Morning Thanks

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

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Morning Thanks--a poem about thistles

It begins with the subject unnamed. But there's no mystery here, because Maxine Kumin reveals all in the title: "Why There Always Be Thistle." 

Sheep will not eat it
nor horses nor cattle
unless they are starving.
Unchecked, it will sprawl over
pasture and meadow
choking the sweet grass
defeating the clover
until you are driven
to take arms against it
but if unthinking
you grasp it barehanded
you will need tweezers
to pick out the stickers.

The poem gallops along--hear it?--at the oh-so-familiar cadence of some children's rhyme, which it is, in many ways, although its painful subject matter can truly be appreciated only by an adult with dirty hands. If there were a few lapses in that silly beat, we'd call it doggerel--and it is, after a fashion, because Ms. Kumin doesn't want to be taken too seriously. Hop on for another ride.

Outlawed in most Northern
states of the Union
still it jumps borders.
Its taproot runs deeper
than underground rivers
and once it's been severed
by breadknife or shovel
—two popular methods
employed by the desperate—
the bits that remain will
spring up like dragons' teeth
a field full of soldiers
their spines at the ready.

Really, thistles will kill you if you let them, so the rhythms--silly as can be--won't let you take them too seriously. Then again, you can't be fatalistic about 'em; you got to fight or they'll take over the world. But neither can you march out to back thinking you're William the Conquerer. We're stuck with 'em.

Bright little bursts of
chrome yellow explode from
the thistle in autumn
when goldfinches gorge on
the seeds of its flower.
The ones left uneaten
dry up and pop open
and parachutes carry
their procreant power
to disparate venues
in each hemisphere
which is why there will always
be thistle next year.

Near the end, her diction gets a little fancy, but then she doesn't try to cute with the perennial curse we all know we have. 

For most of my life I've taught lit, but don't ask me to define what poetry is. There's nothing profound here, nothing angelic or other-worldly, nothing that will forever leave a mark.

All this little jingle does is help us see. And that's a blessing.

This morning--or any--I refuse to be thankful for thistles, but I am grateful to Maxine Kumin for the smile this backyard tribute has kindly left behind. 
Maxine Kumin's "Why There Will Always Be Thistles" was yesterday's feature poem on Garrison Keillor's Writer's Almanac

Monday, October 30, 2017

Morning Thanks--Children of the Reformation

In ways I know, as well as ways I still have only begun to understand, I am a child of the Reformation. I didn't request that birthright; the Reformation's place in my life was no more my choice than was the town where I was born. Like it or not, I've come heir to both its considerable strengths and decided limitations.

Sometimes I'm not proud to claim its heritage. Then again, moments come along when I'm thrilled to be the apologist. My parents determinedly skipped one of the great childhood holidays, Halloween, in part because they believed it gave comfort to the enemy, the Devil, but also because it obscured history we should be celebrating. October 31 wasn't Halloween; it was Reformation Day.

My first study of the Reformation happened in grade school, Christian grade school, where the wonderful piety of the Reformers was heralded, and those despotic Roman Catholics--overweight, alcoholic priests selling crappy indulgences to stupid people--created a take on the story it took me some time to nuance.

It's almost embarrassing to say it, but I remember being in graduate school before I learned that some well-heeled German land barons were all for Martin Luther. They were men with bucks who wanted more and didn't really care for all that theology. "Saved by grace" was okay with them; what they really liked was the way that strange priest stuck a sharp stick in the eyes the powers-that-be.

It took me years to learn that there would be no American Democracy without Luther and Calvin, etc., to understand that "the priesthood of all believers" carried immense political implications those land barons didn't miss. I was so much a child of the Reformation that I had to get out of its dominion to begin to understand.

Yesterday, in a jam-packed chapel, I was proud to be what I am. It may be just my age, but I missed half of "A Mighty Fortress," couldn't sing, got choked up simply to be part of a crowd I had guessed would be about fourth of a house but was in fact so big it ran halfway to the ceiling in the back.

Just couldn't sing. "A bulwark never failing" is not a line meant for ukelele. When Luther wrote that hymn, he wasn't thinking of a flute. He heard it on a pipe organ whose sheer force could fill a cathedral. And that's what it sounded like yesterday. In the full-to-the-rafters chapel, led by a massive pipe organ, Luther's own hymn brought me back to Wittenberg.

Of course, it didn't hurt that my granddaughter was there with her high school choir. It didn't hurt because I'm proud enough of being a child of the Reformation to want her to understand that she is too; and yesterday, at worship, she couldn't help knowing it.

Neither could anyone else. We sat behind the community's newest immigrants, two rows of Hispanics, mostly young people, who sang along with Luther, led as we all were by that huge organ, all of them children of the Reformation too.

The sermon was wonderful. Don't get confused about the priesthood of believers, the pastor said. Biblical priests weren't special in any way. They were us. They were you and me in work clothes, all of us, children of the Reformation.

When we fight among ourselves I'm not thrilled to be a child of Reformation. When we pick up our worship and take it elsewhere, when we start to believe the priesthood of all believers means each of us, in our separate ways, has our own unique handle on God's truth, in those moments I wear my John Calvin t-shirt under a sweater. Where two or three are gathered, post-Reformation, there's likely more than one church.

But yesterday's magnificent celebration of all those solas, two-hours of multi-lingual praise amid wall-to-wall children of the Reformation, was blessed.

Our institutions are all suffering these days, everything from political parties and religious denominations to the American Legion and your local bowling team. As long as we're on line, who really cares about getting together?

Well, we do. Honestly, yesterday a whole chapel full of people may well have understood, some for the very first time, that we are children of the Reformation.

It was beautiful. The God of all of us had to be smiling, and that's why this morning's thanks comes more easily than most. I am deeply thankful for yesterday.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Sunday Morning Meds--How we respond

Sing to the LORD with thanksgiving; 
make music to our God on the harp.” Psalm 147:7

“She talks only to some of the kids in the class,” one of my students once told me, criticizing another prof.  “There’s like five people she calls on—that’s it.”

I’ve got sympathy for that prof.  Basically, each day in class I teach to eyes—some eyes, the eyes that seem bottomless as you’re going on and on about Thoreau or whoever, eyes that seek knowledge, eyes that listen, that care.

Some eyes are glazed. Some glance up at the clock or don’t come up from the book in front of them; some are vacant, dreamy, watching something a galaxy away. A protective teacher voice in me tells me not to look at those eyes. It’s less spite than a simple defense because vacant eyes appear to say they really don’t care. 

At a big lecture this week, a whole crowd of students got restless. Some whispered, but mostly they just fidgeted, audibly. It was annoying and even embarrassing. I was in an Elijah mood, ready to call in the bears.   

But then my ethnic heritage is unforgivably Northern European. I grew up in Lake Woebegone, where fathers show their love by telling their kids to weed the garden and long-lost brothers shake hands to avoid the discomfort of having to touch someone else.  That my classroom might be full of reticence is somehow understandable. 

An old friend, a musician, once told me he always felt edgy about doing concerts at the college where I teach—all those white kids from the cold reaches of the Upper Midwest, kids who simply don’t know how to respond emotionally. At the most inopportune time, he said, they’ll clap, because applause is the only legitimate emotional response they know.  On the other hand, playing for Pentecostals, he said, is a treat because they know how to give back, with their eyes, their hearts, their voices and whispers. When they’re thrilled, they give you their prayers.

But then I hail from the ice box myself. Years ago, I didn’t give a prof my eyes, mostly because I hadn’t read the material. If I looked down, I figured he or she would look right past me. I was never a leader in class. Mostly, I judged those who were as kiss-ups. I’m need forgiveness.

The heart of David’s command in verse seven is a call to sing, to give the Lord, our liberator, your eyes, your attention, your thanksgiving, your blessed praise, simply to respond. Some people do it as if by nature, but then there are others, others who haven’t read their assignments.

And there are some who simply don’t find it easy. I remember the time, my wife, an only child, faced the arduous task of coaxing her mother into comprehensive care. Her mother doesn’t want to leave her apartment in the Home, to leave her husband of nearly 60 years.  She’d rather die. Who can blame her?

Neither my wife nor her mother or father felt like singing just then. Their eyes were down. Their song was lament, not praise. None of them, nor me, felt like leading the class.
We rest in the promise that God almighty is bigger than the teacher in me. That’s our comfort. We want to believe—and we do—that He knows, that he watches those whose eyes are a world away, that He touches the untouchables.  He loves even those who don’t give him their eyes, who can’t. He’s the master teacher.

Early winter’s dreary gray is especially oppressive this morning, but I rest in his care.  That’s enough to make me break into applause, inappropriately.  

So I’m not. This is my song.

Friday, October 27, 2017


You've got time, you know, when you're retired, so I bought a craigslist super-offer Magnavox combo vhs/dvd player from a guy in South Dakota, a real steal, I thought, after failing miserably with a gizmo that was supposed to turn our ancient vhs tapes into dvds, vhs technology being as dead as movie disks these days.  It's a job I can do in retirement, you know, when I've got all that time. . .

But my legendary clutziness kept me from operating the Magnavox too, so I called in my son-in-law, who proceeded to get it going in no time flat. When he did, what appeared on the screen was an endless loop of endless shots featuring a four-month baby so delightfully boring only a first-time grandparent could shoot it. Anyone else might take two minutes maybe, but this video really was just about a feature film.  It would not end. 

Like I said, you have to be a grandpa. And it has to be the first time.

Or a grandma. Or mom. Or dad. Or the baby herself, who's now edging dangerously close to teenagerism and had never seen this display of her babyness before.

There we sat, five of us, watching this ancient, a four-month old pudgy sweetheart on one of those perpetual baby swings, back and forth, back and forth, the only five people on the face of the earth who could be so totally enchanted. 

Here's what happened. We were sitting there, thus enthralled, smack dab on top of our four-year-old grandson's Lego nation. We were in his way, so to speak, and were paying him no mind because of that dumb baby.

All of which seemed totally mysterious to him.  "Who is that?" he said.  Remember, he's four.

"That's your sister," I told him.

That made zero sense.

"Where's Pieter?" he asked, meaning his big brother, who wasn't anywhere near the drawing boards just then, that swinging sister of his therefore soaking up every last bit of her parents' attention--firstborn and all of that. Where was Pieter when his sister was a baby?--he wondered. Good question.

"Pieter's not around," I said, barely paying him mind.

Okay, but then, "Where was I?" he said. A legitimate question: why wasn't he in this dumb video?

That one got our attention but prompted no answers because we were too taken by the little swinging kid to explain life and death and human destiny to a four-year-old in a pool of Legos.
What he could see was that everyone in the room right then was transfixed by a some salivating baby barely capable of holding her head up. Everyone he knows is gone in this goofy video he doesn't begin to understand, the whole room locked in silence, and nobody's answering his perfectly logical questions. What's more, that baby can't even talk or play Legos. 

"Why are we watching this video?" he announced.

A perfectly understandable question. There's no way in heck he could begin to understand the whole thing.  

"Why are we watching this video?" he says again.

That was three days ago,  and my wife and I have been laughing about that question ever since.  Nothing made sense to him right then, nothing at all.

So dear, so darling, and, oh-my-goodness, oh-so-perfectly human. 
*Posted December 18,2013 

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Morning Thanks--Harvests

This morning, the cornfield out back is gone, nothing but stubble. Last night, in the darkness outside our windows, there was nothing but noise, and lights slowly moving all around. Our neighbor had started out back the day before, late afternoon; by eight last night it was in, all of it. 

When I left for the Home yesterday, mid-afternoon, he was raising clouds of dust with that lumbering combine. Just up the road some other farmer was out in his fields doing the same thing, which made me think that my father-in-law would love to be out himself. He's 98, and each week, getting out and around is more of chore. Simply swinging his legs into the car is no fun, but I know--as does he--that a trip into the cornfields is worth the pain. 

"It'll all look different by next week, if we don't get rain," he said maybe a half-dozen times, pointing out at the harvest like an old magistrate. For a half hour, his mind was rumbling along out in the corn beside whoever was coming up or down the rows. He never owned a one of those big combines himself, just a four-row picker he'd certainly have had ready to go right about now. Still, years ago when he left the farm, he did so, he told me, because he simply didn't care to try to ride the pressure of one more harvest, no stomach left for yet another round, he said. 

So yesterday, he was a spectator in all the drama. He no longer has skin in the game, and that made it a joy to watch from the sidelines. Cooped up in the Home, his mind gets muddied and slow; at times, he can get ornery too. But get him out on gravel roads, let him watch the harvest, and he comes back to life. When a bin filled, one of those farmers drove his combine right up to the road where he had a tractor and a wagon ready to take the grain. Dad's eyes aren't what they were even a month ago, but rig was right there in front of him. 

I wondered if he thought it was patronizing of me to keep us there, treating him as if he were a child, bringing him up close like that, up close to a job he'd done himself hundreds of times. There we sat. He didn't say a thing. I don't think he was thinking about me.

There's a comic moment in the movie Little Big Man (1970), when Old Lodge Skins (Chief Dan George) tells Little Big Man (Dustin Hoffman) that's it's time for him to die. Old Lodge Skins asks him to come along to the hills, where the old man sings his death song, ritual spear in hand, then simply lays down to wait for death to come. What Old Lodge Skins hadn't figured on was the rain that starts to fall. He starts to get up, then tells Little Big Man that sometimes the magic works, then again sometimes not. Together, they go back to camp.

It's cute and funny and somehow delightfully human, really meant as a joke.

"Lots more beans out than there was on Sunday," he told me several times out there on the gravel roads. On Sunday, when we took another ride, he didn't even know it was Sunday. Yesterday, he remembered the specifics of Sunday's country ride.

Somehow, I don't doubt that, like Old Lodge Skins, if he had a choice, he wouldn't mind dying out there, middle of harvest, on land he loves. I don't want to sound crass or unfeeling, don't want to disdain any of our own rituals; but he seems to live out there in the country, in the dust raised by a dozen combines on a picture-perfect Indian summer afternoon. He seems not to die, but to wake. 

According to the USDA, the harvest is late this year, latest in the last eight years. As of yesterday, only 23 percent of the corn was out, 61 percent of the soybeans. If he were still out there with his old four-row corn picker, he'd nervous as a wet hen. 

But he's past all that fear now. On our little pilgrimage yesterday, I took him past his land too. He wanted to see it, wanted to know what was happening. 

Honestly, I think if he had a choice, he would choose to die there. That would be just fine. This morning I'm thankful for a harvest that helped him breathe.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

WWI--"Over There"

Johnnie, get your gun 
Get your gun, get your gun 
Take it on the run 
On the run, on the run 
Hear them calling, you and me 
Every son of liberty 
Hurry right away 
No delay, go today 
Make your daddy glad 
To have had such a lad 
Tell your sweetheart not to pine 
To be proud her boy's in line.
Some may believe that standing, hand over heart, for "The Star-Spangled Banner" is a profoundly patriotic gesture, but as a measure of homage to homeland it out-and-out pales in comparison to the giddy excesses America--and the world--took when going off to war a century ago. 

A well-weathered American diplomat named Hugh Gibson, posted to Belgium in 1914, took note of the frenzy all around him, even though the early rumblings of a real world war were still an ocean and more away from the U.S. of A. Just ten days after the assasination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, he wrote in his journal:  "Well, the roof has fallen in. War was declared this afternoon in Austria." And then this: "The town is seething with excitement." 

It's almost unimaginable today, an entire nation salivating over the glorious possibilities of war. "Everybody seems to realize how near they are to the big stage," he says. 

The horrors of trench warfare didn't appear in anyone's crystal ball.  No one prophesied that "the big stage" would be bloodied into a killing field.

Just a few days later, Gibson documents the patriotic uproar unfurling all around him:
This afternoon I went around to the Rue Ducale to take a look at the French Legation. The tricolor was flying in the fresh breeze, and there was a big crowd outside cheering itself hoarse. It was made up of men who were called to the colors and were waiting to enroll themselves and get instructions as to where they should report for duty. The air was electric, and every now and then the military band struck up the Marseillaise and the crowd instantly became happily delirious. Some of them had been standing in the sun for hours waiting to get in and get their orders, but they were just as keenly responsive to the music and the mood of the crowd as anybody.
All that hoopla would eventually die in a foul and muddied death, Belgium a battlefield, France an unimaginable nether world. More than a million Brits would die, a million and a half French; two and one-half million Germans. This country didn't get in until 1917, a century ago; but 117 thousand Doughboys would never return either. Many of those who did were scarred.

The world was a wholly different place back then as the world looked toward war; we were a different people. Downton Abbey wouldn't be a television series without World War I, many of its crucial conflicts created in the wake of a war that didn't end all wars, and barely stumbled to its own.

A century later it's impossible to imagine the level of blind patriotism Gibson records in his journal: "The air was electric, and every now and then the military band struck up the Marseillaise and the crowd instantly became happily delirious." Could that happen anymore, anywhere in Siouxland? anywhere in America? Would anyone sing the first verse of "Over There"?

Somewhere in France there's a cross in a cemetery bearing the name of my own great uncle, a young enlistee named Edgar Hartman. Was the war worth his life? 

It's difficult for any of us to answer that question in a fashion that's "happily delirious."

Something in all of us died a century ago in that Great War. 

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Morning Thanks--Starry night

If I had my druthers, I would most certainly choose getting up with the sun. Thick black night lies endlessly outside these windows just now; morning comes in darkness. To wake in a summer sun is pure blessing; half a curse to open your eyes to cold darkness. It's only late October, so an hour and more will have to pass before a swell of light out east hints at morning. Outside my window sits nothing but ink. 

A bellicose wind won't keep its mouth shut either. Out here, with no protection from trees, northwest winds do more than moan--they scream out a doleful tale that has absolutely no twists. It's a battering ram. Winter is on its way. Yesterday, that wind came up ferociously to hustle out a couple tons of soybean dust. Right now, the air in all that darkness is winter clear. 

Last night we turned on the furnace, but I didn't hear it until just now, when it rose like its own quiet storm. The cat was balled into what little space separated husband from wife in our bed, my wife's arm over my chest. In a winter bed I become somehow more becoming, I guess, its own kind of blessing. I had just awakened, and there was the furnace, its sound and touch almost forgotten.

Friday, there will be snow, they say, which is to say we do. Someone heard it somewhere. In all this noise and darkness, snowbirds of every species and genus begin to dream of that other warmer world somewhere south. 

With the lights on down here, there's nothing to see outside the windows, nothing but reflection. But if I stand upstairs in the darkness and look across the fields to the north, if I stare into a horizon that's not even there, that same onyx blanket will unfurl a thousand diamonds. 

But's it's got to be dark for stars to be seen. They best appear in a night that's rich with gloriously cold winter air.

Tonight there's no moon; here and there across the darkness a barn light flickers. But the sky above is a artful gallery of innumerable stars. 

There's always reasons to give thanks.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Small Wonders--Battle of Pecatonica

There’s some debate about motive—why Chief Blackhawk left Iowa in 1832 and crossed the mighty Mississippi. What he claimed was that he and his band were robbed of their homeland in a treaty. All he ever wanted was to return to the land where his ancestors were buried.

That claim may have been deceptive. Some historians believe he wanted to build a Native Confederacy. More and more white faces were showing up on land that once belonged to the Natives who trapped and hunted throughout the lush woodlands along the Rock, the Pecatonica, and the mighty Mississip.

He his people left Iowa that year for peaceful purposes, but the crowd that formed around him was a who’s who of local tribes—his own Sauks, some Fox and Kickapoo and Potawatomi, a few Ho-Chunks, and even some angry Winnebagos.

Blackhawk’s band swelled to a thousand. Their elderly came along, as well as the women and children, more than enough warm bodies to make white settlers scared silly.

Then came Stillman’s Run, a battle named that way not because Mr. Stillman ran the table in the fight, but because he and 275 Illinois militia high-tailed it when they mistook a handful of Blackhawk’s warriors for an entire army. When Stillman ran, white folks took a beating psychologically as well as militarily.

There’s a little county park in Lafayette County, Wisconsin, not all that far from Dubuque, a quiet place where the road through hardwoods leads down to a little oxbow lake—water still as glass. The road needs some work. Picnic tables sit out in open spaces and camping sites in the trees are clearly marked—you’re on your honor to pay.

It’s a county park so funding, I suppose, is always a question. No water slides. No concession stands. The place probably doesn’t get much business—I may be wrong.

If you want to camp, a hand-painted sign says you can’t take the open spot around the monument. You know--show some respect because the monument proclaims what happened right there where you’re standing.

After Stillman’s Run, separate bands of Blackhawks’ United Nations of Natives roamed hither and yon throughout the region, raising cane, scaring the wits out of the miners and their families. After all, a whole militia had turned and run once they saw the savages.

So right there at the monument a newly constituted militia went through that deathly still water after some Kickapoo members of Blackhawk’s rebels. They marched into the woods on the other side where the warriors hid behind trees. Vicious hand to hand combat went on right there, the militia killing every last one of the rebels. 

It was the kind of win white people needed after the Stillman embarrassment, so historians say what happened at the Battle of Pecatonica was a turning point in Blackhawk’s War—just a few months would pass before those few of his people who stayed alive crossed back into to Iowa, following the terms of the treaty he hated.

Blackhawk led an insurgency that failed. That’s what the monument says—the one you can’t camp beside. It was set there by the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1922, almost a century ago. It tells the whole story, maybe fifty feet—no more—from the ox-bow, right there where that bloody fighting occurred.

I’m not sure why the DAR put quotes around this line, but they’re there: “The annals of Indian warfare offer no parallel to this battle,” it says, a quote. That line is clearly overstated. To me, the quotes make no sense. But then, the DAR was never a patriotic, not a literary organization.

There’s more. “Of the twenty-one soldiers engaged, three were mortally and one seriously wounded,” it proclaims. Then, “The seventeen Indians were slain”—which is to say, all of them.

Finally, this: “Thus was our land made safe for settlement.”

Couldn’t be more true. That’s the way the DAR saw it in 1922, when the monument was erected right there at the edge of the oxbow.

But it’s clear that that monument’s plaque was once unmistakably defaced. The our in “Thus was our land made safe for settlement is blackened. It looks to me as if someone once tried to paint that word out, to delete it; it is, afterall, still a little more than shadowy. You can’t help but see it, the only word on the sacred plaque that’s blackened.

That helps. Somehow that blackened our helps tell the story. 

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Sunday Morning Meds--Promises

The LORD sustains the humble 
but casts the wicked to the ground.”
Psalm 147:6

It’s understandable how some have felt that religion, in all its forms, would someday simply fade away.  Harvey Cox’s best-seller, The Secular City, a book once thought a classic, now seems ludicrous, as does Time magazine’s much ballyhooed cover story, forty years ago, proclaiming the death of God. 

Silly, all of it. In my lifetime at least, faith—and its organized work force, religion—has never played so prominent, and fearful, a role in the world we live in.

Elton John, the Brit pop star, a decade ago said there would be no religion in his world.  "Organized religion doesn't seem to work. It turns people into really hateful lemmings and it's not really compassionate,” he told a magazine reporter. 

Sure. John Lennon once brayed about the Beatles being more popular than Jesus. He’s been dead and gone for thirty years.

There must be a hundred reasons or more for the permanence of faith in the human psyche, but one of them, certainly, is the undeniable political force so clearly manifest in this line from Psalm 147:  “The LORD sustains the humble but casts the wicked to the ground.” To the bloodied victims of oppression, that line promises to all dispossessed a glorious regime change.
In the last century, the percentage of Christians in Africa rose from just under ten percent to the neighborhood of half the population, from ten to 107 million.  Researchers predict that by 2025, half the Christians in the world will live in Africa and Latin America,17 percent more in Asia.  Pentecostalism, a relative newcomer to Christian traditions (just a century old), has grown astronomically to 400 million adherents, many of them south of the equator. It’s almost unimaginable, but experts predict that just 25 years there will be more Pentecostals, worldwide, than Buddhists.

It’s easy for good Christians to say that the Holy Spirit is alive and kicking throughout what we used to call “the Third World.” That simply must be true. 

But some very understandable reasons for this amazing phenomenon exist, and one of them is political.  Where there is poverty and injustice, the promise of Psalm 147:6 reads in a radically different way than it does here in my Alton, Iowa, basement. My evil enemies aren’t easy to locate or to name as they were to the psalmist; but if I were living in Somalia, I wouldn’t have to scratch my head to put a finger on “the wicked.”

And the pledge is sure: the bad guys will get theirs. They’ll go six-feet-under soon enough; but the humble—those God loves—will live forever.  The spiritual fortitude of that promise is undeniable, but its political dimension is an offer, it seems, to all believers, including feminists, communists, and gays. 

It’s a huge umbrella really, this pledge of happiness and the end of sorrow, bigger than I ever thought it was when I was younger, more idealistic—and more combative. People read this verse in a hundred different ways, and more.

I’ve never done the math, but it seems to me that no single promise is so oft repeated in the pages of holy scripture than this one—God loves the humble. He blesses those on their knees. He stoops to conquer. He will lift the lowly.

Bless his holy name—that’s the song the psalmist sings here in verse six. 

The echo is endless.                      

Friday, October 20, 2017

Morning Thanks--What to believe*

"To really mean that the presence and the activity of the God of love, who can make us love our neighbors as ourselves, is our hope and the hope of the world--that this God is the secret of our flourishing as persons, cultures, as interdependent inhabitants of a single globe," says Miraslav Volf in A Public Faith, "is today's most fundamental challenge for priests and ministers, and Christian lay people."

Why is that so great a challenge? Because, he says, it is really humanly difficult to believe "that God is fundamental to human flourishing."

It's easy to say, but, "as a rock-bottom conviction that shapes the way we think, preach, write, and live," to believe that God is fundamental to every inch of our lives is, he says, profoundly difficult for all of us. 

I'm thankful this morning for that lesson in living from Miraslav Volf, and the life line of a thousand Zuni deer hand-painted on a thousand traditional Zuni pots, just like this one, each of which points us at a similar truth--to wit, that nothing we experience in life is unrelated to our hearts, unrelated to our souls.  


*from October 23, 2012.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

The cold waters of the North Sea*

This is the sad, sad story.

Last week Thursday afternoon, I was packed and ready to go. My students' assignments were all posted and ready for action in my absence, and I'd canceled my commitments elsewhere--several of them, in fact--because I was going to leave for Texas on Friday morning, where a couple of dozen Christian writers meet annually, as we have for quite a long time. It's a wonderful interlude in winter, a little confab that's high on thoughtfulness and intimacy, a good time.

By late afternoon, I was just about ready because we had a commitment at night, and I knew I'd have to leave early to get to the Omaha airport. My luggage was open on the dining room table, my Kindle and iPod touch juiced up and ready to go. I had everything in place.

I was leaving out of Omaha, and I remembered deliberately not getting too early a departure time--Omaha's airport is, after all, two hours' away. So I went to my files, clicked on the Expedia receipt, then stared at the date--the Texas meeting wasn't last week, it's this week.

Which would be hilarious, if my history didn't include, once upon a time, actually getting on the wrong blasted plane. You read that right. I'm over Lake Michigan, on my way to Detroit, when I realize I should be going west. Sheesh.

Which would be hilarious if I wasn't simply forgetting meetings, being late, behaving, most of the time these days, like someone--I'm 62--who is snuggling up way too close to senility or Alzheimers or whatever.

My great-grandfather, a distinguished Dutch dominie and professor, once pulled on his skates and set out for a church where he had to preach that morning. So obsessed he was with the fine points of his sermon, that some sentry out at the end of the canal had to skate up to him and remind him that should he push along much farther, he'd be afloat (maybe) in the cold waters of the North Sea.

Maybe it's his fault.

Whatever the cause, I'm thrilled to be able, once again, to take another shot at life, even at my age. I determined to write things down three places at least, and I ran off an extra calendar of the month of January, then magic-markered like mad and hung it up down here right in front of sightless eyes.

Yesterday, I called the dentist--check up, teeth-cleaning. Months ago I'd set the appointment, before I knew my teaching schedule. Wednesday at one wasn't going to work. "No problem," says the receptionist, happy to have some lead time. I told her a T or TH would be better. "How about this?" she said. It was 3:00, I think.

I just can't remember the date.

*from January 19, 2001, and still true, so true--and worse.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Morning Thanks--Look what I found*

I learned long ago that if anything can be better than giving a gift, it is the gratitude we feel in getting it. There is no other pleasure to compare with it--not sex, not winning the lottery, not hearing lovely music, not seeing stunning mountain peaks, nothing. Gratitude beats them all. I have never met a grateful person who was an unhappy person. And, for that matter, I have never met a grateful person who was a bad person.
I happened to read this aside in a wonderful little essay titled "God and Grateful Old Man," by the late Lew Smedes. My guess is Smedes wouldn't like me saying this, and it's not the kind of thing I say often, but when I read through the essay carefully yesterday, the voice rather sounded like the voice of the eternal.

I've been at this blogging thing for a year now--I think this is post #366 (makes me sound like the American Legion). But Lew Smedes, who isn't likely tuning in to this blog or any other these days, makes me think I ought to keep it up, not the blog itself, but the behavior: trying to give thanks for something--anything--every last morning of my life.

Garrison Keillor gave me the idea originally, but I think I'm going to stay at it because it's become, with me, a kind of spiritual discipline, a morning's soulful working out (I'm sitting here in my gym shorts right now, and I'll be off to the gym in minutes).

I'm not sure I'm everything Smedes claims about gratitude is on the money, nor am I sure that grateful people people are what he claims--nary a one of them bad or unhappy. But he and Keillor aren't all wrong about its benefits.
I picked up the essay in a book on my shelf--Best Christian Writing of 2004--when I was looking for some samples to show my class. Some guiding hand or other steered me there, I guess--and maybe that's my cue. I'm no mystic, but then again, really, we all are in one way or another.

So this morning I'm thankful for Lew Smedes and an essay he wrote when he was 80, thankful for stumbling on it and hearing within it a voice that reminds me to keep lifting the weights of my gratitude.
*Just stumbled on this old post this morning, written in September of 2008, long ago, and just about a year after starting a blog aimed at doing daily thanksgiving. The Smedes' quote is a beauty, and, by my reckoning, all the more true after a decade of "morning thanks." But it's hard--it really is--to be discipline yourself to be grateful every day. Trust me. I've tried. It's easier to pontificate, to argue, to belly-ache and entertain--that much I've learned. 

Anyway, this morning, 3000+ posts later, I'm thankful to have learned, first-hand, how right Smedes--and Keillor--are.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Basic Principles at Holland Center

You think I'm exaggerating when I say that from up there on the hill, you can watch your dog run away for three days in any direction; but Holland Center Christian Reformed Church, Lodgepole, SD, is so far off the beaten path, it makes northwest Iowa, my home, feel congested. 

Nothing but endless rolling grasslands all around. Perkins County is not just "big" country, it's gargantuan. When I pulled up to the church Sunday morning, I couldn't help wondering how often Holland Center gets a visitor in a place where there are probably more pronghorns than people.

The CRC's "find a church" list claimed Holland Center is five miles south of Lodgepole, then three miles west. That's where I found it. You pass just one ranch on those three miles of gravel over nothing but big-shouldered range land so barren cattle have to wander for forage. It's the deep freeze come January; scorching heat like you wouldn't believe in July. 

Only buffalo are suited for such a nasty climate, and you don't have to go far to find the place where a state historical marker claims the Last Great Buffalo Hunt went down in 1882. 

I wanted to go to church at Holland Center. Call me crazy. I was out in the far reaches of South Dakota anyway last week, so I got myself into the closest motel I could find, twenty miles away. I'd been driving all day, so I walked into a steak house/bar on a downtown street, a place jammed full of cowboys, so full I never got farther than the front door. I asked the woman at the motel desk about other places to eat. Only two, she said. The other one has a Thai cook, she told me, so they serve Thai food. 

Two huge men, my age, walked in the place after I ordered, obviously first-timers too. We were the only three customers in the place. Straight out of Hee-Haw they were, bib overalls big as army tents, seed caps on both their noggins, both slightly hard of hearing which made it clear they had no clue what to order from an odd menu. Neither did I. One of them said he'd been in Vietnam forty years ago, but he didn't know what to make of it either. "This is foreign food," one of 'em  said, shocked. When the owner walked in, an Asian woman, they were chuckling to themselves about only wanting hamburgers. "You a foreigner?" one of them asked. I'm not making this up.

I got up early on Sunday--the denominational listing claimed services start at eight (you read that right). Holland Center isn't exactly  seeker-friendly. I got there a touch early anyway, walked in past an entire family of greeters--five or six kids, grandpas and grandmas all in a line. Hearty smiles on handsome people who looked trim and scoured by the unforgiving country they call home.

I didn't expect people to get out of pews when I walked in, but they did, stepped right out to greet me. It was precious really. Pastor shook my hand warmly. They share him with a Methodist church down the road; hence, the meeting time: "he's got to get back to Prairie City." 

People told me he does far more than meet their expectations. "I call him a 'Reformed Wesleyan,'" an old man told me, grinning. He introduced himself by name, then told me that his grandad, more than a century ago, had moved out to Perkins County from Grand Rapids when his wife came down with asthma. He'd been furniture maker. They stopped near Lodgepole, which, likely as not, was actually a town back then. 

They started a church up out in the country, he told me, when they heard about a bunch of Dutch people (Dutch as in,"from the Netherlands") who had some land just west a ways. So they put the church in the middle and called it Holland Center. Made some sense, I guess.

I liked the "reformed Wesleyan" preacher, quite frankly. He tried his best to get out some baseline principles about being a believer, took scripture that morning from the very beginning, book of Genesis, because he wanted to establish some foundations in a manner that he gambled was a bit airy and even a little professorial. He apologized for not hitting a scripture in his usual fashion. He wanted to establish what was absolutely basic about the Christian faith. 

He held forth from hand-written notes, but hated standing behind the pulpit so much he'd come out in front time after time after time to explain a point more vividly. It was hard not like a preacher that earnest. 

But that Sunday morning, the real sermon was right in front of me, where an old man who'd gone out of his way to greet me sat in pew with his wife. He'd not introduced me to her earlier, made no mention of her, even though I stood right there beside him--and them. He didn't regard her at all, a gender attitude I determined was less chauvinistic than simply cultural. 

But once the pastor started defining basic principles, that old rancher laid his arm around his wife, held her shoulder, stroked her back, let her know he was there, almost as if they were kids again, spooning in that tempered moment in all of our lives when, try as we might, we can't go a minute without touching the person we love. A couple times, with his hand, he smoothed her hair in the back, and when he did I realized I'd never seen an old man do that before, not in church, not in public. It was moving, beautiful. 

When the worship was over, he looked for me again as he helped his wife into the wheelchair he'd left in the aisle beside them, a wheelchair I hadn't noticed. "The wife's got Parkinsons," he told me, smiling at her, at his love, as if they were newlyweds. 

There are two hymnals in the rack at Holland Center CRC, one of them, for the record, is the blue Psalter Hymnal in plastic covers that will keep them from harm for a ton of years yet. Music?--traditional. And get this: a male organist!--amazing. 

And the singing?--nothing to write home about, dominated, oddly enough, by men's voices. Somehow--maybe it was because last week was the week of Harvey Weinstein--somehow I found that beautiful too. 

Way out there in the country, where once upon a time the buffalo roamed and proghorns stayed alive in grueling winters by following those endless herds through snow that could well have killed them had the bison not stamped it down, way out there twenty miles from Tip Top Motel and Suzy's Thai menu, last Sunday morning, I worshiped the Lord in an old white frame church on a hill in the middle of nowhere, and was blessed by a sermon on some basic Christian principles.

What a joy.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Sunday Morning Meds--Understanding

“Great is our Lord and mighty in power; 
his understanding has no limit.” Psalm 145:5

I just emptied my trash.  There were 300 old e-mails packed somehow within, and, with nothing more than a key-stroke, they’re history.  All those words are simply gone, as if they’d never existed. 

But where do they go?—that’s what I’m wondering.  Isn’t there some law of physics that matter simply doesn’t disappear?  I suppose those 300 email notes had no matter; they were nothing but electronic impulses of some kind.  But even if they had no matter, they held matter.  I’m sure that sometime in the next few days I’ll remember something I should have done, go to the trash file to find some tossed note, and discover it and the horse it rode in on, gone.  At one time, they mattered. 

But now they’ve vanished, never to be seen again.  Strange. Almost scary.

An old friend called last night, just to check in.  He said his wife, who’s been fighting depression for years, has switched meds. “A scary time,” he told us, and I understand.  What I don’t understand is how a pill can actually change character, alter personality, replace the dynamo of whatever it is that makes us each who we are. That’s scary. But it happens, and it happens all the time.

And why is it that I feel so much, of late, that I’d rather be alone than in the blessed company of other people?  Once we were social.  Once we looked forward to weekends because they meant games and gatherings.  I still look forward to weekends, but the only frivolity I seek is peace and quiet and solitude. If the skies are clear, the dawn compels on Saturday morning. I go alone. That’s the way I like it. Why?

Or this. Yesterday in a crowded shopping mall I read a short story from a new collection, read it almost straight though.  I was sitting on a bench near the food court, at the very heart of things. Thousands of people passed me by. I saw few. It was a great story. I loved it. But I told myself that something had changed in me. Ten years ago—certainly twenty—I could never have sat there amid the thronging shoppers and focused so intensely on a single short story. What has changed in me, and why?

There’s so much I don’t understand.

Why do we suffer—honestly?  The older I become, the more Job appears, just off my shoulder, one hand raised to heaven in a fist. Three of my friends are dying of cancer; all of them would love to live. None of them are ancient. Yet, all over North America people are building nursing homes to tend the millions who would, any day of the week, volunteer tomorrow for a long-sought trip to glory. 

I was born after the Second World War, but I’ve spent more time reading the literature of the Holocaust than perhaps I should have.  Arbeit Macht Frei—there’s a sign in my mind that will never leave. I know where Mengele stood right there at the platform as the trains rolled into Auschwitz. I can see his hand determining. And even though I wasn’t there, I can hear millions of bootless cries to heaven.

There is so much I don’t understand about life and about death, about suffering and joy.  So much mystery. 

And the greatest of all is a gift because somehow, even though I don’t know, I’m confident He does. Faith is a sumptuous gift. I don’t know why his grace comes to me, but I believe this affirmation, that even though don’t get it, even though this flesh will corrupt and I will like those emails, simply vanish, in mystery, he knows. 

His understanding has no limit.    

Thursday, October 12, 2017

American stories

I'm sure there are those who will shrug their shoulders. After all, "history is bunk," right? James G. Whitman's new book, Hitler's American Model, is, after all, little more than a footnote, a story from long, long ago of use primarily to history profs and their obliging undergrad students.

The story Whitman explores--or so says a review in the Atlantic--is a trip taken by a goodly number of Nazi theorists and legal experts who, in 1935, traveled here, to the land of the free to study how America had canonized its systemic racism, its legal discrimination against people of color. Third Reich officials came here, to the U. S. of A. because they were greatly taken by the manner by which this country had been able to keep races separate.

Whether they used American models to construct their own racial laws or whether they found those laws simply to be helpful in carrying out racist designs they'd already fashioned and would soon implement isn't clear; but it's really shocking, at least to me, that they would look for help and guidance and direction from us, here, in "America the Beautiful."

For the record, history records the lynchings of 117 black men during the 1930s, although it seems quite fair to presume history doesn't record them all. What Whitman explains--and what the German officials must have known--was that no other country, not even South Africa, had such a fortified legal system of racial discrimination. 

In the late 1890s, when the first white folks put down roots here where I live, making one's way was just about all one could do. The deep economic crisis of the era was as devastating as the Great Depression would eventually prove itself to be. People here, right here along the Floyd River and throughout the region, simply had nothing.

Charles Dyke, in the History of Sioux County, tells the story of VerSteeg family, immigrant Dutch, whose stove gave out, mid-winter, in horrifying cold. Mr. VerSteeg took his sleigh to the Hospers store for a new one. The Dyke brothers, who ran the place, knew very well that the family had to stay warm, had to cook food, but they also knew that the VerSteegs had no money--zero, not a dollar to their name. 

Cold winter weeks pass, and the VerSteegs, like their other customers, still can't pay their bills--not because they're lazy crooks but because they simply have no money. The brothers determine they can't continue to exist without income, so Brother Charlie is given the thankless job of going out here to the farmsteads where their customers live and trying to collect something, anything. 

When he gets to the VerSteegs, the family seems to be thriving. "How do you do it?" he asks, and Mr. VerSteeg says they've got vegetables canned, and, blessedly, they eat all kinds of rabbits, trapping 'em, then pan-frying or baking them. 

It's an absolutely charming story of perseverance and determined human will to make do. Eventually, VerSteegs got some egg money or something to pay the bill for that stove (Dyke says he paid it off faster than he needed to). Eventually the wooden-shoes made it. Those children, raised on pan-fried rabbit, made good--became doctors and lawyers and veterinarians. It's a story that cheers the heart.

It's also a story we want to remember, a story of how we made our way in times so desperate they would otherwise beg to be forgotten. It's part of our mythology, our identity; it creates the images of how we see ourselves. It's an American story of an immigrant family whose persistent determination to succeed brings them the dream they were certain they'd find in America.

But there's other stories that belong in the American canon. One of them, sad to say, is of thoughtful Nazi theorists visiting here in order to understand just exactly how it was that we Americans could so neatly codify racism. They came here for a model of hate. 

Both those stories are ours.  Choosing to believe either one but not the other means living on half-truth, which is never the whole truth, so help me God.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Morning Thanks--Beauty

From an Iowan, there's no denying that it's not good ground. Sunday, when I took Dad back to the Home, he talked like he often does. We're passing through Alton, the pond along the road and the woods, and he says, "Too many trees." What he means is that it wouldn't be smart to farm the land.

We're up top of the hill, up at St. Mary's Church, a gorgeous old small-town cathedral, and he tells me that it's too hilly right here by the cemetery, that this wouldn't be good ground either. 

He's not priggish about it. He's not putting anyone or anything down. It's where his mind is stuck these days, his final days. We just get him out, and he's happy. Aside from a tour in Europe during the war, he farmed every day of his working life. In the Home, he's dying; but he gets out between fields of corn and soybeans, and, honestly, he can breath. He starts seeing again, making old-time judgments. They come to him quickly, joyfully even.

I thought of him often last week, passing through Utah and New Mexico, thought of him as if he were beside me looking at all this desert, because I know what he would have said. He would have talked about the land, would have to admit that it wouldn't be much good for corn and soy beans.

I know this desert environment has an lively ecology of its own, its own catalog of uses; but when I'm in it, mile after mile after mile, I hear his measurements. And I can't help asking myself why--why so very much land wish so very little use? 

It wasn't a question that plagued me all day because the answer came after an hour or so in the middle of all of that red rock beauty. God almighty keeps some places open for just plain awe. I don't think Dad could get a crop off most of the land I traveled, but oh, my word, can a man or woman harvest a blessing just to see His world.

They're clothed, as you can see. But this couple reminds me of Adam and Eve in the garden. Look at them--just bursting with awe. That's me last week in the middle of world created for beauty's sake.

All day I spent slack-jawed in awe that's good for the soul. 

This morning's thanks is for the sheer beauty all around.