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.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Love and (sigh!) death

Sir, I love you more than words can wield the matter,
Dearer than eyesight, space and liberty.
She doesn't. It's all made up. Don't believe her. They're beautiful words, an unforgettable tribute, but it's plain old stinking bull. The speaker is Goneril, King Lear's eldest daughter, and the stakes at the moment are very high. The old man--think of Donald Trump at 90 or so--is divvying up his kingdom. Not a smart thing to do, by Shakespeare's standards. He's putting his three daughters to the test--"which of you love me more?" he's asked with a smirk on his face. Goneril's answer is simply gorgeous.

But not much else. It's a whopper, an ugly one too, so gaudily rendered. What's more, it's even more than a little prophetic since Lear will lose all three--eyesight, space, and liberty-- by tragedy's end.

Still, have no doubt, Shakespeare could lay it on: three words--Romeo and Julie. Those two characters have come to embody love in Western tradition. West Side Story backdrops the story with a New York tenement and peoples it with flashy Puerto Rican immigrants, but right there at the heart of things is human love, plain and (un)simple. 

At love, Shakespeare is the master, right? 

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? 
Thou art more lovely and more temperate. 
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May, 
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date. 

That famous sonnet is the first poem my heart ever heard.

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines, 
And often is his gold complexion dimmed; 
And every fair from fair sometime declines, 
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed; 

Not one thing, it still says, can possibly compare with you, my love. I was in a high school English class, otherwise totally forgettable; and he had me--Shakespeare made love as gloriously fleshy and yet eternal as I ever dreamed it could be.

But thy eternal summer shall not fade, 
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st, 
Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade, 
When in eternal lines to Time thou grow’st. 

Be still, my heart--that is drop-dead wooing. Shakespeare didn't make me want to write, but he brought me into a starry heaven of words I didn't want to leave that morning.

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, 
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

He's right. It's exactly 400 years since the Shakespeare's death, and I just typed out the very words he scratched out long, long ago, words that still pay tribute to his love, to their love, exactly as the love prophet in him claimed those words would. Incredible.

Then there's this. No one knows how the bard met his end. We know the date and the place of internment. We know he hadn't yet reached his 60th birthday, and we can guess where he finally laid his head--or where his head was laid. But nothing else.

It would be so nice to think of him beside his Juliet somewhere, the two having aged beautifully and residing these days in Downton Abbey, maybe? She's a Julie Christie, and he's a Richard Gere, the two of them still a feast of beauty.

But nobody knows. Chances are, he drew his last breath in a (un)holy different world altogether. Speculation has it that he might have died like Poe, in a stupor; that he was a bad drinker has never been proven, but his characters are hammered just about as often as they are love-smitten. Some claim syphilis could well have done him in, profligate as he might have been with all those pretty words. 

Nobody honestly knows how he died, a mystery it would be a joy to unravel. We care, finally, don't we? One's last words were, for a time in human history, something of a fetish, scrupulously recorded as if to testify, I'd guess, to many theories about living and dying. The bard himself shared that fascination; great characters rarely die without grabbing one last soliloquy. 

But no one knows exactly how William Shakespeare died. That's a tragedy of its own, really, isn't it? I'll leave the judgments up to God. They're not mine to make.

Still, it would be nice to know that the man who could pen such perfectly divine protestations of love died in the arms of someone he spent them upon. I'd like that.

But we'll never know.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Political stardom

I was warned. I'll admit it. Their teacher said it in passing--"If I know them, they'll probably ask you about Duck Dynasty," she said.

I was in a small town in eastern Washington, the visiting writer about to step into a class of ten-year-olds, among whom a "visiting writer" was about as interesting as a wasted magic marker. But I'd held forth in front of kids before, and it wasn't all that difficult to keep them entertained. I wasn't sweating, really.

"What's Duck Dynasty?" I asked her.

"You've never seen it?" 

"It's a show about ducks?"

"Just act as if you like it," she said, rolling her eyes.

She wasn't wrong. Fifteen minutes later, some kid in the front raw, only half serious, asked me about Duck Dynasty. Giggles all around. 

I told him I really didn't watch it. "What's it about?" I asked. Engage the kids, right?

Laughter. Howls of laughter. 

Mental note: watch Duck Dynasty.

I never have. And, truth be told, I never watched The Apprentice either. It was televised for 12 whole seasons, attracted millions of viewers, and made Donald Trump a TV star even though he'd been a real estate mogul on the big stage--New York--for decades. 

And the fact is, I watch--which is to say we watch--vastly more TV than we did before we retired. Not even close. Every night, in fact. Somewhere around nine, we turn on Netflix. Last night, forgive me, four--court 'em, four--episodes of West Wing. (Zoey was kidnapped--we had no choice.) The West Wing is ten years old, absolutely ancient via TV time, but we never watched an episode when it came out. Now, as we're about to begin season five, we can barely get up from the couch.

In the Washington Post, Joe Scarborough (whose Morning Joe is hardly Duck Dynasty) says "the media elite," which is to say the talking heads that populate cable TV news and most of Sunday morning, have exotic viewing habits, so exotic they know nothing about a huge other America. A woman named Chyna died a couple weeks ago, and her face and burly body were all over the media. I'd never heard of her.

When the Duggars went through some family horrors, I had to look them up, and I'm an evangelical Christian (most mornings at least). I hate to admit it, but somehow I missed Prince's legendary Super Bowl performance in the rain, even though now it's become more of heaven than earth. 

Joe Scarborough doesn't explain the Trump phenomenon on the basis of TV viewing habits, but he regales the elites (of whom he is one) for rolling their eyes at the America of Let's Make a Deal or American Idol. 

He may well be right. No one appears to understand exactly how Trump has rolled into all his successes. He does absolutely everything the rule books say shouldn't be done. 

No matter. He's a star. 

I don't care. Long ago already I determined to vote for Martin Sheen. 

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Brother's keeper

He was a fool in the sense that he didn't or couldn't or wouldn't resolve, intellectualize, evade, the tensions of his faith but lived those tensions out, torn almost in two by them at times. He was a fool, I suppose, in the sense that he was an intimate of the dark, yet held fast to the light as if it were something you could hold fast to; in the sense that he wore his heart on his sleeve even though it was in some ways a broken heart; in the sense that he was as absurdly himself before the packed lecture hall as he was alone in his office; a fool in the sense that he was a child in hihs terrible candor. A fool, in other words, for Christ (Now and Then, 16-17)
That's how Frederick Buechner pays tribute to Prof. James Muilenburg, a role model and one of the 20th century's most influential theologians, a scholar who helped translate the Bible into the Revised Standard Version, and held a chair on the faculty of Union Theological Seminary during Buechner's years as a student. Other names on faculty offices loom larger today--Tillich, Niebuhr; but none affected Buechner as deeply as James Muilenburg.

James Muilenburg was born just a few miles from where I'm sitting, just north of Orange City, Iowa, about twenty years after his parents moved to northwest Iowa from Pella, along with the original band of immigrant Dutch to settle here. They were looking to homestead good and what they considered to be open land. In a sense, such humble beginnings makes the James Muilenburg story quintessentially American. The estimable theologian came from little more than bare ground.

Which might be true, but the facts suggest something more. That the Muilenburg family was not rich does not mean something valuable didn't happen in that farm house, something that didn't happen in thousands--no, millions--of other frame dwellings in 19th century rural America. The Muilenburg children got educations, and not simply a high school education, a rare commodity anyway in those days. They were also sent to college, even the women, something almost unheard of even in Dutch Calvinist Siouxland. 

Prof. James went off to Hope College, then the University of Nebraska, then Yale. Among the neighbors two miles of gravel roads from town, he was likely the only one with a Yale Ph.D. That he was a deeply religious man has to be in part attributable to his Dutch Reformed upbringing. After all, his immigrant grandparents claimed they had both economic and religious motivations when they explained their reason for emigrating. The Muilenburgs were people of the book, people of faith.

James's brother, Cornelius, was also a Ph.D., and pastored most of his professional life in Michigan. Two of their sisters, both college-educated and never married, taught school during their entire lifetimes. Another sister, post-retirement, became a dorm mother at Northwestern College and is remembered even today for her quiet personal faith.

Then there's Walter J., a brother who went off to the University of Iowa in 1915, and became a writer, a novelist who achieved some hefty status early on in his professional life. Walter's Prairie, now almost totally forgotten, even here where he grew up, is a pioneer story in the tradition of Giants in the Earth. Prairie is depressing saga that embraces the literary naturalism he must have come to know during his education, a determinism that transforms human beings into laboratory rats. Two hundred pages into the novel, Walter J. Muilenburg is still calling the central character, "the farmer," as if Elias Vaughn had no identity of his own.

Because "the farmer" didn't. Not, at least, according to Walter J., and naturalist tract he's peddling in the novel. We are, none of us, no more than the sum of our parts, the simple pawns of powers so much beyond our perceptions that human choice, free will, the opportunity to change or alter the direction of our lives is depressingly futile. Reading Walter J. Muilenburg's Prairie isn't fun because the story is almost totally joyless. The central character, Elias Vaughn, is driven to cut out his fortune from the endless open spaces on the American Great Plains, a landscape that he clearly loves. What he can't know is himself, his motives, or those he thinks he loves.

Early in the novel he stamps the dust off his boots when he walks away from his unforgiving, Bible-reading father to strike out on his own out west, but then obviously turns into a living, breathing, unforgiving recreation of everything he despised about his father. He becomes what he hated because, well, Muilenburg would have you believe that's the way it goes. Prairie is a novel of ideas--maybe even brother Walter's own sermon.

His testimony in Prairie, when contrasted with James's, as Buechner remembers him, seems polar opposite. Imagine the two of them, day after day, milking a half-dozen cows together, sharing stools, forking manure, haying, cultivating corn and beans, listening with to their father read the Bible to them and their sisters after every last meal. Think of all three boys together in a bedroom in the unheated upstairs of a farm house just south of town. Two of them will become dedicated men of the cloth. One of them will seemingly walk away. 

Did Walter leave the faith, become the prodigal? I don't know. I wish I did. He's buried here, just a mile or so from where he grew up, the only one of the three brothers who is. He left few traces, never married, no children. When he was dying, he had nowhere else to turn, no other place else to call home.

Was Walter J. Muilenburg happy? I honestly wish I knew. 

There's something quintessentially American about the whole tale of the Muilenburgs too, don't you think? They are not all alike and neither are we. Walter J.'s life is itself proof that his literary naturalism is bogus. The Muilenburg brothers were not rats in a lab. They had choice. In important ways it seems, they walked away from each other, seemed fully different. We are not pawns, not helpless victims of some power more vast than we are. Our destinies are not somehow jerry-rigged to self-pilot. 

What's more, it seems clear that Brother James the theologian knew the darkness very well, the darkness his novelist brother might well have felt. Buechner says his beloved professor used to tell his students to live in a way that wouldn't allow anything like blind faith. 

"Every morning when you wake up, before you reaffirm your faith in the majesty of a Loving God, before you say ‘I believe’, for another day," Prof. James Muilenburg, younger brother of Walter, used to tell his students, "read the news with a record of the latest crimes and tragedies of mankind and then see," he'd say, "if you can honestly say it again."

I can't help wonder how brother James thought about brother Walter. What he had to know very well was something about problems of being a brother's keeper.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Not of this time

A friend of mine, now deceased, used to tell a story about a renowned preacher with an outsized adam's apple (always part of the story), a dominie who, in a fit of religious enthusiasm, all too often messed up words, did so with such frequency in fact that his flubs made him a better preacher because his congregants paid close attention. No one knew what he might mistakenly say. 

This tall preacher with a ponderous adam's apple was cranking it up in a feverish heat one Sunday morning when he referenced Satan's "fiery darts" (Ephesians 6:16) and, unfortunately reversed consonants to form a barnyard phrase that little boys--and others--had to stifle their giggles, which made it more hilarious and unforgettable. 

My old friend told it so often I sometimes wonder if I wasn't there to hear it myself. 

I'm no linguist, but the NIV has graciously replaced the KJV's "fiery darts" with "flaming arrows," which means the story, told today, would today require a footnote, death to any great joke. 

We ran into Satan's "fiery darts" in an old translation of the Canons of Dort (or Dordt) a couple of weeks ago. In the early 17th century "fiery darts" were prescribed biblical language. But coming on that phrase reminded me of my friend's tale of the long-necked preacher of yesteryear.

I wish that weren't so, but if you read through the Canons in the form the old preacher must have, you'll be amazed at the style, which is simply not of this time, not at all. Sentences are huge, ungainly, almost impossible to gather in, diction incredibly high and mighty. 

But even in a more contemporary translation, you can't help but be amazed at how people thought 400 years ago because the Canons seem conspicuously irrelevant today. The reach of its arguments is astounding, but seemingly useless. What it argues is absolutely fascinating, but so is the Hundred Years War. Even when Satan's fiery darts are flaming arrows, what the Canons so rigorously argue is quite clearly from and for another time. 

Once upon a time, the battles it waged--between election and free will--were in actuality life-and-death issues: in salvation, what role do we play as fallen human beings? Do we choose or are we chosen? The Canons attempt to answer a question most of us would say is largely unanswerable. We simply acknowledge the mystery. 

Nobody brings fiery darts along to theological battlefields anymore, or flaming arrows for that matter. That doesn't mean the issues the Canons address is somehow settled. They're an amazing body of work that for centuries affected the world I come from. For me at least, the Canons are heritage. In many churches I know of, even today office-holders must pledge fidelity to the Canons as one of the "Three Forms of Unity." I can't imagine that most of those men and women know much about what they're saying.

The Canons of Dort, soon to celebrate their 400th birthday, are amazing, but they're not of this time.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Urges, Christian and not

R. I. P.

It happens a whole lot more than it used to, but that's not news--for me or anyone else my age. I'm on the street somewhere or in a restaurant or, like Saturday, in a grocery store, and suddenly, without due warning, I've got to pee. Just had a physical, blood test, most of the whole nine yards--I'm fine. Don't be worrying. But more often than not these days, suddenly what matters more than anything is that I find a bathroom.

Saturday I was hunting down bulk granola in Hy-Vee when some switch got turned on inside. It's not as if I can simply wait it out. When you got to, you got to. So, looking for relief, I followed the outside walls of this massive grocery store and found nothing. Once upon a time it may have been an embarrassment for me to ask. No more. No sweat. 

Two kids--16 barely, I'm sure--are stacking a thousand cereal boxes. Now Hy-Vee puts employees' portraits on their trucks, for pete's sake--the chain wants to be known for their helpful help. Most people in the region know the tune to "a friendly smile in every aisle." One of these cereal-packing kids is not only campaigning for employee of the month, he's bucking for Eagle Scout at the same time because he as much as takes my hand and brings me there, even though I'm not wielding a walker. That kind of sweetness was unnecessary, but then to him I probably looked more than a little ancient. 

Just off the bakery is a hallway where there are two water closets, two doors, both marked simply "Rest Room." They're right beside each other. Two of them. You have a choice. Neither is "gendered." I got to go. I choose the first. Door's not locked. I go in. Case closed.

Right then, I couldn't help feeling sorry for Kohler Company, Kohler, Wisconsin, although they don't need my sympathy and never have. If Hy-Vee is the new normal, Kohler will be turning out far fewer urinals in the future, and someone's going to be out of a job. As you can likely guess, there warn't no urinals in that Hy-Vee "Rest Room," which means the next customer to stop by could well have be someone named Rosanna.

The American Family Association, who knows more about fear than almost anyone on the planet, has determined that the good Christian people of this nation should boycott Target stores because Target has made it clear that everyone can use the restrooms in their stores. They're not going to station one of their red-t-shirted employees beside the john to check your and my genitalia. 

No good Christian people were protesting or handing out leaflets near the Hy-Vee grocery pickup when I walked in, although I'd bet even money that lots of the customers last Saturday afternoon were buying buns and hamburger for Sunday dinner after church the next morning. This was Sioux Falls, not Sodom. 

Maybe some righteous South Dakotan should write the sanctified few at the American Family Association to let them know that the only choice I had when I had to pee in the east side Hy-Vee was between two "Rest Rooms," no gender distinctions. Can you imagine? Right here in the Heartland. If the AFA knew, they'd be asking for a Hy-Vee boycott too.

When so much heat rises from something that's really never been a problem, someone somewhere is blowing a lot of hot air.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Sunday Morning Meds--A Sanctuary for Sparrows

 “Even the sparrow has found a home, 
and the swallow a nest for herself, 
where she may have her young—
a place near your altar, O LORD Almighty, 
my King and my God.”  Psalm 84:3

One Sunday morning years ago, I sat in a big Afrikaner church in Pretoria, South Africa, a beautiful place, new, spacious and worshipful. The church was full, the liturgy was familiar--I was struck by how much the worship itself was akin to a Sunday in my own hometown, thousands of miles away. Even though the pastor spoke Afrikaans and I had no clue what was going on, our mutual Dutch roots were unmistakable.

For all its problems—then and now—South Africa has to have one of the most accommodating climates in the world. Behind immense security walls, doors are frequently left open, as they were in that beautiful church—big doors, openly admitting more than sunlight and warmth that Sunday morning, as you can imagine.

Language prevented me from following the sermon, but so did what looked like sparrows flitting across the front of this huge church. I worried about what the English call “poo,” but no one else seemed to; few seemed as distracted as I was, in fact.  Those sparrows appeared to be not unwelcome guests. Rather accommodating, I thought, for the architects of apartheid. Perhaps the memory sticks in my mind simply because no one else seemed to care. In a way, inviting sparrows to Sunday worship was sweet.

That Afrikaner church comes to mind when I read this verse because that church was, on that Sunday morning at least, a sanctuary for sparrows. I didn’t see nests in the uneven bricks of that soaring front wall, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t any. What the exile (the singer of this psalm clearly is not where he’d like to be) envies is the fact that, while God’s dwelling place is a sanctuary for sparrows, it’s certainly isn’t that for him because, simply enough, he’s not there. And he wishes he was—even the sparrows and swallows have a place there, after all. Call it “righteous envy” maybe.

But not long ago, coming back from a little Sabbath at a waterfall, my wife and I spotted what might have been a muskrat, although he looked rather gray, more like a beaver. I was driving, so I couldn’t look closely; but we both saw him toddle along until he got to a furrow in the river bank, tucked in his legs, and zipped, kid-like, down into the water, where he was undoubtedly more at home.

We both had to giggle at what a waddling tub of lard he seemed to be on land, how painfully graceless as he trudged along the road. Once in the water, however, he stroked himself well beyond the reach of coyote or fox or even eagle. Once in the water, he was as lithe as a loon.

That muskrat/beaver would be an unwelcome guest in any church in the township. But I’m wondering if I can’t push the psalmist’s intent a bit because nobody knows for sure what joy he is invoking here: is he thrilled at swallows in the belfry of his temple, or is he simply observing God’s creatures at home in their elements, the places where they can nest, where they can have their young? 

That Sabbath, I’d have chosen the second option.

If it’s a mark of my age that I can take more joy from a fat old muskrat than I could have a decade ago, then there is some joy in growing old and knowing in my soul that even sparrows have their nests and beavers their marshy sanctuaries.

That’s a sermon all its own.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Morning Thanks--moral change

People who know such things claim there are better than 8.6 billion twenty-dollar bills in circulation in these United States, compared to 1.9 billion tens. Seems counter-intuitive, but the facts don't lie--simply stated, daily we use more twenty-dollar bills than we do ten-spots. Go figure.

That we do figured into yesterday's dramatic decision to alter the currency all of us handle from day-to-day, some more than others of course, some much, much more than others, Bernie would say, and isn't that a crime? 

Politics aside (can politics ever be put aside?), it's big news when the bills we all carry put on a fresh face, as soon (in a few years) they will.

For a long time, the seventh President of the United States, President Andrew Jackson had his day on our twenties. That day is over. Andrew Jackson was a war hero--War of 1812 at the Battle of New Orleans, a member of Congress, a senator from the great state of Tennessee. His family worked underground in the American Revolution.

Let me add that he was also, as such men were in his day, a slaveholder, not a few slaves either. Many. He was a Southerner when rich, white Southerners owned slaves and became rich because they did.

Jackson was, to be sure, the people's President. In that role, he invited the masses to attend his inauguration ball, the first to do so. So many came that the unwashed masses stood on fancy White House chairs in order to get a glimpse of the man who came to be known as "King Mob." Slaves weren't invited. In order to get some of the masses back outside, White House aids dumped the celebratory punch into tubs out on the lawn. 

In May of 1830, just a year after he was elected, President Jackson stood before Congress, thrilled with what he'd accomplished in such a short time. The Senate had just passed The Indian Relocation Act, which pushed "the Five Civilized Tribes" (the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole) out of centuries-old homelands and removed west of the Mississippi. Of the 16,000 Cherokees forced to leave their homeland, 4000 died on the cold and deadly long walk to what would become Oklahoma, "the Trail of Tears."

Listen to Jackson's announcement of this "happy consummation":

For the record, President Jackson's replacement on the nation's twenty-dollar bill will be Harriet Tubman, an African-American woman, someone who escaped the slavery that Jackson not only condoned but perpetuated. When she escaped from her slave-owner, he put this ad in the Cambridge newspaper.

Ms. Tubman is Minty, "fine looking and about five feet high." Reward? Yes, of course--$100, about $3000 today. 

Ms. Tubman's accolades go far beyond having escaped slavery. She was an abolitionist, and an operative, a leader, on the underground railroad for others like her looking for freedom. She was a Civil War nurse, treating Union as well as Confederate wounded. She was a spy who passed military information along to Union forces. Some African-Americans consider Harriet Tubman their own Moses.

If I go looking, I'm sure I'll find dissenters from so dramatic a change in our currency--our twenties will now carry the face of a slave and not a President, after all. Besides, such radical change clearly results from (shudder!) political correctness. That's right. 

Some conservative lunatic out in the cheap seats is, right now, bemoaning the sad demotion of "the people's President," Old Hickory. How sad to see the seventh President of these United States so visibly defrocked. 

But just a few years ago, during a visit to the Civil War battlefield at Pea Ridge, our family discovered that the park was actually on "The Trail of Tears." We were touring, three generations of Schaaps, when there it was, defined and described by a sign along the road. My grandkids knew nothing about the Trail of Tears, so their grandpa had to tell them.

Then another voice interrupted. their aunt, an Oklahoman, who told the kids that her ancestors, Choctaws, could have walked once long ago on that very path of suffering, a victim like so many of a peculiar American version of ethnic cleansing. 

I don't know that her nephew and niece will remember that moment clearly, but that day "the Trail of Tears" took on some meaning, I'm sure.

This morning I'm thankful for billions of 20 dollar bills. Someday each of them will carry the face of Harriet Tubman.

And, yep, I'm thankful for political correctness, too.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

We love to hate

It's happened so often in my life, I can't even remember a particular time. It's a given almost. In any of a wide array of small groups we're part of--a church congregation maybe, a social organization of any kind, a faculty meeting--people run and hide when nominations for office are made because nobody really wants to be honcho. 

In fact, in those situations, generally the few who actually seek office don't get there. It can be embarrassing. In some churches I've been in, some who really wanted to be elders would come up every other year in nomination, only to fail once again. Why?--because in those situations projecting an I'd-like-to-lead demeanor can seem annoying and therefore unbecoming. 

There is such a thing as false modesty, but that's often not at play in our small-game politics. What's at work is the plain and simple fact that if you're an office-holder you've got more work and more responsibility and more commitment in a life that probably already holds quite enough of those burdens. We don't need more to do. You know--nominate some one else, please. Not me.

To run for President of these United States requires wealth, strength, and self-regard in infinite quantities. You believe beyond reasonable doubt that no one on the face of the earth will better steer the ship of state. You must put yourself out there day after day after day, moment after moment, advancing your own blessed cause. It would be one thing to have to kiss babies, but in Iowa you have to kiss pigs, do anything, anywhere, any time to get votes.

In Presidential politics we only elect people who will do nothing but run. In small groups, we elect only those who won't. Talk among yourselves.

No one knows how to explain what's going on in this endless Presidential campaign. People don't like the candidates. It's an amazing phenomenon. Trump's "net negative" figures are off the charts, but they'd be even more shocking if Hillary's weren't so close behind. Yet, the two of them won yesterday's big sweepstakes primary, going away.

That's new, folks. It's brand new. In the last several elections, the electorate (that's us) held much higher regard for all the candidates--even Obama, if you can believe it. In fact, when Obama ran against McCain, both candidates had "net positive" ratings. This year, they're all "net negative." Not even close. Every one of them.

Both Trump (-33) and Hillary (-21) have net-negative views--the difference between their favorable and unfavorable views--than anyone since 1984, when CNN began asking the question.

Yet, American politics have never been hotter. We've rarely been more interested. People stand in line, sometimes for hours, to vote. That's unheard of. Both parties have drawnin scores of new voters in amazing numbers. There may well be hidden places in America where people wouldn't recognize the word Trump or Hillary, but to get at them you'd have to do rent an earth mover. 

Clearly, something approaching hatred is generating much of that emotion. People love to hate, and do so with such vigor that this year ton of voters will enter booths and cast votes the way they will because they hate the opposition more than they love the rival. It's virtually guaranteed.

Trump's got his finger in the air all right, and what he's saying isn't wrong--something's foul in the U. S. of A. But it seems to me that in the dark depths of the cave we now find ourselves in, he's far less our savior than he is our canary. 

Something's foul in our politics. Something's foul in us. And it doesn't take a Calvinist to smell it.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

A family album

Women and children are the only people visible here. Across the top left corner of the photograph is what seems to be a bend, a cut, a crease. When that crease is combined with the fact that the photograph is black and white--and you note the dress of the subjects--you can't help thinking this gathering occurred fifty years ago, maybe more. Unless these folks are some odd Eastern European sect--gypsies?--it's an old picture.

None of the faces look happy. If you think of this as some kind of picnic, you're wrong, dead wrong; and somehow that it isn't is visible on the faces of the women (look at the young woman on the left) and even across the faces of the children. They're eating something--the child up front has something in her left hand. But they are all apprehensive. No smiles are in evidence here, none. Look for yourself.

The woman on the right and in the middle has a barely recognizable symbol on whatever it is she's wearing--you can barely make it out. I think it's a star.

If you hadn't guessed, now you know.

These women and children have recently arrived at Auschwitz. They've survived whatever horrors occurred in the Hungarian Jewish ghettos from which they were forcibly evicted. They lived through hundreds of miles of the horrors that befell them in the boxcars they'd been stuffed into. Now they've just come off the train, walked together down the wide ramp to what people called "the selection," where they were separated into two groups--those who will go to the labor camps and those who will simply be slaughtered. These women and these children are marked for slaughter.

This photograph is in an album that Lily Jacob somehow discovered, a woman who survived the camps but lost her entire family. After the war, Ms. Jacob and her husband eventually immigrated to the United States. Lily started work as a waitress in Miami. 

Among the community of immigrant Hungarian survivors, word spread of the amazing album Lily had found and brought with her to this country. Often, other survivors would show up at the restaurant and ask to see it, hoping to find a picture of some lost relative.

Look into these faces for a moment. In an hour the shower stalls will be cleaned up from the last round of slaughter; and once they are, all of these women and children will be stripped and herded in, told they are about to get a much needed clean-up. Then they will slowly and excruciatingly die from poison gas. Once again the showers will be cleaned and readied for the next round of death. 

In all likelihood, these women and the children they love don't know. What they do know is that their lives have been forever changed. Their lives, very soon, will end. 

That a cultured people--a people the world knew by way of Bach and Beethoven, Goethe and the Brothers Grimm, Luther and Gutenberg--could perpetuate such horror should remind us all that someplace in the depths of the human heart lies a streak of treachery that can never be effaced, only stubbornly, persistently resisted.

The album Lily Jacob found after liberation largely remained in tact. If other survivors recognized anyone in the images, she gave them the picture. But just about all the photographs are still there because the vast majority of those who paged through her album, pouring over pictures just like this one, looking for relatives, hoping to discover a beloved face, never did. 

This picture, like so many, remain. These women, these children, are lost.

Lily Jacob died in 1999. The Auschwitz Album resides in Jerusalem at the Yad Vashem. A friend sent me the url. "We should never forget," she said. She's right. 

Monday, April 18, 2016

Book report--Elizabeth Strout's My Name is Lucy Barton

Disappointing, I thought, and I'll tell you why. 

I loved Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout's bundle of stories about an indefatigable woman whose pushy zany-ness was both a marvel and a blessing. Olive Kitteridge was a character you didn't need to like in order to love. 

Apparently, I was not the only reader in North America who thought so. Olive Kitteridge won the Pulitzer in 2009. That's affirmation.

My Name is Lucy Barton, Strout's most recent novel (2016), features a character I could neither love nor like, and the reason is this haunting sense that she's not telling the whole story. Look, in literature as in life it's somewhat rare to get the whole story from any aggrieved story-teller. Someone tells us an incredibly sad or disappointing story about him or herself, and most of us, no matter how sympathetic, can't help but wonder whether there's not more deliberately left unsaid, even another side. We can cry with the hurt and the lonely and still wonder how the bad guys might spin the same stories. 

Lucy Barton scares me because I can't help thinking she's being deceitful, and in the most dreadful way: she may well be lying to herself about herself. What that means, of course, is that I don't trust her. In this novel, I don't trust the storyteller.

Now the unreliable narrator has become a much beloved character these days. Writers create all kinds of wondrous possibilities by using narrators whose rendition of things seems scanty. We know the role because we're that way ourselves. None of us can be trusted to tell a story with divine objectivity because we're not divine. We all spin, especially when it comes to intimacy. None of our stories can ever be trusted totally.

But when the holes gape too much, distrust makes us wary; and I spent too much time being really wary of Lucy Barton's spin on those closest to her. Halfway through already, my BS meter started buzzing and not always softly; and when it did, I found myself half a continent away from Lucy's heart. That kind of distance is dangerous in a novel that's so deeply dependent on the voice of the teller.

When it's all said and done, Lucy Barton wants us to believe that she loved her mother deeply. Deeply. I didn't believe it, and still don't. Elizabeth Strout gives us cause for Lucy's estrangement--abuse and poverty--but most of us know people who've suffered far worse and come out less scarred. There's more to the story, more than we're not hearing.

That Elizabeth Strout knows her way around the human character is amply proven by her own masterful stories, but Lucy Barton leaves too much unsaid. You can't help but be interested in the matters of the human heart Lucy tells us, but I, for once, came away leery. 

One New Years Eve many, many years ago, we sat with a woman in the middle of a marriage that seemed to be unraveling. We knew her through church, which means Judgment was sitting there beside the three of us too: it was the estranged woman, my wife, me, and guilt--hers. When we accepted her invitation, we didn't know she needed to vent, but she did. So we spent New Years Eve, our first by the way, in the confessional. 

I was a kid, we'd been married for six months, but I couldn't help thinking there was more to the story. We left shaking our heads. 

Does that woman deserve a story? Certainly. She's as human any of us. In a novel, should we have to trust her? Not really--library shelves are full of unreliable narrators.

But Elizabeth Strout can't expect that a character like Lucy Barton will be loved. Even liked. Speaking for myself, when Lucy stopped talking, I was shaking my head. I didn't believe her.

Am I glad I read the book? Yes. Would I recommend it? Sure. Was I moved? I was as skeptical as I was one bad New Years Eve a lifetime ago.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Changing our politics

The Parable of the Good Samaritan by Jan Wijnants (1670)

For a decade at least, we've lived in the shadow of old folks homes, places that don't have to be as oppressive as they sometimes are. Losing one's sense of personal value makes life miserable, and it doesn't help when knees buckle and bladders leak. Six million elderly Americans suffer some symptoms of depression that are common in old folks' homes, but don't have to be normal.

My wife and I have often told each other that when we get to the home--boomers, that is--things will change. For instance, Dad is not particularly enamored with the food. Institutional cooking is probably never going to be haute cusine, but it doesn't always have to be mush. 

But he doesn't complain. Sometimes we think he should. When he comes here for a hamburger on the grill, he eats like he just left football practice. Loves it. But he doesn't complain about the food in the home. 

Boomers will. We're used to getting our way. Dad's a child of the Depression, a time when nobody "got their way." He doesn't feel right about talking to the powers-that-be in the home because he doesn't want to make a scene. So he doesn't complain. He's selfless, in a persistent, rural Midwestern way. Poverty could be just around the corner to him because in his life, it once was.

You have to hand it to David Brooks, the NY Times columnist, who's his own kind of Jeremiah. Just yesterday he asked a serious question--"How can we make our politics better?" Few of us are proud of the madness these days, right? It doesn't matter who's on your bumper sticker, the whole business often feels like something I'd rather see in my rear-view mirror. 

You got to hand it to Brooks--he seems to believe it can change. I'm not so hopeful.

His analysis goes like this. The American people are doing well at relationships with friends and family, the people in what he calls "the inner ring." They even do well with Facebook, relationships on social media. We're not doing well--me too--with what he calls "middle ring" relationships--the PTA, the neighborhood watch, even with our neighbors (it's amazing how many American don't know their neighbors' names). We don't rub shoulders much with people who don't share our politics. "The guy sitting next to you at the volunteer fire company may have political opinions you find abhorrent," Brooks says, "but you still have to get stuff done with him, week after week." 

Those relationships are fewer and far between, and, he says, we're worse for the wear because we don't have to "get along," because in most ways, we can "get our way." We don't have to respect people who don't think like we do because we don't have to deal with them.

The closest I ever felt to fellow churchgoers grew from relationships playing church-league softball, nary a steeple in sight. A pop fly goes up between the shortstop and the center-fielder, neither see each other, and they collide. Maybe the shortstop loses a tooth--it happens. The whole team runs out there. Right then, there are no Hillary voters. In the crowd around the guys with headaches, nobody's talking about Trump.

Making a habit of being engaged with people who don't share your political views would make our politics better, says David Brooks. And the way to get there is not to demand our rights but to give them up, not to "get my way" but to practice a kind of selflessness that seems almost unAmerican. The way there is to become more like Dad.

We're asking too much of our politics, he says. "Once politics becomes your ethnic and moral identity, it becomes impossible to compromise, because compromise becomes dishonor." I could add, "your religious identity," because more and more these days we tend to define our relationships to God on the basis of our politics.

We all need to be more like Dad, Brooks would say--more selfless, less demanding of our own rights. "If we make this cultural shift," he says, "we may even end up happier. For there is a paradox to longing. If each of us fulfill all of our discrete individual desires, we end up with a society that is not what we want at all."

And then he says this, right from scripture: "People experience their highest joy in helping their neighbors make it through the day."

End of story.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Morning Thanks--Ideas

"Writing with faith," the novelist Ron Hansen says somewhere in A Stay Against Confusion: Essays on Faith and Fiction, "is a form of praying."

That’s an idea I certainly wouldn’t have thought of, especially these days, having just finished a novel (for the third or fourth time!), a story I've been trying to get right for a decade at least, a story that just about sapped the life out of me. If Ron Hansen is right, that novel was one long prayer--and it's probably still not finished.

Call me Thomas because most of the time I’m writing a story, I'm not thinking about the Lord God almighty; I’m just trying to find the best way out of a story.

No matter. This morning Hanson’s quote is gratifying, as well it should be to a fool like me, because I certainly do count myself among the idiots who believe that believers who write are just about always trying to juggle those 
two "professions" without undervaluing either—prayer and writing.

But I don't think I'm not totally on board with Mr. Hansen. When I'm in the middle of a story, I'm not talking to God, not really. I'll grant you that there is a good measure of pure mystery in the whole writing process, something almost zen-ish in the unforeseen way things come to fit together: characters surprise you, plots twist in directions you hadn't anticipated. There are moments--and they're the great ones--when you're so delightfully surprised that you can't help but wonder who on earth (or elsewhere) is directing your path.

But it seems to me we could expand Hansen's definition to plumbing and having faith—or gardening or factory work or teaching and having faith—to the believer's soul almost any profession can be thought of as a worthy form of prayer too. A farmer friend of mine once told me, guardedly, that people who don't put seeds in the earth don't know God. That's harsh sentiment, but I know very well why he says, especially right now in early spring, that time of year when the lifeless backyard beckons any time the temperature jumps above forty degrees. Right now, I'm dying to get my writer's hands dirty again, but I'm not sure planting tomatoes is prayer, is it?

Maybe Hansen would say every moment of the life of a believer is a prayer.
If God can translate the penitence of our groaning bones into prayer—King David says as much—then why not the clicking of these plastic keys or the slash of spade into good black dirt. Maybe it’s all prayer for those of us who believe.

Don't know if I believe it really, but I certainly like it.

This morning, as always, I’m thankful for good ideas. I think that's a prayer

Monday, April 11, 2016

Mark Strand on Lake Michigan fifty years ago

There was a girl, I remember, but I don't remember her. There was a girl, someone I'd met just that day--someone we'd met because I was not alone that night and neither was she. She was camping at the park where I worked. I'd returned that night because they were there camping--those girls. They were from Normal, Illinois. Strange that I remember, but I do. I knew no one from Normal, Illinois.

Those nights lit by the moon and the moon’s nimbus,
the bones of the wrecked pier rose crooked in air
and the sea wore a tarnished coat of silver.

Mark Strand's "Night in Hackett's Cove," this morning's Writer's Almanac selection, begins with the moon's silver face on an image that isn't at all glorious: the "bones of a wrecked pier" that rises "crooked" above a shoreline outfitted thoughtlessly in "a tarnished coat of silver."

It feels like a place that could be memorable but wasn't, or at least showed no signs of being a Damascus road. There's more:

The black pines waited. The cold air smelled
of fishheads rotting under the pier at low tide.

There was a girl from Normal, Illinois, that night, two or three of them as I remember. I haven't a clue what she looked like, any of them for that matter. But I certainly do remember there were a million dead alewives washing up on the beach just over the hill. During the day, at work, we'd rake 'em up by the thousands, dump them in a wagon we pulled behind a tractor, and bury them somewhere back in the dunes. They were disgusting. Even the seagulls wouldn't eat them, only peck out their eyes. There they'd lay, in windrows, all over the beach until we'd rake up another half-ton.

The moon kept shedding its silver clothes
over the bogs and pockets of bracken.

I don't remember the moon, and no clothes were shed. I remember only the darkness that night when we came back to the park. What I remember was one late moment when this faceless, nameless girl and I, in the darkness, were just talking along a road in the park.

Nothing happened. If you're waiting to hear me tell a great summer night story about me and a girl from Normal, I can't. Sorry. It was late, and she was interesting in the way girls you didn't know are when you're 19. And while we were talking a state park pickup came up, someone from the night crew. I don't know why, but I didn't want to be seen; so the two of us hustled off the road and got down beneath the outstretched limbs of a pine, on a cushiony bed of needles, which I remember as if all this happened just a few nights ago. The guy in the uniform went by, not fifty feet from where we lay there, giggling. Never saw me.

Had he seen us, nothing would have happened--I wouldn't have been arrested or lost my job. Somehow, at 19, it was just plain cool to be there at that moment, with a girl I didn't know, giggling beneath a pine.

Those nights I would gaze at the bay road,
at the cottages clustered under the moon’s immaculate stare,

There were no cottages. We were in a state park where I worked every day, a park I knew like the back of my hand. 

And here's the way the poem ends:

nothing hinted that I would suffer so late
this turning away, this longing to be there.

I think age plays a role in this poem's endearing epiphany. When I was 20 I'm sure I remembered that night better than I do now, but I didn't feel drawn to it, didn't feel "this longing to be there."

And it's not that I wish to return some night to the park and lay there under a pine and watch a state pickup drive blindly past. That night so long ago wasn't magical. I didn't emerge reborn. Nothing happened. There the two of us lay giggling under a pine, a hundred yards from a thousand dead alewives bunching up on the wet shore sand.

When I walked through Mark Strand's poem this morning, that perfectly meaningless moment in my life washed up with a poignancy it doesn't deserve, except that for no earthly reason it abides in some random drawer or cabinet of memory. There it was, this morning--an early morning moment and I'm 19 years old.

Yesterday, on a Sunday drive with my father-in-law, who'll soon be 97, we passed farms that long ago were home to people long gone. He named those families, one after another. "This was a DeHaan place--but that's years ago."

I don't know that his naming is some "longing to be there," a wish to return. I don't think so. But his country commentaries are full of the tender desire to relive an earlier moment in a life whose drama has passed, maybe even a moment of giggles.

He feels it too, the same odd vision Mark Strand opens up here in "Nights at Hackett's Cove," the unforeseen realization that some quiet morning years later I would so readily and happily relive a dark night of giggles under the spreading branches of a pine.

Out here on the emerald edge of the Great Plains, my father was a long way from Hackett's Cove. But I think he gets it, as I do, this poem of Mark Strand. Poetry brings us to odd places we somehow recognize.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Sunday Morning Meds--Heart and Flesh

“My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the LORD; 
my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.”
Psalm 84:2

Today, in southern Africa, nearly five million believers belong to a unique movement that is peculiarly Christian in theology and doctrine, and yet almost indigenous in polity. They call themselves the Masowe Apostolic movement, and they gather to worship outdoors, exclusively. They own no churches, but they are one.

They believe in Christ, in the Trinity, in the resurrection, and eternal life; they are Christians. But they also believe that the Holy Spirit rides on the wind, that the unspoiled earth is sacred, that true worship is best offered to God in open land, in fields and small farms; when they live in cities, they often worship in abandoned lots or parks.

Sociologists like to assert that the preferences of the Masowe Wilderness Apostles are occasioned by their firm rejection of colonialism and the European Christianity that came with it, a cultural faith which simply assumed that proper and faithful worship could occur only in a sanctuary, a place with walls and a roof. In very obvious ways, the Masowe have returned to something of their native faith by placing emphasis instead on the wind and the earth. Their sanctuary is open space.

Their services of prayer and thanksgiving frequently go four hours or more. I don’t know that I could handle four hours, but I have my sympathies with their visions.

For most of my life, I would have immediately assumed that this verse—and this psalm—refers specifically to a particular building designated by some family of believers as a church, a “house of God” that held my membership papers, a place where each week a community of believers came together for worship.

I’m not sure I believe that anymore, in part because my soul doesn’t really yearn or faint for Sunday worship. If I try to find within myself the compelling thirst the psalmist obviously feels in this beautiful song, I don’t necessarily envision the church down the block, no matter how gorgeous. My soul doesn’t yearn for that for that building or Sabbath worship that happens within. I go—and I’ll continue to, as I have for all of my 68 years. But my heart and soul are not ready to faint to return.

On the other hand, if I don’t go out and greet the dawn every once in a while, I get owly. Seriously. If I don’t go out and look for beauty, I feel bereft. That picture down below—that’s what my camera could hold of the masterpiece painted on yesterday’s sky ten minutes or so before dawn. That’s what was there to be seen, no admission.

When I think about the Masowe Wilderness Apostles, my heart sings. Really.

Who is to say what God means by the psalmist’s reference to “the courts of the Lord”? Why couldn’t those courts be the wide-open spaces just outside of town? Why couldn’t they be the big-shouldered, rolling hills that define the twisting course of the hidden river beneath? Why couldn’t the “courts of the Lord” be a translucent morning sky that spreads east to west, north to south?

Are the Masowe wrong? Are they apostate because they believe the Holy Spirit actually rides the wind? Are they pagan to respect the earth?

And what about me? Am I somehow less of a believer if I long to see his glory detailed on the broad canvas of the sky?—if I want to go back again and again?

“My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the Lord.” 

Welcome to the morning.


Friday, April 08, 2016

Hup! Hup! Hup!

That the Washington Examiner has its own ax to grind is true. They're greatly interested in showcasing communities that don't need government of any kind, especially the federals. That's their pitch, their angle, their politics.

No matter. I'm still proud of what Timothy P. Carney came up with in an article titled 
"In America's strong small towns, Trump's anger fails to resonate," What he did is trace voting results in heavily Dutch Calvinist areas of some Midwestern states and report what turns out to be an notable refrain.

It seems that folks with a Dutch Reformed or Calvinist background don't care for Trump, not at all. Mr. Carney features my own hometown, Oostburg, Wisconsin, as a heavenly hamlet where community stability and a distaste for nastiness meant the Donald walked away empty-handed. Ted Cruz won Oostburg with 74 per cent of the vote.  Makes my heart sing.

"We saw this [wholesale rejection of Trump's candidacy] in Iowa and Michigan," Carney says. "While Trump carried the state, Cruz won in the heavily Dutch counties of Allegan, Kent and Ottawa County on the Western edge of the state. The state's most Dutch municipality, Moline, voted 51.23 percent for Cruz." Carney did his homework. Then, he adds this note: "In Iowa, Donald Trump's worst county was Sioux County, which is 47 percent Dutch and 23 percent German."

What he didn't mention is that some folks who research political attitudes also place those municipalities in a list of the most politically conservative conclaves in their respective states: Oostburg, Wisconsin; Doon, Iowa, Prinsburg, Minnesota. . .Democratic turnout in some of those precincts is high if, embarrassingly, a half-dozen miscreants show up at the polls. In such burgs, the main course in any political meal is red meat, and woe unto those who opt out because they're flirting with hell itself. 

No matter. I'm not quibbling. If I were Republican and had only a choice between Trump and Cruz, in a heartbeat I too would pull the lever for the junior senator from Texas (It may take me a day or two to get over having said that, but it's true.)

Google the phrase "What is an evangelical?" sometime and you'll come up with a list of suggested readings as long as your arm. Trump destroyed Cruz's basic campaign strategy when The Donald won, hand over fist, successive Bible-belt states that Cruz, with his professed righteousness, figured long ago he had in the bag. Cruz was dead wrong. Trump took the cross and whacked him with it.

But not in Mormon country, nor in Dutch Reformed country. Timothy P. Carney says--and I'm sure he's right--it's because people there aren't broken. Their sense of community and the sheer strength of their religious culture helps them find a place to stand. Their families are in tact, their difficult lives are taken care of by bonded friendliness, spirituality, and a neighborliness that's rooted in biblical morality. They lead clean lives, love their children, support their schools. 

They don't share Trump's spite. They don't like putting people down because "do unto others" is as plain a rule of thumb as anyone needs. They don't like knuckle sandwiches. They dislike bullies. "In places like Oostburg, however, people with struggles can find that support is much closer — and the support goes much deeper, Carney claims. "Oostburg is a strong, functioning, loving town. It has no need for Donald Trump."

All of that may be a little Disneyland-ish, and it may well be Carney's own way of saying 'who needs government?' but that Donald Trump walked away from Dutch communities in the Midwest with a scant pocketful of votes is a score is worth celebrating. 

Almond pastries, all around!