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.

Monday, December 31, 2012

Denial III

Continuation of a short story about a couple, unmarried, but already parents of two children who live with others and are not their own--but still are.  

What she didn't tell Mark and Carolyn was that in one way the two of them weren't exactly the same. In the sixteen months since Ashley was born, she'd come to know that she was forgiven, that God had brought Mark and Carolyn along out of nowhere, two people who wanted what she had to give them--a beautiful baby girl. She hadn't "given her baby away"--she hated it when people said it that way. That wasn't it at all. What she'd done was bless a wonderful couple with her own beautiful child.

It wasn't the same with Brian. Just last night in Flamingos, a great restaurant on Mounds Lake, they'd had a corner table at a window that opened to lights like a string of pearls around the lake. Talk. She loved it when he talked, he did so little of it--and they'd talked and laughed. And then, suddenly, almost out of nowhere, more passion in his voice than she wanted to hear, he'd said something he'd said before. "I can't let you go," he told her, holding her hand across the table. "You know that, don't you? I can't let you go. I just can't." His fingers tightened around hers.

"I don't want you to," she told him. "Why do you say that?"

Immediately, he dropped his eyes. Every time she'd try to get him to really open up when he'd say that, he'd back off, turn his eyes.

"Listen," she told him, "I'm not leaving you. I'm not backing out, babe--y'hear?"

His shoulders dropped and he shook his head and squeezed her hands.

"Tell me why you say that, Brian," she asked. "Honey, explain it to me."

He was squeezing her fingers so hard they hurt.

"Brian," she said, "tell me."

He couldn't look her in the eye.

"Brian, please?" she said again.

He pulled his hand back, but she wouldn't let it go. "Is there something wrong with me--that I have to hear you say that?" he said. "Why am I afraid of you?"

"Afraid of me?" she said.

"You got it all together or something," he said. "I mean, like everything fits in your mind--all of it."

"All of what?" she said.

"You're so much stronger than I am," he told her.

"My faith, you think?" she said.

"Maybe." He looked out at the lake.

"You got faith too," she said.

"In God?" he said.

"Is that a question?"

He pulled his hand back. "I think I do."

"Brian," she said, and she took it back. "Do you still hurt inside?"

"Don't you?" he said. "It's not even that long ago for you."

Maybe he loved her, she thought--that woman he'd seen in his church, the mother. "The kid's mother--is that--"

"It's not that," he said. "That's years ago."

"No, it isn't," she said. "It's not 'years ago' or you wouldn't let it bother you--"

"You think it's over for you?" he said. "I mean, really." Then, his eyes turned to her. "Sometimes I envy the heck out of you, and sometimes I think you're living in a cartoon--" And then, "What is it? Which is true?"

She'd never thought of herself living in a cartoon at all, not with what she'd been through. "I don't know," she told him. "I never thought of it as Disney World."

"Let's go," he said, picking up the check.

She wanted to talk it out, but she was afraid of being too strong.

Back at school, at the end of the semester, her mother had thrown a going-away party for Brian. Everything had gone well until Rachel had held her aunt's newborn, simply picked up the baby and rocked her gently in her arms. Just like that, Brian walked out of the room. No one else noticed.

"I don't know why," he told her later, when the guests were gone. "I couldn't handle it. Don't go psychoanalyzing me either, Rachel," he told her. "There's some things bigger than therapy. I don't know."

They were on the couch in the family room. "I want to understand," she said. "Does everyone understand every last thing they feel, for cripes sake?" he said.

She had hold of his sides beneath his sweat shirt. "I want to have kids, Brian," she told him. "You know that. I want to have a big family."

He nodded.

"It's not kids?" she asked.

"I don't understand--all right?" he snapped. "Something just fell apart," he said. "Let's just not talk about it anymore." The whole time he didn't look at her.

Something was so tightly wound in him.

Tomorrow:  What Rachel doesn't forget.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Sunday Morning Meds--Endurance

“The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever”  Psalm 19

Not long ago, Marquette, Kansas, was offering free land to people who’d like to live there. Thousands inquired, according to the mayor, and at least 80 new families were moving in. Enrollment in the Marquette school has risen from 120 kids to 145, and it looks now as if the town will be able to save the place, rather than lose it to consolidation. If you’re interested, you might want to check them out. The mayor claims that the town’s offer of free land is “making dreams come true.”

The story was on national news because Marquette is replaying an old song; on the Great Plains, long ago already people homesteaded. There’s little doubt that those few Marquette residents who still live there, the same ones who put up the free land, are descended from original homesteaders because in the late 19th century people wanted to move here, and they did.

But times change, and agriculture became a business instead of a way of life. When that happened, the countryside surrounding places like Marquette, Kansas, as well as northwest Iowa, where I live, was frequently left littered with abandoned farms. I know where several are here, because they make good pictures—but little else.

A farmer I know, a man who lives not far from here, just can’t bring himself to tear down an abandoned farmstead on his land, even though it makes no economic sense to keep it standing; if he’d bulldoze the rotted old house and barn, he could put in soybeans or corn. But it’s just too tough for him to raze the place his parents lived; abandoned or not, what he sees is “the home place,” and he can’t bring himself to torch it, even though it looks like sin.

Things change. Things rot. Things fall apart. Things spoil. Things wear out. I once met an engineer who was a consultant to the military; his expertise was wear, oddly enough, a concept of vital interest to the generals who’d rather have their helicopters operate in desert sand than not.

In this world, whether we’re talking high school football, national politics, or Great Plains farmsteads, there is no standing still. Things either are moved forward—as they are in Marquette, Kansas, right now—or they fall into ruin. Nothing stays the same; the only constant is change.

What David seems to me to be after with this addition to his description of the Torah is what the few good people of Marquette, Kansas, saw happening all around them—virtual disappearance of a place they hold dear.

Not so, the Torah, David says. There’s no termites, no bacteria, no wear. God’s ways are pure, not tainted, not infected, not subject to the debilitating effects of water on wood. The Torah lasts, that’s the essence here. It doesn’t require free giveaways or frequent preventative pharmaceutical treatment.

There’s no sagging, no less than desirable effects of gravity. Nothing’s left behind. The Torah will never become an empty shadow of itself.

Because God is uniquely eternal.

His Word has knees that won’t buckle, arms that won’t fail. Like a grandchild, David might have said, you and me and all of us can climb up on the shoulders of the Torah and ride into eternity. In Him, you can homestead forever.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Denial II

Continuation of a short story about a couple, unmarried, but already parents of two children who live with others and are not their own--but still are.  

On a driveway across the street, four little boys kept slapping at a ball with plastic hockey sticks, their clunky roller blades up to their knees. One of them she recognized, even though she'd never spoken to him--number 31. She loved his birth father.

Yesterday at the lake, Brian sat in the sand, still as stone until finally she'd come to assume there was something he'd wanted her to see. They'd been out in the lake swimming and monkeying around. But she was rubbing his shoulders with lotion when he froze stiff. "What is it?" she'd said.

"The kid with the Lakers jersey," Brian had told her. He pointed at a half dozen kids in a rat pack on their bikes on the road, "that's the kid." They all wore oversize basketball jerseys.

"Which one?" she said.

"Number 31," he told her.

Brian was dark, the boy had a white mop of hair, but what could she say?--that the boy didn't look like him?

Brian pulled himself coldly into a wet suit of silence. She kept rubbing lotion into his shoulders, but didn't know what to say. The kid--his name was Ben--leaned off his bike, turning the right handlebar in his hand as if he were aboard a Harley, clueless, no more conscious of his father than anyone else on the beach. She'd never be that close to Ashley, never.

"He's darling," she told Brian, because she had to say something.

"Let's go home," he'd said, pulling his shirt over his head as he stood.

And now, there he was, right across the street playing hockey. His grandma lived in a house with big orange butterflies tacked up by the mailbox, a house at the end of the very same street where Brian's folks lived, both grandmas on the same street, only one of them ever acknowledged because at Brian's house the whole story was pressure-wrapped in silence.

She ran through the list again, using her fingers--carrot cake and cheese popcorn, cat lovers, social work majors, and both of them, incredibly, birth parents. All of that had to add up to something. It had to. There had to be some kind of plan in the universe, she thought.

One of the little kids across the street fell--boom!--on the sloping concrete driveway, but he got back up and took a swing at the ball. She hoped they'd be gone by the time Brian came home from work because she didn't want Ben out there where Brian could see him. A few weeks ago, when she'd called him and he seemed unusually quiet, she'd asked what the problem was. He'd hemmed and hawed. "Nothing," he said. Then a silence. Then a breath. Again she said, "What is it?" Then, finally, as if giving up a secret, he said, "I just saw the kid."

"The kid" was growing, his long arms and legs, calf-like, barely enough to keep him on his skates. His mother had married a local guy, then had two daughters. Everything seemed fine. No one said a thing. That was the way it was supposed to work in a small town like this where nothing bad ever happens. Denial, she thought.

Rachel knew tons about Ashley--how many teeth she had, how much she hated to have her face wiped, what she named the red elephant she'd sent her for Christmas. Brian knew very little about Ben, even though when he was home he could see the kid almost daily.

Tomorrow:  Rachel remembers.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Denial I

Once upon a time I met a couple who, earlier in life,  both had children out of wedlock. Wonderfully, they were deeply in love, although they had decidedly different attitudes toward those children, one of whom had been adopted.  I was doing some work for an adoption agency at the time, where I ran into dozens of fascinating stories about adoption and identity, about how people give up what they love and then, mostly, never do.  

All stories begin with "what if?" really, as does this one. What if these two sweethearts, both of them lugging along some fairly significant life experience, were to honestly face their own stories together?--that's what I was thinking. How might they react?  

Those questions triggered the story "Denial," a story written at least a decade ago, at a time when people rather inexplicably stuck big butterflies on their front doors :).


Rachel knew it was dangerous to bring it along, but since no one was home she sneaked the wisp of Ashley's perfectly white hair out of her billfold and held it softly between her fingers, bright and shiny as angel feathers. Ashley was her baby, after all--she'd carried her, brought her into this world. She pressed the cellophane packet to her lips and imagined once again how incredible it would be, just once, to kiss her softly on the temple, on the cheek, on the top of her head.

Around her, Brian's house was silent--Brian at work, his mother at the store, and his father's road construction outfit somewhere in Chicago. She had taken the wisp of hair along because it was so slight she could hide it between her credit cards and it reminded her of the last letter, where Mark and Carolyn explained how Ashley would meet Mark every day when he came home from work, run to the stairway of their split-foyer the moment he walked up the stairs. "She's so darling, Rachel," he wrote, Mark the lawyer. "She puts her face between the balusters, every one of them--and I have to kiss her between every last one. She's so cute." That's what he wrote. That Mark had written the letter--that he would take the time, Ashley's father--that meant a lot, too.

The cat jumped up on the table and sniffed at the angel hair. She picked him up and dropped him softly back to the floor as she had a half dozen times before, the pest. But Grinch had taught her something really great: Brian was a cat lover too--in addition to everything else the two of them shared: macaroni-and-cheese, Emmy Lou Harris, When a Man Loves A Woman, wild vests, and so much more. He was so, well, perfect. When she thought about where she'd been and what she'd already come through, she knew Brian was a gift from God.

She was writing Mark and Carolyn and telling them about her and Brian, and thanking them for the little wisp of hair, the pictures, and the news that the little sweetheart was getting a head start on the "terrible twos." She'd left everything else at home. Her having had Ashley was no big secret to Brian's folks, but not bringing the letter and the pictures along was probably for the best, she'd thought.

On one of those pictures Ashley sat plopped in a kitchen drawer, towels and hot pads strewn all over, that naughty little smile over her face. At least twice a day, Mark said, the little stinker would head to the kitchen, empty the dishtowels from that drawer, then sit inside as if it were a bathtub.

She put the angel hair down and picked up her pen. Brian's high school graduation picture stared at her in silence from the buffet across the room. She had found his family's quiet nature difficult since she'd come, in the same way Brian's silences made her anxious sometimes. The circle of their lives seemed very small, and joyless. The house was tiny--narrow hallways, a stairway upstairs steep as a ladder--and the town looked like the set of Little House, a bunch of square-cut buildings on a bare prairie.

But Brian was an answer to prayer, she told Mark and Carolyn, a miracle. They had so much in common--both social work majors too, so they'd had classes together. My goodness, they shared so much.

Tomorrow:  the kids across the street. 

Thursday, December 27, 2012


His name was identifiably Dutch—Tilstra, maybe. . .Kevin Tilstra. Out of two thousand high school students at a high school in Phoenix, Arizona, he was, to my knowledge, the only kid blessed, as I am, with a recognizable Dutch surname.

He was thin, I remember, is face, long and pallid, almost emaciated, and his hair, a dry clump of erratic, colorless brush that was always too long. He will never slip from my memory, even though I never poured over his essays, like I did so many other high school kids’ work that year.

That I knew him at all was an accident of educational theory. The English Department had its own building, eight classroom areas separated only (if desired) by curtains.

We “team taught” quite a bit, and Kevin belonged to Helene, my colleague. But during his class, he sat at the far edge of hers, adjacent to my students.

One day I stumbled on his name on Helene’s rolls. "He's Dutch," I told her, pointing to the name. "The kid is Dutch."

She didn’t find the fact much more than amusing.

So the next day when I saw him, I walked over and nudged him.

“Hey, Tilstra,” I said. "I’m Dutch." He looked at me strangely. "Schaap—it’s Dutch. You know?--Hollander?"

From the look on his face, I knew I could have been speaking another language.

"You’re Dutch too," I told him. "You know that? You’re Dutch—I’m Dutch," I said. "We’re the only Hollanders around here. We got to stick together, see?—a couple of wooden shoes."

He smiled, shrugged his shoulders.

I never knew much more about Kevin Tilstra. Occasionally, I’d bump into him, nudge him like I had that first day, call him a "Hollander." And he’d smile, laugh. He seemed to have few friends.

He had a brother, a freshman I never knew or saw, a brother who was overweight and depressed.

One day, I remember, I heard horrible news. “Kevin, you know?—your Kevin?” Helene said. “Did you hear about his brother?”

I had no idea.

“He hung himself—Miller told me this morning," she said, referring to a counselor. “Kevin's not going to be back here for awhile—maybe a week.”

Suicide is always shocking, but that day I wasn't haunted deeply by the boy's death. I didn't know him, and his brother Kevin really wasn't my student.

A week later, that long, gangly kid came walking in through the door on my side of the building and headed straight for my desk, coming to me for wisdom or comfort or whatever his shattered soul needed, something he evidently felt I could give him.

He never said a word. He just stood there and waited for understanding from the man who'd told him a half dozen times or so, just kiddingly, that the only Hollanders in this school had to stick together. I’ll never forget his silence, and mine.  He wanted me to say something, to help. 
A few gentle nudges and a dime’s worth of attention prompted that kid to seek me out for comfort.  

The depth of our need for love and dignity is immense, but not infinite.  Sometimes, it seems, just a word, graced with God's blessing, can fill the emptiness.  We're odd creatures really--even though our need for love is immense, our ability to give it away is almost miserly.  "Do unto others. . ."  It's as simple as that.

And as difficult.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Holiday (sniff) joy

Choir! Choir! Choir! performs at the Toronto venue Lee's Palace, led by Daveed Goldman (left, with guitar) and Nobu Adilman.

In forty years of teaching, I've corrected tens of thousands of student papers. Corrected is a mean word--read them would be better, commented on them would be more accurate, or  just criticized maybe. Corrected makes well-wrought student essays sound like multiple-choice tests. But then, some war-torn former students I know might say I sure as heck "corrected" theirs. 

Criticizing student papers is an English teacher's calling, but it creates a personality disorder. I criticize things.  What am I saying?--I criticize EVERYTHING:  movies, stories, novels, TV shows, sermons, worship services, even the Bible, for heaven's sake.  I criticize the words that appear magically on the screen in front of me even as they are being written.  I'm not making this up.  I criticize the way I dress--I rarely make it through a day without changing clothes.  I criticize the way my stomach plops over my belt the day after Christmas--well, really, day after day.  I evaluate constantly and criticize everything.

And all that red-penning numbs me. I analyze, I perfect--or try to. I left-brain my way through life and miss epiphanies others experience. I never go ape. If I'd had been on the Nazareth hills, keeping my flocks by night, and the angels appeared, I'd have said, "Hey, I didn't see a halo in the bunch." The others would have been running down the hill to Bethlehem, and I'd be standing in the night bedecked with a wrinkled forehead.

So on those very few occasions I go into a swoon, I'm shocked. When something comes into my soul and pinches every facial nerve, pushing tears out of the corners of my eyes, I can't help but take notice because my English teacher's faculties have deserted me. I am a reasonable soul; I don't trust emotion, for pete's sake.  But sometimes I almost cry.

Four times I almost lost it this Christmas--four times. Scary. Ten years from now, I'm going to have to pack Kleenex whenever I leave the house. Three times it happened in church, which is comforting because it means there's still hope for my cynical soul. Twice it happened at the end of worship, when the chemistry of the moment tripped the light fantastic. Maybe it was simply the young, wildly happy pastor dancing around in his inimitable way, so full of joy the rest of us couldn't help catch the bug. 

Once it happened when my grandson sat beside me in church and we sang a carol or two--don't even know which. Those tears sprung from some hybrid Christmas emotion--kids, the remembrance of things past, and the vision of my parents, like zombies, in the pew with me, a legacy of faith--something like that. I couldn't sing. Out came tears.

It's the fourth one that still has me baffled.  It's a story on NPR.  You can read it--or hear it--here. It's got nothing to do with manger scenes, no "Silent Nights," and no nostalgia.  It's nothing more a bunch of Toronto-ites who get together to sing at some bar.  Trust me--they're not Cantus or Chanticleer, the Dale Warland Singers or the Dordt College Choir. They're just a bunch of strangers who get their kicks by making music. Had me sobbing--I swear.  

They honestly don't know what they're doing. They're not trained musicians and have no musical degrees, but they direct, they arrange, they harmonize, and, good night, they sing. It's like group karaoke maybe, but infinitely better. They make music--sort of. And they couldn't be happier.

It's just plain sweet, a great story, and for whatever reason it tugged the heck out of my heart strings.  No, I'm not going to start an ad hoc choir in Alton, Iowa; but the whole story, strangely enough, turned me inside out.

Today, it's the day after Christmas, always a downer, the waiting over.  I know it's not supposed to be over because advent is all about waiting for Him to come again, and there's epiphany and all too.  Sure, I get that. I'm not supposed to be depressed, so I'll work at it.

And maybe it's a hair early for New Year's resolutions, which I never make anyway.  But maybe this year'll be different. Maybe this year I'll toss the red pens I've been packing in my holsters for all these years and work at peace instead. 

Maybe I'll just sing.  I'll work at it.  Maybe I'll even start packing Kleenex.  


Anyway, you got to love those kids in that Toronto bar, or am I just losin' it? 

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Christmas on the Floyd

It's been there since summer, since we started taking constitutionals through the woods in the park along the river.  You could walk by it and not see it--it's simply that far off the beaten path.  I'm not sure how long it's been out there in the middle of nowhere, but we've been here six months--and so has it.

For a long time, my wife wasn't thrilled about my walking up to it. If it belonged to some hermit troll, she had no desire to meet him or her. So we left it alone, walking past, always wondering who on earth was doing what out there.  Someone gathered wood for a fire--you could see that; but whether anyone was sleeping in that thing wasn't clear from a distance.  And we kept our distance.

So it grew to be a myth, a mystery, the beginnings of a sorry tale we'd create. And what we settled on--or at least I did--was one of two stark possibilities: sex or death.  (I'm sorry--I want my stories marketable.)  It was kids from the college down the road who'd come out here to make madcap love au natural. Or else--drum roll, drum roll--someone was dead inside.  Who, what, when, where, why?

With the first snow, it became clear no one frequented it--there were no tracks and shallow snow filled the front.  There could be no gremlin, no troll, no hermit, no terrorist, no mad gunman--and no wild lovers either.  For no understandable reason, someone had just left a red tent standing in the middle of the woods.  

Still, when we walk by it, I make up stories.  Who would stay out there? why?  It's a mess--the only thing inside is a rotting blanket.  No one keeps the place up.  No one cares.  Even the deer and squirrels and rabbits must think it strange.  It's trash, just a shame.

Yesterday, Christmas Eve, in the bleak mid-winter, we walked by again.  There it sits, abandoned, snowy, unvisited, an eyesore.  

Really, it's like most barns around here, big old things no one cares for anymore.  They've lost their role, their calling, and many are skeletal, in rabid disrepair.  We've got one in the backyard that looks great from the outside, but the inside is hardly a place for a kid or a dog. Mice maybe.  Maybe a rat.

We were walking past that abandoned tent yesterday when it struck me, once again, how insanely God almighty planned this whole thing.  His son, the Lord of heaven and earth, didn't come in a stretch limo; he was born in a barn, an abandoned tent, a freakish, lean-to stable.  Who on earth honestly gave two hoots about what went on in, literally, a shitty corner of town that night?  No one.

He could just as well have been born in that abandoned tent in the middle of the woods, I thought, a king in a manger.  

There's an unwed mother in the tale, but the sex isn't wild--it's angelic. There's death too, inevitable, excruciating death that baby understood far better than anyone else bringing him homage there in dim light of the stable.

There in the woods, in an abandoned tent, I could somehow see him born, in the night, in sub-zero temps, in the snow beside a frozen river--a baby, the Christ child, Immanuel, God with us.

Honestly, you couldn't make that up.

But it happened.  We still keep our distance, but He doesn't and wouldn't--thank God. 

That's the story early this Christmas morning along the Floyd.

Monday, December 24, 2012

The Cross and the Elephant

A few of angry moderate Republicans in Woodbury County, Iowa, sounded off in yesterday's Sioux City Journal, making clear how much they resented the takeover of the local Republican party by those they consider evangelical radicals. That story is, of course, far bigger than what happens where the Missouri meets the Floyd and the Big Sioux. It's huge. And that story is--or so it seems after the election--a major problem for the Republicans.

Should Republicans continue to bow to the religious right? If the answer is "no," Republicans lose because Christian fundamentalists hold massive power in the party and are, in fact, its very engine. Without them, Republicans are toast.

With them, however, they are too. Doubt that? Romney, reportedly, is still shell-shocked by his demeaning second place finish, as are those millions who absolutely hate Obama, for whatever reason. But the forces that believe Roe v. Wade and gay marriage are the only issues worth considering are simply not a majority culture--and, if Pew Research is right, they won't be in the future either, not with the sharp rise of the "nones," people who simply opt out of church altogether.  The religious right, in national elections, are going to be losers too, until they take over the government, which isn't likely any day soon.

A preacher in a Sioux City mega-church, whose congregants have apparently taken over the Woodbury County's  Republican party, really doesn't give a hoot about Republicans anyway.  He's quoted this way:  "I push principles. I am not a big fan of the Republican Party. I'm really annoyed with them, frankly."

If he's at the heart of the engine presently running the Republican factory, there's trouble in quality control.  His reason for political involvement with the party at all is because, as he puts it, the Republican Party "very much lines up with the biblical worldview."

Emphasis on the. Clearly, it's his way or the highway. He's really not into teamwork or politics, which still is, as it always has been, the art of compromise  In a way, it would be wonderful if there was only one "biblical worldview," but if that were true I'm guessing those of us who are professing Christians wouldn't so much be worshiping God as bowing to a political platform. And what exactly makes him think that he alone has the patent on Truth?

How it all works out--in Woodbury County, as well as America in general--will be a story all right, a story that affects all of us, maybe especially those of us who are believing Christians.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Sunday Morning Meds--Light to the Eyes

“. . .the commands of the Lord are radiant, 
giving light to the eyes” Psalm 19

You can see better.  That’s the essence here, really—the way of the righteous gives light to the eyes.  What David is selling here is the idea that following God’s ways has unique advantages over any and all other worldviews, and now he comes back to the very feature with which he began the psalm—believers, he claims, simply see better.

I buy it, but reluctantly.  Witness John Winthrop.

In his journal for July 5, 1632, Massachusetts Bay Colony’s first governor records a remarkable incident.  In Watertown, he says, “in the view of divers witnesses,” a lowly mouse did battle with a vile snake, and, “after a long fight, the mouse prevailed.”  Amazing.  And there were, be sure to note, “divers witnesses.”

Governor Winthrop, like most of our Puritan ancestors, cannot stop himself from further analysis and testimony because what happened was simply too fascinating.  To these devout folks who knew themselves to be children of the Lord, there was meaning in such bizarre moments, and the meaning was frequently quite easily ascertained.  Here’s how Winthrop claims the pastor, the good Reverend Mr. Wilson, interpreted the combat: “. . .the snake was the devil; the mouse was a poor contemptible people, which God had brought hither, which should overcome Satan here, and dispossess him of his kingdom.”
What the pastor laid out and Winthrop recorded was an exercise in typology.  What occurred in Watertown wasn’t simply a battle royale between a mouse and a snake, it was itself a type—a symbol, an analogy (call it what you will) of the great cosmic crusade the Puritans saw themselves waging in the new world’s wilderness.  What they had witnessed—what they had seen with their own eyes—was a symbol of the spiritual warfare between God and Satan they knew they were living through.
I like that.  I like the fact that in the vision of the Puritans, ordinary things, natural things, looked different.  Life offered riddles, events that needed to be understood and translated for their spiritual value because, within the Puritan mind, things had meaning.  Life itself was a huge screen on which they could observe their own shadows dance a cosmic opera whose plot line they knew long before the entered the theater.
What David has in mind in verse eight is at least something similar, I think.  The way of the righteous allows us to see the heavens declare God’s glory—it gives light to the eyes.  The whole world looks different to believers.  I’m convinced that’s true.  A dawn isn’t just a dawn, and a rose isn’t just a rose.  Life looks different to believers.

But that doesn’t mean that our translations, our symbolism, our readings of the events can’t be wrong.  We may well see things differently, but we’re still capable of falling pray to optical illusions.
It would take another two generations, and the reasons were many, but the same kind of typological thinking—we are the Lord’s chosen people, and those snakes who oppose us are demons—would generate the frenzy that led to the hanging of those accused of witchcraft—all done in God’s name and with, seemingly, His blessing.

David’s enthusiasm here is for a rich and wonderful truth: God’s ways bring light to the eyes.  Things have meaning. 

That doesn’t mean I don’t need glasses.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

King of the sorry hill

There can be only one motivation for the ethic Wayne LaPierre laid out on behalf of the NRA yesterday, and that is the deep-seeded fear that someone, someday is going to enter my personal space armed, and if I'm going to take him out before he takes me or my kids, I'm going to have to have clips that give me more firepower than he has.  What we really need in our gun cabinets, he might have said, is personal grenade-launchers or armed drones because the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with one that's bigger.  How about a tank in every garage?

Who will that intruder--or those intruders--be? Why criminals.  Or foreign agents. Or domestic Nazis. Or communists.  Or Islamic extremists. Or maybe my neighbors, when Mayan prophecies come to pass and there's no more fresh water in town than the tank I buried in my family bunker.  Then, I'll need an assault rifle--maybe two or three or four--to hold my neighbors off and keep my family alive.  Some might call that paranoia.  Some might call it lunacy.

He never mentioned sport, did he?  It never arose.  Only death arose.

What I don't understand is why anyone should have an instrument of death that allows the shooter to empty eleven bullets into the body of a six-year-old and then turn the gun on his or her classmates without reloading.   

What Mr. LaPierre clearly demonstrated yesterday was that the motivating force beneath the NRA's position is the fear that a gun-toting enemy lurks out there somewhere, a brute whose treachery can be stopped only if I arm myself to the teeth.  Fear.  

I went hunting this fall and loved it. Out here where we now live now, the time may come when I actually shoot a deer, something I certainly never opposed but never really took the time to try. I was born in Wisconsin, where the only passion greater than the Packers is the deer opener. I loved hunting and trapping as a kid, consider my childhood years idyllic for its glorious early morning forays into the wilderness of lakeshore woods and lazy rivers.  

But wherefore this armed obsession?  Other countries have equal shares of mental illness, vile video games, bloody movies. Other countries suffer from a divorce culture. We're not alone in our sins. But no country comes anywhere near the United States of America in gun deaths. When it comes to body count, we're the king of the sorry hill. 

LaPierre's response to the massacre of the innocents at Newtown would have been silly if it wasn't so horrifying. Where would this good guy with a gun stand on the campus of the college where I taught? Which dorm? During a basketball game, would he be stationed in the bleachers?--and if so, if he's in the gym, who's going to hold down the library? Maybe sidearms should be issued during freshmen initiation so everyone packs one. Hand them out with iPads.  

And who's going to protect churches on Sunday mornings? Should every congregation have its own?  Who's going to be at the high school for football games?--should both schools bring their own heat? 

Where should we position him or her during the Sunday School Christmas program, pray tell? At the door?  Which one? They're could come in from anywhere, you know.

We're nuts.  And the reaction from any Republican--save Chris Christie--is less deafening than deplorable. 

I can't believe my neighbors in this county, people who voted the Republican ticket more devotedly than almost any county in America, can countenance the dangerous idiocy of Wayne LaPierre and the NRA.  

What we need is more guns?  We already own half the world's arsenal. 

This morning I wrote Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley and Rep. Steve King, but I can't imagine I'll hear a thing from either of them.  Go to the issues they list on their websites--there's nothing about gun control.  Type the phrase into their search engines. You'll find absolutely nothing, as if Newtown didn't happen.  

You want to know why?  The answer is easy.  They're scared to death of the NRA--you know, the people with guns.  

How's that for irony?

Friday, December 21, 2012

God in schools

I'm a public school grad. I taught in public schools in rural as well as suburban America. My children went to Christian schools, as do my grandchildren, and last year I retired from 37 years in a small, Christian college.  Throughout my life, I've supported Christian education in every possible way, but that doesn't mean that I get snarky about what happens down the block in the public school. The public school is my school too.

And that's why Gov. Huckabee's shot-from-the-hip response to the horror at Newtown was distasteful, an exercise in fear-mongering. No Democratic government or no rogue Supreme Court justice can keep God out of anything--school or horse barn. God takes up residence where he sees fit, period.

What the Huckster meant, of course, is that the horror that Adam L. so madly carried out on Connecticut kindergartners was somehow pre-determined by the law that keeps public school kids from public prayer. Because public school teachers may not force kids to have devotions, a clearly misguided social misfit fills up his mother's assault rifle and. . .well, tragically, everyone knows what happened.  

I don't know where people like Huckabee get the notion that nothing "Christian" ever happens in a public school, but he's dead wrong; and so are all of those doomsday witnesses who look at our lives today and pick out some fictional golden age we all need so badly to return to.  

God is there in public education--trust me.  No, trust Him. I know.  I was there.  I experienced his presence.  No, I couldn't--and wouldn't have wanted to--create a prayer-a-day or whatever. No, we didn't have devotions, and I didn't read a little homily every homeroom.  Didn't happen.  I didn't preach either, but then I didn't preach in a Christian educational setting either. Teaching isn't preaching, but that doesn't mean that my students didn't know that I was a believer.  They did because He's there, and Huckabee is wrong and all he's doing, once again, is making people like my mother believe that the Lord is coming next week because He's mad as a hornet about being locked out of classrooms. You know, once we were a good Christian nation and all of that. . .  

He's wrong, dead wrong.

If anything can be learned from the nightmare at Newtown, it's that pinning the tail on evil isn't a kid's game. Wouldn't it be nice if we could say that Adam L. would not have hoisted that arsenal into his mother's car if his public school teachers had started the morning with prayer?

If the Reverend wants to untangle a really difficult problem, he should take a shot at the question that's been asked throughout history--if He's in control, why did He allow that horror to happen?  That's a question for the ages, and not to be answered in a political platform.

But Huckabee chose the soap box when he should have offered tears. In a situation such as we've all suffered in the last week, I really prefer an maxim from an old preacher named Alexander Carmichael:  "God is most exalted with fewest words."

Thursday, December 20, 2012


I was deceived, but I'm not mad.  I honestly thought Google was being really nice this holiday season. The search page reminds us this morning, with some kind of board game, I figured, to share family togetherness: "Invite the whole family to hang out."  See it?  Isn't that sweet?

Just so happens we were thinking of board games recently, readying ourselves for a first in our family--a long weekend at a yet-to-be-seen cabin, somewhere in the hills in Arkansas, to celebrate our 40th anniversary, which occurred in late June, in memorable mid-summer sweat created by moving our treasured possessions (and a couple tons of other stuff) to this new old house.  

You can't just not celebrate 40 years, so my wife and daughter got us a "vacation rental by owner" place in the hills far away. Soon enough we'll be there, and we'd just been talking about board games--which to take along? could we play Rook? will the kids like charades?--and Google Search opens up this morning with a board game and a thoughtful reminder to "invite the whole family to hang out."  Very sweet, thought I. There's grace in this here machine.

I'm vastly less paranoid than some, but there are times when I wonder about Google, about this whole internet business, and who knows what about me? and how are they using what they know? and whether I'm happy that huge corporations keep electronic files on what kind of coffee I drink and how big my feet are.  You know?

For instance, a couple days ago Huff Post kept showing me this.  

And I don't mean Gabby Douglas. Honestly, I went to Ms. Gabby because now that Tom Tebow is on the bench she's become the latest saint jock and I wanted to read her testimony. And there, just off the sawdust trail, stands some doll peekabooing through the perfectly unkempt blonde locks spilling over her naked shoulders while selling a pair of perfectly opulent breasts.  You know.

What's more, I can't get rid of her.  Honestly.  She's not just there with Gabby, she's all over--fiscal cliff, Hillary Clinton, and whatever silliness Fox and Friends were up to yesterday.  Wherever I go on Huff Post, she's ALWAYS THERE.

Let's just say I went for it. Let's just say I dropped everything, went to Victoria's Secret website and picked up a bra like that, then wrapped it in pink and slipped it under the tree.  No, let's not.

The thing is, I'm old but not dead. She--not Gabby--was a distraction. Wherever I looked there were boobs, for pete's sake.  I couldn't get away from her. Click Religion, Sports, Weird News, Politics, Front Page. . .and there she was/is.  It's a Hitchcock almost, a horror movie.

And I kept hearing Jimmy Carter--you know, "he who looks on woman, etc., etc."  What's more, I'm wondering what blasted demographic I'm in that pitches me this ad so robustly, you might say.  Just "male"?  How about old fart Male? How about old fart Male with woebegone fantasies?  How about Male who occasionally clicks on "wardrobe malfunctions."  Sheesh.  Who am I anyway that I'm blessed with this chick?

I can't get away from her, so I switch computers. Fire up the laptop. Click the desktop's seductions off forever, and switch desks and chairs and computers. Laptop fires up, I go to Huff Post, find the religion page, and click on Ms. Gabby, who's there, ALONE.  Miss Christmas Breasts has left the building.

Drives me nuts.  What I now can't determine is why. I'm the same guy: the laptop is also my computer; my tastes, however sinful, don't change if I'm somewhere on the road. Who's the desktop me that gets blessed with Victoria unSecrets, and why is the laptop-me somehow immune?  

Who knows? But somehow the reason has to be--so saith this Calvinist--my sin. Somehow, it's has to be my sin.

Woe and woe. I swear, she followed me everywhere on that computer.  Far as the curse is found.

And then this morning, Google sweetly reminds me to "invite the whole family to hang out," and I'm thinking that maybe, just maybe, even those marketing sleuths in Silicon Valley are capable of some righteousness. Common grace, you know. 

Check it out. Then click on the line beneath. What you get is "invite the whole family to hang out" all right, but, Google's saying, on-line. And the board game isn't a board game at all--it's a sort of silent movie of the "Red Riding Hood" that has little to do with family togetherness other than the fact that the girl and her grandma emerge from the wolf's distended belly very much alive, thank goodness.  Maybe they exchange presents.  

Alas, this world is not my home.  And no, there'll be no pink bra beneath the tree; but we'll bring along a raft of board games to the hills of Arkansas, where we'll be safe.

Except, I'm told, the place is wired. 

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Finding Something III

An old Schaap story--Grandma's holiday prayers a thousand miles from home.

When she awoke, she heard the kids stirring at the tree, opening presents, arguing, in fact.  She brushed back her hair, pulled on her housecoat and slippers, and opened the door.  It wasn’t quite fully morning, but the kids had all the wrappings off of dozens of presents.  Too many.  It wasn’t pleasant.

She walked into the spacious living room, the blinds over all those windows to the east still closed.
“What’s the deal?” she said.

Tosha said Edmund had taken her Beanie Baby and hid it somewhere and she was mad and she was going to get back at him somehow because it just wasn’t fair and he was a jerk too and he always was.  It was Christmas morning.  Edmund looked at his sister as if she were a dishrag.
She had enough.  “Maybe we ought to go to church,” she told them, out of nowhere at all.  “You and me–maybe the three of us should go to church together this morning.”
“Why?” Tosha said.
“Because it’s Christmas,” she told her.  “Because it’s Christmas and we’re going to celebrate the birth of our Savior.”
“I’m not going,” Edmund said.  “I got these great toys.”
“You’ve got a great Savior,” she told her grandson.
His eyes, blank as clay, hurt her more than a fist because she knew she was speaking a language he didn’t begin to understand.  Their own grandson looked at her as if Jesus were a nobody.  That Jack didn’t see it himself was a blessing.
Edmund shoved his glasses up on his nose.  “Some other time, all right?” he said.  “Look at this, Grandma–Nimbus Racer.”   He held up a electronic game.
She wanted to pray, right there in front of them, but right then, even though the condo was top floor, she was sure there was nothing but thick cement between her and the Lord.  The children didn’t know a thing.  They hadn’t found anything, all right–they hadn’t even looked.
“I think we ought to go,” she said.
“It’s Christmas,” Edmund chirped.  “Why do we got to go to church?”
Her insides felt like that screen saver, turning inside and out again and again, and she realized just then that if she were to open her mouth, there would be no words, only tears–tears that would confuse them.  So she walked to the kitchen, fiddled with the coffee maker, got it going, then went to the west windows.
It was Christmas morning, she reminded herself, and she couldn’t help herself but she wished just then that she were with Jack and the Lord.  There was too much for her to do here, too much hard work and too much sadness, and she couldn’t do it alone.
She took hold of the strings of the blinds and opened them with a few rapid jerks.  Sunlight, Christmas morning sunlight, spilled in like a waterfall, dousing the lights on the tree.  Deliberately, she looked away from Christmas in the condo and over the street beneath them, the past the trees, then across the glaze of water west; and when she raised her eyes to the mountains, in a flash, in a moment, the whole fancy condo seemed to disappear–the Christmas tree behind her, the kitchen, the brewing coffee, everything behind her seemed to vanish, the children’s voices dimmed, her own sharp fears muted in the sheer majesty of what she’d suddenly, almost magically, become witness to; because even though the neighborhood beneath the condo was in shadows, the sun, coming up far behind them, stretched its brilliant glory through the crystal morning air all the way across the Sound to hold those monstrous snow-capped Olympics in its own astonishing splendor.  There they stood–those glorifying mountains–as if forever.  There they stood like might and power.  There they stood, a landscape divinely painted across the darkened world, beaming holiness and majesty in the crystalline dawn of a perfect Christmas morning.
“Oh, my God,” she said, because what she saw was far more than mountain beauty.  He was here, all right, she told herself.  He’s here sure enough.
“What, Grandma?” Tosha said, coming up behind her.  “What do you see?”
She wrapped her arm around her granddaughter.
 “Who’s out there?” Tosha said, on tiptoes.
What could she say?  “Jesus,” her grandma told her.  “He’s always there.”
“Where?” Tosha asked.
She picked up her granddaughter.  “Look at those mountains,” she said.  “Just look at them.”
Tosha leaned her face closer to the window.  “Is he a ghost?” she said.
“No,” she told her, “he’s alive.”
“I don’t see him,” she said.  “I see the mountains and I see the Sound, and there’s a boat out there, but where is Jesus?”  She looked at her grandmother almost painfully.  “Grandma, I want to see Jesus.”
She already had her granddaughter in her arms, so the hug she gave her wasn’t difficult or awkward.  “Amen,” she said, biting her lip, because a prayer she’d never finished were coming to a close maybe, even if it were just for a moment. 
“Let’s just you and me go, Tosha, honey,” Jan said.  “This time, this morning, just let’s you and me go.  I want you to see him too.” 

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Finding Something II

An old Schaap story--Grandma's holiday prayers a thousand miles from home.

And now Jan couldn’t sleep. She lay in a roll-out bed in her daughter’s office, the light from some fancy screen-saver bouncing off the walls because Ellen didn’t have the grace to shut the stupid computer off.  That machine is more important than I am, she told herself when she tried keep out the glimmers.  But she knew Jack would have been proud of her.  In all those years of their daughter’s unfaithfulness to God and the church, Jan had been the one who constantly begged him to give Ellen space.  But Jack was gone now.  Just her bringing it up–going to church–was something he’d have been proud of.
But the screen kept shifting images like something that wouldn’t die.  She hated it, the lit screen that devoured everything good and right in the lives of her own children.  The room was dark, the blinds pulled, and that fiend machine kept turning multi-colored 3-D shapes inside out in some never-ending pattern that seemed to her demonic.  The clock said almost three o’clock when finally she got up, hunted for the plug, and then jerked it.  Didn’t hesitate a minute.  Just jerked it.  Tomorrow she’d plead ignorance, since that was what they thought of her anyway.  Jack would have loved it.
The death of the computer didn’t help.  Ellen would be more upset, she told herself.  Pushing church on them was one thing, but killing computers was a whole new level of sin.  She’d be lucky if they didn’t stick her back on the jet.  At least it was dark in the room, she thought.  At least the walls didn’t jump.  Fanciest condo she’d ever seen in her life, too.  All sorts of pottery things in shapes she didn’t begin to understand.
It was August when she and Jack had prayed, as they did every night at supper–“bless Ellen and Frank and the kids” and usually something else about helping them find the way because, after all they just hadn’t found anything, had they?  It was August, and hot, and Jack had insisted on digging up the concrete around the pole he’d put in so their son Tony could shoot baskets when he was a boy, years ago.  It was too hot, and it was too much work, but Jack loved sweat, considered himself more of a man if he could soak a t-shirt.  They’d prayed for Ellen and Frank after supper, then he’d gone at it again out back, where she saw him an hour later, on his side, not moving.  Their last prayer together, like so many before, had been about Frank and Ellen, had featured them, in fact.  It was as if they’d never stopped praying.
“Lord,” she said, her neck strained from such a huge pillow beneath her head, “Lord, help me find something for them.”  That seemed about right.  “Lord,” she said, but she didn’t know how to put it better.  “Lord,” she said once again, “crack their skulls, okay?–I don’t mean it really, but stop them in their tracks.  Sink the boat maybe–sink Microsoft, okay?  Because there’s nothing here, I’m afraid.  There’s just nothing here.  Something’s got to break–I love them too much, and I love my grandchildren.”  In the middle of that prayer, she imagined those kids in a darling Christmas Eve pageant, two sweet kids saying things like “Mary pondered all these things in her heart,” Tosha with a little skirt, Edmund in a sweater over a white shirt or something.  There were churches all over Seattle–hundreds of them just waiting for families just like theirs.  Thousands of churches.  “You can lead a horse to water, Lord, but show them you’re here, okay?  Make it so that everywhere they look they see Jesus.”
She hadn’t even thought of saying that, but when the words ran back through her mind, she liked it–the idea of seeing Jesus in everything, as if the world was a canvas holding the outline of Jesus’ face, as if the whole world was the Shroud of Turin.  “Make them see you, Lord,” she said, “because in this palace of theirs--” she said, “well, I just don’t know if you’re here.”
She didn’t end the prayer.  The petitions just sort of fell into silence, like they always did, to be picked up again next time–same chapter and verse.  Pray without ceasing the Bible said.  That’s what it was all right, she thought. 

Tomorrow:  Christmas morning

Monday, December 17, 2012

Finding Something I

An old Schaap story for Christmas--  
Grandma's holiday prayers a thousand miles from home.

~  *  ~  *  ~  *  ~

“We’ve not found anything, Mom.”

That’s what Ellen had told her, and how many times hadn’t her daughter said exactly that when she had asked the question?  “We’ve not found anything, Mom”–a reply which Jan might have felt hopeful if the words weren’t twisted in the same way every time Ellen said them.  “We’ve not found anything, Mom.”  Emphasis on found, as if to say, “end of discussion.”  That answer always came packaged in a deadbeat tone that carried too much finality, and Jan knew–aren’t mothers supposed to know?–that Ellen wasn’t really looking at all.
So she’d tried once again, Christmas Eve.  “Have you found a suitable church?” 

The two of them were about to go to bed.  She’d come for the holidays.  She’d not looked forward to a long plane ride to Seattle, alone, now that Jack had gone.  She’d not looked forward to the trip itself, but she’d crossed the days off the calendar because she wanted so badly to see her kids, her smart kids who were making so much money in computers–Microsoft this, Microsoft that.  She’d never been to their new place, a flashy condo with windows for walls.  But she couldn’t help asking again, as if the topic had never come up before–“Have you found a suitable church?”
“We’ve not found anything, Mom,” her daughter said, in a computer voice.  And then Ellen gave her a smile Jan knew was condescending because, after all, she was “Grandma” and the two of them, her son-in-law and daughter, were big shots–corporate jet, power lunch, lots of travel.  Ellen and Frank were cutting edge, and her mother was an old oak buffet from Iowa.
She wanted to tell her daughter that the two of them weren’t going to find a church if they sat on their hams or slept in to catch up from work weeks that had them gone more than home, their kids hostage to some pre-school with a big cheery sign with multi-colored balloons. 
“Have you been looking, Ellen?” she’d asked her daughter.
They were wrapping presents.  It was Christmas Eve, mind you, and they were still wrapping the kids’ Christmas presents.  Frank was in his office–they each had one in the big condo–and the kids were off to bed. 
“We’ve looked,” she said, fitting a corner on a whole box of electronic games.  “We keep telling ourselves we’ve got to slow down,” Ellen told her.  “We got to smell the roses, you know?  Last summer we were out on the boat only once.”
“Whose fault is that?” Jan said.
“Ours, of course,” Ellen told her.
“Are you still in love?” Jan said.
“Mom!” Ellen scolded.
“I’m serious,” she’d said, curling the ribbons across the top of Tosha’s new Barbie.
“Look, Mom–we’re all right, okay?  I’ve never stopped thinking that there’s a God–I’m no infidel.”  After that first insipid smile, Ellen never once looked up, which Jan had read as a good sign, since there was some guilt there anyway.
“Maybe we ought to go tomorrow,” she said. 
Ellen dropped her shoulders. 
“I’m just suggesting–“
“I’m 34 years old, Mom,” Ellen told her.
“I brought you into this world,” she said.  “I know exactly how old you are.”  She flitted with the ribbons, put the gift under the tree, and sat back on her haunches.  “I’m serious.  I saw this church–“
”You just got here–“
”I saw this church on the way in–not big either.  ‘10:45' it said, ‘Christmas Service.’” She looked directly at her rich daughter.  “You and me and the kids?  Frank is your responsibility, not mine.”
Ellen rolled her eyes, threw her bangs back out of her face.  She looked down at her fingers, pushed back her cuticles, breathed audibly.  “Let me think about it, okay?” she said, grudgingly.  “If that’s the way you have to have it, let me think about it.”

[Tomorrow: Jan's hurts mount.]