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.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Morning Thanks--a day's work

The word is that, as we speak, the death toll has reached 5000 and is bound to go up. How far?--no one knows. But the character of the region--villages no one has yet visited, significant poverty, no earthquake-proof housing--and the magnitude of the quake make it likely that 5000 will, soon enough, seem like, well, a blessing.

According to the New York Times, people who study such things predict the death toll will climb as high as ten times that. What happened in Nepal is catastrophic, the death toll immense, the toll of human suffering beyond imagination. As the letters so magically appear across my screen, hundreds, even thousands of people in Nepal are screaming for help.

Baltimore seems to be in civil war. The death of a black man--yet another in an endless string of brutality--has created riots, cars and buildings burning, people being hurt, hundreds of peacemakers working--often losing--to anger and sheer madness. The mayor called the looters "thugs," but the thugs, at least for a time, were school kids, which promises only more trouble.

West Baltimore is a sad place--unemployment, drugs, educational systems where even good teachers have to fight, literally, to succeed. People took to the streets in Baltimore because a man named Freddie Gray went into a police van for an infraction of some kind and came out dead. To say such things have happened too often is understatement.

The world's awash in chaos. There are good reasons to be sad, to be fearful, to wonder about the world's tipping.

But yesterday, with my very last class of all time nearing completion, the luminescent dawn promised a blessing in no uncertain terms: it was going to be a perfectly pure spring day. It's still a shade early for us to put in the garden, but all the plants that used to sit here at the window and feed off the morning sun are now happily lined up outside. My desk was cleared, my obligations at a minimum, so I decided to work outside. All day. 

"People who don't put things in the ground don't know God," an friend of mine told me once, quoting some old farmer. It could be bigotry, but neither he nor the original theologian meant it that way. What he meant was polar opposite: people who plant seeds live in adoration of the miracle of spring. When the cold siege relents, when a human being can work all day in a bath of warm sun, you know you're blessed, you know God.

What I actually did yesterday would sound like nothing, so I won't make a list. Suffice it to say that for the first time this spring I spent the entire day in our backyard acre, putzing around. That's right, just putzing. And loving it.

How many times haven't I heard stories about grandpas and grandmas who leave behind patiently tallied notes on dog-eared calendars: Feb. 26--first robin; March 5--lovely rain. 2 in.; Good Friday--potatoes. You know. That kind of thing.

Yesterday, this Grandpa thought about noting it, writing it down. Just outside my window  a couple of jetstreams had already marked the morning sky. 

But I had a grandpa's sense that something needed to be written down somewhere--"Yesterday for the first time this spring, I got my hands dirty. Hallelujah."

Baltimore is seething. People are searching for hundreds, even thousands of men and women and children who almost certainly have perished beneath the rubble. Places in the world exist where human beings couldn't rejoice in a pure dawn or a warm sun, were people couldn't take joy from little more than a windless morning.

But I could, and I did and it was a revelation, a gift, a miracle right here in my hands.

"April 29--worked outside."  


Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Lawrence Dorr, The Long Journey Home (i)


Some claim there are only a half dozen plot lines available to writers and story-tellers, that once you break down any good story there's really nothing new under the sun. How many great plots are just variations on "the love triangle," for instance? How many plots aren't just some new take on "the good Samaritan"? 

I don't know that I've ever seen a list, but the idea strikes me as worth considering. Honestly, we may think we're highly inventive about the stories we write and read and tell, but we're not. Whatever we're up to has likely been done before. Most everything has.

And that's okay. Most any Elizabethan England audience knew the Hamlet story long before Shakespeare put a pen to paper or cast the first performance. The bard wasn't inventing something new, only trying--with some success, I might add--to spin something old in a new direction, give it a new paint job or even drop in a new engine.

The first story in The Long Journey Home, Lawrence Dorr's most recent collection of stories, is titled simply "Pushkin." At the heart of it--as he is at the heart of so many of Dorr's stories--is a young Hungarian soldier at the end of World War II, this one named Pierre-Terrail, a kid who's been conscripted into Hitler's army and sent to the Eastern Front, to Russia, not the kind of assignment to be coveted.

But there he is. Around him, is chaos, the final days of the war. 
The wind swirling trash on Kirov Street, the main thoroughfare of the district of Perchersk--an extension of Kiev--rose unhindered from the Dnieper, the river masking the smell of war, a mixture of the exhaust fumes of trucks, tanks, mobile artillery pieces, horses, wet uniforms, field kitchens, dead bodies rotting under collapsed masonry, and the smell that shook him with fear: the odor of singed hair and burned bodies. 
What he sees in Kiev is no postcard. It's the detritus of death. Who can blame him for wanting to go home, for thinking of home. Somewhere in the city he knows there's a statue of Pushkin, the famous Russian poet, whose work and life had been the stuff of legend to his boyhood Russian tutor. Back home, Madame Ivanovna's recital of Pushkin's narrative poems had made them both cry, he remembers, so he sets out to find the Pushkin statue. 

"And it was then that he saw the girl." They speak because he knows Russian. She fawns in his appreciation of the man she calls "our Eternal Poet," but the young soldier tells her, "Only God is eternal. Pushkin is dead." And then, "Chances are I'll soon be dead too."

If you're wondering, that last dark utterance will do as a pick up line, and it works beautifully. The two of them talk intimately, passionately: "From time to  time the girl's face was turned up toward him like a sunflower." Love gets hurried and breathless in war, it seems. Perhaps it was childish of him, he wonders, "to think that he loved this girl he had met only a half-hour ago."

She's come to the statue for atonement, she tells him as she makes the sign of the cross, atonement for her ancestor's role in his poet's death years ago, "the duty of the women of our family," she explains. Together the two of them rehearse an old Pushkin poem about love's first overpowering glimpses.  

But all such things must pass in the fist of this deadly love triangle: a young Hungarian soldier, a Russian girl who loves Pushkin, and that most horrific antagonist/villain, war. 

They two plan to meet again, but long before the appointed hour the young soldier, who will soon be 21 years old, is called back to the front. As he passes the park where they sat, he remembers a line from Pushkin: "

But on a silent day of sorrow
Speak my name in your grief. Just say:
There is a memory of me, there is
In the world a heart in which I live.

Lawrence Dorr makes that line bigger than it seems because Pierre-Terrail happened upon a church service when he'd left the girl he'd met, a church service where he'd heard a word of Eternal peace. I won't rob you of the joy of discovering that word when you read the story yourself.

"Pushkin" is a rose in a desert, a moment of grace in cascading darkness, beauty in death. 

There's nothing new about the story. It's been told for centuries, a story from the bleeding heart of human flesh. Love in the ruins. 

Lawrence Dorr's first short story in The Long Journey Home has been told before hundreds of times, but always adorned with a host of difference markings. No matter. It's a story that never, ever gets old because at one time or another in all of our lives all of us need badly to hear it.
Few of us will ever read Lawrence Dorr, and, pardon my moralizing, more should. He really is one of our finest Christian writers. I'd like to go through The Long Journey Home, story by story, listening to his tales and then talking about them here. He is an excellent short story writer and a wonderful human being.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Book Review--Prairie, by Walter J. Muilenburg

The shocking headline makes you wince. This year--this school year--three boys from Palo Alto High School, one of the nation's best secondary schools--walked across the street to the railroad tracks and stood in front of passing trains. Three kids, in Silicon Valley, where the average home is worth three million.

Such suicide clusters are real, and they don't happen only where the pressures to succeed are mammoth. But in a place like Palo Alto, where material success is both assumed and required, the pressures are heightened by what some call "doublespeak": 
on one hand parents claim they're allowing their kids to just be kids, while on the other they hold relentless expectations.

“They say, ‘All I care about is that you’re happy,’ and then the kid walks in the door and the first question is, ‘How did you do on the math test?’ ” Silicon Valley therapist Madeline Levine told Matt Richtel of the New York Times. “The giveaways are so unbelievably clear.”

The problem, David Brooks says, is a reduced definition of what love is. 

Children in such families come to feel that childhood is a performance — on the athletic field, in school and beyond. They come to feel that love is not something that they deserve because of who they intrinsically are but is something they have to earn.
Brooks says we live in a "meritocracy," created by the deep desire parents have to help their children "succeed." But "the meritocracy is based on earned success," he says. "It is based on talent and achievement." Then he moralizes in a fashion that few cultural commentators do, but a way that is both refreshing and, IMHO, enlightening. "But parental love is supposed to be oblivious to achievement," he writes. "It’s meant to be an unconditional support — a gift that cannot be bought and cannot be earned. It sits outside the logic of the meritocracy, the closest humans come to grace."

There's been no suicide clusters in my neighborhood, but Lake Woebegon has known all its children are above average for the last quarter century already. And if Walter J. Muilenburg, a son of one of the founding fathers of Orange City, Iowa, is to be believed, the overt pressures to succeed were perfectly capable of making life miserable for young men and (presumably) women way back in the days people here broke virgin soil.

Muilenburg's novel, Prairie (1925), follows Elias Vaughn, the prodigal son of his father's stern religiosity and the sheer bigotry that such bone-headed spirituality creates. Elias turns his back on his father and his father's ways and marries a neighbor girl, a sweetheart whose family clearly lacks old man Vaughn's determined industry to create "the good life" on a Siouxland farm. Elias's father shuts the door on his son for marrying down; and Elias, looking to be free, sets out west to Nebraska, where, despite the odds and the opposition, he makes a life for himself basically by becoming as fierce as his father.

Somewhere along the line, Muilenburg clearly picked up an infusion of the literary naturalism still fashionable at the time. Prairie is not Laura Ingalls Wilder. Elias seems to understand that he's treading treacherously close to his father's way of life. He has moments when he tries to love his Lizzie, but too often he simply can't because she, like her father, lacks the wherewithal to handle the hard work and loneliness of the prairie frontier. They succeed in building a farm but not a life.

She can't. He can and does. The marriage suffers, but Lizzie dies.

Literary naturalism is satisfying only to those who truly believe that we're all somehow victims of powers that grind us up into mush. In Prairie, it's a climate of stifling heat and brutal cold, a contagion of storms, tornadoes, grasshoppers, grass fires--and unending loneliness. The only way to "make it," Muilenburg suggests, is by becoming a force of nature, which is to say by giving up one's humanity and moving a long, long ways from living in a loving way, as David Brooks says, "the closest humans come to grace."

Elias Vaughn isn't an animal. In some ways, he gets it--he understands what's happening to him. He tries not to be what rugged prairie life is sculpting him to become. He doesn't want to be his father; but when all is said and done, he's planted a homestead as successfully as his father had, but just as clearly lost the capacity to love.

Muilenburg documents the phony religiosity of his forbearers, a spirituality of hard work, back-breaking work, the soul-rending work of making a home on the prairie.

I loved the book, not because I liked the novel. I loved the book for what it lays claim to about the world I still live in, a world an entire century and one gargantuan bankroll removed from Silicon Valley, but a world where success is still immensely expensive.

Those Palo Alto parents certainly have a problem, but Walter Muilenburg's Prairie makes very clear that they are not alone.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Morning Thanks--Requiem

I don't think the pews were in yet, and the clouds--those v-shaped echo reducers way up at the ceiling--were still down on the floor being painted and awaiting their hanging. The place was very much under construction, a grand mess; but you couldn't help see what it was going to be, and what it was going to be was nice, really nice.

It would be called the B. J. Haan Auditorium, and it would eventually boast a massive organ, a gift from a wealthy Iowa widow. It was, right then, going up on the east edge of the campus where I taught, and I was giving an esteemed visitor a tour because I thought he'd want to see it for himself.

We walked up from the back of the auditorium in silence, took the unfinished steps up to the unfinished stage, turned around, and looked over what workers likely might have considered a huge and holy mess. 

He was a picture of sheer awe. "You know," my guest said, "if you would have said when I was a kid that someday my people would have a place like this, I wouldn't have believed you." Frederick Manfred--Feike Feikema--a Siouxland native and American novelist, was talking about Siouxlanders, among whom he counted himself, a prodigal maybe, but one of them nonetheless.

And he was very proud.

I thought of him on Saturday night, thought of that moment in time, not because I was seated in one of the pews of the B. J. Haan, but because of the awe and even some of the pride I witnessed in his face that day so long ago. Manfred is long gone, and Saturday night I was in a different pew and wholly different space--St. Mary's Catholic Church, just down the road in Alton. 

Once upon a time, the eastern residents of the county were almost exclusively German and Luxembourgian, all of them Roman Catholic. The difficulty of making a new life on virgin prairie and the extremes of what can be a very trying environment ("maybe ten good days a year," an old resident once surmised) probably took the edge off the differences the region's separate ethnic and religious groups carried with them from their "old counties." I don't think any of them ever went to war out here on this verdant soil.

But it's fair to say they lived their own style of cloistered lives. Likely as not, they met in the Coops and coffee shops, but their separate existences kept them out of their separate houses of worship, save a funeral now and then, a marriage perhaps.

St. Mary's Catholic church, built largely with volunteer hands and offerings, cost $60,000 when it went up in 1908. Bishop Garrigan, from Sioux City, laid the cornerstone. From the outside, its Romanesque style is unlike anything in the region. It stands head and shoulders above most everything at the highest spot in the entire county. Inside, however, it's all High Gothic, pillars and arches reaching heavenward in architectural aspiration that's meant to be just about divine. When you're seated inside St. Mary's, it's hard to believe that just outside farmers are feeding 3,000,000 hogs. It's remarkably beautiful. Around the nave, the Stations of the Cross, imported from Germany, feel like monuments.

On Saturday night it was the right place for Mozart's Requiem, not simply because a requiem, by definition, is so profoundly Roman Catholic, a kind of prayer for the dead, but also because that arching ceiling created sound from a choir and chamber orchestra unlike anything to be heard anywhere in the neighborhood--including Dordt's B. J. Haan Auditorium and Northwestern's gorgeous Christ Chapel. 

I've been reading old novels about the region--Josephine Donovan's Black Soil (1930) and Walter J. Muilenburg's Prairie (1925), both of which tell stories of 1870s, when the last of the Yanktons moved west and white folks started arriving, in droves. Both novels offer central conflict quite unknown in contemporary fiction: man and woman and child vs. nature itself. In both novels, the abiding question is nothing more or less than "will they make it?"

On Saturday night The Sioux County Oratorio offered Mozart's Requiem in a setting that couldn't have done the work any greater honor, St. Mary's, Alton, full of people, many of whom--probably most of whom--weren't Roman Catholic. The event was not just a concert, it was a meditation, a wonder, a blessing.

In that incredible Catholic church, this old Calvinist offered his own kind of prayers for the dead. With that glorious music filling the air with beauty, I couldn't help thinking of Fred Manfred and how amazed he would have been and how much he would have loved to be there. 

Maybe he was.  He and B. J. Haan. And Bishop Garrigan. And maybe Dominie Bolks from the local Reformed church too.

Who knows? It was that perfectly beautiful.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Sunday Morning Meds--When?

“What right have you to recite my laws or take my covenant on your lips?  
You hate my instruction and cast my words behind you.”  Psalm 50

Not that many years ago, a student of mine who liked to haunt my office was talking about her church, one of the new ones, full of raised hands and happy faces.  “You’d like it,” she told me.  “You really would—you ought to try it sometime.”

Like a new flavor cappuccino.

She shrugged her shoulders.  “But every once in a while—when I get all up or something—then I need to go back to Bethel,” she said, referring to a far more traditional worship style, “just to get my nerves settled down—you know what I mean?”

That was my introduction to a phenomenon the New York Times used on the front page of their on-line edition not long ago:  “Church to Church—Teenagers Seek Church That Fits.”  What the article explains is the kind of church-shopping—church-hopping, really—being done, reportedly, by hundreds of thousands of evangelical Christian teenagers, including my own students.

Their parents approve, of course, the Times reported.  Believing parents long for nothing on this earth more than their kid’s growing relationship to Jesus Christ.  One mother, whose name suggests she was born in the same Calvinist order I was, is quoted this way:   “I saw that my parents' relationship to Christ and my relationship to Jesus Christ were different, and my kids aren't going to relate to Jesus Christ the same way we do,’ said Emily's mother, Tracy Hoogenboom, 49. ‘And that's to be expected because Jesus Christ is your own personal lord and savior.’"

Makes sense.  But sometimes I wonder how people like Tracy Hoogenboom read passages like Psalm 50.  Oh, forget the vituperation and the lines in the sand God Almighty draws so succinctly.  Forget false recitation and the bogus covenant-making.  Forget vanity, and snake oil. 

I wonder, simply, what some fine believers do, simply, with the tone of voice of the God Almighty of Psalm 50.  Does Tracy Hoogenboom ever think about the snarling God of Psalm 50 as her daughter’s “personal lord and savior”?  Or is that just Jesus?

“All that’s left is ego,” a friend of mine, a preacher, told me recently.  In the withering of established institutions (church, school, and bowling team) created by our incredible affluence, all that’s left is ego, is self.  Almighty “choice.”  It’s the only real commodity.  We all got to get our needs met.

When Jesus describes moving people to the left and right at the judgment, he explains what he does on their behavior toward the needy.  It's odd, isn't it, that neither the sheep nor the goats have a clue why they’re being sent to heaven or hell?  “When did we see you hungry or lame or in prison?”—that’s what they both say.  “I just don’t remember any such thing.” Both sheep and goats. Neither.

What strikes most terror in my soul about Psalm 50’s irate God is that it seems virtually impossible for me to see myself as the recipient of his rage in these verses.  After all, when did I falsely recite God’s laws?  When did I not treasure his covenant?  When did I not take him seriously, for pity sake?  When did I slough off his words?

I just don’t remember any such thing, I guess. . .

Friday, April 24, 2015

Morning Thanks--J. C. Huizenga and the Giveaway

According to the Pew Research Center, income disparity in this country has now reached levels approximate with what it was in 1928, a year whose mere mention brings shivers--or should. I'm still too much a Republican to say it, but my wife is far less hesitant: in America, it seems the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Sound like pinko populism? Tell you what--look at the lines here. Read 'em and weep. 

Dorsey Shaw, of Buzzfeed, put together this little gif based on the research of Emmanuel Saez, of UC-Berkeley, who's been watching the difference between rich and poor in this country for years, the go-to guy on income disparity. That Rocky Mountain High green line plots the incomes of America's richest one percent. It's skyrocketing.

The stats are really daunting--income, for instance. How about this: a remarkable 22% of income earned in 2012 went to the top one percent of Americans, a percentage that has doubled since 1980. Seriously. (To some of us, 1980 doesn't seem so long ago.)

Wealth, which is income that is accumulated, rose even more obscenely among America's richest families--ten percent more. If you don't think that's a problem, observe American politics, left and right, where political parties are relative paupers when compared to the feast of cash now legally available in unheard of dimensions from a few fat cats. Candidates from both parties kiss up to the uber-rich for handouts without which they stand no chance of winning elections. The guy who landed his little one-man plane on the White House lawn last week may have been nutty, but he was right--we've got an immense problem.

Interestingly, it's a problem only a few of us recognize. Research indicates that the American public doesn't know this kind of disparity exists--either that or they don't want to know. Honestly, if they did, the country could be in much, much worse shape--as it always is inhistory when so much power is in so few fists.  Want a real apocalyptic scenario: watch income disparity grow into class warfare.

Amidst all of that, here's a "man bites dog" story, or so it seems to me. A man with whom I share only initials and an ethnic heritage, J. C. Huizenga, from Holland, Michigan, recently sold two of his companies, businesses that create and produce specialized technologies. According to CBS news, Mr. Huizenga decided to share the wealth and simply doled out six million in profits to his work force.

Tell you what--let me put that in numbers you can see. Feast your eyes on this: J. C. Huizenga sold two companies, then gave away $6,000,000 to 575 workers in chunks that varied from $500 for his recently hired employees, to $50,000 to those with real seniority. (It might be helpful to read that paragraph again.)

"We didn't do it to inspire anyone, we did it to do the right thing for our employees," Huizenga told reporters. "Our employees are amazing people." And then, "That's really what a company is--not a collection of assets, it's a team of people."

Once upon a time, right here where I live, white people banned a backward American Indian religious ritual, "the Giveaway," a pagan rite Native people were forced to quit to become American, a practice not as bloody as the Sun Dance but just as backward.

What white people didn't really understand is that Giveaways somehow determined character. Tribal leaders were created by their largesse, their giving, their selflessness. We made the practice illegal because the savages had to become American.

This morning, I'm thankful for some man named J. C. Huizenga, and more than a little proud that he's Dutch-American, from Holland, MI. Just for the record, I didn't get a dime out of his profit-sharing, but I'm thankful for his Giveaway because his graciousness is a blessing for all of us.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Earth Day

I know, I know--it was yesterday. I'm a day behind, and I suppose it'll slowly get worse.

But the old man just thought he'd say that, sure as anything, he remembers the first Earth day. I was a senior in college, and I remember April 22 because what happened that day was something the whole college participated in. The administration somehow legislated the affair to be legit. Earth Day may not have been holy, but it wasn't considered "of the Devil" (some tossed Satan around far more easily back then).  

Oddly enough, Earth Day didn't follow the deeply set fault lines. It drew all of us, many at least.

What I remember was there were things going on, a kind of "teach-in," on campus, even though no one used that phrase because it belonged to the pinko anti-war crowd who were attempting to bring down everything America stood for.

Dordt College was massively conservative, overwhelmingly Republican, and deliberately pro-Nixon, a place where un-American views were assumed to arise from spiritually deviants in a culture gone mad, "freaks," who neither appreciated or believed that God himself had a hand in bringing Tricky Dick to the throne in Washington. Hey! Love it or leave it!

Okay, I'm overplaying it, but in 1970 the Department of Defense had just created a wheel of fortune, a lottery, to determine who would be drafted to relieve the grunts--those who returned alive and those who didn't--from their years in the bloody mess that was Vietnam. I was tagged with number 189, but I had this weird heart. On April 22, 1970, I was just a week or so away from flunking my draft physical because of it and only then knowing I wouldn't be among the draftees. 

Nationally, things were a mess in April, 1970. Six thousand Americans would die in Vietnam that year, down from 11 thousand in 1968, but anti-war sentiment was spilling into the streets all over the country.

I was as anti-war as anyone on campus back then, and even public about it, writing things in the student newspaper that got me in trouble with the powers-that-be as well as throngs of students who'd come into the world as Republican as they were Dutch-American. Still, what I remember best about that first Earth Day, 1970, is that it seemed a cause that brought us together, an issue on which we could agree. It wasn't just the long-haired hippie-types who celebrated, but even the Pre-Sem Club. That, I remember, was strange.

I can't recollect how we celebrated, but I know we did, lots of us. The cause of tending the earth, new as it was back then, belonged to all of us. What we now call environmental stewardship wasn't just the agenda of the lefties, all of us played a role. "The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof."

Sen. Gaylord Nelson, D-WI, got it rolling, my own state's Washington voice. He was anti-war also, but that didn't matter. "Our goal is a new American ethic that sets new standards for progress, emphasizing human dignity and well-being," he said, "rather than an endless parade of technology that produces more gadgets, more waste, more pollution."

Those words are still a bit un-American, aren't they? And it's hard to believe that Dordt College, vintage 1970, celebrated the way we did. Hundreds were part of it. I found that amazing. Still do.

My most vivid memory of the original Earth Day, Dordt College, 1970--the very first--is of remarkable cooperation. We were, all of us, on this earth together. I'm sure some stayed away, sure the agenda was somehow communist, but on April 22, 1970, on the Dordt College campus there were no blues and reds. We were all greens.


Wednesday, April 22, 2015

"April Prayer." Sure.

April 8, 2006, the file says if you scroll down and click on "properties." The Big Sioux River had flooded, not royally but enough to splash into gulleys here and there. An emerald carpet, just barely visible, was beginning to emerge. See it?

It's spring--that's what the shot suggests, and we wanted a spring scene for a handsome space above the buffet so I picked one from this series. When we unwrapped the canvas print, my wife wasn't sure. Geese in the air and bare naked trees feel like fall. No, trust me, I said, I know it's spring because I was there, a half-mile of gravel north of the Hudson blacktop, east side of the river.

It's two weeks past April 8 now. An old friend at the hardware store said people are dying to put things in the ground, the temps so devilishly warm. My father-in-law used to say that if you listened, all that bagged seed corn in the shed was wiggling because it wanted so badly to be out and in. Up the street the neighbor's planter has been hooked up and standing on the yard for a week. The engine's probably running. His is.

Spring is busting out all over. Even down here in the basement, where I'm working on a field of flowers. Even here little shoots are rising, notable as the longhorns they resemble. Spring is here.

So when I read the first few lines of the Writer's Almanac choice poem early yesterday morning, I couldn't help but rejoice: Stuart Kestenbaum's "April Prayer." Such pious beauty. Such reverence. Such glory.

Just before the green begins there is the hint of green
a blush of color, and the red buds thicken
the ends of the maple’s branches and everything
is poised before the start of a new world,
which is really the same world
just moving forward from bud
to flower to blossom to fruit
to harvest to sweet sleep, and the roots
await the next signal, every signal
every call a miracle

Gorgeous stuff, isn't it? I'm on my knees because I know that look exactly--the miracle of that first green blush, the brown worn-out winter dying. The world is mad for rebirth, and all of that luscious stuff.

But then, same sentence, "April Prayer" goes sinfully commercial: 

                  and the switchboard
is lighting up and the operators are
standing by in the pledge drive we’ve
all been listening to: Go make the call.

That spring piety is phony as a fund drive. "Go make the call," this pseudo-poet Kestenbaum says. 

"April Prayer" paints an emerald portrait that drips with nature's abundant spirituality and the sheer glory of rebirth, then flips a switch and begs blasted handouts. It's an NPR commercial. It's downright blasphemous.

Okay, I'll admit there are too many geese out back honking out-of-key choruses and sometimes mud isn't luscious. What's worse, last night we had frost. If we had pumpkins this morning they'd be sparkling, but dead. 

A day later, I've recovered my wits enough to admit, smilingly, that a giggle is good for the soul, especially a Calvinist soul. Lord, deliver me from seriousness.

And, in case you're wondering, don't ask!  I got a receipt. I gave. So there.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Morning Thanks--"The Loss of Turtle Island"

He told me he was in his last year of college when it happened. He said he had signed up for an interim course in Native American history taught by a visiting prof and offered because the history department had no such course on its books. He signed up joyously, he said, because he was and is Native himself, Navajo.

When that three-week course was over, he dropped out of college he told me, because what he learned about his own history was so shocking that he grew very angry. He'd never known his own history, never been taught much about millions like him who'd been here long before Europeans swarmed the continent. In 20 years of education, much of it in Christian schools, no one had ever laid out his own racial and cultural past.

He laughs when he tells the story now, forty years later, not because that anger was trifling but because he is very much at home with himself and his history; but Native American History, a three-week course, an elective, pushed him to see the world around him, on the reservation, in a way no other class ever had.

Last Sunday at a local church we learned something about Native American history in a simulation titled "The Loss of Turtle Island." As everyone knows, the winners gain the rights to tell the story, and that's clearly evident in the way history comes to most of us.  Most Minnesotans probably knew very little about the Dakota War of 1862 until the 150th anniversary just a few years ago, even though the massive bloodshed on both sides of that conflict created an event staggeringly important in the state's early history.

Most of us would rather not know those things. Where I live, we'd rather call the region we live in "Siouxland" than know about the Sioux. Most white folks are saturated with the notion of our own vaunted sovereignty. It's even a religious thing: we are, after all, "a city on a hill," awash in happy talk of "American exceptionalism."

"The Loss of Turtle Island" is a sobering examination of our national past that modestly lays out a history which begins, at least legislatively, with a papal bull drawn up in 1452, a doctrine which encourages Christians like Columbus to
…invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed, and the kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities, dominions, possessions, and all movable and immovable goods whatsoever held and possessed by them and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery, and to apply and appropriate to himself and his successors the kingdoms, dukedoms, counties, principalities, dominions, possessions, and goods, and to convert them to his and their use and profit. (Pope Nicholas V)
That's where it starts--the Doctrine of Discover--and it ends, presently at least, with an actual national apology slipped surreptitiously into “House Resolution 3326, 111th Congress, Department of Defense Appropriations Act, 2010, a seven bullet-point apology to Native people that contains no reference to any specific tribe or treaty or injustice, then concludes with a disclaimer stating that nothing in the resolution is legally binding. 

This formal apology--it's part of the Congressional Record--was never announced, read, or publicized by either the White House or Congress.

Once upon a time, President Andrew Jackson ordered thousands of Native people from the American South to march west for a thousand miles to what he created as Indian Territory, the territory of Oklahoma. Many thousands died, and many thousands afterward. "The Trail of Tears" is not just a national tragedy; it was sheer horror. No white folks walking around barefoot on bunch of rugs in the fellowship hall of a church are ever going to know what it must have been like for those Cherokee, those Choctaw, all those men and women and children who were taken from long-established homes and sent to an ocean of dry grass.

Maybe we were kidding ourselves. We can't know. 

But we can learn. And learn we did. By the time the game was over, most of the blankets were gone. Those which were not were bunched up into chunks a foot or two long and wide and separate from each other, like reservations. Most of the barefoot participants were off Turtle Island. 

When my great-grandfather came to America in 1848, he and his wife experienced "the hardships and trials of the early pioneer," his obituary says. They had "very little to eat, not much clothing, and scarcely any of the comforts of life." In the forests of eastern Wisconsin where he lived, the obit says, "the red men were still numerous. . ., but were not troublesome to the white settlers, except as beggars."

Of course I have a role in this history. Of course, I do. 
 It's impossible to participate in "The Loss of Turtle Island" and not wonder what can I do? What do I owe?  

I owe this much at least, I believe--to listen to those stories we rarely tell. 

This morning I'm thankful for "'The Blanket Exercise" and stories it so vividly tells.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Oklahoma City: An anniversary

Mr. Calvin Battle had suffered a stroke.  He was 62 years old, and he and his wife Peola had decided to apply for disability assistance, so they were there that morning, at the Social Security Office of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, downtown Oklahoma City, just after nine, when Timothy McVeigh detonated the massive explosive charge that killed them, both of them, and 166 others.  

It was twenty years ago yesterday, April 19, 1995, a date McVeigh deliberately chose because it was fittingly a double anniversary.  McVeigh was not without a sense of history, after all. It was the anniversary of the FBI's siege of the compound of David Koresch at Waco, Texas, a siege which had ended in an inferno that took the lives of 76 Branch Davidians.  

April 19th was also the 220th anniversary of the "shot heard round the world," as Emerson put it, at the Battle of Lexington and Concord, the first military engagement of the American Revolutionary War, in 1775.  McVeigh considered himself a super-patriot.  He was convinced the government was evil, the second amendment under siege.  He was ex-military, had served his country, and had argued himself into believing that he was serving freedom itself by renting a truck, filling it with explosives, and blowing up the Murrah building, downtown Oklahoma City, in retaliation for what the government had done to Koresch and his followers and, he must have figured, what they would continue to do in the war against freedom.  Wherever he looked he saw black helicopters. He wore a t-shirt that morning with an inscription he took from the pen of Thomas Jefferson:  "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants."  

He was more than willing to kill innocent victims like Mr. Calvin Battle and his wife Peola, but he was also willing to die himself.  He was, after all, a patriot.  The government was the tyrant. The government had to be stopped.

An old American elm across the street lost all its leaves in that bombing, a bombing that killed 168 people, including 19 children at the Murrah building's second-story day care, and destroyed hundreds of buildings all around the site.  That old elm has battled back and still stands where it was, and is, therefore, in some ways, the most glorious symbol of the stunning memorial which the city has built at the site.

A nearly motionless reflecting pool lies quietly right there where the street once was, and just to the south stand 168 empty chairs at places roughly corresponding with the places where each of the innocent died that morning, Calvin and Peola Battle among them.  A remnant of the wall is still there too, its jagged outline a reminder of destruction created by an explosive charge McVeigh smartly jerry-rigged for little more than $5000. 

That black slash in the earth that is the Vietnam Memorial, in Washington D. C., simply shushes those who visit.  The Oklahoma City Memorial has the same effect.  Here, it may well be the look and sound of the water.  Whatever the reason, it's a stunning place to visit, as memorable, in many ways, as the Vietnam Memorial.

Yet, the two could not be more different.  Maya Lin's masterpiece design stuns visitors by reminding them of the massive gifts the American military, America itself, gave in a cause history will question for hundreds of years.   It's a slash, a scar, an incredibly beautiful scar, if there can be such a thing.

But Calvin and Peola Battle weren't military.  They hadn't enlisted in anyone's cause, and they hadn't been drafted either.  They weren't there that morning for a cause.  They may well not have even known much about David Koresh or even the shot heard round the world.  They simply happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, a moment when a madman uber-patriot determined that the government had to pay for its evil because this was a holy, holy war.  

The Vietnam Memorial begs us not to forget those who died for us.  That motionless reflecting pool on the street where McVeigh parked his rental truck full of death begs us always to remember that madness, even when it's cloaked in love of country--and maybe especially then--is still madness.

But that old elm is still there, beautiful in the setting sun, just beautiful.  It has been watered by blood, but it is no more a symbol of freedom than is that jagged Washington wall.

That old elm is a symbol of life itself.  That old elm is there.  It's still there.  And it's beautiful, remarkably beautiful.  

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Sunday Morning Meds--"the wicked"

“But to the wicked, God says, 
'What right have you to recite my laws or take my covenant on your lips? 
You hate my instruction and cast my words behind you.'" 
Psalm 50:16-17

My mother used to tell me I was too cozy with worldliness.  Perhaps she was right.  I know this much:  she would have far less trouble negotiating the radical turn which occurs here, suddenly, in Psalm 50.  All that honor and glory that came earlier in the poem would make both of us smile, I’m sure; but things change hugely in verse 16 as God almighty turns to face “the wicked.” 

Mom was more sure of who "the wicked" are or were than I ever was—and am.  Seriously, today, who are they anyway?

On the basis of what is to come in this psalm, this is what we know.  “The wicked” are those who claim to belong to God’s covenant tribe, but are, as my mother would say, “wolves in sheep’s clothing.”  The wicked are those who cry, “Lord, Lord,” as sheer selfish spectacle--two-faced shams, spiritual snake-oil peddlers. (There's quite a bit of hissing in that sentence, but that's okay.)
My mother was like Dante. Were I to try to write a contemporary Inferno, I would need to people the levels of hell with individuals recognizable to readers, a museum of miscreant sinners. My mother would not have had any trouble with that job, but I can’t do it, even though Dante could and did. 

I can think of one off hand—but only reluctantly. Marjoe Gortner, the one-time child evangelist, who wanted a Hollywood career so badly he could took his Spirit-filled preaching to the bank, staged religious revivals for a show, an early ‘70s documentary titled, simply, Marjoe

Marjoe won all kinds of awards, but it was not a pleasant experience for a believer because Marjoe the huckster creates and then manipulates spiritual experience.  “It was my duty,” he told interviewers, “to give [those who heard him preach] the best show possible.”
Marjoe fits.  He was a liar and a fraud.  He preached things he didn’t believe and did so for his own ends.  In the language of my people, he was a “covenant-breaker,” someone who’d been given the blessing of faith but rejected it and, worse, used those who’d come to him for hope in his deceitful game.  In the language of some, he committed the unpardonable sin.

Marjoe fits, but I’m uncomfortable calling him “the wicked.” That treachery of his took place forty years ago or more.  Google him today and you’ll find very little.  We know the early chapters of Marjoe’s life, but we don’t know how the story draws to a close.

Maybe he’s different today.  Maybe the man stood himself before God at some time in his life and got the tongue-lashing the Lord is about to deliver in Psalm 50.  Maybe he stopped using people.  Maybe slain by the Spirit himself, he fell victim to the Truth.  Who knows?  Stranger things have happened.

Maybe it’s just me.  Maybe my mother is right.  I’ve been reading the Inferno and finding it amazing, mesmerizing.  But I can’t do that job myself, can’t create a torturous hall of infamy, a gallery of despicable sinners.  I just don’t want to judge.

After all, Marjoe, despite its horrifying manipulation, offered some truth, didn’t it?  And God is always bigger than our dreams.

Once I met a woman who told me she’d been converted to the Christian faith by Tammy Fae Bakker, the fraud evangelist with the leaky eye-liner.  That woman giggled about her conversion and said she’d come a long, long ways. 

Fraud kindle some anger in me, some of which I might even dare to consider "righteous." But I can’t put Marjoe or Tammy Fae into the pit of “the wicked.” What do I know? 

I do know the God I worship knows more and loves better than I do. Besides, it's his job to judge--not mine. 

Sorry, Mom.  

Friday, April 17, 2015


What she told me--and what I never forgot--was how what she was taught affected what she was. Her parents were pure Zuni, in thought and culture and religious practice. Therefore, going to a Christian school meant she had to unlearn almost forcibly what her Christian teachers taught her.

And that was difficult. It was, in fact, traumatic, not because she had to shift priorities and allegiances (that too!), but because she simply loved her parents. Furthermore, her parents were widely acknowledged as leaders in the pueblo, important folks because they were good people. They may have worshiped in traditional ways, done the dances, run the races of her people; but they were neither impure nor immoral. They were good, good people, and every one said so, said exactly that. She was blessed to have such good parents, but the Christian school in her life made it clear--chapter and verse--that her parents, despite their goodness, were flat wrong. 

What's worse, that condemnation, no matter how sweetly communicated, had this positively eternal dimension because the perception wasn't simply for this life but for the life to come, which is to say, forever. Her teachers played the God card because God cards were, by contract and conviction, the hands they played. School intended to make the kids Christians; no one was shy about that, and there was, after all, the Devil to pay. Stakes were high. Stakes were forever.

She is Zuni and she is Christian today, but that doesn't mean that she's forgotten what her education, a half century ago, taught her. That's why she told me the story. She wanted me to know.

She was a victim of what we might call "unintended shaming." I'm sure that her teachers in that little Christian school didn't mean to make her ashamed of her parents. I'm sure, if they knew her parents, those teachers too might have understood that the whole pueblo looked up to her mom and dad as leaders. I'm sure those teachers wouldn't have held up her parents for ridicule or mocked them in any way, shape, or form.

But they did. By definition, they made it clear to her that her parents were dead wrong, dead-and-in-sin wrong. 

That was a childhood story she'd never forgotten. Today she's a grandma multiple times, but she hasn't forgotten, even though she believes in the risen Lord.

It's almost impossible to be an evangelical and not be guilty, somehow, of some measure of "unintended shaming."

All of that is not a reason not to preach the gospel--there is, after all, the Great Commission. But there is cause, great cause, for at least being thoughtful and measured about rhetoric. 

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Grad speech

The cancer was unexpected, as it always is. He didn't see it coming, didn't guess it was there, had no idea it was lurking within him, threatening his life. So they fought it hard, he and his doctors. They expended the entire arsenal--radiation and chemo, blasted away in a wholesale fashion almost certain to create collateral damage. 

But that's what did it. It was the radiation got him, he said, being stuck in a awkward position where he couldn't move his head, could barely blink, where he felt pinned down like an insect, a total victim. He'd consented to the operation, of course; he'd followed their advice. But from the moment he entered the room that day and was laid out beneath the machine, he belonged to them, not to himself; he belonged to them and to God, he said. The nurses, the tech people, the specialists--they were in charge of his life, he said; and the only way to win was to give up everything he was. To beat cancer, he had to leave himself behind.

David Brooks says Paul Tillich used to say that suffering introduces you to yourself and reminds you that you are not the person you thought you were.

It was there, pinned down beneath the clamoring radiation that this good old friend of ours felt a proximity to the Almighty as undeniable as it was glorious. When his soul was emptied of self, it was filled with God. Horror turned to blessing.

In a wonderfully thoughtful NY Times op-ed, David Brooks says he wants to understand certain kinds of people he knows and loves:
ABOUT once a month I run across a person who radiates an inner light. These people can be in any walk of life. They seem deeply good. They listen well. They make you feel funny and valued. You often catch them looking after other people and as they do so their laugh is musical and their manner is infused with gratitude. They are not thinking about what wonderful work they are doing. They are not thinking about themselves at all.
Just what exactly makes such people glow? That's the question he's asked himself--and he attempts to answer in the essay. The list of virtues he enumerates comes as no surprise. After all, most of us already know "the last shall be first."  After all, "ask not what your country for do for you, ask what you can do for your country." After all, "greater love hath no man than. . ."  The most profound human wisdom isn't yet to be discovered; people have known it forever. 

Selflessness--true selflessness--is a gift not only to others but to your self, odd as that may sound. Being pinned down in radiation therapy did our friend double duty, he told us, not only slaying the cancer but something of his own human pride as well.

In a month or so I've got to deliver the commencement speech to my granddaughter's eighth grade class, a formidable task. I doubt that she and her classmates will hear anything the speaker says--few graduates ever do; but like every other commencement speaker, I want to say something of heft, of value. 

How can I tell them the most powerful events of their lives may be moments of profound suffering? How can I tell them the story of our old friend who claimed he saw more of God on that hospital gurney because there was so much less of himself in the way? How can I tell them the way to wealth is to do unto others as they would have others do unto them.

They're eighth graders, for heaven's sake, still kids. How can I tell them the vital blessings in their lives may arrive when the self they think they are, simply is no more?

My on-line class had all kinds of problems with the fifth act of Hamlet, when the Prince and his friend Horatio stumble into a cemetery and somehow find the skull of Yorick, the King's jester. There Hamlet stands, Yorick's skull in hands. You know the image. 

They didn't get it. What's the big deal?

How can I tell thirty eighth grade kids that, in all honesty, picking up a skull now and then may well offer the kind of deliverance men and women and even children all require. How can I tell them that in real life, it's not the first who shall be first, but the last?

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Morning Thanks--forgiveness

Even though really important people claim that The Tin Drum, which took home a Nobel Prize for Gunter Grass, is one of the finest works of 20th century world literature, I've not read it. I wish that weren't so, but it's not likely I will read it any more, no matter how wildly imaginative. 

In fact, the only piece of work I ever read of Gunter Grass was a very short story--in German!--that was an assignment a thousand years ago in my second-year German class (remember when we all took German?). Translation was, for once, sort of fun, something a foreign language class wasn't when the approach was rote memorization 24/7, and me one of the world's worst memorize-ers.

So I don't know Gunter Grass or his work, despite my Ph.D., in English, despite teaching lit for forty years, despite being surrounded this morning and every morning by books. What I know of him is his name, his Nobel prize, and the incredible scandal of his 2006 confession that he--Germany's most prophetic voice--was a member of the SS during WWII. He was among Hitler's most loyal beasts, a fact he'd tried for most of his life to keep buried. 

Coming clean just about ruined him, as well it should have. To say that confession soured his reputation is understatement. It was as if Solzhenitsyn confessed to going undercover for Stalin, or Martin Luther King, Jr., admitted being a stoolie for J.Edgar Hoover. Grass's confession--which he made willingly, by the way--made The Tin Drum sound forever tin-ny.

With that confession his freedom to say what he would about German life was forever compromised. What that meant was that suddenly there were things he couldn't say. 

Twenty years ago this year, I published a book with that title, Things We Couldn't Say, the story of the war-time experiences of a Dutch Resistance fighter named Diet Eman. It was my title, not the publisher's, and I've still got the sticky note I stuck into the manuscript pages when I thought of it. It was true of Ms. Eman and her fiance, Hein Sietsma, who died in Dachau--there was, in occupied Holland, so much they couldn't say, even to each other, even among friends and intimates. You didn't want to say some things because you didn't want loved ones to know those things because you wanted, like nothing else, to protect them--and if they knew, and if they were arrested they would be tortured, and. . .

When the Allies got to the bunker where Hitler's body was found, a bullet in his head, the tables turned. Now--and for generations--it would be the Germans who were muted by the things they couldn't say, people like Gunter Grass, author of one of the 20th century's most enduring classics.

Case in point? Just three years ago, he published a poem, an argument in stanzas, that attacked Israel for threatening to annihilate Iran's nuclear program.

Why do I say only now,
Aged and with my last ink,
That the nuclear power of Israel endangers
The already fragile world peace?
Because it must be said. . .

But he'd lost his ability to speak. His being part of the Nazi SS compromised his prophetic voice. There were simply things he couldn't say. Gunter Grass, SS Waffen, had no voice when it came to criticizing Jewish politics. As right as he might be, he lost his ability to say it.

Gunter Grass died Monday, at age 87. His own life, as celebrated as it was, as comprised as it became, is a reminder that sometimes our histories defeat our witness. It's impossible, really, for Anglos to tell Native people to clean up reservation life. There are things some people can't say to others. Evangelical Christians simply can't say some things to LGBT folks. There's just too much ugly history. 

Every obituary written about Gunter Grass this week will tell the story of his SS confession. Every obit will detail the effect his Nazi past had on his life's work. He will go to his grave with a asterisk in the wicked shape of a swastika. 

We can forgive him--we've got that much of our heavenly father's image in us. God has given us the ability to forgive. 

But none of us can forget. That's beyond our power. That level of forgiveness is something stupendous, isn't it? That forgiveness is only divine.  

This morning--every morning--I'm thankful for forgiveness.