Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Saturday Morning Catch

First Saturday morning all year I could wear a tee-shirt, which I did, happily. Even though the gnats made life miserable and I came home with puffy welts on my temples, it was a great morning, although, once again, a subdued dawn.

But the world belongs to King Corn right now, although it's hard to call it "king," three-inches of flimsyness cutting racing stripes up and down acres and acres of land darkened, sweetly, by an evening shower, for contrast. A red-headed woodpecker posed momentarily for me, and a ubiquitous robin, not to be outdone, alighted not far from the car window.

The wildflowers are still tucked away somewhere, planning their debut, except for some early season bright blue flox in shady ditches and two or three of these yellow guys emerging from the grasses. After a week in New Mexico, the emerald here is so refreshing you can almost drink it.

Right now, however, the countryside belongs, already, to a billion little soldier-like princes.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Monkey shine

Most everyone is familiar with the infinite monkey thereom--to wit, that an infinite number of monkeys loosed on typewriters has to eventually gain us, well, Hamlet, for example. An infinite number of people--me included--have played goofy games with the idea.

There's some truth to it, it seems, when it's affixed to digital technology, at least, in my case, digital photography. Today, just goofing around, I must shoot hundreds of times the exposures I used to using film. Why not?--just delete what you don't like and you haven't spent a nickel.

What happens, however, is that sometimes this monkey gets exposures that this monkey didn't really intend. An infinite number of snapshots, somewhere along the line, yields something profound or memorable or surprising. Happens every once in awhile.

For instance, this one. I walked in the Rehoboth cemetery again not long ago, a place where I could run dry a score of digital batteries--there's so much life amid all that death. Anyway, I found this crucifix attached to an ordinary plaster slat, just one in a ring surrounding a grave. Just snapped the picture and walked on.

Somehow it sticks. Is it because of the profusion of desert sage behind it?--the odd sense yet comforting sense of Christ in the wilderness? Is it because whoever created this fortress of slats took the time to let one of them extend beyond the others, pushing the suffering Jesus high, as I somehow thought he was on Calvary?

Honestly, I don't know why this picture is somehow haunting. Maybe it isn't to others. But it is to me. This one, for some reason, sticks.

Does that make it art? Who knows? In my mind, maybe--if for no other reason than art can't be art if it doesn't stick, don't you think?

This composition speaks somehow. I'm not sure why, but it does.

I wish I could say I designed it--that I planned it out, used the right filter, determined just exactly what I wanted to say. Ain't true. I'm just a monkey. One of many.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Stories of Clean Living, the Dutch-American Way

It's a relief to know that I've got only one more round of students. The ones who arrive this September will be, four years from now, part of the last roundup, their prof getting off his sorrel and hanging up the chaps and spurs, retiring.

In some ways, I've grown weary of students' comings and goings. You read what they think and feel, you watch 'em grow and change, and then poof!--just like that they're off the planet, leaving behind the old profs like creaky prairie windmills. The halls of learning are suitably outfitted with revolving doors.

So when an ex-student shows up, it's enough to make me smile. When one of them sends you her book, it's just as much a joy. Got one this week, Stories of Clean Living the Dutch-American Way, from a student I knew, fifteen years ago, as Jennifer Dyke, from somewhere in south suburban Chicagoland. She took a newspaper job locally when she graduated, eventually moved along to a daily in the eastern part of the state, and then disappeared from my radar, until the book arrived.

Stories of Clean Living is a fun read actually, almost surprising in a way because Jenn pokes fun of her tribe, the Dutch Calvinists, in a way that I thought simply wasn't done anymore, both ethnicity and denominationalism fading fast in the age of information and social networking. Front and center on her playful assault is her girlhood status as a "Calvinette," a name that is, I must admit, only a bit less hilarious than bizarre (ye olde Genevan theologian's 500th birthday this year, not withstanding). To call pig-tailed little girls "Calvinettes," as our world did for years, really is a scream, isn't it? Little Calvins, and female to boot. Jenn's got it right.

I've used an old essay of hers for years in my writing classes, a blow-by-blow account of an ordinary family reunion chocked full of foibles almost anyone can recite, but few can write well. Jenn's is wonderful. This short collection of essays features the same kind of wit and hilarity, as she pokes fun with the traditions she likes to think she's left behind (but probably never will--at least totally).

Calvinettes wore white kerchiefs on which they displayed their sewed-on merit badges (merit?--sounds rather un-Calvinistic to me--sheesh, now she's got me doing it). Here's Jenn riffing on such perfect Reformed accessories:

My white kerchief remained rather clutter-free in terms of badges throughout my Calvinette career. That is not to say I failed. I earned exactly the required number of badges each year. I surmounted tasks involving baby-sitting, baking, camping, latch-hooking and some sort of Bible verse memorization. Enough to get by. Enough so that people other than my mother would not hassle me about it. Though I do not know what would have happened if I failed to earn the minumum number of badges each year. It is not as if they could have kicked me out of Calvinettes. How can you kick someone out who is predestined to be there?

That kind of wit. Stories of Clean Living the Dutch-American Way is full of it--charming, hilarious wit that occasionally ranks as spotten, a Dutch word that suggests sacrilege, but of a sporting variety.

But there's more. When I came to the back cover, I found a picture I simply couldn't recognize as Jenn Dyke (now Jenn Miller). Because it's not. It's a photo of her cousin--a double cousin (only Dutch Calvinists understand such things, she says somewhere in the book), a fellow conspirator among the underground cynics any hard core ethnic group creates.

Jenn's comrade-in-arms was a woman named Stephanie, who fought a valiant battle against cancer, and lost. And Jenn's book is dedicated to her--not "dedicated," as in outfitted with some sweet sentiment typed in before the title page, but dedicated, as in actually "written for." The essays Jenn put between the covers of this little book were, quite literally, for Stephanie, a friend, a cousin, a beloved companion, literally for her to enjoy while she was waging that war within her. Stories of Clean Living, the Dutch-American Way is a fun read, really, but that dedication makes the essay collection sheer joy.

Try as you might, you simply can't escape the sense of eavesdropping that's part of the very design of the book. When you read Stories of Clean Living, you're there in a hospice room with two young women sharing inside jokes drawn from the miracle vat of "black humor" we all have hidden in some corner of our souls for just such darkness. You hear two young women tell each other stories that make them giggle and snort, and you understand clearly that the joy those stories offer both them and us is the only way beat profound grief.

That dedication makes this small collection of essays a profoundly beautiful book. It's an instrument of peace, a gift of grace.

Jenn Miller's Stories of Clean Living, the Dutch-American Way is a hoot that'll make you cry.

I'm happy this ex-student showed up on my doorstep.
Jenn Miller's Clean Living, The Dutch-American Way is available at

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Stirred Emotions

It was a noble idea. Listening to the voice of my grandma still ringing in me fifty years after the fact, I picked up my grandkids and took them along to the town's Memorial Day "doings" to experience, for the first time, small-town patriotism.

It all starts with a ten-minute Main Street parade that is, really, somewhat closer to a religious processionnal than a bona fide parade, given its abbreviated length. First, a handful of VFW and American Legion men march up, in uniform, toting the flag. Their numbers decrease every year, but lately a horse-drawn wagon carries a those who can no longer make the long walk to the cemetery.

Then the high school marching band (which was more than a bit out of sync and tune, I thought, but okay), then the Boy Scouts, then a couple dozen kids on cray-paper decorated bikes, then a dozen locals on beautiful horses that, unfortunately, hadn't been potty-trained and unceremoniously did their business for all the world to see--and left it there on Main Street.

That's it. As they say, that's the whole parade. Only death itself changes such ordinary small-town events like this one. Trust me--I've been going for decades.

Ten minutes, max, and we're off to the cemetery, where time-honored rituals continue. Some local vet delivers a warning to America ("if we doesn't shape up, God will no longer bless us"), then a men's quartet offers something patriotic. The honor roll of those local boys who never returned is read as separate flags are dropped to half-mast, the honor guard shoots blanks over the heads of the crowd, and two high school kids take a shot at "Taps." Class dismissed.

It's a 45-minute event, and, if the sun is out, the heat can get wilting. No matter. I was going to please my dead grandma this year and take my grandkids because I thought it might be good for them to be a part of a community's ritual patriotism and to begin to understand something about what freedom costs. Besides, I can blubber as well as anyone to a good solid rendition of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."

So we found a spot on the grass, quite close up to the action, and the kids sat still the whole time, asking only once if we could go home. I thought their behavior was exemplary; they seemed attentive. When it was over, they even wanted to stop in the cemetery and look around through the graves. Grandpa was much pleased.

So later, they came over with their parents, and I asked my daughter if they'd said anything at all about the whole morning's events, their very first experience with Memorial Day ritual--all that talk of freedom and war and bombing runs, young men "killed in action," dozens of American flags waving all around.

My daughter shrugged her shoulders. "The big deal was those horses pooping on Main Street," she said.

Then again, there's always next year, Grandma.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Harold L. Aardema, 1929 - 2009

Cousin Harold, my wife and I affectionately called him, because my mother-in-law remembered getting on the train in Maurice, Iowa, years ago, and coming out to Doon to visit her relatives, including little Harold Aardema, who, she used to say, was always such an interesting little boy.

I met Harold first through an old man who’d come back to Rock Valley to die, a man named Harry Abma, who told me that, more than anything in the world, he wanted to meet Frederick Manfred. I told him I’d take him, and he said we’d have to talk to Harold Aardema, who lived in Doon and edited the Doon Press.

So Harry and I checked in here, in Doon, at Harold’s old house, and Harold handed us off to a druggist in Luverne who called Manfred, and then waved us on.

For years thereafter, Frederick Manfred—Feike Feikema—and his books was the stuff Harold and I talked about. Feike loved Harold, and Harold loved Feike, even when a lot of Doon didn’t, and I just watched.

But Harold loved interesting people, even when they weren’t particularly loveable. Some of you remember, years ago, when a sworn atheist with an ordinary Dutch Calvinist name came to the area and raised cane about prayer in public schools. Harold thought the guy was terribly interesting because, after all, he wasn’t like everyone else, but then neither was Harold, who even as a kid was such an interesting little boy.

No school of journalism ever trained him, but by instinct or DNA or simply by experience, Harold had a nose for news, and in northwest Ioway, an sworn atheist making a scene was instant headlines. But then, no newspaper in the world came out of the mailbox talking and chuckling so much like its editor.

People from far and wide read the Doon Press. Its subscribers were ex-northwest Iowans, who wouldn’t miss it—not just because the Press made mention of every Siouxland snowstorm, but because Harold’s beloved weekly wouldn’t let anybody forget the past, and it gave them a weekly jolt of “Ink Spots,” his own sweet concoction of humor, nostalgia, and curmudgeonliness.

Fred Manfred used to say that once upon a time, years ago, he walked back up to the house after milking and sat on the back porch, and looked out over the open fields behind him. He said he sat there and wondered about history—who walked here and why and how. That moment, he’d say, was a time when he decided to tell stories.

If you want to understand why Doon’s two most famous writers—Feike Feikema and Harold Aardema—were best of friends, just remember how much they both cared about Doon, Iowa. I don’t believe I’ve ever met a man who so treasured the past—and it wasn’t just nostalgia. Harold could be immensely critical; after all, he spent goodly chunks of time in three different churches in this little town, knew and loved people in each of them. Didn’t like some too—after all he was Frisian.

Harold never married. But I’m not sure he could have—his heart was filled with Bonnie Doon.

Often he’d write about his childhood--running around, tearing up the town. Years ago, I found that difficult to read because the only Harold Aardema I knew was in a wheelchair. The stories he used to love to relate about catfishing down by the river and buzzing around town were hard to visualize.

But when I think of him gone now, those treasured memories are what I see again. After all, nobody knows what heaven is like, even those who are, when it comes to religion, most sure they alone have the whole truth, as Harold himself might say. The truth is, nobody knows.

Even though it’s hard to think of Harold not sitting behind his desk writing another column, I’d like to believe that if we could find him somewhere close right now, he’d be down the road about a half mile west, in the shadow of the cemetery, banging around Rock River with a couple of lines in maybe, just looking up at the sky, listening to birds, full to the brim with about as much human joy as a Dutch Calvinist can have, right here at the heart of the land he loved.

Just two weeks ago, we buried my mother-in-law too. The train from Maurice hasn’t run for years, and Harold Aardema hasn’t been an interesting little boy for about three-quarters of a century. But what a gift it was to have Cousin Harold around, telling stories, doing a little scolding now and then, and never letting us forget how much darned beauty God gave him and us, right here in Siouxland.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Memorial Day

A long time ago, I was scarred forever by the late 60's, rendered almost totally incapable of holding patriotic feelings. It's not that I don't love America or get blitzed by shiver of something akin to fervor when I hear "This is My Country"--I can and do. But it's hard for me to flash it, patriotism that is, because I keep hearing the tail end of the old saw, "last refuge of a fool." Way back in the late 60s, a ton of red-blooded patriots were, by my calculation, total fools.

I'm not so sure of all that as I was back then--I'm older now--but the basic sentiment is of significant substance when I weigh the question.

But then, I don't come from flag-waving patriots either. Both my parents, Republican to the core, didn't do much of that, despite the fact that my father spent several years in the South Pacific during WWII. Likewise, my father-in-law, like so many of his generation, followed the European front all across Europe, repairing tanks and jeeps and sending them back up to the line. He too was a patriot, but didn't wave that many flags.

I'll always remember Memorial Days as a kid because my father loved holidays. He worked in the office of a construction equipment place, eight to five, and holidays were holidays. All of his children remember an regularly scheduled holiday dance, performed like some dopey chorus girl, in his underwear, to some kind of ditty he made up himself, something about the glorious freedom of another great holiday.

He didn't march with the American Legion at the annual doings in the graveyard. I don't know why. Maybe it was because his three or four years in the service of his country didn't include any hand-to-hand fighting, like the local guys he used to talk about once in a while. Maybe it was because, aboard a Coast Guard tug, the closest thing to war he ever got was pushing battleships around strange harbors.

It wasn't patriotism that prompted him to go to the local "doings" on what my grandma used to call "Decoration Day," it was Grandma herself. She had a way of letting her son-in-law and daughter know about paying attention on Memorial Day, and I remember how my own parents, back then, used to grumble about having to get up and get over there, for fear of incurring Grandma's wrath.

And that's in me, too, this un-patriot. So this morning, like other Memorial Day mornings, I'll likely be the only one of my family to follow the little tiny parade to the cemetery, then listen to a Jeremiad, and hear a militia of old guys shoot blanks into the open prairie sky.

Grandma lost a brother, Edgar, in the last three months of "the war to end all wars." She couldn't forget, and she wouldn't let her kids sleep through. I caught a bit of the guilt she inflicted on them, and that's why I'm going.

And it's time. Grandma would be proud. Wouldn't miss it for the world.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Blessing the beasts

This morning’s worship honored creation in a manner our dear pastor loves to do—with a bit of a provocative showmanship. He’s no thundering Jeremiah; besides, really criticizing the way we treat the environment in NW Ioway, in Sioux County especially, would be, well, blasphemy of another sort, and dangerous. Criticising the way people farm out there may well be tantamount to suggesting that high school athletic are themselves a religion. Well, okay, not that bad.

Anyway, it was, he said, a special Sunday according to some ancient Lectionary, a Sunday in which it was kosher to bless to the animals and the earth. I don’t remember the exact name.

So here’s what he did. He had members of a single family from the church bring various elements to the front—a fishbowl full of dirt, an empty glass container, a jar of water, a dish of seeds, and a picture of a horse. And then he gave thanks—for the earth, for the air, for water, for seeds (apropos this time of year, of course), and then for the animals. He even brought up some ancient Catholic tradition of a Sunday in which people brought beasts to the sanctuary for a blessing. My wife and I decided our arrogant and agnostic cat would have made it clear to us that he stands in need of no particular blessing. Besides, he’d have howled all the way to church.

No matter. Come Earth Day or some other greenish Sabbath, our pastor sounds like a bible-toting John Muir, which is just fine with me. After all, Sioux County, Iowa, generally leads the entire state in hog and cattle production—and recently in dairying as well. Rumor has it that no state in the union is more fully “developed” from the day white folks set foot on Plymouth Rock than Iowa: and, of the 99 counties in the state, none is more fully altered than this one. In Sioux County, Iowa, one needs to hunt far and wide for some patch of big blue stem large enough for a place to hide. The entire county is a garden of row crops. Imagine what it must have been when the whole place was little more than a vast sea of tall-grass prairie (tall-grass prairie is the American eco-system most decimated). Just imagine. It’s hard.

A good sermon on God’s green earth is a necessary reminder that “subduing” the earth may not necessarily means beating the life out of it, as all too often happens in this little corner of the world.

But I’ve just returned from the Navajo and Zuni Indian Rezervations, where, once again, I thought a ton about Native American religions in general, specifically, their propensity not to want to distinguish much in the special honors given to both two-leggeds or four-leggeds.

So this morning in church, our granola congregation prayed for earth, air, water, plant life and beasts—including livestock; and I thought of something I’d just thought through—or tried to—when I was in New Mexico: to wit, how the white folk from whom I descend have, in certain ways, become, strangely more Native than they themselves might believe. Our nearly 400 years of proselytizing has had some good--and many totally horrific--effects on the first nations of the continent.

A man who should know, a Roman Catholic priest at a reservation church, an expert on Native-American missions, told me last year that white people had failed so disastrously in Native American mission programs because it never dawned us to stop talking and just listen. If Native people were savages, what was the use, after all? What the continent's indiginous possibly teach us?

This morning in church, we prayed for the earth. Only if our pastor had raised a smudge pot and waved holy smoke in four directions with an eagle feather, then chanted a bit, might we have been more Native. I’m serious.

There the whole family stands in front of church, holding precious vials of the earth’s own elements. Doesn’t happen everyday in evangelical America, but it went on here for quite some time.

Of course, I didn’t know Crazy Horse—no white man ever did. But I’m thinking that the old mystical Lakota chief might well have been giggling about “winning” and “losing” the battles or the war.

I must admit I rather liked it. But I don't have a clue how to say “amen” in Navajo or Lakota or Ojibwe.

Saturday, May 23, 2009


Garrison Keillor once called it, "The gift that keeps on giving." To some of us--maybe especially those who are stricken with a Calvinist conscience--its bounty seems almost beyond measure.

So yesterday, while I was gone, someone left a phone note. "Mr. Schaap"--the voice is ancient and scratchy--"I thought you would like to know that your friend Harold died last night." I wasn't happy to know that, but I was happy that she thought to let me know. My friend Harold was a single man, and I never really knew his immediate family well. And then, "I know you were his friend, even if you never came to see him."

That's it. She hung up. Left no name. The telephone itself was kind enough to tell me the hour and minute of the call, but anything other than that was mystery.

I could scream. In the last two weeks, we buried my mother-in-law after 2 1/2 years of hospice care. Then, for the first time in months, I actually got a plane I was scheduled to and left for New Mexico to finish up a project. What did this old woman expect?

The answer, of course, is love, attention. To her, I was "Friendship" in Everyman, a fickle lout who simply picks up his toys and departs once the grim reaper is on his old friend's doorstep. I left him alone to face the darkness.

And I did. Does it help that I was preoccupied? No. Can I be forgiven? Not by the sweet caller, that's for sure.

She's right, of course. I didn't visit him. I didn't go see him. I didn't pay him the joy of a visit, and I know very dang well he would have appreciated it, just as the two of us had visited another old, dying friend together 15 years ago.

And the blasted guilt keeps on giving because there ain't no way out of it. That I didn't know he was dying isn't a good answer: that I didn't have time isn't either.

An old friend of mine who had tons of problems with depression once visited a psychiatrist whose credentials included being born and reared in a Dutch Calvinist home, a man who considered himself liberated from such horror. One of the therapies the ex-patriot Hollander gave to his new patient was to absolutely expunge the word "should" from his vocabulary. "Don't use the word--don't--ever," was his professional advice.

Sheesh. Seems draconian and, as some philosophers around here used to say, "anti-normative." But understandable. I could use a dose.

But then, that doesn't solve the problem. The fact is, I didn't visit the man, my old friend. I didn't even know he was dying.

Even if the old caller does, thank goodness, in glory, Harold won't be holding a grudge.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009


It's been awhile since I thought about this so correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems to me that in redemptive history there are two covenants--the covenant of law (the Old Testament world), and the covenant of grace (the NT world). They're distinct, but they're not distinct--which is to say that the incarnation didn't simply delete what came before in the vast history of Jehovah and his people. The OT hasn't been tossed from the canon.

Maybe this is relevant, maybe it isn't. But being in the place that calls itself "the Indian capital of the world" prompts all kinds of questions in me, questions not so much about the gospel, but about its application in our lives and the manner by which its adherents--me among them--offer its great good news.

For a time at least, the U. S. government actively sought religious denominations to play a role in the assimilation of the Indian. There must have been some collusion, but basically religious denominations were "given" various reservations for evangelism--Roman Catholics were alloted Pine Ridge in South Dakota, Episcopalians were given the Rosebud. Somehow--I don't know how exactly--the Christian Reformed Church, my own denomination, was alloted goodly chunks of the Navajo Reservation.

I really believe that the result was likely far more important than denominational authorities out east ever realized, for that "allotment" included the opportunity to catechize boarding school students who were required to attend religious instruction. Many believe that if Native people were to assimilate, they'd need to be Christianized to the point where they'd give up their own "pagan" religions.

Today, all of that sounds harsh, but that's basically the way it worked. So for a time, my own denomination "owned" the term "protestant" throughout this vast reservation. If kids weren't Catholic, they were routed to catechism and Sunday School run by CRC pastors and lay people. That's simply the way it was.

So a few days ago, an aging gentleman, himself one of those lay leaders a half century ago, told me that every last bit of Christian activity in the neighborhood where we were visiting was a result of the teaching of men and women who were from the CRC. The reservation is hardly godless, of course--it never was. But today it's not Godless either; tons of little churches abound, some of them struggling, some of them not, many of the Pentecostal, some of them very clannish, even familial, typical of Navajo culture.

So here's a story. A CRC pastor's "interpreter" accompanied the clergyman faithfully for several years, explaining the good news in thousands of "camp visits." Sadly, the interpreter didn't stop drinking, however, and his drunkenness became a problem, not simply because he drank, but because the drinking got in the way of his duties--a classic definition of alcoholism.

It went on too long, and finally the pastor had to release him from his responsibilities--or so the story goes.

The interpreter loved the bottle, but he also loved the Lord--or at least loved bringing the good news, because while he no longer worked for the CRC pastor, he didn't stop preaching. He started his own church, accumulated his own little flock of believers, and kept hammering away at the love of God.

And thus, little churches, like the ones that still exist throughout the reservation were begun.

My friend's generalization makes great sense. In a way, because the initial and solitary source for a Protestant interpretation of the gospel truth was the Christian Reformed Church, most of the Protestant religious enterprise where we visited was actually there because of the CRC.

If he's right--and I'm betting he is--it's important to understand that the phenomenon he's explaining doesn't show up on a denominational ledger sheet, where the only souls counted are the ones who fill pews in the denomination's own churches.

But there's more. I'm beginning to think that the good news of salvation wasn't all that difficult to bring to a people who knew long before the first missionary ever came how to forgive each other. This is pure speculation on my part, but it seems clear to me that one of the measures of Navajo cultural strength is loyalty and commitment, a loyalty that is thickly layered with the propensity to forgive. What I'm thinking is that teaching the covenant of grace couldn't have been too much of a problem when the students were Navajo. Their culture forgave very well before the missionaries ever arrived.

The sticking point, of course, was the other covenant, the law. The difficulty was rectitude. The problem for a Christian mission, especially a Protestant mission, was establishing definitions of "righteousness." Two wives was one too many. Alcohol wasn't part of the Christian life. Attending church was an indication of a soul's acceptance of covenant promises. Fornication was unacceptable.

It may not have been all that difficult to teach forgiveness, but it was very difficult to teach sin. Can you have one without the other?
Shall we sin then, that grace may abound? Paul asks somewhere. And the answer is no, of course not. We become slaves of righteousness, he insists elsewhere--willing slaves, a concept I always understood but still considered an oxymoron.

I won't begin to suggest I have any answers for the primary questions that arise from all this, except to say that I wonder whether somehow the efficacy of both of the covenants isn't essential. What I mean is that our understanding of God's love requires both a deep and profound sense of the reality of sin, as well as a complete assurance that those sins can be forgiven.

When I think back on where I've come from, religiously, I wonder whether I haven't become more Navajo. There's some irony there, obviously, but I'm guessing I'm not the only one. The church of my youth was far, far more legalistic than the church to which I now belong. Forgiveness today comes far more easily for me and for many of us--and that's a good thing, isn't it?

I guess we're all on a pilgrimage--red and yellow, black and white.

What an interesting world He's given us.

Monday, May 18, 2009


Early this morning I walked into a red rock canyon where thousands have walked before. Hundreds of them, at least, had left initials or names and dates of their visits scratched arrogantly into the sandstone. Winds and rains have done much to erase hundreds of such carvings, but tons remain—and obviously are added to each summer.

Some purist might call it defacing nature. Maybe so. But the canyon is a good distance from roads more travelled, and there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about it, except, perhaps, the wealth of etchings. The initials create their own kind of historical record, I guess. Most of them were like carved in the stone by kids who wanted to join the throng and thereby immortalize their visit. Here and there you find a familiar equation meant to broadcast some kids’ passions: “Howie and MaryAnn 1983.” Chances are good that what’s scratched into the rock has lasted longer than the relationship. But the winds and rain will return, inevitably.

Somewhere in my memory, an image of this place exists from a visit I made here 35 years ago, as a counselor for a youth group. Back then, I certainly wouldn’t have carved my name or my love into the rock—even though my spouse and I had been only recently married. The only record I have of some earlier visit is one my own memory had to dust off when I stood there before those red walls.

I’m too much a Christian not to read moral lessons into such etchings, but I’ll spare the sermon that comes to mind, simply reference Psalm 90, where Moses sets it all out far more memorably than I could ever do.

It was a gorgeous morning, almost shockingly cool; but the elevation here creates an amazing variance in daily temps—a blazing hot sun in late afternoon (danger for bald men), but cool—even cold—in dawn’s earliest light.

When I arrived and got out of the car, I was surrounded by a council of local dogs, all of whom were anxious to make a friend. To get out to the canyon required maybe fifteen minutes or so, and two of them decided that a constitutional was just what they wanted too, so two of the old guys politely came with, tails wagging.

I probably spent an hour out there altogether, the sun coming up royally and crowning the hogbacks just west.

One of those dogs, one who looked like a crook—a dirty brown mask over both eyes—stayed with me the entire time, a total stranger. He walked along beside me for an hour, as if concerned about some rookie on a hike in the neighborhood.

When I got back in the car, he stood right beside the open door and looked at me, his dark and sorrowful eyes buried in that brown mask, wondering if our dalliance was at end.

No matter. Even if I never see that sweet mutt again, our little hour-long hike was memorable.

I should have carved his name in the rock, but I never got it. Then again, that’s what I’m doing, I guess, these letters marching across the page.

He was a sweet old dog to come along.

Somewhere there’s a sermon there too.

Sunday, May 17, 2009


To most of America, we were way, way out in the sticks, miles from any McDonalds or Comfort Inn, at a seemingly namless spot on the Navajo Indian Reservation, which is, mostly, windblown rock, gigantic mesas, cedars and pinions. Here and there sit scattered homesteads, each of them with an extra truck or two, a few outlying buildings, and a hogan, which may be old or new or middle-aged.

I asked a Navajo man about a mesa cut straight as a flattop haircut not two or three miles off, and he said the Navajos called it Tsnizhoni or “Pretty Rock.” By GPS we were somewhere north of Church Rock---both mountain and community—and somewhere south of Mariana Lake, where there is no lake, except what forms during occasional monsoon season gully-washers. Like I said, to most of America, we were nowhere.

My host and guide was an 83-year-old retired school principal, who’d spent his whole life in the area, a man who told me earlier a great Christmas story I wanted to write. To do that, I wanted to visit—I wanted to see the exact spot where his father, one Christmas, had distributed “mission barrel” clothing to the Navajos in the neighborhood, mid-Depression, circa 1935.

I don’t think he’d been back to the place he called Pinedale for a few score years, because the school where the event took place wasn’t where he thought it should be anymore. When we didn't find it, we went hunting, stopped a guy in a little Ford when we met him along a dirt road.

“The old school?” my friend asked. The man nodded, told us to follow him.

Sadly, the guy—maybe 30—had no idea there even was an old school. He led us to the chapter house, a new place along the west side of the road, and, from his car, pointed at a school. Sure enough, there was one, all right—but it wasn’t old.

The chapter house parking lot was packed with cars, and my tour guide was not to be denied: we were going to find the place, period. So we got out of the Jeep and walked up the chapter house. Now I’m conscious of the fact that there’s no other white face within 25 miles or so, but my tour guide doesn't seem to be. We walk through the gate.

There’s a young dad sitting there, his little boy drinking from the can of Coke he' holding for the kid. “The old Pinedale School?” my tourguide says.

“I’m not from here,” the guy says. “I don’t know. Go inside and ask,” he tells us.

I'm not sure I want to do that, even the two of us white guys could hardly have posed a threat—our median age being 70-something.

But in we went. There’s a young lady with a child hunched on her hip just inside the door. “The old Pinedale school,” my tour guide asks again. She shakes her head. The baby grins fearlessly.

What we’ve interrupted is a graduation party for some local girl, and people are dressed up for the occasion. In Navajo land, that can sometimes means rich velvety skirts and blouses for the women and colorful shirts for the men. Everyone’s dressed up, shiny boots, and no one is without their best turquoise and silver—earrings, necklaces, wristbands as wide shirt cuffs. Rings—gorgeous rings—adorn every brown hand. Honestly, for a minute I thought we walked into a travelogue.

An old woman comes up. My tourguide knows the language; he tells her quickly who he is and what he is looking for. She mutters something that her granddaughter translates, and points us back up the road.

My tourguide thanks them kindly and makes some joke in the Navajo language.

And then, suddenly, the men are there. We’d been talking to the women, but suddenly there are two men right in front of us. Once again, my tour guide introduces himself in Navajo. The men smile and answer in English.

“Maybe you two would like to join us for something to eat,” he says.

I’m not kidding.

Not only did they not know us, we were—and still are—a couple of white men. Instinctively, I thought--goon squad.

No matter.

“Maybe you’d like to join us for something to eat?” he said. I swear it. Tons of food was lined up on picnic tables in the chapter house.

Now, I live in fly-over country, on the edge of the Great Plains, in a place most of America would call “the sticks.” My tribe is the Dutch Reformed, who aren’t as clannish as they once were, just as the Navajos aren’t. Some old walls are breaking down. Nonetheless, when we gather to celebrate things like a graduation, the crowd is often pretty pure.

But as I walked out of that chapter house compound, I wondered what might happen if a couple of Navajo wayfarers would have broken up a graduation party in the local Christian school—or church. I wondered if, first crack out of the box, some uncle of the graduate would walk up and insist the two strangers sit down and break bread with the rest of the righteous. I don’t know.

But their kind and gentle welcome was the highlight of the afternoon of discovery. We could have been serial killers, hateful racists, instant trouble. “Maybe you’d like to join us for something to eat?” the man said.

I don’t remember what he looked like, only that he insisted.

Monday, May 11, 2009


Four years ago on Thanksgiving Day, she told my son-in-law that she wouldn't make it to another year. She was wrong.

But she left last night, finally, after a long decline and several weeks of sad suffering none of us should ever have to experience. We were there with her at ten to six. In fact, alone in the room with her, I timed her labored, shallow breaths, thinking that if I would hear any change whatsoever, we'd stay beside her. But I heard nothing.

We thought it best to get Dad out of the room for a time since he'd been there for several hours, and she'd been almost unresponsive for a couple of days already. There was nothing to do there, really, but wait. "We'll take you to church," we said, thinking he'd like that, his kids with him, and he did.

We no more than got there, sat down, and the call came. Mom had died.

For awhile, I thought she might wait another 48 hours so her funeral procession would come through town simultaneous with the Tulip Time parade. She was its queen, afterall, in 1940. Instead, she departed on Mother's Day and her only grandson's birthday.

Now she is gone. We've lived our lives in parenthesis for a long, long time--two and one-half years of hospice care she would never have chosen for herself, a woman who, more than anything, didn't want to be a bother.

An hour or so later, my son-in-law said he wondered who she'd be talking to right then. Nobody knows, really, what it is we come into the moment after death. Are the streets paved with gold? Is the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing Handel? I just don't know--no one does.

But after seeing her suffer the way she has, I'd like to think that what she's seeing right now--right away--is a perfect dawn, the sky so laden with heavenly color that she simply forgets herself altogether and swims in sheer beauty, surrounded and even enfolded by a cloud of silent witnesses.
For the first time in months, it's all easy. It's not hard at all for her to be entirely overwhelmed by nothing less than the grace of the Lord. She takes a deep breath--her first in months--and stands straight as a beauty queen within all that glory. No one knows for sure, but whatever shape God's own glory takes, I know it's peace that finally reigns within her.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Saturday Morning Catch

A turkey hunter, in full camo gear, helped me decide that the place where I was headed was not going to be a welcoming spot for Saturday. I went north a mile instead and didn't suffer a bit. Down near the horizon, the sky was vibrant with color, and once the sun rose I went down to the banks of the river to take a walk and see what I could see.

The air was colder than the water, so a fine mist rose from the Big Sioux; but the naked morning sun pulled out color I haven't seen for some time. I'm always amazed that whatever shots I take don't capture the beauty that was there. Maybe that's what pulls me back every Saturday morning I can make it: I try to do the impossible--capture the art of the Creator of Beauty.

But then, in many ways, don't we all?

I'm not sure if that turkey hunter got what he was after. I did hear a couple of shots. Mine didn't make a sound.

p.s. There are a few shots here from a Thursday night sunset. With classes over, I've been set free--sort of. Intermittent rains had filled the skies with all kinds of dramatic cloud structures for a couple of days, and the lure drew me out two nights. Wednesday was a wash out, but Thursday I hustled to a favorite place and grabbed a couple of inches of a spacious, gorgeous palette.

Friday, May 08, 2009

"American Grace"

Lots of people are talking about a book that won't be available for another year. It's titled American Grace: How Religion is Reshaping our Civil and Political Lives, and its being written by Robert Putnam, who gave us Bowling Alone, and David Campbell. The book will assert, among other arguments, that contemporary religious practice has been shaped by a shock and two aftershocks--the 60s revolution, first of all, and the rise of the "religious right" thereafter, a movement which struggled mightily against the changes wrought by those scurrilous 60s.

But now, Putnam and Campbell argue, a second after-schock has rattled church life: the researchers have discovered a significant demographic alienation among young people, who are no longer darkening the church doors, young people who have not necessarily rejected the faith, but have become disillusioned about contemporary Christianity by the essential negativity of a polarized culture, created by "religious entrepeneurs," fighters like Falwell and Dobson.

Here's the way Michael Gerson, in the Washington Post, explains the phenomenon: "The politicization of religion by the religious right. . .caused many young people in the 1990s to turn against religion itself, adopting the attitude: 'If this is religion, I'm not interested.'"

Belief, Putnam says, has become "correlated with partisan politics." And the result--at least in terms of keeping the pews full, have not been good. They're not.

I am not among the young, but I am among those who have felt the wrath of the religious right, and for that reason I think I understand and even share some of their alienation. That people have different political views is not only understandable but desireable within American political life. But when I lay out the straight-and-narrow, beyond which everything else is seen as the road to perdition, I set myself up, all too easily, as God almighty. Such self-righteousness has never been particularly comely, except for true believers.

What Putnam maintains is that the democratic impulse to alter the nature of faith to meet the times suggests that, once again, new "Christian entrepeneurs" will champion new methodologies to garner those who are presently disenchanted by the polarization which characterizes American culture today. Look for new churches that champion "grace, hope, and reconciliation," Gerson says, "a compassion and healing that appeals to people of every political background."

If that doesn't seem so new, it's good to be reminded that there's nothing new under the sun; but the times, even in churches, they are a'changin'.

Bowling Alone may not have changed American life, but that book helped people see more clearly what many were feeling. My guess is that American Grace will too, even though it's still a year away from publication.

That God reigns is a constant. How we see him and practice our faith, however, is as changeable as the seasons.

God's sovereignty and man's depravity--that's an old song too, saith the Calvinist.

Thursday, May 07, 2009


I find this wonderful. Calvin, on Psalm 48:3: "God, in her palaces [the palaces of Mt. Zion], has made Himself known as a stronghold" (NAM version).

"By these words, the people of God are taught, that although they dwell in strongholds and palaces, they must, nevertheless, be carefully on their guard, that this magnificience or loftiness may not shroud or conceal from their view the power of God;. . ."

Just because God's people--maybe American Christians especially--find themselves sheltered and blessed by God almighty, he says, they should never lose sight of the fact that--given their wisdom, their wealth, their safety, their joy--God himself is bigger, which is to say, greater. We may think we've arrived, but when compared to his glory, we're a sorry mess because he is God, and, quite shockingly, we aren't.

But there's more.

". . .We ought to meditate with special attention on this doctrine," Calvin says, "that whatever we possess that seems worthy of being prized, must not be permitted to obscure the knowledge of the power and grace of God;. . ."

Maybe humility is too much to ask of those who feel chosen, but humility--true shock and awe--is what Calvin finds essential in this line from Psalm 48. He might just say that we need to take seriously the first line of the ancient doxology--"praise God from whom all blessings flow."

And yet a little more: "The glory of God ought always clearly to shine forth in all the gifts with which we may be pleased to bless and adorn us; so that we may account ourselves rich and happy in him, and nowhere else."

God is always bigger, always greater, always wiser, always more full of glory than we think we know or even imagine, even when we find ourselves standing on the proud battlements at the very peak of Mt. Zion.

Even when we think we know, we don't. Only God does. Easy to say. Hard to swallow.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Today's good news

We've got this habit. When we get up in the morning, we watch television with our toast or Cheerios--Morning Joe every day. We like the banter and chat, and Scarborough is a kick, stubbornly conservative yet a ready wit and wonderfully capable of high spirits and smiles.

But somewhere around ten-to-eight, our time, we'll click over to Fox or CNN or the Weather Channel, because right before the curtains, Morning Joe does it daily penance to ravishing world of celebrities.

Pardon me while I pull on my flat-brimmed Puritan fedora, but I think we could all do with a little less celebrity worship. Hence, my joy this morning when reading that celebrity magazines aren't doing well, are in danger of dying actually, and scrambling to stay alive, cutting staff and content. Don't you just love recessions?

An aunt of mine--not a smoker or a drinker--used to bargain with God: "please, Lord, grant me this one request, and I promise--I swear--I'll give up the magazines," she'd plead. A couple weeks later at a weak moment, she'd grab one from the grocery store counter and fall right back into the floodlit pit. Vacations were a horror because all bets were off; out of town, she splurged with Hollywood Reporters. It wasn't pretty.

Madonna passes gas and it's flashing red-light stuff on Drudge. Huff Post even has a space for celebrity skin. Kristie Allie gained 83 pounds! Beyonce, Rhianna, Justin, and Victoria--who cares?

Here's the news: those trashy, homage-to-Babylon mags aren't moving anymore. There's hope for the American way.

It just would have been nice if I'd have made 'em before they go.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009


Yesterday, a student sent me an e-mail asking for some notes I promised to any of them who would ask, notes to prep for finals. "Is there still time?" she said. I sent her the notes, then told her she had tons of time since the exam wasn't until today.

No, the exam is this afternoon, an hour away, she wrote back.

She was right. If she hadn't told me, I would have missed the final--my own. My mind simply isn't working.

I'm missing all sorts of things like that lately, and probably for good reason. I honestly believe that my mother-in-law has reached her final days. It's almost impossible to remember the those first weeks of her hospice care, more than 2 1/2 years ago. Time and time again we thought she was going, but she'd rally, never coming back to anything near to what she was, but just managing to stay alive. Last night, one of her most loyal and loving visitors visited and sang to her the hymn Mom has requested for her funeral, but nothing appeared to register.

Not long ago, our preacher said to me, "Dying is hard work."

It must be. Sometimes. It certainly is, this time.

This morning the ground is wet from an early morning shower, but the sky overhead is clear. Somewhere out east, clouds are rolling away. In a half hour, I'm guessing the dawn will be glorious, but I'm not going to meet it because I'm needed here.

Maybe, finally, the finals are upon us. If it's not today, then it'll be tomorrow--God willing.

God willing. For more than two years it's been a chore to pray because it's almost humanly impossible to ask for death. I'm sure some have. I'd like to know how.

Just now I thought of this picture I grabbed two years ago. I don't know why, because it's no piece of art, but somehow it fortifies. All the way across the pond, beyond that dead branch, a father and son, fishing.

Life maybe. Just nothing more or less than life. No more finals. This morning I'm thankful for that picture.

Monday, May 04, 2009


There are those who say that small town eccentrics are a thing of the past. Universal education has perpetuted this evil on us all by pouring us into a standard mold that slowly eradicates the populace of its most memorable characters. Don't know if that's so, but it does seem that, when I was a boy, there were more bona fide eccentrics per block than there are today.

Maybe that's nostalgia.

One of ours is off to the nursing home these days, his odd home and yard left behind in semi-ruin. For some unknown reason, this guy's penchant for flat pink quartz led him to stack it all over the yard, creating a maze of stone fences. I'm not sure where he got it all, but those odd formations made a ton of people call the place Sioux Center's own Stonehenge.

The guy never married, lived with his mother for most of his life. When she died, he was left alone. Hither and yon throughout the yard, he'd feature cast iron relics that came to look like strange lawn decorations (no kissing Dutch kids), often stacked atop his quartz fencelines.

But, he's been gone for more than year now, and the paint on the old house is peeling. It's difficult--and even scary--to imagine what it must look like inside the house, especially if one judges by the mess in the yard, a jungle.

Yesterday, riding by on my bike, I couldn't help notice a couple of bright red tulips amid the chaos, three of them actually, blooming like joy from antic growth all around.

Someday, I'm sure the owner will be gone, the house will be dealt with one way or another, and the yard will get cleaned up and presentable. Maybe the new owner will raze the old house all together. But you can bet that someone will put down tree bark or stones around brand new ornamental crabs. Soon enough Stonehenge will look just like any other stable, ordered corner of town.

Later, I went back with the camera. There was just something cool about those bright red tulips in that glorious mess. Just something worth noting, something, oddly out of place but wonderful, something eccentric.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Saturday Morning Catch

Friday night, the western sky was a triumphant blaze, and I was nowhere near a camera. I had high hopes for Saturday morning, but the moment I got outside I knew the sky was perfectly clear, the sun would rise with the same kind of incandescence it's had for weeks and weeks of Saturdays.

The real story is that while I missed the last two Saturdays because of rain, some kind of royal emerald had flowed back into the landscape. So yesterday, for the first time in a year, the grasses were the story--and the film of green over the trees along the river. Life has returned.

Oh yeah--and that beaver who didn't notice me for awhile. He was busy taking a tree branch over to Iowa--I have no idea why. I'm told a beaver's intelligence is vastly overrated. We like to think of them as nature's finest engineers, when half the time they're relentless gnawing is both thoughtless and inconsequential. Why this guy decided to haul this branch across the river to Iowa, I'll never know. But once he saw me, that massive tail of his slapped the surface of the Big Sioux just as profoundly as a lodestone might have, dropped from a helicopter. The blessed branch floated back to South Dakota. Sorry about messing him up, but then that's what he gets for his silly paranoia.

The story of this Saturday morning is the proud wearing of the green.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Let freedom ring

Look. The bottom line here is that I don't know a whole lot about German Chancellor Angela Merkel. My ugly-Americanism is showing, I know, but all I really know about her is that at President George W. Bush once determined, at a summit meeting, that the lady needed was a back rub and therefore, right then and there, simply gave her one, cameras. It was one of those W moments when American men decided he was the kind of guy they'd like to have along on a fishing trip.

But I don't know how Chancellor Merkel is doing right now in Germany, whether she's got her people as hot and bothered--both for an against--as Obama does here. I don't know whether she's turning Deutschland into a poor farm, or riding into political glory like some ancient horsebacked Hun honcho.

But you gotta love freedom, don't you? It's not always pretty either because those who exercise it are perfectly human and not humanly perfect. Free people do dumb things--funny things. Like put up this billboard, an advertisement for a hot deal in Germany right now. It seems, some German clothier promises a five-euro discount on a new pair of undies if you bring in your old one. To make good on the deal, they decided to put the lady Chancellor in bra and panties to make waves--as all good free enterprisers do, right? So a few days ago, Berliners were stunningly presented with their fearless leader up on a billboard in bra and panties.

I don't care. I think it's funny.
German pundits are quick to point that this clothing merchant wasn't the first to reveal all. It seems Chancellor Merkel herself let cleavage ring at some gala opera thing not long ago, cloaked in a dress that had journalists punning their way into sheer madness--one of them referred to Merkel's "weapons of mass destruction."

Brings to mind a quote from ye olde rabble-rouser Thomas Paine: "Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom, must undergo the fatigue of supporting it." Maybe that was not well chosen.
Anyway, pity poor Chancellor Merkel. After all, no male head of state would ever be so brazenly objectified.

Well, wait a minute. Didn't a bare-chested Obama and his six-pack abs just grace the cover of Washington magazine, suitably photoshoped?

I guess these days fair is fair in the gender wars, even if you're the top dog.

Comes down to this, I suppose: if you have no sense of humor, fascism is just the thing for you. Freedom surely comes with a price, but then, shop around--maybe you'll get a five-euro discount with a pair of old knickers.