Morning Thanks

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

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Sunday Morning Meds--Songs in the Night

I remembered my songs in the night.” Psalm 77:6

We were standing in an old country church in South Dakota—tin ceilings. There had been some additions: two wings had been added on either side of the front, far enough to get in an extra two rows of pews. The carpet was new, the paint fresh, but the place was, and still is, ancient, by prairie standards at least. It’s 130 years old, and no matter how diligently its people keep the place up, the lines of the whole old frame church still show its age.

My immigrant great-grandparents once walked, weekly, through those same front doors, then sat, with their five kids, beneath those tin ceilings. I’ve got history in that old church—that’s what I was thinking that day. Even if I’m the first great-grandchild, the first descendant in two generations ever to darken the front door, part of me is here.

We’d just come from an exhausting day along the Missouri River—some hiking, some sight-seeing—and we were stopping at this non-descript country church in the middle of a town well down the road toward dying. It was early June, and beautiful—the sun radiant, the emerald land we’d been driving through seemed empty of distraction and, honestly, full of God.

I don’t know where the hymn came from, but it bubbled up from somewhere in my childhood. I never considered it a favorite, hadn’t thought about it for years, sung it for decades. Long ago it was chased from the hymnal by more peppy stuff, I suppose. What came to me was a perfectly fitting opening line aboard a haunting melody that seemed perfect for time and circumstance.

So I asked the people whether they remembered “To the Hills I Lift My Eyes” from an old psalter. Average age on the tour bus was sixty-ish. They shrugged their shoulders, but that was enough of an assent, and besides I wasn’t about to be thwarted. So I started in, grabbing a pitch out of nowhere, and soon enough they were all with me because the first line hadn’t left anyone’s memory and it’s a very simple melody.

Together, we pieced together the lyrics because some of us knew enough of the lines so all of us could get through it without missing a beat.

The bright sun outside suggested the threat of mid-summer heat, but there was not a whisper of night in that church just then. I don’t care. When I hear Asaph’s voice in this line—“I remembered my songs in the night”—I think of that moment in that old church, and that moment’s blessedness, the joy of connecting with something so much greater than me or us or any of our individual stories, something ethereal. The only way to describe that moment was in music. I don’t know that I understand how and why, but sometimes there’s a beatitude that’s palpable in perfectly unreasonable things.

Those of us who believe know the hefty comfort of faith that begins in a fulsome sense of our belonging—we know whose we are.

I don’t think there can be a doubt about Asaph; he was a worrier. But what he’s telling us here in Psalm 77 is that the remembrance of things past—and especially the memory of what could only be sung, could only be spoken in song—was itself a testimony of an end to sadness. His remembered songs in the night didn’t end his sadness—read on. But a song in the night reminded him that once, at least, there was joy.

And if once, then why not again?  

Friday, January 29, 2016

The Playhouse

I was just eight or nine--this happened a long, long time ago. I was just a kid. I honestly can't remember how it was we were even in ye old church that night. But I remember it was dark; it was dark and we were being naughty, which means no parents were around. No way.

Where we got the idea, I don't know. Whether it was my idea or the other kids' is something I don't remember. For sure, there were no girls. All of this happened before Betty Friedan. What happened that night was naughty boy-stuff--little kid, naughty-boy stuff. And it was no crime. What we did was bad only because we thought it was naughty. 

And fun.

Which was, back then, the very best kind of fun.

Forgive me.

The wood floor of the old church was waxed beautifully, as I remember, shiny in whatever little light the sanctuary offered from downtown lights coming through the stained glass. It was dark. All of this had to happen at night. I can't imagine pulling off such sacrilege during the day. 

I remember stealing a glance under the pews during worship back then and seeing a vast forest of legs, enough oxfords for a shoe store. Looking under the pews was a bizarre delight, but momentary because my parents thought my behavior unseemly, even though I was just a kid.

What's coming here is hardly some agonizing, mulled-over confession. Simply enough, we slid under the pews, laid out on that slippery wooden floor, then grabbed the benches above us, pulled hard, and zipped our bodies up and down the pitch of the sanctuary, gliding along gloriously. For a few stolen minutes of sheer joy, First Christian Reformed Church, Oostburg, Wisconsin--the old one, downtown--was a playground, a super slippery-slide. 

Even though we had a great time, no one laughed out loud. We didn't dare. Every Sunday in that church, worship began with the same assertion: "the Lord is in His holy temple." Nobody laughed out loud during all that slip-sliding, so the whole dark church suffered our abuse in perfect silence.

Whoosh. Whoosh. That was it. 

I wasn't even ten years old when the old church came down and the new one went up at the edge of town. But in the old one I'd sat through nine years of sermons twice a Sunday, Saturday morning catechism, countless Sunday School lessons. Oostburg Christian Reformed was my first church. 

But last week, when I stood there in front of that ex-church in Oak Harbor, Washington, the one up top, the only memory to arise from my mind's cavernous crypt was of a couple of us--I don't even remember who--gliding along in the dark, in perfect silence, and laughing hysterically--but not out loud. The old Oak Harbor church had to have been built from the same blueprint. 

Old Oostburg CRC has been gone for almost sixty years; but there I stood in front of this near replica--a playhouse today, a theater--and what came back more clearly than anything, was one dark night of naughty fun.

O, Lord, what a woeful Calvinist I am.

Makes me smile yet--old Oostburg CRC, that night a playhouse too. I don't doubt for a moment that even though it wasn't a Sunday morning, even though there was no dominie up front in pin stripes, no organist at the console, and no forest of legs beneath the pews, all during that night in the slippery darkness, the Lord was there too, in his holy temple.

Maybe even smiling.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Mr. Henry Haak--1933-2016

Some teachers are chummy. That's what makes them good. Others are standoff-ish; they push students to succeed by the desire to earn their regard, their attention. Some are jolly, their personalities charming, their smiles infectious. Burdens lighten they walk into the classroom.

Some really fine teachers are dedicated to craft, consummate professionals with a shelf full of educational journals. Some, exceptionally warm-hearted, are the kinds of surrogate moms and dads that most kids long for. Some teachers touch. Most do not. No matter. There's more to intimacy than physicality, and sometimes just a little tiny bit goes a long, long ways.

I never sat in Henry Haak's classroom, not even as a parent. I never saw him teach, never heard his voice when I walked down a hallway at the school my kids attended. Both of our children had him--middle school, social studies. My daughter claims he was the toughest teacher she had back then, and that history class never was her favorite subject. She says he gave her one of the lowest grades she received in all her years in school. "But he had a passion for what he taught," she says. 

And he could handle rowdy kids, my son remembers, no small task in junior high. He engaged the whole class in a conversation about the kind of current-events issues my son loved, he says.

When our children were in his class, what I remember them saying is that everyone respected Mr. Haak, that kids toed the line because they did. Even before they walked into his classroom, most of the students he taught--and there were hundreds, a thousand or more--understood that what was going to happen would be a good thing. 

Mr. Haak didn't earn their respect; he didn't have to. By reputation he was a good teacher, and reputation is no small thing.  "You can't build a reputation on what you are going to do," said Henry Ford, who may well have been thinking of Henry Haak. Adolescent kids left their monkeyshine at the door.

He excellence seemed ever mysterious to me. He was small, wiry, unimposing as a cloudy day, white-haired, maybe even a bit schoolmarmish. My first year of teaching I arm-wrestled a kid on the wrestling team and, to my astonishment, won. I didn't have any trouble for the rest of the year. 

But Mr. Haak was not a formidable presence, no taller or broader than a score of those eighth graders he taught. He wasn't flashy, wasn't chummy, was no prima donna--not at all. I don't know that he kept up with the latest innovations in the science of teaching. He was nothing more or less than a really, really good teacher.

He died a week or so ago, 82 years old. "He enjoyed gardening, fishing, and playing basketball in his younger years and listening to games more recently," his obit claims. "He also enjoyed doing puzzles, spending time with grandchildren, reading and keeping up on current events and politics."

He's missing the caucuses. He would have loved the madness this year.

"He was a great teacher, rolling his chalk between his hands, clicking on his wedding ring.. . .he made you think about history," one former student wrote on Mr. Haak's obit page.

It seems to me that what made him so extraordinary was that he loved who he taught and what he taught with equal intensity. That's what most kids knew about Mr. Haak before they walked in his door, and what most of them, years later, will not forget.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Please, cut the piety

I have decided not to listen to piety. I've had enough. Those folks most prone to and gifted at God-talk have killed it.

Start right here. I was in Washington last week and nowhere near Donald Trump's jam-packed revival at my alma mater, the college where I spent 40 years of my life, the place where he now famously explained how he could gun down some sucker on Fifth Avenue and be loved as a gunslinger by his breathless disciples. In Sioux Center, Iowa, The Trump Rally was an event. Big time. Nothing like it since RAGBRAI. 

Someone wrote me, shook his head all the way through the email. "Trump says "bullshit" right there on the B. J. Haan stage?" That's right. The place is rockin' for a thrice-married casino mogul who claims he doesn't remember ever asking forgiveness from anyone for anything. The note-writer likely went to Dordt at a time when you could be tossed from the cafeteria line for wearing jeans, when dorm counselors taped over coin slots on Coke machines every Sabbath, when women could not wear slacks to class unless the temp was -20 at the college radio station--at a time when strict piety ruled the whole world.

That's all silly now. We've come of age. 

Or this. Bob Vander Plaats, the most famous Iowa evangelical, a Cruz man, gets the back of Trump's hand in one of the candidate's famous tweets. When it happens, Vander Plaats announces that such behavior from Trump is characteristic."This plays to Trump's judgment and temperament," Vander Plaats told The Des Moines Register yesterday. "He will burn anybody."

"He will burn anybody," and Vander Plaats, the greatest Iowa Christian, won't? He's forged his following from the smoldering carcasses of three Iowa Supreme Court judges. Did Goodman Vander Plaats really believe he could cavort with the Donald and come out righteous? The greatest Iowa Christian will have to pray even harder at his next Family Leader Forum, be sure quote more scripture with Jeremiah-like vehemence. 

Or this. Yesterday Jerry Falwell, Jr., endorsed Donald Trump. 

Let me say that again: Yesterday Jerry Falwell, Jr., endorsed Donald Trump.

Does that make any sense?

The President of Liberty University, the son of the famous Jerry who created--yea, from the dust of earth--the famed Moral Majority, endorses the superman of slot machines? When Trump said "2 Corinthians" instead of "Second Corinthians," a couple thousand super pious Liberty students giggled at the gaffe (I didn't know it was!). Liberty is the University of Piety. Just imagine how many Bible verse t-shirts lie in its dorm drawers. 

Have we all gone mad?

Last week, a local pizza mogul known for his restaurant's public piety (Christian radio plays over the salad bar) came out for Trump. Adri Groenweg told CNN, "I'm tired of the regular politician. He's different. He's not a regular politician. He's somebody who says it the way it is. He's not -- you know the thing he talks about not being politically correct -- he's not and I like that about the guy."

Okay, but do we have to listen to Christian radio? Well, yes, I suppose, because that kind of political correctness is pious.

Of course, like Vander Plaats, Groeneweg could have tossed his hat in the Cruz ring. Senator Ted Cruz has pledged to carpet bomb Syria, he believes Marco Rubio is way too liberal about illegal immigration, and he claims he will tear up the Iranian peace accords on his very first day in office, just tear them up. "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth," said Christ and Cruz, "I did not come to bring peace, but a sword." Not just swords either, but guns. Lots of guns. Second Amendment guns.

No one even likes Ted Cruz, no one. Well, except Vander Plaats and some of his Great Iowa Christians. He's a better choice?

And the truth is, they all are at their best spouting bible verses. They'are all at their finest in on-stage prayer and in the public throes of fervent supplication. 

Just yesterday, one of the Oregon occupiers was killed in what appears to have been some sort of armed confrontation. But in his last statement on his early-morning radio show, he left this as his legacy/testimony:  “Know that we are determined,” he reassured them. “This is not a place of fear in here. The fear is out there. We know that God’s hand is in this. Whatever happens, we know that it’s going to be okay.”


But as for me and my house, we're just not buying public piety any more--not a word of it. Just not buying it. 

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Film Review--Timbuktu

Timbuktu is not a movie to watch alone. It's not even a movie you want to watch with just the two of you. Timbuktu is a movie you want to watch in a community, in a circle of friends. Seriously. Get a gang of your friends together and watch it because when the credits roll and you sit there in stunned silence, you're going to want to talk about what it was you just witnessed, going to want to listen to what others say about what all of you have just seen.

Timbuktu is not a movie. Timbuktu is a film. It's a story, a life, a chapter in a world we all live in. If you're like me, it'll make you think differently about what you already think about--and fear. It may not change your mind, but a good American--and even a bad one--will almost certainly see things he or she has not imagined. Its subject is as foreign as the news. Its remarkable cinematography captures the long northern stretches of Saharan Mali in shots that will leave you speechless. Visually, some scenes in this film will not let you leave.

At its base, it's a story about a feud between families, a feud that turns violent and sad in a world where justice is merciless, where the gruesome tenets of sharia law have been sharpened into weapons of mass destruction by jihadists who have taken over the community. Some moments in this movie are very, very difficult to watch.

But cracks in the armor, lots of them, will actually make you laugh. The jihadists, who've banned soccer (playing, like singing, is banned by the zealots), argue over soccer games they've been watching on TV. Men wielding assault rifles arrest ordinary folks for smoking, then grab a cigarette just over the dune. Sinners of all varieties aren't just sinners--they're also shockingly human.

If you, like me, have roots in a religious community, some conversations will be achingly familiar because people who worship a god are not clones; we're different--all of us, even if we go to the same house of worship. In Timbuktu, the imam argues selflessly for love and mercy and respect, risks his life for his people, tries to show the jihadists a better way. Good people live heroic lives in what seems self-imposed and protective silence. Others flaunt laws openly and get by because rigidity like that created by the jihadists creates black markets in just about every human virtue and vice. 

Timbuktu features characters who are blessedly human and not just ideas. If Hollywood puts a woman in a hijab, an audience knows what they're supposed to think about the character and the story. The whole controversy about the lack of African-Americans in the Oscars rises at least in part from the fact that Hollywood has created a world in which a black character is, first of all, black. Watch British TV sometime, and you'll understand; some black characters are just characters.

Timbuktu is a film about human beings. Darkness emerges from the evil ideology the jihadists carry into the village, but, as the imam actually say, it rises just as pervasively from the human heart, the place in all of us where it most abundantly dwells.

Timbuktu is not fun. Watch it with friends. Seriously. 

Monday, January 25, 2016

Old scans--Vietnam Spectators

[A series of essays from half-a-lifetime ago]

Vietnam never laid a hand on me; I never saw a rice paddy or walked the Saigon streets, or awakened to the thwacking rush of Army helicopters. I've never stumbled through a jungle. The shape of Cambodia I remember only from the map Richard Nixon pointed to in May of 1970.

But neither did I go to jail or leave for Canada, or sugar my urine or brace my teeth or make any other attempt to avoid Vietnam. Nobody ever begged me to return home years later; neither President Ford nor Carter ever offered me amnesty. I was, throughout the entire era, little more than a spectator.

We still live, all of us, in the shadow of that era, even those who, like me, bear no visible scars. Just recently, I framed the cover page of an old student newspaper and hung it on my wall-five clenched fists boldly underlined with one word, "Strike."

It's an artifact now, a symbol of an era that has slipped into the objective past of a whole new generation of college students, already part of a nation's history and, therefore, of little more than passing interest to an undergraduate busily preparing himself for one of life's marketable skills. That clenched fist has lost its grip on America's emotions; today it needs a footnote.

But subconsciously Vietnam is still with us, all of us, even those it passed by. Spectators take their thrills vicariously and thereby keep their knees intact. But the memory of a rough game stays with them. Whether we went to Canada or Saigon or we stayed home, Vietnam, for all of us who grew up in the late sixties, is more than a memory.

For those of us who didn't go, "Where were you during Vietnam?" is more a pointed question of honor than of simple information.

And our answers invariably carry some supplemental narratives to verify the fact that we were alive at the time:

"We were here, but we marched." Somehow, it doesn't matter. We took neither the supreme act of loyalty and went to Southeast Asia, nor the supreme act of conscience and went to jail or Canada. For many of us spectators, the 4-F--in 1970 the classification of freedom--has become, years later, the badge of failure it was meant to be. Today, the 4-F triggers a sense of guilt for not having been to either Vietnam or Canada.

In the spring of 1968, on the night Lyndon Johnson opted out of the presidential race, I was among hundreds of sunburned northern college students wriggling away at a dance on Daytona Beach. In May of 1970, I told my college baseball coach that my marching against the war meant more to me than catching a Saturday doubleheader, and I left for Washington. The token scars I bear from that era lie no deeper than a skipped double-header. So high, for me, honor soared.

But I remember the almost vicious sense of righteousness in the eyes of a Navy vet who came home early in 1967, convinced that anything less than a full offensive in Vietnam was cowardly and defeatist. He had no toleration for argument. Vietnam turned his spirit to stone. And I remember the bloodied knuckles of a roommate in 1969, a vet whose adjustment to home staggered through long nights of drinking and fighting. Vietnam blessed him with an appetite for action that straight-life in small-town Iowa couldn't satisfy. His memories wouldn't let him sleep. These were the real scars of Vietnam.

A decade later I sat alone in an armchair late one night and watched two of my peers, two 30-year-old drunken Vietnam vets hugging and crying like children, as if all of it-the dope and the death, the absolute lunacy of a war few of them wanted to fight-as if all of it had ended just a week before. And I sat there trying my human best to empathize. It was all I could do as an outsider.

We all share in the guilt over Vietnam--the hawks, the doves and even the spectators. For those who watched, a decade later it's the specter of not having lived-at least of not having headlined, at most, not having suffered.

The agony and the torment, the courage and the selflessness belong to those who acted, either out of obedience or disobedience-and not to those who watched. We have no answers to where we were during Vietnam, and our muteness today is an odd kind of cross in itself.

Perhaps, at a decade's distance, we can call this odd guilt some rugged masculine urges left sheathed and unsatisfied. Perhaps it's the guilt of having been passive in an age that demanded action. Perhaps it's only the army legacy of the 4-F classification. Whatever it is, it stings some of us today when we watch films like Apocalypse Now or read books like The Things They Carried. Vietnam was an era that, for better or worse, belongs to the other guys, even though we were there.

In August of 1970, I lived just outside Madison, Wisconsin and had just begun my first year of teaching when the blast at the Army Research Center on the University of Wisconsin campus shook windows all over town and killed an innocent graduate student. It was the end of the days of the romantic rebellion in this country, and I knew it. The war itself would be over in a matter of time and a few thousand more lives.

I had seen it all, from the beginning-from the days of the military advisers, the days when the cloak of communism was laid over the backs of the first dissenters, through the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and the Cambodian incursion, to Kent State, a dead research chemist, and a pitiful, hasty retreat from Saigon; and all of it through the pall of far too many thousand American and Southeast Asian war dead. But the story belonged to the others-those who acted.

This is the scar of my Vietnam days, my guilt. This is where I was during Vietnam, and where it's left me today, ten years it laid a hand on me just as it did on just about everyone else.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Sunday Morning Meds--In years gone by

I thought about the former days, the years of long ago;. . .”

I have a shard of old newsprint to prove I’m not telling tall tales.

Once upon a time, a tenant farmer worked some land in an obscure county in an obscure state. Wasn’t good land, at least not by his neighbor’s reckoning. The soil was light and thin, and useless bluffs, lots of them, shouldered a river that all too often flooded the valley beneath. This farmer rented that land from a man who determined that most of what he’d made during his life would be given, upon his death, to a hospital not far away.

Along came the Great Depression, the complication of the story on this yellowed sheet of newsprint. The landlord mortgaged his land to the hilt to keep from losing it; but when he died mid-Depression, that hospital became the renter’s landlord.

To say times were tough is understatement. In this corner of the world, it was smarter to shoot cattle than feed them, if you had cattle at all.

When things grew desperate, the renter went to the hospital board and asked for grace—1,000 dollars’ worth of rent simply couldn’t be had and consequently couldn’t be paid. The hospital graciously nodded their consent.

Those hills nobody else wanted? They ended up at the heart of the family’s survival. When drought meant no feed could be grown or purchased, the renter let his sheep graze the bluffs, where they ate the buck brush. When things got even bleaker, he shooed his hogs up there to munch acorns from the burr oak that run like an unruly moustache over the hills. When other farmers were dumping livestock, those unwanted bluffs saved the operation, and by the time the Second World War came around, the family farm got on its feet.

This old newspaper clipping is from 1976, some 44 years after the hospital board shook their collective heads and let that $1,000 rent payment ride. An old guy stands in the picture, his shirt buttoned up tight beneath his chin. To his left is his wife, in a hair net and a print jacket, a mother-of-pearl brooch perfectly centered on her chest. The man is handing a piece of paper to a big guy with an open collar, a thousand dollars. All three are smiling. Forty-four years later.

Like I said, I have the newsprint to prove it. I’m saving this one, because an otherwise long-forgotten story for our time and all time, a story about integrity, won’t be remembered.

I’ve always been a sucker for nostalgia, for the warm glow that remembrance of things past offers to at least some of us.  I don’t think I’m a fool.  I’m not assuming that, regularly back then, people paid back long-ago forgotten old debts.  I have always had a Calvinist’s sense of human nature. 

But sometimes it’s hard not be wistful, and good old stories, whether or not we were part of them, can fortify us.  I for one would argue that stories do more than laws to make us good.  When Asaph looks back in Psalm 77, whatever it is he remembers argues for God’s love, even in what seems now to be his God’s absence. 

“Once upon a time,” he tells himself. . .and he remembers. . .and he’s strengthened.  That’s why I don’t just toss this old news story, yellowed and faded though it may be. 

Friday, January 22, 2016

Old scans--"Canonization for Anna"

[The third in a series of little essays written half-a-lifetime ago.]

Anna is out of intensive care now, and I guess that's why I'm saying this. Because it strikes me--now that she has wrestled through a fight with her heart--it strikes me that we are far too good at eulogies. Nice things are always easy to say after the funeral. But today Anna came out of intensive care.

Anna is an organist in our church--self-taught for the most part--and a Sunday school teacher for three or four generations probably. When I was a boy we feared Anna because her grim face wore no emotion; her lips were locked together in a twist that was neither smile nor frown. We read it as perpetual disgust.

Sunday school programs brought out the worst in her. A hundred kids with lit fuses would shoot around the church sanctuary during practice the night before. "You fourth graders, act your age!" She would always snap at us. When she'd turn to the fifth graders, someone would mimic her for sure. Years later I discovered that Anna created those annual programs.

Anna never married. In a church of families, even kids don't quite know how to take women who don't marry. They're different, and a boy starts recognizing such things about the same time he starts reading the script writing carved into the Communion table at the front of the church he's attended for ten years. Suddenly, it's just there. Fourth-grade boys just figured a woman like Anna-sour Anna-couldn't get a man. Meanwhile, another Christmas program would come and go.

Halfway through adolescent rebellion, I thought Anna was an icon of the staid, traditional, immovable church of my youth. Fashions arrived and left, but Anna's hair looked forever the same, as if she'd surrendered to being out of time. I swore that the older she grew the slower she played the organ, until even the bouncy hymns poked along like the old alms. And always you would see the expressionless face up there, lighted by the soft glow of organ light. She chewed gum, not vigorously but quickly, nervously, when she played.

Years have passed since then. Today the church pays a music director to order a Christmas show from some slick Christian catalog out of Texas, but Anna is still teaching Sunday school, and now she has my own three-year-old boy. No one else her age teaches, because kids have a way of forcing early retirements, just as they always did. But there is a smile on Anna's face whenever we drop our son off with her for Sunday school. It's a smile unlike anything we ever saw before on her face, a smile that surprised me at first. And Anna has a permanent now, her curly gray hair curled up tight around her head like any of a dozen other women in church.

Time fills in gaps the way dawn colors a lakeshore landscape. Some things I know now about Anna. I know now that Anna cared for her parents until the day each of them died. I know now that her father was no gentle man to live with-blustery, hardheaded, stubborn as the toughest Hollander. I know now that when he was gone, every Sunday she dressed her mother, set her in the wheelchair, and pushed the old woman to church, even when she knew her mother understood little of the sermon. I know now that giving her life to them was a thankless, blessed job that might have turned anyone's face into something grim, something less than radiant.

I know now that the woman who never married regularly plays grandmother to two little blond-haired boys no older than my own son, two little boys her niece was left alone with when their father ran off with another.

Why does she smile that way today, twenty years after a class of fourth-grade boys decided she was much too owly to be a good teacher? Why does my son love her today? Why does he curl around my leg and turn away from her when she talks to him, as if he's embarrassed to have all of her attention himself? Why does Anna smile?

Maybe it's because life is easier for her now, later on in her years. Maybe the privileged burden of her parents' care is there behind her, settled in the pages of her mind like yellowed photographs. Maybe the anxiety of being alone has settled into a firm assurance that all things have worked together for good. Maybe playing grandmother has swelled the limits of her tolerance. Maybe the smile is simply the inherent reward of many years of Christmas programs interspersed annually in a lifetime of quiet selflessness.

Four hundred years ago we reformed the church and stopped canonization, stopped making saints. Maybe it's a shame. Today we don't know how to revere those who give themselves, all of themselves, through us to God. We let them pass on too easily, and we don't elevate them like heroes. After all, what was Abraham to David but a symbol of belief and courage, of faith and promise.

So this is for you, Anna. And this is for me. And this is for our son. And this is for our Lord.

I'm happy you're out of intensive care, and so is my son.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Old scans--"Andy"

[continued from yesterday]

Then, when he was about sixteen, it was over. He never fought. He never had any more attacks. He rarely even came in the restaurant any more. He never talked to us. He only went to school.

His eyelids barely moved all day. He walked slowly. He stumbled down steps in the old brick, three story high school. His head dropped down, his neck loose, he seemed always to be nearly sleeping. And it was safe for us. Rarely did he explode into a frantic rage. Rarely did we find him sprawling on the floor in some contorted and horrifying fit. And it was all so safe. The answer was dope. No, he never bought it off the street; he never had to. It came from the doctor, and it changed his life. He stopped playing in the band. I don't even remember him as a senior.

And then I left to go to college. Occasionally my mother would speak of him when I visited. "Andy's in Memorial Hospital," she'd say. "Mental ward." Several years later: "Andy's at the County Hospital; you know they don't put them there unless they don't think they'll come back." Sometime later: "Andy's at Pine Rest-Ben Vander Aa was in Grand Rapids and he thought he'd try to talk to him. Said he was really bad, couldn't even understand a word."

So Andy's not been in my mind for many years. And Andy's not had his own mind either for many years. Our Andys are so pleasant to forget, because our Andys are an inconvenience in our lives and even make us miserable. They disturb our order. They sprawl out in our beautiful suburban lives like horrid nightmares, like very unwanted guests. Our Andys are dried blood on a clean white shirt. And when they die we say that we remember them because a memory is sometimes a rather safe place for us to hide.

And it's easy to come up with some Pharisaical way of dealing with our Andys and their slow but often inevitable ends. "There but for the grace of God ... " is a favorite. “Andys teach us to be thankful for what we are." "Andys humble us." "Andys are God-given symbols of our own sin and misery."

But Andy wasn't a symbol; he wasn't an object lesson for my pride. Andy was a human being. He looked like all the rest of us when he pulled on his suit for swimming lessons. And often I saw him cry. I heard him laugh. I heard him swear. I heard him pray when it was his turn. I saw blood squirt from his lips. And he was always so embarrassed after a seizure, and angry because he never really knew it had happened himself. It was something outside of him, something that possessed him--something that finally killed the spirit in him.

Sometimes easy answers aren't sufficient. Sometimes we can't dismiss our Andys with some kind of cheap theology. Sometimes it's wrong to see our Andys in a kind of concentric world where everybody else exists only to teach us some truth. That kind of world is built on something called pride.

I don't know what to do with Andy today. I don't know where he fits in my neat little catechism; I don't know if it's even right for me to think that I'm supposed to learn something from Andy's life. Maybe it's good for us to be awed by the sheer complexity of this world God has created, the world we have messed.

Sometimes there's little we can do but work and pray.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Old Scans--"Andy"

[The second of a series of little essays from half-a-lifetime ago.] 

Last week my mother called just to say that things were fine and so forth. No real news, it's just that calling seems to be so much easier than sitting down and writing and all. "And if you do it at the right time it really doesn't cost all either.” So my nephew cut his foot at school and my niece is growing nicely, almost talking already, and my sister’s youngest is enjoying school. 
And, oh yes, do you remember Andy? I think he was a year older than you were. Well, he's not well at all now. And it's been really rough on him and his parents. Maybe his death will be some kind of release, you know? The whole story is so sad. You remember him, don't you? You haven't been away that long.
Yes, Mom, I remember Andy. I remember him as a long dangling vine of a boy who wasn't the worst of the fifth grade basketball players. And I remember that he played third base on the little league baseball team, although he didn't play all that much, just some warm-ups and maybe late in the game if we'd be way ahead or way behind. 

And I remember him as being smart, too. Never the first one down in a spelling-bee; maybe not the smartest in the class, but no clown. But more than all that, I remember him defending himself against most of the others, myself included, fighting for something which I can only today identify as dignity. Andy was willing to swing, willing to suffer split lips for something money couldn't buy, and something he probably never felt he achieved. Andy was different.

He lacked nothing upstairs, and he was never the last kid chosen in playground basketball, but we all knew that at any moment, anywhere, he could fall over as if he had been shot by some invisible assassin. Right in the middle of a game, four on four, suddenly we'd discover him, legs and arms akimbo, sprawled out over the cold, wet blacktop, his body quivering and jumping and rolling as if something or someone in him was trying frantically to break free. His eyes still roll in my memory, and I see that contorted face so clearly that if I were an artist I could easily draw it, always bent off to the left shoulder at the neck, jerking, snapping, as if trying to pull itself away from an image it saw in a mirror.

Andy fell like that frequently. By the time we were in the third grade, we were quite used to it, really. Oh, it was disconcerting to teachers, but we all knew what to do, and if some young first-year teacher didn't, any one of us would explain in no time. 

It could happen right in the middle of singing; we stood: "Halleluhallelu-hallelu-hallelujah!” then the girls stood: "Praise Ye the Lord!" Up we'd come again: "Hallelu-hallelu-halle ... '', and there he'd be, spilled off his desk, legs split, jerking in the aisle, his arms snapping and twitching.

Even in high school. Typing class. Even in band where he was not a bad trumpeter. Again, at noon in the gym, all the girls watching as they sat around on the bleachers and whispered.

I guess that's what made him so irritable. We never never teased him about it--not even kids could be so crass—but it was there and we knew it. So when we'd get in little arguments about who touched the ball before it went out of bounds, Andy would erupt into violent anger. Someone would tease him about talking to some ugly school girl and he’d come out swinging, those long arms reaching and punching as if he could destroy all of us and this frothing devil within him with little more than his own power.  

(continued tomorrow) 

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Old scans--Prayer and Lake Perch

(continued from yesterday--and from 35 years ago.)

But I'm older now, and today l think I know even more. For instance, I think I know that my parents were wrong, in a way, for making me bow my head in a dimly lit tavern. For me, as long as such a practice was awkward or embarrassing or out-of-place, such a practice was mere exhibitionism. It wasn’t prayer at all. 

And what I whispered during those suppers reflected the banality of the exercise: I would chug through a sort of ritual litany of blesses, a childhood memory prayer that included my grandparents – “bless – mamma – and -a daddy – and Judy – and – Gail – and Grandpa – and – Grandma” years after my grandparents had passed on to a place where they had no need of further blessing. Put your head down, quickly get out the words, jerk your head up again—then watch your mother smile. It wasn’t prayer, really.

Today I think I know more about prayer. Those ditties I rifled through over a plate of perch were not really prayers; I wasn't really speaking to God, I was fulfilling an obligation to my parents. Prayer is, of course, nothing more or less than talking with God, and one cannot really sacramentalize prayer with folded hands and bowed heads, as if the occasion were some formal affair of our Sunday-best.

I grew up singing "Prayer is the soul's sincere desire/unuttered or expressed/the motion of a hidden fire/that trembles in the breast." Singing that, I learned that prayer was a spontaneous offering, the fluid, natural communica­tion which flows from creature to Creator. Prayer is not a pose; it's a function-"the Christian's vital breath," the song says.

And today, I'm old enough to learn from no less a heretic than D.H. Lawrence that such natural communica­tion between God and man exists only in a heart attuned to God. Belief, he says (and so have many others), comes on­ly from the Holy Ghost within. So while such public prayers may well have been natural for my parents, they were not for me-not at ten, or fifteen, or twenty.

All of that I think is true. But today I forgive my parents because I know that, in a way, all of that coercion was right-odd as that seems to be. Today my own children are coming to that age when they look at me across the table and wonder whether their father will pray in such an odd place to eat supper.

And the problem is, there's more to worry about when you're a father. All this knowledge one accumulates chasing through life's experiences gets to be a burden at times. While I'm convinced that forcing them, as I was forced, to bow their heads in public will not ensure that real prayer takes place, I am committed to doing whatever I can to ensure that their sweet kid's hearts become attuned to God. I want the Holy Ghost to dwell in those darling little temples. And I know-as I am sure my parents knew that the only way God may come to dwell within them is if they ask Him. And I know--as I am sure my parents knew--that one asks Him to dwell within, only through prayer.

I wonder sometimes how God receives all our prayers, even those shot-from-the-hip-the prayers mustered up as much from a sense of duty as from a real heartfelt desire. I can't help but think they're recorded anyway-even if no sweat or blood certifies the efforts. He is, after all, our Father, and if anyone will understand our silly foibles, surely He will, our great grace-giver. We have, I know, His promise to listen, even when our efforts are soiled by conditioning or coercion.

Sincere desire prompted my father's bowed-head testimony; it was a sincere desire that all of us remember, especially in a bar, whose children we really were. I'm sure God smiles on that kind of devotion.

So I suppose today I too should look over the table with that same furrowed-brow look my father gave me when I was a boy, and use it to convince my children to bow their heads. And silently we'll pray, sitting there rather uncom­fortably. And then we'll eat lake perch. I love lake perch.

Today half the county comes out to their favorite tavern for fish dinner on Friday nights. Years ago, the perch were taken right from the big lake down the road; some fish­lovers ate perch on Fridays to support local industry. Years ago, the county's Roman Catholics had to eat fish on Fridays; some fish-lovers ate perch to fulfill ecclesiastical law. But today, the perch are Canadian, probably flown in; years ago already the Pope freed Roman Catholics from a special Friday diet.

So today there are only two good reasons why all these folks wait in a line along the bar for fried lake perch on Fri­day nights: custom (they've been doing it for years) and pure desire (they love perch). And really, those two reasons are inseparable; they love perch-at least par­tially-because they've loved it for years.

In that way, Friday night perch is like a prayer, I guess. Prayer—real prayer—is a natural function of a heart attuned to God. But atonement comes only by prayer, and one learns to pray by praying. Thus custom builds desire. Thus desire builds custom.

That’s what my father thought, I suppose. And that’s why I’ll carry on that tradition, even into the tavern.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Some old scans--Prayer and Lake Perch

I'm going to be out of town for a week or so, so I thought I'd run a number of really old essays, all of which were hand-written at first, before being typed into an electric typewriter. They don't exist as manuscripts anymore, so I'm scanning them out of a book published more than thirty years ago, when I was, I suppose, something of a different human being, as we all were over time. I certainly recognize a younger self here, someone more sure of himself and his place in God's world. [This one even includes a drawing by Norm Matheis.]

*   ~   *   ~   *   ~   *

I love lake perch, and so do my parents. When I was a boy my family would (very infrequently) venture out to a lakeshore tavern for deep-fried lake perch. Somehow, fresh lake perch tasted great in a tavern, even though the Calvinist culture in which I was reared hinted that something originally sinful breathed and grew in that dimly lit world.

But my parents would chance the moody darkness and the seductive icy tinkling just for a bite of lake perch, with an order of coleslaw in a stout paper cup. Together we'd sit there and pray while the girl in the black stockings waited with a dish full of tartar sauce. In the world, I suppose, but not of it.

And it seemed to me then, a ten-year-old covenant child, ill-at-ease in the foggy and dark city of man, that my bowed head made me even more conspicuous than I already was, even more of an outsider in an elbows-up world of friendly conversation. Just being in a bar was enough of a shock when I was a boy. Praying so noticeably seemed akin to lugging a cross through the swinging doors and hoisting it up on our table, a unneeded demonstration of something we didn't really have to bring up. Even without a bowed head I felt purple.

A few years later at fifteen, the stool sitters seemed to me a more compelling group than they once had appeared--happy, affable, relaxed, some of them leaning up against the bar's thick black padding while holding their tap beers in one hand, all the while laughing and enjoying themselves.

And there we would sit, praying over our perch looking like some Amish family awkwardly strolling through a shopping center. At fifteen it wasn't simply awkward for me to pray in public, it was embarrassing. But then, at fif­teen, one's whole family is something of an embarrassment.

At twenty, everything my parents did was not only embarrassing, but also plain wrong. So I'd smile at the bar girl when she stood there waiting for my father's head to come up, a fancy Pabst tray full of drinks in hand and a bottle of ketchup for our fries m the other. I'd smile as if l knew exactly what she was thinking. Confident of the breadth of my learning, at twenty l was confident such public prayer rose, at most, to the haze of cigarette smoke at the ceiling-only that far.

Such silly piety, l would have said then, flows from either of two purposes, neither of which is sincere motivation. Maybe it's custom: my father has prayed through years of meals, and the habit is so thoroughly fixed within him that he cannot eat without satisfying the urge of ritual.

But custom alone is not motivation enough for prayer, l would have argued. Worse, maybe it's a desire to witness: the outside chance that one of the men bellied up to the bar will note my fathers bowed head and start mending his ways that very evening.

But talking to God so others can see you smacks of the hypocrites in Matthew 6:  "They love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at street corners, that they may be seen by men.” Wrong, wrong, wrong, I would have said, at twenty. Wrong, wrong, l would have said at twenty.

(continued tomorrow)

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Sunday Morning Meds--Why is there pain?

You kept my eyes from closing; I was too troubled to speak.” Psalm 77

I’m embarrassed to admit it, but somewhere in the notebooks lined up beside me, there exists some scribbled pages I filled up years ago when I was, like Othello, smitten with a nearly terminal case of jealousy that had zero foundation--so baseless, so whacky, that those pages expose the utter fool I was.

I don’t know what prompted the green-eyed monster to roar; but I remember coming downstairs late one night, sleepless as Asaph, and scribbling jolts of frustration into that notebook. I probably thought wringing out my frustration on the pages would exhaust me—well, exhaust my sin—in a way that nothing else could. Writing as therapy.

And it works that way sometimes. Write it out, I figured. Wrestle it down on a page.

Today, the whole business is totally absurd, so absurd it's funny. Sort of.

Somewhere down here I’ve got the pages to prove I was crazy. Trust me, I’m not going to look. I remember, and that’s embarrassing enough. Sleepless in Sioux Center.

That night, I was, like Asaph, “too troubled to speak.” When I read that verse right now, what comes back to me is that crazy, late-night bout of insane jealousy. What a fool. And what a sinner, wrath holding down its well-earned laurels as one of the Seven Deadly Sins.

Why did I go crazy? Pride, probably. Not getting what I wanted and thought I needed. Pride, wrath, jealousy—wrap those up tight and they’re lethal enough to keep anybody awake.

But that night has nothing to do with this psalm and Asaph’s distress because I was the one who “kept my eyes from closing.”

Asaph’s sleeplessness doesn't appear to be self-inflicted. Many know what he's feeling far better than I do. Three years have passed since it happened, but somewhere in Newtown, Connecticut, right now, I'm guessing, very early in the dark morning some Mom or Dad is still mourning the death of a precious child and asking God why on earth he allowed a 20-year-old kid with guns to walk into an elementary school and kill 20 first-graders and six teachers. Some place, probably even lots of places this early morning, there are more tears than sleep, wastebaskets of crumpled Kleenex.

Asaph, in all his humanness, answers one of the toughest questions we’ll ever ask in a way almost all of us do at one time or another: if God so loves the world, why do people suffer? Why is there ISIS? Why did he allow Dachau? a Wounded Knee? a Sandy Hook? a tsunami? how is it that tornadoes can rain from the sky? Why is there pain?

Asaph says, “You kept my eyes from closing; I was too troubled to speak.” You were the cause of my anxiety, he says, somehow thankfully.

I appreciate his testimony in Psalm 77, but I’m not so sure he got it all right. But, honestly, does anyone ever get it right here in the vale of tears?

Sometimes we’re sleepless with divine mysteries that go and grow far, far beyond us.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Morning Thanks--On circles

Okay, I feel a little embarrassed about admitting it because it's such a "retired guy" thing to do, thumb through a shoebox of old pictures. But there I was a couple of days ago, digging through scads of blurry photos in search of a snapshot or two of my sister.

That's her, along the sidewalk. You can barely make her out, and I wouldn't have known who it was if my mother hadn't written her name and mine on the back. That's me on the other side of the church steps. I'm ten. Feel free to doubt. I could blow it up on our flat screen TV and still not identify either of us.

But I know I was there, and I remember a trip to California when we stopped at Rehoboth, our mission in New Mexico, emphasis on our, a gospel mission among the Navajo people that my father was sure belonged to us, members of the Christian Reformed Church. It was summer. No throng of kids were around, but I have blurry memories of stopping there--of the high desert landscape, of round bread ovens at Zuni, of a boxy dining hall just across the compound from this old church. 

Still, finding this picture was pure joy, a revelation. There we are. There I am, close to sixty years ago.

Just a half-dozen years ago I tramped around that very region on assignment, writing a book about families--Native and Anglo--who, for generations, had been connected, one way or another, with Rehoboth mission, a pointedly "Reformed" idea that had its origins in what we used to call "covenant theology."

But the book wasn't supposed to be about theology. My assignment was to interview people, to ask them about their lives and their feelings about this very church and the whole concept of missions and mission schools. Let people tell their stories. Listen to them. Record. Help us remember.

That assignment changed my life, altered its course, simply but certainly brought me into a world I'd known very little about. All those hefty phrases are accurate, even though they feel heavier than they might seem. I didn't come away from New Mexico any more sinless than I ever was, but listening to all those people made me look out the world around me, around us, in a different way.

A couple decades earlier, and probably twenty years after this family picture was taken, I was seated in a pew at a worship service in that church in the old picture. I was listening to a preacher named James Lont hold forth on a hearty Reformed theme--the providence of God. He was speaking to kids, high school kids, the kids from my suburban Phoenix church among 'em. 

I'll grant you that his topic sounds like a heavy load for high school kids, but it wasn't. Lont told them that although God's designs include mysteries none of us are quick or smart enough to determine, they are there. You may not believe this, he said, but there's a reason you're here in this chapel today. That's faith.

I can't speak for any of the kids we took along for the retreat, but Lont was on the money when it came to me. 

I've spun a thousand stories in my life, most of them as real as this one. What I've come to understand is that one of the characteristics we love about good stories, even if and when we don't take the time to chart them out or think them through, is a strange, boomerang quality: stories often return to where they came from--or at least we like them to. They are somehow pleasing if they carry some rough-hewn unity, if they double-back on themselves, return to places they once touched. 

We like those stories because we like to feel there's reason and cause and unity in the chaos of our lives. We like to think things have shape and meaning. Like most Native folks, we like our stories shaped in a circle. Like this one: that's me in the picture, almost 60 years ago.

I'm a long way from New Mexico this morning, way up here in cold Iowa mid-winter. But a couple of nights ago I stumbled across this fuzzy photograph no one else could possibly value. 

No one but me, but then I'm the kid beside the steps of the Rehoboth church. Even though I'm nowhere close to that old creaky place and spent most all of my life elsewhere, I never really left. That's the circle. That's the story.

And for that circle of meaning, good Lord, I couldn't be more thankful this cold morning.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Gov. Haley and the State of the Union

On the night of Barack Obama's last hurrah, he got upstaged, big-time, and no one saw it coming.

It should have been his night, love him or hate him. It was, after a fashion, his swan song. You can argue the point, but there is, on the political calendar, few if any similar opportunities for saying what a president wants said than the annual State of the Union speech/sermon; and all but the most stiff-necked Obama haters will admit the man is good at making speeches.

And he had game on Tuesday night. Loads of supporters claim his final State of the Union was one of very best speeches, and he's had a ton of stemwinders. The time to lay out his agenda is over; no one expected a shopping list of must-have legislation. What he attempted instead was to do what Republican presidential candidates are not doing, not because they can't, but because they've been so good at surveying the foul mood among this nation's conservatives. 

Mostly it's woe that's being peddled by Trump and the Red State Gang. It's woe and woe and woe--how America is listing in a sea of tumult created by the incompetent Muslim. How the only way to make America strong again is to put up walls at home and make the desert glow. To speak harshly, carry a big stick, and use it, dammit. 

"The United States is the most powerful nation on earth. Period," Obama said Tuesday night, in a fashion that makes very clear the terms are not uncertain. He wanted to preach hope that night, belief in country, something GOP faves claim to be in short supply. 

And he was good. He was Obama-good. Only Obama haters--and they are legion--will claim otherwise.

But, if not in rhetoric, in substance, Gov. Nikki Haley outdid him, shocking listeners by actually taking on Donald Trump, the far-and-away leading candidate for the Republican nomination, like it or not. Trump is a bully, and he doesn't like pushback. But on the night of the State of the Union, he got it in spades from not only the exiting, greatly hated President Barack Obama, but also the woman chosen as the spokesperson of his own party (if he has one), South Carolina's Gov. Nikki Haley.

Now Ms. Haley was swept into office on the basis of her orthodox conservative credentials. She was--but probably is no more--a tea-partier. And let's be clear: her rebuttal to the President's speech didn't slight Obama's faults. She laid into him as viciously as one might expect. 

But the real story was this line: “Today, we live in a time of threats like few others in recent memory. During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices. We must resist that temptation,”

And if anyone doubted she was talking about Donald Trump, she pulled a play out his own playbook the next day when she doubled-down on what she'd said on the Today show and elsewhere that, yes, America, I was talking about the Donald.

That's the line that zinged all over the world, that had wing-nuts from the right fuming, that prompted some Trump disciples to call for sending Ms. Haley back to India, where her parents came from.

Look, in recent history, Republican rebuttals have been shipwrecks. The only thing America remembers of Marco Rubio's was his pitiable reach for bottled water. Bobby Jindel looked like little Lord Fauntleroy. Along comes Nikki Haley, and the whole world listens.

Here's the news. Trump and all those who preach fear and hate got nailed twice on Tuesday night. They expected some body blows from Obama--everyone did. But they didn't expect getting slapped around by their own. And they did.

It was an amazing moment in this amazing political year. 

Will it make a difference?  Probably not. If you honestly and truly want to believe in shock and awe, then you're not going to let an Indian woman--even one toting an assault rifle--talk you out of it. To most of his people, Trump is still the savior.


Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Book Report--Mystery and mysteries

I took one look and asked myself, "What's not to like?" The novel is regional--set proudly in Minnesota. It's central character is taking a college writing class, for pete's sake, doing an assignment that required him to interview someone for a life story. We're on familiar ground here. The Life We Bury is a mystery with a love story too, and the cover is a photograph I could have taken myself, would have, in fact, had I been standing there in the downy snow at that old barn.

So I bought The Life We Bury--on tape, and listened for a couple of weeks' worth of workouts. Easy listening too. Allen Eskens' first novel (okay, I'm also green with envy) is everything the buzz says it is--a perfectly suspenseful whodunit that grabs your attention and won't let go. 

I'll admit it. I got soured when The Life We Bury introduced the evangelical Christian, because I knew, long before it was clearly manifest, that the Christian was deranged. If there's going to be a Bible believer in a murder mystery--and a male--he's going to be a nut case.

Doggone it, I'm not always happy to be one myself, but one really gets tired of "same-old, same-old" characters spouting Jesus and hate, Jesus and violence, Jesus and spite. All Allen Eskens has to do is put a Bible verse on the lips of an old man, and, voila!--we got a villain. From the first mention of his Christian faith, I was sure the old man would be an incestuous insane killer. Poor guy didn't have a chance. There I stood on the exercise machine, sweating away, ready to rip out the earbuds because once the insane guy spouting scripture showed up, I knew where this novel was headed.

Well, I was wrong. And that's good.

He may not have done the deed, but the old man with the Bible is still certifiably loony and doubtlessly dangerous. Novels like The Life We Bury simply assume that bible believers are moonstruck, lecherous crazies--like Bill Gothard. You can't be a Christian and not be crazy. 

But The Life We Bury does not explore but exploits the human condition. It's genre, and genre at its best. Its forte is not character but plot. If what people might be like seems manufactured in a murder mystery, it is.

I'm glad I picked up The Life We Bury, glad to have read it. I'd love to write a novel like it. But if we compare the murder at the heart of the story to the murder at the heart of the Netflex series The Making of a Murderer, we're comparing apples to junkyard dogs. Both stories involve at-risk families, feature a purposeful search for truth, and show you the blood of an unsolved murder. But they're different as day and night.

Sometime in the 80's, when the incidence of incest seem everywhere, when horrific accusations were being tossed about all over the landscape, when even a Pulitzer Prize winning novel like A Thousand Acres used "recovered memory" as if it were commonplace, I told a friend of mine, a social worker, that I'd like to meet someone who committed incest as so many fathers appeared to have done. 

He shook his head. "No, you wouldn't," he said. "He'd probably seem a whole lot like you and me."

What makes The Making of a Murderer so greatly more fascinating is its exploration of the sheer mystery of human nature. In The Life We Bury, there's no doubt where the horror lives. In The Making of a Murderer, after ten hours of documentary, we honestly don't know where the evil lies. Seriously, when you get past the last page of The Life We Bury, the story has no mystery at all.

They're completely different genres, and we tend to read novels like The Life We Bury to get away from stories like The Making of a Murderer.

That's human too.