Morning Thanks

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

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

An old year's meditation--the death of the ancients

The ones we talk about are the ones whose stories leave us in awe by nature of their sheer stubbornness--the man whose wife paid daily visits for years even though he never had a clue she was there or even who she was; the woman whose powerful heart simply won't stop beating. We use those stories to measure ourselves. They make us pause to shake our heads in awe.

Nebraska, the movie, features an ancient who gets a third-class mailing from some Publishers Clearing House come-on and simply won't be persuaded he has not won a million dollars. Nobody can talk him out of it, so he determines to walk all the way from Billings, Montana, to Lincoln, Nebraska, to pick up that cash. You can't help but love him, even though he's obviously running on an eighth of a tank. When his ne'er-do-well son decides to go with him, we've got a real story, a wonderful story.

In Raymond Carver's "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," a long night of boozing ends when one of the revelers finally brings up a story of an old man in a full body cast who found peace only when he was turned in such a way that he could finally, once again, see his ancient wife, because simply being able to see her in her own full body cast was enough to settle his anxiety. In Carver's story, that story sobers up even the most wasted.

Last night my wife announced that yet another relative of hers had been put into hospice care and was not expected to live much longer. That makes three as of late--two uncles and now an aunt, not to mention, of course, my own mother. But all of them made a different kind of departure, one that took them out of this world in something close to a twinkling of an eye. 

Today, friends of ours will bury a 90-year-old mother who sat there in church on Christmas Day, suffered a heart attack the day after, and was gone so quickly that my father-in-law didn't even know it, even though he and that dear old woman got picked up for church together every Sunday and lived in the very same home. Maybe I'm just callous, but I couldn't help thinking again, what a blessing she was given.

A couple years ago already, an old man was pulled out of a gravel pit by authorities after his body was found, face down, in shallow waters, his fishing pole beside him. He'd had a heart attack right there in his chair, probably stood and then pitched forward into water so shallow you'd hardly soak a knee. When my father-in-law told the me that story, he wore a smile. You could do worse than go while fishing was what he was saying between the lines.

Not long ago, another resident went back to the home place to ride along with his son during a bin-buster harvest. He got into the tractor cab, rode for a while, but the hum of machinery finally got to him, the warmth inside a blessed comfort. When his son tried to wake him, he couldn't--the old man was gone. If I know my father-in-law, he found that story a blessing too.

It's over now, but for a couple weeks after my mother's death, I felt almost dishonest taking people's truly heartfelt condolences. They'd look imploringly into your eyes, their faces in full distress, and say something like "I am so sorry." 

I wasn't. Not really. At just about 95 years old, Mom left without suffering. Not all that long before she went, she told her granddaughter she spotted her husband in the room.  I like that.

We're living so much longer these days. One of my grandpas never made it 70, and nobody thought it a shame; in 1956, he was an old codger. The other grandpa died at 76. Early on cold December mornings, when I walk across our new wood floor in my houseslippers, I hear him--that slow swish, swish, swish returning in my memory of an ancient, slow-footed old codger with errant hairs sprouting hither and yon around his chin. Won't be long and I'll be his age.

My father-in-law will soon lose his third in-law in just a few months. Can't be fun, just can't be. But he claims, as my mother did, that it's not death that scares him--it's how he'll go. I understand. He doesn't want to suffer, and doesn't want us to either. To a Christian, Flannery O'Connor used to say in defense of her often violent stories, death wasn't necessarily a bad thing at all. Praise God for those who, like Mom, leave almost like Elijah, in a sweet chariot of fire.

We may not talk much about 'em, may not measure our own lives by their persistance in suffering, but most all of us really and truly want to be like 'em.  

Lord Jesus, Calvin was fond of saying, come quickly.  

Monday, December 30, 2013

A story few tell

“Depression times made return to Zuni unlikely,” Casey Kuipers wrote on papers he typed for job applications, “so after schooling was finished, [I] obtained government positions for five years with the Bureau of Indian Affairs.” Kuipers and the family left Albuquerque for Denver for most of those years. 

Casey Kuipers, who was born at the turn of the 20th century in Orange City, Iowa, a missionary/pastor, wrote three novels in no more than five years while "surviving" and Great Depression (his description) with his wife and three children. He received his masters degree in 1934, by way of researching racial bias in intelligence testing, then, like millions of other unemployed Americans, took a job with the government.

One of the many programs designed by New Deal researchers during the mid-30s was titled “The Indian Reorganization Act,” a program designed to reinvigorate life on American reservations, rather than continue the failed legacy of the Dawes Act (1888), which had privatized land holdings on reservations and failed to accomplish any of its goals, while deeding even more Native land to white homesteaders.

President Franklin Roosevelt signed what is often referred to today as “the Indian New Deal” in June of 1934, at the time Kuipers' first novel, Deep Snow, was published. How Kuipers notes the positions he held from 1934 to 1939 in his own vitae--“Statistical assignments with TC-BIA Dept of Agri. Technical Cooperation BIA”--requires some historical background.

Designed to enhance opportunities for Native people on reservations, the “Indian New Deal” hired anthropologists to team with scientists, agronomists, economists, and others to try to determine how significant change in reservation environments would alter Native life and cultures. In the American Southwest, the "TC-BIA" attempted to undertake good water and land management on the reservations, but at the same time tried to be sure that change did not harm Native cultures.

Which is, of course, impossible. Building reservoirs, for instance, might well insure sufficent water supply for Zuni sheep, but adequate annual supply of water would disrupt religious rituals, like rain dances, that had been the soul of religious life in the pueblo for six centuries.  Furthermore, strenghthening Zuni shepherds was not something their Anglo neighbors relished. "TC-BIA" attempted balancing acts that were difficult, to say the least.

That's what Casey Kuipers was doing when his novels were published, trying to determine how much harm could be done to Native life to achieve something beneficial, and that's the experience only research can unpack from his pithy account of what he did during those years: “Statistical assignments with TC-BIA Dept of Agri. Technical Cooperation BIA." Kuipers himseslf is long gone, of course, and it's doubtful anyone alive remembers; his children were just toddlers.  

It's understandable why Mr. Casey Kuipers would take a position with the TC-BIA for a few years during the Depression. He'd learned to tightrope before when, as a principal in the Zuni Mission School, he'd been walking precariously between the claims of the Christian gospel for all of life and the very real possibility that actual Christian conversion would alter Native lives and tribal existence into something that could look rather grotesque. I believe he understood that the claims of Jesus Christ in the ancient Zuni pueblo were not as clear as they were to legions of good Christian people "back east" who were supporting the mission.  

I say all of that because the New York Times, a few days ago, featured an interesting column by Samuel Freedman that documents the ambiguous role of Christian missions--and Christian mission schools--in Africa. What the wordy title itself suggests (""Mission Schools Opened World to Africans, but Left an Ambiguous Legacy") is that even the explanation of the phenomenon is difficult. While a Christian mission school played a central role in the life of Nelson Mandela and a host of other African leaders, that schooling frequently did not accomplish the goals they set because, or so the argument goes, those schools could not possibly teach kids that they were worthy of God's love, as the Bible says, and not teach them they they worthy of say, political citizenship. 

What Freedman argues and Casey Kuipers' own life and experience suggests is that mission schools--and mission itself--frequently succeeded beyond the limits of their own dreams. And yet didn't.

Dr. Charles Eastman's life is well-documented, but worth remembering this morning because 123 years ago this very morning he practiced medicine frantically in the Pine Ridge mission church where the survivors of the Wounded Knee Massacre were brought when finally the firing and killing ceased. Eastman was a Santee Sioux from eastern South Dakota, a Dartmouth graduate, a medical doctor, the recipient of a mission school education. It seems a blessing from God that Big Foot's people--wounded, some dying--could look up into the face of a Native doctor. His education was a true blessing.

But Eastman's life too often encountered real disasters as he himself attempted to determine an answer to the question of his own identity. You can read that story anywhere, and you can feel the same problems in Mandela's own summation of why he left the mission school he'd once looked upon as "Oxford and Cambridge, Harvard and Yale, all rolled into one," when he began to feel, as he said, "in an unpleasant state of limbo."

There is ever more to say on the subject, as the very wordiness of the title of Freedman's thoughtful article illustrates. It's a remarkable story, really, and, these days especially, no one is telling it--for understandable reasons. Christians don't want to know the truth, but neither do secularists because Nelson Mandela wouldn't be Nelson Mandela without his mission school education.

I'm thinking that Casey Kuipers, born right here in Orange City, Iowa, understood that more fully than he could let on.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Little Shepherd--A Christmas story for children

VIII. Jesse at Bethlehem

The hills seemed to fall away beneath him, little more than the smooth surface of the sea. He ran when he could, slowed to get his breath when he had to, climbed the hills like a goat, and streamed down the other side as if he were aboard a wave, the wind at his back.

In his mind, he’d hidden away the map his brother had drawn in the sand, so he knew exactly where to go.

When he arrived, he slipped his arms out of his rucksack, wondering how one entered the palace of a king, even if the palace was a stable. The doors were closed. Was he supposed to knock? Should he remove his sandals?

He licked his hand and pushed back the hair from his face, tried to look clean, not just a lowly shepherd boy from the hills. There he stood, at the door, listening for anything, even the cry of this baby, the King. Nothing. No sound at all.

He looked around. Bethlehem was moving along as if nothing at all had happened, merchants already opening their shops, mothers milling about choosing what they needed for the day. There were children playing behind him in the streets, and old men in gray beards sat on benches, leaning on their canes, pointing into the hills from which he’d come.

He knocked on the loose barn door, first politely, then with the heel of his hand. “Bang, bang, bang”—the pounding couldn’t have been mistaken. He waited.

His brother’s face had changed after what he’d seen in the stable. He himself had seen the angels, heard them, their voices still ringing—“Be not afraid,” they chanted, over and over, so he lifted the latch slowly, an inch or so, then waited.

Still no sound from within. He stood there, the door partially opened, a long shaft of light from the crack he’d made running along the floor. No one there. He opened the door wider and light fell in all around and behind him. Nothing but a manger in the very center of the stable, an empty manger. No one was there.

Up from the emptiness of his heart just then flowed something so huge he couldn’t breathe, a murky cloud of sadness came up and squeezed and squeezed until he knew the tears were wrung from his own broken heart. No child who’d become a mother. No angels. No king. No savior. The manger stood alone in the center of the stable, clean and bright in the broad wave of light from the door outside.

“He is not here, but he is not gone,” a voice said, a voice from the silhouette at the door behind him. “Don’t be afraid—he is safe, he is a child, and he is a king. But he is not here.”

“Where have they taken him?” Jesse said quickly, running back toward the door. “My brother sent me here to see the baby, to see the King.”

Against the bright sunlight, the man’s face was guarded and dark. But in a moment, in a flash that came to him like a vision, Jesse knew the man in the bandanna was back. He watched as the stranger took a guarded look up and down the streets outside, then came in and shut the door behind him. The cracks between the slats ran in long lines of sunlight through the stable and over his body.

“You were with me last night,” Jesse said. “You’re not a dream, are you? You were beside me, all the time.”

The man nodded. “I wish you could have seen him,” the stranger told him. “But when King Herod heard of him, his parents thought it best to leave—they’ve gone to Egypt.”

“To Egypt?” Such a thing seemed impossible.

“He is still the King,” the man said. “Fear not.”

“But I wanted to see him—I wanted to see the baby.”

“There will be time,” the man said.

“My brother said it was the best thing he’d ever seen.”

“You will too,” the stranger told him. “I know you will.”

“Not here?”

“Not here, but instead in all his glory. He will return, Jesse,” the man in the bandanna said. “You will see him yourself—I know you will. He will return.”

“Not as a baby.”

“Not as a baby, but never as anything less than King.” He took a deep breath, put a hand out over Jesse’s shoulder. “No go back to the hills—go back to the sheep.”

Still, Jesse had to wipe back tears. “I don’t want to go back—I want to see the King,” Jesse told him. “I want to serve the king.”

“The sheep are his, my son,” the stranger said. “The sheep you love belong to the King. You will serve him as you serve them—as you did last night. When you keep them from wolves and help them mend their broken hearts, you love them, just as he does. They are his, you know.”

Then he bent down and looked into Jesse’s face, his hand still on his shoulder. “You want to know a secret?” he said. “You promise to tell no one, ever, Jesse, and I will tell you something that only you will know.” He used his thumb to wipe back little Jesse’s tears.

“About the baby?” Jesse said.

The stranger nodded. “I tell you the truth, and you will know yourself that it is the truth when, someday in the future, you hear it yourself—the words the King will speak from the his own lips.”

Jesse’s breath was coming in windy gusts. “What is it?” he said through his tears.

“Someday the King will tell the world that he is the good shepherd,” the man told him. “Believe it! The King himself will say he is what you are, what you showed yourself to be just last night when you cared for his sheep. He will say it and you will know.”

“And how will I hear it?” Jesse said.

“You will hear him here,” he said, pointing at his ear, “and here too,” he said, pointing then to his heart.

“And I will see him?”

“Face to face, I swear.” He took his hand off Jesse’s shoulder. “And now it’s time for you to go back to the hills, to the sheep—you hear me? There will be a sign, too. It’s time for you to be what the King wants you to be—a good shepherd.”

“There will be a sign?” Jesse asked.

The man in the bandanna nodded.

“You’re an angel, aren’t you?” Jesse said. “You’re one of those who came to us on the hill, out of the darkness—you’re one of those who sang. You’re one of those who told us to go to the city of David for Christ, the Lord?”

Just like that, the stranger was gone, slipping out somehow, disappearing into the half-darkness of the empty stable.

The hills had never seemed to steep, so high when Jesse returned. He would find it difficult to tell his brother Ezra that no baby lay in the stable, that the King had been stolen away because King Herod wanted to find him. He wished he’d seen the King.

The sun stood up above the hills like a huge, golden shepherd, but the air was cool and light, and while the hike went slowly, he kept hearing again the promises of that angel, the angel who’d brought him through the night, kept hearing those promises, in chorus, just as he’d heard them—as they’d all heard them—when the heavens threw back its curtain of darkness and the heavenly hosts had appeared, glorifying God the glorious night before.

The rucksack was heavy, as if he carried a yearling over his shoulder. He remembered hardly anything of the trip to Bethlehem, but coming back, following the path his brother and friends had taken up the slopes and down seemed drudgery until finally, just a hill away, finally their own flocks began to appear.

And then he saw Boaz, the old grandpa ram who’d awakened him last night. Just as if nothing had happened at all, Boaz started out toward him, gathered his gait into a run, then came galloping down the side of the hill straight toward him, his face up into the wind, and didn’t stop for a moment, but ran right into him, knocking Jesse down the way he loved to do, then stood there beside him, grinning. He was back to his old tricks.

And just at that moment, he saw there beside Boaz that mother who’d lost her lamb last night, the ewe who’d wanted so much to die. Right there with Boaz was the ewe he himself he had tried to comfort, to keep alive.

She was. She’d made it. She was alive. There she stood beside Boaz.

“There will be a sign,” that angel had told him.

When Jesse looked into the eyes of that mom, he knew she was the sign the angel promised because it wasn’t a dream—nothing that happened last night was a dream. That he’d see the King himself was true too. He would hear him speak, and hear him say, the King—and this was his own special secret—that he was, like Jesse, the good shepherd.

Thanks be to God, he told himself. Thanks be to God.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Little Shepherd--a Christmas story for children

VII. Jesse's turn

Little Jesse didn’t hear his brother and the rest of the shepherds return that morning, even though they were singing as they came up the side of the hill, even though they were full to the brim with joy and song, merry as children. Jesse was sleeping. It had been a long night for him on the hills, and once he fell asleep beside that troubled ewe, he didn’t wake until he felt his brother’s toe in his ribs.

Ezra was in no mood to scold him for anything. “I’m so sorry,” Ezra said, looming over his little brother almost mournfully. “I was out of my head last night after the angels came.” He slapped his forehead. “I should not have let you stay with the sheep—that was my job. I should have let you go with the others because what we saw, Jesse, my little brother, what we saw in the city of David was something you and every last human being should have seen.”

“The King?” Jesse said quickly.

“The same—in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”

“Just a baby?”

“And yet a king—and yet to be a king.” He shook his head. It was not to be believed. “You hear me? In a manger, wrapped in scraps, yet to be a King—our King.”

“Praise God,” Jesse said.

Ezra's face was bright red in the morning light, as if he’d been looking into the sun all night long, a smile wide as the Judean hills swarming over his face.

“How did you know it was him?” Jesse said, pulling himself up to his knees.

“The angels were there—the angels, but this time in reverent silence, just as we were—all of us, even his mother, Mary. Just a girl, too, Jesse, not much older than you. The king is the child of a child.”

“And you were there?”

Ezra wiped away the sweat from his forehead. “When we got there, his mother had him in her arms.” His curly hair fell over his shoulders when he shook his head in awe. “There were only rags around, nothing for him because. . .” he couldn’t help but laugh, “. . .because they were in a barn—in a barn, Jesse.”

“And how did you know? It seems impossible—“

“It was just as the angels said.” With his shepherd’s crook he pointed at the sky, now nakedly blue. “Right there, wasn’t it?” he said. “‘Glory to God, glory to God.’”

“How could anyone forget?” Jesse said.

Brother Ezra took a deep breath. “I should not have let you stay. You’re too young—there are things you don’t know yet—you’re just a kid.” His dusty robe danced beneath his long hair when he shrugged his shoulders. “But I wanted so badly to be there at the birth of our King.”

“No, no,” Jesse said, “it was a good thing that I stayed—“

“It was good of you to volunteer," Ezra said, crouching beside him, "but I failed you as a leader and as your brother.” He reached out a hand. “And that’s why I want you to go now, by yourself--go back to Bethlehem, to see for yourself,” he said. “My little brother needs to see the King.”

“Now?” he said. He could hardly find the words. "Just take off running now, really?”

Ezra shook his head. “I'm telling you,” he said, helping him up from the ground. “Go,” he said. “With your own eyes, you must see what the angels wanted us all to see.”

Jesse's heart was hammering. There was so much to tell Ezra—the wolf, the stranger, the ewe who was dying. He looked around and quickly realized that sad mom sheep was no longer beside him. Maybe what had happened had all been a dream. No, it really did happen, he told himself.

“So what one earth were you doing way over here?” Ezra said.

“There was an ewe here,” he said. But it would be too long story, too long. “A baby lamb died, Ezra—and the mother. . .”

Once again he looked around. There was no trace of anything anywhere near. “I was with the mother,” he said. “I was lying here with the mother because the man—“

There was so much to say, but no stories so big the Bethlehem king. “I was here with the mother.” He stopped and stuttered because an explanation seemed impossible. “Here,” he pointed, “because the baby, the little lamb, was already gone.”

The dusty earth around him was thick with tufts of sharp desert grasses, but there was no mother and no baby.

“Just go,” Ezra said. “Go and see what has given all of us such joy. You can tel me later.” He reached into his rucksack and took out some jerky and berries, then bent down, and Jesse felt his brother’s kiss on the top of his head. “To us a child is born, to us a King. Just go."

Friday, December 27, 2013

The Little Shepherd--a Christmas story for children

VI.  What Boaz knew

Once more little Jesse looked around, hoping the bandanna man would be around, at the same time wondering how long it might be before the men returned from town to tell him what great things they’d seen.

Then Boaz turned on a dime and charged him, came up the path at him as if he wanted to knock him off his feet. Instead, he stopped on a dime right in front of Jesse, face-to-face, as if to say that he’d had enough of foolishness. Then he turned around again and trotted off into the darkness just far enough to be seen, lifted his big head and bleated, loud and low and long.

“Don't be so pushy,” Jesse said, and started after him beneath the dark blanket of stars.

Not far either--just down the hill a bit and towards some rocks, but always in the moonlight and never in the shadowy darkness. Jesse stepped along carefully through the sharp grass and stones, wishing he were as nimble as Boaz. Ancient as he was, he was still a sheep. 

 The old ram’s shoulders rocked as he walked. It was clear he was anxious about it, as if Jesse was a burden he just had to carry.

The ewe lay on her side, almost motionless, in a dusty circle where she’d tried to create a bed; and she looked as if she were already dead. When he came up beside her, Jesse knelt down and put his hands on her stomach to be sure she was breathing. What had happened was clear. She had just now had a baby or maybe even two. He looked around to find the lambs, but there was only one, lying there in a puddle of blood and afterbirth, a baby who was, sadly, very dead.

Beneath his hands the ewe’s rib cage moved ever so slightly with her few faint breaths. He’d been around for dozens of births, dozens and dozens, but he’d never seen an ewe quite like this before because there was no terrible bleeding. The lamb had probably been born dead, but it didn’t look as if its mother had suffered. Still, it seemed as if she was dying.

“What must I do?” Jesse said to Boaz, but the old ram simply stared at him—and then at the mother. “I don’t know what to do,” he said. “She doesn’t seem to be in trouble—it’s almost as if she wants to die.'  He looked at the eye.  "Is that it? You just want to give up?" Every last breath from her seemed really like the very last.  "I don't know what to do? Good Lord,” he said, “—I don’t know what to do.”

He got down on his hands and knees and rubbed the mother’s head. He lay his arm around her and felt the slight heaves through her body when she grasped for breath. She wasn’t fighting, he thought. It was almost as if she simply didn’t want to breathe any longer.

He slipped his feet from under him so that his body would be close to hers. Boaz watched him closely as he laid himself there beside her.

“You’re doing it right,” a voice said, a voice he knew right away was the bandanna guy. “Don’t get up. Just stay right there—you’re doing the right thing.”

The man was behind him, but Jesse listened. After all, the guy had been so right before.

“Just stay there—you hear me?” the man said.

He could feel the man's presence behind him, heard his feet come up close, felt him kneel down.

“I don’t know what to do,” Jesse told him. “Her baby is dead—you see her there?”

“Let me take care of that,” the voice said.

“Must have died when she was born, but there’s nothing here that makes it look like it was an terrible delivery—not even much blood.” He held himself close to the ewe. "I don't get it--I don't understand."

“Listen to me,” the man said. “You’re doing the right thing. Stay right there. What that mother needs is you beside her—you hear me? That’s what she needs.”

“What can I do?” Jesse said.

He waited for an answer, waited forever, that ewe's breath coming slower and slower and slower.

“You can bring her peace.”

“I don’t want her to die,” Jesse said. “I want her to live.”

“Whether she lives or dies, you’re doing it right,” the man said. “I’ll take care of everything else, hear me? Just stay with her now, just stay put—all night even.”

“She’s only a sheep," Jesse said.  "But I don't want her to die."

“Every living being needs love,” the man said. “I’ll get this little one out of here. That’ll help.” Jesse could hear him get back to his feet. “stay right there until morning because she needs you—whether she lives or dies, she needs you.”

Just on the other side of the mother, Boaz folded his feet beneath him as if to let Jesse know that hewould keep up the vigil

When he felt her ribs again, it seemed they were barely moving.

“Things are going to be just fine,” little Jesse told her, voice trembling. He’d talked to Boaz before, he told himself—why should he feel it so strange talking to this mom? She felt so weak, so powerless. “Everything is going to be fine,” he said again.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Little Shepherd--a Christmas story for children

V. Yet another midnight visitor

Jesse wished the others had seen the way he’d taken care of that big, ratty wolf. He wished he could tell them, but then, maybe they wouldn’t care right now, after following the angels into town for the baby King in swaddling clothes. Those fierce yellow eyes of the wolf had made him nearly forget where they all were.

If it hadn’t been for the stranger, there would be a very sad story to tell for no matter whether that wolf was alone or in a pack, he certainly would have feasted on a lamb or two, maybe ten, and then left them there, bloody and dying. It would be terrible for his brother to find dead, mangled sheep when they returned, terrible because losing sheep was always bad, but also because the men would brimming with joy. After all, the baby in swaddling clothes was the Messiah.

Real live angels, too. Right in front of them, filling the sky. Hours had passed now, and with every minute it seemed harder to believe that what the angels had proclaimed could be true. He looked up at the sky, at the darkness. He hadn’t forgotten. How could he ever forget?

Those angels must have visited others too, not just stopped for a bunch of farm-boy shepherds—he had to smile to think of the angels breaking the night sky all over Judea, in towns, too, telling them all the wonderful news, singing and glorifying God. Must have been a heavenly concert in town.

He stopped walking and let the silence fill in around him, thinking that if he’d stand perfectly still he could maybe hear the stranger’s footfalls. Nothing. He kept walking until he reached camp, then sat down again beneath the fig tree at the top of the hill, still watching for shadows in the darkness, anything moving.

Thanks be to God, he’d run off that wolf, done the job he’d been left behind to do. There would be that to say anyway when the others returned. But he wouldn't have done it without the bandanna guy.

In the city of David, the whole world would be out in the streets, he thought. Standing room only—the magistrates and their women in best robes, merchants and townspeople, and his own good buddies in their dusty sheepskins. “Be not afraid,” the angels had said. Shepherds were never afraid, not even of wolves, whole packs of them.

He looked out into the darkness then listened for stirring. No sound. He wished the white bandanna guy would show up again because he needed to thank him—for waking him, for helping him face down the wolf. Besides, there was so much to talk about and no one to talk to.

Stones rattled beneath the hooves of some pokey animal coming up the path, but when a snorting blast leaped out of the darkness, Jesse knew it had to be Boaz, the fat old ram who always kept his distance from the flock—Boaz, the proud field general of all the sheep. 

 “Not to worry, old man," Jesse told him. "That big ugly wolf is long gone."  He raised his crook.  "Going to be a long, quiet night now finally," he said.

Boaz took a few sheep steps toward him and nudged at his leg. The first time he’d met Boaz, the old grandfather had flew at him, knocked him down so flat all Jesse saw was thick gray wool. But he had known enough about old rams to understand that you can’t let ‘em get the best of you, so he swung and swatted until the old guy let him up, then turned around and walked away. Ever since that day they’d been buddies, even though Boaz loved to butt him that way, all in play. Jesse dug his fingers into the wool behind the old guy’s ears and scratched, just like always.

“You see ‘em, Boaz?” he asked the old guy. “You see all those angels up there in the sky?”

Boaz nodded his hoary old head, then pulled away quickly.

Jesse wondered what his brother Ezra was finding now, in Bethlehem, in the middle of the night. They’d be looking for a barn—not that there were that many in town. They were looking for a baby wrapped in rags in a manger. . .a King in a manger, he thought. “You ever hear of such a thing, Boaz?” he asked his old friend. “How crazy is that?—a king in a barn, a dirty old stall?"

Boaz snorted. He turned his head and gave Jesse a blank stare as if he hadn’t heard a word.

“Course, you’re a sheep,” Jesse told him. “You know, I wish I were there—shoot, who wouldn’t want to be there? I still want to go,” he said, but somebody had to all of you guys," he told him. The grizzily old wolf had made it clear that big brother wasn’t wrong about someone having to stay behind.

Boaz snorted, then stomped off, stopped, looked around, bleated a couple of times as if answering, then kept going again, halfway into the darkness.

“You got something to show me?” Jesse asked, and Boaz nodded his wooly head, took a few steps farther down the hill, and then turned back again. 

 “You’re wanting me to follow you, aren’t you?” Jesse said.

He caught himself yawning. He could feel sleep creeping back into him once more. Boaz seemed to want to tell him something, to show him something he needed to see.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Little Shepherd--a Christmas story for children

IV. Very Real Danger

It wasn’t long, it seemed, before the man in the bandanna stopped and put out a hand to signal Jesse to stop running. He stood, quiet, still as a statue, looking at the rear quarters of a small flock rustled up from sleep, scared of something, but unaware of little Jesse and the bandanna man behind them. 

He leaned into a crouch and signaled Jesse to do the same—and he did, just an arm’s reach behind him. And that’s when he heard a hushed gurgling coming from the darkness, from behind a spiny oak cut in black silhouette against the night sky. A growl. Sure it was. A wolf. Probably two, maybe more. Wolves always ran in packs.

The stranger crouched  down stock still as the dozen sheep kept budging their way backwards toward them, more and more scared, it seemed, snoots up against each other’s flanks as they surged down the slope in reverse to keep the wolf in front of them.

“Behind the tree,” the man told whispered. “You take him, and I’ll wait to see where the others show up.” He pointed with his own crook.

His brother Ezra had taught him what to do when a wolf came, but he’d never stared one flat in the ugly face, not alone anyway. Jesse pointed with his crook at the tree as if asking where to go, even though he knew.

The stranger nodded and pointed again. “Go on,” he said. "Get the leader--we run him off, the others'll scatter.”

The sheep kept staring at the shadowy oak, all the while backing down the hill toward him.

“Just run?” Jesse asked.

“All you got to do is scare him worse than he scares you,” the man told him, nodding his head once more toward the tree.

The whole world seemed to disappear into the shadow of that single oak tree. The low gurgling growl meandered toward them from somewhere out there, somewhere behind the tree.

“Go on! Go right at him!” the man said.

So Jesse did. He gathered every bit of his courage into the tighest fist he could and took off, circled the flock to the left and ran directly at the tree, crook in hand like a sword, until he came close enough to see him--and there he was, gray and dark and wide across the face with bright and shiny eyes glowing with devil’s glitter. He didn’t move—not a muscle, as if he wasn’t scared one bit. Jesse stopped a crook’s length away so the two of them stood there, staring wildly at each other.

“Just scream!” the man in the bandanna said, yelled, from the other side of the flock. “Swing that thing in your hands and scream!” he said.

But Jesse couldn’t raise his arms, the monster wolf’s eyes glowing like hot embers. The growl grew into something fierce, and the shaggy beast deepened that crouch as if he was about to take a flying leap. Jesse watched his own body dragged to the ground. He felt its razor-sharp teeth in his legs, his shoulders, just as if he were a sheep.

Even lower that wolf crouched, and growled even deeper.

“Run him off!” the man yelled from behind him. “You hear me, Jesse? Run him off!”

Little Jesse took the crook in both hands and pulled it back behind his head. All he could do was do all he could do, and when he swung that stick he swung it with such force that he almost lost his footing before the crook of the stick thudded into the wolf’s ribs and that beast yelped like a puppy, yelped like a puppy and scramed, off into the darkness, limping along on a bum right leg.

“And don’t ever come back either, you hear?” Jesse screamed.

He’d done it. His heart felt huge drum, but a wave of something really sweet came over him. The beast was gone.

When he turned around, he saw the sheep had vanished too, scared off just as the wolf had been. He stood straight, his nerves still flashing through his arms and his hands so wildly that he couldn’t even hold that crook straight. He wiped the sweat from his face with the back of his arm and looked into the darkness. The wolf had vanished.

“There's no pack?” he asked the stranger, without looking back.

There was no reply.

He turned slowly. The sheep were gone, but so was the stranger.  Once more he was all alone on the slope of the hill. He stepped back from around that spiny oak tree where the wolf had crouched, and tried to see once more into the darkness to be sure that it had gone. Then he listened once again to the sounds of nightfall on the broad and hidden hillsides. No sound—nothing at all.

“He’s gone,” he announced as if the stranger were there beside him. “I ran him off. I whacked him with my crook, and he took off.  He was huge—did you see him?”

No one said a word, nothing at all behind him but a bare hillside—no sheep, no stranger.

But he’d bested the wolf, the one he’d faced down. He knew that evil critter was gone—at least for now. He’d been scared silly, but he’d done it. He’d gathered all of his strength and dared a run at that beast, and when he did, he’d saved the sheep.

But he had no idea where they’d gone—or where the stranger was for that matter, the man in the bandanna who had awakened him to all the danger.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Little Shepherd--a Christmas story for children

III. Asleep on the job

The moon, bright and full, turned a cheerful face on the hills where little Jesse sat alone, listening to the voices of the night. Once the angels had closed the night’s door once more and the shepherds were long gone to Bethlehem, the moon’s bright glow opened up over the hills and the scattered flock, hundreds of sheep, hither and yon, bedded down against stony ridges up high, where they believed they could spot their enemies approaching.

Little Jesse had been around the flocks his whole life, long enough to know their only sure defenses were there senses—noses that made them move into the wind, no matter where they were bound; eyes sharp enough to pick out any quick and dangerous movements.

Maybe the choir of angels kept them quiet right then, he thought. He sat, perfectly alone, at the top of the hill where they’d set camp. Above him were a million pinholes in the nightfall.

He turned east to face a dawn that was nowhere close to arriving, and knew at that moment that his brother Ezra and all the others were well on the way to the city of David. They wouldn’t sleep—how could they? And he shouldn’t either—after all, his job was to protect the sheep. He’d offered to stay with the sheep, the one who wouldn’t be find the baby King in swaddling clothes. Even though the others had thanked him, he couldn’t help but feel abandoned and alone.

He thought about making a quick run back to his home to get his baby brother, but Sammy was too little. Or he could leave anyway, go to Bethlehem, trusting that host of angels to keep watch, even though they’d vanished as if they’d never been there at all.

He was alone in the wide Judean hills. He’d been left behind, and he was going to miss the miracle, the biggest miracle of all. Everywhere he looked, the silly sheep snored away as if this night wasn’t the most important night in the history of everything.

Nothing moved in the moonlit darkness. Silence reigned, even if somewhere in town the angels were singing as beautifully as they had right here. He was the lone sentry, and the sentry’s job was to stay awake and stand watch, to be sure that nothing would harm the sheep.

Silence fell over him like a quilt in the cool night air. His eyes grew heavy. He shook himself awake once, twice, three times, but heard nothing anywhere—no sound from the hushed hills. His mind painted images before him—a brand new baby in swaddling clothes, a child bathed in heavenly light, the shepherds all around, falling to their knees in prayer, their joy beyond measure.

The music of the angels still played in his mind, and he saw them again, an entire chorus of shining brilliance--“Glory to God in the highest”--like nothing he’d ever heard or seen before, music so joyful it still made him smile. When it replayed in his mind, he knew it would be stuck there forever.

He jumped awake quickly when he realized he’d almost fallen asleep once again, the hillside so quiet that his having to be there seemed silly. Who cared about sheep when the King had been born? Really, he wasn’t needed here. He sat back, spread his legs out to lie down, and soon enough let himself go, fell asleep with bright ribbons of angel music that kept playing in his soul.

“Jesse, the crook! Grab your crook.”

He rubbed his eyes. A robed man stood with his back to him, looking west, a white bandana around his head. It wasn’t Ezra, wasn’t Brom, wasn’t any of them, but he knew his mind was foggy with sleep. Big shoulders, loud voice—someone who called him by name, someone who knew he’d been napping. “Where?” Jesse said. “What’s happening?”

“Something’s out there—the sheep are moving. I can’t see where, but I can hear it—listen!” the man said.

He tried to shake himself awake. A low rumble rose, a low humming he hadn’t heard before he’d fallen asleep.

“Come with!” the man whispered and pointed to Jesse’s crook, then took off, Jesse behind him, crook in his hand, sandals slapping over the sharp grass on the hillside.

Tomorrow:  The problem.

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Little Shepherd--a children's story for Christmas

II. ". . .but someone has to stay"

Someone had to stay behind, Brother Ezra thought, and he told the shepherds so. “We can’t all go,” he said, still shaking from what they’d all just witnessed. “Bethlehem’s a good hike, you know. Someone has to stay with the sheep.”

The moment Ezra said it, Jesse knew it would be him, the youngest of the whole gang. Just knew it. Couldn’t be anyone else. The others had been with the gang for many summers already—and they were men. He was a kid. He’d be the one left behind.

The others were stunned by what Brother Ezra had announced. “Surely the Lord will watch over the flock,” Brom said, pulling his rucksack over his shoulder. “Surely the angels will keep an eye peeled. You saw 'em. This is the Messiah—the birth of the King!”

Brother Ezra shook his head. “We can’t just leave ‘em,” he said. “We can’t take that chance.”

“Bring them with,” Brother Brom said. “What do you say? Round ‘em up and herd ‘em to Bethlehem, the whole flock—every last one of them—"

Brother Ezra shook his head. “A roundup in this heavy darkness? Man, that baby in swaddling clothes could be starting kindergarten by the time we get there.”

Little Jesse was standing beside the olive tree. “I’ll stay,” he said. “I’m the runt. I don’t want to stay behind—don’t get me wrong,” he told them. “But I think my brother is right—someone has to stay. Blame sheep'll need us. But when you guys get back, I want the whole story, hear?”

The silence made it perfectly clear he’d be the one.

“Bless you, Jesse,” his brother said. “I don’t know if it’s right. . .”

“Just go, Ezra,” Jesse told him. “I can take care of myself—and the sheep. Just get on the road to the stable, the one with the manger.” He shook his head.  "Still can't believe it."

Brom walked up and mussed his hair the way he always did. Hadrian punched his arm, then squeezed his shoulder, and Arie pretended to knight him by laying his crook over Jesse’s shoulder and mumbling something about thanks.

He couldn't help thinking it was one of the best things he’d ever done, but also the worst. What they’d seen that night was a vision he’d never forget, and the command had been clear:—“Go! Go to Bethlehem and see the miracle.” Maybe Brom was right—maybe that legion of angels would watch over the sheep while the others were gone—why wouldn’t they? This was, after all, a very, very special night. No kidding.

The moment the others gathered their things, they seemed to forget Jesse’s gift because as soon as they’d turned their backs they were off, not walking either, but running, flying almost, on their way to Bethlehem. In the pale moonlight, all the way down the hill and up the next he watched them, the whole gang making their own kind of light as they tore along to find this baby Messiah. Their joy carried over the open fields as if they were never more than an arm’s length away.

Jesse sat on his rucksack and stared out into the deep starry sky and over the fields. Here and there, a lamb bleated, most of them bedded down in little cloudy clumps in the moonlit darkness. Lousy sheep, he told himself. He’d become a shepherd because his father was and his brother was and so many were. He loved the sky and the long hills and the stars all around, loved the end of the day—and the beginning too, the glorious light of dawn. All of that he liked.

Right then, for the first time in his life, with all the other shepherds already out of sight and earshot over the next hill and on their way to town, to Bethlehem, he told himself he’d never really liked sheep all that much. They were needy and silly, and tonight—the night of the Messiah—he was just plain stuck with them. While the rest of the shepherds were looking for a saviour, he’d be all alone in the desert hills with nothing but a thousand brainless sheep.

He rubbed the back of his shirt across his face, looked around for the highest spot on the land, and started to climb to get there. Tonight—the most important night in the history of everything—he'd be watch the dopey sheep sleep. He reached up to his eye and quickly wiped away the tear that would have otherwise run down his cheek. He’d never been left behind before, never been left alone in the deep darkness.

He knew volunteering had been the right thing to do, but his heart felt cutin half because in he wanted so much to be with the others, on their way to find the King.

Instead, he was all alone in the Judean hills, just about a million miles from joy.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Sunday Morning Meds--Recital

“you will. . .surround me with songs of deliverance.”

To my mother’s chagrin, I was never as talented as she was when it came to music. She would have loved me—and her daughters—to be able to sit at the piano and create the joy she created right there all through her life.

But for me, no go. She made sure I took lessons for years, but today I can’t plink out much more than “chopsticks.”

Several years ago I wrote a play in commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the college where I teach. Somewhere in early summer of the year before, when I was belly-deep in the writing, I was struck with the notion that this play I was working on should end with a choral anthem titled “O Lord God,” a Russian piece my sister used to sing adoringly, years after she’d left the college choir. 

This one, here sung by the Dordt College choir, in fact.

I loved that anthem, not only because I knew it stayed so tenaciously with my sister, but also because I knew it had also been a favorite of college choirs throughout those fifty years.

But I also loved it because the piece tells a musical story. It begins in deep anxiety and begs the Lord to listen to her prayers, offered with daily diligence. And then, suddenly and remarkably, as if out of nowhere, the music’s trajectory simply soars in thanksgiving: “I will sing to the Lord as long as I live.” A real musician would know how to describe what happens technically, but it doesn’t take a professional to experience that, gloriously, the prayers of the petitioner have been answered.

Because I wanted that music to end the play, I listened to it time and time again when I was writing, so often that today even a novice like me could direct it, I swear.

At the college’s fiftieth anniversary celebrations, the play was staged a half-dozen times. I didn’t attend every performance, but I every time I was there I was moved as deeply as I ever had been at the deliverance story of “O Lord God.”

Many hymns are songs of deliverance, the Christian life beginning, or so it seems to me, in thanksgiving. What happens in Psalm 32 is what happens in the lives of all believers: once we come to know the miracle of grace, once our quaking bones have been delivered from the load of our sins and miseries, once we apprehend the love of God for his creations, we can’t help but sing, even the monotones among us. Grace makes our “chopsticks” sound like John Sebastian Bach. Really, all our greatest hits are songs of deliverance.

I sat there in the blessedly darkened theater and cried three times, every time the play ended, cried at the incomprehensible clarity of music, something that can’t be explained really, but certainly can be experienced. I’d try to tell you what exactly it is that the music adores, but I can’t. There are no words. The only way to hear it —and understand it—is music.

That’s why verse seven of Psalm 32 is such a wonderful line. David makes a perfectly understandable claim here. The story of his life isn’t over, but the victory has been won. He’s sinned, he’s confessed, and he’s been forgiven.

“You are my hiding place,” he says, my comfort and my joy; you are my habitation; you are where I live. And you surround me—as if this whole world were the superb salesroom of some eternal electronics store—you surround me with songs of deliverance. Not stories—songs.

Wonderful. Let the music begin.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Little Shepherd--a children's story for Christmas

1. Multitudes of angels
 And there were, that night, shepherds in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks, when suddenly huge waterfalls of light flooded the darkness a cave set jarringly open by a legion of heavenly hosts.

But just before, that holy night was like any other.  The shepherds kept one eye peeled on their flocks, the other up and into an inky black night inlaid with a gadzillion stars.

Ezra, the boss, was running through assignments just then—who would be the camp tender and who would be herders or lambers in the next few days.  But to say that Brother Ezra spotted what happened first that night would be dead wrong because when that choir of angels appeared on the broad black stage, no one could have missed them.  No one did.  In fact, just a few minutes after the angels had gone away, not one of them could even remember exactly where they came from or how they even appeared.  Suddenly—whoosh!--there they were, outfitted in wings glowing as if the midday sun had risen just behind them.  

Whoosh!—just like that.

No boom, no charge, just a bath of sparkling brightness.  For a moment little Jesse thought he might have died and gone to heaven.  When he shielded his eyes, he realized he had tumbled to the ground—all of them had; and there they sat, sprawled out as if some monster wind had knocked them all off their pins.   The sheer firepower of all those angels made the desert hills shine, night to day.  Stunning is what it was, even before those angels spoke, even before they sang.  Just stunning.

Little Jesse put an elbow beneath him—the sky was like nothing he’d ever seen.  And when the voices came, the words hummed beautifully like some lovely lullaby line.  “Don’t be afraid,” they said.

Just once.  Just once, and the music of those words reached into their hearts to calm every last jerking muscle and high-wire nerve in their bodies.  That’s the way they talked about it later—as if the very words of the angels awakened such joy in their hearts, joy they hadn’t even known was there at all, joy that spread over the hills of Judea with the miraculous and brilliant angelic spectacle. 

“Incredible news,” the single triumphant voice of the angels told them.  “Big news, but it’s not just for us or for you guys but for all people,” and then they said it again, “—for all people.  For everyone.”

That booming music erased every doubt they could have had and nearly stole away their minds. There they sat, each of them, bowled over, blind as bats in the astonishing radiance.  “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.

Not one of those shepherds doubted.  There was no question.  They should look for a sign, the angels said, a sign they couldn’t help but chuckle about just a few minutes later as they picked up their things for the trip.  “You will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes,” the angels had told them, “and lying in a manger.

“A savior—the Messiah!”  Old Hadrian had said, eyes starlight bright.  “Honest to God, it’s the Messiah!”  He shook his hoary head, delirious.  “And we’ll find him in a barn?”  He raised both his hands nonsensically.  “Glory be,” he said.  And then again, “Glory be.  Thanks be to God!”

The hills above town turned inky dark again once those angels left, but no one doubted what they’d seen because all of them had felt something pour like honey into their hearts.  In ten minutes, no more, they had packed their things and were ready to go to the city of David to find this baby in swaddling clothes, whatever that was.  

Monday:  Who will guard the sheep? 

Friday, December 20, 2013

Those who leave and those who don't

All four of my grandparents were religious loyal Catholics, as were all their children. All four of my wife’s grandparents were also Catholic as were all their children. All my and my wife’s cousins and brothers and sisters Catholic (about 30 of us). Our sons were active in Catholic Boy Scouts, attended Catholic grade and high schools (and even colleges) and we were very active in the parish.
Next generation of children, nieces and nephews, numbering in excess of 100–zero practicing Catholics.
This stinging scorecard is a response to a short, poignant essay by Rod Dreher in The American Conservative, something titled "Kids in the Collapse of Catholic Culture," but you can read similar sentiments elsewhere too. Here, for instance, in another touching essay referred to in Dryher's sad essay, or here in a similar piece by Martin Marty in Sightings.

All lament the passing of a wealth of practices that once made up ordinary religious life, including church-going.  All painfully document what is no more and open up the pain of rearing children who choose values unlike those most precious to their parents.

I grew up with what some claimed was a theological insurance policy called "covenant theology," the firm belief that God's promises to Abraham extended to our children. That's why we baptized them as tiny infants, after all. Covenant theology was the foundation of the Christian education my parents treasured so deeply they alienated those who didn't hold a similar views, even members of the family. Christian schools were for "covenant children," the children of believers. They weren't missions, after all; they were schools.

Covenant theology insisted that children born to professed believers would never lose that branded faith.

Unless they were "covenant breakers," of course, the fine print in the contract. There were those who didn't share their parents' faith, of course. Why not?--because those sinners chose to walk away, the one really obvious way in which God let his sovereignty slip and allowed us free will: we could opt out of the covenant but we did so at our risk.

I'm no theologian, and what I know of the infinite ways of God is that they are forever his and not mine to know or understand or certainly to use as weapons. I don't know much about Roman Catholic culture either, certainly the dedicated kind Sidney Callahan describes in her sad description of Callahan family life.

But I recognize pain when I see it, and I'm sure every last faith community suffers similarly. I have a Book of the Mormon given to me by students who left a note explaining how they hoped my reading would inspire me to become part of their fellowship. Not long ago, on Facebook, when I reminded one of them of her well-meant gift, she said she'd left the LDS.

My father used to lament the collapse of Christian culture. "Where are the men like Johnny Luteyn?" I remember him saying, as if the lack of verifiable saints created a spiritual wasteland in Oostburg, Wisconsin. I'd never knew Johnny Luteyn, but even then I told myself that my father was walking, talking proof that faith wasn't dead in the neighborhood.

That half of those men and women who've graduated from Dordt College are not Christian Reformed, the fellowship that created the institution, might well be shocking to some, sad to others, especially when one considers that for at least half of its history, almost the only students to enroll were CRC. But that doesn't mean there is an end to faith.

There are more "nones" today than there was yesterday, and they're of all colors and shapes and sizes--CRC and Roman Catholic. But I'm sticking with covenant theology and its worn arguments, the faith of our fathers and mothers. It's where I'm investing my faith.

Times change, and so do we. What doesn't is our need of a Savior.

Nor does he change, that redeemer, born in a backyard stable, someone's little town barn, a shed with a manger, a couple sheep and an ox or two. Maybe cats.

That ramshackle hovel in Bethlehem should be a monument, shouldn't it? Probably centuries ago already, its rotting slats were already used for firewood.

But the baby is still with us, and we with Him. Praise the Lord.

Thursday, December 19, 2013


What it left behind is a historical record of its own making strung so thick on some overhanging branches that what remains seems like rogue kudzu this far north in ice and snow, or maybe the handiwork of some horrifying variety of tent caterpillars whose DNA got tampered with. Right here, for instance, this shawl of detritus marks water level so far above the river that last May's flood is almost beyond imagination.  Look for yourself.  

On Memorial Day, 2013, the Floyd River rose thirteen feet above flood stage, as if some demonic, unseen force told it to take up its bed and walk. When it did, it left behind thousands of telling tufts of brome grass it had swept away somewhere upstream.

They're everywhere. You come up on them in the woods, hanging from branches like this, like scalps from ancient warfare, bundles of weeds wound so tightly that even gusty prairie winds can't untangle them. They resemble the shrunken heads of enemies mounted on posts outside castle fortifications. 

They're foreign. They shouldn't be here, their bushyness bears no resemblance to the cottonwoods all around. They're aliens, remnants of water levels so high that nothing will move them save time itself. Passing seasons, I suppose, will wear away their tenacity, untangle them finally.

But I don't look for that to happen soon. They'll be here for a while. That flood reupholstered the landscape where I walk, erased trails, felled trees, and, on the south edge of the land within the big loop the Floyd makes just south and west of our place, added a spongy foot of tundra, deep as a mattress by way of a corn stubble tsunami swept from farmland upstream. It changed things.

And it left these scars hanging Absalom-like from trees on the banks, nature's way of remembering, of bearing witness to what was and what will, in all likelihood, be again. For a while at least, we'll see them all over, ghastly adornments of detritus, like the remarkable unkept hair of witches. 

But you can't not look. They're story-tellers, all of them, bearing silent witness.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013


You've got time, you know, when you're retired, so I bought a craigslist super-offer Magnavox combo vhs/dvd player from a guy in South Dakota, a real steal, I thought, after failing miserably with a gizmo that was supposed to turn our ancient vhs tapes into dvds, vhs technology being as dead as movie disks these days.  It's a job I can do in retirement, you know.

But my legendary clutziness kept me from operating the Magnavox too, so I called in my son-in-law, who proceeded to get it going in no time flat. When he did, what appeared on the screen was an endless loop of endless shots featuring four-month baby so delightfully boring only a grandparent could love it. Anyone else might take two minutes maybe, but this video really wanted to be a feature film.  It would not end. 

Like I said, you have to be a grandpa. And it has to be the first time.

Or a grandma. Or a mom. Or a dad. Or the baby herself, who's now edging dangerously close to teenagerism and had never seen this display of her babyness before.

There we sat, five of us, watching this ancient, a four-month old pudgy sweetheart on one of those perpetual swings, back and forth, back and forth, the only five people on the face of the earth who could be so totally enchanted. Well, maybe her Opa and Oma too, but they were in California--five human beings staring at a drooling baby on a swing.

Here's what happened. We were sitting there, thus enthralled, smack dab on top of our four-year-old grandson's Lego land. We were in his way, so to speak, and were paying him no mind because of that dumb baby.

All of which seemed totally mysterious to him.  "Who is that?" he said.  Remember, he's four.

"That's your sister," I told him.

That made zero sense.

"Where's Pieter?" he asked, meaning his big brother, who wasn't anywhere near the drawing boards just then, that swinging sister of his soaking up every last bit of her parents' attention--firstborn and all of that. Where was Pieter when his sister was a baby?--he wondered. A very good question.

"Pieter's not around," someone said, barely paying him mind.

Okay, but then, "Where was I?" he said.  Why wasn't he in the film?

That one got our attention but pulled no answers because we were too taken by the kid in the video to explain life and death and human destiny to a four-year-old with his little hands full of Legos.
What he could see was that everyone in the room right then was transfixed by a some salivating baby doing nothing more than holding her head up. Everyone he knows is gone in this goofy film he doesn't begin to understand, the whole room a vault of silence, and nobody's answering his perfectly logical questions, and that baby can't even talk or play Legos. 

"Why are we watching this video?" he announces.

A perfectly understandable question. There's no way in heck he can begin to understand what's happening on his own Lego playing field.  

"Why are we watching this video?" he says.

My wife and I have been laughing about that question for three days.  Nothing made sense right then, nothing at all.

So dear, so darling, because, oh-my-goodness, how oh-so-perfectly human.  

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

God's own songs

Yeah, well, who wouldn't cheer for the Psalms? Just about everybody, which, N. T. Wright says, may well be part of the problem--we just take 'em for granted. 

So that's why he wrote this little book about them--the Psalms that is--to try to renew regard for them in a time when, he says, they're simply being overrun by yours, mine, and everybodys' own brand-new-this-week praise songs. Not singing and praying the psalms is unhealthy, or so goes the argument, except he says more memorably: "By all means write new songs," he says. "Each generation must do that. But to neglect the church’s original hymnbook is, to put it bluntly, crazy."

Or how about this:
The Psalms offer us a way of joining in a chorus of praise and prayer that has been going on for millennia and across all cultures. Not to try to inhabit them, while continuing to invent nonpsalmic “worship” based on our own feelings of the moment, risks being like a spoiled child who, taken to the summit of Table Mountain with the city and the ocean spread out before him, refuses to gaze at the view because he is playing with his Game Boy.
Now N.T. Wright is the kind of thinker who could develop a theology of sump pumps and make it convincing, which could well lead you to believe that this little book, despite its origins, has very little new to say. I mean, honestly, what can anyone say about the psalms that hasn't already been said?
Here's Calvin, for instance:
I have been accustomed to call [the Psalms], I think not inappropriately, “An Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul"; for there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror. Or rather, the Holy Spirit has here drawn to the life all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated. The other parts of Scripture contain the commandments which God enjoined his servants to announce to us. But here the prophets themselves, seeing they are exhibited to us as speaking to God, and laying open all their inmost thoughts and affections, call, or rather draw, each of us to the examination of himself in particulars in order that none of the many infirmities to which we are subject, and of the many vices with which we abound, may remain concealed.
How's that?--the Psalms are nothing less than a compendium of the human character. They "are us."

Here's Wright, extolling their virtues:
Anyone at all whose heart is open to new dimensions of human experience, anyone who loves good writing, anyone who wants a window into the bright lights and dark corners of the human soul—anyone open to the beautiful expression of a larger vision of reality should react to these poems like someone who hasn’t had a good meal for a week or two. It’s all here.
Why are they so important? Here, Wright drags "worldview" into the argument, giving it his own special twist. "Worldview," he says, has little to do with politics, but everything to do with geo-positioning, finding a place at the cross, which is to say, at God's own intersection of time and eternity, exactly where the psalms place us. The landscape we can visualize and experience through the spectacles of the psalms (he even uses Calvin's metaphor, unattributed, no less) is what Wright thinks of as "worldview," not something specifically designed by some pre-mill politicos. When we sing and pray the psalms we're putting ourselves where God's people should be, one foot firmly placed in this world, the other in the next.

The psalms won't let us navel gaze, won't let us lose ourselves in this world, won't send us off to a monastery. They won't let us think we're alone in our suffering or our exultation. They won't lie. They won't fudge.  

In fact, they may actually do all of those things he suggests, but, read together, they simply won't let us think too much of ourselves and not enough about the Creator of the universe. They both are us and become us--and that's the point.

The psalms, he might say, are the original calisthenics of "spiritual discipline." They bend our perception of time and place and even matter. They shape us as we read them. We become them in every human way.

And that's why not using them is dangerous to the spiritual health of God's people.

About ten years ago I started writing meditations on the Psalms with the goal of eventually doing a whole year's worth. I thought it would be good for me. I chose psalms on the basis of a prevalence for a particular landscape I'd come to love, those which alluded to or concerned wide open spaces and/or agricultural metaphors--i.e., the Lord is my shepherd.

It took me far more than a year to finish, but I did it; and today, somewhere on the little auxiliary hard drive hooked up to my computer they all reside (don't worry, they're backed up).  Two books came out of that bundle, but there are a ton more so every Sunday morning I pull one up, try to make it ship-shape, and post it here, in fact.

Did all that thinking about the psalms change me? I don't know. Knowing oneself is a quest that'll run right up to eternity.

But I know how N. T. Wright would answer that question. Absolutely, probably in ways I don't even understand.

I'd like to think that's true, but I'm not as confident as he is.

But if you like the psalms--and who doesn't?--you'll love the book. His claims get a little far-fetched once in awhile, but extremism in defense of the psalms is certainly no vice.

I loved it.