Monday, March 25, 2013

Good things, not finished

Wow! What a great time to be a Shocker! A historic win. Such joy in Shockerland! WSU, my alma mater, ranked no. 9 seed. What's that? They upset the top ranked team in the nation? Something not done in 50 years?

Facebook posts and tweets inundated me late Saturday night and into midnight. People I've known for years -- hung out with, worked on the campus paper with, gone to sports bars with and consumed the humiliating, heart attack wrenching "super slam breakfasts" with --- all over glass and plastic screens.

"Shox rock!" "Wu-hoo Shocks!" "So sweet!" "Sweet 16 here we come!"

If I have to go back to my job today, I'll get a boost, taking this with me. Twenty years ago when Wichita State basketball's glory days seemed finished, I didn't see this coming. Back then, WSU was solely a baseball powerhouse. The Shockers won the College World Series in 1989 and came close to repeating that before losing in a heartbreaker four years later.

The Shocker basketball team has had a resurgence within the past 10 years. It's something to be proud of, but the thing in all this, that gives me the most hope is knowing that all those great things your parents always told you about like the virtue of hard work, efforts paying off, showing confidence with humility -- they still exist.

A few years ago I read this article in the Wichita Eagle, quoting teachers, parents, high school and college students. The gist of the piece was how so many young men today lack ambition, motivation and a work ethic. It made me sad, reading Shocker baseball coach Gene Stephenson's quotes about how the young men he was coaching today didn't quite have that same inward desire as the guys he coached in '89.

Now I read quotes from Shocker basketball coach Greg Marshall, extolling his young men as tough, the type who go to class, contribute to their communities and don't embarrass their team and school with trash talk and getting in trouble with the law -- tough guys who have come from behind and seen it pay off.

"Nobody in our program came from basketball royalty," Marshall told a reporter anfter they beat the top ranked Gonzaga University. "We're all blue collar."

Reporters and headline writers characteristically went wild, running with the news gods present of a team called Shockers winning a shocking upset.

 I hope it's not a shock that the sweet virtues -- the things parents, teachers and coachers -- always preached haven't gone from this world. It helps me feel a little secure on this earth.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Feel happy inside

              49 Years ago today, how many Beatles fans actually watched this in 1964?

I think they should make some TV show, some really big show. They could have, like, plate twirlers, Broadway casts, sock puppets, comedians, ballerinas, ventriloquists...and hey, how 'bout some rock n' roll for the kids?

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Peace with you

The Bethany Mennonite Church awaits from time immemorial, atop a hill that sweeps downward over sprawling farmland cut by ages of toiling people who gave thanks over the bread that feeds soul, like body. Straight east of the sea-shelled stone church building, beneath the shelter of cottonwood trees, the thin graying headstones stand in safe keeping within a rusted gate.

Near dusk, the flock will begin coming through the door, this Sunday evening. They hail, many of them, from the village of Valley Groves, the little town two miles north from the church to the bottom of the narrow slope along Purity Springs Road. Valley Groves, founded 1880, incorporated in 1901.

"You think they'll call me a Jezebel?" my wife Maria asked as I maneuvered the Hyundai on U.S. 77.


"I'm wearing makeup," she said, pointing to the rouge on her cheeks.

"They don't wear makeup?" I said, thinking I should've figured that out. "Well, from what Matt says, they're nice people, non-judgmental. I don't think they'll call you the whore of Babylon or anything like that."

Her brother Matt sat in the backseat next to our 11-year-old son Max. Yvette, the sixtyish matelteral woman who works with Matt in the cafeteria of Susan B. Anthony Memorial Hospital in Skelly (an old oil boom town that made it big with the county seat, a couple of colleges and a hospital that's proven durable). She's all the time bringing him homemade cinnamon rolls and -- when he's stopped up with the cold -- nasal sprays from Wal-Mart or home remedies like elderberry and buckwheat honey.

"So what would possess an agnostic like you to go to church?" I ask Matt. "I'm sure you're not the only person from work she's ever invited to church."

"Well, you know how a lot of Christians are all for show?" he says. "They have an agenda, all hypocritical. Well, she's genuine. She doesn't go around shouting about herself, she has -- a quiet peace."


"If a person can be -- what do they call it -- 'Christlike' -- she actually lives that way."

I'm glad he has a Yvette in his life. Matt -- well, he's in his early 20s and looking for his footing in life. Seems his other friends are meth heads, jailbirds and truck stop hookers.

Driving down the road, past the distractions of subdivisions, smelly convenience stores and toll booths, I'm happy to tell that town of Skelly, Kan. goodbye. I'm relishing this opportunity to attend a Mennonite service. I once heard a Quaker service, but not a Mennonite one. It's so dry here. Just give me --- experience, a life again.


"I want you to remember those people for the rest of your life," Mom told me.

Along with the Red Cross and Salvation Army, Mennonites came to our aid that summer in 1979 when all the houses in our neighborhood were hit by a flood -- resulting from the rising Walnut River and our low plain area.

I became aware of Mennonites, watching a character in this TV mini-series Centennial -- based on one of James Michener's mammoth novels. Then in Mrs. Cruit's 4th grade class, I had to give an oral report on Mennonites. I stood next to the blackboard, reading what I'd copied from the World Book Encyclopedia the night before.

Years later, as an adult, I wasn't going to miss the chance to hear an afternoon presentation by alumni of a Mennonite college who had marched in the South for Civil Rights during the '60s. They spoke at their alma mater, Bethel College in Newton, Kan. A gentleman there played an ancient tape he had recorded of Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking on campus 50 years earlier.

Vincent Harding, an activist, theological scholar and Mennonite who worked with Dr. King, spoke at Bethel that night. A woman in the audience, obviously referring to the pugnacity of the Religious Right, asked Harding, "How do we reclaim the word, 'Christian?"

House of clay

We were early, among the first to enter the church building. Rhonda, a middle-aged woman stood alongside her teenage daughter and answered our questions about the church, the town and the cinnamon rolls at the bakery she runs on the single downtown block of Valley Groves. She spoke kindly of Yvette and the many years she worked there.

"She's a darling," Rhonda said.

Yvette is Rhonda's aunt.

Others filed inside -- men in black coats, shirts buttoned to the neck, all with beards neat and tidy. All the women wore modest dresses and bonnets. None wore make-up and all were --


Everyone offered their hands and took us in -- their interest in us, sincere and natural. They asked our names and told us theirs -- Prusso-German names of sturdy people who fled religious persecution in Europe and brought wheat and industry to the Plains -- Klaassen, Thiessen, Hartzler, Baumgartner, Schmidt...and Koehn, so many Koehns, so many familes and generations.

"Just walk around, make yourself at home," Rhonda said.

Naturally, I gravitated to the library and scanned old books. Around the time I led my family inside the sanctuary, others had the same idea. Men sat to one side, women on the other. "But you don't have to," Rhonda had told us.

There, just before we got seated on the opposite side of the room, I was introduced to Yvette. The teeth of her smile were effusive, a bridge of friendliness, and she touched Matt's arm,saying, "I am so happy to see you." Then she took a seat next to Maria on the other end of the room while Matt, Max and I occupied the pew across the aisle.

A quartet of men sang a cappella. I think because Mennonites don't use instruments in their services, they have honed the instrumentation of their voices to a degree at once heavenly and close-to-the-soil earthy. We sang with them from church hymnals.

How fragile is existence here here in this world of toil and tears...My Lord is building me a home that's eternal in a land that's free from sin. There's no decay. He's coming soon to take me there.

The congregation knelt on the floor for prayer. I used to wonder why anyone would bother getting on their knees to pray. Crouched to the ground, I had a moment of clarity. Kneeling is a sign of humility, an acknowledgement that our lives are fragile and we need a power far bigger than ourselves to guide the way. It's a show of gratitude that we don't have to carry life's burdens alone.

The visiting preacher, a tall dark-bearded man from northern Iowa, read from the 26th chapter of Genesis -- a passage about Issac, the digging of wells and man's selfishness. I loved the way he used the King James version. As one with a life long reverence for words and language, I'm partial to the Elizabethan euphony of the KJV's prose. However, I was afraid that Max would be bored. He looked fine, though, sitting by me and following along in my Bible, unfazed as names like "A-bim'-e-lech" and place names like "valley of Ge-rar" were read.

This Mennonite service was a cultural departure for our little group, but I especially wondered about Max. For the past couple of years we've been going to a church where the pastor wears faded jeans and a rock band lays out spiritual crescendos like Stone Temple Pilots meets Silverchair -- a here-now emulation of King David rocking out to the timbrels, cornets and cymbals in the house of Israel.

That's all fine. People are moved in many ways, but if there truly are differing seasons for events and emotions as Solomon wrote about some 2,500 years ago, then I believe there's a place for quiet, as well. For silence. Tranquility breathes life to contemplation. A spiritual aspiring -- faith, hope, life -- are given form in the unsaid.

The stillness.

We turned to the third chapter of Romans:

What then? are we better than they? No, in no wise: for we have before proved both Jews and Gen'-tiles, that they are all under sin.

Not one among us in the human family can call ourselves good men. Like Paul, we want to do good, but we're inclined to keep doing the thing we hate. Sure I've been abrasive, caustic, hurting others with thoughtless things I've said and done. Maybe we all have.

Their throat is an open sepulchre: with their tongues they have used deceit; the poison of asps is under their lips:

The preacher noted Isaiah's words: "peace like a river."

(Peace like a river? Wasn't that? -- yeah, it was the name of a novel by Leif Enger. The phrase is found in the 19th century hymn, It is Well With My Soul. Paul Simon -- Jewish, but captivated by the black gospel that launched the rock n' roll of his adolescence -- wrote a song called "Peace Like a River" in the early '70s.)

"Wouldn't you like to have peace like a river?" the pastor asked. "Do we all just dig our own wells and say, 'This is mine. I'm not giving another inch?' Have you ever known somebody who went beyond the mark? That person knows a great secret, that there's enough for all of us. There's an abundance. What is communion, but a big feast? Why not share in the water that quenches all thirst?"

Peace like a river

Nearly all the people in attendance were congregated in the vestibule at the conclusion of the service. We shook more hands. Yvette introduced us to her husband, Amos. There was a metal hook where his left hand had been. He lost it in a farming accident when he was 19.

Max gracefully shook the hands extended to him, smiled sweetly while inadvertently revealing his braces, and said his name audibly as he looked each person respectfully in the eye. My boy has a poise I never possessed at his age.

"It was pretty good," Max told Maria when she asked him what he thought of the service. This boy who, like his dad, prefers rock music to pop or rap -- this kid who cannot live without his minecraft or DS -- if he didn't like the place, we would've heard about it. But there it was. No bells or whistles. Not even a power point to illustrate the pastor's sermon and Max was good with it. He may not have felt an emotional stirring in his soul, but he liked the church. Pretty good.

"They were genuine," Matt said as we pulled out of the gravel driveway.

"The word that springs to my mind," I said, "is ____


We were quieter, more reverent than usual as we were leaving. There wasn't a lot of laughing in the car, no cussing. No coarse talk. That may not have lasted long, but it held for the time we were on the narrow road of the countryside.

Back on Main Street in Skelly, Matt was on a rant about the "derelicts" he works with at the hospital. Human train wrecks like the coke-addled guy who was giving Matt lip and got put in a headlock.

"What about Christian love?" I asked him, half facetiously.

"If they turn the other cheek to me, I'll punch that too," he quipped.

"You know Matt, the older you get and the more you screw up, the less judgmental you'll be of other people."

I could always blame it on the refinery fumes of Skelly emitting viperous chemicals of suicide, violence and sex into Matt's head. But I think it's something still inside him. Not me, though, I'm tired. Too many years spent angry.

MLK said hatred and bitterness "poisons the soul and scars the personality" and I have to concur. I disagree with Nietzsche's view that loving one's enemies shows a weakness in the Christian ethic. It's a strength.

As much as I admire the thought and writing of existentialists like Sarte' and Camus, I have to concede that I don't want the burden of having to find my own meaning in the cosmos. I want to believe peace and righteousness to be an immutable law of the universe, that divinity and the personal can be found even inside infinity.

Yes...springs and harvests to sustain over the droughts and disappointments, hope sprawling over the fields and rocks and 20 thousand roads of this life.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Green thongs and beer

St. Patrick's Day. The thing I love about the holiday is that  -- like Christmas and Mardi Gras -- it's a holiday ostensibly rooted in Christian tradition (with holdovers from good ol' fashioned ancient paganism meshed in), yet has come to be epitomize night time debauchery -- bacchanals lit with shots, beer and Irish pubs.

And why not, I'd rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints any day. St. Patrick's Day -- like so much of Americana -- is a dichotomous blending of the sacred and profane. St. Patrick's Day isn't quite as American as the 4th of July, but it's damn close. I mean firecracker lust and shot glass to the lips close. America is nothing, if not multicultural -- a technicolor amalgamation of every race, culture and religion that ever immigrated here. I believe there were more Irish-Americans than there were Irish in Ireland as early as the Guilded Age.

The easy, non-puritanical, non-Austere approach of St. Patrick's Day was really in the mix from the beginning. When St. Patrick was converting the inhabitants of the emerald isle back in the 5th century, he was cool with the converts keeping their native polytheism, their Druidic mythologies and letting them co-exist with the Catholicism he introduced. He was fine with the natives mixing their pagan sun cross with the cross of Jesus to create a celtic cross. It's not clear if he really used a shamrock as a metaphor for the holy trinity, but who cares? He did not actually drive the snakes out. That much, we do know for a certainty.

But the inclusion of Irish and many other cultures in America has sure driven out a lot -- definitely not all -- bigotry, hasn't it?

As a young small town newspaper reporter, I took a photo of a priest who hailed from Ireland, as he was blessing a beer keg in the kitchen of a local brasserie called O'Dells. He poured holy water on that thing and prayed earnestly, thanking God for this gift of the barley and the "good cheer" it brought to peoples' lives.

My jaw about collapsed. I was brought up Baptist, raised to believe Jesus turned the water into Welch's Grape Juice. (Remember the scene in My Left Foot? Right after leaving a funeral, Daniel Day Lewis  -- loved Lincoln -- and his family, not only go to a pub, they get into a brawl, a donnybrook.)

Well I'm not going to convert over some non-written, tacit doctrine on beverages. Although Catholicism might go back in my family somewhere and somebody probably married a Protestant and went heretical. I say this because there's definitely Irish in my heritage. Genealogists discovered it in our family tree. My mother's maiden name was McElroy. 

Years ago, my co-workers and I used to celebrate "good cheer" at our favorite neighborhood dive every St. Patrick's Day. It wasn't an Irish pub, but so what. The spirit was there. No signs for Guinness outside the door. Just working class old man beers like Old Milwaukee and Schlitz.

And if I was having Pabst Blue Ribbon, so what. That's what my grandpappy Mac drank.