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 31, 2017

Rural Resentment

Honestly, I remember very well which of my new Siouxland friends said it, and the wily smirk across his face when he did. His line was, for a foreigner, a townie like myself, a Wisconsin boy, another of those days when the air in Siouxland was thick with a smell so foul it seemed there was, just down the gravel, a steaming forty-acre commode. I don't remember what I said, sniffing the air, but it wasn't complimentary.

Like a good comedian, Stan waited for thirty seconds maybe, then said, "Smells like money." 

He meant manure, and so did I. Look, this is hog country really, but the  7.7 million chickens in Sioux County, Iowa, produce, on their own, as much untreated manure as the city of Seattle. Our cattle, all 200,00 of them (numbers vary with market prices) create a sea of shit as wide and deep the human waste produced by New York City

Let's run the table. Our one million hogs create a volume of you-know-what that compares to the combined output of Los Angeles and Atlanta. 

You do the math, I'll do the geography: all told, we produce excrement at a level that outweighs the combined tonnage of Seattle, New York, Los Angeles and Atlanta. And we've only got 30,000 or so people. 

"Smells like money," Stan told me, foul-y (Tom Swift rides again). 

And it's true.

But, as a farmer south of Sioux Center told me a decade ago already, that stinky one-liner doesn't have the currency it did a half century ago, when more people were "on the land," as they say. Today, there are fewer farms, fewer farmers, and thus fewer voters to defend the smell. Thus, their power is diminished. These days, when people pull up their noses, fewer folks are quick with the smelly answers. 

But it's numbers I want to talk about, not poop, because the numbers are shrinking in rural America, where fewer people work the land and, in general, most small towns look more and more ghastly. 

Katherine J. Cramer, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin, decided to tour the Badger state's small towns, to sit down for coffee with rural Joes and Jennys and try to figure out where what she claims to be "resentment" comes from, the kind of resentment that prompted good people to support a foul-mouthed bully like Donald Trump. Her book, The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and Rise of Scott Walker, attempts to understand what has captured the minds and hearts of rural people. 

Today, only 17 percent of the country's population live in rural America, a percentage that makes it hard to get a nation to notice you, even when you're charged with feeding them. It seems to rural America--to me too--that in all seriousness, no one cares. Cramer claims that taxes have little to do with it: what rural folks pay is commiserate with what they receive. It's not that we're getting taken. That's not it. 

It's the sense that rural people--and let's face it, rural white people--somehow don't matter, even though we pay taxes and fight wars and put flags down Main Street. The news is full of stories about who gets to use whose bathroom and why. You want ink today, tell people you're gay or trans or an immigrant. If movie studios come out to the hinterland looking for stories, what they want to find is some mass murderers or else just local yokels--Psycho or Deliverance or, or stories of people out here sadly left-behind, like Nebraska.   

I think what Katherine Cramer discovered is on the money. Rural people sense they don't matter, and when they see people of color (there is a definite racist edge to resentment) getting all the press, all the attention, they--we--feel left behind, frozen-in-time. That makes us angry; and we've never had a candidate for President before quite as angry, quite as foul, as the bully billionaire, who somehow seemed like us. 

We're not also-rans. We're not unimportant. We keep America in quarter-pounders, chicken strips, and barbequed ribs. Our soybeans get into three-quarters of what we consume daily, and our corn, strange as it may seem, not only sweetens our breakfasts, it fuels our cars. We do one heckuva lot for America. We work hard, and we're patriotic, and nobody really gives a shit.

Shit, you say? We've got that, tons of it. 

And we deserve better treatment. That's why we voted Trump, 85 percent of us, right here in Sioux County. 

So says Katharine Cramer about rural Wisconsinites. We're not dying here, but I think she's right about us too.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Sunday Morning Meds--Oppression

“They have greatly oppressed me from my youth—
let Israel say—they have greatly oppressed me from my youth 
but they have not gained the victory over me.” Psalm 129:1

An all-too-common story in the life of imaginative writers is a rotten childhood. Perhaps they were too contemplative, too monk-like. Maybe they were marginalized for being puny, bookish.  Their parents may have been overbearing, violent, too often absent from their lives, addicted to drink or drugs.  They lacked friends. Possibilities are endless.

In an effort to compensate, such kids fantasize, create secret gardens, life in a boxcar, alternative worlds, dungeons and dragons. In the absence of joy, they create their own interiors, a refuge from oppression.

What they can’t attain in day-to-day life, they make up for in imagination, and propensity for story grows abundantly.  Show me a kid who doesn’t go to the prom, and I’ll show you a budding artist.  That’s the trajectory of the theory. 

Many towering figures in 19th century American literature lacked fathers.  Hawthorne’s died when he was a kid.  Poe was a foster child.  A ton of writers were dissolute drinkers.  In my first year of teaching, a student asked me whether you had to be an alcoholic to be a writer. 

But why stop with writers?  The oppressed artist is a cliché—consider VanGogh with his mangled ear and awful love life. Even when he was rich and famous, Picasso, biographers claim, was impossible to life with. 

An artists’ graveyard is littered with wreckage.

The “they” which begins Psalm 129 is hugely vague because there is no clear antecedent.  Who were the they, anyway?  The history of revelation itself would argue, I’m sure, that the oppressors the psalmist is referring to are those heathen nations surrounding the people of Israel, starting, I suppose, with the Pharoah’s Egypt—those enemies that sought, as some still do, to destroy the Jews.

The psalmist is a cheerleader, and this opening verse of the triumphant psalm a rallying cry:  “let Israel say,. . .they have not gained the victory over me.”  Those oppressors, ever present, even from my youth, the poet says, have not won the victory, so there.  Triumphant affirmation, a tribute to a steadfast believer’s soulful strength.

I grew up in a country where tolerance of one’s faith is a foundation for civility and civics.  Unlike millions, even today, I’ve never felt even a pinch of oppression.

The family in which I was reared was intact and loving.  I went to the prom, with a date.  My athletic jacket was thickly hung with medals, and I was chosen by my classmates to give a speech at high school graduation.  I never sought refuge in alternative worlds and felt no hot breath from heathen nations.  As a kid, I swear I was not oppressed. Maybe I have no business typing these words.

But my cushy childhood does not inhibit my joy at the fist-raised affirmation that begins Psalm 129.  “They have not gained the victory over me.”  Whoever they is or might be, whatever sin or doubt has found its way into my own sense of reality, such darkness has not settled over my life—yet.  I’ve had it good. 

But what happens if the tables turn—as they always do?  What happens if, now in my dotage, darkness begins to muster oppression?

If it does, I must remember to read the rallying cry of Psalm 129 again: “let Israel say—they have greatly oppressed me from my youth but they have not gained the victory over me.”  I must. 


Friday, July 28, 2017

Morning Thanks--Reading*

I ran a hand along the tooled leather spines—Cicero, Socrates, Virgil, Ovid, Luther, Aquinas, Bacon, Calvin. Just to have the liberty of just such a room would be an education in itself. ‘The scholars must happily spend their hours here,’ I said.
It’s 1660, and Bethia Mayfield, the sweet Puritan child at the heart of Geraldine Brooks’s novel, Caleb’s Crossing, is ushered into the very first library at Harvard College by a tutor turned suitor, who would very much like her to wed him. He is not unaware of the fact that whatever attraction she might feel for him is generated, in large part, out of her adoration for books. Hence, he brings her the privilege of a Harvard library visit.

Credit the Puritans with this: they loved books—the right ones, of course. Since the Bible had been opened to them by the Reformation, reading—which is even to say, education, which is to say, even, scholarship—was of monumental importance. After all, the saints’ joy and calling was opening and reading the Word. There were more educated men per capita in Boston than London in the early years of the colony. Bethia Mayfield, daughter of a Puritan preacher, absolutely loved books.

I couldn’t help thinking, as I read the passage, about the fact that I am surrounded by books, books that will now have to go as we lighten our load into a retirement future. One of the unpleasant tasks before me this year is unloading whole shelves full of books, most of them books of my trade, the study of literature, and few of them—if any—worth anything at all. It will break my heart to toss them.

I remember the novelist Fred Manfred explaining how he’d gone off to Calvin College early in the 20th century with little more than the clothes on his back and his entire library—two books:  the Bible and the works of William Shakespeare. He would not have thought of going away without them, so precious they were. Dr. Arlyn Meyer, another Siouxlander, told a very similar story. He owned the same two precious books--the Bible and Shakespeare—when he left for college. 

The Age of the Book likely lasted from Guttenberg to the cathode ray tube. For hundreds of years, only the oral tradition could keep pace with blessings bestowed upon humanity from the pages of a book. Sometimes, Bethia Mayfield’s Puritans were called “the people of the book,” as Christians have been for several centuries. Books were invaluable.

These days, at the end of every semester, as a service, the college library lugs huge boxes into faculty office spaces and begs for the books we don’t want. Every semester, when I dump some into that box, they spill to the floor in a way that likely breaks bindings as it would backs, were they human.  

But leaving them in those boxes assuages some guilt because those boxes—unlike the trash barrels just beyond the door—end up some place where eyes at least look those books over before they finally find the furnace. Will someone ever appreciate them as I have?—it’s not likely. That day is over.

If the medium is the message, then we’re certainly living in a different age. I’m punching this out on my computer, after all, and pretty soon, on my iPod, I’ll check to see if anyone’s responded. The last two books I read were hard copy, but if I were to tally the list of books I've "read" in this last year, I’m sure I would have listened to as many as I’ve paged through—and that’s not counting my Kindle.

Still even though it's not my story, there’s just something about the image of a tall, gangly farm kid, leaving for college in Michigan, lugging along two books, his entire, precious library.

I wonder if any kids today take any books at all along. 

We may well have lost our taste for books, but we never lose our thirst for stories. Harry Potter made her creator the wealthiest person in England. Borders may have gone under, but Amazon will sell you millions of books that’ll arrive on your front step two days later, or just about instantaneously, if you have a Kindle.

We just need stories. We need to string things together into some kind of coherent meaning. We need for our own behavior to have context, to feel cause and effect. We want to know—and always will—whodunit and why?

I’m not sure what’ll happen to the Bible if the book ever disappears, but it’s plain as day to me that the plain-and-simple value of any given stack of pages in a “tooled, leather spine” ain’t what it once was.

But, hey, you’re reading this.

And I’m writing.

And that's reason for thanks.
*appeared originally on July 20, 2011, pre-retirement, pre-move to Alton. Alas, most of the books in that picture above are long gone.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Morning Thanks--Royalty on the prairie

If Big Blue Stem is the grass that was the West, the Purple Prairie Cone is the flower. Hardy?--no kidding. They make raw-boned, ratchet-faced pioneers look paltry. Freezing winters and blazing summers are just a few more afternoons on the calendar, and they flower for weeks. They're big and bold and beautiful; and despite the bad press of fly-over country, they love it here.

Anything that blossoms out here in the wilds isn't going to have the Sunday-shine of greenhouse stock. Just won't. What lights up prairie out here steps out entirely without make-up, but still dresses what's out back in finery, purple finery. 

In our backyard they don't make an appearance until mid-July, but once here, they'll stay for a while, and that's a blessing. This morning's thanks are for the purple royalty of prairie flowers. Right now, out back, I wish we had at least a half-dozen more patches. They're wonderful. 

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Morning Thanks--Rain

This morning just outside
Kathy Bosscher, a saint in my book, says sunny days are so frequent at the Zuni pueblo, where she's been teaching kids for umpteen years, that a morning of soft-spoken cloudiness is pure joy, a comfort, even a blessing. "You may not believe this," she writes in a little meditation, "but here in New Mexico we have so many sunny days that we actually enjoy the warm, snuggled-in feeling of cloudiness."

She's right. I do find that hard to believe.

The opposite, not so. Seasonal Affective Disorder, fetchingly known by its acronym SAD, affects millions of people, who stumble through dark days and nights, sometimes even helplessly, when sunlight appears non-existent. My son was made SAD by working nights at a window frame factory, where there were days--well, weeks--when he never once saw the sun. The phenomenon was, quite frankly, SAD.

But cloudiness as sweet relief is a stretch for me. Ms. Bosscher is right.

Clammy old cloudiness is a way of life if you live around the Great Lakes, where I was born and reared. Weather currents pick up lake moisture like a chamois and keeps it all afloat in skies as endless as they are colorless.

This morning, my doors and windows are wide open because the rain's familiar but rare percussion outside makes for sheer delight. We're not in a drought--Siouxland is almost always blessed with enough moisture to raise a crop. But it was getting a little scary lately, temps in the 90s and the only water out back came from spigots. It's just not the same.

Big Blue Stem in the rain
My father-in-law is sleeping right now, I'm sure, and he's lost his hearing anyway; but when we stop over at the hospital this morning, it will be a joy to tell him we had rain, a nice rain. That news will bring him joy, even though the many years when he worried about his corn and beans have slipped into the fog senility creates.  Regardless, I don't know of any news that will create a smile as quickly as the news of a good rain.

There's not much to say about it, really, but "Thanks." I had nothing to do with it. Last night, or sometime early this morning, it just came, a gift. No one I know seeded a cloud or tried something bizarre or outlandish to turn on the faucet. It just came, like manna. When I got up, it was raining, pure and simple.

Happy green tomatoes in the rain
A number of us have been been reading books from the Great Plains for the last six months, some old, some not. But one of the distinguishing features of Great Plains lit is that the landscape is always a character. A thousand suburbs feature the same big box stores and fast food places along similarly plotted busy streets, as if the same omnipotent city planner created every last one of them. There's no there there. But out here, rain doesn't just fall. It's something of a sacrament because it's not ours to give.

"It's not what you want," my mother-in-law used to say, "it's what you get." That's Great Plains wisdom.

My wet socks left out in the rain
This morning we're greatly blessed. Makes for lousy landscape photography, but who wants a copy anyway when outside, right now, the original is spilling its happiness into a muddy world that's joyfully soaking it all in.

This morning's thanks is for what I'm hearing just outside my window--the delightfully awkward beat of a lovely soft rain.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The Sermons of Rev. D. R. Drucker--"God Our Guide" (iii)

I'm not sure why, but killdeer, I think, are just about always guilty of excessive worrying. Of course, they construct their nests out in the open, on the ground, on gravel of all places, where just about anyone could have at the eggs--if you could find them, that is.

In addition to their distinguished attire--they seem always dressed for a wedding--and the frantic pitch of their calling, they're notable because their women are drama queens. Approach a nest and Mother Killdeer will fake a broken wing so greatly you'll call the SPCA, stunning performances staged almost hourly to draw attention away from the eggs. Not the kids. Killdeer young spring from their eggs as if half-grown. Mom tosses them out, almost as if she doesn't love them.

I found this single killdeer feather on the driveway yesterday in one of Siouxland's few windless mornings. It's a work of art, I think, belonged, I'm sure, to some local killdeer. It's just exceedingly fine, don't you think? 

There are moments when I wished it weren't so, but I'm so hopelessly Calvinist that if I find a killdeer feather on our driveway my mind leaps to God's providence--hairs on heads, birds of the field. You know. 

I've been reading the sermons of an old preacher of a century ago, no relation at all to me other than that we were reared the same tiny Dutch denomination a century apart. The third sermon in The Beauty of God is titled, simply, "God Our Guide." It's all about providence but doesn't use that other greatly despised Calvinist p-word.

What I've been asking myself is why, back then, this Rev. D. R. Drukker was considered the denomination's very best. The intro says he was, an intro penned by a dominie I had thought might well have been considered such himself, Dr. Henry Beets.  I can only speculate. 

But I was startled by the way this Rev. Drukker used William Cullen Bryant in the sermon, an American poet known primarily for "Thanatopsis," a poem about death once required reading for just about every American high-schooler--"Thanatopsis" and "To a Waterfowl," the poem Drukker quotes (without attribution, I should add) in his sermon. 

Makes good sense that he does, but I'm surprised to find it here. After all, William Cullen Bryant could hardly be required reading for late-19th century Dutch Calvinists. Drukker had to be reading on his own to find that poem. He must have been dipping his imagination into literature that wasn't necessarily approved by Calvinist powers-that-be. 

But then what little he chooses from William Cullen Bryant sounds like the catechism:

There is a power whose care
Teaches thy way along that pathless coast
The desert and illimitable air--
Lone wandering, but not lost.

He who, from zone to zone,
Guides thro'the boundless sky thy certain flight,
In the long way that I must tread alone,
Will lead my steps aright.

Neither p-word there either, but if "predestination" isn't in the poem, that certainly doesn't mean the doctrine itself isn't in the mix. I spent my lifetime teaching literature, so I hope you'll excuse my wanting to believe that one possible attribute that made Drukker a memorable preacher was wide reading habits. I'd really like to believe that. 

And then there's this. Rev. Drukker wouldn't think of a sermon without three points, and "God Our Guide" isn't short. His third point goes like this: "In Following the Guidance of God We Must Not Try the Short-cuts." Let me quote:  "The child of God may in all confidence rely upon God," the preacher says. "At times the way may appear to be dark an dreary. Help may seem to be far away from him.. . ." 

But there's assurance, to be sure. 
God will guide us to the end of the journey. No matter how dark the night, how rough the way, how deep the valley, how steep the mountain, how long the wait, how burdensome the load, how heavy the heart, remember--
And then he quotes from the Psalter before him: 

Thy protector is the Lord,
Shade for thee He will afford;
Neither sun nor moon shall smite, 
God shall guard by day and night.
He will ever keep thy soul, 
What would harm He will control; 
In the home and by the way
He will keep thee day by day.

No attribution there either, but the congregation could not have missed Psalm 121.

I picked up this killdeer feather just yesterday, a work of art, don't you think? And it put me in mind of blessed assurance, a place I need to be because this morning we'll return to the hospital where, last night for a time, Dad, who's 98 years old, had kind of lost his mind. 

In "God Our Guide," the good Reverend Drukker is spot on, as was Lowell, as is Psalm 121. And I have to chuckle because, trust me, a killdeer feather, William Cullen Bryant, and an old dusty sermon from a century ago is, day by day, just what I need to get by.

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.