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.

Monday, January 31, 2011

What the research shows

And now there's this.

Research scientists have now discovered the vital truth about the way the news is, well, packaged, you might say; or, as McLuhan said it long ago already, they've determined that the medium is the message or massage (as in, hands-on, sort of). After months of exhausting number-crunching, what researchers have found is that a healthy shot of news anchor cleavage turns some listeners into leering idiots with beans in their ears.

Some listeners meaning men.

Surprise. Surprise.

Two Indiana University scholars report that, for male viewers, “emphasis on the sexual attractiveness of female news anchors distracts from memory formation for news content.” (That's the way people who write dissertations talk.)
They found that “men’s cognitive mechanisms favored visual over verbal processing.” What that means, of course, is that when curvaceous anchors deliver their own kind of blindingly sweet content, men turn to mush.

I won't go so far as to assert which news network leads the league in bosoms; after all, I haven't crunched the numbers myself. And, of course, it's fair to say that, for some at least, calling some sweet young thing a "fox" was standard operating procedure long before a certain news network ever created its name.

And I think I heard it right: the research shows that males over the age of sixty are almost totally unaffected by hiked skirts or gaping blouses.

I think I heard that. I don't remember exactly. Great story though--good reporting. Heard it last night. You know, that blonde? Can't remember her name.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Sunday morning med: Pigeons

When we were overwhelmed by sins, you forgave our transgressions.” Psalm 65

Not long ago, we rotated the interior design of the church. Today, the windows which were once on the sides of our sanctuary are up front. We turned it sideways.

Our church, like many others, I’d guess, is home to a flock of pigeons that, during the service, flutter in and out of the gables on the roof. No matter how moving the sermon, the pigeons are impossible not to notice, their silhouettes dancing against the stained glass, especially in bright winter sunlight.

Yesterday, the preacher made reference to them because, like the rest of us, he’s found it hard not to shape them into a metaphor. The doves he said, rather gingerly, seemed like the Holy Spirit. He shrugged as if to say we needn’t get too exorcised about the accuracy of this spiritual vision, but it had seemed to him—when he watched—that the Holy Spirit couldn’t get inside the church. I’d never thought of that.

He was preaching on that extraordinary story about the extraordinary limits to which the friends of a paralyzed man go to get their friend into Jesus’ presence, cutting a hole in the roof.

They did so, the preacher said, because the place was jammed with Pharisees and other men of stature and power. There were, he claimed, too many righteous inside, so many that others—less influential and, well, churchly—simply couldn’t get in, like those fluttering doves outside, unable to enter the sanctuary.

Maybe. I’ll admit I wasn’t exactly convinced. Lots of Sundays I’m not all that thrilled to go to church, and I felt double-whammied by the analogy. Maybe I should just stay home and keep a chair open for the Holy Spirit. Either that or break the windows.

Besides, if those church pigeons are some kind of symbol, I like 'em there, a reminder that somehow the Holy Spirit hasn't left for the cities like so many others.

It’s interesting that David is editorializing here in Psalm 65, not simply uttering a personal confession. It’s us he’s talking about, not me. And he sounds rather like our preacher, methinks, who makes a case worth chewing on, as he likes to say. After all, even a quick read of the gospels makes it clear that Christ’s most robust enemies were the church insiders, those most confident of their righteousness.

That’s scary because I’m one of those. I go all the time. Years ago, my old non-church attending friends were flabbergasted at the gadzillion hours I gave to church and its sundry affairs. I’m an insider. These very words are an insider’s craft, aren’t they?

Maybe it would be easier if I was an adulterer, a drunk, an abuser, a thief, a con, a rogue cattleman who’d been kiting payments on stock and feed and what not else. Maybe it would be easier if my criminal record were as long as my arm.

The sins that are most difficult, for me at least, are those I’m only partially conscious of, the ones I need to be defined for me, the ones that keep the pigeons out.

But what keeps me going back to the church that’s turned sideways is the gratitude I know, just as David did—the gratitude that grows from the conviction, not only of the certainty of my sin, but also the certainty of grace, of forgiveness.

That I don’t have a Bathsheeba or Uriah in my personal history doesn’t mean I’m any less unclean, any less in need of a Savior, any less joyous for the blessed assurance of grace. “I sing because I’m happy. I sing because I’m free”—Ethel Waters.

Maybe I should say, “His eye is on the pigeons”; and because I know he watches them, as Ms. Waters would say, “I know he’s watching me.”

Friday, January 28, 2011

Grading Parents?

Two things every good teacher--and every coach--knows when he or she walks into a classroom for the first time in September. First, you can't run if you don't have the horses. Second, sometimes they're there and, Lord have mercy, sometimes they're not.

Two years ago a friend of mine, a fiction writer, visited my class. Honestly, I don't remember exactly what happened that day, but I won't forget that class of students. Some great kids were in it--females--but the males were lethargic and lout-ish. I could stand on my head and spit nickels and those jackasses, simply by their body language, cast a kind of deadly pall over the entire room. I'm not lying--and these are college kids. I'm not teaching in high school.

So I asked my friend if maybe she'd make an electronic appearance again this year, and then I apologized for the class the last time around. "I remember that," she said. "I thought there was something wrong with me." I felt awful. They must have been worse even than I remember.

My student evaluations weren't all that hot in that class, despite the fact that I'd worked my tail off, brought in guests, and was teaching a genre I think I know something about. If you've been at it for forty years, you don't hurl yourself from the radio tower when you don't do well, because you know that bad apples come with the back forty. But the truth is, as a teacher, you can be only so much better than the sum of your parts.

Tons of folks like to think that the problem with falling scores in American classrooms is teachers unions, who tolerate incompetence. I don't have a doubt that unions can, in some places, be stubbornly resistant to change and make progress difficult, but I also understand that power corrupts. I don't think I'd like to work in an operation where the workers had no say in what goes on.

And now Florida Rep. Kelli Stargel says teachers ought to be given the job of grading parents.


But silly. Besides, there's no money for more hallway cops, and we'd need 'em. My guess is violence would rise.

But Rep. Stargel's strange idea at least makes some people remember that in any classroom the teacher isn't the whole story. There's always more to it, and sometimes--not always, but sometimes--the chemistry that forms is something even the best teacher can't do much to shape or stanch.

Incompetence is incompetence. I say, as does everyone else, get the total schmucks out of the classroom. But if anyone thinks that bad teachers or their unions are the real cause of American's declining educational standards, they're not seeing the whole complicated character of education--here or anywhere else.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

An Epic Battle--and horror

When St. Joseph's Hospital, Phoenix, gave the nod to an abortion which would be accomplished inside its walls, an epic battle began. Sister Margaret McBride, who had been sitting on the ethics board of St. Joseph's, gave her permission to go forward with the abortion and soon after was excommunicated from the church by her bishop, Thomas Olmstad, who, at the same time, stripped the hospital of its Catholic affiliation because the hospital performed the abortion.

I can't say I know everything there is to know about the specific medical case in question, but in this morning's New York Times, Nicholas Kristof reports that the decision to abort the baby was a kind of Sophie's choice because good medical doctors agreed that not killing the baby (let's not mince words here) would mean killing the mother.

The ethics board gave its approval, the abortion went forward, the mother lived, the Bishop excommunicated Sister McBride and withdrew church support--which basically means disallowing the traditionally Roman Catholic hospital to offer mass.

Kristof obviously sides with the mother, with Sister McBride, with the hospital's decision:
If you look at Bishop Olmsted and Sister Margaret as the protagonists in this battle, one of them truly seems to me to have emulated the life of Jesus. And it’s not the bishop, who has spent much of his adult life as a Vatican bureaucrat climbing the career ladder. It’s Sister Margaret, who like so many nuns has toiled for decades on behalf of the neediest and sickest among us.
That's a compelling argument, but so is the Bishop's position on life.

Those on both sides who don't recognize that the St. Joseph's story offers two categorically different, practical definitions of justice on one hand, and mercy the other, are probably too deeply invested in the politics that has arisen around the question of abortion ever since Roe v. Wade.

Seems to me that we can all agree on one take-away here--sometimes things aren't as simple as we would like to believe they are.

And then there's this, a sermon for any Sunday, the words of Marilynne Robinson, in Home, where she gives the line to old Rev. Bouton:

People say to understand is to forgive, but that is an error; you must forgive in order to understand. Until you forgive, you defend yourself against the possibility of understanding. If you forgive, you may indeed still not understand, but you will be ready to understand and that is the posture of grace. . .

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Reading Mother Teresa II

I was only twelve years old then. It was then that I first knew I had a vocation to the poor. . .in 1922. I wanted to be a missionary, I wanted to go out and give the life of Christ to the people in the missionary countries. . .
When I was twelve, I got caught stealing cigarettes. When I was twelve, basically I lived across the street on the playground, where one of the three battlefields offered all the joy and thrills I needed--a blacktopped basketball court, where the hoops sometimes had nets; a sandlot baseball field, scraps of cardboard for bases; and enough open space for daily after-school football, come fall. Nary an adult in sight. No uniforms, no score books, no instruction. It was all sandlot. Oh, yeah--and golf midsummer with those wooden clubs we saved from the junk a neighbor tossed.

When I was twelve, I went to catechism and church and Christian school. I played piano, poorly, and sang in choirs. I heard the Bible read every time we ate, and listened to my own parents confess their faith openly and lovingly. It seems to me I had every advantage Mother Teresa did spiritually.

I remember writing Elizabeth Eliot after reading Through Gates of Splendor, the story of those missionaries murdered by Auca Indians somewhere in South America--and getting a letter back from the lady, too, a sweet one. It was a school assignment. I was about twelve, I'd say. I remember the book, especially the pictures.

What I don't remember is ever really aching to become, someday, a missionary. I just wanted to play ball. Well, and, for a while at least, smoke cigarettes.

I don't think of my childhood as being somehow--spiritually or materially--impoverished. In fact, I tend to judge it as almost idyllic. Does that make sense?

Maybe what we have to do, saints and sinners all, is not so much aspire for the holy, the sacred, but learn to look for it, even across the street, where sometimes, strangely enough, it hangs in swaddling tatters from steel hoops on the blacktop.

At twelve I don't think I knew that, but today I believe I do. It was something I had to learn.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Morning Thanks--Mother Teresa

She calls herself "the little bride of Christ," and even though she was still a child when she used that language, she does so, her letters suggest, with a sense of destiny already in great part fulfilled--"the little bride of Christ." There had to be thousands like her during her time, all of them--girls and women--entirely devoted to Jesus, to the virgin mother and their special calling as, well, women of the cloth.

Born in Albania, intimately taken with the lives of saints and missionaries, Mother Teresa committed herself early to a religious life, a phrase which meant to her, a woman and a Roman Catholic, entirely different things, I guess, than it means to me.

A friend of mine once met in her passing, shook her hand, in fact. Her friend told her she'd better buy a glove immediately, or do something, anything, to preserve what she could of the blessed touch of a saint.

I am, as she was, a believer in Jesus Christ; but, at least on the outside, very little of how she described herself is language I can borrow or tradition I understand. As a child in a Christian school, I was taught to revere Luther, Calvin, Knox, Zwingli, those whose burning righteousness valiantly resisted apostate popish claims. None of the many fine adult Christians I knew as a kid ever asked me--or the little girls in my class--to think of ourselves as "little brides of Christ." That's not my language; it's a metaphor I can never pull over me or feel in my heart. It's her's, and, in part, I believe, the language of a particular time and place that may well be all but gone these days.

I picked up Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light on Saturday morning, early, from a bookstore left unlocked, in fact, at a retreat center in the hill country of Texas. I walked a dozen pages in and was ushered into a story so unlike my own as to be fantasy, and yet so much akin that I almost felt her breath rise from the page.

I mean no disfavor and have no questions about the canonization of Mother Teresa of Calcutta--hers is a blessed and venerable tradition. May her thin, angular face, stark and pious, grace the a hundred thousand alters.

We share a faith that is, at face value, only vaguely similar; but she has much to teach me, and I have much to learn.

Still, it seems to me that we're more deeply and intimately related, the two of us--Mother Teresa of Calcutta and an aging bald man, at least twice her size, from Siouxland. We share a particular design, a mortal coil. We're both children of Adam. We're both undeniably and fully human.

That too is a joy. That too is reason for morning thanks.

Friday, January 21, 2011

The good news from Tunisia

I suppose it's easy to romanticize revolution if you're an American. We do it because we did it, right? And because we did--and because it worked--well, revolutions all look rather familiarly sweet somehow, even though ours was long, long ago.

It seems to me that Tunisia's revolution, as of late, looks pretty good all the way around--but then maybe I'm seeing the world through red, white, and blue glasses. First, of all, what went down in Tunisia is one of those awful Islamic governments, the old farts simply tossed out by the people themselves. Unless the CIA or Blackwater or some alien fighting force we don't know about had something to do with fostering rebellion, what happened in Tunisia was totally a local thing: in fine, American tradition, they just grew tired of life under the regime and tossed it. Wouldn't it be nice if the whole Middle East were a house of cards?

Second--and related--we didn't have much to do with it. It wasn't our fighting forces, noble as they may be, that took on the regime; and it wasn't our operatives or our mercenaries. We didn't do it. Some people might be hurt by that--they'd like it to be the white man's burden, or the Christian nation's burden, or democracy's burden that we, the chosen people, liberate the enslaved and then grab all the oil we can. But the fact is, we had zero to do with what happened in Tunisia. I think that's cause for celebration.

Except if you're a militant Muslim. Then you've got to worry because, even in the Middle East, it's getting so much harder every day not to be a world citizen. Blackberries and iPhones and an internet connection may bring all kinds of horror into our homes and work places, but they also sweep in with contrary winds that are fragrant with blessings. You can find almost anything on line, of course, and the species of freedom the net offers simply isn't compatible with authoritarian rule of any kind. Witness China, for pity sake.

People died in Tunisia, and still may in the revolution that is ongoing; that's not nice. The new ruling elite may end up being just as authoritarian as the old--that could happen too. Revolutions aren't tea parties.

But I can't help thinking that this one, as a symbol, is quite comforting, at least to me.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Morning Thanks--staying warm

While outside, the winter darkness isn't darkness at all, our thick carpet of snow a moonlit stage against the inky sky, it's still stinking cold out there--four degrees, windchill of -8. Tomorrow night will be colder, twelve degrees colder, in fact, and that's not counting wind.

An old man, now gone, once told me that his read of temperature out here as a boy was the thickness of the frost on roofing nails coming in from the uninsulated ceiling in the upstairs bedroom of his parents' farm home. If he'd look up and see those nails were perfectly white, he said, the temp was unbearable.

And I know the special design of a teepee was to facilitate a good roaring fire within. What's more, I'm guessing the buffalo skins were fully as good as fleece or feathers-- probably better; still, in Januarys like this in Siouxland, in these kinds of temps, I just can't imagine what it would be like to live in that kind of mobile home.

In the 19th century and even halfway into the 20th, people took warm bricks to bed. That and they wore all-over suits of woolish long underwear--maybe the kind with the cubby hole. Speaking of, in temps like this it's just as hard for me to imagine using an outdoor john as it is a chamber pot. Good night, we owe a great deal to Mr. Crapper for inventing the toilet.

You know, I've wanted some kind of tanned buffalo hide for a ton of years. Really. But I don't have one; and right now, outside, even though the land looks almost regal adorned in darkness and alabaster, I don't know that a buffalo hide would help much. It's just plain bitter cold. Bitter, bitter, bitter.

What I do know is this: there's pure joy in running upstairs about 15 minutes early at night and punching a couple of buttons so the dial reads "PH" on the controls right there at the bedside. This unreasonably cold January morning, I'm thankful for a ton of things--roof insulation, a good furnace, indoor plumbing--and the comfort of a pre-warmed bed.

This morning I'm thankful for an electric blanket. Even beats a buffalo.
Don't I wish I'd taken the picture. I didn't. I found it here, with the work of Nicholas Dory:

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The cold waters of the North Sea

This is the sad, sad story.

Last week Thursday afternoon, I was packed and ready to go. My students' assignments were all posted and ready for action in my absence, and I'd canceled my commitments elsewhere--several of them, in fact--because I was going to leave for Texas on Friday morning, where a couple of dozen Christian writers meet annually, as we have for quite a long time. It's a wonderful interlude in winter, a little confab that's high on thoughtfulness and intimacy, a good time.

By late afternoon, I was just about ready because we had a commitment at night, and I knew I'd have to leave early to get to the Omaha airport. My luggage was open on the dining room table, my Kindle and iPod touch juiced up and ready to go. I had everything in place.

I was leaving out of Omaha, and I remembered deliberately not getting too early a departure time--Omaha's airport is, after all, two hours' away. So I went to my files, clicked on the Expedia receipt, then stared at the date--the Texas meeting wasn't last week, it's this week.

Which would be hilarious, if my history didn't include, once upon a time, actually getting on the wrong blasted plane. You read that right. I'm over Lake Michigan, on my way to Detroit, when I realize I should be going west. Sheesh.

Which would be hilarious if I wasn't simply forgetting meetings, being late, behaving, most of the time these days, like someone--I'm 62--who is snuggling up way too close to senility or Alzheimers or whatever.

My great-grandfather, a distinguished Dutch dominie and professor, once pulled on his skates and set out for a church where he had to preach that morning. So obsessed he was with the fine points of his sermon, that some sentry out at the end of the canal had to skate up to him and remind him that should he push along much farther, he'd be afloat (maybe) in the cold waters of the North Sea.

Maybe it's his fault.

Whatever the cause, I'm thrilled to be able, once again, to take another shot at life, even at my age. I determined to write things down three places at least, and I ran off an extra calendar of the month of January, then magic-markered like mad and hung it up down here right in front of sightless eyes.

Yesterday, I called the dentist--check up, teeth-cleaning. Months ago I'd set the appointment, before I knew my teaching schedule. Wednesday at one wasn't going to work. "No problem," says the receptionist, happy to have some lead time. I told her a T or TH would be better. "How about this?" she said. It was 3:00, I think.

I just can't remember the date.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Morning Thanks--Rev. Robert Schuller

There’s an insidious malady among small-towners like myself, a tendency to pick at those of us who we believe grow bigger than their bib-overall britches. That attitude and behavior is very real, and in its origins it’s not all that far from the old line about a prophet not being without honor save in his own back 40.

I don’t want any part of that. I am proud of Siouxland’s most famous writer and prophet, the Rev. Robert Schuller, of California’s Crystal Cathedral fame. He’s made it big time, created an immense name for himself in the American evangelical world.

But the Crystal Cathedral’s windows are more than a little soiled these days. Several months ago, Schuller’s operation filed for bankruptcy because giving was far down as debt was up, which is to say dangerously.

Robert Schuller was born and reared just up the road, on the banks of the Floyd River, just north of Alton, a few miles outside the hamlet of Neukirk, Iowa. His farm family was hardly prosperous. I used to think that Orange City should buy the old Schuller house and turn it into some kind of museum, put it on a circle tour of Orange City and its environs, a stop for tourists on the town’s annual Tulip Time weekend. Probably won’t happen now.

I’ve heard people say that his mother was rather famously grouchy, one of those Calvinists who carried an healthy sense of her own darkness—as well as the darkness of her neighbors. The source of Schuller’s storied self-esteem gospel is often credited to his mentor, the Reverend Dr. Norman Vincent Peale; but I like to think that he might well have learned it even earlier, nursing the hurts from a darkened family room on a vastly less-than-modest farmhouse here in Siouxland.

Way back in the 50’s, he and his family moved to southern California to do a church plant that blossomed into a model for evangelical enterprise, one of the first mega-churches in North America. Rumor has it that Billy Graham himself told Schuller to do a TV show; when he did, he started another “ministry” now common to others who achieve his status and renown.

Even here in the neighborhood, people don’t know what to make of him—and haven’t through the years; and it’s not just small-town, picket-fence, sniping. Was the man preaching the gospel, or was he simply filling America's bottomless emotional tanks with self-esteem? To a culture that is sometimes deeply over-indulged, Schuller could appear as the high priest of “feel-goodism.” For a man with a Calvinist soul, original sin sometimes seemed, in his message, non-existent. To some, even here where he grew up, he could easily appear a charlatan, even a false prophet.

And some of that is, I’m sure, cheap sniping. His ministry has undoubtedly been instrumental in changing thousands of lives. Once upon a time I met a Jewish woman who was converted to Christianity by Tammy Fay Bakker, a evangelist whose teary blessings made her seem to me, at least, a buffoon. Lots of people aren’t okay, and when a thoughtful, decent man comes along, a man of the cloth, and tells them they are—I’m Okay, You’re Okay-fashion—he’s going to rack up some disciples.

That Schuller saw a need for self-fulfillment in California and the nation is an indication of his sharp cultural vision and personal strength. Tons of people were never quite sure, however, that what he was preaching was the gospel.

As Christianity Today says in a recent wonderful editorial,

The most scathing critique of this general cultural mood was from Christopher Lasch, who noted, particularly in The Culture of Narcissism, that the new therapeutic culture was leaving people trapped and isolated in the self.

It's like building a state-of-the-art structure. Technology moves at such a rapid pace that as soon as you move into the new building, you immediately find yourself stuck with an architecture that is already technologically dated, if only in small degrees at first. It isn't long before another developer announces plans for something even more state-of-the-art.

Schuller’s acumen wasn’t wrong, but his particular angle on American life has now looks somewhat misguided. Today, the Crystal Cathedral looks sort of, well, silly. Here’s the way CT puts it: “In an age deeply sensitive to energy conservation, a glass house of worship is a sinful extravagance. In a culture increasingly addicted to the self, the gospel of self-esteem is clearly part of the problem.”

Thus, cracks in the windows of the Crystal Cathedral beg one of Christendom’s most thorny problems: when does making the gospel “relevant” get downright silly? When does carving the good news up into sound bites or crafty catch-all phrases actually alter its reality?

“Robert Schuller is not the problem—contemporary evangelicalism is,” CT says. “The lesson is that our attempts to find and exploit a point of cultural contact inevitably end in bankruptcy.”

As Abraham Kuyper says in Near Unto God, our own birth into the radiance of Christ’s love is to most of us the most important moment or time in our lives. When we know that we are his, our understanding his being God is life-changing. It’s only natural that we want to share that moment with others.

But how God gets each of us to that point is never the same. God’s love comes to each of us individually and mysteriously. How it enters our lives is not something that can be ever easily replicated. His love is eternally larger than our preferences or even our most prescient cultural analysis.

In his world, even Tammy Fay Bakker wins souls—not because she’s right, but because the God of heaven and earth uses and chooses what he darn well pleases. He is God. We aren’t.

For some of us who doubted the good Reverend’s gospel for many years, his demise has a kind of told-you-so quality. I don’t want to dance on another’s grave. Undoubtedly, the good dominie from Neukirk, Iowa, did great work in Orange County, California, as well as around the world by way a ministry kingdom he built almost single-handedly.

There’s much to learn by way of his story—much, much to learn. And this morning's thanks are for what the Rev. Robert Schuller still can teach us, even if the windows of the Crystal Cathedral are dirty or broken.

Monday, January 17, 2011

MLK, 1929-1968

The night Dr. Martin Luther King was shot, four of us—small-town, small-college, white boys—followed the Gulf of Mexico's eastern shore on an all-night trek from south Florida to New Orleans. It was spring break, 1968, only a few months from the summer that seemed, even at the time, to change all of our lives.

Lyndon B. Johnson had withdrawn from the Presidential race just a few nights earlier. We'd heard the news at a dance on the beach at Ft. Lauderdale, while hundreds of bodies jerked and squirmed to the bashing bass of the Rolling Stones, pumped out by some utility band up in front on a makeshift stage.

The lead singer had announced it, yelled it through a screeching public-address system as if all the partiers had just nailed down a great upset. "LB-J.'s quit!" he yelled. "L.B.J.'s out of the race!" Momentarily politicized, the whole lot of us raised our fists in the official power gesture of my generation and screamed out our joy before the massive beat resumed.

It was early evening several days later when we heard about Dr. King's death over the AM band on the radio in that '62 Chevy with the Iowa plates.

We were on our way to New Orleans' French Quarter, sin city, four lusty guys, tired and sun-burned, traveling along some several hundred comfortable miles south of our own evangelical Christianity.

All night long, from the time we'd scarfed down cheap hamburgers for late supper, through the next morning's first whispered glow behind us, the radio kept spilling news about King's death — news stories interrupting music, statements being read by just about anybody big enough to merit media time, memorials and obituaries likely produced and taped months before a man by the name of James Earl Ray had even known about a garbage strike in Memphis, the event which brought King to the place where he would be shot.

The sun wore a heavy mask of gulf fog that morning when light finally opened our eyes to the coast. I don't remember where we were exactly, but the chore of keeping ourselves awake made us pull over at the nearest dive, however seedy.

It was still before six, the morning dressed in haze. Two guys kept right on sleeping in the back seat, but Larry and I walked up to the door of a greasy spoon and found it very much awake.

What we saw inside remains as the most vivid picture I took during 1968 spring break. It was a party, and the place was full of rednecks, open bottles standing on the tables, even though the place was not a bar.

A sign up near the cash register told us that all proceeds that day would go to the Klan. The jukebox wailed out music I'd never heard before, half rock 'n' roll, half-country, all thick with racist spit. I remember wanting to write down the words as we sat there and waited for our hotcakes. I wanted to remember them. But I was afraid. These men were men I'd seen before, but only in a Faulkner novel.

We had walked right into an all-night party. But this one was all-male, all-white, and all hate, their whooping and celebrating a dead body sprawled in a mass of blood on a Memphis hotel balcony.

We sat quietly and ate a breakfast served up, ironically, by a cook whose black face appeared then disappeared above the window shelf where plates full of breakfast came up miraculously from the back.

The partiers seemed oblivious to us. As I remember it now, years later, it seems we sat there and ate hotcakes as if something invisible sat between us, as if some omniscient theater director had staged this moment for us, something we'd never seen before and will likely never see again.

That’s what I remember best about the night Dr. King was murdered. That’s what I know of unalloyed racist hate.

But Martin Luther King had come into my life already several years earlier, when my friend's father asked me to go along with him to a meeting, a meeting spread around in whispers and fleeting glances, a get-together of like minds in a huge mansion, on the bluffs above Lake Michigan in a small Wisconsin city near the town where I grew up.

It was the middle of the Cold War, and I was a boy — barely 16, an evangelical
Christian, a sworn enemy of atheistic communism, a patriotic American youth who that very fall wrote a civics essay about our American responsibility in Southeast Asia in the face of the global communist menace. I still have that essay, written delicately in a fine cursive hand.

We sat on folding chairs on the lower half of that mansion — not just steel folding chairs, but padded folded chairs — in straight rows, facing a screen. The meeting was opened in prayer.

I remember feeling excited about being in that place, as if we were banded together like the disciples, doing some upper-room plotting to determine what kind of righteousness America really needed. Invitation to the mansion had come only by word of mouth, and I felt privileged to be there.

The feature of that evening's meeting was a slide/tape presentation featuring Martin Luther King caught in candid shots talking to people who the taped voice insisted were communists. This was Wisconsin, after all, home to Senator Joseph McCarthy.

I remember the clearly stated message of the slide/tape because for several years afterward I believed it: that behind the movement for civil rights in America, the Russian bear sat back calmly and waited, like some forest cousin, to devour the honey sweetness of American liberty.

I respected my friend's-father; I still do, very much. Maybe that's why in my memory that mansion meeting is couched in respect and devotion and even love — love of country, love of culture, love of home.

Maybe that is why those two moments in my life — a bayou all-night party and an evening's anti-communist meeting, shrouded in secrecy and glutted with conspiracy theory, both virulently racist — seem almost to clash in tone and spirit, while the line that separates them is actually thread-thin.

Most of us, even today, do not find hate particularly attractive. It's love that redeems us, cleanses us. I've never felt any affinity with the men in the all-night cafe, but I still admire the man who brought me to the mansion, even though I didn't share his politics.

But in those moments when I feel latent racism running in me—as I do—I know that its source is often least recognizable and most unmanageable when it emerges from love.
Hate is not one of the seven deadly sins, oddly enough, although it has a kissing cousin in Wrath.

The first of Seven Deadlines, to the world of medieval theologians and to the world we know today, is still pride — pride in self first of all, but also pride in culture, in country, in race—pride that sometimes upholsters itself in the soft fabrics and gentle lines of love.

I wish, sometimes, it were easier.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

A Kid and a Dog--a story [part II]

Terry Meredith called him on Tuesday, early evening, dinner-time. She was home. He could hear the sounds of silverware and dishes in the background. "You didn't, by any chance, see my feature?" she said.

He had. She'd taken a camera crew to Landis Beach and done a video essay--no voice-over whatsoever--a two-minute series of shots of people still digging out of the mess, close-ups of the devastation, close-ups of the people, post-hurricane. Very strong.

"Your prayer last Sunday," she said, "it made me think about going back there--it's so easy to forget, you know? We were there every day for a long time just afterwards, but it's been months now, and it's really still not over for those people."

"It was very powerful," he said. "Nicely done."

"Thanks," she said. "You know, there's an old adage from the theater," she told him, "'--don't ever share a stage with a kid or a dog'--something like that." And then there was silence.

"I hadn't heard that one," he said.

"Can we do that to the Lord?" she asked.

"I'm not following," he said.

"Maybe it's because I'm in the business I am," she told him, "but I wonder--you know, about Bo and the dog?--can we make God silly?"

"I don't think we can make God anything," he said. "God is God."

"That's not what I mean," she told him. "In our minds--can we make him look less than he is?"

"I suppose the best answer for that is that we can never make him all that he is--we just don't get it all. We probably never will."

"But we can shrink him, can't we?" she said. "And we like doing it, too. We can make him a pet."

Jack had a sense of where this was going. "If you're saying that you shouldn't have let Bo say what he did--"

"I'm not saying that," she said. "But you know, don't you?--you've been to Landis Beach. You know what those people are still going through?"

He'd been there himself, he thought, long, long ago. "Thanks for the reminder," he said.

Behind her, he could hear the sounds of something frying on the stove.

"Yeah, well," she told him. "I just wanted to tell you that Henny's doing okay--hitting the papers more regularly now. It's as if somebody up there heard the request."

Jack laughed.

"An answer to prayer," she said.

"Sure enough," he said.

And then she waited again. "I don't care, Jack," she told him. "I'm going to tell him that the whole church doesn't need to know that--is that wrong?"

"You're his mother," he said.

"I know. But I met a woman today--74 years old. She's got family in upstate New York, but they don't visit much, you know?"

He could picture this woman. He didn't need Terry to describe her. He'd been in Florida long enough to know the type--deserted really, exceptionally lonely.

"I guess the house was one thing, you know?" she said. "But this woman's really got nothing now--to listen to her. I don't know. It seems so frightening."

"And you're thinking about toi-toi?" he said.

The Seinfeld coming up through the receiver made the Seinfeld from the television in the family room sound oddly stereophonic.

"Maybe I'm too Lutheran," she told him.

"Everybody loved it," he said.

"That's what I mean," she said. "Henny even got his own prayer."

"Okay, maybe you are too Lutheran," he told her.

"Yeah," she said, "maybe I am. Well, I just wondered if you saw the feature."

"It was wonderful," he told her again.

"I guess I'm just too Lutheran," she said again. "I'll work on it."

"He's got the whole world in his hands, Terry," Pastor Jack said. "You know the tune." And then he waited because he thought he should. "And how are things over there?"

There was a pause. "Fair to middlin'," she told him. "Just hangin' on, fair to middlin'."

And then she hung up.

"So," Jack's wife said, "is that little dog doing his thing outside?"

"She says everything's honky-dory," he said.

Shar looked up at him and smiled. "What a doll--that kid. I swear, I'll never forget it--doggy doo-doo. What a hoot!"

"Anything else?" he said.

"What do you mean?" Shar asked.

"I mean, do you remember anything else?"


"From the prayers--on Sunday, Shar? Do you remember anything else?"

"How can you remember anything else?--I mean, that little guy stole the show, Jack. You know that."

"I guess he did," Jack said. He sat down at the table beside her. "How about you and me taking Thursday off and heading down to Landis Beach? Take the work gloves."

"Sure," she said, looking up strangely. "It's been awhile."

"Too long maybe," he said, and reached for her hand for prayer.

Friday, January 14, 2011

A Kid and a Dog--a Story [Part I]

Bo Meredith could have made commercials for Skippy or Coco Puffs. He was the penultimate darling little boy--round face, apple cheeks, floppy red hair, and a glorious Lone Ranger's mask of rusty freckles, ear to ear. Terry, his mother, the daughter of a Lutheran preacher from Indiana, had been coming to Fort Anderson Church off and on for six months. Bo's father wasn't a believer, she'd said; and from her own sketchy descriptions, Pastor Jack had developed the sense that the marriage wasn't in great shape.

But he was happy enough to get Terry Meredith, who did the weather show in the local CBS affiliate--early morning shift with occasional features. When she came to Fort Anderson Church, she seemed, by her very presence, to make the entire sanctuary shine, the closest thing they had to a real celebrity and a great personality to boot.

The Sunday in question wasn't the first time Bo had raised his hand during prayer time either. The kid always waited patiently for one of the mikes, took it from the usher, and, with his mother's own professionalism, stood and asked for prayer for his father's head cold, for his teacher's new baby, or for his friend Josh who was moving to Atlanta. Pastor Jack was not unaware that the little boy's impromptu petitions brought more pure joy into the sanctuary than whatever anthem the choir had worked up or a half dozen praise choruses.

This time, it was his dog.

"Yes," Bo said, when Jack called on him. He stood on the pew so everyone could see him. His mother nudged the mike up closer to his mouth. "We got this new dog--a brown one." He looked around to make sure that everyone was listening--amazing stage presence. "And I'm trying to teach him to do his toi-toi outside."

Giggles, of course, all around. Pastor Jack tried not to smile. Terry raised her hand to her face to hide a blush.

"Mom says that he's got to learn or else he's got to go."

Sherm Menshoff laughed out loud. Everybody loves Sherm, so the sound of his ripsaw guffaw awakened everyone to the odd twist of Bo's pun, and just like that laughter crackled across the sanctuary.

Which made Bo a little miffed. He didn't mean this to be funny, so he looked around and the whole congregation suffered his furrowed eyebrows. "I love Henny," he said. Henny had to be the dog. "But my dog has to learn to go outside." Just like that, he handed the mike back and sat down beside his mother, who was trying to regain some control herself.

"Henny," Pastor Jack said. "We'll remember Henny."

Andy Farragut was wiping his eyes with his handkerchief. Cordell Lanenburg was shaking his head in disbelief, and Shar, Pastor Jack's wife, sitting with the choir--who was in stitches--wore her characteristic naughty smile.

Jack had long ago discovered that some moments in the "Joys and Concerns" part of corporate worship should really shut down the process. When some members would, in tears, announce unexpected deaths, he'd end the opportunity for sharing because if he didn't some other parishioner would rise to introduce his portly Uncle Merk just afterward and, in a uniquely post-modern fashion, turn personal trauma into parishioner trivia.

After Bo Meredith's concerns about doggy do-do, he wanted a more requests, a bundle more. "Others?" he said, smiling.

But no one raised a hand. Bo hadn't been first on the list anyway; there'd been a half dozen more before him. He looked down at the names he'd scratched on the back of the today's program--the Adamson's grandmother's cancer, Barry Sanderson's uncle finally gone after months of hanging on to life precariously, the Markham's relatives here from Connecticut, starving in west Africa, National Right-to-Life Day upcoming, and Pearl Smith's effusive thanks for a great holiday season for her and her family.

"I don't know if there is an encore," he told the congregation, "but does anyone have anything else we should take to the Lord?"

He looked out over the chairs, hoping that someone might have something else so that not every last soul in the pews would be anxiously awaiting how he'd handle a pup's housetraining--and what was the dog's name again? Good night, he scratched through his memory--had the kid even said the dog's name? He was highly conscious of having gotten things wrong in the past and he hadn't written it down--hadn't written anything down, for that matter. He thought about just asking Bo, as long as nobody was raising a hand anyway. He could just go ahead and ask to get it straight.

But the dog's faulty toilet habits had already blown cancer and death out of the water, and besides he really didn't know yet how he was going to say what needed to be said--would he ask God to enter the heart of this dog (and he didn't know the breed either--was it a wolfhound or a lapdog?) and make him see the errors of his ways. How was he going to talk about it without turning the whole event into stand-up comedy?

"If that's it--" he said, hoping, hoping.

No hands.

"--then let's turn to the Lord in prayer."

He looked down at his list and remembered ACTS--adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication--an acronym from high school catechism, a formula he always invoked for congregational prayer since "joys and concerns" were 99% supplication. He started in on the cold snap and what it might be doing to the citrus farmers, how it was testing all of them and even turning the sanctuary cold (some people were wearing winter coats that morning). He alluded to the death of lots and lots of vegetation, and the blizzards up north where most of the congregation had relatives. The reference point was the overwhelming power of God Almighty, manifest in last week's exceptional icy air that tumbled down from the north like a tidal surge.

That this God loved us--that was the joy. That this God of wind and rain and cold so potent it could turn south Florida chilly and gray, that this God loved mankind. . .that's what he said because that's what he thought. And that put him in mind of the hurricane. In September, long before the snowbirds had come, they'd missed a hurricane that some weather folks had claimed was targeting Fort Anderson but had come ashore in Landis Beach, an hour south.

Some of the church's own seniors had been donating their considerable carpentry skills in work crews, and he referred to that, too--the opportunities to show God's love to those so tragically evicted from their homes by the sheer power of nature itself. He pulled in an old lesson he'd remembered from a friend of his, a social worker, who once told him that he was sure that ministering to the oppressed and disenfranchised, the poor and the destitute, was a joy because such work taught believers how to love.

It was the hurricane that became the focus of his prayer, even though he hadn't planned it that way, even though it had struck several months earlier; but he'd spent several days carting trash away himself that week, and he'd seen homeowners whose considerable tears still hadn't washed away that crushed and vacant look disaster always creates in the eyes of those who've seen treasured belongings mush into garbage. Those people--and he mentioned some he'd met, by name--garnered most of his attention, until it was time to wind down and he went through the list scratched on the back of the bulletin.

Except freckly-face Bo Meredith.

Jack was turning forty in three months. His wife kidded him unmercifully about it (she was only 37), and there was no excuse for his simply having forgotten the kid and his dog. It was unbelievable that he could. But he did.

So when he said amen, he looked up at the congregation and knew immediately that he'd committed some horrific sin. Five seconds--that's all it took, maybe less. Bo Meredith's dog's toilet-training lit up in the darkness in his mind. He'd forgotten the dog. He'd forgotten the kid's dog.

"One more thing," he said. And then, like a father before his children, he publicly re-folded his hands. All 200 souls followed his lead, understanding exactly what was up. Then he prayed for the dog--well, not for the dog exactly, but for Bo and the dog. For a moment he thought about praying for Bo's mom's unforgiving heart, but he assumed that would be pushing things. He said he hoped that the Meredith's new puppy would bring joy into the life of the family. And then, once again, he said amen.

The congregation seemed much more appreciative. They were all smiles.
Tomorrow: . . .and answers to prayer. . .

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Morning thanks--to try

This morning's thanks painfully arise from the souls of millions of grieving Americans, whether or not any of them ever knew a congresswoman named Gabbie before last Saturday. They arise from the recognition that something is wrong, something is tearing is apart, even if we can't identify exactly what.

This morning's thanks arise even from the terrifying recognition that, in all actuality, there is no single cause to blame for evil on a Safeway sidewalk in Tucson, Arizona. This morning's thanks originate, really, in a story that reminds us that nothing can be done to rid the world of darkness, that simply enough, here on earth evil abides.

But my thanks this morning also arise from the recognition, once again, that we can and must somehow do better, that grace abides, that love can be a way of life.

This morning's thanks are for what we know, not only about the reality of evil, but good too--and how moments like these prompt us to try, at least, to be better. "We recognize our own mortality," Obama said, "and we are reminded that in the fleeting time we have on this Earth, what matters is not wealth, or status, or power, or fame -- but rather, how well we have loved and what small part we have played in making the lives of other people better."

My morning thanks is for the recognition that even in this fallen world, all of that is the gospel truth.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Morning Thanks--Donna

"OMG," she writes, "you were my favorite teacher I think all through school. It was at Greenway High School - English - yuck - so I made you sit through a Home Ec meal we had to cook and feed to some poor unfortunate soul and you graciously accept."

I have no memory of some bad home ec meal, but I do feel blessed to get a note like that out of nowhere. In the mid-70s, this old Calvinist was a Greenway Demon teacher for two years, Greenway High School, Phoenix, Arizona. She's not wrong about that.

"Actually, you helped me pass English and graduate. I always think about you with fondness and how you made school bearable."

I did?

"You always made it interesting and seemed like you really cared for us students. Hope you have terrific holidays. I graduated in 1976. Donna"

I had to blow the dust off the Greenway High School annual to determine just who this young lady might be. And she's not young, of course--if she was 18 in 1976, she's likely a grandma herself today. But she was young when she was frozen in time.

But then, I guess she wasn't frozen either because this "poor unfortunate soul" honestly can't place her or her home ec meal project, and only after going painstakingly through that high school annual did I even have a clue about her last name--and even then only a guess. I hate to say it, but the old blackboard's been wiped clean, I think, on Donna. Wish it weren't so.

Yesterday--and today--once again, we started the engine on a new semester that promises a steerage full of bright and shiny faces, most all of whom, I'm sure, I'll probably dis-remember twenty years from now, should the Lord and I tarry.

But it's sweet to remember that there are blessings to teaching. As some guy once wrote, teachers never lead the league in home runs, but we don't do badly with runs-batted-in.

This morning I'm thankful to Donna, my mystery woman, for reminding me that teaching--who cares what level?--has its rewards as well as its responsibilities--and that, shockingly, even Calvinists can be half-way decent Demons.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Morning Thanks--Grandpa Dirkse

Music can carry us away--up toward eternity, I think, but also quite efficiently back in time. Most of the church music I grew up with is stuck in a piano bench or available on web-sites created, it seems, by strange people. I come from folks who basically sang the psalms for hundreds of years, then finally freed themselves to hymns, many of the 19th century variety. But today, most of that canon, the church music I grew up with, is long buried.

Sunday night we sang "My God, How Wonderful Thou Art" in a worship service, and my grandfather came back, almost like that last scene in Tender Mercies, when suddenly a cloud of witnesses shows up in a country church. There he was before me, singing a hymn my grandma told me was among his great favorites. It was nice to see him again.

I honestly didn't know him all that well--he died when I was nine, of a heart attack. He was a heavy smoker. My earliest memories place him in a blacksmith shop at the very heart of his hometown, and mine, Oostburg, Wisconsin. I remember the smoky interior of that place, the darkness, the eerie light of the flickering flames, the rhythmical ringing of the hammer. All of that is in the very first short story I ever wrote, in fact.

Grandpa Dirkse was respected in town and church, the leader, in a way that 35-year-old story makes him out to be. The church, in those days, was really little more than extended family. Native folks are given to call tons of good friends their "brothers"--I think was life that in small-town churches like the one I grew up in too, an intimacy that could be immensely caring or poisonously self-righteous. Maybe both at the same time, in fact.

My grandfather was greatly spiritual in an old Calvinist sense--he simply couldn't take his own redemption all that simply. He was, instead, clamorous about his sin, had a melancholy penchant--now long gone--of obsessing about the darkness of his human heart, even to the point of tears. He was gifted at something my mother calls "talking spiritual," deeply affected, historians might say, by the 19th century romantic pietism of his immigrant roots, parents and grandparents who likely met in small passionate groups called conventicles, where they could and did almost obsess intimately about both their sin and God's abundant grace.

He was blacksmith, sturdy and stumpy, with powerful arms. My own build is Dirkse, not Schaap. Physically, I am definitely my mother's child.

When farm horses disappeared, his blacksmith business morphed into the care of the next innovation in transportation--automobiles. Right at the heart of the village stood the Dirkse Service Station, pumping Mobil gas. Down in the back, beside an absolutely filthy restroom I sometimes used as a boy, there was almost always a broad calendar featuring some young woman whose ample breasts never failed to grab my eyes, even though sometimes I thought I was risking them by looking. I remember not being able to square that sexy sweetheart with my deeply religious grandfather. Who knows?--those calendars may have been my introduction to the maze we call the human condition.

But what brought him back last Sunday night was "My God, How Wonderful Thou Art," the music. Just for a moment, he returned, and I watched him mouthing words my grandma used to say were precious to him, including the verse about penitential tears:

O how I fear thee, living God,
with deepest, tenderest fears,
and worship thee with trembling hope
and penitential tears!

Honestly, I believe my grandpa knew "trembling hope" and "tenderest fears" in ways that I don't, not at all these days. I really believe there were times in his life, times he likely loved, when he wept "penitential tears" because penitence was a passion with him--if the stories hold true.

As we sang that verse last Sunday night, I couldn't help but feel as if the two of us were not related. I swear, I felt a bit of his fervent soul in me for a moment; but he seemed to me, right then, a creature of a whole different world, even though our existence together is deeply interwoven. I carry his DNA; and somehow I know, in my heart, his particular spirituality. I still am, in very many ways, his grandson.

But he is, as is the hymn, and even that particular verse of the hymn, long gone these days. Two beautiful renditions of "My God" are available on you-tube, but neither of them have retained this verse--and I think I know why. How many fellowships talk about fear these days, or about tender fears? How many of us can gather the divergent reaches of an oxymoron like "trembling hope"? Perhaps I should, but I don't think I often worship God with "penitential tears."

Like I say, Grandpa Dirkse was there on Sunday night, way out here in Iowa, a day's travel away from the heart of the village he loved. He was there in a way in which Christians often assert spiritual presence: "where you there when they crucified my Lord?" Yeah, I was. Yeah, for a moment, Grandpa Dirkse was right there singing.

He showed up in his suit, not that sweaty gray tee I remember in the blacksmith shop, or the Mobil shirt he wore later on downtown.

It was nice to see him there. I wish I could have spoken to him, but once the music stopped, he'd departed.

But then, I suppose, he's never far away. Not really.

This morning, I'm thankful for a hymn--and him. It was good of him to show up.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Morning Prayers--civility

“We will carry on this struggle until in God’s good time, with all his power and might, he steps forth to the rescue and liberation of our God-given American liberty,” thus saith Rep. Steve King (R-IA), my representative in Congress, in a nearly hour-long rant on the evils--that's not a metaphor--of Obamacare.

Should the newly-elected House repeal Obamacare or not is immaterial. My congressman, Rep. Steve King (R-IA), has made it very clear that the Lord God almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth, is on his side in this on-going national debate. Perhaps in King's mind, there are tea bags hanging from God's diadem.

America is a fine country, land of the free, home of the brave. We carry wonderful freedoms here, including the right Rep. King (R-IA) has to believe that the God who watches over Calcutta's slums, who remembers the blood-letting of the American Civil War and every other war in human history, who was there, in fact, when the Himalayas were formed, when the Colorado River first carved its way through the Grand Canyon, that that God is, today, a Republican on health care. In this country, he is free to believe whatever he wants about Yahwah. That is his right.

But it is irresponsible for him, an elected official, to say it aloud for two reasons--first, because the gods of many other Americans, who are just as privileged here in this free nation as he is, may well have contrary political leanings; and, second, because Jared Lee Loughlins live on our streets, deranged folks who carry Glocks with functional expanded magazines and don't take declarations such as my congressman, Rep. Steve King (R-IA), made last week as, really, a form of blasphemy. What they hear is that God Almighty is comfortably situated on their side of this honorable, difficult debate, while Satan--a dark and detestable figure--informs the strategies of the evil forces on the other.

Saturday's horrific tragedy was accomplished by a young man whose mind had shipwrecked. Maybe he never listened to Glen Beck. Maybe he knew less about a tea party than he did about pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey. I doubt he heard Siouxland's own Rep. Steve King hold forth in divine triumph on the floor of the House last week.

But I think that the outspoken Pima County Sheriff isn't wrong: right now, the atmosphere in this nation is threatened by rhetoric so combustible that we're all in immediate fire danger.

This morning, like last night, I pray that those who send that kind of language out cease and desist, even though it is their right. I honestly hope that Rep. Steve King, from here on in, refrains from playing the God card, despite the favor it wins him.

On that point, I'm in the minority. In November, Rep. Steve King won in Sioux County, IA, with a 86.5% of the vote because people want him to say what he did and does.

I understand, but I find it sad, very sad.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Morning Thanks: Pratfall, circa 2011

What I want to emphasize here is that I was walking slowly. My feet hurt in just about every pair of shoes I have these days; and it was icy and cold, and I was walking slowly. I swear.

It was the first day of school--not school really, no students, but the first day of organized activity, my 100th faculty meeting, and I was walking slowly. No matter, when I got to the campus intersection, the street was all ice and even though I was walking really slowly, I went down in a perfectly accomplished Three-Stooges-level pratfall, butt first, shoes and feet straight up in front of me. Not high, of course, because I'm 62. Kerplunk!--one of those. Jheeeeeeet! Ka-boom. There I lay sprawled out like a dead man in my black wool topcoat.

My first reaction, even before I checked for broken hips was, who the heck saw this happen? Just seconds before, cars had been turning left and right into that very intersection, every last one of them holding colleagues who were also making their way to S-101. Honestly, I could have been hit--that's how thick the traffic was.

I picked myself up quickly, wondering to whom I was going to have to flash some flat, ironic smile, but no one--no one!--appeared. Even today, two days later, I've come to believe that this particular, highly unprofessional ker-plunk was unnoted by any human audience. Someone in his infinite mercy held back the traffic the way he held back the Red Sea.

Ten years ago, coming out of our back door, I pulled a similar move down the back sidewalk, fell harder that time because, being younger, my whole body swung up higher. When I came down on the sidewalk, I knocked myself out of breath and cracked two ribs. I felt like I was half dead, but my first reaction was to look at the street, where a woman drove by, a woman I've never forgotten. Whether she remembers me so unmercifully splayed all over that sidewalk is something I don't know. What I do know is that I remember her passing by.

Ironically, that woman was in town for a funeral. That fact I remembered just then too, as I picked myself up, brushed off my coat, and walked up the sidewalk to S-101.

This is a very dark story.

What I'm saying is the Lord saved me from the horror of embarrassment. I honestly believe no one saw that unpracticed pratfall. I did tell myself, however, that my aging body wouldn't take kindly to such abuse, and that, in 24 hours, I'd be hobbling far worse than I was as I made my way, that morning, to S-101.

Then, a friend--on a bike!!!!--passed me by. That's right, on a bike. On that ice. And, what's worse, he's older than I am.

"I just flopped," I told him as he passed me slowly.

"I thought you were walking slowly," he said, and we both kept going on our way.

Once inside, I parked my weary body up beside another old friend, this one much younger. I took a seat and told him that I'd just slip-sided away on the street. "No kidding," he said. "I went by you in the truck and thought I should pick you up because you were walking really slow."

What I want to emphasize is that I was walking slowly. I said that, right?

So here's the punch line. Last night I read this study in the British Medical Journal that says older adults who walk slowly are three times more likely to die of heart disease than those who walk at a faster pace.

You read that right, and this is not a joke because research shows that healthy older people who walk slowly are at higher risk of falls, disability, admission to hospital, and other health issues.

Woe and woe and woe.

Morning thanks?--you bet. I'm not sore or stiff, and right now I'm off the gym.


Thursday, January 06, 2011

"The Professor's Death Song"

It was one of those moments when a piece of writing simply begins to write itself. The occasion was the funeral of a man, a professor and former colleague, whose story I knew, and that story included chapters of real tragedy, sadness, and horror. But when, at that funeral, absolutely nothing was mentioned of all those dark moments, my heart rebelled, not because I was angry with the preacher for not telling the story, but because I understood, somehow painfully, that some stories simply can't be told at some moments, even if those stories would have made what happened there in church that day immensely more powerful and memorable. Some things maybe just can't be said, and it just about killed me.

When I say it was a story that began to write itself, what I mean is that the essay came to me, almost in its entireity, while sitting in church, in part because I knew the essay's audience. I'd let myself be talked into doing the Sunday morning worship at the annual meeting of a small group of Christian writers I'm a part of, and I needed a sermon. The text was Psalm 121, a psalm I happen to love, the "death song" the old professor had told the preacher he wanted used as a text for the funeral. The congregation I would be facing would be fellow writers, people I knew would understand the strange frustration I felt that morning--on one side such an unusual and powerful story; and on the other, the rigid constraints of what? decorum or good taste or propriety. What could be said went to war with what should be said, and I couldn't help wonder about what I felt during that long service, why I wanted to scream. I thought my friends, writers all, could help me understand what I'd felt during a funeral that simply had to be sanitized.

And I wondered a great deal about the source of that voice in me that wouldn't be quiet, that voice that wanted the whole story told, that wouldn't tolerate decorum. And I wondered--I really did--about the nature of that impulse. Was it good or ill? I didn't know, but I knew that, if I wrote the essay/sermon I wanted to, my friends would understand and help.

That's how the essay was born. The editor of Books and Culture sat at a couch that morning in Texas when the "The Professor's Death Song" was the sermon. And when it was over, he asked for it for the magazine.

It may well be one of those most powerful pieces of writing I have ever written, not because my talent is so rich but because the story itself is so utterly compelling--I'm talking, of course, about the story that couldn't be told. So I told it, and I'm telling you now that if you'd like to read that essay/sermon, you can find it here.

I still feel skiddish about it, even though I have absolutely no question about whether or not God and his love is praised by the song, the story. But when to speak and when to remain silent will likely always remain good and difficult questions.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Morning Thanks--Christmas

This morning--faculty meeting. Let me do the math. I've been here 38 years (I think); there are two every year, sometimes more, but not lately since we're so much more business-like than we were in days of old. Let's say in odd years, we may have three, in very strange years four or more. 38 x 2 = 76 + 19 extras = 95. I'm not a bean-counter--let's just round it off at 100. This morning's faculty meeting may well be my 100th.

There ought to be a celebration maybe. Maybe an extra donut at coffee time.

The story, this morning, is a new school year a'startin'.

But there's another story--our son and his fiance (I can't quite say "our children" yet, but not long) are going back home, south to Oklahoma. Literally, they didn't make it home for the holidays, arriving January 2nd. But figurative and symbolically, they did. They were home because of the holidays, even though we had our opening-presents ritual the day after New Years.

I honestly don't know if anyone knows exactly when Jesus Christ was born in that barn out behind the Bethlehem hotel. I don't know, but I think it's just plain wonderful that out here on all this frozen tundra that wonderful-est of holidays is celebrated just after winter solstace, in the coldest season of the coldest season, when what's outside is, at best, sometimes pretty. December cold means we're all shut-ins here. Somebody was out at Oak Grove with snowshoes last week--I saw the prints. But otherwise, it's so blame cold here that even snowmobiles are risky. In Siouxland right now, there ain't no picnics. Twenty-below may keep out the riff-raff, but it also keeps the righteous off the streets.

So I'm glad there's a Christmas, a time for people to come home and sit around and eat too much and catch up. I'm happy Christmas doesn't come in June, when the whole world sings anyway. Mid-blasted winter!--what a great time for Christmas, for a break, for a holiday, for renewal. Wonderful, blessed timing.

But today, it's really over. Today, for the 100th time, for me at least, it's back to work.

This morning's thanks, in so many ways, are simply for Christmas. What a joy it really is, now and forever.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011


Years ago already, I served on a denominational committee looking into the acceptability of admitting children to the Lord's Supper. I did not then, nor do I now have particularly strong views on what is to some a hot button issue, but I will never forget one thing a fellow committee member said. 'Twas something to this effect: "We have to be careful when dealing with the sacrements because people don't take kindly to change when it comes to what they hold that dear."

He was right, even among Calvinists of my tribe, who like to say that all of life is religion or every square inch of this wonderful creation belongs to God. When maintaining that everything is sacred, those of us who profess such beliefs run the very real risk of creating a world in which, well, nothing is sacred, even though we maintain the opposite as stoutly as we do.

Trust me on that. Two of my favorite writers are Flannery O'Connor and Andre Dubus, both profoundly Christian. Yet, it requires a fairly substantial lecture on Roman Catholicism for my thoroughly Protestant students (even in this post-modern era) to understand the deeply theological work of either writer because Catholicism is sacremental; Protestantism isn't--or at least hasn't been, decidedly, since the Reformation--and there is a profoundly deep cultural difference.

Last Sunday morning we walked up to the front of the church to take communion. Here's the way it works in our church: when we celebrate the Lords Supper at night, we come up to the front; when we celebrate in the morning (bigger crowd, I guess) we take it the old way, the elders passing out the elements.

And here's a confession. When, years ago, we moved to the church where we're members today, I didn't particularly like walking up to the front to participate. I thought it was showy and risked a kind of spiritual pride or pretentiousness. I thought it was typical of the new and more progressive church I attended, a congregation in which sometimes the people mattered more than the Almighty. I thought it risked disorder, and if walking up to the alter for the elements had come up for a vote, I would have voted against it.

Today, probably 15 years later, I think sitting in the pew is really a lousy way to celebrate the Lord's Supper. Taking the bread the wine is a profession, even a public profession. Going up makes me vastly more active in the transaction, less passive. Besides, I like the processional. I like the individual blessing. I like the ceremony.

What's changed is me. Big time.

I still believe that fellow committee member was right: fussing around with what people hold sacred--even Calvinists, who hate drawing those kinds of lines--is dangerous and, for many, scary. It was for me.

But now that change is sufficiently behind me, I wouldn't have it any other way.

Last Sunday morning our pastor decided--maybe at the outset of a brand new calendar year--to break tradition and have everyone come up to the front.

It was beautiful. As it always is.

It's just taken some time for me to see.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Tartuffe, by Moliere

The history of the play is itself a hoot, now almost 400 years after it opened. It seems that Louis XIV listened to his religious advisory counsel and banned it almost immediately after its debut because, he said, the play threatened to confuse the good people about the true nature of the Christian faith.

The unabashed villian is Tartuffe, a name that, for years, was synonomous with hypocricy. Tartuffe himself is that specious of beast Dante claimed would, upon their deaths, fall ingraciously to the lowest rungs of hell. Tartuffe is a pious fraud, an ingrate whose speciality is spewing phony godliness, a insufferable wretch who, by his bankrupt rigid orthodoxy, is nonetheless capable of seducing the heart and soul of both the lord of the manor and his goodly wife.

For a time anyway. The play is no tragedy. It's just hilarious. It's knee-slappingly funny. Really, it's a hoot.

But apparently, long, long ago its themes hit so close to the soul that the prelate at the head of the French Roman Catholic Church threatened anyone who attended with immediate excommunication. He wasn't piddling around, even if Moliere was.

And the fact of the matter is, this old play can still deliver some pretty wholesome bites--even though it's farce really, melodrama, outright silliness. Still, among the truly devout, it might well be seen as its own kind of scandal.

It's on the mainstage at Dordt College this spring, and I think the choice is a riot because it's bound to be a hit. It's just flat-out funny, really.

But it'll interesting to discover how it's received--and by whom, received in what way.

In a nutshell, it's a hilarious spoof, a comedy with verifiable villian as black as any that ever rode into Dodge; but when that villian spouts theology, he's capable of utterances that are a good deal more than annoying. We're not in France, circa 1660, of course, and there ain't no church determining the tenor of the private lives of its members. That's long, long ago.

But, methinks the play could still light some fires. It'll be interesting.

Here's my predictions:

1--for my class, who will be assigned the play before production so that they'll understand what the heck is going on if they go, I'm predicting no particular reaction at all. 17th century France is so far off the screen of their iPods that to them it doesn't even exist. It'll be my job--call it a calling--to try to make them see, not only that this play has some relevance, but that it's drop-dead funny. For the most part, intro to lit students are going to be incapable of reading a 17th century French comedy script, even if Richard Wilbur rendered the text into English. Look for Schaap to get more discouraged and look forward more anxiously to retirement. On the Richter scale: nr (no reaction). Those from my class who attend the show will love it, but, my guess (sob, sob)?--few will.

2--for the community (which includes the college community), no big deal. Some will feel occasional, odd discomfort; but very few who attend--if any--will draw any kind of parallel between what happens in their lives and what happens on the stage.

3--for the lunatic fringe, a few nasty letters (two or three) to the administration.

Thus, 't'will be okay, methinks. And that's okay too. No kerfuffles. No scandals. No mad patrons. Two or three angry parents.

Art in a box. A ton of laughs to boot.

Yet, something about that series of predictions, I must say, I regret. It should produce at least something of an itch. Nonetheless--trust me on this at least--Tartuffe is a hoot.

We shall see.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Morning Thanks--New Years

It's not a big deal, really. Why can't we begin a new year every day of the calendar, after all? What's the actual meterlogical difference between January 1 and, say, April 1? In both cases, the darkness falls and the sun rises, and I think of Thomas Merton: "When the sun rises, each one of us is summoned by the living and the dead to praise God." The truth? Every day we start a new year.

Nonetheless, even in this skeptic's mind, this particular morning is different. By way of some humanly engineered mathematical architecture, most all the citizens of this planet tell each other that yesterday is the past and today, this next moment, is the future, and future is just another word for hope.

I don't know that I've ever made a New Year's resolution, but this morning I certainly know the impulse. Outside my basement window, the world is dark as night; those skinny naked branches of the crab tree, like the pine's behind it, are being roughed up by a northwest wind that's without a doubt a killer, the temperature buried somewhere beneath the imaginable.

But still, this January 1st, locked in the freezer of midwinter, it's impossible not to feel as if all things are new again and that this desk, this computer, and--good Lord!--all this stuff in the basement, that everything is smiling with the hope that this year, somehow, things will be different. Not that I'm complaining. Not that last year was so wretched. Not at all. But this morning, New Years, even that irrepressible Scrooge in me seems unable to staunch the promise of nothing less than hope.

It's here in the darkness, here in the keys, here in the plain grace of a chewed-up, early morning apple, it's everywhere--this very strong sense that, for better or for worse, once more we're going to give it the old college try this year, once more we'll work hard and hope and pray for the best.

This morning's thanks is for the ritual of hope that embellishes every last brand new year.