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.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Beneath the stones

Thirty-two years ago I stumbled across an old cemetery south of here, not that far away. The long grass was uncut, and many of the stones had tumbled. Wasn't a big place, as I remember, half an acre maybe; but what I've not forgotten was the sense that most of graves belonged to children. Influenza used to ravage the region occasionally, I'm told, and leave death in its wake. The sketchy stories--date of birth, date of death--told by those old gravestones pointed at the early decades of the 20th century, as I remember, a century ago.

I used that cemetery walk in an intro for the first book I wrote because the experience in the long grass and old gravestones made me wonder what had happened here, in this region to which we had just just moved. That wonder led me to read old books about the history of the area, where I found stories, and those stories formed a collection, etc., etc.

Count me among those who believe a walk in a graveyard is pretty darn good therapy once in awhile, especially, perhaps, if none of the stones mark the graves of immediate family, but where instead the people memorialized are simply names etched on rock. I took a walk a couple of days ago and read headstones when I could; after all, even stone wears eventually in the passing of prairie seasons.

I didn't have much time, but I wanted to try out a new lens, so I walked through the oldest section of the town cemetery and found this small, non-descript stone--"Jacoba Bos, 1897 - 1899." No one alive knows this child's story, or even a thing about the misery her death created. I'm not even sure you could discover why she died--how, or at whose hands. Her name may appear in the vast foilage of some family tree, but I'm guessing that this stone--barely a foot across--is all that's left of her two short years.

Man, woman, child--our days are like grass, the Bible says, our own feeble transience written in stone that itself wears away in every cemetery I've ever walked.

But that's not all one picks up in a graveyard. The fact that no one knows the story of Jacoba Bos is enough to rouse my aging imagination, not simply to decry how little we matter--dust to dust and all of that; but also to try to know at least something of what's left here, to try do something humanly impossible: give that little girl what she deserves. And what does she deserve?--well, my humanness prompts me to say this, at least: she deserves more, certainly, than simply to be forgotten. But why just her? After all, there are gadzillions more; the earth itself, as William Cullen Bryant once wrote, is but "one mighty sepulchre."

I have a friend, a Native American writer and Pentecostal, who makes a habit of visiting places where stories reside, places where she sits and listens to the voices in the wind--at Wounded Knee, for example. She claims that if she sits there long enough, she'll hear them, the voices of the lost. 

She's more of a dreamer than I am, but then maybe I don't listen close enough. Or maybe these very words, the letters appearing mystically across a brightened screen in front of me, are themselves proof that once upon a time a child named Jacoba Bos was born here, only to die two years later. Maybe I listened better than I knew.

So here's Jacoba Bos, who lived just two years before being laid to rest.

There's just so much we don't know.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Morning Thanks--Images

Friday, while on a little tourist-y jaunt of the neighborhood, we stopped in a small town not far from here and visited a Roman Catholic church I'd seen a dozen times before, but had never entered. It was gorgeous--inside and out. And it's clear, just from the foyer, that the place has been renewed by the Hispanic folks who've come, in droves, to the area in the last decade.

There's a new Protestant church in another town not far from here. It meets in the showroom of a used car lot. When pendulums swing, as they tend too, some day we'll look back on our places of worship, on parking lots and empty shopping malls, and wonder what good Christian people thought. Just being there, in that old Roman Catholic church, midday, no one else around, was a blessing. The slant of an afternoon sun streamed through the stained glass, and the altar up front, with its towering spires, seemed reaching for God.

Just exactly how deep its legacy runs is hard to measure, I'm sure, but I am, inescapably, a child of Reformation. But the poet on my tour was an old Irish Catholic, who nearly swooned when she stood inside that old church, the old and deeply traditional sanctuary left her almost speechless.

"You know," she said, finally, pointing at the walls,"all that stained glass and all those pewter images of the stations of the cross--you know why, don't you?"

I could have told her the Sunday School answer, of course--that Roman Catholics had a penchant for breaking the commandments and worshiping statues. Just look at those silly saints on their dashboards. That's what I could have said.

"So many people were illiterate," she said. She'd been talking about her own Irish Catholic family not long before, their eccentricities and odd histories. "They couldn't read the Bible themselves, of course, so the pictures all around--they were teaching tools. That's how they learned the story."

Even though I'm 60 years old, unlearning the half-truths of one's childhood is still a joy. Honestly, I feel immensely richer, having learned that all those graven images, all those colorful sun-lit stories around me were little more than a flannel board, just infinitely more beautiful.

For that lesson in history, this child of the Reformation is muchly grateful this morning .

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Morning Thanks--Break

Late afternoon. Yesterday. You could feel it in the offices, the stillness. There was no traffic, no conversation, the whole place as cold and empty as a basement. Still a day to go, but I swear--you can feel it in the air.

We're embarking on a break. For Thanksgiving. For turkey and home fires and cranberry relish. Three e-mails yesterday told me that students who were supposed to be in class were already in Colorado, Washington, elsewhere in Iowa. If you dared to skip two days, you already left on Friday, which gives you a break of almost a week-and-a-half. What a break.

I'm supposed to be outraged. I'm supposed to take it personally. Shoot, if I was their age, I'd be long gone.

Nothing felt quite so good, yesterday, as the cold and empty rooms of the office.

Break as in severence; as in disjunction, discontinuity; as in lull and interim.

As long as it's not an arm or a leg, right now, it's a great word--break. One class to go and I'm in.

Break, as in sabbath, from Hebrew, to rest. Break, as in blessing.

Break as in Thanksgiving Break. Break as "gimme' a break."

Break as in thanks.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Morning Thanks--Teeth

It was, I'm quite sure, my first lesson in irony. I remember taking my bike to the dentist's office in town, where the otherwise bland waiting room wall was decorated by a single picture, a 5x7, featuring a kid from the Spanky-and-Our-Gang era whose head was tied with a bandanna, chin to forehead, knot on top. He'd just come from the chair, and, once outside, he'd picked up a piece of charcoal or something and graffitied the sign outside the dentist's office, scratched the "painless" out of "Painless Dentist," and scratched in "liar."

Ha ha, I thought--not funny. I knew I was supposed to laugh but I didn't. In fact, the stupid picture made me mad because I knew that in just a few moments I'd ascend that elaborate torture apparatus myself and suffer the same painful horrors Spanky had.

I'm thankful to my parents for a myriad of blessings, but good teeth aren't one of them. I've suffered more oral indignities than is rightly fair, methinks. In fact, one of my few repeated nightmares--hardly qualifies, but it is horrifying--is that my teeth suddenly fall out, even though I'm eating nothing more dangerous than a tomato. Boom, crack--suddenly they're not there.

But I'm sixty, and I've got 'em. For years, I was sure I'd have to set the false ones out at night the way my parents did. Not so. I'm still outfitted, but I count among them a number of counterfeits.

Not long ago, I met a man with a shiny set so beautiful that I was downright covetous. When the man smiled, life became an American musical. Blessed with a set like that, I thought, I could be something. No kidding.

Two weeks later, his sister tells me the design was the dentist's. I should have known. Such perfection doesn't really exist in this world.

As John and Abigail Adams age in that wonderful HBO special series, their teeth become an embarrassment. What's there is black; what's not is gaping. When they smile, they look like zombies. Those of us heavy-laden with soft teeth can thank goodness this isn't the 18th century.

Soft or not, I am happy to have my teeth. While they're not perfect--whose are?--they'll do me just fine for awhile at least, my dentist says. So this morning, just now finishing up this morning's wonderful honeycrisp apple, I'm thankful for no less a blessing than my teeth, perilous as they are. At least they stay put.

Not a dime's worth of irony here either, I swear.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Morning Thanks--Denoument

The big, colorful dawns, like the big sunsets, are all on a rheostat. There's nobody flic

king light switches, not a chorus of angels or a squad of wizards leaning anxiously over some massive light board. At just the right time, the heavens come alive at the horizon, its radiance shifting so effortlessly that the whole, gigantic pallette seems liquid.

From my office window last night, I couldn't help but notice an unmistakable glow, where something extraordinary was going on. I climbed in the Tracker, rode just a mile or so west to the edge of town, and caught little more than the last act of an incredible show, but enough to know that what had developed on that monumental stage had been no ordinary dusk.

There ain't no way to get that kind of a show in a lens or on a sensor--I don't care how many megapixels. But you can try. So I did.

So this is a scene from a incredible show that will never, ever play again--even though, if I keep my eyes open, I'm quite sure there will be more astonishing work from the artist.

This morning, I'm thankful to have been there, even if I caught only the falling action.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Morning Thanks--Plymouth Rock

Twelve years from now, it will be interesting if, on this day, someone other than the Massachusetts tourist industry celebrates the 400th anniversary of arrival of the Puritans. Some of us--Native Americans, for sure--would rather not commemorate that day--or our Puritan heritage and history. Imagine North America today without palefaces. Impossible. Were I Pontiac or Crazy Horse or Cochise or Manuelito, I'd likely spend the day in sackcloth and ashes myself.

But there's more. It was Mencken, I believe, who once wrote that Puritanism was the sneaking suspicion that someone, somewhere was having a good time. Or words to that effect. Hawthorne's famous short story "The Maypole of Merry Mount" is a little more complex than it seems at first read, but John Endicott and his well-disciplined roundheads make short shrift of the party-ers next door when they whack down that maypole and thereby begin a movement known as Freudian criticism in American letters. Puritans, in the common mind, are nothing if not humorless.

Most stereotypes--good or bad--have their basis in some bit of truth, and that humorlessness is likely true of William Bradford's "Brownists," the paleface "pilgrims" who first stepped down on New England soil 388 years ago today. But not totally. Bradford's record of Plymouth plantation is a good read, quite frankly, and John Winthrop's diaries make him seem, for the most part, almost sweet. I'm not sure, however, that I would have jumped at the chance to go fishing with the likes of Cotton Mather, and Salem's witchcraft trials have left a scar forever on the American consciousness.

They lugged John Calvin along. They had been in Holland at the time of a endless, divisive Dutch Reformed synod at a city which has, oddly enough, lent the college where I teach its own name--the Synod of Dordtrecht, 1618-1619 (it took a year). I confess that, in more ways than one, I am, at least in part, something of their uptight patrimony.

For all of their excesses--their prying eyes and self-righteous souls--they left this culture far more than their caricature narrowness. They believed in education, their political history is shockingly free of corruption, and they left us with a stunning literary culture, even though most of those writers--Emerson, Thoreau, Dickinson--were by no means apologists.

Look, let's be blunt about it--we're all mixed blessings, really, as is our American Puritan heritage. But this morning, 388 years after those seasick, bedraggled Plymouth pilgrims came ashore and were welcomed by a New England winter that, in just a few months, would leave half of them dead, I swear I'm not blind to the faults of my theological ancestors but I'm thankful for being a part of that story.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Ancient Anomalies

Years ago, a sweet old man who once, when I was a kid, took me to a meeting of the John Birch Society (another story altogether), sang a song in his kitchen when I was there, a song whose lyrics stuck to my memory because it was, well, bawdy, and I wasn't accustomed to such ditties being publicly sung in kitchens. Went like this:

Whistle while you work,
Hitler is a jerk,
Mussolini pulled his weenie,
Now it doesn't work.

It's open reference to male plumbing stunned me--I must have been eight or nine--because such trashy things would never have aired in our home, Hitler or not. But I was old enough to understand that the ditty had its own sacred history, and, after all, lots of sin get excused in the horrifying wake of that great horror, war. If piping tunes about wrecked weenies gets the home front's hopes up, sing it again, right from the top, with full orchestral accompaniment.

In truth, I don't know a thing about Mussolini, but this morning I read that Adolf Hitler did in fact suffer a war wound that left him singularly outfitted where males traditionally have two, if you catch my drift. Officially, such a condition is called monorchic. Look it up, if you're still baffled by my puritanical avoidance (I am, after all, my father's child).

I haven't a clue what this stunning revelation adds to our assessment of the man, the 20th century's least forgotten or forgiven villain. His name will forever be at the top of a monster list that includes Genghis Khan and Joseph Stalin, mass murderers and madmen. I'm no biologist either. I haven't a clue what additional levels of testosterone might have pumped bountifully into his system were he more traditionally outfitted, but I can't help but think we should be thankful he was so blessedly bereft.

My father's gone. My mother hasn't learn to skate the Internet. But I think I'd better let up on the bathroom stuff. It's just too early for to make jokes about plumbing.

But then, maybe neither of my parents would mind hearing their son publicly mention unmentionables. During the years when they lived with a bevy of Dutch Reformed retirees in a trailer court in West Palm, I was annually regaled by a dozen bad jokes about plumbing, faulty and not, that got passed around daily. Once that particular region of the anatomy went to seed (so to speak), the pendulum swung all the way to the other side and dirty jokes were passed out like Queen Whilhelmina peppermints. "Did you hear the one about the man who stuck his pet goose in his pants?" That sort of thing. I'm not kidding. Shocking--and in very poor taste.

And now I'm faced with this sorrowful realization: my own going on and on about stoolish matters makes it seem to me that the old apple here in Sioux Center doesn't fall far from the aging trees in West Palm. That's another reason to curtail this right now, before it goes any farther.

Besides, I've got to run off to the john, again.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Huber Beer and Predestination

They were ancient, I remember thinking. They were old and they were Swiss, and they had a pair of raccoons out back, Rex and Max, who used to go almost giddy whenever the old man would come out to the back yard to feed them. I'll never forget the way he'd take a piece of candy corn in his lips and let one of those silly coons snatch it away, a wacky way to seduce a kiss from those bandana-ed beasts.

They were sweet and warm people, and I rented my very first apartment from them, a rundown trailer about 100-feet away from their house, on a lot in a place that, twenty years before, had likely stood just outside of town, but was no more. I have no idea what the old man had done before retiring. I likely asked because I lived with them for more than a week, until the renter left that old trailer.

Sweet people, I remember. Very conscious of whether or not I was feeling at home with them, sleeping just upstairs. Often wondering how the teaching was going--my first year. At every meal, even breakfast, a dish of cheese slices sat on the table, Swiss cheese. They ate it with almost everything. From them, I gained a love for baby Swiss.

And every night, almost as if I'd ordered it, there'd be a bottle of Huber beer, locally-brewed, right there alongside my plate. My parents weren't tee-totalers, so the beer wasn't shocking. But it came standard with dinner, along with the cheese. The old Swiss couple was likely my first cross-cultural experience, and I didn't have to travel all that far because we were all Wisconsinites. I don't remember if they were church people, nor whether or not they ever went. They didn't pray at every meal, the way I'd been raised.

They were just different--that's what I remember thinking. They were good, sweet people who drank a daily beer or two and ate cheese with every meal, and didn't talk about faith and didn't sing hymns at the piano, didn't even have a piano that I remember; but they loved their tame raccoons.

I was 21 or 22, on my very first job, on my own for the first time, and I remember thinking that I was getting a lesson in my own blinding insularity. Even though they had absolutely no sense of who I was by tribe, by my Dutch Reformed heritage, they were good, sweet people. They were not us exactly--after all, I'd never known anyone who drank a bottle of Huber beer with every meal; but neither were they truly them--neither could I think of them as "of the world." And that was confounding for a day or two, then sweetly liberating.

I don't blame Calvinist theology for teaching me about "us and them," although that lousy bugbear predestination can be and already is blamed for a legion of deviltry. I'm not even sure I'm all that angry about having to learn that people who are not like me--not identifiable by certain culturally distinctive traits--are not necessarily them. I'm not interested in the least in burning my own wooden shoes.

All of us carry a ton of baggage into life; it's just that mine was clearly marked "Dutch Reformed." And what I'm saying is that somewhere along the line I gained the proclivity to separate people into sheep and goats, into right hand and left, into saints and sinners, into us and them, a way of seeing the world that's not altogether easy to shake.

According to Martin Marty's Context, Brian McClaren, of "the emergent church" fame, wrote in Tikkun recently that he remembers being liberated from a confining sense of "us and them."
I remember the great relief I felt when my thinking about call, choosing, or election changed. I was liberated by a new understanding of the story of Abraham. I realized there was a Part A and a Part B to God's promise to Abraham in Genesis 12. Yes, in Part A God says, "I will bless you . . . I will make you a great nation." But that was only half the story, because in Part B God added, "I will make you a blessing . . . all the nations of the world will be blessed through you."
Understanding that Part A was only one part of God's dispensation, his love for the world, was liberating because, McClaren says, "I was no longer able to break apart what God put together, when I included Part B with Part A, God's choice of some was no longer exclusive of others; it was instrumental for others. God no longer played favorites, but, in line with the teaching of Jesus, graciously gave rain and sun to all people."

And finally this: "I believe the idea of exclusive election has twisted sectors of all three Abrahamic faiths. If we perpetuate this misunderstanding, earth's future will be darkened by our religions, not enlightened by them. But if our understanding of chosen-ness, calling, or election can be corrected, wonderful new possibilities can arise. All nations, truly, can be blessed."

To which, Martin Marty says, "Bless him." Me too.

This morning I'm thankful for this guy McClaren, for helping me understand the value of Huber beer, Swiss cheese, and couple of tame raccoons.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Morning Thanks--The Fight

I've just now read an esteemed colleague's "Caring Bridge" report. She calls today her D-Day. Once upon a time she met up with cancer in a dark alley and beat him badly. But the bastard returned, and she's been slugging it out again for months. Today tests will determine whether or not she's beat him again; today some doctor will pull up an image on a screen and read the verdict, then grab a breath and get her in the office to tell her the news--win or lose.

She's much loved by friends and family and students. Legions of prayer warriors will be calling in heavenly air strikes. Today she'll have all those closest to her in her corner. She's in the fight of her life.

And yet, she'll not win or lose, I suppose. Here's what she says: "I’m very aware that the report can go either way but I also know that no matter what happens, God will be there."

We'll miss her if the evil one isn't vanquished. We'll lose, but she won't; and the comfort in all this battle is her confession that she knows his presence, well and good, herself. All our striving would be losing were not the right man on our side, saith the Reverend Doctor Luther, or words to that effect.

This morning is one of those mornings when thanks doesn't seem in order. This morning a ton of folks will be storming the gates of heaven. I'm thankful for this--that in the very core of her soul she knows, even if we can't or don't, that finally, for her, today's round of this knockdown battle will, win or lose, be win/win.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Rejoice, evermore

There's a moment in the story of John Adams, told so brilliantly in an HBO mini-series, when Adams and his son are out walking in the fields surrounding his farm, Peacefields. Just for a moment, he pulls his son close as if to impart great wisdom. He says he's seen the Queen of France outfitted in waves of diamonds, but that her beauty never struck him as anything near the equivalent of "that bush," he says, and he points his cane at little more than a weed along the path. "Your mother once said I never delighted enough in the mundane," he tells his son, "but now I find that if I look at even the smallest thing, my imagination begins to roam the Milky Way." And then, "Rejoice, evermore!" he says, and then repeats it when his son doesn't hear. "It's a phrase from St. Paul, you fool."

I don't know that I've seen anything quite so profoundly beautiful clearly defined and described on a screen.

But the fact is, it's just one unforgettable moment in an unbelievably good series. What's at the core of things is the dawn of a nation, but even more so the life of two people, a husband and wife, John and Abigail Adams, so totally in love and friendship that watching them together is itself a moral lesson a half-century long. In the final segment, their daughter dies, as does Abigail, and as does John himself, after an act of forgivenesss, renewing a long-lost friendship with his political foe, Thomas Jefferson.

The photography is bewitching, the music superb. It's simply great television, great viewing; and like all such shows, it renews one's faith in media. It's just spectacularly good. And this morning--this Sunday morning--I'm thankful for the testimony it's given me, a testimony which includes Paul's admonition: "Rejoice, evermore."

Friday, November 14, 2008

Morning Thanks--Lawrence Dorr


I spent much of the last few days reading papers my students wrote about the Hungarian-American writer Lawrence Dorr, a bear of a man whom I've known for years. The students read four stories from A Bearer of Divine Revelation, and then examined how faith was embedded in the work.

Lawrence Dorr, as a young man, survived the Holocaust, with a brutal twist that most Western readers don't know much of. When Hungary was freed from Nazi oppression, its liberators were but another horrifying curse. Russian soldiers were nothing like the Canadians who liberated Holland, or the GIs who swept the Germans out of France. Russian "liberation" was often simply another terrifying brand of savagery. Years ago, he once told me that writing out the horrors, fashioning them into short fiction, freed him from nightmares.

Instinctively, almost, we'd rather not read Lawrence Dorr's war stories; some of them are nightmar-ish, and the horrors make me want to avert my eyes. Yet faith is always somewhere on the landscape. It's no panacea. It's not a bromide or a sweet diversion, but it's stubbornly there, like a rising sun.

It's my job to teach certain skills, to get my students to read more closely, to write more clearly, to know some things about form and style and content in literature as art.

But there was more in this set of papers than those kinds of skills. Reading the stories of Lawrence Dorr ushered my students into reality of darkness. On the other hand, they came to know that even war's horror does not eclipse the reality of the Light. For an old prof, reading their papers was a joy, not simply because there were no dangling participles or misplaced modifiers. When I read those papers, I knew where those writers had been, in mind and soul.

I should have assigned him 30 years ago.

This morning after a set of good papers, I'm thankful for Lawrence Dorr, a writer and a believer.

Read an interview with Lawrence Dorr here:

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Peter cousins

When I was a boy, Sunday itself was something of a ritual--two worship services, no bicycles or baseballs. The Sabbath began with a radio, up on a ledge above the refrigerator, an ancient white boxy thing tuned to a local station at 8:30, just in time to hear the deeply pitched bass of a preacher by the name was Rev. Peter Eldersveld. In the mid-50s, when the radio ministry of the Christian Reformed Church, the Back to God Hour, had just recently begun, the Reverend Peter Eldersveld was, hands down, the most well-known minister among my people, the CRC. At Calvin College, the denominational school, a dorm was named after him years ago already; and while the vast majority of his adoring listeners are gone now, in CRC rest homes from Patterson to Bellflower, still today ancient hearts would swell at the mere mention of man's name. Many--my parents included--would call him a saint.

Up above my desk here, right beside me, stand at least a dozen novels written by a man named Peter DeVries (1910-1993), a widely known American comic novelist, a man who once wrote "my father hated radio and could not wait for television to be invented so he could hate that too." Mostly, his work consisted of satiric novels that prompted someone call him "the funniest novelist on religion ever." He worked at the New Yorker for almost forty years, wrote 23 novels and innumerable essays, stories, poems, and reviews. The consummate urbanite, he did little but offend his alma mater--Calvin College--during a rare visit there late in his life, rendering little but disdain to those he likely considered provincial locals. I don't think my parents ever heard of Peter DeVries, but if they did, they likely would not have been proud of their son's collection of his satiric, cutting novels. No CRC nursing home residents, I'm sure, would consider him a saint.

In the history of my tribe--the Christian Reformed people--no two prominent men could stand at more diametrically opposite poles.

And now, get this--they were first cousins, named for the same Dutch grandfather.

A preacher could make a sermon out of that, but I'll just let that story hang there, very much like the mystery it is.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


He sat in the back, way in the back, left side. Didn’t say much either, but it was clear to me that he wasn’t dumb. He had this problem with getting work in on time—that I remember well. He was the kind of student who gives you headaches because you’ve got to bug him (or her) to stay tuned. But then, that was not an unfamiliar way of life to me.

Somehow, I got roped into sponsoring the soccer club that year, my very first year of college teaching. I don’t know how, because I knew nothing about soccer except that it was a game with astonishingly little scoring. It seemed to me an exercise in futility sometimes, but I’d been a coach before and I enjoyed the camaraderie cruising along in the van with the team.

This tall kid was one of them, quite talented too, a freshman who played a ton of soccer that year, even though he was one of the new kids on the block.

I don’t know if I had him as a student after that, but some kids you don’t lose sight of—probably because they don’t lose sight of you. This one I remembered, too.

He became a teacher, and an artist, a kid with exceptional talent with a brush and in other media as well, I suppose; and when I’d visit the place he and his wife had chosen to live, I’d run into him. He looked the artist, a pony tail shaped like an artist's brush halfway down his back from thick dark hair, hair to die for. He’d put on weight—never too much, but enough to square him up, so much so that he was an impressive physical specimen, a man with a presence. Even in a crowded room, you didn’t look past him.

And he did well as an artist, well enough to be noticed, well enough to have his work purchased and on display at a number of places and in collections, including here at his alma mater. That’s one, above—a woman somewhere in the middle of a tragedy at Chernobyl--that one is his.

I saw him last weekend and couldn’t help but notice the half-dollar-sized spaces in that thick head of hair. He has brain cancer, and his chances are not at all good.

Twice, his singing group assembled in the front of big crowds, and all eight of them held forth beautifully; but he had obvious trouble holding up his share of the bass line. At times, he was behind a step or two—or just not with the program. But he stood there—sometimes sat—with his gang, and just seeing him up there was, to me and others, the kind of rich testimony that makes people wipe their eyes.

Twice, I saw his wife reach for hers, even though she tried stubbornly to fight the tears. And that's the picture I'm left with, his wife alone in a chair or pew, losing a battle with tears.

In little more than 12 hours I gave two talks, two speeches that had me scared spitless for more than a week. I wanted those speeches to go well, spent more than my share of worry wondering whether what I had prepared would move anyone.

What I didn’t imagine is that the story of the weekend was the story of a tall, skinny kid I had in class almost 35 years ago, a man who is now a 50-year-old man, in the prime of creative life, a pony-tailed painter and husband and father being taken slowly, painfully, from those he loves as nothing less than evil eats away at those very acute perceptions that made him an artist.

We’re not talking about a saint here. We’re not talking about someone whose life didn’t occasionally rush off in directions he hadn’t planned or later wished he’d not taken. He was as human as the rest of us.

As human as the rest of us. And now he’s facing death.

I wish I could write a thoughtful homily I could put in an inside pocket, close to my heart, something that would stanch the bleeding from my own soul.

I don’t like death.

Later today I face another class full of students. I’d like to tell them, if I could, that, quite honestly, nobody knows what life holds for them. I’d like to say a ton of things, but I won’t. Maybe one of those kids will be an artist too—who knows?

We’ll just go on. We’ll read a story about a father’s loves for his daughter, a father who talks to God. That’s what we’ll be doing. We’ll go on. As we always do.

Last night at a committee meeting, the chair extended sympathy to two members who, in the last while, lost two family members. Tonight I’ll go to a wake. Yesterday was Veteran’s Day. This country has only one doughboy left—107 years old—from the First World War. All the rest are in the earth, “one mighty sepulcher,” William Cullen Bryant once called it in a poem he wrote, as unlikely as it seems, when he 19.

It’s all around us, really, this mess. But we go on. Grab a Kleenex maybe, howl some.

But the human story—our need for love, God’s love—just keeps playing. Just keeps playing.

Not unlike soccer maybe, a game—or so it seems this morning—with not much scoring.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Skinny on Luther

On Reformation Day, at a chapel here, our speaker, a theologian, told this wonderful little story about Martin Luther, the writer, whose right hand, in death, hadn't loosened a bit from the shape his fingers made when holding a quill. I thought that was a sweet image. What he left behind, our speaker said, was an entire shelf of thoughtful books.

I liked all of that, a lot--and I said so. Check for yourself. I told the story on Halloween.

Yesterday, Luther's birthday, I heard another side to the tale from none other than Garrison Keillor, who some consider one of the finest Lutheran theologians of the contemporary era (I'm only partially tongue-in-cheek). Here's how The Writers Almanac celebrated Luther's birthday:

It's the birthday of poet and theologian Martin Luther, born in Eisleben, Saxony (1483). He wrote: "A mighty fortress is our God/ A bulwark never failing." He's best known as the man who sparked the Protestant Reformation, but he was also an extraordinarily productive writer. After he posted his 95 Theses and had to go into exile, he completed the first translation of the Bible into German. He wrote theology, hymns, poetry, liturgies, sermons, commentaries, translations, and polemics. Toward the end of his life, Luther began to regret how many books he had written. He said, "The multitude of books is a great evil. There is no limit to this fever for writing." Today, most of Luther's writings are only read by theologians.

Ouch. My heart much prefers the take from that sweet and comely chapel speech. My head--and my age--tells me Keillor likely isn't all wrong.

I do believe I got spun. But then maybe not. A really thoughtful scholar would seek out and then read a biography of the man and from thence determine the truth.

But whose biography?

Sheesh. Think I'll just listen to music.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Keeping low

An old friend told me that, when he left for the college from which both of us later graduated, his father told him in no uncertain terms to be careful, to beware of the religious fanatics. I'm not sure whether anyone here other than he and I can chuckle at that warning, but I can, and do--often.

Not that there are so many religious fanatics hereabouts, then or now. Not that there are any more, per capita, than there might be at any other college that clings steadfastly to its Christian character the way this one does--and I do.

But even though I think I understand the warning, I don't think I understand all that much about the balance I need to maintain between faith and reason; between reading the Bible literally and reading it, well, ethically; between the loyalties and reverence due, for instance, to a flag on one hand and a cross on the other. Jesus told us all to give Caesar his due, but gather any 12 preachers from different theological strains, and you'll have a dozen variations on the theme.

This morning my in-box had three e-mails from people who believe Obama's election means the apocalypse. While I think that attitude is misguided, sometimes I wish I was so defiantly sure as they are of their version of the unsullied truth about time and eternity. The faith of these folks is deep and rich, immensely abundant; it grows like sumac. They likely pray more richly than I do and read the Bible more studiously. All three are loyal warriors in the religious right.

The problem is, I think they're wrong. I think faith has made them something akin to those fanatics my friend's old man warned him about nearly a half-century ago, even though none of them live anywhere near this neighborhood.

But who's right? Are they right or am I? I wish I knew.

Balancing the significance of reason and significance of revelation is an immensely delicate matter for all of us, isn't it? When, reason wins in a romp, we erroneously believe we can think through everything; when we abandon revelation, our own cynicism can make us bitter fools. I can get that way--I admit it. In the last few days, in fact, I've felt it in spades.

But when we rely totally on what we know in our hearts, we could just as well cut off our heads. We lose our way on the paths through this world, God's own beloved creation. We don't become bitter fools, but holy fools--which is simply another breed.

There really is some truth in what the old man said, isn't there? Beware of fanatics--in whatever garb they dress.

There's a storm outside this morning--our first snow. That phrase has a romantic sensibility, doesn't it? But there's nothing romantic about this mini-blizzard. The great wind is swirling.

If you live out here on the plains, you come to understand that the best way to stay up in this kind of wind is stay low. To keep your balance means keeping a low center of gravity, which is to say, here or anywhere, to get on your knees--not just in prayer either, but in humility.

Old knees don't always bend all that well.

Lord, help me keep a low center of gravity.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Morning Thanks--the language of falling leaves

Tuesday morning, early, I walked out back for awhile. If the moon was around, it was somewhere else in the cosmos or a sliver just I didn't see. The night seemed especially black, except for a sky full of jewelry. It was early morning and, strangely for the Plains, largely windstill. No, make that totally windstill. There was no movement at all in the trees.

And yet the leaves were falling. In a dark morning that any other of time of year would have been totally silent, those leaves crackled just slightly as they fell over lawn and sidewalk and the barn roof, the rustling neither distressing, nor fearful--just unusual. For sure, it's fall--just listen, I told myself.

That it was election day is immaterial. But as I stood there in the shower of gentle whispering, I told myself that I hadn't been paying attention lately, hadn't been listening enough. “Little things console us," Pascal once wrote, "because little things afflict us.”

There was nothing little about this Presidential election, but, standing out there in the shower of falling leaves, I told myself it was time to listen more, now that it's over, to keep a place in my heart for beauty, as Pascal also once suggested.

After all, this is my father's world. And this morning, I'm thankful for the language of his grace in the falling leaves of a dark and windstill morning.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Morning Thanks--Christian education

I graduated from a public high school. I taught in a small, rural public high school in Wisconsin, and loved it. I taught in a huge city high school in Arizona and loved it too. I have a deep regard and love for public education.
But my kids went to a Christian school. My family has been committed to Christian education for generations. I've taught in a Christian college for almost 35 years. I can't begin to tally the bucks we've poured into Christian education. Last year, I was employed, part-time, by a Christian school in New Mexico that's been there, near the Navajo and Zuni reservations, for an entire century. My job was to tout its accomplishments.

Yesterday, when my grandchildren came to visit, they walked into my basement office when the election results were blaring and someone was talking about Barrack Obama. My tow-headed grandson, a kindergartner at a Christian school, looked up at me and said, flatly, "Barack Obama kills babies." He's five years old. I didn't even think he knew the man's name.

I'm sure that refrain didn't come from my grandson's teacher. It's quite likely the line came from some child's deeply-committed, well-meaning parents; but I found the whole incident really sad.
In yesterday's election, there were very good reasons to vote for Barack Obama, and to not to vote for Barack Obama. Abortion remains a horrific open wound on our entire culture, a sin. But isn't it also a sin to tell your children that Barack Obama kills babies?
His bald assertion, to my mind, wasn't Christian education's finest hour. But I trust that this morning, in his classroom, his teacher will talk about love and hate and dignity, about love and hate and sin and grace. And I hope that she mentions the fact that this entire nation has taken a historic step away from its past because Obama's face holds the character of both his white mother and his black father. Astoundingly, America has its first African-American President, and not to mention it is to look past history as if it didn't happen.

This morning I give thanks for Christian education, not because everything that happens in those classrooms and on its playgrounds is pure in heart and spirit, but because I trust that my grand children's teachers, many of whom I've taught myself, can create a classroom environment in which this signal truth reigns: that only God's great love can sustain our ever-starving souls.
I am committed to Christian education because those schools I support here--elementary, secondary, and college--are committed to being bigger than hate.

This morning's thanks are many: for Barack Obama, for a country that seems to have shed some of its awful legacy of racism, and for Christian education, where teachers are committed, first of all, to love.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks

And it's over

This Presidential sweepstakes has been, without question, the most memorable campaign in my lifetime. Why?

>The possible success of an African-American candidate, who is, for all intents and purposes, a political novice. Honestly, who would have thunk?

>A possible success of woman VP candidate. Not the first and not the brightest, but certainly the most attractive, most driven, most energetic. I'n't she somethin'?

>The near-nomination of a Mormon, the Republican governor of a Democratic state, whose wife and family are straight from central casting, but who never really caught on.

>An actor and former senator who was the front-runner until he threw his hat in the ring, at which point he fell like a rock on a reflecting pool.

>A man with a penchant for $400 haircuts, who cheated on his cancer-stricken wife, and, for a time at least, could well have been his party's candidate despite the fact that he was doodling a campaign worker.

>A much-derided "community organizer" whose community organizing may well earn him the election.

>The unlikely ascendency of an unemployed plumber from Ohio, a Mr. Clean who really wasn't but became, for a time, the most visible of any McCain surrogates and should have his first book out any day now--or better, if his publishers have any say.

>The death of a much-beloved grandma the day before the election, the woman who may well have done more to nurture Obama than anyone else in his eccentric, broken family.

>A proud Alaskan redneck kid with an embarrassing Facebooks account, a kid who got a VP candidate's 16-year-old daughter pregnant and swore to do the honorable thing and marry her.

>An African-American mega-church pastor whose denunciations of America never got enough air time for some conservatives, and who acted a madman when his heavy-handed rhetoric had been You-Tubed.

>A libertarian hero who attracted nearly as many young people and as the Democratic nominee, not to mention an incredible war chest, and then, strangely enough, decided to endorse anyone from any third or fourth party or fifth party.

>an economic disaster, mid-campaign, that, more than any other factor or event or even personality, may have doomed the Republican candidate.

>the virtual disappearance of a standing President, a full-fledged undesireable on the campaign trail.

>the virtual disappearance of a standing Vice-President, who had, for the most part, disappeared for most of the last eight years, but who came out, the weekend before the election, to endorse his party's candidate, a move joyfully heralded by the opposition.

>an ex-beauty queen, tough-as-nails VP nomination with a penchant for airhead answers, a woman who truly energized the Republican base and may well have saved McCain's candidacy, but in the end brought few others into the Republican fold, probably turned them away.

>huge crowds--five figures and more--for both candidates.

>the unexpected fall of the first family of Democratic politics--which doesn't mean they're gone.

>the most thoughtful speech on race in America in a long, long time.

>the most incredible price tag ever for an election.

>the marginalization of Christian conservatives, who rose to power by hitching their wagon to "a praying man," and likely went down with him. Much sound, much fury this round--but little real play.

>the oldest candidate for President in history.

>the least Republican candidate for President in a lifetime, the man who was actually courted to be the VP candidate of the last Democratic nominee.

>the worst handling of said candidate that anyone could imagine, handling that drove the man's sheer likeability--for years his strength--flat into the ground.

>a snowmobiling, part-Native, macho husband, who is a stay-at-home dad.

>language befitting the fifties--"socialist," even "communist," even though that candidate's closest economic advisors include the world's most prominent investor/capitalist, Warren Buffet.

>a campaign that was the longest and most expensive on record.

Please, add your own.

This morning's thanks is two-fold--first, for an incredible story that just wouldn't die, a campaign that will prompt millions to turn out today in numbers vastly beyond anything anyone has ever seen in this country.

And second, simply, that--hallelujah!--it's over.
Post-script: The Obama sign on my lawn is finally gone this morning, like the signs of everyone I know who had one. It was out there for a week, and I must admit thinking I was somehow a victim of discrimination. Anyway, it's gone. I can only hope it was a souvenir-hunter.

Monday, November 03, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks

To see ourselves as others see us

Soon enough there will be no more biking out to Sandy Hollow. It was almost eighty yesterday, November 2, a record-breaker; soon enough the bike trail will be full of drifts or the temps will be such that riding out east of town, over hill and dale, will freeze your eyeballs. But yesterday, I got a trip in, maybe one more time, last one 'till May.

And when I did I thought about an international student's essay I'd read just the day before, a little essay describing the very same ground, a bike trip she took last summer. I'd asked my students to write an essay that was based somehow in nature. It's a dirty trick, maybe, because my real objective is to get them to look closely at the world around them, something few of them seem to do, burdened as they are with a college kid's work and play.

She chose to write about a little bike trip to Sandy Hollow, when she saw a garter snake (horrors!), drove through "tall green weeds" (she had to be talking about corn), and then experienced something of an epiphany when she and her accomplices were out at the campground. While she was resting from the ride, her sister pointed at a picture. I'll let my student tell the story:

I looked, pondering what my sister meant. I finally figured what she meant—a group of boys climbing the tree leaning over the lake, holding on to the rope tightly, dropping off for an exciting jump, driving into the water, and resurfacing. I smiled, with the saying—“Ah-hah!”

The view—boys swimming in the lake—was precious and felt just like heaven. Eight boys, around eleven or twelve, did not seem afraid of climbing the tree, nor worrying that there might be a squirrel on the tree--which I would probably be scared about. They jumped off the rope, not thinking too much on the insurance cost which I would probably worry about. They played in the water going in and out, not worrying that there might be water snakes around which I would probably worry about. Unlike me, the boys screamed and hollered, enjoying nature. On the other hand, I screamed out loud over the snake. In addition, I really disliked the curvy road biking.

All of a sudden, I felt shame compared to the boys who appreciate nature as if they were in the best place to be in. The boys, younger than I, made me realize how nature can give pleasure more than what people think and also is friendly to be with.

She's writing in her second language, maybe third, so the diction is far more entertaining than it is sound, but the idea stuck with me as I biked. She's Korean, and she's likely lived most of her life in the city. What she knows is the city; the vistas she loves are the starry nights of vast urban landscapes. She's never been surrounded by corn in a world where boys play Tarzan over a sand pit.

To see those boys jumping into the water was as foreign to her as her world would be to them, a place where they'd be as afraid as she was.

Her last essay was about home--and homesickness. In her own way, she wrote about how she missed it, the Korean high-rise apartment where her family lives, a world away from "the tall green weeds" all around her here.

Yesterday, on a quick little trip out to Sandy Hollow, I just had to giggle--and take some joy as I pedaled back to town, not because I believe that rural life is somehow "better" than her urbanity, but because my heart is glad (as she might say) to live in a place where there still is some touch of wilderness, where boys can still bellyflop from a rope, where an encounter with a garter snake isn't all that rare, and where one can bike ten miles and not really meet a soul.

She helped me to see anew a world I see everyday. And for that gift from a homesick Korean student, I'm thankful.