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.

Tuesday, December 06, 2022

Morning Thanks--Potlucks

What brought me to the seminary was a project I'd been assigned, to give a presentation at a conference on the future of the denomination of which I've been a part since the day I was born--well, maybe before (Jeremiah 1:5, for Pro-Lifers), the Christian Reformed Church of North America. 

Quite simply, I was going around, hither and yon, asking a question pertinent to the future of a whole host of seminarians--to wit, what exactly is the future of the church? I stopped by at coffee time, so the sampling of seminarians who surrounded me was random; I had no idea if I was talking to conservatives or liberals or some combination thereof. But their answers were remarkably of a kind. They maintained that the church--their church upon graduation--would stay together only to the degree to which they could hang in there as a community

Me: And how will you create and maintain community?

Them: Potlucks (lots of grins).

It wasn't a dopey answer. They meant it, and I knew it. Potlucks bring people together to eat food, shared food too, holy food. In the Reformed tradition, nothing is sacred (hold tight to this bucking bronc of a paradox) because everything is, even, and maybe especially, a potluck--shared food and drink and conversation, the communion of community.

Last night, for the first time this holiday season, I greeted people at the door with "Merry Christmas." Couldn't help thinking it was more than a little premature, but I did. We were hosting the first Christmas party of the year, and it was, forsooth, the apropos way to greet them.

The descending sudden silence when a party is, at once, both a curse and a joy. Suddenly, we were alone with way too much punch and coffee. But this morning, I can happily report that, looking back on the evening, it was a good time, a good first Christmas party (tonight is another). 

It was good because the living room was full of good people, people I've come to like and appreciate. It was a good night because right here just off the banks of what little there is right now in the Floyd River, we had community. Not church, but community. 

And on the table last evening--you guessed it--a potluck.

That's why, this morning I'm thankful for potlucks.

Monday, December 05, 2022

Morning Thanks--Looking for Beauty

It's that time of  year when the sun hurries across the southern sky, almost as if it's out there somewhere beside you, not above you; and when it does, on days like yesterday, it lays dramatic shadows down almost ridiculously. Trees seem monsterish. I can't help but think they like it; they're just so much bigger with those long shadows.

The rest of the world right now is largely colorless. In December or throughout the winter really, the remarkable photographs require a good fresh pristine snow or the shaggy hoarfrost bearding every possible thing. 

Yesterday was neither. I had some long shadows but little else--some naked trees and a half-frozen pond, all of it a block or two, as the crow flies, from our place. But I have a new phone, so I thought I'd take a shot or two to see how this new one (I lost my last one!) performs.

Nice. I'm impressed.

The definition and detail seems wonderful, even if there's not much to shoot at, even up close.

Even at a distance--here's iconic Alton, St. Mary's in the far background, the most beautiful church in the county on the county's highest hill. 

Soon enough I'd sort of forgotten about the new phone and its remarkable camera. I was simply trying to line things up in compositions that might just be interesting--like these--

I was there long enough to watch the sun's Midas touch spread its beauty over everything, long enough to take in some long shadows over the kind of leathery world that's now in place for winter's reign. Just about anything looks beautiful in that glorious light that rises when the sun goes down.

I'd almost forgotten that when I used to head out with my camera, it really wasn't perfect landscapes I was after. I'd almost forgotten that old adage that photography helps us to see. I'd almost forgotten that it was nothing more or less than beauty I was after, just a few blessed glimpses.

This morning I'm thankful for an hour just down the road in a breathtaking place no one would judge such if they'd not looked.

Sunday, December 04, 2022

Sunday Morning Meds--Be Exalted

“Be exalted, O God, above the heavens; 
let your glory be over all the earth.”

The basic paradigm by which I’ve always seen the Christian life is the outline of a drama that rises from the handbook of doctrine with which I was raised. That outline goes like this: “sin, salvation, service.”

The story line begins with sin—our knowledge of it, as it exists within us. Calvin starts even a bit earlier, with the heavens, with our sense of God as manifest in his world: what we see and experience. Because humans can’t help but see God’s marvelous work in the heavens and the earth around us, we come to know that there is a God. With that knowledge, we feel our own limitations—that we aren’t God. And there begins our knowledge of human limits, our knowledge, finally, of sin.

That conviction draws us closer to God because we can't help but know we need a Savior. Sin precedes salvation, or so the story goes, through the second act.

Once we know that, in spite of our sin, he loves us, our hearts fill, our souls rejoice; we can’t help but celebrate our salvation. That celebration leads us into gratitude and service, into doing what we can to be his agents of love in the world he loves so greatly.

Sin, salvation, service—three acts, the narrative by which I was raised.

Mother Theresa’s take on a very similar tale in three different acts, was created, I suppose, by her experiences in the ghettos of Calcutta. Our redemption creates repulsion, she says—what we see offends, prompts us to look away. But we really 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. End Act II.

The final act is what she called “bewonderment,” which is wonder plus admiration. Our compassion leads us to bewonderment.

“Bewonderment” is likely one of those words no one uses but everyone understands. It’s like reverence, hard to come by in a world where needs appear never more than a price tag away.

I’ll admit that 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 God myself. 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 adoring, in part because I’m so rarely in awe.

But bewonderment is something I’m learning, even this morning, and for that I’m thankful—for the book of songs, for David, 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 grand and seemingly out of reach. But it’s something a song can teach—and the heavens too. It’s something even an old man can learn, if he has ears.

Friday, December 02, 2022

The mysteries at South Jordan

There may come a time when someone's great-grandma discovers, among stuff left behind in an upstairs closet, a dusty old day book some unknown great-grandma of hers left behind, a broken thing full of scribbled-in remnants of a story that today, sadly enough, no one knows, the story behind South Jordan cemetery, a tiny little graveyard not all that far from Moorhead, Iowa, that for years people have claimed is the final resting place for a number of residents who happen to have been African-Americans. That's right--a Black cemetery.

Today, it's hard to know who or how many good folks were laid to rest here. Most of graves are unmarked, some, locals say, victims of time and/or the brutal hijinks old forgotten things come victim to most anywhere in rural America. For a couple of generations, the place has been a haven for hooligans and six-packs, even though the place, sweetly kept, sits beneath a massive oak whose long arms appear to protect what's left of what's still there. 

You'll find it just off a snaky gravel road that doesn't offer much traffic. It's there all right, but you'll have to hunt.

Theories of its origins abound. For years, some locals liked to believe the people of color who once lived here were runaway slaves. Local historians have laid that story to rest, however, given the fact that one of the octogenarians remembers her grandfather, a doctor, who claimed his Black patients were a freed people invited to the Loess Hills to work land owned by a man named Adam Miers.

Adam Miers, of some standing, signed up for military sometime during the Civil War and became a part of a local militia disciplined to quell what they called "Indian problems." Did he fight? No one knows. What we know is that his name appears on the ledger. The Black folks from rural Moorhead were his workers. At least, those facts no one disputes.

But no one knows for sure where Adam Miers came from to settle in the Hills. Could it be he'd moved north and west and took his slaves along to work what would become a big spread? Once upon a time old-timers remembered seeing Black workers in adjacent fields, but were they slaves?--it's doubtful. Slavery was illegal already in 1848, the year of statehood, and, as Marilyn Robinson's Gilead makes clear, Iowa abolitionists played significant roles along the Underground Railroad. 

Here's some other facts: census date claims there was one black person in the entire county in 1860, and 88 in 1880. Something happened. African-Americans most definitely were here, but left few records, save what little can be gleaned from a few weathered stones in a rustic rural cemetery. 

Who were they, and who were their kin? No one knows. Miers himself doesn't appear to be among those buried here, although at least one of his wives is--her stone is one of the few still standing and readable.

And we know too that sometime in the final years of the 19th century, an entire community of white people petitioned county law enforcement to run those Black folks the heck out of the county. No reason is given, although it's not hard to imagine the argument's heft--after all, we may not know much about them, but we know they were black.

The truth?--we don't even know how they got here, or what they did when they were here. There's so very much we don't know, and South Jordan cemetery, neat as a pin these days--you'd be proud!--isn't doing much talking. 

Stop by someday. Maybe you'll come up with something. It's a shame really--we know so very, very little. A ton of mysteries abound in South Jordan Cemetery.

What we do know we hardly dare say aloud, even though behind the eyes of every last person reading this story are minds that have already been over that ground. You don't have to be from Moorhead to think it either. What is known about those Black folks who once tried to make a life in all the beauty of the Loess Hills is this: they were Black and most everyone around wasn't. 

It's a word no one likes to use--racism, without a doubt a part of the mysteries of South Jordan Cemetery. 

Thursday, December 01, 2022


Let me try to get this lunacy right. It reaches beyond my imagination.

When we lived in Arizona, long ago, the legacy of the long-time senator and merchandising magnate, Barry Goldwater, loomed far greater than the reps of the state's famous gunslingers. "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice," Goldwater preached, convincingly, when accepting the Republican party's nomination for President in July of 1964. 

But he lost. Bad. Real bad. Got creamed, in fact. 

But he stayed in the Senate and remained number one in the hearts of home-grown loyalists for years, even after his death in 1998. What some of those die-hards may not care to remember, however, was that when Nixon was stumbling drunken sailor-ish through the mess forever known as Watergate, it was Goldwater who went to the Tricky Dick late one night and let him know he was toast if he didn't resign.

Thusly, Nixon quit and torched off a note to that Republican posse the next day, telling the conservative entourage he had "nothing but contempt" for him and them.

No matter. Nixon quit. It was bad. 

Today, real-life Arizona MAGAs make the arch-conservative Goldwater look like jolly Santa Claus. Their creedal foundation is "the Big Lie." In Cochise County, east of Tucson, two of three county commissioners are now refusing to sign over the county's votes, despite the fact that Cochise County is overwhelmingly Republican and voted that way in the November elections. If I have this right, those two hard-heads are so convinced that the Maricopa County election board is crooked, that they're protesting by refusing to send in their own Cochise County tallies. 

They will, of course, because if they don't, at least two Republican winners in the recent elections will, then and there, lose, their races being so close that loss of the Cochise County tabulations would send them home. 

I wish I was making this up.

If some people believed in Jesus as deeply and faithfully as they believe in Trump--or Kari Lake, who still isn't buying her loss in the governor's race--we'd be a goodly step closer to being the kind of Christian nation they claim so passionately to desire.

Trump's MAGA minions have already rewritten the book on three words that have been part of the national vocabulary for years: patriot--you are one if you used Old Glory to push your way into the Capital on January 6, even more so if you used it to break windows or doors; evangelical, which used to mean being "born-again" but today identifies those who don red caps; and Christian--the word refers to followers of the Lord God of Orange.

I can't imagine those two MAGA superstars in Cochise County will hold the line on their heartfelt protest. Two of their own will be losers. Trump hates losers. 

I don't know if people like General Flynn would call this old proverb "Christian" or not, but I don't value what he thinks anyway. I'm wanting to haul some old-fashioned moral power into the mess by referencing one of my favorite proverbs, first put to paper in the late 14th century by Geoffrey Chaucer, and referred to twice by a playwright you may have heard of--William Shakespeare. 

Here's the homily, just as good in Sioux County as it is in Cochise, just as relevant in the era of Trump as it was in 1386.

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Fort Emanuel, Dakota City

"You ought to see it--it's right there on your way home. Just turn right, into Dakota City. Watch for the signs."

That I didn't know him doesn't mean I didn't recognize the guy. He's a Dakota County version of me--retired, a tad overweight and underserved by his hairdo. But the guy spills enthusiasm for ye olden days. "You can't miss it," he says as he rips through the pages of an old booklet to find a picture of the church he's looking for, then shoves the entire booklet in my hand--a Nebraska Centennial History of Dakota County, Nebraska, dated 1967. "Take it along," he says. It was right there on a table of the museum. There's still a pile. Not to worry.

If you got a minute, you can't say no to all that joy. Besides, he says it's not just any old church, but the very first Lutheran church in all of Nebraska, formed there two years before the War Between the States, way back in 1858, when a missionary named Kuhns crossed half the continent and the raging Missouri just to get here and preach the gospel to the pioneers, which he did, preached the very first Lutheran sermon in a long-gone Dakota City Hotel--get this, the Bates Hotel. The first meeting of Emanuel Lutheran was at the Bates Hotel. (I'm not making this up.)

There is some horror here in the story of the church behind the fence, but no murder, at least none written up in the Centennial booklet, which is itself fifty-plus years old. The horrors follow. Tired of the Bates Hotel, those goodly, godly Lutherans bought what was left of a store in a village wiped out when that rascal river flooded, but that skeletal building never made it to town. It went up in a prairie fire as it was being hauled to Dakota City.

Two years later, this very building--the oldest church structure in all of Nebraska--was built at a cost of $2000. That centennial book includes a story that somehow makes sense when you see the old church. The Reverend Kuhns and Emanuel Lutheran got themselves snowed in one Sunday, in the kind of brutal Nebraska blizzard old folks use to impress the kids. Just three men were there that day--that's it; just the pastor and a congregation of two. Reverend Kuhns shook off whatever reluctance or doubt he might have had and went on to deliver a Lutheran hum-dinger to the only two souls in the pews. 

Even if there's no snow in the air, I'll swear that if, on some cloudy day you look through the spaces of that chain-link fence all around, you'll still hear that sermon echo through the place--in German, I'm sure--as if no time has passed, just the three of them there, sheltered in the time of storm. 

It's a shame that fence has to be all around. You can't help but half-expect some "Beware of Dog" sign hammered in the grass. When I got out of the car, I couldn't help thinking Emanuel Lutheran was a prisoner. Once a year it opens, I hear. Otherwise, there it stands in a quiet neighborhood of Dakota City, where it's stood for a long, long time, all around it that fence. Fort Emanuel. 

Why not bring it away somewhere and open up the property to new housing? Why keep it around if it's not going to serve the people it was meant to?-if it's a fenced-in prisoner of its own old age?

It's not nostalgia that keeps it there. Not the docent, not anybody in Dakota City, Nebraska, is old enough to remember attending regular worship in Emanuel Lutheran. 

There it stands, well kept, but locked behind a fence so tall I'd need a ladder to get in. I had no need to get in. I didn't even want to, but it hurt to see that old frame church so imprisoned behind that chain link fence. Still, as I stood there, that wire fence somehow disappeared. Strange effect. 

I couldn't help thinking we need our old Emanuel Lutherans. The sermons they preach, even behind fences, offer explanations of who we are and what we need to know about ourselves in whatever Dakota Cities we live and have our being. 

"This old church still stands as a monument to the steadfastness of purpose of the early settlers," the Historical Marker says, "and as a symbol of pioneer religious life."

Here's what the fenced-in church still preaches: we are not alone. There were others, in 1860 and long before that, truth be told. We are not the first. We are not alone.   

I sent my Dakota City doppelganger a note, thanked him for his help and the Centennial booklet, then let him know that, as instructed, I'd stopped at the church. "Quite the place," I said.

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Seventh-Day Baptist Nature Worship

Seventh Day Baptists go to meetin'

Today there will be snow, Google just told me. It's not the time to let James Leander Scott have his way with us. It'll just make us bitter--in addition to cold. 

But I can't help it. I just stumbled on this yesterday. 

James Leander Scott was a Seventh-Day Baptist, proud, even arrogant about it, unyielding, theologically at least. In 1842, the call to preach the gospel out west came to him without much hoopla it seems. What the call amounted to was a contract with the Almighty drawn up by what his own heavyweight sense of duty told him needed to be accomplished--someone had to go west and preach the unsullied gospel to keep all those sinner-pioneers from the fires of hell--and to hear the SDB's signature doctrine, the scripture's clarion call for a Saturday Sabbath. 

Oddly enough, one of his first stops was a Mormon temple, greatly deserted because at that moment most LDS had already left for Nauvoo. Three pages of his memoir are devoted the temple's features, so much that the editor in him couldn't help but judge. "This is as concise a description as I am able to give, and although my notes are somewhat defaced I believe it is correct." He wanted, he says, "to show how far delusion may go, even in this our enlightened land."

Catholics fare far worse than Mormons in the memoir. James Leander Scott took off for the great northwest fearing the immigrant Roman Catholic communities already staking out territory for a beachhead on the ocean of grass, all of that to create an American papacy and begin yet another bloody round of inquisitions.

But then he happened on the prairie's sheer and endless beauty, a colorful flowery maze all around him. "The Botanist," he says, "might be lost in this natural and almost unbounded garden of flowers." It's too beautiful for words. "It is in vain to attempt to describe fully this grandeur-dressed garden of nature, which is unparalleled in beauty." 

No matter. He tries.

Along with his wife and son (who barely get his attention), he can't help but fall into sheer wonder at the glamour of the prairie. Each of them, he says, "alike enchanted stand like fixed monuments with the head bent forward, as though the whole soul was thrown at once into the eyes," something he vain would call a "religious experience," even though it sounds Emersonian.

All of it is Hudson School, this breathtaking frontier world so wide and encompassing it wrings what's human right out of him. "All is silent as the house of eternal slumbers, and each is indifferent to all around." The man is taken by the beauty all around.

The world he sees when he leaves the forests is beyond real. James Leander Scott doesn't lose his senses on the prairie, he gains them. Once more tries his hand at getting something of its glory down on paper before.

The green carpet -- the never-to-be-described clusters of flowers -- the prairie hen, rising and falling into this and that bed -- the snipe, with his chattering bill -- and turkey-buzzard floating carelessly in the air, surveying all below -- the sand-hill crane strutting around -- the yelping wolf as he slips along from bank to bank --and add to this the enlivening notes of the feathered songsters, who could help being entranced? 

Lest you wonder, he can restrain the nature worship he feels, and he does. "Omnipotent is the hand that formed all these objects of beauty. Who that is a christian could refrain from adoring the God of Wisdom." 

In those early years of the 19th century, were the Reverend James Leander Scott a Winnebago or Sac or Fox, the God of Wisdom would be the Great Spirit. 

Art with all its grandeur and decorated form, is lost at once in this incomprehensible field of natural curiosities. The mind almost fancies
itself in an unsullied world of joy. 

The preacher says a June prairie is--dare I say it? dare he?--almost heaven. 

English visual artists pursued "the sublime," as did the French. It wasn't only Hudson River Yankees who tried to create something as mystically glorious, as sublime, as the magnificent American frontier landscape. 

Let me confess my sin. I wanted not to like James Leander Scott, this tent-meeting, tub-thumping, circuit-riding, Seventh Day Baptist whirlygig; but the earnestness he carries into making darn sure the reader sees what he sees and loves what he loves made me smile, made me give the stumper an inch or two more grace than he might have given the roughneck sinners lined up outside his tent. 

He just couldn't help himself amid all that beauty. He just about lost it.

All those clusters of flowers he describes won't stop the snow from whipping through this morning, but then again maybe a day like today is the right time to hearken to the parson's sermon out there on the gorgeous prairie. 

Hope springs eternal.