First Day of School, 2020

It’s hard for me to express how big a deal today is for my household. Back in January we first floated the idea with an unmotivated daughter that switching from home school to public school might be a good step. She was very excited. In late February we went to an open house at the local high school and then in early March we got her registered for fall classes.

Two weeks later, COVID shut everything down and the spring and summer became a long slog. For months we’ve been holding on to the lifeline of knowing that in late August school would start and we would get some structure back. The school district instituted a 50/50 virtual/in-person scheme that would have the kids at school at least a couple days a week. We bought school supplies and marked our calendars.

Then in mid-August, a week before school was set to start, the derecho hit. We were 11 days without power. And almost every school building in the district was damaged. The girls’ high school lost part of its roof and sustained significant water damage to the gym, auditorium, and much of the rest of the building. School got delayed by another month, and will be 100% virtual until January at the earliest.

But finally… today is the day. At 7:50 AM the first class hour started and our middle daughter was logged into Google Meet with 19 other tired-looking freshmen (freshpeople? first years?) to start her German class. (Our oldest daughter had first hour off but is now logged in for second hour.)

It’s been a long year, friends. Today is just one day, just a start, but it’s a significant milestone. And there are better days to come.

(Oh, and it’s September 21, so we started the morning with this song…)

And then the middle daughter suggested this one instead:

“Get freed”

The other day I posted a belated review and recommendation of Lyz Lenz’s book God Land. Today I’d like to tell the story of why this review was delayed a year.

Lyz is, as I am, from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. We have some small personal connection. Her (now ex-)husband works for the same huge employer that I (and 8000 other people in town) do. We have some of the same friends. And for a short time a decade or so ago, we attended the same church. That last bit is what made this whole thing complicated.

God Land is about religion in the Midwest, liberally strewn with Lyz’s stories from her own life. In the first chapter of the book, she recounts bad experiences at a church where she and her husband were members. She wanted to discuss women’s roles within the church. She got brushed off by one pastor with a series of nebulous promises that it could be discussed later. Later, on a mission trip, another pastor refused to let her lead prayer during morning devotions, saying it wasn’t a woman’s place to do so. Eventually she and her husband left that church to join a church plant. (The Guardian published a long excerpt from that chapter if you want to read it.)

A year ago, when reading and reviewing the book, I was still a member of that church. Not only that, I was being paid to lead the music ministry. So when I published my review on Goodreads early on a Monday morning and it got auto-tweeted on my feed, before lunchtime I had a phone call from the new senior pastor telling me that, as a church “staff member” (the first time anyone had called me that!) I shouldn’t be recommending the book. It was gossip, he told me, and I shouldn’t be spreading it. I wasn’t ready to die on that hill that day, so I discussed it with him for a little while and then deleted the tweet. But it still really bugged me.

No one that I’ve talked to has disputed the broad strokes of Lyz’s stories about our church. She privately told me the same basic stories a few years before. In the book she changes the names of the pastors and doesn’t name the church, but if you’ve been in the Cedar Rapids evangelical church scene very long you can probably guess who they are. I’ve been told by others in the know that the events she described on the mission trip did indeed happen that way. And I’ve heard second hand from the other pastor that he didn’t remember his episode “quite that way”, but didn’t dispute the basic facts. (He did confirm Lyz’s note that he has tried reach out again to her on several occasions, and that she hasn’t responded.)

So if the accounts are basically true, why should their mention be suppressed? If someone hasn’t read the book or doesn’t know the people, they won’t be any the wiser. If someone has read the book and does know the people, trying to suppress the discussion only makes it look like the church has something to hide. Why can’t we just speak honestly about it? I count the pastors involved as friends, and I love the people of that church. I don’t want to hurt them. But suppressing truth, even painful truth, isn’t beneficial. Better to acknowledge and learn from mistakes than try to pretend they didn’t happen.

Back last year when the book came out I attended a reading & signing that Lyz did at a local bookstore. During the Q&A after the reading I mentioned that I, too, was trying to figure out if or when my route should lead me out of the evangelical churches where I’ve spent most of my life. Later on that night when she signed my copy of the book, she wrote this message inside: “To the Hubbs’ — get freed!”

I don’t feel that implied level of joy from having left our last church. While I have significant disappointments, I don’t feel any personal animus toward any of those church folks. I feel like we left on good terms. But I am glad to now feel free enough to tell this story. Truth will out. Sure, truth can be spoken in ways that are harmful. But speaking the truth peaceably, in love, is a necessity for the church to become the loving, safe community God intends for it to be. This bit of truth from me is overdue.

To drag knowledge of reality over the threshold of consciousness is an exhausting task…

Rebecca West, from Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, describing her experience observing a worshipper at an Orthodox Easter service:

One can shout at the top of one’s voice the information that the 11.15 for Brighton leaves from platform 6, but subtler news has to be whispered, for the reason that to drag knowledge of reality over the threshold of consciousness is an exhausting task, whether it is performed by art or by experience. She made no spectacular declaration that man is to be saved; simply her attitude assumed that this Easter would end with no more fatality than any other Easter she had known, and her body, wasted yet proud in its coarse and magnificent clothes, proclaimed that death may last five hundred years yet not be death.

Beautiful.

God Land by Lyz Lenz — A Belated Review

It’s been a year since Lyz Lenz’s book God Land came out. I wrote a review on Goodreads at the time but for various reasons didn’t publish it here. It’s overdue.

In the mean time, Lyz has published another book, which is still sitting unread on my shelf. (Soon.) She’s also joined the staff of The Cedar Rapids Gazette and has become a strong opinion voice there. I can’t wait to see what she writes next. But in the mean time, here’s my short review/recommendation of God Land.

God Land is an insightful and challenging critique of Christianity in Middle America. Lyz Lenz clearly still loves her Midwestern home, but laments that the predominant Christian voices are conflating Republicanism, gun culture, and male-only leadership with the message of Jesus.

God Land doesn’t try to paint an overly cheery “we just shouldn’t let politics divide us” picture. Lenz’s own story illustrates how divisive these issues can be on a personal level. She doesn’t pull punches as she recounts the end of her marriage, leaving one church, having a church plant die, and her struggles to find supportive community.

God Land’s clear affection for Middle America and portraits of small-town Americans combined with Lenz’ beautiful prose and painfully honest diagnosis make it a must-read in 2019 America.

2020 Reading – July/August Roundup

I guess I don’t need to wait until the end of the year to do another summary… August suffered for reading much (thanks, derecho), but there’s still been some good stuff to recommend over the last couple months. Here are the highlights:

Fault Lines: A History of the United States since 1974 by Kevin Kruse
A very readable recounting of the last 50 years of US history, showing how these “fault lines” formed that have resulted in the fractures we see today. Kruse is a great follow on Twitter, too. I’m not sure I was really ready to read a “history” of so much that still feels very current, but it’s good to have a book like this out there.

The Spirituality of the Cross by Gene Edward Veith
This was recommended by a friend when I was looking for a good book on Lutheran theology. This is fairly short and high-level, but the chapter on vocation was worth the whole book all by itself. (The rest of the book was very good, too.)

The Power by Naomi Alderman
What would happen if women suddenly developed a power that gave them a physical advantage over men? What would the world look like? Such is the tantalizing premise of The Power. It could’ve been 100 pages longer and I wouldn’t have complained.

Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation by Martin Laird
A short introduction to the practice of contemplative prayer. Very practical in its discussion of techniques, but also delving into the spiritual purpose and background of contemplation. I’m lousy at it, but it’s something that I find beneficial when I set aside a little bit of time to just be still.

Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination by Walter Wink
I wrote about this one a little bit already. Just as relevant today as it was when it was written.

The Mystery of Christ & Why We Don’t Get It by Robert Farrar Capon
Capon in his typical informal style here, pressing the point that he makes just as bluntly in his wonderful Between Noon and Three. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” No condemnation. If that’s really true… you are not condemned. You are forgiven. Grace is free. What are you now going to do with yourself? I love me some Capon.

There were others, but these were the highlights.

September

Suffice it to say I’m happy to have August 2020 in the rear view mirror.

We have completed our house repairs after the derecho. Having a brother in construction sure makes that easier! Repaired the cracked rafter, rebuilt the broken dormer, reshingled the roof… Tree guy is working this week to take down the trees that won’t survive (which is most of them).

School in Cedar Rapids is starting three weeks late due to all the storm damage, and will then be 100% virtual rather than 50/50 in person. This change has probably been harder on the kids than the storm was. They are so ready to have a routine again and see people.

Wonder where we’ll be when October 1 gets here? In 2020 every month feels like a year. I wonder how long that’ll last.

Incessant

It’s Sunday night. By tomorrow afternoon we’ll hit a week since the storm hit. No power yet. The power crew was relaxing a pole on a main line two blocks down this afternoon, so I’m hopeful maybe they’ll work their way down my street tomorrow. 

Of course it’s also possible that they work the other direction, or work north before east, or any other number of things. I want to be unselfish and see my neighbors get power back and at the same point I’m so ready to get it back myself. 

The noise of the generator is incessant. It’s a big one — 8000 watts — and it runs from when I start it in the morning at 7:30 until I turn it off around 10 in the evening. I’ve been thinking of it in some ways like a farmer’s work horse. Put it in the garage for the night, hope it rests well and feels good again tomorrow because I’m relying on it. So far so good.

Its noise is reminding me of running the Shop-Vacs in the basement during the flood of 2008. For one brutal night we had three vacs going to keep the water at bay. They had to be emptied every 30 minutes or so through the night. I sat upstairs with earphones on watching videos to try to stay awake, but I couldn’t get away from that wall of noise. The generator feels that way, too. Even inside the house with the windows shut, it’s there. Finally at night we shut it down and the quiet is so nice… but then of course there are no fans to cool us while we sleep. 

We walked the neighborhood tonight and it looks like a war zone. Every house has trees down. Almost every house has either missing siding or a tarp on the roof or a fence down (or all three). Normalcy is years away, not months. 

Tonight I’m sitting in a lawn chair out front of the house drinking a beer and watching the sun go down. It’s a little bit of partial peace at the end of a long week, disturbed only by that incessant noise of the generator. 

Fragile

It’s the Friday after the Iowa derecho. What a week. After the devastation of the storm, the cleanup began. Monday night I had friends here to get the limbs on the ground and a tarp on the roof. Tuesday and Thursday they were back cutting up the trees that fell into our yard. By tonight all the trees are cut up and the limbs to the curb. All that remains is a backyard full of small branches and leaves which will be easily enough dealt with tomorrow.

The power company officially announced yesterday that power would be “substantially restored” to the county by next Tuesday. But the power company guy who was driving through our neighborhood last night informally told us to expect at least a week, maybe more. We have a tree on the line behind our house which affects at most about 6 homes. Fixing it is obviously a lower priority than fixing other downed lines that affect more people. It’s hard to argue with the logic but it’s a bummer to be at the end of the list. Thankfully we do have a generator which keeps lights, fans, and internet going.

The town is slowly reopening. The Chick-Fil-A our daughter works at reopened the drive through on Wednesday and is slowly expanding their open hours as they get staff available. Gas stations are now open enough that the lines have mostly gone away. Grocery stores are open. Schools are another story. School plans have moved from half-time attendance (thanks, COVID) to now potentially full-time virtual for the first few months of the school year. All the buildings in the district are damaged, and our girls’ high school is among the most badly damaged.

Now that the initial shock has worn off, the word that characterizes much of what I’m feeling is fragile.

The power to the house relies on a generator that needs to keep running. The fiber cable that brings internet to the house is suspended across the backyard by a few shepherd’s hooks. The roof over my daughter’s bedroom has a sizable chunk missing, with only some plywood and a tarp covering it. We have a cold front coming through tonight. The cooler temps will be welcome. The potential thunderstorms will not be.

The whole city infrastructure is fragile, so if anything else were to break or go wrong, it’s that much harder to get any help. It’s not like I need an electrician or a plumber every day, but it’s nice to know that I can generally get one if I have an emergency. This month? Not so much.

At this point in these kind of posts someone usually brings out an inspirational hashtag. I’ve seen #IowaStrong going around this week. (It’s been employed plenty of previous times, including the floods of 2008 and the floods again in 2016. I’ve seen the community rally, and I’ve had friends who’ve been great help. But I look around and see all the pain in my community, and tonight I’m having a hard time rallying. This just sucks, and will for a long time.

Devastation

Where to even start? Monday, August 10, somewhere around 12:30 PM, eastern Iowa got hit with a storm like no one had ever seen before. Technically known as a “derecho”, this storm brought 100+ MPH straight line winds along with torrential rain. 45 minutes later Cedar Rapids was transformed into a disaster zone. No one had power. Everyone had trees down, most of them on houses or cars, on power lines and across streets. As if 2020 wasn’t bad enough already…

I was working from home when the storm hit. Bouncing between the basement for safety and the upstairs so we could see what was going on, we were horrified at the storm, and then we started hearing things crashing. Then the house shuddered as a limb landed on it. When things cleared and we could go outside, we found a complete mess. Our huge locust tree in the front yard split down the middle, with the near side falling between the house and driveway. (The car in the driveway was spared, hallelujah.) The neighbor’s oak tree snapped in two and half of it lay across our front yard. The shared oak tree on our property line only dropped one limb, but it fell across the corner of the house, damaging the roof and some plaster inside.

In the backyard we lost a big limb from other other locust tree, lost most of our apple tree, and have the top half of the neighbor’s pine tree laying on our chain link fence. (And also on the power line.)

We’ve spent the last two days cleaning up branches and debris, scrounging the region for gas for the generator, and making temporary repairs. Nearly everyone in this city of 150,000 people has similar and worse damage. It’ll be months and years to get things repaired. It’ll be days if not weeks just to get power back on.

Tonight we’re trying to coax the cooler outside air into the house after it got to 85F outside today (81F in the house), listening to the generator hum, and catching up with the outside world. Blessedly, our internet line stayed up and we still have service from our ISP. Tomorrow morning a friend is coming with chainsaws at 8 AM and we’ll keep cleaning up. One day at a time is about all I can handle thinking about right now, anyway.