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, December 30, 2011

Swan Song XXIV--St. John's

If you're on the road from Milwaukee to Madison, you can't miss it. These days, it's almost suburbia.  The last exit before Delafield holds a four-corner-wide shopping center, the last one you'll hit, so if you need a Wal-Mart, the next one on I-94 will likely be in Madison.  

Truth be known, I've never stepped a foot in Delafield, Wisconsin--Delavan, often enough, even gave a speech there once upon a time, wrote a story about a wonderful, and much beloved old woman.  But I've never been in Delafield, even though those looming, green highway signs beckon, as they always have.  

Years ago, on my way to Monroe, Wisconsin, where I took my first teaching job, I used to pass the town quite often in a kind of awe, really.  These days, forty years later, I don't see those signs so often anymore; but I did on Wednesday, when we came back from my eastern Wisconsin homeland. "Delafield"--those signs say, and no matter how long I live I'll think of what never happened there.

I think I would have been a bad fit at St. Johns Military Academy.  I'd just graduated from college, jobless, had just returned from a anti-war march on Washington, and had, not long before, failed my draft physical.  I had no experience with a military school.  Even though my father spent four years jockeying destroyers around the South Pacific during World War II, he never brayed much about the military, never went to Legion meetings, or walked in Veteran's Day parades.  Military service was no rite of passage in our family, and I honestly couldn't imagine what life at a military school would be like.

But once I'd flunked that draft physical, I had no job prospects.  None.  My recommendations as a student weren't that hot, I knew--by community standards, I wasn't a poster boy for the Christian faith.  Besides, I wasn't sure I wanted to hang around "my people" any longer.  I'd had more than enough of their rigid self-righteousness and putrid political conservatism.  I was brash and cocky.  I wanted to stamp the dust off my feet and trash the wooden shoes forever.

So I read the Milwaukee Journal's want-ads every Sunday, looking for teaching jobs, and I spotted an opening for an English teacher at St. John's Military Academy, Delafield, WI.  I applied, as I did at two other schools, one somewhere up north--I don't remember the town anymore--and the other way down on the state line, southwest Wisconsin, South Wayne, Black Hawk High School.  It was already July, 1970.

I wasn't desperate, but after two or three weeks of laying sod on the steep open soil of the exit ramps of the new highway--I-43--I knew I didn't want to do that for the rest of my life.  It was, without question, the worst work of my entire life.  I read the want ads religiously.

I swear I remember the letter.  I may even have it yet.  On fancy school stationary, they said no, sweetly.  They'd looked through their applications and decided on some other schmo.  Rejection is rejection, and I can't say theirs didn't hurt.  But I did wonder, right then, smack in middle of the horrors of the Vietnam War, whether I was cut out to teach in a military academy.  

That question will never be answered, even though it's 40-years old.  But it steps front and center into my consciousness whenever I-94 takes me past Delafield, Wisconsin, as it did Wednesday.

"God has a plan for your life" is the kind of spiritual cliche that has all the heft of Hallmark card, or so it seems to me.  Yet, every time I pass that town, I wonder what I would have become had some administrator not tossed my letter of application on the pile of losers.  If they'd said yes, I would have taken the job.  I didn't have one, after all.  I would have gone.  I would have become a teacher at St. John's Military Academy.

And then what?  My whole world would have changed.  I would have had different friends, met different kids, found different joys. I would have bellied up to a whole set of different conflicts.  I wouldn't be who I am.  Somebody on that campus once dumped my application letter and that simple act has made all the difference.  I wonder who he was.  He's likely dead.

There are ways to chart all of this out.  One is to say, simply, God didn't want me there.  That seems somehow simplistic and even wearying.  When Col. Gordon or Lieut. Ralph or Sgt. Mike or whoever reviewed those applications, was God almighty right there over his shoulder, directing his hand toward some other flimsy sheet listing some other applicant's many wholesome features?  Did God tell some butch-cut administrator to file that one from Oostburg in the also-rans?  

I don't know.  I'm a Calvinist.  To most who recognize the word, the designation means I believe in something called "predestination."  It's an odd word and a weird doctrine really, something I remember fighting about in catechism, as a matter of fact, because it seemed so preposterous in such a willy-nilly world.

I still I buy it, I guess, but only in a rearview mirror.  Predestination is near madness, or so it seems, unless you're looking behind you.  Only then does it make sense.  How did C. S. Lewis put it?--I was dragged, kicking and screaming, before the throne.  That's what happened.  When I look back, that's what I see.  Something like that.

God has a plan for my life all right, but just exactly how that plan unfolds from day to day isn't something I'm privy to until day-to-day is well behind me.  Then, when I'm on I-94 and I pass signs for Delafield, Wisconsin--then, and only then does it make any sense at all that some guy in a uniform tossed that application from the kid with two As in his last name.  And what on earth was the weird name of the college he attended again?  Dirt?

I don't know where God was that night, whether he was on campus at St. John's or south and west in South Wayne, but I know what's back there in my life and what isn't.  Even yet, I'm a traveler on a road map that's forever taken me past Delafield, Wisconsin--but I've never been there.  

Never.  Not once.  

*Two roads diverged in a Wisconsin woods. . .
And I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere forty years down the pike:
because somehow I--I got myself directed south 
to the swiss cheese capital of Badgerland,
And somehow, willy-nilly as it seems--
that has made all the difference.

Maybe.  Of course, I'm still on the road.
*Heartfelt apologies to Robert Frost.  

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Wounded Knee

It was Ian Frazier’s Great Plains that taught me something about the Ghost Dance. I’d never heard of it before; but then, most white Americans haven’t.  The stories surrounding slavery are well-known to most, but the stories of Native America somehow escapes most palefaces like me.  In that book, Frazier tells great stories of the Plains Indians, who were, by and large, a fierce bunch, maybe the quintessential Native American—feathered headdress, breechcloth, body paint, spear and shield and bow and arrow, all of that regalia on a chiseled male mounted on a paint pony.

Frazier nearly deifies Crazy Horse, as many do.  Crazy Horse, a Lakota hero at Little Big Horn, was the battle leader who simply would not bow to the flood of white folks who, time after time, found all kinds of crooked ways to put the Lakota (Sioux) people off traditional lands.  In The Great Plains, Frazier creates a miscellany of 19th century Native American life, including a description of what he calls the first truly American religion, the Ghost Dance.

The sources of this strange, Indian Great Awakening are multiple—a little Protestantism, a little Mormonism, a little Catholicism, all grafted to spiritual roots that are soundly Native American in character.
The Ghost Dance swept most tribes in the American west.  It was worship really, a ritual dance created to summon the old world back, the ancestors and the buffalo and the traditional way of life that had just about completely disappeared by 1890.  It was, I think, a vision of heaven to a starving, beaten people, robbed of heritage.  The Ghost Dance gave them a vision of what they wanted so badly to see, instead of the annihilation that was actually there.

Out here—or a couple hours west—the Lakota variation on the Ghost Dance included the mistaken belief that wearing a ghost shirt or dress meant the wearer could not be harmed by white man’s bullets.  And that belief, Ian Frazier claims, scared white people badly and played a significant role in what happened 121 years ago today on a broad and open expanse of indistinguishable prairie along a creek whose name is Wounded Knee.  You might say, that's how I came to Wounded Knee.

What started in 1862 with the Dakota War in Minnesota ended on December 29, 1890, when the largest military encampment in America since the Civil War got into a fight with 50 or so of Big Foot's Lakota braves.  Big Foot himself was suffering horribly with pneumonia after leading his people on an unthinkably long walk from the very top of what is now South Dakota, to the bottom—and in late December, remember.

What exactly happened to begin what became a massacre is disputed today, but the outcome is not.  There were sparks of anger aplenty, and one of them ignited a conflagration.  The Seventh Calvary (itself decimated at Little Big Horn and, some say, just aching for a fight) and others in that huge cavalry encampment simply gunned down Big Foot’s band—men, women, and children—often in cold  blood.
No one really knows how many Lakota died.  Estimates range as high as 300.  But what happened at Wounded Knee ended the Great Sioux Wars.  To say what happened out there in the middle of winter is a blot on American history is obscene understatement.  What happened there was evil, as all massacres are.
One of the dreams I’ve had for years is some kind of worship service on December 28 or 29, dates that mark two horrific massacres—King Herod’s slaughter of the innocents after Jesus’s birth, and the Wounded Knee Massacre.  Those two events are not analogous, but in both cases those who wielded great power simply butchered innocent human beings

Wounded Knee, on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, is in pure fly-over country.  It’s well off the beaten path, and a long ways from most anything that would attract a tourist.  If you want to go there, you have to want to go there.

And really, who would?--what white guy, at least?  It's a horrible story.
Maybe that’s why what happened there 121 years ago today is so invisible to millions of white Americans.  Maybe so.
And maybe not.  Maybe whites like me would rather not know, not remember.  Maybe we prefer politicians who say, unequivocally, they’ll never, ever apologize for America.

Maybe so.

Six or seven hours west of here, this morning, on December 29, 1890, 300 or more Lakota people were massacred.  That’s what happened.

But I think we can say this too: that right there, along a creek called Wounded Knee, 121 years ago, we were all there, every last one of us.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Morning Thanks--Christmas

And suddenly, with a few strokes of the second hand, the colored lights look as kitschy as they do absurd, the music--Nat King Cole's "Chestnuts roasting" for the 400th time--is a bad joke repeated endlessly.  The day after Christmas means a titanic hangover, especially when you realize that all we have to look forward to now, mid-winter, is called January.  On December 26, the magic lifts, and what's left is a return line.

For most of us at least, that dull pain has nothing to do with faith.  No follower of Jesus I know is any less of a believer this morning; but just about all of us above the age of, say, nine, can't help but fall from faith this morning in the "holiday season" that surrounds it, in Black Friday and Cyber Monday, and the clap-trap commercialism the Pope so heartily decried.  I admit it--yesterday, to me at least, he sounded rather unadoringly like the Grinch, Scrooge in an odd pointed hat and a German accent.  This morning, surrounded as we are by crumpled wrapping paper, his words sound a bit more to the point.

"Today Christmas has become a commercial celebration," he said at Christmas Eve mass at the Vatican, "whose bright lights hide the mystery of God's humility, which in turn calls us to humility and simplicity."

Maybe I got duped again.

This year, at our house, Pandora created a classic Christmas channel that piped perfectly tuned music all through the house, music that created a sweet backdrop for the whole season.  Our Christmas Eve worship seemed grandly joyous, the final candle-lit "Silent Night," circled up as we were around the sanctuary, almost enough to make us think we were somewhere on the Judean hills and not in pork country.  This year, like Keillor's Minnesota Lutherans, my wife and I dared to tell each that, yeah, we had a pretty good Christmas, if we had to say so ourselves.

But this morning, the lurching post-Christmas hangover has returned, and I can't help wonder how I got swept away by the excess--again.  But I did.  This morning, it's not hard to see how it is that suicides rise, that depression deepens, that some people drink way too much during the holidays. Christmas--not Jesus's birth, but the Christmas holiday as advertised--can never quite live up to its own billing.

Besides, here's the headline:  in Nigeria, 39 dead and dozens wounded when some hellish Islamic radical group laid waste to two Christian churches.  Nothing's changed while we were charmed.

But the facts remain:  He was born in a barn not a palace, laid in a manger so that, as our preacher reminded us, even a gang of smelly shepherds could walk right in and inch up close.  The imperial Lord had no trumpet fanfare, no twenty-gun salute--the only ballyhoo was some barnyard braying. 

Them's the facts, and while I may well need to recite them to myself time and time again this morning, they're enough to make me thankful, this morning, once again, for the moment in time when the image of a child laid lovingly on a rough straw bed seems enough to enthrall--for better or for worse--so many millions of this world's inhabitants.  

This morning, sin still grows stubbornly in the hearts of men and women, not to mention my own; but then, a baby came once upon a time, and because he did grace still abounds.  It still abounds.  

This morning, my morning thanks are for what else?--Christmas.  

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas Morning Med--Two ways

“For the Lord knoweth the way of the righteous, 

but the way of the wicked shall perish.”  Psalm 1:8

 I suppose there are umpteen other references throughout the Bible to the Lord knowing saints and sinners personally, but I can’t help but be struck by the repetition and thus the emphasis given here, at the very end of the first Psalm, to the idea of there being two separate “ways” or cultures of sin and righteousness.  The implication seems clear enough:  if it’s blessedness you’re after, avoid “the way” of the sinner for that “way” will perish.  It’s not sinners themselves who are earmarked for destruction in Psalm 1, it’s their way of doing things.
Mortal flesh demonizes as if by instinct—mine too.  We create enemies to build ourselves up and diminish those who hold contrary views.  If we absolutely loved President George W. Bush, we likely hate President Obama.  If we like the Yankees, we hate the Red Sox. Out here where I live, people who love a John Deere often hate a Farmall.  It’s even that way with snowmobiles, I hear—and motorcycles, and, to be sure, muscle-bound pickups.  Maybe you’ve seen those indecorous window decals of little kids peeing on Ford trademarks.

Of course, the shepherd/king is not talking about Pepsi/Coke in the opening song of the Psalter.  He’s talking about “the wicked,” not somebody wearing the wrong brand of designer jeans.  But just exactly who those people are—the wicked—isn’t always so easy to ascertain, at least for me.  And, of course, what’s of greatest moment in the verse six is not that we carry some kind of pocket guide to who’s wicked and who’s not, but simply that God does because he knows.  The psalm doesn’t say we do.

But what can we read on our own here?  There is, after all, a really deep divide in the psalm.  People sure enough wear white hats and black hats in this poem, I’ll tell you.  But it’s not “the wicked” themselves that are fingered in this verse; it’s their “way.”  “The way” of the wicked will perish.

I may be wrong, but that line pushes me back to the characterization we’ve seen blow away earlier:  “the wicked are like chaff.”  Here today, gone tomorrow.  What characterizes their “way of life,” their culture, is its shallowness, its transience, its veneer, the world not unlike Andy Warhol once promised, where everyone gets his or her fifteen minutes of fame.  Like chaff, that way of life blows away and will perish—that’s the heartfelt promise, or so it seems to me, of this verse.  Living for the moment may well be exciting, but in the long run—and that’s what we’re talking about here—it’s not going bring the blessedness of a soul’s prosperity.

As I’ve said before, there is likely other biblical passages which threaten the wicked with eons of weeping and gnashing teeth, but Psalm 1 seems more interested in saving than damning, in laying out a view of what it means to be blessed and how all of us might go about understanding the “way” to become a recipient of that joy.
Like a tree planted.  That’s the story, or so it seems to me.  See it?  That’s the picture in Psalm 1.  Blessedness means being rooted, deeply, in something life-giving.  Avoid what blows away, no matter how promising.  All of that will perish.  Take delight in God’s way, which is, of course, today especially, the way of a manger. 

Saturday, December 24, 2011

A Suitable Church (part III)

When she awoke, she heard the kids stirring at the tree, opening presents, arguing, in fact.  She brushed back her hair, pulled on her housecoat and slippers, and opened the door.  It wasn’t quite fully morning, but the kids had all the wrappings off of dozens of presents.  Too many.  It wasn’t pleasant.
She walked into the spacious living room, the blinds over all those windows to the east still closed. 
“What’s the deal?” she said.
Tosha said Edmund had taken her Beanie Baby and hid it somewhere and she was mad and she was going to get back at him somehow because it just wasn’t fair and he was a jerk too and he always was.  It was Christmas morning.  Edmund looked at his sister as if she were a dishrag.
She had enough.  “Maybe we ought to go to church,” she told them, out of nowhere at all.  “You and me–maybe the three of us should go to church together this morning.”
“Why?” Tosha said.
“Because it’s Christmas,” she told her.  “Because it’s Christmas and we’re going to celebrate the birth of our Savior.”
“I’m not going,” Edmund said.  “I got these great toys.”
“You’ve got a great Savior,” she told her grandson.
His eyes, blank as clay, hurt her more than a fist because she knew she was speaking a language he didn’t begin to understand.  Their own grandson looked at her as if Jesus were a nobody.  That Jack didn’t see it himself was a blessing.
Edmund shoved his glasses up on his nose.  “Some other time, all right?” he said.  “Look at this, Grandma–Nimbus Racer.”   He held up a electronic game.
She wanted to pray, right there in front of them, but right then, even though the condo was top floor, she was sure there was nothing but thick cement between her and the Lord.  The children didn’t know a thing.  They hadn’t found anything, all right–they hadn’t even looked.
“I think we ought to go,” she said.
“It’s Christmas,” Edmund chirped.  “Why do we got to go to church?”
Her insides felt like that screen saver, turning inside and out again and again, and she realized just then that if she were to open her mouth, there would be no words, only tears–tears that would confuse them.  So she walked to the kitchen, fiddled with the coffee maker, got it going, then went to the west windows.
It was Christmas morning, she reminded herself, and she couldn’t help herself but she wished just then that she were with Jack and the Lord.  There was too much for her to do here, too much hard work and too much sadness, and she couldn’t do it alone.
She took hold of the strings of the blinds and opened them with a few rapid jerks.  Sunlight, Christmas morning sunlight, spilled in like a waterfall, dousing the lights on the tree.  Deliberately, she looked away from Christmas in the condo and over the street beneath them, the past the trees, then across the glaze of water west; and when she raised her eyes to the mountains, in a flash, in a moment, the whole fancy condo seemed to disappear–the Christmas tree behind her, the kitchen, the brewing coffee, everything behind her seemed to vanish, the children’s voices dimmed, her own sharp fears muted in the sheer majesty of what she’d suddenly, almost magically, become witness to; because even though the neighborhood beneath the condo was in shadows, the sun, coming up far behind them, stretched its brilliant glory through the crystal morning air all the way across the Sound to hold those monstrous snow-capped Olympics in its own astonishing splendor.  There they stood–those glorifying mountains–as if forever.  There they stood like might and power.  There they stood, a landscape divinely painted across the darkened world, beaming holiness and majesty in the crystalline dawn of a perfect Christmas morning.
“Oh, my God,” she said, because what she saw was far more than mountain beauty.  He was here, all right, she told herself.  He’s here sure enough.
“What, Grandma?” Tosha said, coming up behind her.  “What do you see?”
She wrapped her arm around her granddaughter.
“Who’s out there?” Tosha said, on tiptoes.
What could she say?  “Jesus,” her grandma told her.  “He’s always there.”
“Where?” Tosha asked.
She picked up her granddaughter.  “Look at those mountains,” she said.  “Just look at them.”
Tosha leaned her face closer to the window.  “Is he a ghost?” she said.
“No,” she told her, “he’s alive.”
“I don’t see him,” she said.  “I see the mountains and I see the Sound, and there’s a boat out there, but where is Jesus?”  She looked at her grandmother almost painfully.  “Grandma, I want to see Jesus.”
She already had her granddaughter in her arms, so the hug she gave her wasn’t difficult or awkward.  “Amen,” she said, biting her lip, because a prayer she’d never finished were coming to a close maybe, even if it were just for a moment. 
“Let’s just you and me go, Tosha, honey,” Jan said.  “This time, this morning, just let’s you and me go.  I want you to see him too.” 
Concluding segment from an old J. C. Schaap Christmas story.

Friday, December 23, 2011

A Suitable Church (part II)

And now Jan couldn’t sleep. She lay in a roll-out bed in her daughter’s office, the light from some fancy screen-saver bouncing off the walls because Ellen didn’t have the grace to shut the stupid computer off.  That machine is more important than I am, she told herself when she tried keep out the glimmers.  But she knew Jack would have been proud of her.  In all those years of their daughter’s unfaithfulness to God and the church, Jan had been the one who constantly begged him to give Ellen space.  But Jack was gone now.  Just her bringing it up–going to church–was something he’d have been proud of.

But the screen kept shifting images like something that wouldn’t die.  She hated it, the lit screen that devoured everything good and right in the lives of her own children.  The room was dark, the blinds pulled, and that fiend machine kept turning multi-colored 3-D shapes inside out in some never-ending pattern that seemed to her demonic.  The clock said almost three o’clock when finally she got up, hunted for the plug, and then jerked it.  Didn’t hesitate a minute.  Just jerked it.  Tomorrow she’d plead ignorance, since that was what they thought of her anyway.  Jack would have loved it.

The death of the computer didn’t help.  Ellen would be more upset, she told herself.  Pushing church on them was one thing, but killing computers was a whole new level of sin.  She’d be lucky if they didn’t stick her back on the jet.  At least it was dark in the room, she thought.  At least the walls didn’t jump.  Fanciest condo she’d ever seen in her life, too.  All sorts of pottery things in shapes she didn’t begin to understand.
It was August when she and Jack had prayed, as they did every night at supper–“bless Ellen and Frank and the kids” and usually something else about helping them find the way because, after all they just hadn’t found anything, had they?  It was August, and hot, and Jack had insisted on digging up the concrete around the pole he’d put in so their son Tony could shoot baskets when he was a boy, years ago.  It was too hot, and it was too much work, but Jack loved sweat, considered himself more of a man if he could soak a t-shirt.  They’d prayed for Ellen and Frank after supper, then he’d gone at it again out back, where she saw him an hour later, on his side, not moving.  Their last prayer together, like so many before, had been about Frank and Ellen, had featured them, in fact.  It was as if they’d never stopped praying.
“Lord,” she said, her neck strained from such a huge pillow beneath her head, “Lord, help me find something for them.”  That seemed about right.  “Lord,” she said, but she didn’t know how to put it better.  “Lord,” she said once again, “crack their skulls, okay?–I don’t mean it really, but stop them in their tracks.  Sink the boat maybe–sink Microsoft, okay?  Because there’s nothing here, I’m afraid.  There’s just nothing here.  Something’s got to break–I love them too much, and I love my grandchildren.”  In the middle of that prayer, she imagined those kids in a darling Christmas Eve pageant, two sweet kids saying things like “Mary pondered all these things in her heart,” Tosha with a little skirt, Edmund in a sweater over a white shirt or something.  There were churches all over Seattle–hundreds of them just waiting for families just like theirs.  Thousands of churches.  “You can lead a horse to water, Lord, but show them you’re here, okay?  Make it so that everywhere they look they see Jesus.”
She hadn’t even thought of saying that, but when the words ran back through her mind, she liked it–the idea of seeing Jesus in everything, as if the world was a canvas holding the outline of Jesus’ face, as if the whole world was the Shroud of Turin.  “Make them see you, Lord,” she said, “because in this palace of theirs--” she said, “well, I just don’t know if you’re here.”
She didn’t end the prayer.  The petitions just sort of fell into silence, like they always did, to be picked up again next time–same chapter and verse.  Pray without ceasing the Bible said.  That’s what it was all right, she thought.
Part II of a three-part story originally published in Reformed Worship, then again in Startling Joy, both times under different titles.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

A Suitable Church (part 1)

“We’ve not found anything, Mom.”

That’s what Ellen had told her, and how many times hadn’t her daughter said exactly that when she had asked the question?  “We’ve not found anything, Mom”–a reply which Jan might have felt hopeful if the words weren’t twisted in the same way every time Ellen said them.  “We’ve not found anything, Mom.”  Emphasis on found, as if to say, “end of discussion.”  That answer always came packaged in a deadbeat tone that carried too much finality, and Jan knew–aren’t mothers supposed to know?–that Ellen wasn’t really looking at all.

So she’d tried once again, Christmas Eve.  “Have you found a suitable church?”
The two of them were about to go to bed.  She’d come for the holidays.  She’d not looked forward to a long plane ride to Seattle, alone, now that Jack had gone.  She’d not looked forward to the trip itself, but she’d crossed the days off the calendar because she wanted so badly to see her kids, her smart kids who were making so much money in computers–Microsoft this, Microsoft that.  She’d never been to their new place, a flashy condo with windows for walls.  But she couldn’t help asking again, as if the topic had never come up before–“Have you found a suitable church?”

 “We’ve not found anything, Mom,” her daughter said, in a computer voice.  And then Ellen gave her a smile Jan knew was condescending because, after all, she was “Grandma” and the two of them, her son-in-law and daughter, were big shots–corporate jet, power lunch, lots of travel.  Ellen and Frank were cutting edge, and her mother was an old oak buffet from Iowa.

She wanted to tell her daughter that the two of them weren’t going to find a church if they sat on their hams or slept in to catch up from work weeks that had them gone more than home, their kids hostage to some pre-school with a big cheery sign with multi-colored balloons.
 “Have you been looking, Ellen?” she’d asked her daughter.

They were wrapping presents.  It was Christmas Eve, mind you, and they were still wrapping the kids’ Christmas presents.  Frank was in his office–they each had one in the big condo–and the kids were off to bed.

 “We’ve looked,” she said, fitting a corner on a whole box of electronic games.  “We keep telling ourselves we’ve got to slow down,” Ellen told her.  “We got to smell the roses, you know?  Last summer we were out on the boat only once.”

 “Whose fault is that?” Jan said.

 “Ours, of course,” Ellen told her.

 “Are you still in love?” Jan said.

 “Mom!” Ellen scolded.

 “I’m serious,” she’d said, curling the ribbons across the top of Tosha’s new Barbie.

 “Look, Mom–we’re all right, okay?  I’ve never stopped thinking that there’s a God–I’m no infidel.”  After that first insipid smile, Ellen never once looked up, which Jan had read as a good sign, since there was some guilt there anyway.

 “Maybe we ought to go tomorrow,” she said.
Ellen dropped her shoulders.
 “I’m just suggesting–“

 “I’m 34 years old, Mom,” Ellen told her.

 “I brought you into this world,” she said.  “I know exactly how old you are.”  She flitted with the ribbons, put the gift under the tree, and sat back on her haunches.  “I’m serious.  I saw this church–“

”You just got here–“

”I saw this church on the way in–not big either.  ‘10:45' it said, ‘Christmas Service.’” She looked directly at her rich daughter.  “You and me and the kids?  Frank is your responsibility, not mine.”
Ellen rolled her eyes, threw her bangs back out of her face.  She looked down at her fingers, pushed back her cuticles, breathed audibly.  “Let me think about it, okay?” she said, grudgingly.  “If that’s the way you have to have it, let me think about it.”
Part one of a three-part story for Christmas.  This story first appeared in Reformed Worship many moons ago, and then again in Startling Joy:  Stories for Christmas (Baker, 2003), both times by different titles.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011


Case closed.  I'm an Iowan, once upon a time a Republican, and I am at this moment endorsing a candidate.  (Now please stop calling.)  I'd be walking across the floor at the caucus meeting when Ron Paul's name is announced, were I attending, were I walking across the floor.  I've decided that of the rat pack the Republicans are forwarding to me and other bib-overaled hayseeds, Ron Paul's the man.

According to Politico, lots of Iowans don't want him to win, even though thousands do.  Those who do are True Believers in Paul's idyllic libertarian gospel.  Those who aren't Paul-struck worry like mad lest he does win--and their worries are well-founded.  He may.  Should the Texas senator pull off an upset, it would be another argument in the arsenal of those who are sick and tired of the Tall Corn state.  Our first-in-the-nation caucuses may well go south fast.  And the reason is simple, Ron Paul has zero chance of beating Obama.  It's that simple.  We Iowans, Republicans especially, are adept at picking losers.

Of course, the rest of the field isn't doing much better, if you believe yesterday's new polling data.  Obama's on the rise, while anything Republican is not--this despite the fact that those who believe "it's the economy, stupid" see the nation's woes weighing heavily against this incumbent president.  

In Iowa, a vote for Ron Paul is a vote to send the whole magical mystery tour somewhere else next election cycle.  Tons of Republican and Democratic operatives would just as soon put Shenandoah and Keokuk in their rear view mirrors anyway.  If you're going to stage the nation's first primary or caucus anywhere, why not in Florida, for instance, under the palms, or Arizona, where populations are vastly more multi-chromatic and you don't have to slow down for tractors.  

Paul wins here on January 3, and the Hawkeye record is as bad as its basketball team.  Huckabee last time--remember him?  Pat Robertson??????????  Shoot, Dole even beat Reagan before Reagan was granted sainthood.  Iowa Republicans are not winners; they're true believers.

We grow more social conservatives than we do corn.  Here, the religious right has immense clout, vastly more than they have anywhere in the nation, it seems.  Shoot, Bob Vander Plaats has been on all the news shows this year, got courted more lavishly than the Pork Queen, all because what he directs is the state's religious right in a johnny-come-lately assembly whose name focuses in on their cute little deliberate punctuation error--FAMiLY LEADER.

Politico claims Vander Plaats called one of the candidates, Michelle Bachmann, last week--get this!--got on the phone and asked her to pull out of the race and support Rick Santorum because, after all, wouldn't it be neat if all the good Christian Iowans could support just one good Christian candidate?  The leader of the FAMiLY LEADER has become such a powerful broker that he thinks he can call a candidate and, piously I'm sure, direct her toward the back door.

Bachmann said no, thank goodness.

So Vander Plaats endorsed Santorum, even though his FAMiLY LEADER couldn't nail down a single candidate.  Undoubtedly, some of the righteous brass wanted Gingrich, whose personal record as a family leader isn't particularly impressive.

I like Ron Paul, not only because he's the only really believable candidate in the pack, but because, if he wins, maybe the whole shooting match will go elsewhere--all the robocalls, all the ad men, all the rental busses and cars.  They all go south, and we're left up here in  earmuffs.  

I'm not just being Scrooge this yuletide either.  I think sharpened politics has been disastrous on church communities, especially with the bloated reputations of the religious right.  People can't talk about politics anymore without reputations being smirched, without someone assuming that those who don't buy the company line are as sad as the sad cases who don't stand up and testify around the campfire.  

I never, ever want another kindergarten grandchild of mine to climb into my lap and tell me that Obama is a baby-killer.  I'm tired of the firewall politics builds between people who believe in the same God and the same savior, the same kid in the manger.  I'm sick unto death of the divisiveness that arises in the blessed name of Jesus.  And I don't understand how a mob of well-meaning, flag-draped Christians can actually believe that freedom is more biblical than justice.

Maybe if the caucuses leave, the uncivil wars will beget little but coffee table skirmishes.  Maybe if someone else gets first-in-the-nation status, my phone will go silent.  

I don't own a TV station or a rental car outfit or a restaurant or a bar, nor the Des Moines LaQuinta.  But that doesn't mean I don't have a stake in this mess.  I say, vote Ron Paul.  When his name is called, walk across the gym floor.  Make him a winner and leave our church alone.

Good riddance.  Send Bob Vander Plaats back to Sioux City.  He's not as important as he believes God almighty thinks he is.  On January 4, they'll all be gone, the spinmeisters, the ad men, the pundits, the party operatives, and most of the phone bank--on to greener pastures.  Vander Plaats and his righteous crew will have had their ten minutes of glory and the rest of us can get on with life.

Vote Ron Paul.  

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The rebel kid

Our pastor--from the pulpit!--says we all ought to read the book of Mark again, as a book I guess.  Not that we do everything our pastor says, but we do take advice well.  So we started, put away our usual devotional fare, and went with Holy Writ this Christmas.  

I wish we hadn't.

We get no more than three chapters in, and we run into trouble, a trouble-maker in fact.  That's right--Jesus himself.  

Another time, Jesus went into the synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there.  Some of the them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath.  Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, "Stand up in front of everyone."

I'm sorry, but that demand wasn't particularly conciliatory.  We all know Jesus is about to do this unlawful Sabbath healing thing knowing those big-brother Pharisees will bleed at the teeth when he does.  Here's what I think:  Jesus could have healed this guy in a closet--isn't that that the way he told us to pray?  When you do the pious stuff, don't flaunt it.  He didn't have to be all Tim Tebow about it.  But he tells the shrived-hand man deliberately--yes, deliberately!--to stand up in front of everyone.  Talk about in-your-face.

There's more.

Then Jesus asked them, "Which is lawful on the Sabbath:  to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?"  But they remained silent.

He's not even talking to the handicapped guy.  What Jesus wanted was to put this sad case on stage before the fascists, the power elite who want his head.  He's talking to them, for pity sake.  The guy with the gimpy hand is little more than a prop.  He's only there for the demonstration.  What's really going on is a battle between the upstart prophet and the religious establishment. 

He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, "Stretch out your hand."  He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored.  Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus. 

Okay, I'll give you this--he's deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts; but just the same, it's impossible to say that this entire show is meant to heal the handicapped.  What's going on here is Jesus's wanting to stick a sharp stick in the eyes of the Pharisees.

And what happens?--things get worse.  The church Nazis cozy up to the state Nazis, draw them into diabolical partnership.  Why?  Because they hated this rude, young medicine man, sure--but also because he deliberately twisted their theological cranks.  He took 'em on.  He rankled their righteousness.  He taunted them, yodeled at their power.

And he did so while he amassed his own following, because what happens thereafter is more little people start flocking to him, like sheep, especially those with withered whatevers.  They'd seen what he'd done to their buddy.  He healed them too, but then--for whatever reason--he tells them that mum's the word.  Imagine that--you've had a club foot forever, Jesus heals it, and then whispers, smilingly, "Promise me you won't tell a soul."  Is he crazy? 

Well, yes, or so his parents thought.  All this Christmasy-Mary-and-the-babe stuff?  all that pondering in her heart and singing beautiful hymns in the barn?  Her kid gets to be a teenager, and she's all, "the kid is, like, out of control."

Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat.  When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him for they said, "He is out of his mind."

Can you blame them?  That's Mary, the virgin, remember--or else Joseph the selfless, right?  On the night of the bright stars, that child in the manger was gorgeously divine; but lo, these few years later, the whole dysfunctional family needs Dr. Phil.  He's out of his mind," Mom told a Galilean newspaper.  "Seriously."

"Forget them!" Jesus tells his discplines when he reads the account.  "Who is my father and mother anyway?"  That's what he says.  Something to the effect of "I could care less."

Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, "Here are my mother and my brothers!  Whoever does God's will is my brother and sister and mother."

Gingrich-sized ego.  You'd think his mom and dad were Pharisees.  The kid deserves in a smack down.  

I don't know.  Sometimes when you read the Bible, you wonder what on earth is going on.

But then you get to know that you don't know.

Sometimes, I suppose, that's where faith begins.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Swan Songs XXIII--an old cemetery

Back then, our only friends here in Iowa were Mom and Dad.  We were just 30 years old and they were 50.  We had one daughter, a baby, and we'd just moved to Iowa from Arizona.  Humidity wasn't surprising to us, native Midwesterners ourselves, but it was wearying.  Somewhere, my father got a window-sized air-conditioner that we put into action on the far north end of the house we'd rented, in the baby's room.  For some time, that little bedroom became a family room.

We had no friends but relatives, and that's why we were with them one evening somewhere south of Ireton.  I don't remember why we were out there, but I'd guess it was because I wanted to know where Dad Van Gelder had grown up--or where his father had before him--and that farm was somewhere around a little burg named McNally.  Maybe we were simply on a ride in the country, something people used to do.

But there it was--suddenly, a patch of yellow weeds amid long lines of row crops, a patch of weeds with a couple of headstones, like remnant teeth, jagged and tipped drunkenly, just enough stones to make clear that what we'd stumbled on was a cemetery no one cared much about.

I suppose I've always been a graveyard wanderer, and I was then too.  So we got out of the car, baby in arms, and walked through the brush and brome, checking names on what stones could still be read, kicking up others embedded in the ground.  

A ton of kids were buried there, children, a lot of them dying sometime early in the 20th century, a cemetery for kids, it seemed.  

We could only speculate--some kind of flu epidemic sweeping through the region?  something contagious and murderous that swept away the lives of so many kids?  What happened?  My in-laws didn't know, both of them born after the deaths of all those kids.  

What happened?  I didn't know, and I wished I did.  

Here's what I wrote in the preface to my first book:

Two years ago I stumbled on an old unkept cemetery, miles from any main road, surrounded by Iowa corn.  Few stones remained upright, many were gone.  But the stones that were there and still readable told an incredible story of children and tragic death, and I knew at that moment that a significant, unrecorded human drama had once occurred there, far from the cities, at this isolated spot in the garden of America.

It wasn't just the cemetery really.  In 1976, the American Bicentennial, a nation paused to observe its history, and looking back for any paleface like me meant Ellis Island and the teeming nation of immigrants that washed ashore from Europe.  I'm Dutch, or was four and five generations back; and some of my own roots, I knew, were here in Sioux County, where my Schaap ancestors lived for a time--and, finally, where they died. 

Back then, Alex Haley made an entire nation conscious of its own slave-holding history with a book titled Roots, a book that became an absolutely mesmorizing mini-series that just about everyone watched.  Lots of people wanted to know who they were, what they'd come from--and I wanted to understand this odd heritage/legacy I'd been given by no choice of my own:  I wasn't just Dutch, after all, I was Dutch Calvinist or Dutch Reformed, a legacy I'd left, more than willingly, even joyfully, a heritage to which I was now returning, however, with a teaching job at Dordt College.

But I knew also that just as the stones themselves had been lost, many of the old stories would not last the passing of a generation, unless someone tried to give them the life they deserved, not only as interesting tales, but also for the strength they illustrated and the wisdom they carried.

That's but half-truth.  The other part of the urgency to prompt me to write stories was that I knew that a job in college--rather than high school--would give me more time to write.  I loved teaching high school kids--rural kids in Wisconsin, city kids in Phoenix--but high school sucked every bit of creativity out of my soul.  You could assume not a kid in your class was going to care a whit about Emerson; so every night the question was the same--how on earth am I going to make this stuff comely?  Every night.

I'd wanted to write ever since I'd left Sioux County.  I wanted to write when I'd read Frederick Manfred.  I wanted to write ever since I had a freshman English teacher who used to scribble on the bottom of my essay, "You have to write a novel someday."  I wanted to write ever since I got whacked by teeming masses of Dordt students who supported the Vietnam War when I didn't.  And said as much.  And wrote it.  In the school newspaper.

Somehow, that graveyard birthed my literary ambition.  After all, what did I know about writing stories?  Nothing really.  I'd never taken a class.  I didn't know what a story was except when I read one--and there it was, just south of Ireton somewhere, on a gravel road, a deserted cemetery full of the graves of children, a story.  

I never did find out what happened there.  In fact, in numerous trips back through the years, I could never even find that old graveyard back.  I tried to find it more than once, going up and back and up and back through the row crops and square-cut gravel roads.  I started to wonder whether it existed only in my imagination.

And then, Saturday morning, chasing an rosy dawn, I stopped along the road, pointed my camera out the window at a stately cottonwood up against the painted sky, when I looked back behind me and saw a guy in a pickup.  I was blocking the road.  

Embarrassed, I shifted the Tracker and took off, swung right so he could pass.  He didn't go far or fast, just up the road a bit before he turned into a confinement.  I watched him, wondering what he thought of the idiot taking pictures of the dawn.

I followed.  And then, totally without warning, there it was, that old cemetery.  Someone had cut down the brome, but what few stones remained still swayed recklessly hither and yon, like an old man's bad teeth.  It was the same cemetery we'd come on in August of 1976, in the heat of summer, the cemetery that made me think I could learn to write stories if I found them, if I stumbled on them somehow, good stories, covered by brome or dust or age or just plain neglect.  I could learn to write fiction if I lifted good stories out of disuse and figured out how to write them.  I could write the way I'd always wanted if my apprenticeship started with the mystery of an old unkept cemetery full of kids.

Truth be known, I still don't know that story, but stumbling on that ragged graveyard again on Saturday morning at dawn brought me back, around and around and around and finally back--very much like a story, a good one, that always has its end somewhere close to where it began.  I found it back, stumbled on it again, years and years later.

This morning, my morning thanks is for that old discovery years ago--and the new one just Saturday morning.  And, I suppose, for roots.  After all, it's been a blessing to be back again.