Morning Thanks

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

Friday, April 30, 2010

The Dakota War of 1862-- chapter 3

Just a day after four young Dakota had killed five people near Acton, just a few hours after a rapidly convened war council that drew Little Crow into action and the Dakota into war, the very first offensive began when Dakota warriors rode into the Redwood Agency and began killing people, white people. Some were friends; many were known to each other, and known well. In that sense, the attack was, to the people at the agency, as much of a surprise as it was a shock.

It was August 18, 1862, and the carnage ended that morning with 20 white people dead, ten captured. By the time the horror stopped, 47 more were missing. Most of those eventually escaped.

"A great many members of the other bands were like my men; they took no part in the first movements, but afterward did. The next morning, when the force started down to attack the agency, I went along. I did not lead my band, and I took no part in the killing. I went to save the lives of two particular friends if I could. I think others went for the same reason, for nearly every Indian had a friend that he did not want killed; of course he did not care about anybody's else’s friend."

"The killing was nearly all done when I got there. Little Crow was on the ground directing operations. The day before, he had attended church there and listened closely to the sermon and had shaken hands with everybody."

After the war, many whites and Dakotas gave their testimonies concerning the terrible events that began that day. This account, by Big Eagle, is typical. But is Big Eagle telling the whole truth, or is he spinning the tale to save himself from hanging?

No one will ever know.

Here’s what he remembers of that morning attack on the agency.

"I was never present when the white people were willfully murdered. I saw all the dead bodies at the agency. Mr. Andrew Myrick, a trader, with an Indian wife, had re¬fused some hungry Indians credit a short time before when they asked him for some provisions. He said to them: "Go and eat grass." Now he was lying on the ground dead, with his mouth stuffed full of grass, and the Indians were saying tauntingly: "Myrick is eating grass himself."

The Myrick story is well documented and somehow carries emblematic quality of the whole awful tale.

What Big Eagle also remembers, however, is how thrilled the Native people became once they knew they could take their fortunes into their own hands. Once they’d killed the people who’d taken their land, they warmed to the cause.

"When I returned to my village that day I found that many of my band had changed their minds about the war, and wanted to go into it. All the other villages were the same way. I was still of the belief that it was not best, but I thought I must go with my band and my nation, and I said to my men that I would lead them into the war, and we would all act like brave Dakotas and do the best we could. All my men were with me; none had gone off on raids, but we did not have guns for all at first."

Minnesota’s other civil war was underway.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Sweet sorrow

Somewhere back there what now seems a century ago, somewhere in an education class I took as an undergraduate, some prof once asked a question that went something like this: "Just what exactly is it we teach when we teach?"

Here's the way I've never forgotten it: when I walk into a classroom, as I have for 40 years, do I teach students or subject matter?

The answer, of course, is both. I teach college kids, not pre-school, and that makes a difference, of course; but still, if I'm really doing my job, I teach students, right?

Then again, I certainly do try to teach them something--say, the poetry of Emily Dickinson. The more trying question, or so it seems to me, is what do I care about most?--my students or Emily Dickinson? That question, I'm afraid, isn't so easy to answer. If it were, it wouldn't have haunted me for lo, these many years.

Within days, they'll be leaving again, these students, many of them never to return. Good riddance, I say. There is no single day all year long quite so sweet as the day they do. When the campus clears, so does a ton of my responsibilities--and that's a blessing.

Look--they will leave, but Ms. Dickinson will stay right here on my shelf beside me. Not only that, but she'll be just as mysterious and unexplainable, just as human as any of the students who sat in my class last semester, sometimes, a good deal more so. My relationship with Dickinson won't end this morning when I close the door on another semester; my relationship with most students will.

The truth is, I love it when they leave, in part because I hate it when they leave--some of them at least, the ones who've grown in my presence, the ones who've needed me, the ones who've left a mark somehow, by something they've said, something they've written, maybe just that hungry look all teachers love to see on students' faces. I'm sick to death of people leaving. Maybe that's why it feels so good when it's over.

I think the bard is full of crap. Parting isn't such sweet sorrow at all. Mostly, to me, it's sorrow, so let's just get it done.

It's a long poem, but this morning's Writer's Almanac pitched me into all this catatonic introspection because it nails the mood on this, the last day of another semester, my eightieth, but who's counting? Mr. McNair gets it right. There's nothing sweet about the sorrow--amazing, maybe, but not sweet.

Waving Goodbye

Why, when we say goodbye
at the end of an evening, do we deny
we are saying it at all, as in We'll
be seeing you, or I'll call, or Stop in,
somebody's always at home? Meanwhile, our friends,
telling us the same things, go on disappearing
beyond the porch light into the space
which except for a moment here or there
is always between us, no matter what we do.

When I think of the thousands of people who've walked out of my life, it's no stinking wonder I don't invest the way I did when I was a kid, when I was a first-year teacher long ago. How often don't I say "see ya'," and it's really unadulterated b.s.?

Waving goodbye, of course, is what happens
when the space gets too large
for words – a gesture so innocent
and lonely, it could make a person weep
for days. Think of the hundreds of unknown
voyagers in the old, fluttering newsreel
patting and stroking the growing distance
between their nameless ship and the port
they are leaving, as if to promise I'll always
remember, and just as urgently, Always
remember me. It is loneliness, too,
that makes the neighbor down the road lift
two fingers up from his steering wheel as he passes
day after day on his way to work in the hello
that turns into goodbye? What can our own raised
fingers do for him, locked in his masculine
purposes and speeding away inside the glass?

Yeah, right, methinks. And I live in smalltown middle-America, where not waving can be it's own level of deadly sin. Really, what good's a wave?--mostly perfunctory anyway.

How can our waving wipe away the reflex
so deep in the woman next door to smile
and wave on her way into her house with the mail,
we'll never know if she is happy
or sad or lost? It can't.

Yeah, right. What on earth do we think we know about each other, finally? Not a thing.

Yet in that moment
before she and all the others and we ourselves
turn back to our disparate lives, how
extraordinary it is that we make this small flag
with our hands to show the closeness we wish for
in spite of what pulls us apart again
and again: the porch light snapping off,
the car picking its way down the road through the dark.

He's right. Extraordinary, when you think about it, how we really deeply want to be loved, how that little wave is itself a gas gauge on our emptiness.

And so, I guess, what we hope for gets mixed inextricably in what we don't. And so, I suppose, I like to see them leave because maybe it feels like the end of hurt.

And so we wave, McNair says--the gesture of the child within us wanting so badly to be loved.

It's no dang wonder I love poetry more than students.

I think.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Dakota War of 1862-- chapter 2

“Taoyateduta is not a coward, and he is not a fool! When did he run away from his enemies? When did he leave his braves behind him on the warpath and turn back to his tepee? When he ran away from your enemies, he walked behind on your trail with his face to the Ojibways and covered your backs as a she-bear covers her cubs! Is Taoyateduta without scalps? Look at his war feathers! Behold the scalp locks of your enemies hanging there on his lodgepoles! Do they call him a coward? Taoyateduta is not a coward, and he is not a fool. Braves, you are like little children: you know not what you are doing.”

They’d called him a coward because, as an old, veteran warrior, he didn’t like the idea of taking on the white settlers, not after five people were brutally murdered, a woman and a child among them. In council, the young men said the old man was afraid. Not so, he told them. And more.

“You are full of the white man's devil water. You are like dogs in the Hot Moon when they run mad and snap at their own shadows. We are only little herds of buffalo left scattered; the great herds that once covered the prairies are no more. See!—the white men are like the locusts when they fly so thick that the whole sky is a snowstorm. You may kill one—two—ten; yes, as many as the leaves in the forest yonder, and their brothers will not miss them. Kill one—two—ten, and ten times ten will come to kill you. Count your fingers all day long and white men with guns in their hands will come faster than you can count.”

Those four young murdering braves who’d murdered five people white people had hightailed it back to their camp, where they told others what they'd done. Immediately, a war council was created, and the band leaders determined that the finest Dakota general among the Native people would be Taoyateduta, or Little Crow. What shall we do?--they asked Little Crow.

Little Crow knew war was foolhardy. He’d been to Washington D.C., and he’d seen the millions of white faces few others had.

“Yes; they fight among themselves—away off. Do you hear the thunder of their big guns? No; it would take you two moons to run down to where they are fighting, and all the way your path would be among white soldiers as thick as tamaracks in the swamps of the Ojibways. Yes; they fight among themselves, but if you strike at them they will all turn on you and devour you and your women and little children just as the locusts in their time fall on the trees and devour all the leaves in one day.

Little Crow knew about the Civil War, even though Bull Run was a half a continent away. They all knew about the Civil War, in part because there were precious few white men in the valley of the Minnesota River. They were gone to fight a war.

“You are fools. You cannot see the face of your chief; your eyes are full of smoke. You cannot hear his voice; your ears are full of roaring waters. Braves, you are little children—you are fools. You will die like the rabbits when the hungry wolves hunt them in the Hard Moon (January). Taoyateduta is not a coward: he will die with you.”

And so, Taoyateduta, or Little Crow, took up the fight, fully confident that it would end in failure, fully confident it would end the way it did. But, like a warrior, fierce heroism meant more to him than human life, far more than his own.

It was August 18, 1862. Only five white people had yet been killed. Inside of just a few days, the numbers would rise exponentially. The Dakota idea was simple—drive all the white people off Indian land.

That simple idea was foolhardy. Little Crow knew as much, but he could not abide being thought of as a coward. Just a day before, he'd sat in church and listened to a white man preach a sermon about God and Jesus. But he loved his people. In just a few hours, the war would begin in earnest.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Dakota War of 1862--chapter 1

Four young Wahpeton men are returning, empty-handed, from a hunting party in a place called "The Big Woods," when they discover a nest of eggs, chicken eggs, along a fence not far from a white man's house, a man named Robinson Jones. They're hungry. One of them says they better be careful because if they eat the eggs they're going to risk getting Jones angry.

The four of them are young, full of spit and vinegar, and, Lord a'mighty, they're hungry, have been for a long time.

Another says being afraid of people like Jones is something he's sick and tired of because life hasn't been all that great with all those white people moving into and onto their land, treaty or no treaty.

Big talk, another one says, or something to that effect. What are you going to do about it?

You think I'm scared?--one of them asks. If you think I'm scared, then let's go over to that house and kill 'em--Robinson Jones and all those white people. Let's just shoot 'em all down.

So they do. Brown Wing, Breaking Up, Killing Ghost, and Runs Against Something When Crawling--the four Dakotas--messed around for awhile, even went with Jones to another place altogether, but eventually shot and killed Robinson Jones, Howard Baker, and Baken Viranus Webster, murdered them in cold blood, then turned on Mrs. Jones and Clara Wilson, an adopted daughter. . .men, women, and children, dead.

It was August 19, 1862, not quite noon, 40 miles south of Acton, Minnesota, out on the frontier of America, at a time when the nation was deeply and horribly engaged in a war with itself, the Civil War.

That horrific incident ignited bloodletting up and down the Minnesota River, a month of sheer horror that left hundreds dead and white people all throughout the Midwest scared to death. In my hometown of Oostburg, Wisconsin, four hundred miles east, immigrant Dutch folks came in from their farms, armed with pitchforks, and readied themselves for what they considered to be an imminent Indian attack that never came.

Robinson Jones didn't ask to be murdered, of course, nor did his adopted daughter. They were victims of Dakota brutality and lawlessness.

Or were they? Which of the Dakota had asked white people to inhabit their land? Which of the Dakota had written up treaties for them to sign? Which of the Dakota had ever wanted hoards of white people to put down roots and build fences all over their land and thereby change forever the way they'd lived their lives?

The opening round of the Dakota War of 1862 was the vicious, cold-blooded murder of five white people, including a woman and a child.

And almost 150 years later, it's still immensely painful to tell the story, not simply because of the horrific loss of life, but because the opening round of the Sioux Indian wars brings us face to face with a story in which no one is righteous, no not one.

Maybe it should simply be forgotten, like some of the old monuments you can still find throughout the region--if you look. Maybe no one should tell it anymore and simply hope the story dies. Maybe some history is better off forgotten.

Like all wars, the story of the Sioux uprising in 1862 includes blessed individual acts of courage and selflessness, heroism that honors human character. But the sweep of the story is tragic and sad, full of sin, full of pride and envy, carelessness and hate, all of which resulted in bloody murder and degradation.

Finally, it's still our story, all of ours. That may be reason enough to keep it alive.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Morning Thanks--Bewonderment

Two sermons yesterday on the wonders of creation, both with a text from Genesis 1, both a blessing. Our preacher knew it was Earth Day.

Saturday afternoon was a joy. I haven't spent that much time outside since last fall. Every square inch of our yard promises good things to come. It's still early, but the trees are looking like their prom night sometime this weekend. All nature sings.

And then last night I google "Blood Run" because it's my job to discover what's there (going on a bus tour soon). For years, I've heard things about some posted area along the Big Sioux River, not far from here, something about ancient peoples, but I don't know a blasted thing. Blood Run--I'm comfortably aboard my easy chair, laptop open, and the google search just won't quit.

Turns out that not all that far from right here--not far at all--there stood, once upon a time, a Native American city larger than any other Midwest metropolis. Maybe 15,000 Oneotas (o-knee-o'-tah) once lived there, on both sides of the river. The place was actually mapped by French traders in the early 1700s, but has been significantly destroyed by farmers and looters. The states of Iowa and South Dakota now own most of the land. Someday it could be a national landmark.

For years I've been wandering up and down the Big Sioux from Plymouth to Lyon Counties. For years, I've been right there, really, spittin' distance away. For years, I've been reading everything I can get my hands on about Lakota culture; I know the major battles from 1862 to 1890. I love regional history. I've been to Wounded Knee several times--and the Little Big Horn.

But for just as many years--and more--I had absolutely no idea whatsoever that, once upon a time, not all that far from where I'm sitting right now, ancestors of the Ioway, Omaha, Osage, and Ponca created a trading center, a business hub, a city for Native America. Right here. A half hour away. The New York of the whole upper Midwest. For 400 years.

Two sermons yesterday on the beauty and wonder of creation. Sure. The fact is, there's so, so much about this world I just don't know. So incredibly much.

Mother Theresa’s take on the Christian life was probably colored by her experiences in Calcutta. Here's the way she plotted out the Christian story: Our redemption, she believed, begins in repulsion—what we see offends us, pushes us to look away.

But we really can’t or shouldn’t or won’t; we have to look misery in its starving face, and when we do, we move from repulsion to compassion—away from rejection and toward loving acceptance, toward grace.

But the final destination of the sanctified life she called “bewonderment,” one of those strange words few use but most everyone understands. It’s a word very much like reverence, a concept hard to come by in a culture where our supposed needs are never more than a price tag away. Bewonderment is awe--jaw-dropping, eye-popping, mouth-gaping awe. Bewonderment is the way you circle your lips when you say "wow." Bewonderment is reverence.

And it's something I’m learning, last night on a Blood Run google, and even this morning. Bewonderment is reason to be thankful.

There's just so incredibly much that I don't know. Blood Run--I've got so much to learn. I got to get there. Soon.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Ornamental Crabs

As oxymoronic as "jumbo shrimp," don't you think? A couple of ornamental crabs rise just off our deck. They start to leave in really early spring and then start to shed those leaves not long after the Fourth of July. Always a bummer.

But for a couple of days in May--early this year--they burst forth in blossom like nothing else. We were supposed to have rain today, but some kind of cloud gap opened from mid-morning to afternoon, and the splendid sun just lit up our backyard.

The blossoms are as tiny as the crabs that eventually grow from them, but they're gorgeous. Tonight, in hail, a ton of them were lost.

They won't be back until next year, but I got 'em anyway, although no slide show could ever be as radiant as our ornamental crabs all afternoon.

And, oh yeah--if you hang around long enough, you'll meet a neighbor, who, come winter, would never ever call those crabs "ornamental." He and his buddies will spend whole afternoons aboard those little branches.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Morning Thanks--idling into the easeful season

Last night, after a banquet, I came home and checked my e-mail. No stunning news, no revelations, no startling requests, no nothing. I check e-mail as steadily as I breathe, because, researchers say, an e-mail account seduces, promising gifts: every time I open it there's a possibility that something might happen, life might change.

Okay, I'm an addict, I admit it. My name is JCS, and I'm an e-mail-ic.

Ten minutes, tops. Then I went upstairs and sat in a fat chair, motor running, not just idling either, running, purring along at highways speeds. I told myself I actually had a free hour, honestly and truly nothing to do. Hard to believe, impossible to negotiate. I didn't have lesson plans to create, papers to read, e-mails to answer (well, maybe a couple).

We're arriving, once again, at the end of the semester here, the end of the teaching year. Three weeks ago or so, a good friend let me know that a conference she was planning--and where I was scheduled to speak--had been cancelled.

San Diego, California. Who wouldn't want to go to San Diego? Me? I was thrilled. One less speech/story/prep.

What I'm saying is, that glorious easeful season is a'comin' round the bend--ought to be a song. Oh, I've got a handful of gigs--a graduation speech, a week-long bus jaunt, a retreat, and a scattering of other obligations--but last night, for the first time in months, I actually had an hour with nothing to do. I really did.

The engine wouldn't die or even settle into an idle. What's more, the old Calvinist felt guilty, assuming I had to have forgotten something. And likely did.

No matter. It's getting close--vacation, I mean. I'm at the dawn of that divine blessing teachers somehow earn by too many 16-hour days, something called "vacation." One short week of teaching left. Then, thank goodness, time to breath. Time to coast. Time to write.

It won't take long, and I'll wrestle that guilt to the ground. It won't take long to idle.

This morning, I'm thankful from the bottom of my too-often racing heart, for the sweet break the teacher that is me is about, once more, to be given. What a gift.

Won't be long now.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Earth Day

Today is Earth Day. Forty years ago, a Wisconsin senator named Gaylord Nelson somehow pulled the right levers and strings and got the whole thing underway--a kind of holiday/teach-in/protest hybrid meant to ignite interest in what was then a rather strange concept--something called "the environment."

It was, back then, the science types who were most responsive to the Senator's bid for activism--and I wasn't one of them. I remember thinking that this little Christian college I attended was doing something good and right and fitting for a change. "For a change" sounds bitter, but forty years ago I was. I was about to graduate, thousands of guys my age were dying in a hopeless war in Vietnam, and only two or three of the students enrolled here dared to say that maybe, just maybe, the government was wrong about that horrible war.

Little more than a week later, on May 4, four students were shot dead and nine wounded at an anti-war protest at Kent State University. I remember hearing the story on my clock radio when I awoke for class--as well as a call for a mass march, an anti-war rally, in Washington D.C., just five days later, on May 9. I went. For a couple dozen reasons at least, I don't believe any single event from my entire college career was as significant in my life is attending that rally.

Vietnam was too hot a potato for most Dordt students. Actually, just that spring there'd been a rally, a pro-war rally in the city park, supporting our troops and our President and God Almighty. Then came Kent State.

But the very first Earth Day was legit back then, and Dordt College celebrated--that I remember. What I don't remember was how--what exactly went on. But I do remember thinking that at least we were that much a part of the culture around us, at least we could uphold the sanctity of God's own creation and oppose its desecration. At least that was righteous.

I don't know whether there will be any festivities or teach-ins or any manner of responses to the 40th Earth Day here today. I don't think so. But then some of the steam has left the movement. Nelson died long ago. These days, Madison Avenue packages tons of products in the livery of green.

And yet, to many today, the word "environmentalist" has the smell of terrifying liberal politics. Global warming, to many, is either a hot button or a sham.

I don't think that's the reason there will be no Earth Day on this campus today. I hope not.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010


Christianity Today asks sociologist Christian Smith: "Where are all the adult Christians in emerging adults’ lives? Might they be able to positively influence them as they face intense change and instability?"

Smith says: “We think that emerging adults are structurally disconnected from older adults who could be their mentors. The emerging adult world is self-enclosed. Older adults tend to be bosses with whom you have limited interaction, or professors with whom you are on performance terms. Even in some of the best churches, if an emerging adult happens to stay for Sunday school, it’s very likely to be in a post-college-age group. It’s hard for them to meet somebody who is 39 or 62 to get to know them and say, ‘Here’s what I’ve learned in life.’"

When my wife and I, newlyweds, moved to Arizona, we were befriended by numbers of adults in the church we attended. Constantly, in fact. We had no extended family in the Valley, and, often, neither did they. When I remember that time, almost 40 years ago, I can't help but think of how lean our own social calendar is now in terms of young couples like we were. The fact is, we don't "entertain" emerging adults the way we were lavishly entertained--coffee after church, etc. It just doesn't happen.

Why not? We're too busy probably--and we are made so, in part, by this machine in front of me now. I'm not saying that's a good excuse, but it's an actual answer to the question: we're too busy even to think about it old style Sunday night get-togethers. We've got work to do. And, here we've got family.

Christian Smith says he's not in the business of telling churches what to do, but "the two key words" for churches "are engagement and relationships. It can’t just be programs or classes or handing them over to the youth pastor. Real change happens in relationships, and that takes active engagement."

Probably more than that, "engagement" and "relationships" require a culture. How do you build that kind of caring culture when the world around you isn't? I don't know.

At a church pot luck a couple of weeks ago, we ate bountifully. Had to be one of the finest pot lucks I'd ever attended. I had to roll home. Good night, there was good food.

But we sat around tables grouped by our ages. We old farts had a great time, but we were purely segregated. By choice, we supped only with our own, in part because it's hard for me to believe that those young people sitting across from us care two bits about some old bald guy plopping himself down next to them. What do they care?--I'm saying. The truth is, honestly, I can't imagine some 30-something couple having any interest whatsoever in hanging out with an old couple twice their age.

Smith's most recent book, Souls in Transition, a study of what he calls "emergent adults," reflects thoughtfully on a generation not so much at risk as tryingly unsettled, living through what's become a decade or more of "adultolescence," a ever-increasing period of wandering, of trying to find themselves a place. What he and his researchers have found is itself unsettling--emerging adults probably need some kind of mentoring from adults who've emerged.

But in our world today, it doesn't happen--not at least like it did when we were "emerging" ourselves.

And I'm saying why not? I loved it when I was an Arizona emergent.

Fascinating stuff--and sad.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

This little nut thing

For years already, I've been trying--often unsuccessfully--to bargain with bargains. I tell myself I've got to throw away a t-shirt whenever I come home with a new one, dump a pair of shoes if I pick up some Zappos bargain, toss a book for every last one I buy. It's like a new year's resolution, you know--something one really ought to do.

Don't expect to see me on Hoarders, that A&E show full of nut cases. The basement isn't half that bad, and yesterday I actually took a half hour or so to clean up my office floor.

But the fact is, that show does throw up a mirror. Some social worker visits one of the show's sociopaths and tries to cut a path through the junkyard that once was a house. He or she pauses to pick up a frisbee or a stack of magazines or a half-dozen baseball caps from the mess; and the whacko says, you know, he might just need that next week.

I got that virus.

And my wife knows its symptoms too--in me, that is. She knows it may take a full-blown, Great Plains twister to lift the stuff out of the basement--and elsewhere. We're at that age when a lifetime's accumulations feel more and more like dead weight detritus. My granddaughter says, "Grandpa, what are you going to do with all this stuff when you die?" Well, toots, probably will it to you and your Mom.

I'm overstating, of course. This basement isn't that bad.


So my wife spends three days and nights last week at the yard sale of her grandparents' stuff, where she and her cousins have turned a little house inside out and emptied most of it on the lawn our front. Her grandparents were Dutch, not Yankton Sioux. Maybe if we all lived in teepees we'd learn to jettison stuff, if for no other reason than to survive. We'd have Giveaways rather than garage sales.

Anyway, when the sale ended, she came home with more stuff. I kid you not, and she's good at saying no, which is not to say she has no heart.

But she simply couldn't resist grabbing a couple of things--a chair that wouldn't sell even when the price went down to four bucks, a cookie jar, a magazine rack, and this little nut thing.

I've already told you she's a saint and I'm a vile sinner when it comes to keeping stuff, but this little nut thing now sits in the middle of our dining room table, chock full too, as you can see.

And I can't help it. I like it. It's goofy and campish and just dorky enough to be loveable. Who on earth cracks filberts anymore anyway? Nobody. But you're welcome to come over, sit here with us, and crack almonds if they're your pleasure, because this little nut thing she couldn't resist is right neighborly, don't you think?

What she remembers is her uncles sitting around the table at Grandpa's house, shucking and jiving and cracking walnuts, just being family. So this little nut thing is a whole lot more than the sum of its parts, and thus nostalgia doth make fools of us all, methinks.

No matter. We'll make room. Nobody else wanted it, and you can't just dump it. You know.

So this goofy little nut thing sits, this minute, at the very heart of our family life. And I'm good with that--and so is she.

So there. Someday another granddaughter will just have to sweep out the detritus. Who knows?--she just might not be able to dumpster this weird little nut thing herself. She too may take it home to a smirking spouse.

Such is life among the sinners.

Monday, April 19, 2010

A politician/poet

For what seems most of the last week, I attended at a writers conference at Calvin College, in Michigan, a sprawling literary conference so massive--honestly!--that one could almost start to believe, absurdly, that writing really matters, even in this information age.

But then, maybe I'm still high--I don't know.

Maybe that's why I find it so remarkable and sweet that Herman Van Rompuy, President of the European Union and former Prime Minister of Belgium, published a book of haiku the same day this writers conference began. Think of it! A politician/poet. Shocking.

I suppose if I looked I could find mass murderers and multiple sex offenders who also composed poetry. Hannibal Lector was certainly capable of flashy word play, as Charles Manson had to be at one time and maybe still is. No matter--I must admit being partial to politicians who write poetry because it means that, if nothing else, dang it, they're thoughtful.

Apparently, Van Rompuy, who writes in Flemish, doodles in haiku. When things get slow in meetings, he hauls out his pen. I'm not making this up.

I'm not about the judge beauty for anyone else, but here's a couple.

Light on the sea is
brighter than on land.
Heaven is breathing

Life is sailing
on the sea of time but
only the sea remains

A palace arises
on the mountain, full of light and green.
In full glory.

Call him another Shakespeare or judge him tone deaf, what's refreshing about Van Rompuy's little haikus is the realization that at least this guy is not thinking about himself.

Here's what I think: The man or woman who writeth these lines has an eye and ear for the transcendent--and I like that, especially, it seems, in a politician.

Of course, last week I was in the company of a thousand poets. I have survived, but I am likely came out badly scarred.

How about this one?

The storm subsided.
From a broken branch
I pick an apple.

Got any idea where can I get a bumper sticker?

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Morning Thanks--Travelling Mercies

If I were to list the number of times I've gone hurdling across the country with a car full of kids--my own or my students--I'd have a wall full. Yesterday's chase across the Midwest left the blocks in Michigan at 3:30, and finished right here in Siouxland at 2:30--that's a.m., of course. We stopped twice: once for gas, once for grub--to go. That's it. Otherwise, we were a fat, silver bullet van shooting across the country.

I drove, and we had zero problems. I didn't even get sleepy.

But somehow, this time, maybe for the first time, I was conscious of the fact that all such trips are not so safe or sweet. This time, maybe for the first time, I was really conscious of the fact that a silver bullet van flying across the country is a death trap. This time, I have to admit, I was conscious of my age.

But everything went well. Or did I say that already? It did. Nary a problem, nary a floppy eye. Good company.

This morning my thanks are not just, well, obligatory. This morning, I'm thankful to be home. This morning, after a long weekend and 12-hour jet aboard a van blowing across lots of open land at speeds that would be unthinkable to my grandfather, this morning I'm thankful, very thankful, to be back home safely, cargo intact.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

If it be now, 'tis not to come;
if it be not to come, it will be now;
if it be not now, yet it will come.
The readiness is all.

Got Hamlet on my mind, I suppose, not having read the play in years then just now going over it again. Hamlet is thinking about mortality in Act V, not taking pictures. Nonetheless, I think of Hamlet when I see this almost sublime portrait again, having now heard its story.

The photographer is Steve McCurry, and his photographs are immensely wonderful. His "Afghan girl" is iconic. All I have to do is put those two words together and a ton of people know exactly the image I'm talking about. National Geographic uses it every time they can.

This one--I don't know if it has a name or title--was taken, obviously, from inside the car. This mother and child just happened to approach his car on a rainy day in India somewhere, I heard him say yesterday, and he had the camera out. Voila! an almost perfect portrait.

Feels for all the world like serendipity, doesn't it? But it would be more serendipitous had I been in the car and not Stephen McCurry. After all, McCurry's the one with the treasure trove of great portraits from India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. But then, he himself says this one was almost the luck of the draw, the consummate "act of God." He just happened to have the camera beside him when an Indian madonna and child walked up to the car. Snap.

Wish life was--a snap, that is. The older I get the more I realize that neither Hamlet nor Steve McCurry are all wrong. Sometimes, success--and horror too--is simply a matter of being at the right place--or the wrong one--at the right or wrong time. Think of all those people stranded in Europe right now, a fog of billowing volcanic ash in the air.

It's inhuman to believe, really, that our stories have already been told, even as we're living them, that our footsteps lie as traceably before us as behind, And it's just as true that Steve McCurry has taken dozens and dozens of exposures for some of his other famous shots. Not everything that happens is serendipitous.

But some things are. Some things just are.

All you can do is smile. And have your camera ready. The readiness is all.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

"some odd group"

When some evangelical waltzes too close to embracing evolution, I suppose it's not news if there's a pink slip. Really. In the intensely polarized atmosphere we've created in evangelical America, crossing lines means being pushed off the edge of the four-cornered earth.

And thus it was, recently, with Dr. Bruce Waltke, an Old Testament scholar from Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando, no young buck either, but a distinguished scholar who has taught at a number of places, including Westminster Seminary, California.

I don't know all the angles and I'm neither a theologian nor a scientist, but what seems clear is that a video of Dr. Waltke explaining his views before a conference created by an organization called Biologos has led to his dismissal or resignation from RTS Orlando. You can read a thoughtful discussion of the whole story on Biologos's website here:

I also don't know whether anyone has ascertained for certain what statements or comments made by Professor Waltke led to his leaving RTS, but speculation has it that this comment of his may have been salient: "if the data is overwhelmingly in favor of evolution, to deny that reality will make us a cult...some odd group that is not really interacting with the world. And rightly so, because we are not using our gifts and trusting God's Providence that brought us to this point of our awareness."

Now he's out at RTS.

You can find his own testimony with regard to evolution on the Biologos website, where the video is no more. Among other things, he says there that "Adam and Eve are historical figures from whom all humans are descended; they are uniquely created in the image of God and as such are not in continuum with animals."

Apparently, not good and pure enough. Wow.

Me?--I think it's very sad and an indication, among Christians, of a species of hysteria.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Last night, for the first time in years, I finished, once again, Arthur Miller's classic play, Death of a Salesman. I loved it, once again. What an incredible play that is, full of resonance--more for me than it was a quarter century ago or more, when I read it first. Whether or not Willy Loman is a true tragic figure is still as sticky a question as it always was, but what's clear to me today, at his age, is that I know some of the issues he carries, and I know them in spades. I hope I'm not as delusional, but, good night, some of the hurts he feels arise from places in the heart I can now identify much better than I could when I was a kid.

Anyway, I finished it, then googled "Death of a Salesman." Seconds later, it turned up 225,000 documents, every last one of them at my fingertips. I don't doubt, of course, that some of those documents got flagged by only one of the words--"salesman," for example. But still. Good night, 225,000 documents right there on my lap.

An incredible blessing and an unbelievable nightmare. It's almost impossible to come up with writing topics with the kind of library students have right there on their desk beside their boyfriend's--or girlfriend's--picture. But it's an immense blessing, too, and I sometimes think I'm not getting it--not understanding how to use that bounty in the classroom. The fact is, I am less needed than I once was, as a teacher I mean. If a kid wants to learn something about Arthur Miller or Willy Loman, all he or she has got to do is google--or bing or whatever. Vastly more information than I could ever design exists right there in a machine that's barely bigger than their high school annual.

But then I think about a man I know who, the first in his family, went off to college in the early 1920s, carrying--as he told me--his entire library: the Bible and Shakespeare. And I wonder sometimes, heavily laden with the huge library I've accumulated through a lifetime of teaching, whether those two books weren't worth more to him than my thousands are to me; and whether having a dozen libraries' worth of information right there at my students' fingertips doesn't somehow make Willy Loman no more significant than, say, that tattooed ex-Amish stripper who did some lap dancing for Sandra Bullock's husband. I can find 225,000 entries for her too these days, or Ben Rothlisburger. What's the diff?

Don't know. Life's a battle, I guess, a battle old Willy thought he was winning by taking himself out of it. In the fictional life of Willy Loman, he took his own life and lost it at the same time. But in the play, by crashing that car the way he did, he and Arthur Miller left us with a stunning portrait about about being well liked and chasing a dream, about real American values.

An abiding portrait and a valuable lesson.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Morning Thanks--worship

Once upon a time I met someone who told me that she chose to live the life she did for what she considered a very good reason, at least by her standards--she always wanted to be on the cutting edge of a deeply religious life, she said, because she thought she had to be. If she weren't, she felt sure her base instincts for needling cynicism would take over her psyche, if not her soul. If she weren't somewhere on the firing line, if she inhabited some cushy burg where social pressure alone made things like church attendance mandatory--and not real spiritual commitment--she was afraid she'd likely walk away from God. Thus, she lived her life on mission fields on the cutting edge.

Some day I'd like to write a novel about a character like that.

But yesterday at church--twice--I thought about her because last week, professionally, was just about the worst in the last 30 years. Yesterday, I needed worship. My wife and I--are just now finishing a several-year-long read through the Bible. Reading straight through Revelations is like walking into an opium den, so we decided that getting anything at all out of John's manic visions was going to require an able guide. Thus, we've been reading Eugene Peterson's Reversed Thunder alongside the book itself.

I think the world of Eugene; he's a good friend. I've no idea if his own revelations on Revelation are the gold standard, and half the time I'm not sure if he's pulling interpretations out of his hat about seven this or seven that and who and what is the Great Whore. But reading him alongside that weird book is undeniably helpful.

Peterson's major contention has to do with the significance of worship to the Christian life. "In worship God fathers his people to himself as center," is the kind of thing he's likely to say throughout. "Worship is a meeting at the center so that our lives are centered in God and not lived eccentrically. We worship so that we live in response to and from this center, the living God."

Sometimes when I read such extravagant Peterson claims, there's this hrrruumph in me that comes up like acid reflux. Oh, really? I ask myself. I'd like to know what church he attends. Me?--there are moments I'd just as soon stay home, "a bobolink for a chorister/an orchard for a dome," like Emily Dickinson.

But yesterday, worship was a glass of cold water in the desert, the best it's been in a long, long time--undoubtedly because I needed to be there. Peterson might well say I needed to be centered. Maybe so. Call it what you will, but I sure as heck know I was needy.

That's why this morning, my thanks arise from a yesterday's wonderful gift, the gift of worship.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Morning Thanks--Isaak Da Costa

Among other things, here's what I learned yesterday. In the early years of the 19th century, a famous Dutch poet, Isaak Da Costa, a Jew of Portuguese descent, converted to Chistianity and held (with his wife) quite celebrated religious meetings every Sunday night of his life, in his home in Amsterdam, for more than thirty years. The meetings were, by design, open to the public, which meant that Da Costa never really knew who might show up, and often those who did comprised a motley crew.

He wanted to gather folks from the Holland's highways and by-ways, including people who weren't believers at all. He rather liked a mix, and was a fervent pray-er, probably greatly poetic in his entreaties, so people claimed his supplications, even if they didn't move mountains, deeply moved the folks who gathered. Spiritual songs were sung too. Those sweet gatherings were highly spiritual affairs that reportedly fed the heart.

And the mind. Da Costa was no dummy. History was unearthed. He believed that Christian sanctification meant purposeful learning. John Calvin came out of mothballs and got himself read again. But the centerpiece of the whole Sunday night meal was the Bible study--both Testaments, week-one Old, week-two New, week three Old, and etc.

For thirty years, come who may. Open doors. Every Sunday night. All sorts of people. A messianic Jew who wrote, among other things, a book on the history of the people of Israel.

What he created could well have been a church too, but Da Costa didn't believe in breaking away, becoming something new. The man believed in the unity of bride of Christ.

Among other things, yesterday I learned about an old Dutch poet whose name I'd heard once upon a time a quarter century ago, a name I used, in fact, in one of the first short stories I ever wrote because I'd read somewhere that mid-19th century Dutch immigrants to America sometimes lugged along with them the poetry of a man named Isaak Da Costa.

My own great-great grandparents maybe--1848. They just might have known him or his work--this Isaak Da Costa.

Who the heck cares about such obscure history?


This morning, my morning thanks are for a man named Isaak Da Costa, because, oddly enough, I think, this morning, I know a little bit more about who I am.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Politico Babes

What links most hate groups, or so it seems to me, is their deification of the founding fathers. I'm as awed by the richness of the constitution as anyone. What's more, that this crazy gamble called "democracy" has really worked for as long as it has seems to me to be nothing short of a miracle. Giving real power to the people was, once upon a time, the most unlikely experiment in world politics.

Really, it still is. Most of us think we know better than the other dumbies down the block. Me and you and Timothy McVeigh, the KKK, Students for a Democratic Society, the Branch Davidians, and almost any church worth its salt in this great land--we all have fisted opinions on right and wrong and the American way. That we get along at all is nothing less than shocking.

It's good to honor the constitution, but one of the qualities of American political life is that, here, things change. Do they ever. Yesterday I was but four hours away from political ground zero, as Sarah Palin held forth for a Minnesota congresswoman who has become a bona fide leader in her own right of this country's newly energized religious right. Yesterday, just think: Palin/Bachmann on the very same dais.

The two of them are a whole new ingredient in the kitchen-sink stew that is American politics. In rhetoric, they reincarnate Barry Goldwater, with political voices capable of drawing adulation from millions of Chicken Littles who think a way of life is imperiled. Palin and Bachmann are leading a desperate challenge to save America from the red menace that is not so much without as very much within. "I pray that the results of this [next] election will wake up many who have sat on the sidelines and allowed the Socialist‑Marxist anti‑GOD crowd to slowly change so much of what has been good in America!" or so said the desperate mass e-mail a friend sent me yesterday. "The Socialist-Marxist anti-God crowd" is the one that voted for Obama, of course, or else those who mindlessly followed. The writer, a wonderful Christian, undoubtedly champions pols like Bachmann and Palin, who are praying to save "the real America."

But what's new about this incredibly dynamic duo is the fact that they're babes. Shirley Chisholm ran for President way back when, and Hillary Clinton has been around, it seems, for most of my life; but these two women tease the cameras with something special, something exceptionally easy on the eyes.

Palin wears heels and a leather jacket at a campaign hug for John McCain and the left gnashes its collective teeth. It's good to be in Minnesota, Palin told the crowd of 10,000 yesterday, where people talk like I do and go huntin' and fishin' and love their guns, all of that out of a face that could launch a thousand bass boats and graces the cover of just about every grocery store mag in the country. She's got great cheeks.

Bachmann was born on Hardball, when she told Chris Matthews that the press really ought to investigate anti-Americanism in the U. S. Congress. Instant notoreity became instant celebrity, in part because of a dashingly catching face.

The fact is, the left can hardly spew enough hate about them because those two draw crowds like flies to honey. Makes no difference how the progressives rant, Palin's followers--and Bachmann's--are true believers, some of them--many of them--still birthers, like Bachmann. Palin basically kick-started the "death squad" hooey during the national health care debate. No matter. Good night, they're good-lookin'.

But Democrats aren't the only ones with heartburn. The Republican establishment (what's left of it) really doesn't know what the heck to do with them. Their last Presidential candidate, John McCain, had to call in a Palin air strike to ignite a crowd right there on McCain's home turf. People didn't come out to see a real war hero and political legend, they wanted the one-time, two-year Gov,and she's worth lookin' at.

Mitch McConnell and John Boehner aren't much more than a couple of warty Washington toads. You want a rally? Line up the lookers. They're the rock stars.

Yesterday, all the media attention in the country was right there in Minneapolis, not even Bachmann's district, where two passionate pols stirred up the crowd with the tried-and-true rhetoric of the religious and political right. Plus, they're knock-0uts.

They're a whole ingredient in incredible stew of American politics. Don't know that the founding fathers would ever have imagined what they bring to the table; of course, the founding fathers wouldn't even have allowed them to vote. Save that for another day.

But I'm willing to gamble that those pretty faces aren't about to fade, not when the camera loves 'em as much as it does.

Does anyone know if Joan of Arc was a looker? I'm thinking we have to go back a long ways to find anyone like the dynamic duo who, yesterday, were center stage on every cable network. As they will be today, too--mark my words. And tomorrow.

And quite frankly, no one in Washington--on either side--know quite what to do with them.

Except look. And talk. And look some more. And talk. Etc.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010


I took some heat for voting Obama. I wasn't particularly passionate, and I didn't dislike John McCain; but I felt Obama was the right man at the right time, and still do. Among some of my good friends, that support meant I too was a baby killer. But I got tired of presidents who were much better at singing to the pro-life crowd than they were at opposing Roe v Wade. Besides, I'm not as militant as some.

There, send me to Hades.

And even though I too am wary of burgeoning budget deficits, I'm not as apalled at the passage of new a new health care package as my good Christian conservative friends. But then, I don't believe that the kind of "freedom" trumpeted blessedly by the religious and political right is any more sacred, more "Christian," than "justice." In the great religious battle of the last month or so, write me up in the Jim Wallis camp. I think smart ass Glen Beck is a bonehead.

No matter.

Just a day or two ago, John McCain, who I've always respected, told a reporter that he was never a maverick. Say what? Does he think we're senile? The man finds himself assaulted by the tea-party right right there amid the cacti; and now, oddly enough, the tough soldier who wouldn't break under torture back in North Vietnam, brays like a wounded jackass when his Senate seat is imperiled. What's that about? Not a maverick?

You can say what you want about Obama, but he certainly wasn't riding a politcal wave when he signed that health care legislation. Nor was he electrifying his base when he sent more troops into Afghanastan or opened up offshore sites to drilling. My good Christian friends may well hate every last thing Obama likes, but it's clear to me that the man does not fudge on what he believes. When he says that if the country wants him out of office after health care, that's just fine with him, I believe him.

But McCain isn't a maverick? Good night, it was his mantra--theirs, both of them. And now, when he's imperiled, his leather-jacketed co-pilot descends from the Great White North to make a stop in Arizona as long as she's here for some sparkling political commentary on Fox or a reality show she didn't even make. Give me a break. If anything has happened to Sarah Palin since the election, she's shown herself to be even less deserving of the nomination McCain squandered upon her. The polls make clear that it's not just Democrats who are seeing it, or saying it.

Obama's not the Messiah. The Nobel Peace Prize was a joke. He doesn't walk on water, and I'm not comfortable with the totality of his views. But right now, more than a year into his Presidency, if you take a gander at the loyal opposition in the '08 election, to me Obama looks at least like a man of principle. I think I did the right thing, quite frankly.

Go ahead--reserve me a place in Hades.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Morning Thanks--Mom's cousin

Oddly enough, it may be my earliest intense memory. We're at the park for a family reunion, I think, and it's fun--that much I remember. Then, for no particular reason, my mother's first cousin and some other faceless relative pick up my mother, one by her arms, the other by her feet, and swing her around somehow. I know exactly where they're standing in the village park, exactly, more than fifty years later.

I'm seething. I'm a little boy--probably six or seven--and I'm furious about the way they're manhandling my mother. I'm standing there helpless.

Maybe the helplessness is reason I've never forgotten the intensity of that moment. My mother's cousin pitches on the town softball team. He's the star. He's someone I know to be really important, really a man, and he's disgracing my mother, turning her into a sack of flour. I'm seven. I'm disgraced, I'm seething, and I'm absolutely powerless. So I cry.

My mother's cousin was and is a fine man, the athlete who stayed on the mound and pitched for most of his life, a captain of the team, a leader in the village, the church, the whole community. I've taught his children. For years, he was on the Board of Directors of the college where I've taught for most of my lifetime. He still has grandchildren here.

For years, the man who somehow, once upon a time, disgraced my mother and left me bawling--for years he visited his aging cousin as he himself was growing old. He stopped in to see her often, and she loved him, loved his visits, loved his attention probably just as much as she did when she was a young mother and a sack of flour at a village park family reunion.

Honestly, I didn't really know him all that well, except to know that he became a firebrand conservative with respect to church doctrine, opposing absolutely any change in the roles of women in the church, something he was sure was contrary to God's word and will. On women in church office he held the line, determined and hard core; and even my mother, who loved him and shared his views, thought it joyfully ironic that when his own heart gave out, he was blessed with a transplant, a pre-owned model, of course--from a woman. For the last 20 years there beat a woman's heart in the old winning pitcher.

But that one has stopped now too, and my mom's cousin is gone. That's what she called to tell me last night. Her cousin died--before she did.

Today, Hamlet, Act V--the graveyard scene, "Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him, Horatio"--one of the most famous scenes in the most famous play in the English language. The poignancy of that particular scene transcends even this marvelous play, a young prince thinking seriously, with sodden conscience, about the absolute reality of death.

I'm neither young, nor a prince. I certainly haven't been pushed to revenge by my father's cursed, purgatorial ghost, and this isn't Denmark. But this morning there's a dirge being played in my soul--for a family I know well; for my mother, who is certainly missing her one-time tormentor, her beloved cousin, and a life-long friend; for a church and a community who lost a bastion; and for me, powerless as we all are before the relentless march of time.

This morning, just two days after Easter, my morning thanks are for him, for my mother's cousin; and I'm thankful too that maybe today he's pitching on some heavenly softball team in a twilight doubleheader; and that soon enough, for my 92-year-old mother, there will be a family reunion at which she'll take great joy at being tossed around like some bag of flour. Soon enough, I'll be there too, the man who is, this morning, holding a skull down here in the basement, but not seething, because we're not eternally powerless, none of us.

"There ’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow," Hamlet says to his friend Horatio. "If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all."

That's the passage, this morning, I think I'm ready to teach.

Monday, April 05, 2010

To be (cool), or not to be

I'm still suffering, big-time, from a little moonlighting I'm doing. The job's been fun, but it's just about killing me. What I do have is some spare pocket change jangling like sweet Christmas bells; and this weekend, the iPad stepped out from months and months of marketing fanfare. Jobs' newest fandangle. How cool is that--only $500 bucks, too.

That's not just a few buffalo nickels. But my near-death experience with this other job nudges at me and insists that I rather unCalvinisticly deserve a little something for all those hours of work this little extra gig has cost me. I deserve something like an iPad. After all, think of my suffering.

Besides, I'd love to surf the cutting edge, love to be out there catching the wave, an old fart out front for a change. We're far more likely Luddites, tucking our thumbs behind the straps of our bib overalls and insisting to our paunchy cohorts that the sky is, in fact, falling. Shoot, my students would think me cool should I march into class with an iPad. I could shed years with a single grand entrance. A veritable fountain of youth.

And I can afford it.

But it has no usb port, it doesn't support flash, and the silly thing won't multi-task.

But it's cool--good night, it's cool.

But we've already got a mini and my huge old desktop here in the basement. I don't need an iPad.

You don't need two cars either, but you got 'em.

And you've got a laptop at school too, and you can haul it home anytime you want and take it anywhere around the world.

But I don't have a iPhone.

Big frickin' deal.

But I'd love to goof around.

You don't have time to goof around. You're always belly-aching about time.

But wouldn't it be fun?

Listen, Sherlock--you don't have time for fun.


Still what?

I got an extra $500.

Give it to the poor. All you need around here is another gimmick gadget to collect dust. Look around. Remember what you're granddaughter said not two months ago when she was down here: "What you going to do with all this stuff when you die, Grandpa?"

All right, all right.

Don't "all right" me. You know you don't need some skinny little iPad. It's 500 schmakers, for pity sake.

It's stupid, I guess--just a whim.

Now you're talking sense.

Thus, doth conscience make fools of us all.

But it would be way cool.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Morning Thanks--Easter

It’s Easter morning, dark as night outside, but soon enough, I’m sure, the dawn will come. Yesterday we were blown around by incessant prairie winds, but relatively warm temps made the backyard so becoming that I simply couldn't stay in the basement, even though the inside work is nearly suffocating.

I snipped some of last year's growth off some bushes, caught my finger something awful--blood all over; then, well-patched, moved on to the perennial bed where I'd left a heavy quilt of leaves over everything last fall. It's been so dry that I didn't even have to rake all that detritus; I simply blew off the dirty cover and there, just beneath, stood, armed for life, a battalion of pointy-headed green nubbins already reaching for the sun.

I don't think anyone knows for sure when the original Easter Sunday morning happened, when Jesus Christ stood up in that cave, brushed off the refuse, and nudged away a stone, and stepped out, much the surprise of those Roman soldiers, much to the surprise of everyone, for that matter.

I’m not sure if anyone knows that exact calendar date, so our annual celebration of the resurrection has far more to do with the moon than it does with ancient Middle East history. Easter, the holiday, moves all over the calendar as if shoved around by our yesterday's wind.

No matter. It just seemed right, yesterday, to uncover all those green shoots standing tall amid the mess. The word Easter itself has pagan roots in a some ebullient Anglo-Saxon rite of spring, I think. And I’ve always thought it kind of strange that Christianity's most holy day is somehow married to the some pagan's wish for a holiday to celebrate the glorious passage of seasons. But yesterday, uncovering those sturdy new buds, bright green from the darkness of the earth, and feeling the warm relief from the worst winter in my memory, I really didn’t mind.

This morning we’ll go to church and hear the old story, how a couple of women went off to the graveyard for some day-later funeral rites and found the grave empty as old barn, just a few wraps lying there where not that long before, they’d laid him, Jesus Christ.

The story of Easter is the story of new life, all right—not just His because he was always God--but ours. The glorious story of Easter is that through him we rise, like those nubbins of new growth from ground that was covered for two long with three feet or more of crusted snow and and a slowly rotting blanket of wet, dead leaves.

Yesterday, I uncovered a little battalion of new growth, little green men and women given new life once again--me and you and those who know his name, whom he calls from the dusty earth of our own sin and death itself.

He calls us to life and then, energized with a species of love we can barely imagine, simply gives it away.

That’s the whole blessed story this blessed Easter morning. Could it be anything else? Easter is my morning thanks. Even the birds are singing the Hallelujah Chorus.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Morning Thanks--what I know I wouldn't do and what he would

Among the gospels' most unforgettable stories is the one about that wretched Peter, who whacks off an soldier's ear in a showy defense of Jesus, then hangs his Savior out to dry not all that much later, when three people finger him as having been one of the Messiah's sidekicks. No, he says, no way. He flat out lies. Flat out lies. Denial, denial, denial.

And he does it, shockingly, after being told he'd do exactly that, after having the whole horrible night described for him by Jesus himself in no uncertain terms, after looking into Christ's own crystal-ball.

No, no, no--never met the guy.

Our preacher reminded us of that story last night, reminded us how sweet it would have been to be able to watch Jesus eyeball Peter of the Forked Tongue just as the morning rooster let go the promised catcall. I wish the gospel writers had drawn in that scene.

But even my wish is tainted with Adam's fall, because the first dozen reactions I figure Jesus just might do--nod, wink, shake his bloody head, stare reprovingly, snarl, scream, shed a tear, or point a finger at him and say "gotcha"--come from my own human playbook. They're what I'd do if I were Jesus.

But, as our preacher told us last night, Christ is everything we're not. Ain't it the truth.

Because once I've run through the whole gamut of human emotions, once I've created the scene in a dozen different mocking ways--Jesus looking over at Peter, the cock crowing behind them--I realize that it takes real work for me to realize what face Jesus would show him, real work I can't accomplish on my own. No I-told-you-so stuff. No spite. No rolling eyes. None of that is in the divine playbook.

What he'd do, if he had it handy, is offer Peter the very cup of blessing.

That particular reaction wasn't high on my list, but, through the darkened haze of my own sin, I know--I just know--WWJD. I just know because He's everything I'm not.

And that, this Good Friday, is my morning thanks.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Morning Thanks--for what never got in

I'm sure my parents weren't thrilled to hear my music. It was the late Sixties, and the Beatles Revolution had begun. Whether it was the Rolling Stones or the Dave Clark Five, The Doors or the Beach Boys, The Mamas and the Papas or the Iron Butterfly--it was all a foreign tongue, raised as they were on psalms and campfire gospel quartets. I know what wafted from my bedroom stereo must have sounded like Satan. To their credit, they never yelled, even though they winced publicly.

The fear was that some of the weltanschauung that music hoisted along--free love, free sex, free whatever--would seep into the Calvinist soul of their son. The beat they could handle, maybe; the lyrics carried the venom.

Did that music affect their boy? I'm sure it did.

How such culture affects us has always been a concern. Famously, Plato didn't trust poetry's seductive ways and warned his disciples to keep their sanity by keeping their distance. I have to admit I wasn't all that thrilled about the musical/artistic loyalties of my own children--take Curt Kobain, for instance. But I'm sure my fears never reached my parents' fever pitch; after all, I'd waded through generational gaps myself and made it through.

Does what we sing or chant or read really affect us? Good question, saith this teacher of literature, who's spent the last forty years doing everything he could to make sure it did (Hamlet this morning, by the way). I'd like to think it does, of course, but sometimes I wonder.

Just lately, for instance, I read that "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," one of American civil religion's most precious old standards, is just loaded with theological bedevilment. That storied olde Civil War anthem, when sung well, can still wring tears from my bosom. "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord"--could there be any art more precious to American patriots? Betcha anything Sarah Palin can sing it.

According to Christopher Collins, of NYU, the hymn is "an exhortation to young men to kill and be killed." Sure, okay. Break into that memorable chorus, and I see a rag tag Civil War outfit on its way to Antietam, Gettysburg, or Missionary Ridge--some determined, innocent kid in a cap and a uniform and a half-grown mustache, somewhere close a snare drum, a flag, and flute. You know.

Collins says the hymn "represents the ideals of the northern form of postmillennialism," illustrated in five different themes: 1) that God needs humans to do his fighting and is testing our readiness to die for our faith; 2) that it's our job--the good old U.S. of A.--to liberate people in bondage throughout the world and thereby build God's millennial kingdom; 3) that the enemy, the Anti-Christ, means to deny men and women the blessings of Christianity and its sidekick glory, material prosperity; 4) that all of this warfare plays up to the Armageddon, which pits the eternal good against the eternal bad; and 5) that what follows that victory is heaven itself.

Sheesh. I had no idea I was buying or selling those wears when singing that hymn.

Way back when I was a boy, the town in which I grew up put together some kind of pageant for the Fourth of July, some open-air presentation that dozens of people were part of, even me, an eight-year-old, maybe even younger. That was so long ago that I remember it only faintly, but I don't think I'll ever forget all of us singing those ringing lyrics of "The Battle Hymn" under the open stars, Fourth of July, probably fireworks--wasn't a dry eye in the park, I'm sure.

But I don't know that I ever listened all that closely to the words: "Truth is marching, truth is marching"--and all of that. Lots of glories, lots of hallelujahs, and always that truth marching on. What I know is that old fave got my patriotic soul stirred and still does.

But I don't believe it. None of it. Not a word. I don't think that weltanschauung ever got in.


Hamlet today--Act II. "What a piece of work is man."

No kidding.

This morning, even as I try to get something in, I'm thankful for what never did.