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.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Morning Thanks--Small Blessings*

From her chair in the living room, she knew something was wrong because the sounds she was hearing just weren't right, as if the door was open or something, which it could be, she thought, because maybe her husband hadn't thought of closing it. She swung her legs from the hassock, reached for her cane, pushed herself up from the chair, and took those first slow steps toward the bathroom, where things just didn't sound right. 

She was right--he hadn't shut the door. But that wasn't all of it. When she got into the bedroom, she realized that he'd not only forgotten to shut the outside door, he'd also forgotten the curtain behind him, and when, finally, she was able to get past the edge of the bed, she saw him standing there under the shower all right, but she also saw that the water was gushing, really, into her bathroom, all over the floor.

It was all she could do simply to get there. Yelling was something she really couldn't do anymore, something she left behind like so many other things, so she hurried into the bathroom herself rather than try to yell and walk at the same time. And she shouldn't have hurried because when her shaky feet hit the slippery tile of the bathroom, she went down--not badly. She knew immediately it hadn't been an awful fall, not like some falls people suffer in the home, but it was bad enough--she could feel the pain in her hip, and she knew that's where the problem would be, and that the pain and the break or whatever would mean hospitalization, and there was no way her husband, standing there in the shower, the curtain wide open, could be left alone right then.

So there she lay on the floor, unable to get up, her husband naked as a baby in the shower, probably wondering just exactly what he was doing there, she thought.

She tried to yell above the stream of water, but she couldn't. So she simply had to wait, there, on the floor of the bathroom, sprawled out like a child, watching her husband trying to figure out what he was doing in the shower.

When he turned, finally, and saw her there, he was dumbfounded. Some time ago, already, he'd lost the ability to think anything through. There he stood as if flabbergasted, unsure of just exactly what he had to do with his wife at his feet, sprawled on a bathroom floor that was rapid flooding. He couldn't do a thing. It was as if he was paralyzed. He had no idea what to do, standing there on a wet floor with his own wife lying at his feet.

It took some time before people found the two of them, just one old couple in the home.


We have the single bed that couple's children had moved in to that bedroom for their father. It was clear, after the incident, that she couldn't care for her husband anymore, that he had to go to a place where he could receive the supervision he needed, care she simply couldn't give the man she lived with for 68 years.

It wasn't easy for us to find an adult, single bed, so this one was a Godsent, the only one in town. We bought the bedstead too, and the frame, and the sheets and mattress pad. We bought everything because the children of the old man with Alzheimer's had moved him down the road to more comprehensive care. They didn't need the bed anymore, that bed they'd owned for only three weeks.

And what we told ourselves last night when the whole deal was through was what an incredible blessing it was to be able to secure not only a adult, full-length, single bed for my father-in-law, but all the necessary accessories.

For about a week now, the old man in the shower hasn't complained, hasn't pleaded with his children to take him home from the new place, as he had for a long time at first. He didn't want to be alone in this new home, the one without his wife. He didn't know exactly where he was, but he knew he wasn't home because she wasn't there.

But that fear or whatever is gone now, one of his sons told us. It's done. When he visits his father, his father doesn't beg to come home. He just smiles, his son says.

Small blessings. Like that bed the old man slept in for three weeks. We've got it  now. Wasn't easy to find either. Small blessings.


First published on November 16, 2007

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Donald Trump and Christian integrity

It took Jesus Christ Superstar to illustrate to me that Jesus of Bethlehem was no wallflower. Once upon a time he went into the temple like a rowdy sheriff and sent cards and chips a-flying. But there were also moments when his own disciples got chewed out, and even his mother got stung. 

I'll let theologians determine my interpretive skills, but Superstar, right or wrong, showed me a Christ who wasn't always a lamb. He could be a tiger--or at least he could make those with whom he lived feel as if they'd been clawed.

The text on Sunday morning was one of those moments. It comes on the heels the Sermon on the Mount, an unforgettable reversal of the very human impulses that reign in our world: blessed are the meek and sorrowing. You know.  There's nothing about the NRA.

Her sermon used verse 46 from Luke 6, when Jesus, seemingly frustrated, turns on a dime and reads out the disciples: “But why do you call Me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do the things which I say?" That's got some sarcasm. Then he turns storyteller to explain the nuttiness of putting down foundations in sand. 

It was, as all her sermons are, wonderfully crafted. She drew on materials from a variety of sources, bringing all of us into the dilemma Christ himself must have felt when he looked at his people, stars in their eyes, but not doing the Kingdom-worthy work he laid out before them.

Her sermon's theme was integrity, the absolute necessity to make our words count, to walk the walk and not talk the talk. She avoided cliches, but no adult in that sanctuary could not have anticipated the takeaway even before she picked up the mike: it was going to be all about "word and deed." Hold hands out evenly to make the point. 


Yesterday, FBI Director McCabe was pressured to resign. Presumably, the four-page Republican-written memo discredits him--maybe that's why. What everyone knows is President Trump wanted McCabe gone. His wife is a Democrat. He's out.

Yesterday, on party-line votes, the House Committee on Intelligence, for reasons of transparency, voted to release the memo they'd prepared, but not the memo the Democratic minority had prepared in response. Furthermore, they voted not to let the FBI or the Justice Department come in to clarify their concerns. They don't trust the FBI.

Some love Trump so greatly they allow him grace when a host of similarly powerful male abusers bite the dust. He's the only one of them who walks through allegations that have ended in disaster for other celebrities; and, he's kept in place most fastidiously--get this!--by evangelical Christians.

Some hate him, consider him almost demonic. Some would say he has zero integrity. "President Donald Trump has told nearly six times more lies in the first 10 months of his presidency than former President Barack Obama did in his entire 8-year term," says Fortune magazine (read it here). 

Tonight, Trump will present his "State of the Union." If he reads it, he'll do just fine. If he leaves script, we'll all hear the real Donald Trump. Like him or hate him, everyone knows that. He's two people, and the nation he leads is split like a ripe melon. At the bottom of that division lies a question of integrity that's impossible not to ask. 

On Sunday morning, even though everyone in that sanctuary had an opinion about Trump, even though every member thinks about the man, even though in the nation today any talk of "integrity" originates in some discussion of the outlandish and often inexcusable behavior of Donald J. Trump, the pastor could not risk speaking his name. Trump himself disarmed the sermon.

So that's where we are. We're living in an assault on truth. Our pastor could not talk about integrity, could not risk discord or animosity. If she'd said anything, someone would likely walk out. Can we at least acknowledge this truth: he's been a disaster for the integrity of the Christian faith in this nation.

He won't bring down faith; belief itself is not at risk; as all of us know, there's too much in our humanity that wants and needs a savior. 

But his absence on Sunday was an immense presence. In one year, he's already changed us so much we can't talk about him. 

Monday, January 29, 2018

Saturday Morning Catch--Making use of the Big Sioux River

The first matter of business when white folks came into the region was roughing out lot lines so that all knew where each of the others were about to put down roots. Once that was done, some of ye olde pioneers cut paths to the rivers. Think of those paths as life lines, because it was not at all difficult to get lost at sea in an ocean of grass. Those paths helped them remember where they were.

Back then, a place like this--a river bank--was its own kind of refuge. If you were going to meet any other human being at all, you'd meet 'em here, along the rivers, the only thoroughfares in the region. The first Hollanders set down roots along the Floyd, just to be safe. Transportation and commerce?--it was all happening on the rivers. 

No more. Today, the river banks are cluttered with dozens of dead cottonwoods the spring floods take out, then leave carelessly upended behind, the discarded limbs of unimaginable creatures, a junk yard of huge spare parts.

Makes the place seem a ghost town, really. In January especially, there's no reason to be here, no ice fishing, and not much at all in the line of bird-watching, maybe a couple of lousy sputsies, a crow or two, and, if you're lucky, a red-tailed hawk. But most of them are perched on fence posts or in trees along highways waiting for road kill. There's little here, really. It's quiet too; the river is frozen; the water has nothing to say.

There some drumming from an optimistic woodpecker, and, once in a while, a pick-up passes by. Otherwise, the river silence is profound.

I'm a half-dozen miles north from the bank on the Big Sioux where the first county commissioners (that's what the yokels called themselves) put up a shack and called it a courthouse; and three or four south, maybe, from the place where a couple dozen people in log houses called their first Sioux County settlement "Calliope." 

Visitors were few in 1861, but had they thrown together a sod house twenty miles east, where sits Orange City today, they'd have likely seen no visitors at all. Here, human beings occasionally passed by in canoes and on foot on land. Back then, to call the river an interstate would have been a stretch, but a place like this was the only quarter in the region where things were happening.

No more. Today, on a cold January morning, the river bank is a ghost town--a bunch of turkeys maybe, three or four deer if you sit tight. 

Nobody's here. Some few four-legged residents kindly leave tracks, a reminder that this spot isn't as desolate as you might want to think. 

In fact, the river may well be more of an interstate today. I'm standing in South Dakota, after all. There's proof left in the river's snowy quilt that more than a few of the locals determined at one time or another to visit Iowa, right over there on the other side.

But in all truth, there's no reason to be here, nothing to be done here, no money to be made. Even now, early in the morning, there's no one with whom to have coffee. Let's just say it this way: there's no real use to be here. Just like there's no real use to beauty. 

Nothing happening, nothing going on, after all.

But then, there's certainly not nothing to see. 

Even in January, with no one around and nothing but silence, there's history and story and sheer awe because, lo and behold, even in the cold, it's still my Father's world.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Sunday Morning Meds--Election

He has done this for no other nation;
they do not know his laws.” Psalm 147:20

William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice leaves a permanent mark on the soul. A woman arrives at Auschwitz with two children in her arms and is directed, forthwith, to send one of them to the gas chambers. One must die. That is Sophie’s awful choice.

Hitler created villains sufficient for the rest of the 20th century and beyond, but among the most hideous was Josef Mengele, chief medical officer at Birkenau, who stood at the railroad station, arm up, choosing which deportees exiting the freight cars would go to the work camp and which would go to the showers. I’ll never forget Sophie holding her children, a smiling Mengele blessing her with the horrific choice.

There’s something horrifying about the final verse of 147, something antithetical to the human spirit, because, hard as it is to say or even imagine, God almighty does discriminate, just as surely as Mengele did. God has his druthers, and he acts on them. “He has done this for no other nation,” the poet says; “they do not know his laws.” He’s taken some and sent others away—and I’m being nice by saying it that way.

If there’s one thing people hate about Calvinism, it’s the p-word—predestination. And it’s not hard to understand why. I remember little of church catechism class when I was a kid, except the discussion about election. The bright little preacher stood up in front us nervously, hemming and hawing, then suddenly sprung a new idea when we weren’t convinced by sheer logic. “Think of it this way,” he said, trying to convince us. “He could have damned us all.” Then a nodding smile, phony as a bad cheerleader.

That argument may well have been a convincing to some, but, even at the time, I didn’t find it particularly appealing.

The dilemmas inherent in a line like this really can’t be avoided. The great I AM is not an equal-opportunity savior. What grants me eternal comfort in the trust that I am loved by my Savior may well make others, not so assured, spit bitter gall. I get that, and it’s not a joy.

But let me climb into the psalmist’s skin, a poet whose heart is so full of joy that he lists everything God has done—everything he can think of and imagine, not simply in his own tent but throughout the vast life of the entire creation. He has been blessed—the very first word of the book of psalms—and no one knows it better than he. God has chosen him and his people; he is—and they are—loved. What he sees around him is that God’s favor, his grace, has not be given to everyone; and that perception serves to amplify his joy, not because others aren’t blessed but because, amazingly, he is.

I say this as a Calvinist, a believer in God’s sovereignty, someone who knows the psalmist’s own rare joy: what the poet says in verse 20 is his perception, a perception with which we are blessed thousands of years later. The only way to talk about election, I think, is as perception, not precept. It’s what I know and what he sees and what prompts us both to sing. Election is the song of the redeemed, of those who come to understand that, for reasons that are as blinding as baffling, they are the totally undeserved recipients of divine love, their very selection an eternal mystery.

Faith is a gift. I can’t know it any other way. God’s favoring me with what little I have of it is eternal comfort, but I have no clue why I’m so blessed.

I can only thank him, which is really what the psalmist is up to here in 147—praise as thanksgiving. Thanks is what we do when we know that, like the psalmist, we are blessed with his love.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Morning Thanks from the winter of 2010*

On the way to Hudson last night for a burger and a beer, we crossed the Big Sioux, where a big herd of deer were standing on the frozen river bed. It was deepening twilight, but up against the snow they were unmistakable--it was no vision--just standing there, barely mindful of a Buick that slowed unnaturally as we tried to count them, at least a couple dozen, probably more.

There are more deer in the region than there were when the neighborhood was an ocean of grass that belonged to the Yanktons. It's all corn and beans these days, and, for most of any year, food, generally, is no problem. It's not unusual for us spot deer were they stood last night, but only occasionally do we see that many. Seriously, last night, maybe fifty. Maybe more.

"Where do they sleep?" my wife said, and I couldn't help but wonder myself. The snow this year is remarkable. It's all over, several feet deep on open field and in that strap of woods along the Big Sioux, even over the ice that blankets the river.

A dozen times at least I've walked through woods and tall prairie grass and come on rounded bedding grounds, but I don't know that I could find such things this year, bare spots of ground where they might, for a few hours at least, catch some winks.

And what would they be eating now--saplings, maybe, stripping bark? Maybe that quiet herd on the river were as stupefied as they seemed, unsure of how or where they'd spend the night or feed their yearlings. Maybe they herded up because they'd come to realize their only hope for staying warm was being together somewhere, sharing each other's body heat.

I don't repent for braying about the winter of aught-nine, as I have. We've had more snow and cold, without respite, than I can remember; and I've lived here now for more than forty years. I don't even put away the shovels I fight it with anymore. They're stabbed in piles of snow in convenient places for a job that seems and is unending. Just Thursday the temps rose to 26 or so, and I chopped the ice off the front sidewalk for the first time since mid-December, looked back at what I'd done, even took a picture because that patch of dark cement felt like some kind of harbinger of spring. 

I'm not overstating. It's been a long winter, and next week's forecast promises no respite.

But those deer and their sleeping arrangements prompted a verse of scripture to arise in me, something about fox having their holes when the son-of-man has no place to lay his head.

This winter, I'm not as sure about the critters as the Master was, over there in balmy Palestine. Where do deer lay their heads, really? How do they endure unending cold? I'd have liked to slide a microphone up to one of those bucks along and ask him where on earth they found a bed. Would he have trembled like an anxious father, his answer a kind of prayer for spring? How are the critters doing this February? I honestly don't know. Are the pheasants finding something, somewhere?

Crows do fine. I just walked outside to check the sky, and somewhere, maybe a block or two away, they were already raising a ruckus in the pitch dark. They come into town, pick a tree, and swarm. All that noise didn't seem scary, just loud. They're okay.

It won't be long now, and I'll go back upstairs and crawl back into a bed. Our electric blanket is kicking up a fuss lately, flashing FF, whatever that means, and shutting itself off by early morning, as if it really can't or won't keep up the pace.

No matter. Even without it, we can warm a bed, my wife and I. It's a burden she tells me she must endure--my coming back to bed to wake her. I crawl in beside her, and my cold begs the most blessed warmth any one of us can ever share.

All of which reminds me that long ago, when I started this blog, I'd determined to try to bring thanks every morning--for something, anything. We'd all be better off if each of us would take a pledge to be thankful, daily, for something at least.

So this morning it's not that goofy electric blanket for which I'm thankful, it's that warm bed, a place to lay my head and ward off the cold, and the fact that I know my wife will have me.

Last night, for the first time since November, the skies were light enough to see the deer on our way to Hudson. For the first time, we didn't cross the river in darkness. Daylight is lingering these days, and it won't be long. It won't be long. It won't be long.

That too is reason for heartfelt thanks. You just know--even though you have to remind yourself--that spring will come. And it won't be long. 

It won't be long. It won't be long.

*Published on February 20, 2010

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Sioux County History--"An Outburst of Prayer"

An estimated 12.5 trillian Rocky Mountain locusts descended on the rural Midwest from July 20 to July 30, 1874. They virtually devoured everything in swath of land that encompassed almost 200,000 square miles.

Jelle Pelmulder, Sioux County’s first school master, wrote this poem mid-onslaught, in a fragile community only four years old.

Pelmulder wrote in Dutch, in rhyming couplets. The manuscript belongs to and is available at the Sioux County Museum, Orange City.

An outburst of prayer*
at the coming of the locusts
July 17, 1874

In the northern heavens something rises
from the horizon—clouds maybe,
or smoke billowing so far up into the sky
it takes my breath away, so high,
it seems the wind has wings.

Oh, my God,
they swarm as countless
as the sand on the shores of the sea.

The fields all around,
the hopes of every farmer here,
will go up like smoke and vapor,
consumed by locusts whose appetites
will not be filled ‘til everything is gone.
To forget the sheer delight we all just felt
from lovely grains in gardens and in fields? —
Must all the work we’ve done come to nothing?
Will they take every tree, every bush?

Can you see my tears, Lord? --
will you hear my voice?
I lift my soul to you on high:
Must all of what we have be lost?

Forgive my iniquitous complaints,
but when I see the poor among us,
whose very lives stand there
in perfect rows set for slaughter,
really, Lord, must all of it go? —
gardens and fields, bushes and trees? --
Must all of what we have be lost?

Merciful Father, I’m on my knees.
That host of locusts in the sky
live and breathe at your command.
That endless cloud, that legion,
now rising between sun and land,
that sky-born plague and scourge
 is it sent, in fact, by my Father’s hand?

Nothing we devise will stand between us
and your omnipotence.
Faint and powerless,
every bit of strength we have is gone.

If in our temerity
some errant curse escapes our lips,
if you wish it so and by your hand,
we fall into the dust beneath our feet.

O Lord God, bring your mercy
to task here and now so that our thanks
may once more soar unto your throne.
Deliver us so we can praise your name.
From our knees we come before you,
in the name of your Son, our Savior:


God, our Father, spare our land, our crops,
Lest those in poverty fall to despair
When, in cold, the north winds howl.

Have mercy, oh God! have mercy.
Look down upon us and refresh us
once again with the blessed hope
of a good and healthy crop.

Please make it happen, Lord,
Our very faith is in your hands.
Show us the love you promise--
Avert the swarms above
that threaten every living thing.

We live in your hands; you alone have power
to rid us of this contagion once again
—as you did long ago in Pharaoh’s land,
when Moses stood and prayed before the roaring sea.

Teach us the trust that never ends, Lord,
the hope that rests in you alone.]

July, 1874
Sioux County, Iowa
*Ontboezeming bij jet aankomen der sprinkhanen op zondags den 19den Juli 1874.
Translated from the Dutch by Johan Hegeman. By way of this version, I've attempted to make Mr. Pelmulder's "outburst of prayer" accessible to many readers.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Dangel's "First Grader's Country School Lesson"

He remembers one day from his first grade year. It
was winter. During the noon recess, Benny and the
other big boys built an igloo in the far corner of the
schoolyard. Benny took a candle and a hatchet and
crawled inside.Benny's friends rounded up the little
boys and made them crawl into the igloo,  one at a
time.   Each came out looking frightened. His turn
came, and he was kicked in the butt and pushed on all
fours inside the snow cave. He found himself kneeling
over a block of ice, where a candle flickered, stuck in a
Dad's Root Beer bottle. Benny stood above him like a
giant. Black shadows danced up on benny's face as he
raised the hatchet and said, "Are you loyal to Benny?
Say it, I'm loyal to Benny."
   He said it. "I'm loyal to Benny."
   That night at supper his father asked, "What did
you learn in school today?" 
Here's what I think. It's a poem, not because it's strikingly beautiful, not because its rhymes (it has none) enchant, or its rhythms carry us somewhere we've never been. Its architecture is unusual. If I could, I'd type it in as it appears in Home from the Field, the collected poems of Leo Dangel. There, this little story sits perfectly square, save for indents on the final two lines. 

But it's not the shape of the poem (is it supposed to be a schoolhouse?) that fashions the story. What finds its way into your soul is not how it sounds or looks, but exactly what the story-teller has never quite forgotten.

That story isn't spelled out on the page but rises hauntingly from inside your heart when you hear it. It's about more than the words say it is.

The story he remembers is about bullying, but bullying isn't at the heart of things. Most every playground has a Benny, even if those playgrounds don't have igloos and hatchets. That story is all about being scared. 

But the greater fear, really, rises with that last haunting line. It's a realization most of us come to with the father's everyday question, because maybe for the first time in his life the kid can't answer truthfully. He can only lie. What the boy learned that day at school was a story about Benny and the hatchet in the igloo, but what he is entering right there at the dining room table is an even more difficult world. He simply can't tell his father what happened. 

Maybe it's just me. Maybe you don't feel the bars of the prison the boy finds himself in, wanting to unburden himself, but knowing he can't. At school that day things happened that shouldn't have, things that are so bad the boy risks something worse by telling them. He knows he'll have to live with Benny, find his own way through, learn to get along somehow in a world where his parents have no clue to what's happening, even though they too have similar stories they won't tell.

This odd little square poem is about feeling alone and scared for the very first time in a world so harrowing it can't be spoken of. 

What makes "A First Grader's Country School Lesson" a poem is not the richness of its expression, but the way it speaks to the heart with a voice that awakens our own lives and actually brings us together, even though Benny tries so hard to keep us apart.

There's nothing beautiful about this poem except what it awakens in those who read it. It's as much alive as we are.  

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The blessings of ends and beginnings

A novelist I once knew used to say that if there was a birth in a novel it had to come at the very end because nothing--absolutely nothing--could out-climax brand new life. Think that's a stretch?--watch a two-year-old take over an Old Folks Home. 

In art as in life there's simply no accounting for taste, so the rule that novelist set up can't be cast in stone. But the idea he sold us on has stuck with me ever since that writing workshop forty years ago. Even if what he said about birth isn't true, I like to think it is.

And yet, birth is not an end. It's only ever a beginning.

Meet Olivia Lynn, daughter of David and Kristina, from Stillwater, Oklahoma. She's their firstborn and much beloved. Every last human being old enough to see anywhere into the future knows this little package of darling-ness will soon occupy their lives in ways that no one can explain until new parents experience that diapered occupation for themselves. It's coming. No, it's already begun.

If Olivia hasn't already begun to make music, soon she'll sing while she nurses, hum her way through some baby praise song, a line or two of her own sweet composition--and they'll love it. Then, once those eyes open wide enough to sweep over her mother's face, the two of them will be star-struck when she addresses the world around her for the first time. Then there's that first smile--oh, my word, was there every anything more beautiful? they'll say. She'll simply have taken over.

If they're truly blessed, in a week or so this pudgy little cherub will sleep through the night. Don't count on it. Right now, she's still in IC for a slight case of jaundice, but this morning, for the first time, she'll go home to a freshly painted room with a changing table beneath a window alongside a book rack that once belonged to her mother and is also freshly painted. Oh, and did I mention the name Olivia up on the wall above the crib?

This child will go home to a place her senses will recognize long before she can say the word or begin to understand its meaning, a place she'll soon know is like none other, peopled by faces and lovingly outfitted with hands and voices she'll come to know and love in ways babies do.

Her father went to Oklahoma almost as if on assignment. He'd been living for too long in the darkness, so long that the counselor he was seeing made an application to graduate school something he simply had to do as an investment into a future he couldn't beg himself to see.

When he got in, he determined to go. We worried a great deal. Just a few months after he'd arrived, his apartment complex went up in flames, most of what he owned, most of what he didn't have in his school backpack that day, was gone. The Red Cross gave him money to go to WalMart for socks and underwear. Students he knew--and many he didn't--got him what he needed to get by.

We worried a great deal. It took a couple years, but he shifted graduate programs when he determined that film theory wasn't going to get him out. He transferred over to professional writing, a course of study that held some possibility of employment.

His assistantship assigned him to a mentor who'd been teaching for a while. The two of them got along, got along better, even began to date and eventually got engaged, then married. She kept teaching, but he took a job writing educational materials for a fire safety program run out of the university. He liked what he was writing so much he got interested in the profession. Today, he's a fireman in the city where his first apartment burned to the ground.

And today, he and his teaching mentor will bring that blessed child home to a house with three cats, a dog, and a freshly painted room that belongs to someone whose name is up there on the wall above the crib.

I don't know if that old novelist friend of mine was right or not, whether new life can't be outdone as a climax of a novel. But in life, it never is. It's only ever a beginning.

Praise the Lord.

And please forgive me for yet another picture. This Olivia is, after all, my brand new granddaughter.

End of story.

No, just the beginning.

Monday, January 22, 2018

It's out, and I hope it's good. I don't have any yet, but you can get it on Amazon. A sacrament in snow.

Small Wonder(s)--"Osawatomie Brown"

No longer do those two arch-rivals play football. They did for almost a century, but they quit some years ago, the Paola High School having grown to almost twice the size of Osawatomie. Things got a little out-of-hand towards the end, Paola winning twenty of the last twenty-two gridiron tussles, the last one a blow out--73-20. That was 2013, the very last game.

Since 1920, the Osawatomie/Paola game was the Super Bowl, the game no one missed, the big one that shut down both Kansas towns and most all the countryside. For 93 years it went on.

But the rivalry got started long before that, if you read the history. For a time in the 1850s, those two burgs did a whole lot more than mount great passing games. Kansas was bleeding in the 1850s. Just about everyone opening up the sod on the new state's eastern edge did so because they wanted to fight, wanted to win, sometimes at all costs. 

Back then, it was the Free-Soilers vs. the Border Ruffians, the abolitionists vs. the slavers; the sides couldn't have been much different. The abolitionists were New Englanders, Puritans at heart, if not in confession, men and women dedicated to righteousness, sworn into God's army to end slavery. Some wanted a new life, but around Osawatomie especially, most newcomers arrived because Congress had ruled that whether Kansas were slave or free would be decided by those who lived there. Some came west--John Brown among them, the John Brown--because they were doing the Lord's work, fighting the curse of slavery.

When you're south of Kansas City some time, stop at Osawatomie, Ground Zero of the Bleeding Kansas of the 1850s. Follow Main Street all the way through town to a park where you can't miss an odd, old stone edifice that encloses the log cabin John Brown--"Osawatomie Brown"--used as headquarters during the twenty months he spent at war in "Bleeding Kansas. 

The enemy Border Ruffians were equally determined, even if they invoked God's name a good deal less than the holy abolitionists. They were Southern folks, determined to protect a treasured way of life from the Yankees they hated. Once upon a time, neighboring Paola, just down the road, was populated heavily by Border Ruffians.

On August 30, 1856, a couple hundred or more Southerners rode into Osawatomie, intending to burn out the New Englanders, then keep on riding to Topeka and Lawrence and leave the whole region in flame. First, they shot John Brown's son Frederick dead. Then, a couple dozen armed abolitionists tried to hold them off, but their numbers were pitiful, more meager than their bravery. Soon the Free-Staters, out of ammo, scattered, and the Slavers torched most every building in town. 

There was more terror in Bleeding Kansas, more blood in the neighborhood, more killing, some of it--much of it--cold-blooded on both sides. All of that right there in the countryside. That old cabin looks far more comfortable than it likely was. 

Some historians claim what happened in little Osawatomie, and throughout the border region, was the opening salvo of what became the Civil War. It's hard to argue with that assessment, even though Beauregard didn't fire on Ft. Sumter until April 12, 1861, almost five years later.

You can see John Brown's hat there in the cabin--the one he was wearing at Harper's Ferry; and his saddle, and a broad portrait of the man, a likeness nothing at all like the wide-eyed fanatic who jumps off the mural in the Kansas State Capital. 

All the John Brown things are in the back room of the cabin, a back room once hidden from view, frequently--if the stories can be believed--a temporary stop on the Underground Railroad. If you stand there, even for a moment, try to imagine what simply can't be imagined, especially if you're white.

For almost a century, when the Osawatomie Trojans took the field against the Paola Panthers, the fiery rivalry grew out of differences far older than oldest discolored cup in either school's trophy case. After all, Paola's roots were slave, Osawatomie's were free. Yankees and Rebs right there, neighbors in eastern Kansas.

Maybe it's a good thing they don't take each other on anymore. Either way, some old bloody fights may well a blessing to forget. 

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Sunday Morning Meds--We have his word on it

He has revealed his word to Jacob, 
his laws and decrees to Israel.” Psalm 147:8

Most of the mornings I worked at Psalm meditations, I read a little Spurgeon first, followed his wonderfully aphoristic comments on all the psalms in a huge work he titled The Treasury of David, three volumes, a set a bookstore owner gave me years ago, assuming, I guess, he’d never sell them. The Treasury of David has been a boon, a joy, a revelation all its own.

Verse by verse, Spurgeon takes each psalm apart and riffs, tells me and all who read him, in his peculiar 19th century voice, what he thinks about every last line from the songs.  Spurgeon has been in many of these meditations, even though they’re my own. 

After spinning his own takes, Spurgeon cuts and pastes a section of comments from others he’s appreciated in a section titled “Hints to Preachers.”  For Psalm 147, comments come from John Trapp, Genebradus, A. S. Aglen, J. N. Pearson’s Life of Archbishoop Leighton (1830), Christopher Wordsworth, J. J. Van Osterzee, William Bates, Thomas Manton.  I don’t know a one of them.

I rather doubt Charles Hadley Spurgeon assembled enough other voices for me to characterize them as “a cloud of witnesses,” but there are enough here to make me know my meditations haven’t plowed any new ground. How many millions have read the psalms? The only way to appreciate the numbers is by God almighty’s sands-on-the-beach or stars-in-the-sky comparisons. Billions, literally.

It’s still dark out this morning. The windows reflects the lights from inside this mess. But the sky is patchwork, which means that the dawn, soon to arrive, could be another masterpiece. The sun rises late this close to solstice, but often in a blaze. I may just grab a camera, go out, and hunt for this morning’s recitation of glory.

We’ve got sky out here on the edge of the plains. We’ve got more sky than any of us know what to do with—more heavens to declare God’s glory, to preach and sing his presence. He’s here and he’s huge. I hear him proclaiming almost daily, I swear.

But I’ve also got Spurgeon and this cloud of witnesses to show me how they sang the psalms—excellent coaching, perhaps a little museum-ish but heartfelt, thoughtful, and pious, often more so than I am. Without them, I wouldn’t have made it.

And I’ve got the Word, the book of Psalms itself, David and Moses and who-knows-who else. So I’ve got the dawn and I’ve got the songs, the world and the Word—day-in, day-out reminders of what he does and what he says. Not bad preaching, one way or another.

In 147, David’s panoramic vision closes down with verse 18, then goes on to say that those who love him are witnesses, not only to what he does but also, just as gloriously, to what he says. We’ve got his Word on that.
I’m sorry to have to say this, but it’s part of the world I see:  not long ago, I found the old bookstore owner’s picture on-line, among the list of local sex-offenders. I wish that weren’t true, but it is.

But if I’ve learned anything from slugging through the psalms, it is that God is far greater, far more loving than any or all of his readers—Spurgeon, Schaap, and sex-offender. 

He’s given us his word and his world.  Even more amazing, he’s given us his love—sinners, all. Count me among those sinners, but count me too among the blessed.  

Friday, January 19, 2018

A Snapshot of Ray Milland (iii)

Ray Milland on the wall at the Anne Frank House

Here’s what I’m thinking. In a fifty-year career of almost 150 movies, Ray Milland was as well known as any Hollywood leading man. Think of the publicity his pictures generated when they were released, the many who saw them back then; then imagine–try to compute–how often he’s been seen on TV in replays of the old classics. Turn on the Turner Movie Classics channel almost any week of the year and you’re likely to strike an old Ray Milland.

Even though perhaps few knew the Welshman personally, even though his life story really is his film credits, his face is still recognized by thousands today, although the numbers are likely slipping, year by year. And even though some might say that Ray Milland’s craft as an actor was unexcelled; some might praise him for the dignity by which he carried himself on the set, and some might claim his legacy includes a deep commitment to his profession, what I’d like to suggest is that in the cut-out snapshot on Anne Frank’s wall, up there in the annexe where she and her family attempted to wait out Hitler’s genocide, in that picture he may well have played his most memorable role.

And he knew nothing about it. I like to imagine what he must have felt like if and when he discovered it glued on the yellowing wallpaper of Anne Frank’s room. I never knew the man, but on the basis of my own sense of human character, it would surprise me if, after walking through the gaping portal left by the most famous fake bookcase in the world, then negotiating a set of incredibly steep stairs, Ray Milland himself didn’t break down and cry to see his own face on her lonely wall. What I’m thinking is that despite the array of rewards he received for his many films, despite an Oscar for his portrayal of a drunk, despite the fact that during the war he made over twenty movies, his snapshot on an annexe wall may well have been the most important performance of his career.

After all, annually more than a half million visitors step through the annexe at the Anne Frank House on Prinsengracht in Amsterdam, and all of them pass through her empty bedroom. And when they do, they spot his photo. That picture, like his film credits, say nothing about who he was–whether he loved children, beat his wife, drank too much, or was a sweet and good man. Just as he did in all of his work, in that snapshot he plays a role--but perhaps his most important role, bringing joy and comfort.

I’m not interested in making a pitch for Ray Milland’s soul. In our tradition we’ve likely been far too quick with such judgments–both to claim some for sainthood and to relegate others to hell. I certainly won’t claim that his picture on Anne Frank’s wall grants him grace.

But I know one thing about the only gospel story concerning end times, the only narrative Christ himself ever delivered about the judgment: where we end up eternally has apparently little to do with tenacious doctrinal fortitude. I’m not arguing for universalism or campaigning for a doctrine-less faith, but in that passage in Matthew where Christ describes the ultimate in discrimination, he points the sheep to his right and the goats to his left on the basis of criteria which seemingly have everything to do with love.

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit,” he says to those of us he earmarks for eternal joy.

And here comes a grand mystery. “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

Apparently, the truly righteous don’t know a thing about what it was they were doing. They only did. They saw and acted–and loved.

I didn’t grow up Jewish or Roman Catholic or Lutheran. I don’t know about Mormon life, or the minutia of the day-to-day existence of Seventh Day Adventists. But after fifty years within the Reformed tradition, I think I know something about what it means to grow and live among those believers in the Calvinist tradition, and I dare say that among us, should is a great big word. We all feel the clarion call of that word’s obligation–I should really do this or that or the other blessed thing.

Yet Jesus Christ’s own description of what will happen at the outset of eternity is as revealing as it is mysterious because even at the very moment of judgment the sheep remain as unpretentious as they’ve ever been. They look at the Judge, quite befuddled. “When on earth did we do all of this?” they say. Their gifts were apparently given away unconsciously.

If our best deeds are as filthy rags, they can turn crystalline only with the grace of our God, often enough when we don’t even know it ourselves. The fact is, we get used, as did Ray Milland on a secluded fortress on a busy street in Amsterdam. God uses us for his good, whether or not we know it or approve it or even like it. Grace itself tingles in the inklings we sometimes receive of his own mysterious and divine plan.

Ray Milland may never have seen his photograph on Anne Frank’s wall. He may have gone to his grave without knowing what a half-million people every year see when they tour the secret annexe. Certainly, in 1944, when he was making The Lost Weekend, which would become the vehicle for his own greatest performance, a piece of stark realism, he knew nothing of the real life of a young woman hiding from the Nazis in Amsterdam and looking up at his picture daily.

There’s nothing new in all of this, of course, only mystery. We are most the Lord’s when he works his will, mysteriously, through us. We are most the Lord’s when we give, in love, without considering why. We are most his own when He is most of us.

As always, when it’s all said and done, He gets all the credits.

This essay originally appeared in The Banner.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

A snapshot of Ray Milland (ii)

But you’ll also find the place without the church, because 263 Prinsengracht will undoubtedly sport a huge phalanx of tourists from nine in the morning till five in the afternoon. It is, if you haven’t yet seen your way through the mystery, the place where, in July of 1942, Mr. Otto Frank, a Dutch Jew who ran the spice business downstairs, carefully and secretly tucked away his family and that of his business partner, Hermann Van Pels, as well as a Jewish dentist named Fritz Pfeffer, in an attempt to avoid extradition to and forced labor in Germany–at least that’s what the Nazis had announced would be their fate. Otto Frank knew better. He’d already left Germany in the 30s, when Nazi strategies became all too apparent. In ‘42, he went into hiding.

What he and his wife did in taking refuge in those formerly uninhabited upstairs rooms behind the shop was not unlike what thousands of others did in Holland at the time. What was unique about the Frank family was a daughter, Anne, who took it upon herself to write a diary in order to remember their seclusion in the back of her father’s business. Initially, she described life in the annexe for herself, detailing daily life in a secret place where movement, during the day especially, had to be strictly curtailed so that no one would realize the presence of the eight inhabitants. But in 1944, a man in the Dutch government in exile announced on British radio that after the war he hoped to collect eyewitness accounts of what had gone on during the Nazi occupation. When Anne Frank heard that announcement, she decided she would publish a book.

She did.

But her plan didn’t work as she had anticipated. To this day, no one knows exactly who it was that turned in the Franks and Van Pels to local authorities. But someone did, and all of them, with the exception of Otto Frank himself, eventually died before the Allied liberation. Auschwitz took both Mrs. Frank and Mr. Van Pels; and in 1945, when the Allies approached the camp where their mother had died, Anne and her sister Margot were transported to Bergen-Belzen, where in horrific conditions, both of them, like many, many others, succumbed to typhoid.

There really is no need to tell the Anne Frank story. Her diary may well be the most read book of the twentieth century. It contributes to the most memorable single story of the century we’re now looking back upon, the saga of World War II, a five-year campaign to stop the century’s most distinguished mustachioed madman and his mesmerized countrymen.

Upstairs in the annexe, in Anne’s own room, you’ll still be greeted by the gallery she pasted up on her walls; and there you’ll find, among pictures of flowers, of art work, a poster of her father’s ill-fated business, and a collection of snapshots of other Hollywood stars meant to bring some joy in her seclusion, a photo of Ray Milland.

It’s ironic that perhaps the most read story of World War II was written by a teenager, a girl who never saw a Allied soldier, who didn’t know a thing about the Battle of the Bulge or the marine assault on Iwo Jima, or “Little Boy” and “Fat Man,” the two atom bombs that flattened Japanese cities and changed the world. Spielberg’s Schindler’s List was a tremendous Holocaust movie, and his Search for Private Ryan captures the horrifying brutality of war like few other films; but it’s likely that Anne Frank’s unpretentious diary, her day-to-day evocation of life in hiding has become the quintessential World War II story. Her innocence and hope, in the middle of suffering, remains an inspiration, creating its own private habitation in the hearts and souls of millions of readers world-wide.


Tomorrow: conclusion.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

A snapshot of Ray Milland (i)

Even a true film buff might be hard pressed to name actor Ray Milland’s most famous Hollywood role. In his day, after all, Milland was no mid-list actor; he was a full-fledged, box-office star. His half-century’s worth of film credits include almost 150 movies, several of which he directed himself.

He had just reached eighty when he died in March of 1986, not all that long after his final role in a movie titled Masks of Red Death, a who-dun-it in which Scotland Yard persuades an elderly Sherlock Holmes to come out of retirement and clear up the lingering questions about–well, you guessed it–murder. His first cinematic appearance was a bit part in The Flying Scotsman, a 1929 movie shot as a silent film, then later dubbed with sound and dialogue.

During his fifty years in the business, his career had some highlights, including an Oscar for Best Actor in 1945, the year World War II ended, for his performance as a boozed-up would-be writer in The Lost Weekend, a film known, back then, for its daring realism. But those who study cinema would likely claim that the role in which he can be seen most frequently today would be the 1954 classic, Dial M for Murder, in which he starred alongside starlet-become-royalty Grace Kelley, a film undoubtedly made famous by the considerable skills of its portly director, Alfred Hitchcock.

Some may remember his portrayal of Oliver Barrett II, a rich and snobbish father in the adaptation of Erich Segal’s hugely popular, tear-jerking novel, Love Story, (1970); or as the evil millionaire Aristotle Bolt in the Disney classic Escape to Witch Mountain (1975). How about this? Milland and Robert Cummings play rival news reporters and love interests for the affections of skating superstar Sonja Heinie in Everything Happens at Night (1937), a film reviewed on-line with this memorable phrase: “one of Heinie’s best romantic skating vehicles” (must have been before the Zamboni).

In The Man With X-Ray Eyes (1963), a sci-fi classic with pretensions of Greek tragedy, Milland played a scientist whose discovery of x-ray vision lands him rather unceremoniously in a circus sideshow. There were some dogs, of course. In 1972, he took on the role of the wheelchair-bound patriarch of the Crockett family in a horror flick titled Frogs, a whacko chiller in the tradition of Hitchcock’s Birds, featuring obscenely excessive reptillian revenge.

I know very little about the man’s life, other than his films. I know that in 1905 he was born as Reginald Alfred Truscott-Jones in Wales, England, that throughout his long life he was, in rather unHollywood-like fashion, the husband of but one wife. The internet sources I scanned say nothing about his children or his past-times or his breakfast preferences. Umpteen different search engines will fill you in on his long list of flicks, but say nothing at all about his politics, his family, or the nature of his faith. In Hollywood today, I’m sure there are those who remember Ray Milland, who won’t forget his jocularity or sobriety, who recall some zany moments on the set or off; but, the vast informational riches of cyberspace define Ray Milland, one of Hollywood’s leading actors during his long career, only by his albeit extensive film credits.

But he appears elsewhere, and has for more than fifty years. Ray Milland’s snapshot graces the upstairs wall of the annexe of a building where two small trading companies, Opekta and Pectacon, once maintained a considerable business in spices, an annexe that was not in use at all in 1942, the year it was then clandestinely remodeled to support a family and more. The address of the building is Amsterdam, the Netherlands–263 Prinsengracht--and if you’re ever in Amsterdam, you’ll find the address most quickly if you look for the Westerkerk, a wonderful old cathedral just a few steps down the block, whose bells ring as richly today as they did more than a half century ago.

Tomorrow:  Anne Frank and Ray Milland

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

"Go milk cows"

In the preface to Little Heathens, her memoir of growing up in Iowa during the deep recesses of the American Depression, Mildred Armstrong Kalish, says one of her earliest memories is her Grandma Urmy strong-arming Mildred's little sister Avis, then about a year old, right out of Avis's mother's arms while she was nursing, sending the child into some endless wailing.

"Let her cry!" Grandma Urmy said. "You can't begin character building too soon."

It's no wonder Ms. Kalish didn't forget. Sounds fiendish, doesn't it?  Still, I can't help but smile, especially in an era of helicopter parents. 

My mother-in-law, who grew up poor, used to say, "It's not what you want, it's what you get," a little parable that summarized all the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Here's another old salty line, similar genre: "Praise God, but pass the ammunition." 

Ms. Kalish claims her grandmother's near-truculence was a gift from her authentic Puritan heritage. The Urmys were, after all, New Englanders, not native Iowans; and what baggage they hauled with them in the covered wagon they took out west in the 1850s included a really tight grip round their emotions, something of a fist. 
To them, life was a serious challenge and they brooked few frivolities. They read the Bible, prayed every day, and entertained themselves by critiquing the minister's and quarreling over his interpretations of the Bible. 
All of that may be true; but if it is, what's amazing about the book is its charm, its sweet nostalgic look back at a way of life made want skedaddle. Little Heathens is perfectly darling because it opens up a world that's long gone.  It's such a dear evocation of life amid the Thirties that you can't help think we all could use a Grandma Urmy and a good shot of poverty. 

I grew up in a home where the Bible was read every day, where the preacher's sermons were critiqued, where faith was presumed elemental. But it was never cold or unfeeling. My mother used to sit at the piano with one of her students at eight o'clock in the morning (she taught piano most every day) and demand a kiss on the cheek before I'd leave for school. For my part, she could have done with less warmth. You know--yucch. 

I'm not questioning Ms. Kalish's judgments. In her case, it may well have been a Puritanical brand of faith that made her grandma's heart into an anvil. But I can't help thinking there was more to it. 

Not long ago--and I won't go into detail--it became necessary for me to stand by when my father-in-law used the bathroom. Age thoroughly demolishes some dignities, as everyone knows. What was most striking to me about that moment was how incredibly little Charmin he used. I couldn't believe it. Waste not, want not. 

But he too grew up in the Depression. He didn't have indoor plumbing until he was 40 years old. Whether his parental home was strictly religious, I don't know; but when he graduated from the eighth grade, his future was determined. As the oldest boy in a family of ten kids, mid-Thirties, he was needed at home, on the farm. 

"It's not what you want, it's what you get." For that kind of life, the stern emotional character of Grandma Urmy may well have been a prerequisite. Who knows? She may have been right to snatch that child from her daughter's breast. 

I don't think so, but I think somehow I understand. And that's why I smile.

Long ago in the classroom, we were talking about "showing" love in families. Some kids claimed that a mom and dad couldn't be good parents if they didn't hug, if they didn't demand goodbye kisses, if they didn't hold their kids in their arms. 

One guy said that was all hooey. 

"Then how do you know if your dad loves you?" someone asked him.

He shrugged his shoulders. "I don't know." Clearly, he was scrambling. "When he tells me, 'Go milk cows,'" he said, "what he really means is 'I love you.'"

That's a story I've never forgotten. Still makes me smile.