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, June 28, 2012

Morning Thanks--This old house

My wife left the apples across the room near the sink this morning, so I had to put the light on to find them.  Otherwise I could have negotiated the path to the basement as I do every other morning, in the dead of night, the house totally dark. I know the floor's squeaky joints, its jutting corners, its low-hanging dangers.  I know where to grab the banister when the steps angle, and the exact height of just about every light switch on the walls of the main floor.  I can hit them without looking.

I know this place's sweet spots, but I've lived here long enough know what makes the place irritated too.  I know its weaknesses--where it leaks and what it lets in that it shouldn't.  We've fought off ants more than once in its kitchen.  After 27 years in this place, I can spin a couple of yeasty bat yarns, like the time I smacked a visitor with my first swing of tennis racket--made me feel like the baseball player I once was.  We've never had a mouse in the place, nor a rat; but I know the corners that made me nervous when buyers came through.

I have been intimate with his house, but it's no sin.  We all are, I suppose.  After all these years together, we know how January creates creaky new voices in the darkness and just exactly what about July makes the place sweat.  

In its first 100 years, it's had but four handfuls of residents: the veterinarian who built it--the town's first vet, a century ago; then the telephone company worker who, with his wife, raised a family here (their son's name, like the vet's boy and our kids' is still there on the garage walls); a computer scientist and his wife, who in the short two years they lived here gave it a face lift so enchanting we haven't touched much at all in the last three decades; and then us, who also raised a family here.  I wrote at least a dozen books in this very corner of the basement, had a lot of a good ideas and more than a few sour ones.  I've spent thousands of perfectly silent mornings in the dark down here, sometimes finding the right words, sometimes not.

In June of 1985, we sold our prior house when a fast food joint moved into the backyard and we grew tired of knowing the orders of a hundred late-night customers comin' in the drive-thru.   When we bought this house back then, I remember thinking there was something museum-like about it, a place with more oak woodwork than most Big Sioux river hills.  It's not extravagant, but it is gorgeous, really, as plush as an old Calvinist house could be in the Sioux Center, Iowa of a century ago.  

I think that's why I'm not quite nostalgic about it, why I'm anxious for the moment when all the blasted boxes we've filled up will finally be loaded up and out of here, when the same bed I just left will be in a bedroom half as big, out in the country, in an old farm place that, well, is neither as comely nor as large.  The new place has a basement, but I won't be down there, so there's no stuff there; but I'll probably keep the title anyway.  Branding, you know.

I won't bawl about leaving, but my wife may well shed a tear somewhere along the line.  Sure, I've got a man-cave down here in the basement, and I won't have anything similar over there.  Sure, the house sits prominently on the corner of the block; the new one is hidden alone in a grove.  Sure, this place looks for all the world like a "dominie's" house, while the front porch of the new one would look like the little house in the background of American Gothic if it had an arched  window.  I don't know that most people would say we're moving up.

But we're renting, so while we'll  make history of some kind--what? I wonder--I'll never know the new old place like I know the old old one.  Besides, the new place has a river--or it has us.

Two people died in this house.  I'm quite sure several were born.  The vet who built it was a descendant of one of the first immigrant families to break ground in all of northwest Iowa.  It's got a history, and now we'll be part of that history too: "the old Dordt prof who wrote books used to live here--you may remember him? bald guy with a scar?"

It was our house for all these years, and yet it wasn't.  A house with this much character belongs to the community really, is a character in the community's story--from the boot jack out front to, out back, one of the last town barns and certainly the only two-holer you'll find anywhere in Sioux Center (it's long ago been decommissioned, so don't get any ideas).
This house has been our home for 28 years, the place where our kids grew up.  Tonight we'll be elsewhere, an old farm house on the Floyd River, the river named after the only casualty on the Voyage of Discovery, Sgt. Floyd, who died from natural causes and was buried where that very river empties, fifty miles of wandering downstream, into the Big Muddy.  The folks who lived in this old new place before us raised their kids there, lived there for almost 50 years. It's not been easy for them to quit the sofas in the sitting room either.  There's history there too.

Today we're moving, and I'm more than ready.  Yesterday was our anniversary, our 40th, and the first one I ever missed--way too much hoopla with all the blasted boxes.  Trust me, I'll be thrilled when the whole moving business has settled into a new life. 

Parting is sweet sorrow but such is life, and tomorrow, in the darkness in a big room with a fireplace, I'll be back, my fingers curved over the keys once more.
Such is life too. Ends always always come from the factory with beginnings built right in.  

This morning's thanks are a snap.  This morning I'm thankful for this old house.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Reading Mother Teresa XXVIX--interior imaginative locutions

The Reverend Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church, Westboro, Kansas (yes, that's the one) is pleased by the public outrage over the way a woman named Karen Klein was harassed on a school bus by a pack of vile kids.  You may have seen the video--it went viral and it's awful. "People around the world are 'shocked and horrified' by the video," Rev. Phelps wrote on his blog. "Well that is because you are ignorant of the Bible. Godsmack!"

A "Godsmack," in Phelps' world, occurs when the Creator of Heaven and Earth, like an irate wrestler, picks up a sinner and bodyslams him or her to the canvas, which is exactly what God has done with the Karen Klein video--or so says Rev. Phelps. "You have not brought your children up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, but have provoked them to wrath and now you are paying for it," he warms America. "Instead you taught them things like it’s ok to fornicate, be gay, and worship your false religious systems. Now your own children have turned against you!"

How does he know? God tells him, through his word. He quotes scripture: "As for my people, children are their oppressors, and women rule over them. O my people, they which lead thee cause thee to err, and destroy the way of thy paths." Isa. 3:12.

The italics are his.

The Reverend Fred Phelps' congregation is the one who, for a time at least, hopscotched all over America to picket the funerals of fallen GIs because, or so ran their logic, America had gone to ruin for being tolerant of gays--or something like that.

The Reverend Fred Phelps' claims arise from his firm conviction that God speaks to him, I'm sure. He and his people know the truth, the whole truth, so help them God.

Okay, I confess--I'm wary of such people, and I'll likely go to my grave, jittery as anything about those who claim that God literally told them to do anything.

Mother Teresa was one of those. For a few months of her life, she heard a "voice," she said, a voice she attributed to none other than her lover, Jesus Christ, who called her to the poorest of the poor, begged her, commanded her, to "Come be my light."  She listened and determined that her calling would be, finally, the sad streets of Calcutta.

The Roman Catholic church calls the "voice" who spoke to her "interior imaginative locutions," and it counts such utterings among the blessings human beings need to manifest on their way to sainthood.

I'm too much a child of the Reformation to buy into such Twilight-Zonish manifestations wholesale, but oddly enough I trust Mother Teresa. The Reverend Fred Phelps is no con-artist; I'm sure he believes he hears the voice of God. But he's also he is also plain crazy. Both hear voices. Both listen. Both act. Both claim to follow God's own vivid leading. Yet, the two of them couldn't be different.

Jonathan Edwards was no stranger to those who claimed to hear the voice of the Lord.  During his life, he sometimes played ship's captain, steering the church through the windy excesses of America's first Great Awakening.  He claimed that the "spiritual light," by which he meant, I'm sure, something akin to the Rev. Mr. Phelps' interior imaginative locutions or "the voice" Mother Teresa kept hearing, never really told the believer anything that scripture itself didn't.  In other words, if the voice I hear says to burn down the neighbor's barn, I'm a simple loony-tune because burning down your neighbor's barn isn't a command of scripture (Lord knows there are loony-tunes, of course).

Honestly, I don't know what to do with "interior imaginative locutions." Was Mother Teresa hearing the voice of Jesus her lover?  I don't know.  But that he told her to love the world's least regarded, that he begged her to minister those no one loved, that he directed her to abandoned children in the putrid slums of Calcutta, I don't doubt for a moment.

Jonathan Edwards would say what she heard was nothing more or less than what Jesus the Savior of mankind says just as clearly in Word.  If she heard his voice some nights early in her life, if she heard him ask her to serve him, I'm not at all shocked because I'm a believer, and what that voice told her is what Jesus says time and time again in the story of his love for all of us, his people, those who are called by His name.

If the voice she heard was Jesus, he wasn't telling her anything he hadn't already said and she hadn't already heard.

That's the best I can do, which is to say, I guess, the best any of us can.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Flotsam and jetsam--a paperweight

Soon enough in the moving process, what develops are three piles--trash, the untouchables, and maybes.  Early on, the "maybe" pile grows exponentially until finally its sheer mass becomes unwieldy and the garbage bags start finally to fill.  

What follows is a callous phase, when deliberations mostly cease and flotsam and jetsom gets tossed wholesale.  Still, the "maybes" don't disappear because it's always easier to postpone decision-making.  We come from the factory--or so it seems to me--with a spacious capacity for procrastination.

By the end, it's not nostalgia that creates criteria for the final cut, it's sheer practicality.  Look!--what lousy difference does it make to pack stuff that takes up, like, zero space, right?  Soon enough, there are boxes full of minutia, like this paperweight I've had since fall, 1973, a paperweight that never held down paper even though I've corrected thousands of pages in forty years of teaching.  It's never been useful but always been around.  

I remember receiving a letter sometime that summer, a simple letter bearing news I thought immensely special because it announced that I was to be counted among a very special few--the Outstanding Secondary Educators of America of 1973.  I was thrilled and simply assumed it was my boss, the high school principal, who'd nominated me.  

I would receive a certificate, that letter said, and could buy a richly bound book in which my name and attributes would appear.  If I'd like, I could also buy a paper weight, a memento.  What teacher couldn't use a paperweight?

I was proud. I'd been teaching two years after all, and already I'd achieved some sort of national renown. Barely out of college, I was among the elite.  I bought the book and the paperweight.

I wasn't a high school teacher when the goodies arrived, and I'd recently been married, and I was, from the moment that book was in my hand, terminally shame-faced.  It was hard cover, as adveritised, but printed on paper so cheap wood chunks still swam on the surface, mustardy pages that listed thousands of names in a print face I couldn't have named back then but today would call dot matrix.  Very impressive.  Sure, my name was there, but your chances of stumbling across it was no greater than finding some some great aunt in a Chicago cemetery.  Besides, who on earth would buy the stupid book, other than those named within its richly bound pages?

Me and a thousand others.  Calvinist that I was, I wasn't smart enough to remember that what comes before a fall is the honcho of the seven deadlies, pride.  

The book I tossed years ago.  All that's left is this paperweight that stands here, indolent as heck, still not doing its work, just one of just three or four little old icons, what's left of the "maybe" pile, awaiting a final decision.

This little paperweight is all about achievement, but the hoopla is meaningless.  Here it stands, a little chunk of moral marble that won't take up much space but will, wherever I go, always tell me a story.

That's why it's comin' with.  Once upon a time I may well have been among the Outstanding Secondary Teachers of America, but forty years later I'm still a heckuva slow learner.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Morning Thanks--our pastor

Almost forty years ago, we went to the very same church, the very same building, that is, except it was, back then, a different congregation.  It was First Church, no less formidable than any fortress out here on the edge of the Plains, a church beloved by its people in part because of the greatly successful ministry of a man who had left it to establish a college right there in town.  It had back then a wonderful history, still does.  Two services every Sabbath were filled to overflowing.  I remember going at night and sitting so far back in the balcony the deacons should have passed out opera glasses.

The preacher back then was a stemwinder, a "pulpiteer," a word only the truly churchified can properly use.  A "pulpiteer" is a man who knows how to make the pulpit ring.  Because the beloved pastor had become the college president, the undershepherd in charge, back then, came with a reputation for holding forth like few others.  In delivery he seemed almost bipolar, capable of communicating as powerfully by shouting and by whispering.  The sheer amplitude of his sermons was extraordinary.

He was capable of hellfire and brimstone.  He didn't just dabble in it either; when it suited him--I'm sure he'd say, when it suited God's voice through him--he shake the foundations of the sanctuary because he had, although it rarely showed from the pulpit, a verifiable mean streak that made him seem almost dangerous.  His Frisian blood could boil over once in a while, and because it could, people were never bored by his sermons.  He was, in a way, like watching fire.

It was a different era back then because all around, people thought, were agents of Satan seeking to devour.  The watchword was wariness--of Barthianism, modernism, of cheap grace and, oddly enough, fundamentalism.  There were enemies stalking everywhere.  People were rugged Calvinists back then, Christian soldiers.  If they weren't, they got the heck out of Dodge.  We lived in the wake of the kind of severe, historical moralism that measured out the Christian life in specific, liveable ways, that kept definitions clear as daylight behind gorgeously fashioned fortress walls.  We knew who we were and we weren't them.  The stemwinder was somehow confident that Christ was about to return, and there'd be hell to pay.

Today, that same church, come Sunday, holds about a third of the parishoners it did back then.  Those who sit in its chairs--the pews are long gone--are anything but monolithic.  Many of them grew up elsewhere; in the First Church of old, everyone was local.  At best, today's people sing heartily; forty years ago, a hymn sing raised the roof.  No one has sat in the balcony for an evening service for decades.  

Yesterday, the preacher--who's been here for the last 12 years--stood behind the pulpit, opened the Word, reached for his ritual glass of water, and pulled out a bottle of beer, a tangy little prank that worked beautifully.  The people laughed because the joke fit the preacher's very heart and soul, and because they knew he would.  

I don't believe I remember today's pastor ever raising his voice.  He never pounded the Bible, even though it was forever in his hands as he preached, as if he were almost afraid of letting it go.  He never shouted, never put a fist to the pulpit, never flailed those in front of him with anything more or less than love.  Last night, he quoted a parishoner who told him that he had only one sermon really, a sermon about grace.

He's not as broad chested as the stemwinder, and when he walks into a room, he doesn't fill it with his personality--the pulpiteer had a personality like a balloon from a Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade.  That's not meant to imply, however, that people are not conscious of his presence in the back of the church.  He simply makes little of himself.

He didn't preach in the old way.  His design in holding forth wasn't to be God's own voice; he never said "thus saith the Lord"; but even though those words never came from his lips, they were always there.  He preached from the depths of his own heart and soul, a place where all of us lived too.  He knew what we felt because he felt it too.  He had the unmistakable blessing of empathy, and that meant he didn't so much tell us how to live as show us.  Unlike the first preacher who stood behind that pulpit years ago, the one who was there last night, with a bottle of beer in front him, doesn't deal in fears.  He told us last night he has no idea what Paul means by "soon" in Romans 16:20:  "The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet," and he marvels at the paradox of a peaceful God crushing anything."  Just marvels.  Doesn't necessarily understand.  After all, God is God.

More than anything, I think, he marvels at life itself, and the God of life and death.  He stands in awe of God's promise of love and the mysterious deliverance from sin he somehow dispenses.  He doesn't try to be on his knees before the Creator of Heaven and Earth, he simply can't help himself from being there when he considers how unlikely it is that God loves us.  His single sermon is grace.

Maybe it's because I'm forty years older myself, maybe it's because I'm smarter, maybe it's because I'm vastly different than I was years and years ago when the pulpiteer was way up there in front of the church, a mile away, his voice carrying powerfully into the rafters anyway; but this man, this preacher, this gracious pulpiteer we said goodbye to just last night--this man held forth the promises of God in a way that made those promises seem as everlasting as they are.  Even though he preached only one sermon and everyone what he'd say, he was always surprising--because grace is.  

In the old-fashioned sense of the word, I'd say he never preached.  He touched--and there's a world of difference.

Last night, all during his final sermon from up front, there stood on the pulpit beside him, a bottle of beer he opened himself.

Lord, we'll miss him greatly.  He is simply irreplaceable.  And for his ministry, his profession of faith in our lives these last dozen years, this morning and through eternity itself, I and so many others will be, literally, forever thankful.  He taught us--he taught me--a single sermon:  grace.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Sunday Morning Meds--A "should" thing

“Offer right sacrifices and trust in the Lord.” Psalm 4

My wife and I have developed our own language.  If I say—as I did last night—that tonight I’d be going to a “should thing,” what both of us know I mean is that I really don’t want to.  I’d love to stay home; in fact, I’d much, much rather stay home.  But I’m not.  I’m going. It’s a “should thing.”

What both of us know is that, in life, often as not, we have to do things we’d rather not.  We do them because we should.  In the Christian’s life “should things” compel us much more often than they do, I’d guess, in a life that isn’t entangled in the commitments that arise from church and school and what not else with a halo.

Is it good for me—doing a whole raft of “should things?”  Wouldn’t I be better off emotionally if I didn’t get collared by responsibilities that, with just a little tweaking, might well be seen as, well, appearances anyway?  “I really should be there,” I say sometimes.  Can conscience ever be a burden?  Don’t all of us want to flip off the world once in a while and go our own way?  I sure do.  Don’t tell anybody, but often as not we get downright sick and tired of “should things.”

Of course, I choose to live in a small community, where what it costs to flip off the world is nothing to sneeze at.  Where’s there’s no anonymity, there’s tons more responsibility, or so it seems to me.  My wife and I live in a virtual Wal-Mart of “should things.”  There are “should things” every blasted night.  Maybe I’m overstating.

David’s twelve-step program in Psalm 4 continues in verse five with a couple of “should things”:  “offer right sacrifices and trust in the Lord.”

Honestly, I don’t have much trouble with the trusting, but his first admonition strikes me as a “should thing.”  It shouldn’t, but it does.  Which is another conundrum, I guess, isn’t it?

If you want to get answers to prayers, David says, here’s a list of things to do; one of them is offer “right sacrifices.”  It’s not even a matter of should here, it’s a matter of must.  Sacrifice.  Give of yourself.  Echelons of therapists be hanged, if you want to sleep well (which is, in a way, what this Psalm in about), there are these things you should do.

I remember reading Abraham Kuyper’s suggestions for “should things.”  He advised that if we really wanted to be near unto God we should act like him: we should forgive, we should love unconditionally, we should seek the best for others, we should sacrifice.  You’ll know him best by doing what he does—that’s what Kuyper suggests.  It made sense when I read it, and it makes sense today when I think it through.  But oh, my goodness, what a multitude of “should things.”  And they’re all tough.

Yes, my dear, there are “should things.”  And yes, me, we ought to do them.  We must

And we’ve certainly got this much up on David, poet or King.  We know darn well that some massively important things were done deliberately for us—and those events weren’t “should things” either.  Start here, why don’t you:  a cross, a death, a trip to hellishness.
Thanks be to God.  Thanks be to God.  Thanks be to God.

Friday, June 22, 2012


Hampton Sides, in his wonderful book Blood and Thunder:  An Epic of the American West, tells this story, but it bears repeating, as so much of the epic does.

Kit Carson was an unlikely superhero--he wasn't particularly big, people often thought him tongue-tied, and he rarely spun yarns out of his own incredible story.  His autobiography is characterized, some say, by understatement.  

But when, as a boy, he left Missouri for the West, he began a career that created some significant fortune and not a little fame.  In the American West, he became a legend long before his own last chapter was written.

Maybe the most profound and humbling lesson of his life occurred when he discovered the lifeless body of Mrs. James White, who'd taken a bullet through the heart not five minutes before he found her, after suffering unspeakable things at the merciless hands of her captors, a band of Jicarilla Apaches.  When they heard the story, Carson, and a Major William Grier had lit out after them.  The year was 1849.

For twelve days they followed a trail only a true frontiersman could interpret or read, all in an effort to locate this woman who had been captured when her husband had been brutally slain in an Indian attack.  When they finally found her, she had just been murdered.

On her face she "bore the sorrows of a lifelong agony," he told someone later because he assumed she'd suffered more horrors than the imagination can conjure as what he called "the prostitute of the tribe."  This is how he described the woman he found:  "a frail, delicate, and very beautiful woman, but having undergone such usage as she suffered nothing but a wreck. . .a hopeless creature."

If you want to understand the true drama of the Westward expansion, you need only to understand the conflict here--the Jicarilla Apaches had lost everything, first to Navajo raids, and then to white man.  Desperate and broken, they undertake depredations that make the soul shrink and blood boil.  When finally Carson finds this woman they'd been following, dead, he and Major Grier swear revenge, and Carson was not a man to be trifled with.

They buried her body, then searched through the things the Jicarillas had left behind.  There, amazingly, they discovered Kit Carson: The Prince of the Gold Hunters, a dime novel, the first of many hacked out of the silly imaginations of Eastern money-grabbing novelists, a story that featured Kit Carson rescuing a captured white woman, doing exactly what he'd done in following the path of the Jicarillas and Mrs. White.

In the Prince of the Gold Hunters, the fictional Kit Carson had actually found and saved the beautiful woman he was determined to rescue.  In life, he couldn't quickly forget the woman they'd failed to bring home, and the difference peeled back the resilience of his frontiersman's heart.  "This was the first time," Hampton Sides says, "that the real Kit Carson had come in contact with his own myth," and then he quotes Carson himself: "The book was the first of its kind I had ever seen, in which I was made a great hero, slaying Indians by the hundred."

And then this:  "I have often thought that as Mrs. White read the book, she prayed for my appearance and that she would be saved."

Credit him with this:  he knew a lie when he saw one.

But he was no superhero.  Little more than a decade later, he'd lay shameless waste to the entire Navajo food supply in Canyon de Chelly, then send the Navajos into a chapter of their misery no Navajo, even today, will ever forget--the Long Walk.  He was human.  There was no divinity in him.  He wasn't anyone's savior; to the Navajos, he was a warrior who created great suffering.

Carson was much smaller than his burgeoning myth. He was gutsy and uncanny in his ability to escape danger, but he was absolutely nothing of the god those dime-novel readers lied into being.  Maybe he was at his best the day he discovered, tragically, the lies people were creating about him.

We have, it seems, an insatiable appetite for superheroes.  What we want is a savior, maybe because the one we have isn't superhero-like--after all, he encouraged selflessness, preached love, hung around with ne'er-do-wells, and just up and died when some of those who'd followed him not a week before in jubilation, turned on him and chose an creep for life and him for death on the cross.

We'd rather read dime-novels than the real story of the American West too, rather not know, rather not remember.

Kit Carson was illiterate and it bugged him so badly that he often tried to cover it.  But he was smart enough to read the truth about stories, the truth he learned by way of a still warm body he'd discovered after twelve days on a thin trail, a woman with a bullet through her heart and a book, a lie right there at her side.  

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Reading Mother Teresa XXVIII--"I thirst"

Sometimes people here in Siouxland claim that we're blessed with only two seasons:  winter and Fourth of July.  The line works, I think, for two reasons:  one, winters can be brutal; and two, so can Fourth of July.  

When we moved back to Iowa from Arizona, we didn't expect to be clobbered by heat, but we were.  The house we rented was not air-conditioned, and, that first July, we nearly died--that's overstatement.  What we'd left was higher temps, but what we'd discovered was oppressive humidity.

Right about now, mid-summer, a half gallon of lemonade stands quite steadfastly in our fridge, albeit in various levels of emptiness because, at least for me, nothing quenches thirst as profoundly as lemonade.  Pink, white, raspberry--no matter.  It's likely a childhood thing--some reminder of a boyhood bucking bales when icy canning jars full of the stuff were the only antidote to heat stroke begat by stifling second-story hay mows.  That's overstatement too.

July. Heat. Hay mows. Lemonade--that's what comes to mind when I consider the word "thirst."  We just finished a sojourn in New Mexico, where we hiked over murky lava flows and through elegant sandstone at elevations that sucked your body dry.  Always pack water.  Drink it.  Parks and trails at 7000 feet don't pussyfoot; they use the command form.  Water isn't just refreshing--it's life.  

I've spent most of my adult life believing that if we underplay anything at all about Jesus Christ it's his human side.  The great mystery of his existence, of course, is that he was, at once, both God and man.  Impossible, of course, yet there He is.  Where we underestimate him, I've often thought, is in his humanity.  We like him as Lord and Savior, but he could be almost unfeeling at times--witness his almost callous disregard for his own mother--Mary!--when he started out on his own.  If you want to follow me, he told his disciples, you'd better forget Mom and Dad--actions, it seems, he promptly modeled himself.

He was human.  Jesus Christ was human, too, not just Lord and Maker and King and Redeemer.  He pulled on a suit of human flesh, for Pete's sake--and mine.

And therefore, "I thirst," I've often of as a clear indication of his humanity.  The physical agony of the cross, far beyond my imagination, is exemplified in his very human needs--he got horrifically thirsty.  He was human, after all.  Be careful, I might have said--and still would--about overspiritualizing him.

Then there's Mother Teresa, whose very ministry was created--by her own account--by her immense interpretive vision of that very utterance--"I thirst."

Why does Jesus say, "I thirst"?  What does it mean?  Something so hard to explain in words--. . ."I thirst" is something much deeper than just Jesus saying "I love you."  Until you know, deep inside that Jesus thirsts for you--you can't begin to know who he wants to be for you.  Or who he wants you to be for him.
Jesus Christ was Mother Teresa's only motivational speaker, and his words, especially those uttered in his own physical and spiritual agony, were her rallying cry.  She transformed his thirst into a metaphor and spent her life working to quench the emptiness he felt at Calvary, an emptiness satisfied only by his thirst for the poor, his thirst for their relief, their love, their souls.  His thirst for them became her soul's motivation.

She saw him dehydrated, wearied, nearly dying; and she sought to bring him relief by satisfying his thirst for those poor he loved so greatly on the streets of Calcutta.

It may well be I've been wrong for all these years.  Perhaps in stressing his humanity, I've neglected his divinity.  Perhaps in taking him literally, I've not seen him spiritually, up there on the cross at Golgatha, body and soul dehydrated, his heart overworking to pump his dehydrated blood because he wants, more than anything, not just water but those he loves, his people, splashing over him, gushing with their love.

That's the way she read it, and that's the way she lived in Calcutta.  

Something to consider, even here in muggy Siouxland this July.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Out here

If the truth be told, we sometimes talk exactly that way "out here," as if we're forever removed from real power and prestige and prominence. "Out here" is a place afar off, and it's not hard to feel that way in a small town, out here where the unglamorous upper Midwest stretches into the Great Plains, where population, for the most part, has been hemorrhaging  away for more than a century.  "Out here" is a Garrison Keillor place, so it's not surprising that his people would have chosen this little poem for the Writers Almanac a day or two ago. 

Out Here  

by Joe Paddock

Small towns out on the prairie
are mostly clean and bright now
and maybe turned a notch or two
too tight.

I know what he means.  All you need to do is drive south a ways, it seems, and things, which is to say life itself, appears to get less forced or cranked, just simply less busy.  Out here we live in a place where all the kids are above average--and they'd better stay that way.  

Panting dogs no longer
run free out here. And drunks
no longer stagger and fall
along Main Street. Their singing
is not so much missed, but
Main could use a bit more song.

Once upon a time we were "the west," the frontier, the edge of the wilderness.  Once upon a time wild men lived here with their buxom, hearty women, all of them cutting up the virgin soil, living hand-to-mouth and dying young.  Once upon a time, a place like this was far more reckless and feckless.  Once upon a time, out here, there was more music, more variety, more silliness--think Halloween!--less business maybe, more eccentricity, more artful goofyness.

Life and death, the great stories,
continue here. Love is allowed,
and young mothers still bear down
on the birth canal. Children squall,
and old ones, too much restrained
and hidden, too seldom singing, sink
slowly away.

Life goes on, nonetheless.  "Love is allowed" is a guarded complement, of course, and he's not wrong about the elderly, their plush nursing homes singularly silent down long and lonesome corridors sweetly furnished but ghost-like anyway.  Doors are shut, television dialogue seeping out, the only sound anywhere. Out here we get older these days than we did a century ago, a mixed blessing.  My father-in-law claims the institutional food is wearying--canned peas and phony potatoes. But who really cares?--who will advocate for old folks whose day-to-day lives go on long after their missions have seemingly ended?

I sometimes walk
our ever-widening fields
of graves and wonder
what boredom and struggle led each
to just this rest? And wonder
are their bones bitter
for having known too little
incandescence, too little song?

Mr. Paddock thinks that what characterizes us "out here" is joylessness--"too little song."  He may be right.  Among the elderly here are a disproportionate number of millionaires.  Old churches have more in the bank than they do in the pew.  Where I live at least, there's no dearth of dollars, and yet, the most exciting events in our lives are basketball championships. Mr. Paddock, like Thoreau, believes that too many of us, out here, lead lives of quiet desperation.

In spring and fall, the whole
incandescent sky sometimes yelps
with geese, long lines wavering
with great certainty toward
a true destination.

Maybe the signal word in this line is "yelps," which is hardly a compliment.  One might think, on first read, that Mr. Paddock would suggest such joyless people look up once in a while and take note of life in the ample skies; but then yelping isn't music, and the "great certainty" of migration suggests something less than playfulness.  Even the geese are driven--is that what he means?  There's no music in their flight either, and more music is what he's yearning for.

Last night, on a bench
in Central Park, a pair of girls
with fading light in their hair,
sat waiting, waiting, and O,
their yearning was deep
and sweet as the evening
singing of robins
in the darkening boughs
above them.

See?--he says.  Case in point, two young girls in Central Park, sweet and pretty, waiting for something, yearning for something sweet as song.  See 'em there?  What all of us want out here is joy, wonder, meaning, happiness, love.  What we want is music like that of the robins in the darkening boughs on Main. What we want is joy--a commodity we can't seem to produce even on the most fertile of our fields.  

When we die, some say, what we'll regret more than what we did is what what we didn't do. What we'll so dearly wish we would have had, Mr. Paddock would say, is music, more music.  

And with that playful admonition, we leave the Great Plains altogether, because I'm guessing that "out here," really, is just about anywhere people find themselves in place where they want more joy, more love than they ordinarily find.

"Out Here" by Joe Paddock, from A Sort of Honey. (c) Red Dragonfly Press, 2007. 

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Pure Michigan

Look, if push comes to shove, I'll admit it--I've got more pro-life Michigan Republican in me than pro-choice Democrat.  What's more, I'm quite sure, given my own heritage, that what really sparked the ire of those righteous Wolverines, what pushed them into the muzzling, was Rep. Lisa Brown saying. . .well, I can't say the word myself, right there on the floor of the State House--the v-word! That's right, the v-word.

The truth is, growing up in a Dutch Calvinist enclave myself, I knew a whole string of dirty words for the particular body part Rep. Brown named in so public a way but, oddly enough, I don't think I knew the word she used--which is, by the way, the only textbook way to describe that, ahem! particular place on the female anatomy.  

In banning her from speaking, they created a martyr.  Last night, Rep. Brown participated in a demonstration on the capitol steps that featured a performance--and she herself played a role--of a well-known stage play whose title features the very v-word Ms. Brown used to gain her ten minutes (or more) of fame--(sorry, I still can't say the word, but I'm trying). Not only that, the performance drew the California playwright herself and a couple thousand outraged women and men to the steps of the capital, where they made a much, much greater splash than Ms. Brown would have when banned from speaking for saying, well, that word.

(I'm trying.  And I'll get there, so beware.)

There's a lot about America's Puritan past that I treasure.  The Puritans stuck it out, after all, with other expeditions to this land folded up their tents and went back or died trying. The Puritans' mutual sense of mission, created by their fierce faith, was the difference.  They were die-hard believers in education, too--after all, everyone had to learn to read the Word. Many called them--they called themselves--the "people of the book."  Good night, they were Calvinists--I've got to like them somehow.

But Salem is a deep, black hole--all that rigid public piety, fomented by fear, building gallows.  Fear and hysteria and self-righteousness created murderers who, without a second thought, considered their cause to be Christ's own.

And then there's the garden-variety Calvinism in whose neighborhood I was raised.  Not until my parents got to be 60 did I ever hear them mention some body parts; then, in Florida, in a colony of elderly, suddenly no holes were bared (sorry).  I'll never forget my uncle the Dominie telling me a dirty joke when he was 80, laughing uproariously as if unshackled from some aching girdle.   

When I was in college, the mere thought of any male of the species gaining access to a female dorm room simply meant unthinkable carnality.  Just imagine, after all, what might happen!  So we did.  

Lord knows that level of Puritanism isn't Dutch. Anyone who's ever visited the Netherlands knows that.  I remember watching an old Dutch PR film about how ingenious Hollanders turned the sea into productive farmland--included in the presentation was a little boy doing his part, peeing behind the dyke.  That's Dutch.  So are nude beaches.  

A Dutch Reformed Republican legislator named Lisa Posthumus Lyons claimed that Ms. Brown's muzzling was created by the association Ms. Brown drew between the anti-abortion legislation they were debating and rape, not her mentioning the v-word.  Ms. Lyons knows far better than I do, but politics is all about perception, and it's pretty clear to me that Michigan puritans took a much more palpable hit on this one than did Ms. Brown.  

Will it hurt the Republican cause?  Who knows? It certainly won't help.

Oh, yeah, the word?  It's, well, v-a-g-i-n-a.

There, I said it. Well, spelled it.  Something a bit more than half of us have one, according to the latest census, and the only alternative words are those found on bathroom walls--at least in men's rooms.

Like it or not, admit it or not, the Michigan Republicans created a martyr, and as all good Christians should know from their own history with lions, martyrs lose battles but win wars.  
Besides, anyone named Posthumus--given the hilarious history of that Dutch name--should understand something about protest and the power of language.  

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Sunday Morning Meds--Silence

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

The greatest classroom stem-winders, those profs who can hold students spellbound for 90-minutes plus, still love students who talk back—who ask questions.  After 40 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 frightened little kids to open up.  Now, she quipped, five-year-old kids walk into class, take a look around, and say, “Who’s in charge here?”

Television may well be a visual medium, but it doesn’t abide silence much better than radio.  Silence isn't golden at all, it's mostly uncomfortable—and the research is convincing:  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, almost never spoke in her classes at Iowa Writers Workshop.  I believe it.  Every year I had a few silent types that knocked my socks off when they handed 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 grew terribly 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 more than a little familiar with old folks’ homes.  My mother is in one; so is 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 always anxious to visit.  Aging creates its own hurtful enforcers.

Here in Psalm 4, silence is a command.  In this 12-step regimen David is creating, he raises a finger and says, simply, shut up.

Me too.  Be still, he says.  And here I am on this Sunday morning, going on and on.  Words, words, words.  Jabber, jabber, jabber.
Be still, David says.  Just, be still. 

Lord, help me.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Saturday morning catch--a fleeting dawn

The only sun this morning was a momentary flat, thin line.  The morning sky dressed up nicely early on, promising great things; but the "busy old fool" (isn't that Donne?) never showed his proud face and Siouxland's big skies stayed blanketed. 

But it wasn't a bad morning to be out with a camera. Besides, I was entertainment for some high-wire friends.  Some of the morning is here anyway, a fraction.  

Friday, June 15, 2012

Flotsam and jetsam--the things we carry

Here's the way it works for me.  First time through, I toss about a fourth of what I had in front of me--for about a half hour.  Then, as I gain wisdom and lose time, the percentage doubles.  I grow callouses.  Soon enough, I'm tossing a half to three-quarters.  

Half of what's left stays, and the other half gets a temporary pardon when I stick it on an empty shelf, like a display of goofiness or a mess of items from a fire sale.  That half is iffy.  You look, you stop, you think--maybe too much--and you stick it where you can put off a decision.  You know--you just don't want to think about it.

Nostalgia is an emotion and therefore unreasonable.  How is it we invest heart in some things--say this George Bush pin?--and not other stuff we have that's already bagged up and left on the street with the rest of the garbage?  Where does wistfullness come from anyway?

Maybe that George Bush memory stays pinned to the shelf because I want to make perfectly clear to the world--and to my mother--that I'm independent.  I voted for a Bush, twice-upon- a-time.  What's more, that little pin stays because that Obama bobble-head won't get tossed either, a gift from my son, who hauled it back from his Hawaii honeymoon, and a counter punch to my son-in-law's Facebook photo that proudly features him in a cap with "Nobama" emblazoned across the forehead.  

Obama stays.  

So does Bush.

Here's a pair of the world's ugliest sunglasses, bought in the Netherlands 15 years ago for a guilder, I think, at a street fair flea market.  They're abominably ugly, horribly out of style (I think), and I've never worn them publicly, save in the Netherlands.  By latest tally, I think I've got about a half dozen other pairs too, but, hey, I like 'em.  They're so goofy, they're cool. I don't know that I'll ever wear 'em.  

My granddaughter's artsy, half-drunk giraffe that's shaped more like a horse with peanut butter measles than Africa's giant wonder.  But it's a sweet gift for her grandpa, and it's stood, more than a little tipsy, on my desktop computer for a couple of years, and she's in it somehow, right?  

An ash tray.  I think in my dotage I'm going to take up smoking.  I don't want to live to be 108.  Besides, I like smoking, always have.  It was almost a religious thing with Native Americans, after all; and Lord knows, you can't buy ash trays anymore.  It's a relic, an antique--maybe even worth something.  The saint in me already tossed two others.  Everybody needs a little sinner.

That baseball.  Somehow, I ended up with it when my high school team won the Eastern Wisconsin championship game, summer, 1966.  I played third base.  Maybe some lame hitter from New Holstein popped up--I don't remember.  All I know is I ended up with the game ball tucked in the pocket of my Rawlings, the very ball we were using when we won the whole shooting match.  I'm the only person in the world who knows all of that, and without a doubt the only one who cares.  

The Dutch flag.  I didn't get that in the Black Hills.  

There are other treasures aboard the shelves of my otherwise-empty basement bookcase, but I've learned this too:  since we're renting, I can keep my emotions in tow by putting the flotsam and jetsam in a box, sealing it up, and then listing, roughly, its contents.  In a year and a half, when we have to move again, if I haven't missed the silly stuff, what's in those boxes can simply be tossed.  Like the sunglasses.

Well, not simply.  

And I have a confession.  There are more shelves.

Anybody need a little Dutch flag--one of those you hold in your hand and wave when the Queen passes on the street?  


Thursday, June 14, 2012

Just authority

Way back in graduate school, I remember reading somewhere--maybe it was Eliot--that only certain cultures can produce Aristotelian-level tragedy the way the Greeks and the Elizabethans could.  The requirement, if I remember right, was a certain kind of belief in the individual--that he or she could create significant change, could demonstrate leadership, but also could fail miserably, a kind of high view of the human character.  The kind of tragedy Aristotle touted had this purgative, cathartic effect--it changed us, from the inside out.  It was imminently moral.

I thought of that idea when I read David Brooks whose column "The Follower Problem," a day or two ago, wasn't so much about tragedy as it was about what he calls "just authority."  Some societies recognize it, he says, even glory it in.  Some don't.  Because they can't.  

"We live in a culture that finds it easier to assign moral status to the victims of power than to those who wield power," he says, sounding like the conservative he is.  He may well be right.  He also believes that we so taken with the notion of equality that "it's hard in this frame of mind to celebrate greatness, to hold up others who are immeasurably superior to ourselves."  He still sounds like a Republican, which, for the most part, he is.

But then he says the real moral problem is our inability to think about power itself--about "just authority," which, he claims, is constructed in very fragile fashion on a series of paradoxes:  "that leaders have to wield power while knowing they are corrupted by it," for instance, or that "great leaders are superior to their followers while being like them."  Leaders have to be superhuman characters who never forget that they aren't.  How's that?  

The older I get, the more I believe in reign of paradox.  "Truth is always elliptical," I was told years ago by an old preacher I really respected.  It's never circular.  It always has two centers.  It forever requires balance.

Finally, Brooks cajoles us, as he often does, for being poor followers, given to believe that our leaders are only in it for themselves, that they're all schmucks, that none of them is as pure as I am pure.  "Vast majorities," he says, "don't trust their institutions."

Count me in that bunch.

Once upon a time, however, I received a D in geometry from an eccentric little mathematician who was, quite likely, too brilliant to be a successful high school teacher.  He loved math more than he loved us--and for that odd penchant we found him mysteriously fascinating.  In a way, I think I envied his indomitable passion for the digits scribbled all over his blackboard.  

But I didn't do well in his class, and my mother would have nothing of it so she set me in the car with her one night, drove me herself to that little math teacher's apartment to ensure her wishes would be carried out.  I don't know if she had, ahead of time, set up an appointment; in my mind and memory, I was the supplicant, forced to a blind and painful confession.  

What I had to do, she insisted, was beg the man for help.  I had to tell him that I wanted, above anything, to improve, and then promise, on my honor, to do better.  I had to get rid of that report card D.

It was extremely painful, as I remember.  There I stood in his apartment, towering over this strange, little man, while outside my mother's engine was running.  I took a beating that night even though no one laid a hand on me.

My mother trusted that little man's "just authority."  She simply assumed the problem belonged to her son--and she wasn't wrong.  The institution of school--she was a teacher herself--loomed more significant in her mind than her son's guilt or humiliation. I was, after all, his follower--and hers.  In the classroom, he was the leader and I was the one obliged to follow and to learn.

Nothing close to Aristotelian tragedy happened that night, but I think David Brooks would like that story because that moment dramatically explained to me at least what it meant to be a citizen of the society my mother inhabited, a society in which trust was lavished freely--maybe too freely--to the institutions of our lives.

There's another side, of course--there always is, with paradox.  I'm a child of 60s, when authority of all kinds when up like kindling in the fires that incinerated much of the institutional trust my mother honored.  That loss Brooks laments.

He may well be right here--he often is.  We'd all do well to both understand and honor "just authority."  I would.  Besides, I'd make my mother proud.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Morning thanks--friends

Down here, as well as upstairs, the walls are now shorn, floors all over the house are festooned with boxes, half of them open, half of them not.  Four huge bike boxes have been transformed into files for umpteen pictures--art prints, posters, needlepoints that have sadly lost their places, momentarily, in our lives.  The place is a grand mess, and will be until, finally, we're out of here.

People think we should be greatly nostalgic about leaving the beautiful old arts-and-crafts home we've lived in for 27 years.  Maybe we are simply keeping our upper lips successfully stiffened. Maybe we're sitting on all the emotion, not letting it get to us, but I don't think so.  We've been thinking about moving for so long that the anticipation of finally doing so simply outshines the gloom.  I'm sure I'll gulp once or twice, but I certainly haven't yet--and both of us are getting REALLY anxious to get the heck out of Dodge.

There will be no basement in the new/old farm place near Alton, Iowa, where we'll call home; so there'll be no Stuff in the Basement either.  Maybe I'll have to retitle. Maybe not, branding being the beloved marketing tool it is, right?  Maybe I'll just lie.

There are myriad tales of gangs of farm neighbors doing harvest for fallen friends--some guy has cancer, and a column of combines sweeps by on a Saturday in October and gets his beans in in one fell swoop. Mercies like that happen every year around here, every harvest.  It's called neighborliness, and it's part of the exceptional cargo of blessings small town life carries along almost thoughtlessly.

Last night, my daughter came in with some kind of hot dish from her babysitter, an angel of a woman who conjured up a blessing while tending a whole brood of kids yesterday.  My son-in-law is in the hospital.  That hot dish was a gift from above. Don't know what it was.  Doesn't matter.  It was a blessing.

We've had tons of offers of help as move, as we leave this place--trucks and trailers and sturdy backs.  Good friends dropped by last night and offered to help my wife pack dishes.  Honestly, neighborliness feels as healthy as the corn crop these days, and the corn is already more than knee-high, even though we're a couple weeks shy of the Fourth of July.  

Don't know how much help I can use, unfortunately.  Moving is stubbornly personal work, it seems, although if we were made of money we'd just call in United and leave the mess to them.  Every day--even though we're three-quarters finished--holds a thousand persistent rituals:  "Do I really need this?  Should I try to sell it?  Ah, poop on it--just chuck it and be done with it.  But I really can't.  What if I need it?"

Roundy, roundy.  You know.

Still, it's an immense blessing to have friends.  It's not that I discount them, but maybe I just don't acknowledge them enough.  So this morning, my morning thanks, are for the multitudes who've volunteered their time, their vehicles, and their deltoids to help us move, to help us.  

Just to help. Sweet.  

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Morning Thanks--The open West

My sister sent me some wonderful 1873 Timothy O'Sullivan sepia-tone shots of the West, which thrilled my soul not simply because of the rugged grandeur they attempt to capture, but also because less than a week ago I was there.  Not there exactly. really--I mean, there were no teepees on the floor of Canyon de Chelly that I saw last week (see them on the valley floor?), and I didn't stand at this particular spot where he did in one of earth's most awesome canyons; but I'm quite sure I was there, almost 150 years later.  Close anyway--see what I mean?

Here's El Morrow as O'Sullivan found it in 1873, a sturdy promontory where centuries of travelers stopped for water (and life) and left their names carved in the sandstone (not advised today, of course).  

O'Sullivan was amazed at what he found--inscriptions from the 18th century and earlier, when Spaniards roamed through the high deserts all around, making pueblo people Catholic while searching for cities of gold and other sundry delights.  

I wish I would have snapped the same inscription, but the one that I caught in my camera, 150 years later, is similar in age and genre.  

And here's "the white house," one of the Canyon de Chelly's most famous places, the home of the Anatasi, whose lives are understood only by the museum of goods--and these cliff dwellings--they left scattered throughout the region.  Imagine what it must have been like to be the first photographer to find a spot like this.

And here the same place today--or at least as we found it in March, when we stood quite close to where Timothy O'Sullivan must have stood many years ago.

America seems to be in a stiff anti-government mood these days, it seems; but the mere fact that I can take shots not at all unlike Mr. Timothy O'Sullivan's 1873 pictures of these natural wonders is attributable mostly to people like Teddy Roosevelt, who determined that some national treasures didn't belong to the rich, but to the people.  Call him a socialist if you will, someone who stood in the way of the freedom of free enterprise.  Call him what you will, but this morning I'm thankful for the West's treasures and the mere fact that you and I can sidle up close with a Nikon or a Canon and take shots not at all unlike those taken by a man behind a tripod holding a ten-pound black and white camera nearly 150 years ago. 

You can still go.  You can still see.  You can still wonder. 
See all of  O'Sullivan's pix here.