Hope from the Bowels of Forsakenness

Vulnerable. Weak. Lonely. Frightened. Anxious. Forlorn. Forsaken.

The hospitalized teenager suffering a sudden, undiagnosed illness of the bowels, wondering whether he’s dying, fearful there is no cure, came to my attention during the day. The consciousness of it remain through the night. Awakening in the morning, I look for something that will speak to the helpless feeling of his parents and grandparents.

Opening the Psalter, the opening verse of Psalm 22 leaps from the page — “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” — the tortured cry from the cross Jesus quoted many centuries after Psalm 22 had embedded itself in the collective consciousness of the Jewish people.

That the Newer Testament Gospels would put these words on Jesus’s lips is, it strikes me this morning, a Jewish code to look deeper for something much more complex, both tragically realistic and surprisingly hopeful in the psalm’s entirety. Though the forsakenness cry repeats itself immediately — “Why are You so far from helping me, and from the words of my groaning?” — Psalm 22 goes on to recall poetically the existential-spiritual history of Israel’s suffering at the hands of the nations and its deliverance from the same, ending with “They (i.e., our descendants) shall come and make known to a people yet unborn the saving deeds that He has done.”

Jesus’s cry from the cross strikes me as the kind of cry we might read or hear in the writings of Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel – honest yet faithful to the Jewish tradition because the tradition itself expresses the horror of god-forsakenness and faith in the absent God at the same time.

Jesus on the cross has this history in his bowels and his bones. The teenager in the hospital has no active faith community, no wisdom tradition or practice, except for the faith and prayers of his grandparents whose faith has been kept at a distance for many years.

The week before learning of the teenager’s plight I had been filled with questions about another young man: the 26 year-old who gunned down the nine students in Oregon who suffered a nano-second of god-forsakenness in the classrooms where they had presumed to be safe from death at the community college that became their execution chamber. The grizzly scene of the shooter asking people about their faith, telling those who rose that they were about to meet their Maker, chilled me to the bone, raising the question of what the shooter’s experience of Christians had been that would so fill him with anger at them and their religion. Was he one of the many in America who, for reasons explainable or inexplicable, feel forsaken and despised? Alone. Isolated. Scorned. Forlorn. Angry.

To be human is to be intrinsically vulnerable. We are all at risk; all headed inevitably toward death. We are not immortal, eternal, timeless, invulnerable. Was the young man turned executioner mocking his death row victim’s belief in an afterlife? Was he saying loudly that there is nothing on the other side of death – a message to the world that this is all there is and that religion is a cruel hoax?

Death is our common lot, but the irony is that it does not wait until the end; it takes hold of us in the middle – between birth and death – as much as at the end. The foreshadowing of it sends us running for cover, running for relief, for an escape. It appears under the guises of control, power, invulnerability. Sometimes its disguise is a pistol or an assault rifle. Other times its disguise is religion that entertains illusions of immortality, belief systems that include and exclude, like “are you a Christian?”

This morning I’m freshly struck by the entire Psalm whose first line has echoed through the centuries every Good Friday: “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachtani?” —“My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?”. I’m wishing our bowels could hear it, feel it, digest it, weep it, and find the hope and trust that smiles the conviction that the forsakenness we feel is not the final word.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN October 8, 2015

Do not forget! We ARE Nature – Nature Is Us

Text of sermon on sanity and madness visa a vis ourselves (homo sapiens) and the rest of nature preached at Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska, MN.

We need stories to keep us sane in a culture whose sanity is madness.

In Souls on Fire Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Peace Prize concentration camp survivor, tells the story of “prophetic madness” that challenges the collective madness of a people who ignore the coming calamity of impending crop failure. “Good people…What is at stake,” says the prophetic messenger, “is your life, your survival! The summons falls on deaf ears and the calamity of starvation is not averted.”

Wiesel concludes, “God loves madmen. They’re the only ones he allows near him.

Late in the year of 1964 a young geography student working toward his doctorate came upon a grove of Bristlecone Pines while doing research searching on Ice Age glaciers.

Wheeler Peak, on Nevada’s eastern border with Utah, reaches an altitude of 13,063 feet with a spectacular glacial cirque on its northeast side. Wheeler Peak cycles through five life zones, from the hot stony desert to alpine tundra, all within a five mile line. Along the edge of this cirque is the home of colossal bristlecone pines. Standing as they have for millennia, in their fields of stone, they overlook the desert far below.

When this student and his associate came upon the bristlecones at the timberline, they began to take core samples from several trees, discovering one to be over 4,000 years old! Needless to say they were excited, and at some point, their only coring tool broke. The end of the field season was nearing. They asked for, and were granted permission, by the U.S. Forest Service to cut the tree down.

They had just cut down one of the oldest living organism on the planet. An earlier group of researchers at Wheeler Peak and given names to the these ancient creatures whose lives reach back to the third century before Christ. They had named some of these trees. Ancient names like Socrates and Buddha. And then there was Prometheus, named after the god in Greek mythology who was punished for stealing fire from the gods and giving it to humankind. Zeus has Prometheus chained to a rock for an eternity of perpetual torment.

It was the tree named after Prometheus that the geology students had killed. They had cut down a tree that was 4,844 year old.

What happened that day on Wheeler Peak is now viewed as a kind of martyrdom by some of the Bristlecone Pine researchers – in inexplicable horror of Prometheus’ death served to save the other Bristlecone Pines from extinction at human hands. You might even say it is to the Bristlecone Pines what the cross of Jesus is to the human species, a death that brings life to the rest of us.

The death of a 4,844 year-old tree and the death of Christ are two sides of a single coin. The death of Prometheus at the tree line on Wheeler Peak is the death of nature at human hands. The death of Jesus on The Hill of Skulls is the death of humankind itself, and out of both deaths, by God’s grace alone, a new human awareness – a new humanity within nature – is awakened.

In the death of that old Bristlecone Pine the other researches came to a new appreciation of nature itself. Not only its magnificence. Not only our dependence upon nature. But our oneness with nature. Homo sapiens do not stand above nature; we stand within it. We are nature; nature is us.

Elie Wiesel reminds us that there are two kinds of madness. There is the societal madness that continues business as usual but is actually insane; the other is what he calls “prophetic” madness that challenges the madness which sees the Earth as a landfill or playground with no value in itself apart from its use to us. Prophetic madmen cry out, “Good people, do not forget! What is at stake is your life, your survival! Do not forget!”

As we remember that story out of which our faith awareness is born around the Lord’s Table, I close with another story from Elie Wiesel.

When the great Rabbi Israel Baal Shem-Tov saw misfortune threatening the Jews it was his custom to go into a certain part of the forest to meditate. There he would light a fire, say a special prayer, and the miracle would be accomplished and the misfortune averted.

Later, when his disciple, the celebrated Magid of Mezritch, had occasion, for the same reason, to intercede with heaven, he would go to the same place in the forest and say, “Master of the Universe, listen! I do not know how to light the fire, but I am still able to say the prayer.” And again the miracle would be accomplished.

Still later, Rabbi Moshe-Leib of Sasov, in order to save his people once more, would go into the forest and say, “I do not know how to light the fire, I do not know the prayer, but I know the place ad this must be sufficient.” It was sufficient and the miracle was accomplished.

Then it fell to Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn to overcome misfortune.

Sitting his his armchair, his head in his hands, he spoke to God: “I am unable to light the fire and I do not know the prayer; I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is to tell the story, and this must be sufficient. And it was sufficient.

God made man because he loves stories.

Remember, Good people. Do not forget. God loves “prophetic madmen” who challenge the madness. Remember Prometheus. Remember the Hill of Skulls. Do not forget. We are not above nature. We are part of nature; nature is us. Thanks be to God.






Climate Change: Changing the Way we Think


“We are nature; nature is us. We are NOT the exception to nature.” Rev. Gordon Stewart looks at basic religious assumptions of Western culture and the need to reinterpret the stories that got us here. He looks at the stories of creation, Cain and Abel, and the Wise Men who “departed by another way” as holding clues to the change in consciousness that is required in our time.

The Gift of Encouragement

“You’re going to like Via Lucis this morning,” said Kay, as I came down for coffee.

She knows that I share much in common with the Hasidic rabbis described in Elie Wiesel’s Four Hasidic Masters and their Struggle against Melancholy. Like Rabbe Barukh of Medzebozh, anguish is part of my faith and character. “Faith and the abyss are next to one another,” said Barukh to one of his students. There are times, especially lately, when the abyss has been so close that I have considered silence, not speech and not writing, to be the better part of wisdom.

One of the benefits of creating Views from the Edge has been the discovery of Dennis Aubrey and PJ McKey through their blog Via Lucis Photography. Their posts speak to me in the way that little else does, in no small part, I think, because they combine art photography, careful research, and exquisite commentary on the Romanesque and Gothic church architecture. Their work elevates the discussion in a world filled with so many needless words. Their post this morning (click below on “Our Personal Favorites” left me speechless, humbled, and encouraged. Thank you, PJ and Dennis. One of these days we’ll meet face-to-face.

Our Personal Favorites.

Reflections along the way of a terminal illness

Katie and Maggie sharing a moment of sadness. Maggie knew!

Katie and Maggie sharing a moment of sadness. Maggie knew!

Today, three years to the day after Katherine’s (“Katie’s”) death (May 9, 2010), we inter her cremains.

IT’S RAINING, IT’S POURING” was written the day we learned that Katie’s incurable Leiomyosarcoma had taken a turn for the worse. In memory of Katherine (“Katie”) Elizabeth Slaikeu Nolan.

Gordon C. Stewart Feb. 11, 2009

It’s raining, it’s pouring
The old man is snoring
He went to bed and he bumped his head
And couldn’t get up in the morning

It’s a day like that. I bumped my head on the illness of a 33 year-old loved one. It’s raining sadness. I’m having trouble getting out of bed in the morning.

Terminal illness has a way of doing that unless you believe in miracles of divine intervention or you have extraordinary powers of denial.

My spirituality has become increasingly like that of Rebbe Barukh of Medzobaz, an old Hasidic master in Elie Wiesel’s tale of Four Hasidic Masters and Their Struggle Against Melancholy. When he prayed the customary Jewish prayer, “Thank you, Master of the Universe, for your generous gifts – those we have received and those we are yet to receive” – he would startle others with his weeping. ‘Why are you weeping?” one of them asked. “I weep,” he said, “in thanksgiving for the gifts already received, and I weep now for the gifts I have yet to receive in case I should not be able to give thanks for them when they come.”

For my family at this critical time, the real miracle has already occurred – the shared gift of love – and it will come again in ways I cannot now anticipate when the last page of the final chapter of our loved one’s life is over.

The miracles are more natural, nearer to hand. Although I don’t believe in selective divine intervention, I am on occasion a sucker for denial – except on days like this when it’s raining and gray and I’ve bumped my head on the hard fact that cancer is ransacking my loved one’s body. A certain amount of denial, too, is a blessing in disguise, one of God’s generous gifts to keep us sane when the rain pours down and clouds are dark.

Faith comes hard sometimes. In college mine was challenged and refined by Ernest Becker‘s insistence that the denial of death lies at the root of so many of our problems. My faith has been refined along the way by the courage of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre to face the meaninglessness of the plague, the faith and courage of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Paul Tillich who stuck their fingers in the gears of Nazism, and the humble witness of Mother Teresa working in the slums of Calcutta with more questions than answers and some anger at God.

The job of faith, as I see it, is to live as free as possible from illusion with a trust in the final goodness of Reality itself, despite all appearances to the contrary. Faith is the courage and trust to look nothingness in the eye without blinking or breaking our belief in the goodness of mortal life.

When I look into my loved one’s eyes I see that courageous kind of faith that defies the cancer to define her, and a resilient spirit that makes me weep tears of joy over the gifts we’ve already received and the ones we have yet to come.

It’s still raining and it’s still pouring, but I refuse to snore my way through this. I’ve bumped my head on the news of a loved one’s terminal illness, but I’m getting up in the morning.

POSTSCRIPT March 21, 2012

Conversation yesterday about “The List” posted on Bluebird Boulevard:


My mother died of cancer eight years ago. Her loss is still visceral. She is in every bird I see.


The morning of Katherine’s memorial service Kay, Katherine’s mother, was standing by the large picture window gazing out at the pond in our back yard. Out of nowhere, it seemed, two Great Blue Herons flew directly toward the window and swooped upward just before they got to the house. “She’s here. That’s Katie,” said Kay without a second’s hesitation. On her last day of hospice care, Kay and I each remarked that her face looked like a baby bird. I’m a skeptic about such things. I’ve always been, and always will be, a doubting Thomas. My assumptions and conclusions come the hard way. But on the day the herons flew directly at Kay from across the pond, I saw it with my own eyes…and HAD to wonder.

Within a minute a third Great Blue Heron perched on the log by the edge of the pond and stood alone for a LONG time. It reminded me of a gathering on the steps of the State Capitol in Saint Paul following the tragic deaths of school children at Red Lake, MN. The crowd stopped listening to the speaker. They were looking up. “What’s going on?” I asked Richard, the Red Lake American Indian advocate and my co-worker at the Legal Rights Center.org. “Eagles,” he said. “Where?” “WAY up. They’re circling.”

I learned later that the eagles were also circling at that same moment over the grieving families gathered at Red Lake. I asked American Indian colleague what he took it to mean. “We don’t ask. That’s the white man’s question,” he said. “We just accept it. We live in the mystery.”