March/April Issue


Not-so-secret sins

A phone call from my mother years ago--I think I was in college--included other news, I'm sure, but what she said after a deep breath is something I've never forgotten, even though it was then and it remains today something of a cliche: a pastor in town had run off with the organist.  

My mother's piety created no shadows. I lived most of my life simply assuming that I never could be as holy as she tried to be, and she had lots of not-so-subtle ways of letting me know that it was, to her, quite evident.  But this scandal had her brow-beaten, even though it hadn't happened in her own church. The whole town felt sunless, darkened. When a man of God breaks trust, things fall apart, she said. What's damaged can't be mended easily, so the holy fortress around God's people felt to her somehow left unguarded.  

I may be wrong, but I think I remember her breath staggering when she told me all of that. I'm not even sure she knew the preacher. No matter. The heart of the community was staggering in an unholy atrial fibrillation. 

Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale uses the potential plight of the community as an excuse for not owning up to what he did with Hester Prynne, a lonely and vulnerable young woman who came to him in the night for love-making Hawthorne tastefully keeps in the antecedent action of Scarlet Letter. Hester suffers very publicly for what the two of them did, but Dimmesdale appears to get away with it and tells her that he really can't confess because of the moral pain the community will suffer. That's why he keeps his blasted mouth shut.

I rarely if ever stumbled on a student--especially female--who bought Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale's community-ethos excuse, and I'm not sure my mother would have either. But she would have understood what Dimmesdale argues: that him--the preacher--confessing his sin publicly would have violated trust and faith itself among the people.

Similar stories occur with such regularity that they can't really be considered news, and it's now happened again in Florida, this time to a preacher with a church of almost 20,000 members. I'm sure it happened more than once in the last month, but most fellowships don't have that many souls, and most of those who preach-and-cheat don't write hot selling how-tos about sweet and holy marriage. This man knows what God wants wheb two people leave and cleave. He wrote the book on it, authored a series titled Building a Godly Marriage. You can probably still pick it up at your local Christian bookstore. Stimulating reading, I'm sure. 

It's almost impossible not to say, what the hell does he know?

My mother would cry. Maybe I should.

Hawthorne found it rather interesting that phony-baloney Dimmesdale gets hotter in the pulpit after his secret sin, an effect which is understandable because once his heart knows something of its own darkness, he speaks more vividly into the darkened hearts of others. 

Becoming a more effective preacher is not a reason for any Rev. John Doe to look up a woman's skirt or Dominie Jane to admire a set of firm buns, but Arthur Dimmesdale, after the fact, becomes the finest preacher in town, gets the nod for the Election Sermon, and does it all because he damned well knows how damned he is. Seriously.

According to Christianity Today, this Florida preacher's sin created a run on his holy podcasts until his church pulled them off the web site because some sinners were already starting to use them sinfully--think, say, of Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert. But CT claims that many who were requesting the preacher's how-tos, post-revelation, still felt them current and even beneficial. Maybe even more so. Isn't that interesting?

What was true for Dimmesdale may well be true for the mega-pastor, after all. I wouldn't mind reading through his godly advice on your and my marriages, knowing that when he wrote them his heart had to be wrenched into something grotesque by his own blessed guilt. He probably wasn't lying one bit. He simply wasn't living by the principles he was telling the rest of us to take to heart. 

"How to's" sell today.  As a culture--as a Christian culture especially--we simply can't get enough advice from between the covers of the books we buy and read by the thousands. This fine Florida preacher--he had to be terrific from the pulpit as well as from the podcast--authors an entire course titled Building a Godly Marriage at the same moment in time he's screwing up his own. 


Still, what I remember best about that long-ago phone call is my mother's deep hurt.  Seriously.  I don't even remember the preacher's name. 

And this is Easter week, as my father used to announce at our family devotions. It is Easter week and that may well be the best reason for me curb my sharp tongue and try to imagine instead what Jesus Christ our Lord would almost certainly say about the hypocrite sun-belt preacher caught in the wrong sack.  

I think I know, and this is no how-to.

He'd point gently and tell Florida's Dimmesdale to go and sin no more. He would. He did it before, after all.

He'd probably turn to me too, pull up an eyebrow, and say, "Let him who is without sin--." Then he'd get down on his haunches, grab a handful of gravel, and give me a lordly smile, maybe a bit wry, because he'd know very well that I already know and you know too.

Holy Jesus. When he walked the dusty streets, and, today, when he hung there on that cross of shame, the man simply had to be divine. 


Melville in Port au Prince

The image I won't soon forget from Haiti's National Museum is a elaborately rigged ball and chain from the nation's horrific dark ages, the days of slavery, an immense, jerry-rigged iron contraption some human being created for another human being to wear, hard as that is to believe.  It's a frame of iron you had to step into to get over your shoulders, a piece of atrocity so unthinkable that even imagining it hung on the shoulders of a human being is nearly impossible. The museum guide wouldn't let me snap a picture. I wish I could have because I can't describe it really, just as I can't describe so much of Haiti.

When you see shackles like that, when you stand there beside them, in front of them, when they loom over you, it's easier to understand John Brown's murderous passion, easier to understand why radical abolitionists were so hated by so many Americans, easier to understand the blood in "Bloody Kansas," easier to understand Huck Finn's perfectly innocent declaration that he'd go to hell rather than haul Jim back into slavery. 

My people immigrated to this country and stayed in Michigan and Wisconsin and Iowa because, in the late 1840s, they'd have no part of slavery. But then no one is innocent; the Dutch were famously successful slave traders when, for a century or more, they owned the high seas. Slavery was an institution, as much a part of the way we lived as church attendance. And it's not over. Somewhere, even as I write, someone works is a slave.

But a million shackles are gone or left in museum displays, where, thank goodness, we can stand and stare and wonder, shake our heads at what once was.

There's more to the Haitian story than its birth in slavery. There's the story of the Spanish slaughter of the island's aboriginals. Those Natives they didn't slay with the sword, they did with plagues. There are no indigenous people in Haiti today--or very, very few.  They're gone.  Like the slaves, white people didn't think they were people.  They were dogs.  Well, worse.

First came Columbus, then sugar cane, then slaves. The fort Columbus left when he returned to Spain--and all its inhabitants--was destroyed by the time he returned to what we often call "the new world," its remnant crew hacked to death. Island history is mess for years, when Spanish, Dutch, French, and English fought with each other in 17th century colonialist fashion, vying for seeming control.

It was the French who succeeded and began to use the island's fertile region for tobacco, indigo, cotton, and cacoa--and yes, you read that right, cacoa, the raw material of chocolate. Slavery began. 

For years, slaves were brought at the rate of 40,000 a year so that soon enough the African population overwhelmed the whites in numbers--but not power. They came from hundreds of tribes and stayed strong because so many were literally worked to death. Replacements were needed constantly, so new slaves were shipped in, keeping the enslaved people strong enough, ironically, to rebel. 

Which they did. Thousands escaped into the mountains where they formed communities of of maroons. Then, already in the early 1790s, a full-fledged revolution began in the mountains with a voodoo ceremony, the religion the Africans brought with them and never really abandoned. For several years, political leadership moved back and forth between battling factions, but Toussaint Louverteur, the man whose name is on the airport, brought in troops and thereby earned the title of "Father of His Country."

The question the whole story raises, of course, is ancient--of what importance is history to character? how does the past shape us? are we victims of what once was or is every generation responsible for its own destiny?  

I visited a high school class, an English class, in an English-speaking school, where the teacher wanted me to talk about the American literature she'd been teaching for the last year. Great kids, by the way, energetic, lively learners.  But when we were talking, I was stunned to hear her say that she'd made these kids (for many of them English isn't their first language) read an obscure and really long story by Herman Melville.

The story is "Benito Cereno," a story I'd required for a quarter-century in a college American Lit class, required, I should say, with greatly limited success.  Melville turned cagey and cynical late in his life, became himself a kind of confidence man; he's cagey. Besides, his sentences can feel far more Shakespearean than, say, Hemingway-ish. "Benito Cereno" shed student readers in droves once they decided that wading through its density wasn't going to be worth the sweat.

Just blew me away when this first-year teacher said she'd made these kids, these Haitian high-school kids from middle and upper-class families, read that looooooooooong, difficult Melville story.

I'm standing up there in front of the class, and we're having a great time talking about American lit when it suddenly struck my lily-white consciousness how perfectly right it was for her to assign that beast, because "Benito Cereno" is actually a dirty, wink-and-a nod trick. Melville knows his white readers will be as hoodwinked as Amasa Delano, captain of the whaler Bachelor's Delight, who is totally incapable of reading what's happening on board a decrepit slave ship they chance to meet one day, the San Dominick.  

Here's the almost cruel joke of this sprawling sea tale: slaves have taken over and created an act Delano simply can't see through because it never occurs to them that slaves are smart enough to pull off this bit of high seas theater--they're not smart enough because they are black, because they're slaves.  

When Major Reno saw a mountain of dust rise from the spot on the plains where Custer and his men died at the hands of Crazy Horse, it never occurred to him to go to Custer's aid, never occurred to him that Custer might be in trouble because he could not imagine Indians could beat up the U. S. Cavalry. What had actually happened simply couldn't have.

In "Benito Cereno," Melville tricks lily-white readers out of their sheer stupidity and racism. Because Amasa Delano simply can't imagine that slaves have triumphed, neither can we.  

Until, like Delano, we suddenly see our own blindness.

There I stood in front of all those Haitian kids thinking it was some kind of cruelty to make them read "Benito Cereno." It took forever for me to put the pieces together.  I'm a white guy, just like Delano, captain of Bachelor's Delight.

It was a kind of epiphany right there in a high school class. All of a sudden it hit me: "Benito Cereno" is a perfect story for Haitian kids, complicated sentence structure or not. Perfect because it's their story.  It reads a whole lot more powerfully in Port au Prince than it does in northwest Iowa.

But then, there are no slave shackles in the museum down the street in Orange City.  

Maybe there should be.


Blue Highways

It's not insignificant. Created in the late '20s, during the heyday of such memorials, Bryant Baker's Pioneer Woman stands formidably just off one of Ponca City's main streets, right where Oklahoma oilman and one-time governor, not to mention millionaire, Earnest Whitworth Marland, wanted it erected. It's bronze and it's big and it's beautiful, a lovely gift to the town, the region, and the entire nation really. 

Baker won the commission, a contest among some of the nation's leading sculptors, after a nationwide tour of the submitted possibilities. Hundreds of thousands of people voted. 

How Baker's design prevailed isn't a mystery; Pioneer Woman really is memorable. His sun-bonneted woman, her admiring boy at her side, carries her shoulders as if she were royalty, an attitude that was likely hard to come by on the muddy floors of the region's sod houses.

In April of 1930, Baker's design was unveiled, just down the street from Marland's mansion, an equally historic palace, which also still stands in all of its splendor and royalty. For a time, oilman Marland single-handedly controlled one-tenth of the world's supply of oil. The man and his wife--who'd come to Oklahoma without much in their pockets or pocketbooks--lived something of the vision in his Pioneer Woman's face. That Ponca City residents looked on approvingly when she was unveiled on that April day goes without question; one-third of its populace worked for him.  

She is elegant, isn't she? And determined. And blessed with a vision of the future that, at the very time she was erected in Marland's front yard, was only half the story. 

She is, after all, the polar opposite of those equally famous Oklahoma images of a just a few years hence--circa, say, 1935, mid-Dust Bowl, when Roosevelt's crew of government-financed photographers, Dorthea Lange among them, recorded a wholly different face on pioneer women and men, folks who didn't stride quite so confidently into America's frontier or future. Most of those images caught faces less sure any future at all.  

I suppose it's telling that the elegant statue was created by a multi-millionaire oilman, while Depression-era images were caught by photographers who were salaried from a government payroll.

But vying them off against each other is silly because they both capture something in the human character. And, as all of us know, it's not at all incongruous to think that all of us, at one point in time or another, can walk out into life itself brandishing undaunted courage, and at another seem perfectly incapable of anything but in-the-flesh despair.

We just happened to stop at one of Oklahoma's hundreds of roadside markers, one of which, on a single slab of stone, related the story of Chief Joseph and the Nez Pierce, who spent enough time in the Oklahoma Territory to bury a hundred of his people, including his own daughter, before finally being put on a train and sent unceremoniously back to the Pacific Northwest--to Washington, however, and not home to Idaho. 

Like hundreds of thousands of other Native people, the Nez Perce were summarily directed--at gunpoint--to relocate to Indian Territory, where, it was assumed, all of the nation's indigenous people would live together smoking peace pipes, farming respectably, and going to church. In Oklahoma, the Nez Perce fared no better than many others, and, like the Northern Cheyenne, simply couldn't acclimate. Wearied by death and disease and dislocation, they were finally allowed to move back to the northwest.

This highway marker is not so powerful as Baker's Pioneer Woman. There is no garden around it, no museum beside it. But then, it wasn't commissioned by one of the state's former governors and most wealthy citizens. That it's there at all is a fact worth celebrating. That someone insists people not forget is pure blessing. 

Timothy Egan, who wrote a wonderful book on the Dust Bowl, The Worst Hard Time, took a shot at Rep. Paul Ryan in the NY Times this week, arguing that Ryan's attitude toward the poor--that their poverty is attributable either to their laziness or the government's enabling their dependency--is ironic, given Ryan's own Irish-American heritage. After all, it was the British Tory government who made similar claims about the hundreds of thousands of Irish who died during the potato famine in the 1840s, when Ryan's own ancestors came to America. Egan says it might be helpful for Paul Ryan to consider his own family history before determining that essentially the poor are to blame for their own poverty.  

I suppose it's not unusual for an older man or woman to look back more frequently than ahead, but what I find about myself in my early retirement is that history's stories are as easy to forget as they are essential to remember. We forget for good reason--not to be trapped in the past, perhaps.  But we forget at our peril, too, especially in this, that we begin to believe, as stupid as this is, that we're right about things, about everything. 

You can learn a lot on blue highways. 


Theology at Sunday dinner

It was a while ago now, four short years, counting like a grandparent. I finished with opening prayer at a Sunday dinner, and Pieter, our first-grade grandson, who was, back then, promiscuous with oddly bedeviling questions, suddenly asked, “Does Ian know God?”

Ian is his little brother, not even a year old at the time, but an almost divine babbler, or so his grandpa thought. But Ian hadn’t come anywhere close to delivering a decipherable word. That would take years.

“Does Ian know God?” Pieter asked.

My first reaction was silence. After all, I’m only Grandpa, not a parent. My daughter and her husband should be the ones to answer, right?

Besides, I wasn’t sure what to say.

So I’m wondering what they’re going to answer—Mom and Dad.

Me?—I’m thinking probably yes, because Ian was there last, of any of us oldsters around the table. Not that long ago he was closer to whatever is eternity than any of us. Sure, he knows God, I’m thinking. Besides, he’s still several months away from showing a dime’s worth of original sin—maybe more. But then, Grandpa is prejudiced; I didn’t often change his too-often stinky diapers.

Later I asked myself whether any of us really knows God? It’s a kind of spellbinding question, even though I know all sorts of good, sweet Christians who would thunder out the joy of the little guy’s intimate proximity, I’m sure.

Some time ago, I ran across this stunning line I wish I could attribute: “The traditions of theology that speak to me undercut the assumption that the nature of divine reality is readily definable.”

Woah! Me too. As I get older, more and more I’m thinking we’re on really shaky ground when we think we know much.

Maybe I’ve found myself in too many Flannery O’Connor stories.

“Well, Pieter,” I could have said, “I suppose little Ian knows God just about as well as any of us do.”

He’d have looked up at me dizzily, I’m sure. And, truth is, I wouldn’t have liked to parse that out for him just then, not with the burgers getting cold. Just dropping that idea out in front of his questioning eyes would have been almost a form of abuse, even if it might have been, in a way, true.

Well, Mr. Ian is now four years old, a Tot Church vet who’s graduated to Children’s Worship and other forms of Sunday School, all of which have made him quite handy at answering theological questions, even those he poses to himself.

When his mom told him his grandparents had skipped off to Wisconsin for a couple of days, he was, I suppose, a little jealous.  “But God doesn’t want them in Wisconsin,” he told her.

Fortunately, he’s not a prophet—we escaped the cheese state without major damages.

Or this. His mom says it’s not time for snacks because he just had one. My budding theologian grandson is quite clear about divine injunction:  “But, Mom, God says I should have a snack.”

He asserts such things more often; he obviously is sure that God is as close him as his underwear. I figure he’s only a few years shy of becoming yet another Joseph Smith.

But then all of us swing unsteadily between certainty and doubt I suppose, between bull-headed dogmatism and paralyzing disbelief.  Rather like David. The King.  The Poet. The man with God’s own heart.

It’s our own blasted humanness that’s at fault, Pieter.  

What we know is that God almighty is both imminent—he’s here and Ian probably knows him; and he’s transcendent—he’s way, way beyond Ian at eight months or four years. And he is way beyond you, Pieter, and way beyond your grandfather the blogger, and even your great-great-great grandfather the erudite seminary professor. He’s way beyond every one of us.

We shouldn’t forget Karl Barth’s answer when someone asked the learned theologian which doctrine of God was most central to life. "The greatest theological insight that I have ever had is simple,” Barth said, or so the legend claims: “’Jesus loves me, this I know,/for the Bible tells me so!"

When he was a toddler, did Ian know God, Pieter? That's what you want to know?

Don’t ask such tough questions.

How about now, when he’s four?--does Ian know God?

Well, he does, and he doesn’t. Like you.  Like me.

What I do know is this: God, sure as anything, knows Ian. And you, Pieter. And me too. Isn’t that a hoot?

Let’s eat.


An American Story

On Saturday, January 2, 1847, a young Senecan named Ha-sa-no-an-da, or Ely Parker, then just 18 years old, visited the U.S. Capitol on a trip to Washington D. C., to see President Polk, who'd he'd actually met earlier in the company of a couple of highly revered Seneca sachems. He'd gone to plead with Polk to let his people to stay on their New York reservation, to keep what land they still had and not be sent out to the frontier far, far from home. 

Ha-sa-no-an-da had his reasons; they included the normal treaty violations forever a part of any transactions with white people.  A sizable number of New York Native folks had gone out west to visit the Indian territories, 150 in all. What they found was not only disappointing, it was deadly. Eighty of them had died. Meanwhile, powerful Washington voices made it clear that there was more than passing interest in taking the land the Senecas still owned, and that it might well be in the Indians' own best interest to seek their fortunes out west.

Ely Parker would have none of that. Even though he was only 18 years old, he returned to Washington to plead with senators, representatives, and the President himself, asking only that his Seneca brothers and sisters be allowed to stay in the country where they'd always lived, where there fathers were buried.

On Saturday, no government offices were open, so Ely Parker, by himself, visited the U.S. Capitol, where he found, ironically, a series of pictures of Native Americans, of all things.

Here those pictures are, reassembled, along with Ely Parker's diary entries from that Saturday visit in January, 1847.  In the Capitol Rotunda, he found this picture of the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock.

He described this drawing this way:  "They [the pilgrims] are represented as in a starving condition, and being about to land, an Indian has come forward offering them provision of his bounty. Who now of the descendants of those illustrious pilgrims will give one morsel to the dying and starving Indian?. . . May the Great Spirit reward & keep the red man."

Then, there was this scene featuring William Penn, the illustrious Quaker who made treaties with the Native people of his beloved Pennsylvania.

"What virtue is there now in Indian treaties?" he asked himself. "Methinks Indians are right when they say that letters lie more than the head."

"Turning round a little more," he wrote, "we observe another representation, that of the young and beautiful Pocahontas saving Captain Smith at the risk of saving her own life.  Who now among the descendants of those whom she saved will risk his or her life for an Indian?" And then, more universally, he wrote, "How ungrateful is man to his fellow man."


The next and last portrait young Ely Parker noted was Daniel Boone, "the hero of Kentucky in a mortal contest with an Indian."  Boone, he noted, had already killed an Indian and "has trampled upon his mangled body. Such is the fate of the poor red man. His contest with the whites is hopeless yet he is not permitted to live even in peace, nor are his last moments given him by his insulting foe to make his peace with his God." 

And then this:  "Humbly we ask whether justice will always sleep and will not the oppressed go free?"

That was Saturday. On Sunday, Parker, a Christian, determined that what he didn't find at the Capitol he would find at worship--peace and acceptance.  But the usher, the sexton, refused to seat him in the sanctuary and sent him upstairs. Parker said nothing.  He turned away, walked out the door, and left.

You may have noticed, at the top of the page, Thomas Nast's "Peace in Union," Grant and Lee at Appomattox.  What you may not have noticed is the man with dark face, a Senacan, behind Grant, Gen. Ely Parker. 

 Ha-sa-no-wan-da's story is, in every way, as much an American story as any of those he saw depicted and glorified in the U. S. Capitol one cold January day in 1847.  

Probably more so.