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.

Sunday, August 31, 2008


The knockout Gov

I swear--this election cycle is more fun than a barrel of monkeys, more twists and turns than the road to Mt. Rushmore. Just nuts.

Who is Sarah Palin? That's the question everyone is asking. Three years ago, she was the mayor of a town the size of Sioux Center. Today, she's campaigning to hold an office that may vault her, one way or another, into her own role in Presidential sweepstakes. The woman has dozens of assets; she virtually assures that the Republican convention will soar in television ratings next week. She's brought incredible electricity to the McCain Presidential bid, and it's obvious that cameras love her. By all accounts, she's been a bulldog as Governor of Alaska, even though she's been in in office less than two years.

On the other hand, it's almost impossible for most people to think that someone with her limited background could actually be the leader of the free world. She has no foreign policy experience and is virtually unknown in the lower 48. She represents the biggest gamble since Dan Quayle, probably even bigger since Quayle had been a member of the Senate and Congress before that.

But she shores up McCain's unenthusiastic evangelical base because a ton of evangelicals believe that the only issue worth talking about is abortion. She's got a tremendous story, and the way she bounced out the politicos in her knockout campaign against her own party in Alaska makes her seem a younger--and vastly more photogenic--John McCain.

That the Republicans are playing identity politics is just another great irony of this madcap Presidential sweepstakes. They believe--and Gov. Palin said it herself--that dissaffected Hillary supporters will rally to her side simply because she is a woman. What's more, by choosing her, McCain dumped his strongest argument against Obama, his lack of experience. Ain't we got fun.
Some people used to worry about what a Presidential debate might look like--a 47-year old man vs. one who is old enough to be his father. McCain, never one to shy away from anything, has created the same dilemma on his own stump. How on earth is he going to keep the spotlight on himself?

So far, Governor Palin has done exactly what her choice was intended to do--she's made the electorate forget that more people watched Obama's acceptance speech than the opening of the Olympics. What happened in Denver seems ancient history; Gov. Sarah Palin is all over the news. If reporters can't find something ugly in her short history in office, she'll be a show-stopper wherever she goes. Amazing.

Even bigger news, however, is the way Gustav is heading toward the Louisiana coast. Today, New Orleans will be a ghost town, and, should that massive storm zero in on the city, millions of Americans will be praying for the new levees to hold back another catastrophe. Who knows what'll happen and what that storm will do a couple of thousand miles north in St. Paul, where the Republicans are already gathering, I'm sure. Bush's ineptitude in the face of Katrina is still an open wound. Count on Republicans doing absolutely everything they can illustrate that they've learned a lesson. Already, people are saying that Bush won't do his Monday night speech at the convention. How could he, given the story?

This has to be the most fascinating Presidential race in modern history. Come November, there ought to be more voters than ever before, and that's a good, good thing.

Friday, August 29, 2008


And he's out of a job

Here's the deal. Iowa Central Community College President Robert Paxton (the white guy), who's served the college admirably for a decade or so, gets fired, but he collects $400 thou in the process. He got canned, basically, because this compromising picture somehow got into the hands of the "newspaper Iowa depends on," because someone there decided to run it, and thereby thoroughly dis' the guy.

Paxton explains that looks can deceive, that he wasn't allowing this (much younger) woman to binge drink Coors Light from a mini-keg, even though the picture says it in spades. He says he was holding the spigot to keep the beer from draining into her baby-bird-like open mouth. Sort of hard to believe, like John Edwards.

But the damage got done once the Register printed the picture. Regardless of whether or not what actually went on is anywhere close to what appears to have gone on (the President's son, who is on the picture, was arrested for drunken driving the next morning, or so the story goes), Paxton is out of a job and at least mildly disgraced (nowhere near the level of hell to which John Edwards has fallen).

My two cents' worth? Looks to me as if he should be out of a job. Binge drinking is a major problem at all colleges these days, just as it has been for hundreds of years. There's also a thick sleaze factor in this old guy being surrounded by bikinied young ladies. As my students would likely say, "Eeeooouuuww."

And yet, there's something almost Victorian about it, too. What if Paxton's right? What if the ubiquitous digital camera simply caught him in a pose that looks frightful, but actually wasn't? Aren't we being a little, well, Puritanical?

It's an interesting story because it somehow it feels like a "fifties" judgment, like some old auntie in Dubuque has come back from the grave to draw clear moral lines in the sand, lines the rest of us shant cross, lines that most of us thought blew away years and years ago. There's some strong prudery here somehow, more so than I would have guessed was left in our culture.

Paxton will work again. He's not completely defamed, even if he must be more than a little humiliated. Besides, he's pocketed an extra $400 thou. Not bad.
My guess is that he won't get into a boat with a mini-keg and bunch of bikinied girls half his age. And for him, that's a probably a good thing.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Morning Thanks--A Huge Step



In March, 1968, we drove all night long in order to get to Florida for Spring Break, Daytona Beach. When we got there--as I remember--it was evening, and the place was full of college kids. We looked for someplace to stay but didn't find a thing until--and I don't know how we found it--we stumbled into what seems, in my memory, to have been something akin to a retired army barracks. We got in line. We were third. It was late, and we were getting desperate.

We watched, as a guy and a girl got a room--I was sure they weren't married (we were a long, long ways from Siouxland righteousness). The next couple stepped up to the desk. We were listening closely enough to the conversation to hear the manager tell them that the kids right before them taken the last room he had. Sorry, he said, sweetly.

That left us. Once that screen door slapped shut behind the second couple, we stood there like beggars, then started to turn to follow back outside. "Wait a minute," the manager said. "We don't take their kind here."

He meant the couple in front of us. They were black.

I was 19. That night, and that moment, was really the first time in my life when I looked into the face of a smiling white guy and saw racism. Just a week or so later, Martin Luther King would be dead.

All Americans must be proud, this morning, for what happened last night. People may have some trouble with Barack Obama; they may not know who he is or how to figure him into their perceptions of what people are. Sometimes I wonder, given the stark alternatives, whether he knows himself. Tonight, he'll try to tell us all again, I'm sure.

But we must needs be proud this morning because even though it's taken 400 years, and there's so much horror behind us, this morning there's a candidate for President who is African-American. We've come a long, long way, and that's reason, this morning, to give thanks.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008


Hope and Fear

She found herself in a immensely difficult position last night--if you believe some of the pundits. In order to keep her own Presidential hopes alive, she had to praise Obama as highly as she could--and she did. Her speech was a winner.

Bill and Hillary remain our very best tabloid story, and they likely will until finally they're gone. But then historians will dig them up and start all over again. The improbable ironies of her position last night only serve to outline the jagged presence they've cut in the American consciousness. If she dissed Obama in any way, she'd dis herself. By appearing catty or pouty or whatever, she would have successfully destroyed any possibility she ever might have had to return to the Presidential stage. The only way she could save her own coronation was by giving him the crown.

Or not. It does seem to me that the scenario some tout, the one outlined above, is basically cynical. It assumes that the only motivation for Hillary doing what she did last night was her own--her career, her future, her place in history.

Maybe that's wrong. Maybe she actually believes what she said last night. Maybe she really wants the country to invest in Obama because his values are vastly closer to her own. Maybe she wasn't just thinking of herself.

The older I get, the more I've come to believe that there are two basic emotional responses to life's travails--hope and fear. Some of us eventually come to understand that tomorrow promises more heartaches, that sorrows are the rule of thumb in this vale of tears. Given that fact, some people determine that the only way to live is defensively. Look out for yourself because nobody's going to look out for you. Growl a lot, and for goodness sake, be wary.

On the other hand, some want to pick a thin silver lining out of the dark, tornadic swirl all around. Instead of fear, they want, almost madly, to hope. Instead of living defensively, they want to walk boldly into a tomorrow that will be, they believe, far more sunshiny.

Hope or fear drives most all of us, and right now, in America's political history, the difference between the parties shows the fault lines. The Republicans are the party of fear. In the shadow of 9/11, Bush sold himself on his six-guns, even though he gained his candidacy by something called "compassionate conservatism." McCain is doing the same thing these days, peddling fear. Obama is the candidate of hope, of a new beginning, a new age, a new start. Some get angered by McCain's petulant negativism; some get nauseous at the gassy excess of Obama's undefined soaring rhetoric. And guess what?--you can find good Christians in both camps.

Fear folks think Hillary hit a home run last night for her own benefit, because what motivates her--and what motivates us all--is what we can grab for ourselves out of life's marrow. Hope folks think she gave up her loyal millions for the good of the party, the good of the vision, the good of the nation itself. They think she's not self-serving, but self-less.

Hope and fear.

You choose. We all do.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008


A Year of Morning Thanks

Batless, I hope

It's the time of year when bats are in the rut. I know, I know--it's an expression given only to large and wild mammals, like buffalo, but when they're in your house, bats are, in fact, large and wild mammals. Three honored friends of mine, inside a week, recommended earnestly that I see this summer's box-office hit, The Dark Night, the latest Batman reprise. Last week I thought about it--seriously. This morning, I'll take a pass.

Bats are no one's favorite houseguests, even though they seem not to care at all about your cleanliness. They are totally unwanted, but they somehow sneak in anyway, even though we'd do--and have done--just about anything to keep them outside, whereever it is they (literally) hang out.

Over the years they've decided to flitter through our old house four or five times, I believe. The last time it happened, we called in some Faulkneresque family who took our bucks and promised in very colorful language to rid us of them for a year. Their promise held true, but that was three years ago.

Two nights ago, my wife stormed downstairs in the early a.m., to tell me that she'd seen one hovering over our bed. Someday I'm afraid I might just lose my wife to a snake, but bats, for some reason, don't undo her. She was--as she always has been--relatively calm about their bony flittering. Together we went back upstairs, but the little bugger was not to be found. Which is not at all nice either.

So last night, just after dusk, she went upstairs for something and found our guest whirling and twirling through the upstairs hallway. I positioned myself at the foot of the open staircase and yelled and screamed when he (it's the rut, you know--this is a male, for sure) tried to make a getaway. Finally, we got him in a room.

Now listen. I spent the best years of my life on a baseball field--little league, high school, college, even post-college. I played fast-pitch softball until I got too slow, slo-pitch until I got too stiff. I may well have hit dozens of home runs at fifty years old. But, last night, armed with a racquetball racquet, I swung madly and awfully, like an old blind man, at a hovering rodent, whose knuckleball antics had me feeling my age. With an old t-shirt in one hand and that racquet in the other, I swung at a thousand curveballs, simply trying to make contact as he circled the room, time and time again, turning me into a real whirling dervish. All I wanted to do was knock him down so I could get him the heck out of the house. I'm sure I could turn the video into a comic feature.

The first time we had a bat--twenty years ago--it was my father, here visiting, who finally grabbed it. He took it outside and squashed it, like a bug, with the heel of his shoe. Rather surprised me, in a way, my father being such a peaceful man. I remember killing them too in the past, angry as a madman.

But I've let a few go over time. I know very well that they have a wondrous appetite for bugs and such, that they're healthy little critters who've simply been stung by rather untoward looks and horrifying flight patterns. But this one--our first in years--this one was going to die.

And I'm not apologizing. Here's what happened. The more I missed, the angrier I got. I might well have struck out sixty times before finally getting exactly the pitch that I needed. He strayed too close or his radar went flat; all I know is that I whacked his skull with the metal edge of that racket and he went down as if shot, coming to rest with his legs up in a rather delightful posthumous position. I carried him out in a t-shirt.

It took me ten minutes to get my breath back, as if I'd spent that long at least in the batting cage with an overeager machine. Maybe it was all that blasted swinging and missing that got me mad, got me really angry, but whatever it was, when I finally whacked him--a sound I remember fondly--I was as happy as I've ever been with a clutch hit.

This morning I'm not proud it took me a thousand madcap whiffs, but I'm happy as a lark that our visitor has departed.

Monday, August 25, 2008



A Year of Morning Thanks

Two-edged sword

I love the hellish work of Hieronymus Bosch because the images appeal, somehow, to a perverse side of me, in the same way a train wreck might--you'd rather not look, but you just can't help yourself. Hell is so vividly imagined that you can't help but wonder about the exquisite quality of Mr. Bosch's nightmarish dreams. Yet, if the truth be known, I like them because they don't scare me. I'd love them a whole lot less if they did.

I've thought for years that one of the horrors of the gospel was the fear it instilled and the self-righteousness it engendered when it created a gospel of stark moralism. I am absolutely convinced that in many generations preceding mine, the church too often won its converts by sheer terror, by illuminating the Christian life with highway billboards filled with Bosch's phantasmagoric images.

The gospel, like the Republicans, can make too much out of fear, or so it seems to me. I much prefer grace. It's so much sweeter.

Besides, too often in the past we created our own scenarios, our own narratives by which to attain grace. Too often we've thereby cut off grace with our own hands by making salvation into something we can attain. Too often, we've made it sound as if the Christian life would be ours simply by our adhering to a list of what not to do. I remember an old preacher once saying that human beings want everything they can get for free--except salvation; that's something we really do want to earn.

Not long ago, a retired nurse told me how horrified she was to come to understand that she wasn't happy when she became a missionary; she'd always assumed that God had called her to be a missionary nurse, and, when she became what she wanted, she would, ipso facto, be happy. She wasn't. She was miserable. The whole didn't equal the sum of its perceived parts.

Wrong, wrong, wrong, I say. Grace is the miracle of faith, a gift, nothing we earn. There's nothing to fear.

But twice in the last week I've been assaulted by the words of Jesus Christ in ways that refresh those awful Bosch images, of weeping and gnashing of teeth and all kinds of untoward things that Christ himself promises are to come for those who are not part of his family.

First, my wife and I read through Matthew 23, where Christ sounds more like Isaiah than Isaiah. I don't think of myself as one of the "scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites," and I certainly hope I'm not. I've got no desire to be a part of the brood of vipers, but then, who does? "How shall you escape the sentence of hell?" Jesus says.

Pardon the shudder.

And then yesterday, in church, just a few chapters earlier--Matthew 13, the parable of the dragnet, or, as we used to call that particular piece of fishing apparatus, the seine. Once again, Christ makes clear that someday the angels will come by, the deputies of God's will, and separate the bullheads from the game fish or whatever. And that'll be it for the bullheads.

Twice, the Word proudly announced the reality of that wretched gnashing of teeth, so this morning I don't know what I believe.

God almighty is always bigger than I've guessed--or am guessing--or ever will guess, I suppose. Just when I think I've got him down, he's somewhere else. Because he's God, I suppose. And I'm not.

For what he teaches me daily, I'm thankful, but also sometimes confused. But then, I think he likes that. Somewhere deeply within us is the all-too-human tendency to think more of ourselves than we really should, to think we've finally got him clearly in our sights. That's called pride, the very first of the seven deadlies.

All that weeping and gnashing of teeth, no matter what it stands for or whether or not it's hyperbole, is a reminder of how much I just don't know, and that his coming is, as it always has been--shudder--a two-edged sword.

Just when I thought I had it all cased.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Saturday morning catch

For the first time in months, I answered the call of the dawn. The color show was over just at the time I got myself and the camera out of the car, but the sun rose proudly and lit up a world that is, as it usually is in August, bright emerald. Spend some time elsewhere, then return to the rural Midwest and one realizes just exactly how gargantuan and green this world really is. There is just about as much color here now as there ever is, although once the beans turn to gold and the leaves start to turn, the camera will walk out of bag on its own. Until then, late August will do just fine.

Friday, August 22, 2008


Irrelevance

I've been reading a ton of Scott Russell Sanders lately, and loving it. I've got all sorts of books of his around, and he's not at all new to me; but in preparation for another year of college students, I've been reading through those old books--and at least one new one, A Private History of Awe--in an effort to find some things that will do what I've always wanted lit to do to my students: bring them the sheer joy that absolutely terrific writing has always given me.

The second part of that equation happens in spades when I read Scott Russell Sanders. He flat-out thrills me. He may well be the finest pure writer in America. I know that's an impossibly dumb thing to say, but his essays (he's mostly an essayist) are immensely thoughtful, caring, wise, and just plain beautiful. Okay, okay--he may not be the best writer in America, but I'll make this claim: he's the best American writer nobody knows.

And that claim touches on just one of my fears this year. Tomorrow, flocks of students migrate back to their winter quarters here in northwest Iowa. They fill the streets and empty the stores. I'm sure Wal-Mart is ready, and so are just about all the offices on campus. They're coming, and Wednesday I'll face a couple of dozen in the classroom again, just as I have for almost forty years. It's daunting and scary--always has been, always will be.

The night before I faced a class for the first time--in 1970--I was living in a hotel in downtown Monroe, Wisconsin, waiting for my apartment to open. I sat there on a hot August night, looking at the names on my class list, knowing none of them, and listening to the kids yakking down beneath me on the town square, wondering which of them would show up in the chairs in front of me. I was scared to death.

What scared me then was failure. What scares me today is likely the same darn thing. The odds of failure are greater these days because age carries a certain species of invisibility. Slowly on one notices it--the older one becomes the more one simply isn't noticed. My grandkids look up in church when they hear the voices of children, singing or speaking. Makes no difference--kids are, after all, what they be.

What scares me when I read Scott Russell Sanders is the notion that he may well be the best American writer that no one knows. What I've got to do again this year--just as I've tried to do for the last (almost) forty--is convince kids (and I'm an old man) that there's value, real value, in the grace and beauty and wisdom that rises from words in a sentence, from a genius they never heard of. And the older I get, the more invisible I am, and the less valuable I'm seen in their collective, youthful eyes; thus, or so it seems to me, my job gets tougher.

Cara De Haan said, yesterday, in response to the post about coaching, that she thought teaching was really coaching. She may well be right, and I'm comforted by the idea. But who gets the headlines today?--athletes. That makes coaching football or soccer a far simpler task than coaching sentence structure. Kids want the skills coaches teach. They don't really care about the skills some teachers coach.

What scares me now is irrelevance that comes concomitant with invisibility.

But I'm not dead yet, and I'm ready, once again, to fight the good fight. So bring 'em on. Last night, the football coach said he thought I should come in and yak at his team before a game some night. Maybe I've still got some steam.

Yesterday, a student told me he had to get in my class, even though it was full. He said someone told him he had to get me before I retired. I told him I couldn't let him in because he wasn't first on the waitlist, but, if it made him feel any better, I'd still be at it next year. Don't know what he thought.

Got to go. Work to do. Students are comin', like it or not.

Thursday, August 21, 2008



Multiple Personalities

Yesterday, in front of the football team--all 100 of them--I stood up to do an early morning meditation, on request from the coach. What I'd planned was a few words meant to draw attention to a funny little verse from Psalm 147: "He doesn't delight in the strength of the horse. He takes no pleasure in the legs of a man." I thought that line both delightful and appropos.

When I started talking, I was stunned by the character of and in my own voice. Years ago, I was a coach. Before that, I was an athlete, all year long. I've part of enough coaching chalk talks to have them permanently imprinted on my psyche, but I haven't been in one--nor done one--in 32 years, not since my last coaching stint.

What I couldn't believe about my voice, however, was that I'd fallen back into that rhetorical mode as if it were some roomy old t-shirt. Boom!--just like that I was Coach Schaap.

Of course, maybe they all thought I was nuts. That is a possibility. I haven't any read any reviews.

All of which reminds of a story I heard, years ago, in a Pennsylvania farmhouse when I was doing a story on a retired Baptist preacher and his wife. A call interrupted the interview, and he picked up the phone. Although his wife and I continued to chat, the eavesdropper in me tuned in to that conversation a room away. What I heard was the pastor in the Reverend, trying to douse some parishoner's monster flames.

When it was over, they told me the story. The old woman who had called was furious, claimed the CIA was intercepting her mail, opening it, reading it all. She wanted the pastor to look into this outrage, to do something about the way her privacy was being invaded. She was also crazy, flat-out nuts. Poor old woman had grown immensely paranoid, they told me, shaking their heads.

They didn’t need to say that the CIA would have no interest in a retired teacher who had few friends and had never been in the least subversive. Her opened mail was a nightmare fantasy that was destroying her.

Then they told me a story I’ve not forgotten, how, in an effort to reopen her own old world, they’d asked her not that long before to speak to Sunday school kids—just to stand up in front of a few high school classes and talk about what school was like for their grandparents.

The minute she started speaking she grew lively, animate, loving, sweet, even comical, as every shred of that suicidal paranoia vanished. They said she moved back into the character she’d been as a teacher, started speaking in an old comfortable teaching voice drawn effortlessly from her repertoire, a voice she hadn’t lost even though that personae was a presence unheard for a decade or more. The old teacher was still there, in reserve, resuscitated by a couple dozen kids sitting before her.

She was a hit with the Sunday school, they said. She was who she’d been, her voice clear as a school bell.

In a moment the whacko became a teacher again, never missed a beat. Amazing. And yesterday I fell into a personna I had no idea was hung up in some costume closet in my soul.

Perhaps teaching all these years has made me a monster of multiple personalities whose various characters can sometimes seem, at best, adopted siblings. Quite frankly, I don't know whether all of that should thrill me, or make me shudder.

The truth? All day long, I had to chuckle.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008


A Year of Morning Thanks

Bootstraps
The story is as old as the hills, at least as old as Ben Franklin, who made a big deal out of coming into Philadelphia for the first time with little more than a couple of big cheap hard rolls under each arm, and then, via dedication and hard work, becoming America's first world-citizen.

It's the "rags-to-riches" saga, and it's at least part of the reason the U.S. of A. has all kinds of teeming masses, yearning to be free. It's why my great-great grandparents came here from the Netherlands, why any Anglo's ancestors came from wherever they came from. Shoots, it's why Native Americans see us all as illegal immigrants.

If you work hard, you can make it here. That's the bottom line.

And the fact of the matter is, it's true. Mostly.

So last night, when Shawn Johnson lit up the country with a thousand-watt smile, the "Star-Spangled Banner" playing in the background, just about all of Iowa (at least) felt their breath jerk around a bit, their lips quiver. Ten years ago, a immigrant Chinese gymnast somehow put together the bucks to create a gym in West Des Moines, Iowa, and a six-year-old with a big smile and a big heart walked in. The only question he asked--or so the story goes--is how high do you want to go?

She wanted gold, of course. Shawn Johnson, in this summer's Olympics, was not Michael Phelps. Favored in the all-around, she lost to a teammate who has her own American story, but last night she took home the gold in what Bella Karoli calls "the purgatory" of gymnastics, the balance beam. And then she lit up the world with the smile.

The myth of success been used like a weapon to berate people who don't win, and it's real ethic is only half-truth. Shawn Johnson couldn't have won what she did if, when she was twelve, she'd become six-feet tall. That God designed her to be a fireplug didn't hurt. I could never have been a gymnast no matter how hard I worked. Millions couldn't.

Nonetheless, the potent myth at the very heart of the American experience is true often enough to make us believe it, to make us say it, and to make us thrilled when, like last night, once again it's borne out in the accomplishment.

So this morning, with that radiant smile tattooed to my psyche, I'm thankful that she walked into a gym run by an immigrant Chinese gymnast, that she worked ceaselessly, and that she stood up there, a huge gold medal around her neck. I'm thankful for the joy that kind of disciplined success brings to all of us, even the millions who may never know it themselves. It's still a thrill.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008


Looking backward

A new book by Garrick Davis, titled Praising It New, got a nice review in the Wall Street Journal a couple of weeks ago, with a title that attracted me and tons of others, I would imagine: "Whe Lit-Crit Mattered."

One of the critera by which I judge cultural trends is very personal--if I can feel the movement in me, the trend has some oomph. And this one, for better or for worse, I feel in me. There was a time in my life--the heavy overabundance of books in our home makes it clear--when I was passionate about literature. I still get the NY Times Book Review, even though I can read it on line; but in most every other way, books don't thrill me anymore, maybe because, as the Bible says, of making books there is no end.

In a way, I guess, I'm a recovering book-a-holic. What the article maintains is that I'm not alone. There are tons of others who don't touch the stuff anymore either. Literature, culturally, has had a great fall. All one needs to do is measure column inches in newspapers and magazines. Check it out for yourself: how much is given to movies vs. how much is given to books. Years ago already, books lost that battle. When I started teaching American literature, my classes had sixty or more students; last year, 12.

Sure, there's the exception, Harry Potter being most famous; but for the most part literature has fallen from grace. What this new book does is offer a number of essays by people who were once called "the new critics," literary aficianados who set out on a revolutionary road, at the time, by arguing that the value and meaning of a work is found only inside the work--not in the author's biography or via the era of its creation. What that argument produced, as one can imagine, is some strikingly close readings of familiar literature; and what the review makes clear is that such readings still throb with passion and life.

Literary professionals like myself--I teach literature--didn't need Hollywood to kill literature. Much of the malaise results from more recent advances in the manner by which people have studied literature. Ironically, literary theories ushered new life into a stagnant profession by offering whole new and exciting ways to read and understand literature--schools of criticism fueled by Freud, by feminism, by post-colonialism, by post-modernism, by Marxism offered lit people whole new approaches to reading poetry and fiction and drama.

But the flowering of lit crit also worked against literature by making its value appear relative. If different readings drew from texts wholly different meanings, then the value of the text itself seems, well, questionable. If a text can mean almost anything, then it's just a short jump to the idea that nothing really means anything.

What this book features--or thus saith the review--is criticism that takes very seriously the heart of the text, in a way that feels almost foreign to an English prof today. In the final paragraph, the review draws a little blood: "It is clear from reading the lapidary works in 'Praising It New' that the New Critics were not stern moralists upholding rigid orthodoxies, as their opponents imply. Like other critics of the period -- not least Trilling and Wilson -- they saw poems and novels opening out into life in all its variety, nuance and incompleteness. Good literature, Cleanth Brooks said, provides not 'sermonizing but drama, not generalizations about facts but responses to situations, not statements about what ought to be but renditions of what is.'"

And then the parting shot: "One wonders whether anyone studying in American colleges today has a chance of encountering such ideas in their English classes or of learning from teachers who valued literature as the New Critics did."

Sure it's lamentable, but we're there, all of us.

I'm not quitting. In fact, in some ways I'm even looking forward to the new school year. But what the book documents is a reality that one simply needs to face, even in him or herself.
____________________________

Monday, August 18, 2008


A Year of Morning Thanks

Wow

For four years, few Americans give a hoot about who's the nation's fastest sprinter or miler or gymnast, or who's slickest in the water. For four years, we watch football and March Madness and, occasionally, a world series.

Then, the Olympics rise from the east or south or north or wherever, and we're all eyes. Me too. So last night wasn't exactly a winner for the good old U. S. of A. Our two milers--both Africans, really--finished back in the pack in the semis of the 1500 meters, and the fastest woman in the world--one can say that without chuckling--ends up being Jamaican. In fact, it was a sweep.

All totaled, I watched the Olympics for less than an hour last night and saw the U.S. finish out of the money three times. Sort of a letdown. Well, more than sort of.

But two nights in a row I watched a Jamaican sprinter walk away, almost literally, from the rest of the pack, those yellow jerseys flashing superiority in a way that reminded me of, well, Michael Phelps or Tiger Woods. As much as I disliked losing--I mean, as much as I disliked Americans losing--the phenomenon of this miniscule Carribbean country producing two young superhero sprinters, back to back, was almost as phenomenonal as the whole Phelps story.

Not even three million people live in Jamaica. We've got over 300 million. Here's what I read: "The service economy employs about 40% of the total workforce; agriculture, 22 % and industry 19%. The average income is $3,660 per year. But. . .about 70% of the workforce is unemployed or underemployed, and the government provides no social services. Housing, education, and health care are the greatest needs of the people of Jamaica."

What they don't need is better training for sprinters. But given all of that, it is sharply amazing to see what the world has seen in the last two nights--Jamaican sprinters literally running away from the rest of the world. Makes one ask questions about DNA, about nature/nature, about fundamental questions. Why on earth (explitive cliches all work with the Olympics) should a tiny island country generate physical specimens capable of speeds so vastly superior to anyone else on earth?

That's a mystery. I'm not suggesting steriods, just flat stunned. For awhile I felt rotten--"what's with those American runners anyway?"

And then I just marveled, the way sports excellence leaves one slack-jawed. On two consecutive nights, two Jamaican sprinters--one female, one male--simply left the rest of the world in the dust and coasted to miraculous victories to become the fastest man and woman in the world.

I don't know what's in the water, but the whole phenomenon, once I shed my nationalism, was an double shot of inspiring beauty.

For which I'm thankful.

Friday, August 15, 2008


A Year of Morning Thanks

T-U-L-I-P

Not long ago in the NY Times, David Brooks, in a piece titled "Neural Buddhists," outlined what he considered to be soon-to-begin cultural fisticuffs. Cutting-edge research in neuroscience has discovered the capacity for spirituality in the physiology of the brain, he says. For decades already, some biologists have argued that all behavior is understandable in physiological terms; but the newest research seems to suggest that capacity for selflessness, for community, for inspiration can also be documented scientifically. In other words, there's a place for God.

If God-ness, in other words, is explainable, then much of "there is no God" argument is not so much wrong as well, moot. Even science has begun to note a place for God in the synapses of the brain.

What Brooks says at the end of the argument is just as interesting to me, a novice at all of this. He claims the new battle is going to be waged between those who believe in a personal God and the truth of any particularly holy scripture, and those who simply maintain the truth of religion as a whole, in general. We're all becoming Buddhists, he says, spiritualists.

To me, that's interesting.

And now, a trip back 75 years. A friend of mine told me recently that his father, was a Navajo translator for white missionaries years ago, used to tell him he had a terrible time on camp visits, when the Anglo missionary would ask him to explain to the Navajo people in the hogan an idea the missionary explained as "total depravity."

I couldn't help but laugh.

The Navajo language is visual. Words are created from images--as in "songbird." So what this poor translator had to accomplish, sitting around the fire in some hogan, was a pictorial translation for "total depravity." How on earth would anyone do that? I haven't a clue.

But that's not why I laughed. I laughed because the very idea of an Anglo preacher and his trusted translator riding up to a hogan, and, in the interests of the gospel, talking about total depravity is really a hoot. I mean, you've got to laugh or you'll flat out cry. The situation seems so obviously ludicrous that it seems silly to get angry; all I can do is chuckle.

I was raised in a church, at a time when importance of doctrine may well have been vastly oversold. My father used to tell me that his father--a preacher--used to say that if he didn't preach the catechism, he'd have nothing to say. That an Anglo missionary from my Calvinist tradition would spend time teaching Native-speaking Navajos the truth of total depravity doesn't really surprise me, however, even if it does seem ridiculous. My people were so deeply driven by the importance of doctrine that they sat cross-legged in the startling light of a hogan fire, with an interpreter, trying to teach T-U-L-I-P, the five points of Calvinism, to a people whose very visual language made such ideas almost impossible to communicate.

My friend says his father used to say that when it took him a long, long time to communicate what the missionary wanted said, the missionary would accuse him of doing the preaching himself. Amazing.

Navajo people tell me, however, that some of those visits "in the field" really really got the job done. Navajo people tell me that they remember the missionary coming, remember fondly. Some friendships grew from those visits. Some grew to believe. God moves in mysterious ways. What seems silly today was unquestioned truth just a few years ago.

Some Navajo told me they learned the catechism, in English, even before they understood what it means, just as my grandmother, who, at the very same time, learned the catechism in Dutch when she didn't understand the Dutch language.

What I'm wondering is, will an era of "neural Buddhists" prompt some of us Christians, at least, to revisit the importance of our T-U-L-I-Ps? Will doctrine, once again, become key to the way some of us need to understand God?

Who knows? All I do know is that sometimes I can't help thinking that when we think we're most right, we're just not.

But then--and this too makes me chuckle--God almighty uses us anyway, despite our dingy sincerity, our way-off-the-mark commitments (no matter how heartfelt), and even our damnable self-righteousness. Amazing grace.

Ought to teach us something, at least. Maybe this--humility. At least that.

Ought to put us on our knees.

Maybe those old-time missionaries were, and maybe that's why they succeeded when even their best seems downright laughable today.

This morning I'm thankful for knowing that a long-departed Navajo translator told his son how incredibly difficult it was for him to translate total depravity. And I'm thankful for a smile.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008


A Year of Morning Thanks

Stories that don't make it (2)

When she was in her nineties, she wrote her children weekly while her son and daughgter-in-law were on a sojourn in Egypt. In those letters, she let slip some sinful envy about their being in such exotic climes, reminding them of her own brief stay, seven long decades earlier in China, where she and her husband had planned to be missionaries. When marauding warlords made life impossible for foreigners, the two of them had to return to America, what they'd seen most heartfully as their calling, thwarted by powers I'm sure they relegated to none other than Satan himself.

The Heathen Mission Board told them there was this place in New Mexico--they must have heard of it?--where the church had begun a mission on the Indian field. Maybe they would consider a year there until conditions would cool again in China? They consented.

And never left.

When she was much, much older, her son asked her to recollect some early memories of her life, and all she could talk about was China.

Yet, when some of the local missionaries and medical people from Rehoboth climbed "the pyramid" in the Red Rocks just to the north, she went with, just as she had every Memorial Day for years, a hike up the pyramid for a mountain top breakfast. She was eighty-plus years old!

Her sons say she never turned down a stranger, white or red or green, from her door, and when someone asked her if, with six boys, she hadn't missed a daughter, she responded that one can't really miss someone one never had.

She graduated valedictorian from Hudsonville High School somewhere around 1917, and then again from Hope College, just a few years later.

She was a missionary, but she never considered her life a mission, as in something from which one returns. Her life was mission in the broadest sense, an eternal calling. Her boys insist that neither she nor her husband ever once considered their life on the edge of the reservation anything of a sacrifice.

You may want to imagine her as the mother of six rambunctuos boys, knee-deep in rattlesnake country. But me--I like to think of her way up there on the dome of Red Rock, some chunk of homemade muffin in hand, the incandescent New Mexico sun pulling color from a broad expanse of breathtaking creation all around, her eyes wide open to what she undoubtedly would have seen as God's glorious creation--and a prayer on her lips.

Right now, outside my motel window, a couple thousand cars pass the corner five stories beneath me. The sky is gray. The world is busy, too busy maybe. Me too.

Just the thought of that old woman up atop "the Pyramid" on a sunny Memorial Day, having breakfast, is enough to nourish the soul.

Seems to me the Lord's name is exalted high above our own hearts and souls by the lives of his saints.

Saturday, August 09, 2008


A Year of Morning Thanks

Sunday School

When my people--the Dutch Calvinists--came to America in the 19th and early 20th centuries, one of the phenomena they had to deal with, ecclesiastically, was the whole concept of "Sunday School"--little kids learning about Jesus. "Child evangelism" has, of course, its own sad history. Not unlike Indian boarding schools, sometimes it becomes difficult to determine whether all the effort is worth it or not.

And I'll admit it. Lately, for a variety of reasons, I've been telling myself that, with respect to Christianity, it seems to take us forever to unlearn Sunday School lessons. "Sunday School," after all, suggests simplicity, purity, cuteness, faith that's always prim-and-proper and tied up a bow. Sunday School is the Sugar Creek Gang.

But Christianity never is. The Christian faith is nuanced far beyond the ken of elementary school students. Take any particular manifestation, from simple evangelism to worship music to end times theology: nothing is easy. The Christian faith, like life itself, is ripe with paradox and complication. It's a nest of hooks. Whatever kind of assertion one makes about God, there's always a counter. What's more, church history is not particularly pretty. What people have done in the name of the Lord is not always nice, or even G-rated.

That's why sometimes I wonder about Sunday School.

Last night, I watched my granddaughter and about a hundred other elementary kids put on a cute little musical called "King of the Jungle," a silly little story that's not half as compelling as the joy on the faces of little kids singing their hearts out.

And Grandpa can't help himself. He gets teary.

Was it crack theology? I'm not sure--I checked heresy hunting equipment at the door. Was it serious as Job? Nope. Did it plumb the depths of the human condition? Not really.

Did the kids have fun? Yeah. Were grandpas proud? Yeah. Did some of them--grouchy old men--remember Christ's admonitions to his own skeptical disciples about kids and their faith?--"forbid them not. . ." Yeah, in spades.

So this morning I'm okay with this American affectation, Sunday School, and thankful for a silly little script that taught my granddaughter, I hope, this abiding truth: that God almighty is the king of the jungle.

Because it is a jungle out there. Take it from an old grouch.

Friday, August 08, 2008



A Year of Morning Thanks

The Beijing Olympics

In America, where athletics over-saturate the culture like Houston humidity, just about the best venue all year long is March Madness, the NCAA's wild lose-and-you'-re-out BB tournament. Why? It's full of players who just want to win, to win. Okay, some of them know they'll get the multi-million contracts, but who cares?--in college basketball almost any of the DIV I powers can win on any given night. There's always drama.

So too with the Olympics. Once every four years we discover which Americans can throw the discus farther than anyone else, can leap higher or farther, run faster, ride better, shoot straighter, or vault more artistically off a beastly-looking leather horse. Once every four years we discover athletes who work their buns off, donating their hearts and souls, their minds and bodies, to sport, often simply for the love of excellence and the drama of competition.

The Olympics are wonderful. The Olympics make me cry. This late 60s ex-war protester finds it difficult to generate much patriotism during an Air Force flyover, for example, or a small-town band toots the national anthem. But some U.S. swimmer climbs aboard the winner's podium to the tune of the "Star-Spangled Banner," and I get all weepy.

They're about to get underway again, and I, for one, say, wonderful.

Even when they're under the far too restrictive eyes of those intolerant Chinese, even when Islamic terrorists threaten to blow them sky high, even when the athletes themselves toss their genders or squirt themselves full of some exotic brand of testosterone, I say, bring 'em on. Let the games begin.

I'll just make sure I've got Kleenex close.

This morning, I'm thankful for the Olympics, just like so many others.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks

The prof's duds

Back home again. Just outside my window, the unsettled motion of yellowing leaves catches my eyes, falling from the crab tree, as leaves do, even though it's only early August. In late afternoon, the cicadas start their infernal whining, sirening each other, I suppose, for courtship or whatever, but making it almost impossible to sit outside.

On campus, kids appear like spies, college kids, maybe like Noah's doves. There are ever more people around inside the buildings, and, generally, what's unmistakable is the fact that summer is ending. Back in New Mexico, school is starting already next week. Thank goodness we've still got 10 days--or whatever. The signs are all over. School is about to start.

I don't hate teaching. I've done it all my life, and I've been quite successful, really. But there are fears I've never quite been able to shake, fears that possess me at the beginning of another year. I don't want to be a dork. I don't want to come off as a nag, and I'm tired of being a salesman, trying to peddle literature to a generation who would much, much rather discuss Batman than Bartleby.

But, sooner rather than later, we'll be at it again, and the room will be full of unfamiliar faces when I walk in--quiet kids, still feeling their way through the interpersonal thickets that college life present, in the classroom as well as out. And me--after 35 years of teaching--I'll be just as dysfunctional as they are, trying to be cute and sweet and nice and funny, trying to please, like the salesman I've become.

On Sunday morning I met a student I had 20 years ago, and he announced from his pulpit that I had played a very influential role in his life. I need to remember that, too--because those things happen. They do.

It's time to get ready.

This morning I probably need to remind myself to be grateful for having a hand in people's lives, a hand that has been dealt me as a teacher. Teaching is a noble profession, I guess. It's just that, right now, late summer, it's hard to feel noble about it. Any day now, I'll have to drag that old public self, Professor Schaap, out of summer's mothballs, and slip back into it tight confines, which ain't easy. But it's got to be done.

This morning, write that syllabus, Schaap. No more stories. Once again. Soon enough they'll be here.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008


A Year of Morning Thanks

Reunion

He told me it had been twenty years. Without his tally, I couldn't have guessed the exact time, but I knew it was substantial.

He'd been a unique college freshman and college student. He'd come to school married, a few years of hard work on a dairy under his belt. He wasn't a native speaker, English his second language. He hadn't grown up like the vast majority of his classmates, which could be a blessing but might have been a problem, given his preference for profession.

He wanted to be a preacher, felt deeply and passionately called. Because English wasn't his first language, his classroom performance hadn't been exactly stellar, which isn't to say he did poorly. He had to work for everything he got, and what he finally achieved didn't place him at the top of the class.

I'm quite sure he asked me to write a recommendation for him; he needed a few to get into seminary. I remember struggling at writing that recommendation because, quite frankly, I wondered if he could make it at seminary--and, probably more importantly, in some congregation's pulpit. My guess was, he'd never be a Billy Graham, a heavenly preacher, or a Stanley Hauerwas, some ground-breaking theologian. But what he had going for him was a tremendous heart, as wide the dome of sky. That's what I wrote, I'm sure: he had this great heart.

He went to seminary, and I don't remember knowing much at all about him thereafter. I didn't even know if he'd made it out of to become the pastor he was so sure Christ called him to be. I wasn't sure as he was that the voice he'd heard so distinctly was the voice of the Lord.

Sunday morning I walked into his church, along the main road of a small town on the northern reaches of the Navajo reservation. The church itself wasn't small for the reservation, and the people filled maybe a third of the place, sparsely. Lord knows it was no mega-church, but out here on the reservation the only mega anything is creation itself--its astounding shapes and brilliant colors.

When we walked in, he was taking the blood of Christ to each of those who'd come to the front and were standing, with him, in a circle. He blessed the cup and each of the communicants.

When the sacrament was over and the people were back in the pews, he announced an offering for the poor, then realized all his deacons were absent. He never skipped a beat, just asked his three sons to come to the front for the blessing and to pick up collection. Just before the people sang a hymn in Navajo, he scurried over to the questionably-tuned piano and banged out the melody himself. At the keyboard, he was no more accomplished than he'd ever been in the classroom.

I sat there in his church, half in disbelief, half in sheer joy, remembering him a couple decades ago as a kid who felt fervently called to a profession I honestly didn't know would ever be a good fit.
But last Sunday, it was a thrill to watch him serve his people. It was, I swear.

It was very clear that he hadn't lost that distinctive accent, but it was just as obvious that he hadn't lost that great heart.

When it ended, this congregant was blessed, and that's my thanks this morning.

Monday, August 04, 2008


A Year of Morning Thanks

Oh, humanity!

It's not terribly late, but it's dark over the reservation, scattered lights here and there where Navajo homesteads glitter against the vast reaches of the dark, desert landscape. The ridge of mountains west is barely visible, and, I'll admit it, for a white man somewhat unsure of himself in Indian territory, I'm not feeling totally at home.

I'm coming back from a church basement where I'd been sitting with four or five members of a large Navajo family and listening to them--mostly Grandma--telling a story of life and love and grace. The night had been a blessing.
But that it was doesn't mean that the stories they told weren't without horror. I don't know that I've ever listened to a man's confession of adultery before, then turned to look at his faithful wife, who, it seemed, wouldn't address me or him or even what he'd just said with her eyes. It was a moment I wouldn't forget.

I asked his wife if she was changed that first time he came home and cried and claimed to be. Her eyes rose just for a moment, and she shook her head. The story he'd told led me to believe that this great change was a once-in-a-lifetime event. I didn't realize there would be more, but there were. I liked the man; his eyes were fervent and honest. But they must have been just as trustworthy before, when, certainly, he wasn't.

Some of those who fall--many of them, I imagine--know what they're doing. They know the decisions they make will affect those who love them, but supping with the devil requires a long, long spoon. And every time he'd walked away, he known the truth. He'd been reared in the home of a wonderful mother, a strong Christian believer, the real subject of the interview.

And the story was hers, the matriarch. She was every bit the queen I was led to believe. Faith gives a visible glow to plain old stoicism, the glow of real hope. With eleven children of her own, and tons of grandchildren, she told me she spends lots of her day in prayer, which I don't doubt. Men and women of quiet, abiding faith convey a gravitas that actually makes me feel better about myself--not because I am or should, but because in their persistent conviction, their very presence evokes hope for all of us, makes us all stronger. In that way, she was a queen.

Still, it was dark when I left. Just a few miles down the road, up on the ridge to my right, flashing lights signalled something painful at least a mile away. When I got closer, smoke wafted across the four-lane highway; something was on fire.

Reservation homesteads have a certain consistent look. The Navajos traditionally are semi-nomadic, and they tend to carve out homesteads somewhat distanced from each other, even though they seem to prefer to live in extended family clusters. Often there are trailers or pre-fab homes, sometimes a kind of contemporary hogan and even occasionally an ancient one out back. In the darkness, I couldn't make out exactly what was on fire, but clearly it seemed to me to be someone's reservation home.

I don't think I understand exactly why, but I almost cried. For the next ten minutes at least, I met emergency vehicles who, on the other side of the highway, were distinguishable in the darkness only by their garishly flashing lights and the roaring speed by which the hopscotched traffic.

Honestly, I don't believe that my heartache was racist--I wasn't broken by the tragedy which is often the caricature of the American Indian. I'd just come from a three-hour testimony in the basement of an old rural church, where I'd heard people testify about the Lord's goodness, his unconditional love. I'd just been sitting in the same room with a woman who'd taken her husband back when, I'm sure, a part of me would have told her to run, not walk, away. I'd just seen an old woman jut her jaw when she recounted the intensity of her own daily prayers.

But what I felt in the darkness and flashing lights, in the thick fog of smoke from that reservation home going up in flames was something akin, I think, to the immense price of human failure, our sin, all of ours.

That it's gone is spectacular, as unbelievable as a perfect reservation dawn. But that doesn't mean we don't remember, we don't fall again, we don't bring hurt and sadness to those we love.

Grace is always sufficient, and nothing else could be so comforting. But we are so broken, so weak, so capable of carrying misery into the theater of our lives.

So great is our need of a Savior.

It's a painful lesson in smoke and darkness and emergency light, a lesson once again--once again--once again, especially for many of us, probably most, who are repeat offenders.

Sunday, August 03, 2008


Stories that don't make it

Here's what little I've discovered. She was born and reared in Minnesota, probably a Lutheran, Norwegian, I believe, by ethnic heritage. A strong Christian woman, she went to Biola College sometime in the Thirties, I believe. There, she married a man named Lauber and headed out to New Mexico to do mission work at a presbyterian mission on the Navajo Reservation.

There, somehow, she lost three children, two of them--twins--in childbirth. She also lost her husband.

She then returned to Biola and somehow determined to return, almost as if undeterred, to the Navajo mission field. With a homemade camper, she headed back to the reservation, set up camp on the far eastern edge of Arizona, and held forth, feeding the multitudes on Sunday. Normally, she got men to hold forth, but during the week she did all the evangelizing.

She lived with a Navajo woman, one of her interpreters, and she would often sit in the circle of Native-speaking people without being able to communicate; try as she might, she couldn't learn the language.

She never left. You can find her burial spot, all by itself, here on the reservation.

The church she founded still exists. It's not in good shape--at least by my perception. Those who loved her are still alive. I've heard them speak glowingly of her love for them and for God.

We live in an amazing world. If I'd write that book--if anyone would--probably no publisher would take it. They'd say, and I don't think they'd be wrong, that no one would buy it. Honestly, I don't know that I would.
All of that is true. The Bible says that this devoted woman already has her reward--and she does.

But there are things about life I just don't understand and likely never will.

Friday, August 01, 2008


A Year of Morning Thanks

A Christmas Story

It's four a.m., and I can't sleep. I'm hot. This is not a time for Christmas stories, but I can't help it because I heard a great one Saturday night, an old mission story.

In December back then, boxes and bags of clothes and who-knows-what arrived at the Rehoboth mission, showers of donated blessings from white folks' closets in California, Michigan, Indiana—almost anywhere in the States. It was all second-hand stuff, much of it flea market goods—and some of it was flat out ridiculous for the reservation, pairs of high-heels for Navajo women.

Whatever clothes and toys and household items could be used would be circled up and put in piles—this pile for this family, that for another, until the room was full of neatly organized, cast-off Christmas cheer.
Then, the preacher and his family would tie the stuff in bundles, throw it all in the van, and head out to one of the rural churches, where an overflow Christmas crowd would be happy and festive. They'd sing a few songs, offer a little homily, sing another carol or two, and then, bring out the blessed bundles.

A man I met thinks he was eight or nine at the time, but he remembers well that Billy Norton was there one Christmas, the local medicine man, who paced nervously—well, even a little angrily—at the back, as if unsure of how this all should play out with his people. Think of him as a politician, protective of his turf.

The kids were excited--they knew they were going to get a bag of goodies and an orange. Then the bundles came out and people were all smiles.
But Billy Norton, like some fine sheep dog, kept pacing back and forth in the back of the church until all the bundles were gone—save one. The preacher backed off a minute and then suddenly announced that, sure enough, almost as if it were a Christmas miracle, there was one additional bag—and it’s for Billy Norton.

It was December, of course, and the reservation was shivvering, so when Billy Wilson opened the bag and found a long and heavy wool overcoat, he was thrilled. In a minute, he had it over his shoulders. Even in the church, that long coat was enough to warm his innards.

And the story might well end there, like a hundred other sweet and unexpected Christmas offerings, but there's a good deal more, all of it left unsaid.

On the reservation, Christian priests and preachers were traditionally called the “long coats” by Native people, who create their language by pictures. So that cold December night, when Billy Norton, the medicine man, pulled an XL overcoat over his shoulders and stood there so proudly gifted, it took him a minute to understand that his sometimes friendly rival had one-upped him beautifully that Christmas eve. Not only had the preacher given the man a great gift the medicine man never expected, he'd trumped that gift with an inside joke every last Navajo soul at the Christmas gala understood because even as Billy Norton stood there, fawning in in the warm grace of new wool coat, for a moment at least, the Christian preacher had delightfully turned him into a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

It took a minute--not long--and the whole congregation got the joke. Everyone laughed. Billy Norton looked at the preacher and conceded that he'd got out-thought and out-loved.

I heard that story from a man who was there, who wasn't quite ten years old back then, the preacher's kid. When he told me, his own eyes shone with something almost divine, something like sheer Christmas joy.

That's a Christmas story to war, the heart, even now, in the dog days of summer. It's a story I'm thankful to have heard and thankful to pass along.