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.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Last week's biggie

Well now, I guess the sky is falling.

Huge SCOTUS rulings last week thrilled liberals about as much as elections last November made them disconsolate, conservatives walking off with most every electable seat in the nation back then. As a country, we're as split as a ripe melon when it comes to some some issues, perhaps the greatest of which is gay marriage. To Republicans, upholding Obamacare was the first horror from the nine justices Huckabee called "activists" last week, but Friday it was Justice Kennedy who joined the libs for the most horrifying ruling of all: Romeo can now marry Jules. It's official. Mom used to say it was a sign of end times.

Yesterday, as we walked into church, my granddaughter simply assumed, I guess, that the sermon would be woe and woe and woe. I don't remember her exact words, but she made it perfectly clear that she expected to hear how awful gay marriage is. 

Maybe she was surprised--I don't know--but in the church we attended, it didn't happen. All over the nation, I'm sure it did because wherever the word "Christian" is a synonym for "conservative," onward Christian soldiers reupped for the righteousness crusade. What began with a ban on school prayer now has come to its demonic end with gay marriage, and "Christian America" simply is no longer such. So say some.

Will "Christian" America have to bend the knee? Will Christian cake decorators have to festoon their creations with two tiny brides? Will Christian pastors be forced to marry gays? Will Dordt College have to hire gay lab assistants? Will gay preachers bring the CRC to court if it doesn't put them in ecclesiastical office? Name your fear.

I don't think anyone knows what could happen, what might happen, or certainly what will happen. But where there is speculation, there's adequate opportunity for fear and fear is a solid political plank with people who consider themselves besieged. In politics, you can go to the bank on fear. Fear motivates. "They're taking over--the gays are. You got to be blind not to see it. It's either them or Sharia law. They're all coming to get us, the decent, law-abiding true Americans." 

I know people whose adult children are gay. What they say is something they don't even have to: "it changes things." When you know gay people, when you love gay people, it's really difficult to make them demonic.

And what seems clear from sturdy, conservative evangelicals is that something similar is going on right now, even among those who are not, under any circumstances, buying last Friday's historic ruling. What many of those on the right are saying is that even if you don't buy gay marriage for a minute, you can no longer shout about it. That day is over. You have to love. 

Today evangelical Christians, who make up a quarter of the American population, find themselves in a minority position when it comes to homosexuality. As long as they were in the majority opposing gay marriage, it was a whole lot easier to be condemning. No more. Some evangelical churches report that gay couples are actually coming to them these days. It's hard to outfit ordinary-looking men and women in hooves and horns when you're standing beside them singing praise songs.

Welcome to the new dispensation. Today, it seems, even really conservative Christians are reminding themselves that they can't just pillory those with whom they don't agree; they have to stop demonizing, have to learn to love. 

Loving those with whom we disagree is not easy; but it seems to me that the Savior who commanded it never once suggested it would be.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Sunday morning meds--"In His Feathers"

 “. . .in the shadow of your wings until the disaster has passed.” Psalm 57:2

The quotation marks in the title (incorrectly) designate that the title of the meditation is a book, not just a few words hung atop a meditation—but what you're about to read is not a marketing ploy.

Several years ago I published a collection of a woman’s letters and notes and journal entries, which is titled, on the basis of this verse from Psalm 57, In His Feathers. It was published in very low numbers because, try as I might, I couldn’t find a big publisher—well, let’s broaden that a bit: I couldn’t find an editor or an agent even willing to read the manuscript.

Why wouldn’t anyone look?  It's the story of a woman’s battle with cancer, ovarian cancer. Sharon Wagonaar Bomgaars died in 2003, just a few years after diagnosis, which means In His Feathers is, I suppose, to big publishers just another memoir by a nobody. If Sharon had been a celebrity—if she’d been featured on Good Morning America, or—the big enchilada, Oprah, we would have had no trouble finding a publisher.

Sharon was a loving wife and mother, a thoughtful, honest, committed Christian, an inveterate journal-keeper who recorded every last sorrow and joy. Listen to her thoughts as she sat at the keyboard for the very last time:

This morning [my husband] brought me a half-cup of pear juice with ice. I took a sip and a tiny piece of pear had slipped through the sieve. I caught it on my tongue. I squeezed that little gritty fragment lovingly. It smoothed into nothingness and it was so good! I squeezed each lovely sip and rolled it around on my tongue. Then I let it slide slowly down my throat. Pear juice, delicious pear juice, squeezed from pears grown on some tree in dusty California, and now bringing me all its sun-warmed sweetness. What a gift!
God is so good to give us such pleasures in this sin- sick world. I love God's gifts! I love his peaches, and pears, and grapes, and strawberries, and apples! I love his wet, sweet, juicy creations! What an awesome God!
Twenty-one days later, she left all the sweet, juicy creations behind.

Forgive my bitterness and even my jealousy, because I do wish the book would be featured on Oprah. But its failure to find a publisher may well be itself a reason to praise God. Thousands upon thousands of stories like Sharon’s exist, stories of real people who took or take abiding refuge beneath the wings of God almighty.

Somehow, I think Sharon would like me to say what’s in my heart—that the glory and power of this single line from Psalm 57 is that it is true, true until the day we die, and then on into eternity. And the proof is in the numbers: there are so many Sharon Bomgaars' stories.

The truth of Sharon’s story is in this plaintive song of the poet/king. Refuge, as David knew, even as he sang this line, is under his wings and in his feathers.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Saturday morning catch--a summer's dawn

She won, of course. When Shakespeare determined he'd do what he could to make her swoon, he compared her to a summer's day, and she won that one, big time. But could you expect any less from sweet talk? Most men will pull out all the stops when seduction is on the line. "A summer's day?--big deal."

I'm thinking his use of "day" was deliberate, because had he said "dawn," he wouldn't have been convincing. Like this:

Shall I compare to a summer's dawn?
(Pause. Longer pause.)
Nah. Let me try that again.

Summer mornings can be drop dead gorgeous. In fact, at times it's not hard to think that you're standing at the very portal of heaven when it's only the Floyd River.

As long as I didn't get out of the car, this guy let me shoot. He knows very well the beauty of a summer's dawn. There he was, middle of all that shining divinity. 

Even soy beans get redeemed by a misty dawn.

Silhouettes get haloed.

Just up the river here at a big bend just around the corner is a spot, I'm told, Native people loved to make camp. This time of year, this time of day, is it any wonder? 

Shall I compare thee to a summer's dawn?

Let me give that some thought.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Bringing down the flag

It was 1977, and a bus full of Iowa kids and their leaders were sweltering in a level of dank heat none of us could have imagined. We were spending two weeks in the Mississippi Delta, the place where the blues began, something no one talked much about because we were, after all, on a mission to bring Jesus to poor black kids and maybe their parents. 

We'd been told about racism, enough so that most any white man I saw on that trip I assumed to be a closet KKK gendarme. I knew Jim Crow from history books, but not from sunup to sundown in a real live heat-soaked cotton field. Life among the rural Black poor was new, and to the righteous Yankee ambassadors of Jesus (us) it was, well sad. 

Whether it should have been is another question altogether.

So one hot night at a softball game just behind the Christian Center where we were staying, I talked to a man who was about my age. He told me he was living in Detroit, just visiting his Delta homeland. Totally taken with the us vs. them mentality--Yankee vs. Reb, which is to say slave vs. free--I was astounded to hear him say that he'd give anything to move back to to the South, to rural Mississippi, to these cotton fields back home.

It's easier, quite frankly, to buy into caricature than it is into a reality which is almost always more nuanced than the simple "either/or" dichotomy. If there had been a decent job in Delta land, he would have much rather lived right there along the Mississippi than up north in Motor City. What he said sticks with me because I didn't see it coming, not at all, not back then.

It seems to me that the Confederate flag should have been ceremony-ed to a significant place in a thousand Dixie museums long, long ago. My family has been Yankee for as long as they've been citizens of these United States, so I don't really fully understand the till-death-do-us-part commitment to keep that thing flying over state houses (in one form or another). Allegiances die hard, I'm sure, when the earth beneath your feet has been made fertile by ancestors' blood; but consider me among those who believe that what was at the very heart of "the War of Northern Aggression," as it's sometimes still called south of Mason-Dixon, was the institution of slavery, a cultural and spiritual commitment to the proposition that not all men are not created equal, that, in fact, all men are not all men (and women).

That's what the Confederate flag means to me--what it always will mean. 

If it offends millions of Americans, white and black, as it does, it needs to be museum-ed. Even Gov. Haley agrees this time--as did a host of others. End of story. 

That being said, I think I understand that softball fan from Detroit. I get it in the quiet evenings in the rural South, in the way kids look when they've got fishing poles on their shoulders as they poke along towards the river, in the smiles of ordinary folks, in the sweet sauce of great barbecue.  He was still in love with a way of life dank with repression and bigotry, but still big enough to be beautiful. 

As much as I hate the slave history of my country, I wouldn't like to see the Mississippi Delta become Detroit, wouldn't like Southern life to become just another derivative of the consumerist suburban North. After all, I really do like William Faulkner, and I appreciate the determined commitment Flannery O'Connor held toward the South she loved so stoutly: 
The things we see, hear, smell, and touch affects us long before we believe anything at all. The South impresses its image on the Southern writer from the moment he is able to distinguish one sound from another. He takes it in through his ears and hears it again in his own voice, and, by the time he is able to use his imagination for fiction, he finds that his senses respond irrevocably to a certain reality, and particularly to the sound of a certain reality.

What we Northerners are telling Southerners to do requires the tools and hands of an accomplished surgeon, someone who can cauterize South's heritage of bigotry, yet hold to something unique and particular. 

And that's not easy. It seems to me that it's much, much easier to put the stars-and-bars where it belongs: in a museum. 

I remember standing in front of a huge Afrikaner museum in Pretoria, after Nelson Mandela had become to new Prime Minister of the new South Africa, and thinking that this sprawling monument to the country's Dutch past would somehow, some way, have to go, sad as that may have been to the country's own proud Afrikaners. 

Hate condemned that past. People were going to have to find new ways of honoring that which deserved honor, respect, and love because, well, how does the Bible say it?--the wages of sin is death.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Morning Thanks--Tintoretto

I am no expert, no theologian, no art historian; but for what it's worth, I think Tintoretto had it right because the scene must have been something akin to this mess, street clothes scattered everywhere, a kindly mutt right there in the middle of the melee. I'm thinking nobody could sit down and wash the feet of a dozen men in the shake of a lamb's tail. Foot-washing--a fully expected ritual--has to take a while. If it was only a matter of a dusty foot baptized in a oaken bucket, the thing could have been over in 12 minutes or less and they could have got on to the important stuff, the meal.

But if the foot-washing was, as Christ claimed, a ritual symbol at the very heart of everything he'd tried to do and teach them about himself and grace, then his doing it had to be more than a slam dunk; he had to put his blessed hands on their pigpen feet, as he is in Tintoretto's vision of things here (1548 or 1549).

And the bald guy at the right has to be Peter, not only because he's the subject in the John's gospel, but also because he's, well, Peter, a man born with a nose for the camera. No wonder some of them were wondering who was going to be greatest in the kingdom; in their sometimes unwashed present, Peter was forever grabbing headlines. The others must have been doing a little wishful thinking, assuming that "last should be first" and all of that, right? After all, he'd said it, Jesus had.  Talk amongst yourselves.

Right there in the middle of the work, one of the disciples, who in Tintoretto's mind might well have been just another working stiff, is delivering a blue-robed disciple of his baked-on long johns--and it's no picnic. Strangely enough, the image seems to dominate the whole painting, in part because the action is so seemingly fierce, comic even--and there it is at the heart. The two of them look as if they're horsing around right there in Christ's presence. Imagine that. 

They must have been. Like I said, the ritual itself must have lasted a half hour. None of them could have shut up for all that time. They couldn't have been talking about the Cubs, but what was the talk for all that time, other than who was going to greatest in the kingdom? What a bunch of keystone cops. Seriously. 

That's why I think the foot-washing moment must have been something like this--and none of that characteristic Rembrandt forboding darkness. The room is spacious, well lit, an almost heavenly swimming pool right out back, and some beautiful giant portals for all the natural light in the world. I think Tintoretto got it right. The disciples r us.

The man in the red robe on the far left is probably there for visual effect alone, to balance the most important act depicted in the painting, which happens (obviously and somewhat uniquely) way out on the right. But who Disciple Red Robe is of the Twelve isn't clear, even though he's obviously serious more serious about what Christ has just done to him (he seems to be redoing his sandals) than Laurel and Hardy up front.

And where's the Judas, that cursed scoundrel? My guess is that he's the shadowy figure leaning up against the pillar in the background, a chap already clearly ill at ease among guys who, not that long ago, were his fishing buddies. He's dressed somewhat regally, but then he's the guy with the vision, after all, not to mention a jingling pocket full of coins.

Our sermon last Sunday was based on the John passage, and it was just fine. But I found myself wondering how this whole ritual actually went down, how specifically Judas--look at him skulking in the background--must have behaved when it was his turn to get his feet washed. What went on between him and the man he'd just sold into death?

Imagine that moment. Christ knows the whole score. He's hinted as much without revealing everything. The Lord of Heaven and Earth is perfectly mum, his hands in the water on the vein-y feet of a honest-to-goodness reprobate who will, with those thirty pieces of silver, give his name to human deceit for at least a couple of thousand years, this damned Judas. 

How'd that go in real life? Did Jesus stare him down? He really wasn't into power or machismo. I can't imagine anything was said because he'd already made clear that there was too much that couldn't. When Christ had his hands on Judas's feet, did he jerk them around a little, or was there absolutely no communication that he knew what the villain had already done? What was said between them? What wasn't? What could be? What couldn't?

Could Jesus Christ the Lord be deliberately deceptive? Could he have acted cold as stone? Maybe they just talked shop, talked finances. Maybe it was all surface chatter.  "Don't get some rain and the crops are going to suffer--look at this dust!"  You know.

Maybe once it was over there was just one subtle wink.

I honestly couldn't write that scene and Tintoretto couldn't picture it either because sometimes Jesus Christ simply escapes me, the mystery. Sometimes it's amazing how much I don't know about what we call the incarnation and never will, as long as my feet too are thick with dirt.  

I think Tintoretto had it right, but then what do I know? I certainly don't get Jesus. 

I'm just greatly thankful he gets me. 

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Book Report--Fred Manfred's Green Earth

If you're looking for a pot boiler, grab the next one off the shelf. If you're looking for apocalypse, sci fi or fantasy, you're in the wrong section of the bookstore. Inspiration?--don't make me laugh. A how to?--nope. This one is straight-up realism with never-ending jolts of earthiness that make you scream or at least look away. There are moments along the line when you speak to Frederick Manfred, the author, when you say, "Dang it, you honestly didn't have to include some of the stuff because, doggone it, I really didn't want to know." 

But if you like museums, pick up Green Earth and start into one of Frederick Manfred's thickest tomes--over 700 pages of a kid growing up amid endless farm life minutia in Siouxland (he always claimed to have given the place its name) in the 1920s. No one else tells that story. No one else could. 

Manfred wanted to tell at least two stories during his writing life. One was regional, a story he told in five "Buckskinman" novels, the much-heralded Lord Grizzily, Conquering Horse, Scarlet Plume, Riders of Judgment, and King of Spades, each of which explores an era in the history of section of nation he lovingly chose to call his home.  

The other story was his own, a story he told in novels he called "rumes," from rumination (he rather liked making up things, even words). A writer ruminates about himself and his world and tells the story using those materials. When Green Earth appeared (1973), the age of the memoir hadn't. He was himself rooting around for a way to tell his own story. Not content with calling what he does in Green Earth plain old autobiography, he wants to create a hybrid all his own borne from the freedom to take what he wants from what actually happened and refashion it into what he would happily and even blessedly call "art."

Whatever that is. 

Today, we baptize everything with that word. Good autobiography, like good memoir, is "art," right?  "The Art of Reality Television"--someone had to have written that essay already.

Green Earth, a "rume," chronicles the life of Free Alfredson, although any fool knows it's really about a kid named Feike Feikema, a tall, gangly farm boy who loved baseball and wasn't afraid of a little hard work because, back then, hard work simply came with the territory. Fred's family moved around a lot, so did Free's. Fred's family included six knock-around boys; so did Free's. Fred's mother was deeply religious; so is Free's. Fred's father, a good man, wasn't; neither was Free's, who was also a good man.  

Just about every inch of Green Earth is Fred Manfred's story. What isn't is up for grabs.

When it comes right down to it, Green Earth tells the stories of two people--Free and Ada, which is to say, Fred and his mom. For Free, the story is the passage from childhood into adulthood. Green Earth begins with Ada's tragic love affair with a man who got another woman pregnant and therefore, by community custom, married the girl with child. The novel tells the story of her romance with a kind and hard-working Frisian boy from a town up the road, their marriage, Free's birth, Free's childhood, and Free's high school years. Free's story is all of our stories--how we grew from innocence to experience. 

But the unique story at the heart of Green Earth belongs to Ada Engleking, Free's mother, a woman whose deeply religious heart colors the emotional tone of the novel the way a Siouxland dawn in June colors the never-ending sky. Her story is a love story in every way--how she learned to love her husband, how she learned to love the world around her, and, most specifically, how she learned to love her son, a son who was not like any other in the neighborhood.

In a deathbed scene that's unforgettable, Free is freed to think and imagine and even write. It's hard to believe from a Dutch Reformed point of view, but meant to be definitive by the emerging writer. "I'd rather have you in hell than a hypocrite in heaven," Ada tells her son, freeing him, just moments before she dies. 

Did that conversation actually happen? Did a deeply religious woman who becomes, in Green Earth, almost divinely sympathetic actually tell her son when he was 17 and she was dying, that he should follow his heart and his dream, even if that road brought him away from the salvation she had to have wanted for her first-born son? 

Manfred would say that isn't the question you should ask. The question is, is Green Earth art? 

Talk amongst yourselves.

I love the novel, loved it more this time, thirty-some years after I read it before, despite the fact that as a novel it's wearying. It plods through years as if pulling a plow. It's 700+ pages. A thousand loosely fitting anecdotes. Endless specificity about a way of life that's gone. It's a chronicle--a chronological biography of a tall kid with literary aspirations in a specific time--the 1920s--and place--the rolling hills around the Rock River and town named Doon, Iowa. 

But it's a museum between covers, an anthology of rural life, a how-to of farming with horses.  It's all in there, Manfred would say, everything he ever knew as a boy on a farm. It almost makes holy a way of life that's now long gone from ground people like the Alfredsons--which is to say, the Feikemas--once worked so hard.

We visited Manfred's grave last night in the Doon cemetery. It's adorned with a quote. Here it is.

If you want to know what made Fred Manfred write Green Earth, he might say himself, "It's all here." It's all in the line on his stone. Everything--even the pain and the hunger--was life, "and all moments of life are very precious." 

It's all there in Green Earth. If you're looking to turn pages, look elsewhere. But if you've got the time to wander through a rich adorned museum, then take it off the shelf and tell the librarian you want an extension even before you get out of the library. 

And if you can, read it here, in Siouxland. You'll probably love some moments; others you'll hate. I'm sure some moments will disappoint, others will disgust. Trust me.

But that's life, Fred would say. And it's all there. It's all in the book. 

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Morning Thanks--Mornings in the country

Its plain old reality teaches forbearance, I suppose, but it's just impossible not to feel a pinch of regret, maybe more. Right now, my fingers curled over the keyboard, a caramel swath of early morning light glows northward from its warmest point, mostly east of me, where, soon enough, that very glow will open in incandescence. Still, I know the morning has come later, not appreciably. I don't have to watch the clock to realize that the days are slowly shortening.

Dawn will come again, and unlike yesterday, when unseen winds threatened everything standing just outside my door, it will take over the night as lovingly as ever. There are no clouds right now, so there will be no drama other than the bridegroom himself stepping forth, as the Psalms say, from his chamber, albeit a few minutes later than yesterday. 

I know of two wide-open spaces marked by a seemingly endless row of perfectly placed rocks that still point at the exact spot the sun rose (past tense) this weekend, summer solstice. Like some mammoth sun dial, those rocks tell time as they did a couple of centuries ago right here. They make clear that yes, you're right, the days are shorter and it's time once again to remember an end to warm dawns, to consider the advent of yet another winter.

Winter dawns can be perfectly beautiful, but they're notoriously unaccommodating here in Siouxland. We make do, but right now, despite the gorgeous caramel swath outside my window, it's impossible not to note that this morning's show has begun a bit later than yesterday, all of which reminds me that light and warmth and welcome are slowly receding behind the spectacle. 

Yesterday, I'm told, storm winds wiped out machine sheds, grain bins, and a couple of airplane hangers just down the road. Farther north, a rogue cell reigned more havoc, I guess. Here, what tore into the river valley was mostly bluster. I stepped out in the middle of a 60-mile-an-hour visitation that rose and fell inside ten minutes, no real losses, just noise--terrifying noise but little more.

But it's been a gorgeous June to to be here out in the country, to watch the morning rise from its own late nights. These are all this month's pics, just a step into our backyard. This art show is mine and the birds to take in just about every day. It's been a great June run. Here's Siouxland's Sabbath Solstice in citrus. 

The show's not over either. Even if the terra firma turns a little quicker, there will always be a dawn. Soon enough, it will arrive at a moment when a harvest moon sinks away. Then a first snow will shine in its appearance. All winter long, just outside my door the gallery will be open.

Besides, think of what dawn does to us, the world that waits for the morning.

It fires ordinary bromegrass into morning glory.

All in a morning's work. 

Here it is, this morning's plain Jane dawn. Nothing to crow about maybe, but still striking, a new day on the rise.

Just thought I'd report in this morning, in the manner of that old curmudgeon Thoreau, who dared to insist that others--not him, surely!--lived lives of quiet desperation.

In "Economy," the first chapter of Walden, he claims that 
in his short life he's already had a half-dozen or more professions, including being a reporter of dawns and morning and evening storms. "For a long time I was reporter to a journal, of no very wide circulation," he says, "whose editor has never yet seen fit to print the bulk of my contributions, and, as is too common with writers, I got only my labor for my pains." 

And the man didn't have a clue about blogging.

But then this. "However, in this case my pains were their own reward."

In the face of such rewards as these, even an old curmudgeon can be sweet. 

This morning's thanks are for the morning's story just outside.

Monday, June 22, 2015

On Father's Day

Maybe his absence isn't as great a presence anytime as it is on Father's Day. Perhaps because he's no longer with us, he's more substantively here. Does that make sense? I can't speak for others, but I miss my father in the way in which we'd all miss lot lines and speed limits and paved roads--"Good fences make good neighbors." In that way. He is cut from a design I know as well as anything I can, a template, a role model that is and will be forever with me, his son. 

He was the soft opposite of tyrannical and never ever judgmental. I don't even remember moods. I'm sure it happened, but I have on file no single memory of him raising a hand against me, no hint of abuse. Everything he ever said to me was borne from love, I swear.

And yet, I wouldn't say we were ever close. I respected him for a selfless life of giving in every way he could--he gave himself to his wife, to his children, to his work, to his community. He was a model father; but he wasn't someone with whom I would have really loved to go fishing. He was a more a role model than a man of flesh and blood. 

He finished a novel for me once upon a time, a novel, really, about him. In the late 1980s, the manuscript had returned from a score of New York publishers with warm comments scribbled on rejections. I'd let it sit for years, a decade I think, until one summer, in Amsterdam, when it struck me that I was wrong about the whole story, way wrong. I was reading Phillip Yancey and Kathleen Norris on grace, when I suddenly understood that I was entirely wrong in direction in this novel of mine that had never sold; it wasn't about sadness and anger and grief, the story I was telling was all about grace.

I decided right then and there to can the last chapter. I can remember exactly where I was standing in that apartment in Amsterdam. What I had to do, I knew, was rewrite the whole novel again with a new direction, to end it with life instead of death. I didn't know how; that would be the necessary unknown to keep me vital. But the novel was about grace--that I knew.  

So that summer, I rewrote the whole manuscript, Romey's Place.

Most grandparents I know--including us--undertake trips to visit to see grandkids, not kids--and so it was for them, I think. They were visiting here, in Iowa, when I was trying to determine how and where exactly Romey's Place would end. We were in church one Sunday morning, and he was singing--we were singing--the old hymn "Blessed Assurance." What I will never forget, right then, is my own overwhelming conviction that what mattered most to him was the Lord God almighty. "Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine;/Oh what a foretaste of glory divine." 

That was my father. I don't know, today, whether I can call him "dad." But that scene became the final scene of Romey's Place: I'm standing in church next to my father and he's singing "Blessed Assurance."

When he died, my sisters were at home before I could get there. Together with Mom, they'd planned his funeral, including the hymns we'd sing. There on the list--I had nothing to do with the decision--was "'Blessed Assurance" because, Mom insisted, he never had doubts. Never. She did. But he didn't.

Writing fiction well demands self-absorption that reaches as close as one can come to vital and real experience, so much that it's impossible for me to separate what actually happened that Sunday morning from the way I wrote it in the closing pages of Romey's Place. I didn't think I could communicate that fact to my sisters and my mother, but I told them that the one hymn I'd thought we'd have to sing was that "Blessed Assurance." I couldn't have been more pleased with their choice.

Today it's etched on his tombstone too--"BLESSED ASSURANCE! JESUS IS MINE." All caps. I had nothing to do with that. There it is, in granite, at a little country cemetery close to the lakeshore, a place only the families of those interred ever visit. 
This is my story
this is my song,
praising my Savior
all the day long.
This is my story
this is my song,
praising my Savior
all the day long.
He doesn't come around regularly, but I see him every once in a while. He doesn't talk to me much, doesn't say a word really, just finds a place around my desk here. I don't hear his council, even his voice. He never did lecture me. You shouldn't think of him as simply the good angel over my shoulder. If he is, that's the comic book version.

But he was here again yesterday, on Father's Day, in that same pose of silence, a quietly smiling presence I've come to expect. His presence is what counts, and he was here again on Sunday. I know he was. He will always be. 

And, truth be told, I'm really not much of a fisherman.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Sunday Morning Meds--Refuge

This morning's solstice dawn

“. . .for in you my soul takes refuge. 
I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings 
until the disaster has passed.” Psalm 57:1

A few campaigns ago, Minnesota had yet another bizarre gubernatorial candidate, someone who claimed to be a vampire.  Among the other promises he made to the electorate was a lapalooza no other bona fide candidate did: Jonathan Sharkey claimed he would, personally, impale convicted murderers and child molesters on the steps of the statehouse. That's sure to draw a crowd.  He’s a Satanist, he says, but he doesn’t hate Jesus, only God the Father for the violence he sanctioned throughout the Old Testament, including, presumably, and pre-Creation, tossing the Devil out on his ear.

Anyway, if Mr. Sharkey wasn’t just messing with us—which is possible—then I’m going to assume that his profession of faith was honest. When he was confronted with mountainous problems, as is David in Psalm 57, Shakey goes to Satan for refuge, not God, not Jesus, not Mohammed, not druids, booze, dope, romance novels, or, well, work.  We'll have to assume that his only comfort in life and in death is that he belongs, body and soul, to Satan; and if he were writing Psalm 57, he’d be talking to the Devil.

In 1867, Matthew Arnold started a poem with the line “The sea is calm tonight,” and ended with the assertion that, in what he saw to be the demise of faith, humanity might find refuge only in human devotion, in being true to one another—“I’ve got you, babe." That is yet another form of faith.       

In our land, we say, “whatever floats your boat.”  Faith comes in a thousand brands and creates myriad ways of finding refuge—or so it seems to me. 

It’s taken me some time to deal with the opening lines of Psalm 57 and this business of “refuge.”  I’ve heard tons of Christian testimonies in my life; I’ve felt refuge myself—God is, after all, our refuge and our strength. 

But there are oodles of ports-against-the-storm, aren't there? That’s why it seems to me that refuge may not be the story here--people claim refuge in a thousand havens; the real story, I think, is David’s absolute assurance.

“I trust him so much,” my catechism says, “that I do not doubt he will provide whatever I need for body and soul, and he will turn to my good whatever adversity he sends me in this sad world.”  That’s the answer to the question which reads “What do you believe when you say:  ‘I believe in God the father, almighty, maker of heaven and earth?’”  I think King David would like that answer.

The take-away from the opening lines of Psalm 57 isn’t, simply, that good Christians take refuge in God, as David does here.  People find refuge all over the place. 

What’s remarkable is David’s absolute assurance that God will deliver him.  He’s convinced, totally convicted.  “Please have mercy on me,” he says, then repeats himself.  But then he delivers the confession:  “. . .for in you my soul takes refuge. I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings until the disaster has passed.”

Take this home with you from the battlefield: despite his own very human fear that God is not in the building, David, dangerously pursued by an enemy who has sworn to kill him, still has full confidence that that same God will deliver him.  The real story is David’s isn't his finding refuge, it's his gargantuan faith. That’s the homework of the first verse of Psalm 57, or so it seems to me.

But why does he have that kind of faith in God?—and why do I?—and why not Jonathan Sharkey? 

Such questions remain, to me and to all of us, a mystery of eternal proportions.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Bootless cries

It doesn't rival 9/11 in size, but the insane act itself is inherent with a similarly cold calculus. It was artful, diabolically and deliberately planned. Charleston AME isn't just any church, and not just any Black church. It is the most prominent, most celebrated, most storied African-American church in the land, the oldest surviving congregation of its genre and denomination. The community around it called Charleston AME "Mother Church."

The killings were not random. This kid, mad with hate, got in his car, drove what?--a hundred miles, then sat in the pews with his victims for an hour before pulling out his birthday-present and murdering nine of the people with whom he'd been praying.

His hate had to be insane. 

He looks like a child. He is someone's. Those who died might have thought the angel of death to be nothing more than a mixed-up boy looking for a Savior. The preacher, a state senator, let the flop-haired kid sit beside him.

When once again President Obama talked about this particular brand of  American horror, his face wore a weariness in all of us, even though his anguish is different and deeper than mine--different because I am white, after all and he's only half. When Barrack and Michelle Obama--and their girls--look at the faces of the dead, he sees himself and his children more clearly than I ever will. How he and Michelle talk to their daughters about what happened will be different from what my own children might say to theirs. What they say touches somewhere within a different identity. 

Charleston's "Mother Church" has a storied history that includes association with one of America's few slave revolts, an 1821 planned uprising church historians remember as the Vesey Revolt, a revolution that never happened because white folks discovered it was in the offing and therefore burned the Charleston AME to the ground. That's a chapter of Mother Church's history.

Those white folks, inflamed by hate and fear, determined it illegal for black people to worship God together--too dangerous. Made it the law of the land in the Bible Belt. It must be difficult for shiny-faced American exceptionalists to admit such things, but good white Bible-believers determined that slaves could not, under penalty of law, worship the Maker of heaven and earth together. No. 

That story belongs to Charleston AME, where a baby-faced hater named Dylann Storm Roof murdered nine members of a Bible study two nights ago. This horror wasn't without design. 

No white person ever died in the Vesey Rebellion, but on July 2, 1822, Vesey himself and five others were executed for their crimes after a city-appointed tribunal condemned them to death. That story belongs to Charleston AME.

Criticism of the outcome of that whole event didn't die in the slave-holding community. So many more slaves were arrested that July and August, 67 convicted of conspiracy, another 30 of those executed. That story--all of that story--belongs to Charleston AME.

What do we tell our kids? 

The weariness on President Obama's face, the sick sadness that was inescapably there in the slump of his shoulders yesterday--it does belong to all of us.

At least all of those who are sane. 

And who can argue with the gun people? If Rev. Pinckney had been carrying a .38 two nights ago, he could have plugged the kid before getting plugged. Yeah. He could have. It's time for all of us to strap on sidearms, so saith the gun lobby.

Wednesday's tragedy belongs to Charleston AME, but it's Barrack and Michelle Obama's too and it's ours, all of ours; it's mine, way out here in Alton, Iowa, a world away, the Floyd River running swiftly and softly just a few rows of corn away. It's our history, our story. 

In the President's frightful weariness yesterday, I couldn't help read a tired King David who, when there were no words, used to say his very bones cried out to God. What the President knows--what Charleston AME knows, what all of us who believe in an incarnate God believe--is that when there is simply nothing more to say, nothing more that can be said and nothing left to feel, when our very exhaustion cries out to God, the Spirit himself intercedes, gives us utterance, as the Bible says, "with groanings too deep for words."

There is no consolation but this for President Obama, for the Mother Church, for any of us who believes: He hears us, even in our deepest wordless silence.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Morning Thanks--onomatopoetic

She belongs to a very special class--the onomatopoetic.  Others like her, so blessed, are bobwhites, chickadees, and cuckoos (there are more), all of whom are named for their rhetoric. The deer who now-and-then stroll through out backyard have nothing to fear from her, despite her name, which derives from a song that is anything but mellifluous, more of a shriek really, never a single shot. Whenever I step out the back door--early morning or late at night--it rips through a backyard that extends a country mile into the horizon. 

And that shriek is not pleasant. From her point of view, I suppose, it gets the job done. You can't not hear it. You always know she's there. Hide it under a bushel?--no! I'm going to let it zing--and she does.

And she's there all the time lately because she's decided, with no common sense at all, to put her nest right here on the stones in the landscaping, on bare stones. There they sit, bare naked. 

Her neighbor, Ma Robin, has the good sense to bring up her young'ins in an evergreen nest created so deftly no one can see it. But there Mrs. Killdeer sits--two eggs, like the stones that surround them, bare naked against life itself. They have no defense really except their camo.

(I'm assuming she's married, even though her husband must be somewhere on the road--at least he's rarely around; it would simply be too much to have them living in sin in my own backyard.)

She has a formidable eye. Seriously, if I step out on the deck upstairs, she lets go with her infernal shrieking, as if all night she's been waiting for me to harm the kids. First, she ambles off the nest in my direction, as if to make more clear her presence, then she flies--maybe twenty feet or so--all the while hacking at the morning with that squawking warning, as if the eggs themselves should take cover.

She grumbles too, low-throated, and ambles around as if she can't decide what's up. She doesn't pull that "isn't it sad about my broken wing?" act all that often, but it's as much a part of her act as that pestilent noise she puts up. 

It's an act, a delightful ploy, assuming that if she takes over the stage I won't notice the kids--or soon-to-be kids.

Meanwhile the kids spend some significant down time in their confines--57 days, I guess, which may not be bad if you've got plush accommodations. I'm not sure when she laid them. We did notice that she and her mate did a lot of looking. I don't think they used a realtor (if they did, that fraud should lose her license), but they certainly did some meticulous and noisy research. 

The first time I realized the eggs were there was a week ago, which means there's a calendar full of noisy dawns yet to come.

But when those chillin' of hers break loose upon the world--if they make it--they'll be on their own. No helicopter parent, this lady. Once they crack the eggs they leave the nest (not a cliche); they mingle or get mangled from day one. None of this cute little baby feeding Mrs. Robin indulges her kids with. By her measure, Robin moms are sophisticates, probably over-educated, and therefore sickeningly indulgent. Blue collar Mom Killdeer takes one look at her progeny and lets them know it's a jungle out there. If they're going to make it, she'll tell them, hit the road.

And they'll be off, just like that. No molly-coddling, no nighty-nights, no sweet sooksums, no tickled chins. G'won.

Trust me, by then they'll already have learned the song that gives them their name.

Highway 60 is little more than a stone's throw away, and, this time of morning it's full of commutes. But what happens back here in our backyard--the onomatopoetics, not to mention these backyard goldfinch, and the ground squirrel, the mourning dove, that bunny that probably should die--all of that's called retirement.

Ain't bad work if and when you can get it.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Elizabeth Elliot, December 21, 1926 – June 15, 2015

It was 1959, I was 11 years old, a fifth grader, and my mother, oddly enough, was my teacher, which I found a odd because knowing her as both required a double vision I didn't understand.

She was a temp. Our regular teacher had some problems with immigration status--he was a citizen of the Netherlands--and when he was detained in Canada, we required a fill-in--my mom.

I don't remember how good she must have been. I'm told, even today, that she was a terrific teacher, which I understand but don't remember because I found it so strange to have to think about Mom as someone other than Mom.

I remember getting papers back, papers she likely corrected at home, with notes written to "Jimmy," almost as if if I was just any other kid and not the kid whose bedside radio she turned off every night after I'd fallen asleep listening to the Braves game. That she loved me was never in question, bless her heart, bless her soul. But in the classroom I was simply another kid to love, one of the many sitting in neat rows and desks with push-up tops. In the classroom there was this distance I was old enough to discern but not quite get my mind around. I don't remember feeling uncomfortable, just peculiar.

I was a kid who had more trouble drawing the lines than she did.

It was 1959, and the most powerful story drawn into the Christian life during the entire decade was the martyrdom of five missionaries at the bloody hands of Auca Indians, somewhere in the rain forests of Ecuador. My mother read the book to us during her stay in the classroom, a book titled Through Gates of Splendor.

In my fifth grade mind, good and evil could not have been so decisively drawn, and one of the martyrs was even named "Saint." Christian missionaries, directed by nothing less than the Great Commission, sacrifice themselves to reach a people never touched by the good news of the Christian gospel, a story that seemed to embolden believers around the world, even though their tears. Five good men, missionaries, murdered by the people they'd come to save.

Through Gates of Splendor may well be the very first book to touch me deeply, cover to cover. Images from its pages of photographs are still on display in my memory. 

This week, Christianity Today, in an obituary, called the woman who wrote that book, Elizabeth Elliot, "One of the most influential Christian women of the 20th century," and in my life, certainly she was.

I don't remember whether it was my mother the mom or my mother the teacher who assigned me the task of sitting down and writing Mrs. Elliot a letter about her husband's martyrdom and the book she wrote chronicling the story. But I did--her son, her student.

And I will never, ever forget the envelope that came in the mail for me, a square envelope with an exotic stamp from some other country, maybe--I don't remember--from Ecuador. It was a note from Elizabeth Elliot to me, a little kid, thanking me for my concern and prayers. Honestly, I don't remember what she said; what I'll never forget is that personal note in my hand, a note written by a woman who'd suffered what she had and written it all out so movingly in that book I knew I would never forget.

According to CT, Elizabeth Elliot quite regularly ended a radio program she created later on in her life with a sign-off that went something like this: "You are loved with an everlasting love. That’s what the Bible says. And underneath are the everlasting arms. This is your friend, Elisabeth Elliot."

When I was in fifth grade, 56 years ago, my mom told me to write the author of a story I couldn't forget even today, even if I wanted to. I did--I wrote that woman a letter. And when she replied, I thought of her, not simply as the woman who wrote the book or even the wife of a martyr, but as "my friend, Elizabeth Elliot."

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Oh, woe

For the disturbing image, I apologize. It's early in the morning to be so repulsed. That's my hand, my thumb, my affliction. Forgive me, but such ugliness is the only way to communicate the horror efficiently. I could enlarge the shot, but discretion dictates some reserve. Anything bigger would scare the women and the horses.

In the new heavens and the new earth, there will be no poison ivy. Either that, or I will be no longer afflicted by whatever weakness my system has for its venomous character. I'm not sure where what we call "the Fall" has affected things in the relationship between me and it, but I have faith I will no longer spend my early mornings fighting off the evil.

My crime, my sin, was pilfering a half dozen prairie roses--Iowa's own state flower--from the ditch just down the road. Pilfer makes me sound nefarious. I wasn't. No one cared. I am no thief, and I wasn't digging them up from someone's beloved flower bed. What stands just beyond the roses is crp land home to a few loud pheasants. Prairie roses are native, for pity sake. How can you steal what's already there? It wasn't highway robbery. 

Besides, for neatness's sake the thousands that were flowering a week ago will soon be lopped off anyway. Tree huggers should laud the way I was trying to bring back some of "what once was" to the backyard, the glory that once reigned before a century of row cropping turned the flowering prairie into a slave. My pilfering was perfectly righteous.

Those prairie roses weren't mine necessarily--they're ours, all of ours. Power to the people. I was simply redistributing the wealth, taking some of the ditch's millions and bringing them back to the poverty of my countryside back yard. 

Woe is me. I was born in Wisconsin's lakeshore woods, where poison ivy could be a cash crop if it had any non-hideous uses. I spent my childhood in woodland acres rife with it--and never took an itch home. During summers in late adolescence, I worked in a state park that was a kingdom of poison ivy. I was, as a boy, never thus afflicted.

But thrice in the last half-dozen years I've been struck, viper-like. Now, in my dotage, when I'm least capable of fighting it, I'm horribly afflicted. Last week again I told myself that this time I could beat it, spray on some way-too-expensive over-the-counter remedy, drop some benadryl. I could beat this wretch.

No go.

Yesterday, I threw in the towel and saw the Doc, who, in no more than three minutes, scribbled a prescription--five a day, then five again, then four, then four again, and etc., until the vial is gone--and pushed me out the door. Relief is on the way, but once again I was beaten by a green monster I thought I knew as well as, well, the back of my hand.

Here's what poison ivy is supposed to look like--a low-life, three-leave-r, right?


I saw nothing like that. Of course, I wasn't looking. But whoever heard of poison ivy along a road? What's with Iowa anyway? It's all your fault. You gravelly ditches are simply not supposed to have this stuff.

Here I am trying to beautify my America like this, and the creep that's poison ivy rears out of nowhere--I swear I didn't see it--grabs my hand, my leg and, of course, any other centimeter of my person I afterward touch, and turns a day or two afterward into bubbly, weepy monsters that ratchet my attention. 

Like that blind man in scripture, I honestly don't know what I did to deserve this. I'm just trying to live in the peaceable kingdom that is "the country."

Adam, you miserable wretch.

Here I am, itching myself to death, and all my pilfered prairie rose transplants out back look perfectly dead. 

Woe is me. Maybe it's time to think condo.