Morning Thanks

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

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Mission Fest 2013--Short term missions

My introduction to short-term mission was very hot and very humid.  One night in Jackson, Mississippi, we visited at someone's house--I couldn't begin to remember whose--but I remember thinking as I walked out into the garden that I had never in my entire life been anywhere near as hot and sweaty as I was during that two-week Mississippi sojourn--and we'd just moved from Arizona.

But I also remember the Civil War lesson I learned at a Mississippi overlook where, once upon a time, 150 years ago, General U. S. Grant tightened his fist around Vicksburg until there was no more breathing. That battle cemented Grant's reputation as a leader Lincoln could trust to win, and it basically cut the Confederacy in half.  Some argue that the story of the war was written at the Seige of Vicksburg. I'd never known that before visiting the national park where union canons reigned down terror on a cowering Confederate city.

The bus for the Bible School we created on the Mississippi Delta that July went through endless cotton fields where I saw a level of poverty I never knew existed in rural America. In the South, where towns were still basically halved along racial lines, I experienced what was left of Jim Crow, as much as a white guy could.  That too was a wonderful history lesson.

But I also watched 17-year-old girls from our group get groped by little black boys and turn toward them smilingly. Had some kid from Sioux Center Christian School grabbed their buns the way those black boys did, those young women would have unloaded; but these kids were precious--these kids we were trying to save. 

There was something weird about that, I thought.

The day we arrived, the thirty or so short-term volunteers we traveled with emptied a semi-trailer full of "mission-barrel" stuff from Iowa, everything from winter clothes to reject books, old stoves to knob-less window air conditioners.  It was overwhelmingly hot, Mississippi Delta-hot, the sun laying a wet blanket over the world. Here we were, a couple dozen white people from Iowa, sweating our buns off, unloading that truck, while a whole crowd of what Mississippians might have called "colored folks," sat there watching and waiting for something free to be delivered from the hot maw of that 18-wheeler. 

That was the very first thing we did, and I remember thinking that there was something wrong here, something way, way wrong.

If all the money that went into short-term missions were designated to help already established mission projects, if World Renew and World Missions suddenly became the recipient of all the bucks spent by well-meaning Christian institutions like Dordt and Northwestern on short-term missions, the outreach of the CRC and the RCA would look different.

But that doesn't happen. Instead, we glory in our servanthood and send hundreds of kids around the world.  Why?

Because our kids come back changed.  Most people would say that the recipients of our love and care don't change all that much--maybe they pick up a really cheap air conditioner; but we love short-term missions because our kids experience a wholly different world, and that's a great blessing.

We're rich. If we weren't, we couldn't afford to send two dozen kids to Mississippi or Bangladesh.  Ten years ago already, I asked my classes how many of them had been across the oceans on some mission trip--basketball or bible schools or building crews.  More than half. Most of the kids were from lower-middle class families and not rich. Yet more than half had well-punched passports from short-term mission trips.  We are rich.  We regularly do extravagant working vacations undertaken under the banner of our Lord.

But are those ventures the best use of all that money?  

That's not an easy question to answer. 

And just imagine what it's like to watch yet another bus load of white kids from Iowa come rolling into your community to be nice, to paint buildings, to lay cement or install toilets, yet another bus full.  It wouldn't take long for you to start to think you're poor and maybe even less fit human beings than they are. Even a little deserving.  

Just think Haiti.

Short-term missions are a blessing, but they can also deceive us into believing that we're doing something for others, when the real blessings of a rural Bible school belong to those who teach.  

All that glitters is not gold in short-term missions, and anyone who pretends it is is naive. 

This Saturday, at Unity Christian High School, Albert Strydhorst, presently the "Missionary in Residence" at Calvin Seminary, will speak on "Redeeming Short-Term missions," a topic that should be near and dear to the hearts of loads of people here in northwest Iowa, where countless short-terms missions will depart in the next year, all of them meaning so very well.

This too is an ad for the Mission Fest.  You can register here.  We'd love to have you join us.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Mission Fest 2013--Being neighborly

When we moved to town in 1976, the Casey's corner was entirely residential--nary a business could be found.  If I'm not mistaken, American State Bank moved in first with something of a satellite office on the northwest corner, something with a railroad motif.  Then there was Caseys, across the street, and then Hardees, southeast. It may have been the car wash that completed the quartet--I don't remember who displaced the last family dwelling, the one on the southwest corner.

Look, even I enjoyed Hardees coming to town--Sioux Center's very first fast food joint--well, Sioux Center's first fast food hamburger joint because A & W had a place on the other side of town for years already. Hardees was a real chain place, almost a McDonalds, coming to our town, and right in our backyard.

It took just a few months before we started getting really tired of overhearing other people's late night orders and decided to move.  But that's the way life is sometimes--some people pay for others' good fortune.  We moved. Today the whole corner is business.

I remember thinking back then that if I went for groceries at HyVee or Peters IGA or Fairview (that downtown grocery store), I knew just about everyone buying groceries--or knew "about" them, which church they went to maybe, or whether their folks were from Newkirk or Carmel.  Even though we were newcomers, I was not a stranger long. And I had a name with two a's, a name that almost guaranteed a secure fit.

One beastly hot night--the story can be told now!--I couldn't handle the heat without a cold beer, and the only place to buy such contraband was from Docs Cafe, the hole-in-the-wall downtown bar, right there on Main. Sioux Center had a way of centering sin back then, at least when it came to drink. If you wanted a brew, you had to trespass in a place lit only by Budweiser lights, a place so dark you couldn't see the floor.  Think of it this way--even the way we drank was Dutch Calvinist.

I entered from the front door actually because I didn't want to be the kind of 'fraidy cat who carted brown bags out through the alley in the back.  No way.

The bartender took one look at me and said, "Schaap--I hear you're going to be teaching at Dordt," and then laughed because, I can now admit, he thought it amazing.  After all, I did frequent the place when I was a student. That greeting made me think my tenure at the college was already in jeopardy. 

What I'm saying is, Sioux Center was overpoweringly Dutch Reformed in those days, and while those with Dutch surnames still hold sway throughout the community, Sioux Center is a totally different place than what it was 40 years ago, when my wife and I and our baby daughter arrived from Arizona.

No change--nothing, even hard liquor for sale in HyVee--is as huge as the immense demographic shift which no one could have imagined in 1980.  Today, if you're Anglo, you can walk into WalMart some days and feel like a minority. Ten years ago, at a grocery store in town, I followed a Hispanic customer who had some trouble with the currency.  When he walked out, the cashier, a young woman, high school age, said, under her breath in a fashion meant for me, "Why don't you learn to speak English?"

Two generations previous, her own great-grandparents almost assuredly had the same problem dealing with merchants who didn't know Dutch.

When I wrote a letter to the editor in the local paper, the very next morning, someone from HyVee called me because they wanted to know if that incident had happened at their store. I thought that was really good management, still do.

I'm sure the crime rate has soared and public schools have had to change their offerings wholesale, but many, many Sioux County residents with Dutch surnames have learned to co-exist with Hispanic workers and their families all around.  They're everywhere.  When our new house was insulated, I expected the crew to be Netherlands Reformed, from the family business who do almost all the insulation in the region.  I walked over to our new house when the Ymker truck was there was greeted, cheerfully, by three Hispanic workers, nary a white guy to be seen.

How does a community live with immigrant people who come from a wholly different world? Do we try to make them Dutch Reformed? Do we build them their own church? How do we do evangelism, mission work, when the field isn't across the world but just down the block? And how do we respond when our own congressional representative makes political hay when says the majority of our new neighbors are drug-runners?

Yes, this is an ad. Just one of the sectionals at Saturday's Mission Fest will be an exploration of what we're doing well and what we can do better in building relationships. Panelists will include four men, three Hispanic pastors, one a Sioux County native in urban ministry in Kansas City, who will talk with each other and with us about how we might consider thinking about doing better.

In Sioux County, Iowa, the "browning of America" is as much in evidence as it is anywhere in this country. How does the church, an Anglo church, an Anglo church in the Reformed tradition, respond?

That's a good question.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Mission Fest 2013--Bringing in the Sheaves

I won't try to speak for others, but when I heard that missionaries in the Christian Reformed Church are now responsible, on their own, for 90 percent of their salaries, I thought the change gave new meaning to "bringing in the sheaves."  It seemed to me that one of the real benefits of denominational ministries was that centralized organization meant they didn't have to run around in sandwich boards and just plain beg. 

Sure, they had to stay in touch with sponsoring churches; sure, they had tell people back home what was going on. But at least they didn't have to beat the bushes like some non-denominational free-lancers to keep bread on their families' tables. After all, their mission is missions, not fund-raising.

I'll admit it. The move seemed like the last gasp of dying institution, the denomination itself. And it just may be.

On the other hand, the new salary system reflects what's already happening. When denominational missions were begun in the American southwest and China and Nigeria, the CRC was smaller and closer, so close, in fact, that people thought of Johanna Veenstra, the woman who almost single-handedly began a mission program in Nigeria, as our Johanna Veenstra; or Andrew Vander Wagen, a pioneer missionary in New Mexico, as our Brother Andrew.

Today, for reasons that are complex and far-reaching, congregations might feel that a son or daughter--someone who begins an urban ministry in Dallas or Baltimore, let's say--as our missionary because his or her mom worships with us each Sunday. We're more circumspect with the word our. We bestow it only on those whose blood lines originate locally and we've burned the wooden shoes.  

And that means that the denomination has less money to work with, even though people from the denomination I'm a part of are vastly more affluent than our great-grandparents, circa 1900. Just exactly who we define as we is much different than it was. A congregation's mission outreach these days is far more defined by blood than by denomination.

Conservatives like to think all of this happened because the CRC has veered off to the left and gone liberal. I think a far more important reason is that the change is occurring because it's occurring to everyone else too. Denominations are having a hard time these days, all of them, not just the CRC or the RCA.

But we're the ones driving. Individual congregations determine how their mission bucks are spent, whether we give it to so-and-so's son or daughter, who's going off to Italy or Belize with this or that mission program, or whether we give it to card-carrying CRC missionaries, who can hardly be called that if they earn only a tenth of their salaries through the CRC.  

Simply stated, the change reflects what's already happening. Right here in northwest Iowa, I'm sure, denominational shares and quotas are not always being met, even though this long-term recession the nation is suffering through is, locally at least, an apparition at best. Row crops are gold, farmers don't know what to do with their wealth, and things are booming. But rural folks are an independent lot, and if there's a cause that my brother's kid is working on, she'll get our bucks before some stuffed shirt in Grand Rapids.

That's the way we live.

But it likely means the end of long-term, significant mission programs like that the CRC created in New Mexico and the RCA began in the Middle East.  What denominational programs do is sustain a witness in ways that individual efforts generally cannot. Witness this--the Crystal Cathedral is now a Roman Catholic cathedral. My vision, most often, has less to sustain it finally, that ours. Reservations across North America are littered with failed mission efforts.  Even though we often did it wrong, we've stuck it out, emphasis on we.

Ministries begun by individual visions, no matter how glorious, are bright and shiny and exciting; but only by sustained efforts, efforts that suffer hard times and persevere through generations of mission aid, can believers create a real ministry of presence.  What the RCA has, by God's own hand, established since 1900 in areas of the Middle East, and what the CRC has done, by God's own hand, in Nigeria and New Mexico has been accomplished only because the vision was ours, not his or hers, only because even when some failed, others got us back on our feet and stayed with fledgling communities of faith.

Okay, call me a conservative, but I believe that denominational ministries have a far better chance of building communities than free-lance efforts, no matter how spectacular and well-meant.  

And that too is a good reason to celebrate.  And this too is a commercial. Stay with me a minute while I pull on the sandwich board.

On Saturday, November 2, come celebrate 125 years of missions in the Christian Reformed Church, be a part of the discussion, meet old friends, lunch on sumptuous Laotian foods, have a great time.  It begins at 9:00 and ends at 3:00.  

Think missions.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Mission Fest 2013--Anywhere with Jesus

No, this isn't the way we used to sing "Anywhere with Jesus." A thousand years ago in Oostburg Christian School, we used to sing this as part of  package of hymns ("Far and Near the Fields are Teeming," "From Greenland's Icy Mountains," "Bring Them In," and a dozen others) meant to inspire Christian kids with the dream of someday doing missions.

Amy Grant's version is far more hip, more edgy, more interesting--more a part of this world than the world of small-town Christian life in the 1950s.  And that's all right.

Missions were huge when I was a boy, really huge.  The very first book I read and never forgot was Through Gates of Splendor, the story of eight missionaries who were martyred by the very people they'd gone to the Amazon to bless with the gospel.  

Back then, it was easy to feel the roiling impulse of Jesus's own last words in the Great Commission, to preach the gospel; and "Anywhere with Jesus" meant if I'd leave, I could travel to some far-away foreign land to bring the gospel and still count on His being there, anywhere.
That was a half century ago, and I'm old enough now to recognize that there's a dark side to mission work. More than one, in fact. My guess is that kids in Oostburg Christian School no longer sing some of the old mission hymns.  Not long ago, when I had to speak at a local church, I asked the liturgist if we could bring "From Greenland's Icy Mountains" out of mothballs for the service. When he asked the organist, the organist politely refused because, he said, the lyrics were excessively and embarrassingly colonial.

The organist was right.

For all its blessings, my own denomination's missions on the Navajo and Zuni Reservations were unmistakably colonial because they were sanctioned by the government of the United States, who believed that the means by which to deal with "the Indian problem" was to "civilize" them with white culture, which included a good strong dose of old time religion.  

Native people often found it difficult to distinguish Christianity from the culture that had destroyed theirs--and with good reason: paleface culture came hand-in-hand with paleface religion, and did so by government design. A Zuni woman told me how torn she felt as a girl because she was led to believe that her father--a good, good man and a leader in his community, but a man who would not leave his Native faith--was somehow bound for hell. She loved her father.

For many reasons, mission work no longer inspires as it once did, but one reason is the cataclysmic change in global Christianity--more African people, which is to say more black people, attend worship services on Sunday in Loondon than do whites. Some 19th century mission fields in Africa and South America now send more missionaries out (even to places like North America) than Western nations do. 

This Saturday, November 2, Orange City, Iowa, will host a Mission Fest to celebrate 125 years of missions in the Christian Reformed Church of North America--commemoration, inspiration, and education. Featured speakers and panels will talk about topics of particular local interest, like Hispanic ministries, and agriculture and mission work.  

The entire event--Mission Fest 2013--will consider missions in the context of a 21st century world where no one has to go all that far away to find teeming fields.

And, yes, in case you're wondering, this as an ad. It's nine to three, Saturday, November 2, 2013, at Unity Christian High School.  For more information, and to register, go here

Mission Fest 2013 promises to be both interesting and inspiring.  These days mission work is, as Amy Grant says, "anywhere with Jesus."

To register for Mission Fest 2013 just click here.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Sunday Morning Meds--Self-Defense

“Then I acknowledged my sin”

Once, years ago, when I was a kid, a friend of mine and I were racing down a country road, trying to get every last mph we could out of a pair of the kind of tiny motorcycles that were all the rage when I was a boy—90 ccs of sheer power.  Bent over to keep down the wind resistance, we were staring into the faces of our speedometers.

Not smart. 

My friend veered off the road and into the ditch.  Out of nowhere, a culvert appeared; but when he and that little whizzing bike climbed back up he hit the lip of pavement and did an full somersault on his Honda—at least that’s how I remember it.

I hit both my brakes—hand and foot—and my Bridgestone stopped on a dime.  But I didn’t.  I got myself launched and somehow instinctively pulled my body into a ball, threw my right arm over my head, where it caught the pavement full force in the wild tumble that followed.

When I came up, my entire arm looked as if it had been savaged with a ratchet.  I still bear a scar.
Later, at dinner, I kept the story, and my arm, under wraps, didn’t say a word to my parents who weren’t, from the getgo, thrilled about the motorbike. 

That evening, we had a ball game.  The coach took one look at the blood seeping through my sleeve and set me on the bench. 

When I read this most central line of the story David tells and the psalm he writes—“then I acknowledged my sin”—I can’t help think of my bloodied arm because nobody ever told me to curl myself up into a ball if I was hurled from a motorcycle.  No one had reviewed safety procedures when racing madly on a Bridgestone 90. 
Something innate got called up for duty.  Without the slightest coaching, the persistent instinct to live kicked in and I didn’t get badly hurt because our will to survive at any cost is powerful and robust; there is something in all of us that will do everything it can to push us beyond pain and death. 

That instinct operates just as assuredly psychologically as it does physically.  I wouldn’t have told my parents what happened that day on a country road if they’d boiled me in oil (they wouldn’t have).  Why not?  Sheer survival.  Similar instinct. 

Presidents Nixon and Clinton both stone-walled when they shouldn’t have—Nixon over a third-rate burglary, Clinton over a tryst.  Why?  Instinct.  Self-protection.  The will to survive.  Human motivations we all share.

Confession, or so it seems to me, often runs contrary to those very impulses.  Here, in this psalm, David tells the story so matter-of-factly—“then I acknowledged my sin,” as if it was no big deal to come clean. 

But it is. Always. Acknowledging our sin is difficult because we fight something basic in ourselves when we do it.

The whole story of Psalm 32 is here in this single verse:  “I acknowledged my sin.”  It’s just that simple.  But two Presidents—and all of us too at one time or another--were brutalized because they couldn’t.

I may be wrong, but I’d guess that right now whoever is reading these words is having trouble forgetting something he or she never confessed.  I can see you now, nodding.  Confession is good for the soul but rough on the instincts, murder on our humanity. 

 But David knows very well that it’s got to be done.  That’s what this song of his is all about.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Book Review--Philipp Meyer's The Son

Look, let me be honest here:  Phillipp Meyer's new novel, The Son, makes me green with envy. It's the kind of sprawling multi-generational novel of frontier history I love to read--and would love even more to write, a sprawling epic of American life that some reviewers claim recalls what we used to talk about before post-modernity as "the Great American novel."  It links generational sagas in a fashion that suggests that history has undeniable meaning, and it does that job--at least from my point of view--in a way that's faithful to each of the generations he documents. It really is an amazing novel.

Writing historical fiction is difficult, even if someone who's never tried it thinks it might be easy--after all, no one's around to judge whether you've got the sights and sounds of a blacksmith shop right. Blacksmiths are all dead.  

No, they're not. Really good readers are fact checkers. Anyone who wants to write historical fiction ought to know, out of the box, that the givens have to be right because novels get cooked and writers lose when they aren't.  

I once read a story to a big audience of students, a story that just mentioned a passenger car full of Asian immigrants, circa 1890, on their way to the Pacific Northwest on the Great Northern. Some kid--some student--came to see me the next day. Asian immigrants--the Chinese, for instance, who came to America--didn't come by way of Ellis Island, did they? he asked. That would make no sense.

I had egg on my face.  Now a splash of egg is good medicine at times, but that one little mistake had thrown everything I'd written into question, and suggested, irreverently, that my own judgement on other matters may well have been just as specious. If you miss the givens, you'll lose the readers.

What I know about Texas history is what I took home from a tourist visit to the Alamo and what I've read about the Comanches, a southern tribe of Plains Indians who were, most believe, the finest horsemen in the world, but given to a level of blood-letting that made them perhaps the most feared Native Americans on the continent during the 19th century. Oh, yeah, and I know something about the Texas Rangers, who TV taught me were noble heroes, even though history records they were often little more than vigilantes sporting tin badges. 

If Meyer's novel is accurate, if the characters from McCullough family who people this impressive sage are representative, then this Calvinist is even more happy that this country's Puritan past is fundamental to its history, because if the stories that run through this novel comprise a kind of overview of Texas character, then, quite frankly, I better understand someone like Ted Cruz. 

Meyer's Texans are simply the latest land-grabbers in what seems an eternal go-round. History, Meyer suggests, is an endless series of infernal repetitions that reflect only our unbridled passion to please ourselves in ways none of us can be. If this incredible novel is meant in any way to define what Texas is, then I'm quite happy with once-a-year visits because The Son is as flush with cash as it is empty of happiness. Meyer's novel traces the manifold glories of unfettered liberty, a dog-eat-dog world where pleasures are scant and joy almost non-existent, despite huge bankrolls, maybe because of them.

I envy Meyer's ability to spin a yarn, to embellish with detail that's extraordinarily good, to get the givens right, or so it seems to me. But I couldn't write a novel like The Son because this Calvinist, this whole-hearted believer in original sin, knows good people, and basically there are none here. Their Texas is flush with brooding rich people, men and women who don't have a clue how to be happy, even though they've got money to be just about anything.

But Meyer has an agenda. For some reason, he creates dialogue that feels shockingly anachronistic, laced as it is with our generation's favorite obscenities. His characters--white and Native--cuss just like our own most obscene infidels. USA Today called the novel, "bold, ambitious, and brutal," and it is, emphasis on brutal. It's a masterful novel that ought to make Texans wonder about their own bold pretensions, a land where, historically, the only justice is power. No wonder they hate government.

And all of that makes The Son a moral tale, strangely enough, for what is offers is yet another take on "the wages of sin is death." The McCulloughs--the multi-generational family at the heart of things--are as rich as sin. Starting in the mid-19th century with incredible tragedy, they grew necessarily fierce and made a fortune on real estate, then cattle, then oil. But they're a sad and miserable lot, in part because the stories most central to their history are cold-blooded, mass murder.

What defines Texas, Meyer suggests, is its worship of unfettered liberty, justice be hanged. But make no mistake--it's a history with promise because in Texas there's gold in them thar' hills and on them thar' plains, always gold and gold and more gold.

But not happiness.

Phillipp Meyer's The Son is a grand saga, a masterpiece of historical fiction, and it is everything awed reviewers claim it is, an American epic.

It's also depressingly sad.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The morning mail

Years and years ago, people said finding black-bordered envelopes from the Netherlands was nearly unbearable because you knew the moment you took the blame thing from the mailbox that someone was dead, someone probably beloved.

Times have changed. Envelopes no longer cross the ocean on steamers or even jets and few come rimmed in darkness. Still, today I get the same skein of chills whenever I open my email and see the words "Caring Bridge." I can't help wince.

The woman at the heart of this morning's Caring Bridge message is a retired nurse who spent most of her life attending others' through a whole museum of hurts and pains. It's a sad thing, but the truth is that you come to love nurses deeply when only a nurse can love you. I don't know that I respect anyone on the face of the earth more than my mother-in-law's hospice nurse. What she gave away was not just heroic, it was angelic.

And so was the woman Caring Bridge tells me is now officially dying. This wasn't the first note; they'd been coming for weeks already because the cancer that somehow got in her was a horrible rattler. She had but one chance, and the odds weren't good, but they were worth trying.

A cure was not to be, Caring Bridge says.  Now, she's leaving the hospital, going home to die.

She wasn't what I'd call a good friend, but she was more than simply an acquaintance.  She was blessed with a voluminous and warm personality, one of a kind, a beloved and memorable presence. She loved other people immensely, and not just professionally. She will be missed.  Whole hospitals full of patients will never forget her--honestly.

I just now responded to that Caring Bridge, spent some time trying to weigh words as best I could. She's dying, after all, and I'm inexperienced at talking to people who are about to leave.  But then I'm sure I'll get better at it. In the next decade I'll have innumerable opportunities.

I talked to a young preacher a week or so ago, someone honestly concerned because he'd never yet conducted a funeral. What's worse, he imagined--and it was clear he'd done some worrying about it--his first funeral would likely be one of those bitter deaths that shouldn't happen, someone suddenly taken.  He's probably right, given the church he serves. 

He's young. By the time he's my age, he'll have long ago become someone else's mentor.

But I don't imagine it's ever particularly easy, even for a hospice nurse--leaving, I mean.

And that's what makes people wince at a black-edged envelope or an e-mail note from Caring Bridge. Someone is leaving, as is this kind and loving woman who spent her life loving her family and a host of patients on the tile floors of mostly small-town hospitals.

I sent a note myself, but couldn't delete the announcement.  It's still there in my inbox, marked read.  It's opened, and what it holds is no longer news. Nothing more than the tip of my finger will kiss it off into hyperspace or whatever landfill is home to spent e-mails.  Just hit the key and poof! it's gone.

A few minutes ago, just before I started typing all of this I couldn't do it.  I just couldn't delete it, just couldn't erase it.  

But I have to. We all do. 

And that still hurts. It always does. 

In this life, there's always another black-edged envelope. 

That too the new young preacher will learn soon enough.  

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Morning Thanks--Recharged

I had the time. That's the key--I had the time. I needed to get to Chicago by four, and I left Grand Rapids in the a.m., plenty early.

So I got off interstate and started looking for the familiar signs I see every time I go home to the other side of the lake, "Lake Michigan tour" or something, the blacktops--and sometimes freeways--that belt the lakeshore. I wanted to wade up to a sandbar.

A sign said Covert Park and pointed toward the lake. It had to have a beach, and it did.

Cost me five bucks, but I was the only one there, and the guy in the store at the entrance let me plug in my phone to get it recharged. Oddly enough, I think I made money.

I walked a mile or so, then sat, alone, bright water magically spread out before me, an eternal turquoise apron. I sat there alone, and loved it. Late September. As far as I could see north and south, nary a soul.

This is what I saw. 

And this-

and this 

But mostly this--

gracious beauty as richly alluring and sensual as life itself--

And this morning, three weeks later, with the sun soon rising on the flatland prairie landscape right outside my window, I'm thankful to have found Covert Park that Saturday morning. I'm no more hurry than I was right then, and the russet land around me, soon enough, will be crowned in gold by the dawn; but this morning's thanks is for all of our moments alone in sweet and gracious places.

Five bucks it cost me, and I got recharged. 

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Hoorah for Regret

We started, quite frankly, because just about everybody else did, every male, that is. They all smoked, even my father, a preacher's kid who rarely, I thought, took a step out of line. When I was a kid, an open pack of L&Ms lay tantalizingly on the shelf in the dining room, a place where I could, now and then, slip one or two out and lug them somewhere just out of town or into the attic of some other kid's garage. 

I don't remember ever smoking by myself--that wasn't the point. The point was huffing and puffing in a circle to become real guys together.  Every time I lit up, it was within a magic circle of other kids--boys--french-inhaling or blowing admirable smoke rings. Smoking was dangerous in every way, which made it, back then, anthropologically speaking, a full-blown rite of passage.

But if it were to continue--and we all wanted it to--the magic circle required replenishment. We couldn't buy cigarettes; we were too young. So we stole 'em, again, almost ritually, often in gangs. I don't remember ever sending some kid in to grab a pack of Kents; often as not we'd move into a grocery store like a pack of coyotes.
We were something akin to addicted, not to tar and nicotine, but to the sheer delight of huffing and puffing that, ironically, made us feel like naughty boys and ordinary guys simultaneously. We were Huck Finns long before we'd ever heard of Samuel Clemens or Mark Twain. 

Well, we got caught--smoking and stealing. I can't imagine I was much older than my grandson, maybe sixth grade or so, at that moment of life when hormonal OEDs were beginning to blow along the gravel roads boys traveled back then. And when the end finally came, when we got caught, the scene that night in my bedroom became, without a doubt, the most memorable moment in my young life.

My parents had not a whiff of what was going on, and it was, I've always believed, beyond their imaginations to think their boy, their baby boy, would be smoking, and worse, stealing.

I've written the story elsewhere, more often than I should, but I come back to it now as all of us, I think, come back to moments when profound change alters the worlds we occupy, as it did that night. My father is gone and my mother's coming up quickly on her 95th birthday. I don't know that she even remembers that night, but the plain truth is that I'm not going to ask because she doesn't need to relive what I did to her back then. Sure, I've got some guilt.

Some. Emphasis on some.

In fascinating argument in Aeon, Carina Chocono claims that regret--she doesn't call it guilt--is essential to life, even though it has the power to twist us into emotional pretzels. Our culture wants no part of it, she says, eschewing guilt or regret as if it were itself that wily serpent in the garden. . .which only makes things worse for those of us who feel it:

Sometimes, the prevalence of this point of view makes me feel regret toward my tendency toward regret. It’s hard not to feel bad when your way of processing experience is routinely pathologised, or dismissed offhand as whiny, weak, and useless. As I write this, I regret writing it because I fear it makes me sound more neurotic than I really am. At the same time, I worry that it makes me sound exactly as neurotic as I actually am, and I regret not having done a better job of keeping this under wraps. I regret regretting things all the time, because surely I could be putting my imagination to better use.
Been there, done that. But then, I'm a Calvinist.

Her point, however, is not the horror of it all, but the real and bountiful possibilities regret offers. "Mixed feelings," she says, are "what make us truly rational. They help us arrive at complicated truths by way of a dialectic process."

They're the stuff of novels and the province of the humanities, she says. Regret helps us see the ambiguity that is often at the heart of human experience.

That night in my room, my mother was a fountain of tears and my father, as he always did, tried to tend her horror. Meanwhile, I wondered why tears weren't rolling down my face. I wondered why I didn't feel a whole lot of regret at that moment, a ton of guilt. Oh, it's has risen from that moment, but not at that moment--and, truth be told, I wondered about myself right then because something told me that I too should be using my sheet to dry a fountain of tears. But I wasn't.  I didn't because there were none.

Did my dry eyes make me cold to my own sin? Why wasn't I my parents' child? Was I, like the Devil himself, somehow far afield of the paths of righteousness?

All of that was more than a half century ago, but when I read Carina Chocono's delightful essay, I was, in a moment, sitting there on the bed in my underwear, looking away from my parents and out of that odd circular window in my boyhood bedroom, a bedroom, oddly enough, without a door.

"Rather than deny regret," she says, "we should embrace ambivalence." 

I think she's right. If that moment in my bedroom still mystifies--and it does--then that's okay. It's just fine, because often enough life itself mystifies.
We should strive for an ideal — that is, behave as if it’s possible for an absolute ideal to exist — while remembering that it doesn’t, that in fact outcomes are random, and that all possibilities exist simultaneously.
I wasn't thinking about life's complexities one summer night when I was 11 years old and my parents caught wind of me smoking cigarettes we stole from the Red Owl. I wasn't thinking about embracing ambiguity.

But today I can, and today I do.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Father Abraham

I'm not my father's clone. None of us are xerox copies. 

That probably doesn't need to be said. Still, there are Yosemite-level echoes of my father's life--his character, his way of doing things--within my personality and my very will. I don't look like him, I towered over him, in fact; and although we got along well, we weren't best buds. Still, he's in me, irrefutably. And I'm okay with that because he was a good, good man. Lord knows I could have done worse. Honestly, I think he'd say the same thing about his boy, with a bit of a wary eye.  

We are, in some ways, echoes of the noises that once could be heard all around. I had two prominent great-grandfathers, a quick-talking, reckless and even feckless implement salesman who spent too much of his life with a drink in his hand and women other than his wife in his eye, a man who, reportedly, was the life of the party and thereby made life miserable for his wife and kids.  

On the other side stood another great-grandfather, this one an absent-minded professor of theology--church history--who, his obit claims, was hardly a stellar preacher but could wind a yarn with the best of 'em. These two great-grandpas shared two identities, they were both Dutch and they were both Reformed; but within that narrow slice of ethno-religious American life, they could not have been more different.

What I'm saying is my DNA has a good shot of both.

Henry Ford did a ton of things right, but he was dead wrong about history--it's not bunk at all. It's marvelously telling, and I'm really loving James Bratt's new biography of the Dutch theologian and Prime Minister, Abraham Kuyper, whose character and vision still enlivens the way scholars in the Christian world see their tasks. "Worldview"--everybody uses the term these days, but it belongs to Abraham Kuyper, whose famous "square inch" rule-of-thumb is something Bratt himself now says needs to be mothballed if for no other reason than tired overuse.

We're composites of histories, of course, even though many of us don't care. If you do, and you've got Dutch Reformed blood especially, you'll probably like the Kuyper bio, which is subtitled Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat, because you'll find yourself in the story.

I'm in it, in a thousand ways, even though my entire family was here, in America, significantly before Kuyper rose to prominence and power. I'm in it, in a thousand ways, even though my own great-grandfather, the seminary prof, was scared to death of the man's theology and once co-wrote a book titled Old Calvinism and New Calvinism, a study meant to thwart the wildly off-based influence of a man named Abraham Kuyper. 

Why on earth does Dordt College have such an odd name? The reason I've always given was because of the Synod of Dordt (1618-1619). That's only half the truth.  The other half is that Kuyper almost singlehandedly determined that the Synod of Dordt's foundational work would be the gold standard for those churches he led in a split from the State Church of the Netherlands. He determined that what some Reformed still call "The Three Forms of Unity" would be the very foundation of orthodoxy. One of those forms?--The Canons of Dordt. Hence, Dordt College.

It took me most of my life to discover discover that, even though I strove in the institution's vineyards for forty years--and that's almost biblical.

I could go on and on. For me, reading Bratt's bio is like finding myself, a curriculum we're blessed with throughout our lives, I guess. We are free agents, after a fashion; but the courses of our lives and our eternity (listen to the Calvinist!) are not always out own. 

I've got Professor Hemkes in me, the writer who never trusted Abraham Kuyper. I don't doubt that he looks down at this great-grandson of his and shakes his head because try as he might, as he did fervently in his life, that great-grandson became exactly what he didn't want followers of our Lord to become, a Kuyperian.

So are we predestined? Are we little more than the sum of our histories? Was Calvin right about election? If I knew everything there is to know about you, could I predict which new sweater you're looking at on Amazon is the one you'll choose? To what extent are we our own?

Is our whole existence pre-determined?

Go ahead, talk among yourselves.  

There are many good reasons to read Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat.  He remains quite startlingly influential among academics especially in American evangelical circles.  

All I know is I'm really enjoying finding myself and my own story in the life and times of a man who never once lived in America, a burly Dutchman who didn't always go to church, despite being a preacher himself, a man named Abraham Kuyper.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Sunday Morning (oops) Meds--Sapped

“My strength was sapped as in the heat of summer” Psalm 32

Yesterday, I mowed my lawn.  I thought it would be a quick job because I’d done it less than week before.  I am not one of those Dutch folk who believe that “cleanliness is next to Godliness” is found somewhere in Leviticus.  But in summer, when I spend hours and hours in the basement clicking computer keys, come mid- to late afternoon I love to get outside and do some honest, sweaty labor in the vineyard of our backyard, where we don’t, of course, have a vineyard. 
Yesterday, the grass out front was long enough to call in the sheep.  So I mowed, and the clippings—our yard is thick with maple seed whirlybirds right now—filled up the bed of my son-in-law’s big pick-up. The rainfall this spring has been magnificent.
By late July, I likely won’t be able to walk barefoot on my grass because what’s left will be yellowed cactus points.  By July, I’ll cut the lawn once every three weeks at best, and then mostly weeds, the only verdure that prospers once the rains stop.
Only once in the near thirty years that I’ve lived here have I seen a black cloud rolling in, a storm of dust.  Only once.  But that day I won’t forget because it prompted fear from a memory I don’t have—a vision from the Dust Bowl that turned prairie into the Sahara not all that far west from here.
By November, 1933, dust storms had roared by for years already, in the middle of a  drought that went on for ten years.  People were actually accustomed to hacking up mud from their throats, to enclosing drinking water in Mason jars to keep it from turning brown, even in the house, to knead bread inside drawers drawn just wide enough to allow their hands inside. 

But what came on Armistice Day that November was like nothing else. 
In 1923, about two hours northwest of here, a man named A. Karstrom retired and went to town, leaving his son the 470-acre spread that made Mr. Karstrom a good living.  What followed was thirteen progressively bad years and the Black Blizzard, which broke his son’s heart and back, the air an image of midnight.  In the heat and dust, the farm blew away. Four years later, a new owner took over a place that hadn’t been lived and moved five tons of sand from the acreage.  Five tons.  That’s how dry it was just northwest of here in 1933.  That’s how lifeless.
The NIV, in verse four, holds on to a bit of what the KJV used to say.  “My moisture is turned into the drought of summer” has been changed to “my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer.”  Sapped is the link, as if the sap, the fluid, of David’s soul has dried up by the torturous heat of his own sin and misery.  What’s in him is drought, dust.  When he looks up from his anguish, all he sees is a black blizzard.
His spirit and strength is as lifeless as that Karstrom farm.  Even if the weather turns, he can’t move in the tons of choking dust that rises in his heart and throat. 
What he needs is someone to carry away all those tons of dust, to bring him back, to refresh him with living water. 
And that’s the story of Psalm 32, his story and ours.  Black blizzards turned miraculously verdant by the living water of God’s own forgiveness.  That’s the story all right. 


Friday, October 18, 2013

Divine Dog Whistles

The sermon that Sunday was well-meant, but then most sermons are. It wasn't rushed or some hodge-podge mess--not at all. It pursued its intent with ardor and some passion. It was clear the man loved what he was laying out before us, and what he was doing was good, solid work.

Still, the whole thing was a bit tepid. I hate to admit it, but it was. The mind's a wild thing that doesn't love a corral any better than it does a nave, and I am often too easily distracted. I'll share part of the blame, but it's his too, the preacher's--he's got to do some things to make the church a sanctuary. Lord knows, he tried.

And there's this: I corrected essays for the last forty years, so I'm holding a red pen even when there's nothing in my hand. I can't help but critique--it's what I've done for a living, for a lifetime.  Criticism is not an organ stop. Sometimes I wish it were.

So maybe you've got to take what I'm saying with a grain of salt, but I think I'm being honest--this particular sermon was sweet and deliberate and, yes, bountifully well meant. 

Walt Wangerin's Mis Lil includes a tale about an old woman in his inner city church who'd speak to him just after worship and tell him clearly whether his sermons were teaching or preaching. What she'd often identify thereby was the tremors in her own soul: if Walt had told the people something new, something exciting, something wonderful, she called it teaching. When Walt had grabbed her soul and held it in his hands, she said he was preaching.

Well, let's just say, at best, this guy that Sunday was teaching. Doing admirably, too. I'm not just being nice. It was a good sermon. You know, a B. Good. Adequate. Quite acceptable. Yeoman's work. Thoughtful-- somewhat. Maybe a little boring. Yeah, maybe a little. You know.

But I'll never forget it. 

Now, honestly, that's a promise I can't make and shouldn't, given my age; but it's true--what happened that Sunday, in his sermon, was somehow remarkable because there was, pardon my language, at least three separate and beautiful dog whistles.

During the Great Depression, hog and cattle prices were so low farmers lost money just keeping livestock on the yard. They did everything they could to keep their huge families healthy by raising their own fruit and vegetables that some years didn't come around with any volume or grace. Life was blame hard.

My grandfather was blacksmith back then, a man who shoed horses and sharpened plow shares and other implements, and my mother remember nights when he sat at the dinner table and cried because there was no money, none, and he couldn't pull what wasn't there out of customers who had to plant, had to harvest, had to work. Everything had to be done "on time," and he had just plain no cash flow.

It doesn't matter who says it or when, but every time any one brings up Habakkuk 3, those pictures appear in the album in my memory's power point. And that preacher did it--he used Habakkuk 3 in the sermon. I don't remember how or why or what thought it was supposed to fit, but he opened the Bible and read that passage: 

Although the fig tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; the labour of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no meat; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls:  Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation. 
All he had to do is repeat those words, and my soul shook, with those pictures. 

And then, again for reasons I don't remember, he referred to Ephesians 2, that passage about our being God's workmanship, a passage that includes that beguiling, divine mystery about how it is we pull on work gloves he's long ago--from the beginning of time too yet--set out on the bench for us: "For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them."

He uses us in ways that are sometimes not particularly flattering, to get his work accomplished. He makes divine quilts from our filthy rags.  That line just gets me, has for years. Now that I think about it, it makes me wonder if that red pen was part of the very bargain of my existence.

What I'm saying is that the whole wasn't a show-stopping sermon. Wasn't brilliant or in any way exceptional, but it piped a couple of lines that stay with me, that play in my mind and memory, unforgettable arias. All he had to do is repeat 'em, and he was preaching.

Don't know, really, what he might say about all this criticism.  Don't know either what he'd think of the grade I gave him. I don't really know the guy at all.  

But my guess is he'd be humbled and gratified and consider what he did a success, preaching being something akin to the good work we all do, sometimes in spite of ourselves, because whenever what any of us do really works, it does so only because He somehow magically adorns it with divine dog whistles.

That's what I learned in church one Sunday. The guy up front was a great preacher and the guy in the pew was a better-than-average listener, made so by nothing less than grace.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Morning Thanks--Resolution

For some, at worst it was an inconvenience.  For me, if I hadn't watched or listened to news, I probably wouldn't have even known it happened. For many, it was scary even frightful. America lost 24 billion, according to Standard and Poor's.

For some, for true believers, it was an achievement. Others felt as if the whole nation was descending into chaos. For many, it seemed for a time as if American exclusivity was, at best, a lie, democracy itself falling apart before our eyes, America a fairyland of hypocrisy, a culture dedicated to export its own version of liberty and justice for all yet clearly dysfunctional itself. 

For many around the world, it seemed insane. For sometime-enemies, it was a delight to witness what most around the world saw as madness.

For some, the resolution means finally going back to work. Rushmore opens. Campgrounds unlock their gates. Meat inspectors hit the road. Panda cams start up once again. For government workers, the resolution means getting salaries for two weeks of vacation, courtesy, ironically, of those who despise government waste.  

For a stenographer present in the Senate chamber last night, the resolution prompted a loony tirade about God, about not serving two masters, a fit of madness that had her escorted from the chamber. For Mitch McConnell, the resolution created praise from Harry Reid, his arch rival.

But the madness is over.

For now.

John McCain called the whole thing "shameful," an "agonizing odyssey."

President Obama, who wouldn't give in to what he called "extortion," lauded the efforts of Senate leaders to forge a compromise that would end the shut down.

Ted Cruz, who started it, claimed that what was accomplished during the shutdown proved to the American people that their utter distaste, their anger, their hate for Obama and Obamacare, had real, positive traction. The House bill to end the shutdown, the resolution, he called "a terrible deal." 

He is, to some of the American public, a messiah--to most, he's a madman.

This morning, I'm just thankful that it's over.  

For now.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Where is thy sting?

Whenever I feel something really bloomin' human in the words of some biblical writer, I get the chills. Strange. Really, Holy Writ is brimming with humanity. Without question, it is God's Word, but it often comes to us, as did our Savior, in a suit of human skin.

The psalms are full of us. To be sure, they're full of the divine, but it seems clear to me--and to Calvin, by the way--that the world's most precious poetry is, well, peculiarly and powerfully human. Here's John Calvin:
I have been accustomed to call this book [the Psalms], I think not inappropriately, “An Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul;” for there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror. Or rather, the Holy Spirit has here drawn to the life all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated.
Yesterday, at a funeral, I couldn't help thinking about the pulsing humanity in a familiar New Testament headline--"Death, where is thy sting?" First letter to the Corinthians, 15th chapter, one of the passages of sacred text that was repeated gloriously at thousands of Christian funerals held just yesterday, I'm sure. 

Not for a moment do I doubt that line's sacred truth or its divine glory. I'm a believer, and because of the risen Christ I know Paul the Apostle and "Sosthenes our brother" weren't whistling Dixie when they told the church at Corinth what they did. That line is not sweet talk or wishful thinking.  It's God's truth.

All of that I know.

Still, when the preacher stands up front and you know there's a huge hole in people's lives, as there was yesterday, and when that preacher repeats the in the deepest voice he can muster, "Death, where is thy sting?" my faith wants to shout it out too; but my humanness still feels a loss for which, in this world, there will be no compensation. Someone is now gone, someone very much beloved. "Death, where is thy sting?" is the divine bromide we take only when we've already suffered great and bloody loss.

But they're all different, just as we are. Every death that occurs opens scars or lays them in different ways. Some deaths, like this one, held a touch of mercy because the man's last breath occurred about a week before anyone qualified to judge such things reckoned it might--a week that would have been misery. His abrupt going--this fine man, loving husband, father, grandfather, and great-grandpa to two or three entire pre-schools--was its own kind of blessing.

But still. "Death, where is thy sting?" is medicine you just wouldn't pull out of the drawer if something searing hadn't rent your heart, you know? It covers real wounds.

Yesterday's committal was done in a wind-whipped tent where the family sat before the casket bedecked with flowers above a hole in the ground thoughtfully covered. A cold rain fell over the place, and some of six sturdy grandson pallbearers, unmoving, caught the run-off over their shoulders and necks. Nothing about that exercise out there in the cold cemetery was pleasant, but then no committals are. They're what we do because we have to.

When the preacher ended his readings, he kindly offered the family a flower from the bouquet on the bier, and just about every one of that multitude of great-grandkids pulled one from the bundle before heading back into the rain, some in their parents' arms. Those kids and those solitary flowers in their little hands cast an image I won't quickly forget.

And then we all left. Someone else, someone paid to do the dirt work, lowered the body into the ground.

And left it there. 

Death, where is thy sting?

There is a sting and that's why the line has such heft and poignancy and relief.  The sting is very real, but so is our hope, our faith, and God Almighty's great Easter triumph.

When my father died a few years ago, Scott Cairns sent me this poem of his, written when his father own died. I've sent it to countless others since, but I couldn't help think of it time and time again yesterday afternoon through the ordeal of remembrance we fashion ritually and call, in general terms, a funeral.
I don't think Scott will mind my sharing. It's a poem in human skin, but its promise is eternal.  

Words for a Father

And this is the consolation:
that the world doesn't end,
that the world one day
opens up into something better.
And that we one day
open up into something far better.
Maybe like this:
one morning you finally wake to a light
you recognize as the light you've wanted
every morning that has come before.
And the air has some light thing in it
that you've always hoped the air might have.
And One is there to welcome you
whose face you've looked for
during all the best and worst times of your life.
He takes you to himself and holds you close
until you fully wake. And it seems you've
only just awakened, but you turn and
there we are, the rest of us,
arriving just behind you.
We'll go the rest of the way together.

Scott Cairns

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

For Columbus Day

Alexander B. Upshaw, the son of a Crow warrior of some renown among his people, was one of many young Native Americans sent off to Carlyle School, the flagship of Indian boarding schools, in Carlyle, Pennsylvania. He spent nine years there, and became a true believer in the philosophy of assimilation espoused by the school's founder, Captain Richard Henry Pratt, who famously claimed that the most effective way of dealing with "the Indian problem" was education whose emphasis was to "kill the Indian and save the man."

Clearly, Upshaw, upon his graduation, bought that philosophy.  When he was photographed at a Chicago exhibition in what seemed like cowboy attire (not traditional Native dress), he wrote a rebuttal to rumors that he'd become, once more, a "blanket Indian," and published it in his old school paper.  "Alex," he said of himself, "would have his schoolmates know that he is trying to be a man, although in the midst of trials and tribulations."

When he left Carlyle, he went on to Bloomsburg College, perhaps the only Native kid to go there after an education at the famous nearby Indian boarding school. Here, he showed inclinations toward acceptance of evangelical Christianity, which would have been greatly accepted by white folks as an earmark of his assimilation into the majority white culture.  

But assimilation after Carlyle wasn't easy.  Upshaw spent some significant time with Edward Curtis, photographing and researching American Plains Indians for Curtis's monumental photographic and ethnographic project, The North American Indian.  In his book, Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher, Timothy Egan says that Alex Upshaw's work with his own people, as a kind of cultural mediator, had to have been difficult for him because what Curtis was doing was almost exactly what Carlyle had taught Upshaw to disdain--to remember and even take some glory in the old Native ways of his people.  

Curtis used Upshaw as a translator, someone who could get beneath the subterfuge that would undoubtedly have been Curtis's own misfortune had he not had Upshaw around to guide him.  

What's ironic and immensely sad is that Alexander B. Upshaw became, in essence, exactly what the Carlyle philosophy determined he should be--he was educated in the ways of the white people, he was industrious and ambitious, he was interested in history and culture and ethnology, he even married a white woman--although that was, to many, a step too far. Even though all of that was true, he suffered immense prejudice and personal problems.

Edward Curtis's debt to Alexander B. Upshaw was significant, and Curtis makes that clear in his own acknowledgements.  Without him, Curtis would not have determined that Custer's death at Little Big Horn lacked the elements of heroism which white America attached to it when it happened in 1876.  Upshaw translated the memories of Crow warriors who had acted as guides to the Seventh Calvary because of their own hatred of the Sioux and Cheyenne. Those elders made it clear that they believed Custer had watched American troops die in the attack on Captain Reno, his colleague, because Custer was interested in greater glory for himself, a critique which still haunts the story that rises from the open plains at the Little Big Horn.

Upshaw eventually became a critic of Washington's continuing abandonment of the Native people they'd dispossessed.  During those later years, he frequently drank too much, and eventually died in a stupor in a Montana jail.  To this day, the Crow people claim he was beaten by those who thought they had reason to hate him, then dragged behind bars to die.  

The portrait Curtis took of Alex Upshaw is itself mightily ambiguous. Upshaw didn't have traditional long hair. He dressed in jeans and the kinds of buttoned shirts Curtis himself wore.  At the turn of the 20th century, Alex Upshaw didn't look "Indian." Day to day, he looked like a good grad of Carlyle school.

Yet the portrait (above) has him in a war bonnet and authentic Native accouterments.

Was it Curtis who wanted him to look like his people traditionally looked? Or did Curtis just want something akin to a cigar store Indian?  Or was it Upshaw himself, perhaps, who wanted to appear as if he were "a blanket Indian"?  Does that famous photograph show him honestly or deceptively?  And what did he think of posing as he did?  

We'll  never know.

But yesterday was Columbus Day or Indigenous Day, a good time to remember the story of indigenous people in this country, a story some people have forgotten and more and more and more never hear or heard. 

That's a story told in the life of Alexander B. Upshaw.