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.

Friday, February 24, 2017


Did he have a clue what he was fighting for? We'll never know, I guess. I'm sure he was sent off with some kind of parade, replete with patriotic fervor. Likely as not, flags were waving--after all, now that the Yanks were coming, the Krauts turn pale and run.

It was 1918, but right before being shipped across, he came down with a strain of pneumonia that put him in the base infirmary rather than on the troop ship. He missed his company's departure and landing, but came along a month or so later.

If he hadn't, if he hadn't been taken down by illness, would that hiccup have meant he'd survive? Maybe with a month of battle behind him, he wouldn't have done what he did on his last day. Maybe he wouldn't have been exactly where he was when he was. Certainly on that particular day some nameless German soldier wouldn't have tossed the grenade  he did, just at the moment this unlettered doughboy was running across a gully not far from the Vesle River in France.

What I'm saying is, the exact constellation of the events at the moment of his death could not have been repeated. This soldier, my grandmother's only brother, may well have survived had he not come down with a nasty cold, had he gone left instead of right when he came to a cedar in his way, had he stopped momentarily to relieve himself, had any of a thousand things happened.

But none did, so that's not the story.

That kind of mental and emotional finagling comes with every tragedy we suffer, doesn't it? If only he'd have boarded that troop ship when he should have, he would have altered what seemed the preordained order of events and messed up the plot of his death. You know, "if only she'd taken her normal route home, there would have been no accident."

But she didn't.

And neither did my great uncle. The facts are etched on stone. He went to bed in the infirmary because some flu bug laid him up; he missed the ship; he went over later, rejoined his outfit; he spent no more than a couple of days at the front; and he was killed by an enemy grenade he likely never saw. He was dead instantly--so guessed the man who found his body and knew him.

The whole thing seems jerry-rigged, doesn't it? The whole thing seems predestined.

My father-in-law says he remembers being parked out in the country somewhere on some night long ago, a couple of friends along, mid-summer, sometime before he left for basic training during World War II. He and his friends tried to run through what a catechism question really meant, tried to find an explanation, tried, he said, to understand how life worked. Are we free agents? Do we make our own choices? Do we control our fate?

Or does fate? Or does someone else spin the dice for us? For a son of Dutch Calvinism, that question was carried along by a particular theological formulary: are we predestined? Is all of what are and will be already mapped out? Are we subject to powers so much greater than ourselves that our freedom is only an illusion.

Are we foreordained?

My great uncle died in August of 1918, 99 years ago, soon to be a century. In November of 1618, in the city of Dordtrecht, the Netherlands, a host of Dutch Calvinists, determined to answer that question in its theological formulation. What resulted--after more than year of wrangling and even some fisticuffs--was a formulary titled "The Canons of Dort," 499 years ago.

There has to be a story there, and it's ours, all of ours really.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

He's huge

It's a kerfuffle barely visible in the rearview mirror.

Bernie Sanders is on CNN. He's with Erin Burnett, when Ms. Burnett asks him something about General Flynn. Maybe you've seen this. Ms. Burnett claims the President seems in the dark about what happened, at least that's how he acted when he asked aboard Air Force 1 on his way to his Florida retreat.

Senator Sanders says, "Maybe he was listening to CNN, Fake News."

It's a joke, and he tells Ms. Burnett that much; but then technical difficulties break in, Sanders disappears and the network takes us to a commercial. After the ads, Erin Burnett returns, apologizes, repeats the "fake news" line, and the two of them continue their discussion.

Not long after, our Commander-in-chief gets on his Twitter account and announces to the world that even Bernie Sanders, something of an enemy of his, to say the least, gets dusted off for criticizing CNN.

Now our President is either truly mean-spirited, a bald-faced liar, or some zesty marriage of the two. Some conservative news outlets picked up his version of the story and trumpeted it abroad as if what Mr. President said was gospel truth. An outfit named "The Free-Thought Project" summarized what happened this way: "At this point, the ugliness of using ‘technical difficulties’ as a weapon to silence interviewees not in direct alignment with CNN is plain to see — Sanders dared deem the vanilla media behemoth Fake News, albeit perhaps in jest."

A flat-out lie.

I'm sure the technical difficulties were greatly regretted by both Ms. Burnett and CNN, but to say Bernie Sanders was booted off the network for saying what he did--clearly in jest, clearly a reference to Trump himself--is just plain nuts. It's dead wrong. It's not one bit true.

No matter. You're reading this now--if you're still with it--because Trump fills the air with tweeted flack every day. He's not "in" the news, he IS the news. He steals all the oxygen, period. He destroyed 17 Republican challengers by refusing to allow them ink. He keeps the entire bottle himself, constantly making news, often by lying.

Hard as it may be to believe, a
new Quinnipiac Poll, released just yesterday, says Americans now, finally, have come to believe the news media more than they do the President. The man's approval rating has now fallen, by Quinnipiac's measure, to just 38 percent. Really, that's disastrous because we face judgments that have to be made. Just this week, Sergei A. Ryabkov, the Russian deputy foreign minister, said there were contacts between Trump's staff all during the election, even though Trump's staff says there were not. “I cannot say that all, but a number of them maintained contacts with Russian representatives,” Mr. Ryabkov said.

So, pray tell, who do we believe? Donald Trump falsehoods litter the landscape, making judgments impossible because both parties sport ridiculously long noses.

How on earth will we get through this? "It is likely that no living person in history has ever been as famous as Mr. Trump is right now,"
says Farhad Manjoo in this morning's New York Times. And the man, our President, fabricates the truth almost daily.

Even though this country is split open like a ripe watermelon, in a perilous way he keeps us together, conjuring up equally white-hot quantities of hate and love. He rages against a media that gives him galaxies of space because we can't stop staring. He's a Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade balloon filling our skies. "Here a Trump, there a Trump, everywhere a Trump, Trump." But there's no Old McDonald-had-a-farm; there's only the Donald who right now has a whole lot than a farm. He's got an entire country.

Maybe he'll deflate. Maybe leave. Maybe he'll just settle down and learn to be President.

Maybe real life will reset. Keep hoping.

I'm tired.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

from the museum--Blessed Assurance

Years ago, when I was revising a novel, Romey's Place, I didn't know exactly how the plot would end. What I knew when I'd started the revision was that I was off in a new direction, writing a different story really because I'd been reading Phillip Yancey and Kathleen Norris and came to realize that that story I was telling had much more to do with grace than I'd ever imagined. 

That manuscript was ten years old already, had made the rounds to publishers. In the early drafts, the kid's father had died while away in Europe, making it impossible for the two of them to talk about differences the narrator couldn't help but feel. But in this revision I knew I wanted the two of them to have that talk. I didn't know where it would take place, nor why or how it would turn out, only that something had to be said. Somehow, the protagonist and his father were going to talk to each other in a way they never had.

Right about then, my parents came out to Iowa to visit. One Sunday morning we went to church, and that morning's liturgy included the old hymn "Blessed Assurance." There I stood, beside him, watching him--and hearing him--pour his heart out and I knew right then how the novel would end. The protagonist, now a father himself, understands that what all of his pent-up antagonism doesn't have to be spilled, doesn't have to soil his father's love. So he doesn't tell his father the story he'd wanted to, doesn't say it because he's learned--after all those years--something abiding about grace, a lesson he'd learned from a tough kid he hung around with in those turbulent years when they grew up together.

That Sunday morning, my father gave me the denouement of Romey's Place at the moment we were stood there singing "Blessed Assurance." That moment informs the final scene of the novel.
Just as he was for so many others, my father--bless his soul--was forever a peacemaker. Throughout all of my life, in a hundred varied ways, my father showed me the paths of truly selfless righteousness. Even now, in his last years, I still thank him for offering me a witness of what is pure, what is holy, and what is true.
But now that I’ve walked through those years again, now that I’ve gone back as deeply as I could into a story that ended in Cyril’s death, I’ve come to believe that Romey’s place in my life has become more consequential in the decades that have passed than that place may have seemed at the time. What my own foolish soul has come to understand is that while my father taught me goodness, it was Romey who taught me grace.
And that’s why I don’t need to tell my aging father the long story I couldn’t bring myself to tell him years ago. There’s no need to explain what role he played the night I lost a friend, no need to remind him of what, for years, I might have called his sin. All I need to say is that no matter what, he is my father. That’s part of what Romey taught me.
When my father died, I remembered that moment clearly and told myself that at his funeral I wished we could sing again "Blessed Assurance." I didn't push that wish on anyone because I couldn't help feeling that some witches' brew of motivations was at work: life and art and ego subtly and fearfully mixed. Had I told my sisters we should sing I wanted to sing the old  hymn, I would have felt idolatrous after a fashion, as if my story of my father's story was more significant than his story, his life.

I had no part in planning his funeral. My sisters did it while we were on our way to Wisconsin. They told me what they were planning once we arrived, and one of the hymns they'd determined to sing, they said, was "Blessed Assurance." 

My sister said that Mom had claimed her husband's deep faith was something she'd always admired and even envied; he'd never really doubted God's love, and she'd marveled at, or so she told my sisters, because there were times she did, she said. My mother chose that old hymn for reasons all her own.

Was that okay? my sisters asked me.

Sure, I said. Of course it was.

So we sang "Blessed Assurance" at his funeral. Of course, I will never again sing that hymn without thinking of him. There it is on his gravestone--Mom made sure it was there. 

Part of my inheritance includes that same assurance. Like him, I don't doubt my Father's love. Never have--hopefully, never will.

My dad never took me hunting, never took me to ball games, never did a whole lot with me really. By today's standards, he didn't work at building a relationship--just as his own probably hadn't, a preacher with ten kids, mid-Depression. 

But my father taught me a great deal about this life and the next by his own humbling blessed assurance.

That's his story--and mine.

And it's also our Father's story, or so it seems to me.

first appeared on October 22, 2007

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

What's just down the road

It's much bigger than you might imagine, but then it had to be. Once upon a time, it was home to as many as 10,000 Japanese-Americans the rest of us believed fearfully vulnerable to their own inborn nationalism to side with the U.S. of A., during World War II. How could we not lock them up? —some still spoke Japanese.

Seventy-five years ago, a white-hot fear created mass relocation for 130,000 Japanese-American men, women, and children, a relocation that’s blessedly easy to forget. But it happened. We built ten camps, transformed race tracks and other plots of open ground, and filled them with our neighbors.

If some morning you stand on the broad ground of Amache Relocation Center, Granada, Colorado, if you look up and down the almost endless rows of foundations, you can still feel something of the national panic after Pearl Harbor.

I am for the immediate removal of every Japanese on the West Coast to a point deep in the interior. I don't mean a nice part of the interior either. Herd 'em up, pack 'em off and give 'em the inside room in the badlands... Personally, I hate the Japanese. And that goes for all of them.
So wrote newspaper columnist Henry McLemore.

There were other reasons as well, selfish reasons.

We're charged with wanting to get rid of the Japs for selfish reasons. We do. It's a question of whether the white man lives on the Pacific Coast or the brown men. They came into this valley to work, and they stayed to take over... If all the Japs were removed tomorrow, we'd never miss them in two weeks, because the white farmers can take over and produce everything the Jap grows. And we do not want them back when the war ends, either.
That's what the head of a California agricultural association told the Saturday Evening Post is 1942.

10,000 people in hundreds of rudely constructed barracks, ten thousand men and women and kids who’d lived up and down America’s west coast, herded to places like this by intense fear and racial hatred.

T0day, the absence of people and places have not emptied Amache Relocation Camp of voices, especially if you're alone. Once this was a city, after all. Thousands crowded into its mess halls, worked its gardens, created its newspaper. Children were born; men and women died.

To call Amache a concentration camp may well be going too far. Amache wasn't a death factory. But the images are stunningly reminiscent. 

I’ve been listening to Midnight in Broad Daylight: A Japanese Family Caught Between Two Worlds, an exacting memoir of the horrors suffered by a single family rent apart by World War II. After December 7, it’s impossible for Harry, the American brother, not to see grave changes even on the faces of people he’d long considered friends. His neighborhoods feel ghost-like overnight:

Driving through Little Tokyo between gardening jobs, Harry was struck by how quickly the neighborhood was losing its sparkle. Christmas and the New Year normally attracted shoppers, but they had fled the enclave. Once packed eateries looked forlorn with empty tables. “Going out of Business” signs proliferated overnight.
A people were summarily taken from homes many had lived in for more than a generation, then sent to places like Amache, a place with walls and gates. The truth is, Amache Relocation Camp never was anything more than a speck in fly-over country, 10,000 invisible people in the middle of nowhere.

Just a few days ago, earphones in, I was burning away what calories I could on an exercise bike, listening to Midnight in Broad Daylight, the memories of a man who never forgot life at a place just like Amache, one of thousands sentenced to listlessness on the dry plains of eastern Colorado, where the summer sun can lift the paint off a Chevrolet.

That’s the story I’m listening to when something close a dozen Japanese students walk into the rec center, start playing pool, and ping-pong--just, as they’d say, hanging out. It’s 75 years later right now, almost to the day; and what’s playing in my ears and mind is a story I’d just as soon not share with them.

Telling them would be scary, not because my father took part in all that injustice. He didn’t. He was nowhere Amache or the entire west coast of America for that matter. When all those Japanese-Americans were trying to find something to do outside foundations still tall enough to emerge from the tumbleweeds, my father was with the Navy in the South Pacific fighting the Japs.

I’m listening to the heartsick memories of a man and his sister, and I’m watching all those Japanese students hanging out, and I can’t help but think about how incredibly understandable a place like Amache was to white Americans who'd just been attacked by planes coming over Diamond Head on a perfect Sunday morning with the singular aim of delivering death.

It’s so easy to draw up differences, and not at all hard to be afraid when we see them. Anger flourishes in that kind of fear and soon enough it will blossom into hate, if we let it. It’s so incredibly easy.

Amache Relocation Camp may well be out in the middle of nowhere, but, truth be told, it’s never all that far down the road.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Morning Thanks--a concert

Some things are simply foreordained. That I would enjoy the Cantus concert on Saturday night was a given. I walked into the Northwestern chapel with a disposition in full homage- mode. Count me among those old men and women who believe that when the church gives up on harmony in its music, it could just as well put orthodoxy in its rear-view mirror.

Cantus, some say, is the premiere men's vocal ensemble in the U.S. of A. As a musical judge, I'm hardly qualified; but their recordings play regularly down here in the basement, although never simply as background; the sheer beauty of their music carries away my attention. 

Besides, Saturday night my granddaughter was singing with them, along with a host of local school choirs, all of them up on stage for Franz Biebl's "Ave Maria," the gorgeous setting of the Ave Maria that has become Cantus's own signature piece. I wanted that piece to be a blessing for her. I knew it would be for me. Go ahead and listen.

Just a few minutes before all those kids took the stage, she messaged me--"Video it," she said. Her wish--my command. That anthem--is that the right word--requires no visuals. Even though I was holding my wife's phone up the whole time, I was able to hold back tears from the swirl of feelings running through me--even imaging my mother listening in from above. It was something beyond words. 

Once God Almighty had created everything, he sat back. Imagine him taking it all in, this marvelous creation, and saying "It's good." I think we're allotted just a few intimations of immortality in life, but that was one--my granddaughter a part of all that beauty was one of them. That kind of beauty really can, I believe, save the world.

The concept of the concert itself was to honor our veterans. So I expected "Battle Hymn of the Republic," and "America the Beautiful" and, you know, "When Johnny Comes Marching Home." It's not difficult to light up a crowd with patriotism, even though the late Sixties left a Samuel Johnson in me forever whispering that patriotism is "the last refuge of a scoundrel."

No matter. I expected beautiful patriotism anyway. But what Cantus offered was nothing close. The evening was a stunning look at the realities of war that featured letters home from soldiers throughout our country's long history of warfare. There were a few old recognizable melodies, but a host of pieces were commissioned by Cantus, new musical literature linked by theme, and harmonies that seemed, one after another, perfectly astonishing.

It was patriotism all right, but the delicate program Cantus created wandered carefully through harrowing wartime experiences and thereby paid homage to war's very reality. Those poignant letters prompted melodies that reached deeply into the darkest moments of human sadness and yet somehow reflected the glory that all of us carry as image-bearers of the Creator. 

It was, I told myself, music as theater, not because some plot line brought us along through the concert, but theater--drama--borne on soaring melodies. I don't know how to define it really, but somehow the mix of dissonance, as perfectly stated as poetry, always begs completion. Every piece has its own powerful complications, complications our very humanness wants badly to hear and feel resolved. You sit on the edge of your chair and listen as human voices create melodies so complex they would make your soul wither if they weren't somehow resolved. And some are not--just as some are not resolved in the lives all of us live. What Cantus created is its own incredible genre of musical theater.

I fought back tears at the Ave Maria, but I always do. But then, this time my granddaughter was in it. Or did I mention that?

But tears were there too at World War I, when a letter home brought a great uncle's life and death to mind and soul. "Goin' Home" is a ballad, a hymn sung by a dead man. And I couldn't help think of Uncle Edgar, dead by way of a grenade in a gully in France he never knew existed just a month before. 

I've thought and written quite a bit about that great uncle I never knew, but "Going Home" brought me closer to him than I'd ever felt. And I couldn't help picture his sister either, my grandma, writing note after note, frantically, for more than a year after his death, a year after the war was over, wanting like nothing else to find out anything about her brother, any word, any bit of hope.

And then discovering he wouldn't return. 

It was foreordained that I would love that concert Saturday night, but I had no idea it would or even could take such a deep hold on my soul. 

This morning, I'm greatly thankful for the astonishing virtue of Cantus's music. And, I'm blessed to say, so is my granddaughter.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Sunday Morning Meds--Faith and Superstition

“He makes grass grow for the cattle, 
and plants for man to cultivate, 
bringing forth food from the earth: 
wine that gladdens the heart of man, 
oil to make his face shine, 
and bread that sustains his heart.”

I must confess to never having been much of a fan of Benjamin Franklin. What’s worse, I may well have colored the attitudes of hundreds of students with my own skepticism. His Autobiography is a classic, the first of its genre and a textbook in the deism of his day; but it carries an arrogance that’s tiring—“listen, my children, to what I did,” Franklin seems to say. “If you want to know how to live, watch me pull up my own bootstraps.” It feels almost condescending. Something about the Autobiography, for all its testimony to virtue, seems, well, insincere.

Phillip Dray’s, Stealing God’s Thunder, investigates Franklin’s scientific interests, his experiments with electricity generally and lightning specifically. Dray’s study of the man has made me less skeptical of him, perhaps because it makes him less self-centered. He was a nobody in the scientific circles of his age, uneducated and unknown—and from the backwaters of the American colonies; yet he dedicated himself (once nearly dying in the process) to understanding the electricity of the heavens because, as Dray says, “little or nothing was known about lightning, whose true nature was shrouded by superstition.” Lightning seemed the finger of an angry God.

It’s not difficult to understand how people could see lightning and thunder as manifestations of God’s hand in our lives. Lightning turns night, literally, to day—and kills people, often in bizarre (and therefore scintillating) fashion. Thunder shakes us like earthquakes. It’s almost impossible not to cower. The Greeks thought Jupiter hurled lightning bolts, but the shock and awe of a big thunderstorm makes just about everyone fall back to final defenses—the will of God.

Enter Franklin. Lightning has nothing to do with some kind of God, he asserted. We need only understand some rudimentary physics to understand its play across the heavens. As Dray makes clear, Franklin “stole God’s thunder.” After Franklin, the kind of lightning he saw fly over the New Jersey shore of the Delaware River lost some force because it could be no longer seen as the spears God flung from his heavenly throne.

Now listen to Charles Spurgeon: “. . .do but watch with opened eye and you shall see the Lord walking through the cornfield.” Spurgeon could have been in Iowa. I know exactly what he means in this aside on Psalm 104:14. I love the sentiment. It’s here in these verses, after all: grass, wine, oils, breads—they are what God does. Taste a glass of wine and you’ve tasted something of God’s own hand. I’ve seen God in a cornfield, I swear.

When I’m seeing him in that way, I believe I’m seeing his world through the eyes of faith. Still, I’m thankful for Franklin, who, flying a kite in the rain, took God right out of a storm. Go figure.

The difference is the distance between superstition and faith, but then those very words almost always have tentative definitions, depending on who’s using them when.

What I know is this. When we get storms out here on the Plains, they play richly in the wide-open spaces above our land. And even though I know how lightning works, that knowledge doesn’t stop me from glorying in the pageant. Do but watch with opened eyes, I might say, and you shall see—even today, 200 years after Franklin—the Lord himself in the heavens above.

To me, at least, that’s not superstition; that’s the faith of Psalm 104.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Saturday Morning Catch--what was and is and will be

I was thinking west. The incessant honking over the Floyd means there should be hundreds, maybe thousands more at the Big Sioux. But the moment I stepped outside, I knew I had to go east, where a fringe of cloud cover was starting to pink with a dawn that was still more than a half hour away. 

I got lucky. I happened on an abandoned farm at exactly the right time, a place where I can bale out of the Honda and walk anywhere I'd like without having people call 911. I knew I was in for a flame, the sun still beneath the horizon but that cloud mass already painted, the horizon become a Joseph's coat of many colors. Look for yourself.

I left the car in the middle of the yard and took off behind the house where the maples created a frame. That backdrop was going to be good for maybe ten minutes, I figured, so I pulled any character anywhere near into the foreground and just let the backdrop sing praise.

Ten minutes from dawn. Once the sun rises, the colors flatten, or at least the camera sees them that way. I'm still looking for foreground characters--the shot has to have someone in it.

All that fire is turning citrus. If that farm is at twelve, think of the sun at two or so, still hidden but creating a burn on the horizon.

I didn't pack the tripod, so I held the camera on a fencepost, which explains why the farm's silhouette as sharp as it is.

Then shot the fence post. When finally sun emerges, the colors darken against the burn. The reds depart, as does anything remotely pastel--and they're not coming back. Maybe. 

There's no really stunning shots, but the sky was magnificent but fleeting. Really, I'm not out there just to take pictures.

Once that morning sun rises, it's King Midas. 

When it clears the haze, it lays a patina on wood, a look that can't be achieved any other way, as if this wreck of a shed were really a palace.

This is all history, of course, what once was. 

And this is what is. I was less than a mile away from a garden of wind turbines. 

I know I should love them for what they do, but they do insist on being the show.

Here's a Siouxland landscape today--wind turbines and a couple of hog confinements. 

So this morning I saw a little of what was and what is and, thankfully, what likely always will be, a fleeting heavenly pallet out east atop the dawn, February 18, just east of Paulina, Iowa.

I'm a witness, and I suppose, so are you.