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.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Postcards from Haiti (i)

Our Tracker and Theirs

One very cold night, in the parking lot of a Christian school not far away, someone whacked our little Geo Tracker. Not badly, just a punch in the fender where there'd already been a wrinkle from a bump it took years ago. You know--scraped off some paint.

Years ago, I bought that little car from a man whose daughter, off to college, had used it to drive back and forth to school. It's a ragtop, but he warned me already before I'd ever forked over any cash that it would be a huge mistake to take that canvas top off because, he said, I'd never, ever get it back on. 

It's little more than a glorified golf cart, barely goes 60 miles per hour, so light that should you meet a cattle truck in an Iowa wind, the 18-wheeler just about lifts you off the road.  It's a tin can on wheels, powered by a real-life "little engine that could."  Blessedly, it's not given us a dime's worth of trouble in the 35,000 miles or so it's granted us, and Friday morning, after a week's rest while we were out of town, it popped the moment I turned the key, as if it were some tail-wagging spaniel happy to see us back.

We didn't fix the dent because pulling out a scrape and repainting just isn't worth it on a tiny little car with a permanent canvas roof and a penchant for getting bullied by any truck it meets. Poor thing has cancer too--not a lot, but the body may go before the engine. Still, it gets us to the grocery store, to church, to Casey's, and the gym without a word of complaint. Besides, it's the only car we've got with four-wheel drive.

Honestly, it can't be worth much, and this is no sales job. It's not a wreck, and on a little car like the Tracker a few bumps and scratches seem par for the course.  

There are only two like it in the neighborhood--one down the road in Sioux Center, another here. That's it. Two.  And ours.  Truth is, it's not the kind of car in which you'd want to have an accident, not a car you'd want to drive very for any distance.  It's a tin can with a radio.

In Haiti there are thousands just exactly like it. Geo Trackers are everywhere; and, like almost everything else in Port au Prince, they're in various shapes of disrepair. Thousands of Trackers.  I'm serious. A Tracker is not the vehicle of choice because it can't hold two dozen people like the vans and pick-ups their owners have rigged with stadium seating, but no matter. Trackers are all over.

Makes sense, too. They don't cost an arm and a leg, they come with four-wheel drive; the wheel base is high enough to get over street messes and potholes and sheer rockiness, and there's plenty of glass--you can see all around.  If ours is a good example, they run forever on little motorcycle engines.  

A Tracker is a perfect car for Haiti. If I could send it there, media mail, ours would bring top dollar--whatever that is. On the streets of Port au Prince,the Schaap's Tracker, punched in fender and all, would be class act.

Here, really, it isn't worth much. There it would be a treasure.  

We've just returned from Haiti, never having been there before. For several days, I've been trying to formulate just how to describe it--"a failed state," people say. But I don't think I can describe the place. What I do know is that this tin can of ours, a little tiny car that's served us well but is pretty much worthless otherwise--would be, in Haiti, a treasure.

Start there. 

There's a box in the back room where I've packed, nicely folded, a few sweaters and a pants or two that doesn't fit or just hasn't been worn enough to hold down a space in our new closet. Soon enough, that box will go to Goodwill or Justice For All, whosever bin is closest. 

There are men and women, thousands upon thousands of them, who could make what they might consider a living wage off just that box of old clothes by hanging my throw-aways up on fence or wall and selling them, even though no one on the Haitian streets wears anything close to an XXL.  

One word came to mind after a day in Haiti, a word that stuck there for as long as we stayed--"unimaginable." It was. It is. 

I fancy myself a writer, sometimes good, sometimes not; I've been at it for forty years and have written a bunch of books and countless articles. Honestly, this writer simply doesn't know how to describe it because Haiti goes somehow beyond words. 

But the images stay nonetheless and return when I climb into our old Geo Tracker, 112 thousand miles and still going strong, a scarred veteran of parking lots, some cancer spots spreading every season, but a tin can fortune in a very strange land where so very many have so very little.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Sunday Morning Meds--Wholesale prayerful considerations

“Trust in the LORD and do good; 
dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture.” Psalm 37:3

Via e-mail, I asked a student I don’t know personally if she’d like to work for me during the coming semester, the kind of work-study job students receive to help them through college, a pilgrimage which is, if you don’t already know, a very expensive journey these days.

I assumed she’d say yes. The college jobs coordinator told me she had been working in the dining hall, and most students rather appreciate an opportunity to work with profs, especially when those profs are in their majors. Slam dunk, I figured.

Her e-mail said yes. “After much prayerful consideration,” she wrote, “I’ve decided to take the English work study job.”

She must have liked the dining hall more than I assumed. Well, so did I when I worked there way back when. That’s good. It commends her, in a way.

The part of her answer I’ve not been able to forget is that dependent clause: “after much prayerful consideration.” She went to the Lord with this decision, even did it muchly? Seriously? I figured that either the decision wasn’t easy or that she goes to the Lord even with her slam dunks. Maybe it’s just rhetoric, but I doubted that—not her.

Like so many students these days, this young lady was—and presumably still is--far more “spiritual” than her parents likely ever were—at least, more than some of her profs were or are. When in the presence of such radiant spirituality, my natural tendency—for better or for worse—is to wonder if I’m somehow terminally jaundiced by my own oily skepticism and whether I wouldn’t be, well, more happy if I too took upon myself the myriad tasks presented me in life with equally soulful prayerful consideration—even when the slam dunks.

“Takes all kinds” my mother-in-law would say, which is as close to grace as some rural Midwesterners ever get, I think. And I honestly don’t doubt this student’s words, her devout sentiments, or the prayer closet regimen that single dependent clause implies. I’m hip enough to say she has a right to her righteousness. But so do I.

And I read Psalm 37:3 just a bit differently, it seems, than she does. There is something of a swap here, and I recognize the inherent danger of self-righteousness, in thinking that what I’m doing is “doing good.” Nonetheless, God almighty brokers a deal, it seems, and I honestly believe, deep in my soul, that I’m the beneficiary of his offer: trust in me (I do), do good (I try), and I’ll be there (he’s my shepherd). It’s that simple. With true faith in God, we shall be fed—which is the way the KJV translates this verse.

A friend of mine in South Dakota says the rains there this summer have been phenomenal, a tremendous blessing. “Those pastures you walked in, you know,” he told me, “they’re really thick—the cattle are belly-deep in grass.”

Charles Spurgeon says the real meaning of the line is in the word “shepherded”: those who trust in him and try to do his will will be shepherded.” But the NIV is nice, too: “will enjoy safe pasture.”

Here’s my spin on this bountiful verse (can you see your way through a madly mixed metaphor?): I don’t have to give prayerful consideration to my slam dunks if I’m belly-deep in grass.

Does that make sense?

Anyway, you know what I mean.

Monday, March 24, 2014


I like to tell you that we're on vacation this week, but I can't because it's not a vacation--not really.  We're off to the Dominican Republic and Haiti, places we've never been before. It'll be hot down there (that's good), and it's still cold here (that's not). What we'll see will be new and fascinating, I'm sure, but I just thought I'd say that I won't be in the basement for a while. Call it a sabbatical.  

Be back in a week.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Sunday Morning Meds--To do good

“Trust in the Lord and do good. . .” Psalm 37
If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life, as from that dry and parching wind of the African deserts called the simoom, which fills the mouth and nose and ears and eyes with dust till you are suffocated, for fear that I should get some of his good done to me- some of its virus mingled with my blood.
                                                            Henry David Thoreau, Walden

I don’t know that anyone in Concord, Massachusetts, in the mid-19th century would have thought of Thoreau as a warm and loving neighbor.  His best work, I suppose, was done in a secluded single-room cabin he built with his own hands, set in the middle of a woods, beside a little lake called Walden Pond, no human being in sight. 

Of course, Thoreau wouldn’t have called his cabin secluded either.  To hear him speak of it, you might believe he was living downtown or just off a highway.  The point of the Walden experiment, or so it seems to me, was to get away from people—do-gooders and non-do-gooders alike—and see if the natural world couldn’t teach him something worth learning.  He called it a grand success, and school kids have been assigned various sections of Walden ever since, even though, if you ask me, the book seems, oddly enough, appallingly anti-American.

The historical record suggests that, in Concord, no one liked him much—maybe just a few; and if the paragraph at the top of the page is any witness, it’s not difficult to guess why.  Even if he sounds curmudgeonly, most of us would have to admit that at some points in life, smarmy sweetness chokes just as surely as rat poison.
For years, a man I know visited hospitals every weekend, just dropping by on patients, whether or not he knew them.  It was his habit to pray, too, asking the Lord’s favored blessing upon each and every one of the infirmed.  Hospital visitation was his ministry.  To some, his visits were a joy; to others, they were a pain in the posterior.

He was “doing good,” and at least part of the motivation that brought him to all the hospitals in the region, week after week, was his personal history of suffering—years of abuse and horror in a Nazi concentration camp.  Knowing that story of his life somehow excuses his excesses, I think, don’t you?

It’s impossible to fight with the injunction in this verse—“trust in the Lord and do good.”  It is our calling to love, to aid, to offer helping hands, to love our neighbors as ourselves.  It’s a commandment “like unto” the first—to love God above all.

Thoreau may have been irritating to his Concord neighbors, but he is his own kind of do-gooder, really.  Whether nor not we like it, Walden makes us think twice about where we put our treasures, what kinds of barns. For the veracity of his argument, we have to thank him—even those school kids stumbling through the long sentences.

There are myriad ways of doing good.  Our “calling,” someone once said, can be defined as the place where our passion meets God’s need.  There’s a bottom line here, and it goes like this:  it’s our job to love, as we are, forever.

Thanks be to Him.  

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Book Review--The Big Truck That Went By

I've no doubt that reading other books might offer different spins on Haiti and its horrific misfortunes. Katz doesn't hold back from giving his opinions, but his authority is created upon his actually being there for the years in question, experiencing the massive earthquake itself and the countless aftershocks thereafter--the geological aftershocks as well as a host of others.  Katz was there, an AP journalist, in position to write the story, and he does. It's not pretty, but then I imagine most of Haiti wasn't pretty post-apocalypse--and maybe still is not. Then again, to read Katz's take on Haitian history is to realize that those of us comfortably situated in the U.S. of A., need to accept our share of the blame for significant problems which continue to beset this struggling nation right on our southern doorstep. 

The NGOs come in for lots of criticism, but that's not rare these days. Hundreds of well-intention-ed efforts to help often seemed mismatched and piecemeal, attempting to wipe up horrors with Charmin tissue. The Clintons come in for some criticism as well, even though both of them played significant roles in the recovery. 

What Katz says rather forthrightly (and argues for as well) is the importance of believing and investing in governmental infrastructure, despite the widespread conviction (and there's lots of evidence) that the government, whoever is at its head, is finally and fully corrupt.  Until the government can do some of the things that NGOs insist on doing, he asserts, nothing will finally improve in Haiti.  

I'm very glad to have read--or listened to--this fascinating memoir of his time in Haiti; but if you're looking for something for the beach, look on a different shelf.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Blue Highways

It's not insignificant. Created in the late '20s, during the heyday of such memorials, Bryant Baker's Pioneer Woman stands formidably just off one of Ponca City's main streets, right where Oklahoma oilman and one-time governor, not to mention millionaire, Earnest Whitworth Marland, wanted it erected. It's bronze and it's big and it's beautiful, a lovely gift to the town, the region, and the entire nation really. 

Baker won the commission, a contest among some of the nation's leading sculptors, after a nationwide tour of the submitted possibilities. Hundreds of thousands of people voted. 

How Baker's design prevailed isn't a mystery; Pioneer Woman really is memorable. His sun-bonneted woman, her admiring boy at her side, carries her shoulders as if she were royalty, an attitude that was likely hard to come by on the muddy floors of the region's sod houses.

In April of 1930, Baker's design was unveiled, just down the street from Marland's mansion, an equally historic palace, which also still stands in all of its splendor and royalty. For a time, oilman Marland single-handedly controlled one-tenth of the world's supply of oil. The man and his wife--who'd come to Oklahoma without much in their pockets or pocketbooks--lived something of the vision in his Pioneer Woman's face. That Ponca City residents looked on approvingly when she was unveiled on that April day goes without question; one-third of its populace worked for him.  

She is elegant, isn't she? And determined. And blessed with a vision of the future that, at the very time she was erected in Marland's front yard, was only half the story. 

She is, after all, the polar opposite of those equally famous Oklahoma images of a just a few years hence--circa, say, 1935, mid-Dust Bowl, when Roosevelt's crew of government-financed photographers, Dorthea Lange among them, recorded a wholly different face on pioneer women and men, folks who didn't stride quite so confidently into America's frontier or future. Most of those images caught faces less sure any future at all.  

I suppose it's telling that the elegant statue was created by a multi-millionaire oilman, while Depression-era images were caught by photographers who were salaried from a government payroll.

But vying them off against each other is silly because they both capture something in the human character. And, as all of us know, it's not at all incongruous to think that all of us, at one point in time or another, can walk out into life itself brandishing undaunted courage, and at another seem perfectly incapable of anything but in-the-flesh despair.

We just happened to stop at one of Oklahoma's hundreds of roadside markers, one of which, on a single slab of stone, related the story of Chief Joseph and the Nez Pierce, who spent enough time in the Oklahoma Territory to bury a hundred of his people, including his own daughter, before finally being put on a train and sent unceremoniously back to the Pacific Northwest--to Washington, however, and not home to Idaho. 

Like hundreds of thousands of other Native people, the Nez Perce were summarily directed--at gunpoint--to relocate to Indian Territory, where, it was assumed, all of the nation's indigenous people would live together smoking peace pipes, farming respectably, and going to church. In Oklahoma, the Nez Perce fared no better than many others, and, like the Northern Cheyenne, simply couldn't acclimate. Wearied by death and disease and dislocation, they were finally allowed to move back to the northwest.

This highway marker is not so powerful as Baker's Pioneer Woman. There is no garden around it, no museum beside it. But then, it wasn't commissioned by one of the state's former governors and most wealthy citizens. That it's there at all is a fact worth celebrating. That someone insists people not forget is pure blessing. 

Timothy Egan, who wrote a wonderful book on the Dust Bowl, The Worst Hard Time, took a shot at Rep. Paul Ryan in the NY Times this week, arguing that Ryan's attitude toward the poor--that their poverty is attributable either to their laziness or the government's enabling their dependency--is ironic, given Ryan's own Irish-American heritage. After all, it was the British Tory government who made similar claims about the hundreds of thousands of Irish who died during the potato famine in the 1840s, when Ryan's own ancestors came to America. Egan says it might be helpful for Paul Ryan to consider his own family history before determining that essentially the poor are to blame for their own poverty.  

I suppose it's not unusual for an older man or woman to look back more frequently than ahead, but what I find about myself in my early retirement is that history's stories are as easy to forget as they are essential to remember. We forget for good reason--not to be trapped in the past, perhaps.  But we forget at our peril, too, especially in this, that we begin to believe, as stupid as this is, that we're right about things, about everything. 

You can learn a lot on this nation's blue highways. 

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Chisolm Trail wandering

There's just so much Texas to Texas. The only distance I'd ever traveled inside the Lone Star State was from the airport in San Antonio to a sweet region Texans call "Hill Country," some two hours or so away. San Antonio spreads itself thin over the landscape, so it takes a while to get out of town. But once you're out, the landscape is southwestern-nice, really is, beautiful until you get higher, when the land turns rocky and stubborn, thick with overgrown ashe junipers and occasional cypress trees.

Here and there through the open miles, elaborate (even monumental) locked gates appear as if out of nowhere, suggesting that someone somewhere has pocketed more than his or her share of Texas oil revenue. Most Hill Country homes are safely behind those gates and subtly out of sight from the road, suggesting even more wealth, even more ostentation. 

That's all I'd ever seen of Texas--two and half hours northwest of San Antonio. But this year we drove to the Hill Country--from Iowa!--and stayed in the state (as one does when one drives) for a long, long, long time, even though we never went south of what seems to me to be the geographical "heart of Texas." Texas just goes and goes and goes. It won't quit.  

I'd heard of the Chisholm Trail before, in part, I suppose, because I grew up in the age of the TV Western, Ward Bond leading wagon trains west from Missouri, the Ponderosa filling the screen with endless vistas every Saturday night, our whole family around the screen. The Rifleman, Broken Arrow, Lone Ranger, even Gene Autry--all have their own diorama in the western museum of my memory.

But I'd never traveled the Chisholm Trail before, and when I did, I couldn't help thinking how impossibly endless it must have seemed from the back of a horse. Miles and miles and miles through unbroken country, pre-Civil War mostly. It would be the 1880s before anyone would even conjure something as strange as barbed wire.  There is so much "out there" out there that it's virtually impossible to imagine being back in the saddle again, one of a crew of cowpokes to drive a thousand cattle north to Abilene, then to Kansas City.

There are rivers to cross, sometimes easily, I'm sure, but often not, often rampaging with run-off or spring melt. There are hills to climb, there's dust to eat, heat to fight, not to mention cold-as-ice winter nights. Once into Indian Territory, they had to be wary because they never knew who might show up. It's no wonder the cowboy plays as significant a role as he does in our national saga. It wasn't easy driving cattle, hundreds, thousands of them, millions, in fact, all that interminable way.

So many longhorns, people say, that when they'd cross the Red River a steady-as-you-go cowboy could walk on their backs and not get his boots wet. Millions of scrawny Texas steers bound for a market where their normal four-bucks-a-head price could deliver something worth traveling for.  

The Chisolm Trail exists only in the imagination these days.  There aren't many tourist stops, just road signs, letting you know that somewhere beneath the highway there's likely a treasury of manure left there graciously by longhorn millions, so many gifts by so many that the lot of 'em likely enriched Texas forever.

Once in a while a road sign will prompt you to think about what happened there, long ago, when a million hoofs made the ground quake beneath your boots, when men with dirt in their ears picked their harmonicas out of their saddle bags and sat round a camp fire, having finished their beans and coffee, sat there and told stories or sang from a cowboy songbook no one owned but everyone knew.

You can fly on the Chisolm Trail these days: speed limits are as high as 80 miles an hour because there's not much traffic and a scarcity of burgs. No matter. There's still a whole of Texas to Texas, and once upon a time, at twenty miles a day, there was much, much more.

Get along, little doggies.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

TV's White-Trashing

Okay, I admit it--we're finished with this second season of House of Cards, and (spoiler alert) Frank Underwood's sleazy, murderous ascent to the American Presidency was--at least to me--unconditionally repulsive. It made me want to step outside and hurl.

But then, among television's dark dramas--and there are legion--we've come to expect tortured evil. It may well be the "third Golden age" of television, as some call it, but starting with Tony Soprano, its heroes haven't been heroes, period. Often as not, they're jerks or at best jerks who should know better but can't or won't.

That I watch House is itself a tribute to its excellence, I suppose--as television, as drama, as story-telling, even if the material risks utter shamelessness. Evil triumphs in House of Cards--or at least it did, royally, this season. I will watch again, hoping that someone--maybe even God almighty--will finally give Underwood and his blonde Lady Macbeth the flogging they've earned. Bad guys win--and win big.

Why do I watch?

I don't know.  I hate it when evil triumphs. The most well-known Christian hymn of all time (I'm told) is the old country favorite "Farther Along," a sad lament for what the saintly song-writer can't help but notice all around, that the bad guys get all the breaks.

Tempted and tried, we’re oft made to wonder
Why it should be thus all the day long;
While there are others living about us,
Never molested, though in the wrong.

Christianly speaking, there's always eternity to sort things out, as the chorus offers:

Farther along we’ll know more about it,
Farther along we’ll understand why;
Cheer up, my brother, live in the sunshine,
We’ll understand it all by and by.

Just wait, guys. Eternity's a'comin' and we'll all get what's comin'. Frank Underwood too. It's going to make sense. Farther along.

In an interesting little essay in The Weekly Standard, Norman Podohoritz calls yet another facet of what's happening on screen these days "the white-trashing of TV" for the almost endless march of southern-fried good ol' boys, from Duck Dynasty to True Detectives, doing inexplicably bizarre things. Wherever and whenever you look, white trash is rising from bayou mists and walking off with all the ratings, often as not repossessing cars--Operation Repo, Bear Swamp Recovery, Lizard Lick  South Beach Tow--seriously, the list is endless. How about Dog the Bounty Hunter, the godfather of 'em all.

Why? How is it we've come to be obsessed with endless tattoos on endlessly big men and women?  

Podhoretz says it's Hollywood snobbery:  "rich Hollywood folk making mincemeat out of poor rural folk is another element of the ongoing American culture war that should not go unremarked." Well, maybe. But the heroes of Pawn Stars aren't the flush of backwaters.

It's hard to miss really, isn't it? Podhoretz includes Don Draper (Mad Men), given his hard-knocks, mysterious childhood; and, of course, Walter White of Breaking Bad. Podhoretz suggests that it may be coastal liberals to blame, in fine boilerplate Weekly Standard tradition; but then walks it all back to commend what he sees on his own TV screen, calling the whole range of white-trash programming "just too good, too interesting, too flavorful." Which is to say, he likes 'em.

Still, the white-trashing of TV is a mystery to me, although we've always loved freak shows. A hundred years ago already, Mencken said, "No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people."

Some time ago, our entire family--all of them--celebrated a sweet holiday for our 40th wedding anniversary by holing up in a mansion atop a Arkansas mountain, mid-winter, and just hanging out. Once in a while, a television would be on. The only network series we could talk about or watch in common, whole family in tow, was, Storage Wars, starring urban white-trash in sleeveless sweatshirts and sweaty baseball caps looking to turn a buck on someone else's refuse.

We're really crazy for 'em somehow.  

Just exactly how is it we take so much joy in watching? I don't think I know. And why are sleazy characters like Frank Underwood, a malignancy in the American body politic, so popular?  I don't know that either.

Farther along, we'll know all about it, I guess.  Farther along, we'll understand why.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

You know people will talk--a story (conclusion)


We didn’t have the radio on. The markets are all down anyway, and quotes come in all day long, never at night. We got CDs we take along on trips, but I hadn’t thought of them. It was quiet as a mouse in the Buick is what I’m saying. I guess I didn’t expect that questions we might ask—either of us—would come back in our laps. As old as we are, we’re not accustomed to people asking our opinions about things.

“I mean, it’s like I’ve been on a track in my life, and this whole thing—this whole on-line thing—I honestly don’t know what to think about it.”

“You love him?” my husband said.

“He’s so caring,” she said.

“That doesn’t answer the question,” my husband said. He was almost out of control.

“How much must you like a person before you sign up for the rest of your life?” Leanne asked. “How’d that work with you?” she asked.

I honestly don’t know how I would have answered that question, but I let the two of them be. The dash lights turned his face gold.

“I didn’t have much choice,” he said. He nodded towards me. “It just seemed natural, you know? With this internet business, it’s just a whole different thing.”

“And was it the right choice?” she said.

I wanted to break in, but I couldn’t. She was talking to him—even though I couldn’t see her face, I knew she was talking to him.

“Best choice of my life,” he said. “Best thing I ever did.”

“Ask him again when I’m not around,” I told her.

“But I didn’t know it then,” he said, “didn’t know half of what I know today, which is only half of what I should—if that. That make sense?”

“No,” she said.

“Don’t imagine it does to someone your age,” my husband said. “This guy you’re seeing—our pastor, Pastor Neal—he’s a fine, fine boy. Just can’t call him a man yet, but he’ll get there, hear? He doesn’t have a lick of deceit in him. I think you can trust him, which says a lot. I do.”

“I can trust the Lord,” she said, “but I have lots of problems trusting his people.”

“You and me and half the faithful, if not more,” he told her.

And then, just like that, she said it. “Would you pray for me?” she said. Poor thing was scared, and can you blame her?

“Right now?” my husband said.

“Yes,” she said. “Would you?”

Now I have never for one day in my life questioned my husband’s faith, not once. Not that he’s been outspoken. It’s just not his way. But when push comes to shove, I know he knows he’s in the hands of the Lord. We’ve been through too many hard times out here in the middle of nowhere for me to think he doesn’t find his only comfort in belonging to Jesus.

But that doesn’t mean that when he’s said just a few words to someone he hardly knows and he’s driving our Buick halfway through the night and he’s not all that comfy with the internet and women preachers—that doesn’t mean he’s just going to “go to the Lord” at the drop of the hat like some TV preacher with a wig. Honestly and truly, I didn’t know what on earth he’d say just then, although I knew in the middle of my heart and soul that he was just as sure as I was that he didn’t have much choice.

So my Garrett pulled over on Hwy. 44, not a car in sight, left the engine running, and the three of us got out into the black night, the sky full of jewelry. I insisted we hold hands, which is not my husband’s favorite thing to do. That’s the way it went.

Public prayer has never been one of my husband’s gifts, and he knows it. But this praying out here under a giant sky wasn’t public, the kind of public Jesus himself warned us all against. But what Garrett said that night broke through something for all of us—for this little girl, who didn’t know a thing about what she was getting into; for me, who maybe has too often not trusted her own husband in his later years; and for him, who wasn’t all that keen on any of this before this woman, in seminary, took him into her confidence and asked him to lean on the Lord God for her, to lift her up.

I’d tell you what he said if I could remember, but I wasn’t so much listening as I was praying myself. All I know is something broke out there in the darkness, and in me. I could feel something tugging from the inside of my head at my eyes and nose. I could feel it.

“Look at those stars,” I told her when he’d finished. “Just look up.”

“I never knew there were this many,” she said. “The sky is full.”

“Lots of things about life out here come as surprise,” I told her. “Trust me,” I said, and then I grabbed Garrett’s arm and pulled him close. “Even someone my age gets bowled over once in awhile.”

“You’re kidding,” she said.

“Keeps us young,” I told her, laying a kiss on my husband’s cheek for the first time in a ton of years on a country road.

“But now you listen to me, girl,” he said, standing out there in the weeds along the highway. “You go any farther with this guy, and you do something about that hair, will you?” he said.

“Garrett,” I said.

But she said she wasn’t all that fond of it herself, not for a preacher. That’s what she said, honestly, and that’s what I told Claire and Fran and Joe and Betty, and just a couple of others. And I’m sure it got around.

Come Sunday, Pastor Neal preached, bad haircut and all. And when you looked into his eyes, I still couldn’t help but think that right there was a man you could trust. I don’t remember the sermon. You get my age, and sometimes they go in one ear and out another. I just know it was good—that much I remember.

When Leanne walked in with the Bielemas, we were prepared for that triumphal entry, all of us. I saw to it myself, making sure everybody knew what went on the way home from Omaha. It wasn’t a show at all is what I’m saying.

“So what do you think?” I asked Garrett after we let her off at the Bielemas that Friday night.

“Just what the doctor ordered,” he said, when he stopped in the driveway to let me out. He raised his eyebrows, nodding, the interior lights glowing on his bald head.

I shut the door, and he drove the Buick into the garage.

That’s just the way it went. And now all we can do is pray, which is all we can do for our own kids too. Every day and every night, without ceasing. 



Monday, March 17, 2014

You know that people will talk--a story (iv)

So off we went. And there she was, coming off the plane. Small, like people said. Unpretentious, too.

We’re thirty minutes outside of Omaha when I’m thinking that Fran and Joe’s report from the field was on the money. Not that she was reserved either, really, but she didn’t fill the air with talk like some can. Mostly, Garrett stayed out of it, which was fine because I thought he could learn a little civility, maybe even warm up to her if he heard her speak a little. All I needed to do was steer the conversation away from the potholes.

Seems she’s come to the Lord on her own, her parents no particular help at all—she even asked us to pray for them, her father especially. Something happened in college, something that changed her life; she bottomed out on something, didn’t exactly say what, and I wasn’t about to pry. Quoted C. S. Lewis in fact—about kicking and screaming his way to the throne.

I’m thinking Garrett has to like all of this, but I’m also guessing that there’s some voice in him saying she’s awfully young in the faith.

It’s dark on those roads once you get outside the city. You start on your out here, and sometimes people get antsy in all the open space, where there’s nothing but headlights out front, like the snoot of a hound. Deer galore, too. More after harvest—which is what time it is now.

This Leanne is sitting in the back seat by herself, and I’m thinking that maybe I should have insisted she sit up front like I would have if she’d been a man, should have put her closer to both of us or something, but maybe that’s just the mother in me. We’ve got kids older than Leanne.

“He speaks very highly of your church,” Leanne said, her voice coming out of the darkness. I’d have liked to see her eyes, but there was nothing in her voice that gave me any clue she was being fake nice.

“We like him, too,” I told her. “Don’t we, Garrett?”

My husband hadn’t said much, and I didn’t want her to think that he was just some muddle-head farmer. The man raised our kids and kept the whole place afloat through really hard times. He’s got a right to his opinions, and I love him. Maybe I said that already.

“We do, don’t we?” I said again.

He swung his face toward me as if he didn’t really want to participate.

“I was saying how much we liked Pastor Neal,” I repeated. Ever since Garrett’s had a hearing aid he’s even more of a selective listener. “He’s been a Godsend to this church, hasn’t he?”

All he’s got to do is grunt, I’m thinking.

“He’s a fine boy,” Garrett said finally, which wasn’t exactly the message I wanted sent. “He’s going to be a fine preacher someday, I think,” he said. “He’s on his way.”

That wasn’t bad.

But then he started on his own. “Could you live out here?” he said.

“My word, Garrett,” I told him. “Talk about a cart before the horse.”

“I don’t know,” she said. “There’s a lot I don’t know.”

“Can’t see it right now,” my husband said. “But we live on beautiful land.”

“What’s that town?” she said.

“No town out there, just farm lights—fewer and fewer of them, too,” my husband said.

“Looks like a town,” she said.

“It’s a community,” my husband said.

“That’s a nice thing to say,” she said. “I like that.” Then it was quiet—for about a minute. Then, “I can’t imagine living here,” she told us. Not haughty either. Lord knows, we get a lot of that out here. That wasn’t the point, and I could tell it. “I mean, it’s an awful lot, so fast. So much to worry about.”

“Well, Rome wasn’t built in a day either,” I told her.

“If you marry him,” Garrett said, “tell him to sell that scooter.”

Honestly, it was about the best line right then, as if it were scripture. That little girl sat in the back seat and just roared. “I don’t really like it all that much myself,” she said. “But don’t you dare tell him.”

“Don’t worry—we can keep secrets,” I said, figuring the Lord himself would forgive me for that one.

“So are you going to be a preacher too?” Garrett said. “The two of you? Methodists in town got a tag team like that. They seem to like it. ‘Variety’s the spice of life,’ my friend Norm says. He goes there. The only difference is, he says, the guy’s a bunch funnier than his wife.”

“That’s a switch,” I said.

Through the windshield, the stars were barely visible, and I had this sense that maybe if we’d show her the skies out here, she’d like it. She’d like us.

“So you going to preach?” my husband said again. If I’d have known it, I’d have thrown an elbow.

“I don’t know,” she said. “In college I was 4.0, and I just went right on to seminary, maybe too full of glow, just having become a believer. I’m the kind of person who got where she is because I didn’t have to work much—does that make sense?”

Tomorrow--More on the long ride home.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Sunday Morning Meds--Withering?

“. . .for like the grass they will soon wither, 
like green plants they will soon die away.” Psalm 37

Lawns are shabby right now. We’re not in any kind of drought, but the abundant rainfall we’ve had this spring and summer probably kept the grass from having to reach for moisture, so that when the rain stopped and the heat arrived our lawn turned to toast, the grass going as dormant as it will in January.

King David is not wrong in his appraisal of things here, of course: real villains—real evil men and women—don’t last. Their hay-day is fleeting, you might say. Hitler and Stalin had designs on world conquest, but they both like a’moldering right now. Somewhere in the ocean Osama bin Laden is too, his minions still killing when and where they can, a bizarre cult of hate and death. But, David says, Al Qaeda too shall pass—that’s the promise of the first verse of Psalm 37.

I know very well what he means.

Look—why beat around the bush? This isn’t my favorite verse in the Bible, and I probably have Walt Whitman to blame. What’s my quarrel? I just don't like the comparison. Grass has been withering all month long under the heavy gaze of an outrageous July sun. The perennials aren’t standing up very well either. I know what David means.

But last night a cool breeze came through, straight from Canada, and this morning we’re twenty degrees colder than we were yesterday. Highs today may reach into the 70s; for most of the month, we’ve been in the 90s. Our air conditioning shut down, and you know what else?—if the temp stays close to what it is this morning, it won’t take long and that tawny grass will be emerald. I know it will—just as every April I know it will. The whole bunch of perennials we’re so proud of—they’ll be back too, not to mention the those gorgeous heavy-laden peonies. Everything may wither for a season, but they’ll be back. I know they will and so do you.

There’s something unspoken in this verse that reminds me of horror movies because just when you think the blob or the atomic anteater devastating New York is finally gone, there’s this wink, this raised eyebrow that suggests the horror may not be completely wiped out. No, no, no--not true! The wicked, says David, are like grass—they die.

Well, I got news, David. Grass doesn’t die quite so fast. It may get cut and shorn; it may brown like old leather and get prickly underfoot; the earth may go seemingly bald beneath it but grass will be back.

That’s what Leaves of Grass is all about, and while I’m not into yawping as barbarically as Walt Whitman, his American classic testifies, from the dark destruction of the Civil War, that the grass will come back, that life will return.

Some may well consider “Song of Myself” to be holy writ. I don’t count myself among them. But, like Whitman, I really do love green stuff; and I just can’t help my unease when David equates beastly wicked folks with God’s lovely growing things. It’s the Bible, the word of God--I know, I know; but here, I wish he’d have found some other comparison.

I promise to take the lesson to heart because what David is telling us is the most comforting assurance God’s word offers anywhere in holy writ—“don’t be afraid.” The bad guys'll wither away. That’s the story, something that needs to be said, time after time after time.

I just wish he’d stay off my grass and leave my peonies alone. . .

Saturday, March 15, 2014

You know people will talk--a story (iii)

Here’s the thing. Fran and Joe Henderson got a son in Atlanta, where this young lady lives. You know Fran—well, maybe you don’t. But caution has never been her strong point. She goes to Pastor Neal and says she wonders if they could stop in at this young woman’s place when they’re in the city anyway. “We’d certainly like to meet her,” Fran told him.

And this is just the kind of man Pastor Neal is. He goes to his notepad and scribbles out the address, just like that, smiling. “Let me know what you think,” he said, as if he was decorating the church office.

“How much room you got in your trunk?” I asked when Fran called me to tell me what had happened.

“We’re bringing some canned meat along for the kids,” she says.

“I didn’t mean it,” I told her, laughing. Maybe I did.

Anyway, Fran and Joe came back like Joshua and the Canaan spies, full of promising reports. Small, kind of quiet, they said, very nice smile, not pushy at all, even cute—seemed young, they said, but then so does Pastor Neal. Ordinary. Common. Nothing to worry about. Sincere, they thought. Even seemed pleased to meet them. “Someone I’d be proud to have for a daughter,” Fran said, and she’s raised some fine kids. Most anyway.

And that’s where it stayed for a couple months, Pastor Neal occasionally taking a day off to meet her halfway to there. Don’t ask how it is we know those things. We just do. The church council isn’t exactly a sieve, but how do you really expect those men not to tell their wives, right?

Garrett wasn’t exactly square with the whole business, as you can imagine. But he takes some nursing—don’t they all?

And then Pastor Neal made the announcement, how this young lady—her name is Leanne, and I think that’s a name without an edge to it if I ever heard one—how this young lady was coming to Norwalk for an official visit.

I pitied her. I really did. All I could see was her coming into church like some perfect foal at the county fair, all eyes measuring every angle. If it’s a Sunday, I told Claire, we might just as well get pulpit supply because Pastor Neal isn’t going to be thinking about the Word. Maybe get some elder to read a sermon because nobody’s going to be hearing a thing anyway, Claire said.

Here’s the way it happened, honest truth.

She got a cheap fare out of Atlanta on a Friday afternoon so she wouldn’t have to skip classes, and she’d arrive in Omaha at nine. Pastor Neal was going to be picking her up, of course, and the plan was for her to stay at the Bielemas, just across the street from the parsonage. All well and good.

Well, wouldn’t you know? Tracy Albright had a heart attack. Now Tracy’s one of my friends, and I was horrified to hear the news; but it wasn’t one of those massive ones, just a heavy tremor, you might say. Anyway, she up to the hospital, of course, and Hank, her husband, calls the preacher right away, and Pastor Neal says it’s his place to be with the family at a time like that and how can he get his Leanne here if he’s got to stay with the Albrights?

The Bielemas don’t drive that far anymore, and who on earth would like to be in a car with Ed in the middle of the Omaha? Ed calls Garrett, and Garrett looks at me but he knows well and good there’s nothing he can do but say yes, even though he wasn’t altogether taken with the whole internet thing and the fact that we got someone on our hands who’s going to be a woman preacher. “Good lands, what am I going to say?” he says to me when he puts down the phone.

“Just to let me do the talking,” I told him, which is the way we’ve often enough avoided calamity. “Besides,” I told him, “she’s not the anti-Christ.”

His fingers start to twirl, which I know is a sure sign he’s got butterflies.
Tomorrow:  The long trip home from the airport.

Friday, March 14, 2014

You know that people will talk--a story (ii)

It took us two days before we started checking in with grandchildren who’d gone to Galilee College with Pastor Neal, asking them who he’d been seeing long ago. Three days, four days—and we still had nothing. Claire said maybe we ought to think about hiring out a private eye.

The thing is, we love him because he pays attention. You talk to Pastor Neal, and he honestly lets you talk. Not like a lot of preachers. The women here love him because you look in his eyes and you trust him. Men don’t understand that, but then a whole lot goes right past them.

And I’ve got to admit myself that I almost climbed aboard my own husband’s skepticism when Pastor Neal—a good, good man—first announced what was going on, how he really wasn’t “seeing anyone,” per se, but how he’d met someone on-line. On-line.

I had to explain that to Garrett, which was not pleasurable at all, let me tell you.

“On-line,” I told him, before he went off to play snooker at the Senior Center. I didn’t want him sounding dumb when those other guys started laughing about what Pastor Neal had announced.

He hunched his shoulders.

“He met her on the internet,” I said, pulling his half-empty cup away before coffee ended up all over my kitchen cabinets. I don’t think there was room in his mind for such an idea—a preacher of the Word finding a girlfriend on a screen full of porn.

“It’s a Christian thing, Carrie says,” I told him. Carrie’s our daughter. She lives in the Twin Cities. “’You got to be a Christian to sign up,’ she told me.”

Garrett’s face turned to pink quartzite, I swear.

“It guarantees the girl you’re hooked up with will be a believer in the Lord,” I told him. “This internet thing—it’s just for believers, so how bad can that be?”


“Garrett, I hate to have to break the news, but my calendar says we’re now in the 21st century now,” I said, “and there’s no going back to some old-time religion.”

“The internet?” he said, half in fog. “He’s seeing this girl on the internet?”

Good night, that sounded awful. “Are you hearing me, or do you have to crank up that machine in your ear?” I said. “I told you it was a Christian thing—this whole business—and besides there are tons of places in the world today where love isn’t the spark at all, where parents line things up. I don’t even know if that’s such a bad idea.”

“He’s a preacher,” Garrett said.

“So he’s talking to this girl before he’s smooching—think of it that way,” I told him. “That’s better than our own kids. Shoot, that’s better than you and me.”

“He’s finding a wife on the internet, you say?” Garrettt said. The whole business had him snookered, poor man.

But that wasn’t the half of it. Seems this young woman he’s seeing—like I said, he’s got this little camera-like thing on his office computer—she’s in seminary. Oh boy, ain’t we got fun. As if Garrett and the Senior Citizen gents didn’t need more combustibles.
Tomorrow: The preacher's new girlfriend comes to town.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

"You know that people will talk"--a story (i)

Garrett told me when this all started that we had caught the Pastor Neal in a lie. I said he just misspoke, and since when did he—Garrett—get all self-righteous about bending the truth? I’ve been married to him for more years than I care to admit. Not that it’s been all bad. Don’t get me wrong.

Besides, I’m not sure Pastor Neal is capable of lying. Sin?—yes, of course. But outright falsehood is the kind of transgression you expect of weasels and skunks and crop insurance peddlers. If Pastor Neal has a shady side, nobody at our church has seen it yet. Na├»ve?—okay, we’ll give you that, in spades, too. But if innocence is a sin, then why did Christ himself suffer the little children like he did? Answer me that.

My husband can’t quite get used to a preacher who insists on saving gas by riding this little motor scooter around town, a young man whose hair deliberately sticks up the way Pastor Neal’s does. “He greases it that way,” Garrett told me when Pastor Neal came here for an interview. “That’s the way he wants it to look, if you can believe it. It’s like he got out of bed wrong,” he said, pointing a piece of bacon at me.

“Like somebody else I know,” I told him because I didn’t like the way he was pointing that bacon.

Pastor Neal’s not an old-fashioned stem-winding pulpiteer, if you know what I mean. He hasn’t yet come out with “thus saith the Lord,” or at least he hasn’t in the ten months he’s been in our pulpit. What gets Garrett’s goat is that Pastor Neal is a preacher he’s got to love. Men want to respect preachers, not love ‘em, and our new preacher is a challenge for him, this under-shepherd on a motor scooter. But I told myself I could take him through it—me and the Lord—and I been married to Garrett for 55 years, come November.

The “lie” Garrett insisted on wasn’t even a fib. Pastor Neal just didn’t get the words right. He told us he was “seeing someone.” He was, in a matter of speaking. No, he was, period. He’s got a gizmo on his computer.

Of course, we didn’t know that right away, and it started a whole lot of talking, as you can imagine. Alice Evans is a nurse, pretty as a picture but kind of quiet. Some good money had her as the one he was seeing, but I figured we’d have all known since there aren’t many dark corners on land this flat and open. Somebody would have seen them, and you know people will talk.

Fran Gottlieb has been eligible for too many years already, we figured. Pastor Neal’s young enough to have been one of her students—well, I’m stretching things. Judy Smithson’s husband left her two years ago, but I don’t know if Pastor Neal is ready for an instant family—three kids. He’s got to get some miles on before he’s ready, we figure.

Teresa Van Stedum—now she’d be a catch, just about perfect for a preacher’s wife. But Teresa’s been nursing her own hurt for so long that we didn’t think she was up to it yet. But someday. Poor girl. That’s whole different story.

It was impossible for us to believe he was seeing someone we know—I mean, you can count the eligibles on one hand almost. By us, I mean my friends. I know you’re saying, “people talk,” and we do, but it’s out of concern. Mostly.

Tomorrow: The shocking discovery of Pastor Neil's new girlfriend.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Train up a child

My father would think it unthinkable. He was, with his cars, as much a man of fixed ritual as he was with his faith. Whenever he and my mother would travel anywhere, he'd have a stash of honey-roasted peanuts somewhere on the floor beside him, munchies to keep him awake. 

We could have, if we'd wanted to, just about predict, to the month, when he'd start to shop for a new one. The ritual worked like this: always buy a used car a year or two old, and buy it from the same dealer or dealers, men who will look after you and your tastes, who will let you know when they've got a low-mileage beauty on the lot, a car they think you'll like. 

Pick a new used one up every three years or so; drive those cars--good-sized ones, too, with air and power windows--until they have, say, 50,000 miles on 'em, then trade 'em in because you really can't trust a car once it has, say, 60,000 on 'em. My father wasn't a mechanic; he wanted to be able to trust the vehicle he was driving.  He didn't want to mess around sinking half his investment portfolio into repair work. Worse, he didn't want to be the dolt who was stuck along some freeway with the hood up.

He didn't want to be troubled unnecessarily.  He wanted to trust his cars. 

Once--in 1963--a Chevy dealer in Gibbsville, a man named Wilterdink, sold him a new one, a silver Impala, the car we owned when I turned 16. It was nice--that I remember--but I can't help wonder why he bought a new one--ordered it, in fact, color, interior, amenities--and then never again. Maybe he and Mom were bickering that year. Maybe it was just a touch of Calvinist mid-life crisis. That Chev treated us very well as I remember, but when he traded it in, he went right back to the ritual. 1963 was a hiccup. He probably felt guilty.

"Give me a child for the first seven years, and he'll be mine for life" is a line that can be attributed to almost anyone and quite regularly is, depending on how you'd like to spin it. Some say it belongs to Hitler, some say the Jesuits. People in my corner of the universe think of it as a convenient way of talking about covenant theology.  No matter. For my first 35 years, I was my father's child.

And then I moved to Iowa, where every last one of my colleagues had a vastly different approaches to cars: drive 'em until they die, plain and simple.

I'm no grease monkey. I can't just roll up my sleeves and get under the hood. I don't understand how engines run. I don't know a shock from a strut. But all around me, people swore that the only way to beat Detroit was by treating old beaters with gobs of TLC but then driving them into the ground. I became, right here in the middle of all these hogs, another prodigal son.

Tomorrow morning my wife and I will leave the garage with the last car my father ever bought, a dark green Buick as big as a mattress. It's now 14 years old, has 165 thousand miles on it, and just had a grand invested into it for shocks and problems whose definitions I don't even remember. But I trust the mechanic, mostly. Besides, he repeated exactly what another told me a year ago--that old Buick has a 200 thousand-mile-engine. 

Hitler was wrong about a lot of things. I won't besmirch the Jesuits. Tomorrow we're leaving for Texas in an old Buick my friends, just last week, giggled at. I should be scared to death it's going to shipwreck somewhere in Nebraska.  But I'm not.  So there, Dad.

Wish me Goodspeed.  I'll be okay.  Besides, at 66 I'm still a covenant child--I'll have plenty of peanuts.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Here they come!

There's a strange logic at work in higher education today, although I need to lay my prejudices on the line here because I'm a humanties guy, an English major, someone who actually believes that a good, working knowledge of John Milton should be required of every Christian kid (go ahead--stop reading).

The il-logic works like this. Higher education is first and foremost professional. When kids leave college they'd better have a job or else what's that immense student loan bill all about? To heck with poetry and history--you can pick that up on your cell phone. 

That the argument is understandable is not my point. My point is that there's something askew in higher education when the English major all but disappears [reaches for the Kleenex].

Okay, I'm hopeless, I know.

But sociologists claim that the generation leaving college today will likely change professions, --not just job placements, not just where they work, but professions--a half dozen times in their lifetimes. How can you prepare yourself for a profession you'll not likely be in a decade down the road--or that doesn't even exist.

There, see?  Pass the Milton, please.

I say all of that because Pew released, just last week, a significant composite portrait of the generation journalists have come to dub "the millenials," those kids born after 1980, the kids who are natives with technology, who, like my grandkids, like to ride in our Tracker because cranking up the windows up is so very cool--they've never done such a thing before. This is our first researched look at "the Millennial Generation," and the findings are astounding.
How about this:
Half of millennials now describe themselves as political independents and 29 percent are not affiliated with any religion — numbers that are at or near the highest levels of political and religious disaffiliation recorded for any generation in in the last quarter-century.
It's already tough times for old-fashioned denominations, but the drought widens for almost any flavor of fellowship.  "Religious disaffiliation"--wow! sounds almost end-times-ish.

Or this:
Millennials are the first in the modern era to have higher levels of student loan debt, poverty and unemployment, and lower levels of wealth and personal income than their two immediate predecessor generations had at the same age.
Ouch. Even believing in "the American dream" may soon be as foreign as cranking up car windows?  It's amazing that something so deeply ingrained within our national character could simply vanish.

Or this:
Just 26 percent of millennials are married. When they were the age that millennials are now, 36 percent of Gen Xers, 48 percent of baby boomers and 65 percent of the members of the silent generation were married.
Why not assault marriage too?   Oh, woe and woe and woe.

Or this:  
Asked a longstanding social science survey question, "Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people," just 19 percent of millennials say most people can be trusted, compared with 31 percent of Gen Xers, 37 percent of silents and 40 percent of boomers.
Who on earth taught these kids to be so frightfully scared of each other? And where, pray tell, did such a commitment to original sin come from--because it certainly wasn't the Calvinists? Who's preaching fear anyway?  

There's much, much more.  If you're a Republican, the sky may appear to be falling. No generation holds progressive views as deeply as this one, and even though generations often travel through life on a track toward becoming more conservative, millennials have clearly started out farther to the left than any other--with a few exceptions:  they're not any more pro-abortion than any other generation, and they don't like to be called "environmentalists."

Still, what has to be tossed into the mix is the fact that they almost certainly will change.  Should the nation suffer another 9/11, should we undergo an economic catastrophe worse than they one we finally seem to be crawling out of, should something totally unforeseen enrich us or endanger us, all bets are off.  

Because things happen. Shit happens. Sweet things happen, too.  Who knows?--maybe North Dakota will free us from our otherwise endless Middle East entanglements?  

What's not likely to change is this:
Millennials are more racially diverse than any other generation, with 43 percent of Americans in this age group nonwhite. When you look just at white millennials, a majority still support smaller government and reject the notion that it’s the government’s job to ensure universal health care.

"The browning of America" is happening. Count on it. And no one knows it better than the millennials, who already live with it.

Look out.  Here they come.  And they're our kids.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Morning Thanks--Spring Sabbath

What's stuck with me after all these years is the way the melt-off flowed down from the hill east of our place, a slow, very gradual descent to a pair of storm sewers on either side of the street, but enough of a slope to create something wide enough to plug. I remember those early spring streams for their seeming purity--winter snow melting a'pace into run off that sparkled in a warm spring sun. We'd couldn't help it--we had to drink it because it looked so pure, even though just beneath it lay a gritty gravelly base you could, easily enough, get between your teeth. 

No matter. When the snow melt began, those snow-melt rivulets ran life into souls far too long locked up by winter, as if something in the very heart of things had been madly loosed. Pure and cold and sweet, the run-off on the street always sparkled like a blessing. I'm sure we were told not to drink it, but some temptations tear through every last restraint.

Yesterday was that kind of day, water starting to flow on the river behind us and pooling throughout the field's low spots over a landscape where just last week single-digit temperatures kept everything under a frigid lock and key. Last Sunday, at little church we sometimes attend close by, there were just a few more people in the pew than there were in the choir loft. Before worship, the maestro swung an arm forward, asking the rest of us to come up and join.

But this Sunday, temps shot up almost 60 degrees. Across the field, the geese returned as if their two-week sabbatical (they arrived, then left again when the cold swung back) was itself way too long. Thousands, literally thousands flew over in bands that stretched in endless echelons as far as we could see out back. What snow is left in the shadows outside my window this morning looks creepy, almost villainous.   

Yesterday, on the Sabbath, we sat out on the deck, and the grandkids peppered an empty pop can with bbs. It was gorgeous afternoon, a particular species of gorgeous one only experiences here when you've been--as we have--locked up in winter's fist. No one shivered out there beneath an azure sky, freedom itself  in the air.

I'd have had to look elsewhere for the kind of melt-off streams I remember years ago, but that same feeling was in the air yesterday--that mad release, that sweet refreshment of a mud-luscious Sabbath for which I'm mightily thankful this morning, winter itself finally lighting out of the territory. Sweet.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Sunday Morning Meds--Frettin'

[This meditation is obviously dated, having been written when my mother was alive (she died in November of last year) and during the second administration of George W. Bush.  Our pastor used to say that the commandment most repeated in the Bible was "Fear Not."  Old as it is, these words--not my mother's favorite, by the way, still have some currency, methinks.]

“Do not fret because of evil men 
or be envious of those who do wrong. . .”
Psalm 37:1

The only fret I have is whether or not I do enough frettin’.  

Take my mother, for instance—she’s sure that the world is slowly sinking toward a moral morass, some iniquitous black hole that will eventually suck most all of us in, until, gloriously, the Lord, in glory, comes again.  She frets about the life’s seamy appearances, and her continual frettin’ affects her mood.

She’s old enough to deserve my respect no matter what her views or how much she frets; besides, she’s my mother.  But I’m not taken by the way she flirts with such obsessions because I don’t think she should spend the last years of her life frettin’.

We live in strange times.  I don’t think it’s possible to locate an era in the last decade or so when spirituality in general and Christianity in particular was ever quite so popular.  The vast majority of Americans, unlike citizens of any other nation, claim to believe in God.  A significant majority go to worship frequently.  Crime is down, as is drug use, as is teen-age pregnancy.  Even abortion rates are lower than they were.

On the campus where I teach, just about every student wears a t-shirt with a Bible verse.  Students flock to praise-n-worship gatherings voluntarily and exude a piety that existed only among the most devout just twenty years ago.  Lots of parents tell me their kids are far more spiritually mature at 18 than they were at that age. 

Politically, the U. S. government is in the hands of Republicans, my mother’s party.  Many politicos and pundits claim the last Presidential election was a wake-up call to many opinion-leaders who never took Christians seriously.  Most major newspapers now concede that for too long they didn’t have a clue about what was going on in the hearts and heads of an huge segment of their own readership—American evangelicals. 

It’s difficult to argue, I think, that we’re all going to hell in a handbasket, although sometimes I think my mother would like to think so.  Specifically, what troubles her is that this Christian nation is becoming secular, forbidding prayer and tolerating abortion, tossing the Ten Commandments and, in its place establishing, “political correctness.” 

I think she’s frettin’ way too much.  She thinks I’m worse—liberal. 

When Black Sunday came to the Great Plains, when clouds of dust arose from recently plowed Oklahoma land and swept all the way up into South Dakota like a murky blizzard, lots of good people presumed the world was at end.  Not long ago, a woman told me that she had a childhood memory of looking up at the preacher in the little country church she attended and, on Black Sunday, seeing only the preacher’s white collar.
When things got dark, good people thought we’d finally come to end times.  It’s understandable, but it didn’t happen.  Most believers I know plot out the trajectory of our lives in the same direction—things are just getting worse and worse. 

Maybe not.  But then, as I said, maybe I just don’t fret like she does.  Maybe I will in just a few years.

But I know this—both Mom and I can take heart from verse one of Psalm 37, which says, in a nutshell, “don’t do that.”  The enemy—whoever they are—aren’t worth my time or anxiety, nor are they worth hers. 

Next week I’ll quote that verse to her.  Maybe it will help. 

Probably not.  She’ll probably still think I’m a liberal.    

Friday, March 07, 2014

Strange stuff

It took two novels for Casey Kuipers to pull off a conversion. He wrote three of them, mid-Depression, "mission post novels," he called them. Nobody "got saved" in the first one; no one got baptized. But someone does in the second. An old Zuni man who suffered tribal shunning after being accused of witchcraft, an old man who dies soon after asking for baptism, turns his life over to the Lord. 

The circumstances for his conversion are worth mentioning because Kuipers carefully engineers it. The missionaries at Zuni pueblo come up with an idea: they ask some Hopi Christians to come by for a revival of sorts, even though, quite frankly, there's no one there to revive.  

The Hopi evangelists come but some of them are frauds, and the Zuni people see it, even though the missionaries don't. It's not pretty. The Hopis leave, the missionaries try to pick up the pieces, and lo and behold an old man who heard the Hopis preach says what they said from the pulpit convinced him to accept Jesus into his life. The frauds did God's work--that's the story.

In the last few days, Bill Gothard resigned from the Institute in Basic Life Principles, a long-time para-church ministry which, some say, helped thousands upon thousands. Gothard's "Basic Life Principles Seminar" was the first real Christian fad I'd ever experienced, even though I never attended. Years and years ago, a three-ring binder full of BLP righteousness was considered by some people I knew as essential for the Christian life as the Apostles Creed. 

Through the years, many Basic Life Principles graduates had to have been helped by Gothard's weekend seminars, even if its founder and guru couldn't keep his hands off young girls. It's altogether likely he was so convinced of his own sanctification that he didn't recognize the horror in his hands. Gothard is a tragic figure--a man with considerable strengths who goes into a tail spin he doesn't see even though he's at the controls, even when his own brother was long ago shown the door after sexual abuse with several office staff.  Still, a couple days ago Christianity Today published a note from one of his broken-hearted followers who claimed his life was changed by BLP. I don't doubt that's true.

Some of the excesses of the Second Great Awakening are not only silly but reprehensible. Revivalists used the imminence of the Second Coming to terrorize, preached the possibility of human perfectionism, and railed against any fellowship didn't fall into lockstep emotionalism. It stampeded people into religious frenzy, into horrific divisiveness, may well have created an entire denomination--the Mormons. 

No single name is as central to the movement than Charles G. Finney, the man some call "the father of revivalism," the man who originally called the northern New York region where he conducted initial revivals, "the burned-over district."  "Toast" is essentially what successive revivals created in the neighborhood of the Erie Canal. 

Finney's own enthusiasms eventually melded into something less frenetic when it attached itself to social issues like temperance. All that wild itinerant ranting got him to Oberlin College, which became the seed bed for anti-slavery sentiment in this country, and the first institution of higher learning to admit women and African-Americans. Oberlin missionaries--good and bad--left for Native tribes across the face of the continent. 

All three are amazing stories, whose plot lines are repeated time and time again among the highly spiritual. Somehow God almighty uses filthy rags to spin his quilts. Somehow, He grows beauty in a thousand cracked pots.

Not a bad thought for Lent.