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.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Small Wonder(s)--St. John's Bible


He's the Queen's scribe, the man--the artist--responsible for the creating England's most important state documents. He's the royal calligrapher, an artist, a past chair of the Society of Scribes and Illuminators, a word so rare my spellcheck red-lines it.

He's a Brit of course, and he carries levels of sophistication capable of leaving Yanks like me stuttering in envy, despite our 250-year-old revolutionary history. 

Oddly, however, the story he relishes telling is of a morning walk to a place where the St. John's campus map told him there once was an Indian burial ground. There, in the quiet of pre-dawn, a fawn stepped out of the woods, simply stood and looked at him until her mother came along and unhurriedly drew her back into cover. 

Just then, a shadow moved across the ground beneath his feet. He looked up to see a crow passing over. Describing spiritual experience is as difficult as documenting it, as it has been since human beings began seeing visions; but right then the Queen's scribe, Donald Jackson, says he felt, in Collegeville, Minnesota, perfectly at one with nature.

He claims he carried that transcendent moment into the meeting for which he'd come to Minnesota, a meeting to determine how this grand idea of his--and others--would come to pass. The highest art for a true calligrapher, he'd long thought, would be an illuminated holy scripture. In a newly fashioned but old-fashioned way, he wanted to create a new Holy Bible, just as Benedictine monks had done for centuries. 

That bible, the St. John's Bible, is something unlike anything you've ever seen. Today, it has its own museum on the St. John's campus. As the monks at the abbey like to say, that Bible "ignites the spiritual imagination."
With the same dynamic relationship that existed between medieval Benedictine houses and the scribes whose talents they engaged, Saint John's Abbey and University and calligrapher Donald Jackson, in collaboration with many from the wider community, produced a Bible, a work of art, which serves to ignite the spiritual imagination of believers throughout the world.
Yes it does. 

It's not quick and easy, and it's huge--two feet tall and three-feet wide. You can't carry it in a sport coat or slip it into a motel drawer. It has 1100 pages of paper thicker than anything in your or my library. Each page is 24 ½” x 15 7/8”. You can't just whip it out of a rucksack at a campfire.

But then, consider this: the only place in the world you'll find its particular lettering is in its pages. Donald Jackson designed its lettering for this volume alone. It has 160 illustrations--and illustrations pitiably understates what's there because those each of those illustrations is a work of art. 

Dinner at the Pharisee's Home
Everything about the St. John's Bible is stunning. It is to the making of books what the Sistine Chapel is to architecture. Protestantism has worked hard to destroy images, but often mistaken grace for idolatry. To a world who seeks it, the St. John's Bible preaches nothing less than beauty.

If you're in the neighborhood, stop by and see for yourself. It's worth a pilgrimage.

Still, the Queen's own scribe can't help but smile when he remembers how, once upon a time on a pre-dawn walk through an Indian burial ground in Minnesota, he felt himself totally alive in the eyes of a fawn, the flight of a crow, and the face of a rising sun. That transcendent moment was itself a birthplace, he says.

Word became flesh

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Lord, have mercy

I don't know much about life in a mega-church, but there have been moments when I've thought it would be grand to worship God with ten thousand others, to hear some Mormon Tabernacle-like Choir, to listen to astounding preaching, and to leave something stadium-sized, thrilled by the spectacle.

There are no megas anywhere close, so I don't have the choice. But if there were, I think I'd pass. Churches pass momentum one to another with regularity around here anyway. For a decade or so, Cottonwood Heights will put on an addition or two to accommodate growing crowds; then, once the preacher takes a call out east, Third Church will have the pastor who lights 'em up, packs 'em in, and gets the raves. 

I can imagine how grievous it was for Willow Creek, in Chicago, to suffer the accusations against their mega-pastor, Bill Hybels. It was, after all, his preaching that built that sprawling campus. 

Somewhere in the ancient past, I may well have met Bill Hybels, not as one of America's most famous pastors, but during his first year of college, when the two of us went to the same school. That he chased women has to be a horror to thousands of Willow Creek parishioners. That he did it persistently and often, make it worse. That he used his righteous stature is a horror. 

But somehow--and I'm not in any way exonerating him--his sins don't touch the scale of what a Pennsylvania grand jury reported last week: 300 priests abused children, and just as many, maybe more, let the abuse go, protecting their own, the abusers.

Sometimes I envy Roman Catholics too. Sometimes I wish my own tradition was more sacramental, less preachy. Sometimes I am convinced evangelicals (one of whom I am) are destroying their witness by deadly self-righteousness. There are times I walk into a Catholic church and am awed, shushed by magnanimous beauty. 

Just up the hill from where I'm sitting stands the most beautiful church in the county, an awesome church largely penniless Luxumbougian Catholics determined to build when they came to the region, choosing the highest hill in the whole county. Those pioneers emptied their pockets to put up the stones of St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church because, traditionally at least, they saw--and still see--the church as the means of grace, the place where holy men keep the actual body and blood of our Lord.

It's a special piety that, I suppose by upbringing, I don't share. A Protestant pastor isn't really a means of grace. Bill Hybels was a great preacher, but no one in his mammoth congregation considered him the only one divinely chosen to give people the spiritual nourishment worship should bring.

A new grand jury report claims that over 300 Pennsylvania priests were guilty of criminal abuse of children.
Priests were raping little boys and girls, and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing; they hid it all. For decades. Monsignors, auxiliary bishops, bishops, archbishops, cardinals have mostly been protected; many, including some named in this report, have been promoted.
It's impossible for me to understand all of that, but I have no doubt it would be even more difficult to have to read that paragraph if I were Roman Catholic. Three hundred priests raped children. More kept it quiet.

All of us who confess the name of Jesus suffer at the truth that grand jury discovered. But I sense in the despairing words of my own Catholic friends that, for them even more than me, the news from Philadelphia is devastation that goes well beyond words. 

For all of those victims, and especially the children, I will pray.  Lord, have mercy.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018


I'll admit it. As a high school teacher, I wasn't always a model of sweetness. I sometimes said things to kids that were edgy at best, even a little cutting. I remember a time when my wife told me that I needed to be careful because words she felt were unnecessarily biting could wound a kid in a way I might never see or understand. 

She was right, but I was more than a little arrogant. I told her I knew which students could take a little verbal abuse and which couldn't. I told her some kids rather liked the attention, even it came in smart-ass remarks. I told her I understood what would wound and what wouldn't. 

I know that a good dose of lip can be weaponized for good. But I also knew that kids can be belittled by even a quick, passing shot. I told my wife I knew what I was doing. Whether or not that was always true is something I'll never know.

For the last five years of my life, this time of year has been little more than a continuing summer vacation. When people ask me, "Well, how was your summer?" the context is of an end because once upon a time "summer" came in a container. Today, August 15, I'd be shaky, scrambling to print out syllabi, angry at myself for being, once again, Prof. Procrastinator. Right about now, I'd be fearfully imagining what a classroom full of students was going to look like, my students, locked in for four months. How's it gonna go?

Right now, moms and dads are making sure all the knapsacks in the U.S. of A. are filled with the required goods. Right about now, teachers are hoping and dreaming about how they're going to wring sweet order from the ever-present danger of chaos, administrators doing the same. 

With all of that going on right now, it just strikes me as helpful to consider this: all of us--parents, principals, students, teachers, even proud grandparents--simply wouldn't tolerate anyone saying outright mean things. If Miss or Mr. Teacher called a kid a dog, we'd report it, even if the kid wasn't ours. We'd consider him or her an abuser, maybe even a criminal. A parental posse would form in a fortnight. There's no room for such behavior in a classroom. 

Once upon a time, I used sarcasm, sometimes so heavily that my wife told me to beware. I'm not without sin. 

But now we tolerate it from the President of the United States. If my son or daughter called someone else's child a dog, I wouldn't stand for it. But our President does it with seeming impunity from his adoring family. 

Does his belittling others, using the language of dehumanization, excuse such behavior when we do it? Might our doing nothing spread the contagion he daily spews on his Twitter page?

There is more jobs around since he walked into the Oval Office, more money spewing from the stock market, more bills in people's wallets. The economy is booming. We've got money coming out of our ears. Maybe that's what's made us deaf. 

But virtue, of infinitely more value, is dying. 

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Those were the days

Related image

One remarkable thing was to be noticed in the early settlement here that those that came here with money had but little advantage over them who came here poor and without money, for it did not take long before those that came with money had it no more, and they all stood on the same footing, all poor and without money; those who lost it felt themselves poor, and those who came here without it soon felt themselves rich.
Historians say that the Wisconsin colony of Dutch Reformed people were neither as wealthy as the Scholte folks, who settled the Pella area, nor as poor as Van Raalte's west Michigan Hollanders. This particular memory was part of a long speech delivered by Peter J. Daane, one of the Wisconsin colony's leaders, on July 5, 1897, at the 50th anniversary of the Dutch settlement in southeast Wisconsin. Mr. Daane was town constable in its early years. He started a business in the Oostburg that grew up along the Sauk Trail, and then rolled the village on tamarack boughs, along with other businesses and families, when the railroad was laid another mile west of the lakeshore. For a time, he served in the state legislature.

He was the oldest child of a family who immigrated to the United States of America in the spring of 1842. He lived, with his family, in New York for five years before going west and carving an existence out of the Wisconsin shoreline woods. Along with his father and his brother, he served the Union Army, Company F, Twenty-seventh Wisconsin Regiment during the Civil War, entering as a private and leaving, in August of 1865 as a lieutenant.
There was no bedgrudging of one another, for it was a real pleasure to meet a neighbor, and to be able to assist each other to be able to lighten each other's burdens. Many of the remaining old settlers can testify with me that the time of the first settlement was the most pleasant time of their whole life, so sociable, so pleasant and all on an equal footing.
Is it simply nostalgia, you think?  Strangers in a strange land, people who left "the old country," never to return, people who came to America penniless, in search of opportunity, a new life, a following a dream at best and knowing little about the world they were about to inhabit--is it just nostalgia that those people would remember the earliest days in this new land and their shared poverty as "the most pleasant time of their lives"?

Passages in the fiction of Ruth Suckow sometime carry similar sentiments. In The John Wood Case, a new small town, still developing in the earliest years of the 20th century is frequently described as a place where simple joys grew in abundance from the dreams of  a community who shared in a vision of what would someday be in this new place.

Can't help but wonder, I guess. 

This morning I'm thankful for a speech delivered somewhere miles away, a speech my great-great grandfather heard. And when he did, I'm guessing, he was smiling to remember--smiling, just as I am.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Immigrant roots

The old man front-and-center has a hooded lady behind him. Behind her is a couple--a tall man and a woman with a hat who appears to be his wife. Peeking over the right shoulder of the tall man is a bearded man with a round face, almost hidden. That's my great-great grandfather. He came to America in 1845, lived in pioneer Milwaukee (at a time when the Milwaukee was little more than a village, thirty percent Hollanders, like himself). There, he lost a wife and three children to some disease not recorded, then picked up and hiked up north, following a path set along the shore of Lake Michigan, a path still called the Sauk Trail. 

He homesteaded land several miles from a immigrant village the Hollanders called, blessedly, Amsterdam, a place distinguished by its own mighty pier into the lake, a place from which the some Hollanders hoped to snare lake traffic and deal in cordwood from the forests that had to be cut if the Hollanders wanted to farm. 

Here he is up close.

His name was Edgar Hartman, and his grandson, yet another Edgar Hartman, was a WWI doughboy who died from a grenade thrown somewhere along the Vesle River in France, just about exactly one hundred years ago in the "war to end all wars." 

This Edgar Hartman, that hero's grandpa, along with others, gathered at some park somewhere, I imagine, and posed for this shot behind American flags to make perfectly clear that even though most of them didn't speak much English, they were, without a doubt, Americans--Hollanders, of course, but Americans, first and foremost. This is the 50th-year reunion of Dutch immigrants to Holland Township, Oostburg, Wisconsin, 1898. I have no doubt many of the men wore leather boots; but if you could peek behind the flag, my guess is there'd be some folks still in wooden shoes.

Lots of American immigrants from Holland had it much tougher than these people. Clearing all those trees was rough work--a man couldn't do it by himself; but it had to be done. But some who already in the 1860s left for the west had it much tougher, even though many who did leave were sure that farming would be easier if they didn't have to clear trees. When the immigrants in this old picture settled along the lakeshore, there were cabins already built. Where there weren't, wood wasn't hard to come by.  These families in eastern Wisconsin didn't have to live for years in huts dug from dirt.
What's more, trade was relatively easy. Milwaukee was only fifty miles south, Sheboygan only ten miles north. They weren't alone. The Sauk and the Fox and Sioux were already out west, away from the advance of the white man. Edgar Hartman's obituary says by the time he came to Sheboygan County, what Indians were left on what was their land were a headache, beggars. But there were Germans all around and Luxembourgers just south.

Comparatively, those who study 19th century Dutch immigration claim these Wisconsin Dutch-Americans, Calvinists all, had it quite easy. My great-great grandfather lost a wife and children--don't forget. But since a place to live and a ready market for what they could produce was already established and the Native people were gone, the time that passed before first arrival and the establishment of a functioning community passed quickly. 

All of that is, of course, a tribute too to their industry and vision. They left their homes in Holland (Gelderland and Zeeland) in want of a better life, a life with possibilities, a life where they could become something more than what they all too easily determined lay ahead of them in "the old country." Without their energy and sweat and tears, they would not have succeeded. I wouldn't show you this old picture. I wouldn't have it, wouldn't know it.
These Dutch people were pioneers in the lakeshore woods, the rag-tag immigrants Emma Lazurus called "huddled masses yearning to breathe free." They were Hollanders who only rarely had to deal with people they called, I'm sure, with some fear, Americans. 

And they suffered. Horribly. On Sunday, November 27, 1847, the steamer ship Phoenix, full of two hundred immigrants burned and sank just off the coast, in sight of their new home in the new land. For  years, no one knew for sure how many had been aboard because who cared, really? They were, after all, immigrants. Who cared?

Had they arrived, I suppose this 50-year reunion portrait would have been much, much bigger.

Should the immigration debate in this country become the issue some people want to make it in the next election(s), it would behoove those of us with immigrant roots like mine to remember their stories, remember who they once were before deciding who they are.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Sunday Morning Meds--Nary a footprint

Your path led through the sea,
your way through the mighty waters,
though your footprints were not seen.”
Psalm 77:9

All three statements in verse 19 are statements of fact, but only one opens a mystery. 

Lord, even though the path you led us upon through the sea, with mountains of water walled-up beside us, and even though we knew we were at that moment in the very eye of a miracle, through all of that, we never saw a thing of you, only your power.

There was nothing there to document what happened, save our experience.  Like some diligent tree-hugger in a national forest, you didn’t leave a footprint. Nothing.  Amazing.

When Moses encounters an angel of the Lord in a startling burning bush, the bush, miraculously, speaks. Moses has a fine Egyptian education, but it doesn’t take an MBA to know something strange has begun, and he catches on quickly. He sees the bush and leaves the path he’s on; he sidetracks, then takes off his sandals on command. Credit him all of that—and more: when the bush starts speaking, he hides his face. 

That desert encounter is a substantial discussion too, some say. Ancient Hebrew texts make claims the burning bush encounter lasted a week. However long it actually was, it’s was hardly just an ecstatic moment. When finally Moses accepts the mission he’s been assigned, he asks the bush who he shall say sent him. 

That answer echoes through all of scripture and has been translated a hundred different ways by linguists far more learned than I. Recently I heard an interesting take on the answer, a slight shift in verb tense:  “I will become what I will become.”

The unseen footprints of verse 19 remind me of that burning bush definition because “I will become what I will become” offers a view of God that is ever-changing, that will change, that must change, perhaps, because his people, his beloved, his chosen, will continue to see him in different ways, as they always have.

I’m not arguing for a God who has no fixed nature, who is not forever the same; but “I will become what I will become” suggests something that even a rudimentary assessment of life in this world makes unmistakable: God’s people not only have seen him, but continue to see him in remarkably different ways.  Zambian Pentecostals, Greek Orthodox, Opus Dei Roman Catholics, evangelical Presbyterians, Baptist independents—you make the list; all of them, all of us, worship God, but no two of us see or describe or define this “almighty other” in quite the same way.

And how wide is the tent finally? Isn’t that an interesting question?
In Psalm 77, Asaph sings the joy of remembering one single story from Israel’s grand narrative, a story passed along, even in his day, by generations of story-tellers. What happened at the shore of the Red Sea gives him courage to face the day—that’s what the psalm is about. What happened at that moment is not debatable. God was with us, Asaph says, with me, as he always has been. That’s his joy and his resolution.

But the footprints aren’t there because something unseen about this God of liberation and joy and endless love remains beyond us, forever mysterious, even unknowable, all of that even to those who love him, who do his will.

And these very words, my paltry attempts to draw nearer to him, won’t get wholly there either precisely because he is God and I am not.  For some of us at least, it’s not easy to admit we aren’t in control of our lives and our destinies. But in the face of one whose fabulous miracles leave no footprints, we are left on our knees before the mystery. 

That may well be the point.  That, and this simple resolution: we’re his, and he loves us.

Friday, August 10, 2018

In memory of Edgar Hartman

Lapeer, Mich. May 1, 1920

Hon. Edward Voigt
181 House Office Building
Washington D. C.

Dear Sir,

Edgar J. Hartman a member of the Machine Gun Company, 58th Inf. Was instantly killed on Oct. 6, 1918 on the Vesle River close to Ville-Savoy. He was a member of my platoon but was in another squad about 300 yds to the left of my squad of which I had command in a sunken road leading to Ville-Savoy they were dug in the banks of the road. We had just finish a barrage of 15000 rounds for a covering of our infantry's advance across the Vesle River. They were fired upon by German one-pounders immediately after our barrage and according to the Corporal's information to me he was instantly killed in the Argonne forest. I wish to assure Mr. Hartman's folks that he was a member of my squad in a little skirmish a few days before this engagement on the Vesle River and he was a most trustworthy man and when transfered to another squad I sure felt his loss to my squad. I can assume then that he died a "Hero." Hoping this information will be of value to you.

I remain

yours truly

Leo B. Zastrow

Mr. Zastrow says October 6, but that's likely wrong. The official notice of his death claims the day he was killed was August 6, 1918. He hadn't been in France long, but then the rest of this country's fighting troops hadn't been there all that long either. 

Apparently, his death went un-noted for some time, because that official notice didn't come to my grandmother, his sister, until June 20, 1920, almost two years after the worried time she must have begun to think the worst. 

In March of 1919, six months after Armistice Day, she was still trying to write him. "Dearest Brother," her letter says. "Am making another attempt to have you hear from me. I have now had eleven of my letters returned to me but none the past month so will send something in search of you."

There's more: "We have been unable to find any trace of you up to now, nor received anything from you since your field service card reached us on August 7th." 

And then she adds some news on the chance this letter will succeed where eleven others did not. She knew he'd love to hear the news from home.

"We are all well and have a fine baby girl 3 mos old awaiting your return. Will write more when I learn whether or not this reaches you."

That baby girl was my mother.

On September 5 of 1919, Grandma received a note from the Treasury Department, indicating she was "the beneficiary of insurance in the amount of $5000 issued by the United States Government to your brother, Hartman, Edgar J., who died on the ______ day of _______, 19 __. "To be determined" is typed in above the empty spaces.

The nearest I can guess is that sometime this week, my grandma's only sibling, her brother Edgar, my great uncle, was killed instantly by bombardment in a road bed trench, somewhere in the Argonne Forest. I'm sure he wasn't alone. 

I don't know the date, but sometime this week, exactly 100 years ago, just a few weeks after getting to the battlefield, when he was likely hunkered down in ditch being pounded by German artillery, in the twinkling of an eye he found himself awakened to a silence that marked an absolute an end to war. 

His cemetery stone, says August 6. Whatever the date, he died, a hero, 100 years ago. 

Thursday, August 09, 2018

River Hills--a story (end)

Strangers, somehow brought together in their mutual anxiety by what's there for all to see on the river.

"I came down to have a look at the river," Carol told her. "It's something I do a lot."

"You too?" she said.

Carol shrugged her shoulders. "You mean you weren't worried?"

"I'm always worried," the woman said. "It comes with the territory." She stopped, ten feet away, just far enough that Carol couldn't quite read the name on the plate on her chest. "Sometimes--middle of the shift--I come down and take a little hike," she said. "It's my region anyway--it's not like I'm slacking."

"There's something about water," Carol said.

The woman nodded, coming closer. "You're not scared?"

"Scared?" she said.

"I figure you don't know," she told her. "Stockbridge--you're not scared of the kid who shot his girlfriend?"

"Don't know what?" Carol said.

"He turned himself in," the woman told her, smiling. "We pretty much knew he would. Might have been his mother on the TV though," she told her. "I thought you might have heard the story--"

"I didn’t know," Carol said. “I was worried, you know—about him just ending it all.”

“Me too,” the cop said. “Didn’t happen. Dodged a bullet on that one—sheesh!" She took a big breath. "I guess that’s a bad joke.”

Carol could have kissed her. Her name was Tanya, the badge said.

“Hope you don’t mind me saying it,” Tanya said, “but sometimes it’s an awful job—this one.” 

Carol let that one go for the time being, didn't want to pry. She looked away at the river. "Sometimes when I'm down here alone, there's beaver running around on the banks across the river, wreaking havoc." She pointed to the other side. "You think that all those uprooted trees come from the spring floods, but you're wrong. Beavers massacre 'em over there--here too." She pointed at trees not more than twenty feet away, already half-gnawed. "People think they're smart, but they aren't--that's what I'm told. They just do it for the heck of it--maybe to keep their teeth sharp, who knows?"

"'Nature's engineers'," Carol said. "I always thought of them as nature's engineers, dam builders."

"Ask the guy up the hill." She nodded toward the park ranger's office. "He wishes he could get rid of the whole lot of them. All they do is make a mess. But nobody buys beaver hats anymore." And then, for the first time, the woman looked directly at her in a way that dropped any bit of profession and pretense. She smiled. "I'm glad you're all right. I've already had a huge day."

"At least the kid's alive," Carol said.

"He's not really a boy--he's as old as I am." She shook her head, looked around aimlessly. "I was with his mother last night for a while," she said, a begrudging smile. "Woman officers, you know--we're supposed to be better at that sort of thing." She shook her head. "That woman--her heart is gone. It's like it's not even there. That kid may have shot his girl, but he killed his mother."

"I saw her," Carol said.

"She was worse off camera," the cop said. "No kidding."

She felt as if the woman had said enough. "So, this is your beat?" Carol said.

She smiled. "There's a place down the river--the other way," she said. She was Paige's age, little more. "If you'd have walked the opposite direction, you would have seen it." She half turned. "You want to see? It's a place I go when--" she shrugged her shoulders, "--when I just like, have to, you know?" Once again, she looked at Carol in a way that seemed child-like in its pleading. "I suppose it's unprofessional, but this job--it isn't what I thought it was going to be. It's not glamorous and it's not at all easy." She stopped, mid-sentence, then continued, "--on a woman."

"Never thought of it, I guess," Carol said. "I'm sorry."

Tanya smiled. "I don't want pity," she said. "And it's not that I don't like what I do. There's just some times I got to stop down here and go see this upturned tree--in the river." She pulled her hands out of her pockets and drew a circle in the air. "It's huge. Some beaver probably dumped it a dozen years ago and the branches are all bleached like old bones--like that." She pointed at flattened cottonwood just fifty yards away in the river. "It's like that, but it's bigger, much bigger." Again, her hands drew out the branches. "But this spring, you know, when the water was high?--the river grabbed this whole other tree and laid it in those branches so that the whole thing looks almost like a big--" she bit her lip, searching for words, "--well, like a big cross, I guess." 

She seemed embarrassed. "I used to believe in God," Tanya said. "Sometimes I look at that tree, you know--at the way it makes a huge cross in the middle of the river, right in the middle of all that mud, and it just gets me--I mean, something weird like that. It's huge." Her face fell. "I'm sorry," she said. "It's been a tough one the last couple days--that mother and the girl--"

"It's okay," Carol said. "Show me. I'd love to see."

"Maybe it won't mean anything to you--I don't know," she said. "But it's huge, and it sits right out there like something God stuck in the middle of everything, you know? It's just not something you'd expect to find--you know what I mean? It's like a shock or something, and it fills up something I guess is empty in me. I'm sorry--"

"What do you mean 'you used to be a believer'?" Carol said, laughing. "You sound like you still are."

"If I am, it's because of that tree." And she laughed, hard, in big heaves of breath that could have, in a moment, evolved into tears. "That's stupid, isn't it?" she said. "And I'm sorry--here I am an officer of the law and all of that, and I'm spilling my guts over this river bank. I should be better than that."

"We all should be better than we are," Carol told her, and she walked up to her, then waited for the offer a shoulder. When it came, she put an arm around her. "Show me," she said. "I want to see this huge tree. I don't believe it. I need it too."

"Somebody your age got problems?" the woman said.

"You know better than to ask that," Carol said. "You're a cop."

"You know," the woman said. "You got your life, and you got your job, but that's not everything really." She pulled away. "Let me show you. That's why I came."

When she got home, Lloyd was standing outside the back door, waiting, his jacket on. "You must have done some serious shopping," he said. 

"I didn't go," she told him.

When she came up the walk, he grabbed her in his arms. "Carol, that kid--the guy who shot his girl?--he came home. He's not dead. It was on TV. He came back."

"I know," she said. "I heard." She put an arm around him, tucked her hand in the pocket of his jacket. "I went down to the river--"

"You did?" he said.

"I went down to the river, and you can't believe what I saw," she told him. "Lloyd--I'll show you. It's incredible."

"We haven't been there for a long time," he said. "Just down the road, you mean?"

She pinched his side. "I'll take you, Lloyd. Let's just go. I got to show you."

Wednesday, August 08, 2018

River Hills--a story (iii)

Her privacy is interrupted. 

The park was empty, the river quiet, bedded down calmly.

And then she felt it. It came into her like something cool and refreshing, even though she knew what it was the second it entered her--she recognized it for what it was: despair. Why wouldn't the kid kill himself? Lloyd was right. Why should he go on living? What single good reason could he give to come home to insulin and prison? Hadn't his mother offered him help? Sure, but what kind of help--help in fighting the law, a letter in a lifetime of prison?

Why not just lay down and die? There was bullet left in that gun. Why not just quit? She stopped and looked down at the water, silent and constant like eternity, and her own sadness, like the boy's, fed the flow of despair that came up suddenly and refreshingly from her soul. It would end things, she thought. It would end suffering. It would end horror. It would end aggravation that she lacked the strength and courage to fight anymore. It would end nausea. It would allow her rest. Despair as relief.

Across the water, a huge scruffy owl swooped out of a tree but stayed in the woods, flying between thick branches like a circus performer. It was wrong, she knew--despair was the lack of hope, and hope was hers, always, eternally. Why was she feeling it?--how was it that despair even felt so good to her soul?

She looked around. They were here in the winter, she and Lloyd, when the snowbanks lay along the unsheltered paths like bread dough, and the deer left broken chains of darkened prints down the bluffs. They'd come here several times in the last year--before Paige had left--because now, with the house empty, they'd been trying to come up with some new ways of being together: cross-country skiing, photography. They'd been right there where she was standing, the two of them leaning on their ski poles, sweaty, trying to catch their breath, when a half dozen deer walked right across the river in a single line. Life was good, a miracle.

That was before their daughter had done something unthinkable. That was before Paige shattered God's own law--an adulterer. Paige, adulterer. Lord, give me strength, she prayed, her eyes on the dark green river beside her.

Through the trees on the bluff, the sound of the car coming down the road startled her, sent something she recognized as fear through her like a chill. She looked back at her own car, parked by itself at the river's edge, and felt a kind of embarrassment when a brown squad from the state police emerged from the trees at the bottom of the hill. A quarter-mile away, she watched as the squad pulled up beside the Buick and an officer stepped out, a woman, who walked around her car as if it were a suspect, then followed what were likely Carol's own footprints in the gravel, looked down the path towards the woods, where she stood.

The young woman, her blond hair pulled back tightly, removed her sunglasses and held a hand up over her eyes, then stared into the trees. In a gesture that seemed instinctive, she checked for the gun on her belt before tossing her hat in the car and locking it. She started walking, looking, Carol thought, for the driver.

Poor thing, she thought, she thinks maybe there's another suicide, so she stepped out of the trees, stood there motionless for a moment, just to be seen, and then waved politely, happily, as if there were nothing amiss. The policewoman stopped, thought for a moment about going back, then kept walking towards her.

Maybe the wave wasn't enough, she thought. Maybe the woman read the wave as someone putting her off. She looked down at her watch and realized that she'd been gone far too long, so she put her hands in the pockets of her coat and started walking back. "I'm okay," she said, quite loud, once the officer approached.

The woman smiled, kept coming

Alone on the river, the two women talk.

Tuesday, August 07, 2018

River Hills--a story (ii)

Carol's gone to the river to try to collect her senses. She's worried and depressed, even though she can't help but think she has little cause for her anxiety. What she can't do is talk herself out of it, however. When she sits there, overlooking the river, her own daughter's story rises, the real cause of her pain.

One silent hour later, she lied to him, told him she was going to Wal-Mart when she was going to River Hills, a park five miles west of town where the meandering Big Sioux River cut jagged sides from the yellow clay of a series of sharp bluffs. There were no police at the entrance--not that she expected them really, but the park wasn't more than a half hour away from the spot where they'd found the boy's truck.

It was May, late May, and from the top of the bluffs, where she first stopped the car and stood outside for just a moment, the whited path of the river showed how high it had been carrying snow melt and heavy spring rains. All the way along, maples and cottonwoods had been brought low by the high water, dumped neatly as if kneeling for a drink.

From the very beginning, she and Lloyd had been together on this thing, worked together, ever since the day Burt had called to tell them Paige had walked away from her marriage, left her husband and precious little Hannah for another teacher in that school in Joliet. They'd never disagreed, not really. Not once. They'd sat together before the fireplace they'd just had built that fall--the idea was a sweet place to spend cold winter evenings, just the two of them. They'd talk and talk and talk about what could or couldn't be done; and not once in all those nights had they really disagreed. She knew very well that her daughter had no right, no horrific grievance against her husband. Burt had treated both of them well, their daughter and granddaughter. She and Lloyd had agreed that it was their own Paige who was at fault here, and they'd told Burt as much, time and time again when they'd call him or when they'd talk to his folks.

Maybe Lloyd had been more angry than she had been. It was Lloyd who had done most of the talking--and the yelling. It was Lloyd who'd laid down the law. It was Lloyd who'd cut Paige off--told her that the two of them had to play hard ball with the outright she'd done, that neither themselves or the Lord God Almighty would buy her excuse about never really loving Burt--and the baby, my goodness, she thought, the baby. From the very beginning three months ago--from Burt's first call--not once had she and Lloyd really disagreed about what their own baby had done.

She got back in the car and slowly followed the winding road down to the river bottom, where grass was just beginning to grow from the mat of gray mud that caked the banks after the spring floods. She pulled up to the bank of the river on freshly laid gravel, looked around to see if anyone else was there--the boy named Rory had tried to murder the girl, after all. "Plain old lovers triangle," Lloyd had said. And why was she calling him a boy? At 26, he was a man.

I don't want to find him, she told herself--that's not the point. I don't want to see a boy who tried to murder a girl. I just don't want Lloyd to be right. Lord, she said, don't let him be right.

She didn't really know the problem. For years she'd lived with his noisy eating--soup, for instance. It seemed that he had to make noise when he sipped. But lately it was so aggravating she couldn't take it. And why? Because of Paige? His laughing at a TV show could turn her inside out. Watching him correct his students' papers. Just knowing he was working at something in his office. Having to hear his strong bass voice in church made her almost nauseous--was it a virus she'd picked up from her daughter? They'd never disagreed about their daughter, not for a moment. They'd had a wonderful marriage--28 good years. But lately she took so little. Sometimes she just didn't see him suffer.

She left the car behind and followed the uneven path of freshly laid gravel as it skirted the banks of the river. Across the water, beaver dens gaped like black moons from the banks beneath four scraggly cottonwoods splayed in four different directions like pencils in a cup. Mid-stream, a sculpture of bleached limbs, one of the river's earlier victims, stood like a monument to the torrent of water that now seemed wide and slow and safe, nowhere near to dangerous.

What she wanted, of course, was for the boy to give himself up, not do himself in. But it was wrong of her to think that way about the whole story, because her motive had much more to do with her husband and his sense of what would happen than it did with the real life of a diabetic kid whose mother was horribly hurt. She wanted him alive only to spite her own husband.

What she hated was Lloyd's nonchalance--and maybe that wasn't the right word either. What she hated was the fact that this horror of Paige's flooded every last part of her, and had, for three months, swept everything alive and growing into its channel, everything at work and at home and at church--wherever. She couldn't sleep, and hearing his breathing relax into that heavy pattern she'd heard for years only aggravated her more. She had to force herself to eat. Twice in three months they'd made love, and both times she tried to fake her enjoyment.

Maybe she should simply go to Joliet herself, alone, she thought. Maybe if she would take Paige into her arms--maybe, maybe, maybe.

Tomorrow: An unexpected guest interrupts Carol's anxiousness.

Monday, August 06, 2018

River Hils--a story (i)

"River Hills" is a story about big conflicts that mask themselves as little ones. It has to rank as one of the most "closed" stories I wrote, meaning the ending "finishes" the story in a way that leaves little to the imagination. It was written for and appeared in Christianity Today a decade ago or more. It begins with an incident broadcast on local news one night--someone who'd done some criminal act and was missing--and missing his meds. His mother appeared on the news to try to coax him home. "There's a story there," I told myself.

The woman on the television was overweight, her hair a thatch of gray and what looked on the screen to be some flat amber-like coloring. A huge T-shirt printed with a bundle of multi-colored balloons lay like a tent over her chest. Her face was mess--she was crying, had been for some time. That was clear.

"You can get help here, Rory," she told the camera, sobbing. "Please come home. We love you. You don't have your insulin. You don't have none of your medicine." She poked at her eyes with a big red handkerchief. "Please," she said again, shaking her head, "we want to help you, and we're the only ones who can."

The girl Rory had shot five times was still alive. The news report said she was 19. He was 26.

A preacher in his clerical collar, the girl's neighbor, said no one in Weston would ever have thought that something like this could happen in a small town. "In a city, sure--but things like this are not supposed to happen here."

But they do, Carol thought. The six o'clock news verified that the unthinkable had occurred last night about two in the morning in a small town just thirty minutes down the river from where she and Lloyd were watching the news while finishing their vegetable soup. The search for Rory Melius had already begun. That morning, his Dodge Ram had been found on a gravel road that dead-ended on a bluff overlooking the Big Sioux.

"Poor guy'll be dead," Lloyd told her. "You watch. He used that gun on himself, I’m sure." He raised a finger to his temple and pulled the trigger.

Carol looked at him angrily, but he wasn’t looking at her.

The reporter spoke to the anchor. "The police aren't saying much about Rory Melius. From all reports here, few people would have guessed he could do what police are saying it appears he did. They’ve issued no warnings, really. They're not saying that he's armed and dangerous."

"That's because they think he's already gone," Lloyd said to the TV. "He's not dangerous. His gun is empty. He put five into her and had one left."

"How can you say that?" Carol said.

"Well, count 'em yourself," he said, not looking up.

"That's not what I mean," she told him. "This isn't a movie, Lloyd--these are real people."

He turned towards her. "It's domestic, honey. It doesn't matter that they weren't married. It's passion gone, shot to heck--love to hate to despair." He shook his head. "He's gone, Carol--you know that. Why do you think they're not putting out an APB?"

"I just wish you weren't so sure of yourself," she said. "Do you get some comfort out of that?--is that it?"

"Comfort?" he said.

"Yes, comfort," she told him, picking up his dish, the milk, their silverware, then getting up to bring it to the kitchen. "Does it build you up or something to think you know exactly how all of this is going to turn out?"

She could feel his eyes on her. 

"Are you angry?" he said.

"I'm not angry," she told him, her back to him. "I'm just not as sure as you are that you're clairvoyant, and I wish you wouldn't do that--tell me what the outcome of this horrible, sinful mess is, as if you knew--as if it were written in stone."

"It's a plain old lovers' triangle," he said.

"It isn't a 'lover's triangle,' Lloyd--my goodness." She opened the dishwasher. It was still full from last night. "That's a real woman on the screen--somebody's aching. There's a young girl shot. Can't you see that?"

"Is what I said wrong?" he asked her, picking up the crackers and jelly. "To me, it just looked open and shut, honey. There's too many things here--"

"I don't want to hear any more, okay?" she said. "Let's just drop the whole thing."

When he brought his dishes to the sink, she was still turned away from him.

Tomorrow: Still angry, Carol leaves and goes by herself to the river to think and to worry.

Sunday, August 05, 2018

Sunday Morning Meds--What He Already Knows

“Why are you downcast, O my soul? 
Why so disturbed within me? 
Put your hope in God, 
for I will yet praise him, 
my Savior and my God.”  Psalm 42

In verse three of this psalm, some shrill voices are taunting, as they do again in verse ten; but unlike so many other songs in the book, in this one, Psalm 42, the enemy is not the psalmist’s Godless enemies, but his own miserable self. 

What’s clear in the opening verses is that David—if he’s the author—has seemingly fallen into a chapter from Saul’s life, Israel’s very first king, the potentate who wrote the book on depression.  His darkness is self-imposed:  “Why are you downcast, O my soul?” is not the question David would ask himself on a battlefield.  The war here—or so it seems to me—is within.  “Why are you down in the dumps?” is the way Eugene Peterson puts it. 

If Psalm 42 were a short story—which it isn’t—I might be willing to hazard this analysis:  in verse six, we’ve arrived at the climax, maybe not the dramatic climax of the narrative, but the technical climax, because, somehow, we get the sense he’s turned the corner, that the conflict has been bested. 

Right here in the psalm, this narrator—emotionally enfeebled—rallies, not because someone tells him he should, but because he tells himself he should. “Put your hope in God, fool,” he argues and then commits:  “I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.”  He’s gritting his teeth, pushing himself up by his own spiritual bootstraps, rallying himself as if he were the captain of his own cheerleading squad.

Were some student to hand me this story, I’d likely red-pencil, “I’m not convinced” somewhere in the margin, and then scribble in something even more widely scribbled in on student stories: “show us, don’t tell us.”

But when we read on, it seems clear that the answer he commits to in this verse doesn’t shoo the darkness.  Psalm 42 is not at end. The whole poem may well be a technical climax to the big story. I sort of like that idea, even though if there is no satisfying denouement. 

It seems to me that what David is calling on to cure himself is what he already knows but may have forgotten or simply not mustered. What he now believes will deliver him from the darkness is not a bromide he’s buying from someone else because he already knows the way to health and joy. 

You can almost feel him trying to bully away his personal demons:  “I WILL YET PRAISE HIM,” he tells himself, doing everything he can to refresh his own faith, telling himself—a mantra even—something he knows so very well but has somehow lost. 

He’s not asking God to ride in on a heavenly steed; he’s not asking to be saved.  Instead, he’s telling his own darkened spirits what he already knows but has forgotten or stopped believing—that his only hope and comfort is in the Lord.

The joy of David’s poetry, read thousands of years later in a world David himself wouldn’t begin  to understand, is our blessed realization that a human heart beats in every line. These are God songs, divinely inspired; but to read them as if they weren’t the work of a human soul is to miss half the inspiration.

In Psalm 42, David knows the truth he simply can’t muster. Every believer who’s ever been “down in the dumps” has been there, feeling exactly that pain. Every one.

David knows, but somehow he just can’t. The psalms are ours too. The psalms are us

Friday, August 03, 2018

Milton and Satan and evil

I'm not sure who anymore--was it C. S. Lewis?--but someone who knows far more about John Milton than I do created an answer to an almost eternal question about Paradise Lost--is Satan really the hero?

It's an unavoidable question because Satan seems far more attractive than any other character. After having been cast out of heaven, his beastly monstrosity is created in Book I, Satan assesses his great fall:

Is this the Region, this the Soil, the Clime,
Said then the lost Arch-Angel, this the seat
That we must change for Heav'n, this mournful gloom
For that celestial light?

He doesn't moan or weep or curse his fate, not one bit--he says, very well then. . .

Be it so, since he [ 245 ]
Who now is Sovran can dispose and bid
What shall be right:

Nothing he can do about it, he says, thus

fardest from him is best
Whom reason hath equald, force hath made supream
Above his equals.

Therefore, let's rumble--

Farewel happy Fields
Where Joy for ever dwells: Hail horrours, hail [ 250 ]
Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell
Receive thy new Possessor: One who brings
A mind not to be chang'd by Place or Time.

There's just something wonderful in his unsullied determination to make something of his personal, God-less horror.

The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n. [ 255 ]

Satan gets the most famous lines in Paradise Lost.

Now back to Lewis--or whoever I remember reading long ago--who claimed Milton wasn't somehow psychologically under Satan's thumb. Even though the whole story of Paradise Lost is purposefully written to gain, eventually, Paradise Regained, it's impossible not to argue that it's Satan who steals the show, Satan who looms over the whole thing, Satan who is the real, if anti-, hero.

The best way of understanding that--or the only way I remember well--is to say that Milton knows that that's the way we apprehend reality. Human beings--fallen human beings, Milton would surely say--are forever taken by evil. They may not love it, but it nonetheless dominates their (our) lives. We need evil to document our goodness. We need someone wicked to keep a shine on our righteousness.

Milton had it down. Satan comes off hugely in PL because he always does.

Conservatives need Maxine Waters or Nancy Pelosi to kick around, just like Donald Trump needs Hillary. Libs need the man with orange hair. We all need evil ones, and if we don't have them, we create 'em. It's what we do.

At the end of the Cold War era, when the Berlin wall came down, I remember reading people who claimed the times were going to go a little bonkers because nationally and culturally, psychologically and spiritually, the west was going to have to create a new "evil one," and the quest wasn't going to be pretty.

Or this way in the history of Protestantism. A faction of believers suspects that others in the fellowship have turned away from truth. So they break away, start yet another church, another denomination, where in a few years, the pure and holy, once again, begin to question each other's purity and holiness until, once again, there's a new church of the really pure.

Milton's Satan takes us in not because Milton was a closet admirer of the Devil, not just because we are enchanted by evil, but because we need evil.

Me too. I'll admit it.

Fear comes naturally to us, which may well be why the most frequent command in all of holy scripture is "fear not." It's really hard to learn not to fear. It'd be nice if we could.
We need grace. Badly. That's what Milton knew.