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.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

"King of the Jews" -- iii

Ted's defenses buckle finally, as what happened--what he'd try to hide from himself--rushes back into his life. He is, once again, helpless. 

Cut the grass, Ted thought. Keep it up. The French towns, the Belgian villages, the German countryside--it was already destroyed by the time his unit was chasing Krauts across Europe. Today nothing there could possibly look the same, nothing at all. Everything would be different. It would all be gone--every sign of what was there.

"You know," Mark said, "I always thought they died in a tight little clump or something--like 'circle up the wagons,' you know? Like they all died together, but they didn't," Mark said. "It was much worse than that, man."

"How do you know so much?" Ted said.

"Read," Mark said, without really thinking. "Maybe it would have been nice, you know--I mean, if they'd all died together." He raised his eyebrows, almost as if he'd like a chance to rewrite history. "Maybe it would have been easier."

"Maybe," Ted said. "How come you want to know about all of this?"

Mark jerked his head backward quickly. "You guys like me to read," he said. "But you want to know what really gets me?" He stopped, folded his arms across his chest and looked at his father closely, eyes squinting in that deadly serious, still childish way, Ted thought. "After it was over and they were all dead, the Sioux squaws came up--and the kids too," he said, and just like that he stopped, looked down at his fingernails, chewed them. He stood there for a minute, then laughed as if to cover something he wasn't proud of.

"So what?" Ted said. "What are you saying?"

"They, like, finished the job, Dad," he said.

"I don't get it."

"I mean, like the one who weren't dead--the women killed them. Sometimes they bashed their faces with clubs so dumb hard that the men couldn't even be identified."

"It was something he'd thought through, Ted thought, something that had burrowed into his mind and stayed there when maybe it should have blown away. "What do you mean, Mark?" he said.

"The women, Dad--and the kids." He threw up his hands as if nothing more could be said. "They sliced up people--the women did. Cut off their arms and the squaws cut off men's head. Even other parts, Dad." He shook his head and shut his eyes as if the thought alone had blinded him. "Isn't that awful? They were hacked to pieces. They weren't even identifiable--the women ripped off all their clothes."

Ted stood beside his son, rubbing his hands.

"Here's what I think, Dad," Mark told him, trying to figure somehow, as he always did. "I think it proves they were really savages."

"All Indians?" Ted asked.

"Yes," Mark told him. "Maybe not today anymore, but when the white people came to this land, some of those tribes were really stone-age, Dad. I'm not kidding."

"What do you mean, savages?"

"The women and children chopped off their heads, Dad--that's what I'm telling you."

For his son's sake, Ted tried to imagine what it might have looked like out there: a swarm of women and children hacking away at bloodied bodies, the gentle sloping landscape unfurling violence, Indian woman shaking limp legs from gray wool pants, flashing long knives over hair soaked in blood.

And then it happened. He was visited by a memory. Walls formed on an endless prairie vista, and soft grass melted into a thick and slimy morass, the stench of mud and excrement. The sky closed over him as if someone had drawn a final curtain, and he heard the sounds of Babel. Naked men, thighs no thicker than sapling birch and messed with shit. Eyes that seemed gouged. Hairless, sexless prisoners who stared at GIs as if his men were aliens. A man offered him a cigarette he took because he felt obliged to honor the only gift the prisoner could offer. Many were crying, not in joy but in disbelief that whatever hell they'd been in was gone now with liberation.

Babel. Confusion of tongues. Whole rotting barracks full of men cowering in shit and mud, grieving, it seemed, at death's having abandoned them. Madness. Anger. Screams. His men carried the dying outside into the sun, some screaming as if to have to live were horror.

Friday, January 30, 2015

"King of the Jews" ii

When father and his son Mark visit Little Big Horn, Mark's love of history shows, front and center. But Ted is quiet. He's suffering from PTSD, of course, long before people used those initials. What happened him when at war--what he did himself--is something he's not spoken of. But standing once again on a battlefield, even though the battle that happened there was so removed from Europe in 1944 and 1945, something triggers memories he's tried not to keep. It happens very slowly, Mark, a boy, totally unaware.

The scene will continue tomorrow.

Little Big Horn is a place on the prairie so featureless it is difficult to imagine something as significant as Custer's famous last stand could have happened there. On a moody, cloudy day one has trouble discerning earth from sky. Here and there, occasional ragged clumps of trees saunter up to the bank of the Little Big Horn creek and sprout on the face of the land like unruly sideburns. Some of Custer's men, facing inevitable death, tried to run or ride to cover in those patchy groves. Some even made it, but they died anyway, flushed like rabbits from a thicket. Just outside of those clumps of trees, the men who cleaned up in the wake of the battle found bodies that looked like porcupines, a grotesque bouquet of arrows blossoming from their chests.

Ted Bennink was there in 1968, when his son Mark, then only 16, made it very clear that as long as they were in the Black Hills anyway for their annual vacation, he and his father really should go a ways farther west into Montana and actually see the battle field he'd read so much about.

Too many TV Westerns made Ten envision Little Big Horn as more mountainous than it is, the battlefield it self more secret, hidden. But once he got there he realized that no soldier could hide very long at the Little Big Horn. The two of them stood on a blacktop walk and surveyed the very spot where nearly a century before, hundreds of troops at Custer's command were slaughtered. Ted, of course, had little interest in war of any kind. Mark, as always, jabbered.

"You can go through here with one of those metal detectors, and you still find bullets," he said. "Only it's illegal now. It would have to be or everybody'd do it. Shoot, I would. Wouldn't that be great?--you find this buckle or something, maybe one of those metal insignias all those cavalry guys wore on their hats--"

"You're thinking of the Civil War," Ted said.

"No, I'm not. You've seen them on TV."

"This isn't TV," Ted told his son.

I know, but they had those insignias--two crossed swords. Right up here," he pointed to his forehead. "You can buy them in the Visitor's Center--"

"Replicas," Ted said.

"Of course," Mark said, "but what I'm saying is, wouldn't it be great to take a metal detector out here and really find something like that--something right from the battle?"

Mark was a model student, a basketball star, junior class president. He was such a fine athlete that just six months later he got a scholarship to Drake University, where the coach told him that even if he couldn't dribble, the university would have given him a full-ride. That's the kind of kid he was. Today he teaches at Drake, history in fact.

"They still don't know why Custer attacked when he did," he told his father, although the information wasn't meant necessarily for Ted. It was a lecture that just spilled out of him, even though he still had a year of high school ahead of him. "It really made no sense," Mark said. "The whole encampment was much bigger than anything any 'white eyes' had ever seen."

"'White eyes?'" Ted said, chuckling.

"Some people figure he didn't' have a clue as to how many Indians there really were." All during this lecture, he never really looked at Ted, and he was completely oblivious to the fact that in a matter of minutes he'd drawn a student body, other tourists lining up and listening in, as if Mark were the tour guide. "Some people think that once he attacked the village, he realized it was like trying to take on a whole city. But he didn't know until he started firing." He shook his head. "How'd you like that, Dad? You ride in thinking you're going to scare up the hostiles and it's really something huge--like the LA of Indians."

"He was cocky, wasn't he?" some guy asked, a man holding an unruly child while trying to light a cigarette. "He did it because he was chasing down glory, wasn't he?"

Mark never batted an eye. "He was cocky, I guess--at least from what you read."

The man tumbled the child into his left arm and straightened out his T-shirt. When the kid reached for the cigarette, he leaned his jaw away from the little fist. "I always thought he was cocky. I always thought it was just a helluva good case of cockiness," the guy said.

Ted tried to look straight at him as if to warn the man that such language wasn't appropriate.

"He had a white horse, didn't he?" the man said. "Think of that out here--a white horse! Damn, you're asking to take bullets." He flipped his hand around toward the open fields as if there were nothing at all around him. "Look at this!--geez, what the hell would make a man want a white stallion in a God-forsaken place like this?" He laughed in outright disbelief. The child was scrambling, almost out of control. "Whyn't you sit still and learn something for once?" the man said to the child.

Both Ted and Mark were bothered by the man, so together they started to walk back to the car. But Mark couldn't really loosen himself from the grip of the place. "I don't think anybody knows for sure whether he rode a white horse," he said. "Some people believe everything they read."

In the air was the fresh smell of cut grass. They'd seen lawn mowers all over, men in park shirt keeping everything up, the whole place picture perfect, just like it once was, Ted thought. They want to keep all this just like it was a hundred years ago.

The ranger had claimed that the actual trees that once stood in clumps along the Little Big Horn were completely gone now, but what had grown in their place made the whole area look quite similar to what they might have seen nearly a century before. "When you stand out there at the viewpoint overlooking the main battlefield, just imagine that what you're seeing isn't much different from what any cavalryman would have seen when he came up on this place ninety years ago." Mark had soaked it all in. "Other than thousands of Indian teepees that is, the place looks very, very similar."

Thursday, January 29, 2015

King of the Jews

We'll be out of town for a while, so I'm going to run an old story of mine, a story from Secrets of Barneveld Calvary titled "The King of the Jews." It's a tough story, but it features redemption after a long slog in muddy human misery. 

This week the world remembered the camps once again when it refused to forget the liberation of Auschwitz/Birkenau. This story is about the camps.

I don't know why exactly, but once upon a time when I was teaching an interim at Calvin College, I found a book in the library that told the story of what had happened when Allied forces liberated the concentration camp at Dachau.  I was shocked because what happened isn't pretty. Misdeeds led to military discipline, but you can't help think this is one of those moments in life when what's diabolically wrong somehow seems right. 

If all stories begin with "what if?"--and I think they do--then this one starts here:  what if the man who allowed cold-blooded murder lived somehow just down the street in a small, Dutch Reformed town? what would he be like? how would he find forgiveness?  

It's a made-up story stem to stern, but what happens in the story at Dachau actually happened at Dachau.  It begins with an obituary from a small-town newspaper.

Ted Bennink
Theodore "Ted" Bennink died Tuesday night, in his sleep, of a heart attack he suffered at home.

He was 72 years old. He is survived by his loving wife, Katharine, his stepson, Art, of Riverside, California; his daughter, Marie, of Bellflower, California, and his son Dr. Mark, of Des Moines; by ten grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.

Mr. Bennink was born April 26, 1918, to Pete and Ella Bennink, who lived six miles north of Neukirk. He was preceded in death by his parents, two brothers, and three sisters. Before World War II, he worked on his father's farm. When he returned from three years of service in Europe, and as a result of wounds suffered in Germany, he became a shoe repairman and the owner of Ted's Shoes, a Main Street business in Neukirk for many years. He retired in 1983.

Mr. Bennink was a member of First Christian Reformed Church, Neukirk, where he served God's people faithfully for many years as an elder. He is remembered by his family as a kind man, a loving father, and a dedicated follower of Jesus Christ our Lord. His life was a wonderful witness to the love of God. Blessed to the Lord are the lives of his saints.
There is no reason to read the funeral arrangements since Mr. Bennink was dutifully committed to the earth from which he came more than a year ago already. His children have long ago returned to their respective homes and lives, and his widow is visited almost daily by many loving friends who know her grief. When she wakes in the morning, she has already begun to remember that the man she married so long ago, is no longer a room away, sitting alone at the kitchen table over an open Bible, his daily ritual for all of those years they lived together happily as husband and wife.

He's the last of the Benninks in Neukirk, so it's likely even his name will be forgotten soon enough, although it is engraved on a bronze plaque set in the ground beneath a 75 mm Howitzer the city picked up for shipping costs from the Army following the war, a battle gun that had never made it out of the country, in fact. Only old folks remember Ted Bennink's name, even today. "The man with the big broom beard," someone younger might say; "owned the shoe store." Ted stuck a buffalo nickel to the counter top years ago, laid it down there with the toughest glue he could find. Generations of Neukirk kids tried to grab that nickel when he wasn't looking, but they never got it, of course. Even though the shop's been sold already for several years, that buffalo nickel is still there and it still won't move.

"First Lieutenant Ted Bennink" the plaque in the park says, directly beneath the name of Pvt. Charles Attema, the man whose wife Ted married five years after Pvt. Attema died when his plane crashed over the English channel in 1942. Not once in Ted's life did he even glance at the plaque across the road from his shoe shop, even though he'd seen the Howitzer out of the corner of his eye at least once a day from the broad front window of the store. He avoided that plaque, just as he avoided thinking about the war--not anxiously but deliberately, with the same sense of determined ritual with which he'd written out his life's daily pattern of personal morning devotions, something he'd learned from his father.

He never looked at that bronze plague, never saw his name in gold, never wanted to, because when the war was over, when Ted was back home again, his hip in constant pain from the bullets he'd taken, he alone knew very well that he was no more a First Lieutenant than was Pvt. Attema, the man whose wife he'd begun to court. That plaque does not tell the truth, and there lies the story of Ted Bennink, a Neukirk story that should be told and must be remembered.

Tomorrow:  Father and son at the Little Big Horn battlefield

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Morning Thanks -- Memories

I have some sympathies for the denyers. Wouldn't life be more grand if the whole damned story weren't true? I mean, I'd much rather believe that all of it didn't happen, that some of the world's most learned folks--some of its finest artists, musicians, engineers, philosophers, its best and brightest--didn't fall for that awful, evil lie just like everyone else, the lie sold across the land, the lie that some people caused all the problems the rest of the people faced and that therefore the rest of us would be better off if those who caused our problems were no longer considered people.  

Think of the sheer number of men and women it took to build all of this. Think of the willful abandonment of moral character, think of the many who went to church every Sunday or to mass, then returned to their jobs here come Monday morning--building the place, keeping it up, hauling away what garbage couldn't be burned, supervising its residence halls. Try to imagine what kind of moral and mental and emotional denial must have been operating in the minds of hundreds of the thousands of people who made the barbed wire, forged the steel, set the bricks, squared the windows.

Never in the history of mankind have so many smart people designed, built, and then run such immense factories created for no other purpose than the death of fellow human beings. Good, strong German minds went into this. Fine German engineers designed the buildings, the stoves, the gas chambers. Thoughtful men and women carried out every task, then went home and read Goethe or listened to Bach or Wagner.

Ordinary people were doing what they'd come to actually believe were ordinary things.

And it was all about death and they were murderers.

Seventy years ago, the death camps at Auschwitz and Birkinau were liberated. 

Who wouldn't rather forget? All of this isn't about Germans either. It's about human beings. Who wouldn't really wish human beings hadn't done what they did to other human beings? Who wouldn't rather deny this place even existed.

But it did.

This morning I'm thankful for knowing someone very, very well who spent some time in a death camp, who lost her fiance to starvation at Dachau, a woman who would want me to say right now that no one should ever forget. 

Hair from prisoners at Auschwitz

Tuesday, January 27, 2015


I've got less hair, Barb's much more svelte, I rarely wear shoes, there's no ash tray, and the cat's a gray tabby. Okay, I admit it--I'd probably be nodding off, and, sadly enough, we'd have no such almond cookies, but we'd love it if we did. 

Otherwise, ja, it's about right. 

from Marius van Dokkum, whose charming illustrations you can find here.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Morning Thanks--Soldiers of the Cross

Edward Hodder, author of
"Thy Word is like a Garden, Lord"

It's all gone now, even the church where it happened, Sunday morning after Sunday morning. As soon as the house would clear, kids would wander back in and find a place in the pews. It was the early fifties, before most churches had education wings, so a number of Sunday School classes in the old church I attended would simply meet in the sanctuary and talk over each other. My class sat up front left. 

The superintendent would smack a little bell that sat just beneath the pulpit, hit it three or four times to bring us to relative order. Some woman would pull out the piano bench, west side, take a seat and reach for the Psalter. Then, before prayer, the super would ask for favorites.


Week after week, someone would choose "Onward Christian Soldiers"--that's what I remember, and that's why I even remember the number.  "449!"--week after week after week. 

I plugged in an exclamation point because I may have been too young to recognize a prank. I don't wince when that number chimes up from my memory, and I would have if I knew some naughty kid was deliberately driving the Super crazy by choosing it every last Sabbath morning. 

I may be wrong but I think those kids who yelled out that number made sure to choose "Onward Christian Soldiers" because they just plain liked the song. I did. No one chose the plodding old psalms (The Psalter Hymnal" the purple cover said in ancient gothic lettering); basically, it was "Stand Up for Jesus" ("ye soldiers of the cross") and "Onward Christian Soldiers" every Sunday, both of them old, red-blooded fightin' songs, a genre of hymnody dead as a doornail today. Only those fellowships ball-and-chained to the past would sing those old hymns anymore, but "Onward" got us second-graders up from the old pews, blasting away.

Yesterday, we happened to sing a hymn I'd never sung before, a song whose origins are rooted in the American Civil War, which would make "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," an army buddy. "Thy Word is Like a Garden, Lord" describes the Bible with four memorable similes, the first is the title. Then in succession come three others: "the Word is like a deep, deep mine," ". . .a starry host," and ". . .an armory." The last one has no grammatical parallelism because, unfortunately, armory lugs three syllables into the meter all by itself. 

Here's the line:
Thy Word is like an armory, where soldiers may repair;
And find, for life’s long battle day, all needful weapons there.
You've got to be at war to use language like that comfortably. America happens to be, of course, but not in the way we were during the War Between the States or WWII.  I'm not complaining, but I wonder whether any other evangelical fellowship in the nation sang that hymn yesterday. Military weaponry are certainly no metaphors of choice these days and haven't been since, well, since I was a boy.

The final stanza of this 150-year-old hymn retraces the steps of its similes, two of the four lines given to the military:
Oh, may I love Thy precious Word, may I explore the mine,
May I its fragrant flowers glean, may light upon me shine!
Oh, may I find my armor there! Thy Word my trusty sword,
I’ll learn to fight with every foe the battle of the Lord.
It's a mixed bag of similes, don't you think?--flowers and stars, battles and gold mines.
But it got me thinking. I'm guessing kids don't choose "449" anymore because they don't--we don't--think of ourselves as soldiers of the cross. Some do, I'm sure, but in the thousands of new songs that amateur musicians rain down on the rest of us every Sunday, few ditties, if any, will steadfastly affirm that we are "in the Lord's armyyyyyy" flailing away "in the battle of the Lord."

No Mennonites anyway, but very few of the rest of us either, you think?

We just don't talk that way. But when we sang those words yesterday, a single hymnal number appeared in full battle gear in my memory.  And for that memory, this morning I'm thankful.

I'll let the task of determining whether our acculturation is (or was) good (or bad) up to you. 

Talk amongst yourselves.

Better yet, sing. 
Here's a rather nice setting of this old hymn. It runs four minutes, but you might just find it sweet.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Sunday Morning Meds--In the bones

“My bones suffer mortal agony as my foes taunt me, 
saying to me all day long, 
‘Where is your God?’"  Psalm 42:10

I am, regretfully, descended from a distinguished line of fulsome hypochondriacs.  A former minister of ours, who was once my grandfather’s preacher, once told me that a half century ago, when my grandfather was felled suddenly by a heart attack, an old friend of both of them appeared shocked. “Maybe he was sick—we should have believed him for all those years,” that friend said.        

It’s in the genes, I guess.  Maybe I shouldn’t go that far.  Can hypochondria be in the genes?  Talk amongst yourselves.

My mother had it too, as any of her kids will tell you.  There was always something ailing her, for as long as I can remember.  The doctor could never quite find it, which meant she just saw more of them.  My mother—bless her soul and I loved her dearly—was a good argument for nationalized medicine.

Maybe I have it too—I’d like to think not, but who knows?  When first we were married and living in Arizona, I started thinking my arrhythmia, a condition I’ve had for as long as I can remember, was developing into something awful.  It’s embarrassing to admit it, but I was under some stress at the time, adjusting to my own newly married status and unsure of myself in graduate school, neither of which, today, seem all that life-threatening. 

I went to see a doctor—we’d just moved so someone I’d never seen before.  He took some tests, shrugged his shoulders, and said that I needed someone to tell me I wasn’t sick.  Which he did.  End of symptoms.  Just call me my mother’s child.

Maybe David’s talk about pain in this verse—“bones in mortal agony”--is overstatement.  He’s trying to make a point about his spiritual anguish, drawing on his poetic license.  It’s a figure of speech.

On the other hand, maybe his physical pain is hypochondria.  The tentacles of his stress reach into his joints, his muscles, even his bones.  He hurts all over.

Maybe depression—his deep sense of alienation from God—is the occasion for his physical ailments.  Maybe he’s got thyroid problems, a frequent association.  Maybe he had some chronic pain—an old war injury—before he felt “down in the dumps.”  Chronic pain often accompanies or even triggers depression.

My sisters and I often shook our heads in wonder at our longsuffering father, who always appeared to believe my mother’s phantom pains were real.  He must have learned—as we had to—that denying those pains was never going to get him or her anywhere because what Mom felt in her bones—real or not—was always real.

Good doctors will admit that we are all more than the sum of our physical parts.  In hospitals all over the world, miracles still happen; and we call them that because we don’t know—nobody does—how human will intersects with our physicality.

That’s why I believe David, even though I’m a veteran scoffer.  The pain he felt in being seemingly abandoned by God crept, cancer-like, into every atom of his fiber.  He could feel God’s absence in his bones, in his cartelage. 

I don’t think it’s overstatement.  God seemed gone, and that pain, to him, was real—as it can be to us, hypochondriacs all.

Can there be a great pain for those who believe he’s always near? 

Friday, January 23, 2015

"Out of Africa" -- Covenant children

The Christian Missionary Alliance says that its people first brought the gospel to the west African country of Mali in 1923. But if you think of Mali as just a bit smaller in size than Alaska, then you have to realize that CMA missionaries couldn't exactly swarm the place. Even today, almost ninety years later, less than one percent of Mali is Christian, a fact which suggests that while the CMA's work has not been in vain, Mali has been, traditionally speaking, stony ground. 

When exactly those missionaries got to the Dogon people, I don't know; but it's not likely the Dogons were first because Dogon people live in small communities of several hundred or so built into the Bandiagara Cliffs, a sandstone geological anomaly that belongs to the Bandiagara Escarpment, a ridge 500 feet high 150 kilometers-long in southern Mali. Some of those villages look greatly like those created long ago by indigenous cliff dwellers in the Southwestern United States.

There's no freeway to get to those villages and never has been. Because the only way to get there is walking paths, even today the Dogon people are significantly isolated and have therefore a long and proud history of staying out of the picture when it comes to change of any kind. 

And they've had opportunities. Most of Mali--90 percent of it--is Muslim. Not the Dogon. They didn't fall under Islam's spell when, in the ninth century, Muslim merchants began spreading their faith throughout the region. The Dogon people held fast to their nativist religion, still do.

But sometime after 1923, at least one Dogon man converted to Christianity by way of CMA missionaries. Just imagine the rejoicing.  

To him, conversion was costly. When he became a believer, his two wives simply walked away. Such behavior was conventional, even assumed. He paid a price for his faith, but he believed, and didn't stop believing.

That man had a son, who, marvelously, became a preacher, missionary, a circuit rider, an itinerant among his own. He traveled extensively along the escarpment, village to cliff-dwelling village, bringing the gospel with him. Gradually, over time, more Dogon converted, but not hoards or hundreds. Thousands of years of self-imposed isolation made the Dogon deeply resistant to any outside interference, even the slavers who came down and raided black African villages to take all kinds of tribal peoples back as little more than cattle. 

But there was this one man at least, and then there was his son, too, who also became a committed Christian and eventually a powerhouse Dogon missionary, a man sometimes so devoted to bringing Christ to his people that he managed to forget his own family. This good man preached and preached and preached but brought home so very little daily bread that his children far too often went hungry.

That's something the great preacher's son remembers all too well. Once upon a time, he says, he came home from school depressed, skin-and-bones, absolutely nothing in his stomach. Starvation makes for a sorry life, and he remembers all too well having nothing to eat for far too long. Think, if you will, of a thousand photos of starving African children--any one of them could well have been the preacher's little boy. 

Here's the thing. That little boy's uncle--another Dogon Christian--had managed to bring over a bundle of food that morning, enough to quell the anger in the boy's stomach. When today, almost 50 years later, he remembers that startling discover, food sitting there on the otherwise barren table, he thinks of that gift as a miracle brought into their starving lives by none other than the Lord God almighty.

Twenty years ago, that boy had become an adult, trained nurse professional named Indielou Dougnon, who along with his wife, used to pull on their rucksacks and climb on a dirt bike, the two of them together, to visit scattered villages you wouldn't even know were there if someone hadn't shown you, villages so far out in the bush there were no paths at all to get there. Together, they'd bike vaccinations to people whose children were suffering from the malaria that's endemic to the region, especially in the after-throes of the rainy seasons. 

Picture that--the two of them bringing medical aid, bringing relief, bringing life to children--and those childrens' parents--from the banana seat of a moped.

Today, with the financial help of the Luke Society, Indielou Dougnon runs an impressive medical clinic in rural Mali, just outside of a village called Keyes, where people of different tribes and different tongues come for medical help from miles and miles around--Indielou Dougnon, a Christian, a Dogon medical missionary who once was a stranger in a strange land himself, the only Dogon within hundreds of miles. 

I'd like to be able to go back to those first CMA missionaries, circa 1930, men and women who spent most of their lives camped out on really stony ground trying to deliver the goods of the gospel. It would be sweet to be able to tell them the story of this man, Indielou Dougnon. 

I'm sure they'd smile. I'm sure they'd be thrilled.  "Sure," they'd say. "Sure, praise the Lord, we knew his grandpa."

This man and his family--they're good reason for morning thanks.

Indielou Dougnon and family

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Morning Thanks--January

I know, I know--there are places on earth where at some times of the year day is night and night is day. I shouldn't complain. A long January thaw has done great mischief to the perfectly white quilt the wind spread over the land a couple of weekends ago. Our new snowshoes languish in the garage like last summer's badmitten rackets. But no one likes bone-chilling cold, so despite the dirty would outside my window, I've shouldn't gripe. Lately, winter-wise, we've been greatly blessed. 

Besides, the long johns are back in the drawer. For the last couple of days, a hoodie and a fleece vest are all you need if you venture out. In the last two weeks, Alberta's famous clippers stayed put in Yellow Knife or never brewed at all. We've been greatly blessed.

January days are still short, but the long reign of nightly darkness is receding. By the end of February, from our north windows we should be seeing the sun rise again, the bridegroom, King David called it; but it'll be a while before we see him retire--May, I suppose before we come anywhere close to another sunset right out here before our eyes. 

For the time being they're quite a ways out of the range of our windows. Once in a while as of late, I've been out at dusk and seen the landscape art God almighty puts up on his heavenly easel. I happened to catch the sky in all its stunning array and realized how much I was missing.

They're still there, but I just don't see them. Won't be long and I will. Won't be long and I'll stand just outside my door or sit on the chairs now stacked up in the back room, just sit in wonder and awe as if we just happen to live in an art museum. 

Won't be long.

Our neighbor came over yesterday to tell me what he'd discovered about the rocks they've been digging out of the quarry alongside the river out back. It seems they're the detritus of not one but two glaciers that spread thin over the region sometime between 11 and 85 thousand years ago. The most important player in that saga was the ice sheet that covered most of Canada, the Upper Midwest, and New England, in addition to other sundry parts of the North American continent, something called  "the Wisconsin Episode" (which must not be confused with what happened there after the Seattle game last week). 

Those rocks--including the ones I stacked into retaining walls around our house--are just little guys in comparison, the neighbor said, to the boulders--big ones the size of our deck, the size of our house!--that are down there beneath the ground, sometimes fifty feet or more beneath rich top soil, a "boulder train," it's called, he said, that itself marks the reach of that glacier's life and death.  Right out here.  Really. Right outside our door.

There's much more to that history, most of which I don't begin to understand; but somehow the story only enhances the miracle of creation, doesn't it?--I mean to know that there's been an art gallery here long before the Yanktons started hanging out in neighborhood of the Big Sioux; and long before a thousand Oneotas or more lived in a city of their own just an hour or so east and north, a city much, much bigger than Chicago back then. 

Even before that, the sky here and everywhere was kaleidoscopic art museum. From the day of creation, it has been. 

That's it's just now out of my view doesn't mean it wasn't there. It's been there forever in human time. 

Somehow just knowing that makes us all asterisks, don't you think?

Calvin thought that we human beings catch a glimpse of our finiteness only when we begin to see and appreciate that kind of infinity. I think he's right.  The story's in the sky and in the rocks too.

And that, this dark and cloudy morning, an hour before dawn, is itself abundant reason for morning thanks.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Communications 101

I'm not an expert, but it seems to me that those who are claim that communication requires three component parts--a sender, a message, and a sendee. Someone has to voice content, and someone else has to receive it. It's the old "if a tree falls in a forest," right?

So goes the lecture. Three parts makes a whole.

Don't believe it.

Ninety years separate these two. When my grandson is fifty years old, he'll show his grandkids this shot and let them know the old guy beside him actually farmed with horses and didn't have indoor plumbing until he was middle age. He'll say that this great-grandpa of his was born just after the First World War. Slack-jaws all around. 

That's not the lecture. Here's the lecture. What's seems to be going on here isn't. The boy is explaining Angry Birds to his great-grandpa. Ostensibly. 

In reality, at five years old, the boy isn't much of a teacher. He has absolutely no idea that his student has absolutely no idea about what happens in a computer game. See that hand up at Grandpa's ear--doesn't help. See that look of rapt attention? That's fake. Great-grandpa wouldn't understand the little guy in a thousand years. An iPad is as other worldly to him as World War I is to his great-grandson.

What's worse, even with hearing aids in, Great-grandpa is just about stone deaf. You have to yell. The boy isn't yelling. What Grandpa needs is an old-fashioned ear horn. I wonder if I can get one from Amazon. 

So let's review communication theory. The speaker is bright and precocious, but he's oblivious to his grandpa's cluelessness when it comes to Angry Birds and he doesn't understand anyway that Grandpa can't hear a word he's saying. 

Theoretically this is not communication.


Now look again. Closely.

Who gives a hang about theory?

Certainly not the boy. Certainly not Grandpa. Certainly not me.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Heavenly tourism

To call it fraud somehow gives it heft it doesn't deserve. Fraud requires some craft. This thing was like taking candy from a baby. You just had to lie well.

You can call it a hoax because what the book says never never happened. Hoax is fraud's miscreant uncle, a seedy character way up there on the yuck chart. Listen, the book is a hoax

And a scam. Because it was. Right from the getgo, The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven got itself nicely packaged and set on bookstore shelves with other testimonies in the genre of some call "heavenly tourism," stories from the beyond. (Some people use that phrase without smirking.) It's a scam. It was meant to make bucks and it did. The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven book sold a million copies to sweet, soft-hearted Christians who drew their Visa cards from their wallets the moment they heard how a darling paraplegic kid had actually seen the Lord. 

It was a fraud. Never happened. Someone, presumably the boy's father, created a hoax, a scam; and the world's largest Christian publisher, Tyndale, fell for it even though the whole tale was malarkey, which is really a heavenly irony because that's the authors' name. Seriously. The Boy Who Came Back from the Home was written, by Kevin and Alex Malarkey, or so the cover says beneath a banner headline that claims the book is "a true story."

Here's the news. It ain't. It's baloney. It's a lie. The kid never went to heaven. 

Not only that, it turns out that Mrs. Malarkey has been telling the publisher that fact and writing about the deception on her own blog for quite some time. But there are no saints in this saga, so don't think Mrs. Malarkey is Karen Silkwood toting a New Testament.

But right down there at the bottom of the mess with the father, who seemingly wrote the story, is the publisher for not jerking the book the minute a question arose, for buying the manuscript in the first place and then marketing it for nutty customers hungry for heavenly crapola. And right down there too are Christian bookstores happy to see silliness empty their shelves and ring up some profits. Times are tough, after all. 

The publisher and bookstore owners knew at least something of the hoax, but, hey, the book was selling, right? People loved the book.

Once upon a time I was a member of the board of a broadcast ministry. We were told that when we returned home we were to do everything in our power to squelch the ancient rumor that Madelyn O'Hare, even though she'd been dead for a decade, was still petitioning the FCC to ban Christian broadcasting.

Good Christian people wouldn't believe that she wasn't. By the hundreds of thousands they were writing letters to the FCC, as they had been for years when the rumor passed through a community, like a stadium wave.

Maybe I'm just being mean. Maybe this whole tale is just sad. That's all, just sad.  But once again, the church really looks foolish, from writer to publisher to bookstore and a million deluded buyers looking for "heavenly tourism."

Heavenly tourism. Heavenly hoax.  Lord 'a'mercy.

Full disclosure: My last book, Up the Hill, is, well, heavenly tourism. . .sort of. 

But it's fiction and it's more than a little goofy, and, sadly enough, it hasn't sold a million copies, nowhere near a thousand for that matter. Neither does it have a Christian publisher. 

Forgive me for my envy. 

Hey, buy the book :).

Monday, January 19, 2015

MLK Day (again)

If you scroll back through the years, you'll find this post appears twice previously. But, as the post itself insists, bringing back the story is something that needs to be done annually at a predominately white college that uses Christian as a modifier.  This morning, I'm saying it again, third time, even though I'm retired from teaching and the college.

Not until I came home from school yesterday, walked to the front of the house, pulled back the brass door of the mail box, and discovered it empty did I realize that it was a holiday, Martin Luther King Day.  Not until then.  

We don't celebrate MLK Day at this Christian college for a good reason--because the semester began just a week ago, and if we were to give the students their first Monday off, a ton of them would simply stay home for the first half week or so, some of them for good reasons, others for bad.  Furthermore, if the college would shut down on MLK Day, boat loads of students would head up to the Twin Cities or west to Denver or wherever, putting literally hundreds on the roads, mid-winter.  Students would spend all sorts of cash goofing off, and risk their lives in what could well be horrible travel weather.  They could be killed.

What's more, our non-compliance isn't really racist since we don't celebrate Labor Day either.  School always starts before summer's last fling, so for thirty-some years I haven't had a Labor Day when I wasn't laboring.  I teach on Labor Day.  I teach on MLK Day.  It just makes good sense not to shut things down, good economic sense.

When I was a college sophomore, four of us went to Florida over spring break to catch some sun.  We pulled into Ft. Lauderdale late at night, had made no reservations, so ended up looking for a place to stay at an hour--and a time of year--when finding a room wasn't exactly a breeze.  

I don't know how on earth we ended up where we did, but I remember the place very clearly--it seemed to me then to be an abandoned military barracks, at least that's what it looked like, rafters for ceilings.  We went into the office.  We were third in line.  I remember being anxious and we sure weren't picky, believe me.

The group in front was from Notre Dame--I remember that.   Four guys.  The seedy old man behind the desk gave them a key.  But then, horror!--the couple in front of us got turned down. "Sorry," the guy said.  "You saw it--that was the last room."

That meant, of course, we had to look elsewhere.  Once the couple left, there we stood, bereft.  We too started to walk out.

"Where you going?" the guy said.  "I still got a room."  Wink and a smile.  "We don't take their kind here."

That young couple in front of us were black.  

I'd never experienced anything close to that before.  I'd heard about it, read about it, wondered about it--but it had happened right in front of me.  Besides, my father had believed that MLK was an leftie agitator who people claimed had buddied up with known communists.  I grew up in Wisconsin in the early Sixties, when the shadow of Joseph McCarthy still loomed over politics.  I'm sure that my wonderful, God-fearing father--one of the sweetest men I ever knew, honestly--probably believed that Joe McCarthy was a far better man than this Martin Luther King.  

Were he alive, my father would probably still have all kinds of trouble celebrating MLK Day.  It would bug him no end.  He might well appreciate the fact that we don't celebrate.  Yet, no one I know would doubt my father's deep and abiding Christian faith. 

There are good reasons why this Christian college doesn't celebrate the holiday, and I understand them.  But I also know that historically for my people, who surely do like to watch the dollars, it's much, much easier to work on MLK Day than it is to remember the man or his vision because what there is to remember of King's time for many, many white evangelical Christians isn't pretty at all, it's racist. 

David Brooks is in South Carolina now, and yesterday, on Martin Luther King Day, in the New York Times, he speculated about the folks he'd been meeting, especially the mood of their rallies, like last night's debate.  He says that the audiences want "a restoration" because they're sure that American once had strong values, "but we have gone astray."  They believe we need to return to the values we once had, Brooks says.

Brooks doesn't disagree with that assessment, but he also says he wonders if the people he's been visiting have become "the receding roar of white America as it pines for a way of life that will never return."

There are many good, good reasons for our not celebrating Martin Luther King Day, but at this mostly white Christian college, it behooves us, every year, to rethink our motives because there are also many, many good reasons--moral reasons--to remember both who he was and who we were and maybe still are.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Sunday Morning Meds--My rock

“I say to God my Rock, ‘Why have you forgotten me?  
Why must I go about mourning, 
oppressed by the enemy?’"
Psalm 42:9

The present tense in this verse suggests the event the psalmist is describing has probably happened often.  He’s not telling us something bizarre here, reporting on some weird epiphany-gone-awry.  Seems to me that what he’s saying is, “Whenever I feel estranged from God, I say to him. . .”  Not just once did this happen; sadly enough, I’m abandoned more often. 
If that’s true, then what he says makes better sense. “I say to God my rock—which is to say, my fortress in times of trouble—‘why aren’t you my fortress in times of trouble?’”

What he feels is a hybrid pain only believers feel, because only someone who knows God as a rock can feel the terror of quicksand. Only a believer continues to talk to a God who seems to be out of state.
Makes no sense, really, but then neither does faith itself, often enough.  The odd paradox of the psalmist’s supplication is understandable only to someone who knows, who says “been there, done that.”  Like me . . . and you, probably.
And the question, this time at least, isn’t “how long (as it is in Psalm 13, for instance),” but “why?”  “Why” is a question that also suggests significant distance.  We don’t have time for “why” in the middle of battle. “Why” arises only when the battle doesn’t quit, or when we begin to look at our wounds and realize the pain.
In “The Wonders of the Invisible World,” Cotton Mather, the firebrand Puritan prelate, makes great claims for New England’s founders.  They were “a chosen generation,” he says, “so pure as to disrelish many things which they thought wanted reformation elsewhere, and yet so peaceable that they embraced a voluntary exile in a squalid, horrid, American dessert.”  They were saints.
But, alas, Mather says, along came their children, who like “many degenerate plants,” were altogether “otherwise inclined.” The founders were grain; their children, weeds—that’s Mather's explanation for how it is that the Devil is rampaging through New England. Everywhere he looks, after all, he sees witchcraft. 

Why?  “We have all the reason imaginable to ascribe it unto the rebuke of heaven for our manifold apostacies.”  Mather, unlike David, appears to know the answer to why. It’s all our fault. Lo and behold, we’ve departed from righteousness.
Mather's explanation fed the madness that filled prisons around Salem, Massachusetts, and finally took 25 lives.  Thank goodness God isn’t Cotton Mather or folks like Pat Robertson.

All of us want to know why; all of us seek understanding for what can’t be fully understood.  It’s a human thing, and, to be honest, not knowing has been a great blessing.  Why is the source question of science, the foundation of education. Why is the beginning of knowledge.

But the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.  Some questions we ask, questions from the heart-and-soul of our lives, may not have easy answers, and that’s the phenomena David is describing.  Remember—it has happened more than once--why have you left me alone?

And really, that’s the story of the psalm:  even when God doesn’t seem to be our Rock, he is.  That's the real story of this lament, in his pain and his joy.  Even when there are no answers, God is the answer. 

Makes no sense at all unless you know it too.

Friday, January 16, 2015

My first Emerson

I remember reading Emerson when I was twenty, an undergraduate; and I remember being anything but spellbound. He was, to me, pretty much unreadable. The assignment was "Nature," an essay which our instructor--an older man, but young prof I liked greatly--told us in glowing terms was "seminal," or something similar, an essay at the very tender heart of the Romantic era in American literature and thought.

I rolled up my sleeves and tried harder because I was an English major and I feared being left behind if I didn't catch on to what was "seminal" in American literature in the 1830s.

Maybe that's why I liked Emerson. I had to work so blame hard to get him.

There may have been a time or two in my life when I told people I loved Emerson. If I were so quoted, I wouldn't deny it. But then most of us think we're in love sometime through the years, right? It happens. And then find out we discover all that sweet stuff doesn't pass the test of time. 

I don't know.  I'm in pain.

I can certainly can build a case for deception. I remember teaching Emerson for the very first time to kids from dairy farms and family cheese factories, a miserable job, Ralph Waldo coming from a different planet in a voice as far from their lives as Milton or Ovid. But Emerson came early in my first semester, when I was as dewy as any brand new teacher ever was. So I went into Waldo (not "Nature," thank goodness, but the much anthologized "'Self-Reliance") with more new-teacherly gusto than I could have ratcheted up in a month of classes thirty years later.

There is no objective criteria by which to judge such things, but that day's English class--the juniors, circa 1970--was a phenomenal success. In my heart it was anyway, and in my memory it still is. Those farm kids walked out that morning thinking the guy with the great middle name wasn't half-bad. I don't know that's true, but in the register of my life's great days, my first Emerson class sits up there near the front door of the museum.

What I'm saying is that Emerson is a hero in my memory may have more to do with plain old hard work than the sheer beauty of his billowing metaphors. Okay, that could be.

Still, it hurts when, in the Weekly Standard, some revisionist prof from Houston Baptist University says it's all a sham, that Ralph Waldo Emerson has grabbed far more literary headlines than he ever deserved, then lists some of Waldo's contemporaries whom he says contributed more substantially to American life than Emerson, "the transparent eyeball" (and, yes, I've always thought that was a goofy image).  
But the work that Brownson did on behalf of laborers, that Bronson Alcott did with respect to education, and that Theodore Parker did on behalf of abolition were, if not perfect, far more important than Emerson’s bloated obscurities and inane aphorisms. To treat Emerson as the central genius of the “new thought” is to swallow his self-serving omissions whole hog.
"Bloated obscurities" feels like a sharp stick in the eye, while "inane aphorisms" wouldn't prompt quite so much pain if something in me didn't have to admit there's some truth to it. "Self-serving omissions" is painful, and "whole hog" almost brings tears.

When great heroes fall, the world weeps. 'Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all, right?" But Tennyson was just another dopey romantic.

Maybe the Houston Baptist is right. "Emerson," he says, "rarely makes sense."

I won't believe it totally, but I know this--it's going to be a long, dark morning down here in the basement.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Fidelity, Patriotism, Humanity, and Courage

Seriously, what you can be sure of, should you visit, is that there will be no one else there. That these two massive memorials stand so much alone and so richly at the top of a hill overlooking the Minnesota River doesn't mean they've become a tourist stop. Hundreds, even thousands of people may have attended their dedication in 1899, but I don't think many people visit up there today. 

They stand together, tall and magisterial, to help us all cherish the memory of the men who died at the Battle of Birch Coulee, not all that far away, in August of 1862, a major battle of the Dakota War. They stand on that hill to prompt memories most people would rather simply let slip away.

There are two. One memorializes those who died at Birch Coulee, lists them by name. But it's the second that draws me up to the top of the hill, makes it almost impossible for me to pass Morton, Minnesota, without stopping for another look, for a memory no one who designed the monument ever intended me to have.

The second is a towering monument to those brave Dakota who took on their brothers and sisters who committed to war against the whites in 1862. This one is a massive monument to Native people who saved countless white folks they had come to know and love before war tore the whole region into a bloody mess. Some of those whose names are etched into the stone were half-white, some were full-bloods. The "brave, faithful, and humane conduct of the loyal Indians," the monument proclaims, "saved the lives of white people." Their heroic actions were "true to their obligations through the Sioux War of 1862." 

I suppose there's not enough room on the granite to unpack exactly what "their obligations" means, but if you're white, those obligations are not a mystery. The "loyal" Indians saved men and women, dozens of them, took on their fellow Dakotas in open confrontation, risked their own lives for others. "He who saves one life, saves the world," says an ancient Jewish proverb I'll never forget.

This massive monument is barely visible today, surrounded as it is by century-old trees. I'm quite sure it's rarely visited. The two of them have been here since 1899, but you have to hunt to find them. They're less of a community icon than the water tower or downtown corner. Once, years ago, I stopped at the local museum to ask where I could find them, and a couple of retired volunteers ready to talk my ear off about local farming didn't really know themselves. They'd never been up there.

I wouldn't stop up there myself but I've also stopped more than once at the Santee Nation Museum, Santee, Nebraska, where the tribe celebrates its history by remembering the warriors who didn't help people, the Santee Dakota who were hung in Mankato, 38 of them at once, the day after Christmas, 1862.

I've been to a place where the very men and women celebrated in tall granite up atop the hill are, in some ways, those who stood in the way of "homeland security" who were killing the white invaders who were starving them. I've been at a place where those celebrated in a huge monument are not spoken of because those brother and sister Santee went over to the other side and opposed their own people, people who were trying desperately to hold on to a way of life being destroyed by illegal aliens.  

The four sides of the stone monument to loyal Indians just outside Morton, Minnesota, celebrates four virtues, one after another: "Fidelity, Patriotism, Humanity, Courage." I'm sure, to the people of the Minnesota River Historical Society in 1899, the names of the people etched in stone were heroes whose "fidelity, patriotism, humanity, and courage" were greatly treasured.

But back in Santee, they tell another story altogether. They too don't want anyone to forget what happened in 1862, but there are no towering monuments. There are gorgeous bluffs just across the Missouri River, but no stately twin towers stand above the Santees, people who were run out of Minnesota when bounties were placed on their heads, as if they were pocket gophers. There's never been money for monuments.

But that doesn't mean they don't celebrate. 

That man in the left hand bottom corner is Cut Nose. Almost any history of the era describes him as among the most vicious of the Dakota. . . what?--what do we call them?  Butchers or braves. Some call them "freedom fighters." Cut Nose and his people walked up to pioneer farmsteads and simply killed everyone they could find, brutally, mercilessly. 

Cut Nose did unspeakable things, if the history books--written by white folks--are to believed. The cold-blooded murders he did throughout the river valley in the month-long siege the Dakota created back then make him seem demonic. 

When I saw him on this poster honoring those warriors hung at Mankato, it took my breath away. But it is somehow understandable that the Santees would see him as one of those brave and loyal Dakota who must be honored in the tribe's commemoration of largest mass execution in American history. "Fidelity, Patriotism, Courage"-- from a Santee point of view, those virtues fit him too. Even "Humanity" because the tribe went to war back then not simply because treaties were broken but because their children were starving. 

It may well be a good thing no one goes up on the hill outside of Morton, Minnesota, to see those two old towers. And maybe it's a good thing that few people visit the Santee Reservation in northeast Nebraska. 

Maybe. But I think I'll probably continue to stop by and stand there and think and remember.