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, February 28, 2013

Morning Thanks--words



"Before proceeding, let me say I think I have no prejudice against the Southern people. They are just what we would be in their situation."

That's Lincoln, 1854, in a speech at Peoria, IL, where he stood to oppose the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, a law passed already in 1820 that essentially banned slavery in most of what was becoming the State of Missouri.  With the Dred Scott decision, his side of the argument went down to defeat.  Then came the Civil War.

Granted, he's saying what he does in 1854 and not 1864, in the middle of the carnage; but I can't help but  be amazed at his honest acceptance of the nobility of those he still roundly condemned.

We may well make too much of him, of Lincoln, I mean.  Were I born and reared south of Mason-Dixon, I'd likely see him far more shadowy than I do; and Spielberg's Lincoln makes him as human as you and me.

But there's something large and all-encompassing in that confession, something, to me at least, that's worth it weight in awe.  I don't think it fudges on principle, nor does it simply see human beings as shaped exclusively by their environments.  It acknowledges that we're all human--no more, no less.

We're not, any of us, all that different, for good or ill.  The dark legacy of the Fall is somewhere within every one of us, but so is the divine image of Him who gave us life.



Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Morning Thanks--a man goes on a trip



What he said has stuck with the writer in me for 35 years.  What the famed literary man said explained a great deal about the nature of plot, which is, of course, essential to story.  What he said was that there really were only two kinds of plots, and those two could be summarized easily.

First, he said, there is the story he called "a man goes on a trip." What characterizes that kind of story, he said, is an active protagonist, someone who really wants something; and the example he used was this:  some husband and wife decide to hang up their lives in Kansas City (or wherever) and light out for Alaska, where they begin again, start a new life on a small farm, say.  

You don't have to like cows or hay bales to like that story because the protagonist acts, and his or her acting is what we want to read or watch.  In this story the central character does things.  We love that.

The other story Mr. John Gardner called "a stranger comes to town."  What characterizes that story, he said, was a protagonist--"the town"--that is acted upon.  In this story, the protagonist is passive, is charmed or changed or entertained by some far bigger force. Readers much, much, much prefer the former to the latter, Gardner said, because they much protagonists who want something and work to get it.

The first story is the essence of most great literature, he said; but most young writers write the second type, he said, "a stranger comes to visit."

He was lecturing at Bread Loaf Writers Conference, the granddaddy of all writing conferences.  I was in the crowd, I was a young writer, and he was John Gardner.  

For all these years I've been thinking he's right.  Still do.

But what has always bugged me is that the greatest story ever told is the second type--a stranger, Jesus Christ, comes into our lives.  It's fair to say for some of us at least, that even though we really didn't pursue him, he came anyway; and his coming has made all the difference.  He bought us with his blood, we were quite passive about it, and it's his action that saved us.  

That he did doesn't bug me at all, but that his story is somehow second-rate does and always has.

But yesterday, I was reading Donald Miller's A Million Miles in a Thousand Years again, that tough chapter when he just about buckles under in a tide of darkness thrown up by a broken relationship, that chapter where Job comes in to help him bear his own load of sadness and grief.  Miller says that long passage at the end of the book the Job, the passage where God almost unfeelingly says to Job that he really shouldn't think all of this--all of this earth, all of its suffering and grief and happiness and joy, that all of this story, this pageant of humanity around him--is really about him, about Job.  Because it's not.  "I know what I'm doing," Miller writes, as if God is talking, "and it's not about you."

Right then, sitting in an office waiting for class, it suddenly struck me that this old dilemma of mine about the greatest story ever told and Gardner's claims wasn't a dilemma at all.

It's Lent now, the season of suffering, the march up to Easter agonizing.  The story we celebrate, the story that makes us wince, the story that makes some draw whips and many millions fast, is not my story, nor is it ours.  It's his.  Jesus Christ may well be the stranger who comes to town, but, good Lord!, He is now and forever, the man who goes on a trip.

Here's where I've always been wrong.  I thought it was my story.  And it is.  

But what I missed is that it's really his.  

His.  

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

150 years ago--the General's speech

File:General Gideon Johnson Pillow.jpg

Just a day or two more than 150 years ago, a correspondent of the Chattanooga Daily Rebel reported that a General Gideon Johnson Pillow, a Confederate military man blessed with an unfortunate name, gave a powerful speech to slaveholders of Madison County, Alabama, with the express purpose of cajoling them into giving their slaves to great cause of the Confederacy.  It was February, 1863.  "He showed conclusively," that reporter's account of the speech says, "that interest, as well as patriotism, should induce every man to use his property to strengthen our army, and to sustain our cause." 

"'Let no one,' the reporter wrote, quoting Gen. Pillow, 'delude himself with the idea that he can, by the avowal of Union sentiments, or by proving false to his country, preserve his property from the ravages of the foe."

The reason for such unthinkable action as introducing slaves into the ranks of the glorious Army of the Confederacy was what General Pillow called the Union Army's "war of plunder."  "Their intention," he said of Lincoln and the Yankees, "is to make slaves of the white men of the South."  

Apparently, General Pillow's argument raged on.  "The poor men have given their sons, the rich men have given their sons, you, all of you, have given your sons," he argued, "and now are you unwillling to give a portion of your negroes to serve as teamsters, to take the place of the brave men who would do good service as soldiers, but who are now engaged in driving wagons?"

To Gen. Pillow, such practice made no sense.  Surely their negroes could drive the wagons.

Gen. Pillow's own property had already disappeared because of the War of Northern Aggression. He told the slaveholders that he himself had lost 400 of his slaves "by force of arms." What was worse, he'd learned that those slaves were now suffering from all manner of disease and were begging the enemy to be returned to him with pleas that went incomprehensibly and brutally unanswered.

"The General's speech abounded in sound views and practical suggestions," the Rebel reporter opined.

The images of the institution of slavery that stay in my mind were created by whips and nooses.  But beneath that bloody horror lies the very real conviction that seems impossible today to understand--the opinion that some people thought other people were their property, as if a man were really an anvil or a woman a broom.

General Gideon Johnson Pillow held forth admirably 150 years ago in Madison County, Alabama, February, 1863, his passionate speech reported by a thoughtful newspaper correspondent.  "I cannot do more than give this brief abstract of what he said," that man wrote, "omitting, as I am compelled to do, many of the best portions of his speech."

Just 150 years ago.
_______________________
from The American Civil War Gazette

Monday, February 25, 2013

Morning Thanks--"The Old Rugged Cross"


There is, in a church we've been attending, a fairly significant chunk of history in the pew, two versions of the denomination's Psalter Hymnal.  I don't know why exactly.  One could speculate a sweet answer, that the old one, the blue one, contains some favorites no one wanted to lose when the new one passed them by.  But the truth, at least in the history of the denomination I'm a part of, is probably less generous and more plain stubborn--some people, doggone it, wanted no part of change. 

Still, yesterday, when we sang "The Old Rugged Cross," a hymn that must rank among the most popular of the 20th century, the pastor had to import it into the bulletin because neither Psalter had it.  Weird, I thought.  I wonder why not?

To that question, there is an answer, I'm sure, and there may be a good one, even if it's not sweet. The denomination of which I'm a part has a powerful history of musical censorship. In fact, the Christian Reformed Church cut its teeth on policing church music, that penchant running all the way back, at least, to 1619 in the Netherlands at the Synod of Dort.

Now there are two views of history, of course.  One belongs to Henry Ford ("history is more or less bunk") and the other to William Faulkner ("history is not was, it is").  Choose your weapon.  But when the lyrics of "The Old Rugged Cross" got itself printed in the order of worship because that immensely beloved old favorite wasn't in a half century of CRC hymnody, I couldn't help wonder why.

Hang on. Pure speculation follows.

Theory One (theological):  The hymn essentially worships the cross, worships the suffering of Jesus, worships the horror, not the ecstacy of the resurrection.  That, some would say, is misplaced worship.

Theory Two (also theological):  The hymn promises a species of work righteousness.  Someday, we'll exchange this fetish-istic "old rugged cross" for a heavenly crown, which is to say, we'll cash in our chips for piece of our own salvation. Redemption seems somehow related to our treasuring a cross dearly enough to merit eventually exchanging our holy piety for salvation. 

Theory Three (theological and historical):  This old favorite offers a view of heaven and earth that is thoroughly "American evangelical," but not particularly Reformed (for better or for worse), a view encapsulated in the phrase "to a home far away," which is perfectly normal to some Christians but unsatisfactorily "other worldly" to others, Platonic in origins.  You know--what goes on in this life is horror so let's all wish for heaven.  That sort of thing.  Unreformed.

Theory Four (historical):  Something in the hymn's character feels, well, vaguely Roman Catholic, in that among the Roman Catholics, historically at least, there existed what some Protestants undoubtedly felt was a unnecessary and even somewhat masochistic desire to emulate Christ's suffering to, once again, earn salvation (think Luther down on his scraped and bloody knees).  Somewhere along the line, early 20th century, among thorough-going Protestants such as those who created the earliest Psalter Hymnal, there existed an richly furnished anti-Papist vein. Clinging to the old rugged cross felt, well, unhealthily cultic , sort of, you know, Central American.

Theory Five (geographical):  The man who composed the hymn did so just down the road from Holland and Grand Rapids, MI.  In fact, the church where it was first performed in 1913 (you read that right--it's exactly a century old this June) stands there yet today, a west Michigan landmark, complete with museum.  George Bennard was a Methodist preacher with a Salvation Army background, preaching the Word at miniscule revival in tiny frame church in a little town named Pokagon.  I'm speculating here too, of course, but what I'm blindly asserting is that we may well save our deepest animosities for those with whom we live. Maybe if Bennard was from, say, southern Ohio, "The Old Rugged Cross" would be in the hymnals.  

I don't know, but that's all I can come up with. If I was a real historian, I'd do the research and find out, but I'm retired and neither am I a theologian.

Anyway, the bottom line is, even though it wasn't in either Psalter, yesterday in morning worship that old classic hymn got sung and it got sung heartily.  Somewhere, I'm sure, some highbrow theologian was wincing in his grave.  

I can't speak for everyone who was there, but I honestly think I'm no worse for the wear.  

Look, for that old hymn I can log some reservations myself, but this morning I'll offer morning thanks for a hymn that may well be more than a little sentimental but that has for exactly 100 years been a treasure for millions and millions of believers.  

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Sunday Morning Meds--the whole bloomin' story


“The Lord is my Shepherd”

I have a cold.  It started at least a week ago, crept up from the back of a scratchy throat to annoy whatever glands back there get annoyed by cold germs, eventually leadened my head, scratched at my eyes, made my nose run, and gave my breath a raspy edge.  What I cough up isn’t pleasant.
 
Five years ago I had back surgery.  I’m not sure how it happened, but a slice of vertebrae actually broke off and ended up in something like a nerve shaft—at least that’s what I was told.  I spent an entire day wrenched in pain, trying to find a position that offered relief.  There was none.  Hence, the scalpel.  My back is better today, although I don’t need a calendar to know the seasons change. 

My wife’s mother is not well.  She has spent most of her as a victim of diabetes, and that disease is taking its toll.  She can’t see well and her balance is not to be trusted.  A few weeks ago she fell, hit her head hard enough to start to bleed.

I dreamed, just last night, that some friends of our lost a son in Iraq.  What I remember is his mother bawling uncontrollably, something I’d never seen her do.  Their son is not in the military.  Where do bad dreams come from?

We worry almost incessantly—my wife and I do–about our children.  They are both adults and they both live here, and sometimes I wish they didn’t so I didn’t have to know every time they have a mishap or our precious little grandchildren have a cold or scrape a knee.  I wish I didn’t have to register their vicissitudes as if they were my own.  I love them dearly, but before I became the parent of adult children, I could never have guessed how much time such parents can consume worrying about them.

My sister had breast cancer a few years ago.  Last year—just about this time—my father died.

A friend of mine once said she wished that FCC would force television networks to air a specific message maybe six or seven times a day:  “YOU TOO WILL DIE.”  It’s altogether too easy, she says, for people to think that life is a Disney world.

“The Lord is my shepherd” is one of those biblical phrases that resonate through the ages, like “For God so loved the world” or “In the beginning God created heaven and earth.”  Basically, they all say the same thing—he cares. That’s the simple blessed truth.

“The Lord is my shepherd.”  When people can repeat those words from the heart, they’ve got the whole truth of Holy Scripture. 

Life is no bowl of cherries or box of chocolates.  We’re all walking down a path that leads in the same direction—to a hole in the ground.

But the Lord is my shepherd.  I shall not want.  That’s the whole bloomin' story and nothing but, the simple lesson of this great psalm, and the theme of every song of the holy scripture.  It’s that easy and it’s that good. 
           
Don’t trust me either—I’ve got a cold.  Trust him, the shepherd.
________________
Maybe a half dozen years ago and over a span of several years, I wrote psalm meditations, 365 of them, in fact, choosing the psalms on the basis of their invocation of outdoor themes.  Quite consistently, it seems, these meds garner this blog's broadest reading audience, but they certainly aren't current.  The news stories this meditation contains, for instance, are quite dated--I don't have the sniffles, my mother-in-law has been gone for a few years now, and although we still worry about our kids, a half-dozen years ago now our concerns were greatly different.  Two books came out of this long collection, Sixty and Sixty, and Honest to God.  Each of them included 60 meds--that means 240 or so stay, unread in my computer.  

Each Sunday I draw from that collection--we just finished Psalm 19; today, officially, we begin 23.


Saturday, February 23, 2013

Friday, February 22, 2013

Morning Thanks--the snow


One of the blessings of living on the plains is that nothing really sneaks up on you, not even tornados.  There's always heavenly hoopla first, just as there is for blizzards.  You just know something's a'comin'.  Out in the country, dark gray skies swarm in from somewhere in Nebraska.  Like royalty, snowstorms are officially announced before they make their entries--that's what Ralph Waldo says.

Announced by all the trumpets of the sky,
Arrives the snow, and, driving o'er the fields,
Seems nowhere to alight: the whited air
Hides hill and woods, the river, and the heaven,
And veils the farmhouse at the garden's end.

For forty years I tried to hector students into liking Emerson, and the campaign always began with "The Snowstorm," often, mid or late November, when just outside the window the grounds were mantled in the season's first snow.  Didn't help.  Mostly, those students kept their heads down, hoping I wouldn't call on them.

That Emerson's "Snowstorm" comes back to me just now isn't at all surprising because this morning, in ways I never could in all those forty years, I'm living those very lines.  We're a little short on hills here, but the land isn't deadpan flat. Woods and river run just north and west, and the barn outback and the farmhouse itself is gorgeously veiled in a bright new quilt the edge of storm laid down through the night.

We escaped carnage.  Kansas City got almost two feet.  From the perfectly dapper snowcap on the stump just outside my window, I'm guessing there's six inches, max.  But it's enough clean up the world for a few hours, covering everything with purity, a sinlessness that won't last, of course, but may well send me out back with a camera in a few hours.  It's perfectly gorgeous and immensely still.

Morning traffic on the highway is almost nil, a few hearty souls and, now and then, a plow out and about.  The tumult is over, the blizzard somewhere north and east.  Last night, snow falling heavily, we watched way too many episodes of Downton Abbey, the fireplace glowing and crackling in what Emerson called "the tumultuous privacy of storm."  Arizona and Florida have a great deal to offer Siouxlanders in February, but last night I wouldn't have traded places with anyone.

This morning the silence is profound, as if the world's ears were stopped with cotton.  

In a while, I'll have to shovel, not my favorite thing to do; but right now, the night's darkness seems almost to glow outside every window, the thirsty land around us and absolutely everything on it dressed glowingly in the seasons's finest livery.

And it's beautiful, purely beautiful.  



Thursday, February 21, 2013

Preachers and Churches


There’s an old blue Psalter Hymnal in the pews of the congregation we have been attending. There’s a newer edition, silver, parked there too. Soon a brand new one will be available, but I’m not sure what the people will do. The last couple decades have taken a toll, and I don’t know whether they have much more fight in them, at least not over a hymnal.

That big, old church sits in the middle of town. Up north and just outside of town is a congregation that gave up books altogether.  On Sunday, they read hymn lyrics from a projection screen wallpapered with landscapes.

Out here, east of town, a brand new congregation in an ex-used car dealership chooses not to brandish the denomination’s name. It’s a hybrid, hitched to a promise not to be what churches have always been, but instead to offer a gathering place for both the unchurched and the overchurched. Their people are mightily fervent, and I’m told their praise band rocks.

There’s a fourth, too, sort of mainstream, business-oriented, very healthy. People are happy to be there, proud to belong. They try to steer a middle course.

Four churches co-exist in a town of roughly 5000 people in the heart of a county full of Dutch-Americans, a place one might have called an ethnic ghetto not long ago, and still may be. If, by chance, you move here, and you have an inclination to be Christian Reformed, you’ve got vital choices. There’s no cookie-cutter.

Diversity, these days, is a glorious word, and I’m not sure we earn it exactly. After all, most people here are likely related, recite the same Apostles Creed, and likely know by heart the first Q and A of the Heidelberg Catechism.  But we're not what we were.  Then again, nothing is.

But if worship is talking to God, then all four use a slightly different language, and language is important. After all, people don’t laugh well if they don’t know the language; they don’t love well either. Only shared language carries our intimacy.

The latest Christian Courier’s cover story is remarkable because it documents a phenomenon that’s truly denominational news—the significantly high divorce rate between preachers and congregations in the denomination I’ve always been a part of. "Fractured Flocks: A Leadership Crisis in the CRC" begins with this fact:  pastor-church splits have increased over 500% in the CRC in the last ten years.  That's a lot of sadness.

But it’s also understandable. Matching preachers with churches was never easy, I’m sure, but it was likely much less hazardous when congregations were, in fact, shaped by a cookie cutter. No more.

I’m a member of a church that recently brought three names before the congregation, three candidates to be its pastor, all of whom had undergone extensive appraisals that outdistanced anything their grandparents had ever put to task, much less imagined. In the end, embarrassingly for everyone, not one the candidates passed muster, not one made the grade; and today the committee is back at work.

The CRC is not the only denomination that is suffering. Most are scrambling to keep alive what was once vital. Dozens of substantial reasons exist to explain why denominations are in decline; and most of those reasons, or so it seems to me, are sociological and not theological: the CRC is not in tough shape because of a bad hymnal, shoddy theology, or stifling traditionalism.

But that decline, no matter what it's cause, is especially tough on preachers, who, by the way, are also changing, who are looking more and more these days for long-term commitments that will suit their family’s own life choices. The pastor-congregation divorce rate has exploded for reasons which are perfectly, but sadly, understandable.

I once asked our seminary’s president to choose five really vital congregations in the denomination, and he did, without pause. Interestingly, the five he chose, he told me, weren’t alike in any way except this: their people were happy being what they were. One was active in inner city ministry; another was proudly high church; another was immensely community minded, yet another invested greatly in their worship, and etc.

Maybe what we need is a bishop—or else just some software for computer dating.

It’s a frightful and complex problem. For those who, like me, appreciate the CRC for its immense gifts, “Fractured Flocks: A Leadership Crisis in the CRC” is simply a must read, sturdily researched, 
carefully reasoned, and thoughtfully written.  

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Morning Thanks--heating oil



There are a million jokes, I'm sure.  Johnny Carson made a motif of 'em in his monologues, but then Johnny Carson was, originally, from Siouxland.  You know--just exactly how cold is it?

Cold enough that Starbucks sold coffee on a stick.

Cold enough that hitchhikers were holding pictures of thumbs.

Cold enough that when we milked the cows, we got ice cream.

Cold enough that our squirrels hurled themselves at the electric fence.

Cold enough that politicians had their hands in their own pockets.

Cold enough that my mail broke.

Cold enough that my neighbor's toupee flew south.

You know--dozens and dozens of jokes, right?  Yesterday the blistering wind was so cold it took off your face, but in a fit of cabin fever and with the knowledge that the Yankton Sioux actually lived in teepees right here, up at the bend in the Floyd, I decided I'd get my constitutional anyway. So I layered myself to the point where I resembled the Michelin Man and made my way outside, through the alfalfa and the trailer court, then up the highway, where I crossed the bridge. I wanted the trees, of course, a buffer; but to get there, I had to duck from a wind that numbed every square inch of exposed skin.

When I walked into the park, a pickup pulled off the highway, I swear.  It wasn't a friend--I mean, I didn't know the guy, and he had no idea who I was because he'd come up behind me and I was so bundled, hooded, and bent over against the wind that I was only barely recognizable as a human being.  He stopped out of sheer human mercy.

"You need a ride," he said.  He wasn't asking.

"No, no, no, no," I told him.  "I'm just getting my exercise."

I'm sure he left more sure he should have wrestled me to the ground and carried me away.

That's how cold it was.

So cold when I turned on the shower, I got hail.

So cold we ate jello with a jackhammer.

So cold hitchhikers held signs that said "anywhere."

Last week, it was freezing in the house when I woke up.  My wife said we ought to check that huge, buffalo-sized tank in the basement just to be sure, even though we'd already put most of our life-savings into the last fill of heating oil, a fill we simply assumed would last until next October.  I went down stairs.  The ancient gauge said a little less than a quarter tank.  I banged on it, and the thing flipped to zilch.  We were flat out.

The delivery man came by and said he used to have a route of 150 homes with oil furnaces.  He's down to 12, with good reason.  It cost us our inheritance.

That furnace has been running constantly for the last two days because it's so cold outside that shadows freeze.  Seriously, constantly.  

An old friend of mine, now long gone, told me that when he was a boy, they could tell how cold it was outside by the thickness of the frost on the nails sticking through the roof in their upstairs bedroom.

I'll tell you how cold it is--it's so cold that this morning, I'm thankful, I swear, for that frightfully expensive oil, enough of it at least to keep the house warm because this morning it's so cold that everybody's funds are frozen.  I swear it.

But I'm warm. Sort of.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Morning Thanks--Growing old


A half dozen years ago or so, when I thought seriously about leaving Dordt College, I went over to the their place to talk. My father had died, and I knew that talking to them was the closest I could come to getting the guidance I would have otherwise asked of my father.  After all, John Hulst had been the President of the college, retired now and still living in the same town a dozen years or more after leaving office.

He'd married us. At one time or another, he'd been my pastor, my colleague, my boss, and, in the later years especially, along with his wife, my friend. So we talked that morning for some time, about what would have been dramatic and even traumatic for me after some thirty years--leaving. And I remember thinking that it was somehow surprising how quickly he--and they--recommended that leaving for New Mexico could well be what God wanted me to do.

I doubt John Hulst ever considered alternatives without considering what he might have called "the Kingdom," Christ's; and their advice came couched in that comfort and assurance, that God would bless the decision for his Kingdom.

I didn't leave, and we stayed for a good reason, a family reason. But Saturday I was reminded again of that little discussion, of why I went to them for what I'd characterize as "fatherly" advice, and I was also reminded of what they'd suggested, that maybe God was telling me to leave.

Not long after, they moved away themselves for their own good, family reasons.

We'd become friends after his retirement through early morning workouts at the gym, where we and others, many of them our age, spent time lifting weights. Both of them were victims of polio long ago, and John's walk was deeply affected ever since.

As the 2008 Presidential campaign rolled along, conversations frequently sparked over politics; and there, in that place it was evident that showing any sympathy for candidate Obama was heresy. I was dressed down by former colleagues and friends who became deeply emotional because Obama was an abomination--he advocated the death of babies.  I didn't turn the other cheek; I might have, so I might have brought it on myself.  A t-shirt I wore just once, Obama's name across the front, made others' blood run cold.

Back then, privately, the others gone, the former Pres and his wife would assure me that they didn't believe Obama was a baby-killer or the anti-Christ.  They were on my side.

But they wouldn't say it aloud. In the political heave-hos in weight room, it was me against the rest.

In a way, I understood and was even proud of them. I brought on the condemnation, wearing that t-shirt.  I could have restrained myself more than I did.  There was nobility in their silence, I thought, because it was one thing for an old Vietnam-era rebel to take the side I did, and it was quite another for the former President, a man everyone honored and admired, to lean toward a candidate who whose birth in these United States was questioned.

In the last weeks of John Hulst's life, those moments came back to me. Five years later, I'm no less sympathetic to their silence, but it's been difficult not to perceive that their not pitching themselves into those bloody battles may have suggested the two of them were being imprisoned by their standing, by reputation, by the office he once held.  The weight of the institution they'd served so nobly may well have felt, at times, like a ball and chain.

I may be wrong, and others, deeply committed, may see this all as heresy and likely have; but this morning I'm wondering if this isn't a story about being reformed, which is to say, always reforming.

Thirty-some years ago, as members of the congregation the Hulsts attended, my wife and I were members of a monthly Bible study group, rich experiences I'll never forget because back then, no matter what scripture we were studying, we'd soon enough drop the gloves and go to war over the question of women in ecclesiastical office, a heated discussion about hermeneutics or how we read the Bible.  The other couples--all of them decades older than we were--would say no. We'd simply say, not so fast.  And off we'd go.  Oddly enough, those old couples became good friends.

In subsequent years the denomination I am a part of lost tens of thousands of members over the issue of whether women could be deacons or elders or pastors.  I don't know that we'll ever recover.

But Saturday afternoon, in a town five hours away, Rev. Dr. John B. Hulst was commemorated in a warm and lively celebration of life, a wonderful ceremony honoring a wonderful man, and a sermon was offered--thoughtfully, beautifully--by a woman.  She told us that while she hadn't know him long, she was impressed by the fact that in his later years he seemed clearly to grow.

Some would disagree mightily.  The old weight-room antagonists no longer rise with the sun to get their exercise at the gym, so I don't really know what they're saying; and all of this is not at all about politics.

But I thought that woman's part in the commemoration was blessed, not only because of how beautifully and comfortingly she said what she did, how she celebrated his life, but also because of how her saying it from the pulpit of that church finished an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.

An old friend of mine used to say that sanctification is a myth because most old people he knew were grumpy and bitter, frightened, less capable of living in the bright and open air of God's bountiful grace.

Not John Hulst.  If I'm right, that explains why he suggested to me that leaving the college he'd served throughout his life might well have been what God wanted. That explains how it was a woman preacher, a friend, who did his homily.

This is what I'm thankful for this morning--that John Hulst didn't get worn or fearful or bitter.

This morning especially I'd like to think that's true because yesterday was my own 65th birthday.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Sunday Morning Meds--an intro to Psalm 23


For years, my wife worked in an office full of college recruiters, people who have one of the toughest jobs in the world—sweet-talking kids into coming to this college as opposed to the one down the road, where an equally capable band of sooth-sayers are also sweet-talking the very same kids.

When I went to college, I sent in an application. No one came to see me, no one courted me, no one promised me scholarships. Today, we live in a different world.

The recruiters have a system of describing the students they talk to; they identify certain of them as being “sure things,” some as “iffies,” and some as “tough sells.” Some they call “hm's” for “high maintenance.” More often than not, “hm” is a category created by their “helicopter parents,” parents who accompany them on college visits, then hover over them incessantly, even make a habit of calling the recruiters to hammer them into making scholarship offers more cushy.

All of us are “high maintenance,” really, or so it seems to me. We’re all high maintenance because, at least in part, even in tough economic times we have so much. We may be well-dressed, but are not cool emotionally--there’s never been as great a demand for psychologists.

Psalm 23 is all about high maintenance. It’s about what God does to us, and for us. No Psalm is likely as frequently recited or recite-able, I’d say; and the reason is clear. While, in North America especially, we might be proud to say that we to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, we also all love to be loved.

David is as high maintenance as any of us—read his bio sometime; but he knows where his comfort lies, that is to say, in whose hands. We all love to be loved.  We all love to be sheep in the arms and the love of a good shepherd.

“For you are with me.” That’s what this most famous psalm is all about. We are loved.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Morning Thanks--Herbie



On the field, he was in the tradition of Eisenhower, I swear.  Not Patton, Eisenhower.  He was, by character, not a pusher or a screamer, but someone who, back then, led by sheer example.  

He was a catcher, the catcher, the field general of our baseball team--of our teams really, because the two of us played ball on the same team from fifth grade to high school graduation, 1966.  I don't remember playing anywhere other third base, and I can't begin to imagine anyone else behind the plate. 

He was and is quintessential to my childhood because, as a kid, nothing moved me like baseball.  I loved basketball too and even learned to love football.  Track was fun, but winning was totally singular--if I did well, it was only me who did it, no one else. Baseball required nine of us, a team.

And we were good at baseball.  Six months ago, I swear, sifting through a lifetime of trinkets and goofy fetishes meaningless to anyone else, I tossed a bunch, including a baseball that had no words scribbled on it, no autographs, nothing to distinguish it from any scrub ball you could pick up in the weeds behind some small-town diamond.  I knew what it was because in our last league game, the championship, that baseball ended up in my Rawlings and stayed with me from my eighteenth year, a museum piece.

I threw it away in June because I figured no one would ever treasure it, no child of mine would ever want it, and as far as I knew no one on earth knew its origins and worth.  Now I wish I hadn't.

I wish I could hold it right now because the catcher died this week, didn't wake up one night, wasn't sick or in hospice care, simply didn't wake up; and in a way, I'm envious, not because he's gone--I'm sure he wouldn't have chosen to leave, nor would I; but because the end came so neatly that anyone his age, me included, can't help but hope for something roughly similar.  

And it wasn't like him to die without a fight because he was a competitor.  I have film clips in my memory I'll never lose--the way squatted behind home, the way he'd hover on his feet to block those drop balls Reggie didn't quite get to the plate, the way he'd roar when describing some kid trying to get wood on one of those wild drops.  I can see him showing us the whacky way those poor guys whiffed, I can hear the explosions of laughter, see the sweat around his forehead from the mask, hear the clacking of those shin guards he'd wear even when we weren't on the field. And I'll always see him coming out from behind the plate to signal the outs with an upraised horned right fist, making dang sure everyone knew there were two down, one to go. Dead seriousness went into baseball, Oostburg, Wisconsin, mid-60s.

He was a public school kid and I wasn't, so even in a burg as small as the town we came from, he was a stranger for a while, even a villain, as all public school kids were.  But we started playing ball together in pee-wees, the two of us and our good buddies totally enthralled with a rollicking coach we loved, dragged from town to town in a backseat with a few too many empty Blatz cans.  By eighth grade, we played B-team, town softball, and what we called Pony League, minor leagues for high school baseball.  

All those hours are still registered in my memory, even if the individual battles are long gone.  In every last one of those memories, Herbie is behind the plate, the field general, running the show, forever running the show.

It doesn't surprise that his obituary says he umpired high school baseball for 30 years, doesn't surprise me at all.  He was very much at home right there behind the plate.

In college, my coach took a look at my posterior, noted the strength of my arm, and decided I was going to be a catcher.  I thought it was sacrilege.  I never really dared to tell Herb because to me there could be no other catcher than Herb Roerdink.

My mother told me a story back then, a story about Herb long before his life began.  She told me she'd always loved his dad because he was such a good time when she'd go over to visit her grandma in Oostburg.  I asked her why Herb's dad was always there.  She said Herb, Sr., was a  nephew of my great-grandma, a woman I never knew.  He was a nephew and an orphan because his parents died tragically in a fire in Oostburg more than a century ago.  So my great-grandma had taken in little Herb, Sr., and raised him, when her own kids were already gone.  "He was like a brother," my mother said.  "He was so much fun."

It's probably a story that no one knows anymore, no one but my mother; but it's also a story that fills in the portrait of Herbie, the catcher, Herbie my friend, because he's always been, in a way, a relative.  I honestly don't think I ever mentioned that story to him--it just didn't matter to the game.  

But it mattered to me, and it still does, because it helps me understand why his death hit me so hard. There's a small town story there, a long story, a generational story that city folks will never, ever understand, and that's okay.  In an odd way, Herb died in my world.

I've seen Herb only a few times in the last half-century.  What's more, I'm an inveterate graveyard wanderer, and I read obits in local papers these days as if they were the news--because they are. But when an old high school friend sent me an e-mail and said Herbie was gone, I was stunned because my world was simply not the same.  

I just wish I had that ball.  

I won't miss him like his family will, but all week long, 500 miles away, believe me, I've mourned his passing.  

To him, it won't be long at all before the rest of the team comes to where he is, and when it happens, good Lord!--I'd love to look down the line from third base to see the field general back there once more behind the plate.  And then, once again, we'll play.  And win.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Morning Thanks--Valentine's Day


Long ago, I wrote a feature story on a woman who'd spent most of her life as a stenographer in courtrooms where ex-lovers ripped each other apart in divorce proceedings.  That was 1980 or so, and I'd been married only eight years; but I swore, at the time, that I knew what that woman meant when she told me that as she hammered those keys she'd be telling herself that it was plain ridiculous those husbands and wives had to split.  After all, the horrors they'd recount weren't a whole lot worse than the trials and tribs she'd gone through herself in her own marriage--or those any married person did, for pete's sake, she said.

That line struck me as brutal in its honesty, so revealing that I wondered if she'd actually let me say it in the piece I wrote for the magazine. She did, which is probably why she made a good subject in the first place.

I once wrote another story on a couple from Brazil who'd come to Christ by way of a radio ministry. Before they were Christians, they told me, they fought like cats and dogs.  In fiery Brazilian fashion, she explained how one angry night she'd simply gone to the cupboard, pulled out every plate and cup, and smashed them, one by one, up against the kitchen wall.  

They stayed together, and I'm happy to report that while my wife and I no longer have the dishes we had when we were first married, if they're around at all they're not shattered--at least not by our hands. It never got that bad. 

I never saw my parents fight.  My sisters claim they did, although their memories of Mom and Dad's bickering are remarkably scant.  Not until they were really old did I ever think my parents were in any way unmerciful to each other, although my mother was legendarily dependent, my father a world-class enabler, IMHO. 

But if some Las Vegas type had made book on the viability of our marriage four decades ago, when we got married in a fever right down the road in a church we now quite regularly attend, the odds would have made betting idiotic, both of us raised in intact households where divorce was akin to a ticket to hell, both of us life-long church folks, educated to believe that this world belonged to God.

But exceptions prove the rule, and divorce happens.  Our first experience happened just three years after we were married, when a good buddy, a fellow teacher, told us he was leaving his wife for a woman he taught with, a woman who, he said, he simply couldn't live without. Shit happens, often enough close to home.

It's ironic, I suppose, that Valentine's Day is what it is because of death. Long ago, a priest named Valentine lost his head for wedding lovers who wanted to get hitched despite a royal prohibition against marriage  Maybe it isn't odd or ironic--maybe death will always champion lovers.  Think Romeo and Juliet.  

Facebook will be goofy with over-the-top protestations today, I'm sure.  I think I'll stay away. More than a decade ago, in a church where people aired their prayer requests, a man my age quite regularly stood up to say how blame thankful he was for his loving wife, who did this or that or the other wonderful thing.  "Joys and concerns" that ceremony was called, and his were joys.  But we should have been concerned.  Not long after, he climbed in an 18-wheeler and left forever.  

We're forty years into our marriage, my wife and I, and, honestly, we have no harrowing tales.  Life is good.  In fact, we're building a house, something neither of us ever, ever imagined doing.  We're actually building a house.

But long, long ago, the Lord in his infinite mercy and love determined to keep us together, and in love; and this day, this St. Valentine's Day, the day the priest lost his head, my morning thanks really goes without saying but I will anyway:  I'm thankful that the two of us still rise joyfully to meet the morning, happy with that first cup of coffee, and blessed, truly, that we've never done much at all but love each other. 

After forty years, we're actually building a house, but we long ago had a home.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Morning Thanks--Teacher and students



Here's the thing about teaching when you're an old fart.  Last week, when a group of students reported, excellently I might add, on their view of plot structures and the writing strengths of the movie Chariots of Fire, I thought they went just a little overboard about the movie's fulsome Christian character, as if the film was a Sunday School teacher. It isn't, so I became one.

There's no doubt Chariots casts the Christian as a hero for standing on principle and refusing to run an Olympic preliminary race on Sunday; but mostly, I told them, its favor rests on Eric Liddel, a devout Scottish Presbyterian, because he can run and because he determines that God is more important than "old England."  

His Jewish rival, the sprinter Harold Abrahams, is not so favorably featured, even though he too becomes a gold-medalist.  But Abrahams was only concerned about himself, they reported.  He didn't care about anyone else, was no team player at all.  He didn't care much about "old England" either.

It's understandable why they would read the movie's characters that way--in how many shows can one find a protagonist so openly Christian, so perfectly righteous, and so great a champion?

They did well, but I tried to tell them that if they believed that the purpose of the film was to glorify God, they're probably mistaken.  Does it do that?  Well, it values someone who believes that; but the film isn't a sermon on Sabbittarianism.  Besides, what may have looked so valiant in 1920, seems rather foolishly parochial today, even to a culture, like mine, which once was exceedingly Sabbittarian.

I also told them that if we were watching this movie at Yeshiva University, and we were all Jewish, our sympathies would be rooted elsewhere.  It's Abrahams, after all, who's taken up the banner of fighting racism.  It's Abrahams, the Jew, who feels despised and rejected by "old England." It's Abrahams whose sole purpose in running faster than everyone else is to right the damned wrongs of the old ways, a petrified society that has tolerated Jewishness but really never found a place its Jewish people--and is, in fact, racist.  If we were Jewish, I told them, we'd like Harold Abrahams a lot more than we do.

Downton Abbey jumped into my mind, because its character is in part also created by the death of "old England" after the First World War. The England whose ships ruled the world, colonizer extraordinaire, pre-eminent world power, had its character changed by the "war to end all wars."  Old England is in hospice care in both shows, even though the country doesn't quite understand it yet.

"I got it," I said, "how about Downton Abbey?--you know Downton Abbey?"

Silence.

"Any of you?"

Nope.

"None of you watch Downton Abbey?"

Not one.  

Woe and woe and woe.  There goes my brilliant analogy and my own Sunday School lesson.  

My wife says, and she's right, that when you're in college, you've no time for TV and that therefore, I shouldn't be surprised when not one of my students--in "Screenwriting" in fact--knew a thing about Downton Abbey

But I couldn't help thinking right at that moment that I live in a whole different world. 

Here's the thing about teaching when you get old. Sometime you find yourself (pardon an unforgivably mixed metaphor) strung up, hung, on a different wave length altogether.  Like a few years ago, when The Kings Speech won the Oscars and True Grit was a runner-up. "Great movies," I said to my class.  None of them had seen either. "What do you watch?" I asked.  Inception, someone said, and they all--to a person--nodded belovedly.

There's good reason for retirement, believe me. You lose your way because in the passing of generations the shared markers are just plain gone.  You feel like a character from the Abbey, for pity sake. You can only hope for the best.

But last night, a young guy, a filmmaker, who is where some of my students would like to be a decade from now, trying to find a place in a film-making world, showed up as requested and spoke to them about life in the real world (there are no reels anymore, so you can't use that ancient pun).  I asked him to talk about great movie making, and in class he showed us a cut from the Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a meticulously paced few moments where images say absolutely everything, where there is no need for dialogue at all because visually the story is right there--no computer graphics, no shoot-'em-up violence, nothing wild or banal or horrifying, nothing to wince, everything to make you stare.  My guest showed them art.

It was the same story just a couple weeks ago.  Another guest, a screenwriter from Hollywood, showed us a segment from There Will Be Blood, when once again the confluence of cinematic arts was jaw-droppingly effective. It was the scene of the first gusher, when the oil man's son is hurt and his fortune is made, a scene choreographed so stunningly well that your mind can't wander.

What I'm saying is that both guests made my students watch art, and they did, and they understood the nexus of diligence and craft, sheer hard work, and just plain beauty.

There's that too.  Sometimes the teacher leads and the students see.  When that happens, you can't help but think you could have done worse with your life.  

And that too is a good reason for morning thanks.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Morning Thanks--Birthdays, 2/12


From a distance--and from north of the Mason-Dixon--it seems all but impossible to understand the legitimacy of what created, 150 years ago, the American Civil War, the institution of slavery.  How on earth could good people go to war to protect the right to own--to literally own--other human beings? 

The best answer is probably Marxist in theory: the South went to war to protect their bankrolls, their entire way of life. More than anything else, slavery created the economic structure of Southern society, and when the Federals got too close to destroying it with their moral braying about "the coloreds," there was only one course of action--secession. The South left the Union, and the Federals flowed in in what may well still be called, by some, the War of Northern Aggression.

For the most part, we have come to judge Abraham Lincoln as the closest mortal we have to a Savior for guiding the Union through a storied conflict that pitted brother against brother.  And he is an unlikely hero--tall and even a little clumsy, rough hewn as some gnarly cottonwood, a bumpkin almost totally uneducated. Still, Lincoln, historians say, was blessed with wisdom that far transcended yours and mine.  His death at the Ford Theater only enhanced the reign; he died a martyr.

Lincoln was born today, February 12, 1809, somewhere in a log cabin in the woods outside of a gathering of frontier frame shacks with a name that itself blesses the myth abundantly, a town called Hodginville, Kentucky.  Whatever good could come from such a place?--people might say.  The answer is Abraham Lincoln.

In Shropshire, England, on that very day, another babe was likely slapped into first breath, another boy child, a man who would travel the world, studying flora and fauna during a time when England had put itself generally in charge of world politics.  Eventually he made it down to a string of islands where he was sure he noticed something particularly interesting, that birds and animals had somehow developed differently, due to the characteristics of their particular surroundings.  

That observation led him to put significant stock into an idea about the origins of life, something called "the theory of evolution," an idea so extraordinary, so "out there," that he waited twenty years to say it publicly, confident that it would certainly be seen as "unChristian."

It's quite the amazing juxtaposition, really--those two men, giants in their time, mythic even today, born on the very same day an ocean apart.  Who in either bedroom would have ever believed that those tiny babies would change the world?  

Wherever Christians believed that what the Bible said about Noah's son Ham somehow made slavery defensible, Lincoln was hated.  Some skinheads and lamebrains, I suppose, still do.  And Darwin?--he's still indefensible among hosts of believers. He may have waited twenty years to think out loud; he could easily still be waiting, 150 years later.

The list of names that rise from the history of the 19th century, the celebrities, you might say, has to include Lincoln and Darwin, top of the list, no matter what you think or believe of them. 

They're reason enough this morning, for morning thanks.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Dr. John B. Hulst, 1930-2013


I wasn't proud of what I'd done, what we'd done.  The phone calls had come for more than a year, even though we lived in different apartments. They'd come during vacations, when the likelihood of it being some insanely playful student buddy was not only unlikely but impossible.  They'd come always at the same time, late afternoon.  They'd come from the same trembling voice, someone, a male.  

Being the target of twisted sexual come-ons was a mystery and, finally, a really bad joke.  Had we been responsible, we would simply have hung up; but we weren't. After a half dozen bouts of heavy breathing, we played the caller, told him we were anxious for some backseat action.  "Where?--Where do you want to meet"?" I'd say, trying to get him to do more than simply call.  We wanted badly to know who this guy was.  

The night we did, there was three of us in the car, me driving, two others in the back seat armed with baseball bats, as if we were going to roll a queer.  

That night we chased him for miles on a gravel, then lost him in an adjacent town.  But we'd seen the station wagon he was driving clearly enough to identify it when we sat along the highway waiting for him to drive back home. And when we did, we gave chase, both of us pushing our speedometers close to 100.  There was no doubt this was the man.

A red light stopped us, the one in the heart of Sioux Center, right downtown.  It was a man we knew, not well, but a man we clearly recognized when, in the right lane, we simply drew up beside him.  What I'll never forget is the baby seat beside him, one of the old ones that hung over the front seat.  What we'd made fun of, what we'd played like a game, what we'd thought was sick but miserably funny, was a secret, furtive passion that would slay this guy, this businessman, this churchman.  

It was the end of our senior year, spring of 1970, and seeing who it was and recognizing what it must have taken to prompt him to call us and then to listen to us wring more from his own  forbidden secrets was horrifying.  Our play had become this man's demise.

At that point in my life I was sick and tired of the Pharisaical community of foolish Christian people I'd been living in for four years.  In May of 1970, four college students were shot at Kent State University for marching against the war in Vietnam. On this college campus, jam-packed as it was with young Republican Nixon-backers, I'd sided politically with hippies and Yuppies, the radicals who wouldn't trust anyone under 35, kids in bellbottoms, long-haired freaks who sat in parks, crossed-legged, smoking dope as if it were worship.  

I had no use for the Christian college I'd been at for four years because I knew very well most of its sweet children had no time for me.

But that night guilt brought us to the office of the campus pastor, where we told the whole story in lurid detail, a recitation that didn't skimp on our own sin and misery, a recitation that was at least partly a confession of sin.

We went to the campus pastor, not because we thought he'd be sympathetic. We went to him, honestly, because we knew that the man driving that station wagon needed help and the campus pastor went to the same church.  We went to his office because something ached in us, something had broken.

We told him how this man's calls had come for two years, how we'd learned how to crank up the lust that must have driven him to pick up the phone, time after time after time.  

The campus pastor said very little.  He didn't scold, didn't berate us, didn't make us go before the Discipline Committee.  He thanked us for coming and and promised he would deal with the man on the other side of that baby seat.

And he did.  A week later, he told me that he'd gone to the man and told him the story we did, and that the man owned up to it and swore he would get help.  That's what he told me.  

I'll never forget thinking about how insanely difficult it must have been for him even to approach the burning in that man's soul.  It was impossible for me not to see and hear how radically different what the campus pastor must have said to that man was to what I had said, far too often, on the other end of a phone line.  I couldn't imagine doing that.  In a way, I needed to learn what I couldn't imagine.

I've told that story before. What happened to the business man isn't pretty.  In the sad and pitiful journey of his life, we didn't help.  Lord knows, we didn't help.

But what prompts me to tell the story this morning is my recognition of grace in the caring faith of that campus pastor, a man I honestly thought, back then, to be hamstrung by small-town self-righteousness, the very symbol of pietism gone to seed. He and the college he served were worried about beards, for heaven sake, what they might look like to the locals paying the bills. He and the college he served would toss kids from dinner lines for wearing jeans and not the obviously more Christian khakis. He and the college he served were fiddling some two-bit hymn while cities and college campuses across the country were aflame.  

That night, however, the enormity of what we'd done put us on our knees; he must have recognized that because he handled our confession as if it were as heartfelt as it was. 

Something in me changed when I imagined those two conversations--mine and his.  The difference--the eternal difference.

Two years later, he married my wife and me--he was her childhood pastor.  Six years later, ironically, we became colleagues at the college whose ethos I so despised when I'd left it behind.  A dozen years later, he became the second President of that college.  Two decades later, when he retired, he and his wife and I worked out together in the weight room of the college gym in the early morning hours of the day, three times a week, bouts of laughter amid bouts of thoughtful conversation.

What began in a late-night impromptu visit to the campus pastor's office ended in profound respect, in deep friendship, and abiding love.  

Last week, John B. Hulst died. Sincere, trusting, moderate, judicious, he led by example, by precept, by principle, because he was, first of all, a deeply principled man.  He was--and he'd deny it vigorously--the Calvinist version of a saint.  Honestly.

There are a ton of stories I could tell, but none of them is quite as memorable to me than the one I've tried to tell here, the one in which Dr. John Hulst showed me clearly what it meant to be a man of grace.

This morning, I'm more than thankful for his blessed place in my life.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Sunday Morning Meds--Amazing Grace



“then I will be blameless, innocent of great transgression” Psalm 19

On May 10, 1748, John Newton, the captain of a slave-trading ship got to his knees in his study and, in the roiling violence of an ocean storm, begged for mercy because he was sure he and his men and his cargo of slaves were going down.  They didn’t.  When he was a boy, his mother had given him early training in Christianity, but Newton had not, by his description, ever before come near unto God.

When that storm subsided, he began to speculate that God Almighty had spoken to him, and done so that night in the language of the storm.  He began to believe in God, and he marked that day as the day he was brought to the Lord, the day of his “great deliverance.”

No one knows exactly when he wrote the most famous hymn of all time, “Amazing Grace,” but any rendition of that beautiful old tribute to the love of the Lord is richer by far if we know it was penned by a slave-trader, on his knees in a storm-worn cabin, begging for the deliverance he graciously received—and more.
 
Newton likely never had a clue about the worldwide love for the  hymn he wrote.  You can’t help but wonder whether he picked up the paper after the final version, looked at it on the page as all poets do, nodded appreciatively, then put it down again—you can’t help but wonder if he knew “Amazing Grace” would be beloved where’er believers worship—and even where they don’t.   

He couldn’t have, but it’s a measure of the truth of the words of his hymn that it happened, because grace itself, our precious gift from a loving Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, took that sheet of paper and gave it to the little girl who will sing it in your church next Sunday.
           
David is closing up Psalm 19 now, shaking his head in wonder at the blessings of grace.  He’s asked forgiveness for the sins he doesn’t even know he’s done, and then begged righteousness for those times when he’s been presumptuous—those which he seemingly can’t control and those that he tragically can.  All of that darkness needs to go, he insists, because only then, only by a bath in grace, can he be blameless before the God he loves.

Grace is amazing, really.  It made John Newton cower in his storm-tossed ship, then freed him from his own sin.  Grace is the foundation of providence, the basis by which we live in God’s favor; and yet, it’s the very marrow of forgiveness, our only comfort in the darkness of our sin. 
           
It’s grace that shows us our sin—without it we’re blind.  It’s grace that acquits us—without it we would never be clean.  It’s grace that restrains—without it we’d be bound for the next available garbage pit.  Grace forgives and empowers.  Without it, we’re nothing.  It is truly amazing; and as Psalm 19 draws to a close, David seems almost to be counting the ways he loves the Lord.

“Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,” Newton wrote; “and grace will bring me home.”
           
It’s all grace.  Truly amazing.