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.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Morning Thanks--what Luther discovered



I don't know that anyone cares, really, about the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Sure, there are committees (I'm on one) tasked with caring, but that doesn't mean that in the pew on Sunday morning anyone is thinking about what might be happen when the big birthday arrives (generally assumed to be the day Luther nailed-up his theses on the Wittenburg church door). Could well be that churches will simply put a note in their church bulletins: "Hey, this morning just a shout out to Luther. . ."

But we're there, almost. Will be, at least, in a few months.

A review in the Weekly Standard last week got me to thinking, after a note on-line made a claim that seemed totally outrageous, to wit, that after book shelves full of material already written about Martin Luther, after the tonnage he himself produced in a lifetime of writing, it's almost impossible to imagine any one might have anything new to say about the founder of a movement that, quite literally, changed the world.

Someone actually writes something new about Luther? Seriously?

James R. Payton, who taught history at Redeemer University College in Ontario, claims that Lyndel Roper's Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet does just that. He says Professor Roper, who teaches at Oxford, judges Luther, "raw edges and all," as a man of his time and place, putting him and his sometimes blushingly shameful utterances, "raw edges and all," squarely into the world in which he lived: "Roper looks at "the Saxon reformer in terms of his sociocultural milieu," Payton says, with a special regard for "the development of his views in terms of his relationship to father-figures—and his own sense of paternal authority for the movement he had unleashed."

But then Payton makes a claim about Renegade and Prophet I thought interesting and itself new, at least to me--someone sure as anything a child of the Reformation. "She does not acknowledge, or wrestle with, the driving impulse that both dominated and enervated the young monk." That's quite an indictment, but Payton pursues his criticism with dedication: "By entering monastic life, Luther sought to place himself in a situation where he could best prepare to meet his Maker; but his efforts, while exceeding even the strictest, most demanding, counsels, did not result in the slightest confidence that he might find peace with God."

The story many children of the Reformation know is Luther dragging himself up the holy stairs to the Cathedral in 1510, bloodying his knees in the process, creating all that anguish to purify himself in his quest for atonement. That extreme religious discipline, Payton says, brought Luther "no relief in his search—until his labors brought him to wrestle with the words of St. Paul in Romans 1:16-17": 
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.
"There," Payton says, the apostle Paul "rejoiced in what terrified Luther ('the righteousness of God,' revealed in the gospel)" until Luther discerned the emphasis that "the righteous one will live by faith," the very heart of the theology of the Reformation. 

What Luther discovered, as a monk, Payton says, was that all his diligence and dedication to that spiritual task would not bring him where he wanted so badly to be, a man beloved. "Luther had stumbled upon the teaching from then on associated with him: Justification sola fide, being accounted righteous before God by faith alone," Payton says [emphasis his].

What Luther discovered was that salvation wasn't something he could do. That truth left Luther free to be Luther, for better or for worse--and God to be God. Salvation comes by faith alone. 

Okay, maybe it's not totally new, but I for once will certainly admit that it's been so long since I've thought through that idea that Payton's whole take felt fresh as the morning. 

This morning I'm thankful for a few old words, freshly served up, from the Weekly Standard.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Sunday Morning Meds--A shocking end


But may sinners vanish from the earth and the wicked be no more.” 
Psalm 104:35

Whoever it was that wrote Psalm 104 didn’t have an MFA, didn’t study at a prestigious writing program with celebrated writers for teachers. How was he to know that introducing a whole new subject at the very end of the poem here is just simply not done?

He needed an editor badly. Someone should have told him what’s perfectly obvious—that taking a cheap shot at the wicked—(whoever that is)—at the end of this breathtaking survey of all creation is not only sophomoric but gauche. After all, “the wicked” are not at the heart of this poem, for pity’s sake; God’s providential hand in his beautiful, natural world is. That's what the poem is all about. 


In 35 verses of one of the most beautiful and comforting poems in the whole library of human literary achievement, there’s not one mention of “the wicked.” Not one. And then, here, in the last verse, with the poet's final breath, as if out of nowhere, the wicked come into the picture only to get thumped. If he wanted to explore “the wicked,” he should have pulled out another sheet of whatever it was he was writing on and started in on another song, don't you think? 

I’m a writing teacher. I know better. I edit papers, have for years. I know what works and what doesn’t. Listen. Isn’t this preferable?-- “But may sinners vanish from the earth and the wicked be no more. Praise the LORD, O my soul. Praise the LORD.”

Cut the ending, sir. It comes out of nowhere, a sucker punch.

Scholars like Phillip Jenkins say uppity Christians like me--educated, acculturated, tasteful believers--will face some difficult adjustments someday when Christians from what we’ve traditionally called “third world” countries will outnumber us (they already do). One of those adjustments will arise from their wholly different life experiences, lives like that of Pastor Jwala in Madhya Pradesh state, India. 

Hindu extremists on Sunday beat four Christians, including a pastor, who were later arrested on charges of “forced conversion” in Madhya Pradesh state.
            A group of about 15 extremists punched and hit the Christians with hockey sticks soon after worship ended at about 10:30 a.m. After the initial attack, the extremists dragged the Christians to the Sheopur police station about 500 meters away, beating them en route. The police promptly arrested the Christians, as a complaint against them had already been filed.
            The officer in charge of the police station, Hukum Singh Yadav, also allegedly beat up Pastor Jwala at the facility. Yadav was not available for comment. 

Jenkins says that when those we’ve “missionaried” will come to the secular west to missionary us, we’ll have to recognize that the Pastor Jwalas among them have suffered at the hands of “the wicked.” The plain truth is, that which I can only imagine is as real as water to many believers around the world.

I need to understand that I want to cut the second-to-last line of Psalm 104 because—it’s true—I don’t know “the wicked” all that well, nor have I experienced their wickedness. My disregard makes the psalmist’s comment extraneous. Thus, I want to strike it.

But it’s likely that Pastor Jwala can’t imagine the blessed world of Psalm 104 unless that world is scoured of the God-haters who persecute him.

My prejudice is showing, as well as my naïvete. I am, after all, an American.

God’s word is so much bigger than I am, so wide and encompassing, so much broader, so much deeper, so much richer than the parameters of my small world. That's the truth.

Thank goodness it’s his Word, not mine.

Friday, May 19, 2017

What's there is telling


We visited Stratford-upon-Avon, of course, toured Shakespeare's house and watched the Royal Shakespeare Company perform Julius Caesar in the Royal Shakespearean Theater. I vaguely remember the grave of Jane Austin, but Piccadilly Circus is gone completely. We happened to visit Westminster Cathedral just at the moment the Latin mass was celebrated.

But for reasons I can't explain, nothing in jolly old England left as hearty an impression with me as the bombed-out hulk of Coventry Cathedral. For a moment, the Battle of Britain was more than a history lesson on grainy newsreel, more than an whole album of old black-and-whites.

There the cathedral stands, open air, a ruin that despite its shambles outperforms a dozen museums at telling unforgettable stories. At Coventry, I don't know that I ever felt closer to World War II.

But it's not just the war that halts speech. If you're born and reared in a church, a ruin seems especial sacrilege because you stand at the confluence of dreams on one hand--beside aspiring cathedral walls--and a nightmare on the other--the mess of brokenness all around.

Any church in ruin is a sepulchre. Even if no human being is buried beneath, when you stand inside broken walls, nothing but sky above, it's impossible not to say that something alive has gone. 

Some might consider it pretentious, maybe, for a tiny Kansas burg to let their old cathedral ruin stand, utterly disrobed, as if Greenbush, Kansas, were Coventry, England. It isn't.



Greenbush is less of a town than an an momentary interruption aboard endless Kansas prairie. Winston Churchill never visited St. Aloysius Church; no buzz bombs fell in the neighborhood, no Luftwaffe laid waste the limestone blocks church members had quarried from nearby Hickory Creek to build the place. It was lightning, a prairie storm, what insurance companies used to call "an act of God," that brought down St. Aloysius church, but there it stands, in ruin, yet not so, its silence still speaking.

And St. Aloysius has its own history. Legend has it that right there where those walls stand a Jesuit priest on his way to the Osage Mission just down the road hid under his saddle during an 1869 thunderstorm. The weather was so wild--in a pure Great Plains way--that Father Phillip Coalleton made a deal with God, lest he get struck himself by some errant bolt of fire. It was as if he were in foxhole, as, I suppose, he was. "Lord," he must have muttered, scared to death, "save me and I promise I'll build a church right here at this very spot."

So he did. The church was wood, and was silly really, there being no one within a day's walk, the whole neighborhood having been placed off limits to white settlement. But a promise is a promise, or so Father Phillip Colleton, S. J., determined, so he held up his end of the bargain. He built a place of worship. Nothing gaudy.  There were no frills in the foxhole contract. 

Ten years later, when the "Neutral Strip" set up as a barrier between white folks and the Osage tribe disappeared, European immigrants homesteaded the region and found, to their delight, a little church already there, the place Colleton owed God.



Even though Great Plains history includes nothing like the Battle of Britain, life in rural Kansas can be downright dangerous because in 1871 yet another storm brought down Colleton's little frame church. 

When the good folks of Greenbush looked at those ruins, they determined, in typical small-town fashion, that their next church would be bigger than any other in the county. So church members began mining limestone for a second church. A French stonemason did the exacting detail work, the rest of the community the heavy lifting. That church, the second, was dedicated in 1881. 

Stay with me here. That church is the one you can't help but note when you're on old Mission Road; that's the church in ruin, itself destroyed by yet another lightning storm, this one a century later in 1988.

That's the church that begs comparison with the cathedral at Coventry, England; and those are the ruins that sit ominously along Mission Road, ruins that somehow still inspire. Sometimes silence speaks, just as walls do. Sometimes what's not there is all you can see. Sometimes nothing is really something.

Take a walk in the ruins some time. They're not that big. There they stand, in the sun and amid the storms, on a lonely old Kansas highway to nowhere, where they will be sturdy and strong, for a long time.



Thursday, May 18, 2017

Warnings

Image may contain: cloud, sky, outdoor and nature

"One killed in Parkersburg," the Des Moines Register says this morning, above the fold. 

For most of Iowa, the town of Parkersburg will, for a lifetime, be associated with tornadoes after a monster ripped out half the village in 2008, killing five while destroying almost 300 homes and 22 businesses with unimaginable winds of 230 miles per hour.

A decade later in Parkersburg, people mind storm warnings, I'm sure.

Yesterday, I didn't.

It was raining. It was cold. Wasn't particularly windy, wasn't tornado weather. Tornadoes rise from swamps, from massive afternoon heat and humidity so dank you can feel 'em before skies even threaten. Yesterday felt like jolly old England, Seattle on a good day. Tornadoes?--bah, humbug.

Which is why I didn't mind the warning, didn't turn around when my phone went perfectly berserk and told me TO SEEK SHELTER. I was in the car, my father-in-law beside me, a man whose hearing is so bad he never heard the phone's insane braying, didn't know a thing about tornadoes threatening, was thrilled to get out of the home for a ride in the country. 

We'd just left the home. Turning around would have been prudent, but bringing him back into a place just then going into tornado mode seemed even more disturbing--who knew what they'd do with all those old folks? He still doesn't feel at home there and was thrilled to get out for a ride. After all, the corn is up. There's things to see.

Besides, the skies looked brighter out west, so we left. Go ahead--tell me I'm irresponsible. Instinct told me it was the right thing to do. I know--Trump listens to instinct and look where it gets him.

When we got to Sioux Center, the road was almost dry--that's the truth. We stopped off at a friend's house to pick up some plants and found her out back, where she told me how great it was to garden in light rain. No problem.

Got back in the car, and the phone went blindly insane again. The skies had darkened by this time, and I was less sure of myself. My daughter called from some basement shelter on campus where, by directive, all employees were sitting out the warning. She let me have it--after all, I had grandpa along too yet. Go home, she told me. I was just a few blocks from her house. 

So we did. Grandpa and I sat out what remained of the tornado warning, watching the whole weather mess on a giant screen with my son-in-law and grandson. And the dog, Gus, who jumped up in Grandpa's lap and was thereafter greatly loved. Once the warnings died, we went home.

I don't know how much of all of that my father-in-law understood. He didn't hear my phone or my daughter. We tried to show him what the TV was showing, but I'm not sure he understands that close-up weather radar any more. 

But my word, he was proud as anything when the two of us marched back into the home.  "Out chasing tornadoes, eh, Randall?" one of the nurses said, and as big a smile as I've seen on his face spread cheek-to-cheek. For a moment there, I think he felt himself a man.

You're an idiot, my daughter would say, and she's probably right. My friends in Parkersburg would certainly call me a fool, and they wouldn't be wrong. So I'll repent. I should have turned around and brought my dad back into the home when my phone went bonkers. I know I should have.

Just the same, the truth is, we had fun. Just ask him. 

Did I mention? The corn is up.
__________________
Photo from Siouxland Severe Weather Network.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Trump fatigue


I suppose it's possible to think that the ship of state would right itself if we'd just let him be. If no one would say a thing about his blasting "sick" Obama for wiretapping him, about crowd size at his inauguration, about three or four million unregistered Clinton voters--if we simply shrugged our shoulders and said, "Well, that's our man," and went on with our lives. Maybe that's so. Maybe we just ought not watch or listen or read.

We could just give him a pass when he fires the head of the FBI, the man charged with looking into Russian interference in the 2016 election. We could just let that go and breath more easily.

But the irony is so rich: Gen. Michael Flynn, in serious trouble with the law, screaming "Lock her up!!" at the Republican convention; or Trump himself insisting, day after day, that Hillary willingly gave away national security secrets. I guess we could not care.


We're 120 days, give or take a few, into a Presidency that has just about killed off the rest of us, the spectators. The high drama is unending. For just about all of that time, surf's up on breaking news. We used to say that among the Republican candidates, Trump daily takes all the oxygen out of the room. Today, it's different. Today, he takes it out of the whole nation, the culture. I'm tired. We all are.

"At certain times Donald Trump has seemed like a budding authoritarian, a corrupt Nixon, a rabble-rousing populist or a big business corporatist," or so wrote David Brooks in yesterday's NY Times ("When the world is led by a child"). But Brooks rejects all those descriptions and calls up his own: "At base, Trump is an infantalist," he says, a little boy. "Immaturity is becoming the dominant note of his presidency, lack of self-control his leitmotif."

David Brooks, a conservative, is right about a ton of things, and once again he's on the money here. He's been reading the latest Presidential interviews, and what he finds is that, like a child, Trump can't hold on to a thought. Because he can't, he has great trouble getting hold of the complexity of the problems we face ("No one knew that health care was as complex as it is"--oh, really?).

Like a child, Brooks says, Trump creates a life from his famous falsehoods in order to live in a world he's fashioned for himself. He lies about just about everything. "I'm a very smart man," he says, perhaps to convince his audience, but just as definitively to remind himself of his being a very smart man.

He appears to have no idea how he's being read and lacks the ability to see himself as others see him. He simply assumed that Democrats would love his firing of FBI Director Comey, Brooks says, because of what Comey did to Hillary right before the election. That Democrats felt cheated in Octber is not at issue; that Dems would tolerate a President who cans his FBI chief under the circumstances the President finds himself in requires a level of smarts Brooks says is beyond boy Trump.

President Trump didn't give away national security secrets to the Russians because he is an agent of the Russian government. He did what he did because he was bragging. He lacks the self-control to restrain himself from his own worst tendencies. "There is perpetually less to Trump than it appears," Brooks says.


A friend of mine, a retired woodworker, told me he meets with a round table of other old bucks every Tuesday at a greasy spoon in some town near his home in central California. They get together to hammer out world issues over a cup of coffee. He says there are lefties and righties in the bunch, so for the last year their conversations haven't lacked ardor. Passions soar.

But lately, he says, the Trumpians aren't saying much. They're not dissing their man yet; they're not turning on him, but neither do they beat up any more on those who do. Their silence, he says, is telling.

For President, we have a man who is a child, David Brooks says. That's why no one knows what'll happen today. No one. Not even the President. And it's why the rest of us--supporters and not--are getting tired. It may not be a high paying job, but child care
 is dang hard work.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Of biblical proportions


This story begins in a South Dakota graveyard just outside a town that has, these days, far more ghosts than spirit. I was looking for a man's grave and surprised when I found it. The truth? --there are far more dead in that cemetery than alive in town.

But I need to say something about grasshoppers. During the summer of 1873, gadzillions swarmed up in a four-state swath. Alton, Iowa's first medical doctor, Dr. Gleysteen, thought to catch some winks in his garden one afternoon. When called for supper, he found himself amid a nightmare: "The grasshoppers had settled on my body three or four layers thick," he wrote. The garden was laid waste, he said: "After dinner, there was not a vestige of green left."

The Sioux City Journal told a Niobrara farmer’s story: "He heard a strange noise behind him, which sounded like an approaching hail storm, and upon looking around he was horrified in seeing a dense cloud of grasshoppers within a few rods of him." Just chilled him, the Journal says. "Even his old desire to be cremated after death forsook him completely, for he was sure he would be buried a mile deep under the swarm of flying locusts."

It's not every day you get to use the word denude, but today I can. Consider the numbers-- 12.5 trillion Rocky Mountain locusts—and it's not difficult to imagine the devastation. They loved onions so ferociously that by their bad breath, you could smell hoardes a'comin' before they settled in. Asparagas to zinnias, corn to tobacco, they ate it all, then feasted on fruit for desert. Right here in Siouxland, hoppers denuded the earth. That’s the truth.

They sucked the salt from sweaty pitchforks and hammer handles, gorged on saddle horns, devoured wash hung out to dry, then burped once or twice and went after what little was still there on people's backsides.

All that munching sounded like prairie fire. Grasshopper gangs stopped trains on their tracks. Seriously.

Farm families tried to drown 'em, burn 'em, and smoke 'em away. Nothing worked. In 1874, ag historians claim hoppers munched 50 million in crops, 75 percent "of that year's total farm product value."

When chickens feasted on 'em, they became inedible. Turkeys likewise. They came like manna. A little honey could have turned all those pioneers into John the Baptists.

The destruction they wreaked was biblical in proportions. Some thought the swarming cloud of locusts another round of Ten Plagues. Others thought it the end of the world.

Thousands of families went back east, many of whom had just arrived.

Now we can return to a country cemetery out west in South Dakota, the grave of a one-time pastor of an Orange City church, a man named Dominie Stadt, whose grave sin was simply writing home. The good pastor, who was reportedly not dynamite from the pulpit, described those denuding hoppers to folks back in Michigan, described them in all their horrors, described it so well that those letters made it back to the Netherlands.

Here's the rub. Henry Hospers, the godfather of the Dutch colony in Orange City, caught wind of the Reverend's wagging tongue. In 1873, Hospers was into real estate and banking--into building community, and not losing it. Mr. Henry Hospers didn't just wield clout among Orange City Hollanders: he was clout. Poor Pastor Stadt was a better writer than preacher. The man had let out news Hospers wanted secret.

Once Hospers warned him to stop leaking horrors, it didn't take long for Pastor Stadt to recognize greater opportunities in Dakota Territory. He took the next wagon train west. And that's why the Reverend John Stadt is buried a couple of hours from here in the open fields of Douglas County, South Dakota.

And why, this week, at Tulip Time, if you drive up Albany Avenue, Orange City, on your right, just east of downtown, you'll see a sign announcing this fine old house, right there in the center of things, a house that once belonged to the honorable Henry Hospers.

If you drive by, just remember that denuding plague of hungry hoppers.

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Takin' time off



It's time for the two of us to take a little vacation, a visit with kids and a little confab of old writer friends. Be back in a week or so.

Monday, May 08, 2017

A view from the top


Min Bahadur Sherchan was 85 when he died on Saturday afternoon--heart attack, or so people guess, nary a medical facility anywhere close. But he died where he certainly wanted to be, or at least halfway there, at the base camp on his final climb up Everest.

Mr. Sherchan had mountain-climbing in his blood and, without a doubt, in his heart. He was challenging a record he'd lost not long ago when, at the age of 80, a Japanese octogenarian named Yuichiro Miura fought his way 30,000 feet up to the top of the mountain. Sherchan, who'd held the previous record at 76, wanted to own the record book once again. He won't.

The man was in fine shape, walking 16 to 18 kilometers daily, but the body--the human body--has finite resources, like it or not. The head of the local Sherpa climbing club admitted, ruefully, that Mr. Sherchan "was physically well, but was challenged by age."

Sweet understatement, I'm sure.

I don't know what to think Sherchan's death. It seems altogether too obvious that Sherchan was crazy, assuming he could assault Everest at an age when his friends were already buried in Nepalese ground--and just a week after "the Swiss Machine," a world-class, master climber named Ueli Steck, fell a couple of thousand feet to his death.

But maybe Min Bahadur Sherchan was a hero. After all, his GoFundMe page claimed he was climbing one more time to “spread world peace and preserve mankind." I don't know that his death will prompt ISIS to strike out boldly for peace, but his motives were dandy.

Once upon a time, a local octogenarian went down with a heart attack and died in a farm pond where he was fishing, alone. People found his body sometime later in the water.

My 97-year-old father-in-law, probably 85 himself back then, hurrmphed at the story, a bit of a giggle, or something close. No disrespect--that wasn't it. Clearly, it was too bad the man had departed.

But, Dad couldn't help saying that the old guy could have done worse, all by himself out there on a warm and sunny afternoon, hoping for a couple of chubby pan fish.

I won't speak for Mr. Sherchan's next of kin, who, amid their sorrow, are, at his moment, making plans for a funeral. I'm sure he will be missed.

But I can't help wonder if Min Bahadur Sherchan himself, going the way he did, half way up to the top of the world, Everest before him, isn't cracking a smile right now, so greatly blessed.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Sunday Morning Meds--Blessings



May my meditation be pleasing to him, as I rejoice in the LORD.”
Psalm 104:33

Maybe 100 people lived in the village of Westfield, Massachusetts, in the the 1670s—maybe more, maybe less.  The Puritan colonies were just then establishing themselves, carving out new settlements in wilderness forests that had once been the sole province of the Wampanoag, a local native tribe, as well other Native peoples. 

By the 1670s war would break out, King Phillip’s War, an unthinkable bloodletting that shaped the minds of the colonists almost as forcefully as their immigrant Calvinism.  King Phillip’s War was perhaps the most disastrous war in American history, one in ten of the Indians the colonists dead.  But that’s another story.

There was in Westfield, a prelate, a Puritan preacher named Edward Taylor, who spent every last year of his ministry in a single church.  Upon his arrival in New England in 1668, he’d enrolled at Harvard College, then graduated, and taken up the ministry at Westfield, where he served God and his people until he died in 1729.

Strangely enough, this man—a wilderness preacher, really, and a staunch conservative—had an incredibly rich imaginative life as a poet, a life he apparently shared with no one.  For most of his ministry he was composing lines for a variety of occasions, but critics agree that his masterpieces are the “Preparatory Meditations,” a series of poems he created throughout his life to try to make himself worthy for the Lord’s Supper, the sacrament of communion.

But no one saw those poems, apparently, until, in the 1930s, almost two centuries later, when a scholar named Thomas Johnson found a bound manuscript in the library of Yale University.  They were shocking, absolutely shocking—and for several reasons.

They were brilliantly imaginative, for one thing.  Two centuries after Plymouth Plantation, American historians would not have believed that a Puritan preacher could fashion such intricate intimacy.  What’s more, those poems—some of them at least—are something of a scandal in their gaudy earthiness.  They’re rich and vivid and devout, the enterprise of an immensely creative artist who apparently cared not a whit what anyone thought about what he was doing.  Hours and hours he must have worked on his poetry, and nobody knew. 

I think those Prepatory Meditations are amazing.  They are what everyone says they are—rich, almost metaphysical tapestries, sometimes bizarre in their forthright character, charmingly un-Puritanical. 

But I love the fact that, like Emily Dickinson, Edward Taylor seemed interested in creating them only for himself and his God.  Impossible as it seems, he sat at his desk, quill in hand, and, it seems, wrote only to please God.

I’d like an editor.  Edward Taylor never had one.  I’d like an audience.  Taylor thought of only one reader—God almighty.  Honestly, I’d like to sell a book.  Taylor, standing before the bread and wine, wanted only to be worthy.


My motives may be mixed, even tainted, when compared to his purity; but I’d like to think that the two of us are brothers in more than one profession.  I’m guessing that Edward Taylor, like the psalmist, liked to repeat this line—one of the last from 104: “May my meditation be pleasing to him.”  As do I.      

Saturday, May 06, 2017

Learning to Speak -- a story (conclusion)



"Learning to Speak" is not Karin's story; it's her father's story, the kind of story I was writing frequently when my own children were kids, trying to see into the future, trying to guess what it might be like. . .

~   *   ~   *   ~   *   ~

Vernon looked at the prairie fields, flat and colorless in the bursts of sharp light. Storms were different on the prairie than they had been in the suburbs. In the city there were so many people that you didn’t worry as much; it was as if the odds were thin when everywhere you looked there were people. Out here the whole town seemed to sit on the land like something unnatural, a mistake, like the clapboard towns in old TV westerns, no trees to hide behind, no hills to ward off the danger. Thunderheads came in like regular visitors; storms had minds and tempers.

He’d come back to his home town, to the plains, because on the prairie, people were closer to God somehow. That’s what he told himself.

He heard the siren behind him, from the center of town, its flat-pitched moan holding steady in warning. Still seated, he looked out once more, as if there were something to see in the bitter sky.

“Karin,” he said, but he heard no one answer. He waited momentarily. It would be strange, the two of them in that fruit cellar alone, because it wasn’t like the old days anymore. It wasn’t as if she needed protection, needed a father to hold her on his lap.

He went downstairs slowly, one hand up on the wall in the semi-darkness. He called her again, almost quietly, but heard no voice. The dining room was dark, and he heard no television voices from the den.

“Karin?” he said, but she was gone.

He walked back to the kitchen, but no one was there. Downstairs, the warning siren was louder and more shrill. He looked down the basement stairwell to see if there were any lights, but there were none. She had to be outside.

He circled up through the kitchen and left out the front door. The wind softened into a calm that barely disturbed the maples. A few light breezes like cold slaps, quick and short, brushed by him, the only motion in the air. The streets were deserted now. He ran to the curb and looked one way, then the other, but the only thing moving was the police car a block east and south, its lights flashing steady red echoes off the white sides of houses that stood in the gaps between their place and Main Street.

He remembered that she wouldn’t be out front, out to the east. She would be in the backyard watching the sky. He ran up the sidewalk that curled around the north edge of the house and stopped at the far corner, looking for a pillar of darkness against the strange green air.

“Karin,” he said, louder.

He had talked to Benson, the school psychologist, about all of it once himself. “There are professionals who say you’ve got to give grieving parents five whole years to unscramble their lives,” Benson had said. “I’ve heard that said. You shouldn’t try to say anything to them for at least five years.”

He hadn’t asked him about siblings.

Somewhere it was written, he remembered, “Faith,” or so it echoed in his head, “is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” New Testament, he said to himself, New Testament.

He found her sitting in the backyard grass, her legs bent beneath her, her robe laid smoothly over her lap, watching the sky, as if there were stunt pilots moving playfully back and forth before her.

“Karin, it’s dark, for pity sake. Even if one comes, you’re not going to be able to see it at night.” He put one knee down next to hear and watched the sky.

“Maybe you’re right,” she said.

Lightning played behind the clouds like July sparklers.

“It’s something, isn’t it--how calm it got all of a sudden?” She never took her eyes off the storm.

“Perfect weather for it,” he said.

“Sometimes it takes two-by-fours and runs them like long spears through metal barrels. You believe that?”

“It’s happened.” He put down the other knee and sat on his legs beside her. “You know we ought to be in the basement. I’m not particularly interested in some wild trip to Oz.”

“I’ve never seen a tornado,” she said. “I can get down there if I have to.”

The sky turned a dim rust color; layers of clouds, black against gray, rushed as if driven along above them, but the open backyard seemed somehow protected by an odd, quilted calm.

“Your mother would be wild, you know that?--both of us hanging around out here?” he said. “Your mother’d chew me out but good for such foolishness.”

But she sat there gazing into the night sky.

“This is almost suicidal, Karin,” he said. “We could get arrested.”

“I want to sit right here till it comes,” she said. “I want to see it coming--this big black funnel. I want to stand here and watch it come--”

“It’s nothing to play with, honey,” he said. “We better get inside--”

Lights burned in the neighbor’s house, but the world seemed almost dead otherwise.

“You’re sick of it too, aren’t you?” Karin said. “You’re mad at her just like I am for always having to talk about it. That’s why we’re not in the basement. That’s why you never yell at me. You don’t like it either--how she talks.” She looked at him without turning to face him.

He pulled himself down to her completely, felt the cool grass beneath his fingers. “She’s my wife, Karin. I love her.” He covered her open hand with his.

“But you hate it too--the way she’s got to talk about it all the time--on and on, over and over. You do, don’t you?” Her face looked sturdy, her eyes aggressive. She was fighting him for an answer.

“I don’t know what I think,” he said. “Your mother’s got her way of dealing with it. We all got to find our ways, all of us.”

Karin combed through her hair with her fingers and bit back the tears. When it finally came, it was emphatic and unforgiving, her lips drawn like a line fence across her face. “I think she’s pure shit, Dad. I think what my mother is pure shit. I hate her.”

He waited in the eerie darkness, waited in silence, and finally, he let it pass. His father would have slapped him silly for saying that about his mother, but his father never lost a child, never had to look into Karin’s eyes.

She sat up, turned so her knees were beneath her, her thighs slightly apart, her hands down in her lap, trying to be strong, trying, he knew, to fight back tears.

Thunder started in a sly crackle, then slammed into the silence, but she sat there sternly, stiff as a tree, until slowly her hands rose and stretched over her eyes. Angie would have asked to be held at such a time, but Karin didn’t want to be touched. He could feel her own strength rise in the way his own heart was rushing.

In his fingers he felt the ground itself through the stubble grass. “Come on,” he said, “it’s all over now.” He tried to take her arm as he pulled up slowly from the ground.

But she pulled away from him. “Aren’t you going to say anything?” she said. “You heard what I said.”

“It’s over,” he told her. He put one hand up behind her neck. “You’re not going to see your tornado. Listen--” The sound of rain swept towards them, a battalion of tiny foot soldiers. The wind lifted her hair back from her face. “It’s over. Let’s go in.”

He saw rain coming like a sheet suddenly unveiled from the sky over the prairie fields west; in the flashes of lightning, he saw it blowing toward them steadily, easily, hanging in the sky.

“Your grandfather used to say that once the rains come, the tornado’s past. It’s like an ’all clear.’”

The wind returned as if suddenly unleashed.

The tears ran out finally and fully from her twisted face. She used the back of her fists to rub through her eyes. “I’m sorry, Dad,” she said. “I don’t know how to feel.”

Her shoulders felt so broad when he squeezed her, too broad for his youngest daughter. “It’s over,” he said. “There’ll be another time. Come on, your mother would kill us.”

They rushed through the opening volleys of a downpour his father would have called a gully-washer, a shower that came so fast that at the back door both of them felt the water down their cheeks and through their hair.

“I’ll talk to her, Karin,” her father said when they both stood wiping their feet in the back hall. “She should hear what we have to say.”

*

Later, together on the couch in dry clothes, they heard the news that a tornado had leveled a barn and a grain bin no more than thirty miles west, straight west, nowhere near Sheldon.

They were sitting there together when Angie came home.

“I’m sorry I was gone,” she said. “You don’t know how scared I was away from you two. Is everything okay here?”

He took his wife’s hand when she stood there next to them, just took her hand, first, and let the silence fill in around them.

Friday, May 05, 2017

Learning to Speak -- a story (iv)



The sound of the wind through the storm windows reminded him of his inability to fix anything. After five years of graduate school and twenty years administrating in three school systems, he couldn’t stop a window from chattering in a stiff breeze. Karin didn’t stop playing because she never heard the wind rise; it was as much a part of her environment as the rumbling of the trains that ran no more than a half mile west of the house. He heard the shrieking because he was trying to read an article on evaluation of instruction in a journal he read to stay on top of things. Maybe the wind made it a good night to be home, he thought.

“Karin, you’re home because you knew she was going to be gone, aren’t you?” he said. “That’s really why, isn’t it?”

She put both hands down beside her on the bench and stared up at the family tree hung above the piano. “I know it’s good--what she does. I know it is. Shoot, people say it all the time: ’Boy, Karin, your mom sure had me crying.’” She laid her hands on her thighs. “I know it’s so helpful, but I don’t always like it.”

“She’s your mom,” he said.

She took the hymnal from the rack with both hands and closed it reverently. “Some facts go right through me, in one ear and out the other.”

“You don’t like her talking about it, do you?” he said.

Karin turned towards him on the bench, the hymnal still there in her hand. “I’m glad I can talk to you, Dad. I just can’t say anything to her anymore without it coming out like fire or something.”

“What is it?--”

“It’s the way she broadcasts all that stuff--all that stuff that belongs to us. It’s like she’s on a mission or something. She thinks everybody’s got to hear how she’s strong enough to handle the grief. It makes me sick.” She pulled at the buttons in the vinyl top of the piano bench. “It’s just that I got a right to my dark side, don’t I?” She twisted herself toward him, but didn’t face him. “Besides, it’s over. It’s all two years ago already now.” She tapped an even cadence with her fingers. “So where is she tonight?--some church somewhere?--some PTA? ’Feature speaker, Angeline Fields will talk about dealing with grief--please bring plenty of Kleenex. She’ll be discussing every detail of her dear, sweet daughter’s death.’”

How could he tell her that it made him nervous to think about her up front of some church group telling it all--all the last things: how they lined up patients for Lisa’s organs--retinas, bone marrow, kidneys, everything shopped out like rummage? How could he say he knew exactly what she was feeling? There were things he didn’t need to hear replayed again and again and again.

“I’m sorry,” Karin said.

He remembered how he’d left some enrollment data at the office, something he planned on looking at over the weekend. He thought about leaving to pick it up, about the track meet going on at the athletic field and how he used to attend those things, every single function at school.

“Next thing you know she’ll be writing a book,” Karin said, “and there we’ll be--both of us--in her television show.”

“Look at the dozens she’s helped,” he told her.

“I’m sick of hearing that,” she said. “It’s a trade-off--Lisa’s life and death and our grief and our own feelings--all of it swapped for ’the dozens she’s helped.’ I keep losing on that one.”

Out the front window he watched the branches of the big maples sway like long stalks when the wind caught in the thick buds just ready to leaf.

“Lisa’s death is the best thing that’s ever happened to Mom, isn’t it?--it’s made her a celebrity.”

He shrugged his shoulders, waiting for his daughter’s tears.

“Tell me I’m wrong, Dad,” she said, standing. “I really want you to tell me I’m wrong.”

She didn’t cry.

___________________ 
To be continued. 

Thursday, May 04, 2017

Learning to Speak -- a story (iii)



The sound of the wind through the storm windows reminded him of his inability to fix anything. After five years of graduate school and twenty years administrating in three school systems, he couldn’t stop a window from chattering in a stiff breeze. Karin didn’t stop playing because she never heard the wind rise; it was as much a part of her environment as the rumbling of the trains that ran no more than a half mile west of the house. He heard the shrieking because he was trying to read an article on evaluation of instruction in a journal he read to stay on top of things. Maybe the wind made it a good night to be home, he thought.

“Karin, you’re home because you knew she was going to be gone, aren’t you?” he said. “That’s really why, isn’t it?”

She put both hands down beside her on the bench and stared up at the family tree hung above the piano. “I know it’s good--what she does. I know it is. Shoot, people say it all the time: ’Boy, Karin, your mom sure had me crying.’” She laid her hands on her thighs. “I know it’s so helpful, but I don’t always like it.”

“She’s your mom,” he said.

She took the hymnal from the rack with both hands and closed it reverently. “Some facts go right through me, in one ear and out the other.”

“You don’t like her talking about it, do you?” he said.

Karin turned towards him on the bench, the hymnal still there in her hand. “I’m glad I can talk to you, Dad. I just can’t say anything to her anymore without it coming out like fire or something.”

“What is it?--”

“It’s the way she broadcasts all that stuff--all that stuff that belongs to us. It’s like she’s on a mission or something. She thinks everybody’s got to hear how she’s strong enough to handle the grief. It makes me sick.” She pulled at the buttons in the vinyl top of the piano bench. “It’s just that I got a right to my dark side, don’t I?” She twisted herself toward him, but didn’t face him. “Besides, it’s over. It’s all two years ago already now.” She tapped an even cadence with her fingers. “So where is she tonight?--some church somewhere?--some PTA? ’Feature speaker, Angeline Fields will talk about dealing with grief--please bring plenty of Kleenex. She’ll be discussing every detail of her dear, sweet daughter’s death.’”

How could he tell her that it made him nervous to think about her up front of some church group telling it all--all the last things: how they lined up patients for Lisa’s organs--retinas, bone marrow, kidneys, everything shopped out like rummage? How could he say he knew exactly what she was feeling? There were things he didn’t need to hear replayed again and again and again.

“I’m sorry,” Karin said.

He remembered how he’d left some enrollment data at the office, something he planned on looking at over the weekend. He thought about leaving to pick it up, about the track meet going on at the athletic field and how he used to attend those things, every single function at school.

“Next thing you know she’ll be writing a book,” Karin said, “and there we’ll be--both of us--in her television show.”

“Look at the dozens she’s helped,” he told her.

“I’m sick of hearing that,” she said. “It’s a trade-off--Lisa’s life and death and our grief and our own feelings--all of it swapped for ’the dozens she’s helped.’ I keep losing on that one.”

Out the front window he watched the branches of the big maples sway like long stalks when the wind caught in the thick buds just ready to leaf.

“Lisa’s death is the best thing that’s ever happened to Mom, isn’t it?--it’s made her a celebrity.”

He shrugged his shoulders, waiting for his daughter’s tears.

“Tell me I’m wrong, Dad,” she said, standing. “I really want you to tell me I’m wrong.”

She didn’t cry.

--------------------------
Tomorrow: The storm outside is building.

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Learning to Speak -- a story (ii)



Karin's continuing sarcasm tests her father. 


~   *   ~   *   ~   *   ~

“So where is Mom speaking tonight anyway?” Karin said.

His hands hugged the cup. “Those clouds put the fear of the Lord in me, you know that, honey?” He knew she was still looking outside, like her mother would have.

“We got alarms at school. It’s tornado awareness week, you know?--you know that, don’t you?” She turned the plug on the drain stopper and shook the water from her hands into the sink. “You run the school. You’re supposed to know things like that.”

She liked being aggressive with him, and it was at least partially due to her age, he knew. He’d seen enough high school kids in twenty years of education to know the earmarks: a kind of eternal brooding that often hatched razor-sharp sarcastic outbursts--as it often did when she was alone with him--or defiant silence--as it usually did when her mother was around.

Part of Karin’s way was nothing more than the cancer of adolescence. That was part of it, all right. After all, he thought, it had been two long years already since Lisa was gone.

“We ought to have devotions,” he said, as lightly as he could. “I just plain forgot about it--”

“That’s because Mom’s gone again. We never do when she’s gone.”

He allowed her that one too, letting her speak. “When I was a kid we read the Bible three times a day--after every meal.” Once he had said it, the grandfatherly condescension in his voice embarrassed him, like the old lines about walking eight miles in ten foot snowdrifts just to get to school. “You pray later on by yourself, will you? It’ll help my conscience along.”

There weren’t many dishes because it hadn’t been that much of a supper, something of a bachelor’s delight--ham and cheese and a pickle. Karin ate a hot dog he had stuck in the microwave. There was a couple of potato chips apiece and some cole slaw that Angie had thrown together when she knew she would be out speaking again.

“You ever hear the story of the chicken that went up in a tornado and came down fully plucked?” he said.

“Sounds like a cartoon,” she said.

“True story.”

Karin looked at him and smiled as if he were spinning a tall one. “They ought to have that chicken in a museum--have him stuffed so everybody would know it really happened.”

“Doubting Thomas,” he said. Sometimes he felt that if he said things just right he could get through all the tough stuff and find real softness underneath somewhere.

When Karin was little she loved the piano; by the time she got into junior high, she hated it. Now, it wasn’t much more than habit that kept her practicing. He had taken lessons himself when he was a boy, because it was the aim of every mother in town to have a son who could play the church organ. Once he’d even done well at some recital in a college classroom, but just about then puberty set in and the piano lost. He and Angie never had a son, but he figured it was much easier to keep girls on the bench anyway. Karin had played the church organ for a year already. It made Angie very proud, because Lisa, their oldest daughter, was just as good a pianist before she was killed. Angie liked seeing Karin up there in front, her legs swaying over the pedals, like Lisa’s had.

“How come somebody pretty as you doesn’t have a date?” he asked her. She was paging through the hymnal, then playing whatever came up in front of her.

“I try to keep my weekends free to be with mom and dad,” she said. “Something I picked up in Marriage and Family class--just my way of keeping the family together.”

“How very thoughtful of you,” he said, with something of her own medicine.

Karin was a beautiful girl, but nothing at all like Lisa. Her hair was straight and blonde, like his own, and her eyes were pale, almost colorless. Lisa was dark and slightly chunky, not pretty really, but full of spunk that kept the boys around, as many as she wanted. Lisa was her mother’s girl, from her high instep and her stubby toes to her hard teeth. Always joyous and talkative, she was a cheerleader from the time she was in seventh grade.

Karin was his daughter, an excellent student who took very little pride in her work, even though what she accomplished was noteworthy. For her, doing schoolwork was a matter of accepting one’s personal responsibility; getting good grades was simply expected. Her deepest emotion showed only in her silence. She was like a farm girl that way, tight and stern, all the zeal of old Presbyterian.

Lisa was tops in school too, but she had a thousand interests other than homework. Now, two years after her death, he remembered her verve fondly; then, her behavior had often been a headache. He once told the school psychologist, jokingly, that it would be good for Karin to get rip-roaring drunk sometime. It would loosen her up, he said, even if it was something a father shouldn’t see--or even say, for that matter. Lisa had always needed someone to put on the brakes. In the last few months, he often wanted to kick Karin out of the house.

“Don’t play that one again,” he told her. “It reminds me of the Titanic--”

“Of what?” She stopped in the middle of a line.

“The Titanic. Years ago I saw a movie about the Titanic. When it was going down, all those still on board sang ’Nearer, My God to Thee.’” He raised his forearm like the prow of a ship and let it slip down slowly. “I hear that song and I remember the movie.”

“It ought to be an inspiration,” she said.

If he wasn’t sure she loved him, her sharpness would have angered him. Her mother hated it when Karin talked that way to him; Angie called it disrespect.
______________ 
To be continued. 

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Learning To Speak -- a story (i)


Two children. Not long ago, one of them was killed. 

This is a story about grief and children. Once upon a time I had a student in class who, that semester, lost a sibling. His mother made her tormenting grief very public, and I couldn't help thinking about what kind of reaction--several months down the line--her voluble grief had on him, the survivor. 

"Learning the Speak" is a story about the survivor--the survivors, I guess I should say. It's set here, with local history, and features a high school administrator. 

"Learning to Speak" has always been one of my favorite stories. 

~   *   ~   *   ~

“It’s a funny thing that I never heard about all those people being killed,” Vernon said. He was reading the newspaper while his daughter picked up the sandwich plates and stacked the tumblers according to the arrangement: whenever her mother was out somewhere, one of them made supper and the other cleaned up the dishes. 

“Twenty-five people killed right in this county in 1895, and I never heard a word about it. You read this, Karin?”

“It’s not funny,” she said.

“I don’t mean it’s funny--I mean it’s odd. I was born right here in Sioux County.” He flopped the paper in half and put a finger in the crease. “Somewhere along the line I should have heard the story. I don’t care how long ago it happened.” Karin pulled a dish towel from beneath the sink and flipped it over her shoulder. “Things just get forgotten eventually. That’s the way it should be. Finally they just get buried.”

Karin enjoyed stopping conversation like that, he thought, but he let it pass. “You’d think there’d be a monument around here somewhere. Something. My goodness--twenty-five people.” He put down the paper and blew on his coffee.

“You were never in a tornado, were you?” she said.

From behind, he saw her shoulders tighten when she scrubbed the frying pan Angie had left unwashed after breakfast. “I’ve seen what kind of damage they’ve done,” he said. “I’ve been around within hours--”

“I mean really in one?” She straightened her shoulders and stood still, her back to him.

“Not really in one,” he said, “not like Dorothy and Toto--”

“I’d like to see one once.” She was staring out at the horizon, looking out the window over the sink.

They had bought the house for the window to the west, because Angie had said she had to have a view when she washed dishes. She liked the finished basement and the cedar-lined closet in the extra bedroom, but it was the big window above the sink that had sold her, the window and the view of the prairie stretching westward to the sunset.

“I think it would be neat to have one blow the roof right off our house,” Karin said. “They do that.”

“Oh, really?”

“And I’d like mother to be gone. I’d like our whole roof picked right up and flung out into the street.” She kept her hands beneath her in the dishwater. “Turn the whole place into a doll’s house. No roof. And then mother comes home and finds us there--you and me--kicking through all the junk.”

Vernon dropped the paper on the unwiped table and stood. “Anybody ever tell you you’ve got strange dreams?” he said. He walked to the dining room window and looked west over the back yard, where Karin was staring. A roll of thunderheads, thick as mushroom clouds standing shoulder to shoulder, rose from the horizon. Big birds, hawks probably, hung in the air, facing the stiff east wind like kites. “Keep your hat on Missie,” he said. “It’s that time of year, all right.”

“I’m only kidding,” she said. “You know I’m kidding, Dad.”

Karin was little when they bought the house, little enough to fit in the bathroom sink. Somewhere he had a picture of that, her fat little body, perfectly right-angled, legs flat-out in front of her, tucked in the bathroom sink. Lisa was older, maybe three or four years old. Lisa had been the oldest, sixteen when she’d been killed. Sweet sixteen is the way he always thought about it. That was two years ago already, he remembered, two years that had just blown by. Karin was fourteen when it happened--just old enough to understand it all too well, it seemed. Her only sister’s death had aged Karin; there was no doubt about that. Even her teachers had said that part of Karin’s problem was lack of friends. “She’s just so mature,” her English teacher had told him once in the teacher’s lounge, as if it were, for her father, a fact to be proud of.
________________________ 

To be continued.

Monday, May 01, 2017

Worship


Two Tai Dam men, both of whom immigrated as refugees after the Vietnam War, are shopping in a grocery store. Seriously—this happened. Both have a cart out front, and they’re looking for whatever—think Wheaties of something.

They look up at each other. It’s not extraordinary to run other Tai Dam people in Sioux City, Iowa, because meat packers employ hundreds of southeast Asian refugees. But these guys can’t help but take a second look because they can’t help feeling they know each other somehow.

They do. And when they’re close, they admit as much, both of them. They're shocked.

The thing is, in Laos they weren’t friends. Both made a good living on the black market, dealing in the goods left behind or stolen from the American military. At that game, they were rivals, competition; and in war-torn southeast Asia, people who played on the black market for high stakes the way they did weren’t messing around. These guys were both warlords.

I knew that because I’d interviewed both of them, at length, with a translator because both had to come to accept the Christian faith others had been touting, and I was doing a book about local refugees who'd been somehow, often miraculously, steered into believing in Jesus.

And I’d asked tough questions, asked them to explain exactly what they done in Laos, in the same way any of us might ask someone else a similar question, “So, back home, what did you do?”

That question brought me into the neighborhood of violence in a land desolated by war. What they did wasn’t pretty—that much I knew. Don’t get me wrong—these guys weren’t bragging about their sin as some testimonies can. That guilt was a new thing may have been most harrowing. Whatever violence they’d done was simply what each of them did to survive.

Both had become believers, and then leaders in church. Once they were warlords, in bloody competition with each other, not friends at all. But there they stood one day, grocery carts out front of them, meeting each other in peace thousands of miles away in Sioux City, Iowa, U. S. of A.

The one who told me that story still shook his head to tell it. Once upon a time, they might have killed each other; now they were brothers in Christ.

I may well have been the only person in church that Sunday who knew all of that because I think I’m the only person who spent hours with both of them, who pushed and pushed until I found out what I thought I needed to tell their stories as best I could.

But that Sunday worship, there they were, in front, directed by the pastor to separate aisles of the church, where they handed out first, the bread, and then, the wine. Take, eat, remember.

I don’t know that in my life I ever experienced a more astounding sacrament because I knew I was being offered His body and blood by men who once upon a time committed, only the Lord knows how many, capital crimes.

I couldn’t help thinking right then, how five hundred others in church that Sunday might be just as blessed if they knew too what an incredible miracle of grace was happening because another even more incredible miracle of grace already had: God almighty laid claim on his own, a pair of Tai Dam black marketeers. 

Just yesterday I read a meditation by a young preacher who said he was saddened and shocked when he read the comments on an article written by a Calvin prof who talked about the college's Prison Initiative. Some weren't taken. Some thought it awful that Calvin threw away good money on rapists and murderers.

I didn’t see the trash, but social media trolls can turn landfills into mountains.

But I couldn’t help think of that Sunday afternoon worship years ago, a combined service, when two black marketeers who’d met in a grocery store and learned to love each other as brothers and gave me, just as much a sinner, the body and blood. That Sunday, I listened to the Lord’s command to take and eat and drink a supper served up by a couple of redeemed thugs.

Still ranks as one of the most incredible experiences of my life.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Sunday Morning Meds--Glory


“May the glory of the LORD endure forever; 
may the LORD rejoice in his works.”
Psalm 104:31

On some balmy early fall days out here it’s not hard to believe that we are not where we are.  Warm southern breezes sweep all the way up from the Gulf, the sun smiles with a gentleness not seen since June, and the spacious sky reigns over everything in azure glory.

On exactly that kind of fall morning, I used to bring my writing classes to what I call a ghost town, Highland, Iowa, a place whose remnants still exist, eight miles west and two south of town, a village that was, but is no more.  Highland likely fell victim to the sad reality that far more people lived out here when the land was cut into 160-acre chunks than do now, when the portions are ten times bigger.

What’s left of the place is a stand of pines circled up around no more than twenty gravestones, and an old carved sign with hand-drawn figures detailing what was once a post-office address for some people—a Main Street composed of a couple of churches and horse barns, a blacksmith shop, and little else.  The town of Highland, Iowa, once sat atop the confluence of a pair of non-descript gravel roads that still float out in four distinct directions like dusky ribbons over the undulating prairie.

I bring students to Highland because what’s not there never fails to silence them.  Maybe it’s the skeletal cemetery; maybe it’s the south wind’s low moan through that stand of pines, a sound you don’t hear often on the treeless Plains; maybe it’s some variant of culture shock—they stumble sleepily out of their cubicle dorm rooms and wake up suddenly in sprawling prairie spaciousness.

I’m lying.  I know why they fall into psychic astonishment.  It’s the sheer immensity of the open land that unfurls before them, the horizon only seemingly there where earth seams effortlessly into sky, the rolling land.  They open their eyes and there’s nothing here, and that’s what stuns them into silence. 

Sixteen years ago, on a morning none of them will ever forget, we stood and sat in the ditches along those gravel roads, describing what we saw.   No cars went by.  We were absolutely alone—20 of us, all alone on a swell of prairie.

That’s where I was—and that’s where they were—on September 11, 2001.  My class and I left for Highland at just about the moment the first World Trade Center tower was attacked.  While the world watched in horror, my students and I looked over a landscape so immense only God could live there—and were silent before him.

No one can stay on a retreat forever, of course, so when we returned to the college we heard the news.  Who didn’t?  All over campus, TVs blared.

But I like to think that my students, that morning, were best prepared for horror, not by our having been warned, but by our having been awed.

Every year it was a joy to sit out there and try to describe the character of the seemingly eternal prairie, but that year our being there on September 11, I’m convinced, was a great blessing.

And that’s what the psalmist feels on the heels of the panoramic vision of Psalm 104—perfectly stunning awe for a God whose might will withstand the horrors of our warfare, the treachery of our deceit, and whose creation brings praise even when our voices are hushed.  May his glory endure forever.   

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Saturday morning catch--at the crack of dawn


"The crack of dawn," it's usually referenced by sweat-of-the-brow work, as in "meet me at the crack of dawn." But I'm retired, so to me it means something else altogether. Witness this morning.

The cloud cover that's been with us, a quilt, throughout the day today was ranging quickly toward the eastern horizon when I looked out my window. I had to scurry, for this particular "crack of dawn" wasn't about to tarry. 

So this morning "crack of dawn" was itself actually what we might call a window that closed rapidly, soon after this shot. But before this retired guy's "crack of dawn," that incredible anticipatory morning light was sheer epic.


Nothing builds drama like contrast, so this morning, cloud cover on the way, we had it in spades, stunning spades.


The Floyd was happy to catch what there was, I'm sure, at least I'd call this something of a smile, if rivers can. Maybe the show was more intense because so fleeting--you know, "make hay while the sun shines." If that doesn't work, try your own little maxim. There are dozens, I'm sure.


Sadly, the show was over in ten minutes, maybe less. But if you were there at the time, like me and my camera, you got yourself a blessing. For years I've called this painted desert aloft something akin to "heavenly preaching," taking my cue from King David's "the heavens declare." There are times--and they are fleeting--when the sermon in the skies isn't just words, it's pure revelation.