Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Friday, April 29, 2011

The New World


I happen to be among those who believe that Obama did the right thing in releasing his birth certificate, if for no other reason than it would stop this persistent question at least: "Well, if he's got nothing to hide, then why doesn't he release it?"

That's done anyway. He did.

But that someone like Orly Taitz wouldn't believe it doesn't surprise
me. If you want to think of Barack Hussein Obama as from some other world, you will. That's all. Such faith actually does move mountains--all the way from Hawaii to Kenya, in fact. But it's utterly crazy and the worst brand of cheap baloney.

In the whacky world of 2012 politics, we're all being weirded out, as my students might say. This birth certificate thing may be over--"may be"--but those who still believe Obama some the product of some vast liberal conspiracy are going to see lurking enemies behind every road sign. Obama will never be one of us.

BUT, just last week, my mother, who deeply distrusts the man (abortion is the only issue worth talking about really), told me she'd never, ever, ever vote for Donald Trump. Look, I'm thrilled that summer is upon us, really thrilled. But my mother's adamant vow never to vote for Trump is the best news I've heard in weeks, the best reverse Mother's Day gift she could have bestowed upon her hopeless son.

Not only am I happy for her, but I'm far more hopeful about my own people, who hate Obama so deeply that I'd begun to think they'd actually take Trump before Obama--that's right, DONALD TRUMP, a man whose millions come, at least in part, from gambling dens none of them ever frequent, a man with multiple divorces and multiple marriages, a repulsive, vain bully in a chameleon's suit, a joke with ridiculous hair. "No," she told me, "I'd never vote for him."

I swear, I exhaled so gloriously at that moment that singlehandedly I put out prairie fires in Texas. If people hate Obama, that's their privilege in this great land. But that good Christian people would actually prefer Donald Trump is, to me, unimaginable.

Not Mom. Hallelujah.

There's simply more silliness in the land than you can shake a stick at, and the big story on the birther brouhaha is not that Obama did what he did, but that he actually felt compelled to do it. The Trumps of this world, the lunatic fringe, those who've made their name on the whole silly business, forced his hand, and they did so because we now live--or so it seems to me--in a different world, a world where hot internet news garbage and 24/7 news cycles can, in a half a day, make a mountain out of a molehill. (There's faith again.)

What people say about newspapers and publishing and the music industry is true in every corner of our lives. Gate-keepers have left the building--editors, djs, Walter Cronkite. Instant news has crowned he each of us king.

Today, we choose. For free, we can all be authors (witness this blog). Every last one of us can record our voices or our ukeleles and broadcast our musical talent around the world in just seconds. If I want to say the iceman cometh on the 15th of May, and you want to tweet it, who knows how many dorks might just batten their hatches? The editors are gone. The gate-keepers are dead. Walter Cronkite is barely a memory.

In the information age, it's every man for him or herself. Technology has made us all landed gentry--we determine what we like on our property because we rule; we determine what's true because in the castle where I live, I am sovereign.

There's something aboslutely wonderful about that, and something absolutely awful.

Times have changed. We live and move and have our being in the information age, when, like never before, each and every one of us is king.

What hasn't changed a bit is your basic, display-room human character. It might be smart to review Calvin on fallenness.

And don't expect a golden age.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Morning Thanks--more rain


Right now, at this very moment, just a minute or so after five a.m., Central Daylight, noone really knows what kind of destruction tornadoes wreaked last night on a swath of horror viscious spring storms took through the South. Oh, many hundreds, even thousands, know individually--those who, by flashlight, have already discovered there's nothing left where yesterday stood house or barn or neighborhood. In a fierce, violent line that stretched from Texas to New York, killer storms took the lives of 83 people at latest count. Experts guess that, come daylight, that number will rise.

On my way downstairs I looked out our window and saw a wet street. Rain seems as constant as the kid brother you wish would get lost. I keep thinking about the college kids who play ball these days who can't get games in to save their hides. If it doesn't rain here, the wind blows, and it's never been warmer than fifty-something. It's been a spring to bring shame, really, a real flop.

But had we been on the cusp of that low pressure system down South, that line of destruction that will soon be unmistakable from a couple hundred feet in the air, had we been where those two massive fronts collided--and we could have been, we could have been--then I'd see much worse than shiny wet streets from my windows, if there'd be windows at all, much less streets.

We've got bad weather but thousands, down South, have no homes. Hundreds are mourning.

My sister and her family are safe, even though, rumor has it, a goodly chunk of the neighborhood around Ringgold, Georgia, where they live has been rudely reupholstered by tornados. Once upon a time, a great battle of the Civil War was fought in the hills all around where they live. This morning, as the sun rises, weary, beaten, grieving people will look out at devastation no one's seen there for 150 years.

This morning's thanks are for them, my family, who made it through; but those thanks, while deep, are best said in lower case because last night, all through the South there were and are many whose lives God did not choose to spare.

Somewhere in Anne Lammott's treasure trove of tales, she says her arsenal of prayers include only two words--"Thanks" and "Help." Just two prayers. She's right. And this morning, all through the South and all over the country, for that matter, it's those two prayers one hears ascending from a million basements, bedrooms, curbs and hospital beds. Shrink all those words down, and what's left is thanks and help, neighbor after neighbor.

Me among them from the cold and rain that feels remarkably comforting here, once again, just outside.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Morning Thanks--Love tag




Closed up the last night class of my life last night. Finished it off with a load of chocolate cookies that soon enough had them all on sugar highs. Not smart.

I wouldn't say it was memorable, but, Lord knows, I loved it because it was the last. Ever. I swear not to do it again because just a few minutes after nine whatever oils my aging brain turns sludge-like, and right before my eyes the class sputters into slow motion, when in fact it doesn't. On the street, I'd be a drunk driver. I told myself last year, "Never again," but I fell off the wagon this semester. Not next. Nope.

So anyway, the end of a night class is the end of a week and the end of the semester--at least for that one--and that's cause to celebrate. I went home and ate cashews. Such is life.

Not really. Here's my bliss. After class, one of the students had a question about the assignments or something, but the two of us soon called to order a Society of Mutual Admiration for Alice Munro, our Chekhov, some say, one of the finest--if not the finest--short story writers there is, period.

It so happens this student loves her. We're reading Munro in another class I'm teaching right now, another class this student is in, and, I have to admit, I've never been particularly successful with Munro--to my shame and sadness. She usually rises from the syllabus at the end of the year, and that may be the source of the problem; but this year things seem different--more energy in the class, more searching eyes from atuned minds. Which is to say, more music. I like that.

So there the two of us stood, doing a little one-ups-manship, love tag, on the superlatives--"oh, and don't you just love this. . ." That kind of thing. Back and forth. It was glorious. Really, I don't understand why else anyone would teach for forty years--if not just for those moments. I honestly don't know.

So while locking the doors on my own final night class begat for me great pleasure, that estimable joy was eclipsed by what happened while I threw away wrappers from the bon-bons. This student just loves Munro and so do I and the two of us couldn't stop saying it. That was sweet beyond sugar highs.

This morning, I'm thankful for a darling little ten-minute praise chorus, a duet the two of sang for Alice Munro. That little bit of grace made me walk away from the classroom last night, after my last night class ever, in the same way my daughter used to, long ago, up high on my toes.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Endings


Once upon a time on a visit to Japan, we toured a Christian school where some friends had been teaching. Out back in the fenced-in schoolyard, our guide told us the school was blessed to have as much space as it did in a suburban Tokyo neighborhood where "farms" were little more than half-acre plots. People live atop each other in Japan.

The only problem, she told us, was that the commuter train that ran just back of school was an oddly popular place for suicides--just a hundred yards or so up the track from the station. Suicides right on the other side of the schoolyard fence, especially when they were frequent, weren't the kind of experiences school kids were supposed to enjoy at recess.

Suicide, in Japan, has something of an honorable aura created by hundreds of years of cultural history. Because it does, I suppose, there's vastly more of it. Suicide, often for financial reasons, is the leading cause of death among young men and women, happening every 15 minutes or so.

According to the LA Times, Japanese officials fully expect that already distressing rate to rise significantly, post earthquake, post tsunami, and post-nuclear meltdown--if, in fact, areas of that country ever make it past that horrific threat.

In Willa Cather's My Antonia, an immigrant Czech, out on the far reaches of the western Plains, falls victim to the arduous pressures it takes to cut out a chunk of cheap land and make a life for his family, especially when, back in the old country, he didn't farm. The old man shoots himself in the barn, then is buried in the middle of the road because there's no room in the graveyard for a hopeless, faithless suicide.

We've come a long ways since then, I'm sure. I lost an ex-student a decade ago or so, a pleasant enough kid who used to come in for extra help because he knew very well he needed it. I know little of the circumstances--he didn't live here, and I think part of it was a failing marriage. He ended it all in his garage, I was told.

If the story only ended there. But it doesn't.


I lost a friend too, not that long ago. That he hung himself was a shocking revelation, even though I couldn't say that I never would have expected him--this old friend--to take his own life. I didn't, but that he did wasn't simply out of the question. Same with the ex-student really.

I know enough about depression to understand that darkness leads nowhere. I know enough about the darkness to understand that some, so stricken, would rather find light on the other side of this vale of tears. We all understand some things better than we did a century ago these days. We don't bury our suicides in the road anymore. They too find a place up on the hill.

But we're not Japan. Culturally, we probably frown more deeply on those who disappoint us with self-inflicted ends. And I'm glad that's true. Two guys I know who took their own lives abide in a select spot in my memory, surrounded by their own tragic legacies. What they did keeps on giving, in a way.

What may well happen in Japan these days, after the tragedy, is aftershocks of a whole different level. That's what's feared.

American exceptionalism can sometimes be it's own kind of a bogus religion, but I'm happy to live in a culture where taking one's own life isn't somehow honorable. I wouldn't want to travel back to Willa Cather's era, when suicides were pariahs; but the idea, right now, of picking up more bodies from the sides the tracks of commuter trains just breaks my heart--and still troubles my soul.

Monday, April 25, 2011

A throne of stone


If you want proof that at least some of the honor given to the "inerrancy" argument misses the point, all you need to do is read the gospels' various tales of the resurrection because they're all different. Who saw what when? isn't at all clear. Depends on who you believe--Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John.

No matter. Who says story-tellers always get their facts straight? Not me.

Yesterday, in church, we read the Matthew passage, and I couldn't help giggle about that angel, "an angel of the Lord," Matthew says, not naming names. The implication, in Matthew, is that the women, two Marys, were actually there at the time--and felt the earth shake when that winged strongman shouldered back the stone.

Those Roman guards--think of them as fat Donald Trumps in skirts--went numb, according the Matthew, "became like dead men." And why not? The very idea their subconscious minds must have feared was actually happening. All night long they were probably drinking and carrying on about this dim-wit assignment--watching a tomb sealed with a behemoth rock, lest some scrawny Jewish fanatics (or worse, their women) should try to roll it away and grab the body of that bloody fool prophet, whatever his name was. Somewhere in the empire real Roman guards were doing respectable war, while they bivouac in Palestine with some skinny dead guy.

Then, boom, the ground shakes, this massive stone rolls off, and there stands this buff winged cherubim.

Here's what I never really saw before: ". . .behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it."

This heavenly linebacker rolls back the stone and just sits on it. Imagine that. He does the heavy lifting, then sits down, crosses his legs, and says to the dazed Roman warriors, "So, this guy walks into a bar with his camel. . ."

Okay, the Bible says nothing about bad jokes, but I just think it's so right that the angel--maybe he worked up a sweat, who knows?--would just sit down on that rock as if it was a Lay-z-boy and pull out a pipe. "Come here often?" he might say to the shuttering Roman boys.

It's not everyday one thinks of an angel as something of a ham.

But then it's not everyday a haloed angel, his appearance like lightning, his garment like snow, moves a mountain so that a dead man walks.

It's not everyday there's a resurrection.


It's not everyday a stone is a throne.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Morning Thanks--Easter




Outside the basement window, what I can see at the top of the naked branches of the maple in the neighbor's backyard is a new and utterly welcome brightness against azure I haven't seen, I don't believe, for weeks. For reasons which go beyond my limited knowledge of meteriology, the sun could well have left the room of our lives for what seems most of April. Here a good day, there a good day--and the rest is gloom.

This morning there is no movement at all outside my window, no wind. A maroon glaze rises from the ornamental crabs off the deck because even though we've had no sun, those aching buds just can't wait to explode. If, today, the sun shines, all day, things will pop all over. In our annual garden out back, bright green shoots are dying to break forth. If spring isn't late, it's certainly been dallying--nothing but fog and cold and sprinkles since there was anything but snow.

But not this morning. Last night, just at dusk, like a promise, the clouds broke and the sun, at the western horizon blessed us with its bright and shiny face for ten minutes maybe. Last night, stars bejeweled the heavens, and this morning the branches of that maple are burnished with dawn.

Couldn't be more dramatic. Couldn't be more fitting.

This is Easter morning. A new day is dawning. The clouds have been rolled back like stone, death itself, buried in His place. He arose, and we have life because he did.

In our lives, Christmas means joy, but Easter is the triumph.

This morning's thanks--like none other--is resurrection.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Mile Markers




It's a mile marker, I think. I got hoodwinked. It's happened before, but this time I got taken for a ride for a completely different reason, and I'm left thinking that now, with respect to my granddaughter, we've entered a whole new state of being.

So my wife and I stop at the garage sale my daughter and friends are throwing, an entire garage full of mostly kid clothes. We're not in the market; for the most part, we're just nosy and it's a Friday night. Believe me, we're not shopping. We could have our own HUGE GARAGE SALE if we took the time to winnow out the detritus, a job which, by the way, looms hugely just down the pike somewhere.

My granddaughter comes running up, grabs my hand, and hauls me over to the far corner, where she picks up a little bulletin board, perfect for some dreamy-eyed fourth-grade girl's bedroom. It got a trade name, of course--High School Musical. We're at a garage sale. It's somebody's old stuff. I don't really need a High School Musical bulletin board myself, but with her holding my hand I'm already reaching for my wallet.

"It's hers," my daughter says from across the garage.

I swear that rare headline took forever to settle in. "It's hers," my daughter said again.

Listen--my darling little sweet perfectly innocent fourth-grade granddaughter, my very first grandchild, who, as far as I know, has never yet sinned, didn't want me to buy this useless piece of High School Musical junk for her--oh, no, that wasn't it at all. She wasn't looking to remodel her wildly unkempt bedroom. No, no, no.

She wanted me to buy that stupid thing because she wanted the almighty dollar it was going to cost me to lug the dumb thing home.

Give me the money, she was saying. Give me the money. Give me the money.

Woe and woe and woe. We--the two of us in a vehicle we call life--just passed some kind of mile marker., and this morning I'm not sure life is worth living.

I didn't buy the stupid thing, but I'll likely give her a buck next time the two of us are alone.

Some things don't change anyway, even if she is.

Grandpa will always be a sucker.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Morning Thanks--Good Friday



An old friend of mine, a theologian actually, once said the story the Bible tells us is really quite simple. It goes like this: we keep messing up, and He keeps taking us back. I liked that line years ago, and I still like it today. It's easy.

But really, nothing about the Christian faith is easy really, unless you're a child, I suppose.

Last night's Maunday Thursday worship featured John 13, where Christ's brings out a basin and insists on doing the dirty work, washing the boys' feet. That little dirty exercise sits at the very core of everything about to happen, the whole bloody story of Christ's passion. "Oh no," Peter says when he sees what Jesus is about to do, "You'll not wash my feet."

Jesus says something like this. "Yes, I will, Brother Peter, and if you don't understand what's going on here, you're missing everything, the whole story, the whole point."

Because the whole point of what's going on, that sloshing basin before them even as they speak, the whole point about what's going on and what will be coming soon--the Garden, the hill, the stone, the empty cave--is not only humbling, it's humility, it's giving and not receiving, it's all about the other guy and not yourself. The whole point of the whole operation and the whole bloody story is self-sacrificing love.

For more years than one could count, pride has been #1, top of the chart of the deadly sins, that which almost always goeth before the fall. It's virtually uncontested reign is not imperiled by anything today--not lechery or laziness or greed. Pride is our life's breath.

I won't speak for others. The withering response Christ gives to Peter's posturing is, to me at least, one of the most powerful lines in holy scripture: if you don't get it, Peter, you're hopeless. When I hear that line--no matter when--I can't help but know how blasted hopeless I am because the core, the center, the heart of the good news is humility.

I'll spare the pain, but I know a dozen stories of late when humility was out of the country, and I don't have to think back far.

That sloshing basin is the indescribable gift of the incarnation: the Word becomes flesh to live, and die, among us.

That's the story this Good Friday.

What a story. What a blessing. Even when we, like Peter, don't get it right--which is just about all the time--Christ keeps soaping our feet, loving us anyway.

What a savior. Ought to make us proud, I guess.

No, ought to make us humble.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Reading Mother Teresa XIII


I would like to believe that the two are not somehow related. I would like not to believe that the height our individual faith can reach is somehow conversely proportional, a backwards mirror image, of the depths to which that faith can fall or fail.

In Mother Teresa's case, however, it seems true.

My mother told me that my father told her in one of those late-night talks all good marrieds have that he had never once in his life ever doubted that God was there with him, that Jesus was everything his Word said he was and is, and that God loved him truly--my father. We chose "Blessed Assurance" at his funeral because each of his children knew perfectly well that what that old hymn claims was true of our loving father.

I don't look like my father. I'm almost a head taller and probably uncomfortably close to a 100 pounds heavier. I certainly don't see the world the way he did. He was a rock-solid conservative Republican. Were he alive, he'd love his governor, Wisconsin's rock-solid Scott Walker, and I'm quite sure he'd really dislike Obama. My father was a wise investor, a hard-worker, and he simply assumed that everyone else should be too. The two of us got along just fine, but we often disagreed. He was not disagreeable, however. Never.

I like to think I may have inherited at least a bit of his abounding graciousness, even if he and I didn't protect the same political turf. About that, however, I'm a lousy judge. I also like to believe his greatest gift to his only son was faith that ambles through life like the Eveready bunny, somehow therefore protected from the energy failure that creates bouts in some of us horrific, crippling doubt.

Mother Teresa was not so blessed, a fact of her life that some, I'm sure, would much rather not stumble upon. The same letter that "bedews" Indian souls contains the first mention of the darkness to which she was more than occasionally subject throughout her life.

"Do not think my life is strewn with roses," she writes, "--that is the flower which I hardly ever find on my way. I have more often as my companion 'darkness.'"

The heights to which her faith and her spirits could climb had to be incredible; but somehow I'm not surprised that when she would fall, that descent would take her into darkness deeper and more profound than most of us will ever see.

I despise having to think of this tiny little saint suffering that way, to think of anyone suffering that way; but it's comforting too to know that we all suffer, that Psalm 13 isn't just David on a bad day, or Psalm 88 isn't the ravings of infidel.

Even though I swear I've not been there, not been to the darkness Mother Teresa knew too well, my own unquestioned faith is richer, deeper, and fuller by way of her testimony that she was. I don't want to sound vainglorious, but I think I'm stronger by way of her weakness. It saddens me to know that somehow this little bride of Christ suffered the profound doubt that grows from a perception of abandonment by the almighty.

Yet, somehow her deeply discouraging bouts of darkness--and her testimony of them, just like that of King David--brings me light.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Morning Thanks--our prayers


He doesn't go to our church, and neither does his family. But his sister does, and she's the one whose testimony, as she's asked passionately for our prayers, keeps replaying in my mind. I don't believe I've ever seen him. I know him only through his sister's tears.

He has a family, and I don't think he's even 30 years old. He's Hispanic, and I'm quite sure his wife is here too, north of the border--and his children.

His sister's first tears-for-prayers explained her brother's cancer, how it seemingly came on slowly, a pain, a lingering hurt, a tenderness in the stomach that wouldn't go away. The first week she didn't know what it was, only that her little brother was suffering, as was his family, his kids.

Then came diagnosis and another more impassioned request because doctors had discovered this everyday pain to be stomach cancer--and after all her brother was so very young. Then came another plea--the treatment had begun, expensive and complicated.

And now, yesterday, a terrifying prognosis. Nothing has worked. All that's left to do is treat his pain and wait for the end to come.

Her brother, almost certainly, is illegal, but politics be damned right now. Somewhere in this community a young father is dying.

I curse his cancer, but this morning I'm thankful that he is, as is his family, in God's own hands; and that what rises in this community, each day and night, is a wave of sadness and concern in a cloud of a thousand prayers.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

When finally bubbles cease


High school, for me, was a lifetime ago, and even though any attempt to call it back is silly, this morning I fell way back there when I read that ABC is canceling two of its ancient soaps, All My Children and One Life to Live, wiping them out after years and years of seemingly eternal yarn-spinning. What could be more canonical in the annals of American TV than the soaps?

ABC is plug-pulling reminded me of As the World Turns, which, I just read, got itself terminated more than a year ago already. I must have missed the obit. Forty-plus years ago, AWT would be on the screen at our house on those days I'd be holed up with the flu or a bad cold. I can still see that spinning globe and hear the opening lines of the musical theme, and I swear that, as a high school kid, I was far too busy to be sick very often. On those few days I was, I remember thinking how peculiar it was to be able to pick up the narrative line as if I hadn't missed a beat.

The characters' names are long gone now, but the roles, back then, were so perfectly delineated that I knew long before the first commercial break who stood on the side of truth and justice and even purity--and who wasn't there at all. Even if I hadn't paid attention for an entire semester, I knew the score.

I really never thought of it until just this moment, but the fact that AWT was always on had to mean my very religious mother tuned in religiously. I was young then, maybe more forgiving because it would have been impossible for me to think of her passions back then. Today, simply the idea of her soap addiction makes me giggle.

But soaps are finally on their way out. AWT's been gone since September of 2010, I just read, and now ABC is sounding the death knell for two more veterans.

Real virile hate requires an intimacy I don't have, so I'm not dancing on the graves of these long-running worthies. Besides, when I was 16, I remember being amused that I could miss an entire semester's worth of shows and, inside of three minutes, still get tangled up in the plot.

It's hard to believe the sages of every wisdom book to humankind, especially when it comes to soaps, but finally and assuredly, I guess, all things must pass. What more weighty proof can there be?

Really, I don't know whether to sniffle or smile.

R.I.P.




Monday, April 18, 2011

Morning Thanks--grads


It's ludicrous and more than a little creepy to think of them as yours. They never were, even when they sat before you. Even then, their hearts were almost always truly elsewhere.

No matter. When you see them do well, when it's clear they'd doing good things, when you're impressed by what they're up to, you can't help but think of them as your own, even if what they did in your class is lost in indistinguishable, chalky classroom memories.

Really, in no sense at all are they mine, the part I may have played in their lives infinitesimally smaller than, say, a first car or certainly a first kiss.

It's insane to think it, I'm sure. I'm sorry. Sort of.

Friday night I watched two of them perform, ex-students, immensely accomplished organists/musicians--watched them charm an audience at Princeton Seminary with a repertoire that took us through a history of Dutch psalm-singing. It was terrific--thoughtful, gorgeous, even inspiring.

So this morning's thanks are a special grace dispensed only to teachers. Next year, when I walk into the classroom for the last time, I'll have held forth for 40 years. No one should teach that long. Saturday night, coming home, I was nearly laughed out of the plane when I innocently admitted I had no idea what "bf" or gf" meant, or why on earth a perfectly sane human being would write "my bad." It was all in fun.

But here's my morning thanks. When I see them do good things--no matter how long ago they handed in their last papers, I'm proud.

And I'm not repenting either because Friday night was, for an old teacher, a blessing, a great night, even though those two grads weren't "mine" any more than they were the college president's.

But it felt like it.

And it felt wonderful.

I felt like Prof. Schaap.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Morning Thanks--Robinson, Kuyper, Miller Chapel

My grandfather, the preacher, carried a pocket-sized edition of a rightly famous book of meditations by a man he likely admired even though his father-in-law, a seminary professor, didn't, or so it's rumored. That book was tan, well-worn, the pages yellowed with age but also with use; and it fell into my possession when aunts (his daughters) started unloading family memorabilia on me, the grandson, they claimed, who cared about all that old stuff.

The title was Near Unto God, and its author was one Abraham Kuyper, a one-time Dutch Prime Minister and sometime theologian, a man whose name and legacy in my own faith tradition looms gigantic, even if few of his descendents would recognize his name today.



Thousands of Dutch immigrants in two different waves (1890-1917 and 1946-1955 or so) lugged Kuyper along to North America--if not a book or two or three, then some considerable measure of influence on them from "the old country." I don't doubt for a moment that sociologists would say that the experience of immigration shapes emigrants into more hearty adherents of whatever it was they believed "back home."


What I'm saying is that the Dutch diaspora, the immigrant folks in those two waves, may well have stuck with what they knew from the old country with more tenacity and fervor than they would have had they stayed in Holland. After all, whatever it was they had back there provided some measure of identity in the bizarre new country. They were, after all Dutch; and they weren't, at least for a while, American.


So it's possible my grandfather kept that pocket edition of Abraham Kuyper's most beloved meditations close to his heart for understandably ethnic reasons. But I think there was a good deal more. What it offered him--a long series of devotions about staying "near unto God"--was deeply and convincingly instructive and comforting as well. Something in meditations of Abraham Kuyper made music with whatever was playing on the lute in Grandpa's soul.

I've taught for most of my life in an institution of higher learning that likely still holds Abraham Kuyper most central to its identity, although such an idea is fading in the wash of Americanism that's almost inevitable over here in the land of the free and the home of the brave. Still, those who think most deeply about such things would assert unequivocally that the very heart--well, soul--of that institution wears a paradigm drawn directly from Kuyper's own enthusiasm for this world, as well as the next. He was, after all, not only a preacher but a prime minister too.

Once upon a time a dozen years ago or so, I thought I should read that tan pocket-sized book--descendent as I am, after all, of its theological heritage. So I did. The book was written in a wooden preektone that made the prose unearthly--and not in a good way. But beneath that absolutely hideous English translation was wisdom, or so I thought.

So I set out to "translate," to update that stilted English prose. I know little Dutch, but I thought that, if for no sake other than my own, I should make work of rendering more gracefully those ideas I found fascinating and still powerful, an entire century or more after they were first penned an ocean away.

The result was my own Near Unto God, still available, in fact, a book my mother told me was wonderful, even though she thought it was necessary to read each of the meditations three or four times. Guess I didn't make them clear enough.

Tonight, at Princeton Seminary, I sat in Miller Chapel, home to a gorgeous organ that dominates the front almost as if it were an altar. The walls are white, as are the benches, which are so old and wooden that if someone three butts down moves around even a little a bit, so does everyone else. It's an old Presbyterian look, really, nothing fancy or outlandish, even though there are plenty of Doric towers, inside and out. But everything is suitably restrained. A pulpit, a single empty cross at the front, maybe for Holy Week, and that proud pipe organ.

My guess is it might look like any of a couple hundred very well-kept Protestant churches in New England--you know, floor to ceiling, lattice-work windows, eight fine chandeliers, each of them flashing a couple dozen lights up and down the ceiling. It's no cathedral.

It's what it was designed to be--a plain house of prayer, vintage late 19th century.

Tonight, Marilyn Robinson held forth in a long detailed academic treatise which argued, basically, that most of us are dead wrong about John Calvin, that he was far more a liberal than a horror, that he, like Winthrop, was deeply interested in tending to the needs of the poor, the needy, as is, she argued, the Old Testament.

You read all of that right. She scoffed at Max Weber, who insisted that it was the Calvinists that gave us capitalism because, she said, it was Calvin who implored his people to mercy and justice.

I'm not altogether sure too many Calvinists today would have liked what she maintained. I did. I loved it. But I also deeply admire Marilynn Robinson.

But for me at least, she wasn't the whole show tonight because she held forth from up front of a worship space where, once upon a time, 113 years ago, in fact, a Dutch preacher named Abraham Kuyper stood behind the pulpit and delivered what some call even today "the Stone Lectures."

I've read some. I've read all of Near Unto God. But I haven't read much else of Abraham Kuyper's extensive canon.

All I know is that my grandpa, the preacher, like a ton of his contemporaries, carried him around wherever he went, sometimes even underlining what he thought he shouldn't forget. When I hold that little tan book in my hand, it's valuable, even if it's not worth a quarter at the next Sioux Center library book giveaway.

But I felt rich tonight too, beneath a dozen sweet chandeliers up high, while sitting on a creaky white bench in the middle of a worship space made vastly more spacious by its white walls and soft yellow ceiling.

Tonight, Marilynne Robinson. What a treat.

But once upon a time a man stood there and held forth just like she did, a man whose own words have found a place in my mind, but who, I think, long before I even knew, shaped my very soul.

Miller Chapel was haunted tonight.

And I was blessed to be there.

_________________________________________ Sorry, I've lost my ability to make paragraphs.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Morning Thanks--Giving



In order to tolerate the speed and frequency at which some grandparents reach for their wallets or purses and produce pictures of their grandkids, I had to become one. Nothing--nobody--can be more annoying than a grandpa's endless braying about his grandkids' stupendous charms.

Okay, shoot me.

Yesterday, it was the little guy. Today it's his big brother.

A second-grader. Class trip. Off to Sioux Falls on the bus with the rest of the little misfits. Pack a lunch first. He did. And off they went.

A friend had no little bag of grub. Mom had forgotten it was class trip day. My grandson shared his own, creating this e-mail.


My husband and I both forgot about the Pavillion trip yesterday…a thousand reasons why, but none of them matter--our boy had no lunch or snack. Mrs. Van didn’t find out until the way home because your son shared his lunch and snack. I cried for many reasons yesterday, but today I cry tears of joy knowing the friend our son has in Pieter. Pieter shines God’s love through and through…just thought you should know.
Let me just point out here that that's my grandson, the second-grader. That's my grandson, who once upon a time threw miserable fits, who sometimes seemed conscience-less, who occasionally and perversely smiled through some punishments. That's my grandson, the second-grade saint.

I sometimes forget the original purpose of this old blog--to give thanks, each day, for something. Garrison Keillor once told an interviewer from Christian Century that he thought we'd live in a better world if everybody, everyday, gave thanks for something. I still think he's right.

But then, some mornings, it's tough. It takes real work not to be sappy, and besides, lots of times I got other things on my mind. Who know what on earth this whole blogging thing is or means anyway?

But this morning I'm going back to basics because this grandpa has perfectly good reasons to turn himself into a just another grandpa, braying like a jackass because he's proud of his grandkids.

I don't care. This morning, I'm thankful to the Lord that something saintly in Pieter's second-grade heart made him turn to the hungry kid beside him and open his own bag.

Them's my morning thanks. Now hold on a minute and let me see if I can find a picture.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Just keep jigging



This morning's poem from Writer's Almanac is just wonderful, for me at least--and fitting for an old Calvinist, because just a few days ago my wife babysat our full-of-life grandson, who's just a year-and-a-half. When I came home at noon, he took one look at me and did some gaga toddler's Irish jig, danced in a goofy, spinning way that's all his own and that meant--or at least this is the way I translated it--that this darling child was thrilled to the soul to see his grandpa.

(Let me just mention, in passing, that I should be struck dumb for not telling the world that dandy jig made perfect sense for the next day's morning thanks. Can't believe I didn't say it.)

But here's the poem:

The Best Year of Her Life

by Gerald Locklin

When my two-year-old daughter
sees someone come through the door
whom she loves, and hasn't seen for a while,
and has been anticipating
she literally shrieks with joy.

[Yep. I know--just last week. . .]

I have to go into the other room
so that no one will notice the tears in my eyes.

[I don't remember crying but I'm not unfeeling.]

Later, after my daughter has gone to bed,
I say to my wife,

"She will never be this happy again,"
and my wife gets angry and snaps,
"Don't you dare communicate your negativism to her!"

[And I'm happy to admit that that kind of "negativism" never entered my mind at the moment of my grandson's happy jig--not that it doesn't. If there's a black edge to be seen, trust me--I'll spot it, no matter how marshmellow-y cumulonimbus the cloud.]

And, of course, I won't, if I can possibly help it,
and of course I fully expect her to have much joy in her life, [Amen] and, of course, I hope to be able
to contribute to that joy --
I hope, in other words, that she'll always
be happy to see me come through the door--

[Amen and amen, brother, but I have this forboding sense that the poem isn't over.]

but why kid ourselves -- she, like every child,
has a life of great suffering ahead of her,

[run for cover; it's going to rain]

and while joy will not go out of her life,
she will one of these days cease to actually,
literally, jump and shriek for joy.

[End of poem. End of reverie. End of jig. Enter sable-garbed truth.]

He's right, of course, and we're wrong to deny it. I swear, I like the poem, even though, this early morning, it's like chugging a half of cup of luke-warm cod liver oil.

But I know what he's saying, and he's not wrong.

However, here's what I'm wondering--is "happy" redundant when used to describe a jig? I think so. I don't have a dime's worth of Irish in me, but is there such a thing as a "doleful" jig? a "somber" jig? or even a "sober" jig? Do people "jig" at funerals? I don't think so.

So the remedy is--for that darling grandson of mine, as well as the poet's joyful daughter, not to mention my grandson's papa--is to just keep jigging--just keep jigging, as long as we all shall live.

A few weeks ago, when we took our grandson along to the old folks home to visit his Great-grandpa, he went flying up the long hallways of that somber place, his fat little arms churning, his legs flailing, doing the same little prance he did for me last week, a love dance, an inimitably sweet jig in perpetual motion.

Best little dance that place has witnessed since grand opening, methinks.

Even though the poet's not wrong about height and speed and noise, there's an antidote, or so it seems, and it's worth remembering: just keep jigging.

Just keep jigging.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Donald, 2011


In a staunchly Republican neighborhood like mine, the only real issue that matters is abortion. I live among Iowa's heartiest social conservatives, in a state where the social conservatives write the battle plan for the first Presidential skirmishes.

Out here, our country's fiscal woes are not particularly evident--unemployment remains low, and corn prices have soared higher than they've ever been. It's impossible even to imagine that land prices could elevate, although people have been saying that for the last several years. Someone told me that not long ago a chunk of Iowa land sold for $12 thou@acre. Let me print that out--$12,000 for one acre of crop land.

Millions of Chinese and Indian people are doing more than aspiring for what we call middle class status, and America seems to be the only place in the world (Brazil maybe too) where food commodities are produced and available in abundance. Agricultural products--which is to say, food--are our only profit-making trade commodity, I'm told, the only export where we as a nation make a buck. That's not going to change soon.

I live in the very heart of all of that enterprise--good land, long growing season, abundant rainfall. Here in northwest Iowa, we're doing well.

But that's not why we're conservative. The real reason is abortion, the innocent deaths of innocent children. That's why. Not long ago, Donald Trump, the would-be candidate for President, long-time real estate mogul, reality show star, and hairdo king, told David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network that he'd had a change of mind on the issue of abortion. He said a friend of his had told him that he'd not wanted the child his wife had determined she was carrying, but when they decided not to abort and had the child, he'd fallen in love with his new baby.

Therefore, Trump told Brody, he'd changed. He was now staunchly pro-life.

Honestly, I don't think Trump will run. But not running might be difficult for him, given what the polls tell him these days--that most Republicans now rate him higher than Tim Pawlenty, second only to Mitt Romney.

The ardent Republicans I live with have to be conflicted when it comes to "the Donald." Despite his recent conversion to the pro-life, despite his investigation of the mysterious birth of one Barack Hussein Obama, despite his meteroric rise in the polls and the newly energized ratings of "The Apprentice," he lugs with him some Trump-tower sized problems, despite his celebrity status.

After all, he makes big money by way of Las Vegas's one-arm bandits, he's been married and unmarried several times, and we've absolutely no proof that he's any kind of church goer at all. New York City born and reared, he probably knows absolutely nothing about corn and soybeans or life on America's rural Main Streets. Nor has ever cared.

Till now.

But, here's the thing: recently, he's seen the light on abortion. If he actually flies into the Presidential race on his Trump plane, it's going to be fascinating because he'll have to suffer some stringent scrutiny from the press--with regard to his business deals especially.

But it'll be a ball to see how he does out here in Northwest Iowa, and he'll almost have to roll his bandwagon out here because he'll need all this staunch conservative support.

But, honestly, no conservative presidential candidate can possibly seem as off-the-mark from what people here might proudly call "traditional Sioux County values." I honestly can't imagine they'll trust him.

But I know this: likely as not, they trust Barack Hussein Obama even less.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Reading Mother Teresa XII


"India is as scorching as is hell-- but its souls are beautiful and precious because the Blood of Christ has bedewed them."

I've never before in my life seen the word bedewed. In some ways, the sound itself is a hoot, easily mistaken for the the patter of some late fifties crooner. I don't know--the word seems like an arranged marriage almost, be and do almost kissing cousins really, yet the two of them never comingled quite as intimately as they are here. Bedewed.

Mother Teresa wasn't making it up either. I looked. Bedewed is perfectly legitmate and available for use, free of charge, but I don't know I've ever, ever seen it or heard it before. Well, maybe. Hum the theme from the Pink Panther movies sometime, and you'll here it--"Be-dew, bedew, bedew-bedew-bedew, bedew, bedewwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww, bedew be dew."

Something like that that.

It's just a goofy word, or is that just my imagination? Bedewed. It's the kind of word you could drop into the bin full of synonyms for drunk, as in, "Good night, I got myself totally bedewed Saturday."

Mother Teresa is creating double metaphor too, which is sometimes more than a little risky. It's one thing to say that the heat-tortured poor of India are wet with, refreshed by, and even kept from death by dew, but that which really coats and cools them isn't dew at all--it's blood, Christ's own. Now some who are unfamiliar with the concept might call that creepy, but Mother Teresa certainly didn't make it up. The heat--which was substantial, I'm sure--is not India's but hell's, at least I think that's the implication. The whole line is heavy-laden with metaphor because if there was blood on the streets of Calcutta, my guess is it was theirs, the people's, not Christ's. Unless you're Catholic. Of course, that's not meant literally. Or is it, sacramentally? By the greatest miracle of all, Christ's blood keeps them--and us--bedewed.

I like it--bedewed, I mean. The word makes me smile because it's goofy and twisted and not meant the way it's said at all, and yet it is. In the middle of a sometimes scorched world, Christ's love forever keeps bedewing us. That's right, bedewing us!--as in, bedew, bedew, bedew.

You can sing that. I bet you can.

This morning, after some powerful storms, the fog is so thick that the end of the world seems a block away. We live and move and have out being in an odd flat gray room. Last night's storms brewed up a tornado that swept through the small town of Mapleton, not all that far away. Things are wet out there this morning, I'm sure. Amid all the debris, no one is sweltering and few of the homeless are dry. Rains came heavily before and after the twister. It's not at all hot and it's not at all dry in Mapleton, Iowa, this morning. There's no one dead, but when all those people walk out into Main Street and look at the destruction, and when those residents who are no homeless survey the damage, I hope, they too, are blessedly bedewed.

Bedew them, Lord--bedew, bedew, bedew.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Glenn Beck, R.I.P (or not)



Okay, I'll admit it--I've got a slant here. I'm hardly neutral, even though I've never caught the guy's full act. I've never once watched an entire segment of the Glen Beck Show, so I suppose, in that way, I've no right to an opinion one way or another. But I've seen snippets galore--I too have witnessed those wonderful, breathtaking, patriotic tears.

Last night I saw Jon Stewart "do" Glen Beck, as he has, once before; and I'm quite sure that Stewart's nutso parody of Beck's mannerisms was over-the-top. But then, from what little I do know, what little I have seen, it's hard not to be over-the-top when you're talking about or doing Glen Beck who is, might I say?--over-the-top when it comes to being over-the-top.

If I was associated with one of the many pre-millenarian seminaries in America, I'd be on my knees in thanks because Beck gave most sincere dispensationalists a bad name with end times visions that were vastly more scatalogical than eschatological. I'd trust the Mayan Indians more than I would Glen Beck--I admit it. Or Harold Camping, the ex-civil engineer and ex-Christian Reformed layman and long-time Christian radio host, a man who insists that this coming May 21 is the day we believers all sprout wings and rise to glory. Mark it.

Anyway, hallelujah, the ding-dong witch is dead on FOX, and I count that a blessing because now my 92-year-old mother, sitting in her chair in the home, can't listen to his insane blatherous ravings any longer, then fall into paranoia that her little Oostburg, soon enough, will be under the rule of Islamic law, or that a ragtag coalition of atheists and muslim fundamentalists will shake hands and take power and sweep totalitarian rule throughout "the land of the free and the home of the brave."

Yes, they're coming.

Beck is gone, and to some it's going to be scary because, as he says himself, it's as if Paul Revere himself is going to stop screaming his warnings to a sleeping nation.

Me?--I think it's cause for great rejoicing. My mother may well not be free from the curse of the radical right--is there anything we can do about Michael Savage?--but at least she's going to have to learn to work that remote better than she can right now to find the jackass back.

As one guy put it: Hooray, Beck is gone. Don't let the door whack you in the butt. Oh, what the heck! Let it.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Morning Thanks--spring

All winter long, no matter how cold, Mrs. Cardinal jumped around in a bush just outside our dining room windows, too often madly flying int the one closest to the bush, as if she were trying to get to our table. Who could blame her? The temps were inhospitable, no matter how thick her fashionable feather coat.

Finally, it got scary. She's such a beauty that the last thing we would have wanted would have been for her to muster up too much power and hurt herself. We loved her choice of our little bush, we hoped that maybe she'd spot a place for a spring nest, we were honored by her wanting inside, but we had no desire to pick up a ball of feathers from the frozen earth just outside my basement window. So we put a Lakota dream-catcher in the window, which seemed not only appropriate but useful.

And it was. My wife claims she hears the cardinals around yet, although the Missus doesn't crash into the window anymore, that dream-catcher having disturbed her nightmarish fantasies about whatever lined up on the other side of the glass.

Cardinals make marvelously distinguishing noises. You almost have to be a dog to pick up their high-octane chirp, and the husband's piercing, near-scream love song--I'm told birds sing for two reasons: to mate and mark territory--can be heard blocks away.

No matter, I love to hear that guy's keening and wouldn't mind at all if he set up camp right outside our window when the Missus finds a nesting space in that bush she's been hanging around since November.

They're not alone these days. Spring is finally stopping at the station here. Greens are emerging all over as of late. The maples start to look like the world's biggest grape vines, clumps of mahogany seeds as big as a child's fist sprouting from every last tendril. Annuals suddenly arise from last year's graveyards. And birds sing.

Birds sing.

Really, spring's arrival has no sweeter song. This morning, as every morning for the last couple of weeks, when I walk outside, even the pre-dawn dark, they're at it, raising cane. I don't care of they're simply hormonally-driven capitalists looking for nothing more than sex and territory, why not think their song is praise? It is.

In my ears at least.

Besides, what's wrong with sex?

My wife says the Missus was outside yesterday, as was her husband (by the way, Cardinals mate for life, I'm told). She says she watched them. She said she hoped they'd come back again this afternoon. They're so beautiful.

I had a class, couldn't stay home, had to go back to a roomful of students who are likely also too struck by the peculiar delights of the year's first warm sun.

My wife is retired. I have one more year. When I went back to school after lunch, not having seen the cardinals, I told myself there was something wrong with me because something in my heart told me I would have much rather stayed home and watched cardinals.

And yet, the more I think about it, the more I wonder about our perception of the nature of wisdom. Was I wrong in wanting to stay home? Was I just plain lazy? Why did my heart stay here? No matter how hard I try to remind myself, it's still almost impossible, Calvinist that I am, to really and truly consider the lillies.

Or the cardinals.

No matter. This morning's thanks are for the cardinals and all the rest of tribes. And the royally emerald world of spring.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Sacajawea, 1789-1812


What happened to her when she was a kid wasn't all that unusual among nomadic, warfaring Great Plains tribes. When hers--the Shoshones--got into a bloody fight with another--the Hidatsas--she got herself kidnapped, lost her home, got another, and was eventually--sad but true--sold into slavery. She was only ten years old.

All of that sounds awful today, and it was. On the other hand, it wasn't at all unusual. What was unusual was the weird white men coming up the river, a whole number of them, in fact, dressed in ridiculous blue uniforms. It was the party of Lewis and Clark, who'd left from the confluence of the Mississippi and the Missouri Rivers and struggled upstream in any way they could, bound for nobody knew exactly what--to find, those Native people must have figured, whatever it was they could find at the end of the river, like the end of the rainbow maybe. Sickly-looking people--so pale.

She got herself won in a card game not long before, both she and her friend Otter Woman, when a French-Canadian trapper, who was hardly a prize, won both of them with a fair-to-middlin' poker hand, Otter Woman and Sacajawea, then got Sacajawea with child, this 16-year-old girl hundreds of miles from home.

So when Lewis and Clark signed that trapper to do some scouting for them--they were up in what would be North Dakota at the time--Sacajawea was pregnant, plump as a plum. That baby was born while the whole party hibernated at Fort Mandan through a North Dakota winter.

But it turns out that for the Corps, she wasn't baggage at all, but a bona fide bene. Sacajawea, 16 years old, just happened to know her way around the neighborhood when the Missou elbowed west into Montana. What's more, she knew the language! Good night, what a deal.

One could argue, although white people might find it hard to do, that without this girl, this kid, this teenage, unmarried mom, this Indian(!), Lewis and Clark and their much bally-hooed Corps of Discovery would have never made it to Oregon. There would have been others, of course, because pale-faced folks were swarming west in numbers that seemed to Native people exponential, carrying diseases that would eventually wipe out tens of thousands, including most all of the Hidatsas.

There were more coming all the time, and had Lewis and Clark made it no farther than Great Falls, there certainly would have been others out to see American riches.

Still, what Lewis and Clark did makes quite a story, finding their way from a hamlet called St. Louis, all the way to the Oregon coast, the Pacific Ocean, then going back in just a couple of years.

To say they "discovered" things is laughably racist, of course. When they were here in my neighborhood--on Spirit Mound, in fact, no more than 40 miles from where I'm sitting--they first "discovered" buffalo. Sure. Tell that the the Yankton Sioux.

Anyway, as remarkable an enterprise as the Lewis and Clark adventure was, and it was--they lost only one of the company, not all that far from here either--they likely wouldn't have pulled it off without Sacajawea, that little Native girl with the tiny baby, a woman who died just a few years later, in 1812, of some kind of fever.

Today, people say, is her birthday, the Shoshone girl Sacajawea--dare I say "the American girl," Sacajawea?

If there was justice in this country, the whole nation would celebrate.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Ending the madness


At church last Sunday in the Dove World Ministry Center, Gainesville, FL, there were fourteen people, six fewer than those who died because fanatics in Afghanistan reacted viciously and insanely against the Wold Ministry Center's own idiot preacher, the Reverend Terry Miller. Miller, along with his disciples, recently burned the Koran as they'd promised they would last year. It just took them awhile.

The man is a lunatic, as are the Afghan murderers. He is less of one because he didn't, as they did, behead his victims; but he is an accomplice because everyone from the Secretary of Defense on down told him personally that if he and his crazies would burn the Koran, people would die, innocent people. They burned it anyway and twenty people died--more are injured.

It's always seemed axiomatic to me that those folks best capable of taming Islam into a peaceable world religion are the moderate Muslims. We need to do everything in our power, as Christians, to support the moderates, I thought, for they alone--given world history--can incite and develop "reform," as in "reformation."

I still believe that, but what the Reverend Terry Jones teaches me is the horrifying difficulty of that equation. The Rev. Jones my brother in Christ, right? So how, pray tell, can I (or we) gag him? Would he listen to a synodical committee? Could Billy Graham's son tame him? Maybe we ought to get him a subscription to Sojourners, or ask him to guest lecture at Yale Divinity. How do fellow Christians get this gonzo preacher to cease and desist? It ain't going to happen. He's just crazy.

I don't believe the problems between Muslims and Christians in our world are intractable, despite our bloody history. Muhammad Ali has lived here in this country peaceably, as does Kareem Abdul Jabbar, right? Thousands of Muslims do, hundreds of thousands. We can co-exist.

But I've got new sympathy for Muslim moderates. It's difficult for them to control their madmen, but guess what?--we can't control ours either.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Reading Mother Teresa XI



"But one thing I beg of you: pray always for me. For that you do not need special time--because our work is our prayer. . ."
LuAnn Arceneaux makes several appearances in Andre Dubus's final book of short stories, Dancing in the Dark, but perhaps her most memorable role is in a story titled "Out of the Snow," when, armed only with guts and a frying pan, she dispatches two would-be rapists who follow her home from the market.

LuAnn's marriage to her lawyer-husband Ted is not without its scary moments, but their lives, outlined in the stories, slowly grow stronger as does their commitment, in part because of LuAnn's maturing faith, her maturing Roman Catholic faith. Dubus, who died some time ago, was a fastidiously practicing Catholic, but no saint--for sure, no saint. His son, Andre Dubus III, makes that very clear in his new memoir, Townie.

No matter, Dubus the elder's story "Out of the Snow" is a gift, a memorable gift of grace. Before the astounding rout she puts on the creeps who tail her home, LuAnn tells Ted that she has begun to understand that "she must be five again" to be "like Saint Therese of Lisieux who knew so young that the essence of life was in the simplest of tasks." At breakfast, she sees her own work as sacrament:

Watching the brown sugar bubbling in the light of the flames, smelling it and the cinnamon, and listening to her family talking about snow, she told herself that this toast and oatmeal were a sacrament, the physical form that love assumed in this moment, as last night's lovemaking was, as most of her actions were. When she was able to remember this and concentrate on it, she knew the significant of what she was doing; as now, using a pot holder, she drew the pan from the oven, then spooned the oatmeal into bowls her family came from the dining room to receive from her hands.
That's the very pan she will wield to rout her bozo attackers just a few hours later. LuAnn's quest--to see her work and life as sacrament--is, I believe, what Mother Teresa means when she tells her former confessor in a letter that she needs his prayers, but that he needn't spend any special time praying "because our work is our prayer." Later, she would tell others, "Work is not prayer. Prayer is not work, but we must pray the work for Him, with Him, and to Him."

I wish I were adept at doing that. I wish it were easier. I wish my eyes were open to see a frying pan as a means of grace because Mother Teresa isn't wrong, I'm sure. Seeing our lives as holy makes all the difference, whether or not our would-be attackers are routed.

This morning, this Monday morning, I'm thankful for LuAnn Arcineaux and Mother Teresa for pointing so enduringly at nothing less than grace, not simply beyond, but here and now, in the dust in which we live, in the dust of which we are.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Spirit Mound and the Big Muddy


After what seems weeks of cold cloudiness, a west wind blew out the cold and opened up a bright blue sky, an afternoon sun, and irresistable temps, so I drove out to Spirit Mound, a weird bump on the edge of the Plains, a place visited, on invitation, by Lewis and Clark, when the Yankton, the Oto, and the Omaha made claims about little people, devils actually, who lived there. They found none.

Neither did I.

But the path is sweet and the walking easy, even in a stiff wind. Surrounding the place is 320 acres of land seeded with prairie grass species, and a hike in the heart of what once was tall grass prairie is always a thrill, even if what's left of those grasses--after a long winter--is little but dusty brown stalks.

The real story, on April Fools was the honest appearance of the first faint touches of emerald--life coming back in splotchy little outgrowths here and there, the first brave blades of green prairie grass, soul-enriching reminder of what's to come. No joke either.

Lewis and Clark didn't walk so far in ye olden days when they came to the Mound from the river, because the unruly Missouri loved to find its own course back then, when it still flooded the whole region almost annually. Today, you've got to drive or bike south from Vermillion to cross it, but the trip is always worth the trek because the section of the river between Sioux City and Yankton still looks wild, even though its not. Today the Big Muddy's bad behavior's been corrected for years by the disciplinary hand of the Army Corps of Engineers.

But the old muddy river is still spectacular. You shall see.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Morning Thanks--literature


There we sat yesterday, in class, totally silent over the last few lines of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago, a passage where that long-bearded writer and prophet goes on and on about the near sacramental character of his prison experience, thanking the Lord for piling on the burden of suffering which, miraculously, brought him to faith that pulled him through.

There we sat in an old classroom--after all, it wasn't yet outfitted in expensive, cutting edge technology, one of the few that isn't. There we sat in a fine enough clothes for suitably dressed middle-class kids and their profs. There we sat, each of us having just eaten lunch, replete with choices. There we sat, each of our expensive books opened on each of our desks.

There we sat--me too--in silence before an idea that's been arising so often these days that I'm starting to wonder myself whether I'm good with God. After all, I haven't, like Solzhenitsyn, been unjustly imprisoned for eight years, suffered the horrors of the Gulag, watched those who weren't strong enough die. I've had it pretty good, really; never suffered through a Dust Bowl or a Pearl Harbor, never engaged in a firefight in Khe Sanh or out in some desert plain in Afghanistan, never stalked the countryside for daily bread or walked a mile for a cup of water.

Writers who are believers--and I'm thinking especially of some I've read recently, like Solzhenitsyn, like Gina Ochsner, like Andre Dubus--hold that theme in common. Each of them in their own fictive worlds like to nudge the reader along to an acknowledgement that's very much in the air these days before Easter, the notion suffering can well be sacramental, a blessing, that makes us vastly more resilient against the darkness in the valley of the shadow.

But it's not easy to talk about in 21st century America. What do you say about it to 20-year-old kids who are worried about jobs and relationships and identity? Must we all suffer sometime like Solzhenitsyn? Is getting knocked down a prerequisite to growing up? Must some old man die so the new man rises? Really? Is all of that true?--and if it is, how do we then live?

There we sat in silence.

Literature--my chosen field for the last forty years--pulls us into questions that have no easy answers. That's what the Gulag does. The story doesn't stay on the pages of that expensive book but leaps, agile as a deer, into our hearts, into our minds, into our souls. Even though I've never been to Russia, know very little of the old Soviet system, and nothing about Siberia or work camps, when I read some thing like the Gulag, it begs me in to make it my own. I'm led to think not just about what the writer says but to think even more about what the writer says means to me. That's where the process begins, in fact.

Literature does its best work when it asks questions, I think. It's not particularly good at answering them; if it were, it would be preaching. Lit makes us think about what it is we believe, how it is we act, how it is we form our lives.

And there we sat in the kind of prickly silence that Solzhenitsyn spread over us. Maybe that's right where he wanted us, right where we should have been.


This morning, once more, I'm thankful for literature, even though, like life, it sometimes leads us to places we'd rather not have been.