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.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Our neighbors at the Maples

Sometimes I think I'd love to move up here to nothern Minnesota. But then, maybe the images of the region would get old. Right now, they're just joyous--flora and fauna. Here are some of our neighbors. We've been wearing ourselves out on the region's wonderful hiking and biking paths, and the first and last slide are actually portraits of my wife. You have to hunt--like Waldo or something. And how about that bald eagle--he/she was being attacked by that other raptor and I caught it at its menacing worst. Actually, he/she looked scared to death, even though the other bird seemed smaller. What can anybody say about loons? They're just great. Don't miss the dragonfly too, a good a poser as my granddaughter.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The arm of flesh will fail you


Last week it was my thumbs, this week the whole arm. An injury such as I've suffered is something like a sunset. Only 'something like,' not 'like.' Just when you think you've seen everything, wait a minute and suddenly you get even more vivid color, more display, more variation.

In an attempt to be Grandfather of the Year, I took my two oldest grandkids--one on a bike, the other on a scooter--swimming last week, and we had a ball. Quite naturally in such situations, grandpas morph into pack mules, carrying everything hauled along. I was overloaded.

We weren't more than 100 yards from the pool when I got cut off by a darting, daring grandson, and I went down--on my bike. I don't need to say that 62-year-old grandparents shouldn't really fall if they're going to bike--maybe I shouldn't speak for others. The worst was I made my grandson cry.

But I was only poking along, hardly going fast at all, slow enough, in fact, to almost plot out the actual moment of impact. Even though I fell left, I stretched out my right hand--my left being occupied with junk--to take the brunt of it, thinking myself fairly cagey for falling so thoughtfully. All of my considerable bulk came down--bang--on the heel of my right hand. Nary a scratch. In a couple of places I got really minor abrasions--no strawberries--but otherwise I came out just fine.

Until I tried to get up. My arm was almost immobile. Any way I moved it was bad, bad, bad. Fortunately, an angel of mercy came along to help me home. The chain had decided to jump ship, and there was no way I get it back on--I couldn't grip a napkin.

That was Thursday. Today is Tuesday. Still, this morning, I'm splendidly colorful all over the elbow, a place that took no impact whatsoever. Go figure.

Anyway, once more I'm absolutely amazed at how many ways we use our arms. I wince a thousand times a day--opening doors, starting the car, tossing a worm in the water. I can't tie my shoes withhout wincing, nor button my pants, nor perform delicate operations related to what doctors call "my stool." And it's amazing how ludicrous one can be when trying to be ambidextrous.

I like color. I love dawns--I'm about to experience one, in fact. I think sunsets over lakes like the one we're on right now are worth putting everything down for. But this colorful arm of mine can go. One pic--that's all it's work. Documention, that's it.

So this morning, like a week ago or so when it was my thumbs, this morning's thanks are for the thousand things a day we do with nary a pain in the arm. This morning's admontion is the sheer thoughtlessness I lived with for all these years not giving thanks for something as simple as an arm.

I'll live. Besides, I'm going down to the water right now to take out the boat. Soon enough, I'll be feeling no pain.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Looking for the Christian Life


"But the Christian life, the spiritual life, is not about information or getting things done. It’s about living. I want to live. I want to find out how. I want encouragement to live. I need companions in living.” Eugene Peterson, in IMAGE magazine.

Something in what Eugene Peterson says here sings to me. So much of my own heritage of evangelical Christianity is overrun, as he says, with "information or getting things done," as in working hard to bring powerful moral stratagems against abortion or evolution, or to support an enterprise like Christian education. For others, building a fortress both of and for our theology is a major calling.

Peterson lauds poetry--"more than half the Bible is poetry," he says earlier in the interview--as a means by which to live. I know what he means, but the suggestion isn't particularly easy, even for someone who probably reads more poetry than your ordinary Joe Six-Pack. Take this one, this morning's offering from The Writer's Almanac.

Himself by Thomas Lynch

He'll have been the last of his kind here then.
The flagstones, dry‑stone walls, the slumping thatch,
out‑offices and cow cabins, the patch
of haggard he sowed spuds and onions in‑‑
all of it a century out of fashion‑‑
all giving way to the quiet rising damp
or hush and vacancy once he is gone.
Those long contemplations at the fire, cats,
curling at the door, the dog's lame waltzing,
the kettle, the candle and the lamp‑‑
all still, all quenched, all darkened‑‑
the votives and rosaries and novenas,
the pope and Kennedy and Sacred Heart,
the bucket, the basket, the latch and lock,
the tractor that took him into town and back
for the pension cheque and messages and pub,
the chair, the bedstead and the chamber pot,
everything will amount to nothing much.
Everything will slowly disappear.
And some grandniece, a sister's daughter's daughter,
one blue August in ten or fifteen years
will marry well and will inherit it:
the cottage ruins, the brown abandoned land.
They'll come to see it in a hired car.
The kindly Liverpudlian she's wed,
in concert with a local auctioneer,
will post a sign to offer Site for Sale.
The acres that he labored in will merge
with a neighbor's growing pasturage
and all the decades of him will begin to blur,
easing, as the far fields of his holding did,
up the hill, over the cliff, into the sea.

--from Walking Papers: 1999‑2009. (c) W.W. Norton & Co., 2010.

Thomas Lynch is a poet, an undertaker, a humorist, and an essayist--and a believer. He's a Michigander whose DNA is steeply Irish Catholic, and he regularly spends time in "the old country," where this poem likely originates--at least it seems more Irish than American.

But the poem's great blessing, I think Peterson would say, is the way it suggests--leaves open to our own thoughts--some larger truth about life. It's the story of a certain man, maybe fictional, whose life came and went, after the manner in which most of our lives do come and go. I'm not Irish, a bachelor, a farmer, and I've never used a chamber pot. I like to think I'm with it (I blog, after all), so I'm certainly no iconoclast Luddite. I've got kids--and grandkids. He didn't. We're not at all alike.

But I can't hold the poem at arm's length because I am in it. Mr. Lynch doesn't direct us to wisdom; the story teases our own uncertainties by bringing a mirror to our lives, and thereby documenting, delightfully, what we know as true.

I've been thinking about this picture. Something about it is just wonderful--a kind of unseen community at work the camera caught. But something is sad as well: these bugs (and God blessed "every living thing" with the exact same blessing he gave to humans) were so busy that they didn't even notice the monster behind that humongous lens not even an inch away. That busy.

What I know is that I don't want to be that kind of bug. Like I said, I think I know what Peterson means when he says, "I want to live," and when he says, poetically, the Christian life is about living. It's about a different way of seeing.


But I'm not sure that particular different way of seeing would have been open to me, say, 30 years ago--not to Peterson either, when the business of living, providing for home and kin, likely had me, at least, much more busy collecting pollen.

Peterson is, I believe, 78 years old, the author of dozens of books on spiritual theology, a man I certainly consider full of Godly wisdom. And yet, he's looking--he wants to find out how to live, he needs encouragement and companions. Amazing. But so am I.

Maybe both of us are just getting old. Maybe. But I'm sure we'll both keep looking.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Morning thanks--38 years


Just what exactly do I remember? The church, First CRC, Orange City, Iowa, a truly Calvinist sanctuary, movie material really, galleries on both sides and in the back, stark and plain, not at all ornate but huge, a church whose very design spoke of the authority it had once upon a time, and even then, but no more. I remember well who married us, a man I still respect as highly as any human being I know.

Honestly, I remember the way my wife looked when she came down the aisle, a gorgeous woman with uncommonly dark features in a Dutch-American world. I don't remember the dress, but, as I stood in the front of that church with the rest of the wedding party and spotted her taking her father's arm, I do remember thinking I had me an absolute knock out (I know that's not nice language, but back then I was a sinner).

I remember the reception at a local college's dining hall, circles of people sitting on folding chairs, one of those circles composed of former profs at the college we'd both attended. I remember thinking it somehow nice that they'd all come--I hadn't always been their favorite student.

I remember meeting relatives of hers I didn't know and, right then, didn't care to. I remember being really anxious to be finished with all of that pomp and circumstance. I don't remember a thing about the reception--did we have some kind of program? Were there jokes? That's all gone.

I'll never forget my sabotaged orange VW squareback, shaving cream messed all over it, inside and out--plus, the little thing had been jacked up on blocks. I was going nowhere until I got it down. I was very angry--I will never forget that. The very first moment my new wife and I were together alone inside that car, she heard words that could have melted the dash of that VW. You'll have to ask her if she's ever again seen me that pissed. Eventually, we made it out of town, but I wasn't exactly in the mood for a honeymoon.

An hour up the road, all that heat had shifted focus easily.

But, sadly, the two of us were hippy-ish enough to regale traditional spendy honeymoons. No Niagara Falls, no Vegas, no San Diego or Maui for us, our first night together, man and wife, and the splendid consummation of those intimately prepared marriage vows took place in a roadside dive just outside of Worthington, Minnesota, a real dump where I hadn't even made reservations. I suppose I could have done worse, but it would have taken major effort. It's a wonder she stayed with me.

But she has, and today, amazingly, we've been married for 38 years.

38 years.

So this morning's thanks is a piece of (wedding) cake. An old friend of mine once said that he'd determined, rather unscientifically, that two out of ten marriages are really good. Three are tolerable. Those that remain are either painful or simply impossible. After all these years, I'd nominate the one that began in First CRC, Orange City 38 years ago today, our own, among the very blessed.

Honestly, to me, the detailed rituals with which we embellish our wedding days are barely there in my memory of that long-ago event. But then, the two of us had started dating only six months before--you might say we got married in a fever.

And as for that disaster of a honeymoon, I'm typing these words in a beautiful cabin on a bay of a huge lake in northern Minnesota, a cabin where, this morning, the sounds of a pipe organ are coming up softly from an FM radio across the room, the coffee is brewing, and this bride of mine is still luxuriously fast asleep a room away. Outside, it's cloudy and gray, but honestly, inside, there couldn't be more warmth, more sun.

For all of that, this Sunday morning of our 38th anniversary, I'm more than thankful.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Identity


Louise Erdrich's newest novel, Shadow Tag, contains two surprise endings, one of which is dramatic, the other technical. (CAUTION, SPOILER ALERT.) I won't hint at the dramatic surprise, but if I tell you the technical one, I don't think my whispering will spoil the read.

At the end of the novel, we learn that what we've been reading is "first fiction" by the daughter of two bloodied marital warriors who are at the heart of the novel. She's completing an MFA degree and what you've just read is her thesis. I really dislike that ending because it seemed to me it was a kind of literary sleight of hand vastly beneath Ms. Erdrich's powers. What the young lady admits at the end is the horrors of growing up with her parents--how their storming about killed her. The redeeming value of their lunacy (the major conflict is immensely interesting), however, was that it gave their writer-daughter something to write about. Okay, but pardon me as I roll my eyes.
Just what every writer needs--really abusive parents.

That conclusion reminded me of a poem--can't remember poet or title--about a woman seeing a picture of her parents' college graduation, when the two of them were young and idealistic and in love. That picture looks nothing like the parents she knew--always fighting. Oh well, the poet says at the end, at least it gave me something to write about.
Same chapter, same verse. I liked the poem, but I hated the cheap ending to Shadow Tag.

I've been reading a new biography of Emily Dickinson, Lives Like Loaded Guns, a bio that investigates two earthy stories in this unearthly poet's life, stories too real to be easily understood in light of the caricature (was it that?) of the flighty, ethereal "Belle of Amherst."

One is the almost public infidelity of her brother, who lived next door, and Emily's own closeness with her wronged sister-in-law, Sue. In an attempt to explain how an affair like that could happen to such significant figures in the Amherst community, Lyndall Gordon goes back a couple of generations and tells the story of Ms. Emily's mother, who was, Gordon insists, one of those early 19th century women who so shocked de Toqueville in his American sojourn, young women capable of so much freedom before marriage, and unrequiting servitude thereafter.

The fact is, of course, that Emily rarely wrote anything about her mother, who must have been something of a non-presence in her life ("my mother does not care for thought," Ms. Emily once wrote). Apparently, little is known about Mother Dickinson at all, unlike her husband (Emily's father) who cut quite a swath in the little college town, but who was of such stern New England character that someone--was it Emily?--once wrote that "he was known to have smiled once."

What Gordon argues is that Ms. Emily learned well the lessons her mother taught her, although in contrary measure. In a way, Mrs. Dickinson's apparent coldness may well have created the complex fiery emotional character her daughter internalized and turned into some of America's greatest poetry. Maybe her mother's legacy in her was that Ms. Emily was not--at all costs--her mother. Let's put it this way: Ms. Emily inherited absolutely nothing from her mother, but learned everything.

Maybe I'm overstating.

I don't know--I just find it all very interesting. Identity is such an incredible puzzle, isn't it?

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Morning Thanks--a new old book


Once upon a time, some still small voice within me said "write." With varying degrees of success, I've been doing it, off and on, ever since. I was 19 years old, maybe 20, when that siren song first made me swoon, but it took me awhile to get at it, a wait was likely smart. I taught high school English for a while, then took a college job, after completing a masters.

The very first year of college teaching, I told myself it was time to listen. I was nudging close to 30, after all. So I set myself a goal, a story a month. And I did it.

What did I know about writing? Not much. Never had a class, had scribbled out just one story the last semester of my Arizona high school teaching stint. Somehow, somewhat brashly, I decided I could create character and setting--no problem. But story, narrative lines, plot--that was going to be a problem.

One Saturday night at a place I haven't been able to find since, we stumbled on an old cemetery, overgrown with weeds, in the middle of endless acres of row crops. We got out and walked around and found a ton of children's graves--influenza likely took all of them, early 20th century, out here on the edge of the plains. I didn't know the story, and I wanted to.

That graveyard stroll and my own increasing interest in my Dutch heritage--"know thyself"--started me on a reading regimen of dust-laden history books, the kind that only eccentrics think about--The Story of Sioux County, by Charlie Dyke, that kind of thing. I loved the stories I found in myriad places, so I decided I'd try to write the really good ones, take them out of unopened history book covers, change them into fiction, and put a new cover around them. A year later or so, Dordt College Press published my first book, Sign of a Promise and Other Stories.

I caught a big break when my own denominational magazine, The Banner, ran the title story, something that would never happen today--the story was far too long for almost any general readership periodical these days. I was off.

That book sold several thousand copies--I honestly have no idea how many, but I'd guess somewhere close to 5000, two printings. Then, many years later, it quietly slipped out of print.

The new world of publishing makes re-publication relatively painless. Publish-on-demand makes writers of us all, just as digital photography has made life miserable for the truly talented photographers. So with the release of the new Sign of a Promise, I'm taking full advantage of the new world of publication. There are about 100 of these reprints around, new cover, but not a thing altered or edited inside.

If you're interested in historical fiction about Dutch folks in the upper Midwest, I'll send you a copy. Ten bucks--well, $12 because it'll cost me $2 to mail.

I'm happy to announce it's back. My very first book is now my most recent. I'll even put a story up, a sample, when I can figure out how.

Yeah, this is a kind of ad. I'm not sure how the Lord feels about morning thanks whose sub-text is marketing, but I've got good friends who believe that business is sacred. Nonetheless, this morning I'm thankful to be able to say hello once again to an old friend, a book I wrote when I was someone else all-together. Maybe.

It's been 30-some years. I'm glad it's back--and thankful.
__________________________
The cover is newly designed, but it holds the same picture--my immigrant Schaap great-grandparents, a wonderful homestead portrait in central South Dakota, circa 1890.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Signs and wonders


Tonight is Mid-Summer Night's Eve, a night traditionally associated with love--and time. Like yesterday's solstice, the heavenly event comes just once annually, of course, and now it's gone.

Sigh.

The ornamental crabs are already beginning to shed leaves, an act they pull off just so prematurely every summer in fact, always triggering mild depression.

Ancient peoples were better at reading nature's time than I am. I know of two places in the region where long lines of stones set in the soil seemingly point at the dawn on summer solstice, probably reminding Native people to consider that sometime soon they were going to have to begin to think about winter quarters. Yuck. Then again, maybe it was hot that June--under that Strawberry Moon--and the idea of cool snuggly nights held its own kind of sweet attraction.

Maybe all this 1862 stuff is getting to me. In the maelstrom of rain and wind a few nights ago, this rotted branch got snapped and hurled like some fierce war lance, stabbed into the ground like a portent in our front yard. Behind me, I swear I heard war drums.

I had just finished writing a story about the Sioux and the settlers, and I had the distinct feeling that some troubled ghost dancer was letting me know he wasn't happy with the treatment.

Maybe I've spent too much time in Minnesota in 1862--yeast for my own overeager imagination.

I pulled it out, cracked it over my knee like John Wayne would have. "Listen, cowboy, you just follow me. We're going to make it to Oregon."

Phhhhhhhhht.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Siouxland Aesthetics


I think I’ve taken a couple thousand pictures of the Siouxland landscape. I’ll admit some preferences—I avoid hog confinements, even though, like earwigs this time of year, they’re everywhere in Sioux County. There are fewer across the border in South Dakota, so often as not I cross the river. I have good friends who are sure the dominance of row crops makes this world monotonous, but long parallel lines of corn and beans this time of year, early summer, add sweet swooshes and swoops against the broad, open spaces.

Without a doubt, beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder, one of whom I am. Saturday morning I returned with this shot, which I really like. It’s still a mystery to me how it is that some few shots just get me, and others—thousands of others—get unceremoniously deleted. Why does the eye seem to like one composition better than another? I know what I like, but even after all these years I still don’t always understand why I like it.

My guess is even the finest photographers would admit that getting a particularly good shot is vastly more a matter of sheer good fortune than meticulous planning. I'm wandering around in the country like some drunken sailor when I stumble over this Northern Catalpa in the middle of nowhere--don't know if I could find it back. Okay, first element--I was blessed last Saturday with a comely sky, a rich background that could make a honey wagon look memorable. So we’ll start there. Element #1: background. In this case, not overstated; it shouldn't be brewing up a storm. Calm but textured. To my eyes, the sky here is a undeserved blessing.

It seems to me that landscape photography is all about light, and I hit this one just right. Those clouds were threatening the early morning sun (Element #2—early morning sun, for warmth and shadows), but I came up on this incredible show when the sun was still smiling down. Twenty seconds later it disappeared, and so did the pop on those massive blossoms. Element #3: good light.

Element #4: sweet lines. This fulsome tree sits at the corner of two gravel roads, only one of which—the one lying behind it—is visible, and that, barely (I’m on the other). But the road behind it is there, and it’s unobtrusive, which helps. Let’s face it, too much gravel road would wound this composition mortally; just a hint is graceful. Along the road is a fence, which, like that nearly indistinguishable gravel road, leads the eye into photographic eternity. Nice. There’s even a third line—of trees—that gives this shot more depth, which doesn't hurt either.

Element #5: symbolism. Once upon a time, the whole region was tall-grass prairie, an eco-system that’s almost entirely disappeared, victim of its own richness. Trees were sparse. Still are. White settlers created sod houses because getting wood was a major undertaking--and costly. The scarcity of trees still makes them noteworthy or memorable against the endless sea of grass (now row crops). There remains something iconic about a single tree, especially a big one, out here on the edge of the plains, something suggesting sturdiness or character, methinks. Okay, maybe stubbornness too.

Element #6: surprise. This icon, magically, is in glorious full bloom. It’s almost unreal. First of all, the tree itself seems huge—is there even two of them here? Secondly, it’s thick and heavy-laden with blossoms the size of volleyballs. Look, one simply doesn’t expect that kind of gaudiness out here where the lines are minimalist. It’s shocking, almost sinful in a very sweet way.

But then there’s the trump. Element 7: you simply like the place. In just a week or so we’ll be in the Pacific northwest, right on the Sound. The place is gorgeous—I’ve been there before, often. I had a wonderful student from Colorado—two of them, in fact—who both told me they couldn’t wait to get home at the end of the year just to be close to mountains again. I understand that. But without a doubt, one of the reasons I like this picture (and others may not) is because to me the whole place is beautiful—the emerald edge of the Great Plains. If this country is nothing but an armpit, the shot’s got zero charm.

I wish I could say I knew all of that when I snapped the picture, but the truth is, I didn’t. I did wait for the sun to peek through; but I wasn’t thinking about lines or symbols or the tree as showy babe. Nope. I wasn’t thinking of anything, really; but some instinct in me knew that something about that tree, right then, right there on the corner, was noteworthy, which prompted my eye to point the camera.

All of which reminds me why I head west on Saturday mornings when I can. Going out in the early morning light forces this old Calvinist to do some theological therapy: it pushes me to look for beauty, a task which sometimes requires some work in this veil of tears.

The irony is, I don’t need the picture to know I found it. I get home, have a look at the catch, and realize, every dang time, that what I’ve got, virtually, in the camera just doesn’t compare with the reality I've just witnessed--the sheer glory of dawn’s early light.

Still, this shot I like. But then, you know—there’s no accounting for taste.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Morning Thanks--thumbs


I've come to the conclusion that "all thumbs" is better than no thumbs.

I've got 'em yet--my thumbs--but they're both wounded, scarred, and tender. Trust me, I'm the last of the fixer-up-ers, but I took on a little job last weekend that required wedging two sheets of floor tile from the cement in the basement john. It wasn't a horror, but it wasn't a great deal of fun either, jamming a screw driver and a paint scraper beneath ye olde tiles until the dirty, rotten stuff broke off in tomahawk shards, knife-edged. In the process, I jammed my thumbs--both of them--into those brutally sharp edges, punctured 'em. I'm trying to make you wince. Both of them, see? Blood like you wouldn't believe.

My wife suggested I wear gloves. Where was I when brains were passed out?

Anyway, since then, I've discovered a thousand ways in which we use our thumbs, even the very ends, especially the very ends. My thumb pads are just fine, and I can type for fair, but just about fourteen times an hour I discover that one's thumb ends are incredibly valuable commodities. I mean, people talk about fingertips, but when's the last time you ever heard anyone talk about thumb tips? I'm saying, they're there. I know. Believe me.

I'll live. But I'd rather they were healthy, so this morning's thanks are for the tips of a pair of appendiges I never thought much about until this weekend, when I was reminded of them, painfully, far too blasted often.

Like I said, I'll live.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Saturday Morning Catch


It's been a long time since I was out on a Saturday. The world here at the edge of the Great Plains is splendidly emerald after more rain than we sinners deserve. But the big story this morning was the sky--weathermen call it "partly cloud," and it was. But "partly cloudy" can be drop dead gorgeous. When the sky's the story, the best shots are landscapes, big ones, lens stuck way down. You can't have too much wide-angle, really. On those mornings the sky steals your attention, any land-locked feature has to be incredibly fulsome to compete with its immensity.

They preach, you know--the heavens do. So saith the psalmist, and who am I to question?

Friday, June 18, 2010

Morning Thanks--Worldly Wisdom IV


"No matter how long the procession,
it always returns to church."

This one's Catholic and I'm not, at least there hasn't been many processionals proceding from church doors of the particular species of Protestantism from which my people come.

When I think of processions, I see Catholic churches in Central America or South America, ritual marches that usher forth from church doors, feature elaborate costuming and wholesale religious imagery, amble around the city or town for a time, then disperse--or, as the proverb suggests, return to church. Protestant prejudice also prompts my imagination to see scourges and blood letting, but that's more likely Shiite and therefore Muslim, methinks.

The country of origin here is the Phillipines, so the embedded wisdom may well be Islamic in origin, although if it were, the last word would be mosque. For that reason I'm going to assume it's Catholic: "No matter how long the procession, it always returns to church."

My puritannical ancestry likely gave up processionals because the rituals had become too, well, gawdy, too ritualistic, too baroque for our roundhead tastes. For a people who like to say "sola scriptura," it may be good for us to remember that processionals are clearly biblical--as in Christ's palm Sunday processional on a donkey, or David's much ballyhooed solo prancing leading the ark came back to town (even though his wife thought it far too sexy). Those stories are right there in the Bible. Maybe what our largely Dutch Calvinist congregation needs to do is mount a good devout processional--and in wooden shoes. We're right there in the middle of town, after all. It's perfect.

The closest we come is funerals, like the one above, the early 20th century funeral procession of my wife's great-great grandmother in Orange City, Iowa, a procession which undoubtedly returned to church too, as all our funerals do.

But what does it mean? "However long the procession, it always returns to the church."

I can only guess. Perhaps they got old, boring. Perhaps people's feet hurt after about an hour of processional-ing. "Hold on!"--the line promises--"these things always return to where they came from."

But the church both is and gets the last word here, so the intent has to be religious somehow. How about this? If you get weary of trumpeting your own righteousness out front of the eyes of every last soul in town, relax--soon enough you'll be back at the kneeling bench. I like that but it may be way wrong.

There's a kind of deliberative calm in the promise, right? Feet hurt?--you'll be home in no time. "Are we there yet?" kids say. Finally, we say, yes.

Take a deep breath. You'll make it.

Or maybe, as with the old funeral above, we should never lose sight of the fact that the cemetery isn't the end of the journey.

Just some thoughts. Know any Phillipinos?

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Morning Thanks--bingo


I blame age for my lack of gregariousness. A teacher sees kids come in every year, new kids, kids you've never known before. Four years later--sometimes less--they leave. Gone. Goodbye.

Gets tiring. Gets old. I hate revolving doors.

Once upon a time we were part of the whole welcome wagon thing with new teachers. Years ago, we used to help them move in--when I still had a back for pianos. This summer I'm sure more new profs will be a'comin', but we're not likely to pitch in or even bring a plate of brownies. Too many have come and gone, and, besides, they're likely to be two generations younger than we are, out of our league.

All of that's probably not a good enough excuse for not being neighborly, but it's the truth. We're just not as outgoing as once we were.

So we've got new neighbors. They just moved in across the street--a young family with kids, one at least. In winter, a house is a fortress; not being social is easy because nobody hangs around outside anyway. But in June, there's no excuse. So one night when the yard was full of people, I walked over. Figured I had to.

I started politiely--with my name, I'm a prof at Dordt--all of that. A young woman told me she wasn't the one moving in; she was the mother. That surprised me--she seemed way too young, but that happens all-too-frequently too. Anyway, big smile. She pointed at her husband, then pointed out just exactly who were the kids who were moving in. "Leusink," she said. "We're the Leusinks."

It's amazing, how the mind works. Immediately, that name is entered into some weird computer in the brain, and the memory kicks out tag line info. People call that process bingo, and some of us can't help playing.

"Really," I said, "Leusink, eh? Related to the kid who died in Iraq?" It was reflex, totally unplanned. How could it have been? In fact, had I taken the time to think about what I'd said, I may well have decided not to--wounds and all.

That woman's face beamed. Her chin rose, I swear it. Some kind of firmness set in her jaw. "Yes," she said. "Yeah--that's my son."

I didn't stay long. I met the rest of the family, her daughter's sisters, too, the woman's other children, the son-in-law. Met 'em all.

But what I'll remember is the way that woman's face lit when she told me the boy who died in Iraq was their own son. I knew, even though it wasn't planned, that I'd sure as anything said the right thing.

His sister and brother-in-law, our new neighbors, put a flag up on their garage a couple of days later, a red Marine corps flag, probably the only one flying in town. They don't want to forget, and they don't want other people to either, neighbors.

I see that flag every day, and when I do I think of that mother's face when, totally without motive, I played bingo and won, big-time.

Here's what I think--I got used. I wasn't trying to be kind or nice or even welcoming--I just asked the question my memory kicked out, and what she heard me ask, and what I saw on her face, was pure and simple blessing. It was probably the best thing I'd said all day, all week.

Sometimes it feels darn good to be used. This morning, I'm thankful for having been used--and blessed--myself.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Morning Thanks--Worldly Wisdom III


"Pray to God, but continue to row to shore."

An old friend of mine once told me that a girl he was dating, heavily, was reluctant to sign on to his offer of a longer relationship once they graduated from college. She told him, as I remember, that she was trying to listen to God's will and determine where He wanted her the next year, not where he wanted her--lower case--which is to say, my old friend. She was being sweetly spiritual, waiting on the Lord.

I thought the guy was getting a holy run-around. She probably neither wanted to carry this relationship into some yet-to-be-discovered region, nor abandon it. She had cold feet, numb in fact. Maybe she was waiting for some divine tip-of-the-hat, but it sounded to me as if neither she nor the Lord really wanted this relationship to go the distance.

"I told her," he said, "that waiting on the Lord is all well and good, but someone is going to fill in the blanks on the applications." That's what I remember him saying. In those long-gone, pre-computer days, it was fine to pray mightily, but somebody was going to have to slip job applications onto the barrel of the typewriter.

Today, 30-some years later, both are married to other people, which is clearly what God wanted anyway. He spoke all right.

"Pray to God, but continue to row to shore," saith the Russians, darling advice, or so it seems to me. "Pray to God, but pass the ammunition," saith American GIs in some war or other.

"Pray to God, but hold on to your day job" is good advice to aspiring artists. Pray to God when you get laid off, but hit the sidewalk the next day.

When serendipity suddenly sweetens one's life, some folks love to call whatever the unlikely incident "a God thing." Okay, but such pronouncements are slightly treacherous because we generally don't make such claims about horrors, only blessings.

I can't say I know that many Russians, but I like the line. Pray without ceasing, but keep an oar in the water. Don't be a holy fool.

I don't think you can go wrong on that one.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Change and decay?


Not long ago, an entire church denomination erased the college where I teach from its approved ministries list because they claimed we have fallen from whatever level of righteousness that denomination seems worthy. Makes me sad, not only because I don't like getting kicked out of a fellowship where we once had good friends, but also because I've enjoyed having students from that church over the years, some of whom even became close. It's not at all pleasant to be told you've fallen from grace.

It's not rocket science, of course--it's theology: we don't do faith right. That's the bottom line for our getting thumbed.

Among evangelicals, no greater divide exists than that which arises from differing views on the place of women in church office. There's no disputing how the Apostle Paul felt, of course; he makes it abundantly clear in more than one of his letters that women are not leaders, men are--and always will be, or at least always should be. There were 12 apostles, right? Not a Jane or Lucy among 'em. Question his words, and you're questioning scripture. It's just that simple to some of the faithful.

The folks who threw us out smell apostacy--ours. After all, the denomination in which we had our birth allows women preachers.

Now me?--I think the world, like the scripture itself, is just a hair more complex.

In an absolutely wonderful article in the New Republic recently, Garry Wills took on the church he loves and has been a member of for his whole life, the Roman Catholic Church, for the horrors it has not only allowed, but even perpetuated by tolerating abusive priests. The article's compelling strength lies in Wills's undying commitment to his church, but his insistence nonetheless that the Vatican seriously consider allowing priests to marry. Male hierarchy, he says, is most clearly responsible for the horrific scandal the church continues to suffer.

An article in U. S. Catholic echoes Garry Wills' point: "There can also be no doubt that it is long past time to have a truly open discussion about mandatory celibacy, one long requested by the bishops of the developing world and by many preists who are questioning the direct link between their ministry and that 1000-year old discipline."

Can the Roman Catholic church reverse itself like that? I just don't know. I don't know how any church does. When my denomination tried to take a more tolerant view of the place of women in church office, we lost thousands. When our little congregation tried it, we lost dozens. Change doesn't come easily.

Can the church change? I don't know.

I'm not a Catholic. I've no place in that particular argument, but I'm interested in the politics somehow, in the route good, well-meaning people can or cannot take when canon law or centuries-old traditions run up against a clearly changing society.

And we are changing. Hanna Rosen's cover story, "The End of Men," in the new Atlantic makes very clear that immense change is happening all around, for men and women. Put succinctly, it's becoming a woman's world. We've lost of millions of jobs that require male bulk and strength--factory jobs, farm jobs--jobs associated with smokestacks and greasy fingernails, jobs at which men have a leg up. New jobs in the information age don't favor the male of the species. That's a fact. It's not hard to imagine a world in which men will become vastly less important. In a way, we've already arrived. Look at Sarah Palin--and the particular political persuasion of those who thinks she's viable as a Presidential candidate. In 2008, we could easily have had a woman candidate for President; we had one for VP.

My father-in-law watched his father plow with horses when he was a boy. He claims that in his life he's seen unbelievable change. So have I--but not in technology. I grew up with a TV and airlines. We always had a car. If I think about change in my life, I think the most significant change is that which has occured within the lives of women. We no longer live in a Leave it to Beaver world.

How does a church that wants to remain faithful to God find its way in a world that's changing? That's the question. What does it mean to be faithful? Roman Catholics are going to have to continue to ask and answer that question in an uncertain future, their own immediate past morally soiled by a doctrinal stance that looks more and more archaic in a world in which its rulings not only make no sense but have actually injured that church's own standing with the people it's meant to serve.

It seems to me that even those denominations whose righteousness, their fidelity to scripture is, in thier minds, illustrated most clearly in their insistence that men run the church are also going to have to change. Somehow. What's happening outside the sanctuary is undeniable: in 1970, women contributed 2 to 6 percent of the family income, Atlantic says. Today, the typical working wife brings home 42.2 percent, and four in ten moms--many of them single mothers--are the primary breadwinners. Primary.

Truly orthodox fellowships can point at those stats and say that right there lies apostacy, right there lies evil. A world run by women is exactly what must be fought in God's own bride, the church. Okay, but methinks it's going to become harder and harder to make that argument.

Then again, maybe being faithful means keeping the good wife at home with the kids. But there are fewer and fewer of the old jobs for the old man to take. So even if you want to go back, even if you think it's scripturally mandated, it ain't going to be easy. Maybe Christians should all slowly fade into some bucolic, Amish way of life. Sure. I just doubt it's going to happen.

This denomination who thumbed us feels we have gone the way of all flesh because, among other criticisms, some of our churches have women preachers. That's why we're out, I guess.

It'll be interesting to see how they adjust to a new order. "Man has been the dominant sex since, well, the dawn of mankind. But for the first time," Ms. Hanna Rosin says, "that is changing--and with shocking speed."

She may be wrong, of course, but look at last week's elections.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Morning Thanks--angel food


On the last night of our traveling "edge-of-the-Plains" magical mystery tour, we ate our way through a culinary carnival in Worthington Christian Reformed Church, where about 45 weary pilgrims were refreshed and then overloaded with a seven-course meal. Sounds biblical. It was.

For more than fifteen years, Worthington, Minnesota, has attracted real-live human beings from all over the world because a local industry looks for the cheapest labor they can find. Minnesota's own Sinclair Lewis made a writing career out of making fun of dumb small-town folks, all of them white and mentally listless; but if you think of Worthington as Gopher Prairie or Grovers Corners or even Lake Woebegone, you don't have a clue. Downtown Worthington is a human rainbow, a medley of folks who don't speak English all that well and dress in a fashion that is to them their very own, but to the neighbors, white folks, immensely exotic. Honestly, i's almost impossible even to imagine a Worthington, MN, in the rural midwest.

But we were there, and seven ethnic peoples served up a supper that was, in theory as well as taste, quite simply divine. Most the time. There were a few moments when, unbeknownst to Dutch Reformed taste buds, some ultra spicy food snuck on the plate and lit people up like roman candles. I swear I saw smoke coming from ears around several tables. I was ready to call the fire department when someone whispered that, here too, all things must pass.

What a treat. First, an explanation from the chefs, then an object lesson in how to eat the delights, then an altar call, and up we came, time and time again. Laotian, Mexican, Liberian, and several ethnic flavors of Ethiopian, that food was a celebration--all of it just wonderful. Too much, in fact.

When at last, our tasty journey done, the local Worthington Dutch-Americans offered their own finale, a glorious shortcake swarming with strawberries. Like some totally soused sailor, I absolutely couldn't belly up to the bar for another round, I would have had to roll--no, be rolled. I was suffering dearly for my sin, which was, of course, gluttony--the final of the seven deadlies.

What a feast.

Freshness turns into cliche very quickly when it comes to our pondering of the world to come. The metaphors in "Jerusalem the Golden" don't stick well anymore, not that gold streets don't have their own appeal, given the price of gold these days. And heavenly choirs simply don't have the drawing power they once had; maybe we ought to push instead for heavenly rock concerts or praise teams.

Our stock of heavenly metaphors today is drawn almost completely from our own greatest perceived weakness, and therefore whenever someone talks of the new heavens and the new earth, we tend to create some kind of multi-ethnic look--"Red and yellow, black and white--they are precious in his sight;/Jesus loves the little children of the world." Adults too, of course. Too often, such community doesn't happen here on the terra firma, so we rhapsodize, make it our own look of what heaven must be like.

That vision is what we witnessed in Worthington CRC on Friday night, a rainbow coalition, a melting pot, a painter's palatte, all kinds of colors praising the Lord.

But I came away thinking that maybe even if it is a cliche, far easier said than done, far more a wish than a reality, who really cares? For one night at least, at the end of our journey, we'd seen a community of colorful communities, all praising the same Lord and Father and creator, eating his bounty, even when it was way too hot.

It's impossible for me to imagine that that same Father and God didn't look down on the long dinner that evening and, in his grace, pronounce it very good.

Oops. I erred. That strawberry dessert I skipped?--it wasn't shortcake at all, it was angel food. How could I forget? Angel food. That's exactly what it was.

All of that is my morning thanks for an entire week of joy.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Morning thanks--talking spiritual


My mother used to say that any night out in good Christian fellowship wasn't quite the finest if someone didn't "talk spiritual." Not a lot. Too much is gooey and tends towards the "me and-my-sweet-Jesus" myopia. But just a little shot of good faithful intimacy, a kind of theological truth talk, she used to think, is good for body and soul.

Of course, such evaluation can morph into a weapon easily enough. If "talking spiritual" doesn't arise in a little get-together, my mother might sneer a bit, or at least register some sorrowful regret. It's easy to get the opinion that those who don't "talk spiritual" aren't spiritual. Not a good conclusion at all.

Let me just say that last night's meeting with some folks from Volga Christian Reformed Church would have left my mother not only smiling but wiping away tears--and that's the true test of "talking spiritual." And that's good. Honestly, her own far less talking-spiritual son got himself moved across the block more than once when good folks reached for the corners of their eyes when talking about faith, about how it got them through three-foot high dirt drifts during the Dust Bowl and meager sustainence when all a father had to bring to town to barter for groceries was a quart of cream. You simply couldn't not listen.

Lots of substantial spiritual talk, as a matter of fact.

But good honest spirituality is like ying without yang because you can't let "talking spiritual" get you into some kind of funk. You got to laugh. If you don't laugh a little, you leave in a cloud as dark as a swarm of hoppers.

One guy says he remembers another guy telling him this about the weather sometime in the Thirties. It was so hot and dry, he said, that he saw a dog chasing a rabbitt. Both of 'em were walking.

That's talking spiritual too, methinks. What a blessing.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Morning thanks--Martin Luther chapel music


People sometimes become their own voice recorders by doing a stump speech a thousand times. Success doesn’t help. Success just builds more self-trust. You use the same jokes because, after all, they worked last time. The minute you start talking, you board a train of thought, and you’re blind to the sleepers in your audience eyes.

Or so it was, I thought, with our tour guide. He started like my Toro—press the gas bulb three times, give the engine one quick pull, and we’re off. Once he got going on his spiel, he likely wouldn’t stop until the whole nine yards was shorn. You don’t change a thing without shutting the engine down.

I was even worried. You get that way with a tour. You want everybody to have a ball, and then fate delivers a monotone voice—or a quiet one--and the enemy, boredom, seems right outside the bus door. He wasn’t bad, but he seemed to me to be on auto-pilot. I was starting to get worried.

But Martin Luther College has a brand new chapel, a beautiful, bright place, where just walking in is a joy. Fortuitously, which is to say serendipitously, which is to say, I guess, fortunately, which is to say, I’d like to think, blessedly (a cosmic multiple choice question), the chapel’s ace organist just happened to be there to open the door for us.

Yes, he said, he’d love to play that new organ. Sure, he said. Yeah, you ought to hear it.

I don’t know sound science. Some people get Ph.D’s in acoustics, but I don’t really deal in echo times or whatever distinctions people make in determining what’s makes good sound management and what flat out goes. What I know is that when Dr. Mr. Organist started that beast up, the beauty didn’t shimmer, it boomed. For a moment, I swear I felt closer to heaven than I’ve been for a long, long time. The sound of that instrument, in that gorgeous space was quite literally out of this world.


He told us that the music sounds best when people sing. Would we like to? Sheesh. Was Luther a Lutheran?

How about “A Mighty Fortress” in the Lutheran chapel?

When it was over, we begged for another. And another, “Old Hundredth.”

On the last verse, I was just about shouting. I haven’t sung that belligerently for years. Occasionally, I think I even hit the right notes, but no matter. No one cared. The astounding power of that wondrous instrument was a glorious blessing even the sharpest tour hosts could not have planned.

In the afternoon, we toured a brewery and savored the place’s bounty in the cool of the alehouse downstairs. At night, a band of German singers belted out drinking songs, while a zany team of Narren (which, from the German, translates to” a troop of fools”) banned stoicism altogether and turned forty-some Dutch Calvinists into goofy jackrabbits.



No matter. The rich blessing of the day was music in that beautiful chapel, led by a monster organ to the peace that comes only with the assurance that, just for a moment, you’re being held in the divine palm of a hand as spacious as it is loving. For a moment there, I think even I could have walked on water.

What a joy. What a blessing. More than enough for morning thanks.

It’s probably altogether too easy for all of us to become voice recorders. Yesterday in the brand new chapel at Martin Luther College, for just a moment or two, some of us—well, me at least—were blessed with a new sound altogether, an almost heavenly voice.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010


I honestly don't know if it's true, but the church ladies of the long gone Delafield Evangelical Lutheran Church of Delafield Township, Jackson County, Minnesota, swear--on a bible even--that the smash hit Church Basement Women, a long-running and oft-toured theater piece (an original and two sequels, in fact) was created from material they gave the playwrights in a wonderful little documentary film titled Delafield.

At least that's what they told me yesterday. Straight-faced too. Of course, they're Lutheran women, so lying is out of the question.

We met them yesterday at Windom American Lutheran Church, for lunch--not in the basement, but you get the picture. We'd watched the film the night before with some good folks from Leota Christian Reformed Church, where a sobering discussion occured afterward because the documentary itself is a lament, not only for the passing of a church, but the virtual passing of the rural way of life in the Upper Midwest.

The Delafield church disbanded in 1998, when it looked at itself and realized it had far greater past than a future. The pastor says, on the film, that she asked the children to come forward for a children's sermon, but none came. There wasn't any. Most of what she saw before her was silver-haired. It's a blessedly loving documentary created by a son of the congregation, and it was especially moving in Leota, Minnesota, where the good people lost their elementary school just last year. When you lose your kids, you lose a future. We didn't pass out Kleenex before that film went on, but it would have been kind of us to have done just that.

The country folk of Delafield gave their old Lutheran church away, and if you're ever travelling down I-90, past Jackson, Minnesota, all you need to do is lift your eyes to the hill on the south side of the road, where that church's steeple still sits proudly against the horizon. Today, it's the tallest building in a tourist stop (not trap either--trust me).


Anyway, what we'd set up for the bus tour we're on is a meeting with those very sweet country Lutheran folks who starred in the documentary that gave birth to all the comedy. We'd meet them, we said, the very next day at the Lutheran church in Windom, the church some of them now attend. Honestly, I thought it would be a highlight of our little pilgrimage through rural southwest Minnesota, a place where few tourists stop to smell the prairie roses. I thought so because the film tells their story as evocatively as it does; our tour bus folks would love to meet them.


That meeting was everything I imagined--and more.

When we pulled up on the east side ("you better use the east side because we got vbs going on, you know"), those Minnesota Lutherans wandered outside the door to greet the frozen chosen Calvinists right off the bus. There they stood like some silver-maned welcome wagon, and once our people filed off the bus, they were greeted, open arms. Yes, open arms. I'm not making this up. Actual hugs.

I'm not kidding. I saw it with my own eyes. Those Lutherans and our Calvinists hugged each other even though they'd never laid eyes on us before, and we'd seen them only on a vhs tape. Like old friends. Like family. It's true, I swear. I'm not lying. Hugged. I got pictures.


All of that was late Tuesday morning. We've still have several days to go on this trip, and I don't dare to say it aloud really, but the truth is if we have a moment more precious than that one, all that hugging--can you believe it?-- right there on the front step of the Lutheran Church, I'll be one shocked pilgrim. And lunch too yet. My lands.

It was a very, very good moment. Garrison Keillor wouldn't believe it. What I'm saying is what he claims about Minnesota Lutherans is way off base. And those fine playwrights who've created those plays about Lutheran Church women?--they wouldn't believe it either, all those free hugs between actual strangers right there at church. It happened sure as anything.

What an incredible blessing. Good enough this morning, for morning thanks, don't you think?

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Blood Run meditation


A woman told me not long ago that although she'd lived in or around the small Minnesota town where she'd still made her home for almost forty years, she'd never be a native of the place because she'd always be--to others--from somewhere else. And thus we small-towners impose foreignness on each other, I guess. Me too.

But then we place such "otherness" on ourselves as well, I suppose--or I do, because I wanted to start this little note by saying "I went home last week," a very natural assertion because I did, home to Wisconsin. I haven't lived in the little town of Oostburg since 1972, so let me do the math--that's 38 years. How on earth, literally, can I call the place "home"? And yet, like my Minnesota friend, I'll never be a native Iowan either. Go figure.

Anyway, I went home to visit my mom, and while I was there--and because it was the day after Memorial Day, I suppose--I made a pilgrimage of sorts to the cemetery where just about all of my people are buried, where my brother-in-law had lovingly set geraniums at every grave.

My father died about five years ago, after a month-long travail. It was a blessing to see him go, really, and I sat vigil with him for several days, while he slowly lost consciousness, one of the most precious chunks of time I've ever spent in my life, even though few words--if any at all--passed between us.

There's a stone there in the cemetery, of course, a stone that anticipates my mother's arrival out there on a hill above the lakeshore; her name is already scripted there. But I didn't remember seeing the brass military marker. It was laid flat into the ground, bright and shiny actually, in the dawn's early light. It's upper edge was festooned with three little mounds of inlooped ant excavations, hemispheres of sandy dirt that edged into the otherwise shimmering brass.

There was something biblical about those excavations, I thought--and heathen, I suppose. Something about dust-to-dust, something about returning to the earth from which he--and all of us--came.

I thought of that visit yesterday morning, when, on a bus tour, we took our guests to Blood Run, the site of an ancient Native village just spittin' distance from where I now live, my "home," I guess I should say.

At one time--say, mid-16th century--and for hundreds of years before, there was, at the Blood Run site, as many as 10,000 aboriginal people of mixed ethnicities and tribal identities. You're traveling along the Big Sioux River in, say, 1630, and you run into this village of thousands of people, a major metropolis, for heaven's sake. You probably couldn't go anywhere in North America at the time and walk into a bigger urban center. Boston wasn't much more than a few humble dwellings.

There's nothing there today except a few remnant mounds that still sit atop the landscape only marginally visual. What's left at Blood Run is really nothing but a gorgeous Great Plains landscape, as well as some bones, some skeletons likely not buried all that deep beneath the sod. It's a cemetery, just as sure as the one I visited a week earlier in Wisconsin. It doesn't have bright brass markers or marble monuments. It's a place where people buried, with honor and dignity and gravity--and a whole lot of prayers, I'm sure--those loved ones who'd left their homes.

How is it that we find it so easy to honor our own but not to do likewise with the honored of others? I once met a man who asked me if I'd heard about the mounds on his land, miles south of Blood Run but along the Big Sioux River. I told him I'd seen images drawn into a replica map of Sioux County, Iowa, vintage 1900. He told me they were gone now because he'd plowed them under. They really weren't worth anything, of course. He didn't say with any bit of cultural imperialism; he said it as if it were a simple fact. Those mounds on his land weren't doing him a dime's worth of good, so he plowed them under. Soy beans--there's a crop with a future, I guess.

So I read this poem by Allison Adelle Hedge Coke, a descendant of mound-dwellers herself, a poem about the place we visited yesterday, Blood Run.

Skeletons
All that is good is with us--
remains in subtle dusk,
holds the base of lifetimes.
We belong here. Let us be.

Do not unsettle us.
Do not bring harm, nor further journey.
We have finished with this world,
have returned to it.

Until there is dust we must remain
Settled here where we were lain.
Our people labored for this honoring
No human should dismantle prayer.

Except ants maybe. There's something almost biblical--like I said, there's something heathen too, if I may use that word--about the ants infringing on my father's commemorative plaque from his war experience. I'm sure there are ants at Blood Run too, busy about their work, at home in all the prairie grasses.

And that's the message from home this morning. . .the message from home, wherever that is.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Morning Thanks--Worldly Wisdom II


I read Infidel, Ayaan Hirsi Ali's memoir and tirade against her Islamic parents and past, and found it terribly interesting, it's major argument--that no good whatsoever can come from the Muslim world--immensely provocative. Mosque moving into town? To my mind, Ali, a sworn atheist, makes a better case for defiance than a ton of Christian circuit riders toting similar themes--and a heck of lot more sense than Rush.

I say all of that because a whole crowd of well-meaning Christians are of a mind to hate Muslims these days, and this little line of wonderful worldly wisdom comes from Morocco, which means the religious references are likely supplied by folks who pray to Muhammad. No matter. I think it's wonderfully wise.

"Slowness comes from God and quickness from the Devil."

Amen.

Okay, maybe it's a hair simplistic; after all, if the house is burning, anybody with half a mind should probably tune into the Devil's promptings and get the heck out.

But I don't care. I like it anyway: "Slowness comes from God and quickness from the Devil."

Nicholas Carr has a new book out titled The Shallows. In it he argues that the internet is rendering us all quite incapable of reading in depth or sustaining a significant argument or thought. NPR's All Things Considered quotes from Carr's book this way: "'Neuroscientists and psychologists have discovered that, even as adults, our brains are very plastic.. . .They're very malleable, they adapt at the cellular level to whatever we happen to be doing. And so the more time we spend surfing, and skimming, and scanning ... the more adept we become at that mode of thinking.'"

There, see? The internet makes us quicker, but shallow as a driveway puddle. Quick is satanic--slow is Godly.

I suppose I need to admit the fact is that this old body of mine--these weak knees and this expanding paunch--isn't getting any quicker these days. Not long ago, I watched a student descend a huge stairway in the Campus Center in a dancing whirr of feet and speed I found absolutely astounding. I stood there aghast, trying to count on my fingers how many years it had been since I could pull off such a feat--and running out of fingers. Lately, in fact, I'm shocked at even how slow I eat. Shoot, these days I can't even think fast.

"Slowness comes from God and quickness from the devil."

I don't care. Pardon my prejudices, I still love the line--Islamic or not. And while I know I'm not being particularly Calvinistic when I say it, that sweet little Moroccan proverb just plain makes me feel good. So there.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Morning Thanks--Traveling Mercies


Once upon a time, public prayer was, among my people, something of an art form. It may still be, but not exactly in the same way. After all, back then lay participation in any kind of public worship was so minimal that when it happened--when an adult (certainly not a child) would pray up front of the congregation--it was well, worth noting. Today, democracy has arrived--just about anyone does just about anything.

But back then faith language, the language of prayer, was deeply affected by the King James, the only Bible translation people read. The KJV bestowed words like thee and thou upon us, a lexicon of specific prayer words, like bestow, for that matter.

When juggled deftly, those words spun out so gloriously that my mother used to say of so-and-so, "Oh, he's such a good pray-er." I was just a boy, but I knew exactly what she was talking about, even though I didn't how to spell that word.

One attribute of good pray-ers was a facility to wield a familiar lexicon; words like bestow and beseech and behoove generally had to be there in full supply, along with a healthy sprinkling of sturdy stock phrases, like "in the evening hour of this day. . ." That sort of thing.

Anne Lamott picked one of those old standards for the title of her first book of essays--Traveling Mercies. When I was a boy, if I'd had a dime for every time I heard that phrase, I could have bought a go-kart and taken off myself. "The Vander Vanders are leaving us this noon, Lord," my own father might have said around the dinner table. "Give them traveling mercies as depart on their homeward way."

This morning, after yet another long couple of days of interstate travel, I'm more than happy to be home. Maybe it's my age, maybe it's the thousands of miles I've put on in the last two weeks--the vast majority at speeds the old Buick shouldn't dare; then again, maybe I'm just morphing into one of those old praying saints myself or taking up the old repetoire; but this morning I'm thankful the Buick is parked safely back in the garage, and grateful that the Lord, in his infinite grace has extended to me, once more, a full measure of his own very special traveling mercies.