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.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Baby killers

Somewhere back in this blog's archives, I'm quite sure I told a story about my grandson, who was a kindergartner in 2008, a little towhead kid who climbed up into my lap as I was sitting in front of the computer in our basement and announced, smilingly, that Obama was a baby killer. 

He had no idea what a pregnancy was, may have heard the word abortion but couldn't have begun to understand it, and knew little if anything about the profound antagonism between those who favor legal abortion and those who don't in this country. He was parroting what he'd heard somewhere--I doubt at home. 

I'm not even sure he knew who Obama was. What he was willing to impart was that whoever Obama was, he killed babies. 

Far more often than not, a Christian community is a vital blessing, your sweet kids surrounded by people who pray. Sometimes it's not. 

The idea that Obama is, in fact, a baby killer is an understandable conclusion in a world in which, politically at least, legalized abortion trumps (can we still use that word?) most other crimes and misdemeanors. The attitude that Obama is or was abortion's champion is understandable too; he didn't oppose abortion as vehemently as John McCain claimed to--or certainly the former governor of Alaska did. The wisdom my five-year-old grandson imparted was a perfect shot-from-the-hip soundbite that would go well on a t-shirt.

Yesterday, Donald Trump misspoke, something he does regularly even though he doesn't believe it himself. Yesterday he misspoke and he knew it. Yesterday he told Chris Matthews that a woman who seeks an abortion needs to be punished. He didn't specify sentencing, but he said he believed that if abortion was going to be made illegal, then women who seek it must suffer the consequences of breaking the law.

The rest of the world went crazy. His Republican opponents repudiated him even more quickly than did Sens. Sanders and Clinton. Even pro-life groups rose up in outrage. Punish the women?--how unthinkable! 

I agree. I also understand how pro-life advocates would punish the doctor or whatever medical professionals provide the abortion procedure. Technically, their fingers do the killing. 

But Trump's apparent miscue stopped me because I'm not sure why so many would be so quick to call Obama (or Clinton or Sanders or Democrats in general) "baby killers," while assuming women who want and will the procedures, even pay for them, are most certainly not. 

The only possible reason can be that women who want to abort their babies are victims of some calamity or condition. If it isn't a failed marriage, it must be their hormones. When women discover they're pregnant, they're fragile and somehow not responsible for their decisions, their complicity in illegality--is that how the argument goes? If abortion is murder, are moms simply declared innocent across the board?

Many years ago I got a call from an old friend, someone who was raised Jewish but converted to Christianity when I knew him--and when an affair with a colleague led to his divorce--and hers. It's complicated and messy, but life is. His new wife was pregnant and had significant medical problems; the two of them were still burning bridges behind them--it wasn't pretty. Her pregnancy wasn't intended, and he was scared, he said.

Honestly, I think he called me because he wanted me to tell him what he already knew I would say--that even though there were loads of reasons for them to abort, they shouldn't. He knew me well enough to know what'd I'd say, and I did. 

And they didn't.

Today he's a Dean at a Catholic university, and the two of them are happily married, their kids adults and very much on their own. 

But when my old still-Jewish-but-now-Christian friend laid out the case as he did that night on the phone, I walked for just a moment in his shoes, in his tracks, in theirs; and for maybe the first time in my life, I told myself that, well, it's complicated. 

Because often enough it is.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Faith and death

“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.”

So spoke Lavoy Finicum in a radio broadcast, Finicum, the Arizona rancher who'd gone up to Oregon to protest the federal government's persistent and illegal overreach, policies that affected he and his fellow Mormon cattle rancher, Cliven Bundy. The two of them--and many others--believe the federal government has no standing in their lives, and they claim the Constitution of the United States backs them up. As does God almighty.

Just exactly what happened at a road block in the middle of a Oregon forest will be debated, I'm sure, for a long time. Law enforcement officials claim Finicum reached for a gun after stepping out of a van he'd just slammed into a snowdrift. Finicum raised his hands as told, but then reached for something on his person, at which point, in the language of such warfare, he was 'taken out."

Anti-government demonstrators claim what happened was cold-blooded murder. The government says the man's death occurred because they were sure of "clear and present danger." What seems perfectly clear from what Finicum wrote and said days and even just hours and minutes before he was shot is that he believed he would be. It's speculation on my part to say it, but if you listen to him on the video made by occupants of the car, he seemed to encourage it, to wish martyrdom on  himself--and he got it. Google him, and you'll hear his people roar. 

Lavoy Finicum was no terrorist. He did not walk into some Oregon burg and start shooting. He didn't trigger a suicide vest or leave a bomb in a car parked outside a church. He took no one with him when he did what he did in the woods in Oregon. But what seems perfectly clear from everything he said and wrote is that he believed that "God's hand is in this," that "whatever happens, we know that it's going to be okay."

He was willing to die for God, freedom, and the American way. He considered himself the patriot, the rest of us conspirators and criminals, disciples of the evil scumbama.

In the days before Cliven Bundy put oak leaves on his cap and proclaimed himself the general of an army of freedom fighters in Utah, Lavoy Finicum paid taxes, even prepaid them, for his use of federal grazing land in far northwest Arizona. He and his wife had almost a dozen foster children, a major source of their income, he said. They kept up a home a long way from government of any kind, really. 

Then the Bundy conflict came along, and everything changed. Following the Bundy model, Finicum also refused to pay taxes he owed because just where in the constitution can anyone find the federal government's right to control land that should belong to the people? 

Finicum left his Arizona ranch for Oregon because he believed in the cause those dozen or so protesters were delivering in the face of the wicked federals. His cause was just. He was on the Lord's side, as sure as I am that the Lord would guide his feet down paths of righteousness.

Now he's dead, the martyr he wanted to be to the lunatic fringe Clive Bundy both represents and even, sadly, leads. And it's okay, I guess, because his death is something he believed God ordained somehow. 

"We know that God's hand is in this," Finicum said on the last morning of his life. 

"He was a fine man," Bundy said at Finicum's funeral. "He was basically crucified." LaVoy Finicum, Bundy says, was yet another Jesus Christ.


Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The stone he rolled away

We built a house. Unlike a ton of people, we never really dreamed about doing that, never had a dream house, per se. I still find it hard to believe that we're here. 

I didn't build it, literally. My father built his house, most of it anyway, or so I'm told, used his own hands. But I didn't build this one: whole crews of men and women with real skills framed it, floored it, fitted its cabinets, and finished it up. Sometimes I watched, but not long. "I charge $15 an hour," one of them told me, "$30 if you watch, and $45 the minute you pick up a hammer." He smiled, but I got the message.

The only task I can say I did was muscle tons of river rocks into into retaining walls, sometimes four feet high, that run around every corner of the place and line the walk-out basement, stretching out toward the acre of grasses out back. Took me some few hours to do it. When I point those walls out and tell people I made them, they're surprised. I like that. 

I think I know a little about rocks. I'm no geologist. I know what Sioux quartzite looks like, but most of the others' names escape me. I know they're not all of similar weight--some dense ones are really heavy. But when I was putting those walls together, I had a good idea which ones I could take a shot at moving and which--I'm a retired man, you know--required my neighbor's skid loader. 

I say that because this Easter I heard something I'd never, ever heard before. Joseph of Arimathea was a rich man who could somehow make his way through an eye of a needle. On his own, dangerously too, he went to Pilate and asked for something greatly undesirable--the body of Jesus. Then he buried that body--he and Nicodemus, Jesus's late-night friend--in his own tomb. Here's how Matthew's account has it:
As evening approached, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus. Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body, and Pilate ordered that it be given to him. Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock. He rolled a big stone in front of the entrance to the tomb and went away.
It took me an entire lifetime to hear that last line. Somewhere in my childhood I picked up the image of a stone maybe five feet tall in front of the entrance to the vault. I never thought much about how it got there, simply assumed that it took a squad of beefy Roman soldiers to man it into place, maybe a team of horses or a quartet of oxen to get the job done right. 

I never once imagined Joseph of Arimathea, all by himself, muscling it into place. Listen, I know about these things--if he did the job, what he rolled up wasn't much of a stone, and it certainly wasn't five feet around like the one in my imagination. Even if Joseph was a hulk, he couldn't have rolled up my version of that stone by himself. He would have needed a skid loader. But the Bible says he arm-wrestled that beast into place all by his lonesome. 

But in my mind the real story is rolling it away. My imagination always got the job done with a squad of angels, who simply poofed it into paper mache. Or else Jesus himself sat up, smiled, and waved a finger--whoosh, stone's gone. For all of my life, rolling the stone away required a miracle because the simple fact that the stone was gone sent those beefy soldiers high-tailing it to headquarters. 

For the first time in my life, I couldn't help wonder whether maybe Jesus himself rolled the stone away. Seriously? He could have. After all, Joseph of Arimathea rolled it into place. Maybe Jesus took a look at that thing, loosened up his shoulders a bit, spit on his hands, bent his knees properly, and did the job himself. Maybe it wasn't angels or even a miracle, some fabulous act of God.

Wait a minute. Even if he did it himself, it was an act of God, wasn't it? The miracle isn't in the stone, its heft, or some First Century B. C. skid loader behind a quartet of Jewish oxen. The miracle is that our Lord sat up, brushed himself off, stood, got his bearings for a minute. and walked out of that tomb. That he lives is the real miracle. 

The stone is only a stage prop. 

Maybe Jesus did it with his own hands, moved it himself, shouldered it gone, then bent down and stepped out of the tomb into the face of a dawn no one had ever seen before. He's alive. That's the real story.

Everything else is incidental.

Monday, March 28, 2016

This is my father's world

I'm told the male kestrel is grayish blue, even orange-looking, which means the determined hunter who entertained our whole family so royally yesterday during a wonderful Easter dinner was a woman, because, just in case you're wondering, the American kestrel is sexually dimorphic. 

Before you run off to Wikipedia, sexually dimorphic means, simply, that males and females aren't created equal. Well, they're created equal, but obvious physical differences make them look different--think ringneck pheasants, for example, who also occupy our backyard, or wood ducks or mallards. Donald Trump would say, "think human beings." He's not wrong. About most things he's not to be trusted, but human beings are sexually dimorphic too, like kestrels, sometimes called sparrow hawks.

One of which, this one, a woman, did some serious weekend hunting outside our back windows yesterday, in the middle of an Easter ham which I would be happy to admit was "to die for" if that phrase weren't inappropriate anywhere near to Holy Week. BTW, our Easter dinner was terrific; the pretty human female I live with--we're sexually dimorphic too--was on top of her game. 

But this particular kestrel, this little feathered hovercraft, had our grandkids fighting over the binoculars as she gathered her own Easter meal, probably a field mouse. She's no bigger than a robin, but that distinctive beak gives away her origins: she's a falcon, the tiniest member of the family. Try to imagine a cute falcon, and you've got a kestrel. 

Be not deceived--she's no Disney character. Kestrels know exactly what they're doing. 
They're killers. When she grabs a field mouse out of the grasses out back, she quite deftly snaps its spine. Fortunately, yesterday, we missed her dirty work. She pulled something out of the grass, toted it to the cornfield out back, and lunched bloodily out of sight among the stubble.

But her hunt was a delight to watch. She's regal and slim, weighing in at no more than four ounces; and she's blessed with a significant wingspan and a tail like a windmill rudder--well, that's stretching it. But she can tread air for as long as she needs to, the talent that had us all oohing and aahing yesterday at our dinner. Couldn't have paid for better entertainment.

And then there were these guys up on the side of a hill along the Little Sioux River, same place as last year. They're prairie crocuses, sometimes called pasque-flowers by people who prefer sounding as cultured. 

They're a provincial favorite in Manitoba, but not to be eaten, according to Wikipedia, who claims they are highly toxic because they slow the heart. Chew too many and you may be beset with "diarrhea, vomiting and convulsions, hypotension (LOW blood pressure) and coma." Listen to this: "Blackfoot Indians used it to induce abortions and childbirth." My grandson and I, who hiked up the hill to find them, didn't indulge.

I'll have you know the ditches are greening nicely right now, snow from a winter storm last week having melted sweetly into the ground. Winter's toughest blows are behind us. 

Ditch grass is nice, but the prairie crocus is the real star of early spring. Where they grow, they fight their way through to sunlight. They don't dominate like sun flowers, but they're always first on stage. They begin the show. Fragile as they seem, they punch through dead grass on a mission to remind us once again that new life already has its bags packed and is on its way. 

Call me a dreamer, but I think the prairie crocus is created especially for Easter. 

Yesterday we had a good one, a good Easter, in case you're wondering. Worship in church, at home, and out in the rustling grass, where once again, robed in his own wonders, we heard him pass. He speaks to us everywhere.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Sunday morning meds--the stories we tell

You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron.”
Psalm 77:20

Some years, my son and I ran into a man who asked me if I was Jewish. I had told him my surname—Schaap—which he identified as a particularly Jewish name in Holland. We were in the Netherlands.

The day before, we’d visited Westerbork, the transit station where a hundred thousand Dutch Jews bade tearful goodbyes on their way to concentration camps, never to return. The commemorative displays at Westerbork weren’t fully accessible to visitors who don’t read Dutch, but words aren’t all that important when one stands beside railroad tracks where cattle cars stuffed with starving human cargo once chugged away to death factories.

It was an eerie juxtaposition: Westerbork’s horror with the possibility that somehow I too could have been wearing that war-time yellow star. My son felt it too, I think, even though he was just a boy.

Elie Wiesel’s Night is perhaps the most famous piece of Holocaust literature. Wiesel’s time in the camps, his loss of his father specifically, but his experience of deprivation and insane inhumanity all made powerless the God he thought he knew. When a beloved boy is hung by the SS, someone asks, “where is God?” --a voice within Wiesel answers: “Where is He? Here He is—He is hanging here on this gallows. . .” What Wiesel tells God is that innocence and faith and light itself died in the camps.

Asaph tells a different story. In Psalm 77, he tells the world, in triumph, that the remembrance of things past washes out whatever torture darkens the soul, enables us always to see light behind the curtain. When Asaph remembers the exodus, God’s love reruns in his imagination, seems to return to his soul and his world. When he tells the Passover story, he is reminded once again of divine love.

The unbounded joy of the Exodus promises to heal what Elie Wiesel cannot shake--the horrified agony of the Holocaust. If my people were among the millions who died in the camps, would Psalm 77 lift the darkness? Whose story would I retell—Asaph’s or Wiesel’s?

The big windows just to my right hold nothing but darkness right now, but it’s Easter, the morning all of us learned the greatest story ever told. This morning, once and forever, death was conquered, suffering dispelled. This morning, when Mary went to the tomb, she simply couldn’t believe what was there and wasn’t: it was open after all, and he was gone.

He is risen. He’s alive. The sun rises even on the darkest moments of our lives. That’s what we believe, even in the darkest night, even when joy seems banished.

God was there when Moses lifted up his arms. Bless his holy name.

But was he at Auschwitz and Buchenwald and Trebelinka and Dachau? At Westerbork? Is he there in all our suffering?

Asaph’s testimony in Psalm 77 is glorious, absolutely glorious—as light is to darkness, as morning is to night. Lead us too by the hand, Lord, because yours is the story we have to hear, this morning especially. You’re alive.

Once for always you arose. Once, for us.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Kirstin Valdez Quade's story for Good Friday

I stepped into the world of Kirstin Valdez Quade somewhere close to the beginning of Lent. Couldn't have been a better time really, although I had no clue about what I was getting into. Ms. Quade's stories in Night at the Fiestas, her first book, create a darkened museum of suffering, which sounds--I know--awful. 

But maybe not today, not Good Friday, the setting for "The Five Wounds," a story which takes on a subject few writers would dare approach. "This year," the first sentence announces, "Amadio Padilla is Jesus." Because all of her stories in Night at the Fiestas are steeped in Mexican culture, that sentence directs a reader to some kind of passion play, a small town where Holy Week rituals are bold and scary and bloody.

Amadio is no fair-haired Jesus either, she tells us, "no silky-haired, rosy-cheeked, honey-eyed Jesus, no Jesus-of-the-children, Jesus-with-the-lambs." He's lazy, judged a good-for-nothing by those around him and for good reason. What's more, he hasn't seen Angel, his own daughter, fifteen and pregnant, for a year or more. What's more, he can't even remember the last time the two of them were alone. He's a long-shot at playing Christ, but his uncle, who runs the show, tells neighbors it might be good for Amadio because "he could use a lesson in sacrifice."

Angel isn't one. She's loud and vulgar and offensively childish. Oddly enough, her innocence is bested only by her brassy arrogance. But she's just a child, eight months pregnant.

Amadio has the lead in the kind of ritual observance Roman Catholic church hierarchy has long rejected, rituals you might expect to find in small towns where nothing ever changes. Men in black hoods bloody themselves as they stalk the Christ, who lugs the cross up a two-mile path to the town's own Golgatha. It's not pretty. As Amadio himself insists, it's something the children will never forget, but it's certainly no Rose Bowl parade.

The question that haunts Amadio is whether or not he will be strong enough to take the ritual nails through hands and feet, whether his selflessness will go that far. A former Jesus who suffered the nailing years ago still can't open his hands, but what Amadio believes is that his own worthiness will be dependent upon the extent of his willful suffering. If he can be Christ, the entire ritual will be memorable, and he will be transfigured before the village. 

What Kirsten Valdez Quade does in "The Five Wounds" is reenact the crucifixion using a man so utterly unlike Christ that the fact that she's doing it is astonishing. Amadio Padilla is the amigo Donald Trump draws up to create white disciples, but through the ritual crucifixion Amadio is not lost because he believes--he surely does--that if he can do this thing, something good can happen, both to him and for his community.  

I never saw Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, perhaps because the whole thing felt like a come-on. I know lots of believers were blessed, and I believe that in my own faith tradition--a tradition that doesn't hang crucifixes--our radiant joy at the resurrection sometimes too fully eclipses Christ's suffering on this very Good Friday. But The Passion wasn't for me. 

Then again, really, neither is this story. "The Five Wounds" takes you through suffering most of us choose not to imagine. Finally, Amadio suffers the nails. But he comes to understand that he is not "the Son," not Jesus Christ. "The sky agrees, because it doesn't darken," Quade writes. "Amadeo remembers Christ's cry--My God, why has thou forsaken me?--and he knows what is missing. It's Angel who has been forsaken."

There could be no resurrection, no Easter, without Good Friday. "This year, Amadeo Padilla is Jesus Christ," the story announces right up front. And, thank the Lord, because for the first time in his life, it made him see. 

One could do worse on this Good Friday.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Isaac Watts's "secretaries"

Because it's really tough to miss his music, just about anyone who's ever gone to church knows Isaac Watts. Those who know such things claim he wrote more than 750 hymns in his time (1674 - 1748). That's where we meet him, in his hymns; he's there somewhere in the shadow of the glory he created. 

But one meets Isaac Watts in other places as well--in his own commentary on the way in which he wrote lyrics that have become so familiar and precious to so many. He was--as he had to be--his own fiercest critic; and sometimes, he says in the intro to Hymns and Spiritual Songs, he had to restrain himself. 

"Some of the beauties of poesy are neglected and some willfully defaced," he says, speaking of what English teachers call metaphor and simile. And then, a confession: "I have thrown out the lines that were too sonorous and have given an allay to the verse lest a more exalted turn of thought or language should darken or disturb the devotion of the weakest souls." 

Okay, if you catch a whiff of condescension, it's there. Sometimes he'd like to be more "poetic" but he's a bit afraid the unwashed in the sanctuary won't get it. Restraint, he says, is something that really has to be practiced. But we'll let him explain:
But hence it comes to pass that I have been forced to lay aside many hymns after they were finished, and utterly exclude them from this volume, because of the bolder figures of speech [there's the phrase] that crowded themselves into the verse which I could not easily restrain. . .
If there's any question, Isaac Watts did not dream up his metaphors, didn't sit there, quill in hand, and work them out. They came to him almost too easily, too willingly. And now, a confession of sin:
I confess myself to have been too often tempted away from the more spiritual designs I proposed, by some gay and flowery expression that gratified the fancy; the bright images too often prevailed above the fire of divine affection and the light exceeded the heat.
At times, he says, his craft got away from him. Thrilled by the form, he nearly forgot content; and the line, he says, went over the top, devotion--the thought--left somewhere behind. 
Yet I hope in many of them the reader will find that devotion dictated the song and the head and hand were nothing but interpreters and secretaries to the heart.
He wants those who sing his hymns to see that his devotion to God created the music--and that his creative imagination--his head and hands--were but "secretaries to the heart."

Watts says he loves to dress up his lyrics in poetic finery. But it's a weakness he has to fight. Style should only serve, not rule.

If you're wondering, one of the hymns to make the cut in that first collection is "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross," a hymn that includes one of the most famous "figures of speech" in all of English hymnody: 

See from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down!

English teachers call that metonymy, a species of metaphor that substitutes part of something for the whole of something. This famous line happens to reverse that definition, substituting whole (sorrow and love) for the part (blood). What's literally falling from the savior is blood. But Watts reminds us it's not just that--it's sorrow (for us) and love (for us). Blood flowing from the Savior's wounds is bad enough, but there's very much more to his suffering.

I could write all morning long to try to unpack what's in those two lines, but sometimes it's better simply to sing them in sheer wonder.

If you're blessed, you may just sing that old Watts hymn sometime in the next few days. If not, spend a couple minutes listening. What Watts wrought will take your breath away. Those hands of his, those secretaries to the heart, never did finer work. 

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

A most unlikely pregnancy

Once upon a time we had a barn in our backyard, a barn that featured an honest-to-goodness carriage stall, complete with manger. When we bought the house, it seemed like a bonus--we not only had a houses and a barn, we actually had a manger. 

I'm no farm kid. There are no milking stools in my memory, no chicken coops, machine sheds, or outdoor privies, and no mangers. That I knew the word at all resulted from a couple thousand readings of Luke 2; after all, you can't stage the Bethlehem story, even in your imagination, without a manger. It would be interesting to know how little I was when I first tried to picture Jesus in a manger. Really, really young.

I'm 68 years old today, but it never dawned on me to think about Mary, a child herself, actually getting pregnant. The act?--sure. Who hasn't wondered what she felt when suddenly the Savior of the world was miraculously there within her? There are Catholic schools named "Immaculate Conception," after all--we used to play them in basketball. 

But I don't know that I've ever given much thought to Mary, the virgin Mary, pregnant for nine long months. Did her ankles swell or her veins protrude? Was she sick a ton? Did she have to pee a lot? She probably didn't crave ice cream or tacos, but did she ever send Joseph out for a pickle?

Not until this week had I ever thought about actual gestation (can I even use that word when it comes to Christ?). Those who follow a strict liturgical calendar celebrated the Feast of the Annunciation just a few days ago, a prescribed holiday in the middle of Lent when celebrants rejoice at the news of Mary's pregnancy. In God for Us, Luci Shaw says the day comes as a shock to her because everything connected with Christ's birth seems winterized, "wreaths of holly, snow falling all around." Same with me. Somewhere in the word annunciation there has to be a manger.

But there isn't. In fact, it's almost spring, almost Easter, a strange time to think about shepherds abiding in the field suddenly gifted by a heavenly flash mob. It took me 68 years to consider a royal pregnancy, even though I probably built imaginary nativity scenes in my mind since I was three.

Why? Why did the Lord God almighty not just engineer some kind of polaroid pregnancy, let Mary off the hook. She was too young for stretch marks. Why make her carry the Savior for nine long months? Why not just spring him on the world?--which is what he did anyway. Why not bless Mary by forgoing all the stress that pregnant moms come heir to? 

Nope. For all we know, Mary carried that child just like any other mother. I don't know that first century Galileans had mirrors, but you can bet she stopped to take a look at herself once in a while, measured her swelling, held her belly in her hands. 

I just thought I'd bring all of that up. It seems so odd to think of it right now, Good Friday staring us down--and Easter just a few bright mornings away. 

It's something of shock to consider the annunciation in late March, but something of a relief too, something to prompt a smile right before the darkness dead ahead.

My Dutch Calvinist ancestors would have whispered it, I'm sure. There was, after all, something unseemly about being pregnant since it implied. . .well, dare I say it?--sex. Probably after church sometime, a couple of women would break the news, privately, shielding the conversation from the children. "Mary. . .don't you know?--Mary, is in verwachting, in "the family way."

Polite grins, tenderly offered, all around.

There's not a manger in sight right now. Three crosses on the horizon, and somewhere just over the hill a load stone rolled away. 

But Mary's with child. Amazing. 

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Holy Week and His will

There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, "Thy will be done," and those to whom God says, in the end, "Thy will be done." All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened.  
That's C. S. Lewis in The Great Divorce. The blunt force of the either/or proposition he creates makes a great pocket reference for understanding one of the most difficult lines we confess. Either we say those words to him--"thy will be done, Lord"--or he says them to us--"very well then, your will be done." Go burn in hell. 


Joel Nederhood, in his book of devotions, The Forever People, claims that what Jesus himself wants in that petition of the Lord's Prayer is that we become more like the angels, simply taking God's orders without question. "The reference to heaven in the perfect prayer," Nederhood says ("Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven"), "reminds us that there is a realm where the will of God is absolutely supreme." Therefore, he says, "Those who want to live eternal life beginning now realize that God's will must be supreme."

Honestly?--I like that better.

It's hard not to think of that single petition as a concession speech, because it is. We lost. He won. We give up. What we confess in those few words is that our will is of little or no consequence, a concession that is, for most of us, a mean bullet to bite. 

A friend loses his job, gets fired. That he did seems unimaginable, given his commitment and experience. You think you know him well enough to believe he simply couldn't have been lazy or slipshod. You've seen him at work, heard him talk about it. No matter. He got canned.

You're mad as heck. You're outraged. You feel like bawling. You want to raise Cain, even though you remember that Cain was certainly no hero.

Should you get into it? Should you Lone Ranger the thing, or stay on the sidelines and tell yourself that all things must pass? 

When we beg God that his will be done are we throwing in the towel? Don't we thereby become human bean bags who lie around in dreadful passivity waiting for someone to sit on us? Doesn't saying "thy will be done" virtually insure we'll live on welfare for all of our born days? 

Is concession something you do only when failure is imminent? Christ himself, on the cross, precedes this very grand concession with one last blast of his own human rebelliousness. 
"And He went a little farther, and fell on His face and prayed, saying, “O My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as Thou wilt.”

Jesus Christ knows very well what has to be done. He's been told from eternity that he will die for our sins, he will die and be raised anew. He knows what's in front of him so well that he actually asks his father to call the whole gig off--the manger, the water into wine, the blind man, the woman at the well, that bottomless meal on the Mount, all that adulation on a donkey, Peter's altercation, Pilot's half-hearted sentencing, the beating, the crown of thorns, even the nails through his hands--write it off, Father, he says, "let this cup pass from Me." Jesus Christ asks the boss, his beloved father, to forget the whole thing. Was there ever a moment in his thirty-some years when he was more human? 

That's when he concedes. "Not as I will, but as Thou wilt."

Could he have done more? Could he have, as the soldiers said, simply stepped down off the cross and waltzed back into town? Couldn't he have called in flights of angels with assault rifles? Couldn't he have acted? Did he just have to hang there on nails and take it? 

Here's a take on an eternal question that has no clear answer. "Thy will be done" admits, in faith, that there was and is and always will be a better way than ours--which is to say, there's God's way. That admission--that firm belief--shouldn't stop us from going to bat in this world for things that matter. But it also insists, in faith, that our moment at the plate may very well not be his. Our faith in his will doesn't keep us from acting, but it does insist that we admit, right from the get-go, that we could be wrong. 

Jesus himself tried. With every element of his being, he tried to reverse course: "take this cup from me." That's what he begged.

But that taking was not to be, and he knew it.

Thy will be done. There's always a better way, and it's his, not ours. 

Monday, March 21, 2016

During Holy Week

Primary Renauds is a condition medical professionals say has no internal cause. It effects the extremities, primarily hands and feet, and leaves them tingling and, more often than not, hurting. The pain results from constricted blood vessels that tighten and thereby restrict blood flow for two main reasons--cold (there's little Renauds in Bermuda presumably) and stress (wouldn't you know it?) Sounds like a it could be a particularly acute problem among Lutherans and Calvinists in and around Minnesota (like here). 

Secondary Renauds is a condition medical professionals say has internal causes like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. Secondary Renauds--or Renauds Phenomenon--occurs also in people who use their hands a lot, who play piano or operate jackhammers. Those who suffer from one of the many forms of carpel tunnel syndrome may also have really painful feet and toes.

By far the most prevalent cause of painful feet and toes is diabetes. High blood sugar wreaks havoc on blood vessels and, as everyone knows, diabetic neuropathy can get ugly, fast, really ugly. Can be fatal.

I am not affected by any such pain. But everyone knows at least something about aching feet and hands. If your feet hurt, people say, you just plain hurt all over. Watch old men and women walk down the street, and you can pick out hammer toes and bunions, flat feet and ingrown nails. Ever break a toe? Doesn't everyone? There ain't no cure. Just time and tenderness. It just hurts.

Three years ago on July 4, in a motel room, I got up in the early, early morning darkness and rammed my big toe against a bed frame that was not about to move. Nothing I can say or write can describe the howling I choked back because I didn't want to wake my wife. Pain you wouldn't believe, pain so strong I went blind. In a flash I knew the nail was history--and it was. 

There's not a soul alive who somewhere on their pilgrimage didn't suffer the perfectly gruesome pain of a stubbed toe. Some of the wildest dances ever performed by humankind occur in the dark of night, most often accompanied by death songs so frightful they will never and can never be repeated. 

Yesterday in church, the preacher just happened to mention that hands and feet are among the most sensitive parts of the body. It's holy week. That's why. But once he said that, I don't remember much. Hands and feet are the most sensitive parts of the body, he said. He's right. Of course, he's right. And the very thought of nails being driven. . .

Well, you know.

The Sun Dance is a Lakota ritual that demonstrates a dancer's devotion to his people by his taking on suffering so intense it can't be imagined. In Shia communities throughout the world penitents still deliberately bloody themselves with chains in ritual self-sacrifice. Among some Roman Catholics, believers known as flagellants do a kind of ritual penance with knotted whips over their shoulders.

I've never done any of those things and don't intend to this week or any other. It seems to me such practice, even well-meant, can become grotesque very easily. But when I think of those nails being driven into hands and feet. . .

I believe all of us already know at least something of the pain Christ took upon himself, his hands and feet, as he hung there on the cross. It can't be duplicated, but it can be imagined.

The pain I can't get my mind around is not what it was that ran through in his hands and feet, but the fact that we are ourselves the nails.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Sunday Morning Meds--Unseen footprints

Your path led through the sea,
your way through the mighty waters,
though your footprints were not seen.”
Psalm 77:9

All three statements in verse 19 are statements of fact, but only one opens a mystery. 

Lord, even though the path you led us upon through the sea, with mountains of water walled-up beside us, and even though we knew we were at that moment in the very eye of a miracle, through all of that, we never saw a thing of you, only your power.

There was nothing there to document what happened, save our experience.  Like some diligent tree-hugger in a national forest, you didn’t leave a footprint. Nothing.  Amazing.

When Moses encounters an angel of the Lord in a startling burning bush, the bush, miraculously, speaks. Moses has a fine Egyptian education, but it doesn’t take an MBA to know something strange has begun, and he catches on quickly. He sees the bush and leaves the path he’s on; he sidetracks, then takes off his sandals on command. Credit him all of that—and more: when the bush starts speaking, he hides his face. 

That desert encounter is a substantial discussion too, some say. Ancient Hebrew texts make claims the burning bush encounter lasted a week. However long it actually was, it’s was hardly just an ecstatic moment. When finally Moses accepts the mission he’s been assigned, he asks the bush who he shall say sent him. 

That answer echoes through all of scripture and has been translated a hundred different ways by linguists far more learned than I. Recently I heard an interesting take on the answer, a slight shift in verb tense:  “I will become what I will become.”

The unseen footprints of verse 19 remind me of that burning bush definition because “I will become what I will become” offers a view of God that is ever-changing, that will change, that must change, perhaps, because his people, his beloved, his chosen, will continue to see him in different ways, as they always have.

I’m not arguing for a God who has no fixed nature, who is not forever the same; but “I will become what I will become” suggests something that even a rudimentary assessment of life in this world makes unmistakable: God’s people not only have seen him, but continue to see him in remarkably different ways.  Zambian Pentecostals, Greek Orthodox, Opus Dei Roman Catholics, evangelical Presbyterians, Baptist independents—you make the list; all of them, all of us, worship God, but no two of us see or describe or define this “almighty other” in quite the same way.

And how wide is the tent finally? Isn’t that an interesting question?
In Psalm 77, Asaph sings the joy of remembering one single story from Israel’s grand narrative, a story passed along, even in his day, by generations of story-tellers. What happened at the shore of the Red Sea gives him courage to face the day—that’s what the psalm is about. What happened at that moment is not debatable. God was with us, Asaph says, with me, as he always has been. That’s his joy and his resolution.

But the footprints aren’t there because something unseen about this God of liberation and joy and endless love remains beyond us, forever mysterious, even unknowable, all of that even to those who love him, who do his will.

And these very words, my paltry attempts to draw nearer to him, won’t get wholly there either precisely because he is God and I am not.  For some of us at least, it’s not easy to admit we aren’t in control of our lives and our destinies. But in the face of one whose gargantuan miracles leave no footprints, we are left on our knees before the mystery. 

That may well be the point.  That, and this simple resolution: because we’re his, he loves us.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Being great again

Not all that far down the road stood a country school where the kids went for a few years, the Protestant kids. That word was her choice, not mine, but undoubtedly accurate because her family lived in a place whose vast majority attended mass and had their kids enrolled in the Catholic school in the middle of town. 

Once the country school shut down and the Harnacks too went to town, their only classmates (no more than ten) were Protestant, so she called the public school, in essence, "the Protestant school." Her family was Protestant. They were Lutheran, a word she never used even though I would have thought it would be more to the point. No, the word was "Protestant" all the way through the story.

I've got no problem with Catholic or Lutheran clannishness. Mine is a tribe who lived in the Netherlands in clusters, came to America in clusters, and stayed in those clusters for decades. I went to a Christian school where all the kids were Dutch American, even though, by some quirk of history, we came from two different churches, our sole bit of diversity.

Whether we've ever been "one nation, under God, indivisible" is something I'll let you decide. Talk amongst yourselves. 

She wasn't dissing Roman Catholics, or the kids who went to school at St. Mary's. She was simply telling the story as she knew it.

"You can find his grave right along the road," she told me. "You don't even have to get out of the car. It's beside a big pink one that says Harnack, Grandpa's. His stone is right there too."

She couldn't help giggle at that because it seemed so awkward. But then her cousin/brother wanted half his "cremains" on the family site, even though he'd lived in New York for most of his life. He wanted half of that urn-full buried in good, black Iowa soil, the other half somewhere back east. To each his own.

We drove out to the farm later because I wanted to see the place he describes so richly in his books. The old wrap-around porch is immediately recognizable, and a number of misshapen outbuildings still carry the handiwork of the old man beneath that pink granite, a prodigious old-country builder. A fancy cupola crowns what's left of an old barn that, or so I read, has no nails.

A pickup drove on the yard when we were gawking. I simply assumed it was Curtis Harnack's well, nephew (it's complicated). Wasn't. Was just a neighbor who probably wondered who on earth was lolly-gagging in the place down the road. He rolled down his window.

"You're Scott, I bet," I said.

He shook his head. Didn't seem menacing. I didn't think we were in trouble. 

I told him we were just stopping to look at the house that a writer named  Curtis Harnack wrote about in a couple of his books.

"Sure," he said. "Curtis Harnack. I heard of him."

"Listen," I said, "you know where the Harnack plot is in the cemetery in town? I'd like to find it."

He hung one elbow out of the window of the pick-up. "They're Protestant, aren't they? I don't know where exactly, but you got to to the south end--southeast."

"The Protestant section?" I said.

"Up the road on the east to the older part--that's the Protestant section." He didn't blush. It was plain-and-simple fact.

So that's where went, and that where we found that big Harnack stone--the far southeast corner of the Remsen cemetery. Right there where his sister/cousin told us it would be.

In the Protestant section.

Today, in Remsen or Alton or any of a thousand hamlets, it hard to imagine a time when people assumed they'd be buried only with their own kind, or that such a desire might eventually come to mean that outsiders need not apply for available plots.

I'm not playing holier-than-thou. I'm a part of my own tribe. I'm not accusing anyone of anything. But such deeply set divisions were matter-of-fact, and it's good to remember occasionally that it's simply how people lived, my people too. Separate but equal, and not always equal either.

It's not difficult to understand why some people, people of color especially, get anxious when Donald Trump wants to "Make America Great Again." They can't help wonder, as all of us should, exactly what he means. To what era exactly are we returning? 

The Remsen cemetery is big for a small town, but going south along its eastern edge it's not hard to notice that the stones no longer carry a crucifix. You know when you're moving into the Protestant section. 

Those divisions aren't gone, but everyone knows, thank goodness, that they aren't what they used to be back in the days when America was great. 

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Are attics history?

Like most every other retired gent, I worry, sometimes promiscuously but not to madness.


But I do. I worry, about lots of things, like whether or not houses have attics.

Curtis Harnack, born and reared not far from here, spends an entire essay on the attics in his ancient Iowa farm house, one complete chapter of his celebrated memoir We Have All Gone Away. A few years later he followed up with a whole book of memories he titled, well, The Attic. His blessed memories of those dust bins got me to worrying about whether or not kids today have attics. Do they, or are attics just plain gone?

Harnack's boyhood attic included a stuffed pelican, a miserably strange old thing his uncle shot on their farm simply because he'd never seen one before, then had the bird stuffed for the same reason. You just couldn't toss such a thing. It became a resident.
We'd ride the humped, feathered back as if it were an ostrich, stare at the yellow glass eyes and stroke the lizard-skin pouch under the beak, not finding plump fish there, only shifting granular wood pulp, like in the limbs of dolls--stuff of no life.
That's only half true. Harnack's childhood imagination gave it life when he and his cousin found their way up and into "the fabulous tree house of the family, enchanted by these talismans of other lives, earlier existences."

Make no mistake: attics are junkyards of stuff rarely, if ever brought back into circulation. But something about those attic relics made tossing them out impossible. What Harnack remembers is an assortment of oddities.
. . .chamber pots, chipped-veneer dressers with murky mirrors, empty dish barrels, used wrapping paper, cribs, playpens, old toys, copies of The National Geographic, Life, Collier's, boxes of textbooks, novels of Winston Churchill, and a years supply of toilet paper.
What gets conjured when I read that is my own childhood attics, places that weren't designated playgrounds, but destinations that, as I remember, were as full of history as mystery. 

One of my parents' attics, one just to the left of my bed, held a pole strung with old clothes, including a fur stole I remember. The only other item from that closet that will always have a place in my memory is an faded orange megaphone imprinted with three blocky letters--OHS. The cold temperatures of its shiny cold mouthpiece I can still feel up against my lips. It belonged to my mother, a high school cheerleader in the early 1930s. 

The attic just down the hall held our box of toilet paper, an huge thing my dad annually bought from the factory's supply at the place where he worked. Essential stuff, of course. But what I will never forget from that attic is what he brought home after the war: marching leggings for his Navy whites, his sailor's hat, a full dress uniform, all of that stuff in a white duffle made of tough canvas. And more--a Japanese bayonet that became a character in a novel of mine, and samurai sword that never made it out of the closet until, years later, he gave it to me. Today it hangs in our library.

They were treasures, mostly worthless treasures, but also fertile ground for childhood dreams. Sixty years later, just about all I remember is Dad's war stuff and Mom's megaphone. When, as a kid, I held those things in my hands, they verified that my mom and dad had once been people too, people maybe I didn't know. In my fingers they were a odd mix of history and mystery. 

We just built a new house. There's an attic above the garage, but otherwise nothing. We had an attic in the house we left behind, an old Arts and Crafts place in a town not far away. But I don't think I ever put anything up there. My children grew up in a house as old as Harnack's, but I'm sure they have no great attic memories. 

Once upon a time people simply had less and probably therefore kept more in their attic museums, those windowless rooms waiting for kids to make meaning. 

In the age of Trump, the storage business is huge, growing by leaps and bounds, simply because we all have so much that it simply can't be stored in as confined a space as an attic. We buy storage bins, bring down the overhead door, lock them up tight, and then forget what's there until realty TV reminds us of that we've got some things stuck away.

I know. I sound like Jeremiah. Woe and woe and woe. 

Still, when I think about it, my goodness, I wish I had that megaphone.

Even though I don't know where I'd put it.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Morning Thanks--Mickey Mouse at 90

You think of him as ageless, but he isn't. Brace yourself: he's quickly approaching 90 years old. It's been that long since this truly mighty mouse stepped up on the American stage and became one of the most recognizable figures of the 20th century. 

It's early, but all around America right now Moms and Dads are waking up kids who already have their bags packed for Orlando, for Disney World, where they'll be greeted I'm sure by some 21st-century replica of the mouse with the squeaky voice. Go to any airport in America at this moment, and you'll easily pick out the families who are on their way.

My earliest memories of a TV are afternoons coming home from school, then plopping myself down on the living room floor to watch the Musketeers peel off, one after another, saluting me personally with their names--including a huge guy named (lower your voice) Roy. I can sing the song that broke my heart every day:

M-I-C (see you real soon) 
K-E-Y (why? because we like you) 

That was 1955. Even now, I get to the end, and I feel so abandoned I reach for the Kleenex. 

Mickey's hero status prompted all kinds of parody. Still today, the phrase "Mickey-Mouse" (as in "that offense is real Mickey Mouse") marks whatever it modifies as silly, cheap, just about downright worthless. 

No matter. Irrepressible Mickey laughs all the way to the bank. He's an icon. Everyone knows Mickey and loves his spirit.

His bouncy optimism is persistently American, some say, his never-say-die spirit awash with the kind of idealism that made this country great. You can knock down this pipsqueak and his cartoon life, you can bad mouth his lavish abodes in Florida and California, but he comes back walking on air, as he is here, wearing a sweet and toothless smile. This is a mouse who can take a hit, a mouse no one on earth has ever has run from.

Even though they're both cartoon figures, Mickey Mouse is just about the polar opposite of Donald Trump, a big man with his own theme parks. Mickey's no better a candidate for President than the Donald, but he's a far better mouse.

He's just about 90 years old now, but that's no cause to weep. He hasn't lost a step. In this bizarre political season, we could use a whole stadium full of his smiles. He could bring it too. 

"Angels fly because they take themselves lightly," or so wrote G. K. Chesterton. Mickey knows that. 

I'm the one who needs to be reminded. 

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Blanket Exercise in Paterson

(The second and final chapter of last Friday's post.)

Just across the street from PS #21 a single doorway, well-marked, opens into a neighborhood center where a meeting was taking place, a meeting of church people from the area and beyond, from Christian Reformed churches along much of the Eastern seaboard.
The people assembled inside were more of a ethnic and racial and gender mix than I'd anticipated, a circle of men and women maybe forty strong. I was there to facilitate "The Blanket Exercise," a teaching tool its creators call "an interactive learning experience that teaches the Indigenous rights history we’re rarely taught."

Yesterday, I heard a historian from Custer, South Dakota, say that with the possible exception of Pearl Harbor, no American military story has a created larger shelf of books than the 1876 Battle of Little Big Horn. That may be true, but few really know the story.

Most Americans know trajectory of the story of Native people because it's written on the land beneath our feet: Native people were here, east coast to west and everywhere in between. European colonizers wanted the land and took it. End of story. The colonizers' grandchildren understanding of how that happened is very lean. But then it's not that's fun to tell because it's not a story to be proud of.

The Blanket Exercise tells that story from a Native perspective. Blankets are spread out on the floor and participants are asked to walk on those blankets and continue to walk on them as the story is told and those blankets removed. It's not a pleasant experience for a white man. It pushes those who walk the floor into reflections as unavoidable as they are profound.

And that's what happened last week in Paterson, NJ, across the street from PS #21. We sat in a circle and spoke, one at a time, trying to explain what we'd just heard and experienced. The responses were as distressing as they were beautiful.

"By engaging on an emotional and intellectual level, the Blanket Exercise effectively educates and increases empathy," its creators say. They're not wrong.

But something else happened that morning, something just as penetrating, because great stories beg us right into them ourselves. Great stories open up our own senses and emotions, so that, oddly enough, we become characters in their drama, even when those stories are about hobbits or the Hundred Years War. Great stories transcend time and place because we create a setting for them in and from our own lives.

Last week in the circle we created after the Exercise, more stories were told, a scrapbook of stories that formed around the one that brought all these people together in Paterson, the story we all share, a story so profound the world has never been the same once a stone was rolled away. 

I don't know how better to explain it other than this: the Blanket Exercise brought us together, created for a moment--and maybe longer--a family album.

And I was blessed to be there.