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.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

A new "Battle for the Bible"

I say, you can't blame Mark Galli, Editor of Christianity Today, for setting out to do what he says needs to be done. He's right, and it's a noble effort he's begun in the latest issue of the magazine (October, 2015). Christians today are all over the block when it comes divining God's will and Word in political issues especially, often quoting passage after passage in reference to and as proof of the righteous character of their own attitudes and aspirations. 

It's not hard to be blackballed, not hard to be thought of as being sinfully contrary to God's word and thereby outside the circle of his love when the boundaries are set by those of opposite political persuasion. It's easy for people from both sides of the theological/political spectrum to be considered heretics and consider their detractors the same.

What Editor Galli says is necessary among Christians is a new look at orthodoxy (lower case), a new look at theology, a new "Battle for the Bible." For the most part, what separates Christians today isn't theology--it's not Roman Catholics vs. Protestants, or free-willers vs. predstinarians. Theology has been all but jettisoned from church life, or so it seems.

That disappearance needs to end, he says.

When I was a boy, the important questions at confirmation (we called it "Profession of Faith") were drawn from the Heidelburg Catechism, the doctrinal summary most Christian Reformed elders would have considered, a half century ago, the heartbeat of our witness. 

Today, when kids (and they're often dramatically younger) make "profession of faith," knowledge of the catechism has just about totally disappeared and been replaced by "Do you love the Lord?"--a question whose best answer may seem most clearly decipherable in body language. Head knowledge is suspect. Heart knowledge is what elders want to see.

What's more, most evangelical churches today act alike, think alike, worship alike. We've become vastly more ecumenical than anyone could have guessed a couple decades ago. That convergence is a blessing. But it's also a curse; it yokes many fellowships to whatever fad waltzes playfully up the street or down the block. Today, in church and in life, what's preeminent is choice--ours. 

We simply find ways to satisfy our desire to be "scriptural" by locating chapter and verse to substantiate what we already have determined to be true.

I couldn't agree more with Editor Galli:
We understand the temptation to talk about the Bible mostly in terms of "what it means to me" and its "practical application to daily life." But when this hermaeneutic dominates [italics his]--as it does today--Christianity becomes little more than self-help therapy. And it leaves people ignorant of Scripture's deeper meaning, and therefore unable to spot false teaching.
I think the world of what he's proposing, but I'm not optimistic. We don't trust in authority of any kind today, save our own. Institutions of all kinds are tottering. Power has become, perhaps more than previously, a function of wealth. 

At the same time, the internet has democratized everything. We all have our favorite websites. If don't, we create our own. We've abandoned the gate-keepers in every form of discourse. Galli's appeal is being read by a much smaller audience than CT probably had just twenty years ago. 

Then again the Bible's own immense elasticity creates what seems to me to be a far larger tent than most of us would have pitched when Harold Lindsell edited CT and (in my context) The Banner arrived every week to an audience ready to tune in.

End times? No. Don't mistake me for Jeremiah. Besides, I hope he's successful. I hope some believers get together and work out how to read the Bible because basically I think he's right. We need to learn. Once again. It's that important.

Me too. 

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Book Report--The Killer Angels

I have memories of the Gettysburg battlefield. Somewhere, I'm sure, I've got pictures because I remember wondering how best to compose a shot of the tall trees where Lincoln stood to deliver the Address. I remember the huge diorama of the battle, thousands of tiny troops pitched off against each other on a field perfectly matched to what we'd just been riding through outside, the setting for those awful days, early July, 1863. 

The Civil War battlefields I've visited look greatly alike, most of them developed and opened in the era of towering granite monuments. Here fell the boys of Iowa's 5th, or whatever; here, Wisconsin's Third; there, a heroic column of Virginians. Most I've visited look like broad cemeteries of particularly massive stones.

History is in the landscape, of course, but if you want to know the story you've got to read more than the inscriptions on monuments. Even a walk around that huge ancient Battle of Gettysburg diorama won't bring it all home.  A visit to the battlefield, no matter how well meant or perfectly planned, will get you only so far--you simply have to read.

Michael Sharra's The Killer Angels tells the story of the Battle of Gettysburg so movingly that it will forever be the map by which I read the battle and its outcomes--and book is fiction. I love history, always have, always will; but Sharra's immensely compelling novel outfits the story in human flesh in a way that history books cannot. That's what fiction does.

For most of my life I considered Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage (1894) the best novel of the Civil War, largely because someone somewhere along the line--some teacher, I'm sure--told me it was. I hadn't read any others. Still, what Crane achieves in that novel is a testimony to the power of fiction because what he called his "psychological portrayal of fear" was undertaken and accomplished even though Crane himself was not a veteran and hadn't set foot on a Civil War battlefield. He did what fiction writers--he imagined the story, then outfitted it in human  flesh.

I wouldn't doubt that true historians would tell me my view is jaundiced somehow, but I will probably never think about Gettysburg again outside of the template fashioned by the central conflicts of this withering novel. The Killer Angels relies heavily on the journals of Confederate General James Longstreet and is, to a great extent, his story.

The conflict Sharra puts at the heart of things (there were hundreds of thousands of stories at Gettysburg, millions) is the story of two men, Longstreet and Robert E. Lee. Lee treasured Longstreet, who some historians call the greatest Field Commander on either side of the battle lines; and Longstreet worshiped Lee, as many do yet today. 

Their disagreement about tactics at Gettysburg is the dynamic that shapes action in The Killer Angels, as it did on the battlefield, a conflict between two brave and wise men, "killer angels," both determined to do the right thing. Yet, the decisions of these two great men determined how 157,000 would fight at Gettysburg, and how 51,000 of them would die.  

Longstreet thought Pickett's charge was suicidal. Lee considered that charge the only possible way the South could win. Lee was boss, Pickett charged, thousands died, and the Rebel armies withdrew. Lee was undoubtedly right: had Pickett broke through, the Union Army could have been routed. But he didn't, as Longstreet had guessed, and the Rebs--what was left of them--went home. That's the story Sharra tells.

Two men were utterly conflicted while making huge life-and-death decisions, not just about troops but the entire outcome of a war both understood hung in the balance. With that immense responsibility, both remained sworn to moral high ground. In Sharra's hands, they both are angels. Robert E. Lee wasn't pro-slavery; he led the Confederate armies, Shaara says, because the South was his homeland and its people were his people. Longstreet served Lee at Gettysburg, followed orders not because he thought "the old man" was right about the battle but because Lee was his superior and a man of unquestioned honor. The novel captures the dimensions of their profound tactical disagreement amid their commitment to righteousness.

The Killer Angels bounced around for quite some time before picking up a publisher because, well, some would claim that one doesn't really do history the way Shaara does. The Killer Angels is a novel, after all, a fiction, and not a history. But when in 1975 it finally found a publisher and a readership, it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Last month, we stumbled on a tiny federal cemetery in Hot Springs, South Dakota, perfectly alabaster grave markers sweeping artfully over a hill, all of it honorably managed and perfectly manicured, the grave markers of war veterans, many of them from the Civil War, who came to the Veterans' Hospital at Hot Springs to spend their last days. 

The United States of America has lost just about 1,250,000 of its own in wars. Think of it: roughly half of those were killed in the War Between the States. The Hot Springs graveyard holds but a fraction. For a federal cemetery it's a tiny place.

I sat there by myself early one morning last month, amid the perfect rows. It's off the beaten path, hidden away on the outskirts of town; but if you're alone in the silence, it's as impressive a monument as you'll find on any battlefield.

Michael Shaara's highly celebrated Civil War novel, The Killer Angels, tells the story of several men in leadership at Gettysburg, all of whom were, in fact, exactly what he calls them. It's a great read and a great book.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Morning Thanks--Blood Moon

That is not a picture I shot.

I failed miserably. I'm not about to tell you how much loot I have stuck into cameras--it's embarrassing and, to a Calvinist, more than slightly sinful; but last night it wasn't the hardware that blew it, it was me, the nincompoop running it.

I didn't know how to adjust things, didn't know how to move the Olympus to manual focusing, couldn't figure out how to make the blasted tripod do what tripods are supposed to do, simply lacked techniques to get my wonderful equipment to deliver in such extreme circumstances, the the dark of the night.

I'm talking about the night photography, and I'm talking about last night, and I'm talking about the moon, that blood moon above. A million pictures of it must exist on line this morning, hundreds of thousands of them as perfectly wonderful as this one. Don't look for mine among 'em. I failed.

And I'd prepared, too--packed it all up in the back of the car, chose a spot high above the Big Sioux River, pulled a quilt of perfect darkness around me so that the sky was overflowing with stars, the Milky Way a gigantic splash across the night. I was ready. 

Until it happened. Once it appeared--the blood moon--I became the village idiot. I'd love to show off my cool shots, but I can't. I failed.

Once upon a time, man didn't fiddle with cameras. Once upon a time, when the sun went down the only thing there was to watch was the heavenly big screen. Once upon a time, people physically shuttered at the sight of a blood moon. (I know it's a bad pun, but it's early.)

Suddenly, out of nowhere a ghastly shadow creeps across the face of a silvery moon, an astonishing surprise, and then, magically, the man in the moon pulls on a red satin robe as if something big is about to occur on the stage that is the world below.  

Some historians claim that Ben Franklin's most significant gift wasn't the hand he had in the Declaration of Independence, but the shock he felt when flying a kite in a thunderstorm. When he determined what climactic conditions created lightning, he was bringing a virtual end to the faith that fearful bolts of the stuff emanated from God's almighty fingers. 

But humanity doesn't give up faith easily, and those who try to mesh natural phenomena like a blood moon into their own dire eschatology still exist, 21st century or not. Some Christians--none of my friends, but some somewhere--believe that because the Jewish High Holy Days this year arrive at the end of what is for them a significant seven-year cycle and is accompanied by a rare fourth blood moon, that kind of heavyweight combo portends something horrifying in Jewish, American, and world history. Watch for it now!

Last night's blood moon was an amazing phenomenon, something memorable, a trip up the hill in the darkness well worth it. But I'm not ready to prophecy impending horror, and we aren't planning quite yet on withdrawing our gadzillions from American State Bank and sticking it all into a mattress. 

So what did I learn on the night of the blood moon? First, I learned that you're never too old to have a great time out on a country road in the dark of night. And second, this Calvinist learned once again that he's an idiot. 

This morning thanks is for lessons learned from a blessedly beautiful blood moon.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Sunday morning meds--Pigeons

When we were overwhelmed by sins, 
you forgave our transgressions.”  Psalm 65:3

Several years ago now, we rotated the interior design of the church.  Today, the windows which were once on the sides of our sanctuary are up front.  We turned it sideways.

Our church, like many others, I’d guess, is home to a flock of pigeons that, during the service, occasionally flutter in and out of the gables. No matter how moving the sermon, the pigeons are impossible not to notice, their silhouettes dancing against the stained glass, especially in bright winter sunlight.

Once upon a time, the preacher made reference to them because, like the rest of us, he’s found it hard not to shape them into a metaphor.  The doves he said, rather gingerly, seemed like the Holy Spirit.  He shrugged as if to say we needn’t get too exorcised about the accuracy of this spiritual vision, but it had seemed to him—when he watched—that the Holy Spirit couldn’t get inside the church.  I’d never thought of that.

He was preaching on that extraordinary story about the extraordinary limits to which the friends of a paralyzed man go to get their friend into Jesus’ presence, cutting a hole in the roof. 

They did so, the preacher said, because the place was jammed with Pharisees and other men of stature and power. There were, he claimed, too many righteous inside, so many that others—less influential and, well, churchly—simply couldn’t get in, like those fluttering doves outside, unable to enter the sanctuary.

Maybe.  I’ll admit I wasn’t exactly convinced.  Lots of Sundays I’m not all that thrilled to go to church, and I felt double-whammied by the analogy.  Maybe I should just stay home and keep a chair open for the Holy Spirit.  Either that or break the windows.

It’s interesting that David is editorializing here, not simply uttering a personal confession.  It’s us he’s talking about, not me.  And he sounds rather like our preacher, methinks, who makes a case worth chewing on, as he likes to say.  After all, even a quick read of the gospels makes it clear that Christ’s most robust enemies were the church insiders, those most confident of their own blessed righteousness.

That’s scary because I’m one of those. I go all the time. Years ago, my old non-church- attending friends were flabbergasted at the gadzillion hours I gave to church and its sundry affairs. I am an insider.  These very words are an insider’s craft, aren’t they?

Maybe it would be easier if I was an adulterer, a drunk, an abuser, a thief, a con, a rogue cattleman who’d been kiting payments on stock and feed and what not else.  Maybe it would be easier if my criminal record were as long as my arm. 

The sins that are most difficult, for me at least, are those I’m only partially conscious of, the ones I need to be defined for me, the ones that keep the pigeons out.

But what keeps me going back to the church that’s turned sideways is the gratitude I know, just as David did—the gratitude that grows from the conviction, not only of the certainty of my sin, but also the certainty of grace, of forgiveness

That I don’t have a Bathsheeba or Uriah in my personal history doesn’t mean I’m any less unclean, any less in need of a Savior, any less joyous for the blessed assurance of grace.  “I sing because I’m happy.  I sing because I’m free”—Ethel Waters.

Maybe I should say, “His eye is on the pigeons”; and because I know he watches them, as Ms. Waters would say, “I know he’s watching me.”

Friday, September 25, 2015

Sioux County History--the last Sioux in Sioux County

Charley Dyke, a wonderful story-teller and the county's first historian, locates this yarn just about right on the site where Orange City would eventually sprout and grow, on Holland and Nassau township lines, just a few miles west of the Floyd River. That's got to be pretty darn close to where Northwestern College stands today.

They were, he claims, dumbstruck at the beauty all around. "Would that  our friends were here to feast their eyes on this glorious land," they said to each other. "Where could we have found anything better?"

Charley Dyke knew the beauty of the uncut prairie. He himself saw Sioux County before it was sectioned off and forever outfitted corn and soybeans. Lakes and streams and sloughs abounded. A herd of elk ran off when those landseekers rolled up a hill not far south from here.

Something moving miles away grabbed their attention one afternoon as they were surveying the land, some interruption on the ocean of grassland, a human being, a man, an Indian flying along on a pony so fast he seemed oblivious to them. He had a rifle too, or so the story goes. When he got up close, he drew that pony up quickly. They were scared. Whatever weapons the Dutchmen had were back in the wagon at the Floyd River. Van Der Aa was a Civil War vet, but they went zero at the bone when they guy showed up. They hadn't expected "injuns."

But they tried friendliness, and it seemed to work. Slowly the man smiled, got off his horse, and looked around. Even though they couldn't communicate--they tried English, Dutch, and German--eventually they guessed he was just out hunting when he'd stumbled on the tall bearded men in strange wooden shoes.

He left, Dyke says, as quickly as he'd come. 

When they went back to their camp on the Floyd that night, they ate heartily, telling Injun stories; and when darkness arrived they noticed someplace close, just across the river, the eerie silhouettes of men against yet another roaring fire. Had to be the Indians.

They were terrified, he says, sure that those half-naked little men would try to make off with their mules. One of them, Van Den Bos, took the first watch that night and took his little dog with. The rest Dyke claims went to sleep with dreams of "scalping Indians in action." Old Charlie meant that as a joke. 

Soon enough, Van Den Bos came back to the camp wheezing and puffing. "They're comin', boys," he said. "Never was sleep sooner from their eyes," Dyke says.

They grabbed rifles, shotguns, and butcher knives, whatever they could to stave off the barbarians, waited patiently for the attack, but saw nothing but a team of gangly sunflowers dancing innocently in a slight evening wind. 

Nothing happened that night. Those Dutch pioneers from Pella ended up sleeping soundly, uninterrupted by screaming warriors singing death chants. And when, the next morning, they crossed the river to try to find the camp they'd spotted in the darkness, they discovered only the remains of a deer, supper the night before. Van Den Bos's lurid imagination had conjured an attack that never came because it never was.

One moment in the story Dyke tells reaches metaphor. It seems that in that brief time their surprising visitor was with them, he was greatly taken by the little machine the landseekers were using to set out the parameters of their claims to all this cheap land, land they simply assumed no one owned. What caught his eye was the surveying instrument, "with the needle always pointing north no matter how the compass turned." With that little gizmo, "he was very much interested."

As well he should have been. Still, they determined that he "seemed to feel that they meant well."

And they did mean well, I'm sure, even though what they were so enthusiastically plotting for a colony of Dutch folks didn't include him or his people.

That nameless man we might well think of as a Yankton, the very last Sioux from Sioux County. 

Yankton (Nakota) Sioux by Karl Bodmer, approximately 1833

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Book Report--To Purge This Land with Blood

U.S. Highway 75 runs from just south of Winnipeg all the way to Dallas, bisecting the continental United States at the eastern emerald edge of the Great Plains. In northwest Iowa, it runs right through little Sioux Center, just two blocks from the house where we lived for a quarter century.

So we decided to take it once upon a time, avoid interstates and follow Highway 75 south to Tulsa, where our son had found a girl he would eventually marry. Easy enough, get on the highway two blocks from our garage, and don't get off for a whole day, all two-lane.

I knew something about the story of John Brown before that trip, knew John Brown was an abolitionist whose personal history remained, 150 years later, something of a puzzle. But I knew little more.

We weren't pressed for time, so I followed the signs when the highway let us know we were approaching some kind of historical marker. We got off 75, followed some country roads, and came to an overgrown spot in eastern Kansas--one of those places marked with a sign that seemed to have been alone in the wilderness for quite some time, well off the beaten track.

What we'd happened upon was the backwater spot where John Brown and his sons and his men carried out cold-blooded murder. Five men, angry Southerners, "Border Ruffians" committed to the cause of slavery in these United States, men who were committed to violence themselves were hacked to death by abolitionists armed with machetes. History says Brown didn't do the killing, but that he was the instigator was indisputable. His commands were the ones that mattered in what became known as "the Pottawatomie murders."

I knew nothing of that story and nothing of John Brown ever having been in Kansas, nothing of "Bleeding Kansas," a series of conflicts many mark as the real beginning of the War between the States. 

I knew that Marilyn Robinson's great novel, Gilead, alluded frequently and powerfully to the cause of abolition here in Iowa. What I also knew from talking with her is that she was herself greatly taken with the abolitionists, most of whom, like John Brown, were profoundly religious.

Modernism once determined that religion was a vestige of barbarism that contemporary life was, thankfully, abandoning. What humanity had awakened to was the realization that we had no need for God. Where people worshiped some spiritual being, they did so out obligation to ritual to non-existent ancient mythologies. 

But the nature of the conflict in the heart and soul of the story of John Brown remains the heart and soul of the conflicts in this country today, a country, most say, as divided in spirit and temper and character as it has been any time since the Civil War. Religion not only continues to play a role in our lives, it often still determines behavior.  A clerk of court chooses jail to freedom because of her religious views. Candidates for office need to parade their religious affiliations as if they were awards for bravery. Today, six years into his second term as President, 54% of Republicans still consider Barack Obama is Muslim. Religion is the base from which many of us--most of us--operate and by which we identify ourselves.

A devout Christian presidential candidate says no Muslim should be President of these United States. Some condemn him. Others--many--run to his side in his support. 

How do we balance our own contrary commitments--our commitment to God with our commitment to America? How do we give unto Caesar that which his and etc.? How have we determined such questions in the past? Was John Brown hideously insane or, as he himself determined, someone identifiably chosen by God to destroy the sinful, hideous American institution of slavery? As I said just a few days ago, the man was strengthened by scripture: "in all thy ways acknowledge him and he shall direct they paths" is a verse he quoted often and even used as a testimony.

I'm no historian, but I'm betting that To Purge This Land With Blood: A Biography of John Brown, by Stephen B. Oates, published way back in 1970, remains the gold standard on the life of the most famous American abolitionists. I found Oates's study utterly captivating and relentless in its determination not to leave the records unturned. Aligning sources and marching them out in an orderly fashion is an epic job all by itself in any retelling of the John Brown story, but Oates was working with one of this nation's most incredible narratives when he chose to follow the life of a man whose body, a'moulderin' in the grave, begat the music sung around a thousand Union Army campfires. 

The life and times of John Brown is a story I'm glad to know better--righteous anger creating bloody violence. Brown was a radical, a terrorist, a murderer, and a madman who did it all in the name of Jesus because what he was fighting for--an end to slavery--was right there on the paths of righteousness for His name sake. His death, which he deliberately shaped into national martyrdom, probably did more to begin the bloody surgery required to end slavery in these United States. His death mobilized both sides, making Civil War more even inevitable than it already was.

There are no easy answers to the life of John Brown. Nothing is black and white, and that's what make the story so richly human. If you'd like to know more about John Brown, start with Stephen Oates' nearly fifty-year old abundantly researched biography. It's a story from heart of who we are.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Morning Thanks--"The Call Away" by Robert Bly

I don't always "get" Robert Bly. I wish I did. I wish I understood his poetry better than I do because I often feel myself in it, even though its meaning, its intent, its purposes often remain mysterious.

Case in point?--this morning's Writer's Almanac entry, "The Call Away," whose first stanza is a series of unmistakably local images. I know Bly's world because it's the world right here beside me.

A cold wind flows over the cornfields;
Fleets of blackbirds ride that ocean.
I want to be out of here, go out,
Outdoors, anywhere in wind.

I'm not as fond of wind as he is, but if you live where he lives--and where I do--you had better learn to get along because the wind is a neighbor, never afar off. His seeming affection marks him as a native, but then his backyard is only a little north of here, it's rural, and it's virtually indistinguishable to what is, just now, beginning to appear outside my window.

My back against a shed wall, I settle
Down where no one can find me.
I stare out at the box-elder leaves
Moving frond-like in that mysterious water.

Well, okay, it's not Iowa but Minnesota, and those leaves are riding one of those lakes "up north." The "I" in the poem, unmistakably Bly himself, professes to adore the isolation of country living and the opportunity to observe the drama nature stages daily, hourly--"box-elder leaves," "frond-like," "mysterious water." Bly and Thoreau, right? So far, I get him. Been there, thankfully, done that thankfully too.

What is it that I want? Not money,
Not a large desk, not a house with ten rooms.
This is what I want to do: to sit here,
To take no part, to be called away by wind.

That the poem caught Garrison Keillor's eye comes as no surprise. After all, there's our mutual neighbor again, the wind, singing, siren-like, to him in this reverie. I can't say I know Bly, but I've met him, heard him read his poetry accompanied by that lute he plays, listened to him talk about things, about life. So far, this Bly poem is a Minnesota Walden cabin, with this exception. Walden Pond was to Thoreau, a test, a trial to see if discover how to live by living simply. After a couple of years, he left.

This is different. Bly isn't leaving. There's nothing temporary about "What is it that I want?" That's a serious question.

I want to go the new way, build a shack
With one door, sit against the door frame.
After twenty years, you will see on my face
The same expression you see in the grass.

It's difficult not to feel some sort of death wish here in the final stanza--although that sounds a good deal worse than it is. Anyway,the "shack with one door" feels grave-like to me, and it's deadly serious, unless death isn't--and, notably, this stanza doesn't suggest it is all that lamentable for Robert Bly. "The new way" feels, in this poem, like a gradual withering away, similar to the way our garden and our flowers are all in decline right now. Their eventual deaths aren't at all shocking because it comes so unrelentingly slow.

I may be way off here. Like I said, I don't always "get" Bly--but it seems to me that old man Bly (born in 1926--he's 89 years old) is talking about his own end times and establishing his druthers--small cabins with one door, quiet days in prairie winds, all around him the drama of life in nature to grandly observe, and himself slowly returning to the dust from which he came and was formed, a look on his face not at all unlike "you see in the grass."

I'd call that way of death "the old way," I guess. I don't understand "the new way."

But I know the world he sees around him--what he loves and what he hopes will be. 

And I'm thankful for the poem, for the way it's begun my day, a meditation from the very ground beneath my feet, the expressive grasses in our backyard.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The gospel according to Dr. Carson

Seriously, when I was a kid I was almost envious of girls, because it just seemed they had it made. They never got in trouble. Boys were always doing outrageous things, but girls?--perfectly behaved. That's why teachers loved 'em. Always did their homework. Smiled all the time. Perfect.

In college, girls' names ran up and down the Dean's list even though guys got shipped off to Vietnam when their grades flat lined. Sometimes I used to think the women really ought to play along, flunk a few tests or papers just for our sake. 

But then, I had a daughter who went to junior high, and I learned that original sin was an equal opportunity employer. Once upon a time, my daughter was arbitrarily thumbed from the clique she ran with when some prissy 12-year-old ruled my daughter's earrings or back pack or shoe style didn't make the cut. Slash!--out of the group.

At home, mega-tears. Mega, mega tears. 

Were I jury, I would have voted to hang the witch. For a weekend, hate saturated my every waking moment. I mowed the lawn, seething at the kid who dumped her--and her parents. There was, of course, nothing I could do about it, which locked me even deeper in the prison of my own righteous indignation.

For years afterward every time I mowed around the big maple in the backyard I remembered how much I hated that girl and her parents when once upon a time I'd been right there seething. If we hadn't moved from that house, I'm sure hate would reappear at that backyard maple, my own PTSD.

Donald Trump says what everybody feels, or so people say. That's his appeal. Donald Trump gives voice to what's really inside us--he's not p.c. That's it, right? People just love it when he says what he does. It feels so good to bash people when you really can't do it. 

I get that. When my daughter was bawling and I couldn't do a damned thing about it, I hit a temp that was unforgettable. 

But, as every Calvinist understand, that I feel something doesn't make it right. 

I get Ben Carson too. I understand how watching someone get sworn into office with a hand on the Koran seems dead wrong. I remember 9/11. I still see Mohamed Atta's fat face--may he never, ever rest in peace.

I understand why Dr. Carson doesn't think a Muslim should be President. I get that because I still seethe when I see those passenger jets killing thousands of Americans, when I watch ISIS behead enemies, destroy antiquities, torture Christians. I get that.

But he's wrong. 

Just about a year ago, I spent the Muslim holiday of Tabaski with a few thousand Muslims in Mali. In equatorial Africa, where people live most of their lives outside, the entire town was a party. In celebration of the lamb Isaac found in the bushes, the lamb that became the sacrifice for his son Jacob's life, just about everyone in town barbeques lamb and creates a public party the likes of which make tailgating look like little more than a candlelit dinner. 

And I was an honored guest, treated as such--me, a white guy, an American Christian.

What Dr. Carson doesn't want is some Mohamed Atta in office, and neither do I. But to say that no Muslim can be President is flat wrong. It's prejudice, impure and simple. It's hateful, and his loyal supporters--good Christians here in Iowa as elsewhere--need to tell him so. He can walk it back. He can admit that he had it wrong. 

He does.

I get the Trump blessing--he says what we all feel. Okay. Maybe. I get Dr. Carson's anger and fear, too. I got it in me.

But just because we feel it doesn't make it right.

He's not. He's wrong. He's wrong. He's wrong.

Monday, September 21, 2015


Two good old friends, both, like me, retired, both card-toting Republicans, recently posted things on Facebook I couldn't help link.

One of them praised a Washington Post op-ed which suggested that unless Republicans dumped Trump, they'd crash and burn in 2016. Wasn't written by some leftie but someone who cared about the Republican party, as well as the future of the nation.

This friend of mine got flamed. Incinerated. 

The other old friend claimed he was departing political chats on FB because getting barbecued was a pleasure he'd gladly forgo.
Political partisanship on FB -- whether yellow dog Democrat or red dog Republican -- is, again, ruining participation in this forum for me. Truly, I walk away from my computer more sour and cynical than when I sat down. So, for peace in my house and in my bed, I am going to start defriending or at least cease following my crazed friends and family who think that their noisy opinions are going to change anyone's mind.
Today, that's the way it goes. Title a website "Civil Discourse," ask for dialogue, and soon enough the tumbleweed will be rolling right down Main. Today, we're all Trumps--or nothing at all.

Last week a man from White Plains, NY, stood up at a New Hampshire Trump rally. He said we've Muslim training camps all over, and the FBI even knows about them. 

All over where? All over this country? I've been to backwater Nebraska and Kansas this year. I live in backwater Iowa. One of the last books I wrote was about the high desert plains of western New Mexico. I suppose I drove right past those camps and didn't notice. One of them must be in White Plains, a place I've never visited. Maybe I should. I've got ex-students in the FBI. Maybe I ought to ask them.

Where do real people get this nonsense anyway? And why on earth do they choose to believe it? 

ISIS training camps on American soil don't scare me. What does is this:
When the World Values Survey asked Americans how important it was for them to live in a democracy, citizens born before World War II were the most adamant. On a scale of one to ten, 72 percent assigned living in a democracy a ten, the highest possible value. Among many of their children and grandchildren, however, democracy no longer commands the same devotion. A little over half of Americans born in the postwar boom gave maximum importance to living in a democracy. Among those born since the 1980s, less than 30 percent did.
We're souring on democracy. That scares me. We can't be civil. We're not interested in doing the kinds of things that have to be done by citizens of a republic. We simply don't believe in each other. Respect has left the building.

Throughout the world people are wondering about democracy say a couple of young researchers from Harvard, one of them a principal investigator for World Survey.

More and more of us believe a military junta would improve government efficiency. We don't believe in our own institutions--from the Supreme Court to the President to Congress. More and more of us believe nothing's working.

Muslim training camps don't scare me. What scares me is that here and elsewhere democracy could well be in trouble. We're bulldogs on unwarranted fear. We're losing the ability to talk to each other. Only the bullies survive. 

That's scary. 

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Sunday Morning Meds--Who hears prayer

O you who hear prayer, to you all men will come.”
Psalm 65:2

The man played a significant role in my life from the moment I bought a book of his, a novel that subsequently altered the courses of my life. To him, actually, I need to attribute most every blip that runs across the screen in front of me. I was interested in writing before I read his novel, but when I came to the last page, I was sure I wanted, someday, to write stories. 

Was he a Christian?  I don’t know. He was liberally educated in the Christian tradition.  His formal education was undertaken in schools that defined themselves as Christian.  His mother was devout, ever close to the Lord.  His father was the son of an atheist, but, warmed by the joy of his wife’s faith, became something of a believer himself.

He came to adulthood in the difficult years of the American Depression, the intellectual world into which he walked once he’d graduated from college were union struggles on the East coast, where he fell into company with the folks who became what we used to call “leftists,” the kind Sen. McCarthy, a couple decades later, would seek to out and purge from all government positions. In the company he kept during the American Depression, it would have been impossible for him not to run with those who were, quite simply, communist. Many, many thinking people were, and he was “thinking people,” as proud as he was of that description as he was anxious to earn it.  He loved ideas.

I’m quite sure that his beliefs about man and God were shaped by a world in which the Christian religion of his youth was considered the odd residue of primitive notions that soon would simply disappear. He was, without question, what we could call today, a modernist. 

And a free thinker.  He used to tell me that the two most important writers of early England were Geoffrey Chaucer and John Gower. He loved Chaucer, because Chaucer chased the story wherever it went, interested only in truth. Gower, he said, wanted only to preach. Chaucer loved every last pilgrim, including the Wife of Bath, loved the feel of dirt in his fingers, an earthiness my friend knew growing up on the edge of the Great Plains. He always said he was bound by his calling to tell the truth.

Once was upbraided at a family dinner when an aunt chided him for sexual explicitness.  In the barn with the men later, one of those who’d been silent at dinner told him how much he loved the passage on page whatever—“when that guy and that girl. . .” 

Was my friend a believer? I don’t know. He became, in many ways, a kind of father figure, and I remember once, before he died, when he said I was more talented than he was at my age.  I’ll never forget that.

Was he a believer? I don’t know. When he was dying, his children made it clear that they wouldn’t allow any local do-good missionaries into his room; their father’s IQ was 150. He was beyond evangelization. 

But the morning he died—and I have this from an unimpeachable witness—the nurse who was attending him noted his agitation. “Can I pray with you?” she asked him. He said yes, and they did.

I’m not a universalist, and neither was David. What he promises here in verse two of Psalm 65 is really praise to the Lord.  I know that. 

But I also know that my friend, on his deathbed, came, on his knees, before the throne.  And that fact—that story—brings me great joy. 

Friday, September 18, 2015

Blow Ye the Trumpet, Blow

It was, John Brown reportedly told people, his all-time favorite hymn, and it's not hard to determine why. "Blow ye the Trumpet, Blow" is an old "Negro spiritual" that effortlessly mixes the promises of freedom, both from sin and from the institution of slavery. It's poetry is created in its wise dissembling--the slaves who sang that hymn were free from accusations of rebellion because they could innocently claim the hymn was about personal salvation in Jesus.  And it is. But that's not all.

Have a look.

John Brown considered the institution of slavery to be the single abomination that kept America from becoming the Christian nation he desperately wanted it to be. His commitment to freeing the slaves was total and included spilling blood for righteousness sake, which he did and which he died for. He martyred himself to fight "Slave Power," the big moneyed interests of those who at all costs wanted to keep slaves in their fields and kitchens. 

The promises of this old Charles Wesley hymn strengthened his heart and resolve. 

He thought of himself as the Moses of African-Americans all over the South. Many abolitionists were racists; they wanted an end to slavery but didn't believe African-Americans could possibly have equal status with white Europeans. Brown did. He saw himself as "the only one," appointed by the Creator of Heaven and Earth to carry out His righteousness. He told one of his benefactors in the spring of 1858, not long before his bloody raid at Harper's Ferry, that he believed exactly what God promised in his Holy Word: "'In all thy ways acknowledge Him & He shall direct thy paths."

I will forever associate that verse from Proverbs with the little Christian school I grew up in. I think I can still see it on some poster in a classroom. I'd never thought of those words as license to kill. For John Brown, they were just that--and a profession of faith.

The Christian faith, like all world religions, offers immeasurable elasticity that is at certain times and in specific places simply shocking. I'll probably not read Proverbs 3:6 the same way ever again.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Morning Thanks--In the realm of King Midas

There is really nothing like dawn's early light, and photography, I've learned, is really all about light--where it hits, what it hits, and how it hits. 

The temps were fall-like last weekend, low forties, cold enough to make the river pull on a coat of mist in an otherwise clear morning sky.  A strong morning sun on sweet mist creates a dreaminess that sent me just down the road, a reporter, Thoreau might have said, covering early morning news.

Mist isn't so easy to shoot. Most cameras can't believe you're aiming at it because they don't know what to do with so indistinct an image. Besides, mist's own mystery is more amazing in great expanse. On a prairie where there's little in front of you but endless sky, mist is hard to get into a camera. So I tried images emerging in a kind of perspective, one after another, like this.

This is what I saw that morning, what drew me out off my chair. It's really not much of an image, but there's something bewitching about the mist, "mistical" maybe.

The sun's reflection off this barn was intense and burning, made a barn door almost remarkable by the bright bronze buff created by all that river water mist. 

A morning sun is the real King Midas. Dawn dresses this ordinary barn door in finery it won't wear again anytime soon, a reverie of lines that become almost magically the rays of the sun they reflect.

The bronze is in the bounce, the sun's reflection. From straight on, like this, the barn door is white and wood and old. Still, the stretched shadow of the handle is some kind of story.

The bronze barn door created a background for a random bunch of cottonwood leaves. My toes were already wet when I spotted that tear on the end of leaf in the right top corner, the mist having left part of itself on everything. My shoes were soaked. 

Maybe the best image of the morning is the penitential tear at the bottom of this leaf against an odd diagonal background. Just cottonwood leaves is all, in the brilliant sun. Lots of folks think cottonwoods are simply really hearty weeds. They may be, but not with the Midas touch.

The sun was higher in the sky by this time, warming things up, all that golden light transformed into bright daylight. But when I turned around and headed back up the gravel, there was still enough glorious color in the untended grasses to create a portrait of an old workhorse who is forever out to pasture along the river.

If there's any beauty here, it's all light and composition: the sense of fall, even with the carpet of green grass; the line fence creating perspective; the tractor's path telling its own story; that small tree upper center like a crown atop the whole thing; the river mist behind. There's nothing fancy about the ingredients, but when assembled like this in some of King Midas's light, it's capable of catching your attention. Still, light is at the heart of things. It colors everything.

I never got more than a mile from home, but on the way back I spotted a great blue heron, who spotted me almost simultaneously so by the time I got out the camera all I got was its rear end. 

I think I'll stick with landscapes. They fly too, just not as fast.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Who's going to teach religion?

I'm embarrassed to admit it, embarrassed because I can't imagine not learning much earlier what it took graduate school to teach me. I don't want to blame my teachers. I don't think of them as nincompoops. If I didn't learn what I should, I probably wasn't listening. 

But I'll never forget working on some graduate school research paper--probably something about John Milton--and stumbling on history so elementary I was embarrassed I didn't know. I was, after all, thought to be quite exotic in some grad school seminars because I'd been the recipient of an actual Calvinist education, a Christian education from 1st grade to college, with a four-year sojourn outside, at a public high school filled to the brim with kids from the Dutch Calvinist tradition. With such a strange background, I was like a resource in early American literature. I should have known.

What I learned was this simple:  the Reformation was not just a religious movement, it was also political. 

I was sitting in the Arizona State University library when I figured that out. Had anyone noticed, I would have been blushing.

When Luther stood his ground at the Diet of Worms (how could anyone forget "the Diet of Worms"?), that moment was, for him and all of us Christians, a grand testimony for the ages: "Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise." Awesome. We didn't believe in saints in the Reformed tradition. Except Calvin. And maybe Luther.

That's how the story went, and to my knowledge that's where it stopped. The Reformation was all about the faith of our fathers (maybe a little sexist too).

What I learned was that some of those men behind Luther in that drawing above were German land barons who couldn't give a crap about the efficacy of grace or works or some strange priest's picayune reading of the gospels. What they knew was what that this guy Luther was threatening the power of the Holy Roman Catholic Church, which meant at the time, of the entire kingdom. That's action they wanted a part of. "Grace alone?"  Sure, why not. They were interested in power, specifically their own.

In an recent op-ed in the Washington Post, Linda Wertheimer remembers a moment in a small-town school in Ohio when some woman with a flannel board came in to her classroom and talked about Jesus, then led the students in singing "Jesus Loves Me." Wertheimer was and is Jewish. When she told her parents what happened, they complained, she says.

But what she argues in that Washington Post article is evident in the lengthy title: "Public Schools Shouldn't Preach. But They Should Teach Kids About Religion."

I spent several years of my life teaching in public high schools in Wisconsin and Arizona, and I know, by my own experience, that talking about religion can be really testy. You start trying to be, well, "objective" about things even adults can't be objective about, and you're trying to stand up on a really slippery slope. 

But Wertheimer is right. It's work that has to be done. Imagine trying to talk about American politics right now and not talking about faith. Imagine talking about world affairs or almost any news story on the face of the globe without referring to religion--it can't be done.

But how do we teach religion? Good question, and by my experience it's a question no easier to answer in a public than a Christian school.

Wertheimer wonders whether her own seven-year-old son shouldn't be learning about Islam, about Buddhism, about Christianity, even if what he learns is really only rudimentary stuff, like varying definitions given by Jews and Christians to the word Sabbath. "No, we can’t expect kids to grasp all the nuances of the major world religions and the controversies surrounding them," she says, "but if we’re preparing kids to be thoughtful citizens of the world, they should know something about people in their community who may be different from themselves."

Wertheimer's little boy attends a private and religious school. No matter, she says.

My son has been attending religious school since kindergarten. He knows the major figures in Judaism as well as the holidays. But ask him what Easter is about — other than bunnies and colorful eggs — and he really has no idea. I’m happy that he knows his own religious heritage, but I also want him to know more about his peers’ different traditions.
Don't kid yourself. It's not an easy job. But I think she's right. Somebody's got to do it. 

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Morning Thanks--tomatoes

Garrison Keillor says that life in the out here in the Upper Midwest, including the our sub-zero cold sieges, is somehow made tolerable by the golden blessing of sweet corn every July. He's got a point, although this year--and I'm not sure why--we didn't overindulge as we normally do. Maybe we're just getting old.

I'm being wholesale with the editorial we.  My wife, who was born and reared out here on all this rich soil, doesn't lust after Corn Country Gold like I do. When I was kid in Wisconsin--when the sweet corn wasn't nearly as sweet as it is today (candy corn is vastly more candy than corn)--the only item on the menu for at least a half-dozen suppers was the corn-on-the-cob. That's it--nothing else. No matter, everyone was thrilled. These days I need a sandwich too, but not much of one, maybe a dinner roll with hard salami; I can still eat far more sweet corn than I should.

But the other icon of pure garden holiness, come late summer, is tomatoes. I never was an real tomato aficionado, but there's nothing "dog days" about late summer if we're having bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwiches. An ex-students from the Caribbean used to maintain that I'd never tasted a real banana because I'd never taken one right off the tree.  I believe her. People who don't grow tomatoes have never tasted a real tomato either. Believe me, we've arrived at the glory days of fat red excess right now, and I'm sinning boldly.

I've got a friend who's a fiend. Once tomatoes come ripe, he eats them for every meal in embarrassing quantities, day after day after day until his exit door gets so wretched he simply can't go on without excruciating pain. Once it heals, he says, he starts in again. That's extreme.

But I've grown to love them with just about everything on the table, and it's their time right now. My son-in-law put up a little garden in his bright and sunny backyard, stuck in some good plants that turned into a jungle of bountiful delight, a treasure island back there beside the kids' swingset. We've been eating tomatoes--big and small--ever since and can't get enough of them.

This morning at five I got up and took this plate of 'em out of the oven.  My wife, ever-so meticulously, slices the cherry tomatoes (they ought to call them "tomato cherries" they're so sweet) in half, baptizes them in some tasty herbal ointment, and sticks 'em in the oven for six hours. You read that right--six hours.  I just now took 'em out.

They're fabulous. I honestly can't say more. Anybody who thinks Midwestern food is bland hasn't popped one of these or picked a couple off a thick mound of sweet mozzarella aboard a homemade pizza.

I can't fault Keillor--sweet corn in a marvelous blessing.  But with the sharp smell of these little guys still in the air, this morning's thanks is a piece of cake--tomatoes.  They're a real gift. 

Garrison Keillor likes to say that a siege of sub-zero cold, come winter, is made somehow tolerable in the Upper Midwest as long as you can remember the glories of sweet corn.  There is no greater blessing bestowed upon prairie dwellers than summer's sweet corn. 

He's got a point, although this year--and I'm not sure why--we didn't overindulge as we normally do. Maybe we're just getting old.

I'm being wholesale with the editorial we.  My wife, who was born and reared out here on all this rich soil, doesn't lust after Corn Country Gold like I do. When I was kid in Wisconsin--when the sweet corn wasn't nearly as sweet as it is today (candy corn is vastly more candy than corn)--all we had for a meal was corn-on-the-cob, and everyone was thrilled.  These days I need a sandwich too, but not much of one, maybe a dinner roll with hard salami; but I can eat far more sweet corn than I should.

But the other item of pure holiness, come August, is tomatoes. I never was a real aficionado, but there's nothing "dog days" about late summer if we're having bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwiches. One of my ex-students, from the Caribbean, claims that I've never tasted a real banana.  I believe her.  People who don't grow tomatoes have never tasted a real tomato either.  These are the glory days of fat red sinful excess.

I've got a friend who's a fiend.  He says once tomatoes come ripe, he eats them for every meal in embarrassing quantities, day after day after day until his exit door gets so sore he simply can't go on without excruciating pain.  Once it heals, he says, he goes right back at it. That's extreme.

But I've grown to love them with just about everything on the table, and it's their time right now.  My son-in-law put up a little garden in his bright and sunny backyard, stuck in some good plants that turned bountifully into a jungle of delight, a veritable treasure island back there beside the kids' swingset.  We've been eating tomatoes--big and small--ever since and can't get enough of them.

This morning at five I got up and took a plate of cherry tomatoes out of the oven.  My wife, ever-so meticulously, sliced them in half, baptizes them in some tasty herbal juices, and sticks 'em in the oven for six hours. You read that right--six hours.  I just now took 'em out.

They're fabulous. I honestly can't say more. Anybody who thinks Midwestern food is bland hasn't popped one of these or picked a couple off a thick mound of sweet mozzarella aboard a homemade pizza.

I can't fault Garrison Keillor--sweet corn is a marvelous blessing.  But with the sharp smell of these little guys still in the air, this morning's thanks is a piece of cake--tomatoes.  They're a real gift. 

This post appeared originally three years ago. Had to leave early this morning. BTW, we now grow our own--waaaaay too many too.

Monday, September 14, 2015


The title and not the author first caught my eye--Prairie, by someone named Muilenburg, not an unfamiliar name here. I found a copy (they're rare), bought it, read it, and was greatly moved, not by the power of the novel but by what it says about him. And about us.  

The novel's roots are here. Walter J. Muilenburg was born on a farm just outside of Orange City, and his Prairie is definitely local, its characters pioneers not unlike Walter J's own parents, who homesteaded a couple miles north after moving from the Pella area in 1872. 

Now get this. In the early decades of the 20th century, a pioneer, immigrant family, rural folks, have three sons: one of them becomes a novelist, and the other two earn Ph.D.s., both of them in theology. 

But the novel suggests Walter J likely had little confidence in "the faith of our fathers," or at least the faith of his brothers. A couple of minutes of googling turns up all kinds of information about the novelist's brother James, a distinguished prof at Union Theological Seminary, New York City, a colleague, in fact, of Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich, both of whom had prominent national reputations. 

When some of the trails leading toward Walter J disappeared in a fog, I wondered if I'd get to know his brother better I might just learn more about Walter J.  James left a legacy wide enough to shelve. James has to rank among Northwestern Academy's most distinguished early graduates. 

A Northwestern archivist alerted me to the fact that James Muilenburg was the subject of a profile penned by Frederick Buechner, one of America's finest religious writers. "But for me, as for most of us studying there in those days," Buechner writes in his memoir Now and Then, "there was no one on the [Union] faculty who left so powerful and lasting an impression as James Muilenburg."

Maybe if I get to know brother James a little, I thought, something in him may throw some light on his novelist brother--and what his novelist brother believed or didn't.

"He was a fool, I suppose in the sense that he was an intimate of the dark," Buechner says of brother James, "yet held fast to the light as if it were something you could hold fast to." Buechner goes on to open that metaphor as wide as he can. "[He was a fool] . . .in the sense that he wore his heart on his sleeve even though it was in some ways a broken heart; in the sense that he was as absurdly himself before the packed lecture hall as he was along in his office; a fool in the sense that he was a child in his terrible candor. A fool in other words, for Christ."

Buechner quotes him thusly:
"Every morning when you wake up," he used to say, "before you reaffirm your faith in the majesty of a loving God, before you say I believe for another day, read the Daily News with its record of the latest crimes and tragedies of mankind and then see if you can honestly say it again."
A fool, Buechner says, a man who likely wouldn't be.

On the paperback cover of Buechner's Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation, the editors inscribed a line from the goods inside, a line they found fitting: "Listen to your life, see it for the fathomless mystery that it is." 

That's Buechner, but if you look again at the way he describes the prof who left "so powerful and lasting an impression," perception at the bottom of that judgment and in his teacher's theological direction is one and the same--life itself is a mystery.

And it is, isn't it? Almost 125 years ago now, three boys (on land not so far from where I'm sitting) are starting to think about picking corn, hoping the weather holds because picking it's no fun when the snow flies. Probably to them, picking corn by hand is no fun any time, really.

Not one of them will stay on the home place; each one will leave for higher education. All three will achieve some significant prominence, two of them theologians, preachers, one I think quite certainly not.

None of them came back to live here, but only one is buried here: Walter J, the one who perhaps went farthest away.

Fathomless mysteries.