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, July 30, 2010


Here's the thing. This good friend of mine wants us all to remember that on the sixth day of creation (I'm not begging a fight here), God not only created both man and animal, but also blessed them all--man and monkey, woman and emu--just as assuredly. Okay, he gave us "dominion," but God's unfailing love extends to the creatures of his natural world, too--so don't abuse that dominion. You know the argument. Love your neighbors. Even the creepy ones.

He's right.

But that doesn't mean that I didn't take a great pleasure, last night, in stomping on the only earwig I've seen for a couple of days. For reasons that are beyond me, they seem to have deserted the place. Thousands must have gone to their grave--wherever that is and don't ask. Anyway, they're gone. And I'm not feeling a bit guilty either. Nor am I grieving.

Then it was the sweet ants, creatures so dang tiny you can see them only because they move along your countertops in meandering highways that pulse with busyness. We went after them with air power and ground weaponry, and yesterday they seemed to be in retreat. I know for a fact that hundreds died. Call me a killer, but I'm not in the least repentent.

An occasional bat. They too leave unhappily.

Did I mention that the Great Golden Digger wasps are back in town (an alias for cicada-killers)? At least they know their place and stay outside.

If I were among the old time Sioux who once lived here, I think I'd call this time of year the Moon of the Creepy Guests.

Of course, if I were among the old time Sioux who once lived here, I'd sleep in a floorless tent. Just imagine the neighbors who show up when you'd rather not have 'em.

Forgive me, Lord, if some of your very own repulse me. I just don't want 'em in my cashews.

A guy I know buys wolf dung and spreads it over his garden to keep the deer--the gorgeous deer--away from the petunias. He says he gets to hate 'em. And this: I know a guy who's killed 20 rabbits this summer--sweet little furry bunnies--by poking a pellet gun out of his back door. That's awful. That's sin.

This dominion business is just plain troubling.

Peace to all, okay?--but stay the heck out of our kitchen.

Here's the good news: I stomped an earwig that dropped out of my sport coat bag last night, but otherwise, the only one I've seen is the one above.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Morning Thanks--a zeedonk.

I'd just finished reading a review of Ayaan Hirsi Ali's new book, Nomad, on Christianity Today's website, a polite, sweet review whose tiptoed footprint seemed thoughtfully designed to keep good Christians from using Ms. Ali's new memoir from hating muslims any more than they do already. The review was fair, but its notable fear of the right's fear of Islam was sad, I thought.


You know.

And then I happened in on a conversation between Tim LaHaye and Mike Huckabee in which LaHaye lambasted the present adminstration for bringing us closer to the end of the world: "It's going to work against our country and bringing us closer to the apocalypse," he told Huckabee.

For an old-time end-timer like LaHaye, I thought that might be a good thing. Shouldn't he be cheering for Obama to bring on the Second Coming? Isn't he anxious? After all, he and his wife have to be guaranteed a seat or two on the rapture bus after all those book sales.

So this is just what I needed. Isn't this kid beautiful? He's what is called a "zedonk," half zebra and half donkey, which happens, obviously enough, when a zebra and a donkey decide to break out of their respective envelopes or comfort zones or what have you and trip the light fantastic.

It's gorgeous, isn't it? Love those fashionable leggings.

What I'm wondering is where on earth we would be without an occasional zedonk?-- They're a gift, honestly, a special gift. At least this one was to me, this morning, lost in a circle of hate and end time scenarios.

This morning's thanks is for this little guy, who's already made my day.

Is it a guy?--I don't even know. It's just cute. Thank goodness.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Just off the Black Hawk Exit

My first teaching job was in southwest Wisconsin, a small town named South Wayne, a village whose school had recently combined with the next town up the road, Gratiot, to form a new consolidated high school that called itself Black Hawk.

I'd never heard of Black Hawk, didn't know what one was; but when I got there some of my students told me about a place down a gravel road where a skirmish was fought between early "badgers," literally (early Wisconsinites got their name from the burrowing miners who worked the region's iron mines) and some Indians. Didn't really know what kind. But it was Black Hawk who was somehow their chief.

His face adorned the school paper I helped my students put out--the Warrior. In fact, we were "the Warriors," the Black Hawk Warriors, even though I knew next to nothing about derivation.

All this Native America study I've been doing has led me back to that place and to Black Hawk, who I know now was Sauk, a leader, a war chief, who with his men took the side of the Brits in the War of 1812, then crossed the Mississippi into Iowa when a treaty was signed in St. Louis, then ventured back home into northeast Illinois and southeast Wisconsin because he wanted his home back. His home, I've since discovered, was a place called Saukenuk, at the place where the Rock River flows into the Mississippi, present day Rock Island, IL.
Yesterday, on my way home from Chicago, I saw a sign for the Black Hawk State Memorial, so I left the highway and came up on the land Black Hawk must have loved dearly, enough to start another war--the Black Hawk War of 1832, a war which included that bloody fight near Wiota, right there in the Black Hawk school district.

I've been buried in 1862 Dakota War this summer, maybe too deeply, because that story resonates through this 30-years earlier saga--another story of Native people chased west, off their land, with promises never fulfilled. They get hungry and angry, want their world back, and attack. This one ends just as disastrously with a massacre not all that far north on the Mississippi River.

I was alone, sweetly alone. No one around. The park features a renewed prairie plot, gloriously arrayed with native wild flowers. It was hot up there on the hill above the river, but the old shade trees offered some comfort. I got out of the car and walked through that old prairie, and the place came alive, not only with the spectacle of so many wild flowers but with butterflies so busy they seemed almost tame. It was immensely peaceful in that historic place, even though--I swear--I could hear the war drums if I listened closely. Somewhere deep in that ridge line there's lots of buried blood.
There was a lyric in my ear and mind. I'd just then been listening to the music of a group named Celtic Woman, a particular song titled "The Voice" that goes something like this: "'Listen my child,' you say to me, 'I am the voice of your history/Be not afraid--come follow me, /Answer my call and I'll set you free. . .'"

But it doesn't stop there. There's more--the poem says that what we need to bring to our ragged and tragic history, to the places of torment and death, like that one, is the finest gift we can--the gift of our peace. It's a gorgeous melody and song. Listen yourself.

I was alone up there on the hill, Black Hawk's home--all around me, really, beauty. . .all around me, peace.

I had pulled off the freeway, even though I knew I was going to prolong the trip home. I had pulled off because I wanted to know more about this somehow famililar man whose life I knew so little of, and I had blessedly pulled up into a sanctuary where all around me there seemed, right then, to be nothing at all but sheer peace.

It was that good.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Morning thanks--words, words, words

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. In fact, on the basis of my own experience, I should have guessed it would have happened long ago. What a relatively new survey of attitudes within the church to which I belong--and always have, the Christian Reformed Church, reveals that when asked about satisfaction with present church experience, many voiced some disaffection with the traditional preaching style--one man (usually male anyway) holding forth in front of hundreds of others. Many prefered--or at least held greater satisfaction with--a variety of modes--drama, power point, children's sermons, etc.

Here's the findings:

A little further investigation reveals that congregations that employ these nine modes more often also value them more highly as components of worship. We also find that younger people (under 40) are substantially more likely to perceive the worship value of these modes; since our statistical model controls for age, we know that age differences are not the only reason for our finding, but the relationship between age and valuing contemporary learning modes suggests that the health effect of these modes could be even more pronounced than our findings suggest when they are used to recruit younger members to the church.
Honestly, I'm not surprised. College students' ability simply to listen to a lecture has gone considerably south in the last decades. You can see it in their eyes. But then, maybe I'm not spellbinding too--that could be part of the truth here; on the other hand, students seem to expect spellbinders.

It's not impossible to jump to rather untoward conclusions, especially if you're an old fart. People today need entertainment, not edification. People today can't sit, can't read an article that's longer than their freaking nose. People today, shaped by texting and tweets, need every last thing in short bursts--how about we serve up only McSermons?

But then there's this. Just a few days ago, sitting in my basement, I typed out a memorial to a student who died in a mountain-climbing accident. His death darkened the day, the week; I still don't want to think about it. On my way to Chicago, I listened to Charles Eastman's Soul of an Indian and remembered suddenly that Brandon did his research paper--in freshman English--on Native religious ritual, specifically "the giveaway," a topic I thought he'd find interesting. He came to my office to ask for help one day, told me he wasn't finding much in the library. I thought he was sandbagging.

What I remembered thinking back then was that my own knowledge of the Lakota ritual giveaways was not gained from reading a book, but many, with many references that I didn't know if I could find back. What I needed--what he needed--was a resource or two which talked specifically about Lakota religious practice and piety. And then I told myself that it was good for him to hunt anyway. Sometimes, I'm convinced, in higher education especially we're becoming enablers, doing too darn much for students. [Old fart speaking.] So I let him go.

When I listened to Soul of an Indian, that whole conversation came back--that was the book he needed to read. Anyway, he did the paper, got a B, but I'd forgotten the whole story until I listened to the book. His death--and Charles Easton--brought it back. What I'm saying is that the horribly tragic story of this young kid's death--that horror stuck. It's still there, and I really didn't even know him all that well.

Anyway, I wrote the piece because I just had to say something. Some readers picked it up and passed it along. When they did, others hit on this website, many others--many, many others. By the midnight, the numbers had skyrocketed: close to 900 people read the words I'd posted on one day. One day.

Here's what I'm after. Okay, it's a little disconcerting that people today--especially people under 40, I guess--demand more entertainment on Sunday mornings, less, well, "preaching." But does that mean that as human beings we're losing our hunger for words or meaning, that we're dumbing down everything last thing?

Don't know the complete answer to that question. What I do know is that words deeply felt and clearly arranged will still find a place, even though it may well be in cyberspace.

And that conclusion, to a writing teacher, means this much at least: I'm still going to have a job.

My morning thanks are, without question, pitched in awe. I'm thankful my words on this-page-that-doesn't-exist brought some peace to so many distressed souls.

Faith itself grants its adherents a strange but plentiful joy; we come heir to real delight--not virtual, but very real--in simply being used.
The quoted material comes from the CRC 150th Anniversary Survey, done by the Center for Social Research, Calvin College

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Soul of a Human

A Dakota man, in fact a direct descendant of Charles Eastman, said at a conference I attended last week that he carried his great-grandfather's book, The Soul of an Indian, with him wherever he went. Then he reached in his pocket and pulled it out, a book I've never read.

So I listened to The Soul of an Indian yesterday on the way to Chicago and loved it. I'm not silly about such things. What Charles Eastman describes as the religion of Native peoples may well be a bit over-the-top in its generous portrayals; it struck me as being--how shall I say it?--a bit "golden-age-ish." But then who am I to judge the authenticity of another person's spirituality or portrayal of such--red or yellow, black or white? Nope. Yesterday, I just listened.

There's a line that's just a paragraph or two into the book that's really stuck with me, although other things have as well: "The religion of the Indian is the last thing about him that the man of another race will ever understand."

That strikes me as absolutely right. I don't honestly know why I've become so fascinated by the stories of Native America, although it may have something to do with the fact that I live in Sioux Center, in Sioux County, which is 12 miles east of the Big Sioux river and about equa-distant between Sioux City and Sioux Falls--and yet I don't know that in the 40 or so years that I've lived here I've ever yet encountered a Sioux Indian. For that, I've had to head north and west and south.

I've spent long hours reading about the Sioux Indian wars, about Navajo and Zuni histories--novels and chronicles, new and ancient. But what Eastman says struck me totally as true: after all that reading and travel, I don't know that I still understand the traditional religion of Native people.

When we visited Japan several years ago, I read a great deal about the Japanese and decided their faith was vastly too difficult to understand. Here you have a people who, in some ways, have few of the vestiges of what Western folks would consider "religion." A corner shrine in one part of the house maybe, somewhere in the community a temple--but no family alter to speak of, no Sabbath, and few rituals. Yet, travel books make it very clear that religion is central to Japanese life.

This morning I got an e-mail from an old friend, one of those viral things you're fully expected to pass along to all other concerned American citizens. It's deeply anti-Islamic, a screed that promises all of America will morph into Detroit in a decade or so if good people don't stand up and vote the scoundrels out. It's a Christian thing. Of course, it's a Christian thing.

Eastman says in The Soul of an Indian that Native people couldn't really understand what the missionaries were talking about when they brought "the white man's religion" because so many white people they met didn't appear to share the love and peace and moral character that this Jesus guy preached.

All of which leads me to believe that Eastman was only half right. Let me edit the argument this way: "The religion of the Indian [add: any human being] is the last thing about him [add: or her] that the man [add: or woman]of another race [add: or tribe or fellowship] will ever understand."

You don't have be aboriginal to be misunderstood. Most of the time I think I don't understand my own faith.

At the college where I teach--a deeply confessional place, really--I've had wonderful students, students I really, really loved, who graduate to become sanctified disciples of Jim Wallis on one hand, or Glen Beck on the other. It's hard to imagine they're brothers and sisters in the Lord.

I loved The Soul of an Indian, but I bet I'd love The Soul of a Christian just as much, as long as it was written as generously as Eastman's portrait of Native spirituality.

Telling the truth--at least about white Christians, my people--would be a whole lot thornier, or so it seems to me.

Charles Eastman's life is quite incredible. The son of a white military hero and a Dakota chief's granddaughter, he was raised Dakota, but taken by his father into Christianity and reservation life once his father returned from the 1862 Dakota War. He graduated from Dartmouth and Boston College's School of Medicine and served at Pine Ridge in the years surrounding the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890. HBO used his life selectively for a TV movie titled Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. He married a woman almost as interesting as he was--Ellen Goodman, who taught school at Pine Ridge at the same time he was there. I used Ms. Goodman's character as prototype for a character in my own novel Touches the Sky. Eastman wrote 11 books in an attempt to allow white America to better understand Native people.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Saturday Morning Catch

Dawn came and went fast, but while it was there it was something, long flat clouds lit gorgeously across the eastern sky. But clouds came up quickly and made the bright sun bob and weave, so there wasn't much to shoot at. In addition, I simply stayed in one spot, a deserted farm (the barn will be gone soon, as you can see) on one side of the road and a massive cottonwood (hollow enough for a bear's den) on the other. The roadside was festooned with white wild flowers of some type. I've come to believe that photos, like stories, need both setting and character--a gorgeous dawn is fine, but someone has to be in it--flora or fauna or humanoid. Hence, this morning was the day of the white flower (of whatever name--I'll try to find out).

When I was going through the pics earlier, I thought of a high school grad pictures, now taken at all kinds of creative angles. That's what I thought I might do--try to get these long-stemmed folks into all kinds of poses and backgrounds and lights.

Haven't been doing much Saturday morning stuff all year long. I should. I mean that literally--I should. For me at least, it's great therapy to get up early and just hunt for beauty. This morning, no lunkers; but I came home with my limit.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Brandon Oldenkamp

It's only three years ago, but if you would ask me to name the students in my freshman English classes from that year, I'd have some trouble. Names fade quickly at my age, even though I could probably list many of the students I faced when, forty years ago this year, I walked into a classroom for the very first time. These days, my students' tenure in my memory is embarrassingly short-lived.

Nonetheless, I remember him. Maybe it's because he distinguished himself on the varsity basketball team, but I've never been a deeply loyal fan. Someone once told me that he was never a starter until he got to college.

To me, that's understandable, really, from the standpoint of the classroom, because he did distinguish himself there by his persistence and his interest. I liked him. It's nice to get a salary that pays for a way of life, but the real blessing of teaching is lively eyes. When you see 'em, you know you're doing something. And his were. That's what I remember. He liked being in class, liked being in school, liked learning.

There are tons of people--including his teammates and his coaches--who knew him far, far better than I did. He was an accounting major, so my guess is that colleagues in that department have more stories than I do.

But what we all share this morning is immense sadness at his death. He was just a kid, a scrapper, the kind of ball player and human being who lived for nothing less, it seemed, than his own pleasure--and I don't mean that in a bad way. I think he was someone who loved life, all of its moments. Why else, I suppose, was he up there on that mountain?

He's gone. Some kind of horrible storm blew the mountain-climbing gang's vacation holiday into madness, and somehow--I don't know how--he fell to his death from a monstrous height.

Why him? Why this good, good kid? If God loves us, why on earth did he grab this kid off a mountain the way he did? Good night, what about his family? I can't begin to imagine their sadness. If God is sovereign, if God operates this world by way of his own loving hand, why slap this kid off a mountain?

There are no answers for such questions--I know that. But it's inevitable that we ask, all of us. If not today, tomorrow. Tomorrow there will be another. Somewhere, not all that far away, I'm sure there is, even today. Bad things happen to good, good people.

I don't know why. No one does. What I do know is that there likely are a lot of kids who feel as if they've been pushed off some cliff themselves by the sudden, awful death of a sweet friend who lived with a vital joy both on and off a basketball court. Tons of people will miss him.

Years ago, when another college kid was killed here, his friends got together in the college chapel, sat up front on the stage, and did little more than bawl. And then, one of them--a kid I met just a few weeks ago again, another former student, a father now, an elder in his church, a high school teacher--got to his feet, wiped the tears out of his eyes, and told the others who'd gathered in the chapel that his roommates had sat around a table grieving and then determined that they'd say, with each other, that rich answer to the first question of the Heidelburg Catechism--that "I am not my own, but belong, body and soul, to my faithful Savior. . ."

"Why don't we do it too?" he said, standing. And we did--the kids on stage and the people in the pews.

Few memories of forty years in the classroom will live as powerfully in my mind as that one. "I am not my own, but belong. . ." chanted by tormented kids with fistfulls of wet hankies.

I don't understand, and I'm angry. But I also know, by faith--a gift--that I have no other refuge. I hope, even when I rage, that He keeps me there, in life and in death, in his hand.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Sherrod Saga

There are times when cable news seems almost anti-American. I don't mean politically--I mean in terms of simple overkill. When they beat some thoughtless celebrety stories to death, I swear they're destroying the American psyche, little more than high-salaried paparazzi.

But the Sherrod story, which began with a tortuously sliced-and-diced video on the website of a real sleaze ball, is a good story because it's an equal opportunity employer. From my perspective, hate-mongers like Breitbart, or whatever his name is, deserve to be tarred and feathered. Doing what he did to start this whole mess is totally despicable. That anyone believes anything he says or does is proof of our sick national paranoia.

Almost as awful is what happened thereafter--three frenzied phone calls to Mrs. Sherrod demanding her resignation lest her story headline on Glen Beck. Beck is a pompous ass, but for Tom Vilsack, a good man, to fire Ms. Sherrod that thoughtlessly--if in fact he did it alone, which I doubt--is another just-plain-awful story. Is there any more salient proof for America's madness these days that the fact that what headlines on Glen Beck somehow really matters?

And then, of course, there's race, the issue at the heart of things here. Turns out that Ms. Sherrod's own father was killed--shot in the back--by a white farmer or farmers, in a 1965 case in which the white farmer was acquitted. Maybe the white guy didn't do it, maybe it was revenge or whatever--I don't know the story. But what everyone does know is that white guys who murdered black guys in the deep South, as late as the 60s, all too often simply walked away. Maybe Ms. Sherrod's father was guilty of something horrible and deserved to be shot in the back. Maybe. But the weight of American history suggests other explanations.

1965 was the year, I think, I attended a John Birch Society meeting with a neighbor I respected deeply. I didn't know what it was. In fact, I'm even a little foggy on why the neighbor would have asked me, a kid, to come with--biggest domicile in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, up in an upper room with maybe 20 others. And there, up in the mansion, we watched a slide/tape (remember those?) presentation that clearly and unarguably linked the Rev. Mr. Martin Luther King with the communist party. (This is Wisconsin, of course, just a decade after Sen. Joseph McCarthy.)

My father wasn't there with us. I knew no one else at the mansion, but I knew very well that my father harbored similar opinions to what I was told at the meeting: Martin Luther King was a communist, and the doctrines he was promulgating were deeply and even demonically anti-American.

I don't know that in my life I've met too many people who were sweeter, more loving Christians than my father. Sometimes I think he was almost too good. When he died, people told me that they would always think of him as a saint.

Monday it's his birthday, and I miss him. Sometimes--at odd times--his ghost will return, and something in me will clench because he's no longer around.

But on that score--MLK and America's racial story--he was dead wrong. Dead wrong. And I knew it, but admitting it to myself first, and then to him was not easy, although I'm sure that by the time he died he knew he'd been wrong.

Why did my Godly father think King was a communist? Honestly, I don't think it had to do with hating black people, although in the town where I grew up you would have drive a ways to find one. My grandfather, who used to cry about his own sin, was an out-and-out racist, although I don't think racism was a sin that ever made him reach for the Kleenex.

My father was wrong about Dr. King and racial politics in America, circa 1965, not because he hated blacks, but because he feared change. He loved America, loved what he saw it to be, what it had been when the nation had beaten the Japs (his word--he was in the Navy, in the South Pacific) and the Nazis, loved it as the land of opportunity, home of the brave. His passion for the America he loved wouldn't accept the idea of changing things, and M. L. King was all about change. My wonderfully Christian father hated Martin Luther King because my father loved America, his America.

I think that's what's at the bottom of all the horror that's gone on for the last two days--beginning with Breitbart's poisonous video cuts, continuing with Sherrod's awful, unjust firing, and ending with Vilsack's powerfully gracious apology (nothing similar from Breitbart, by the way). You want Christianity?--you want testimony?--listen to Ms. Sherrod's speech. That's witness. Just listen to the tape, the whole tape.

This time, the endless cable news chatter features a terrific story. Like all terrific stories, it offers us a place within it, a place to stand. I wish we were capable of learning some things it offers, including when to chatter and when to be still and know.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

No morning thanks--earwigs

You can't make a silk purse out of a pig's ear, nor put pink ribbons on wooden shoes--that's well established. But neither can you accessorize your designer bathroom with a plain old rubber plunger. That you can't, however, doesn't mean that you don't occasionally really, really need one--and fast. Look, I've come to believe in the moral character of those folks who leave their plungers out in the open and thus readily available, because those people are willing to admit to reality. Most of us hide them and thus make them inaccessible. Which is to say almost useless.

Here's my theory. If a you're a really Dutch Reformed, your plunger is not in the closet because if cleanliness is next to Godliness, then beauty is only a luxury. Spot a plunger in a bathroom--your host is a Calvinist.

It's probably gauche for me to talk about plungers, but I need to break the ice of shallow discreetness because this morning I'm coming out of the closet, finally, because they are--these teeny-weeny, multi-legged, pincher-bedecked monsters that have made our lives miserable for the last couple weeks. They're earwigs, and they have nothing to do with your ears but a great deal to do with your mental health--and moral and spiritual, for that matter. Simply stated, we're going nuts.

They're everywhere. They've turned my life into a Hitchcock movie. I don't think I've ever even seen a cockroach and I know millions of people are scarred forever by their sudden appearances in silverware drawers, but this hellish brood of miniature horrors are enough to send me to a padded room.

They're greased lightning, and even an iron-like grip doesn't seem to kill 'em. About the only thing you can do is flush their crunchy selves down the toilet. I hate 'em. I know I'm supposed to love all of God's creatures, but earwigs aren't his creation. They're of the Devil, they're Satan's brood, his offspring, and sometimes I think they're lurking, as he is, in every dark corner of this old house.

Not everyone in town has them. Out in the burbs, where there are fewer shade trees or something, they make only token appearances. Here in the inner city, they're an infestation. Figures.

And I'm not the only one coming out of the closet. In polite conversation between cultured people with advanced educational degrees, they come up as matters of ordinary conversation. Some lines have been crossed--that's how bad it is. A couple weeks ago, our preacher mentioned them twice, once for prayer, in fact. Of course, he lives mid-town.

A biologist friend claims we're just going to have to put up with them for another year because they live, eat, and have their horrifying being in three-year infestations. I don't think I can imagine grasshoppers this numerous, but at least I have a sense of what left all those white settlers climbing the walls. Yesterday, there was one in my cashews. Sealed top. I swear.

I love killing them, confident the Lord is pardoning my wrath. I sing when they go swirling down the toilet. I kick them to death with my heel, swat them dead with my sandals, shoot them and their beloved corners with deadly poisons, as if the can is a Colt .45. I show no mercy, but they keep coming back, they keep coming back, keep coming back.

They're here. They're everywhere.

One of these days I'll have killed so many I'll need a plunger.

I know where it is. I swear.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

City of Tranquil Light

One of the loveliest moments in Bo Caldwell's new novel, City of Tranquil Light, occurs when Will and Katharine Kiehn, early 20th-century Mennonite missionaries in China, observe the Moon Festival, a celebration of harvest and end of summer, with their Chinese friends. Katharine narrates the story, through her diaries.

"The people see the moon's round shape as representing the family circle, and they gather with their relations to stare up at the full moon togther," she writes, then, sort of "western-ly," apologizes. "This perhaps sounds silly, but it isn't; it's beautiful, and it is my favorite night of the year."

She goes on to describe why:

Red paper lanterns hung from the towers of the city wall and from houses and shops on every street, as if they city were dressed up for the celebration. Chung Hao and Mo Yun and Will and I hung our own red
lanterns in our courtyard then sat together outsdie and admired the moon, which truly was a marvel: white and perfectly round, and so big it seemed to be right above us and shining only for Kuant p'ing Ch'eng, as if our city was the moon's favorite place on earth.
Together, they recite poems about the moon and eat holiday "moon cakes," she describes as looking and tasting just beautiful. "It was a magical night," she says.

It's a beautiful passage of a beautiful novel, not only because the event is narrated so simply but respectfully, but because what Katharine's appreciation of the holiday says about the Kiehns is itself an indication of why this new novel succeeds as fully as it does. Missionaries, these days, even among Christians don't always receive good press. Culturally, anthropologists tend to see them in the same way as most native peoples have for centuries--the first somewhat subtle wave of Westernization. The worst of them come to the field believing it their divine calling to bring primitive raise up to the blessings of their own cultural way of life, a christianized version of "the white man's burden."

What this warm passage illustrates about the Kiehns is their heartfelt willingness to immerse themselves totally in the Chinese culture around them, and that characteristic makes them disarmingly admirable and selfless. They are, quite simply, wonderful people, radiant Christians whose actions speak the very core of the gospel of love. They've come to China, remarkably, to serve.

I couldn't help but be amazed at this novel because it offers the readers heroic characters one simply doesn't meet in much of contemporary fiction. City of Tranquil Light is, without a doubt, a love story--Katharine and Will meet on the way to the field, fall in love with each other's qualities, then spend the rest of their professional lives giving everything for each other and the people they serve. It is a love triangle--as almost all love stories are--but it's a love triangle of a wholly different character, for none other than God almighty is the third partner, and he's not an antagonist even though don't always understand his ways. Nonetheless, they know him to be a constant presence, someone before whom these lovers struggle throughout their lives to find their place, someone in whom they belong.

The novel is not a simple romance, in any sense of the word. Terrible things happen in this novel because on the field where they serve, terrible things do happen. Drought kills off multitudes, mad lawlessness frequently rules, and China's early 20th century struggles take their tolls as well. Will and Katharine suffer in ways few do. Nothing comparible would have happened to them had they stayed in the rural Midwestern world they each left, even though both would have suffered the raw blight of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. It would have been impossible for them to describe the horrors they experienced to the church groups they visit, like all missionaries, while on leave.

And yet--this is not a novel published by so-called "Christian" publishers--what lasts, what's there beginning to end, is their respectful love for each other and their love of God. It's an amazing novel, a moving novel, even a kind of testimony. It's the kind of novel--hard as it is to believe these days--that builds faith.

There's an old writing rule I've started to think applies to the Christian life as well as good writing--"show, don't tell." Sometimes I think the whole believing world would be better off if we all took to heart that admonition because there's so much talking in the Christian world today, so much arguing, so much pontificating, so much proselytizing. Unending cacophony, all meant so well. Me and Jesus. Here's where he led me. Here's how he holds me in his hand. Wonderful savior--isn't he?

What makes the Kiehns, as believers, such memorable believing characters is that what we see of them is so much more than what we hear of them. Will preaches constantly throughout the novel, but what he does for the people he comes to love is the gripping story. The Chinese know very well what the Kiehns are because they identify them "by their love." They become friends with the Chinese; they become family by sitting out on the porch on the night of Moon Festival, eating moon cakes, drinking tea, admiring the shape of the heavenly body above them--and by falling in love with the ritual, the traditions--and suffering together with them through the tribulations of the people.

But what makes the novel work so well is not simply the loving, moral character of Will and Katharine Kiehn. What makes the novel soar is the slowly developing conviction we feel in the constancy of their voices. Both are reminiscing throughout, Will using Katharine's journals to highlight his own reminiscience. Their voices harmonize as if they were singing because they do.

I couldn't help but think of Marilyn Robinson's Gilead when I read this novel, in part because in both we find flawed but warm Christian characters, a rarity today in fiction. Gilead's achievement arises, I believe, from the simple, convincing voice of its very human narrator. Just a chapter or two into that novel, and you feel as if you aren't reading a book--you're listening to an old man tell a story he wants passionately to communicate to his son. Cormac McCarthy's The Road succeeds in the same way, as does, years ago, Huck Finn. Great novels create unforgettably human voices.

You'll hear them here too in City of Tranquil Light. Whether it's Katharine's or Will's, the voices are convicing because Bo Caldwell has given them so much humanity that it's difficult to believe they are only fictional--and, in fact, in total they aren't. Caldwell says she pulls much of the story from a journal of her grandfather, a missionary to China. She says she went to that old journal because she wanted to understand his faith. If she hasn't yet, I hope she rests assured that many readers will. (The novel will be released in October.)

Not long ago in South Dakota, I asked a priest who was head man at Roman Catholic mission which has been in on the reservation for far more than a century how it was that Christian missions of all kinds have such a spotty record among the continent's Native people. There is, of course, many reasons for such failures, but he looked into my eyes and shook his head. "For so many years, we didn't listen," he said. I thought that answer wise as well as prophetic.

Will and Katharine Kiehn listen, and that they do makes them wonderful missionaries, vivid characters, and memorable believers. And all of that makes Bo Caldwell's new novel a blessing, pure and simple.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Morning Thanks--sweet corn

Up in Washington these days, it's fruit season. I know--I was there. Nothing could be finer either, unless berries is your business, I suppose, because berry growers must be working their tails off right now. But for the rest of us--even those only passing through--fruit season is a blessing. We ate more cherries--in different varieties--in those few days we were there than we do all year long.

Fruit season in Washington should be some kind of Pac Northwest Mardi Gras. When the apples are in, people ought to eat 'em in every way, shape, form--gobble 'em raw by the handful, put 'em in recipes so delicious they really should be forbidden. Same with strawberries. Same with cherries. Sin boldly.

We're not heavily fruited here in Siouxland, but we're triumphantly vegetabled. We've got sufficient corn to feed the world, methinks, although most of the tonnage goes into the mobs of cattle we raise. And beans--sheesh! Beans for a billion tortillas.

But none of it is really immediately edible. You can roast the beans and eat 'em, or douse 'em with dozens of flavorings and you'll have enough snacks for the rest of the year. But all that corn gets processed into ethanol or sugar or cattle feed. Oh, tons of it still gets into the food cycle, but nobody here walks into a corn field this time of year, yanks off a dozen cobs, boils 'em for supper, and starts gorging him or herself.

Save those few who grow sweet corn. Today, just as last week, if you go downtown at nine or so, there'll be a couple of pick-ups full, a ton maybe that'll disappear by four this afternoon because Washington has nothing on Siouxland right now because, Lawd a'mighty, we got sweet corn.

I've got an ex-student who was raised in Dominica. She claims that I've never in my 62 years really tasted a banana the likes of which she's eaten for most of her life. She's undoubtedly right. I can eat import strawberries all year long, if I'd like; but the cardboard ones I buy in February taste nothing like the ones our friends grow--or the bucket I brought back from Indiana a couple weeks ago. Sweet corn is not particularly exotic, and it's not bad frozen. But if we've got to line up reasons why stubborn people continue to live in the rural Midwest--foodwise, at least--if there's a reason more sound than sweet corn, I don't know it. And we're in it here now; we've just begun sweet corn season.

My wife paid $5 @ dozen last week, which is outrageous--but note the past tense. I don't know how high the price would have to go before I walked away empty-handed. Out here at least, those who do the hard work of harvesting an acre or more of sweet corn could well charge us the moon and we'd still buy, come these dog days of summer.

Yesterday we ate that five-dollar sweet corn, and, even though it was Sunday, and dinner wasn't worship, that blessed sweet corn was reason enough, I'll claim, to praise the Lord.

So this morning's thanks require no soul searching. This morning I'm thankful we're in it--sweet corn season. Let the debauchery begin.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Our national narcissism

Just a few weeks ago, David Brooks celebrated the life of Bill Wilson, the founder of AA, with a column that, in my estimation, was itself an American Jeremiad. In honoring both Wilson and the unqualified success of the organization he founded, Brooks said some things about AA and the culture in which it flourishes that not only haven't gone away since, but likely never will.

"In a culture that generally celebrates empowerment and self-esteem," Brooks wrote, "A.A. begins with disempowerment. The goal is to get people to gain control over their lives, but it all begins with an act of surrender and an admission of weakness."

Who really believes such a preposterous notion?--that gaining control over one's life begins by admitting that you've got zero of the same? Just down the road from here, one of the America's premiere self-fulfillment gurus was born and reared, the Reverend Robert Schuller, who turned positive thinking into a religion, with good reason--we love to believe in ourselves. Brooks says, Bill Wilson determined the truth lies elsewhere.

"In a culture that thinks of itself as individualistic, A.A. relies on fellowship," or so saith David Brooks. "The general idea is that people aren’t really captains of their own ship. Successful members become deeply intertwined with one another — learning, sharing, suffering and mentoring one another. Individual repair is a social effort."

Such thinking doesn't fit well with contemporary culture either, of course. But our own ancient wisdom, oddly enough, suggests that you and me and all of us find ourselves best generally by losing ourselves. In this day and age, I'm reluctant to call anything "biblical principle," but that one I'll stand by--and it'll wear.

"In a world in which gurus try to carefully design and impose their ideas, Wilson surrendered control. He wrote down the famous steps and foundations, but A.A. allows each local group to form, adapt and innovate. There is less quality control. Some groups and leaders are great; some are terrible. But it also means that A.A. is decentralized, innovative and dynamic."

Americans, oddly enough, are among the world's great faddists. We've never seen a hula hoop or a Lindsay Lohan we didn't like. Because I am an educator, I live among the most faithful faddists of all; somewhere in the superstructure of our genetic code, we seem to have a lemming gene. But we're not alone. Brooks says AA's success is based, in part, on a mighty loose hierarchical structure and tossed blueprints. Let 'em be.

I guess I should have been able to predict this morning's David Brooks' column. This morning he's on Mel Gibson, who once was the superhero of the religious right for The Passion of Christ. Seems the man has other passions too, not quite so divine. Brooks calls Gibson the quintessential American narcissist, with this definition: "The narcissistic person is marked by a grandiose self-image, a constant need for admiration, and a general lack of empathy for others." Sound familiar?

But what Brooks says is not just a tirade against the man whose tirades have carpet bombed the media, because Brooks is after bigger game than Braveheart. "In 1950, thousands of teenagers were asked if they considered themselves an 'important person.' Twelve percent said yes," he reported. "In the late 1980s, another few thousand were asked. This time, 80 percent of girls and 77 percent of boys said yes."

We've all somehow self-inflated. The media mogul preacher raised just down the road sold his gospel well. We all feel really good about ourselves.

Brooks may not like my saying it, but he's a heck of a Calvinist. Thirty years ago an alcoholic told me that when he first went to AA what he found true was what he'd been taught his whole life but never really understood: "I am not my own, but belong to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. . ."--the first q and a of the catechism he was forced to memorize as a kid. Same thing, he told me.

And, as Brooks says, the only way to understand Mel Gibson--or the prima donna in all of us.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Jacques Derrida, 1930-2004

There are those who worship him, his texts, his utterances. There are those who recognize that what the man did was brought new life to the science of literary criticism, otherwise in danger of dying of irrelevance. There are those who hate him, confident that no one is more responsible for the death of literature--if, in fact, there is such a death--than he is.

But today is his birthday, so it's only right we light a candle. It is the birthday of Jacques Derrida.

Now light is an interesting word in that sentence because it's opposite is dark, of course, and it's usage here values a concept or word that has been used negatively in a racist sense. Or something like that. I've never really understood exactly how a text (which is to say a group of words) "deconstructs" itself, but I know very, very bright people who say it does--all of them, somewhere along the line. How one says something almost always sows the seeds of the destruction of what one says. I think it's something like that.

Go to Wikipedia. "This site has multiple issues," it announces boldly at the top. In part, it's because he does--Mr. Derrida.

Consider him a messiah or a heretical demon, love him or hate him, Jacques Derrida has altered literary study forever. In fact, literary study may die before deconstruction. He's higher on the required reading list for graduate studies in literature than, say, John Milton, and vastly more cultic than the beat poets could have ever hoped to be. Harry Potter may have more readers, but not more disciples.

I don't understand him, but then few do. Noam Chomsky accused him of "pretentious rhetoric" after all. When Cambridge University bestowed upon him an honorary doctorate, a list of respected philosophers claimed his work didn't meet accepted standards of clarity.

By my estimation, he was and is the caricature "academic," because he beget upon us all--all academics, that is--a system of thought that has just about zero relevance outside the "academy." Millions--literally--genuflect to him today, even though he himself claimed not to know exactly what he meant.

Anyway, he died in 2004, but today is his birthday. Grad students everywhere will either celebrate or roll their eyes.

May he rest in peace. We won't.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Morning Thanks--Family camp

I don't want to sound biblical, but seven years ago I was asked to speak--to read stories, really--during a long weekend at a "retreat"--or something--at Warm Beach Conference Center, Stanwood, Washington. Four nights, every night--I was "the spiritual entertainment" or something. Don't quite know what to call it or me, for that matter.

Seven years ago I was impressed, but sad because it seemed to me that the very concept of a "family camp" was something whose time had come and gone. Younger couples these days, I thought, grew up in the kind of affluence that made them think vacation was something done in Mazatlan. Hot dogs and s'mores, group toilets and keynote yappers?--sorry, not their idea of fun.

When we left, I told my wife it was a joy to see something that good--the community spirit and joy at this dear family camp, all alive and well; but I doubted that the whole idea, already around for almost a half century, had any kind of future.

Just yesterday, seven years later, we returned, once again, from the same camp--same place, same events, same tacos and strawberry waffles, same bike parade and rocket launch, same tidal bay out west, same glorious sunsets, and the same sweet community all around. Okay, in some cases, even the same stories read by the same guy, seven years older.

In fact, this year there were more conferees. I'm not making this up. The thing isn't dying. Kids galore were running and biking all over the place, a thousand of them, having a great time.

Occasionally, I just love it when the crystal ball spits out lies. This family fest has a future. All around was wonderful, multi-generational community.

Sweet inspiration. Once again, we enjoyed ourselves immensely.

Sometimes it's just flat out joy to be dead wrong. So this morning, I'm thankful for a Washington family camp, alive and well and full of life.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010


Oh, to smell ourselves as others smell us--I think it goes that way. My wife suggested to me that ye olde sandals were likely better left behind in Washington. She hadn't really shared a room with them for some time, of course, and when she did she resolved rather quickly that these old warriors' time had come.

They were Wal-Mart specials two decades ago. In all that time, in servant-like fashion, they'd conformed to my feet and never complained when forced to inhale the noxious fumes that eventually led to their demise. Once, at an especially ritzy writing retreat in Texas, some enrollee with more money than her teacher, told me she thought they looked fabulous. I told her--I actually did--that they were Wal-Marts. I've worn them even more proudly ever since.

Leaving them behind was awful, of course; those sandals were trusted old friends, despite their newly determined but deeply established fragrance. But they finished the race with dignity, I figure, suitably retired because their ex-owner has few occasions to leave behind anything worn out. Used to happen once a month, of course, when I was a kid. But once one reaches, say, 40 or so, the only way articles of clothing ever leave the closet is by rejection. Not so with these vets. They weren't tossed simply to make room for some new floozies. They went down nobly.

They weren't worn out. They had lots of miles on 'em, but hundreds still in 'em, I swear. They'd simply become lousy neighbors, my wife says, through no darn fault of their own.

So I left them in a wastebasket in Washington, left them to a unthinkable demise somewhere in the Pacific Northwest.

All things must pass, but grieving is deeply human.

I ordered new ones last night. Got 'em on sale, too, on-line. Two day shipping.

I figure, tough as it is, I've got to get on with life.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Camano Island shots

Mt. Baker's here, as is a certain species of tree that lives, I'm told, only right on the coast. A sinful breed, it seems, who sheds its bark to reveal a sinewy red wood that's probably the closest thing I've posted to nudity. Look only at your peril. Go ahead and chance one eye.

I took only a little camera along, figuring I wouldn't really get time to do much shooting. I was wrong. With one of my big horses, I could have pulled this bald eagle into view, but all I could get was something from considerable distance.

It's an awesome world here on the coast of the Sound. It's hard to disagree with these coffee drinkers in the Pac Northwest--there aren't many more beautiful places on earth, methinks.

Friday, July 09, 2010

The restless traveler

Somehow, I think I knew what was going on, in part, I think, because I knew the man, his history, and the sometimes stinging effects of childhood experience. He'd immigrated to Canada after the war, after the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, and not all of that experience--hiding from conscription, living in fear day and night, the hunger winter--not all of that simply sifts out of one's life when it's left behind. If there are jackboots on the necks of your neighbors, you don't walk away whistling.

What happened was a kindly old retired professor walked up on the steps of the tour bus and began to tell the peculiarly German story of New Ulm, Minnesota, a town that celebrates its heritage of sauerbraten, schweinhocks, and polka bands. In his defense, the old prof was German-American, not German. In all likelihood, he spent the early 40s here in the States, picking ripened milkweed pods for parachute silk in the U. S. war effort, no more a Nazi than any of the other seniors on the tour bus.

No matter. Once he started talking--even though he spoke English with no accent--he was unapologetically German; after all, his chamber-of-commerce job was to sell the town, which means to sell the local, proud German heritage.

And our tourist, the man who couldn't forget the Nazis snarls in his boyhood backyard, got what the Dutch might call "benawd," so breathtakingly claustrophobic that he literally couldn't stand it. This 80+ year old war survivor had distinguished himself already as someone who could be strong-willed, to say the least. He was, after all, a man who'd climbed the Himalayas--no marshmellow. And he'd lost a leg in an accident--he hobbled demonstrably, but never complained. In just two days, he'd distinguished himself clearly, so when we noticed that something was decidely wrong with him, initially at least, we rolled our eyes.

But my suspicions weren't far afield. Here's what he wrote in a little summary he penned of his experience on our Minnesota bus tour: "Memories podded up about the Second World War, when German soldiers occupied Holland--us. Then when someone was going to give me a small sticker to put on my chest, it bothered me. I left the room to go outside. There was something that disturbed me, my memory in the past, when the Jews had to wear are armbands with the name “Jew”, to separate them from (us) whom they considered other (Germanic) Dutch people."

I think it was a version of post-survival stress. Something in the kindly old professor's mannerisms, his tone, his story, something in that little tourist sticker unearthed memories our own "restless traveler" might well have thought buried, and he nearly fell apart.

"He was very knowledgeable and could not stop telling his stories about German history and Indian wars," he wrote. "He spoke while the bus drove around, to our next stop. I fretted, but I could not get out of the bus; He was driving me up the wall. I was stuck in the back of the bus and could not escape him."

Achingly, painfully tethered. By choice, right then, he would have deserted the whole bus if he could avoid pain that was closing in on him--ancient, deadly fears long ago thought put to rest, but suddenly awakened by tone and rhetoric and ethnic pride.

When we got out of the bus at the new college chapel, I could see he was not to be reasoned with. Some spirit in him was out of control--and he knew it too. "When we arrived at this most beautiful Lutheran chapel," he wrote, "I made sure to stay in the back on a church bench, so I could escape the professor’s diatribe attack on my senses. I fretted about myself--within my own, why I do not have more patience."

And then, "Finally he stopped talking," the Dutchman wrote.

The retired prof had stopped because we'd entered the Martin Luther College chapel, where, serendipitously, which is to say, providentially, the college's own fine organist just happened to show up. That man opened up that new huge organ in a fashion that no guitar and drum set can ever do. Together, we sang old hymns, even "A Mighty Fortress," Luther's own. It was a blessing I cannot describe. But our war survivor tries--listen:

"Then the college organist played this beautiful very large pipe organ, with songs so wonderful. Peace came in my heart, and I thanked God for his patience with me, being a 'Restless Traveler.' Those familiar songs, released my anxiety," he wrote.

Those old hymns faith were decidedly providential therapy.

What he required at that point--and he understood it himself--was therapy. That retired history prof never wore the black SS coat and had nothing to do with The Final Solution. He was an American, doing what lots of us do--taking pride in his heritage, including the town's own history, which started a full century before a little madman with a paintbrush mustache.

But there's a little more to the story of our restless traveler. Henceforth we were transported to the Shell Brewery, where, following a short tour, we were led thirstily to their tasting room for some product research.

"We were invited to taste small amounts of different types of beer," our restless traveler wrote, quelling, for a moment at least, his old fears and hatred. "It tasted good and put me in a mood to sing a song, song from my younger days--not quite beholden [I think he means "proper']for elderly Christian persons perhaps, but seemed funny." There's nothing like a little sip to help you forget, maybe, eh?

But the charmer was the evening, when, accompanying some fine German drinking songs, a motley crew of masked intruders, the Naaren, ended our German dinner by pulling every last one of the weary travelers from their chairs and waltzing them into a series of hoopla dances and marches that would have sent all of our travelers reeling had they carted in a keg or two with them. Which they hadn't, thank goodness.

Here's the way the Dutchman descriped the hijinks: "A dozen characters, men and women, although whether man and woman was difficult to distinguish, were wearing wooden masks and colorful costumes. They entered the hall dancing, and hobbled between our dinner tables, encouraging us to join. It took me a while before I was ready to accept their invitation, until I secured a woman who was a good dancer. I managed to get a hold of her. Her mask was not as scary as than other ones. When the music stopped, she gave me complement about my dancing. It made my day."

It made his day.

And thus, presumably, our restless traveler, so struck earlier in the day, was comforted finally, by the great hymns of the church, a few sips of good stout German beer, and a sporty jaunt with a masked intruder--a woman he managed to get hold of, he says, who then told him that for an old guy with a wooden leg, he was, by cracky, one heckuva good dancer.

And that's the whole story. Let preachers of all types and persuasions do with it what they will. All I know is, that's the way I saw it, and the way he tells it. There's got to be a sermon there, if we have ears.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Morning Thanks--mysteries

In the libraries of information I've consumed in my life--books, magazines, internet--there are few moments of sheer discovery that distinguish themselves as fiercely in my memory as the moment when, years ago, I was reading Lewis Smedes's Mere Morality and came on a discussion he offers concerning how adult children of believing parents deal with really substantial differences in the way parents and children practice their faith.

"To honor parents, a child needs to let them be what they are, a mystery not yet fully revealed," he says, page 93, if you'd like to look it up. It is, he says, a condition of our keeping the fifth commandment that we "respect our parents' own mystery."

It's a line I've never, ever forgotten.

This morning I listened, all the way through, as I promised I would, to the Rev. Charles Stanley, a TV preacher my mother had just heard as we called her, last night, at the end of the day. She was so taken with the Reverend Stanley's passionate American jeremiad that it was all she could talk about for ten minutes or more. Rev. Stanley believes that the tide, in America, is moving toward socialism, that socialism and Christ are enemies, and that our present situation is such that, should the tide not be stemmed, America as a Christian nation will not long endure.

Along the way, he cites abortion, gay marriage, taxation, and the ban on prayer in public schools as both the signage and the cause of our national decline and potential demise. Behind him, as he spoke, a huge flag was unfurled across the stage. If you agree with the Reverend Mr. Stanley, all Christian believers are urged to pray for our nation for 140 days straight--and to tell the ministry that you will be a prayer warrior for America.

I listened, Mom--all the way through, as you asked, and I'll pray. But I'll probably not pray for the exact same things she or Rev. Stanley will.

I'm not sure what God does with the gadzillion contrary prayers he hears every day. Like votes, do they simply erase each other? I don't know.

But I don't share my mother's political passions, and as a result she finds it difficult to understand just exactly how her own child can be a real Christian. By her estimation--and that of Rev. Stanley, I suppose--I'm not. To both of them, I suppose, I'm well meaning but tragically, even demonically misguided.

And that's why I'm thankful this morning for a single passage from Mere Morality, a book I read decades ago, a passage that sets out how to live when differences between believing parent and believing adult child are almost intractable. What I have learned from Lew Smedes is to respect my mother's mystery.

It would be comforting to know that she respects mine.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Morning thanks--up north

This ladies trio has sung their last medley for the season. We walked past the site again yesterday and, alas, there is no more flashy yellow singers in the grass, only one or two black-eyed susans where a week ago there were hundreds. Their day has come and gone.

Which is not to say the nature's show is over for the summer. The water lillies seemed to be perpetually budding until yesterday, when, in the morning sun, they opened by the dozen and sat afloat a multitude of pads as if they sat politely in attendance at some glorious family reunion on the pond.

And then, just in time for the 4th, these long-stemmed characters arose along the bike path, hundreds of them, symmetrically designed with an artful delicacy. Okay, they're neither as colorful nor as showy as the black-eyed susans or the water lillies, but they have their own unique and elegant grace. And even though they don't light up the sky, but they are a homemade genre of holiday fireworks all their own.

There is a season to everything, as the Bible says, and, alas, all things must pass. So today we drive straight south, back home, leaving our annual "up north" holiday behind, sadly. I guess we all have our day in the sun.

But it's still early, and I've got a couple of worms left. I think I'll go sit out on the dock and see if I can't land that northern I missed the first night. Maybe a couple perch.

We don't have to go right away.

This morning's thanks is a no-brainer. This morning's thanks is for "up north"--yours, mine, and ours. We had a wonderful time.

Friday, July 02, 2010

Morning thanks--common grace

In this morning's New York Times, David Brooks pays homage to Christopher Hitchens, oddly enough. Brooks is really "button down," while Hitchens simply isn't--in any way. And while they may occasionally share some political viewpoints, in many ways they are completely different human beings. But Brooks says he admires Hitchens despite their undeniable differences, because he respects Hitchens' commitments to "psychology, context, courage and virtue — important things that are hard to talk about in policy jargon or journalese."

Brooks says that Hitchens' literary sensibility is something often lacking in political and cultural discussions these days and that reading Hitchens is a good exercise for young people "with a literary bent," because in the work of Christopher Hitchens, they can observe "different models" of "how to be a thoughtful person, how to engage in political life and what sort of things one should know in order to be truly educated."

Just one of the reasons I like David Brooks is the kind of largesse he shows for Mr. Hitchens, who is, for many, rather easy to dislike--decidedly opinionated, often seemingly arrogant and intolerant. That he admires Hitchens is somehow understandable, given who David Brooks is--a columnist of unusual breadth.

Yesterday, we listened to newly appointed Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea explain the exacting way in which judgments are made in the inner sanctum of her state's Supreme Court, in an interview she did with Minnesota Public Radio. Central to that process was the unconditional respect each judge has to give to each other, she said, even when they disagree, and most importantly when they disagree radically.

That kind of largesse, that kind of respect is not necessarily the way I was raised--and I'm not handing down an indictment of my parents thereby. I had enough residual Protestantism in me to believe, quite vehementally, that my way--the Christian Reformed way--was not only the best way, but the only way. I think of it, broadly speaking, as "the doctrine of the antithesis"--that there are some few of us who know and a ton of those who don't. I'm not sure I was taught that, or if it simply was the way, in my own childlike mind, I appropriated what I was taught. Despite Jesus's own admonition, I don't believe that I took "love your enemies" particularly seriously.

On the other hand, one of the finest doctrines of my own religious heritage was and still is something called "common grace," the belief and teaching that God almighty allots to all of humankind sufficient grace to live, breath, and have being. Without common grace, this world would look pretty dismal, and I could well be just another Goodman Brown, who never recovered from his dalliance with evil--imagined or not--and whose "dying hour was gloom." Somehow--or so it seems to me--"common grace" is a tougher sell than "the antithesis."

I'm thankful for a heritage that honored "the antithesis," the radical separation between the broad and narrow way; but I'm also thankful for a more difficult worldview, also part of the religious legacies I carry, one that honors rather than dispels differences. I'm thankful for what my own heritage calls the doctrine of "common grace."

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Feedus Interruptus

Yeah, well, Ma didn't know the bald guy on the deck, I guess, a stranger. There he sat, still as death, right in our way. It's our thing to run up and down the water's edge looking for stuff, you know, and every night it's the same thing until this guy comes along and just sits there like Gibraltar. Once in a while, some little beep comes from that digital of his, and ma about has a kid, you know. We turn around, chomp down some weeds. Ma figures we wait the old fart out.

And then what happens is those beanbrain cousins of ours show up right behind us, so all of a sudden there's more wood ducks than you can shake a stick at--a traffic jam right out front of the Maples.

Ma just says she just didn't trust the guy, so all of us just hang around and hang around till it got too dark for that camera and the old guy finally left.

Who knows?--maybe I'll be a star.

Ma says, don't be an idiot.