Morning Thanks

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

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Sunday Morning Meds--Honor

“He who sacrifices thank offerings honors me, 
and he prepares the way so that I may show him the salvation of God."
Psalm 50:24

Several years ago, I wrote a history of the denomination I’ve been a part for all the days of my life, the Christian Reformed Church in North America, a project I was asked to do.  When I put down the pen, it struck me that I could create a stage presentation of that history that would be interesting and even inspiring.  So I tried.

That play—I had a role myself—was, I believe, very successful, playing to large crowds of denominational members across the continent.  But something happened one afternoon in Michigan that I’ve never forgotten.

We’d just finished the presentation—a 2 ½ hour show telling the story with all its joys and sorrows—when a man came up to the stage, a retired gentleman—white shoes, pastel sport coat.  He pumped my hand with the kind of vehemence I could tell wasn’t perfunctory.  “Thank you,” he said, looking into my eyes.  “Thank you very much.”  And then he bit his lip as if to stop himself from going too far.  I never caught his name, and he never said another word.  Just “thank you.” Then walked away.

It wasn’t the kind of accolade I’d come to expect.  Generally, people came up and said good things—how professional the show was (we had a cast of non-professionals), how interesting, how it told them stories they’d never known.  I don’t remember another time, however, when someone came up to me and simply said thanks. 

Today, denominations are dying.  The sociology of ecclesiastical structure in American evangelicalism has been revamped by largely independent mega-churches, where thousands of parishioners gather, often drawn by mise-en-scene, or spectacle—or, in particularly American fashion, by the celebrity of the preacher.  Denominations, most of them at least, may well be artifacts of evangelicalism’s European roots.  Today, in the highly charged spiritual atmosphere of post-modernism, few seem to care about the doctrinal character of the ye olde fellowships, things people once upon a time actually went to war about.

I say all of that because, in that retired gentleman’s single-word response, I believe he was telling me something he didn’t have the words to say himself.  He was thanking me for telling his story, his joys and concerns in a lifetime’s membership in the CRCNA.  Around him, he could feel things change, but the story we had told he must have considered his story, and by our telling it, simply by its telling, we’d given his story—and thereby him—some measure of dignity.  That wasn’t anything I’d intended. 

This very difficult song, Psalm 50, that carries the spit and vinegar of some quarrelsome minor prophet, has, as its core, honor.  It takes the entire psalm to get there, but the final verse makes it clear.  All the vituperation of a snarling, angry God—all of that is aimed at a singular warning:  honor is what God wants of us and what he deserves.  What stinks is dishonor—even though his nostrils are full of the scent of  blood, of perfunctory praise. 

The last verse is the whole story of this harsh song.  God wants us to honor him and honor his story by treasuring it deeply, and by telling his story in a million ways.

He wants us to know—every time we see them—that those cattle on those thousand hills, just like everything else in this world, belong, as we do ourselves, to Him.

That’s the whole story in Psalm 50--and not just there either.  It’s all about honor.

Friday, May 29, 2015

The Generations thing

Must have been on TV somewhere, I guess. Then again, maybe in real life. I just can't remember where exactly, but I see these two guys, slicked-back hair, collared shirts, and thick , black Buddy Holly glasses. I say to myself that we're back in the 50s.

We are really, aren't we? Nothing's changed. The world's a place to make money, and most kids are straight arrows. Would have been impossible for my generation to run around with Bible-quoting t-shirts; today, kids' closets are full of them. What's with this generation, anyway?

It's easy, even fun, to discriminate by generation. You know, my father-in-law remembers the Depression; he's a WWII vet and part of "the greatest generation." I'm one of a gadzillion aging boomers, people with bell-bottoms tucked away in their closets. My daughter's a GenXer, big on volunteerism and mission trips and sweetsie parenting. 

Then come "the millennials" with their multitudinous computer screens, far more multi-racial, far less brand loyal (churches call them the "nones"), and, so marketers claim, a whole raft of young people generally immune to advertising. They're so off the charts that they've got wholly different dreams: they don't even want a nice house in a suburb with a dog and riding lawn mower. Construction--home construction--across the nation is down dramatically, not because of whatever's left of "the financial crisis," but because the number of first-time buyers has dropped from fifty to thirty per cent.

What's wrong with that generation anyway? Weirdos.

But now a writer by the name of saucy name of Rebecca Onion claims that all such categorizing is just plain nuts, largely inaccurate, and downright lazy-- or, as she says it, "infuriating," "overly schematised" and "ridiculously reductive."

Dang it. I like to think generationally. I really do.

I'd never heard this one before, but Ms. Onion (can't really say that without tearing up) claims that theorists named Strauss and Howe derived their own categorizations to summarize what they claim is a reoccurring cycle in human history.
In the Strauss-Howe schema, these distinct groups of archetypes follow each other throughout history thus: ‘prophets’ are born near the end of a ‘crisis’; ‘nomads’ are born during an ‘awakening’; ‘heroes’ are born after an ‘awakening’, during an ‘unravelling’; and ‘artists’ are born after an ‘unravelling’, during a ‘crisis’.
Wow. Love it. Don't know yourself? Get out the chart and figure out where you are with respect to some lollapaloozin' cultural "crisis," then simply embrace your anthropologically created identity, your archetype. It all makes sense and unloads tons of mystery from the human character. Now I know why I like road trips--I'm a nomad. I've always had a hankering to chase buffalo.

Bull, says Ms. Onion, a millennial herself. She spits at the caricature that phony labels saddle her with or, for that matter, any of us: "Generational thinking is seductive, and for some of us it confirms our preconceived prejudices, but it’s fatally flawed as a mode of understanding the world. Real life is not science fiction." 


But can  you trust any researcher named Onion?  Besides, she's a millennial. You know them.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Rubio's hate speech

'Tis the season for differentiation in the Republican party, where there are more candidates than there are slots on the scorecards. It's going to be tough sledding this time around. Where exactly does Huckabee differ from Santorum, who threw his hat in yesterday, the same day Rand Paul showed everyone else how to do it on Morning Joe (and upstaged Santorum in the process). Paul blamed his own party for ISIS and the mess in the Middle East. It's a royal gamble, and it may well cost him his candidacy. But, like his father, he's a true believer, and he knows he has to make himself different. He's got to grab headlines. He did.

Marco Rubio's most recent attempt came in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network where he said that gay-marriage people could make life difficult for Christians: "If you think about it, we are at the water's edge of the argument that mainstream Christian teaching is hate speech." Why? "Because today we've reached the point in our society where if you do not support same-sex marriage, you are labeled a homophobe and a hater."

The fact is, those most determined not to support gay marriage spit out what most everyone considers hate speech already and have for years. Take that nut case Baptist church from Kansas who show up at military funerals. Nobody outlaws them, no one threatens them with jail; but the vast majority of the American voters believe fervently that we'd all be better off if they didn't hang out their "God HATES FAGS" signs.

Still, wherever folks believe the antichrist is pushing the gay marriage debate, they'll also believe we're a decade away from imprisonment for saying what just about everybody believed for thousands of years of human history, opinions they believe everyone knows to be "Christian." "Remember," they'll say,"not that long ago even that Muslim Obama was against it."

Some of us itch for martyrdom. We'd sort of like Muslims to shoehorn sharia law into the nation's court systems because we think we should be suffering for Jesus. If it's not sharia law, what better issue than gay marriage to prove we're persecuted?

What Ireland did last week is proof something's gone horribly haywire, they'd say. After all, it's hard to imagine a country more Roman Catholic than Ireland. Over there, they go to war for the church, right? But Ireland--of all places--becomes the first nation in the world to allow gay marriage by way of a national referendum? And in a landslide? Sixty-two percent? Can there be any doubt we're in end times? 

A headline in yesterday's New York Times says it all: "On Same-Sex Marriage, Catholics are Leading the Way." Seriously? "Take a look at this list of countries: Belgium, Canada, Spain, Argentina, Portugal, Brazil, France, Uruguay, Luxembourg and Ireland," Frank Bruni says in an opinion piece. "In all of them, the Roman Catholic Church has more adherents, at least nominally, than any other religious denomination does. And all of them belong to the vanguard of 20 nations that have decided to make same-sex marriage legal."

What's a real Christian to do?

The only way to understand that is woe and woe and woe. The only way to see the future is the apocalypse, the republic turning viciously on its own Christian history. And it's all the fault of the gays. It won't be long, saith Marco Rubio, a smart guy and tea party friend, and professing Jesus's name will be "hate speech." Won't be long and we'll all be Westboro Baptists. 

You want to avoid it, vote for me--for Marco Rubio. 

That's the rhetoric. That's the vein Rubio is tapping. That's the definition of Christian he's working with.

There are more and broader definitions, but he's not going to get votes from liberals so he's baiting the Christian Broadcasting Network, who's loving every minute of it. You know--ratings. 

Tragedy unites and politics divide. It's that simple. We're hip-deep in Presidential sweepstakes already, a political season with no parallels, especially this year when the Republican primary has so many contenders they don't fit on a screen. Somehow each of them has to make a headline and it ain't easy. It's divide-and-conquer time.

I think it's good medicine to remember what Marilyn Robinson says. If Gilead, her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a deeply God-fearing preacher in an Iowa small-town, has been published in Persian, in Iran, a culture still largely controlled by the mullahs and largely inhospitable to Christianity, and Gilead has, isn't how we Christians are perceived at least partially determined by how it is we say what we believe? 

How we live, how we act, how we speak, how we love?

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Morning Thanks--Ruth Suckow's coming out

H. L. Mencken, an writer known for wielding a pen as if it were a stiletto, once said that Ruth Suckow "was unquestionably. . .the most remarkable woman writing short stories in the Republic." While Mencken acted as the editor of two literary magazines, he published every story Ms. Suckow ever sent him. 

Sinclair Lewis, whose Main Street sidewalks are full of dorks and dopes drawn from Midwestern small towns, praised Suckow's Country People, calling it "a spiritual accounting. . .of that bright heady country that stands at the head of the Great [Mississippi] Valley."

Robert Frost, whose well-nurtured image as a country sage sometimes rather devilishly covered over the spiritual darkness that characterizes much of his poetry, once told Ruth Suckow that he found her short stories “. . . without guile or thesis. It is just stories of life vividly restored, each one satisfied if it is true to its inward self. That is the way I like stories and should wish my own always to be.”

There's a glass display case in the Ruth Suckow house (just a half block off Hwy 10 in Hawarden, Iowa) that displays all of Ruth Suckow's work. Last night a couple of dozen readers visited that house, the house in which she was born; and many were flabbergasted that someone so close to their own worlds, just down the road really, could have put together such a celebrated literary life. 

She did, and she's no slouch writer, even today.

Granted, her world is not on the American reading public's front burner; she's unabashed in her attention to the goings-on in small Iowa towns not unlike those where she spent her childhood and most of her life. She's a psychological realist who loved the domestic world in which most of us live, a landscape not highly favored these days of fantasy and multi-culturalism. What's more, she's a spiritual writer, a religious writer, someone who cared deeply about human values often disdained by a consumerist society. There are good reasons she's slipped from national and even regional prominence.

Last night we toured the parsonage in which she was born, led by a wonderful local guide who blessed us all with a sumptuous helping of Suckow minutia. All of the folks who toured the Suckow house last night were readers. If they weren't, they wouldn't have joined the gang who visited. Most of them were born and reared a stone's throw from Suckow's New Hope, the town she created for her novel of that name, a town that's only a few key strokes different from her hometown of Hawarden, Iowa. 

Ruth Suckow used to write about here, about the us who lived down the street at the turn of the 20th century. But the gang who visited her birthplace last night stood there at the case of her books and shook their heads, amazed. "How could we have missed her?--all these books?" people asked with their eyes. 

We'd read The John Hope Case, Suckow's last novel, published in 1950, rather significantly after she'd garnered all that praise. The novel's story line comes out of her childhood in the parsonage in Hawarden, where once upon a time, a highly respected man, a church and town leader fell from community's graces when it was discovered that he'd lived a second life as a thief and gambler--and loser. She remembers the incident in her "Memoir" because of the impact it had one the entire family. especially her father, the pastor: 
To my father, this tragic happening, involving one of his dearest friends and most trusted church members, was of almost crushing nature. It touched me through my parents. I may well have led to the next novel which, for me, perhaps for all of our family, closed the cover of the book upon the first golden period of youthful trust and 'enthusiastic cooperation' and gave those few years in H----- almost the quality of legend.
We spent a great night in Suckow's world last night, a kind of homecoming, maybe a long-neglected "coming out" with someone who through her stories, just like that became a friend. At least some of those who visited last night will grab a few more Suckows from the shelves of their local libraries--or ask for them if they're not there.

Sobering to know Ruth Suckow and her world could be that plentifully forgotten, yet blissful to be able to discover a new, good old friend. 

In every way, it was the kind of night for which one can't help but be thankful.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Memorial Day doings

I don't think there's a marketing department in the local American Legion, nor will there be any time soon. The events on Memorial Day morning are planned by men in Legion hats that look just a little bit silly on paunchy old guys forty years or more beyond their years as a fighting force. Every year, the Legion does the very same thing on Memorial Day morning all through the region, which is why there's at least some unacknowledged silliness.

I've attended a bunch of them in a bunch of small towns, and they're not all the same. Yesterday's featured the reading of the names of every last community vet--twice!--both by the conflict in which the man served and the cemetery in which they are buried. It went on and on and on, and yes there were a few women too.

There's always the Pledge and the National Anthem, and a speech, sometimes a classic American Jeremiad, a sermon by a preacher who says that if America would only turn to the Lord, we'd begin a new reign of glory. Just a few years ago, I heard a preacher and National Guard officer berate a President so sharply I couldn't help assume he thought himself god almighty. 

Generally, the "doings" are not upbeat. Most often, they end with "Taps," a musical ritual frighteningly familiar despite the fact that nobody hears it often at all. Yesterday the far off echo was performed by a kid so young his father stood beside him for moral support. 

If there's a committee that puts the Memorial Day Doings together, the job isn't huge. Basically, once they get a speaker and pull together a color guard, all they have to do is make sure there are enough blanks for a 21-gun salute. 

It seems American Legions aren't growing. The Second World War grabbed hundreds of men from communities like those in Sioux County, Iowa, and sent them off to a bloody war against a mustachioed madman and a Japanese tyrant who shared an insane desire to rule the earth.  WWII was an absolutely horrible war that, in retrospect at least, is somehow easy to love.

Not so Korea. Not so Vietnam. Not so Iraq, Not so Afghanistan. 

I suppose that's why Memorial Day ceremonies are run these days by fewer and fewer old men, old guys who insure the program as well as its tone remain as predictable as the ticking of the grandfather clock in the hall.

Only the most conservative churches haven't jazzed up their worship these days. Many long ago stopped singing from hymnbooks. Guitars abound. Organs collect dust or have been quietly removed. Drums beat new rhythms. What used to be is no more in churches--we've got to keep the kids so we're all contemporary.

But Memorial Day ceremonies in most villages and towns haven't changed--and likely won't, next year either. 

Quite frankly, I like that. The medium is a goodly part of the message here--no glitz, no show biz. What happens on Memorial Day morning in lots of small towns is exactly what has for fifty years. Things are deadly serious because giving one's life for one's country can't be jazzed up. You can't be but cute about sacrifice. Death will never make splashy entertainment.

And that's good. Those old guys with the blue Legion hats are deadly serious because dying in defense of freedom--and giving up a son, a brother, a mother, a spouse--is deadly serious business, as righteous, finally, as anything we can do on this earth.

My grandma insisted the family attend Memorial Day ceremonies because her only brother never returned from France in 1918. She wouldn't miss the graveyard "doings," as she used to call them, and she didn't think her children should either.

I'm not a veteran. In May of 1970, I went to Washington D. C. to protest the war in Vietnam, to march in the only parade I've ever been in. 

But on Memorial Day morning, I always try to make it to ceremonies in some community where ordinary men and women give patriotic speeches, read the names of fallen heroes, and salute the flag, where little kids await the peal of gunfire by covering their ears. 

I go because my father spent three years on a ship in the Pacific and my father-in-law was gone just as long in Europe. I go because Grandma wants me there, wants me not to forget her brother, his life and his death, things she never could.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Cemetery flags

When you're a frequent cemetery wanderer, as I am, it's impossible to miss the importance of someone's having served in the military . Today, people put up all kinds of things around their loved ones' stones, lights and mirrors and even toys; but mostly all you know about whoever is buried beneath the stone is the years of his or her life and sometimes, maybe, a Bible verse. 

What you can't miss, today especially, is the flags or markers or whatever the Legion Auxiliary (or whoever) puts up on those sites that hold the mortal remains of men and women who served their country at war. They're everywhere. 

Spouses often share stones, but then again sometimes not. Sometime a wanderer simply has to deduce who was married to whom--and who were their children.

But service in war? It's there in red, white, and blue, often enough including rank and theater--"Sgt. Will Williams, U.S. Army, World War II, South Pacific." Having served is huge in cemeteries.

I sometimes wonder what place my father-in-law's war-time experience has in his memory today, just a week or so before his 96th birthday. Once upon a time in the motor pool, he followed the Allied Front from Normandy to Berlin, repairing tanks and jeep and trucks, anything with a motor. He was in for years, didn't come home until The Bomb ended the war in the Pacific, where he was bound when it dropped. Hiroshima changed the course of history, but for him its blessing was more immediate--it brought him home.

I've heard him talk about his war experience, nothing bloody, but a trip through a goodly chunk of Europe that a farm boy from Iowa could not have imagined he'd ever take. On Saturday, at the funeral of his sister-in-law, we went out to the cemetery along a road he said he and his little sister had walked plenty often, just about two miles into town to school. For a moment, I swear, I was back there, pavement gone, two ruts cut in the dirt, a mop-haired kid in bib overalls lugging a Karo syrup lunch bucket, mid-Depression, his little sister dallying behind.

It's impossible for me to imagine that eighth-grade farm boy just a few years later as a grease monkey in fatigues and steel helmet, a monkey wrench in his hand as he works beneath some half-track somewhere in the dark woods of a German countryside. Or in England with tens of thousands of others Yankees, just waiting for a boat trip to Normandy. 

What flashes does his memory create these days? How much of what he remembers arises from those years so incredibly far away, when every day and night he'd be working on M4 Shermans, an unimaginable job to a kid who plowed fields with horses?

It had to be, without a doubt, the most unforgettable experience of his lifetime. What's a wedding night compared to two years across Europe? He went on a tour through England, France, the Netherlands, and Germany.  Sometimes I wonder if his closest friends in all of life weren't the men with him under those jeeps, men he rarely saw once he was came home, but men he never forgot.

An uncle and an aunt of mine worked day and night putting soldiers back together. They were medics and saw more horror--my father used to say--than any man or woman should. How did the two of them feel the fog of war once it was over. When my uncle came home, he worked as a barber, cutting men's hair. What images of he knew and saw never washed out of his memory? 

All those cemetery markers, those little American flags, aren't just a tribute but a reminder that some memories don't dissipate and won't be buried.

Just a couple days ago, I went up to a woman I'd interviewed for a story a decade ago. She and her husband had given me a tour of the country where they'd lived when they were married, a beautiful section of Sioux County. We drove on the yard of the house they walked into right after their wedding, in fact.

She didn't recognize me, didn't know me at all. She's well into her nineties. I asked her if she remembered showing me the home place ten years ago. 

"We were in the underground, you know. My father went out. . ." and she started in on a story cobbled together from images out of control.

"We were with the underground, you know?" she said, three or four times, as if it were something that simply had to be documented. She was a girl in occupied Holland, and for whatever reason all she could could say came in shards of a story she couldn't control. It was war, a memory of war.

Today, Memorial Day, we honor those who served, whose memories hold photo albums full of images the rest of us can not imagine. We put up flags on cemetery plots because, combat or motor pool or MASH tent, what those men and women went through, all of them, was something only they really know. 

Truth be known, in just about every situation, those men and women were unlikely to have any more formative experience. 

Walk through the cemetery down the road, amble along the gravestones, and all you'll ever know of hundreds of the deceased is when they were born, when they died, and whether they served in war.

There's always more to the story, of course, but it's all that's there above ground, all that shouldn't be forgotten.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Sunday Morning Meds--To your face

“But I will rebuke you and accuse you to your face.” 
Psalm 50:21

The rhythm of most of our lives would alter completely without e-mail. Ten summers ago I blogged for the first time, just to see what it was like.  I kept it up for a while, then quit because I didn’t really get it, still don’t really, even though six months later I started in again and haven’t quit since—just about every morning.

Blogs and e-mails and tweets are staples of our lives, our source for news, even (sometimes) the source of our most blessed fellowship. That social media has altered the way we communicate is unarguable. In many ways, it’s changed everything but human nature. Because it hasn't, I suppose, it’s also bred its horrors.

A couple years ago my colleagues and I got a short note from our Dean, our boss, exhorting us to use different printers because the big printer copied at a lower rate than the one many of us were using. I don’t know if I’d just got up on the wrong side of the bed or what, but I picked up a tone that made me breathe fire. I thought he was being schoolmarmish, and I resented being talked down to.

So I sent him an e-mail, blistering him.

No one else among my colleagues even mentioned the e-mail, but I got all huffy about it and my boss had to field my anger.

President Obama signed himself up on Twitter last week, let out something totally innocuous for his first tweet, then got lambasted with racial slurs, enough to make him—and others, including the Secret Service, stand up and take notice.   

Every hour of the day this technology doles out blessings and sin—wrath, in particular. If I don’t practice some restraint, e-mail makes me (I won’t speak for others) a vastly more public sinner because I can get away with it. I don't have to face my wrath, just rattle some keys and throw flame. Whack 'em from down here in the basement and never have to look anybody in the face. Real drone warfare.

Three decades ago already, a man died, a man who lived a day’s travel from here.  I’ll never see him again in this world, but even the memory of his face derides. I was a boy—twelve maybe—when the cigarettes behind the counter at the grocery store started looking good to me and my friends. We stole ‘em quite regularly because the grocery store owner allowed kids back of the counter to pick out candy from a broad shelf right beneath the cigarettes.

I got caught—well, we got caught--when someone’s little sister got mad and ratted.  
My father made me go back to the grocery store man, give him money (I had to estimate how many packs I’d stolen), and explain and apologize. He was sweet and loving and forgiving, as I remember, in great part because he was by nature a sweet, loving, and forgiving man.

Seriously, in his presence I felt guilty for years afterward.  Even today, even though he’s long gone, I don’t remember him for anything but being the recipient of my humiliating public confession, even though he was as forgiving as anyone could be. There I stood, before him, handing him fifty cent pieces, my father behind me. When I recount that moment, guilt still exudes from every last pour of my soul.

Even though there’s a lot to fear in Psalm 50, the scariest line, I think, is this one.  God says his rebuke won’t come by way of my in-box. He won’t sent some angelic mercenaries or allow me to read the bad news somewhere between the pages of a bible.  “I will rebuke you and accuse you face to face,” he says, this God who once told one of Israel’s great leaders that he, Moses, wasn’t worthy of much more than a glimpse of his backside.

Face to face, he says.  Memorably.  Unforgettably. 


Friday, May 22, 2015

To bite the dust

In a sad, perverted way, everything in the story makes sense. There's a man, probably a good man, who thinks he's doing the right thing, is committed to it in fact. Why wouldn't he be? He's been told since he was old enough to think about such matters that what he opposes is opposed by none other than God almighty and thousands of years of human history.

And the battle is current. A visible, aggressive enemy seeks to destroy him and those around him, all who are committed to the Lord's work. The Devil is legion, even within him. He knows Satan and feels the burden of ever-present darkness. His prayer life is diligent; his sweat turns to blood.

What he knows and others don't seem to understand is that righteousness requires a gargantuan struggle, 24/7 vigilance when the Devil is seeking whom he will devour.

Sin is a wily stalker after all, and scripture tells all kinds of stories of the treachery of the righteous. King David, in whom God so delighted, couldn't help himself when he saw Bathsheba, lost his moral bearing altogether when he set up her husband to die. Like Paul, he simply couldn't help himself. You know, Romans 7:15: "I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do." That's God's Holy Word.

He finds himself right there, the lost sheep. No one in the flock is as beloved than he who is most a sinner because the Good Shepherd loves lost souls, heads into the wilderness to find them. Look at Saul.

The more he sins, the more he knows he needs the Lord, and the more he needs the Lord, the more intense his prayers. 

It's all so insanely understandable. Let's say he's pyromaniac. No one gets hurt--he finds abandoned barns all over the countryside, places that should come down. He just helps others get rid of trash, after all. Or klepto--he grabs odd stuff, too--nothing expensive, nothing any shopkeeper will ever going to miss. Afterward, he just about slays himself with grief because he can't stop and guilt because he knows it's wrong. Adultery maybe. Or greed. 

When he preaches God's love, he knows it first hand--God's wrath too. All of that spiritual warfare goes on within him. If you're brought up in an evangelical world, it's just so understandable, so Arthur Dimmesdale.

Beaten by his own evil longings, this man of the cloth gets caught at what he both hates and can't stop, at the sin he's waging war against, even in his own soul. He is brought down by what has suddenly become his own public sin.

Today, when what he considers his sin is being gay, it's no worse than it might be for anything else, but vastly more political. 

It happened last week. Yet another outspoken, anti-gay pastor bit the dust (an apt expression really) when someone discovered pictures he posted of himself on a gay website. The pastor who has preached righteousness to high heaven has been trolling down into the pit at the very same time.

In a sad and perverse way, it's just so understandable .

And everyone loses--his church, his wife, his family, and his politics.

But maybe it's a blessing for the rest of us. It could be if we learned just one thing from this sad and perverse story, the most trying lesson of all, pride being the first of the Seven Deadly sins--we all need to bite the dust.  


Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Short Fiction of Lawrence Dorr (iv)

"Risen Indeed," the fourth story in Lawrence Dorr's The Long Journey Home, is no more complex than the title asserts. Very simply, it's a story with a climax that arrives with the refugee's blessed assurance of Christ's resurrection.

Imagine that--a story that banishes the darkness with nothing more or less than than the only truly empty grave in the history of humankind. That's it. It's that simple.

In "Risen Indeed," once again the darkness permeates the refugee's existence with uninvited flashbacks that take him completely out of the here-and-now and leave him feeling stranded in the desolated world at the end of the war. He simply can't forget what he'd rather not remember. There's an empty church in "Risen Indeed," a church he stumbles into when he's trying to stay alive in Salzburg, when he has nothing to eat, when he dreams of Spam (he's seen a picture) and determines to attack an American soldier to get arrested and thrown into an American prison where they actually feed their prisoners. He's that starved.

When he can't do it, he looks for solace in a church the war has destroyed.

The altar was bare. It had been stripped of its linen and candlesticks. The door of the safe behind the altar was open. It was empty. . .He was standing in an empty space where the sound of weeping and crying would always be heard, where hope had ceased forever. There would never be a new heaven and new earth, a new Jerusalem. He cried with dry sobs as if he had been drained even of his tears. He cried for the empty world, he cried for himself. . .

The memory of his own faithlessness is summoned by the tearful confession of a woman who tells him that she feels abandoned by a priest who claims in an article in a church paper that talk of the bodily resurrection of Christ is, well, not only silly but chauvinistic, the empty burden of those embarrassing 19th century missionaries who were carrying cultural imperialism in the name of Jesus Christ. She is mortified. "Without the resurrection I have nothing," she tells the refugee, decades later on a college campus. "You can't imagine the desolation I feel."

Well, she's wrong. He can imagine the desolation because he's lived it. It's her confession that reawakens the horrors he lived through after the war--the empty church and the whole line of dead men and women he witnessed hanging from the goal posts of the soccer field he played in as a boy, those he thought he would himself soon be among.

But it's Holy week now, decades later, and there's Maunday Thursday, the only Royal Feast. 

Then his name was called and he recognized it. It was the voice Him Who cooked fish on a charcoal fire for his friends and said: "Come and have breakfast." It was the voice that made them know that beyhond chronos was the kairos of everlasting life. He looked at the image of Christ the King, at the Easter lilies on the altar, at the cross made of wildflowers, and he cried out with the instinctive cry of the newborn.
"Christ is risen. Christ is risen."
"Risen indeed," the others shouted back.
The story ends with the cry of the newborn in Christ. It ends where real life begins, with the resurrection of Jesus Christ. "Risen Indeed" is a very simple story, and it's not long. 

There's something of a paradox here, I'm afraid. Maybe it's just me. What makes the story difficult--and make no mistake!--it is--is that it's so incredibly simple. The story's remarkable testimony is that the scarred refugee takes the refuge he's looked for so desperately in the only real comfort he knows he can know: "Christ is risen."

That simple truth here is that He is our peace. That's the story of "Risen Indeed."

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Waco II

They've got Louie Gohmert, but we've got Steve King. Still, it was Louie Gohmert who laid out the plain truth: "We've got some people who think Shariah law oughta' be the law of the land, forget the Constitution," he said while defending his good Christian people. "But the guns are there," he said, "the Second Amendment is there, to make sure all of the rest of the amendments are followed."

Just in case you're wondering, that is.

And those guns are there not just there to defend the constitution either. You never know what's going to happen, even when you got to take a leak sometime, you know? I mean, a guy goes to the can, and some dang fool comes along and makes some kind of crack--who knows what about?--when he's standing there minding his business. Well, what's a guy do, right? I mean, what you really got if you've got no respect?

Or so it went in Waco last week. It all started in the men's can over some provocation between a couple of biker thugs who had enough of each other. Fists became knives, knives became heat, and soon enough all-out war erupted, not a supporter of Shariah law anywhere close. 

You wonder why all that shooting went down at Waco because guys like Gohmert know dang well that we face more dangerous enemies than beefy guys on Harleys decked out in leather vests. After all, not a month ago, Texans were keeping their guns close because the U.S. Army was coming to take over the whole region and turn it into an Islamic State because the whole country's falling flat on its face anyway with a honest-to-God Muslim running things, a man who has surrounded himself with Muslim Brotherhood. 

You didn't know? Tune in.

The U. S. Army is coming to the Lone Star to grab Texas's guns because Obama knows that Texans hate him--and they do. Jade Helm, Obama calls this military thing, this lie; and the feds got the gall to send down military people, liars all, to try to tell God-fearing people that all them military are here just for some kind of games thing. Sure.  And I got a bridge. . .

But Louie Gohmert knows the truth, and so did the Governor himself who ordered the Texas guard to keep watch over the U.S. Army and take corrective measures if they started into confiscating the guns of good people. That sort of thing. 

But we were talking about Waco, and the big parley at Twin Peaks, where some of Texas's finest gun-toters hang out and drink beer served up by good-looking women wearing hardly any clothes, as in "twin peaks." Sweet, huh? What could be more American? 

That whole battle-thing started in a bathroom, got swept outside, and ended in gun fight between three or four or five different gangs--bikers and finally lawmen too, in a battle for turf which was just another range war, a gun battle that made OK Corral look like a pre-school. It was the Texas Rangers kind of thing in a strip mall. Nine dead. The wild, wild west. Like TV. I'n't that something?

Nine dead and 180 arrested. Old George W used to say it--"Don't mess with Texas."

Phillipp Meyer's The Son is a terrific book, but if the story it tells is the whole of a region's heritage, then Texas is as scary as last weekend's bloody biker brawl at in a city that will, for years, be remembered for Branch Davidians self-martyring and murdering their children by refusing to leave a burning building. Now, with the battle of Twin Peaks, there's just more to tell, yet another museum display a couple of decades hence.

The Bullock is not a museum to be missed. If you're ever in Austin, stop. It's a great museum, in part because Texas has such an incredible story to tell: the Comanches, the Alamo, slavery, cattle, oil, and a statehouse full of Louie Gohmerts. Dallas is classic television. Who killed J. R.? Texas has stories. Twin Peaks is just another.

Once upon a time I knew a man who was constantly in trouble for this, that, or the other thing. Wiry, strong, and opinionated to a fault, he made a practice of sticking sharp sticks in the eyes of those he didn't like. Once upon a time, he wired a consistory room because he wanted to hear what the church elders were saying about him. I'm not making this up. 

That man told me, years ago, smilingly, that he thought most people lived really boring lives. He was probably right.

Not him.

And not Texas.

Jade Helm? Shit, real Texans know what's going down. 

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Morning Thanks--from the classroom

They're grandparents now, all of them; but they'll always be 17 years old because that's what they were when they sat in rows in front of me. They were kids, and they still should be.
I remember them--Patti Haldiman, Sandy Rolli, Tom Dahmen, Bill Hansen, Kathy Meier, Larry Lelle, Gary Meier (there were two of them), Ron Sersch, Becky Staldiman. More too. Several years ago they had a class reunion and sent me an invitation. When I saw the penmanship of the return address, I didn't even have to read the name. 

The night before the first day of school I sat in an ancient hotel on the town square in Monroe, Wisconsin, running through my class list, real kids who, the next morning, would be right there in front of me, names I could barely pronounce and for which I had no reference, names that belonged to real human being-type kids with freckles and sun tans and acne, dressed in madras shirts and bell bottom jeans--and parents who frustrated the heck out of 'em.

They'd be mine. Sounds deranged to say it that way, but for an hour or so at least when they'd be in my room, they would be.  I was shockingly young myself, but I think I understood that what was going to happen in that room would be my responsibility. If it was a good place, if it was a bad place, if it was a boring place, if it was a great place--what it would be depended totally on what I would be.

And who was I? A kid. It was 1970, and I'd just missed the draft because of atrial fibrillation. I'd taken a letter along to my army physical, stood there with the rest of my friends in my skivvies, then got culled like a factory second. I didn't have to go.

I'd found this job in Sunday Milwaukee Journal, driven down to the southwest corner of the state for an interview, and somehow got the job. 

"I get the sense that you walked on the wild side," the administrator said when he thumbed through my recommendations. 

"That's because I drank some beer," I told him, "and I didn't really try to hide it."

At first, he didn't believe me. I'm lucky I got the job, I suppose; but I told him Dordt was a strict religious college and he believed me. Besides, I could coach basketball, do theater, and teach English, a trifecta. I had a job.

It took me only a couple of days to realize that if I played my cards right, I could do this thing. Kids liked me, I could tell. I was one of them.

I don't know that I've ever said this before, but what I came to understand within the first few weeks of that first year was that I loved teaching. Years later, when a friend and colleague and I would walk back home together from the college where we taught, we'd have to pinch each other to remind ourselves that what we were doing in the classroom from day-to-day was what we did for a living--that's how much we loved it.

In the last few years the distance between me and the students got uncomfortably wide. I still liked them, and I think they liked me; but it became hard for me to know what made them tick. I began to understand what it meant to be a "boomer" because being a boomer was something they weren't. Vietnam was their grandparents' era, a history project. And they were all Harry Potter.

Every spring since I retired I've taught an on-line class of high school seniors looking to get a leg up on their college educations. Yesterday I sent in their grades, the last grades I'll ever file. 

I've come a long ways from that second story hotel room just off the town square in Monroe, Wisconsin. I'm more educated--somewhere I've got two graduate diplomas. I couldn't get up and down the basketball floor like I did way back when, and there's absolutely no way I could live with the schedule that administrator--I don't remember his name--gave me that first year. But I honestly think I am who I always was. 

But yesterday when I sent those grades off--they were embarrassingly good, by the way--I was reminded of something it's been easy to forget, and that is what a privilege it's been to be there in a position to watch kids grow, to be a part of it, to participate in learning.

My last book, a collection of short stories, Up the Hill, concerns the goings-on in a cemetery where the residents are quite blessedly entertained by life in the town they've only physically left behind. What happens in those stories, time after time (strange phrase to use in a graveyard) is that the sanctified residents continue to learn--about themselves, about life, about how things work.  I don't think that's heretical because I don't think death will somehow end our growing. In the hereafter, we'll still be learning, don't you think? 

This morning my grades are in for the very last time. I'd like to think that some grandpas and grandmas in and around Monroe, Wisconsin, remember their high school years and their English teacher, a single guy in a Volkswagon, as fondly as I remember them.

But just yesterday, maybe because it was the last time, I couldn't help thinking about what a blessing it was throughout my life to be a part of the growth by which we all become who we will be. This morning, after 43 years of teaching, I'm thankful for the classroom, for being where the Lord God almighty put me for all these years.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Morning Thanks--the blues

It is--and was--America's only unique art form, at least that's what this white guy learned years ago in a graduate class in African-American literature. It is--or was--predominately an African-American genre, or at least had its roots in the experience of sharecroppers on white man's land in the rural South, a people governed by laws sometimes coded and sometimes not, race laws American history has come to call "Jim Crow."  

The blues--at least traditionally--were not happy songs. White folks loved to make up stories about black folks singing merrily as they skipped along on their way out to cotton fields. But what came from the African-American people, descendants of slaves, was music that rises from distress, something called "the Blues."

B. B. King, who died just last week, said he had only one real hit on the pop charts, "The Thrill is Gone," even though his artistry with Lucille, his guitar (his series of guitars) was not only unquestioned by legendary. King himself reckoned that the reason for his lack of popular success was what he said with his music, because even though the blues are uniquely American they are not the kind of genre that'll do well with millions of people who would, undoubtedly, prefer those smiley-faces going out to work, music that's cute and sweet and, well, a joy.

The blues are not.  What's more, people say teenagers can't sing the blues any way because they simply haven't lived long enough to develop the soul the blues demand. What do they know about life? Nothing. You got have heartache to sing the blues, not just skin irritations--"the thrill is gone." Gone, as is not returning. That level of heartache. 

It's most famous practitioner is gone now, B. B. King, who garnered almost every possible cultural prize America can offer for a lifetime singing the blues.

For some time, even "the blues" fell on hard times; and, oddly enough, it took the Brits to revive 'em, in the Sixties when bands like The Who lifted rhythms and vocal patterns off old 78s and put all of it to use in their own work, altering those patterns in the process, broadening their forms and appeal. 

Once upon a time, years and years ago, I attended a rural Baptist church in the middle of cotton fields in rural Mississippi. That worship service lasted forever as I remember, and multiple offering plates were passed, so many I got the sense that we weren't going to be released until what filled those plates was sufficient to bring on some kind of doxology. 

In the middle of that service, in what my people would have called "congregational prayer," an old man started in to praying in a language that was beyond me. I had no idea what he was saying, but he kept it up for some time, and the others, those around him, kept repeating or embellishing in the open spaces he left for them to do just that. 

I knew it was something special, but I knew absolutely nothing about what I was hearing. I understood that whatever penitent practice was occurring, it was something I wasn't going to see again real quickly because the old clapboard church in the middle of the cotton was like nothing I'd ever visited before. Its sounds, its penitence, its prayer was almost perfectly strange.

But in many ways, I was sitting that Sunday morning in a place that could well have been the very birthplace of the blues, listening to a man praying in fashion that hundreds of people in places like that old church had put to music.  There were no guitars in church that Sunday morning, and the old man who prayed in song wasn't blessed with perfect pitch, believe me. 

But what I heard was special. I wish I'd have known then what I know now. All I knew is that what that man did with the crowd around was like no prayer I'd ever heard anywhere.

A young African-American, a man with whom our youth group was working back then, walked away from that church with me that Sunday morning and shook his head. "Things have to change," he said, meaning that traditional old services like the one we'd just sat through were way, way, way old-fashioned. He seemed almost embarrassed.

Undoubtedly, he was right.

But I've got the memory of being there, and this morning I'm thankful for that gift, the plaintive notes that old man hit in a long prayer whose petitions I didn't understand but whose complaints I now will forever associate with what the whole world calls "the blues."

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Sunday Morning Meds--Remembrances

“. . .you thought I was altogether like you.” Psalm 50:21

Years ago, when I was a teenager, my uncle—a most distinguished uncle—came to visit.  I was in high school, and he took me golfing. I’d fooled around with golf clubs since I was ten; but my family was not part of the country club set, and actually going to a course would have been, well, out of the question—somewhat frivolous, I suppose.

After nine holes, he wanted to ride out in the countryside around town, the town of Oostburg, Wisconsin, where I was then growing up and he had, maybe 35 years before.  His career had led him afar from his geographic roots, and I could tell it was a joy for him to reminiscence while touring the haunts he’d never forgotten.

“Now go out west of town,” he told me, and I did.  He wanted to follow the river, the Onion River, because he said he and his friends used to have so much fun out there.  “There,” he said.  “See that path through the field?—if you follow that road, you’ll come to a swimming hole.”  He was overflowing with memory.  “Ever been there?  Great place—we used to have so much fun.”  And then he seemed to leave the car altogether, lost in memory.

Right then I may have been at the very same age he was remembering himself being, and I remember thinking it strange that he could be so emotionally attached to a bend in the river I’d never even seen, even though I’d walked parts of that river, trapping and duck hunting. Years before, there’d been spectacular fun at at spot I’d never seen, but no one I knew ever frequented that swimming hole. He knew the world in which I was growing up, knew it well, knew it intimately; but the place he remembered was a different country.

Some time ago a friend of mine who also grew up in Oostburg, Wisconsin, came back here to his home on the edge of the Great Plains mildly depressed because his elderly parents had decided to move across the lake to Michigan and he was afraid that this Oostburg visit might well be his last.

I know that rite of passage. When my parents left the house in which I grew up, some species of emptiness descended on me, even though they were simply moving across town. But years ago already my distinguished uncle had prepared me for that leave-taking when I witnessed his reverence for a spot on the Onion River I’d never visited. 
The Oostburg my uncle knew wasn’t the place I was then growing up, nor is it the place my friend doesn’t want to forget.  We’re all part of the diaspora, which means none of those Oostburgs is the one that exists today. The gulf which divides reality and perception is sometimes immense and immensely unfathomable.

The truth is, we fashion a whole host of worlds within our own perceptions. Similarly, I suppose—and this is scary--the God we fashion isn’t necessarily the one who exists through time and eternity. In Psalm 50, a psalm that’s really shocking in places, here’s another line to make us both sweat and quake:  “you thought I was altogether like you.”

The God of Psalm 50 is no teddy bear.

Why do I find that idea disconcerting?  Probably because I’ve created an image of God in my own mind, a genial gentleman, a fine man who is really into forgiveness, a kind of sweet grandfatherly figure.
“You thought I was altogether like you,” that God says. 

I think I have.  I just hope I’m right.   

Friday, May 15, 2015

Morning Thanks--How can I keep from singing?

Once upon a time, while I was going on and on about my very first new grandchild, an old friend pulled a quip from his back pocket and wryly gave me a line I've never forgotten, not because it's true in my case--it isn't--but because it's probably true in every case. 

"You know why grandparents get along so royally with grandchildren, don't you?" he said.

I shook my head.

"Simple," he said, "mutual enemies."

I know, I know--it's a dirty rotten thing to say, but you got to admit it's funny.

The very first time I held a grandchild is a picture on the first page of the scrapbook my memory keeps. Twice, I stood beside my wife while she gave birth, but those precious moments aren't framed in gold the way that one is. If we were in Lynden, Washington, right now, I'd take you past the house. I could show you the room. I could point to the rug and tell you exactly where I was standing.

Last night at a choral concert, that granddaughter and her brother, my grandson (I have no clue about where I stood with him in my arms for the first time) sang gorgeously. I understand that I've no right to use gorgeously because my grandparent genes bushwhack judgment something awful. I don't care. I'll use it anyway because we have rights, after all, us grandparents; and there's endless forgiveness, as you know.  So I'll keep that word there--forgive me, but that grade school concert was perfectly beautiful.

We didn't know he was going to be featured in a little quartet, and neither did his parents. But there it was on the program--Pieter, one of four, the only boy--featured in a song the director claimed was the class favorite. And that's how it sounded too.

My life flows on in endless song;
Above earth’s lamentation
I hear the sweet though far off song
That hails a new creation:
No storm can shake my inmost calm,
while to that rock I'm clinging.
Since Christ is lord of heaven and earth
how can I keep from singing?

There he stood, up front, singing those words. 

So how on earth was I supposed to stop from tearing up? He hadn't bothered to mention his being featured; in fact, his mom and dad only came to understand he could sing a couple of weeks earlier when his teacher mentioned he'd asked Pieter to join a summer choir. Anyway, there he stood, up front, singing (gorgeously) those words, that song, making music with a soul that is the very foundation of his own Christian education.

Then, he and the three young ladies with whom he was singing walked back into the choir and happily took up the next verse.

While though the tempest loudly roars,
I hear the truth, it liveth.
And though the darkness 'round me close,
songs in the night it giveth.

Now everything I've said would be cliche if there weren't more to the story, as you know. You would simply excuse my bliss as the everyday braying of an audacious grandpa who truly believes there ain't a kid in the world who can rival his own. I bet your're thinking I wasn't the only one with cloudy eyes in a crowd of a thousand other grandpas and grandmas, at least some of whom were also yawning away tears through the verses of that winsome hymn. Had to be.

No storm can shake my inmost calm,
while to that rock I'm clinging.
Since Christ is lord of heaven and earth
how can I keep from singing?

All of that's true, I'm sure, but I sat there hoping that through some divine intervention, my mother was listening too because nothing would have pleased her more, this side of the great beyond, than hearing her great-grandson sing--and sing those particular lyrics.

And I got it on video. I had my phone along. And that was another reason I was wiping away tears because I knew--thank you, You Tube--that I could post this whole gorgeous performance where my sister could hear it too because I know my sister, and I know she'll well up and drop a few salty tears herself when she sees it, when she hears it, because two weeks ago today she found herself in an ambulance beside an EMT who told her kindly that her husband of 47 years didn't make it through the accident they'd just suffered on their way to celebrate their own grandkids' birthdays.

So this is for you, Sis. The kid who stood up front and made me shed tears isn't your grandson; but ours, right here, is saying something you believe, a particular faith and creed your own husband gave his life to, the love and regard we have for the King of Heaven and Earth, in whose love we live, day by day by day.

No storm can shake my inmost calm,
while to that rock I'm clinging.
Since Christ is lord of heaven and earth
how can I keep from singing?

You're a singer, Sis, and once upon a time, years ago, you told me that your favorite choral anthem of all time was a piece by a Russian composer named Pavel Tschesnokov, "O, Lord God," a majestic prayer which includes a soaring testimony just about halfway through that suddenly steps out from the music in triumph and exaltation: "I will sing to the Lord as long as I live." Even if you don't, I remember you telling me how much you loved that music.

Pieter and his classmates weren't doing Tschesnokov last night, but he and his friends were singing the very same thing--gorgeously, I might add. But then I'm his grandpa.

Our Mom would have loved it. So would Larry, your husband. I'd like to think they were both there.

So this is for you, from us and from Pieter and his classmates in the kind of Christian school you and your husband served all your lives long.

Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth
how can we keep from singing?

Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Short Fiction of Lawrence Dorr (iii)

The third story in The Long Journey Home, "Stress Test," feels even more like a sketch. We are following the life of a refugee soldier who comes to America, in part because he has no home to which he can return after the Second World War. I'm not sure it's the same refugee in every story, but the man in the middle of all three stories has a painful past in a war that never ends in his mind's echo chamber. America is something of a dream to him, but when he gets to this country he discovers, as everyone does, that streets are not paved with gold in a land of milk and honey. 

Not that he's disillusioned or that America's is some kind of harlot--that's not the nature of his suffering. His heartache rises from a soul still terrorized by the suffering; the heartache is there because some trauma never fully disappears.

He is a victim of PTSD, clinically stated; but he doesn't use the words. Events occur in his life--sitting in doctor's office, waiting--that remind him suddenly of events in his past never quite eclipsed by time or circumstance, like waiting in a similarly small space for the beating his interrogators will give him. In a moment he hadn't anticipated he's right back amid the horror. 

"Stress Test" takes place many years removed from 1946. The refugee soldier is an old man with enough atrial fibrillation to have him thinking, maybe for the first time in years, of his own death. Irregular rhythms have him stressed out. The doctor tells him, however, that what he feels in his chest is neither abnormal nor particularly dangerous. End of story. 

Like Hemingway, to whom he is often compared, Lawrence Dorr's stories are icebergs--there's more beneath the surface.

Much of "Stress Test" is that office visit, closely described from the interior of a mind burdened by history and even present circumstance. Life in America, 21st century, is a burden to someone like himself, someone who takes his faith so seriously. He's clearly tired of endless caricature of Christianity and Christians, he says. 

He longed for a country of his own, where Christians weren't ridiculed on university campuses and superstitious Yahoos because they loved God, where his brethren would not be characterized in mainstream literature, in films and on TV shows as narrow, hypocritical, money-grubbing people whose intellectual integrity was always suspect.

That assertion is followed by the memory of a circumcision ritual to which he was invited, where a rabbi explained to those who gathered that the ritual was "a symbol of the covenant between God and His people, a witness to an act that was initiated by God, not man." His own distaste for the way Christians are portrayed in America reminds him of the grand seriousness that real religious people offer as worship and tribute to a God who is real--and who is God.

Nearly home, he passes a steel building the Baptists, he says, turned into a church and embellished with a sturdy brick facade. "The same love of God that build Chartres Cathedral," he tells himself, "had placed this steel structure--manufactured to store feed and fertilizer--in the middle of a wooded lot and surrounded it with flowering bushes." 

Thus, the Baptists across the street, far removed from France's prized Cathedral, remind him of the seriousness of spiritual commitment among those who confess His name.

Long ago somewhere along the line, I was taught that stories often have two climaxes. One of them is called "technical," the moment in the story when it's clear that the conflict is over; the other is "dramatic," the high point of drama within a narrative. They're not always the same moment.

One of the characteristics of the early stories in The Long Journey Home is the seeming absence of any climax, technical or certainly dramatic. The stories feel like sketches--no car chase, no imperiled damsel on a railroad track; even what description the refugee gives of his torture is at best an outline. It's not hard to feel as if nothing really happens in a Lawrence Dorr story.

Including faith. There's no kumbaya, no wrestling with God, no great sweat-like-blood turning point. But what's always, always there--in "Stress Test" too--is God almighty. He's there in the Baptist bricks across the road, even though, as the refugee says, "this miracle of devotion would not be reported."

Such miracles in a bellicose religious age may seem painfully slight. You might wonder what happened, if anything did. 

But God is always there in Dorr's world. That he is the refugee's personal savior goes without question, but that the refugee would ever use that language seems unlikely because the Almighty is so much greater than someone we dial-up when our hearts go off-rhythm. 

The refugee narrator says he had to see the Grand Canyon to believe the place, "this immensity that could not be captured in its entirety by the powers of art or any optical device." Then, "This was also true of the Far County he barely knew beyond a few short descriptions that had excited his imagination with its endless possibilities."

That's eternity. He's talking about eternity. You might have missed it. 

Don't expect high drama in Lawrence Dorr. Don't expect mountain-top experience. But know--as does the refugee, even if he occasionally forgets--that God is simply always there. Make no mistake about that. We don't live in a world without God.

You just need to remember that the facade on the Baptists' steel building across the street is really just another Chartres Cathedral, laid brick by brick by those who love the Lord. 

Lawrence Dorr suggests that realization will calm your heart's unsteady rhythm and bring peace to your soul.
Few of us will ever read Lawrence Dorr, but, pardon my moralizing, more should. He really is one of our finest Christian writers. I'm going through his last collection of stories, The Long Journey Home, story by story because he was excellent short story writer  with an incredible personal story. What's more, he was a wonderful human being.  

Lawrence Dorr, whose real name was  Janos Zsigmond Shoemyen, died in December of 2014. He was 93 years old at the time of his own last journey home.