Tarrytown United Methodist Church

May 31, 1998

Wayne Danielson

Minnesota Nice

Micah 6:8. He hath showed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?

Matthew 15:10&11 and 19&20.“Listen, and understand. What goes into the mouth does not make a man unclean; it is what comes out of the mouth that makes him unclean. ...from the heart come evil intentions: murder, adultery, fornication, theft, perjury, slander. These are the things that make a man unclean.”

Phillipians 4: 8-9. Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. Those things, which ye have both learned, and received, and heard, and seen in me, do; and the God of peace shall be with you.

Minnesota nice.

Have you ever heard that term?

The New York Times had a story about it not long ago.

Minnesota nice is a phrase applied to Minnesota people. It describes their typical reaction to the world. Generally speaking, they are nice people, and they respond to others in nice ways.

LaVonne and I were up in Minneapolis for a convention a couple of years ago. We wanted to go to a French restaurant for dinner. It was not far from the hotel, and I thought it would be pleasant to walk over there, but I thought I had better ask the concierge first.

I told him where we wanted to go and asked:

“Is it safe for us to walk, or should we take a cab?”

He laughed. “Of course it’s safe to walk. This is Minneapolis.”

Minnesota nice.

Well, we walked, and we were safe. After having visited other cities around the country, Minneapolis was a refreshing change. We didn’t see anyone getting mugged. We didn’t see anyone lying in the gutter. We didn’t see any hoodlums running up and down the streets. The town was just pleasant and quiet and safe. It was like a stage set for Thornton Wilder’s play, Our Town. I expected Frank Sinatra to come in and begin talking at any minute.

Nice. It was Minnesota nice.

We came back from the restaurant after 10 in the evening. “It will be different now,” I thought. “We’ll see police cars prowling the streets. We’ll see a different kind of crowd.”

But everything was just the same. We saw old couples sauntering along the streets looking in the store windows. We saw women standing alone at bus stops. We saw young lovers sitting by the fountains, enjoying the cool of the evening.

Minnesota nice. It was remarkable.

The Times says this is changing now.

As other states cut back on their welfare roles, new people are moving to Minnesota, hoping to continue to enjoy the liberal benefits the state has traditionally offered. And as these newcomers arrive, neighborhoods and attitudes are changing. A joke has it that in previous times,when officials wanted to put a half-way house for sex offenders in a residential neighborhood, the neighbors would say — “Well now. We’ll have to invite some of those young fellas over for dinner.”

No more.

As drugs proliferate and crime rates increase, attitudes are changing in Minnesota as they are in other parts of the country. Minnesota nice is disappearing. Like everyone else, the Times says, Minnesota people are looking for ways to keep people from moving in to take advantage of their openness, their generosity and their willingness to help. Well, it’s only to be expected, I suppose. But in a way it’s a shame that Minnesota nice has to go.

Garrison Keillor, star of the radio program, A Prairie Home Companion, is coming to Austin this week. He will broadcast his show live from Bass Concert Hall next Saturday at 4:45. I really wanted to take LaVonne, but I didn’t order our tickets in time. Bass Concert Hall — the largest auditorium at UT — sold out in less than 24 hours. I think I’m not the only one who likes Garrison’s Minnesota nice program. In our hearts we all long for his mythical town, Lake Wobegone, “where all the women are strong, all the men are handsome, and all the children are above average.”

Growing up in Iowa, I knew we weren’t as nice as the Minnesotans, but most Iowa people were okay. You didn’t need to worry about them much.

Once when I was a teenager, we had a January thaw. One Sunday afternoon it actually got above freezing, and I thought it would be a grand idea to take the beautiful Betty Burman for a drive in the country and maybe park somewhere and enjoy the balmy, 35-degree temperature. My scheme was going great until we got on a county road the snow removal crews had missed. The road was pure sheet ice — with half an inch of water on top. As they used say in Iowa, “It was slicker than a buttered hog.”

We slipped this way and that, and in spite of my best attempts to stay in the middle of the road, we went into a ditch and couldn’t get out. It was nearing 4 p.m., and the sun was going down. It was getting colder by the minute. Betty Burman encouraged me to go to the nearest farmhouse and ask for help. The nearest house turned out to be a spooky place at the end of a dirt road. Mustering all my charm, I walked up on the front porch and knocked on the door. An old Swedish man in overalls peered out.

“My car’s in the ditch,” I said, “Do you have a phone I could use to call a wrecker?”

He looked me up and down.

“Yust wait by the car,” he said. “I’ll get you out.”

I walked back out to the car where the beautiful Betty Burman was shivering in the front seat, having second thoughts about me and the whole Sunday afternoon excursion. After a few tense minutes, I heard the popping sound of a tractor coming down the road.

The old man looked the situation over and handed me a chain to hook around the rear bumper of my dad’s ’35 Dodge.

“You two better get out,” he said. “Can’t tell what she’s going to do.”

But as we stood shivering in the sunset, he cranked that car right out of the ditch.

“Thank you very much,” I said, getting out my billfold to offer him whatever little money I had.

“Don’t want that,” he said. “Yust glad to do it.”

Nodding at the beautiful Betty Burman he said, “Now you’d better get her home before her Daddy finds out you took her yoy-ridin’ in Yanuary.”

We crept down the icy road at 5 miles an hour until we reached the pavement, then gunned it toward town. Our hopes of keeping our yoy-ridin’ a secret were in vain. By the time we got home, everyone already knew what had happened. We had to endure a great deal of useful advice about the wisdom of going for a drive in Iowa during a January thaw.

My romance with Betty never really developed much after that. But, looking back, the wonderful thing is how safe we were on our adventure. The wonderful thing is how willing people were to help one another. The wonderful thing is that in that crumbling farmhouse, I found a human being, someone who would help, and not an ax murderer who specialized in axing teen-age boys. Looking back, it seems to me that my home town was a lot like Lake Wobegone. How about yours?

We joke about Minnesota nice, but to tell the truth, the phenomenon was not limited to Minnesota. You could find people with similar attitudes here in Texas and pretty much all over the country. I’ve been reading Yesterday in the Texas Hill Country by Gilbert J. Jordan. It was first published in 1979 by Texas A&M Press, but it is now out in a second edition. It tells the story of the German Methodists in Texas who left Fredericksburg about 140 years ago and moved up into Mason Country to create a place of their own where they could practice their faith. It was a quiet, pious society — Texas nice, you might say. Mason County is still heavily Methodist, and the German Methodist movement in Texas it nurtured has produced many ministers, including four former pastors of this church. In particular, I remember Calvin Froehner, who knew at an early age that he wanted to be a preacher, but having no congregation on the family farm, used to get the chickens together and preach to them. Some old-timers will remember how he sang Away in a Manger in German at Christmas time in this sanctuary. 

I also remember a little town in Montana we visited once.

We were hungry, so we went in a store with a sign in the window: Ruth and LouAnne’s Pie Shop.

The interesting thing about this shop was that it was unattended. Ruth and LouAnne brought their pies in in the morning and lined them up on the counter and then left. Customers just came in and cut their own pieces of pie and made their own cups of coffee, cleaned up after themselves, and left their money in a basket at the end of the counter. At the end of the day, Ruth and LouAnne appeared and took their earnings to the bank. It was a great system.

When we were there some of the more popular pies needed to be replenished. But Ruth and LouAnne’s do-it-yourself store was obviously doing well. It was nice and clean. The basket was full of money. Talk about Minnesota nice! The people of that town obviously were outstanding. It was hard to believe that no one ripped off the store, pies and all.

Would this store still work today?

Somehow I doubt it.

I think we’re all more cautious now.

Some years ago I moved my billfold from my rear pocket to my front pocket — I heard it was more difficult for thieves to get at it there. And nowadays I always lock my car when I get out. I never used to do that. But it’s a habit now. I do it even at the filling station when LaVonne is inside the car.

“Good grief you’re careful,” she says to me. “What can happen to me at Tarrytown Texaco?”

I suppose I am foolish to lock her in the car so much. But I worry about her.

That Iowa boy who walked up to the spooky farmhouse so many years ago is no more. In his place is a more suspicious person, a person on the lookout for someone who might be trying to do him harm. Are you more careful than you used to be? Many of us are.

What happened to Minnesota nice in this country?

Have we changed, or has the world changed?

The answer, I think, is that both have changed.

Isolated communities like Lake Wobegone have disappeared or are disappearing. In their place are larger, more connected, multicultural cities, where people are less likely to know their neighbors. The media daily inform us of the dangers — the burglaries, the armed robberies, the murders, the attacks on the elderly, the children who shoot their schoolmates and teachers. Our cities are more dangerous places, let’s face it. And as citizens, we need to take precautions.

But let’s also face the fact that we have changed too. Some of us are more cynical than we used to be. Some of us are more likely to use harsh words or perform unkind deeds. Some of us are more desensitized, more detached, less likely to help someone in trouble. We have been shaped by our physical and our symbolic world, true enough. But who is ultimately responsible for what we have become?

Jesus said to the people of his time that they couldn’t blame everything on the environment:

“Listen, and understand,” he said. “ What goes into the mouth does not make a man unclean; it is what comes out of the mouth that makes him unclean. ...from the heart come evil intentions: murder, adultery, fornication, theft, perjury, slander. These are the things that make a man unclean.”

Quit blaming other people, Jesus seemed to say. Accept responsibility for who you are and what you are doing. Clean up your own act. In this way, you bring yourself and those around you closer to the Kingdom of God.

Paul, that great disciple of Jesus, also spoke to the matter of individual responsibility for one’s character when he advised his followers to pay attention to what they thought about:

“...whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. Those things, which ye have both learned, and received, and heard, and seen in me, do; and the God of peace shall be with you.

Were Paul and Jesus right about the emphasis they placed on individual responsibility? Opinions may differ, but I’m inclined to agree with them.

They lived in tumultuous times, not unlike ours in many ways. Different cultures had been brought together by the Roman empire — by its bureaucracy, by its laws, by its vastly improved systems of communication and transportation, including those marvelous three-lane Roman roads that extended from the British Isles all the way to the Middle East. Crime was common. Cities were dangerous places. Husbands and wives were unfaithful to one another. People could not be trusted. Jesus reflected this when he urged his followers to store up “treasures in heaven” where thieves could not “break in and steal.” Sounds pretty familiar, doesn’t it? He could have been talking about our town.

And yet, both Paul and Jesus, advocated that individuals — people one by one — consider the condition of their own souls, repent, and adopt a different way of living. That is the way, that is the road to beneficial change, they seemed to say. And it seems to me that their advice is as good today as it was 2,000 years ago:

• People who let their minds dwell on things that are false, that are impure, that are ugly, risk becoming dishonest, impure, and ugly themselves.

• A man who swears all the time has a hard time thinking clean thoughts.

• A little boy who calls his dad “hey you” may find it difficult to respect his father later on in life.

• A teenager who whistles for his girl the way he whistles for his dog won’t respect her for long either.

• A man and wife who chip away at one another day after day, week after week — may wake up one morning surprised to find that they no longer love one another. Is this really surprising? Not really.

• A town that lets bars and porno stores and massage parlors proliferate may be distressed to find that is no longer safe for anyone to walk out at night. Does that come as a shock? It shouldn’t.

• A nation in which mainline church attendance is dropping year after year may find that its leaders no longer are very clear about what is right and what is wrong. Is that a surprise? Somehow I don’t think so.

As both Paul and Jesus taught, it is unrealistic to expect good behavior to come from people who have allowed their personal symbolic worlds — what they think about — to become corrupt.

Jesus says that what is in our hearts and and what comes out of our mouths is important. If we think unclean thoughts, we will be unclean. Turning that idea over and expressing it positively, Paul says if we want the God of peace to be with us, we need to think about things that are true, honest, just, pure, lovely, and of good report.

Can we do this? The prophet Micah makes it sound easy when he says: “What does the Lord require of thee but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy Lord?”

Actually doing this is difficult, but I think it is possible.

I remember something difficult that our family attempted a long time ago.

A friend of mine — a good friend — died unexpectedly of a heart attack at an early age. I was deeply affected and kept thinking about him and talking about his death. My son Matt, who was about six at the time, sensed how distressed I was and asked, “Who killed him?”

When I heard those words, asked in all innocence, I realized that something was seriously wrong in our family. The boy had been watching entirely too much television. He thought that the only way people died was when someone shot them. And I hadn’t bothered to teach him anything different.

We decided to take action. We turned the TV set off in the evening during the school year, and instead of watching Gunsmoke, the family read together at bedtime. We also went back to church and Sunday School as a family.

Did it make a difference in our lives? I think it did. And after many years, I think I can still see the difference in the lives of the children and their children. Changing what we thought about made a difference in our lives.

Does changing what we think about seem to be an impossible task under today’s conditions?

No doubt it is tougher today than it used to be. But before we lose heart, we ought to remember that Jesus and Paul were both practical, realistic men, and they thought it was possible.

• Paul made three great missionary journeys, establishing churches all around the Eastern Mediterranean.

• He forged key agreements that allowed gentiles to become followers of Christ.

• He argued eloquently for his beliefs against fierce and intelligent opposition.

• He continued his job as a tentmaker, so he would not be a burden on his congregations.

• In prison in Rome, awaiting execution, he continued to send out his letters organizing churches and collecting money to support the poor.

He was not an impractical man. Yet he said, “If there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.” He thought we could do it.

Jesus himself was a practical, realistic person.

• He selected as his disciples what must have been one of the greatest action teams of all time.

• He taught them carefully, so that they could carry on his mission when he was gone.

• He attacked the money changers and pigeon sellers in the temple, crying out, “My Father’s house is supposed to be a house of prayer and you have made it a den of thieves.”

• Of the child molesters of his time, he said, “It is better for a millstone to be put around their necks and they be thrown into the depths of the sea.”

He was not impractical.

He was for realistic change. He was for improving the lives of individuals. He was for improving the society in which he lived. But he was firm in the belief that true change, enduring change, begins in the hearts of individuals. His advice can be trusted. “From the heart come evil intentions,” he said. And the good news that he preached was this: Hearts can change.

Will Minnesota nice ever return again?

Probably not. The culture that created it is disappearing and seems unlikely to return.

But I think that we can move on from where we are now and create something that may be better in the long run — a moral code for the new millennium, one that recognizes the importance of the physical world and the symbolic world, the practical and the spiritual, and how they can work together to improve our society.

We have it on good authority that whatever happens will ultimately depend on us as individuals and what we decide to think about in our deepest being.

I’d like to close today with a prayer that seems to me to express some of the central thoughts I have been trying to get across. It was written in the 1890s by the author Robert Louis Stevenson, then gravely ill with tuberculosis and living in voluntary exile in Samoa. At a service in his home, he prayed:

Lord, behold our family here assembled. We thank thee for this place in which we dwell; for the love that unites us; for the peace accorded us this day; for the hope with which we expect the morrow; for the health, the work, the food and the bright skies that make our lives delightful; for our friends in all parts of the earth, and our friendly helpers in this place.

Let peace abound in our small company. Purge out of every heart the lurking grudge. Give us grace and strength to forbear and persevere. Offenders ourselves, give us the grace to accept and forgive offenders. Forgetful ourselves, help us to bear cheerfully the forgetfulness of others.

Give us courage, gaiety and the quiet mind. Spare to us our friends, soften us to our enemies. Bless us, if it may be, in all our innocent endeavors. If it may not, give us the strength to encounter that which is to come, that we be brave in peril, constant in tribulation, temperate in wrath, and in all chances of fortune and down to the gates of death, loyal and loving to one another.

As the clay to the potter, as the windmill to the wind, as children of their sire, we beseech of Thee this help and mercy for Christ’s sake. Amen