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.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Bob and the Rookie

Bob, the gymnast, sat right in front, a kid with Popeye's powerful forearms and a saint's pale blue eyes. I'd never known a gymnast before. In my previous life as a high school student, I'd known cocky shortstops, thick-headed defensive tackles, thoroughbred point guards, and track stars of every shape and size. But I'd never taught in a big city high school, never even really been in one, a school big enough to sport a gymnastic team.

In many ways, back then, I was a rookie, growing up as I had in the loving security of a Midwestern small town, where I had only one friend who ever talked back to his father, where I'd never seen my parents fight, if in fact they ever did. I'd seen drunks, but they were all fun-loving kids with their fingers wrapped around shortie Pabsts. I'd read about bad things, but my Christian home hadn't really prepared me for the lives some people live, day in and day out.

One day after school this same Bob came up to me and told me that he didn't have a paper finished. He was a nice kid, quiet and unassuming, never bold.

“What’s the deal?” I said. "You need another day or two?"

He looked down at the books he had pinned up against his chest. "I don’t know if I can."

He’d already passed a test or two, but he’d never struck me as a kid who couldn’t do the work.

“So when can you get it in?” I asked him. “Name a day.”

He eyes searched the rug as if there were some answer down there folded up in a note. But once I saw the way his mouth tightened, his teeth down over his bottom lip, I knew there was more to the story. The big kid--the kid with the arms and the shoulders, the kid who wore his shirtsleeves rolled up above the swell of his biceps--that kid cried.

“I can’t get anything done at home,” he told me. “I just can’t.”

“What’s the matter?” I said.

He brought his hands up to his eyes. "My folks," he said. “They’re on each other’s cases all the time, and I just can’t take it.”

We’d never talked about such things in my college English methods class.

“Every night—every night it goes on,” he said, “and if I go away I can’t get my work done. I don’t know what to do.”

I reached for Kleenex. Even now, forty years later, I don’t remember another guy crying like Bob did—eyes flaming red and bruised by the way his hands constantly pushed at them, as if to stanch what, it seemed, had to flow.

"It’s okay," I said . "I understand—I understand.” That was a lie, but I didn't know what else to say.

“All my classes,” he said, “every one of them—they’re all just falling apart. It’s just crazy—everything’s just crazy.”

"Listen,"I said. "You get that paper in whenever you can, all right? I understand. I put my arm on his shoulder because it seemed so abundantly right.

When he left that afternoon, I felt as if I had something to write home about--how the world was an awful place, and how I really didn't understand the darkness so well as I did now that I was there, in the city.

A day or two later I met one of the counselors coming up the walk toward the English building, rocking on his toes the way he always did, rolling along that way, as if simply a smile weren't enough to show the need for happiness.

“Schaap,” he said, “this kid—Bob Ranzig—you got him, right?—short guy?—muscular?”

“Sure,” I said. "I ought to talk to you about him--"

"I know,” he said. "I know it all." He turned his head away and looked down at the cracks in the sidewalk as if what he had to say wasn't going to be easy. "You're a saint—you know that? All you small-towners Midwesterners are such sweethearts.” Then he giggled, his head snapping back a 1itt1e. "He pulled one over on you the other day. He’s been pulling that stunt all the years he's been here, and I've been telling him that he can’t do it anymore. It’s a crutch, and he’s got to learn to live with who he is.”

“Are you sure?” I said.

"Don't ever let him by like that again. You want to help the kid?—then don't let him pull that stunt. I don’t care what he's got at home, he can’t get by pulling that song-and-dance. He’s using it, and he can’t.”

I felt green, perfectly green.

“You’re not the only one,” he told me, and then he put his hand on my shoulder, just as I had done two days before with a teary gymnast.

If teaching means giving and loving, then one doesn't teach without trust, and trust is always risky. You get beat up, and sometimes you get burned. Lord knows, you get deceived.

But you keep giving--or else, most likely, you quit. Those of us who stay in this profession likely stay rookies. Even though the darkness is inescapable, most teachers hold on to hope. I don't think one can teach any other way.

But then, I don't think one can live any other way. Finally, even for an old Calvinist, there's got to be more to write home about than darkness.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Removing the sting

I just pulled on my shoes and tied them. In a few minutes, I'll be off to the gym, and then I'll return, shower, make coffee, start another day, a ritual processional. Later, I've got papers to read and problems to sort out. I'll have to prepare for classes.

My wife is still asleep, and the cat has been a pain, just as he is every morning. It's dark outside, and through the night the wind has picked up as if warning of snow, maybe a blizzard. If we don't get one, our neighbors will; it's going to be that close.

Yesterday a robin pulled packed, winter leaves out of tamped down pile in the driveway, tossing them--literally tossing them--to the side in an effort to find a single worm. The squirrels have been feasting, creating little holes in the grass where they've burrowed in to find hackberries that fell from the backyard tree way back in September. They toil, and they spin--but then so do the rest of us.

Our kids came for dinner yesterday, as they often do on Sundays, and we spent a couple hours in the retirement home, visiting our folks. Life as usual. And this morning, right now, I'm creating a magic show once again, strangely shaped objects marching forth on a bright screen before me as my fingertips bounce on the keys, not inerrantly. Life goes on.

Yesterday, a colleague slipped away. She'd had cancer for years and fought a spirited battle that, not long ago, she seemed almost to be winning. She was a very popular teacher. Her enthusiasm was contageous, and she had a penchant for "teaching her life"--for lugging her own story, which wasn't run-of-the-mill, into the heart of the discussions. She left it all in the classroom, the way some athletes do on the gridiron. She was, as a teacher, transparent. As a giver, she had few rivals. As a smiler, the rest of us were and are ho-hum. For several years already, her lessons were providentially weighted by the fact that she was herself an ongoing saga, a woman at war with evil cells within her.

To say cancer won that battle seems short-sighted. In dying--and in the long and anguished ordeal of her death--she likely taught her students more than she might have had she not been absent all those weeks and months. She leaves behind beloved students, loving kids and grandkids, and a grieving husband; but she is, as we like to say, in a better place.

In all my years at this college, only once before do I remember losing a colleague during the school year, and that death was a tragic accident. Cella's cancer made her a center of attention for years, literally. Doug's death was shockingly instantaneous, as bedeviling to all of us as it might have been even to him.

For a couple weeks now, it's often felt strangely inappropos to laugh, almost unfeeling to carry on at the very moment that, not that far away, her children were keeping vigil in a hospice center. We prayed often. I wonder if the number of prayers ever reached a million. Over the years, I wouldn't doubt it.

But, daily during all that time, I pulled tennis shoes on in darkened early mornings, drove over to the gym, worked out, showered, ate shredded wheat or a bagel, and went on.

It's time to go now, in fact.

This morning, the strife is o'er.

That she was a radiant Christian somehow softens things, makes it easier to say that she's finally at rest in glory.

The squirrels will be out in the backyard today, and the robins will be cocking their heads listening for the silence of worms. Life will go on. I've got papers to read, preps to make.

If I think of it all this way--my colleague lost the battle--it's tough to go on. But that's not really true. Finally, she won the war.

And that's as good a reason as any, this morning, for me and rest of the early-risers to head for the gym.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Meds for English majors

Secret sins
“You have set our iniquities before you,
our secret sins in the light of your presence.” Psalm 90:8

I don’t know why, but I’ve always thought of Edgar Allen Poe as “junior high-ish.” While he can't be excluded from American literature, he rides along on the canon like an elegant barnacle. Is “The Fall of the House of Usher” a study in unremitting madness, or, simply, as some critics have often claimed, “an elaborate way to say ‘boo’”? I don’t know.

“The Tell-tale Heart” may well be his most famous yarn. A delusional man-servant murders his boss and covers the crime perfectly, but he's so wretchedly haunted by what he’s done that he confesses, as a means by which to end the horrifying echo of the old man’s heart in his demented mind.

Remove the 17th century details from Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, and you’ve got the same story. Set it in 19th century Russia, and title it Crime and Punishment. Tell the story in apartheid South Africa, and you have To Late the Phalarope. I’m sure I’m missing a dozen or more cousins. Same story—right? Maybe. Maybe not.

Years ago, I judged a junior high forensics contest in which kids gave memorized readings; one of them did “The Tell-Tale Heart.” The performer did well but scared no one. Mostly, he got giggles. Nobody used Hawthorne or Dostoevsky; but if someone had, I’m betting no one would have giggled. That’s why I can’t help but think there is something somewhat “junior high” about Poe.

Just as there is something somewhat junior high about a verse like this one—at least, in the way an idea like this has been manipulated by believers throughout history. “Beware—your secret sins will find you out.”

Fear has always been an effective motivator. Somewhere I read that adolescent boys have fleshy sexual fancies about dozen times per hour, on average. I don’t doubt it. I was such a character once myself. Tell a junior high boy that Jesus knows his secret sins, and you’ll get his attention.

But some of us aren't too steamy, or don't carry much of a criminal record—and I’m not bragging. My tepid testimony wouldn’t inspire anyone around a campfire, certainly not a TV producer. The burden of my sins would be filed under “Spirit,” not “Flesh.” From Hollywood’s perspective, that’s not going to sell tickets. Bring on Poe.

And yet this verse is scary—especially if I think about it in a, well, fleshy way. To be buck naked before God almighty doesn't feel pleasant. To imagine him seeing me, inside and out, 24/7, makes my ample guilt bleed. I’m not haunted by the heartbeat of my latest, sorry victim, but when I imagine myself splayed before the God of love, I can feel my pride unfashonably exposed. After all, I know where numero uno ranks in my daily to-do list.

And that scares me. Which it should. And I’m long, long past junior high.

Historically, the sins of the spirit have always been considered deeper and more vile than the sins of the flesh, probably because they’re just not front-page material.

Most of us don't care to read that kind of story, maybe because, like me, it’s my own.

Friday, March 27, 2009

A blessing on a snowy spring morning

I'm not sure this is legal, but what the heck. Here's a wonderful poem.

I'm not making this up
--they bolt through
traffic all year long--
"G.O.D." plastered in black

on their fronts, sides, backs,
--letters spaced by periods
big as brake drums--
on rigs roaring all over town, for

Guaranteed Overnight Delivery.

[That there is such a delivery service is news to me, but I doubt nothing. Their tagline seems to me to be an eye-catcher, and catching eyes is good marketing. They caught the poet. Read on.]

Six-to eighteen-wheelers
--Volvo engines,
Bendix brakes--
dispatched across New England's
gritty roads and city grids
--loading kayaks, anoraks,
porn, or petunias--
kept track of on G.O.D.'s ledger for:

Overnight Delivery--guaranteed.

[Don't have a clue how Laure-Anne Bosselaar, the poet, knows they have Bendix brakes, but maybe it's not a secret. And now, six stanzas in, a pattern is emerging--those single-line stanzas (although the wording is skewed) suggest she's ordering things. Word choice in that last four-liner is cute, no?--listen: "gritty roads and city grids," a verbal reminder that she's having fun here, not playing Job, even though the subject is, well, the Almighty. Sort of. Anyway, she messes with her pattern in the next chunk, when the three-word refrain gets possessive-d so that the finale of this little heart-pleaser is umbilicaled (there, I made up a word) to the one preceding it. Oh, just read on--and be sure to note the italics. They're hers.]

Why didn't I think of it before
--it's been in my face
all this time for Christ's sake--
their 800 number the one to call:

no more shrinks, no novenas
--rosaries clicking
like phones hanging up--
I'll call them for a date with

Guaranteed Overnight Delivery's

roving rep, show him my load
--how it piles up, weighs,
chokes up my days--
sign a contract, swear I'll pay

overtime, taxes, tonnage and tips
--anything you
charge, sir, is okay--
I'll pay. But take it away:

Deliver me. Overnight. Guarantee it.

End of poem. Isn't that wonderful?

I don't know Laure-Anne Bosselaar, but I know she's a believer because she's caught in that human trap in which only believers get ensnared--only believers feel abandoned; after all, if God wasn't there in the first place, how can his absence be torturous?

But I overstate. There isn't a dime's worth of real torture in this poem, only frustration. Show me the believer who hasn't felt the italics. Get me out of here. Heal this woman. Change his life. I can't take it. It's driving me crazy. Are you sleeping, Lord? Why don't you answer me? How long, O Lord?

That last line is straight out of King David. Shoot, the poem is biblical.

Been there. Done that. But then, maybe the real reason I love the poem is that I'm in it. That's self-centered, isn't it?

Okay then, forgive me. I still like it. It's a variation on Calvin's favorite benediction: Lord Jesus, come quickly.

With a touch of New England and just a bit of a smile.
"G.O.D.'s Trucks" from Small Gods of Grief, by Laure-Anne Bosselaar. BOA Editions. 2001. Used without permission.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

They're coming back

They were old already when I was a kid, some of the zany plots WWII vintage, featuring Hitler and Mussolini. They were scratchy old 20-minute black-n-white shorts so when they came on on Saturday morning, you got three--that's it. If Shep was on one or two, it was an cloudy weekend because Curly was just too great a part of their shenanigans--which is not to say a kid couldn't laugh at Shep.

I don't remember ever hearing my mother yell at me for having them on, but I knew other kids weren't supposed to watch The Three Stooges. Bullying is a huge problem in elementary schools--horrible, awful. Probably worse back then, when kids were simply assumed to be something like retarded adults. Moe may well have been the worst role model a big kid could have back then, constantly banging on his hair-brained buddies, poking their eyes out, slapping them up like bad pets. But then, in every last story, Moe always got his too--you could count on it.

Funny, I don't remember teachers railing against them either, but all the boys I knew watched 'em. And did we laugh. I don't think, as a kid, I ever laughed at anything or anyone as hard as I did at the Three Stooges, even though there was likely as much dorky violence per square inch of film in those 20-minute skits than there is vintage Tarentino. Just no blood.

One of my childhood friends did Curly's "nuk, nuk, nuk" routine, his hand flapping from his forehead, did it so well we used beg him for recitals and stumble down the sidewalk laughing when he did.

They're coming back. That's the news this morning. MGM's got Jim Carrie, Sean Penn, and Benicio del Toro signed, sealed, and delivered to reprise the antics of the greatest knuckleheads of all time. What a thrill.

I used to have a couple of Three Stooges tapes down here I picked up for a buck somewhere, but I gave them away to my autistic friend because every Sunday, in church, he hauls out a check for the offering, nicely signed and addressed. Some people have Washington's Olympic range printed in a background on their checks--some have buttery fields of daffodils. Stuart's checks feature Larry, Moe, and Curly Joe. "You like the Stooges, Stuart?" I asked him long ago. "Why, do you?" he said, which is what he usually says. "I love 'em," I told him. "Me too," he said. So I gave those tapes away.

But when the Stooges come around this time, 75 years after MGM filmed them the first time, I'm calling Stuart and dragging him along to the theater. I don't think my wife will be all that interested, but count me in. Anybody know where I can I buy a couple of advanced tickets?

Nuk, nuk, nuk.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009


I'm as bad as anyone. A year ago already, we let our Des Moines Register subscription lapse, the first time we didn't get a newspaper in 36 years. But the Register's sinking revenues had reshaped it into a more regional newspaper, the front page features highlighting Polk County, not the state of Iowa. Out here in the hinterland, Des Moines city streets are a long way off. So we quit.

Last night Obama held a news conference in prime time, when I was in class, so I wondered what he said. Drudge leads with this, this morning: "Being Boring." That's his spin. HuffPost leads with "Toning it Down." That's hers. So what what did happen? I've got to read between the headlines.

Newspapers are dying like flies, but then the whole news enterprise is a mess. For newspapers, advertising revenue has fallen off a cliff and the internet is just too easy--and free. Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?

What's lost is trust. I've never been a big believer in the vaunted "objectivity" of news reporting, but news today is so married to entertainment that I trust very, very few. Keith Olberman, Glen Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Lou Dobbs, or Rachel Maddow--they're all spinners, and one tunes in for one reason alone: to hear what one wants to hear. Perhaps there never was any such thing as "straight news," but as more of us get more of our news from spinmeisters, the more uncivil we'll become. Or so it seems to me.

Congress is entertaining a bill which might help newspapers operate as non-profits. That's all fine, but freedom-loving Americans will likely never go back to a morning or evening paper we have to pay for, not when they (and me) can read what we want in the warm glow of our very own wide, flat screen. Look for more, not less, rancor, stalemates, more fist-a-cuff rhetoric--from both sides.

The world wide web, the medium that's carrying these digital symbols--these words--has altered our lives in so many ways that it may have already altered our character as a people. Down here in the basement is a digital fount of knowledge, facts, opinions--all of it at my fingertips. Choose the right keys, I can dredge bullshit all day. My fingers dance and buck- naked human beings in multiple numbers contort in physical positions so astounding they're rarely seen in gyms. With this machine, we all have a room of our own. We're citizens of our own worlds. We all can do what we want, read what we want, view what we want, and it's all free too.


Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The glory of the dance

A half a century ago, I was a kid in a Sunday school class taught by a man who’d taught those classes for years, longer, maybe, than he should have. We thought he was ancient, but he was likely a decade or more younger than I am today.

The church loomed greatly over the Dutch Reformed world I grew up, set agendas, created identities, shaped behavior. A 1928 warning from our denominational synod—against movies, dance, and cards—became a kind of measure of righteousness. In my own family, those rules weren’t necessarily set in stone; but, in the 1950s, they still had some heft, and one didn’t violate them with impunity. I don’t remember our old Sunday school teacher ever railing against "wordly amusements," but the church was so strong back then that he didn’t have to. It’s unimaginable to me that he wouldn’t have been fiercely opposed to dancing.

If the truth be told, I don’t remember much about that fifth grade Sunday school class, except shenanigans. I wasn’t the worst—but I wasn’t the best either.

Last night, I’ll admit the truth: I watched my own grandchildren far more closely than the hundreds of others on stage for a sweet little Christian school musical show, a presentation whose Sunday School-ish lessons were lost somewhat by a sound system that didn’t always pick up mumbled lines.

No matter. The evening’s blessing wasn’t good, moral lessons. No one came for catechism. They filled the place to watch their kids and a couple hundred other munchkins sing their hearts out.

I admit it watching my grandkids more than others, but that’s a sin for which I can be forgiven—I am, after all, a grandpa. My kindergarten grandson stood beside two little girls—one of them Korean, a beautiful young lady he’s known since pre-school. Beside them stood a little darling whose rich Mexican heritage could hardly be mistaken.

That young lady’s mother used to visit when she first came to this country, when she was bound-and-determined to learn English and get a better job than she had—scooping brains from the skulls of hogs just slaughtered in the packing plant. Later, she married; and last night her daughter, looking every bit of what her mother must have years ago in Mexico, went through every last action of every last song with the same determined gusto as the whole mess of kids up there, including my blonde grandson, who I never would have bet could have stood still for an entire hour the way he did.

But then, he didn’t exactly stand still. The gyrations that whole bunch went through made me believe that someday, among my people, there would be no more problems with rhythm, not when, from kindergarten on, they’re taught music like last night’s, music that won’t let you sit still.

Don’t know what my grandpa the preacher would have thought of it exactly, nor our old Sunday school teacher. But 1928, last night, was ancient history.

The truth is, the show was a ball. It was raucous treat, a bedlam blessing, a feast of dance and song performed by angels (I know better, but give me some poetic license).

Then, right at the end, a tiny dark-skinned little girl in a loose white dress came out, belted out a song, then stepped back and danced, all by herself, a series of darling, little-girl pirouettes to the praise music swept up in a torrent by the kids behind her, my own grandkids among ‘em.

That dance was the highlight of the night, at least for me. I know the child’s parents; her mother was once a student of mine. I even know her grandpa, a man who, years ago, was the very model of what the kids in my boyhood church could become, if we gave our lives away to the kingdom of Christ. Her grandpa was a missionary to Mexico; to me, growing up, her grandpa was a hero of the faith.

And that missionary son was himself the child of my old Sunday School teacher, who left this vale of tears so many years ago already that, even back there where I grew up, 500 miles east, few people likely remember him.

But I did. Last night, when I watched his own great-granddaughter spin out praise in a dance to the Creator.

This morning, I wish I could tell him—that old teacher—what a blessing it was.

Maybe I don’t have to. Maybe he saw it all. He would have had to rub his eyes, I’m sure. More than once.

What a blessing. I swear he would have loved it, dance or no dance. After all, he’s a grandpa—he can be forgiven.

Monday, March 23, 2009

A holy fool

He sat there last night in what was once his church, a former church, the Word of God spread before him as if he were himself the preacher holding forth. The whole time he listened, his eyes went up and down, up and down, as if checking to see if the man who was preaching--a successor--was staying in the word. He wore the smile that has been fixed there since the time I first met him.

He played baseball, years ago, in college, a tank of a man who could have been a linebacker had he gone to a high school with a football program. At 60, he's still built like a steel nail, broad-shouldered, square, nary a paunch. He may have to work at staying slim--I don't know; but once upon a time he was among the heaviest marathoners I ever knew.

Even if he doesn't work out, the man would burn calories in a furnace of intense passions for the Lord. His eyes up on the preacher, then down on the Word, up then down, up then down--to me he seemed to radiate the same virtuous intensity he did 40 years ago.

We were not cut from the cloth. At 18, when I first met him, he was intense, a preacher long before his first day of seminary. The luminosity of his witness made some want to leave the locker room, me among them. Almost ridiculously upbeat, he drew jibes--even a little mockery--the way flowers draw every kind of creature; but half the time he didn't really catch the buzz because his passionate, faithful life ran on a higher frequency than most of ours.

It was as if, as a kid, he'd been singing about not hiding his light under a bushel. At that moment, he simply took the pledge to heart, told himself he'd never countenance a bushel again and shine always like magnesium aflame.

I saw him last night, for the first time in awhile. We're both entertaining thoughts of retirement now--or at least I am. And I wondered how he'd tell his life story as he looked back over a shining life--whether or not he'd held that glow or had lost a lumin or two, those broad-shouldered passions of a bit more shadowed.

Up and down, up and down--he kept checking the Word as if he didn't know it, as if he'd just stumbled on the passage his successor had chosen, gospel of Mark. Up and down, up and down, eyes bright, that thin smile over his face, as if for the very first time he was listening in to nothing less than the full gospel of Jesus Christ.

During the benediction, as if by instinct his hands came up just slightly, lest the blessing escape his open hands.

This morning I read that Sylvia Plath's son committed suicide, as did his mother before him; and I started thinking about the passionate preacher in the pew, lit up, even as he sat there listening, with nothing less than the startling wattage he's always emitted. Back then he was something of a holy fool. I doubt he's changed.

So this morning I can't help but wonder how much of what we are comes to us by choice and how much is simply there in the package, on arrival, as if, at conception, we're nothing more or less, say, than a microscopic seed potato.

I'd like to know, from him, whether all that luminosity ever dimmed or browned, whether he'd ever registered a doubt. I'd like to know, from a lifetime in the pulpit, just exactly what he'd learned.

I'm guessing I'd get a smile. And a sermon. Maybe just a meditation.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Saturday Morning Catch

Couldn't have been sweeter. Dawn came almost shyly, the sun emerging from a thin layer of mist that recast mighty Apollo as a Florida orange. There's a potpourri of images here, but the real story is what happened after the pilgrimage. Temperatures reached just about seventy--a beautiful inaugural for spring.

Here and there on the river bank, a shadowy bank of remnant snow, but the ice was gone--and so were ducks, the geese, and all that bedlam from just a week before. Who knows where they're all at this morning? I'm not sure what they're called, but a huge maple along the bank was pregnant, some kind of seedlings clinging to otherwise death-like branches. You'll see a couple in the pictures below--the only clear sign of new life emerging from the river bank.

Three friends came along. To share joy is a gift, especially when that joy is all around. If these temps continue (impossible to imagine), by next week an emerald grace will emerge from the ditches, in the trees, in the grasslands.

But I doubt it. That we could walk as sweetly into actual spring seems unimaginable. After this memorable winter, we deserve such sweet passage; but I'm just too much of Calvinist to think we deserve anything. My boots are still there where I can reach them.

Yesterday's was Walt Disney's version of the first day of spring, a blessing.

First day of spring

Friday, March 20, 2009

In-just spring

It’s a basic tenet of the Calvinist faith by which I was raised that those sinners who haven’t plumbed the depths of their own darkness simply are not capable of comprehending the blinding luminosity of grace itself. I rather like that equation, but then I live on the Great Plains, where the Lord wrote the textbook on winter. Because we know depth of winter deeply out here, I’m willing to lay down hard cash that we know, therefore, more deeply the joy of spring than some softies in more southern climes.

In order to appreciate this story, you have to realize how it is that, in the Upper Midwest, every shimmering spring truly sets the prisoner free. Come late March, we’ve all been oppressed by cabin fever for far too long; the dark night of the soul lasts three whole months and often a good deal more here in Sioux County.

A sweet old friend of mine, a retired librarian, claims we get only ten days per year that can legitimately be called “nice.” A week ago we had two of them. I'm figuring already on a long hot summer.

No matter. Let’s live for the moment—that’s what we all say on those just-spring days, even the Calvinists. For the first time since last October, I pulled on a tank top and shorts and took my exercise on a local bike trail, an eight-mile trip that, come June, becomes for me a daily regimen.

It was too early for spring plowing, so the squared fields outside of town were silent beneath the majesty of an azure sky and the heavenly kingship of a summer sun—and it was gorgeous, gorgeous in a fashion nobody south of here really understands. Trust me.

The bike path goes out to a golf course/campground east of town, where the links, as you might expect, were, that day, overflowing. Two vehicles were parked in the blacktop stalls of the camping area, but nobody around here is muddle-headed enough to camp in late March; so I figured immediately that the those two vehicles had to belong to college kids. I’m a prof, and I teach in a college town.

The first was a gray Dodge truck, one of those mini-pick-ups. A young woman was sitting in the sun on an adjacent picnic table, her laptop out in front of her. She didn’t even look up when I passed. Typing a paper, I figured. “Good for you,” I thought immediately. She’s smart enough to get her work done but not miss this aberration, this almost sacred mistake God made in early spring weather.

A few stalls down stood an old off-white Ford, its passenger door thrown open, two legs jutting out, a pair of heads, flat as turtles, just above the front seat, at best an inch apart. They weren’t writing papers.

It was the middle of the afternoon. I’m a professor in a Christian college. I’ve written books of meditations and devotions, been an elder in my church. For goodness sake, I'm a Calvinist.

But when—on a bike, in tank top and shorts, on one of the first celestial spring days—this 60-year-old geezer passed that beat-up old car spilling forth its spring lovers, I said to myself, “Good for you, too.” In spring, someone once wrote, all things are made young with young desires.

Soon enough, I'm sure, a late winter storm will dump on us once again. But this old Calvinist won't ask forgiveness for that whoop I put up on a resplendent March afternoon just for love. Nosiree.

The Lord gave us that resplendent day for a reason, I figure. I stand by my hearty approval of everything I saw at an otherwise vacant campground, God help me—just as He helped me that perfectly gorgeous spring afternoon.

Thursday, March 19, 2009


She told her children that she didn't want to die, and, goodness knows, she doesn't. I'm not sure how long the fight has gone on, but my colleague's epic battle with cancer seems now to be over. She's been moved to hospice.

In all my years here, I can think of only one other time when a colleague, not a retiree, died--and that was in a car accident. I don't know that there's a protocol established, but it's not that we haven't been given a warning--her battle has been going on for a long, long time.

I remember when she first came on staff. In my writing class, of the dozen or so education majors, at least two or three per semester wanted to do their interview assignment with Cella. They loved her because she gave so much of herself in the classroom, or so it seemed to me. It's probably fair to say that in the classroom she gave more of her soul away than most of us do; and the rewards were there in her students' respect--and more importantly, love.

Soon enough, this long fight will finally be over. Through so much of it, life has simply gone on for the rest of us; we've waged our own petty battles, thinking them armegeddons. But they weren't and aren't, and now, once again--it happens often--mortality leaps from the bushes and reminds us of the transience of all things, maybe especially our penny-ante griefs and grievances.

I wish I could learn the lesson as easily as I can post it. Here's a line from a review of a book on Beauty: "Beauty is not only a source of pleasure but also an ethical summons, requiring us to 'renounce our narcissism and look with reverence on the world,' and offering intimations of the sacred even to those who have no truck with religious belief."

What I know the death of my colleague should inspire in me is a renewed reverence for life itself, a greater appreciation for the lillies of the field, and a greater commitment to seek such things out, to live more fully, as Thoreau might say, in the grandeur that goes unnoted all around.

That's what I know, but why is it so blame hard to live a reverential life before the Creator?

The imminent death of a colleague urges me--as it will all of us here, I'm sure--to number our days, as such death always does. Taking that very lesson to heart, however, is just plain difficult in the rush of everyday life. It may well be the only part of the battle she's been fighting that she won.

Maybe one has to be dying before one understands how to live. But aren't we all?

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Facing the mob

Things reached fever pitch because of an epidemic of foreclosures and farm sales, because people with tons of money were making more, and people with far less were losing what little they had. When the little people got angry, they sang this song.

Let’s call a Farmers’ Holiday
A Holiday let’s hold
We’ll eat our wheat and ham and eggs
And let them eat their gold.

Amazingly--if I hadn't read it, I wouldn't believe it--farmers from way out here in Siouxland got together and screamed that they damned-well wouldn't take it anymore. In LeMars, Iowa, they grabbed a judge right out of his courtroom, dragged him outside into the stret, beat him up, and tried to make him swear he'd never foreclose on another farmer again. When he refused, they tossed him on a flatbed, took him outside of town, ripped off his pants, and threw a noose over his head. It was April 23, 1933, and it looked for all the world as if Judge Bradley had swung his last gavel.

They told him to pray, and he did, aloud, "Oh, Lord, I pray thee, do justice to all men."

Maybe it was the prayer that quelled the anger, but the ruckus ended with that prayer. Men got back in their trucks and left the judge there along the side of the road. It all happened right here in this little corner of the world, just outside of LeMars, Iowa.

I think of that story now, the same species of rancid bile rising just as angrily in me at those AIG fat cats who slop up gobs of federal money and then deal it out to the very crooks who led us all into this mess. In my bones a violent anger that registers itself as righteous builds, then boils. Everybody hates AIG today, Democrats and Republicans alike.

That no one knows the names of those 75 people getting bonuses from taxpayer money is quite amazing. But then again, if they were known, those greedy jerks would need flak jackets and a covey of Mr. Ts for armed guards.

Because of what I feel in my own heart and soul, I can, sadly enough, understand the rage of those beseiged farmers in 1933. When my grievance rises to fever-pitch and I can pinpoint a villian, hate still explodes in me. I don't think you have be young to yearn for the war path.

One of my students is enamored with the vision of a Russian, an ex-KGB operative, who has maintained for the last ten years already that America is simply going to fall apart in 2010. I think he's crazy--not the student, the Russian.

But when I feel what I do rise in me, I see visions that aren't pretty. What silly progressive reason do we have to believe that class warfare is safely beyond us?

I'd like to think that Judge Bradley's prayer could work now too, just as it did then.

You can find the Russian's madcap predictions at

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The sound of the seed corn

A week ago it was ten below; yesterday, it was almost seventy. You do the math.

Yes, we have bone-chilling, soul-numbing winter here in the northern climes, but, thank the Lord, we also have spring; and when warm air saunters up from the south, like it did yesterday, it feels just about heavenly.

A friend of mine said she was getting ready for school a day or two ago, when she stopped and wondered about the noise she was hearing outside. It took her a moment before she realized, amazingly, it was birds. They were back.

My father-in-law used to say, this time of year, that if you listened closely, you could hear kernals wiggling in the seed corn bags, just rustling anxiously to get out there in ground. The real wiggling, I'm sure, was and still is in the hearts and souls of people who plant things. Old farmers were just picking up an echo, and they knew it.

But yesterday, when I looked over last year's wilted stems from the shrubbery on the south side of the house, I found these guys butting their bald heads up above the soil. I'm confident they'll get nipped off or at least slowed down some, but when nubbins like this make their debut after just one high-60s afternoon, I wonder whether my father-in-law wasn't right about the seed corn.

We've got some snow ahead of us yet, I'm sure--and some cold. But spring cometh. Ain't it a joy.

Monday, March 16, 2009


Laotian folks, when recounting their own individual pilgrimages, used to tell me how mercantile their Buddhist temples were back home in Laos. The temple, they said, became a place for business--of all kinds. Since it was, in many ways, the center of the community, it simply swallowed up other functions, becoming Wall Street, Main Street, and even Las Vegas. The place was corrupt, they told me, explaining at least part of their motivation to become Christian.

Yesterday, the gospel reading from the church year was that remarkable passage where Jesus, the Prince of Peace, gets so cranked that he becomes Dodge City's Marshall Dillon, flipping temple tables as if the the place had become a Laotian (or Las Vegan) casino.

Our preacher maintained that the temple businessmen actually played required roles in the religious life of the community; after all, to buy a goat or a lamb for sacrifice required the standard currency. The money-changers, weren't Shylocks at all, but good pious folks.

Interesting. If our preacher's vision of things is accurate, Christ's rant, whip in hand, feels even more blood-curdling. I always thought the temple businessmen were cut from the same cloth as Laotian temple shysters. If they were essentially good upright folks, it's much tougher to understand Jesus's rage.

When I hear that story, I remember the late 60s because in my anti-war years Christ's industrial-strength cleansing of the temple was wonderfully endearing. That Jesus was someone I liked. His smackdown of those white-collar creeps was perfectly counter-cultural and made anti-war violence, well, legitimate. If the Prince of Peace could turn the temple upside down, then why couldn't his followers upset cultural applecarts? Shut down the universities! Strike the military/industrial complex! Power to the people!

Like many other boomers (like McCains, the Clintons, W, and Cheney), I'm still haunted by that war, still not sure I was right, even though I'm less sure the Nixonians were.

But when I look back now, it's easy to determine how dangerous it is to spin scripture--for all of us. The Bible is really divinely-inspired firewater, or so it seems: you have to be generous in your vigilence when you use it, and very prudent about a designated driver. Calvin will do--or Luther. You can do worse than Aquinas, too--or Augustine.

But then, no one's got it all down, and we're all aces at spinning. Me too.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Saturday Morning Catch

Hundreds of thousands of waterfowl passed over the patch of the Big Sioux river where I sat this morning. When the dawn arrived rather ho-hum, I went down to see what might be happening. There is little color this time of year--Farch--as some call it; but the sky loaded with geese, hundreds of thousands, most of them way up somewhere beyond my lens.

The incredible treat of the morning was loons. They're wonderful, but I never guessed they'd mosey anywhere near this flatland prairie. Nonetheless, there they were--five of them came ambling along, disappearing every once in a while, up to their usual hijinks, just as if they were back home on some winsome Minnesota lake. What a blessing.

Hawks, crows, eagles, hundreds of ducks, and thousands of geese, and a half dozen loons--just about all of them on the move. I wish I could have recorded the melodies, although a few jackass woodpeckers would have almost spoiled it with their incessant percussion.

It's always reassuring to know that we aren't alone, the myriad creatures all around (must have seen a couple dozen deer this morning) simply doing their thing as if there were no economic crisis at all.

A sweet Saturday morning.

Stuff in the Basement

Friday, March 13, 2009

Skinned Alive

I'm no devotee of CNBC, and I've never seen an entire Mad Money show. Jim Cramer, on the other hand, has been appearing on talk news shows, like Morning Joe, occasionally since the advent of the financial crisis we're in, so I recognize him when I see him and know at least something of his stock-in-trade. Before last night, however, I knew nothing of his failings.

Now I do. The undressing he took from Jon Stewart was almost beyond belief. The essence of Stewart's criticism was that Cramer and his ilk--financial journalists--have not been journalists at all through all this storm and tempest, but hacks, shills for the Wall Street Madoffs who, oozing greed, have sent all of us, even the world, into a madcap spiral.

It was an amazing half hour. The only televised event so dramatic in the last year was the on-air rescue of stranded folks from a flooded street in the D. C. area, people who were almost washed away. I didn't know if I was actually going to witness a drowning, on national TV.

On last night's Daily Show, I didn't honestly know whether Jim Cramer was going to break out in tears before or after Stewart skinned him alive. It was that devastating.

I wish Jon Stewart wouldn't cuss as much as he does, and, often enough, his humor is just a notch above sophomoric--are there sophomores in junior high? The show can be tasteless as it tries its level-best to shock us all, night after night.

But last night--and often--John Stewart is capable of the most stimulating interviews and discussions on television and the most trenchant criticism. Last night, he tarred and feathered Jim Cramer, turned the mad man into a abject penitent. Seriously. And Stewart was right--and right to do it.

Quite amazing, really.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Those who abide in obscurity

Three things, as I see it, link the two killers in the latest murder sprees, one in rural Alabama and the other in small-town Germany. First, of course, is access to guns--both had it, and them. I was born and reared in Wisconsin, where high school kids are excused from classes on the opening day of deer season. I'm an ex-hunter myself--and ex-trapper. Some of the richest moments of my own childhood were set in the woods, where I was armed. It's difficult for me simply to blame the guns, although I certainly have my leanings.

The second comparison is in their relative obscurity. No one expected either of them to explode in violence the way they did. Michael McLendon, the kid from Alabama, was an A student who had few memorable run-ins with anyone. In the picture most widely broadcast of Tim Kretschmer, the kid who murdered 15 in a bloodbath near Stuttgart, he stands, round-shouldered, hands in his pockets, in a pose that clearly suggests his shyness. Apparently, he targeted women; McLendon wasn't similarly focused. But by all reports, no one would ever have suspected either to shed blood the way both of them did.

The third characterstic is obvious: they were both human beings. They both seem to have been at war with themselves about what they hadn't received, about not getting what they wanted or needed from their lives and their worlds.

My sister mentioned something once, in passing, that seems sadly relevant this morning. She said she thought it strange that we have--all of us--this seemingly insatiable need to be loved, even though we find it so hard to give love away ourselves. Maybe there is a relationship: what we want so desperately we won't give up so easily. Love is so much easier to take than to give. Why?--I don't know; but, Calvinist that I am, I attribute that mystery to sin itself.

Today in some just-as-unlikely hamlet somewhere on the globe, a horrific event or two, just as unforeseeable, may happen again, not just some copy-cat tragedy either; today, the world us just as full of men whose anger rises uncontrollably from some aggrieved sense of not getting enough of what they thought they needed or deserved, human beings who, madly, find it easier to strike out than to reach out.

What happened is not simply the gun's fault, nor is it the school's fault, or the community's fault, or our collective humanity's fault; these two young men abandoned their common humanity and killed others without regard or regret. They are to blame.

But what haunts this life-long teacher is the fact that no one--no teacher, no preacher, no boss, no guidance counselor--could have predicted that either of these madmen would do what they did. It wasn't the bad kids. This time--and often enough--it's the ones who say and do little to distinguish themselves in a class or pew. This time, once again, its the ones who abide in obscurity, the ones no one really thinks much about.

All of which makes me wonder how many kids, in forty years of teaching, I simply missed altogether.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Spring Break

I once knew a prof, European-educated, who claimed it wasn't his job to be anything but smart. He didn't have to sell his discipline; all that was required of him to stand or, preferably, sit in front of class and hold forth, because his having gained an education--a Ph.D.--meant he deserved the attention and respect of his students.

The trouble was, he wasn't getting it--attention and respect. He put students to sleep, and it was my job--I was his dean--to tell him so. That they didn't really care had not escaped his notice, but then they were spoiled American brats, etc., etc. etc.

I told him he was wrong. He told me they were spoiled. And then things just got worse--two old bulls in a china shop.

I was a lousy dean and he was a lousy teacher, but sometimes I think of his analysis and wish it were true. Wouldn't it be great if a teacher didn't have to have personality and charm; didn't have to be a salesman, a cheerleader; didn't have to light up the classroom, and had only to hold forth? Wouldn't it be wonderful if teaching really didn't require anything more than the mind--and not the heart and soul?

But it does, at least on these shores and certainly in some disciplines, saith this 40-year-veteran. It's one thing to know the material, another to sell it. And sometimes, these days, the older I get, the more I wish I were just holding forth in Europe.

So it's early in the morning and cold outside--January cold, again. Murderous cold. Last night, north winds howled. Those robins I heard Monday morning must be somewhere south of Kansas City. Yesterday afternoon, I saw a V of snow geese going south--I'm not kidding.

But I'm warm and delighted because even though the tag seems hopelessly out of season, we're moving into spring break. My triptik doesn't include Lauderdale or South Padre or Cancun; I probably won't even leave the county. No matter. For awhile at least, I'm not the one the class depends on when I walk into the room. I don't have to sell a thing.

This morning's thanks is a no-brainer--spring break.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Religion on the wane?

Somewhat surprisingly, Americans are becoming less religious, or at least that's the word from a new comprehensive study released by The Program on Public Values at Trinity College in Hartford, CN.

In 1990, 8.2% of the American public claimed no religion; in 2001, 14.1%. That number has now climbed to 15%. Even though the trajectory of faith seems to be aimed downward, most analysts feel that this country is still among the most religious in the world.

The study came up with other interesting findings. Non-denominationalism is up, which likely means the mega-church phenomenon is still on the rise. The percentage of the American public who call themselves "Christian" is down almost ten per cent from 1990, however, from 86% to 76%.

Amazingly, Mormons and Pentecostals--both of whom have shown remarkable growth in the recent past--didn't gain any numbers in the survey, despite the fact that around the world it's Pentecostals who are seemingly outgaining every other brand of believer.

Mainline denominations continue to decline, likely because of deep fissures between conservative and liberal factions rent by arguments over the place of gay members. Sociologist Barry A. Kosmin, the leader of the team of researchers, described the overall trend as an erosion of the "religious middle ground."

My own denomination, the Christian Reformed, was listed with Category 6--"Protestant denominations," (along with Churches of Christ, Seventh Day Adventist, Mennonite, Brethren, Apostle, Covenant, Christian Reform, Jehovah's Witness, Christian Science, Messianic Jews); while our good friends and kissing cousins, the Reformed Church in America, was "Mainline Protestant." An interesting footnote, and I don't know why, nor what it means.

Spin? Some will say, I'm sure, that the sky is falling. Others, like Kosmin himself, will undoubtedly argue that the gulf which separates us has never been greater. Still others will argue that our fundamentalist brothers and sisters continue to turn people away from faith by their certainty about mysteries. Some will say that any change which helps us understand that we're not, nor ever have been, a "Christian nation" is going to be helpful in the long run.

Me? Here's what I think: every once in awhile it's good to look in a mirror, but spending too much time may well be vain or myopic--or both.

Life goes on. And it begins here in the basement--and right next door.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Doomsday for America

Like Ezekiel, I guess, the man saw a vision and now has to tell others. What he saw ain't pretty--cities in flames, all manner of looting and licentiousness, a Mad Max world of mayhem that utterly horrified him, kept him sleepless, a world so rich in grotesque detail that he just had to tell others. So he blogged. "An earth-shattering calamity is about to happen," he wrote. "It is going to be so frightening, we are all going to tremble – even the godliest among us."

The prophet is no garden-variety madman. This is David Wilkerson, author of The Cross and Switchblade, a former highly successful youth minister in New York City. He's not just some Repent!-the-end-of-the-world-is-at-hand nut case naked beneath a sandwich board. Just look at his perfect hair.

That's why his apocalyptic vision made Matt Drudge take note this morning, and hence this blog's attention. Already the doom is echoing around the world millions of times.

And he may be right.

"It will engulf the whole megaplex, including areas of New Jersey and Connecticut. Major cities all across America will experience riots and blazing fires – such as we saw in Watts, Los Angeles, years ago," he explains. "There will be riots and fires in cities worldwide. There will be looting – including Times Square, New York City. What we are experiencing now is not a recession, not even a depression. We are under God’s wrath. In Psalm 11 it is written, "If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?"

He may be right. Thank goodness I live in Sioux County, Iowa, where, good moral thinking has it that the foundations have not yet been destroyed. But then, if he'd tune in to Google Earth, maybe he'd see fires way out here too--I don't know.

He may be right.

But if he's wrong, a year or two from now, will Drudge remember? will anyone?

Maybe I'm just jealous because I don't hear from the Lord in streaming video.

He may be right.

Don't touch that dial.
That having been said, this morning--cool and overcast, a mossy fog uncharacteristic of the region hanging in the branches of the lindens--this morning for the very first time since last fall, a chorus of robins piped through the trees. They're back. Couldn't see a one of them, but I heard, in the semi-darkness, yet another prophetic voice, a voice I truly believe.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Piety and the piano

For most of my life--even back in my childhood--I've fought a thousand unending battles with expressions of personal piety. Piety is faith made flesh, the everyday practice of our thanksgiving to God. No one can be a believer without showing that faith in some distinctly visible ways, because deeply felt faith deeply affects human behavior--yours and mine.

Piety--the thankful response of the believer to grace--is not so much required, as it is perfectly natural. When we come to know God intimately, our response to him, a response that comes genuinely from the soul, is the expression of our faith, our piety. Piety is our witness, our love, our sense of righteousness, our song.

But when piety wears a public face, as it must, things get complicated. Our own acts of piety can be stifling to some and silly to others. Down here on earth, the perfect can often be the enemy of the good.

I'm not proud of the fact that I probably too often and too easily smell a rat when I witness piety. Meters go off in my head far too quickly, and in far to shrill a tone. It's almost a phobia, I swear.

And all of that is my mother's fault. There, I said it. But I'm chuckling. My mother is to blame because with her bounteous piety she's as promiscuous as anyone I know, and she darn well expects the same levels of others--including her son. That's what I grew up with, praise the Lord.

More than anything else, the medium of her praise was the piano. She gave piano lessons throughout my childhood. Every noon hour of my school life she'd get in a couple of kids while I'd boil a thousand hot dogs, slap 'em on a piece of white bread, and slather them in ketchup a room away. Honestly, I still love hot dogs.

Her piano was her David's harp. Together, she and my father would spend hours and hours singing together, sweet duets, languidly fervent--"Sweet Hour of Prayer," "I Walk in the Garden Alone," "Blessed Assurance," "Whispering Hope," "Pass Me Not O Gentle Savior," each of them beset with improvised flourishes that left no key untouched. If Dad wasn't around, she'd sing alone, her lilting soprano filling the house. Honestly, the hours could not be counted.

Their singing brought them great, great joy, and harmony, I'm sure, to their marriage, as if Solomon himself had proclaimed that the couple who sings together, stays together. That resonant piety sometimes made me hide, and all too often, for reasons I'm not proud of, it drove me plain nuts.

When my parents left my boyhood home for the apartment they'd occupy for twenty years, the piano went too, and the singing carried on. When they spent months in Florida, she found herself a cheap Wurlitzer organ that graced the trailer and likely entertained her neighboring seniors, whether or not they approved. When Dad died and she went off to a much smaller apartment in the home, the piano came along again. In the last few years, she's played it less--I know that; but that doesn't mean those keys don't get an occasional caress. No single activity of my mother's life--other than prayer--means as much to her favorite, joyous hymns.
When I think about it, I wonder if I fought with piety all my life--and music--in part because, as a boy, I too often found myself playing second fiddle. I never thought of that before, but then I doubt I'm any better off having stumbled on it just now.

So last week a short note written in a shaky longhand admitted what I guessed might eventually happen. At 90, she says her hands have forsaken her. Her fingers lack the dexterity and strength to play. She just can't do it anymore.
Honestly, I doubt she could have told me any worse news.

Maybe some psychologist would tell me I should be happy--finally, no more Fanny Crosby. But I'm not. Not long ago I was appointed the sibling who would tell her that her driving days were over. I did. She told me that everybody in the home talked about how awful it was to lose their cars, their mobility, their freedom; but she gave me the keys. I know it wasn't easy.

That she can't play that piano anymore, that's a tragedy of a whole different magnitude. Fortunately, she likely saw it coming, knew it was going to happen.

But my guess is that even today, two weeks after she told me she couldn't, she'll get over to that bench and try, try again, hoping those fingers of hers--probably overused in a lifetime of music--can rally one more time and pull "Blessed Assurance" from the keys and hammers and wires.

I hope so. Even if she doesn't try, somehow, I'm sure, she'll sing. And that's a very good thing. PTL.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

The Mystery of Predestination

That my father-in-law didn't attend high school when he was a kid, mid-Depression, wasn't that unusual around here, where there were many, many more farm families than there are today, and those families were of significantly greater size, ten kids in his. I say that because it's a fact of his history that, during his teenage years, the only schooling he had was in church--catechism. He learned tons on the farm, I'm sure, but nothing else in any formal schooling. Church was it.

All of that may help to explain why, by his own testimony, he used to think hard and long about the doctrine of predestination. That theological tenet, he claims, used to get chewed over and jawed about even with his friends, largely because they could never quite figure it out, even though they knew very well that it was the backbone of the sturdy theology they'd come heir to as grandchildren of the Calvinist Reformation.

Predestination, a generation later, used to create significant sparring in my own catechism classes too--when I was in high school. Making us so totally subject to God's almighty will brought some eternal comfort--that's for sure; but I remember thinking, way back when, that there was something weirdly mysterious about the idea. After all, who on earth wants to be a pawn? Besides, we were in America, land of the free. Something about predestination seemed as ill-fitting as wooden shoes, even un-American.

That the idea fit squarely within the logistics of Calvinism seemed, however, plainly evident, even to me. If we set predestination up as a "if, then" proposition, its truth seemed beyond dispute: If God is sovereign--all knowing, then certainly he controls our life's path, our salvation, or else, quite simply, he isn't sovereign. There. Wiggle your way out of that one. But to both my father-in-law in the 30s, and me in the early 60s, something about predestination seemed a mystery that wasn't supposed to be.

But then both of us grew up in a hall of mirrors, where just about everyone we knew held to a similar doctrinal path. Not until I got into broader forums did I realize how deeply despised the doctrine was among some evangelical Christians, people even more pious than my own. Despised, as in hated, villified, spat upon. Some sweet Christian people thought the doctrine of predestination as misguided as, say, Mormonism.

The world both my 90-year-old father-in-law and I live in isn't the same as the worlds of our boyhoods. Today, post-modernity eschews most theological skirmishing as silly. People want to be spiritual, not religious--to glow, not to think. Besides, can't we all just get along? It's a different world.

But to those of us raised in ye olde Calvinist environs, the mystery persists--what on earth is predestination, and is it anything other than a tenet of theo-logic?

Here's what Marilynne Robinson says: "Predestination is . . . attractive to me because it makes everything mysterious." I don't think any of my catechism teachers--nor any of my father-in-law's--every explained things that way. The vagaries of that famous doctrine didn't emanate from mystery, but confidence--confidence that God almighty chose his elect.

"We do not know how God acts or what he intends, toward ourselves or toward others," she says. I'm not sure my teachers would disagree, even though the institution itself--the catechism class--heavily suggested that, up in that room where we sat, we were certainly among those He had to have selected. We were in.

Robinson says no. "We know only that his will precedes us, anticipates us, can never forget or look away from us." That, to me, is new--and interesting.

"I think a sense of mystery, therefore reverence, is appropriate to all the questions at hand," she says. I like that.

My father-in-law told me he used to spend time--alone and with his friends--trying to figure out the mysteries of predestination, and I remember the same questions he used to ask.

That's just fine, says the great Calvinist novelist Marilynne Robinson. You think the whole business is a great mystery? Well, guess what?--it is.

I like that very much.

Robinson's thoughts are from an article in the Spring 08 Harvard Divinity Bulletin; they come to me by way of Martin Marty's Context.