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.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Calling--a story



Note:  our church is about to begin calling a new minister, which reminded me of an old story I wrote years ago, a story once published in a magazine titled Reformed Worship.  Please forgive its trespasses.
___________________________________

When Pastor Rog left Springvale Church, there was no weeping or gnashing of teeth.  Not that he and the members of his congregation didn’t get along.  Pastor Rog was easy to like, after all—everyone agreed on that.  In addition, he followed the rules, even those left totally unstated.  He wore the right clothes and sent his kids to the right schools, held memberships in the local Lions club and the C of C, which meant he kept an active and public life as a volunteer, and, thereby, was doing a great job keeping up a presence for Springvale in the city.  His wife had a respectable part-time job at a local nursing home.  Kids were well behaved.

That the people of Springvale Church weren’t sorry to see Pastor Rog leave had nothing to do with his sociability, his family, his personality, or his willingness to work.  It had to do with his preaching--which was at best ho-hum.  Pastor Rog pursuit of texts was, well, plodding, as was his general delivery.  He rarely deviated from six or eight favorite gestures (a tightly clenched fist turned inward was his favorite), and he tended to repeat the phrase “in large part” so frequently that kids regularly tallied the numbers and compared notes afterward.  His sermons, to many of the good Springvale souls, seemed irritatingly predictable--which was to say, somewhat boring.

However, Springvale congregation would not have been so eager to see him leave if they had been aware of the complex process of locating a suitable replacement.  The church hadn’t been without a preacher since before the war—at least that’s what people claimed, but no one knew exactly which war people meant when they said that.  Finding a new under-shepherd, the council noted in its July meeting, would be a challenge that would demand the best from all.

At that same meeting they decided that before selecting candidates for the new job, they would survey needs and wants by making specific inquiries to the church’s various groups and societies.

By the following Tuesday, Brother Morse (a computer repairman) prepared a fourteen-page questionnaire, which the council subsequently distributed, calling it an  “assessment instrument,” then giving members a strict deadline for completing and returning the pages, and in August most of the congregation’s various interest groups spent quality time discussing the type of pastor the Springvale congregation needed.  The council wanted results by September. 

Meanwhile, the council devoted their entire August meeting to drawing a profile themselves, beginning with this note—“we don’t believe Springvale is ready for a woman pastor.”  Thusly, the pronouns were masculine.  He has to be charismatic, they said, and scriptural, capable of writing and speaking not only fluently but with requisite passion; he should have a strong pastoral heart, be a compassionate listener; and he must be committed to kingdom work, gifted with intelligence; a man who is wise with a gracious heart.  A good place to begin, they thought.

That profile, the consistory concluded, brought only one candidate to mind.  If they were to call someone without the congregation’s approval--in fact, were they that very night to call the man of their choice--it would be, by unanimous vote, King David, an extraordinary leader, practiced in the arts, and the man God himself described as “closest to my heart.”

It was determined, however, that their assessment should be kept confidential so as not to weigh upon various other groups’ decision-making.


to be continued. . .

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Swan Song XXXV--The Righteous


Once upon a time in occupied Holland, Diet Eman found herself heavily burdened with two little Jewish girls whose parents thankfullly gave them up rather than face deportation and death at Auschwitz or Buchenwald or Dachau. They were just children, innocent children, and she needed to find a place for them to hide, someone to keep them until the war was over.  It was, I think, 1943.

Late at night, she knocked on the door of a preacher, a staunch, powerful man much beloved and renowned for his moral leadership, and she begged him to take the children.  He said he couldn't.  She begged harder.  He shook his head.  Then she raged, telling him it was his duty under God to save the lives of the innocent.  He told her no.  She told him that if he didn't, he was nothing but a fraud, a man who wouldn't put his faith to the test, a man who stood in the pulpit and lied.  Still, he told her no.

When she left, she told me she swore at that preacher--that's how angry she was.

After the war, after the Germans were defeated and the Jewish refugees could come out from hiding, Diet Eman discovered the real story.  That preacher already had a house full of Jews.  He could take no more.  To take on two little girls in addition to what he'd already had would have put his whole operation into jeopardy.

But he couldn't tell her any of that on the night she bloodily berated him for refusing two innocent girls, sisters.  There were things he simply couldn't say because how was he to know that this young woman maligning him for his hypocrisy wasn't herself a Nazi sympathizer, someone interested in exposing him for hiding those Jews he and his family already hid.  There were things he couldn't say.

Last night I watched The Reckoning again, a film about the Dutch Resistance movement during the occupation of the Netherlands because an ex-student of mine asked me to come to her school to talk about life in occupied Holland during the war.  I was born here, in 1948.  I have no first-hand knowledge of all of that, but 20 years ago I sat in Diet Eman's Michigan apartment and listened to her tell her story, a story which was published in 1994 as Things We Couldn't Say.  

Back then, it was fifty years since the end of the war, fifty years since liberation in Holland, fifty years since American and GI forces stumbled into Nazi death camps all over Europe.  There was a hunger for such stories, and Diet Eman's story was as powerful as any, a love story set up against the backdrop of horrible human tragedy.  That young woman was, just before the war, engaged to be married; but she and her fiance got involved in the Dutch underground.  Both were arrested, and the man she loved was shipped to Dachau, where he died, starved, in January, 1945, with so many of the Jews he tried to save.

I used to say that the most powerful story of the entire 20th century was the story of the Second World War.  Embedded in that story was the most powerful Christian story of the 20th century, the story of the Rescuers, people--often Christians--who took on house guests who stayed dangerously hidden in their midst for four long years, house guests they didn't know and often didn't even like, house guests who stayed with them only because to refuse them, good Christian people reasoned, would have been to refuse Jesus Christ himself--"when I was hungry. . ."

Last night I watched the Eman story again.  I'd almost forgotten--not the story.  I'll never forget the story.  When I heard her tell it two decades ago, her story was lodged in my mind and heart for as long as I live.  The story never left.  I know it better, I suppose, than anyone else in the world, except for her. 

But I'd forgotten the testimony.  I'd forgotten the commitment, the ever-frantic danger, the horrible loss, the ultimate triumph of selflessness. What I'd not thought about for a long, long time, really, was righteousness. 

Righteousness, someone told me, is a word that has fallen out of usage.  It's the root of another word that gets thrown around quite regularly--self-righteous.  Self-righteous is a word that gets used quite a bit, I'm told; but righteousness itself, for the most part, stays between the covers of the dictionary.  Think of it this way:  even the most ardent fans of Sen. Rick Santorum might be hesitant to call him truly righteous.

Maybe that's the way it should be.  None of us are righteous, no not one; after all, we all have sinned and fallen short.  That's Paul the apostle.  

Still, it was good for my soul to walk through that story again last night, to be reminded not of what I'd forgotten, but of what had simply fallen back out into a corner of my consciousness.  It was good for me, for my heart and my soul and my mind, once again, to bear witness to righteousness.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Morning Thanks--Sheer genius


His grandma says he came downstairs with her last Friday because she was cleaning up down here, doing some dusting, getting ready to show the house.  She says he went for the Aeron chair right away, climbed up and in after announcing to her that it was, of course, "papa's chair."  Then he pulled that chair up to the desk and grabbed my reading glasses, far too big for him, of course, and attempted to slip them on his face. She had to help, she said.

He's two-and-a-half, a babbler, talks a mile-a-minute, but says things only his mother can  hope to translate.  So all the while he's pulling this acting job off down here in the basement, he's talking, saying important things, I'm sure, jabbering away.

There's a scratch pad on the desk, and at least a dozen pens, so he grabs one of those pens and starts writing.  There he is, my wife says, in papa's chair, with papa's reading glasses perched on his cute little button nose, one of papa's big pens in his hand, writing something or other on papa's paper.  He's my grandson.

I'm not sure what king of blog post he was composing just then, but I have the manuscript right here.  This is it, in fact..  I'm quite sure it's profound, as fine a piece of work that's come out of the basement for quite a while.



Isn't it great?  Quite frankly, I think his writing is beyond words.  
This morning's thanks is for the sheer genius he left behind down here on that yellow pad.   

Trust me on that--I've been teaching writing for 40 years.  Besides, I'm his grandpa.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Sunday Morning Meds--Silence


“. . .search your hearts and be silent.”  Psalm 4:3

The greatest classroom stem-winders, profs who can hold students spellbound for 90-minutes plus, still love students who respond.  After 35 years of teaching, I can predict the success of a class if I know ahead of time whether or not there are a few orally-gifteds tucked somewhere amid the rows (often front-and-center), students who will gleefully break the otherwise deadly silence.  Teachers love good talkers.

But then, our age is adept at yakking.  Years ago already, a veteran kindergarten teacher told me her students had changed immensely over the years.  When she began teaching in the late fifties, she claimed it took her at least two weeks to get the little kids to open up.  Now, she quipped, five-year-old kids walk into class, take a look at the teacher, and say, “Who’s in charge here?”

Television may well be a visual medium, but it doesn’t abide silence much better than radio.  If we pick up TV’s cues—and the research is convincing that we do—maybe we all do more swaggering, more lipping off, more jabbering.

But there’s another rule-of-thumb my years of teaching have taught me.  The big talkers aren’t always the best students.  Flannery O’Connor, I remember reading, was almost totally inconspicuous in her classes at Iowa Writers Workshop.  I believe it.  Every year I’ve got silent types that knock my socks off when they hand in an essay.  A classroom that sounds morgue-ish doesn’t necessarily mean that the minds that inhabit it are laid out cold.

Generalizations are always hazardous, but, historically at least, the annals of the American West are rife with stories about white folks—immigrant farmers, cavalry lieutenants, even French trappers—who were uncomfortable with the silence Native folks felt imperative before a discussion.  Then again, the history of the West wouldn’t be as jaded if white folks had kept their mouths shut even more than they did.

Given our sexually-charged media culture’s incessant yapping, it’s probably understandable why some people would opt out and seek the enforced silence of the monastery.  Thomas Merton and Henry Nouwen have wide and devoted readership; it’s difficult to know whether Kathleen Norris’s Cloister Walk begat a phenomenon or merely rode the wave.  To many—and to me—silence looks good, probably because it’s hard to come by.

I’ve become familiar with old folks’ homes.  My mother is in one; so s my wife’s father.  Silence pervades those places, no matter how cheerfully decorated.  But their immense silence doesn’t make life there any more moral or high-toned.  And the fact is, I’m not anxious to go.  Aging creates its own hurtful enforcers.

Here in Psalm 4, it’s a command.  In this 12-step therapy regimen David is creating, he raises a finger again and says, simply, just shut up.

Me too.  Be still, he says.  And here I am on this Sunday morning, going on and on.  We love talkers.
 
Be still, David says.  Just, be still. 

Lord, help me.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Punching bags


Once upon a time, years ago, I was up at dawn and sitting on the eastern coastline of little Dutch island named Terschelling, not all that far, I think, from the farm where my great-grandparents lived before they decided to pick up their lives and fortunes and immigrate to America.  They left the island in 1868 because, family lore has it, Terschelling didn't have the right kind of church, a church conservative enough for their theological tastes.  You might say they left for reasons that had to do with religious freedom.  To say the least, they weren't alone.

In the harbor of the town of West Terschelling, things were just beginning to roll that morning, I remember, and I was struck with an odd sort of "what if" feeling--what if those Schaap great-grandparents had not decided to leave, what if they'd stayed, what if their progeny were Dutch instead of American?  What if Holland wasn't simply the land of my origin, but the land of my birth, my native land?


I'd lived in the Netherlands for almost a month back then, and the answer wasn't particularly difficult.  I'd come to believe that Holland was a sweet place, that I could make my home there quite comfortably.  There's no doubt that this particular Schaap would have become something other than I had become had C. C.  and Neetlje stayed on Terschelling, but I determined, that morning, that growing up on the island of Terschelling, the Netherlands, wouldn't have been half bad.  

Sometimes it seems that politicians in this country make a really convenient punching bag out of Europe in general and the Netherlands in particular.  I mean, what on earth could be worse than socialized medicine?  Sometimes you wonder how it is we can even live peaceably with our neighbor to the north, so evil a system they perpetuate on the populace.  It's a wonder there's grace at all in Canada.

And then there's euthanasia.  Listen to Rick Santorum, who is, without a doubt, the most righteous of the candidates running for President.  Here he is,  speaking at the Heartland Forum in Columbia, Missouri, on February 3:  


In the Netherlands, people wear different bracelets if they are elderly.  And the bracelet is:  "Do not euthanize me."  Because they have voluntary euthanasia in the Netherlands but half of the people who are euthanized--ten percent of all deaths in the Netherlands--half of those people are euthanized involuntarily at hospitals because they are older and sick.  And so elderly people in the Netherlands don't go to the hospital.  They go to another country, because they are afraid, because of budget purposes, they will not come out of that hospital if they go in there with sickness.
Yesterday, in the Washington Post's "Fact Checker" column, Glenn Kessler, whose parents emigrated from Holland and who still has abundant family there, made very clear that what Santorum said was simply not true.  Euthanasia is accountable for 2.3 percent of the 136,000 deaths in the Netherlands in 2010.  Of the 2667 euthanasia notifications, required by the government, 80 percent grew from terminal cancer, and 80% of those victims actually died at home.  

Only .08 percent of those deaths did not have the conscious approval of the deceased, but the Netherlands has created a stiff protocol for euthanasia, a complicated system requiring the consent of several physicians; people are not randomly euthanized.  Santorum either doesn't know or he is not telling the truth--call it what you want.  And according to Kessler--and Dutch authorities--nobody ever heard of those "Do-not-euthanize me" bracelets.  They don't exist.

They do make effective campaign grist, however, and Santorum should be commended for the effective ways he's created to stoke his audience's fears.  

Today, there's no doubt that Santorum would win Sioux County should the election be held tomorrow.  He is fearless in his crusade against abortion, unflinching when it comes to the state meddling in the church's business.  He dislikes public schools.  He truly believes that President Obama has a "phony theology."  He is convinced that global warming is a ruse created by radical environmentalists, people like my colleagues at Dordt College.  

Sen. Santorum has a right to say what he wants about whatever subject he'd like, but I'd rather he not impugn the country of my origin for campaign fodder.  I like the Netherlands.  Oh, sure, if you stand outside more than a few coffee shops, you can whiff your way into other worlds; and an innocent stroll into a section of Amsterdam will send you past shop windows where you'll see, up close and personal, more than a few young, underclad women whose flesh is very much on sale.  

There's sin in the Netherlands all right, but then there's sin in Pennsylvania too, in what once was Sen. Santorum's own district.  Satan himself really wants America, Santorum said lately, and I suppose that if you share his views of things, that makes sense.  After all, he already has the Netherlands.  

But I like Holland, and I wish the holiest of our presidential candidates wouldn't lie.  Maybe, just maybe, Satan's got him too.  
_____________________________ 
My thanks to a friend for pointing out Kessler's "Fact Checker" column yesterday.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Swan Song XXXIV--gym rat

No faces rise from the pages of this old scorebook.  The names are here, game after game, and an embarrassing tally of final scores--we lost far more than we won.  But the simple fact that I don't see a one of these players of mine when I read their names, not a single face, is the real story.  

Once upon a time, more than anything else in the world, I wanted to be a coach. When, as a college freshman, I met the professor assigned to be my adviser, I put down history as a major, not because I was all that interested in the Civil War but because there was no physical education major at Dordt College in 1966 and the only way I was going to get a chair in a high school gym's coaching office was to have some kind of major to go with the whole coaching thing.  I did my high school years in a gym, wore a jock more than underwear, and  wanted more of all of that life.

But after two seasons of college basketball, the physical truth became imminently clear--I wasn't as good as I once thought I was.  I played baseball for all four college years, however, and when I graduated there was still enough gym rat in me to be thrilled to coach freshmen basketball at Black Hawk High School, South Wayne, WI.  

We didn't win much there either. I'm not sure we won at all.  And an odd thing happened--I realized I cared much more about A. E. Housman, about "To an Athlete Dying Young," than I did about breaking a zone press.  Basketball was fun, but I was no fanatic. That life had simply fallen away, like snake skin.  

I once shook hands with an opposing coach while I coached hoops in Phoenix.  The guy eyed me as if I was some boxer about to climb in the ring with him. I knew what he was doing--he was working at intimidation, and I laughed because I knew at that very moment that I'd never coach again.  I just didn't care all that much.  

When I found this old scorebook in a file drawer, when I pulled it out and paged through it, no more than a half-dozen memories arose, ghost-like, from its pages. Greenway High School, Phoenix, Arizona--my freshman basketball team. 1975.  

Here's one story.  I don't see his face anymore, but I remember that one of the kids was tough. He looked tough and he was.  Once upon a time in a ball game, a ref called a technical, pointed to him, and then came over to tell me that he just didn't like the kid's looks.  I swear that happened.  I didn't scream because it probably made sense--the kid did.  

Once upon a time I called that his father because I must have needed his help. I don't remember having a ton of trouble with the boy, but I probably had enough to call home.  Here's what the kid's father said:  "Good luck--I haven't been able to do anything with that kid for the last three years."  

I loved teaching in the city, but that story became symptomatic of a malaise I attributed to our time and place and public education and Western civilization.  How on earth is a teacher supposed to control a kid his father quit on three years ago?  

And then there's this. We lost a ton of games, I remember.  In fact, when I page through this scorebook, I'm surprised we won at all.  After a loss somewhere, we climbed on the bus--we were one-half of the freshman basketball team; there was another team too--the green and the gold--and another coach, a friend of mine who taught history.

We lost and I was mad at the world.  Or just sick of it--I don't know which exactly.  Think of it this way, I was un-talkative, maybe even a little surly, just plain tired.

My friend Sam was a good guy.  We got along because both of us cared more about the classroom than we did the gym.  Anyway, Sam was in the seat behind me, and he started talking to me, not loud, just talking, the guys behind us in the bus jabbering away for fair.

"You know, Schaap, here's what I think--think of it this way," he said, his arms draped over the seat.  "The way I see it sometimes when I feel like that is that you just gotta' remember that there's somewhere close to million people in San Diego, California, who don't really give a shit."  

That line will stay with me when this book is long gone.  San Diego will always be there when I tell myself that things can't get any worse.  Life-long therapy.

Things you don't learn on the court.  They call it a classroom.  Maybe it is--or was.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Reading Mother Theresa XXIII


". . .to the great God, nothing is little. . ."


You know?--I really ought to imprint that line on a t-shirt:  "to the great God, nothing is little."  It's hers--Mother Teresa's--and it's just plain beautiful.

But then , maybe I think so just because I'm getting old.

How is it that retired people get such a kick out of gardening?  Why, for pity sake, does the appearance of that gorgeous cardinal or her lovely husband just outside our window just light up our day?  Last night, my wife and I had a quiet supper together alone for the first time in a week, and it felt something like what I little I know of heaven.  What's that about anyway?

The world simply shrinks the older you get.  That's what I'm thinking.  This isn't scientific, and I haven't spent the last several weeks at the Home grilling residents.  I just know what I know--and that is that life's little things mean more somehow when you put on some years.  Seriously.  

Yesterday, I got a card from a man I don't know.  He lives in Michigan.  He says he's been reading a book of my meditations over and over again, and it's good.  Words I ground up down here in this basement.  You know?--that kind of letter.  Just a card.  That's it.  Just a little homemade card.  Made my day.  Shoot, made my week.  Little things.

A kid says something on his way out the classroom.  Maybe it was an okay class that day, and as he's walking out, he says, "Have a good afternoon, Professor."  I feel like I'm somebody.  Little things.

A sunset. A windless, warm February afternoon.  The faint whisper of spring.  An raucuous orchestra of birds in the morning sun once again, or the long glowing promise of an orange dawn.

Bad knees, leaky plumbing, sore feet, a testy stomach--there's no end to the tribulations of aging.  And yet, sometimes it just seems that I find myself, these days, a joyful victim of an transformed aesthetic.  Instead of looking past life's seeming givens, its otherwise incidentals, you take joy in a 'em--a plain old bowl of cereal starts to taste like a feast, I swear it.

Maybe that's what theologians mean by sanctification.  Maybe the death of the old, young man begets the quickening of the new, old one.  Count the paradox in that line.  Okay, maybe it's silly, but, dang it!--it's cute. 

Mother Theresa used to tell her sisters that to God everything is small, and therefore everything is beautiful because everything is divine.  Isn't that wonderful?  "Because he makes them," she'd say, "they are very great.  He cannot make anything small; they are infinite."

Rain on parched soil.  Those newbie buds on the maples.  An old hymn you thought you'd forgotten completely.  

At the funeral of a man I never knew, one little photograph of he and his wife just after the war, totally in love--I remember that darling snapshot, so full of life, far better than the shape of his face as he lay in the open coffin.  I still see it.  I wish I could show you.

Or how about this?  Just beside me now, the last three segments of an orange I've been eating slowly ever since I sat down at this computer.  I pull 'em apart, one at a time because of the juicy blessing I get with each little tart explosion of lovely taste.  

Now there are two.  

"Be faithful in little practices of love, of little sacrifices," Mother Teresa used to say.  Such things make you Christ-like.

Could it be possible--at least for a while maybe--just maybe--that aging makes that easier?  

Don't ask me tomorrow.  This may just be a good morning.

Besides, the orange is gone.

But then maybe that cardinal'l show up.  I should be so blessed.


Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Theological politics


You know, I honestly don't have a clue what Rick Santorum was thinking when he said that President Obama has a "phony theology."  He didn't walk that statement back either, didn't say he misspoke or maybe he went too far; instead, he just added a list of synonyms to "theology" that, I suppose, make sense--"ideology" was one of them, and so was "worldview."  Oddly enough, what he didn't try to substitute was the word I would have best understood:  "politics," as in "President Obama has 'phony politics.'"  

But he wouldn't have used that word because he knows the word politics is corrupt, even sinful.  Besides, it would have implied that Obama's "politics" are at odds with his own, that is, Santorum's "politics," and you can be sure Rick Santorum thinks he doesn't have "politics" because he has principles--true, biblical, gospel principles to boot.

But then I think he truly believes (and all of his beliefs are true, by the way, check 'em out with the Bible) that Obama doesn't really "play politics" either. See, Obama too has principles; it's just that those principles are not biblical while his are.  Really, Santorum would say, neither of them are in politics--it's much deeper that that, for heaven's sake.  Both are theologians, and one is phony, a wolf in sheep's clothing.  

And that's not him.

Maybe we need to think of the whole business that way.  What we have now, competing for the heart of a nation, are two totally radically different theologies.  Election 2012 has nothing to do with politics.  Really, it is all about theology.

This nation began as a theocracy.  Those hard-working Puritans and pilgrims believed their mission in the new world was to build a Christian society, God as King.  They were Calvinists, and there are ton of my ilk who still rather like that idea, even though the New England "rule by God" failed miserably in not too short a time.  

Why? There are a dozen reasons, I'm sure, but one of them is that it gets hard to determine who's righteous and who isn't.  God does that job divinely well, but his servants have historically had more than their share of trouble separating sheep from goats. The atheists among us aren't wrong--the truly righteous have left innumerable trails of tears--think Salem, circa 1692. We don't judge others' theologies all that well because we're human.  And that, I say, is biblical.

I don't know if Rick Santorum believes that theology is just another word for ideology or worldview or what.  Maybe these days, it is.  

He can call it what he wants, I guess--theology or ideology; but it strikes me that what the battle comes down in 2012, as it has in any other election year, is plain and simple politics.  

Why not just call it that?

Monday, February 20, 2012

Swan Song XXXIII--The cry of the loon


For the first time in years--and probably the last time ever--I staged a little reading last night here at the college where I've taught for 35 years.  I read a couple of my own stories from a series I've been fooling around with now for a couple of years, and, at least from my point of view, it was a ball.  

The crowd included a few students, but more adults and folks from the community.  Maybe that was why I felt the way I did.  I had an odd sensation that the voice I was using to read those stories was something I might call the authentic me, not just a teaching voice, a voice I rolled out from some corner of my soul, but instead a voice I hadn't used for some time.  An old maxim about lit claims that when there's some discrepancy between what writers say and what they write, you'd best believe the tale because the story always holds the real voice--"believe the tale, not the teller."

I'm quite sure the great majority of students I've had over the years wouldn't fault their ex-teacher/prof for phoniness.  Sometimes I think I've been far too honest.  But somehow, last night, I felt as if there was a slightly different me talking, reading, and it felt very, very good.

All of which puts me in mind of an old teacher tale I heard while doing a story about a couple who lived in a pre-Revolutionary War farmhouse somewhere in eastern Pennsylvania.  Our conversation was interrupted, I remember, by a phone call, which the husband took and promptly left the room.  He was pastor, and, by the tone of his voice--it was difficult not the hear something of the conversation--I assumed it was a pastoral call because the whole time he was talking he seemed to be doing his best to put out a fire, to lay some horror to rest.

When he returned, he looked at his wife and said a single word--let's say it was Hazel.  

His wife rolled her eyes.

Silence ensued, which he then quickly filled in with the story.  It seems Hazel called because she was absolutely sure that, once again, the CIA or the FBI or some secret agents of some type were reading her mail and keeping her house under surveillance.  She was sure of it, she said, because some package she'd received was ripped, and she was tired of it but she didn't think she could really call in the law because they were all in cahoots as you well know and what on earth did they want of her anyway?--did they think she was a communist or a spy or some criminal or something when she wasn't anything like that nor had she ever been, as you well know, Pastor Williams, and isn't there something someone can do to stop this madness?--my goodness, we're living in America or what's become of this proud nation, and it's really something when you can't trust law enforcement or the government at all, if you know what I mean. . .

That kind of thing.

They both smiled.

"She's grown more and more loony ever since she retired," Pastor Williams' wife insisted.  "We hardly know what to do."

"Funny thing," the Pastor said, and then told a story that's haunted me ever since.  He said the whole parish remembered her for being a wonderful teacher, in town, for all of her life.  Students loved her, he said.  She'd never married and simply gave her life for her students.

Not long before, he told me, he'd decided that maybe he could do a little therapy by putting Hazel up in front of the whole Sunday school, by getting her back in the mission, the calling, the identity that had given her life real meaning, pre-retirement.

"So we did," he said, shaking his head.  

His wife was giggling.  "She was amazing--absolutely amazing."  Up in front of kids once more, she was steady, dramatic, precise, and pitch-perfect, as strong a classroom presence as she'd ever been. "If you would have heard our Hazel that Sunday morning," his wife told me, "you could have never guessed she was crazy as a loon."

I was on assignment for a book I was doing for the Back to God Hour, and, honestly, I don't remember much of their story.  I remember the ancient square farmhouse, Knickerbocker era, I think; I remember the couple, their faces; but their story is between the covers of that book and not anywhere discoverable between my ears.  It's pretty much gone.

The phone call, on the other hand, haunts me, and has ever since I visited out there, ever since I heard it, maybe because all of us teachers have multiple selves, some deft as a well-played hand of poker, some crazy as a loon.  

Who was I last night?

Who will I be this morning?  

God only knows.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Sunday Morning Meds--Insomnia



“when you are on your beds, search your hearts. . .”

Although many have found their way to new life by way of faith, although a personal relationship with the Lord is the certifiable method by which thousands of suffering people have found their way out of dependency, I doubt the American Psychiatric Association would endorse the Word of God as a bona fide therapeutic blessing.
 
Especially this in verse 4 of Psalm 4.  Here’s David’s therapy:  “Bill (or Clarice or whoever), you need to think long and hard about these issues.  When you hit the sack tonight, mull it over, consider the possibilities from every angle.  Don’t go to sleep before you’ve covered every inch of ground.”

In our affluent culture, insomnia is something of a plague.  And while, throughout his life, David had loads of reasons not to sleep well, it may well be that life in Israel—where people normally knew their place very well—was simpler.  Insomnia may not have been the curse it is today.

Whatever the case, this verse opens the theme which has given Psalm 4 its handle as “the evening hymn.”  Really, this odd little Psalm is a how-to program—specifically, how to get some sleep.  David doesn’t recommend a glass of red wine, at least not here.  He had no access to Nite-all or any of a hundred other over-the-counter remedies. 

In fact, he advises the opposite.  When you go to bed, consider the state of your soul.  Don’t shut those eyes until you judge your motives, assess your course in life, your purposes, the very state of your soul—advice that seems sure to keep anyone awake. 

The entire Psalm is a call to holiness, not simply a bromide for insomnia. David’s intent (starting with verse 2) is to startle those “sons of men” who don’t really care about the God he’s come to love and worship, a ten-step program aimed at dependency—on Jehovah God.

And what David is betting on is the still small voice of conscience.  What he’s advising is a personal assessment that can be best accomplished in the silence and privacy of the bedroom, outside the glitter and the glare.  In the silence before sleep, he says, think about the dead ends we too often pursue when in the spotlight.

I’ve got enough experience with depression to know that this piece of advice may not be the best therapy in all situations.  The last thing I’d advise some of those I know and love is to spend more quality time mulling over their spiritual health.  In some cases, that’s a recipe for suicide.

All of which doesn’t mean that David is dumb or the Bible is silly.  Sometimes the therapy suggested here is exactly what our soul’s doctor would order up Himself, were he to fill out a prescription.
 
Orthodox Christianity has always argued for a death—the death of self—before the advent of the new life.  Death doesn’t come without pain and hurt. 

Honestly, I don’t think the Lord wants us all sleepless in Seattle or Sioux Center.  But he wants us honest about ourselves and our motives.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Morning Thanks--64 and counting



Seems to me that McCartney's famous ditty is nothing more than another sweet seduction poem, but it reaches epic poignancy when, in fact, its memorable words admit the very truth.  For years, the questions were speculative.  No more.  As of yesterday, I'm there.

And now that I am, I'm happy to say I think she'll still have me.

And that's my morning-after thanks.


Thursday, February 16, 2012

Swan Song XXXII--Blinders


I don't know what teaching pros would call it--maybe a strategy, a means to an end. I proposed that war can be as glorious as any human activity, offering, as it does, the daily opportunity for men and women to sacrifice themselves for others. Heroism is almost a by-product of battle. Hence, Memorial Day. If it weren't, well, glorious, how is it that one of the joys of my father-in-law's life was reuniting with the motor pool he was part of from Normandy to Berlin.   He gave years of his life for his country.  Years.  My own father too.  War may well be more selfless than any other human endeavor.  

On the other side of the ledger, war is as close as we may come to hell itself. Horrors abound, some--many--of which never fully depart a haunted mind.  Years later, those who fought can be gutted by memories that flash back as if out of nowhere.  War's horrors are hellish.

Literature hits most of that continuum.  There's a ton of heroism in Tim O'Brien's "Things They Carried," for instance, but it's mostly embedded--look what kind of sadness and grief and horror these guys are going through in the name of what?--fighting communism, I guess.  You can't help feel sorry for them. Still, put that story over on the left--war as hell. No one dies for anyone else really--the grunt who is killed just drops like cement, "zapped while zipping," the others keep saying.

In the film Glory, a black Union regiment during the Civil War, freed slaves from the South who go to war against those who'd enslaved them, die on the field of battle when they're basically canon fodder in a battle that required immense sacrifice. There's glory in Glory--you might say there's abundant life in the death of those men.  Maybe you could say they fought a greater evil than death itself.

The Hurt Locker has selflessness, all right, but mostly it's a story of war's addictive powers because it offers an intensity of drama unattainable in civilian life.  James, the man who defuses bombs in Iraq simply can't sit home and take care of his son, can't abide days when the most difficult decision he faces is which kind of Cheerios he's going to slip from the shelf.  He returns, despite the horrors.  He relishes them.  Lives for them.

Where do we put such things on the continuum?  That's the strategy I worked at.  Read a couple of stories and poems about war, watch a film or two, and plot out where each of those sits--war as horror, war as glory.  

I was talking about something, some idea, some poem, some story, out of nowhere, on the very last day, pacifism jumped into my mind.  Once upon a time, students in the college where I teach were primarily from the Christian Reformed Church; today, most are "Reformed" of one tribe or another.  But we're more diverse than we were in every way, and it stuck me suddenly, up in front of class, that it was possible there might be a Mennonite or two sitting in front of me.  So I asked.  "Are there any Mennonites in this class?"

A young lady in the second row raised her hand shyly.

No moment in the classroom this last semester struck me with such force.  Immediately, I wondered what it must have been like for her to have to read all this war stuff, to watch all this war stuff, to study all this war stuff.  What on earth must she have thought of a Christian education that left no room for what she must have been taught religiously all of her life.  How could I be so blind to a whole tradition of Christian thought that would have found it sacrilege to talk about war in any glowing terms whatsoever.  Rupert Brooke?  She may have thought herself in hell.  

Here I am, I told myself, my very last semester of teaching, still saddled with blinders. There'd been no place on that continuum for her.  She was left off the chart of my impressively functional teaching strategy.

After the class, I called her over.  "I want to apologize," I told her.  It never occurred to me that I might have a Mennonite in here--I'm really sorry."

She wasn't angry.  She smiled, in fact.  "When I came here, I knew what I was getting into," she said, and then she left.

It's my last semester, but I still have so much to learn. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Jeremy Lin--A God Thing?



Call me an idiot or an infidel, but here's what I think.  Every once in a while, the Lord God almighty throws us a knuckler nobody can touch.  He creates an anomaly to toy with the impossible because when he does we all go slack-jawed.  Every last one of us calls a halt to the tedium of our lives and breathes in the wonder--the insanity--of what's actually going on right before our eyes.

As per.  

Last night Jeremy Lin hit a three-pointer with less than a second to play to lead the New York Knicks to victory over the poor Toronto Raptors, who can thank their lucky stars they weren't at a casino, because had they been their losses would have been massive.  The Knicks on the other hand, who've now won six-in-a-row, should have been.  They'd have run the house flat out of business.  Why?  Pardon my iniquities here--because the Knicks suddenly seem to have God on their side.  And his name isn't Tebow.  


And his name isn't even Jeremy Lin, whose court heroics have grown to legendary in the last ten days by way of a nearly uninterrupted series of insane hardcourt exploits.  Some of my devout Christian friends are fond of calling their own personal sweet turns of fate "God things."  Okay, I roll my eyes at such theology, but, good night, this Jeremy Lin is, isn't he?  He has to be.  He's not God, but he's got to be a God thing.

Quick now--name five blue-chip Asian-American ball players.  Go on.  Go on.  How about this--two Chinese in the NBA Hall of Fame?  

Stumped?  Hmmm.  What's the matter?--you racist?

There ain't none.  Jeremy Lin is absolutely and positively one-of-a-kind.  He's Taiwanese, not Frisian.  He belongs to the little people of the world.  Last week I sat in a church half-full of Southeast Asians, half full of Dutch-Americans, creating the kind of steep drop off fishermen dream of, a two-tiered sanctuary.  Asian-Americans in the NBA are hens teeth.  I'm sure there are--some place in America--other terrific Asian-American hoop stars, but they don't fare well in the land of the NBA giants.

Get this--Jeremy Lin is from Harvard too.  If Romney gets the Republican nod, two Harvard alums will face off come November, a plain fact that will shock no one.  But I don't know if there was ever another Harvard grad in the NBA.  

His degree in economics.  You read that right.  Not only is he degreed, he's an economist, which should prove mightily helpful because, if they haven't already, the bucks are going to rain down starting any minute.  

An Asian-American, Harvard grad, economics major is, this morning, an NBA star.  Last night he hit a three-pointer with less than a second left.  You go to see it to believe it.  
I'm not making this up. 

Man bites dog--that's what kind of story this is.  Niagara goes dry.  Ivory stops floating.  Newt goes sweet.  Tea Party caves.  Democrats slash entitlements.  

"Linsanity" New Yorkers call it.  Call me a heretic, but I say that somewhere at the command post of this world, there's direction to this madness.  I call it a God thing.

Enjoy, he says.  

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Morning Thanks--my valentine


Forty years ago this morning, I know exactly where I was--alone in a freezing cold bedroom of an old house trailer in Monroe, Wisconsin, my first domicile after college, an odd little place I actually loved, even though I remember holding up a candle in a snowstorm and watching the flame dance in the gusts that shimmied through the walls.  

That morning, I'm sure, regardless of the temperature, I was warmed by the spirit of the holiday.  I must have bought and sent off a Valentines card to a raven-haired woman who lived just south of Chicago, not because I had to--forget at your peril!--but because no matter how frigid a February just outside that bedroom, I was likely steamin' with love.  

I just now read a note I never sent to that woman, the woman I would marry, a letter I never finished, begun in an office where I was working that next summer, summer of '72, selling entrance stickers in a state park.  It talks, embarrassingly, about how three painful weeks yet remain before the wedding--a "woe is me" kind of style that's painfully cliched, even derivative. Totally unoriginal. But then, as I remember, I was far too earnest to be an artful lover.  

Besides, I wasn't trying to be creative.  I had all I could do to stanch the steam.  Three weeks, the letter says.  Just three weeks and no more sleeping alone.  I'd quote if it wasn't so third-rate.

Forty years are now tucked safely behind us, forty years of Valentines Day cards--sometimes flowers, sometimes chocolates, sometimes not.  Tonight, a special dinner, in fact.  A bit pricey, but forty years is forty years--that's how long Israel wandered in the desert, after all.

I've said it before--we got married in a fever, hotter than a pepper sprout.  By Valentines Day, 1972, it had been little more than a month since our first date, a sort of set-up deal that was likely my sister's grand-champion attempt in match-making cupidry.  Once I saw that would-be valentine across the gym that January night, it was katy-bar-the door.  Six weeks later we were engaged.  Barely three months after that, we were married.  I'm not kidding.  I'm sure that Valentines day card forty years ago was a pepper sprout itself.

This year my card is homemade--a couple of mourning doves on the clothes line in our back yard and a little quip that suggests I'm up for more.  

All of this blog business started with that blame Garrison Keillor, who said, years ago, in a Christian Century interview, that the entire world would be a better place if every last one of us gave thanks for something--anything!--every morning of our lives.  Struck me as an idea worth trying.  

Often enough, I forget.  But not this morning.  This Valentines Day morning I crawled out of the warm bed of a woman who's shared it with me for almost 40 years.  In the darkness, I walked downstairs into a study bountifully warm with a great old space heater, where I've been trying to fill an open page with something sweet and apropos--after all it's a holiday--and our 40th.  Now that I'm finished, I'll go back to the warmth I just now left behind.

This morning's thanks are a piece of cake. This morning I'm thankful for the woman who said yes to that first holiday request, forty years ago:  yes, I'll be your valentine.  Because she was, and is, and shall be.  

For that, to say the least, I'm thankful.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Sioux County History VI--A Winter's Tale


Unlike many other early Sioux County immigrant families, the Mennings, so says Charlie Dyke, had some significant bucks when they left the Netherlands.  That relative wealth did not mean their passage to the new country was a piece of cake.  They were still in the North Sea when their ship collided with another.  Both sunk, and, along with them, most all of the Menning’s worldly possessions.
 
Blessedly, some freighter picked them up, brought them to Grigsby, England, from which port they left again, arriving eventually in Quebec.  Their next stop was Waupun, Wisconsin; but their true destination was Sioux County, Iowa, and a chunk of land about two miles east and one mile north of Orange City, homestead land just inside the Holland Township line.

When the Mennings got here, like the other early settlers, their first abode was literally dug out of rich Sioux County earth.  Dyke doesn’t say what the Mrs. Menning thought of mud floors, but you can guess it didn’t take a half century for them to get a frame house.  Their first was a roughshod palace—14 feet by 14 feet.  Welcome to the New World.
 
But soon enough they had friends, good friends—the Schuts—from down the road a piece.  One winter’s day the Schuts came over for a little friendly neighborliness, two families—just imagine!-- packed joyfully into a domicile 14 by 14.  That’s right neighborly.  But there’s more to the story.

Neither family had weather.com on their iPad, so when a big storm blew up out of nowhere that afternoon, they were left out in the cold, so to speak.  Now the Mennings had a kind of lean-to just big enough for their team and their two precious milk cows.  The Schuts had taken a wagon over, so they had team as well and were more than a little wary of letting those good horses out in the storm.  Alas, there was no room in the lean-to.

They had no choice but to make do, so Mr. Menning took control by putting the Schut’s horses into their make-shift barn.  Then he grabbed more than a few armfuls of straw and littered the house before leading their two precious milk cows into what was, of course, the only shelter available, the house.  Charley Dyke says that before those beefy bovines got in, they made sure whatever foodstuff happened to be around were safely stowed on the other side of  that Great Room ( 14 x 14).

So there they were—two wooden-shoed families and two gracious milk cows, all warm and snuggly in a crackerbox that was, that winter’s night, the only port in the storm.  Once Mrs. Menning milked those two friendly beasts and then pulled out some precious chocolate, the whole gathering had one enjoyable evening together in a warm house, I’m sure, drinking chocolate milk and singing their favorite psalms, an image that is, I think, something out of early Van Gogh.

Charlie Dyke doesn’t say whether the beasts knew Dutch or the psalms, so whether or not they sung with, no one will ever know.

What is clear—what is for sure—is that those immigrant folks found a way to make do.
Just another tale of neighborliness from Sioux County’s early years. 

And those were the rich ones.
_____________________________ 
Charles Dyke, The Story of Sioux County.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Sunday Morning Meds--Election



“Know that the Lord has set apart the godly for himself; 
the Lord will hear me when I call.”

Not so long ago I said a few words after the wedding of a friend.  I thought I’d color the reception with some Midwestern silliness since our friend’s roots grow deeply into Iowa soil, and he was marrying—gasp!—a bona fide Southern Cal native, deserting the Plains for LA, a move which, if it didn’t happen so darn often, would be unthinkable.

Like me, the groom’s ethno-religious pedigree is Dutch Calvinist, so I made mention of that fact and then lamented his leaving the holy land for the hellish hedonism of Southern California, the only directional corner of the country that gets its direction upper-cased.

The woman who followed me among the speakers at the reception took off on the word “Calvinist” and delivered what some considered a tongue-lashing. The gist of her diatribe had to do with the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, a belief that, in her estimation, turns all of us so named, ipso facto, into theological Nazis, I guess.
 
I’d simply been trying to make people laugh, and I got a bona fide sermon based in doctrinal history, the old fracas between election and free will.  In that war, she kept no prisoners.  I got pole-axed for simply (and arrogantly) assuming I’d been chosen.  She was—and she made no bones about it—against the arrogant assumptions assumed to be the character of those who honestly believed in such rot as predestination.
 
Honestly, the Bible doesn’t prove a whole lot conclusively.  It tells a great and true story, but it doesn’t offer plain and simple answers.  If you want that, see Oprah.
 
It’s almost impossible to find a verse that is as vivid an argument for election as Psalm 4:3.  After a series of questions designed to upbraid the “sons of men” in verse two, David shifts his rhetorical focus and returns to the command form of verse one, this time, however, raising his finger toward the sons of men at whom he’d just been ranting.  “You must know that the Lord selects his own,” he says, “and that he’ll listen to me,” implying, of course, that he (David) is among “his own.”
 
I’m sure I could find as strong a defense for the doctrine of election (or predestination) elsewhere in holy writ, but I’m also sure that I could also find as strong a defense for the doctrine of free will.  If the Bible were absolutely conclusive on that ancient theological battle, the battle wouldn’t be ancient.  God’s word has elbow room enough room for an awful lot of us.

But here’s the real kicker.  Just two verses before, David was demanding that God answer his prayers—in writer’s language, he was showing us that, in fact, God hadn’t really done that.  Now, with the force of those commands still roiling the air, he puffs his chest and tells (which is never as strong as shows) those who don’t believe, “Listen, chums, he’s chosen his own, I’m one of them, and he listens my prayer.”
Say, what?  He’d just shown us exactly the opposite.

I’m a Calvinist.  I confess—I believe in election.  But like David, I sometimes wonder if God is listening to my prayers.  I believe I’m own of his own, but sometimes, like David, I confess that I wonder if he’s out cruising.
 
As I’ve said, you’ve got to love the humanity of all of this.

Praise his name.