Morning Thanks

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

Tuesday, July 31, 2012


People ask me "How's retirement?" as if I have I've determined some definitive answer.  I got some thoughts, but it's still early in the game. It may take a year.  Besides, we now live out of town on a farm, critters for neighbors, a major change that requires its own adjustments; and the plain fact of the matter is, since retirement, I suffered a stroke. I'm better, I think, but strokes are notorious for hoodwinking.

Today, a trip back to town requires planning, as does a day's calendar.  At breakfast, we ask ourselves just what's coming up, and do so with real seriousness, even though, in reality, there's less on the page than there ever was. I spend more time trying to remember exactly what's coming up--but then, I'm an old fart. 

Take September.  I don't remember ever in my life spending as much time as I have trying to determine when I'm going to be where and where I'd like to be when, next month, because for the last forty years I've spent every September up front of a class.  When I'm going to do what, has never been a question. Soon after eight, I'm at school.   No more. For the first time in 35 years, this year I'll celebrate a holiday the rest of the country calls Labor Day.  What the heck are we going to do?

Yesterday, on a quick trip back to the college where I taught, I walked down a familiar hallway, when there appeared from the men's room an old colleague, who didn't see me, which was fine--I take no particular joy in answering the same question time after time.  Anyway, there he was.  He turned away from me, returning to his office, and honestly--I'm not kidding--I said, under my breath, "You poor old soak."

That's when I knew that so far--it's early, but I think I can say it--I rather like it.  Retirement, that is.  

Right now, I'm not getting antsy about teaching, not worrying about syllabi, not wondering whether American Lit is going be a dream or a dog, and not missing the usual "Rats-where-did-the-dang-summer-go?" psychic emptiness.  Not at all. Not one bit.

Besides, retirement affords time to giggle, for instance at this morning's Writers Almanac poem, as darlingly frivolous as anything John Donne--naughty Jack--ever penned to the woman he wanted on the pillow beside him.

Unification  by Ramon Montaigne

The Mississippi at its mouth
Joins the Gulf of Mexico,
The west wind mixes with the south,
High pressure with the low.
Nothing in nature stands apart,
All things rendezvous--
I'd like to mingle with you.
Intermingled, intertwined,
This is what I have in mind.
I just feel a sudden urge
To merge.

All that seriousness at the outset--the geography, the meteorology--all that high falutin' stuff is nothing more than a gimmick to get her between the sheets.  "The sudden urge/To merge."  Don't I wish I'd written that.

The compound that is chlorophyll
Formed as the light increases
Makes every little flower thrill
With photosynthesis.
The morning glory mingles
With the honeysuckle vine,
Come wrap your little tendrils around mine.

Second verse, same as the first. Admit it--photosynthesis is not the first word that comes up when you think of love poetry; and "Wrap your little tendrils around mine" is pure human delight. Maybe impure, come to think of it.  But if you don't smile at that line, you need serious therapy--or a good stout roll in the hay.  

I've been lonely as a cloud,
Drifting miserable and proud,

Goodnight, he brings Wordsworth into this seduction.  Where on earth is he going now?

Lonely as a limestone butte--
Handsome, noble, destitute,

A "limestone butte"?  Is he crazy?  What on earth could be less "poetic"--in a love poem, no less--than calling yourself a limestone butte?  But then--

But I need you, I confess
Let's coalesce.

Just about takes your breath away, doesn't it?--"let's coalesce."  He's sabotaged any usage of that word in my mind for a long, long time.

Really, it's the same old bottom line--same old sweet human desire delightfully uncorked.  Same old, same old.  It's all about is sex.  Well, love too--but sex. Go on, stifle that giggle, if you can.  

So how do I like retirement?  Not bad, really.  

There's time for poetry.  

Monday, July 30, 2012

Coming soon to a home near you

My wife and I have two 90+ year-old parents, both of whom are remarkably well. True, neither of them can walk far, but both are more than able to keep up their ends of a conversation with intelligence, personality, and humor. Not long ago, in fact, my father-in-law passed his drivers tests, written and road, with flying colors, the written with only one wrong--in all my years and all my moves, I've never scored that high.  My mother can tell you what she thinks the season holds for the Packers and explain by draft choices.

They live in nursing homes that feature plushy dorm-like rooms, homes where the only noise in otherwise silent halls is from cranked-up TVs and a little muzak from ceiling speakers. Both eat well, although my mother, who was never a great cook, is far more satisfied with the cuisine, my father-in-law long ago tiring of overcooked meat and vegetables you can almost suck through a straw. The food is, at both places, institutionalized, but both places offer cloth napkins.

Even though they live in facilities 500 miles apart--in both institutions, building projects are going on right now, expanding the facilities.  

Because of us--because of baby boomers.  We're coming soon to an old folks home near you.

I've had occasion frequently in the last few weeks to look over my own economic situation, now that retirement has arrived. We're doing well, it seems, although my ability to draw an economic course is largely suspect, my wife having been born with abilities that make her both more fascinated by and competent with facts and figures.  I've overdrawn my bank account only once or twice in the last several decades, but I haven't balanced a check book in years.  These days, of course, who needs a check book?

But our future(s), like most boomers these days, almost inevitably leads to a home.  What will it look like?  I dare say the place in which we get corralled won't be like the places our parents now--for better or worse--are presently housed.  We're boomers, after all, not "the greatest generation."  We have no memory of any Depression, and the only war we fought was something of a bust.  We screwed everything up when our fathers, home from WWII, couldn't stop reproducing.  We're selfish to a fault, inconsiderate of lines in the sand, forever wanting our own way--or at least that's what people say. And like the spoiled brats we are, we'll likely expect more than our parents do out of our nursing homes.

It seems clear to me that there may well be some drumbeat for real death squads in the not-too-distant future. Keeping the boomers--millions of them--alive is going to cost royally, and there are simply fewer young people paying into the system.  Besides, in 20 years, who knows how long we'll live?  We could become, once more an Old Testament world where 80 is the new 40.  

The Republicans are right--it's a recipe for disaster.

But I also think--as does Thomas Friedman in Saturday's New York Times--that those new, nursing home additions will continue to go up only if our military spending goes down. Perhaps the greatest change a'comin' is that we'll no longer be able to afford to be the world's policemen, and proud American Republicans may have to concede, as Ron Paul stoutly maintains, that our strength will no longer be created or calculated by our ability to shoulder the world's finest weaponry.  

Something has to change.  Sooner rather than later, we boomers will be needing the home.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Sunday Morning Meds--Sheer impossibility

“Who has set thy glory above the heavens?” Psalm 8

“This is nuts.” 

That’s not what David says, of course, but it’s where this Psalm begins.  This is plain crazy.  Trying to praise God Almighty is a task that requires something light years beyond us.  “You have set your glory above the heavens”—that high, that far beyond reach.  Who can begin to describe it?   Where are the adjectives, the metaphors?  They don’t exist.  Oh, what the sam, he says—let me sing your praises, even though it’s ludicrous to try.

It’s possible—although no one will ever prove it convincingly—that this song of David is the very first musical stomp.  The preface addresses the psalm this way:  “To the Director of Music according to gitteth.”  Now, by my reading, no scholar claims to know for sure what this word gitteth means, but I really like the claim that a gitteth is a musical instrument used to lead singing when folks were in the process of making wine, specifically that step of the process when the grapes were stomped.

And I like it because a sort of drunken celebration booms out of the song.  Filled with the triumph of a successful harvest, grape mashers, accompanied by a musician on whatever this gitteth was, shout out impossible praise, roaring as they stomp. The sheer arrogance of the opening lines of Psalm 8 make me think of someone who’s high, not on wine (there’s nothing fermented at the stomping), but on the exaltation of having a humdinger harvest, luscious juice squeezing up from between their toes.

There is something dreadfully yet gloriously human in the exercise, something that speaks of David’s character.  He confesses, at the outset, that what he’s going to do here is fail.  He can’t begin to describe Jehovah, the great I AM; but he doesn’t let impossibility stop him.  He can’t help himself.  He takes his best shot, knowing he’ll never get there anyway.  The whole pattern is so recklessly human.

Of course he fails.  He can’t do what he’s promised he’s going to.  The only truth he reaches is the one he confesses—that it’s impossible.
But we’ve got Psalm 8, don’t we?  He may have failed at finding divine language, but he hasn’t failed at all in the only language we’ve got.  What he created has echoed through the ages, is quoted by apostles and, incredibly, by Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  His failure has created a song as close to timeless as any human reach can ever come.

Psalm 8 is a miniature of all of our striving.  Whether we work to create a song of praise or a novel or a poem; whether our striving results in a log home, a soccer championship, a corporate buyout, a clean kitchen, or a better behaved kid, nothing we will ever do has any permanence, nothing is really eternal.  We all know that, but our knowing that’s true doesn’t—and will never—end our typing, our building, our trying. 
Our best may well be little more than filthy rags, but that doesn’t stop us giving it our best shot.

Flannery O’Conner once said that people without hope don’t write novels.  I believe she’s right, but I also believe that people without hope don’t do much at all.
Jehovah God is eternally beyond our reach, but that won’t stop us from trying to serve him in every way we can.  Shout it out.

At the stomping, I wonder if He isn’t the one playing the gitteth.  

Friday, July 27, 2012


We now get our news a day late.  Does that mean the news is not news?

We've had cable for years, despite the fact that, when we got it, our then third-grade daughter announced that she'd learned, on the school bus, that only public school kids had cable.  She wasn't one of them.  When she announced that at the dinner table, I knew it was time for us to get cable.

What I mean is, we've had it forever, and, embarrassingly, I have to admit that I never used it all that much--certainly not enough for it to earn its considerable keep.  Except news.  I can be--okay, I am--a news junkie, a political hack who loves to watch MSNBC and FOX news go to war and CNN try its level best to keep an audience these days without shouting.

But when we moved to the country, we were told that cable wasn't available outside of town, which left, as the only recourse, one of those gray ears on the front lawn. The previous owner had Direct TV and didn't like it much, despite the fact that it had a far richer selection of religious programming, he says, that he can get today from overchurched Orange City.  

So I tried Dish because I figured could trust the local distributorship; but when the installer came out and checked the yard he told me reception was going to be impossible unless I felled three trees or dug a trench half way out into the next door's alfalfa.  Won't work, he said, not the way things stand here. 

Here's the thing.  I think I've become a sweeter man.  There's no more shouting coming from the TV at supper time, no more p.o.-ed politicians rambling through stump speeches, no more over-cooked rhetoric or gotcha questions--no more flapping tongues.  You watch the news a day late and it generates a generous apathy--"oh, so that's what was hot yesterday?--big deal.  I think I'll go out a chop wood."

What I'm saying is, I'm a whole lot better human being.  I'm not as mad.  I avoid argument.  I haven't heard a word out of loudmouth House Republicans since we've left town.  I'm everything Thomas Jefferson thought I'd be out here in the near wilderness, an blessed American agrarian.

But the internet provider now says we'll likely have cable available by fall, in time for the election. 

Well, so much for righteousness.

Thursday, July 26, 2012


Several years ago, a kid on a motorcycle lost control and slammed into a light pole.  He was killed. For several years thereafter, a stone marker sat there at the base, the scene of the death. I don't know who put it there, but my bet would be friends of the kid, not the parents, even though today, more than a decade later, they may well be the only ones who find it hard to pass that light pole.

For years a sign along a country road marked the spot where another kid died, this one in a car. I didn't know either of the kids, but both of their deaths were memorialized for a long, long time by sweet displays of grief that eventually simply disappeared. I'm sure today their stones stand in the Sioux Center cemetery, along with a thousand others.

I'm an inveterate graveyard wanderer. Just a few weeks ago, I spent an hour in the family plot, 500 miles east; but family stones aren't a requirement. I like cemeteries whether or not there are relative there--all kinds of cemeteries, the older the better.  Graveyards are redolent with stories that rise half-formed from all the granite.

In Aurora, Colorado, these days, a debate has arisen about the Century theater where madman James Eagan Holmes killed a dozen theater-goers and wounded 70 others. “It would be difficult to go in there and relax, knowing what happened,” a woman who lives nearby told the Huffington Post. “I think it will always be remembered as the place where the shooting occurred.”

I think she's wrong. Human forgetfulness is both a curse and a blessing. Sometimes it erases what it shouldn't, but just as often it liberates us from the tyranny of grief and personal horror.  The families of those who died in that theater will never forget what happened there because they will never forget their loved ones, but the psyches of the rest of us will eventually have to make room for tragedies yet to come, yet to horrify.  There's only so much room in human consciousness.  This year, high school kids will go to school in Columbine, where I'm sure, there will be a prom, a homecoming, and dozens of ball games.

Not that anyone in Aurora cares about my views, but I think Century 16 Theater, in Aurora, Colorado, needs to remodel the place to help us along, and then reopen. Life needs to go on, and the families of those who were killed there will have their memorials set in the ground of some local cemetery.

Fifty years ago, an old woman died in the house we just left, died in the room where we kept our TV.  Life went on.

There will always more death, more tears, more anguish--more motorcycle accidents and accidental deaths; here in this country there will be even more inexplicable mass murders.  Change the place, alter the looks, remodel the theater, I say, but put the memory of those who died in the cemetery, where those memories belong.

A cemetery is a great place for death, for grief, and, strangely enough, for life, a wonderful place to visit and from which to walk away.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Migration in higher education

Some call it a tsunami, the sea change they see coming to the college classroom because higher education is migrating on-line. Even though the internet has been around for decades, even though on-line universities already make huge bucks, and even though home-schoolers have used the computer for more than a generation, higher education, which is notoriously conservative despite what Fox News says, doesn't change easily. But now, at long last, they are.

Two factors are making change inevitable. First, technology itself. Yesterday, I fell victim to my granddaughter's first texting jamboree--suddenly a whole bunch of her friends created a flash mob on-line, starting raining texts on a portal that had been inadvertently left open to grandpas and uncles. She's growing up, and for her, technology is second nature. Every time she uses my i-Pod Touch, the gizmo looks different when she leaves.  She knows web angles far better than her grandpa with the Ph.D. Multiple generations of young people are fanatically connected right now, and for them and their smartphones education is just more content.  

Another factor is the outlandish sticker price of higher education today.  In 1970, I paid $700 a semester, as I remember--for everything, even clean sheets.  Today, the same college costs somewhere in the area $15,000, without the shell game called scholarships of course. Average out-of-pocket costs, the website says, is something close to $11,000.  Still, that's a chunk.

Colleges may be slow, but they're not dumb. On-line education both saves bucks and makes 'em, and higher education is a business--some think that's all it is, but let's not go there.  Long ago, the college where I taught tried to sell itself by telling students that, if they came here, they wouldn't have massive intro classes characteristic of research universities--no, no, no, you'll learn from learned profs in intimate classes.  The real innovations in on-line teaching today features classes of thousands, even hundreds of thousands. Think efficiency.

Like it or not, it's where we're going, some say. I for one am glad I'm out.

On the other hand, I may well be thoroughly in this semester, should enough students register for a class I'm scheduled to teach. . .on-line.  Mingle or get mangled, I figure. I'll try almost anything one time.

Mark Edmundson has long ago proved himself to be a voice worth my time. His op-ed in yesterday's New York Times rang the bell as the most e-mailed, which is to say, most read; and it is delightfully conservative (only a liberal conservative like myself can use those two words together in a fashion that isn't oxymoronic). Edmundson says on-line education will never carry the magic the classroom offers.

A truly memorable college class, even a large one, is a collaboration between teacher and students. It’s a one-time-only event. Learning at its best is a collective enterprise, something we’ve known since Socrates. You can get knowledge from an Internet course if you’re highly motivated to learn. But in real courses the students and teachers come together and create an immediate and vital community of learning. A real course creates intellectual joy, at least in some. I don’t think an Internet course ever will. Internet learning promises to make intellectual life more sterile and abstract than it already is — and also, for teachers and for students alike, far more lonely.
My heart leaps at such truth, but my head--my business center--chuckles cynically. Edmundson and those like him (and I include myself) are the kinds of folks who consistently argue for the primacy of the liberal arts, as if studying art history or post-colonial literature is good for the soul. Others ask what on earth education has to do with the soul anyway?--it's really about the pocketbook.  When kids graduate from college, after forking over all those bucks, they better dang well have a job.
I don't care. Edmundson is right, and it's interesting that he ends with the word lonely because at least some research now asserts that there is a connection between being on-line and being lonely, and it's not rocket science to determine why.  The machine in front of me gives me the allusion of touching people (think Mark Zuckerman, of course), but such touching remains, well, virtual.  What Edmundson is saying is that a good class (he says, "truly memorable") enchants, creating joy ("at least in some"). That's nice, our culture says more and more, but it's a not a job.

We'll see.  This frumpy old conservative is going on-line this semester, if the course "makes."  We'll see.
But still, write me up as a member in good standing of the church of Mark Edmundson.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Reading Mother Teresa XXVIX--Bringing Christ, and seeing him

In Cornelius Kuipers' 1930s novel about mission work in the Zuni pueblo of New Mexico, Chant of the Night, a young Zuni man named Ametolan agrees to take three Anglo missionaries for a day-long hike up on Zuni mountain, a deeply sacred place to his people. As they climb, they learn some things about the Zunis' history of great suffering, first at the hands of the Spanish, then at the hands of missionaries from the south, from Mexico, stories told by hand and footholds carved into the sheer sides of the mountain so the people could escape persecution and death.

The white folks joke with each other, remain interested in the history, but don't respect the story and don't revere the holy place, as does Ametolan.  When one of them says she wants to meet the god of the Zuni mountain because "he must be some guy," "the party laughed,"says Kuipers, "but not Ametolan."

Kuipers is himself an Anglo missionary, a man who spent decades in the Zuni pueblo. That he would criticize his colleagues and fellow Christians' disrespect is remarkable and, in its own way, lovely. He breaks the stereotype of Christian missionaries who were often what Native people determined them to be--piously disguised scouts for a cultural cavalry who sought, as did the U.S. Cavalry, the demise of the indigenous people of the American frontier.

I don't claim to know anything about missiology.  I've never been a missionary, and I don't know how missionaries are trained. But I do know something about how Christian mission has often blundered with Native people, killing them and their spirit with righteous intentions. Almost  a century ago, a missionary named Kuipers seemed to understand that too--and he used his novels to try to explain what he'd discovered on the mission field, not to the Zunis, but to his own people, the Anglo Christians. 

Why was he different?--I wonder. How did he come to understand that banter in holy places is always off-key?  The title of his only non-fiction book is Zuni Also Prays, which is to say, I think, don't demean people you think somehow pagan. Pride is always the first of seven deadly sins, spiritual pride the most hideous.   

This morning Mother Teresa taught me something that might have made Cornelius Kuipers somehow different.  Mother Teresa took to heart that absolutely central passage of the gospel recorded in Matthew 25:  "As you did it to the least of one of these, you did it unto me." While she dedicated her entire life to bringing Christ to the poor on the streets of Calcutta, she was equally sure, odd as this may sound, that when she met them, she met Jesus. She not only brought Christ, she met Him there in the wasted streets of that massively overcrowded city.  She looked into the faces of the poor and, quite literally, saw the Lord.

When I read the novels of Cornelius Kuipers, novels meant for his people, the Dutch Reformed who supported him, I can't help but think that he saw Jesus there in the Zuni just as surely, a vision he knew would be difficult to communicate to people back home.

Really, all of this isn't just about missiology anyway.  It's about the very character of the Christian life, don't you think?

Monday, July 23, 2012

Morning Thanks--Jack from Microsoft

In human terms, this old desktop Dell--refurbished years ago--is probably well-past retirement age.  In the last year, that awful blue warning page snapped up out of nowhere about once a month, a death rattle. But it's served me well and even survived the trauma of moving out of the basement and to the farm.

Until Wednesday, when Windows wouldn't shut down. A dozen times at least I had to hit the switch manually when that baby blue window stayed long past its welcome: "Windows is shutting down"--well, no it wasn't.

By Saturday morning I'd had it.  I got up early, still dark, and the whole room was a Twilight-Zone because Microsoft had performed some midnight operation, renewing something or another, and the screen stayed blue all night long--"Windows is shutting down. . ."  It was time to do something.

Saturday I wasted a half day googling.  Answers arose from nerds to ninnies, but when I tried to do what was suggested, I failed--Windows refused to quit.  

Sunday. Sabbath. I rose early.  I had planned to trip up to town to watch RAGBRAI, 20,000 cyclists chowing down pancakes and sausage in the park beside St. Mary's. Towns like Alton and Sioux Center don't see multiple thousands of people all that often.  Last time the bikers started here, I went with them for a day, biked 73 miles, a distance my posterior will never forget.

But the blasted computer screen was shining again, and I figured it was time to beseech the real power--Microsoft. It was time for a chat. 

I went to the website, found the right page, read the material. Seemed clear that if the problem was a thorny, getting this old babe fixed up was going to cost some real bucks--$99, in fact. Old cars make owners into a riverboat gamblers:  "Let's just put another set of tires on this old beast yet--maybe we'll get our money's worth."  The fact is, just this morning Daily Steals offered a brand new refurbished Dell Desktop for $200--I stood a good chance of paying half that for a half-hour's worth of maintenance on a machine already showing its age.

It was early. And it was Sunday.  I figured it was a good time to get some techie on line. Besides, in Seattle it was what?--three in the morning?  I hit send and got someone named Jack, who said he was sure that he could cure this Dell's ills in an hour or two, but, as advertised, it was going to cost me the package--$99.  I'm a born and reared Sabbitarian, but I'm also a sinner, and I figure this'll all be over by church time.  Besides, I'm desperate.  Something had to be done.

That was six o'clock--a.m.  The two of us finally muttered tearful goodbyes at three in the afternoon. 

Turns out Jack is Jacklyn, she's a she, and she's in the Philippines. So yesterday, Sunday, I was on the phone or on-line with one of Bill Gates' finest, a woman named Jack, somewhere near Manila, most of the Sabbath.  I missed church--my ox was in a ditch after all (see Matthew 12). My wife went alone because occasionally a surgeon named Jack, half a world away, needed someone to hand her the instruments.

I missed RAGBRAI too--missed both worship and thousands of bikers, the two somehow morally canceling each other out.  

But my ox is out of the ditch.  

I'm not as enamored with big business as Romney is.  I tend to think his "corporations are people too" line is about as audacious as a garage elevator for his wife's multiple Cadillacs.  But sometime you just got to bend the knee.

Took Jack nine hours--all through the night in Manila--but she performed surgery on this old Dell, wouldn't quit until she had every last shred of cancer that was killing it--all for just $99.

Maybe if  I was smarter, I could have done it myself.  Maybe I could have enlisted some local geek at a lower price.  Maybe Jack was simply tired of snarling customers and figured she'd spend the night with a true penitent who wasn't p.o.-ed.  Maybe, maybe, maybe.

What I know is this old refurbished Dell got itself almost born again again, and I got treated like royalty by a multi-national corporation.  I doubt I'll vote for Romney, nor am I converting to Republicanism; but the moral lesson--after a fashion, corporations are people too--wasn't a bad Sabbath sermon for a confirmed sinner like me.

For Jack from Manila, this morning, I'm greatly thankful.    

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Sunday Morning Meds--"our Lord"

“Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth.”
Psalm 8:1

So what do you think?  Does David use the appositive of the first verse of Psalm 8 to praise God or does he put those two words into the line to recommit and even reassure himself?  He didn’t have to add the line, of course.  This psalm would have resounded through the ages even if he hadn’t added, “our Lord.”  So why did he?

It may be a kind of testimony.  It may be that he added it because he wanted the Lord God Almighty, whom he is addressing, to know that the melody rising from the wilderness of earth was his own, someone who worshipped Him, and Him alone.  David may have wanted to reassure God of his (David’s own) love.  That would be right and fitting and noble.
On the other hand, “our Lord” may be a kind of ecstatic expletive.  He just couldn’t help himself.  When he considered the majesty of God in every last corner of the world, he was—as I can be by the dawn—awestruck by God’s unfathomable non-creatureliness (now there’s a mouthful), by the fact that God is, well, God.  Astonished by his presence, he can’t help himself.  He just has to get it in there—“this God of heavens and earth and seas and skies is (take a deep breath) actually our God.”  That kind of thing would be less right and fitting and noble than flat-out human.  Maybe that’s why I like the second option.

Whatever the case for the appositive, we’ve arrived at the kind of Davidic line that has laid itself foundationally beneath life as we know it on this planet.  If it’s not in Bartlett’s Quotations, it certainly should be.  There may be others on your or my Top Ten Psalms list, but this line and this psalm, Psalm 8, is a real keeper.
The KJV has “excellent” where the NIV has “majestic.”  Both seem archaic in a culture built, at least in part, on equality.  Eugene Peterson says, “Your name is a household word,” which is far more democratic; but then, Tide is also a household word.  I’m not sure we own language sufficient to modify God Almighty.

What captures me here is the little word all.  If the idea of God’s name being excellent in every square inch of the world is not just hyperbole, then we have to believe it shines divinely in Al Quida terrorist camps, in Thai brothels, in crack houses and meth labs across America, in each of our darkest corners.  That seems a stretch.

But not impossible.  As our preacher said last Sunday, it’s interesting to imagine that single lamb who created all the fuss by wandering from the ninety-and-nine, that lamb the Good Shepherd finds and carries home on his shoulders, that straying lamb as someone like, say, Osama bin Laden.  Osama’s face on that lamb, if we believe the parable, only seems preposterous.     

My mind isn’t good at stretching cosmically.  What I know better is this: even in our own dark corners, even in our worst desert moments, He is there in all his majesty, even when we swear God is not in the building.  That’s just plain excellent.

Jesus Christ is one divine bounty hunter.  He stalks us until he strikes, not because of some price on your head or mine, but because the Lord, our Lord, loves us.

And for that, let his name be glorified from every last dark corner of the planet.  The fact is, he is a household word.  His excellence makes our best look dingy; his majesty makes royalty look bedraggled. 

And he is, as David can’t help singing, ours.

Saturday, July 21, 2012


Sadly enough, there is very little to say about what happened in Aurora, Colorado, on Friday night, but people say it all again anyway.  Some Texas congressman claims it happened because we've banned prayer in schools, while the NRA hauls out the old tattered banner once again:  "guns don't kill people, people do."  Some say it's all Hollywood's fault--violence is a national media pastime.  

The Brady people shake their heads and pontificate about gun madness, but folks like NRA's Wayne LaPierre insist that if more Batman fans at Friday night's premiere were packin' sidearms, someone would have taken the Joker down, even though this madman was clothed in body armor.  If everyone had guns, there's be no crime, some say.  

Europeans think our fetish for arms is pure insanity, and a few people can't believe that someone would bring a three-month old baby to theater for a midnight premiere.

Some people say that while Chicago long ago passed really tough gun laws, it still has a sky-high murder rate.  Others remind us that violent crime in America is back on the rise, despite the fact that we've got highest documented incarceration rate in the world. Some claim that no laws on any state or municipalities books would have stopped James Holmes from gathering his incredible arsenal because the man had absolutely no criminal record.  

Some continue to insist that no deer hunter in America needs the kind of weaponry Holmes was toting.

In this country, we're as split on guns as we are on almost every political issue, even now, in suffering.  "Politics divide, tragedy heals"--someone once wrote, or words to that affect. But here, in the U. S. of A., even our tragedies get politicized.  

There are no easy answers to what happened in Aurora, Colorado, this weekend.  Would to God that there were. 

But I'm tired of people raising the "freedom" flag as if my rights, my liberty were the only moral absolute. In this country, we can't seem to keep guns out of the hands of a James Holmes.  It can't be done.  The man is free to do as he pleases.

But his freedom stops at the door to a packed theater. And it does. And it should. 

Freedom is not an absolute. It's counterpoint is justice.  "Me first" is childish, inane, sinful.  There's another way: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Pruning lessons

The hedge is badly overgrown.  I'm no garden-at-Versailles guy really, but whacking away at bushes so dense with dead, dry branches looked sort of like fun really--and it would be, if the temps weren't somewhere  close to h-e-double hockey sticks. 

But by early afternoon, however, I'm more than ready to do something other than dance my fingers over this keyboard, so I went at it again yesterday, brandishing hatchet and handsaw, ripping out overgrown branches along the west side of the yard.  It's not hard work exactly, but plucking out dead branches from old bushes is like trying make sense out of chaos.  Like this:  

One of the bushes is married to an almost mature maple that, years ago already, emerged from its very center. Years of uncontrolled forsythia have grown up around it, sometimes braiding itself into the maple's own branches.  The marriage is a mess, to say the least.


There are those who might say that anything that Mother Nature does is beautiful, but I'm not that pure.  The bush is fifteen feet high, the maple, twenty; but right there at the heart of things is a riot of suckers from both parents, enough ugly, dead forsythia branches for a horror movie. Yesterday, like a killer, I whacked away; but most of what I trimmed was woody and knotty and already long gone. And I'm not apologizing.

But some of the pile I created was leafy--I'll admit it. More than a little, in fact. Still, when I look out my window this morning and see the trimmed hedge (still needs tons of work, by the way), I know the unpruned maple branches will be pleased anyway--and pleasing, as it is already.  At least to my eyes.

There were more than a few moments when I just shook my head. That maple was so overgrown at the bottom that it was almost indistinguishable from the forsythia. What was tree and what was bush was identifiable only by leaf.  Lots of what I cut out were suckers from the base of the maple, which, years ago, the owner hacked pretty heavily; hence, a thousand of 'em.

Some were extraordinary.  They couldn't have been more than a year or two old, but when I'd hack them out, I'd pull them from the leafy mass above, only to find that they'd somehow reached ten and twelve feet long, there at the end a bouquet of leaves.  At base those infant branches were no more than a half-inch thick, like this:  

But somehow, on a anorexic branch, they'd grown all the way up to the height of the maple, to a point where they'd finally reached the blessed sunlight they were searching for.  Like this one--a half-inch thick and a quarter-mile long.  So huge a desire to live.  And now it's over.

Incredible drama, right there in an overgrown hedge. 

Such is life in the garden.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Morning Thanks--my father

My father never made much of his war-time experience.  He was in the South Pacific for three years, pushing warships around with a tug boat commissioned into the U. S. Navy from the Coast Guard; but he rarely talked about any of that, certainly not because what he saw and experienced couldn't be imagined or believed.  By his own testimony, the whole service thing, for him at least, didn't amount to much.  You might say he didn't talk much about his wartime experience because of what he didn't see--and what so many others did, including his own brothers and sister. He suffered no wounds, except perhaps not having suffered.

Because he didn't make of those years, it's a little strange to see a flag adorn his grave--and this marker, a kind of add-on, laid in the grass where he is buried.  I don't know how this one got here either.  Honestly, I don't think he'd want to be remembered primarily as a war vet.

He never once donned his Navy whites to walk in the annual Memorial Day parade, and he didn't march in the local color guard or join the American Legion.  I never saw him in a sailor suit--not even a picture.  The only wartime photo I have in my memory is of Dad, shirtless, doing some signaling behind a huge spotlight on the deck of a ship.  It's sort of beef-cake-ish, actually--my dad as a hunk. He probably sent it to his young wife to remind her of what not to forget.

He was, I think, an unusually unselfish man, although were he to read these words from some heavenly easy chair, I'm sure he'd shake his head.  The world is full of faiths, some of them--many of them--downright dangerous.  But his wasn't, and it was, in its own way, remarkably pure.  Honestly, I believe he faithfully lived out his own stout convictions, sure that his profession of the Christian faith held him to conduct that made significant demands on his character.  He was commanded to love, which was, to him, the whole of God's law.

Long, long ago, when my first novel was published, he was saddened by the demanding father in the novel, a husky Dutch Calvinist who really doesn't know one bit about how to love.  He was sure readers might think I was talking about him. He was dead wrong, and I honestly never anticipated his having that reaction.  I should have.

On Sunday last, the preacher--a professional family counselor--talked for quite some time about "the wounded child" inside a man or woman he says he's seen a lot of in the Dutch Calvinist world in which he's practiced, the kind of person reared by a mother or father who really didn't know how to show much love. They stay wounded, he said.  

I'm not one of them.  My father--and my mother--gave away their love amply, as a matter of fact.  My ills are not borne from some childhood deprivation; they have their own sources.

Anyway, I visited him on Tuesday morning--my father that is.  I visited his grave site, where I snapped this picture.  It's not really a pilgrimage, but I like to go back to the family plot when I return to the lakeshore neighborhood where I spent my boyhood; and I like to visit, alone, with several generations of family members. A ton of them are there, their mortal coils anyway.

My father was good for the soul in life, and even in death. I was blessed Tuesday morning, and even this morning, back home, because he is, and always will be, a good subject for my morning thanks, which I gave him then and do so again now--"home again, home again, jiggidy jog," as he used to say.  

Monday, July 16, 2012

Morning Thanks--a little more art

I'm really tired of Bain Capital.  I don't fault Gov. Romney for his gadzillions, and I'm absolutely sure that there are people--even thousands of them--whose jobs or businesses or wherewithal were saved by the artful investing of Romney at Bain.  I'm absolutely positive he did miraculous work there, and he was, to some, a Godsend.

What's more, 8.2% unemployment is just the pits. I have no experience with joblessness in my life, but I have known it affecting others, people close to me, and it's not pretty. I don't doubt that there are millions of working men and women in this country who are hurting because this depressed economy simply can't get up out of bed. I wish Obama could jump start this whole machine somehow, but I don't think he can.

Maybe the true business of America is business.  But I don't think so.

Today, Writer's Almanac claims, is the 61st anniversary of the release of J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, not one of my favorite books of all time, but a novel that sticks with me gamely. Don't mark me among those whose life was changed by Holden Caulfield--it wasn't. The first time I read it, I wondered what all the fuss was really about--some sniveling adolescent with a mammoth wounded child syndrome?  Give me a break.

But Holden Caulfield stays around and stays around and stays around.  He's in me, one of the characters who people the museum I carry around in my consciousness, as real:  "that kid's got Holden Caulfield in him."  He's on the yardstick by which I understand myself and others.

My mother knew only a few Dutch words, but one was zannik, which she laid on me more than once, I'm sure.  "Don't zannik," she'd bark, which meant, don't whine, don't complain, don't play the stupid victim.  My mother wouldn't have liked Holden for a ton of reasons, but I'm sure she would laid into him too.

And yet, like all of us, even though he does all that zannik-ing, all he wants is something good, something pure, something whole.  All he wants is a return guilelessness and innocence. He wants simply not to be phony, but to be someone, someone good:

I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody's around -- nobody big, I mean -- except me. And I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff -- I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That's all I'd do all day. I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all.
Somewhere between his infernal whining and his standing there at a cliff with open arms, a kind of savior and hero, stands the fulsome character of Holden Caulfield, who is, like all of us, both marvelously and annoyingly complex.  He is art, of course.  He is worth nothing at all and millions, at the very same time.  He is not business.  Try as they like, not Wells Fargo, not Citibank, not J. P. Morgan--none of them could have created him.

The Presidential campaign so far has been, in its entirety, about buying and selling, about jobs and the economy, about each of us getting our share of the economic pie.  I for one wish there were more to it.

Because there is.  This morning, I'm thankful for art, even for Holden Caulfield.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Sunday Morning Meds--Sleepless in Sioux Center

“I will lie down and sleep in peace, 
for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety,” Psalm 4.

Psalm 4 is “the evening hymn,” not because of the demands it makes for God’s ear in the first verse, or because of the 12-step program it outlines for those of us who don’t know the Lord (in vs. 3, 4, and 5).  Psalm 4 is “the evening hymn” because of this last line, because of David’s enviable drowsiness.  Surely, one mark of the “blessedness,” which is at the heart of Psalm 1, is the ability to turn out the lights, shut one’s eyes, and, without a ripple of anxiety, fall off to sleep.

But there is too much spilled blood in the David’s OT stories for me to assume that what he is claiming here is what he felt every last night of his life.  I’ll bet the back forty that he wrote this song on one of his good days.  In fact, Psalm 6, just two more down, sounds like some other guy altogether (“. . .all night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears,” vs. 6).
Last weekend, my son-in-law suffered something he called a migraine.  Whether or not it was remains to be seen, but the doctor he saw for the headache calmly suggested that he cut down on stress.  We giggled when he told us what the doctor had offered, as if cutting down on stress is as easy as trimming toe nails.  Sure, Doc, and just exactly how do you suggest any of us do that?

There is an answer here, of course.  What David tells us in this song isn’t a lie or even a half-truth.  He doesn’t just say, “Get some rest and call me in the morning.”  That’s not what’s going on here.

In truth, sleep is a precarious time because we give ourselves up to something we can’t control.  No one wants to snore.  I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who wishes to have nightmares or suffer bizarre, buck naked hikes through public places.  No one would choose to do their hair in the style we daily wake up with.  I wouldn’t wish insomnia on anyone; but all of us, at one time or another, have trouble sleeping in part because when we’re out cold, we’re simply not in control; and if there’s one thing all of us want in life, it’s control.  You don’t have to be a control freak to fear chaos.  We all do.

Here—on the night of this particular song—David claims he nods off easily.  You alone, Lord, he says, allows me to check out in ease.

That out-of-controlness that we give ourselves to every night is, in David’s mind and heart and soul, a piece of cake because he knows (and that’s a word we employ in the biblical sense) God’s hand is beneath him, gently rocking.

As Shakespeare might say, there’s the rub.  For those of us who know the Lord, sleeplessness shouldn’t be a problem—and we know it.  We should be able to hit the sack and fall like a rag doll into the arms of the Father.  We should be able. . .we should.  And saying that is itself a recipe for even more anxiety.

But it’s the goal.  That’s the blessedness we all want and ask for in those furtive moments when, in bed, we feel the shakiness we so much wish we didn’t have.
For that malady, David says what we all know but need to hear time and time again.  In his testimony there is the brace of faith God himself tells us:  “Be still and now that I am God.”

Be still, then go ahead and turn out the light.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Saturday morning catch--Dawn breaks in the backyard

I am not kidding. Check out this Friday morning just outside our back door.  There's lots of dust on my desk, and last night those little black bugs took over the backyard, forcing a retreat back inside; but there are good reasons to live in the country, methinks.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Morning Thanks--one sweet handsaw

When the man who lived in this house for the last 43 years walked into our garage yesterday and looked over his tool bench, now my tool bench--well, my rented tool bench--he couldn't help but notice how totally bereft that wall-length, hand-built bastion looked.  "Hmmm," he said, in all innnocence, "it's lucky I left you all those tools in the shed."  

Not all academics can be neatly stereotyped as I can.  I have plenty of professorial friends with tool benches, men who know their way around carburetors, plastic plumbing pipes, and circuit boxes.  Me?--I'm hopeless.  Take me out of the study, the library, and the classroom, and I'm not worth the shoe leather required to move me around. When Jesse James held up a train, he wouldn't steal from men with calloused hands. I'd be penniless in a minute.

But for the last several days, I've spent more time in a tool shed than an incorrigible kid, more time than I have in my entire life.  I'm getting callouses from scythes, chain saws, and hatchets.  Yesterday I cleared brush in the way I always imagined George W doing it on his Texas ranch; this morning, my arms creak in ways they've never creaked before.

Yesterday, I looked all over for the little handsaw I took along from the old place, the one I used to cut the limbs off a dead pine the day before.  Couldn't find it.  Don't remember where I put it.  But the former owner left me an overflowing supply of tools out back, so I looked around the shed until I found one, a handsome little handsaw, no more than a foot long, in its own fancy holster.

I took it down to the river with an assortment of other sweet gifts and proceeded to clear at least a visual path down to the water, which is as low, I'm told, as it's ever been, due to lack of rain.  Down came the brush and the branches--with a long-handled sheers, a scythe, and a weed-whacker that never pulled any more difficult service than weeds in a sidewalk.

AND that little handsaw, which was pure blessing.  The old one I'd used the day before--forty years old and never sharpened, something of a child's toy--was like pruning branches with tooth floss.  Seriously, that unholstered handsaw sliced through branches as if they were farmer cheese.

Which reminded me of something I've heard people say, an ancient truism, I suppose, but one which had never before registered richly in my professor's brain:  "there ain't nothin' like a good tool."  

It's no longer theory.  Now I know why people say things like that and why they treasure them--the good ones work.  That's the whole deal.

Yesterday, I believe, was Thoreau's birthday.  Just one of his stinging indictments against the society of his day was that the division of labor makes us all no more than "the tools of our tools." A carpenter becomes little more than a hammer, he wrote in Walden.

I love Thoreau, always have.  But he had no right to put down tools like that, at least not that little handsaw.

What you don't learn in retirement.

Somewhere in the last week or so I passed 1500 blog entries, many of them expressing morning thanks for this or that or the other thing.  It took me all of five years to say thanks for good tools, a little handsaw no more than a foot long.  

Good night, it did fine work.