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, November 30, 2015

Just a few kind words--from the museum

[From the museum--11/30/07. Occasional old posts from yesteryear. Life has changed, truth endures.]

Weathermen and women are predicting our first big snow this weekend [2015--predicting it today, in fact], but I've been in a blizzard for months already. With three writing classes and more than sixty writing students, I spend most of my life these days reading papers. [Nothing could be further from the truth.]

But we're comin' around the last turn, and the finish line is in sight. It's been one long haul this semester; not in thirty-plus years at this institution have I had three writing classes. I'm bushed, and, if the truth be known, I've got to push myself into the basement every night to keep on trucking through that blasted blizzard.

And then last night, a note from a reader--a man whose judgment I value deeply because he gave his entire working life, a preacher, to inner-city missions. He and his wife, both of them now retired, had been reading through a manuscript of my meditations, "normally one every noontime after our usual dinner meal," he wrote, "a relaxed, thoughtful, meditative, serious-often-with-a-humorous-topping helping of dessert," he called them. And then he asked for more. I'm not kidding.

Thereafter, I spent two hours reading student papers. Not once did I cry in my beer or in any other way bewail my hapless fate.

Just a few kind words. 

Sometimes--and more often, as I get older--I'm just flummoxed at how incredibly gospel-like just a few nice words can be to a parched soul. That short note sent me through the storm. I'm serious. Just a few kind words.

Here's another. After a class that, sadly enough, went true-to-form a few days ago, I felt like a dishrag. When my students didn't show much enthusiasm for Henry David Thoreau, I talked. I lectured. I yakked on and on and on. I do that to cover the hole in my heart. When my students show little joy, I just yap. Call it a defense mechanism or avoidance/avoidance--call it what you will, it's what I do. I won't take a hit from their boredom, so I just fire words at them. It's dumb, I know--but sometimes it's a matter of life and death.

By today's ace pedagogical theory, nothing is as verboten as a prof yakking away in a classroom. Students today are almost impossibly experiential--if they can't do it themselves, they don't learn squat. Only neanderthals lecture. Only old farts.

So when it's over, this old fart walks out of class, depressed, confident he could just as well walk directly into a grave. And then I get even more defensive: "Ah, what do you expect?" I tell myself. "Yer tossing pearls before swine."

I've been at this gig for a long time. I know how to keep my pride intact.

Later that night, I make my sad way downstairs to correct papers, and I find a note in my e-mail, a note from "the team" at Facebook because Emily, the team says, has left a note on my wall. Facebook. Okay, I'm on Facebook. [New in 2007--at least for me.] So I go there, check my wall, and sure enough, Emily sends some definition we didn't get in class and then says something to this effect--I'm not kidding--"loved class today."

At that moment, I swear I could have won the Iowa Caucuses, both parties. Just like that I'm telling myself that I've got a 14-horse John Deere snow blower that's going to clean up this blizzard as if the snow of papers were little more than an inch of billowy-ness.

Just a few kind words. That's all it took. Just a few sweet words. I've made it through two blizzards on just a few kind words. Some people never get 'em. That's a crime. Honestly, I'd freeze to death out here in the snow.

Good night, are we fragile, Lord. Good night, are we needy. I'll send Emily and the retired preacher and his wife this url. I'm not alone in the basement. We all need a few kind words.

Then I've got papers to read.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Sunday Morning Meds--Clothed with Gladness

The grasslands of the desert overflow; 
the hills are clothed with gladness.
Psalm 65:12

[This was written in the season of “farch.”]

It’s hard to estimate just how long it’s been since the world outside my door offered much to see. Snow can be gorgeous, but we’ve had less than enough to create the alabaster robes that make the Plains look regal. Ever since the first killing frost, the country has been almost entirely tint-less.

Okay, the color is not gone, really, but, it gives meaning to the word lackluster. It’s a good deal less than inspiring. Shoot, inspiring is a stretch. From December through late March, the world I live in is dull, plain, uninteresting, dreary, colorless—all of those. And, this winter, the dawn’s early light—always a blessing—has been rare. On Saturdays, more often than not, it’s been cloudy.

Photography is all about light. Manure becomes a blessing in the golden joy of sunrise; but spot a perfect composition in heavy clouds and no matter how you fine tune a digital SLR, what you’ve got is almost unfailingly uninteresting. Fogs cast a spell, but a prairie winter has few mists worth noting.

We’re thick into the season of “farch,” as some people call it, a coinage of February/March, when the snow that remains is flat out dingy. Last week’s sudden blizzard left long and heavy drifts asleep in the ditches, but, they look, a week later, like dead sheep, as Jim Heynen once wrote, gray lifeless masses that will stay around far too long.

If I made my living as a photographer who didn’t roam, I’d be starving. My winter shots hardly merit the space they take up on my hard drive. I could delete the whole bunch and not miss a thing.

Saturday a storm was forecast, so I assumed there would be no dawn. But when I stepped outside early, the clouds were broken enough out east to allow a wearied sun at least a bit of stage time, so I took off and found some old cottonwoods out east of town, some fallen. I thought I had some fine shots until I got them up on the screen. Nothing to write home about. Maybe it’s my fault. There’s a learning curve with my high-tech gear, and I’m too old for new tricks and too blasted male to take time to read the instructions.

Dawns last ten minutes, maybe fifteen, before the patina fades. I need to remind myself that this is the season of farch—nothing striking anywhere. Saturday my wife brought home a clutch of tulips from Walmart that just about took my breath way. It’ll be a while. I’ll just have to wait.

The earth rests, the fertile, slumbering soil beneath us hibernating. It’ll have toil enough in a month or so, when farmers start to work it once again.
It’s farch and it’s lent and it’s too cold to be spring, even though today, officially, is spring solstice. In South Dakota, people are staring out their windows at 18 inches of snow, which is enough to prompt me to use the old Midwestern adage—hey, things could be worse.

There will come a moment, a time, a succession of months, in fact, when the hills out west are as clothed with gladness as the ones David saw, rejoicing and singing. There will come a time when the grasslands overflow.

Patience is a virtue. Hope is a thing with feathers. Faith is the sure knowledge of things hoped for. I better be ready. I got time now to read instructions.  The emeralds will return, refreshingly. I know it. I can hear the promise in David’s song.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Right and wrong near Ireton

It starts with the Depression era's terrible, unsatisfied needs. There was no money. Hence there was no food. The story begins with poverty--unmercifully brutal want. It had to take place about the same time as the day a mob of angry farmers marched into a courtroom just down the road in LeMars and demanded a judge not foreclose on the fifteen farms whose mortgages he held just then in his hands. 

When the judge refused to comply, they grabbed him off the bench, stripped him down beyond his skivees, strung him up, and threatened to hang him. Wasn't pretty. But yawning want makes suffering people do regrettable things.

And it's an old story, repeated often, certainly not news. A farmer just up the road from that snarling mob keeps losing chickens. He knows because he counts them, like he does his blessings. After all, his blessings in 1933 are really, really few. Too often there are not as many chickens as there was the day before; hence, not as many blessings.

And it's no fox, no coyote, no weasel or mink. This farmer, who is not well-heeled, has to provide for his family at a time when it simply doesn't pay to keep livestock and the crops have, once again, failed. How his chickens disappear is a mystery at first. But it gets unnerving, then irritating, then infuriating. Finally, he decides to act, stays up some night, loses sleep, and no one or nothing shows. Tries again. No one there.

He wonders if the thief is gone, goes back to bed in the old farmhouse, and one day wakes up to a smaller flock again. Now he's incensed. He determines to put an end to the thievery by rigging up a shotgun. Then, one night, he wakes up when the 12-gauge goes off. He runs outside and finds a neighbor down on the ground, bloody. 

It's a Siouxland story, happened in the country, so it doesn't feel right to call it an urban myth; but you may well have heard it before, constructed as it is from the horrors of the dirty Thirties. Long ago I was told by a man I respect, a man who was, back then, a boy, that  that's the way it happened on his father's farm near Ireton, Iowa. What stays with me through the years is the way that friend of mine insisted I write it, the way some people do insist on things like that. "You ought to write that story, Jim," they'll say. Put in three exclamation points.  That's how he told me, with that kind of pointed emphasis.

I thought of his story when I read We Have Gone Away, Curtis Harnack's endearing memoirs of a boy's life on a northwest Iowa farm near Remsen mid-Depression. Harnack's Uncle Jack's kept a cave-like basement armory, where "the family firepower was being quietly amassed." Why all the weaponry? "In those Depression years of bank robbers, gypsies, tramps, kidnappers, cattle rustlers, and chicken thieves, our farm bristled with guns like a fort."

Through the forty years that have passed since my old friend told me that story and urged me to write it, I've sometimes tried to determine exactly why he wanted it told so badly. There are a dozen reason, I'm sure.

It's quite simply unforgettable. There's blood. It's pure action/adventure, right?

But it's much more. It's a story of two men in great need. One of them has chickens, the other does not. Because they both have hungry families, they are prompted to do awful things. One walks over the neighbor's and steals chickens when there's nothing on the pot on the stove. The other mounts a shotgun to take care of that bastard chicken thief that keeps stealing the chickens that lay eggs that keep his family healthy. In northwest Iowa in 1933 chances are good that on the Sabbath those two families sat in the same little church. 

Maybe he wanted me to write the story because what people call "the fog of war" drifted into what became "the fog of the Depression." I wonder whether the descendants of that hanging mob of farmers--some must still live here--honor their ancestors. Maybe he thought the story had to be told because it caught the fervent reality of a time when so many had so little.

But if my father had exercised that kind of zeal, I'd remember it too, perhaps, however, because a wounded neighbor lying on the ground by the chicken coop became the very first note that seemed woefully off-key in the otherwise perfectly tuned harmony of a righteous Christian life. Nothing that happened that night could be repeated in Sunday School.  

My old friend was a kid in 1933, a little boy who suddenly found himself confronted with a father who'd almost become a killer and a bloodied neighbor who was, beyond reasonable doubt, a convicted felon.

I wonder whether that's the reason he wanted me so badly to write the story. It was unforgettable because something a little boy crashed that night out there in the yard, a reasonable sense of what is right and what is wrong.

When that happens to any of us, to all of us, we take note, no one more pointedly perhaps, than children.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Morning Thanks--"Now Thank We All Our God"

The Thirty Years War (1618-1648), like most, was obscenely messy. What's worse, like most horrendous conflicts of our day and years gone by, it was, quite frankly, religious, fought by antagonists perfectly confident that their enemies belonged to the army of Satan.The Thirty Years War wasn't among Christianity's finest hours.

Want to see for yourself? This excerpt from Cicely Wedgewood's history of that war may be all you wish to read. 
At Calw the pastor saw a woman gnawing the raw flesh off a dead horse on which a hungry dog and some ravens were also feeding. . . .In Rhineland [city magistrates] watched the graveyards against marauders who sold the flesh of the newly buried for food. . . .Acorns, goats' skins, grass, were all cooked in Alsace; cats, dogs, and rats were sold in the market at Worms.
People suffered. Political and religious hatred teamed up in a particularly rowdy fashion to create a war in which the Austrians and Swedes and just about anyone else looking for a fight on the continent took turns thrashing the very life out of the German people and countryside. 

To those who lived through it, the steel wheels of that war must have seemed to grind on endlessly. Thousands deserted their farms and homes for protection in old walled-in European cities. Soon enough, there was no room. At Strassburg, Ms. Wedgwood says, the living shut their windows to death groans just outside the walls of their homes. In winter, people stepped over dead bodies all over the streets.  Finally, when the city knew it could do no more, the magistrates simply threw out 35,000 refugees into the terror and death outside the the walls.

Spring came in long days of warm rains that kept the earth moist and rich for disease that flourished in the hot summer sun that followed. Plagues wound through the streets in gusts of warm wind., Outside the gates, law and order crumbled into chaos as men formed marauding, outlaw gangs that killed men, women, and children for food.

Sometime toward the end of the Thirty Years War, picture a man named Martin Rinkert, a servant of God, a preacher in his own hometown of Eilenburg, Saxony. In 1637, at the height of all the horror, Rinkert, the only clergyman left in the city, held funerals for up to fifty people per day. Even his wife died of the disease.

But sometime during those years--during the groaning persistence of war's evil--Martin Rinkert sat and wrote a magnificent, stately tribute thank you to God, the ruler of a world that must have seemed crumbling or burning all around.

Imagine. Thanksgiving in the middle of that unthinkable carnage.

"Now thank we all our God," he wrote and many of us will sing today. His nostrils may have been filled with the stench of war, but his soul seems to have been overflowing with confidence. 

Eilenburg, Saxony, 1637. The Thirty Years War.



If you've got four minutes, listen in.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The beauty of literature

What she said in the note was that she and her husband had headed south early this year. They're snowbirds, and the organization I was leading is a circle of retired folks, many of whom depart the cold of winter once the leftover turkey disappears from the sandwiches. This couple does too, but this year they packed their bags early.

So she sent out a note that came a day after the meeting when we'd discussed Black Soil, a dusty old 1930 novel by an Irish Catholic, one-time novelist named Josephine Donovan. Ms. Donovan's parents homesteaded maybe ten miles east of here, and she used her father's memoir to create this old, pretty-much-unread novel. 

In order to get enough copies, the local library worked overtime; there just aren't many around. It's not a great novel. Giants in the Earth is a great novel. Black Soil isn't, but it's rich if you live on the same black soil. 

So the next day she sent out her note explaining their absence. "Some of you know Herb is fighting a rare form of non-Hogkin's lymphoma, something called myocosis fungoides--four out of a million people have it."

There's more. "Herb has been using steroids, the first line of defense, and he's ready to graduate to the second type of treatment, which is AVA or AVB light treatments, three times a week for three or four months."

They'd left for their place in Arizona, she wrote, because in the Valley of the Sun they can get treatments just down the road and avoid having to drive to Sioux Falls over and over again--or worse, Rochester, in the winter. 

So they'd missed the discussion of Black Soil, which went very well, if my unused teaching faculties for assessing such things are still worth anything. Lots of comments, lots of questions, lots of amazement at the way Ms. Sullivan describes a time when Sioux County, Iowa, was dangerous wilderness. 

Black Soil is a novel whose central conflict is rare these days--will they make it out here, or will nature itself spit them out and send them back east, will hoards of grasshoppers, raging prairie grass fires, and blinding blizzards the like of which people never, ever forget send them packing? Believe me, "can they survive the prairie?"is a question no one asks on the very same rich ground 150 years later.

And it's not really "they" who is at issue--it's Nell, wife and mom, the New Englander who remembers too fondly the good life in Massachusetts, the abundance that "back home" offered, so much that simply isn't here well beyond the edge of civilization. Nell is a wonderful character, not unique to prairie writing; menfolk, like her husband, tended to love pioneering, women not so greatly. Living in a soddie wasn't easy because you never knew what kind of vermin might crawl out of the ceiling. Women felt the pain of separation from family more than men, the books say. Under this broad dome of heaven, they often felt isolated and vulnerable in a land so bare naked it could hold no secrets. 

Donovan's novel is something of rarity among "Middle Border" literature because it features a woman as a central character--and she's Catholic, which would have been something of a rarity in 1870 Sioux County too. But Nell is worthy; she bears her suffering by reminding herself of a God of love who's ever vigilant.

The group liked the old novel, and I was relieved because it had been my idea to read it. For a long month before the discussion, I was sure they were all bored and weary. I was wrong. Black Soil was a hit.

But Herb and Marj had missed the discussion. "We're going to have our own little journey out of our comfort zone," she wrote, and then ended the note with their cell phone numbers.

And then, finally, this line tacked on to the bottom: "P.S. I loved the book Black Soil. (Marj) Hope to be as brave as Nell.

Long, long ago, on a sidewalk in front of the classroom building, I remember telling myself before American lit class that the idea of doing this literature stuff for a living wasn't all that bad. We were doing Emerson that day, of all people; but there was something charming about "Self-Reliance" in the late 60s; and it simply hit me all of a sudden that teaching literature was something I could see myself doing.

That was a half-century ago. There have been tons of wonderful moments. But that little note on the bottom of an email explanation typed by a woman trying to find comfort in her own wilderness, that single line has to rank right there with the sweetest and is reason for thanks.

"Hope to be as brave as Nell."

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Book Report--We Have All Gone Away

It's a beautiful book, really, one of the finest I've read in some time. Curtis Harnack is local, born and reared on a farm not so very far from here, just outside of Remsen, Iowa, on land his family still owns. Unlike Frederick Manfred, who was older, Curtis Harnack's boyhood didn't include horses. Farming on his Plymouth County farm were more mechanized than they were in Doon in the early years of the 20th century, but still a whole era away from what we now call "agribusiness." 

But then Curtis Harnack learned farming from a man whose heart wasn't in it. When his own father died, Harnack's mother chose to stay on a farm that would be run by her brother-in-law, someone she determined would be the kind of father-figure her son would need. Uncle Jack figures greatly in We Have All Gone Away, although their relationship is somewhat love/hate, in part because Uncle Jack never really loved the chores that come with the territory and would have greatly preferred what folks used to call "tinkering."

But 'druthers' weren't in the cards during the Depression, when Curtis Harnack was a boy. Uncle Jack had no choice but to farm two chunks of land that came to him when his brother-in-law died. Harnack may well have picked up something of Uncle Jack's own disgruntlement because while the essays in this thoughtful book of memories are redolent with farm memories that are anything but disdainful, Curtis Harnack determined early on that farming northwest Iowa soil, as rich as it might be, was not going to be his lot in life.

His mother wanted more for her boy; and that, he says in the book, is the reason he had no choice but to leave. His mother looms over this memoir like no other character, even thought she remains mysterious and shadowy. Halfway through, I wondered why I knew so little about her. By the end, we know her better; but one of the most intriguing aspects of this wonderful series of essays is that it is so much about a woman we never really come to know. 

I'm not sure Harnack knew her either. She was always there at home, but what these elegant essays say more clearly than anything was that she reared her talented children (and they all were talented) to leave the farm and Remsen for worlds that didn't end at a fence row. We have all gone away, Harnack says, because that's the way mother wanted it to be.

Caroline Harnack died in a mental ward in a Sioux City hospital after attempting suicide twice. If he didn't really know her, it's possible no one did. But what Mother Harnack clearly imparted to her children was the necessity of finding themselves in a larger world than Remsen. 
So long as Mother could anticipate the unfurling of events in the lives of us children, her spirit was sustained; she was held together merely by being a witness of destiny. But once the true patterns became evident, and the playing out of our years meant we'd actually be more and moe removed from her, a weariness and hopelessness about her own remaining years descended. What was there left to envisage, in her future? Somehow, she'd imagined getting away, too, just as we were doing, but she wouldn't want to be an encumbrance, hang onto us, or interfere in our lives. we were to go off by ourselves without so much as a glance back; otherwise how could we create our lives to their fullest extent? She knew at last the clean, scraped-womb condition of her sacrifice to give us our chance.
I had no trouble putting down Curtis Harnack's short story collection Under My Wings Everything Prospers because I thought I was listening to a man with an identity problem, someone who wanted badly to be something he wasn't, someone who wanted to be something distinguished and academic and exceptionally literary--and not from the farm. Some of those short stories feature characters he didn't seem to know, and there's a mannerism to the writing that suggested he wasn't writing from the soul but for readers whose regard he wanted more than anything. I had trouble finishing the stories.

On the other hand, even though I was taken with the first essay in We Have All Gone Away, not until the end of the book did the book's strengths fully take me over. At his worst, Harnack tries too hard for a sophistication he is more than capable of achieving--he's a marvelously graceful writer. But art for art's sake doesn't work all that well in a book about the farm where he grew up.

Like a growing season, We Have All Gone Away is a collection of memoir essays you slowly come to love. By the end, you start to feel they're almost perfect. 

I've been on a kick for quite a while, reading books that grew up in the region. Harnack's We Have All Gone Away is one of the very finest. It's artful and literary and not for everyone, but it's beautiful in its design and almost perfectly lovely in its mystery.

Willa Cather had designs on leaving Red Cloud, Nebraska, behind her on the path to literary stardom, when a friend reminded her that Cather knew great stories from her Great Plains past. Thank the Lord for good friends. We've got Song of the Lark, My Antonia, O! Pioneers.

I wonder if something similar, somewhere along the line, didn't happen to the New Yorker Curtis Harnack became. Someone may well have suggested the Iowa farm boy write about Remsen. 

And he did. 

Monday, November 23, 2015

Morning Thanks--Yesterday's Sabbath

In all fairness, my father didn't understand--and for the most part, neither did I. 

When I told him, years ago, that I wanted to be a photographer, the news made little sense to him because he didn't--let's just see he couldn't--see the profession outside of his own experience. A photographer to him was someone who took pictures of school kids. Dad was a conventional Calvinist; taking school pics wasn't really what he judged a "Kingdom calling," upper-case K. It didn't really count for the Lord, like, well, the ministry, or missions, or standing up in front of a room and teaching those kids, not just snapping their pics. 

But he was no Nazi. He wouldn't have said I couldn't be a photographer. He was a wise and gentle man, and I knew well enough what he thought when his eyes didn't brighten. 

But I was no wise man either. I didn't understand. Photography held a kind of magic for me. To catch a moment in time was to stop the world, to give some act, some face, some landscape a store of foreverness. Photography, like nothing else I knew or felt at the time, stopped time and made it eternal. 

It doesn't. In what closet or hard drive might we find your favorite pictures? Nothing gold can stay. Nothing black-and-white either. Or sepia-toned.

Or silver for that matter. 

All the elements were right yesterday, a perfect Sabbath morning. New heavy snow like no first snow I remembered ivoried absolutely everything. When the storm left, the cold sneaked in from the northwest and swept over the river, over water unseasonably warm, sending up steam that settled in and over a wonderland.

On Saturday, I'd gone out with my camera for a couple hours and came back home totally skunked. It was beautiful out--gorgeous fields of fresh snow. But I just couldn't see. On Sunday, glory walked up into our backyard. I took a car up the road, but if we wouldn't have gone to church I could have walked to this gallery.

I don't regret a lifetime of teaching, don't hold a grudge against my father's furrowed brow when I told him I thought I wanted to be a photographer. My dad didn't understand.

But then, neither did I. A whole lifetime later I've come to realize, joyfully, that photography, for me at least, isn't about earning a living. It's all about vision, it's really about learning to see. That's the blessing. Sometimes even barbed wire can seem elect.

Sometimes there's glimpses of the new heavens and new earth. You just have to look.

For yesterday's Sabbath in our backyard, I offer morning thanks.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Sunday Morning Meds--Abundance

“You crown the year with your bounty, 
and your carts overflow with abundance.”
Psalm 65:10

If I’m near water, I eat fish.  Lobster in New England, crab cakes in Seattle, smoked salmon on Lake Michigan, grouper in Florida.  In northern Minnesota, nothing tastes better than walleye right from the lake.  Well, maybe nothing but perch.

Out East, I’m sure, one can get a really good leg of lamb; but if you want it done right, you may have to visit Australia or South Africa or New Mexico, where sheep are taken seriously.

But if you’re on the hunt for a pork chop or a chunk of filet mignon that melts in your mouth, then visit my corner of the world. I live in a red meat country whose bounty will take second place to nobody’s Angus. Our cattle are corn-fed, not half-starved in mesquite groves or pastured out so the meat is grizzled as leather chaps. We pamper our beef here in Siouxland, and our hogs grow up in confinements so climate-controlled the residents never see a cloud. My old friends in southern Wisconsin call their prime Swiss cheese Green County Gold; well, our stock in trade is glorious red marble.

But it’s just about all we do, agriculturally. Sure, there are a few dairies around, but mile after endless mile of farmland where I live is perfectly lined with just two crops, corn and beans. And all that bounty—and tons of grain are produced here annually—all of that bounty goes to livestock, to cattle and hogs, to the red meat on your Hardee’s sandwich and the sirloin you buy anywhere in America and even around the world.

I should be proud—and part of me is. But our bounty, and our success, is more and more attributable to just a few good men and women. With every passing year, farming—agriculture—agribusiness—is less and less a family affair, as fewer and fewer landowners work more and more ground. The distance between producer and customer has lengthened exponentially since the days of what was—a century ago—subsistence farming. What that means in terms of Psalm 65 is that fewer and fewer of us, even here in the heartland, really rejoice at the climactic phenomena David finds so blessed.

Right now, all that good ground is mantled in new snow. But if I drive a couple blocks south, a massive pile of corn and/or soybeans still sits on the ground like so much waste.  It isn’t, of course; it’s surplus. The bounty this fall was immense, probably too much, torpedoing prices. Some folks drive by that huge pile and admire the abundance. Many don’t because out here sometimes too much is, in fact, too much. 

A good friend of mine told me once that people who don’t put seed in the ground in don’t know God. That strikes me as a hair judgmental, but I know what he means, even though I’ve never lived on a farm. What I’m saying is that I’m guessing there are fewer and fewer, even here, who delight in David’s immense joy.

The real blessing of Psalm 65, whether you work the land or a Dell computer like the one in front of me, is the inspiration one receives from David’s attribution of his overflowing joy to God’s abundant blessing, the reminder his bliss that our blessings—all of them-- come from the God who made the heavens and the earth around us, around all of us. 

It’s not something I think of when some waitress slaps a half-rack of ribs in front of me on a Friday night. It’s not something I think about in late March snow or even April showers. That kind of attribution, like faith itself, is not something my human nature conjures on it own. 

One of the blessings of Psalm 65 is the reminder that not a dime’s worth of our immense abundance comes our way without the showers of God’s eternal goodness, his love.

Friday, November 20, 2015

"He who is bitten by a snake is afraid of a worm"

Occasionally, we learn lessons that become unforgettable. I can't help of thinking of this moment in Africa a year ago. I'm using the post again this morning after reading 
"Freeing Christians From Americhristianity," a webpost by John Pavlovitz.


I have come to believe that Mohammad Atta and his suicide gang of 9-11 hijackers have inflicted upon me and most of America a frightening case of PTSD. 

I'm embarrassed to admit this, but in Africa I was in airports where it's entirely possible that myself and the two men I was traveling with were the only passengers going up the walkway who weren't Muslim.

Seriously. The association that I can make--and do, altogether too quickly--is that a Muslim and an airplane instantaneously create a cocktail I'll turn down in a heartbeat. After all, if the Muslim beside me is not a terrorist, he most certainly still harbors this god-awful hatred of me, a white American who's a Christian on top of it. You sit at an airport gate surrounded by a hundred Muslims, and you start praying even if you haven't prayed your way onto a plane in years.

It was, I hate to admit, more than a little disconcerting to be way out in the hinterlands in Mali or Ghana or Niger and realize that, for the most part, the many people I was meeting were Muslim, all of them--or at least most of them.

The very first night I spent at a rural clinic had my head spinning because the men and women in the waiting area of the hospital were, by and large, all Islamic. The women were dressed in the most vivid African colors, all dolled up for the big religious holiday, Tabaski; and the men, some of them anyway, probably the really religious ones, looked as if they had just stepped out of some grainy film from the French Foreign Legion.

Okay, there was probably only one other white person in the vicinity, and for some guy from the white and wintery upper Midwest to be so severely outnumbered is, well, daunting. 

But it wasn't the African thing, not racial. It was the Muslim thing that had me unsettled, the sheer numbers.

So we're walking away up the road, the clinic behind us, and I just can't help feeling I'm in the presence of some danger. Ebola is one thing, after all; Islamic fanaticism is yet another. This whole huge congregation of Muslims all around me has me worried. We're not all that far from Nigeria either--kidnappings, ransoms, rape, and bombings. Some rogue Islamist fanatics might just show up here. An old white guy like me has to be pretty fair game.

So I turned to Dr. John Boeteng, the CEO of the place, a beautiful Christian man walking up the road beside me. He may not like this characterization, but think of him as big, black angel with salt-and-pepper sideburns, the man whose vision and industry and commitment created St. Luke's Hospital in rural Kasei, Ghana. I told him how strange it felt for me, an American, to be in the company of so very many Islamic people. Okay, let's be frank--I told him it was difficult for me not to be a little scared.

The belly laugh he gave me wasn't at all angelic, but it was authentic, and it was real, and it was a blessing, medicine for the soul. And then he said something that came out of heart of his own people and culture and language; and he said it in the language of the people.

I stopped. 

He looked at me as if I was the looniest white man he'd ever seen, and he just kept laughing.

"Translation?" I said.

"Among my people," he told me, "we like to say that the man who is bitten by a snake is afraid of a worm."

Then he laughed more. Not so much at me, but at what he considered the sheer madness of my being scared of the patients his clinic has been serving for a quarter century. Preposterous, he might have said. Impossible. You got to be kidding. 

I should have recorded the belly laughs. Right now, I'd love to have you hear them.

The next Sunday we found ourselves in the middle of big Muslim holiday, Tabaski, a celebration of the sacrificial lamb given to Abraham in the wilderness when he was ready, at God's own command, to butcher his son for the sacrifice God had required. Hundreds of sheep were slaughtered in the streets of the village where we celebrated that holiday, thousands, I'm sure, throughout Niger, the country we were visiting that day, millions throughout west Africa. Blood, sacrificial blood, flowed in the streets, literally.

There we sat, visitors, Christians, Americans, white folks, with dozens and dozens of Muslims at the heart of a great annual festival, greatly welcomed, honorably welcomed. I could have eaten more veal cutlets on Monday morning than I'd ever seen before in my life. We were guests, and they were honored to have us, these Muslims.

"He who is bitten by a snake is afraid of a worm." Perhaps the most obvious lesson of my short stay in west Africa was that hating Muslims wholesale, even distrusting them as a people, is not only immoral, it's idioicy. Committed Muslim men told me they disliked Arab Muslims far more than they did Americans--and with good historical reasons. Very few Nigerian Muslims have sympathy for Boco Haram, the radical group who stole 450 young girls to give away as concubines. 

"He who is bitten by a snake is afraid of a worm."

I should put that on a t-shirt. Or on one of my photos from Africa. 

But I don't need to. That line is written already on my heart, thanks to the good Doctor, his worthy folk wisdom, and an ample laugh I can still hear today. 

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Remember the carnage!

Watchdog: Obama to bring non-American Ebola victims to U.S. for treatment
While the bipartisan voice grows to ban Ebola victims from entering the United States, a new report claims that President Obama is considering a plan to bring the world’s Ebola patients to the United States to be treated. 
Judicial Watch, the conservative public watchdog group, says in a shocking report that the president is “actively formulating plans” to admit Ebola-infected non-citizens just to be treated. 
“Specifically, the goal of the administration is to bring Ebola patients into the United States for treatment within the first days of diagnosis,” said the group. 
Such a plan would likely cause a political outcry throughout the nation, on edge over the spread of the virus.
Judicial Watch, which probes federal spending and uses federal and administration sources to root out corruption, said it is unclear who would pay for transporting and treating non-Americans. 
But they have details nobody else has. “The plans include special waivers of laws and regulations that ban the admission of non-citizens with a communicable disease as dangerous as Ebola.”
The organization added, “the Obama administration is keeping this plan secret from Congress. The source is concerned that the proposal is illegal; endangers the public health and welfare; and should require the approval of Congress.” 
Washington Examiner, November 19, 2014 

The madness began exactly a year ago today. Obama was determined to bring Ebola to precious bloodstreams of this great nation. It was deliberate and determined and diabolical.

You may remember Dr. Kent Brantly, from Ft. Worth, Texas, who'd been treating Ebola victims in Liberia, being returned to the our precious shores, to Atlanta, Georgia. You may remember because his return was celebrated with nearly 24/7 coverage. Regularly scheduled programming was interrupted to show him in some phony hazmat-type suit being transported to Emory University, a campus that is now a ghost town because the evil virus Brantly carried killed every last student, professor, and groundskeeper, even the campus squirrels.

What happened after that was nightmarish. From Atlanta, the Ebola virus jumped west and north following, in a bizarre backwards way, the weakness still evident in the countryside after Sherman's March to the Sea. Tens of thousands died. Some states were entirely wiped out--Kentucky, Mississippi, South Carolina had no one left but Democrats. Most of the Bible Belt was wiped out, good Christian men and women and children and pets dying night and day while Obama smiled.

How soon we forget! What's happened to us, America? How do we allow ourselves to get so hoodwinked when all around us is the sheer evil of people determined to bring down the land of the free and the home of the brave?  

It's only one year later--to the day. Now it's the so-called "refugees," Islamic terrorists who already are dancing into this country as if they own the place, wearing suicide vests and swearing allegiance to Sharia law, brandishing deadly sophisticated bombs in unmarked pop cans. Obama lets them in as if they were human. Absolutely nothing stands between their treachery and our precious innocent kids. Admission to this country and its rich favors is a joke. How can we let this happen?

Just last year it was Ebola. Today it's the Muslims. 

Stand up, America. Keep those diabolical Syrians out of your neighborhood. The blood of all those murdered Parisians still flows in the streets of the City of Light, and Obama stands there like an Imam beckoning true believers into the mosque that America has become.

Remember Ebola, America. Remember the carnage.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Book Report--A New Heaven and a New Earth

Did I read more enjoyable books? Yup. 

Is this one written with a grace that sings? Not especially. 

Did the story keep me up late? Not at all. The only reason I didn't fall asleep was that I often could read it fast, speed-skating over big chunks of material. 

Did it change my life? Not really.

But J. Richard Middleton's A New Heavens and a New Earth was and is the most influential book I read in the last year.

Once upon a time, America was blessed with a Secretary of the Interior from Colorado, a pious believer driven fiercely by his commitment to Christ. His name was James J. Watt. Just exactly what Watt believed and didn't remains somewhat controversial, but he was a devout dispensationalist Christian who fervently assumed, as many do, in the imminent return of Jesus Christ. If you truly and deeply believe that "the trumpet will sound" tomorrow, if not the next day, your attitude toward this world has to be affected. Watt's was. His tenure as Secretary of the Interior--for which he was an odd, odd choice--was as stormy as it was short, just two years.

Middleton's A New Heaven and a New Earth begins by disparaging the James J. Watts of the world. Middleton claims that our views of eschatology--our view of the end of time--not only affect our views of the here-and-now, but are sometimes--in fact, most often--dead wrong. Somewhere along the line, Christians got on a ship going the wrong way, and we've been out to sea ever since.

Middleton pledges he will never again use the word heaven in polite conversation. How's that for radical? He'll simply delete it from his vocabulary, not because he doesn't believe in a glorious afterlife--he does; not because he doesn't believe in Jesus Christ--he does; but because he believes scripture is clear about end times, and what it offers us is right there in the title of the study: A New Heaven and a New Earth.

Middleton's argument is not new, but I'd never seen it argued so comprehensively. Because what he's asking believers to believe is so controversial--there is no "heaven"!--he feels compelled to run down every last scriptural reference and study them in context. He attempts to put a lock on what he considers the Bible says; to wit, that there is no platform of hyper-space to which we'll ascend, no pearly gates, no streets of gold, no flights of heavenly angels in a half-empty choir loft that awaits our arrival. 

What he argues is nothing less than "God so loved the world," that He loves his creation and wants to make it flower, that the afterlife won't be stamped with some stratospheric zip code but be, for all intents and purposes, the here and now, more precisely here and redemptively then. 

Am I convinced? Well, maybe. The Bible, a story of love and truth and wisdom, is always easier to get wrong than right. On that score, we've got a perfectly abysmal track record. We never win. If there's one thing true about all of us and our persuasions, it is that we never get the story right, despite the fervent reaches of our piety. It's really all about grace, about what we don't have coming, about the goods only God almighty can and does deliver. We get it wrong, but he loves us anyway--that's the gospel.

For better or worse, I'll always be wary of anyone who claims to know the whole truth, even people like Middleton, theologians with whom I certainly share a species of the Christian faith. 

Somehow I don't think he'd fault my doubt. A little of it goes a long ways in this world.

But not the next, and that's the point, really. Middleton says John the Baptist's annoyance at Christ's slow ascension to power--"are you the Christ or look we for another?"--is a peculiar problem: "He expected too much, too quickly."
Historically, however many Christians have had the opposite problem. We have not expected enough. And what we have expected, we have often delayed until "heaven" and the return of Christ. We have not really believed that God cares about this world of real people in their actual historical situations, which often are characterized by oppression and suffering. Our understanding of salvation has been characterized by an unbiblical otherworldliness. So our expectations of the future have often not reflected the full-orbed good news that Jesus proclaimed at Nazareth.
I think Middleton's right.

Someone asked me yesterday to name the most influential book I've read in the last year. I savored novels and histories I loved more than this one. I read stories I found much more difficult to put down. I read books I poured over slowly, lovingly. Middleton's wasn't one of them.

But A New Heavens and a New Earth was the most influential book I read in the last year. Its argument profoundly concerns life and death and life once again in a kingdom newly realized. 

In that sense, I've still not put it down and probably never will.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

"The Heathen in his blindness"

The story is all here, really, in this simple pen-and-ink. The man in the foreground, penning a hymn, is Reginald Heber, who, as a student at Oxford, had won some winsome poetry awards. He's a clergyman, soon to become the Bishop of Calcutta. The men behind him are determining the shape of Sunday's morning service. Just call them liturgists. They're planning a special Sunday worship dedicated to the cause of Christian missions. 

Knowing Heber's literary gifts, the three gentlemen, one of who was Heber's father-in-law, asked him if he could maybe jot down some lines for a special hymn for the service. 

Twenty minutes later, the world was introduced to what is now an old missionary anthem, "From Greenland's Icy Mountains." No kidding. Twenty minutes.

Most evangelical boomers, I trust, will never forget that hymn, and can remember singing it heartily at their own ancient missionary Sundays. Reginald Heber could not have had the slightest notion that someday millions would sing that 20-minute hymn and remember it with a big heart.
From Greenland’s icy mountains, from India’s coral strand;
Where Afric’s sunny fountains roll down their golden sand:
From many an ancient river, from many a palmy plain,
They call us to deliver their land from error’s chain. 
That's a bold claim, many might even say arrogant. But, when I was a kid, it was greatly awe-inspiring. I never courted the dream of becoming a preacher, like my grandfather; but if you stand up and sing "From Greenland" in a tiny little Christian school, you can't help but shiver to picture yourself someday standing in front of a lean-to full of half-naked savages, delivering them from sin through the gospel of Jesus. 
What though the spicy breezes blow soft o’er Ceylon’s isle;
Though every prospect pleases, and only man is vile?
In vain with lavish kindness the gifts of God are strown;
The heathen in his blindness bows down to wood and stone. 
The word heathen made that dream come alive back then. Honestly, today Heber's great missionary hymn barely rates a file in a forgotten desk drawer. The lines he scratched out in twenty minutes, lines the Christian world sang gloriously for 150 years, have no place Christian hymnals because of the word heathen. That preacher/grandfather of mine once upon a time belonged to The Heathen Mission Board of the Christian Reformed Church. If I mention that word in a speech, the crowd can't help but giggle.

Why? At our own incredible arrogance. 
Shall we, whose souls are lighted with wisdom from on high,
Shall we to those benighted the lamp of life deny?
Salvation! O salvation! The joyful sound proclaim,
Till earth’s remotest nation has learned Messiah’s Name. 
There's us, after all--"we whose souls are lighted with wisdom from on high," and there's them, in their  heathen blindness. It's "the white-man's burden" to relieve blindness. I couldn't help but see it that way.
Waft, waft, ye winds, His story, and you, ye waters, roll
Till, like a sea of glory, it spreads from pole to pole:
Till o’er our ransomed nature the Lamb for sinners slain,
Redeemer, King, Creator, in bliss returns to reign.
"Like a sea of glory, it spreads from pole to pole"?  To those "heathen" we colonized those phrases were little more than a dog whistle for Manifest Destiny. The Doctrine of Discovery allowed us to roam anywhere and take for our own whatever we wanted; preaching the gospel just gave the whole endeavor a halo, made us feel as sweetly righteous as our enterprise. 

It's not difficult today to equate old-fashioned missionary work with unsullied bigotry, to see a thousand missionary slide shows as nothing less than another form of cultural imperialism. 

Honestly, the word missionary, once my parents' dream for their son, is almost an anathema today. 

It's simply amazing how far the pendulum has swung.

Dwight L. Moody in a sermon in 1877, heralded the mission cause in these startling terms: "I look on this world as a wrecked vessel. God has given me a life-boat, and said to me, 'Moody, save all you can.'"

Once upon a time, that line would have thrilled me. I was just a kid. Today to much of the world that line is an embarrassment at best; many would consider it an indictment. The truth, complex and nuanced, lies somewhere between.

In the last two years I've visited the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Niger, Mali, and Ghana. In the last decade I wrote a book on missionary endeavors among the Navajo and Zuni in New Mexico. To be a missionary is still a noble calling, a mission, a God-sent. I could tell a thousand great stories.

But that doesn't change the fact that we simply can't sing the old missionary hymn Reginald Heber scratched out across the room from the liturgists. "From Greenland's Icy Mountains" is simply no longer in the hymnal. With good reason.

Not to realize all of that, and not to repent for what we've done wrong, even in our innocence, is to be--pardon me--far more blind than the heathen.

Monday, November 16, 2015

The face of the faithful

As of this morning, the world knows very little about this man, Bilal Hadfi, although I'm sure more will surface soon. What we know is that he lived in Belgium and was likely a veteran of the civil war in Syria. Authorities say he was among the ISIS terrorists who carried out mass murder in Paris on Friday night, a raid intended to carry the ISIS "crusade" to the City of Light and kill men and women and children doing what they believed infidels do--eat, drink, and be merry. This man--this kid--was one of them.

He was either 19 or 20, authorities say.

Barely out of his teens. Baby-faced, some say. Look. He's dead. At his own hands.

Yesterday's sermon concerned the second letter to the Thesselonians, third chapter, where Paul asks his friends to pray for him. "Finally, brethren, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may have free course," he writes, "and be glorified, even as it is with you." I'm guessing Paul wouldn't have recognized a preacher like Joel Osteen, whose ministry looks far different than his. Life was no cupcake for the apostle. The idea of the apostle having the prayerful support of the Thessalonians must have been a blessing as he marched into theological battle all around.

And what should the Thessalonians pray? Simple, Paul says: "That we may be delivered from unreasonable and wicked men," Paul says; "for all men have not faith."

Men like this Hadfi, a kid.

For me, at least, it was impossible yesterday, on Sunday morning, to imagine "unreasonable and wicked men" and not see a dead terrorist of Middle-Eastern extraction. Hadfi's gang marched into a concert hall and executed dozens of people until French police arrived and, in their words, neutralized them, shot them time and time again until they were bloody dead. Deliver us from evil. Hafdi, a suicide bomber, was part of two or three who attempted to blow up fans at a soccer stadium.

I don't think Paul has it right these days. The great terror loosed in our world today is not engineered by atheists and infidels, but by true believers so confident of their mission and martyrdom--of their faith--that they march into "soft targets" and kill as many innocent people as they can as quickly as they can. They're not faithless; they're faithful.

They're Bilal Hadfi, whose damnable, child-like faith struck him blind and left him mad. And dead. Authorities say Hadfi took no one with him. When he and the others assigned to the stadium carnage failed to get into the match, he walked away and detonated the bomb that killed him--and no one else. 

Today, it's the faithful who are "unreasonable and wicked," or so it seems to me.

These, as everyone knows, are the words of Jesus: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven."


We know that kalashnikovs will kill Bilal Hadfis, but they won't end the faith that generates their mad devotion. Fighting that faith requires a different and far more difficult kind of war. 

Lord Jesus, come quickly.