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, August 30, 2013

Morning Thanks--Morning Walk


When I left the house, it wasn't as hot as it's been just about every day for the last week, but hot enough for me to know that by the time I'd return, I'd be wet, but then that doesn't take much.  All I have to do is step out the door.

East, along the river bank, a blaze of yellow not only caught my eye, it almost blinded me. Coneflowers are taking over Sioux County these day and they are huge.  That Memorial Day flood on the Floyd gave life and breath to multitudes, swarms of pure gold.

So I turned around, grabbed a little camera from the shelf, and headed back towards the river.  This is what I saw at Dunlop Park, a little blessing along Hwy. 10, Orange City's own gift to the neighborhood which has become, I should say, my neighborhood.

Come along.

Ignorance is bliss.  I'm almost sure that most of the flora I saw were weeds, or at least non-desirables.  No matter.  Light is grace.  Sprinkle a little down the path and light itself--morning light or light of dawn--will glamorize refuse, make it breath-taking.

Look at this.




I'd whack it out of the lawn.  I've got no idea what it is, but when grace abounds, when light hits like this, you'd swear the Fall was the dream of snickering curmudgeons.

I have absolutely no idea what makes art.  I'm ignorant of line and color.  All I know for sure is what's here is somehow plain wonderful. In another hour, maybe not so.  But for the time being, this incidental composition captures eye and soul.  What does that do to our theology?



Whole sections of the path are threatened by swarming morning glories fully capable, sweet white flowers and all, of choking everybody else out.  There's little to separate them from that dirty rotten crone, creeping jenny, but don't be deceived; they're plotting against you. You may think the showy piety is a witness, but turn your back and they'll steal you blind.

Still, in morning light, they're so worshipful.



I'm a victim of my Calvinist upbringing.  It's a burden I can't loose from my shoulders. Everywhere I look I see sermons.  Some woodpeckers spent a season creating this domicile, even looks used.  Not long ago, perhaps, a couple of downies may well have raised a family, and the kids are off to college.  For someone, at least, it's home--or was.  The birds have their nests and foxes have their holes. . .well, you know.



I don't think farmers are complaining right now--we've had our share of rain.  But the river is so miserably low that it's a creek.  A neighbor and his boys took a canoe out not long ago and spent more time trudging through muddy river bottom than paddling.  Wasn't a good time.

Islands like this abound now, post flood.  On Memorial Day you wouldn't have recognized the Floyd River. It was angry and swollen and threatening bridges like some crazed killer high on meth.  When that overdose dissipated, what was left was huge mounds of dirt and sand, like this, where once there was nothing but river bed.  I don't understand the physics of it, but that flood--some called it a century flood--changed the face of the things, the way profound events always do.  Call them scars, if you will.  Or call them memories.  What's clear is that they're here.  

For now.  

Like us.  

Till the next flood.


I think if I were Roman Catholic and a bit entrepreneurial, I'd start up a line of t-shirts with some darling little aphorisms from Mother Teresa.  Here's one--"To the great God, nothing is little."  Or how about this:  "Don't look for big things--do small things with great love."

Maybe, maybe not.  In a world captivated by Miley Cyrus, Mother's wisdom is idiocy.

Still. Who'd a thunk this all that pretty?

And finally this.  I hope it's not racist.



And maybe I like it because I've been thinking so much about missions lately, my own church and its 125-year-old history on fields throughout the world.  Really, if you think about the Grand Tetons, all this barely amounts to a hill of beans--which, of course, most of my neighborhood is. 

Still.

When I got home my shirt was soaked with sweat, which happens.  It's the price of pilgrimage, I guess.  I'd put a smiley face in here, if I knew how to do it.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Morning Thanks--The sermon of March 21,1943


It arrived in the mail, a gift from my wife's cousin, who found it while sifting through their aunt's keepsakes--a bulletin from the First Christian Reformed Church, Orange City, Iowa, dated March 21, 1943.  There's no order of worship, no ads for this or that activity, no reminders of anything other than "church stuff"--catechism, offering schedule, Men's Society, and this: "Faith, Hope, and Love Circle studying from Lesson 13 in the December Calvinist." 

This too:  

SUNDAY EVENING MEETING, 7:30.
   Congregational farewell for Richard Dykstra and Randall Van Gelder [my wife's father].
   Subject:  Elijah calls down fire from heaven on the captains and their fifties [?], II Kings 1.

My wife's cousin sent this old bit of memorabilia because of that announcement, and this:  



"Randall Van Gelder and Richard Dykstra are home on a short furlough.  Farewell for them will be held tonite.  Both pastor and service director are glad that so many of our people take part in these farewells, and the boys appreciate them very much."

I don't think First CRC, Orange City, Iowa, had a worship committee, nor a Chair of the worship committee, nor a worship director; my guess is that the "service director" had nothing to do with special music--there wasn't any--or liturgies or choral anthems.  It's likely that "the service director" directed all the activities--including the farewells the boys loved so much--related to "the service," the military, because the most incredible information from this old bulletin is what appears on the back.  Have a look for yourself.  



Orange City is in Sioux County, Iowa, hundreds of miles northwest of the state capital in Des Moines, pure fly-over country, then and now.  Thousands of Iowans don't even know we exist here, so far, far away, on blue highways, back then mostly gravel.  In 1943 there was nothing on-line, nary a TV, only  WNAX, Yankton for the markets and the news.  This was the land of American Gothic, ethnic to a fault--the names on that list are a babble if your grandparents weren't born in Holland.  Go ahead and take a shot. Half the bulletin is written in Dutch.

 The church was much bigger back then, the only Christian Reformed Church in town.  And families were huge, farm families especially.  My father-in-law came from a farm family of ten.

Still, I can't get my mind around the fact that one church in one small town, way out in the corner of the state of Iowa gave 35 "boys" to a war effort in Europe and the South Pacific.  

35 men. Imagine.

You go to church?  Think of what the place would be like with 35 men gone.  One of the notes on the bulletin says "Our Senator Gillette has promised to do all he can to gain certainty in regard to Marion De Vries."  My wife says she believes he was captured.  He did return. Imagine the prayer concerns.  They were legion.

Some didn't return, among them Randall Van Gelder's own brother Charles.

The year was 1943.  It's quite likely the number of "boys" First CRC gave to the war went higher still.  It would be more than a year till Normandy, two years until Hiroshima.

Tragedy unites, someone once said; politics divide.  No one wants tragedy.  I don't hope for war, ever.  But a bulletin like this one, half-English, half-Dutch, 70 years old takes your breath away. 

The morning sermon that Sabbath was based on Lords Day 41 and 42 of the Heidelburg Catechism: "Why Was He Also Buried."  At night, Elijah calls down fire.

But this morning's thanks are for this little gift, an ancient church bulletin and the straight-up catechism sermon it still preaches seventy-long years later.  

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Confession

An FBI memo sent two days after the March on Washington identified Martin Luther King as "the most dangerous Negro of the future in this nation."  Click here to read a page of the original memo, and here for a collection of FBI material on King.

Perhaps my father was wrong, but he wasn't alone.  Check out the document--the general title is unmistakable:  "COMMUNIST PARTY, USA" and then "NEGRO QUESTION."  It's a Memorandum of the United States Government dated August 30, 1963.  That's right, and that date is worth repeating--August 30, 1963.

Someone, somewhere, underlined the fourth paragraph's last line, perhaps as an action item:  "We must mark him now," the memo says, speaking of Dr. Martin Luther King, "as the most dangerous Negro of the future in the Nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro, and national security."

My father considered MLK an enemy of the people, an agitator with communist leanings who was upsetting everything, pushing a perfectly good political system into danger, risking chaos in the streets. My father and millions of others had spent way too many years in the South Pacific or somewhere in occupied Europe, taking bullets, and, dang it, all they really wanted was to come back to a good home with a good wife and good kids.  And then this blame Negro comes along and claims we've been doing things wrong forever and ever and that we owe them some kind of blessing, a bowl of porridge, after hundreds of thousands of American GIs died--thousands on Omaha Beach alone!  

Who does he think he is?  He must be a communist.

He wasn't.  He was a preacher.  

Even to a life-long Calvinist like my father, a man who spent more time in church than he did anywhere other than home and office, Martin Luther King was a dangerous scourge, a malcontent, who threatened everything with his blame talk about equality. Doggone it, he was always agitating, never happy, always making life miserable for the rest of us.  He was dangerous too.  People said he's been seen with card-carrying communists--and how can a Christian hang around with atheists?  Answer me that.  All that Christianity he robes himself in with is phony baloney.  What kind of Christian would urge insurrection?  Tell me that.  What kind of Christian would agitate the way that man does? He's dangerous. 

People said my father was a saint. But all of that is what he thought about Martin Luther King.  I remember.  I remember very well.

And he wasn't alone. The man in charge of the bureau of government who created this memo was the Attorney General of the United States; and that Attorney General wasn't George Wallace, but Robert F. Kennedy, a staunch Democrat who would, just five years later, run for President himself when Hubert Humphrey seemed to stumble on Vietnam. Kennedy was a liberal my father would have never voted for.  But when it came to MLK, they were on the same page. 

Dad was no extremist.  He never stockpiled goods thinking men in black helicopters were coming to rural Wisconsin to confiscate guns.  He never owned one.  He was a pious, saintly man, president of the village, chair of the Christian school board, and a perennial church elder.

Today is the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and the most famous speech of America's post-World War II era--"I have a dream."  All Martin Luther King was asking for was the opportunity for all of God's children to play in the same park, swim in the same pool, and look down the road at similarly promising futures.  What he wanted was a legalized end to legalized discrimination.  

And a lot of good Christian people, well-meaning believers in the blood of Jesus, thought of him as an enemy of the state, diabolical and anti-American.  In most white churches, his association with communists made him the enemy.  

When he comes up this next Sabbath morning in sermons in many of those same churches, fifty years later, I'd guess there won't be much confession of sin, only adulation.  That's sad. We need to know what we came from, even when what we came from is something it might be more pleasant not to remember.

Today, Martin Luther King is a saint.  Fifty years ago, he was anything but.  Once upon a time the picture below looked nothing like righteousness to most of white America.

Christians like me need to remember that part of the story too when they remember the speech.  We need to remember we need forgiveness.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Bishop Whipple takes heart

File:Portrait of Henry Benjamin Whipple.jpg

In his first charge after becoming a pastor, Henry Benjamin Whipple, who would become Bishop of Minnesota in the state's earliest years, got a note from a distressed woman who asked him to please come and visit her dying husband. 

Whipple did.  It was, he writes in his memoir Lights and Shadows of a Long Episcopate, one of the coldest nights of midwinter, and to get to that home took some time on horseback.  The year was 1850.  The place--Rome, New York.

"I am a great sinner," this very sick man told Whipple when he arrived. "Will you help me?"

The young pastor claims he did his pastoral best, and the dying man was much relieved, even begged him to return.  

And so he did, just two days later.  This time, however, the man had recovered somewhat from near death and went after him like a snake.  "You are what they call Episcopal," he said.  "You pray out of a book. You don't let other ministers preaching in your pulpit" and then proceeded to repeat, Whipple says, "every stale objection against the [Episcopal] Church."

When he'd visited two days earlier, he says he hadn't told the man he was Episcopalian or even that he was a preacher.  "I tried to lead you to the Lamb of God, and I told you of His love in asking you to believe and be baptized."

No matter. Whipple was excused forthwith and sent on his way.

"Forty years ago Christians were not as ready to see the image of Christ in those from whom they differed as now," Whipple says right about there in his imminently readable memoir. I couldn't help smiling.  The old Bishop is looking back at the way things were and telling himself that Christians are not nearly so divided as he remembered them to have been. Things are better now, or so he believes, because those who worship the risen Christ are more accepting of each other's differences.

A warm and delightful thought, quite stunning, I think.  And Whipple is remembering all of this as he writes at the end of the 19th century, just about 120 years ago.

Henry Benjamin Whipple went on to become Bishop of Minnesota and to plead, famously, to President Abraham Lincoln himself, for the lives of the 300+ Dakota warriors sentenced to hang after the Dakota War. When he visited the President, Whipple unsparingly laid out the real scenario which led to the Dakota War.  Lincoln later said he felt the urgency of Whipple's visit "down to his boots."  Most Minnesota white folks hated him. His colleagues thought him a fanatic.  

If, in his life, he was devoted to anything in addition to his faith in the saving work of Jesus Christ, he was bound and determined to build bridges between believers. I suppose it was in his DNA to be hopeful, to wish for better, and to take heart from moments when people of a shared faith could sing and pray together.

But the line haunts me: "Forty years ago Christians were not as ready to see the image of Christ in those from whom they differed as now," because I'm as old as he was when he wrote those words, and I just don't know that I could say the same thing.

For certain, in my own faith community, things have changed immensely. Denominationalism is fading, a tired and tattered remnant, perhaps of America's European and ethnic past.  The Dutch theologian most read by CRC members in the last two decades may well be Henri Nouwen, the Roman Catholic priest. Nationally, the churches that lead in growth, the mega-churches, are often non-denominational; and the church in town where the action is--or so it seems--likes to think of itself as minimally affiliated with any one other than itself.  We seem less fractured.

And yet, Christian believers face off against each other in an acrimonious debate that stymies legislative action in this country. It's difficult to imagine believers any more deeply split. I'm not sure either side is fully ready to "see the image of Christ" in those with whom they differ, politically, so sharply.

A century ago, Whipple thought things were improving.  Maybe.  

Maybe not.

On his first trip up into the lakes region of the territory of Minnesota, he was accompanied by a Chippewa (Ojibwa) guide named Shaganash, who found himself, as one can only imagine, the target of a ton of preaching and asked, Whipple says, "many thoughtful questions," including this one:  "Why are there so many religions among white men and only one Book?"

That too is a thoughtful question.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Morning Thanks--familiarity


We finished discussing The Best of the Reformed Journal in our book club last night, and we did so with great joy because reading the essays collected in that volume brought us back to a time when we cut our teeth on the theological and cultural problems facing the denomination and the tribe in which we grew up, problems that really haven't disappeared. Reading that book invited me back into a retrospective of my own life and reminded me, vividly, of what people really cared about only a couple of decades ago.

Well, what specific people cared about.  I didn't grow up with the Reformed Journal.  I grew up with a sister publication, a magazine devoted to assessing change within the denomination and the tribe from the right side of the poilitical aisle, something called The Torch and the Trumpet.  What I really should do someday is visit the college library and spend a day reading old copies of that magazine.  Chances are, I'd feel something of the same warmth I felt reading Best of RJ, a return to a distinguished battlefield where some significant blood was shed, all in the name of righteousness, sadly enough.

That isn't everything, of course.  The Best of RJ was a joy because, for the most part, I loved the points of view taken toward most every issue its essayists examined.  The essays therein not only capture the best of those submitted and published by the magazine, they also offer what my very prejudiced eyes and mind and heart would offer as the best thinking in the denomination and tribe in which I was reared and still worship and exist. 

It's something of a treat to read thoughtful men and women hold forth on topics of world concern from a vantage point they mutually regard as significant, a "Reformed perspective."  Their spin--for the most part--is progressive, but their regard for what they share is so great that it goes almost without saying.  One of the few topics that isn't there is a definition of what those words mean. They all know--or, as the editors of The Torch and Trumpet might have said, "they think they do."

Would I want to go back to that time?  Shoot no--I'm not that old.  But did those essays light some fires that have long been smoldering, at best?--you bet it did.  But then, most of the writers were--still are--my heroes.  

They're thoughtful and wise and greatly familiar.  Hence, the blessing, I suppose.

Yesterday in church a couple of men got up and sang a duet that included no harmony at all.  They sang a familiar hymn in unison, a hymn highly regarded--really highly regarded--among good conservative people from the clan--"Great is Thy Faithfulness."  It just so happens that when these guys stand up to sing, I pay attention.  They're good.  They're very good.  They had me before they'd started in on a note.

But the arrangement was compelling this time because what the pianist offered those two men was a musical line that was altogether different, yet equally beloved.  Their voices offered that old hymn, but simultaneously the pianist played "Jesus, Joy of Man's Desiring," and the result was just about as divine a confluence as could experience in an old church full of warm, devout, ordinary folks.  It was just plain beautiful.

Later, over the coffee, one of the guys mentioned that the piece was an arrangement by a woman named Emily Lund, a former student of mine, a delight, a creative kid originally from just down the road in Hull, Iowa. 

I don't know--maybe I'm being silly. Without a doubt my being so taken by yesterday's "special music" was a result of a number of factors, but I dare bet that one of them was the gorgeous setting of an old hymn, Bach right there among us, an arrangement created by someone who somewhere along the line, almost certainly, worshipped in that same church herself.

Familiarity may well breed contempt.  I know it does, know it can.

But it doesn't have to.  It can also prompt love, as it did yesterday, I swear.  

This morning, this Monday morning, I'm deeply thankful for a Sabbath of one grand duet and a book full of essays.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Sunday Morning med--"Trespasses"


“Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven. . .”

Alice Munro’s 2004 collection of short stories, Runaway, includes a story titled“Trespasses,” a word only slightly less archaic, perhaps, than “transgressions.”  In typical Munro-vian fashion, she weaves together several plot lines and a gallery of fully human characters who move relentlessly toward an end that is as foreordained as any ending she’s ever written.  In fact, the story begins with a tableau—four unidentified people performing some unspecified ritual late at night, on a river bank—a scene which is also the story’s own dramatic climax.  In the story’s first page and a half, Munro shows us where we’re going; then she spends the next half hour of reading time explaining how we got there.
           
Great stories defy summary, so I’m on dangerous ground, but I’ll try anyway.  Lauren, an eleven or twelve year-old “only child,” meets Kate, who works at the restaurant where kids her age stop after school.  When Kate shows Lauren a ton of attention, singling her out from her friends, readers can’t help becoming fearful.  Slowly, the truth emerges:  Kate has spent some significant time finding Lauren, a child she believes to be her own, a child she once gave up for adoption. 
           
But Lauren—still very much a child—knows a story Kate doesn’t because once upon a time she stumbled on a vial her father quietly explained held the ashes of her sister, a baby who was killed just before Lauren was born.  He warns her, however, never to bring up the story in front of her mother, who cannot bear any reminder of the accident which took the baby’s life.  That baby’s name was Lauren.
           
When Kate threatens to open up the whole story, something must be done.  Soon, the story of the accident emerges, a story which began in a fight about abortion because Lauren’s father wasn’t interested in another child.  Lauren’s mother took off in the car, an accident ensued, and the baby—the adopted child Kate had given up—was killed because she wasn’t fastened into the seat.
           
The story is rife with pain—her father’s, for not wanting Lauren; her mother’s, for her inattention; and Kate’s, for once, long ago, giving her child away. 
           
So one night, in an attempt to find what people call today “closure,” the four major characters of “Trespasses” head out to the spot of the accident, repeat some lines from the Lord’s Prayer, and leave behind the baby’s remains.
           
That’s not the end of the story, however.  In some ways, the denouement is even more horrifying because Lauren, the only child, is left carrying the greatest burden of all, the child of a marriage that has been bleeding grief ever since she was born.  Her parents are distanced, from each other and from her.  The only adult who’d ever shown her any love, Kate, now leaves, having rejected Lauren once she discovered the child wasn’t hers.
Munro doesn’t trumpet closure for the adults of this story; we really don’t know whether or not they’ll ever find the peace they’ve never felt.  What we know, however, is that this second Lauren will wear forever the livery of her parents’ trespasses. 
           
It’s a story that reminds me of the great Old Testament curse of sin, that it will live for generations—“punishing the children for the sins of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.”
           
The Blessedness with which Psalm 32 begins is created by that most marvelous of nouns—forgiveness.  But forgiveness really can’t be appreciated with anything less than a full-bodied understanding of sin, our sin.  The miracle of our forgiveness works only when our sin is wholly acknowledged.

The miracle of forgiveness—and it is a miracle—is experienced only when we know our sin.

Which is to say, those who know real forgiveness once knew, for real, their sin.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Morning Thanks--Reclamation



We weren't poor.  Shoot, we were well off, but when we moved to Iowa long, long ago, we needed furniture and somehow--I don't know how--I got into refinishing old stuff, old stuff we'd pick up at auctions and an occasional antique store.  Oak stuff--you know, the people's wood, the wood that won the west.

We're moving again, the house is littered with boxes, a goodly number of them open and gaping.  We're both a little edgy because moving is not a happy job and we're now of the age that even minor impediments to daily ritual can be emotionally upsetting, you know. When I was a kid, people my age were just plain old and almost always ornery.  My only memories of my own aging grandpa are of a prune-faced old grouch who announced his sober presence by the way his house-slippers dragged on the kitchen floor. 

Anyway, one of my projects is itself reclaimed from our past.  For the first time in years, I'm trying to make an old piece of furniture not only functional but even a little attractive.  It's homemade and it's ancient.  It was in the basement of our century-old house when we moved in, a looming old kitchen hutch full of doors and drawers, something stiff and functional and unwieldy--maybe I should just call it "a storage facility." 

It wasn't pretty, and, trust me, I'm not about tell you that, with a little stripper and elbow grease, I discovered a treasure.  That's not where this is going. 

Anyway, we had no need for this monstrous thing so, thirty years ago, we lugged it out of the basement and stood it in the garage.  Now "the garage" was a barn at our old place, a town barn, that sat on the lowest point of our lot. That barn was home for this beastly thing for all of the years we lived there--and, yes, sometimes it stood in water, sometimes ice.  We weren't kind to it.  Inside I kept stuff I never looked at, even some two-stroke oil and other hazmat-like gunk I didn't want on the floor.

Look, we're talking ratty here. Even when it was built, it wasn't expensive.  It never stood on any showroom floor.

BUT.

But it is unusual. Yes, unusual is perhaps the right word.  Well, wait a minute--it's not really unusual because just about anyone our age (trust me on this) has one somewhere in his or her memory. Once upon a time, this behemoth beast held sugar and flour, I'm sure, and all kinds of baking ingredients.  We like to believe, although we  may be wrong, that it was likely built into our old house when that place was built, a century ago.

So when we said goodbye to that house, my wife says, sort of pleadingly, we were going to take it with--even though it stood out in the barn for close to thirty years, even though it hadn't been cleaned in that time, even though it stood in floods and ice and held dusty, dirty, oily stuff.  "I think I'd like it along," she said.

For the last couple of weeks--remember, I'm retired--I've been redoing it, stripping it of its coat of many colors.  Yesterday, I painted it, a flat white primer over the rather sweet patina-look it held from a stain someone laid on it when, long ago, it was sawed up and hammered together.  

It's a wreck really, but this morning it's out there in the shed in its own brand new long underwear, standing far more proudly than it's ever stood in our possession before.  Look, it ain't pretty--trust me--but it just might work. The plan is to grace it with a new counter-top (the Formica that was there ran chills up your spine), then to drop in a sink and faucet, paint it some soft-spoken earth tone, and turn it into a little wet bar, if I can get that relic looking as if deserves a place in a brand new house, make that home.

And that's why this morning I'm thankful for the job, and for reclamation, for transformation, for redemption itself. 

You knew I was going to say that.  

This morning I'm thankful that a hundred years ago some guy (I know, I'm sexist) built a big old kitchen hutch for the the new house the town veterinarian was building, slapped that thing together functionally and sturdily enough to withstand its own first forty years, then thirty years of student life in the basement and thirty years of thoughtless abandonment in a town barn that all too regularly flooded by way of April showers. 

What I'm saying is, there's hope.  And hope is a treasure, especially for someone who's starting to drag his slippers across the kitchen floor.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

A Short, Eventful Life


On the night of April 23, 1865, just eight days after President Abraham Lincoln met his earthly end in the Ford Theater, a young man named Silas Soule, a Civil War and Indian Wars veteran and a constable in a frontier town called Denver, Colorado, ran into two cavalrymen, late, who, presumably drunk, were shooting their handguns irresponsibly.  No one really knows what was said, but in a matter of minutes, Charles Squier, a ne'er-do-well with a rap sheet and a venomous hatred for Abraham Lincoln, shot Silas Soule in the head.  He died almost instantly.

And so ends what Tom Bensing calls "The Short, Eventful Life of Moral Courage," the life of Silas Soule, who had on April Fools Day, just three weeks before, married an 18-year-old sweetheart named Hersa Coberly. Soule was just 26 years old.

Every Thanksgiving, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho kids take part in a commemoration of the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864, when Native men, women, and children were killed, slaughtered by a regiment of 650 Colorado troops incensed by bloody acts perpetrated by Native people in eastern Colorado.  To white people, those attacks kept Denver and Colorado from growing, business from thriving.  To Native folks, those attacks came in retribution for the way their land was simply taken from them.  It's an old story.  The Arapahos and Northern Cheyenne want to remember.  Most of us white folks would rather forget.

The leader of the Colorado First was General John Chivington, a square-shouldered, charismatic military man nicknamed "The Fighting Parson," a man who considered Native people vermin and said so.  "The fighting parson" was, in fact, a man of the cloth, a preacher of the Word, something else white folks would rather forget.

The Sand Creek Massacre Spiritual Healing Run/Walk was created to help Native children remember the deaths of their ancestors at Sand Creek, as well as to honor Silas Soule, who was among the officers riding along with Chivington that day, a man who daringly chose to keep his troops from participating in what he perceived as a massacre, not a battle. 

As Tom Bensing makes clear in his book about Soule, the man's short life was not at all uneventful.  He'd come west from Maine in the late 1850s, a determined abolitionist, to accompany John Brown and his band of activist terrorists who saw human slavery as a cancer that had to be cut out of humankind. Later, Silas Soule fought for the Union at the Battle of Glorieta Pass. He'd come out to Colorado, like so many others going west, to cut his fortune from the frontier.

Soule was neither angel nor saint, but something in his constitution turned away from what he saw happening at Sand Creek.  He refused to participate, then made public his shame at what had happened by accusing Chivington, after the carnage, of inhuman slaughter.  There are those who believe that when Charles Squier shot Silas Soule through the head, it was itself an assassination in retaliation for Soule's accusations against the horrors of Sand Creek.  To the white people and the white press of frontier Denver, Chivington was an authentic American hero.  Did Soule's untimely death result from his accusations against Chivington and Colorado Cavalry?  It's unlikely anyone will ever know.

I read Silas Soule: A Short, Eventful Life of Moral Courage, hoping to discover just what it is that makes some men and women capable of running against the tide when they determine that there is higher moral ground.  Why did Silas Soule command his troops not to fight?  What was it in his character that led him to make a decidedly unpopular decision, when all around him hundreds of cavalrymen were slaughtering Indians with the grinning approval of "the fighting parson"?  

On that question, Tom Bensing is largely silent or baffled himself.  "As he [Soule] approached the creek, he saw the situation for what it was," Bensing writes, "an out-of-control mob slaughtering men, women, and children, few of whom deserved it."  He's right, of course; that is what happened.  But why he saw what others didn't is a question that remains largely unanswered.

The book is finely researched and convincingly argued, but what I was looking for is something it didn't--or maybe couldn't--deliver.  What happens to make some good people rescue Jews in the face of Nazi terror and others refuse?  Why did Silas Soule make his troops wander up and down Sand Creek but stay out of the horrors, a massacre that may well have fomented what we call "the Sioux Indian Wars" on America's Great Plains, wars that ended with another massacre, this one at a creek named Wounded Knee.

I enjoyed the book immensely.  Bensing does a wonderful job at creating the context of Silas Soule's remarkable life--from John Brown to Johnny Reb to John Chivington.  But just exactly what went on in Soule's own soul with the first startling volleys at Sand Creek and why he and not others determined somehow that the higher moral ground was to disobey Chivington's own command is a mystery we'll probably never divine.

All we know is that he did, and that decision is what those Arapaho kids want us all to remember when they run from the banks of Sand Creek to downtown Denver every year at Thanksgiving. 

Still, for a number of reasons, Silas Soule: A Short, Eventful Life of Moral Courage tells a story that none of us should ever forget. 

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The inner jukebox



Retirement creates empty spaces, lost of them, more than I've ever lumbered into before in my life, significant periods of time when there's nothing that's gotta' be done and no one is expecting you to do it.  An old friend of mine told me that retirement was, at first, difficult for him because he had no ritual, nothing but empty space that he finally satisfied when he decided to raise some black angus that had to be fed daily.  Cattle gave him ritual. Ritual made his retirement happy.

Not long ago, another old friend asked me how it is I'm so tan.  The answer is simple.  I spend more time outside than I have in the last half-century because there's always things to do on an acreage.  Now, I got the time, and lots of those chores are mindless for the most part--like cutting lawn or clearing brush, jobs you can do even if your mind is a mile away.

But then, there's nothing going on a mile away either, nothing particularly compelling, no demands I can't afford not to remember. The mind, after a fashion, becomes an open slate. Well, that's pushing it. Let's put it this way: the to-do list is a 80 acres away from overflowing.

In The Secret World of Sleep, Penelope Lewis argues that when we're asleep the brain does what most all of us do after a delicious meal--clean up. While we're sawing wood, the brain is carefully taking the dishes off the the table, putting them in the dishwasher, wiping off the counter-tops, and putting the milk back in the fridge.  Making things spiffy, in other words. Organizing the chaos of our daily lives.

What Ms. Lewis hasn't done is research the minds of retired people. I'd like to think it wouldn't be hard at all for my brain, these days, to be some kind of neat freak because there are, as I started saying here, lots and lots of empty spaces, more than there's ever been. Can't be all that difficult for a brain to clean up when there's been no mess.

That's what I'd like to think, but my own relationship with most octogenarians- and octogenarians+ suggests that organization isn't exactly the right word to describe what's going on upstairs.  More research is needed.

I can add one interesting bit of data here, however.  When I'm mowing the acreage or stripping an old piece of furniture or lugging brush from the river's edge, my mind, for reasons I don't understand, kicks up ancient ditties from my earliest years of Christian school, long, long ago.  "Give Said the Little Stream," for instance, arose out of nowhere a couple of days ago. 

Singing, singing all the way,
'Give away, oh give away'';
Singing, singing all the way,
'Give, oh give, away.

 I'm aboard the riding the lawn mower, swinging around the silver poplars in the front yard, and I'm singing "He loves me too/He loves me too/I know he loves me too," lines I hadn't rehearsed in my mind forever.  I've got grandkids, but they don't sing those songs--even my own kids didn't.  They're long gone, except in my head.  I've become an old hymnal. I've got to go waaaaaay back to second grade to retrieve them, but, suddenly, they're there and I'm not even conscious of having looked them up.  

If God so loved the little things
I know he loves me too.

It's very strange. They're just there.

I will make you fishers of men,
fishers of men, fishers of men;
I will make you fishers of men
If you follow me.

Complete with actions.

If you follow me,
If you follow me,
I will make you fishers of men
If you follow me.

It's weird.  Honestly.  Look, the meals of our lives take far less cleaning-up-after than they did when our family was around. You got to feel a little sorry for a brain that simply doesn't have as much to do.  Maybe I ought to invest in black angus.

Anyway, all of this is prelude.  Our three-year-old grandson has decided to make a ritual of sitting on the toilet. Must be something about the seat that thrills him because he can sit there for a long time.  Earlier this summer, his other Grandma, his Oma, hauled out her smart phone and recorded him--no video because she wasn't in the room--but a perfectly clear audio as the little guy sat there comfortably singing "10,000 reasons," especially those big triumphant swooping lines in the chorus: "Bless the Lord, o my soul,/Oh-oh-oh my soul,/ Worship his holy name."

There he sat, crooning.  I'd like to say he's a very pious young man, but he could just as well have been singing about gummy bears--that one's a favorite too.

But still, when I viewed that video that wasn't a video, when I heard him wailing away on that contemporary favorite, I couldn't help thinking that someday on a lawn hovercraft, he too will start involuntarily drawing selections from some hidden away inner jukebox, singing lyrics that'll come back to him like spirits of the age as he tends his black angus.

Bless the Lord, O my soul
O my soul
Worship His holy name
Sing like never before
O my soul
I'll worship Your holy name.

And that's okay.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Cheesehead mysteries


I suppose it would be catchy to say that I grew up underprivileged, but I didn't--I grew up pretty much like everyone else I knew and with parents some might call "solid citizens."  In fact, I was very much privileged because I was loved and I knew it.  

But we weren't rich, and my mother, bless her soul, wasn't much of a cook.  My first teaching job brought me to Monroe, Wisconsin, where, for a fortnight or so, I lived in with an old Swiss-American couple who owned the trailer I was going to rent once the old renter cleared out. At every meal--I swear it--there was a pile of neatly cut slices of real Swiss cheese--breakfast, lunch, dinner--holes and all.  Cheese was a staple, as it should be in Badgerland.

I'd never eaten Swiss cheese before.  I don't think we ever had it at home, but if we did my mother never put it on the table. I know father loved sharp cheddar, but I don't remember ever seeing that either.  It was likely a part of his own late night treat or something.  

What I knew was American cheese and Velveeta, and that came on everything from hamburgers to half-buns adorned--I kid you not!--with a inch-long slice of bacon, then toasted, one of my mom's favorites for guests.  Iowans--get this!--Iowans taught me to pull up my nose at American cheese.  I bet I could sell a memoir in Wisconsin with some catchy variation on that line:  "I was a Velveeta cheese head."

Anyway, you can guess why I loved yesterday's offering from the Writer's Almanac--"American Cheese" by Jim Daniels.

American Cheese

At department parties, I eat cheeses
my parents never heard of--gooey 
pale cheeses speaking garbled tongues.
I have acquired a taste, yes, and that's 
okay, I tell myself.

[On the interest of full disclosure, my wife and I ate baby swiss last night, late--I'd left it out of the fridge so it was warm, just in case you're wondering]

                     I grew up in a house
shaded by the factory's clank and clamor.  
A house built like a square of sixty-four 
American Singles, the ones my mother made lunches 
with for the hungry man who disappeared 
into that factory and five hungry kids. 
American cheese. Yellow mustard.  Day-old 
Wonder Bread.

[Nostalgia is such a blessing--don't you think?]

                 Not even Swiss, with its mysterious
 holes. We were sparrows and starlings,
still learning how the blue jays stole our eggs, 
our nest eggs. Sixty-four singles wrapped in wax--
dig your nails in to separate them.

When I come home I crave--more than any home
cooking--those thin slices in the fridge.  I fold
one in half, drop it in my mouth.  My mother
can't understand, doesn't remember me
being a cheese-eater, just like that.

Some writers claim that just about everyone who deliberately puts a pen to paper, or tickles keyboards, has no more than four readers in mind when they do, four people he or she needs somehow to please. We don't have American Singles in our house--not that they're beneath us, we just don't. That's not the story here, or the real reason I love the poem.

The story is the beguiling mystery that always attends the relationship between parents and children.  I once wrote a little memoir essay about my mom wailing on me when I was just a boy--and she had cause. My mother swore no such thing ever happened.  I know it did.  I remember.

Or at least I think I remember, don't I? Who knows?

The real joy of "American Cheese" is that Mom simply doesn't remember what an incredible payload those wax-wrapped singles delivered on this professor kid of hers.  It's entirely possible that the other four siblings couldn't care less, but every time son Jim stops home, he says he can't stop eating those singles. Can you imagine?

It's the most fundamental relationship we know--family.  But, my word, it's rife with mysteries.

And fun.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Morning Thanks--friends


You may not agree, but it seems to me that most of us need only a few of us.  We get by quite blessedly well with but a few chosen favorites, even though we can dance up a storm with a room full of people.  I'm talking about friends, real friends, and I'm saying we don't require a whole lot of 'em, just a few really good ones.  "The soul selects her own society," wrote Ms. Dickinson, "then shuts the door."

I've always regarded women's friendships as something altogether of another genre than men's.  My wife once told me she thought a really, really good friend was someone to whom she could pour out her heart's most intimate thoughts and feelings and joys and concerns and still be absolutely confident that not a word of any of it would be shared with any other human being on the face of the earth. Trust, I guess, is the key there, trust that's pretty much indistinguishable from love, "the greatest of these."

Very nice.

But it's hers.  Call me a heel, but I just don't think in those terms. I'm going out on a gender limb here, but methinks part of the reason I find that answer interesting is because I'm male. Go ahead and slay me for the generalization, but I don't think men need friends for the same reasons that women do, largely because--and this may well be changing--it's a man's world. Real power in our world still rests with males, white males.

Those who don't have that power need each other in different ways is what I'm saying and therefore likely define friendship in ways unlike the guys at the country club or the neighborhood watering hole.  

I don't think my wife is wrong; after all, should I need somebody to confess to, I'd choose someone I know wouldn't sell the confession to the ding-a-ling down the block, but intimate confessional stuff is simply not something I think much about.  If I can go out with a guy and play a round of golf, slice up the fareways, hit more sand traps than greens, spend way too my life out of bounds and looking for the cheap knock-off Titleists I bought on-line, and still laugh about it, hey!--that's a friend.

I know, I know--I'm sounding like the Platte River--a mile wide and a foot deep. Here's Thoreau, uttering something of what I'd call a male definition:  "Be true to your work, your word, and your friend." Yeah.  That sounds like a t-shirt I'd wear, one of those gray ones, you know?  

My wife would nod her head and roll her eyes.  But Thoreau wasn't just some male chauvinist pig either:  "the language of friendship," he wrote, "is not words but meanings."   I think she'd like that.  Just make t-shirt pink or some sweet pastel.

Anyway, gender differences make friendships among couples a sometimes difficult game of cat and mouse--you know, "we hang out with 'the so-and-sos' because she's your friend, dear." One of us just goes along for the ride and considers the visit something the Bible demands. Such things happen.  In our life, did, long ago.

All of which is to say that once upon a time I started this blog determined to be the person Garrison Keillor suggested I'd be if I gave thanks for something every last morning of my life.  The line is on top the page, where it's been ever since I started.  Read it for yourself.  

Seven years later, that mission statement mostly faded away, so maybe it's time I renew my vows.  

Here we go.  Yesterday we visited friends, people who've moved away.  We visited for no more than a couple hours, but the time was blessed enough to silence both my wife and me for most the three-hour trip home.  It was that good.

Friends are a good, good thing. You don't need a lot of them, but you need some really good ones.  And we've got 'em, and I'm thankful this morning that we do.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Sunday Morning Meds--To be blessed


“Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven. . .” Psalm 32:1

It seems to me that this isn’t the first time I’ve typed in that word as a title.  If I go back to the first psalm, first meditation, I’d see it there, as well.
           
The word—and what it suggests—remains a treasure.  I don’t think you have to be a believer in Jesus Christ’s redemptive work to aspire to the riches the word suggests.  I doubt anyone’s ever done a poll, but my guess is that a multitude of those who spend their Saturday nights at what America calls “gaming,” would really love to be blessed, in their case by what they’d call luck. 
           
But Dame Fortune, in her ancient medieval garb, looked like Megan Fox as long as she was smiling. When she’d turn, she’d morph into Phyllis Diller.
           
I believe—and I may be generous here—that everyone from Pope Francis to the whoever was last week’s serial killer would most likely want, more than anything, to be “blessed.”  I do too.  A considerable number of us, like Jacob, would fake IDs to get it if we sensed we were anywhere in the neighborhood of blessedness.  To be blessed is a condition that most of us believe we know only because its pursuit dominates our dreams.
           
Not long ago, we buried a man named Henry.  He was devout, but never, ever self-righteous, always courteous and loving and considerate.  I visited him once in the wing of the hospital, when his wife of sixty years was close to death, very close, I thought.  He spoke to her and read to her, even smiled at her as if she hung on his every word.  Maybe she did. 
           
If those who knew him 24/7 ever saw another side of Henry, I don’t think I’d like to know.  But I’m enough of a Calvinist to believe he was probably capable of something other than the grace that radiated from his presence as long as I knew him.  I’m sure he carried his own inner demons, fought his own battles. 
           
When Henry knew his death was imminent, he wrote a note to his children that all travel costs his geographically dispersed family would accrue for his funeral should be paid before anyone looked into his estate.  By profession, he’d been a Professor of Business, and that little note on the bottom of a sheet of paper was scribbled by an accountant.  But it was also the act of a man who knew he’d been blessed and understood that his role was to do likewise.
           
I bring him up only because it seems to me that, through our lives, most of us know very, very few people to whom we might affix the description of “being truly blessed.”  Henry was one of those.  And I’m blessed—as all of us were in this community—to have known him.
           
But how do we get blessed, if, in fact, being blessed can be somehow obtained?  Is there something I can do, or is it simply a gift, like grace itself? 
           
Psalm 1 begins with the same word as does Psalm 32, but then it describes the condition of being blessed by illustrating how the blessed among us conduct their lives, what they do and don’t.  Psalm 32, people say, is more of a how-to, a maschil, a sermon psalm.
           
Consider its ways and be wise.  Consider its ways and be blessed.  Follow its instructions, if indeed you—or I--can.                          

Saturday, August 17, 2013

A dog story



We flipped the switch on the digital babysitter for as good a reason as there is--diversion. The little guy had to get to sleep on foreign ground--his grandma's house--and his siblings needed to stay the heck out of the way of what would be an elaborate ritual.  So the three of us wandered off into the back room, and I hit the switch and turned to Netflix.  

What I knew would happen, did.  The two of them--a boy, a girl--one just now way up on middle school, the other in elementary--couldn't have agreed on WHICH movie we'd watch had we sat there until a week from Thursday, and, truth be told, I didn't care much for something inane, a genre offers tons of options--something spectacularly silly like Transformers, or almost anything starring hip kids who are 12.  

We flicked through options until I stopped at something titled Hachiko:  A Dog's Story--Richard Gere. Never heard of it, but it looked real and you can't go wrong with a dog story, saith Grandpa, whose own first show, a thousand years ago, was Old Yeller

Click.

Starts out with a lost dog Gere picks up at a railroad station he frequents daily. He takes this pup home being mightily surreptitious because he knows darn well his wife isn't game for a dog.  What she is is game for her husband--she's sweetly decked out for some pre-planned marital bliss, and I'm wondering what on earth I did choosing this one.  I mean, what I thought about when I was their age wasn't just lollypops.  You know.  They're pups, but at their ages they're not all that innocent.

Anyway, this pup ruins the marital bliss, but in a matter of a few cinematic minutes, warms Mom's heart, and thereby avoids death by injection at the pound.  It's not harrowing.  I'm being overdramatic.  

Hachiko is, in fact, a dog's story, a story of faithfulness that's very, very sweet, and if wouldn't be for the tagline at the end of the movie, nigh unto unbelievable.  

The bottom line is, Grandpa scored.  I honestly think they loved the movie, both of them, and I thought myself worthy of some Grandparenting congressional medal for having sidestepped screen lunacy rather deftly.

Spoiler alert, sort of.  There's a death in Hachiko.  Sorry.  I didn't figure on someone dying, but I should have--I've never forgotten Old Yeller, after all. Death is not the climax, but it's there, and it's costly in an emotional sense, as most deaths are.  If you're wondering, it's not the dog.  

There may have been tears, but it was dark in the room, and I had two kids tucked in on either side of me, both blanket-wrapped. Think sweet.

Anyway, it's the aftermath that was dispelling.  The boy, who's going to be a fifth-grader, climbs up the steps to the bedroom, where I'm sleeping alone--they're far more comfortable downstairs, lights on, and Grandma tonight is sleeping with the tot, or trying to.  Suddenly, he appears.

"I'm scared of Grandma B dying," he says, snuffing just a bit, nothing outlandish.  

It's my fault, of course, showing a show where a good man dies.

Anyway, there he stood, so the two of us had a talk about dying, about death, about life, about being faithful, and about how Grandma B was going to be much-o happier once she was "with Jesus" and out of the body that had just plain worn out. 

Don't know how some child psychologist would have graded this Grandpa's performance, but I did my best, and, the proof was in the pudding: he went back downstairs where the light was on, and he fell sleep.

I blamed myself.  Sheesh.  Had we watched something with a mechanical monster shouldering weapons of destruction, he wouldn't have been reminded of his ailing great-grandma, there would have been no tears, and he'd have chugged off harmlessly.

But upstairs, alone, the house finally quiet beneath me, I determined on this one I really didn't need to ask forgiveness.  Sure he's fifth grade, sure he's just a kid, and sure a little earlier that night I'd seen him and his friends having a spitting contest--but, dang it, it doesn't hurt for someone his age to think through things that make eyes tear up and not shut down.  

As long as he doesn't obsess, right?  As long as he slips off into the sleep, like I must have, once upon time, with Old Yeller lingering even though he met his end so sadly in the movie.

I felt good, dang it.  There's something to be said for a real story.  I think me and Richard Gere--we did okay.

As far as I could tell, the house was quiet.  What more can a grandpa ask?