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, June 30, 2014

Morning Thanks--all those who help

Once upon a time, I helped shingle a three-story house in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, which meant ascending an old wooden extension ladder with a bundle of shingles on my shoulder, a ridiculous circus act. I needed one hand to keep that 90-pound bundle on my shoulder; that left only one on a ancient paint-spattered ladder that bowed like an buggy spring when me and that bundle were aboard. I lived. But I never forgot.

For maybe two weeks total, I worked for a construction crew putting a new interstate highway up the lake shore. They paid good money for every last muscle in my body. It took no brains at all to cut sod or load it on flatbeds, even fewer to lug those heavy sod balls in soft dirt up 45-degree interchange inclines.  It just about killed me, six to six every day save Sabbath. My body--I was 21 years old!--taught me what the word overtired means.

Once upon a time, years ago, my father-in-law and I drove down to Sioux City to work at flood relief. Perry Creek had come up in early summer cloudbursts that wouldn't quit. Dozens of homes went under in a muddy torrent and ravaged an old area of the city that could hardly be called "exclusive." Houses that could be saved had to be disemboweled. 

No job I ever worked at--sod balls or shingle bundles--was an butt-ugly as lugging 10-gallon buckets of muck up people's basement stairways, trip after trip after trip, and emptying those buckets outside. In one house a wall of paperbacks had caved in, and a couple hundred books were lodged in mud so thick you sometimes worried you'd be gone yourself in another ten minutes. 

I remember an old African-American woman sitting at a table while an bucket brigade of volunteers tramped up her stairs and past the open door to her kitchen, each of us heavy laden with buckets of sludge, her stairway and back hall a pig sty of slop beneath our muddy boots. 

After last night's storm, we're coming close to 15 inches of rain here in the last month, a dozen more than normal. Lots of houses have been inundated, then emptied, a lifetime of possessions transformed into trash. Even without the mud, cleaning out a soggy house means watching your life turn to garbage. 

This morning I'm thankful for the dozens, the hundreds, the thousands of volunteers who, today again, will go down into the bowels of horrible human loss and try to make life easier for those who, right now, can't see but an inch or two past their own muddy basements.

All those volunteers, today once more, will be doing good work. Ugly work, but good work, blessed work, God's own hands in a flooded, muddy world.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Sunday Morning Meds--Evil Empires

“The wicked plot against the righteous
and gnash their teeth at them. . .” Psalm 37: 12

“For at least three reasons, the contemporary persecution of Christians demands attention: It is occurring on a massive scale, it is underreported, and in many parts of the world it is rapidly growing.”

That’s how Paul Marshall, of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, began an article he wrote for the Weekly Standard this week. Between 2006 and 2012, fully 151 countries, according to the Pew Forum on Religious Life, most of the countries of the world, targeted Christians for harassment.

Waves of Christians have been killed in Sudan in religious warfare between the north and the south; and, as is widely known, in Nigeria hundreds of Christian schoolgirls were abducted by Muslim extremists and forcibly converted, so to speak, to Islam. But there's more, much more.

Just last week, Meriam Ibrahim, a Sudanese medical doctor and professed Christian, was released from jail, then, subsequently, detained again as she and her Christian husband attempted to leave for the United States. Ms. Ibrahim refused to recant her Christian faith and had been sentenced to death under an ancient Islamic law that makes Christian children of Islamic parents into infidels, worthy of death.

What will happen in to her, to her husband and two children, remains to be seen; but she is blessed by gaining the attention of the world. Many, many others, according to Marshall, are not so blessed. Entire Egyptian villages are gone. In Iraq, Christians have been leaving for a long time already. In some parts of the Middle East, no Christians remain.

The bottom line is perfectly clear for all the world to see: the persecution of men and women who profess the Christian faith has reached levels greater—higher, bloodier—than the world has seen for many years.

I am far less a citizen of this world than I should be. It’s almost impossible for me to imagine an evil empire in which one’s faith could be the sole cause for bloody persecution and death. But there are such places, Marshall and many others report, places where David’s assertion in this psalm rings as true today as it did for him way back in 900 B.C., plagued as he was by those who would bring him and his God down. Yes, hard as it may be to believe, there are places in this world where the wicked still deviously plot against the righteous, teeth gnashing.

A quarter century ago who could have guessed the world would spin into the directions it has today? The Enlightenment is history, some say, very much behind us. The assumption that religious faith was a remnant of our barbarism and would eventually fade into oblivion was dead wrong. The world’s most incendiary battles are religious in character today. Look for yourself. Public enemy number one is Islamic radicalism, radicalism that appears to be growing throughout the world. We live in a world in which there is seemingly no end to killing others in the name of some or other god.

The modern, secularized West—me included—blushes at the metaphors in this verse; but David’s sense of the lay of the land in his world sounds sadly familiar today in many places around the globe.

May the Lord our God be with us. May he bless us all with peace. 

Lord Jesus, come quickly.

Friday, June 27, 2014

The Most Un-American of All

(Guest post this morning--Piet Westerbeek IV)

I want to thank my father-in-law for letting me be a guest writer on his blog. As you may read, we differ politically, but he is my dad and I respect his beliefs whether we agree or not. That being said, I am about as conservative as they come--which is a miracle since I was born and raised in Southern California. Because of this, I have a pretty good idea of what it feels like for Democrats to live here in conservative Northwest Iowa.

It’s sad really what politics has become--pure hate in many cases. I see so much venom coming from either side of the fence, and it makes me sad and nervous about what kind of nation my children will inherit. My wife will not even voice an opinion on anything she perceives as being political since she is so scared she will hurt people she loves because they reside on such opposite sides of the spectrum.

I recently read this article by Ann Coulter--her latest brain fart. 

This one made me angry. Really angry. I love soccer, so let’s get that understood from the get go. In the article she claims that she has held her tongue for a decade on soccer as not to offend anyone. Ha… Ann Coulter does not keep her mouth shut long enough to breathe through her nose…. But I digress.

The main part of the article, as you will see, is her trying to show that there is an increase in moral decay as/when soccer becomes more popular in the states. When I read that, my jaw dropped to the floor. It really shouldn’t have, because, again, I was reading something by Ann Coulter….. again, I digress.

Here is a quote from the article:

I’ve held off on writing about soccer for a decade -- or about the length of the average soccer game -- so as not to offend anyone. But enough is enough. Any growing interest in soccer can only be a sign of the nation's moral decay.
Individual achievement is not a big factor in soccer. In a real sport, players fumble passes, throw bricks and drop fly balls -- all in front of a crowd. When baseball players strike out, they're standing alone at the plate. But there's also individual glory in home runs, touchdowns and slam-dunks.”
Keep reading--it gets better……
In soccer, the blame is dispersed and almost no one scores anyway. There are no heroes, no losers, no accountability, and no child's fragile self-esteem is bruised. There's a reason perpetually alarmed women are called "soccer moms," not "football moms.
The rest of the article basically makes stupid points that soccer is an outside influence and that no real American (she insinuates that you are only a true American if your great-grandparents were born here) enjoys or follows soccer for the reasons she listed above. It is one of the biggest pieces of garbage that I have read in my lifetime.

Again, as a conservative I am sure that I share many similar ideas in politics as Miss Coulter. What I cannot stand is the pure hate and ignorance that this article exudes. She is somehow trying to use soccer as a political Trojan horse. She talks about the game and then out spouts the political hatred. 

 Don’t believe me? Here is another quote from Ann: 
I resent the force-fed aspect of soccer. The same people trying to push soccer on Americans are the ones demanding that we love HBO's "Girls," light-rail, Beyonce, and Hillary Clinton. The number of New York Times articles claiming soccer is "catching on" is exceeded only by the ones pretending women's basketball is fascinating.
Uh, what? Is she using drugs? That is the only way I can explain her course of thinking.

Soccer (football) has had an amazing effect on society for exactly the reason Coulter is complaining about it. Soccer teaches team work. It teaches that society is not an individual, it is a tribe. We win together, we lose together. God created us to be social and to work together for the common good for his glory. Coulter, who is a self-proclaimed Christian, should really know better. She should understand that a game that teaches unity, teamwork, and does not stand for just the individual is as American as apple pie and has roots in God’s teachings.

Anne and I may have some of the same political views, but I call out trash no matter where it comes from. This article is trash and about as Un-American as they come. 

 I would go on, but I have a soccer game to watch with my son.

Morning Thanks--Anniversary

She was 22--that's enough of a start. 

There's a story here. Esther Helen Emal nee Claassen died very young, just 22 years old, and she died in 1945, which might prompt you to believe she left a husband in uniform; and that might be true if it weren't for the fact that her mortal remains are in the cemetery beside First Mennonite Church, a rural congregation in central Nebraska.

The war didn't take her, even though it took thousands of others her age in 1945. And it likely didn't take her husband either, although he was, in all likelihood, very much of age. Traditionally, Mennonites are pacifists, although calling them "traditional" pacifists makes the position they've religiously staked out sound far less difficult than it is or has been. Telling someone you're a pacifist with Hitler trying to take over the world couldn't have been a cakewalk.

I was out on a blue highway, on my way back to Beatrice, Nebraska, when there it was--First Mennonite, a tan brick fortress mid-prairie, its own well-manicured cemetery in the backyard. I have to push myself to make unplanned stops because my natural tendency--a vestige of original sin, I think--is simply to keep trucking, to get there, wherever it is I'm going. My internal capitalist reminds me I hadn't planned on a stop at First Mennonite. It wasn't on the itinerary. 

These days, that's when I remind myself I'm retired. 

I drove in. There's always life in a cemetery.

To be truthful, I didn't think much about Esther Helen Eman nee Claassen when I stood in the grass beside her grave and snapped this picture. What had stopped me cold was the icyness of what's on the cement beside her--three little somewhat scattered markers telling the world that there's a vacancy here; the space beside Esther Helen is open, you know, just in case. 

"Ask not for whom the bell tolls." That's John Donne. And Hemingway, later. "It tolls for thee."

Which is to say, me.

Memento Mori--memorials of death--abound in our world, although, quite frankly, they abounded much more richly in the age of Menno Simmons and John Donne.  Here's a couple of beauties I snapped in Holland a couple of years ago. 

One of the side doors of an old cathedral, a sticky note skeleton, to remind you not to forget that there's an end to things.  Just sayin'.

How about this bonny lass?  Naked as a baby, but that skull is, you might say, a dead giveaway.

I don't know--maybe I'm just susceptible. "Vacant," the three little slips said, as if space was on sale last Saturday. 

Look, today's our anniversary, not a time to be haunted by death, right?  

Well, maybe, maybe not. What all this marble intends is simply to say that death is real. 

So live. Get off the highway. Keep scratching items off your bucket list, and always add a couple more at the bottom.

That's not a bad rule of thumb for an anniversary--42 years today.  We'll have to see what we can do.

I don't know a thing about Esther Helen Eman nee Claassen, but I dare bet that were she sitting there at her grave site last Saturday when I stopped, she'd probably suggest the very same thing.

Thursday, June 26, 2014


I honestly didn't know the guy.  We share a college alma mater, but little else really. He's a tradesman, I'm a retired prof. We live in the same neck of the woods, basically, and he was over, a repair man.  Nice guy. He seemed more than a little interested in yakking. Younger than I am, but not by decades. 

It's clear he knows what he's doing.  I watched him for a while, just as I'd watched oodles of tradesmen in the last year--dirt movers, concrete layers, frame carpenters, dry-wallers, insulators, finish carpenters, painters. I watched 'em all when our house went up, and I loved it, thought about how incredibly far I'd been away from the trades for so long, from the crowd that does day labor day after day, across the country--and here.  Makes things.

One of 'em told me he charged $15 an hour labor, $30 if I hung around, $45 if picked up a screwdriver.  Yesterday, I told the guy that and he laughed, comfortably.

Like I said, nice guy. Didn't know him by family or town, by college class or any kind of reputation, only by business, his business.  He's told me that long ago he went to Dordt. Somehow--maybe simple prejudice--I simply wouldn't have guessed. 

It was late in the afternoon. He finished up after six, and I couldn't help but imagine that his wife was rolling her eyes in some tv room back at the house, wondering how long she was going to have to wait for him--again.  But he liked to talk, and he seemed to appreciate me standing there beside him going on and on.  He seemed almost oblivious to time.

That morning, we had picked more than our share of strawberries. My wife had made muffins and jam and a yogurt souffle to die for, smothered in 'em. Oh, yeah--and bread too, strawberry bread. Sounds strange, but I could eat half a loaf in one sitting--that good. Anyway, it's in the freezer because we just couldn't eat everything she was cooking up with that motherload of strawberries.

I thought I'd pack some along with him. Be nice, right?  We had way too many.  I came back into the house, asked my wife whether she could part with a few. She looked at me and rolled her eyes, then pulled out one of those little green baskets the hard ones come in when you buy 'em at the store. You know.

"Does he want to eat 'em on the way home, you think?" she said.  "If he does, I'll pluck 'em and wash 'em up."

So I went back out to ask. "We got a ton of strawberries," I told him, "too many for a couple of old farts. All day long, my wife's been putting them in everything but summer sausage."

He looked up, smiled.

"Want some?"

He looked at me as if he thought I was kidding.  

"You going to eat 'em on the way home or you going to save 'em for your wife?" I said. "Makes a difference, Barb says."

"I'll eat 'em on the way home," he told me. "Nice of you."

"Like I said, we got tons."

"I love strawberries," he said.

"You sure you're wife won't be mad?" I said, joking.

"My wife left," he told me. "About nine months ago already.  She's in California, and she's not coming back. At least, I don't think so."

I didn't say a thing. Maybe I should have. I went back in the house.

"He's going to eat 'em on the way home," I told my wife of 42 years, 43 tomorrow, in fact.  "He told me his wife left him nine months ago already. She's not coming back, he says."

Stopped her cold. She plucked the berries, ran 'em under the faucet, and rolled them into that little green basket. 

I brought them out. 

I didn't know what to say really. I mean, he wasn't my friend, not a close friend. Do you just haul off and ask him how he's doing with being left behind? If you don't even know him at all, not really, doesn't questioning seem like just walking into his house without knocking? Should I have prayed? 

I went back into the house for supper. He was finishing up.  Couldn't have been long and he and the strawberries were gone.  He texted me later, said he left the bill and thanks so much for the strawberries.

I couldn't help but think I let him down somehow.  

"She's not coming back, I guess," he told me, screwdriver in his hand. 

And I didn't say a thing.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Our story and how we tell it

I remember feeling the same thing in South Africa, in Pretoria, when our hosts rolled up in front of a impressive museum designed to celebrate the sheer glories of Afrikaaner history. We were there not long after apartheid ended, officially at least. The wicked witch of racism was dead, people claimed, and the country--or so it seemed to us--was on a honeymoon. There was a palpable sense that at long last things would now somehow improve. South Africa was invoking the name "Mandela," as if it were a song.

The trekker museum--I don't remember it's name back then, and it's been changed since, I'm sure--was an immense, classical structure. What we'd already witnessed and felt was the sheer power of the Afrikaaner heritage among white and Dutch South Africans. Youth organizations celebrated the triumphs of the story--little kids were little trekkers.

But then, the Dutch South Africa story is incredible--and it is ancient, Dutch folks having arrived early in the 17th century, when they also put up shop in New Amsterdam here in North America. To think of the Afrikaaners as Dutch is, after all, a stretch.  Hundreds of years of trekker ancestors have been buried in South African soil.

There we were, out front of this massive museum dedicated to telling the really improbable story of the triumph of Dutch South Africans, who, against all odds, had forged a society, a culture, a way of life, even a language, in a place where their presence had been violently opposed, not only by the indigenous people they dispossessed, but also by snobbish, well-heeled Brits who fought them wherever they could find them. The trekker story is worth telling, worth remembering.

But in the new South Africa it became, suddenly, part of a much larger story. In the new South Africa, it would be told in a different way. That huge museum didn't simply require a face lift, it would need a transformation.  It had a different context altogether when apartheid ended. I was looking at an artifact, and I knew it.  That grand museum would no longer feature the Dutch.

Last week, at the National Homestead Monument, just outside Beatrice, Nebraska, I felt something somehow similar, not because change was in the air but because telling this American "trekker" story--and it too is an incredible saga--is something that simply can't be done without a broader context the monument itself tries very well to do. 

Millions of Americans today have descended from American trekkers who, like my own ancestors, came to this country for liberty, an "empire of liberty," Jefferson once dreamed. They came to live, not cower; they came to claim a new life, not wither slowly away in a land where the horizon was a stone fence.

There it stands, this Homestead Monument, in the shape of a plow that, at once, ripped up an entire ecosystem, altered prairie like no other place on the continent has been altered; yet, at the same time, the plow created a bread basket not only for those who broke ground but for hungry people around the world. That plow was as much an instrument of death as it was of life; and homesteading, which brought millions of Americans to what they thought of as unoccupied land, created untold opportunities at the very same time it destroyed hundreds of indigenous cultures and thousands of its people. 

It's an incredible story, it's the American story, it's our story, it's my story. But those who are in its cast are not superheroes. They're human, like all of us; and their story is much, much larger than their own indomitable pioneering strength. To my own ancestors, the land was free, unoccupied. It simply had to be "proved up." All land ownership required to make it ours was buckets of sweat and blood. All it demanded was work, and, for most of the American trekkers, hard work was an inheritance, even a calling. Here there was good rich earth to be subdued.  

It wasn't easy, not for my ancestors or the Afrikaaner trekkers. Life was no push over.

But when we came, those who were once here left. That's the big story, the story that's much harder to tell and much harder to hear.

Right about here, just down the hill from the memorial building, sits the very first registered homestead in American history. 

It belonged to only one family, two generations, the ranger told me. But they weren't the first inhabitants. There's a bigger story.

And that story is ours too.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Morning Thanks--Strawberry sin

Out here in the northwest corner of Iowa, the guilty pleasures of sweet corn are simply a given. Sweet corn comes with the territory. Shouldn't be long now that summer solstice is behind us and days are already shrinking. Maybe a month, at best--or at worst. It'll be here. You can bet on it--sweet corn is like the dawn.

That it is doesn't mean people take sweet corn for granted. No way. We pay outrageous prices for first fruits. Really. Anticipation turns Silas Marners into spendthrifts. Some people claim sweet corn alone is reason enough to live here.

If the Tall Corn State were really wanted to market itself, we'd simply link all of our summer festivals at the hip and create a gargantuan state-wide Sweet Corn Fest, then invite the world. Seriously, if we'd build it, they'd come because where sweet corn is concerned, this isn't Iowa, it's heaven.  Or something like that.

But strawberries are special grace. Only some summers get truly blessed. People grow strawberries, but as a garden crop they make untoward demands. Birds prey for 'em and on 'em, and basically laugh off scarecrows and whirlygigs.  Strawberries don't like Iowa heat, and they're a whole lot more thirsty than a good crop of anything we grow out here should be. Truth be known, they're unbiblical--they prefer their foundations a little sandy. They're even a little snooty, turning up their red noses at our 20-thou-an acre black soil.

So when we get 'em out here on the edge of the plains, we lose all semblance of self-control. 

Yesterday, a partly cloudy Monday morning, we picked way more than we needed, three whole flats of the roundest, reddest, juiciest berries folks around here can imagine. Hardly a dud in the bunch, and plenty of young'uns left on the plant to get rich and juicy tomorrow. In Wisconsin's lakeshore woods, where I grew up, strawberries grow wild in a perfect sandy homeland.  Out here, they're far more rare. They're immigrants, so raking in a bumper crop is just about as great a shock as it is a blessing.

So we had fun--grandpa and grandma with the boys, out in the rows on a perfect day. My knees creak, so I went down on all fours early, crawling along between the rows. No matter. We never made it farther than fifty feet or so--that's how thick they were. 

And when we got home, we partook of the bounty in shameful excess. We ate strawberries, we ate strawberry muffins, then we ate more strawberries. Last night I had strawberries on ice cream; this morning, strawberries on cereal. My wife promises more strawberry muffins and, she says, almost sexually, all sorts of questionable delights.

So this morning thanks are bright and red and juicy and sinfully sweet, and we got 'em in spades. This morning's thanks are for strawberries--so strange and sensual and wondrous we really don't deserve them.

Oh, the heck with it. Today, I'll cash in my Calvinist chips and join the Lutherans.

You know what Luther said. That's right. Sin boldly.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Clovis, TR, and WWJD

That's a political rally right here in Alton, circa 1903. That's Teddy Roosevelt gesturing off the caboose of that train, making a stump speech, I'm sure, to a couple hundred locals. Good old days, right?

I didn't pay much attention to the primary races this year in Iowa. I'm just not that cranked about politics these days, when any discussion thereof brews up so much hostility you'd think that what's at the root of all the evil is money, which may well be true.

What I couldn't miss were these street signs. Any trip around the county made it clear that this Sam Clovis was the huge favorite with the locals.

Now no county in America is as true-blue Republican as this one. Two years ago, our own Steve King, a man capable of ID-ing undocumented workers by the size of their calves, won bigger in this county than anywhere in the state. 

All those Clovis signs meant he had to be, religiously speaking, the chosen, or so it seemed to this Calvinist. That's why I was flummoxed when a candidate named Joni Ernst got the Republican nod apparently for having grown up castrating hogs. Someone out flanked Sioux County Republicans--on the right? Say it ain't so.

Apparently, Clovis was the sweetheart of Christian conservatives, of which there are more than a few about. Iowa's Mr. Christian Conservative, Bob Vander Plaats, a northwest Iowan himself, supported Sam Clovis, while Ms. Ernst was a favorite of the party establishment, including the Gov, who determined she could win when Clovis--too hard-line CC!--couldn't, even if he could sweep Sioux County. 

Sam Clovis lost, but he didn't quit. He went to his website and just scratched in the word "Treasurer" instead of "Senate." He's still running, just walked back his ambitions. Watch for him. Shouldn't be difficult. He's hard to miss.

I just now read that Candidate Clovis had said somewhere that there were enough votes in the House to impeach President Obama; and, if he'd be there, he'd vote for it himself. No wonder Sioux County liked him. We haven't had a good old impeachment hearing since Clinton. 

George W got a pass, of course.  He got us into a war over weapons of mass destruction that weren't there. Thousands of people died--including 4500 Americans. Hey, what the heck--everyone else was wrong too, you know. Besides, W was a Christian. Obama's a Muslim.

Last week the South Dakota Republicans officially called for Obama's impeachment for the five-terrorist swap for that turncoat Bergdahl, the bald-faced lie about keeping your insurance under Obamacare, and seven other deadly sins. "I've got a thick notebook of impeachable offenses of the President," said the guy who sponsored the South Dakota resolution. It passed.

Among this country's conservatives, hate's become a virtue.

Research indicates the most conservative burgs in their respective states are not only close to home, they're heavy laden with wooden shoes. In Minnesota, it's a tiny place named Prinsburg, which is almost exclusively Dutch Reformed. In Iowa the hot spot is Doon, just up the road. In Wisconsin, it's Oostburg, where I was born and reared. 

What does that say?  It says that somewhere down the road of life I went far, far astray. Today, if voting laws stipulated you had to have a Dutch name to participate, Obama would long ago have been back in Oahu.

Once upon a time right here in Alton, a whole crowd of people showed up to greet Teddy Roosevelt, a candidate for President who ran on a ticket determined--get this!--to control big business. That's right. Let me say that again: "to control big business." 

If it wasn't for the mustache, you could mistake TR for Elizabeth Warren.

And he was a Republican.

And he was a Dutchman.

Look at that crowd.  It's almost embarrassing.  Wonder what they think of us in Doon?

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Sunday Morning Meds--The Meek

“But the meek will inherit the land and enjoy great peace.” Psalm 37

Christian piety is, by the standards of traditional orthodoxy, never good enough. “Give all that you have to the poor and follow me,” Jesus told a rich young CEO. The guy, Harvard-trained, turned tail back to the office. Some claim Christ himself was being more than a bit hyperbolic. I think that’s true.

The injunction to righteousness can be crippling, in a way, because the heart-felt desire to do good is, in plain fact, never good enough anyway, as Luther himself observed on bloody knees. We’re saved by grace, not works, and the combined good deeds of all the Boy Scouts of the world won’t make a difference. Thus saith the Good News.

I find lines like this verse disconcerting, declarations of the glories of a piety that’s so grandly unattainable. Maybe it’s all the fault of my Aunt Meek.

Honestly, I knew her only silver-haired. Physically, she was, like all the Schaaps, small and square. As did most of my father’s brothers and sisters, she had an adolescent giggle, a little warble that eventually rose into an off-key falsetto. Sitting in a room of Schaaps was like being surrounded by seagulls. Her name was Marie, but everyone called her “Meek.” Even as a child I associated the biblical word with her character.

The woman got her own Beatitude. And she was my aunt, too.

One other thing about my father’s family—they were all good, good people. A cousin of mine told me that a marriage counselor once told her that her own marital problems were caused by having too good of a father—my uncle. What a curse.

Aunt Meek’s children can probably recount moments when she fumed, when she flashed hot bolts of anger. She could not have been always as soft and gentle as I knew her. But the fact remains, that if Aunt Meek is the model for biblical meek, then I feel crippled by a standard I can never reach. Humble, kind, and sweet, she was among the kindest of human souls.

And what about me? There were times, I admit, when, frustrated by the administration of the college where I worked, I rose to speak in a faculty meeting and roundly accused the brass of lack of leadership. Some lauded the speech; others felt it a violation of whatever defines “community.” But what’s clear to me—as I remember—is that I wasn’t acting in the least like Aunt Meek. I was abrasive and, even arrogant in my desire to lay a glove on honchos. Will I not inherit the land? Are God’s blessings not mine?

Good question. Will peace be the blessing only of those who don’t rock the boat? Does “servanthood” imply servility? I know this much: that speech of mine did not grant me peace. I spent sleepless nights wondering if I’d said too much, gone too far.

The only way I can begin to answer the questions I’m asking is by opposing meekness with its opposite—pride, the kingpin of the Seven Deadlies. If rising temperature and volcanic behavior is created by pride—my desire, my will, my personal sense of injury—then I’ll always be a renter and never inherit God’s bountiful blessings.

The $64,000 question: was it? That’s for me—prayerfully—to determine, I guess. Perhaps I should say, that’s for me, meekly, to determine.

Strange as it may seem, it has to be possible to fight injustice meekly. The phrase is not oxymoronic. It can’t be. The Bible tells me so.

Pride, however, always goeth before the fall. That truth I need to bring home into my heart.

How?—well, meekly, I’m sure.

Friday, June 20, 2014


"The worst part of travelling is the toilets," my father would say as he wheeled off the tissue in two long, thin stripes, then shaped them neatly 'till they haloed the throne of some highway restroom, sat me down firmly, and waited. "Never can tell who sat here before."

He was, of course, quite right--just wasn't at all like home on those tall, hard stools with the gap in the seat. I knew even then that his blessed layer of paper kept me safe from gluttonous germs just waiting to feast on my innocent fanny.

Eighteen years later, when I'd become so much wiser than he, I simply refused to dress stools like my father, sure that his excessive tidyness was a course in bigotry designed to make clear that human beings had sinful behinds; it was that cursed total depravity rearing itself once again, keeping young Calvinists like me fearful of loving and trusting and being a brother.

Then, years later, a father myself, I'd wait for my son while his eyes scanned scribbles I was thrilled he couldn't read on chalky bathroom walls. When the task was over, he'd get off by himself, eyeing those oddly incredible drawings, and I'd peel off a tangled white stripe stuck to his pudgy behind.

Well, wouldn't you know? Turns out I was right when I was a mop-haired, late-sixties pseudo hippie, at least according Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center, who claims my dad's sweet fatherliness was quite unnecessary since whatever hungry germs he thought waiting for me on the lid were, in fact, incapable of finding a place on my toddler's behind. 

I'm not making this up. And I'm talking to you, Dutch-America.

Those blessed paper liners one finds in well-tended public restrooms today exist only because of a toilet's inherent "ick" factor, or so he claims, because most of us--my family especially--are blessed with substantially secure and bountiful flesh on our bottoms.

Please. This isn't just my lame attempt at potty humor.

Turns out that your cutting board--that's right, that one in your very own kitchen--hosts a 200 times larger collection of fecal matter than that truck stop toilet seat. Schaffner claims the sink sponge you use for dishes is really heavy-laden, 200,000 times worse. Pardon my eeeeeuuuwww.

Here's the really bad news: whatever germs may be on that foreign seat, he says, are likely already aboard your keister. Think of it.  No don't.

Anyway, that's the news from an actual Professor of Preventative Medicine, at Vanderbilt, no less, the Harvard of the South. Look it up.

Well, I for one don't buy it, and pardon my skepticism. On this one, I'm solidly Republican. What the heck does science know anyway? 

It's all a scam.  Listen! They're the ones who told us to stop eating butter. 

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Something to see and behold

You know, for most of the year the Floyd River isn't much more than a little joke. For most of the year, only a bulimic would put a canoe in the water here, if he could find enough to float it. For most of the year, you wonder how fish even make a home in the Floyd. 

The Missouri--now there's a river. The Tennessee is really something to behold. Sometime I ought to hike across the Mississippi instead of taking the car. The Floyd? Seriously, for most of the year, you can cross it most anywhere and not wet a knee.

But this morning the lights from house across the channel are laying long and strange stripes across a whole body of water. This morning the Floyd is no creek--it's a river. 

Last year's Memorial Day flooding was, we were told, "a century flood." 


Does this year's mean we've begun a whole new century?  

Yesterday, we were doing fine until late morning when a wall of water from up north surged down, blew out channel walls, and swept through the neighboring fields, creating Floyd's Lake.  It's strange and it's beautiful out here now; and we're not really affected, if you're wondering. Floyd's Lake is far enough away that we don't have to worry, although the back corner of our acre is a fairly decent water hazard. 

But then, no one's golfing so big deal.

The neighbor's beans are underwater, but they were last year too and he still had a bin buster come fall. He says he never really missed a crop down here in the floodplain, hard as that is to believe. 

Here's the problem, I'm told. Big dumps of rain, like we've had in the last week, happened up river somewhere--as many as ten inches over miles and miles of open cropland, way too much water to be absorbed. Guess what?--it had to go somewhere. From the headwaters in Osceola County, to Sheldon, to Hospers, there are only two little tributaries. From Hospers to Alton and all the way to LeMars, there aren't any. That mass of water hasn't a place to back up, the channel, meager as it is, has to handle all of it.

Well, it can't. Poof!--we've got a flood. Like right now.

In 1953, all that water swept down into Sioux City and killed 14 people, three of them kids, even though that wall of Sheldon floodwater came by to visit mid-morning. It swallowed Leeds, crowded into downtown, and destroyed the stockyards. People crossing the viaduct had to be rescued. Little Floyd's River--that's what Lewis and Clark named it--was a killer.

That's why, today, the Floyd does no more wilding. It's been straight-jacketed by a flood control system that tamed its temerity. That's nice. Something's lost when we toy with a river, even little Floyd. Something's lost when it can't teach us that we can't control everything.  Something's lost when it ceases to be a source of wonder.

But you can't blame Sioux City for locking up a mass murderer, and that's what Floyd's River was in 1953.

Right now, out behind the house, we've got a lake. There's something stunning about that, something that stops you in your tracks and last night turned the gravel road over the bridge into a busy thoroughfare.  Last night there was no end to cars, a steady stream (pun intended) of rubber-neckers. That's all right. Floyd's Lake is something to see and behold.

Yesterday, I had an meeting in Sioux Falls. We started out early expecting trouble at the Big Sioux. About 45 minutes later, we turned around and came home. Couldn't get over the river. The flooding is incredible. Nobody alive in Rock Valley, Iowa, will ever forget the June flood of 2014 because what they have in Rock Valley right now is Rock Lake. They're suffering.

Fourteen people dead in the Floyd's flood of 1953--that was suffering. 

Twenty-five dead back in 1893--that was suffering.

For the next couple days all we've got is a brand new lake home. 

Still, it's something to see and behold. 

To see and behold.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Book Review--Entering the Wild

Give her parents credit--they gave her the option. When Jean Janzen was a sixth grader, she landed a part, a significant part, in the school play. But her Mennonite heritage warned against theater, so little Jean found herself in an unholy quandary. Her heart said she wanted the part; her head told her that the theater was not a place to be found when Christ would come again.

Tough stuff. Even though the school play was elementary and no more ribald than “Hansel and Gretal,” she determined she would not go on stage. “This was too much like the forbidden theater; I would be a brave soldier for Jesus and give it up,” she says in her memoir, Entering the Wild: Essays on Faith and Writing.

That childhood memory draws in the conflicts in this little book of meditations—for these essays are really meditations, even though they weren’t written for your or my rituals. They’re meditations because Jean Janzen, a Mennonite by pedigree and will, is what Roman Catholics might call a “religious,” even though she is not bound by monastic rules. Her tradition holds her, as does the God she worships, in its loving hand. And she holds it that way too.

Which is to say she doesn’t begrudge her Mennonite roots for keeping her from a starring roles in the school play. In Entering the Wild she offers some criticism of her tradition, but she doesn't stamp the Mennonite dust off her feet, doesn't even leave.  What's unique about the memoir is that Janzen looks back and finds an abundant life of mystery in her distinct ethnic and religious roots.

Most of the essays detail the detective work she did on her family's past. Her father emigrated from Russia in 1909, left behind brothers and sisters who would suffer immensely, even die, at the hands of Stalin.  Among the poignant stories Jean Janzen tells in this family chronicle of hers is what she's discovered about her grandmother’s suicide, an event her father never spoke of, an event she discovered only after his death.

There’s no anger in the memoir, just wonder and awe and mystery.  That too makes the book devotional.  Janzen’s several books of poetry--Snake in the Parsonage (1995), Tasting the Dust (2000), Piano in the Vineyard (2004) and Paper House (2008)—spread themselves over a similarly biographical landscape in a very similar way, by paying attention to things, to events, to human lives altogether too easy to miss. Our finest spiritual writers make life itself a sacrament. That's what Jean Janzen does.

Some of the most enchanting essays are those near the end where Janzen the memoirist unpacks the poems of Janzen the poet, even rewrites them, adding a line in the last essay, “My Mother in Venice,” a line that, to my mind, completes the original poem more wondrously.

Entering the World is about exodus, Jean Janzen’s liberation into the world of art and imagination, a world in which traditionally approved answers and conventional responses to experience itself couldn't cover the questions because those traditional paths were not where the art she herself was creating was leading her. Taking that jump--away from tradition and into imagination, in poetry, in theology, and culture—is "entering the wild," what Janzen says her story is all about.

The irony, or so it seems to me, is that that her liberation doesn’t require walking away from her roots but digging down to find them. The more she learns about the mysteries of her own life and the lives of her ancestors, the more happily she can dwell in the world of the spirit, the world of music, the world of art, the world of imagination.

In “Going Home” (Paper House), Janzen traces the path her life has taken, the path outlined in Entering the World. I begins in a childhood memory:

Seven of us crowded into our small
Chevy, the year ’40 or ’41,
I on a little stood on the floor,
baby in mother’s lap, and a mouse
loose in the car. We had traveled
for baptism to Lake Okoboji,
three older siblings in full immersion
under the blinding sun as we sang,
“The cleansing stream, I see, I see.”

Yet, there’s more to the story than what meets the eye:

And then the mood rolled over us
as we drove home, my tilting stool,
my head resting against my sister’s
cleansed thigh, and the little mouse,
unbaptized and unaccountable, like me,
all of us driving with father behind
the wheel toward thunderclouds that rose
in the west, promising everyone salvation.

That last line is just wide enough to make us wonder, as it likely did Jean Janzen herself, when she discovered the line waiting for her at the end of the poem. There’s mystery in a thundercloud "promising everyone salvation," mystery just as there is in sacrament, and in the incarnation.

The beauty of the pilgrimage at the heart of Entering the World is that Jean Janzen doesn’t need to leave something precious behind in order to find herself in a brave new world.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

After the storm

Just where do the Great Plains begin? Some say at the 100th meridian, which cuts the continental U.S. roughly in half. Some say somewhere close to the Big Muddy, the Missouri River, which takes a sharp left in Sioux City then splits South Dakota as if were a rectangular cantaloupe. Some say the Great Plains begin wherever there's twenty inches of rainfall.

Siouxland isn't on the Great Plains, but it's dang close. Still, it hands out weather that's as legendary in its ferocity as anything in Kansas or Oklahoma. "This is not an easy place to live," an old woman on the Rosebud reservation once told me, even though she'd been there since she was a child. 

Weather events out here always come in spades. Snow doesn't fall, it slashes. January cold makes your teeth ache and outfits your car in square wheels. July heat offers just about anything you can get in the Southwest-plus, it comes with a sauna. 

An old Siouxlander once told me that we get ten really good days a year. That's it. Ten. That old woman was a seer.

Last night's storms were massive, terrifying. Pilger, Nebraska, was attacked by a pair of tornadoes dropped from an insane sky, a tag team of twisters less than a mile apart. You must have seen the pictures.

Today the whole region is a bath tub. Water, water everywhere. The Rock is twenty feet above flood stage, residents of Rock Valley and Rock Rapids last night--yesterday already--are, like the river, out of their homes. Last night, the rain came in torrents and simply would not stop.

It's just now light outside my window. I expected to see the Floyd had spread over the neighbor's beans, but it was less unruly than I imagined.

The Big Sioux is on a rampage at Hawarden, and the expected crest is still a day or more away.

I'm not about to go out back and check my rain gauge because I'd likely never be heard from again. The whole backyard is quicksand soup.

Years ago, when we were young marrieds, we sat in a nice house trailer with some other couples and tried to talk devotionally while the rain pounded away on that tin roof. The lesson we studied that night is long gone, but I'll never forget the sinking feeling that our basement was becoming a wading pool.

Both of the old houses we've lived in came with storm cellars, dim-lit boxes I rarely entered because they had this awful concentration camp feel--bare naked cement all around. I'll never forget sitting in 'em during storms, water up over your ankles, our kids, toddlers, on our laps, a single light bulb burning at the end of a bare wire jutting out from the wall.

One October, an early snow fell so heavily that leafy tree branches cracked. Standing outside in the snowy moonlight, I listened as the whole town was attacked by what seemed gunfire from maples and lindens snapping all around. 

Weather comes in spades here, all of it.

But the birds are at the feeder this morning, just as they are every a.m. A couple days ago, grackles found this out-of-the-way dive. They know nothing of the golden rule. When they stop by they take over suet and seed; everyone else departs. 

But they're here, their appetites ravenous despite last night's endless rains. For them, little has changed this morning, after the storm, just a little extra mud beneath their toenails.

They're probably doing the same things in Pilger, Nebraska, this morning, dive-bombing all over just as they are here, just as they did yesterday. What?--me worry? What do they care if half the town is destroyed? Just more easy pickin's in a new playground. 

Nature's resiliency is as dramatic as it is unnerving. We'd much prefer the world to weep with us, to offers us tender sadness when we feel so deserving. Where, pray tell, are Elijah's ravens when we really need them?

Last night's catastrophes are recorded by rain gauges, like mine, filled to overflowing. Floods blanket the flat land this morning, river banks seemingly gone. Somewhere deaths are being mourned.

But life goes on just outside my window. Once again this morning, the players are here, even the goldfinch, full of song that's so much bigger than their diminutive selves. 

Once again, the dawn. Here it comes. Another day out here on the edge of the Great Plains. Maybe this one will be one of the ten. 

That would be nice.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Morning Thanks--my rain gauge

Just in case you're wondering, Saturday we got two inches. I know. I looked. I've got a rain gauge.  

Nothing--or so it seems to me--so definitively ranks me with the old coots than my new found ability to toss that factoid into random conversation. Honestly, I could head off to any of a half-dozen coffee-and-donut diners this a.m., take a chair around some crowded table, and fit right in, armed to the teeth because I got the goods now.  It rained pretty much all day on Saturday, see? If you're wondering, wonder no more because I got the goods--my rain gauge says two inches.

End of story.

Besides, yesterday in church the bulletin quoted a Caring Bridge in a way I understand. I really do--I understand. I get it now because I'm retired. I quote: "Domino's with family tonight. . .can't wait :o)." Look, she'd have to go to Sioux City or Sioux Falls to mean the restaurant--that Domino's. What she's grinning about--see that little pig emoticon?--is the fact that she's just plain thrilled to be playing dominoes with her family. I get that too because I'm now of the age where such things are a thrill. There were other joys in church yesterday, three of them, in fact, three good stories. But this one--Domino's!--was the first to make me smile.

And then there's this morning's sky. 

I know my friends down there in the Land of Enchantment will think I'm nuts, but I'll say it anyway. There's no mystical shapes cutting stark silhouettes on this horizon, no red rocks, no mountains within 400 miles; but just outside my window something orange and turquoise in this morning's early dawn made my heart dance to a beat right out of New Mexico--and just the thought of it makes me want to head out west yet this afternoon.

No, it's not this urge to head out to Gallup that marks me as an old man; it's the simple joy of the dawn. Sometimes I think I should wake up the world at five on a morning like this one, not let anyone sleep because the show they're missing is so majestic. Here's the way I'll say it: this morning's Siouxland dawn is almost Navajoland, I swear. 

But then, I'm retired, old enough to see visions and dream dreams, old enough to pay attention. 

And besides, out in my garden, hey!--I got rain gauge.

Oh, yeah, and did I mention what those two inches did to the garden? Lush. Really, really lush.  Things are lookin' good, if you're wonderin'. 

When you're retired there's always something for morning thanks.

And now all I need is a John Deere cap.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Sunday Morning Meds--No More

A little while, and the wicked will be no more;
though you look for them, they will not be found.”

Almost ten years has passed since a man known as the BTK (“bind, torture, kill”) Killer was sentenced to 175 years in prison.  Dennis Rader, who for years had eluded police in Wichita, Kansas, even as he taunted them through a string of brutal murders, could not, legally, have received a tougher sentence.

It is sometimes as difficult to take to heart some of the sentiment of the Psalms as it is tough to stomach wholesale Old Testament blood-letting.  Honestly, I have to think long and hard today to come up with people I’d associate—or certainly brand—with the word “wicked.”

But Dennis Rader is one of them, a serial murderer who carried out demonic crimes over a thirty-year period, while playing an evil game of cat and mouse with police. Married, with two children, Dennis Rader was a city official who enforced zoning and neighborhood codes and an active member of a local church, where he had been elected the congregation’s president.

He’d served his country in the Air Force, did time in Vietnam.  Dennis Rader was a Jekyl/Hyde, someone occasionally characterized as so nondescript that his being BTK seemed absolutely impossible to those who knew him.  Would they were right.  In his home, police found folders of news clippings proudly documenting his crimes.
In a rambling 20-minute statement at the end of the trial, Rader thanked his defense team, his social worker, the members of the jail staff, and his pastor.  He called the murders “selfish and narcisstic,” and then, shockingly, as if he were, in all truth, the final authority, listed the mistakes the prosecution had made in the case.  Madness that rational is just plain evil.
That the wicked Rader will never again walk the streets of Wichita or any town or city is a absolute blessing.  One plea on the part of the district attorney was especially memorable.  She asked that the judge limit Rader’s access to pictures of animals and humans and that he be prohibited from writing materials, which, she alleged, he would use to continue his fantasies. 

It was denied—under First Amendment guidelines.  That’s a shame. The world does not need to hear any more about Dennis Rader, even what I’m writing.
I do hope, honestly, that the God he worshipped throughout his life forgives him; and if I know grace at all, I know it’s possible.  God’s love vastly surpasses ours.

Maybe in Dennis Rader’s case, what David promises in this verse from Psalm 37 has happened.  Really, the initials “BTK” mean almost nothing to most of us today.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see every last detail of the monstrous life of Dennis Rader disappear completely from the earth, just as David promises, just as the Bible says?

King David dreams of a better world, as all of us do, a world without Dennis Raders.

Lord Jesus, he’s saying, come quickly.           

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Morning Thanks--Nose up

It's what you might expect from Billy Collins, something smart and warm that engages by way of a smile--well, a giggle, which is bigger than a simple smile.


was what they called you in high school
if you tripped on a shoelace in the hall
and all your books went flying.

Or if you walked into an open locker door,
you would be known as Einstein,
who imagined riding a streetcar into infinity.

Technology has changed all that, hasn't it? These days, nurds get respect because everybody knows they'll clear bigger salaries than anyone else a month after high school grad.

Later, genius became someone
who could take a sliver of chalk and squire pi
a hundred places out beyond the decimal point,

or a man painting on his back on a scaffold,
or drawing a waterwheel in a margin,
or spinning out a little night music.

Sure. We get smart. It's part of the aging process. Trust me, I'm retired..

But earlier this week on a wooded path,
I thought the swans afloat on the reservoir
were the true geniuses,
the ones who had figured out how to fly,
how to be both beautiful and brutal,
and how to mate for life.

Vintage Billy Collins. See what I mean?

Twenty-four geniuses in all,
for I numbered them as Yeats had done,
deployed upon the calm, crystalline surface—

forty-eight if we count their white reflections,
or an even fifty if you want to throw in me
and the dog running up ahead,

Here's the poetry.  See how deftly he slips himself into all of this? That works, or so it seems to me. Suddenly he's in this still life himself, as, of course, are we.  And now the joke:

who were at least smart enough to be out
that morning—she sniffing the ground,
me with my head up in the bright morning air.

There it is: Billy Collins the dog, just another sweet hound loving the morning. No sermon, just a smile. I like that.

Thursday, out on a country road on the South Dakota side of Big Sioux River, I suddenly found myself in an infinity of green, June busting out all over. Wasn't Yosemite. Wasn't Niagara Falls. Wasn't even the Black Hills. Just an ocean of emerald. 

But there I was, windows open, head up in the bright morning air.