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, November 29, 2013

The Book Thief

Our fascination with the Holocaust seems unending, in part because nothing in the world's recent past offers us such perfectly sculpted heroes and villians. Last night, after leaving the theater, my grandson, who had watched Frozen and not The Book Thief, asked me if Hitler was in the movie I'd just seen. I told him I didn't remember seeing his face at all.

"He's the main character, isn't he?" he asked, and my grandson wasn't wrong. Adolf Hitler may not have appeared in The Book Thief, but that didn't mean he wasn't there because he was, lurking as he always is in anything set anywhere in the 1940s. 

We can all agree on Hitler. He was a madman, a mass murderer who is today safely beyond the reach of revisionists, and it's a comfort somehow to be able to agree at least on that point. We continue to read and watch Holocaust stories because they offer us extremes that are somehow comforting because there's really no ambiguity. In Germany and all of occupied Europe, you were either for or against the Nazis.

The Book Thief plays upon the library of Holocaust stories most of us already have by offering us a darling child named Liesel, an orphan, and her adoptive parents, Hans and Rosa, a couple who are not your standard fare--a poor and childless German couple, the husband irritatingly bereft of ambition, and a shrewish wife so unloving she could sour milk, a ne'er-do-well couple who are not conventional Holocaust heroes.

But there's a history to their selfless love, and it's not at all preposturous because the German military during World War I included Jewish men. One of them gave his life to save Hans, and that sacrifice makes Hans's denying his friend's son appeal for help impossible. For several years, the family and their adopted daughter with the angelic face hide the Jewish kid, a story enacted time and time again but always harrowing given the madness of Nazi death merchants. 

Still, these heroes are German peasants whose selflessness is as close to divine as anything in this world.

The movie plays with our expectations in other ways too, even as it ends; you might say that what you can call The Book Thief's freshness grows out of the way it plays with what has become the conventional Holocaust story line. The wonderful relationship that blossoms between Liesel and her adoptive mother is itself worth the price of admission.

The movie is, as some have asserted, a rarity: the Holocaust offered neatly for family viewing during the holidays. Honestly, I sat in the theater, loving The Book Thief, and more than a little sad that I'd paid my grandkids' admission to Frozen when both of them would have learned oh-so-much more if they'd been sitting in our corner of the multiplex.

But I was also reminded of an age-old theoretical fight about the literature of the Holocaust, the argument belonging to some survivors, who felt it an outrage that anyone would even attempt to create fiction about what happened in Nazi Germany, at Auschwitz and Buchenwald, or anywhere in occupied Europe. The assertion goes like this:  how can we "make up" stories about events that are unspeakable?  Can imagined stories approximate what actually happened, when what happened is beyond language?  Even if Sophie's Choice comes close, purists say no one can imagine that level of horror.

There's a downside to this movie that's altogether clear, and it goes something like this, if I may say it in such a coarse fashion: you can't make a silk purse out of a hog's ear. When the story sentimentalizes--as it does--it loses. There are plot twists that are cloyingly unlikely, creating moments when an audience really can't help feeling as if they're being toyed with. The problem with lack of ambiguity is very real possibility of stock characters.

With Maus, Art Spiegelman famously won the Pulitizer for making the Holocaust into a comic book. But Maus is not a YA novel, and The Book Thief is. Can there be such a thing? That's a good question.

To say the reviews are mixed is understatement: some call it one of the finest films of 2013; others simply roll their eyes at its garish excesses.

Me? I loved it. It may be that my age is showing here, but any story that takes delight in what we as humans can be in horrifying circumstances, in showing us at our own very best. . .let me put it this way: any great story that offers us ordinary people offering their lives for others is a blessing.

How does the old Jewish proverb go?--he who saves one life, saves the world.

Sophie's Choice will stick with you, and no one who's seen it will ever forget Schindler's List

The Book Thief doesn't rise those levels, but I loved it. It may well be family fare, but that doesn't mean there isn't good reason to bring the kids.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Morning Thanks--Thanksgiving

It may be difficult to imagine a war as destructive as the Thirty Years War, largely fought in Germany in the early 17th century. Starvation, disease, and out-of-control armies literally destroyed the countryside, and thousands and thousands of people died, mercilessly. Here’s a snapshot from Cicely Wedgewood’s history of that brutal war.

At Calw the pastor saw a woman gnawing the raw flesh off a dead horse on which a hungry dog and some ravens were also feeding .... In Rhineland[city magistrates] watched the graveyards against marauders who sold the flesh of the newly buried for food .... Acorns, goats' skins, grass, were all cooked in Alsace; cats, dogs, and rats were sold in the market at Worms ....
Political and religious hatred (Calvinists versus Roman Catholics versus Lutherans) went to war viciously, as Austrians and Swedes and just about anyone else looking for power on the continent took turns thrashing the life out of the German people and countryside. For Christian believers, the Thirty Years War is still a wound.

To those who lived through it, the steel wheels of that horrific war must have seemed to grind on endlessly. Thousands deserted farms and homes for protection in the old walled-in cities. But, soon enough, there was no room. 

At Strassburg, Ms. Wedgwood says, the living shut their windows to death groans just outside. In winter, people stepped over dead bodies left lying all over the streets. Finally, when the city knew it could do no more, the magistrates threw out 35,000 refugees to the terror and death that would stalk them outside the walls.

Spring came in long days of warm rains that kept the earth moist and rich for disease that flourished in the hot summer sun that fol­lowed. Plagues swept through the streets riding the gusts of warm wind. Out­side the gates, law and order crumbled.

At the end of this Thirty Years War, Martin Rinkert was a preacher in his own hometown, Eilenberg, Saxony. In 1637, at the height of the destruc­tion, thick in the swamp of life-draining disease, the only clergyman left in the city, Rinkert held funerals for up to fifty people per day, if you can believe it. Even his wife died of disease.

But sometime during those years--amid the groaning persistence of war's evil--the Reverend Martin Rinkert sat and wrote a magnificent, stately tribute of thanksgiving to his God, the ruler of a world that was crumbling all around him.

Thanksgiving. In the middle of all that horror.

"Now thank we all our God," he wrote, his nostrils full of the stench of death. 


Yet, as we all know, real thanksgiving somehow miraculously arises, even in the worst of times--always has, still does, always will.

Today, almost 400 years later, thousands will sing Martin Rinkert's famous, powerful hymn, wrung from the sheer horror of war’s desolation, a hymn with an unforgettable story--for which I'm thankful, this Thanksgiving morning.
This famous Virgil Fox rendition of Rinkert's thanksgiving gift to all of us is only half of this you-tube recording.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Morning Thanks--Middle school musicians

Honestly, I've always subscribed to the idea of "the new heavens and the new earth," a startling, postmortem end times theory, quite biblical, that claims we'll all be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye; but we'll mostly inhabit the same digs (which wouldn't be bad, given our new house). Heavenly hybrid manure would be nice too out here in hog country, if I can make a suggestions. And no dust--I'd like that. Maybe a lot fewer flies.

I don't need much.

No one knows what heaven is like really. There's some considerable blowback these days about the old saws--streets paved with gold and a gadzillion little winged seraphs strumming dulcimers. You know, all that milk and honey. I think such visions are mostly passe'. I'm not sure what my mother foresaw or, of course, what she's seeing today: maybe just something extraordinarily brilliant and peaceful. Good theories abound.

It may well be a sign of my old age, but last night's Sioux Center Christian School concert--orchestras, bands, and choirs--might just pass for what I can imagine as heavenly: a whole crowd of middle-schoolers, teeth full of wires, making sweet music together, singing parts even, and even the boys, half of them with foghorn voices. It's hard not to judge what you're witnessing as a little bit of heaven.

Maybe it was just me. I can be faulted, after all. I'm hardly objective--I'm a grandpa.

Anyway, this morning's thanks is a no-brainer: last night's concert. Maybe it wasn't as wild as one of those goofy biblical musicals that makes fun of Noah's overflowing restrooms, but this one had aspiration in it, and that's something greatly admirable:  kids simply trying to create beauty.

It was pure delight, and I loved it. For that evening, this morning, I'm greatly thankful.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Me and Mom and four-letter words

I cannot footnote this idea, don't know who said it first or best or when or where, but it's one of those lines that writers hear somewhere along the way and never forget.

Well, some writers.  Me, for one.

Here's the idea:  that basically imaginative writers, when they commit to paper, seek to gain the approval or no more than three or four people. In other words, when these words appear magically before me on the screen, I'm thinking of--well, I'm somehow conscious of--the approval of just a couple readers. No one really writes for the masses; most of us write for very, very few readers.

Which prompts the question, "Well then who, pray tell?"

In my case, it's not my peers (I have none; I'm retired), not my profs (they're gone by now), not my children (who don't read much of what I write--and with good reason), and not my students (who don't read much at all).  

That leaves my wife? 


I do not want to disappoint her or make her blush, and I hate it when she rolls her eyes, which happens anyway, time after time in snafus that have absolutely nothing to do with the letters presently appearing on this screen. (For instance, the time I got on the wrong plane and discovered somewhere over Lake Michigan that I wasn't going west to California.) 

How about my father? Sure, but I wrote two novels about fathers and sons, both of which were embarrassments to him, which suggests that the degree of restraint he imposed upon my imagination was, at best, minimal.

Who's left? Mom. Yup, Mom.  No kidding--Mom.

And now she's no longer here! (he said, grinning demonically).

It was, I think, 1980, when she made me an offer she assumed I couldn't refuse.  "I'll buy you the very best electric typewriter you can find," she said (before Steve Jobs created an empire), "if you promise you'll never write another dirty word." (She might have said naughty, by the way.)

We lived, back then, in the George Carlin era, so I might have run through his list of television no-nos to check on her exact definitions. After all, as a boy I was roundly punished for gee or gosh and golly, to darn and dang and heck. Would their use mean sending that brand new Smith-Corona back? Perhaps we should have written up a treaty with negotiated definitions.

She created--as mothers can, or so says Phillip Roth--the kind of bind from which one cannot deftly extricate him or herself. If I said yes, I was committed by covenant (not a word to banter in my Calvinist tradition). To say no, on the other hand, was signing Satan's dotted line. For someone who grew up with the 1928 synodical prohibitions against wordly amusements, my mother had a knack for playing the God card.

No matter how wonderful that Selectric looked, I knew I couldn't say yes. So I told her I'd get by on my own and bought a tank of a typewriter, second-hand, thereby pitching my tent toward Sodom. 

And now my mother is gone.

So I've been thinking that one of these days I'll embark on something like Portnoy's Complaint for Dutch Calvinists. How about Fifty Shades of Orange? Something really scandalous, sure to sell.

Ah, shoot!--I'm dreaming. 

My dissertation was a novel, my first, something titled Home Free. My graduate school committee claimed they liked it greatly, and awarded me the coveted Ph.D. 

"But there's just one thing, Jim," one of them said that day in a faculty suite. "I thought I should tell you--" he broke into a smile, "you're not particularly good at swearing."

And I'd typed the blame thing on a second-hand Royal I bought with my own money.  

It's a story I never told my mother, of course.

A week ago she died.  So how is it that just now, right here over my shoulder, I'm sure I heard her giggle?

Monday, November 25, 2013

The roads home

I was eight years old when we first took Hwy 16 west to LaCrosse and the bottom tier of Minnesota counties. We were going west, Mom and Dad and all three kids. At Niagara Cave, somewhere in the hills along the Mississippi, I first heard those goofy words stalagtite and stalagmite, and saw 'em. Somewhere on that road my dad put me on a stuffed pinto pony, then snapped a picture of his little cowboy, a picture I remember and wish I still had.  

Years later, I remember the twisting roads coming up and out of the river valley, hairpin turns almost elegant in design out in front of a carful of college kids who would finally emerge atop the spacious mesa we call prairie, a flat and verdant land that runs as if forever from the southeast corner of Minnesota right up to the Rockies. 

Hwy 16 got sectioned not long after I started college, replaced intermittantly by hefty, four-lane segments of I-90, until finally, sometime after my senior year, dozens and dozens of trips east and west, the old two-laner disappeared. At least we stopped taking it. I-90 made those treacherous Mississippi hills into easy slide down to the river and a long, slow grade back up. The new interstate ended whistlestops in a couple dozen small towns and multiplied both the range and number of fast food joints in LaCrosse. We liked that. Still do.

Once upon a time I hitchhiked all the way.  An old station wagon filled to the gills with family picked me up when they saw my thumb, and I sat in the backseat beside a child--I really did--and wondered what kind of people would trust a hitchhiker with their baby. They were going farther north, so they let me off in Winona, and I took once more to the side of the road. Hitchhiking didn't take a whole lot longer than driving my own car, I remember thinking. I wanted to prove to myself that I had guts enough to stick out a thumb, and I did.

Big deal.

Once, something went haywire in our own VW when it was full of my own family, somewhere near home, really--our Iowa home, somewhere in southwest Minnesota.  We holed up in a restaurant/bar, a place where the waitresses in that establishment gave our young family, stranded on the interstate, the heart of their attention.

Snowstorms?  Twice that I remember.  Once we stopped halfway and sat out our trip home to Iowa in a motel, our baby daughter wrapped snugly on the floor beside the bed.  Once, years before, in the middle of a blizzard a whole squad of college kids got stranded in Fairmont, MN, at a flea-bitten hotel that was cold as ice on the basement floor, where we slept. Middle of the storm that evening, a bunch of us got in the car and looked for a place to buy beer.  Don't remember if we found any.  

We made a ton of trips later, same path, same highway, on our way home to Wisconsin to visit my parents, who came our way often as not themselves until the drive grew too much.  We took two trips home right on top of each other when my father died, another dozen to visit my mom, first to her apartment in independent living and then, finally, the last one, in assisted living. Home was still there, in Wisconsin. And home was here too, in Iowa.  No matter which way I drove on that achingly famililar path, I always went home.

My mother died a week ago, left this earth as easily as anyone could, not even a gasping breath. The women in the room, my sister among them, cast a glance her way and almost casually ascertained she was no longer with them or us or anyone below. She was where she wanted to be. If I could have written out a scenario of death for her, for Mom, I could not have created anything better: just like that, gone to what she might have called her own home on high.

I almost felt phony taking condolences in a line at the funeral home. "Our deepest sympathies," people said, with wincing sincerity. I shook my head because it was hard to call my mother's passing anything but a rich blessing from God she prayed to every day.

All the way home, to Iowa, all the way along that old familiar route between my two homes, all the way back, 75 miles an hour, stopping only for gas and a hamburger to go, all the way home I felt as if that all-too-familiar interstate was actually closing up behind me, mile after mile, I-90 turning, Twilight Zone-ish, into a low-maitenance dirt path you travel at your own risk. 

The road between my homes was getting old, mile after mile.

Even though there's no one left between me and the grave right now, both my parents gone, it's not as scary as it might have been, years ago, had either been taken before their time. And I'm not willing to sing the old hymn quite yet either--you know, "this world is not my home." One day soon I probably will, but I'm not ready go gently into the heart of its sentiment, not quite. 

The interstate looks abandoned in my imagination now, the life gone out of of it, so many dozens of trips behind me, a whole atlas dog-eared. But when I think about it, I am still awed by the spacious Minnesota prairies. I like seeing those black-hooded Amish wagons in Root River country. The mighty river bluffs are still big-shouldered and handsome, as are the coulees east of the Mississippi, Hamlin Garland country. I like the big red cranberry bogs, even the water parks at Wisconsin Dells, and a host of touristy inland lakes.  I like Fon du Lac, the Old Wade House, Plymouth, Waldo, Five Corners, Six Corners, Oostburg. I still like home, even if there's now a cave there, an empty one, and no stalagtite in sight.

Even if it all seems low maintenance today, it still looks grand. Someday soon, I suppose, this world won't be my home and I'll think of myself as just a'passin' through; but right now this creation of His is still a wonder, even the highway I've taken for so many years, the one that somehow just doesn't look the same--that old road home is still a joy.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Sunday Morning Meds--Telling the Story

“Therefore, let everyone who is godly pray to you. . .”

I read an interview some time ago with Susan Cheever, a novelist and non-fiction writer, who is—perhaps to her own dismay—likely better known as the daughter of the now deceased John Cheever, a highly celebrated short story writer.  For several reasons, that interview won’t leave me alone, and one of them is her claim that, to her as a child, her father’s short stories horrified her. 

She remembers a time when her father used a ski trip she had taken as a base for a story about a little girl who dies on exactly that kind of outing. “In my family,” Susan Cheever says, “being fictionalized has been ten million times more painful” than finding themselves in portrayed in non-fiction.
That line in that interview nearly decked me because it had never dawned on me that my family might experience a similar horror, victims, in a way, of their father’s imaginative “use” of their lives. I’d never, ever considered the grotesque puzzle I might have left with any of them, finding semblances and shadows of themselves and each other twisted and turned into something at once bitterly unrecognizable and sweetly familiar.  I can’t speak for John Cheever, but I honestly never had a clue—I really didn’t.

Haunting questions arise.  Was my own playful creativity the occasion for their pain?  Was my joy their misery?  Should I have spent so much of my adult life trying to write stories?  Was the way I’ve lived my life dead wrong? 

And I ask myself this:  if, when I was thirty, I had read what Susan Cheever says, would I have dedicated so much of my life to writing?

Perhaps it is a mark of the deep stain of sin itself, but now, looking back, I honestly can’t imagine myself not writing. For better or for worse, I guess, sitting here at this desk has become, for me, a “habit of being,” as Flannery O’Connor said.  Still, hard as it is to admit, our best deeds and my best words are filthy rags, the Bible says.
I feel myself in David’s own shoes here in verse six:  “Therefore, let everyone who is godly pray to you. . .”  His impulse here in this psalm and throughout his poems is to tell the story of his salvation.  We want and need to tell the stories we find most meaningful, to share our joy or sadness as he does in this marvelous book of poems.  We want everyone to hear.  Not all of us are evangelists, but we all have a gospel, and most all of us want to testify, even if it's to ourselves alone.
The story of Psalm 32 becomes a roadmap for those who need to find a path to forgiveness. showing us the way.  Psalm 32 leads us to divine waters.  

But the story David tells has never saved a soul, and neither will a million sermons on this text, or, for that matter, this mediation, or any words that march across the computer screen down here in my basement.  Only God’s grace—through his son’s gigantic sacrifice—can do that.  Salvation belongs to the Lord.

I wonder if David knew that he was writing “the Bible.”  I wonder if he understood as he strung these words out in front of him that he was being directed by the Holy Spirit’s favor. I wonder if he ever considered his words were not his, but God’s.

Somehow, I doubt it.  And because I do, I find a refuge in his inability to keep silence.  He’s got to speak, to sing.  With the joy of forgiveness bubbling up inside, he can’t stanch the music from his soul.  He’s got to yap, to tell.

But even his joy, his testimony, his story requires forgiveness.  Everything he is—even his ecstasy—stands in need of grace. 
May God almighty forgive me, and him, and all of us, as he promises, as he does, and as he will.     

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

What she knew and what she knows

I sang in the choir during my last year in high school.  It was not a highlight, as I remember, the young, pretty teacher having real trouble keeping control of the masses. But I knew my mother would enjoy my being in choir, and I probably had a credit to waste or something. Singing wasn't my life.  It was my parents' life.

My parents sang once a day at least, often more, my mother at the piano, her long fingers ranging over those keys as if by rote. She was, back then, a piano teacher, and her greatest joy, I thought, was making music at the piano in our den.  She did it for hours. It was her life, in so many ways.

It wasn't hard for me to understand that. The spiritual intensity with which my parents sang together--when he came home from work, when supper was over, almost anytime on Sunday, and always hymns, always the old favorites--made me wonder, at times, whether I was an afterthought. They sang in church too, not just up front but in the pew. Sometimes--and I was probably too much of an adolescent boy--their exhuberance seemed embarrassing because their voices, their good voices, rang out with such authority and strength, and beauty.

So I never sang much when I was kid, still don't. But Lord knows, when I was a kid, I never sang in front of them. I'm not trying to be an armchair psychologist, and the last thing I'd ever do is indict them for loving music they way they did, for loving singing, for loving each other they way they did. They were model parents.  One of my novels concerns a kid who is growing up with parents who make life difficult because they seem almost too good. It can get trying to live with such exacting standards, the perfect is being sometimes the enemy of the good.

But it was my short stint in choir that got me into a quartet. Three other guys--Pete Laarman, Dan Kaat, and George Van Driest,I think--wanted to take a part in some kind of talent night at First Reformed. "Why don't you sing along with us?"--it was that kind of thing. They needed a foresome. 

I didn't think I was that good, and I was scared to death to sing up there in front of church; but I consented--I liked the guys who were asking and, quite frankly, I was proud of being asked.  

They were the ones who insisted I sing in a community chorus who was doing Handel's Messiah that year, or parts of it. I knew very well that my parents would be thrilled with my participation, and, like I said, I liked the guys who asked, so I did. "Come on, Jim--sing along. We're all going to do it."

At that community event, my mother sang "I Know That My Redeemer Liveth," and when she did, when we were all up there in the choir loft of old First Reformed, something happened that wasn't exactly an epiphany, if an epiphany is something that brings instant enlightenment. I don't know if I still understand perfectly, but as long as I'm in the armchair, I'll give it a thought.

Here's the story.  My mother sang Handel, this very famous solo, and her son, behind her in the choir loft, tried as best he could not to let anyone see his tears.  

I cried. 

I played in the defensive line in football, swing guard on the basketball court, third base on the ball team, and, in the spring, I threw the discus far enough to go to state twice.  I was 18 years old, becoming a man.

But that Sunday afternoon, in front of a whole church, I cried.

Why?  Most simply, because I was proud of her, which is to say, I'm sure, I was, in part, proud of being of her. There was no doubt in my mind that when she sang that gorgeous line, there was no artifice in it.  She was telling the world, through the music, what I knew she believed--to wit, that she knew her redeemer was very much alive. 

Here's what I understood that afternoon in First Reformed.  What was coming from her lips was coming from her heart and soul, and that kind of fidelity--that kind of true-ness--was something I'd never quite fully known before.  

That day she was my mother, but she was also much, much more. And I was humbled. And proud.

And that's why, to this day, whenever I hear this magnificent solo piece, I'm brought back to a downtown church that's now gone and Mom who just yesterday left the rest of us behind, a woman who is without a doubt still singing that gorgeous piece, from the heart, from the soul.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Morning Thanks--Faithfulness

For the last decade or so, every two weeks early Sunday morning, I would sit at my desk and write letters, first to my parents and then, once my father died, only to my mother. We live a day's travel away. I tried to be newsy and honest and open and, when I thought I could be and had to be, determined about what I believed. We didn't always agree about things; no man or woman is his parent's clone. 

Writing those letters wasn't a burden really; but there were times, lots of them, when, come Sunday morning, I opened a new Word file, typed in "Dear Mom," and wondered whether I'd have anything to say. Dozens of those letters, I'm sure, start with "Not much news," then proceed to run on and on for a couple of pages regardless.

The ritual has fallen off lately. In the last months, my mother's ability to read a letter and stay with the contents has fallen off considerably. I'm not sure she was even all that conscious of receiving them. My sister, who's been her devoted caregiver for years, says one of the last ones--which included a number of big pictures of our new house--was, to her, brand new every time she saw it. "Is that their house now?" she'd ask my sister as if it weren't to be believed. Her mind, I guess, was on something akin to a four or five-minute loop.

So the last letter I wrote was going to be full of pictures again because I thought she'd like more, not of the house but of her Iowa family--especially her great-grandchildren.  

Here they sit on the bottom shelf of a table in front of my desk. They never got sent. She'd not appreciate them anymore, not because she wouldn't want to but because she can't. 

My mother is dying. In a week or so, on Thanksgiving, should she make it that long, she'd be 95 years old. She's had a good life, not without its problems and it's sorrows, but she's not buried any children and she's raised kids who've never wandered all that far from what she considers "the paths of righteousness." But after a shocking diagnosis last Friday, she's now in hospice care. When she leaves is just a matter of time.

Sometimes it's hard to believe that there are people who actually read the words I type in a box marked "new post," but I know there is. I just thought I'd let you all know that if the stream of blog posts wanes for a time now--as it will--they're falling off because my mother is dying.

The doctor said the surgery would likely be more than she could handle at her age, and she consented with the plan--no surgery, no more treatments, just drugs to ward off the pain before the end. There were times in my mother's life that she seemed to want to be so close to God that there wasn't room for anyone else. She's more than ready to live with the Lord and greet, once again, her devoted husband. There's just this thing called death.

We're off today to travel that day-away because, quite simply, we have to.  I don't look forward to seeing her suffer; I've watched two parents, a father and a mother-in-law, stagger down the only road in life no one can walk with you. Those images will always be there, and I'm guessing they will be replenished by a new portfolio.

But we're going to see her--got to. And we're going right now. Just thought I'd let you know. 

And this is, most simply, my morning thanks--that when she goes, she will die in the arms of her Lord.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Sunday Morning Meds--Forgiveness

“. . .and you forgave the guilt of my sin.”

No virtuous act is quite as virtuous 
from the standpoint of our friend or foe as from our own; 
therefore, we are saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.

Reinhold Neibuhr

Perhaps the Scarlet Letter is the American classic it is because its central characters—the seemingly fallen Hester and her partner in crime, the seemingly self-righteous Arthur Dimmesdale—are so, well, seemingly complex. Invariably, it seems, first-time readers in my college classrooms, early on, come to love Hester as much as they hate her guilt-wracked lover, a spineless phony. But I’m not sure Hawthorne intended my students’ sentiments to move so incontestably in those directions.

I side with those who claim that the trajectories of those two characters, in the novel, appear to move in totally opposite directions. Hester is clearly central in the early chapters; Hawthorne seems to have fallen in love with her himself, in part because she gains so much heroic strength by accepting her badge of shame.

The Rev. Mr. Dimmesdale, on the other hand, is a sham, a man who receives the accolades of the community in spite of his secret sin, a man who, by refusing what Hester openly accepts, loses our sympathy as quickly and surely as she gains it.

But slowly on, Hawthorne allows Dimmesdale to take over the novel, giving him greater billing—or so it seems to me.

The climactic scene, when he finally and torturously bears his sin to the community and dies, forgiven, rarely engages my students, despite the fact that they are almost all believers themselves. It’s too little, too late—even though good Christian readers probably should see the eternity of what just occurred: his sin, like David’s, has been forgiven.

I’m really not sure Hawthorne could have done better. It seems to me that while stories—the ones we read or the ones we hear—can map out what it is that happens in forgiveness, those stories cannot give us the experience. No one’s testimony of forgiveness—David’s or Dimmesdale’s or your neighbor’s or mine, can do that. By way of what some call “felt life,” stories bring us as close as anything can to experience. But there is, finally, an experiential—an existential—character to forgiveness and faith itself that is beyond my words or Hawthorne’s or even the word of the scriptures.

We can talk and we can share and we can testify. We can read the Scarlet Letter or Crime and Punishment or the 32nd Psalm. We can hear the story time and time again. We can now how forgiveness operates; we can theorize and theologize.

But finally we know forgiveness in our hearts and souls only when we, like King David, know it’s been done to us, within us.

You have to have been there to know. In that sense, the 32nd Psalm is our song, even if I can’t explain it or even describe it, as no one can.

We really know what David knows only when we too have been forgiven.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Morning Thanks--Christian education

Once upon a time in Spakkenburg, the Netherlands, we walked through a church I wanted to visit because it had been a meeting place in 1943 for a young couple engaged to be married, but engaged also in resistance work during the Nazi occupation. It was too dangerous for either of them to go home, so they'd arrange to meet at a church, where they could mingle anonymously.

I was working on writing her life story, and I wanted to visit that church as well as other haunts in central Holland because I wanted to visualize the world she had described to me, even though fifty years had passed since Nazi jackboots pounded down Dutch streets.

Our guide at that church was not particularly comfortable with the English language and I had no Dutch to speak of, but he recognized the outline of the story I was writing so he raised a finger and beckoned. My family and I followed up a stairway to the church balcony, where he pulled aside a large rug to reveal a door in the floor he then opened. "Razzia," he said, or something similar.  

He was referring to something akin to a roundup, the sudden appearance of Nazis looking to capture Dutch men to send to Germany to support the war machine. The Germans must have learned that if they wanted to round up lots of men at once, they could do so during church because the Dutch, in that part of the country in particular, were especially devout.

The storage room beneath the rug in the balcony of that church was a hiding place, during church or not, a place the onderdykkers, those who had to "dive under" German conscription, could sidestep capture. I'll never forget that odd hiding place.

The congregation was and presumably still is an Article 31 church, part of a denomination created when it split, quite bloodily, from its denominational home. The issue was Abraham Kuyper's view of covenant theology, specifically that baptized children of believers were, ipso facto, children of the King.  

That's a story I'm not interested in telling, but what is to me almost stupifying is that my tribe of Dutch Calvinists could actually go to war with each other with SS thugs all around and 100,000 Dutch Jews being deported to Germany and death. People in the church at Spakkenburg were at war with the Germans and themselves simultaneously. Where did they find the time?  Where did they find the anger? Unbelieveable.

It's a real story and a true story, and, quite frankly, it's humbling.

And I say all of that because last night at a banquet blessed with tender pork loin and medley of garden vegetables, I told stories and talked about Christian education to moms and dads and grandpas and grandmas of children enrolled in Mitchell (SD) Christian School.  Nobody in that audience knows anything about what happened in Spakkenburg, the Netherlands, in 1944, and that's just fine.

But they are, like it or not, very much in the tradition of Abraham Kuyper, whose followers created a whole fleet of Christian schools--"Schools for Christian instruction"--in North America, schools maintained by those who believe, for better or for worse, that education in the truth about life and death and eternity has to acknowledge the hand of a God who created all things.

I am a graduate of a Christian school, as is my wife. Our children are too, and, not long ago, the two of us attended Grandparents Day in the school our grandkids attend. I taught for almost forty years in a college in that same tradition. We are committed Christian-school people.

I also graduated from a public school and taught in two others--rural and suburban. I loved it. Students from those schools still write me. In absolutely no way is my belief in Christian education created by distrust of what happens day-to-day, moment-to-moment in this country's public education system.

But last night I was reminded once again of what Christian education is by a society of believers from dozens of different churches, all of them willing to pay big bucks for an education that acknowledges God's hand and will in the world in which we live.

As long as humans are the helm, as they will be to the end, Christian education will have its share of problems, just like that church at Spakkenburg, the Netherlands, war within, I'm sure, and war without.  No one ever promised a Christian school rose garden.

But when it does what it promises--teaches kids the humility of Christian servanthood beneath the rule of God and the amazing grace of his son Jesus--a Christian school is a blessing, not only to the kids in the desks but, through them, to the world God loves.

This morning I'm thankful for Mitchell Christian School--a community of parents and teachers and kids who believe, quite simply, that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher

Somewhere around the turn of the century, Andrew Vander Wagon, who was never an officially licensed pastor but became one anyway, determined to build a bridge across the Zuni River because he was tired of being on the outs.  The brand new CRC mission in the Zuni pueblo stood just on the other side of the river, which often wasn't a river, per se, but then again too often irritatingly was. 

As long as the mission stood that far outside the pueblo (it's at the heart of things today, by the way), he was determined that his mission of missions would be crippled. Furthermore, when water actually flowed in the Zuni River, his only means of getting across was up on the shoulders of a Zuni man whose grace was abundant but, according to Andrew, unnecessary.

He told the tribe that he'd like to build that bridge, but the tribe's eyebrows narrowed. If the gods wanted a bridge over the Zuni River, they told him, there would be one. Andrew told them that was nonsense (no one knows how he phrased his reponses, but "nonsense" wouldn't have been, at that time at least, far from possibility with him). He built the bridge, and it lasted almost 20 years before a bigger and stronger one was finally constructed.

Here's Brother Andrew's bridge.

Timothy Egan's fine biography of Edward Curtis, Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher, makes it abundantly clear that Curtis, the photographer, himself the son of a madcap missionary to Minnesota's Ojibwe, was right there at Zuni pueblo during what might well be considered Andrew Vander Wagon's reign as the mission king. I know enough about Vander Wagon (I share some of his DNA, by the way) to know that it's impossible to think the two would not have met--Brother Andrew cut that kind of swath, believe me.

That meeting--at least in my imagination--must have been memorable, Curtis hating Christian missionaries (his father was preacher) as much as Brother Andrew loved being one, both of them immensely larger-than-life characters, the courses of their lives determined severely by a unflagging sense of their individual callings:  Brother Andrew to alter the lives of the Zunis for eternity, Eastman to hold back the tide of white culture and document a way of life that was vanishing, in part because Brother Andrew was doing exactly what he was doing.

I didn't know much about Curtis's life, but I knew his work because I used a portrait of his on the cover of a novel of mine, Touches the Sky.  Here it is.

In fact, it's quite likely that everyone has, somewhere along the line, seen a Edward Curtis portrait. He made documenting Native America at the turn of the century his life's mission. Nothing else mattered. His wife left him, and with good reason: he was no more her husband than Andrew Vander Wagon. His family despised him, save his children, who generally adored him. 

Basically, he did all of that without pay, so he died unknown, penniless, an old and angry man.

But he'd once been a friend of luminaries, of President Teddy Roosevelt, who appointed him the official photographer for his daughter's wedding. He gained the bucks it took for him to travel all over the west from J. P. Morgan, whose railroad empire was, as Egan deftly points out, doing as much as anything or anyone at that very moment to destroy the very cultures Curtis himself wanted to preserve with his portraits.

Neither Curtis nor Vander Wagon, despite their passionate callings, was above skullduggery. Both pushed envelopes. Curtis's portraits often were deftly posed, even though he wanted his viewing public to see them as true-to-life candids. Some were anything but. Some of his "indian braves" were outfitted in regalia none of them wore by, say, 1915, which made Curtis little more than Buffalo Bill with an expensive camera.

Vander Wagon didn't know how to color within the lines either. He was, more than once, fired. He was as good a trader with the Zuni and the Navajo as he was a missionary. When his colleagues disagreed with him and his wild ways, he went quite offensively on the offensive. He could be a dirty rotten stinker, and I may be unduly sweet to use such cute language.

But both absolutely loved their respective callings. Both were passionate about what they did. Both were given to sacrificing everything for what they felt called to do. They were, in some ways, partners in both crime and salvation.

As Egan points out in his fine biography, no one appreciates the work of Edward Curtis today more than Native people because his work--whether or not it was staged or posed--does exactly what he wanted it to do: it tells a story that ended when what some Native folks I know call the "illegal immigration" of white people to North America became a flood.  

Fiction can go where history can't, of course. And the mere idea of a meeting, on that bridge, between Brother Andrew and Edward Curtis, right there in Zuni pueblo, circa 1910 or so, beckons me to take a shot at the story. Curtis hated missionaries; Brother Andrew never met a man--white or Native--he didn't try to strongarm to the Lord.  But what linked them in an ironic way was a love for the people in that pueblo.  

I don't know if I'm a good enough writer to put that story on paper, but after reading Timothy Egan's fine biography of the passionate life of Edward Curtis, I know I'd have loved to be there.

Edward Curtis, A Zuni Governor

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Where the Wild Things Are

I've got two old rusty traps, little ones, for muskrats. I don't intend to use them along the river out back because my trapping days are long over, but I kept 'em because they remind me of the joy of trapping, a skill I learned from a neighbor who loved nothing better than to be out at the woods at the crack dawn. I trapped muskrats when I was a boy, and, hard as it may be for some people and more than a few muskrats to understand, it was a joy.

Seriously, there was something magic about marching out into snow- or frost-dusted river banks in the old days, cold biting at your nose but everything else about you warm with anticipation of shining that flashlight down into the set and then, if you're lucky, seeing nothing whatsoever where a pan should be reflecting back, a muskrat somewhere down there in the water his leg held firmly by the kind of trap I'd like to put up on my wall.

PETA would have my hide for even bringing up that kind of horror, I'm sure, but right down here among the flotsam and jetsam of my 65 years on earth, I'd like to make a place for a pair of rusty old traps, barbarous or not because it was trapping that taught me to love early mornings and the stillness in God's natural world.  "In the splendor of the heavens," John Calvin once wrote, "a lively image of God is a blessing."

Big deal. Calvin was only parroting David:  "the heavens declare the glory of God," which makes the sky, this morning too just outside my window, one stunningly great preacher.

I'm not a hunter, really.  But once upon a time I was, and it was wonderful. I tend to side with Henry David Thoreau about killing stuff: hunting is something every boy should do, he wrote in Walden, but every man should put behind him--something like that.  That's a rule of thumb that's only good on my hand. I'd never tell some Cabela's-bedecked woodsman what's right or wrong when it comes to lowering a barrel--"who am I to judge?" says the pope. . .and me.  The good hunters--and there are thousands of them--absolutely love the natural world. But somehow I've got a governor in me when it comes to killing, I swear.

Last week I went along with real hunters and great local guides to the flat, grassy lands of central South Dakota, where there are, literally, thousands of ringneck pheasants, some of them planted maybe, but most of them simply a gorgeous, abundant feature of the area's flora and fauna.  Managing populations of wildlife is as good a reason as any for hunting, or so it seems to me, and what we left behind after a day and a half, when I quit, was hundreds of hens and a few game roosters to repopulate the place by next November.  That'll happen.  There'll be a ton more next year, I'm sure.

I got my share of shots. Three dead birds have at least some bbs from my shells--or at least that's what I like to think.  And I'll eat all three, stick them in a crock pot for three weeks, and toss 'em in a hotdish.  They'll be good too, just like last year.

But I'm not a real hunter. I don't even own a gun. A real hunter loves to hunt, to shoot birds. I just love the outdoors. 

Freud used to claim that dreams were the exercise of your subconscious, that lurid sexual fantasies, for instance, bubbled up from whatever it was that surpressed such astonishments all day long. Sleep allowed the brain free reign to breed images that, for the most part, you otherwise sat on but couldn't sweep out, stuff you wanted not to want or see or do but did. Sleep, he said, tells you what you really don't want to know.

Freud's no longer standard currency in dream studies I guess, but I can't help thinking of him because the night I came back from the hunt, a very strange bird stepped hauntingly into my dreams. I was sitting right here in my desk chair, beside the big window north, when a huge rooster walked up from the whited field to the north, a monster pheasant, big as an ostrich.  He didn't see me, but he was right up here in the backyard, walking warily, pigeon-like, his eyes alive with fear.

There was no story in that dream, no hunters pushing him out of a field of big blue stem. I looked. Out there toward the river and all through the miles of Iowa countryside behind our new house, I saw no orange hats, no orange vests.

But the terror in that big bird's eyes I read far too easily.

PETA scared up a big rooster in my head, I guess.  It was not a sweet dream.

If I'm asked, I may well go along again next year, borrow a gun and knock down a couple of birds, march through fields thick with grass and miry swamps of broken cattails.  Maybe I'll take a tail feather home and stick it in a loop from the rusty old chain of the muskrat trap I'll hang on my wall here. 

But next year, just like this one, I'll probably quit early.

Because really, I'm no hunter.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Morning Thanks--Catastrophist

An awful word.

In fact, I never heard it before, didn't know there could be one, wasn't altogether sure what it was.

If I'd been asked, I might have said catastrophist might just be used to describe folks who are dang sure that sometime after tomorrow a angry flock of black helicopters will descend out back beside the propane tank to do, well, something awful, something catastrophic. You know, survivalists. I'd have thought it was a word applied to folks who stocked up soup and oatmeal in padlocked storm cellar, sure beyond doubt that the world would come to an end with the single tick of the clock--midnight, January 1, 2000. I might well have thought a catastrophist to be someone who suffers from paranormal paranoia.

But the word was used yesterday in NPR's Fresh Air, when Terry Gross interviewed Roy Scranton and Jacob Siegel about their new book, Fire and Forget, a collection of short stories by veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghantistan. Scranton and Siegel used that word to describe what happens to men and women who pull on fatigues everyday, knowing full well that some blip at the edge of the road, something nobody notices, might just blow their lives to smithereens.  You become a catatrophist, I suppose, when death is as companionable as the trusty mutt you left behind. 

You become a catastrophist when good friends, buddies, get wasted on a weekly basis. You become a catastrophist when you determine that you will return home in a casket because you will inevitably die somewhere in the desert. You are a catastrophist when you avoid making friends because you've already lost too many good ones.

In 1980, at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, Tim O'Brien played a leading roll. He'd written Going After Caciatto by that time, a Vietnam War saga that followed the life of a GI who simply had enough, who determined he'd simply walk home. That novel had won wide acclaim, and O'Brien's being at Bread Loaf meant other Vietnam vets showed up with their stories, lurid stories, of their own.

One night at a reading, one of them tried to stumble through his own work. He'd been drinking too much from a flask that wasn't hidden, and when he started into his story, he stopped when he got to a part about a grunt eating a lizard raw on a drunken bet.  He stopped, filled the room with an ocean of blue language, then bawled, curled up on the floor and bawled. A company of angels--other vets--took him under their wing. It was a moment I'll never forget.  

Siegel and Scranton helped me understand what happened there at Bread Loaf, so many years ago: the man--he actually was a friend--suffered because once upon a time in Vietnam he'd been forced by war itself to become a catastrophist.

Once upon a time I lived with the good kid who'd come back home to Iowa after Vietnam, determined to walk back into ordinary life. Didn't happen.  For months, his life was one catastrophe after another.  I lived with him.  I know.  

Not everyone who serves his or her country becomes a catastrophist.  My father wasn't, and neither is my father-in-law, both of whom gave years of their lives to war. But neither of them ever witnessed death or killed someone himself. Both were warriors, but neither of them went hand-to-hand somewhere in Belgium or on some South Sea island. 

My uncle cleaned up after battles, lifted bodies up from wet beaches.  He never raised a rifle, but he too, I think, had to become a catastrophist.

Yesterday, I know, was Veterans' Day. This morning it's time to move on.  

But the suicide rate among those who return--even when they return in one piece--is catastrophic, largely because, I assume, too many vets have to become normal after becoming, with good reason, catatrophists.  In a way, I wish I hadn't learned the word.

I'm a day late with all of this I know, but we owe them all more than a day. For their gifts--those who returned, those who didn't, and those who tragically never left--I make my morning thanks.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Morning Thanks--on Veterans Day

Way back when, this little book got carried from England, across the Sound to Normandy. Then, probably in a duffle bag, it got lugged from France through Belgium and Holland and finally to Germany by a grease monkey from the U. S. Army motor pool, my father-in-law, whose job it was to fix up beat-up tanks and jeeps, to retool whatever machinery broke down on the Allied front, a battle line that stayed about a week or so ahead of him and his well-tooled brigade of mechanics.

It’s a book of devotionals, one per day for a year, and it was given to my father-in-law by his church, no date, probably before he left for Europe. Streams in the Desert it’s titled, Mrs. Chas. E. Cowman, compiler, 21st edition, published by The Oriental Missionary Society of Los Angeles, CA, 1941. His was likely not the only copy carried along by American GIs like my father-in-law.

We’ve been reading it, and, 70 years later, as one might expect, its voice and character are dated.
Through his griefs Job came to his heritage. He was tried that his godliness might be confirmed. Are not my troubles intended to deepen my character and to robe me in graces I had little of before? I come to my glory through eclipses, tears, death. My ripest fruit grows against the roughest wall.
So writes someone who's named bneath only as "Chapin." I have no idea who he was--or she (there are women here), but it could well have been Edwin Hubbell Chapin, a largely uneducated mid-nineteenth-century Universalist preacher from New York, well-known, Wikipedia says, as an orator and writer. A Unitarian. Imagine that. Firrst CRC of Orange City, Iowa, gives one of its own young GIs a devotional book written, in part, by a Unitarian. 

Here's another contributor--Hanna Whitall Smith. Google tells me that Ms. Smith, born to a proper Quaker family in Philadelphis, left the fold to become Plymouth Brethren, then Methodist, then, late in the 19th century, a glorious part of the Holiness Movement, and therefore probably charismatic. 

When my father-in-law put down his monkey wrench and read Ms. Smith—somewhere in Belgium, perhaps?—did he even see her name? Did he have any idea who she was?

Hannah Whitall Smith’s classic work is The Unselfishness of God and How I Discovered it: A Spiritual Autobiography, published in 1903 and edited ever since by more fundamentalist types who deliberately exclude her universalist tendencies. Three whole chapters are missing from most of the editions you can still get, by the way, from Amazon.

Ms. Whitehall Smith was a suffragette and, later on, helped found the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Her daughter married Bertrand Russell, the agnostic English philosopher. Isn’t life a kick?

Of course, none of that would have meant anything at all to my father-in-law, wrench in hand, the noisy, dangerous war front just a couple of dozen miles away, Hitler's blitzkreig blitzed themselves. None of that would have mattered, and none of it apparently mattered to the good Dutch Calvinists of First Orange City.

There’s something remarkable about their largesse, a gregarious faith that runs counter to stereotype and caricature. Right here in this little book of meditations are hundreds of names whose familiarity died years and years ago, names that once held great stature in a widest spectrum of the Christian world, not a Dutch Calvinist voice among ‘em.

William Taylor, one-time Moderator of the Church of Scotland, born 1744, died 1823, principal of Glasgow University, undoubtedly something of a Calvinist anyway.  Who knows? Who remembers anyway?  That's him, above.  

E. A. Kilbourne, a man who apparently wasn't photographed, but wrote a book, still available, with the hearty title The Great Commission and once penned these words, as alive as they ever were: “God is there to meet you in the center of each trial. And he will whisper to you His secrets, which will bring you out with a radiant face and such an invincible faith that all the demons of hell will never be able to shake it.”

Was Dad in Germany when he read E. A.—the date given in the book is November 4. Did he even look?

Streams in the Desert is ours now. Dad is cleaning up what little he has left in his room in the home. Probably hasn’t been opened in years. The names inside are long gone, barely memories, known only somewhat timorously to Wikipedia.

But strangely enough it’s alive, this book, crowded with voices that haven’t stopped confessing their great faith.

Here it sits, this old book, still speaking, still testifying, and still telling stories. This morning, my morning thanks are for all those voices and, of course, the vets themselves, so many of them.


This post is reprinted from 2011. 

Addendum: Yesterday, at Sunday dinner, we read from Streams in the Desert for devotions, and I told the grandkids that Great-grandpa Van Gelder carried along this very book when he was in World War II. I'm not sure the meditation stirred them, but the image of their great-grandpa lugging a book of devotions along into war looked stunning when I saw it reflected in their eyes. I hope it found a place in their hearts.

Oddly enough, Grandpa himself was also stunned. He didn't remember the book at all, but he can be forgiven--he's 94. When he left after dinner, he took Streams along home with him. "I'll use it for my devotions," he said. 

Seventy years later.

Sunday, November 10, 2013


 “I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord’—
and you forgave the guilt of my sin.”  Psalm 32

I’ve not murdered anyone.  When I was a boy, I stole cigarettes—we used to call it “hocking,” as in “let’s go hock cigarettes.”  But I haven’t hocked a thing in fifty-some years.

I never committed adultery—per se.  I guess I may have to confess, like Jimmy Carter, that I’ve sometimes oogled a bit too sumptuously; but I’ve have not blazed my way through some tawdry affair.

I’ve eaten too much—just two night ago, in fact.  It started with the smooth guacamole. . .  But that’s another story.  I’m in a perpetual battle with love handles. 
I love a beer now and then, but I’m light years from alcoholism.  The love of money may well be the root of all evil, but greed or avarice has never been a weakness of mine.  Ask my wife. 
I’ve come to that point in my life where covetousness isn’t much of problem either.  Here I sit in a basement office, surrounded by books I’m can’t get rid of, file drawers full of stuff I can’t toss, and a collection of flim-flam filling every shelf, every last bit of it worthless beyond anything but sweet sentimental value.

I don’t think I’m crochety, although my wife might argue.  I’m not bitter.  I love a good story, and I’ve become convinced that humor is, as the Readers Digest has long insisted, the very best medicine for the soul.
The 65-year path of my life—check it for yourself—contains no spectacular sin or reprehensible acts.  I was in Vegas once, but I was ten. 

My biography would never sell.  A fourteen-year-old with an eating disorder makes a better chapel speaker than I do.  There are no bank heists or car chases.  Thank the Lord, there never was a Bathsheeba, nor Uriah. 

For the most part, mine are sins of omission—and they are legion. 
I wonder if, through my life, I worshipped the task I’m at right now, if I placed a god before me that obscured the one who forgives.  I often wonder if I neglected to love my children or spouse because of my love of writing, if my profession of faith had more to do with the letters appearing on this screen than it did with the Lord God Almighty.
I wonder, as I never have before in my life, if I’ve done the best I could with what I’ve been given.  I really do.  When I look back, I wonder whether I did it right at all. 

I don’t wonder, not really.  I have no doubt that in many important ways I’ve failed.
I doubt my confession would be easier if I could point at a Bathsheeba or too much bourbon or some kind of abuse and say, “there—that’s the sin for which I need forgiveness.”  I’m thankful there are no such lurid misdeeds.
But I’m old enough to know that, just like the wanton King, I can stand only if I’ve been on my knees. 

For what I didn’t do, Lord—for what I didn’t do right and for my idolatry, my pride—please, forgive.