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.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012


Todd Clayton, a 2011 grad of Point Loma College, says that he met mixed reactions when he came out there just last year.   He was a model student, the Director of Student Life, in fact.  His parents are preachers in the Nazarine Church, a small evangelical fellowship not unlike my own.  

His decision to go public earned him hundreds of encouraging letters and e-mails from former students and alums whose stories paralleled his own.  One of the most satisfying joys of the difficult pain of coming out, he says, on Huffington Post, is simply coming to know that you're not alone--that there are others, and there are many, men and women who understand. 

One professor asked him out to lunch at the college cafeteria, then asked him whether or not he still intended, someday, to preach.  When he said yes, that faculty member looked up and said, "Hell's real, you know."

Clayton says he picked up his tray and left.

I wonder how many gay students I may have had in 35 years teaching here at the same kind of small, Christian college Todd Clayton attended.  I know of two or three, but I'm sure there were more, are more; I can only imagine how difficult it must be--as Clayton says it is--to be both a Christian and gay in a place like this.  

If you want to toss out good red meat here in Siouxland, just repeat the phrase "gay marriage," and good Christian folks by the score will be up on their feet, absolutely sure the professor's pronouncement about hell at that Point Loma dining table was the only responsible answer a Bible-believing Christian could give, were he or she across the table from young Mr. Clayton.  Voting for someone who is even willing to listen to arguments about gay marriage buys a ticket to Hades.  

Two guys I graduated with, 42 years ago, were gay.  Both walked away from marriages and kids, marriages that began here.  There may well be more--I don't know.  What I do know is that both men registered much higher on the righteousness scale when they were here than I did.  They were, in fact, poster boy students, in all the right clubs because they said all the right things.  One, like Todd Clayton, had his eyes on the ministry.  The brightest kid in my high school class is gay.  He's a preacher, has been for years.  But he long ago left the denominational fellowship of his youth, where there was no place for him.  

Todd Clayton is not wrong.  Christian colleges like the one where I've taught for most of my professional life have a very difficult time navigating the wildly diverting streams where questions about gay people and gay life eventually lead.  It's one thing to say you love them, another to allow them to hold hands.  

Clayton says he has a friend, a college recruiter, at a similar college. When he asked her about accepting LGBT students, she said she would tell them to go somewhere else, "somewhere that can celebrate them and love them without condition."

When, several years ago, a candidate for a position in the English Department expressed her determination that she could not and would not condemn gay people, having had several close gay friends in grad school, she was summarily dismissed from consideration here, even though she told us she understood our world, having graduated from a small Christian college herself, and she promised not to preach or teach what she understood would be divisive at a place like Dordt.  She was advancing a policy of "don't ask, don't tell."  But even that wasn't good enough.

I suppose there is always seams in our theological tents, and when the wind blows hard those seams are most at risk.  About all a place like this can do out here on the edge of the plains is hope and pray for calm weather, continue to play "don't ask, don't tell," and tell students like Todd Clayton to go somewhere else, "somewhere that can celebrate them and love them without condition."

 Makes life hard.  After all, only God can love without condition.  Right?

Monday, January 30, 2012

Starting over

Once upon a time, I ranged far more than I do these Saturday mornings, when I go out to try to catch the dawn.  Maybe I'm less adventuruous.  Maybe I'm just more conscious of three-dollar gas. 

Maybe I don't go as far or hunt as well as I used to because these days ethanol has built a ton of new houses all over Siouxland, wherever you look, in fact.  And confinements by the score.  Sometimes I wonder if there should be a limit.  They're everywhere, steaming away on cold winter mornings.  If you want to leave them behind, you've got to cross the river into South Dakota.  These days there are just a few spots I visit regularly, a few places where a a tree or two and an open landscape create real possibilities for a composition really worth studying.

Somewhere I read that good photographers go back to places they mark like cats--go back again and again and again simply because what appears in the lens--the corners of an old barn, the kinky knuckles of a rangy cottonwood, nothing but open land forever behind them--because those lines arrange themselves in a fashion that is as unique and artful as the music of the spheres.  Maybe it's not just laziness that has made my Saturday mornings more habitual, more routine; maybe it's that I've come to recognize at least something of the composition of beauty.  I'd like to think that.

Saturday morning was perfectly clear.  I left when the east was just beginning to glow, its clarity itself a prophecy of what was to come, the kind of dawn when the sun is a startling wafer of brilliant incandescence.  No color to speak of.  No clouds.  Just a huge, daunting sun. 

I decided to stay close and go straight west to an abandoned farm place I've visited tons of time, just across the gravel from a huge cottonwood.  If you're not toting a camera, I can't imagine why that spot would distinguish itself; but I treasure a dozen really sweet shots I've taken right there.  One morning, right on top of me, a thunder storm broke up--rolling masses of colors so pungent it would have been heavenly if it wasn't so intimidating.  Like this--

Saturday morning I simply decided simply to head back to a place near Lebanon, an old favorite, a place that has paid off royally in the past.

From two miles away already, I could see that the cottonwood was gone--not gone, I guess, but down.  Massive chunks of trunk lay scattered around like elephant limbs, the stump itself pitifully hollow--I never knew.  No one cut Goliath down either.  Time itself had done the deed.

And just across the road, the neighbor had gone down too.  That old barn was still there, but a total mess, its firmament gone, its walls a heap of snapped and graying barn wood, ready for a match.  Right there, just a bit north and east of Lebanon, Iowa, the music of the spheres is no more.  One of my favorite places to shoot the dawn is gone.  My computer can show you what it was like; but I can no longer bring you there because, artfully speaking, there is no there there.

I'd love to create an enemy, some crass, grace-less capitalist farmer whose only god is efficiency and who wants every last bushel he can reap, fencerow to fencerow.  Wouldn't it be nice to ascribe the destruction to some unfeeling human being.  A villain is always a joy.

But neither the tree nor the barn fell by way of some human assassin.  Some might say the Lord did it.  I'd rather not blame him.  It was age or weather or some lethal combination thereof.  Today it's a mess.  Sad.  Nothing gold can stay.  How much less, wood.

I'll have to go elsewhere now, find something new, stumble on another old cottonwood--maybe out towards Inwood somewhere.  Haven't been there for years.  It's time I explore again, like I used to. 

Maybe I've just become too comfortable.  Maybe it's time to look around again, find some new places, hunt, range, explore.

I really can't go back again. 

Maybe that's the way it should be.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Sunday Morning Meds -- Factory Second

“How long, O men, will you turn my glory into shame?”

Were I a writing teacher (which I am) and were I to be asked to grade Psalm 4—(which I’ve not been) I’d have to admit (maybe I shouldn’t) that in my estimation this song isn’t one of David’s greatest hits.

I like the fact that it follows Psalm 3, a psalm traditionally called “a morning Psalm.” Psalm 4 has been just as traditionally called “an evening psalm,” as we shall see. Creates a nice pattern. It’s somehow fits where it is.

But, just for a moment, let me make a case for what I see as its problems. The song begins with a demand (“Answer me”) that softens rather quickly into the heartfelt request of every human being who knows he or she has sinned (“be merciful to me’). Despite its in-your-face first line, it’s difficult to imagine that verse one could be written in any position other than on one’s knees. Read it again, if you think I’m wrong.

Suddenly, and without notice, the supplicant of verse one turns his attention totally on those who have no faith in Almighty God, seems drawn to his knees out of concern for what the KJV used to call “sons of men,” a term of respect.

Verse three uses a whole different voice. You should know, he says to those “sons of men,” that the Lord has chosen his own and, quite frankly, I’m one of them. Furthermore, he says, chin jutting, he’ll answer my prayers. Odd sentiment for a supplicant who wasn’t so sure about anything just a moment ago.

In verse 4 and 5, those pointy-fingered accusations about his enemies’ sins have melted away into a priestly blessing. Listen, he says, his tone lightening up, look into a mirror sometime. Once you’ve seen what’s really there (verse 5), offer good sacrifices to the Lord.

His enemies have disappeared altogether by verse 6, and verse 7 exudes joy at what seems to be the blessing he was demanding of the Lord at the outset. Sweetly, the psalm ends with a pledge and a testimony.

Really, the emotional life—what writers call “tone”—of Psalm 4 is all over the map. In this poem, David seems almost manic-depressive, like his predecessor, Saul. There is little continuity here, almost no unity. The major players in the drama—David and his vain enemies—are multi-faceted, and even God shifts in focus.

Ask yourself this: how many people do you know who list Psalm 4 as among their favorites?

So who reserved a place for it in the canon? Why is it in the anthology?

I’ll hazard an answer. Because, in the words of a retail chain, Psalm 4-are-us.

Who hasn’t, in times of dire distress, panted prayers that were as disheveled as this, as madcap in structure and form? Who hasn’t stuttered? Whose most deeply felt prayers honestly achieve beauty and grace?

Psalm 4, like so many other songs in this book, testifies of God’s love. Its emotions are out of control, its rhetoric all over the map. It’s the testimony of a man at wit’s end, a man who’s spent far too many nights tossing and turning. Psalm 4 is David’s way, really, of falling, graciously, to sleep.

Because it’s here, because it made the collection, it is also ours.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Ex Libris I -- Shirer

This one has been on a shelf of my life ever since its publication in 1960.  I think I'm right here, but something tells me that my oldest sister joined a book club just about then, and either ordered or was sent William L.Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.  It's always been here.

The copy in my library is much younger, but it looks roughly the same as the original, a copy I believe my sister still has. There, emblazoned on a fat black spine is a swastika that obviously drew me to the book, years ago, when I was just a kid in sixth or seventh grade.  

Shirer's massive study had pictures too, and when I think about them now, I swear I still see them, even though I doubt my memory's accuracy--shots of multitudes  of German people, stadiums full of them, saluting in that awful, phallic way to their demented high priest, Hitler, the demonic clown in a mutant mustache no one has grown ever since.  Then there were photos of Auschwitz and Dachau, naked bodies like cord wood aboard flatcars, tortured limbs falling shamelessly from the layers of rotting flesh.

In high school I pulled my sister's copy of Rise and Fall from the library more than once, maybe to read things for some history class, maybe just to be reminded of what I'd missed, born as I was in 1948.  A huge book, a book full of sin.

I know people whose Jewish parents simply would not talk about the Holocaust, some of them because they honestly didn't want their children to know they had Jewish blood lest some other fiend come along with an agenda of similar madness.  And there were others--lots of them, Jew and Gentile--who determined that the only way to live with the legacy of horror and death was to bury it, never to speak of it again.

It's quite amazing that Shirer's huge and thoughtful study of Nazi Germany appeared as quickly as it did--only fifteen years later.  That book simply wouldn't let humanity forget, which is in itself a hard and terrible lesson about what it means to be human.

I haven't looked at Shirer in years, and in the great winnowing that will happen in the next few months as we plan to leave this old house, I'll likely try to sell it or give it away.  You want it?  It's been on a shelf around me since I was 12 years old, I guess, but this copy has sat, untouched, in our main floor library for a quarter century at least.

But Shirer--bless his soul!--has been with me long enough, and even though that thoughtful history, that treasured history, is now being reissued a half-century later, when the time comes to cull my library, I'm guessing he'll go.   

In 1995, I taught a course titled "The Literature of the Holocaust."  It was then, of course, 50 years since the liberation of the camps, and I thought such a course was fitting.  I've always been fascinated by Holocaust studies, and I'd even contributed a book to the library myself--Things We Couldn't Say.  

But eight or ten weeks into that course, I hit some kind of odd emotional barrier that made it almost impossible to read anything more from that era, especially from the camps--I mean to really read, to take it in.  I could not pour any more horror into my soul, if that makes any sense.  I couldn't.  We'd read a book a week, and I hope I finished the semester strong; but my ability to read anything about "the Final Solution"--even Shirer, I suppose--had simply disappeared.  Emotionally, I couldn't.

That may well be part of the reason I'll sell Shirer or give him away.  I don't need that book.  I'm no longer fascinated.  I've seen more and read more than my share.  I will forever be taken by stories that feature commitment to moral action in the middle of sheer bloody madness--that's why I loved Of Gods and Men.

But I think maybe I know enough about the Holocaust, maybe even more than I should.  It'll be hard, but I don't think I need Mr. Shirer anymore.  

That too is a kind of blessing.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Of Gods and Men, literally

"The 150 evangelical leaders who met behind closed doors on January 14 to anoint a Republican candidate for President were wise not to have invited me.”  So wrote David Neff of Christianity Today in what I thought was a brave overview of Christianity and politics in this country, and, daringly, a clear repudiation of the shining stars of the religious right in the muddled mess this country is in.

What he’s talking about is the Texas confab of prayer warriors who got together to choose a candidate for the Republican nomination.  Most of the heavyweights were there.  Sadly enough—or maybe providentially—they couldn’t agree; so what emerged from the meeting was a fractured decision—some of the Christians like Mitt the Mormon, some wanted Newt the repentant prodigal, others Rick Santorum, the Roman Catholic home-schooler.  No candidate came out of that powerhouse meeting “the chosen,” making some pundits claim the famed religious right is in decline, having lost its juice, its own power.  They failed to anoint a king.

“I believe that Christians have an urgent duty to engage the social, economic, and moral threats to a healthy society,” Neff wrote in an on-line editorial.  “That requires a wide variety of political action.  However, one thing it doesn’t call for is playing kingmaker or powerbroker.”

I can’t help but think of ye old childhood hymn, “Dare to be a Daniel.”  It’s really difficult for me to believe that someone like David Neff would dare take on James Dobson, et al, but he did.  He may well get burned, too; but what Neff is criticizing is the will to be seduced by power, political power, something he says should never be the goal of Christian political action.  He quotes James Davison Hunter:  “Whenever Christian churches and organizations partake in the will to power, they partake in the very thing they decry in society.”

I’m no political scientist, and I don’t claim to stake out the absolute here.  But after watching CT’s own choice for the numero uno film of 2011, Of Gods and Men, I have great sympathy for Neff’s argument.  A handful of Trappist monks, belovedly integrated into their Muslim neighborhood—in fact, a village has grown up around the mission because of its gifts to the people—find themselves in deep danger when a bloody civil war breaks out around them.  On one hand, they fear the radical Muslims; on the other, the government—both sides seething for power.

In the middle sit and stand and pray eight monks whose average age is maybe 70.  The question they face is vividly clear:  with our lives in jeopardy, should we stay?

The grace of this story, of this film, is that it avoids dopey sentimentality that’s so easy to conjure in a story like this:  these old monks as idiots or angels or holy fools.  The incredible strength of the movie is that these old men are totally human—they’re scared to death, they’re really not sure of their role or calling, and for most of the story they’re not of one mind.  After all, both options—life and death—make sense.

Leaving means reneging on their calling, abandoning the defenseless people, the poor they’ve come to love and serve.  But then, staying means putting their own lives and cause in jeopardy.  As some of them admit, they didn’t join the order to die.  What’s more, there’s nothing saintly in seeking one’s own martyrdom.
A decision doesn’t come easily because the right answer is not easy to come by; but right there, in the means by which they formulate their own determined response to the horrors  of the war around them, Of Gods and Men takes the Christian faith with deadly seriousness, in a fashion that’s as rare as true commitment.  I thought the film to be absolutely wonderful.

I don’t know what might have happened in Texas on January 14, had all those saints watched Of Gods and Men before their righteous caucus.  Don’t know what might have occurred if they’d read David Neff or James Davison Hunter before attempting to anoint a candidate. Probably nothing.  We’re not all alike, as they painfully discovered that night themselves.

What seems clear to me, however, is those  Trappist monks in Algeria in Of Gods and Men have a decidedly different view of the definition of power than did the Saturday night gathering of saints in Texas.

Praise the Lord.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Morning Thanks--"Grace and Truth"

Confession time.  Once, years ago, when I was a college student home for a break, my mother, who taught piano for most of her life, declared that she would bestow upon her son a ten-dollar bill if he would only sit down at the piano in the den and pound out a hymn, any hymn at all.  

I was poor and not an idiot.  I opened the old red Psalter to number 50, "Grace and Truth Shall Mark the Way," a rendition of Psalm 25 in a setting that never wandered far from its opening chord.  Piece of cake.  Inside of a half hour, I'd made ten bucks and probably smirked once she handed over the loot.

I'm probably a couple of decades older than she was back then, but today I think I understand more of why she made such an silly offer.  Sure, there was all those years of piano lessons I'd had, years that dissipated far faster than lakeshore fog once I walked away from the bench.  And, yes, there probably was some faint hope that if I'd sit there again I'd come back to that bench more often.  I was her only boy, for heaven's sake, and my hair was too long, and what she heard out of my bedroom back then was the Beatles.  Ten bucks was a pittance.

But there's this too--the music itself, not that "Grace and Truth" sat atop her Psalter Hymnal hall of fame.  What her son played--not well--held her soul lovingly, almost as if she were a child, its child.  What I played was, after all, a psalm; and my mother's people, for generations, had sung them, often only them.  It wasn't just a hymn, it was a psalm.  Sure, she was happy she stuck me there on the bench.  Yes, I was being a me she might have loved seeing more of.  But I think it was the music too, a psalm.

The Synod of Dort, way back in the early 17th century, made it clear to Dutch Calvinist churches that, in worship, only psalms were permissible, just another measure of that miserable Calvinist penchant for being wary of beauty--after all, we're depraved, remember, and totally too, and never forget that.  The only legal fare for congregational singing was God's own songs, the poems collected in the book of psalms.

Last night, and this weekend, I listened to two lively musical experts, two men who love the psalms, explain the richness of the old texts and then put those psalms on musical display, not only adorned in their Genevan robes, but dressed up in a wardrobe of different styles and settings, some of them very contemporary; and it was--both last night and this weekend--great joy and pure blessing.  Maybe, just maybe, those hard-core, 17th century Calvinists in their fashionable beaver hats at the Synod of Dort were on the money. 

But then, look what Geneva had to work with, look what a hundred-thousand song-writers still do.  The psalms-r-us.  They're holy writ, but, God be praised, they're human writ too.  They open their arms to us, to our stories--to our pain and our joy, to our desolation and our unfettered praise.  They are made of the very same stuff we are.   They're God's book of poems, but they're ours too.  What a combo.

This morning's thanks are cheap praise, really, just my few words for musical literature that has opened itself to generations of believers, poems that welcome the human spirit, prayers that have taught gadzillions of faithful just how to talk to, and with, God almighty.

"Grace and Truth Shall Mark the Way" at a little piano in the den.  Ten bucks pay.  I feel like Judas, and I'm sorry.

But this morning I think I know more of what mother heard that day forty years ago; what she heard, despite the ingrate mercenary at the keys, was "Grace and Truth" that's nothing less than Grace and Truth.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

This vale of tears

It could be just about anyone, but it's not--it's someone, a very real family; and what I know about them--they're not relatives--makes this early family portrait monstrously more telling.  In a way, it breaks my heart.

There are four children, two boys and a pair of twins.  The oldest, the one in the sailor suit, will be smart and thoughtful.  It's probably somewhere in the early 20s here.  He will never marry.  He will fall in love, deeply.  He and his girlfriend will have what I know will be a wonderful, loving relationship.  But they will never marry.

There will be almost a dozen other children born to this young Dutch family, so many that Mom, here holding one of the twins, will, like her oldest boy, die young.  That one, the one at her side, will come to resent his father deeply for what he will believe is going to eventually kill his beloved mother, her incessant child-bearing.  The father, a great bush of hair over his forehead, will be a Christian school teacher, a headmaster, a man I think of as a strict, quintessential Calvinist, a man who probably won't smile as much as he should have smiled by the time his life is spent.  They won't be good friends, this oldest boy and his stern father.  They will fight.  That happens sometimes.

The younger boy moored at his father's knee will suffer greatly, but he will live to a ripe old age.  Both he and his older brother will join the Dutch Resistance as young men and carry out very dangerous clandestine work against the Nazis, work that includes almost every kind of underground activity.  I don't think either of them will ever kill a German, but between the two of them they may well be responsible for death.  

They will both be heroes, but only the younger one will live.  Both will suffer greatly.  And, in the summer of 1945, after the Liberation, the younger brother will claim some fame for the Resistance work he accomplished.  He will speak about that for years to come--to school children, for instance.  But what few will ever know is that his older brother, who won't come back from a German concentration camp, will have had to cut his brother out from much of the Resistance activity they were in mutually, because that little boy in the cap couldn't keep his mouth shut and therefore became a liability.  These two boys will not be good friends when the oldest dies.

But when the big brother doesn't come back, few will remember that the boy in the hat, the one clinging to his father's leg, was once shunned by the others--by his friends--because his silence could not be trusted.

But then that story will come back and haunt the boy in the hat years and years later, after his reputation as a freedom fighter is sturdily established.  He will become very angry when a story is told that offers a different view, one long before held only in silence.

It's probably 1925 or so in the picture.  This young Dutch couple--Frisian actually--has four darling children.  They sit together in a garden somewhere in Friesland, sit for a picture, what would be today, a Christmas card maybe.  They could be any other family.  They could be ours.  

And yet I know that all of that is ahead of them.  

A picture with a thousand words, as most all of ours are.

The father's own wider family will have a reunion soon, hundreds of them coming together from places around the world; and I think it a wonderful blessing of life itself--don't you?-- that those hundreds of people won't know any of that, nothing at all.  They'll renew acquaintances, meet new family, eat wonderful food, sing songs maybe, tell stories, remember good times and bad.  But this particular ancestral family's story will be only a footnote--

"Oom Leen's oldest children were in the Resistance, you know--and one of them died in Dachau."

"Is that right?"

"Yes--it was very sad."

"It was a horrible time--the war."

"It must have been."

"Pass the dessert, Wim.  I really shouldn't have another."

Yesterday, an old friend of mine sent me a little personal essay in which he explained that he was suffering with the first fruits of Alzheimers.  

"Sometimes even going for breakfast in our community dining room is a challenge these days," he wrote, "because I forget.  I might hear 'scrambled eggs' yet cannot remember what that is."

If I let myself, I could have cried. 

And yet, when I look at this picture and see this family in the crystal ball that I own, I can't help but think how wonderful it is, in a way, that no one on this earth remembers everything.  

Sometimes it's a blessing to forget, a blessing not to know.

This world is, after all, a vale of tears.

But I swear, that it is, doesn't mean there isn't a time for Christmas cards or one more dessert.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Das Bier

He was a German, a German-American, and fiercely proud.  He stood up in front of our tour bus and sang the praises of his own German heritage as he showed us around his town, New Ulm, Minnesota.  He could just as well have been outfitted in lederhosen; after all, the whole town is.

One of our people was an immigrant Dutchman with a wooden leg from a biking accident, a man with a thick accent even though he'd come to Albertan flatlands a half-century before.  Sitting in the back of that bus and just listening to that fiercely proud German story-teller made him hot as pan of bacon.  He could not hear that tone of voice without remembering four long years of German occupation, including a winter when people burned books to stay warm and ate cats to put something, anything in their stomachs.  

We pulled the bus over in a spot where the German man, a historian, told the story of the 1862 Dakota War, especially how--twice!!--fierce Dakota warriors tried to burn down the settlement of the people they called "the Dutch" because they couldn't say "Deutsch."  Think of an old Western, half-naked savages screaming and yelling and launching fiery arrows toward a couple hundred German folks holed up together to try to stay alive.  Twice, the white folks fought off the rampage.  Twice, against significant odds, they survived.

What that German historian didn't tell our visitors was how white folks had lied, had cheated, had not delivered the goods they promised in a treaty that wasn't worth the parchment it was printed on.  What that German didn't tell our visitors is that those German immigrants, back in 1862, were vastly more hostile to the Dakota people who lived in the Minnesota River valley than the American pioneers who were putting down homesteads in the hardwood forests and the sweet green meadows all around.  What that German historian didn't recount is that there are two sides to the story.

I don't know that our Dutch immigrant friend knew that we weren't getting the whole story, but somehow I knew that our host's uniquely German manner, a manner that carried some pride, was going to just make the Dutchman sizzle--and it did.  When he finished the story and we pulled up in front of Martin Luther College's new chapel for a tour, our Dutch tourist didn't get off the bus because he was bromming.  No, there's not enough oompah in that Dutch word--he wasn't just bromming, he was burning.  And he was alone.

He wasn't proud of himself either.  After all, this German historian's family was in Minnesota for almost a hundred years when the Dutchman was kid.  To be angry with him about the Nazi Occupation wasn't right either--it's just that his manner, that arrogant German carriage, was unmistakable.  He sat for a while alone in the back of the bus, and prayed.

And then he left the back seat, walked out the door and into the chapel.

The rest of us had been blessed.  It's a beautiful chapel, and it just so happened--a kiss of joy--that the chapel's organist happened to show up to practice.  Once our host had talked about the chapel, we sang hymns, something we like to do on our tours, especially when we're in old churches--or, in this case, new chapels.  And this time, when we did, that organist, parked somewhere out of sight, heard the melodies and decided, graciously, to play along--even "A Mighty Fortress," Luther's own.

It was absolutely gorgeous, took my breath away, made me weep.  I'm serious.  And that's when I saw the old Dutchman come limping up from the back alone and rejoin the group.  Honestly, I thought I knew the story.

But I didn't hear it from the man himself until he sat beside me a few hours later in the basement of the August Schell Brewery, a place that didn't get destroyed when the Dakota freedom fighters attacked way back in 1862, and still pumps out great beer.  We'd toured the place--wasn't long--and ended up in a basement tasting room, where our very gracious hosts didn't spare the samples.

That's when he told me the whole story--of how insanely angry he became sitting in that bus, how that German's arrogance evoked wrath he hardly knew he still had, wrath that had brewed in him for sixty years; but how he'd also told himself it wasn't right for him to be that mad, how he'd ushered himself out of the bus and into that chapel, and how, when he'd walked in, he'd heard this music, people singing hymns in a way that reminded him of the angels on high, it was that beautiful.  "And God told me I was wrong," he said, deadly serious, in his own thick Dutch accent, a cold August Schell beer in his hand.

And that's why a couple of weeks ago, when I spotted this half-case of August Schell beer in Wal-Mart, a sampler, I didn't hesitate for a moment.  I bought it.  I was born in Wisconsin, the nation's beer-brewing capitol.  It's not the first 12-pack of beer I bought in my life.  

But I've never come home with one that has any better story. 


Thursday, January 19, 2012


"Breaks my heart to see that--don't you think?"
"Some people just don't have the smarts to get in out of the rain."
"You're a jackass."
"He's an idiot, and you're a dreamer."
"I don't know why I married you."
"Pass the wine."
"Really!--have you no heart?"
"Okay, he's cute, all right?  But what are you going to do, build him a teepee?"
"It's our anniversary, sweetheart."
"What is it, anyway? what kind of bird, I mean?"
"He's suffering."
"He'll dry out--that's what feathers are for."
"I swear--you have no heart."
"Okay, he's cute."
"I think he's a she, dear."
"I might have known."
"35 years is a long time."
"Not long enough."
He reached for her hand.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Swan Song XXVIX--Ms. Flannery O'Connor

I am no disbeliever in spiritual purpose and no vague believer.  I see from the standpoint of Christian orthodoxy.  This means that for me the meaning of life is centered in our redemption by Christ and what I see in the world as its relation to that.
Those words aren't cheap, but there are umpteen thousands, even millions of people, of Americans, who would willing volunteer them in testimony.  Shoot, count me among 'em.  The way I see the world is forever altered because of my deep-seeded belief--sometimes strong, sometimes not--that once upon a time a hippy Galilean suffered and died and then, Good Lord, rose again.  

But it takes someone special to do something about it, to live by it, to make his or her life's work into that kind of testimony. 

Two generations ago, my colleagues stuck an lit book in my hand when I came to Dordt College to teach, an anthology put together by someone named Perrine.  Wasn't all the big really, two-toned, and I remember the first day's assignment:  two short stories, one of them really gamey, plot-driven, a fast read, a story titled "The Most Dangerous Game"; and the other a Faulkner, "That Evening Sun."  Both were about fear.

The trick was to get students to read both and then talk about which is best--the genre of lit or the genre of adventure.  Brilliant idea, but a miserable failure because every time I tried it, I had to pin the entire class to the floor to make them think Faulkner was "art" and therefore "better."  Never once worked.

But I liked the class, "Responding to Lit," and I liked the stories in Perrine too.  Teaching was fun.  I remember walking home with my friend, Hugh Cook--we lived in the same neighborhood. We'd yak about what had happened that day in class, a feast of joy, honestly.  "Just think," Hugh said one day as we reached his place, "and we get paid for this too."  Such heady joy was ours--young and charged with love for Faulkner and Fitzgerald, and a woman I knew only faintly back then, a woman named Flannery O'Connor.

She was in Perrine too, a story titled "Greenleaf," a story that contains the n-word and therefore doesn't appear in many anthologies anymore.  Last semester I took it out of mothballs because I waxed nostalgic--I remembered it from 35 years ago. I ran off copies and assigned it once again for old time's sake, but we didn't talk about it in class because it became the basis of an assignment.

 Today, this morning, we do.  Today, I've got to talk about "Greenleaf" again, 35 years later.  I wanted to come back to that story, n-word or not, because all really good stories end somewhere in the neighborhood of where they began.

Truth is, there's things about O'Connor that bug me.  What I hate most is being an English teacher about it, the know-it-all up in front of the room to students who are stunned to learn, for instance, that the woman who wrote "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," with its brutal mass-murder shoot-'em-up ending, is really an orthodox Christian believer.  What I hate is this "I'm-a-genius-and-you-aren't thing" that happens automatically when I say, "But wait!--there's this whole substrata of symbols--and if you play the story backwards at a slow speed or look at it with 3-D glasses or something--you'll see the REAL meaning."  Aren't I a smarty-pants?  You can be brilliant too if you majored in English.

Hate that, really. 

But I love the story.  It's such a joy to read, even though that dang bull gets Mrs. May right in the heart, just kills her in the end.  I read "Greenleaf" again last night and was floored again by that woman's art.  Dang it.  It is all there--this meticulously choreographed dance of hints and images beneath the action, something Ms. O'Connor herself would call, I suppose, the movement of the spirit--and be not mistaken, we're talking about the Holy one.  In "Greenleaf," Jesus himself is a scrub bull who's been eating away at the hedge of spiritual pride that Mrs. May surrounds herself with, a woman so blasted sure of herself and so blind that her salvation requires divine intervention by the lethal horns of one butt-ugly bull.  Only then can she come to understand her damned self.  

I read "Greenleaf" again last night--maybe for the last time--and when I did I know dang well why it is that I've loved teaching for lo, these many years.  The students are fun, if you don't take yourself too seriously; but what I get to work with, day after day, is the beauty of God's world.  Good night, sometimes that beauty is treacherously ugly--because life is.  But everyday there's more testimony, everyday there's more life.

And then there's Flannery O'Connor, a fiction writer who saw the innocent face of her Savior like a divine watermark over every last page of the world in front of her--always there, always searching, always wanting his own--even if sometimes he comes along in the leathery hide of a scrub bull. 

And I got paid for it too.  For the last 35 years, I got paid for it.  Isn't that something?

This morning's thanks--this morning's humble thanks--are for a woman's brilliant achievement in story-telling, work that's inspired me for 35 years, that's made it worth being a teacher, even if, one more time this morning, I'll have to act like some kind of weird magician English teacher.  "Ah, class, but what you didn't see was the way that bull wears a wreath like a crown."  For years, I've seen engineers roll their eyes.

No matter.  She's worth it--Ms. O'Connor is.  Trust me.  I've been doing this for a lifetime.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Swan Song XXVIII--MLK Day

Not until I came home from school yesterday, walked to the front of the house, pulled back the brass door of the mail box, and discovered it empty did I realize that it was a holiday, Martin Luther King Day.  Not until then.  

We don't celebrate MLK Day at this Christian college for a good reason--because the semester began just a week ago, and if we were to give the students their first Monday off, a ton of them would simply stay home for the first half week or so, some of them for good reasons, others for bad.  Furthermore, if the college would shut down on MLK Day, boat loads of students would head up to the Twin Cities or west to Denver or wherever, putting literally hundreds on the roads, mid-winter.  Students would spend all sorts of cash goofing off, and risk their lives in what could well be horrible travel weather.  They could be killed.

What's more, our non-compliance isn't really racist since we don't celebrate Labor Day either.  School always starts before summer's last fling, so for thirty-some years I haven't had a Labor Day when I wasn't laboring.  I teach on Labor Day.  I teach on MLK Day.  It just makes good sense not to shut things down, good economic sense.

When I was a college sophomore, four of us went to Florida over spring break to catch some sun.  We pulled into Ft. Lauderdale late at night, had made no reservations, so ended up looking for a place to stay at an hour--and a time of year--when finding a room wasn't exactly a breeze.  

I don't know how on earth we ended up where we did, but I remember the place very clearly--it seemed to me then to be an abandoned military barracks, at least that's what it looked like, rafters for ceilings.  We went into the office.  We were third in line.  I remember being anxious and we sure weren't picky, believe me.

The group in front was from Notre Dame--I remember that.   Four guys.  The seedy old man behind the desk gave them a key.  But then, horror!--the couple in front of us got turned down. "Sorry," the guy said.  "You saw it--that was the last room."

That meant, of course, we had to look elsewhere.  Once the couple left, there we stood, bereft.  We too started to walk out.

"Where you going?" the guy said.  "I still got a room."  Wink and a smile.  "We don't take their kind here."

That young couple in front of us were black.  

I'd never experienced anything close to that before.  I'd heard about it, read about it, wondered about it--but it had happened right in front of me.  Besides, my father had believed that MLK was an agitator who people claimed had buddied up with known communists.  I grew up in Wisconsin in the early Sixties, when the shadow of Joseph McCarthy still loomed over politics.  I'm sure that my wonderful, God-fearing father--one of the sweetest men I ever knew, honestly--probably believed that Joe McCarthy was a far better man than this Martin Luther King.  

Were he alive, my father would probably still have all kinds of trouble celebrating MLK Day.  It would bug him no end.  He might well appreciate the fact that we don't celebrate.  No one I know would doubt my father's deep and abiding Christian faith. 

There are good reasons why this Christian college doesn't celebrate the holiday, and I understand them.  But I also know that historically for my people, who surely do like to watch the dollars, it's much, much easier to work on MLK Day than it is to remember the man or his vision because what there is to remember of King's time for many, many white evangelical Christians isn't pretty at all, it's racist. 

David Brooks is in South Carolina now, and yesterday, on Martin Luther King Day, in the New York Times, he speculated about the folks he'd been meeting, especially the mood of their rallies, like last night's debate.  He says that the audiences want "a restoration" because they're sure that American once had strong values, "but we have gone astray."  They believe we need to return to the values we once had, Brooks says.

Brooks doesn't disagree with that assessment, but he also says he wonders if the people he's been visiting have become "the receding roar of white America as it pines for a way of life that will never return."

There are many good, good reasons for our not celebrating Martin Luther King Day, but at this mostly white Christian college, it behooves us, every year, to rethink our motives because there are also many, many good reasons--moral reasons--to remember both who he was and who we were and maybe still are.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Not Sure

If you are absolutely, perfectly sure that once upon a time there were, in fact, two beautiful naked people tending the greenest garden of flowery delights ever imagined, and that those two sweethearts got themselves and all of mankind bamboozled by an upright, chattering snake who conned them into eating forbidden fruit; if you truly believe that Adam and Eve, the only belly-buttonless human beings in history, were literally our first opa and oma; if you're absolutely convinced that the world was begat in just exactly the way Genesis says it was, then John Suk's new book is going to upset you.  Maybe you shouldn't read it.

But if you sometimes have doubts about a six-day creation, if you're not exactly sure that gay marriage is the most frightful abomination ever to curse American culture--vastly worse than, say, racism; or that, in some few circumstances, removing something we call a fetus--for good reason--from the womb of a woman isn't exactly the same thing as killing a baby; if there are times in your life--say when you visit Dachau or Auschwitz--or when you consider the woman next door, scared to death and praying her eyes out for relief of her mother's cancer, and then find yourself wondering whether or not God almighty has left the room, then you'll find Not Sure something akin to breath of fresh air.

If you think Tim Tebow's flashy gridiron testimony is more than slightly over-the-top, you'll like the book.  If Mother Teresa's long and difficult battles with profound spiritual doubt doesn't surprise you, you will too.  If you don't really think you have the kind of "personal relationship with Jesus" that some smilers do, you'll find Not Sure refreshing.  If sometimes you get really tired of contemporary American evangelicalism, you'll love it. If you didn't go to Promise Keepers with your grandson or your father or your favorite uncle, even though every other guy in church did and came back be-speckled with spiritual hickies, you'll know exactly what Suk is talking about in Not Sure--and you'll thank him.  

I really, really, really enjoyed Not Sure because there are times, Lord save me, I'm not either.

I have my quibbles with Brother John.  It's not holy writ, after all.  Like many Canadian, post-World War II Dutch immigrants and their kids, he doesn't get the old line CRC people, one of whom I am.  He doesn't understand the pietism of the afscheiding, the separation people; but that's not a sin.  However, using Stan Wiersma's parents as an example of how all pre-Kuyperian CRC people looked or thought is like using Amos 'n Andy to define African-Americans, or any of a thousand absent-minded professors to critique American higher education. There was a time when most everyone in northwest Iowa planted their corn on the square; but thousands--Catholics and Methodists and Lutherans--did it because that's the way they were taught, not because it somehow patterned predestination.  Give me a break, John.

His discussion of the Half-way Covenant and the early American pilgrims and puritans might well be stronger had he read Perry Miller, and I tend to think he's a little over-enamored with communication theory.  We change, but there wouldn't be a Hamlet if we evolved as radically as I sometimes guess Suk believes we have or are.  What we read and how we read changes dramatically; human nature doesn't.

Most embarrassingly, he trashes his two-year stint here at Dordt College because of what he seems to believe was a ideological straight-jacket, DC's too vigorous espousal of the neo-Kuyperian way.  I think we make, for him, a too convenient punching bag; but then he was 18 years old and here during DC's own tumultuous, un-civil war years.  Big deal.

Truth be told, I found his confession of doubt far less thorny than I thought it would be.  Honestly, I expected something more Christopher Hitchens.  Most of the time, I know pretty much exactly what he feels.  Last night in church, we sang "Abide with Me," and I told myself that my memory contains childhood moments when singing that great old hymn was vastly more sweetly satisfying to me than it was last night. The Holden Caulfield in me wanted to return at that moment to my childhood because as I've grown older my own doubt has grown, but then so has my understanding of the world we live in and just who I am.  These days I think I know my sin more fully than I care to say, and that's why I find also find grace vastly more amazing than I ever could have as a kid.  The sweet old hymn sounds much different today, beautiful but different.  Sometimes I wish I could go back.

A Laotian woman told me her story in great detail once upon a time.  She told me how she'd crossed the Mekong in what she described as a little homemade dugout, her children inside.  She was aware of soldiers ready to shoot her and her kids out right of the water, which they often did.  It was night.  The water was cold.  But she wanted to get to the other side, to freedom.  She described herself, chest-deep, in the waters of the Mekong.  "I prayed and prayed and prayed," she told me, almost crying to remember.

That was years before she'd ever heard of Jesus--or if she had, it was but the slightest mention.  And I remember wondering who exactly was she praying too?  And would God--who I believe had to hear it--simply shrug it off because it didn't come in the name of Jesus.  Would he say, "Well, sorry, but you're on your own, lady."  Really?  

John Suk's Not Sure lays out the nature of the faith a lot of us struggle to hold to at times, me among 'em.  When I got to the end, however, the only thing I really believed about him was that he was even doubtful about doubt because Not Sure does not end like Psalm 88.  It ends more like 13--with faith.  At least what I'd call faith.  It ends with honesty and aspiration and the kind of trembling trust that lots of have, even though the Tebows get the headlines.  

Would Suk's views on gay marriage and human evolution and other hot button items keep him out of the pulpit at my church?  (We're looking, by the way.)  Yes, it would.

And there lies the problem, maybe the most difficult problem the book creates.

He's got an approach to that problem.  He's asking for a church that doesn't judge, a church that only loves, a church without doctrinal walls.  In the history of Christianity, those kinds of places generally don't do well, and that too is a problem.

But most of the time I found Not Sure to be thoughtful, earnest, and, finally, faithful.  

And I found the book encouraging.  Some won't.  But King David would, and so would Mother Teresa.  They've been there themselves--not always perfectly sure, that is.  

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Sunday Morning Meds--Spacious Skies

“thou hast enlarged me”

It was always a little tough for us, having to return from week-long treks we took annually through the big-shouldered Missouri River Valley, following the two-hundred year-old route of Lewis and Clark through South Dakota. 
We means an ecologist friend of mine and me, as well as a delightful tour hostess for the nearly fifty souls who, with us, filled up a bus.  The first Great Plains pilgrimage, I remember, was a rip-roaring successes for three stooges like us, who’d never pulled off a stunt like that before.  People on the bus loved it, really. 

And all three of us live in awe of the country we explored.  It’s so big and so beautiful. 

But the Great Plains continues to hemorrhage its populace, something it’s done since the late 19th century, when European immigrants and restless Eastern palefaces flooded the place, cock-sure that a few newly planted cottonwoods, some elbow grease, and a good mule would create a home and a way of life on 160-acres.  Simply put, that was a lie.

Homesteaders discovered that the Great Plains were despairingly fickle.  While we were in Pierre, South Dakota, the whole region was almost flooded.  Four inches of rain fell in one night.  The prairie looked royal in an emerald robe.  Next year, the place could have been a dust bowl. 

But sparse population in a landscape that immense isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Today, the whole place seems an open-air museum; if you come anywhere close to the Missouri River, even the imaginatively-challenged can hear the sounds of the Corps of Discovery making their way north and west.  Almost anywhere on the Missouri’s big glacial banks, you can stand in the yawning openness and watch your dog run away for three days, nary a Burger King in sight.  That’s nice.

That first trip didn’t go exactly as planned.  We had three days of rain, and the whole event was much more, well, meditative, sweetly meditative, than I’d guessed it was going to be. I’d like to tell you that the devotions we had together each morning were greatly appreciated because they were so meticulously planned, but that would be as big a fib as fertility of the land. 

Our devotions were memorable because of the sheer grandeur that surrounded us every day, the immensity of a land where it’s as hard to be arrogant and as it is easy to be on your knees. 
For centuries, translators have changed what’s really there in verse one of Psalm 4, and I think it’s a mistake.  “Thou hast enlarged me” really says something to this effect:  “thou hast set me in a large place.”  What David is asking God to remember are the times when He delivered the shepherd/king by bringing him out to the Great Plains

Not literally, of course.  King David didn’t know the South Dakota from Schnectady. 

But I understand what he means.  You’ve done it before, Lord, he says; you’ve brought me out to the glorious openness of the spacious skies. 

“Do it again,” he’s going to say.  “Please, Lord, do it one more time.”

I get that.  Really, I do.