Morning Thanks

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

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The New House of Orange

I am thankful to Berendina Eman, a Dutch citizen and Resistance fighter, who taught me, by the sheer emotional power of her conviction, what royalty means.  My own residual "Dutchness" goes only so deep and includes modes and manners I'm largely unaware of--how I eat potatoes and why we have peppermints in our cupboards, even though they don't always go to church.

I remember asking a Navajo man, as politely as I could, why he kept sheep, because sheep these days don't pay the bills.  He looked at me as if I'd gone loco--of course he had sheep; he was Navajo. 

But this Dutch royalty business was far beyond me until Diet Eman told me how angry she was with Queen Wilhelmina for skipping off to England after the German invasion, May, 1940.  She left, and Diet said she, and most of Holland, felt totally deserted.  "That was our Mother," she told me, in no uncertain terms.  I've never felt anything similar--not for Ike, for Reagan, for Bill or W, or Obama--not even Gerald Ford, even though he was born and reared in Grand Rapids. None of them are or have been any relation whatsoever. They're Presidents and leaders of the people, even of the free world; but not one of them comes anywhere close to being my father.

She got over it, of course, as did the Dutch in 1940.  When Wilhelmina was safe in England, she could still direct some cultural traffic and encourage the Dutch populace suffering under the heels of Nazi jackboots.  In London, she was free to speak her mind and love her people, even though she was far away.  Mother hadn't really deserted her family at all, Diet told me. She was, even in England, their mother.

The Dutch still revere their royalty.  The times are not so harrowing these days, although the economy is staggering somewhat because of broadly European problems. They don't need another mother probably--or another dad as they might have during the German Occupation.  But they got one, a new one in fact.  And he's handsome, and he's got a great-looking family, even if the new queen was born in Argentina. 

Wilhelmina died, her daughter Beatrix took over, and now Beatrix abdicated, left the throne, and gave the title, if not the crown, to her son, King Willem-Alexander. Right now, all of Holland is Orange.

It's not like England, I guess.  The world is buzzing because Kate's so cute and now with child--there's only a bit of all that hoopla.  Willem-Alexander and his wife have three darling, quintessentially Dutch-looking kids, but nobody goes stark raving mad over them.  In fact, it was a coronation without a crown, odd as that may sound.  Nobody put anything royal on Willem-Alexander's moppish head of Dutch hair.  In a whacky sort of perfectly Dutch way, it'll be there somewhere--the crown that is; but it won't grace the new King's head.  Go figure.

And he'd prefer not to be called "your majesty," I read.  Leave it to the Dutch to make their famous red-light district into something of a carnival and crown their new beloved royalty without one.  Weird place. But fun and always interesting. 

So, this fifth and sixth generation Dutch-American wishes them all the blessed best with their new king and queen and royal family.  I'd love to take a cruise down Amsterdam's canals and see the place bedecked in Orange.

Tell you what, this morning I'll pull on something orange myself, and then drive down the road to the town whose name is itself a celebration of that very royal family's very heritage.  Don't know if anyone else in Orange City will realize what I'm up to, but I'll lean one orange arm out of an open window and smile just as if I were at the Dam. 

Monday, April 29, 2013

Morning Thanks--Sand and the Wise Man

I think I needed a Sabbath rest. Not that the world was getting away from me, although it is; but there's a house going up just down the road, a new house, and it's ours, and it's more than enough to take your breath away.  I needed a Sabbath.

But they'll be at it again this morning, putting up the forms for the basement walls, I guess. The building process is so far out of my control that I feel like I do at an airport, where, once inside, you're simply out of your own control, nothing more than a fare, as passive as a possum. Here too.  It just goes--the building that is, and all I do, all I can do, is watch.

. . .and be shocked that we're actually doing it. We tried the country last summer, rented this century-old farm house, but the pheasant right outside my window right now, and a whole gang of creatures and an open sky and a wide landscape and a shallow river and towering cottonwoods--it all conspired seductively, and we couldn't help ourselves:  we fell in love.

We're too old to build a new house, our painter told us.  We're retired.  But there was no alternative domicile right here; if we wanted to stay, and we did, then we had to build.  We're not the "dream house" types, never have been.  We spend the last 30 years in a beautiful older home, more oak than most churches.  But we're doing it.  We're building. Takes your breath away.

The builder says Jesus wasn't right about everything. He says we've got a great place out here because what's beneath the basement floor, now poured and set, is nothing but fine river bottom sand, a foot of black Iowa earth and then sand as tan as a camel. A wise man builds his house upon a rock, the scripture says, because sand is no foundation.

Maybe theologically, the builder says.  But right here, on a rise just above the Floyd River, a wise man builds his house upon the sand, he told us, pointing at what the digger pulled out of a hole in the ground that will, soon enough, hold our new house.

Still, yesterday I needed a rest. The Bible was right about that. I needed a rest.

This morning's thanks are for a basement floor in a hole in the ground and a couple piles of sand, for a builder, and a skeptical painter, and a whole squad of people who'll be here to accomplish this-and-that-and-other-thing, while this possum does little more than watch.

Never thought we'd do anything like it, but we are. You're never too old to learn.

Listen, I spent way too much of my childhood in a Christian school to shelve the old children's song about wise men and substantial building materials.  That old ditty will be with me till I die. 

Still, this morning, I'm thankful too for all that sand.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Sunday Morning Meds--Meal-Making

“thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies”

That King David had real enemies is, I suppose, both a curse and a blessing. The curse was that his scalp was frequently in danger, from enemies both without—warring tribes—and within—his predecessor as King, as well as his own son. There were human beings who, quite literally, wanted him dead.

I can’t really say the same is true of me.  In a way, it’s a blessing, to have enemies so dauntingly verifiable.  It’s far more difficult for me to visualize who exactly might be lying in wait around the corner.  I honestly don’t know anyone who literally wants my life, nor why they would.

Not that I don’t have enemies.  I do, but the most villainous characters in my life are all in me.  I don’t need to look anywhere outside my own heart.

But it’s not me I’m thinking of this morning.  Yesterday I listened once again to the story of Pong, a thirty-something Lao immigrant whose English language skills required a translator for me to understand him.  I don’t know what nuance I may have missed because I don’t speak the Lao language, but Pong’s incredibly blameless smile, in the presence of his deep sadness, is a snapshot not unlike the one David offers in this verse.

Eight months ago, Pong’s wife left him.  Overnight, he found himself entirely bereft of those in life for whom he cared most.  But he wouldn’t consider her an enemy, even though she took their children and moved in with another man.  Today, he actually smiles.  If you were to see him in the video I made of the interview, if you were to hear him speak, watch him nod, see his gestures, you would not read shock or anger in his demeanor.  Pong seems, well, at ease.

 Why?  “I have God in my heart to help me,” he says with joy.

 This really brand-new believer claims the Bible tells him what’s really going on in his life and in all of our lives—specifically, that God’s love is a feast.  It’s God in him that makes him smile, he says, even though his wife’s leaving has brought great pain. 

This is what he told me:  he’s learned forgiveness from the master teacher, the God who has forgiven him.  The word of God is encouraging him to go on, he says.  The Holy Spirit strengthens him even more, he claims.  Even though he has seen his wife with another man, he can still smile and offer forgiveness.  “It’s very difficult to understand for someone who doesn’t have God,” he says.

How about this?  I think I know the Lord, but I too find his apparent peace baffling.

Through these months of separation, he says he and his mother-in-law have together grown closer to the Lord.  In their sadness and anger, God has blessed both of them with hope and joy.  The emptiness of his wife’s absence is real, but he does not despair.  God almighty has given him hope, and that blessed hope makes him smile.

Pong’s enemies—and he knows it—are anger, grief, and even hate; the smile on his face—you should see it, really—is a kind of feast, a celebration of joy and hope and love in company of darkness that threatens him as dangerously as enemy David ever feared. 

Patience, forgiveness, and joy—that’s the meal God has prepared for Pong.  That’s what he’s learned, he says, and that’s what he told me and taught me, the skeptic.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Raised Hands III--a silly story

Swart looked down at his watch and saw that it was already past eleven. They'd got on the subject because it came up constantly at family visiting. Item three on the agenda--three out of fourteen. With the point of his pen, he ran down the list--reports to classis, angry overtures, then finally, benevolence, missions. Maybe they'd just quit early, he thought. It was going nowhere. Frustration sat thick as fog. 

"Maybe we ought to pray," Jeannette Ludinga said, finally.

"Right now?" Wilmot said.

"Yes, right now," she told him.

He looked up at the clock. "Okay--but do we raise our hands or not?"

"We can do with less sarcasm, Fred," Pastor Tom said, and Wilmot pushed himself away from the table. "Prayer is a good suggestion," the pastor continued quietly. He looked around. Ferris was seething, and Wilmot pouting, jawing that chew. "Gene," the pastor said, pointing at Elder Swart, "Would you lead us?"

Pray, Gene Swart thought, now? He shook his head, then looked down at the missionaries whose photos were pressed beneath the glass of the consistory table. Once, years ago, he'd made profession in this room. He was 44 years old, and he had spent more hours than he could count meeting around this table with elders and deacons . . .

"Gene?" Pastor Andrew asked again, as if he'd not been heard.

“Pray?” he thought. Pray tell, for what? The air was thick with the stench of a battlefield, anger rising from the trenches on either side of the table. Aside from college, Lakeside had been Gene Swart's home church from the time he was twelve. He loved sitting there in silence before the service, waiting and worshiping with the people he'd known for a lifetime.

The council stared, waiting for him to pray.

For whom?--he wondered. For the Sibbelinks? For Elder Wilmot? For Nikki, hands raised. For the whole bunch?

He turned toward each of them, followed their eyes all the way around the circle of the table, holding his hands as he met their anxious eyes. Pray?–he didn’t have a clue to what to say because honestly and truly there was nothing to say but, like King David, let his bones groan. That was the only prayer. How on earth were they going to get out of this? Who on earth was he going to pray for.

He swallowed thickly, sniffed once or twice, wiped his nose with the back of his hand. Here in this very room where his father used to hold forth, he came to the judgment that there was only one real prayer really, only one need worth pressing right now, so he smiled, then stood, then raised his hands. He pulled his hands into fists when the rest of them didn't respond, and jerked his hands up again like a maestro until they were all on their feet, every one of them–each of the uppers and every last one of the downers too. And then he prayed, as requested.

"Lord," he said in a tremolo, "have mercy."

That's it.

Three words.

Then silence, and all of them–all twelve of them stood there around the old table, waiting for a blessing, waiting for someone, something to make a move, for someone to be slain in the spirit, all of them, looking from one to another, until, as if on cue, first Nikki, Swart, then Luddinga, then each and every one of those chosen twelve watched voicelessly as their hands were raised by something bigger than any of them had ever imagined could inhabit the room; and there they stood, all of them around that table, their hands raised in silence, until it was Wilmot of all people–until it was Wilmot who finally said it when no one else did, who raised his deep bass voice and said "Amen," with vehemence that even he regarded later as being born-again.

Think of them there around that table, their hands raised with the burden of their own sin. Think of them like the apostles, blessed beyond themselves.

It was a moment they tried to explain forever afterward. But you had to be there, they said. You really had to be there to know for sure what was in that room.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Raised Hands II--a silly story

(continued from yesterday. . .)

"Whatever the reason," Jeannette Ludinga said, "we can't tell people they can't do it in worship. We have to face that fact." She twisted her pen between her fingers as she spoke. "I'm not excited about it myself," she said, "but we're not about to ask the ushers to remove people who lift their hands."

"Of course not," Wilmot said, and the way he moved his jaw reminded Swart that the old man had a pinch of tobacco tucked behind his lower lip. "But that doesn't mean I like it," he said. "It sets up a hierarchy. That's what we're seeing now. Some do it, some don't. Those that do are blessed–maybe I’ll buy that–but those that don't are either full of guilt because they can't do it or mad as heck at those who do for creating all the stink. We got war, boys," he said, forgetting about the women around the table. "We got war here, and we got to do something about it."

Pastor Tom wasn’t about to weigh in because after five years at Lakeside Church he’d come to understand the difference between fools rushing in and wise men steering clear. But he couldn’t stay out long, and he knew it.

"What do the Scriptures say?" Elder Swart said, looking right at him.

Pastor Tom took in a deep breath. "The Bible tells us in several places," he explained quietly, "to lift up our hands to the Lord in praise."

"Well, then," Swart said, raising his hands again, as if the case were closed.

"Well, the Bible also says to pour on oil when we visit sick people," Wilmot said, "and it commands the brethren to greet each other with a holy kiss!” He raised a thumb, as if he’d ended the argument. But he was a roll. “And the book of Timothy, I think, says women aren't supposed to speak.” He pointed at Ludinga and Nikki Ferris. “So what on earth does the Bible have to do with this?"

Elder Swart looked back up at the picture of his father’s square jaw and suddenly felt as if the world were falling in on his and everyone else’s head, the whole consistory aboard a toboggan hurtling down some river-valley hill toward an inevitable crash.

Finally, when the silence had dragged on long enough, Pastor Tom nodded his head three or four times, and said, "Tell you what–I’m going to raise my hands myself on Sunday. That's what I've decided.” He raised a preacherly finger. “I'm going to do it myself."

Wilmot threw up his hands. "Now that's Spirit-filled all right," he said. "Go on and plan it ahead of time–write it into the liturgy, the way we do 'Amens,’” he said. "Put an asterisk in the bulletin--'Congregation standing–raise your hands.'"

"I'm serious," Pastor Tom said. "I know what's going on. I know what it's caused. You can't believe all the calls I'm getting. So-and-so's mad at so-and-so . . ."

"If you do it, then we all got to do it?" Wilmot asked.

"No," the pastor said. "What'll happen is that I'll make it legitimate.” He thumbed at his chest. “At least we’ll take the blame off Lizzy and Arn. They won't be black sheep. I mean, I'll make it legit–know what I'm saying?"

Wilmot didn't say a thing.

"I think it's a good idea," Nikki Ferris said.

"You would," Wilmot screamed. "You already raise your hands. Now you got the Reverend on your side."

"Is this a war?" she said. "Are we enemies here?–I mean, aren't we all 'one in the Spirit,' here?--you know, 'they'll know we are Christians by our love?'"

"Pollyanna," Wilmot muttered.


Tomorrow: Spirit-filled resolution.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Raised Hands: a silly story

The council, very much on edge as they talked about it, concluded that the turmoil in the congregation had begun with the Sibbelinks, after they two of them had visited Lizzy’s sister Heather up north and worshiped at Heather's church on Cutler Avenue.

“Cutler Avenue’s not a real wild place either," Elder Swart claimed, remembering his own father's pastorate there when he was a boy. "That church is not known for anything outlandish," he told the others. "It’s a fine place–quite soft-spoken. Not usually on the cutting edge." On that basis they concluded that what the Lizzy Sibbelink and her husband saw and experienced in Cutler Avenue church probably had to be quite widespread already up north.

Here’s what happened. Lizzy had brought her husband along to Heather's this time, and both of them came back with a carrying such hot blood people considered it something of a fever. What they'd seen at Cutler Street Church, as the consistory already knew, was good Christian people–even men–with their hands raised, during singing especially and sometimes even during prayer.

“You mean they all do it at Cutler Avenue?” Elder Swart said.

"That’s what I heard,” Elder Wilmot said. “A whole church of them–like a herd of Texas longhorns."

“Just a matter of time before it crept down here,” Wilmot said, “like hoof-and-mouth.”

What had happened was clear: in a church full of arm-raisers, good Christian people like the Sibbelinks started to feel almost apostate if they didn't chuck their own arms up themselves, so Arn Sibbelink must have looked around and seen what looked like a celebration. Not wanting to be the odd man out, he figured it “when-in-Rome,” so he shot ‘em up himself, and, almost immediately, felt an infusion of something right through the tips of his fingers, he said. Now Arn, people say, has been, already for years, subject to all manner of spiritual displays. He’s a man, it is said, who’s never seen a church fad he didn’t almost immediately adopt.

The only downside to this was in joining, Arn made his wife, Lizzy, the odd woman out, not a role she’s ever sought to play. Elder Swart said he heard from others that Lizzy had hesitated for about a minute and a half, looked around at all the others, including Arn, who suddenly took on the brightly-lit face of brand new convert and thereby made Liz feel as if she wasn’t spiritually blessed. Lizzy shifted her weight from foot to foot, but, finally, reluctantly--after two verses of "Our God Reigns" -- jerked her up arms too. Wasn’t so bad once they were up there either, she’d told Arn later, even though she’s been smit with pain in her lower lumbar for more than a decade.

That's where the problem began, the consistory determined. Arn Sibbelink they could have dealt with, coming as he did from a family given to occasionally outlandish displays of things, the kind of people who pray well in public and shed tears the way some people do dandruff. But once Lizzy raised her hands--something no one could believe, Lizzy being Lizzy--she started to like it. That's right. Arn smiled at her and pointed two fingers in the air as if, in tandem, the two of them had just linked up for a touchdown that won the Cotton Bowl. There they stood, armpits exposed a picture, people figured, of praise and piety.

When Lizzy got back, she went to work almost immediately, searching through every dark corner of the church for potential converts. "I mean," she told people, "what's wrong with expressing your faith like that? "I mean," she said, "how can anybody try to quench the Spirit?" "I mean," she said, "how long has it been since there's been even a glow in ‘First Church of the Ice Box?’"--meaning Lakeside, the consistory understood. Lizzy and Arn Sibbelink came back from their trip up north converted and dedicated their summer to getting Lakeside Church to take a pilgrimage toward righteousness by way of heavenward hands. Renewal was what they called it–and it started just that easily, with the raising of hands.

What the consistory understood was that Arn and Liz Sibbelink are the kind of people who mean well but not the real movers and shakers in Lakeside Church. Nobody’s ever forgotten the time Arn lead a hymn sing with such outrageous zealousness that nobody sang, worried as they were about a public coronary behind the pulpit. The Sibbelinks, the consistory knew, were the kinds of people who want to lead so bad they can’t.

So that night, quite late in fact, the consistory faced a problem: a quarter of the church (estimates varied) wanted to follow the Sibbelinks’ lead and lift their hands on high; what was left thought raising hands the way they did was just fine if somebody’d just kicked a field goal, but as a gesture of joy was better left somewhere close to the 50-yard line.

“What are we going to do?” Wilmot said, although nary a person around that table needed an explanation. “We got the uppers and the downers here,” he said, “and never the twain shall meet.”

Elder Swart didn’t know what to say. He leaned back, looked up at the picture of his father with the former pastors, and wished he could have one of those fat black cigars old-time consistories used to savor in silence right in this room. Of course, now there were women, he thought--but then who knows? Maybe tonight, with this hand-raising business, they'd be frustrated enough to join in a stogie.

 "I don't like it," Vander Toppen said, breaking the silence. "It puts people in a swoon. Last week Herman Fry almost passeed out, I swear. There he stood, like he had grown antennae." He tossed his eyes up in the air. "You know, Pastor," he said, "you got to cut down on numbers of verses, or people'll start dropping right in the pews."

“You can't tell people how they can or can't express themselves,” Nikki Ferris said. “If the Spirit's in them, then they're going to raise their hands. We've got no business trying to stanch what the Spirit's up to." Silence. 

Of course, everybody knows Ferris and her husband raise their hands.

"What I want to know," Elder Wilmot said finally, "is why the Spirit works like a virus?" He put both elbows up on the table. "We'd never have had a problem here if the Sibbelinks hadn't visited up north." At that moment he raised both hands himself. "Go ahead–tell me it's the Holy Spirit in all of them. Maybe I’ll buy that, but answer me this: how is it the Holy Spirit got to work like a hula hoop. The whole thing smells like a fad to me."

Tomorrow:  Yet more hand-raising hand-wringing.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Hendrick Pieter Scholte

No matter what you think of him, Dominee (which is to say, Reverend, sort of) Hendrik Peter Scholte is a towering presence in Dutch American history.  He was the founding father of Pella, Iowa, a rich man who led many far less privileged than he to the tall-grass plains of central Iowa, then distributed homesteads for his immigrant flock as if he were some great-hearted sovereign, which, quite frankly, he was.

There are those who claim, in theory, the best form of government is monarchy with a loving ruler, a king or queen who loves his people and does his best to measure justice to the kingdom--a kind ruler, considerable freedom, and no committees. Scholte may have been that kind of oligarch.  I'm no biographer.

He had, without a doubt, a deeply religious soul and once penned a tract I would love to read, a little piece of political thought he titled American Slavery.  It's in English actually, but, according to the people who run the Scholte House, in Pella, Iowa, today, not really available, because never republished. They've got a copy on display--you can see it, even if you can't read it.

Scholte was, not surprisingly, anti-slavery.  The waves of Dutch immigrants who came to America pre-Civil War deliberately avoided the South's hospitality because they wanted no part of American slavery, even though the sea-going Dutch grew wealthy as slave-traders.  By the early decades of the 19th century, however, none of the very religious folks (my own lineage) were ready to truck with slave-owners.

So Scholte took his hundreds north, to central Iowa, and became not just a preacher but an entrepreneur extraordinary--a newspaper man, a banker, an educator, a jack of all trades and master of most all of them. In any history of the Dutch in America, he has, without a doubt, a starring role.

His only real competitor was Dominee Albertus Van Raalte, Scholte's old-country friend and fellow preacher, who led a different group of Hollanders to a colony he chose to populate in western Michigan.  Both had been leaders of an 1834 church split in the Netherlands, something called "the Afscheiding" (the separation), which was led by a few prominent preachers like Van Raalte, and a radical gang of intellectuals, like Scholte. The two of them--and others--formed the leadership of a movement of folks, poor and devout, that despised perceived secularism in what was, back then, the State Church of Holland, the Dutch Reformed Church.

The vast majority of immigrants to America from 1845 to 1860 were "separatists," the huddled, wooden-shoed masses yearning to be free. They were those with little too lose, they were those most angry, they were those most willing to risk it all for another shot at a better life in a new world.

And their leaders were Scholte and Van Raalte, two clergymen who as much by necessity as design were forced to take on a dozen other roles in the shaping of communities they had led to gangplanks, then over the ocean, and then through a strange new land to a brand new home.

And they were different, those two, much different. Van Raalte really wanted to create a Dutch village, wanted to keep his people what they'd always been.  Van Raalte wanted, like other European ethnics, to create a New Amsterdam, a New Prague, a New Berlin--a new Holland, Holland, Michigan.  Scholte, on the other hand, wanted to be American.  American Slavery, written before the war, was published in English, when Scholte had been in this country fewer than twenty years.

Scholte named his streets after U.S. Presidents and concepts of democracy--Washington, Jefferson, Independence, Liberty, Union, and Peace. Back in the old country, he'd suffered at the hands of a repressive government church and wanted no part of monarchy in the new free world.  He loved being free.

And if you visit his house sometime in Pella, Iowa, you'll hear him revered for his adamant refusal to remain Dutch, for his belief in America, for the way he left behind what Dutch ways he could, along with the mother tongue and even Dutch theology for wide-open opportunities of the new land.

Here's the thing. As a child of "the separation" myself, I must admit I've always been somewhat skeptical of Dominie Scholte, who came to America and seemingly forgot what he was in almost every way in his effort to be "American."  His church, in Pella, was itself a breakaway.  The powerhouse churches in the community were those who stuck with some form of Dutch language and theology.

Okay, I admit it--I've often thought somewhat negatively of the hooity-tooity Dutch autocrat Hendrick Pieter Scholte, negatively because he sold his heritage for a barrel full of American porridge.  He wanted to drop everything tulip-y for flag-waving Americana. Chances are, he'd stand strong against Pella's own Tulip Time. He wanted his people to kick off their wooden shoes, not put 'em on once a year to scrub streets, for heaven's sake.

I've always been skeptical of him for the very reason America might well love him, should they know him at all. When Scholte came, after all, he left behind the old ways.  Would that the Marathon bombers had done the same.

Abraham Lincoln read American Slavery, and liked it.  As a result, I'm told, Lincoln asked Hendrick Pieter Scholte to give a nomination speech at the 1860 Republican convention. He was invited to the inaugural   He was an American for only a dozen years, but, dang it, he was an American.

Perhaps I've been wrong.  Then again, maybe not.  But if you visit the Scholte House, in Pella, you'll hear a different story than they one I've always held to--and the one that is told in Pella is a good one too, just wider, bigger, and much more, well, American.

In Pella, the word is that the tulips are not a good bet this year; they're late, a long winter.  No matter.  Tulip Time'll still bring in the busloads who'll have lots to spend, and spend they will.  They can always tour the Scholte House.  It's worth every dime, really, an amazing place, full to the brim of original furnishings.

When you think about it a bit, it's not hard to imagine that Scholte would probably like  Pella's Tulip Time.  It makes big money, after all, and what's more American than that?

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Sunday Morning Meds--Spare the rod

“thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me” Psalm 23

David takes comfort in the Lord’s vigilance.  That’s the idea at the heart of this verse.  He sleeps better, knowing the Shepherd’s weapons are poised so nothing will disturb the flock.

I’m not sure if sheep rustlers roamed ancient Palestine, but with what I know of the human character, if there was a sheckel to be made out there in the hills some ancient hombres likely pulled on Stetsons and rode out under the cover of darkness.  But even if the only danger was wolves or mountain lions, David says the fact that my God has the will and the weaponry to keep me safe is still one comforting bromide.

Sure.  That’s easy enough.

But embedded within this famous metaphor one hears the echo of another verse from the Psalms:  “Blessed is the man whom Thou dost chasten, O Lord,. . .” (Psalm 94:12).  There’s another side to this weapon thing, after all.  As anyone who lives out here in livestock country knows, sometimes cattle and hogs need to be prodded.  That rod and that staff—they’re not dedicated defensive weapons. 

All we like sheep have gone astray.  And sometimes we return, not by butterfly kisses, but by being goaded and flummoxed back to the fold.  C. S. Lewis famously said of his own conversion that he was brought kicking and screaming before the throne. 

I got an e-mail this morning from a former student who was happy to tell me that she was working hard at writing screenplays, having some success, and occasionally remembering my teaching, especially when I said that one basic rule about writing is to “write what you know.”  She wanted to tell me I was dead wrong.  Maybe I was.

She bore no ill will, I don’t think, but she wanted me to know that that rule was something she’d never followed.  “If I did,” she wrote, “I'd be writing about Christian schooling, violin practice, and the time Kenny Loggins yelled at me.”  Her note was addressed to an old prof, bringing news from the front lines.

One of the objectives of my teaching for the last thirty years has been to do what I can to nudge students like this one into doing exactly what she is doing. That this young woman is trying to turn out screenplays—I mark that as a success, even if she says that she’s never listened to a word I told her.

But this Sunday morning I feel the Shepherd’s rod and staff.  This morning, I feel chastened because the good Shepherd used an e-mail from a former student to remind me that, when it comes right down to it, in his hands I’m little more than Silly Putty.  I have this plan, after all—I have these lesson plans.  And I have experience, lots of it.  I tell the students, “Let me show you how to do this.”

But He doesn’t need me to take care of business.  He doesn’t even need my best.  God almighty wants our best, our dedication, our resolve, but he doesn’t need it.  He’s the Shepherd, after all, and I’m just one lousy sheep.

The preposterous miracle here in Psalm 23 is that I’m loved.  That’s the bottom line.  He loves every last one of his lousy sheep, loves ‘em enough to die for them.  He’s the good Shepherd, and he leads us, all of us, beside still waters.  The good news is, as David sings, “The Lord is my shepherd,” and there’s real comfort in his weaponry, even when it’s lovingly, chastise-ingly, turned on us.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Saturday Morning Catch--the last of winter (we hope)

I don't anybody whose human contract claims winter may sometimes go as long as this one.  But when the sun rises, the snow and the cold and even all the junl we leave behind gets a golden shawl. 

And such it was this a.m. 

(click to see the whole stringer)

April, winter's end (hopefully)

Friday, April 19, 2013


So this woman I've never met--at least I don't remember her--comes down the stairs from the office at a place in town, takes one look at me, and says she knows me because her sister used to tell her about me.  Her sister, she says, always said I was the one who got her in big trouble at Bible camp.

I don't deserve that rap.  Okay, I went along, but it wasn't my idea to invade the girls' cabin. That honor belongs to a man who just retired after a career as a Christian school principal.  He was the real perp, the instigator.  

Sometime back in the old testament, when I was in grade school, I knew this older sister of hers--the  woman I just met wasn't wrong about that.  That older sister didn't go to the school I did, didn't even live in the same town, for pete's sake. I knew her because somehow we went to sister churches, you might say--we were both Christian Reformed, and somehow--I don't know how--I knew who she was. Come to think of it, maybe I remember her because of Bible camp.  That could be.  But at least I don't remember her because she got me in trouble.

Anyway, this younger sister is a grandma herself today, so we're talking about significantly ancient history.  I'm shocked by the indictment, quite frankly, this grandma-who's-a-younger-sister recognizing me for sins she knows nothing of and I'd simply assumed everyone else on earth had long ago forgotten.

We're talking 1960.  Seriously.

There was such an incident.  A half-dozen of us were in one of the girls cabins, an brazen act of disobedience which, the moment we were apprehended, took on Sodom-and-Gomorrah-level carnality, or so said the preacher who dressed us down. The guy wandered through the real Old Testament to footnote every scandalous story he could remember--David and Bathsheeba, Samson and Delilah, even Jezebel and Ahab.  They were all exhumed for the hearing.  After all, there were boys and there were girls, and they were together, and the lights were out. We stood at the edge of sheer Bacchanalia.

We weren't even doing anything.  I created a similar incident in a novel I wrote years ago, but that rendition was far more shameless, all of us swapping partners in a smooch-out only a 13-year-old boy might fantasize.   

That never happened--at least it didn't at Bible camp.  Five or six guys were just standing there in the girls' cabin--all right, we knew better and, all right, the lights were out--when some holy roller counselor came by and dragged us to a barrel-chested preacher who undressed us for our sin right there in front of a county-wide picture window so spacious the rest of the rubber-neck campers, hundreds of them, could file by and go slack-jawed. We could just as well have been placed in stocks.

He impugned our characters.  That I remember because I thought he was pushing it.  We were, his sermon suggested, just a step or so away from an orgy, although I'm sure he didn't use the word because I wouldn't have known it.  None of us would. But have no doubt--we were sinful. We weren't beyond redemption, but we were pushing the limits of grace. We were in a girls' cabins. 

Boys were in a girls' cabin. 

He threatened to call our parents and have them pick us up, to send us home early.  That I remember.  There were a dozen of us, as many boys as girls, and some of us cried--mainly, the girls. Probably this woman's sister bawled--I don't remember. But there were tears.  That too I remember.

And all of that is what this woman I just met said her sister would never forget, and was therefore what she remembered too--that Jim Schaap had led her sister astray at some Bible camp a thousand years ago.  Nothing else--that's what she said.  Nothing about 37 years at a Christian college.  Nothing about devotional books.  Nothing about anything, but "Sure, I know you--of course, I know you. Long ago you got my sister in trouble at Bible camp."

What a way not to be forgotten.  I'm the man who led her sister into sin.

What I didn't say is that I remembered her older sister too.  I remember her face, and I remember a certain physical characteristic that would have helped her balance a backpack, if we'd lugged backpacks around back then.  Which we didn't.  But, I'm saying she could have, you know, comfortably.  That's what I remember.

Maybe that preacher was right.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Morning Thanks--ambiguity

I may be wrong, but the exact path this fox takes seems, at least to me, of little consequence.  

I saw the fox running by the side of the road
past the turned-away brick faces of the condominiums
past the Citco gas station with its line of cars and trucks
and he ran, limping, gaunt, matted dull haired
past Jim's Pizza, past the Wash-O-Mat,
past the Thai Garden, his sides heaving like bellows. . .

Now a real English teacher could make something out of that list--ticky-tacky condos, the Wash-O-Mat, Jim's Pizza, the Citgo station, patrons lined up as if there were a gas crisis.  Maybe there's something more there than a plain old landscape, a montage of businesses that line the block; but I was never a particularly adept symbol hunter. I prefer to think that Patricia Fargnoli, who wrote the poem, is just listing the businesses she sees down the street, or what she saw the day that lair-less, mangy fox got caught far from home.

and he kept running to where the interstate
crossed the state road and he reached it and he ran on
under the underpass and past the perfect
rows of split-levels, their identical driveways
their brookless and forestless yards,. . .

The big deal is, he's not home, nor is he close to finding it.  Poor ill-begotten thing is loose on the town or burb, probably terrorized by a world that is not his own.

And she seems him, the poet that is, as most of us would, a fox out on the lam, a mangy, creepy beast--think rabid, who knows?--and terrified.

. . .and from my moving car, I watched him,
helpless to do anything to help him, certain he was beyond
any aid, any desire to save him, and he ran loping on,
far out of his element, sick, panting, starving. . .

See?  Doesn't matter where he's running, just anywhere that isn't his home, that doesn't offer the safety of the woods, the darkness of some beloved den. And there's nothing she can do, the poor, pitiable beast, in grave danger.

And then this:

. . .his eyes fixed on some point ahead of him,
some possible salvation
in all this hopelessness, that only he could see.  

End of poem.

Wow.  I didn't see that coming.  Maybe I should have; after all, the title is almost cruel: "The Undeniable Pressure of Existence." I should have guessed it was going to be a poem about faith.

Or not.

The poem is clearly the rambling of an atheist. We're all as displaced as that woebegone fox, under the delusion of "some possible salvation," of which, sad to say, "only he could see" because, quite frankly, faith is a damned mirage.

Well, maybe I'm going too far. Maybe the poem is the rambling of someone who simply doubts. After all, that sad, mongrel fox really comes off as the lucky one. He sees "some possible salvation" at least. The poet sure doesn't.  Maybe she wishes she could--have faith, that is.

Maybe Fargnoli studies brain chemistry, and that "possible salvation" the fox holds on to so desperately is nothing more than a chemical equation that triggers the will to survive, something akin to instinct. We're hard-wired to believe, and sometimes it can really be a blessing.

Or how about this, the poem is the ranting of some cold-hearted Calvinist.  Some of us, haggard as we are, are simply lucky. We've been chosen, after all, which means that in all this hopelessness, our redeemed eyes are "fixed on some point ahead of us." Not all of us.  Just some, thank the Lord.

Choose your weapon.  Poetry is not rocket science, and ambiguity is, ironically, as great a blessing as it a curse, you might say.

What I know for sure in the story this poem tells (and that probably isn't a fable) is that sometimes--not always but sometimes--I feel a whole lot like that beat-up fox.  Don't you?

But then, I've sometimes felt as hopeless as that helpless driver too.  

Fine poems tell us this much at least: they let us know who we are.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Morning thanks--small things

There's just so much about what happened in Boston yesterday that's going to happen again.  

Will people hate?  Yes.  For a dozen reasons or a thousand. There will be more.  They're already are, and some, I'm sure, are already planning.

In this country, everyone, even the haters, have access to hardware--from guns to fertilizer--sufficient to turn their poison into horror.  We treasure our freedom so highly that we rarely, save in airports, give it away.  I'm for doing something about guns in this country, but no one truly believes that new legislation will stop the madmen.  It may stop something, and something is better than nothing, which is the reasoning that we all use in airports.  

It wasn't a gun in Boston, it was the fixin's of a bomb or two or three or four or whoever many authorities did, in fact, locate. It was the mad genius of some demented killer with an agenda of pure hate, someone whose cause or hurt was so great that others had to die--men and women and at least one eight-year-old third grade boy.  Three died, hundreds were injured, and, once again, millions grieve at senseless carnage we  suffer far too often.

Last night, driving home, we couldn't help but see the blazing lights of the athletic stadium just down the road--a track meet in 30-degree weather.  The stands probably weren't as full as they might have been if the temps were forty degrees warmer, but tons of family were there, I'm sure, wrapped up as if in Green Bay for the Vikings. No one was thinking massacre at college athletic field, even if what happened in Boston was on everyone's mind.  If some mad man wanted, we could have experienced carnage just down the road.

We'd been at a musical put on by our grandson's grade school, a delight.  Wall-to-wall people, a thousand smiling grandparents like us, gawkers with smart phone cameras, and a couple hundred kids up front singing their hearts out. If some mad man wanted, he could make a bloody statement in a flash.

We're not about to change, and neither are they.

Crowds gather every day and every night in this country.  No law enforcement units could possibly cover the gadzillion public events we all attend.  Opportunity will forever exist here, and there will always be hardware, just as there will always be madness.  What happened in Boston yesterday won't be the end of it, and everyone knows it.

On Sunday, in church, we prayed for a family who'd gone off to be with their loved ones to grieve the death of a sister who was murdered, as was her adult son, by her husband, a man who then turned the gun on himself--three deaths, as many as Boston, maybe even more inexplicable.  We have, after all, become accustomed to terrorism. We may never understand the will to slaughter innocents, but that madness is no longer strange.

Sometimes, on days after such horrors, we all feel like Mother Teresa: "I know God won't give me anything I can't handle.  I just wish he didn't trust me so much." 

And all of us know that things will not change. Tomorrow will bring its own horrors. 

How then shall we live?

This is Mother Teresa too:  "We cannot do great things on this Earth, only small things with great love."

An hour ago the world outside was dark as night, but some robin was piping a song, a song in the darkness, singing her own small things with great love. Right now the sun is rising, burnishing the pines in heavenly bronze. 

Small things with great love.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Morning Thanks--where his eye lies

Once upon a time, I kept track of how many I'd killed. The tally never really climbed all that high because me and my Daisy never were all that talented; but I remember thinking, once upon a time--when I was ten maybe--that I'd killed seven of 'em, should some kid ask.

They were, in fact, what I bagged first, shot out of crevices in barn rafters where they were sleeping, like shooting fish in a barrel. No matter. I was a man.  I have no doubt that I remember that late afternoon slaughter in a classmate's barn, amid the milk cows, because it was just that, my very first real kill. Me and my bb gun had passed some unwritten test.

They were "sputzies," I remember, which is a German word, I think, although it may well have drifted into the Netherlands too and been carried over the ocean by my own Dutch ancestors. If you wanted to speak in a derogatory fashion about sparrows, you called them "sputzies."  All us guys called 'em "sputzies" because they were what we killed. There were gadzillions of them, and they were almost colorless, just plain brown, like dirt.

Sputzies, the s-word.

These days we've got 'em in spades on the feeders on both sides of the house, and when they descend, they do so not as spies but in battalions.  You can't help but wonder if the way they team up hasn't given their population an  boost, as if hanging around in mass quantities is a well-considered survival mechanism. They're not celebrities, but neither are they stupid; they likely studied Darwin enough to determine that they're all better off if they run in schools. Stay in flocks, guys, something in their DNA whispers, and a thousand eyes and ears won't let us get gobbled by some miserable raptor with an overbite.

If I fill the feeders before breakfast, sometime after lunch whatever I put there will be gone--well, on the ground mostly because sparrows make vikings look polite. Black-capped chickadees, in their darling Batman apparel, take just a seed or two before flitting away; their memories are extraordinary, the book says, because they're capable of remembering as many as one hundred hiding places for the provisions they carefully choose and thoughtfully hide.

Sparrows gorge ruthlessly. One of them sits there on the feeder ledge and bats out the seeds, tossing out a dozen otherwise tasty morsels for every one he actually eats. Maybe he's picky--everything goes but the thistle seeds--I don't know.  What I do know is that it doesn't take all that long and the feeders are empty, and down in the grass beneath forty little bobbing balls of brown feathers pick up the refuse. They're not dumb, those sputzies.  They're survivors.

I'm told there are a thousand varieties, some of which can't be distinguished from others unless you've got one dead and in hand. They're decidedly unfashionable, so irritatingly common. We take memorable note when those reddish house finches show up; and when a cardinal stops by, we gather for worship.  Juncos are darling, but sparrows are, at best, ordinary, barely worth a second look, and more than a little tiring when they act like Sherman's army, which is what they always do.

What I learned yesterday in church was that the psalmist, taking the kind of heavenly dictation he was, didn't just pull any bird out of his hat when he brought up sparrows. He didn't say indigo bunting, for instance, or double-crested cormorant or the American Bald Eagle (a bird whose name demands upper case).  He didn't say purple martin or barn swallow either, or that magnificent ringneck pheasant that struts carefully across our yard some mornings. When he wanted a suitable simile to explain the divine immensity of God's love, he didn't pick a scarlet tanager or a goldfinch.

He said sputzie, just a plain old, ubiquitous and ordinary mud-brown sputzie.

That's what I learned about grace yesterday in church.  

Good Lord, even the sputzies.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Sunday Morning Meds--Always

“. . .for thou art with me. . .” Psalm 23

Sometime ago, we attended a little theatrical performance, sixteen short-short plays tossed together like a good salad maybe, all of them having something, more or less, to do with faith and its practice.  I’d say that faith was the dressing maybe, but it wasn’t—faith didn’t simply spice up the greens; faith was the greens.
Punctuating the four acts of the performance were four testimonies, offered by the cast.  Four times, individuals stepped to the front of the house, removed his or her black shirt (their only costuming) and spoke, in a white t-shirt, off-text, about their faith.

Two claimed they were believers; two made opposite claims.

It was an odd experience really, because the evening was, therefore, only half theatric.  Or was it?  Anyone who doubts that testimonies, wherever they’re offered, have a theatric component isn’t seeing clearly.  Where two or three are gathered, there is an audience and an audience almost certainly creates an effect.  Sometimes I found it hard to know what was being said (and what wasn’t) for the sake of the audience.
But no matter.  The evening was real and, often, it was touching.  We laughed hard at times, and at others I felt my lips tighten.

I live in a college community, a college in the Christian and Calvinist tradition, where the times are changing.  Old platitudes are shifting radically as they adjust to a new landscape, and that shifting is witness-able in shows like the one we saw last night.  The young people who created this theatrical performance know the prevailing orthodoxies.  In a sense, when two of them stepped forward and admitted to having doubts about faith, they were, locally, at least, coming out of the closet. 

I attended college, a Christian college, in the Sixties, an irreverent age.  For the most part, evangelical America lowered its patriotic fervor considerably after just about everyone else did, and for me—and many of my era—a church that kept clanging the righteous cymbal for Nixon and for war wasn’t hard to run away from.

When I was a student, it wouldn’t have been hard for me to say what those kids did last night.  Today students are “into” relationships—with each other and with God.  Spirituality has never been as warm and loving as it is today on Christian college campuses; it has never embraced so many, so tenderly.  For these two guys to admit their doubts took guts. When the show was over and the four of them sat on chairs in the front of the audience who remained for a kind of talk down, nobody talked about the show; they all talked about faith—specifically, the broken faith of the doubters.

If you want warm spirituality, read Psalm 23.  Comfort oozes from every line:  green pastures, still waters, a soul’s restoration.  Recite this beloved poem slowly sometime.
But no single line from Psalm 23—by my estimation—offers comfort like this one:  “for thou art with me.”  Grab a Bible, hold it in your hand, fan through the pages, and then summarize what you’ve seen.  Here is it:  “thou art with me.”

And that’s what I wanted to tell the two doubters and just about everybody else who, that night, was worried about them or themselves:  “Thou art with me.”  That’s what David knew when he screamed at the Lord, as he does elsewhere in the Psalms; that’s what he never forgot, no matter how far estranged, or how intimate. 

“Thou art with me.”  That, it seems to me, is the whole story.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

In just-spring

We have branches down all over the yard, but I'm not complaining.  I'm told our old neighborhood, back in town, looks like a war zone, trees down in such quantity and size that I'd rather not look and won't.    

It would have been a devastating storm any time of the year, of course, trees gone and power out; but this nearly three-day siege, despite its beauty, felt, in a way, like a personal affront. After all, dang it, it's April.  

Mostly, really, it was a blessing--power goes back on after all, most trees live to leaf and blossom and bear fruit again. What this legendary spring storm left us with was grace on the level of manna in our own wilderness of drought, snow and ice seeping lovingly into dry earth that hasn't had enough to drink for quite more than a year.

Still, it's hard to call it beautiful when temperatures belly flop the way they have and an unrepentant northwest wind peels off your cheeks.  It's spring, for pity sake.

Here's something of what it looked like at our place.

Friday, April 12, 2013


Our kids are not children, but they're still our kids. 

At just about every hospital in the nation this morning, people wait, scared and sorry and heavy-laden with grief, most of them, I'm sure, praying.  We're not. Most of us aren't, and none of our family is. Not today anyway.  Tomorrow, who knows? Someday, for sure.

But I know a family who is, and they're 500 miles away, but not far from where my son lives, a kid--he's not a kid--and his wife and their family, a kid my son knew in high school and college. Today, that family waits somewhere alone for news that in all likelihood won't be good, medical reports about their newborn, who is not healthy and is not likely to live.  

The news came in an distressed e-mail from church, a note from the grandparents who are there with their children, waiting and fearful and praying. I forwarded that note to my son, who is not a child, told him that because they happen to live so close to this family, the husband an old friend, he might think of calling or even stopping by, at least praying because life is precious, so precious, and this one's, this baby's, is so very fragile. And things don't look good at all.

I don't know that my son will visit. I do hope he prays. But I can't forget sending the note, and I'm trying to determine exactly why.

I'm sure there are several reasons, one of which is my son's own newly-wedded happiness--I mean, he and his wife have been married for a year and a half already, and they're not children. Still, my son has suffered more than his share of the blues, and his mother and I count his happiness these days among our richest blessings.  Sending him woe and sadness--a baby's pending death--drops him into a world of darkness when all around him there seems, these days, so very much light.

That may be part of it.  But there's more, I know, even though when I sent that note I really didn't hesitate. Maybe I'm still protecting my children, even though they aren't kids. I'm still hoping they don't see a world I know very well exists.  I remember my own introductions--a awkward New Years Eve spent with a woman whose marriage was in angry distress, a cat fight in the first church we attended, the death of a friend, and, worse than anything, the loss of children. I didn't want them to have to have to wade into that level of sadness. I wished they could avoid it, always have and still do.

But they can't.  Besides, they're not children anymore.  

But they're still my kids, and I guess I'll forever be their father.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Who's building what in Texas?

It's impossible not to call illegal immigration a mixed blessing, which is to say, it cuts both ways. A two-part story on NPR documents the tremendous blessing illegal immigration is to new home buyers in Texas.  Because of it, they get monstrous discounts beneath the price they'd pay if the construction industry paid their help--much of it illegal--a living wage. 

However, illegals grab thousands of jobs that would otherwise go to American citizens because they'll do them for peanuts, which is to say, for less than what we might call a living wage, a wage that enables someone to live at a certain level. Employers like that, so do home buyers, and so do illegals.  Ostensibly, if this country's high school grads would all work for $70 a day, a going wage in Texas construction market, there'd be no unemployment and no illegal workforce.  But they won't, in part because they can't.  

In Sioux County terms, if ordinary high school grads were looking for work at the level illegals are paid to milk cows or pack meat, there would be plenty of jobs here too because most employers would just as soon have a legal work force and avoid the immigration hassles.  The problem is--as they'll be happy to tell you--they can't get help at the price they pay for illegals.

Thus, even in an overwhelmingly rock-sold Republican corner of the world like this, there's not all that much spit and vinegar about illegal immigration because, dang it, for almost everyone, illegals are good for the pocket book, especially in a place like this that doesn't suffer from high rates of unemployment.

There are new arguments on the horizon.  Get this--someday soon, employers here who rely on illegal help may be really hurting because a rising middle class in Mexico (higher wages, smaller families) makes life south of the border more of a comfort and a promise. Should that happen, employers who create jobs presently taken by illegals would almost necessarily have to pay more to garner a native work force, which would, resultingly, push prices up, which would, resultingly, make all us pay more for just about everything. And who would stand for that?

The bottom line goes like this: in Texas, houses are cheap because workers are cheap. Everyone's happy, right?  The only ones hurt are young citizen workers who can barely live on $12 an hour--well, and the illegals, who have no insurance or benefits or medical care, and often, reportedly, work in conditions no union would tolerate.  But then, unions are evil.

It's an intensely complex problem. If news sources are accurate, there's change a'comin'. Republicans can only win off-year, shoe-in contests without somehow gathering a following among this country's rising Hispanic population, a population obviously turned off by the insane Republican rhetoric of the last Presidential campaign.  Nutty Republican babbling must end, or so says Reince Priebus, Bobby Jindal, Michael Gerson, and Joe Scarborough, to name a few.

Untangling the mess of 11.1 million people doing America's grunt work (and more) at the same time they're keeping prices for just about everything way, way down is going to take more than a Great Wall on our southern border. 

Things will change. They will have to. 

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Thumbs up

Apparently, Roger Ebert is one of those rather unfortunate blokes whose value to rest of us isn't tallied fully until his days are o'er.  The elder statesmen of movie criticism died last week, creating lavish reviews of his life's contributions that seem to rank him with our world's most beloved citizens. As for me and my house, I didn't adore him, but I'll admit that whenever I looked for a fast and thoughtful movie review, I clicked on Roger Ebert. 

Who was always, always there.  Sheer ubiquity may be part of the reason why he was both so deeply regarded and seldom noticed. He didn't make headlines, didn't have a scandalous life (that I know of), rarely made Entertainment Tonight or People even though movies--and the celebrities who haunt them--were his stock in trade. He wasn't handsome, spent most of his pre-cancer life rather darlingly overweight, and, sporting horn-rims, seemed bookish but never really scholarly and almost terminally nerdy.

He was, as some have said, a real journalist, someone who embodied the brainpower of the gown, but never left town. And he was dedicated, prolific to a fault; in the final year of his life, he wrote more reviews than he had in any other stretch. He loved movies, and many, many of us loved to know what he thought of whatever is opening this week at the multi-plex.  

There are those who say his passing marks the end of an era because he was himself an institution, a standard, the kind of voice that you'd better know around the water-cooler. In that way, he belonged to the old guard. Once upon a time in America the were three networks, and, come 9:00 p.m., most of all us enjoyed the same TV meal. That world is gone--cable destroyed it and the internet made sure it was forever dead. Our media world is an immense grapefruit blessed with infinite sections. We watch what we want to watch, dang it.

Once upon a time, there existed in pop music, a real Top Ten because the pop stations in every city played the same menu of hits. That world is gone.  Once upon a time, an entire country devoured Look magazine.  I'm not sure it even exists anymore. Today, the only magazines that make it are those who specialize--readers who can't get enough of WWF or landscapes or vegan cooking. A day or two ago was Hugh Hefner's birthday; if there's still a Playboy magazine, no one really cares because bare breasts lurk somewhere beneath every computer screen.

Today, the consumer reigns; freedom is all-in-all.  We watched just about all of Netflix's history-making series House of Cards in just a couple of weekends.  Now we're on a Wallender kick, the Swedish version (much better than its English counterpart). We watch nothing else, and we watch it without commercials breaks and when we want it, not when some network mogul thinks we should. 

Roger Ebert, some think, was the last of the old guard, a single voice on media matters, a man whose word on a movie created a box office or broke it. Roger Ebert was everyone's Roger Ebert.

I suppose there are two takes on such a theory--one is lament.  Woe and woe and woe--Ebert's passing means the end of brotherhood in America.  

Don't know if I buy that. I'm enough of a capitalist to say that Ebert wasn't simply a product of his time; he also created his omnipresence by thoughtful criticism, by keeping his options open, and by sheer hard work. In that sense, his life models an American spirit that hasn't been eclipsed by the radical changes in our "media environment." It can still be done and he did it.

That too, I suppose, is a reason for the chorus of admiration created by our own sudden and sad realization that that decisive thumb of his, up or down, is no longer here to rely on.
For just such an interesting eulogy, check out the NY Times' high regard here.