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.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Holy week--on a donkey

1. He's a believer today, in great part, because once upon a time a missionary, a white man, convinced this believer's father to send his little boy off to school at a Christian mission, or so this believer told me. What his father told him later, when he grew older, was that he really didn't believe in the Christian religion--he was, after all, a deeply religious man; but he came to believe after a year or so of conversations with that missionary, many of them right there in the hogan and more just outside, that what the missionary and his people were peddling was basically the same message as Native religion, something quite akin to "the beauty way." 

His reasoning went something like this: what the white men will teach you isn't necessarily right, but it's good--and those who believe it at the Rehoboth mission are good; therefore what they teach may well bring you into "the beauty way," the way of love and respect.

So, decades ago, still a boy, he went off to the school at the mission. Today, he's a believer, a Christian.

2. We're walking around the village, strangers to be sure, two of us white and American in the middle of a busy Mali village of 500 souls, maybe more, in a rural area where most villages are little more than extended family compounds. Sheep and goats, chickens and dogs wander everywhere. In rural, sub-Saharan Africa, people sleep under roofs and within walls but generally live outside. 

We're walking along a street and passing the mosque--you can't miss it because it's kept up well by Khadafi's oil billions--when out walks the imam. Go ahead and imagine him. He looks exactly like you might think, bearded, capped, shawled, long and colorful robes. He stops us. We hadn't knocked or tried to sneak into the mosque. 

Out he comes. "Let me tell you about him," the imam says, and points at our tour guide, the head of the medical clinic just outside the village. The mullah came out to meet us because he needed to be sure we knew what a tremendous blessing this man, a Christian, has been to the whole village. May Allah be praised.

3. It's the house of the senator of the region, something like that. The political position doesn't really have an equivalent here, but in Niger he's the official representative of the national government; and we're there at his house, his compound, eating his food and drinking his bottled water because he's very proud to tell us that the man we're with, the man who, with his wife, has created a medical clinic in town, is a wonderful man who is doing great work. 

It's been a holiday, the Feast of Tabaski, and everywhere there are picnics, barbeques, family reunions. People are adorned in their finery, their most outlandish jewelry and brand new colorful dresses. It's a festival of biblical proportions. Everyone in the city, save just a few, is Muslim--everyone. As is the senator, his wife, the house guests who happen to be visiting when we drop by, the servants who bring us food and drink, and the armed military parked just outside his place. But the politician makes very sure we know that this Christian medical man is a great gift, even though he is, by definition, a heathen.

4. In a Sunday op-ed, Nicholas Kristof, who is not an evangelical, offers some remarkable testimony about evangelicals: "I must say that a disproportionate share of the aid workers I’ve met in the wildest places over the years, long after anyone sensible had evacuated, have been evangelicals, nuns or priests. 

Case in point, Kristof says, Dr. Stephen Foster, 65, the son and grandson of African missionaries, who has himself spent his lifetime caring for Angolans who, in his region especially, suffer horrendous infant mortality rates. He's white, he's Christian, and he's been there forever.

It's no accident, Kristof says, that recent polling indicates that across the face of this nation, people have more respect for gays and lesbians (53%) than they do for evangelical Christians (42%). But witness Dr. Stephen Foster, he says, and claims Foster is not alone:  "The next time you hear someone at a cocktail party mock evangelicals, think of Dr. Foster and those like him," he writes. "These are folks who don’t so much proclaim the gospel as live it. They deserve better."
5. This week, this Holy Week, begins with a parade, the Lord of life, the King of Heaven and earth, coming into a town a celebrity. But long before the parade began, he determined that this triumphal entry was something he'd do on a donkey, a braying ass. That's how he came to us. 

That's what he was, a servant.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Holy week--Holy tears

You'd think after 67 years there'd be no more revelations from the Bible. I mean, I've read it so often and written about it so frequently that its dark corners would be gone and there could be no more news. The bible is a tome, and it takes years to get through; but we've done it more than once, in more than one version; so when I stumble on something I didn't think I knew in a big story, I'm just shocked.

For instance, I don't know why, but it came as news yesterday that Jesus wept over Jerusalem. 

I know the Lazarus story. The line is a giveaway in a dozen Bible games. You know, "what the shortest verse in the Bible?" Well, duh.  

But yesterday, in a Palm Sunday sermon, I saw those eyes fill with tears for what seemed the first time, real salty tears amid a ten thousand beloved palm fronds. 

Why? For himself maybe. Time was running out, Holy Week was upon him. The clock--a peculiarly earthly thing--was ticking. When he heard the crowd, he probably couldn't help thinking that the divine Him had been a miserable failure. He'd pulled dozens of tricks, done some eye-popping sleight of hand, accomplished more than a few jaw-dropping miracles--water into wine, his first, was little more than a cartoon when compared to sight-to-the-blind and death-to-life. Five loaves, two fishes--that was just sweet, even though it filled more bellies than souls. He'd done it all, really, but he'd failed. Those tears had cause.

And we didn't get it. It wouldn't have made a difference if he'd come right out and said it either because earthlings weren't going to understand that while he was one of them, at the very same time he wasn't. He was as human as any, but totally divine. Not half-human and half-divine, some grotesque mix, not either/or but both/and. And what's really hard to swallow--impossible--is that coming soon to a hill near you would be a hideous, painful death as damnable as any, but all of it only prelude to a once-in-a-lifetime Sunday dawn. He cried because we're all failures--him and us too. We didn't get it. Not only that, but it's still a mystery, still befuddling, still a humanly-impossible stretch. You got to believe, but Lord knows it ain't easy. Nope.

And then there's this. Maybe he bawled on his way into town because he loved us even though we got it all so damned wrong. Here he was, front and center on the biggest victory celebration Jerusalem had seen, people cheering, throwing down robes and shawls for a long-haired grown man riding--of all things!--a little braying ass. Jesus wept because he loved us, idiots all, well-meaning, stars in our eyes, but dreadfully, horribly deluded. He wept because he loved us as no earthling could or can.

What's the shortest verse in the Bible? "Jesus wept." There he was at the tomb of Lazarus, Mary and Martha already emotionally crumbled. People are supposed to cry in cemeteries. He wept. Wouldn't anyone?

But all around him just then there was nothing but adoration. If men and women and kids wouldn't have screamed their love, the stones would have and that could have been something right out of Disney and would have been. When it was over that afternoon, the people must have had trouble winding down the celebration--what a great day! what a holiday! what a reception! what a triumph for a king! Let's just go out for dinner, honey. I don't want all these good times to end. This is one for the books!

His own gang, every last one of the twelve, had to be just as cranked, riding high themselves, thrilled to be stars for a long and wonderful afternoon.

He was the only one who understood it. In the whole crowd that day, He alone was alone. 

Amid the shouting, the God on the donkey was the only one in tears.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Sunday Morning Meds--God Talk

“If I were hungry I would not tell you, 
for the world is mine, and all that is in it.”
Psalm 50

I truly believe that God speaks to me and others, but I’ve never heard voices, except, of course, metaphorically.  When my grandmother got old, she would, on occasion, call my parents in the middle of the night, convinced there were Nazis beneath her bed, German voices.  She wasn’t thinking God, of course; she was feeling fear. 

Among the throng of Christians I know and respect, some—many, in fact—will refer to God speaking to them as if he were a sidekick.  “God told me to take this job. . .” “to write this book. . .” “to just go ahead and write the President. . .” “to attend this conference, and now I know why. . .”

I find that talk a little chummy and more than a little mysterious, but I doubt very little in life.  Maybe those good folks do actually hear a reassuring voice, sometimes even authoritative.  Still, I wonder what kind of voice they hear—something low and gravelly, a snappy and particularly Jewish George Burns, or maybe the voice of a woman (although most who use that language would not seriously entertain the possibility).

Just one of the stubborn paradoxes of the Christian faith is God’s illimitable character—is he “afar off,” a transcendent God who watches us like some heavenly forest ranger atop some tower or NORAD missile defense?  Or is he imminent, right here beside us, over my shoulder, as personal as a valet, as intimate as a spouse? 

Well, He’s both, of course—hence the paradox.  We pray to him as an intimate, but with the full knowledge that millions of others are sharing his ear at the very same moment.  He’s God.  We aren’t.  He is both a teddy bear and the Secretary General of the Cosmos.

In the continuum which exists between those two poles, I’ll admit to seeing him more easily as expansive, the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe.  Well, sort of.  He isn’t exactly way out there somewhere.  He’s here too.  He is right beside me; and, as I’ve admitted, I think he speaks—in the voices of my friends and enemies, in the skies, in the broad land, in worship, as well as in these very moments, when the words appear across this bright screen as my fingers tap dance across the keyboard.  The words are mine, but I honestly think he’s here, even in these words.  It’s impossible to explain, as faith is.

I do believe that we know him best in the Word made Flesh, in the incarnation, in the coming of his son, his presence among us, his death, and resurrection.  Through Jesus Christ, we know God’s love—and that’s likely all we really need to know.
Seems to me that this line from verse 50 is very strange:  “If I were hungry, I would not tell you. . .”  It’s so incredibly human that it’s hard for me to believe God almighty would ever think such a thing, much less say it.  Besides, there’s even a hint of deception—“I wouldn’t tell you.”  Sounds almost childish.
If this line is actually his and not just the humanly imagined vision of the earthling who wrote them, then it honestly makes me giggle.  I’d never before considered how strange it must be to the Eternal One to have find clear and vivid ways to speak to creatures as such as ourselves, given the astounding handicap of our humanness.
It may be impossible for us to consider the God of the Universe, but consider his own troubles—he has to talk to the likes of us. 

But he does.  I swear it.  

Friday, March 27, 2015

Sioux County history--Lifelines

Right here where I'm sitting, Holland Township, Sioux County, Iowa, got sectioned into homesteads by a gang of Hollanders up from the Pella area, looking for cheap land and space enough for another colony of Dutch Calvinists, a new colony for tons of new wooden shoes just off the boat, ja. 

They'd set boundaries for what land they'd wanted for themselves and for a town, then they returned to Sioux City to fairly distribute that land among themselves. They did so, and left once more for Pella, having achieved exactly what they'd intended to do.

Then later, two wagon trains from Pella came up north and out west. It was October, 1868.

October may well be the most beautiful month to live in Siouxland. Summer's reach hasn't drawn back, fall colors are burnished and warm, hosts of prairie flowers are swaying in the warm sun and even winds. October must have made the place seems a paradise--birds, animals, streams full of game fish.

Here's how Charley Dyke describes it:
The prairie swarmed with old and young prairie chickens, quail, killdeer, larks, plovers, curlews, native sparrows, song sparrows, cranes and many other s and the trees along the river were musical with nesting song birds. The sloughs were alive with ducks of different kinds and jingled with the song of the bobolink. Yellow headed blackbirds hovered over the tall grass and red-wing blackbirds hovered over the tall grass and redwing blackbirds wung and ukelelied on the reeds. A brilliant sun made everything summer and glimmer and glisten.
This forever prairie, grass as far as you could see, had to be cut, opened up for habitation. Had to be. So these folks set the plow behind an ox or a horse and tried their best to outline a home, a place they'd somehow come to call their own. That was the very first step: outline our property. The Yankton must have considered them plain crazy, but most of these white folks had come from nothing or very little, so outlining what glory was theirs had to have been pure joy.

Imagine this. In October the tall-grass prairie was a forest of native glory, so high it could out-tall the horses. People literally got lost just taking a walk. For  years already, some had called the tall-grass prairie an ocean because when the constant winds blowing over the grasses made waves that turned the country as endless as the Atlantic.

So once those first white settlers outlined their homesteads and started to think about sod houses or where they'd get sufficient wood for proving up their claims, the second thing they did was turn those oxen west and north to the Floyd River and the West Branch, the only breaks, the only recognizable diversion from an endless grassland. 

Those furrows weren't highways really. Those first white settlers had far too much work to travel anywhere. Those furrows were lifelines to the safety zones because if you got to the river, at least you knew where you were. Those pioneers cut furrows into virgin ground just in case you or your spouse or your kids got head-over-heels in the lush prairie, so mixed up you lost your wits and way, nothing around but an ocean of grass. 

I'm sitting right here in the southeast corner of Holland Township, Sioux County, Iowa, 146 years later. In an awakening dawn just outside my window, the land slopes gently to the Floyd River maybe an eighth of a mile north. I could walk there in minutes. I'd like to imagine that once upon a time one of those lifelines ran right here through flowery prairie grass, a single line of unearthed dirt running to the bank of the river so we could know where we are.

We may well be the wealthiest rural county in all of Iowa's 99 these days. There are more confinements per square mile than anywhere else in the state, it seems. A friend of mine claims that the company he hauls cement for claims there's sixteen new ones going up in the neighborhood just this summer. Lots of work.

But with all that wealth, it's a crying shame we have nothing to remember how rich this world was when paleface Hollanders determined it would be their own new colony, when they put the plow to ground no one had ever farmed, drained the sloughs, and muddied the rivers. 

It'd be nice to be able to imagine more easily what this creation looked like back then, this ocean of grass with lifelines running right down the hill to the river, just in case we get lost. It'd be nice to have a section of nothing but tall-grass prairie.

It'd be nice. I don't know--I think it might also be right, a lifeline of its own.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

All things being equal

All things being equal, they aren't.

Just one of the indignities of old age is the realization that some things don't stop growing--noses, people say, and ears and feet. Your biceps don't swell, and your skin doesn't firm, and what doesn't grow just sags frightfully.  It ain't fun.

I came upon this ridiculous still life a morning or two ago--my size 15s (and growing) beside my wife's cute little 8s. I don't think the pic works all that well. In real life, this still life is vastly more grotesque. I can almost put my wife' pair into one of mine. Yeah, yeah, yeah--"what a sturdy foundation," you're saying, and I'll be the last one to fall in a stiff prairie wind. Yuk. Yuk.

Let me share my pain. Bowling has been spotty. "Got 15s?" I ask some kid behind the shoe counter, and he rolls his eyes. Ice skates? forget it. In Africa not long ago, our hosts were kind enough to provide slippers if we had to use the open-air hole-in-the-ground in the middle of the night. We were in a medical compound, and they didn't want us simply stepping off the cot--we were sleeping outside--and going. . .well, you know. Sweet man handed me a pair of eights. True story. Getting there in those things in the middle of steep African darkness was its own kind of comedy.

All things being equal, they aren't.

It's taken me two whole years to figure out how to write a story I've referred to several times in these posts, the story of an immigrant woman who lost three children and a husband, a woman whose ebullient, expressive piety--"Dear Sister, how wonderful it is that we have the Lord's love to guide us"--that kind of spirituality virtually disappeared during her tough life on the prairie, a woman who, in her late years, had to quake every time she repeated the words "Thy will be done."

It's not a nice story, and, Lord knows we don't like nice stories.

"How come everybody's got to die at the end?" one of my students wrote in an on-line class yesterday. They're watching Hamlet, and when the play ends, it's a blood bath. 

Why, my dear? Because Aristotle said (and Shakespeare believed) that tragedy is good for us. It's catharitic, I told her, as if holding up a whole half pint of cod liver oil. Because sadness, deep and inescapable sadness, makes us vigilant for ourselves and those we really love. Because the unmistakable reality of death teaches how to live life. Because suffering makes us strong. Because inequality teaches us to love.

Yeah, sure. But what I want to know is why is there suffering at all?  Embarrassing feet are one thing, but how is it that "sorrows come not as spies but in battalions" for some people when others get silver spoons?  Why is sadness not dispensed equally throughout the land? 

Why do some people get a tub full of the world's tears? 

The disciples spot a blind man. "Who sinned to make that happen?" they ask Jesus. "It was neither that this man sinned, nor his parents; but it was so that the works of God might be displayed in him," Jesus tells them. Look it up. Gospel of John, chapter nine, verse two. 

That he expects us to believe that is a mighty tall order.

Once upon a time, at a church in Japan, I was required, like others, to take off my shoes. Members' worship sandals were neatly tucked into in what resembled a wall-size church mailbox, a few extras there for visitors. Needless to say, my shoes lay there on the floor like a pair of flatbed barges. In church, I just wore socks.

Big frickin' deal, you say. There are men and women and children without feet, without legs.

I know that's true, but what I'll never understand is why.

You know, all things being equal.

They just aren't.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Coming to a Pizza Ranch near you!

To no one's surprise, it has now officially begun. This year, the annual Presidential sweepstakes promises yet another tourist season in a corner of the state and a square inch of the world that few visit otherwise except the loving parents of college kids.

Orange City has a brand new Embassy Suites--great breakfasts; and Sioux Center's Holiday Inn stands just outside of town like a citadel. Both beckon the politicians, their staffing teams, and their own swarm of journalists. 

They'll be here. Count on it. No delusions of grandeur here--this ought to be a banner year in Siouxland, the entire region a revolving door, every last one of the candidates begging our favor. 

This is, after all, a Republican year. The Democrats seem convicted that Hillary's their woman, despite "Clinton fatigue." She's head-over-heels above all comers, whether they arise from her party or anyone else's. She is the front-runner, period. 

No matter. This year the live action is on the other side of the aisle, and it started this week when the inimitable Ted Cruz stood before 10,000 students in a required chapel and unloosed a score of "imagines"-- as in, imagine an America without taxes. 

Cruz has been to Washington no longer than Barack Obama had, which seems to be enough these days. His greatest political accomplishment was am ill-fated, one-man show filibuster. But he's banking on the party's glassy-eyed true believers, people who will--let there be no doubt--vote.

And he wants us. Ted Cruz would not run for President if he didn't believe that Christian conservatism wouldn't kick-start his prominence and bring him a win in the Iowa caucuses. After all, most Iowa Republicans are professing members of the the First Church of Christian conservatives, Bishop Vander Plaats their prelate. Cruz may have started at Liberty University, but he's got Dordt and Northwestern scribbled down in his playbook because he thinks we're his people. He thinks we hate taxes and Obamacare and those drug-toting illegal immigrants as much as he and Steve King. He believes we too imagine the U.S. of A. under the direction of Jesus Christ. He knows we want an end to abortions, want baby-killing doctors and their patients, the mothers-to-be, all locked up in the county jail.  

He knows we want what he wants, and he knows no one wants it more in Iowa than this corner of the state; and he knows that if he can win Sioux County, he might just win Iowa; and if he wins in Iowa, who knows where the game goes? That's why he has his eye on us.

If the first primary was in California, he'd be toast; but because it's in Iowa he's got a shot, if he can get all of the northwest corner. He's preaching to the choir. That's what he thinks.

I'm betting he's wrong. Even though what Ted Cruz said in that Liberty chapel resounds with thousands of Christian conservatives in northwest Iowa, Ted Cruz doesn't.

Why not? That's a good question. I really don't know, but I'll take a shot at an explanation. Ted Cruz is as much an Iowan as Debbie Wasserman-Schultz. Even though he speaks the language, even though every political chord he hits creates harmony, he doesn't sit down at the keyboard right. He's arrogant. He's a grand-stander, a know-it-all, just the kind of smart ass small-town folks smell out more quickly than black-and-white road kill.

Thank goodness, I say. 

Anyway, out here on the edge of the plains it's primary season, and sooner or later Ted Cruz will show up. He thinks our corner is in his corner. Worse yet, he thinks our corner is his.

I'd like to believe he's wrong. I hope so.  
Correction: Yesterday, Ted Cruz told CNN that he's going on Obamacare. The editors of this blog left the line in the post (see above) because most pundits believe Cruz is still against it, just on it.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015


I don't have to tell this story. I could let it go untold, given the fact that right now, as we speak, our blessed, 14-year-old blue-collar feline boarder is somewhere in this house sound asleep. Our cat has not pestered me to tell the tale. He's very much above needing your or my approval for anything.

I'm no relation to the ancient Pharaohs who worshiped cats. I never posted a cat video and only written Benny up when he did something regrettable. I don't have to tell you what happened. I have no interest in making him an star because he's a miserable egotist, arrogant as a prince, impossibly one-way. But then, Benny is a cat.

He's got this thing for running water. My wife is his slave and dotes miserably, so his bowl is never brackish. But he's got this thing for running water and, yes, toilets. 

Benny and I are alone in the morning, when, like now, it's still dark as night. His braying has prompted me on occasion to consider murder, but most morning he's respectfully quiet.

From his anticipation you might think my using the toilet was the highlight of his day. He's thoughtful enough not to stand anywhere close, although his motivation cannot be respect because respect is beneath him. For whatever reason, he's not RIGHT THERE when the task is being accomplished. He waits just outside the door, like some fine footman.

Honestly--you can ask my wife--I'm not a husband who forgets. . .well you know, to flush. 

But it was dark as midnight down here, maybe quarter of five a couple of days ago. There's just one light on, the one at the foot of the stairs, and it was time for certain bodily functions. My age is showing in so many ways it hardly seems necessary to describe them, but one manifestation is that I do not, anymore, wake up quickly. My mind is considerably mushy so toiletries, you might say, get accomplished in a darkened daze. I'm not quite ready to go even if I am very much ready to go, if you catch my drift. 

So I did what needed to be done, Benny politely waiting in silence, as always, just outside the door. He listens closely to the tinkling, then waits for the tide to wash in, you might say.

Okay, here's my humiliation: I walked away and didn't flush. I left the stool behind without, I'm sure he'd say, the sound of music, all that fresh water swirling into the bowl. I'm not a clod or a headache. Go ahead and ask my wife. She'll tell you I'm not so great a sinner.

But this time, I stumbled.

On my way out, there he sat, his bedeviling green eyes upon me in that perfectly cat-like emotionlessness. And, remember, this is for him a ritual, a kind of dance. The moment I flush, he's there, even if I'm still preparing myself for the world. He approaches the bowl in eerie cat-silence, tours the circumference, then puts up his front paws from the left side to witness the delicious swirl.

But this time he didn't move. He just looked at me. That's all, he just looked at me, sat there, his paws beneath him, still as a statue, those green eyes in saying clearly, "Sir, were you born in a barn?" He could just as well spoken those words like Balaam's ass because not to I catch the revelation of his reprimand was impossible.

I didn't bow, didn't wince, didn't talk back. I pivoted, returned to the scene of the crime, and flushed. 

He could have rolled his eyes, but he didn't. Don't think him thoughtful or forgiving, for heaven's sake. He's a cat, and it's verily beneath him even to recognize my incivility. He put his paws up on the stool and never looked at me because what is always clear is that I really don't matter much at all.

This Calvinist has no need of a conscience. I've got Benny. 

Monday, March 23, 2015

"Bully pulpits and closet prayers"

In 1640, Boston had more educated people, per capita, than London, because Protestantism, Calvinism to be more exact, was all the rage. Hard to imagine, I know, but it's true. Puritanism wrote the mission statement for Harvard College. Jonathan Edwards, the most famous Calvinist preacher in American history, was once president of Yale. 

Protestantism built schools all over the world.  In Africa even today, differences between countries where England and France colonized still exist because the predominately Protestant Brits pushed universal education. Early American Protestant missionaries to this country's indigenous peoples were almost always responsible for the preservation of Native languages, not because those missionaries were anthropologists, but because they wanted, above all, to teach Native people to read the Bible. If the Reformation was about anything, it was about democratizing the Holy Scriptures, taking the Word out of the hands of the priests and placing it lovingly in the open hands of the laity. Sola Scriptura.

All of that is noble, a history I'm proud of, but it has its dark side.

Just for a moment, imagine you know Christianity in the way the Christian faith can be known in America even without participation. You love the Christmas season, and you know the Pope is rare because he gets headlines for saying things that no other pope has. You get that.

You also know that in some places three or four different churches stand inside just a couple of city blocks, that the internet has a million religious sites, and that any hour of the day or night you can find two or three TV preacher saying woe and woe and woe. Christian billboards are as ubiquitous as bumper stickers. Kids wear t-shirts with Bible verses--so do their moms and dads. And, oh yeah, someone down south somewhere is building an some big fat ark. What's that about?

So one day you ask the really nice woman you work with--she's got a bible verse on her coffee mug--that you don't get this whole Christian thing. That comment lights her up like nothing at work has in a long time, and she brings you a Bible. "Read this," she says.

So you go home, put your feet up, and open about halfway through--I mean, what do you know?--and find the book of Hosea. You start reading.

Good luck.

Hosea has a story, but that story--honestly?--is bizarre, half real and half parable. It's about a man who is ordered by God to marry a whore. He does, a spike-heeled street-walker named Gomer. She continues to make a living the hard way, but he buys her back. Seriously? Is that what happens? Anyway, the guy, Hosea, has kids by some wife--the tramp?--and gives them really bizarre names.  

That's it. All of this happens in three chapters, and what follows are eleven more of sermons from Pat Robertson on steroids. Mostly the same, too, playing on a film loop.

Say, what? 

Teaching the world to read was a noble effort, just as putting the Bible into the hands of everyone was a blessed event that, in its own way, gave birth to democracy.  

But it also created a gadzillion readings, from Martin Luther to Martin Luther King, from Joseph Smith to David Koresh, from you and me and the weird guy down the street who's in sackcloth and ashes beneath that bizarre sandwich board. Isn't freedom a riot? Yes, it is.

Our little Bible study "did" Hosea this month, and I for one found this minor prophet a mystery, a scrapbook of sermons that no one took the time to edit. It rips up the Jews of the northern kingdom, but promises love anyway in a fashion that any believer--including this one--simply calls grace. I get that.

But it wouldn't work well on a flannelgraph. It requires interpretation, as does every last verse of the Bible. Listen, "Thou shalt not kill." Very true, except for police, of course, and Navy Seals and  U.S. Marines. It's a raw and difficult rule, but it seems to me to be true that you can't just believe every word the Bible says.  

Those first Calvinists knew it. That's the  Geneva Bible at the top of the page, first Bible "of the people, for the people, and by the people" you might say. Have a look at the running commentary on the sides. That's there to teach you and me how to read because you can't just "read the Bible."

If it's the Word of God--and I believe it is--then, well, "it's complicated." David Koresh had a faith that was vastly deeper and stronger than mine, but he was also out so significantly out of his tree that he believed every woman on the compound was soon to be yet another Mary mother of God by his divine insemination. 

I like what Samuel Mahaffy says in a recent post:  "It is time to put religion back in the closet where it belongs. With fewer bully pulpits and more closet prayers, we may yet find our way back to the sacred." 

He's not just talking about just Christians either. He's talking about Sikhs and Muslims and Mormons and Roman Catholics and Evangelicals and fundamentalists of all persuasions. It's time to pay attention to these words of Jesus: "But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen."

Mahaffy says we need fewer bully pulpits and more closet prayers, and he's right.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Sunday Morning Meds--What if?

"Hear, O my people, and I will speak, O Israel, 
and I will testify against you: I am God, your God.”

Most fiction writers—if I can generalize—say that stories almost always begin with “what if?”  What if one of society’s low-lifes were to be mugged on a busy street—who would stop?  The Good Samaritan. 

My guess is that Asaph, or whoever wrote Psalm 50, wasn’t necessarily thinking that way exactly, and probably didn’t begin this psalm with a question.  My guess is that he likely wanted to draw out the dimensions of a vision he had.  But readers—especially contemporary readers (like me)—can’t help but read a “what if” into this visionary tale:  “what if” God almighty called his people together at some time or another to speak to them—what would he say? 

Seventeenth-century Puritans, good folks born and reared on hellfire and brimstone, might imagine a different speech that we do. 

And why am I using the editorial we?  I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’d like to believe that God’s first words would be something comforting, something about love.  Maybe there would be a rainbow, white doves fluttering, a soft flute. 

But stories are nothing without surprise, and this one, Psalm 50, has surprises in spades; because the first thing God says, with the assembled—alive and dead—standing before him, hasn’t a dime’s worth of comfort:  "Hear, O my people, and I will speak, O Israel, and I will testify against you: I am God, your God.” 

There would be some quaking, I’m sure.

And there should be. The almighty is not sweet, he’s spittin’.

And there is some quaking, at least in me.

Because maybe I’ve got it all wrong.  Maybe God is really angry right now, mad about the way we swear allegiance to his name and then simply neglect the obligations—even though we think we’re doing it all right—pardon me, even though I think I’m doing it all right.  Maybe I’m not.

When I read this psalm, I am reminded of a most unforgettable story titled, “Conventional Wisdom,” by Stanley Elkin, who specialized in rogue-ish black humor.  The story is full of the kind of cutting jokes that make you laugh as you bleed.  When Ellerbee, a good man, dies, he’s transported to the after-life, where he meets St. Peter, then falls directly into hell, where he discovers, facing God, that the conventional wisdom was really the whole gospel truth.  God tells him he’s on the hot seat because his store was open on the Sabbath, etc. 
Ellerbee—like the reader—is just blown away. 
The scenario of Psalm 50 reminds of that story because God’s opening lines are so awful, so scary, so intimidating, so shocking. 

As the Bible can be, often, even though some of  us—me included--don’t talk about it much.

Just when we get comfortable, He turns up the heat.  Just when we want to curl up on the couch with a good book, he tells us to do his will.  Just when he whispers he loves us, he throws us out of the garden.  He wants more of us, this God.  He wants more of us.

Read it and weep.

Sometimes that happens.    


Friday, March 20, 2015

Deception Pass -- a story (ii)

What haunted Gordon as he thought about it that night, that wet night in the cabin with Donna and the kids, was what he remembered of The Godfather, a scene in which a killing took place at the exact time a mobster who set it up was creating an alibi by having his son baptized--terrifying, ugly murder occurring while the boss stood on the front steps of a giant Gothic cathedral for a religious ceremony as empty as a tinkling cymbal.

But after all, he thought, how many of the couples whose kids I’ve baptized were really thinking through the vows at all? How often did people simply baptize their children because, like fireworks on Independence Day, it’s such a good thing to do? What would be the difference anyway?--he thought.

And isn’t baptism just a promise? The water’s not holy. The janitor takes it out of the restroom. And don’t we all break promises? Wasn’t it true of any parent that the pledges of honor and perfect parenting were all broken sometime? We all have sinned, after all, every one of us. Did baptism mean anything really--it is nothing more than a sign and symbol.

Would his sprinkling tidal waters on his nephew’s head somehow destroy God’s own pledge? Was there anything a man or woman could do to a child or his parents that would somehow affect God’s grace? If God wanted this child was there any question but that Christ’s own cleansing mercies would wash over him?

Isn’t my brother’s soul worth it?


“You know what your father would say.” Gordon’s mother sat on a picnic table working a crossword puzzle, the three youngest kids puttering on the water’s edge.

“But this is his son,” Gordon said.

“What makes you think that would make any difference?” she said.

“Maybe it should,” he told her.

They were alone, all the others out biking on the roads toward the pass. Just Grandma, the three littlest kids, and Gordon, who had told the rest he would catch up.

“We’re not a church,” she said, “we’re a family.”

“We’re a church, Mother,” he said. “We’re believers who happen to be a family.”

She slapped the opened magazine lightly against the edge of the table. “Seems to me your mind’s already made up,” she told him.

“Are you with me?” he said.

“You know what your father--”

“You, Mother,” he said. “I want to know what you think.”

She stood, stepped out from behind the picnic table, and walked up behind her grandchildren, so busy at the water’s edge they were oblivious to both of them.

“I have to, Mother,” he told her. “I can’t face Jeremy with any more theology.”

She turned back toward him slowly, followed the line of her tracks back up toward him, then looked away. “Then let me just say this,” she told him, shaking her head. “Don’t you ever forget him.” She raised a finger. “This isn’t just something “cute” here, so don’t you ever, ever forget about him.”

“You mean Jeremy?” he said.

“No, I don’t mean Jeremy,” she said. “I mean, Aaron--the boy you’re about to pledge to God. Don’t you ever forget about him.”

It took longer than he thought it would for him to catch up to the other bikers--almost an hour, in fact, an hour he had alone on the road.


The next morning, alone, he told Jeremy that he would baptize the child. But he told his prodigal brother that he wanted assurances from him--that he and Alex would take Aaron to church, that they’d begin to go themselves, that they’d begin to take the faith of their parents more seriously.

“Sure,” Jeremy said. “We’ve been thinking that church would be a good thing again.”

“A good thing,” Gordon thought all the rest of that day. “A good thing,” he kept telling himself that afternoon, when all the kids were there, and all the grandchildren--when the whole family stood there at the shore and watched Gordon Martins reach down for the water that was already retreating back out to the pass, the whole family, except his mother, whose absence, Jeremy claimed, he understood and accepted.

“I won’t be there,” she’d told them all. “You know your father would not approve.” But neither did she try to stop them.

So Gordon Martins baptized Aaron Martins, Jeremy’s son, because it seemed so much to him to be, at least, a good thing to do.

And today at Snowhomish Church, every time a couple comes to him, he sits down with them, opens up the possibilities of what might happen on their day in front of church, offers some suggestions, points at the banners and lets the newborn baby squeeze his finger.

And then they talk.

“Do you know what it is?” he says to the couple. “I mean, baptism--do you really understand what you’re doing?”

The couple invariably looks shyly at each other, shrug shoulders--they’re often very young--and nod their heads. Of course they do.

“Do you know why your child should be baptized?” he says.

They glance at each other, and then, once in awhile, the father says, “It’s a good thing to do.”

“It is a good thing to do,” he tells those young couples, but then he tells them no. He says he won’t baptize their children until they know for sure and believe in what is going on with the sprinkling of the water.


You see, in 1987, Alexandria left Jeremy for very good reasons and took Aaron to New Mexico, and that’s where they live--mother and son--together. Jeremy still lives in St. Paul. He’s had more than his share of trouble, and he’s got another girlfriend, he says, one with two kids--two kids, he claims, who need a father.

So today Snowhomish Church knows it’s a thing with Rev. Martins--this sacrament of baptism. And now you know why: his dead father has a grandson somewhere in New Mexico with an invisible mark on his forehead placed there by his uncle, a preacher who drew in a handful of water from a basin that had begun, even as the family stood there together, to seep slowly back out to the sound.

Most all stories have prototypes, as does this one, a situation not unlike the one I've created in this story. But the story itself is pure fiction.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Deception Pass -- a story (i)

Just yesterday, I was reminded of a story I wrote ten years ago already, maybe more, when a magazine wanted me to write stories with themes that connected to how we worship. It had been a while since I'd thought about that story--and a ton of others thusly conceived--so I thought I'd run this one for a couple of days. This particular issue was to be devoted to how we do baptism, and in my theological world baptism is an infant thing. So, there's the assignment: write a story that has something to do with the sacrament of baptism. 

Here 'tis, from a magazine titled Reformed Worship, a story about baptism that happens to be set in the Pacific Northwest.

What is unique about Reverend Gordon Martins--and his whole congregation at Snowhomish Church recognizes it--is his penchant for doing meaningful baptisms.

Often it means a children’s sermon with all kinds of visual aids--a goldfish, a baby hamster, a meat cleaver (of all things!), five hundred-dollar bills, and the one no one would ever forget, his own wife in a bathing cap. Each baptism had its own, special music: Amy Grant done by kids, teenagers, and even in duet, one time, by a mom and dad; the three-year-olds singing “Jesus Loves Me”; and “Feed My Lambs,” that Natalie Sleeth pastoral, with flute accompaniment by the baptized child’s sixth-grade sister.

What no one at Snowhomish Church knows, however, and what few anywhere understand is why Pastor Gordon has this thing for baptism. There is, after all, a reason.

Pastor Gordon’s father was a firebrand preacher, a man driven to purity in doctrine and life, a dissenter in the denomination into which he was born, and like the pilgrims who settled Plymouth, Massachusetts, finally a separatist who left his childhood denomination to beget a new and more rigorous assembly.

His mother was the exact kind of woman his father required: she slid along in his sometimes turbulent wake without once second-guessing the surf her husband was creating. Both of them were small, hunched in appearance, stern-faced but full of the spirit; their eyes seemed to match, dark and foreboding and wary after all those years of battle.

Gordon was the oldest of four children--three boys and a girl. His brother Autrey sold carpets and taught ninth-grade Sunday School in Eugene, Oregon; while Rebecca, their sister, like her mother, had set her sights on motherhood, married a man who became a professor at a Christian college, and the father of their four children.

Then there was Jeremy, the prodigal.


It is August, 1985. The Martins family is camping at a park in Whidby Island, Washington, together for the first time since the death of their father two years earlier, when the children decided they should get together more often, not just wait for the next funeral.

The place is called Deception Pass, more than an hour from Snowhomish Church, a place Gordon picked for its beauty, where each day billions of gallons of tidal water from the sound rush through a thin, deeply cut crevice in the earth, back and forth, to fill and then empty the basins of the island.

Jeremy and Alexandria, his second wife, arrive in a beat-up Volvo, a pair of bikes on a rack on the trunk. The rest of the family knows that the first time he was in church for years was the funeral of his father. Alex is his wife now, but she wasn’t when their baby, Aaron, was born, just two months after the funeral--and believe me, that’s another story.

Jeremy and Alexandria are the first of the children to arrive, after Gordon, of course, who with Donna, his wife, has set everything up. And perhaps because they are alone--Gordon, the preachers, and his brother Jeremy, the prodigal--Jeremy asks Gordon a question Gordon hasn’t really anticipated.

It’s asked in a flourish of hope, Gordon thinks, when the two of them are standing alone outside the cabin where Alex is nursing the baby. Jeremy is lifting the trail bike off its hooks, when he looks at his brother, smiles, and says, “We want you to baptize Aaron--here, now, with the family.” Then he puts the bike on the gravel, lifts the front end off the ground and spins the front tire, as if to see if the long trip from Minnesota did any harm. “We think it’d be nice, with all the family around. It’s something we’ve thought a lot about,” Jeremy says. “We’d like you to do it.”

Gordon’s first reaction is his father’s: a family is not a church. But although he is a preacher, Gordon is by no means his father’s clone.

“I mean, when everybody’s here,” Jeremy says, taking hold of the second bike, the one with the baby seat.

So much within Gordon wanted to rush into a wonderful baptism in the same headlong fashion by which tidal waters pour through the steep gorge on the coast. Baptism was a step after all, a baby step, even, toward faith for his brother Jeremy, who the whole family had prayed for endlessly through what?--fifteen years of rebellion and personal problems.

“It just seems right to us,” Jeremy says. “It’s not just for Dad’s sake either, it’s for us--for Aaron.”

It was a mark of how far Jeremy had wandered from the path of his father that he would even ask such a thing--so sure Gordon was of what would have been his father’s immediate response.

“Wouldn’t it be great for Mother?” Jeremy says.

Gordon helps his brother lift the suitcases out of the trunk. What he knows, of course, is that he can give no answer so quickly, so he offers his brother the only response he can think of right off hand. “I’ll have to think about it,” he says. “It’s not just something one does, Jeremy-like nursing the baby.”

Something dies, just that fast, in his brother’s eyes, and Jeremy turns away, carrying a pair of suitcases up the worn board stairway and into the cabin. Behind him, the screen door slams, slapped shut by a long spring. Just as quickly, Jeremy reappears. “You’re so dogmatic, Gord,” he says from the doorstep. “Just like Dad, there’s no humanity in you.”

“I haven’t said no,” Gord tells him.

“But you’re thinking about it,” Jeremy says.

Tomorrow: conclusion

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Morning Thanks--Dawn's own grace

I am, for better or for worse, among those who lay claim to the the theological legacy of John Calvin, not that I care to fight about it. Count me among those who believe---gulp!--in predestination. 

There I said it. I'm out of the closet. Now let me say it again: I think Calvin was right about the inscrutable sovereignty of God. 

But before we lay bare our fists, let me say that the truth of that much maligned doctrine can be forsworn only in a rear view mirror. That God chooses us makes sense only after the fact, not before, and certainly not about you or that gent down the street or the woman he married or didn't. That God does the heavy lifting in mission work doesn't mean we don't.

I have beloved Christian friends who think I'm stark raving mad to admit that, sweet saints who've been brought up to believe that what I've just said are fightin' words. 

I get that. One of my all-time favorite wise men, a thoughtful scamp named Rev. Leonard Verduin, used to say that salvation will forever be one of God's great mysteries. To say we have no free will like the predestinators do is to deny our own functioning humanity; but to say that our free will trumps God's will is the rant of idiots. Verduin told me he liked to think of grace as an escalator (think airports) constantly going up to the next floor, always in operation (heavenly escalators here, not the ones in O'Hare), always moving, always accessible, always lugging human being into grace.

But you got to get on the dumb thing. An escalator won't grab your bag or load you. You got to take a step yourself.  

I like that.

See the picture up top?--that's yesterday's dawn.

I sat down here correcting papers until seven, got up from the chair, wandered over to the picture window right here to my right, looked out, and saw--I'm practiced at dawns--that this Greenland-sized gray cloud was aimed like a battleship at the spot where the horizon was burning and that therefore what was going on outside my window was going to turn into something that was going to knock your socks off.  

All mornings are masterpieces--don't get me wrong. Dawn is always so much more than dawn. If you don't believe me, open Walden to its back pages sometime and listen to Thoreau.

But this one, I knew was going to be special, as they say, the colors not to be believed.

I was right. I got a pair of shoes on, threw on too light of a jacket, grabbed my camera, and drove like a banshee to a place where the horizon was open to the sky, where there was enough of a silo to create some frontispiece. Then, suddenly, and only momentarily, I was in a cartoon world.

I came back home, unloaded the goods and dropped four of them on Facebook. Not once in my years on FB did I get as many "likes." More than one hundred.  These shots are show-stoppers not because I painted the heavens but because yesterday's dawn, for which I'm thankful by the way, was one of those once-a-year specials. Grace was written in the heavens.

I got a digital remembrance or two because I was there. I saw it with my own camera. But that's it. I didn't do it. I didn't spring that battleship of a cloud, I didn't paint its underbelly scarlet, didn't do a darn thing. I was just there looking through a lens.

That dawn you see there belongs to the Lord.

That's the kind of Calvinist I am. See this?  That's what he done yesterday, just outside my window. 

That's grace, or at least something like it.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Siouxland 101

No tests. No quizzes. No essays. No grades.

But some required reading.

Ought to be fun.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Please be disturbed

There I sat in a room crowded with science profs, Christians, all of them talking about evolution. Like Republican politicians these days, I don't know much all about the subject. I can read and I can think (I think), but my inclinations don't take me deeply into the nature of nature. Just don't. "We can choose what we write," Flannery O'Connor once said, "but we can't choose what we write well" (don't ask me for chapter and verse).

For the most part, the discussion had to do with teaching approaches in a Christian college where lab tables full of students probably believe the world would be better off if Darwin had chosen to be a butcher or baker or candlestick maker. To many evangelicals, "evolution" is just another word for "revolution" against the Almighty.

I won't try to quote anyone, but it was clear--and no one should be shocked about this--that the profs (from two different Christian colleges by the way) considered themselves more open-minded about such things than at least some their students and a goodly number of parents.

A kind of consensus formed mid-stream that nothing could be finer than a student's willingness to listen, maybe even carry a dollop of doubt. "What we want to see in students is a questioning mind, a little confusion," someone said, which might translate this way: in some situations we want kids with doubt.

I understand that.

I was not a participant in all of this, just a facilitator. I didn't have to talk, and I didn't say much at all; but as I was sitting there, I couldn't helping thinking that neither college would be using a line like that on its web page any time soon. "We want only open minds"--put that on a banner up above the student union on a Friday visit day.

In an article in Tablet, Todd Gitlin says some documentary-maker came to his campus recently to show a film that featured the unspeakable violence going on in Syria. Before the presentation started, the director said, "We want to haunt your imagination. Please be disturbed."

Please be disturbed. That's not going on a poster or a t-shirt anytime soon either.

Todd Gitlin says, "Universities are not fallout shelters."

Neither are Christian colleges, nor should they be.

Which doesn't mean there are no rules. The only time I exercised censorship in my classroom was decades ago when, from a retiring colleague, I inherited a course in contemporary novels. My predecessor's curriculum looked like a good place for me to start, so I followed his leads, including the novel Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess, a novel that featured frighteningly violent scenes in order to question behavioral sciences then in their heyday (think B. F. Skinner), a kind of uber-disturbing 1984 or Brave New World.

I assigned Clockwork Orange until a couple of female students told me, politely I might add, that they simply weren't going to read it. These students were not excessively prudish; their spokesperson is, today, a celebrated university prof herself. They were deeply offended by the rape scenes especially, by what the novel itself called the "ultra-violence" of the street toughs.

I quit the novel right there. It's probably important to point out that I never was taken with Clockwork Orange; as far as I was concerned, it took two steps back into barbarism in order to take one step forward into enlightenment. It's a novel with a point, with an argument, a thesis--not my cup of tea. As it turns out, it's an asterisk today, a novel (and a movie) known more for its innovation than its moral character, a story with really flashy accessories but a sermon whose time has basically come and gone.

No matter. I quit.

Did I do the right thing? I think so. I think I felt a gender block here, the sense that the novel was much easier for me to read than it was for the young women in my class. In this case, the strength and wisdom of Clockwork Orange didn't earn the difficulty the students had negotiating its brutality.

But that doesn't mean I don't think Todd Gitlin is right. "Universities are not fallout shelters."

I think "Please, be disturbed," should be a recruiting tool. But mostly I'm sure what you'll hear is, "You'll love it here."

But if education doesn't bruise something sometime, I don't know if anything is really learned.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Sunday Morning Meds -- His people

B.J. Haan, second from left amid just some of his people.

"Gather to me my consecrated ones, 
who made a covenant with me by sacrifice."
Psalm 50:5

One of my favorite people of all time, the Rev. Bernard J. Haan, founding president of the college where I’ve taught for thirty years, was a remarkable man, one of those folks who could fill a room just be walking in.

A decade ago, when he was dying, my wife and I went to the hospital to see him.  A book of mine had just come out, a book I’d dedicated to him, and I wanted to show him because I respected him greatly—in part, because he’d always respected me, even when a ton of folks didn’t.  But that’s another story.

That day, he seemed almost cadaverous, his long face thin and gaunt; but when we came close to his bed, he looked up and recognized us, greeted us warmly. 

His eyes blinked a bit when he looked up at the open book I held in front of him with my hands.  I don’t know whether he could read the dedication or not, but I read them to him—“To B. J. Haan, who understands.” 

“Oh, Jim,” he said, “that’s wonderful—that’s just wonderful.”  Then his head fell back to the pillow a bit, as if simply to read was a strain.  “You know,” he said, cutting a grin, “I’ll remember that as long as I live.”

And we laughed.  A thousand people have a thousand stories about B. J. Haan, but no one can tell that one but me.

It would be wrong to say that Haan never really sought power; he did.  He had his causes, chief among them a college two blocks from our house.  But he never sought wider power than what he might use, lovingly, for causes he believed righteous.  He was a mover and a shaker, but, chances are, very few people reading these words ever heard of him.  He was a leader of his people, of whom there really weren’t very many.

It’s an odd phrase in this age—“his people.”  But Haan himself used that phrase frequently in her sermons and his radio commentaries.  “Our people have to talk about this,” he’d say about some theological flare up.  “God’s people have to think about what the Sabbath means,” he’d say from the pulpit.

What B. J. meant by that phrase was a thin fraction of God’s people, the descendent generations of Dutch Calvinist immigrant stock in an area we call Siouxland—and members of a particular denomination, the Christian Reformed Church. 

Today, that phrase is almost meaningless, even here, where he used it most effectively.   No preacher in the county would use it.  Today, in our multi-cultural world, that phrase, no matter how biblical, sounds inherently discriminatory because it reminds us all that some people aren’t “God’s people” or even “our people.”
When I hear God’s first line in Psalm 50, I hear Haan.  “Gather to me my people,” it might read, or, even closer, “Gather our people together.”  That’s the command. 

It seems worth noting that the sermon about to be delivered isn’t going to be proclaimed in a seeker-sensitive worship experience.  What God almighty is about to say isn’t aimed at unbelievers but disciples, “the consecrated ones,” which is not to say it isn’t meant to save souls.  It is.  Read on.

I wonder if old B. J. is smiling right now at my saying what I just have, nodding his own consecrated head as energetically he might have years and years ago.

I like to think so.

Saturday Morning Catch--Monarchial

Their table manners are atrocious, their cuisine obscene. 

In a group, they're more bullies than birds, and their singing is anything but. 

No matter. Our bald eagles are royalty, 
and no matter where they roam--
on land, in trees, or in the skies, 
their pure majesty makes you want to bow.