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.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Kingdom calling

Once upon a time I announced to my parents that I'd like to be a photographer.  How I came by them I'm not sure, but when I was a kid I had a photo enlarger, all the chemicals, and an array of cheap Kodaks; and I found the whole business so interesting and creative that I thought, naively, it was something I'd like to do with my life.  I was in high school, actively shopping for a profession, something to pursue when I went off to college.

My father nixed the idea, shaking his head.  Being a photographer wasn't really "a kingdom calling," he said, not something divinely shaped for those who wanted to serve "the covenant community." He had a language for such decisions--we all did.  I knew exactly what he meant.  

He was thinking more specifically about the ministry for me, or maybe missions, or, if all else failed, Christian education.  I'm quite sure he thought a photographer was someone who did senior portraits come spring and weddings on weekends.  

When he came home from World War II, he took a job in the office of a factory in the town where he'd gone to high school.  He grew up in Michigan, but married an Oostburg girl who just about then lost her only sister in a car accident.  A few years later he was offered a job in Michigan, in the business end of a national organization of Christian schools, a job he would have loved, I'm sure, but turned down when his father-in-law cried at the mere thought of his only daughter moving away.  

Maybe that event was a part of his disapproval of photography--I don't know.

I shot this picture clandestinely when I spotted the ancient cement mixer in a field just behind an old Wisconsin tavern on Sauk Trail Road.  I may be the only human being on the face of the earth who finds the portrait somehow moving.  There that cement mixer sits, all by its lonesome, a museum piece in armor in the weeds.

It's what he made in that Oostburg factory--cement mixers.  Think of the market for such things when all those GIs came back from Europe or the South Pacific, all the building that had to be done, all the dream homes.  My father was a salesmen at a time when some entrepreneur likely figured that someday absolutely everybody was going to own their own personal cement mixer, just like they'd all have garden tillers and power lawn mowers.  At the foundry where he worked, men in blue shirts and leather aprons poured the steel that became the drums, then assembled them right there, and he sold 'em.  During noon hour, they tossed horseshoes together--labor and management.

Maybe he wanted me to be a preacher because like millions of other GIs, millions of other parents in the American tradition, he wanted something more for his kid, for his only boy, and for the community that boy would serve, more than horseshoes and cement mixers.

So here it sits--just one of those ancient Gilson mixers, rusting and resting in the long grass behind an all-American tavern.  The truth is, I took several shots.  I tried to frame it in a lateral branch of an old maple in the foreground.  I didn't just plop it in the middle of the image, but kept it off to the side to feature that grassy background, an open field, nary a driveway in sight.  It's retired now, belly-deep in the long grass of a wet year on the lakeshore.  I took this picture because I liked that image the moment I spotted it out there alone, pastured though it is.  

There it sits--not so formidable, but still somehow claiming its own rusty dignity.  It's a portrait, a symbol:  it's what it is, and to me at least, much, much more.  It tells a story, my father's story, or part of it.  And mine too.

Daily I watch our new house slowly taking shape by way of the handiwork of men with skills I wish I had.  My father built his house, our home.  In fact, I have no doubt he used one of these.  

But when our builder poured basement, he did it with a huge crane and a hose and a half-dozen trucks full of cement, the kind of truck that basically killed off whatever market ever existed for the personal cement mixer.  

And I retired after 40 years within the kingdom calling of teaching--maybe third tier, but still up there in my father's hierarchy.  But I can't build a house.  I don't have the skills.

Still, if you ask me, I'd tell you this much:  it may not be your cup of tea, but the portrait up on top the page is what this weekend photographer calls something close to art, and therefore something of a treasure.  That ancient mixer in the weeds still tells a story.

Who knows?  Maybe that portrait will have a place on the wall of my study in that new house of ours going up just down the road.

Were he still here, my father would smile at that shot and everything his amateur photographer/son just said.  

But I doubt he'd reconsider. 

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Morning Thanks--Rawlings

This morning, Woot's got a sale on baseball gloves, not just any gloves--Rawlings gloves.  I will not, again, in my life, have need of one, but I'm sorely tempted to buy one anyway if for no other reason than that longhand trademark spells out the letters of my own first love.

I started sometime around sixth grade and played organized baseball/softball/slo-pitch until I was 55, which is to say for most of my life.  Still, I have no doubt the sum total of all those years inch up short to the endless tally of hours we spent as kids on our own playing ball on the schoolyard across the street or in the parking lot of First Reformed.  After school, we played nightly.  Come summer, we'd play almost every day, limited only by how many kids showed up--four on four, pitcher's hands, knock up--a dozen games or more created by kids, not an adult in sight.

Last week I walked the streets of my hometown again and found a soccer field where once there were a pair of school ball diamonds.  Those netted goals stood where homemade backstops, hearty steel things pockmarked with spot welds and hung with rugged fencing, once looked over a couple of dusty, baseless diamonds we called home. Soccer seemed sacrilege.

But it was that Rawlings signature that brought me back this morning. I don't doubt some Dominie might call what I felt for that trademark a sin, so profanely did I love it.  I bought an Eddie Matthews signature mitt when I was a kid, after stalking that sweetheart in Joe Hauser's Sport Shop, right there on Eighth Street, Sheboygan, time and time again.  I'd go in and look at it, and if I was brave enough I'd ask Hauser himself if I could just pull it over my hand for a couple of heavenly minutes.

I didn't have the bucks to buy it, but I swear I lusted after that thing more than I did for anything female.  It was $27--that price is tagged forever in my memory.  All I remember was it cost a ton, a summer's worth of lawn jobs.  Finally, I got a grant from my parents to cover the price tag; but once upon a time I actually took home that dream,  rubbed it lovingly with precious oils to get it loose and supple, wore it around the house to create a pocket, and then, the very next day, took it out and used it as I did every day, until finally, seasons later, it wore out.

Rawlings.  Eddie Matthews.

In high school, I bought a strange-looking, six-fingered Trap-Eze Rawlings to hold down the hot corner on my high school baseball team. It was a new design, an innovation; but no one would have doubted the Rawlings's commitment.  After all, you trusted them with your game, for pete's sake.

This morning, Woot has a Rawlings for $19.95, cheaper than what I paid more than a half-century ago. In all likelihood, today they're made in Pakistan or Thailand.  But if you go to their website, the Rawlings winners cost somewhere around $400, which sounds right.  Those are the ones Joe would have had in his Eighth Street window if he or it were around today.  They've been around 125 years and still buy their leather from the same Chicago tanners.

Branding it's called.  All I have to do is look at that signature, and I'm head-over-heels. Nowadays the sin is envy not lust, the futile wish I could get up in the morning, head over to the diamond, and hammer out a game of knock up.

As long as I'd have my Rawlings, I'd be okay.

Sin is what it was--sweet, sweet sandlot sin.  No matter, this morning I'm thankful for sin.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Morning Thanks--the unknown soldier

Never heard the name before, and I've lived in Dutch hamlets for most of my life, seen hundreds, maybe thousands of strange-looking names, like Schaap or Vreugdenhil.  This guy lived once upon a time in my own hometown--Liefbroer, Peter, a WWI vet, an Oostburgian.  To me, he's an unknown soldier with an unknown name.

My mother is 94, and she's not one of those great-great grandmas with an unfailing memory.  She's not sharp on the past, but she recognized the name immediately when I asked.  A single man, she told me, a cobbler, a shoe-repairman, never married--that kind of single.

I have the rare distinction of having a cemetery named after my forbearers, the Hartman Cemetery, just a shade north of County Trunk KK, a spittin' distance from the old Sauk Trail.  My father is buried there, as is his father, as well as generations of my mother's side of the family--Dirkses and Hartmans all.

Right there at the heart of things stands a buxom stone that belongs (can we say it that way?) to Dirk Hartman, my great-grandfather, a man who was, I'm told, a big talker, a traveling salesman, and something of a Willy Loman, a man who may have needed a showy stone. 

He's there in the Hartman plot, surrounded by his kin and this man, Peter Liefbroer, who, like Dirk's son, Edgar, served time in the war to end all wars and was discharged as a Sgt., the stone says.  Peter Liefbroer is surrounded by Hartmans, no other Liefbroers anywhere.  I'd love to know more about him, but Pete Zuurmond is here now, no longer capable of acting as town historian; and Allie June VerVelde is gone too. Maybe there are new Oostburg historians.  I hope so.

We went home last weekend.  It's a strange usage, this word "home."  In a certain sense, Oostburg will always be "home" to me, even though this trip more than any other teased me away from that sentiment.  I walked around town, drove around the area, and realized that the stories that step out of every door are as left behind as Peter Liefbroer to those who call Oostburg home today.  The only way I could ask questions was by using names so long gone you'd have to be retired to know the map I've got in my head--"you know, just down the street from Chinky Wieskamp" or "right there where Arie Joose used to live."  

I am myself an anachronism.

Which still makes me smile.

The very last student in my class from Oostburg, Wisconsin, was nearly blown away when I told her that I too grew up there.  It was as if she'd seen a ghost.

Me and Sgt. Liefbroer, the unknown soldier, a man with a name I'd never seen before.

I won't be in Hartman Cemetery someday with all of my kin.  I'll likely be in Orange City, Iowa, buried beside my wife and her family.  But, strangely enough, I've got great-grandparents there too, so it'll still be some kind of home, I guess.

Anyway, back home in Iowa, it's Peter Liefbroer, the only Liefbroer I've ever heard of, who stays in my memory, the bachelor shoe-repairman of Oostburg, Wisconsin, a World War I vet with a name and a story that world has forgotten.

Dust to dust, and all that.  The problem with being Dutch Reformed is there's no end to sermons, a lot of them on Memorial Day.  Still, this morning, the sun rising over what still is a flooded plain, I'm thankful for the homily Sgt. Liefbroer delivered from beneath that flag when I found him right there in the Hartman plot, a sermon that sticks to the insides.

And I'm glad he's there because somehow he's family.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Morning Thanks--A river runs through it

When we left on Saturday, thus appeared this new house of ours, handsomely appareled in its own new siding, shingled, and fully windowed, almost entirely enclosed, even the cement driveway laid.  I took this picture having just left for Wisconsin, took it from a viaduct a quarter mile south or so because I wanted to show my mother why two old folks--my wife and I--had actually decided to build a house. It's the land, the horizon, the openness, the dawns and  dusks; it's the river, barely visible, like a ribbon down below.  

There's a belt of green between our long backyard and the plowed ground behind it, and amid that belt runs the Floyd, a river made vastly more prestigious by its fallen namesake than it might have ever been for any other reason, a lazy, flatland river whose single attribute is the calligraphy it bestows on otherwise featureless farmland, some of the finest farmland in North America, I might add.

The sky was overcast, as you can see; and it stayed that way during the entire holiday weekend.  It's overcast right now, Tuesday morning, as light painstakingly returns to the Floyd valley.  But last night, just before dark, I went up on the viaduct again to snap another shot.  Here's our house in its own new digs.

Same place--same windows, same siding, same doors--same alfalfa out front, same plowed field behind.  But we now own a lakefront cottage, or at least we did last night, after nine inches of rain got dumped on the area in two nights of thunderstorms that marched up from the Gulf of Mexico like some reconstituted cavalry regiment just for the Memorial Day weekend.  

What once a river ran through was now occupied by a lake that lapped right up to our property line and pushed the water table up so high in the ground that it left our rental house basement baptized--by sprinkling, not immersion, thankfully.  North of Sheldon already, the fields were awash; the farther south we came on our trip back, the tighter our breath became as the flooding spread.  So much water, so close to home.  

This morning my grateful thanks that our house wasn't inundated is tempered by the fact that our good neighbors have sandbags surrounding their walk-out basements.  Yesterday, Memorial Day, is now officially a holiday they'll remember for more than any wars in Europe or Asia.  Yesterday they fought their own battle against a tide as fierce as any.  Just for the record, that's our lakefront house at the top of the pic, the brash and swollen Floyd in the foreground.

If it's over--forecasts are not so promising, then we've survived the worst flooding the Floyd has ever engineered, 17 feet above flood stage.  Here's where my grandson and I go fishing.  Normally, there's a fifteen-foot bank right here that's getting harder and harder for my grandson's grandfather to negotiate.  Now I could sit on the grass and throw in a worm.  

I wondered about the ducks and the geese whose suburban life had to be traumatically affected.  I'm sure some eggs were lost, maybe even some young.  But the geese made it.

I have a feeling the river decided on its own to shuffle this old stump along from wherever it had been, but when I came up on this marching gaggle, I had to laugh a bit because the kids from Learning Ship pre-school apparently made it through okay.  When I got to close, their teachers took them into the water for safe-keeping.

But the great news is that last night brought no new drama, no riveting third act. At mid-afternoon, the forecast said there'd be more of the Gulf's richest blessings rumbling up in the form of yet another round of thunder storms, a 70% chance, in fact.  

Thank the Lord that blessing didn't materialize.  So this morning's thanks are as obvious as any I've ever offered. I'm thankful that both our new house and the old one are left pretty much untouched by the flood, and I'm just as thankful that whatever computer gizmos weathermen use to forecast what's about to happen were, yesterday, flat wrong.

Now we could get sun?--I'm asking humbly. Nice as it would be to have a lake right there out back of our new house, trust me when I say we'll settle for the lazy old Floyd.  

Monday, May 27, 2013

Memorial Day

He was my grandma's only brother, only sibling. He was, therefore, my great uncle, Uncle Edgar, a man who died just a few months before my mother was born. He was, just then, in his twenties, he'd just signed up to fight the Great War, and he was hit by some kind of explosive, blown to pieces, according to a hand-written, eye-witness account, a letter I actually have in my possession. He was recognizable only by his dog tags.

The government notified his sister, my grandma, that her brother had been killed, but it took them almost two years--I have the note.  Why it took that long, I don't know; but the government claims he died on August 8, 1918, just three months before the end of the war.

All of that I've known for a long, long time because I came heir to the family documents when my grandma designated me to be the one who would keep them. What that means really is that I've got every last thing there is to know--pictures, war documents, childhood memories--about this man Edgar Hartman, my great uncle. Here it is, right beside me.

Yesterday I did a little research on Edgar Hartman's death. After all, that eyewitness account detailed exactly where it had happened in France, along the Vesle River. I just wanted to know what Uncle Edgar was a part of when he got hit. 

I'd always assumed he was in a trench, largely because most of the imagery of the Great War is drawn from trench warfare; but it turns out that in the Second Battle of the Marne there were no trenches. Tanks were there, and shifting lines in topography that is more hilly and tree-lined than the open-plains where trenches dominated. Historians claim that the Second Battle of the Marne, 1918, looked more like something from the early months of the Second World War than the quintessential trench horrors of the First.

It was the first major battle in which American blood was shed, including my uncle's. The American Expeditionary Forces had joined with the French and the British in an effort not only to hold off a major German offensive, but to repeal it and thereby end the war. The Second Battle of the Marne was a major, decisive victory; the war ended three months after my uncle was killed.

America likes to believe that its participation in the war shut it down but good. Historians are less sure. Most agree that the Americans were highly motivated and exceptionally brave, but most also make clear that they were also a little silly, and somewhat vainglorious.

Although General John J. Pershing swore that his troops would never to answer to anyone but an American, credit him with this:  once he got to the battlefield, he quickly determined that the French--yes, the French--were the superior military force and relinquished the command, meaning my uncle Edgar died under a French commander. What Pershing understood was that they knew the war, the place, the enemy, and the tempo of conflict they'd been in for years. They knew what they were doing. 

Without the Americans, the outcome of the Second Battle of Marne might well have been different; but to say that the young and inexperienced Yankee force ended the war is, according to those who know better than I do, stretching it.

My uncle Edgar was young and as inexperienced as any of the other Yankee troops. I don't know whether his bravery was as untempered by wisdom as some of his doughboy buddies', but somehow just knowing what the American boys were like helps me understand, fills out what was otherwise little more than a picture, colors more fully what so very little I know about him and them and the time.

Casualties were high. The U.S. lost 30,000 men, my uncle among them. 

He was killed in what some consider the most decisive battle of the war since it was clear to the German high command, as of August, 1918, that the war was lost. The Allied forces had broken through German-held territory and chased the retreating armies back to positions they held before the spring offensive. When the Germans reached their fortified lines, their collapse ended temporarily, and the fighting--the fighting in which my uncle died--intensified.

For a month, from the first week in August to early September, the Germans stalled the French and Americans on the Vesle River, a place nicknamed "Death Valley" because of the Germans' lavish use of mustard gas. "I have rarely, if ever, seen troops under more trying conditions," one General wrote. "They were on the spot and they stayed there..." Any movement by day brought down fire, as the Germans used cannons to snipe at careless soldiers.

All of that is what I learned just yesterday for the first time.  

And more--that Uncle Edgar was part of a unit led by General William G. Haan, who was almost certainly Dutch Reformed, from Crown Point, IN, the man who led the 32nd Red Arrow Division. For all of my childhood, the highway just west of town was Hwy. 32--Memorial Highway 32, named after Uncle Edgar's unit. I had no idea there was a link.

I had a wonderful day yesterday, even though I may be the only person in the world who really cares, not that others wouldn't if they, like me, weren't the recipient of every last thing there is to document the life of a doughboy, one of thousands, who didn't return from the Great War, my uncle Edgar.

He died thirty years before I was born. His parents were gone. His older sister was his only sibling. Had he returned, I likely would have known him; WWI vets were still around when I was a boy. I remember an old man who shook constantly on his daily walks to town, a victim, my father said, of "shell shock." But maybe Uncle Edgar would have come for coffee after church at my grandma's, he and the woman he was engaged to before he left. Maybe their kids, too. They would have been my mother's cousins, the first cousins she never had.

Yesterday was a great day, somehow, and this morning I just don't know why. I do know a great deal more about him, about his life; he's more human, I think, and somehow that seems a very good thing to me.

Maybe that's why yesterday was a great day, and why, this morning, I'm thankful for spending it almost a century ago along the Vesle River in France, getting to know a man I never did, a hero, someone who gave his life for a grand nephew he never even imagined.

This post originally appeared here two years ago.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

What shall I render?

“Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name”

It is not beyond me to understand what David the poet is demanding here—and it is so forceful a demand that he makes it three times in two verses:  “Ascribe. . .ascribe. . . ascribe!” 

What he’s insisting is that mighty ones in particular (but all of us, methinks) lay their (and our) greatest accomplishments at the throne of the One who made those accomplishments possible.  Give him the credit, the glory for what he has done, and nevermind yourselves. 

The sacrifice he’s demanding is far easier to understand than it is to accomplish, of course.  Theoretically, who could argue with the rightness of what David is demanding?  Practically, however, I’d just as soon take credit for whatever successes I achieve. 

I know what he’s telling us all to do.  I really do.

But the second half of this verse offers a whole new style of monkey-wrench:  give God almighty the glory that is due him, David says, the glory that he deserves.  Pardon the pun, but, really, how on earth can I do that?  How can I give him what he’s deserves, when he will be eternally due so very much more than I can ever give?  Seems to me that when it comes to the creator and sustainer of the universe, there’s no gift I could bring that can fulfill what David considers to be my obligation.

Scratch it up to poetic license.  In the heat of creative energy, his soul overflowing with his own thanks, David scratches out a line that makes sense in terms of his emotion, even if, rationally, what he demands goes far beyond his and our abilities.  There’s simply no way I can give God what he deserves.

Okay, but if he’s asking the impossible, given the paucity of my offerings, do I simply take myself out of the line up?  That’s nonsense, of course.  Even though I can’t give what David demands—and neither could he—I certainly need to hear the prophetic command he gives us three times in two verses.  I need to ascribe Him glory.

“What shall I render to the Lord?” is a question that echoes out of another song, Psalm 116.  Some of us can’t really utter that line without hearing it set to music in an old hymn.  I can’t.  “How shall my soul, by grace restored,” the next line asks, “give worthy thanks, O Lord, to Thee?”

It is a vexing question, or so it seems to me.  How can I repay him for the life he’s given me?

Benjamin F. Baker—I know nothing more of him than his name—wrote that hymn, and the answer he offers, and the answer of Psalm 116, is, at least to me, no startling revelation:  “With thankful heart I offer now/My gift, and call upon God’s Name;/Before his saints I pay my vow/And here my gratitude proclaim.”

What he wants is our deepest thanks.  What he wants is our gratitude.  That’s all we’re due to give him, really—lifelong gratefulness, for his deliverance, certainly, and for love to shown to us in mountaintop experiences and everyday forgetfulness.

By way of Adam and Eve we chose to honor ourselves more than our Creator.  It is a mark of our fallenness—mine certainly—that giving the Lord our best is as tough as it is.  That may well be why David says it three times in the first two verses of Psalm 29.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Bucks, bikes, bosoms and needles

When I taught you 
at eight to ride 
a bicycle, loping along
beside you
as you wobbled away
on two round wheels,
my own mouth rounding 
in surprise when you pulled
ahead down the curved
path of the park,
I kept waiting
for the thud
of your crash as I
sprinted to catch up,
while you grew
smaller, more breakable 
with distance,
pumping, pumping
for your life, screaming
with laughter,
the hair flapping
behind you like a
handkerchief waving

Linda Pasten's "To a Daughter, Leaving Home" is this morning's entree on The Writer's Almanac, a touching and dear lament every parent knows, whether it occurs the morning her daughter rides a bike or the night before his son leaves for college.  One memorable essay written by a student of mine, years ago, remembered her father's tears--the only ones she ever witnessed--when he left her behind at a college a thousand miles away from  home.  I used that essay as a sample for years because every kid I ever had in a writing class knew something real about that story.

Ms. Pasten's poem does what poetry often will--it sets within us an image that stays.  There are several here, all of them universal, but the one that's most striking is the child's hair, like a "handkerchief waving/goodbye." That picture now has a spot in the gallery of my imagination.

"To a daughter" is a wonderful poem, in part, because I'm in it, as are most of us. Pasten's story is my story, and yours, and a gadzillion others.

And it sticks with me this morning because of a news item I read about a man named Paul Tudor Jones, a gadzillionaire who, in a forum of other gadzillionaires round-tabling on the University of Virginia campus, explained that no women were around that table because once women have babies--what he said is once they hold that baby to their "bosoms"--they lose their sharpness, their technique. There are no women high-stakes traders because babies, he says, disorient the laser-like mind required to make really, really big money.

He may be right. I've always believed female perception is different from male perception, always felt that gender differences were as mysterious as they are real. But there's something about what he said that simply pisses me off, pardon my French.  

What pisses me off is that what Paul Tudor Jones, gadzillionaire, said is somehow news.

What pisses me off is that we care what he says because he's a gadzillionaire.

What pisses me off is that his eleventy-seven million-dollar investment portfolio--his dough--gives him privilege and standing and political clout that vastly surpasses Linda Pasten's or any of a gadzillion others of us, men and women, who are ourselves more rich for having experienced that exact moment alongside a child on a bike.  

Still, oddly enough, what Mr. Jones is spouting is a line with verifiable biblical values:  look, we can either love people or we can love money.  New Testament, even.

Mr. Jones may well be a fine, fine man. He has three daughters of his own, daughters he says he's encouraged to find a life that filled with doing the things they love, including, most likely, helping their own daughters or sons ride bikes.  

And, who knows? He may well be right.  I've never been a hedge fund manager; it's not a calling I'd do well at, that I know.

What he's saying is that if you don't give your life to making money, if you allow parenthood or marriage itself or any other distraction into a life calculated to make money, you'll never achieve, he says, what I have.  Something about that makes me wince.

I know it's a dirty rotten thing to say, but he's the one, after all, who's spouting biblical values, so let me  say it anyway:  his arrogance makes me appreciate what a teeny tiny space the eye of needle really is.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Book report--My Bright Abyss

There is an enormous contingent of thoughtful people in this country who, though they are frustrated with the language and forms of contemporary American religion, nevertheless feel that burn of being that drives us out of ourselves, that insistent, persistent gravity of the ghost called God.  I wanted to try to speak to these people more directly.  I wanted to write a book that might help someone who is at once as confused and certain about the source of  life and consciousness as I am.
And thus begins a book I've wanted to read for a while now, ever since reading an interview with the author, Christian Wiman, in Christianity Today.  Wiman is a Texan and a Baptist--or was; he forsook his faith in college, he says, although he never really departed from a sense of God's ownership of, in short, all things.  His career has been distinguished as one of the nation's finest poets, I'm told (I honestly don't know his work).  

People say great things about My Bright Abyss, a dense book, they call it; and it promises a great deal.  I'm not sure I fit totally within the population quadrant he specifically addresses here, but I'm certainly willing to listen to anyone as thoughtful as Wiman, who makes the claim that contemporary Christian expression doesn't necessarily offer something of comfort to millions of believers.

I just now ordered the book, which means, these days, that it's likely already in my Kindle.  Amazing.  What hath God wrought right here, a stone's throw from Alton, Iowa? 

Wiman found himself a victim of the kind of cancer that lays people in graves long before they should be; and when he was that victim, he found himself returning to the promise of the Christian faith.  Like most of us, what he practices is not the old-time religion of his parents or his Texas Baptist roots.  It's something else, as it always has to be.  Christian Wiman is not his father, even though he is in every possible way his father's son.  

But that doesn't mean his father can't rejoice in what has happened because the proximity of death and the reality of suffering brought Christian Wiman home to a place he'd never really left--an abiding consciousness and belief in God almighty.  

Thus his mission.  In the beginning, what I've typed in at the top is what he says.  

For weeks I've had a printout of that Christianity Today interview lying in the mess that is my desk.  For weeks, I've intended to quote some things here on this blog.  For weeks, seminal quotes from the article have been underlined and marked, scored in the margins.  But I haven't touched it, really.  Now the book is in my Kindle, and the words that follow the cursor across the page in front of me right at this moment are promising a series of posts about a book that I've looked forward to reading for a couple of months.

So I'm going to try.  Every once in a while, look for a dispatch from one of America's finest poets, thoughts from a book of essays widely believed to be something close to prophetic. "[Christian Wiman's] poetry and his scholarship," or so says Marilynne Robinson, "have a purifying urgency that is rare in this world.  This puts him at the very source of theology, and enables him to say new things in timeless language, so that the reader's surprise and assent are one in the same."

I'll let you know what I'm reading.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Morning Thanks--this creation

Yesterday, the windows went in and the shingles went on.  Every passing day makes this house of ours--and it is still only a house--somehow more believable.  Neither my wife or I would have ever guessed at this time last year, when we were cleaning out and up our old house in town, that just a year from that last garage sale we'd track past a building site every single day, gawking at what is already up and imagining what will be.  Neither of us had spent any time at all brethless over some dream home.  Now every day we can't help but look.

It was difficult yesterday not to think about Moore, Oklahoma, where thousands of people looked over a huge swath of community and saw nothing at all but rubbish. Wherever they looked, what they saw was the opposite of what we did--houses in jagged, dangerous pieces, their homes swallowed up in a tornado that lasted 45 minutes, then spit out the spit up remains who-knows-where because on Monday in Moore, early afternoon, the windows came out and the roof was gone.

Our house is going up, theirs were utterly destroyed. If you believe the mayor and others from the community, it won't be long before Moore will be new again, rebuilt. As for me and my house, I think I'd move elsewhere; three killer tornadoes up the very throat of tornado alley is a convergence that's anything but harmonic.

Yet, every year, more tornadoes rumble thought Iowa than Oklahoma.  Iowa's beasts are smaller, less all-consuming. Oklahoma may have fewer, but they devour far, far more. Daily temps are hotter, convections steeper.

Still, we're building a house in tornado alley too.  It never dawned on me that living here was a gamble, but it is, here as elsewhere, here as everywhere. The windows are in today; tomorrow they could get blown out. The shingles are on this morning; a thunderstorm could come rumbling up this afternoon and rip them off for good. We live with danger, all of us.  We live imperiled lives.

Still, I'm thinking this morning of Henry Hospers, the godfather of the Dutch community of northwest Iowa, of Dutch Sioux County, the sector of the nation where there are more people of Dutch ancestry (and more card-carrying Republicans) than any other county in all of the U.S. of A.  When Henry Hospers and his three buddies came north from Sioux City in a covered wagon to scout out land for a new immigrant colony, they did so right here, along the river, along the Floyd. They'd spotted only three or four sod hut homesteads on the trek north, and a single store building in what would eventually become LeMars, Iowa.

They'd avoided the land west of Cherokee, where land swindlers, who were legion at the time (imagine how easy it would be to make money on free land), had somehow bought out whole sections and then assumed they'd make a handsome profit when the wooden-shoed and wooden-headed Hollanders arrived. Instead of Cherokee, Hospers followed the Floyd River north, the river that runs just outside my window.

And what they found was a carpet of gorgeous native prairie, blooming with flowers, on rolling hills that took their breath away, a wonderful place, they thought. They kept following this very river, six miles north of the Sioux County line, and marked out two townships and a town plot, a place they called, of course, Holland.

Homesteads came in 80-acre plots in those days and generally cost a buck or two an acre.  Last year someone down the road paid $20 grand for this good, black dirt.

What did they know? Nothing, really. What they had was a dream, like the hundreds Hospers rode with on the train to Council Bluffs.  He said the cars were full of dreamers in classic American style, going west.  It was 1868, the Civil War was behind us, and land was there for the asking, land as far as you could see. There wasn't a paleface on that train--Dutch or Polish or Bohemian--who thought about taking land from the Great Plains tribes--the Lakota, the Pawnee, the Cheyenne, the Arikara.

It's getting close to 150 years later now, and two retired Dutch-Americans are building a house close to the Floyd River, named after the Sergeant (d. 1803, Sioux City, Iowa). Yesterday, that new house got windows; today it'll get a driveway.

Pardon the nostalgia. Pardon the morbidity--what has Moore, OK, to do with all of this?

It's just what I'm thinking this morning, early, as the outline of the river only begins to appear from the night's darkness through the windows west.

The robins are at it outside, but the day will be gray and cold and rainy.  But soon enough the goldfinches will be back at the feeder, beating each other up for the best spot on the thistle seed sock. In a minute, I'll head outside to set out a half an orange for those amazing orioles.

Life is a dangerous place to live, but it's still got its beauties.  It certainly has its beauties.  And it's still got a place for dreams.

And that's this morning's thanks.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Prayer for Moore

There are parents in Moore, Oklahoma, right at this very moment, who haven't slept because their children, their darling school-age children, are still somewhere in what little is left of the school where yesterday morning, when the bell rang, they sat in their chairs, innocent as doves.

What those moms and dads, kids themselves really, are going through right now is beyond imagination. They can't dig through the rubble themselves, though they would if they could. Only search-and-rescue people can. Those parents know for a fact the death toll is rising.  No one has a clear idea where that number might stop. They can do nothing, absolutely nothing, but cry and pray in a home that must seem horrifically empty.

And God doesn't appear to be helping either.  It's supposed to rain this morning in Moore, Oklahoma, rain hard--lightning and thunder, even hail.  Nothing destructive, of course, because there is nothing left to destruct; but rain isn't what the searchers need right now.  Nor is it what their children need if, by some miracle, they're still alive beneath walls that are no longer walls.  

I can't really imagine how hard it must be to keep hope alive. 

I came in yesterday, opened my e-mail, and discovered a news story about a massive tornado in Oklahoma.  I've got kids in Oklahoma.  They're no longer kids, really, but, for a parent, I suppose, they will forever be kids--mine.  

Two days ago they left our place to go back home.  We checked the weather before they left because that tornado that hit Moore yesterday was no surprise--in intensity and scope and range, yes; but people knew the elements were conspiring to create a killer cocktail.  If you live in Oklahoma, you live with tornadoes.  

On the way home on Sunday, they missed the twister that hit Wichita, got through the city before it set down--not by much either.  And yesterday, Stillwater, where they live, was just outside the path of the monster, maybe an hour away, north.

So when I texted them ("Are u ok?"), they replied immediately that they were--that the monster had hit considerably south, that they weren't even in a shelter, that everything was okay but that whatever had hit Moore was awful.  They too had been watching Oklahoma City television.

Friends called us, concerned. We could tell them, joyfully, that our kids were untouched, if anyone in Oklahoma can be "untouched" by what happened yesterday.

On my way to my grandchildren's school program, I got a call from my mother's pastor, who told me that she could use a call from me because she was deeply concerned about her grandchildren in Oklahoma.  

I hadn't even thought of Mom.  

So I called her. She's 94.  She was worried sick, she said--and so had the preacher who had happened to drop by.  She too had been watching TV, so a heavy dose of all that grief and sadness made it into her apartment.  How could she help not thinking of her Oklahoma grandchildren?

We're fine, and our kids are.  What do we know about concern?

This morning I can't help but think of those parents whose sweet little kids never left the Plaza Towers Elementary School, kids who are still there--unless they are already with the Lord.

Those moms and dads must be thinking that.  They have to be.

Morning has come to the disaster that is Moore, Oklahoma.  Some say it was the biggest tornado ever.  Some folks are  unaccounted for.  Many of them are children.

I'd like to say they belong to all of us, but they don't.  Mine are safe.  Theirs are not.  Theirs are still somewhere in the rubbish.

God, have mercy.  Lord, have mercy.

Monday, May 20, 2013


In his Sunday NYTimes column, Russ Douthat listed some appalling statistics that are--at least to me--absolutely shocking.  Did you know that more gun deaths result from suicide than murder, or that more Americans die from suicide than car accidents?  Seems impossible. 

Never in my life have I read the local obituaries as closely as I do now that I'm as old as I am, but I'm still shocked. Of course, few obits would likely announce suicide. Maybe I'm surprised about the numbers because I don't know the truth, and maybe I don't know the truth because people don't say it aloud, especially in a small town with a profoundly religion-based code of conduct.  

Just finished Hamlet again, and Act V's opening silliness always has to be explained to kids--college or high school:  Claudius and Gertrude cut a deal with the church for Laetes, her brother, a deal that allowed his sister Ophelia to be buried honorably despite the fact that she'd taken her own life. But the church had insisted that not all of the rites ordinarily given to someone of her class and standing could be granted, given her having committed suicide.  Laetes is incensed, Hamlet jumps in--and we've got action.  

Kids today have trouble believing that not all that long ago the mortal coil of those who took their own lives might have to find burial somewhere other than the community cemetary.  Suicide implied despair, and despair meant no hope; someone who took his or her own life therefore illustrated to all the world that he or she was faith-less.  Thus, no "Christian" burial.

Here in the Christian West, there is no tradition of suicide.  I remember once visiting at Christian school in Tokyo, Japan, where the school's playground ended at a train track. Our guide told us that it wasn't always a pleasant place because more than a few suicides happened right there when people simply threw themselves in the path of a commuter train.  It happened too often, he said, in part because Japanese culture was less negatively predisposed to suicide, it being sometimes a very honorable way out of dishonor.

Douthat argues that the number of suicides is shocking but not as surprising as we might think, given the fact that people today are, he says (and I believe him) all too frequently disassociated from society's abiding institutions, like family and church and work. Freedom from social attachments can be a glorious thing, but freedom often means estrangement from community.

I love this machine I'm typing on right now, but it has already altered our lives in many ways, some good, some not, and some still beyond our imagining. It's perfectly silly to blame www for the ghastly rise in suicide in this country; after all, the upswing is most notable in men between the ages of 30 and 55, a segment of the population not necessarily associated with slavish computer use.  But it's somehow undeniable that people find their communities in this machine, or perhaps think they do.

But do they? I don't know.

The death of Tim Bosma, a Canadian man murdered, it seems, simply for his truck, has galvanized people from my denominational background like nothing else has for reasons which are not particularly easy to understand. Last week's horrors were not limited to Ancaster, Ontario, after all; all across North America similarly disturbing things happened.  But somehow this death made me--and others--feel attached to the horror and sadness of a young wife and mother, a thousand miles away, who happened to be Christian Reformed.

But then politics divide where tragedy unites.  Maybe that's the key to understanding why hundreds of Christian Reformed churches, yesterday, sang "In Christ Alone" as an emblem of solidarity with Sharlene Bosma--a broadly shared sense of real tragedy.

Douthat says he believes the rise in suicide is attributable to its opposite, societal loneliness, alienation that is itself sometimes self-inflicted when people shrug off responsibility to others and willfully forget its own stories. 

Yesterday, I spent some time reading The Best of the Reformed Journal, a collection of essays from a now defunct periodical of the Christian Reformed Church. The contributions were penned by my denomination's most liberal commentators and theologians in the '50s and early '60s, most of the writers WWII vets.  Those essays, even though they're from progressives, share a rhetoric that is simply absent today in my world--a rhetoric of inclusion that's almost offensive in its tribalism, a rhetoric that gloried in the state of mind and heart and soul of what B. J. Haan used to call "our people."  I don't think anyone talks that way anymore.  "Our people" is really just me and mine.

Freedom is a wonder, a joy; but separation required by freedom creates its own punishments. It's difficult not to argue, as Douthat does, that loneliness, also on the rise by the way, doesn't play a significant role in our alarming suicide rate.  

In our amazingly "connected" world, some powerful connections are simply not being made. The result, more often than I like to believe, is, in fact, despair. 

Astounding numbers.  Shocking, really.  But somehow, sadly enough, believable.

Sunday, May 19, 2013


“Ascribe to the Lord, mighty ones, 
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.” Psalm 29:1

Mighty, I’m guessing, is a word like rich, a word people give to others, never themselves.  Few of us would consider ourselves the “mighty ones” specifically addressed in the first verse of this thundering psalm, in which David the King seems to be addressing some tenth-century elite council of the United Nations.  But let’s eavesdrop.

Think football.  The quarterback fakes a handoff to the tailback, then drops back, eyes ranging downfield.  He pumps once, and the linebacker chasing him goes for the fake, allowing him a few extra seconds.  The flanker’s on a fly pattern, so the QB heaves the ball up with everything he’s got, and somewhere down the field his man runs under it, grabs it, holds on, shuns a tackler, and waltzes into the end zone. The crowd ignites.

Today, almost inevitably in pro football, the flanker will perform.  He’ll slam dunk the football over the goalpost or high five the first dozen teammates who greet him.  Or T-bow.  But most of the time what follows is some bizarre chicken-like strut, a gangly prance, a knee-dipping, elbow-flapping sashay.  You know what I mean.
If it’s the home team, the crowd goes nuts, not simply because they love the dance but because they too feel the juice of that big-time touchdown pass.  They love the score just as much as the flanker.  Fortunately, the cameras never pan the stands.  I’m sure just as much ostentatious prancing goes on in the bleachers.

Give all of that to God.  That’s what David is telling his fellow potentates, really.  Take hold of all that bravado, all that bellicose swagger, and lay it where it belongs, at the throne of God.  Dance in joy to him.  Cavort blessedly.  Prance your praise.
To me, far too often, prayer means supplication.  Some of the most earnest prayers of my lifetime—I remember them—have been uttered when I’m begging Him for something I can’t get or maintain for myself:  a cure for cancer, an end to war, a balm for grief, a shelter in the time of storm.  We draw closest to God, it seems, when our own reservoirs are depleted, when we know we need showers of blessings.
It may well require more of us, however, to bring him our glory and our strength, to thank him for a great class, to bless his name for the end of a story or a novel that just wouldn’t come.  For rain. For the music of the birds. For sweet Sunday mornings.  For 80 acres just planted.

I don’t know about you, but I think it’s vastly easier to give him our worst than it is our best.

Ascribe to the Lord all strength and glory—that’s what David tells his potentate pals.  Give him your finest diplomatic coups and the very best of your battles.  Beg his love in your distress, but give him the praise for your everything.
Shouldn’t come as news to those of us reared in the Presbyterian tradition, in which the very first question and answer says as much.  David’s song is more bellicose; the catechism, perhaps rightly, is more restrained; but the idea is the same.
What is the chief end of man? asks the Westminster Catechism; and the answer is simple:  “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”
Give him your victories.  Bless his name with your triumphs.  Give him your laughter, your smiles, your greatest achievements.  They’re his anyway.
Glorify God and enjoy him forever.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Prayers for single mom

Tim Bosma is seen in a family photo.

By all accounts, he was a really good guy--good father, good husband, good church-goer.  In some ways, on paper at least, he seems quintessentially CRC. While he didn't go to Redeemer, to Dordt, to Calvin, or to Trinity, he and his wife, Sharlene, and their darling two-year-old were by all accounts faithful members of an Ancaster, Ontario, CRC.

The Bosma's preacher was not in attendance at the retreat I led last week, although he certainly could have been. Many of his colleagues from around the adjacent classes were. But that pastor had a horrible problem on his hands and in his heart, the abduction of a member of his church and a woman, that man's wife, who suddenly found herself without her husband and her little girl's dad, a woman who was herself, I'm sure, scared to death.

I first heard the story at that retreat, when one of the leaders announced how this young man named Tim Bosma had left home with a couple of men who were interested in buying his truck, a vehicle they'd seen advertised somewhere on the internet.  Someone said, later on, that he'd heard Bosma himself had worried a bit, since the potential buyer had asked, strangely, if he could meet Tim somewhere--at a restaurant or something--and take the truck for a test drive from there.  Bosma had insisted they come to the house--and that he go with them on this test drive.

It was the last ride he'd ever take. Police discovered his burned body on the lot of the man who has subsequently been charged with first-degree murder.

Me? When I first heard the story, I was concerned about how the next presentation was going to go, the presentation I made directly after the Tim Bosma story was announced to the folks at the retreat center.  The story sounded too TV-scripted--a young father missing and presumably abducted just for a truck?  Can't be.

The story was true and it's awful.  Police are searching for an accomplice or two, it seems, because someone else drove the car they rode up in. Who knows how all of this will shake out?

Within the world of the CRC, the tragic story unfolds deep and committed response that is, veritably, predictable. I know the kind of care his church gave to Bosma's wife because I've seen it ten dozen times or more: hundreds of folks doing anything and everything they can--one newspaper described Bosma's Dutch Reformed world as "very tight."  A neighbor described what the Toronto Star called "their faith-based neighbourhood" as very close. 

No kidding. 

“It’s kind of like one person’s suffering," that neighbor said, "is everybody’s suffering.” A million prayers must have stormed the gates of heaven when there was still some hope; I'm sure that kind of number hasn't diminished in the least, even after the arrest. Now all those prayers all for Sharlene.  And that fatherless two-year-old.

This horrible crime strikes even me, a thousand miles and a national border away because somehow it feels close to home.  I feel as if I knew Tim Bosma, could have had him in class, could have sat in front of him or behind for years of Sunday worship.  He was a member of my tribe, and even though I never met him he couldn't have been more than one degree of separation away.  I wouldn't doubt there were those at the retreat who knew him.  The two of could have played bingo and struck home, I'm sure, in a heartbeat.  

And now he's gone, dead, and his grieving wife walks through a house that probably feels like cardboard.  Still, I know she's not alone, flights of angels, airy and earthy, there beside her and their little girl.  

It's the kind of story that makes you wonder about humankind, even if you're steeped in a theology whose two major pillars are the sovereignty of God and the depravity of man. Theology is a classroom exercise until it meets the road, as it does here, in this story. But even if that's all you've heard from the pulpit for you whole life, there's no way for the heart to imagine the horrifying malevolence of whoever murdered Tim Bosma for his 2007 black Dodge Ram. Turns out the alleged perpetrator had more than enough money to buy it.  

Makes the blood run cold, someone wrote on line.

Strikes me as exactly right, cliche or not.  There's no way to make sense of what happened to the Bosmas of Ancaster.  Simply, makes the blood run cold and puts us on our knees.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Morning Thanks--Retreat

Look, I shouldn't have gone.  Back home, it was grading season, and I bit off more than I could chew by teaching two courses during my first year of retirement.  I was busy beyond busy.  I'd overbooked myself for the last month, running off to speak about this or that, hither and yon--sometimes with my wife, sometimes not--and the last thing I should have done was fly up to Ontario for a three-day retreat for preachers and spouses. I'm not even a preacher.

But I did. I'm a sucker and a glutton for punishment and, when push comes to shove, I love to travel.  Well, let's put it this way:  I love to see new places; and I'd never been "up north" in Ontario before.  I guessed it would be something akin to the beauty of northern Minnesota, my dream world, but I'd never been there.  So, I went, but I shouldn't have. 

Still, it was a good time. 

One afternoon a bunch of retreat-ers hauled me along to Algonquin Park, a monstrosity of a park, not far down the road from the retreat center. 

Listen--when you're the speaker at a retreat, there's really no down time.  You're worried about how your shtick went last time, and you're fretting about what on earth might happen the next time you're behind that podium.  Besides, I was bushed--six trips up to the front of the room was no piece of cake (the food was wonderful, by the way). 

But I went along on a quick jaunt to Algonquin Park, where we saw a couple of moose and took a short hike around a lake.  This lake.

I like taking pictures--no, I love taking pictures.  But I like taking pictures when I'm alone, when I can sketch out something in my imagination before pointing the camera.  I like having the time to see.  I like going off by myself and hunting for beauty--I really do.  I've said it often on these pages--looking for beauty is just plain good for the soul.

But on this short hike around a sweet little lake, I was one of a dozen hikers footing it through the woods, and I had to keep up. So I didn't have time to size anything up, didn't have time to pour over what might be a good shot, didn't have time to plan or to meditate, couldn't even create a frame with my fingers.  Nope.  Just point and shoot and move along.  By the end, I was covered in sweat.

The sun wasn't out either. Taking pictures is all about light, finally, but, just then, on our little jaunt, it was in hiding behind some gray clouds that promised rain, some at least.  The sun brightens colors, deepens them.  If you don't get glare and if the images themselves don't burn, most often I prefer sun.  Nope--not this time.  Let's list things here: I'm bushed, I'm marching along, not planning, the sun isn't out, and--I forgot to mention--I came armed with my littlest camera.  I know, I know--the miraculous things camera-makers are doing with cameras these days makes everyone into a photographer, but I had neither time nor technology to take the really good shots. 

Here's the real bottom line:  I have never been in a place--anywhere, any time--where suuch gorgeous pictures literally jumped into the camera.  I wish I could say these shots are comely because the landscape photographer knows how to arrange a canvas as if it were a precious still life.  I wish I could say that these works of art are meticulously planned and executed.  I wish I could say that I was a really, really talented photographer.  But these are just plain snapshots.

The plain truth is Algonquin Park that overcast early summer afternoon--the oaks and maples only beginning to leaf--was perfectly gorgeous.  I couldn't have missed with a Brownie.
And that's why, this morning, I'm thankful for a retreat I really shouldn't have taken.  Beauty is its own excuse for being.