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.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Stuff in New Mexico

I wouldn't call it a vacation exactly, but this morning, early, I'm off to New Mexico with a couple of trusted cohorts, where we'll be leading a tour bus full of good folks on a loop from Albuquerque to Gallup to Farmington.  We've got good things planned.  Here's hoping they all go well. . .

You can follow our trekking here.  For a while at least, I won't be in the basement--that doesn't mean there won't be things here, but you want to follow the southwest meanderings you'll have to tune into new blog for a week.

It's a little strange of me to say it, but I'll just wish myself Godspeed for now--and for you and yours too.  

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Flotsam and jetsam--World Day of Prayer

What to call it?--a leaflet, a tract, an ad?  Maybe it's something churches slipped into their weekly church bulletins back then, in February, 1939.  How it slipped into my possession is beyond me.  It's something akin to loose change, stuck in the edges of my office bulletin board.  Like so much else lying around, it had escaped my notice for years, so long I have no clue about its origins.

More fastidious folks would keep a cleaner office. Good Calvinists shouldn't have flotsam and jetsam lying around uselessly, stuff unaccounted for, not in its rightful place.  But then just how much self-righteousness does it take to be a really good Calvinist?--and if the tally be known, who'd really want to be one? Lord knows, my sins are more than I can count, but no one's ever called me anal.  

Besides, it's a kind of joy to uncover treasures an arm's length away--like this little item, featuring Durer's famous portrait of praying hands.  

I'm guessing, from the info it offers, that not many Christian Reformed churches would have stuck it in their bulletins in 1939. Listen to this petition from the back of the leaflet:  "Father, grant that I may take my religion seriously and invite the spirit of Jesus Christ to permeate everything I do."

There's nothing abhorrent about such supplication, but the language, my forebearers would likely have said, waffles dangerously--"spirit of Jesus Christ" has a touch of modernism.  Why not not use the name of the Holy Spirit, after all?  Beware, my grandfather might have said.

"May the law of love be the law which governs my everyday life.  May I seek to reproduce the warm friendliness of Jesus in my home. . ."

I'm guessing the lights would be flashing on his heresy hunter, not that he was stiff-headed.  

"Help me to seek out some person or group whose immediate needs cry out for Christian service. . ."

Sounds like "social gospel," don't you think?

What I'm saying is, it's origins are probably not any church in which my grandpa preached.  I have no idea why this little green ad is mine.

The date is ominous--February 24, 1939, just months before the invasion of Poland,  and less than a month after Hitler stood before the Reichstag and told them that it was within the power of good Arian people to end, finally and totally, the pervasive treachery of European Jewry.

Europe will not have peace until the Jewish question has been disposed of. The world has sufficient capacity for settlement, but we must finally break away from the notion that a certain percentage of the Jewish people are intended, by our dear God, to be the parasitic beneficiary of the body, and of the productive work, of other peoples. 

Maybe the authors of this little thing had that in mind when they penned this petition on the back:  "Help me to study, work, and pray for better understanding among people of all races and nations.  Help me to be willing to live dangerously that peace may come in this our day, O Lord."  There is a certain prophetic character here.

It's little more than a mint-green leaflet calling the nation to prayer.  What did they know of what was to come just down the block?--Blitzkrieg, Pearl Harbor, Anzio, Guadalcanal, the Battle of the Bulge, D-Day, Iwo Gima?  

Had they known, would they have prayed differently?--more passionately?  I'm guessing that it wouldn't take too long before people like my own grandparents, scared of modernism, would have read those petitions in a far less fearful way, five of their children serving in a war that would linger horrifically for four long years.

But would all those pray-ers talk to God differently if they had known the score of horrors to come just down the road?  Maybe so.  

And maybe I should too-or so suggests this little green tract from who knows where, having been discovered behind stuff slovenly stuffed into the edge of my bulletin board.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Morning Thanks--Roaring Waters

At least some of its features I could have guessed had I never opened the cover.  It's plainly and unflinchingly Christian, for one, everything but "Kumbaya" at the radiant climax.  The New Mexico missionaries, blessed with Dutch names, are marvelously beneficent, perfectly sweet folks, who the Zunis and Navajos greatly admire.  Temptations abound, the lure of the old ways, frivolous and flirtatious young Indian girls; and there is, of course, the eternal promises of the new, Christian way.  

It was published in 1937, by Zondervan, who wouldn't look at it today.  But, who can blame them?--nobody would buy it today either.  I'm guessing that in 1937, Zondervan's customer base was the Christian Reformed Church of North America, a denomination only 40-some years into its very first and hugely ambitious mission project, the reservations of northwest New Mexico.  I suspect that lots of people may have read Roaring Waters--I don't know.

The author's name is embossed on the cover and appears on the title page--"C. Kuipers."  But that's it; there's no bio anywhere.  I'm assuming it's the Rev. Cornelius Kuypers, who went to New Mexico as a teacher and, decades later, left as a preacher.  I met him once or twice in his own twilight years in Arizona.  I only wish I'd known him better.

I stole the novel from the Cary Christian Center, Cary, Mississippi, another dedicated CRC project. Just one of the projects designated for our work group in the summer of 1977 was to do something with the library.  The library--just like tons of the stuff in the center--was composed of CRC cast-offs: the stepladder said "Property of First Pella CRC," I remember; pots and pans came from Kalamazoo.  You know.  The library had scads of Zondervan books from the mid-20th century, when CRC readers like my parents might have actually read books like Roaring Waters because they were written by "our people."

One of my jobs that week--the English teacher--was to look through the stacks of a library that was very rarely used and culling the ingrate volumes, the ones not ever likely to move.  Roaring Waters, I told myself, was not going to get read in poverty-stricken, African-American, Cary, Mississippi.  But I just couldn't throw it away.  So I kept myself, along with Rooftops over Strawtown and some book by Marian Schoolland.

Thirty-five years later, just this weekend, I picked it out of my own library and read it for the first time.  I loved it.

The plot is painstakingly predictable, and the characters fit the formula:  young Koshe, a Zuni kid, is, by golly, going to walk the straight-and-narrow.  Somewhere in the pages is a love story, but it doesn't really intrude on the fact that it's a coming of age novel--and, as I said, it's as hard-headed about where it's going as a pair of wooden shoes.  What's more, I couldn't help thinking that there's an alarmingly warm self-portrait here as well--but that's just worth a smile.

No matter.  I loved the book because it changed me, changed my mind.  I honestly wouldn't have believed that a CRC missionary to the Zuni pueblo, circa America's Great Depression, would have understood and even showed sympathy for the Zuni religion and culture, as Kuipers does.  To be sure, Koshe isn't about to head in that direction under Kuipers' own committed pen; but Kuipers' understanding of the world of the kachinas, a world he knew and seemingly understood, was, at least to me, quite surprising, and I love to be surprised when I read, to learn. 

That may say something about me, finally, about my own latent progressivism and arrogance, in fact, which maintains stoutly that, enlightened as I am these days, I can't help but feel that some of those pioneer missionaries were pious fools.  Not frauds--I don't doubt their sincerity or their spiritual commitment--but fools, especially when it came to knowing the people they served.

I found Roaring Waters, a book no one else has read for years I'm sure, to be most fascinating with respect to Zuni ways, even surprisingly sympathetic.  Koshe's choice is not between simply good and evil, but Christian and pagan--and that paradigm I found fascinating.

I know what it's like to write a novel.  I know it's not easy.  That C. Kuipers wrote this one in a house that still exists, I'm sure, in the heart of Zuni pueblo during the height of the Depression, and that I read on Google that he wrote at least two others (I've got them ordered), is to me as amazing as it is wonderful.  

I wish, years ago in Arizona, I'd taken the time to meet the old man and hear his story.

This morning my morning thanks are for an old novel, 75 years old, a book with the scantest of readerships--and the missionary/teacher/preacher who spent a lifetime in the Zuni pueblo, not just telling others what to think, but learning, like a good educator, to listen to the people he served.

Bottom line:  Roaring Waters is not a great novel, but to me at least it's a great book.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Memorial Day

There is something profoundly fitting about tending graves for Memorial Day.  My dad did it for years, and I’d go along, just to watch him put in carnations beside our family stones, as if the old folks were approving.  He didn’t do it because they were veterans—none  of them were, even though he was, as were four of his brothers and sisters.

The driving spirit Memorial Day ”doings” was Grandma, who lost a brother in August of 1918, just a few months from the end of the war to end all wars.  She made it perfectly clear until the day she died that, come Memorial Day attention must be paid, whether or not the deceased fell in war.

Once palefaces started moving into Illinois and Wisconsin, Chief Black Hawk, like almost every other Native American of the 19th century, was told he and his people should take up residence father west in Iowa, away from the land along the Mississippi, Black Hawk’s homeland.  He wouldn’t.  White folks wouldn’t take no for answer, but he still refused.  He was ordered to go.  He said no.  Why not?  It was unthinkable for him to leave behind his dead ancestors.  He went to war.

Seems foolishness today.  We make the nomadic Lakota buffalo chasers look like couch potatoes.  But I’ve got a soft spot in my heart for old Chief Black Hawk.

Saturday night we went out to the cemetery because Grandpa wanted some flowers put there at the stone of his wife, who died five years ago now.  We took him, some flowers, and our grandson too, even though he spent most of his time playing on the stones.  He said he remembers Grandma, even though we was a pre-schooler when she died, remembers that she loved to bake, he says, although we’re not sure of that at all.  But I’m convinced that it was good for him to be there.

And then, for the first time in years, we stopped the barrel-like stone over the site of my own great-grandparents, immigrant Dutch folks who left the beautiful North Sea island of Terschelling, the Netherlands, because there wasn’t a church there quite strict enough.  I don’t know much about them really since my father was born more than a decade after they were both gone.  What he knew, he knew only by family lore.
In 1905, his son, who’d become a  preacher just a year or so before, was visiting his parents in Orange City and filling a pulpit one Sunday in Carnes, Iowa.  Father and son took the wagon together on the five or six-mile jaunt to the old country church, now long gone.  That day, Great-Grandpa Schaap listened to his son hold forth.  I hope he did well.

That night, the wagon and the horses back in the barn, he died.
Born 1836, the stone says, and then,  “Gest. 13 Maart 1905.”  There’s a passage from the Psalms in Dutch lower down on that barrel.  Somewhere, I know, I have the translation. 
That’s my grandson , standing over the grave set in the oldest part of the Orange City cemetery.
I’m not sure if he even begins to understand how significant it is for him to stand there.  Maybe his own grandpa has a bit too much of Black Hawk in him.

But I rather like the picture.  He’s in third grade, and it’s now 107 years since his great-great-great grandparents died and were buried right there; but somehow I think it’s good for him to think, just for a minute, that once upon a time a man named Cornelius and a woman named Neeltje left Holland in 1868 and years later were buried here in good black Iowa ground, the land where he was born, the land where he and his own great-grandpa still live.

I just think he should know, and a holiday, as it always was, is blessed time to bring it up.

Sunday, May 27, 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 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, 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 rhetorical 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 his, but sometimes, like David, I confess that I wonder if he’s simply out of the office.
As I’ve said, you’ve got to love the humanity of all of this.

Praise his name. 

Friday, May 25, 2012

Where his eyes are

They were ducklings.  I'm not making this up.  In my window well, at our house, in the middle of town--ducklings!  Six of them, squacking and peeping like a barrel of store-bought chicks this time of year--a window well full of furry little sweethearts, trapped, each of them trying vainly to run up the screen to get out. It was high drama right here in the inner city of Sioux Center, Iowa.

Honestly, I didn't recognize them.  All I knew is they were raising holy fury with their incessant chirping, enough so that, even with my arms full of boxes, I detoured down the sidewalk when I heard them, looked up--they were birds after all--saw nothing, then looked down at the bedlam.  Sure enough--six little darlings, stripes behind their eyes, wings flapping for fair, scared nearly to death to be in our window well.

You think of mercy right then because you think of death. There's a black cat in the neighborhood--we love cats, love having them around.  But these guys were little more than a light lunch. 

I fetched my wife.  She's the one who said they were ducks. 

"Ducks?" I said.  "What on earth are they doing here in our window well?--and what on earth are we going to do?"

I ran inside and tried to call my ornithologist friend--no one home--then went back outside, hoping maybe they'd escaped prison.  That's when I glimpsed Mom and a half-dozen more of the kids right there at the window well.  She took off as if I were the black cat.  My wife was right.  They were ducklings, of all things, right here in town, no more water around than a sidewalk puddle. 

I called the county naturalist, told her I had a weird question.  She said it wasn't weird at all, that it was simply that time of year when mother wood ducks stood beneath trees where they'd kept nests and made her little ones (12 or 15, she said) take what might have seemed a suicidal leap they normally--believe it or not--come out of alive.  The plot thickens because then they find themselves on the ground where black cats creep about seeking whom they may devour. 

"Just get 'em out of there," the naturalist told me.  "Don't handle 'em too long either, but get 'em out so they don't scatter too far."

Back outside we went.  I grabbed the little tykes, one at a time and handed them off to my wife who let 'em go, under the deck where Mom and the rest of the chillins' had fluttered.  With a great flurry of pin feathers, they got themselves reunited, and we saw most of that swarming little family waddle through the grass to get under the cover of the big pine, a whole pre-school of ducklings, one happy family.

Absolutely darling, as cute as anything we've seen in the yard since popsickled grandkids.  And I felt like a naturalist, a Thoreau miles and miles from Walden Pond.

Still, there's that black cat, who last year had her own family to feed.  A mother wood duck, middle of town, on the ground, no stream or lake in sight, leading a brood the size of a country school--I couldn't help but imagine the worst. 

But the naturalist says it happens every year, nature's own ritual.  Last spring, she says, one young wood duck family walked right through a store in Hawarden, a perfect train of ducklings.  Her story, not mine.  But after a half-dozen in my window well, I'm a believer.

Still.  It's scary.

But then I know He's watching.  I've got Ethel Waters' near-baritone contralto imprinted for all time in my soul--"his eye is on the sparrow," she'd sing at a Graham crusade, and besides scripture doesn't lie.  Okay, he's got the sparrows covered, but it doesn't say a thing about legion of wood duck ducklings in the middle of town.  And besides, with all the world's sparrows, He's got to be incredibly busy. 

A half continent away, a good friend is losing his wife, slowly and very painfully--his mate, his friend, his lover.  Our yard's dozen ducklings seem little more than Disney.

But just imagine.  His eye on the sparrow, and the ducklings, and a gadzillion other creatures, humanoids, too, all of us, especially when some of us are in window-well prisons we simply can't escape.

It's a wonder all right, and it's a good thing he's God.  His eyes are on the ducklings.  And the black cat.  And, if we are to believe his word, all of us.

All of us.  Amazing.  Grace.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

St. Boniface among the Frisians

Some heartfelt sympathy is in order for St. Boniface. He lost his head, after all, to the Frisians when he decided to go back to their neighborhood and try to de-paganize them after once, years before, throwing in the towel on a similar mission.  Today, he is the patron saint of Germany, the one man--an Englishman, no less--greatly credited with bringing Christianity to the entire realm.  He worked tirelessly for the gospel.

Some historians denigrate his tactics because they were, by present-day standards, extreme, showing little patience with the culture of those who whom he brought the gospel.  The most famous tale of his saintly life surrounds his felling of Thor's Oak, a huge tree--so says posterity--whose massive size made it a shrine among the pagan Germans.  Boniface would have nothing of such heresy, so he cut it down.  In some renditions of the story, at the moment he was at it with his axe, a straight-line wind came by and did the job for him, rather divinely breaking the thing into four chunks, each of which revealed the plain fact that Thor's Oak was rotten in every which way.  Whatever happened, the felling of Thor's Oak was the kind of mighty deed that brought him the accolades that sped his ascension to eventual sainthood.

But he lost his head in Friesland, among my ancestors nonetheless, when a gang of the world tallest white folks offed him for destroying their sacred--which is to say, pagan--shrines and sites, something he must have relished doing.  The date was June 5, the day before Pentecost, 754 A.D.

There's always another side to the story, however, and one of the Catholic versions goes like this:  they attacked him because they believed the boxes he carried with them were filled with gold.
Alas, those boxes held nothing more than books.  

Trust me, right now I'd be mad too.

Some stories go further.  When surrounded by fierce Fries, he advised his blessed followers to offer no resistance.  Then he raised his Bible to protect himself from the blade that tore first through the Word before felling him.  He is, after all, a saint.

There's a shrine in Dokkum, Friesland, the Netherlands, a beautiful and welcoming place, in fact, where, just last summer at this time, I bought this beautiful bottle of water from the well right there.

Elegant, isn't it?  Cost me two euros, but I liked it the moment I saw it.  I don't know that I took back any other curio from our entire visit, save a book I already sold on ebay and grand gouda that's long gone.

My basement is slowly emptying as I cull through all the flotsam and jetsam, but I'm not tossing this bottle of St. Boniface water, not simply because it doesn't take up much space but because it is, to me, something of a symbol of the real human need for faith itself.  We want badly to believe--all of us.  Me too.  We need stories to keep us alive and healthy and humble.  We need crosses and holy water, crescent moons and white buffalos, even staggering oaks that can and do fall with rogue winds.

I'm not saying they're all alike, only that we need to believe.  I don't need this elegant bottle, but its un-holy water has holy meanings, or so it seems to me. 

We need a savior.  

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Morning Thanks--Light in late May

Let me say it this way--I'm about one good morning from being out of my office at the college, one good morning.  Home is a different story but I'm learning that sheer bulk doesn't mean much.  Getting all the books out of three separate floor-to-ceiling (well, just about) book cases was no small project.  But the pickins' what's left takes forever.  In a way, there's nothing left in the office, but what's there will take hours--maybe one good morning.

I say that only because I've learned, at this point in the clearing house that callouses eventually develop.  An old colleague of mine told me that it took him about an hour before he started pitching hard-copy files by the armful.  I'm there.  Have been for quite a while.

Not long ago, some workstudy student from the college library came with a hand truck and hefted a couple hundred books that no one--prof or student--wanted.  Boxed 'em up and hauled 'em away.  I shed nary a tear.  You get hard-hearted.

And then I got this e-mail note, yesterday, from a student at a Tennessee university I'd honestly never heard of--Freed-Hardeman:  

I some how received your copy of William Faulkner's Light in August.  I want to thank you for the notes in the book. I understood so much more of the book due to your notes.

I don't know how she got hold of that novel.  It couldn't have come from my end-of-career housecleaning because that book could not have made it out to Tennessee that quickly.  

For a while already I've told some students to cherry-pick from my college library, to take what they want.  I'm guessing one of them grabbed it, along with others, then got all entrepreneur-ish on me and sold the gift after I gave it to him.  This Freed-Hardeman student picked it up somewhere and voila! gets a ton of professorial annotations in the bargain.

I taught Faulkner years ago in a course in American novel.  It makes sense that I'd mark the blame thing up because I always do, so I don't doubt for a moment that this kid bought herself a treasure.  I hope she lit up her prof's eyes when she, somewhat mysteriously, answered a boatload of questions, sometimes even brilliantly.  I love that scenario.

I had a sweet day yesterday, mailed back the very last bit of student writing I ever will, pre-retirement.  But this young lady from Freed-Hardeman made my day.  I've seen hundreds of books depart in the last three weeks, but to know that one of them at least was a prize made my cavernous office seem a sweet haven.  

This morning I'm thankful for some ex-favorite student of mine who peddled a book I gave him to another kid who found herself blessed with meaning she says she wouldn't have had without it.  

And I'm just thankful I know.  After all, I've got lots more books to cull.  More callouses, but  then maybe even more blessings to bestow.  Sweet.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Comic relief

I've never been a ditto-head.  I'm not even sure what the term means exactly, but I know some wear the t-shirt as if it were a graduation gown.  I've listened to Rush, the King of Talk Radio, and I find him really, really entertaining.  But the particular b.s. he peddles is a whole lot less sweet than the goods I can sniff right outside my backdoor, Siouxland's finest.  Seems to me that those who worship at his sanctuary choose to live in a species of perpetual paranoia that sees doomsday a'comin' sometime next September or even faster if we don't scream.  We're always a day away from the apocalypse, the end of spirit of America or some such tomfoolery.

I really didn't understand what all the vituperation was about when he called the Georgetown law student a slut a month or so ago.  He says stuff like that all the time, doesn't he?  How else would get the ratings, the discipled following?  Any serious entertainer has to push the envelope.  Part of his and others' appeal is that you just never know exactly what they're going to say--except, in a way, you always do.  He'll never, ever forsake his side of the political ledger; he'll just find more outrageous things to say and more outrageous ways of saying it.

My most sorrowful crocodile tears this morning are for him because Huff Post (at least) says his show's ratings fell off a cliff in some major outlets.  In some places, he's way down.  People on the left side of the street might find it hard to think of anything more beneficial to the cause of American decency than a three-inch cork stuffed in in his considerable craw with a bal peen hammer.

Well, Arbitron, who doesn't spin the facts, says his audience tanked considerably in NYC, Houston, Seattle, and Jacksonville.  He may be up here in Sioux Center, I don't know.  Okay, okay--I admit it: I'd enjoy his silence too.

But what pushes me to put his mug up in front of this blog post this morning is the absolutely delightful fact--something he himself will mention I'm sure--that all is not lost in the comliness of his appeal.  Alas, there is, in fact, an observable ratings downturn in some media markets, but that's not true across the board.

Listen to this.  In one city at least, there are more listeners now than there were BEFORE the Sandra Fluke flack.  Want to guess one of them?

Hold on to your chair.  This is too good, really.

Rush Limbaugh is going gangbusters in San Fran.  I'm not kidding.  Right there in the Gay Mecca, in Nancy Polosi's back yard swimming pool, Rush is turning tricks, making converts--today there are more San Francisco ditto heads than there were last month. You gotta love that.

Man bites dog--it's that kind of story.  If he doesn't trumpet such a glorious gain throughout his legion of followers, he's off his game.    

I think it's wonderful.  Rush deserves a vastly bigger audience of adoring liberal dittoheads.  

Long live the King.   

Monday, May 21, 2012

Flotsam and jetsam--citronella

Rained here Saturday night.  My father-in-law's little gauge--the old farmer in him couldn't really live without one--registered three-quarters of an inch, a healthy rain.

In town, where we live, a good rain is nice on the lawns but a curse on two-year-olds like our grandson, who's too darn cute to spray full of "Off" and too little himself to slap the blasted mosquitoes that light on his darling, chunky arms and feast.  We don't live in real mosquito country here in Iowa.  They can get bad, but nothing at all like my Wisconsin home, where,  come June, hordes arise like a Chinese army from a solitary backyard.  Clouds form in a village park.  You can hear them, like a distant jet.  I'm serious.

It's a wonder people don't die from mosquitoes in Minnesota, where some claim them as the state bird.  Michigan, on the same northern tier as Wisconsin and Minnesota, almost has to be similarly cursed.  We love "up north," but there have been times when I felt all 270 pounds of me being carried away by winged varmints that look as much like biblical demons as anything God, in his infinite wisdom, ever created.  In fact, you wonder sometimes whether He left some factory seconds around, some "oops," you know?  What possible good are mosquitoes?

Really, I don't need the tiny bit of citronella that's still here in a ancient drugstore bottle I've had on my shelf for the last 40 years, a bottle that had to come from my grandparents, who lived in Michigan.  It was purchased on Godfrey and Burton Street, it says, Grand Rapids, where, once upon a time, a drug store named Greenwold's pedaled mosquito relief.  You can't see it probably, but typed in low on the label is the antidote--"Citronella," it says, I'm guessing, the remedy my grandparents looked to for relief.

Wikipedia says citronella is also used as a "perfumery chemical."  I don't think the Dominie was making urns full of Channel Number 5, and I'm guessing his wife, a city girl, probably didn't make her own soap, which makes such uses out of the question.  My Wikipedia research also indicates that citronella was also thought to quiet barking dogs.  Who knows?  Nobody wants some yapping parsonage mutt hanging around the church.

Still, I'd guess it was for mosquitoes, although it's hard to believe that anyone in Michigan would buy a bottle this tiny.  Must have been a drought.  

It's been mine for most of my life.  Once upon a time I simply grabbed it from my parents' upstairs bathroom cabinet because it never got used and I loved the intriguing bottle.

For generations I've been Protestant and therefore anti-papist, anti-images, anti-lots of stuff; but it's not hard for me to understand the appeal of graven images, which, of course, thou shalt not have.  I mean, my grandpa the Calvinist preacher, a man I hardly knew, isn't conveniently available, genie-like, from the confines of this minuscule bottle; I can't conjure him.  I could rub all day and my grandpa wouldn't appear.  But somehow he's here.

I have to admit in some ghastly, silly way, that if I didn't guess that it somehow graced my grandparents' own bathroom cabinet a century ago, I'd have tossed it long ago, never grabbed it in the first place.  

Today, useless as it is--we've got "Off" and those tin pots of waxy stuff you light if you want to sit outside--I can't just dump this old bottle, not only because it's ancient, but also because, dang it, it's got something of my grandparents in it, long, long ago.  It is its own graven image, I confess--and, even though I don't worship the dumb thing, this one, if the rain keeps falling, will even keep the mosquitoes down.

So I'll be a jerk and leave to my kids to throw.  Someday, they'll be culling through the flotsam and jetsam of their father's life, pick up this oily old bottle--greasy little thing from some place in Michigan they've never been--and get rid of it once and for all to a landfill where--maybe, just maybe--it'll do it's own appointed work, keeping down the insect population.  

I can't just throw it.  There's nothing in it but citronella, but--I know I'm pushing it--for me at least, it's something, well, perfumery, of Grandpa and Grandma Schaap, dominie and juffvrouw

Call me silly.  Call me nuts.  Go ahead.  But it stays.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Sunday Morning Meds--"My glory"

“How long, O men, will you turn my glory into shame?” Psalm 4

All prayer, our preacher said a while ago, is praise.  A beautiful thought that, like the gospel itself, simply calls out to be given away.  Even our anguish, our laments, our anger at God—it’s all praise because we wouldn’t be praying if we didn’t believe that God was God and therefore will, as they used to say, hasten to our aid.  All prayer is praise—every phrase, every groan.  We’re acknowledging Him, we’re asking him, we’re talking to him because we know we should.

And why should we?  Because He is God.  We wouldn’t pray if we didn’t believe.  Really, that makes all prayer is praise.  Isn’t that a wonderful thought?

And I think it helps me to understand verse two:  “How long, O men, will you turn my glory into shame?”
I’ve got an assortment of old trophies sitting around my desk here—a couple of little gold basketball players, three golf trophies, and one gold hitter who’s been sitting here, bat cocked, waiting for a pitch that hasn’t come for a quarter century.

On the wall to my right is my diploma.  The wall behind me holds several framed book covers—my books.  It sounds awful to say, but I guess I must admit that I’ve decorated my study with my glory.
The egotist in me reads Psalm 4:2 all wrong, I think.  When David bemoans the fact that those “sons of men” are turning his glory into shame, he’s not ticked off because someone’s given his poetry a bad review or editorialized against his Kingship.  I don’t think he means something personal by “my glory.”

Elsewhere in the psalms, as many have argued, phrases like this point at the Lord.  David’s “glory” is really in his salvation, in his being loved, in his knowing that the Lord listens to his prayers.  His glory is not in his accomplishments; his glory, quite simply, is the Lord.
And I think that’s crucial because, for all its emotional meandering, Psalm 4 is about concern, about the sadness that arises in all of us when we know that people we really admire don’t serve our King.  Psalm 4 is not about me but about love.
I am—I mean it—literally thrilled to know that an old novelist friend of mine prayed in the last few moments of his life.  I loved the guy.  He was a literary father to me, a great joy; but I honestly didn’t know about his faith.  Today, however, I know this much from an unimpeachable source:  on his deathbed, he and his nurse prayed together.
Honestly, Psalm 4 still seems an emotional roller-coaster.  It moves all over the map.  However, David’s song may well be not as bad as it seems if we understand that this initial accusation about unbelievers does not arise from David’s sense of being slighted, but instead from his deep regard for the rotten directions seemingly good people, people David admires, are taking.
In some ways, I think, the Psalm is about enlisting the help of the Lord in the heartfelt attempt to bring your friends home.
All prayer is praise.  My glory, really, is his glory.
Makes sense, I think, and helps us see an even more human King David. 

Friday, May 18, 2012

Don't you wish the phoebes wept?

The Need of Being Versed in Country Things

by Robert Frost

The house had gone to bring again
To the midnight sky a sunset glow.
Now the chimney was all of the house that stood,
Like a pistil after the petals go.

This morning's Writer's Almanac verse fits me like a glove, even though there's been no fire, no farm home devoured. It's a Robert Frost poem, so one can expect subtle and truthful sleight of hand.  That last simile is like him, isn't it?--the stand-alone chimney left post-holocaust resembles, he says, the pistil of a flower once petals are shed.  He likes to mix nature almost alarmingly with what seems to perfectly human images, chimneys with pistils.

The barn opposed across the way,
That would have joined the house in flame
Had it been the will of the wind, was left
To bear forsaken the place's name.

The wind is whimsical, as is God himself often in Frost.  It could have taken the barn by spreading the flames across the yard, but such destruction seemed not to have been "the will of the wind."  So now, all that's left is a barn "to bear forsaken the place's name."  Seems quite Siouxland-ish.  Frost loved Vermont, but this one fits us too.  I could show you a dozen abandoned places in a couple of hours.

No more it opened with all one end
For teams that came by the stony road
To drum on the floor with scurrying hoofs
And brush the mow with the summer load.

There's something ghostly about abandoned farms, something inescapably human.  Despite the skeletons, they seem yet
 to hold something of their owner's aspirations, to be flush with life that's gone.  They're unmarked graves, and when you come upon them in the country, it seems you're walking into novels you've never read.  Old barns are almost useless, but still a shame to bring down because with their fall history goes too.  I know a very successful farmer who simply can't bring down the wreck of a barn on the homeplace--just too many memories, he says.

The birds that came to it through the air
At broken windows flew out and in,
Their murmur more like the sigh we sigh
From too much dwelling on what has been.

And here's a hint of the hairpin turn that often marks Frost's careful thought.  The birds are still there, even if human activity long ago ceased; and their sighing, Frost says--their real life perception of things--is like ours, not when we go all nostalgic about what was and will be no more, but when instead we grudgingly tell ourselves that life must go on, that there's no great use in crying over spilled milk or abandoned farmsteads.  Life must go on.  And it will.

Yet for them the lilac renewed its leaf,
And the aged elm, though touched with fire;
And the dry pump flung up an awkward arm:
And the fence post carried a strand of wire.

Some things don't change, he says--lilacs still lend fragrance and the old elm still shadows lovingly.  Even some of the farmer's own wares sentry the place--the pump's arm (but the image has death in it) and a single strand of barb wire on what seems a single fence post.  Still there.  Not gone.  "For them," Frost says, for the birds that still nest in the old barn.

For them there was really nothing sad.
But though they rejoiced in the nest they kept,
One had to be versed in country things
Not to believe the phoebes wept.

And here he is, Frost himself, in all his fetching complexity.  For those birds, those phoebes, who keep nesting in the old barn, despite the end of human activity--or maybe because of it--"there was really nothing sad."  After all, they still had home and hearth and even, post-fire, some remnant tatters of the old neighborhood.  Life goes on.

But still, Frost says, when you see an old barn, when you stop to look at some abandoned farm place, you just can't help imagining what once was, and what will, sadly enough, be.  The only way not to grow weepy, he says, is steel yourself, "to be versed in country ways."  

I think there's almost a touch of horror in that confession, and absolutely nothing of Robert Kinkade.  Don't expect nature to care!--typical Frost. If you don't want to dissolve into sweet nostalgia, then you better learn some things from "country ways," he says, because in the country, like it or not, life goes on, sister. 

But then, the poem is not about country ways at all, it's about us--the darling sentimentality we feel for what once was versus the very real business of life, the necessity of change.  Classic human pain rises from the dissonance between what we feel in our hearts and know in our heads.  Even though they rejoice in their nests and even though lots of things, for them, don't change, even with the house gone and the barn abandoned, it's still really, really hard for us humans, who should know better, "not to believe the phoebes wept."

That's why I stop along the road at abandoned places, and I'm not alone because I, like Frost, really want to believe those birds cry too.

The photo is mine.  The barn wasn't.  In my files, I've got it from a lot of angles during a dozen dawns.  Last year someone took the place down down.  Nearly broke my heart.  This year it's all corn.  Country ways.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Flotsam and jetsam--the dunk tank

My mother, who's 94, claims I have a marvelous memory.  She's wrong.  Whole eras of my life have totally vanished from my consciousness, I swear.  Once upon a time, on the the morning after Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, we stopped in some redneck cafe along the Gulf Coast and stepped into a surreal party of drunk racists having a party.  You can read the story here.

The friend of mine who was with me that early morning read that story when it appeared in some newspaper once upon a time and claims he doesn't remember it.  It's seared into my memory.  "I'll never forget seeing the School Book Depository that trip, though," he told me.  I must have been there in Dallas that trip, at the sight of JFK's death.  Honestly, I don't remember.  

There are holes.  Lots of them.

Take this bit of flotsam and jetsam, another remnant from the thicket of stuff left jammed in the edge of my office bulletin board after 30-some years.  It's me, sans hair, in a dunk tank, and that kid is going to spring the release so I take a dive I haven't yet taken (the shirt seems dry).  

I don't remember the moment at all.  I don't even remember the cause.  I don't even remember the dunk tank.  It's gone.  The day I shaved my head was less than a decade ago so we're not talking ancient history here.  Whoosh!  No memory at all.  Nothing.  Yet, there's the pic.  And it's me.  No doubt whatsoever.

Memories are about as goofy the brain itself.  Why does anyone remember certain things and forget others, incidents perhaps even more poignant or wacky or marvelous than some they remember?  Who chooses?  Is there some hall monitor in the corridors of my brain who arbitrarily admits only certain images, tosses the rest into some shadowy bin in the nether portions of the hippocampus?

Why do we remember, and how?

I once thought that what we remembered, what we couldn't forget, was unresolved, unprocessed.  Certain images haunt us, stay packed in our rucksacks, because, like puzzles, they're still missing significant pieces and we just can't put 'em in the cupboard until they're perfectly assembled.

Blessedly, that's not true.  Some puzzles in our lives we put away conveniently, stick them in a corner of the barn where they'll not scare the women or the horses.  Lots of people forget what they'd rather not--and often should not--remember.  On the other hand, I remember reading a Holocaust novel about a survivor who understood his own growing senility meant, tragically, the end of memory--and how important it was for him, and the world, never, ever to forget.  

Here's a Twilight Zone episode--a man with a memory so immediate and alive that nothing, absolutely nothing, ever gets lost.  Imagine that.  He'd go crazy.  It would be horror, even if that memory had no war stories.  Thank goodness we forget some flotsam and jetsam. 

Besides, I know the story of the pic.  I sat in that tank because I was asked--an honor, I likely assumed, to let students shut me up by dunking me.  I probably reviled them when they paid their quarters.  I got dunked, more than a couple of times I'm sure, and then, thankfully, I walked home and life went on.

No particular memory, no particular specifics--but I think I know the story, even if I've forgotten it.  It's just another day in life.  

This one I'll throw.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Morning Thanks--an epithet

Just a week or so ago, Frederick Manfred would have celebrated his 100th birthday, had he lived. He didn't.  He died in 1994, from the complications of a brain tumor.

I miss him. He was a force in my life, a huge force, a man so immensely passionate about what he did that he couldn't help becoming an inspiration to others.  I used to bring gangs of students up to his place, and every year they'd come away in stunned silence, even awe. Like no one else, he urged me to take an interest in writing--and he did so long before he ever knew me, or I him.

For years already, these few sentences on his grave in the Doon, IA cemetery have haunted me. I know the thirst he had for this life was gargantuan; I knew him, and I know he wanted to know, wanted to feel, wanted to understand everything he could.  The farmer in him never quit really--he loved the land, the air, the breeze, the critters who'd wander up the hill near his place.  He was, in a way, in love with this world. 

And yet, when I read it again, I can't help but think it's a view of life I've been taught is plain wrong, even sinful. This world is not my own, after all--I'm just a'passin' through.

But it can't be heresy to love the world God himself has made, a world for which he gave his only Son.  Two nights ago, at some friends' house, an indigo bunting appeared out of nowhere, a perfectly azure songbird unlike any I'd ever seen.  There he sat at a feeder, radiantly, regally blue. 

Any hospital visit is a reminder that darkness exists. It doesn't take a Calvinist to locate the sadness, the dark corners in all our lives, the nature of human sin.

But Fred Manfred's tombstone epithet makes me want to believe in the beauty of the earth, the splendid joy of this life.  How can that be wrong? 

Just think of that indigo bunting.

This morning I'm thankful for those haunting lines on Manfred's grave.  They don't go away.  They stay with me, as truth should. 

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Flotsam, Jetsam: "An Untried Remedy"

Just exactly where the Rev. John O. Schuring goes in this old 1946 tract from the Back to God Hour is not at all surprising.  What he's after is convincing his readers that that too much of American culture has been a-whoring after mammon and simply neglecting therefore the eternal truths of the Kingdom of Christ.  Remove the specifics and the meditation's general theme could be preached almost anywhere today; but the specs are, at least to me, most fascinating.

"The gold rush is on," he says, in his opening line.  It's not the gold rush of 1848, but the gold rush of 1946, "equally devastating in its results."  Why?  "Skeletons of tragedy" lined the ancient trails of California's 1848 gold rush, he claims, but today he says things aren't much different, "school boards frantically searching for teachers, school houses deserted, classrooms empty, churches padlocked, hospitals and sanitariums understaffed, mission posts unmanned, social agencies neglected."  What's happened?  "The post-war world finds men not interested in service but in salary."

I find that assessment amazing.  If, in my lifetime, people ever look back at some "golden age" in American cultural history, it's the post-war boom, when "our boys" returned triumphant from Europe and the South Pacific, had families, built homes, and created immense prosperity.  The Fifties will feel forever like Ozzie and Harriet, a remarkably innocent time when America seemed to run on every last one of its cylinders, when respect and industry and humility reigned, when America's immense losses during a long and horrifying war made peace itself almost heavenly.  I was born in that era.  I'm a boomer myself.

But Rev. Schuring says the culture of post-war America has gone materialism mad, and he'd never even seen Mad Men

I don't know where I got this old tract.  I'm sure some well-meaning person sent it to me, thought I'd like it, and I do.  For years, like other flotsam and jetsam of my life, it's been stuck into the frame of my office bulletin board, and, once again, in cleaning up after all these years, I'm conscious of its presence.

An asterisk claims this address was given over "a chain of radio stations" on July 21, 1946, just 11 months after VJ Day, part of a new broadcast ministry that called itself "The Back to God Hour," something my parents listened to religiously (no pun intended).  It was their program, and what Schuring says, I'm sure, harmonized with the pattern of their thinking, and mine.

"Once this ideal ["seek first his Kingdom"] becomes the sole passion of our life we will insist that every part of life takes its proper place in striving for that goal."  That's the foundational ethic which stands--or stood--at the core of the faith with which I was raised.  "But all these spheres [the parts of life he talks about earlier] and those who make them must be reborn by the grace of God and then lined up for the victory march to the goal of realizing God's kingdom everywhere."

Vintage Kuyperianism.  Until I read it just now, I had no idea that this yellowing tract tucked into the corner of my bulletin board is itself a calling card of the very mission of the college where I taught for 36 years, the goods that birthed the institution.  "Beg God that a new spiritual activity and power may grip us whereby one holy passion shall fill our frame, the seeking God's kingdom first, everywhere"--that's the way he preaches it.

It's hard to believe that someone might just pick up this track in a railroad station or the rest room of some department store and actually read the whole thing--it's eight pages long, for pity sake.  Nobody reads that much anymore.  Besides, the hectoring that goes in this little meditation is a little old school; you can feel Schuring's pointer finger in your sternum once in a while.  

Look, the truth is, I admire this old tract.  It's not flowery full of cheap grace.  It's not shy about the love of money's honored NT place in the cavalcade of human sin.  It's a bit strange maybe, so oddly critical of a post-war moment many, many Americans (most of them white) now think of as almost beatific; but it knows what gospel it wants to bring to those who might, in fact, read it.  

Here's the way I see it:  this old Back to God Hour tract of mine is as rife with weakness as it is with strength, as silly, maybe, as it serious.  It speculates a ton, but it's also full of truth.

It's like us, I guess.  It tells our story and it is our story.  It's what we do--it may even be the very best of what we do, God helping us.