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.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Cleaning up the Mess--a story (iii)



“She said it was something about you cleaning up Norma’s mess, Mae–you cleaning up your sister’s house without asking, and ever since that you two sisters–in the blood, too, not only in Christ–real, honest-to-God sisters–haven’t even spoken to each other,” he says. “Now I’m trying to figure out how the two of you do devotions at night, knowing that you never talk–that’s what I’m trying to figure out. You tell me, how do you talk to God?”

That young preacher was about to become a lightning rod and I didn’t know if he was grounded yet. Carol shoves me an elbow. She scared witless.

“Norma,” the preacher said, “how can you pray?”

You just know it–his pulse is racing because it irritates him, talking to a couple of store manikins. And then he says the one that broke the dike, something I’m thinking he shouldn’t have said.

“Mae,” he says, “I can’t believe the Lord listens to your prayers.”

That was enough to unstop Norma’s tongue. “What do you know?” she says. That was the first line either of them spoke. “What do you know about my sister and her prayers?” she says. “What do you know about what she’s suffered already in life–losing a husband and a boy? What do you know about her? What do you know about what she asks of the Lord, and what do you think you know about Him listening or not?”

“I know your sin sits between you and the throne like some black cloud,” he says, and Carol’s got a hold of my arm, tugging. He sounded steamed. He really did. He sounded wound up tight. “I know you used foul language in that house,” he said. “I know you said words that would have made your mother’s blood curdle.”

“Don’t bring Mother into this,” Mae says finally. “You didn’t know her.”

“I’d like to tell her the words you screamed at your sister,” the pastor said to Norma. “I’d like to run them past her to see if she approved.”

“How dare you?” Mae says. “How dare you talk like that to my sister?” And then, “Let’s get out of here, Norma,” Mae says, the quiet one, and just like that we hear the chairs moan when the two of them–neither of them lightweights–get to their feet.

“Get in there,” Carol says, and I figure this time she’s right. If the two of them had stormed out of that study, I don’t know that we’d have seen them again for a half dozen years–either that or they’d have taken the preacher’s hide right there in the mess in his study.

“Go on,” Carol said, so all six of us took off through the Sunday School room door and chugged up the hallway like the Light Brigade, then broke in the study.

I wasn’t thinking about what I was going to say, so the first thing that jumped into my mind is what you always say, I guess. “Surprise,” I said, and so did everybody else, as if it was a birthday, and maybe it was.

Mae and Norma were standing at the door, mouths gaping, eyes full moons, Norma with her hand stuck in Mae’s elbow, both of them flat out flabbergasted by the sudden appearance of all the angels, all their friends.

Maybe ten seconds of sheer silence passed, and finally my Carol says, “We love you.”
For the life of me, I don’t know where she pulled that from, but then all of us started into it like a chorus, catching like a yawn–one starts and it gets to be a thing. It’s Fanny with “we love you,” and then Ann and Marlys and Eunice–women first; and then Rolly says it and Fritz and me too. Even the men spouting off about love.

Norma and Mae just stand there blinking, then Norma looks down and sees her hand in the crook of her sister’s elbow, and they turn to each other where they see mirror images of their own stunned faces. Norma pulls her hand out and puts it on Mae’s shoulder, then lets it creep around her neck, and Mae turns a face a little so she can put her cheek on her sister’s shoulder, and they hug. And that was it. Three years of silence over.

But what’s three years anyway, we figured. Jacob worked seven for Leah then got snookered and started the whole deal over.

Anyway, I turned and looked at that peach-faced preacher, barely old enough to drive. He didn’t look mad one bit. Hadn’t even stood up from the chair, was sitting there with his hands out in front of him, folded, a wiry smile across his face, wily as a fox. Nodding. That’s what he was doing–nodding.

I said to Carol later on, after the cake and things–I said to Carol, “I think the guy is going to make somebody a good preacher someday.”

“As long as we do our part,” she said.

By the time we left, you can bet all those books were on his shelves.
___________________


Friday, August 18, 2017

Cleaning Up the Mess--a story (ii)



The preacher, a new one at that, tries to get to the bottom of an old mess, two sisters who won't speak to each other and haven't for years. 
________________________

Of course, it wasn’t just the cleaning that got Norma heated; it was what she read as Mae’s self-righteousness, a affliction she claims she’s lived with for 70 years. Her mouth was stiff from the dentist, but she managed to say some viscous things in language best left for sorting hogs. 

Three years of silence have followed. Church comes and goes every week, and there’s funerals–we got more than our share–so there’s always coffee and cake served afterwards by the two of them and others. And there’s this and there’s that, not to mention three years of Eunice Society, the two of them never missing a meeting but never speaking to each other either, sitting on opposite sides of the circle of folding chairs. It’s just something you just get used to, like hail.

Except for Pastor Terry, who thinks he’s Nelson Mandela. And right then he’s got Norma at the door, and the fireworks are about to start.

Listen, our church was constructed long before anyone here remembers, and it’s inside walls are thin as Ritz crackers. So once we know Norma’s coming, all of us wander shamelessly to the 3rd grade Sunday School room which shares a wall with the study.

This is how it went, or something like. Carol says to get it right.

Pastor Terry hears the knock on the door and gets up. We’re sure Mae doesn’t turn around because it’s none of her business who’s there, and besides what if it’s Lola Harmsen, whose husband’s catting around again. She doesn’t want to know every last person to come to the preacher’s office for spiritual help.

“Norma,” Pastor Terry says, “how nice to see you. Come in.”

Now we didn’t see a thing, of course, but we couldn’t miss the silence. Right then the temperature in that room dropped to zero. We figure the preacher was on his feet, standing right between them, when he turned back toward Mae. “I thought it might be nice to get the two of you–sisters–in for a chat,” he says. But both of them know what’s being staged here because neither would have come if the preacher had whispered a word about the other being there. You can cut the air with the knife, let me tell you.

“Who’s older?”

What a stupid question. There’s this long pause. Nobody says a thing.

“So how you feeling, Mrs. Meerdink?” the preacher says, but his is the only voice.

My wife looks at me as if I ought to do something.

“You must be feeling better,” the preacher says, but still nobody says a word. Frost was starting to form on the wall. We were there.

“I wanted to talk to both of you,” he says. “What I’m wondering is what you’d consider Jesus would think of your not talking to each other?”

He shouldn’t have said that. You shouldn’t talk down to those old birds. We’re thinking Mae is likely to walk out, Norma let fly with some language better left out back.

“I wonder whether Jesus is proud of the witness you offer to the world with your anger,” Pastor Terry says.

Not a word.

“I heard it’s about cleaning,” he says. “I heard it’s something about cleaning up somebody’s else’s house–do I have that right, Mae?” he says.

You can be sure the two of them didn’t look at each other. They’re good at that–three years of practice. But you can be just as sure they weren’t looking down either–way too proud. My guess is they’re staring at the preacher like a couple of mad, barnyard cats.

“You may remember when Nathan came to David,” Pastor Terry said, and right away I’m thinking this doesn’t have a thing to do with adultery and murder. “David didn’t even see his own sin,” the preacher said. “Can you see what you’re doing?”

Of course, there could be a murder.

“Listen to me,” he says, “we’ve got kids young as three wearing WWJD bracelets–‘What Would Jesus Do?’–you ever asked yourselves that?”

Nothing. Not a word.

“I’m not letting you go until one of you breaks,” he says, and right then Carol looks up at me and tips her head as if it’s time for us to go in there before something bad happened.

“We’re going to get this settled if it takes all day,” he said.

What’s one afternoon on a three-year investment?

“We’re going to get through this because we can’t have grudges in the family of God,” he says. “You think the Lord is happy with your anger?”

You can just see them, can’t you?–both of them staring right into the young man’s eyes.

“Can you talk at all?” he says. “Can you say anything?”

Dead quiet.

“What happens if one of you gets taken to the grave without having made up–what then?” he says. “What happens if one of you dies and the other is left choked up with guilt?–answer me that.”

Nobody says a thing.

“I don’t want that to happen, and you know why?” he says. “If one of you dies, I’m going to have to deal with the mess because the other is going to come in and bawl her eyes out because you never kissed and made up,” he tells them. “What’ more,” he says, “it’s childish. It’s downright childish.”

Now he’s on a roll. Thinks he’s Jeremiah.

“I couldn’t believe it when I heard it,” he says. “Marlys Fynaart told me–“

And we all stare at Marlys, who slaps herself on the forehead.

____________________________ 

Tomorrow: The confrontation ends. 

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Cleaning Up the Mess--a story (i)

The prototype of this story came to me from a student, who told me about two of her aunts who hadn't talked to each other for ten years. Couldn't believe it, so I tried to bring two similarly feuding sisters together in a story.
____________ 
Mae Laangebroek sat down in the pastor’s office, took one look at the half-filled book shelves, the cardboard boxes hither and yon, and a snowstorm of crumpled papers, then told the new preacher she’d rather die than move from the house she’s lived in for fifty years. “Not that Shellsburg doesn’t get under my skin,” she told him.

It’s a wonder she didn’t forgo the talking and pull a can of Lemon Pledge from that hefty purse. Pastor Terry has been here eight months and those books still aren’t on the shelves. Goes to show how many he really reads.

But Pastor Terry knew what he was getting into before he suckered Mae into his office. He’s green, but he had a plan none of the rest of us would have tried.

“It’s going to take death or the day of the Judgment for me to leave my place, I guess,” she told him, “and it isn’t because I love the house either–that place has more leaks than I do.”

“What is it then?” the young pastor asked her, stalling for time.

“There’s so much of my life I wouldn’t know what to do with. And besides,” she told him, “the mess itself would like to kill me.”

Messiness is at the heart of things here. Pastor Terry was out to clean up the messes in Shellsburg Church like some new sheriff, starting with Mae and her sister Norma. He’s young, but we only get rookies here because our job is to break in the seminarians for the big Michigan churches. We never know what we’re going to get when we call a man. It’s like gambling, I guess, but then the CRC doesn’t believe in gambling–except for farmers, but that’s another story.

Sorry for going on like I do. My wife says I can’t tell a decent story, but that never stopped me yet.

The story here is that Pastor Terry decided to work at the reconciliation–two sisters, both in his church, who haven’t talked to each other for three years. He asked a bunch of us to come to church early and hide out in the youth room because he’s going to get Mae to talk to her sister Norma because Norma’s sick and sisters not talking to each other is the kind of thing you can’t have in healthy Christian fellowship. He told us he wanted us there for the celebration–that’s how confident he was about winning this thing. Carol, my wife, says he thinks he’s Houdini. I told her he’s just a young man seeing visions, and how he’ll make somebody in Hudsonville a good undershepherd someday.

So it’s me and the wife, Rolly and Ann deGooyer, Fanny Vander Kooi, Marlys Fynaart, Fritz and Eunice Lems, Harriet Aalberts–all of us hiding out in the youth room as if this is a surprise party. Which it is. As in Pearl Harbor.

“So,” Mae says to the preacher, “what can I do for you?” except our young deceitful pastor has one eye peeled out the window for Norma, who he expects any minute. “I’m visiting all my parishoners,” he says, “and it’s your turn. Thought we’d just chat. Anything you’d like to talk about?”

That was a stupid question for Mae, who’s something akin to Gibralter. But then he’s not even married–what does he know about life?

“Your preaching is fine so far,” she says, and right about then is when the pastor spots Norma coming up the sidewalk. So did we–through another window.

But just one minute here. You should know that cleaning up is what brought all of this on three years ago. Norma was at the dentist and Mae went over to her place for tea, thinking the appointment was over at three like it would have been if it hadn’t been for the oldest boy of Rich Frens canceling. Dr. Bensema told Norma to stay put because he was going to do a little extra work as long as he had her jaw frozen.

Mae doesn’t say much, but she can hardly keep her hands to home when it comes to a mess. Like Mary and Martha, the two of them are. Norma got all the talking genes. She can go on forever at Bible studies. Take fifty years off her life and she’d be in seminary herself right now with all the changes in the church. Mae keeps a huge garden, where Norma has perennials some guy from town weeds–you get what I’m saying? They’re sisters and widows and they love each other all right, but love doesn’t mean you always get along just perfect.

I’m off the story again. So Mae was waiting for Norma, and everybody knows that she shouldn’t have done what she did, everybody except Mae, but telling her that is like talking to a silo. So that afternoon Mae cleaned Norma’s house–did dishes, picked up around, swept the floors, picked up eleventy-seven magazines and stacked them neat as church bulletins.

And still no Norma.

Word is, she looked around, then pulled out some cleanser, did the sinks, and got the fixtures to shine like new. You can’t blame her for looking outside because she was waiting for her sister, but what she saw instead between the screen and the inside window was pure sin–dust turned thick to dirt. So she lifted the window beside the dining room table, and started cleaning the inside sills. Word is, it was cold for April, too, but then you got to know Mae.

When Norma came home, she found her older sister in her own house, leaning over her dining room table to clean out her own sills, and it tripped some old hair-trigger wire.
_________________
Tomorrow: The genesis of the sisters' feud. 

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Morning Thanks--What won the day



Let's just think of what's happening all around us on a line graph. If we were to create an arc that somehow documents or illustrates the stress level of the American voting public since Donald Trump's surprising victory, the line would be almost consistently rising. Makes no difference if you're right or left, black or white, old or young, Republican or Democrat or Independent. The sides that exist today in this country and this culture are so are Grand Canyon-ed, it's scary.

There have always been conservatives and liberals, always been those who believe government is good and those who consider it malicious, but the distance between those basic views has only rarely felt so unbridgeable. We've become the Hatfields and the McCoys.

After yesterday's news conference, nothing's changed, even though for the first time since the Civil War a President of these United States made clear that to him some kind of moral equivalency exists between the actions of men and women who marched in torchlight, chanting Nazi slogans and racist chants, and those who came to protest against those beliefs. He called the people chanting "Jews will not replace us," good people, at least some of them. 

Some of us choose to differ. Some claim that "good people" would not have walked beneath a flag with a swastika or a flag of the Confederacy,  wouldn't have chanted things they did.

I don't know that we can recover from views Trump had suggested previously but now simply came right out and said yesterday at a news conference his handlers obviously wished over long before he walked off.  I don't know that many Republicans can sit still for them either.

This President seeks favor from only the 35% of the American public who will back him even if he guns down his enemies in the street. His malicious retorts yesterday to the CEOs who resigned from his council, as well as the totally unnecessary shot he took at Sen. John McCain were unseemly but characteristic, what keeps him popular with his base.

The temperature all around us is rising dangerously. No one knows where this will go. Don't figure on peace any time soon.

But pardon me for taking particular joy in one small bit of news in the storm, a new world record Trump will covet like none other. Last night, a few startling sentences became the most beloved tweet in Twitter history--liked somewhere close to three million times. Here it is, in its entirety.
No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion … People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love … For love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.
In case you missed it, those words belong to Nelson Mandela, the South African patriot who spent years in prison for fighting apartheid, then emerged with forgiveness in his heart to become both a national hero and President.

The man who tweeted those words is Barack Obama.

There's reason for morning thanks when the sentiment of those words becomes the most loved tweet of all time. At least on Twitter, what won the day is love. 

If you can't agree with that, there's nothing ahead but darkness.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The True Believer

Peter Tefft, Fargo, ND

My son is not welcome at our family gatherings I pray my prodigal son will renounce his hateful beliefs and return home. We do not, never have, and never will, accept his twisted worldview.”
So said a man named Pearce Tefft, Fargo, ND, when asked about this man, his son Peter, who was identified as one of the men who took part in the Charlottesville protests last weekend, one of those who gathered to insist on the rights of white people.

When the story first broke last night, I thought Dad's bitterness a bit over-the-top. I mean, we're talking about his own child, his son. To tear the kid out of the family, just like that, seemed not only ill-tempered, rash, but wrong. The father in the biblical story let the prodigal son be, let him go, let him sleep with the swine. He never tossed the kid out.

And then I saw Peter Teeft in a local tv interview, and I couldn't help notice the shining eyes of a true believer, couldn't help hear a dozen memorized answers in the clever word-play he employed to disavow being a racist since his only goal is to advance the cause of the beleaguered white race.

The men and women who met in Charlottesville last weekend under "Unite the Right" banner were the only real Americans in the city, the ones doing nothing more than innocently exercising their right to free speech. The police, the National Guard, and of course those who opposed the march were the real enemy of the people, even communists, standing as they did in opposition to free speech. Nazis were the heroes, in case you missed it, the KKK the red-blooded American people. He smiled as he said it, not as if he's hiding anything but because he's that blessedly sure of his guiding light.

Charlottesville, he maintained, was only a beginning. What happened last weekend is going to fuel his cause--the defense of white people--because once the lawsuit is filed, it'll handle the fund-raising for years. That's why he claims Charlottesville is the beginning of brand new era in American civil rights, a time when white people make a stand for their cultural values, which is to say, I suppose, his cultural values.

The confidence in his rhetoric is scary, as is what he sees in his skinhead crystal ball. He glows when he describes what he sees. That shine in his eyes arises from a conviction that's so strong it obscures reason. He's a true believer, and, like all of them, he has moved well beyond doubt, even and most especially of himself and the ideas that ferment in his mind and imagination.

What distinguishes true believers that kind of undying confidence. The only thing they doubt is doubt itself. Really, if you want to see what happened to Germany with the rise of Hitler, all you need to do is look into the flaming eyes of Peter Teeft, who is, as we speak, planning yet another rally right there in Fargo. He expects hundreds to come out.

Last night I thought his father rash. This morning I don't think I'd want his son home either.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Where pride meets fear


If you can make out what's in the background here--hills and woods--you might not believe the old street scene could be right here in northwest Iowa, but it is. That's downtown Peterson, and Peterson's just down the road, Hwy 10, about an hour east. Peterson is much older than most Sioux County burgs, largely because it sits along the Little Sioux River, and, mid-1800s, the rivers were freeways. Besides, everyone needed water. Thus, Peterson, circa 1918. 

Downtown Peterson doesn't look at all like this today, of course. For one thing, there aren't as many cars. The place just seems much smaller. Peterson may not be dying, but neither is it booming. Some of those stores are long gone, most are boarded up. It's been years since downtown was bustling, so long I'm not sure anyone who lives there remembers.

The picture itself is one hundred years old. . .well, 99 to be exact. It's an Armistice Day parade, a day of celebration because the war was over, the "war to end all wars," "the Great War." World War I was history, and the doughboys were coming home, at least those who hadn't died in France. What's in the old photograph is a victory parade. 

And it's led by the KKK. I wasn't surprised to see them here because I remembered reading long ago about the public face of the Ku Klux Klan in northwest Iowa, surprising as that may sound. What was surprising to me was the front-and-center role they played in a big victory parade. It's likely there was no Peterson Chamber of Commerce back then, no Lions Club or Kiwanis. I suppose the only social club for men was the KKK, who thought it only right to lead the celebration downtown, two by two. 

The elderly guy who showed me the picture has it up in a museum, his museum. I told him I couldn't imagine there were any African-Americans in Peterson, Iowa in 1918, and he agreed. "Oh," he said, "they found other people to hate--Catholics and immigrants."

The propensity to fear seems to be in us from the factory--our first utterance is a cry. There's hardly a time in life when we don't cower a bit in the face of something we see that's bigger than we are. Weather will do it out here on the edge of the plains, a beastly sky on a hot summer afternoon, clouds arising out west in brutal fists. 

Change will do it too in small towns especially, change of all kinds, anything to disturb the liturgy we're accustomed to and comfortable with. We cower easily, most of us. And we get handsomely proud of what we've got, what we've built, what we are. Pride comes pretty easily too, strangely enough.

But I'd like to think that hate isn't standard equipment. It rises in darkened hearts, especially when fear and pride commingle. What the orderly march these hoods created demonstrates is a commitment to orthodoxy, to us, to things staying the way they are. What it says is, nothing is going to change without a fight around here. Take note!--we're here to hold back the heathens and keep things pure.

Today in Peterson, there's no one around to lead parades--but then there are no parades either. Today Peterson, Iowa, is a museum, open only by arrangement, and there is no Ku Klux Klan.

Wouldn't it be grand if hate would die its own slow death? 

Dream on. It doesn't. Not here, there, or anywhere. Hate still meets where it always has in the heart of man, at the intersection of pride and fear.

And that intersection is just off Main, never all that far away. 

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Sunday Morning Meds--Cut free


But the LORD is righteous; 
he has cut me free from the cords of the wicked." Psalm 129:4

On his way home from his job at the packing plant, Phet had to cross the Missouri River, then travel up the freeway toward his home in Morningside. Along the way, stood—well, floated—a huge and comely riverboat casino, the finest, fanciest gambling joint in the region. Sometimes—often, by his recounting—he’d stop and spend the rest of the day and night amid the smoky jangling slots. He wasn’t stressing his marriage; often as not, his wife was right there at his side.

Then he became a Christian, left the casino, lost his wife, and gained another. When I asked him what it meant to be a Christian, he answered by drawing out the dimensions of his new life. Although he was still working at the packing plant, he was living in a new house with a new wife, and he was going to church, had become a deacon. But mostly, to Phet, being a Christian meant he no longer stopped at the riverboat. He was done with all that, done with gambling.

Deacon Phet got himself enabled.

Sasumu Nashimoto, a petty thief from Yokohama, Japan, used to listen to Christian radio while doing all kinds of late-night petty theft. One night he was going after some stuff behind a factory when he started to think about the clear plastic that stretched over waste materials, the stuff he grabbed and sold elsewhere, putting the bucks in his own pockets. If that plastic were black, not clear, he thought, he could really turn a profit. But who could create a miracle like that, he thought, chuckling. With his truck radio playing a sermon, he kept mulling over the question—who turns black to white? who can create miracles? Why, only God can. It came to him as a revelation, he told me. Today, no longer a criminal, he’s a leader in his faith community.

Elder Nashimoto got himself enabled too.

Walker Percy’s genealogy of distinguished ancestors still overflows with grim sadness--Civil War heroes, Mississippi statesmen, and two unforgettable suicides. Both his father and his grandfather ended their lives with a shotgun. Two years after his father’s death, Percy’s mother was killed in an automobile accident. For a profession, Walker Percy, a medical doctor, chose to be a pathologist, someone whose daily work meant working over corpses. But early on in his profession, he contacted tuberculosis, spent some years at a sanitarium, read Kierkegaard and Dostoyevsky, among others, then converted to Christianity in 1947.

Walker Percy was enabled also.

I don’t know everything there is to know about Walker Percy; but I believe I can guess, given the outline of his life and the themes of his novels, how Percy too might think about this line from Psalm 129, because he must have felt himself, in his own way, enabled.

A cloud of witnesses all around profess their faith through a spacious library of stories, none of them exactly the same except in divine trajectory. What astonishes me is the sheer breadth of the experience of the Christian faith; there’s a million stories because the faith itself is immensely spacious, even though all of those stories end in redemption.

There is so much elbow room in how it is we come to faith, space enough for all our stories. Nobody’s stripes are exactly the same, but somehow we all get healed—we all are enabled, we all get cut free from the cords of the wicked.

We read the same words here, but we piece together that meaning with an unending list of experiences, each of which recount just exactly how it was that we too found ourselves so cut free, so divinely enabled.

Friday, August 11, 2017

My roundhead past

St. Francis, Rosebud Reservation

News from this week's Christian Century:

Iglesia Ni Christo, a fast-growing church based in the Philippines, has agreed to buy an abandoned village in rural Connecticut that has been vacant for months, even though the town has problems with its septic system and deteriorating buildings. It is also rumored to have been haunted. The town Johnsonville, was home to twine mills in the 19th century. Iglesia Ni Cristo, founded in 1914, is a Roman Catholic-inspired sect that rejects the ritualism of Catholicism.  It has millions of members in the Philippines and over 7000 congregations worldwide, including three in Connecticut. 
Adherents of the Shinchonji Church in South Korea view themselves as the one true church. Other Christians label it a cult. It is accused of breaking up families and being secretive and manipulative. Founded in 1984, Shinchonji has 200,000 members in South Korea and thousands of followers in over 20 other countries. Lee Man-hee its founder and leader, considers himself the "promised pastor" (advocate) from the New Testament and a peacemaker who has a plan for ending global warfare. The church's name is based on the Korean translation of "new heaven and earth" in he book of Revelation.
I don't remember which old Dutch cathedral we might have been in when I thought of it. We've visited several, loved them all. It might well have been Westerkerk, whose bells Anne Frank could hear from "the annex" where her family hid during the war. Or maybe it was Pieterskerk, Leiden, where Rev. John Robinson is buried, a man so loved by the Pilgrims of Mayflower fame even though he never made it to Plymouth.

What I remember was being struck for the first time with the mindset of my own Calvinist past, those old roundheads, hundreds of years ago, who angrily rejected so much of what I thought, standing there at that moment, was perfectly gorgeous, the spectacular accouterments of those ancient cathedrals, elaborately dressed up, floor to ceiling, amid flying buttresses and ornate towers, the sheer spectacle of those spaces and places. I loved 'em. Would visit today if I were anywhere close.

But I also understood that one person's grand visions can be another's monster. For just a moment, I remember understanding the Calvinists' deep desire to "purify" the spectacle before me, to get back to something personal and vital, something not so overwrought, something real. Long before, I'd come to understand the saints, the St. Christophers of the dashboard. Long ago, I told myself that Catholics were right--nobody prayed to the marble statues, but only through them to God.

No matter. I was in one of those immense European cathedrals when I felt a brace of real sympathy for all those ardent souls with round heads who scraped artistry from cathedral walls and beheaded statues with the soul purpose of purifying the church. I understood.

Just last week on the Rosebud Reservation, in the little purple church at the St. Francis Mission, I couldn't help but feel a shot of the same impulse. I loved the church, had been there before, often, in fact. The gorgeous Native colors of its Lakota designs create a beauty in the sanctuary that's unique and wonderful, as close to divine as humanly possible. I could bring all the world to that old church. It's stunning, and it leaves foreigners (white folks especially) speechless.

Of course, I'm not so stout a Calvinist to want to change the place, to whitewash those walls or paint over what must have taken a decade to finish. But that I love St. Francis church doesn't mean that a portion of my heart and soul doesn't remain thoroughly and convincingly Calvinist. To wit, it doesn't mean that I don't prefer my worship simple.

Most of the world knows that, come October, millions will remember the Reformation, 500 years old, thought to have been born the day Martin Luther, a brilliant and stubborn young priest, nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church at Wittenburg, Germany. Some will celebrate; and others will mourn because the Reformation changed everything, really. What it didn't leave in the dust, it left altered like nothing that came before. 

Lots of scholars suppose that what Islam never had and should have is its own Reformation. Times change, after all. My great-grandfather, the eminent theology professor, saw a different world in 1885 than I do, or my daughter does, or her sons will; and it's just as likely they saw a different God, too, a God who may not be any different, but who generations of believers view differently, minds and hearts and eyes modified by time and place and circumstance. 

In a very vivid way, the Protestant Reformation cleaned us up but good. It grew from an impulse that insisted no other person or institution, nothing material at least, stood between the believer and God. Too violently perhaps, the Reformation determined neither the church nor its saints were intercessors, that people didn't have to stand in awe before what was, no matter how gorgeous and inspiring, just another human institution. 

But the Reformation also fractured us, created a thousand sects when just about every Tom, Dick, and Harry determined his or her revelation closer to eternal truth than yours and mine and every other Tom, Dick, and Harry. It created endless squabbles, and more visions and versions of spiritual truth than you could fit on a flash drive. Worldwide, it created--and still creates--what's way up there at the top of the page.

Let's be perfectly clear: the Protestant Reformation, 500 years old, is an event worth celebrating.  But it wouldn't hurt to keep your voice down, to hold back the enthusiasm, to be somewhat hushed. Nobody's still got it all right.

The Lord still is in his holy temple. Let all the earth keep silence before him. 


Thursday, August 10, 2017

Band of Brothers


The Brits, some of them at least, were peeved, not simply because of the price Dreamworks set for British broadcast of Band of Brothers, but because HBO's 10-part series followed the war experience of a single company of GIs as they traveled the bloody road to Germany. By featuring a single company, the Brits whined, HBO suggested that Yanks had single-handedly won the war.

As our President would say, "Sad."

Band of Brothers is story-telling at its finest--relentless in its pursuit of authenticity, determined to give honored dues to every human emotion, every bit of what Easy Company was and what we are, even as we witness the wearying experience of war from the ease of our armchairs. It is simply marvelous television, a war story so compelling that I couldn't look away long enough to remind myself that it wasn't unfolding in front of me, that it was staged and scripted, that it wasn't real.

The objecting Brits are wrong. Band of Brothers is not about who won the war, it's about who fought it. It's about the truly extraordinary heroism the Second World War drew from very ordinary people.

Years ago, near Arnhem, the Netherlands, we stopped at a World War II cemetery some travel agent suggested we take in. We showed up just as a bus full of British tourists appeared, old vets in dressed up in their uniforms, some in wheelchairs, most with walkers. They gathered just outside the rows of graves, then marched--or attempted to--up toward the tall, white monument at the far end. There, militarily, they paid their respects. It was immensely moving to be there right then, a stroke of luck or providence to happen along when the vets who remembered what they couldn't forget honored those who didn't return. The Brits suffered immensely during Operation Market Garden, where the goal was "a bridge too far."

But Band of Brothers' immense strength is that it doesn't tell everyone's story, doesn't use only a wide-angle lens. Band of Brothers stays with "Easy Company," the 101st Airborne's 506th Regiment, from their unique paratroop training, through the monstrously dangerous drop behind the Reich's massive defenses on D-day. It stays with the guys who fought their way into Germany, who walked blindly into a concentration camp, a human wasteland, then risked sporadic fighting all the way through to the Bavarian Alps, to Berchtesgarden, the place where so many Nazi officials had summer homes when finally the war ended. Band of Brothers is a Second World War drama that's only secondarily about the war; what it's really about it the hearts and souls of the men who fought it and their selfless, harrowing heroism.

When Easy Company was formed at Camp Toccoa, Georgia, it listed 140 men. Throughout the war, some 300 served under its insignia. At Normandy, the Battle of the Bulge, Operation Market Garden, and the company's push to the end, 49 had been killed in action. Band of Brothers doesn't skimp on the wrenching horror of seeingbuddies die. It doesn't glorify war, not in the least; but it does glorify those who fought it. None of them are armed with superhuman powers, but all of them heroes of the highest rank.

Easy Company has no women. Not one of the men is black or brown or red. They're all white males, and they're all heroes, even the ones who lose out to their own fear or leave so much of themselves on the battlefield that they simply can't go on. The red caps--"Make America Great Again"--mean to conjure this world.

I get that. In the time that we watched the ten-part series, I couldn't help thinking of my own father-in-law just behind those lines, an Iowa farm boy plucked out of cornfield and put down on European soil for an experience the likes of which he'd not see again. Just last week, in the throes the senility that's threatening him, he asked me, "Were you in Germany too?" What he knows and what he doesn't can't be known, but he does know is that he was, for sure and memorably, in Germany with his own "band of brothers."

But I know a woman who was there too in the medical tents just beyond the snowy Belgian forests at the Battle of the Bulge. I know a woman who, like so many others, heard "buzz bombs" overhead and waited in icy fear for them to hit, like everyone else, waited to die. I know a woman, a Lakota woman, who was cited by the French government for her work as an army nurse on the same roads to Germany.

And I know also know that, when she returned stateside after the war, when she took a job not all that far from her home on the Cheyenne River in a hospital in Rapid City, South Dakota, she was repulsed, sickened to read a sign in a window of store downtown said "No Indians."

Band of Brothers is all about the Second World War, a time and a series of places and the people who were there. But more importantly it's about heart and soul, and selflessness, about people giving more than they ever thought they could or would. Finally, it's about peace and what it requires of us.

I'm not someone drawn to war stories. There were moments when I turned the volume down because I couldn't stand to hear what Easy Company heard so much of. 

But I loved Band of Brothers.  

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Me and you and the Mormons


The news from Salt Lake City is not particularly comforting if you’re Mormon. One of the mighty has fallen, a saint from the inmost circle of the Latter-Day Saints. For the first time in thirty years, a man from the First Quorum of the Seventy was told to pack his bags. He was excommunicated.

When I was a boy, the word excommunication was used with fear and trembling. Only once did I sit through a reading of that form from the back of the Psalter; but I remember it well because the whole affair was difficult and therefore dramatic.

Once upon a time, many churches would assess their determination to remain on the paths of righteousness on the basis of their commitment to what we called “church discipline,” a function of the body of Christ recognized as one of the “keys of the kingdom” (Q and A 83 of the Heidelberg Catechism). People believed that if you didn’t exercise church discipline, you weren’t really the bride of Christ. And way out there at the far end of “church discipline” sat excommunication, a ritual no one joked about. It was a different time, a different age.

Except in Salt Lake City, where yesterday a man named James J. Hamula was excommunicated, even though he’d been a member the church’s most saintly circle since 2008 and had served as a missionary—full-time, and an elder, a stake leader.

Following accepted tradition, no reason was given, although church authorities did say it was not occasioned by apostasy or disillusionment. That leaves little but scandal, what size and shape will eventually out, I’m sure, as those things do. Simply, the council of discipline reported Hamula was no longer an officer and no longer a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Ladder-Day Saints. Nope. Out.

Seems brutal, doesn’t it? Seems medieval. To our eyes, the perfect is often the enemy of the good. And it is.

Four times in my life I’ve been proselytized, a Book of the Mormon placed concernedly in my hands. Thrice in museum visits: once, years ago, in Salt Lake City, at the Tabernacle, where my children—just kids then—went slack-jawed when someone tried to save their souls; a second time at Palmyra, New York, where Joseph Smith discovered the golden plates that held the Book itself; a third time just recently at a fine museum commemorating the Mormon Trail and the Winters Quarters, where hundreds of houses were built almost overnight for thousands of Mormons who would spend the winter of 1846 across the Missouri from named Omaha.

(By the way, it's okay to sing "Come, Come Ye Saints" at my funeral, even though it's deeply Mormon. It was penned on the Great Trek, not that far from here; and to hear the Mormon Tabernacle Choir's rendition makes me weep. Listen yourself sometime.)

The Mormons do museums with the same righteous diligence with which the keep the church—okay, maybe a bit over-the-top by my estimation, but there’s no accounting for taste. Each time, each place, I was handed a Book of the Mormon and beckoned to read it to discover its eternal truth. Each time, I told those decent docents that I already had one, thank you.

And I do, and it’s inscribed, a treasure really, a gift—read on.


It’s from two of my high school students—I liked them, they liked me. There were a lot of LDS kids at Greenway High School, Phoenix, Arizona, when I taught there. One of them, Carrie Smith, had conversion on her mind back in 1976, as most Mormons do (she was no relation that I know of to Joseph Smith, although the man had forty wives).

Sadly enough, her mission with me failed, even though I remember her darling personality, her thoughtful smarts, and her intense Mormon work ethic. A whole class of Carrie Smiths and I could have been teaching in northwest Iowa.

Via the wonders of social media, I stay in contact with Carrie Smith, who’s a grandmother herself these days and, amazingly, evangelical Christian. That's right, no longer Mormon. I didn’t ask why. She seems happy.

Yesterday, to her Facebook friends (which includes me), she sent out a note with a url linking to a Salt Lake City TV station, who had run a story titled thusly: “Losing their religion: Millennials, including Utahns, leaving church.” (The story’s in the title. No need for me to quote chapter and verse).

But that that news came from her, from an actual “jack” Mormon, as the fallen are often called, was somehow notable in my book, in my soul. I bear no grudge, no enmity for her confidence that, way back then, I wasn't among the elect. That she was the one sent out the url, just made me smile.

Why? I suppose it’s just another reminder of two basic truths basic. Good Lord, we all have sinned and stand in need of grace, every last one of us.


Somewhere along the line, in one way or another, all of us have been poor James Hamula.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Still cloudy hope we get more



Nothing says teamwork more clearly than the way she runs together what got done that day, almost eighty years ago in an trying environment sweet as cub one day, a she bear the next. Listen.
April 23 1/4" of rain all told frost and ice this morning sunshine and cloudy during the day up to 64 a breeze from many ways Dryed the clothes Ironed sewed work on garden fence and started to plow it called on the corn shellers to shell Thursday. 
If you didn't know better, you might think "the missus" did all of that herself, that she was, for some reason, alone on the farm, responsible for inside as well as outside work. I hope that's not true. I hope the two of them--husband and wife--set their backs to the grindstone together and set out to do what had to be done.
May 6 We washed and got the clothes dry the same day. cleaned the brooder house planted in the garden. Most cloudy with a south by a little east wind up to 68. 

May 8 Took the heating stove down put the cattle in the pasture, disced for corn washed the windows and put on the screens mended. Clear all day up to 76 light breeze from the north that ran the pump by spirts. 

May 13 Cloudy this morning with a light south breeze went NW before noon and got into Hi dust along with it and some rain we wash but the wind blew so only a few got dry disced afternoon up to 82.
She could have read her own diary entries easily, but making it through an entry requires some translation skills from you and me. What requires no interpretation is the endless necessity of hard work. She lives where she does--they live where they do--because of the Dawes Act (1887) which opened previously ceded Indian land to white homesteaders once every tribal member got his or her 160 acres. 



Some white folks believed the Dawes Act was the solution to "the Indian problem." Others, politicians and real estate chiselers, had their own designs. After all, there was money to be made by way of farming families moving on to reservation land, families like the one who's life is characterized in the diaries of a strong woman. And there was money to be made--not gadzillions, but good money. 
May 20 Washed, cleaned upstairs, disced finished on Roberts land when to John's and finished drilling his pasture. Partly cloudy all day with a strong north wind that moved thistles & dust. Cool all day. 
Soon it wouldn't be.
July 17 108 [large print] hot south and west wind a few clouds around the edge. Started to bind wheat short straw hard to make a bundle good sized kernels. 4H here today. Got the wheel on the mill by sunup and boy the nice cold stream. 
July 22 Washed, ran water in garden slid corn forenoon, cut wheat afternoon. Hot and dusty from the south up to 110 hard on the corn. 
July 23 Hot 116 with hot south wind finished cutting wheat shocked one piece slid corn afternoon baked bread ironed, sewed and ran water in garden.
July 26 Had about 1/8" of rain during the night cool all day with light east breeze up to 86. Cut oats, cut hair washed good dresses and ironed them.
That there is nothing in the diary entries more than a daily work regimen does not suggest she and her husband were unaware of the world around them. What it makes clear is that in order to make it on the dry plains of South Dakota, they couldn't rest. Out on the Rosebud reservation, their place in life was isolated and trying, the environment unforgiving, scorching heat and three-day blizzards on unsympathetic land that could bankrupt you a half hour of hot July wind.

July 30 Hot and windy from south changing to north with a dust storm no rain finished throwing in at home, baked bread, sewed & ironed. . .
Rain is underlined, one of the few moments in her diary entries when she shows any emotion.  And then

. . .took in the show etc at Crookston tonight up to 100.
She doesn't mention what show, whether it was a movie or some traveling entertainer; but it got her out. Even though she doesn't celebrate that bit of entertainment herself, today you can't help but be happy for her, a break--at least a break. 

July 31 Sewed, helped Pet Vis with his tractor. Hot and partly cloudy up to 106 had a nice shower before sundown and is still cloudy hope we get more. 
The country had been in an economic depression for seven years, seven lean years. In 18 months we'd be at war, as would they. 

Her daily reports of life on the farm hold little more than a endless sage of hard, hard work. But there are no regrets. That's something, isn't it? There simply are no regrets. 

Monday, August 07, 2017

The sermons of Rev. D. R. Drukker--iv



Casey Kuipers became a missionary right here, just outside of town, when Dr. Henry Beets, spoke at the First CRC Mission Fest, somewhere around 1910. The same Dr. Beets became Kuipers' boss when Kuipers moved--and stayed--at the Zuni Christian Mission, Zuni Pueblo, New Mexico.

Casey's father made him go to the Mission Fest that year, about the same time Rev. D. R. Drukker delivered a sermon titled "Missions," the fourth sermon in The Beauty of God, this little old collection of his sermons I've been reading.

"Made him go" sounds as if the old man hog-tied his son. Not true. Mission Fests featured games and races, and a cow tank full of  cold pop, mountains of sandwiches, pies and cakes, all kinds of goodies. A mission fest was a church picnic. Little Casey Kuipers didn't have to be dragged to that grove just south of town. He was itchy to go all week long.

He heard the challenge at the Mission Fest, where his life's calling and mission were sealed. What Dr. Beets said is not recorded, but then I'm sure he was explaining motivation to an audience who already knew the inspired dreams of bringing the love of Jesus to ends of the earth. Right there, just outside of town, Casey Kuipers got the call. And he answered with his life.

Just a couple of years ago, in Haiti, I talked with a whole fleet of "missionaries," men and women, most of them Haitian, who are supported by Casey Kuipers' denomination. Only one of them was a pastor, only one or two ever stood in front of a group of locals, Bible in hand, and read John 3:16. Most were in service professions--literacy education or health-related occupations. All of them were serving, but only a couple "preached the gospel."

What Casey Kuipers heard at the First CRC Mission Fest a century ago, what ordinary people assumed "mission work" to be took place under some oddly-shaped tree, where a white man or woman, Bible in hand, stood above a gathering of little dark-skinned kids or adults cross-legged beneath them, eagerly hearing about Jesus. 

That image was likely what drew Casey Kuipers to mission work, or something like it, the Great Commission in his heart.

After Rev. Drukkers' sermon titled "Missions," I'm quite sure no one went home and complained about the sermon over their boiled potatoes.  In the years following the turn of the 20th century, the cause of missions empowered thousands of believers, even if they knew little English and hadn't yet adjusted to a culture where no one wore wooden shoes. Mission Fests were popular church picnics all right, but no one forgot the cause they were really about--missions. 

There's very little remarkable about Dominie Drukker's "Missions" sermon. I continue to be surprised by illustrations he uses, drawn as so many are from American history--Edison, George Washington, Philadelphia's Liberty Bell all make cameo appearances here. He makes allusion to people and events I'm surprised his congregation caught.  "Less than two centuries ago, Carey rang this same gospel bell," he says at one point. That's William Carey, a man known as "the father of Christians missions." Didn't know that? Neither did I.

And then: "Do we not recall the scene of the Hay Stack Prayer Meeting, where students of Williams College wrestled with God in prayer for the coming of His Kingdom and for guidance in their own careers?"

The Hay Stack Prayers Meeting (all caps)?  I had to go to Wikipedia.

Rev. Drukker's determined use of illustrations from American history make him feel more cosmopolitan than I might have guessed a preacher of his era in Christian Reformed church history might have been. And I can't help thinking that's a strength: a sermon whose heart is the Gospel but whose references to American culture creates opportunity for cultural education. 

One moment early in the sermon sticks with me more than anything else. "The Pharisee asks, 'Is it possible that God can love a wicked, rebellious, repulsive sinner?' Rev. Drukker says, "The Christian replies, 'I am proof that God does love such folks.'"

I like that.

There are no mission fests anymore--or few, at best. The entire mission enterprise doesn't find a place in kids' hearts as it once did in the heart of Orange City's own Casey Kuipers, or any of hundreds of other kids who grew up here and departed around the world to preach the gospel.

I can't help but think that too often missionaries marched out as saviors themselves, bringing the gospel to the lost, marched out to do a lot of preaching and not much listening.

When the humility of what Drukker calls "the Christian's response" is not in evidence in even well-meant Christian mission, then things will not go as dreamed. Today, for better or for worse, Christian missions are too often seen as a agent of cultural terrorism. 

"I am proof that God does love such folks." That line I'll remember from Drukker's "Missions" sermon.

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Sunday Morning Meds--Furrows


Plowmen have plowed my back and made their furrows long.”
Psalm 129:2

            There were no clouds, the sun was going down in a limpid, gold-washed sky. Just as the lower edge of the red disk rested on the high fields against the horizon, a great black figure suddenly appeared on the face of the sun. We sprang to our feet, straining our eyes toward it. In a moment we realized what it was. On some upland farm, a plough had been left standing in the field. The sun was sinking just behind it. Magnified across the distance by the horizontal light, it stood out against the sun, was exactly contained within the circle of the disk; the handles, the tongue, the share--black against the molten red. There it was, heroic in size, a picture writing on the sun.                                                                                             Willa Cather, My Antonia
           
If you drive south from Red Cloud, Nebraska, the hometown of Willa Cather, and look up along the hill to your left as you enter Kansas, you’ll spot an ancient walk-behind plow thoughtfully set along a fence row. I’ve never been on that road at dawn; but at a certain time of year, you likely see the vision Jim Burton notes in My Antonia, which is likely why that old plow stands there. After all, very little in the neighborhood of slowly dying Red Cloud, Nebraska, is unrelated, today, to its famous native novelist, Willa Cather.

On any of the blue highways that line the rural Upper Midwest today, you’re likely to find a half-dozen old plow lawn ornaments on any hour’s drive.  And rightly so.  Nothing within human memory changed the landscape of great America prairies more fully than the moment that rich layer of centuries-old top soil was opened to furrows, to wheat, barley, corn, soybeans and what not else. 
           
I wouldn’t be sitting here had someone, 150 years ago or so, not drawn that first blade through virgin prairie.  All around me, the landscape looks nothing at all like it did when tall-grass prairie swayed in the wind.  When Jim, Cather’s narrator, sees the plough, “heroic in size, a picture writing on the sun,” he knows no single weapon was more instrumental in bringing him to the place he loved, as did Cather, than that valiant agricultural tool.

Some might call it rape, what happened when that blade was thrust into virgin prairie.  Some do, in fact. Today, the ecological world of tall-grass prairie is almost as extinct as the do-do bird, altered forever into a immense garden of commodities.
           
There may be no more profoundly painful metaphor in all of the psalms than this one, in Psalm 129.  The plowman enemy, scourge in hand, still dripping, has left furrows across his back, the poet says.  Thousands of years later, we still grimace, the image of that weapon slashing through flesh and muscle, leaving furrows welling with blood.
           
“Persecution is the heirloom of the church,” Spurgeon says, in reference to 129.  He’s not wrong, but it seems to me that he’s only half right.  Persecution is an heirloom, but not the only display in the museum.  Like the plow, the historic suffering of the Christian people can be manipulated and misused all to easily.  Much of Fox’s Book of Martyrs is the story of Christians torturing other Christians, after all. 

But that’s not the lesson of the psalm.  The lesson is one of perseverance, of steadfastness.  The lesson is all about moving on, holding on, knowing our only comfort, even when our backs are flush with blood. 


The lesson is simple:  here as it is so often in scripture, the lesson is “fear not.”

Friday, August 04, 2017

Morning Thanks--One of his tools


The rusty one is mine. The other one, the one with no rust, the one with his initials--"RVG"--is his. Sometime--who knows when?--he etched those letters in that little monkey wrench, not so much because he didn't want you to have it, but because it was his, and, if you were raised during the Depression, you simply took care of your things because you couldn't just run to the hardware store and buy another. Even though he was basically the only guy whoever spent much time in his machine shed and thus the only one who used the wrench, that blessed tool deserved to be treated for the wonder, for the gift it was. 

At 98 years old, my father-in-law, RVG, is approaching the end. We've been praying for him for years in language that has itself gotten old: "Be with him, Lord, strengthen him for the journey." For a decade at least we've simply been assuming his last days were just up the road, but they weren't. Until now.

Now his doctor, a fine man, gracious and thoughtful, says it's true. How long does he have? No one knows, but his defenses are simply worn out and the barbarians at the gate, the bacteria in his bloodstream, are breaking through the lines that have kept him strong, kept him alive. Right now, it's not that nothing works; it's that nothing works well enough to hold off the enemy. Everything is in disrepair, and there are no more tools.

Even though the HBO series Band of Brothers is powerful television, it's still television, not war. The stories it tells don't skimp on trauma: friends--good buddies--suffer bloody deaths in a cause that over time got foggy, "the fog of war," people say.  The 101st Airborne drops behind enemy lines on June 6, 1944, spends a bloody winter in the hilly Ardennes, suffers a loss in Holland at a bridge too far, and stumbles on a camp designed by Hitler as his "Final Solution." That's the story line.

Eventually and finally, they're winners. Eventually and finally, they go home, a place that would have felt oddly foreign, I'm sure, if they hadn't dreamed of it every last day and night on the road to Berlin. 

It's a stretch to imagine my father-in-law among 'em, an Iowa farm boy who never said much, his hands full of wrenches, his fingernails lined with grease. He and the motor pool inched through Europe a week or two behind the front, behind forces like the 101st, repairing jeeps and trucks, tanks and armor and whatever else needed maintenance. They kept the machinery of war running. The closest he ever came to combat was those moments when the concussion from bombing runs or massive artillery shook the earth under his feet. 

But he was there in Europe after Normandy, and what he did with those tools was the everything he gave to his country. Like my own father, when he returned he never gloried in those years he spent in "the service," never decked out his driveway in little American flags, never marched up the street in May, in remembrance. After all, there were other guys who gave far more than he did--that's what he likely thought. 

His initials on that little monkey wrench have those war years behind them. The rusty one is mine--no initials. It's probably been left out in the rain a time or two. It's never been where I thought it should be because I didn't leave it where I could find it. To me, tools are just tools.

But there's more to this monkey wrench than meets my eye. Sometime during his life, he scratched his initials right there into the metal. He sat down and did it because it was his station to do that, his mission, his life.  This morning, I'm greatly thankful for those shaky initials etched in the steel, those initials and the life they somehow spell.

Thursday, August 03, 2017

The Art of Self-Parody


The late B. J. Haan, the first President of the college where I taught for almost forty years, had a public persona so well crafted that he could do self-parody--that is, on stage he could play himself. And he did. Often. Even from the pulpit. 

And people played along. And loved it. 

People who knew him, audiences who'd heard him speak, congregations whose pulpits he filled all came to expect a specific unique personality from the man up front, even a way of delivering the goods, a rhetoric. They knew not only what he was going to say, but also how he was going to say it; and they knew all of that long before the words ever flowed. The man's persona was so strong, so well established, so understood, that he could "do" himself. B. J. Haan could "play" B. J. Haan.

At a fund-raiser, he'd stand up in front and say, "Well, I love B.C. [or Pella or Zeeland or fill in the blank]. Every time I come here, I tell myself this is the most beautiful corner of the world." Not just "beautiful," but "BEEEEUUUTIFULLLL." He'd stretch that word into deliberate overstatement so purposefully that people would giggle even before he'd say it because they knew he wasn't there to see the sights but to ask for money. They knew his game, but he charmed them nonetheless by doing self-parody, by playing himself. The audience knew it, and he knew they knew it, and they knew he knew he knew it. 

He was as human as the rest of us, carried faults in a big inside pocket, but he was a warrior for the college he begat and people that institution served. "Took me way too long in my life to learn," he once told me, "that the way to people's hearts is by a smile." And he knew people knew that B. J. Haan could make them smile. Self-parody requires an established familiarity and a huge presence. 

Sarah Huckabee Sanders claims President Trump does it too. She claims that Long Island speech to law enforcement officials shouldn't be misunderstood, that he was just joking, after all. That business about banging suspects' heads against car doors, that was a joke, just a joke, she says. It's the kind of thing people expect of Trump. That's what they like, she says, so he delivers, with a wink and nod. For gosh sakes, don't take him seriously. 

Trump believes himself capable of self-parody--and in a way, he is. People know exactly to what to expect when he walks out on stage; his coming down that elevator--remember? That was so Trump. They know what he's going to say and how he's going to say it. They fully expect he'll say something so outlandish it'll buy him the next day's news cycle. They expect Trump to be Trump, so he is. 

But we shouldn't take him seriously, his people say. His tweets?--that's just him being him. Don't take him at his word.  Just let Trump be Trump. 

The plain fact of the matter is that both men--Haan and Trump--could take over a room. With huge personalities and established reputations, both could spin crowds. 

But there is this difference. People believed B. J. Haan--they believed he loved them, that he'd work for them, that he had goals that far and away transcended the personal, goals he called "Kingdom" goals. 

Only the true believers believe that of Donald Trump, and that following is a percentage of the American public that runs downhill every day. Yesterday it was lower than it's ever been. 

The risk B. J. played as a spokesman for the college was that playing himself as humorously as he did, he'd be seen as goofy, a buffoon. He understood that he walked a thin line doing self-parody, but, in his later years especially, it worked for him and his causes.

Does it work for  Trump? Not with a ever-growing majority of the American people. That majority doesn't trust him a bit. That majority think him dangerous. 

Me included.