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.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

What's down the road anyway?

I would like to be able to get all of this straight. Let me try.

He won. That's indisputable. It still seems unreal, but he did. He won, therefore he gets to make policy. Elections have results.

But how then shall we live? That's the question.

I understand the need for vigilance when it comes to immigration, especially allowing would-be terrorists to come into this country. A country with open borders really isn't a nation. We should know who's here and who isn't. 

President Trump promised a Muslim ban, and now he's employed one. That plan is not total; it merely follows pre-existing strategies created by former Presidents, including Obama, strategies that laid out an estimate of which Muslim countries were most dangerous. 

Furthermore, he recognizes that Christians especially are at risk in those countries, so he makes some exceptions to the rules for entry. I get that. And I understand that he has only the best interests of America in mind. He's said so in his acceptance speech at the convention and made it perfectly clear in his inaugural address. The world is full of carnage, he told us. His mission is to protect good, hard-working Americans from the oppressive evil all around. The world is a mess. Hence, the ban.

But there's another side, and respectable people who believe so are confident that any kind of Muslim ban--call it what you will--is a mistake, not because they're opposed to the safety of good, hard-working Americans, but because they believe radical Islam is rooted in a worldview that details a cosmic fight to the death between Christianity and Islam. That's the ideology they peddle. Any move on the part of the side jihadists see as the enemy, the "Christian" world, will serve to make their ideology more alive, their mission more appealing. 

What those who oppose what the President has done say is that while implementing a Muslim ban may make us feel more safe, it will serve to create more suicide bombers and therefore do the opposite, not only here but around the world.

There you have it, right? One side says, "Thank goodness--he's protecting our borders. I can sleep better tonight." The other side says, "Right now, ISIS is pointing at his Muslim ban to recruit more foot soldiers." 

All right. What we have is two really striking arguments going to war. Both concern our safety and have the best interests of the American people in mind. 

Which argument is the stronger of the two? 

Let's just say you say the second--that a Muslim ban may keep us thinking we're more safe but will make the world that we're in less so--let's say that's what you believe, then what do you do? Go about your business? After all, he won, right? Elections have consequences. There's another one in four  years. Do you simply swallow your sense of what's right? Maybe write your congressmen and women. 

Or do you scream?

It took President George H.W. Bush some 1300 days before his detractors outnumbered his supporters, some 900 for Presidents Obama and George W. Bush. 

It's taken President Donald Trump just eight days. 

Seriously, what's going to happen to us? I don't know. No one does. 

But you can bet on this: the man we elected is not going to change. 

Monday, January 30, 2017

Movie Review--Hell or High Water

When I left the theater, I stopped to eat at Golden Corral and sat down with a plate full of buffet food. Just like that, a man in a cowboy came by and sat at the table beside me. I had to pinch myself to make me believe I wasn’t still in west Texas.

John Gardner, the writer, used to say that what we do when we tell stories is create fictional dreams. When those dreams are perfectly seamless and we don’t wake up easily, they’re great dreams, great stories. Taylor Sheridan, we might say, "wrote hisself a winner in Hell or High Water" because sure as anything, I was taken, even though the only time I’ve been to west Texas was in that movie. But I think I was there.

Hell or High Water is two stories really. One of them features a pair of badly strapped brothers, Toby (Chris Pine), and Tanner (Ben Foster). Tanner’s an ex-con, Toby not; but together they determine the only way to keep the bank from the hardscrabble family ranch is to pay off the bills with the bank’s own money. Like the James Gang of old, they rob banks, little tiny ones in tiny Texas towns. So long as no one gets hurt, bank robbery is great sport; but you know somebody’s going to take a bullet, and eventually it happens.

But Hell or High Water isn’t a story about bank robberies. It’s a story about hard-pressed brothers, bad dudes who love each other. Hell or High Water succeeds because the story is about us and not just them, if that makes sense.

The other story features two Texas Rangers determined to grab whoever is doing the heists. The older of the two, Marcus (Jeff Bridges) is just a short ride from retirement. His less seasoned sidekick Alberto (Gil Birmingham), who takes any number of ethnic slurs (he’s half Comanche and half Mexican), is clearly a student of the master.

An hour into the movie, I told myself the plot was masterful because it created four complex human characters without any regard for each other and placed them on two paths with an inevitable end. The four of them were going to cross—that much we knew even though no one in the theater had a clue as to what would go down.

That’s a plot that sparkles even in the dry heat of west Texas.

But it’s not plot that drives this film. It’s character. It’s us.

It may well be impossible for any of us to escape the imminence of Donald Trump these days. He not only takes the oxygen out of the room—he takes it out of the entire nation. I couldn’t help see him hover over the long drawn fields of dry grass because Toby and Tanner walk right out of J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Dreams. They don’t dig coal like Vance’s kin, they run cattle, or should. But the brokenness, the horrifying dysfunction of their family (once, long ago, Tanner murdered their abusive old man) are right from the pages of J. D. Vance, a book that sold millions to Americans who wanted to understand who on earth could love Donald Trump. And why. Trump is here.

The real villains in Hell or High Water are not Toby and Tanner. Their motives are right out of Robin Hood because the evil here is, first of all, poverty that creates bank robbers who then became murderers. It’s the grinding circle of poverty as witnessable as that screeching windmill on the ranch. Toby tells Marcus that poverty is a circle he’s willing to die to end so his boys, his children, won’t stay in the bawling emptiness that left its stamp on him.

And Tanner? Even though he’ll kill to meet his ends, men die—and he does—because he loves his brother. The real villains are elsewhere.

Alberto and Marcus sit out on a store front on a dusty street in a hapless west Texas cow town awaiting a bank robbery that never happens. And they talk. And when they do, Alberto reminds Marcus that a couple of centuries earlier, his people, the Comanches, ran wild and free over all that land out there. It’s a bit of a rejoinder to Marcus’s endless ethnic slurs.

But then Alberto looks across the street at the little bank and says that Marcus’s people—the poor, white inhabitants of this woebegone world--are now being chased off themselves, just as the Comanches were, and he points out across the street at the bank, the new evil.

Hell or High Water is not without its politics. Poverty grinds away at our humanity, and its perpetrators, Alberto would have us believe, are the very, very rich. The desperation of poverty rides shotgun here, beginning to end. These are Trump people.

While the dramatic climax of Hell or High Water is accomplished with a big-game rifle, it’s the emotional climax that follows that takes your breath away. Marcus, now retired, finds Toby, who’s free by engineering his freedom as well as his legacy. Before he leaves home to find him, Marcus packs heat because the old ranger knows what Toby got away with and understands desperation.

When he finds him, Toby’s got a rifle, as well he should, guilty as he is.

And there they stand. Could well be, right then, another OK Corral. But when Toby’s ex-wife drives up in a dusty SUV and his boys tumble out, Marcus knows in an instant that this sad story and all of its blood is really all about family. Poverty, Toby says—“it’s a sickness is what it is. Passes from generation to generation and it affects everyone you know.” And then. “Not my boys.”

“The things we do for our kids, huh?” Marcus says, leaving, as if it’s only a cliché.

Gorgeously, at that final moment, Taylor Sheridan, the writer, fashions a brotherhood out of an old ranger and a bank robber.

Hell or High Water is rarity. It's one of those low-budget films that’s a treasure few will see because it’s not about spectacle at all, but about us. And, Lord a’mighty, what we want is not about us.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Sunday Morning Meds--Springs in the desert

He makes springs pour water into the ravines; 
it flows between the mountains. 
They give water to all the beasts of the field; 
the wild donkeys quench their thirst.  

A strange thing happens in Arizona around Christmas: loads of people decorate their homes as if they lived in the rural Midwest or New England. Some put fake snow on their windows.

It has snowed in Phoenix in December, but snow events are so rare they are not easily forgotten. Arizona, south of Flagstaff at least, is desert—dry, parched land that nurtures little more than jagged cactus and desperate-looking wild pigs. (If it’s as bad as that, why does everyone move there?)

The truth is, Palestine, where Jesus was born, looks far more Arizona than it does like Vermont, and it’s helpful to remember that fact when considering this verse. No psalmist was sitting on a cottage porch in Minnesota when he penned a song. They were all  in the desert, where springs were likely more vital sites on a map than cities.

Not long ago, I was at the site of an ancient buffalo kill, where decades ago a guy with a backhoe unearthed a bed of bison bones thought to be 10,000 years old. Today there’s a huge, blonde Quonset there, a heavy-duty air-conditioner, and an observation deck built around the site, a place where visitors can watch the researchers meticulously excavating all those bones—hundreds of them, thousands.

The only way to get to Hudson-Meng Bison Kill is by way of dozens of miles of gravel roads that eventually lift you up into the Nebraska badlands. The site is not only off the beaten path, there’s barely a path at all. And yet, there, amid the dusty sandstone, there sits a spring. Water. The guy who once owned the land wanted to make a pond, so he brought in a backhoe to dig a dam. That’s when he found this immense cache of bison bones.

When the guide led us around the place, she said, “Look around. Everything in the area—man and beast alike—had to find there way here. Thousands of years ago, this was Grand Central Station.”

There, in the middle of nowhere, for no good reason at all, a spring bubbled with life-giving water, overflowing with miracles. For miles, probably—and for most of the year—there was little else alive in the region, just this one lowly spring. Water always, fresh. Once upon a time, all highways had to lead to water.

Turning on a faucet just isn’t the same. When I read a verse like this, I think of the desert, the badlands, seemingly God-forsaken places where staying alive is a daily battle. The landscape the psalmist knew was no rainforest; it was a desert. He knew dry heat and dressed himself in a white robe most of the year to avoid it. My guess is, he didn’t need a map to know where the springs bloomed.

In that world—and our own—water is life. Without springs, there’d be no neighborhood. Nothing would exist. Life would seem lunar, an endless expanse of rock and sand, nary an emerald eyelash.

When he says that God “makes springs pour water into the ravines,” he sees life itself flowing thunderously into his own hands. He sees an image of “the living water.”

“Where can I get this living water?” the woman at the well once asked Jesus. And he said it was the water he would give. The finest spring of all, flowing into all the world, he said, and then too, from us. He was talking about the water of life itself.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Shell-less bird seed

So anyway, I'm watching TV last night when an ad comes on for shell-less birdseed, gets the birds up near your windows and doesn't leave behind a mess when our fine, feathered friends depart.

I like that. I'm thinking I'll buy some of that birdseed because what annoyed me last time we tried a bird feeder was that gaggle of weeds sprouting sinfully beneath the darn thing, or else the shards left in a mess on the deck. Birdseed that doesn't leave a mess?--I like that. 

I'd love to sit at our kitchen table and watch birds ten feet away on our desk. I know tons of people who've built a loyal and colorful and entertaining clientele just outside their windows.

And they're all old.

There may well be tons of folks who, at thirty, love bird feeders and the customers they attract, but I don't know many. Most of them are old--like me.

So I say to myself, what is about getting old that prompts people to love birds just outside their windows? Why is it that some nights, just staying home feels better than anything? How is it that, come late summer especially, a bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich a little taste of heaven? I've always carried more weight around than I should, but how is it that only in the last several years have I come to a point where I can really say I love food--taste, texture, whatever? The food on your plate, my feet up in the easy chair, the birds just outside, even too much snow just outside the window?--they've all become far more precious than I ever thought such things could be now that I'm courting sixty.

And what on earth is High School Musical? I don't know. My granddaughter is really into it, my daughter says, and I don't even know exactly what she's talking about. I suppose I should, but I'm not going to chase it down. And what's the big deal about what David Beckham's wearing anyway? And why should I care what kind of weirdness they display?

Just give me that shell-less birdseed, and I'll be happy, I swear--a bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich and I'll be rich.

My bones are creaking this morning, as always, but I think--old as I am, old as I'm getting--that aging offers an occasional blessing. After all, I don't have to know stuff.

Or at least that's why I'd like to think.

Besides, they'll be here soon enough, once it gets light outside these windows. And this too--did I mention this cup of coffee beside me this morning?--good night, what a blessing.

Posted August 1, 2007. Still true. More true.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Heavyweight Evangelism

I'm thinking that you have to be of a certain age, a certain vintage, to use a word like ungodly with any seriousness. There's open season on using it for added bluster, as in, "My word, it was ungodly cold last night, wasn't it?" That could well be the only way anyone uses the word at all today, as an adjective, an add-on. "Who on earth made this ungodly mess?" You know.

But the word ungodly has lost currency as a noun, a usage that's theological and all too frequently judgmental. Fifty years ago, it didn't matter if you were Protestant or Catholic, you knew very well who the "ungodly" were: they were them and not us. 

What I'm saying is, the use of the word ungodly as a noun dates an immense stony message that spreads 475 feet across a hill in southeast Kansas, up there just over the hill from Spring Hill Golf Course, Arkansas City. "CHRIST DIED FOR THE UNGODLY," that massive message says, all caps, set there in whitewashed boulders, each letter 18 feet high and 12 feet wide. That's heavyweight evangelism.

"Scripture Hill" the locals call it, because it is. It's not Mount Rushmore or Crazy Horse Monument, but the size of that sermon will stop in your tracks--it's that huge: "CHRIST DIED FOR THE UNGODLY."

Creating those words up there became the holy vocation of a godly man named Fred Horton, who spent his working days as a dispatcher on the Sante Fe railroad after coming out to Arkansas City in 1889. To say they least, Mr. Horton was a Christian--no fool would have taken on such a job otherwise. He worked on his vision after work. 

The story goes that his wife and kids would hitch the horse to the wagon and head to railroad yards to pick up Father for supper. Afterward, he'd be off to the hill, on foot. It's said that mostly he worked up there alone, although sometimes, people say, he had a little help from a man remembered only as an African-American, who had a wagon, which--my goodness!--must have come in handy. We're talking stones akin to boulders here, not pebbles you skip on water. 

You got to love the whole story really, whether or not you buy the sermon. This Mr. Horton, ordinary guy full of extraordinary passion, wasn't looking for fame or fortune. He just wanted to tell the ungodly--people who don't think much about God--what in his book was plain and simple fact: that they're loved. Ungodly is a strange word today, long out of usage as a noun; but Horton's huge whitewashed stones aren't intended to blackball anyone. I'm sure he thought he was just being nice, and he was.

More than a century ago, Mr. Horton couldn't do maintenance up there anymore, and the Great Plains are not without weeds. If nobody knocked them down and the whitewash faded in the hot Kansas sun, that sprawling message would simply disappear. There'd be no more "Scripture Hill." 

Somebody had to keep Mr. Horton's work alive, the locals must have told themselves. And you'll be pleased to know, as I am, that they did and they do and they will. An entire 120 years later, Mr. Horton's sermon is still there brightly. Arkansas City is very proud of Scripture Hill.

But big as it is, you won't see those words easily because Mr. Horton was a man of his time. He wanted that scripture to be seen by thousands and thousands who once rode the Sante Fe Railroad west. It's still up there boldly on the hill above tracks, but no one travels the tracks anymore. The scripture is there, but if you want to see it well you'd better bring a drone.

No matter. Every year, the locals pull weeds and put down whitewash on those big stones Mr. Horton arranged up there so carefully. That's why the sermon on the hill is still there, as distinct as if that verse were written in the landscape by the hand of the Lord just yesterday. 

I'm quite sure Mr. Horton the dispatcher would like that--and so do I. 

Fact is, even if you consider yourself among the ungodly, you can't help take heart when you look up and see all those crisp white letters still writ large across Scripture Hill.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Morning Thanks--Tumultuous privacy

This morning, even in the dark, we're aboard a ship on a sea of white. A mini-storm roared through earlier this winter, but something of a little big one is here with us now, turning the whole world outside our windows into a great white quilt. It's beautiful, really. But then, I don't have to clear a path to the barn, nor even clean a sidewalk. I've got a grain scoop I never use anymore. This blizzard won't bother me a bit.

Schools were called already last night. A huge banner headline greets you when you visit the web page of the school our grandkids' attend. What's outside throws a fit for thousands of parents, I'm sure, who have to determine what to do with children sentenced suddenly to what may well be, by noon, a roaring case of cabin fever. That "no school" headline down there at the bottom of the page was up already last night, my wife told me, so this morning, I'm sure, most plans have been laid. In a way, that's too bad.

Listening for radio announcements on stormy days has to rank as one of the most wonderful moments of anybody's upper Midwest childhood. You're curled up in bed, pillow perfectly bunched, and the radio's on. Some dj's familiar voice is going through a sprawling list of schools canceled, and when you hear it--"no school at Oostburg Public; no school at Oostburg Christian," no word or phrase could signal anything so sublime. 

Not even my wonderfully pious parents ever brought it up, because no adult, I suppose, ever figured it was true; but if grace is love totally unmerited, then that moment--radio on, the holy words just spoken--that bedside ritual may well have been the most vivid foretaste a kid ever experienced of divine grace, something of a sacrament really. 

"No school." 

You didn't have to hate school to lie there in bed and feel the warmth spread down and through the very chambers of your heart.

I've spent most all of seventy years as a morning person. Right now, it's not long after six. But that particular delight--hearing your school announced, then turning over in a warm bed on a snowy day--that particular joy is a memory whose song is more charming than a whole host of other wonderful childhood melodies. No school amid the storm. Even a morning person stayed in bed.

When I was a teacher in a small Wisconsin high school years ago, something of all of that still thrilled me. But back then snow days were mixed bag because the plan for the week, for the unit, even for the month, could be swept away amid the drifts. At least part of the morning I'd have to sit down and try to figure out how to make up for what was being lost. 

Ah, small potatoes. I was still a kid. The truth is, back then, at home in the ancient trailer I rented (inside, you could see wind gusts in the flame of a candle), it was a still a joy to get a snowy reprieve from unrelenting northwest wind.

Today, a half-century later, blessedly retired, it doesn't matter a bit if there's some whale-like drift between the retaining walls just outside the door down here or another, beached across the driveway out front. Whatever's out there can stay. I don't have to fight it, and whether or not it's there makes no difference. I'm down here at the desk, just like any other day, and right now there's no radio playing.

But I can't help but smile because this morning, somewhere out here in the middle of the prairie, somewhere in Siouxland, some kid and his siblings are waking up to a radio announcement, then fluffing the pillow, turning over, and thinking seriously about going back to sleep, lost, as Emerson said, in the blessedness, the "tumultuous privacy" of storm. 

And that alone is enough to make this old man smile, mid-blizzard. Go ahead and blow, you winter wind. This morning I'm thankful for boys and girls and big winter storms.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Collateral Heroes

Karen Edelman Williams had never been here before, never seen unending fields of corn and soybeans amid the tawny prairie grass, never seen anything like the yawning openness all around. So when, sometime later, she wrote a letter to those people she’d met on a visit out here, she told them she’d never forget the place. “I will never forget the kindness of the people we met there,” she told them, “or the beauty of your Nebraska skies.”

In a roundabout way, what brought her here was those Nebraska skies. She was only six months old when her father became a casualty of World War II way out in the middle of America, thousands of miles from Europe or the South Pacific. Out here, her father trained for the bombing runs that would end wars in both theaters. Her father, and sixteen others with him, fell to their deaths from those same Nebraska skies.

So the only way Karen Edelman Williams knew her father was by way of her mother, who, she says, never really got passed her husband’s sudden death. There wasn’t much to say because she and her husband had been together for such short a time that when, years later, Mrs. Williams thought about it, she told her daughter their relationship seemed almost like a long date.

When skies clear over the plains, barely a day goes by without a jet trail painting a cloudy swath through bright azure; but if you stand out there for a week you’ll not see what people saw day after day during World War II, skies full of B-24s, then B-29s, in perfect formation, as if Berlin was just beyond the Missouri River.

The state of Nebraska hosted eleven Army air fields during the war, requiring industry that’s almost impossible to imagine in farm country today. Thousands of workers poured concrete and built barracks and command posts, as well as a hospital of some 300 beds. Today, very little of that remains. Today, the only engines grunting on the land power tandem-wheel tractors pulling 18-bottom plows.

In 2003, Karen Edelman Williams took her mother along when she went out west on the 60th anniversary of her father’s death. Local men and women helped the family through what had always seemed mystery, the government's unwillingness to say much about what had happened. Eventually, those B-29s out of rural Nebraska became part of the squadron that delivered the atom bombs to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

But locals knew what happened, because when planes crashed into farmland, the men died on ground farmers worked. You can’t hide a plane crash in all that open sky and land. Descendants of those farmers showed Lt. Williams’ family where the planes had crashed, even, mercifully, described the seeming peace of the dead crew.

Four B-24s were flying in tight formation on October 23, 1943, late afternoon, when one of them moved out and another, as required, filled in. Something happened, mid-air—two of them touched, collided. They were 20,000 feet up.

Lt. James Williams was four years older than his wife. He’d been in night school, wanting to be a lawyer. When he died in these open fields, Karen’s mother was just 19—a new wife, a young mom, and in an instant a widow.

She says her mother always blamed herself for her husband’s death. The doctors told her taking a train all the way out to Nebraska was not good for a young mom—she’d have to wait six weeks. Her husband had begged her to come earlier, but she’d waited, listened to the doctor.

He was killed when she was on the train to Nebraska.

Sixty million people died in World War II, including 419 thousand Americans, 26 of which died, almost secretly, on open land beneath those beautiful Great Plains skies.

They’ve not been forgotten. There’s a road marker out there in Fillmore County, three of them, one for each crash.

And the families remember. Karen Edelman Williams, who grew up without her father, says, “My mother never really recovered. Train whistles made her cry.”

They’re heroes, every one.

Monday, January 23, 2017

The Presidencies

Woodrow Wilson, of course, he wouldn't remember. Dad was born in 1919, so whatever he knew about the bookish progressive he had to have learned in those few short years he spent down the road in school, after Wilson was gone. Whether or not he ever understood how the man supposedly "made the world safe for democracy," he must have noted, as a kid, that even in rural Iowa there were men in town who came back from "the Great War" with haunted memories.

Apparently, the nation knew Warren G. Harding was ill and tried to keep up with his poor health, but no one imagined he'd die. Dad was so young he almost certainly never understood the sadness most of the nation felt when the new president--he'd only served two years--died of a brain hemorrhage in 1921.

Pretty much all of Dad's grade school friends spoke the Dutch language. It's highly unlikely he ever saw a African-American man or woman when he was a boy, so he probably never thought about Calvin Coolidge's progressive views on racial equality. Most kids didn't think much about national government as they hiked to school, a mile or so away. Coolidge would have liked that anyway--after all, the best government is the least government.

Herbert Hoover was an real Iowan, sort of. I'm guessing my father-in-law's neighbors in northwest Iowa loved our 31st President for his support of prohibition, but farming got really ugly when the stock market fell in 1929. Dad was twelve or so and the oldest boy. He had to know Mom and Dad faced tough times.

I never asked him about FDR, but he had to have an opinion--everyone did. Some thought Roosevelt a savior; some believed him the author of original sin--big government. Dad was 14 when FDR took over, 26 when he died. A day of infamy brought the whole country to war, and, with forty-some men from his little church in a little town, Dad went off, worked in the motor pool behind American troops from Normandy to Berlin. It was like absolutely no other experience in his life.

He was going to be sent to the South Pacific when Harry Truman ordered the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Instead, he went home where he was more than happy to farm like his father. Truman, the small-town boy from the Midwest, was President when Dad married a beautiful young woman who'd been Tulip Queen--and when he became a father.

Dwight D. Eisenhower, the man who commanded Dad's own army in Europe, took his place in the Oval Office when Dad like so many millions of other vets settled into a life that seemed sheer blessedness after the war's carnage. When he bought land and incurred his own father's anger for taking such an awful risk, he did it because he knew he could and should--but it wasn't easy.

With Calvinists all around, he had to know that John F. Kennedy was Roman Catholic, but a vet too, and a hero. He was probably in the shed the day Kennedy was shot, another harvest behind him; but he couldn't have missed the anxiety on his daughter's face when she came home from school, nor the thick fog of grief that spread over the nation.

Richard Milhous Nixon's five years were tough, I'm sure, for a man who'd been to war and never for a moment wished it on anyone. But there we were in a country so small and undiscovered most of the country couldn't find it on a map. And yet kids, even neighbors, boys his daughter's age, were coming back with wounds he understood, even if they never caught a bullet.

Gerald Ford was another short-timer, a man thrust into an office he hadn't sought, a man whose most important task may well have been t0 clean up a mess. Somewhere in those years, Dad stopped trying to be Old MacDonald, got rid of the cows, and held on to the hogs. His daughter brought home a man who didn't know a Hampshire from a Duroc, said she was going to marry him, even though the guy--kind of wild--had never asked him. They were married in Orange City, and he became a Grandpa.

It must have been interesting to him to have a farmer, a peanut guy, Jimmy Carter, for President. Most of the world around him was blue-blood Republican, but Dad kept an open mind about things. The farm was doing well, even though he was at it alone. But the kids were living just down the road now, and his wife made a habit of Sunday dinner for them.

Ronald Reagan had a way of making most everyone smile, except real Democrats--and Dad didn't know many of those. What he knew was that somehow the world was better off with that Berlin wall down, with the Soviet Union falling apart. Besides, Russia was started to invest in American grain. That helped.

He left the farm during the presidency of George Herbert Walker Bush, quit, he said, because he just didn't want to go through the tension of another harvest--too hard on him. Walking away wasn't easy either, but life in town as a young retiree had its pleasures. He worked here and there and everywhere, because a retired farmer can do most anything. But he took some time to fish too, which he'd never done before.

And so on and so on when Bill Clinton ruled the D. C. roost. His grandkids went to high school and college, the oldest got married to a boy from faraway California--nice kid with a Dutch name.

When George W. Bush was President, his wife for all those years needed to be in a home, so he sold their house and moved to a brand new facility in town. When she became bed-ridden, she grew more and more dependent on his loving care. Then, slowly, and not without pain, she died on a Sunday night while he was in church after being there at her bedside all day. He was alone.

Obama, the African-American, came next, but Dad's hearing kept him from watching much TV, and his age, it seems, limited his ability and desire to understand what was going on in Washington or Des Moines. His greatly loved grandson found himself a wife, but he really couldn't make the trip all the way down to Oklahoma.

Dad is 97 now, and Friday, when President Donald Trump was inaugurated on the steps of the capital, I asked him if he knew anything at all about the new President. He shook his head. Some things don't stay there long anymore, it seems. Other things do.

That afternoon when we were there with him in his room we counted. The numbers are astounding: he's had 18 Presidents. Some, I'm sure, he knew better than others--Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Reagan maybe. He's never been particularly political, and unlike so many of his neighbors and friends he's never held political affiliation as if it were a standard of righteousness.

When you think about all those Presidents in all of those years, somehow each of them seem more human, and somehow therefore diminished. And so we live our lives.

I'm not exactly sure why, but I find all of that both humbling and comforting.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Sunday Morning Meds--The Rainbow

You set a boundary they cannot cross; 
never again will they cover the earth.”

I'll show you the pictures. It was one of those breath-taking, post-storm dawns. I was out east of town, staring into big orange sunrise, got down low and shot through a stand of soybean pods, ready for harvest, a gaggle of viney, whiskery lines. It was one of those moments when I knew I had an image worth taking home, just knew it.

This one. Look closely and you'll see a hungry grasshopper.

It’s not easy for me to get back to my feet once I’m down there, so I stood up slowly, I’m sure, easing the soreness out of my back. When I turned around, the dawn was lighting the western sky, where a flood of cottonball clouds stood pinkly above a broad field of corn, the stalks already half dried, seemingly lifeless at the bottom but still green at the top. I snapped again.

Then I looked north. A thin, third of a leg of rainbow arched up into the tufty sky. I shot and shot and shot, even though, as rainbows go, this one wouldn't have won a prize at the State Faith. 

I’ve seen lots of rainbows throughout my life, but this was the most recent. As beautiful as the dawn was that morning, as interesting a pattern as the soybean vines made against the muted orange of the eastern sky, that morning, as always, the rainbow, even this little stump of one, stood supreme. 

I am likely never more quick-draw biblical than I am in the presence of a rainbow. Their stunning appearances will forever remind me of God’s promise not to destroy, but to love. Shocking in their multi-hued immensity, they not only catch the eye, they hold our vision so tightly that it’s difficult, almost painful to turn away and mind our own business. Part of their heavenly magic is the promise the psalmist remembers here in verse eight, even though there’s no rainbow. We all, I think, rejoice that there are rainbows.

But that doesn’t mean that I don’t understand that, on a sunny day, I can create one myself with a plain old garden hose. There is, after all, a scientific explanation for the rainbow phenomenon, a physical explanation no fundamentalist Christian can deny.

The joy of verse eight is peace, really, peace rooted in Godly order. The psalmist can sing because no damned flood is going to cover the earth ever again. On that one, God has given his word—that’s what the singer knows. There will be no more floods.

God almighty is a God of order, of pattern and design. Things fit with him. From the chaos of whatever was, he spoke the word and created order, as if our cosmos was a dime store key chain, “the works of thy fingers."

But he’s also the God of surprise. And it seems to me that the moment we believe we have him figured out, he’s likely to astonish us with something that confounds or excites, or simply surprises. Like a ordinary soybean up against a burning dawn.

Like a rainbow. 

I love the assurance of this line, the joy the psalmist takes in peace, the assurance that catastrophe will not ensue.  

I love the assurance of the rainbow, but I also will never forget the surprise. Listen to this: I turned away from the dawn, and there it was, this rainbow.

Shocking. Wonderful. Blessed Assurance.

Friday, January 20, 2017

The real question

You may remember that when this whole thing started--the man-who-will-be-President descending from the upper floor of Trump Tower with his trophy wife at his side--when he first started babbling about Mexican rapists, news people would say of him, "the man takes the oxygen out of the room"--no one else can breath. He takes the stage, and everyone else simplyl disappears. His huge, in-your-face swagger was so outlandish that news media couldn't take their eyes off him and neither could the American public. 

He was larger than life, so Macy's-Thanksgiving-Day-Parade balloon-ish that there was no room left on the street for anyone or anything else. To say he dominated is ridiculous understatement. For weeks, Chris Matthews used to stop Hardballing if the Donald happened to be speaking anywhere in America. Trump always made news. He made sure he made news. 

When he said, right down the street from where I live, that he could gun someone down on Fifth Avenue and his people would love him, he was, even then, absolutely right. No American ever guessed anyone could get away with what he did and does and still get elected--no tax returns, three wives, hundreds, even thousands of lies (my people in Hawaii are finding out all sorts of bad stuff about this man named Obama--he didn't even have anyone there). 

His habitual belittling (Lyin' Ted, Little Marco, Crooked Hillary) was gross, his unending idiotic fantasies (Mexico will pay for a wall a wall like China's) so loopy people wanted to believe him. And then did.

Amazing coincidence. Barnum and Bailey tells the American public this week that after 146 years, they're bringing down the big top and parking the caravan. No matter. We've got a new national circus now, a pudgy orange guy with weird hair, who knows better than anyone how to keep the world entertained. Barnum and Bailey who? 

Not long ago, he told someone somewhere that his favorite movie of all time was Citizen Kane. He is Charles Foster Kane. He's either a total idiot or as smart as he claims to be. He either doesn't understand the movie or he does--and he's telling us, like Hamlet, that he's only mad when he wants to be.

He a master at keeping the attention on himself, staying atop the fold, his mug front and center, on the Evening News. And now he's king. Even more cameras will be aimed at him. He can't lose. He sucks the oxygen right out of the room with every huge breath. The rest of us just pant.

Can you imagine any other candidate flying around from one of his temples to another in his own air force and not paying a dime for our schools, for our veterans, for new roads and bridges? If you believe the Washington Post, even his contributions are other people's money. He's never argued about the claim that he's a billionaire who hasn't paid taxes for 18 years. 

We're all slack-jawed around him, speechless, trying to get our breath.

Today, he becomes my President and yours. Today, he will be the leader of the free world. He'll need no megaphones, no elevators, no Trump Towers. Today he will actually be as big as he always claimed he was. After today, everything he says will be miked. 

That Donald Trump can lead goes without question. In epic Old Testament fashion, he beat the tar out of umpteen Republican candidates, left them all bloodied on the stage, then dispatched the Democrat, the first female nominee, by making her a "nasty" woman. He can lead all right. 

The only question left is the one that rises from the pages of the New Testament. That President Trump can rule isn't in question, but can he serve? That's the real question. That's what matters. 

We'll all be watching. That's for sure.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Let me count the ways

It'll happen, and it'll happen tomorrow: the man-who-would-be-President will step into the office with approval ratings twenty points lower than any other President-elect. Only forty percent of the American public approve of him, but you can bet that forty percent is convinced.

Ever since November, we've been scratching our collective noggin to determine how this amazing thing happened. Donald Trump broke every political rule-of-thumb, promised rainbows and unicorns, bullied people out of his way, and behaved in ways we wouldn't tolerate in our own kids. 

But tomorrow he's in. 

Mr. Trump, how did we get thee anyway? Let me count the ways.

1) Because we were choosing between the lesser of two evils.

2) Because Hillary thought she couldn't lose against a someone so unfit for office.

3) Because someone really does have to drain the swamp.

4) Because white folks thought she cared more about who's in whose toilets than who's out of work. 

5) Because "those damned emails" went drip, drip, drip.

6) Because Putin kept leaking Podesta emails.

7) Because FBI Director Comey thought it right to reopen the case against Hillary.

8) Because someone needs to make America great again.

9) Because America is a business, and Trump knows how to run a business.

10) Because he made money and still does.

11) Because he has such good kids

12) Because Fox News loves him.

13) Because mainstream media hates him.

14) Because people loved him on The Apprentice

15) Because he's for a holster on every belt. 

16) Because he doesn't take any shit.

17) Because his midnight tweeting is such a gas. 

18) Because if nothing else, he sure will entertain us.

19) What did I miss????

And how was it that 80% of that 40%, the American Evangelicals, continue to love him?

1) Because he promised to end abortion.

2) Because he's a baby Christian.

3) Because God wanted him.

End of story. 

Beginning of story.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Betsy DeVos and the Kingdom

I'm not particularly sure I like my people being called "a conservative Protestant sect," but lately at least the shoe seems to fit, so I'll have to wear it, despite the pinching. But then, most of those I call "my people," would say, "Okay, Schaap, what would you expect from Mother Jones, that kind of leftie journal?"

I don't know Kristina Rizga, but she's been following the Betsy DeVos story for some time already; and it's clear she's done her homework on what on the traditional CRC, "a little-known, conservative Dutch Calvinist denomination," she calls us in the latest issue. But her Mother Jones article on DeVos, Donald Trump's choice for Secretary of Education, gets an awful lot about us blushingly right.

Betsy DeVos is just about my age and therefore probably carries the same stamp from our mutual CRC rearing. She's went to Holland Christian and Calvin College, and, even though she and her husband aren't CRC today (they went over to a mega), like so many others she can't really wash away that stamp (Trump would say "brand").

There's are differences between us--five billion dollars worth, and that's spare change. The DeVos kingdom probably exceeds that of the the man who chose her. We don't know that to be true because he won't release his tax returns--you know that story.

I used the word kingdom for a reason. Kristin Rizga does too in Mother Jones. "Betsy DeVos Wants to Use America's Schools to Build 'God's Kingdom.'" That's the title of the article, but Rizga puts "God's Kingdom" in quotes. Why?--because Rizga thinks what Betsy DeVos means by "God's Kingdom" is something akin to the U.S. of A. being "a Christian nation." Soon enough, Rizga's warning goes, we'll all become characters in The Handmaid's Tale.  Rizga may know different--she's not dumb; but the spin she puts on her fascinating DeVos (and CRC) profile, and especially on the word kingdom, is to make her billionaire subject into just another right-wing troglodyte with diamonds on the soles of her wooden shoes.

I may be wrong here, but I think Betsy DeVos means something different by "the Kingdom," and I'd like to believe it has nothing to do with patriotic excesses or America being a "Christian nation." I'd like to believe that because that's what we both were taught. I'm no theologian, but I have spent my life in schools that used that phrase as their bottom line, and I never, ever associated "God's Kingdom" with America the Beautiful. To me that phrase always meant the day the lion lies down with the lamb, the day the only thunder birds flying overhead have feathers. As some of us may be too anxious to say, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’”

So I'd like to believe that Kristina Rizga is wrong about what Betsy DeVos means when she uses the word "Kingdom." I can't help but think DeVos is thinking about a sovereign God of all of life and not Old Glory.

But whether that's true, I don't know. I'm watching her congressional hearing with interest, not leftie enough to burn her at the stake, and still tribal enough to want her to do well, even succeed. I'd like to think of her as one of us.

But Kristina Rizga may be right. After all, Betsy's brother Eric Prince, of Blackwater fame, long ago left and took up the bloody Christian jihad.

For the record, here's what the CRC web page says about the word "Kingdom": 
. . . Kingdom takes in all of human culture throughout the world. Unlike nations on earth, God’s kingdom does not have defined borders. It is not restricted to a certain location, like a cathedral; nor can it be reduced to “religious” activity. By God’s kingdom we mean God’s sovereign rule, God’s sphere of influence. We believe that God’s Spirit is busy extending God’s rule all over creation.
If you ask me, "the Kingdom" means something much closer to what Navajos might call "the beauty way," than it does anything Franklin Graham or James Dobson believe about our politics. 

I think I know what Betsy DeVos was taught. What I don't know is what she believes. 

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Morning Thanks--English Class

Even in my dotage, I'd like to believe I was never as schoolmarmish as the old woman at the heart of things here; but I know what's inside this Robin Chapman poem straight from this morning's Writers Almanac. I know it inside and out because I lived it on both sides of the that podium up front.

Twelfth grade reading lists stretched out
as endless as the sentences we diagrammed,
as orderly as the outlines for our senior essays-
"Humanism in England in the Fourteenth Century"
I think I wrote about, cobbling facts together
about Erasmus and the Church, forgetting
those were plague years,

Cobbled together term papers?--I wrote 'em, then read 'em by the thousands. I remember one, way back when, on the Scarlet Letter, a novel I hadn't read and didn't have the heart or time to wade through. I went to an out-of-town library to get something fresh, did a Cliff's Notes thing on Hester Prynne, zipped through what I could cull from an index page or two, and hammered out a paper. Probably got a B. Should have been much worse.

And yet, in my forty years of wandering through the classroom wilderness, I don't know that I taught any other novel as often as Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter and loved it every last time I read through it, loved it more than any of the kids in front of me did, I'm sure. Truth is, I could read it again today and love it some more--so dark with secret sin, so treacherously Calvinistic.

And there's more to this Robin Chapman poem:

and Henry David
Thoreau’s pithy quotes, marching to a different
drummer, hooked me for a solitary ramble
of Walden, not knowing he’d dined every night
with Emerson and Alcott;

I wonder how many others were hooked on some bizarre 19th century abolitionist transcendentalist madly chasing Oversouls. I was. My first year of teaching, I was naive enough to believe I could make Henry Waldo Emerson a holograph in rural Wisconsin. And I didn't do badly. I remember lit up eyes. In graduate school I learned Thoreau regularly marched off to town to sponge meals. So much for purity.

But no matter, even today. The world would be a better place if this week especially we all spent quality time alone at Walden Pond.

and our teacher
always turned to us with hope, searching
for some sign that we’d found a spark,
an engaged liveliness, in all those endless
marching words--her eyes lit up, her thin hair
frizzed, her faith in us fixed,

No kidding. I had no hair to frizz, but when I think of how greatly I believed in them, those kids in desks, I can't stop grinning. I see some of them once in a while, kids I once had in class, and feel strange, as if once upon a time we were lovers. They don't know how much hope I invested in a single spark of engaged liveliness.  
Teaching was a good life.

And then, this marvel--all that faith, Robin Chapman says,

stirring fugitive regret in our adolescent gaze,
preoccupied with who to ask to the Swankette Ball
and who to sit with at the Friday football game
(whom, she’d certainly have made us say).

That's how the poem ends, in Ms. Frizzy's dizzy-ness.

I don't care. I don't care how little that schoolmarm's soulful regard for them actually meant to kids obsessed with what they were going to say at their lockers, or do that afternoon in the gym, or behave that night on a couch. I don't care how incidental Walden was to their storming teenage passions. I really don't.

And neither would Ms. Frizzy if this morning she'd read little Robin Chapman's "English Class." All she needs to do is to see it on the page, this poem by her ex-student, and she'll swear her transcendental passion wasn't just blowing in the wind.

I'd like to tell Ms. Frizz this: that if she can't read the poem her ex-student wrote about her, I did, and that I loved it for her, for that old schoomarm, loved it in the way I'm guessing both of us once upon a time loved them.

Life is good.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Postcards from the MLK National Site

I know how it feels in my hand. I know how it opens and shuts, I know how to set it. I know how compactly it folds up. I'm not sure why, but years and years ago, when I was a boy, a clock just like this ended up somehow in my possession, even though I didn't buy it or use it myself. I just remember it very, very well. When I spotted it, I recognized myself in it, long ago.

This one belonged to Dr. Martin Luther King, and it was his possession that day in Memphis when he walked out on the balcony of the motel where he was staying and was shot dead by a white man named James Earl Ray, who, with that bullet, made some white folks very happy and millions of black folks weep.

For someone my age, stunning familiarity stares at you when you're at the Martin Luther King National Site. This little travel alarm could have been mine, but this one was there in his motel room that night, standing on a table beside a bed he never slept in.

There was no choir loft in the church where I grew up, and no baptistry, but otherwise Ebenezer Baptist, the church he attended as a boy and where he preached as a clergyman isn't unlike the church I remember, front-and-center an oak communion table with "This Do. . ." carved beckoningly into the top, three throne-like chairs standing guard behind a single pulpit in the middle of the stage up front. It's not unfamiliar, even when you sit in a pew and imagine his family filing in.

I didn't grow up in the middle of a major American city like Dr. King, so the streets where he lived and the house he called home don't look much like mine and ours. But that doesn't mean there isn't a species of familiarity here either, a middle-class African-American section of Atlanta. 

It's still a wonder to stand out front on the street here, where a dozen or more old houses are being restored, and to think that once upon a time that little King boy was here, a kid who, with his neighborhood buddies, used to play in the fire station across the street. 

Dr. King wasn't of my generation--he'd be 88 years old today. And there's much in the Martin Luther King National Site that's not familiar, images and remembrances I'd rather not own or even remember, photographs of that time that make me and anyone else, black or white, shudder--chilling photographs frighteningly familiar but somehow unimaginable.

Where am I in this picture? For someone whose memory holds at least some of the story told in Dr. King's boyhood neighborhood, that question is not easy to answer. Who are my people? What did those I loved at the time see when they looked at this image a half century ago? Where did they stand? Why? It's easy to know how MLK got into this picture, but how did it happen exactly that we didn't?

Perhaps the most searing images are not photographs but words to move hearts and minds and souls, words no less difficult today than they were in 1968. 

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Sunday Morning Meds--The Rivers Form

But at your rebuke the waters fled, 
at the sound of your thunder they took to flight; 
they flowed over the mountains, 
they went down into the valleys, 
to the place you assigned for them.”  Psalm 104:7

To record all of this, there would have to be a helicopter running for centuries on solar power, I suppose. It could be positioned almost anywhere; but I would choose some place on the eastern edge of the Rockies, where I’d position that whirlybird a mile high or more and start the camera rolling in time-lapse mode.

One can only imagine. An endless sea shakes out waves rhythmically, when suddenly, unperceptively at first, a mountain begins to emerge, jagged, triangular. Years pass, and that single peak is surrounded by a host of younger siblings, all of them rising until that sea forms waterways that rush with tidal-like power.

We’re a long way from the Plains, from the flat land, but if that camera pans east, it catches the way the water bellies down over a region where there are no silhouettes—or none so startling as the peaks beneath us, now hugely revealed.
We don’t have that huge of a camera, so the helicopter sallies off in that direction, where the water levels out and recedes from land, then falls into crevices, cracks, and fissures, and ten thousand lakes in a place someone will call, an age or three from now, Minnesota. A vast network—a spider web—of rivers push the land into valleys and settle in, as permanently as anything can in nature.  

It’s time-lapse photography, but the phenomenon is stupefying. All that water settles into routine, that mass of chaos into order.

That’s what the psalmist sees. There, to the east, the Mississippi widens, while beneath us the Missouri, the Mud, spatters on south. Everywhere from this height, myriad meandering tributaries have formed, lifelines on your hands. And it all works. Land has been called into being from a vast sea, and that immense space is veined with life, with rivers.

I know scientists who would laugh at the film we just shot because the whole process didn’t happen in the manner we’ve just now caught on tape. There were vast seas all right—and there were frozen, vast seas. There was an ice age or two, and immense bulldozing glaciers. And there was mystery.

I don’t think the poet has it right, scientifically. The psalmist knew very little geology, had no clue about glaciers or aquifers. But when he sat in his helicopter and recorded what he saw, the images arranged themselves in such a way as to form the face of the Creator right before his eyes. That much he caught dead-on.

When the first Dutch folks wandered up to northwest Iowa, they determined what would be their land by setting in the requisite stakes. But once it was all official, they brought their families, one of the first things they did was cut back the tall prairie grass to the rivers because the only way they'd know where they were in that sea of grass was by way the rivers.

Because the heavens declare the glory of God, all nations hear the sermons. Psalm 104 is how the psalmist thinks about the preaching God does in land and sea all around.

And I, for one, am blessed by what he sees of God’s own world around him, and thankful for his gift, in part because I know what’s in his heart and soul—because I've seen rivers too, and I've listened too to what he hears and sees of the Creator.