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, March 26, 2017

Sunday Morning Meds--"You made them all"

“How many are your works, O LORD! In wisdom you made them all.”

I’d like to think of them as ours, but they aren’t—not really. Bison will be forever associated with the Great Plains, but evidence of their roaming has turned up from Florida to Alaska, from Maine to Mexico. They don’t “belong” to anyone, even to those of us who live here in the wide-open spaces they once loved to roam.

The common North American buffalo stands as high as six feet tall at the shoulder and may well be the best argument for vegetarianism. Strong and powerful, able to withstand extreme temperatures, a bison forages almost exclusively on grasses and sedges. Although their relatively short legs almost immobilize them in deep snow (unlike some cattle and most horses), standard-sized buffalo have pick up dense winter coats that add extra layers of insulation in crucial areas of their bodies.

They change their shape as frequently as Oprah, losing as much as 15 per cent of their body weight during the winter, when they go into a kind of winter funk, roaming less, eating less, living off their fat reserves. When April greens the prairies, they eat like as if they haven’t for years and get truly meaty.

Some say thirty, some fifty, some ninety—but no one will ever know how many millions used to roam the Great Plains. Why no more? Lots of reasons, one of them more important than any other: they were in the way. The American bison was, in a sense, the soul of many Native American tribes; and as the Europeans moved farther and farther west, the buffalo, like those Native people, had to be cleared off, like timber and the tall-grass prairie. Sounds awful—and it was.

There are less horrible reasons. Not long ago I visited the Fur Trade Museum, Chadron, Nebraska, a place that celebrates a way of life long ago vanished on the Plains—the era of the fur trapper, who made his bucks, basically, on beaver.

When beaver hats fell out of style among European muck-a-mucks, buffalo hides became the currency in those wilderness trading posts. Eventually, as everyone knows, buffalo hunters would shoot and kill bison by the hundreds, just for their tongues. When rifles got too hot from successive shooting, the hunters would urinate on the barrels to cool them, then keep pumping lead.

It’s a sad story, but the buffalo is not a passenger pigeon. Numbers are rising these days, and their resurgence is a beautiful thing.

A few years ago, a rutting bull decided, for reasons known only to him, to run beside our tour bus. Just outside the windows, he loped along on the side of the road for a mile or so, ran and ran and ran and ran, seemingly without tiring. But then, a bison’s windpipe is huge. Even though the average bull today weighs as much as 1600 pounds, he’s a cross-country star. Any of a dozen Native peoples knew they’d need extra horses to run those beasts down because the American bison can run marathons. They're fearfully and wonderfully made.

Is that spacious windpipe an illustration of God’s own creative genius, or is it something that developed through thousands of years by the constant warfare we call, since Darwin, “the survival of the fittest”?

I'll let others fight that one out? What we all know is this—we white Europeans almost killed them all; but, praise the Lord, they’re making a comeback, they’re rallying, even though their old world is now drawn and quartered by fences.

“How many are your works, O Lord; in wisdom, you made them all.”

Friday, March 24, 2017

My Saturday Speech--ii

(Continued from yesterday.) 
If you think Representative Steve King is wrong about "somebody else's babies" and you're in the area, please stop by at the Sioux County Courthouse, Orange City, 10 a.m., on Saturday, March 25th, for a rally that will include several speakers from the area.
But you didn’t have to be German to suffer discrimination back then. Even the Dutch were persecuted. In central Iowa, a bomb beneath the parsonage of the Reformed Church, set there by patriotic American terrorists, failed to ignite; but flag-flying vigilantes succeeded in burning down the New Sharon Reformed Church by vigilantes so muddle-headed they assumed "Dutch" meant Deutsch.

A Christian school in Peoria, Iowa, went up in flames for the same reason. Right-thinking, patriotic loyalist Americans looked upon German-Americans and Dutch-Americans—and just about anyone who spoke a foreign language as the Kaiser’s hellish brood.

We have a wide-ranging history of prejudice that includes almost all of the people here gathered.

Let me tell you a story:

Ten, maybe fifteen years ago, I was in line at a grocery store, behind two Hispanic men checking out. The clerk—just a girl—was having trouble communicating because those two customers' limited skill with the English language was, to her, an annoying distraction. Her frustration was evident.

When the Hispanic men walked away, she muttered something to us—the white folks in line—words meant more clearly for us but spoken loud enough for them. “Learn the language,” she growled. “When you come here to this country, learn the language!”

She was a kid, high school age.

I wasn’t next in line, I was second; but I heard the words clearly.

I wrote up that incident, sent the note to the Sioux Center News as a letter to the editor, and I mentioned that, almost assuredly, her grandparents or great-grandparents would have needed help buying flour or sugar from any store in LeMars or Rock Rapids because they wouldn't have had to learn English. As late as the 1950’s, men and women on the streets of Orange City or Sioux Center still used the Dutch language, forty years after immigration from Holland came to a halt for the First World War.

Just a couple of generations later, annoyance bred intolerance in that girl, something made her forget where and what she came from herself. She was Dutch-American, not Ioway.

But the story doesn’t end there, and the poison that Representative Steve King offered all of us last week about immigration and Muslims doesn’t have to end with his repulsive prejudice either.

The manager from one of Sioux Center’s two grocery stores called me—eight in the morning, the next day. She identified herself, then said, “Jim, I need to know who that check-out was. I have to know."

That call was a blessing.

We have a history of prejudice, a history we’ve created and perpetuated ourselves--and  we've suffered; but like that grocery store manager, we don’t have to tolerate it. We can fight it. We can call it ugly, call it wrong, call it evil when it is.

And that’s why we’re here, and that’s why our Representative, Steve King, a man we elected with 80% of our votes, has not only to listen but also to stanch the poison he creates.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

My Saturday speech (1)

Some have asked me to speak at a rally on Saturday, a gathering of people who oppose the bigoted sentiments that Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, let loose last week. This is what I'm going to say.

I find it passing strange that the Native people who gave Iowa its name are long gone from our borders. Today, the Ioway Tribe is headquartered in Kansas and Oklahoma, where many tribal members live, even though the state of Iowa owes its name to them. You might think the Ioways would be revered citizens here; but 180 years ago we legislated their bands out of sight and out of mind when we determined this rich land was worth a whole lot more than they were.

You see, we have a history of prejudice.
The Yankton Sioux had a spacious and wondrous homeland created by governmental treaty. They occupied a triangle whose southern point began where the Big Sioux River flows into the Missouri and generally followed the Big Muddy on its course west and then north through a place that later became the state of South Dakota. All that land just across the river from Hawarden was Yankton territory before it was South Dakota.

But white folks from a dozen or more European countries—and Yankees—determined all of that land was just too blessed wonderful to leave to savage Yanktons. So we took it from them, plain-and-simple. To make our crime legal, we created treaties we never lived by.

I remember being stunned by a Navajo friend of mine who shook his head and giggled when people talked about undocumented workers. “People like me--,” he said, “we know more about illegal immigration than you ever will.” Then he laughed—at us.

Because we wanted what the Ioways had, they're long gone. All they left was their name, which we've simply made ours--like their land.

We have a history of prejudice.

But there’s more to remember from our history, because during World War I, Iowa was the only state in the union to wield a language law.

Elderly women in Scott County were jailed for speaking German over the telephone. A Lutheran pastor was jailed for preaching part of a funeral service for a soldier killed in the war in Swedish because the young man's grandparents did not speak English.

Ninety-nine years ago, Iowa Governor William Harding legitimized prejudice across the state and inflamed the fanaticism that going to war creates by issuing what came to be called “The Babel Proclamation,” the only language law in the United States, prohibiting the use of any foreign language in places where the public gathers.

Even though Harding had been elected by gathering a majority of the German-American vote in the state, he found it impossible to believe that German-speaking Iowans could turn their backs on their own ethnic background. Once upon a time, American business interests recruited German immigrants because those German folks carried with them a propensity for hard work and decent living. But when America’s involvement in World War I began, those same people often were hated, especially when they continued to use the only language some of them knew—German.

In November of 1917, German teachers in Iowa public schools were fired and German-language textbooks were burned. We have a history of prejudice.

A year later, on November 11, 1918, the day that marked the end of World War I, a celebration in Lowden, Iowa, turned nasty, when an angry mob grabbed a local preacher. Here’s the way a woman who witnessed the events described them when she wrote a letter to her sister:

People acted like savages. They came in mobs from towns from miles around and one mob got a minister and made him march through town carrying a flag. They made him stand on a coffin and kiss the flag while a band from a nearby town played “The Star-Spangled Banner.” On the coffin was written “The Kaiser—now ruler of Hell.” Then he was ordered out of town.
The Rev. John Reichardt, who served the Zion Evangelical Reformed Church of Lowden, Iowa, did not as required show sufficient hatred of his German heritage. He’d refused to abandon “the language of the enemy.” He was a criminal because he spoke German.

We have a history of prejudice.
Tomorrow, the end.

If you're from Siouxland, consider joining us at 10 a.m., Saturday, March 25, at the Sioux County Courthouse in Orange City. Let Steve King know you know what's right.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Morning Thanks--literature

There we sat, totally silent over the last few lines of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago, a passage where that long-bearded writer and prophet goes on and on about the near sacramental character of his prison experience, thanking the Lord for piling on the burden of suffering which, miraculously, brought him to faith that pulled him through. 

There we sat in an old classroom--after all, it wasn't yet outfitted in expensive, cutting edge technology, one of the few that isn't. There we sat in a fine enough clothes for suitably dressed middle-class kids and their profs. There we sat, each of us having just eaten lunch, replete with choices. There we sat, each of our expensive books opened on each of our desks.

There we sat--me too--in silence before an idea that's been arising so often these days that I'm starting to wonder myself whether I'm good with God. After all, I haven't, like Solzhenitsyn, been unjustly imprisoned for eight years, suffered the horrors of the Gulag, watched those who weren't strong enough die. I've had it pretty good, really; never suffered through a Dust Bowl or a Pearl Harbor, never engaged in a firefight in Khe Sanh or out in some desert plain in Afghanistan, never stalked the countryside for daily bread or walked a mile for a cup of water.

Writers who are believers--and I'm thinking especially of some I've read recently, like Solzhenitsyn, like Gina Ochsner, like Andre Dubus--hold that theme in common. Each of them in their own fictive worlds like to nudge the reader along to an acknowledgement that's very much in the air these days before Easter, the notion suffering can well be sacramental, a blessing, that makes us vastly more resilient against the darkness in the valley of the shadow.

But it's not easy to talk about in 21st century America. What do you say about it to 20-year-old kids who are worried about jobs and relationships and identity? Must we all suffer sometime like Solzhenitsyn? Is getting knocked down a prerequisite to growing up? Must some old man die so the new man rises? Really? Is all of that true?--and if it is, how do we then live?

There we sat in silence.

Literature--my chosen field for the last forty years--pulls us into questions that have no easy answers. That's what the Gulag does. The story doesn't stay on the pages of that expensive book but leaps, agile as a deer, into our hearts, into our minds, into our souls. Even though I've never been to Russia, know very little of the old Soviet system, and nothing about Siberia or work camps, when I read some thing like the Gulag, it begs me in to make it my own. I'm led to think not just about what the writer says but to think even more about what the writer says means to me. That's where the process begins, in fact.
Literature does its best work when it asks questions, I think. It's not particularly good at answering them; if it were, it would be preaching. Lit makes us think about what it is we believe, how it is we act, how it is we form our lives. 

And there we sat in the kind of prickly silence that Solzhenitsyn spread over us. Maybe that's right where he wanted us, right where we should have been. 

This morning, once more, I'm thankful for literature, even though, like life, it sometimes leads us to places we'd rather not have been.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Morning Thanks--Fellowship Singers

I'm not at all sure what he was picking up yesterday on his guided tour of the new comprehensive care facility that will likely be his abode quite soon, and his last one. The land he worked as a farmer for all those years will always be home in this world, but by the end of the week in all likelihood he'll have a new residence, this one smaller than the last. 

It's not a change he's giddy about, but then being giddy about anything is tough when you're 97 years old.

But I was taken. The place has a dog and three cats--almost worth the price of admission all by themselves. Like all residents of the place, he'll get a measure of TLC beyond anything he knows. "My hearing aid isn't working," he'll call these days to tell his only daughter. By the time she gets there, it's working and he's almost forgotten. 

No more. He'll now have a hostess at his beck-and-call. If he wants a malt at three in the afternoon or a beer at seven, she'll get it. I'm not sure he'll ever exercise such opportunities. He's steeply "depression-era," and he doesn't want someone to have to go out of the way for him. You know.

I think this new place is grand. Still, as he admitted to the director, he doesn't have a choice. It's time. 

The tour was an hour long, led by an administrator who did her darnedest to sell him. But I don't know what went in--except cost, and about that he was flummoxed; but he is, after all, depression-era. 

So when it was over we sat for twenty minutes at a little outdoor eatery near the front door, a place where you can grab a tray of popcorn and a glass of lemonade or half-cup of coffee. The three of us sat and looked around and not at each other because getting flummoxed isn't hard for him anymore. Happens a lot. His world is very small, and every molehill is a mountain--he says it himself. He knows he's on a road to a place we all go eventually, but it's just taking far more time for him to get there. Simply stated--pets and hostesses and chocolate malts aside, if he had a choice he'd rather be gone.

A crowd of residents started to form around us from a parade of wheelchairs and walkers massing towards the door of the little concert hall/church (if you open the sliding doors, stained glass and a pulpit appear). The afternoon's activity was the Fellowship Singers, a half hour of hymns so old no self-respecting church would touch them anymore. 

When one of the singers came by, I stopped him. I had no idea he was part of the entertainment until I saw the hymnbook. "Sing with us!" he said, fanning through the pages. "We sing ten hymns, one after another." He pointed at the open page. "Next month, the next ten."

"I can't," I told him. "I didn't practice."

"Neither did we," he says. "Come on."

I had to giggle. 

We talked Dad into staying, which wasn't easy. He hasn't been to church much as of late--it's too hard to get in-and-out. If he hears the sermon at all, I'm not sure he gets it; and the music isn't what plays in a memory that's probably more active than his consciousness. 

So we wheeled him in to a room so crowded the blessed hostess had to scramble for chairs--SRO almost, although a goodly portion of the crowd were wheeled in and thus brought their own. 

There the Fellowship Singers stood, up front, about a dozen grandpas themselves, singing their hearts out through a whole gaggle of the museum-quality hymns people like my father-in-law grew up with, once--and now again--the very language of their worship.

I've been to gorgeous concerts in the last few years--international artists of stunning virtuosity, concerts in which my own granddaughter sang with choirs that had me holding back tears. I sat in sheer awe at a concert by Cantus, maybe the best vocal ensemble in America. But those Fellowship Singers--yesterday they were a blessing like none other. 

I don't know how they played in my father-in-law's mind just then. Chances are, what he heard barely made it over the confusion running through the empty corridors of his consciousness. But what he heard was language and melody utterly familiar. 

I don't mind saying that the moment was its own kind of revelation to me because I couldn't help but witness a transaction one rarely sees in life: ordinary people being an abundant blessing in such a charmingly simple way.

The sheer delight of grace is its almost comedic surprise, as it was yesterday at a place I hope my father-in-law will soon learn to think of as his on his trip home. This morning I'm thankful for a bunch of saints, the old guys with the hymnals up front.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Morning Thanks--what's out there, out back

This, yesterday at around five in the afternoon, was our back yard. Past tense, was, because although the photo (hardly a showstopper) stops time on a dime, what's out there this morning right now in the darkness, isn't the same. Nor what will be out there around five in the afternoon today. Yesterday, temps soared. Mid-seventies. It was gorgeous.

Last weekend, out west in South Dakota, it was January, temps below zero, cars covered with snow. All winter long our Buick hadn't coughed. Finally, in March ye olde engine told me how angry it was to be left out in the cold.

One Sunday later it's May. What a joy. 

What's in the picture is not all our backyard. On a clear day from the deck, we can see two or three miles west to east. What's ours is one sweet acre, front to back where most of the long, dead field grass stretches, and west to east about as wide as a photo allows. Those four snaking paths through the grass I cut last year so our grandkids had a track for the four-wheeler.

And so that I could walk through our little kingdom and supervise the wildflowers coming back where once there was nothing but alfalfa--to which I added two sprawling pumpkin plants I planted when my grandson suggested that a couple of pumpkins out back would be cool. 

There's a bare spot out there to the just west of the yellowed field grass, a rectangle of open space. See it? 

The idea of that space--I've never been mistaken for Johnny Appleseed or Old McDonald--is that it become, some sweet day, a field of native flowers in profuse and almost sinful abundance. Last year, I "plowed-the-field-and scattered/the good seed of the land" (some childhood song just came back there--sorry) with the help of a friend who's not only helpful but blessedly adept at renewing native prairie and setting the world ablaze in wildflowers. 

It felt like an almost biblical undertaking, mixing a few precious seeds in with what amounted to a cover crop of sawdust, mixing it up in a big tub which created a ritual brotherhood that brought me back to that early scene in Moby Dick when the Queequeg and Ishmael have their hands in a pot of richness from a sperm whale.

Okay, that's overdoing it. But the whole process seemed ancient ritual, even more so when we walked through that chunk of plowed ground scattering handfuls of seed and sawdust.

Last year, I mowed the piece weekly. You've got to give the newly planted wildflowers a chance to take root without simply getting crowded out by weeds, I was told. So that little plot out back looked clean but crappy last summer. The lawn mower kept it from getting shaggy, but a Wordsworthian field of daffodills it wasn't, nor, I'm told, will it be this summer. 

Yesterday, for the first time since last fall, I walked through the backyard, front to back, side to side, including that richly sewn chunk of last year's nothingness. I don't have to tell you--in all that Sabbath warmth, things were popping. From the deck, what's out there looks like it's wearing its own dirty winter coat. But up close, there's green galore.

I haven't a clue whether that spotty emerald is friend or foe, but I couldn't help smile at what's emerging because just last weekend it was dreadful winter, but yesterday it was almost June.  

Once upon a time it bothered me that the derivation of the word easter is significantly pagan. But just because its origins have nothing to do with an empty tomb doesn't mean it has nothing to do with resurrection. What's happening right now in that barren-looking little stretch of ground in our backyard is flat out beautiful, even if what's there is still weeds. It's a promise.

For those intermittent splashes of green in that little piece of our backyard that I couldn't help notice yesterday, I'm thankful this morning. 

Easter is still a month away, but it's a joy to know that what's coming up just can't wait.  

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Sunday Morning Meds--Sabbath

Then man goes out to his work, to his labor until evening.” Psalm 104

I was born and reared in an ethnic and religious tribe which practiced Sabbitarianism religiously—sometimes self-righteously. I have no doubt that what we did or did not do on Sunday became, for those of us with bona fide Dutch surnames, a means by which to hold on to some identifying feature in the fierce boil of the American melting pot.

Last Sunday, my wife and I didn’t go to church. Instead, we hiked up Spirit Mound, where, 200+ years ago, Native people told Lewis and Clark they’d find little 18-inch devils,l little miniature people. It was a beautiful late summer afternoon, and the updraft rolling up the mound kept a dozen swallows more than happy. Watching them play in that wind just beneath us, was a joy. But there were no devils, no little people.

It must have been devilishly hot 200 years ago. Seaman, the huge, black Newfoundland Lewis bought for twenty bucks before he left, got himself overheated, so hot they sent him back to the Missouri River, about ten miles south.

Not so last Sunday. It was beautiful, and we were alone, overlooking land where Lewis and Clark first spotted buffalo herds. For a half hour or so, we just sat up there, in silence, the swallows swooping around us.

I’m tempted to say that our being there was kind of worship, but I won’t, even though it was. I’m so steeped in religious tradition that skipping church takes some doing, and I won’t deny that my justifying a Sabbath on Spirit Mound is, in great part, a means by which I can assuage plain old guilt: The fact is, I didn’t go to church.

Sabbitarianism, practiced faithfully when I was a boy, has left a mark on me, for better or for worse—that’s what I’m saying. Years ago, on a trip to the Netherlands, I realized that it has left a mark there, too, even though few Dutch-Americans consider the Netherlands a “Christian nation,” as so many them are proud of asserting about this country. On a Sunday, shops were closed, not because everyone was in church, but because not going to work kept families together—or so a Dutch historian told us. An interesting idea—laws created for families, not businesses.

And I’m thinking all of this this morning—it’s still dark outside—because my son fully believes, as I do, that part of the cause of his depression years ago was a year’s night shift at a local factory. He barely ever saw the sun. Spurgeon’s commentary on Psalm 104: 23, minces no words: “Night work,” he says, “should be avoided as much as possible.” I understand why Spurgeon says that—maybe better than he did himself. Then again, maybe not.

What’s clear in this verse, however, is the Bible’s arduous work ethic. Finally, 23 verses into this panorama of a psalm, man makes a cameo appearance, and what’s he doing? —backpacking among the mountain goats and coneys? worshiping? No, he’s working, doing his nine-to-five.

All of which reminds me of Weber’s argument about cause and effect between Calvinism and capitalism. It makes me think of night shifts in local factories, and what we might have lost in this country, making the Sabbath into any other work day—how easy it is, even for Christian believers, to believe in the godliness of work, and, as we have elsewhere, to shape virtue into self-righteousness.

Okay, maybe I’m still trying to justify not going to church. But one way or another, I really do believe my wife and I need more Sabbath rest, more silence, up on a hill, in the solitary presence of just a few playful swallows, nary a devil to be found.