the work.

Today, I'm a good deal less sure about that than he was. But I know that my grandfather stood in good company in his vision of things because the best minds, the best theologians, the best social planners of the late 19th century all believed that the way to save the Indian was to kill the savage.

I'm not obsessed with white guilt, nor am I seething with anger at Grandpa Schaap. But I feel his legacy on me somehow. Maybe I should burn the rug.

Mary Gordon, in her opening lecture at this year's Calvin College Festival of Faith and Writing, told the audience that she wasn't sure at all if fiction was ever really "moral." She referenced John Gardner's Moral Fiction, a book that set the literary world into white heat several decades ago when it accused some very important writers of avoiding the important role of literature through the centuries--of being a moral voice. Mary Gordon disagreed.

But she ended with something like this--I can't quote her: what imaginative literature gives us, it seems, is this at least: the comforting realization that we're not alone.

This morning's Writer's Almanac is as comforting as a psalm. Christopher Wiseman's haunting pseudo-elegy confesses that he doesn't know quite what to do with his own family legacy, quite how much attention to give to those who, years ago, prayed diligently for him, people who are now residents of a country churchyard. Neither do I.

But I know this--I'm not alone.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Sex, spitballs, and seniors

I don't know where I read it, but it struck me as a good idea: once we reach, say, fifty, men simply shouldn't dance any more in public. Well, maybe Robert Redford. Dancing, after all, is basically about seduction, and it's just, well, gauche, for younger people to think of old men wanting to get anyone, even old women, in bed. I know--I was one once (young people) and am one now (old man).

Last semester, in fiction class, we were talking about a story one of my students was working on, a story that had taken a turn toward the genre of murder/mystery. I was telling them that good genre fiction isn't easy to write. Even though the characters flatten out and plot becomes pre-eminent, it's simply not easy to write good horror or romance or sci fi.

All fine. Then I went a step too far.

"If I were to tell you to write two pages of the very best sex you could, you'd be surprised at how difficult it is," I said, in all seriousness, and thereby immediately evoked the "eeeuuuuwww" factor, which arose like an audible stench from the rank-and-file. I'd gone too far. I honestly think my students like me, but what they don't like is the old guy/grandpa talking about sex. Nope. Taboo. Eeeuuuuwww. Robert Redford I'm not.

Thusly, my freedom is limited by factors that are out of my control. That's what I'm thinking this morning, trying to determine what to say tomorrow night. Here's why.

Tomorrow night I've got to give a grade school graduation speech, something I've not done for many years. When I was younger, I did it at least twice every spring. I've done grade school--and high school--grads at all the local Christian schools, but not for a long, long time. Tomorrow night, the drought ends, locally. Tomorrow night, ye olde man returns.

It so happens I had a winner of a speech twenty years ago, a speech that began with a story about me throwing spitwads when I was in eighth grade. Grad speeches aren't really meant to be heard I don't think, but this one stuck in people's minds just like those spitwads stuck to the ceiling and chalkboard and anything else we targeted in eighth grade. Not long ago, I still got a request for that speech from halfway across the state. I'm not making that up.

Yesterday, I wrote a speech for tomorrow night. It's not as good--which is to say, as memorable --as the spitwads thing. It's about Daniel, from the Bible, but there's no lions in it, so I'm not just running out cliches. But it's no spitball speech, and this morning, early, I'm thinking of dumping Daniel for the spitballs, a speech I know very well is a winner.

But at my age the eeuuuwww factor is frightening. The spitball speech has nothing to do with sex--that's not it. But I'm thinking that one reason that speech was a hit twenty years ago is that I was twenty years younger. Eighth grade kids could actually imagine me being fourteen. Today, that would be an immense stretch, and because it is, I'm afraid they won't chuckle at the thought of this chrome-dome Elijah-type flinging sloppy spitballs; instead, they'll pull up their noses. Eeeuuuuwww.

What I'm saying is, I don't know that I can do that speech anymore. I'm too old, just as I'm likely too old for dancing.

So I guess I'll go with Daniel--that's what I'm thinking. In fact, I typed in the title after the speech was written: "Dare to be a Daniel," the title of an old grade school chorus I remember. "Dare to be a Daniel, dare to stand alone. . ."

Except me. I'll pass on the daring thing. After all, I'm sixty, and there are a ton of things--like dancing--that are probably best left behind me.

At least in public.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks


Years ago, when our kids were just a bundle of energy, a woman told me how taking her firstborn off to college and leaving him there was, to her, immensely painful. "It was like giving birth all over again," she told me, biting a lip. She was in a writing class I was teaching, and I thought the analogy, a simile, was really fine, especially memorable. It stuck.

A few days later, I was visiting a couple on a Dutch Reformed ecclesiastical assignment called "house visiting." That couple had just watched their last walk out the door and move away; they'd become empty-nesters. Trying to be thoughtful and gracious--even elderly--about it, I told them how the woman in my writing class had explained her second painful round of birth pangs.

The woman looked at me as if I were speaking Latin. "Wow," she said, "when our daughter left, I couldn't have been happier."

I remember those stories now because an ex-student of mine, who's blessed with two toddlers, asked me yesterday whether having kids ever, ever gets easier. My initial answer probably gave him little comfort. "Some say," I told him, "'little kids, little problems; big kids, big problems.'" Endless toddler dependence does, in fact, end, I told him too.

Then he told me about friends of theirs who have eleventy-seven kids and others who adopt wholesale--perfect parents. Immediately, I smelled guilt, the horrific feeling that when I'm not lovin' every last minute of my kids' existence, I'm morphed into bad dad, this whole parenting thing a disaster simply waiting to happen. "After all, just look at so-and-so. . ."

So I told him those old stories and explained that when the empty-nester mom told me she was thrilled to see the last one go, I felt somehow freed--not because I didn't love my little kids, but because I remembered a simple fact: we're all different--thank the Lord.

Don't know if that story will help him, but I hope so. Those blessed kids take so much energy when they're toddlers, God bless 'em, that when your frustration feels like it vastly exceeds Ozzie and Harriet down the block, you think you're some kind of inept loser, your kids victims of bad divine choice-making--they should have been assigned to some Walt Disney dad across town.
We're all not the same. Thank goodness we're different. That's my thanks this a.m.

Hope my story does some good. Did me, years ago.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

from A Year of Morning Thanks

Mari Sandoz

Mari Sandoz wanted to know what Native life was like, so in 1930, along with a friend, she took off in Model T and visited reservations in Montana, Wyoming, and both Dakotas. She used that research to write a number of books, including her biography of Crazy Horse, which came out in 1942, and is, really, one of the first books to picture the Indian wars from a Native point of view.

Because she was such a meticulous researcher, she wanted to see things like old battlefields, close-up and first hand. When their old Model T quit on them, those two women put it back together themselves.

Mari Sandoz, the daughter of a Nebraska pioneer, could never really escape her own native Great Plains. "I always come back to the Middle West. There's a vigor here, and a broadness of horizon," she said.

She was born out in the Nebraska sandhills, 112 years ago, plus just a few days. Won't be long and I'll be back in her country, although I'm never far.

I’m thankful for Mari Sandoz, and thankful for her stories and her story.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Morning Thanks--the Psalms

For several years, she worked for me, a student aid. She was, back then, efficient and punctual and thoughtful in a very mature way, even though she needed a ton of approval, a characteristic, I thought, which likely stemmed from her having been home-schooled and therefore accustomed to a much more constant level of supervision that than most students are. She was unique, as all students are, and a fine writer--sharp perceptions, graceful style, and wise. I liked her--still do.

Yesterday, she and her husband stood up in front of church and had their baby baptized--a boy, their second. They were alone--neither her parents nor his are from here and neither were in attendance. That they weren't seemed, at first, a bit sad; on the other hand, their absence made the event seem a bit more sacramental than it often becomes when friends and families tote in video cameras and turn baptism into a scrapbook. Yesterday, the sacrament was simple and rich, maybe even more sacramental.

Then she gave the baby to her husband, who stepped down while she walked over to the piano. There, she met another young woman, who, together with her, sang a traditional setting of the 23rd Psalm. It was all very nice--very simple, very elegant, very memorable. 

And I couldn't help but smile--not only because I felt a touch paternal, having known her so well years ago when she was in college, but also because the week before I'd been using the 23rd Psalm behind the walls of a state penitentiary, then listened to inmates read meditations they'd written on a whole number of the 23rd's famous lines. I couldn't help but smile because in the little stories those men wrote it was clear they too--like the young mom--had found a place of their own in that ancient psalm, some quiet water and a divine green pasture.

And then there's this: out on the reservation, I've been talking to elderly Navajos about their lives and their faith. What's come up more than once in those conversations has been the 23rd Psalm, and that it would makes good sense. They all, as kids, tended sheep. One man told me that the lines from scripture that he understood best when he was a boy at a Christian mission school for the first time was "The Lord is my shepherd."

When the young mom and ex-student stood up front in church and sang through the 23rd Psalm, I couldn't help but be reminded of how much room there is in the spacious experience in that poem, so much that all of us can find ourselves and our own experience in its wisdom. King David may have written the 23rd, but all of us read our lives in it. 

"The marvel with the Psalter is that. . .the reader takes all its words upon his lips as though they were his own, and each one sings the Psalms as thought they had been written for his special benefit." That's the way Athanasius put it 1700 years ago in Alexandria. The wonder is not that the psalms vividly describe a life gone by, but that, even today, readers go through them "not as though someone else were speaking or another person's feeling being described, but as himself speaking of himself, offering the words to God as his own heart's utterance, just as though he himself had made them up."

Those words worked yesterday in church, last week in jail, decades ago in New Mexico, and centuries ago in Egypt and Israel. 

In the book of Psalms, Martin Luther says "we find, not what this or that saint did, but what the chief of all saints did, and what all saints still do." 


This morning, I'm thankful for the amazing grace of those words.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

A Sunday Morning Meditation


“The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is majestic.” Psalm 29:2
I was sitting right here, as I remember. If I wasn’t looking into a computer screen, I was seated just slightly left of where I am now, at my desk, writing something or other. My wife was at work. Our children, middle-school-age-ish, were upstairs just rubbing the sleepers out of their eyes. Nine a.m. It was summer. No school.

I don’t remember bad weather brewing, don’t remember hearing some terrifying forecast. I had no idea something was coming, didn’t see it out of my little basement window. When it hit, I ran outside, and I remember this clearly: it wasn’t raining. It must have been some rogue thundercloud looking to wreak havoc.

What I do remember is something brittle and crackling suddenly lacing the air, even though I was a block away. That bolt of lightning electrified everything the neighborhood, burned out the cable TV box in our backyard when it zapped the cottonwood in a neighbor’s yard a block away. Thunder shook the windows when it came, but I’ll never forget the way, suddenly, the hairs on the back of my neck actually rose with the flash. I may have lit up myself.

A moment later, everyone was outside, including my kids and me. The tree, for the most part, was gone. Cottonwoods grow like weeds, and their wood is hardly worth burning. They’re messy and soft; give me oak any day. But the buffalo loved them because their craggy bark gave a memorable massage. In the mid-nineteenth century, cottonwoods in ravines and river flats were often turtle-necked at the base by foot-deep buffalo fur. And homesteaders raised them prodigiously; they grew abundantly in the otherwise treeless ocean of grass. Cottonwoods have history on the Plains.

In a moment, however, in the twinkling of an eye, this one, a tall senior citizen of the neighborhood, was history. It blew up. Someone explained to me later that when that potent shard of electrical current fingered it, its sap cooked so quickly that the cottonwood literally exploded.

A chunk of branch got blown with such velocity that it went through the wall of a garage 200 feet away. Everywhere you looked there was debris, the street littered with shards of wood. When, later, someone came by with a chain saw, the only sizeable chunk left to slice was the nine-foot jagged stump. Most of the rest was soda crackers.

When, later, I returned to my basement study, I don’t remember writing a thing about that lightning blast. I don’t know that I ever have before right now. No one got hurt; the old cottonwood had already seen its better days, and the neighbors weren’t that sad about its passing. By afternoon TVs were back on and the streets were clean.

But something of the shock and awe of that blast of lightning will never leave me. I don’t ever remember feeling exactly what I did that morning, a block away, when it hit, that strange crackling current as palpable as wind, electrifying the whole basement. I don’t know that I remember much else of that long-ago summer.

Lightning and thunder, David tells his royal buddies in Psalm 29—those are things you can’t do. Not only that, if it doesn’t kill you, a good, heavy bolt of the stuff will scare the bejeebees out of you.

That, he reminds them, is the voice of the Lord, and don’t you ever forget it.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks


"He makes me lie down in green pastures" Psalm 23

In prison, when the day is done and you're locked down, there's not much to look at. In my cell it's just me, God, my television, and my prison-issued corkboard, where I get to hang my pictures. Every night I stare at it, my eyes wandering from picture to picture, taking in the smiles, and the beautiful scenery. I lose myself in each frozen moment of time. I reminisce and meditate on friends, family, and children, and the moments I've had with them in my brief 32 years on this earth.

Sometimes the memories are pleasant, filled with joy and happiness. Most of the time, though, they are just filled with longing and sadness. I desperately grasp to hold on to the past happy memories, but it’s like trying to capture fog. My heart is going to burst, my guts turn inside­ out, vertigo sets in as joy, love, loss, and sorrow hit me in the same instant, washing over me, crushing me. It's the most exquisite suffering. My eyes well up and overflow with silent weeping, and the world swims in lost focus while I wonder how one person can endure such suffering.

Then I remember the suffering of Jesus. With a single shuddering inhalation, and, clear again, my eyes refocus on the bright silver tacks that hold memories in place. Thirty-three fish-eyed mirrors reflecting the same image back at me--tiny unblinking eyes of God, showing a grown weeping man.

Squinting to get a clearer view, I wonder "Who is that?" Husband? - Nope divorced twice. Father? - Not anymore. Brother, son, nephew, grandson, friend? The answer is “none of the above.” It's just a sinner, a baffled stranger, even to myself, staring back.

State-issued corkboard of escape? Not today. Not this time. Fatigued, exhausted and drained He makes me lie down. It's not a green pasture, but it is a relief as I slip into coma sleep.

He gives me peace and makes me sleep. And for that I am thankful.

Last night, at the prison, one of the inmates handed me this meditation he'd written because, he said, he didn't want to read it himself, nor did he want his name given. Didn't tell me why. I said okay.

The worship consisted of some great singing and several of the guys reading their meditations--like this one. The place was full of cons and visitors, and things went well, methinks.

Afterward, two of the guys asked me who wrote that really good one, but I didn't tell them. For some reason, the guy didn't want to be known--I had no idea why not because he'd read it himself in front of a much-smaller crowd the night before.

So I went up to him, told him there were guys in that crowd who were really taken by what he'd written; and then I asked him why he didn't want to read it himself, as he had the night before.

He turned his head slightly, winced a little. "Lots of issues of power here, and when some guys smell weakness. . ." he said, letting me fill in the lines. "I trust most of the people here," he said, pointing to a chapel slowly emptying, "but I don't know 'em all."

I had to remind myself I was in prison. I'd forgotten. But he hadn't. He certainly hadn't.

You'll notice his last line about thanks. I'll let his word stand in for mine this morning, and say this too: this morning, I'm thankful for having been there, for having met some good people and learned some things--about people and places I knew nothing about.

I don't know what this guy did to be there, and I'm not sure I want to. What I do know, after a week of prison visits, is that they're all human beings and they need love, just like all of us; and that some of us at least--like this young man--get it from the same good shepherd we all do, the same good shepherd who loves us, who is no respecter of persons, and whose love is, marvelously, both unconditional and forevermore.

Friday, May 16, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks

The morning news

So here's the news this morning. The California Supreme Court has legalized gay marriage. Starbucks is releasing a new logo that features a bare-bosomed, flowing-haired icon in the middle of the old symbol. Sex and the City is being released shortly, I guess, after a debut in London where Sarah Jessica Parker red-carpeted with an outlandish bouquet of green roses planted on her head.

Osama bin Laden will be releasing another video today. George Bush says Barack Obama is another Neville Chamberlain, and Joe Biden called the idea itself bullsh**. The full-to-the-brim pregnant (with twins) Angelina Jolie wore a busty green dress and knocked 'em all dead at Cannes.

The death toll in China, post-earthquake, could reach as high as 50,000, while the story in Burma simply goes beyond despair--a million dead and a government that really doesn't care?--how is that possible?

Scientists and technicians have created an "exoskeleton" of aluminum and electronics that multiplies strength and endurance as many as 20 times, although I'm not sure why I'd like to lift any more than I already will be in about ten minutes.

Gas is likely going to $5 @ gallon--surprise, surprise. Obesity contributes to global warming, and gigantic pythons are invading southeast Florida. John McCain has cut 95 years off his 100-year forecast on our presence in Iraq, now says we'll be out by 2013.

Faculty meeting today--there may well be a few punches thrown.

And yesterday I lost a colleague to retirement--lucky guy. We'll miss his singing and his screeds, his passions and his poems. We'll miss his dedication to students and his undying love for poetry. We'll miss his deft humor and his catchy silliness.

There's a ton of big news today, lots of flashy stories, but the one story that affects me more than any other is symbolized in an empty office next to mine. That one--more than Al Quida or bountiful cleavage or gay marriage or even natural disasters--that one hits me.

But I'll live through it, even though I'm green with envy.

Tonight, at the state prison, I'll listen to a bunch of inmates read meditations on the psalms, meditations they wrote--the whole litany punctuated by some gusty singing. Tonight, later, we'll help good old friends of ours celebrate their 50 years of married life together.

And, after all of that, tomorrow, once again, I'm quite sure the sun will rise. For that fact, this morning, I'm thankful.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

from A Year of Morning Thanks

Doing a wedding

I broke out laughing when they asked--"Would you do our wedding?" she said.

I never "did" a wedding—shoot, I'm not even a pastor. As far as I knew, my "doing" a wedding was illegal or phony or dumb, at best. What's more, I didn't even know the couple--husband or wife-to-be.

What they said was, "you're family," and I am, on my wife's side. Somebody had told them that this distant cousin or whatever could stand up in front of folks and do a good job of the whole show that goes with a wedding, so they'd called. "Would you do it?" she said.

Sweet kid, I thought. Dumb idea.

But I did it--probably my first and last. I stood up in front, guided the handsome young couple through their vows, delivered a wonderfully non-memorable homily, then got out of the way for the Justice of the Peace to seal the nuptials legally.

Once is enough--for them and me. I wouldn’t want to do another one, but seeing the whole operation from the front, I admit, was sort of fun.

Some weddings are ’59 Chryslers--big finned monstrosities. This one was a PT Cruiser maybe—not all that expensive, just a hair eccentric, and yet, in form and function, sort of classic. They'd wanted it outside, but the weather at the park was perfectly awful. We went inside. I thought it worked, quite frankly, and they seemed to be pleased with the way this distant relative did the job.

They take us with them—those kids. They stand up there together, holding hands, looking into each other's eyes, and they start a pilgrimage every last married adult in attendance knows is no cake walk.

And in a way, they "do" us when they take those vows because we ride along on sweet draft of their hope as we can't help but smile in the joy of their public testimony.

I don't think I'll ever do it again, but this morning I’m thankful for doing it, thankful for the privilege of bearing witness to their love.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

--The New Spirituality--
according to David Brooks

The day NY Times columnist David Brooks wants to run for office, I'll support him. I think his work is about as perceptive as anyone regularly appearing in his kind of office in this country. Without a doubt, he's conservative, but he reads everything and seems almost unconscious of the kinds of patterns of thought conservatives--or liberals for that matter--frequently stay in. He's a free-thinker, in that sense, and always interesting.

Yesterday's column "Nueral Buddhists" is case in point. That something is happening within Christendom in this county (not to mention in this world) seems to me to be unmistakable. The causes may well not be as clear as the effects, but the world of faith these days is changing, moving far more toward a geography which locates "experience" as the center of spirituality than, say, "knowledge," which may well have been the heart of religious practice--the sermon especially--ever since the Reformation.

Brooks links contemporary spirituality with contemporary brain science and comes up with a recipe by which we can navigate our way through what's already going on around us.

First, he says, "the self is not a fixed entity but a dynamic process of relationships." My students genuflect to their relationships; relationships mean everything to them. Yet, significantly, they rarely use each other's last names and can spend an entire semester together and not really care about who it is who sits beside them. They determine friendships, it seems, by a kind of surfing; yet, claim that nothing--absolutely nothing--is as important to them as those relationships.

Second, Brooks says, "underneath the patina of different religions, people around the world have common moral intuitions." What's amazing to me is how it is that so many of my students--many of them the rich with staunch Dutch Calvinist blood--have simply given up their critical nature. Two of my students--sons of pastors--put together a film on Dungeons and Dragons, an elaborate board game, and made it a puff piece. I don't know enough about the game to be against it, but their lack of any critical facility is, to me, quite typical. Students today are as bright as they ever were, but they're far more concerned with experience than they are with critical thinking (I know, buzz word).

Third, he says, "people are equipped to experience the sacred, to have moments of elevated experience when they transcend boundaries and overflow with love." At a writing conference a few years ago, I sat through an annointing with oil, an almost sacramental experience performed by a African-American Pentecostal preacher, and then walked to a chapel for evening matins on the Orthodox tradition, complete with icons. What linked those worship experiences, of course, was "experience." Pentecostalism is spreading on the wind throughout the world, just as it is here in the States. But the ancient spiritual experiences--monasticism and the Orthodox faith itself--are also growing, calling forth believers from other fellowships, Catholic and Protestant.

Fourth, and finally, Brooks says, "God can best be conceived as the nature one experiences at those moments, the unknowable total of all there is." I feel this more and more even in myself. I was born and reared in a faith that invested itself and its adherents deep in a catechism, a clear summary of affirmations that we believed not only described the Christian faith but even defined it. Maybe it's the Native American influence in me, but I'm far more interested today in mystery than I am in wholesale definitions. Who is God?--I think I'm becoming more buddhist than Calvinist. Let's start here--"I don't know." I know he exists, and I believe in his love. But I'm not like my grandfather, the preacher, or his father, the sem prof. I don't trust people who claim they know.

"Orthodox believers are going to have to defend particular doctrines and particular biblical teachings," Brooks says, and I think he's spot on here. "They’re going to have to defend the idea of a personal God, and explain why specific theologies are true guides for behavior day to day."

If he's right, the opposition won't really be those rotten atheists, but fellow believers, Brooks says, but "people who feel the existence of the sacred, but who think that particular religions are just cultural artifacts built on top of universal human traits. It’s going to come from scientists whose beliefs overlap a bit with Buddhism."

I think he's right, this David Brooks, as he often is. This is the world we're moving into, the world we're already in.

Fascinating stuff.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks

Jesus Saves

So the guy comes up to me afterward. A lot of them do. Part of the reason they want to talk, I'm sure, is that they're not all that hot on going back to their cells.

"So you spend some time in New Mexico?" he says, because I'd said as much in my introduction.

His face is scarred and crooked. He's squat and well-built, looks for all the world like a fighter. I have no idea why he's in prison, but he's the kind of man whose face offers sufficient inspiration to imagine the worst.

"Beautiful place--New Mexico," I say.

"Where at?" he says, still holding my hand.

"West--Gallup," I tell him.

"I grew up there." A smile runs all the way across that face, big as a horizon.

"What?--you're Navajo?" I say.

"Lakota," he says. "From here." He means South Dakota. "But my dad was a teacher--Wingate, Tec Nos Pas--from the fifties to the seventies."

His dad was a teacher, and all the way home last night, I'm haunted by broken dreams: a Lakota college grad becomes a teacher on the Navajo reservation. Maybe it's racist of me, but I'm thinking how terrific it must have been, not only for this guy's father but for the BIA or whoever did the hiring out there in New Mexico, once upon a time, to snag a Native guy, a Lakota, to teach Native kids, Navajos. What a good thing. What a role model.

Today, that man's son is behind bars--that's what I keep thinking. How did that happen? His father pulled himself out of the cycles of poverty and alcoholism that plague reservations. All that hope and joy, and then his kid--already forty-ish, pockmarked by his problems--his kid is spending his life in prison. That's not the way things are supposed to go.

It's depressing--like this final paragraph from a recent NY Times review of the latest Louise Erdrich novel.

"In A Plague of Doves, Erdrich has created an often gorgeous, sometimes maddeningly opaque portrait of a community strangled by its own history. Pluto is one of those places we read about now and then when big-city papers run features about the death of small-town America. When you grow up in such a place, people know that your mother was a wild child back in high school. They know why your uncle talks to himself in the grocery store. What Erdrich knows is that this history, built up over generations, yields a kind of claustrophobia that has only one cure: Leave."

Now I'm a big Erdrich fan, an Ojibwe writer who's told wonderfully imaginative tales about the seams between Native and Euro cultures on the Great Plains. But I don't know that I want to read this new novel--just more depressing stuff--more losers, more unforgiven sin.

Last night I tried to cajole a bunch of cons into taking a shot at writing a couple of devotionals based on passages from the psalms. Adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication--I told them; the psalms are like prayers. Take a shot at doing one of each.

They're not getting a grade or winning a prize if they do. I'm guessing most of them won't. But already last night, some of them did. One Lakota stood up and read a meditation of confession on "The Lord is my Shepherd" that took my breath away. It was sheer beauty.

And this teacher's son--we'll see whether he comes through. Right now, I could cry that he's here. Right now, I'm thinking he shouldn't be.

The thing is, there's always hope. There has to be, and there is. That's what the shepherd's song is all about. It's the whole gospel of Jesus. There's hope. I don't care how many pockmarks, that's what it all comes down to.

Jesus saves. That's what I believe, and that, simple enough, is what I'm thankful for this morning.

Monday, May 12, 2008

His will and mine

Breathe on me, breath of God,
Until my heart is pure,
Until with Thee I will one will,
To do and to endure.

Yesterday, Pentecost, we sang this old hymn, written by a man named Edwin Hatch, who had to have one of the most unusual haircuts in hymn-writing history. Badly coiffed or not, the man penned a hymn that's been beloved for 150 years, especially, I suppose, at Pentecost, when believers commemorate the New Testament gift of the Holy Spirit.

The last two lines of the second verse stuck with me because they seem most perplexing. I can't--nor would I--disagree with the sentiment, nor certainly how artfully it's delivered. If I paraphrase it, I won't do it justice, just like a film rarely does a book justice, but I'll try anyway.
What Mr. Hatch wants us to confess is that he'd like God to breath his Holy Spirit on him, to fill him so completely that their individual wills--God's and his own (or our own) become one and the same.
But that's not all, because the last line holds a eschatological character too--let this piggy-backed will, Hatch says, shape all my doing--whatever I'm up to, both now and throughout this life and the next.

Paraphrases always stumble around good poetry because a characteristic of wonderful verse is sheer simplicity. Tightly packed and concentrated, it delivers greatly by way of so little. Those last two lines are wonderful.

But I must confess, when I carry the idea into my own life, I get flummoxed. There's been a rash of publicity on the FLDS people lately, the polygamists who call themselves Fundamental Mormons. Their women--at least by my sense--have even worse haircuts than Edwin Hatch; they wear Little House on the Prairie dresses, and talk to the camera as if they're minds were somehow frozen in amber.

One reporter asked one of the profoundly sad women, bereft of children by Texas court order, whether she knew of children--minors--being taken in marriage by men three times their age. "Do you know Zion?" she asked the reporter. When he tried to get back to the point, she looked at him with a depth of conviction that was almost scary. "Do you know the glories of Zion?" she said again, tilting her head as if she were talking to a cocker spaniel.

What's scary about faith is that it can be mindless--and that's what I was thinking yesterday when we sang this old, Holy Spirit hymn. I am absolutely sure that woman was convinced--had no questions whatsoever--that her will and the Lord's were one and the same. She'd arrived. Via her own perception and the reach of her own faith, she was totally inflated by the breath of God, filled with the Holy Spirit.

Here's my problem. Most of the people I know who've been dead sure their wills were the same as God almighty's are people I'd just as soon stayed on their side of the street--and I don't care what brand of faith they carry. The people who believe their wills are Godly are almost always scary, at least to me.

So while I understand what Edwin Hatch really wants in this wonderful line of hymn-writing, and while I've no problem begging God myself for the blessings of a single vision, I'm not sure what it would like if I had it, felt it, knew it. I've not met all that many role models, I guess, men or women.

Which is not to say, to be sure, that I'm pure.

What Mr. Hatch is asking for is an end to doubt and disbelief, an end to worry and indecision. What he's asking for is the confidence of faith itself, I suppose, the firm conviction that God loves me and has stepped behind the controls of my own life. That's all.

I suppose, if I am pushed hard to admit it, I envy that FLDS woman's other-worldly conviction, her belief that she knew Zion and the apostate reporter didn't.

But it seems to me that the only place for a woman like that to live is in a gated compound.

That's not where I want to live.

All that having been said, I'd still like the blessing Mr. Hatch is asking for--God's love, in me, "to do and to endure." I really do love the line.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks

Mother's Day

"The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world."

That old line took a beating in the last several decades with the feminism's sometimes harsh first wave. But it's on a comeback now, in the third. Women who've never known the warfare that had to go on years ago are bringing homage to motherhood as if Betty Friedan never existed. Maybe that's okay.

In the local papers, high school senior girls often express their dreams, and most all of them, these days, include settling down with a good husband and raising a family, sentiments that echo, pretty much, their grandmothers, who saw their roles as helpmeets and etc.

But nothing stays the same, and what's clear--even from these male eyes--is that contemporary young women have choices very much unlike those their grandmas had offered to them. If they opt to dream about rocking the cradle, they do so from choice, not necessity or some literal interpretation of biblical mandate.

I'm not the one to go on and on about mothers. Having been a part of an earlier generation of males, the ones who were there for the big fights, I know my place. This male is not about to tell a woman what to do or what to think, nor indict those high school girls, nor their grandmothers. Their roles and their offices are not mine to dictate or approve.

But I do know this much--the job of mom remains somehow different than the job of dad, and it is so not simply because society lays out different roles. They're different because, right from the get-go, women and their children--which is to say, women and their babies--have a significantly different relationship than do dads and their kids, differences that often continue even into adulthood.

And from being around a mom, full-time, for more than 35 years, I dare say this much at least: that role and its pressures and burdens of a mom are a good deal more than a handful.

My wife is not my mother, as she has been often ready to point out. That fact is sometimes shocking to young men who expect their wives will be. It's not my job to bless my wife this Mother's Day with roses; it's my kids' job.

But it is my right, I think, to thank her, honestly and sincerely, for being the mother I've known her to be, someone never distant from her kids' anxieties, even when she'd like to be. She suffers when they do, weeps when they do, and worries, Lord knows, even when they don't. It's not an easy job, that much I know from being present through it all.

This morning's thanks are for my wife, a mother, who'd likely be the first to say that her rocking the cradle has certainly not resulted in her ruling the world. Hrrumph, she'd say, rolling her eyes.

But I've been blessed to have her as a wife; and my kids--even when they don't understand it or think about it much, as most of us don't--have been blessed to have her as a mom.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

from A Year of Morning Thanks

Crossword Puzzles

Few blessings give my mother more pleasure than crossword puzzles. When we visit, if we arrive before the daily paper, I can read all over her face what they mean to her because right before our eyes she takes on the lean, hungry look of an addict. She aches to have a look at that day’s offering, even though she's hosting beloved visitors from afar. It's comical, but hugely understandable, and I have even kidded her about it.

Tomorrow is Mother's Day, and I'm happy to report that my mother, soon to be 90 years old, is doing remarkably well and is, by all accounts, very, very happy in “the home.” She is alone since my father’s death several years ago—well, alone, that is, if you don’t count her buddies, her books, her Milwaukee Brewers, and her blessed crossword puzzles.

I remember hearing, not long ago, that some scientific study determined that doing crossword puzzles was really good for old folks, not unlike like going, daily, to a get a workout in some mental rec center.

That’s why this morning, a day before Mother's Day, I’m thankful for my mother's blessed addiction.

Friday, May 09, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks


I don't care what anybody says, performance counts--and that's why there's a certain amount of pressure in me every blasted time I walk out of my office and head to the classroom. You're up in front of real live people, and those people have certain expections.

And that's not all. The material itself carries requirements--students have to learn about passive verbs or point of view and distance. If you're going to be competent at what you do, you've got to give, in essence, equal time to them--the students--and it--the subject matter. At this level anyway, education requires its own high-wire balancing act.

After 35 years of teaching, probably more, I still get nervous when I walk into a class, still tell myself that I hope I'll do better than I think I will, still try to get myself pumped to face kids. After all those years, in fact, it hurts to feel as if the knees are going, as if I'm not quick enough to keep up, as if I'm not catching their body language or their lingo or their allusions to a hundred thousand movies. I want what happens in that room to be good. I don't care how you cut it, the classroom is at least something of a performance, and even though I've been on that stage forever, I'm never without the jitters.

Except today. Graduation. The campus is abuzz with people--overflowing. In just a few hours, the ceremony will begin, the auditorium jam-packed. And then it will be over. Parking lots will empty, students will be gone. In a few hours, the whole place will seem a ghost town.

I love it. Best day of the year, bar none. This morning, it's over. What a blessed feeling. This morning's thanks are a piece of cake: by mid-afternoon the place empties, and nothing could be finer. This morning's thanks are for the commencement of my own summer.