Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Friday, February 27, 2015


I'm off early, north to southwest Minnesota this a.m., so I thought I'd post an old one--just about seven years old, same time of year, right after my granddaughter's birthday. As you can guess, this pic does a then-and-now thing.  

Anyway, be back soon.

After buttoning up his coat, the snow cracking beneath our feet as we left the restaurant, my son-in-law, born and reared in Southern Cal, admitted last night, that he'd been thinking a ton about home. We got two inches of snow the day before, snow no one wanted, and even though it sweetly covered the "farch" look all around us--all that old snow like dead sheep, poet Jim Heynen says--no one thought new fallen snow worth a poem. It wasn't pretty. In November, maybe. In March, no way. I've got to change the pic and the note on this website--"Winter is upon us"--because there is, at least to my notion, a spot of sweetness in the line.

It's March, and winter isn't so much upon us as it still here and can't find the blasted door, dang it. The whole time I shovelled snow I was mad. I dare bet there are sidewalks all over town that haven't been touched--people aren't lazy; we're all just ticked. More snow this time of year--more arctic cold--is a real spiritual trial. I'm not kidding.

"Just think," my son-in-law says, "back home I'd be surfing."

Meanwhile the speedometer cable in the Tracker is making this awful cranking noise it always makes when it's bitterly cold, and I'm thinking the three of us ought to just go west right now. We'd all be better off.

But it's my granddaughter's birthday, and it's a gala and our spirits soon change. We're over at their house, when her little brother pulls a prune face and snarls out something that came from the soul of his envy--yes, the seven deadlies are alive and kicking even in four-year-olds. It's her birthday, after all, and she's the one opening all the High School Musical presents, not that he wanted them. He just wasn't getting his due, he figured.

His mother spooned out some of his sister's birthday cake for him, he groused, and she said, "You get what you get and don't throw a fit."

I thought the line was cute. My daughter says it's a basic rule of thumb at his pre-school, where, with a room full of four-year-olds, I can only imagine the grousing that goes on: "she's got more Cheerios than I do," and so forth, which I'd call childish if I didn't know better. My daughter says it's what gets said a ton at home too.

So, on the way home from the birthday party, my wife and I say it over and over: "you get what you get and don't throw a fit. You get what you get and don't throw a fit."

Good night, what fine Midwestern wisdom. Would that the world would listen. Maybe this country wouldn't be moving into an economic tailspin right now. Maybe there would have been no loan crisis. Maybe people wouldn't go a'whoring after Gucci handbags, the latest electronic wizardry, or silver BMWs. (Sometimes, it's just not all that hard to be righteous.)

"You get what you get and don't throw a fit." That's Lake Woebegone wisdom. It's hilarious. And it's so fitting after an early March snowstorm. "You get what you get and don't throw a fit."

I don't care. It's dang cold, and I'm off to Texas this weekend, thank the Lord.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Morning Thanks--a lottery ticket

Once upon a time out in the middle of South Dakota, not all that terribly far from the Rosebud Reservation, a Lakota pastor was talking to a bunch of white folks. I was one of them, a tour leader, in fact. His message was a testimony that fit into the genre of "once I was blind but now I can see."

But he also talked about tribal affairs and life on the rez, a kind of Lakota 101. He was spirited and gracious, wise and comical. A good time was had by all.

And then a pastor among the palefaces worriedly brought up the topic of casinos--not so much whether they were a good thing or not, but whether they were a good moral thing. 

Our Lakota chief smiled gamely and told the white folks he just couldn't get upset or unnerved by a band of Indians taking loot from a swarm of white folks who were handing it over willfully--you know, given the sad history of what once was "the Dakota Territory." 

He didn't pull out a tomahawk. Basically, he was shucking and jiving, but he was also telling the truth; and there was, on his face, a wry smile that broadcast sheer delight. He wasn't about to look a gift horse in the mouth. We weren't all that far from a couple of casinos, most of them full of elderly grandchildren of northern European South Dakota pioneers.

But our dominie wouldn't be put off. "But you, as a Christian preacher," our reverend said.

The Lakota reverend just shook his head and smiled as if some ironies were a God-sent.

"I don't know how you can tolerate it," our preacher said. He wouldn't let it rest, but that smile on the face of the Lakota man-of-the-cloth didn't disappear. Stayed right there until I determined it was high time to change the subject. 

My father hated gambling, just hated it. I'm not sure why, but I'm guessing he did so in part because his father was a pastor who likely had very strong feelings, too. One of my first moments of existential darkness occurred when I was no more than ten years old. My father, the village President, deeply disliked the raffle that played itself out every Fourth of July. I knew it, and, as a boy, it made me see that particular tent in the village park festival into a kind of den of iniquity. 

But I simply didn't know what to do with the fact that one blessed Fourth, my uncle, my father's own brother, a man totally convinced that if JFK were elected, the Pope would be President, won the cement mixer, one of the grand prizes. "Jay Schaap," the announcer broadcast over half the town, after the fireworks. Dad's own brother had thrown down cash. Just about blew away my sense of righteousness. 

Once upon a time my wife and I went into Winnevegas casino, gave ourselves $20 a piece, picked up what tokens we could buy, proceeded to a pair of one-arm bandits, basically lost every everything in ten minutes, and left. That was it. I couldn't help but hear my father's voice.

But I remembered that Lakota preacher's naughty smile when the news story came last week. A woman named Marie Holmes won a huge lottery, or at least a satisfying chunk thereof--188 million dollars. She's a welfare mom, the kind of unrighteous human being that some on the right think suck up other people's hard-earned wealth. She's got four kids, one of whom has cerebral palsy, and she'd just quit work at McDonalds and Walmart in order to care for her kids.

I know very well what Mitt Romney would think of her, so I'm figuring just about everybody ought to be happy now--those who think gambling's a gift, those who are foot soldiers in the war on poverty, and even those who basically hate welfare moms. Hey, in this story, everybody wins.

She's free. She and her kids could rent Disneyland next week. She could buy an Escalade yet this afternoon with pocket change.

I've got enough of my father in me to stay out of casinos, and the only time I bought lottery tickets was to give them away as gag gifts. But the Marie Holmes warms my heart. She said she's going to donate some money to her church. After all, her mother bought her the ticket one Sunday morning on her way to church. 

"I'm thankful I can bless my kids with something I didn't have," Marie Holmes told reporters.

You know and I know that shipwrecks galore have happened on the rocky shores of new wealth. But just for a moment last week, I got this lovely feeling that all was right in the world, gaming or not.  Ms. Holmes has reason to be thankful all right, and so do I.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Promiscuous pedagogy

A TK photobomb

So our grandson is in Pre-K, which for whatever reason is called TK at school he attends. He's proud as a peacock for being there, largely because he can shoulder his bag in the morning and traipse off with his big brother and sister like the hot shot grade schooler he almost is. 

Anyway, he's off to school now and loving it. What content is getting into his head isn't always clear--I'm sure there is some. One afternoon, his grandma picked him up and quizzed him in the ordinary way:  "Well, Ian what did you learn in school today?" He pulled himself up into his back seat throne. "Science," he said.  Apparently, all of it. 

What's evident, and what makes me laugh just thinking about it, is the way he repeats pedagogy.  I don't know if his teacher has any idea how deeply she's affecting him, but it comes out in his rather extraordinary, ordinary conversation.  

[Please understand that I'm fully capable of being a braying grandparent, but I'm not doing that here. This reflection comes from a teacher who happens also to be a grandpa. Leave a note if you'd like me begin to extol our grandkids' virtues.] 

So just before Christmas, sitting with his best buddy, his grandma, he grabbed a nutcracker (think THE Nutcracker) off the coffee table, pointed at yet another nutcracker up on the mantel above the fireplace, then summoned his grandma's attention.  "So, let's compare nutcrackers," he said.

He's smart, but he didn't dream up that rhetoric. Comparison/contrast is something he lugged home from TK.

Or this. 

My wife was interrupted from their play last Sunday by the casserole of Mexican food she was baking in the oven. They'd been drawing together with crayons, and her distraction was obviously becoming a distraction for him because he took hold of her lovingly and said, "It's time to get back to work." 

By way of her student, his sweet teacher has a presence way out here on the banks of the Floyd River.

And yet another. His grandma has considerable issues with technology and is, he knows, in need of remedial help with Angry Birds. The kid rather loves the omniscience of a being a teacher. Her mind a tangle, Ian looked up at her last week after dinner, then back at the iPad, then pointed.  "Now listen carefully," he said, "because this is very important." 

He's five years old! 

I'm not arguing the kid is a genius. All I'm saying is what comes home with him from TK is more than content he's picking up. He's repeating her blessed pedagogy. Forty years in the classroom, and I never realized I had that much power.  But then I didn't teach TK.

It's so cute, his grandma says. And I laugh too, Grandpa the Teacher.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Morning Thanks--exotic dancers

Glory be to God for changes. For bulbs
breaking the darkness with their green beaks.
For moles and moths and velvet green moss
waiting to fill the driveway cracks. For the way
the sun pierces the window minutes earlier each day.
For earthquakes and tectonic plates--earth's bump
and grind--and new mountains pushing up
like teeth in a one-year-old. For melodrama—
lightning on the sky stage, and the burst of applause
that follows. Praise him for day and night, and light
switches by the door. For seasons, for cycles
and bicycles, for whales and waterspouts,
for watersheds and waterfalls and waking
and the letter W, for the waxing and waning
of weather so that we never get complacent. For all
the world, and for the way it twirls on its axis
like an exotic dancer. For the north pole and the
south pole and the equator and everything between.
That's Luci Shaw, a poet, a woman I'm blessedly proud to call my friend. I'm not at all sure when these lines from "Psalm for the January Thaw" were written, but they could have been composed any time in the last fifty years. Her career, which is to say her calling as a poet, has stretched on that long, for which we're greatly thankful.

I'm sure she'd be happy to tell you how she's changed as a poet. I'm sure she could point at poems she wrote in the late Sixties and tell you that she'd likely never write anything quite like that anymore, wouldn't say things in this style or that. If some scholar were to undertake a study of the Luci's oeuvre, he or she could create a Shaw taxonomy, I'm sure.

What hasn't changed, however, is the sheer awe she's always felt for a world that belongs to a magnificently omnipresent God. She may well play more excitedly with "cycles and bicycles" than she used to, or step farther into the darkness than she once dared; she risks more these days, at least I'm sure there are more exotic dancers in her poems (see that pole dancer above?), more "bump and grind"; but her reverence for the immensity of God's love hasn't changed. It may have widened, but it hasn't changed.

Because she has talked so openly about it, I know that just recently she experienced something she says she's never felt before, something that opened her to God's love in such a palpable way that it took her breath away. Suddenly and perceptibly whatever outlines still somehow framed her abiding faith fell away and a broader vision swept in, a blessing in its simple immensity. She felt, quite frankly, freed.

Now that's almost hard to believe from someone well into her eighth decade in this vale of tears, someone whose profession has been praise, someone who could write the lines above. But this brand new sense of the presence of God was there, in spades, she might have said. What she described and how she described it was what we Christians call "a testimony."

I'm sure it was real, this testimony and the experience that composed it. But it reminds me once again of something it's taken me a lifetime to learn--that our use of the word "Christian" as a modifier, as an adjective, will be questionable as long as we live. Is Luci a Christian now and not when she wrote "Psalm for the January Thaw?" Of course not. Is she a "better" Christian now than when she wrote those lines? I don't know, and who am I to judge? Is she different than she was? Sure. But Luci Shaw is the only one capable of making those judgments. Not me. Not you. 

I don't know that we can put the word Christian away, but I don't think it hurts one bit to put it under a bushel more often than we do. Who is and who isn't, or who was and is no more or never was or never will be--those judgments aren't mine. 

"By your fruits you shall know them," the Bible says; but also, "judge not lest you be also judged." As is so often the case with biblical wisdom, somewhere between those two moral goalposts we are left to work and play. 

At 86 years old, Luci Shaw, herself something of an exotic dancer, says she's overjoyed that within her soul she's felt a complete and blessed renewal. I'm happy for her, and I'm glad to hear the news because it allows that change is never really behind us, that the very change she so sweetly celebrates and wonderfully documents in "January Thaw" still happens. This cold February morning, that's a good reason and subject for morning thanks. 

"Glory be to God for changes." That line is itself a prayer.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Erotic Romance at the Holland Plaza

It's getting to be maybe forty years ago now, but one Saturday night, way back then, I walked to campus to see a movie. I don't remember the title, but some film was being shown simply to keep kids around on a Saturday night.

Be ye not deceived. It wasn't a James Bond or a Pink Panther; it was, I'm sure, a film with bona fide "socially redeeming value."  

Anyway, I went, and there, in the back, was intrepid old Harold Aardema, whose Doon Press once had a readership of almost 5000 on the strength of Aardema's renowned quirkiness. Harold spent most of his life in a wheelchair following a bout with polio that he won; and there he was, wheelchair and all, in the corner of a lecture hall at Dordt College. My goodness, I wish I could remember which movie.

No matter. After the show, I found my way over to him. He didn't want to miss the movie, he told me, not because he wanted to see it but because he wanted to be there for posterity's sake. After all, it was just too great a show to miss: a real, honest-to-goodness movie right there at the college the Reverend B. J. Haan had built.

In 1948, Haan, playing Marshall Dillon on the streets of Sioux Center, had held off Hollywood and eventually tossed those evil men and women clear out of town. For generations up to mine and, in some cases, including mine, a movie theater was simply assumed to be a den of Satan. In the denomination in which I grew up, they were not to be toyed with--same as playing cards (not Rook) and liquor, by the drink and certainly by the bottle. Harold Aardema had come to Dordt College that night simply to observe the grand irony of Hollywood playing on Haan's campus.

Aardema loved Haan. The Haan's forever houseguest, Mr. A. J. Boersma, was his bosom buddy on a host of travels around the nation and the world. The voice of the Doon Press wasn't at Dordt College to stick it to the good Reverend. He was there simply to observe what we might call the ironies of moral evolution. Times change.

When my father-in-law returned from Europe after the war, he started farming--with horses. It simply doesn't seem possible anymore. Try to imagine a farmer behind a plow or a harrow being drawn by a pair of humongous steeds. It seems medieval, but it isn't. It's within a lifetime--a long one, to be sure, but a lifetime. Times change.

I snapped the picture above just yesterday, on the Sabbath, in the spirit of Harold Aardema. It's Orange City, not Sioux Center; but it's right here in Sioux County, the reddest corner of a state renowned for its religious right populism. Ye olde anti-movie sentiment died about the same time as the last farm horse, but when you think about the change, it's as huge as a 16-bottom plow. 

After all, what put Haan on Life's cover back then was a battle with Hollywood at a time when the Hays Code was still enforced, as it was as late as 1968. Among other things, the old industry moral standard maintained that putting a man and a women in bed together on screen was plain wrong, even if the two of them looked like Mr. and Mrs. Winston Churchill. 

Yesterday, on Sunday, I could have laid down some bucks, senior rate, and watched a movie, an "erotic romance," that celebrates a genre of sexuality B. J. Haan and his era likely would not have imagined.

Trust me, the "good old days" are that only because, as some wag once said, they're gone; they weren't all that good to start with, so thank goodness they're old.  But the irony was just too fine to let pass, so in honor of my old friend, the country editor, I snapped a picture.

It's a wholly different world today. The movie has been whipped by critics (for the record, that's not good), but it's led the nation in ticket sales for two weekends. The book itself has sold 100 million copies worldwide and been translated into 52 languages. 

Just in case you're interested, you can get the Fifty Shades in a Large Print edition.  Hey, listen. You know how hard it is to find something for him or Great-grandma? What do you think? 

This one is suitable for Landsmeer, really, or whatever home your great-grandma is in.  Maybe it's there already. I'll check.

These days, you just never know.  

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Joy to the World

We were three blocks, max, from Main Street, far too close in December because the mini-mall downtown pipes Christmas musak all over the parking lot and consequently all over the surrounding neighborhoods.  We hear it whether we want to or not.  Fortunately, windows are shut down tight or “White Christmas” would find its way inside, like those pesky Asian beetles that just now are dying, thanks to the cold.
On some early winter nights, I could stand outside in a beautiful first snow and hear far more than I wanted to know about Mama and Santa Claus.
I love Christmas music.  In my life, I must have been part of a thousand gatherings were “Joy to the World” brought the assembled to their feet.  I never tire of it.  “Lo, How a Rose e’er Blooming” is as gorgeous as it is haunting, and that last line of the refrain of “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” is enough to conjure up all the very best images of all my Christmases past.  My wife and I rarely play anything on the old music center in the living room.  But a week before Christmas, Handel’s Messiah is on most all the time.
I’m no Scrooge, is what I’m saying, but I found the mall’s constant blaring of seasonal music—most of it secular—really annoying.
Christmas itself is so familiar, so intimate, that it seems almost like a sibling from whom we expect so much that we can’t help but be letdown. Christmas is so close to us that a whole lot of us have a love/hate thing with the whole season. Yuletide brings out the best—and worst--in us. Ask any crisis center. Suicides jump in the middle of all that sweet caroling. 

It ain’t perfect, and everybody knows it.  But that having been said and despite our manic shopping nuttiness, the whole season is one immense blessing for all of us—no matter what our faith, no matter whether we have it or not. 
I’m still, always, happy for the season.  I love the golden glow our huge wreath casts nightly over the snow down the alley.  I love the hand-carved nativity scene that appears out of nowhere and sits reverently on our magazine table.  I love the tree decorations, little tokens of where we’ve been throughout our married life.  I love buying gifts for people, lots of them—little things, red licorice for my wife.  I love the story.  I love the love he’s brought—Jesus Christ that is.  At Christmas, every one of us is a child.
I’m not sure I can recapture the grand view of Psalm 50:2, when the poet says, “From Zion, perfect in beauty, God shines forth.” There's beauty all around me out these windows, but no vision is perfect. But then, the psalmist had a leg up on me because God almighty--the God almighty--actually lived right there in the temple. He had a street address. Ever since we moved out into the country, there's been no end to gorgeous views; but I don’t have any pictures for what he most certainly meant to describe when he saw God "shining forth” from Zion. I can't top that one. 
The closest I can come to his exaltation is what I see and feel and hear at Christmas because what happens throughout the world—the whole world, not just the Christian world—at Christmas is a blessing for all of us, isn't it?  For a moment, even through the muzak and the glitter, and somewhere inside all the presents ever given, God’s perfect beauty still shines forth in imperfect this-world ways. 

There's always reasons for thanks in the morning, but this time of year especially, or so it seems, there's music in the spheres because what Christmas brings is nothing less than joy to the world. 

Sing it.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Siouxland landscapes

Seriously, I've got no business thinking of myself as a landscape photographer. Any eye I have has been developed by a decade's worth of experience, not by good sound training. I haven't been tutored, never took a lesson, honestly don't know much about the gallery of bells and whistles of my cameras offer--and there are plenty. I don't even lug a tripod.

What I know is that it's been good for me, come Saturday morning, early, to head out into the country for the last twelve years. It's been good because retreats generally regenerate--they give our hearts a rest from the same-old, same-old. 

And I'll admit it; it took me years to appreciate Siouxland landscapes. When you grow up in the shoreline woodlands of the Great Lakes, the roomy-ness of fly-over country can feel cold and empty.

But after forty years I can quote a ton of lovers and admirers of this landscape, Willa Cather to Kathleen Norris because, great beauty and even reverence exists in spades in what's not there. Emptiness can be its own great spiritual reward. Next week, I'll pilgrimage out to Pierre, SD, through Big Bend and Lower Brule Reservation, the Missouri River valley. Most of America would say there's nothing there, but I beg to differ because I've learned that nothing is really something.

But it seems to me that in the decade or so I've been out chasing images of the dawn, there's far less open space out my back door, especially close. Wherever you look, there are confinements. And, of course, there are more every year.

What seems, is. I'm not wrong. Read the map. Where, pray tell, is the greatest concentration of confinements?  In the neighborhood. 

Imagine this. Years ago, your relatives (let's just say they're from the Netherlands) come to visit northwest Iowa. You take them out in your '57 Chev, drive up and down the gravel roads through a corn crop that's knee-high three weeks before the Fourth. Everything is as neatly planted as those tulips in Arnhem, the relatives say. They're transfixed by the sea of green, by the orderliness of everything.

If I were giving the tour, I'd be sure to say that conquering the beastliness of the corner of the world not easy--temps that boil come July and lock everything up mid-January. I tell them that laying out a place for a good life in the northwest corner of Iowa took muscle and sweat, now and then tears, and always prayer. I'd be proud of what my ancestors created out here where nothing reigned.

And I still am. It's no small thing to lead the state in almost every imaginable agricultural pursuit, to have clean, growing towns with schools that take home championship trophies so regularly it's barely ho-hum. There's an empire here in the state's far northwest corner, and Des Moines knows it. All they can do is shake their heads. Much of that empire is attributable to a work ethic that's the legacy of strict old Dutch Calvinism. That's what I'd tell those relatives.

But today questions arise. Is there a point at which there's too much business, too much bigness, too much building? This Saturday, if I want a shot of gorgeous Siouxland landscape, I've got to leave the county. Confinements are everywhere.

I know they generate jobs and income and prosperity. I know banks don't want to turn down loan applications because if they do, whole teams of laborers are out of work. I know industrial agriculture makes money because, as everyone knows, Sioux County has lots of money.

But will there come a time when confinements line up like condos? Will we ever tell ourselves that someone ought to set a limit? If, as some maintain, our 7.7 million egg-laying chickens produce as much untreated manure as the Seattle metro, and our hogs as much you-know-what as the totals from LA and Atlanta combined, is that enough? 

One of the first little ditties I heard when I came to Iowa years ago came as a blessed refrain. "Stinks today," someone would say.  "Smells like money," some smart-ass Siouxlander would smirk.

Yes, it does. 

I don't want to stand between any young couple and their dreams, but I can't help but wonder in this perfectly red corner of the state who will say, when the time comes, that we really should talk a bit about what we're doing with our world? It probably won't be the construction crews. Will it be the bankers? Probably not the Coop either. The  County Board of Supervisors, maybe? Or will it all fall to the hated DNR?

And really, apart from a little annoying smell, is it a huge sacrifice for me to have to go to South Dakota if I want to snap a picture of a spacious landscape in a blazing dawn? Gas prices are going down, for pete's sake. Why can't Sioux County simply declare itself an industrial zone and be done with it? 

We're all in a position to ask those questions, but who is responsible to answer them?

Is anyone saying no. Maybe more importantly, should there be? 

Thursday, February 19, 2015

A convert, a conversion story

"Is Obama right in not linking ISIS with Islam?" Chris Matthews asked Graeme Wood last night on Hardball

Wood answered the way I thought he would. "Yes and no."

Wood's fascinating but scary piece in the Atlantic lays out the agenda of a movement that has taken to the massacre of innocents but also sets up governments where there was none. ISIS offers its true faith to people who, like many of us, are confused by the impulses a modern world glorifies when our basic moral character will not. It's ready with answers to questions billions of people ask, questions that have no easy answers in a swiftly changing world.

Hard as it is to admit, 9/11 was a work of art, a deliberate, evil, murderous, barbaric work of art. It disassembled our own Tower of Babel, a symbol of economic power and the lifestyle consumerism both creates and promotes, destroyed it magnificently. Muhammed Atta and his murderers didn't take out Hollywood or the Super Bowl, but they might have. They took out the World Trade Center because they wanted the world to know they wanted no part of that world or worldview. They were--and still are--a religious movement.

What Graeme Wood went on to explain was that he believed President Obama was also right to refuse-- passionately, even religiously--to link ISIS and Islam. 

Last fall in Niger, I witnessed Tabasci, the holiday celebrating Abraham's discovery of the sheep in the thicket when he was ready to sacrifice his son, in a city where there were likely not more than 100 Christians total. I walked down festive streets crowded with holiday merry-makers, family parties everywhere, something part Thanksgiving, part Fourth of July. The holiday was religious, but there wasn't a trace of ISIS or a trace of hate.

ISIS is not Islam, but it derives its character from Islamic history. Obama is right in keeping space between the Muslims in our neighborhoods and Islamic terrorism, Wood said. But he's wrong if he thinks they aren't related. That's a distinction Bill O'Reilly and his disciples are not given to make.

Evangelical Christians can understand ISIS disciples because we share a story line, and it goes like this: "Once I was blind, but now I can see--the light of the world is _____________." You fill in the savior.

What was it exactly that pitched an entire nation of educated and cultured people into the bloody hands of madman named Hitler? How could a people so debase themselves into murdering millions of its own as if it mass executions paved the blessed way to national redemption? 

Historians can give multiple reasons, and have. But something in that remarkable change remains a mystery that's understandable only by faith and belief. Faith is as dangerous as it is enlightening. 

If anyone can understand the attraction of ISIS, any of us in the west, it may be its Christian believers, because ISIS doubtlessly believes. What it believes is evil: those who do not believe must die. But the roots of its terror, finally, is faith.

This morning's New York Times offers a nine-minute video that tells the story of a young Egyptian who became an ISIS militant. Watch the film or read the article and prepare to be chilled because a young man named Islam Yaken has an unforgettably powerful testimony. Once he was a prodigal, but he's found his way home. Today, he's dead.

That story's particulars are hideous, but its pattern is as old as a peculiar, miraculous blinding that once long ago happened on a dusty Damascas road.

If you've got nine minutes, watch the film or read the story.  You'll find it here.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015


I'm speaking at a hostess dinner, a fund-raiser for a Christian school not all that far down the road. It's at least 20 years ago, and the committee in charge of the doings asked me to read a story or something.  So I got my script in my hand when the school principal introduces me.

Not a line, not a jot, not a tittle of that joke remains in my memory; but it's a bald joke. It's a cute reference to what's showing between and behind the meager hair I could shape into a comb-over. 

I thought no one knew. I thought I had hair, and I did. Just not enough. I felt slain. The butt of the bald joke was yours truly.

I could just as well have walked up on the stage in my underwear. He'd grabbed that deception over my head and pulled it away, leaving me naked before a gym full of people. 

They thought it was a scream. 

I haven't forgotten.

According to Rebecca Herzig, in Plucked: A History of Hair Removal, we're odd balls--humans that is--because in the animal world from whence we supposedly sprang, we're the only item on two or four legs who deliberately crop our manes, we're the only ones who manage our sideburns, our eyebrows, our nose and ear hairs (I'm 67 years old, for pity sake), even our (gasp!) genitalia. All our beastly forbearers just let it all go. 

Don't I wish. I'd love to. And I would. If I could.

The fact is, I sin quite regularly, not having hair. I see a man my age with luxurious lawn up top, and I fall into awful covetousness, sure as Adam. Envy is one of the Seven Deadlies.

Herzig has much to say about our hairyness--or lack of it. She claims bushy 19th century beards grew abundant and abundantly among people from the west at a time when beardlessness, as in Native Americans, was determined to indicate, well, a certain "feebleness of constitution." Such a assertion made despite the fact that most white folks hadn't weathered February in a wigwam.

But all of that changed, she says, with Darwin, when no one wanted to claim a monkey on the tree that goes public on Bearded ladies were sideshow acts. Today, hygiene-driven Americans spend a fortune on their follicles, except me, of course.  It's been years since I spent a dime on a haircut. On that score, I'm perfectly righteous.

But then I do have a shadowy beard, very stylish, I might add, itself a determined assertion to make clear that I can as yet grow hair. So there.

I doubt Rebecca Herzig believes in a Judgment Day or the bodily resurrection, so she doesn't say much about what shape cemeteries might be in when the trumpet shall sound. I've heard--I don't know this of course--that when we've breathed our last, our hair doesn't just, well, quit. It keeps growing.  Orange City cemetery will have more Nazarenes than the New Testament.

I'm not worried about it. I'd guess our glorified bodies will look just fine. Either that or our glorified eyes won't make human judgments.

I don't know what to think about all of this hair business quite frankly, and I don't have any choice in the matter anyway.

I just want to give a big thank you to Michael Jordan who, more than anyone, made bald beautiful. I'm not making claims for myself here; all I'm saying is he paved the way, so to speak.  

You want a testimony? How's this. I'm thankful I'm the way I am because it's been years since I lived a lie. From falsehood over the top, I'm free at last.

This morning: me, my baldness, and my buffalo.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

David's rage

I have been accustomed to call this book, I think not inappropriately, “An Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul"; for there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror.
That's Calvin on the Psalms. I've long considered the Psalms as holy writ in part because they're also human writ, which is to say the psalms are really us, made of the stuff we are. 

You want joy? There's a psalm for that. The darkness around you impenetrable? It isn't--there's a psalm for that. You've got peace like a river? There's a psalm for that too.  When we're most sure no one else on the planet has a clue about the tumult inside, the psalms tell us plainly that there is, which is a wonderfully comforting way of saying we're never alone.

But the truth is, I've always felt there's even more in the Psalms than what we are, because I've found it impossible to understand the bottomless depth of hate David feels and expresses for his enemies. The context of 137 makes the wretched sadness of its setting somehow understandable, even though I've never looked back to see my home burning, my children dead, never been brutally pushed along on a trail of tears. I can understand the Israelites weeping when they hung their harps in the trees, and I can taste the gall when their butchering enemies demanded they play "songs of joy." 

I can feel all of that.

But I've never quite come to feel this:  "O daughter of Babylon, you devastated one, How blessed will be the one who repays you With the recompense with which you have repaid us. How blessed will be the one who seizes and dashes your little ones against the rock (137:8-9)."

The heads of babies against the stones.

But today, I'm 67 years old, and today, like never before in my life, I'm coming closer to feeling in me some level of David's righteous anger. Sunday night, ISIS released a slick video meant to enrage billions. In an act unlike anything anyone has seen, ISIS zealots butchered 21 perfectly innocent Egyptian Christians, on camera, by cutting their throats, men whose only crime was that they weren't ISIS zealots. 

For years, I couldn't imagine David's rage: "Give them according to their deeds, and according to the wickedness of their endeavors: give them after the work of their hands; render to them their desert (Psalm 28)" I was born after WWII. I haven't felt so much of what he does in all the years of my life. 

But now I have. Now I do--or at least I'm coming closer. 
Break their teeth, O God, in their mouth: break out the great teeth of the young lions, O LORD. Let them melt away as waters which run continually: when he bendeth his bow to shoot his arrows, let them be as cut in pieces. As a snail which melteth, let every one of them pass away: like the untimely birth of a woman, that they may not see the sun (Psalm 58).
These are not just butchers, they're religious butchers, their hate fueled by an intense, insane faith that their god commands them to rule in some bloody apocalypse about to happen. "They believe that they are personally involved in struggles beyond their own lives," sayGraeme Wood in the Atlantic, "and that merely to be swept up in the drama, on the side of righteousness, is a privilege and a pleasure—especially when it is also a burden."

I'm not alone. Almost half of the American public is ready, once again, to send ground troops in, despite the fact that the two longest wars in this country's history are barely over, an amazing and shocking change.

For the first time in my life, I can come woefully close to feeling the intensity of David's hate. I get it. I feel it in me when I come almost to believe that there is no other way to deal with these religious butchers than to dash their babies' heads against the stones. 

Monday, February 16, 2015

Tempo rubato

This can be said now that my mother's gone. I wouldn't have dared to say it or write it during her lifetime, not that she didn't realize it. What simply couldn't be said is that every bit of six or seven years of piano lessons are plain gone, wiped out of my memory the way people claim accidents or horrors leave no trace behind.

I can rap out one tune on the piano these days, an old honky-tonk piece I learned on my own; but put a hymnal in front of me, and I'm all thumbs. 

But you shouldn't consider my childhood musically bereft. My mother sat the piano morning, noon, and night, often with my father beside her. Ping pong in the basement made them enemies, but the piano created nightly revivals. Hymns I never heard in church rose bountifully from her piano.

But I never, ever heard one titled "O That Will Be Glory For Me" until yesterday. I'd never laid eyes on that one before, and, forgive me, I couldn't help but giggle.

Some 19th century hymnody is way to reminiscent of a roller rink. Generally, I don't trust music that fills the page with frills. You know the type, a lot of roller coasters. I'm just too much a Calvinst. I like it on Prairie Home Companion, but that's all. It needs to be sung by blue-grass people who don't really believe it, or else cute little mountain people who do

The fact is, I'm proud of the Synod of  Dordt (1618-1620) because for 300 years it made my people wary of schlock. Only the psalms were sung in the tradition of my people; no goofiness.  

My mother's tastes roamed much wider. She loved every key of the piano and felt bad if each of them didn't have a place, so almost everything she played abounded in spiritual splendor. 

But I don't remember "O That Will Be Glory For Me." Never once heard it before, and I was proud I didn't because no respectable Reformer would include it in his or her repertoire. It's inexcusably "other-worldly," after all, I thought, my heresy hunter clicking out a horrifying reading. 

What's more, it included a host of those little signs above the notes, one of the only things I remember from piano lessons--these scary little eyes--

You know--the ones that beg self-indulgence by saying it's just fine for you and me and the odd duck down the pew to hold a note at our individual discretion, savor it as if it were the very last bite of pecan pie. It means dropping the beat of the music at will--which is pretty close to "free will" and therefore anathema for Calvinists.  Who knows where that might lead?

"We sang a hymn this morning I'd never heard before," I told my father-in-law before dinner. He's 95, a northwest Iowan who spent his whole life in the Christian Reformed Church. "It's got a ton of these goofy little signs that mean, 'just go ahead on your own here and hold it as long as you feel like it."  He never had piano lessons, didn't know the little symbol. "We're way too Reformed for that," I told him, "letting people sort of lose it in a song. Goofy old hymn."

"What'd you say the title was?" he asked again.

"O That Will Be Glory For Me," I said again. He's hard of hearing.

"I think I know that one," he said. "I remember it. I think I even know the words."

"Me too," my wife said from the other side of the room. "I knew that hymn."

I tell you, there are times when I think I am surrounded by infidels.  

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Sunday Morning Meds--Transcendence

Thunder Pipe Blessing: Native American Indian Western art bronze sculpture art by artist and sculptor Barry Eisenach
Thunder Pipe Blessing, Barry Eisenrich

“The Mighty One, God, the LORD, speaks 
and summons the earth 
from the rising of the sun to the place where it sets.”

As far as I know, the county in which I live, Sioux County, Iowa, has no citizens of Sioux descent. What’s more, the town in which I lived for forty years—Sioux Center—is in no way a center for the Sioux.  For most of 150 years now, it’s been a center for the Dutch, who were and are of no close relation.  There lies a tale, of course, one that everyone knows:  here and elsewhere across the plains, we won and they lost.

A friend of mine, a congenial soul who loved repairing bridges, once asked a Sioux religious man to visit and speak in the college chapel.  Because chapel was a religious event, his guest took with him a sacred pipe.  Before he spoke in our chapel, he lit the pipe, then turned to the four directions and led paleface kids through a ceremony meant to evoke God’s presence.

The symbolism, Black Elk says, works something like this:  the south brings warmth and new life in spring; the east, peace and light; the north is the source of cold, and thereby strength of character; and the from the west comes thunder and rain.  By raising the pipe to the four directions, the Lakota traditionally believe the spirits of the directions—all part of the God of the universe, Wakan Tanka—were being invoked for aid and comfort and trust throughout the ceremony.

Such things aren’t done in the center for the Dutch.

Some kids hit the warpath.  What on earth was a pagan doing with holy smoke in our chapel, bowing to the four winds or whatever?  It was to some of them—and their parents--off-the-map heathen.

The opening lines of this mighty song make me wonder if the psalmist—whoever he was—would mind beginning worship with some sense of God’s hugeness, with a ritual that points towards a deity who is forever outside of time and space.     

Honestly, I hear more Lakota in verse one than the evangelical Christianity.  Interesting, isn’t it, that the psalmist actually begins with three names—“the mighty one, God, the Lord”—each of which, in ancient Hebrew defined slightly different dimensions.  It’s as if the poet really wants to get all of this deity covered.  He doesn’t want to miss a characteristic.  He knows he can’t get all of God in focus, but, in humility, he wants to do the best he can, so he invokes with every possible name.

The second half of verse one moves east to west, not unlike the Sioux ritual.  There’s no sacred pipe here, but it doesn’t take all that much imagination for us to picture the possibility that some ancient Hebrew may have gestured just as broadly as that Native guy in our chapel.  To me, the line just feels Native.

One pair of seemingly irreconcilable characteristics of our God is that he is, at once, both imminent—right here beside us—and transcendent—forever somewhere beyond us.  The opening lines of Psalm 50 force us to consider his transcendence. Most of us, I think, would rather have a teddy bear.

In fact it’s not all that difficult to make verse one sound, well, primitive.  Give me a pipe, or an eagle feather and a smudge pot, I bet I could recite it in our college chapel this week and set some sweetly self-righteous kids on a heresy hunt. 

But then, there’s not a Lakota in the neighborhood.  

Saturday, February 14, 2015

In Praise of Prairie

In Praise of Prairie

The elm tree is our highest mountain peak;
A five-foot drop a valley, so to speak.

                                                    A man’s head is an eminence upon
A field of barley spread beneath the sun.

Horizons have no strangeness to the eye.
Our feet are sometimes level with the sky,

When we are walking on a treeless plain,
With ankles bruised from stubble of the grain.

The fields stretch out in long, unbroken rows.
We walk aware of what is far and close.

Here distance is familiar as a friend.
The feud we kept with space comes to an end.

                                                                                                    Theodore Roethke

Friday, February 13, 2015

Sioux County History--the story of Dominie Stadt

His face crowded with whiskers, Dominie Stadt, so one reads, was no Matthew Mcconaughey. In their native state, his fleshy eyelids were so droopy that the only way he could appear to be alive was by raising his entire forehead. "He was not at all stylish," or so says Charlie Dyke*; but then who would really believe that style meant a whole lot in pioneer Orange City, circa 1880?  Apparently, it did.

The Dyke family occasionally visited Stadt's brand new Christian Reformed Church (the first and only in OC), and remembers the the man's peculiar preaching style. He'd get into something from the Heidelburger very slowly, then pick up steam until he'd be charging along at what seemed dangerous levels of speed and volume, until wham! it was over.  

Dyke remembers being upbraided severely when he and his siblings mocked the man's looks and pulpit demeanor, chuckling about it, imitating him as they stepped out of the tiny, frontier church. Dominie Stadt, his parents made fiercely clear, was a man of God, not to be mocked. 

Righteous admonition, but it seems the peculiarly unstylish Stadt was something of an embarrassment even to his fledgling congregation of just a few sinners. So much so that it was communicated--Dyke doesn't mention how--that perhaps his taking a call elsewhere might be something to prayerfully considered. 

OC CRC would just as soon have a less--how would you say it?--a less peculiar underservant. Besides, Stadt was a shade too honest about goings on in the colony, and it got him in trouble with Henry Hospers himself, the godfather, a founder who ruled--as did others in other communities--by basically controlling the real estate market.  

"Goings on" really means the clouod of "hoppers" that swarmed in and ate up just about everything. Stadt's letters elsewhere included graphic stories about how bad they really were. Hospers, who chaired the Chamber of Commerce before there was one, wasn't interested in the world knowing the burdens or the distress of his new Dutch colony and tried to make sure anything negative stayed out of the headlines of the Volksvriend, the Dutch newspaper read throughout much of Dutch-America, and edited, conveniently by his son. 

The grasshopper horror no one was to know. Ironically, Stadt may have been a more stylish writer than preacher, or even human being (such things happen). His letters to friends back east got some traction, as we like to say in Iowa. 

All of which begat a problem when the Volksvriend began to do exactly what the Dyke children were upbraided for doing: making fun of Dominie Stadt. "The Rev. Mr. Stadt should not circulate such tales of woe," the editor said, in print. "His reverence should confine his efforts to the spiritual and not to material things." So saith the editor.

Somewhat mysteriously, the Dominie's buggy burned up when the haystack it was parked beside caught a spark, prompting the editor to make some sort of cartoonish remark about Stadt and the horrors of hellfire. You know.

Things grew more and more difficult for the Dominie, to say the least; and because no call had come his way, he was kindly made aware of an opening down the road in LeMars for which, the powers-that-be claimed, he was quite well-suited. There, they claimed smilingly, he could minister to the immigrants departing the train that had brought them to the new colony in northwest Iowa.

Yes, they said, it would only be right for him to give a farewell sermon; but he was reminded that it would be in poor taste for him to mention cause/effect.

Alas, the bearded old Calvinist with the elevator forehead got up on the pulpit once again for his last hurrah and just plain lost it. Imagine how prickly it must have become when he launched into an attack on his blessedly stylish detractors, then pounded to a brimstone end with Psalm 62: "How long will ye imagine mischief against a man? ye shall be slain, all of you; as a bowing wall shall ye be, and as a tottering fence."

Really, quite unstylish.

CharlieDyke, by reputation, was capable of almost baroque embellishment; but he claims that when those verses were sung, voluminous weeping was heard throughout the congregation. I'd like to believe him.

Now you may think this whole story is, well, cartoonish, and it is; but Dyke claims--it would be interesting to know if he's right--that during his installation sermon in LeMars, Dominie Stadt, right then and there, suffered a stroke. On the pulpit. That Sabbath morning. 

His preaching days were over.

Sometimes you don't know whether to laugh or cry.

But one wonders, really, about a county so populated with churches. How often might something similar have happened hereabouts in the last 140 years? How many others stories are there, stories you can't read in commemorative centennial books?  Can't help but wonder.

Dominie Stadt went west and is buried in the Harrison, South Dakota cemetery, Dyke says. 

I really should go out there and pay my respects. Someone should.
*Charles L. Dyke, The History of Sioux County, pp. 164-170.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Jesus and Buffalo Gap

Could be almost anywhere 150 years ago, I'm sure. If you've seen one of these photographs, you've seen them all, right? 


This one is Buffalo Gap, South Dakota, circa 1895 or so--could be Alton, Iowa, maybe, if there were two pairs of railroad tracks; or maybe Oostburg, Wisconsin, my home town, if there were more trees. It's clear that Buffalo Gap is somewhere out on the Great Plains however, because the lay of the land at the edge of town looks thoroughly scoured, nothing at all but open land and a ridge of hills. Today, almost nothing's left.

It's Indian country now, and it was back then, mid 1800s, spittin' distance from the Pine Ridge Reservation. Once upon a time it was the gateway to mining country. A boom town where the railroad stopped, base camp for gold fever, an oasis cowboys driving cattle. It was a lawless pit of sin and darkness, saith the Calvinist. 

Take it from a man Aaron Duff*, who happened into Buffalo Gap at just about this time. Duff had his family along, going west, like so many others. All he saw around him were miners and cowboys and the women who pleased 'em, or so the books say. Duff was able to get a room in a hotel for his wife and daughter, but he and his son spent the night "under the hotel porch."

That night, he claims to have witnessed five shootings on the streets of town, five deaths. "I wouldn't stay in this hell-hole another night for the whole damn town," he said, pardon his French. 

Behind the buildings in the foreground were tents and bawdy houses galore, the story says. Buffalo Gap is barely there today, but once upon a time there were 142 businesses, 32 of them saloons and honky-tonks. 

Listen to this:  "There were four blacksmith shops, four general stores, one drug store, two dance halls, three Chinese laudnreies, one big hardware store, one bank and"--get this--"no churches." You read that right. No churches.

For years I've been thinking about white missionaries and Native people in the 19th century, my own relatives among the Navajo and Zuni, men like Stephen Riggs among the Dakota, Father deSmit among the Lakota, countless others. Their lives were difficult, but their dedication ran deep. They had the deep admiration and love, not to mention the prayers of thousands of fervent Christians back east who saw them leading pagan Indians Home way out there on the frontier, in the "wild west." Those missionaries believed firmly they were doing the Lord's work, but they were also a cog in a white man's machine created to dismantle Native cultures, bit by painful bit. 

They brought the Light of the World, but simultaneously threw Native kids into darkness by asking them distrust their parents and a traditional way of life. 

Those missionaries are as easy to sanctify as they are to vilify. Maybe too easy on both sides.  It's an incredible story all the way around. Still is. 

Buffalo Gap, South Dakota, circa 1895, was a boom town, easy money, brothels galore, saloons, fistfights, cattle rustlers, hangings, all of it out in the streets.  

At the very same time Protestant and Catholic missionaries were trying to spread the good news of the gospel, what Native people saw was the witness of Buffalo Gap, the characters of Hollywood Westerns and Louie L'Amour--gunslingers and drunks, men in boots and spurs shooting up the town, wanton women, booze and brothels.

Imagine white people telling the Lakota about Jesus' love, when what the Lakota saw was the white people of Buffalo Gap.

No churches.  

Not one.
*Mike Clifford, "Long Dog's Wild Town Law, in Bits and Pieces, July, 1965, 10-15.