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.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Sunday Morning Meds--Essays to do good

“Turn from evil and do good; then you will dwell in the land forever.”
Ben Franklin says in his Autobiography that he was deeply influenced by Cotton Mather’s Essays to Do Good. Wow.

In the early years of this republic, it would be a chore to find two human souls more different than those two . Cotton Mather was the child of theological giants, as predestined as any Calvinist ever was to take up the heavy lifting of the learned divines from whose loins he’d sprung.  No one else in American literature is quite as sober as Cotton Mather, but then who’s looking?

Ben Franklin, on the other hand, was anything but sober, which doesn’t mean to imply he hit the bottle.  Witty, urbane, sophisticated, Franklin the ambassador was the first American to charm European courts.  A new Franklin biography claims that the entire Autobiography needs to be read, as Emily Dickinson might say it, “at a slant.”  Franklin is, this new bio argues, tongue-in-cheek throughout. You really can’t always believe him.
I never dared to think that was true, even though I smelled it in the many times I’ve been through Franklin’s Autobiography as a teacher.  I always had this odd sense of him pulling my leg. 

That’s heresy, I know. When pols fight, they always reverence “the founders,” those sagacious bewigged men whose brilliant energy churned out the Constitution.  Jefferson, Hamilton, John Adams, John Hancock, George Washington are American saints. And Franklin?—my word, he wrote the Declaration, igniting all the fireworks.  And we can’t take him seriously?

That is heresy.

Still, I’ve always suspected he was more cunning than we like to think him. So was he lying when he said that the imminently pious Cotton Mather was so influential in the life of a man who couldn’t have been less of a Puritan? 

Don’t know.  But I’m happy to read that I’m not the only one who’s thought Franklin was scratching out his life story with a wink and a smile.

Franklin liked Mather, he says, because Mather taught him morality, and the entire Autobiography, begun as a moral lesson to his son, proposes to teach his son to be good—if we can believe him.  I’m not sure.

But Franklin’s moral urgings, unlike Cotton Mather’s, promise that the way to wealth and happiness is sobriety and industry. Franklin tells his son that if he wants to get ahead in life, he should do so as his father had: take a good strong hold of his own blessed bootstraps and pulling the boots on himself: do it yourself and do it well.

That’s not what David says—David, remember, whose hands were too bloody for God’s own approval. And it’s not what Cotton Mather would have said either.

Doing good and living well are not a matter of bootstraps. David says God almighty promises that turning away from evil and doing good instead means a long and blessed life in the land.

There is a third party in the cause/effect sequence in this promise, and that third party, the creator of heaven and earth, isn’t talking about bootstraps. He’s talking instead about obedience.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Sermon and symbol

To me, that morning he seemed more adamant than he normally is, more given to narrow his eyes and speak with his hands. He's not pushy. He's given to smiles more than scowls. There's normally no grimacing in his pulpit demeanor. He's endearingly off-the-cuff about things.  He'll stop the liturgy of worship service if he thinks of something funny or simply decides he should say what he's come up with behind the pulpit. He's a great guy and a fine pastor. We like him a great deal.

But he seemed a few shades more "the preacher" that Sunday morning, more "thus-saith-the-Lord." The subject was the Bible itself, the Word, the Holy Scripture. He was for it, of course, and adamant about our need to study it, to know it, to gather in and live out of its eternal wisdom. No hellfire and brimstone--he didn't warn us of turbulence in days to come if we didn't study it hard and take it to heart. He was just more adamant about things than he usually is. He wasn't being cute and nice or sweet about the Word--he was serious. It was our calling to know the Bible.

What he pointed out needs to be said. The Gallup people made it very clear when they researched Bible knowledge in the U.S. of A., not long ago: "Americans revere the Bible--but, by and large, they don't read it," their study said. "And because they don't read it, they have become a nation of biblical illiterates."

He might have said that but he didn't. He could have.

Now hold on to your chair. Less than half of all American believers can name all four gospels, while more than half can name only four (or even fewer) of the Ten Commandments. Seriously. I'm not making this up.

Most Americans (82%, in fact) believe that one of Poor Richard's sacred aphorisms,"God helps those who help themselves," is found somewhere in the book of Proverbs, not in Ben Franklin. Surveys also discovered that lots of folks think Joan of Arc was Noah's wife, and half of all high school seniors believe that Sodom and Gomorrah were a married couple.

But our pastor that Sunday wasn't talking about accumulating Bible knowledge. What wrinkled his forehead was his deep desire to make sure we knew how crucial it is to our lives to know the Holy Scriptures' eternal truths. He was less concerned with whether or not we could list Israel's sad line of kings than that we understand why God really didn't much care for the idea of human kingship from the get-go.

He was preaching an old saw, of course, the genre of sermon that couldn't really go south--like fighting sin and loving Jesus and being kind to your neighbor. You can't go wrong when you tell people they need to know and live the Word; we know; sometimes we just don't do.

It may well have been a class in the works of John Milton of Paradise Lost fame--I don't remember exactly. I was in my first semester of graduate school, I think, doing some secondary reading on the Reformation. My mind leaks info like an old inner tube. I swear I read it back then somewhere but don't have a clue where. I wish I could stick in a footnote here, but I can't. You'll have to take my word.

Somewhere in England, a Protestant government created a law to force every church in the kingdom to turn the pulpit copy of the Holy Bible around, the big one, the grand one, do a full-180 up in front of the congregation so that its face was radically open to the people and not just the priest. 

I would guess that all over the country those huge pulpit Bibles were swung around and opened, not so the congregation's most pious congregants could stroll up front and read mid-worship, but because of what that Bible's open face said--so plainly and fully--in the center of worship. The Bible belongs to the people.

It just so happens that the preacher holding forth on the efficacy of the Word that morning was doing so while standing right behind a huge open Bible blessedly opened to us, to the people, 500 years later. So amazing.

There's so much story in that huge open Bible, so much truth without really turning a page.

Right there in front of all of us was the sermon, open to any of us. Right there, without saying a thing. There it was as it is every Sunday morning, wide open.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Morning Thanks--what's to be forgotten and what's not

Could be mouse tracks, but the ground seems the color of mustard almost, strangely enough. At least it doesn't seem to be snow, or mud for that matter.  But something's been scurrying across the surface, don't you think? Looks oddly dimpled too--maybe some golf ball-sized hail went on a rampage. Seems to be tracks though, some kind of rodent leaving trails in the mud or whatever that odd surface is. 

But trees in the upper corner? and a road up on the left?--at least it looks like a road, gravel. The whole thing is a map or something, isn't it?  No, it's an aerial photo. Somebody flew over this moon-like landscape and shot a picture. I know! It's one of those images people claim clearly document space aliens, right? "They were here, whoever they were, and it can't be denied! We've got the photographs."

I'm guessing most people could stare at this image for a long, long time and still have no clue what on earth is going on. I did and didn't.

It's now an entire century since an archduke was assassinated and Europe's powers-that-be--Germany, Russia, France, and England--got their collective danders up, determined that national honor was at stake and that it was, therefore, jolly well time for their rivals to eat some humble pie, to teach each of their dishonorable enemies moral lessons they would never forget in "the war to end all wars." All of it sounded so noble, so honorable, even righteous.

Here, on this field, lies the evidence for an event--an ordeal--we could only wish was alien. Here, at the river Somme, the Brits lost 60,000 men in one day, most of them in the first hour of battle, when a thoughtfully conceived offensive turned  into disaster in just seconds, thousands upon thousands of British troops leaping from trenches, bayonets ready, running madly into machine gun fire from the deeply fortified German defenses, fire that was supposed to be taken out by the shock and awe of a bombardment that had simply failed. 

Sixty thousand men in one day of battle, the bloodiest day in British military history. What scars that image is what still exists of trench lines and pockmarks from bombing and artillery laid across an otherwise empty field. 

But the Brits weren't alone in suffering. During the war, the Russians lost men at a 76 percent casualty rate, topped only by the much smaller army of Austria-Hungary; only ten percent of its fighting men returned untouched--if anyone could be by "the Great War." It was a war that was absolutely devastating. I lost a great uncle when America entered late in 1918. It's doubtful that anyone there was left untouched, even those who didn't bleed, even those who didn't fight.

Here, on this field and others in about a six-mile swath of French countryside, 1,000,000 men were killed or wounded. Perhaps it's a blessing that, one hundred years after, that level of carnage simply can no longer be imagined.

I hope this year, in schools, a special attempt is made to cover in detail what happened 100 years ago in Europe: the introduction of the tank, the first use of aerial warfare, poison gas, and wholesale disillusionment, loss of faith. Eyewitness accounts exist in quantity and character that almost make you bleed. There is no lack of sources.

Still, this morning, I'm thankful for this particular picture of the Somme battlefield and others like it--what things look like today. 

I'm thankful for what it doesn't show; some things we probably need to forget. But I'm also thankful for what that picture documents, because other things, painful things, must always be remembered. 

Look again.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Morning Thanks--deus ex machina

duale US

Frank Bruni's column in the New York Times yesterday is perfectly frightening. In it, he marshalls out poll data and survey results that in his estimation establish that this country has, in no uncertain terms, lost faith--in government, it the future, in itself, in anything.
Americans are apprehensive about where they are and even more so about where they’re going. But they don’t see anything or anyone to lead them into the light. They’re sour on the president, on the Democratic Party and on Republicans most of all. They’re hungry for hope but don’t spot it on the menu. Where that tension leaves us is anybody’s guess.
He cites, for instance, a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll that came out amid the Ferguson story and the madness created by ISIS or ISIL or whatever the name is, a poll that got jammed to the bottom of the grocery bag. Listen to this: 76% of the American public feel that the country holds less promise for them than it did for their parents. In other words, three-quarters of all Americans, regardless of age, believe the American Dream simply no longer exists.

It may well be that those most sure of America's promise are it's illegal immigrants, who certainly have not lost faith. The rest of aren't sure at all. It's not hard to walk that statistic back and ask a more fundamental questions--if America doesn't dream, is it America? And it if America isn't America, what is it? Who are we?

Bruni isn't the first to point out the irony in our deep hatred for Congress--only seven percent of Americans feel what happens in that branch of government is of any palpable worth. Yet, 9 out of 10 representatives and senators consistently win re-election, time after time after time. Is that crazy or what?

“'People are mad at Democrats,'” John Hickenlooper, the Democratic governor of Colorado, told me," Bruni writes. “But they’re certainly not happy with Republicans. They’re mad at everything.” And yet, almost shockingly, the unemployment rate in Colorado is waaaaay down, 5.3 percent.

Go figure. There's something really wrong here. The stock market is going gangbusters, the economy is healthy and prime, but America seems to have resigned from something called faith. A full sixty percent of us believe this nation is in decline.

This morning's headlines somehow follow, don't you think?  The New York Times runs a front page story about a man named after one of America's WWII heroes: Douglas McArthur McCain was killed this week in Syria, while fighting for ISIS or ISIL, who make Al Qaeda look like cub scouts. He carried an American passport, grew up a suburb of Minneapolis named New Hope (I'm serious), was known as a joker and a rapper and a big-time basketball fan.  That's him up top.

But he never finished high school, and during his early adulthood, found his way onto the police blotter with ease and frequency. Eventually he "reverted" (his word) to Islam, where he found the Lord (that's an evangelical phrase, but it may well be helpful for us to think in those terms). “Allah keeps me going day and night," he wrote on line. "Without Allah, I am no one.” And this: "The Koran is all I need in this life of sin."

He went to San Diego, lived there for a time, visited Canada and Sweden and then left for Syria, where somehow he joined up with the most heinous of Islamic militants and last week was killed with two other ISIS members when they ambushed a rebel Syrian army unit--in other words, a band of fighters who might well have been fighting the same enemy. D
oes that make any sense at all? 

The terror of Bruni's essay is that we don't believe in anything anymore. Anything. 

Oddly enough Douglas McArthur McCain appears to have agreed. That's why he went to Syria. He wanted so badly to believe.

I told myself that this week the blog was going to return to thanksgiving, to finding something everyday for which to be thankful. Garrison Keillor wasn't wrong--if all of us would give thanks for something every day, this world would be a better place. I've been doing that--off and on--for almost ten years. 

But this morning, Bruni in my head, McCain in my soul, it was a real chore. 

But just now I stepped outside my door into this revelation to the east--deus ex machina.

This morning, after thoughts of death and unbelief, I'm thankful for the divine landscape on a heavenly canvas just outside my door. 

Sometimes the heavens preach, David said, sometimes the heavens declare.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Morning Thanks--Jumpin' Jehosophat

National Geographic calls it "In(vasice) Vogue"--this woman is wearing museum-quality accessories fashioned exclusively from invasive species: the ring and the earring are from a Burmese python, the cuff is what's left of a cane toad, and that necklace once had a place in the jaw of a wild boar--and all of the above animal species are tempestuously out of control.

No one asked what PETA thought of the new chic', but it's not hard to guess. What "in(vasive) vogue" has going for it is a the sanctified notion of taking ridiculously overpopulated varmints, getting rid of them (thank goodness!), and creating art from whatever's left to piece together. Don't know that my wife would buy the bracelet, but the ring would create some conversation and that necklace is daring. Wonder what they want for it?

All of which prompts me to think about silver carp. In case you're wondering, they're here in Siouxland by the thousands. They swam up the Old Muddy from somewhere down south, then took a sharp left in Sioux City at the mouth of the Big Sioux and now they're going like weeds up here. Seriously. Don't know if I could kick up a few dozen on the Floyd, but I suspect I could. 

The Great Lakes are keeping them out by way of a tottering electric fence of sorts at an Illinois River dam about 50 miles from Chicago, where they get jumping mad (that's a kind of pun) because they can get no further. It must be dangerous to float a boat there because they are.

My grandson and I saw a bunch last week on the Big Sioux, a couple dozen at least, a whole street gang of 'em right beneath the bridge north of Hawarden. Out of nowhere, they just started jumping, like a fish circus. You're canoeing along with nary a care in the world, like Huck and Jim on the Mississip, and just like that a dozen come up from the water, leaping four, five feet in the air before splashing back in. It's a hoot.

Watch a couple minutes of the video these guys made:

Silver carp were, at one time, some guy's bright idea (no woman is capable of such idiocy) to get rid of the algae forming in catfish ponds. And how'd that work for you? Way too well as a matter of fact. 

Suffice it to say those carp had no intention of staying in the cage--shades of Animal Farm. They eat like sumo wrestlers, devouring most of what any other ordinary river fish might call supper.  Around here, the only fish they threaten are bottom-feeders just as ugly as they are--bullheads and their distant cousin carp, maybe a catfish or two.

Some people eat 'em. NPR quotes a guy who stopped fighting 'em and just started filling nets. He gets all of 12 cents a pound for silver carp, but when you bring them in by the tens of thousands--and you can do that just south of that Illinois dam--you can put real food on your table.

Apparently, lots of Asians love 'em, but it'll be a while before I order up silver carp and chips with a side of slaw. I got way too much distaste in me yet from a Wisconsin childhood, where I was taught that there was only one way to eat carp: take the fish, nail it to a board, put it the sun for two weeks, toss the fish, and eat the board.

But they're here, I swear. They'll smack you upside the head if you're not careful, and even if you are. Keep an oar handy. Think seriously about a baseball bat. A tennis racket won't do--asian carp aren't mosquitoes or bats. They'll jump right in the boat, or worse, canoe. And, they're big, waaay big.

Think about wearing a helmet.

But they are fun. Good night, are they fun. If I could wear 'em somehow, I would. Maybe make some kind of jewelry out of their jawbones. But it's really hard to think of them as delicate. They're huge, every one a trophy, but who'd want 'em on your walls? They'd probably take over the house.

It was me and my grandson out in the canoe last week amid that flying circus. Okay, I know it's a stretch for me to say I'm thankful for silver carp, given the mess they've created up and down rivers across the continent; but just between you and me, last weekend my grandson and I had a ball on the wide and slow waters of the Big Sioux River, all around us a wild-eyed carnival of carp.  

And for that good time, this morning, I'm thankful.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Morning Thanks--Pretty rocks

When I went out back with the mason, he took one look at the river stones we had piled up and said that they were going to do just fine. "Yeah," he said, "these are really pretty."

Could have fooled me. That those rocks were dug up out of our own back yard--I liked that; but calling them pretty seemed something akin to saying some corps of linebackers are darling. They were, after all, entirely dirt-coated. "Rain'll wash 'em up nice," he said, "and they'll be really sharp."

Seemed a strange kind of sweet talk to call those massive shotputs "pretty."

But today, lined up like this in our retaining walls, I've become a believer.

How they got here makes them flat-out beautiful. They belonged to the neighbor, who dug them from the river out back. Another neighbor grabbed a bunch with his skid loader and dumped what he hauled here out back. But that's barely an inch of the epic that got 'em here.

Their incredible story begins with a glacier. We're not talking about a massive ice pond here, we're talking about ice so huge it's more like an event, even a place, like Wisconsin. In fact, the glacier we're talking about is sometimes called Wisconsin, which doesn't mean that cheese or Packers had anything to do with it.

Hard as it is to believe, this huge thing, this "event" moved, as all glaciers do, and when it did it wreaked havoc on the land--"the land" as in "God created sea and land." Crushed it, carved it, cut it up, and carried it along, here and there creating valleys, here and there filling other valleys up with what some people call "glacial till," the undigested stuff broken off of mountains or whatever, and then disgorged hither and yon over the land, as in "God created sea and land."

Here's the way I think of it. This behomoth land mass, this entire region of ice, creeps along on its own slippery base, not far and not fast, but powerfully, immensely powerfully, once upon a time (or twice or thrice upon a time). When it crept along, it disgorged some excess baggage, and left tons of rocks and stones behind in what eventually became a river when the ice started to melt. Now this river, the one out back, is not much more than a creek really, a little stream Lewis and Clark kindly decided to name after Sgt. Floyd, the only guy to die on their three-year escapade to the Pacific and back. No matter, it's got tons of glacial till.

Who knows where these very pretty rocks call home? Northern Ontario? Green Bay? Duluth maybe? Niagara Falls? 

And when did this whole operation happen? That's not a tough question if you're a young-earth person--somewhere in the area of 6000 years.  

But those who don't draw those lines--some of whom Christians too--say our lot here north of Alton was covered in ice anywhere between 10 and 85 thousand years ago (which, some say, is a good deal older than Adam, who was only a day older than Eve and no wiser thereby, it seems). 

So the pretty stones stacked neatly in my backyard got here through no doing of my own. One neighbor dug 'em, another delivered 'em, and I just stacked 'em. They're glacial till, and they got here in the neighborhood because that massive, benevolent Wisconsin glacier simply left 'em behind. 

Just thought I'd mention it this Monday morning, because the late Sabbath sun blessed this retaining wall so beautifully last night when I sat outside, all those pretty rocks.

This morning I'm thankful for 'em, thankful, strangely enough, for their beauty and the wild epic that brought 'em here.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Sunday morning meds--Covenant

“They are always generous and lend freely; 
their children will be blessed.”

Most people in our church wouldn’t think it was a proper worship if we didn’t do “Joys and Concerns" every Sabbath, an open-mike opportunity for people to air their griefs, list their needs, and announce their happiness. It's quite sacramental—that may be overstatement; but it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that most of our congregation—Covenant Church—thinks of the public, weekly prayer bulletin board as a signature of our fellowship. It’s part of how we’re us.

I don't like being Scrooge, but I'm not always so fond of it, not only because only certain joys and concerns will get mentioned--others are too personal. Some folks don’t get any air time because their timidity keeps them seated; boldness animates others. Who knows why, but I’m always cautious about public righteousness—I know, I know, that’s my problem.

Most basic to my hesitation is my sense that communal prayer becomes, by way of “Joys and Concerns” almost entirely supplication, which may well be the least significant aspect of prayer in worship. 

I know I sound like a professor. And I’ve been wrong before. Besides, I’d likely be banished from the fellowship if I ever dared say what I just have publicly.

What's more, nice things happen in “Joys and Concerns.” We rejoice with births, we cry with those who watch their spouses go to war, we know and feel others’ heartaches—some of them at least. Going public has bountiful rewards, and I’m no longer itchy about it. Sometimes I even enjoy it.

One woman offers the same petition about once a year because she, like other parents, carries the burden week after week, when others’ plights and exaltations come and go. She stands in the middle, where she and her husband sit, and asks in her slightly quavering voice for the congregation to remember those children of the fellowship who aren’t living in faith.

No Christian parent is ever joyful about raising that concern, no matter how constant it weighs on the heart; and this woman is thinking of herself when she says it—everyone knows that; but she’s also thinking of others, probably more than a few who aren't saying it aloud.

David’s claim in this verse is no hollow promise, but neither is it absolute. Who can forget the priest, Eli, whose sons were holy terrors? David himself had a boy who in blind lust raped his half-sister. And then there’s seditious Absalom, ready to kill his own father, a really handsome kid whose life ends when he hangs by his hair from a tree. David was heartbroken.

So why does David say what he does here?  It's an if/then premise that wasn’t even true in his own life, for pity sake? Who’s he trying to kid?

Maybe—just maybe—the woman in Covenant Church who stands up annually to ask us to remember all the wayward sons and daughters holds, tooth and nail, to “covenant” theology, the idea, as Spurgeon says, that “the friend of the father [and/or mother] is the friend of the family."

Covenant theology on this score is the only comfort in her—and our—heartache. That’s what’s there to hold on to, when there seems so little else. 

King David, the world’s foremost poet, sometimes wrote better than he knew. That’s certainly one definition of inspiration, I guess, isn’t it?

Friday, August 22, 2014


Count me among the millions of those who watched the agony of Kunte Kinte a half-century ago and were deeply, deeply moved.  Roots, a story--a novel, really--by Alex Haley, affected me so powerfully that it sent me scurrying to uncover my own. Sometimes people wonder why I care about my own Dutch Reformed background. Alex Haley made me wonder who I was when I really didn't know, and ethnicity--even the lack it--is one ingredient in the identity cocktail. 

[I spent too many years reading term papers not to say anything about Haley's shameful plagiarism in that book; but that's a story for another time.] 

Kunte Kinte's story was very bitter but incredibly wholesome. White folks don't fare well in Alex Haley's portrayal of the lives of his ancestors. Roots was a main stage production that wouldn't let America look past the rising action of its own story. Me either. And even though I'd spent a number of years outside the church back then, it still hurt me to see that sometimes--oftentimes--the madmen spouting scripture did the most savage bloodletting.

That phenomenon is front-and-center in 12 Years a Slave, too, a great film that likewise creates downright beasts out of bible-toting Christians from south of the Mason-Dixon, men as deft with a whip as they are quick with proof texts. When it comes to slavery, the sullied past of evangelical America is haunting.

And it's there again in Sue Monk Kidd's bestseller, Oprah-blessed, The Invention of Wings, a powerfully plot-driven novel of two women, one of whom Ms. Kidd pulls from the pages of real American abolitionist history, Sarah Grimke. Sarah and her sister Angelina turned their back on their family, went north from their home in Charleston, and became marquee lecturers on the abolitionist circuit by forswearing their own slave-holding past. 

Fascinatingly, Ms. Kidd's novel creates something of a twin character, a slave girl named Hetty or "Handful," who is all of that. Hetty's mother teaches her that the only way to live with slavery is to keep a live portion of yourself in all-out revolt, a spitfire revolt that doesn't kill you--because it can--but maintains the fire of her own authentic human spirit.

The villians of The Invention of Wings are evangelical Christians like the Grimke's mother, who requires her slaves attend a Sunday School she serves up using a slaves-and-masters curriculum designed to perpetuate servitude. It's awful--not the book, but once more having to realize that men and women used the Bible to justify a way of life that would not have existed if it hadn't been fueled on blood.

Just once, I'd like to read a book about good Christian slave-holders. Did they exist? I'd like to see a movie that told stories about Bible-believers who bought into both Jesus and slavery, who didn't lock people in leg irons cast from their own damned fire and brimstone. There had to be some like that, don't you think? I have to think so.

A book some might call "the greatest American novel" doesn't have any either. When Huck Finn finally decides that staying with the slave Jim as Jim makes a break for freedom, he knows, inside and out, that his decision to keep going down the river, to not turn Jim in, is not only a crime in the South he's leaving behind, but, much worse--a sin. 

And that's why little Huck utters the most famous line in all of American literature:  "All right then, I'll go to hell." 

The book my parents read from when I was a boy, the Bible specifically designated for kids, an early version of Catharine F. Vos's The Children's Story Bible, made it perfectly and memorably clear that that son of Noah named Ham got himself cursed for laughing at his soused father and then went south in the family's diaspora, to Africa, where his people would live and prosper as servants of the other brothers. Slavery was that clear, that biblical.

I put out a note to faculty years ago, just to see if anyone had that fat old blue book around somewhere, and I found one. I photocopied the passage and, as long as I taught Huck Finn I brought that passage up in class to college students who seemed nowhere near as shocked as I had been at the way I'd been reared. It was a passage I remembered hearing as a boy, a biblical interpretation just as dangerous as anything those Southern Christian bigots could spout. 

It was in me too somewhere, this despicable theology of race and faith. 

Dutch immigrants to this country, I'm told, deliberately steered away from the American south in the immigration wave that populated west Michigan, southeast Wisconsin, and south central Iowa before the Civil War. Despite their own slave-trading past, those wooden shoes wanted no part of an institution that America held onto longer than most in the Western world because it clearly empowered the American South. 

A century later in a small town in Wisconsin, when the Schaap family finished supper, my father would grab our well-worn copy The Children's Story Bible and read a story or two to us kids, our own family altar.

I never had a slave, never owned a whip; but, as a boy, I knew something about slaves because I knew the story of Noah and his sons, and where specifically one the boys, that one named Ham, had gone, where he went and what he did and why it was he served us.

That's what I was told.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The juggler last night

It took him three times to accomplish what he announced to be the big finish. It wasn't smooth as silk in other words, twice he fell off the rope. Because it didn't work, he had us all on the edge of our lawn chairs. He'd pulled out a big steel frame maybe 12 feet wide, the kind of gizmo people put up in their back yards if they don't have a couple of trees for a hammock. 

I have no idea what kind of rope he had strung between the ends because he wet it down with something akin to lighter fluid. There was going to be fire. Then he got up on that rope, a tightrope walker, and actually climbed an aluminum ladder set ON THE ROPE (I'm serious!) and started into juggling burning torches while a hastily drafted volunteer from the crowd--a young lady!--lit the whole blasted rope up beneath him. Got it? Listen, fire is lapping at him, running up and down the rope and even up the sides of the ladder (how'd he do that?)' and all of us, a whole park full, are guessing he's got asbestos shoes or really, really hot feet.

Twice he failed before he actually pulled this big-time final act, before he finally gets himself and all that mechanism up and moving in what some circus barker would have likely called "a den of fire." Right there on the stage at the Orange City, Iowa, right there in the town's own band shell. I'm not lying. It happened just last night. Took our breath away. Had us clapping like a crowd full of great seals. 'Twas a joy.  

The real story yesterday was no magic show. The real story is these ISIS madmen (I'm not sure what they demand to be called today), who'd already a month ago proved they were, what?--animals is too good a word, soulless maybe, men and women whose hearts are little more than shards of cut glass.

"Part of the problem with these conflicts," James Foley said in a forum several years ago, is that "we're not close enough to it, and if reporters--if we don't try to get really close to what these guys--we don't understand the world, essentially." That's why James Foley became a journalist. He'd started his career as a teacher and ended it in that way, trying to help us all "understand the world."

James Foley was murdered, butchered alive.

In so many ways, what these masked killers did was pure, unsullied evil. In beheading James Foley, they murdered free speech. In beheading James Foley, they spit on anything approximating Geneva Conventions. In beheading James Foley, they did everything but behead "the Great Satan," the U. S. And they did it on video they made sure the world could not miss.

Weeks before, they'd killed anyone who didn't believe their version of Islam--anyone. Buried them alive. Beheaded them. Men, women, and children--infidels. Thousands of innocents ran up a mountain with no food, no water. ISIS makes Al Quida look almost peaceable, the Taliban seem choir boys. 

They've already slaughtered Christians whole sale, turned those who could flee into refugees, tens of thousands of them. 

It rained late yesterday afternoon, but an e-mail announced bravely that people should bring umbrellas because the juggler was going be on stage outside. The act wasn't moving. He was going to be appearing in the park, as advertised. My raincoat stayed in the car. There was no rain.

We went and watched and smiled, laughed, gasped, paid rapt attention, loved it, kept telling ourselves that our grandkids should have been there--that kind of thing. It was great fun. 

Maybe it was pure escapism. Maybe the guy was, yesterday, a real sideshow to horror. Maybe no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people--wasn't that P.T. Barnum? Maybe it was ridiculous to be there in the middle of what will now certainly escalate into something that, once more, is going to cost American lives. Maybe I was fiddling while America burns.

Maybe so. 

But this morning, it wasn't the clown's goofy antics I woke up with. I wasn't thinking of him and his wild, flaming torches. Just before five this morning, it wasn't the juggler I saw before me up there balancing on that rope, everything beneath him aflame. 

It was me, the Christian, the one who wants, more than anything, to understand, the one who can't forget Christ's beckoning forgiveness for that jeering crowd who wanted yet more of his precious blood. "Forgive them for they know not what they do," he said. 

Forgive? These soulless men in black masks must die. Or we will.

When I woke up this morning, I saw a man's throat cut.  And I was the juggler trying to make sense of what was in the air before me, while everything beneath me was in flames in a world in which there was no rain.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

An American story

In middle school, he played on a traveling basketball team, one of those who goes from burb to burb, later on even played a little high school football. His mother often sat in the stands. You couldn't miss her--she was the only one in the hijab.

The kid was no star, but he had a great laugh and the rest of the guys thought he was a scream, a fun guy to be around. Truth be told, he and his family--his father was a Palestinian, his mother a converted Irish-American--lived in a quiet, gated Florida community. They were not poor. That's no answer here. They weren't poor at all. Some reports maintain the family owned several grocery stores.

The mosque where he worshiped was so small they had no imam, just a dozen believers getting down on their knees together, operating as if they were some old country church with an elder reading the sermon. In fact, because they had no regular leader, this kid sometimes became one because he seemed to know his way around the Koran as well as, if not better than the handful of others who came together to pray.

He liked cats, and he was a big fan of the Miami Heat, which means, almost certainly, that he, like millions of others, loved to watch LaBron James toss crushed chalk into the air in James's own never-miss pre-game ritual. Who knows?--a navy blue Heat jersey, number 23, may still be hanging in his closet.

Back in June, he made a video of himself eating chunks of his American passport, then burning the rest. “I lived in America; I know how it is,” he said. "Just sitting down five minutes drinking a cup of tea with mujahedeen is better than anything I've ever experienced in my whole life," he said. "You have all the fancy amusement parks, and the restaurants, and the food, and all this crap and cars. You think you're happy? You're not happy. I was never happy. I was always sad and depressed. Life sucked. ... All you do is work 40, 50, 60 hours a week."

So much for the American Dream.

And then, "You think you're safe where you are, in America or Britain,” he adds. “You think you are safe. You are not safe."

All of this from the cut-up, a kid with a sparkling sense of humor often seen dribbling down the street in Vera Beach, the kid who turned a rock-hard pillar of faith. "I want to rest in the afterlife," he said in an earlier video. "There is nothing here--my heart is not resting here in this life." He told others that his transition into the violence of the Middle East was relatively easy, not difficult at all because "Allah made it easy for me," words of a true believer.

"Glorious is God, and thank God--this is a grace from him," he says in a tape released later. "When I came to Syria, I had nothing. I had no money to buy a gun and ammunition, now God granted me all of that and much more." 

Just a few moments before he and four other suicide bombers ran their explosive-packed truck into a target in Syria and killed an as-yet undetermined number of Syrian soldiers, he radioed his accomplices, "I can see paradise and I can smell paradise."  

Those in the know, fear that while Moner Mohammad Abu-Salha was the first American suicide bomber in the war in Syria, other Americans have been recruited, which is to say, there may be more.

And this:  "I have one word to say ... we are coming for you. Mark my words. You think you killed Osama bin Laden? You sent him to paradise. Just know that we are coming."

He was 22 years old.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Yet another sermon on the house on a rock

Twice in a month I've sat through sermons on ye olde parable of the house on the rock (btw, there is such a place in Wisconsin--see above) and the house on the sand. Twice. Preachers aren't clones, of course, so even though the text didn't change, sand castles being precarious and silly, the sermons weren't xerox copies. Each had its own tweaks. 

Still, the Bible is a big book. What are the odds of twice in a month on any verse therein?

There had to be a message.

The truth is, we never really guessed that someday we would build a house, but--voila!--we have. And we now live in it, happily I might add, coming up on a year.  It's not a particularly showy place, but it's blessedly livable, two wide floors of open space and nothing but Iowa countryside out back, as far as you can see.

But, alas, it is built on sand. Really is.

For which we're thankful. 

The truth is, you just can't believe the Bible.

I'm kidding--not about the house, about the Bible. 

When the builder first stood out here, he looked out over the back yard and tried to measure, in his head, the dimensions of the walk-out basement we told him we'd like. One of the first things he told us is what a good site this actually is--the lot that is--because the house is going to go up on sand. That's exactly what he told us. I'm quoting. Seriously, when he uttered those blasphemous words, he was even cracking a smile. 

He's a good church guy. He checks in every Sabbath, wouldn't miss a morning worship; I'm not sure about evenings.  He cares about his work, about what he does; but he cares about faith too. I'm sure some institutions in the neighborhood greatly appreciate his attention. 

By all accounts and in our experience, he's a good, good man, but I'm sad to say he was guilty of the Dutch Reformed sin of spotten, of being goofy with biblical truth. Right then and there in wide-open Siouxland country, holy heresy.  I'm not making this up.

When I questioned him on his sin, he smiled. True story. He tipped his head slightly, as if he wished he didn't have to admit it; but then he did: the Savior had it wrong because in northwest Iowa at least, building on sand is mucho-better than building on rock (of which there isn't much anyway).

Sand drains, you know. Sand is forgiving. Sand doesn't require black gunpowder. Sand is much, much easier on equipment. Your lot is a wonderful place because building a house on sand is good thing.

He's the one who said it. Not me.

Of course, what's under our feet out the back door isn't Lake Michigan beach, the stuff you can tread all day and still go nowhere. Our dirt's sandy-ness is relative to the sticky black stuff in the neighborhood, the stuff called Primghar, hard-as-rock-dirt a summer's drought away from straight-up granite. What we have under us is sandy when compared to the rich loess topsoil people say you simply can't get enough of.  It's sandy because it's clear that not much grows from it, and just about everything grows in Iowa otherwise. It's sand from the river in our back yard.

Our sand is not a great host for soybeans and may well require mechanical showering if you want to grow corn; but it sure enough makes for a great house bed--at least that's what he told us, this good Christian builder. 

Look for yourself.

Jesus was a carpenter's son. He probably picked up a hammer, may have even tried his hand at a house or two. But he didn't live in Iowa, and he likely wasn't talking about a lot just north of Alton when he said what he did about the bumbling of building on sand.

He had something more fundamental in mind, I guess, so we'll excuse him for not getting it right. In a way he was writing something like fiction, not a builder's manual; and sometimes fiction tells the truth in ways the fact don't or can't. Okay, I'm prejudice on that one.

Anyway, twice in a month I heard sermons about the horrors of a sandy foundation and I didn't say a word, even though I knew there was some Christ-like overstatement in the parable. Of course, neither of the pastors mentioned that Jesus was, in a matter of speaking, well, wrong. 

And He wasn't, of course. Not about big stuff.  He wasn't talking about a lot on the Floyd River. He had other things in mind, big things, stuff for sermons, I guess.

Besides, what's under us isn't about to blow away.  

I think He'd like that and so would two preachers--and a builder.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Amache on the Santa Fe Trail

There's really little to see but row after row after row of foundations, like this one, a procession of perfectly rectangular shapes angling down a slope toward what once was the front door of the Amache Relocation Camp. If you get there in a week or two, the place will still be festooned with wildflowers that put a smiley face on the whole place.

Check it out.

It's really much, much bigger than you can imagine, but then it had to be, holding as many as 10,000 Japanese-Americans, Japanese we thought--the rest of us--far too vulnerable to their own inborn nationalism to side with the U.S. of A., during World War II.  Good night, some still spoke Japanese?

So we built camps like this one, ten of them, in addition to transforming race tracks and other plots of ground elsewhere; and we filled them with Japanese-Americans.

One can only imagine how much distrust, how much hate was created by the December 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor; but if you stand on the broad ground of Amache Relocation Center, just outside of Granada, Colorado, some morning, and look up and down the rows of foundations, you can still feel some animosity, something of the hate that must have arisen.

I am for the immediate removal of every Japanese on the West Coast to a point deep in the interior. I don't mean a nice part of the interior either. Herd 'em up, pack 'em off and give 'em the inside room in the badlands... Personally, I hate the Japanese. And that goes for all of them.
So wrote newspaper columnist Henry McLemore.

There were other reasons as well, selfish reasons.

We're charged with wanting to get rid of the Japs for selfish reasons. We do. It's a question of whether the white man lives on the Pacific Coast or the brown men. They came into this valley to work, and they stayed to take over... If all the Japs were removed tomorrow, we'd never miss them in two weeks, because the white farmers can take over and produce everything the Jap grows. And we do not want them back when the war ends, either.
That's what the head of a California agricultural association told the Saturday Evening Post is 1942.

There were 10,000 people here, in hundreds of rudely constructed barracks, ten thousand men and women and kids who had other lives up and down the west coast, all of them herded to places like this because of racial hatred and deep fear.

Just about everything is gone now, so many years later, but the absence of people and places have not emptied the place of voices, especially if you're alone. Once the place was a city. Once thousands crowded into its mess halls, worked its gardens, created its newspaper, maintained a place that became, for better or for worse, home for years. Babies were born, people died right here.

To call Amache a concentration camp is going too far. Amache wasn't an American Bergen-Belzen, nor anything close to the death factory at Auschwitz. The men who poured the cement for the endless foundations that sit awkwardly in the prairie grass at Ameche these days were not creating a death camp. The world knows about death camps.

But the images are stunningly reminiscent.

Because once upon a time, just outside of a tiny little town called Granada, Colorado, 10,000 people were surrounded by a fence and watched closely by armed guards in towers just like this one. In 1942, after a day that has, as Roosevelt said, lived in infamy, hate grew from the flames of Pearl Harbor, and hundreds of thousands of Japanese-Americans, most of them second and third generation, were herded up to places like this, where they bunked with dozens of others in habitation we still call "barracks," dozens and dozens and dozens of barracks.

There's a cemetery at Amache, a few stones set there by parents with broken hearts, parents who laid to rest their children. But there's also a small stone monument that celebrates the gift camp residents gave to a country who thought they might be traitors.

It's hard to imagine, but it's true--31 residents of Amache camp volunteered for military service and gave their lives to the country that took them from their homes and marched them to camp outside a little Colorado prairie town. The enlisted to fight for a country who opened a fenced gate, showed them their assigned barracks, told them where to sleep, then left, shut and locked the gate behind them, and made sure the men in the towers were armed and ready lest there be some sort of insurrection.

But then, ironies abound at Amache camp, where today there are no more people, only spirits, spirits abounding. I don't know Japanese funeral rites, but you may have noticed the coins on the grave of the child, above, as well as the shape of the decorative cemetery sculpture, perfectly and dynamically Japanese, as if asserting self-hood and beloved identity.

And there's an apple tree right there in the graveyard, small and well-kept, a tree that right now is bearing apples in the middle of all that emptiness, in the place where the camp's dead are buried and its heroes celebrated. Somehow, all alone that morning, I couldn't help thinking that that tree--like the wildflowers--was a blessing.

Because, Lord knows, it's easy to be jaded when you stand out there on the empty plains in a place where once there was a city of 10,000, the tenth biggest city in Colorado, a city that was, in fact, a prison. When you stand out there alone, it's not difficult to confuse Amache and Dachau.

Just imagine, this endless procession of empty foundations, is a hop, skip, and a jump from what once was the most famous highway in America, the Santa Fe Trail, the domain of Kit Carson and a host of other iconic Western heroes. What could be more American than "the way west"?

And there it is.  There's Amache.

It's hard to forget.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Sunday Morning Meds--Begging Bread

“I was young and now I am old, 
yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken 
or their children begging bread.”
Psalm 37

“Piety gave birth to prosperity,” Cotton Mather once wrote (or words similar to those), “and the child devoured the mother.”  But then, Cotton Mather really believed that his beloved Puritan theocracy got shipwrecked by the diminished righteousness of the children of New England’s “visible saints.”  The new-found wealth of the second and third generations of the Puritans simply destroyed orthodoxy and faith itself. 

He may have been right, of course, but then, as President Bill Clinton might say, a whole lot depends on what one means by righteousness.

We could twist this verse of Psalm 37 into something entirely different from what David likely intended if we listened to European history or, for that matter, Professor Max Weber, who, a century ago already, argued that capitalism and its myriad excesses descended, in no small part, from the Protestant work ethic. It goes like this: great piety creates a deep sense of calling, commitment to task; but once the piety fades, what’s left the industry, the work ethic; and that work ethic is the dynamo that empowers capitalism. 

Odd to think of Max Weber and Cotton Mather sitting down somewhere and agreeing, but their arguments aren’t that distanced. And those arguments are a far cry from what King David claims to have experienced in his life. The children of the righteous, Mather and Weber might argue, don’t beg, not because of God’s faithfulness, but because they come heir to generous fortunes created by their righteous parents’ commitment to work.
Throughout the psalms, it’s not so common to hear David reflect in the way he does here—as if he’s sitting in Sun City, fingers arched over a keyboard, reflecting on the life that stretches behind him. I like that picture. He’s trying his best to convince us of the basic melody of the whole song—that God almighty loves the righteous fully as much as he hates the wicked. And what’s crucial in Psalm 37 is that you can see it—that’s his point. You can see it all around, if you just look. Observe the plight of the wicked and the prosperity of the righteous, he says. In all my life I’ve never seen the righteous forsaken, or their children begging bread, he says.

End of story.

But even Charles Spurgeon has his doubts about what we might call David’s hyperbolic claim. Spurgeon says that what David sees may well be what he saw during his lifetime, but it’s not what Spurgeon observed. Nor can I say that it’s what I’ve seen. Good people suffer. Good people readily feel forsaken—and often. In hurricanes and floods and wars and persecution, good people are swept out of their homes by tidal surges that seem brewed up only by the Devil, not the loving hands of God. Bad things happen to good people.

But our doubt of the specifics here, or of David’s rhetoric, “does not cast doubt upon the observation of David,” Spurgeon says with reference to this verse. “Never are the righteous forsaken,” he writes; “that is a rule without exception.”

David isn’t so much stretching the truth as he is pounding it home. What’s behind his almost unbelievable claims is the central truth of God’s love to those who love him: “Be not afraid.”

Here and everywhere in scripture, that’s the bottom line. Sometimes, in scripture as in life, you’ve got to get behind the words to find the truth.

Friday, August 15, 2014

The interview as a work of art

For two reasons, his interview was out of the ordinary. First, it was obvious before we even began to record that he'd actually read the book. I'm sure that if I were a radio guy, I wouldn't take the time to read every book I was reviewing on air; after all, there are certain obligatory questions you wouldn't even have to write out to remember: 

"Where did you get the idea for these stories?"

"What's your writing schedule look like?"

"Do you write on a notepad in a coffee shop or hammer away on a computer?"

"How old were you when you knew you wanted to write?"


I don't doubt for a moment that one could do a fairly thorough job of interviewing a writer or two, or three or six or eighteen, with the very same list on the very same single sheet of paper.

The second reason this interview wasn't ordinary was that he had a chunk of the book in his hand, a chunk of a story on a couple of sheets of paper because he wanted me to read a long passage he'd chosen himself. I don't remember doing an interview with someone who actually wanted me to read. When first he brought up the idea, I thought he was kidding. 

He wasn't. I did. I read the passage he'd chosen.

And then it was over. "That ought to do it," he said, or something similar. I was surprised, not because it hadn't taken all that long--I knew he had more copy than he needed--but because he hadn't asked those standard questions, not one, not once. 

I'd read a long passage from one of the stories, and he nodded approvingly when it was over, even indicated he was moved--and honestly I think he was.  

The interview he created was broadcast this week. He took what he'd recorded and sculpted it into a work of art, really. He added the whoosh of passing cars and an endearing rendition of the kind of Genevan Psalm that rises from the story; and what the interview became, what it is--this news feature about a new book by a local writer--is just plain beautiful.

I know--I'm hardly objective. But listen yourself. It's about eight minutes long even though the music continues to play. 

Tell me I'm wrong, but I think it's just plain beautiful.

Here it is.  His name? Mark Munger, from KWIT, Sioux City, IA.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Wasicu at Chankpe Opi: A White Man at Wounded Knee VII

Now look down at the sign where the reservation roads cross, three hundred yards from where we’re standing. In summer, you might see a car or two. Go ahead. Walk down. People there beneath a brush arbor—Lakota people—will be happy to sell you some keepsake from your visit.

I have one—a little cowhide drum, two inches across, decorated with beaded fringe and hand-painted on both sides—on one, the image of a red drum; on the other, the words “Wounded Knee” painted in above a single eagle feather, two dates, one on either side—“1890” and “1973.”

Cost me twenty dollars. I bought it from an angular man in a Western shirt who had three of them strung over his hand when he showed me his goods. His dark, expressionless face was pockmarked, his eyes blood-lit. I am sad to say he looked far too much like the caricature some of us hold of reservation people today.

“My wife makes them,” he told me slowly, handing me the one that now hangs on my wall. He pointed into an old Ford parked just ten feet away. I looked into the interior where she was sitting on the passenger’s side. She didn’t move, her head bowed as if she were asleep. Maybe it was my own sinful prejudice, but I couldn’t help think the worst.

I picked a crisp twenty out of my billfold and handed it to him. He took it and left. I suppose the next day he would return with the other two he’d shown me.

I don’t know that I can unpack the whole meaning of that single twenty-dollar transaction—what percentage of what I gave him may have come from pity, what percentage from blood guilt, what percentage from the very real desire to take some icon home to remember Wounded Knee. I honestly cannot interpret my own motives, in part because I don’t know that I want to look that closely into my own heart.

But I’m happy that little cowhide drum is here beside me as I write these words, not because it’s cute—it isn’t. I have no doubt that some enterprising wasicu could create a kiosk and churn out Wounded Knee kitsch far more marketable—refrigerator magnets, ball-point pens with pinto ponies that run up and down the shaft. But there’s something about the people who sold it to me that I can’t forget, just as surely as the tawny prairie landscape all around and the entire awful story that gives the valley its ghostly life. Mystery and the sadness are here in my little buckskin drum, a drum that really doesn’t sound.

Mostly, at Wounded Knee, there is silence. When you visit, you won’t read or hear many words at all. If you’re white and you want to understand, you’ll have to look deeply into your own heart, stare into your deepest values, listen to the songs you sing, examine the history your family has lived and the faith you celebrate.

Maybe it’s best to simply to simply stand in awe at Wounded Knee and pray with your silence. That’s not easy. We’re not good at lamentations. White folks would much rather see Wounded Knee as a battle than a massacre, as we have, officially, for more than a century.

Look up. Somewhere in that vast azure dome a jet will be cutting a swath across the openness. Inside, three hundred people are sipping Cokes, reading Danielle Steele, watching a movie. Some are sleeping. Some are traveling home.

Do the math. Count them yourself—the thousands each day that only incidentally glance out from corner-less airplane windows as they pass over the spot we’re standing. Then look around and see how alone you are up here on the hill with four silent Hotchkiss guns.

Maybe we’d all rather not know. We’d all rather fly over Wounded Knee.

Visit sometime. Leave the kids at home. Welcome the silence. Stand here for an hour until the keening, the death songs, rise from the ravines as they once did. Look out over nearly a thousands ghosts assembled in space so open it’s almost frightening. 

Stand here alone for awhile, and I swear that what you’ll read in the flow of prairie grasses and hear in the spirit of the wind is that, really, despite the tracks of those jets in the skies above and the immensity of silence all around, once upon a time every last one of us was here.
This essay was published initially in Books and Culture.