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.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The legacy of Lewis Leary

Lewis Sheridan Leary 

For his attack on Harper's Ferry, in 1859, John Brown had assembled a dozen assailants to undertake, with him, a muddled pipe dream of an attack meant to incite a rebellion that would arise like a righteous wind from Virginia and throughout the South, meant to end the heinous sin of slavery. Several of his accomplices were African-American. One of them was this man, Lewis Sheridan Leary.

Leary's devotion to the cause of abolition is evident simply on the basis of his having left his wife and six-month-old child to take up arms with Brown and his men. Leary had been born to a freedman, the son an Irish father and a mom who was white and black and red.

Like so many others of his time, Leary took up the cause of abolition with a vengeance from his schooling at Oberlin College. It's difficult to imagine today what it must have been like to be at Oberlin in the 1850s, when the cause of abolition was carried on high, when men and women, whites and blacks united under the banner of freedom--and at almost any price.

At the very end of Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War, a marvelous biography of fierce old Calvinist, Tony Horwitz tells an incredible story about Lewis Leary that enlarges a tale already at the heart of the American experience. After her husband's death, Mary Patterson Leary, herself an Oberlin grad, was nobly given a few hundred dollars for support and in anticipation of her children's education. Someone also gave Mary Leary a bullet-ridden shawl her husband had worn on the raid. Because of the wounds he'd sustained in the assault, Lewis Leary died a week or so after the raid, Brown's plan having failed in logistics but not failed to the many whose "eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord." 

Mary Patterson Leary remarried after her husband's death, her second husband chosen, like her first, from the Oberlin abolitionists. Charles Henry Langston, the man she we, had given a powerful speech at the trial of accused Oberlin insurrectionists who had taken on a U. S. Marshall in a runaway slave rescue. Some say Langston's speech in their defense was so moving the judge handed out very light sentences.

Charles Langston and Mary Patterson Langston eventually moved to yet another abolitionist stronghold, Lawrence, Kansas, a town slavery advocates had tried to destroy during the period known as "Bloody Kansas," when slavers and abolitionists fought for control of the brand new state. In 1872, Charles and Mary had a daughter they named Carolin Mercer Langston.

Here's the precious story. Carolin Mercer Langston, once she married, had a boy she nursed while he was wrapped in her grandfather's Harper's Ferry shawl. That boy would eventually become one of America's foremost poets, Langston Hughes. who wrote, among a host of others, this famous poem:


What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

I'm guessing that, as a teacher, I used that poem in class a thousand times. Once upon a time, when I was the only white guy in a graduate class in African-American lit, we talked about "Harlem" for most of an hour. I've always been struck by the way all those lined-up similes end with a metaphor that threatens to be much more than poetic flourish. The italics are his, not mine.

Today, thinking about that Kansas baby wrapped in a ripped-up shawl that belonged to Lewis Leary, the child's own great-grandpa, I can't help but think that the dire reflection of that very famous poem somehow makes even more sense, or so it seems to me.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Morning Thanks--Wild plums

Occasionally I'll read headlines, but I don't remember ever even picking one up. I like to think that I am above falling for those shameless grocery store tabloids and their batty titillation. But yesterday I fell to a check-out line special on Snickers bars--with almonds, by the way--just two for a buck and a half. I fell.

"Impulse buy," I said, excusing myself to the high-schooler who took my money.

"Well, we got ya', didn't we?" she said, showing no mercy. A couple of Snickers are in our freezer right now, awaiting a fate that'll come in bite-sized chunks. this Calvinist being what and who he is. I impulse-bought because I'd worked hard all day, maybe too hard for a man all too quickly approaching seventy years old. I'd earned a treat, I told myself, unCalvinistically. Besides, these Snickers had almonds too--almonds are health food. And they were on sale. 

He who sups with the devil had best use a long spoon.

See that picture up top? I walk by these guys quite frequently, often enough to know that they're not having a good year. The wild plums aren't scarce this summer, but neither are they abundant or particularly beautiful. But they're here now, and whenever I walk by I can't help but think of a whole band of hungry Yanktons in the neighborhood, all of them just loving these things to death. 

In a diet of pemmican and roots and tubers--and an occasional blowout buffalo roast--wild plums were better'n Snickers back in the 1830s. For a people without sugar, those plums were the only bit of sweet they knew. You can't help reading about the glory of glorious ripe plums in any history of their lives out here. Once upon a time, hungry moms and dads and kids gorged themselves when the plums came ripe, set their calendars by fruity juiciness. Once upon the time these plums, the ones I walk by and barely notice, were a perfect delicacy. Once upon the time their sweet tangy selves created a holiday.

Today, no one picks them. We've got sugar and corn syrup and Snickers, two for a buck and a half. 

I suppose it's a species of nostalgia I feel when we walk past the trees. I let the fruit hang, and eventually they fall--no celebrations, no dancing, no kids sporting little beards of wet plum juice. Feels something like a shame to an old man like me.

And there's this too. An old friend of mine used to write about summer days when the plums would be ripe along the Rock River. Those were museum-quality boyhood stories, and every once in a while in the columns in the Doon Press he'd remember those running after those wild plums, symbols of a boyhood he remembered before polio put him into a wheelchair for the rest of his life, a boyhood he loved right there where he lived his entire span of years. Oh, those wild plums. Remember what that was like? he'd ask. 

I don't. I grew up in the age of Three Musketeers, Milky Ways, and Snickers. 

But I remember him when I walk past those plum trees. He's been gone for a long time now, but I remember the way he remembered the juicy blessing of those wild plums.  Sometime this afternoon, when I break into that Snickers bar, I'll remember him too.

And I'll smile, and I'll be thankful for that smile and its lifetime of sources--wild plums, overjoyed Yanktons, and a little boy along a river not all that far away.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Eternal subordination--yes or no?

As I see it--which is from afar, I'll grant you--maybe the best way to see the whole argument is via a phrase given to the whole mess: it's all about "eternal subordination." (In a way, that's a joke, but I don't expect you're laughing.) If you aren't tuned in to the argument, "eternal subordination" is a phrase that requires some serious unpacking. 

Parse it out this way. Within the complementarian crowd among us--and their numbers are legion--some theological fisticuffs have broken out having to do with the Trinity, which is one of the most famous doctrines of Christianity but isn't in the Bible at all, although it's certainly implied and can be inferred (you've got to watch your words with this whole business, and I'm trying). Anyway, you can't footnote the Trinity with simple chapter and verse--let's put it that way. But this whole things starts with the nature of the trinity.

Still with me? If you'd like, you can take notes.

Complementarian theology has championed a view of the Bible's truth that keeps the roles and gifts and blessings of men and women divinely apart--men being men and women being women. Complementarians argue the church needs to see the genders as different, exclusively so. Complementarians choose certain passages of Paul's letters and believe them normative for all time and space--you know, passages like women should remain silent, etc. Among complementarians there are no women deacons or elders or (gasp!) preachers.

Complementarians have achieved their numbers as combatants in the fights over whether or not women can fill any of those offices. They shake their heads no because the Bible tells them no. Whole denominations like the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA) and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) have created their foundations, in part, from arguments of complementarianism (yes, that's a mouthful).

One of the leaders of that movement is a theologian named Wayne Grudem, the founder of a theological think tank called the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW). Once upon a time, when I was an elder in a Christian Reformed Church (CRC), Grudem was used on me like a pike, one of those long swords preferred by combatants in hand-to-hand medieval battles. But that's another story, as is the fact that Grudem recently penned a long explanation for his support for Donald Trump, support which could hardly be surprising since the alternative is (are you still with me?) a woman.

Anyway, here's the good news (that's a joke too). There's a fight within the complementarian camp these days around the question of the place of Jesus Christ vis-a-vis God the Father: to wit, is God the Son still separate from God the Father, both of them now once again in glory; or have the two somehow fused into just one God? 

Theology isn't for the weak-kneed.

And I admit it. I sort of like tedious theological questions like can God create tonnage he can't clean-and-jerk? A part of me (I'm not sectioned--it's just an expression) rather appreciates that intelligent human beings are wrangling about Christian doctrine, as long as I myself don't have to go to war over things like "eternal submission."

The issue has some eternal relevance (that's a joke too) if you're still at war about women's roles, because complementarians argue that their view of exclusive gender differences are derived, scripturally, (which my spellcheck tells me isn't a word) from the relationship between God the Son and God the Father--who are, of course, separate but equal. 

But are they eternally so? That's the question. (Talk amongst yourselves.)

Once more. Today, what is the relationship between God the Son and God the Father? Is there such a thing as "eternal subordination" in the heavenly realm because if there isn't, then maybe we can rethink our exclusive complementarian thoughtfulness.

I've tried to be fair and balanced, but I got a dog in this fight. A decade or more ago, the OPC and the PCA broke off fellowship (that's a different essay) with the CRC, in part on the basis of theological platforms created by the CBMW to refute the notion (biblically) that women can hold church office. (BTW, this whole pot of alphabet soup is Reformed. Some are just more biblical than others. Go ahead and fill in the blanks yourself--only you can, really.)

In its latest issue (Sept 2016), Christianity Today lays out the quarrel in an article (p. 21) just a few pages past a news item (p. 19) which claims the PCA is considering women's ordination--not to be preachers (good heavens, no), but at least to be deacons. 

I just hope those folks gone to war about all of this eventually draw the line at "eternal subordination" because it would be nice if somehow they'd see the possibility for my sister (PCA) and me (CRC) as well good friends (OPC) to get back in fellowship (they broke it off officially when the CRC ordained women preachers). 

Let's not be silly about this: my sister and I have great fellowship anyway, eternal subordination or not. 

I think that's the way it should be.

Does all of that make any sense? 

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Sunday Morning Meds--Our telltale hearts

You have set our iniquities before you,
our secret sins in the light of your presence.”
Psalm 90:8

I don’t know why, but I’ve always thought of Edgar Allen Poe as “junior high-ish.” Even though I taught American literature for thirty years, I never knew what to do with him. He fits on a standard Am Lit curriculum like an elegant barnacle. Is “The Fall of the House of Usher” a study in unremitting madness, or, simply, as some critics have often claimed, “an elaborate way to say ‘boo’”? I don’t know.
“The Tell-tale Heart” may well be his most famous yarn.  A delusional man-servant murders his boss and covers the crime perfectly. Yet, he’s so wretchedly haunted by what he’s done that he confesses, as a means by which to end the horrifying echo of the old man’s heart in his own demented mind.

Remove the 17th century details from Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, and you’ve got the same story. How about this?--set it in 19th century Russia, and title it Crime and Punishment. Tell the story in apartheid South Africa, and you have To Late the Phalarope. I’m sure I’m missing a dozen or more cousins. Same story—right?  Maybe. Maybe not.

Years ago, I judged a junior high forensics contest in which kids gave memorized readings; one of them did “The Tell-Tale Heart.”  The performer did well but scared no one. Mostly, he got giggles. Nobody used Hawthorne or Dostoevsky or Alan Paton that day; but if someone had, I’m betting no one would have giggled. That’s why I can’t help but think there is something somewhat “junior high” about Edgar Allen Poe.

Just as there is something somewhat junior high about a verse like this one—at least, in the way an idea like this has been manipulated by believers throughout history. “Beware—your secret sins will find you out.” Or in my own faith tradition a half century ago: “What if Jesus returns and find you in the movie theater?” Shudder.

Fear has always been an effective, if temporary, motivator. Somewhere I read that adolescent boys have fleshy sexual fancies about dozen times per hour, on average. I don’t doubt it. I was such a character once myself. Tell a junior high Christian boy that Jesus knows his secret sins, and you’ll get his attention.

But some of us don’t have as much of that kind of steamy seamy-ness, nor much of a criminal record—and I’m not bragging. My testimony wouldn’t inspire anyone around a campfire, certainly not a TV producer. Any memoir I’d write would be woefully short on narrative drive. I’m nearing seventy, and the burden of my sins would be filed under “Spirit,” not “Flesh.” From Hollywood’s perspective, my story is not going to spin turnstiles.

And yet this verse holds some fear for me—especially if I think about it in a, well, fleshy way. To be buck naked before God almighty gives me the bejeebees.  To imagine him seeing me, inside and out, 24/7, claws at my guilt. I’m not haunted by the heartbeat of my latest, sorry victim like the terrified murderer in “Telltale Heart,” but when I imagine myself splayed before the God of love, I can feel the jagged edges of my very own pride. After all, I know very well what I want. I know where number one ranks in my daily to-do list. What’s worse, when I think about it, as I am doing now, I remember all that arrogance is hugely set already in his perfect presence. Do I believe he doesn’t know?

And that scares me. Which it should. And I’m long, long past junior high.

Historically, the sins of the spirit have always been considered deeper and more vile than sins of the flesh, probably because they’re not front-page material. Even I don’t bother to read that kind of story, maybe because it’s my own.   

Friday, August 26, 2016

Morning Thanks--God's little cheerful dog

Cheerfulness is a sign of a generous and mortified person who forgetting all things, even herself, tries to please God in all she does for souls. Cheerfulness is often a cloak which hides a life of sacrifice, continual union with God, fervor and generosity. A person who has this gift of cheerfulness very often reaches a great height of perfection. For God loves a cheerful giver and He takes close to His heart the religious He loves.   
Someone once asked Nelson Mandela, whose years in prison reached despairingly close to a lifetime, why, when finally he was released, he wasn’t more angry. “If I thought it would be useful,” he said, reportedly with a smile, “I would have.” A generous spirit, he'd determined, was more blessed and more useful.

Cheerfulness seems to have been a way of life for Mother Teresa. It had to be, for even that immense recognition given to her and her work late in her life was difficult for her accept. She always claimed to dislike crowds and felt uncomfortable with the adulation showered upon her. She loved nothing more than returning home quietly after meeting with presidents and potentates and even the pope.

Still, what she found back home in Calcutta was ever more of the dying. She ministered to the lowliest of the low, the most despised of the despicable—the poor, the infirm, those approaching death alone. Her terrain was the torn edge of our existence, the seam where life slips painfully into darkness. The landscape she loved was the beaten shroud of human suffering. The faces she looked into were beautiful only because she saw in them the very image of her suffering Savior.

And yet, impossible as it may seem, she often felt herself despised by God, forgotten, left behind, alone and terrified that the Jesus she so loved had no time for her, her pains or her triumphs. She was, as some call her, “the saint of darkness.”

Even so, throughout her life, there is this persistent cheerfulness, an effervescent sense of humor that could, at any moment whatsoever start any size audience to double-up in laughter. "The saint of darkness" was somehow radiant with light. 

Some of all of that emerged from her belief in providence, in God’s often incredible and sometimes cagey sense of humor. “Three days ago,” she once wrote her Archbishop, “we picked up two people eaten alive with worms. The agony of the Cross was on their faces.” She says they proceeded to make the two of them comfortable, when one of them, the old man, asked for a cigarette. “How beautiful of God,” she says, because “in my bag there were two packets of [the] best cigarettes.. . .God thought of this old man’s longing.” 

In her much heralded acceptance speech in Oslo, Mother Teresa told a story she’d often related elsewhere. She was asked, she said, by a “very big group of professors,” to “tell us something that will help us.” She told them, in response, simply, to “smile at each other.” 

 One of her learned audience must have been a little skeptical. “Are you married?” he asked. “Yes,” she told him, without missing a beat, “and I sometimes find it very difficult to smile at Jesus because He can be very demanding.”

Once upon a time she confessed to one of her spiritual directors that she simply lacked the wherewithal to accomplish much: “I can do only one thing, like a little dog following closely the Master’s footsteps.” And then, “Pray that I be a cheerful dog.” 

Today happens to be her birthday. Were she still alive, she'd be 106. 

Even today, hers may well be the most recognizable face on earth, in great part because she was so much of that which she asked God to make her, just a little cheerful dog. 

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Who's out back at RiverBend (5)

Whether or not Rev. John Flute was musical, I don't know; but his name itself is multi-cultural. His father, or so says this marvelous slab of Sioux Quartzite, was Flute Player, described here as a "chief." What little I could find Dad indicates he was an early signer of treaties, maybe the 1851 Treaty of Traverse des Sioux, signed on the Minnesota River just outside of St. Peter, MN. Chief Flute Player probably didn't name his son "John"--I'd guess that naming came later, probably when John himself became a Christian.

By the way, that 1851 treaty created the Dakota Reservation, the twenty-mile wide strip along the river that became, thereby, the special reserve for the Dakota people. If I'm right about the chief's having signed that particular treaty, it was signed the same year the good Reverend Flute, the chief's son, was born.

The inscribed wooden cross at the head of the grave is relatively new, as is what looks to be some kind of votive candle holder beneath it. The beautiful stone is too. It's lovingly hand-decorated and bolted to what appears yet another slab of Sioux Quartzite beneath it. 

Look close. I'll adjust the color a bit so you can read the careful lettering more easily.

Reverend Flute died in January of 1933 ("D.O.D. 01-03-1933"), but what's perfectly clear by way of the sweet tribute of this renewed grave site is that someone out here in rural South Dakota is making perfectly sure great-grandfather is not forgotten. Honestly, it warms the heart.

In 1909, a comprehensive article in the Assembly Herald, the official magazine of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, describes that denomination's Native American mission efforts across the length and breadth of this country and includes a roster of preachers and evangelists in the church's many, many mission outposts. "Christian Indians in the Making," it's titled, and the roster it includes describes this very pastor, John Flute. 
The church at Mayasan is under the care of the Rev. John Flute. He has a large family of children whose mother is totally blind. The devotion of the girls to their afflicted mother is very touching. Mrs. Flute is a lovely character and the home is a fountain of hospitality. 
It couldn't be the children who keep up the gravesite, of course; it almost has to be grandchildren these days. But the writer's glowing admiration of Mrs. Flute's attentive children must be a trait that didn't disappear through the generations. 

There's more:
John Flute is nearly a white man in appearance. His features are fine and his smooth, silvery hair gives him the effect of some old-time German musician. Especially in prayer he seemed to lead the hearts of the people. When he speaks, the steady, wise counsel of the matured pastor is manifest. He is deeply beloved as a preacher and a brother.
And great-grandfather, we might add. 

There may well be more to the story--there always is, I'd guess. But that dear description sounds just right at this beneficent grave site. Someone really cares. That's very dear.

Rev. Flute may well have been baptized as an infant in 1851, but it's unlikely. Converts to the Christian faith existed within that newly created reservation on the Minnesota River, but there weren't many, despite almost three decades of mission work by dedicated people. The oldest Santees remembered in the cemetery at River Bend Church in Flandreau, South Dakota, are almost certainly among those hundreds who, as if en masse, converted to Christianity when their uprising failed. Even at the time, some who saw what happened claimed those hundreds and hundreds of Santees came to Jesus because it seemed to them their own gods had failed them in a war that ended almost as quickly as it had begun.

Rev. John Flute was a missionary among his very own Native people in Sisseton, South Dakota, at a time when Native missions were flourishing, churches being born and led by indigenous preachers like himself. Read over those passages about them. There's rapture in the writing style. The author is describing an outreach that's as sturdy and strong, as beautiful--and as red--as the stone a loving family proudly placed over the grave of a man whose memory is too precious to be forgotten.

Seems ironic really, doesn't it? The old cemetery at First Presbyterian, the RiverBend Church, is perfectly alive with stories.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Morning Thanks--teachers

Strangely enough, his name was Morningstar. He was, when I knew him, anything but. What I remember most strikingly was his free hour, the one class period during the teaching day set aside for planning, but used by most of us, Morningstar included, as recovery, a time for drawing a breath, teaching being what it is.

The high school where we taught wasn't an easy place to live, but then none of them are. I could well have been in worse places. It was a new school on the edge of a city growing so fast it had trouble keeping up with itself. It's newest residents had just moved, so if I asked kids where they were from, they'd answer, "Michigan," or "New Jersey," or any of dozen other states. Even though the vast majority were white, they were just about all immigrants.

Many suffered from dislocation, but most, we were told, walked out of broken homes when they left for school. Arizona, like the American West has always done, offered a new start for weary pilgrims. The point is, the high school where we taught--me and Morningstar--was full of kids with problems. I could easily have been in a tougher school, but this place was no safe haven. None of them are.

The faculty had just been recruited; the school was just that new. We were young, I remember, and I thought--and still do--immensely creative. We were energetic and bright and hard-working. I taught with people whose classroom skills were greatly impressive, people whose lifestyles, this young Calvinist sometimes considered a little questionable. It was the mid-seventies, the romance of the Sixties' revolutions were pretty much over, and American culture felt something akin to those Woodstock hills a couple days after the music died.

I honestly didn't understand why Morningstar was hired. He seemed so much unlike the rest of us. He couldn't have had more than a year or two left before retirement, and he seemed so beat up that I hated to sit there in the faculty lounge if he was there--and he was, day after day after day.

Smoking. It's hard to believe now, but the faculty lounge a smoke house back then, and lots of us smoked. Yet today, if I want to relax, I can't think of a better way to sit back and let the nerves settle than with a cigarette, even though my smoking days are far behind me.

Al Morningstar chain-smoked, a behavior so far behind us that I doubt my children even recognize the phrase. Maybe a few minutes passed--I don't remember; but in that "free hour" of his he may well have smoked a half-dozen Winstons, chain-smoked. 

And that was the image we taunted each other with. A friend of mine who taught history--the two of us used to say that if we stayed in that high school for the rest of our lives, we'd both become Morningstars. "See that, Schaap?" he'd say. "There's got to be a better life than this, man. That's what we'll be."

Morningstar, I'm sure, retired soon after; and my friend left to get another graduate degree. Today, he's retired from a position as a VP at a university in the Twin Cities. I left for Iowa after two years. Neither of us became Morningstar, working hard at staying alive in the classroom, killing himself in the process.

"Imagine what it must be like to get beat up in every class you teach," my friend used to say when we'd come out of that smoky lounge. 

Morningstar is the teacher Donald Trump's son was talking about in that convention speech he gave last month, the kind of teacher, the kind of loser unions somehow support--a classroom veteran who does nothing well except smoke Winstons. Maybe forty years before he was good, but today he's a mess. He shouldn't be teaching. Morningstar is a Republican dream. When they want to bust unions, Morningstars become poster boys.

I spent the rest of my working days in education, as did that friend of mine. We didn't leave classrooms, but we both left that school. Trump's kid wasn't wrong--Morningstars are around, people who get beat up in a lifetime of classrooms. They exist.

But what they prove too is that teaching is hard work often accomplished to the tune of a pay scale that hardly registers. The weight coach at the University of Iowa, a news story said yesterday, earns just about $700,000 per anum. I'm sure there are legendary teachers in Iowa City who still don't get six figures. 

Yesterday, my grandchildren walked away from the house, left the dog behind, and headed out to school for the first time this term--a high-schooler, an eighth grader, and a first-grader. There they are, up top the page, great smiles.

God bless 'em. And God bless their teachers too, who don't have an easy job. Rewarding? Absolutely. But often frustrating and difficult. Last Sunday at church, the preacher invited all the kids up to watch a baptism. I wondered whether that was possible anymore. Really, it isn't. Those kids went off as if shot from guns. 

Imagine dealing with them all. day. long. Bless 'em all.

I am confident there isn't a Morningstar in the bunch. This morning I'm thankful for them--all of them, all those teachers. Bless 'em.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Who's out back at River Bend? (4)

If the inscription on John Moore's grave site didn't give away the story, you could walk right by and simply assume that in 1899, when he died, he was just another pioneer settler in eastern South Dakota. He could have been a white man. "There's John Moore," you might say, the stone bearing no Dakota language or Indian name. 

But there aren't many people that fit that description in the River Bend churchyard. River Bend is a colony of people from a similar homeland just like any other--Dutch, Norwegian, German, Bohemian--with this  exception: it was Santee Sioux.

John Moore's year of birth (1826, "in Minn." the stone says) means he was about forty years old when "the uprising" began in 1862, when hundreds of Santees determined the life they were living was more painful death than dying and therefore attacked the Lower Sioux Agency near Morton, Minnesota, where food was stored, food that belonged, by treaty, to them. 

Not all the Santees drew blood. There can be no doubt that this man, John Moore, did not, a conclusion we can reach on a great deal more information than simply that he's here, that he wasn't one of those who was killed or hung or starved. We know he didn't join Little Crow and the crusaders because the stone says John Moore spent the next three years of his life--1862 to 1865--somewhere out front of a cavalry unit hunting down the Santee warriors he didn't join. 

In 1862, not all the Santee men was some stock 19th century Hollywood Indian. When the war began, more than a few had already tossed the old blanket and dressed up like the white man. They'd cut their hair and started to farm pretty much at the time they decided to come to church and listen to the missionary talk about Jesus. In all likelihood, John Moore was just such a man, just such a Santee. 

Before the war, more than 6000 Santees made their home along the Minnesota River. Two thousand of those were captured and killed, while 4000 fled either to Canada or North Dakota, where eventually General Henry Sibley, who'd commanded the cavalry during the Dakota War, hunted them down. He and his army located them finally on a hill named Big Mound in Kidder County, North Dakota. 

I don't know it's true, but perhaps John Moore was among the sixty or so scouts who Sibley recruited and sent up there to parley with their brother Santees. Some of those scouts met with their own tribal members, reps of the encampment, a meeting that finally turned into a bloody fight. 

Sibley estimated his troops met as many as 1500 warriors out there at the Battle of Big Mound, few of them armed with anything that shot straight. Sibley's force, meanwhile, was the biggest army ever to mounted to fight Native people--over 3000 well-equipped troops. 

That John Moore--or his family--wanted the line about him being a scout inscribed on the stone suggests that he was among the scouts Sibley employed to find the Santees who'd fled the Minnesota valley after the war. That he was among that group strongly suggests he was a Christian, that he'd claimed to know the Lord already before the war. 

And there's more of Mr. Moore's life inscribed on the stone. 

"Took claim in 1887," it says, "near Lake Benton. . ."

Some Santees were rewarded for their work as army scouts by a homestead plot in the state of Minnesota, where legislation immediately after the war banned all Indian people. John Moore died there, near Lake Benton, the stone says, but his remains, somehow, are here behind the church at River Bend. 

With his people. 

What isn't at all complicated about Native American history is this: Euro-Americans took most all of the land its original occupants once ruled. We did, my ancestors among them. There is no other way of summarizing what happened across the face of America. That's indisputable fact.

All of 143 years after the Flandreau Sioux put the first logs together for a place to worship the Lord, set them down on a hill looking over the Big Sioux, the story told in its ancient cemetery is more complicated than anything Hollywood ever dreamed and most of the rest of us know or can imagine. 

Someone perhaps knows a whole lot more about this man John Moore, some descendant maybe. I really hope so. Other than what's here, what I've told you is conjecture, well-founded but only presumed to be true.

Nonetheless, his stone speaks volumes, and the story it tells, like the story it suggests, is far more complex than all of us might wish it to be. 

Rest in peace, John Moore. 

Monday, August 22, 2016

Morning Thanks--a blessed cartoon

It's a great blessing  simply to be able to attend one's 50th high school reunion. Not everyone can. 

Within a year of our graduation, one of my classmates, a friend and teammate, was killed when his Corvette went head on into a ditch culvert and virtually exploded into a hundred fiberglass shards. There were no seat belts back then.

On a country road just outside of town, I remember passing that spot with a degree of awe I hadn't felt before because at that moment of my life his funeral was the only one I'd attended meant to honor the death of a kid, a kid I knew.

A number of our classmates didn't make the reunion. They were gone.

But a goodly number were there. I was apprehensive about walking in, and I'd guess I wasn't alone. Long ago, my mother had been shocked, she told us, at the 50th reunion of her teachers college class. In her endearing naivete, she'd walked into the restaurant and told the matre d' she was looking for her class reunion. He pointed her, graciously I'm sure, at a back corner of the restaurant. She shook her head. "Those are old people," she told him. What could the poor guy say? He must have told the same story for as many years.

Fifty years is a long time. Biblically speaking, we're not factory-made for a whole lot more--threescore and ten, saith Psalm 90, that stirring funeral ode Moses wrote. These days, the line requires some updating maybe because seventy, some say and I hope, is the new fifty. I was never all that good at math.

But in fifty years, people change--things sag, get round, and go bald, knees buckle, there's ear hair and jowls. Would I recognize people? How do you act a half-century later towards old men and women you haven't seen for a lifetime, some of whom you didn't really know all that well in high school's hallowed halls? Do you hug people you never would have back then? I didn't read the handbook on 50th reunion etiquette, which is why the scariest moment of the OHS Class of '66 high school reunion was simply stepping up to the door. 

Where I was hugged. That was helpful. At least I had a clue.

So here's the review. I had fun, a great time. Fifty years is no trifle. There are, all around, more obvious scars and a scrapbook of dark corners that don't stay hidden too long when you're approaching seventy and the big story is bypass surgery or chemo. I sat--stood, really--through several intense recitations of long near-death moments, events that make almost anything else in your life fade and pale, save grandkids.  I listened closely to those who'd suffered because at our age you can't look the other way when the grim reaper is close by. 

A few of were terminally ill. We heard. 

But the reunion was no dirge, and the place didn't feel like a funeral parlor. All night long, we laughed. I thought more about high school football in that one night than I have in a half century. A half dozen people called me by my German name from a German class I've tried to forget for lo, these many years. I relived a time in my life that I'd sometimes considered pretty much gone.

The reunion was over in one night, but I traveled up and back with a wonderful old friend and teammate, two long days of a trip I've taken a hundred times but never finished so quickly. The two of us had our own blessed time, a reunion in and of itself.

Time is relative, said old Einstein, and he's right, isn't he? I spent most of this weekend in a time warp, as if my life had a barely appreciable present, as if basketball games and submarine races were still my great inspiration. It was a good time, sheer romance to be back, even fleetingly, in a reunion that became a kind of blessed cartoon. 

Many, many people I know can't say what I humbly can: I have been richly blessed by a wonderful childhood and high school experience. In a way, I lived in the home of Ozzie and Harriet. 

I long ago stopped believing I could say with any exactness what the Bible means, but I can't help but think, having returned from a long and joyous high school reunion weekend, that most of that weekend I was doing what Moses asks in that great psalm about time--I was "numbering my days," remembering, valuing, counting them all as blessing. 

I can't speak for everyone in OHS Class of '66, nor for everyone who's ever attended a 50th, but I had a great time, a blessed time, for which, this morning, the time warp in the rearview mirror, I'm greatly thankful.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Sunday Morning Meds--Consumed and Terrified

We are consumed by your anger and terrified by your indignation.”

I loved it when our preacher held forth on one of the great stories in the Old Testament, Elijah’s hands-down whacking of those 450 prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel, as recorded in I Kings 18. Nothing in the OT comes even close in shock and awe.

Elijah set the whole contest up. It’d be nose to nose, the World Cup of deities—two gods having at it for the respect and worship of an entire nation. Baal’s team had first raps. The objective?--to consume a sacrificial bull, already butchered and dressed. For hours, Baal’s team pleaded and cajoled. Nothing. Not a spark.

At noon, Elijah gave the bad guys the what-for. “Maybe your god is visiting the toilet,” he jeered. Still nothing.

Some significant blood-letting followed, as those 450 Baal prophets started slashing away at themselves. Bull-wise, however, there was still bloody nothing—all day long.

Come evening, Elijah asks the people to edge up a little closer, then incites a little crowd participation when he has them douse his bull with buckets-full of water, the old man chortling a bit, methinks, as he’s very plainly stretching the odds. No self-mutilation, no conjuring, no wailing, however; because once the scene was set, Elijah prayerfully suggested that the God of Israel make it clear that he was, in fact, God.

Whoosh. Barbeque.

And all of this in a crowd of hundreds of seekers. We could scour the Bible, not to mention human history, and not find a more spectacular display of sovereignty than the searing Mount Carmel conquest God ignited before his people.

Our young preacher focused on the choice Elijah lays out in verse 21 to the idolatrous Israelites:  "How long will you waver between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him." The sermon was about choices, tough ones, the kind we all make day-to-day, even moment-to-moment. There is the straight and narrow, or the interstate. On which path are you? That sort of thing.

Psalm 90:6 is one of those verses that makes you shake when you think about it, not at all unlike what happened at the very end of this most impressive grudge match, a part of the story our young pastor didn’t touch. Once the match ends, Elijah tells the just-now-pious Israelites to grab all 450 prophets of Baal and drag them down to the river and slay them, all of them. Turn the beach into a slaughter house.

Which they do.

That’s scary. A whole host of people hacked to death, righteously. Seems so out-of-character for the God I think I know and love.

A verse like today’s rings somewhat hollow in modern life—or post-modern life. It’s not easy to see God almighty as terrifying, which may be why our young preacher didn’t touch the massacre right there in the story. 

Today, God doesn’t scare us much—or at least he doesn’t scare me. He scares some TV preachers who believe they know why God sent a flood to New Orleans or other such miseries; but for me and my house, being consumed by God’s anger and terrified by his wrath seems, well, more than a little “Old Testament,” something that doesn’t really need to be said if you’re looking to bring in the unchurched. Even that young preacher of ours wasn’t buying it totally or he have mentioned the holocaust at the river that ends the story.

Seriously, what scares me is hate and divisiveness. What scares me is fanaticism—the ideology of Islamic terrorism and the anger of the religious right. What scares me is what we all too easily do to each other and ourselves because we quite righteously believe God wants the bloody work done. What scares me is what we chase, what we dream, what we desire.

Today, quite honestly, God doesn’t scare me as much as I do. 

Friday, August 19, 2016

Late summer skies

We're approaching the confluence of seasons, much to my chagrin. I'd rather that it stayed summer for a while, although all that dank heat makes me weary these dog days, puts October's colorful winter prelude in mind in a way that doesn't seem all bad. 

But the skies tell the story. This time of year they're big and rambunctious and often strewn with the wreckage of overnight storms or the stirrings of the morning's to come. When that messiness breaks up in a dawn, I can hardly sit still here, just a window away. Here's a few shots I've taken lately when I stepped just outside the door.

And there's this too:

Out here in the country, it's not hard to remember that John Calvin used to say our perception of God's almighty-ness is created most powerfully in the awe we feel in the face of a world so beautiful and powerful and therefore so much unlike ourselves. Our depravity--our not being God--is never quite so profoundly revealed than we stand in the face of eternity of  God almighty--maybe in skies like this--

or, more beneficently, like this--

Almost daily this late summer season, I'm reminded that the Yankton, who preceded us out here on the edge of the Great Plains, quite religiously rose from their tipis, facing east, to observe the dawn. I can't help wondering who were the better Calvinists. 

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Who's out back at River Bend (3)

Few tribal people were as quick to give up Native names as the Santees, who did it almost en masse after the Dakota War in a desire to never again lose so much as they had in so little time. That this stone says "Jane Huntsman" doesn't mean the woman buried here had no Dakota name. She did, and the government rolls from her lifetime still list it as "Eotonwicemdezewir," which makes some kind of change understandable.

What can we know about Jane Huntsman, by a simple internet search? She had five children, only two of whom survived into adulthood. A daughter is buried alongside her here, Mary Lightning, who died just four years after her mother did, in 1917. Mary was her daughter by her second husband, her first having given her three children, one of whom, Solomon, also survived into adulthood. The cross at the end of the row is unmarked. 

She lived through immensely tough times, tougher perhaps than most Native people on the plains in the era. If her daughter Mary was 61 years old in 1917 (an old register says she was), she was born in 1856, six years before the war. Did her first husband die in the Uprising? I don't know. His name (what records there are give different spellings) is not written among those hanged at Mankato.

Her third husband, Titus Huntsman, was one of those men held in captivity for three years in at Ft. McClellan, Davenport, Iowa, after the war. Marriage records indicate the two of them didn't marry until 1890 or so, and that they were married by ceremony, not simply by way of the Native customs. That ceremony--not to mention her place in the churchyard here--means most assuredly that Mary Huntsman became a Christian believer. 

The inscription on her daughter's stone is from Revelation 22:14--"Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city." I couldn't read Jane Huntsman's stone.

Because her remains are here in the cemetery at River Bend Church, she almost certainly spent several long months in suffering at Ft. Snelling when just about all the Dakotas were imprisoned and many died. After a brutal winter, she was almost certainly loaded on a steamer and sent down the Mississippi to St.Louis, then boarded on a ship that would eventually bring them up the Missouri to west central South Dakota. Many died on the trip; many more died at Crow Creek. 

Few white folks lost any sleep about their suffering. It was 1863, and there was something called "the Civil War" after all. Besides, these people weren't just Indians, they were Dakota killers. It's difficult even to imagine what this woman went through for almost two decades.

Eventually, when the Santees were given land at the confluence of the Niobrara and Missouri Rivers, hundreds of them--most old men, women, and children, walked a hundred miles to get there. More died, but there Jane Huntsman, two husbands already dead, found a place that somehow seemed more like home.

Jane Huntsman is a name included on a list of those Flandreau Santees allotted rights to homestead on the Big Sioux River, right there at the bend beneath the church. History tells us that only Christian believers left Nebraska for the big bend. Like all the others, Jane Huntsman became eligible for homestead land at a price--she had to renounce her tribal affiliation. She had to declare, in effect, that she was no longer an Indian, a Native.

Look at the stone. The inscription beneath her name and dates of birth and death is unreadable at least to me because it's worn and weathered, but also because it's written in the Dakota language. Jane Huntsman might well have said she would no longer be an Indian, but in her heart and soul, as in her tongue, she could never be anything else totally. 

That this Jane Huntsman is here in the shadow of the old church is, to me at least, a blessing, deeply comforting. She almost certainly died a believer. 

But that the inscription beneath the name on the stone of a woman once named Eotonwicemdezewir is etched in the Dakota language--and not in English--well, that also makes me smile

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Who's out back at River Bend? (2)

When he was a kid his father died, was killed really, when a gun discharged in his father's hands. A fight ensued not long after, a bloody fight for leadership between him and his brother. That's when Little Crow was wounded in both wrists, scarring his arms so badly that he kept them covered for his whole life. But he won and became the leader of the band of Dakota into which he was born. 

Some would say he caved in for a time. He signed the Treaty at Traverse des Sioux which consigned his people to a reservation on a narrow strip of land bordering the Minnesota River. He took to wearing white men's clothes, joined the Episcopal Church, and started to farm. He visited Washington D. C., a trip which shook the temerity out of a hundreds of Native men. Pictures of him, like this one, make it seem as if he'd become just another white Minnesotan.

But he wasn't. He was, have no doubt, a leader of his people. When the treaty obligations weren't fulfilled, when his people were starving, literally, he chose to go to war, even though he told those warriors who were far more anxious to fight that the cause was sure to fail. Regardless, he went all in. He was, after all, their leader. 

He is the only man buried in the old River Bend churchyard who has a war named after him, Little Crow's War. Today, mostly, people call it the Dakota War of 1862, but it's still known to many as the Sioux Uprising. "Little Crow's War" is a fitting description, even though he was, by all accounts, confident of what was going to eventually result. He led his warriors anyway. 

When the war's end was in sight, Little Crow, and others, fled north to Canada, which means he wasn't among those thirty-some hung en masse at Mankato in December of 1862. But he returned home to steal horses and, oddly enough, was killed in gun battle when a couple of white settlers stumbled on him and his son. For a time no one knew who it was that lay there dead in the grass. No matter--he was after all an Indian, so his body was dragged up and down the street in town, fire crackers set off in his eyes and ears before his head was cut off. The men who killed him got $75 for his scalp; one was cited by the legislature for his honorable service to the state. 

Later, his scarred wrists identified him as Little Crow, the chief of the Dakota who's warriors had killed somewhere in the vicinity of 500 settlers--men, women, and children, slaughtered them. Years later, his remains were given to a grandson. Here in the cemetery at River Bend Presbyterian, they are, one hopes, at rest.

I'm not sure, but the quote at the bottom of the inscription is part of the reason he's still regarded, by some, as a hero, a warrior. In August of 1862, he knew what was going to happen once the 500 Dakota warriors raided the agency that wouldn't give them food that was there in the storehouse. He knew that a fight would not end well, but he led his warriors anyway--"Therefore I'll die with you." See it up there. Bottom line.

It takes something to find it, but stop by sometime. Chances are, his stone is the only one bearing a name you might have heard of. 

But you can stand there and read it for yourself. Little Crow's story is amazing in every way. He led a rebellion that slaughtered what a white man like me can't help thinking of as innocent people--men and women and children, immigrant homesteaders, many of them just off the boat, some of whom actually knew him. From church, too.

Little Crow is to some--to many--a hero. Still is. You don't have to believe that to be true, but you really must try to understand.

River Bend is not so far from here really, but it's well off the beaten path. You've got to hunt to find the place. I don't know of a tour that would bring you there. You're very much on your own.

But then I think a story like Little Crow's, in this fair land of ours, is really never all that far away, no matter where you are. I find that humbling, like a walk in a cemetery. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Who's out back at River Bend? (1)

The sign out front claims this well-kept church on a hill just north of Flandreau is "The Oldest Continuously Used Church in South Dakota" (all caps because it is, for sure, a title worth coveting). It's been "First Presbyterian" for 137 years, "River Bend Church" when it was established here along the Big Sioux River long, long ago. 

Read that sign for yourself.

But a church is really no more or less than its people, including the ones out back in the graveyard, where a long history begins to come alive in the outlines etched on the oldest stones. 

This one lies in the grass, weathered, but still readable in spots, if you take a few minutes to try.

It's a child, a boy, I think, although the name isn't easy to read. The dates are clear enough--he was only three years old, and he was a Weston, and he died long ago, in 1894.

Look closer. Beneath the dates, the inscription carved into the stone is a familiar line of the gospel one might expect on almost any child's grave: "Jesus said, 'Suffer little children to come unto me, . . .for of such is the kingdom of heaven. . '" 

But beneath that line from Luke, in letters I couldn't have read even if they'd been crisp and clear as a morning sky is another wording of the same verse, this one, a bit larger font, in the Dakota language. I'm guessing, of course--I can't read the words. 

I stood right there on Saturday morning in the dewy grass, and told myself that some stories are readable in every language, because here lies a child, dead 120 years, a Santee three-year-old from somewhere along the Big Sioux River just outside of Flandreau, SD. His grieving parents were Christians, maybe even bilingual, but still Santee enough to want to read the comfort of Jesus's own words in their first language, which is always, for everyone, the blessed language of intimacy. 

When, after a time, the death of a child can be spoken of, the story of grief can be told in any language because a beloved child no longer is an absence that is realized around the world. I stood there in the wet grass of a country churchyard as if no time had passed, stood there that morning as if around me were gathered the goodly saints of Riverview Presbyterian Church, a whole crowd of witnesses. 

There's not much more to say than what's inscribed there in the weathered stone and lichen. It's lying in the graveyard of an old church up on a slow hill outside a small town in eastern South Dakota; and it marks the grave site of a little boy who died when he was just three years old, a story on a stone tipped over by age and relentless Great Plains seasons. 

No matter what language, in a way, we've all been there.