Morning Thanks

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

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Sunday Morning Meds--"Like a day that has just gone by"

For a thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by,
or like a watch in the night.”  Psalm 90:4

When my father died, the poet Scott Cairns sent me a poem he’d written at the death of his own father.  Like no other poem I know, it offered—and still does—consolation.  Countless times I’ve sent it on to others who’ve lost parents or friends.  It’s titled “Words for a Father,” and it begins with “and,” as if we’re probably overhearing some ideas that have been brewing in our heads for quite some time.

“And this is the consolation: that the world
doesn't end, that the world one day opens up
into something better. And that we
one day open up into something far better.”

He’s talking about afterlife, of course—our visions of the eternal, of heaven.  None of us know a thing about what the afterlife will look like, but our differing views (streets paved with gold, good fishing, no more wind) all share the same basic conviction:  there, things will be better.  That much for sure:  things will be better.

Then he visits a vision of things, narrating carefully one possible sense of dying:

Maybe like this: one morning you finally wake
to a light you recognize as the light you've wanted
every morning that has come before. And the air
has some light thing in it that you've always hoped
the air might have. And One is there to welcome you
whose face you've looked for during all the best and worst
times of your life. He takes you to himself
and holds you close until you fully wake.

There’s no Mormon Tabernacle Choir, only a sweet light and a single, strangely familiar face, a maternal God whose welcome is a blessed, wordless calm. 

And then the lines that seem most memorable to me—or certainly were in those days following my father’s dying. 

And it seems you've only just awakened, but you turn
and there we are, the rest of us, arriving just behind you.
We'll go the rest of the way together.

What hurt me most at my father’s death was the sense of his being gone, alone, the rest of us seated in the church he’d attended his whole life, all of us, his entire family.  To the terror of that emptiness, Scott’s poem is sweet and grand relief, profiling eternity by promising us all—my father and his included—that a thousand years in God’s sight are like nothing at all.  Nothing.  We’ll be there soon ourselves. 

That, is comfort.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Fire away

For saying this, I'll get blistered, I know, but here goes: I thought the Democratic Convention was a triumph. But then, I think Obama was a wonderful president. (Okay, flip the safety off those flamethrowers). 

It's just sad that we're so horribly split.  Robert Costa and Karen Tumulty, in this morning's Washington Post put it this way: "The country’s two major political parties, emerging from their conventions to square off in the general election, are speaking to Americas unrecognizable to each other. . ."

People came over a couple nights ago and sat outside on our patio. We've got no trees, so the ball-of-flame sun in the southern sky made it hard to sit outside if you didn't have sunglasses or a visor. I told people I had a host of caps, walked in the house to get a couple, and picked up one that said "Obama '08." I knew very well that two of our guests were died-in-the-wool Republicans, felt their torrid heat before, so I left the Obama cap inside.

Then, the next night, at the city park, a man my age, huge chest, walked up in a gray t-shirt big as a bed sheet that announced in big block lettering, "Hillary for Prison." There it was, across his chest. He walked around proud as a bully. 

I told myself I was a wimp, scared to unveil that already historic Obama cap in front of a couple of men who likely would have loudly admired the condemnation boldly proclaimed across the wide chest of that Trumpian in the middle of the park. He wore that thing proudly. 

Maybe you've seen the Dick Morris video, commended to me yesterday via Facebook and posted there by an old friend. Ten minutes of undiluted hate from a man Fox News once fired for lying, a man whose mission has been devoted to hate since then-President Clinton cut him off the payroll. Later, I read a FB note from someone who believes that the Clintons are cold-blooded killers, having murdered (among other enemies) young women Bill got with child. Not just murderers, mass murderers--Bonnie and Clyde or whatever. Believes it. The media is simply in on the whole plot, even Fox.

My distaste for Donald Trump is worse than distaste. I don't think he's murdered anyone, but his lies swell beyond all imagination. No one, not even his disciples, believe he's going to create a ten thousand homeland cops to grab 11 million people and put them on buses or whatever and send them south, do they? No one in his or her right mind anyway. 

But then, people don't love Donald Trump for what he believes. That's not why. Nobody knows what he believes, and he's got no track record. People love Donald Trump the full-throttle way they love Chevys or I-phones or John Deere. They just do. They just love him. He isn't a politician, he's a kind of god. Discrediting him means trying to break faith itself, and that's no easier job than it is breaking the faith of some ISIS suicide bomber. Right here in my neighborhood Trump told a crowd he could kill a man on Broadway and his admirers would only fawn. He was right. He isn't a human being, he's a empowering, dear feeling. 

Lots of Bernie supporters walked away unhappily last night because they somewhere along the line they felt the burn. They believed him and in him and bawled when he backed up into the open arms of the enemy. He and Trump weren't so much men as movements.

We believe. You're not going to convince me that Obama wasn't one of the best Presidents we've had in my lifetime. You can try, but it won't happen because my faith was in him--and still is. 

Some of us--most of us really--are true believers. 

No matter who bests the other come November, half of the country are already sworn to hate whoever occupies the Oval Office, so here's the real sadness: we'll go through another four angry years, our ire aroused only by each other, four more years of slashing and bashing and huff-and-puff stalemate. Gridlock.

Keep those flamethrowers gassed up, folks. The infernal battling goes on.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

"and a bag of worms"

Strangely enough, I remember my first couple of stops at the Golden Arches, not because everyone was going there but because the whole McDonalds food-thing was so amazing: walk in, order, and bang! just like that a bag of food is in your hands, a burger or two and a bag of worms, all of it for a pittance. Instant grub. Seems to me those fries, like those first malnourished burgers, were just 15 cents. 

Drive-ins weren't new--my sisters worked at one in the town down the road--but the "fast food" thing was amazing. My memory may be rusty, but you walked out of that northside McDonalds with a ton of stuff for a great deal less than you paid at Lloyds or Terry's or any of a dozen places where you could buy a butter-slathered burger on a hard roll. 

McDonalds went to war with locals and mostly beat the tar out of them. Who wanted local stuff when you could get instant hamburgers on the cheap? 

Besides, wherever you went in America, the burgers were the same cut of thin and fries the same kind of soggy. And always cheap. Way cheap. Always the same. Always exactly the same. You could count on MickeyDs to deliver--LA to NYC to Sheboygan, Wisconsin.

I was in high school. That means, in a backdrop of my own life, the whole McDonalds story is just a bit more than 50 years old.

But here's the news: they're not doing well. It's a mammoth operation, but those cheap burgers aren't moving down the chutes like they used to; sales are down, have been for some time. 

Enough customers claimed to want it, so Mickey Ds switched to all-day breakfast menu not long ago, hoping to rekindle some of the old magic. But it didn't work. America's most famous hamburgers are a long way from belly-up, but the gangbuster days are history. Institutions die, just like we do, I guess. Got some extra bucks? You may want to invest elsewhere.

Sometimes it's a sad thing, but it's true--even institutions die. 

But before you start to think we're only an afternoon away from the apocalypse, before you sign on to the Donald Trump vision of America that's three-quarters of the way down the tubes, consider this. What food experts claim is that McDonalds is fighting a whole new enemy, something almost unheard of because America is beginning to want their food to be local. 

Local.  You read that right. 

Incredible. Not trucked in, not cooked in a flash.

You want to grab something to eat in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, these days, you might well drive right on past the Golden Arches--it's still there on the north side by the way, and there are more of them. But if you want to eat food from the neighborhood, if you and the rest of America want local food, stop at one of those old places and ask for a burger with the works. 

They're what's happening--new life for old burgers.

Senior coffee at McDonalds is still the kind of bargain than draws the old gents, but if you want a real supper in Sheboygan, get yourself a brat on a hard roll and tell 'em not to hold the onions.

These days, that's cool. 

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Morning Thanks--What history does

When in fact it's all said and done, I don't know that it makes much difference. There's no erasing the outcome, no deleting what actually happened, no second chances coming round the bend. What did happen can't be somehow reversed, and the horrifying death toll still stuns us today. In the Great War had 10,000,000 casualties. I didn't write out the number. I wanted you to see all those zeroes. Because they weren't.

An article in the latest Smithsonian, an article titled "Battle Scars," works hard to dispel myths we've lived with and passed along for a century--to wit, that the real dunderhead, the man on whom many millions of those casualties can be blamed is a Brit General named Haig, Sir Douglas Haig. 

On July 1, 1916, 120,000 British troops rose up out of their trenches and struck out for "no man's land" and the German lines just beyond. What they ran into is a form of technological warfare no one reckoned with, something called "the machine gun," a weapon that begat terror and death like nothing ever seen before. One chaplain wrote his wife on July 4: "Nobody could put on paper the whole truth of what went on here on Saturday and during Saturday night, and no one could read it, if he did, without being sick."

Thousands died. What people still call "The Great War" was a muddy slaughterhouse. When the Brits just kept coming in the face of fire that came from German lines, each machine gun capable of firing almost 500 rounds of ammunition in a minute, the Germans thought the English had gone crazy: "The English came walking as though they were going to the theater or were on a parade ground," one German soldier remembered. One Brit company had an 89 percent casualty rate.

For that carnage, historians have blamed Sir Douglas Haig, one influential article calling him "The Worst General."

But Andrew Roberts claims we've been wrong. Recent scholarship, he says, has presented "a new view of Haig and his commanders: that they were smarter and more adaptable than other Allied generals, and swiftly applied the harrowing lessons of the Somme."

Most Americans, Roberts says, claim John J. Pershing, the American general, as a hero because the late entry of the American fighting forces appeared to end what had dragged on in endless bloodletting for four long years. Pershing brought in the Yanks and cleaned the mess up, or so we tell the story, Roberts says.

But Roberts says research clearly shows that it was Haig who determined immediately that old-line battlefield maneuvers were deadly, that tactics, new tactics, had to be improvised and utilized to stop the carnage created by what Brits began to call "the Devil's paintbrush." 

"Despite the British example," Roberts says, "Pershing took an astonishingly long time to adapt to the new realities of the battlefield, at the cost of much unnecessary spilled American blood."

My great uncle among them.

Edgar Hartman was killed in France, on the battlefield, in August of 1918, just a month after he arrived in Europe from a little Wisconsin town where he may or may not have ever fired a gun. He was one of 115,000 Americans who died in the Great War; 200,000 were wounded in less than six months of military action.

Before American forces had arrived, a fact-finding mission had been sent over to France to look over the situation on the ground. They had made clear that American forces needed twice as many guns, and especially "medium-sized field guns and howitzers," Roberts says, "without which the experience of the present war shows positively that it is impossible for infantry to advance," so states the original report, "the bayonet is as obsolete as the crossbow."

Pershing wasn't buying it, and as a result thousands died when we entered the horror.

Was Uncle Edgar adequately prepared? Mostly likely, no--but then no one could be, really. Was he cannon fodder? Probably, but in warfare, many are. In our own finest hours, we call what he did sacrifice. Disillusioned WWI veterans--and they were legion--called it something else. Battlefields in WWI were little more than graveyards.

Who cares? Can Uncle Edgar's descendants, me among them, prepare a law suit against the great-grandchildren of Gen. John J. Pershing?  Is anything that Andrew Roberts says in "Battle Scars," any new research he has discovered ever going to bring Uncle Edgar or ten million (10,000,000) human beings back to life? Of course not. 

So who cares?

I do. The truth won't set us free from the fact that somewhere just outside of the Ville Savoy Uncle Edgar's blood was spent in a war effort he hadn't even been part of long enough to know or understand. The truth doesn't set us free from the fact that he never returned. 

But history has meaning, everyday meaning; and we'd better listen because we call those who have lost their memories, their own history, senile. Even if Pershing's hopeless battlefield conservatism led to deaths that didn't have to happen, it's important that we know the truth, that we remain thoughtful and vigilant so history doesn't repeat itself, as it does, when we don't.

I'm grateful this morning for knowing more than I did yesterday about the death of a man I never knew but would have liked to.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The sermon on Hwy 75

For a time at least, the Schaaps--me mostly--toyed with the idea of keeping rabbits out back of the barn. Our kids were just kids when I saw a hand-painted sign along the highway--"Bunnies for sale"--at a farm somewhere east of Doon. I was looking for Dutch bunnies, those darling belted ones, little miniature things you couldn't have shot in your garden even if they'd just finished off the entire crop of lettuce. 

That's why I stopped--to look at bunnies. I'm quite sure there were two little Schaap kids in the car, so I rolled into the yard of a farm family I didn't know at all when I saw the sign.

They weren't Dutch--the rabbits, that is. The woman who came out to talk certainly was--and of the Calvinist variety. Didn't take long and I left without buying bunnies; what they were selling were your garden-type variety, not sweethearts like the one up top, and believe me neither was she.

What I remember yet today every last time I pass that farm place is that she'd read a book of mine, my very first, in fact. She told me she'd just read it and she somehow recognized me as the author. I was thrilled. 

But she didn't like the book and she made it very clear she didn't. I can't resurrect the conversation--it was a Jeremiad--but I know its genre. She was convinced that books like mine were an abomination, so convinced that her assault minced no words. 

Honestly, I don't remember why she was so angry. There isn't a dime's worth of sex in that book--a collection of tales about Dutch immigrants to the rural Midwest. There was maybe a nickel's worth of foul language, but just about all of it was in the same Dutch language this farm wife, or her husband, might well have spit out loading hogs.

What I remember of that moment was shock, not only because she was so almighty unpleasant, but also because what I thought I'd done with that book was tell stories Dutch-Americans from her neigborhood might well enjoy. It was the era of Roots, and I thought every tribe and nation--mine especially--would appreciate at least something of their own Kunte Kintes. 

But in her brand of Calvinist mind and soul I was dead wrong, and she let me know it. 

I've never forgotten that trip to the woodshed. Every time I pass that farm I think of her righteous hectoring. I don't remember her face or her words, but I remember knowing that I had just met the kind of dour caricature Dutch Calvinist the rest of us have prove we aren't, someone so convinced of the darkness all around that he or she actually delights in misery.

That was almost forty years ago. Yesterday I had to read stories at a Bible League gathering, so I was driving north on Hwy 75 when a half-mile up the road a car turned out of her driveway--red car, sporty thing. I couldn't help chuckling that it could be that woman, forty years later, driving right out of my own bad dreams. The story came back once again, as it always does, less in pain than amusement.

She was going north. I was a car behind her. 

Ten miles up the road, she turned off the highway and down the street of the church where I had to speak. Then she slowed at the parking lot, and I followed her in. Both of us looked to park in shade. I parked in the back, she didn't. I got out of my car, walked past hers and into the church. She was going to be there in church.

I didn't look at her--I wouldn't have recognized her anyway. But I was sure--still am--that she was the righteous scourge who came after me, teeth bared, almost forty years before. 

I did well yesterday afternoon. That doesn't always happen anymore, and no one understands when it doesn't better than I do. But both stories I had chosen for the Bible League were the right ones, and I think I read them well too. The people--all of them women--laughed at the first one, laughed in a way Calvinists aren't supposed to; and they were moved at the second story too. After a hundred readings like the one I did yesterday afternoon, you come to know when you win and when you don't, and yesterday I won.

But when I went back to the parking lot, I couldn't help seeing that sporty red car that'd come out of driveway of a farm place that once had bunnies for sale. I couldn't help wonder what that woman thought, whether she remembered chewing me up and spitting me out right there in front of a cage of bunnies years ago, my own kids in tow. I couldn't help wonder whether it pained her to have to listen to that guy whose book she hated so long ago, whether she wondered why on earth the Bible League ever asked me to read stories anyway. 

One woman walked out during the second story I read. Maybe it was she. Then again, maybe it was only someone who needed a restroom.

And maybe she didn't even remember me. The bunnies were a long, long time ago.

But I want to say that I remembered. And I wondered what she thought or said when, around those tables, those women started talking after I left, and one of them might have said, "That Schaap guy can sure read a story. Wasn't that good?" I couldn't help wonder what she'd said. I'd have paid to listen in. 

If you're wondering, there is no sign any more. There are no bunnies. I'm sure her kids are grown, as are ours. We don't have rabbits either, except the ones in the garden. 

Things have changed. They always do.

Then again, I'd like to think that maybe she enjoyed the whole thing. That'd be nice. I'd like that.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Obama the listener

Mr. Norman Brown, Hyattsville, Maryland

I don't listen to Fox News, but the Washington Post claims no one, not even the President's sworn enemies, have said much about Obama's penchant for releasing prisoners, granting clemency. It seems he does it wholesale, and, oddly enough, no one--not even Hannity--raises a stink. 

The Post claims no one cares. They claim the widespread distaste with the fact that we have so many more men and women in prison than any other country, free or not prompts people to let the open prison doors go. Mr. Trump may well aspire to Alexander Putin-type powers, maybe claim the title of being "the law-and-order" President; but the truth is, crime is way down in America, despite people's fears or perceptions. 

Still, numbers of released convicts are amazing. "To date," the Post says, "President Obama has commuted more sentences than his seven predecessors combined." Perhaps Trump hasn't seen the numbers. It's surprising he didn't use it in his doomsday acceptance speech.

The story in yesterday's Post was rich. Reporters interviewed a dozen of Obama's commuted felons, asked them how their lives were going. Some said not good. Some reported pure joy. Most made it clear that just being out is no picnic in the park, given laws that apply to convicted felons. Some are unemployed, but some have jobs. All are happy to be out. 

But I admit to being surprised at how many of them were having real trouble starting another life. I guess I see people bounding out of prison into the arms of loved ones who help them back to once stifling jobs that now, given what they've learned, are perfectly fulfilling.

Not so. 

Norman Brown, of Hyattsville, Maryland, convicted drug dealer, happened to mention something that seemed striking, if for no other reason than I'd not heard it before either. It seems President Obama asked several of his commutees to come to the White House to talk with him about their lives. If that was a photo op, it didn't make the news. 

"President Obama," Brown said, "he wanted to listen."

Brown went on to talk about how he'd thought some of the men's concerns had already begun to change as a result of that meeting, but I found that single line to be so incredible that I want to repeat it just to savor it: "President Obama, he wanted to listen."

It reminded me of his chat with Marilynne Robinson, the Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist from Iowa, who visited the White House at Obama's request and then for a couple of hours, answered his questions. Let me repeat that line too: "answered his questions."

This morning's news is amazing. Trump bests Hillary by five points--44% to 39% in CNN's latest poll. If anything seems clear, Mr. Donald Trump, who is not a reader, is also not a listener. 

Right now, 44% of the American voting public want a Putin. 

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Sunday Morning Meds--Dust to Dust

You turn men back to dust, saying, 
‘Return to dust, O sons of men.’” Psalm 90:3

I received a note, years ago, from a couple who claimed they wanted my help.  She was dying of ovarian cancer.  She’d kept a journal throughout her life but had continued to write during her affliction, thinking about issues she was facing immediately, issues of life and death.  She and her husband wondered whether I might help her—and them—bring something together in book form. Lots of people appreciated her e-mail reflections, they said; many urged her to collect them. “They should all be in a book,” people told them.

The cancer was terminal. Since the verdict had been handed down, the two of them—with a little help from a financial benefactor—had decided to do their own “make-a-wish” adventure and travel to places they’d always dreamed about. They’d had four kids—two of them were in college, all of them in their late teens and early twenties.  Extensive travel hadn’t been an option earlier in their lives. They’d chosen to live frugally, in a fashion they would have called, themselves, “stewardly.” 

But Sharon was dying, and there were things she always wanted badly to see, places she’d always wanted to go.  So for a year or so they’d lived like nomads, and she’d kept that journal, pages and pages long. 

Would you help us? they asked. Her reflections would make a good book, people said.

I get dozens and dozens of such requests, and it’s always painful to have to tell people that I can’t—or won’t help. I could have spent every moment of my writing life helping people with their own great stories or writing those stories myself. I could have done that and never once seen a publication or made a buck because, honestly, just about everyone has a story—everyone. No one has time to read everyone's.

But something about this couple’s story seemed especially compelling, so I told them I’d like to meet them and have a look. I did, and I took the job on. That was years ago. Eventually, the book was published.

From that first phone call to publication was a long, long time, attributable, in a way, to the fact that the project is—and has been from the very first scribbling—a labor of love.  I’m no angel and I don’t want to suggest some blessedly big heart; but to be truthful, I knew I'd never make a dime on that book; and I didn't. Neither did they.

Sharon never lived to see the publication. Her cancer took her, so the book includes her final jottings, as well as the detailed plans she’d made for her own funeral. Her lifetime of earthly musing is history, has been now for years.

Just before publication, I got an email that reported Sharon’s husband, Dennis, had cancer himself too. Not long after, Dennis died too. Lung cancer. Dennis never smoked in his life. 

A good friend of mine once told me her father, a preacher of the Word, loved to do funerals because he felt he never held people’s attention so fully and completely as he did when he read Psalm 90 with a coffin set right there in front of him. That's when people listened to the Bible.

“Dust to dust the mortal dies,” the old song says.  Not just Sharon, but then her husband too—and, lest we forget, you and me.  

The book? I have three or four copies in a box in the back room.

What is inescapable about Psalm 90 is inescapable about life: it ends, for all of us.  That’s everyone’s story: "Return to dust, O sons of men." 

And all of us do.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

The Occurrence at Delaney Street--a story (iii)

Soon our congregation outgrew even our own brand-new facility. True believers came from all corners of the city, hoping that they would be present when another such occurrence took place. Our new oak pews were full of pilgrims.

Imagine, if you will, the complete shock to all in attendance when the fourth occurrence was no more than two sentences from a woman explaining something about the role played by mythical feminine gods in the lives of some sub-Saharan tribe centuries ago. But Smithson never wavered, quickly turning the line into a kind of celebration of the universality of God. He talked about how all human beings are born with an innate God-concept, and how our need for the divine is often temporarily satisfied when we build images of our own imaginations, but is eternally satisfied only when we come to the God of the Bible.

No one in the church that day found Smithson’s ideas startlingly fresh. What made that sermon unforgettable was the effect that once again sudden and unexpected voice from outside the sanctuary had created on the service.

The fifth occurrence took place three months after we moved into our new sanctuary. A piece of African folk music whose lyrics no one understood became the occasion for a Smithson homily on finding our own unique way to speak to God.

And the sixth occurrence, equally memorable, was some male voice who claimed that politicians of old seemed driven by a sense of public good, not political expediency. It went something like this: “The early leaders were men of committed principle. They were philosophers as well as very practical people. That’s why we had that sunburst of leadership some two hundred years ago.” Smithson used it, as you can imagine, to charge us with the necessity of being strong leaders.

Let me quickly point out here that no one at Delaney Street Church is hysterical. More than a year has passed since the new church was built, and already we’ve broken ground for a new addition. Months ago already Herb Rollins determined that the voices that entered our worship so vividly were actually interview material from National Public Radio. (Herb has since left us--one of the very few--for a small Lutheran fellowship in New Hope.) The point is: no one really believes those voices belong, distinctly, to God. We all agree that what we hear is not “the word of the Lord.”

Smithson himself is, as I’ve said, very sincere. He is no charlatan. But he says, and we know, that the occurrences have made him more receptive to the motions of the Spirit. He’s more capable of departing from his text, and he’s happy, he says, with the kind of spontaneity these radio voices give him.

So we’ve made this collective and unspoken decision not to fix the sound system, even though we know, technologically speaking, there’s no mystery to the sudden interruptions of our worship. 

 And we’re growing. That in itself is proof of something, isn’t it? More and more and more people from the burbs are coming in and kneeling before the Lord. When we come into our sanctuary today, there’s real excitement, because no one knows exactly what kind of occurrence awaits us.

And yet something itches in me. Believe me, I don’t want to be a doubting Thomas. After all, why couldn’t it be that God is using our sound system for divine purposes? No one deliberately wired the system to pick up radio broadcasts (and it’s been NPR--not pop!). Besides, even if everyone knows it’s not God’s voice, who’s to say it’s not God who takes control of the radio waves at exactly the moment we worship?

Sometimes I think we’re convinced that today, in the 21st century since Christ, we cannot be oracles. Who knows but that we’re dead wrong? Who knows but that my own doubt isn’t actually planted in me by none other than the Author of Lies?

Believe me, ever since we’ve put up the new sanctuary, we’ve prospered at Delaney Street. It’s been an extraordinary experience.

But I haven’t slept well for a long, long time.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Occurrence at Delaney Street Church--a story (ii)

The effect of that first occurrence was so powerful that when, on Monday, the men assigned to control the system from the glass-front booth in the back of the church talked about getting out the kinks, Pastor Smithson balked just enough for them to put off the job.

The “second occurrence” a few weeks later was much shorter. The sermon topic that day was the dynamic nature of love. Smithson stressed how difficult it would be to be a Christian and not live in community with others. Our profession of faith, he said, needs to prompt a kind of activism. Suddenly, another male voice came over the speakers: “If you think of the true pleasures of life,” the voice said, “very few of them involve the isolated individual. Even reading is a shared activity--you are sharing with an author who has the capacity for getting into you and grabbing you.”

“Exactly!” Smithson said immediately, pointer finger raised. He never missed a beat in that sermon, whose concluding paragraphs some people can recite yet today, months later.

Something happened with the “second occurrence.” Because its place in the process of worship was so seamless, few parishioners even questioned the coincidental nature of the “radio event” when they left the sanctuary. What had happened, the collective mind of Delaney Street Church reasoned, was that God Almighty had steered a radio conversation from local station WOBR right into our brand-new sanctuary to highlight the truth. Needless to say, such special favor has immediate rewards.

The “third occurrence” was even more remarkably--probably because the radio voice was much less “fitting.” The subject of the sermon (the occurrences all have happened at approximately the same time in the service) in this case is immaterial. Smithson had trouble starting, as he sometimes does. He was looking for the right impulse, much like a pianist looking over the keyboard and flexing his fingers before beginning in earnest.

Suddenly, there came a voice, male again, this time pitched dramatically in the manner of someone reading poetry. “The blackened ash is planted as a covenant with spring,” it said, the words on a slow march, “but in its dead loins lies no life but the seed of fire.”

This was only the third occurrence, mind you, but the congregation had already become so accepting of the phenomenon that no one exhibited the least bit of annoyance. Rather, all eyes came to rest on Smithson, who understood instantaneously that this third quite unexpected and singularly elusive transmission had become, on the basis of what had happened already twice before, his text. He had to explicate because all of us, and all the new people who’d come to visit Delaney Street--and even Smithson himself--had already convinced ourselves that these transmissions were unique manifestations of the hand of God Almighty.

So, without thinking, he began to move into a detailed analysis he hadn’t planned on, delving into what he determined to be the truth of the line so almightily delivered into our sanctuary: that in this world of woe, death is always and only an end, never a beginning; only with Christ can life emerge from death. Or something to that effect. That morning, everyone in the congregation felt assured that they had been in the presence of something more than ordinary.

Tomorrow: Conclusion to "Occurrence at Delaney Street"

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Occurrence at Delaney Street--a story (i)

What happened at the Delaney Street Church is so remarkably fascinating and yet unsettling that it’s impossible to understand the phenomenon without a summary of the initial events. Please, allow me.

Pastor Smithson is a fine man. If humility is the first of virtues, one could call him a saint. He’s neither a showman nor a shaman. And believe me, he doesn’t enjoy controversy.

What’s more, the beautiful sanctuary the Delaney Street congregation recently built was not something he dreamed up. It was our doing--the congregation’s. We wanted something big and attractive, and I guess we got it. It sits, Monticello-like, on the end of Delaney Boulevard. You must have seen it on the road to the airport.

But that’s another story. What I was explaining was what is now called, almost reverently, “the first occurrence.” It happened on the fourth Sunday of our worship at the new sanctuary, and, when it occurred, the cause was no mystery at all: the new mobile mike system simply picked up some radio or television transmission. Everyone knew that. But knowing what caused the “malfunction” didn’t diminish its effect on us.

Pastor Smithson’s sermon that Sunday dealt with--how should I say it?--God’s power and magnificence and our unworthiness. He was just moving to the second point when words suddenly emanated from the giant speakers. And they fit so perfectly into the weave of the sermon that--well, what can I say? The event was mystifying, the effect miraculous.

“I don’t understand how to explain that music is beautiful,” the radio announcer said. “It’s a taste for wanting to understand why things are the way they are and where they came from.” The voice was clear and resonant and lyrical. “If you don’t have the taste, talking about it can’t give it to you. Most people, I believe, have that taste because most people are fascinated with questions of origin. Asking those questions gives us a sense of discovering exactly what kind of drama we’re actors in. I don’t know how anyone could not want to know that.”

Then the transmission stopped. Smithson paused, pursed his lips, then smiled and tilted his head almost eagerly and nodded, as if what we’d all heard had punctuated his sermon perfectly. And it did. Had he arranged just those words to be transmitted via the new and expensive sound system, he couldn’t have chosen better. That’s why no one laughed. The coincidence was enough in itself to make an atheist jump aboard the freighter of providence.

“We have this hunger,” Smithson ad-libbed. “It is in the marrow of our bones, this desire to know God. You and your neighbor too. We all deeply desire to listen to the music of the Almighty.”

Joy--how else can I express it, other than by that word? What Smithson had done was incorporate the sentiment of the radio voice perfectly, as if it were God’s own voice. That moment, “the first occurrence,” is remembered today with a kind of joy, a magic that people reserve only for things profoundly mysterious and thus almost holy. You can secure a tape recording of that sermon, but there's a waiting list.
Tomorrow: Yet more "occurances" at Delaney Street Church

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

King uncorked

Rep. Steve King

You know?--I think I get it. I mean, I got something of what he does in my soul too. I roll my eyes at those dopey bumper stickers that insist "You're not much, if you're not Dutch"; but that doesn't mean I'm not dang proud of my heritage. The first book I wrote was all about Dutch immigrants, and just about everything I've written since has greatly to do with identity. 

I feel the cutting edge of my heritage when I'm in small Midwestern towns that don't have curb and gutter. I feel it in yards gone to jungle, in an acreage with rust buckets that haven't moved since thistles began to reign. I recognize what I come from when I get itchy at public meetings that don't start on on time. I spot heritage all around me in emotionlessness, a stiff, upper lip and a half-smile that's actually embarrassed to be happy. I feel it in dedication, in elbow-grease, in sheer hard work, in a robe of sweat. 

I go out of my way to claim identity as a Calvinist, even though the connotations haven't changed much from the days Elizabethan England called us "roundheads" for insisting on rigid, bowl-cuts. I know what we did when we applied theological elbow-grease to European cathedrals and New England witches. No matter. I'm still proud of my Calvinist heritage. 

And I'm proud of the fact that in the Netherlands, orthodox Protestants were far more likely to be involved with the Dutch underground than other segments of their society. Orthodox Protestants is what I came from. 

But I'm also aware that the Dutch lost a higher percentage of Jews to Hitler's madness than did any other European country under Nazi occupation. I know thousands of Calvinists looked the other way when Dutch Jews were rounded up in the middle of the night and sent to Germany, never to return.

I know it was the Western civilization he's so proud of that created that little mustachioed madman and disciples to design death factories. The culture of Goethe, Beethoven, and Bach created amazingly efficient mechanisms for genocide.

And I know it never dawned on my immigrant ancestors that the land they claimed for their families had actually been the homeland of Native Americans who never asked white Europeans to swarm into and over an earth they considered sacred. Maybe a decade ago, I held in my hand, a note from an esteemed Christian Reformed pastor who claimed that his experience on the frontier made it unquestionably clear that Indians could never be saved. 

I know white people, inheritors of a Judeo-Christian heritage, killed whole herds of buffalo for sport and amusement, shot them from fancy railroad cars, peed on their rifles to keep the barrels from getting too hot to aim, killed millions not simply because it was fun but because some powerful leaders determined the way to genocide Indians was cut off their food supply and destroy their culture by eliminating bison altogether.

I get it--I really do. I think I know what Rep. Steve King, my own rep in Congress, means when he says that there's nothing quite like Western culture, when he wallows in the glory he believes still grows from good, strong northern European, Judeo-Christian roots. I know something of that myself.

Before a national audience, Rep. King couldn't help bragging about the glories of white culture. “I would ask you to go back through history and figure out where are these contributions that have been made by these other categories of people that you are talking about," he told a commentator. "Where did any other subgroup of people contribute more to civilization?”

It wasn't enough for him to argue a month ago that Harriet Tubman shouldn't be on the new twenty-dollar bill or that lately he's been photographed with a Confederate battle flag on his desk, hundreds of miles from Mason-Dixon. He determined, on national television, to go out of his way to deliver a racist homily about white people. And he's my congressman, in good part because 85 percent of the people in Sioux County, where I live, vote for him.

I'm quite sure that our own Steve King considers himself a valuable part of what we white folks contribute to civilization. 

Tomorrow night, downtown Orange City, Iowa, an African-American woman will take the stage in the city park and wail away with her clarinet, playing a species of bluesy New Orleans jazz that's out of the range of most anyone touting a Steve King heritage. We did well at slavery, made fortunes. But tomorrow night a daughter of a race we enslaved will come here and do something few can--bring a joy that's nothing at all like Tulip Time. She'll make small-town Iowans--wooden shoes or not--feel something in their souls that's blessed.

And Friday, in torrid South Dakota heat, I'll bring three dozen high school kids up the hill at Wounded Knee to tell them the story of a massacre created by Judeo-Christian men who killed men, women, and children, some of the dead a mile away from where the shooting began, then buried hundreds of frozen bodies days later in a mass grave on the hill where we'll be standing.

Perhaps Rep. King would like to offer his thoughts about contributions to civilization when standing right there up on that hill. 

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

(museum piece*) Morning Thanks--Freedom

Some local governor in Chile banned the mini, it seems. Not for long. He simply wanted to "put things in order" or something, someone there said, by telling women to pull down their skirts (that didn't come out right) and cover up their shoulders. When the whole idea was laughed out of town, the gov's spokesmen claimed it was just a joke from the get go. If he'd actually meant it, he would have got trounced come election time. More mini-skirts would have showed up on the streets of Santiago overnight, I'm sure. And sure as anything he'd have lost the male vote.

If I could grow hair, I might just go blue. Apparently, it's all the rage, the new blonde--at least that's what I've read. Blue hair--I can't imagine what I'd look like, but it sounds good. When school starts next week, we'll probably have a few.

Once, in Tokyo, I sat on a commuter train like Moby Dick, the great white whale, the only non-Japanese, one of only two or three men, and a whole generation older than the bevy of schoolgirls that filled that car, each of those young ladies in matching skirts and sweaters, holding matching cell phones and school bags, a hall of mirrors.

Community is a big deal to the Japanese, I think--looking and acting in a fashion that doesn't bring attention to the individual but satisfies clearly established standards of dress and conduct. But that day in Tokyo--and on that train especially--it felt strange to an American.

A bit later that afternoon, our friends took us to an international neighborhood, where I saw a guy--a Japanese guy, in fact--with blue hair. Right then, something about the guy made me breathe easier, if you can believe it. For the first time that day, I felt as if I was home; people just didn't look so much alike.

I've got a Puritan streak in me; after all, I'm a Calvinist. I'm for law and order. I'm glad my daughter never donned apparel like the one above, and I'd rather my granddaughter didn't either.

But this morning, what I'm thinking is freedom is a blessing, even if it means tattoos.

This morning, like that afternoon in Tokyo, I'm happy to see a guy with blue hair.
*occasional returns to posts from yesteryear, this one from July 20, 2010.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Morning Thanks--the abiding image

Hers is not an unfamiliar story to me. She's a boomer, came of age in the late 60s, spent most of her life as a Democrat, unlike her parents who were kids during the Depression and never forsook the conservative Republican values they both espoused. 

In a sweet remembrance in the Washington Post, Pamela Constable, a Post staffer whose stories have carried by-lines from Iraq and Afghanistan, remembers her parents, died-in-the-wool conservative Republicans, WASPS, who would undoubtedly, she says, be appalled by Donald Trump, not to mention Tea Party loud mouths. Her parents believed in politics and conservatism, she says, but the uncivil character of today's discourse and the stultifying dedication to principle some right-wingers espouse would, she says, have left them cold. 

But Constable's memoir is warm and encompassing because what she came to see, she says, through her parents' later years especially, was "how loss and sacrifice had shaped both my parents, creating lifelong habits of thrift, loyalty, perseverance and empathy for those who suffered, despite an unconscious unease with other races and classes that I’d always found hard to forgive." She came to understand her parents far better than she once had. She could have been describing my parents and me.

I remember my mother's stories about her father, a blacksmith, coming home at night during the deep dark days of the Depression and putting his head in his hands and crying because he simply didn't know where his next dollar was coming from. Farmers had no money to pay him for services rendered, and he really couldn't stop sharpening their plowshares or the entire economy of the region would suffer more horror than it already had manifest.

My father remembered how he and his nine brothers and sisters would receive gifts of food and produce, some left without acknowledgement, when the members of the church where his father was pastor couldn't pay him anything. It's not particularly difficult to hold fast to really conservative ideals of "thrift, loyalty, and perseverance" when what shaped your own young life was palpable want answered only by a beautiful, tasty orange, a bag of peanuts, and a chunk of hard candy after the Christmas Eve Sunday School program. That, and little more, was Christmas.

By the time the war ended, my father had spent most of four years away from his wife and their two little girls. He never talked much about the war years, not because he shielded himself from horrifying memories but because from his vantage point on the LT-59, a tugboat, he never been in a sea battle or came anywhere near the skirmishing that went on all through the skies of the South Pacific. He'd met real heroes and really couldn't think of himself as one of them.

After the war he built his house largely with his own hands. I remember when he put a shower in our tiny downstairs bathroom and taught me how to use it. I couldn't have been more than six or seven. When we came dripping out of this wondrous thing, he wrung out the washcloth tightly in both fists, then rubbed the water off his body. "You do this first," he told him, wielding that washcloth, "and you save wear and tear on towels."

He was shaping my life with that washcloth, as he did in many ways. 

By the time he died, he left his wife--and his children--far more than she or they needed. He'd become thoroughly middle class, and a deeply committed conservative. That's where we parted company.

But what I loved about Pamela Constable's Washington Post remembrance of her parents was its final commitment. "After years of joking that we cancelled out each other’s votes," she writes, "I realized that the values that mattered the most to me, especially a fundamental respect for the dignity of all people, were those I had learned from them."

While my own parents became increasingly conservative and I became increasingly liberal, what they taught me is a good deal more basic than party loyalty or a unswerving commitment to free market economics. My parents believed what they did because of an abiding commitment to this gospel truth: that we're all--everyone of us--image bearers of the Almighty, that everyone has somewhere in him or her a bit of the divine, nothing less than the image of God.

I don't know about Pamela Constable's parents, but the most important lesson I learned from my parents was truth imbued by their deep Christian faith--that somewhere in all of us is something more than DNA, something astonishingly of our Creator God.

My father's birthday is coming soon. He'd be 98. His son, sad to say, considers himself an independent but thinks like a Democrat. Still, I am forever grateful for what he and Mom gave me, the belief that every one of us carries the image of God.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Sunday Morning Meds--From everlasting to everlasting

Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the earth and the world, 
from everlasting to everlasting you are God. Psalm 90:2

What I’ll not forget about our visit to Hot Springs, SD, years and years ago, was my son’s deep fascination with the ongoing work of grad students who were, even as we visited, busily brushing away the dust from the massive pile of skeletons unearthed in a single murderous sinkhole.  He was transfixed, not only at the horror show of bones and skeletal remains, but also at the archeologists’ careful work.  This wasn’t just some Black Hills tourist attraction.  People were getting their hands dirty, dusty, as we rubbernecked.

In 1974—just ten years before or so—some construction grunts had uncovered objects so strange that they immediately quit digging.  Lo and behold, the earth yielded was a treasure trove of petrified animal life dating back to a moment, thousands of years before, when a watering hole turned death trap for a variety of animals, most of them now—and for thousands of years--extinct. 

The Mammoth Site of the Black Hills is an amazing place, a work in progress, and my son was thrilled.

Just then a voice reminded me, in no uncertain terms, that he was being lied to.

When I was his age, I was taught that the earth was some 6000 years old, that evolution was a pagan lie, that the Lord God almighty, our God, had so elaborately tinkered with creation so as to make those stupid scientists actually believe creation could older than the Bible claims it is.  I was taught that dinosaurs were sinister fabrications of snarling atheists driven to control our minds with a worldview that denied God.  Lies and falsehoods, all of it.  And I was told all of that by good, praying folks, whose hearts—I still believe—were in the right place.  They were just simply dead wrong.

There I stood, watching my son’s eyes, transfixed.  Once I overcame my guilt, I had to chuckle at devoted arrogance of sweet Christian people so blessed sure they had a corner on God’s own truth.  I’d been their victim.  If I were to believe them, what my son was eyeing in front of us that day was an preposturous, elaborate hoax. 

The expansive reach of the first verse of Psalm 90 feels a lot like universalism.   For all generations, Moses says, you, Lord, have been where we live, work, and have our being.  All generations, he says.  Does that include the slave-holding Egyptians?  And what about the Israelites themselves, a people who’d forgotten this God, a God who, once they’d cleared the Red Sea, had to give them all new rules for holy living.  What about the Jews who didn’t know Yahwah?  Were they too part of that all?  And what about Asians?—what about those who crossed the Bering Strait and put down dwelling places on the Great Plains?  What about those folks in sub-Saharan Africa, or Australia’s Aborigines?  Who is all included in this all?

And now the second verse—“from everlasting to everlasting” this God reigns.  I wish someone had taught me as much and as well about God’s expansiveness, his omnipotence, his everlasting love. 

But then, we’re more comfortable, I suppose, pointing proudly at we’ve placed behind glass quite comfortably in our own museums than the limitless open stretches of wilderness before us. 

We’re human; pride comes easier to us than awe.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Backyard beauty

We're an earnest bunch. We spend more time, more hours, out back, raising whatever we can from the rich Iowa soil. When it's finally here, we have to stop work to see it. 

"Beauty can be consoling, disturbing, sacred, profane; it can be exhilarating, appealing, inspiring, chilling. It can affect us in an unlimited variety of ways. Yet it is never viewed with indifference: beauty demands to be noticed; it speaks to us directly like the voice of an intimate friend. If there are people who are indifferent to beauty, then it is surely because they do not perceive it."  Roger Scruton, Beauty

Beauty is a light in the heart. Kahil Gebron

In every man's heart there is a secret nerve that answers to the vibrations of beauty. - Christopher Morley

Never lose an opportunity of seeing anything that is beautiful; for beauty is God's handwriting - a wayside sacrament. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

When we speak of God's foreknowledge, we mean that all things were and perpetually remain under his eyes; to his knowledge nothing is future or past, but all things are present. John Calvin

Beauty is not caused; it is. Emily Dickinson