Morning Thanks

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

Thursday, May 31, 2018

War among the Baptists

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New York Times columnist Ross Douthat doesn't buddy-up to liberals generally. Most dislike him. Scroll through his trolls sometime; it wouldn't be a stretch to say they hate him. Republican though he be, Douthat is, steadfastly, a no-Trumper, an "anything but." 

Yesterday's Douthat op-ed contributes to the ongoing discussion of 45's effects on American Christianity, especially "evangelicalism." To say Trump has destroyed evangelicalism may be premature, but let's be frank: no one in the last half century has done more to smash evangelicalism to pieces than Donald Trump, who hoists plays with the righteous only because the they won't stop giving him mulligans. If Trump is an evangelical, I'm Joseph Smith. 

Douthat goes after the evangelical belief that somehow only God could have created Donald Trump. He's simply the man for our time, despite his porn stars and a list of 3000 lies that grows like creeping jenny. He's a brute, a beast, and a bully, who gets away with behavior good Christians wouldn't tolerate in their kids. But evangelicals love him, not because he is one, but because he's going to end the death of babies. Only God could pull such off such an impossibility, picking that man for our time--or so the theological rationale goes. 

Douthat, a conservative Roman Catholic, says believing such things is sheer folly. He describes what's clearly visible throughout the American landscape: Trump's legacy is looking more and more like disaster. In a piece he titles "The Baptist Apocalypse," he says the firing of the Reverend Paige Patterson as President of an influential Baptist seminary is a veritable sign of the times.

Patterson maintained that a good Christian woman would tend her wounds, then get down on her knees before she went back to her marriage bed, and pray, pray hard, for her abusing husband. 

That didn't go over big. President Patterson got himself a sweet goodbye kiss, but Southern Baptist women ran him out of town. Douthat claims there's a new civil war down south, and it's generational. Both sides may have voted for Trump last round, but the commonality ends there. Just ten years ago, it would have been unheard of for women to carry--and wield--so much power among fundamentalist conservatives. 

Trump created that incredible division, Douthat says, aided by the "Me Too" movement. The Reverend Paige Patterson's dismissal may not be attributable to Donald Trump, he says, but among the Baptists Donald Trump and his twenty or so female accusers--he calls them liars--has exposed those already weak evangelical seams. 

It's a woman's thing, and because it is, nothing in the world of the old Baptists is going to be the same. Not all Baptists--and ever fewer younger ones--sing along with First Dallas's Robert Jeffries, a true Trumpian champion, the preacher who created a hymn from "Make America Great Again," a hymn his mega-church actually sings. All those Baptists may be conservative, but it's clear that most of the younger generation--and the younger generation of women--don't believe, as Jeffries claimed, that going after Patterson was "a witch hunt." (Sound familiar?)

Empowering women--or bringing a kind of justice to gender problems--can devastate conservative fellowships. I'm not sure my church, the CRC, has ever really recovered. To some, Paul's injunctions against women make praying at the bedside seem perfectly biblical. 

And righteous. 

If you're not a battered woman. 

Baptist women didn't wait for some act of God, like the coming of Donald Trump. They acted. That's our job, Douthat says. "For Baptists as for all of us, the direction of history after Trump will be determined not just by Providence’s challenge," he says, "but by our freely chosen answer."

Wednesday, May 30, 2018


She told me that they learned to march at the boarding school. She said they got really good at it, too. She claimed she learned to enjoy marching, in great part because the girl who taught them--an older Native girl--was sweet, was nice. "We liked her," she said. So there they went, around the boarding school ground, bunched in squares like Rice Krispie bars, marching along like soldiers, little Lakota girls like recruits for the cavalry. Smiling too, she said. 

There weren't many matrons or teachers she liked. Every day, it was a half day of school, and a half day of work--washing, ironing, scrubbing floors, sewing, most of the work kind of janitorial, keeping up the grounds, keeping up their dormitory. Once, she'd been told to run the mangle. I had no idea was a mangle was, so she told me it was a machine-like thing for ironing. "We mangled quite a bit," she told me. I giggled and told her that sentence sounded perfectly awful. She smiled. 

Once when she was mangling or ironing, she ran across a blouse with ruffles, she said. She didn't know whether she was supposed to iron the ruffles or not, so she didn't do it, and in just a few minutes that blouse was back in front of her--with a reprimand. They didn't tell us how to do what we had to do, she told me. And they never said thank you or anything like that.

There was another older girl there, a big girl, she said, so big and strong that she remembered when she and another little girl or two, right there in the dorm, hung from that big girl's extended arms, hung there while she twirled. A human merry-go-round, I thought. She told me it was lots of fun, and the big girl--she was older too--the big girl always looked out for the little ones. That was good too because nobody else did. There weren't many things really nice about the boarding school, she said. When they cut her hair, she told me she cried off and on for three or four days. Such was life at the boarding school.

They didn't go home for nine months back then, she said. When in May their parents came to pick them up, some of the littlest children didn't recognize their mothers.

Oh, yes, and the big girl, she told me--she left the year her two little brothers came to school. She left and enrolled at another boarding school, this one north of their place, not east. When she did, she registered as a boy so she lived in the boy's dormitory because she refused to allow her little brothers to be abused by anyone, red or white. She pretended--all year long, she pretended--that she was a boy, just to make sure her little brothers didn't get hurt. When her father came to pick up his children in the summer, he asked for his daughter. The school told him he didn't have a daughter. She'd done it: all year long. And the boys?--she'd kept them safe. That big girl, she was a lesbian, she said. She learned that later.

But you know, she explained, in my culture the people respect them. Did you know that? In my culture, she said, we think of them as being gifted. They've been blessed by being given two conscious-es, one of them male and the other one female. To have two persons in one person, she said, in my culture, that's considered very special. 

In 1888, the very first missionary my people sent to the Brule Sioux from the Rosebud reservation, came home after two years and reportedly claimed that bringing the gospel to such people little, if any promise. To his credit, he'd been there at the time of Wounded Knee, when the reservations were alive with a messianic vision that eliminated the white people then taking over all the Native homeland. Must have been scary.

But on them, Dominie Vanden Bosch said, on their pagan culture, preaching the gospel of Jesus would likely be a waste of time.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Square inches and Project Blitz

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“It’s kind of like whack-a-mole for the other side; it’ll drive ‘em crazy that they’ll have to divide their resources out in opposing this,” David Barton said, or so he was quoted in the Sunday NY Times. Barton is a historian and one of just four members of a steering committee aiming to flood state governments with legislative action meant to turn America into the kind of Christian nation Barton and his cohorts believe it should be.

What he's talking about is a bill in the Minnesota legislature designed to make it legal for a teacher to put a sign up in his or her classroom that says, "In God We Trust." Or, legislation in Oklahoma to allow foster care agencies to discriminate according to their own beliefs.

The whole movement, the Times says, something called "Project Blitz," is being mounted to move America back to what Barton and others consider the nation's Christian roots. Today, it's "In God We Trust" in public schools, and tomorrow it's promoting legislation which would allow individuals and businesses to discriminate against the LBGTQ's among us. Think wedding cakes.

Their animus isn't based in out-and-out discrimination, or so says Katharine Stewart, whose book The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children, probably preaches a different sermon, but to our economy. They can prove, they say, that LBGTQ people simply cost society so much more. In other words, they claim it's a pocketbook argument that only secondarily has to do with sin or righteousness.

A reference at the end of Ms. Stewart's op-ed bowled me over, a quote from a man named Bill Dallas, another Project Blitz steering committee member, who is working the social media angle in an effort to get out the vote among Christian fundamentalists. “What we do is track to see what’s going to make somebody either vote one way, or not vote at all.” Stewart then quoted Mr. Dallas, in a video introduction he made with an organization in Florida, where he brought up the name of someone very near and dear the hearts of those who determine mission and purpose at the college where I taught for 37 years. "In October 2016, Mr. Dallas offered a neat summary of his political philosophy," Stewart says, "one built on an idea by Abraham Kuyper, 'There is not a place in the universe where Christ does not shout out, ‘Mine!’ "

Should Dordt College--now "University"--have minted a coin anytime in the last 20 years, that line would have been in-scripted on one side or the other, maybe both.

Mr. Dallas and Mr. Barton are, without a doubt, among the 80% of Christian evangelicals who believe God almighty in his infinite wisdom brought Mr. Donald Trump into the Presidency of the United States, at such a time as this, to right the course of a nation tumbling headlong toward paganism, a kind of savior who will end abortion once and for all, a leader to protect them from the evil seeking to destroy Christianity and its followers.

Wow. Mr. Dallas and Mr. Barton use Abraham Kuyper, my Abraham Kuyper, to buttress their "whack-a-mole" mission.

I could cry.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Morning Thanks--Memorial Day crosses and stars

Let me guess, because I have no way of knowing. 

I found this cross in an American war dead cemetery far south in the Netherlands. Van Ooyen is no relative, not even a particularly familiar name; but I'm guessing the kid was from somewhere around Pella, which suggests that maybe a century before he was killed--somewhere on his way to Berlin--some of his ancestors left Holland with Dominie Scholte, when that Leiden intellectual took off for the prairies of Iowa, a significant flock of followers in tow, pious folks all.

Sgt. John Van Ooyen may well have died someplace not all that far from neighborhoods his ancestors left. Something took him down in March of 1945--a bullet maybe, a grenade, maybe a blast from a tank. All the marker tells us is his rank, his company, his Dutch name, and the plain and simple fact that he's one of 8000 war dead commemorated here, even though his mortal coil may well be somewhere back home in central Iowa.

It's stunning to stand amid all those white crosses and realize that what's there--row after row after row after row--is a decimal point to the many thousands of others who also never came back to Pella or Brooklyn or San Bernadino, 416 thousand total.

For what? For freedom. For righteousness. For peace. For an end to a madman's dreams of world dominance and the insane slaughter of millions the Nazis judged not good enough for the master race.

Still, stand in a Allied graveyard sometime, and you can't help but note at least something of the cost of war.

And then there's this. Look closely.

There beyond his cross, just a three or so back in the row to the right, stands a marker with a star of David--a grave of a Jewish guy.

I wonder if this Dutch-American kid from Iowa ever considered his dying was for a New York Jew too. I wonder whether that thought was in his head when he enlisted or was drafted. I wonder if it was something a nice good kid from the Tall Corn State ever thought about at all.

When I visited the cemetery, when I stopped and paid my respects to someone named John Van Ooyen and thanked him for what he gave up for me and my kids and my grandkids, I couldn't help but notice the grave marker of a Jewish guy named Rudolph Nadel, a New Yorker, who died just two months later and is thoughtfully remembered just a couple of yards down the row.

Maybe they knew each other.

Maybe not.

Doesn't matter, really. Jew and Gentile, New Yorker and wooden shoe Iowan, they both gave us what we have. They died for for a ton of reasons--and I'm one of them.

So are you.

This Memorial Day morning, I'm thankful for both of them, all of them.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Where Morning Danws

“Those living far away fear your wonders; 
where morning dawns and evening fades you call forth songs of joy.”
Psalm 65 

A verse like this from Psalm 65 makes me think of the opening chapters of the Institutes. I’m serious.

“Wherever you cast your eyes,” John Calvin says, “there is no spot in the universe wherein you cannot discern at least some sparks of his glory. You cannot in one glance survey this most vast and beautiful system of the universe, in its wide expanse, without being completely overwhelmed by the boundless force of his brightness (52).”

There is, he says a few lines later, “more than enough of God’s workmanship in his Creation” to lead human beings across the wide earth “to break forth in admiration of the Artificer.”

Some Christians find that awestruck John Calvin hard to believe because his reputation is rooted in telling the rest of us how to live on the straight-and-narrow, and to punish us when we wander. When you think Calvin, you don't think awe.

But Calvin can also create a spacious tent. It’s there in the Institutes, just as is David’s very similar compass reading here: “where morning dawns and evening fades you call forth songs of joy.” King David the singer knows his own big-hearted praise is but one voice in a concert, dedicated daily to the Creator, and that idea just blows him away.

That silly old Coke commercial wasn’t all wrong. Assemble the multitudes from every tribe and nation, put ‘em up on a hill, on a wide hill before a broad, flat plain, and let ‘em be, let ‘em see, let ‘em sing. Because in the face of sheer beauty they will. Even those far away.

No cheap soft drink will ever turn them into a choir, but maybe a dawn will. Maybe a sunset. Maybe a glimpse of something so much bigger than they are will bring them to their knees, as it does so many of us when we allow the possibilities.

So Calvin would say. As do I.

Here's what was out there this morning.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Tears at the Battle Hymn

When Julia Ward Howe sat down to refashion a much beloved Union battle hymn the troops called "John Brown's Body," she created new lyrics and a bold new score that, almost magically, became as deeply imprinted on the America's soul as anything in our songbook. In just one sitting, Miss Howe created a national classic so familiar that all any of us have to hear is that opening drum roll to know what's a' coming.  

Now John Brown's body may well be 'a molderin' in the grave, but John Brown's soul is still there in that hymn; so I suspect that 150-some years after Ms. Howe put down the quill, "Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory" isn't sung as lustily in the American South as it is here, above Mason-Dixon. But you'd have to bury yourself deep in the rebel cause not to get stirred by those rolling "Glory, glory, hallelujahs." Once some choir belts out the opening bars of "The Battle Hymn," most of us don't have to think to get teary. Me either.

But that old hymn is dangerous. It is. It pairs patriotism with Christianity, creates a deadly potion that would have made Franklin and Jefferson sneer. "His truth is marching on?" That old hymn isn't talking about Wankan Tanka or the prophet Muhammad. It's talking about John Brown and his God, Jehovah. History makes horrifyingly clear that twining my sense of justice with the Creator of heaven and earth's is risky business. 

I know that and I believe it. The truth is, however, I'd rather not be a skeptic. I'd rather not throw a wet blanket over the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. But when they start into "In the beauty of the lily, Christ was born across the sea. . ." I raise an eyebrow. I do. I'm an academic. I get paid to think.

So a couple days ago, I knew very well what I was doing. I let a mass choir belt out that old war song, and I did so with deliberate intent because I wanted the listeners, old folks at the home, to love what they heard, even if I didn't. Besides, not a one of them is going off to war.

On You Tube I stumbled across Miss Howe's beloved classic sung by a mass choir at a local college, a dozen local high school choirs creating an assembly so huge and wide they filled the bleachers of a college gym, hundreds of them, plus a little orchestra in accompaniment. 

What you need to know here is the few gathered in the home that afternoon were residents who eventually leave Prairie Ridge Home only on a gurney, some of them still alive, many not. Maybe half of the crowd had little clue as to where they were. Some were slumped in their chairs already when they were wheeled in. There was more than a little Alzheimer's, too. 

That's why I put "The Battle Hymn" up on the big screen, why we turned out the lights, cranked up the volume, and why I told those old folks that if they looked closely they might just spot a grandchild or two. "These are your kids," I told them. 

Then I clicked the mouse. I found the video on You Tube where some proud parent had put it up after taking it on his or her phone. It was no professional production, but it was loud and powerful, and it was--good Lord, a'mighty--"Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory." That opening drum roll got their attention. 

I don't think I have to tell you there were tears. You darn right there were tears. I don't think I could have played anything up on that screen or said anything at all that would have been more thrilling to those old folks, most of them in final days that are only rarely blessed with thrills. Yes, there were tears.

This retired professor didn't lecture them on the dangers of faith and patriotism, didn't remind them how the Founders created a wall between church and state. I didn't say a thing. I just clicked the mouse, and let those kids on the bleachers sing their hearts out for their great-grandparents, some of whom couldn't see much, many of whom had to strain to hear.

But there were tears, and I'm not repentant in the least. I let Ms. Howe's old powerhouse do its finest work, and it did. Trust me. They loved it. They adored it. There were tears.

Would have been nice if Julia Ward Howe could have seen it. Or those kids up on those bleachers. Would have been nice for all of you to be a witness to goosebumps on old folks. Yes, there were tears--who cares where they came from? 

They were precious. Glory, glory, hallelujah.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Institutions and Tradition

The Kingdom Choir

"Bishop Michael Curry’s star turn at the royal wedding Saturday introduced (or reintroduced) the world to the power of preaching."

So claimed Randall Balmer in the first line of his NY Times story last week. That may or may not be true. There are, as Trump's people are so happy to say, more versions of the truth than yours--or in this case, the writer's. Me?--I don't agree, only because I never really doubted "the power of preaching."

What I know is that Bishop Curry's sermon was incredible and memorable in part because it seemed so "out of place." It was powerfully moving but startling because royal weddings don't normally include the soaring traditional rhetoric of African-American sermons. Bishop Michael Curry--if you didn't see him--is, after all, African-American (not a Brit). The sheer emotional amplitude of Curry's sermon, its towering musical delivery, simply isn't tight-upper-lip "British."

Tevye would shake his head and say it this way: it wasn't "traditional."

Nor was the (gasp!) gospel choir. I didn't watch the royal wedding as it happened. I tuned in at the point where the royal couple were leaving the church. Behind them, shockingly, what I heard was "Stand by Me" and "This Little Light of Mine," a pair of unconventional choices (to say the least), sung by the Kingdom Choir (yes, black). I mean, it just isn't done (and, yes, you can say that with a bit of a Brit sneer).

No matter--it was awesome, as was Bishop Curry's preachment on love. Simply unheard of.

I don't remember his name, but a Brit commentator was so taken by the magnificence of it all--the beautiful couple, that simple, gorgeous dress, the glory of the cathedral, the joy of the music, the hundreds--thousands!--outside waiting to greet them, the entire show, the sheer spectacle, all of it, right then and there--that he was nearly robbed of words. Finally, gasping, he said, "This is what we Brits do well." He was right. A royal wedding is the kind of party jolly old England long ago learned very well how to stage.

So when others made the point that Bishop Curry's sermon and the soul music of the Kingdom Choir was like nothing ever seen or heard in Windsor Chapel, they pointed out that the institution of the monarchy and the strength of British tradition could handle even really significant change. Even though that wedding--Meghan Markle is a divorcee, of mixed race heritage--was, on paper at least, an anomaly, the sheer strength of tradition (there's Tevye again) could and would handle it--as it would a black preacher from South Carolina and a rambunctious gospel choir to boot.

Strong institutions grow by adapting change. They're able to incorporate what's new, give that newness context, locate a place for what's not only coming but already there. They're forceful and accommodating, nor fearful about themselves.

Millions of American voted for Donald Trump as an agent of change, as someone who would, like Jesus, go to Washington and tip over the tables of besotted money- and power-changers. They bought the idea that Trump would know how to deal with big-money interests because he was one. 

Donald Trump has been anything but traditional. At times, he seems intent on dismantling everything his predecessor(s) ever did. We've never before had a President who demanded an investigation of the FBI he himself put in. And that's only part of today's agenda.

We've learned, I think, that the English monarchy can absorb significant and radical change. What is yet to be determined is whether American democracy can grow from a bully who seems duty-bound to take down most of its institutions.

The jury is out on all of that, and I am not hopeful. 

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Morning Thanks--Backyard royalty

They are nowhere near as haughty as this shot suggests. It just so happens that when I snapped it, that sparrow down below seemed somehow penitent, a supplicant. It was sheer happenstance to catch them like this. To me, the queen and her husband may well be backyard monarchy, but basically benevolent. 

They demand a special diet--that's true. All I did was put a half orange out yesterday, and just like that our backyard was their kingdom. 

Their royalty is not just a matter of looks either. Theirs is a song unlike anyone else's. If you're looking, you can't miss them--but if you're not, their music will let you know that they're there.

They're not in the least self-possessed. You might think their flaming plumage would have them preening their life away. Not so. Getting them to sit for a portrait is a chore because they don't sit for a minute. If you just keep shooting and shooting, maybe you'll get lucky and catch one or two solid portraits. That one above seems posed, but it's not. It's just a half second after this:

The Queen may not be as startling as her mate, but she has her own steady beauty, and where would the two of them be without her, after all?

But, alas, "nothing gold can stay," ye olde verse asserts, nothing orange either. The orioles are here today, thanks to that orange I put out; and I'm guessing they'll be here a while. 

But not long. Soon enough, they'll be on their way, nomadic as so much of world they know. 

It was the doves who spent all their time preening. Their song is a dirge, and their cottony softness makes them feel as if they could be friends. But they fight like cats and dogs, and I've come to think of them as vain. Look, here's three preening mourners, all in a row.

Meanwhile, from the monarchy yesterday and again this morning, nothing but the music of the spheres.

I'm thankful for the doves too, but this morning, outside the window, it's the royalty that capture both my attention and my morning thanks.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Morning Thanks--a Christian education

I'm not blind to the limitations. It's not hard at all for us to get a little snooty. In fact, it's pretty easy to get to thinking we're somehow better than others. You don't even have to hear that being said to start thinking it either: there's us and there's them. You got to fight the old "holier-than-thou" thing.

Because there's an inherent exclusivity to the entire operation. Not everyone goes, after all. Only some. Lots don't. Most don't. But we do. We're blessed, aren't we? 

You know?--that kind of thing.

Thank the Lord that there are more people of color these days, many more. For way too many years it was only white kids--and of a certain ethnic flavor too. For too many years, the whole business was monochrome and wooden-shoed. For too many years, Brown vs. the Board of Education seemed entirely irrelevant, as if we were immune to charges of segregation. We weren't. We aren't.

Here below, it's a chore for most of us to stay humble, not to think we've got all answers the world hungrily awaits, to look at others as if they're truly un-blessed. It's very hard for us to be reminded that there's as much sin and darkness in us as there is in that woebegone family just down the block, to have to swallow the pride the human heart, no matter what model or vintage, quite regularly serves up to all of us.

And it's just as hard to have to say you might have been really judgmental about things--about dinosaurs or evolution, about a whole host of nay-saying: about the devils and dancing, or card-playing, or a glass of wine or beards and bell-bottoms. It's difficult to have to confess we're not always right and not always righteous.

It's hard to admit that might just keep some people away simply by way of the high cost of admission. Guess what? we're expensive. Maybe too much.

Last night I parked a football field away, walked into a stuffed-to-the rafters college chapel, then watched and listened to 500+ kids dressed in ten different-colored t-shirts on a huge stage, all of them standing and singing their hearts out, telling a packed house the story of what they'd learned--each of them, each of the grades--about living in God's world throughout this school year.

It was a ball, a joy, a blessing to be there and to sing along.

This morning's thanks is primary-school easy. I'm greatly thankful that my grandson, a second-grader, was up there among 'em. This public high school graduate spent four wonderful years teaching in public high schools, four years I wouldn't trade for anything. I've never rejected or feared American public education. It's free and it's an immense blessing for all of us.

But neither have I forgotten the scripture verse printed on the report cards we lugged home every six weeks of my own grade school years sixty years ago. What that verse maintained is what I still believe, even if, back then, the marks inside weren't always God-glorifying. "The fear of the Lord," the old card said, "is the beginning of wisdom."

You can parse that sentence a dozen different ways. You can wage theological warfare with the word "fear." Go ahead and interpret it your way.

But to me what it means is what it says, and that's why this morning I'm thankful my grandson, last night, was one of those rambunctious kids up in front (in a robin's egg blue t-shirt), rockin' and rollin' through the story of his year in a Christian school. 

Monday, May 21, 2018

Lean on Pete--a review

Image result for lean on pete

With most of the movie behind us, my wife leaned over and whispered that if things didn't get any better, she was on her way out. The unrelenting darkness is almost overwhelming.

There's this kid, and he's immensely sweet. His mother is nowhere to be found, and his father is a piggish adolescent who dies in a fight about a woman from work he sleeps with. The old man cuts up his insides when he's thrown through a window and dies, the doctor says, from septic shock his whole system took when it could no longer prevent infection. For a while at least, his father's death feels like a metaphor for this entire sad story. 

Lean on Pete is really three stories, as one reviewer says, chained together inexorably by the kid's excruciating misfortunes. The first is a father-and-son story, which includes a couple of the film's only blessed moments as the kid, Charley (Charlie Plummer), finds some refuge in the employ of a horseman named Del (Steve Buscemi), who is himself at the end of his rope. 

Then, the movie becomes a boy-and-his-horse western, set and shot in perfectly endless expanses of the American west, as the two of them run away once Charlie determines that this gorgeous quarter horse he's come to love is on his way to the glue factory. It ends with most horrifying moment in the film, when the storyteller determines, for some reason, that Lean on Pete needed to die.  

That the horse's death seems as willfully random as it is makes the story seem Thomas Hardy-ish: things are bad to start with, and then they get worse and worse and worse and worse, and then they end. That description may be overdoing it, but there were moments when I too thought I couldn't take any more. 

Some see this film's sheer pitilessness as an attribute. I get that. It simply refuses any scent of sentimentality. But that refusal is its own form of sentimentality, really. When life continually takes turns for the worse, over and over and over again, we simply have trouble believing the world we inhabit is that blasted dark. 

Once Lean on Pete is dead, deus ex machina, there's nowhere for the boy to lean, and Charley's flight--he wants badly to find an aunt who, long ago, cared for him--takes him into perilous places with ugly characters, one of whom, in a fit of righteous indignation, he may well have killed with a tire iron. The third story in Charley's pilgrimage ends when he takes the money he had to kill to get back and gets on a bus to Laramie, Wyoming.

Way back when I wrote more fiction, I came to believe that stories had to somehow balance darkness with light. For a writer who believes in a loving God, someone who is, by inexorable faith, committed to a worldview in which there is hope isn't fantasy, now and forever, a story can go searingly into the tortured soul of human depravity as long as that descent is somehow balanced by a similar degree of light at the end of the tunnel. You can't really have redemption without damnation.

But a story that languishes in damnation without a hint of redemption is as false as any cheap Christian morality tale, as sentimental as Kum-bay-ya. What prompted my wife to seriously consider walking out was what we might well call the sermon of the story: for some of us at least, life is just plain bad. Really ugly. Just about bereft of hope.

Hundreds of movies never make it to your local theater because they're not created for 17-year-old kids on dates. Lean on Pete won't be coming any time to soon to your local cineplex. It's way too dark. To call it an art film suggests that it's not as "real" as it is. Lean on Pete a film that someone believed in, a script created from a novel that was much read and much beloved. 

I wasn't surprised when my wife whispered what she did three-quarters of the way through because I recognized something in myself that was kin to what she felt--I wasn't just hoping for something redemptive, I was begging for it, a move the film simply won't deliver until the very, very end--and even then life seems so very tenuous.

To say I enjoyed the film simply doesn't ring true. 

But am I glad I went? Yes. I'm guessing Charlie Plummer is on his way to stardom, and the American West always has star power. But I'm glad I went because Lean on Pete is not simply entertainment. It begged me not simply to feel, but to think about a kid and a horse and life itself. That's not all bad.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Sunday Morning Meds--Bewonderment

 Be exalted, O God, above the heavens; 
let your glory be over all the earth.” Psalm 57:4

The basic paradigm by which I’ve always seen the Christian life is a series of ideas that rise from the Heidelberg Catechism, the handbook of doctrine with which I was raised.  Those steps are not difficult.  They go like this:  “sin, salvation, service.”

The story line begins with sin—our knowledge of it, as it exists specifically within us.  Calvin starts even a bit earlier, with the heavens, specifically with our sense of God as manifest in his world in what we see and experience.  Because humans can’t help but see God’s marvelous work in the heavens and earth all around, we there is something, someone, larger than life itself and much, much greater than we are—there simply has to be.

When we know we aren’t God, we know something about sin.

That conviction draws us closer to him. Knowing our limitations is a prerequisite to knowing God. Sin precedes salvation, or so the story goes, through the second chapter.

There’s one more step. That he loves us in spite of our sin makes hearts fill and souls rejoice; we can’t help but celebrate, and that celebration leads us into gratitude and service, into offering his love to the world he loves so greatly. 

Sin, salvation, service—that’s the story line, the narrative by which I was raised.

Mother Theresa’s take on a very similar tale was a three-step process not totally unlike Heidelberg’s narrative line, but colored instead by her experience in the sad ghettos of Calcutta.  Our redemption begins in repulsion—what we see offends us, prompts us to look away. But we can’t or shouldn’t or won’t; we have to look misery in its starving face, and when we do, we move from repulsion to compassion—away from rejection and toward loving acceptance. 

And the final step is what she called “bewonderment,” sheer wonder and admiration.  Compassion leads us to bewonderment.

“Bewonderment” is one of those strange words no one uses but everyone understands, probably because, like reverence, it’s simply hard to come by in a culture where our supposed needs are never more than a price tag away.
Bewonderment is hard to come by for me, perhaps because it isn’t so clearly one of the chapters in the story I was told as a boy, the story which is still deeply embedded in my soul. “Service” is the end of the Christian life—or always has been—for me, not “bewonderment.” 
Maybe that’s why I’m envious of David’s praise here. What he says to God in prayer is something I rarely tell him.  I don’t think I’ve ever asked God not to hide his little light under a bushel, to display his radiant grace from pole-to-pole. I’m forever asking for favors, but only rarely am I adoring, in part, in part, I suppose, because I’m so rarely in awe. 

Bewonderment is something I’m learning as I age, and for that I’m thankful—for the book, for the song, for David the singer, and for the God David knew so intimately that he could speak the way he does in Psalm 57. 
It’s difficult for some of us to be intimate with God—to be so close to a being so great and grandly out of reach.  But intimacy is something a song can teach—and the heavens too.  Bewonderment is something even an old man can learn, if he has eyes and ears. 

Friday, May 18, 2018

Remembering Ike

Those in the know were not particularly surprised to see Kaitlyn Bennett come on campus around graduation dolled up as she was--her mortar board darlingly decorated with a dare, and her brother's assault rifle, with scope, slung over her shoulder. News stories claim that she was an outspoken 2nd amendment advocate during her tenure as a student and that she wasn't at all shy about shooting off her mouth about the subject. Get this--she was a student at Kent State University.

Still, there was enough in the photo--she hired a photographer--to grab on-line attention: that incredible mane flowing mightily over her back and a doll-like, sleeveless dress, hemmed several inches up from mid-thigh. Somehow, it's not a particularly collegiate composition. Then again, maybe it is, sex and violence never really going out of style. 

The photo went viral, more than 40 thousand retweets and twenty thousand likes. If the scope on your rifle sees the second amendment as most crucial of all our rights, then Kaitlyn Bennett's commencement get-up is drop-dead gorgeous, I guess. Even got her a spot on Fox and Friends, I'm told. 

Couldn't help but notice the image myself, to be frank; but another place and time flashed by just then, a place we visited just a couple of days ago, the meditation chapel on the grounds of the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum, Abilene, Kansas, Ike's hometown. He's buried there, as is his wife, Mamie, as well as their son, Dowd, or "Ikky," as they called him, who died at just four years old from scarlet fever in 1921. The biers of Mom and Dad are outlined in the floor of a quiet place lit mainly by what hues come in through stained glass.

I don't know whether Kaitlyn Bennett knows much about Ike. Maybe she does. I hope so. But those of us who remember him or have spent much time thinking about World War II know Dwight David Eisenhower not only as the 39th President of these United States, but also the Supreme Commander of the Combined Allied Forces in Europe during that war. If you remember him well, you may well remember this, too. 

That's General Eisenhower talking to GIs on June 5, 1944, the day before many of them--perhaps many of them in this photograph--were going to die on the beaches of Normandy. He knew that far better than they did, because he knew what lay in store for them when they came off those amphibious landing craft in the biggest sea-going operation in the history of mankind. Ike knew war.

And that's why it shouldn't be ironic, I suppose, that someone who knew death--death at his hands--better than almost anyone, would have, up there on the wall of his tomb, and that of Mamie, a line from a speech he gave.

Here it is:
Every gun made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed. . .This is not a way of life at all. . .Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of gold.
"The Chance for Peace" Address, Washington D. C., April 15, 1953
It's not surprising at all, I suppose, that when I read Kaitlyn's story, I thought of Ike in England, one night in early June, waiting for the skies to clear over the English Channel, waiting and hoping and praying.  And then, I'm sure, praying some more.

I feel obligated to say that I wrote this BEFORE what happened this morning in Sante Fe, Texas. 

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Small Wonder(s)--Battle of the Spurs

There's something vintage Old Testament about the whole story, something that feels decidedly like myth. But it happened; and just a bit north of Topeka, atop a hill along the road, a somewhat unkept highway marker tells part of the story, the part that can't be doubted. What can is far more fascinating.

That John Brown (yes, that John Brown) was willing to die to put an to end slavery is not news, either to us or the "border ruffians" who, for a time at least, ran the government in Kansas. John Brown was willing to die, but he was also willing to kill--and did, not only at Harper's Ferry, but also in eastern Kansas. Because slavery was of the Devil, fighting a holy war was his calling. 

That historical marker on the hill is all about him. He was, after all, at the reins of a prairie schooner full of runaway slaves that ended up in the neighborhood of that highway marker--ten--no eleven--runaway slaves to be exact, Mrs. Daniels having just had a baby. It was cold, not unmercifully so, but it was January, 1859; and for all intents and purposes, in Kansas the Civil War had begun, even though Ft. Sumter was a year and a half away.

For more than a year, Kansas had become a checkerboard of areas controlled by the slavers, who wanted to make Kansas a slave state, or the abolitionists, the "free-staters" who'd gone west to homestead land but mostly to fight slavery. 

When a pro-slavery bunch, then in power, got wind of John Brown and his runaway slaves, they formed a posse--thirty men, well-armed--to stop that criminal activity. They called themselves "law-and-order" party. 

Meanwhile, John Brown sent word into nearby Topeka, where, on Sunday morning, Col. John Richee and family had taken a pew in their Congregational church. When Richee, an abolitionist leader, got whispered the news, he stood up and said, "There is work for us," then walked out. The preacher quietly told his flock there'd be no worship. Something had come up.

A dozen church-goers hurried to the Fuller cabin just outside of a tiny town named Holton, where they found John Brown gearing up for a trip to Tabor, Iowa, the next stop on the underground railroad. Brown told the Topekans that he and the others were going to ford Straight Creek and head north, according to plan. Col. Richee, et al, suggested that because the creek was high, it might be wise to go another five miles up, where the ford was less demanding.

John Brown had mission in his soul. He was going to cross Straight Creek where God intended him to cross, come hell or that very high water, even though he knew that pro-slavery posse had assumed battle stations for an attack. Brown could not have missed them. He knew. He had to.

No matter.

He climbed into the seat, took the reins, aimed the team up the road toward Straight Creek, fire in his eyes, the straight and narrow out there clearly in front of them, as if there were no guns at all, only the arms of the Lord.

Here's the Old Testament. For reasons forever unknown, the pro-slavers held their fire, then turned and got the heck out of there, took off and ran without firing a shot, which is why, today, up there on the hill above the creek, that weathered highway marker is titled "The Battle of the Spurs." The only weapon the slavers used that wet January morning was the spurs they dug into their horses' flanks.

By the way, the Topekans were right about the ford. That prairie schooner got stuck in the creek. It took several hours to get it out.

Less than a year later, John Brown and his men, after a failed rebellion at Harper's Ferry, were behind bars, facing the hangman's noose. One of his men, Aaron D. Stevens, wrote Jennie Dunbar, his friend, to say his wounds were healing and that he wasn't feeling guilty in the least "for there was no evil intention in my heart." His note from death grips the heart. "Slavery demands that we should hang for its protection," he wrote Miss Dunbar, "and we will meet it willingly, knowing that God is Just, and is over all."

True believers they were--perfectly true believers.

At what point does faith become fanaticism? Answer me that. 

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Mother's Day at the Eisenhower's

Don't need a caption here, I'd guess.

The man on the grass is the 34th President of these United States, Dwight David Eisenhower. Even though you're not likely to have seen the woman before, you can guess--and you'd be right--that the woman on the throne is his mother.

Here she is again, this time with six of her sons, a sort of "before and after" shot--the Eisenhower boys and the Eisenhower men. And Mom.

It hangs on the wall of the Eisenhower home in Abilene, Kansas, the town where Ike--and all of his brothers--grew up on the Midwestern values so evident in President Eisenhower's personality and character. All six of them, in their own ways, made significant contributions, some to country, some simply to neighborhood. She must have been good at what she did.

Strangely enough, especially for time and place, when each of the boys left the home, they were well-versed in women's work. She made each of her sons learn to cook and sew and mend. On Sundays, two of the boys would leave church a shade early to get home to be sure the dinner was in the oven and ready to go, a dinner they'd prepared. Mother insisted on a day off.

Mid-Depression, she refused to sell the piano, even though there was no money and it could have brought some much-needed cash. Each of the boys took lessons, too, even though only a few of them ever stayed at it. One of the boys worked his way through college by tickling the ivories in a whole host of different venues.

She was, in certain ordinary ways, extraordinary. Here's her bread box, where she put the dough she kneed (excuse the can't-miss pun) when she'd bake bread, three times per week, nine loaves per prep. You do the math. That radio in the corner?--short wave. Her son, the Commander of Allied Forces in Europe, got it for her during the war so she could hear his voice.

The host looked nice, although the docent claimed it was, at best, modest in Abilene, and definitely on the wrong side of town. It wasn't in the oldest part of town, but built on what was once a cattle yard. Abilene was once full of cattle, the market for every single longhorn up from Texas. The 34th President of the U.S. of A., was born on a cattle yard. 

We just happened by Abilene on Mother's Day, didn't choose specifically to tour that day. But it may well have been the right day to walk through the house, to take note of the pictures, and imagine the mother of six boys--seven, really, but little Paul died of diphtheria at just ten months--managing the entire affair. She must have been overworked, and proud. 

But, seriously, nine loaves of bread, three times a week? You've got to be kidding.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Morning Thanks--the death of one who loved

Montana sunset from his pics
To call him a friend would be a stretch, but in some substantial ways he was a kindred spirit. The notice came via Facebook, or it's likely I still wouldn't know he's no longer with us. He was not much older than I am, and he left a record of teaching in a Christian school that was just about as long as my own tenure at the college down the road, a college he attended just a few years before I enrolled. We both were lovingly engaged in the study of literature. He was an English teacher. 

I knew and respected people who knew and respected him. The two of us shared an era, an age in which people who loved books and poems and did a little more self-reflection than may be thought commonly necessary, lived by the conviction that a little learning wasn't a bad thing, a little Hemingway and Hawthorne, maybe a shot or two of Edgar Allen Poe--all of it, good for the soul. Both of us, I think, lived by the conviction that a day or two in contemplation of beauty--even the beauty on the page of a book--was never a waste of time. 

The only conversation between us that I won't forget is the time he took me aside and told me how much he loved his granddaughter, that she was coming to college, and that he just wanted to say that he wanted me to pay her some attention because she was, to him, very special. He wasn't asking for favors, simply asking a friend, a kindred spirit, to give a little extra to someone he loved dearly. 

It may well be true that I know better what he loved, than I knew him. I couldn't have been around him more than a couple of times in my life. His obituary says he coached wrestling--I had no idea. He was born and reared in Montana's Gallatin River valley, not far from Yellowstone, as beautiful a place in the West as you can imagine. Even though he hadn't lived there for more than a half century, he chose to be buried in his ancestral home. Somehow, I'm not surprised.

His Facebook page is still a gallery of photos that probably say more about him than who or whatever stood on the other side of his lens: tons of family pics, kids and grandkids; lots of friends here, there, and everywhere: some shots at football stadiums or in gyms; flowers, lots of them; and a bevy of sunsets. I think it's fair to say--although I don't know--that he lived a good life, a very good life. People who left notes on his obituary claim they won't forget his smile.

He was a teacher--even as a father, he was a teacher; and, most likely, as a teacher he was also a father. 

Even though it's likely our paths would not have crossed again, there may be a dozen reasons why his death, far away, set my soul to grieving. Foremost among them, I think, is the sense that this week, this world is peopled by one less fine, fine man, someone who loved his work, his family, his God, and the wonderful world God made.

This morning thanks is for his life--and for his abundant love.

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Morning Thanks--the neighbors

You may not know it, but Sioux City's Municipal Band has a storied past. It began just after World War I, when a vet named Herman Koch determined that the brand new American Legion post in town would be strengthened if he started up a band for the war vet, some of whom, by the way, had never played in a band before.

Not only were that bunch successful in Sioux City, they became national American Legion band champions several times running, even made a trip to gay Paree' where they performed before a million spectators down a six-mile route that led them right through the Arc de Triumph. I'm not making this up. There's a big display case full of Sioux City Band memorabilia in the Woodbury County Courthouse. See if for yourself.

Back to Paris. When the band won first place right there amidst all that Paris regalia, they lined up one more time and played an encore, one of their favorites, “The Iowa Corn Song.” Seriously, they did. Isn't that just perfect?

I'll never be a native Iowan, having been born and reared in exile far away; but this time of year, when the goldfinch descend on us once again, I can't help but think of the Tall Corn State because Iowa is the Goldfinch Kingdom. They are--and they seem to know it--the Iowa State Bird.
Cocky?--no kidding. 

Right now, there are four just outside my window, one of them, a bully, hates others a good deal more than he loves sunflower seeds. If any of the others come anywhere close to the sock, he'll stop eating and fight 'em off.

A goldfinch makes more noise per square gram than anyone else out there it seems, except for a couple of species of wrens. Their song--seriously--is a shriek that can make windows think they're vulnerable. Still, it's beautiful--and I wouldn't miss it for the world. Anybody who sings that well can carry a little arrogance. And nobody flies like our goldfinch either. When they take off, they bob and weave into the horizon as if sewing earth and sky.

But honestly, they unruly and hot-headed. Their "do unto others" stops right at the end of their blessed little beaks. Charity? kindness? love? Forget it.

All that arrogance may well arise from their glorification in the tall corn state--I don't know. Then again, maybe it's simply because they rank among the backyard feeder's most darling--"oh, look, little balls of pure sunshine."

Well, yesterday they lost the beauty contest, however, when a sometimes visitor dropped by. This guy, an oriole, a Baltimore Oriole, sat here for a a couple minutes, just outside my window, so brilliantly orange he might well have been a cartoon. Here he is.

For a couple of fleeting minutes, Iowa lost to Baltimore, big time.

But I'm not sure the Iowa State Bird even noticed. If they did, it doesn't seem so this morning because right now, once again, they're back at their bitching. See?

It would do them well, right now, to do a quick couple of verses of the "Iowa Corn Song." Maybe that'd sweeten 'em up.

This morning, once again, I'm thankful for the fine, feathered friends from the community outside my window. But they could be a little more neighborly.