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.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Things not seen

Some time in the 1980s, I think, a neighbor of mine, the sleepy Floyd River, gave up a hunk of something some farmer dug up and had analyzed. Experts determined it was the tooth of a mammoth. I saw it yesterday, saw the news story, too. Listen, this thing is huge.

Not having ever seen the tooth of a mammoth before, I might have walked right by it, assuming it was granite. I've seen molars before, of course, but not something the size of a shotput.  But there it was in the middle of a local museum along with other artifacts, like a wonderful old immigrant chest, a dozen or more traditional Dutch costumes, and a nifty chunk of bone with a couple of holes through it, good for straightening arrows, a little old Lakota invention.

I'm no geologist.  I admit I was blessedly more attracted to the Native collection of stuff; but it's the mammoth's tooth that I'm thinking about this morning, after reading the strange news that none other than Pat Robertson--the TV preacher who likely has fewer disciples than he or those who hate him think he does--announced to the world that the earth isn't 6000 years old, an opinion he claimed would lead to his early demise because, he said, he'd probably be hung for saying it.

To a goodly percentage of the world's population, the idea that the earth isn't 6000 years old is not breaking news. The story was on the wire because Pat Robertson said it. Sheesh, one of evangelical America's most prominent citizen comes right out and declares--thus saith the 700 Club!--what zillions of Republicans either don't believe or are afraid to admit, Marco Rubio among them just last week. News flash!--geologists are neither atheists nor liars.

My mother would say I'm spotten now, a wonderful old Dutch expression that made it through the sieve of the six generations of American life racked up in my DNA. Spotten means to sport with or make fun of especially religious ideas or elements. Spotten is singing "Shine, Jesus, Shine" with a clothespin on your nose, and it's not becoming.

And the reason is clear here: there are wonderful Christians, well-meaning Christians, Christians who do all kinds of good works at soup kitchens, Christians who love their neighbors as themselves, Christians who worship not only weekly, but daily, Christians who honestly and truly believe that the Genesis story, taken literally, not figuratively, read word-for-word, not metaphorically, is the base of the scaffolding of their faith and therefore believe that the world is, as they believe the Bible says, precisely 6000 years old. In this case, she'd tell me not to "spot" (pronounced "spawt" with a bit of a Dutch curl) because she's sure, as I am, that good, good people could well be thrown into sloughs of despondency over Robertson's almost cavalier game-changer.

She's right. It's sort of like Ben Franklin discovering that lightning was electrical, that there was a perfectly sound scientific explanation for those bolts that hammered people in the darkness of their unbelief. Today, I'm sure, even Christian schools teach Franklin; but in the 18th century, when old Ben was flying his kites, good Christian people found it horrifying to believe that lightning was a product of electrical charges and not something somehow spun out of God's own fingers for reasons totally his own.  I was taught myself by sweet Christian teachers that dinosaurs were probably the evil fabrication of Darwinists. 

I think I know people who are thinking today that Pat Robertson has gone over to the dark side, and I do feel sorry for them--I really do, because why on earth should I believe that that two-fisted handful of hard whatever-it-is is the tooth of a hairy mammal? Who said so anyway? And why should I believe him or her?  Do they know what the Bible says?

It's no joy to watch faith break, but it happens all the time. There are times when kites teach us as much about lightning as scripture, and when the sleepy Floyd just outside my window offers object lessons too big to stay unearthed beneath its shallow waters.

Faith always has to pay attention, or so it seems to me. When it's blind, it's not useless, but neither can it be a guide.  

And, even though I might have once upon a time or two been part of just such a mob, I do hope this time that no one hangs Pat Robertson.

Thursday, November 29, 2012



News flash from CNN, just now read it when I opened my e-mail.  "Winning numbers for the nearly 580 million Powerball jackpot are 5-23-16-22-29.  The Powerball is 6." Thus saith whoever trips those silly ping-pong balls from their spinning, and thus, thus saith CNN.  There is no other breaking news in the in-box, so I suppose that, all over the world, the revelation of those numbers was the most important event last night.  

Maybe that's a comfort.

Gambling, games of chance, offered me my very first bite of  skepticism when I was a boy, skepticism borne from faith.  My father rather deeply despised games of chance like BINGO or any form of a raffle.  He thought they were sin.  Even though he was the mayor of the village when I was a boy, and even though he was a World War II vet, he utterly opposed the raffle the Legion staged at the annual Fourth-of-July doings, and I knew it. I was just a kid, but his opposition was nothing he hid away.

Once upon a time, he must have sat me down and explained it, even though I don't remember that moment.  What I've never forgotten, however, is the clearly drawn theology: games of chance were an affront somehow to God's sovereignty.  We didn't gamble, we didn't buy tickets in Oostburg's Independence Day raffle, we didn't play Bingo like the Catholics, because we were Calvinists who didn't believe in chance, who believed instead in providence, that all things come together for good for those who love God.

I sort of understood that. Honestly, it may well have been the very first potent theological lesson of my life because it was the only way I had to explain the weird phenomenon the holiday raffle created. After all, the whole thing was run by my mother's favorite cousin, a deeply religious man who was something of town hero, one of the best fast-pitch chuckers in the region. Mom thought the world of him, but there he stood--I saw him!-- selling raffle tickets.  I didn't understand that.  After all, he was family. We worshiped in the same church!

And then there was the time my father's own brother won the dumb thing, the same uncle who'd come into our church on a Sunday evening to tell the crowd who gathered why voting for this brash, young senator from Massachusetts would be simply delivering the nation and our national culture into the hands of the Pope. One Fourth of July, that uncle, an obviously righteous man, took home what might well have been that year, the grand prize, a garden tiller.

I loved my father's theological explanation, maybe because theology seemed, for once, something more than a classroom exercise.  My father didn't buy lottery tickets--and I wasn't to either, for sure--because it was something contrary to the nature of our own faith.  I got that, got it clearly, even liked it. It drew a line in the sand that I could understand. Sometimes when you're a kid, you like lines in the sand. Sometimes not.

What I didn't get is that my own kin, my parents' own family members, didn't get it.

I don't think I've ever bought a lottery ticket, and rarely, if ever, threw down bucks for a raffle. My father's own determined Calvinism, on that score, is too deeply set in my mind. Once, my wife and I went into a  casino on the Winnebago reservation, gave each other each $20, and proceeded to blow it away within, say, ten minutes, at which time we simply left, bereft of $40 bucks. I didn't get it.

My wife and I are addicted, it seems, to Parenthood, an ABC series that follows the lives of the Bravermans, from San Francisco. Lately we watch as many a three or four episodes a night, really something for people who only rarely watch TV.  The show is part of a new genre of realistic dramas that wreak havoc on traditional TV expectations: at any time, almost anything can happen, just as it can in real life. Heroes screw up, even die, because in life they do.

It's a kind of soap, really, following the lives of four Braverman kids who live rather ordinary lives.  Their problems may not be ours in character, but they are in substance and nuance--ordinary people screw up. Shit happens, as they say.

But the Bravermans are basically irreligious, and it's a kind of revelation to me to witness a family steeped in loyalty and love that is, at the same time, devoutly secular. There's no prayer, no bible reading, no church, and no one ever talks to their kids about God's sovereignty or God's law or God's morality.  No one ever talks about God at all. Their mutual love is quite extraordinary, even cloying at times, but there's no God in their world--none, zip, nada. At times, to me, the son of Calvinists, that's shocking.

I don't gamble.  Well, we've got money in stocks and we're insured--that's throwing the dice.  But I'm not among the millions who watch those ping pong balls fall from the basket.  I never bought a lottery ticket, and we don't spend Saturday night at the slots or the races. That's my father's Calvinism at work, I suppose. 

But I know good people who do trip off to the casino, so I don't get on my high horse--and really neither did my father. The catechism, like the Bible itself, can certainly teach you something about love, about what the Navajos call "the beauty way." But it seems to me that I'd better not get pushy or huffy about it because you never know when your uncle might walk off with a garden tiller.

Somewhere in Arizona and Kansas, CNN says, two people are waking up this morning as gadzillionaires.  Must be something. Makes me smile. This morning, someone's thrilled.

Don't know that it's really breaking news, but this old Calvinist is okay with that.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Now hear. . .

Son of man, when the people of Israel were living in their own land, 
they defiled it by their conduct and their actions.  
Their conduct was like a woman's monthly uncleanness in my sight."  Ezekiel 36:17

I'm not sure why but we've been reading Ezekiel now for quite some time.  Finishing dinner with a Bible passage is a habit we have, a tradition, a good one, something we've been doing for all of our 40 years together, something each of our families did throughout each of our childhoods.  "Laat ons lesen," my father used to say as he opened the Bible I have right here in my drawer.  Those words were about the only Dutch words I ever heard him pronounce.

What that means is that together my wife and I have been at reading the Bible for more than 120 years, which itself sounds biblical.  

I don't doubt that one reason for this daily altar of ours is some kind of residual, ancestral guilt--both of us would feel our days somehow incomplete if we wouldn't read the Bible, so we do.  But reading scripture isn't simply a way to assuage guilt, it's also formative. I learn. We learn. I'm enough of a fundamentalist to believe that believers need to stay "in the Word," as the Pentecostals say, even though my guilty heart reminds me I probably should be there more often and more fully than I am.

That having been said, this Bible reader (and sometime writer of meditations) occasionally thinks reading the Bible isn't good for one's faith.  Take this passage from Ezekiel, last night's offering.  Am I some kind of atheist if I say that I  find it impossible to believe that, as Ezekiel insists, we're listening to God's own voice?  I'm supposed to believe that God almighty, maker of heaven and earth, is mortified by women having their periods, the way he created them? My God actually thinks them "defiled"?  

That makes zero sense.

Am I supposed to read a passage like this and simply buy the proposition that this particular prophetic vision of Mr. Ezekiel was all God and not a whit him? Seriously? Does God turn up his divine nose at half the world's menstruation? This Ezekiel guy might, but I can't believe God gets grossed out by what's perfectly natural?

And if I don't buy this proposition, then the whole vision thing--the whole basis of the book's inclusion in the canon--loses its currency and begs the obvious question:  how many of Zeke's  "visions" were created by God almighty and how many were simply projections of his own human perceptions of the state of the world, the kind of doom-and-gloom e-mail posts I get weekly from end-time Republicans.

Those questions hurt because, in a way, they really do defile my own perceptions of the nature of scripture.  Still, I find them unavoidable.  I have some kind of faith that God wants me "in the Word," but I can't imagine that he wants me to buy every last thing I read.

The Bible is a wild montage of vivid imaginings, unforgettable stories, world-class poetry, and doomsday utterances sufficient to drive all of us to drink (ever check how much of it is OT prophecy?). At some level, it's divine because the story it tells in a thousand obtuse ways is, paradoxically, forever simple: we screw up, but for some divine reason He just keeps lovin' us and takin' us back.

I believe in the Incarnation. I believe that divinity we call Jesus once upon a time slipped himself into flesh as if it were a wet suit and came to dwell among us.  I believe that when he died, he carried a great deal more with him to the grave than his own mortality; he carried our sin.  And I believe that he actually rose again, Savior of mankind and Lord of life.

But that doesn't mean there isn't a ton I don't get.  

But we'll stay at it, I'm sure, just as we have for years.  And tonight--viola!--Ezekiel 37, what I've been looking forward to for a long, long time:  tonight, the famous "valley of the dry bones."  You know. . .

Dem bones, dem bones--dem, dry bones.
Dem bones, dem bones--dem, dry bones.
Dem bones, dem bones--dem, dry bones.
Now hear the Word of the Lord.

Sometimes, maybe, it's just that simple.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Morning Thanks--Biebl's Ave Marie

It was such a Gen-X thing to do--that's what I thought. And quite unusual. Even though I have worshiped in a dozen churches or more throughout the fall and early winter, I'd never seen it done before--a pastor ending a sermon with recorded music, just a song from someone's album piped in over the sound system, the congregation reading the lyrics on the back of the church bulletin. When you give something the clout that comes with sermon's end, I thought, you're giving away a great deal of power; and our preacher last Sunday gave that special moment up to a tune and lyrics I'd never heard before--which is okay.  I'm not complaining. 

He directed us to the bulletin when the music began, a little piece of music labeled "Untitled Hymn (Come to Jesus)," a selection by an artist named Chris Rice, something perfectly in-line with the pastor's unburdening sermon on that famous passage from Matthew 11 about yokes and laboring. If you'd like, you can hear it here.

In all the worship I'd been in, I'd never seen that done before.  Truth be told, I found the little hymn interesting but, that Sunday, I wasn't particularly moved, at least not as moved as our young pastor must have been or wanted me to be.  "Come to Jesus" is slow and earnest and rather sweetly gathers us lovingly through the successive rooms of our own emotional lives to bring us through it all to faith in the arms and hands of Jesus. Its lyrical character is simple and direct, very contemporary, uncomplicated, its metaphors well-worn. That's okay--if we sang only lyrics that were fresh and showy, we'd never see the forest beyond the trees. "Come to Jesus" is quiet and meditative, just like Mathew 11:28-30, a passage, I would have said when I was a boy, was my all-time favorite scripture. 

So I looked up this Chris Rice hymn, listened to it a few times on You-Tube, and read the comments appreciative people had left behind, many of them telling stories of funerals, where, obviously, this particular song has wonderfully warm currency. For them--and maybe the pastor--the music's tender heart beats with the memory off earlier unforgettable renditions, in the same way that "Peace Like a River" sends me to tears every last time I sing it. 

So I'm thinking maybe that's why he did it.  He gave away his own sermon's climactic moment to an mp3 that somehow had, in the past, wrested his own emotions from him in a way that left him shaken and selfless, the very state of mind and heart and soul which is--or so it seems to me--the way God wants us in worship. That's what he wanted for us. That was nice.

Now turn up the volume, play this, and just keep reading.

There was nothing particularly special about that December afternoon. Truth is, we were biding time in LA; we simply had an open afternoon and determined to spend it at the Getty Museum. I know enough about J.Paul Getty to know that the fortune he raised wasn't conjured from personal righteousness. He was an oil tycoon thought to have been America's very first billionaire, a man who once said that "a lasting relationship with a woman is only possible if you're a business failure."  He should know--he had five wives. Sure the art in the Getty is beyond description, but all that glitters there is not gold.

A bunch of high school kids walked into the spacious arboretum at the entry to the museum and, rather unceremoniously, began to sing. It was clear to me that these weren't just any high school kids--they had to be from some prestigious prep school of art and music maybe.  They looked rich and spoiled, in fact.  But maybe twenty of them gathered unhurriedly when, as if out of nowhere, their director appeared, just the kind of maestro one might draw into place right then and there; and when they began to sing, it was this piece, the "Ave Maria" by Franz Biebl, a totally transcendent piece of music made gorgeously famous by the musical ensemble Chanticleer.

I honestly don't know that I'd ever heard it before, but the music those kids made so perfectly filled that space that I thought for a moment I was listening to angels, even though I have no clue what repertoire angels call peculiarly their own.

Honestly, there was no reason for me to be as moved as I was. I was far from home, in the middle of sheer opulence;  the musicians were just kids--talented, but just kids; and I had absolutely no history with the music--no stories, no flashbacks, no unforgettable memories. The anthem is in Latin, for pete's sake, so I wasn't shaken by the freshness of the metaphors or the sheer grace of the lyrics.  I'm not Catholic; I wasn't born with any version of "Ave Maria" pinned to my heart. 

But the music those kids made that afternoon, right in the middle of us all, of all our lives-- filled that arboretum with sheer beauty in a way that brings that moment back now every time I hear this incredible piece. That afternoon, right then and there, not even the Getty Museum held any more beautiful work of art.  We were blessed, I swear it.  Wasn't only me who swooned.

I suppose this piece--Biebl's "Ave Maria"--is the one I'd use to end a sermon, if, like our pastor, I wanted to deliver some kind of knock-out punch. If I wanted to drive a stake into this world's ills and leave believers with as vivid a vision of the divine as I could, I'd have them listen--not sing, just listen, as our pastor did--to Biebl's "Ave Maria," just as I hope you're doing now.

I can't think of a better way--which is to say a more selfless way--to end this sermon and begin the day.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Any Morning

Any Morning 

          --William Stafford

Just lying on the couch and being happy.
Only humming a little, the quiet sound in the head.
Trouble is busy elsewhere at the moment, it has
so much to do in the world.

People who might judge are mostly asleep; they can't
monitor you all the time, and sometimes they forget.
When dawn flows over the hedge you can
get up and act busy.

Little corners like this, pieces of Heaven
left lying around, can be picked up and saved.
People won't even see that you have them,
they are so light and easy to hide.

Later in the day you can act like the others.
You can shake your head. You can frown.

--from The Way It Is. (c) Graywolf Press, 1999

How about that for a little gem from Garrison Keillor this morning?  Makes me what could have possibly possessed me to sign up to teach next semester.  Got to start shaking my head, frowning.  Get in practice.

Ames Straw Poll--R. I. P.

And here's some good news coming out of Iowa. 

Gov. Terry Branstad has suggested that the Ames Straw Poll, a political circus meant to test the relative strength of the Republican Presidential candidates' campaign teams, may have--in his words--"outlived its usefulness."

That's a pretty rugged understatement for a proud Republican. One of the most electable candidates of the bunch last year, Minnesota's Governor Tim Pawlenty, tossed away his bullhorn when he came in way back in the field, while Michele Bachmann, who never ever had a shot at becoming either the Republican candidate or President of these United States, walked off like Saint Joan. Amazingly, the Iowa Straw Poll dumped one of the only candidates who might have challenged Romney, in favor of someone who created her candidacy by swearing that the news media really ought to do a comprehensive story about the myriad members of Congress who were legitimately anti-American. Remember?  I'm not making this up.

Bachmann's faithful know what she meant by that weird accusation, but at that moment most of the American electorate judged her certifiably loony; and, last summer, Bachmann won, narrowly defeating Ron Paul, who also electrified his disciples and almost no one else. Bachmann came out of the Ames poll at the top of the heap, and it took Republicans--and Romney--most of the summer to undo the bizarre Etch-a-Sketch images.

Iowa's only bona fide saint, Bob Vander Plaats, phoned her just before the caucuses and asked her to drop out for the good of the Christian soldiers, an act which in and of itself illustrated how immensely crazy things eventually became.

Branstad is right.  The straw poll has devolved into a beauty contest run by the editors of old Mad magazine, candidates offering voters the kitchen sink to come out to Ames and write their names in the proper blanks. What's more, the whole process has been taken over by firebrand fundamentalists who make the rest of the voting public want to vote secular and quit organized religion all together.

I attended a county Republican meeting several years ago because I thought I was a Republican.  I left, knowing I wasn't.  But if I were, I'd be thankful for Branstad's good advice.  I'm sure Chamber of Commerce folks in Ames would just as soon the whole batty bazaar continue forever, but I stand foursquare behind my gov:  in 2012 the Ames Straw Poll was a disaster for the state, for the Republicans, and, more importantly, for the nation and the world.

Branstad's right: it certainly has outlived its usefulness.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Sunday Morning Meds--The Perfect Law


“The law of the Lord is perfect. . .” Psalm 19

Just one of the amazing things about Psalm 19 is the tenacity with which David keeps twisting meaning out of the wonderful metaphor he uses to begin.  “The heavens declare,” he says, and goes on to spin that idea in a number of ways—how God Almighty speaks in the sky.  Seemingly, he loves the idea, just as he loves his God.  It’s as if he can’t stop toying with the novelty of God’s triumphant voice in the silent heavens.

Then he turns on a dime.  His eyes drop, or so it seems, to what we might think of as the parchment in his hands, the law of God.  Without warning, with his choir enraptured in their star-gazing and millions of readers around the world looking up at the sky to hear the Lord preach, he extols, of all things, the law: “the law of the Lord is perfect,” he says, as if he’s just now read through the Decalogue.

It’s doubtful, but not impossible that he has parchment in his hands, but we’re misreading the idea if we believe that what he’s talking about being “perfect” is only the Mosaic Law, or the Ten Commandments.  His “bible” would have been slim pickins, whether or not it existed in a handy palm-sized edition. 

What David is talking about as “perfect” has to be more than what Christians, following the Apostle Paul’s explanations, normally consider “the law of God.”  More than likely what he’s referring to is the whole package of goods which God Almighty delivered to his chosen people the Israelites—the Mosaic law, to be sure, but also the covenants he offered and the stories he gave them to remember and retell.  What is “perfect” to David is the whole “way of the righteous,” as it’s referred to in Psalm 1, the life of praise and commitment afforded to believers on the basis of their being God’s own beloved, of knowing him and his word.  That’s what strikes him as perfect.

In Reflections on the Psalms, C. S. Lewis calls Psalm 19 “the greatest poem in the Psalter and one of the greatest lyrics in the world.”  He gives this poem such high praise because its music is as beautiful as its instruction is profound; it has equally bountiful portions of head and heart.  In spite of what may well appear to be a 180-degree turn in the structure here at verse seven, David knows what he’s doing and where he’s going.  He’s got a specific agenda of ideas, and he very deliberately works that agenda out, while he’s, well, singing.
Somewhere at the root of the word Torah, I’m told, is the idea of “instruction,” of being taught.  So much of the rhetoric of the Old Testament stories are aimed, it seems, at definition—what God is saying to the Israelites, throughout their history, is this:  “I am God, and those other things people worship are not.”
In the sequence of verses which follow his evocation of God’s own presence in the heavens, David begins to work through what he knows about this eternal God on the basis of this book, this Torah, what he can define of him through the courses of instruction God has given him and all of us in doing life itself in this Godly way, something akin to what the Navajos might call “the Beauty way.” He wants us to know more profoundly the “ways” of this God—how he works, what he does for those he loves, and the way he expects them to live.
In the first six verses of Psalm 19, we’ve seen and heard a beautifully imagined vision of him in the skies that canopy the world. 

But there’s more, David says.  Let me tell you.  Better yet, let’s just sing.  

Friday, November 23, 2012

Morning Thanks--Lincoln

I doubt I'd have ever known the story had we not been back and forth to Oklahoma several times in the last half-dozen years. The title goes by the name of "Bleeding Kansas," and I suppose I didn't know it because so many stories needed to be told about the1860s in this country that "Bleeding Kansas" got crowded out--stories with more familiar names like Gettysburg or Antietam.

But a year ago or so I stood at a spot where a gang of pro-slavery thugs murdered free-staters, a place in eastern Kansas called Mairais des Cygnes, a place I'd never have heard of if it hadn't appeared on a highway sign. In fact, I don't know that I'd have known much at all about "Bleeding Kansas" if we hadn't stopped at the site. Nor would I have known that in the years before the Civil War men and women from both sides were killed in Kansas, many in cold blood.

I love history. It's us, finally--just an older chapter of the same old human book.  No one goes to war about slavery anymore in America, but slug fests between the forces of justice and freedom still take place most every year; and when they do, it doesn't hurt us to review where we've been and why, especially when the reviews are done so poignantly.

Last night, I saw Lincoln, Stephen Spielburg's absolute masterpiece. The acting is beyond description really--Daniel Day-Lewis, I'd hazard to say, was born to play the tall, gaunt folksy yarn-spinner who led the tattered union through its bloodiest era. When you have to remind yourself that the man you see before you isn't the man he's playing, when acting isn't acting, you're beyond excellence, as is Day-Lewis's Abraham Lincoln.  

Sally Fields has had major roles in her career, but nothing like Mary Todd Lincoln. In my mind, the President's wife was a madwoman, a horribly dark drag on the buoyant psyche of the sainted Lincoln. Fields's portrayal has intense and exhausting moments, but whatever weaknesses she may have had are given a foundation in character and experience that makes her every notion understandable. It's the amplitude of her characterization that makes the President's wife into something much greater than the character I thought I knew.

Familiar faces appear as if out of nowhere in Spielberg's Lincoln, almost as if Hollywood's finest all wanted a part of this--and they likely did. Tommy Lee Jones plays Thaddeus Stevens, a fiery abolitionist who has to swallow the bitter bile of his own passionate politics to secure the votes for the 13th amendment. He is incredible.

One of the most memorable moments in the film occurs after Stevens walks home from Congress, the vote to outlaw slavery now behind him.  He walks through his front door, greets his African-American housekeeper, and gives her the tally sheet, a present, he tells her. In the very next scene, the two of them--two old folks--lie side by side in bed, immensely happy.  Maybe it's just me, but that particular moment is what the story is all about--in a word or two, love not hate.

Stephen Spielberg has given America a gift, a story to treasure.  Somewhere along the line every American schoolchild learns that there is an amendment to the constitution forbidding slavery, and that once upon a time, hard as it is to believe, slavery was an institutional part of American life. Every kid alive in this country learns that once upon a time there was a great Civil War, testing whether our nation, in Lincoln's own words, "could long endure."  

But few of us really understand the battle over abolition as it was conducted in the halls of Congress in 1865, the issues, the pressures, the decided opinions on the nature of government and life in these United States.  What Spielberg has done here is tell that story richly, hugely, powerfully, so that we come to understand much of what, in many cases, we white folks would rather not remember at all.  

All the great lessons of history teach humility, as does this one.

Spielberg's gift in Lincoln is something akin to what Lincoln himself did when he consecrated the holy ground at Gettysburg--he gave us a way to tell our story. Spielberg isn't Lincoln, but in his new film about the end of the war and the end of slavery in America, he's given us a story to know and remember, a real gift.

It's difficult not to empty the superlative drawer when talking about Lincoln. It's that great. We should be thanking him as a nation.  He's told us, in powerful ways, a part of our own story that we will not forget easily.

We went last night, on Thanksgiving, early evening.  Listen to this: the place was jammed. That fact alone is sufficient fodder for my own morning thanks.

Don't miss Lincoln

Hey!--and how about this: a free Schaap e-book, just in time for Christmas.  Black Friday, I guess.  Go here, or here, or here. . .

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Morning Thanks--Grandma's Last Thanksgiving

Once upon a time, women weren't supposed to wear slacks to church because people thought only skirts or dresses were "proper" for women.  

Not my grandma. She liked the new, wrinkle-free, double-knits because they stretched enough through the seat and always--always--held their press.  One winter afternoon, my grandma told herself that not wearing slacks to church was downright silly and went off to Ladies Aid in her new drawers.

Grandma never walked fast that I remember, so she must have made a show of it that first day.  No one said a thing, of course, so the Bible study plodded along just like usual, I'm sure, the women nodding at most everything the preacher said.

After the preacher closed with prayer, some of the women got up to set coffee and cookies.

"Why, Mabel," Alma said, "I must admit that can't believe you're wearing pants in church."

"Oh, it's not the first time," my grandma told her.  "I've been wearing pants to church for as long as I've lived."

My grandma loved pulling fast ones.  She was a jokester and something of a liberal, you might say.  When my father, her son-in-law and a preacher's kid, felt strongly that his soon-to-be high school-age daughters should not attend dances--after all, the church warned against it--she suggested to him that he lighten up a bit.  She was a comic and a goof ball, who had suffered in her life more than her share of tragedies.  By everyone's estimation, my grandma on my father's side was an angel.  Mabel wasn't.  Maybe that's why I liked her.

 It's Grandma Dirkse I remember every Thanksgiving.  When she was younger, she was the holiday's queen.  Even now, a quarter century after her death, the smell of a roast turkey reminds me of how she used to stand at the table behind the chairs while everyone was seated, then look around at her family and nod, as if heaven itself were only a block down the sidewalk.

I wasn't home for her last Thanksgiving.  My sister's family had her over, along with my parents.  But in my imagination I can see it all--the table drawn out into the living room, the inviting smell of turkey and stuffing wafting through the rooms, the tinkling of forks against my sister's china.  

And when that grand holiday was over, Grandma leaned into the car and sat beside my parents, ready to embark on the trip home.  "That was a good Thanksgiving," she told them, her last words.  Her head fell sideways, and my father, sensing something bad, sped off to the hospital, only blocks away, where she died.

She played this last little joke on us, dying when she did, so that every Thanksgiving her memory haunts my holiday.

But that's okay.  Maybe Thanksgiving becomes too easily a recital of "things-we-have":  a brand new wide-screen, an iPad, and theater-quality sound system.  Somehow Grandma's death reminds me of the silliness of such recitals, reminds me of what God gave her--joy in life through faith, joy not earned but  freely given.  

Thanksgiving is a wonderful holiday, but gratitude needs no special calendar date.  It's not a costume we pull out once a year, but the kind of old hoodie that feels as if you were born in it--it's a way of life.

I like to think Grandma, even today, thinks of herself as the Thanksgiving queen.  And I like to think that up there or wherever her soul abides, she's still pulling a joke once in a while and remembering how she plunked herself for years in the middle of this holiday.  She certainly pulled a fast one.  

And for that, this morning, this Thanksgiving, I'm thankful.  Right now, I can see her nodding, just the way she used to when she sees these words appear on my computer screen.  For Grandma Dirkse, heaven is no longer a block away.

I just bet she's dancing.     

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Morning Thanks--Ills and chills

Honestly, I felt as if we'd rolled the car a half-dozen times. My body was beat up--I hurt all over.  When we arrived home, safely, from east of the Mississippi, I was sick in ways I haven't been for years. I mean, I actually suffered a stroke in May, got an expensive helicopter ride and two whole days in a Sioux Falls hospital, but for most of that time I was just fine, really, just a little disconcerted.  I was sort of in trouble, but I wasn't sick.  In fact, oddly enough, I was oddly euphoric.  Seriously.

I haven't been flea-bittin' sick--I mean belly-achin', cauldron-stomached, fever-ridden, upchuckin' sick--for I don't know how long. I'd eaten an ordinary breakfast in Chicago--a wonderful Belgian waffle--downed a towering glass of orange juice and another of milk, finished off my wife's potatoes, and had a cup of coffee. Maybe, all tolled, too much.

Then I strapped myself in the Buick and basically didn't move for eight hours.  By the time we got home, I was brewing something in me that required Hazmat handling.

I swear, from the moment we headed west I felt bovine-like, as if I'd madly feasted on sweet alfalfa, my belly ballooning like something from Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade; I told my wife to put a knife in my stomach, and she only laughed.  When we got home, I laid myself down, a position that offered blessed little relief. 

My head hurt, my shoulders ached, my legs felt kicked around for what seemed forever. A few thunderous events better left unsaid helped out a bit, but not until late afternoon the next day did I have any kind of appetite at all--enough, at least for a single piece of toast.

Mid-horror, I went to Web MD because I was getting altogether too many rotten doses of acid re-flux, and there I learned that one of the major causes of such symptoms is being--horrors!--overweight. Sheesh.  Just what I wanted to know a day before Thanksgiving.

I admit it. I've been blessed. I don't even remember the last time I felt so beat up. And even though this early morning as I sit here staring into the screen, my daily apple half-gnawed beside me and my stomach still questioning the idea of admitting anything at all, I'm happy and thankful to say I'm over it.  Whatever it was.  Sort of.

I wouldn't wish it on anyone's worst enemy, but the truth is, amidst all that suffering, I actually shed five pounds.  

Big deal. Tomorrow's Turkey Day. More massive Macy's ballooning.

Woe and woe.

Monday, November 19, 2012


Somewhere along the line—maybe middle school—I learned something about the words transubstantiation and consubstantiation, maybe the biggest words I knew back then, other than supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. I remember those words because I remember the concept--well, sort of. One of the words described the Roman Catholic view of the Lord’s Supper, another Lutheran, and yet another word, one I’ve forgotten was ours, the Reformed view of the sacrament.

That I know the words means I found the whole discussion quite interesting some time way back when. What I’m saying is I was familiar with the arguments in a classroom sense, but I really didn’t understand them or own them until I met Kevin Conroy, high school principal at Black Hawk High School, where I spent my first two years as a teacher, forty years ago.

Kevin Conroy had a thick Brooklyn accent, having grown up in “New Yawk,” grown up devout Irish Catholic, emphasis on devout. I don’t know that other teachers knew him back then as I did, but he was my first boss and I was totally single, living like a monk in abject devotion to school, and often—it’s true—painfully lonely. All those things he seemed to understand.

Mr. Conroy and I shared something rich and, for me at least, bountiful. We were both serious believers—he was more devout, but we were both serious. I didn’t go to church much back then, but the Calvinism in my system didn’t dissipate. So the two of us would talk--about faith, about religion, about God.

One after-school afternoon, we talked about communion, an event he called “the Eucharist.” It may well have been the first time in my life when I put to use the old classroom terminology, the first time I learned something real about communion, not as a concept but as a significant life event.

“Jim,” he told me, every bit of his Irish soul flaring in intensity, “when I take the host into my mouth, it is no symbol—it is Jesus Christ.”

He wasn’t creating an argument; what he said had the heartfelt abundance of raw and real testimony, witnessing, in the very best sense of that word. Somehow, my soul’s memory found a place for that moment, and I never forgot it. In an abstract sense, that day he made a convert of this Calvinist.

Kevin Conroy gave me the means by which to understand how it was that Mother Teresa, who for so many years had to slug through the midnight of spiritual despondency, simply could not and would not miss Holy Communion, even though Jesus, indeed God almighty, had seemingly left her out in the cold. Even when she claimed He’d forgotten her, she held stubbornly to the faith that animated Kevin Conroy’s own testimony—because she believed, heart and soul, that when she participated in the Eucharist, she was eating God’s own precious body and blood.

“This is my body,” Christ said. To Kevin Conroy and Mother Teresa and millions of other Roman Catholics, it is. It’s just that simple.

Eugene Peterson once told me that he doesn’t bother explaining that the bread and wine are merely symbols because he knows the institution of the Lord Supper is vastly richer when we don’t consider what we’re doing something akin to shadow boxing. At a certain level, insisting on the character of Reformation theology only cheapens the sacrament. Thanks, in great part, to my old school principal, I couldn’t agree more.

“Her adoring attitude,” a senior sister once wrote of Mother Teresa, “gestures such as genuflections—even on both knees, in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament exposed, and that well into old age—her postures such as kneeling and joining hands, her preference for receiving Holy Communion on the tongue all bespoke her faith in the Eucharist.”

I don’t doubt for a moment that some of us Protestants would demur from that assessment, or the theology underlying it. But Kevin Conroy taught me long ago that “her faith in the Eucharist” really means her faith in Jesus Christ.

The image of her there, taking Christ, even in her own travail, on her knees, penitent, receiving the host, is as beautiful a portrait as this Calvinist can imagine.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Sunday Morning Meds--The sun's grace

“It rises at one end of the heavens and makes it circuit to the other; 
nothing is hidden from its heat.” Psalm 19

The plants in my office windows don’t always look as healthy as they might, and it’s my fault.  I get too busy and forget about them, forget to water.  Then, one day, I glance their way, sense their sadness, and revive them once again, an act which sounds far more redemptive than it is since their visible sadness grew from my neglect.

It’s September now, and it won’t be long before they will start to decline in other ways.  Even though they’re in a controlled environment at my office at school, they don’t do all that well in winter.  They survive, but they don’t flourish.  Even though the temperature never alters, they barely slug along in December.  That creeping rhododendron loses its curiosity, its tendrils flaccid along my windowpane.

It has to be the sun.  If it isn’t me, it isn’t water, it isn’t heat—it has to be the sun. Mushrooms, I suppose, and vampires, creatures of the deep and Arizonians in August  don’t like the sun; but most of the world gratefully approves.  Dispositions in Iceland and other places grow wearily despondent come winter, when there is little daylight.  Working nights can alter personalities because those who do, researchers say, simply don’t see enough of the sun.  Rainforests may well be incredible ecological treasures; but no one there should expect many tourist dollars.

My basement is warm this time of year, often warmer than the air outside and the entire upstairs of the house.  Down here is where I sit, where I write; and this morning when I came in the study, I was greeted by a warmth that was, well, touching.  We’ll run our furnace upstairs soon, but it will be some time before I crank up the space heater down here because, throughout the summer, the sun has energized the battery of earth outside my walls.
Of course, the situation is reversed in May and even early June, when outside temps get balmy.  Down here, there’s still frost on the pumpkin, and that space heater kicks out radiant heat as if it were January.  Such is life.  Such is the power of the sun.

Spurgeon says it reminds him of grace, this sunshine.  It seeps into everything, often as not unseen.  Right now, it’s in the ground, yards deep—more than yards deep, in fact.  Ten feet below the lawn outside, the ground is warm, even though whatever hard-packed clay is down there has never ever had to squint.  Even where the sun doesn’t shine, its radiance somehow beams.  Stand out beneath a cloudy sky all day and you can still get burned.
Honestly, it’s everywhere—and that’s what the Psalmist says in verse six.  Even when it’s not a blaze in a midday sky, the sun is there, working.  If it wasn’t, we couldn’t live.  If it wasn’t, those plants in my study would shrivel and I’d be freezing.  If it wasn’t, we’d all be scrambling for buffalo robes.  If it wasn’t, there’d be no buffalo. 
There’s a single line on a full sheet of paper thumb-tacked to my bulletin board down here.  It says, “Without grace, we’re trapped in ourselves forever.”  It’s a line from an essay written by Jeanne Murray Walker, a friend, a writer, a believer.
Seems to me that what Jeanne suggests is that, without grace, really, we’re dead.
Spurgeon wasn’t wrong, at least that’s what I’m thinking, at the keyboard in a basement study that seems, this morning, almost preternaturally warm.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Saturday morning catch--Thanksgiving milkweeds

This fall the milkweeds finished dispensing seeds at least a month early, sadly enough. They're normally the single element of a November landscape worth much as a close-up, so these pics are several years old.  But I'm still out of town, so I thought I'd put them up again, a reminder of ordinary Novembers.  

I shot them, I remember, the day after Thanksgiving, just south of Sandy Hollow. Even though I know--I've hoed 'em--they're a royal pain in the butt and back when they infiltrate a field of soybeans, in cold prairie winds of early winter, they still seem somehow precious.

Maybe something like us.

Friday, November 16, 2012

"Calling"--a story (finally, the end)

The senior choir liked King David a lot too but felt anything less than J. S. Bach would be a disappointment. The junior choir, who didn’t read the instructions, voted en masse for Justin Bieber.

The Sunday school wanted Noah too, as long as the ark were part of the deal.

The janitor, incredibly, voted for Mr. Clean—if you can believe it.

Then, at its October meeting the consistory read through all the documents and recommendations. They wrote the names of the candidates on the chalkboard, listing some of the attributes each would bring to the job. Then they started calling. They called and called and called again, but for the most part--aside from a brief, unenthusiastic conversation with a strange man named J. S. Bach in Belvedere, Illinois, they got absolutely nowhere. Couldn’t even talk to a machine.

Finally one of the elders wiped his forehead in the late summer heat and recommended giving a man named Verdean Sands a call.

No one moved.

Brummel explained that when he was on vacation in a little resort town up state he had heard the man preach. Better than passable, Brummel said.

The idea seemed preposterous.

“Nice family. Good smile. Warm.” Brummel hunched his shoulders.

The entire room sat in grave silence.

“Well, I don’t know,” Brummel said. “I guess I just found him really nice—you know, a good heart—human?” they said in chorus.

“Human?” they said in chorus.

“Told a joke once or twice—the people liked him,” he said. “Yeah, human.”

There were misgivings, but that night, fearful of paralysis, the consistory extended the call. Some members chose to reserve their approval, but a few months later Sands arrived in Springvale—encouragingly nervous, but eager.

But, alas, all is not well in Springvale. Some people don’t believe Verdean Sands has the qualities they wanted in a minister. In fact, after hearing three sermons, the support group for reformed, ex-lottery players has already made book on his tenure. They’re giving him two years, at 3 to 1 odds.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

"Calling"--a story III

The Circle, a support group composed mainly of single individuals, made a rather convincing case for calling the Samaritan woman. However, because a woman pastor was not a possibility, they recommended the apostle Paul, who, despite his sometimes virulent sexism, understood very well the dignity of the single life.

Support for Jonah came from post-highs who rarely came to church, except when dragged along by their parents. Although quite unorganized (they submitted no formal document), they were unofficially polled by one of the elders while standing out on the sidewalk after the morning service. “Jonah?” Elder Dominick said, non-plussed, “--because of the whale business?”

“Yah, that too,” one of them said. “But mostly, that vine thing—I love that. You know—‘been there, don’t that.’”

The apostle Paul was the second choice of the men of the Breakfast Club, the business leaders who met biweekly at the health club, where--in addition to playing racquetball doubles--they ate thickly granola-ed yogurt and studied the greatest hits of C. S. Lewis. The apostle Paul had some appeal—“running the race and all of that,” but John the disciple got the nod because, not only was he was the finest athlete of the twelve, he found a gracious way to make his athleticism clear in the story of the resurrection.

The club’s other vote went to Daniel, who, they claimed, was the most intelligent of all the prophets, well-educated in the ways of the world, and obviously committed to the faith. And, good night, what endurance, they said.

The small-groups got together to discuss their needs, but claimed they didn’t feel up to naming a specific candidate. They’d be likely to approve of anyone, they said, as long as he or she was there at Pentecost.

The Reach-out Committee threw in a strong vote for Elijah, assuming he could pull of a stunt like the one on Mt. Carmel, for the 800 prophets of Baal.

The Christianity Today Discussion Group thought maybe they could get John the Baptist, and they said they’d work on the clothing thing if it all worked out. The Christian Century group were sure the only fit candidate was the Ethiopian since Springvale was so disturbingly monochrome. Like the Men’s Society, the Dobson-ites wanted Jeremiah, but claimed they could settle for any of his immediate Old Testament neighbors, Ezekiel maybe, after the way Obama was taking us all down the tubes.

Al-Anon wasn’t giving to naming names but claimed they could live with any of Noah’s sons.

The Liturgy Committee felt Moses would be a good man to decide once and for all the laws governing good music and proper worship styles, but they’d consider Solomon, too, they said, if he’d promise to shed some of the darkness of Ecclesiastes. 

But then someone brought up the concubines, and they determined he wouldn’t be a good choice, not in the present ecclesiastical climate. Finally, they settled on Noah, even though they claimed to know very little about his worship preferences. “Anyone who could keep order on the ark has great potential,” they said.

[Tomorrow: the nominations continue to roll in.]

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

"Calling"--a story II

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

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

Sadly, someone leaked the results to the Phoebe Society, who, as requested, spent their August meeting drawing up their own agenda. King David certainly has much to commend him, they maintained in a twenty-page document filed less than two weeks after the instrument had been distributed. However, because of “the Bathsheba incident,” his “credulity with women” suffered tremendously. Therefore, said the members of the Phoebe Society, “We’re opposed to nominating David as our new pastor.” Such a nomination, they insisted, revealed a rather “obvious disregard” for women’s issues.

Instead, the Phoebe Society recommended that, if a woman pastor wasn’t going to be possible at this point in time, the congregation should call Jacob’s son, Joseph, a man who clearly had not stumbled as David had—even when proffered the possibility. Furthermore, he had shown great compassion in distributing foodstuffs to the needy during his tenure as Egypt’s Secretary of Agriculture. What’s more, he’d willingly bared his emotions—his tears fell easily—when finally opening himself up to his supplicant brothers. “We believe that Joseph is the best candidate to replace Pastor Rog,” they offered in their own summary conclusions.

The Men’s Society, the organization with the highest median age in the congregation, brawled over which of the Old Testament prophet showed greatest promise. After six ballots, they nominated Jeremiah, even though there was much discussion about whether or not the man too frequently repeated himself. The Society’s second choice was Isaiah who, they claimed, despite some really beautiful verse, lacked the requisite tenacity. They liked Hosea, but claimed there were some lingering questions about his ability to keep his house in order. Theirs was, by the way, the only instrument completed in longhand.

The youth pastor’s response came on his own personal stationery, festooned with unicorns. He claimed calling any one of the woe-speaking prophets would be the kind of move that would be sure to alienate the teens. The candidate most likely to find a place in the hearts of his kids, he maintained, would be the father of the prodigal son--although he wasn’t sure anymore whether a rancher could make it with city kids. If it had to be someone prophet-like, the youth pastor said, Balaam and his talking ass were the kind of act that would keep everyone’s attention. “What a hoot that would be,” he wrote, adding three exclamation points. “You’d never know what he was going to say. They’d love it.” And then a smiley face.

[Tomorrow:  more nominations come in.]

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

"Calling"--a story I

[Once again out of town for several days, I thought I'd get ahead by running an old story or two, this one chosen because, just yesterday, my wife and I sent in our absentee ballots. Our congregation is calling.  Be ye not mistaken:  this is not our church.  Besides, it's supposed to be a goofy story.  Mostly.  :)]

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Tomorrow: the nominations begin.]

Monday, November 12, 2012

Worship Wars

Count me among those who are quite confident that when God almighty tossed Satan from the heavenly realm, the Devil fell right smack dab in the choir loft. If one were keeping score in the last twenty years, it's music that's created a bushel full of new churches that is. We've even got a name for it--"the worship wars." 

Most of Christendom, denominationally,  is bloodied. Twenty years ago at least, I arrived early at a Christian writers conference and worshiped with Baptists whose week-long retreat was just ending. The favored musician, a pianist and singer who pounded through a bevy of conventional sawdust-trail hymns like "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" while hitting every last key on the piano, was a show all by himself. The music the people loved in that sanctuary wouldn't have passed muster in almost any church I've ever attended. Way too much show.

It just so happened that I ended up at his table in the cafeteria, post-worship, where I listened to him go on and on about the horror that good Baptists were permitting, music that he described essentially as "praise-and-worship," Baptist style. Even the Baptists were at war.

Of course, my people have been going at it since 1619, when the Synod of Dort ruled against the free-willers and all musical scores that weren't drawn directly from the Psalms. Even though somewhere in the New Testament, Paul say it's downright okay to sing Psalms and "spiritual songs," the watershed synod at Dortrecht determined that, in worship, only the psalms could be sung. End of story.


In 1834, Dominie de Cock stood up and held forth in the little church at Ulrum, Friesland, the Netherlands, and began a movement called the "Afscheiding" ("the separation"), thereby inaugurating a breakaway movement that eventually became the Christian Reformed Church of North America. 

What was his beef? Among other things, hymns. He wanted nothing by the psalms. The denomination with which I've affiliated for my whole life is, in fact, a child of centuries of worship wars.  

In a ruggedly conservative Reformed church not all that far from where I live, a young organist decided to play a "In the Garden," an age-old favorite that thousands of old Dutch Calvinists asked to have played or sung at their funerals. True story.  Happened just recently, I hear.  The young organist started in at worship, played it as offertory or prelude--I don't know what--and got himself blindsided when a crusty old conservative marched right up front, stood beside him, and switched off the power.  "In the Garden" was not Reformed.

I know that hymn by heart, mostly. My mother used to sing it often in our house. "I come to the garden alone/while the dew is still on the roses. . .". 

Some of my people--me included--consider this old favorite, well, sappy.  You know--"And heeeee walks with me and he talks with me. . "  Waltzy, schmaltzy fantasy running thick with other-worldly spiritualism. Unadulterated syrup. No matter if millions want it sung at their funerals, it's little more than sap.

But I just this week discovered the song was actually historical fiction.  What Charles Austin Miles was imagining was Mary's Sunday morning visit to the tomb--that's what the hymn is about; it's a video portrayal of Mary's story. I must have heard the hymn a thousand times in my life, and I always thought it was being crooned by some raptured soul--"He walks with me and He talks with me/and He tells me I am his own. . ." Typical self-absorbed goo.

That I never ever considered that old hymn to be a story about Mary's visit to the grave of Jesus is an indication of the sheer power of the hymn to be exactly what that gnarled old conservative thought it was when he turned off the organ, just another syrupy rendition of "me and my sweet Jesus," the kind of tune that takes the backbone out of Christians and keeps them high with cheap dreams of streets of gold and a million haloed harpists.  You know.

But it isn't that.  Not really. The hymn isn't about me, it's about Mary, early resurrection morning.  

What's more, that last verse repeats what Jesus told her--"Now go, leave, tell the others. Don't stay here and turn into some weepy dreamer.  "Through the voice of woe/His voice to me is calling," the final verse says, a verse I can't recite because it's not in my memory, even though the first two verses are there, written in permanent magic marker.  

I can't help interpret that lyric with the help of Mother Teresa, who believed "the voice of woe," the voice of the poor and suffering in the squalid streets of Calcutta were, in fact, the very voice of the suffering Christ. We see and hear him by serving the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the prisoner.  

That old hymn doesn't leave us spineless at all, it commands us--as Christ commanded Mary--to go and tell, to go and serve, to go and hear his voice in the woe all around.  

There's way more to that old hymn than I ever imagined.  

The hot head who switched off the organ is an ogre, all right?  But I know why he did it, and if I think of that old hymn the way I've always thought of it, I have some abhorrent sympathy for him. The old funeral favorite, is much beloved for all the wrong reasons. It is what Calvinist conservatives, like me, say it is, even if it isn't. 

I'm confused. Really, I am.  

See what I mean, that guy with the horns and cloven feet fell right in the choir loft, and we've been at war, even with ourselves, ever since. Makes my head spin.