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.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The story of Crow Butte

There were horses. Stolen horses. That’s what’s at the heart of this delightful old western myth recorded more than a century ago by Dr. Anna Robinson Cross. There were horses, and the Crows had them and Sioux didn't, and the Sioux wanted them. Badly. Badly enough to fight.

But then, truth be told, fighting wasn’t uncommon among those two warring tribes. The Lakota were not fond of the Crows, and the feelings were bloody reciprocal. Warriors from both tribes created and maintained their places in society, in part, by showing courage, by prowess in battle, not by good, clean farmland with razor-like corn rows. They fought. Hard. For keeps.

For just about everyone, horses were money in the bank. In both tribes, if you were rich, you had horses; if you had horses, you were rich. Everyone wanted horses.

This time the Crows had them, the Lakota didn’t. As valuable as they were, stolen goods slowed the Crows down so they decided to break up the band and send some warriors on with the booty, while others stayed behind to slow down the horse-hungry Sioux hotly after them. That rear force scaled Crow Butte, a 300-foot high miniature mountain in western Nebraska, and armed themselves to hold off the Lakota.

T’was a noble effort, but it left the rear guard subject to the sad deprivations of a siege. For a time, the fighting ceased but the suffering of those who scaled the butte certainly did not. It grew, grew monstrously. Time passed—without food, without water.

They were safe but so dangerously isolated that they determined the younger warriors would descend in the dark of night and hopefully escape--which they did. Meanwhile, those who remained--the old guys—would keep up their music, their singing, their drumming, as if nothing had changed. Their staying behind was something of a suicide mission--their songs, death songs.

And so those older ones sang themselves, quite literally, to death. Without food or water, their strength dissipated, but they kept up the drumming and the singing, a subterfuge, kept it up until they had no strength to sing, no strength for life itself.

And not, at this point, the story, as told by Anna Robinson Cross, ascends into the miraculous.

When finally the music died, the Sioux, down below, noted billowing clouds in the form of huge, sky-sized birds descend carefully to the top of the butte, then slowly lift, as if messengers from heaven had floated to earth to take those aged warriors home to happier places. That’s what they witnessed, or claimed to.

So struck were they by those huge, bird-like clouds that the Sioux determined right then and there never again to fight the Crows.

That's how the story goes, as told by white pioneers like Dr. Cross. Truth be told, that version of the story is only one of many given to explain the name given Crow Butte, that famous western Nebraska landmark.

I hate to say it, but it’s probably pure myth. After all, history records no such peace alliance, and it's painfully clear that the Sioux and Crow fought again. And again. And again.

But Dr. Cross’s version of the story of Crow Butte is worth retelling, as most myths are. They tend to show us for what we are--myth makers. We like our stories to carry meaning and hope. We like our stories to say what we wish them too because they can then drive us to hate and despair or joy and love. Even when they fail to bring us where we'd much rather go, they stay with us because they’re our stories.

I sincerely doubt any Lakota or Crow people told that particular Crow Butte story, but white folks did, including all those billowing clouds and the miraculous messengers from above.

Down here beneath the butte, and elsewhere, hope springs eternal.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Morning Thanks--new life

It's not the same, but there's some sameness, I swear. You know that moment when a newborn is tucked into a corner of a her crib, lying on her stomach, arms up around both sides of her baby-soft face--you know that moment when you stand there crib-side and look and look and stay there looking for another ten minutes, maybe more because you don't want to leave because, to be sure, there's nothing quite as beautiful as anything in all the world?

You know that moment? 

Well, it's not the same, and I won't try to say it is; but right now, when things just start greening out back, when warm temps and gentle rains just begin to awaken what for too long has been blah and lifeless and nowhere to be seen, right now when those very first blossoms appear as if out of nowhere, by sheer miracle, I can stand there and stare and stare and stay way too long, for half of forever, just looking. 

It's not the same, but those moments are cousins, I think. 

This bunch of dwarf irises are up before anything else out back right now, a proud little stand of fragile flowering purpleness, a gift from friends' gardens last year. They're here and they're gorgeous. They're just gorgeous. I could stand out there half the morning and look.

The Reverend B. J. Haan, first president of Dordt College, was an old man when he told me years ago that he had but one regret in life, and that was that it took him too long to learn that laughter was the best way to people's hearts. Those who knew him will smile when they read those words.

I hope I have some years yet, but when I stand there over those dwarf irises, I tell myself it took this old guy far too long to realize what depth of beauty there is in living things--far, far too long. And if that realization is simply a gauge of old age, then I'm willing to say, bum knee and leaky plumbing and what not else, that putting on years still offers some blessings. 

This morning I'm thankful for new life and blessed beauty just out back these days especially. For an old man, there's nothing quite like it.

Monday, April 24, 2017

The Crisis before us

You've got to hand it to New York Times columnist David Brooks. He seems to be on a one-man quest to refurbish the American soul. Himself Jewish, he can occasionally sound almost evangelical. That he reads widely is obvious by frequent references to "Christian" thinkers, who don't regularly find a welcome place in his political forum. His Times column Friday, "The Crisis of Western Civilization," sets out to create a revival of faith in what some call the great "liberal experiment," democracy itself.

That demise, he claims, has been advanced primarily by those who reference its shortcomings--and there are many shortcomings. On Saturday, I sat through a horrifying 90-minute presentation of an horrible place once upon a time just down the road, the Hiawatha Insane Asylum, Canton, South Dakota, where Native American people from reservations all over the country were sent, essentially to die. 

No one cared. That's the story of Hiawatha. No one really cared about and therefore for its inmates, and those few who did blew whistles and were shamelessly dismissed because no one cared. What happened during Hiawatha's forty-some years of operation is not just scandalous, it's evil. 

Here in our corner of the world, people allowed it to happen, even condoned its inhumanity. Good Christian people looked the other way as hundreds of Native people, many of them not "insane" at all, were treated were far less favor than the hogs and cattle in fields just outside the hospital.

David Brooks says we've been taught a steady diet of the evil machinations of American democracy, so much so, in fact, that we've lost faith in "the liberal experiment," the incredible belief--really almost unheard of before the American constitution--that people can actually rule themselves. That's "the liberal experiment," and people have begun not to believe it anymore, says David Brooks. 

Brooks goes so far as to claim that dream has died, an assertion he grounds in a sharp appraisal of the times: "The first consequence has been the rise of the illiberals, he says, "authoritarians who not only don’t believe in the democratic values of the Western civilization narrative, but don’t even pretend to believe in them, as former dictators did."

Brooks is a conservative, but he fears what he calls "the age of the strong men," leaders like "Putin, Erdogan, el-Sisi, Xi Jinping, Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump,"

Yesterday's election in France bears witness to what he sees happening all around: the two winners could not be farther apart politically, one from the far right, the other from the far left. The middle is gone, Brooks says. When center-right and center-left political parties collapse, whatever power they once wielded is simply moves to the fringe parties, who really don't believe in democracy.

Finally, he says there is "the collapse of liberal values" at home. I'm no fan of Ann Coulter, but when she can't speak at Berkeley, the home of the "Free Speech Movement," fifty years ago, some major doctrine of American life is simply gone.

As someone who spent his life in a classroom, I'm not ready to buy the notion that somehow education is to blame, that we haven't taught western civilization in Western Civilization, touted democracy's atrocities instead.

If he's right, there's more to blame than education. Believe me, he doesn't mean the word "liberalism" as an indictment but in its broadest sense when he says, "liberalism has been docile in defense of itself."

He sounds like an OT testament prophet, like Jeremiah himself, without the theological imperative: "These days, the whole idea of Western civ is assumed to be reactionary and oppressive. All I can say is, if you think that was reactionary and oppressive, wait until you get a load of the world that comes after it."

Seems to me that, to kids around here, you don't not tell the story of the innocent victims of the racism that perpetuated the Hiawatha Insane Asylum, but you make sure to tell the story of the whistle blowers too, the men and women, those few who tried to change things, whose voices may not have been heard, but who tried, who spoke truth to power.

Brooks may be after the American soul in ways few are. He's always worth reading.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Sunday Morning Meds--Sinners in the hands of a rejoicing God

“. . .may the LORD rejoice in his works—
he who looks at the earth, and it trembles, 
who touches the mountains, and they smoke.” Psalm 104:31

Pity Jonathan Edwards.  Every year, millions of bored high-schoolers, supposedly learning American literature, suffer through the insufferable scolds of 17th century Puritan fathers and mothers, poets and essayists and historians who are just about as sexy as an old folks home. Good stuff!--like liver and spinach.

The only voice in 150 years of American history that comes even close to garnering their attention is Jonathan Edwards, whose famous hellfire and brimstone sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” features some show-stopping images—loathsome spiders dangling mercilessly over flaming pits. Such word pictures at least wake kids up.  

But, pity poor Jonathan Edwards.  A century of instruction in American literature has created an image of the old preacher that probably bears little resemblance to the real thing.  He wasn’t stern, didn’t pound the pulpit, didn’t spit and steam and unload fear on the meeting house.  Arguably the best mind in 18th century America, Edwards was once President of Yale; he was a prolific writer and a loving pastor and father. But mention his name today, and those few who may recognize it cower, hearing a fearsome rant.

Maybe it’s just me and my Calvinist soul, but it’s somehow tougher to imagine a God rejoicing in us than threatening damnation. The fuming God Edwards pictures in that famous sermon of his is easier for me to picture than the God the psalmist evokes in this verse from Psalm 104, a God who sometimes toys with his world the way my first-grade grandson might, pushing buttons and pulling tabs to make it shake and smoke—and then smiling, thinking good things. Fear comes to us more easily than joy, I think.

I know something of the story of a man in town—but little of him. I know that he drinks far too much, so much that he can’t hold a job. I know some folks around here have tried to help him, even though he hasn’t been a jewel and lacks the wherewithal to change the overall direction of his spiraling.

Today he’s parked at a rehab center, where he should have been for a year or more.  Probably more.

But I know another man too, a man who owns a salvage yard where a thousand wrecks rust and rot slowly before getting crunched up and hauled away. People go there if they need a hubcap or an engine block. The office space could use a squad of Dutch grandmas with scouring pads; it’s a grease pit, unwelcoming to anyone who wasn’t born with a wrench in a side pocket of their bibs.  That’s where the boss sits.

For more than a year, that man, stoic and silent, allowed the drunk to live in a rental place he keeps just down the street from us. No rent payments have come in because the drunk brought a good deal less money home than trouble. A few weeks ago, he stole a kid’s bike—and that’s not the half of it.

I don’t know how many people in town realize that for more than a year the junkman’s heart created a free home for a man few could love. Then again, I don’t think the junkman would want the story told. I may be leaking something I shouldn’t right now.

But if God almighty ever high-fived his people, I swear that he’d visit that sleazy junkyard office for a chance to do just that to the grease monkey inside. He’s rejoicing, I swear.

It’s wonderful to think of God almighty enjoying what we do, isn’t it, rejoicing in his world? A whole lot better than spiders and firepits. 

This little half of verse 31 is a gem, isn’t it?  Just between you and me, with what I know of Edwards, I’m very sure the old Puritan liked it too.  

Friday, April 21, 2017

Morning Thanks--The Secret Place*

It came in the mail not long ago, direct from an Amazon-linked, used bookstore somewhere, a forty-year-old paperback titled A Secret Place, the novel which single-handedly changed the course of my life.

That may be overstatement, but not by much.

Years ago, I picked that novel up in a bookstore, almost on a whim, when I’d just started college. I’d heard of the writer, a man named Frederick Manfred, a tall novelist born and reared in the area, this area actually, a writer who'd become, I'd heard, deeply hated by the real locals, a Dutch Calvinist writer who wasn't highly regarded by Dutch Calvinists. Imagine that. I knew I had to read him.

For reasons I only partially understand, when I read it I loved it, studied it closely, wrote a paper about it for my Freshman English class, and then determined—on the basis of my reading and study of A Secret Place—that someday I wanted to write books myself.

The Secret Place--also published as The Man Who Looked Like the Prince of Wales--is a real Siouxland book, featuring real Siouxland characters, Dutch names, Dutch Reformed conflicts, and, for the time at least (late 60's), some considerable and fleshy steaminess, all of which I found mesmerizing. In it, I found my people--I guess I'd have to say it that way, now, in retrospect. In it, strangely enough, I found me.

It cost me $2—I mean, last week when I ordered it. Cost me $.75 forty years ago.

I read it again recently. Honestly, the novel simply wasn’t all that good, a fact which made me chuckle a bit at my own 19-year-old, impressionable self.

Here's what I think: how lucky I am—and thankful too—that God almighty doesn’t let me make all the significant decisions of my life.

It's on the shelf now, with the rest of Fred Manfred's books, a man who became, later on, my friend.

Only cost me two bucks. Someone else's trash, I suppose. Not mine. Not at all.
*First published April 9, 2008.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

"In, but of" stuff

She'd asked me to drop by her class because the topic seemed like something I'd have some thoughts about. That's what she told me in a FB message, an invite. She guessed I have thoughts she bargained I could share and would. High school seniors, two classes. "Be nice, if you could visit. . ."

I was apprehensive. My bum knee isn't the only reminder I'm pushing 70. It's been a while, after all. Many of her students' grandpas are nowhere near retirement. I'll just listen, I told myself. I know next to nothing about kids today.

Dream on. She stood me up in front of the room, gave my string a pull, and wanted me to spin stories. Which I obligingly did. I've been out of the classroom for five years, but a hybrid teacher's rhetoric re-forms, a long-dormant voice with roots as deep as big blue stem. 

A homemade apron-like creation is hung on the wall of that classroom. It's festooned with color-coded pockets in which students slip their smart phones the moment they come in the door. That's new.

The students were kind, respectful, and, to a person, it seemed, tuned-in. But they didn't have much to say. I tried. Volunteers were few. They much preferred listening to the old bald guy.

The essay in question was from a magazine titled Relevant, its thesis obvious from the title: "Why the 'Faith-Based' Film Genre Must End: These kinds of labels can be destructive to art." New twist on an old question. Christians should not dedicate their artistic selves to a genre of Christian film or music because in so doing they will be depriving a wider audience, a secular audience, of their work. That's the way the argument goes.

Kind of "millennial," I thought, so couched in privilege, assuming, as it does in the first place, that the readers' "work" could earn a wider audience, that anyone with a good guitar can be Bono. 

Ought to be interesting, I figured, so why not? Visiting her class was a well-meant offer, and she's a gem, an ex-student who's been a wonder as a teacher for longer than I could guess.

Truth be told, I left that classroom somewhat moderately depressed, not because the kids were disengaged or rowdy, not because the topic seemed irrelevant or silly. I think she wanted a wise man; what she got was someone who doesn't know the answers.

I could have brought up the Benedict Option, a book raising all kinds of commentary within the evangelical community, another option on how exactly to interpret the age-old paradox of being "in, but not of." 

I could have said I remembered being their age and thinking that being a Christian writer meant churning out Sugar Creek Gang stories or Sunday School papers; and how wonderful, how free it felt finally to think that even as a Christian I could try to write like Hemingway.

I could have told them about a man I know, raised in the church a half century ago, who, for the very first time in his life, stole into a darkened theater, then tore out, warp speed, when God chased him out once Satan lit that huge screen.

I could have told them how my mother once offered to buy me the very best Selectric typewriter on the market (before an Apple IIe) if I'd promise never to type out a four-letter word. Truth be told, I did tell them that. (And that I had to turn her down.)

I could have told them about an essay of mine aired just the day before on public radio, aimed at an audience that wasn't "Christian," in their sense of that word, written instead for a much wider bunch--and how my mother wouldn't have liked that little essay for that reason.

What I couldn't tell them was exactly what it means to be "in, but not of." Is there an answer? What I couldn't answer is how Christians use those smart phones up on the wall, whether or not vaping was biblical, what words should be blazoned over their t-shirts, or what to think of Donald Trump. I might have liked to answer some of those questions, but I couldn't, not because it wouldn't be wise but because the answers to so many questions about this world they are about to enter are often hard to come by.

What I couldn't say was exactly what they should think of that article in Relevant magazine, or what to do exactly with "in but not of" in 1967 or 2017. What I ended up saying, I guess, is not that there are no answers, but that there are many. Start sorting.

What I could have said is, "You're seniors, right? Welcome to real life." 

And then listened. I should have listened. 

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Butter dump, 1933

I must have been through the place a thousand times, but I didn't even know it was a place--James, Iowa, just up the road from Leeds. From up above on Google Earth, James, Iowa, looks more like a camp ground than a town; but right there on highway 75, it sits peacefully alongside the meandering Floyd, far southern Plymouth County. 

Truth is, this story has little to do with James, Iowa. It requires mention here only as a setting, as in, "this whole business went down right here in James, Iowa." I'm guessing nobody in James had a thing to do with it.

The trouble started with optimism, too much of it. It started with the Roaring Twenties and stock market bubbles that had everyone plus the family pup investing. Out here in farm country, the Great Depression started with bumper crops--way too much wheat, way too much grain, way too much of everything, so much that farmers suddenly found their produce worthless.

By 1933, four years after Black Tuesday's legendary crash, prices for hogs were well beyond abysmal--$3.85 for hundred weight, four cents per pound. Even a city slicker knows you can't raise livestock if your ledger goes that far south. People not only couldn't make money, all they could do was lose it.

And thus lose their farms. Which is what happened. Bank foreclosures skyrocketed, and, in time out here in the country, there were more farm sales than hymn sings. 

Things weren't better for milkers. In 1932, farmers who milked were getting a dollar per hundred weight, two cents a quart. Like owning a tractor whose only gear is reverse. Good farm families were going under.

Along came a firebrand missionary-type who felt called to save the farmer, a man named Milo Reno, Des Moines, Iowa, who preached the gospel of solidarity and tried to create a farmer's union, something he called "The Farmers Holiday Association." It's impossible to imagine today, but Milo Reno and stinking farm prices started Iowa farmers singing "Solidarity Forever" as if they were a steel-mill union.

Some farmers from "the Holiday Association" got together one night in James, Iowa, on Highway 75, just north of Sioux City, where pickets created a blockade. Some might well have called them a mob, but others, more sympathetic, a collective action. Truth is, it wasn't peaceful, and it was, well, violent.

Markets had tanked. Farmers were losing their shirts and schievies because of too much of everything, so the Holiday boys decided to dump produce, to block roads so farmers couldn't bring their goods to market. 

Dumped it. Just outside of Moville, Holiday pickets dumped 400 gallons of milk in a ditch. At Kingsley, another bunch stopped a milker from Cherokee and dumped 100 gallons right there on the street.

They weren't kidding around. These boys were serious, but their lives and families were at stake. 

Now back to James, Iowa. What happened that cold January day on highway 75 was a butter dump. Some poor farmer who probably didn't like the Holiday boys to begin with was bringing his butter to town. Highway pickets stopped the truck, took that butter, and dumped it over the bridge and onto the frozen Floyd, then simply picked up the farmer's pick-up, turned it around to the north, and spanked him on his way.

But what seemed a crime to those Holiday ruffians was to let that butter sit on the icy Floyd, so they came down off the bridge and retrieved it once the victim was fleeing home.

And just in case you're wondering, all those coveralls out there had a silver lining. This James, Iowa story's got a bit of Robin Hood although there's no forest and the men are all in bibs. But it's worth retelling because the next day on County Trunk C-70 going east out of James, when farmers and their wives picked up their mail, they pulled three or four pounds of free butter from the mailbox, descended it must have seemed, from on high.

It was no Holiday back then, really. It was a sad time, an angry time right there on the Floyd River bridge just outside James, Iowa, right here in Siouxland. 

And there's a whole magazine of more stories too--including one about a judge who got beat on and threatened with a rope. But that's a story for another time.