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, February 28, 2011


If you don't like The King's Speech, chances are your fight is with the genre. It's a period piece, an English comedy of manners, and a thematic descendent of The Odd Couple. It's marvelously entertaining and has unforgettable comic moments, but more than anything, The King's Speech is a story meant to inspire. It's a hands-down, feel-good show--and if you don't like "feel goods," you're not going to like it.

Thank goodness we're not all Scrooge. I loved it, and, obviously, so did millions of others because last night it walked away with all the marbles.

I liked Avatar, the only movie I ever bought tickets for twice. It's a splendid show, a visual treasure, a spectacle like few others. But when it's all said and done, what Avatar required was the kind of subterfuge that Hollywood almost always does: to be successful, to get that huge 17-year-old crowd, any film's important ideas, its human themes, have to be shoe-horned into the movie's sub-plots. Avatar had some interesting things to say, an eco-thriller, but by the time the credits rolled you knew that what you'd seen was just another action/adventure flick.

There are few stunts in The King's Speech, no special effects magic, no shock and awe. It's nothing more or less than two men from vastly different echelons of society learning to get along and getting something accomplished in the process. The King's Speech is terrific writing and spectacular acting aboard a oddly eccentric story drawn directly from history.

Hollywood--the word is redolent with excess. But when the entire profession votes to give The King's Speech it's greatest honor, one could almost feel as if there's justice in this world.

True Grit was a wonderful film. My students claim Inception is a marvel. I'm sure there were others among the finalists that merit great praise. But when The King's Speech wins, big time, as it did last night, I believe there's music playing somewhere out there in the spheres.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Late Winter Snow

If you live anywhere south of say, Omaha, then you know what more snow feels like this time of year. We had at least a week of warm pre-season days, and then, the last few, were back in the icebox. Snow--heaps of it--is even worse.

Want to know what it feels like? Like this. Just about kills you.

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Iowa Caucuses?

Out here in Republican country, it just seems to me that, in past years, by this time in the Presidential sweepstakes, we're normally overrun with candidates courting Siouxland's massive conservative majority. Tim Pawlenty was here a few weeks ago, but otherwise, the streets are empty all the way to the horizon.

Strangely enough, nobody's yet listed--well, except for Ron Paul, who can do the sweepstakes thing at CPAC but whose adroit liberatarianism is vastly better at gaining disciples than voters, or, for that matter, courting the favor of his own party. He's interesting, but he's not going to win. Newt sounds like he might get in, Mitt too, and Rudy should be down here soon, too, methinks. But Huck seems hesitant somehow. About Sarah, who knows? Nobody tweets headlines as richly as she does--why get smelly out in some Iowa feedlot?

Maybe Scott Walker will come. Doesn't live all that far away, and nobody--not even Gov. Palin--gets more headlines these days. (By the way, whatever happened to Michelle Bachmann?)

But here's my question? why aren't any of them showing up in Sioux County?--or in Iowa, for that matter? Look at the muscle the Wisconsin conservatives have, drawing lines in the sand against the unions. I think they're going to win. Isn't there a groundswell? Where's the Tea Party these days?

Shoot, on Tuesday night, Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA), at one of his town halls, was asked who was going to shoot Obama? If a man talks like that in public and doesn't get handcuffed--or at least rebuffed, it must mean that the President is already road kill. Of course, Broun never took much of shine for Obama himself.

But there are no real hats in the Republican ring, and that's why they haven't been tromping around town. Our neighbor across the river, John Thune, pulled himself out, said he thought he couldn't win anyway. He must be kidding.

I don't get it. If the Tea Party tide is the sunami people claim it is, if "the American people" are lock, stock, and barrel behind Scott Walker's austerity enterprise, if our children and grandchildren are going to be paupers and the U.S. of A. will soon be Greece, then why aren't Republican Presidential candidates wanting in to every last hog confinement in the county?

Getting lonely out here in the northwest corner of Ioway.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Reading Mother Teresa VII

According to the Wall Street Journal of May 25, 1931, Treasury Secretary Mellon advised that Hoover Administration was saying no to a tax increase, which was not to say, he asserted, that some kind of increase was off the table. Should they determine to hike taxes, the Treasury Department, he said, would seek broadening the tax base rather than simply raising rates. After all, only 2.5M individuals out of a 120M population pay income taxes, and 380,000 pay about 97%.

On May 25, 1931, The Wall Street Journal reported that the Investment Bankers Assoc. of America listened to proposals designed to safeguard US investors when obtaining foreign securities because present conditions for such investments were bound to prolong economic depression.

On May 25, 1931, an editorial in the WSJ noted misleading coverage of the Supreme Court decision reversing a decision in the case of Yetta Stromberg, who'd been convicted under California's "Red Flag" law for displaying a "red flag, banner, badge, or device of any color ... as a sign of ... opposition to organized government." The court, the editorial argued, had left in place provisions against anarchy and sedition.

The Wall Street Journal of May 25, 1931, contains no mention of a young lady in India, Sister Teresa, making the first profession of her vows after two years of her novitiate training, vows that promised a life of "poverty, charity, and obedience."

"If you could know how happy I am, as Jesus' little spouse," she wrote a friend. "No one, not even those who are enjoying some happiness which in the world seems perfect, could I envy, because I am enjoying my complete happiness, even when I suffer something for my beloved Spouse."

I rather doubt her first profession was noted anywhere in the English-speaking world. Why should it have been?

Somehow, that it wasn't seems a blessing.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Every square inch sparkles

My son-in-law called on Monday to say that he'd rarely seen anything more beautiful than the trees in the Rock River valley on the way home from work. "You looking for a place to shoot pictures?"

It was Monday, not Saturday. I'm a workaholic. I couldn't pull myself away from work with a Dodge Ram. Then, yesterday, I walked home in what amounted to the third day in which every square inch of this town sparkled. I told myself, even though I had a class last night, I didn't have to keep my nose to the grindstone--I could take an hour and ride up to the river.

I did.

This is only a fraction of what I saw. I'm not a good enough photographer to get it all. But then, probably no one is.

BTW, the night class went great. Ought to be a lesson there, but I'm probably too old to learn.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Reading Mother Teresa VI

She was just 19 years old when, after a six-weeks aboard a passenger ship, she finally started up the River Ganges, the "Holy River," into Bengal, and met, along with the others, her "Indian sisters." Then, in the convent chapel, together, she says, they "thanked our dear Saviour for this great grace that He had so safely brought us to the goal for which we had been longing."

To her friends and family back home, she wrote, "Pray much for us that we may be good and courageous missionaries."

Sister Teresa was only 19 years old, no different from the students in the chairs in my own classrooms; but she was ready to give her life away as a missionary for our Lord. At that moment, she had to be filled with equal measures of fear and conviction. She was only 19 years old. She had to be, at that moment, near unto God. What she could not have known was how near.

She thought she knew what she would be--"a good and courageous missionary." But in reality she knew absolutely nothing of what she would become, even less about the squalid world she was about to find, the desperate children she would touch.

At that moment, her youth, idealism, and blind faith carried her triumphantly into a fray about which she knew very, very little. She could have had no clue that her selflessness, her righteous dedication to the poor of Calcutta would, in time, establish her a place among the most revered people of this world.

She had little more than a child's sense of what God almighty had in store for her. Really, she knew nothing at all.

Amazing naivete, and even more amazing grace.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Dreams and Anguish

I sometimes wonder if my students are correct in their languid assessment that so very much of contemporary literary fiction, the stuff I force them to read, is dark and joyless. Maybe it is. If that's true, then I have been it's victim, having worshipped at the shine of literary fiction for a long, long time.

This generation, not nearly so supine before "liter-a-choor" as I was and am, simply doesn't go to their knees as easily before the NY Times Book Review. Hollywood is a pantheon of gods to them, but ask my students to name one contemporary poet, and the only name you'll get is Robert Frost. They don't know much at all about the literary world, nor do they care to. In another generation, literary fiction will be as relevant to them as opera.

But I'm not Chicken Little. I don't think the sky is falling.

Perhaps I was willing to put up with humorless darkness because I inherited a view that looked up to writers as prophets and seers. If what they created was or is as dark as my students claim it is, this true believer didn't really notice because I've spent most of my life as prostrate as a Muslim.

Donald Miller, in A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, says that we--that is to say "the American people"--may be jaded by commercials, all of which--can you think of an exception?--make grandiose promises about the future if only we buy the soap, drink the beer, drive the car. That kind of sales job is what we hear, day after day after day. Nirvana is but a credit card purchase away. After a couple million ads, it's not all that hard to begin to think that life is good and easy, if only we've got the right stuff in our billfolds. It makes senes that a steady diet of darkness repels them.

Years ago, Flannery O'Connor took on some Life magazine reporter who'd chided American writers for not singing the radiant glories of American life: "What is most missing from our hot house literature," that Life writer had said, is "the joy of life itself."

O'Connor answered the charge this way: "The general accusation passed against writers now is that they write about rot because they love it. Some do and their works may betray them, but it is impossible not to believe that some write about rot because they see it and recognize it for what it is."

Still, the fact is, I have some sympathies for my students' sweet and youthful constitutions. I'd just as soon not pour a semester's worth of dark edginess over their energy and idealism.

But then I hear Eugene Ionesco: "Ideologies separate us. Dreams and anguish bring us together."

Seems so true.

Armed with that, today I'm on my way back to class.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Saturday Morning Catch

It's getting to be late winter. We're not there yet, but we're getting there, having lost tons of snow to this week's blessed warmth.

Tomorrow, snow.

But this morning, a rich dawn spread gold over the corn stubble, and, just for a moment, I actually thought I spotted some green. I may have been dreaming.

Still, it was a beautiful morning.

Don't miss the farm cat sitting on the porch of the white house. He's the star.

Friday, February 18, 2011

On, Wisconsin

Okay, in the interest of full disclosure, once upon a time I was public school teacher in Wisconsin. What's more, I was born there, grew up there, got my first driver's licence there, etc., etc. Part of my heart is still in Dairyland.

And while the Packers recent Super Bowl victory is certainly reason to be proud, I think the mess in Madison right now is too. Go Badgers, I say. On, Wisconsin.

What's indisputable is that we are, economically speaking, in over our heads. It wasn't just Obama that got us here; it wasn't just Democrats. All of us would rather get than give--call it sin, call it anything you'd like, but judge it truth.

Things must change.

But what's also indisputable is that two almost diametrically opposed arguments are at war these days. One says we'll regain economic stability by cutting government and putting all of our lives back in the hands of sainted businessmen and the blessed markets--that's the Republican way, that's Tea Party gospel, the church of Ronald Reagan.

The other says we can climb our way out by taxing the super rich--that's the Democratic side, the liberals, Madison's angry street gangs, the church of FDR.

Wisconsin's new governor rode into office on Tea Party frustration, thousands of people waving their fists, carrying signs, and screaming in any available microphone. Now, following his Tea Party nose and his Tea Party support, he's cutting government, spiting teachers (who opposed him), swinging back not simply by cutting budgets but also by taking away the union's bargaining power.

These days, as Paul Ryan said, the streets of Madison look like the streets of Cairo. And I say, right on, Wisconsin.

I don't buy the beatific view of the super rich, that they are our saints, our good shepherds, our deliverance. They're human, just as we are. One could make an argument that this whole huge economic downturn was caused, as Alan Greenspan himself has said, by businesses that cared only about profit and not about the economy or the nation. Not to hit the super rich with higher taxes, but, instead, to whack the middle class--as the governor is doing--strikes me as prejudice--and thus injustice.

I've spent my life in the classroom. Right now, I'm in a position where it's my voice that has to be raised when the administrators run amok or afoul. Because they do. Today, I'm in an environment where everyone's first allegiance is to shared Christian faith--that's a blessing that changes the nature of disputes. What it doesn't do is end them. There's sin here too--everywhere, in fact, in me too.

When I was a public school teacher, I was never a big fan of my own national union leadership; but I also recognized--in Wisconsin and in Arizona--that without union pressure, administrations would make decisions about education with scant regard to what happens, day-to-day, in the classroom. Schools need teachers unions.

That's why my heart beats proud for Wisconsin these days. Last year, it was those madcap Tea Partiers who got all the ink with their fists raised, their bizarre banners, their street protests. Theirs was one strident side of the argument.

This year, bring on the unions, the blue-collar folks. Put them on TV like the Tea Partiers, carrying signs and carrying on. Let the movement spread throughout America because there is another side to how we're going to slash our budgets, and it's time that side, like the Tea Partiers before them, puts a fist in the national face.

On, Wisconsin.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Morning Thanks--February 17

Given the country's financial crisis and our own increased longevity, it makes good sense for people--even politicians--to be talking about hiking up the age at which we get social security, as long as it happens, say, a quarter century or so from now. Right at this moment, I'm absolutely thrilled to be part of the old system because this morning I'm 63 years old and, for the first time in a long time, I'm looking forward to birthdays.

Sixteen is a biggie, one I remember. And 21 comes in like a lion too. After that, the only mile markers worth noting are those darn decades. Doom was near when I hit 30, death was around the corner ten years later, and oblivion was a stuttering old codger's misstep away at 50. At 60, I figured I'd better reserve a room at the home. And just about every single birthday in between was somber and sad. Most birthdays after 21 are nothing to cheer about. Sweet cards arrive in the mail and on-line, well-meant efforts to deliver some dawn to the dark night of the soul.

But this morning I am proudly announcing my 63rd birthday because after a 42-year hiatus, I am once again counting the days. Retirement doesn't loom, it beckons, a sweet seductress, into whose silk-sheeted favors I'll thrillingly creep and with whom I'll most gladly stay. Down here in the basement, I really should have a black magic marker and a wall-sized calendar.

Not really. I know better. I know that counting the days ain't the same at all as "numbering," the particular sense of that great psalm, number 90: "Teach us to number our days." Numbering--or so it seems--means making my days memorable, not just crossing 'em off.

It's February 17--my birthday; and even though I don't think I would have announced that fact as baldly last year or any other for the last 42, I am, this morning, thankful to be here and do so.

But I do have one request of the Lord this morning. I really don't need a magic marker, but I would like one of those flourescent yellow or orange high-lighters for that calendar up on my wall.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Edward Hopper/Raymond Carver

They're urban, rarely rural or suburbanite, and they date from an earlier period in American history, roughly a generation. But just a glance at some of Edward Hopper's most stunning portraits puts me in mind, most definitely, of Raymond Carver.

Once upon a time I knew Ray Carver. He was a teacher of mine when I was at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, a visiting lecturer. He was dried out by that time, having quit drinking in June of 1977. He was finishing work on the collection of stories that would become Cathedral, certainly among the most fascinating collection of short stories of the late 20th century, if not the most famous.

I've taught Carver's work for years, for lots of reasons, one of which is that I think I know it. Just recently, long after his death, he made the news again when it became clear that Gordon Lish, Carver's editor, performed surgery on his stories with a machete, cutting them down to little more than skeletons, and, in the process, creating Carver's reputation for take-no-prisoners minimalism. The real Carver, his second wife, Tess Gallagher, now says, was a whole lot different writer. She wants to show the world that Ray Carver.

Sunday night on PBS, I caught just a few minutes of a PBS special on Hopper, narrated by Steve Martin. (You can see a 3-minute chunk here.) What characterizes Hopper--think of his iconic Nighthawks, above, for example--is some species of sad silence that is itself expressive of loneliness. Many of his raw, realistic paintings feature subjects who are oddly uncommunicative, people somehow alone in a world that seems sterile or purposeless. There's little alive about his paintings, nothing really promising, his characters barely breathing, it seems.

They put me in mind of Carver, the early Carver, Gordon Lish's Carver, the bare-boned minimalist whose stories sometimes felt like angular police reports, lean and mean stories that kept you awake with terrifying coldness.

There has to be a Carver story in this Hopper portrait.

I can't think of a single character in any Carver story who dresses like these two, but many of his people inhabit worlds in which they appear just as frighteningly alone.

Hopper seemed drawn to women alone, women who seemingly have no one to speak or listen to, haunting portraits that of awkward loss and sorrow, raw emotion that seems somehow controlled, almost horrifyingly so.

In Carver--even in Cathedral--it's men who are similarly positioned. He seems to trust his women characters more fully, blesses some of them, in fact, with that most wonderful of blessings--the ability to listen, to hear the plight of others. Should Carver ever have painted, this woman would be a man.

But I find the two of them strikingly similar. Carver's people inhabit Edward Hopper's portraits, even though I don't believe you could find a grand piano in the entire Carver canon. His people are blue collar, they're often rural, frequently uneducated; but somehow, as American characters, Carver's folks have cousins--well, aunts and uncles maybe--on these Hopper canvases, all of them wandering human beings vaguely disconnected to the very world they seem only partially to inhabit.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Reading Mother Teresa V

Fine and pure as summer dew
Her soft warm tears begin to flow,
Sealing and sanctifying now
Her painful sacrifice.

Just before the battle that would likely forever change Native American life on the Great Plains, the Battle at Greasy Grass, or Little Big Horn, Sitting Bull, a Lakota medicine man, performed a Sun Dance, then cut chunks of his own flesh from his arms and legs as an act of devotion to the divine, or the sacred, Wakan Tanka. Bloodied and weakened, he then saw a vision of cavalrymen falling from the sky. That vision, historians say, both red and white, strengthened Native resolve for the epoch-making battle which was to come.

Barbaric. Heathenish. Sure. But somehow, to a religious character, understandable. What Sitting Bull did that day was a sacrifice. He gave richly of himself to his god, humbled himself, hurt himself in contrition and submission to a higher power.

Mother Teresa was little more than a child, really, when she wrote a poem on her trip to India, a poem that described her mood on board that ship. But I believe her when she says she cried. I believe her tears. She had to be immensely anxious about the world she was entering, about what was to come. She was little more than a college freshman. I've seen them cry torrents.

What's somehow difficult for me to undertand, however, is that she considered the way she had pledged herself to God and his love to be such an immense sacrifice. If she truly valued what she might have become had she not chosen to take orders, wouldn't taking orders have been more difficult, less sweetly filled with promises that she was soon to be "the little bride of Christ"?

Yet, here, in the last lines of that little poem, she says her tears, "pure as the summer dew," flowed from her "painful sacrifice."

I don't think Mother Teresa ever pulled out some kind of poetic license and wrenched out half truths or hyperbole. I can see her there, aboard the ship, handkerchief in hand, dabbing at her eyes.

What I don't understand is sacrifice.

But then, I just returned from the gym, where I work out lest my weight balloon, as it certainly could. Our house is warm. Sometime this week, I'm getting a new easy chair. Tuesdays and Wednesdays are tough teaching days for me, but I'm sure I'll come out whole on the other side by the time these next two days are over. I haven't cut out any chunks of my flesh as of late, haven't worn the hooks in a Sun Dance.

With so much of her storied life still in front of her, so much suffering yet to be discovered, so much love yet to be given away, it's somehow difficult for me to understand how tears could possibly be wrenched from what this girl, still a child, thought of as her deep sacrifice in following Jesus.

But then, maybe that's my fault. Not long ago, somewhere I remember, we sang the odl hymn "I Surrender All." Really?

Maybe I can't recognize her sacrifice because I don't know my own.


Monday, February 14, 2011

Morning Thanks--Valentine's Day

My wife of almost 39 years says this gift she's got in mind is going to cover both of my big days this week--Valentine's Day, plus my birthday. She says it wasn't easy finding a new easy chair either; the space the old one fills, she says, is tricky because whatever we put there can't be too tall or it'll cover too much of the window in this century-old house of ours, and the Lay-Z-Boys are all gigantic these days, she says--really, really big. They're on sale too, she says. The sale is what drew her to the furniture store--a sale on Lay-Z-Boys.

But the one she likes isn't even a Lay-Z-Boy, so it's not on sale. I know what that means--it's even more money. My wife's tastes are expensive, but rarely used; she's come by her ways honestly, however, if you knew her mother. She says she wants something smaller than anything Lay-Z-Boy makes. Anyway, she says she wants me to have a look and try this new, expensive chair on for size at the store.

Which is a strange way of saying it, but it's true: if you want a new easy chair, you'd better try it on for size.

So I did. It fit just fine.

But I was still non-plussed about this big Valentine's/birthday present because years ago I thought I got myself in trouble for suggesting that maybe we ought to have a new chair and a new sofa in the family room. I wasn't all that fond of either actually, and the sofa wasn't a particularly good fit, for me at least, because normally it took a wench to get me out, the kind with ropes and pulleys. Put it this way: I thought getting new furniture in the family room was one of those things I shouldn't have said, even brought up.

Anyway, now I know why.

"So I get a new one?" I said, "--What's going to happen to the old one?"

She says she doesn't know exactly because she knows well and darn good that she can't just dump it because she's sure that more than fifty years ago her mother picked it up at a sale, an auction, someplace out on the Iowa countryside, hauled it home in the pickup, reupholstered it beautifully, and then used it herself for years before bequeathing it to her daughter decades ago already. And her mother never, ever bought cheap furniture. That I know.

There's just way too much history in that big green easy chair, especially since her mother has been gone now for almost two years. My wife just can't just toss the heavy thing. That expensive fabric her mother put on it hasn't worn down a bit either--her mother didn't do anything half-strength. But it is more than a little dirty; after all, I've been sitting in it for a quarter century. When Ma and Pa Kettle sit in our family room, she's in the sofa, I'm in the chair.

So the old green easy chair on its way out, except it's not really leaving, which I understand, even though, truth be told, it never was my favorite. And the fact is, it sits just like a throne--it really does. You sit down and it doesn't even move, I swear, and I'm no featherweight.

It's got a matching footstool too, which we can position right between us so that both of us can put our feet up together, sort of homey when I think of it. That big green footstool is in good shape too after 25 years. Shoot, after twice that many at least. It's hard to think about the family room without that fat old footstool.

Something about that whole Saturday afternoon new-chair business just sticks with me, in part because I honestly thought change would never happen. I thought we'd leave this old house before getting a new easy chair--and sofa. I was resigned to sit this one out, so to speak. Then, out of nowhere, my wife just decides that this old green trooper's days are numbered.

But she can't just throw it away either.

I like that. I really do. But then, I like my wife. A lot. Much better than the old green throne.

So yesterday in church, a man who reads just beautifully is reading the Word of the Lord from the book of Acts, and he reads this line: "This is what the Lord says: 'Heaven is my home, and the earth is my footstool.'"

Honestly, I think, it's not a particularly becoming metaphor. Saturday morning I was out and about on a landscape that could hardly have been more beautiful. I could have said, "You know, Lord, I really beg to differ." I could have asked the Lord to red-pencil that line about the earth being a footstool and take another divine shot.

I could have said that, and I likely would have if it hadn't been for Saturday afternoon and my wife talking about a big, two-holiday present for me and an old throne that still holds thumbprints from her mother's precious and powerful upholstery hands, not to mention a lot of life itself between us for all these years.

Honestly, before Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning, I'd never thought of that old green footstool as being all that gorgeous.

But then life is as full of lessons as it surprises, I guess. If you keep your ears open, you can learn a lot. So this Valentine's Day morning, I'm thankful for the teacher who's been my valentine for lo, these last 39 years.

And a footstool, too, an ancient, lovely footstool.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Saturday Morning Catch--in a new place

A quilt of clouds swarmed east this morning and covered most of the dawn--what it didn't smother grew into a thin swath of bright pink ribbon for just a few minutes. Most of an hour later, the clouds withdrew and the sun pulled color up where it seemed there'd been nothing but gray over the sweet rolling hills just west of the Big Sioux. The great story is a new place, a place I've never visited before, a winding road right along the river and up into the hills--two miles at least of little but wilderness. I'll go back for sure.

We're a long way from Thanksgiving, but on the way home, those turkeys wanted nothing to do with me. No matter--it was the first time I've been out in weeks. The best therapy I know.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Reading Mother Teresa IV

Long before there was blogpost, Mother Teresa, then little more than a child, wrote a poem from the deck of the ship that was taking her, for the very first time, to India, then sent that poem to her friends. The poem laments what she will miss--her homeland, her friends and family, her mother--and begs forgiveness for her leaving by acknowledging the loving commands of a very clear call: "A Higher Power compels me/Toward torrid India."

I don't doubt for a moment that without much scrambling in an archive, I could find very similar sentiments in the diaries of dozens, if not hundreds of Protestant missionaries during the same era--lament for what's left behind, thanksgiving for the triumphant mission ahead.

But then there's this:

The ship moves slowly ahead
Cleaving the ocean's waves
As my eyes take one last look
At Europe's dear shores.

Bravely standing on the deck,
Joyful, peaceful of mien,
Christ's happy little one,
His new bride-to-be.

Protestant hymnody of the 19th century frequently whispers the ecstasies of that kind of mystical union, and the idea of the church as the bride of Christ is, after all, the language of the New Testament. Human love, some say, is the closest approximation one can experience to the love of God. I guess I shouldn't be surprised by the usage.

Then why am I? Maybe because, as a male, those words seem somehow unavailable to me--would a young priest aboard the same ship write his mission out in the same language? Maybe because something in me longs for the kind of divine and mystical union with Christ that's implied by her description? Maybe I find her words so striking because so foreign, yet so understandable. After all, she speaks the way she does--this child, this very young woman--because she is about to swear herself into an eternal destiny with Jesus, with his church, a calling and a role she has gratefully obliged shall never be broken. She is to become the bride of Christ.

I wonder if it's even a metaphor. I don't think so. Maybe that's it. She thinks of herself, literally, as "Christ's new bride-to-be." It's not an imagined comparison at all. It's a plain and simple fact.

How do we understand Mother Teresa's lifelong commitment to serve the poor in Calcutta? Where did her perseverence come from?

Maybe we should begin here with a usage that seems, oddly enough, so foreign to me: soon she will be married to the Lord Jesus Christ. Those are not simply very comforting words. The ceremony, a sacrament, her marriage, is coming just as surely as is Calcutta.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Morning Thanks--that humming furnace

Right now, it's the beating heart of this house. It hums and runs and pours out lifeblood heat so reliably I swear I don't even think about it. It's just there, working, burning fuel like it's going out of style these days, but most graciously keeping us warm, which is to say, out here on the edge of the plains, alive.

Once upon a time in this century-old house, I'm sure there was coal down here, and a coal-burner, something the old veterinarian who built these house had to feed before bed and, houseslipper shod, right away again in the morning in this awful mid-winter cold. Then, sometime later, long before we moved in, the doctor likely bought himself the monster that sat down here when we moved in, a huge contraption created by local tinkerer named Wandscheer whose creations, once upon a time, graced the basements of a couple hundred village homes, I'm sure. I was always proud of that big-shouldered furnace from the hands and the shop of creative local gent and his crew. When finally it had to go, I was a little sad, even though the new Lennox--vastly more efficient--probably paid for itself in just a few years.

This morning--and not just this morning--I'm thankful for our workhorse furnace, its efficiency, its reliability, its steady performance, because without it we'd be elsewhere or frozen stiff.

The cold has been outrageous this winter, just as it was last--mighty and dominating and seemingly endless. I told my night class on the first Tuesday, mid-January, that the good news was that we were, that night, living through the coldest night of the year. Liar. The successive Tuesdays ever since have, I think, been colder.

When it's this bitter cold, there's little to separate us from the bears really. I mean, no one sleeps their lives away, but we're so contained inside our separate heated caves that what's out there on the horizon seems a fantasy. You really can't be outside. You have all you can do to get in and out of that fierce pinching cold as quickly as possible. Cars run on square wheels. The Tracker's suspension freezes--when I get in, it feels like I'm sitting on a brick. Icicles form like weapons. Sun dogs bristle. The wind doesn't need to howl to incite fear. Blame snow screams beneath your feet. I live two blocks from work. Tuesday morning when I walked, I thought my face was going to fall off.

We stay inside, like bears, occasionally raising an eyelid at the weatherman, then shutting them and praying, hoping for an end to cabin fever.

It's coming this weekend, the weather people say. I swear. Forty by Sunday. That'll be sixty degrees warmer than it's been most of this week, the difference, farther up the mercury, between, say, 20 degrees and 80. That's an appreciable change.

Meanwhile, here we sit, awake but imprisoned, each of us in our separate caves, furnaces beating, humming.

We're waiting. Hoping. Telling each other that soon enough it has to be over, this sepulchral siege, soon enough we'll stretch again, open our eyes, shake out the kinks, and, once more, start to live.

We'll call that moment, ecstatically, spring, and it's all we care to believe in now, the unseen promise of a warmer future, here in the howling cold.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Faith and sight

Last week, along with a couple of hundred others, I sang a song in a worship service, something about "we walk by faith and not by sight." I know the line is scriptural, and therefore struck by the very hand of the Holy Spirit; but I don't mind saying that I just about choked on the words because sometimes good Christian people do--walk by faith and not by sight, which is to say, blindly. Sometimes--am I some kind of heretic?--we must use our vision too, for Christ's sake.

Case in point: I don't have the slightest idea how to understand the strange phenomenon represented in the photo above. Is it paranoia? People who believe Obama is a Muslim are my neighbors, good devout Christian people. Are they so constitutionally convinced that this man, the elected President of the United States, is a conspiratorial liar? Do they believe he is somehow plotting the establishment of a Muslim state here in America? In Sioux Center? In Sioux County?

Honestly, I'm just dumbfounded.

Watch the story here, please, it's all about good Christian people. Help me understand. These people are my brothers and sisters in Christ, or aren't they?

Morning Thanks--headaches

Now this is a stupid problem that i don't know what to do about... I was hopped out in my car to come over to class.. and i can't get my car to work at all.. i've been trying to get the powersteering to work right for the last few days, and now i can't get the wheel to work at all. and i don't live on campus and it's nowhere close for me to just bundle up and walk to class. so as to that i'm unsure what to do.
Well, neither am I. All I know is that when I start a semester, I never really consider the fact that, every stinking year I'm going to get a kid or two like this, students who fall behind, don't do their work, come up with lame excuses, even if those excuses may be truthful and not just some kind of baloney-filled sob story or silliness.

Yesterday I sent him an e-mail, asking him if he was going to drop the class. He's handed in nothing this entire semester--nothing. I thought the question was legitimate. He responded an hour later, saying there was something wrong with his computer, something about e-mail account--his folder was full, something like that. He couldn't get a thing out into that software and out of his hard drive.

Well, sure. But two hours later it was his steering wheel--and he's living too far from campus to walk, he says. I'll give him this much--last night it was somewhere close to -30 with the wind chill. I don't know why he just didn't tell me his car wouldn't start. I'd have believed that. Not that I don't believe the steering wheel business.

But as the sages like to say, to some people at least, "If it ain't one thing, it's another." I just don't understand why in those scrambled hours of a semester's preparation, when I envision nothing but classroom glory, assignments going smooth as silk, perfectly orchestrated discussions, and brilliant lectures, I never once consider that every last semester I've ever taught, there's always some blasted headache, a kid that won't start in the cold or is having trouble with his own dang steering wheel.

Every year, I swear. Every semester at least one or two or three.

It's like the Lord says, except with spin that arises from the classroom--"the poor are with you always." There's always someone to throw a wrench in my best ideas, always someone who can't read e-mail because his server's gone kerflooey, always someone who says, "I'm working on those assignments right now, as a matter of fact. . ."


But I'm glad for one thing at least, for this blame gift: dealing with those sad, lost souls is vastly easier if, in fact, once upon a time, you were one of them yourself. Like me.

Honestly, this morning, exasperated, I'm still thankful for the stupid kid who couldn't steer his blasted car last night, thereby missing two weeks of class in a row, still not having in one little assignment. Really, I am. He drives me nuts, but keeps me human.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Morning Thanks: Marilynne Robinson

We've never been visited by a Pulitzer-Prize winner before that I remember. She was a first, and a good one, a woman whose novel, Gilead, features the deeply wrought sentiments of an old Presbyterian minister writing a long letter to a very young son he fears he won't live long enough to rear adequately.

At the heart of the novel is a parable of Jesus, the story of the prodigal son, a story whose complex meanings Ms. Robinson has undertaken in Gilead, as well as Home, a second novel that, curiously, features the same constellation of characters, as if it were another of those old sepia-tone portraits, this one taken from a significantly different angle in the very same small Iowa town.

What characterizes Robinson's last two novels?--a kind of remarkable quietness that rarely stretches far enough to cover the deep divides that separate people, even though they're family; enough thoughtful theology to be, well, shocking; a near reverence for words in sentences that stubbornly refuse to be as short as our ever-shrinking attention spans; and a profound commitment to grace and love as attributes of the human character too frequently neglected, unseen, or left unnurtured, all of which must be somehow understood by readers around the world since the novel has now been translated into 36 languages, including Arabic and Chinese.

Marilynne Robinson is a Calvinist, too--she calls herself that, even though her perception of what that means may not mesh with definitions others forward. Here, in the words of Calvin himself, is why she calls herself what she does:
Assuredly there is but one way in which to achieve what is not merely the difficult but utterly against human nature: to love those who hate us, to repay their evil deeds with benefits, to return blessings for reproaches. It is that we remember not to consider men's evil intention but to look upon the image of God in them, which cancels and effaces their transgressions, and with its beauty and dignity allures us to love and embrace them.
That tenet of Calvin, she told me, is nothing less than the gold standard.

It was a joy to have her here for a couple of days. I showed her the beauty of the land because she said she wanted to see the landscape of northwest Iowa, a place she'd never been before. So, on a long ride home from the Sioux City airport, we toured the northernmost reaches of the Loess Hills, which begin just a few miles south and west. She knows--maybe she's taught herself--how to look for beauty, and why.

Maybe fifty people came to her lecture last night, only two or three of my students. Breaks my heart, but I've only a year to go.

Besides, not all that far from where she was lecturing, Gov. Tim Pawlenty was speaking, the first to mount the podium in a string of possible Presidential candidates that includes Ron Paul, Michelle Bachmann, Newt Gingerich, and any one else looking to secure the votes of Iowa's strong social conservatives. They'll all be here, visiting, speaking.

There must have been news organizations galore over there because everyone's reporting the event this morning, all kinds of media. The local paper sent a photographer to cover Ms. Robinson. She took a few pics and left.

Pawlenty was sponsored by a group named The Family Leader, a group largely responsible for the ouster of three Iowa Supreme Court justices in the last election, each of those justices voted out for their votes for gay marriage. Hundreds attended Pawlenty's speech. The parking lots were overflowing. Keeping gay people from being married is front-and-center with The Family Leader. Most news networks summarize their mission by way of their strong opposition to abortion and gay marriage. They know very well what they oppose.

Marilynne Robinson, by some measure, I suppose, doesn't give sin its due. Her stress is undiluted--it's on love, not hate--grace, not condemnation, something of an odd emphasis for someone who calls herself a Calvinist. The Family Leader, on the other hand, gives sin its due--it willingly points and righteously condemns in a fashion that may well be the preferred theological stance for local Calvinists.

It should be noted, too, that Marilynne Robinson isn't running for President of the United States. When we came out of the building last night, into frightfully cold weather, I told her that Pawlenty had pounded her, drawing hundreds to her three or four dozen.

"People know I'm not going to affect their future as directly as he might," she said, and she was right.

In fact, standing there in the bitter cold, I thought that was a gracious answer. For that, as well as other wonderful reasons, this mornings' thanks are simply for the witness of beauty and truth, to me and so many others, of Marilynne Robinson.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Today, we're all secularists

Just a block south of our house, Skip Van Driest had a bucket up on a wide driveway smooth as glass. What's better, the rim seemed a couple of inches short of ten feet, a fact which made us believe our junior high leaping was was a whole lot loftier than it was, a bunch of white boys.

Now Skip was Presbyterian; I was Christian Reformed, and that made all the difference on Sunday. On Sabbath afternoons, even though my parents would have hated it, I figured out ways to play ball over there anyway, surreptitiously of course, hoping that no CRC dad drove by (Skip's house was directly across from the our church). For most of the afternoon, I could play my heart out, then stop in a little pine glen between his house and ours, let the sweat dry off my shirt, and then walk into the house bearing no remnant symbol of my sin. It worked.

But, sadly, those were the days when you just couldn't not watch the Packers, the glory years--Bart Starr calling the shots, Ray Nitschke in the middle on defense, Paul Hornung and Jim Taylor in the backfield, Willie Wood, Willie Davis, Herb Adderly, Fuzzy Thursday, Jerry Kramer, and, oh yes, Vince Lombardi at the helm. The Packers were Super Bowl champs, the first Super Bowl champs, in fact--and second. They were what life was about in Wisconsin.

When the Packers started winning, walls started falling. Once my parents were safely asleep upstairs--a church-approved Sabbath nap, I'd turn on the TV, an act thoroughly verboten, no matter how low the volume. Somewhere in Leviticus a little-known verse makes it clear that thou shalt not watch TV on the Sabbath.

But Lombardi was taking our own Green Bay Packers to glory, and winning was all my apostate friends could talk about. I couldn't stand it--there was no lion's den, no fiery furnace, just Lambeau Field. It was only football, the green and gold.

With all the years behind me now, I'll admit to what I did. Fall, 1962, on a fall Sabbath afternoon, I turned on the TV.

It took about a year, I remember, until one Sunday my dad came down early from his righteous nap, found me there in front of the screen, and, shockingly, didn't scream or turn it off, but pulled up a chair and watched just as closely as I did, even yelled. It might have taken another season for Mom to give in, but it happened, as Packer-mania swept the state.

Bart Starr's powerful offense ran all over Schaap Sabbitarianism, turning even the old-line CRCs into secularists. Well, Packer fans, at least.

Two nights ago I called my mother, who's 92. Tomorrow--Super Bowl Sunday--the old folks home where she lives--Oostburg, Wisconsin--will put out a cornucopia of special snacks late afternoon, on the Sabbath, in front of the wide screen TV in the community room for all the residents because sure as heck they'll be there--CRC, Presbyterians, and who knows what else. They'll all be there, she said. It's Super Bowl Sunday.

God moves in mysterious ways his wonders to perform.
Note: the photo above features a goodly number of Dordt College cheeseheads, including yours truly--the cheesehead right of center.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Happy Birthday, Facebook

Honestly, you take a look at my news feed this morning, and it feels like chatterbox cafe, the goofy voices of people, most of whom I don't know, people I can hardly help but judge by their inanity. Scroll down. There are tales of woe and anguish--mostly parental--stories about kids hurling and loading diapers; there's a blizzard of comments about the blizzard--the big one, "snowmaggedon," someone calls it; there are birthday greetings galore and new baby pics, and at least a half dozen compelling reasons to watch a half-dozen bizarre viral videos.

Food pics, pet pics, fun pics, portraits--new ones. Always a testimony or two about the Lord, and a dozen or more "here I am" announcements--Las Vegas, a wintry Colorado retreat, Cancun. There's an entire gallery of snapshots of an old friend's snowy driveway--before and after four hours' worth of sweat and heavy-lifting, followed up with 23 wise-ass comments, including one of mine.

I'm something of a fan, but no fanatic. Lord knows, there are enough of those. It still feels strange to me to be in on a dozen or more intimate conversations, even though very few of them--if any--carry much heft. "Made lasagna tonight--Perry's favorite," and someone says, "real lasagna?" and the voice says, "no, plastic." You know?

It's easy to Scrooge all of this, but much easier, apparently, to love it because gadzillions do and have since 2004--that's right, 2004, when, on this very day, February 4, Facebook was launched as a nice little friend-grower at Harvard by one Mark Zuckerman, who is not only among this nation's most wealthy, but also most well-known. As if out of nowhere, Superman Zuckerman's baby face suddenly showed up on SNL last Saturday night. Nobody wondered who he was. Am I the only American not to have seen Social Network? It's coming on blue-ray.

Here's the thing. It's become the news. In Egypt, it's the medium. More gets known about what's happening on the streets by way of Facebook than by way of CNN. CNN stays on Facebook to stay abreast. I don't doubt Facebook foments revolution because where people talk to each other about change over vast lengths of space, where they learn about how others live and hold hands around the world, where the lightness and gaiety that's spread all over my wall gets read and cherished, freedom has already begun to dawn.

Honestly, I don't check mine but once or twice a week. I'm nowhere near to being addicted. I spend much, much more time here, blogspot.

But today is Facebook's birthday and not to bring up, not to mention it, not to acknowledge the way its often silly voice has altered the nature of all of our lives is just plain wrong. As we speak, a couple billion people already are. Just check your chat box.

Amazing, really. Honestly and truly, in seven short years it has literally changed the world.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Morning Thanks--God's own command

In a certain sense we are--all of us--eyewitnesses to history every single day of our lives. Something, somewhere is always changing. The world's widest avenues are full of those who are leaving and those who've just now arrived.

But what's happening in Egypt feels, to me, as if it has the potential to be epoch-making, shaking up, once again, that war-torn region, the Middle East. One can be optimistic, believing that Facebook and Twitter and cell phone technology is breaking the back of oppression throughout the world. Or one can look on the streets of Cairo and see nothing but darkness, some horrific spike in oil prices--or a cataclysm much, much worse.

Beck and Hannity and the three nameless faces on Fox and Friends (I just heard them) would like us to fear a doomsday scenario that's less than a decade off, that Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood is just another word for al-Quida, that it may be wise for women to run to fabric store now to get what they need for the burkhas our Muslim oppressors will soon be demanding.
Then there are others, those who find the horrifying upheaval full of promise, in fact, as hopeful as Beck, et al, find it horrifying.

In Egypt this morning nobody knows what's going to happen. What'll it be?--hope or horror. The jury's out.

And that's why right now, when Egyptian tanks have just now driven between the battle's warring sides, one gets the sense that all of us who aren't there in the streets of Cairo or Alexandria are, in fact, very definitely history's eyewitnesses.

It's times like these that I like to remember that of all of the Lord's commandments, of all of the directives we find in holy scripture, the one most repeated is not even in the Decalogue. It's just two words long, but it's there all over the pages.

Fear not.

This morning's thanks are for that divine directive. I'm trying to listen, Lord.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011


No true, red-blooded Calvinist could ever be guilty of sloth, or laziness, one of the highly respected seven deadlies. Good night, if Max Weber is to be believed, we gifted this culture with capitalism, after all, because to us hard work is, without a doubt, something of a heavenly virtue, and I'm no exception.

But industry is like piety, in a way--you can never quite do enough or be enough. There's always more work lurking right around the corner, always more that could be done. The Bible says "pray without ceasing," after all. We could all be better Christians, harder workers, more passionate, more productive. Go on, take up your calling, take up your bed and walk, get out there, grab those bootstraps and get the job done, get off your butt. As that sage, secular Calvinist, Ben Franklin, used to say, "Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise."

My clock, right now, says 4:55 a.m. Just call me a Calvinist.

It's one thing not to operate on "Indian time" here (with malice toward none of my Native brothers and sisters), but the fact is, our kitchen clock is actually set five minutes fast because, Lord knows, we can't be late.

Here's the rub: sometimes, just sometimes, it just gets to be too much. Yesterday was one of those days--too much to do and way, way, way too much that wouldn't get done. There wasn't enough time in the day for all the work that had to be done, and the Lord knows I can't--I won't--operate at anything less than maximum output. I'm a Calvinist, after all. Failure is not an option.

Sometimes I think I could use a good healthy shot of sloth. Maybe two. Maybe four or five, in fact, leaning over a bar. I bet the Lord wouldn't mind.

When it really gets bad, my heart rises like a bloody balloon in my chest and beats out a rhythm so heavy that I can feel it in my throat, as if I'm going to burst. Yesterday, on top of everything else, I could not--for the life of me--find my textbook. Drove me just about over the edge, in fact. Night class last night--got to give the students' their money's worth; but I had absolutely no idea where I'd find my text for this morning's 9:00 class. Wit's end, I'm convinced, features a breathtaking cliff. There I stood, panting. Seriously.

Then the book showed up, class went fine, and now it's the morning after.

I'm up early. Got to prepare.

The thing is, I've got a friend whose wife needs an organ transplant, but her heart's in no condition to sustain that traumatic level of surgery. He's been at her bedside for months, miles from here, miles from home, awaiting someone else's liver, a gift that's no longer coming. He's an old friend, not one I see all that often, a real presence in any room, big personality, a hearty sense of life and living, a man who at 60 years old, bought himself a Harley for his birthday. Barring a miracle, he's going to lose his wife of almost 40 years.

In my office at school, I deliberately put up a photo, an 8 x 10, of some wild flower in sunlight, along with a line that you'd have to look closely to see, but a line I know is there. "Consider. . .," it says. Meaning the lilies. Months ago, I stuck it up there deliberately, a reminder, even an admonition, an actual command from Jesus the Lord.

But I haven't seen for a while. I'm too busy. Isn't that sin deadly too?

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Reading Mother Teresa III

"From the age of 5 1/2 years, when I first received Him
--the love for souls has been within.
--It grew with the years, until I came to India--
with the hope of saving many souls."

For reasons which I don't understand myself, when it comes to the fires of hell, I have, since childhood, become significantly less fearful. What's more, I'm probably a good deal more generous about who might or might not go there--and why. I am, without question, far more theologically liberal today, maybe even something of a backslider. My guess is that, for the most part, I'm not alone.

Mother's Teresa's white-hot, childhood passion for "saving many souls" probably arises from a landscape she saw clearly before her, a landscape I think I know too, because when I was a kid I saw just two roads leading toward eternity--one wide and one narrow, both clearly and vividly mapped out. The fact is, I think I knew exactly how to travel to either destination. It wasn't all that hard either. In my kid mind, salvation had little to do with mystery.

If you love people, as Mother Teresa did, you want to save them, at all cost, from the nightmarish visions of Hieronymous Bosch, or whatever horror lies down there at the end of that other road, the wide one. I understand that. She says she was 5 1/2 when she partook of her first communion, just 5 1/2 when those lifelong passions took root. She was a child. She saw things as a child.

Me?--when I became a man, I think I put away those childish things.

But then I think about Christ's own admonition about kids, about the dire necessity of childhood faith. He was kidding, right? Look, throughout his ministry, he was given to hyperbole--like rich men passing through a needle's eye. That's poetry, not truth.

Isn't it?