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, February 28, 2017

The Vancouver Celebration of Hope?

Don’t think I’ve come to make life cozy. I’ve come to cut—make a sharp knife-cut between son and father, daughter and mother, bride and mother-in-law—cut through these cozy domestic arrangements and free you for God. Well-meaning family members can be your worst enemies. If you prefer father or mother over me, you don’t deserve me. If you prefer son or daughter over me, you don’t deserve me. Matt.10, The Message
Matthew 10 is a country mile from a babe in a manger on a gorgeous, starlit night; but then, not everything Jesus said would look good on a t-shirt, at least I've never seen one that says, "Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword."


Both sides of almost any theological tussle can campaign under that New Testament passage. There have been a million such tussles. Up on a hill just east of the Big Sioux River sits a cemetery, alone now where there once was a tiny settlement of Norwegians, a place called Highland, a half-dozen buildings, no more, and two of them--that's right, two--were houses of worship.

I'm guessing that once upon a time both sides of town could claim righteousness on the basis of Matthew 10. Right now there's another tussle in Vancouver, where the The Reverend Franklin Graham will be speaking very soon. Graham isn't shy about using the sword Christ removes from the sheath in Matthew 10. He's made vitriolic pronouncements on gays and Muslims, remarks some Vancouver Christian leaders call "disparaging and uncharitable."

What did Franklin Graham say? That Muslims should not be permitted to enter the United States because Islam is “a very evil and wicked religion"; that gays have no place in churches or even Christian homes because "the Enemy wants to devour our homes"; and that the election of Donald Trump was something akin to "an act of God."

Significant numbers of evangelical and Catholic leaders in the city of Vancouver have actively and now publicly opposed the Reverend Graham's coming to the city for an old-fashioned crusade. When their attempts failed to get the Crusade's planners to substitute some other main speaker, they went public with their criticism. Next week, Franklin Graham, despite the protest, will speak at the Vancouver Celebration of Hope.

The public letter those Christians sent to the people of Vancouver raises concerns about fracturing even further an already divided city and country, especially after the deadly attack on a mosque in Quebec. The suspect, a terrorist, but not a Muslim, was well-known as a troll who opposed Canada's refugee programs.

Some Christians want Franklin to save Vancouver souls. Some believe he should stay home. All of them believe the Bible.

Is this what Jesus was talking about in Matthew 10? And if it is, in this particular situation, who is wielding the sword Jesus unsheathes: is it Franklin Graham and the walls his ardent principles create, or is it the letter's signatories, who would keep Franklin Graham outside the walls of the city? Who is wielding the sword and who is bleeding?

Trumpism's tornadic might has shattered evangelicalism.

One of the leaders who signed the letter is a former student, an English major, and a fine writer. After college, for four years she worked in the Middle East, organizing and facilitating numerous interfaith and intercultural dialogue. Based in Cairo, she also helped organize volunteer work among refugee organizations. Today she works with refugee resettlement in the city of Vancouver.

I don't claim to know how to interpret the words of Jesus in Matthew 10, not when it comes to whose swords should be wielded and whose blood might be shed--I really don't know. 

But in this particular Vancouver conflict, I know where I stand. 

Monday, February 27, 2017


Imagine--the Battle of Stalingrad lasted five months, one week, and three days. That long. During that madness, the city suffered innumerable air raids that pummeled it into ruins. Much of the fighting was the worst--hand-to-hand in the horror. When it was over and the bloodied remnant of Hitler's army finally laid down arms, losses reached somewhere close, if not beyond, two million human beings captured, wounded, killed. 

That was the Battle of Stalingrad, a level of horror beyond imagination, as it must have been for Hitler's Reich, whose news police did their best to keep the truth under wraps. 

But some returned from Russia, early on. Some returned, later. When they did, if they told anyone what they'd seen, the story opened. Eventually, recruits told they were being sent to "the Eastern front" considered it a death sentence.

Merely to tell the truth about Stalingrad became a crime, not simply because of the massive losses, but also because Stalingrad documented in bloody detail that Himmler's propaganda machine was pumping out fake news. Stalingrad gave the Reich a nose so long no one could miss the lies, Hitler simply could not afford to tell the story.

In Munich, Sophie Scholl, her brother, and a few other students, wanted the truth out. They called themselves "the White Rose," and did what they could to let Germany know something about the Eastern Front. They were anti-Hitler at a time when hundreds of thousands of people were already being executed in death camps. They were the Resistance, even though they knew their own deaths, should they be arrested, were almost assured. 

Sophie Scholl: the Final Days (2005), the film chosen by Vox this weekend as its "movie of the week," tells her story in unrelenting, stark detail made possible by the release of the actual transcripts of her hearing and trial. It's powerful and riveting, as so much holocaust literature is. The dynamic is as unimaginable as Stalingrad's death tolls: a girl, a student, asking for a principle, regardless of her life. 

Sophie Scholl is a national hero in Germany, for good reason. She walked to her own death--she was beheaded--as if she were royalty, not without tears or regrets, but with the triumph her hearty belief that what she did--attempt to tell people about Stalingrad--was not a crime. It was the truth. 

She's sustained throughout by her brother, who was also executed when she was, and her parents, who tearfully supported their children's resistance. 

Her trial, conducted by a madman Nazi judge, clearly proves her to be the only sane person in the room. When she's sentenced, she lets the courtroom know the truth. The crowd is composed entirely of Nazi men in full military regalia. Her own parents were not permitted to enter. But when she says that everyone in that room knows what happened at Stalingrad, when she opens up about the truth, what those Nazis hear is something they already know--but it shakes them to hear it out loud. 

They don't rise up. They don't protest her sentence. They don't even murmer. But something dies. They look down or to their sides uncomfortably. At that moment, although the death sentence doesn't change, Sophie Scholl wins the courtroom battle.

Not many movies offer us death as triumph. Sophie Scholl does. Her resolve arises from a number of sources, one of which is anguished, trusting prayer. 

Here's how Vox described its choice this week:  
Every weekend, we pick a movie you can stream that dovetails with current events. Old, new, blockbuster, arthouse: They’re all fair game. What you can count on is a weekend watch that sheds new light on the week that was. The movie of the week for February 25 through March 3 is Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (2005), which is available to digitally rent on Amazon.
Trust me--Sophie Scholl has nothing to do with LaLa Land. Whether or not it has relevancy to anything else going on around us is something you'll have to determine for yourself. 

Sunday Morning Meds--Those Cedars of Lebanon

The trees of the LORD are well watered, 
the cedars of Lebanon that he planted.”

Up and down the broad shoulders of the Missouri River, thousands of dead cedars lie akimbo, puffs of bronze against the prairie grasses.  Ranchers fight a losing battle with the cedars because they grow like weeds in the hills.  Eventually, if someone weren’t there to cut them down, they’d turn the valley into mighty forest.  A forested Missouri River neighborhood might be beautiful—and remarkable amid miles of grassland; but ranchers are cattlemen, not lumberjacks.

The cedars of Lebanon, I’m told, face a wholly different problem.  Those famed broad forests simply are no more, or are but a shadow of their former selves. They’re gone.

And who is to blame?  Not us, thankfully—well, not us if we define ourselves by time and place.  But if we define us by species, denuding the forested hills of Lebanon began thousands of years ago, when more populated areas of the desert Middle East needed the lumber.

When their supplies went scarce, wars erupted. Deprivation creates conflict—who’s going to get what all of us want? Then, later, the cedars of Lebanon became the building materials of the great Phoenician ships. Supplies waned. 

While the cedars of Lebanon may have been well watered in the Psalmist’s day, today they are no more. They’re the stuff of legends because we did ‘em in.  God may have planted them, but human enterprise felled them.  It’s just that simple.

So why not let the cedars of the Missouri River grow into brand new forests?  Human enterprise uproots them; why not just let them grow back?

There really never was a forest of cedars along the Missouri because they were continuously wiped out by raging prairie fires. A forest of river valley cedars would be a new thing really.   

I don’t claim to understand a great deal about “the balance of nature” or the scientific field of ecology.  But you don’t a degree to know that our interaction with the forces of nature changes the landscapes around us. I happen to live in in the county that leads the entire state in “altered” acres; here and there, on some forgotten hillside there may be a corner of actual native prairie. What’s more, the state of Iowa leads the nation is altered land. We have less wilderness here than anywhere. In Sioux County, Iowa, change is evident in every direction.

Right now, if you want to see the blessed cedars of Lebanon, the trees that thrill the poet, good luck. They’re gone. 

Lebanon itself is often a war zone.  There may be no more “cedars of Lebanon,” but some Lebanese wonder whether there even is a Lebanon.

Psalm 104 is a pageant of God’s wondrous glory in nature. All around him, the psalmist is awed by a landscape that blossoms.

On a clear night, when you turn off the blacktop and head south on gravel to our place, for about a minute, on a rise above prairie ground, a hundred red lights glow at the horizon and blink on cue from a field of wind turbines thirty miles east.

Their relative beauty can be argued. Their presence means the air somewhere is cleaner than it might be. Still, they dominate. It’s impossible not to see them.

That, today, the “cedars of Lebanon” create no music, no poetry, and no awe suggests is sort of sad; I’d like to see what make the psalmist sing.

Those long-gone cedars of Psalm 104: 16 is a reminder to care about our world.

Friday, February 24, 2017


Did he have a clue what he was fighting for? We'll never know, I guess. I'm sure he was sent off with some kind of parade, replete with patriotic fervor. Likely as not, flags were waving--after all, now that the Yanks were coming, the Krauts turn pale and run.

It was 1918, but right before being shipped across, he came down with a strain of pneumonia that put him in the base infirmary rather than on the troop ship. He missed his company's departure and landing, but came along a month or so later.

If he hadn't, if he hadn't been taken down by illness, would that hiccup have meant he'd survive? Maybe with a month of battle behind him, he wouldn't have done what he did on his last day. Maybe he wouldn't have been exactly where he was when he was. Certainly on that particular day some nameless German soldier wouldn't have tossed the grenade  he did, just at the moment this unlettered doughboy was running across a gully not far from the Vesle River in France.

What I'm saying is, the exact constellation of the events at the moment of his death could not have been repeated. This soldier, my grandmother's only brother, may well have survived had he not come down with a nasty cold, had he gone left instead of right when he came to a cedar in his way, had he stopped momentarily to relieve himself, had any of a thousand things happened.

But none did, so that's not the story.

That kind of mental and emotional finagling comes with every tragedy we suffer, doesn't it? If only he'd have boarded that troop ship when he should have, he would have altered what seemed the preordained order of events and messed up the plot of his death. You know, "if only she'd taken her normal route home, there would have been no accident."

But she didn't.

And neither did my great uncle. The facts are etched on stone. He went to bed in the infirmary because some flu bug laid him up; he missed the ship; he went over later, rejoined his outfit; he spent no more than a couple of days at the front; and he was killed by an enemy grenade he likely never saw. He was dead instantly--so guessed the man who found his body and knew him.

The whole thing seems jerry-rigged, doesn't it? The whole thing seems predestined.

My father-in-law says he remembers being parked out in the country somewhere on some night long ago, a couple of friends along, mid-summer, sometime before he left for basic training during World War II. He and his friends tried to run through what a catechism question really meant, tried to find an explanation, tried, he said, to understand how life worked. Are we free agents? Do we make our own choices? Do we control our fate?

Or does fate? Or does someone else spin the dice for us? For a son of Dutch Calvinism, that question was carried along by a particular theological formulary: are we predestined? Is all of what are and will be already mapped out? Are we subject to powers so much greater than ourselves that our freedom is only an illusion.

Are we foreordained?

My great uncle died in August of 1918, 99 years ago, soon to be a century. In November of 1618, in the city of Dordtrecht, the Netherlands, a host of Dutch Calvinists, determined to answer that question in its theological formulation. What resulted--after more than year of wrangling and even some fisticuffs--was a formulary titled "The Canons of Dort," 499 years ago.

There has to be a story there, and it's ours, all of ours really.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

He's huge

It's a kerfuffle barely visible in the rearview mirror.

Bernie Sanders is on CNN. He's with Erin Burnett, when Ms. Burnett asks him something about General Flynn. Maybe you've seen this. Ms. Burnett claims the President seems in the dark about what happened, at least that's how he acted when he asked aboard Air Force 1 on his way to his Florida retreat.

Senator Sanders says, "Maybe he was listening to CNN, Fake News."

It's a joke, and he tells Ms. Burnett that much; but then technical difficulties break in, Sanders disappears and the network takes us to a commercial. After the ads, Erin Burnett returns, apologizes, repeats the "fake news" line, and the two of them continue their discussion.

Not long after, our Commander-in-chief gets on his Twitter account and announces to the world that even Bernie Sanders, something of an enemy of his, to say the least, gets dusted off for criticizing CNN.

Now our President is either truly mean-spirited, a bald-faced liar, or some zesty marriage of the two. Some conservative news outlets picked up his version of the story and trumpeted it abroad as if what Mr. President said was gospel truth. An outfit named "The Free-Thought Project" summarized what happened this way: "At this point, the ugliness of using ‘technical difficulties’ as a weapon to silence interviewees not in direct alignment with CNN is plain to see — Sanders dared deem the vanilla media behemoth Fake News, albeit perhaps in jest."

A flat-out lie.

I'm sure the technical difficulties were greatly regretted by both Ms. Burnett and CNN, but to say Bernie Sanders was booted off the network for saying what he did--clearly in jest, clearly a reference to Trump himself--is just plain nuts. It's dead wrong. It's not one bit true.

No matter. You're reading this now--if you're still with it--because Trump fills the air with tweeted flack every day. He's not "in" the news, he IS the news. He steals all the oxygen, period. He destroyed 17 Republican challengers by refusing to allow them ink. He keeps the entire bottle himself, constantly making news, often by lying.

Hard as it may be to believe, a
new Quinnipiac Poll, released just yesterday, says Americans now, finally, have come to believe the news media more than they do the President. The man's approval rating has now fallen, by Quinnipiac's measure, to just 38 percent. Really, that's disastrous because we face judgments that have to be made. Just this week, Sergei A. Ryabkov, the Russian deputy foreign minister, said there were contacts between Trump's staff all during the election, even though Trump's staff says there were not. “I cannot say that all, but a number of them maintained contacts with Russian representatives,” Mr. Ryabkov said.

So, pray tell, who do we believe? Donald Trump falsehoods litter the landscape, making judgments impossible because both parties sport ridiculously long noses.

How on earth will we get through this? "It is likely that no living person in history has ever been as famous as Mr. Trump is right now,"
says Farhad Manjoo in this morning's New York Times. And the man, our President, fabricates the truth almost daily.

Even though this country is split open like a ripe watermelon, in a perilous way he keeps us together, conjuring up equally white-hot quantities of hate and love. He rages against a media that gives him galaxies of space because we can't stop staring. He's a Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade balloon filling our skies. "Here a Trump, there a Trump, everywhere a Trump, Trump." But there's no Old McDonald-had-a-farm; there's only the Donald who right now has a whole lot than a farm. He's got an entire country.

Maybe he'll deflate. Maybe leave. Maybe he'll just settle down and learn to be President.

Maybe real life will reset. Keep hoping.

I'm tired.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

from the museum--Blessed Assurance

Years ago, when I was revising a novel, Romey's Place, I didn't know exactly how the plot would end. What I knew when I'd started the revision was that I was off in a new direction, writing a different story really because I'd been reading Phillip Yancey and Kathleen Norris and came to realize that that story I was telling had much more to do with grace than I'd ever imagined. 

That manuscript was ten years old already, had made the rounds to publishers. In the early drafts, the kid's father had died while away in Europe, making it impossible for the two of them to talk about differences the narrator couldn't help but feel. But in this revision I knew I wanted the two of them to have that talk. I didn't know where it would take place, nor why or how it would turn out, only that something had to be said. Somehow, the protagonist and his father were going to talk to each other in a way they never had.

Right about then, my parents came out to Iowa to visit. One Sunday morning we went to church, and that morning's liturgy included the old hymn "Blessed Assurance." There I stood, beside him, watching him--and hearing him--pour his heart out and I knew right then how the novel would end. The protagonist, now a father himself, understands that what all of his pent-up antagonism doesn't have to be spilled, doesn't have to soil his father's love. So he doesn't tell his father the story he'd wanted to, doesn't say it because he's learned--after all those years--something abiding about grace, a lesson he'd learned from a tough kid he hung around with in those turbulent years when they grew up together.

That Sunday morning, my father gave me the denouement of Romey's Place at the moment we were stood there singing "Blessed Assurance." That moment informs the final scene of the novel.
Just as he was for so many others, my father--bless his soul--was forever a peacemaker. Throughout all of my life, in a hundred varied ways, my father showed me the paths of truly selfless righteousness. Even now, in his last years, I still thank him for offering me a witness of what is pure, what is holy, and what is true.
But now that I’ve walked through those years again, now that I’ve gone back as deeply as I could into a story that ended in Cyril’s death, I’ve come to believe that Romey’s place in my life has become more consequential in the decades that have passed than that place may have seemed at the time. What my own foolish soul has come to understand is that while my father taught me goodness, it was Romey who taught me grace.
And that’s why I don’t need to tell my aging father the long story I couldn’t bring myself to tell him years ago. There’s no need to explain what role he played the night I lost a friend, no need to remind him of what, for years, I might have called his sin. All I need to say is that no matter what, he is my father. That’s part of what Romey taught me.
When my father died, I remembered that moment clearly and told myself that at his funeral I wished we could sing again "Blessed Assurance." I didn't push that wish on anyone because I couldn't help feeling that some witches' brew of motivations was at work: life and art and ego subtly and fearfully mixed. Had I told my sisters we should sing I wanted to sing the old  hymn, I would have felt idolatrous after a fashion, as if my story of my father's story was more significant than his story, his life.

I had no part in planning his funeral. My sisters did it while we were on our way to Wisconsin. They told me what they were planning once we arrived, and one of the hymns they'd determined to sing, they said, was "Blessed Assurance." 

My sister said that Mom had claimed her husband's deep faith was something she'd always admired and even envied; he'd never really doubted God's love, and she'd marveled at, or so she told my sisters, because there were times she did, she said. My mother chose that old hymn for reasons all her own.

Was that okay? my sisters asked me.

Sure, I said. Of course it was.

So we sang "Blessed Assurance" at his funeral. Of course, I will never again sing that hymn without thinking of him. There it is on his gravestone--Mom made sure it was there. 

Part of my inheritance includes that same assurance. Like him, I don't doubt my Father's love. Never have--hopefully, never will.

My dad never took me hunting, never took me to ball games, never did a whole lot with me really. By today's standards, he didn't work at building a relationship--just as his own probably hadn't, a preacher with ten kids, mid-Depression. 

But my father taught me a great deal about this life and the next by his own humbling blessed assurance.

That's his story--and mine.

And it's also our Father's story, or so it seems to me.

first appeared on October 22, 2007

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

What's just down the road

It's much bigger than you might imagine, but then it had to be. Once upon a time, it was home to as many as 10,000 Japanese-Americans the rest of us believed fearfully vulnerable to their own inborn nationalism to side with the U.S. of A., during World War II. How could we not lock them up? —some still spoke Japanese.

Seventy-five years ago, a white-hot fear created mass relocation for 130,000 Japanese-American men, women, and children, a relocation that’s blessedly easy to forget. But it happened. We built ten camps, transformed race tracks and other plots of open ground, and filled them with our neighbors.

If some morning you stand on the broad ground of Amache Relocation Center, Granada, Colorado, if you look up and down the almost endless rows of foundations, you can still feel something of the national panic after Pearl Harbor.

I am for the immediate removal of every Japanese on the West Coast to a point deep in the interior. I don't mean a nice part of the interior either. Herd 'em up, pack 'em off and give 'em the inside room in the badlands... Personally, I hate the Japanese. And that goes for all of them.
So wrote newspaper columnist Henry McLemore.

There were other reasons as well, selfish reasons.

We're charged with wanting to get rid of the Japs for selfish reasons. We do. It's a question of whether the white man lives on the Pacific Coast or the brown men. They came into this valley to work, and they stayed to take over... If all the Japs were removed tomorrow, we'd never miss them in two weeks, because the white farmers can take over and produce everything the Jap grows. And we do not want them back when the war ends, either.
That's what the head of a California agricultural association told the Saturday Evening Post is 1942.

10,000 people in hundreds of rudely constructed barracks, ten thousand men and women and kids who’d lived up and down America’s west coast, herded to places like this by intense fear and racial hatred.

T0day, the absence of people and places have not emptied Amache Relocation Camp of voices, especially if you're alone. Once this was a city, after all. Thousands crowded into its mess halls, worked its gardens, created its newspaper. Children were born; men and women died.

To call Amache a concentration camp may well be going too far. Amache wasn't a death factory. But the images are stunningly reminiscent. 

I’ve been listening to Midnight in Broad Daylight: A Japanese Family Caught Between Two Worlds, an exacting memoir of the horrors suffered by a single family rent apart by World War II. After December 7, it’s impossible for Harry, the American brother, not to see grave changes even on the faces of people he’d long considered friends. His neighborhoods feel ghost-like overnight:

Driving through Little Tokyo between gardening jobs, Harry was struck by how quickly the neighborhood was losing its sparkle. Christmas and the New Year normally attracted shoppers, but they had fled the enclave. Once packed eateries looked forlorn with empty tables. “Going out of Business” signs proliferated overnight.
A people were summarily taken from homes many had lived in for more than a generation, then sent to places like Amache, a place with walls and gates. The truth is, Amache Relocation Camp never was anything more than a speck in fly-over country, 10,000 invisible people in the middle of nowhere.

Just a few days ago, earphones in, I was burning away what calories I could on an exercise bike, listening to Midnight in Broad Daylight, the memories of a man who never forgot life at a place just like Amache, one of thousands sentenced to listlessness on the dry plains of eastern Colorado, where the summer sun can lift the paint off a Chevrolet.

That’s the story I’m listening to when something close a dozen Japanese students walk into the rec center, start playing pool, and ping-pong--just, as they’d say, hanging out. It’s 75 years later right now, almost to the day; and what’s playing in my ears and mind is a story I’d just as soon not share with them.

Telling them would be scary, not because my father took part in all that injustice. He didn’t. He was nowhere Amache or the entire west coast of America for that matter. When all those Japanese-Americans were trying to find something to do outside foundations still tall enough to emerge from the tumbleweeds, my father was with the Navy in the South Pacific fighting the Japs.

I’m listening to the heartsick memories of a man and his sister, and I’m watching all those Japanese students hanging out, and I can’t help but think about how incredibly understandable a place like Amache was to white Americans who'd just been attacked by planes coming over Diamond Head on a perfect Sunday morning with the singular aim of delivering death.

It’s so easy to draw up differences, and not at all hard to be afraid when we see them. Anger flourishes in that kind of fear and soon enough it will blossom into hate, if we let it. It’s so incredibly easy.

Amache Relocation Camp may well be out in the middle of nowhere, but, truth be told, it’s never all that far down the road.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Morning Thanks--a concert

Some things are simply foreordained. That I would enjoy the Cantus concert on Saturday night was a given. I walked into the Northwestern chapel with a disposition in full homage- mode. Count me among those old men and women who believe that when the church gives up on harmony in its music, it could just as well put orthodoxy in its rear-view mirror.

Cantus, some say, is the premiere men's vocal ensemble in the U.S. of A. As a musical judge, I'm hardly qualified; but their recordings play regularly down here in the basement, although never simply as background; the sheer beauty of their music carries away my attention. 

Besides, Saturday night my granddaughter was singing with them, along with a host of local school choirs, all of them up on stage for Franz Biebl's "Ave Maria," the gorgeous setting of the Ave Maria that has become Cantus's own signature piece. I wanted that piece to be a blessing for her. I knew it would be for me. Go ahead and listen.

Just a few minutes before all those kids took the stage, she messaged me--"Video it," she said. Her wish--my command. That anthem--is that the right word--requires no visuals. Even though I was holding my wife's phone up the whole time, I was able to hold back tears from the swirl of feelings running through me--even imaging my mother listening in from above. It was something beyond words. 

Once God Almighty had created everything, he sat back. Imagine him taking it all in, this marvelous creation, and saying "It's good." I think we're allotted just a few intimations of immortality in life, but that was one--my granddaughter a part of all that beauty was one of them. That kind of beauty really can, I believe, save the world.

The concept of the concert itself was to honor our veterans. So I expected "Battle Hymn of the Republic," and "America the Beautiful" and, you know, "When Johnny Comes Marching Home." It's not difficult to light up a crowd with patriotism, even though the late Sixties left a Samuel Johnson in me forever whispering that patriotism is "the last refuge of a scoundrel."

No matter. I expected beautiful patriotism anyway. But what Cantus offered was nothing close. The evening was a stunning look at the realities of war that featured letters home from soldiers throughout our country's long history of warfare. There were a few old recognizable melodies, but a host of pieces were commissioned by Cantus, new musical literature linked by theme, and harmonies that seemed, one after another, perfectly astonishing.

It was patriotism all right, but the delicate program Cantus created wandered carefully through harrowing wartime experiences and thereby paid homage to war's very reality. Those poignant letters prompted melodies that reached deeply into the darkest moments of human sadness and yet somehow reflected the glory that all of us carry as image-bearers of the Creator. 

It was, I told myself, music as theater, not because some plot line brought us along through the concert, but theater--drama--borne on soaring melodies. I don't know how to define it really, but somehow the mix of dissonance, as perfectly stated as poetry, always begs completion. Every piece has its own powerful complications, complications our very humanness wants badly to hear and feel resolved. You sit on the edge of your chair and listen as human voices create melodies so complex they would make your soul wither if they weren't somehow resolved. And some are not--just as some are not resolved in the lives all of us live. What Cantus created is its own incredible genre of musical theater.

I fought back tears at the Ave Maria, but I always do. But then, this time my granddaughter was in it. Or did I mention that?

But tears were there too at World War I, when a letter home brought a great uncle's life and death to mind and soul. "Goin' Home" is a ballad, a hymn sung by a dead man. And I couldn't help think of Uncle Edgar, dead by way of a grenade in a gully in France he never knew existed just a month before. 

I've thought and written quite a bit about that great uncle I never knew, but "Going Home" brought me closer to him than I'd ever felt. And I couldn't help picture his sister either, my grandma, writing note after note, frantically, for more than a year after his death, a year after the war was over, wanting like nothing else to find out anything about her brother, any word, any bit of hope.

And then discovering he wouldn't return. 

It was foreordained that I would love that concert Saturday night, but I had no idea it would or even could take such a deep hold on my soul. 

This morning, I'm greatly thankful for the astonishing virtue of Cantus's music. And, I'm blessed to say, so is my granddaughter.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Sunday Morning Meds--Faith and Superstition

“He makes grass grow for the cattle, 
and plants for man to cultivate, 
bringing forth food from the earth: 
wine that gladdens the heart of man, 
oil to make his face shine, 
and bread that sustains his heart.”

I must confess to never having been much of a fan of Benjamin Franklin. What’s worse, I may well have colored the attitudes of hundreds of students with my own skepticism. His Autobiography is a classic, the first of its genre and a textbook in the deism of his day; but it carries an arrogance that’s tiring—“listen, my children, to what I did,” Franklin seems to say. “If you want to know how to live, watch me pull up my own bootstraps.” It feels almost condescending. Something about the Autobiography, for all its testimony to virtue, seems, well, insincere.

Phillip Dray’s, Stealing God’s Thunder, investigates Franklin’s scientific interests, his experiments with electricity generally and lightning specifically. Dray’s study of the man has made me less skeptical of him, perhaps because it makes him less self-centered. He was a nobody in the scientific circles of his age, uneducated and unknown—and from the backwaters of the American colonies; yet he dedicated himself (once nearly dying in the process) to understanding the electricity of the heavens because, as Dray says, “little or nothing was known about lightning, whose true nature was shrouded by superstition.” Lightning seemed the finger of an angry God.

It’s not difficult to understand how people could see lightning and thunder as manifestations of God’s hand in our lives. Lightning turns night, literally, to day—and kills people, often in bizarre (and therefore scintillating) fashion. Thunder shakes us like earthquakes. It’s almost impossible not to cower. The Greeks thought Jupiter hurled lightning bolts, but the shock and awe of a big thunderstorm makes just about everyone fall back to final defenses—the will of God.

Enter Franklin. Lightning has nothing to do with some kind of God, he asserted. We need only understand some rudimentary physics to understand its play across the heavens. As Dray makes clear, Franklin “stole God’s thunder.” After Franklin, the kind of lightning he saw fly over the New Jersey shore of the Delaware River lost some force because it could be no longer seen as the spears God flung from his heavenly throne.

Now listen to Charles Spurgeon: “. . .do but watch with opened eye and you shall see the Lord walking through the cornfield.” Spurgeon could have been in Iowa. I know exactly what he means in this aside on Psalm 104:14. I love the sentiment. It’s here in these verses, after all: grass, wine, oils, breads—they are what God does. Taste a glass of wine and you’ve tasted something of God’s own hand. I’ve seen God in a cornfield, I swear.

When I’m seeing him in that way, I believe I’m seeing his world through the eyes of faith. Still, I’m thankful for Franklin, who, flying a kite in the rain, took God right out of a storm. Go figure.

The difference is the distance between superstition and faith, but then those very words almost always have tentative definitions, depending on who’s using them when.

What I know is this. When we get storms out here on the Plains, they play richly in the wide-open spaces above our land. And even though I know how lightning works, that knowledge doesn’t stop me from glorying in the pageant. Do but watch with opened eyes, I might say, and you shall see—even today, 200 years after Franklin—the Lord himself in the heavens above.

To me, at least, that’s not superstition; that’s the faith of Psalm 104.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Saturday Morning Catch--what was and is and will be

I was thinking west. The incessant honking over the Floyd means there should be hundreds, maybe thousands more at the Big Sioux. But the moment I stepped outside, I knew I had to go east, where a fringe of cloud cover was starting to pink with a dawn that was still more than a half hour away. 

I got lucky. I happened on an abandoned farm at exactly the right time, a place where I can bale out of the Honda and walk anywhere I'd like without having people call 911. I knew I was in for a flame, the sun still beneath the horizon but that cloud mass already painted, the horizon become a Joseph's coat of many colors. Look for yourself.

I left the car in the middle of the yard and took off behind the house where the maples created a frame. That backdrop was going to be good for maybe ten minutes, I figured, so I pulled any character anywhere near into the foreground and just let the backdrop sing praise.

Ten minutes from dawn. Once the sun rises, the colors flatten, or at least the camera sees them that way. I'm still looking for foreground characters--the shot has to have someone in it.

All that fire is turning citrus. If that farm is at twelve, think of the sun at two or so, still hidden but creating a burn on the horizon.

I didn't pack the tripod, so I held the camera on a fencepost, which explains why the farm's silhouette as sharp as it is.

Then shot the fence post. When finally sun emerges, the colors darken against the burn. The reds depart, as does anything remotely pastel--and they're not coming back. Maybe. 

There's no really stunning shots, but the sky was magnificent but fleeting. Really, I'm not out there just to take pictures.

Once that morning sun rises, it's King Midas. 

When it clears the haze, it lays a patina on wood, a look that can't be achieved any other way, as if this wreck of a shed were really a palace.

This is all history, of course, what once was. 

And this is what is. I was less than a mile away from a garden of wind turbines. 

I know I should love them for what they do, but they do insist on being the show.

Here's a Siouxland landscape today--wind turbines and a couple of hog confinements. 

So this morning I saw a little of what was and what is and, thankfully, what likely always will be, a fleeting heavenly pallet out east atop the dawn, February 18, just east of Paulina, Iowa.

I'm a witness, and I suppose, so are you.

Friday, February 17, 2017

From the museum--On February 17

I was 32 years old when someone at Bread Loaf Writers Conference called to tell me that my application for a scholarship had been accepted and they were offering me a position as a waiter. I had no idea what being a waiter meant, but I understood from the conversation that the offer was a good, good thing.

The house where we lived at that time is long gone, as is the tiny kitchen where I stood, phone in hand, listening. The call had come in the middle of the day, in the middle of a lunch. Our two little kids were sitting beside us.

It’s now close to thirty years later, but I will never forget receiving that call because I had the sure confidence that my being chosen for a waiter’s scholarship to the granddaddy of all writers conferences, Bread Loaf, was a signal that, as a writer, fame and fortune lay just down the road. I had just published a book, my first, with a tiny, local press; now, Bread Loaf beckoned. The New York Times Book Review was a year or so away.

When I flew into Burlington, Vermont, for the Conference—early, because I was a waiter—I met a beautiful woman, my age, married with two children, who said she was an aspiring poet. She’d also be a waiter. Someone from the Conference picked us up, but we took the hour-long drive together into Vermont’s Green Mountains.

Ten days later, when we boarded a plane to leave, she and I stood on the stairway to that jet, waiting to enter the cabin. She looked at me and shook her head. “I hope this plane crashes,” she said, and she meant it.

She’d been wooed by a celebrity poet, and she’d fallen. On the dance floor at night, the two of them looked like smarmy high school lovers, which might have seemed embarrassing if it hadn’t happened to so many others. Another waiter—also married with kids, two of them—told me it was important for him to have an affair because, after all, as an artist he needed to experience everything in order to write with authority.

I thought long and hard about her wish on the way home that day, whether someone’s soulful desire could ever turn, magically, into reality. And the very idea made me think, that day, about dying. What if the Lord would take that plane down, as she wished--and what if I would go too?

I remember thinking that it would be really bad, but it wouldn’t be the worst thing. After all, my wife was young and could remarry, if she wanted. My kids were just three and five; to them, in a year, I’d be little more than a picture on a wall. I knew they would all be taken care of. Life would go on.

And for me?—I’d miss it, a ton—life, I mean. I’d miss my children’s growing up, I'd miss what I could have written, I'd miss what I might have been. But, honestly, as I sat on that plane on the way to O’Hare, I told myself that, really, I could live with death.
Someday I’ll worry about it, I imagine--death, I mean. Someday, the grim reaper will look more like the monster he actually is. But ever since that day coming home from Vermont, I’ve been okay with dying.

This morning I’ve reached my three-score years—if I get ten more, as the Bible says, I’ll be lucky. It’s my birthday, and a big one. Today I’m sixty.

And all this morbidity is but a personal excursion into the ars moriendi, the art of dying, a body of Christian literature that appeared in the fifteenth century and provided practical guidance for the dying, prescribed prayers, actions, and attitudes that would lead to a "good death" and thus salvation. I know, I know--heavy, heavy. But I've got too many years invested in literature not to believe that there's some good in a theme or attitude that it's impossible not to see--those who learn to die well have learned, in the process, how to live.

I’m thankful to God for sending me to Bread Loaf, if for no other reason than it gave me a moment in time, almost forty years ago, for a very personal meditation on dying on a plane to Chicago, a meditation I've never forgotten and for which I'm thankful on this birthday, my sixtieth.

But Breadloaf wasn’t an easy place to be, for a waiter or anyone else, I’d guess. I’d lived most of my life in small, conservative communities who prided themselves, maybe even excessively, on their church-going. Adultery was not commonplace, but a sin, a scandal.

The atmosphere in that mountaintop retreat was electric. Aspiring writers like me flirted daily with National Book Award winners, editors, agents, and publishers. Life—dawn ‘till dawn—was always on stage.

In the middle of that frenetic atmosphere, one Sunday morning, I walked, alone, out into a meadow, away from all the people, where I found a lone Adirondack chair and sat for an hour, meditating. I tried to imagine what the soft arm of my little boy would feel like in my fingers; at the same time I recited, over and over again, the words of the 23rd Psalm.

I remember a beautiful mountain stream, but there were no still waters at Bread Loaf Writers Conference the summer of 1980. If there were, I didn’t see them. But that Sabbath’s very personal worship, in the middle of all the madness, brought me—body and soul—to the very place David has in mind in verse two of Psalm 23.

Honestly, I know still waters. He’s led me there, and I’ve been there, mostly, for just about seventy years. And for all of that, this morning, the morning of my birth, I'm very thankful.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Running Away and Running Back

It was an old church, a very old church, although not as ancient as many throughout the Netherlands. And it was right on the street, middle of town, lined up amid all the brick houses. It was the church where the woman whose book I was writing occasionally met her fiance, both of them involved with the Dutch Resistance during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, a time when it was dangerous for them to be together.

It was old-fashioned conservative, this church. The people stuck to principle and would not be moved, a conservative pitch it took from its own region in a town named Spakenburg a place known for its religious determinations. No way.

Strangely, there were few English speakers in the place the day we walkedin, at least not among the folks. It was a Monday, as I remember. I'd wanted to see what the church looked like because two people, deeply in love and deeply in trouble, met there clandestinely, the Nazis searching for both of them. I needed simply to see the place.

Even though my family and I were a language apart, it wasn't long before the old folks inside understood what brought us there. It helped immensely when I told them I was a Professor in a Reformed Universiteit, doing a book about the Nazi occupation.

One of them, an old man, grabbed my elbow and pointed upstairs. We followed--myself, my wife, and my children. Once climbed into the balcony, and he pulled back a huge throw rug to expose a space cut out into the wood floor, a space as tall as a man. He reached down, pulled a handle, and a section of that balcony floor opened on a hinge to a big, walk-in closet. 

He didn't have to tell me the story, and he didn't try. "Razzia?" I said, and he nodded. That hiding place would fill up with men if and when the Nazis rolled up outside during worship, which they did, looking to pick up slave labor for German factories. What the man wanted me to see was the hiding place his church, the Spakenburg church, had created for its own people a half century before.

I'll never forget looking down into that darkness and feeling some of the leftover fear that must have run through the pews downstairs when such raids came. I'd stopped simply to see what the church looked like. The balcony hiding place was pure blessing.

But another image from that visit stayed with me too. The floor up there was crawling with candy wrappers, hundreds of them, so many they had to be deliberately scattered. Once the old hiding place was back beneath its throw rug, the old man looked around, pointed at the mess, and muttered some old Dutch proverb I couldn't translate, something I knew was akin to "kids these days." 

That hiding place seemed to me to be a holy place, a holy place in a holy place; and it just seemed wrong that those kids relegated to the balcony for night church would litter up the place they way they did, as if it were their calling to make a mess. It seemed sacrilege. My mother would say it seemed like spotten. It seemed a profanation.

Not long ago, I sent for a book I'd seen referred to often enough to make me believe I had to read it. I get myself nickle-and-dimed to death buying used books at four bucks a piece through Amazon, and this one looked good--With My Own Eyes: A Lakota Woman Tells Her People's History. It's reminiscence, but more than a memoir, a story told by Susan Bordeaux Bettelyoun to Josephine Waggoner, both mixed-blood Lakota women in 1933, when both of them were winter residents of the Old Soldier's Home in Hot Springs, SD.

The tale those two women tell is very special, a delight and a feast. At four bucks, it's a steal. 

There's no candy wrappers inside, but somehow I feel the same sadness when I hold that wonderful book. It's used, removed from a library--I get that. All libraries have to clean house, hard as that must be. They have to cull their stacks, just as I do. If readers don't check out the book, it gives up its property rights to another. Times change, after all.

But the stamp on this wonderful reminiscence of a woman trying to piece together a history of her people as she knew it, as she lived and experience it, says "Sinte Gleska University Library." Its prior owner was on the shelves of a library on the Rosebud Reservation, a library for students who, I can't help but believe, should be reading this story.

All things must pass--I get that. And it's up to some of us, I guess, some who feel so called, to take hold of a hand brake once in a while and try to tell the story, just as Bettelyoun and Waggoner did. 

Maybe more than a few, too. When we reach a certain age, maybe we're all storytellers. The Minnesota comedian and prophet Kevin Kling, claims he spent half of his life running away, half his life, before starting to run back again--half running away, half running back. 

You can throw a rug over that line of his, that idea. You can litter it with candy wrappers and take it off the shelf, but that doesn't mean it's any less true--or any less worth saying. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Coming to Orange City

Friday, Feb. 17 at 8:00 
at The Old Factory

A readers theater presentation of Blizzard Voices, by American Poet Laureate Ted Kooser. A local cast will read pioneer reminiscences that recreate the drama and sadness of "the Children's Blizzard," January 12, 1888. Free admission. Free-will offering for Northwest Iowa Symphony Orchestra. You will be moved. 

Politics divide us; tragedy brings us together.

Readers include: Keith Allen, Lindsey and Cody Bauer, Jim and Leanne Bonnecroy, Doug Calsbeek, Nancy Landegent, Char Ten Clay, and Jim Schaap.

A parable

Okay, I confess. What I'm about to say isn't at all nice, but I'm going to say it anyway because I find the latest Trump headlines so satisfying.

The retired general who yelled "Lock her up" with thousands of others at the Republican Convention, "LOCK HER UP" for the steady drip of emails purposely leaked by Russians, the man who claimed he would certainly be put behind bars for the kind of lawlessness SHE lived by, the man whose son bought--and spread!--the garbage that Hillary was running a child porn operation in a D. C. pizza joint, the self-appointed avenging angel who spewed anger and hate and nonsense, the general who claimed Hillary played fast and loose with national security--I'm not making this up--the man who claimed Hillary was a liar, that man gets put out with the trash by the President, his hero, for what?--for lying about national security--for being a liar, for looking directly into the eyes of the Vice President of the United States and telling him something flat-out untrue about Russia. 

It may be sin to love it as much as I do, but his flaming demise feels to me like justice.

Go ahead and listen for yourself.

Here's the blessing. Today, all of us love that speech. Those who bought it last summer still think it's on the money, I'm sure. But those of who thought him a cheerleader for hate, those of us whose skin crawled, now we love every silly second too. Go ahead, listen to him again. 

Today we all agree: it's a beautiful couple of minutes. Perfectly poetic. It belongs, certainly, in the Smithsonian. Now that he's gone for the reasons he is, that hot-blooded convention speech imparts real wisdom because it's become parable.

If you have ears, listen.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Saying what can't be said (on Valentine's Day)

When Sven Johnson, his wife and two children, left their native Norway, they spent the next eight weeks crossing the choleric Atlantic in a sailboat. Impossible to imagine.

A brother lived here in this new land, 100 miles from a place called Omaha, where that brother promised to meet Sven and his family, and did, although a couple days later than he'd said. If the Johnsons worried for a couple of homeless days, Sven doesn't mention it in his pioneer memoir.

But the Johnsons weren't as poor as some who ventured out west of the Missouri River back then; they left Omaha with that brother, with two yoke of oxen, a team of horses, and his brother's load of lumber.

What they found on the open plains was a muddy little dugout they shared with Sven's brother and his family until Sven could file a claim and dig a hole in the ground he and his family could call home. All of this, Sven explains in a monotone, as if it was no big deal.

"We had plenty of clothing, a good lot of linens and homespun materials; but these and ten dollars in money were all we possessed," he says with an economy of words, so as not to beg attention or sympathy, simply to let people who weren't there know what it was like. Very controlled, as if once his mother had told him it was unbecoming to go on and on about yourself.

To file his land, Sven walked a hundred miles back again to Omaha. Just to get there and back, he worked for homesteaders to eat and live; and here and there make a few cents so that he could lug groceries all the way back to that dugout that was now, officially, his.

"There were no bridges across rivers or creeks and we were compelled to swim," he says in that same flat voice. And there was the time he and his brother-in-law had to cross a swollen stream. "I told him to be calm," he wrote years later; "we would come to no harm." Sven says he took what they were carrying, along with his clothes, and swam across; but he claims he was always was a good swimmer.

He went back for his brother-in-law, "a very large man," he says, and swam once again to the other side, that "very large man" on his back.

Nothing to write home about. Just happened. You know. That's the way it was.

One year later, he hauled logs home from the river, logs for his own house. "Soon we had a comfortable house erected." That's simply the way it went. No drama, just good hard work. Soon they had a frame house, "not hewn by hand, but made from real lumber."

And then this at the end. "The old 'homestead' is still our home, but the dear, faithful, loving mother who so bravely bore all the hardships of early days was called to her rich reward January 28, 1912."

For the woman he loved through all those pioneer years, Sven Johnson stacks adjectives up front of a whole descriptive clause because for once a plain old noun like wife didn’t carry enough meaning. The woman beside him all those years gets a whole line of adjectives because, my word, he loved her, his "dear, faithful, loving" wife, the mother of his children.

Nowhere else in his memoir can you point to one extra word. Nary a comma to separate coordinating modifiers.

Only for her. Sven Johnson didn't want to pile it on, but he couldn’t keep a lid on his love. He had to embellish, to lay it on, because people should have known the great love of his life.

Those few adjectives make one sweet valentine.


Listen in to this Valentine's Day greeting on KWIT here

Monday, February 13, 2017

Morning Thanks--A sermon on Sunday

We're not going to sell, but in darkness like this morning's I'm always pleased to think the price we could get for our place has gone way up because we've got ourselves a lake home. What's open field behind us to the river has become a lake, so if we sit out on the deck, right now we're in Minnesota. 

It's something of a flood, but nothing to be afraid of. What happened to the river yesterday isn't an annual occurrence, but it happens often enough for my neighbor to call it a "good, old fashioned ice jam." He claims he can't remember it ever happening quite this early--mid-February, but it'll be gone shortly because there isn't much left to feed it and no rain in the forecast. 

Our "good, old-fashioned ice jam" is and was mostly snow-melt, hard as that is to believe, given the paltry depth of anything around us. Some rain fell on Saturday, but not all that much. But the water table must be high.

Still, the phenomenon taking place on what was up until yesterday a frozen river is and was high drama, at least it grabs your grabs your attention. Somewhere upstream, somewhere closer to Hospers or Sheldon, the flow determined to break up the ice that makes the Floyd River a snowmobile trail. Somewhere water pressure surpasses the weight of the ice, and the ice starts breaking up--that's the story. The river starts to look like this.

Simply put, the river starts to look like a river. But that ice doesn't fade away into H-two-0 without a fight. The temps were sweet on the Sabbath, but not swampy; so ice chunks float away until there's so much and many of 'em that the channel can't hold it all. Where it all stops, we got a good, old-fashioned ice jam.

If you look down river here, down toward the bridge you can see the jam from behind. You have to look closely. Eventually there ain't no place to go.

Let me bring you closer. That island of ice--see it at the bottom of the shot?--that patio-sized chunk in is about to run stuck, fifty yards from the bridge, become just another puzzle part of the jam.

And when it does, it will add another ton to the immense tonnage of the jam, blocking the flow of the water. Weight like that can take out bridges--"they get nasty," as another neighbor of mine told me yesterday, wearing something of a frown and he and his dog walked by. Truth is, I can't imagine how much weight all that ice is bringing. Look at this.

That's the jam. There are ice chunks in that mess that are driveway-sized. Lots of them. So what we've got, right in our own backyard is a true, classic battle: the irresistible force meets the immovable object. It's not everyday one can stand right there and bear witness.

Eventually, of course, river water walks away from its own traditional path and finds its own way, spilling out over the lowest bank it can find. It moves away from the channel to find a rest for its weariness in a riverside field. 

When it does, it makes our place a lake house.

Thoreau had enough Calvinism in him to feel the urge to create a sermon out of  phenomena like a thawing Walden Pond. But he resisted. He was happy enough just to watch, just to bear witness. And so will I. 

Because what happened yesterday out back is interesting all by itself. It doesn't require an application, doesn't really need a three-point sermon or a bible verse set into the picture. It's stunning all by itself, an amazing phenomenon that, I suppose, will, like a wooden-shoed band at Tulip Time, shortly move farther down the river for a repeat performance until fifty-degree temps hold on, as promised, this week. Then it'll all be over and the river will just be Floyd again.

Still, it seems to me that just about any pilgrim could do worse for worship on a sunny Sunday afternoon.