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.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Reading Mother Teresa--A crucifix

He said to them, 

“How foolish you are, 
and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 

Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things 
and then enter his glory?” 
Luke 24:25–26

I have, above my desk, a crucifix my sister gave me. She’d become frustrated because she really didn’t know what to do with it. She knew it wasn’t “ours” exactly, meaning roughly, “Protestant,” but she understood at the same time that the cross adorned with the suffering Christ – a hefty crucifix, by the way – was nothing to sneeze at. A proud old Roman Catholic client she visited regularly in her job as a social worker bestowed it upon her as a loving gift. But that crucifix made her feel uncomfortable, as if she couldn’t – or shouldn’t – somehow own it.

I know what she meant – that big thing seems, well, too bloody Gothic for a real evangelical. We like our crosses clean and shiny, not adorned with the semi-clad body of a suffering Jesus. Somebody put up three crosses in a new subdivision here, right along the street. Nice. Comfortably pious. They’re all empty. I can’t imagine the same person would put them up adorned with bodies – that would be unsettling, even, well, unpleasant.

We’re all about “resurrection,” after all. Evangelicals want to tell the story of holy week by way of its grand finale, a rolled-away stone and burial garments folded neatly as if the grave were little more than five-star hotel.

Traditionally, at least, that perspective is not as true of Roman Catholics – and certainly not Mother Teresa, who led her life as someone who believed deeply that “sharing Christ” had less to do with putting a fish on her bumper, a cross on her lawn, or a tract in a toilet stall than placing herself as close as she could to his suffering self every last day of her life. Honestly, that idea is as foreign to an evangelical mind like mine as Jesus Christ clothed in feathers and beads as a Dakota warrior.

Mother Teresa thought of herself, remember, as “his bride,” and her longing to be with him actually began on the cross, in his passion. She wanted to suffer with him, to hurt, to thirst. She wanted nails through her hands, if not literally, metaphorically. She wanted to be up there on that cross, sharing the pain of his broken body. She looked forward to pain. She relished it. She made his misery her joy. The crosses in her lives weren’t clean, weren’t bright, weren’t shiny; in no way, part of an attractively thought out -bit of sanctified landscape design.

Mother Teresa “longed for a complete union with Christ,” her spiritual biographer says; and because she did, she “could not do otherwise than be united to Him in His suffering” (25).

My sister couldn’t just toss that big crucifix, and her brother can’t either. It stays right up here on my wall. It seems to me that the image of the suffering Christ is something I missed, growing up Calvinist, growing up Evangelical. It may well not have been part of my world, but it can’t be edited out of the story, not even for pious reasons.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Just one story--Mrs. Dow of Little Falls

In the days of the first settlers, a woman named Mrs. William Dow, along with her husband and children, lived in a town that would become Little Falls, Minnesota, but was, in the 1850s, still the land of the Chippewas. 

When the Dows first came, she says she watched an Indian woman emerge from a tipi with a newborn and, with little seeming concern, take that baby down to the river, hold it by its heels and douse it, then reverse the hold by grabbing its head and once more giving the child a bath. She tells that story in a memoir of her life, describes it with as much ordinariness as that which the Chippewa woman bathed that baby. But she remembers. She didn't forget.

Once, she says, she saw Mr. Hall, a neighbor, milking his cow in a pasture, surrounded by a rail fence. Across the field and behind his back, she claims, a couple of the Chippewas were stretching brand new scalps they'd taken somehow from their enemy Sioux. They were stretching them, as if they were muskrat pelts. When they finished, they celebrated with the kind of screaming joy that echoed off the trees all around. Mr. Hall never saw them, but the moment they started screaming Mrs. Dow saw the cow bolt and run, mid-milking. Mr. Hall, she says, without ever turning around, out ran that animal back toward the lean-to. She tells the story in a tone that grins, as if it were a cartoon.

Those were the days of war in the region, Little Crow's war, the Dakota uprising, the 1862 Dakota War--Minnesotans still aren't sure exactly what to call it. For several months, life in Little Falls was lived on fearful edge, even though Mrs. Dow and Mr. Hall lived with the Chippewas, and not the Sioux who'd been those who'd gone to war. 

Nonetheless, when she felt things get treacherous, she listened to her friends and took her kids and herself to the sanctuary of St. Cloud, where they'd be safe. One day, she says, she met someone who told her they'd been by her place and couldn't help notice that someone had moved in. "'Well,' said I, 'if anyone can, I can." And she moved back. Home, you might say. 

There was, remember, war all around. Her husband was gone down South, fighting the Rebs with some Minnesota outfit. She was alone with her kids, as was her neighbor, an Indian woman named Mrs. Salome, who'd married a white man. He too was gone to the war down South. 

So together, the two of them, neighbors and friends, used to sit some afternoons and write letters. Mrs. Salome had no writing education, so Mrs. Dow says she would write Mrs. Salome's husband for her, tell him all the things Mrs. Salome wanted her soldier-husband to know. When the letter was finished, Mrs. Dow says, Mrs. Salome "would sign them with her cross." That's a priceless picture, don't you think?--two women, one white, one red, writing their husband's together.

When the Dakota people started resistance, Mrs. Salome looked at Mrs. Dow and said, "Kinne sagas?--meaning, "are you afraid?" Mrs. Dow says she did not reply, but Mrs. Salome said, "If you are, I will hide you." 

Very good reasons exist to explain why people no longer tell stories about settlers like Mrs. Dow. The inescapable fact is that people like the Dows and Halls, often unwittingly, brashly displaced those who'd lived on the prairie and along the woods for generations. That plain fact of history can not be denied. 

Still, Mrs. Dow's story deserves not to be buried with her. Her story--their stories--are simply too good to lose.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Gifts and thanks

She's a great lady, an old and dear friend, a blessed soul who found herself in the unenviable position of having to purge possessions, leaving home and moving to an apartment. She couldn't take it all, including a library.

That's how we got the book, a gift from someone who thought we'd enjoy it. Besides, if she could place that book with someone who'd appreciate it, she'd avoid having to toss it in the waste basket, all that wisdom, all that blessed piety. "So I'll give it to the Schaaps," she thought. "After all, he taught English for all those years. He probably loves poetry."

That's the way it got here, I'm sure.

Now it's ours, One Year Book of Poetry: 365 Devotional Readings Based on Classic Christian Verse (1979--forty years old). Even the title could have used an editor; Tyndale House, Wheaton--the book's hometown is known far and wide for the depth of its Christian virtues. 

It's devotional reading all right, and the poetry is too, a genre I might call "devotional" poems, the kind I spent most of my life being snooty about, as if I'd graduated from such gaudy religiosity back in junior high. I'd read T. S. Eliot, for heaven's sake. What need had I of poetry that can't finish itself without some tearful epiphany?

Let me be biblical here. Like Adam, it was my wife who took it off the shelf and nudged in front of me as if it were that cursed apple. I don't remember her saying anything one night after supper, but what she was proposing was giving the sweet gift of a good friend a bit of a trial run. After all, our friend meant so well in bequeathing us One Year Book of Poetry

Okay, besides January 1 is William Blake, without whom English Romanticism could hardly have stirred into a movement. Typically however, the Blake poem is "The Lamb," which is the innocent twin of its oppose, the fierce and even scary little poem "The Tyger," which is neither there nor mentioned in One Year.

But we've stayed with it. We're well into our second week, and while you shouldn't consider this some kind of recommendation--there's no accounting for taste, after all--that book, that gift, has prompted more than a few smiles. At times, I'll leave the final words out when I'm reading to see how perfectly predictable the rhymes are; my wife fills them in easily. 

As you can imagine, the daily/nightly poems are museum pieces that, through the years, one musician or another has determined worthy of a musical setting. Thus, many are likely better known as hymns than poems.

If you're evangelical and no longer a kid, you can guess the vintage of those hymns; they're a genre no one sings anymore, the kind now deeply baked into evangelical boomer consciousness. Last night, Arabella Catherine Hankey's "I Love to Tell the Story." How's that for a golden oldie?

There's more to this story. We have yet another gift gracing our supper table, this one from the here-and-now. Our kids gave us a Google Hub, which kindly flashes pictures, 24/7, of our precious two-year-old granddaughter 600 miles away, and also answers more questions than we could possibly create. 

Here's what happens. We read poem and devotional, then ask Google to find a musical setting and play it. It's done well, as a matter of fact. If Google finds one, we listen. I'm well away that kind of behavior would go over well at the Home. Believe me, we'll get there soon enough.

So last night she asked Google to find and play "I Love to Tell the Story" and added the name of yet another old friend, a choral director. Praise Google, for it gloriously broke into a rambunctious setting for that frumpy old hymn, a setting created and directed by an old friend, sung by a choir that included my own ex-students, and dedicated, as you shall hear, to our own now-retired preacher, who also remains a very dear friend.

What a blessing. What I'm saying is, it is well with my soul.

So thank you, all around--even Google.

You got five minutes? You got to hear:

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Just One Story--Friedrich August von der Heydt

It would be his last command. It's difficult to believe he didn't see it that way himself; after all, he and other high-ranking officers in the German army knew--or believed anyway--that Hitler's time and rule had come and gone. Friedrich August Freiherr von der Heydte was no quitter; he'd won an Iron Cross for his heroics during the Wehrmacht's battle for the island of Crete.

It was his friends--and his cousin, Count von Stauffenberg --who had been at the center of Valkayre rebellion, the attempted and failed assassination of Der Fuhrer on July 20, 1944.

Six months later, when Hitler gambled big-time, midwinter, at the Battle of the Bulge, he sent von der Heydte out and his paratroopers out behind Allied lines to put a squeeze on the few American troops along what was called "the ghost front" because there were so few GIs. Von der Heydte was promised a crack unit, but what he was given was 150 recruits, many, if not most, of whom had never jumped from an airplane.

On December 16, 1944, his command in the surprise assault could not have gone worse. While troops from the Third Reich were advancing against scattered Allied forces all around, von der Heydte's paratroops who survived were scattered through the woods, many injured, more than a few dead from the jump itself. Von der Heydte himself had suffered a painful wrist injury.

Long before he jumped that night, he believed Hitler's dream for reversing the course of the war was hair-brained. But he fought anyway, led his men into agony--and for what?

"Pen and paper if you please?" he asked of a man and his son who answered his knock on their door one dark night in Belgium, war raging in the forest all around.

"I'm a Hitler youth," the little boy said, proudly.

Von der Heydte wrote a note out with his bad hand. "Take this to the Americans," he told the boy. "I'm surrendering."

Friedrich August Freiherr von der Heydte was there when blitzkrieg roared into Poland, then France. His outfit landed on the island of Crete, then he was sent to Rome, where, a strong Catholic, he had an audience with the Pope. Eventually, he was returned to France, the western front. But that night, December 18, 1944, he was done. Finished. Tired. Sick. Wounded. Soul weary.

Even before the failed assassination the rebels called Valkayre, even in the thickest fog of war, he'd seen the end coming, knew the idiot gambit Hitler had dreamed up, in his madness, was just another deadly chapter in his idiot plan to rule the world. In Battle: The Story of the Bulge, John Toland says that night, right then, von der Heydte, war weary, sat down and "prayed it would soon be over for everyone."

Iron Cross, German Cross, Knights Cross and Oak Leaves--what on earth or in heaven did all of that mean right then? 

One million Allied troops were there at the Battle of the Bulge, exactly 75 years ago, half of those American. Six hundred thousand Germans, von der Heydte among them, opened up a bloody series of attacks nobody saw coming on an eighty-mile front.

Friedrich August Freiherr von der Heydte was just one story at the Battle of the Bulge. Is it any wonder why men and women, no matter what side they on, found it so difficult to talk about what no one who hadn’t been there could describe? 

Picture him there, sitting on a chair, in a strange home in Belgium, his arm heavily bandaged, waiting for an end he'd known was coming for months, but now, when he was there, he couldn’t really imagine. Allied forces retreated, then regrouped, and finally retook the Bulge. Hitler was finished. 

Von der Heydt was one of a more than a million who were there, 75 years ago. His is just one story. 

[von der Heydt being lifted into an Allied ambulance]

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Morning Thanks--Minimalist January

Just so you know. What drew me out here wasn't the Luxembourgers' monument. I'd been here before, I already knew what it remembers, and I didn't need to see it or read it. 

For the record, here it is unfrosted. The stone on top quotes I Thessolonians 1: 2-3; the plaque says "In Memory of the Early Settlers" and then May 20, 1970.

What drew me out of the basement was strange January weather--thick fog atop six of inches of the kind of light and airy snow that puts a top hat on everything. Unusual snowfall out here where blizzards are about wind as much as they are about snow. Yesterday was an oddly opaque morning. The sky gave seemed resolute--no sun was going to break through, which meant that what you saw outside isn't much.

What drew me out was a good question: could I catch that nothingness in a camera? Can I find beauty in a drab and colorless world? It's a challenge to someone who lives here 150 years after those early settlers celebrated. In the sod house, January, 1971, they weren't thinking about their DSLRs or a morning ride down still snow-choked roads. There were no roads.

Anyway, what was outside our windows was a look you don't see all that often, a look that begged me to get out.  So, here goes:

The thing about January--low-light, endless fields of snow--is it makes us all minimalists. There's nothing comely about anything here: a few broken stalks from standing after harvest, a couple random roadside weeds, a telephone pole, and undefined land and sky. Nothing comely, but somehow, it speaks. Not loud, just minimal.

You have to remind yourself this isn't black-and-white photography. Just the scent of color runs along the banks of the Floyd here. 

This one cheats a bit. BTW, this isn't hoarfrost. This is what remains of an anomaly--snow that comes straight down and doesn't blow. That never happens--except Sunday night.

This cheats too. The river offers angles and shadows glaore. It tells its own stories, no matter what kind of backdrop it happens to have.

I'm just aiming and framing. The camera does nothing more than repeat, vividly, what I saw. The "fierce artificer," Emerson called it--he meant what he thought of as God--is the Producer/Director; He's the showrunner. What's out here is just what he left us after the storm--a darkened river slowly freezing over as it winds through the garden.

You want Baroque, visit Italy. What I learned on a foggy Monday morning is that even in a darkened, colorless world, something awesome is here, something more than minimally beautiful.

Thanks be to God, who can even make a spreader sing.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Mir Woelle Bliewe Wat Mir Sin

For flag-waving Americans, it's not particularly easy to get a grip on the size of Luxembourg--or rather "the Duchy of Luxembourg," a tiny land-locked country that borders France, Belgium, and Germany, and thus couldn't miss World War II. Its piddly 1000 square miles means it's less than half the size of Delaware (1995) and just a bit smaller than tiny Rhode Island (1034). But that doesn't really help. Let's just say, if you're from Luxembourg, you're probably missed.

I grew up in the neighborhood of Luxembourgian-Americans, who lived in and around Belgium, Wisconsin, a place with a name that may well have made its immigrant generation actually feel at home. My dad worked for Luxembourgian-Americans for years, not an exact fit, he being strong-willed Dutch Calvinist, his bosses all cradle Catholics. They partied and he didn't. Made life difficult. 

This year the Luxembourgians in northwest Iowa will be celebrating 150 years out here on the emerald edge of the plains. Because I've always lived so close by, I thought it only right that I find out what I can of their story and stories, and was directed, graciously, to number of places, as well as a small display case in the Plymouth County Museum celebrating their heritage, where I couldn't miss this odd sign, sort of hand-carved or printed on a chunk of barn wood: "Mir woelle bliewe wat mir sin" required a translation, at least for me. What it offers is: "We want to remain what we are."

There are a thousand ways to reference such a platitude in a place like northwest Iowa. It's not a particularly foreign ethic. Reminds me of the Jim Heynen story of a Siouxland farmer who flat refused indoor plumbing when everyone else was dumping the outhouse. Wouldn't have a toilet in the house, he said, because it seemed shameless to think of human beings doing their duties just a room away. No, no, no--"we want to remain what we are," he could just as well have said.

Look, to tell the truth, I loved the sign; but it had to have a story, so I went back to the woman who had sent me to the display. I had to know. "What on earth is that sign all about?" I asked her.

When her answer appeared in my in-box, I couldn't believe it. "It's our national motto," she said, a bit shame-facedly, "which may explain why we can be so conservative."

National motto, you say? Priceless.

It is--she wasn't pulling my leg. It appears all over the little country, like this:

Somehow it looks better on an old dormer than it does etched on barn wood, not because the meaning is any different, but because when it's inscribed on a fancy bit of old style architecture it seems more storied, more authentic, and less plain old die-hard.

And it makes sense. Takes two days and then some to drive through Texas. You can pass through Luxembourg in an hour, visit in a day. The whole time, you're surrounded by pushy neighbors--the French, the Germans, even Belgians. They'd all have you for lunch if you didn't stand your ground--know what I mean? We don't want to be annexed anytime soon, see? "Mir wolle bleiwe wat mir sin"--which is our language, too, so put an umlaut on that o before you leave because that's the way we do it. "We want to remain what we are."

Tough to do in melting pot. It'll be fun to see how they celebrate this summer's big birthday. 

Then again, it wouldn't be strange or singular for them to throw up signs like that all over the neighborhood. Lots of wooden shoes, who don't know a thing about Luxembourgers, would be happy to put up the same sign or flash it on their bumpers for their very own hard-core reasons.  

"We want to stay what we are"--an internationally understood national motto. 

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Reading Mother Teresa--Paradox

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, 
for they will be filled. 
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. 
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Matthew 5:5–8

We baptized our firstborn, our daughter, in Arizona, where we lived, a thousand miles from either grandparent; so an old retired preacher and his wife told us they would be there and take the traditional grandparents’ role, which meant, among other things, Mrs. Verduin said, taking the baby out should she get fussy. Rev. and Mrs. Leonard Verduin were Arizona “snowbirds” we came to meet and love, and their participation in our daughter’s baptism was something I will never forget.

Rev. Verduin was born and reared in a tiny Dutch-American colony smack dab in the middle of South Dakota’s Rosebud Reservation. I’ll always remember the stories he told about his childhood out there in all that open land among the Brule' Sioux.

But then, there are lots of things I won’t forget about Rev. Verduin. Maybe most basic because most useful to me was his singular insistence that the real, honest-to-God truth is never circular, that is, it never has just one center, one pole. It’s always elliptical, he used to say – it always has two centers, never one. Jesus Christ was both God and man. How is that possible? I don’t know – it just is. It has to be or he isn’t who he said he was. Or this: freedom of speech means I can write anything I want; well, not just anything. If I sling slimy river mud at someone, a downright lie, then what I said is a bloody, muddy sin, if not a crime. There is no such thing as total freedom of speech because even freedom has limits: you can't yell fire in a crowded theater. Truth always has two centers.

I thought of Verduin when reading a passage from Mother Teresa, who confesses her own exhaustion on the streets of Calcutta. “It does not go so easily when a person has to be on one’s feet from morning until evening,” she tells her mentor and friend in a letter. “But still, everything is for Jesus,” she writes; “so like that everything is beautiful, even though it is difficult” (25).

Two centers, a kind of paradox, “a seemingly true statement . . . that leads to a contradiction or a situation which seems to defy logic or intuition.” What’s beautiful, really, is what isn’t.

But then, I don’t think I was raised to think it might be. When I was a kid, we used to sing, “I’d rather have Jesus than silver and gold” and a host of other lyrics that promised joy from suffering or divine beauty in tribulation. How about this: blessed are the poor in spirit.

Why on earth do I think her statement is paradox? Maybe because a gadzillion ads – on print and screen and wherever else – always promise something else. Ad men and women want me to believe in skin cream, Caribbean beaches, twin bathtubs.

How can anything be both difficult and beautiful?

Maybe, this morning, that I see her claim as a paradox this is maybe a mark of how far I’ve strayed from truth I learned as a child. Really, what Mother Teresa says is plain old biblical truth.

I’m the one full of mud. Shine on me, Lord. Shine on me.