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.

Thursday, August 31, 2017


Key to the MLK's motel room that night in Memphis.

We'd just arrived. Long trip. Hadn't planned ahead. We'd just hopped in the Chevy and left because that's what college students did in the Sixties, they just took off to Florida at spring break. We wanted badly to be among 'em. 

We'd stopped in the bank before we left to pick up some money, and when the teller asked about what was happening--four guys standing there together getting cash--the guy with the quickest mouth told her we were going to be doing evangelism on Florida beaches. He embellished it too, threw in some hedonism. 

It was April, 1968. I was a college sophomore who thought himself already more worldly-wise than most of my righteous peers at the Christian college I attended, but I was looking to become more so by getting lost in the annual orgy of fun way down South. We didn't laugh at the teller until we got out of the bank, but I'll never forget her happy conviction as she counted the bills on the counter between us. 

We left the far corner of Iowa on time, but had car trouble in Memphis--a water pump, I think, but all of this was years and years ago. Something went on the blink in that  '62 Chev, and we had to stop, had no choice, had to pull over; so we turned in to the next service garage we came to, and were surprised when the boss and the mechanic and the pump jockey were all African-American. We were real white boys, northerners from lily-white homes in lily-white towns. I doubt any of us had ever trusted a black man to fix anything.

But he did, didn't overcharge us either. We spent a couple hours in that garage before we got back on our way south. Me? I was a little surprised the guy didn't take us to the cleaners. It was 1968. In less than a week, Martin Luther King's blood would be spilled on the balcony of a motel not far at all from that gas station.

I'm not sure exactly how it was that we got to Daytona Beach when we did--late. We'd done no planning, had little money; but sometimes innocence doesn't hurt you, even if it should. It was dark outside--that's all I remember; and when we found the sleazy place we did, I do remember thinking it was a dive, an old army Quonset or something, a weird place that likely made money only during spring breaks. TripAdvisor would have told us to stay the heck away, but that night we never second-guessed ourselves because it seemed very clear that finding anything cheaper would have been a stretch.

We stood in line inside a creaky old office, where wiry red neon still read "Vacancy." If this wasn't going to be this place, we knew we'd have to keep looking and night was already upon us. Somewhere along the line we were told that cops didn't take kindly to kids just sleeping on the beach.

The line thinned down until we were second, in front of us a black couple--guy and a girl. I remember great envy, simply assuming these two weren't married. I was in the world that night, in the world. 

We acted like we weren't listening, but we were, close enough to hear the chatter between the old guy behind the counter, close enough to hear him tell that couple that the gang right in front of them had just now taken his last room--flipped up his hands, shrugged his shoulders as if there was nothing he could do. He was so sorry but the two of them could probably find another room, he said, just down the street somewhere--he thought there'd be still be a place, but he was full up now and he was sorry.

They left. We lingered, talking among ourselves about what we were going to do. We had no choice really. We'd have to find some place too. We thought we'd ask directions.

"Not to worry," the manager said, "I still got a room. We just don't take their kind."

Truth be told, I knew nothing about lynchings, nothing about Jim Crow, maybe a little about hooded KKK carrying burning crosses. I'd grown up with wonderful Christian people who believed with unquestioned conviction that Martin Luther King was a social agitator with friends who were known communists. 

What I'm saying is I'd never seen anything close to what had just happened before my eyes.

We were desperate. We took that last room, the one that seedy old guy in that miserable  motel wouldn't give to a couple of customers who happened to black. 

I don't know why, but that story returned to me just last night, when I suddenly realized that the way it played out for all these years in my memory was, in part, created by my own naivete. I've always assumed that the couple in front of us left that ramshackle place carrying the same angst we would have: they didn't have a room and it was late and they didn't know what they were going to do because that night there wasn't any room in the inn.

But then, last night, sitting on the couch, listening to Trevor Noah talk about racism, it hit me that I may have judged them by my own lily-white innocence. What if I was wrong. What if they didn't believe the jerk behind the desk, not for a minute? What if they knew why they didn't get a room? What if it wasn't the first time they'd read Jim Crow signs that weren't on the wall but were still strictly enforced? What if they knew the only reason he said what he did was because that cheap dive wouldn't take "their kind." What if they understood very well what had happened? I never considered that before, always simply assumed that couple as innocent as I was.

Even though if I'll never know--call it white privilege--I think I'd be angry, very angry. 

On our way back up north from the beaches, somewhere in northern Florida, the car radio told us about the death, the murder, of Dr. Martin Luther King.

And that summer, the streets of just about every city in America went mad. Fires raged. 

It was 1968.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Our spiritual problems

Generalizations are always troublesome, but I'll make one anyway, purely anecdotal. For years, I taught an advanced writing course, for some a requirement, for most an option, often enrolling the school's best natural writers. Occasionally, one of the students would be South Korean--not often, because English was, for them, a second language.

One of the assignments was to do an essay having something to do with nature. I'd hand out examples, we'd read through what students had written in previous years, and sometimes even go on excursions out in the country to look and see for ourselves. 

South Korean students had trouble with that assignment. They were always gunners, always industrious, immensely hard-working; but I began to believe--and here too I'm speculating--that while they didn't lack in intelligence, or industry, they didn't have a relationship to nature that most American and Canadian kids did. They didn't have a sense of wide-0pen spaces. 

We had only to take a short walk off campus to be surrounded by open fields and gargantuan skies. To kids who've lived in high rises, amid huge populations, nature doesn't play a starring role, nor even make cameos. 

In a sweet piece of writing last week, NY Times columnist David Brooks looked at an almost hopelessly divided America and suggested that maybe, just maybe, we all need to renew our relationship with nature, the nature of Sitting Bull, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Walt Whitman, Woody Guthrie. Maybe we all should spend more time around a campfire singing "This Land is Your Land."

Okay, it's just a inch or two from goofy--I get that. But I like Brooks, and I held on to the essay because Brooks knows something that I too believe, that our problems, many of them, are spiritual, not material. "Why don't we win in Afghanistan?" "What's with suicide bombers?" "Why would a mother leave her baby behind to kill random Americans?" The problems we face are spiritual problems, and Brooks suggests that those who can lose themselves in our immense natural world--something Americans have done for centuries--may well become better human beings. That's his point, his wish. Like I said, I kept the essay. You can too--read it here

Nature's far more fearsome character sits like a brooding giant over south Texas right now, where it's created unparalleled destruction in flood waters that cover everything. Thousands upon thousands are homeless; the nation's fourth-largest city has become a bayou. Still, the rain falls. All the way into Louisiana, floods rage. In the face of nature's brute force and destructiveness, we can only cower. 

But spiritually at least, cowering isn't always a horror. Sometimes, getting down on our knees is a blessing. No one has ever considered us timid and self-effacing. By reputation, Americans are brash and self-possessed. We insist on private property, and the more, the better. 

Nature's lessons--listen to the ancients, our Native brothers and sisters--speak different truths, even in storms and tumult and horrifying destruction. Nature--and Nature's God--insists something altogether different: be still and know.

Yesterday, our 45th President had an opportunity to impart wisdom by way of alleviating suffering, by way of touching the battered lives of countless south Texans. Did he? 

Yes, say his admirers. No, say those who are not.

To a President who seems obsessed with size--big crowds, big hands, big towers, big deals--it seems clear to me after his visit that the rest of us need to be bigger than he is. 

What's happening at this moment in south Texas, what's happened since the advent of Hurricane Harvey, since it first touched ashore, is the spiritual lesson written all over this immense tragedy: there's joy and beauty in love and selflessness. 

If by way of south Texas the President can teach that lesson, he may yet become the leader some so passionately believe him to be. 

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The Sermons of D. R. Drukker--v

All cemeteries tell stories, one way or another, stories of significant heft too, death being what it is. Some do it more plainly, some more artfully, some more memorably. The Pioneer Cemetery at the Mormon Trail Center in Omaha includes this huge sculpture, a work of art not easily forgotten because what it memorializes  is not easy to look at anytime, anywhere. 

It's cold weather, even though, in truth, it may not be. The man's huge left hand clutches his coat and what appears to be a blanket or rain slicker around his shoulder and around the woman, whose face is deeply shadowed beneath her hood. She too holds something around her, and to her face; while her husband's right hand--around her--keeps hold of a shovel. 

It's windy and cold and maybe even rainy. Perhaps there's snow. Nothing about the sculpture, save this couple's mutual concern and love, is sweet or darling. Heroic in stature and strength, their grief is beyond human measure. Their grief and that shovel suggests they've buried a child. 

The death of children happened often on all the trails moving west. That hundreds of thousands of white folks like these were trespassing on Native lands doesn't mean their stories of hardship and perseverance aren't epic. I'm sure this massive sculpture is nowhere near the top ten places to visit on TravelAdvisor, but I can't help it thinking it should be.

The fifth sermon in The Beauty of the Lord, a century-old collection of sermons written by a man named Rev. D.R. Drukker, a book that somehow ended up in our library--I don't know how--the fifth sermon is titled "The Secret Things of God." To be honest, this sermon has, like that massive sculpture in Pioneer Cemetery, stayed with me because it asks what most people consider the unanswerable questions that separate our faith in a loving God and the horrors that occur in all of our lives, the pain we all suffer. "Our World Belongs to God," people in my church say in unison; then how do we account for Auschwitz?

"God Himself is a great mystery," Rev. Drukker told his congregants a hundred years ago. I can't help but notice the proximity of that judgment to definitions forwarded by the Lakota people this couple might well have encountered somewhere along the trail. In a way, that truth is the core doctrine, the centerpiece of Drukker's sermon and his understanding of both good and evil--"God is a mystery." 

Rhetorically, the old preacher won't let his people pass over the truth. He lists a dozen questions that beg profound and understandable human doubt from all of us, even those who pledge hearty allegiance to the Creator of Heaven and Earth.

Why do so many of our fellowmen suffer poverty, sorrow and pain? why does God take away so many of his saintly and useful workers who have just begun to labor for their Lord and who beginnings promised so much? Why are so many of His daughters widows, and why are so many of His sons widowers? why does the worldly man enjoy the riches and comforts of earth when others who endeavor to walk in the ways of the Lord have so little? . . .Why must God's own, too tired to live, ready to die, yes, even longing to lay down their burdens and go to the "Land of Pure Delight," continue here? 

He ends this roster of grief with a prayer that gathers all those questions into one petition: "'Father, why dost Thou lead Thine own through deep waters where our thoughts are drowned?'"

 The answer the old preacher gives is a single petition from Christ's own prayer--"Thy will be done":  "We must be satisfied with God's grace."

That's wisdom is fully as difficult as the story of that Pioneer Cemetery sculpture. 

But then this: "Man must not allow his curiosity to exceed his service." I can't help thinking that's a beautiful line: Don't ask more than you give. 

Every teacher starting school this week wants curious students, students who want to learn. Rev. Drukker doesn't say curiosity is wrong; he simply maintains that as long as we live we do more than we question

Don't ask more than you give. 

Monday, August 28, 2017

Lessons in how to breathe

To watch what's happening in Texas at this moment leaves you breathless. All that flooding is astonishing. Being astonished, I'd hazard, is good for the soul. I don't mean to be callous about the millions suffering this morning, or to forget the families of those who've died. I only mean to say that a natural catastrophe of this size and destructiveness reminds us all, even those thousands of miles away, of how powerless we can be in the face of so great a power. That realization can be a blessing because it doesn't hurt us, Americans especially perhaps, to know once again how powerless we are. 

Generally, astonishment is a momentary thing; we don't necessarily stay astonished. It has an immediacy created by things outside of us--events like natural disasters--experiences that leave us breathless. 

Awe is astonishment's older, wiser grandparent; awe is a way of life, an attitude taken most to heart when we're on our knees. Astonishment can teach us awe, just as hurricanes can teach us humility, bring us back to our senses about who we are and what our work really is. Thousands of neighbors, otherwise strangers, became life-savers yesterday in south Texas, because yesterday, in the face of overwhelming danger, compassion took control of real lives.

I was a thousand miles away from all that water yesterday, out in our backyard when I couldn't help noticing that the sedum was being 'et by creatures folks so hard at work--on the Sabbath, too!--that they had didn't even notice the giant with the camera. No flooding here, but still a kind of astonishment.

A purple prairie coneflower I'd started to doubt would ever open, gushed last week and became a cafe, these two customers not minding each other one bit.

"The camera," Dorothea Lange, once wrote "teaches you how to see without the camera." She's right, but you still have to look. And yesterday, twenty feet from our back door, I couldn't help but be astonished at the beauty of a world I had to look to see, a tiny world that's nothing at all like a hurricane, but still astonishing.

John Calvin claimed that faith comes into our lives when, in nature, we can't help but see our powerlessness, can't help but see that we aren't God, that someone, something else, is. That need bleeds us of pride and puts us on our knees, puts us in awe. 

Life will be forever changed for the people caught in the torrent that is stalling over south Texas, but I can't help but believe that in the face of a tragedy no one can still quite imagine, we'll all be left in awe. And that may be a good thing in our national story.

Some have died, thousands will suffer; I don't want to minimize the tragedy. But I can't help but think this storm can be a blessing.

Things that take our breath away can teach us better how to breathe.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Sunday Morning Meds--Two Stories

“May they be like grass on the roof, 
which withers before it can grow; 
with it the reaper cannot fill his hands, 
nor the one who gathers fill his arms.”
Psalm 129

I’m not sure what kind of measurement tools I use to read the depth and strength of stories, to choose one as being better or worse than another. Such criteria are themselves issues of the heart, which is why, I suppose, I don’t understand them. There is, after all, no accounting for taste.

A decade ago now, one story in two installments shook this country. The first was the story of a man who lost control of his life and his will, then entered a schoolhouse in Pennsylvania with the sole intent of injuring young girls and did just that, killing five, execution style. Five others, also shot, suffered significant wounds. 

Not long after, the community who lost all those young women razed the school, just tore it down. They were Amish, a peculiar people given by religious creed to work their farms by hand and horses, as if time had stopped somewhere mid-19th century. None of them would think of owning a bulldozer, so they needed to hire someone who had one to do the demolition because it required work the community decided they wouldn’t do with their own hands. In just a few pre-dawn hours, the place was razed, the rubble buried.

Five children were murdered, and their madman killer was himself dead by his own hand, right there in the school. That’s one story. 

School shooting happen far too frequently, so perhaps the story is not particularly unusual—people even use a word, “Columbine,” the way we use “Watergate” for every political scandal.  But the nation was, once again, shocked and horrified by another school shooting, this one, amazingly, in Amish country. It was a big story for a week or so, maybe ten days.

The other story was bigger, and that story also took place in rural Pennsylvania, in the same place, in the same week. Members of that violated Amish community began visiting the wife of the murderer, bringing her into their love. 

With a commitment to social justice, their own history of persecution, a unyielding belief in God’s providence and his rule and in the life hereafter, the Amish, so sinned against by this madman, showed nothing but love for the murderer’s family. They couldn’t forget what had happened—that’s undoubtedly why the school house was razed; but they forgave, amazingly.

Two stories came out of a Pennsylvania hamlet few had ever heard of, a place called Quarryville.  One was about madness and murder—five children dead, five more badly hurt. Those things happen so often it seemed that, as short a time as a year later, the whole incident seemed ordinary.

What wasn’t ordinary—what was divine—was that community’s acceptance, their desire to forgive. 

The psalmist had a similar phenomenon in mind here in 129—may evil quickly pass away, he asks; may it wither before it can grow.  May the darkness be short-lived.  May the murder of those children be razed like the schoolhouse.

The great story from Quarryville, Pennsylvania, the story with legs, was the one that’ll grow, the one whose harvest seems limitless. That story is about acceptance and forgiveness. 

There’s nothing derivative there. It’s fresh as daisy and new every morning, shocking, always, to our humanness. It’s the story of grace.    

Friday, August 25, 2017

An simple story, forever rich

It's a simple human story, repeated countless times in countless lives. If it seems to have happened more frequently among the Dutch Reformed, it may just be my own faulty judgement; after all, most the people I know are Dutch Reformed. 

It starts with plain old hard work, an unshakable characteristic of so many people I know, an ethic people celebrate proudly--"we work hard." At 98, hardly able to walk anymore, my father-in-law still apologizes for having done nothing all day in the Home. What feels like laziness grieves him. He would love nothing better than to work all afternoon--doesn't really matter how.

Throw in a Depression as setting, an era when rural people could barely make it and many couldn't. In the memoir I was reading last night, a man named Carl remembered meals of lard spread on homemade bread. There was nothing else. When he'd pull it out of his honey bucket lunch pail at school, he remembered being afraid some other kid would smell it and know how dirt poor they were.

Combine that penchant for hard work with a strict religion fiercely practiced, a faith more fitted to condemn than love, a faith so heavy-laden with doubt that it spends whatever life it has snarling. There's that too.

Then, bring on the sadness, the tragedy, the death of a child, the worst experience life can afford any parent.

Those are the ingredients of the story I read last night, a simple story repeated countless times in innumerable variations, the story I can't help but remember this morning.

Carl, now deceased, remembered growing up in that kind of world as the namesake of a little boy he never knew, a baby who died at three months, another Carl, whose name he was given.  This is a story about Carl and his father. 

Several years later, he remembered a time when he and his siblings--there were eleven in all--got together to ask themselves whether it might not be better for their father not to know the truth about something--he didn't say what. They were serious. They knew how much anger they'd trigger and he'd generate if he found out. Mutually, they decided the moral course was to lie.

And then there was that time two of the girls accidentally damaged the soft top of the car and didn't tell him--never did in fact, not until he was on his death bed, and even then, Carl says, the old man still got mad.

That kind of father is in the story repeated thousands of times in countless lives. And it goes like this.

Once upon a time, Carl's parents went back to the church they'd attended when the kids were little. They walked out back together, into the cemetery, where a little grave stood along the fence, he says, the place his namesake was buried. 

There they stood, Carl says; and when he looked up into his father's face, the old man was crying. Those tears he said he'd never forget.

That moment is the heart and soul of Carl's story, a story with infinite variations remembered and told in a thousand settings and as many languages, a deeply human story created, at once, by startling tears from unimaginable loss and undying love. 

It's just that simple.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

The Grosse Show

Not that we needed any more books. Two moves--and one retirement--meant leaving tons behind, but they accumulate anyway and now overflow three libraries in the new house. But an old friend insisted, and lots were on subjects I liked. Among them, this oddity, the Great German Exhibition, 1942, a paperback sales brochure of choice Nazi-approved art on exhibition in Munich while Hitler's armies were approaching Stalingrad. 

Der Fuhrer was an artist, or considered himself to be, and had a soft spot in his hard heart for art and the artist. It was his idea to create a national show, a bazaar of the kind of art he thought to be the kind of art the German people should appreciate and buy--and thereby support starving painters and sculptors. 

Great German Exhibition is a showbill, an introduction to the art available at this art mall for the volk. Written up and pictured on its pages is not what he considered "degenerate" art--there was a show for that too, attended by three times as many turnstile pushers, an exhibition of what not to like (including people like Van Gogh and Mondrian), a show of what specifically not to appreciate.

Hitler liked neo-classical work, art that participated in dialogue around already famous Greek deities, stories and mythologies that indicated German artists were contributing to themes that had occupied the Western mind for centuries, works like Karl Truppe's Bacchus and Ariadne you'll find here.

But if an artist wanted to locate his work on the approved list, he or she (mostly he) had to create work that was, if this is the right word, heroic in character. Nazi-approved art seemed to adopt realism, but Hitler and his judges wouldn't hear the word spoken. Contemporary work of the Nazi era had to feature "real" characters whose spirit (think divinity) was evident on the canvas, thus maybe heroic is a good qualifier. This woman, for example, from De Alm by Lobisser, a hearty folk hero.

Some of the work had obvious propaganda value--extolling the heroism of Hitler's infantry or commanding officers, like this oak-leaved captain, a man who carried the kind of dedicated jauntiness required to make him a leader of other heroic men.

or this one, Schmitz-Wiedenbruck's Fighting People, the workers and mothers up front in full support of the Blitzkrieg behind. 

Strangely enough--or maybe not--Hitler's tastes ran rather torridly toward naked people, and not just those who play well-established roles in classical lore. Because he heartily approved, the walls of the exhibition hall regularly included naked men and women, handsome adults who seemed not at all shy about being disrobed. There was nothing obscene about the disrobed Aryan ideal, so nakedness became, the history books say, something of a Nazi preoccupation. 

But what I find most remarkable about this old exhibition catalog isn't the art itself, even though it is fascinating. What seems so astounding is the sheer banality of the ads that sponsor the book and, I suppose, the exhibit itself. They run the gamut, really, from baby food to expensive galleries and museums. But what the picture is the unseen life of ordinary people. 

Through all of this--through the battle for Stalingrad, through state-sponsored art, through death camps--some already built, some in the planning--through an entire world at war, the insane dream of a madman out to cleanse the dirt from a master race, ordinary people, ordinary folk, took holiday vacations on trains to mountain hideaways. In Germany, under the reign of the Reich--in Germany, at war with the world--life went on as if there were nothing amiss. 

As if there were nothing amiss.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

More than meets the eye

His foundation is in the holy mountains.
      The LORD loves the gates of Zion
            More than all the other dwelling places of Jacob.

      Glorious things are spoken of you,
            O city of God.

I'm sure I haven't sung the old hymn for years, but its sweet familiarity came back to me in a Nano-second. It's one of many that originated in a partnership between William Cowper and John Newton--John Newton of "Amazing Grace" fame, the slave-trader who walked away from a life he came to despise after his abiding conversion to the Christian faith. It was Newton who wrote "Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken," the lyric that rode the musical line playing in my ear the moment she read the words.

I'm almost 70, so nostalgia comes to me grippingly, I guess; but I'll admit it anyway: sometimes old things ring so sweetly that I choose to stay with the memory a while. I'll admit it: for several minutes I have no idea what my wife was reading for our devotions that night. I was singing "Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken," the kind of old hymn that returns with almost shameful reverence when so many worship services we attend these days use music I don't know and don't care to learn. Truth be told, there I was, in the church I attended as a boy, the whole congregation singing "Glorious Things." Nostalgia is ever more inviting these days, even a bit debilitating. 

But then, there are fine reasons to honor that old hymn. Newton, who later in life described his slave-trading days as "a business at which my heart now shudders," got together with Cowper to write hymns, in part, history tells us, as a measure to keep his friend Cowper sane, literally. Think of it "Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken" as therapy because it was. That old hymn has created its own anthologies of beautiful stories.

And then there's its presumptuous theological underpinnings. I'm told a score of hymnbooks don't use the final stanza of "Glorious Things" because of its shameless Calvinism: 

Saviour, if of Zion's city
  I through grace a member am,
Let the world deride or pity,
  I will glory in Thy name:
Fading is the worldling's pleasure,
  All his boasted pomp and show:
Solid joys and lasting treasure,
  None but Zion's children know.

What I'm saying is, there's good reason that old hymn came out of hiding when my wife read verse 3 of Psalm 87, ample reason. 

But, in public at least, I'll probably never sing Newton's old hymn again. It's traditional musical setting couldn't be more beautiful, a melody created by Frans Joseph Hadyn from an Austrian folk tune so beloved it became the national anthem of Austria, and, eventually, Germany, the Third Reich, in fact. So the Nazis loved it too, used it for worship, nationalistic worship. It rang soulfully from beneath those swastika banners, its fighting men teared up to sing it or hear it sung.

And thus that great hymn became impossible for millions of others to sing or even hear. John Newton's old words have been put into other musical settings, but what I heard in my memory when I heard Psalm 87:3 was John Newton, William Cowper, and Franz Joseph Hadyn. No doubt. 

That there's meaning in words sometimes needs remembering. But there's also meaning in associations; they say something too, sometimes more powerfully than words. 

For a moment, my whole consciousness was high-jacked by nostalgia that turned, in a second, to disgruntlement--why don't we sing great old hymns like that anymore?

And then, just a few minutes later, I couldn't help remembering men and women who lived through the Nazi occupation of Holland, heard them claim with fists clenched how they could not, even if they knew better, sing that damned music when they remembered what so many of them could not forget, even if they wished to.

There's more to life than meets the eye, more than words can tell.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Morning Thanks--That evening sun

I had the best of plans. I spent two great weeks at the National Homestead Monument a year ago, and I remember the place fondly. It was going to be in prime position for the eclipse, and I knew there was more than 160 acres to set up a camera, right in the middle of rural Nebraska. 

When I went to the website, I found out I wasn't the only one with grand Homestead ideas. The place was going to be a hub of activity all day long, lectures and demonstrations, every kind of star-gazer, from astronomers to Native traditionalists, a perfect place for me to spend the day, only four hours away and familiar territory.

Then, a speaking gig came up in Milwaukee, prompting a trip home. Hadn't visited my sister for a long time, so we decided to go, and did. It was wonderful. 

The speaking gig was Sunday afternoon, a discussion of the times in the presence of art show, portraits of "Heroes," one of them being Diet Eman, whose World War II story, Things We Couldn't Say, I wrote. The other two spakers were actual heroes from the portraits, a ex-cop from Milwaukee who works with inner city kids and a pony-tailed poet/librarian from Racine, blessed with charm and given to all kinds of social activism. 

The discussion went on and on, gloriously, I might add; but my "best laid plans" were set back when we didn't get on the road from West Allis until sometime around six, which made getting home to Iowa almost impossible and reaching Beatrice, Nebraska, the next morning, Monday, even more impossible. 

We stayed near LaCrosse, and I got up early to try to get some shots of a Mississippi River dawn; but the sky was painfully thick with clouds. By the time we got back on the road, we determined that watching what we could of the great eclipse would have to be in the meekness of our own back yard, where the skies are still ever huge.

By the time we got to Jackson, Minnesota, the sun was being threatened. When we turned south from Worthington, we into an inkwell of a storm, and it rained most of the way back to Alton. Barbara kept watching radar and telling me it was going to clear, going to clear.

Never did. We pulled into the driveway about the time the eclipse was ready to start, but it was difficult to tell if the darkness all around was from an eclipse happening somewhere up above or just the quilt of rain clouds. We lost out. As Trump would say--sad.

The way I figure, the sun, not to be outdone, determined it to do a solo performance when the big day was over. So there's no eclipse in my camera, but a couple of sweet shots of the evening sun on a canvas of bedraggled clouds that's altogether nothing to sneeze at, at all. 

Not an eclipse, but still a blessing, a declaration, a perfectly divine show.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Sunday Morning Meds--Righteous Anger

Giles Tilleman, arrested for his religious views in 16th century Brussels, had a chance to flee prison, but stayed instead in his cell. "I would not do the keepers so much injury, as they must have answered for my absence, had I gone away," he said. When he stood at the stake where he would be burned and noted the mass of wood for the fire, he told the guards to distribute that fuel to the poor instead of wasting so much on his execution. A guard offered to strangle him, to kill him before he burned, but Tilleman refused, and, as John Foxe writes in his Book of Martyrs, “he gave up the ghost with such composure amidst them, that he hardly seemed sensible of their effects.”

I don’t know why exactly, but I’ve been drawn back to reading Foxe’s Book of Martyrs once more, a book I read as a kid. In fact, I’m not even sure I read the book when I was a boy, but I am eerily familiar with it, a story book Published first in 1563, the Book of Martyrs created, somehow, 400 years later, an significant impression on me, its gruesome stories carring, unforgettably, equal measures of horror and transcendence.

Even though the martyrdom recounted gloriously in that book is part of the grand narrative of redemption, I doubt that elementary school teachers in Christian schools like the one I attended as a boy talk much at all about 16th century martyrdom, as they did a half century ago. I doubt anyone commends that old book any more, even though it stood, for years, beside only the Bible and Pilgrim’s Progress in the homes of multitudes of good Christian folk. Really, by today’s standards, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs is, well, gauche, to the pluralistic temper of our age, quite tasteless therefore, and embarrassing, in a way, as are the nightmarish visions of hell of Hieronymus Bosch.

All of that helps me understand my own chills when approaching imprecatory psalms like this one, songs that cry longingly for revenge. Even though the fury is muted in 129, far less distasteful here than in other psalms (no bashed heads of children as in 137, for instance), I find it difficult to empathize with the psalmist’s rage.

But then my back has never been plowed. I own no scars for my profession. My family is intact. Giles Tilleman, John Huss, hundreds of thousands of other martyrs (their list continues to grow) are, at best, nightmarish memories from an ancient book no one reads anymore anyway.

And I wonder sometime whether my own attitude toward Roman Catholics didn’t have to undergo some significant therapy in order to entertain even the possibility of acceptance as a result of an imagination overloaded with Christians burned at stakes or mauled by lions. As a child, I wonder whether I would have had more empathy for the imprecatory psalms, simply because my imagination created, even joyfully, the mawkish smell of burning skin.

Was Foxe’s Book of Martyrs good for me, way back when? I’m not sure, but I’m happy I know it, happy I felt the terror and the glory of those martyrs. I’m glad those stories are a part of me; they may be my only link to imprecatory psalms like 129.

Reading the psalms has taught believers about God for centuries, but I continue to believe that even those that make us shutter teach us just as much, and maybe more, about ourselves, our humanness before God’s transcendent divinity.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Cleaning up the Mess--a story (iii)

“She said it was something about you cleaning up Norma’s mess, Mae–you cleaning up your sister’s house without asking, and ever since that you two sisters–in the blood, too, not only in Christ–real, honest-to-God sisters–haven’t even spoken to each other,” he says. “Now I’m trying to figure out how the two of you do devotions at night, knowing that you never talk–that’s what I’m trying to figure out. You tell me, how do you talk to God?”

That young preacher was about to become a lightning rod and I didn’t know if he was grounded yet. Carol shoves me an elbow. She scared witless.

“Norma,” the preacher said, “how can you pray?”

You just know it–his pulse is racing because it irritates him, talking to a couple of store manikins. And then he says the one that broke the dike, something I’m thinking he shouldn’t have said.

“Mae,” he says, “I can’t believe the Lord listens to your prayers.”

That was enough to unstop Norma’s tongue. “What do you know?” she says. That was the first line either of them spoke. “What do you know about my sister and her prayers?” she says. “What do you know about what she’s suffered already in life–losing a husband and a boy? What do you know about her? What do you know about what she asks of the Lord, and what do you think you know about Him listening or not?”

“I know your sin sits between you and the throne like some black cloud,” he says, and Carol’s got a hold of my arm, tugging. He sounded steamed. He really did. He sounded wound up tight. “I know you used foul language in that house,” he said. “I know you said words that would have made your mother’s blood curdle.”

“Don’t bring Mother into this,” Mae says finally. “You didn’t know her.”

“I’d like to tell her the words you screamed at your sister,” the pastor said to Norma. “I’d like to run them past her to see if she approved.”

“How dare you?” Mae says. “How dare you talk like that to my sister?” And then, “Let’s get out of here, Norma,” Mae says, the quiet one, and just like that we hear the chairs moan when the two of them–neither of them lightweights–get to their feet.

“Get in there,” Carol says, and I figure this time she’s right. If the two of them had stormed out of that study, I don’t know that we’d have seen them again for a half dozen years–either that or they’d have taken the preacher’s hide right there in the mess in his study.

“Go on,” Carol said, so all six of us took off through the Sunday School room door and chugged up the hallway like the Light Brigade, then broke in the study.

I wasn’t thinking about what I was going to say, so the first thing that jumped into my mind is what you always say, I guess. “Surprise,” I said, and so did everybody else, as if it was a birthday, and maybe it was.

Mae and Norma were standing at the door, mouths gaping, eyes full moons, Norma with her hand stuck in Mae’s elbow, both of them flat out flabbergasted by the sudden appearance of all the angels, all their friends.

Maybe ten seconds of sheer silence passed, and finally my Carol says, “We love you.”
For the life of me, I don’t know where she pulled that from, but then all of us started into it like a chorus, catching like a yawn–one starts and it gets to be a thing. It’s Fanny with “we love you,” and then Ann and Marlys and Eunice–women first; and then Rolly says it and Fritz and me too. Even the men spouting off about love.

Norma and Mae just stand there blinking, then Norma looks down and sees her hand in the crook of her sister’s elbow, and they turn to each other where they see mirror images of their own stunned faces. Norma pulls her hand out and puts it on Mae’s shoulder, then lets it creep around her neck, and Mae turns a face a little so she can put her cheek on her sister’s shoulder, and they hug. And that was it. Three years of silence over.

But what’s three years anyway, we figured. Jacob worked seven for Leah then got snookered and started the whole deal over.

Anyway, I turned and looked at that peach-faced preacher, barely old enough to drive. He didn’t look mad one bit. Hadn’t even stood up from the chair, was sitting there with his hands out in front of him, folded, a wiry smile across his face, wily as a fox. Nodding. That’s what he was doing–nodding.

I said to Carol later on, after the cake and things–I said to Carol, “I think the guy is going to make somebody a good preacher someday.”

“As long as we do our part,” she said.

By the time we left, you can bet all those books were on his shelves.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Cleaning Up the Mess--a story (ii)

The preacher, a new one at that, tries to get to the bottom of an old mess, two sisters who won't speak to each other and haven't for years. 

Of course, it wasn’t just the cleaning that got Norma heated; it was what she read as Mae’s self-righteousness, a affliction she claims she’s lived with for 70 years. Her mouth was stiff from the dentist, but she managed to say some viscous things in language best left for sorting hogs. 

Three years of silence have followed. Church comes and goes every week, and there’s funerals–we got more than our share–so there’s always coffee and cake served afterwards by the two of them and others. And there’s this and there’s that, not to mention three years of Eunice Society, the two of them never missing a meeting but never speaking to each other either, sitting on opposite sides of the circle of folding chairs. It’s just something you just get used to, like hail.

Except for Pastor Terry, who thinks he’s Nelson Mandela. And right then he’s got Norma at the door, and the fireworks are about to start.

Listen, our church was constructed long before anyone here remembers, and it’s inside walls are thin as Ritz crackers. So once we know Norma’s coming, all of us wander shamelessly to the 3rd grade Sunday School room which shares a wall with the study.

This is how it went, or something like. Carol says to get it right.

Pastor Terry hears the knock on the door and gets up. We’re sure Mae doesn’t turn around because it’s none of her business who’s there, and besides what if it’s Lola Harmsen, whose husband’s catting around again. She doesn’t want to know every last person to come to the preacher’s office for spiritual help.

“Norma,” Pastor Terry says, “how nice to see you. Come in.”

Now we didn’t see a thing, of course, but we couldn’t miss the silence. Right then the temperature in that room dropped to zero. We figure the preacher was on his feet, standing right between them, when he turned back toward Mae. “I thought it might be nice to get the two of you–sisters–in for a chat,” he says. But both of them know what’s being staged here because neither would have come if the preacher had whispered a word about the other being there. You can cut the air with the knife, let me tell you.

“Who’s older?”

What a stupid question. There’s this long pause. Nobody says a thing.

“So how you feeling, Mrs. Meerdink?” the preacher says, but his is the only voice.

My wife looks at me as if I ought to do something.

“You must be feeling better,” the preacher says, but still nobody says a word. Frost was starting to form on the wall. We were there.

“I wanted to talk to both of you,” he says. “What I’m wondering is what you’d consider Jesus would think of your not talking to each other?”

He shouldn’t have said that. You shouldn’t talk down to those old birds. We’re thinking Mae is likely to walk out, Norma let fly with some language better left out back.

“I wonder whether Jesus is proud of the witness you offer to the world with your anger,” Pastor Terry says.

Not a word.

“I heard it’s about cleaning,” he says. “I heard it’s something about cleaning up somebody’s else’s house–do I have that right, Mae?” he says.

You can be sure the two of them didn’t look at each other. They’re good at that–three years of practice. But you can be just as sure they weren’t looking down either–way too proud. My guess is they’re staring at the preacher like a couple of mad, barnyard cats.

“You may remember when Nathan came to David,” Pastor Terry said, and right away I’m thinking this doesn’t have a thing to do with adultery and murder. “David didn’t even see his own sin,” the preacher said. “Can you see what you’re doing?”

Of course, there could be a murder.

“Listen to me,” he says, “we’ve got kids young as three wearing WWJD bracelets–‘What Would Jesus Do?’–you ever asked yourselves that?”

Nothing. Not a word.

“I’m not letting you go until one of you breaks,” he says, and right then Carol looks up at me and tips her head as if it’s time for us to go in there before something bad happened.

“We’re going to get this settled if it takes all day,” he said.

What’s one afternoon on a three-year investment?

“We’re going to get through this because we can’t have grudges in the family of God,” he says. “You think the Lord is happy with your anger?”

You can just see them, can’t you?–both of them staring right into the young man’s eyes.

“Can you talk at all?” he says. “Can you say anything?”

Dead quiet.

“What happens if one of you gets taken to the grave without having made up–what then?” he says. “What happens if one of you dies and the other is left choked up with guilt?–answer me that.”

Nobody says a thing.

“I don’t want that to happen, and you know why?” he says. “If one of you dies, I’m going to have to deal with the mess because the other is going to come in and bawl her eyes out because you never kissed and made up,” he tells them. “What’ more,” he says, “it’s childish. It’s downright childish.”

Now he’s on a roll. Thinks he’s Jeremiah.

“I couldn’t believe it when I heard it,” he says. “Marlys Fynaart told me–“

And we all stare at Marlys, who slaps herself on the forehead.


Tomorrow: The confrontation ends. 

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Cleaning Up the Mess--a story (i)

The prototype of this story came to me from a student, who told me about two of her aunts who hadn't talked to each other for ten years. Couldn't believe it, so I tried to bring two similarly feuding sisters together in a story.
Mae Laangebroek sat down in the pastor’s office, took one look at the half-filled book shelves, the cardboard boxes hither and yon, and a snowstorm of crumpled papers, then told the new preacher she’d rather die than move from the house she’s lived in for fifty years. “Not that Shellsburg doesn’t get under my skin,” she told him.

It’s a wonder she didn’t forgo the talking and pull a can of Lemon Pledge from that hefty purse. Pastor Terry has been here eight months and those books still aren’t on the shelves. Goes to show how many he really reads.

But Pastor Terry knew what he was getting into before he suckered Mae into his office. He’s green, but he had a plan none of the rest of us would have tried.

“It’s going to take death or the day of the Judgment for me to leave my place, I guess,” she told him, “and it isn’t because I love the house either–that place has more leaks than I do.”

“What is it then?” the young pastor asked her, stalling for time.

“There’s so much of my life I wouldn’t know what to do with. And besides,” she told him, “the mess itself would like to kill me.”

Messiness is at the heart of things here. Pastor Terry was out to clean up the messes in Shellsburg Church like some new sheriff, starting with Mae and her sister Norma. He’s young, but we only get rookies here because our job is to break in the seminarians for the big Michigan churches. We never know what we’re going to get when we call a man. It’s like gambling, I guess, but then the CRC doesn’t believe in gambling–except for farmers, but that’s another story.

Sorry for going on like I do. My wife says I can’t tell a decent story, but that never stopped me yet.

The story here is that Pastor Terry decided to work at the reconciliation–two sisters, both in his church, who haven’t talked to each other for three years. He asked a bunch of us to come to church early and hide out in the youth room because he’s going to get Mae to talk to her sister Norma because Norma’s sick and sisters not talking to each other is the kind of thing you can’t have in healthy Christian fellowship. He told us he wanted us there for the celebration–that’s how confident he was about winning this thing. Carol, my wife, says he thinks he’s Houdini. I told her he’s just a young man seeing visions, and how he’ll make somebody in Hudsonville a good undershepherd someday.

So it’s me and the wife, Rolly and Ann deGooyer, Fanny Vander Kooi, Marlys Fynaart, Fritz and Eunice Lems, Harriet Aalberts–all of us hiding out in the youth room as if this is a surprise party. Which it is. As in Pearl Harbor.

“So,” Mae says to the preacher, “what can I do for you?” except our young deceitful pastor has one eye peeled out the window for Norma, who he expects any minute. “I’m visiting all my parishoners,” he says, “and it’s your turn. Thought we’d just chat. Anything you’d like to talk about?”

That was a stupid question for Mae, who’s something akin to Gibralter. But then he’s not even married–what does he know about life?

“Your preaching is fine so far,” she says, and right about then is when the pastor spots Norma coming up the sidewalk. So did we–through another window.

But just one minute here. You should know that cleaning up is what brought all of this on three years ago. Norma was at the dentist and Mae went over to her place for tea, thinking the appointment was over at three like it would have been if it hadn’t been for the oldest boy of Rich Frens canceling. Dr. Bensema told Norma to stay put because he was going to do a little extra work as long as he had her jaw frozen.

Mae doesn’t say much, but she can hardly keep her hands to home when it comes to a mess. Like Mary and Martha, the two of them are. Norma got all the talking genes. She can go on forever at Bible studies. Take fifty years off her life and she’d be in seminary herself right now with all the changes in the church. Mae keeps a huge garden, where Norma has perennials some guy from town weeds–you get what I’m saying? They’re sisters and widows and they love each other all right, but love doesn’t mean you always get along just perfect.

I’m off the story again. So Mae was waiting for Norma, and everybody knows that she shouldn’t have done what she did, everybody except Mae, but telling her that is like talking to a silo. So that afternoon Mae cleaned Norma’s house–did dishes, picked up around, swept the floors, picked up eleventy-seven magazines and stacked them neat as church bulletins.

And still no Norma.

Word is, she looked around, then pulled out some cleanser, did the sinks, and got the fixtures to shine like new. You can’t blame her for looking outside because she was waiting for her sister, but what she saw instead between the screen and the inside window was pure sin–dust turned thick to dirt. So she lifted the window beside the dining room table, and started cleaning the inside sills. Word is, it was cold for April, too, but then you got to know Mae.

When Norma came home, she found her older sister in her own house, leaning over her dining room table to clean out her own sills, and it tripped some old hair-trigger wire.
Tomorrow: The genesis of the sisters' feud. 

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Morning Thanks--What won the day

Let's just think of what's happening all around us on a line graph. If we were to create an arc that somehow documents or illustrates the stress level of the American voting public since Donald Trump's surprising victory, the line would be almost consistently rising. Makes no difference if you're right or left, black or white, old or young, Republican or Democrat or Independent. The sides that exist today in this country and this culture are so are Grand Canyon-ed, it's scary.

There have always been conservatives and liberals, always been those who believe government is good and those who consider it malicious, but the distance between those basic views has only rarely felt so unbridgeable. We've become the Hatfields and the McCoys.

After yesterday's news conference, nothing's changed, even though for the first time since the Civil War a President of these United States made clear that to him some kind of moral equivalency exists between the actions of men and women who marched in torchlight, chanting Nazi slogans and racist chants, and those who came to protest against those beliefs. He called the people chanting "Jews will not replace us," good people, at least some of them. 

Some of us choose to differ. Some claim that "good people" would not have walked beneath a flag with a swastika or a flag of the Confederacy,  wouldn't have chanted things they did.

I don't know that we can recover from views Trump had suggested previously but now simply came right out and said yesterday at a news conference his handlers obviously wished over long before he walked off.  I don't know that many Republicans can sit still for them either.

This President seeks favor from only the 35% of the American public who will back him even if he guns down his enemies in the street. His malicious retorts yesterday to the CEOs who resigned from his council, as well as the totally unnecessary shot he took at Sen. John McCain were unseemly but characteristic, what keeps him popular with his base.

The temperature all around us is rising dangerously. No one knows where this will go. Don't figure on peace any time soon.

But pardon me for taking particular joy in one small bit of news in the storm, a new world record Trump will covet like none other. Last night, a few startling sentences became the most beloved tweet in Twitter history--liked somewhere close to three million times. Here it is, in its entirety.
No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion … People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love … For love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.
In case you missed it, those words belong to Nelson Mandela, the South African patriot who spent years in prison for fighting apartheid, then emerged with forgiveness in his heart to become both a national hero and President.

The man who tweeted those words is Barack Obama.

There's reason for morning thanks when the sentiment of those words becomes the most loved tweet of all time. At least on Twitter, what won the day is love. 

If you can't agree with that, there's nothing ahead but darkness.