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.

Monday, December 31, 2018

Small Wonder(s)--Oscar Howe and truth to power

If Oscar Howe’s Wounded Knee Massacre (1960) is rarely seen these days, it’s because Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Presidential Museum is getting a renovation. Right now, having a look at Howe’s stunning work is impossible.

But even when it’s on display, few of us may want to look at it because what happened at Wounded Knee on December 29, 1890 is something most of us don’t want to know. Worse, many don’t care.

Howe’s terrifying painting is not a bit understated. Bluecoats stand above a pit and pick off Lakota warriors like fish in a barrel. The landscape behind them is littered with horror as rogue troops kill women and children in chillingly cold blood. A soldier fires the Hotchkiss (“the gun that fires in the morning and kills the next day” the Sioux called it) at a band already decimated.

Howe’s work, when he finished, got some ugly reviews because some still bought the government’s version of the story: what happened was a battle, not a massacre, and those savages were to fault for hiding arms because had they listened to the Seventh Cavalry’s orders to lay down their arms, there would have been no trouble. You know.

Oscar Howe’s startling depiction shows obscene slaughter. Little more than a century ago, right there beside Wounded Knee Creek, the U. S. Cavalry murdered the men, women, and children of Big Foot’s band, as many as 300.

Howe, whose Dakota name was Trader Boy, grew up on the Crow Creek Reservation, where his grandmother told him stories of the trouble, stories she remembered by wounds she herself suffered. Oscar Howe went to boarding school, then served three years in combat during the Second World War, returned home, and eventually spent 25 years as Artist-in-Residence just down the road at the University of South Dakota, where his art won all kinds of awards and where you can still see 200 of his paintings in a gallery that bears his name.

That his Wounded Knee Massacre is hung at the Eisenhower Museum is a strange story. Oscar Howe was chosen to be featured on This is Your Life, an old reality TV show that surprised well-known men and women by bringing in long-forgotten friends and acquaintances. The show’s staff purchased Wounded Knee Massacre, then gave it, in Howe’s name, as a gift to then President Eisenhower.

The truth? Wounded Knee Massacre is an unlikely piece to hang above a fireplace. It made a perplexing gift, I’m sure. It was and is very disturbing and meant to be.

Before the Eisenhower Museum’s renovation, a sign beside the painting explained Wounded Knee, starting this way: “During a meeting between U.S. Army representatives and members of the Sioux tribe,. . .a series of misunderstandings caused tensions between the participants.”

The U.S. Cavalry arrayed around Big Foot’s people was the largest gathering of fighting men since the Civil War. That was the backdrop for “a series of misunderstandings” at “a meeting.” That thinnest of descriptions is not the rhetoric of Oscar Howe’s memorable work.

When the staff asked Howe’s wife to choose one of her husband’s paintings as a gift for the President, she chose Wounded Knee Massacre, an odd choice?

Well, maybe. But I’d like to believe Mrs. Howe showed a bit of Old Testament prophet when she made the choice. She knew her husband’s anguish at the slaughter. She knew white folks who hated what he’d put on canvas. I’d like to think she looked over what there was of his work on hand, and chose Wounded Knee, believing, perhaps, that gift was their way—her husband’s and her own—to speak vital grinding truth to power. Give the President Wounded Knee.

It’ll be some time before the renovated museum opens. You’ll probably have to search for Wounded Knee Massacre, just as you would have in the old place--if, in fact, it’s on display at all.

Millions of Americans don’t have a clue about Wounded Knee, but then tens of millions don’t care either because hundreds of millions would much rather commemorate “the festive cowboy” and the kindler, gentler stories of the American west, stories which are ours too, in this place we lovingly, and sometimes blindly, call “Siouxland.”

It happened 128 years ago, December, 1890, not all that far away.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Sunday Morning Meds--Order and chaos

Image result for hunger winter

. . .but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
and who meditates on his law, day and night. Psalm 1:2

Those who remember often call it “the hunger winter” because, in the cities at least, there simply was no food. Only the farmers had something to eat—their own produce, of course—and every day, people say, the roads out into the Dutch countryside swarmed with city-dwellers in stumbling need of food. Without any provisions, some ate their cats and called them “roof rabbits.” People did everything they could to secure what they needed to stay alive.

By late April, nothing was functioning. Schools weren’t open, businesses had little to trade, government was non-existent. Liberation was coming, and people knew it; but the Allies weren’t yet there.

That’s the setting for a story a woman once told me about herself, her mother, and a block of cheese. Somewhere the province of Friesland, the Netherlands, where the Nazis were fleeing the advance of the Allied front, a train was left abandoned, and along with it an entire boxcar full of fresh cheese. Once it was clear that Germans were gone, the townspeople commandeered that train and everything in it, and dispensed the cheese to townspeople who hadn’t eaten that sumptuously for more than a year.

The woman who told me the story was a girl back then, one of those who’d spent most of her days looking for food during the hunger winter. She got herself a block of cheese, she said, and, convinced what she’d been given was a miracle blessing, she lugged it home to her widowed mother.

Her mother took one look at the cheese and sent her back to the train. “To take the cheese is to give in to chaos,” she told her.

And so the girl walked back, placed that cheese like a sacrifice in the empty boxcar, and left, very much alone.

That’s what she remembered. That’s what she couldn’t forget.

Her mother’s behavior has understandable logic. What she feared more even than hunger was the madness of lawlessness, of chaos, of a life where disorder rules, as it can only do, insanely.

It’s difficult for an old late-60s character like myself to believe the Psalmist took real delight in a scowling endless series of “thou-shalt-nots.”

But what the law gave the people of Israel was order. What it kept at bay, or so it seems to me, was chaos—both collectively and individually. What the law gave the Psalmist was a way of life designed by the God of their deliverance, the God of their freedom. The law made life manageable and livable, gave direction and purpose. 

It was, after all, that God's own Word.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Morning Thanks--First steps

We were, I believe, last of our friends to have grandchildren. By then, the endless braying always included a line that went something like this--"you just wait--you'll see."

Of course, they were right. I will never forget the first moment--it happened half a continent away, in Lynden, Washington--when I saw my daughter holding her first, and our first grandchild. It was staggering.

That child stopped over yesterday before the snow and wind got going. She's in her last year of high school now, pretty as a picture, her grandpa says.

This charmer--the one a top the page--is our newest, our fourth, whose first Thanksgiving (here!) we witnessed, but whose first Christmas (there, in Oklahoma) we didn't. However, we were blessed with a photo shower--well, flood--and new wave that included this one of the fire chief (by the by, her dad's a fireman).

That bunch of pictures was a blessing, believe me, but to say we'd have loved to be there is grand understatement. Then, mid-afternoon or so, a few new ones showed up in our Google Pix Livvie account. If I were more tech-savvy, I'd show you, as any braying grandparent should; but I'm still trying to figure out how to get them into my computer. I'll have to get one of our grandkids around to tutor.

Here's the story. In the last few days, our little 11-month old sweetheart took her first steps--and we saw them, not down in Oklahoma, but right here on our computer screens, the next best thing. She's not quite ready yet for an Olympic tryout, but she'll get there soon.

I'm not sure what it is about grandchildren that makes grandparents reach for their phones and rambling on and on, but I'm feeling it right now. Sick of it? Well, pardon me for living, as we used to say.

This morning's thanks is almost a given. After a flurry of first steps we witnessed via Face Time, there's good reason for gobs of gratitude. This early morning, I'm thankful for that little fireman up there who, soon enough, will have her mom and dad running after her, putting out fires, I'm sure.  

Bless 'em, Lord--bless 'em all. And bless all those little steps she'll ever take. . .

p.s. An hour later, I figured out how to pull them out of Google's hands and into mine. Here 'tis--one of the best pictures of first steps. 

(Please forgive the braying.)

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Morning Thanks--things from trees

"Nebraska," wrote Willa Cather in 1924, ". . .is watered by slow-flowing, muddy rivers, which run full in the spring, often cutting into the farm lands along their banks; but by midsummer they lie low and shrunken, their current split by glistening white sand-bars half overgrown with scrub willows."

We are similarly watered here, just an hour northeast of the Nebraska border. She could well have been speaking of the Floyd.

I walk down to the river occasionally. I park the car up along the blacktop south of town and hike about a mile or so down a spot where, just a few months ago, a gigantic flood left refuse all around, bushes like this one festooned with detritus, with scree, the trash high waters swept up from a thousand acres it otherwise leaves alone. 

Right now, the river is high for late December. There's very little ice, except where its depth is almost incidental. If that bush in the picture were a monster, his right hand--he's facing me--stands a six feet above the ground, on something of a dune which, a river bank that's another six feet above water itself. Thus, this flood rubble reminds anyone who takes the time to look just how high the water rose in August. It's a warning.

Look at this.

There are a couple of saplings on the right bank, far upper corner. Little beards of detritus still hang from its branches. Those leavings didn't grow there, fifteen feet above the river. The flood's madcap flow painted them on.

Or this:

The branches of this cottonwood are still decorated from the flood, a dozen feet up from the water. 

Rivers like this carry away our sins, but leave them somewhere else. I like to sit here on the bank and watch and listen to water running reverently beneath. Even though the river is a beauty here--at least I think so--I wouldn't drink it. We've left our mark too. It's just not visible.

Once upon a time, the first white settlers dug homes out of prairie earth all around. But once they had something to keep them from wind and rain and snow, they cut paths to the rivers because rivers were their guides, highways of the time. Once they carried traffic, not just refuse. Once they were maps, reminding those first white men where they lived.

Today, December 27, the National Weather Service has posted a flood warning for the Floyd, if you can believe it. Rain is falling now, and we're expecting lots more. We've been through two huge floods in the last six months. Even though it's unimaginable to think of yet another--in winter, just like the trees and bushes here on its banks, we've not forgotten.

This morning I'm thankful for rivers, for our neighbor, the Floyd--but that thanks requires an asterisk or footnote because should yet another flood come up, I will renege. 

We could control is cleanliness if we wanted to; but we can't control rainfall. It comes whether or not we're happy with its arrival or amount. 

The biblical injunction to "subdue the earth" is still there in Genesis, still reads the same; but it's good to have to remember--even if it's occasionally painful--that we haven't whipped the earth or its rivers, that sometimes the Floyd still proves a bully, thereby reminding us we aren't as smart as we like to think.

 This morning I'm taking a deep breath, but still thankful for the artless debris hanging from trees all around, a reminder of who we are and who we aren't.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Morning Thanks--the day after Christmas

My Grandpa Schaap was a preacher, who throughout his life held forth at a number of churches, including a small town in eastern Wisconsin where I happened to be born. He had a sweet and loving disposition, I'm told, as did all of my grandparents, for better or for worse. His faith was deep and profound. If I've ever wandered in my life, it's not been all that far. I never wanted to be a pastor like him, but, strangely enough, I've written more meditations than I can count. I am my grandpa's child.

His wife was the daughter of distinguished professor known for his absent-mindedness, as well as his opposition to the ruling ideology within his Dutch Reformed world, that of Abraham Kuyper. I'm told my great-grandpa believed Kuyper's dalliance with common grace swept believers far too close to worldliness. I own books from his library, most of which are Dutch. His daughter, my Grandma Schaap, is remembered by all who knew or met her, as a lovely human being, beautiful especially in a spiritual sense. She died before I ever knew her, during World War II, when five stars stood in the front window of the manse. People remember her as warm and loving.

My mother's father, my Grandpa Dirkse, carried a particular version of Dutch Calvinism that's not only concerned but occasionally stymied by a brooding sense of sin. On his own--he didn't need a sermon when the one in his heart was as demanding as it was--he took what seemed a perverse pleasure in the darkness of his soul. Oddly enough, crying about his sin--not individual sins, but sin itself--offered emotional relief, as if life should be lived in almost constant confession. Although that kind of spirituality, deep and dark, once affected many Dutch-Americans of his era, it's pretty much gone now. He managed, I believe, to give something of that disposition to my mother. When I say that's not all bad, I'm sure it's his part of me that's speaking.

Grandma Dirkse needed to be a comic to put up with bouts of seriousness, and she was. Her roots were in a more progressive, less strict Dutch Calvinism, a bit more worldly. She told my father, years ago, not to be so harsh when his daughters wanted to go to school dances, dances his preacher-father would have every soul in church shun. Grandma Dirkse was a card, but she'd come by it honestly, her only sibling killed in France in World War I, her father an abusive, heavy drinker. Strangely enough, the darkness in her life made her joy more radiant. 

All of this I know, although some of it may be a slant that is mine alone. My sisters might well beg to disagree. I am my parents' child too, of course. My father was a community leader, village president for a time, on boards and committees for all of his life. My mother mostly stayed home, taught a host of kids to play the piano she absolutely loved, and taught them well. She was a terrific classroom teacher too. I know because I had her.

Romey's Place is a novel I wrote about the legacy of righteousness and, occasionally, how difficult it can be to live with righteousness. Sometimes perfect, as they say, is the enemy of good.

Yesterday, when I opened the Christmas present my adult children gave me, I couldn't help but giggle. AncestryDNA, the box within the paper said. I giggled because thirty seconds later, I gave my wife the very same gift. Soon enough we'll both be off on the kind of adventure tons of folks are taking today, a scientific look at who and where we come from. 

If I thought DNA tests were silly, I wouldn't have bought in for Barbara. It'll be fun for both of us to learn what we can about our own human genome. 

Will I learn any more than I think I already know? Honestly, I doubt it. But I'll take a shot at it, stay open-minded. 

Yesterday, surrounded by family--although three were missing 500 miles away--we celebrated Christmas, or tried, with kids and grandkids, who only faintly remember their great-grandparents and have no knowledge whatsoever of an earlier generation on either side. What they'll know--if they want to--is what they'll learn if they try to find out. 

Who are we? Why are we? Who made us what we are? Identity is important.

This morning after Christmas, I'm thankful for yesterday's doings, for a good meal together, for, and all the gifts, and especially the reason for the season--a child, the King of creation, born into human flesh in a manger of all things. 

And I'm thankful, too, for who I am and all those ancestors--Dutch Calvinists one and all--who left me something of themselves, a goodly heritage, as the Bible says. 

(I sound so much like my grandparents!)

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Christmas blessings!

People I know have tipi rings on their South Dakota ranch, circles of stones visible only in summer, and then, only when cattle keep the grass down. But they're there, broad circles of half-submerged stones that mark the spots where, years ago our indigenous ancestors pitched tents, footprints from a different time.

Those friends claim there’s a long, straight line of stones in that pasture they believe points to the exact spot on the horizon where the sun rises on summer solstice. I haven't seen it, but I believe such things exist--ancient clocks to remind people that the times, they were 'a'changin’. Once the sun aligns with those rocks, people knew, regretfully, that winter was just over the hill.
Frederick Manfred, the Siouxland novelist, used to claim he knew where to find a similar straight line of rocks on Blue Mound, up the road in Minnesota. I never saw it, and you can’t always think a writer; but I’d like to believe it’s there too.

Who knows?--maybe there are more. Out here on the edge of the plains, we still unpack our thick robes once we know winter is on its way.

The Lakota kept their history on buffalo hides. Maybe you’ve seen ‘em. Somebody—the appointed artist, I suppose—kept track of calendar years by a single picture: a mule maybe, because that was the year some feisty donkey wandered into camp. “Winter Counts,” the Lakota people call those sprawling history book hides “winter counts” because the Lakota once counted their years by the winters they endured. Winter Counts. For the record, I have lived 70 winters. Now you know. 

Image result for winter count

Out here, winter is the only season we can’t wait to end the day it starts. No area Chamber of commerce cheerleader tells tourists that people die here in sub-zero temps, but they can—and do. Thousands escape south, but most of us live with ice cube cars, frostbit ears, and a drop of clear liquid on the end of our noses. When it gets cold enough, you don’t go out at all.

Long lines of solstice stones remind the people that it’s soon to be winter. It’s coming. Pull that buffalo robe up.

And then, right in the middle of all that miserable cold, comes Christmas. Right in the middle of all that wretched cold comes Hannukah, and right in the middle of all that hopeless cold comes hope itself rides up, the winter solstice, the flipside of the sun’s annual pilgrimage. 

Image result for sinterklaas

In the Netherlands, Sinter Klaas arrives; in Germany, Poland, and the Czech Republic, St. Stephen. And Santa Lucia, candles in her hair and sweets in her open arms, comes to Sweden, Norway, and Denmark.

In the middle of all that cold comes all that grace, all that blessed warmth. 

Image result for christmas shepherds

The angels on high appeared to low-life shepherds in the Galilean hills at the very best possible time, a night of endless dark and awful cold, even in Israel. “Glory, glory,” they sang, and the music couldn’t have come at a better moment because those shepherds had to be sick to death of winter.

And thus Jesus comes to those who follow him, just when we need him most, in the cold nights of our winter counts.

Not all of us believe in the Virgin Birth, cattle speaking in tongues, or a King in a manger. Not all of us spend our nights lighting menorahs for a rededicated temple. Not many of us dance madly on winter solstice.

But out here where the wind blows out of some unseen northwest icebox, my goodness! do we need the joy of Christmas. We’d be groundhogs without the blessing of that first sweet “Noel.”

Peace on Earth, goodwill toward men and women and children and all living things.

Every winter, just when a frozen world seems hopeless, hope itself arrives to wipe that bead of something from your nose and mine.

Merry Christmas.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Geno Ruisch, 1934-2018

When, just now, I tried to plug in the Christmas tree lights, I couldn't because I couldn't lean over long enough to find the blasted outlet in the dark. I needed to turn on the light above the fireplace just to find the plug. When I finally had it in my hand, I held onto the the window frame in order to reach down behind the tree. My back told me in no uncertain terms that such movements are questionable. My knees popped as if I were a kid cracking knuckles. The tree is glowing now, but getting it there is a tussle. 

It's hard to believe, to remember, that long ago, I played a pretty decent game of volleyball in a tiny Christian school gym, on a team of old bucks who squared off against a league of other old farts. Once upon a time there was still enough spring in my step to lift this considerable mortal coil of mine off the ground high enough to spike a decent set. Our old team did well, I remember. We may not have been league champs, but we were formidable. Whoever we played knew they'd been in a game. 

There were no crowds and we had no cheerleaders. We were ancient warriors. I suppose our wives just hoped we didn't come home with a concussion or a broken something-or-other. What happened in that gym was only occasionally pretty. We could do the job, but we were hardly a well-oiled machine.

But it was fun. Sometimes old men's dreams aren't all that formidable--just a good set or two or three, and the chance to work up a sweat and play your heart out. 

The setter was, as most setters seem to be, short and squat and quick. Geno wasn't a young man either. He was older than I was, by a stretch too. He was a veteran. It was his job to field bumps--more than a few of them errant--and somehow serve them up to me for the kill. Sometimes it worked in that classic textbook way, and when it did, we left happy. Life was good. We were formidable, even a little fearsome, I'd like to think. 

If I do the math, it seems that the era of town-league volleyball in a tiny Christian school gym was forty-some winters ago. That makes me 70 and Geno even older. The obituary says 84, but that seems a stretch. I'm thinking he couldn't have been that old really--at least I don't want him to have been. 

In my memory, I'll always see him next to me, husky shoulders, barrel-chested, a lefty, trying his best to lift a bump up high without carrying the ball, a guy who was maybe a bit too old to be playing volleyball, even town league--but then maybe we all were, or most of us. The thing is, we still had some fight in us, enough testosterone to get us off the floor for a good block at the net. 

Geno died last week, surrounded by his family, many of whom I know, a loving family because Geno was a loving man, a sweet guy with a gentle disposition and a servant's soul. You got to be if you're going to be a setter. You've got spend your time and energy serving up the goods for the tall guy next to you. Comes with the territory. You got to give it away. Setters do.

Town-league volleyball didn't last. I don't know what killed it, but by the time our family returned from a few years away, what once had been was no more. Occasionally, I'd meet him and his wife, say hello, share a smile or two and maybe a memory of the days when he used to set me up. 

Like a thousand ex-students of mine, Geno will always be the age he was when I knew him best, when he'd scramble around the gym floor, trying to magically turn bumps into sets for spikes to be kills. I'll always see him beside me back then, always remember him smiling, loving the game.

There was so much more to his life, so much that town league volleyball hardly merits a footnote. But I want to believe that Geno himself would tell me I could do worse than hold on to those memories of a time long ago when he took the floor right next to me on an over-the-hill gang playing their hearts out in an otherwise empty Christian school gym.

Geno was a setter. He was always a setter and will always be in my book. Today, even now, even today on Christmas Eve, at his funeral, he's a gift, a blessing.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Sunday Morning Meds--Commitment

Image result for wedding pictures

“Commit your way to the LORD.” Psalm 37:5 

Just returned from the website of a couple of students I had in a writing class a three or four years ago. I hadn’t known that their nuptials were finally going to happen. I got an e-mail from the new husband—one of those mass e-mails—that directed family and friends to check out a few of the wedding pix on their wedding website. There were hundreds.

Both kids I liked, a lot. I really wanted them to get married, and, quite frankly, I think they lolly-gagged far too long. Like most twenty-somethings today, they dawdled, finding it difficult, I suppose, to commit. I’m not sure what it is about their generation, but drawing a bead on the future—marriage, profession—seems really arduous task for them. And it is, I guess.

No matter. I’m glad the two of them finally got married. I looked over some of the pictures—fairly typical stuff—a bunch of friends at the night-before barbeque and the rehearsal; then the wedding, some standard shots, many nice ones taken in the bride’s family’s orchard, fruit trees running down away from a family of smiling faces.

I wonder what happened. I wonder how they finally determined that this courtship of theirs—a good chunk of it carried on with a half a continent between them—was actually finally going to end in ceremony. Maybe one of them said it was time to fish or cut bait.

Thirty years ago, when my wife and I got married, it was easier to make commitments, perhaps because, as children of an ethnic and religious ghetto, the length and breadth of this world didn’t seem as endless, the dangers as immediate, or the choices as wide. The world seemed smaller, more manageable; commitment didn’t loom so ominously. Half of the wedding pictures people snap during this summer’s round of nuptials will be burned within the next few years—or simply deleted. Lots of marriages fail. They had reason to pause, I suppose.

Commitments aren’t easy for any of us. Yesterday’s newspaper told the story of a local soccer star who had signed to play for a college after getting all sorts of ink for committing to a different one several months ago. So much for that commitment.

“Commit the Lord,” the verse says—buckle yourself in, sign on the dotted line, become part of a team, draw up a contract, become a part of something.

Commitments are daunting because, once made, choice goes cold; and our world today finds nothing as precious as the freedom to choose. Commit to a college and your choosing is behind you. Commit to a spouse, and you’ll have to pick up your clothes and hang ‘em in the closet. Commit to God—and what?

Commit to God, and pack up all the other commitments and relationships—love of money, love of fame, love of power—and most of all, love of self. Commitment, an act of will, means giving yourself away. There are great rewards in committing to the Lord, but there’s some cost: yourself. The very essence of religious experience—you choose the faith—is the denial of self. Maybe that’s why we balk so easily, kids especially, in this affluent age.

The road before my former students, now married, is straight and narrow. But love is worth it. Love is best.

I pray those pictures will last.

Friday, December 21, 2018


This year Mother Nature had her ducks in a row. Outside my window this morning the world is pitch black; for almost three hours it'll stay just that way because we're in the thick, deep freeze of the year's longest night. The wind has stopped now, after about a fierce, day-long siege that locked up just about everyone in what Emerson called "the tumultuous privacy of storm."

Winter solstice--just as pagan in usage, I suppose, as Mother Nature--came and went angrily, as if offended, like an old queen who believes her subjects are becoming spoiled, indolent. The shortest day/longest night piggy-backed on a rush of bitter cold straight from the artic, coldest temps of the year, maybe even of the season (we can hope)--wind chills near -40 below.

I have no idea if Jesus Christ was born in December 25. I'm not a biblical historian, and, quite frankly, I don't care if he wasn't. But this morning, in the pitch darkness of winter solstice, I'm thrilledjust that somewhere along the line someone decided (maybe God, maybe man) that late December was the right time for a baby king who would be saviour. Because it is the right time. Is it ever.

July 4 is sort of mid-term too, just a couple of days after the summer solstice; but July 4, at least in Siouxland, wouldn't be the same because right now, Good Lord!, we really need him. Right now, we need hope and joy and a release from the cold bondage of a natural world that seemingly could care less for us or any other living thing.

Last night, our preacher talked about Christ the intruder. He's right, of course. Jesus comes into our lives willy-nilly most often, doesn't bother to knock, the king of serendipity. He intrudes into our humdrum, shocking us with his sudden presence.

But last night I couldn't help thinking, as the few of us who could make it to church sat there listening, about how good it is that he chooses late December to intrude--how his story, his music, his grace, his very presence, somehow pierces the swarming darkness that sits so arrogantly outside my basement window this bitter mid-winter's morning.

Some 15th century German hymn writer knew it too, or else he couldn't have written as well as he did.

Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming
from tender stem hath sprung!
Of Jesse’s lineage coming,
as men of old have sung.
It came, a floweret bright,
amid the cold of winter,
When half spent was the night.

I'm sure it's true in Bermuda too, or the Ivory Coast or Dominica; but there are some moments in the bitterly cold hands of a Great Plains winter, when Nature herself cries out for a Savior, someone to intrude into the horrid cold, someone to set us free from the deep darkness. This year, Christmas can't arrive any too soon.

It's still a dark night outside my basement window, longest and coldest night of the year--20 below, this morning.

But there's an intruder a'comin, like a rose a'bloomin' because as the Bible says that just about now "the true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world." He has.
*First published December 22, 2008.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Small Wonders--Virgil Earp of Pella (ii)

Virgil Earp and daughter, Nellie Jane

Even though Virge and Allie, his wife, never had any of their own, Virge had a thing about children, his sister-in-law says. He loved kids and dogs. "This sounds like some kind of testimonial," Josephine Earp wrote in her memoir of life with Wyatt, "but it's not."

Even though Virge was an Earp, and did more than his share of shooting, he was capable of a mission of mercy now and then, like the time he hauled a drunk out of a saloon when he saw the guy's fist full of bills, then locked him up and, in the morning, gave back every last dollar--a thousand of 'em, Josephine says.

There were these "cowboys" at the OK Corral, tough hombres local ranchers hated to love, bullies who rustled cattle out of Mexico and sold them to locals dirt cheap. On Wednesday, October 26, 1881, one of those rustlers named Ike Clanton was strutting around, looking to kill Virge and Wyatt, the law, he said. Instead, Virge clocked him cold with his six gun, arrested him, then set a $25 fine Ike paid. 

Later that afternoon, Ike came back with buddies, so Virge deputized two of his brothers, Wyatt and Morgan, and Doc Halliday. "Boys, throw up your hands," Virge told the cowboys when they met on the street. Ike and his boys didn't and thus began the legendary shootout at OK Corral. Three cowboys were dead when the smoke cleared. Virge and Morgan both took a bullet, and the streets were a mess.

That didn't end hostilities. On December 28, Virge got hit again, left arm, when someone hidden away on Allen Street used a shotgun on him. Pretty much lost that arm, but he told his wife not to worry. "I still got one arm left to hug you with," he said.

Bad wing and all, Virgil Earp never stopped chasing dreams. If you'd stick something in a map at every boom town where the Earps left a mark, the wild west would look like a pin cushion. 

Oregon's not one of those, but get this--Virgil Earp is buried in Portland, a place he visited only once. It's a story that begs to be told. 

A woman contacted him to let him know that she was his daughter, the daughter of that Dutch girl from Pella he probably shouldn't have married, the one who thought him dead in the war, the Civil War. That daughter sent them a note to say who she was. Just like that, Virge and Allie lit out for Portland.

"It was a meeting of great feelings," Allie remembers, "and after these had been dispensed with, they went to her home." Then this: "All these years and me and Virge never had a baby, and here was Virge finding out for the first time in his life he had a grown-up young lady daughter, Jane."

She was the daughter of the Pella girl, the Iowan with wooden shoes. 

Then Virge and Allie went back to Esmeralda County, Nevada, where, when he was a one-armed sheriff. He was 62 years when he smoked his last cigar and breathed his last.

Virgil Earp lived all over the west, from the end of the Civil War until the day he died. Only once had he been in Portland, Oregon, and that was to meet a daughter he'd never known. But Oregon was where he wanted to be laid to rest, he told Allie, so he could be near that daughter of his when one day her turn came. 

There's not much of Siouxland in Virgil's story, not a bit. Maybe now and then he and the brothers passed through.

But something in that miracle circle Virge made makes me want to think his life has an Iowa feel. Maybe it's just me, but I really do.  

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Small Wonders--The Earps of Pella (i)

Tall, dark, and handsome?--all of that. Virgil and his brothers were a shim or two over six feet, handsome, buffalo-shouldered guys whose sheer physical presence could quell a storm, big, buff bruisers who could walk into a saloon and make every man bellied up to the bar feel like a prune. 

They were Iowans. Well, sort of. They did a lot of growing up here, but had roots in Kentucky and Illinois, their father one of those mid-century gold-diggers forever staring west. Nicholas Earp, his name was, a justice of the peace with a nasty habit of running afoul of the very law he administered. 

And you heard that name right--Earp, I said. As in Wyatt, Wyatt Earp. The Earps of the OK Corral and Tombstone and a dozen Dodge City saloons, five Earp boys who never wandered far from each other. The Earps were Iowans. I'm not making this up. 

They were raised here--somewhat anyway. They grew up in Pella, where the old man farmed, sort of--eighty acres. That's right, Pella, Iowa. Windmill country. Tulips and wooden shoes on the straight and narrow path of Calvinist righteousness. Law-abiding, bible-toting, Dutch-speaking Pella was once home to the Earp brothers, firebrands right off a shelf of dime novels. I didn't--I couldn't--make this up.

Wyatt's the star, but Wyatt's boyhood hero was his older brother Virgil, who was right there beside Wyatt wielding a Winchester at the infamous OK Corral. Big brother Virgil, some years before Tombstone, got his little brother his first badge. Virgil got his start in "lawing," as the boys used to say, when he took a job as a bouncer in a brothel. The Earps had a thing for being the law and owning brothels. And yes, that was after they left Pella. 

And it was after the Civil War. Virgil served three years, somehow avoiding the bloodiest campaigns. He was married--sort of--to a nice Dutch girl named Ellen Rysdam, who had his baby a bit before it should have arrived, if you catch my drift.

During those three years, for some unknown reason, Virgil Earp was reported to be a casualty, killed in action. But he wasn't. Never took a bullet. Some claim the whole death thing was fabricated by two fathers with no interest in a marriage that never should have taken place. Anyway, Ellen Rysdam got to believing that Virgil was gone, so she remarried and moved to Oregon. No matter where you read the Earp story, there weren't many tears shed by anyone. 

Meanwhile, old man Earp led a wagon train of Pella folks out to California, in a trek that may have set a record for horrors even though they never saw an Lakota warrior. Old man Earp, by all accounts, wasn't any better at keeping wagons in line than he was his boys. As far as I know, neither the old man or the boys ever returned to Pella's paths of righteousness.

Soon enough, the boys were all out seeking their fortune, looking for gold, taking law-and-order jobs for cash to make those dreams come true. Deadwood, Dodge City, Tombstone--places of legend became home to Pella's Earps, who were quick learners when it came drink and cards and fisticuffs.

Virgil made a name for himself in Prescott, Arizona, when he toted that Winchester down the street to apprehend two drunk gunslingers shooting at a woman's dog. Just like that, seven men stood in the street, guns drawn. Minutes later, they were blazing. Virgil's rifle took out both roisters, who were wanted for killing two Colorado lawmen. We're talking wild west here, not Pella, Iowa.

more tomorrow. . .

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Italy xxi--Michelangelo's Piata

The story goes that Michelangelo used to come by St. Peter's Basilica at night, and just stand there before his sculpture, not because he was so proud of what he'd done but because he'd grown to love this Mary, mother of  Christ, he'd created. Some say the woman he'd crafted so wondrously from marble had become the mother he'd lost when he was a boy, just five years old. Others, I'm sure, see something other.

I don't know if those stories are true, nor does anyone else, but I know the sheer beauty of Michelangelo's Piata' is remarkable enough to create stories. It was a commissioned by a rich man who wanted something beautiful to adorn his tomb and finished in two years, when Michelangelo was just 24 years old. Today, 500 years later, the Piata' is as famous as anything you will stand in line to see in Rome. In St. Peter's, it stands where it has since the 18th century, but it's been in Rome since he finished it in 1499. 

Because there's so much else to gather your attention in the basilica, the Piata', oddly enough, is easy to miss when you walk in. But it's there to your right, bathed in a light so soft it composes a perfect picture. I'd like to tell you it took me an hour to set up this shot, but Michelangelo's masterpiece sits in a beautiful frame lit so gloriously you can't miss.

What everyone sees when they look closely is a Mary who is far too young to have a thirty-year-old crucified son. She seems a child herself. That's no mistake. Like no one else, Michelangelo might say, she is the mother of our Lord. 

Christ's limp body is muscled and veined to make clear he is not a boy. Yet, he somehow needs to be held. With her right hand, she holds his limp body, even though her fingers don't touch his cold flesh. Piata ("the pity") is a child mom holding her dead son.  Age is of no concern.

Long ago already observers speculated that if Michelangelo's Mary could step out of the marble, she'd be seven feet tall. But so much of her is hidden beneath her flowing robes that you barely notice. Somehow, as this entire scene emerged from the marble, Michelangelo opened his own vision of mother and child.  

Mary's left hand is open in some gesture. To us? To God? In defiance maybe? Maybe in acceptance? After all, look at the the serenity in her face. She spent her lifetime somehow knowing. Had to. Her child was, after all, a savior, who is Christ the Lord.

Spend two weeks in Italy, tour a half-dozen basilicas, and you'll see a couple hundred Madonnas and child--flat, Byzantine Madonnas, fleshy classical Madonnas, big and bouncy baroques--all kinds of Madonnas, babes in tow. In a city where the Virgin will always be queen, there are hundreds, in all shapes and sizes.

By definition and design, the Piata isn't just another version. And yet, I'd like to think, it is: the Virgin of Bethlehem, and her boy, a man struck dead for us, Madonna and child from marble. Pity.

Mary's face reminds me of "Mary's Song," a poem by Luci Shaw that's graced with paradox: "His breath (so slight it seems/no breath at all) once ruffled the dark deeps/to sprout a world. . ."

Luci Shaw's "Mary's Song" is a Nativity poem, a poem for the season, this season. I hear "Mary's Song" because there is paradox in a mother's love so big it really couldn't be, and a beautiful boy, the Son of God Almighty, a man so seemingly finished. 

Here's the lingering, final thoughts of Shaw's poem:

Older than eternity now he
is new. Now native to earth as I am, nailed
to my poor planet, caught that I might be free,
blind in my womb to know my darkness ended,
brought to this birth
for me to be new-born,

and then finally this tangled mystery:

and for him to see me mended
I must see him torn. 

That's what I see here in Mary's face. 

Monday, December 17, 2018

Tears at Christmas*

Image result for Christmas program kids

Yesterday, one of the burlapped-clothed, Galilean shepherds up in front of church, the tallest, stood up front, took the mike from the little girl shepherd in front of him, and said his lines with well-practiced precision. Had he been my grandson, I'd have beamed. For each of the seven acts of this year's Christmas play, his recitations were almost elegant, in fact.

Save one. Act Six went badly.

The little girl shepherd spoke her lines, and, following the script, handed him the mike. Just then, his memory left the building.  He looked around. The whole world was watching. He stood there with his memory belly-up, completely blank. No words.

Blessedly, hundreds of parents and grandparents never noticed because a choir of pre-K sweeties were stealing the show as they always do. Only the boy's parents and probably a few others witnessed the deep freeze. And, mercifully, the show went on. The pianist gave him a few seconds, then covered up the silence by barreling into the next carol. Hardly anyone noticed.

The thing is, he knew he muffed it, and he couldn't just laugh it off. Who knows?--maybe his being a conscientious lid landed him a major role in the first place. Because he is, he probably could not forgive his terrible embarrassment. Even though the rest of the church didn't miss a beat, this poor sweet kid heard only an indictment: YOU FORGOT YOUR LINE, DUMMY.

So a tear came. Another followed, and then another, and another.

Along came Act Seven. That same little girl shepherd handed him the mike, and this time, still sniffling, he nailed it.

No matter. The damage was done. He no more than got out the words and he was wiping his eyes with the back of his hands.

A hundred kids were up in front of the church, but once his waterworks started, he couldn't stop. Tears kept coming, and he kept wiping 'em away. Even when the show moved to its darling end, he was, well, disconsolate.

Once he opens his presents this Christmas, I'd like to think his oh-so-public horror will be gone, but that speechless moment and the tears it wrought will hang around his memory for years, I figure.

Poor kid couldn't forgive himself for messing up a pageant meant to honor baby Jesus, the Lord of forgiveness. Someday, that equation will make sense.

But it's the human story in yesterday's Christmas pageant I couldn't shake: this poor kid wants to get it right, but finds himself bereft of words as priest Zechariah, and it breaks him up--all that up on stage in front of the whole world.

Someday, a couple of decades from now, when his own little daughter plays a shepherd in the church Christmas program, he won't mention what happened, because he won't want to risk passing along horror along. He'll be just as silent as yesterday.

So that moment will stay there, but playfully, a cute little memory he'll never forget.

Sometimes--and this is the lesson of Christmas--forgiveness is as simple as that.

Then again, mostly it's not, and that's why we need to hear the old story of a very special barn and manger again and again and again, even when it's told by screaming three-year-olds and a gaggle of cross-gendered shepherds abiding in their fields, keeping watch over the flocks by night, Galilean shepherds who listen to the angels tell them--and us--for millionth time, "Fear not--we bring good tidings of great joy. " 

We can't hear that enough. Go on and wipe away those tears.
First published December 21, 2009.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Sunday Morning Meds--Soul Prosperity

“He is like a tree planted by streams of water, 
which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. 
Whatever he does prospers” Psalm 1:3 

Simple stuff, really. We’re hearing the voice of some ordinary shepherd here, reflecting on what he’s seen and heard out in the bush, right? The man (and woman) who lives right, who knows God’s grace, who is thankful daily, is like a tree planted by water, ever fruitful. On that person, no wilting, no folding—whatever he does prospers.

Now there’s a line that doesn’t need a dime’s worth of interpretation. You can take that to the bank: the righteous, the psalm suggests, will find their every last endeavor succeeding beyond their own wildest dreams.

“Whatever he does prospers” is an unrepentant-ly American line. If we obey God’s law and don’t hang around with low-lifes, Psalm 1 says, we’ll get all the goodies we’re dreaming of. Prosperity gospel.

Maybe. Maybe not.

Two hundred years ago, not far from where I live, the great American explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark led the Corps of Discovery up the muddy Missouri, looking for an overland passage to the Pacific Ocean. Just last week I followed the snaking Missouri through a good deal of South Dakota. I love the Lewis and Clark yarn. I admire the pluck and sheer human will of the thirty adventurers who crossed land where no white guy had ever left a footprint before. I’m a real fan.

But picture this for a minute. Meriwether Lewis carried a branding iron with his own name in the design, used it to mark trees, to brand them. True. Can you imagine what the Yankton Sioux thought of this white guy laying a hot brand on the bark of some hovering cottonwood, then stepping back, the bark still sizzling, and saying the trees were the property of the Great White Father?

Or how about this? An equally significant objective of the mission was to wrest trade with the Indians away from the French, to consolidate the work of the tribes out west, and to secure peace in the newly acquired frontier west. But not long after they returned, Hidatsas went after the Shoshonis, the Arikaras and the Sioux raided the Mandans. There was no peace. Just a few decades later, disease wiped out thousands from those very tribes, disease carried by white people.

Did the Lewis and Clark Expedition “prosper”? Well, in a way; they got back and forth to the Pacific. But the successes they desired weren’t exactly what they achieved. They never did find that easy overland route.

“It is not outward prosperity which the Christian most desires and values,” writes the old sage Spurgeon; “it is soul prosperity he longs for.” Why limit it? I'm thinking the vast majority of living, breathing human beings all seek "soul prosperity."

Soul prosperity: a certain largesse of character, a loving spirit, an unflinching generousness, peace in heart and mind, a sense of comfort with God’s designs for our lives, and a smile for eternity.

"Whatever he or she does prospers."  It is that simple, I guess: the shepherd-poet isn’t talking about Vegas or Wall Street high drama.

Soul prosperity. That's what we’re all after, isn’t it?