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, July 15, 2018

Sunday Morning Meds--Wants and Needs

“I shall not want” Psalm 23:1

My friend Diet Eman, who spent more than anyone’s fair share of time in a concentration camp in the occupied Netherlands during World II, won’t forget, too, more than anyone’s share of atrocities.  She remembers a time every day when the job description of the guards in the prison camp at Vught changed significantly:  instead of beating up on the inmates, the guards had to keep inmates from beating on each other. 

Food.  There was so little of it, that when what little of it emerged, the guards stood by closely.  She describes those moments in Things We Couldn’t Say:
The only time they watched us closely was when we got our bread because resentments could grow and tempers flare. If you were assigned the duty of cutting margarine, you had to be very careful that all the lumps were exactly the same size. Margarine was all we had—no jam, no marmalade, no nothing—just bread and a little pad of margarine. You had to be very careful slicing it because the others would watch very closely to be sure that no one pad was any thicker than the other. If one slice would have been a bit thicker chunk of margarine, there would be bickering for sure; when you’re hungry, such bickering comes up easily.
I don’t need to document the extremes to which good human beings will go when hungry. Reason gets tossed like cheap wrapping paper in the face of real human need.

Truthfully, I’ve never been hungry. Neither have my parents, although, during the Great Depression, they came much closer than I ever did. My mother told me about my grandfather, a squat big-shouldered blacksmith, crying at supper because during the Depression neither he nor his farmer customers had any money. There were times when he didn’t know where his next dollar was coming from. My father, whose father was a preacher, remembers his parent’s cupboards being filled only by the largesse of his congregation. There was no money for a salary.

In my life, “I shall not want” seems a given. I don’t need a God--I’ve got an Amazon Rewards Card. In the many years of our marriage, our economic problems have arisen not because of lack of money but because of too much: if our kids need something—our adult kids—should we buy it for them, or make sure they learn some basic lessons in economics? Sometimes—often—our hearts lean a direction our heads tells us isn't smart. That still happens. Most the time our toughest questions concern what to do with extra.

I just now horribly misspoke, of course. We have money all right, but our cushioned pocketbooks don’t mean we don’t need God. If we'd like, every week we can eat the America's finest steak (we live in beef country, after all); what’s more, Sioux County has the finest pork loin in the world. Food is no problem. 

But we want—good Lord, do we want. We want our kids happy. We want a deeply fractured nation healed somehow. 

We want to ease into old age. We want another good year for ourselves, a good life for our kids and grandkids, strength and patience and grace for our dad who's 99 years old.

“I shall not want” may be the most audacious claim in all of scripture because, good Lord, do we ever. 

 Good Lord, do what you can to help us not to.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Tutu's Treacherous Flight*

Maybe it's just me, but it seems that the world has almost forgotten Archbishop Desmund Tutu. In the 90's, when apartheid South Africa was being transformed into the new South Africa, there may not have been a more universally admired human being in all of Africa or all of the world, save Nelson Mandela himself.  The two of them seemed South Africa's truly righteous.  Why stop there--the seemed the world's truly righteous.

In a immensely enriching interview aired last week on On Being, Krista Tippett offers listeners a reprise, another look at a man the world considers to be among it's most amazing and wonderful heroes, a man who, like Mandela, was somehow remarkably able to suffer immense horrors without ever losing the hope that comes by faith alone.  

So much of the uncut interview is memorable that choosing any one chunk does the whole an injustice, but one story Tutu tells goes so deeply to the heart of our sin and sadness that it bears repeating.  He says he was in Nigeria, where he boarded a plane to go back home to Johannesburg.  

When he'd boarded, he says he'd seen, up front, that both of the pilots in the cockpit were black.  Once airborne, turbulence on high made that homeward journey the mother of all apocalyptic flights.  Passengers were sure they were going to die.  In the height of the shaking and rattling and rolling, Tutu says he discovered his own fears when he couldn't help but wonder whether those two pilots, both black, were going to be skilled enough to pull that jet out of mess they were in.  Neither of them, after all, were white.

Desmund Tutu, black African Archbishop of Capetown, freedom fighter, champion of the oppressed, a man who won the Nobel Peace Prize already in 1984, in the middle of the apartheid madness, who was also awarded the Albert Schweitzer Prize for Humanitarianism in 1986, the Ghandhi Peace Prize in 2005, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009--that Desmund Tutu, on a flight home he'll never forget, discovered himself a racist.

Sadly, Archbishop Tutu's turbulence story is not beyond belief.  That he would have those deep prejudices after his people had suffered racial discrimination for centuries is actually perfectly, tragically, understandable.  

What's remarkable about the story--or so it seems to me--is how deeply it reaches into our own human character to reveal unmistakably how each of us--me too--has a a thinly concealed reserve of emotion and attitude that is, and probably forever will be, determinedly racist.  Racism is nothing anyone sheds easily.  Scratch us deep enough, and it's there.

Archbishop Tutu is 81 years old now, retired, he says, but if there was a school for Christians, if there was one huge learning center under whose curriculum everyone who claimed the name of Jesus would enroll, and if I had anything at all to do with the determining course content, I'd make his On Being interview  required listening.  I'm serious.  Just to hear the man's exuberant laugh enriches the soul.

Short on hope these days?  Listen to Desmund Tutu.

*Published March 2, 2012.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Morning Thanks--"the Amish are coming"

Apparently, while most of white America--and the white world--register birth rates that, someday, threaten extinction, the Amish are proliferating, doing quite well, thank you--so well, in fact, that they're needing more land and finding it, even out in this direction, near Tripp, SD.

It's hard not to love the Amish. They're so diligent about things, such idealogues, so blasted sure of their version of the truth. It seems they could care less about what other people say or do or think of their creeds or their language or their macabre carriages.
Are they a cult? I don't know. But the vast majority of their young people stay, even though each one of them has the opportunity to leave during a wild and crazy time they call "Rumspringa," which means “running around” in the Pennsylvania German dialect. Get this--85% stay Amish, even not a one kid has an iPod--if they do, they're tucked furtively beneath their straw mattresses.

I swear, I wouldn't want to be Amish, but it's wonderful having them around. Few of them, I'm sure, go searching for their ten minutes of fame. When they got it a few years ago--when some madman murdered their school children in Pennsylvania--they got as much ink for their incredible forgiveness than they did for the horrifying bloodletting.

I hope--I may be wrong--that not a one of them has ever heard of the Kardashians. I hope--I may be wrong--not one Amish person heard the latest Roseanne rant, nor know a guido if they saw--or heard--one. Their kids don't need cars, although I'm sure they eye each other's horses enviously (sin doesn't really respect centuries). And in their schools, they get along quite well without team sports, if you can believe it. Oh, yeah--and I'm guessing that when they get together to sing, it's not the your or my brand new praise chorus.

Strangely enough, they're growing by leaps and bounds--and they don't even do evangelism.

They satisfy one of Christ's most puzzling paradoxes--"be ye in the world, but not of it"--in a most admirable way, having determined that what the Lord wants of us is to live the way good, stout agrarian people did in the early 19th century, the Golden Age.

I'm not joining, but you have to admit they've got sturdy furniture, great breads, gorgeous quilts, and strawberry jams and jellies to die for.

And cute kids. Tons of 'em. And, apparently, always more on the way.

This morning, my morning thanks are for the Amish. More power to 'em, I say.

Horse power anyway.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Small Wonder(s)--Pilot Rock

Long, long ago, in the ancient past, a massive chunk of pink quartzite got left behind in the immense wash of an turbulent inland sea. It's impossible to imagine a rock that large--20-feet high, 40-feet wide, 60-feet long--getting pushed or carted anywhere, but that's what happened. Something of an ocean swept that huge rock south and east from its moorings up on the outcropping pink quartzite of Gitche Manitou or Pipestone. The glacier quite handily picked it up and then unceremoniously left it behind.

Sort of sad really. Once upon a time, Pilot Rock, all hundreds of tons of it, got orphaned on the northwest Iowa plains. Geologists call it a "glacial erractic," which is to say an oddity, which it was and still is. There it sits up on a hill, all by its lonesome.

You might think it hard to miss something that big on open land, but it isn't. Pilot Rock is private property. Thus, you can see it only from afar. It's atop a hill overlooking the Little Sioux River just a couple miles south of Cherokee. The county is kind enough to keep up a little park that sits just off highway 59--picnic table right there if you pack a sandwich. Pull over, get out of the car, and look up the hill to the east. There it sits, that huge glacial erratic all by itself, one skinny sympathetic sidekick tree beside it.  

It's just sort of sad. 

But, as always, there's a story. 

For centuries, Pilot Rock was just that, a rock that acted like a pilot to generations of our aboriginals. The only available maps for hundreds of years were rivers: you had to learn to read them to know your way around. But here and there were these goofy oddities too, big, forlorn glacial erratics. On the endless plains of northwest Iowa plains, long before there was a town named Cherokee, if you were in sight of Pilot Rock, you knew where you were. Breathe easy and sleep well. It's a sweet story. 

There's more. Some Cherokee-ans will be happy to point you at a book by America's first popular novelist, James Fennimore Cooper of Last of the Mohicans fame. It a stretch, but give those Cherokee-ans an ear because they claim Pilot Rock has a distinguished presence in Cooper's novel The Plains, and they'll be more than happy to give you chapter and verse. Hearken to the voice of James Fennimore Cooper: 
Amid the monotonous rolling of the prairie, a single naked and ragged rock arose on the margin of a little watercourse, which found its way, after winding a vast distance through the plains, into one of the numerous tributaries of the Father of Rivers.
That "single and naked rock" appears in chapter 8, if you don't trust them or me. Pilot Rock becomes a rest stop for the ragamuffin Ishmael Bush and his a covered-wagon gang of pioneers looking for a life on the frontier. 

Sometime around the time of the Civil War, white folks started drifting into valley of the Little Sioux, and when they did, they started chipping away at Pilot Rock, looking for stone for their foundations. A James Fennimore Cooper nut, a man named Riggs from way out east in New Jersey, determined that the rock James Fennimore Cooper had made famous in The Prairie should not and would not suffer such sacrilege, so he done bought a goodly chunk of the land around it to protect the rock from sacrilege of infidels.

Mr. Riggs from New Jersey is long gone, but Pilot Rock is still on private property. If you stop to see it, you shouldn't walk up the hill without permission. 

From down beneath especially, you can't help but feel sorry for that old chunk of quartzite. It has such an illustrious path: a beacon for lost souls looking for anything to mark their way, a rock of ages given celebrity status in the Cooper novel where the Deerslayer, that noble Native hero, is delivered at last to the happy hunting ground. 

Here's an idea. Grab a quarter-pounder from McDonalds just down the road. Maybe fries. Maybe not. Then drop by that little park, nicely kept, spread out a napkin or two, and get The Prairie up on your phone (it's public domain), turn to chapter eight, and have lunch just down the hill from that massive glacial erratic, once a lighthouse over an ocean of grass. 

Go ahead and have lunch with a pink quartzite orphan, a celebrity who was once a star.  

Monday, July 09, 2018

Robert E. Ray, 1928-2018

Image result for Robert Ray Tai Dam

It may well have been one of the best marketing ploys I'd ever come up with--get former Iowa Governor Robert Ray to come to Sioux City for a book rollout that featured stories about Tai Dam people, the people whose cause he'd championed in the early 70s. 

The Tai Dam had made it known that they wanted to come to America as a group, not as individuals. They wanted to live together as strangers in a strange land, and they were serious. If they were going to leave Laos--and they had to--they wanted badly to stay together.

Somehow, the Tai Dam contacted someone from inside the State Department with their request. Their lives were in jeopardy because their homeland had been overtaken by those who they'd opposed during the long war in Southeast Asia. 

That State Department official wrote every governor in the country with their request. Only one said yes--Robert Ray, Governor of Iowa, who told the Tai Dam people that Iowans would take them, all of them, just as they wanted.

It was by no means a popular decision. More Iowans than not thought boldly declared they didn't want the Tai Dam or any other refugee people for that matter. Many opposed him and his largesse, and did so publicly. 

But Governor Ray went forward for one simple reason--he was convinced, body and soul, that it was the right thing to do. Morally, he determined, we simply could not turn our backs on a people who'd helped us. America could not say no, so he made it clear that Iowa would say yes.

The book we were marketing was Crossing Over: Stories of Asian Refugee Christians, something I'd written with great help from the members of that Tai Dam community and a grant from The Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and the Lily Endowment, Inc. That was thirteen years ago.

It was my idea to get former Governor Robert E. Ray to come from Des Moines for a book opening at Siouxland Unity Church, downtown Sioux City. Like no one else on the face of the earth, Robert Ray had worked to bring the Tai Dam to Iowa. Hundreds--no, thousands--of Iowans had opened their hearts and their homes to the refugees, sponsored them, supported them, kept them in socks and underwear, helped them learn English, found jobs, became their cultural guides through a new world so much unlike anything they'd ever experienced or could have imagined.

Robert Ray was the one who made it possible, and they knew it. They loved him. There the book lay, front and center, but Governor Ray was the story. So much love and admiration filled the sanctuary that it was a blessing simply to be in the room. 

Ray talked about a visit he and his wife had made to a Southeast Asian refugee camp where conditions were anything but exemplary. He talked about going into a tent there and discovering, shockingly, an Iowa Department of Transportation map pinned to a wall, that map adorned with red and blue pins to indicate where Tai Dam families and individuals had already been greeted and helped by Iowans.

At first, 600 needed help. That number increased to 6000. Robert Ray never flinched.

At a birthday party for him not long ago, a woman named Som Baccam told the former governor that she'd been 11 years old when she came to this country in the 1970s. She told the crowd who had gathered that "Forever he will be in the Tai Dam people's heart. He is our savior. We have a home now, so we do have a place to call home."

Getting the Rays to come to Siouxland Unity Church may well have been the best marketing ploy I'd ever come up with. If the bottom line had only to do with tallying book sales, we flopped that night. But what I've never forgotten is the palpable presence of love all around in the sanctuary--him for them, them for him, a beloved reunion.

Robert E. Ray, a five-term governor of the State of Iowa, is remembered for many wonderful accomplishments, none so generous, so charitable, so selfless as what he daringly activated for a refugee people who wanted and needed nothing more than a safe home in a new land. 

Sunday, July 08, 2018

Sunday Morning Meds--Furrows

Plowmen have plowed my back and made their furrows long.” Psalm 129:3

            There were no clouds, the sun was going down in a limpid, gold-washed sky. Just as the lower edge of the red disk rested on the high fields against the horizon, a great black figure suddenly appeared on the face of the sun. We sprang to our feet, straining our eyes toward it. In a moment we realized what it was. On some upland farm, a plough had been left standing in the field. The sun was sinking just behind it. Magnified across the distance by the horizontal light, it stood out against the sun, was exactly contained within the circle of the disk; the handles, the tongue, the share--black against the molten red. There it was, heroic in size, a picture writing on the sun.   Willa Cather, My Antonia
If you drive south from Red Cloud, Nebraska, the hometown of Willa Cather, and look up along the hill to your left as you enter Kansas, you’ll spot an ancient walk-behind plow thoughtfully set along a fence row. I’ve never been on that road at dawn; but at a certain time of year, you likely see the vision Jim Burton notes in My Antonia, which is likely why that old plow stands there. After all, very little in the neighborhood of slowly dying Red Cloud, Nebraska, is unrelated, today, to its famous native novelist, Willa Cather.

On any of the blue highways that line the rural Upper Midwest today, you’re likely to find a half-dozen old plow lawn ornaments on any hour’s drive. And rightly so. Nothing within human memory changed the landscape of great America prairies more fully than the moment that rich layer of centuries-old top soil was opened to furrows, to wheat, barley, corn, soybeans and what not else. 
I wouldn’t be sitting here had someone, 150 years ago or so, not drawn that first blade through virgin prairie. All around me, the landscape looks nothing at all like it did when tall-grass prairie swayed in the wind. When Jim, Cather’s narrator, sees the plough, “heroic in size, a picture writing on the sun,” he knows no single weapon was more instrumental in bringing him to the place he loved, as did Cather, than that valiant agricultural tool.

Some might call it rape, what happened when that blade was thrust into virgin prairie.  Some do, in fact. Today, the ecological world of tall-grass prairie is almost as extinct as the do-do bird, altered forever into a immense garden of commodities.
There may be no more profoundly painful metaphor in all of the psalms than this one, in Psalm 129.  The plowman enemy, scourge in hand, still dripping, has left furrows across his back, the poet says.  Thousands of years later, we still grimace, the image of that weapon slashing through flesh and muscle, leaving furrows welling with blood.
“Persecution is the heirloom of the church,” Spurgeon says, in reference to 129.  He’s not wrong, but it seems to me that he’s only half right.  Persecution is an heirloom, but not the only display in the museum.  Like the plow, the historic suffering of the Christian people can be manipulated and misused all to easily.  Much of Fox’s Book of Martyrs is the story of Christians torturing other Christians, after all. 

But that’s not the lesson of the psalm.  The lesson is one of perseverance, of steadfastness.  The lesson is all about moving on, holding on, knowing our only comfort, even when our backs are flush with blood. 

The lesson is simple:  here as it is so often in scripture, the lesson is “fear not.”

Friday, July 06, 2018

Horseweed Lament

For humanity, the wages of sin is death, or so saith holy writ. But it sure warn't that way all over the garden. For weeds, the wages of sin was life, something painfully close to everlasting life too in some cases, or so it seems when I work out back. 

It's mare's tail time right now, mare's tail here, there, and all over. I could, I think, have nothing but mare's tail out back--that's how husky the stuff is. In no time, it'll be up to my shoulders. Mare's tail is an annual, so the roots aren't deep. I can pull it out by hand without much trouble, but I swear I will never get it all.

There's some spider wort to the right in this picture, but in no time at all, that sweetheart would be swamped by an obnoxious crowd who thinks nothing of taking over the entire neighborhood. 

Fecundity? These guys make rabbits look like Shakers. They just won't quit. In early spring, I cut back an indoor ivy plant that was looking spindly, cut it back to nothing and stuck it outside, hoping it would come back. It's still not doing well, but look at the mare's tail go to town.

How on earth did it get there? The wages of sin. . .

Here's another, this one butting up against a screen, still showing its fists, tough as nails, growing out of nothing more nourishing than sand and ash.

I call it "mare's tail," which it is, but it also goes by "horse weed," which is a shade less romantic--"mare's tail," after all, a phrase often used for delightful clouds on a sweet summer's day. 

You'll find it spelled this way too: "marestail," all one word, no apostrophe, as if to say that this headache shouldn't be confused with sweet summer days. No relation. You can also call it "horseweed," too, which is what I'll call it after pulling it for the last few days.

When horseweed's flowers go to seed, they get windblown--and the seeds are legion, fifty thousand from a single plant, so many they get in grills, for pete's sake.

Experts say once upon a time they weren't a headache, but--listen to this!--once farmers started adopting minimum tillage, a truly righteous practice that conserves precious topsoil, a plague got itself begat. Today, horseweed never had it so good. Ain't it true?--you try to do the right thing, and you get horse-whipped by marestail. Even your best deeds are filthy rags.

What's more, hither and yon, horseweed laughs off herbicides with a native-born immunity that makes the stuff even more obnoxious. As we speak, thousands are right now laughing and singing and growing in our backyard acre, thousands. I hear 'em.

It's horseweed, a royal pain in the keester. I can pull the stuff all day long and come back tomorrow and have at it again.

All for an apple, too, a lousy apple from a tree about which the two of them, royally naked, were expressly warned. 

Woe and woe and woe.