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, April 24, 2017

The Crisis before us

You've got to hand it to New York Times columnist David Brooks. He seems to be on a one-man quest to refurbish the American soul. Himself Jewish, he can occasionally sound almost evangelical. That he reads widely is obvious by frequent references to "Christian" thinkers, who don't regularly find a welcome place in his political forum. His Times column Friday, "The Crisis of Western Civilization," sets out to create a revival of faith in what some call the great "liberal experiment," democracy itself.

That demise, he claims, has been advanced primarily by those who reference its shortcomings--and there are many shortcomings. On Saturday, I sat through a horrifying 90-minute presentation of an horrible place once upon a time just down the road, the Hiawatha Insane Asylum, Canton, South Dakota, where Native American people from reservations all over the country were sent, essentially to die. 

No one cared. That's the story of Hiawatha. No one really cared about and therefore for its inmates, and those few who did blew whistles and were shamelessly dismissed because no one cared. What happened during Hiawatha's forty-some years of operation is not just scandalous, it's evil. 

Here in our corner of the world, people allowed it to happen, even condoned its inhumanity. Good Christian people looked the other way as hundreds of Native people, many of them not "insane" at all, were treated were far less favor than the hogs and cattle in fields just outside the hospital.

David Brooks says we've been taught a steady diet of the evil machinations of American democracy, so much so, in fact, that we've lost faith in "the liberal experiment," the incredible belief--really almost unheard of before the American constitution--that people can actually rule themselves. That's "the liberal experiment," and people have begun not to believe it anymore, says David Brooks. 

Brooks goes so far as to claim that dream has died, an assertion he grounds in a sharp appraisal of the times: "The first consequence has been the rise of the illiberals, he says, "authoritarians who not only don’t believe in the democratic values of the Western civilization narrative, but don’t even pretend to believe in them, as former dictators did."

Brooks is a conservative, but he fears what he calls "the age of the strong men," leaders like "Putin, Erdogan, el-Sisi, Xi Jinping, Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump,"

Yesterday's election in France bears witness to what he sees happening all around: the two winners could not be farther apart politically, one from the far right, the other from the far left. The middle is gone, Brooks says. When center-right and center-left political parties collapse, whatever power they once wielded is simply moves to the fringe parties, who really don't believe in democracy.

Finally, he says there is "the collapse of liberal values" at home. I'm no fan of Ann Coulter, but when she can't speak at Berkeley, the home of the "Free Speech Movement," fifty years ago, some major doctrine of American life is simply gone.

As someone who spent his life in a classroom, I'm not ready to buy the notion that somehow education is to blame, that we haven't taught western civilization in Western Civilization, touted democracy's atrocities instead.

If he's right, there's more to blame than education. Believe me, he doesn't mean the word "liberalism" as an indictment but in its broadest sense when he says, "liberalism has been docile in defense of itself."

He sounds like an OT testament prophet, like Jeremiah himself, without the theological imperative: "These days, the whole idea of Western civ is assumed to be reactionary and oppressive. All I can say is, if you think that was reactionary and oppressive, wait until you get a load of the world that comes after it."

Seems to me that, to kids around here, you don't not tell the story of the innocent victims of the racism that perpetuated the Hiawatha Insane Asylum, but you make sure to tell the story of the whistle blowers too, the men and women, those few who tried to change things, whose voices may not have been heard, but who tried, who spoke truth to power.

Brooks may be after the American soul in ways few are. He's always worth reading.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Sunday Morning Meds--Sinners in the hands of a rejoicing God

“. . .may the LORD rejoice in his works—
he who looks at the earth, and it trembles, 
who touches the mountains, and they smoke.” Psalm 104:31

Pity Jonathan Edwards.  Every year, millions of bored high-schoolers, supposedly learning American literature, suffer through the insufferable scolds of 17th century Puritan fathers and mothers, poets and essayists and historians who are just about as sexy as an old folks home. Good stuff!--like liver and spinach.

The only voice in 150 years of American history that comes even close to garnering their attention is Jonathan Edwards, whose famous hellfire and brimstone sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” features some show-stopping images—loathsome spiders dangling mercilessly over flaming pits. Such word pictures at least wake kids up.  

But, pity poor Jonathan Edwards.  A century of instruction in American literature has created an image of the old preacher that probably bears little resemblance to the real thing.  He wasn’t stern, didn’t pound the pulpit, didn’t spit and steam and unload fear on the meeting house.  Arguably the best mind in 18th century America, Edwards was once President of Yale; he was a prolific writer and a loving pastor and father. But mention his name today, and those few who may recognize it cower, hearing a fearsome rant.

Maybe it’s just me and my Calvinist soul, but it’s somehow tougher to imagine a God rejoicing in us than threatening damnation. The fuming God Edwards pictures in that famous sermon of his is easier for me to picture than the God the psalmist evokes in this verse from Psalm 104, a God who sometimes toys with his world the way my first-grade grandson might, pushing buttons and pulling tabs to make it shake and smoke—and then smiling, thinking good things. Fear comes to us more easily than joy, I think.

I know something of the story of a man in town—but little of him. I know that he drinks far too much, so much that he can’t hold a job. I know some folks around here have tried to help him, even though he hasn’t been a jewel and lacks the wherewithal to change the overall direction of his spiraling.

Today he’s parked at a rehab center, where he should have been for a year or more.  Probably more.

But I know another man too, a man who owns a salvage yard where a thousand wrecks rust and rot slowly before getting crunched up and hauled away. People go there if they need a hubcap or an engine block. The office space could use a squad of Dutch grandmas with scouring pads; it’s a grease pit, unwelcoming to anyone who wasn’t born with a wrench in a side pocket of their bibs.  That’s where the boss sits.

For more than a year, that man, stoic and silent, allowed the drunk to live in a rental place he keeps just down the street from us. No rent payments have come in because the drunk brought a good deal less money home than trouble. A few weeks ago, he stole a kid’s bike—and that’s not the half of it.

I don’t know how many people in town realize that for more than a year the junkman’s heart created a free home for a man few could love. Then again, I don’t think the junkman would want the story told. I may be leaking something I shouldn’t right now.

But if God almighty ever high-fived his people, I swear that he’d visit that sleazy junkyard office for a chance to do just that to the grease monkey inside. He’s rejoicing, I swear.

It’s wonderful to think of God almighty enjoying what we do, isn’t it, rejoicing in his world? A whole lot better than spiders and firepits. 

This little half of verse 31 is a gem, isn’t it?  Just between you and me, with what I know of Edwards, I’m very sure the old Puritan liked it too.  

Friday, April 21, 2017

Morning Thanks--The Secret Place*

It came in the mail not long ago, direct from an Amazon-linked, used bookstore somewhere, a forty-year-old paperback titled A Secret Place, the novel which single-handedly changed the course of my life.

That may be overstatement, but not by much.

Years ago, I picked that novel up in a bookstore, almost on a whim, when I’d just started college. I’d heard of the writer, a man named Frederick Manfred, a tall novelist born and reared in the area, this area actually, a writer who'd become, I'd heard, deeply hated by the real locals, a Dutch Calvinist writer who wasn't highly regarded by Dutch Calvinists. Imagine that. I knew I had to read him.

For reasons I only partially understand, when I read it I loved it, studied it closely, wrote a paper about it for my Freshman English class, and then determined—on the basis of my reading and study of A Secret Place—that someday I wanted to write books myself.

The Secret Place--also published as The Man Who Looked Like the Prince of Wales--is a real Siouxland book, featuring real Siouxland characters, Dutch names, Dutch Reformed conflicts, and, for the time at least (late 60's), some considerable and fleshy steaminess, all of which I found mesmerizing. In it, I found my people--I guess I'd have to say it that way, now, in retrospect. In it, strangely enough, I found me.

It cost me $2—I mean, last week when I ordered it. Cost me $.75 forty years ago.

I read it again recently. Honestly, the novel simply wasn’t all that good, a fact which made me chuckle a bit at my own 19-year-old, impressionable self.

Here's what I think: how lucky I am—and thankful too—that God almighty doesn’t let me make all the significant decisions of my life.

It's on the shelf now, with the rest of Fred Manfred's books, a man who became, later on, my friend.

Only cost me two bucks. Someone else's trash, I suppose. Not mine. Not at all.
*First published April 9, 2008.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

"In, but of" stuff

She'd asked me to drop by her class because the topic seemed like something I'd have some thoughts about. That's what she told me in a FB message, an invite. She guessed I have thoughts she bargained I could share and would. High school seniors, two classes. "Be nice, if you could visit. . ."

I was apprehensive. My bum knee isn't the only reminder I'm pushing 70. It's been a while, after all. Many of her students' grandpas are nowhere near retirement. I'll just listen, I told myself. I know next to nothing about kids today.

Dream on. She stood me up in front of the room, gave my string a pull, and wanted me to spin stories. Which I obligingly did. I've been out of the classroom for five years, but a hybrid teacher's rhetoric re-forms, a long-dormant voice with roots as deep as big blue stem. 

A homemade apron-like creation is hung on the wall of that classroom. It's festooned with color-coded pockets in which students slip their smart phones the moment they come in the door. That's new.

The students were kind, respectful, and, to a person, it seemed, tuned-in. But they didn't have much to say. I tried. Volunteers were few. They much preferred listening to the old bald guy.

The essay in question was from a magazine titled Relevant, its thesis obvious from the title: "Why the 'Faith-Based' Film Genre Must End: These kinds of labels can be destructive to art." New twist on an old question. Christians should not dedicate their artistic selves to a genre of Christian film or music because in so doing they will be depriving a wider audience, a secular audience, of their work. That's the way the argument goes.

Kind of "millennial," I thought, so couched in privilege, assuming, as it does in the first place, that the readers' "work" could earn a wider audience, that anyone with a good guitar can be Bono. 

Ought to be interesting, I figured, so why not? Visiting her class was a well-meant offer, and she's a gem, an ex-student who's been a wonder as a teacher for longer than I could guess.

Truth be told, I left that classroom somewhat moderately depressed, not because the kids were disengaged or rowdy, not because the topic seemed irrelevant or silly. I think she wanted a wise man; what she got was someone who doesn't know the answers.

I could have brought up the Benedict Option, a book raising all kinds of commentary within the evangelical community, another option on how exactly to interpret the age-old paradox of being "in, but not of." 

I could have said I remembered being their age and thinking that being a Christian writer meant churning out Sugar Creek Gang stories or Sunday School papers; and how wonderful, how free it felt finally to think that even as a Christian I could try to write like Hemingway.

I could have told them about a man I know, raised in the church a half century ago, who, for the very first time in his life, stole into a darkened theater, then tore out, warp speed, when God chased him out once Satan lit that huge screen.

I could have told them how my mother once offered to buy me the very best Selectric typewriter on the market (before an Apple IIe) if I'd promise never to type out a four-letter word. Truth be told, I did tell them that. (And that I had to turn her down.)

I could have told them about an essay of mine aired just the day before on public radio, aimed at an audience that wasn't "Christian," in their sense of that word, written instead for a much wider bunch--and how my mother wouldn't have liked that little essay for that reason.

What I couldn't tell them was exactly what it means to be "in, but not of." Is there an answer? What I couldn't answer is how Christians use those smart phones up on the wall, whether or not vaping was biblical, what words should be blazoned over their t-shirts, or what to think of Donald Trump. I might have liked to answer some of those questions, but I couldn't, not because it wouldn't be wise but because the answers to so many questions about this world they are about to enter are often hard to come by.

What I couldn't say was exactly what they should think of that article in Relevant magazine, or what to do exactly with "in but not of" in 1967 or 2017. What I ended up saying, I guess, is not that there are no answers, but that there are many. Start sorting.

What I could have said is, "You're seniors, right? Welcome to real life." 

And then listened. I should have listened. 

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Butter dump, 1933

I must have been through the place a thousand times, but I didn't even know it was a place--James, Iowa, just up the road from Leeds. From up above on Google Earth, James, Iowa, looks more like a camp ground than a town; but right there on highway 75, it sits peacefully alongside the meandering Floyd, far southern Plymouth County. 

Truth is, this story has little to do with James, Iowa. It requires mention here only as a setting, as in, "this whole business went down right here in James, Iowa." I'm guessing nobody in James had a thing to do with it.

The trouble started with optimism, too much of it. It started with the Roaring Twenties and stock market bubbles that had everyone plus the family pup investing. Out here in farm country, the Great Depression started with bumper crops--way too much wheat, way too much grain, way too much of everything, so much that farmers suddenly found their produce worthless.

By 1933, four years after Black Tuesday's legendary crash, prices for hogs were well beyond abysmal--$3.85 for hundred weight, four cents per pound. Even a city slicker knows you can't raise livestock if your ledger goes that far south. People not only couldn't make money, all they could do was lose it.

And thus lose their farms. Which is what happened. Bank foreclosures skyrocketed, and, in time out here in the country, there were more farm sales than hymn sings. 

Things weren't better for milkers. In 1932, farmers who milked were getting a dollar per hundred weight, two cents a quart. Like owning a tractor whose only gear is reverse. Good farm families were going under.

Along came a firebrand missionary-type who felt called to save the farmer, a man named Milo Reno, Des Moines, Iowa, who preached the gospel of solidarity and tried to create a farmer's union, something he called "The Farmers Holiday Association." It's impossible to imagine today, but Milo Reno and stinking farm prices started Iowa farmers singing "Solidarity Forever" as if they were a steel-mill union.

Some farmers from "the Holiday Association" got together one night in James, Iowa, on Highway 75, just north of Sioux City, where pickets created a blockade. Some might well have called them a mob, but others, more sympathetic, a collective action. Truth is, it wasn't peaceful, and it was, well, violent.

Markets had tanked. Farmers were losing their shirts and schievies because of too much of everything, so the Holiday boys decided to dump produce, to block roads so farmers couldn't bring their goods to market. 

Dumped it. Just outside of Moville, Holiday pickets dumped 400 gallons of milk in a ditch. At Kingsley, another bunch stopped a milker from Cherokee and dumped 100 gallons right there on the street.

They weren't kidding around. These boys were serious, but their lives and families were at stake. 

Now back to James, Iowa. What happened that cold January day on highway 75 was a butter dump. Some poor farmer who probably didn't like the Holiday boys to begin with was bringing his butter to town. Highway pickets stopped the truck, took that butter, and dumped it over the bridge and onto the frozen Floyd, then simply picked up the farmer's pick-up, turned it around to the north, and spanked him on his way.

But what seemed a crime to those Holiday ruffians was to let that butter sit on the icy Floyd, so they came down off the bridge and retrieved it once the victim was fleeing home.

And just in case you're wondering, all those coveralls out there had a silver lining. This James, Iowa story's got a bit of Robin Hood although there's no forest and the men are all in bibs. But it's worth retelling because the next day on County Trunk C-70 going east out of James, when farmers and their wives picked up their mail, they pulled three or four pounds of free butter from the mailbox, descended it must have seemed, from on high.

It was no Holiday back then, really. It was a sad time, an angry time right there on the Floyd River bridge just outside James, Iowa, right here in Siouxland. 

And there's a whole magazine of more stories too--including one about a judge who got beat on and threatened with a rope. But that's a story for another time.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Salt tablets, leather aprons, and work shirts

He was management, not labor, but images from the factory behind the office are what I remember. If I'd drop by, he'd take me on a path through a labyrinth of machines where men in coveralls or blue shirts were standing or sitting at jobs I don't remember, jobs he never really wanted his boy to covet.

The painting stall had a piercing smell; but I remember that part of the factory best because everything was orange, not fluorescent orange, a sold, dull orange like all the cement mixers that came out of the place. 

Around the corner and near the door stood the pop machine--put in a nickle and slide a bottle out some chutes through cold water, lift the cap on an opener above a little bucket on the side. Up on the wall was a big glass jar of salt tablets my dad let me sample when I came in, bitter things but interesting. Salt tablets for those summer days when the men in blue shirts sweat right through the  fabric. More clearly than anything else, I remember that jug of salt tablets. That whole factory was all-male.

At noon, Dad would stay around on summer days for a game of horseshoe during lunch. He knew the wizards, but he wasn't bad himself for some white-collar guy from management. Post-war, most the guys who worked at Gilson Manufacturing, Oostburg, Wisconsin, were vets and friends. There were problems, even fights. Once in a while, a blue shirt had to be fired, I'm sure. Life in a factory wasn't just a cold bottle of soda on a hot day. There had to be problems. 

But going to work there was what my father did for most of his life. For a time, at least, he rode across town to a factory by the tracks where maybe thirty guys put cement mixers together for thousands of vets who, like my dad, were building their own family homes on their way to the American dream. When it was hot, they took a soda from the cold water and grabbed a couple salt tablets. At five, they quit. That was the working day. 

Nobody made big money, I'm sure. Maybe the owners--I don't know. But Gilson was, for a time, a way of life for men who never dreamed of much more than an hourly wage to bring home to a family, men who needed only a few blue shirts, a leather apron maybe, rolled-up sleeves, horseshoes, and a July picnic. And it's long gone. 

Researchers at Princeton have determined that for the last fifteen years, middle-aged, white Americans with a high school education or less have died at an astounding rate, like nothing seen in the industrial age. Death rates climbed from 281 to 415 per 100,000, a phenomenon those researchers characterize as "death by despair"--drug overdose, suicide, alcoholism.

Mechanization, computerization, and globalization closed the doors on factory jobs that once gave meaning to life for lots of men in Oostburg, Wisconsin, in the post-war years. Those jobs no longer exist. 

What people call "the opiod crisis" only makes things worse. Half of those men who are not presently in the working force are taking pain killers. Minority members of the work force today suffer unemployment at a similar or higher rates, but not the same rate of death, an amazing fact. Why? No one knows for sure. 

Perhaps a history of factory life creates higher expectations among white men whose fathers pitched horseshoes on their lunch hours at a thousand factories around the nation. Perhaps the sons of those white men expected more of themselves than in possible today, or so researchers speculate.

J. D. Vance explains his people's hatred of President Obama on the basis of white folks' thwarted dreams. What made Obama's ascension to the Presidency painfully galling was that he was rising--a black man--as they were falling off a cliff. 

Those men are, often as not, disciples of the President. They voted Trump. He said he'd bring back jobs to coal country, to the rust belt, to American steel. Maybe he's a miracle worker. 

But what those Princeton researchers suggest is that this downward spiral among America's old working class won't be reversed easily. Those who risk "death by despair" won't suddenly find themselves in a brand new world of leather aprons and salt tablets. 

There just ain't that many places to work in those tough old blue shirts.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Morning Thanks--An Easter raspberry army

We were warned, but my wife's love of raspberries is unrelenting--if we were to have a garden (and in this new house of ours we've got a whole sunny acre), we were going to raise raspberries. We were destined to have a patch, destined as in foreordained. I like 'em, but she'd trade her husband in for a flat and never look back.

So two years ago, we grabbed some cuttings from friends whose patch is legendary. "All you got to do is stick these things in the ground and get out of the way," they said, or something to that effect. Sure, we said. Husbandmen, we weren't, really rookie raspberry-ers. 

We stuck 'em in and watched. And watched. And watched. At least they didn't die. But flourish? Hardly. It wasn't a miserable year because we were told not to expect a thing. "They've got to get established, but in a couple of years they'll be coming out of your ears."

Rank me with those disciples of little faith.

Last year we went back to the raspberry champions when they told us they'd just culled that world-famous patch in their backyard. We took four more healthy cuttings, a root ball on every plant, stuck them in the ground with last year's sorry offerings, and waited. And waited. And waited. 

Like I said, maybe a dozen berries--that's it. Not enough for a handful. 

"Just wait," our friends said. Pardon my lack of faith.

Just so happens they dropped by yesterday, on one of the most beautiful Easter afternoons in human history. We took them out back to have a look at Easter in the garden. What's back there right now is a scramble of scratchy little patches of new growth on otherwise buzzardly-bald ground. Honestly, to call it a garden right now is to profane the very word.

But on easter, to me at least it was perfectly beautful.

And you know where this is going.

"Check our raspberries," I said, and tugged them out to the patch. I'd been out there on Saturday. Things were popping. "Look at this," I said proudly, as if they were my own brood. Last year's growth were dressed for St. Patrick's Day. "They're really going to town," I told them in the same voice I might have bragged about the grandkids.

"Look at that," they said, pointing at a couple dozen guysers stopped in time but busting out all over, a gang of new growth pushing through the grass clippings, a virtual raspberry army I'd never seen.

Took my breath away.

Did you know that as we speak raspberry researchers are beginning to formulate an assertion arrived at by years of study that raspberries (I'm not making this up!) can control obesity. It's a fact, not just something my wife might say. 
Scientists now know that metabolism in our fat cells can be increased by phytonutrients found in raspberries, especially rheosmin (also called raspberry ketone). By increasing enzyme activity, oxygen consumption, and heat production in certain types of fat cells, raspberry phytonutrients like rheosmin may be able to decrease risk of obesity as well as risk of fatty liver.
I could not have written those sentences if paid or pained. Or this.
New research in this area has shown that the anti-cancer benefits of raspberries may extend beyond their basic antioxidant and anti-inflammatory aspects. Phytonutrients in raspberries may also be able to change the signals that are sent to potential or existing cancer cells. In the case of existing cancer cells, phytonutrients like ellagitannins in raspberries may be able to decrease cancer cell numbers by sending signals that encourage the cancer cells to being a cycle of programmed cell death (apoptosis). In the case of potentially but not yet cancerous cells, phytonutrients in raspberries may be able to trigger signals that encourage the non-cancerous cells to remain non-cancerous.
And we got 'em in our backyard. Wahoo, do we got 'em! Just saw 'em yesterday, they're busting out all over, dozens of new shoots--there and there and there and there.

What a glorious Easter afternoon.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Easter Dawn and a poem

Edmund Spenser (1552-1599)

MOST glorious Lord of Lyfe! that, on this day,
Didst make Thy triumph over death and sin;
And, having harrowd hell, didst bring away
Captivity thence captive, us to win:
This joyous day, deare Lord, with joy begin;

And grant that we, for whom thou diddest dye,
Being with Thy deare blood clene washt from sin,
May live for ever in felicity!

And that Thy love we weighing worthily,
May likewise love Thee for the same againe;

And for Thy sake, that all lyke deare didst buy,
With love may one another entertayne!

So let us love, deare Love, lyke as we ought,
--Love is the lesson which the Lord us taught.


Saturday, April 15, 2017

Morning Thanks--Remembering Black Sunday

Yesterday was the anniversary of Black Sunday, the day in 1935 when a windstorm picked up a part of the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles and blew it elsewhere across the southern Plains. Tons of drought-stricken topsoil that had been plowed up (often for the first time) by thousands of mechanical tractors on the southern Plains billowed up by mighty winds, the first great day of the Dust Bowl. 

Land rush did it, and the age-old desire to get rich. No one thought much about the land, no white men anyway. Horrible, inescapable drought that turned the recently-turned topsoil into sand.

Once the cloud covered the southwestern sky, people saw it wasn’t hail or rain but dust so thick some of them got lost just a few yards from their homes. Some died, months later, when it filled up their lungs. Timothy Egan's The Worst Hard Time tells the story as well as any book I've ever read.

A woman from South Dakota told me she was sitting in church when a huge dust storm came to that state sometime earlier. Soon, the air even inside the sanctuary so thick with dust, all she could make out up front behind the pulpit was the shine of the pastor’s white shirt.

I’m not thankful for Black Sundays or the Dust Bowl, but I’m very thankful to know that history is capable of teaching us very specific lessons, out here on the Plains as elsewhere, moral lessons we neglect, as we do so easily, at our peril.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Braveheart for Good Friday*

Some believers consider Braveheart, the epic 13th century story of William Wallace, a proud and glorious hero to some Scots, to be a kind of quintessential Christian film. I wouldn't be so quick to render a halo, but Wallace's incredible daring, and his dedication, is powerfully inspiring. Why he remains a hero is no mystery: he befriended the lowly by waging a unrelenting guerrilla war against the occupying Brits. He showed no mercy to those who deserved none, and, most admirably, championed freedom. He was a man of principal.

All of that's in the name, really. If you've not seen the movie, you don't need to--the title says it all, Braveheart.

The two blockbusters Mel Gibson created offer completely different historical characters. On one hand, Braveheart, William Wallace, a bloody hero and freedom fighter; and on the other, his Last Temptation of Christ, Jesus of Nazareth, who was just as principled, but very much the Prince of Peace.

I thought of Braveheart this morning, Good Friday, because of one haunting metaphor David uses in Psalm 22:14: "I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart has turned to wax; it has melted away within me." His intimate description of vanquished body parts goes on for another verse, but the line that stops me that heart of wax. "I am poured like water?"--sure. I think I've been there, not at the level of my savior, but I know that one, thin as gruel. "My bones are out of joint?"--a whole-body ache, yep, as if the county's new road grader just leveled me for the eleventy-seventh time.

But a heart of wax? The KJV goes on to say that it's melted; that helps a little, but still the image doesn't communicate as viscerally as the others: "my heart has turned to wax."

Psalm 22 is the psalm of the day, it seems--today, Good Friday. Last Sunday, our preacher made the claim that when Jesus cries out, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" he's not only quoting Psalm 22, but he's referencing the entire poem, the whole story told therein. Anyone who knows 22 can't help feel the Twilight-Zone-ish resemblance between what David feels and Christ experienced. How on earth could David have so meticulously plotted out the Messiah's own crucifixion? I don't know, but somehow he did--some kind of vision, I assume.

William Wallace is a man whose heart never once turned to wax. Braveheart never winced, never lost courage, never stopped fighting, never doubted himself or his cause. Braveheart skinned his foes once he'd killed them. Braveheart waged war until the very last moment of his life, when he was tortured and died. Braveheart cared not a fig for personal gain and fiercely led his rebels into victories they should not have won. Braveheart died for his people.

"My heart has turned to wax" is an utterance from the dark other side of human experience, or so it seems to me. And if our pastor is right, then that's exactly what Christ felt; he was quoting the line, after all. Hanging from a tree, he had no heart at all. It had turned to wax.

The great danger of immense human suffering is probably not the fatal loss of blood but the fatal loss of faith, the decided conviction that God himself has left the building. Titanic burdens make us "lose heart," as we might say, or turn it to stone--or wax. When it's impossible to "take heart," there's no heart there anymore. Hence, no more life in me. My heart has turned to wax.

What I need to remember today, Good Friday, is that's what happened to Jesus Christ. His heart turned to wax under the burden of his immense sacrifice.

In a raw and tortured way, he became a divine Braveheart by becoming, horribly, no Braveheart at all.

For my sake, my savior's very heart turned to wax.
*First published on Good Friday, 2009.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

The cross

The cross was the moment when something happened as a result of which the world became a different place, inaugurating God's future plan. The revolution began then and there; Jesus's resurrection was the first sign that it was indeed under way. That is what the present book is about.
That's N. T. Wright's opening trumpet flourish in The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus's Crucifixion. It's almost impossible to believe that any event in history has been given more ink than what transpired during that very first Holy Week. I've not waded through much of that literature, but it's clear from the rhetoric that Wright here employs that he believes much of that ink has led us somehow more or less astray.

Not astray as in "heretical," but astray as in "off course." The two crosses here at the front of our church are perfectly Protestant: the suffering of Jesus is manifest only symbolically because it's emptied of his broken body. There are no crucifixes in our church because, traditionally, we believe he is no longer crowned with thorns. He is risen. Hallelujah. The intersection between the things of this world and the next--between heaven and earth is manifest, and Jesus Christ, who died thereon, is that link, which is to say our link. That's what the cross is about. The blood is gone.

What Wright argues Revolution is that we may need to take a step back and think a bit more about the role of the crucifixion in the Holy Week story, and about the very nature of crucifixion itself:  
We in the modern West, who wear jeweled crosses around our necks, stamp them on Bibles and prayer books, and carry them in cheerful processions, need regularly to be reminded that the word "cross" was a word you would most likely not utter in polite society. The thought of it would not only put you off your dinner; it could give you sleepless nights. 
I can't help wonder, when I read N. T. Wright, whether Protestantism--me included--hasn't too assuredly walked away from the crucifixion, the suffering Lord, the bloody Savior. We've joyfully emptied it because He did, after all. He beat it. He killed it, we might say these days. Death where is thy sting? 

But what Wright wants to maintain is that we shouldn't bury the suffering Lord because in the dynamic of Holy Week, the cross is so terribly significant. Jesus Christ did not go gently into that good-night. He didn't die abed, surrounded by loving friends and all his close family. The apostles weren't singing his favorite hymns as he took sweet leave. He died on a cross.

If I'm right about Wright, then the point he's pressing in Revolution is that what happened on the cross was not some kind of pagan ritual sacrifice. It wasn't Christ's death swapped for our sin, but instead God's gift of his very self.

Beneath those lashed planks of old barn wood in front of church, a couple of railroad spikes lie on a purple cloth--shocking, horrific, a reminder of Friday's horror. But somehow the cross, even though it's old, seems left untouched by what must have happened there all day long and into the night. There's a couple of nail holes, but that's it.

And here's what I was thinking last week: if Wright is right, then shouldn't there by at least a couple of nails left there in the wood? Shouldn't that cross carry some mark, some stain of God's love? Shouldn't it look somehow less than nicely crafted?

Just a thought this Maundy Thursday.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

We need $300

First time I've asked for money in ten years.

But we're 300 bucks short of the $2600 or so we need to place a full-page ad in the Sioux City Journal making very clear that some voters in Iowa's Fourth District don't appreciate the inane prejudices of our congressman, Rep. Steve King. Those of you who are not from here will remember him for claiming Hispanic illegals have cantaloupe calves from toting all those drugs over the border. Just a week or so ago, he claimed we don't need other countries' babies, then doubled down on that poison phrase with even more xenophobic invective.

An AP story claimed that here in King's stronghold, nobody really objected to his prejudices. People here simply assumed, "well, that's Steve."

Some of us don't want to be tallied in that way, so we're doing a GoFundMe to raise money for a full-page ad declaring as much in the region's biggest papers. We'll take anything right now--nickles, dimes, or quarters. 

Won't you consider contributing?

Holy week stories--Zion Pres

Somewhere in Nebraska. Somewhere south of here. Somewhere in the eastern part of the state--that's about it. I don't remember where exactly, not that it's the kind of attraction that would bring in the tourists. 

That's where I found it, standing there just off the road, on gravel, across from a cemetery, all the ingredients of a dead church once upon a time named Zion Pres. Not all of such ruins are Presbyterian out here. Many are Lutheran, some on the reservation are Episcopal; they come in all flavors, although size is fairly standard on the edge of the Plains.

They conjure a time when there were more people on the land, when every two or four miles a school with a bell stood out in a corner of cropland, a place with an outhouse and kids--maybe twenty--because far more families were around back then, far more kids in those old families. You needed kids to farm, to make it on the land. 

Finally, even all those kids weren't enough. Nor was 160 acres. Nor were the horses. And so, for more than a century already, Zion Presbyterian and churches like it withered away, not because of some dalliance with modernity or women preachers or death-like conservatism. Churches died because their people left the neighborhood. They died because the kids left, and what's an institution to do when it has no kids, no future? They died because people did, a couple hundred just across the road.

Birds flew in, and weeds grew through the cracks in the sidewalk. For a while, vandals did what vandals do. The people who own the place got told by an insurance man that the only way to protect themselves from lawsuit would be to make sure nobody got in the place anymore. "I don't care what you do really, but you've got to protect your interests--put some 2 by 12s up over the front door, you know? Do something," that friendly insurance man must have said.

You can cry for the church, but as long as you're at it, let a few tears fall for the whole neighborhood too--and the school, already long gone, I'm sure. It's life and death on the Plains.

As it was even before its demise, this old country church is a startling image. For some of us, believers, it's even a little scary. those demanding planks barring the door a symbol of repression, devout Christians who can't not choose to bake a cake for people whose marriage they cannot condone, or "Happy Holidays" taking the place of "Merry Christmas," a battle cry in the Trump crusade.

But at Zion Pres the story is different. No one is afraid. No one is persecuted. The sadness--although it's not profound--is not that Zion Pres did something wrong, but that most all of the residents of the area live across the street beneath granite stones in a graveyard that could use some cleaning up. Truth be known, they're all gone too. No one wants in anymore. 

The image is not only sad but foreboding. A locked wreck of a church makes fears grow in the hearts and souls of believers. Look again.

I can't help thinking this week that the barred doors of Zion Pres, way out in the country, suggest what the followers of Jesus felt late Thursday night, and all day Friday and Saturday: It's over. The whole five-loaves-and-two-fishes thing, the "blessed are the peacemakers,'' the flipped temple table, a bunch of suicidal pigs, Lazarus in a winding sheet, dinners with harlots and crooked pols, and that kid thing, too--you remember? "Go on and let them come sit in my lap," he said, "see if you can learn something." And then that wry smile.

It was done. Finished. Over. Time to go back to boats and nets and H and R Block. It was fun for a while, a real kick. Sometimes they thought the whole thing just might upset the whole Roman apple cart, you know? 

And then Golgatha.

It's over. The good times are behind us, the people long gone. 

It had to be something like that, something like Zion Pres, somewhere out on some lonesome gravel road, dying.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Holy Week stories

Pushing 70, as I am, I doubt I'll ever really get with the whole "Holy Week" program. I spent too many years in a Calvinist (which is to say "contrary") family. "'Holy Week?' Isn't every week holy"? That's my dad. 

It's hard for me to imagine that any family could out-pious mine when I was a boy, but he was so thoroughly steeped in old-fashioned, Reformation-era, prejudices about Roman Catholicism that a vote for John F. Kennedy in 1960 was an invitation to the Pope to become President. 

This is Holy Week, and supposedly we've been in Lenten lament for weeks already. I know that, but it neither shakes or shapes me. My sturdy religious conscience reminds me that it should these days, but my full-bore Reformation Protestantism still prompts me to roll my eyes.

That being said, I must admit to enjoying the additional Lenten cross at the front of the church, and the bevy of symbols someone scattered about beneath it. Each of them tells a story. There's no wind in the sanctuary, so the rocks aren't there to hold down the cloth; they're symbols, I'm sure. And the cloth isn't just a bed sheet, it's purple purposely--all about royalty. Those wax grapes sit atop a loaf of bread for reasons as obvious as the presence of that wide crown of thorns. I'm not quite so sure about the chain behind it, but I'm willing to bet it's meant to remind me of my Savior being forcibly removed from his all-night prayers in the garden.

The whole display is something of game, but nobody in church plays it against each other. We didn't, one Sunday, when the arrangement went up, turn it into a parlor game. It's up there to make you think--and it works, the way "holy week" is supposed to. I'm doing it right now.

The railroad spikes are horrible, terrifying. I never imagined the nails to be anything but ten-penny, at worst. Those spikes keep railroads in line. That they could be that huge is as hideous, as the thought should be. The lantern I'm not particularly sure of--maybe you know. But Christ shining out in the darkness is and forever shall be the light of the world in Christian iconography.

The colorful porcelain rooster makes me giggle, and it shouldn't. At least I'm smart enough to know not to laugh; there's absolutely nothing funny about the rooster's weird, late-night crowing.

I'm guessing the bundle of sticks behind the cross is meant to be hyssop, the conveyance Roman guards used to bring that sop of sour wine to Christ's lips. I mention it only because I remember the word itself, not because I know much about the plant. I read that hyssop is about as un-exotic as a plant as can be in the Middle East--Great Plains tumbleweed; but it has medicinal, even cleansing attributes. 

Two other mentions in the Bible come at powerfully memorable moments: 1) at the original Passover: "And ye shall take a bunch of hyssop, and dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and strike the lintel and the two side posts with the blood that is in the basin; and none of you shall go out at the door of his house until the morning'; and 2) in Psalm 51, where King David, broken in pieces by the recognition of his own sin, asks for forgiveness: "Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow."

How that attribute of cleanliness translates into its use on Golgatha is something I don't know. But who said we always have to know all the answers?

Hyssop produces colorful flowers, I'm told, and, when it's mature, has woody stems, just like that bundle of sticks behind the cross. 

Last week, when it got warm, I cut back last year's ornamental grasses around the yard. We've got an acre, plenty of room to build a huge fire; but the wind was altogether too prairie-like so I stuck them, armful by armful, into the burner out back and clamped down the top once each bunch caught a spark. 

Seriously, they exploded into flame, burned hot and super fast, then died just as quickly. Some theologians associate hyssop with the fledgling faith that blows up into flame as hot as anything, but, like justification itself, can burn itself out if it doesn't mature slowly into sanctification. That's what I read. I'm not sure what that has to do with the cross, but hyssop's there in the gospel of John.

Listen to me go on and on. I'm starting to sound like a theologian. And all of that from a random collection of stuff scattered around in front of church, each item telling stories--holy week stories. 

Can't believe it myself, and me a Calvinist. 

Monday, April 10, 2017

In Memoriam*

I don't have to tell this story. I could let it go untold, given the fact that right now, as we speak, our blessed, 14-year-old blue-collar feline boarder is somewhere in this house sound asleep. Our cat has not pestered me to tell the tale. He's very much above needing your or my approval for anything.

I'm no relation to the ancient Pharaohs who worshiped cats. I never posted a cat video and only written Benny up when he did something regrettable. I don't have to tell you what happened. I have no interest in making him an star because he's a miserable egotist, arrogant as a prince, impossibly one-way. But then, Benny is a cat.

He's got this thing for running water. My wife is his slave and dotes miserably, so his bowl is never brackish. But he's got this thing for running water and, yes, toilets. 

Benny and I are alone in the morning, when, like now, it's still dark as night. His braying has prompted me on occasion to consider murder, but most morning he's respectfully quiet.

From his anticipation you might think my using the toilet was the highlight of his day. He's thoughtful enough not to stand anywhere close, although his motivation cannot be respect because respect is beneath him. For whatever reason, he's not RIGHT THERE when the task is being accomplished. He waits just outside the door, like some fine footman.

Honestly--you can ask my wife--I'm not a husband who forgets. . .well you know, to flush. 

But it was dark as midnight down here, maybe quarter of five a couple of days ago. There's just one light on, the one at the foot of the stairs, and it was time for certain bodily functions. My age is showing in so many ways it hardly seems necessary to describe them, but one manifestation is that I do not, anymore, wake up quickly. My mind is considerably mushy so toiletries, you might say, get accomplished in a darkened daze. I'm not quite ready to go even if I am very much ready to go, if you catch my drift. 

So I did what needed to be done, Benny politely waiting in silence, as always, just outside the door. He listens closely to the tinkling, then waits for the tide to wash in, you might say.

Okay, here's my humiliation: I walked away and didn't flush. I left the stool behind without, I'm sure he'd say, the sound of music, all that fresh water swirling into the bowl. I'm not a clod or a headache. Go ahead and ask my wife. She'll tell you I'm not so great a sinner.

But this time, I stumbled.

On my way out, there he sat, his bedeviling green eyes upon me in that perfectly cat-like emotionlessness. And, remember, this is for him a ritual, a kind of dance. The moment I flush, he's there, even if I'm still preparing myself for the world. He approaches the bowl in eerie cat-silence, tours the circumference, then puts up his front paws from the left side to witness the delicious swirl.

But this time he didn't move. He just looked at me. That's all, he just looked at me, sat there, his paws beneath him, still as a statue, those green eyes in saying clearly, "Sir, were you born in a barn?" He could just as well spoken those words like Balaam's ass because not to I catch the revelation of his reprimand was impossible.

I didn't bow, didn't wince, didn't talk back. I pivoted, returned to the scene of the crime, and flushed. 

He could have rolled his eyes, but he didn't. Don't think him thoughtful or forgiving, for heaven's sake. He's a cat, and it's verily beneath him even to recognize my incivility. He put his paws up on the stool and never looked at me because what is always clear is that I really don't matter much at all.

This Calvinist has no need of a conscience. I've got Benny. 
*From March, 2015, reprinted in memory of Benny Schaap, 17, who last week suffered a quiet, peaceful death at the vet's office, after spending two long days in pain that left him barely able to walk. He is mourned by the long-time friends with whom he shared a life in his country home, Jim and Barb Schaap, especially Barb who, with undying love, kept him well-fed and his sandbox clean. Bennie has been a beloved member of the Schaap family since 2001, although, in our profound grief, we may be overstating. 

Benny was born in Quincy, IL, in 2000; lived a full and happy life in Sioux Center, IA; spent his retirement years just outside of Alton, IA; and died, April 7, 2017. He is buried in the field behind his country home.

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