King George III is remembered as the “mad” British king responsible for losing the American colonies that became the United States of America, a constitutional democratic republic. The cause of George’s illness continues to be a matter of dispute.
The new American constitutional republic turned its back on King George III [shown here in Allan Ramsay’s portrait“King George III in coronation robes”] and on any future British royals who might re-claim the American colonies. But old habits die hard, and, it seems, old Kings never die.
Mad kings like King George III occasionally re-appear in dark suits and red ties without their coronation robes when a free people forgets its origins. “Mad King George” disguises himself as the people’s sole protector against barbarian invaders who threaten his realm. “Mad King George” throws a fit as defender of the republic, and once again raids the nation’s treasury to protect an anxious people from the threat that comes from his head.
This morning, King George III, acting under the limited powers granted a president by the U.S. Constitution, declared a national emergency to stop the invasion from the southern border. Announcing his decision in the White House Rose Garden, he declared, as he had centuries before in England:
“Anyone who does not agree with me is a traitor and a scoundrel.”
I never believed in ghosts, but I do believe experience is our best teacher. Some ghosts come back to haunt us. After all these years, the ghost of “Mad King George” has emigrated to the colonies to reclaim the subjects he once lost.
“Trump lacks certain qualities which the British traditionally esteem.
“For instance, he has no class, no charm, no coolness, no credibility, no compassion, no wit, no warmth, no wisdom, no subtlety, no sensitivity, no self-awareness, no humility, no honour and no grace – all qualities, funnily enough, with which his predecessor Mr. Obama was generously blessed.
“So for us, the stark contrast does rather throw Trump’s limitations into embarrassingly sharp relief.
“Plus, we like a laugh. And while Trump may be laughable, he has never once said anything wry, witty or even faintly amusing – not once, ever.
“I don’t say that rhetorically, I mean it quite literally: not once, not ever. And that fact is particularly disturbing to the British sensibility – for us, to lack humour is almost inhuman.
“But with Trump, it’s a fact. He doesn’t even seem to understand what a joke is – his idea of a joke is a crass comment, an illiterate insult, a casual act of cruelty.
Trump is a troll
And like all trolls, he is never funny and he never laughs; he only crows or jeers.
And scarily, he doesn’t just talk in crude, witless insults – he actually thinks in them. His mind is a simple bot-like algorithm of petty prejudices and knee-jerk nastiness.
There is never any under-layer of irony, complexity, nuance or depth. It’s all surface.
Some Americans might see this as refreshingly upfront.
Well, we don’t. We see it as having no inner world, no soul.
And in Britain we traditionally side with David, not Goliath. All our heroes are plucky underdogs: Robin Hood, Dick Whittington, Oliver Twist.
Trump is neither plucky, nor an underdog. He is the exact opposite of that.
He’s not even a spoiled rich-boy, or a greedy fat-cat.
He’s more a fat white slug. A Jabba the Hutt of privilege.
And worse, he is that most unforgivable of all things to the British: a bully.
That is, except when he is among bullies; then he suddenly transforms into a snivelling sidekick instead.
There are unspoken rules to this stuff – the Queensberry rules of basic decency – and he breaks them all. He punches downwards – which a gentleman should, would, could never do – and every blow he aims is below the belt. He particularly likes to kick the vulnerable or voiceless – and he kicks them when they are down.
So the fact that a significant minority – perhaps a third – of Americans look at what he does, listen to what he says, and then think ‘Yeah, he seems like my kind of guy’ is a matter of some confusion and no little distress to British people, given that:
Americans are supposed to be nicer than us, and mostly are.
You don’t need a particularly keen eye for detail to spot a few flaws in the man.
This last point is what especially confuses and dismays British people, and many other people too; his faults seem pretty bloody hard to miss.
After all, it’s impossible to read a single tweet, or hear him speak a sentence or two, without staring deep into the abyss. He turns being artless into an art form;
he is a Picasso of pettiness; a Shakespeare of shit
His faults are fractal: even his flaws have flaws, and so on ad infinitum.
God knows there have always been stupid people in the world, and plenty of nasty people too. But rarely has stupidity been so nasty, or nastiness so stupid.
He makes Nixon look trustworthy and George W look smart
In fact, if Frankenstein decided to make a monster assembled entirely from human flaws – he would make a Trump.
And a remorseful Doctor Frankenstein would clutch out big clumpfuls of hair and scream in anguish:
‘My God… what… have… I… created?
If being a twat was a TV show, Trump would be the boxed set.
“She’s confused — and he’s confusing,” said my son, following lunch with an old married couple he’d met for the first time. Remove the gender specificity (‘he’ and ‘she’) peculiar to that lunch conversation, and it could describe many conversations across America in 2019. Our talk is confusing, and our hearing is confused.
Daily conversations — real ones in real time at Starbucks or virtual ones like Twitter — often take me back me to that scene that in the restaurant, and Douglas’ Readers Digest condensed version of it. Which of us is confusing? Which of us is confused? Confusing and confusion are now epidemic in America. Like the old married couple who made no sense to each other, we seem resigned to living in separate stalls at opposite ends of the barn.
For people like my son who want to avoid the confused-confusion conundrum of their parents’ generation, The Guardian published a a spoof story announcing the roll-out of a new app promising to bring better match-ups for prospective partners. It’s called “Tudder”.
Click “Tinder-style app for cows tries to help the meat market” to open the link to BBC story. If Tudder succeeds in matching up bovines with compatible, un-confusing or un-confused stall mates, might Tudder work for us? Tudder’s Chief Executive Officer doesn’t think so. He offers the opinion that matching breeding livestock “should be even easier than matching people.”
But don’t you have to wonder whether human Match-Up apps might improve their effectiveness by adopting the template of Tudder, or would the patent theft only contribute further to the Foot-and-Mouth epidemic in the barn called America?
— Gordon C. Stewart, writing from a stall in Chaska, MN, Feb. 13, 2019.
Viewing former NASA Space Shuttle Pilot Mark Kelly‘s video this morning, the day we face the possibility of another government shutdown, inspires hope for a wiser future. NASA photograph of Earth as the Blue Marble invites us to recognize we’re all in this together.
Click Full Speed Ahead for Mark Kelly’s announcement of his candidacy for U.S. Senate in 2020. Mark Kelly is joined by his wife, former U.S. Congressional Rep. Gabby Giffords, whose formal public service came to an abrupt end with a near-fatal shot to the head on January 8, 2011. Congresswoman Giffords and Captain Kelly became leading voices for responsible gun control in the U.S.
It’s gloomy out here. The snow. Temperatures to freeze a polar bear or roast a pig. Another government shutdown looming. Mistrust and hate hanging like storm clouds over family reunions, Washington, D.C, and your state capitol. Regardless of differing persuasions, we could use some rays of sunlight — things to cheer us up. Things to help us take ourselves a little less seriously.
2. Have dinner at Chik-fil-A to support biblical principles
1. Move to Moscow
Whether you’re blue or red or purple, be positive. Cheer up. It could get worse. Do your civic duty.
Stay right where you are. Take deep breaths. Don’t drink or smoke too much . . . well, maybe just a little. Eat healthy meals. Take a nap every day. Listen deeply. Speak, as best you can, in ways that won’t send Uncle George or Aunt Gladys out the door in a huff. Be as patient with others as your dog is with you. And, when all else fails, remember the question put to those who were certain they were right. “How can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? Before you take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye, take the log out of your own” [Jesus of Nazareth; Gospel of Matthew 7:4-5 NRSV].
If you want to stop turning red as a beet and getting the blues, remember that logs — like eyes and skin — come in many colors. Be gentle with others. Be gentle with yourself. Thanks for coming by Views from the Edge.
Thomas Wolfe had it right. “You can’t go home again.” But he was only half right. Memory is the gauge of the deepest affections that feel like home. For 11 years Knox Church in Cincinnati was my spiritual home. That was 25 years ago (1983-1994), but by memory and affection, it was yesterday. Calendars and clocks mean nothing to the time of the heart.
Preparing for the visit, I recalled Charlie Chaplin‘s surprise when he reportedly entered a Charlie Chaplin Look-Alike Contest in Monte Carlo and came in third. Would I come in third in my own look-alike contest? Whose faces would I recognize after all these years? Would they recognize me? Would my slow pace and weathered face contradict memory’s sense of home-coming?
Back at the Minneapolis-Saint Paul Airport (MSP), a golf cart driver who assists less abled passengers had given me a ride to the farthest gate of Concourse E. “Where you headed?” he’d asked. “Gate so-and so, Terminal E,” I answered. “Hop on. You’d never been able to walk that far,” he said with a smile, and began to weave through the pedestrian passengers down the interminable corridor to the last gate of Concourse E.
Knox members Bob and Connie had been assigned to welcome home their old friend at baggage claim. At the Cincinnati Airport, there was not a golf cart in sight for passengers with a bad back or hips. Limping along the long concourse toward baggage claim, the story of Charlie in Monte Carlo lightened my load.
Tired and sore from the second long walk, I spotted a man on a balcony looking down at the arriving passengers. By the time I came into his view, the other passengers from Delta Flight 5277 had come and gone. The Bob I knew years ago was immaculately dressed — gray suit, white shirt and tie, and a well-polished pair of Allen Edmonds. The man on the balcony was casually dressed in a polo shirt and khakis. As I drew closer, I looked up; he looked down. I squinted. He squinted. After a closer look, visions of Simon and Garfunkel singing “Old Friends” danced in my head. I waved to Bob. Bob waved to me, two old retired friends together again after 25 years.
Walking to the car, I noticed something unusual. Bob was wearing my shoes! I’d had my mousy-looking Ecco walking shoes for five years. Never, never, never had I seen them on someone else’s feet. They’re ugly, and as far from Allen Edmonds as my Gate was from baggage claim! “Most comfortable shoe I’ve ever worn,” said Bob.
After all these years, Knoxfit like an old shoe. Thomas Wolfe never had it so good. Thomas Wolfe never flew home to Cincinnati!
— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, February 11, 2019.
A Razor Tongue and Razor Wires is the fruit of an unexpected conversation this morning between the news from Nogales, Arizona, and Psalm 52 on faith and politics. The Psalm texts are from The Book of Common Prayer.
You tyrant, why do you boast of wickedness against the godly all day long? -Psalm 51:1
Why do you rip innocent children from their parents’ arms? Why do the babies and toddlers yell for their parents at the southern border? Why do you paint yourself as godly when the godly weep and cry out to you from the holding camp?
You plot ruin; your tongue is like a sharpened razor, O worker of deception.
Huffington Post, 02/07/2019 11:31 pm ET:
The City Council of Nogales, Arizona, has voted unanimously on a resolution ordering Trump administration officials to rip out new ‘lethal’ razor wire coiled on a border fence along the downtown shopping district.
“Such wire is ‘only found in a war, prison or battle setting’ and is highly inappropriate for an urban area, states the resolution the council passed Wednesday. The bristling concertina wire is now attached to the fence from top to bottom.
“‘Placing coiled concertina wire that is designed to inflict serious bodily injury or death in the immediate proximity of our residents, children, pets, law enforcement and first responders is not only irresponsible but inhuman, the resolution states.”
You love evil more than good and lying more than speaking the truth.
State of the Union Address:
You paint political opponents as enemies of the Country (with a capital ‘C’) and speak hate in the name of making America Great Again. You hold rallies where your base yells “Lock her up” and applaud your hoax that the Mueller investigation is a “witchhunt” like the Massachusetts Bay Colony burning the alleged witches of Salem.
You love all words that hurt, O you deceitful tongue.
You prey on our emotions. You carefully select the people in the balcony whose stories tug at our heart strings and demonstrate your humaneness. You position yourself as our only sure defense against all enemies foreign and domestic, pointing to the white family left to cope with their loved one’s murder by an illegal immigrant you call an“alien”. Your tactics are clever and effective. You say nothing about the killing of 17 students and one staff member and wounding of another 17 at the Parkland school shooting, or the alleged Russian contributions to the NRA. You divert the nation’s attention from the real world by pointing to heroes and victims who fit your purposes. Your words hurt and deceive by what you have spoken and what you have left unaddressed. You say nothing about climate change and a sustainable energy policy, claiming victory that we are now the world’s largest net exporter of fossil fuel energy. You ignore having turned you back on America’s closest friends and allies, and our withdrawal from international treaties that leave us more vulnerable. You say nothing about anything of substance.
O that God would demolish you utterly, topple you, and snatch you from your dwelling, and root you out of the land of the living.
O that Congress would act to stop you! O that your cabinet would invoke the 25th Amendment. O that Melania would abandon you and divorce you for your infidelities and bullying schemes. O that the Supreme Court would rule that you may be indicted while occupying the White House. O that God would snatch you from your opulent dwellings in Trump Tower and at Mar-a-Largo where only the one percent can golf.
The righteous shall see and tremble, and they shall laugh at him, saying,
“This is the one who did not take God for a refuge, but trusted in great wealth and relied upon wickedness.
O that we shall see and tremble at the greatness of his fall, saying,“This is the maker of the Tower of Babel who seeks to make his name great and confuses our speech. This is the one who claims of great wealth, surrounds himself with fixers and cabinet members sent to prison, arranges agreements with his mistresses to keep them silent and The National Enquirer to keep the stories in a vault, while concealing from public scrutiny the tax returns he promised to provide two and a half years ago.”
But I am like a green olive tree in the house of God; I trust in the mercy of God for ever and ever.
I will give You thanks for what You have done and declare the goodness of Your Name in the presence of the godly.
I am old and gnarly. Prune back my cynicism. Make me green again, drinking from Your mercy, trusting what I cannot see, and pay You the homage due Your Name alone.
— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, reflecting on Psalm 52 and the state of the nation, January 8, 2019.
Some things are too close. Too personal. As Leonard Cohen put it in his songs Going Home and If It Be Your Will, my best friend over the past 55 years has “gone home without his burden, [gone] home behind the curtain without the costume that he wore.”
Wayne Granberry Boulton — click HEREfor the obituary — died peacefully at home in Indianapolis under the tender care of the love of his life — his one and only wife — and their older son Matthew (Matt).
The costumes Wayne wore were academic (Duke Ph.D.) and ecclesiastical (McCormick Theological Seminary M.Div.) robes, but these costumes were faint glimpses into his underlying character.
Knowing the hospice drugs soon would ease him into wherever people go at the end of life, I visited Wayne and Vicki, Matt and Chris and all the Boulton family in Indianapolis two weeks ago. Wayne’s mind was still clear and sharp. His heart, which was always big, without ever being sloppy, was closer to his sleeve.
If it be your will That I speak no more And my voice be still As it was before I will speak no more I shall abide until I am spoken for If it be your will [Leonard Cohen, If It Be Your Will]
“Hi, my name’s Wayne Boulton,” said the new roommate in 1964, where we had been assigned to Alumni Hall Room 312 by the housing office at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago. Although he had arrived hours before my key opened the door, he had not yet chosen which of the two beds, desks, and dressers would be his. That was the first clue that my roommate was un-selfish.
We were roommates for two years until he exchanged vows with Vicki in 1966. I was to be Wayne’s Best Man, but that was before the Chicago Chapter of the Experiment in International Living sent me packing to Czechoslovakia that summer, reducing my status to “would-have-been/ could-have-been/ should have been” Wayne’s Best-Man. When I returned to the States, Vicki had become the roommate to whom he had pledged his troth.
If it be your will That a voice be true
Wayne’s word was his bond. He was loyal. Honoring his family and friends came second only to honoring the First Commandment to have no other gods but I AM. Wayne knew that we are covenantal creatures whose joy is found in steadfast love, a voice that is true to itself. Wayne did not sing of himself. Self-promotion was not his thing. Close to being fitted for the MBA costume of Northwestern University’s School of Business, he left the fitting room to prepare for a different robe in service to the church and the academy.
From this broken hill All your praises they shall ring If it be your will To let me sing
It was during the Lafayette College choir concert at Westbury High School that Wayne and Vicki met. The love at first sight led to the births of Matthew and Christopher, and stayed fresh until there were no more costumes. What began with the twinkling of an eye ended the same way — with thanksgiving washed by tears.
Going home Without my sorrow Going home Sometime tomorrow Going home where it’s better Than before
No compassionate person would wish that a loved one with terminal pancreatic cancer continue to wear the patient’s costume. “I’m dying,” he wrote to the members of the wide circle of friends he had gathered. Former students, faculty colleagues, and neighbors in Holland, Michigan and in Richmond, Virginia; members of the churches he’d served in Maryland, New Jersey, and Massachusetts, and the latest friends in Indianapolis. He embraced the coming end of life, neither denying death’s finality nor betraying his deepest conviction: “in life and in death, we belong to God.”
Going home Without my burden Going home Behind the curtain Going home Without this costume That I wore. [Leonard Cohen]
The loss of of a best friend hits hard, no matter how much we expected it. “Hey, Roomie” was the way he began our phone calls. Choking through the tears on this side of the curtain, I give thanks that my roommate has “gone home/Without [his] burden/Behind the curtain/Without the costume/That [he] wore,” and pray against all my doubts, that some other strangers may be greeted the way I was:
“Hi, my name’s Wayne Boulton.”
And draw us near And bind us tight All your children here In their rags of light In our rags of light All dressed to kill And end this night If it be your will
If it be your will [Leonard Cohen, If It Be Your Will]
— Gordon C. Stewart, one four remaining Dogs “bound tight . . . . in our rags of light,” Chaska, MN, February 4, 2019.
David Kanigan’s tribute to Mary Oliver arrived this morning while waiting for word of the end of a best friend’s life that will die too soon from pancreatic cancer. His family and friends are paying close attention, kneeling down in the grass for a holy rest and peace at the last.
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell…
I go to Sake Sushi‘s Happy Hour and strike up a conversation with a stranger. We look to be the same age. Turns out it’s his birthday. “Well, happy birthday!” I say. “How old?”
“A lot older than you,” he says. “I don’t think so,” I reply and ask “How old?” “Seventy-two,” he says. “Gotcha by four years,” say I. “I thought you were maybe 65,” he says. I love this guy! So began last night’s friendly conversation that took us outside our respective comfort zones.
We live in bubbles that burst even while celebrating a birthday — separate bubbles that collide when CNN is served with drinks on the big TV screen in front of the sushi bar.
“Fake news,” he says. “Just a pack o’ lies.” I have a feeling this isn’t going to go well. “So where do get your news?” “I don’t pay much attention to politics,” he says. “As long as the economy is good. That’s all I care about. Business is booming. I’ve made a lot of money the last two years.”
What little news he gets is from a different bubble from the one I live in. “We’re in big trouble,” I say. “What you’re calling an economy is not an economy; economics is not measured by the stock market. There is only one economy — the planet and everything in it — and it’s not doing well. It’s only a matter of time.”
“Where do you get your news?” he asks. I answer that I get it from as many sources as I can. “Ever watch FOX News?” “Every once in a while. As little as possible,” I say, and now we’re both out of our bubbles that make us both “Bubble Boys”. The conversation turns to the occupant of the Oval Office he credits with the booming economy. “He’s going down,” I say. He laughs. ‘No way,” he says, and changes the subject to Barack Obama as a failed president. “He almost destroyed the military,” he says. “Obama made us weaker. Trump inherited a mess. He’s turned it around. America’s strong again.” He’s ex-military, a former Marine once stationed for eight year in Okinawa.
I call his attention to the number of Generals who have left the Trump Administration. He knows nothing about that. I mention General Mattis. “Mad Dog? Great General! The best!” he says. “What about him?” I ask whether he’s read Secretary of Defense Mattis’ letter of resignation. He hasn’t. He has no knowledge of Mattis’ disagreement with the president’s policies. I urge him to read it. He says he will.
The wait person brings a large paper sack with a take-out order of his favorite Japanese dish. “It’s not on the menu,” he says. “Just ask for ‘Dynamite’. I guarantee you’re gonna love it!” “So it’s the ‘Dynamite Roll’?” I ask. “No, it’s different. You have to ask for it.” “So, if I ask for ‘Dynamite’, will they know what I’m talking about?” “The American girl won’t. Ask one of the Japanese guys. They’ll know. Get some and take it home. I guarantee you’re gonna love it!”
The mere thought of Dynamite puts us in the same bubble. We’re Bubble Boys in one bubble: the global economy of shared taste buds. As he rises to leave for home, I thank him for his Dynamite recommendation and the conversation, shake his hand, and wish him a Dynamite 72nd Birthday.
Next time I wander over to the bar at Sake Sushi, I’ll ask for Dynamite . . . and two Martinis.
— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, February 1, 2019.
“I can soon begin to tell the time by how the light is slanting off our walls at sunrise and when the darkness falls — and I suppose back to a more essential human life.“
~ Pico Iyer, The Urgency of Slowing Down. An Interview with Krista Tippett (Onbeing, November, 2018), quoted by Live & Learn.
Living within nature’s rhythms comes less naturally to us than it did for our ancestors. I say, “Let there be light,” flip a switch, and there is light. “The light was called ‘day’ and the darkness called ‘night’.” Not anymore. The darkness is as light to us. But not to dogs!
Barclay, the canine companion who joins me for my daily afternoon nap, is what they call a shadow chaser. He lives by the movements of the sun, the hourly changes of light and shadow. Barclay aims to please. He’s very respectful of the napper. He lies very still . . . until it’s time . . . and he moves from the foot of the bed up to the pillow and licks my face to say “it’s time!”
The angle of the light from the bedroom window is his alarm clock. He knows the exact moment of the shift in the light’s angle that says it’s time to get up and head quickly to master suite bathroom where the light will be like the aurora borealis. Time to rise and shine. Time for me to open and shut the shower door. Over an over, to make the light move around the floor and walls so he can jump at it, pounce on it, eat it, or catch it with a paw. It’s playtime! Until the angle of the light shining through the small hexagonal window changes and the stream of light disappears until tomorrow about 3:10 PM . . . unless the clouds hide keep the light away, and it’s time to stay quiet at the foot of the bed for another day.
The closest I get to nature’s rhythms here in Chaska is the end of nap time. At the cabin by the wetland, it’s altogether different. The light streams in everywhere, always from a different angle, luscious golden sunlight dancing on the rough-cut pine walls, or the blue light of the full moon that streams through once a month. And all without flipping a switch.
And God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness God called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day. (Gen. 1:3-5)
— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, Minnesota, January 31, 2019.
We’re in a real pickle this morning, Elijah. I don’t know how we’re ever going to get out it!
I like pickles! Pickles are good. You’re getting senile, Bumpa. You can’t get in a pickle!
No, no, we’re not inside a pickle. It’s is an idiom.
You said a bad word, Bumpa! I’m telling Mom! Mom says we’re not supposed to use that word.
I didn’t say idiot, Elijah. I said idiom. It’s a figure of speech, like “It’s raining cats and dogs.”
It’s raining cats and dogs? You must be senile, Bumpa. I’m little, but I’ve never seen it rain cats and dogs, and I know we can’t fit inside a pickle! You’re freaking me out!
I like pickles, too. Well, most kinds of pickles. Especially sweet pickles, like bread-and-butter pickles. I also like Jewish deli pickles. But this morning’s pickle is a real pickle that makes me sick.
Yeah, I hate that. I was sick last week. I hate throwing up.
Some pickles are sweet. Some pickles are sour. It’s the sour ones that sour my stomach.
So, are we in a sweet pickle or a sour pickle? Are we in a little pickle or a big pickle?
A BIG pickle, and it’s really sour.
You should only eat bread and butter pickles, Bumpa, and stop watching Rachel and Ari. Turn off the television and have a bread-and-butter pickle. Pickle is GOOD!
TURN UP THE SOUND and listen carefully as Elijah with his pickle tells his mother “Pickle is good!”
— Bumpa Gordon, Chaska, Minnesota, January 29, 2019.
I’d forgotten the moment during the children’s sermon until David’s mother Jan refreshed the memory of everyone around the dinner table the night before David’s ordination. “Do you remember the time David asked you why Jesus had to go to hell?'” David is forty now. He was five or six when he asked the question on the chancel steps.
Who knows what goes on in a child’s mind? Who expects a Presbyterian church to become a comedy theater? When I turned to look back a my colleague for help, Jack smiled, shrugged, and said, “Your sermon!”
Jack was working toward his PhD. in semiitic langauges at Hebrew Union College at the time. Why Jesus had to go to hell wasn’t question of a Jewish education! Knox Church wasn’t big on hell either. The idea of Jesus in hell was strange enough, but David’s question was why Jesus had to go to hell.
David was a pure soul. A concrete thinker like others his age. He was also thoughtful. Curious. Questioning. Listening carefully to the words we adults spoke, like the Apostles’ Creed: “He was crucified, dead, and buried. He descended into hell.”
“Why did Jesus have to go to hell?”
The Eastern Orthodox tradition of the Christian faith celebrates “the Harrowing of Hell” — the descent of the crucified Jesus to open the gates of hell. The Harrowing of Hell expresses symbolically that no one is so far from God that they cannot be reached; there is more mercy in God than there is sin in us.
This preserved parchment scroll from the sixteenth century depicts Christ having “gone to hell,” taking the hand of Adam, a symbol of the unyielding persistence and sovereignty of reconciling Love.
The Harrowing of Hell — Christ leads Adam out of Hell (1503-4)
David’s ordination took place on the same chancel where he had stumped the pastor. Now it’s his turn to field the questions. I’m retired!
— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, January 27, 2019.
John Buchanan provides in Hold to the Good what he did from the pulpit of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, and as publisher of The Christian Century: timely reflection on current events in light of biblical texts. His latest post, The Children, shines the light of an often ignored part of the Christmas story — Herod’s Slaughter of the Innocents — on the royal palace’s current cruelty toward children on America’s southern border.
Christmas is over but a singular Biblical incident is haunting me this year. The Christian story, from the beginning, is set in the context of political power, insecurity and cruelty. “In the time of King Herod” is the way Matthew begins. The Magi, mysterious seers from the east- modern Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, following a star that announced the birth of a new king, stop at the royal palace in Jerusalem, the locus of imperial political power. They assume, reasonably, that if a new king has been born it must be in the palace of the current king, Herod. The story recounts how Herod, obviously distressed and frightened by what the Magi said, learns from his own experts that Hebrew scripture predicts “From Bethlehem shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people, Israel.” When Herod later discovers that the Magi have deceived him, not returning with the…
There are for most of us those rare moments that give definition to one’s life. Such singular moments cast a wider light on all the other moments on calendars and clocks.
These are moments of the heart that touch us deeply — like Sunday’s return to Cincinnati to preach the sermon for the ordination of David Annett who was a boy when I served as his pastor at Knox Church 25 years ago, and the Monday and Tuesday times with my best friend Wayne as he nears the end of life in Indianapolis. Jean-Paul Sartre’s words from Nausea were never far away:
“One is still what one is going to cease to be, and already what one is going to become. One lives one’s death, one dies one’s life.”
The friendship with Wayne began at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago where the housing director had assigned us to room together in Room 311 of Alumni Hall. No friendship has been longer or deeper since that day in 1964. We have lived our deaths together over the years, and now one of us is in hospice care dying his life. The visits last Monday and Tuesday were what they have always been: moments described by the old hymn “Blest be the ties that bind Our hearts in Christian love.”
Sometimes a singular moment of time reveals one’s continuing character. I cannot yet find the moment that would open the window into who Wayne is or what our friendship has meant over the years since we met in Room 311. Memory will open it when the time is right, as it did when David invited me to preach his ordination sermon.
Our life stories rise out of the meeting points when our separate journeys converge as a dramatic moment that feels like fiction. As I spiraled back to the 11 years with David here at Knox, a singular moment in time seemed to put a frame around who you have ceased to be but still are, David, and who you will become after we have prayed over you with the laying on of hands.
The day I’m remembering happened years ago. You were eight years-old the day I’m remembering. Your grandmother was dying, You asked me to take you to see you grandmother one last time. We drove to Mercy Hospital and talked about what it’s like to visit a hospital, what he was likely to see in preparation for David’s visit with his Grandma.
At the hospital, David punched the elevator button for Grandma’s floor. When the doors opened, we exited the elevator, and walked side=by-side down the long hall toward her room. As I recall, I had to slow you down! You marched down that hall like a soldier, brave and true, a soldier of love for you grandma. You went directly to your grandmother’s hospital bed and stood there, refusing to submit our culture’s denial of death. You didn’t run. You put your hand on her arm and stayed awhile in the silence. And, when you’d taken in the sober reality of it, you spoke the words you had come to say, “I love you, Grandma.” We offered a brief prayer by her bedside and walked back down the hall in the kind of silence that comes over you when you’ve said good-bye to a loved one.
I was so proud of you that day! That moment will stay etched in my memory so long as my memory lasts. I feel that same pride now as you become the pastor who takes a walk down the hall with the other Davids of this world — the children here at Knox and at Cranston Memorial, and their parents; and the Syrian, Yemeni, and Guatemalan children and parents who have been left to fend for themselves. That brave, compassionate walk down the hall that is behind you is the ministry before you. As your train makes the curve around the bend to ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament, the connections slowly emerge, and the way you’ve come is the way ahead. Long before today, David, you were already what you would become.
Excerpt from Ordination sermon, Knox Church, Cincinnati, OH 1/13/19
The Monday following David’s ordination, I drove two hours to Indianapolis, knowing it likely would be the last time with Wayne. But funny things happen on a walk down the hall to the room that soon will be empty. To my surprise, the one dying his life was more cheerful than the one who expects to continue living his death. Sometimes, the one who’s dying becomes the pastor to the boy.
— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, January 20, 2019.
This year’s Martin Luther King, Jr. commemoration comes in the fifth week of the American federal government partial shut-down over a wall. In the name of the Beloved Community — the just and peaceable society — Dr. King and Dr. Barth had things to say about building walls.
Karl Barth and Martin Luther King, Jr. are formative influences on my life. I hadn’t realized until this morning how fully their theology and ethic were in the warp and woof of last Sunday’s sermon at Knox Church in Cincinnati. With apologies to these two great figures, we post an excerpt from a sermon of one of the many lesser lights who live in their long shadows.
Something there is in the Beloved that doesn’t love a wall. Something there is in Jesus that tears down the walls between neighbors and turns enemies into friends, brick by brick, stone by stone — between the Judeans and the Samaritans, and between the male apostles and the Canaanite woman; between the “righteous” who choose purity over compassion and the “good” Samaritan who binds up the wounds of the one in the ditch; between the publicly scorned blind beggar and the charitable nickel-and-dimers who passed by on their way to secure homes and lavish parties; the crowds on the street and the sinful Zacchaeus in the sycamore fig tree; between the Beloved Son and the hosts of sinners who flocked to him for acceptance, forgiveness, healing, hope, and compassion.
For Jesus, love was not a private thing. Love must be made public. As Cornel West puts it, “Justice is love made public.”
Going through airport security recently, I thanked the TSA employees for working. Other passengers did the same. It’s an odd thing to do. We expect employees to show up for work. We also expect their employers to pay them for their work. No one can expect employees to work without compensation.
These TSA workers have families. Their needs are not shut down. Only the paychecks that pay the rent and utility bills, the public transportation to and from work, groceries, insurance, prescriptions, and day care for their families are shut down.
“Thank you for working,” said the passengers going through the security procedures put in place to prevent another high-jacking like those on 9/11. Their work is essential to national security. Looking back on it, I’m ashamed of myself. You don’t thank hostages for being hostages. You free them from their hostage-taker . . . without paying the $5.1 Billion ransom to make America safe again.
— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, Minnesota, January 20, 2019
“Invisibly, almost without notice, we are losing ourselves” (see yesterday’s post) brought to mind the following piece written in 2007.
Do you ever feel invisible? Ever wonder whether you’re really there? I do. People walk by on the street or in the mall…it’s like I’m not there. People walk by like ghosts talking to ghosts. They don’t see me. They’re somewhere else, not really there. They walk like people; they talk like people; they look like people. But their eyes and ears are somewhere else . . . in some far off place. Their heads down, reading or writing a text or staring into space, babbling to someone who’s not there. I’ve become invisible.
I have the same experience driving to and from work. Drivers cut in front of me or run up behind me. They laugh and smile and wildly gesture, but there’s no one else in the car! When their driving puts me in jeopardy, I honk. They just keep talking. They don’t look and they don’t hear anything but the voice on the other end of the cell phone. Even my Toyota’s invisible; it’s become a non-material world.
It’s nothing new really. Western spirituality has always been dualistic. It says that we have a body and we have a soul – the physical and the spiritual. We have these bodies for a while, and then we die, but we don’t really die; we just escape these bodies, like birds set free from our cages. This dualistic understanding of life made its way from classical Greek philosophy into the writings of St. Paul as the war between “the flesh” and the spirit. “I’ll fly away,” often sung at funerals, expresses the underlying philosophy. “When the shadows of this life have gone, I’ll fly away Like a bird from these prison walls I’ll fly. I’ll fly away.” The rudeness on the highways, in the malls, coffee shops and restaurants — and even in our homes — is the latest expression of this deprecation of bodily existence.
We don’t see each other anymore. The voice on the other end of the phone is more important than the person in front of me, and the ones I cannot see or hear or receive a text from are unreal…in Iraq, Afghanistan, and anywhere else I decide to hang up and nuke their worlds into the permanent invisibility of nonexistence or the fires of hell.
I sit quietly at the airport gate, waiting for my flight. Used to be people would at least acknowledge one another’s existence – the bare fact that you were really there and not somewhere else or nowhere – but now they’re on their phones, babbling away as though the room were empty except for them. Because, I suppose, we’re ancient Greeks with head sets, cell phones, and iPads, seduced by the old idea that we are meant for non-embodied existence. It’s just me and my invisible world, and you with yours, a rude collection of loud mouths with headsets, alone in the crowd, bereft of the silent pauses between the noises that make us anxious.
Touch is a basic need. My dog knows it. I know it. Hearing and speaking are important. But the most important communication comes by touch. An animal that goes untouched becomes mad as a March hare. So do we.
In this world of disembodied spirits, we crave the gift of touch. But to touch and be touched is a vulnerable thing. It reminds us of our embodied selves, our mortal selves, our dependent and interdependent selves. The non-material world is safer. Unlike the body, the worlds in our head are invulnerable.
In my faith tradition, the Feast of Pentecost celebrates the day the babbling stopped, the day the Spirit shifted the crowd’s eyes and ears out of the lonely silos of self-absorption and self-deception — away from their iPhones, iPads, and headsets.
The sound of a mighty wind was so profound, so inescapable and unmistakable, that the company of lonely strangers stopped babbling around the phone tower and noticed the other people around them.
— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, Minnesota, Jan. 9, 2019
“Invisibly, almost without notice, we are losing ourselves,” says the quote at the end of this thoughtful reflection. I think of Kosuke Koyama’s metaphor of the three-mile-an-hour God. Why three-miles-per-hour? Because that’s the natural pace of a human being walking.
Physicist, novelist, and essayist Alan Lightman has added his own manifesto, In Praise of Wasting Time. Of course, the title is ironic, because Lightman argues that by putting down our devices and spending time on quiet reflection, we regain some of our lost humanity, peace of mind, and capacity for creativity—not a waste of time, after all, despite the prevailing mentality that we should spend every moment actually doing something. The problem is not only our devices, the internet, and social media. Lightman argues that the world has become much more noisy, fast-paced, and distracting. Partly, he writes, this is because the advances that have enabled the much greater transfer of data, and therefore productivity, have created an environment in which seemingly inexorable market forces push for more time working and less leisure time.
Lightman starts his book with an anecdote from his recent time in a rural…
Psalm 46 tells us, “Be still, and know that I am God.” Gordon C. Stewart, in his collection of essays entitled Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness, meditates on what this means. Is this quietism and withdrawal from the world? Possibly sometimes. But if Jesus bestirred Himself to drive moneylenders from the Temple, how still was He? What consequences would have been inflicted on the sneering Goldman Sachs representatives testifying about their role in the Great Recession described in “American Oligarchy – 4/29/10”? Are stillness and engagement mutually exclusive?
Reverend Stewart did summer internships as a street outreach worker in Philadelphia, worked with a poverty law firm in Minneapolis, and has served in seven congregations and ecumenical campus ministries. Anyone who contributes to Sojourners’ “God’s Politics: Blogging with Jim Wallis and Friends” fits the category of liberal Christian. He recognizes the common ground in the gun debate of fear of the threats of chaos and insecurity and that guns are different realities for rural and urban populations, “The Common Ground Beneath the Gun Debate” and “Reframing the Gun Debate.” However, a description of a call for support from the National Rifle Association indicates he sees the threat from guns, not gun control, “Religion and Politics: Cain and Abel.”
Essays reflect views to be expected from someone with Stewart’s background. He celebrates nature and deplores those who threaten the environment, “Stillness at Blue Spring”, “The World in an Oyster,” and “Climate Change and the Nations.” He deplores a criminal justice system and attitudes which send minorities to prison and death row and makes existing while black perilous, “The Execution of Troy Davis,” “Hands Up! Don’t Carve!” and “Homeland Militarization.” Islamic and other fundamentalisms are seen as evil but the bombings and other military action in retaliation are condemned as, well, “Being Human”, “Creating Hell in the Name of Heaven,” and “Losing Our Heads.” The many sins of capitalism are seen in the context of its victims and protesters, “The Wall Street Tattler”, “American Oligarchy—4/29/”.
The best essays highlight voices of stillness and moments of reflection. Friend Dr. Kosuke Koyama, to whom the book is dedicated, speaks at commemoration of Hiroshima about how the sin of exceptionalism led Japan to self-destruction and threatens the world today, “Only One Sin: Exceptionalism.” Sitting in an Amish rocking chair, Stewart reflects on the forgiveness and kindness extended to the family of a man who murdered Amish school children, “Jacob Miller’s Amish Rocking Chair.” He faces the death of a friend and asks Muslims for prayers and sees that death can be a mercy, “The Waiting Room” and “When Breath Flies Away.” An Airbnb rental in Paris is the apartment of a late Tunisian Sufi poet and novelist whose rooms are filled with books, “The Anguished Heart of God.” He imagines Jesus healing a madman in a Capernaum synagogue in a time too early to have heard the advice that “worshippers should wear crash helmets,” “The Man Who Knew.”
Multiple essays reflect on Stewart’s heritage, especially the coffin makers and others of South Paris, Maine, a town where one is known in relation to the relatives who remain. He sees the tension in St. Augustine, Florida between the local civil rights activists and the celebrities like Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Committee (SCLC) who drew more attention. Is it possible to have two Freedom Trails? And is the Civil Rights struggle something historical which happened in the distant past and no longer relevant to later generations?
The essays are preceded by quotes and poems illustrating the theme of the entry. Some of the quoted are well known like Henry David Thoreau, Arnold Toynbee, Wendell Berry, Emily Dickinson, Martin Luther King, Jr., Albert Camus, and Matthew Arnold. Others are welcome discoveries such as Willem Zuurdeeg, a Dutch writer whose parents fought in the Resistance trying to make sense of the fact that civilized Germany could have produced the Nazis,and Stewart’s friend, Steve Shoemaker. The quoteshelp frame efforts to make sense of the world and extract truth from the chaotic events of life.
A collection of essays will, by its nature, be episodic and even disjointed. It is a series of snapshots not a continuous film. Otherwise, it would be a treatise on philosophy or theology. It would be less like life. Although reasoned, the vignettes appeal to emotion which is our ultimate decision-maker. It is a worthwhile work. One may quibble here and there as one will in a conversation, but there are profound truths throughout the work.
As a Baha’i who believes in the oneness of religion, I was hooked at the first essay, “Tide Pools and the Ocean.” Like the proverbial blind men and the elephant, it is easy to mistake one’s tide pool for the ocean, fail to celebrate each tide pool’s unique features, and not see what each really has in common. A good collection of meditations will have something for everyone.
~Steven Miller, President of Minnesota Independent Scholars Forum and participant in a, perhaps, unhealthy number of discussion groups, is a sole practitioner attorney practicing labor and employment for management. He has a B.A. and M.A. from George Peabody College (now part of Vanderbilt University) and a J.D. from Duke University School of Law.
The Minnesota Scholar, Volume 13, Number 2, Dec. 2018.
“All authors want their names to go down in history; I want to keep the smoke coming out of the chimney.” — Mickey Spillane.
Thanks to Steven Miller and Minnesota Scholar editor Evelyn Klein for the smoke from the chimney two years after Be Still!’s publication.
Yesterday President Donald Trump said the government shut-down could go on for months or even years. There will be no end to the Mexican standoff until Congress agrees to fund his campaign promise to build a wall on our southern border.
That’s not what he promised. The campaign promise had two parts. 1) A wall would be built on the Mexican border, and 2) Mexico would pay for it. It wouldn’t cost American taxpayers a dime. If it didn’t happen, he would issue an apology to the electorate.
Mexico refused to pay for the wall. There’s been no apology. What the nation gets instead is a tantrum.
Later in the day, the president pulled out a trump card from his sleeve. He could invoke the National Emergencies Act to declare a national emergency. “I can do it if I want to,” he said at today’s press conference.
The border wall built by Mexico was always a hoax. Now, it’s also a distraction. The wall that’s needed is not made of steel or concrete. It’s built of an informed electorate, on the one hand, and an invisible cyber wall that protects the integrity of the American electoral system and the security of at-risk power grids, nuclear silos, and communication and command networks.
The government shutdown is based on a Big Lie. Or two. Or three.
The Big Truth
There is a real national emergency. It occupies the Oval Office, stands before microphones, and sends out daily tweets to garner attention and continue the hoax. It sits in the offices of the president’s cabinet members who have not the courage to invoke the 25th Amendment that would remove the threat from the Oval Office. It sits in a Congress that has failed to exercise its constitutional duty to oversee the integrity of the government institutions. It comes in threats to Robert Mueller’s investigation into foreign interference in the 2016 American election process.
Joseph Goebbels, Chancellor of Nazi Germany, wrote of the Big Lie as a propaganda technique in reference to the English in “Aus Churchills Lügenfabrik” (English: “From Churchill’s Lie Factory”) dated January 12, 1941: “The essential English leadership secret does not depend on particular intelligence. Rather, it depends on a remarkably stupid thick-headedness. The English follow the principle that when one lies, one should lie big, and stick to it. They keep up their lies, even at the risk of looking ridiculous.” – Aus Churchills Lügenfabrik (“From Churchill’s Lie Factory”), January 12, 1941.
Seventy-eight years after Goebbel’s publication on the lie factory, and 75 years after Joseph McCarthy used the Big Lie here in America, the Big Lie again stares us in the face. So does The Big Truth, as American poet James Russell Lowell expressed it during the American Civil War in his poem “The Present Crisis.” I was raised on the hymn “Once to Every Man and Nation” with the lyrics from Lowell’s poem. It etched in my heart and mind that the decisions we take make a difference to this world.
“Once to every nation Comes the moment to decide In the strife of truth with falsehood. . . .Though the cause of evil prosper, Yet ’tis truth alone is strong. . . . ” — James Russell Lowell (1819-1895), “The Present Crisis.”
What goes around comes around. And some things going around now will come around sooner or later. No one knows when or how. We live between what is coming around and what is now going around.
I’ve been reading a gift from son-in-law Christopher that leads me to break the recent silence on Views from the Edge. It’s the result of investigative journalism that zooms in on one of the most prominent figures of American life.
What’s My Line?
Years ago What’s My Line?, featuring celebrity guests like Groucho Marx and a brilliant panel, took over my family’s living room. Moderated by John Charles Daly, members of the panel, which always included Dorothy Kilgallen, Arlene Francis, and Bennett Cerf, were blind-folded before the mystery guest came on stage to answer the panel members’ questions. The mystery guests disguised their voices, and provided the blind-folded panel a tidbit of information as a clue to their identities.
All these years later, What’s My Line? is gone. Now I listen to Wait Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me!Wh
His purpose is power and his strategy to “keep his name in the papers at all costs.”
Patient research into the techniques of his campaigns results in the conclusion that his one all-dominating consideration has been to win at any cost.
To achieve his ends he has failed to repudiate support from . . . some of the most disreputable, hate-mongering, fascist-minded groups in the nation on the far right.
Our danger is that ____ism will gradually grow into a homespun variety of totalitarianism, and will destroy our liberties as surely as Communism would. The antics of ____ism are made to order for the propaganda purposes of international Communism. I am sure that ——ists are not intentionally aiding the international conspiracy of … Communism, but if they were Communist agents they could not be doing a more useful job, from Russia’s viewpoint. The wider ____ism grows, the weaker they leave America, and the stronger the possibility of international Communism.
The Senators unanimously concluded that the ____ election “brought into sharp focus certain campaign tactics and practices that can best be described as. . . destructive of fundamental American principles.”
It was, the report continued, a “despicable back street type of campaign which usually, if exposed in time, backfires.”
Removing the blind-folds
Now we remove the blind-folds. Each of the above clues is a quotation cited in the 92 page 45th Anniversary edition of The Progressive, April 1954 on Senator Joseph McCarthy and McCarthyism. “McCarthyism: A Documentary Record” concludes with these words of counsel:
We of The Progressive are convinced that our best chance to keep the lamps of hope and liberty burning brightly in a world hungry for light and leadership is to deal head-on with the conditions which create the doubts and fears on which McCarthy and Malenkov thrive. The first great step down that road of hope must be to replace “The Big Lie” of Communism and McCarthyism with “The Big Truth” of a working democracy.
What goes around comes around. The Big Lie and the Big Truth come and go with the tides of history.
Live & Learn’s post “Miracle. All of It. (This Year on Earth” brings together changes to Earth in 2018 with the ancient wonder of Ptolemy and Albert Einstein.
Earth picked up about 40,000 metric tons of interplanetary material, mostly dust, much of it from comets.
Earth lost around 96,250 metric tons of hydrogen and helium, the lightest elements, which escaped to outer space.
Roughly 505,000 cubic kilometers of water fell on Earth’s surface as rain, snow, or other types of precipitation.
Bristlecone pines, which can live for millennia, each gained perhaps a hundredth of an inch in diameter.
Countless mayflies came and went.
More than one hundred thirty-six million people were born in 2018, and more than fifty-seven million died.
Tidal interactions are very slowly increasing the distance between Earth and the moon, which ended 2018 about 3.8 centimeters further apart than they were at the beginning. As a consequence, Earth is now rotating slightly more slowly; the day is a tiny fraction of a second longer.
He slinks down Pennsylvania Avenue, head down in a hoodie at 3:00 A.M., disguised as a homeless man, escaping the watchful eye of the Secret Service and the television cameras, returning to the dilapidated tenement in the poorest part of the city.
The tenement dweller who owns nothing has been waiting for him since their last visit. The apartment door is ajar, as it always is, in anticipatory welcome of all the homeless.
“Welcome, Donald. I wondered when we’d have another visit.” As he had during the first visit, he lifts the heavy coat from the visitor’s slumping shoulders, and points to the furniture he’d rescued from a dumpster — an old folding chair missing a slat, and the torn red-leather wingback, facing each other each as they had before. The night visitor pauses and chooses the high wingback.
The scene is the same as previously. The room is dimly lit by a small table lamp, the kind of late night or early morning light that creates an ambiance of calm and invites intimate conversation. The tenement dweller takes his seat in the folding chair. The visitor sits in silence, his hoodie still covering his head, not wanting to be seen, but wanting to be seen. The room is silent.
“I’ve been very concerned, friend. I see you’ve been tweeting a lot again. It must be lonely inside the wall. But it doesn’t show outside your wall. Others can’t see it. The you who’s visible to those outside the wall is cruel, vengeful, because in the world outside your wall And you’ve shut down the government over the wall. What’s that about? Tell me about that.”
“I can’t sleep. The family’s gone to Florida. I’m alone here with no one but the maids, the cooks and the butlers. My mind won’t stop. I watch television to settle down but now it only makes things worse. Even my favorite network may be turning on me.”
“What brings you here? It’s 3:30 A.M.
“I don’t know.” The table lamp flickers.
“Feels pretty dark, doesn’t it?”
“Very dark. Very dark! The darkest ever!”
“Why is that?”
The visitor lowers his head, like a child confessing to his parents. “I have all the power in the world but I’m helpless to help myself. I can’t stop tweeting. It’s like it’s not real. I could destroy the world with the push of a button. I’ve shut down the government. The power scares me. And there are all these investigations. My mind never stops. I can’t sleep.”
The tenement dweller in the small folding wood chair sits quietly in the hush that comes when truth has been spoken. His eyes are full of compassion for the homeless man who had opted for the big red leather wingback. The visitor has regressed since their last conversation. His need for self-assurance has grown worse. The walls have gone up.
“Remember our last visit, Donald? Your disguise is not a disguise. You’re hiding something. Do you ever watch ‘Ray Donovan‘?
“No. Why? Who’s Ray Donovan?”
“Ray’s’a fixer’, like Michael, but that’s not why I asked. Ray’s a lot like you, Donald. Ray’s running from what was done to him in childhood. He was molested by the man he trusted. His parish priest. He’s not been the same since. Ray built a wall around his heart. He’s cruel. He’s heartless. But inside the wall? He’s very tender, Donald. He’s homeless within his own wall. You can’t live inside the wall.”
From his small, wood chair, the tenement dweller reaches out his hand. They share a long silence before the host put Donald’s heavy coat back on his shoulders. In the pre-dawn darkness, the disguised night visitor returns to his homeless place on Pennsylvania Avenue. He hears singing from the street below.
“Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling— Calling for you and for me; Patiently Jesus is waiting and watching— Watching for you and for me!
“Come home! come home! Ye who are weary, come home! Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling, Calling, O sinner, come home!” — Will Lamartine Thompson (1847-1909)
The tenement dweller smiles at the sound, but h knows it won’t be long before he comes back.
Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall” springs up over morning coffee in winter time. It’s white outside, dark, and cold. I think of “Mending Wall” where, after a hard winter, two neighbors repair the gaps in the stone wall between the pine side and the apple orchard side of the wall.
There where it is we do not need the wall: He is all pine and I am apple orchard. My apple trees will never get across And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him. He only says, "Good fences make good neighbours." Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder If I could put a notion in his head: "Why do they make good neighbours? Isn't it Where there are cows? But here there are no cows. Before I built a wall I'd ask to know What I was walling in or walling out, And to whom I was like to give offence. Something there is that doesn't love a wall, That wants it down." -- Robert Frost, "Mending Wall" lines 24-37
From the pine side of the wall, Christmas Eve, 2018:
"I am all alone (poor me) in the White House waiting for the Democrats to come back and make a deal on desperately needed Border Security,"
The Word that cannot be domesticated keeps showing up in the strangest places, even where the culture has turned the crucified Jesus into a plastic babe in a manger. Or Santa Claus, at whose coming “there arose such a clatter . . . .” (A Visit from Saint Nicholas). But sometimes the Word that makes such a clatter comes from a pulpit, as it did this Christmas Eve where two unexpected visitors came to kneel before the manger at the National Cathedral (Episcopal) in Washington, D.C.
No more let sins and sorrows grow, Nor thorns infest the ground; He comes to make His blessings flow Far as the curse is found, Far as the curse is found, Far as, far as, the curse is found.
He rules the world with truth and grace, And makes the nations prove The glories of His righteousness, And wonders of His love, And wonders of His love, And wonders, wonders, of His love. – Joy to the World.
Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night,
— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, December 26, 2018.
Tell out, my soul, the greatness of His might! Powers and dominions lay their glory by; Proud hearts and stubborn wills are put to flight; The hungry fed, the humble lifted high.
“Tell Out My Soul” rang out across the world yesterday, the last Sunday of Advent and the first Sunday of the government shut-down in the USA. The third stanza (above) expresses a timeless and timely hope.
In the immortal words of Timothy Cratchet (Tiny Tim) to Ebenezer Scrooge’s “Bah, humbug!” (A Christmas Carol): “God bless us, every one!”
Recalling Steve Shoemaker’s post “A Song for Each Kind of Day” after returning to the habit of reading the Psalms each morning, I am stunned by the aptness of the Psalm for today.
The Psalms are existential in nature. They are profoundly personal, but they also address public life. They give voice to the heart’s desire in a given time and place — our thanksgivings, yearning, exultations, lamentations, and cries against injustice. Often they are the poet’s responses to public life in the light of faith.
THAT’S NOT NICE!
why do you boast of wickedness
against the godly all day long?
You plot ruin;
Your tongue is like a sharpened razor,
O worker of deception.
You love evil more than good
and lying more than speaking the truth.
You love all words that hurt,
O you deceitful tongue.
Oh that God would demolish you utterly,
topple you, and snatch you from your dwelling,
and root you out of the land of the living!
The righteous shall see and tremble,
and they shall laugh at him, saying,
“This is the one who did not take God for a refuge,
but trusted in great wealth
and relied upon wickedness.”
Psalm 52:1-7 (Book of Common Prayer)
Psalm 52 isn’t nice. The psalmist knew nothing of Watergate or the Mueller investigation, or Donald J. Trump. Nor was he imbued with an ethic that told him not to judge, to be kind, to watch his tongue, to believe that all’s right with the world because God’s in His heaven or the claim everything happens for a reason.The psalmist is not a fatalist or a determinist. He holds sacred his personal responsibilty for public life. His life is not his own. He knows himself to be a member of a commonwealth. When the integrity of the commonwealth comes under threat, his heart must speak.
BREAKFAST WITH A PSALMIST
Former U.S. Attorney General Elliot Richardson is remembered for “the Saturday Night Massacre” when he resigned his office, refusing to obey President Richard Nixon’s order to fire Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox.
Years later, Elliot Richardson came to Minneapolis as the featured speaker at the Westminster Town Hall Forum. As was the custom, he moderator and the guest speaker enjoyed conversation over breakfast the morning of the Forum. At his initiation, the convsersation turned to religion. He was writing a book, occasioned in part by the growing public agreement with John Lennon’s “Imagine There’s No Religion,” arguing that, if the slate of human history were wiped clean of religion, we would re-create it in a heartbeat because it’s in our nature. Searching Amazon’s listing of Richardson’s books, it appears it was never published. If we had the opportunity again all these years later, I would ask him if he had crawled inside Psalm 52 before he took the leap of faith that made him a hero of personal conscience and public intergrity.
ONLY A POEM (A PSALM)
Some things are matters of the heart. Some things in public life pierce the heart so deepLy; some sins against the commonwealth are so egregious; some wealth is so obscene; some abuses of power against the commonwealth so obvious, that only a poem (a psalm) says what we feel. There is a psalm for this kind of day.
I’ve never been a big fan of habits. In spite of what Octavia Butler believes — “Habit will sustain you, whether inspired or not” — I have scorned habits in favor of a more creative, spontaneous, non-habitual life. But this morning I came to my senses. I’ve not been inspired, and I’ve gotten out of a habit that sometimes brings inspiration.
I’ve felt like the psalmist . . .or like poor little Elijah just 24 hours ago when he couldn’t keep anything down. Not even the Gatorade. When a joyful 19 month-old child gets sick, he doesn’t know what hit him. Sometimes his 76 year-old grandfather doesn’t know either.
Some viruses can’t be seen under a microscope. Some illnesses require more than an Internist’s diagnosis. Their origins defy medical explanation and resist our usual remedies: a stiff drink, an anti-depressant, vitamin and mineral supplements, exercise, or a change of diet. Which is where habits come in.
It’s been weeks since I got out of the habit of morning prayer. Flailing about at four o’clock this morning, I remember the line from Chaim Potok’s The Chosen: it’s the four-o’clock-in-the-morning questions that trouble us over a lifetime. I’ve gotten out of the habit of greeting the day with readings from the Book of Common Prayer (BCP), spending a quiet time pondering the psalms and other readings assigned by a calendarprescribed by doctors of the soul. I need to return to a healthy diet.
My best friend is hospitalized, awaiting surgery required by complications from pancreatic cancer. His time is limited. So is mine. Fifty-four years of friendship soon to vanish like the morning mist. Whatever happens today on the operating table, it won’t be long before one of us is gone. I open the BCP. “What profit is there in my blood, if I go down to the Pit? Will the dust praise you or declare your faithfulness? Hear, O LORD, and have mercy upon me; O LORD, be my helper,” cries the psalmist (Psalm 30:10-11, BCP), recognizing that there is no quick fix for what ails him.
My friend knows this feeling. He also has a habit that serves him well when the raindrops keep falling on his head. When the four-o’clock-in-the-morning clouds and torrential rains come over him, he turns, as do I this morning, to that which he has not made up, and crawls inside the psalmist’s faith that “weeping may spend the night, but joy comes in the morning” (Ps. 30:6, BCP).
Returning to the habit I’d neglected, I read the psalm again and pray for my friend. But I’m not seeing my friend. I’m seeing someone else. I’m looking at Elijah. He has crawled inside his mother’s watchful care…in the bathtub. He is smiling, playing, and splashing the bath water with no hint of memory of last night when he couldn’t even keep down the Gatorade.
“You have turned my wailing into dancing; you have put off my sack-cloth and clothed me with joy. Therefore my heart sings to you without ceasing; O LORD my God, I will give you thanks for ever” (Ps. 30:12-13. BCW).
— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, December 15, 2018.
Watching the first episode of Showtime’s new series Escape at Dannemora was a de ja vu experience. The small town of Dannemora, tucked away in the far northeast corner of New York State, had been invisible to the public eye until June 6, 2015 when two inmates escaped from the town’s principal employer, the state penitentiary, Clinton Correctional Facility.
Clinton Correctional Facility, Dannamora, NY
How I learned of Martin Sostre
It was during the weekly Wednesday evening programs and visits with inmates at Dannemora that I learned about the case of Martin Gonzalez Sostre. Martin, who had owned and operated a radical black liberation bookstore in Buffalo, NY, insisted on his innocence, claiming he was a prisoner of conscience framed by a police set-up. Before his transfer to Dannemora from Attica, Martin he had filed and won the human rights court case — Sostre v. Rockefeller — that ruled against the routine practice of rectal searches following prisoner visitations with family and friends. Transferred from Attica to “New York’s Siberia” Dannemora, Martin continued to refuse all visitations. He was held in solitary confinement without access to anyone beyond the prison walls. A campaign for Martin’s release and pardon was happening without the benefit of direct access to Martin.
Martin Sostre and the Book of Revelation
No book of Christian scripture is more egregiously abused than the last book in the New Testament. The Apocalypse of John (Book of Revelation) is read as though it were a palm reader or a crystal ball. It wasn’t. Its author was a prisoner of conscience held by the Roman Empire on the Isle of Patmos. It was then, and is now, a work of social criticism expressed in the strange apocalyptic literary genre of its time. It’s not about the future. It’s about now.
The new series on the escape from Dannemora takes me back to my time with the inmates and guards within the prison walls, and the published sermon that came from that experience. Below are excerpts from the sermon at the Gunnison Memorial Chapel of St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York inspired by a prisoner of conscience named Martin Sostre and a fresh reading of The Book of Revelation through the eyes of the oppressed. The sermon “Worship and Resistance: the Exercise of Freedom,” was published soon after by The Christian Century (March, 1974).
“Worship and Resistance” links the case of Martin Gonzalez Sostre’s imprisonment in solitary confinement at Clinton Correctional Facility with the witness of faith by the prisoner of conscience in his own kind of solitary confinement on the Isle of Patmos. Dannemora is its own kind of island, known by inmates across the State of New York Correctional System, as “New York’s Siberia” — “the Hell Hole” of the New York prison system.
Excerpts from “Worship and Resistance: The Exercise of Freedom”
“Incarcerated on the Aegean Island of Patmos, a penal settlement of the Roman Empire in the first century A.D., was a political prisoner named John. He wrote a political-religious manifesto declaring open resistance to the Roman Empire. The Revelation to John – the Apocalypse, the last book of the Bible – is the earliest extant Christian tract deliberately and openly directed against the pretensions of the world’s greatest power. In the Revelation to John, resistance to Roman power and authority is so inextricably bound together with worship of God that they constitute two sides of the same coin. Worship and resistance are the twin sides of faith’s freedom to celebrate God’s gift of life. The unity of resistance and worship is expressed with notable clarity in the passage where the fall of mighty Babylon occasions a celebration in heaven. The destruction of Babylon is joined to the salvation of the world itself and is the sign of God’s power and righteous rule over the nations. Only those who profit by Babylon’s wealth, power and injustice have reason to mourn her fall, while those who have ‘come out of her’ – who have disentangled themselves from her oppression, corruption and imperial claims – have cause to worship and sing joyful hymns of praise.”
“Babylon is the state or nation in its presumption to be God. Babylon is any state, nation, or constellation of principalities and powers, which attempts to rule as final judge of persons and nations. Babylon is any such power – in any time or place – which makes its people subjects, calling them into idolatry of the nations, and any state or nation that persecutes its prophets of righteousness, peace and justice while rewarding the aggressive supporters and the silent ones who acquiesce. America is Babylon.” –William Stringfellow, An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land.
“Envision once more a visit to Clinton Correctional Facility. Remember the disorienting sensation of having left everything familiar on the other side of the wall, the feeling of walking out of a real world into a nightmare, the shock induced by the size of the walls and the presence of the guards – strange and terrifying.
“But the closer one gets to the prison reality, the more one comes to realize that it is not so strange, that it is simply a more exaggerated and visible form of our own everyday reality in the face of death. Here on the outside, the walls are not visible, but they are much higher. Out here the guards do not stand poised with machine guns, but they are real and far more powerful – the guards our own fears provide.”
“Then I heard another voice from heaven saying, ‘Come out of her, my people, lest you take part in her sins…’” (Rev. 18:4 RSV).
Meeting Martin Face-to-Face
Martin Gonzalez Sostre
Sometime following the sermon at Gunnison Memorial Chapel, a Dannemora guard informed us during the Wednesday visits with prisoners that Martin had been transferred temporarily to the Federal Detention Center in lower Manhattan, NYC, as a witness in someone else’s trial. Unlike the state system, there are no body searches after visitations in the federal system. Martin would be free to accept visitors.
As a “man of the cloth” it fell to me to attempt a face-to-face visit on behalf of the committee working for Martin’s release. I drove the eight hours to lower Manhattan, put on my clerical collar and presented myself to the kindly woman at the Detention Center reception desk as Martin’s pastor, hoping that 1) the prison officials would be unaware that Martin was not a Christian, and 2) Martin himself would accept the visitation from a complete stranger who claimed to be his pastor. A description of the experience just before the face-to-face visit appeared previously on Views from the Edge. Click “Robert” Who? for that part of the story.
The Release of Martin Sostre
In December 1973 Amnesty International put Sostre on its “prisoner of conscience” list, stating: “We became convinced that Martin Sostre has been the victim of an international miscarriage of justice because of his political beliefs . . . not for his crimes.” In addition to numerous defense committees in New York State, a Committee to Free Martin Sostre, made up of prominent citizens, joined in an effort to publicize Sostre’s case and petition the New York Governor Hugh Carey for his release. On December 7, 1975, Russian Nobel Peace Laureate Andrei Sakharov added his name to the clemency appeal. Governor Carey granted Sostre clemency on Christmas Eve of 1975; Sostre was released from prison in February 1976. Governor Carey eventually issued a pardon. — Wikipedia.
Worship and resistance are two sides of the same coin.
Robert Mueller III’s and the Southern District of New York’s court filings, and the President’s response, confirm that “Individual-1” never should have been administered the oath of office “to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States of America.”
The people around the Oval Office are the only brakes on the man who, like Chauncey (“Chance”) Gardner, played by Peter Sellers, in the humorous film Being There, spends his days watching his favorite television shows, doesn’t read, and reduces complexity to the simplest of terms.
Ron Steigler: Mr. Gardner, uh, my editors and I have been wondering if you would consider writing a book for us, something about your um, political philosophy, what do you say?
Chance: I can’t write.
Ron Steigler: Heh, heh, of course not, who can nowadays? Listen, I have trouble writing a postcard to my children. Look uhh, we can give you a six figure advance, I’ll provide you with the very best ghost-writer, proof-readers…
Chance: I can’t read.
Ron Steigler: Of course you can’t! No one has the time! We, we glance at things, we watch television…
Chance: I like to watch TV.
Ron Steigler: Oh, oh, oh sure you do. No one reads!
MY SON’S QUESTION
Soon after my young son learned to read, he asked a philosophical question: “What’s time?” “Time is what we have” was the best I could do. The other day a photograph of an ill-cared for, deteriorating church with a clock that still works led me back to Douglas’s question. I’m older now. Not wise. Just older. But I tell myself that length of years sometimes brings us closer to the outskirts of wisdom than when our years were few and our days seemed longer.At my age, when speed and virtual reality fill our lives, I would add an addendum: “Time is what we have but refuse to recognize.”
A MATTER OF PERSPECTIVE
In Being There, Louise, who has raised Chance from early childhood, is watching Chance on television with other poor black seniors.
Louise: “It’s for sure a white man’s world in America. Look here: I raised that boy since he was the size of a piss-ant. And I’ll say right now, he never learned to read and write. No, sir. Had no brains at all. Was stuffed with rice pudding between th’ ears. Shortchanged by the Lord, and dumb as a jackass. Look at him now! Yes, sir, all you’ve gotta be is white in America, to get whatever you want. Gobbledy-gook!”
Chance and Donald are a lot alike. Neither reads. Both watch television all day. Both are white. Both are stuffed with rice pudding between their ears. Both speak gobbeldy-gook. Yet they are also very different. One strikes us as funny. The other does not. One is a pure soul. The other is cunning. One is entertaining. The other is dangerous.
IT’S ABOUT TIME!
It’s time to recognize what time it is. Time for Congress to speak aloud the real name of Individual-1.Time to act on the sworn testimonies of Michael Flynn, Michael Cohen, Manafort, et. al. alleging behavior that “subverts and attacks the Constitution of the United States of America.” Time to care for, and restore, the deteriorating rule of law under the Constitution.
I’d never heard of Pico Iyer or his views on the urgency of slowing down, and I’ve only traveled to Japan in my imagination while listening to Dave Brubeck’sKyoto Song. But I like how Pico thinks.
“I can soon begin to tell the time by how the light is slanting off our walls at sunrise and when the darkness falls” describes what happens in the cabin next to the wetland in Minnesota. Like Pico in Kyoto, I become more essentially human in the midst of real time.
Yes, and I think we all know that sensation. We have more and more time-saving devices but less and less time, it seems to us. When I was a boy, the sense of luxury had to do with a lot of space, maybe having a big house or a huge car. Now I think luxury has to do with having a lot of time. The ultimate luxury now might be just a blank space in the calendar. And interestingly enough, that’s what we crave, I think, so many of us.
When I moved from New York City to rural Japan — after my year in Kyoto, I essentially moved to a two-room apartment, which is where I still live with my wife and, formerly, our two kids. We don’t have a car or a bicycle or a T.V. I can understand. It’s very simple, but it feels very luxurious. One…
Most every day I get up around 4:30, go downstairs, brew a pot of coffee, and begin to percolate. The percolations always sound about the same. With one difference. Coffee doesn’t stew. I do.
Looking in from the outside, you might say “You can take a man out of the pulpit, but you can’t take the pulpit out of the man,” and you would be partly right. But I have no desire to stand in a pulpit. I loved the early mornings when a sermon began to percolate — pausing over a biblical text while world events swirled around my head. I still do. You can’t take that part of the pulpit out of the man.
SWIRLING AND STEWING
The world is always swirling, but these days the swirling feels different. More like a tornado. I go to bed with the news storming in my head and I get up early with it still swirling. But, no matter how ominous the news is, I know I can always take time out to get a better grip, to settle the spinning, to go into the eye of the storm I have become.
Some mornings, it’s a word that pops up to hold my attention. Yesterday it was two words: serpents and doves. This morning there are three: serpents, doves, and a fox. Stay with me. Views from the Edge is my pulpit in retirement; it’s my pulpit, and I’ll cry if I want to! But this morning the words don’t lead me to cry. They inspire hope and define the way forward.
It began yesterday with serpents and doves. “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves,” says Jesus to his disciples.
“WISE AS SERPENTS”?
Get yourselves educated. Become intimately familiar with the world you’re walking into. Be wise to the culture of cunning.”
“INNOCENT AS DOVES”?
Become like the dove that brings the olive branch back to the ark; work on whatever is not peaceful in your own hearts.”
Then this morning, along came the fox. “Go and tell that fox. . . ,” says Jesus to those who have come to warn him.
“GO AND TELL THAT FOX”?
It’s not quite what it seems. The word is hard to render in English. In the culture of the times, it was a derogatory term, a slap in the face, according to biblical linguist Randall Both. Sort of like ‘pipsqueak’. Or small-fry, usurper, poser, clown, insignificant person, cream puff, nobody, weasel, jackass, tin soldier, peon, hick, pompous pretender, jerk, upstart.
The ‘fox’ is Herod Antipas, the despised tetrarch, a Jewish national who feathered his own nest, a turncoat who served at the pleasure of the Roman Emperor Tiberias. He had ingratiated himself to Tiberias by changing the name of the Sea of Galilee to the Lake of Tiberias and by building a new city with a lush vacation palace on the site of a Jewish cemetery. Herod was a turncoat to his faith and his country. Herod was a usurper.
“Go tell that fox, ‘I will keep on driving out demons and healing people today and tomorrow . . . .”
“DEMONS AND HEALING”?
The ‘demons’ in the New Testament are not creepy little creatures, although they are creepy. They are twisters of goodness and truth, liars and tricksters who take possession of a person or a society. Sometimes they hold power and authority, building palatial palaces and private clubs, ingratiating themselves to a foreign power by changing the name and language of a local treasure. The demons make us sick. Healing comes as a result of throwing out the demons to end the demonic occupation. Driving out demons and healing is the continuing work of the community gathered around Jesus.
Like I said, you can take the man out of the pulpit, but you can’t take the pulpit out of the man. Sometimes in the storm that is America today, a word pops up and percolates with the coffee: serpents, doves, and foxes. Five minutes before going back upstairs for my afternoon nap, I hear the words with which Jesus often ended an obscure parable:
“Let those with ears hear.” Хорошего дня.
–Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, November 30, 2018.
And so it came to pass in the third century of a democratic republic that the Wise Men returned to the countries from which they had come. Their sudden departure came the same way they had come: they had seen a star rising in the West.
The original star that invited them to follow it was a sign of great promise. It was a lofty promise — a bright star in a dark sky — beckoning them to go and see this great thing that had come to pass. Leaving behind their camels, they boarded ship with only a trace of frankincense, gold, myrrh, and a translator, and followed the star to a foreign continent.
Having braved the high seas, they saw a statue over which the star stood still. A torch held high in the Lady’s hand burned as brightly as the star that shone above her, and a plaque was there they could not read. “Send these . . . tempest-tossed to me,” read the translater, “I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” And, hearing the words of welcome . . . they opened their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh and with exceeding great joy set foot upon the land and settled there.
There would be times when the Wise Men and their descendants continued to see the star shining still above the Lady of welcome, and times when the star was covered by clouds and the Lady stood battered by storms, but the flame seemed eternal.
Then, suddenly, in the third century of their sojourn, the different kind of star appeared — an entertainer who scoffed at the modest amounts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh which the tempest-tossed Wise Men had presented the Lady to whom the star had led them. And so it came to pass in the republic’s third century that the Wise Men’s descendants boarded ship for the East, escaping the new star who was wrestling babies from their parents’ arms, extinguishing the torch over which the star once had stood, and replacing the plaque at the foot of the Lady with a new message:
“Go home! There’s no room for you in this inn.”
— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, November 29, 2018
Thanksgiving 2018 arrives as a welcome interruption. It invites us into a sacred pause in this time and place of national division. One place to pause is the story of Jacob wrestling with God, the Nameless Presence (Genesis ), and the song “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder.” The Genesis story is Jacob’s dream the night before he would come face-to-face with the estranged brother he had every reason to fear. After many years of separation, Jacob is about to face the brother he had tricked and had stolen Esau’s right to the family inheritance. Jacob does not want to meet his brother. Neither do we Americans who will sit down to a turkey dinner with family members on the other side of the political fence from us. Discussion of Jacob’s Ladder might bring an insightful Thanksgiving 2018 around the tables where Donald Trump is the turkey the family is afraid to carve .
The origins of “Jacob’s Ladder”origins — African slaves singing in the cotton fields under the plantation owner’s nose — gives a different meaning to the song. Jacob’s Ladder and the biblical text from which it comes represent a great reversal in human consciousness. After Jacob was defeated by the Nameless Presence, his spirituality took a 180 degree turn. “Surely God was in thisplace, and I did not know it!” His encounter wth his estranged brother turns the tables from fear and the rule of violence to the unexpected gift of reconciling love.
As our way of offering Thanksgiving greetings, we share John Buchanan’s “Gratitude Doubled” reflection on becoming a great-grandfather of new-born twins in an incubator.
This Thanksgiving also marks the 18-month anniversary of grandson Elijah’s birth. Great-grandfather joy will have to wait a few years, but the sense of life as John speaks of it is immediate. Wishing you a grateful Thanksgiving.
Yesterday I experienced the most unlikely, most wonderful thing that has ever happened. I carefully extended my sanitized hand through the small, round opening in the incubator and, with my forefinger, gently touched the cheek of my brand new great-granddaughter, just 18 hours old. And then I did it again, reached through the small, round opening and touched the cheek of her identical twin sister, my second great-granddaughter.
I never thought much about great-grandparenthood. No one did. My great-grandparents were long gone when I was born and I have only vague memories of my parents talking about them, their grandparents. They were remote, to say the least.
But now, I am one, a great-grandfather and my new status has set me to ruminating – on, among other things, my own age. Unlike my great-grandparents, I’m still here, alive, well and reasonably active and healthy. And – I have seen and…
Over coffee at Starbucks following the 2018 American mid-term election, a psychiatrist observed an epidemic of stress among his patients, regardless of their political leanings. They’re like inexperienced swimmers doing the doggie paddle in a tsunami.
The tension, the angry tone, the incivility, the name-calling, the smirks, the mocking impersonations, the barrage of lies and twisted truth are leading many of us to Sigmund or Anna Freud’s couch. Or to a fifth. Or pills. And to acts of verbal or physical violence of our own. We’re brawling in America and we wonder how we got here.
Sigmund and Anna Freud, Carl Jung, Alfred Adler and today’s practitioners of therapy know something about stress. So do the wisdom traditions of religion — the Tao that bridges the differences that divide us. It is this deeper sense of the Tao that is the source of human goodness. The Tao (Way) of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism guides individuals, cultures, and nations to flourish across all the walls we erect to separate us from each other.
In his The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis, to whom Ross Wilson‘s statue pays tribute, wrote that without the perspective of the Tao, which calls us to something more than brute emotion, “…the world of facts, without one trace of value, and the world of feelings without one trace of truth or falsehood, justice or injustice, confront one another, and no rapprochement is possible.”
Today in America, emotions are displacing the Tao. Narcissim and nihilism increasingly divide us into what Lewis called “trousered apes” and “urbane blockheads” who call each other names from different sides of a dividing wall. Like Lewis in his time and place, public philosopher-theologian Cornel West identifies nihilism as the plague let loose in America in his book Race Matters. “Nihilism is a natural consequence of a culture (or civilization) ruled and regulated by categories that mask manipulation, mastery and domination of peoples and nature.
Cornel West photo by Gage Skidmore
“We need … the courage to be impatient with evil and patient with people, the courage to fight for social justice. In many instances we will be stepping out on nothing, and just hoping to land on something. But that’s the struggle. To live is to wrestle with despair, yet never allow despair to have the last word.”
When the common ground binding a society together is shopping, we step out on nothing, just hoping to land on something. Everything is up for grabs. A culture which turns its back on a spiritual-moral compass we didn’t make up, and that connects us to something greater than oneself, soon leaves its people flailing in an emotional and cognitive tusanami.
“We [America]are at a crucial crossroad in the history of this nation–and we either hang together by combating these forces that divide and degrade us or we hang separately,” says West. “Do we have the intelligence, humor, imagination, courage, tolerance, love, respect, and will to meet the challenge? Time will tell. None of us alone can save the nation or world. But each of us can make a positive difference if we commit ourselves to do so.”
The therapist’s couch in my friend’s office will never be empty. Some stress is part of life. But is it too much to hope that his clients may go there in sesarch of the Tao hidden beneath the false choice of being a trousered ape or an urbane blockhead, less patient with evil and more patient with people to meet the challenge of our time?
I’m concerned for the country. I’m also worried about you. The two go hand-in-hand, yet they are not the same. Though we have never met, we share something: we were baptized in Presbyterian churches. Neither of us can remember that moment. We were infants. We had no choice.
Because we do have a choice now, I write to share with you the story of another person who, unlike us, was old enough to choose.
Kosuke Koyama was 15 years old at the time. Japan was his country. Tokyo was his home. The United Church of Japan was his church family. The scene of his baptism could not be more different from ours. It was 1945 during the American fire bombing of Tokyo. The worshipers could hear the bombs exploding all around the church. Through the windows they could see the flames.
His pastor gently took Koyama’s face in his hands, looked him in the eye, and charged him with words that succinctly say what baptism into Christ means:”Kosuke, you are a disciple of Jesus Christ. You must love your enemies. Even the Americans.” It was a defining moment for the rest of Kosuke’s life.
Kosuke Koyama (1929-2018 “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Mt. 25:23) RIP
Through the eyes of faith, Koyama later plumbed the depths of that moment, and came to a deeper understanding of what had happened to his native country. Japan had come to regard itself as exceptional — a singularly superior nation and culture. Japan had made itself into its own house god. It had twisted love of country (patriotism) into nationalism, and nationalism gave license for imperialist adventures that led to unimaginably horrific consequences. In 1967 the United Church of Japan issued a Confession of Responsibility During World War II as a way of restoring the church’s integrity.
Kosuke Koyama died in 2009 after a distinguished professional career that officially ended with his retirement from the John D. Rockefeller Chair of World Religion at Union Theological Seminary in your home city. Robert McAfee Brown, who wrote the book you and I were assigned to read in confirmation class, The Bible Speaks to You, was Koyama’s faculty colleague. During his 14 years at Union Seminary, and following his retirement, Dr. Koyama created a legacy that lives on in his books (Water Buffalo Theology, Mount Fuji and Most Sinai, No Handle on the Cross, and others) and in the lives of those he influenced by his teaching and humble character.
World War I Centenary, Paris, France, Nov. 11, 2018
Today you call yourself a nationalist. You have embraced the great sin that Kosuke came to see so clearly in his native country. Watching you at the Arc de Triomphe last week for the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I, I saw you through Koyama’s lens of faith. You sat among the company of other world leaders, but you looked very alone. Sitting very nervously away from the spotlight, you waved back to someone, as if to assure yourself of your importance. I saw a very lonely man without the company of friends and allies. In that moment, I felt a bit of sympathy for you. I wished you could slip away to a nearby cafe where we could talk, just the two of us as pastor and president.
Then I heard the President of France, Emmanuel Macron, step to the podium to issue a rebuke to nationalism as “a betrayal of patriotism” that eliminates what makes a nation great: its moral compass. While my heart leaped for joy, I wondered what you were feeling and thinking all alone there in Paris.
Patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism. Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism. By saying “our interests first, who cares about the others,” we erase what a nation holds dearest, what gives it life, what makes it great and what is essential: its moral values. I know there are old demons which are coming back to the surface. They are ready to wreak chaos and death. History sometimes threatens to take its sinister course once again.
I thought again of Koyama and wondered whether it would have made a difference if your pastor had baptized you during a bombing raid when you were old enough to choose, looked you in the eye, and said, “Donald, you are a disciple of Jesus Christ. You must love your enemies [and friends], even the French.” New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, a short walk from the White House. It was President Abraham Lincoln’s home church during his presidency. Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln worshiped there to hear a word from a free pulpit which they knew they could not command. It could become a home for you, Melania, and Baron, too.
I will pray for you. I will love our country. But I will not worship it. Neither should you.
Gordon C. Stewart
Retired Minister (HR), Presbyterian Church (USA), Chaska, MN
Je suis Français! Remember when Je suis Français (I am French) was everywhere on Facebook? That was three years ago after the November 13, 2015 terrorist attack in Paris. Americans identified with the French. Yesterday I felt like that again.
Marking the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I — “the War to End all Wars” — at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, French President Emmanuel Macron spoke of the chaos and death unleashed by nationalism. Here’s an English translation of an excerpt:
Patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism. Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism. By saying “our interests first, who cares about the others,” we erase what a nation holds dearest, what gives it life, what makes it great and what is essential: its moral values. I know there are old demons which are coming back to the surface. They are ready to wreak chaos and death. History sometimes threatens to take its sinister course once again.
One need not be French to applaud Mr. Macron’s statement. Days before the national election in America, I wrote a piece on nationalism as the rising god of our time. A wise friend advised against publishing it. He likely was right at the time. But Mr. Macron’s words at the Arc de Triomphe lead me to share a bit of what has been burdening my conscience.
Those of you who have followed Views from the Edge know how I see the world through the lens of faith. Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017, Wipf & Stock) is dedicated to Japanese theologian Kosuka Koyama. “There is only one sin,” he said during a casual lunch. “Exceptionalism.” Born in 1929, Koyama had grown up with the myth of Japanese exceptionalism. The emperor could do no wrong. Japan had become its own god. Ko saw the same myth rising in America where he had settled with his his wife, Lois, a native Minnesotan.
Paul Tillich observed that whatever is one’s “ultimately concern” is a person’s or nation’s god. Tillich was one of earliest critics of the rising god of German nationalism that led to World War II and the Holocaust. Dismissed from his professorship at the University of Frankfurt i 1933, Paul Tillich, like Koyama, was invited to join the faculty of Union Theological Seminary in New York. It was Reinhold Niebuhr of Moral Man and Immoral Society who paved the way for Tillich, and later, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, to join the theological work of the academy on American soil.
My Christian understanding of faith and life is rooted in Niebuhr, Tillich, Bonhoeffer, Bonhoeffer’s friend Paul Lehmann, and Koyama. Only Koyama lived long enough to observe the old dead god rising to life again on American soil. All of them would have applauded Mr. Macron’s statement that nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism. “History sometimes threatens to take its sinister course again.”
To be human is by nature to be anxious. We know we are not God. We are mortal. Our time is mortal. “Time, like an ever-flowing stream, Soon bears us all away. We fly forgotten as a dream Dies at the opening day.” People who profess faith in the tradition of Abraham — Jews, Christians, Muslims — understand how quickly we turn to the “other gods” for our identity and security.
Rembrandt’s painting of Moses crashing the Ten Commandments
“I am the LORD your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage,” says the First Commandment. “You shall have no other gods before Me” (Exodus 20:2-3).
The “house of bondage” is not limited to geography or time. It is any nation that exalts itself as exceptional, any nation that practices hardness of heart to the foreigner, the alien, and sojourner. The First Commandment identifies “the house of bondage” as a god from which the LORD God of heaven and earth sets a person, a nation, and a planet, free.
I am an American. I love my country. But I don’t worship it. Today I say, again, “Je suis Français!”
— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, November 12, 2018
I remember standing with my classmates at Marple Elementary School for a period of silence on November 11. It was Armistice Day, the anniversary of the end of World War I.
Observing the silence was hard! It wasn’t happy; it was sad. It was an enforced unhappy silence to remember what none of us kids wanted to remember: those who had died in an antique time in service to their country, and the horrors of war itself. I must have wondered why our teachers would enforce a sad silence that made us unhappy. In 1954 Armistice Day became Veterans Day in America. (Click HERE for information about the change.)In Canada, Europe, Great Britain, and Australia, November 11 is called Remembrance Day.
On Remembrance Day I was at home listening to the radio . . . when the time came for the Two Minutes Silence. Suddenly the radio itself went quiet. I had not moved to turn the dial or adjust the volume. There was something extraordinarily powerful about that deep silence from a ‘live’ radio, a sense that, alone in my kitchen, I was sharing the silence with millions. I stood for the two minutes, and then, suddenly, swiftly, almost involuntarily, wrote this sonnet. You can hear the sonnet, as I recorded it on November 11th three years ago, minutes after having composed it, by clicking . . . clicking on the title.
November pierces with its bleak remembrance
Of all the bitterness and waste of war.
Our silence tries but fails to make a semblance
Of that lost peace they thought worth fighting for.
Our silence seethes instead with wraiths and whispers,
And all the restless rumour of new wars,
The shells are falling all around our vespers,
No moment is unscarred, there is no pause,
In every instant bloodied innocence
Falls to the weary earth, and whilst we stand
Quiescence ends again in acquiescence,
And Abel’s blood still cries in every land
One silence only might redeem that blood
Only the silence of a dying God.
William Blake painting of “Cain fleeing from the wrath of God “as Adam and Eve look on in horror following the fratricide.
All these years later, I still struggle with silence on November 11, and on days like yesterday, the 80th anniversary of The Night of Broken Glass (Kristallnacht). Yet, as a person of faith who knows darkness as well as light, I have learned over the years to silence the radio for an unenforced Two Minute Silence.
Abel’s blood still cries in every land
One silence only might redeem that blood
Only the silence of a dying God
— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, November 11, 2018.
Photo from Magdeburg, Germany, Nov. 9-10, 1938, Kristallnacht (The Night of Broken Glass)
Today marks the 80th anniversary of The Night of Broken Glass (Kristallnacht).
The smiling man and woman in the photo are strolling past the broken glass of raided shops of the Jewish shopkeepers in the otherwise tranquil city of Magdeburg, Germany. The passers-by likely have never heard of Mechtild of Magdeburg, the 13th Century mystic beguine who had declared that “No one can burn the truth,” nor had they heard the screams or seen the tears of the shopkeepers or synagogue worshipers. Those screams are silent now. (Scroll down for information on Krystallnacht, The Night of Broken Glass.)
Like the synagogues of Germany, Austria, and the Sudetenland, the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh had been a quiet place. The sound of broken glass were heard only during from the traditional breaking of a glass at Jewish weddings. Tree of Life was a sacred place of worship. But the memory of Kristallnacht and the long history of anti-Semitic pograms were, and are, never far away.
The 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht deserves greater attention in the U.S.A. this year when the evil of white nationalism has shattered the glass of the ‘others’ in synagogues, churches, and public gathering places with the weapons of destruction. Today I hear the echoes from The Night of Broken Glass and see the faces of smiling passers-by. I stand still again in the face of evil and bow my knee before the Eternal Silence of the compassionate God we cannot kill.
Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, November 10, 2018.
U.S. Holocaust Museum account of Kristallnacht
On the night of November 9, 1938, violent anti-Jewish demonstrations broke out across Germany, Austria, and the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia. Nazi officials depicted the riots as justified reactions to the assassination of German foreign official Ernst vom Rath, who had been shot two days earlier by Herschel Grynszpan, a 17-year old Polish Jew distraught over the deportation of his family from Germany.
Over the next 48 hours, violent mobs, spurred by antisemitic exhortations from Nazi officials, destroyed hundreds of synagogues, burning or desecrating Jewish religious artifacts along the way. Acting on orders from Gestapo headquarters, police officers and firefighters did nothing to prevent the destruction. All told, approximately 7,500 Jewish-owned businesses, homes, and schools were plundered, and 91 Jews were murdered. An additional 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and sent to concentration camps. Nazi officials immediately claimed that the Jews themselves were to blame for the riots, and a fine of one billion reichsmarks (about $400 million at 1938 rates) was imposed on the German Jewish community.
The Nazis came to call the event Kristallnacht (“Crystal Night,” or, “The Night of Broken Glass”), referring to the thousands of shattered windows that littered the streets afterwards, but the euphemism does not convey the full brutality of the event. Kristallnacht was a turning point in the history of the Third Reich, marking the shift from antisemitic rhetoric and legislation to the violent, aggressive anti-Jewish measures that would culminate with the Holocaust.
Thomas Merton’s quotation on religion and privilege arrived following a national campaign with loud cheers and boisterous rallies that turn Christianity into white nationalism. “…Faith in God . . . becomes in fact faith in [one’s] own nation, class or race.”
“Of course, it is true that religion on a superficial level, religion that is untrue to itself and to God, easily comes to serve as the ‘opium of the people.’ And this takes place whenever religion and prayer invoke the name of God for reasons and ends that have nothing to do with him. When religion becomes a mere artificial facade to justify a social or economic system–when religion hands over its rites and language completely to the political propagandists, and when prayer becomes the vehicle for a purely secular ideological program, then religion does tend to become an opiate. It deadens the spirit enough to permit the substitution of a superficial fiction and mythology for this truth of life. And this brings about the alienation of the believer, so that his religious zeal becomes political fanaticism. His faith in God, while preserving its traditional formulas, becomes in fact faith…
Does anything seem strange about ‘caravan’ as the word to describe the migrants now moving on foot toward the United States’s southern border? ‘Caravan’ is the word used everywhere without a second thought.
Language matters. Words matter. “Language: A Mechanism of Social Control” — Newt Gingrich’s GOPAC tutorial for political candidates — knows this better than most. Words like ‘caravan’ have overtones and undertones. They allude to things that awaken hope or fear. There’s nothing like the warning of a caravan to awaken associations with Middle Easterners coming to our Southern border.
Have you ever heard of a Christian caravan? Or a Jewish caravan? Caravans in the American mind have nothing to do with the western hemisphere or western culture. Caravans belong to Persians (Iran) and the Arabs we have come to fear. No American fears a camel caravan! But we do remember the Crusades. We remember the waging of religious war between Christians and Muslims. We call to mind Al Qaida and the Islamic State (ISIS).
The linguistic manipulators of language use such emotive allusions as weapons in election campaigns and underscore the words by sending U.S. Army troops to the border — to keep us safe – to beat back the barbarian Middle Eastern terrorists from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador now walking slowly several hundred miles from the border in hopes of a better life. They know fear works. They know that threats to our freedom and national security will take our imaginations back in time to Arabian desert nomads whose camels carried them — fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, grandparents — from here to there without settling anywhere. They know we will think of a caravan as an army, not a caravan of nomads.
Language matters. Words matter. Don’t let the dispatch of troops to the Mexican border and the language of social control make fools of those who have never met a camel or walked on bandaged feet with bloodied hands pushing broken baby-strollers in hopes for as terror-less life. It’s not a caravan!
“Day of the Dead” – William Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905)
The death of 11 worshipers in the sacred space ofTree of Life in Pittsburgh is no longer the latest heinous act of gun violence in America. There is more to come in a country where the rhetoric of fear and hate divide us with lies and diatribes.
All Souls Day on the Christian calendar calls for deeper reflection about the living and the dead — not just some of us, but all of us: Jewish (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform); Muslim (Shia, Sunni, Sufi); Christian (Eastern Orthodox, Western Catholic, Protestant); Hindu, Buddhist, Jaianist, humanist, animist, agnostic, and atheist — all of us.
There is only one of us. Humankind. A species free to eat from the Tree of Life that blesses or the Tree of Death that turns us into twos and threes, this or that, with words and arms that send 11 Tree of Life worshipers to their graves with forked tongues about good and evil and the planet itself.
The people of the Tree of Life know this. They named their place or worship after the Torah story of Humankind (Book of Genesis 2-3). Now in the deadly silence following the death of Abel, the people of the Tree of Life hear the different Voice that cries out, in love, for Cain. “Humankind, who are you? Your brother’s blood is crying out to Me from the ground. There is only one Earth. There is only One of you — one Soul, one Breath — not two, or three, or….” (Genesis 4).
“We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meanwhile within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty to which every part and particle is related, The Eternal One.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson , Essays.