Morning Thanks

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

Thursday, January 31, 2013


Count me among those who believe that the church has to be in the world and not of it.  Count me among those who believe that Christians have to dance with the now without abandoning what brought them to the dance floor in the first place.  Count me among those who believe that a living church should have one foot firmly planted in the past, and another in the heart of the marketplace of today's ideas.

Having said all of that, let me make an argument for the past.

Here's a stanza of unforgettable lyrics from a famous Lenten hymn:

See from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

"When I Survey the Wondrous Cross," is something gadzillions of Christians know by heart.  Isaac Watts' words reflect his 19th century poetic style:  sorrow is running from Jesus head and hands and feet, as is love.  He's talking about blood, of course--but he's also talking about love and sorrow.   "Did e'er such love and sorrow meet?" Chew on that line for a while, for a lifetime.  Charles Wesley once said that he'd trade having written every hymn he ever scribbled down for "When I Survey."

The argument some make is that rich hymnody creates the opportunity for thoughtfulness about our faith.  When we only sing lyrics we understand right away, we're not led into any deeper waters.  Ever.  In the last six months I've been in too many churches where what is sung lacks not only complexity but substance, in a well-meant attempt to meet people's needs.  I'm not dissing fast food, but if all you eat is Whoppers and fries, you're missing a healthy diet.

Thomas Bergler's Juvenilization of American Christianity argues that the contemporary church has kept faith vibrant by trying to keep up with the times, by trying to be what people want it to be; but in the process, he says, the church risks something as sometimes childish as the fads it mimics. 

I live juxtaposed between two extraordinary Sioux County fellowships. One is St. Mary's Church, here in Alton, an incredible cathedral so immensely ornate and beautiful that it hushes me everytime I walk in.  In design, both inside and out, it visually defines the faith aspirations of the community who built it and sustain it. 

Just about as far away in another direction stands an ex-used car showroom where Sioux County's most vibrant church meets every Sunday.  It has absolutely nothing of St. Mary's grandeur.  It takes great pride in not being a church. It too represents the aspirations of the community who built it and sustain it.

Those two churches are the two sides of a coin.  St. Mary's has things to learn from Living Water, but Living Water also has things to learn from St. Mary's.

But all of us, methinks, can learn from Isaac Watts.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013


My old Dell kept going blue on me so I bought another refurbished desktop, this one from Walmart because you can get 'em really cheap and I wasn't looking to unload a ton of dough.

Fine. This one is reliable--it doesn't suddenly go all midnight on you, and it's got Windows 7, not XP, which is nice because so does my laptop. Okay.

Moving is fun, but it means writing new addresses in eleventy-seven million places, some of which you forget to notify.  Every last credit card has to be told the new address or you run into fat red slashes every other day. Moving computers means writing passwords in eleventy-seven million places and some of them, believe me, you just don't remember, not having used them since the pilgrims came to Plymouth. 

So you end up writing new ones, some with one digit and one upper case letter, some at least eight letters long, some six, you know.  You type some in and the website says "weak" or it won't even give you the dumb thing--"try again," it'll snicker demonically.

It's almost impossible to know how many passwords I have to use if I want to end up where I want to go--a dozen, maybe more, most all of them three alternatives with different complimentary numbers and letters. I write all this info down in a little notebook in my desk--three of them actually, which doesn't help.

Well, sometime I write them down.

Sometime I just forget.

Okay, confession. Ever since I picked up this Walmart Dell, I have spent something akin to the Hundred Years War re-upping and re-doing passwords, only to realize the next day I had no clue what I'd filled in the day before.  "Forgot your password?--click here."  You know.  I must have done it three dozen times, I swear.  And I have--sworn that is.  More than once.

Not long ago I read that forgetfulness meant you simply had too much in your head. The brain that's chock full isn't good at incidentals, which is to say, by my translation, the wise forget easily.  Comforting.

But not sustainable.  Unremitting truth is, I'm getting old.  I could list telling signals as long as my arm and yours and Bill Russell's, and one of them for sure is a leaky memory.  I had a class last night for which I spent probably too much time preparing. Because I had so much to do, so many different segments, I had everything written down and three-hole punched in a binder, neat as a pin, something I'd rarely done in 40 years of teaching.

I got to school, where I realized immediately that I left it home. Home used to be two blocks away, now it's 20 miles.  

Or this.  I've told writing students for years that keeping a notebook of ideas that come up and whack you hard is a good idea.  Flannery O'Connor called something akin "the habit of being."  "Write it down," I've said.  I do.  Sometimes. 

These days, my porous memory vastly less responsible, I've tried to listen to my own sermon.  I write things down.  Lots of things.  Even on my computer.  My Kindle has lists because I bought a two-buck app that lets me write in things down as if the cover were paper.  I'm learning.

And then this.  On my way home from the airport last week, I was listening to Mars Hill Audio off my iPod and through my radio, when someone said something really memorable, if I had a memory. I'm tooling down the highway, late at night, and I can't reach back into my suitcase, so right beside me there's a Casey's napkin that couched the donut I had with the coffee I bought when I left for the airport, way early the Friday before. 

There's a pen in the cubby hole, so I scratch out a note as I'm driving, something worth remembering, you know, something worth a good blog post.  A half-hour later, something else.  I scribble it down too on the napkin on the passenger seat.

See the photo? --a used Casey's napkin scribbled with tortured lines that are for the most part illegible.  I was driving, for pity sake.

Here at my desk the next morning, that crumpled napkin tried to speak to me and I had not a clue what it meant.  "Chesterton's feet"?  Good night, what is that?


Woe and woe and woe.  

Oh yeah--atop the waste basket right beside me is a three-ring binder full of well-reasoned notes for last night's class.  It hasn't moved.

Just shoot me.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Morning Thanks--My only comfort

When my master's program was over, I wasn't enamored with graduate school, and I rather missed the high-maintenance life of a high school teacher.  My chances of getting a college teaching job right then were slim and none, so I signed up for an interview with the Glendale (AZ) high school district when the employment office at the university notified students they were interviewing.

Maybe I wasn't as hungry for a job as some might have been. As I remember, at that time I could have come back to the Midwest and taken a job in a Christian high school--I already had an offer. But I'd always wanted to teach in a big city high school full of kids of all the colors of the rainbow.  So I signed up.

There was a table between us--that's all I remember of where the interview took place; but I'll never forget the first question this silver-haired administrator-looking guy asked. He looked at me, nodded his head as if maybe I'd already passed the first quiz, and then said, "If you had just one sentence to define yourself, what would you say?"

I wasn't then, nor am I now a believer given to pious chatter.  No matter. I had no idea how to answer, and I'm political enough--aren't we all?--to want to put the best foot forward; but I didn't know what he wanted me to say and I had really no answer except the one I had long ago recited, the answer to the first question of the catechism I'd learned as a kid, the only answer I really knew and honestly believed, the only one I knew, as we say, "by heart." 

So that's the answer I gave this guy, a super at one of Glendale's high schools. I'm being dead-on truthful here, and the truth is, I couched that answer with something of an apology: "I guess I'd fall back on what I learned as a kid," I told him, "that 'I am not my own, but belong to my faithful savior Jesus Christ.'" That's exactly what I said.  One sentence.

This man I'd never seen before looked at me and said, "You're hired."

I'm not making this up. It truly happened.  Fastest interview I'd ever had.

He was himself an evangelical Christian. There were, he told me later, other exigencies  He wanted a male, because I joined a department that had only two others, of twenty English faculty. He wanted an M. A., which I'd just completed. He wanted an experienced teacher, and I'd taught well in rural Wisconsin before starting graduate school. Everything lined up, and I won the job--I swear it--with the first q and a of the Heidelberg Catechism.

Last Sunday night, lots of Orange City folks got together for a combined worship that had, at its core, a celebration of the 450th anniversary of the Heidelberg Catechism.  It was a raucous affair that just about lifted the roof of that old sanctuary.  'Twas a blessing.  

The sermon's subject?--Lords Day 1:  "What is my only comfort?"

I know that one.

Believe me, I could tell more stories about Lords Day 1, stories of comfort and joy--and I have.  But this morning, my morning thanks is this: I'm thankful to have been a part of lively worship last Sunday night; but even more, I'm honestly and deeply thankful to be a part of a faith tradition in which my belonging to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ, is, in fact, "my only comfort."  

I think that's a grand and glorious place to begin.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Wiebo's War

Now that he's gone, you can't help but wonder what might happen to his tribe of followers, his disciples, his family, those who still live at Trickle Creek.  Maybe they'll hang on for a while, but most charismatic leaders, whether they run a church or a family or a commune, do far better at making disciples than they do at reproducing themselves.  Maybe I'm wrong about Wiebo Ludwig.  Maybe among his eleven kids there's yet another John Brown.

Because he was.  Even today, 150 years and more later, the name John Brown lives in infamy.  Some still consider him the saint he must have seemed to those who created what has become a national anthemn, "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."  Brown and his abolitionists simply would not drop their torches.  When others used violence against them, they retaliated, violently, in the name of the Lord.  So did Wiebo Ludwig, a man some would call "mad" and others would and will make into something of a saint. 

In the northwest corner of Iowa, Wiebo Ludwig's name will be forever maligned because of what he did to his in-laws, the Reverend B. J. Haan and his wife, Deborah, gracious people who are themselves sainted as powerful religious leaders of the community, B. J., the godfather of Dordt College.  When Wiebo married the Haan's daughter Mamie, as the Bible instructs, he took her away from her parents and family, some would say pummeled her into disowning them.  All ties between them were severed, even violently.  Around here, among those who remember, true stories about Wiebo stretch beyond belief but are still told.

But way up north in Alberta, where big oil reigns, Wiebo's war began when, years ago, sour gas led both children and animals to abort, or so he claimed. There's little doubt that he was, in fact, a victim, a little man taking on a multi-national.  But he did, violently, as if he were John Brown. 

Such driven single-mindedness has its own rewards, but it also often triggers horrors, and it did in Wiebo's snowy northern Alberta world when a gang of carrousing teenagers drove on his compound late one night to harrass them, spinning donuts on the grass late one night.  When they left, one of them was dead, shot by a bullet--a girl, Karman Willis, just 16 years old.

My wife and I watched Wiebo's War last night, a stirring and memorable documentary by David York, who talked his way into the family and got respectful cooperation for their work. It's a remarkable film, and, especially to those who knew the family story here in Siouxland, unforgettable. 

York is right in going to the heart of Wiebo's cosmology when he goes back Trickle Creek to ask a question he'd asked before about the death of Karman Willis.  Wiebo had told him, on tape, that God himself had let him know that very night that he shouldn't concern himself with that death, and that midnight revelation created his defense.  He simply stone-walled.  Someone shot at that joyriding truck, someone from inside the compound.  Was it him?  Was it someone else?  One of his children, perhaps?  One of his daughters?  Does it matter?  Someone from the family took out a gun and shot at the spinning truck, and the bullet killed the girl and wounded one of the boys. 

Wiebo says that very night he was visited by a revelation from the Lord, a comforting vision of his own blessed forgiveness, you might say.  That revelation came over him like visions often do, absolving the righteous and bringing absolute peace.  Only God can forgive with that kind of intensity--it had to be Him. 

What that revelation also did was flout the law.  God himself gave Wiebo permission to stonewall.  Even today, the death of Karman Willis remains a mystery.  If you believe Wiebo, God himself wanted it just that way.

At the heart of every prophet, finally, there lies a vision of his or her own intimacy with the creator and sustainer of the universe.  God speaks to them.  Most believers don't feel such intimacy or buy into such revelations, but many do. 

Was Wiebo exonerated by God's own voice?  He believed he was.  God himself spoke to him.  Today, he's gone.  Cancer took him quickly.  He's buried above ground, in a cement vault on the compound at Trickle Creek.

David York knew that the only way to understand Wiebo Ludwig or his family if you don't was to know how intimately they viewed their God-given tasks.  Wiebo undoubtedly felt himself privileged to be in God's own most intimate circle.  Like any of a dozen Old Testament prophets, Wiebo heard the voice of God.  And he listened.  And God's voice kept him safe.

Believe that, and he's a saint.  Don't believe it, and he's a madman, at least an accessory to murder. 

What a man.  What a story.  And something of it, at least, started right here.  

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Sunday Morning Meds--Hidden Faults

“clear thou me from hidden faults” Psalm 19

Whenever I mow a certain patch of grass in my backyard, thirty feet west of our back door, an incident comes back to me that some force in my soul will not allow to die.  It’s not just an incident really; what I feel when mowing the grass right there is something of shock, anger, envy, and pain.  And the incident happened 20 years ago.

When my daughter was in middle school, she was quite unceremoniously booted from the clique in which she’d been running.  She cried for a day at least, nearly refused to go back to school, and wouldn’t eat.  Her father didn’t understand what was going on.  Her mother did because she’d once been a middle school girl herself. 
Why that incident is conjured from my mowing a certain section of my backyard is a complete mystery, but what I feel at that moment—every summer weekend—is not.  Even though the mower is roaring, a certain junior high girl leaps into my consciousness and flashes her fangs, while her parents, friends of ours, smile innocently.  That’s what I see. Once I’m out of the bushes out back, I’m okay.
I don’t like to admit this, but my daughter’s father hated, deeply, the innocence on the face of our friends at that time because he couldn’t, just then, smile himself.  My daughter, our oldest child, was suffering, and her father, himself a child as a parent, was only beginning to understand that about some things his kids would encounter, he couldn’t do a blasted thing.  I hated both the kid and her parents, and the memory of that intense hate, I think, is what just won’t die.
My daughter went on to high school, college, marriage, a career, and became herself the mother of three beautiful kids.  Her nemesis is married with kids, too.  I don’t hate her any more than I do our friends, themselves proud grandparents.  But every time I mow a certain patch of grass in my backyard—I swear it!—I get dragged back to a particularly painful moment in my life as a father.  In a few quick steps across a spot of lawn, it’s the powerless that returns somehow, the seething.
Not long ago I was visiting a classroom somewhere where students were required to read some short stories I’d written.  In preparation, I looked those stories over, not having read them for some time.  When I did, what returned, as fully weekly mowing pain, was my state of mind when I wrote that particular book.  No one else on the face of the earth would recognize what I felt, but reading those stories were like turning back the pages in an emotional journal that I don’t actually keep but is somehow, mysteriously, kept for me, it seems, by something in my mind or my heart or my soul—I don’t know which.
Maybe I’m going too far here.  Maybe what David intends in this petition is simply asking that the Lord clean out those sins he’s not aware of, those sins of omission that escape his own self-assessment.  We all have those too, at least I do.

But when I become captive of my own consciousness, I can’t help but be amazed at the sheer power of the human mind and spirit, and of our immense depth of our memories. I can’t help but think that there’s more going on, Horatio, even in the world of our minds and hearts than we are aware of.
Maybe it’s a scary thought.  Maybe it isn’t.  Whatever’s there, David begs, clean it up.  Whatever I’m forgetting or missing or not acknowledging, please make it shine, Lord.  Forgive me.  That’s what’s he’s saying.              

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Frio River, Hill Country, Texas

You only get there through a river--I'm serious.  It's a gorgeous place, Laity Lodge.  A week ago, Texas hill country offered a wilderness just outside the back door, a russet January landscape that looked more lunar than earthly to someone like me from the northern plains.  Locals claimed it was just about the worst time to be there in the Frio River valley, color-wise that is.  But that doesn't mean there was no color, no line, nor form.  Something divine left us a scrapbook of etchings.  You just had to look.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Morning Thanks--telling a story

I showed them this old picture, something the turn-of-the century on the Rosebud, most of the kids outfitted in blankets, traditional garb.  We talked about it for a while, about their blankets and whether the people weaved them or traded for them.  They noticed that there was a white man's wall behind them, not buffalo hides over teepee poles, no teepee at all. They wondered about what happened to the teepees.

They are fourth-graders, just old enough to entertain their own notions about things without departing too far from the ways their parents have plotted. They're kids, children. They're not independent thinkers, but I told myself that their being 9 or 10 doesn't mean they don't think.  I was standing in front of their classes because I was considered the expert on Native America, and the entire fourth grade was studying Native America.  

So I put a bunch of photos of the Brule people up in front of them, if for no other reason than the Brule Lakotas occupy Rosebud, the reservation closest to the ground on which we were standing.  I didn't have old pictures of the Yanktons, who would likely have thrown up their teepees right here along the Floyd.  I wanted the kids to see the very people we may have displaced when their own ancestors (and mine) left Holland or Pella and cut out homes on a prairie they simply assumed was theirs for the taking.

And then I showed them this picture, a little exercise in compare/contrast.

"What's the difference? I asked them.  "Look closely."  

Did I mention they were perfectly darling all morning, lost in every image, rapt by every story, loving every word.  "These are kids too?--but in this picture, what's the difference?"

Two dozen hands shoot up, a good third of the kids in the room, so many it was impossible to pick someone easily.  I point at a little girl whose interest is so piqued she might well have forgotten her name.  "These kids are dressed nice," she said.

Did I mention they're fourth graders?

"These kids are dressed nice," the little girl said.

And for a moment I as tongue-tied as I've ever been. How do you tell a child there's a whole lot that isn't at all nice about this picture?

"They're dressed white," I said, smilingly.  I don't think a one of them understood. 

I tried more:  the boys have short hair, the girls wear dresses and aprons, and they all look like white kids, I told them.

I told them those white teachers wouldn't let the kids speak their own language because they wanted the children to be white instead of red, and those darling fourth-graders looked at me, just as smilingly, as if they were on the edge of their seats for more--"Just keep telling us good stories," their eyes said. "Mr. Schaap, just tell us more.  Tell us again how the warriors ate the buffalo's heart raw."

They were only fourth graders, and try as I might, I don't think they would have understood the Great Sioux Wars that happened just north and west of our neighborhood.

But I tried.

And when I left school yesterday morning, even though I didn't get across what I would have liked to, still I was thankful for having had the opportunity to say something at least, something is, after all, so much better than nothing.    

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The High Priest of I-29

I swear, it was not slippery.  It was terribly early in the morning--somewhere around five--I was on I-29, and there was, at best, minimal traffic between Sioux City and Omaha.  I wasn't tired. I wasn't seeing things. It wasn't a mirage or a bad dream in the middle of a trip that had begun far too early. I'm a morning person, for heaven's sake. I wasn't then, nor am I now delusional.

But I saw it from a long ways away because the land there is Missouri River flood plain, flat as a granite counter top.  I saw it because the funnel of its lights were over the highway instead of out front.  Had they been out front I wouldn't have seen them at all as I came up; I would have seen only taillights. 

But there, middle of the road stood a pickup, its lights flashing over the ditch. It wasn't off the road, but it wasn't on the road either. The passenger door, which was swung open, was off the road, but the bed extended into the right lane of the interstate. Light spilled from its interior, but I saw no one.

It didn't look crunched.  I slowed down somewhat to see if there was another car somewhere in the flat ditch west, but spotted nothing. There didn't appear to be an accident.  Like I said, the surface wasn't slippery--if that pickup somehow spun out, it had done its pirouetting almost perfectly, staying out of the ditch and not flipping. What incredible luck.  Passengers could have been killed.  But I saw no one.

Just down the road, however, someone had stopped. As I passed the truck, I saw him or her running up from a car and toward the truck in the highway. That was reassuring--someone was there to help.

The thing is, I had a plane to catch. Delta doesn't take kindly to a passenger showing up 10 minutes before the flight leaves, so the fact is I would have missed my flight.  And I had responsibilities, after all. Once I got to San Antonio, I had to get the rental car and pick up three people from their respective gates, then drive us all up into the Hill Country, almost three hours away, west.  There were people counting on me being there.

My goodness, I had devotions that first night.  I had responsibilities, and I'm not the kind of person who likes trying to talk airline personnel into dispensing grace.  Honestly, I didn't think for a minute that some man or woman behind the counter would buy the idea that I'd stopped for a stranded motorist along I-29, that that's why I'd missed my flight, and that I would be so pleased if they could still get me to Texas by, say mid-afternoon.  So I didn't stop.

I didn't stop. But I had cause. I had reasons. Whatever happened didn't look really bad.  If there was a crash, I certainly didn't see it, and the truck didn't appear to be smashed. Someone else was ten seconds away.  I'm no medic.  What could I have done anyway?--just another guy with a cell phone.  

So I didn't stop.  

That was Friday last, and it stuck with me all day.  Today is Wednesday, I'm back home, and I haven't forgotten.

And ever since I think I understand far better than I ever did the Priest and the Levite because they were also the people who lead devotions and take charge easily and greatly.  For most of my life, I've thought of them as assholes, but maybe they had a plane to catch. Maybe they were going on some kind of spiritual retreat. Probably they had to read scripture and pray. Hey, after 9-11, you can't catch a break from an airline. I don't doubt for a moment those two had bigger fish to fry. They were the job-creators. They were the people that mattered.

What I'm saying is, it's a more complex story than I've ever thought. I mean, that Priest and that Levite walked on by because they had responsibilities and figured out that undoubtedly someone less busy with the affairs of this world would stop and check on that crumpled man in the ditch beside the road.  They had places to go, things to do. They had responsibilities.

Look, Friday morning, early, I just didn't have time to be a the Good Samaritan, you know?  If I had, I would have stopped.

I didn't have the time, all right?

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Occurrences at Delaney Street -- IV

Let me point out that no one at Delaney Street Church is hysterical. More than a year has passed since the new church was built, and already we’ve broken ground for a new addition. Months ago already Herb Rollins determined that the voices that entered our worship so vividly were actually an interview conducted by Bill Moyers on National Public Radio. (Herb has since left us--one of the very few--for a small Lutheran fellowship in New Berlin.) The point is: no one really believes those voices belong, distinctly, to God. We all agree that what we hear is not “the word of the Lord.”

And Smithson himself is, as I’ve said, very sincere. He is no charlatan. But he says, and we know, that the occurrences have made him more receptive to the motions of the Spirit. He’s more capable of departing from his text, and he’s happy, he says, with the kind of spontaneity these radio voices give him.

So we’ve made this collective and unspoken decision not to fix the sound system, even though we know, technologically speaking, there’s no mystery to the sudden interruptions of our worship. And we’re growing. That in itself is proof of something, isn’t it? More and more and more people from the burbs are coming in and kneeling before the Lord. When we come into our sanctuary today, there’s real excitement, because no one knows exactly what kind of occurrence awaits us.

And yet something itches in me. Believe me, I don’t want to be a doubting Thomas. After all, couldn’t it be that God is using our sound system for divine purposes? No one deliberately wired the system to pick up radio broadcasts (and it’s been public radio--not Top 40!). Besides, even if everyone knows it’s not God’s voice, who’s to say it’s not God who takes control of the radio waves at exactly the moment we worship?

Sometimes I think we’re convinced that today, in the twentieth century since Christ, we cannot be oracles. Who knows but that we’re dead wrong? Who knows but that my own doubt isn’t actually planted in me by none other than the Author of Lies?

Believe me, ever since we’ve put up the new sanctuary, we’ve prospered at Delaney Street. It’s been an extraordinary experience.

But I haven’t slept well for a long, long time.

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Occurrances at Delaney Street -- III

The “third occurrence” was even more remarkable--probably because the radio voice was much less “fitting.” The subject of the sermon (the occurrences all have happened at approximately the same time in the service) in this case is immaterial. Smithson had trouble starting, as he sometimes does. He was looking for the right impulse, much like a pianist looking over the keyboard and flexing his fingers before beginning in earnest. 

Suddenly, there came a voice, male again, this time pitched dramatically in the manner of someone reading poetry. “The blackened ash is planted as a covenant with spring,” it said, the words on a slow march, “but in its dead loins there is no life but the seed of fire.”

This was only the third occurrence, mind you, but the congregation had already become so accepting of the phenomenon that no one exhibited the least bit of annoyance. Rather, all eyes came to rest on Smithson, who understood instantaneously that this third quite unexpected and singularly elusive transmission had become, on the basis of what had happened already twice before, his text. He had to explicate because all of us, and all the new people who’d come to visit Delaney Street--and even Smithson himself--had already convinced ourselves that these transmissions were unique manifestations of the hand of God Almighty.

So, without thinking, he began to move into a detailed analysis he hadn’t planned on, delving into what he determined to be the truth of the line so almightily delivered into our sanctuary: that in this world of woe, death is always and only an end, never a beginning; only with Christ can life emerge from death. Or something to that effect. That morning, everyone in the congregation felt assured that they had been in the presence of something more than ordinary.

Soon our congregation outgrew even our own brand-new facility. True believers came from all corners of the city, hoping that they would be present when another such occurrence took place. Our fine blonde pews were full of pilgrims.

Imagine, if you will, the complete shock to all in attendance when the fourth occurrence was no more than two sentences from a woman explaining something about the role played by mythical feminine gods in the lives of some sub-Saharan tribe centuries ago. But Smithson never wavered, quickly turning the line into a kind of celebration of the universality of God. He talked about how all human beings are born with an innate God-concept, and how our need for the divine is often temporarily satisfied when we build images of our own imaginations, but is eternally satisfied only when we come to the God of the Bible.

No one in the church that day found Smithson’s ideas startlingly fresh. What made that sermon unforgettable was the effect that once again sudden and unexpected voice from outside the sanctuary had created on the service.

The fifth occurrence took place three months after we moved into our new sanctuary. A piece of African folk music whose lyrics no one understood became the occasion for a Smithson homily on finding our own unique way to speak to God.

And the sixth occurrence, equally memorable, was some male voice who claimed that politicians of old seemed driven by a sense of public good, not political expediency. It went something like this: “The early leaders were men of committed principle. They were philosophers as well as very practical people. That’s why we had that sunburst of leadership some two hundred years ago.” Smithson used it, as you can imagine, to charge us with the necessity of being strong leaders.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Sunday Morning Meds--Warning: Rewards

“By them is your servant warned; 

in keeping them there is great rewards.” Psalm 19 

I’m nearing 65 years old now, and when I look back on my life it seems as if I’ve been a part of three wholly different eras. 

I was a child in the fifties, when, in small-town America, the church was the central institution of our lives, the real authority, and life seemed incredibly simple. In America, we’d just won a war against bona fide evil. Tons of ex-GIs, my father among them, back from experiences they’d never forget, were looking for little more than peace and security. War’s madness gave way to the order of the fifties, everything in place. 

What I remember of Jesus from that time is a visual image almost everyone has seen. A pale glow surrounds his head entirely as if it were lit from some unseen source, some spiritual iridescence from within because, if you’d ever harbored any doubt, what you are looking at is divinity, the King of kings. You know the drawing—Warner Sallman, circa 1940. 

I grew up in the Sixties, when all authority—church, state, even family—took a beating. Somewhere I have a slide of a kid in a t-shirt, a picture I took on an anti-war march in Washington D.C.; on the back of that shirt is a fist with a raised middle finger aimed at just about everything. 

The wall of my office bears a Sixties Jesus portrait, this one in a swirl of long hair, his beard bedraggled, the sort of guy who would have left on a chopper with Peter Fonda to find America’s soul. 

I’m growing old in yet another era, one not so easy—for me at least—to understand. I have no pictures of Jesus from this era, but I see one in the attitudes of my students. “Jesus, Lover of My Soul” might well be their theme song, if it could be played on a keyboard. Jesus sits in a Starbucks CafĂ©, something dark and rich steaming in his hand, a sweet smile over his face, chillin’, working on relationships. 

Which one is accurate? Go figure. The smart money is on the fact that we’re all, at best, fragmentary. Jesus Christ is always bigger, always more complete than whatever fantasy we have going. 

Should we, like my students, think of him as a great guy? Should we, Sixties-like, hook arms with him and break up the military/industrial complex? And perhaps the most difficult pair of questions of all: Is he someone to love? Is he someone to fear? 

There’s something about the balance in the diction of this verse that’s striking. I only wish there were a colon where there’s a semi-colon now, because I’m thinking that somehow the two sides of the verse go hand-in-hand. The verse reads like a bizarre highway sign: “Warning: Rewards ahead.” 
Just this morning, I heard Jaroslav Pelikan say that one of the most interesting questions of the scripture, one that needs to be answered every decade or so—and maybe more often—was one posed by none other than Jesus Christ: Who do people say that I am?”
The answer to that question is always the same—and always different, isn’t it? As mysteries go, he is the greatest. But he loves us. Go figure.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Occurrences at Delaney Street -- II

That moment, “the first occurrence,” is remembered today with a kind of joy, a magic that people reserve only for things profoundly mysterious and thus almost holy. You can secure a tape recording of that sermon, but you have to take your place on a long waiting list.

The effect was so powerful that when, on Monday, the men assigned to control the system from the glass-front booth in the back of the church talked about getting out the kinks, Smithson balked just enough for them to put off the job.

The “second occurrence” a few weeks later was much shorter. The sermon topic that day was the dynamic nature of love. Smithson stressed how difficult it would be to be a Christian and not live in community with others. Our profession of faith, he said, needs to prompt a kind of activism. Suddenly, another male voice came over the speakers: “If you think of the true pleasures of life,” the voice said, “very few of them involve the isolated individual. Even reading is a shared activity--you are sharing with an author who has the capacity for getting into you and grabbing you.”

“Exactly!” Smithson said immediately, pointer finger raised. He never missed a beat in a sermon whose concluding paragraphs some people can recite yet today, months later.

Something happened with the “second occurrence.” Because its place in the process of worship was so seamless, few parishioners even questioned the coincidental nature of the “radio event” when they left the sanctuary. What had happened, the collective mind of Delaney Street Church reasoned, was that God Almighty had steered a radio conversation from local station WOBR right into our brand-new sanctuary to highlight the truth. Needless to say, such special favor has immediate rewards. 
An strange phenomenon continues. . .

Friday, January 18, 2013

Occurrences at Delaney Street -- I

What happened at the Delaney Street Church is so remarkably fascinating and yet unsettling that it’s impossible to understand the phenomenon without a summary of the initial events. Please, allow me.

Pastor Smithson is a fine man. If humility is the first of virtues, one could call him a saint. He’s neither a showman nor a shaman. And believe me, he doesn’t enjoy controversy.

What’s more, the beautiful sanctuary the Delaney Street congregation recently built was not something he dreamed up. It was our doing--the congregation’s. We wanted something big and attractive, and we got it. It sits, Monticello-like, on the end of Delaney Boulevard. You must have seen it on the road to the airport.

Pardon the digression. What I was explaining was what is now called, almost reverently, “the first occurrence.” It happened on the fourth Sunday of our worship at the new sanctuary, and, when it happened, the cause was no mystery: the new mobile mike system simply picked up some radio or television transmission. Everyone knew that. But knowing what caused the malfunction didn’t diminish its effect on those of gathered within.

Pastor Smithson’s sermon that Sunday dealt with--how should I say it?--God’s power and magnificence and our unworthiness. He was just moving to the second point when words suddenly emanated from the giant speakers. And they fit so perfectly into the weave of the sermon that--well, what can I say? The event was mystifying, the effect miraculous.

“I don’t understand how to explain that music is beautiful,” the radio announcer said. “It’s a taste for wanting to understand why things are the way they are and where they came from.” The voice was clear and resonant and lyrical. “If you don’t have the taste, talking about it can’t give it to you. Most people, I believe, have that taste because most people are fascinated with questions of origin. Asking those questions gives us a sense of discovering exactly what kind of human drama we’re actors in. I don’t know how anyone could not want to know that.”

Then the transmission stopped. Smithson paused, pursed his lips, smiled and tilted his head almost eagerly, then nodded as if what we’d all heard had punctuated his sermon perfectly. And it did. Had he arranged just those words to be transmitted via the new and expensive sound system, he couldn’t have chosen better. That’s why no one laughed. The coincidence was enough in itself to make an atheist jump aboard the freighter of providence.

“We have this hunger,” Smithson ad-libbed. “It is in the marrow of our bones, this desire to know God. You and your neighbor too. We all deeply desire to listen to the music of the Almighty.”
Joy--how else can I express it, other than by that word? What Smithson had done was incorporate the sentiment of the radio voice perfectly, as if it were God’s own voice.
Tomorrow:  Yet more occurrences. . .

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Christianity and Fiction--literary fiction

"This, in short, is how Christian belief figures into literary fiction in our place and time: as something between a dead language and a hangover."

So begins a long and prophetically-voiced piece in the NY Times not long ago, something written by novelist Paul Elie. Don't know him, but he had a point--no, let me correct that: he has a point. What he was arguing is that literary fiction--a genre not exactly burgeoning in our national culture--is notably missing any substantial consideration of "the Christian faith."

What Elie notes is that the absence of Christianity from literary fiction is strange, given the fact that faith plays abundantly active roles in the lives of most of usl. After all, "the current upheavals in American Christianity — involving sex, politics, money and diversity — cry out," he says, "for ­dramatic treatment."

Mr. Elie then gives what he calls "the obvious answer": "In America today Christianity is highly visible in public life but marginal or of no consequence in a great many individual lives."

I'm all ears for this whole argument. For more years of my life than I care to admit, I've thought long and hard about what being a Christian and a fiction writer really means. I don't know if I've done it right or not, but I know it's always been both a concern and a joy.

But when Elie says that Christianity is of "marginal or no consequence in a great many individual lives," I wince because I'm wary of sweeping judgments. What, pray tell, does he know about the vitality of the Christian faith in me or you or the chick in the Chevy or grunt at the end of the bar? It's one thing for him to rail on writers, another to claim American Christians are shallow as shale. He may be right, but he's obligated to make the case.

No matter. He then goes on the bring Flannery O'Connor to the foreground as a model of artful fusion, capable as she was of creating masterpiece fiction without skipping a beat on testimony. He also lauds Marilyn Robinson, whose work, I think, is almost divine. He's right about both, of course. And then, thoughtfully and well, he creates a comprehensive course in contemporary literature, naming a dozen or more highly-regarded novelists whose works cite religiosity or use merely, you might say, the furniture of faith.

It's clear he's not content or happy. "All the while," he says at the end of a very thoughtful essay, "you hope to find the writer who can dramatize belief the way it feels in your experience, at once a fact on the ground and a sponsor of the uncanny, an account of our predicament that still and all has the old power to persuade." It really is a fine article. He says he'll keep looking. "You look for a story or a novel where the writer puts it all to­gether. That would be enough. That would be something. That would be unbelievable."

"Unbelievable" is a bit of a odd word on the end, but that's okay, something to think about. The title of Elie's essay is "Has Fiction Lost Its Faith," and it's really worth reading.
Tomorrow: Greg Wolfe's response to Elie in the Wall Street Journal.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Old letters

I think the setting is important: an old man is just talking with his son, who's likely not a kid himself.  They're talking, these two.  Listen to the story.

His Elderly Father as a Young Man  

by Leo Dangel

This happened before I met your mother:
I took Jennie Johanson to a summer dance,
and she sent me a letter, a love letter,
I guess, even if the word love wasn't in it.
She wrote that she had a good time
and didn't want the night to end.

They're both, well, older.  I don't know that I would have talked to my son much about my old girlfriends when he was a kid. This isn't some facts-of-life about dating.  They're both too old.

At home, she lay down on her bed
but stayed awake, listening to the songs
of morning birds outside her window.

Jennie wrote him a very sweet letter.  It's no wonder he remembers. I'd remember too.

I read that letter a hundred times
and kept it in a cigar box
with useless things I had saved:
a pocket knife with an imitation pearl handle
and a broken blade,
a harmonica I never learned to play,
one cuff link, an empty rifle shell.

I got a bunch of useless things. Trust me, I know--we just moved. That cigar box holds meaning to no one on the face of the earth but him--and me--and us.  It's no Holy of Holies; what's in it could get tossed tomorrow and nothing about his life or mine or yours would change course because life is good anyway even without those memories. This old man would just keep marching down the path he's on should that pocket knife or the empty rifle shell suddenly disappear.

When your mother and I got married,
I threw the letter away -
if I had kept it, she might wonder.

Sure. Makes sense.  Tossing that sweet thing was, by all measures, a nice thing to do for a woman he loved.

But I wanted to keep it
and even thought about hiding places,
maybe in the barn or the tool shed,
but what if it were ever found?
I knew of no way to explain why
I would keep such a letter, much less
why I would take the trouble to hide it.

This poem--this morning's offering from Writer's Almanac--isn't a lament either. He's not mad. He's not saying he wished he would have married sweet Jennie, nor is he angry with the son's mother for prompting him to destroy that note.  That's not why he's saying what he is.  What he's testifying to is a little mystery of life he's stumbled on.  "Isn't that something?"--he says to his son.  "Isn't that odd?"  The letter is long gone, but it never left his heart, even though the woman did an entire lifetime ago.  "I knew of no way to explain why/I would keep such a letter. . ."

Sometime during those years when our kids were teens, I remember hearing some well-meaning Christian preacher-types claim the way our kids date damages their futures. Your children shouldn't date someone you didn't think they should want to marry, they said.  It's that simple.

Sure. And wouldn't it be nice if life were so uncomplicated? 

It seems to me the old man in this poem did the right thing. He saved Jennie Johanson's sweet letter, savored its treasures; and when he got married, he thoughtfully left it behind.

But what he's telling his son, years later, is that he never really forgot that note--"isn't that something?" 

Mysteries make life itself a whole lot more complicated all right--and a whole lot richer.

Even Christian preacher-types have 'em.  The truth is, we all do.  

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Morning Thanks--Robert Siegel, 1939-2012

He died in the Lord.

It's a cliche, I know, but I don't think I've ever used it before so for me it's fresh.  My friend Bob Siegel died in the Lord--I'll say it again. Hallelujah.

He was head of the department when I started a Ph.D. program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and a good friend and poet told me about him.  "That Siegel's a Christian, I think--you ought to talk to him sometime."  

He was a poet.  I was in fiction. I never had a class from him, and in the years I stayed in Milwaukee, I don't think I visited with him more than a half dozen times, total--once at his house, as I remember, once at a conference just outside of the city, but otherwise just a few times at the university.  Honestly, I don't remember what his office looked like. I couldn't have been there often.

But I knew he was there, and that was no small thing for a grad student then, a believer in a world where there didn't seem to be many.  Post-modernism has widened the horizon of fashionable isms and systems of belief, but when I was in graduate school very few subscribed openly to orthodox Christian faith.  My office mate, a great guy I really liked, a good friend, was confirmed Wiccan.  

What I'm saying is that I knew Bob was there, not like a father really, but very much like a brother.  I knew he was there--I don't know, just in case.  

So I've known him for years, far better after my grad school days, far better because the two of us and a couple dozen more Christian writers have met annually to talk, to read, to pray. 

How might I describe him? Immensely generous with his love; brilliant, simply brilliant, but also thoughtful, wise; quirky too, and witty, his work laid out with a mine field of grins; gracious, always a ready smile. I'm not even sure why the very first words on the page came into my mind when I thought of him this morning, but they did: he died in the Lord.  He was my friend; and this I know: he died in the Lord. 

He might not have liked me using this poem to describe him, but I think it is him, in a way, even though the focus is Mary, mother of Jesus.  I know he was a believer as a boy; if there was some kind of conversion moment early on, I don't think I ever heard him speak of it.  He was a Wheaton grad, solid in his faith already at 17, I'm sure. Here's how he sees Mary--the poem titled "Annunciation."

She didn't notice at first the air had changed.
She didn't, because she had no expectation
except the moment and what she was doing, absorbed
in it without the slightest reservation.

What's at the core of those four lines is Mary's already substantial faith. The angel had promised an experience she had no way of imagining, but it was her faith that kept her steady and on course.  She was "in the Lord."

Things grew brighter, more distinct, themselves,
in a way beyond explaining. This was her home,
yet somehow things grew more homelike. Jars on the shelves
gleamed sharply: tomatoes, peaches, even the crumbs

on the table grew heavy with meaning and a sure repose
as if they were forever.

I don't doubt for a moment that if I would have asked Bob what difference his faith meant in his writing life, in the real here and now of his existence, he couldn't have answered question more beautifully than he has here, when he describes Mary discoveries after the touch of the divine.  Suddenly, things have astonishing beauty--"tomatoes, peaches, even the crumbs/on the table grew heavy with meaning and a sure repose/as if they were forever."  He might well have said that's exactly why he's a poet.

                            When at last she saw
from the corner of her eye the golf fringe of his robe
she felt no fear, only a glad awe,

the Word already deep inside her as she replied
yes to that she'd chosen all her life.

It's an imagined portrait of something that really can't be imagined, which is exactly why poets try. This young lady, long before she carried the Christ, had faith. She consented to have the holy child only because she was already "in the Lord."

This morning I'm thankful for having known my friend, the poet Robert Siegel. It's hard to believe that he's gone, but I am more than happy to say that without a doubt he died in the Lord.

You can read Bob's obituary here.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Morning Thanks--Haven

It wasn't ridiculously cold, but it was dang close.  What's more, the wind--bitterly northwest--was of that genre that threatens to peel back your skin like something torturous, something out of the Inquisition.  I wore my down jacket for the first time this winter, the fatso with an Eskimo hood.  When the two of us walked west toward the river, we kept reminding ourselves that it would soon be better because we'd be in the haven of woods, walking down paths where only the temps were wearying.  Take the wind out of the equation, as every Siouxlander knows, and single-digits are actually livable.

So here we are, in the woods along the river. I'm behind the camera, and that yellow coat way up front belongs my waltzing partner through the trees. Just one of the myriad terrors of living on the plains--if you were a sodhouse paleface in those earliest years--was the overwhelming sense of exposure, never-ending vulnerability.  There was a lot of craziness--I'm not making that up--all that yawning land and a vast ocean of grass, only an occasional cloud to hide you. No trees--save a few around the rivers and streams--like here.  From high overhead, the world I live in is clearly pockmarked by shadowy groves planted as barriers to wind, a sea of darkened smudges on the endless earth. Trees are still much loved.

Friday we did our obligatory two miles amid them, down by the river. We're out of it there, out of the inhuman wind, and even on frozen snow an afternoon walk through the trees is a blessing.

It still feels chance-y to admit it, but I guess I can: we've decided to live here. We've been in this wonderful new old house for a half year, and neither of us wants to move; but move we must--the owner is a'comin.  He's no fool. He'll like it here too, I'm sure.

But we're not moving far.  We're moving up the road to a place where there is no place right now.  Neither of us would have ever guessed we'd be doing what we're doing, but we are--we're building a house.

It's been a while since I've given the kind of morning thanks that I wanted to make a daily ritual a half-dozen years ago when this blog began, but this morning is a good time to reclaim an original purpose because, as this shot in the woods make clear, we're blessed to be here.  I'm thankful this morning for the ground where we live, and the woods and the river and all that open beautiful country we'll feast on with our eyes for as long as the Lord chooses to allow us such bountiful blessings.

We're staying, and for that I'm thankful. We both are. 

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Sunday Morning Meds--Honey and gold

“They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold; 
they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the comb.” Psalm 19

Now that David has sung his way through the eternal verities of the way of the Lord in Psalm 19, he embellishes the analysis with a pair of shining comparisons—the way of the Lord is sweeter than honey, more precious than gold.

It might be interesting to conjure a couple of more contemporarily seductive commodities than honey and gold, and if I read my spam I think I know what I’d list—Viagra and its clones, revolutionary weight loss plans, and fabulous get-rich quick schemes.  So how about this?  “The Torah is better than the South Beach diet, more rewarding than Cialis.”

Nope.  Doesn’t work.

Which reminds me of a sad story.  In the 1870, not far from where I live, stories had begun to circulate about abundant gold in the Black Hills, an area of the Dakota Territories ceded, by government treaty, to the Sioux people.  The early settlers of eastern Dakota had a stake in there being gold in them there hills:  they guessed the lure of gold would invite more settlers into the region, a good thing, especially to those who would profit from a booming new frontier.

Those settlers exerted political pressure, and General Phil Sheridan proposed an expedition into the Black Hills to investigate the possibility of establishing a fort there.  A fort would, they assumed, quash the raids Native people were making on those who passed through the area on their way to the Oregon and other points west. 

General George A. Custer led the expedition, which, for reasons no one has ever been able to determine, included a geologist and miners.  Guess what?  Even though the expedition’s determined purpose was to find a place for an army fort, on June 30, 1870, near the present day town of Custer, SD, someone from that expedition found gold.

Even though for a time the federal government held to their position that the Black Hills belonged to the Sioux people, and even though a subsequent expedition determined that extracting the gold would require really sophisticated mining techniques, mobs of white folks, pans in hand, swarmed out to western Dakota, money signs dancing in their fancies.  In just six years, 10,000 white people lived in the Black Hills. 

It’s hard not to believe that, in 1870, some white folks in neighborhoods not all that far from where I live had a firm grasp on the notion that David uses to describe the blessings of the way of the Lord.  The faintest whiff of instant cash, these days especially, seems to many something heavenly.  People love gold and will risk life and limb for the fleeting chance for what they believe will ensure happiness instantly. 
Blessed is the man who discovers gold.  That’s not the first verse of the first psalm, of course, but it’s a basic law of Western culture as far back as the psalmist.

The way of the Lord is even better than that, David says, better than those little nuggets that—if you’re lucky—might show up in the bottom of some scratched up pie pan.  In fact, it’s better than much pure gold.  The way of the Lord is better than the very best of this world.
That’s the claim.  When he looks at the ore he’s dug from the mine of his own life’s experience, that’s the vein he’s found—and it’s sweeter than honey, better than gold.  Shoot, better than much pure gold.

That’s life’s real bottom line.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Oh, my word--the passion!!!

Les Miserables is just plain grand entertainment. Lincoln moves the soul; Les Mis stirs the passions, and when the passions are stirred, the mind occasionally balks, as mine did, in giggles, last night. People say that viewers either love Les Mis or hate it. I loved it--but with the passions, not with the mind.  Sometimes, even when I wasn't supposed to, I just couldn't help laughing.

The reason is simple:  Victor Hugo, a magnificent writer the world would miss dearly if we didn't have him in our history and library, is a writer thoughtful enough to have known his time and his readers--whom we aren't. Freakin' passions in that story roar way out of control for most of the almost three hours you're in your seat, but do so delightfully. Honestly, like gadzillions of others for centuries already, I loved it, loved the story. It was just simply grand entertainment. Goofy at times, but way, way, way good. Don't miss it.

Lincoln is another world altogether.  Don't wait for the dvd.  See it now.

Strange thing last night: at our local theater, I could have put money down for all six shows.  Here's the bill--Les Mis, of course; Parental Guidance, anything with Billy Crystal is a hoot, and this is one, I hear, you can take your grandkids to; Gangster Squad, my last choice, but the stars are really out in that one--Sean Penn, Ryan Gosling and more; Zero Dark Thirty, the bin Laden story that's been made even more compelling by the tide of controversy it's created and--lest we forget-- directed by the masterful Kathryn Bigelow; Django Unchained, a Tarantino extravaganza complete with hundreds of n-words and the quite ordinary Tarantino splatter, I hear--but always thoughtful, always provoking; and, oh, yeah, did I mention?--Lincoln

What a line-up!

I felt alive. Not one of those movies was made for 17-year-old, hormonal males, not one. They may not all make Christianity Today's must-see list, like Les Mis, but there's something compelling and thoughtful in each of them.  Nothing stupid, nothing vile, nothing flat out inane.

Every last cultural force is on the table after Sandy Hook--guns, movies, video games, divorce, not to mention a score of societal ills. Moments arise, I must admit, when I understand Islamic extremism, when I share their adroit hate with the poison that Hollywood is capable of spewing. Maybe I'm too willing to baptize things I shouldn't, but last night on my way into the theater to see Les Mis, I honestly felt as if the whole six pack was worth the cost of admission.

And that in my book is rare. That's very, very rare.