Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Vale of Tears

There they sit, packed into what seems little more than a toothpaste tube, two long rows of GIs, helmets festooned with brush, faces blackened, each so loaded with equipment it would seem the jumps they were all about to take would be their last even if there were no machine gun fire. Band of Brothers does its best to put viewers there with those paratroopers, high up over Normandy, the night skies full of flack, all around them other C-47s getting hit, some going down.

It's June 6, 1944. Beneath them, the Normandy beach assault had begun. But up above, almost 7000 paratroopers aboard 432 C-47s sat, one beside the other, waiting for the signal to jump into hell. Here and there, one or two may have been thirty years old; but for the most part, they were kids who knew that night might well be their last on earth.

The farther we get from war, the more difficult it becomes to imagine, especially mammoth events like Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion at Normandy. Once in a while a movie comes along that helps us all imagine what it could have been like for our own kin to be there. By 1944 almost forty men from First Christian Reformed Church, Orange City, Iowa, my father-in-law among them, were either overseas or on their way, the contribution of one church in one small town. 

Dad wasn't with the 101st or 82nd Airborne, but he crossed the English channel some time later with his own band of brothers, the motor pool, gear heads commissioned to trail the front wherever it led and keep its tanks and jeeps and troop trucks running. While he never came under fire, he was always close enough to the ravages of war to know the world he was in was unlike anything he'd ever see again or wish to in rural Iowa.

It seemed very strange last night to watch Band of Brothers, having sat at his side for most of the day after he'd suffered another spell of infections--they come frequently these days--put what life is still within him at significant risk. Things are going down now, as they have been for a long time for Second World War vets. Once upon a time we drove him and his wife to a motor pool reunion in Toledo, Ohio, where a bunch of a old men laughed and told old insider jokes when they weren't remembering the toll of buddies who went down in just the last year. That Toledo reunion was, they'd determined, the last; and it was twenty-some years ago. 

Dad went to the hospital because the nurse at the home asked us if we'd take him, then called again a few moments later to let us know they'd called the ambulance because they'd determined our getting him out of his room would be pretty much impossible. So we went straight to the hospital, got there before the ambulance, and sat with him--he really wasn't aware we were there or even that he was--while the nurses and doctors had a look.

I was introduced to a new word yesterday--septik. Five years ago we were told that out here at the edge of town we couldn't connect to a sewer system; we'd need a septik tank and field. I've always been a townboy. Definitions were needed. 

As they were yesterday. What that little vial of blood the nurse drew from Dad's arm indicated was that he was "septik." And what that meant was that a certain regimen of treatment--water and antibiotics--would be given by IV to fight bacteria that this time had seeped into his bloodstream and would have eventually taken him, if nothing had been done.

By the end of the day his color was back, he'd regained partial consciousness, and he could talk a bit with us. But yesterday's hospital experience was new for us and him, even though he doesn't understand it himself. It was new because for the first time we understood that, whether we like it or not, we have a weapon in our hands, a weapon we are likely to have to use, a decision that will have to be made eventually: whether to let him live or die. 

By giving permission to bring him to the hospital, we were signalling we wanted him to go through at least one more fight, one more battle. What the doctors told us--and there were two--was that we needed to know that from here on in that decision would be ours alone. 

At the end of the second episode of Band of Brothers, after a prolonged firefight, hard to watch, Maj. Richard D. Winters steps out alone into the night, a roster of Allied troops behind him, endless combat ahead of him; and he tells himself that someday--I wish I had memorized the line--he's going to get himself a place somewhere outside of town and live the rest of his life in peace. 

I heard my father-in-law's own dreams in that line, a man who followed the front all the way to Berlin and lost a brother in World War II. I even heard something his wife, now deceased, a woman who lost a fiance that June 6, 1944, and, three years later, married an ex-GI who always wanted to farm.

Yesterday, I had quite enough of this vale of tears, of life and death, as did my wife, I'm sure, Dad's only daughter and only child. 

And as did he, or so he's told us. He'd like to go where he knows there is peace. He's ready.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Getting our needs met--a story (iii)

My wife appears at the back door in shorts and a cut-off sweat shirt. She stands there, her arms over her chest as if chilled, and she spots me sitting on this cold hard chair. "Keith," she says. "I got some hot water on."

And Sarai laughed too. Both of them must have looked up into a sky that probably looked almost identical, a sky where right then some distant star might well have fallen apart only to show up tonight--right now, as I'm sitting in my own backyard. "Crazy," they must have said.

"You'll catch your death 'a cold," my wife says. She's bare-footed, and I feel her cold toes in the grass as she walks over. "You want to talk about it?"

"You sound like a therapist," I say.

"What else is new?" she says. "I hear it was quite the meeting--Katy says Pedro really unloaded. She said she couldn't believe her father didn't explode."

"No kidding," I say.

"She says Pedro seems self-centered--"

"Really?" I say. "She say that?"

"She says he just talked and talked and talked--too much. Tough?" she asks.

So I told her about the stars and the absurdity of Abram's promise--all of these pinpricks would be God's people. "Look at 'em," I said. "There's millions of them."

"Millions," she said.

"They're not all alike," I told her. "Some of them wear grey fedoras."

"Every last one is different," she said.

"But if we believe the promise, they're all his," I told her, "every one of them."

"All of them," she says. And she grabs my shoulder. "Even Pedro?"

"That's a stretch," I tell her. "Abram and Sarai laughed too."

She looks up at the open blanket above. "They were old," she says. "What's your excuse?"

"So am I," I say. And then, "With a sky like this, it's not hard to believe in God," I tell her. "What I have trouble with is believing in his people."

"So does he," she says. "But the truth is, He loves us."

"More power to him," I say. "I couldn't."

"And isn't that wonderful?" she says. "He's a whole sky bigger than we are."

I reach for her arm and hold it. "Lucky thing for us," I tell her.

"Don't know that luck's got anything to do with it though," she says. "Come on in. The tea pot's blowing its lid."

Today is another day. And what I find myself saying, all day long, after reflecting on everything that happened last night, is that one of those millions of stars--meaning me--sure enough got his needs met.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Getting our needs met--a story (ii)

So the committee met at Durward's right after our time with the kids, the restaurant down the street from church, where the consensus was clear that we'd better include them. "If this is what the kids want," somebody said, "we better give it to them. Do we have a choice?"

Yeah, I wanted to say--we have a choice

But I didn't. Just like I didn't say a thing in the youth group. Suffer the children, right? You don't say no to kids anymore, do you? That's something that went out with spanking butts and "seen but not heard." Today, you give 'em videos and Nintendo and a thousand athletic trophies to build self-esteem. Today, you send them to theme parks and CCM concerts, and call it "youth group activities." Today, you send them to San Francisco on a projects and make sure their nights are heavily scheduled with fun. We got to meet their needs.

What I would have liked to ask is how to square this needs business with C. S. Lewis: "I was dragged, kicking and screaming before the throne of God"? How do you fit my needs into the old-fashioned paradigm of God loving a broken spirit and a contrite heart? Where in the Bible do we find "getting our needs met" other than in stories like Aaron's ad-hoc golden calf blow-out, or King David's surreptitious date with a nearby rooftop bathing beauty?

Does Paul's admonition to be all things to all people mean Alma Draayers has to give up the Psalms so Pedro can beat his bongos? Does Christ's last words, "Go ye into all the world," mean to advise Alma Draayers--and, okay, me too--to leave behind everything we've held dear? That's what I'm thinking when we leave Durward's.

I get home, and it's 10:30 and I'm not in the mood to go in the house because my wife will want to know how it went, having already heard our kids' rendition in the excited tones of true discipleship--discipleship to Pedro. They'd have told her everything, I'm thinking, and she'll look at me with the kind of gracious pity she offers our cat when it suffers hairballs. She'll know very well that I didn't say a thing through the whole meeting, and she'll understand that whatever it is in me--anger, envy, pride, nearly half the seven deadlies--needs only a nudge to spill out all over the house.

So rather than go in the house, I stay outside for awhile. We live on a cul-du-sac with a big backyard full of weeping willows, the kind of trees reminiscent of the poplars where the Israelites hung their harps in Psalm 137: "By the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept when we remembered Zion." And I have to laugh to myself, full of sin as I am, when I think, just then, of the blood-and-guts anger of that imprecatory Psalm. I've got a little of that in me right then myself--the desire to bash some heads. If it was okay for the Israelites, isn't it okay for me to feel the way I do? That's what I'm thinking.

I sit out back on a plastic lawn chair and look up into a perfectly clear sky, millions of stars. It's early spring, and the air has the sense of change of seasons, but it's still cool enough to make me pull up the collar of my jacket. My wife appears at the back window. She's heard the car, but I know, out back, she can't see me. And I like it that way. King David used to beg God not to discipline him in His wrath. There's something about that story that's sweet right now, too--the idea of God himself cooling off somewhere, blowing off steam, taking five for a breather. That's exactly what I need.

So I tell myself I've got to think about other things, like the news story about a chunk of Mars that may indicate there's life where we really believed it never existed. From the back yard, away from the street lights out front, the sky above me is a giant black sheet spread with a million diamonds. So there's life out there, too, I'm thinking. Some scientists think it's a big hoax because this meteorite got picked up from Antartica or something, where it could have ingested nothing less than good old earthly bacteria.

But who knows? Maybe there are funny-looking men and women out there--even though we now know that the moon isn't green cheese. And I tell myself that all those stories about the millions and millions of miles of space, the hundreds and thousands of constellations and galaxies, the almost infinite size and depth of space is something to make anybody sit still and think--be still and know.

And I think of Abram, the old man, and his wife, Sarai, no spring chicken herself, and the cosmic joke the Lord laid on them when he told them, long after their childless retirement, that he was going to make a great nation from seed they didn't have. Somewhere, half a globe away, the father of all believers must have sat outside on a night like this, maybe a touch of cold in the desert air, and listened to what Sarai thought was the biggest whopper she'd ever heard.

Maybe Abram was mad, too, after everything the Lord had said. Maybe Abram was ticked when he looked up at this sky full of what appeared to be empty promises. Maybe that's why he laughed--absolutely preposterous. That's what I'm thinking.
Tomorrow: conclusion.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Getting our needs met--a story (i)

[Out of town again for a couple of days, so I thought I'd run another old story, this one from a magazine titled Reformed Worship, years ago. I know its genesis well--I can remember the very moment of the story's birth. I was in a meeting with a kid, a drummer, and we were talking about worship. He said he needed contemporary worship because he wanted to worship in a place where "he got his needs met." I didn't think I was all that old at the time, but I guess I felt like an old fogie because I thought that line to be very strange. That line is the heart of the story--and its title.] 

He calls himself "Pedro" even though he's not Spanish but Anglo, from the John Lennon tin-rims, to the half-baked goatee and turtleneck, to the gray felt fedora he's never without, even in church. But I can live with that. I'll grant you there are some in Riverside that can't, but I can live with a hat. Our own kids have been sporting caps for a decade.

Some of our kids picked him up from a Christian rock concert or a weekend rally somewhere. He's a convert--and I know I should say that with more emotion. He's been saved--there, that sounds better. He's found the Lord--but I'm not so sure the Lord found him. To me, he's strange--and terribly pushy.

I know this: what he's found at Riverside Church is kids who fawn over him and his wicked (their word) body piercing. Pedro's the guru of our youth group. And he wants change--and he wants it now.

"When I got converted, man, I got saved because I walked into a church and saw a set of drums. Once I saw that, I like knew--you know, that this was a place for me."

Behind him, our kids smile.

"We're a generation raised on a beat, see? We don't respond to this old slow stuff you play. I mean, our music is our life, man. I mean, every kid I know is plugged into some kind of show."

I remember the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. The Stones' "Satisfaction" was the theme song for my high school football team. Years ago, I danced twenty minutes straight to the Iron Butterfly. Don't tell me about rock music, man. That's what I wanted to say.

"I got to use my talent for the Lord, see? I mean, I got to use my gifts--you know what I'm saying? My generation's got needs, and I don't think Riverside's meeting them right now. We got to have a place in the worship is what I'm saying. I got to use my talents in worship."

He plays the drums. His buddies play guitars. I think what he wants is a gig.

"Organ?" he says. "That's no problem. Lots of bands got good organs. We can use them right in the music."

And I'm thinking, "Alma Draayers in a rock band--now don't that beat all?"

"And we can do things, too--I mean, your stuff. Like 'Amazing Grace.' Shoot, we can do that stuff."

Stuff, eh? What I love about youth is their reverence.

"I mean, what we do doesn't all have to be rock. We're willing to compromise, you know," Pedro says, Pedro of the big heart. "But the bottom line here is that we're not getting our needs met."

The youth group had asked the members of the liturgy committee to talk to them about changing our worship style. They're not alone, of course; even their youth group leaders are taken by Pedro and his band. It's not that we're Neanderthal in our worship. I'll admit we're not Willow Creek, but then--my goodness, we're not Willow Creek. Does that make sense?

"That's what we're saying," Pedro says, "--We're not getting our needs met."

There were times in that meeting that I would have liked to take the kid on. I even thought seriously about returning to an era when the church allowed no instruments whatsoever just to starve him out and send him somewhere he could, for all I care, get his blessed needs met.

I'm sorry, but I thought the kid arrogant, and even though I'm hardly retirement age, I didn't have a clue where this idea of "getting our needs met" comes to play in the nature of worship. "Getting our needs met" sounds to me like a frustrated husband--or wife. "Getting our needs met." That's the language of doper in need of a high. "Getting our needs met"--what about Alma Draayers' needs?

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The secular erosion of motorcycling

I started very small. When it came, I remember it sitting on the driveway in a kind of box, remember taking it out carefully, trying to get everything right in the set up, then pressing the starter and hearing that little buzz-saw whine. What a joy.

Only on a long hill could I hit 50 mph with that little Bridgestone scooter. Only with a tailwind. No matter. I loved it, and it took me where I wanted to go around town. Occasionally, I took it farther, all the way to Sheboygan down Nine-Mile road, humming along at forty mph tops.

Once upon a time it tossed me. I hit both brakes, and that tiny little cycle stopped but I soared up over the handlebars, somehow curled myself into a ball, and hit the pavement with my right arm up over my head. From wrist to shoulder, I got burned. Hid all of that pain from my parents, who didn't really like that Bridgestone from day 1.

A 350 Honda, an old orange bike bedecked in a For Sale Sign stood on the sidewalk outside a used car dealership just two blocks west of our place. A quarter-century had passed. I was married, with two kids, grade-school age. Every time I went by, lust awoke in my eyes and my heart. The woman I married, the woman I love, was not at all keen on a motorcycle, so I didn't stop down the block to look, didn't stop and didn't stop and didn't stop. I gave in to her unstated disapproval, which was, nonetheless, perfectly clear.

Finally, I told myself that if I wouldn't buy it, I'd resent her having the last word, so I did. On warm summer afternoons, I'd make that little engine whine out in the country on half-hour rides through pockets of air you could feel in ways you couldn't in any other way. Loved it.

A friend thought it hilarious that a guy my size rode around on an orange 350 Honda, but he mocked me because he really wanted me to buy his Yamaha--a 750. He was leaving the college where we both taught. I thought about it, but figured my little half-hour rides west to the river weren't worth the bucks he wanted me to pay for that bike.

After he left, I put a bid on a 750 Honda Nighthawk repossessed from a local bank, and I won. I had that cycle for another decade maybe, but never went any farther than a half-hour away. Still, riding that bike was a joy.

My short life with motorcycles ended on a windy hike out west when I swore I could feel my own sense of balance declining. I told myself since I didn't have a licence--never did get one--it was time to clean out the garage. I haven't been on a bike since.

Yesterday I read that my home state's pride-and-joy industry, Harley-Davidson, isn't doing well. For years they were riding high. There's barely a city in the States that doesn't have a dealership, and it's not hard to understand why: boomers like me, for reasons that are likely unexplainable, love motorcycles, and real motorcycles are Harleys.

But the sad truth is that there's fewer of us every day, and some who are still around likely start to feel what I once did on that Nighthawk--that maybe biking through the country was for young bucks. Harley-Davidson cut its full-year shipping forecast and announced the necessity of cutting workforce in its beloved plants. Sadly, sales are slipping.

The language of the market goes like this: "We are downgrading Harley-Davidson to 'market-perform' based on increased conviction that motorcycle demand in the United States is in the throes of secular erosion."

Secular erosion? Think of it this way. Generation Y's are not hopping on Hoggs the way Boomers once did; and millennials--well, no one understands millennials. Business outlook is not good for Harley-Davidson; i
f they ship between 39 and 44 thousand bikes this year, that's a decline of twenty percent. Wall Street calls it "secular erosion." To a boomer with a past, it's just all very, very sad. 

A couple nights ago we followed an old couple on a big Honda three-wheeler, and I mentioned to my lovely wife that any problem I thought I might have had with balance on a bike would be taken care of on a big, fancy trike like that one.

She said nothing, and I didn't need to look to see her roll her eyes.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

What's so amazing. . .

Twenty-some years ago, Phillip Yancey was finishing up a manuscript he titled What's So Amazing About Grace, a book that would go onto sell millions. Yancey was--and still is--a member of the Chrysostom Society, a gathering of Christian writers who meet annually as friends and professionals to talk about just about anything having to do with writing and the world in which we all live and breathe and have our being. Members quickly become friends.

Annual meetings regularly feature individual members reading from new work. That year, Yancey read a chapter from What's So Amazing, the chapter which details his relationship Mel White, a Fuller grad who'd "come out," as people used to say back then, declared himself gay, openly so. Mel White himself was a writer, a ghost writer for evangelical super-stars including Francis Schaeffer, Billy Graham, and Jerry Falwell. He and Yancey were friends, a friendship put in jeopardy when White walked away from his wife and two children and defined himself as gay. 

I was there when Yancey read that chapter, a new member at that meeting of the group. Yancey's reading was one of the most memorable moments in my own scrapbook of experiences with the Chrysostom Society, not because his writing was so elegant or lyrical, but because what he was saying, back then, was so controversial. Simply by talking about homosexuality, Phillip Yancey was walking into a chamber of horrors, not because he'd given Mel White a pass but because the subject of the chapter challenged the very thesis of the book--that grace was really and truly amazing. I remember Walt Wangerin giving his approval, but also drawing a deep breath as if to say Phillip would have to gird up his loins for a battle.

Wangerin spoke only after a deafening silence that grew, not because the members of the group were offended--not at all; because at that moment in time everyone in that circle of friends knew Phillip was playing with fire. 

What's So Amazing About Grace went on to sell 15 million copies. That chapter--as difficult as it might have seemed when Yancey read it that night--must not have wounded too many souls. Of Yancey's many books, What So Amazing still ranks as a best-seller. 

The responses that night came slowly. All agreed Yancey was right in telling the story of Mel White; all agreed that he'd handled it with, well, grace. Still, everyone knew how cobustable things were at the flash point of what we've now come to call LBGTW issues.

Then, as now, Eugene Peterson was the father-figure of the group, the oldest and, arguably, I guess, the wisest. If Gene Peterson isn't a saint, I'm not sure any human being can be. He's quiet, unassuming, and loving. Even in ordinary conversation, he chooses words as if life in every moment is a never-ending quest for truth. He smiles radiantly, has a blessed sense of humor. Even if you never read a word of from the shelf of his many books, it's impossible not to love Gene Peterson.

That night, just after Yancey read, I asked Gene what he thought about the issues at stake in the story of Mel White. He smiled, looked at me, waited, nodded his head and said, "I don't know what I think, but I can tell you that not a week goes by without someone from one side or the other begging me to get into the fight."

Last week, Gene Peterson got into the fight, and when he did he soon became a casualty. He told an interviewer from the Religious News Service that, if asked, he would marry a gay couple. In half a day, the war not only came to his home, it barged through the door and knocked him down. 

At a meeting of the Chysostom Society just two months ago I was asked to say goodbye to Gene and Jan Peterson, who had announced they wouldn't be returning. His age is taking a toll. He told me when he couldn't come up with my name that not remembering was a symptom of his senility. He wasn't joking, and I wasn't surprised. 

Eugene Peterson loves the Lord, loves His church, loves His people. "Being a good church means continuing to worship the Lord even though the young single mom behind you can't control her child," he once said, smiling. What he meant was that being a Christian means caring for those around you, a task that remains, in many ways, the most difficult calling of all. 

A day after the interview ran, Christianity Today put a story on-line titled "Actually, Eugene Peterson Does Not Support Same-Sex Marriage," allowing evangelicals around the country to gather a collective sigh of relief since they didn't have to purge their libraries of Peterson's books. 

A quarter-century ago, President Bill Clinton wasn't wrong when, in a private conversation with Phillip Yancey, he asked Phillip, "Why do Christians hate so much?" That question, Yancey says, is what pushed him to write What's So Amazing About Grace?"

But there was another reason, too, one that Yancey himself has said left a forever imprint on his heart and may well have prompted almost everything he has ever written: his memory of the day his pious parents and their church rejected the membership of a black couple because they were black. 

It's a never-ending question, I guess, because it's somehow a never-ending story. 

Monday, July 17, 2017

Sermons of Rev. D. R. Drukker--"A New Song" (ii)

Rev. Drukker was 23 years old when, with this father's family, he immigrated from the Netherlands. It was 1869, so he never experienced anything, first hand, of the American Civil War. Before becoming a pastor, he taught school in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in a tight community of other Dutch immigrants who were, without a doubt, like-minded in theology, a community more Dutch than American and probably didn't include many Civil War veterans. 

So it's somewhat surprising to hear him use such a long Civil War tale at the end of "A New Song," the second sermon in The Beauty of God. To call that story an "illustration" is an understatement; it takes up most of the final two pages. 

It goes like this. Very soon after Appomattox, Rev. Drukker says, Union veterans marched in force up the street in Washington," the famous Avenue," he says. Almost had to be Pennsylvania, but probably neither he or his congregation knew. 

No matter. Federal officials had all come out for the parade--"Generals and colonels, admirals and commodores, statesmen, diplomats by the scores and citizens by the thousands." The war had ended. 

Then, Drukker carefully describes the composition of the paraders themselves--first, the latest to be drafted, then the yearlings, then those who'd served for two long years, at which time people "could feel a thrill pass through that mighty host of applauding citizens."

The climax of this lengthy sermon illustration follows, when he describes the final corps of vets: "Their uniforms were torn. Many were in rags. Some were bandaged. Others were crippled," he says, "some were walking with a crutch or a cane, while not a few carried empty sleeves." 

"Tumultuous tears," Drukker says, were wiped at that moment from the faces of everyone there, he says. "The President could not restrain his tears and he with others on the reviewing stand wept openly at the sight of these returned heroes." 

"A New Song" is a sermon about heaven's glories. It has nothing to do with patriotism. What's more, it was delivered to a congregation of Dutch immigrants, most of whom, like Drukker himself, probably spent the Civil War years in their native Holland.

No matter. "If the sight of these veterans who fought to preserve the Union filled the people with such enthusiasm," Drukker told his congregation, "what will not the multitudes of heaven do when they, as the redeemed, meet their Lord face to face?. . .the Crucified One, the Lord with the scarred brow, whose extended hands still bear the imprint of the nails?"

This man, this preacher, the good Reverend Drukker, Dr. Henry Beets says in the intro to this little book of sermons, "may well be called the most popular preacher of the denomination in his days."

Rev. Drukker's use of this single story from the pages of American history, maybe sixty years after the fact, may well illustrate, in part, why Henry Beets makes the claim he does. The story set on Washington's "famous Avenue" focuses our attention most powerfully on the battered heroes who gave everything for the Union cause. In this sermon on heaven's glories, if you're like me, you simply might have assumed that the illustration would focus on us, those beaten and weary from a lifetime in this vale of tears. But it's Christ who is wounded and hurting. It's his scars we're witness. We're the people crying in the reviewing stand because he is the hero.

His audience was, I'm sure, anti-slavery; the Dutch people who came in mid-19th century deliberately avoided the American South. The illustration Rev. Drukker uses to conclude the sermon on Heaven is drawn from a history that isn't as deep for a congregation of immigrants as it might have been in what those immigrant people would have called "an American" church.

It's simply a memorable story with universal appeal and a deft reversal that features a crucified Jesus as a war-weary Civil War vet. 

Even today, it's not only incredibly strong, it's still vital. Even today it would be memorable.

There have to be dozens of reasons why Henry Beets makes the claims he does for Rev. D. R. Drukker's preaching. But I think his skilled use of that striking story at the climax of "the new song" he says we'll all be singing at heaven's gate, bears some witness.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Sunday Morning Meds--Shade in July

“The LORD watches over you—
the LORD is your shade at your right hand. . .” Psalm 121

What he told the world is that since 1895, American news sources have alternated dire warnings about our changing climate. For almost forty years prior to the Great Depression, most opinion-makers touted the present danger of a returning ice age.
And that’s not all.  What he said is that arch-political scientists and their friends in the news media have beating the drum about global warming for years now, when there is no such phenomena—or, if there is, it’s nothing more than a temporary shift, our climate and planet far more dynamic than some would think.
What he claimed has been proved, beyond a shadow of a doubt, is that the so-called “hockey stick,” the heavily reported spike in climate temperatures throughout the 20th century after thousands of years of constancy, has been proven totally false by Canadian researchers who simply tore it apart.  That spike is phony baloney. 
What he told all of us is that the National Academy of Science has shown conclusively that humanity has suffered through minor climate changes before, that what is called “the Medieval Warm Period” (900 A.D. to 1500 A.D.) and “the Little Ice Age” (1500 to 1850) are bona fide proof of natural and sustainable climate variations—and that therefore the propaganda about “global warming” today is just hype and hooey.
What he said is that the Arctic isn’t warming but cooling.  He’s reminded us all that sixty prominent Canadian scientists sent a letter to the Canadian Prime Minister, saying that “'Climate change is real' is a meaningless phrase used repeatedly by activists to convince the public that a climate catastrophe is looming and humanity is the cause. Neither of these fears is justified. Global climate changes occur all the time due to natural causes and the human impact still remains impossible to distinguish from this natural 'noise.'"
He claimed that restraining so-called greenhouse gases has real economic costs, stifling business activity and a bustling economy, and therefore hindering progress in dealing with world poor.  He quoted this headline, "Climate Changes Endanger World's Food Output," called alarmist and dangerous, and then pointed out that it ran in the New York Times in 1975, thirty years ago.
He is a senator, and the speech he delivered, years ago already, is much longer, full of facts and documented anecdotes and references to studies.
I have neither the time nor the competence to study the issue of global warming thoroughly, and whether the Senator is even partially right, scientists themselves appear to disagree.  So the nature of the question changes in my circumstance:  it’s not “what do you believe about global warming?”  Instead, it’s “who do you believe?”
And I choose not to believe the Senator. I choose to believe instead a list as long as my arm of people who radically disagree with his claims, my friends, scientists. I may be wrong.
But I also choose to believe the psalmist when he says—with nary a hint of global warming—that this God of his (who’s apparently at his right hand armed with a parasol) is watching over all of us—polar meltdown or coming ice age, and that this God, my God, is my shade from all kinds of heat. That truth is transcendent. 

He is my only comfort—in both deathly cold January and the dog days of mid-July. He is my only comfort. That I know by faith.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Small Wonder(s)--The Bloody Benders

For reasons that likely have to do with desired ends, the Oregon Trail has a more wholesome reputation than its southern sidekick, the Santa Fe. The Oregon Trail once carried the hopes and dreams of whole families. The wagon trains leaving Missouri carried hundreds of thousands of men and women and children--little girls in sun bonnets and boys in bibs walking alongside the oxen, Mom holding a little one up on the seat of the covered wagon.

The Santa Fe was more or less all about business, about commerce and trade, about money. Its travelers were draymen, truckers, men who liked their steak chicken-fried, heavy on the gravy. Nothing particularly evil about Santa Fe, just not as wholesome as the family-oriented Oregon.

That may be why the story of Bloody Benders seems more fittingly placed on the Santa Fe. The Bloody Benders were a family that weren't. Pa and Ma Bender, both German immigrants whose thick accents, people say, made communication impossible, weren't any more Pa and Ma than they were married. But then, common-law wasn't at all uncommon back then.

Their children weren't their children either. Accounts of their bloody story make the claim that the children, who weren't their children or brother and sister, were as charming and handsome as the parents were not. But then, none of the Benders were who they said they were.

Confusing?--yes. But the wild stuff is yet to come.

Wherever they came from, whoever they were, they homesteaded along the Santa Fe Trail in Kansas. The Osage Indians bought up some cheap land in Indian Territory from the Cherokees, and determined to move or else die a slow death in Kansas. That move opened up land to white settlement, and the Bloody Benders went west for fame and fortune. Fame they got, fortune escaped them, or so people think.

Their murderin' modus operandi was exposed when a man named Loncher and his infant daughter were going east, strangely enough, and not west, east to Iowa, here, having thrown in the towel on the frontier. Loncher and child simply disappeared, and when a Dr. York set out to find them, he too simply vanished. 

But York was well-connected. His brothers were determined to find him; and when they didn't, they pressed the case right there where the Osage once roamed, drew the whole township together and got permission to hunt door-to-door. 

That night, the Bloody Benders, who weren't Benders, vanished, leaving their two-room frontier abode behind, taking only some food and clothing with them. Their neighbors never saw them again.

I'm going to withhold the blood and the smell--it's beyond the pale. Suffice it to say that the Benders were perfectly methodical murderers. The Yorks found their brother, his daughter, and the bodies of seven others planted in the Benders' garden, which wasn't a garden at all either (neighbors claimed it seemed strange the place was always being plowed). 

The Benders had opened their doors to Santa Fe Trail travelers, separated their one-room house with a single curtain, behind which they were said to have their living quarters. They'd set beloved guests in a big chair right in front of the curtain, start into the vittles, when one of them--could've been any, really--would bash in the head of the victim from behind.

The Bloody Benders is a horror, told elsewhere with far more blood and gore. And it ends in a way that'll have you clammy because it doesn't; because the Benders were never seen or heard from again. Mother, father, brother, sister--all of them, whoever they were, simply disappeared, not just from Kansas but from anywhere. 

So they live on in the hearts and minds of those who know the story, America's first mass murderers, their horrific crimes unpunished. 

This bloody tale was over before 1875, so the Bloody Benders are long gone. 

Or are they? How many stories haven't been written about mass murderers? Thousands. Likely as many as the number who ever traveled the Santa Fe Trail, and then some. Maybe more than all the Conestoga wagons down the wholesome Oregon--because as you and I both know, stories like the Bloody Benders will always be prime-time.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Morning Thanks--Just a story*

The Grandpa, Baba, in Jhumpa Lahiri's "Unaccustomed Earth," a story from a collection of the same name, visits his daughter's new home in Seattle for the very first time. Two years earlier, he lost his wife--as his daughter lost her mother--in a completely unforeseen reaction to surgical medication. Both are grieving deeply in ways they don't really understand themselves.

What brings them more together than they've ever been, oddly--if they can be said to come together at all in their mutual suffering--is his daughter's little boy, the grandson, Akash, who takes to the old man in ways that his daughter never could have imagined. If change happens in this marvelous story--and I'm not so terribly sure it does--it happens because Grandpa and grandson get along so royally. Ruma, his daughter, is confused and surprised because her own relationship with her father, she judges, was never ever that playful, that intimate. It's as if she sees a father she never knew. And she may be right.

How is it that grandparents and grandchildren get along as well as they do?--or so goes an old joke. The answer?--mutual enemies.

That's a perfectly awful joke really, and yet one can't help but recognize some vagrant truth therein. When he's 70, and retired, Grandpa can be a different species of father--well, a grandfather--than he was to his own daughter when she was a child and he was 40, in the maelstrom of a busy working life. What "Baba" comes to understand during his visit in Seattle is that Akash--his daughter's little boy--is an immense gift: "Oddly, it was his grandson, who was only half-Bengali to begin with, who did not even have a Bengali surname, with whom he felt a direct biological connection, a sense of himself reconstituted in another."

Odd, but somehow understandable, like the enemies joke.

Stories function in two sometimes perfectly opposite ways. Sometimes they bring us out of our worlds for a fleeting moment or two, show us worlds we've never seen in passions and colors that are new; stories offer escape--like most of Hollywood.

But sometimes they move us in opposite directions; they bring us in, show us human beings who are so much like ourselves that we have to reach for breath. John Gardner used to say that the good literature models behavior we build our lives around. I think he was right.

I know Baba, not because I'm him. We're both grandpas, but I'm no widower, although I'm not retired, I'm not Bengali, I didn't spend my life on this country's east coast. But I understand the guy, his motivations, his joy, his fears. Somehow I feel his life. I can't help but recognize myself in him.

In my humble opinion, the great joy of the Psalms is not simply their theology or worldview. The Psalms offer human experience in every shade and color. Wake up bathed in joy this morning?--read Psalm 100. Think God almighty has deserted on us?--read Psalm 13 and howl along.

The great joy of literature--and the Bible, although in a different way--is that we come to understand, lo and behold, that we are not alone.

This morning's thanks is easy. After a long night with a single story from a marvelous collection, I know better, I think, who I am. This morning's thanks is for a story.
Rpt. from 10/12/2010

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The National Soap

The president can turn the tables and dominate the dialogue by ordering the indictment of [James] Clapper, [John] Brennan, [Susan] Rice and [former president Barack] Obama for the wholesale unconstitutional surveillance of Americans... I would seriously arrest [and] perp walk every one of these criminals, making as big a show of it as possible.
Thus saith Roger Stone, this morning, one of the President's favorite right-wing screamers, a man whose vitriol our Great Leader occasionally echoes in his own abhorrent tweets. What Stone is advising is all-out war, a strategy that makes Trump smile. Indicting Obama is sure to keep his brand big and bold in national headlines, international too. 

Ratings is his game. He watches them passionately, and gets them, day after day, night after night. Some wonder why on earth he hasn't called his people into the Oval Office and demanded each and every one create a list of the tete-a-tetes they've ever carried on with anyone having even a vaguely Russian name.  Why hasn't he had this all out? Makes no sense.

Instead, we wait for someone from that circle to rat on the others. The leakers he and the Republicans so bloody hate are, most often, members of Trump's own inner circle, who apparently love going to war as much as he does. 

We've now had 180 nights of flat-out soap opera. As my wife says, "Who needs Netflix?" 

Last night's episode threw everything the administration and its rubber-lipped spokespersons ever said about the Russian story into the wastebasket. What Donald Trump the Second's emails make painfully vivid is that Junior, at least, was salivating for whatever juicy details the Kremlin could pass along. He "loved it," he said--his words right there on the note.

Take any thousand Trump denials of collusion, take words authored or uttered by any Trumpster, and just dump 'em, every one of them. They're all bogus. They're bullshit, plain and simple. 

And what of the Trump faithful, the ever loyal 36 per cent, who would rip Trump out of jail even if he gunned down some poor sucker on Broadway--or was it Wall Street? What do his disciples say after yesterday? Do they second Roger Stone's motion for another civil war?

The lordly Republicans in the House and Senate have been "the silent majority" ever since they've taken office. Yesterday, nothing changed, even someone like South Dakota's John Thune, graduate of Biola, who knows better. Yesterday, the standard answer to the latest Trump mess was to point gingerly at those committees presently investigating the connections, which is to say "no comment." Like the monkeys, they put their hands over ears, eyes, and throat. 

What's going to happen? Figure on this--when Trump gets hit, he's  known for throwing a roundhouse, a dozen of them if need be. Figure on that. 

Maybe he'll listen to Roger Stone. Wouldn't be the first time, after all. Maybe he'll order indictments against every last player in the Obama administration on charges that will only serve to make the national mood even more explosive, divide us even more.

That would keep the ratings up. 

Nobody knows where this is going. Nobody. That's exactly the way he likes it. 

"Lay on, Macduff, and damned be him that first cries, 'Hold, enough.'"

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Small Wonders--Our Good Samaritans

Okay, at least the man in the ditch in the famous New Testament parable, put upon by robbers says the gospel of Luke, wasn't alone. What passed along the road above him as he lay there was not a freeway, but at least there were passers-by, even if neither of the first two paid him the time of day in his suffering.

But the third one helped the guy out and up. What I'm saying is, at least the poor guy wasn't alone.
Now when it came to homesteading, “the neighborhood” was hardly suburban. Some people, all alone in a world of long grass, would have greatly appreciated a few rubber-necking neighbors. In isolated sod houses, loneliness swept in like contagion. Some early settlers, way out here in the middle of nowhere, could go a week or more without seeing another human face, red or white.

Take a young man named Peter Jansen, who claims to have traveled Minnesota, Dakota, and Kansas before settling outside of Beatrice, Nebraska, on the banks of the Big Blue River. Jansen set up a claim twenty miles southeast of town; when he'd drive his team in across the open prairie, he claimed he’d pass only one house.

Jansen was just a kid, and he and his brother were alone in all that open space. The truth is, they'd been warned that the land near the river was usable, but the upland stuff, where they’d laid claim, was questionable.

But Peter Jansen and his people had come from Russia, where working the prairie had become a way of life. The Jansen brothers took upland sections, and like a thousand other German-speaking Mennonites, they simply told themselves that the common wisdom was uncommonly wrong. He could make a go of a farm all right. They’d done it in Russia, after all.

He and his brother, both of them young and single, were nothing if not determined; but their oxen were rookies too, and their plow was sticky-new. Truth be told, neither knew the first thing about breaking unbroken ground or running a team. Headstrong maybe, sure, but experienced? —heavens, no.

It was, Peter Jansen says in his memoir, a very hot day on the plains, and the work was not going well. Soon enough the oxen broke contract and simply took off on him, hauling that brand new plow along all the way to a nearby slough, where they waded in belly deep, the whole kit-and-caboodle with them.

"When I reached the slough," Jansen, a very pious young man, claims he was "thoroughly disgusted." He sat down and almost started bawling, he says, wishing that for all the world he was back in Russia.

As you might have guessed, there is a Good Samaritan in this parable from the Plains, a man named Babcock, who just happened by, serendipitous, you might say, a man who lived four whole miles away.

"Trouble?" Babcock asked, when he came upon that new plow and a team of oxen going nowhere, but cooling in the slough.

Peter Jansen claims he had more trouble with the English language than he did explaining to neighbor Babcock that he was quite ready to throw in the towel on the whole, ugly business of farming out there in the middle of nowhere.

"Take off your trousers," the old man said. "Get in there and plow yourself out." And then came the magic words: "I'll help you lay off the land and get your plow a’going."

Jansen ends his tale without much fanfare, nothing but the abiding truth about his own good Samaritan: ". . .which he did, and so started me farming." Right neighborly.

Jansen kept on farming, his operation kept growing until, some years down the road, he was feeding as many as 30,000 sheep. Much later, he served in the Nebraska legislature and might well have been governor if he hadn’t turned down the nomination because his faith wouldn’t allow for capital punishment.

And farmer Babcock? —we know barely anything about him. But then, when Good Samaritans ride off Long Ranger-like, into the promising sunsets of our parables, it just makes a better story.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Sermons of D. R. Drukker -- "The Beauty of the Lord" (i)

Just exactly how it showed up is a mystery. There it lay, on the couch, dog-eared, not ancient, just old--The Beauty of the Lord, by Rev. D. R. Drukker. 

Come Sunday morning especially, my mother's relentless piety still scolds when I tell myself not to read the opinion page of the New York Times and instead read something more gifted with solace for the soul. "Read something spiritual," her voice still tells me, long after her death. "Okay," I tell her, "but nothing by Franklin Graham."  

Where on earth did The Beauty of the Lord come from? I don't know, a collection of sermons from almost a century ago, written by someone my grandfather had to know, a fellow reverend of his era. My great-grandfather likely taught him something in seminary.

The book is not heavy. The Beauty of the Lord is no tome. Won't cost you much, my mother whispers. Might just bring you closer to the Lord.

Okay. Century-old sermons from a preacher named D. R. Drukker. I'll read 'em, and you'll hear what the old Calvinist said.


It's not an idea I've thought much about, really--"The Beauty of the Lord," the title of the book and the title of its very first sermon To me, God almighty is wise and divinely crafty, always a confident step ahead the best of us. He smiles, probably more than he might have in my grandpa's imagination; and he does so despite the fact that he's got the whole world in his hands, a bundle which for him is not a load.

But beautiful? Beauty just doesn't figure into the portrait on the throne in my imagination. Not that He isn't--that's not what I mean. It's just not something I'd say because I don't have a clue about God's visage. Isn't there a "thou-shalt-not" about that?

A beautiful dawn?--sure thing. Beautiful cone flowers? No kidding. Beautiful rain. Even a beautiful funeral, beautiful cemetery. I've seen them all. But a beautiful creator? I can't picture it.

The psalmist saw it, Pastor Drukker says: "the one thing I have asked of Jehovah" and "that I will seek after" is "to behold the beauty of the Lord." That he's right doesn't make it any easier.

That species of beauty, the preacher says, morphs into what the Bible calls grace when we reach the New Testament: God's beauty is his grace. To me that's a whole lot easier to picture.

In three solid points, what follows are "the characteristics of the Lord's beauty." Rev. Douwe Reinder Drukker's first point, one hundred years ago, is surprisingly contemporary: God's beauty is "multiform"--we would say, "diverse."

Second? It's "magnetic," in explanation thereof, the Dominie spins a darling illustration. Young man comes in to speak to a pastor about his love for the Lord. Pastor asks whether this parishioner has perhaps marched forward at the revival down the block. Young man shakes his head. "How then were you convicted of your sins, of your need of a Savior--how did you find Jesus Christ to be the Lord of your life?" the preacher asks.

"It was the way the foreman in our shop did his work," the kid says. "He permitted the light of his Christ to shine and I saw it."

Sweet story, as beautiful as grace always is.

Finally, Drukker says, we distinguish that beauty in its selfless character. What follows is an odd line that I understand, probably because I'm born and reared Calvinist: "It is best," the preacher says, "that we do not behold our spiritual beauty," that the foreman not really know he's glowing with the light of Christ, because from the Edenic apple on, pride goeth before the fall. The light of Christ is wholly beautiful in the faces of those who know Him, but it's always best, the pastor says, for those so blessed to avoid mirrors.

I get that--a perfectly human line in a divine reflection.

At the end of Rev. Drukker's old sermon, the pastor asks "How then can we possess this spiritual beauty?" Unsparingly, he finishes the whole sermon with all four verses of "Take time be holy, speak oft with thy Lord." And I hear my parents singing.

But my Sunday held yet another sermon, this one also all about beauty.

The preacher scheduled for the afternoon's chapel at the old folks home didn't show up yesterday, which left a nurse in charge, a woman more than a little shaky, she told us, behind the podium. So the congregation of ninety-year-olds before her just sang old hymns, one favorite after another, words they'd sung a hundred times before.

One of the old folks was someone I remembered hearing preach years ago, a sermon illustrated with his experiences on mission fields in the Middle East. Today, he and his wife live in the nursing home, where Sunday afternoons they sidle up to folding tables in their motorized wheelchairs, ready for worship.

Once upon a time that preacher would have stepped in for the no-show, and done so ably, I'm sure. Not yesterday, and no more.

During "He Lives," (feel free to hum the chorus) his wife shuddered noticeably, which prompted her loving husband, out of concern, to reach for her hand and hold it.

He looked into her eyes. She was okay--she motioned to him not to worry. "He Lives" went on.

Out of concern and love, midway through the next verse, the old pastor gently reached once again for her hand, and held her arm right below the wrist, simply held it as they sang. She looked at him, then brought her left hand over to where his rested on her right wrist, and that's the way they finished "He Lives," hand over hand over hand.

I don't know where Reverend Douwe Reinder Drukker might have used that story in his sermon a hundred years ago, or if it even fits. Maybe it doesn't. But if the Dominie is right about "the beauty of the Lord," and if the psalmist's assessment of God's beauty somehow morphs into what we call grace, then, yesterday, in the conjoined hands of a man and woman who've loved each other for what seems forever, I'm quite sure I caught a lovely Sabbath glimpse of the what somehow has to be the beauty of the Lord.

Sunday, July 09, 2017

Sunday Morning Meds--Watching

The LORD will keep you from all harm—
he will watch over your life;. . .” Psalm 121

My father was an elder in the church, a watcher, a keeper, although I knew very little about what happened when he walked off to meetings on Tuesday nights.  Most of what went on, I know, he was sworn not to tell, and some of it—I know this is true—he didn’t tell me because the knowledge would have hurt me.  I was, after all, a child.

One part of his job, I remember, was tallying after communion.  He had to meet with the other elders after the Lord’s Supper to tally who was there, who wasn’t, and who was purposefully not taking the elements, or—even worse, I’m sure—who might have been taking the body and blood even though they’d been barred. I have no idea what the elders called that little gum shoe reconnaissance meeting, but I know that they met.

What those elders were watching for were stories, the people who were coming to the table with a checkered past—or in process of checkering their presents. When I became an elder, nobody watched the sacrament that closely. Maybe I remember what went on back then because I knew that behind the effort lay stories I would have liked to know, what lies beneath the ceremony. I still do. Whatever the reason, I remember that he’d come back home late from communion Sunday worship.

That post-communion tallying—as well as my father’s own righteousness—may be responsible for the deeply-rooted sense I have that elders really should be Godly statesmen, dutiful, virtuous, and devout. And that conviction may be the reason why, more than any other elderly task, I always loved distributing elements myself when I was an elder, giving away the body and blood of Jesus Christ. It’s a big job meant for the kind of person who grows into the office of elder, having raised good kids and having been the spouse of only one mate, no messes in the scrapbook. An elder was someone not subject to the sins our mutual flesh is heir to.

Some years ago I was served the sacrament by two men who were once thugs, criminals—two men who, for many years, valued only their own skin. I took the bread and wine from people who, with impunity, cheated others, stole what they could to line their pockets, used drugs, and lived promiscuously. At about the time I began to understand why my father got home late after the Lords Supper, they were leaving behind a childhood they never had in a Southeast Asian war zone.

I know them. I’ve walked into their lives, year by year, even written their stories; and I know that those men—the men carrying the bread and the wine last night—were once so far gone in treachery that not a soul in the church where we sat could probably imagine some of the evil they’ve perpetuated.  Who’d have ever thought that someday they’d be doling out the body and blood of Christ?  Amazing.

But the promise of scripture, and the Word of the Lord, here in Psalm 121 is that “the LORD will keep you from harm—he will watch over your life.” And all during those bloody years in war-torn Laos, where those two men grew up, God Almighty, who loves us, had his eye on them as if they were fletching sparrows, even when they were lousy thugs, and probably especially then. 

He knew them.  He was watching them, keeping them from harm, when they—and we, all of us—were yet sinners. Those two guys fed me the body and blood of Jesus.

Amazing grace.  What a celebration.  Hallelujah, what a savior.  

Friday, July 07, 2017

Refreshments out back

You can't help but feel a little sorry for daisies, so much a victim of their commonness. Because there are so many, and because they are so profligate, so easy to grow, we take them for granted, even though most of us, I'm sure, can't help feel the soul brighten a little at a whole plot of 'em dancing in the sun. 

We waited until late in the day to water out back, to give everything a drink, so late the sun was spreading a quilt of gold over the world just like it always does; and I happened to be right there with the daisies, the sweet nothings, in light only Midas could create. 

All that buttery radiance shown through the drops that hung from those daisies in a way that seemed a joy--maybe because the temps during the afternoon reached too high for man or beast. 

So I'm standing there, hose in hand, and I can't help feeling refreshed myself from all those sweet daisies soaking. 

So I'm wondering what might happen if I hold the camera in one hand, hose in the other, and take a couple shots. 

You'll have to be the judge. 

I've repeated the line often enough that I really should chase down its origin: photography teaches you how to see--or at least brand new ways to see. Snapping pictures of daisies isn't particularly difficult. They're cute and sweet as busy kids on a sunny beach. 

But what's happens to me happens to all of us, I think, when we look closely. When we do, we see differently, don't you think? 

The real truth is simple. In this world, you don't have to look far to find beauty. You just have to look. What a blessing.