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, March 30, 2018

Good Friday Thanksgiving*

I envy monastics--sometimes. I envy their intent to zero in on the Christian faith, to delete every iota of worldly pain and pleasure from hearts and souls and minds. I envy that--sometimes.

Today is Good Friday. A big crucifix hangs on the wall above me, traditionally a Roman Catholic icon in that it includes, in molded pewter, the image of a suffering Jesus.  I like it.

My sister gave it to me after it was given to her from one of the old folks she visits weekly, a Catholic woman who had an apartment full of traditional iconography and thought it would be nice if my sister had this one from her collection.

To refuse the gift would have been shameful, she said, so she took it; but she had some trouble knowing exactly what to do with it because she was convinced it really wasn't, well, for her, a lifelong Protestant. There's nothing unbiblical about a suffering Jesus hanging from the cross, but somehow she had the uncomfortable feeling that a crucifix wasn't exactly an orthodox part of her faith tradition or something.  We worship a risen savior, she might have said. 

It's not small, and somehow it's presence made her uncomfortable.

She thought about tossing it, she said, but she simply couldn't. How do you drop a crucifix in a garbage can with empty soup cans, crumpled milk cartons, banana peels and apple cores?   An old flag you fold and give to the Boy Scouts or something.  What on earth does someone do with a crucifix?

As an act of mercy, I told her I'd take it off her hands, and now it's here up on my wall, even though it's fair to say I've spent a good deal more time in Calvin's Institutes than she has.

Today is Good Friday. Today, my wife and I will go to church at noon with about twenty others--no more--and listen to the story of the crucifixion. Last night, at a Maunday Thursday service, the crowd was sparse. Now I'm neither Isaiah or Chicken Little. On Sunday, at Easter, the place will be hopping, I'm sure.  Most people I know seem to prefer to worship a risen savior.

Still, there are times when I envy the monastics, who, yet today, do what they can to eschew the fixings of this world for communion with their eternal Lord.  They're certainly more receptive to a suffering Jesus, a suffering Lord.  Sometimes, I admit, the world is too much with us. Sure is for me.

Our calender this year was off a bit--Good Friday and the first day of spring nearly a month apart.  What's more, we've had June weather since mid-March.  Somehow, Good Friday ministers better in a cold hard drizzle, don't you think?  An old friend once told me that here in northwest Iowa, we get only ten days a  year of good weather.  One of those good days shouldn't be Good Friday.  The weatherman says it will be.

Christ's suffering, celebrated here with my crucifix, shouldn't be a pleasant thought.

And yet, I guess, it is. If he hadn't suffered, if he hadn't been nailed to that cross, if his hands hadn't been butchered, his side sliced open, if he hadn't died there, in mockery--if all of that hadn't gone on he could not have buried our sins with him nor stepped from behind that monster stone, come Sunday, as if it were a paper weight. Had he not died, he could not have risen triumphant. We serve a risen savior.

But there would be no Easter story without Good Friday, and that reality is as good a reason as any for me to look up to that pewter Christ, his arms out, his thorn-crowned head sagging, as he hangs from the cross above me. That's as good a reason to be happy today as yet another gorgeous moment in an early spring.

I walked outside just now to go to the gym. Up above me the face of full moon glowed in off-white gossamer, and the trill of a robin soared through the early morning darkness.

I envy monastics--sometimes. But then, we all serve a risen savior, and this Good Friday I'm still thankful that holy living can start with an old woman's gift crucifix in a cold Midwestern basement--and probably doesn't require a monastery.

*First published Good Friday, 2012.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Maunday Thursday*

When it comes right down to it, I'm pretty much of a stick-in-the-mud conservative. In my book, Obama isn't the malefactor he is on Fox News; and, quite frankly, watching Governor Mike Pence tap dance this week hasn't been all that painful. I mean, politically I'm probably not. 

But psychically, give me a ritual and I'm happy. I'm more-than-okay with what's ordinary. Innovation? Give me a break. What on earth is new under the sun? Not much. As far as I'm concerned, we'd get along better if we'd all go home with the one who brought us to the dance, you know? 

I've never been big on praise teams. Some people find them a turn-on because they can see how much the singers care about Jesus and that's thrilling, I guess. Me? I'd rather have a choir, and I'd rather they sang from the back of the church, as an offering. I'm too sinful for praise teams. They stand up there, mouthing mikes, and I'm wondering if what's-her-name is putting on weight, or why the bald guy playing the bass insists on wearing cargo shorts. You know. I'm distracted.

I'm a conservative. What the heck was wrong with the old-time religion anyway?

And I get scared on Maunday Thursday because churches in small towns like the ones I've lived in are always on the look out to out-hip their neighbors. They're always looking for something new, something that hasn't been done, something the church down the block isn't doing. "Ya' hear what New Church is doing this year? Why can't we do stuff like that? Sheesh."

Let's not and say we did, okay?

See what I mean? Basically, I'm conservative.

I get scared on Maunday Thursday because the whole Maunday Thursday business is new to me. I don't even know what Maunday means. I know churches practice the Lord's Supper on Maunday Thursday, but what is a Maunday anyway? 

When I was a kid, Main Street closed up tight from 12 to 3 on Good Friday, just flat shut down during the hours of Jesus's suffering. That I remember. I don't remember Maunday Thursday. 

And what I fear is foot-washing. Really, there are only a couple of reasons for Maunday Thursday services; one of them is the commemoration of the Last Supper. That's fine.

But these days, you just know someone's going to get out five-gallon buckets and ask men and women and their kids to come up and get their feet washed. Drop shoes and socks and plop in the water, then wrap wet toes with a towel from a stack yeah-high, you know? Somebody's going to do it tonight. Just watch. What I want to know is how do you choose whose feet get washed?--lottery? Do people say, "here, wash mine?" and who does it? the preacher? the elders? just anybody? We all wash each other's? Is that it? It's going to be a mess, see? 

It's chaos, and conservatives like me hate chaos. Not only that, it's another church fad, a gimmick, even though it's a couple thousand years old.

Besides, it's just not the same in a land where people don't wear sandals 24/7. You want to replicate everything that happened Easter weekend, why not make the whole congregation wear a crown of thorns or drink hyssop?

Makes me a disciple, I guess, thinking about someone else washing my feet. Makes me a disciple because they didn't like it either, found it repulsive, found it, well, theologically and culturally chaotic, out of whack, even disturbing, and that was 2000 years ago.

"Seriously, Lord?  You. Wash. My. Feet?" 

It was unthinkable. It was gross. It was obscene. It was perfectly ridiculous.

And He told them--get this!--if you don't get this, you honestly and truly don't get me. If you don't understand, you missed the whole program of the last thirty years. I came to this mucked-up world to wash feet--that's been the mission since day 1.

It is a big deal, no question. It's huge. It's bigger than anything we or the disciples can handle. God almighty bending down to wash dirty feet.

It's the whole story. That's what he told them from down there on the floor as he pulled the bowl up closer to the stool. This is what I'm here for, he said.

I don't care what you say, it's not something I'm comfortable with--that's all there is to it. And neither were they, those disciples who not all that much later fell asleep.

Neither were they.
*First published April 2, 2015

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

"To be or not to be"

Crazy Horse never went anywhere he didn't want to, except once, and then he didn't return. He was, even to his people, as much a symbol as a human being. The quintessential warrior, he could and would disappear for days, simply be gone, almost as completely as his nemesis, General George Crook. Crazy Horse was odd, strange--queer, he said himself. He told others that was true because he had to be out by himself determining the best course for his people.

Today, his image being carved with dynamite from a mountain in the Black Hills. It's not Red Cloud or Spotted Tail or even Sitting Bull--it's Crazy Horse, someone as much a spirit as a human being, a hero at Little Big Horn, where his immense courage established him as the greatest Lakota warrior of them all.

In a page-long testimony in his book Great Plains, Ian Frazier celebrates the life of Crazy Horse in an almost unending string of dependent clauses:
. . .because he remained himself from the moment of his birth to the moment he died; because he k new exactly where he wanted to live, and never left; because he may have surrendered, bur he was never defeated in battle; because, although was killed, even the Army admitted he was never captured;. . .because, unlike many people all over the world, when he met white men he was not diminished by the counter. . .
The list goes on another half a page.

But in the winter of 1876, Custer's massacre behind him just months behind him, his people--the hostiles--were suffering, being chased by a far more hostile U.S. Calvary itching to settle up with the savages--Lakota and Northern Cheyenne--who refused the reservation system because they were sure it would be, for all of them, as much a death as that which would come at the hands of the Army, just slower.

For several months, often alone, Crazy Horse didn't know what to do. Everything in him said fight, die if need be, but don't resign into becoming a ward of the whites and a way of life as much a prison as if it were behind bars.

On the other hand, their Cheyenne friends had lost everything they had twice, their villages burned, their provisions, mid-winter, gone. They were defeated in the worst sense, in what their eyes clearly showed. His own people were hungry, starving. They were sick of death and dying. Everything he was himself--that for which he was loved--drew him toward going down fighting. He was camped for the winter along the tributaries of the Tongue River, along with his friends, Minneconjous, Lame Deer and Spotted Elk.

But a certain inevitability ran powerfully in an opposite direction. His people, all of them, had had more than enough of death.

"To be or not to be." Montana Indian country was forever away from Renaissance England, but while their motivations were different, their quandary was the same. Crazy Horse--we have no photographs of him--and Hamlet both worried themselves into a mental sadness. "He did not know what to do," Thomas Powers says in The Killing of Crazy Horse, "and this indecision, which he described to a friend as a kind of weakness of spirit, would deepen over the course of many months. . ."

I spent years teaching Hamlet, as most English teachers must, somewhere along the line. I used to ask students what the most famous lines in all of English dramatic literature meant, a line--"To be or not to be"--most of them knew even if they hadn't read Hamlet or Shakespeare for that matter. 

"What's it really about?--tell me that." Sometimes I'd ask it on a test, hoping they'd come up with something more than just what happens to a madcap Danish prince. 

I wish I'd have known about an infamous Lakota warrior, the one emerging, as we speak, from a mountain, who, trembling, must have asked himself, all alone in the hills, the very same question.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

1968--Becoming politicized

"LBJ quit!!"
He stands on the riser, 

Like old Viking lords, 
their faces shining with sweat,
the dancers thrust up their Millers
in ecstatic defiance.

Others, huddled together,
like clusters of mushrooms,
slowly unfold,
tightened fists raised as they stand,
ritual smoke rising gently above them.

The beach sings with the cheer

and the band plays

We are politicized.

Great poetry, it's not.

I'm more than a little embarrassed to drop it in here. Someone announced the news-- that I remember. We were on a beach at Daytona with a ton of college kids gone south for spring break, and someone attuned to national politics, stopped the music and announced what had just happened--"LBJ quit."

March 25, 1968, is a half-century ago. I was twenty years old when this guy, a kid himself, begged for our attention. "LBJ quit!" he yelled. More than once. Yelled it until it became a chant.

The next stanza's simile doesn't work--there were no "old Viking lords" on that beach. We were all terrifyingly young, and we knew very well that being there was a blessing because on the other side of the world guys we knew were dying by the dozens in Vietnam rice paddies. There's some derision in that stanza of this old poem. I don't know exactly what to feel.

Those mushroom cloisters--another weak simile--are kids smoking weed. Marijuana was the drug of choice for 20-year-olds, but dope was something none of us Dordt students really understood. Seeing all those other kids passing joints was startling, but then much was startling to a kid whose spent most all of his life in a sturdy Dutch Reformed pew.

The begging worked--that I remember. "The beach sings with the cheer."

None of us heard LBJ's speech, but we all heard the guy begging up front. President Lyndon Baines Johnson, a tall, tough guy from Texas, told the world that night, a Sunday night, that he was ordering the cessation of bombing in some parts of Southeast Asia to attempt to start peace talks.

And then the bombshell. "With our hopes and the world's hopes for peace in the balance every day, I do not believe that I should devote an hour or day of my time to any personal partisan causes or to any duties other than the awesome duties of this office, the presidency of your country." Elsewhere across the nation, people looked up, startled, wondering what he meant to say. At Daytona that night, we were dancing. 

And then he said it: "Accordingly, I shall not seek and I will not accept the nomination of my party for another term as your president."

"LBJ QUIT!" Some guy yelled, begging our attention. More than once.

and the band plays

You have to be old to recognize that title, to bring back the blasting reckless rhythms. I don't know whether the band that night actually played that or something else, maybe something from the Doors; but I dropped that rock tune into my memory of that night because the hard-driving beat of "In-a-gadda-da-vida" suggested the kind of paganism I couldn't help feeling right then, right there.

I knew Eugene McCarthy, a scant-known senator from Minnesota, had made life miserable for LBJ with a message that was anti-war. I knew President Johnson's approval ratings fell into the thirties, his handling of the war even lower. I knew Senator Eugene McCarthy, the poet and liberal, almost beat him in the New Hampshire primary, when hundreds of college kids hit the street to campaign for him. I knew Robert Kennedy saw the blood in the water and threw himself into the race too.

I didn't know Johnson wasn't in good health, hadn't been for a long time. Very few knew what he was going to say that night, few of his cabinet members, a couple members of his family. The next day, his approval ratings went from 57 percent disapproval to 57 percent approval. He made millions happy when he bowed out.

"We are politicized."

I wrote that poem on the other side of forty years ago, but I know very well what I meant that last sentence to suggest. It's derisive. A couple hundred kids thrusting their Millers or passing the joints--we're politicized? 

I wasn't sure of who I was just then, a Dutch Calvinist kid from a Dutch Calvinist college at a Sunday night dance on a Florida beach with hundreds of kids drinking and smoking up and celebrating the demise of President, while guys I knew were fighting Viet Cong terror.

I can't speak for anyone else around me the night LBJ quit, and I won't try. And even though that last line is meant derisively, critically, I know it's not totally untrue. 

By 1968, I'd become more than a little iffy about Southeast Asia. Even though I meant that last line to be derisive, a half-century later, it was also something of a confession because without a doubt I was, at that moment, becoming greatly more politicized. 

Monday, March 26, 2018

Wild Wild Country

Behold! I tell you a mystery. 
We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, 
in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. 
For the trumpet will sound, 
and the dead will be raised imperishable, 
and we shall be changed.

Wild, Wild Country is a six-part documentary series that spins a yarn as compelling as anything you might choose at your local multiplex. All the way through, I kept asking myself what I was doing in the early 1980s, when this story was actually going on out in the dusty hills of Oregon, what I was doing that I could have missed it. All I knew of the story was the guru's name, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, a title a friend of mine still throws around to describe preening pseudo-potentates. 

Devotees of the Bhagwan, thousands of them, purchased and developed 60 thousand of acres of land only an angus might like, turning it into a city by doing all the hard work themselves whilst dressed religiously in three or four shades of red. It happened. 

Those thousands loved the Bhagwan, worshiped him--and worship is no metaphor. In his flowing robe, he'd stand before them, hands up in front of his chest as if in prayer, and they'd bow and weep in the agony of love. Seriously. For four years he didn't even speak. Silence became his message.

People copulated openly and with varieties of partners. The whole place was a kind of flowering of flower children, a sexual and religious cult perhaps like none other in size and devotion.

The land they bought, paid for, and colonized hadn't been totally empty. A tiny town wasn't all that far away. Think Doon maybe, some prairie hamlet not even big enough for its own elevator or grade school, a place that time didn't forget so much as shrug off, a place where the residents, the only survivors were, well, getting old--church-going NRA types.

Oil and water. Dogs and cats. It was a recipe for disaster. The cultists, who became known as “sannyasins" and were by no means penniless (the Bhagwan owned 19 Rolls-Royces), dabbled in the torrid therapies of the era, screaming, laughing, crying, shaking, all of it while dressed in wine-colored garm, and always in groups. You can only imagine what Doon thought.

The star of the mini-series is Sheela, the woman Rajneesh designates as his secretary. She's unflinching. She stuffs criticism right back in the face of those who disapprove of sannyasins or the utopian village they create for their madcap excesses. Today, in Switzerland, she runs a home for Alzheimers patients.

What happens in the Oregon hills is not pretty. The locals have a right to feel besieged. Sheela and her gendarmes eventually take them over and focus the entire country government in their sights. To do so, they collect the homeless from America's desperate streets, bus them all to Oregon, and enlist their voting power in a scheme that doesn't work because the locals create new voting laws. (Sound wierdly familiar?) 

It's not pretty. What transpires is not Jonestown or Waco. There's no blood shed, but there's bombings and gas warfare and, in the upper circles of cultic power, even attempted murder. 

Wild, Wild Country makes compelling television. Long and intimate interviews with the principles, the cultists themselves all these years later, combine with archival footage of what went on is often mesmerizing. There's never a dull moment among the truly faithful. 

What Wild Wild Country doesn't do, however, is press the whole difficult issue of faith itself. Thousands truly believe in a tall, thin man with a long beard who goes nowhere without his robe, more often than not in his turban. Thousands sink their faith into a man who literally doesn't speak for four years. Thousands leave lives and families and emigrate to a place they fully believe will usher heaven to earth.

Why? That's a question the filmmakers don't pursue, perhaps because they know it's a question neither they nor anyone else can answer. All they can do is document what in this case is yet another story of faith. Maybe the most mysterious moments in the whole series occur when former devotees confess tearfully, decades later, that their faith in Bhagwan, who died a decade ago in India, is still unwavering. 

Last night, famously, a porn star accused the President of the United States of a kind of collusion the President himself liked to brag about a decade ago. Will it hurt him? No. As he said famously right here in Siouxland, he could shoot a man on Broadway and it wouldn't affect those who believe in him.

Not long ago people believed in President Clinton with similar fervor. Some believe in Hillary.  

Why do we believe what we do? What was it about the Bhagwan that made him a savior? Wild Wild Country is fascinating, compelling viewing, but it doesn't suggest an answer to what it can't begin to address, a question that remains a mystery--why do we choose what to believe, or do we choose at all?

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Sunday Morning Meds--Songs of Deliverance

 “. . .you will. . .surround me 
with songs of deliverance" Psalm 32

Several years ago I wrote a play in commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the college where I teach.  Somewhere in early summer of the year before, when I was belly-deep in the writing, I was struck with the notion that this play I was working on should end with music, a specific chorale anthem titled “O Lord God,” a Russian piece my sister used to sing adoringly, decades after she’d left the college choir. 

I loved that anthem, not only because I knew it stayed so tenaciously with my sister, but also because I knew it had also been a favorite of college choirs throughout those fifty years. 

But I also loved it because the piece tells a musical story.  It begins in deep anxiety and begs the Lord to listen to her prayers, offered with daily diligence. And then, suddenly and remarkably, two minutes in, as if out of nowhere, the music’s trajectory soars in wondrous thanksgiving:  “I will sing to the Lord as long as I live.”  A real musician would know how to describe what happens technically, but it doesn’t take a professional to experience that, gloriously, the petitioner knows his prayers will be answered. 

Because I wanted that music, that particular piece, to end the play, I listened to it time and time again when I was writing, so often that today even a novice like me could direct it, I swear. 

At the college’s fiftieth anniversary celebrations, the play was staged a half-dozen times.  I didn’t attend every performance, but every time I was there I was moved as deeply as I ever had been at the story of deliverance in Pavel Chesnokov's “O Lord God.”

Many hymns are songs of deliverance. The Christian life begins, or so it seems to me, in thanksgiving.  What happens in Psalm 32 is what happens in the lives of all believers:  once we come to know the miracle of grace, once our quaking bones have been delivered from the load of our sins and miseries, once we apprehend the love of God, we can’t help but sing, even the monotones among us, even me. Grace makes all oor solos sound like John Sebastian Bach.  Our greatest hits are all songs of deliverance.

I sat there in the blessedly darkened theater and cried three times, every time the play ended, cried at the incomprehensible clarity of music, something that can’t be explained really, but certainly can be experienced.  I’d try to tell you what exactly it is that the music adores, but I can’t.  There are no words.  The only way to hear it —and understand it—is music.

That’s why verse seven of Psalm 32 is such a wonderful line.  David makes a perfectly understandable claim here.  The story of his life isn’t over, but the victory has been won.  He’s sinned, he’s confessed, and he’s been forgiven.
“You are my hiding place,” he says, my comfort and my joy; you are my habitation; you are where I live.  And you surround me—as if this whole world were the superb salesroom of some eternal electronics store—you surround me with songs of deliverance.  Not stories—songs.

Wonderful.  Let the music begin. 

Friday, March 23, 2018

Charlene's coming of age--a poem by Leo Dangel

"Coming of age" is one of literature's great story lines because it's something all of us do. I suppose I could say, "have to" do, because nobody stays a child. If we do, we're easily put away. 

Certain stories, told at Sunday dinner, used to create a moment of silence. At those moments, my mother-in-law would wait for maybe fifteen seconds, then do her part to fill the void: "It's not what you want in life, it's what you get," she'd say with a heft that was almost biblical in resonance. You "come of age" when you accept the truth of that little axiom, and just about all of us do.

Here's a take--"The Prince" by Leo Dangel.

Charlene walks through the grove,
picking daisies. She sits,
leaning against a cottonwood tree, 
weaves herself a flower crown,
closes her eyes, and dreams
of Robert Redford on a horse
come to take her away. 

Like so many Leo Dangel poems, this one is set on a farm. The cottonwood suggests the Midwest somewhere, but it needn't be. There are no bibs or pitchforks; this is nothing out of Grant Wood. The child in Charlene simply fancies a dream that isn't likely to happen. It's a simple dream, all too human. 

Here's the second half.

Charlene wakes to a clattering engine.
It's Marvin Ackerman, the neighbor boy,
on a John Deere tractor,
cultivating corn. Marvin grins
and waves wildly. He will probably ask
her out again. She is thinking
she might as well say yes.

Charlene is "coming of age."

If you feel sad for Marvin Ackerman, don't. The two of them will work it out.

I remember reading somewhere that versions of our "coming of age" stories are the only stories we tell, the only novels we write, the only tales we truly and deeply experience, the only stories worth telling. 

I'm old enough to understand that the word only, often as not, draws lines in the sand that aren't really there. Understanding that, too, is "coming of age," as true-to-life as a rumbling John Deere.

(And now silence for maybe fifteen seconds.)

"It's not what you want, it's what you get."

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Morning Thanks--Da Costa*

Among other things, here's what I learned not so long ago. In the early years of the 19th century, a famous Dutch poet, Isaak Da Costa, a Jew of Portuguese descent, converted to Chistianity and held (with his wife) quite celebrated religious meetings every Sunday night of his life, in his home in Amsterdam, for more than thirty years. The meetings were, by design, open to the public, which meant that Da Costa never really knew who might show up, and often those who did comprised a motley crew.

He wanted to gather folks from the Holland's highways and by-ways, including people who weren't believers at all. He rather liked a mix, and was a fervent pray-er, probably greatly poetic in his entreaties, so people claimed his supplications, even if they didn't move mountains, deeply moved the folks who gathered. Spiritual songs were sung too. Those sweet gatherings were highly spiritual affairs that reportedly fed the heart.

And the mind. Da Costa was no dummy. History was unearthed. He believed that Christian sanctification meant purposeful learning. John Calvin came out of mothballs and got himself read again. But the centerpiece of the whole Sunday night meal was the Bible study--both Testaments, week-one Old, week-two New, week three Old, and etc.

For thirty years, come who may. Open doors. Every Sunday night. All sorts of people. A messianic Jew who wrote, among other things, a book on the history of the people of Israel.

What he created could well have been a church too, but Da Costa didn't believe in breaking away, becoming something new. The man believed in the unity of bride of Christ.

Among other things, yesterday I learned about an old Dutch poet whose name I'd heard once upon a time a quarter century ago, a name I used, in fact, in one of the first short stories I ever wrote because I'd read somewhere that mid-19th century Dutch immigrants to America sometimes lugged along with them the poetry of a man named Isaak Da Costa.

My own great-great grandparents maybe--1848. They just might have known him or his work--this Isaak Da Costa.

Who the heck cares about such obscure stuff?

Me, I guess.

My morning thanks are for a Jewish poet of Portuguese descent who converted to Christianity almost 200 years ago, a man named Isaak Da Costa. I'm thankful for him because, oddly enough, I think, this morning, by knowing more about him, I know a little bit more too about who I am.
Rpt. from April 9, 2010

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Life in the time of Cholera

When it kills, cholera does so with astonishing quickness. From the moment symptoms appeared --excessive diarrhea and vomiting, sunken eyes in a blueish face--till the moment those eyes closed forever was often a matter of hours. You knew you had it once it manifested itself. On board steam ships like the St. Ange—coming up the Missouri in 1851, some lived and some died.

Once the contagion was recognized for what it was aboard the St. Ange, the steamer pulled over at the mouth of the Little Sioux River.

Two Roman Catholic priests of eminent stature, Belgian born but trained and dedicated to mission work among Native people. Both had notable records of selflessness, but only one would do more.

Father Pierre-Jean De Smet left footprints throughout the West. Aboard the St. Ange, suddenly, DeSmet, was stricken so fiercely he thought he would die. His face had grown sunken and gray, even blue. His body emptied all its fluids, his strength was gone. With what little he had left, he called on his friend and colleague, Father Christian Hoecken, to administer last rites, extreme unction.

Father Christian Hoecken was called, by some, "the Kickapoo Father" because of his ministry to the Kickapoo tribe, who'd been pushed west from their homelands in Indiana, first to Missouri, and then to Kansas. The word kickapoo may mean "he who moves from here to there," but make no mistake: the Kickapoos in Kansas were refugees.

But he didn't stay. In 1838, 800 Potawatomi had been herded from the Great Lakes region to Kansas on that tribe's own "Trail of Tears." Only 650 arrived--some simply disappeared, went to Canada or returned home in hiding, and 30 men, women, and children died. Father Hoecken ministered was there to welcome the Potawatomi refugees.

Once again Hoecken learned languages so quickly that the church determined he should continue to use those skills with the Nez Perce, farther up the northern Missouri regions, a people as yet without a mission. That's where he was going on June 19, 1851, when he was suddenly called to the bedside of his dear friend Father De Smet to hear his confession and administer last rites, all of which he did, tears coursing down his cheeks, some say. De Smet wasn't the only one dying aboard the St. Ange. Father Hoecken consoled many who'd contacted the cholera on board, or so history says.

On September 20, the St. Ange had stopped somewhere near Blackbird Bend to try to rid themselves of the contagion, "to take better care of the sick and to bury the dead," or so wrote the German artist Rudolf Kurz in his diary.

In just a couple of hours, the story reversed itself. Father De Smet seemed to recover, at least enough to hear Father Hoecken's confession and administer last rites to him because in a matter of two hours Father Hoecken had fallen victim to the same dreaded cholera.

Here's how Kurz describes what happened:

June 21. Father Van Hocken is dead. He died as a Christian. Had been sick only two hours. It was about 4 o'clock in the morning when I was awakened by his calling me. I found him, half-dressed, on his bed in violent convulsions. I called Father De Smet. We anchored in the evening and buried him by torchlight.
The story of cholera in the region is far, far bigger. Cholera took thousands of victims in many more places, whole tribes of first nations in unthinkable outbreaks of pestilence.

But this story is somehow unique, full of memorable images. One, to me, doesn't leave--a crowd of mourners, some of them ill, standing with bowed heads in prayer, only their outlines visible in the jumpy torchlight, all of them standing on the banks of the Missouri, dropping a casket rough hewn from the woods behind them into freshly dug river sand, burying a man some of them might well have considered a saint.

It happened not all that far away aboard a steamer coming up the river, a steamer named the "Holy Angel."

Without a doubt, Father DeSmet walked away grieving when he left his friend’s body on the banks of the Missouri River. But he also walked away with immunity; and when, farther up the river, cholera broke out among the Native people, he ministered to their horror, bringing love and life to hundreds of people, people who never forgot his concern and his care, people who always remembered his love.

Among them, the Fool Soldiers, who risked their lives so that others might live.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

The stories of the Fool Soldiers

Mad Bear

What's not at issue is what happened.

Here's the story. Some Lakota warriors, at great peril, rescued the white hostages, two women and five children, who'd been taken captive after White Lodge and his band attacked the settlers at Lake Shetek, on August 20, 1862. During the day-long fighting, 15 whites were murdered; 21 escaped.

The Natives, who were Santee Dakota, went north and west with their prisoners, once it was clear the Dakota War had come to an abrupt end. They stayed on the run for weeks, in part because they were toxic to tribes and bands out west and north, bands who had not slaughtered settlers.

Wikipedia describes the story this way: "A band of pacifist Lakota later ransomed the eight surviving captives, who were reunited with their families." However, on the very same page, a different scenario is offered: "The captive settlers were freed four months later when other white settlers ran across a group of Dakotas with the captives and traded supplies for their freedom."

That second explanation is wrong. The men who ransomed the surviving captives were a Lakota warrior society from the Cheyenne River Reservation, many from the Two Kettle band. The rescue they accomplished was an act of courage and moral resolution that not all the members of their own band appreciated. They had named themselves "the Strong Hearts," but eventually came to be known as "Fool Soldiers."

Now should you read the Sioux City Register of late 1862, you might assume that the Fool Soldiers were mercenaries who had no stake in the conflict and, with a pocket full of cash, determined they'd take on White Lodge and bring the prisoners back to civilization as directed by the fort commander who, according to the account, wanted credit for the entire operation. That's way wrong.

Lakota oral history claims one of the men had had a vision which, together, the rest of them interpreted with immediate relevance. What that vision meant was that this warrior society had to do acts of kindness and charity, not go to war. Let that register a minute--they determined that, as warriors, they would not go to war. 

Now White Lodge and his people had stayed with the Two Kettle band for a time; when they left, the Strong Hearts became real Fool Soldiers and determined they'd do everything they could to ransom the hostages.

They found White Lodge where the Grand River empties into the Missouri, near Mobridge, SD, at a spot now long ago buried beneath Lake Oahe. That rescue was fraught with danger, at first with White Lodge himself (he'd taken one of the women as his wife) and later with treacherous sub-zero temperatures. Some of their number froze to death. But as Wikipedia says, eventually the hostages were reunited with their families. They should have been heroes. In 1863, if they weren't Lakota warriors, they would have been.

Of the two versions of the story, I have no trouble believing the story from Lakota oral history. The newspaper account is self-serving; the writer wants only to get credit for what he claims was his heroic work.

But what I struggle to understand is why these young men, who'd already proved themselves in war, who were already warriors in the eyes of their people--why did they decide to risk their lives to rescue the prisoners?

Last night, I thought I'd have a look at Josephine Waggoner's monumental study, Witness. It's a huge collection of stories meant to preserve a culture Ms. Waggoner, a Lakota woman educated at Hampton Institute, felt was being lost with the deaths of thousands of men and women who'd grown up in the old ways. During the 1920s and 30s, she traveled throughout the South Dakota reservations, to gather a chronicle of witness to the events of decades earlier.

When Ms. Waggoner tells the story of Yanktonai band leader named Mad Bear, she says something I'd never seen before:
When Father DeSmet came to Fort Pierre in 1851, it was an event to be remembered by the Indians. Cholera had taken its toll from the lives of the people; there was suffering everywhere, and to cap the climax, smallpox was coming on. The Indians were in terror, but the good Father had had the cholera the year before as he traveled up the Missouri in a steamboat and had also had the smallpox. He was familiar with the treatment of these diseases, and he went from tent to tent relieving the sick and baptizing the dying. Many Indians remarked on the mercy of a man whose religion took him to minister to those with the dread diseases. Many a man, woman, and child were saved from death. At this time Mad Bear was a mere lad of about fourteen years, but like many at the time, was greatly influenced and impressed by the principles of the black-robed priest.

Ten years later, some of these young warriors who Father DeSmet had taught formed a society. They pledged themselves to uphold what was right, always to do good as far as they could, and to right all wrongs that came their way. These men who formed the first Christian society west of the Missouri River among the wild tribes were. . .The society called themselves Strong Hearts, but because they did so many unusual things in fulfilling their pledge to keep law and order and in punishing many a lawless man, the other Indians called them Fool Soldiers.
That story took my breath away. Is it true? Did the Fool Soldiers get their sense of mission from a vision, a very Native source?--or was it Father DeSmet's witness? Could it have been both. 

No one will ever know, I suppose. Josephine Waggoner had her prejudices, just as all of us do. 

But I'd love to believe the DeSmet story. I'd love to believe that the Fool Soldiers' moral compass was created somehow by the witness of a beloved priest who'd come among them to care. 

Monday, March 19, 2018

Me too

How old? In case you're wondering, this foul ad was created and ran in 1969. Ads for cigarettes and Tipalets (they're gone, by the way) are long gone from magazines these days. For that matter, lots of magazines are museum-pieces. The graphics style of the ad doesn't look all that old, at least to me; but the presumptions it assumes are ancient and today off-color. No media anywhere would run this ad.

It's not the suggestion of casual sex--we're far beyond that. It's the assumption of idiot female compliance that's obscene, the belief that a woman will give herself away in a moment when in the presence of a man's man, in this case, a guy fingering a Tipalet. 

The "Me-Too" movement has taken loads of Harvey Weinsteins down, along with Hollywood stars of every genre, esteemed NPR editors, an commencement parade of academics, dozens of TV personalities, and even more politicians. For reasons few of us understand, only our madcap President gets a pass, a mulligan, the good Christians say. Every last American, no matter his or her political persuasion, has watched some alpha male he or she respected fall spectacularly from grace.

That ad up top comes from a wholly different era, and era that's behind us. 

Recently, the press that was about to release the paperback version of a Sherman Alexie's latest book announced they wouldn't. Alexie is the second most-read Native writer in America, bested only by Louise Erdrich. He's a popular lecturer and speaker, a writer who associates himself with what some might consider the most "literary" genre in this country. He doesn't write dime novels. In 2007, his book, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian won the National Book Award, and just this year his You Don't Have to Say You Love Me: A Memoir took home a Carnegie award for excellence in non-fiction. 

But awards aren't the whole story, or so it appears. He's exploited his talent and success by abusing women who looked up to him and respected him, especially Native women, especially young Native women, most specifically, young Native women writers. And he's done it by presuming what all powerful men do--that their power and success in business or media or sports or politics or art means they can power their penises where they will.

"Me too" says they'll be no more of that behavior, as men as wildly different as Garrison Keillor and Bill O'Reilly have discovered, having been outed.

So what do we do with the work, with Garrison Keillor's "News from Lake Woebegone"? What do we do with any of a dozen movies created by Harvey Weinstein or a thousand captivating interviews by Charlie Rose. Want a list? Kevin Spacey, Warren Moon, Richard Dryfuss, John Hockenberry, Casey Affleck, James Franco. . .

I read Alexie's memoir about his mother not long ago. It's not an easy read--trust me. You can read my own reactions here. I was undecided about it when I finished it, profoundly moved by some sections maybe, and heart sick about having to read others. It persistently went where I thought it didn't need to, but who am I to judge such things, the child of wonderful, loving, Christian parents?  It was, at times, sickening; at others, a blessing.

Still, after the revelations of last week, the stories of Sherman Alexie the bully, I can't think about what he's written in the same light. I just can't. 

Me-too has forever tarnished the lives of those men it's outed; of that there can be no question. 

But it's also changed the rest of us.  Me too. 

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Sunday Morning Meds--"Mighty ones"

“Ascribe to the Lord, mighty ones, 
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.” Psalm 29:1 

Mighty, I’m guessing, is a word like rich, a word people give to others, never themselves. Few of us would consider ourselves the “mighty ones” specifically addressed in the first verse of this thundering psalm, in which David the King seems to be addressing some tenth-century elite council of the United Nations. But let’s eavesdrop.

Think football. The quarterback fakes a handoff to the tailback, then drops back, eyes ranging downfield. He pumps once, and the linebacker chasing him goes for the fake, allowing him a few extra seconds. The flanker is on a fly pattern, so the QB heaves the ball up with everything he’s got, and somewhere down the field his man runs under it, grabs it, holds on, shuns a tackler, and waltzes into the end zone. The crowd ignites.

Today, almost inevitably in pro football, the flanker will perform. He’ll slam dunk the football over the goalpost or high five the first dozen teammates who greet him. Or T-bow. But most of the time what follows is some bizarre chicken-like strut, a gangly prance, a knee-dipping, elbow-flapping sashay. You know what I mean.

If it’s the home team, the crowd goes nuts, not simply because they love the dance but because they too feel the juice of that big-time touchdown pass. They love the score just as much as the flanker. Fortunately, the cameras never pan the stands. I’m sure just as much ostentatious prancing goes on in the bleachers.

Give all of that to God. That’s what David is telling his fellow potentates. Take hold of all that bravado, all that bellicose swagger, and lay it where it belongs, at the throne of God. Dance in joy to him. Cavort blessedly. Prance your praise.

To me, far too often, prayer means supplication. Some of the most earnest prayers of my lifetime—I remember them—have been uttered when I’m begging Him for something I can’t get or maintain for myself: a cure for cancer, an end to war, a balm for grief, a shelter in the time of storm. We draw closest to God, it seems, when our own reservoirs are depleted, when we know we need showers of blessings.

It may well require more of us, however, to bring him our glory and our strength, to thank him for a great class, to bless his name for the end of a story or a novel that just wouldn’t come. For rain. For the music of the birds. For sweet Sunday mornings.

I don’t know about you, but I think it’s vastly easier to give him our worst than it is our best.

Ascribe to the Lord all strength and glory—that’s what David tells his potentate pals. Give him your finest diplomatic coups and the very best of your battles. Beg his love in your distress, but give him the praise for your everything.

Shouldn’t come as news to those of us reared in the Presbyterian tradition, in which the very first question and answer says as much. David’s song is more bellicose; the catechism, perhaps rightly, is more restrained; but the idea is the same: What is the chief end of man? The answer is simple: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”

Give him your victories. Bless his name with your triumphs. Give him your laughter, your smiles, your greatest achievements. They’re his anyway.

Glorify God and enjoy him forever.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Thomas Paine, Sunshine Soldier

THESE are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.
To say that these are the words that lit a fire that became a revolution is not in the least overstated. Thomas Paine, a sometimes patriot himself, penned them in a pamphlet that jumped off the shelves in 1776, a year of some significance, you may remember. Every school kid ought to at least recognize those words, even if they don't know who set them down on paper.
Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value.
We call him an American, but he was, for the most part, an undocumented immigrant, arriving here in 1774, just two years before his best seller. He was here when the fire was hot, played a significant role in lighting it; once it was behind him, he left for more combustible environs. He loved revolution.
Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated. Britain, with an army to enforce her tyranny, has declared that she has a right (not only to TAX) but "to BIND us in ALL CASES WHATSOEVER" and if being bound in that manner, is not slavery, then is there not such a thing as slavery upon earth. Even the expression is impious; for so unlimited a power can belong only to God.
I'm not sure Thomas Paine has a right to talk about God. After all, Teddy Roosevelt called him "that filthy little atheist." One of his greatest works rips organized religion and establishes a universalist god most theologians of his time thought to be downright heresy. The Age of Reason sold thousands of copies. He wrote it in France, in jail.
I have as little superstition in me as any man living, but my secret opinion has ever been, and still is, that God Almighty will not give up a people to military destruction, or leave them unsupportedly to perish, who have so earnestly and so repeatedly sought to avoid the calamities of war, by every decent method which wisdom could invent. Neither have I so much of the infidel in me, as to suppose that He has relinquished the government of the world, and given us up to the care of devils; and as I do not, I cannot see on what grounds the king of Britain can look up to heaven for help against us: a common murderer, a highwayman, or a house-breaker, has as good a pretense as he.
Basically, he got along with no one, once dropped by at the home of an acquaintance, then ended up staying for five years. He ego left little room for anyone else in the room, and friendships too often ended in wreckage. People found him a tramp and a rogue. He wasn't nice, and he drank way, way too much too often.
But, his words were more than a spark to the creation of the Republic--they were the fuel. 

He's something of an embarrassment in the grand story of the American Revolution, a story which can't be told without his famous words.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Bob and the Rookie*

Bob, the gymnast, sat right in front, a kid with Popeye's powerful forearms and a saint's pale blue eyes. I'd never known a gymnast before. In my previous life as a high school teacher, I'd known cocky shortstops, thick-headed defensive tackles, thoroughbred point guards, and track stars of every shape and size. But I'd never taught in a city high school big enough to sport a gymnastic team.

I was a rookie, growing up as I had in the loving security of a Midwestern small town, where I had only one friend who ever talked back to his father, where I'd never seen my parents fight, if they ever did. I'd seen drunks, but they were all fun-loving kids with their fingers wrapped around shortie Millers. I'd read about bad things, but my Christian home hadn't prepared me for the lives some people live, day in and day out.

One day after school Bob told me that he didn't have a paper finished. He was a nice kid, quiet and unassuming, never bold.

“What’s the deal?” I said. "You need another day or two?"

He looked down at the books he had pinned up against his chest. "Don’t know if I can."

He’d already passed a test or two, but he’d never struck me as a kid who couldn’t do the work.

“When then?” I asked him. “Name a day.”

He eyes searched the rug as if there were some answer down there folded up in a note. When his teeth went down over his bottom lip, I knew there was more to the story. The buff kid who wore his shirtsleeves rolled above his swelling biceps cried.

“I can’t get anything done at home,” he told me. “I just can’t.” He brought his hands up to his eyes. "My parents," he said, "they’re on each all the time, and I just can’t take it.”

In my college English methods class. we hadn't talked much about guys bawling.

“Every night it goes on,” he said, “and if I go away I can’t get my work done. I don’t know what to do.”

I reached for Kleenex for him. Even now, forty years later, I don’t remember any other guy crying like Bob did that days, his eyes red and bruised by the way his hands constantly pushed at them, as if to stanch what he couldn't stop.

"It’s okay," I said. "I understand—I understand.” That was a lie. I didn't know what else to say. "Listen, get that paper in whenever you can, all right? I understand." I put my hand on his shoulder.

When he left, I felt as if I had something to write home about--how the world was an awful place, and how I really didn't understand darkness so well as I did now that I was there, in the city.

A day or two later I met one of the counselors coming up the walk toward the English building, rocking on his toes the way he always did, rolling along that way as if simply a smile weren't enough to show the need for happiness.

“Schaap,” he said, “this kid—Bob Ranzig—you got him, right?—short guy?—muscular?”

"I ought to talk to you about him," I said.

He turned his head away and looked down at the cracks in the sidewalk as if what he had to say wasn't going to be easy. "You're a saint—you know that? All you small-town Midwesterners are sweethearts.” Then he giggled. "He pulled one over on you the other day. He’s pulled that stunt before, and I've been trying to explain he can’t do it anymore. It’s a crutch, and he’s got to learn to live with who he is.”

“A crutch?” I said.

"Don't let him by. You want to help the kid?—don't let him pull that. I don’t care what he's got at home, he’s using that song-and-dance, and he can’t.”

I felt perfectly green.

He put his hand on my shoulder. "You're not the only one who let him by," he said.

That was just about fifty years ago, but I remember where on the sidewalk outside the building we were standing, remember the way that counselor, a friend, teased me. 

I felt naive, but in all those years in the classroom thereafter, I think I probably stayed a rookie, a small-town, Midwesterner.  I don't think I'd care to be who I would be without trust.
*Published first March 31, 2009