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, June 30, 2016

Guns in the manse--an Iowa story

All of this happened just about the same time as Dominie Hendrick Scholte led 850 men, women, and children out of the Netherlands to central Iowa, an area (and a name--Pella) they'd chosen already before the left Holland. They weren't poor, thanks to Scholte's own personal fortune. In fact, they'd contracted to have log houses built before they got to the Iowa prairie--only to find they weren't. 

The Community of True Inspiration came to Iowa just a few years later and chose another name, Amana, for their society's colony of pietists. They'd settled near Buffalo, NY, about 1500 of them, a band of German folks, deeply religious, who grew so large they needed more land and found it, promisingly priced, in central Iowa, rich soils and abundant resources.

Religious visions were everywhere on the frontier in the wake of the Second Great Awakening. Boom towns may well have been hell holes--Deadwood was quite possibly exactly that. But the sagas we far more rarely hear stars men and women whose determination to live on the prairie was inspired by the unfailing belief that they were carrying out marching orders from on high.

Tabor, Iowa, is one of those places, one of those stories. It's sits on a bluff far above the Missouri river, the highest point of Fremont County, Iowa's southwestern-most corner. Whether or not the town will make it is a question locals need to answer, not someone like me, just driving through and looking around. My opinion?--barring some wildcat discovery of something as hot as natural gas, I'd be wary of putting any money whatsoever on Tabor. 

But it's a town with a past that's epic, created when a group of abolitionist Congregationalists determined that successive flooding at their original location, closer to the Missouri, was going to get them nowhere. They climbed to higher ground. They were visionaries too, like Scholte and the Amana colonists.

That picture up top is the Reverend John Ross House, in the 1850s a well-marked stop on the Underground Railroad, often the port of entry to runaway slaves who'd left their shackles behind when they left Missouri, but weren't free until they could be protected from vigilante slave-holders and northerners looking to make some quick cash by way of substantial bounties. Slaves were property. When they'd walk away from cotton fields, the economic effects on landowners were worse than what he might suffer losing horses or cattle. 

And there was a slippery slope--if Ben runs away, then why not Margaret and Seth and Samson and Billy? What people called "the peculiar institution," slavery, was under attack in America, and Southerners didn't take kindly to losing their fortunes or their rights. 

When he came up the Missouri River to found the town, Rev. Ross got into a discussion about slavery that soon became, well, heated. Once the other passengers on the river vessel detected an abolitionist in their midst, he wanted Ross's scalp. "Shoot him," someone yelled. "Kill him." One of them entered his cabin door and called Ross a "damned abolitionist" and said if had any right to him, he'd trade him for a dog, then shoot the dog. Ross says he learned later that the man was "a minister of the gospel from Missouri."

What separated Iowa Congregationalists from Iowa Quakers was not a deep-seeded hatred for "the peculiar institution"; both Quakers and Congregationalists despised slavery, thought it an abomination, a mortal sin, maybe even America's "original sin." What separated the two abolitionist believers was a commitment that included violence. The Quakers said no. Rev. John Ross and his Congregationalists said yes.

Behind this doorway is a stairway to the basement of the old house, a stairway made for a man like John Ross, who was just about five and a half feet tall and wore maybe size six shoes.The stairway is not for me. But I had to go downstairs.  

Because, as the sign out front of the house boldly witnesses, the Reverend John Moss had, once upon a time, a basement full of Sharpes rifles, not to mention a canon in his barn, armaments for war he thought about to begin in "Bleeding Kansas."

Both sides of the slavery question had mobilized support when the Congress had passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, throwing the new state's decision about slavery into the hands of the voters. Hundreds--even thousands--of pro and anti-slavery people poured into eastern Kansas igniting violence that some historians claim marks the true beginning of the Civil War. 

Today, what's in the basement of the Reverend John Ross House in Tabor, Iowa? Nothing really. No cement floor, just piles of dirt, a humming dehumidifier, random stones, bricks. That basement was never meant wasn't to be lived in. It was a root cellar, maybe a place to hide when the prairie sky started to look fierce or foreboding. 

At the request of none other than John Brown, who stayed across the square in the home of Deacon George B. Gascon, a friend and member of Ross's church, a man who was also among the "Concert of Prayer for the Enslaved," the Reverend John Ross took on a house full of guns because he was a man of the cloth who could not abide that "peculiar institution," who argued that slaves had a more righteous reason for rebellion than did New England colonists a century before. 

If you look up in that basement mess, what you see is original timbers put there in 1853, when the Reverend John Ross built this home just west of the green in Tabor, Iowa. 

They're supported now, as you can see. All these years later, it's a wonder they're still there. 

But once upon a time, they looked down at instruments of war, lots of them. Once upon a time they were the ceiling of armory in a pastor's home. 

In his own memoir of that era, the Reverend John Ross, who became a prototype for an abolitionist preacher in Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, described himself and what happened back then in this way:
The parson had one brass canon on his hay mow, and another on wheels in his wagon shed. He had also boxes of clothing, boxes of ammunition, boxes of muskets, boxes of sabres, and twenty boxes of Sharps rifles stowed away in the cellar all winter. 
The Reverend John Ross was ready to fight in what he clearly envisioned as the War of the Lord. 

Was he righteous man or a sinner?  a madman or just pure of heart? a true patriot or a fundamentalist terrorist more than willing to die gloriously for a just cause? 

You'll have to get off the beaten track to find Tabor, Iowa, but it's still there. Call ahead. You can get into the Ross House only by appointment because not many Americans stop there anymore, if they ever did. 

But the Ross House is still there, the basement steps still beckon, and the memory of that time and place and the war it begat somehow seems more real when you stand there beneath those ancient beams on a dirt floor, where once a preacher readied himself for a war God meant to happen, a war to free the slaves.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Fancy Hairwork

Now should you think this piece of art decor is a hairpiece, you wouldn't be terribly wrong. Granted, someone who would wear such adornment might beckon deity from subterranean regions, one of those wild ones Young Goodman Brown stumbled on in the forest one fateful night. Then, maybe it could have crowned the head of footloose flapper from the Twenties.

It is neither, but it is hair, hard as that is to believe--or at least hard as it was to believe for me, never having heard of "hairwork," an art form now long gone but of great worth to ordinary, middle-class Americans of the 19th century. It is possible, even likely, that the hair in this monstrosity belonged to someone in the household of the Reverend John Todd, a firebrand Congregationalist preacher who picked up a lifelong dose of abolitionism from the years he spent at Oberlin College.

I'd never seen "hairwork" before, but ran into it first when walking through the modest bungalow built by the Reverend Todd, who talked politics frequently with none other than John Brown ("molderin'-in-the-grave" John Brown). This John Todd, whose beard could have decorated most of the walls of his family home in Tabor, Iowa, where he became, long after his death, the prototype of the firebrand abolitionist preacher in Marilynne Robinson's Gilead

We know this much: this piece of "hairwork" decorated the walls of Rev. Todd's bedroom, well, their bedroom, he and his wife's. The hair might well have been their own--some people did that. Giving up one's hair was sometimes held to be both an honor and a sacrifice. It's likely, however, that the hair in this wall-hanging (that's a difficult phrase to say, isn't it?) belonged to someone else, perhaps a friend or relative. Hairwork techniques, I guess, were sophisticated enough to make designs like this one from relatively short cuts of hair. In other words, you could donate even if you weren't a Nazarene.

Only the Todds likely know whose hair it is, and they're long gone.

Before you decide that such art was decidedly, even embarrassingly bourgeois, check this out:

This hanging still graces the truly aristocratic walls of General Crook House in old Fort Omaha, Nebraska. Major General George Crook was very definitely upper class, the Commander of the Army of the Platte, a  highly decorated military general. Visitors to his beautiful Italianate home included a number of Presidents, Crook being, even in his lifetime, one of the most celebrated Indian fighters of the era.

The different colors of this one do more than suggest different pates. Family? Friends? We'll never know.

Still, today, it only makes me shudder. Anything's possible, of course, so I wouldn't doubt that somewhere across the face of this great nation a man or woman is plotting out his or her own hairwork art. But my first reaction, in the Todd house and in the Crook House, was "eeooouuu."

American business enterprise killed "hairwork art," I guess, because as soon as its production became an enterprise rather than folk art, people began to suspect that its raw materials were harvested from cemeteries. When entrepreneurs determined there was a buck to be made, they started turning them out, dime a dozen. That's when grave suspicions arose.

Thus it ended, the coffin sealed forever by unknown sources for fancy hairwork art you could just pick up from Sears Roebuck.

Once upon a time they were both high fashion and low. Today, they evoke little more than a shudder.

There's a sermon there. Or four. Or five. Please feel free to choose your own.

And how about this? All this fancy hairwork is being touted from the keyboard of a bald man.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Morning Thanks--Reunion

At her 50th class reunion yesterday, it was nigh unto impossible for me to imagine what some of those people looked like a half century ago. There's a ton more thickness all the way around, and lots and lots less hair. What there is of it is fifty shades of gray.

That's us. I don't think I even look like me. Put a crown of silver on her head, and she's the same woman. Still can't help but close her eyes when she smiles. Our daughter, our firstborn, is forty years old.

Most everyone at the renion used the handrails on the long flights of stairs we used to get up and down to the celebration, and there weren't half as many freckles on those arms as there were liver spots. Here and there bones creaked, and I don't doubt that some errant gases escaped when they shouldn't have; but had there been something public, most would have giggled. Been there, done that. 

Judging from the outside (I'm an in-law in that alumni family) a good time was had by all. None of that fearful judging that goes on at class reunions early in the game--who's making money, who's making waves, who's making whoopee? No pseudo-sophistication. No pseudo anything that I could tell. When the whole room is full of people pushing seventy, everyone plays it straight. You're free to be what you are and nothing more. Or less.

My high school reunion is coming up soon. I'll need a directory. But so did my wife.

I went to a public high school, so there'll be drinks served. I don't expect any spectacles. At our age, people tend to nod off easily enough the way it is. Besides, there'll be just about as many plainly religious people at OHS, class of '66-night, come August, as there were singing hymns yesterday on Sunday morning. There may even be a prayer somewhere along the line. Wouldn't be illegal or ill-advised. Entirely apropos.

But Barb went to a Christian high school, so yesterday's reunion centerpiece was worship, a regular church service with a preacher who wasn't a preacher, but who held forth quite charmingly, I thought. But then, even if he hadn't done well, no one would have stopped smiling.

He read from Psalm 90. I don't know about others, but I will forever associate that great psalm with funerals, which the reunion wasn't at all, even though more than a half-dozen classmates didn't make through all those fifty years. 

Psalm 90 ends with one of the most solicitous lines in the Bible, or so it seems to me. There's no accounting for taste, so I don't expect other people to agree with that assessment, but I've always felt that asking the Lord to "establish the work of our hands" is just plain extraordinarily human, in the very best sense. It seems to me that what we all want is to somehow make a difference. I've prayed that line ten thousand times, I'm sure, in a variety of adaptations.

When you're a kid or a young person like I was in that picture above, a teacher at a high school in Arizona, "establish the work of our hands, Lord" means you're asking the Lord to make things stick in the classroom, to help me to say what needs to be said to kids who need someone to say it. And this child too, our first. Make me a better father than I ever guessed I needed to be or now understand I can be. Establish the work of our hands, Lord, establish the work of our hands. Help me build something, Lord.

So yesterday we all said it again, a host of men and women in their late sixties, a ton of Vietnam vets, a gathering of actual saints and sinners. We repeated that verse again, years and years away from images like the one at the top of the page: Lord God almighty, establish the work of our hands.

It's different now. It's the same words, the same prayer, but now it's all said toward a rearview mirror, most all the establishing well behind us. 

But we're still asking for the same thing, aren't we?--just looking backward is all. 

Establish the work of our hands.

And smiling. Yesterday, her class reunion was a very good time, for which I'm thankful this morning.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Sunday Morning Meds--"No good thing does he bestow"

“. . .the LORD bestows favor and honor; 
no good thing does he withhold from those whose walk is blameless.”

According to news reports, a woman in Daphne, AL, in a rush of violent storms, was struck by lightning while she stood in her kitchen and asked God for her loved ones’ safety. You read that right. That she got hit was an answer to prayer.

Lightning blew her off her feet, burned up some linoleum, and left a blackened area on the concrete beneath. She apparently didn’t know up from down, but managed an “amen” before the room was engulfed in smoke and fire. A few minutes later she was found by her 14-year-old granddaughter. Outside, dime-sized hail and gusty winds moved through, as three inches of rain fell.

The 65-year-old woman, or so says the news, claims it was a blessing.

What she means is that she’s the one who got smacked and not her grandkids. Just the same, getting knocked down by lightning is no cup-of-tea blessing. I’m not sure I’d rank it high on any list of all-time best divine gifts, but I understand what she means. And she could be dead, after all.

It’s all a matter of perspective, I guess, isn’t it? If some crystal ball told that woman she was about to get hit by lightning, she might not have thought the bolt much of a blessing. But then again she wasn’t killed.

Once in a while, I might think my marriage doesn’t rank with the best-of-class; but when a friend’s is breaking down, I know I’m heavenly blessed. It’s all a matter of perspective.

All blessings aren’t created equal; but all things—even a bolt of lightning—can be a blessing, I suppose. Even death can. Some death at least. I think so anyway.

Ralph Waldo Emerson is likely to say at this point that faith is its own great reward. Whether or not the psalmist is telling the truth—that the righteous will be blessed by the Lord (“no good thing does he withhold), it’s really only one’s faith that makes it so. Grandma gets flattened by lightning, her kitchen floor gets torn up (and her backyard, according to the news), and she calls it all a blessing.

And she’s right. She may have been knocked dizzy, but she didn’t die and neither did those grandkids.

But it's faith that makes it so, not God. Look, Emerson would say, our faith creates paradigms by which we make meaning for the events of our lives, which means believers are blessed simply because they believe they are. That’s what Emerson would say. God has little to do with it. Why throw Him into the mix? Virtue is its own reward. Believe in the god that's in you.

I’m quite sure my life will run a whole lot more smoothly if I don’t punch my neighbor, cheat on my wife, or stick my hands in the cash drawer. But I’d also like to believe that if I try to do what’s right, if I seek justice and mercy, and if I try to give God my life in thanksgiving, I’ll be blessed because of what God almighty will do.

I believe that. Of course I do. That Alabama grandma is right--she is blessed to be alive. And isn’t that something—how her granddaughter found her there, helped her back to her feet? Isn’t she blessed? Sure, she is.

Did God do all of that? I believe so, and so does she, a grandma who's alive to tell the story to a granddaughter who's there to listen. 

Blessings are all God-things. 

Friday, June 24, 2016

Morning thanks--repentance and forgiveness

There's so much to this story that's old news, so much that's so awful yet so obscenely ordinary, that the whole thing is almost predictable. To a point. 

At some D-1 university, some football players get drunk along with some maidens who've come for a party they really wouldn't wish on their worst enemy. Too much booze goes down, waaaay too much, and things go on that are beyond reprehensible, plain criminal. Rape goes on. Again and again.

Brenda Tracy, 24, a single mom, should not have been in the company of footballers from the local university, Oregon State, that night. She had her own life and the lives of her children to attend to. But she was. 

When she woke up, she was naked beneath a sheet. Something beyond imagination, worse than a nightmare had gone on.
The attack lasted more than six hours and as I went in and out of consciousness the things that they did to me are now burned into my memory, Like a piece of cattle I was branded, never to forget eight hands on me, inside me, their laughs as they high-fived each other in a congratulatory manner as they each took turns raping me. … Never to forget the next morning when I awoke to the smell of dried vomit in my hair, the stickiness of a condom stuck to my stomach, the food crumbs that left indentations on my skin as I lay face down on the apartment floor like a piece of garbage that someone forgot to pick up.
She decided to call the police. 

And then commit suicide, she told a reporter.

The men who'd done it were hauled in. Two of them were charged with sodomy, unlawful sexual entry, and sexual abuse. They claimed it was all consensual, of course, and their coach, Mike Riley, slapped a one-game suspension on them.

Then Brenda Tracy dropped charges. The heat was horrible--hate mail, death threats, backlash. The players were stars.  "They are really good guys who made a bad choice," Coach Riley said.

Later, when the entire story came out, Riley made clear that he deeply regretted what he'd done and not done, what he'd let the young men do, regretted it horribly.

So why tell this story again? Because there's more. The Washington Post featured it yesterday, but I can't believe my neighbors in Nebraska didn't know it long ago because Mike Riley is now coaching the Nebraska Cornhuskers and almost nothing that happens on that team gets by thousands of loyal Husker fans. 

Here's the not-to-be-believed chapter: Eighteen years later, Coach Mike Riley asked Brenda Tracy to come to Lincoln and talk to the Huskers herself. 

"I hated that man worse than my rapists," Brenda Tracy told an Oregon newspaper reporter. In the years that had passed since that awful night, she'd become a nurse, an advocate for rape victims, and even an employee of Oregon State, where she helped the institution prevent sexual assault. But her hatred for Mike Riley hadn't really subsided. He was, after all, the enabler. 

When the two of them met, he reached out and hugged her, let her cry on his shoulder. They talked for an hour, the two of them. "I feel like I put everything on the table and left it all there," she told a reporter from Omaha. “He answered everything."

Then, as requested, she talked to Riley's Huskers, told them every detail, then turned to the coach, the enabler. She said she felt 150 faces turn simultaneously. "This is what accountability looks like," she told them. "It's okay to say you're sorry."

Amazing story. Wonderful story. You can't beat repentance and forgiveness. 

Just can't beat it.

What happened, happened. Nothing will ever take it away, de-record it from memory. But 150 men witnessed something remarkable because repentance and forgiveness always is. 

We come near unto God, Abraham Kuyper says, when we try to do what we know he does.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Trump and the faith community

The intent of the confab, according to news sources, was love, to bring together hungry Christian conservatives with that rowdy Donald Trump, who doesn't talk a Christian, doesn't walk like one, and had never--before running for President--acted like one nor hung out a shingle to be one or be seen as one. He's a recent convert.

Last weekend Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump spoke at the request of a circle of evangelicals who want badly to embrace him, despite his being him. They hoped he could persuade them to baptize him, and they want badly to do just that.

All of that according to Ralph Reed, who's been one of them for years and regularly speaks for them. NPR reported on the meeting, and, like others, explained that Trump had told the Christians not to pray for Obama, thereby thoughtlessly contradicting Christ's own dying words about enemies. Not surprising.

Reed tried to spin what Trump had said: "In the meeting that I was in, which was of the advisory group," Reed said, "he didn't say don't pray for your leaders. He said, you know, pray but you need to act. You need change, and this is your opportunity to see real change come to Washington."

Ralph Reed, who often glaringly lets his light shine before men, insists that the Donald is the Christians' "opportunity to see real change come to Washington." 

He's right. Donald Trump will be a President unlike any other. 

Reed went on:  "And, you know, I believe that, should Donald Trump be elected, he will disrupt the broken system in Washington, D.C., in a way that Hillary Clinton won't. And I think that message is likely to resonate. . .very powerfully in the faith community."

The bald arrogance of that assessment sickens me. Here's why.

Marcella is 90 years old, a Lakota nurse who gets emotional when she speaks of how the waters of the Missouri River covered her home fifty years ago when the government decided to create a series of dams through South Dakota to bring water to land that all too regularly had all too little.

She's not fragile, never was. She was in Europe after D-Day, caring for American GIs on the long march to Berlin. She's a Lakota woman, an army nurse, a mom, a quilter, a grandma, a resident of the Cheyenne River reservation, where she still lives.

Not long ago, I told her I'd be privileged to help her write her story, which is only half truth. The whole truth is I'd love to hear it, love to know, love to understand, love to know more about just how she's lived her long and incredible life. So we're talking about that right now. It may happen, but don't hold your breath.

Yesterday, I needed to explain to a woman who, in some ways, is acting as her agent, that I am--for better and for worse--a Christian. She needed to know, if she hadn't expected it already, because my Christianity is in my work. She wanted to read the book I wrote about the Rehoboth Mission, so I sent it to her. I hadn't mentioned anything about my being a Christian, and I knew I needed to. I didn't know what faith, if any, this agent of hers might espouse, nor did I know about Marcella's. She hadn't mentioned anything in the stories I'd heard her tell at a Great Plains history conference.

I told the agent she needed to know that I was a believer but not a preacher, that I wasn't interested in crafting stories of people's lives into Sunday School lessons, and that I often felt I had to apologize when I explained that I am and remain a believer. 

"Not to worry," she told me when she responded. She told me she herself is a Unitarian Universalist, a religion she says harmonizes well with traditional Native religion. Marcella, she said, is Episcopalian, which is not surprising; the Episcopalians have a long history among the Sioux or Lakota people. Marcella's daughters, she said, who will be very important in my hearing the stories, aren't greatly taken with Christianity after what it did to their people, as many Native people aren't--with good reason. 

And then I heard Ralph Reed explain that he thought what Donald Trump promises will "resonate. . .very powerfully in 'the faith community.'"

It is sheer arrogance for him to assume that his is the faith community. In fact, it's exactly that pompous assessment that makes some of us apologize for being believers. What's more, it's that damning exclusivity that creates anger in the minds and hearts and souls of Marcella's daughters and many, many others.

Evangelical Christians who believe that they are the only "faith community" are the pagans, the idolaters. It's not God almighty they worship, but themselves. 

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

My story of her story (ii)

In typical Dutch fashion, here they are, on bikes--Diet Eman and Hein Sietsma. They were little more than kids when Hitler decided, the day after he said he wouldn't, to run over the Netherlands, blitzkrieg the entire country and simply take it for his own. 

"I was furious," she told me, time and time again, because there was no cause, no reason for those Nazi jackboots to flatten Rotterdam and march through the streets of every city in the country, including Den Haag, where she worked in a bank. What right had those Germans to to take over the lives of the Dutch? No right whatsoever.

And when the Queen left for England, she was furious again. "Why would 'our mother' just leave us behind?" she told me. She couldn't help wondering why she'd abandoned them.  Many wondered.

But all of that came out in her reminiscence only after that first thoughtfully considered and oh-so-professional question I'd asked her, a question meant not only to reveal character but also to try to establish my credentials as being "a writer," a title I'd hardly earned at that time in my life. I'd brought up the idea of my helping her in the afterglow of a story that had thrilled my heart and soul and mind. I'd asked her almost as if without thinking. I'd never done a book like this could be before. Never. What did I know? Really, nothing.

"What kind of guy is he?" I asked her, then offered some true-to-life options.

"Well," she said, "why don't you just read for yourself?" Matter-of-factly, she said it, as if the question was rhetorical.  "I've got his letters."

I had no idea. "You have his letters to you, letters he wrote?" I said, perfectly slack-jawed.

"And many of mine to him," she told me.

"You're serious?"

"And I have some of his diaries and all of my diaries too."

"You're not kidding?"

She looked at me as if I'd become a stranger. "No," she said, as if wondering why on earth I would doubt her.

Then the story came, the story that became the play. 

After she'd discovered that Hein would never return, after learning he'd died in January of 1945, just months from liberation, she'd taken all those precious notes and letters and locked them up in a metal box because, she told me, she had come to realize that it would be impossible to go on if she didn't try to become another person altogether. 

So she'd taken all those letters and notes and locked them in a cold, metal box because she had to stop seeing them, keep them out of her memory, had to quit reliving what had happened, pull herself away from a time that would never, ever return. She couldn't burn them, but neither could she leave them around. She locked them up.

She'd changed professions, went to nursing school, then determined to take a job that would take her out of the Netherlands altogether. Her painful past had to be abandoned. 

By the end of the 1940s she was working at a nurse in Venezuela at a Shell Oil compound full of European workers. She'd left behind everything that had happened to her during the war, all that adventure and intrigue and grief. She did what she could to clear her life of reference to a past she had to forget but really never could.

Years passed. She was fluent in Spanish, so she went on countless medical mission teams into faraway locales in Latin America, where she acted as a translator for people coming for help at make shift clinics created by North American doctors. Sometimes at night, in jungle compounds lit only by fire, she and other team members would tell stories. Slowly, she started to share what had happened to her--to them, to her and Hein--during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. Slowly, the story was told, in bits and pieces.

Eventually, she was asked to tell the story before hundreds of people in a place called Sioux Center, Iowa. Then again, in 1991, at a college conference, same place, before hundreds more, where a man she'd never known before asked her if she'd like someone to help her write it. She told him she'd thought about it, told that man from Sioux Center that he wasn't the first to ask. But she'd always considered it somehow vainglorious or something to talk much about what they did in the war because she was no hero. She didn't do anything that hundreds didn't do. They'd done what they did because the Lord commanded it, didn't he? 

And wasn't it almost a little presumptuous to have your story out there like that, like Corrie? She knew Corrie Ten Boom, even worked for her relief organization, helping children who lost their parents during the war. Everything Corrie Ten Boom said had become scripture after The Hiding Place. That kind of adulation was improper because hundreds--literally, hundreds--had done what Corrie did--and more. And whatever Corrie says now gets almost to be like scripture? Is that right?

But the question that Sioux Center man had raised stuck with her, and one night in church she listened to the voice of the Lord in a line from a hymn, when it struck her that she owed it to her children to tell them, tell them everything, the whole story. That's when she called me. That's why she called me.

"I've got his letters and my letters and my journals and even his," she told me that first night I stayed with her.

I had absolutely no idea.

"And yesterday for the first time, I opened that box and read through them again," she said. For more than forty years those memories were locked up in a metal box she'd just opened the day before. 

For the next week, she talked and I listened. Memories rushed up from her beaten soul as if her mind was a scrapbook with no last page. I listened, as did my little tape recorder. I tried to shape things, to keep her memories clear and chronological. I handed her Kleenex when she cried, which she did often. I laughed when she did--and just as often. I wheedled when she seemed reluctant, when I thought there was more she wasn't telling. 

Her story came tumbling out for an entire week. Some days, just for a break, we'd take walks out in the field behind her house. But she never really stopped talking, ran through emotions that all came out in spades. And I listened.

Her story became Things We Couldn't Say. My story of her story became a readers theater presentation performed dozens and dozens of times twenty years ago, a 90-minute version of her story done in such a bare bones fashion that any church group could do it--that's what I wanted to create. I wanted to find a way to tell this story a thousand times to the glory of God.

It's been in mothballs now for a couple of decades, but Janie Van Dyke, at Unity Christian High, decided to pull it out once more and have a run at it. 

And it's been a joy to hear it again, to go back to an experience unlike anything else in my writing life. I was there the night after she had opened up that box of letters and notes for the first time since the end of the war. I was there when the whole story came out for the first time since she'd learned the painful news that her Hein, her lover, would never return.

That's my story of her story. 

If you're around, you might want to drop by the Knight Center in Orange City this weekend, where it's being done by gifted ordinary people who find it a privilege, just as I have, to tell her marvelous story. 

See Things We Couldn't Say at the Knight Center, Orange City, Iowa, Friday, June 24 or Saturday, June 25, at 7:30. General seating, $5 at the door.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

My story of her story (i)

Really, what did I know? 

Not much. 

But I'd been thoroughly worked over by hearing her story. She'd told it, laughing and crying and celebrating while standing behind the podium of the college chapel in front of an audience of hundreds. 

It was 1991, a quarter century ago. We'd planned the conference for a year. We wanted to draw people who had similar "old country" experiences during the war, people who, out of conscience and commitment to justice, had risked their lives and even the lives of their families because they felt it imperative to come to the aid of Holland's Jewish population, who'd become the targets of Nazi horrors few of them even understood in 1940 or 1941.

Among our college constituency, there were hundreds, maybe thousands of those who worked in the Dutch resistance, then immigrated to North America after the war. Research made clear that the only group of Netherlanders more dedicated to resistance work was the Marxists, sworn enemies of the fascists. Second, came those people sociologists and historians labeled "orthodox Protestants," which translated roughly into Gereformeerde or its North American first cousin, the Christian Reformed.

We'd asked her to speak because the Resistance worker the Dutch government had offered us, a woman from California, took ill at the last minute, leaving a blank space in our conference program. Diet Eman (deet a'-maan) had spoken in the chapel earlier when a local businessman had funded her speech after hearing her tell something of her story when the two of them were in some Central American country on a medical mission. The story she told had been incredible, the local paper said. I hadn't heard it myself.

Incredible is what she was that night at the conference. I'd never heard her before, but it was clear to me that her story--a tender love story against the stark horror of great human conflict--was beyond doubt one of the greatest stories I'd ever heard.

What did I know about writing such things? Nothing, really. I'd interviewed people and written their stories before, but never anything longer than a few hundred words. 

But that night at the chapel, when I ended up in the food line just behind her, not by design but by sheer happenstance, I opened my big mouth because I was so deeply taken. "Did you ever think of getting a writer to help you write all of that?" I asked her after saying well-meant gracious things about what we'd all just heard. 

She shook her head with considerable decisiveness. She told me she'd already had six people ask, but she didn't want it to be a book, she said, would rather not go in that direction at all.

Six months later, after church on a Sunday night, she called me. "Turn in the Psalter Hymnal to number 345"--she said--(I don't remember the number)--and read verse two." I stood right there, pulled the book from our library, and found it. The line had to do with parents telling their children the works of the Lord. "I want to write the story and I want you to help me," she said. 

Suddenly I had a job I hadn't planned on. 

A few more months passed. Summer arrived. I bought a ticket for Grand Rapids, rented a car, found her address, an retirement apartment in a new complex. 

And I had a plan. I'd plotted out some questions I wanted to ask. I'd considered that what the book should look like would be something in the line of The Hiding Place, the Corrie  Ten Boom story. So when we started talking that Sunday night, when my little tape recorder sat there on the table between us, the red light on, I was the first one to speak.

"Tell me what he was like," I said, or something to that effect. "In a group, would Hein be the first one to talk, or the last one, or the one with the best story?" How would I know him if he was just one of the men in the room here with us?"

What she said immediately thereafter became the readers theater version of a story that would become Things We Couldn't Say

In essence, the reader's theater production is my story of her story, and should you be anywhere in the vicinity of Orange City, Iowa this weekend--Friday or Saturday--it will play at the Knight Center at Unity Christian, starting at 7:30. 

What Diet Eman told me at that moment, how she answered my first question, a question I'd worked over myself time after time, trying to be professional, changed the direction of things completely and became itself a story.

More of that story tomorrow.

Monday, June 20, 2016

What is there to say about bald spots?

It's what our pastor mentioned yesterday in his prayer--these wet spots in the fields all around. 

To say we've had a wet spring understates the saturation. It's rained every other day for weeks, sometimes in buckets. The river has not left its banks behind, but it's been high and muddy and refuse-laden since May, higher constantly in the last month or so; and that's why the fields all around the region have bald spots, like this pair. 

Here at the edge of the flood plane, bald spots are not at all rare, so when he mentioned them in the opening prayer it caught me off guard because it seems to me they come with the territory. But then I'm not a farmer--maybe I should put it this way: I'm not the farmer. I'm not the man who plows the fields and scatters the good seed on the land, the man or woman who's worries about crop failures and going belly up. When I watch the sky's mighty turbulence, what I see is drama, not ruin. 

And, to be sure, the preacher mentioned bald spots in a context of the gloried emerald all around. "Knee high by the Fourth of July" is a measuring stick that lost its currency sometime during the Truman Administration, I think, once hybrids started racing each other out of rich Iowa soil. We've had some healthy days of heavy dampness in the last week, stifling heat people claim is so pitched you can hear corn grow. 

"There are bald spots all right," the preacher said to God, "but there's solid gold in all that emerald too," he said, or something to that effect. It was just a peculiarly Iowa way to say "count your blessings, folks." 

My father-in-law's eyesight is failing badly, but when we drive around countryside that once was his, he can't help but remark on water he sees in the fields. When what's written on the landscape determines your livelihood you pay attention, I suppose--bald spots in your family's wherewithal.

I don't remember much else about the pastor's prayer because his mention of wet spots got me wondering what exactly is in us that determines how we see the the bald spots or whether we see them at all. Why do some people have to be reminded of the bold and healthy corn that surrounds these scars? Why do only some of us look at a field and worry about what's not there?

Is worry some gene in our DNA? Is fear something we're born with? Or does it rise only in those who are somehow trained to see it? Is it ingrained in our vision or do we have to be taught? Or is it both? And how is that siblings can be so different? Same genes, same home, but day-and-night, salt-and-pepper.

How it is that some people really believe that the guns they have in the basement may someday be necessary to take on the black helicopters circling the village? How is it that some people believe we're just a decade away from Sharia law when others think such fear is plain nuts? If worry, a pox on all our houses, arises from fear, how is it some people require all kinds of help to deal with it, while others drop it like a bad habit? 

Why do some people see bald spots in the fields all around where others see only a healthy sea of green? How did FDR get away with saying what he did: "the only thing to fear is fear itself?" Was he right?

Is he always right? When should I buy a gun?

Yesterday was Father's Day. My father has been dead for a decade already, but he's very much alive in me in ways I can't count. But I don't see the world as he did. I'm not his clone, never was, as is my son not mine. 

So where do predilections come from anyway? How is it we are what we are? To what extent do we fashion ourselves after those we love or respect, or are we ourselves simply fashioned? The preacher says, in his prayer, that too often all of us only see the bald spots. He's may well be right, but why? 

I don't think I know, and I doubt anyone does. 

And why am I thinking about this now? Is anyone else who heard that prayer thinking about wet scars in the land? What is it in you that makes you you? 

I don't know. 

But like the preacher, I can't help thinking those bald spots are telling.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Sunday Morning Meds--God is a Shield

“For the Lord God is a sun and a shield.” Psalm 84:11

A marriage is breaking up. It’s not pretty, but then none of them are. This one involves a good friend about whom my wife and I have worried for several years.

The note came yesterday. The marriage is one short step away from being over, a legal step. For all intents and purposes, it’s over already, and they both know it. Despite their best intentions, despite their mutual grief over its demise, what they did together one Saturday before God and friends and family is on the brink of death.

An e-mail note bore the bad tidings, the kind of note that demands a response, any response, even when there are no words. So last night, I sat here and tried to say some things that would be helpful. I told him that I didn’t have any valuable advice, that it seemed to me as if nothing I could say would change anything. I told him I’d listen, and I told him that he had tons of friends here who would welcome him with open arms. That may have been the best thing I said because I know it’s true and so does he.

He said both he and his wife are clinically depressed and taking medications to counter it. I told him I understand, but really that’s not true, not totally.

I told him that I’d been writing meditations on the Psalms for years, but in my soul I’ve never really gotten beyond the very first word of the very first psalm—“blessed.” I told him I was still trying to understand what it means to be blessed.

]I said that the closest I could come to the meaning of that word is “happy.” But that word seems cheap. My grandson is happy when he sits at our table eating an orange popsicle. To be blessed is to be more than just happy, isn’t it?

Last week I had to write another e-mail to another friend, who is dying of lung cancer, a man who, not that many years ago, buried his wife, who had herself died of cancer. I’m not good at saying nice things. I don’t know why.

What I said in both cases, however, is part and parcel of this familiar metaphor—“God is a shield.” No matter what we experience, no matter how bad or pitiable or shocking, it seems to me that believers always know that that God himself stands somehow between us and sheer, unbearable horror.

I read a story yesterday in the paper about a reporter, a columnist, who died of Lou Gehrig’s disease. At the end, his muscle system in a lock down, he communicated by pointing to letters on a keyboard. One of the last notes said, “I am so blessed.”

God is a shield. He doesn’t keep us from battle—witness my friends, witness the columnist punching out his last few letters. But God is a grate over the black hole of total meaninglessness, which is itself a kind of shield. We can know him. We can trust him. We can be blessed, even in our suffering.

Whoever wrote this gorgeous psalm never heard of Jesus Christ and therefore wrote far better than he knew—a definition of holy scripture, in a way. He didn’t know Christ, who is a shield, who carried off our sins and death and damnation.

God is a shield.

I could have said that in those two letters. But in both cases, I suppose I didn’t have to. Thank the Lord—both of the men I wrote already know very well that God is their shield. I don’t know if they think themselves blessed right now, but both of them know very well that they are.

Friday, June 17, 2016

From the museum--The Sherman St. Ladies*

How I got it is beyond me. Someone, somewhere, sent it to me when he or she was probably doing the same thing I'm doing now, cleaning out a room, an office, a den, a junk drawer.  That this strange little card lasted all this time--more than a century!--argues for its continued existence.  I can't just throw it away. 

I honestly don't know a soul who has ever been a member of the Sherman Street Christian Reformed Church of Grand Rapids, MI.  My grandfather, a preacher, spent most of his preaching life in Michigan; but I don't think he ever held forth at Sherman Street.  I've never been there; I don't have a clue what the place looks like or did, once upon a time.

I found this little yellowed card perched in corner of my bulletin board, someone's proud gift, I'm sure, long, long ago. "Say, Erv, I bet a guy like Jim Schaap would like this," Ma said to Pa, and probably sent it via USPS.

They weren't wrong. Dang it.  Now I've got to figure out what to do with it.

Honestly, the thing is fascinating. If it is to be believed, in December of 1911, the ladies of the church got together and decided they should do some kind of fundraiser:  ". . .an eager search/For ways and means from day today,/To meet the bills. . ."

There were likely no furniture barons in Sherman Street, no rich folks, so the Ladies decided on some kind of handkerchief shower:  "Please give us a nice handkerchief," it beckons.  Not one of those red farmer things, I suppose, but "a nice one," mind you, and don't question purpose either because, as some aspiring poet from the pew says ". . .every one who has a nose,/Will guess what handkerchiefs are for."  So there.

Some things get lost in time. How on earth the ancient ladies of Sherman Street planned to make money on a hundred hankies is not at all clear; but if I know church fund-raisers, once they collected the goods, they simply pedaled 'em back to the congregation. You know how that goes. Some things don't change in a hundred years.

The poem is just dorky enough to be cool.  It doesn't slobber religious sentiment and feels more like a joke than a tract.  I like that. I think it bespeaks a church very much at home with itself.  This whole handkerchief caper, even back then, was probably mostly goofy. Some of the old farts probably thought it silly, even a shade irreverent. I like that too.  

I took it home from my office with a passel of other miscellaneous museum pieces, just part of the accumulation of a lifetime in just one place. If you don't move, I've discovered, neither does all kinds of stuff.

Sometimes people say it's a wonderful thing for someone like me to have stayed at one desk most all of my life.  Today, demographers claim most people will change professions six times--professions, not just locations.  Me? I've been here forever. Look at the stuff the years have washed up--some odd little memento courtesy of the ladies of 1911 at Sherman Street church.

I can't just chuck it, so here's what I'm thinking.  Maybe the church itself would like it.  Sure--I think I'll send it off, USPS. Why not? Methinks, the ancient Ladies of Sherman Street deserve some respect for their poetic goofiness.  Besides, someone will smile.

And that's worth the stamp.


*Occasionally, old posts get re-run. . .

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Thinking of snow, of all things

It's a strange time of year to be thinking of winter, just a couple of days short of summer solstice, true calendar summer still ahead of us in fact, lots of heat, lots of growth. And I wouldn't have, I'm sure, if I hadn't suddenly remembered the heartache that, like it or not, arrives that day, June 21, when you can't help knowing that, once again, the days will grow shorter, temps will fall and open windows close.

I certainly don't long for snow outside these windows or frost on the corners. I'm not dying to pull on sweats rather than shorts and a t-shirt. I like going barefoot. I'm not nostalgic for winter in the least.

But an article in Cabinet reminded me not only of winter's discomfort but also its strangely paradoxical allure. Even now, there's something sort of attractive about it. Sort of. Snowmen, he claims, are jolly friends we'd never invite into the kitchen or play room. What's more, they die away remarkably fast. They're cartoon figures of horror.

Still, the season's first snow is always incredibly beautiful. It creates a sinless world by enrobing everything in a gown of alabaster. Early winter is a colorless, desolate mess, abandoned cornfields seem the earth's very own hairshirt. Autumn leaves have long ago lost their glory. They're little more than fertilizer, brown or gray and soggy. Then comes the snow, and the world is brand new.

"Snow’s richest metaphorical potential probably lies in its capacity to accurately map states of mental desolation," says Charlie Fox, "ranging from inertia to catatonia, through its exquisite blankness." Maybe. What I know is that it's not particularly becoming even though it has its own remarkable beauty.

Somewhere along the line, I remember hearing that Hollywood hates snow because we do. How many wonderful movies do you know that feature winter? Zhivago, for one. Groundhog Day, although the producer had no choice. Fargo, but then the movie's great appeal was its weirdness.

If in fact, whenever it can, Hollywood avoids snow, it has cause. No one likes to shiver.

There's an editor in North Dakota (see winter, anyone?) whose desk contains at least one manuscript--mine!--of a novel set in the deep, dark cold. That it is, is even more reason to worry about that editor (or any) ever liking the novel. Honestly, who could possibly be enchanted by book whose temperature never gets above zero?

And yet, I love taking landscapes in winter, dream, in fact, of getting a great shot of buffalo slugging it out in a snowstorm. Number one on my bucket list--get that picture. For a decade or more, every December I looked forward to tramping out in the wild after a first snow, when the world is pearly bright.

But I can't imagine putting a winter landscape, no matter how beautiful, up in the living room. Who in their right mind would want to live in a room decorated by frozen cold? Snow is gorgeous and stunning in what Charlie Fox calls its "exquisite blankness." What's more, even though the morning after a snowfall may remind the soul of purity, by the end of the day the streets are a mess, lined with dead sheep.

It's the 16th of June, five whole days left until solstice, when the earth tips north and the sun goes south. Right now, the door is open down here, I can watch the dawn, the garden is booming, and the snow seems forever away.

But not gone. It'll rise from the dead once more, and I'll think it gorgeous.

For a while.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Going to Vesterheim

This wonderfully haunting painting greets visitors at the entrance to Vesterheim: the National Norwegian Museum and Heritage Center in Decorah, Iowa. Clearly, Father is missing. Interpretations include a familiar story: he's gone on ahead to America to find a place for his family.

That table is spread with food, but obvious anxiety. No one is smiling, not even the children. The prominence of the empty chair suggests their father's absence is daunting, as is what must have seemed inevitable, a voyage across the sea to a strange country from which they'd never return.

Most 19th century American immigrants, be they Dutch or Norwegian or German or Irish, were dirt poor. Most saw America as a promise attainable otherwise only in their dreams. Most were unhappy. Who would suffer this kind of loneliness and danger emigration created if, as people say here at times, "Life is good"? It wasn't. What the American dream offered for this family had dual motivations: that they could live better in a new country because they weren't and couldn't back home.

I think we do ourselves well to remember what we came from. I've always assumed that my people on both sides of the family were potato eaters, like those in Van Gogh's celebrated early portrait. 

My people knew little of what Americans call "success." They were certainly not aristocracy, nor anything near to "middle class." My ancestors were tired and poor and yearning to be free.

And religious. Most of those who came from the Netherlands in the mid-19th century were religious separatists who'd challenged, even despised the State Church of Holland in a series of fights rooted in theology but demonstrably political: they were unwilling to suffer the oppressive reign of church leaders who considered them and their piety silly at worst, or dangerous, at best.

I never knew that similar beliefs--both religious and political--affected mid-19th century immigrants from Norway, too--or Germany. In those countries, poor people were deeply affected, heart and soul, by stirring religious movements that were highly individual, powerfully strong, and, according their respective governments and appointed church hierarchies, clearly rebellious. 

"The sloopers," those very first Norwegian immigrants, carried with them a religious identity that created immense confidence that they were especially chosen of God, a belief my own people shared. That double-fisted faith emboldened them, not because they were arrogant--they weren't. But it simply would not have dawned on them that God's hand wasn't there beneath every last move they made. They believed they were that close (and that others weren't.)

In Holland they were "afscheiding," the break-aways, because they'd defiantly walked out of the Dutch Reformed Church. In Norway many of those earliest immigrants were Haugeans, disciples of Hans Nielson Hauge, who one day sang a hymn out in the open air of the country and underwent a mystical experience: "My mind became so exalted that I was not myself aware of, nor can I express, what took place in my soul. For I was beside myself." That moment changed his life and turned him into an itinerant preacher who traveled through rural neighborhoods talking about the absolute importance of "the living faith," something akin to what we might call "a personal relationship with Jesus Christ."

That individuality was seen as a threat to church powers, because it was, politically as well as religiously; it created an idea as radical as "the priesthood of all believers," emphasis on all

Not one cell in my body is Norwegian, at least nothing that I know of; but last Sunday we walked through a really fine ethnic museum that could well have been telling my family's own immigrant story, ours, however, in wooden shoes, the story of a people just as hopeful and just as confident that the Lord God almighty, creator of heaven and earth, was there with them in the ship that crossed the sea and there too in the new land.

For better and for worse, that faith is still there.