Elijah and the Mad Men

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Grandpa and Elijah

Grandpa, why’s that man so mad?

Well, he’s the senior member of the minority.

So, he’s mad because he’s old?

No, he’s mad because he’s lying.

Do all old people lie and get mad?

Not all, and not just old people. Some liars are young.

Yeah, I heard ’em yelling on C-Span.

You watch C-Span at day care?

We do, Grandpa. We’re Americans!

Well, not all Americans watch C-Span. Some watch MSNBC, CNN, or FOXNews.

Yeah. We don’t. We want to make up our own minds about de-peachment.

Grandpa Gordon and two-year-old grandson Elijah

Political parties die swallowing their own lies

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John Arbuthnot (1667-1735) is not a household name, but this much we know: he was as disgusted as many of us in America in December, 2019.

A contemporary and friend of Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope, physician-mathematician-writer John Arbuthnot, wrote satire flavored by his Scottish sense of humor. In 1713, Arbuthnot wrote “Proposals for printing a very curious discourse… a treatise of the art of political lying, with an abstract of the first volume” which systematized “a rhetoric of bad thinking and writing. He proposes to teach people to lie well.” — Wikipedia.

He also wrote this line that encourages all who now grieve for America:

“All political parties die at last of swallowing their own lies.”

There is hope. Have a good day,

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Dec. 14, 2019.

What I was and am not; what I am and wasn’t

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TO SEE MORE CLEARLY

Seeing more clearly takes time. It takes experience. It demands patience — with myself and with others — and it takes courage. Courage to let go of ideas we took for granted: who we are, what we aspired to become, our place in the cosmos.

Paul Tillich knew about courage and patience. The first professor to be dismissed from his teaching position during the rise of the Third Reich, Tillich came to see faith as “the courage to be” — and “to be” means being in motion, growing, changing, dying, leaving parts of ourselves behind. Neither courage alone nor patience alone is the courage to be.

Which leads me back to where we began. If you now see homophobia, anti-Semitism, white nationalism, and climate change-denial as offensive, what do you do in relation to a homophobic anti-Semitic white nationalist climate change-denier?

SELF-KNOWLEDGE AND SELF-CRITICISM

I have never been a white nationalist. Neither have you, I suspect. But, looking back, I see that my classmates and I drank from the well of white nationalism. Every school day began with our hands over our hearts, facing the flag.

Photo of school children reciting the American Pledge of Allegiance.

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Although we might have wondered why we were pledging allegiance to a piece of cloth, we didn’t give it much thought. We took it less as a statement of national aspiration than as a statement of national exceptionalism, a statement of fact.

But it wasn’t a fact. We learned that America was deeply divisible — between slave traders and plantation owners, and the African slaves they kidnapped, bought, and sold on the slave blocks; between the European settlers and the North American continent’s first people, cheated of their treaty rights, stripped of their land, religious practices, sovereignty, and civil rights; between professing Puritan Christians and the “witches” of Salem, burned at the stake as people “unfit for our society”; between the real Americans — the Christians — and the Christ-killers; between the straight majority and the LGBTQ minority who suffered alone in silence; between the landed aristocracy of the founding fathers and the laborers who bled picking cotton in the cotton fields in the south and worked without labor protections in the factories of the industrial north.

That was the “world” in which I lived, and that was the world that lived in me. As I continued through the years, I did my best to replace naïveté with consciousness, challenging the myth of American exceptionalism as a reformer, social critic, and activist.

I learned in time that unless I wanted to be a pompous ass, patience was required with others and with myself. “The sins of the fathers are visited upon the children to the third and fourth generation” is the Bible’s version of Plutonium-239’s half-life of 24,000 years. It describes the toxic waste passed down river from one generation to the next.

BALANCING COURAGE AND PATIENCE

Nuclear waste doesn’t disappear. Neither does the sin of exceptionalism in its racial, economic, gender, religious, and national manifestations. The toxic waste of exceptionalism — the conviction that one’s nation, race, culture, creed, gender, class . . . or species . . . is the exception to history and nature — is the unacknowledged original sin we manage to make original every day by exalting ourselves over others and over nature itself.

FEMA photograph of helicopter fighting California forest fire.
FEMA photograph of helicopter over California forest fire.

CLIMATE CHANGE AND THE REPUBLIC

As the climate change clock ticks toward midnight, patience seems less of a virtue than courage acting now. We who pledged allegiance to the flag “and to the Republic for which it stands” are losing patience with each other. We are ‘indivisible’ only if we decide we are. If we and those we elect place our flawed understandings of our personal interests above our responsibility to honor and maintain the Republic, our not-so original original sin may be our last.

It takes courage to confess one’s participation in the evils we deplore. And it takes patience with those who seem to have logs in their eyes.. “If we say we have no sin,” declared the minister Sunday mornings in the church of my childhood, “we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us, but if we confess our sin, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

The minister who invited us to own up to sins of omission and commission was the man I knew at home as Dad. I wonder what Dad would do if he could see us now.

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Nov. 30, 2019.

Human Packs and Alpha Dogs –Part 2

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AMERICA 2019: PUZZLING AND CONFOUNDING

We are in the midst a constitutional crisis in the U.S.A. that leads most of us scratching our heads. How did we get here? How will we get out of it? No one knows.

Part 1 of this three-post series suggested kinship with dogs who, by nature, live in packs led by Alpha Dogs. In Part 2, we turn to a time-honored voice from an earlier time.

AN OUTSIDE PERSPECTIVE

Karl Barth‘s way of seeing and hearing offers one such perspective. Barth was one of great theologians of the 20th Century, known for his brilliance, and for his early opposition to the rise and rule of Adolf Hitler and the nationalist ideology of the Third Reich.

Barth saw what those with “eye disease” did not. Idolatry, not atheism, is the issue for the human creature.

In Adolf Hitler and nationalist party that ended a constitutional republic, Barth saw what he called “the lordless powers” that have no Lord but themselves. They allow for no superiors. They submit to nothing and to no one. They are what Barth’s American friend William Stringfellow called “imposters of God” that prey on our anxiety, powers greater than ours, in effect a ‘lord’ — an Alpha Dog — to protect us and conquer what threatens us.

“DEUTSCHLAND UBER ALLES”

As a Christian theologian, Barth professed faith in Jesus Christ as Lord. This Lord is no victor. For Barth, Jesus Christ was the man for others who stooped to wash others’ feet, a chore assigned to household slaves; unmasked the lordless powers of empire; wept over the city, and rode into it “humble and riding on an ass” in counterpoint to the emperor entering the city on his white stallion; proclaimed a kingdom of infinite compassion not built by ‘the lordless powers’; prayed on his knees to the Lord of lords and King of kings of all the lesser packs; and bent his back to the soldier’s whip and Roman execution, and reached out to the rebel on the cross next to his.

The Jesus of Nazareth who bowed his head to no other power than YHWH — the Ineffable One, the Eternal One, the Lord beyond the lordless that rise and fall and are forgotten — represents humankind in our proper relationship with God.

“The demonism of politics consists in the idea of ’empire’, which is always human as such.

The Nazi Party and its Alpha Dog were ‘Lordless’ because they were accountable to no one and to nothing. Their authority and power were absolute. Everyone in the pack was ordered to yield to a headstrong man and a “headstrong dream.”

Barth’s theological anthropology offers insight into our vulnerability in an anxious world.

Man’s (sic.) alienation from God at once carries with it his self-alienation: the denaturalizing of the humanity and fellow humanity of is own existence, the contraction of the determination, inalienably given to him as God’s creature, that he should belong to God and have in God his Lord, the beginning of speech, action, and therefore existence, which are headstrong because they have no Lord.

Karl Barth, The Christian Life, 213-14.

Knowing that social control requires consent of the pack, Hitler and the Third Reich systematically transposed the prevailing religious belief system into the key of nationalist supremacy. The religion that proclaimed the elusive Kingdom of God and Jesus Christ as Lord was brought to Heel: Heel! Sit! Down! Off! Leave it it!

The church that prayed “Thy Kingdom come” bowed the knee to the nearer-to-hand kingdom, raising its arm to salute the national messiah. “Heil Hitler!” and Sieg Heil” replaced Handel’s ‘Messiah’.

For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon His shoulder; and his name shall be called Wonderful Counsellor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:5).

Handel’s Messiah

As for the Jews? It’s much harder to bring to heel a people whose faith looks to YHWH, the Holy One, and does not regard any human being as a divine incarnation. They would need to be removed from the fictional Aryan pack. They were stripped of every constitutional protection, herded onto trains, and delivered to concentration camps as people unfit for German society.

“MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN”

Like the Germans in the lead up to 1933, we in America in 2019 are manipulated by well-calibrated propaganda and disinformation campaigns that ‘denaturalize’ and turn neighbors into enemies in the age of cyberspace.

Slogans are simply vents with whose help ideologies surface and in the form of loud whistles call for general applause and acknowledgment. Let us not be deceived: we all listen to the most varied catchwords, we all use them more or less merrily, and in so doing show that we ourselves are people who have been struck and stabbed and snared by systematized ideologies.

Propaganda is putting things in black and white. … What they have to push systematically is their own excellence and usefulness, and by way of background must show how utterly valueless and harmful their rivals and opponents are.

THE TRUMP PHENOMENON

Classical Christian theology is clear about the need for an Alpha Dog. Its understanding of human being is sometimes called theological anthropology. Our mortal human nature is best understood in light of our submission — witting or unwitting — to this, that, or another power. When an Alpha Dog rises to claim the allegiance of a pack, we are thrown back.

Most of us in Roman Catholicism and progressive protestant churches have moved beyond patriarchal metaphors and talk of kings, kingdoms, and lords. We speak instead of ‘kin-doms’ without kings — horizontal societies without authority, what Barth called “the Lordless powers.” The reign of compassion is upended and replaced by an Alpha Dog who reigns absolutely, using propaganda, fear, hate, and cruelty to bring the pack to Heel.

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Dec. 12, 2019

I will look for You – a Psalmic reflection

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WHY AM I AWAKE?

The comforter feels heavy. My body is sore. So is my spirit. I shift from one side to the other and turn on my back, but it doesn’t help.

picture of digital clock

I look over to the night table at the old digital clock that once told my parents the time of day or night — the inheritance with the BIG red numbers that glow in the dark to help old folks read them.

The red numbers read 3:13.

I throw off the covers, stumble down the 18 steps to the first floor, make a pot of coffee, pour myself a cup, turn on the small table lamp by the fireplace, and sit down for an early morning conversation with the psalmist in the copy of The Book of Common Prayer Sue Kahn put in my hand years ago.

MEDITATION ON PSALM 5 (SELECTED VERSES)

In the morning, Lord, you hear my voice;
early in the morning I make my appeal and watch for you.[v.3]
Art work by Andrej Mashkotsev with Tower of Babel in the backgound adds visual weight to "the little kings and usurpers.

I will put my trust in You. I will not surrender to powers that know no higher power.

You, Lord, are the Breath that breathes in all and makes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on the just and unjust — “Lord of lords and King of kings,” the Eternal One from Whom the little kings and usurpers cannot flee.

“AN EMPIRE” – ANDREJ MASHKOTSEV

I make my appeal to You for Whom the darkness is as light. Things are dark here in America. We are divided. The future looks dark. Although my faith tells me You are present everywhere, I do not feel hopeful. It seems as though You have left us to our own devises.

For You are not a God who takes pleasure in wickedness,
and evil cannot dwell with You. [v.4]

Though it feels as though You are hiding, I have to believe You do not take pleasure in wickedness, and that the partisan evil, as bold and obvious as the big red numbers on my parents’ digital clock at 3:13 A.M, will not prevail. Evil cannot dwell with You.

Braggarts cannot stand in your sight; you hate all those who work wickedness. [v.5]

Does it matter to You?

If braggarts cannot stand in Your sight, come into sight. Show Yourself. Take Your seat on the judgment throne to hold the braggarts accountable for their treason against You and all that breathes. Summon the braggarts to stand before You before it is too late.

Do You hate wickedness? Does Love also hate? Do You shrug and let it go?

PAINTING “JOHN” BY LILIA MAZURKEVICH 

But as for me, through the greatness of your mercy I will go into your house;
I will bow down toward your holy temple in awe of you. (v.7)

I will bow down in awe of You. The good green Earth is Your temple. I will look to the greatness of Your mercy. When it feels as though You are hiding, I will seek You. I will remember the wisdom of the Hasidic grandfather teach his grandson about You, when young Yechiel came home in tears because his friend had stopped looking for him in a game of hide-and-seek.

artwork "Hide-and-Seek" by Marieke Peters - Visual Artist adds visual impact to the Buber story and intent of the post.

“Rebbe Barukh caressed Yechiel’s face, and with tears welling up in his eyes, he whispered softly, ‘God too Yechiel, God too is weeping. For, He too has been hidden with no one looking for Him’.” (Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim).

HIDE-AND-SEEK, MARIEKE PETERS

I will look for You.

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Dec. 6, 2019.

i used to run through fields

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photo of grandson Elijah with the spoon he's just begun to use.
Grandson Elijah enjoying his new soon.

“Bubbles” – at 4:00 A.M.

 i used to run through fields
laughing, blowing bubbles
floating up, up, away
off to Who-knows-where

now I watch the bubbles
burst, burst, burst –
dreams, illusions, hopes,
bursting into air

time and death bursting
all our bubbles
for we are puffs of air
but for a time

till some child runs
again through fields
of green, blowing bubbles
that float … up and up

swelling, rising, not yet bursting
each bubble its own
never to be repeated self
precious beyond belief

while we in our old age
move toward the end of time
evaporating into eternity
Whence we came.

"Bubbles"

– Gordon C. Stewart (@)

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Dec. 4, 2019

Humans, Packs, and Alpha Dogs – Part 1

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INVITATION TO THINK OUTSIDE THE BOX

In times like these, it helps to step outside the box.

My canine friend Barclay and his predecessors, Maggie and Sebastian (RIP), offered an opportunity to see ourselves and others differently.

REFLECTIONS OF AN ALPHA DOG

I love dogs. No one loves dogs more than I, except for Mark, and he and his latest golden retriever are in Maine. Like Mark, I have to have a dog! Living with Barclay, I’ve noticed the same thing I saw with Maggie and Sebastian.

Barclay is calmest when the Alpha Dog establishes and maintains authority: Heel Sit! Stay. Down. Off. Leave it. Fetch. Get the ball! Drop it.

Photograph of my dog friend Barclay in the car, looking at his Alpha Dog.

Barclay loves his human Alpha Dog. It’s in his nature to submit to the pack’s Alpha Dog.

Without an Alpha Dog, Barclay is a mess.

We tell ourselves we’re not canines; we’re human beings. We’re not members of a pack, and we don’t have Alpha Dogs. We are the Alpha Dogs who give the commands that house-train Maggie not to look you in the eye and squat on the Persian rug, and Sebastian and Barclay to lift their legs on fire hydrants instead of the legs of the dining room table. The Alpha Dog’s house is not their ‘loo‘, as the British say.

Maggie and Sebastian playing in the snow.

Dogs seem happiest when the pack’s Alpha Dog has established clear limits and boundaries.

HUMANS, PACKS, AND ALPHA DOGS

Living with Maggie, Sebastian, and Barclay while obsessing over events in the U.S.A. recently lead me to wonder: Is there much difference between canines and humans? Are we also pack animals in need of an Alpha Dog?

Members of 12-Step groups answer yes. They join anonymous packs whose participants recognize that an addiction has taken over their lives — “My name is Bob/Harriet, and I’m an alcoholic/heroin addict” — and encourage each other in their shared day-by-day surrender to a higher power, however each member defines it.

Twelve-Step programs do not have a theology, but they do have an anthropology and a philosophy that runs counter to a dominant culture which, if is certain about anything, it’s that we’re not members of a dog pack. We don’t submit to anything; we’re the Alpha Dogs!

PARTS TWO and THREE

Part Two will look through the eyes of Paul Tillich, Willem Zuurdeeg, and Karl Barth as their wisdom applies the American scene in 2019.

Thanks for dropping by. Leave a comment, if you wish, to widen and deepen the conversation.

Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), available on Amazon in kindle and paperback, Chaska, MN, Dec. 3, 2019

World AIDS Day – a Memory

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From the pulpit I could see him in the last pew. He always arrived late — usually during the first hymn — and left early, during the last hymn. Some people prefer to be anonymous, for all kinds of reasons.

For months, I wondered who he was.

Then, one day, he stayed through the closing hymn, the benediction, and what we Presbyterians call “The Charge” to follow in the way of Christ that begins, “Go into the world in peace; have courage . . . .”

“Go into the world in peace; have courage; hold to what is good; do not return evil for evil; strengthen the faint-hearted; support the weak; help the suffering; honor all people; love and serve the Lord rejoicing in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.”

He heard the words but left as quickly as before.

Then, one day, he found the courage to introduce himself at the door. As best I can recall, he said with a smile, “You may have wondered who I am. “My name is Sam. I’m dying of AIDS.”

Sam was my up-close-and-personal introduction to AIDS and the HIV/AIDS community. Months later, he became the first and only patient to offer me the Charge and Benediction.

Thank you, Sam, for your courage, for keeping the light of faith burning where others sought to blow it out, and for your gracious Charge and Benediction. Rest in peace.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN Dec. 1, 2019

Morning Mist Over the Creek

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Pond with morning mist evaporating
morning mist evaporating, photo by GCS

 I have nothing…

nada…zilch…zero…

no thoughts, no ideas,

no inspiration.

Worse, only clichés

crowd my mind:

stock images,

standard phrases,

or remembered words

wielded by real writers.

Feeling only frustration,

tempted by alliteration,

or worse, rhyme…

Theft?

Is it worse to plagiarize

than to leave a blank page?

— “Morning Mist Over the Creek” by Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL Feb. 6, 2013

Steve Shoemaker

Steve Shoemaker (RIP) was the Views from the Edge colleague whose verses and poems, written in the middle of the night, were sent to “his publisher” from his iPhone before dawn. Five of Steve’s verses/poems are republished in Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness. At six-feet eight inches, he towered above the crowd. In this photo, his 6’8″ frame rests on a 1,000+ year-old Bristlecone Pine above the tree line. – GCS

“Poetry is the impish attempt to paint the color of the wind.” –Maxwell Bodenheim, quoted in Ben Hecht’s play Winkelberg (1958).

Stay Awake! An unspoken sermon

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This sermon was written for a congregation of one the first Sunday after stepping out of the pulpit five years ago.

STAY AWAKE!

First Sunday in Advent, 2014
Texts: Isaiah 64:1-9
Mark 13:24-37

“And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” [attributed to Jesus, Gospel of Mark 13:37].

It’s hard to stay awake in times like these. To be conscious includes grief, helplessness, anger at the state of the nation and world, and the stupidity of the human race.

“Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” is supposed to bring comfort but it doesn’t, unless the heaven and earth of which Jesus speaks are the ones our pride has created. The imaginary ones. The heavenly and earthly projects that rise out of human insecurity as in the Genesis story of Babel, the story of what never was but always is, according to which the building of the ideal city is interrupted and the tower “with its top in the heavens” is “left off”. But the Word – the story about it – has not passed away. It endures. As fresh today as it was when first shared around a campfire as a way of telling each generation the respective places of God and man (humankind).

Fourteen years after the World Trade Towers collapsed in NYC, a new tower, “One World Trade Center” – taller, stronger, bolder – stands where the old towers fell on 9/11. One World Trade Center, symbolizes a resurrection of the crashed myth. Standing a few blocks from Wall Street, where the global economy is reconstructed every day, One World Trade Center resurrects the myth of national supremacy, benign goodness, and virtue of the American economic system.

We could have left Ground Zero empty of monoliths. Turned it into a memorial and monument to the error of pride, a turning away from global arrogance. A repentance from the economic-military-religious complex that has expropriated the oil fields in the Middle East, assassinated the elected President of Iran in 1958, installed the Shah in his place, ignored the human rights of Palestinians, supported and installed western-friendly oligarchies and strong men in Saudi Arabia, Iraq (Saddam Hussein), Libya (Muammar Gaddafi), and Egypt (Hosni Mubarak) until, except for Saudi Arabia, they turned against us.

Instead of listening to the word that does not pass away, we Americans, to the sorrow of New Yorkers like Michael Kimmelman (NY Times, Nov. 29, 2014), opted for the old words and worn-out scripts that had failed us. The Democratic Spring in Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia did not do what the NeoCon exporters of Western democracy had imagined. It unleashed a seething volcano of anti-American resentment. Meanwhile, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, have become desert quagmires – Vietnams without the jungles.

Eisenhower’s last speech to the nation warning of an emerging military-industrial complex is all but forgotten as One World Trade Center stands like a phoenix raised up…and up…and up from the ashes, symbol of global dominance resurrected from the horrifying deadly collapse of 9/11.

Words and symbols are everything in this world.

photo of Tower of Babel by Master of the Duke of Bedford

Mr. Kimmelman opines, “But it [i.e. the World Trade Center] never really connected with the rest of Lower Manhattan. There had been talk after Sept. 11 about the World Trade Center re-development including housing, culture and retail, capitalizing on urban trends and the growing desire for a truer neighborhood, at a human scale, where the windswept plaza at the foot of the twin towers had been.”

It’s all about human scale. A plaza. Not a tower with its top in the heavens.

Staying awake is hard. Being attuned to what is not passing away takes faith. It takes hope. Maybe even love.

“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near.” [Mark 13:28]

Jesus often seems to have said that the word we need to hear is spoken by nature. Learn from the fig tree. It waits through the dormant season to become tender again, to put forth its leaves toward summer and the production of figs. Nature is calling. Nature is our home. Nature is what is – the real heaven and earth – the word that will not pass away, the word that will survive when we are gone. We need to love nature again. Awaken to nature. Re-imagine ourselves as part of nature, “creatures” among the multitude of creatures. Our words will pass away, even the best of them. Our Creator’s will not.

During this most puzzling of seasons – the Season of Advent, the season of wakeful, wait-ful anticipation of a Coming in fullness – I find myself crying out like Isaiah. It feels something as though “you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.” [Isaiah 64:7]

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence—as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil– to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations [the ethnoi in NT Greek, i.e. the peoples] might tremble at your presence!” [Isaiah 64:1-2]

The “nations” have always been God’s adversaries, closed in on themselves, puffed up, defensive against intruders foreign and domestic, plunderers of nature and other nations, hostile to the foreigner, both human and Divine.

In this season of “economic recovery” when the poor continue to get poorer, the rich get richer, and the middle class shrinks, and the climate change clock ticks closer to midnight, deliver us, Good Lord, from “the hand of our own iniquity”.

Remember, “O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.” [Isaiah 64:8]

This word is the only word that lasts. Stay awake, my soul. Stay awake to the whole of it – all of it: the sorrow and the grief of it, the loneliness of it, the anger of it, the guilt of it, the finger pointing out and away and the finger pointing back at me, a nation to myself, and the presence of the Potter – and my soul will be well, new and fresh every morning.

Gordon C. Stewart, Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (Wipf and Stock, 2017) available on Amazon in kindle and paperback, Chaska, MN, First Sunday of Advent, November 30, 2019.

Truth needs no propaganda

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Truth and falsehood

“Every violation of truth is not only a sort of suicide in the liar, but is a stab at the health of human society,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson in “Prudence,” Essays: First Series (1841).

I imagine Emerson quietly applauding Fiona Hill boldly calling out the false narrative that stabs at the health of democracy in her testimony before the U.S. House Intelligence Committee’s Trump impeachment inquiry.

U.S. National Intelligence expert on Russia begs U.S. House Intelligence Committee members to stop spreading the Russian intelligence false narrative about Ukrainian interference in the 2016 U.S. election.

PARTISAN PROPAGANDA: THE BIG LIE

“The great masses of people . . . will more easily fall victim to a big lie than to a small one.”

Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf (1924), 1.10.

MAKING THE WIND APPEAR SOLID

“Political language . . . is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to the wind.”

George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language,” Shooting the Elephant (1950).

TRUTH AND FALSEHOOD

“Man can certainly keep on lying (and does so), but he cannot make truth falsehood.”

Karl Barth quoted in The New York Times obituary, December 11, 1968.

TRUTH NEEDS NO PROPAGANDA

If there has always been propaganda in some form, from the time of the modest newspapers of the seventeenth century it has developed with a new speed and to a new degree, as new and more effective instruments have been found and brought into use. One should note that the truth needs no propaganda and does not engage in it. As the truth, it simply speaks for itself and opposes falsehood. Propaganda is a sure sign that what is at issue is not the truth but an ideology which needs it, to whose nature it corresponds, and which is not ashamed to make use of it.

Karl Barth, “The Lordless Powers,” The Christian Life, translated by Geoffrey W. Bromley, p.227.

Propaganda and National Security

Continued promotion of a self-serving false narrative under the guise of patriotic concern for national security puts American national security at risk.

A subsequent Views from the Edge commentary will explore what Karl Barth‘s “lordless powers” and Christian scripture calls “principalities and powers.”

  • Gordon C. Stewart, November 23, Chaska, MN, Nov. 23, 2019.

Four and two fifths make seven

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SLEEPOVERS? REALLY?

Guys don’t do sleepovers. Or so I thought reading A Plan this morning . . . until I stopped to think.

Four (4) ‘Old Dogs’ (seminary classmates who have maintained friendship through the years) do five-night sleepovers every year. Once there were seven (7). Now there are four (4).

Photograph of four 'Old Dogs' with holding a picture of Wayne Boulton.
Four ‘Old Dogs’ (L to R): Harry, Gordon, Don, Bob, with photograph of Wayne (RIP).

THE ‘GATHERINGS’

We arrive at the annual ‘Gatherings’ limping on replaced knees with hips and memories in need of repair, bearing matches to light the fire, a Book of Common Prayer, and a Fifth or two . . . to make four equal seven again.

There’s nothing like a sleepover celebration with old friends. Some are confident that the departed — Wayne, Steve, and Dale — are still with us around the fire. Others need the help of a Fifth or a few Seven-and-Sevens to get four to equal seven.

Original ‘Chicago Seven’ Gathering (L to R): Old Dogs Wayne Boulton, Harry Strong, Yours Truly, Steve Shoemaker, Dale Hartwig, Don Dempsey, Bob Young.

What I had come to know (by feeling only) was that the [GATHERING]’s true being, you might say, was a sort of current, like an underground flow of water, except that the flowing was in all directions and yet did not flow away. When it rose into your heart and throat, you felt joy and sorrow at the same time, and the joining of times and lives. To come into the presence of the [Gathering] was to know life and death, and to be near in all your thoughts to laughter and to tears.

Wendell Berry, “A Gathering,” Jayber Crow, p. 205-206.

Thanks to Beth of ‘I didn’t get my glasses on‘ for turning Gatherings into sleepover celebrations.

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, November 23, 2019.

Cracking the Code: “I want nothing. No quid pro quo!”

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Photo of Michael Cohen, head school uploaded from Wikimedia

“Mr. Trump did not directly tell me to lie to Congress. That’s not how he operates. He doesn’t give you questions, he doesn’t give you orders, he speaks in a code. And I understand the code, because I’ve been around him for a decade.”

— Michael Cohn, Feb. 27, 2019 testimony before Congress.

SPEAKING IN CODE

Although Michael Cohen knew of his boss’s business dealings in Russia, Mr. Trump often said in Michael’s presence that he had no business ties in Russia. Michael, his lawyer-fixer for 10 years, understood what he meant. It wasn’t a statement of fact. It was code for an order: Deny any connection with Russia.

THE CODE

STONE’S RULES – BLAME THE TRANSLATORS

“Admit nothing, deny everything, launch counter-attack.”

“Attack, attack, attack, never defend.”

FLASHBACK — “They’ve got him”

“They’ve got him — credible witnesses, documents, and who knows what else. In all my years as a prosecutor, I’ve never seen such an open-and-shut case.” — U.S. Attorney General Elliot Richardson’s announcement to President Nixon of the results of the federal investigation of bribery. The case was resolved with a quid pro quo: Quid: Vice President Agnew would resign with a plea “no contest”; Quo: the Vice President would not go to prison.

— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Nov. 22, 2019.

Worldly Wisdom for the day after

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Today is the day after an exhausting day for many Americans. It’s the day after the day that began with congressional impeachment hearings and ended with the latest presidential candidates debates. The day after our heads spun seems a good day to reach back to taste the sweetness of wisdom.

THE ART OF WORLDLY WISDOM

Never exaggerate. It is a matter of great importance to forego superlatives, in part to avoid offending the truth, and in part to avoid cheapening your judgment. Exaggeration wastes distinction and testifies to the paucity of your understanding and taste. Praise excites anticipation and stimulates desire. Afterwards when value does not measure up to price, disappointment turns against the fraud and takes revenge by cheapening both the appraised and the appraise. For this reason let the prudent go slowly, and err in understatement rather than overstatement. The extraordinary of every kind is always rare, wherefore temper your estimate.”

Baltasar Gracián y Morales (1601-1658) The Art of Worldly Wisdom (1647)

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, November 21, 2019

The Democracy of the Dead

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An Unexpected Discovery

A lifelong aversion to anything ‘orthodox’ kept me away from G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy before inheriting a copy from the library of my late friend Wayne. Wayne was neither orthodox nor Orthodox, but there it was — Orthodoxy — with passages he had marked and indecipherable comments he had written in the margins.

G. K. Chesterton at work

The Arrogant Oligarchy of the Living

“Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors,” wrote G.K.Chesterton in a book I’d never read until my friend Wayne died. “It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking around.” — G.K. Chesterton, “The Ethics of Elfland,” Orthodoxy (1908).

I’ve often had the sense of this oligarchy and find it treacherous. Not only because it’s arrogant and oligarchical, but because it is foolish and destructive. Tradition is not the enemy of vitality. Nor is it the enemy of free thought nor science.

Photograph of by-the-sea sailors

Without tradition we are like by-the-wind sailors, the jellyfish who have no way to propel themselves, thrown this way and that by the tides and storms. Jellyfish go with the flow without conscience, memory, or agency to create a better future.

Collecting the Fragments: Egoism and Altruism

“There is a huge and heroic sanity in which moderns can only collect the fragments. There is a giant of whom we see only the lopped arms and legs walking about. They have torn the soul of Christ into silly strips, labeled egoism and altruism, and they are equally puzzled by His insane magnificence and His insane meekness. They have parted His garments among them, and for his vesture they have cast lots; though the coat was without seam woven from the top throughout.” — G.K. Chesterton, “The Ethics of Elfland,” Orthodoxy.

The Seamless Coat Woven from the Top

“Lopped arms and legs walking about.” What an image! The soul of Christ torn into silly separate strips of egoism and altruism. Chesterton had a way with words — images that jar the senses of what is real, pushing the by-the-sea sailors in a direction we did not expect.

The Democracy of the Living and the Dead

“All democrats object to [anyone] being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good person’s opinion, even if he is our father. I, at any rate, cannot separate the two ideas of democracy and tradition; it seems evident to me that they are the same idea.” — Chesterton, “The Ethics of Elfland,” Orthodoxy.

Honoring the Great Ancestors and Great Grandchildren

My seven years at the Legal Rights Center — a public defense corporation founded in 1970 by the American Indian Movement and African-American civil rights activists — moved this by-the-sea sailor to think again about freedom and tradition.

We inherit a tradition from the ancestors and are responsible for passing the treasure (i.e., the tradition) to the next generation. In times of decision-making, American-Indian culture universally calls us to consider the previous seven generations and the seven generations that will follow: the democracy of the dead, the living, and those who come after us. This tradition of
America’s First Nations, like the Reformed Christian tradition, looks back, looks ahead, and looks up for the re-weaving of the strips. The coat without seam was, is, and always will be woven from the top.

Wayne’s name is scribbled in pencil at the top of the title page of Orthodoxy. This year Wayne no longer lives to protest and resists the arrogant oligarchy of those who happen to be walking around. He has joined the blessed democracy of the dead.

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, November 20, 2019.

The Ides of March — Are the boys still there?

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JULIUS CAESAR AND THE IDES OF MARCH

Statue of Julius Caesar Via dei Fori Imperiali
Leomudde [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

Last Friday was not the Ides of March, but it may have been the day the soothsayer warned Julius Caesar of the consequences of overstepping the Roman Republic’s limits to executive power.

According to Plutarch, on his way to the fateful meeting of the Roman Senate on the Ides of March, Caesar passed the seer, mocking his fortune-telling with a confident sneer: “The Ides of March are come.”

“Aye, Caesar,” said the seer, “but not gone.”

That same day in 44 BCE the soothsayer’s warning was confirmed. As many as 60 senators ended the threat to turn the Roman Republic into an eternal dictatorship.

THE DAY OF THE SOOTHSAYER

Events last Friday echo the soothsayer’s warning:

  • Maria Yovanovich, the nonpartisan diplomat of impeccable character summarily recalled from her duties in Ukraine with no explanation, honored the House Intelligence Committee’s subpoena to appear for testimony at the Committee’s impeachment inquiry hearing;
  • The president who had suddenly dismissed Ms. Yovanovich just as suddenly smeared her reputation with a tweet while she was testifying before the Committee;
  • Roger Stone, the career dirty-trickster and long-term friend and mentor of Donald Trump, architect of the 2016 “Make America Great Again” campaign strategy and tactics, was convicted by a jury on all seven counts of making false statements, obstruction, and witness tampering;
  • President Trump tweeted:

“So they now convict Roger Stone of lying and want to jail him for many years to come. Well, what about Crooked Hillary, Comey, Strzok, Page, McCabe, Brennan, Clapper, Shifty Schiff, Ohr & Nellie, Steele & all of the others, including even Mueller himself? Didn’t they lie?”

Donald J. Trump tweet during Maria Yovanovich testimony, November 15, 2019.

ROGER STONE’S RULES

Roy Cohn and Roger Stone are the the political dirty-trickster mentors who who trained Donald Trump in the Machiavellian rules for how to succeed in business and politics.

The following are a few of “Stone’s Rules” as he shared them in the documentary film Get Me Roger Stone:

  • “Hate is stronger than love”
  • “Unless you can fake sincerity, you’ll get nowhere in this business”
  • “Politics isn’t theater. It’s performance art. Sometimes, for its own sake”
  • “White shirt + tan face = confidence”
  • “Hit it from every angle. Open multiple fronts on your enemy. He must be confused, and feel besieged on every side.
  • “Always praise ’em before you hit ’em”
  • “Admit nothing, deny everything, launch counterattack”
  • “Attack, attack, attack, never defend”
  • “Never turn down the opportunity to have sex or be on TV.” (attributed to Gore Vidal)
  • “Nothing is on the level”
  • “It’s better to be infamous than never famous at all.”

CONGENITALLY INCAPABLE

Presidential historian Jon Meacham spoke within hours of the president’ latest tweety. “My sense,” he said, “is that we have a president who is congenitally incapable of seeing beyond his own self-interest. And what these witnesses have done is proven that while he wants to build a wall at the border, he has no interest in building a wall around our elections.” (The Beat, Friday, Nov. 15.)

ARE THE BOYS (THE KING’S MEN) STILL THERE?

“A political leader must keep looking over his shoulder all the time to see if the boys are still there. If they’re not, he’s no longer a political leader.” (NYT obituary for Bernard Baruch, June 21, 1965.)

Bernard Baruch Obituary, New York Times, June 21, 1964

The impeachment inquiry is about much more than a sitting president’s continuance or removal from office. It’s about the survival of the Constitution of the American Republic in an era when an entire political party has substituted the habits of Stone’s Rules for the sworn duty of every elected member of Congress “to support and defend the Constitution of the United States of America.”

“Admit nothing. Deny everything. Launch counterattacks. Attack, attack, attack. Never defend. Distract, distract, distract!” is a heinous violation of the Oath Office.

Is it too much to hope that soothsayer’s warning will result in coming to our senses? If not, we may be left to hope John Arburthnot was right that “political parties die at last of swallowing their own lies.”

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Nov. 18, 2019.

America in the Stress Test Waiting Room

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Last week I asked a psychiatrist friend whether he has been seeing increased levels of stress in his patients. “Yes,” he said, “Universally.”

As the impeachment inquiry hearings begin today, we are divided and angry. But we’re all under stress, and we’re all Americans. When we’re stressed, we do strange things. Some of us clam up. Some of us scream and shout. Some of us need company. Which led me to think again this morning about the stress test waiting room and a World War II veteran named Bill. I’m wondering what Bill might say.

Bill in the Stress Test Waiting Room

visual image of hospital waiting room

He sits by himself in the hospital waiting room.

“Where you from?” he asks, as if welcoming the stranger who’s come to his home for a stress test.

“Chaska.”

Where?” he asks over the whine from his hearing aids.

I’m not anxious to strike up a conversation. I’m here for a stress test. I’m an introvert. Chatting with strangers when I’m gathering myself when I’m under stress, waiting for a stress test, is the last thing I want.

C h a s k a!” I repeat.

“Oh! I’m from Waconia! I’m Bill.”

He gives a broad smile as though we’re related. (Waconia and Chaska are neighbors in Carver County, MN.)

His gowned wife, fresh off the treadmill, returns from her stress test.

“This is my wife, Jane. She’s a lot younger than I am. I’m 96.”

“Ninety-four,” says the younger wife. “We’ve been together 15 years.”

“Chaska’s the county seat,” says Bill. “That’s where i was sworn in.” (Clearly, he’s an extrovert. He feels better when he has guests.)

“World War II?”

“February 6, 1942. Eighty of us. A lot of guys from Chaska.”

“Where’d you serve?”

“He was part of D-Day,” answers Jane. Bill’s head sinks toward his lap. His chin begins to quiver. A long pause follows.

D-Day, WWII.

Only 15 of us came back.”

“Were you injured?”

“No,” he says, forming his hands in prayer and looking up. “I don’t know why.” He falls again into silence.

Fort Snelling National Cemetery, Minnesota

Bill’s body is with us, but he’s not here. He’s back at Normandy Beach on D-Day.

“That’s a lot of death,” I say. “A lot of killing. A lot of loss.”

He looks up, nods, and drops his head again.

Post-traumatic Stress,” I say quietly to Jane. “I’m a pastor. I’ve seen it so many times with Vietnam War and Iraq War veterans.”

“I think so,” she says. “He still can’t talk about it after all these years.”

The technician calls my name. “Mr. Stewart?”

As I stand to leave the stress test waiting room, Bill reaches up to say good-bye with a firm handshake and friendly smile for the whippersnapper from Chaska.

Robert Davis of Clarkston has an outpatient stress test run by exercise physiologist’s Richard Andrevzzi and Donna McCollom in the Royal Oak hospital.

I leave the waiting room and get on the treadmill, reminded that there is stress and there is stress, knowing that mine bears no comparison to Bill’s and thankful for a few moments with a 94 year-old who has every reason to think he’s 96.

Today and tomorrow, as I zoom in on the televised public hearings on impeachment, I’m wondering what Bill would say.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, November 13, 2019.

Telling the Truth — the Journey of Repair

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An earlier Views from from the Edge post featured a brief summary of an unusual step: a Board of Trustees’ $27.6M action plan to redress institutional entanglement in institutional slavery and ongoing institutional racism. Here’s the full press release from Princeton Theological Seminary (founded in 1819) in Princeton, New Jersey.

Photograph of Princeton Theological Seminary in 1879
Princeton Theological Seminary in 1879

PRESS RELEASE, Princeton, NJ, October 18, 2019

PRINCETON, N.J., October 18, 2019 – Princeton Theological Seminary’s Board of Trustees unanimously endorsed the implementation of a multi-year action plan to repent for its ties to slavery. The approved series of new initiatives, ranging from increased student financial assistance to curriculum changes to added support for the Center for Black Church Studies, is a direct response to a report the Seminary published in October 2018 after conducting a two-year historical audit.

“The report was an act of confession,” says John White, dean of students and vice president of student relations. “These responses are intended as acts of repentance that will lead to lasting impact within our community. This is the beginning of the process of repair that will be ongoing,” says White.

White served as chair of the historical audit recommendations task force, which included trustees, faculty, administrators, students, and alumni, who led a deliberative process to provide opportunities for the campus community to discuss and respond to the audit report. The task force hosted more than 25 events, meetings, and conversations on the campus in the previous academic year. Feedback gathered from students, faculty, administrators, and alumni was incorporated in the recommendations presented to the Seminary’s board. The Board of Trustees also conducted a year-long process of study.

“From the beginning,” says White, “the Board of Trustees has encouraged a thorough process of understanding our history that would lead to meaningful response.”

With an immediate rollout of the plan and continuation through 2024, the Seminary intends to make meaningful and lasting change with the more than 20 approved initiatives, including:

  • Offering 30 new scholarships, valued at the cost of tuition plus $15,000, for students who are descendants of slaves or from underrepresented groups
  • Hiring a full-time director of the Center for Black Church Studies
  • Hiring a new faculty member whose research and teaching will give critical attention to African American experience and ecclesial life
  • Changes in the Seminary curriculum, including a required cross-cultural component and integrating into the first-year curriculum for every master’s student sustained academic engagement with the implications of the historical audit
  • Designating five doctoral fellowships for students who are descendants of slaves or from underrepresented groups
  • Naming the library after Theodore Sedgwick Wright, the first African American to attend and graduate from Princeton Seminary
  • Naming the Center for Black Church Studies after Betsey Stockton a prominent African American educator in Princeton during the antebellum North and a Presbyterian missionary in the Sandwich Islands (present-day Hawaii). Prior to gaining freedom, Stockton was owned by the chair of Princeton Seminary’s Board of Trustees.
  • Enhancing community partnerships and supporting historically disenfranchised communities in and around Princeton
  • Ensuring every member of the Princeton Seminary community understands its history
  • A committee has been established to oversee the implementation of the plan and will regularly report progress to the board. The program costs for the responses represent a commitment of more than $1 million annually on an ongoing basis. To sustain this programming in perpetuity, $27.6 million will be reserved in the endowment.

“The Seminary’s ties to slavery are a part of our story. It is important to acknowledge that our founders were entangled with slavery and could not envision a fully integrated society,” says Princeton Seminary President M. Craig Barnes. “We are committed to telling the truth. We did not want to shy away from the uncomfortable part of our history and the difficult conversations that revealing the truth would produce.”

The historical audit uncovered that the Seminary did not own slaves and its buildings were not constructed with slave labor. Yet, the Seminary benefited from the slave economy, both through investments in Southern banks in the mid-19th century and from donors who profited from slavery. Also, founding faculty and leaders used slave labor at some point in their lives. Several of the first professors and board members were deeply involved in the American Colonization Society, which advocated sending free blacks to Liberia.

“Our response to the historical audit is the beginning of our community’s journey of repair as we seek to redress historic wrongs and to help the Seminary be more faithful to our mission as a school of the church, both now and in the years to come,” says Barnes. “We are taking tangible action to write a new chapter in our story.”

CONFESSION AND REPENTANCE: VIEWS FROM THE EDGE COMMENTARY ON CONTEXT OF PRESBYTERIAN ETHOS

A Prayer of Confession of Sin for “what we have done” and “what we have left undone“– like the one below — is an essential component of Presbyterian Church (USA) services of worship. We do it every Sunday as a habit.

Merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.

We have not loved you
with our whole heart and soul
and mind and strength.

We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.

In your mercy,
forgive what we have been,
help us amend what we are,
and direct what we shall be,
so that we may delight in your will
and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your holy name.

[Book of Common Worship]

Sometimes a habit is more than habitual. Sometimes we mean what we ask: “help us amend what we are, and direct what we shall be….” Sometimes, with God’s help, we do it.

Gordon C. Stewart, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) Minister of Word and Sacrament H.R., Chaska, MN, November 12, 2019.

The last refuge of the scoundrel

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THIS MOMENT IN TIME

At long last, this Wednesday (Nov. 13, 2019) we will see the faces, hear the voices, and watch the body language of the members of the House Intelligence Committee and those who testify. Witnesses to the quid pro quo — we’re no longer arguing whether there was a quid pro quo — will bring their testimonies. Members of the Committee will examine, weigh the evidence, and decide whether to recommend impeachment.

This Wednesday we will be ushered to our seat in the observer section through different doors chosen by the flip of remote to select the door that suits the conclusions to which we have already come. Some will be ushered in by Fox; some by MSNBC or CNN; a few who prefer no pundits, will watch it on C-Span. Those who walk through different doors to the left or the right will watch the same thing so differently that an outside observer might wonder whether we were seeing different things.

THE QUESTION AND THE VOICE OF THE DEAD

The question at issue is whether the President violated his oath to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution. As each of us considers the gravity of Mr. Trump’s quid pro quo with Mr. Zelensky, we might do well to listen to the dead. Our ancestors no longer belong to a political party. Some of the dead were patriots, others were not. The harshest critic sometime was a patriot while the one who talked incessantly of patriotism turns out to have been a scoundrel. G.K. Chesterton is among the dead who speak from the grave with wisdom and wit and a twinkle in his eye:

I have formed a very clear conception of patriotism, I have generally found it thrust into the foreground by some fellow who has something to hide in the background. I have seen a great deal of patriotism; and I have generally found it the last refuge of the scoundrel.

G.K. Chesterton, The Judgement of Dr. Johnson, Act III.

WHAT KIND OF “QUID PRO QUO?

Michael Mulvaney was right, and he was wrong in saying that quid pro quo‘s “happen all the time.” “Something for something” is not evil. I want an apple; you want an orange. II give you one of my apples; you give me one of your oranges. “We do it all the time.” “I’ll support the funding bill for bridge repair in your district, if you support the bill for road repair in my district.” We do it all the time. That’s the nature of politics in a democratic republic. We elect public servants to serve us within the wider context where local self-interests convene to get thing done by the art of compromise.

But this alleged wrongdoing is not that kind of legitimate quid pro quo between equals. There is nothing inherently unconstitutional in a “something for something” transaction to protect, preserve and defend the Constitution of the United States of America. The question is whether the President’s “something” (release of $300+ Million of military assistance with an invitation to the White House) in exchange for a conditional “something” (Ukrainian investigation of a likely opponent in the 2020 U.S. election with a public announcement by Mr. Zelensky) was in the best interest of the United States or whether it served his own personal purposes for re-election.

THE DEMOCRACY OF THE DEAD

The American Republic is still young among the nations, but we have a tradition, an inheritance of self-government under the Constitution and the rule of law. Tradition and freedom are not opposites. “Tradition means giving voice to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors,” wrote Chesterton, sounding like an Ojibwe teaching his people to make decisions after looking back seven generations of the ancestors and forward seven future generations yet unborn. “[Tradition] is the democracy of the dead.” — G.K. Chesterton, “The Ethics of Elfland” in Orthodoxy.

Was the President’s quid pro quo an act of patriotism, or was it the behavior of a scoundrel. If Donald Trump was a scoundrel, does the offense rise to the level of “high crimes and misdemeanors”?

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, November 11, 2019.

Elijah with Grandpa and the Postage Stamp Monologue

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Two year-old grandson Elijah engages grampa in a telling conversation

Good morning, Elijah. Whatcha doin’?

Playing etch-a-sketch on our iPad. Did you draw when you were liddle?

I did. But not like that.

Like what, then? Was it a different App? What kind of Mac did you play with in your carseat on the way to day care?

It was a long time ago, Elijah. A very long time ago. It was a different world. We didn’t have day care. We didn’t have iPads and cell phones. We used to lick postage stamps back in the day.

picture of U.S. postage stamps

What’s a stamp and why did you have to lick it? Were you being punished for being bad?

No, it wasn’t anything like that. We didn’t tweet back then. The only thing that tweeted in our world was Tweetie Bird on Loony Tunes.

How’d you talk if you couldn’t tweet? I tweet all the time. Watch! Mom hates it when I do this. I like FaceTime better. It’s more personal.

We sent letters. We wrote them with a pencil or a pen, put them in envelopes, licked the back of the postage stamps — if you had lots of letters, it took a long time — and we took them to the Post Office. The letters would arrive in two or three days, sometimes a week. We had to be patient back then. Everything was slower.

And we dialed phone numbers on rotary phones. I still remember our number on Church Lane, EL6-1490. Teddy Bonsall’s was EL6-1476. And sometimes, when I’d pick up the phone to dial Teddy, somebody else was already talking to somebody else on our phone. It was called “a party line“.

Wow! Did you have parties every day?

It’s hard to explain, Elijah. Maybe this will help. Search for the Postage Stamp Monologue on Mom’s iPad for a better feel for how grampa feels most of the time in your world.

“The Postage Stamp Monologue” from Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, a play by Christopher Durang, performed at the Goodman Theater.

Wow! He’s really mad, grampa! I’m glad you don’t have to lick postage stamps anymore or dial 999-999-9999, like Vanya. I got an idea! Let’s FaceTime Uncle Andrew and Calvin!

Uncle Andrew and cousin Calvin answering FaceTime call.

Gordon C. Stewart (Grandpa), Chaska, MN, Nov. 7, 2019.

Where’s my Elliot Richardson?

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BREAKFAST WITH ELLIOT RICHARDSON

Why a memory bubbles up in a particular moment often is a mystery. Other times an explanation does not require a Freudian or Jungian analyst.

I’m having breakfast at the Hyatt in downtown Minneapolis with former U.S. Attorney General Elliot Richardson. Just the two of us. We are meeting to get acquainted before the noon Westminster Town Hall Forum when I will introduce him to a packed house and the radio audience of Minnesota Public Radio (MPR).

“VOICES OF CONSCIENCE: KEY ISSUES IN ETHICAL PERSPECTIVE”

A singular moment of American history qualifies Elliot Richardson for the public forum that features “Voices of Conscience: Key Issues in Ethical Perspective.” Elliot Richardson was the United States Attorney General in the Nixon Administration, a lifelong Republican remembered for refusing President Richard Nixon’s order to fire Archibald Cox, the Special Prosecutor of the Watergate affair. The memory of Elliot Richardson’s act of courage is still fresh in the hearts and minds of those who respect the courage of conscience in American public life. Elliot Richardson refused to sell his soul to the White House.

“WHERE’S MY ROY COHN?”

The turmoil of 2019 seems explanation enough for the reappearance of the memory from twenty-two years ago.

Bill Barr became the Trump Administration Attorney General after Jeff Session angered the president for refusing to recuse himself from overseeing the Department of Justice investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. That was after FBI Director James Comey had been fired after a one-on-one private dinner at the White House when the president asked for Comey’s pledge of personal loyalty.

In the midst of failed attempts to secure personal loyalty, and nostalgic for the fealty of his former lawyer, whom Alan Derschowitz described as “the quintessential fixer,” the president’s is reported by the New York Times to have cried in a moment of exasperation, “Where’s my Roy Cohn?”

ROY COHN AND THE TACTICS OF JOSEPH MCCARTHY

Roy Cohn had been front and center stage on national television as Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Senate Committee hearings hunting for Communists and Communist sympathizers allegedly hidden in the U.S. military, government agencies, and the entertainment industry.

Edward R. Murrow‘s televised commentary featuring Army defense lawyer Joseph Welsh’s rebuke of McCarthy and his tactics brought McCarthy to a screeching halt:

“You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

Joseph Welsh, Esq. statement to Sen. Joseph McCarthy, 1954.

THE LONG ARM OF ROY COHN

In the wake of Murrow’s broadcast and the turning of public opinion against McCarthy’s character assassinations of America’s political left as unpatriotic, Roy Cohn left McCarthy’s side to go into private practice. During the 30 years that followed, his clients were a rare assortment of the famous (the Archdiocese of New York, the New York Yankees and the team’s owner, George Steinbrenner; Aristotle Onassis) and the infamous (mob bosses “Fat Tony” Salerno, Carmine “the Cigar” Galante, extortionist “Teflon Don” John Gotti, and the owners of Studio 54 convicted of tax evasion, among others.

Roy Cohn became Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, mentor, and fixer, the master teacher who taught his disciple how to succeed in public life: require absolute loyalty, strike fear in anyone who dare oppose you, manipulate the media, attack harder when attacked, and demonize your opponents as public enemies. In the end, the disciple did to Cohn what Cohn had taught him to do. After the New York Supreme Court disbarred Roy Cohn and Cohn was dying from complications reportedly related to AIDS, the lawyer-fixer-mentor’s friend was no longer useful. The mentee dropped his loyal “friend” like a rock.

ELLIOT RICHARDSON and THE ARC OF THE MORAL UNIVERSE

Roy Cohn and Elliot Richardson had three things in common. They were lawyers. They had their moments in the national spotlight. They worked closely Republican Presidents. But they stand on opposite sides of history.

But, if “the arc of the moral universe is long, but … bends toward justice” (Martin Luther King, Jr., quoting Theodore Parker), the shadow of Joseph McCarthy and Roy Cohn is short and fleeting, and the memory of a courageous Republican who refused to sell his soul to the White House may yet awaken the party he would not recognize to surrender the question “Where’s my Roy Cohn?” for a different question:

Where’s my Elliot Richardson?

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, November 5, 2019.

The “Prosperity Gospel” and White House “spiritual warfare”

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Thursday’s New York Times (Oct. 31) reported that “Paula White, a televangelist based in Florida and personal pastor to President Trump whom he has known since 2002, has joined the Trump administration in an official capacity.” The White House announced the news the same day the House authorized its impeachment procedures.

If you’re an embattled president about to be impeached for betraying your oath of office to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution,” you might welcome a spiritual advisor who, though lacking theological education credentials, confirms your view that you are engaged in spiritual warfare.

As one observer put it, “If you’re wealthy like Donald Trump is, and you have a preacher who says your wealth is a sign God approves of you, you’re probably going to like that preacher. And if there is one major element in Donald Trump’s religious beliefs, it would be this prosperity gospel.” — Tom Gjelten.

PAULA WHITE’S MESSAGE OF SPIRITUAL WARFARE

THE PROSPERITY GOSPEL IS NOT THE GOSPEL OF JESUS

Whatever the differences between evangelical Christians and progressive Christians on Biblical interpretation, there is general agreement that the gospel of Jesus and the “prosperity gospel” are very different gospels.

The Book of Amos and the Letter of James scorn the worship of wealth and privilege, and the teaching of Jesus consistently calls people to make friends with their enemies rather than seek their defeat. “You have heard it was said ‘you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemies’. But I say to you ‘love your enemies and do good to those who persecute you.'”

CREDENTIALS

Furthermore, there is the matter of credentials. The majority of American Christian churches — progressive, orthodox, or evangelical — require three years of theological education beyond a Bachelor of Arts/Science as qualification for ordination. My denomination — Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) requires courses in Hebrew and Greek, the languages in which the Hebrew Bible and New Testament were written, as a qualification for ordination. Why? Because the people in the pews deserve preachers and teachers who know what they’re talking about before they set foot in the pulpit — or step on stage.

Paula White has no such credentials. She falsely claims to have a doctorate. Not even close. She never finished college, let alone graduate school. She’s an entertainer and a fraud whose performances belong on The Apprentice. “You’re fired!”

PAULA WHITE QUOTATIONS

  • There are many different ways that people get licensed or ordained through different ministries, denominations, etc. So – but for myself, there was no formal seminary.
  • I have nothing to be sorry about.
  • God takes what the enemy meant for your bad and turns it for your good! It wasn’t a set back but a set up! Wait and see what God is getting ready to do for you!
  • Some people left you for dead. They thought it was over. They said you’re hopeless, you’re helpless. You can’t be used. You’re not ministry material. You’re going to be poor. You’re going to be messed up. But guess what? Tell the devil, go to hell. You’re a liar.
  • YOU are on the verge of a complete breakthrough in every area of your life. Spiritually, Financially, and Relationally God has shown me that this is a season of victory for His people. As I went deeper in the Spirit the Lord revealed that before the breakthrough comes, certain things must be dealt with. Specifically, there must be a complete defeat of your enemies!
  • I don’t go where I’m tolerated. I go where I’m celebrated.
  • What I might have considered good, good doesn’t mean every day is going to be perfect, you’re going to have bad breath, your hair is not going to be in perfect place.

THE WAR ON THE CONSTITUTION

By most indications, the American constitutional crisis will only get worse as the White House continues to stonewall Congress and publicly whitewash itself with the likes of the appointment of Paula White. It could be worse. It could be Ms. White’s dear friend, Benny Hinn. It remains to be seen whether the American people will fall for it.

NBC Dateline exposure of televangelist Benny Hill

— Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness, Chaska, MN.

Do you have the time?

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When my most intimate companion failed to respond as normal, I feared she had suffered a stroke like the cerebral hemorrhage that took Uncle Bob years ago. Uncle Bob was the smartest guy in South Paris, the Harvard Law valedictorian who, against all expectation, had made South Paris his home until he suddently dropped dead leading the Congregational Church’s Annual Meeting. He had shown no signs of stress during worship, directing the Choir from the organ bench as he had for 25 years. Church meetings are like that — they often raise a leader’s blood pressure — but this was different! All of a sudden he was gone.

Like Uncle Bob, she showed no signs of stress before retiring last night. She is the one who has done the most of anyone to encourage my writing and publishing — filing things away until I needed them, flagging a mis-spelled word or correcting faulty grammar. I’ve depended on her every day for the past six years. She is more than an assistant. Since the day we met, I’ve turned her on. This morning is different. Nothing turns her on.

I  gently carry her to the garage, cover her with a blanket, and drive to the Urgent Care at the Southdale Mall. They admit her for tests and suggest I return in an hour in an hour or so.

“Do you have the time?” I ask.

He gives me a strange look and checks his iPhone. “It’s 10:30. We’ll text you when we’re done. Where can I reach you? What’s your number?”

“I don’t have a number.”

“Okay, how about an email?”

“I don’t have a mobile phone. You know, there are no public clocks anywhere anymore. Everybody’s in a bubble.” 

He pauses and looks up. “Hmmm. You know . . .I hadn’t thought about that! Come to think of it, I guess you’re right. “Okay . . .well, just be back by 11:30.”

Anxious and alone with an hour to kill, I wander the corridor from shop to shop before going into Macy’s. It’s easy to distract yourself shopping, and Macy’s is just the place. You can find anything at Macy’s…except a clock. “Excuse me, do you have the time?” I ask the clerk in the men’s shoe department. It’s not a question he gets anymore. He glances at his iPhone, looks up, and, with a strange look, gives me the time: “10:45.”

With forty-five minutes to spare, I remember Macy’s famous Lakeside Grille and follow the confusing signs to catch a late breakfast or early lunch. I tell the waitperson I have an important appointment at 11:30 and ask for the time. “10:50,” he says. “I don’t have a phone. Would you be so kind as to give me a heads up when it’s 11:15?” He takes my order and agrees to notify me. I scarf down the Oktoberfest special of pork schnitzel, spaetzl, and green beans, wondering what time it is. The waitperson is nowhere to be seen. I ask another waitperson, “I’m sorry. Do you have the time?”

I rush back to Urgent Care, anxious about the test results. “Mr. Stewart,” says the neurologist, “I’m sorry. We ran all the tests and the news is not good, but it’s not beyond hope.” I breathe a sigh of relief, waiting for what comes next. “She’s still alive, but she needs immediate surgery. We have a neurologist standing by.” “What’s the cost,” I ask, knowing she has no insurance. “We can replace her keyboard for $485 so you can turn her on again, but she’s old. It’s only a matter of time before she goes. Or you can buy a new one for an additional six-hundred dollars or so. Your call.”

End of life decisions, like putting down my canine companion after fourteen years– are harder than others. For months after Maggie’s death, I swore I’d never get another dog. There’d never be another Maggie. I couldn’t bear the thought of holding another Maggie in my arms when her time would come.

“I’m a writer,” I say. “Like lots of other writers, I have ADHD and sometimes, like Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, I drink too much. I’m completely dependent on her for filing and saving my work. She keeps it all in her head. Besides she’s the only one I’ve ever turned on.”

“Not to worry, Mr. Stewart. If you leave her with us for 24 hours, we’ll be glad to download her memory to the new MacBook Air. We’ll treat her with great respect. We’ll take good care of things. We’ll be glad to recycle her free of charge. As Hemingway said, ‘Time is the last thing we have.'”

I leave her behind to be downloaded and recycled, grieving my loss, but consoled by the knowledge that, life Uncle Bob and Maggie, she will be in a safe place.

 — Gordon C. Stewart, author of NYT Worst Seller List Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness, dedicated to my late assistant, Chaska, MN, October 30, 2019.

An honest to God real time act of reparation

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IT HAPPENED IN NEW JERSEY

New Jersey is not the first place one expects to hear a public confession of slavery with an action plan to make reparations for institutional racism. It may, therefore, come as a surprise that Princeton Theological Seminary, the nation’s second oldest graduate school (1812), has put New Jersey on the map of the national debate about reparations.

REPENTANCE FOR TIES TO SLAVERY

Princeton Theological Seminary’s Board of Trustees has unanimously approved a plan that commits $27,000,000 for a five-year Reparations Action Plan and $1,000,000 each year thereafter in perpetuity.

EXCERPTS FROM PRINCETON THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY NEWS RELEASE

“’The Seminary’s ties to slavery are a part of our story. It is important to acknowledge that our founders were entangled with slavery and could not envision a fully integrated society,’ says Princeton Seminary President M. Craig Barnes. ‘We are committed to telling the truth. We did not want to shy away from the uncomfortable part of our history and the difficult conversations that revealing the truth would produce.

“The historical audit uncovered that the Seminary did not own slaves and its buildings were not constructed with slave labor. Yet, the Seminary benefited from the slave economy, both through investments in Southern banks in the mid-19th century and from donors who profited from slavery. Also, founding faculty and leaders used slave labor at some point in their lives. Several of the first professors and board members were deeply involved in the American Colonization Society, which advocated sending free blacks to Liberia.

“’Our response to the historical audit is the beginning of our community’s journey of repair as we seek to redress historic wrongs and to help the Seminary be more faithful to our mission as a school of the church, both now and in the years to come,’ says Barnes. ‘We are taking tangible action to write a new chapter in our story.’”

— Princeton Theological Seminary, PRINCETON, NEW JERSEY, October 18, 2019

Princeton is the oldest seminary of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Its announcement gives meaning to the prayer of confession and acts of repentance, strengthening hope that all religious communities and the nation itself will take responsibility for systemic institutional racism and move toward a just and equitable society.

Rev’d Gordon C. Stewart, Presbyterian Minister (HR), author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (click HERE for a look), Chaska, MN, October 29, 2019.

Elijah and Cousin Calvin

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Introducing Elijah’s cousin Calvin

Followers of Views from the Edge know Elijah from his conversations with “Bumpa” (Grandpa), but have not been introduced to Elijah’s six month younger first cousin and buddy, Calvin.

The cousins are talking up a storm with impressive vocabularies — many more words than the occasional “Mine!” but they need some help with grammar.

Conversation among Elijah, Calvin, and Grandpa

Grandpa: Good morning, Elijah! Good morning, Calvin! How’d you sleep last night?

Calvin: Not so good. I cried all night. Elijah was dead! I saw it TV.

Grandpa: I’m so sorry Calvin. But look — Elijah’s standing right. He’s alive. The Elijah on TV was a United States Congressman. Elijah Cummings was 68 years old.

Calvin: Phew! That makes me happy.

Grandpa: How about you, Elijah. How was your night?

Elijah: Great! I went right to bed after me and Mom played in the bathtub.

Grandpa: Wonderful. But I want you to learn to put others before yourself.

Elijah: You mean Calvin?

Grandpa: No, I’m talking about talking, I want you to grow up saying “Mom and I”.

Elijah: I just did! I just told you! I went to bed after me and Mom played in the tub. You don’t hear so good, Bumpa.

Grandpa: Well, I did hear you, and it’s “well“, not good. “You don’t hear so well.” It a common mistake. I want you boys to grow up with good grammar. That’s why I want you to say “Mom and I.”

Elijah: I just said that!!! Didn’t I, Calvin?

Calvin: Nope. You said “me and Mom.” You didn’t say “Mom and I.” You’re selfish! You always put yourself first. Everything’s ‘Mine, mine, mine’. ‘Me, me, me!’ You always put yourself first!

Elijah: Do not!

Calvin: Do, too!

Grandpa: Okay, boys. This isn’t that important. I’m talking about talking. I want you grow up learning good grammar.

Calvin: We already love Granmma!

Elijah: Yea, Bumpa! Me and Calvin love Granmma. Me and him love Gramma more than you!

Gordon C. Stewart (Bump), Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (click THIS LINK to explore on Amazon), Chaska, MN, Oct. 26, 2019

The Cross and the Lynching Tree

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This awkward moment

Today a rare mixture of people momentarily lay aside their differences to gather in Baltimore’s New Psalmist Baptist Church to give thanks to God for the life of Elijah Cummings. This is a community like few others — members of Congressman’s home church, constituents of his Congressional District, colleagues in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, the powerless and the powerful, the homeless and and the well-housed, the hungry and the well-fed; elected officials and career civil servants, maids and nannies and those who employ, red and yellow, back and white, all precious in God’s sight — convened at this most awkward moment when the Congressional impeachment inquiry, led by the deceased, has been called a ‘lynching’ by a child of white privilege.

James Cone — The Cross and the Lynching Tree

In The Cross and the Lynching Tree, the late Professor and author James Cone of Union Theological Seminary in NYC elucidates the blindness of white Christians who see no relation between the cross of Jesus and the lynching tree.

“In the “lynching era,” between 1880 to 1940, white Christians lynched nearly five thousand black men and women in a manner with obvious echoes of the Roman crucifixion of Jesus. Yet these “Christians” did not see the irony or contradiction in their actions.”

James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree

“The cross can heal and hurt; it can be empowering and liberating but also enslaving and oppressive. There is no one way in which the cross can be interpreted. I offer my reflections because I believe that the cross placed alongside the lynching tree can help us to see Jesus in America in a new light, and thereby empower people who claim to follow him to take a stand against white supremacy and every kind of injustice.”

James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree

Is it too much to hope and pray that today’s awkward moment in Baltimore help white Christians see the cross in the lynching tree, understand the sordid history of lynched (black) and lynchers (white), lay aside glib talk of a lynching, whether ignorant or intentional, and find our way beyond the collective sin of white supremacy.

Thank you, Elijah and James, for your witness and wisdom. The chariot has come to take you home. RIP.

Lying in State – “I will pray for you” – Hon. Elijah Cummings

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The Honorable Elijah Cummings, the first African American to lie in State in the U.S. Capitol, was the son of sharecroppers. However courageous his parents and grandparents were, they knew that the lynching tree was just a breath away. They would have seen white nationalism up close. Neither they nor their son nor any other black man, woman, or child spoke of lynchings metaphorically. A lynching was a lynching; the body hanging from the tree was always black. The lynchers were always white.

NOT A LYNCHING

Elijah Cummings knew the difference between an impeachment inquiry and a lynching. As Chair of the powerful U. S. House Oversight and Reform Committee, he oversaw his committee’s impeachment inquiry with great care and due respect, as an honorable man who knew the difference between a bi-partisan investigation of facts and a one-party lynch mob. He was a Democrat committed to the truth, due process, and justice.

CONDOLENCES TWEET: VERY HARD TO REPLACE

Shortly after the Congressman’s death was announced, the president did a very presidential thing. He paid his respects:

  My warmest condolences to the family and many friends of Congressman Elijah Cummings. I got to see first hand the strength, passion and wisdom of this highly respected political leader. His work and voice on so many fronts will be very hard, if not impossible, to replace!”

BEFORE CONDOLENCE TWEET


@realDonaldTrump
· Jul 27, 2019
Rep, Elijah Cummings has been a brutal bully, shouting and screaming at the great men & women of Border Patrol about conditions at the Southern Border, when actually his Baltimore district is FAR WORSE and more dangerous. His district is considered the Worst in the USA……

@realDonaldTrump
….As proven last week during a Congressional tour, the Border is clean, efficient & well run, just very crowded. Cumming District is a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess. If he spent more time in Baltimore, maybe he could help clean up this very dangerous & filthy place.

AFTER CONDOLENCES: WHITE PRIVILEGE, LYNCHINGS, AND TIT FOR TAT

Donald J. Trump
(@realDonaldTrump)
So some day, if a Democrat becomes President and the Republicans win the House, even by a tiny margin, they can impeach the President, without due process or fairness or any legal rights. All Republicans must remember what they are witnessing here – a lynching. But we will WIN! (1 day ago).

MAKING SENSE OUT OF WHAT DOES NOT MAKE SENSE

With the exception of the group of psychiatric professionals who have expressed their diagnoses about the President’s mental health, most professionals adhere to the strict protocol resisting diagnosing a person the practitioner does not know. If a professional in the field cannot and should not diagnose, neither should we. Yet we know Donald Trump better than many people know their own families. I’m a retired clergyman, not a psychiatrist, but I recognize the behavioral signs of mental illness.

ANTISOCIAL PERSONALITY DISORDER (ASPD)

Common signs to be aware of include:

  • socially irresponsible behavior
  • disregarding or violating the rights of others
  • inability to distinguish between right and wrong
  • difficulty with showing remorse or empathy
  • tendency to lie often
  • manipulating and hurting others
  • recurring problems with the law
  • general disregard towards safety and responsibility
  • a tendency to take risks,
  • reckless behavior,
  • being deceitful with frequent lying.

Someone exhibiting this behavior may also:

  • lack deep emotional connections,
  • have a superficial charm about them,
  • be very aggressive,
  • and get very angry sometimes.

Other behaviors that may be signs of ASPD include:

  • don’t care if they have hurt someone,
  • are impulsive and abusive and lack remorse.
  • In the case of ASPD, abusive doesn’t necessarily mean violent.

“I WILL PRAY FOR YOU”

To call a Congressional impeachment inquiry a “lynching” insults Elijah Cummings, all descendants of chattel slavery, and the U.S. Constitution’s provision for removal of a president from office after a public trial. An impeachment trial is not a lynching. Few people know that better than the Congressman who lies in State while the President lies.

Elijah Cummings was a man of character who practiced his faith, an exception to the rule of retaliation. The beloved Congressman from Baltimore is one of only two people on “the Hill” I’ve heard say of the president, “I will pray for you.”

— Gordon C. Stewart, author, Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017, Wipf and Stock), Chaska, MN, Oct. 23, 2019

The Vegetable Prayer

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Max Coots was our family’s John Muir, Robert Frost, and Wendell Berry. He was a naturalist and poet whose whimsy and wit lifted people from the doldrums of the harsh winters of the New York North Country. Max’s Seasons of the Self spoke to me years ago. His poem “A Harvest of People” — found during an internet search — put me again in the presence of his wit, wisdom, and gentle spirit.

Let us give thanks for a bounty of people:

For generous friends, with smiles as bright as their blossoms.
For feisty friends as tart as apples;
For continuous friends who, like scallions and cucumbers, keep reminding us that we’ve had them.
For crotchety friends, as sour as rhubarb and as indestructible;
For handsome friends, who are as gorgeous as eggplants and as elegant as a row of corn; and the others as plain as potatoes and as good for you.
For friends as unpretentious as cabbages, as subtle as summer squash, as persistent as parsley, as endless as zucchini, and who, like parsnips, can be counted on to see you through the winter.
For old friends, nodding like sunflowers in the evening-time.
For young friends, who wind around like tendrils and hold us.

We give thanks for friends now gone, like gardens past that have been harvested, but who fed us in their times that we might live.


Rev’d Max Coots (1927-2009) “A Harvest of People” Canton, New York

Max Coots was Minister of the Unitarian-Universalist Church in Canton, New York for thirty-five years. Every August, he found solitude along the Grasse River in the barn board retreat he’d built with materials he’d rescued from the dump. Max had a solar shower in 1973.

The other twelve months, Max was an old beech tree, providing shade in summertime and dropping beech nuts from the pulpit that kept alive a host of chipmunks and squirrels in wintertime.

— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, October 22, 2019.

Elijah Cummings and the Blue Note Gospel

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Photo of antique copy go Thomas a Kemis' Imitation of Christ.

“No one can be a speaker without risk to his soul unless first he is fulfilled when he says nothing….”Who enjoys tranquility? “The one who doesn’t take seriously either praise or lack of it from people.” – Thomas à Kempis (1379-1471)

Thomas à Kempis‘ words from the Imitation of Christ describe the human challenge to each of us: to be one person… everywhere…every day…all the time.

EVERYWHERE, EVER DAY, ALL THE TIME

Elijah Cummings never seemed to get too big for his britches. He seemed unaffected by praise or the lack of it — “a speaker” whose soul was uncorrupted by the need for public praise.

The child of sharecroppers, he stayed grounded in the black church in the “rat and rodent infested” city of Baltimore where he was free to be just another brother moaning the Blues and shouting the gospel shout in a stormy world, as Otis Moss III put it, while those enjoying the ease of white privilege were quiescent and mum, or worse.

America is living stormy Monday, but the pulpit is preaching happy Sunday. The world is experiencing the Blues, and pulpeteers are dispensing excessive doses on nonprescription prosaic sermons. . . . The church is becoming a place where Christianity is nothing more than capitalism in drag.

Rev. Otis Moss III, Pastor of Trinity United Church, author of Blue Note Preaching in a Post-Soul World.

THE BLUES MOAN AND THE GOSPEL SHOUT

Every year, every week, every year for 40 years, Elijah Cummings went back and forth between a different kind of church the mixes the Blues Moan and the Gospel Shout in such a way that they cannot be separated, and his chair in the United States Congress, where being yourself everywhere everyday all the time poses a daunting challenge. His long-time friend and pastor at New Psalm Baptist Church, Bishop Walter Thomas, said of him:

He’s the congressman, but to members, he is Brother Elijah Cummings. … He’s one of us. . . He sits in Congress. He has major concerns and issues he has to solve in the world Monday through Friday, and he sits beside them on Sunday morning. He seeks the same place to be fed as they do. To them, he is their brother in Christ.

Baltimore Sun, October 17, 2019

On stormy Mondays at the Capitol in recent weeks, we observed the Chair of the House of Representatives Oversight and Reform Committee fulfill his oath of office by demanding the truth from those in power while expressing compassion for those whom others scorn. The only ‘t’ he knew was ‘truth’; the only club to which he belonged had no entry fee. Insisting on the truth, he was a lion who roared like the Hebrew prophet Amos. “Come on now! We can do better!”

THE BLUE NOTE GOSPEL

When speaking to the “fixer” who had told the truth, the lion became as gentle as a lamb, expressing God’s anguish like the prophet Hosea. Speaking directly to Michael, he was a grandfather who practiced the Blue Note Gospel.

“I don’t know why this is happening for you. But it’s my hope that a small part of it is for our country to be better.”

Let me tell you the picture that really, really pained me. You were leaving the prison, you were leaving the courthouse, and, I guess it’s your daughter, had braces or something on. Man, that thing—man, that thing hurt me. As a father of two daughters, it hurt me. And I can imagine how it must feel for you. But I’m just saying to you—I want to first of all thank you. I know that this has been hard. I know that you’ve faced a lot. I know that you are worried about your family. But this is a part of your destiny. And hopefully this portion of your destiny will lead to a better, a better, a better Michael Cohen, a better Donald Trump, a better United States of America, and a better world. And I mean that from the depths of my heart.

Whether speaking with Michael or challenging those of his colleagues who returned home to the tees and greens of privilege, Elijah Cummings was the same. He was one person everywhere every day all the time. His integrity stayed intact.

“When we’re dancing with the angels, the question will be asked: In 2019, what did we do to make sure we kept our democracy intact? Did we stand on the sidelines and say nothing?”

“Come on now! We can do better than this!”

Elijah Cummings to the House of Representatives Oversight and Reform Committee

— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, October 18, 2019. For commentaries on the blues of white privilege, see “The Stories We Tell Ourselves” (p.71) and “The Forlorn Children of the Mayflower” (66f.) in Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017, Wipf & Stock, Eugene, OR).

The Riddle in the Mirror

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It’s 4:02 A.M. I should be asleep. I’m wrestling with an enigma, the one that looks back from the mirror. Shortly before calling it a day last night, I came upon the enigma, and having found it, couldn’t let it go, or it could be said that finding me, it wouldn’t let me go.

Looking at the clock next to the bed moments ago brought to mind the line from Chaim Potok about the “four-o’clock-in-the-morning questions.” Potok’s four-o’clock-in-the-morning questions arose from the dissonance of a traditional Hasidic Jew in a modern culture that does not know the Torah and the Talmud.

I brew a pot of coffee, pour a cup, sit down with my MacBook Air, and return to the enigma I met last night.

The riddle in my mirror

For now [in our immaturity] we see in a mirror [an αίνιγμα — ‘enigma/riddle’], but then [when we come to maturity] we will see face to face. Now I know in part [in fragments], but then I will know fully, just as I have been fully known [by God].

First Corinthians 13:12, GCS Greek to English translation

The Greek word αίνιγμα has nothing to do with dimness or poor eyesight (“now we see in a mirror dimly“). It’s deeper than that. It’s vexation. We are puzzles to ourselves, knowing some pieces of ourselves, but not having all the pieces of the puzzle(s). And the Greek text is better translated as ‘mature’ rather than ‘perfect’.

No question is more puzzling than the ancient question of who we are. Who am I, the man who cuts himself shaving in the mirror? Who are we, this evolving species changing day by day in this time of climate departure when the future of life on the planet is uncertain? Who and what are we becoming?

Sixteenth Century reformer John Calvin began his theological opus with these laser-like sentences at the tender age of 27 years old:

Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other.

Jean Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion

How I came to see life is rooted in this theological tradition. Like the characters of Potok’s novels who feel alone wrestling with the ancient Hebrew texts (Torah and Talmud), in one hand, and the culture of a very different time and place, those of us who still get up early in the morning with excitement of exploring an ancient Greek text highjacked by the Christian Right often feel placeless. Vexation is not popular, but, like Chaim Potok, I tell myself that wrestling with the riddle is who we are.

The face of my father

Looking in the mirror, I know less than I once thought, about the huge vexing questions of 2019. I’ll never have all the pieces or solve the enigma, but I do have some guiding fragments. I see my father’s kindly face looking back at me and reach up to the bookshelf to fetch the Bible which contains a pearl of great price: the prayer written by his own hand in pencil:

photo of prayer by Kenneth Campbell Stewart (my father) written in his Bible in pencil.

O Thou before whom ages pass away like minutes and in whose sight the mighty hosts of men are like a sparrow in the hand, keep our faith strong in Thee, confidence unshaken — Give clear insight as [we] face the days ahead. Help us so to entrust ourselves to Thy hands that in the awareness of Thy faithfulness we find all the security we need and in Thy service all our peace.

Elijah Cummings

Then the news broke in that Elijah Cummings died at approximately 2:45 A.M. this morning at Johns Hopkins Medical Center in Baltimore. Congressman Cummings was a man of deep faith, a beacon of compassion and integrity who spoke kindly words of hope to Michael Cohen about the power of forgiving grace while chairing a House of Representatives Oversight Committee hearing. Elijah Cummings died in the city he loved and served as a public servant in service to his Lord.

First Corinthians 13 concludes with words of consolation and hope, the clue to living the riddle. “So faith, hope, and love abide, but the greatest of these is love.”

— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, October 17, 2019

Fake news from the Pearly Gates

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Maid exposes Peter in the courtyard. The Denial of St Peter by Gerard van Honthorst (1622-24)

Saint Peter: Greetings, Donald. I’ve been expecting you, but not so soon. I have a few questions before you go through the Pearly Gates to the streets of gold.

Donald: Sure, fire away. I’m very familiar with pearly gates. It can’t be much better than Mar-a-Lago. Fire away!

Mar-a-Lago Club entrance gate

Okay, Donald. But I have to warn you–everyone up here is equal. There are no private clubs. No towers. No penthouses. No White Houses. No barrios. No borders. No trade restrictions. No nations. No classes other than the de-programming and re-training classes. Everyone has free medical care. No one is rich. No one is poor. It’s a lot like Karl Marx hoped society would be … except for God. Karl was surprised. Are you ready?

Are you serious!!! Why would I want to go in there? This is crazy. Karl Marx was evil. Communism was evil. Socialism is evil. Obama’s evil. Nancy’s evil! Are they here?

Barack and Nancy haven’t arrived yet, but, when their time comes, we’ll treat them the same way we treat everyone else. Lots of your friends are here in the re-training course: Joe [McCarthy], Roy [Cohn], other members of the Trump family.

What about Karl? He’s been dead a long time.

Karl is enjoying the pleasures of the equality he preached while still with you. Karl’s big surprise was that there is a God.

I don’t want to be any place where Karl is welcome. Jerry [Falwell] and Franklin [Graham] told me all about the Judgment. No way Karl is here! No way!

I guess that’s a matter of judgment, don’t you think?

Right. I’m President. I make the judgments. I decide.

I see. It seems you don’t quite get it, Donald. There are no presidents here. No one owns any property here. Everyone here is a child, just like Jesus said. Can I call you ‘Donnie’?

No. I hate that! Mother called me ‘Donnie’. My dad called me ‘Don’.

Okay, Don, I won’t call you ‘Donnie’.

And don’t call me ‘Don’. Dad kicked me out of the house and sent me away to a military academy. I hated that!

But your dad did help you avoid the draft, right? That bone spur thing. Remember?

I did have bone spurs! They were terrible!

Do you still have them? Show me your foot. Everyone up here has bare feet. There are no shoes. Nothing is hidden. Let me see your foot.

No, they’re gone!

Donald, bone spurs don’t just go away, and, when they’ve been removed, the foot will bear the scars from surgery. Show me your foot.

I don’t have a scar! My sister came to the rescue with EZorb. It went away! I’m not hiding anything. I don’t hide things like the fake news and the whistleblowers.

I see. Donald we have a truth problem. Your sister couldn’t have given you EZorb. It didn’t exist when the draft board gave you the deferments. Truth is truth up here, Donald.

That’s fake news! Fake news! You’re part of the deep state that was out to get me.

I’m sorry you feel that way, Donald. Here it doesn’t matter how you feel. It matters what you did. Only facts matter here.

I was making America great again. I’m not like you. I never let a maid expose me out in the courtyard!

You’re in for a great surprise. This is not Mar-a-Largo. Here the maids who spoke truth in the courtyards and cleaned the toilets, and all the undocumented workers, are equal to everyone else. It’s only a matter of time before your family’s driver and all those people at the border join the maids and me up here.

You believe everything you read in the Times? What driver?

Zoltan Tamas, who’s been in ICE lock-up for the last six months.

I don’t know anything about that! It’s all fake news. All fake news!

I’m sorry, Donald. You’ve failed the test. But, like I said, there’s grace here. Feel free take a seat here outside the Pearly Gates until your family’s driver and all the other ICE detainees arrive. In the meantime, a little scripture might help prepare you for the re-training.

I don’t need re-training by a loser, a big time lose just like Judas! Anyway, I didn’t bring my Bible.

I know! You don’t have a Bible, Donald. So…Click THIS LINK for Jesus’s surprising story of the sheep and the goats, the parable of the Last Judgment, to help you understand why people go through re-training here. The Losers turn out to be Winners, and the Winners are Losers. We do our best up here to keep hell empty!

— Gordon C. Stewart. public theologian, Chaska, MN, October 16, 2019

American Crisis

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THE AMERICAN CRISIS TODAY

Whether the American constitutional republic survives the present crisis depends on us no less than it did when Thomas Paine challenged the American public at the beginning of the American experiment.

THE AMERICAN CRISIS: THOMAS PAINE

Photograph of original text of The American Crisis Number 1 by the author of COMMON SENSE, Thomas Paine.

These are the times that try men’s souls: the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. – Common Sense.

Thomas Paine was the American Revolution journalist whose pamphlets by the title “Common Sense” supported independence from the British crown. Paine published those words on December 19, 1776 in Pennsylvania Journal. He spoke them to the American Continental Army one week later.

SHRINKING OR STANDING

The American crisis then was the survival of a dream. Would the American people stand up or would they be fair-weather patriots — summer soldiers and sunshine patriots?

In April 1775 the colonists had begun the rebellion against King George and all things royal, but the temptation to return to monarchical rule has never be far away. The result of the revolution was a democratic republic based on a non-monarchical constitution that divided the powers of government into three separate and equal branches — congressional, executive, and judicial. The U.S. Constitution was crafted to establish limits on executive authority. There would be no king in the new American democratic republic.

BEN FRANKLIN WARNING

In these sentiments, Sir, I agree to this Constitution, with all its faults, – if they are such; because I think a general Government necessary for us, and there is no form of government but what may be a blessing to the people, if well administered; and I believe, farther, that this is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic government, being incapable of any other.

BEN FRANKLIN, SPEECH TO THE CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION, JUNE 28, 1787.

“WHEN THE PEOPLE SHALL BECOME SO CORRUPTED”

Well-administered government is necessary for us. The success of the American experiment. i.e. a non-monarchical democratic republic, depended on an uncorrupted electorate and uncorrupted administration of the three equal branches under the new U.S. Constitution.

Government itself is not evil. Despotism is. Despotic government is the end product of a corrupted people incapable of the uncertain complexities of the separation of powers. The desire for a strong man in times of uncertainty like ours is only checked by the protections of the U.S. Constitution. A strong man is not King George. Franklin saw the elevation of a corrupt despot by a corrupted people above the equal powers of Congress and the judiciary as the nation’s greatest threat. The longing for the return of King George was the stuff of summer soldiers and sunshine patriots.

THE KNOT OF CRUELTY AND RECKLESSNESS

The knot in my stomach has a history. I remember the same knot while watching Joseph McCarthy and Roy Cohn until Joseph Welch spoke the lines that would stop McCarthy: “Until this moment . . . . I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness. . . . . You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency? Have you no sense of decency left?”

The U.S. Senate later censured McCarthy for his reckless character assassinations of his fellow citizens whose left-of-center politics he suspected of communist sympathies or allegiances. McCarthy all but disappeared. Roy Cohn did not. Cohn went on to become the lawyer for media mogul Rupert Murdoch ; Mafia figures Tony SalernoCarmine Galante, and John Gotti;and real estate developer Donald Trump. “In 1986, a five-judge panel of the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court disbarred Cohn for unethical and unprofessional conduct, including misappropriation of clients’ funds, lying on a bar application, and pressuring a client to amend his will.” (Roy Cohn, Wikipedia)

CONSCIENTIOUS PERSISTANCE

Only an informed electorate that persistently demands uncorrupted government under the division of powers of the U.S. Constitution will save us from the despotic government a corrupted people deserve. This is a time that tries our souls. Those who stand now will be loved and thanked by their children and grandchildren.

— Gordon C. Stewart, author, Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (Jan. 2017, Wipf & Stock, Eugene, OR), Chaska, MN, October 15, 2019.

Collective Delusion

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AN UNLIKELY COINCIDENCE

“What’s the book about?” asked friends while preparing Be Still! for publication. I would scratch my head and answered as best I could: “It’s about a certain kind of calm and resistance in a world gone mad.” The release of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness, through no intention of the publisher or the author, coincided with the inauguration of a new president (January 2017).

QUIET! BE STILL!

The title “Be Still!” is taken from Psalm 46 — “Be still, and know that I am God” — and from the Gospel according to Mark story of the command to the storm-tossed sea: “Quiet! Be still!” Both the psalm and “the stilling of the storm” address our plight — the mass dehumanization which Holocaust surviver Elie Wiesel called “collective madness”.

How to explain the Holocaust is a life-long question for my generation. Elie Wiesel‘s “collective madness” comes as close as any other to the daunting question of why the German people fell for a madman and stayed quiet.

COLLECTIVE SELF-DELUSION

[F]ew Germans after the war would confess having given any loyalty to the Nazi movement. This was not a lie in the soul of the German nation; it was a part of a collective delusion that all the fascist movements brought upon their followings. It was as if the movements themselves, as things independent of the men that embodied them, were responsible for the things that happened.

Gilbert Allardyce, The Place of Fascism in European History (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1971)

SOMEDAY THEY WILL SAY, “WE DID NOT KNOW”

Well-publicized among Germans, already before Hitler came to power and during a period when he still depended on their consent rather than coercion, were the many actual deeds of butchery…. Some day the same Germans, now cheering Hitler’s strut into Paris, will say to their American friends and to their brave German anti-Nazi friends: “We did not know what went on, we did not know” and when that day of know-nothing comes, there will be laughter in hell.

Peter Viereck, German-American Scholar, Metapolitics: The Roots of the Nazi Mind, rev. ed. (1941; New York: Capricorn, 1965), 318

PRINCIPALITIES AND POWERS

For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.

Epistle to the Ephesians 6:12 (KJV)

The language of the Bible regarding principalities – the ruling authorities, the angelic powers, the demons, and the like – sounds, I suppose, strange in modern society, but these words in fact refer to familiar realities in contemporary life. The principalities refer to those entities in creation which nowadays are called institutions, ideologies, and images. Thus a nation is a principality. Or the Communist ideology is a principality. Or the public image of a human being, say a movie star or a politician, is a principality. The image or legend of Marilyn Monroe or Franklin Roosevelt is a reality, distinguishable from the person bearing the same name, which survives and has its own existence apart from the existence of the person.

William Stringfellow, Instead of Death (Expanded version)

THIRTY-THREE MONTHS AND COUNTING

Thirty-three months after the release of Be Still!, many of my generation hear echos from 1933. Though the “enemies” are different, the tactics and the language of national purification are the same, defying rational explanation. The principalities and powers which survive have their own existence apart from the persons who come under the spell of collective delusion and collective madness.

DISARMING THE PRINCIPALITIES AND POWERS

We humans are social creatures. but we are do not do well when herds become the substitute for self-critical community. The still, small Voice is heard away from the clamor. The life of a nation and every other principality and power is a spiritual matter before and after it is a political matter.

“Be still! Shut up! and know that I am God. I am exalted among the nations” (Psalm 46).

Elijah and Mr. Quisling

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UNCLE GARY’S LETTER

Photo of Mr. Quisling (c. 1919)

Elijah’s Uncle Gary sent a letter for Elijah from Norway.

Uncle Gary “met” Vidkun Quisling, Norway’s WWII fascist traitor, at the Center for Studies of the Holocaust and Religious Minorities in Oslo. The Center is housed in Mr. Quisling‘s former home, Villa Grande.

CONVERSATION BETWEEN BUMPA AND ELJAH

How was daycare today, Elijah?

You should have been there, Bumpa. You’d love daycare!

Well, we didn’t have daycare when I was your age, but daycare may be in my future.

I sure hope so. You’ll love the slide, Bumpa!

Elijah, I slide every day, but not the way you do.

Where? You and Gamma live in a condo. You don’t have a yard like we have at daycare. You don’t have a slide. You don’t have a swing either.

Oh, I do, Elijah. I do! It’s hard to understand at your age. It’s a metaphor. Bumpa swings up and down, back and forth, and slides further down the rabbit hole every day. Our country’s in big trouble.

You should read Uncle Gary’s letter again, Bumpa. You’ll feel a lot better.

Why’s that?

Mr. Quisling died a long time ago far, far away in Norway. Uncle Gary says he was execrated as a traitor. You don’t have to worry anymore about him, Bumpa. Was Mr. Quisling ever depeached?

  • Gordon C. Stewart (two year-old Elijah’s Grandfather [“Bumpa”]), Chaska, MN, October 11, 2019

Three Guys in a Bar

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THE FIRST DUTY OF LOVE

Americans say the word ‘love’ a lot! Nearly all of us do. But, except for members of the armed forces, we don’t much like the word ‘duty‘. How is it, then, that one of the greatest intellects of the 20th century known for his often inscrutable philosophical theology, Paul Tillich, put ‘love’ and ‘duty’ together in one short sentence?

The first duty of love is to listen.

Perhaps Tillich’s German culture might help explain his coupling duty and love. Duty is higher on German culture’s ladder of human virtues than in Tillich’s adopted home in the United States where ‘freedom’ rather than ‘duty’ is seen as love’s companion.

WATCHING LESTER HOLT AT THE RESTAURANT BAR

Lester Holt of NBC’s Nightly News is on the television screens behind the bar. Kay sits to my left; a stranger is on my right. We can’t hear the sounds, but the visuals leave no doubt about the day’s lead stories:

  • Sixteen year-old climate change activist Greta Thunberg is at the podium of the United Nations, issuing an urgent call for action now, before it’s too late.
  • The President of the USA drops by the meeting on climate change . . . for 15 minutes;
  • Speaker Nancy Pelosi announces an impeachment inquiry, a decision taken in consideration of the Trump-appointed Inspector-General’s finding that a whistleblower’s complaint appears credible and is of urgent concern to national security.
  • Away from the television cameras and microphones, President Trump and Ukrainian President Zelenskiy meet to discuss matters of common interest.

FAILING LOVE’S FIRST DUTY AT THE BAR

The guy sitting to my right watches in silence. He looks neither happy nor unhappy. He seems perplexed, staring at Lester and the verbal summaries of each news item.

Finally he shakes his head and breaks the silence. “Just like that Mueller thing. They already wasted thirty-million dollars on that Russian thing, and they got nothing. Now they’re going to waste our tax money again.” I shake my head “No” and ask whether he knows that the Mueller report does not exonerate the president on the question of obstruction of justice. He listens and says he didn’t know that. I continue, rather politely, or so I thought, until reading the note my wife slipped in front of me:

You’ve just ruined this place for us.

The 20-something bartender chimes in from behind the bar. “I don’t care about politics. All I know is — any politician who doesn’t take a paycheck is okay by me. I’m good with that.” I bite my lip and order a second Manhattan. Being human is hard!

LOVE’S FIRST DUTY: JESUS, A PHARISEE, AND W.H. AUDEN

The guys at the bar don’t know I’m a Presbyterian and couldn’t care less if they did. But I should have told them! A bit like the Friends (“Quakers”), we hold a high respect for the right and duty of conscience. We stand up for what is right, true, and good, as we understand it. In doing so, we are often guilty of ignoring the log in our own eye while pointing to the speck in our neighbor’s. Given that I’d ruined our favorite place, it’s not likely we’ll see each other again. And that’s a shame, all because I’d forgotten that the deepest duty of conscience is to love, and the first duty of love is to listen.

The Pharisee was right when he answered Jesus’s question about the summary of the Law. “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.” Or, as W.H. Auden put it:

You shall love your crooked neighbor, with your crooked heart.

“Either we serve the Unconditional/Or some Hitlerian monster will supply/ An iron convention to do evil by.”

W.H. Auden

— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, September 30, 2019.

Elijah asks about craters and creezin

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A conversation between two year-old Elijah and old Grandpa (Bumpa)

Bumpa, you’re old. You know LOTS of stuff. What’s a crater?

Where’d you hear about craters, Elijah? Have you been watching the nature channel at daycare?

We don’t have the nature channel at daycare. We watch stuff for kids on PBS.

I don’t think we have any craters here in Minnesota.

Whew! So we don’t have to look out for craters?

Are you sure you have the right word?

Yeah. It’s all over the news this week. Didn’t you watch Adam Sniff?

Let’s make sure we’re talking about the same thing. Let’s look it up.

Yeah, let’s look it up. You want to do it? Or you want me to do it?

Let’s do it together on my iPad. I’ll be right back.

You don’t to have go upstairs, Bumpa. I don’t want ya falling. I have Mom’s iPhone right here. I use it all the time.

Okay, just google the word ‘crater’ and let’s see what comes up.

I don’t spell yet. I’m still liddle, but I know my ABCs. Sometimes in my car seat I punch a bunch of buttons and somebody Mom doesn’t know talks to me on FaceTime!

Okay. Let Bumpa do it. I’m 77. Okay?

Okay.

Let’s just google crater and see what we learn.

Finding Wikipedia satellite photo in Google search

There we go, Elijah. Here’s a picture of Crater Lake in Oregon. Gandpa and Grandma have been to see it.

Crater Lake satellite photo.

Here’s what it says on Wikipedia:

Around 7,700 years ago, Mount Mazama erupted in Oregon, disgorging 15 cubic miles of magma over the western United States. It took a quarter of a millennium of snow and rain to fill the caldera with the serene waters wanderlust hikers now know as Crater Lake. Image from a RapidEye satellite.

Wikipedia Crater lake description.

I don’t get it, Bumba! So why would anyone call somebody a ‘crater’? We’re not sposed to call people names, right?

Right! Maybe you have the wrong word. Or the wrong spelling. What was the other word you asked about?

Elijah asks about creezins

Yeah. Creezin! It’s like craters! Don’t you ever listen to the news?

I do. I listen to MPR when I’m driving.

Yeah, Mom and I do too on the way to daycare and on the way home. We get lots of news. It’s an hour drive each way. It’s like ‘crater’.

I see. Was there a volcanic eruption? I must have missed it.

Geez! It’s all over the news. Creezin! Everybody’s talking about it. Don’t ya know?

You mean raisins? Granpa eats raisin bran every morning.

Uh-oh! Are they going to throw you and Gamma out? Are they going to de-peach you cause you eat raisin bran? You’re white, but don’t live in a white house, right? Did you commit creezin?

Not to worry, Elijah. We’re safe. Grandma and are not going to be de-peached. Any other word you don’t understand?

Elijah asks Bumpa about cranes

photo of U.S.  Postage 3-cent Wildlife Conservation postage stamp of whooping cranes.

Yeah. Ucrane. We have sandhill cranes and trumpeter swans at the cabin, right? Are there any ucranes?

We have sandhill cranes and frumpeter swans on the wetland, Elijah. So far as we know, there are no cranes by rhe cabin. It’s a long way from the news.

We’re like Greta, right? We’re conservationists, right, Bumpa? Do ucranes whistle? Or do they also whoop and honk?

–Conversation between Grandpa (Bumpa) and 2 yr.-old grandson (Elijah), Chaska, MN, September 28, 2019.

The Measures of Ourselves

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Midtown Manhattan viewed from Weehauken, NJ, photo by Dmitry Avdeev.

THE FOUNDATION AND THE MORTAR

Who are we? Can we suspend shouting long enough to reflect on who and what we in the United States aspire to be? By what social norms do we measure a person’s or a nation’s well-being? A culture’s shared values form the foundation on which a society is built. Every culture is both an inheritance and a work in process. Without thoughtful care, time and neglect eat away the mortar between the foundation’s bricks.

FOUNDATIONS OF A DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC

The Constitution represents the boundaries of that consensus. If we didn’t know it before, we know in 2019 that the constitutional republic we call the United States of America is no Eden. Lord knows, Abel’s blood still cries out from our history and Cain’s inexplicable, impulsive violence will stain our hands again. Repeatedly. Sin is like that. It crouches at the door as in the Genesis legend. There is no perfect culture or society. Although we miss the mark (which is what the biblical word ‘sin’ means) by intention or by inattention, it falls on each of us to reaffirm and refresh the cultural code and ethical norms by which we measure ourselves personally and collectively. These measures are not abstract.

TRADITIONAL CULTURAL’S MORTAR — NORMS AND MEASURES

  • Be respectful
  • Don’t call people names.
  • Don’t make fun of people
  • Be kind
  • Be honest/tell the truth
  • Your word is your bond
  • Deal fairly with each other
  • Show compassion
  • Empathize with those less fortunate than yourself
  • Be generous with your money
  • Help those who suffer
  • Be true to yourself, but be ready to compromise
  • Settle disagreements peacefully
  • Don’t get too big for your britches
  • Be humble
  • Do not show off
  • Be above board in your dealings with others
  • Love your family
  • Respect the individual right to religious belief and practice
  • Honor the principle of free speech
  • Protect a free press
  • Be courageous and patient

TUCKPOINTING THE MORTAR

stone mason tuck pointing the mortar

Check out the mortar. Is it holding? Where does it need tuck pointing? Re-assess traditional culture’s tangible ways of measuring the quality of human life. Delete those you consider outdated. Add other measures you believe should be added. Then look in the mirror. Look at your behavior. Look at what you choose to watch and hear. Think again about who and what you want us to be. See the mortar crumbling. But don’t stop there. Despair is no excuse. Get up and do something to repair the foundation of humankind’s best nature.

— Gordon C. Stewart by the wetland, September 16, 2019

Rubbing My Eyes: How Long, Lord? How Long?

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“Watching Dorian’s devastation of the Bahamas while being hit by an avalanche of tweets that treat tragedy as a television opportunity has left me speechless. Nothing from the White House connects the dots — the growing frequency of 100 year storms, floods, and fires (weather) — with an urgent call to act now on climate change. The planet’s lungs are on fire in the Amazon while the man who promises to make american great again shreds established regulations put in place to protect water, air, our forests, and soil. Meanwhile $3.1 B are stripped from FEMA and national security to pay for the wall for which we were promised the Mexican government would pay. I feel like the psalmist. ‘How long, Lord? How long?'”

Those words went up on FB yesterday, breaking a long silence on FB and here on Views from the Edge. That was before reading Katha Pollitt’s piece in The Nation. “Almost Everything Bad that Trump Did This Summer” details some of the Trump Administration behavior between June 3 and September 1, 2019.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, September 6, 2019

Elijah on The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig

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ELIJAH WATCHING THE BIG BAD PIG ON MOM’s iPAK

Photo of Elijah in bed watching the story of The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig on an iPad.
Two year old Elijah learns of The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig

CONVERSATION OF ELIJAH AND BUMPA (GRAMPA) ABOUT THE BIG BAD PIG

Good morning, Elijah! You look happy this morning. Whatcha doin’?

Watchin’ a story on Mom’s iPak. I love Mom’s iPak. This one’s REALLY good, Bumpa!

You mean ‘iPad’. What’s it about?

Three liddle wolves and the big bad pig. You know the story!

Hmmm. Well, I do know a story, but I think you have the characters backwards. It’s three little PIGS and a big bad WOLF!

Uhuh! I’m watching it right now, Bumpa. It’s real! The Big Bad Pig destroys the three houses of the three liddle wolves.

There’s a story Bumpa and Gamma grew up with, but it’s the Big Bad Wolf who’s bad. The Big Bad Wolf huffs and he puffs and he blows down two of the three little pigs’ houses but can’t blow down the third little pig’s house because the third little pig build his house of brick. The Big Bad Wolf couldn’t blow it down.

Nope! Different story! This is about the Big Bad Pig. Pigs are greedy, Bumpa. Pigs are nasty! The Big Bad Pig blows up all the houses, even the one made with brick and the one made of concrete. But then the three liddle wolves give up on security. They build a house made of flowers!

So they’re hippies!

What?

Hippies. Hippies were the “flower children.” People who wanted to make America better by ending the Big Bad Pig’s war in Vietnam. Hippies wanted peace.

That’s over my head, Bumpa! I don’t know about Vietnam! Gamma doesn’t talk like that. She knows I’m just liddle. She still changes my diapers. You never ever change my diapers! I like Gamma better!

I’m so sorry, Elijah. Gamma is a much better person than Bumpa.

But here’s the thing. The Big Bad Pig is at the G-7 meeting insulting America’s friends, and we’ll be stuck with his mess!

READ ALONG WITH ELIJAH ON MOM’S IPAK.

Gordon C. Stewart (Bumpa), Chaska, MN, August 24, 2019

In Search of Rest

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“To rest is to give up on the already exhausted will as the prime motivator of endeavor, with its endless outward need to reward itself with established goals. … To rest is to give up on worrying and fretting and the sense that there is something wrong with the world unless we are there top put it right.” - David Whyte, Consolations: the Solace, Nourishment, and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words.
photograph of cabin by the wetland showing orange wall with morning light.

In search of rest, I retreat from the world of 2019 and my “already exhausted will”. The walls inside the cabin by the wilderness are rough-cut pine, the natural color of the president’s orange hair. Alas! The world comes with me, even by the wetland: I cannot rest from comparisons and disdaining thoughts of orange hair and Greenland.

I’m worrying and fretting, wanting to put the world right: rescue the English language from the words that paint the world orange: words like ‘bad’…’good’ … ’nasty’ … ‘nice’ …’not nice’ … ‘loyal’ … ‘disloyal’, that divide, blame, simplify, stereotype, scapegoat, and choke the best in us. Words do matter. The unexamined underlying meaning of words matters most.

First thing in the morning, while Barclay is still asleep in his kennel, I do what I once disdained as flight from action. The word ‘devotional’ has a different meaning now. A ‘devotional’ is not an escape from responsibility. The half-hour devotional is what it says: to devote attention to the Source of consolation and solace in the world that makes my head hurt. Here at the cabin, I devote my attention to the Psalm before checking the mouse trap.

Sometimes the Psalm consoles; other days it does not. When something in the Psalm whets my appetite for the underlying meaning of the words, I turn to the Paraphrases of the Church of Scotland. The Paraphrases, like scripture itself, take me to an earlier time that knew nothing of the United States, Greenland, Denmark, or Mexico, orange hair, or the “summer camps” for migrant children along the border.  I read the Paraphrase of Psalm 146:

The stranger’s shield, the widow’s stay,
     the orphan’s help is he:
  But yet by him the wicked’s way
     turned upside down shall be. 
  — Psalm 146:9, Paraphrases

Consoled and nearly comforted by David Whyte and the old Scot paraphrase of the ancient Psalm, I put down the Paraphrases to fill Barclay’s bowl with fresh dog food before freeing him from his kennel, remembering the One,

Who righteous judgment executes
   for those oppress’d that be,
 Who the hungry giveth food;
   God sets the pris’ners free.
-- Ps. 146:7

But first I free from the trap the orange mouse my dog shall never see.

– Gordon C. Stewart, by the Minnesota wetland, August 22, 2019.

Who owns Greenland?

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The Song in My Head

Have you ever found yourself humming a tune when you wake up in the morning? Sometimes the tune reaches back to childhood. My small church in the small town west of Philadelphia sang hymns that became childhood favorites. As I grew into adulthood, some of them drop away as childish.

One answer to why I would hum “This Is my Father’s world” all these years later suggested itself over coffee. The featured story of The Washington Post’s National Weekly: “Extreme climate change is here” accompanied by a map of rising temperatures across the United States.

front page, Washington Post National Weekly in collaboration with Star Tribune, 8/18/19

Climate Change and the Illusion of Property

While the planet’s oceans warm, the glaciers of Glacier National Park, polar ice caps melt beyond the tipping point, fires ravage the redwood forests, hundred year floods have become frequent, and the pale blue dot turns brown, “our listening ears” hear talk of buying Greenland. The Greenlanders and the Danes are too occupied with the melting ice and rising sea levels to be distracted by a foolish real estate offer.

The simple childhood hymn no longer sounds childish. It feels more child-like, full of the wonder that is the antidote to adult presumptions of property ownership. “This is my Father’s world, and to my listening ears all nature rings the music of the spheres. This is my Father’s world: I rest me in the thought of rocks and trees, of skies and seas, his hand the wonders wrought.”

Faith, Nature, and God

Climate change is the challenge of our time. Not just one of many challenges. It is both the most urgent, i.e., it cries out for action NOW, and the most important to the future of all that lives on this planet hanging among the spheres. Believing that Earth is a divine gift placed in our hands as stewards of nature, and wanting to remember the words of “This is my Father’s world,” I took out the Presbyterian hymnal of my childhood and the 1982 hymnal of the Episcopal Church.

From Wonder to Responsible Action

The last stanza in both hymnals ends with our responsibility, as though a century ago Maltbie Babcock (1858-1901), the lyric’s author, had anticipated the island of trash the size of Texas floating in the Pacific Ocean. This hymn on which my childhood friends and I were raised moves from wonder (awe) through recognition that “the wrong is great and strong” toward responsibility for the planet. “This is my Father’s world, oh let us not forget that though the wrong is great and strong, God is our Father yet. He trusts us with his world, to keep it clean and fair, all earth and trees, all skies and seas, all creatures everywhere.”

It is likely that Maltbie Babcock did not think what he wrote overlooking Niagara Falls was worthy of dissemination. It remained private until published by his wife after his death. Maltbie Babcock seems to have viewed “This is my Father’s world” as a personal expression of wonder beneath the literary standards of good poetry. But ”This is my Father’s world” strikes a chord at the tipping point of climate departure.

photo of Niagara Falls

It is likely that Maltbie Babcock did not think what he wrote overlooking Niagara Falls was worthy of dissemination. It remained private until his wife published it after his death. Maltbie Babcock seems to have viewed “This is my Father’s world” as a personal expression of wonder beneath the literary standards of good poetry. But ”This is my Father’s world” strikes a child-like chord standing at the tipping point of climate departure in 2019.

No one owns Niagara Falls. No one owns Greenland. No one owns the world.

— Gordon C. Stewart, heading north to the wilderness retreat, August 19, 2019.

Something about long, lazy days and whirring air conditioners

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Consider the contrast between Live and Learn‘s appreciation for Earth’s seasons and Franklin Graham’s focus on heaven in a recent Fox radio interview chastising public figures who openly reject or express doubts about their Christian faith.

“I’m going to keep telling people how they can have a relationship with God how they can have their sins forgiven and how it can make and have that hope of heaven one day by putting their faith and trust in Jesus Christ.”

Franklin Graham, Fox radio interview with Todd Starnes Click THIS LINK for more.

Although the Live and Learn quote from Sarah Dessen’s That Summer is not specifically theological, it captures the contrast between two kinds of religion. One celebrates life (“So much in one summer, stirring up like the storms that crest at the end of each day, blowing out all the heat and dirt to leave everything gasping and cool”) and seeks to live responsibly on the planet.

The other kind of religion sees faith as the ticket to heaven (a paradisal life after life), instead of eternal punishment in you know what, while the sweet smell of honeysuckle is overcome by the smell of sizzling asphalt and the porpoises wash ashore because of plastic.

Click HERE for he post “Something about long, lazy days and whirring air conditioners” on Live and Learn.

The Hoodie in the Hood

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The Hoodie at Four A.M. – Washington D.C.

It’s four o’clock in the morning. He’s wide awake, his mind swirling. He puts on the hoodie disguise to walk from his white house to the tenement in the ‘hood’ he’s visited before. He avoids the Secret Service and television cameras. He enters the building, takes a deep breath, and lowers himself to climb the rusting metal stairs to the fifth floor walk-up apartment in hopes no one will recognize him.

The tenement-dweller has been waiting for him since their last visit months before. The door is ajar. The tenement-dweller never locks the door. No one needs to knock. The homeless, “women of the night”, pimps, people on the other side of the law, and cops who enforce it, alcoholics and drug addicts, the opioid and heroin dealers, and people in high white places are always welcome here.

The Tenement-Dweller: the Man in the Hood

“Welcome, friend,” says the tenement-dweller. “I’ve wondered when you might come for another visit.” He points to the dumpster chairs — the folding wood chair with the missing slat and the torn red leather wingback to the left and right of the small cardboard box end table. The night visitor chooses the high wingback.

“Can I get you something to drink?” asks the tenement dweller. “I have a nice variety of perfectly good teas. Not to worry; they’re from the dumpster, but they’re still in their wrappers,” he says with a smile. “Camomile is good for a restless night.” The night visitor nods his assent and watches his counselor walk past the rat traps to the Coleman stove and return with the kettle, an assortment of tea bags, two chipped cups, and a small plate of ginger snaps he’d put together for whatever guest might come that morning.

“There’s not much room on this table,” says the tenement dweller, pointing to the cardboard box with the small lamp between the chairs. “Would you mind removing that book to make room for the tray?” The tenement dweller pours the hot water into the cups, and, with a warm smile, gestures toward the tea bags and ginger snaps.

A Privileged Conversation

“Things haven’t gone so well for you since our last visit. You’re still wearing that hoodie! I like that! So … what brings you this morning?”

The night visitor removes his hood.

“I’m a stranger in my own house. I’m more alone than ever. My beautiful wife and beautiful daughter are upset about the thing at the border, and now the Epstein thing. And . . . yesterday the Scaramucci thing. And who knows what’s going to come out of Michael’s big mouth! I can’t even trust FOX any more.”

There is a silence before the tenement-dweller responds.

“Well, that’s a lot to carry.”

“It is. I’m weary and heavy-laden.That’s why I’m here. I’m taking you at your word.”

“I see. I’m glad you remembered, and I’m glad you came back to lay your burden down. But first, I need to clear the air a bit. You hurt my feelings when you attacked Elijah Cummings with those tweets about his district and his character. You called his district a rat and rodent-infested mess. Take a look around, Donald. What do you see? That’s where you are. Take a look at me. What color do you think I am?

“And all those people in concentration camps at the border, the wink-winks toward the gun lobby after all these mass shootings, and the cruelty of calling poor people fleeing for their lives ‘invaders.’ You know as well as I do that there is no invasion at the border. The people in those camps and the people in my neighborhood are as dear to me as you are. And now this thing with Israel and two Muslim congresswomen. It’s off the rails, Donald. If I didn’t know your need, I would have assumed you’d never put on the hoodie again.

The Book on the Box

“That book from the table, the one on your lap, I got just for you, Donald. I want you to take it home and read it.”

“I don’t read much. I’m a slow reader.”

“I know, and you hide it. You’re embarrassed by it. But it’s just the two of us here.  So, let’s do this. You don’t have to read the whole book. Just turn to the bookmarked page and read the highlighted sections I marked for you after our last visit. Read it out loud while we’re still together.”

Donald opens the book and reads aloud:

“The more insecure, doubtful, and lonely we are, the greater our need for popularity and praise. Sadly … the more praise we receive, the more we desire. The hunger for human acceptance is like a bottomless barrel….The search for spectacular glitter is an expression of doubt in God’s complete and unconditional acceptance of us. It is, indeed, putting God to the test. It is saying, ‘I am not sure that you really care, that you really love me, that you really consider me worthwhile. I will give you a chance to show it by soothing my fears with human praise and by alleviating my sense of worthlessness by human applause….’ The….experience of God’s acceptance frees us from our needy self and thus creates new space where we can pay selfless attention to others. This new freedom in Christ allows us to move in the world uninhibited by our compulsions….”

Henri Nouwen, The Selfless Way of Christ: Downward Mobility and the Spiritual Life

“You got this thinking of me? You think I’m insecure? You think I’m moving in the world compulsively? I don’t need praise, but look at the applause! They love me. They support me. I could shoot somebody in broad daylight standing in the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue, and they’d still love me. I can do whatever I want.”

“Take the book with you, Donald. What I know that you don’t yet know is in the other sections I highlighted just for you. Applause is not love. If applause were love, you wouldn’t have disguised yourself. You wouldn’t have risked coming here. Love is something else. In the end, love is all there is. Think about that on your walk back, and read those pages over and over. Read them every morning before you think about tweeting. Only then will you not feel homeless.”

— Gordon C. Stewart, by the wetland, MN, August 16, 2019.

The River of Consciousness

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How and why the mind works the way it does came to mind these past few days. My mind has been like a river pouring over rapids and waterfalls, splitting into two or three paths around the islets that still rise from the riverbed, and then returning from two or three to one river with a single flow.

Niagara Falls

Integrating one’s plunges over the falls, side trips around the islets, and tumbling over rapids is what the mind does as it looks back upstream from down river. More often than not, one’s life is a blur. We move with the flow downstream. But once in while, what happened upstream invites or demands reflection.

No moment in the river’s journey is superfluous. Daily routines in periods of calm dull our awareness of the river itself and lay aside questions of its whence and whither until another event, or a memory, moves us to clear the blur. One event or memory leads to others we thought we had forgotten, pushed aside, or left behind.

The path of descent is the path of transformation. Darkness, failure, relapse, death, and woundedness are our primary teachers, rather than ideas or doctrines.

Richard Rohr, Yes

Think a moment of all the events and encounters that have shaped you most deeply and lastingly. How many did you see coming? How many did you engineer, manufacture, chase down? How many were interruptions? . . . The span between life as we intend it and life as we receive it is vast. Our true purpose is worked out in that gap. It is fashioned in the crucible of interruptions.

Mark Buchanan, The Rest of God: Restoring Your Soul by Restoring Sabbath.
Aerial view: confluence of the Yukon River (lighter color) and the Koyukuk River (darker), Alaska

All moments are part of the river of whence that flows over rocks and waterfalls, splits, and returns to one on its way to a whither beyond our knowing.

Gordon C. Stewart, by the wetland, Minnesota, August 12, 2019.

‘Trouble’ is God’s middle name

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Robert McAfee Brown is not a household name for most folks, but it is for a dwindling multitude shaped by his life and teaching. Few of us sat in his classes at Macalester College, Union Theological Seminary in New York, or at Stanford, and few of us marched with him for civil rights or an end to the Vietnam War. Although we never met him, he seemed to know who were, and spoke of God in ways that struck a chord with adolescent ears itching to change the world.

One of the people who did know him personally was Jo Bede. Jo knew him up close as his student assistant at Macalester College, typing the manuscripts for the books he published. All these years later, Jo is in a Memory Care Center here in Minnesota. Like many other members of the multitude, she no longer remembers his name or the name of her alma mater.

Unlike many members of the Robert McAfee Brown multitude, Jo remembered everything until Alzheimer’s stole’s her powers of recognition. Many other members remain unaware of their membership, though they read (or didn’t read) Brown’s book used in Presbyterian confirmation classes all across the United States. Like most kids that age, we didn’t pay attention to the author. We didn’t want to be ‘churchy’. But if The Bible Speaks to You sounds ‘churchy’ to you today, it’s likely because ‘church’, as Robert McAfee Brown understood it, bore no resemblance to the churches that decades later would replace intelligent faith with platitudes in the era of Donald Trump.

Some things are stranger than strange. In 2019 few things feel as strange as the likelihood that a young Donald Trump had become part of the multitude as a member of the confirmation class at First Presbyterian Church of Jamaica Heights, NYC. He was just another kid who didn’t give a thought to Robert McAfee Brown or crack the book we were supposed to read.

“We can be sure that ‘Trouble’ is God’s middle name,” he wrote, “and that such a God will be alongside us in the midst of trouble rather than off in a remote heaven practicing neutrality. And if we begin to make that most difficult switch of all — away from the gods of middle-class values and upward mobility, and gilt-edged retirement plans — and if we can explore, even tentatively and gingerly, what it would be like to think and act for those who are the victims, we just might uncover ‘the most unexpected news’ of all: that God got there before we did.”

All these years later, I imagine Bob Brown inviting all of us to his home in Palo Alto for a reunion of the crowd we didn’t know. Jo, Donald, and I are in the Browns’ living room. He begins the welcome by turning to Jo, whose head is down and who appears to be asleep. “Jo, it’s so good to see you after all these years! Do you still have that typewriter?” Jo lifts her head and smiles at the sound of her old teacher’s voice. “And, Donald and Gordon, Carolyn, Woody, Ted, Bob, Dottie, and David, I can’t wait to hear what you’ve done with your lives.” We go around the circle, introducing ourselves to each other from across the country. After the last of introduction, there is a silence while all eyes return to our host.

“So . . .,” he begins with a kindly smile, “how are all of you doing with the God whose middle name is ‘Trouble?'” All eyes lower into a deafening silence. Before any of us speak, he asks the second question for which he has brought us together:

“‘How are you doing with the switch?”

  • Gordon C. Stewart, from the wilderness, August 10, 2019.

Toni Morrison to Dayton: “Just turn your backs!”

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Toni Morrison, the 1993 Nobel laureate and beloved national treasure Americans mourn today, wrote and spoke words fit for the crowd of people who will stand before the president today in Dayton, OH.

“Anger … it’s a paralyzing emotion … you can’t get anything done. People sort of think it’s an interesting, passionate, and igniting feeling — I don’t think it’s any of that — it’s helpless … it’s absence of control — and I need all of my skills, all of the control, all of my powers … and anger doesn’t provide any of that — I have no use for it whatsoever.”

[Interview with CBS radio host Don Swaim, September 15, 1987.]”
― Toni Morrison

anybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to mind…. Not just work, kill, or maim you, but dirty you. Dirty you so bad you couldn’t like yourself anymore. Dirty you so bad you forgot who you were and couldn’t think it up

Toni Morrison

Remember that Narcissus depends on applause and cameras. “Don’t get mad. Don’t yell and scream and lose control. STAND TALL and speak with single voice. JUST TURN YOUR BACKS when he speak!

— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, August 7, 2019.

The “invaders” — a psalmic reflection

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The Power of Language for good and for evil

According to the New York Times, the Trump 2020 re-election campaign has run 2,000+ Facebook ads framing the national conversation by calling the migration at our southern border “an invasion”.

Introducing an exercise

It gets harder every day. The carnage is in full sight. So are the tweets. It’s depressing. In times like this a Psalm sometimes comes along that expresses the emotions. They laments. The anger at cruelty. Hope for something better beyond what we can see as possible.

Psalm 79: How Long, O Lord?

 O God, the nations have come into Your inheritance;
    they have defiled your holy temple;
    they have laid Jerusalem in ruins.

America today is not the sweet land of liberty of whom we sing. We grieve amid the latest ruins in El Paso and Dayton. We lament the human sacrifice that defile the good green Earth,Your holy temple, the inheritance of global grace.

  They have given the bodies of your servants
    to the birds of the heavens for food,
    the flesh of your faithful to the beasts of the earth.

They trade doves for vultures, and olive branches for military materiele on the streets of Baghdad and Kabul, El Paso, and Dayton, Virginia Beach, Aurora, Thousand Oaks, Pittsburgh, Annapolis, Santa Fe, Parkland, Sutherland Springs, Las Vegas, Orlando, Fort Lauderdale, Burlington, Orlando, San Bernardino, Roseburg, Chattanooga, Charleston, Sandy Hook . . . . Mankato and Wounded Knee.

They have poured out their blood like water
    all around Jerusalem,
    and there was no one to bury them.

  We have become a taunt to our neighbors,
    mocked and derided by those around us.

The invaders call the tired and the poor, yearning to breathe free; the homeless, and tempest-tossed “invaders” — caravans of an invasion crossing the southern border. The vultures prey on fathers and daughters drowned and lying face-down on the Texas bank of the Rio Grande. In the name of national security they take nursing children far from their mothers’ breasts, separate families, and forget where they have placed the invaders’ children, while the authorities retreat to golf courses and sent their children to fancy summer camps.

Let the groans of the prisoners come before You;
    according to Your great power, preserve those doomed to die!

May the groans that hurt Your ears rouse the nation’s conscience to close the prisons and preserve all those White Nationalism dooms to die.

“National extremists are idealists. Racial and religious extremists are idealists. ISIL is idealist. American exceptionalism is idealist. . . . Idealistic terrorism lives to rid the world of evil as its adherents understand it, projecting evil as ‘the other’ while flying ‘the sore point’ in ourselves that we conscious animals seek to avoid.”

“Idealism and Terror,” Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), p. 33-39

Return sevenfold into the lap of [their captors]
    the taunts with which they have taunted You, O Lord!
But we Your people, the sheep of your pasture,
    will give thanks to You forever;
    from generation to generation we will recount Your praise.

“I’m ninety-six,” wrote Benedictine monk Sebastian Moore of Downside Abbey, introducing his last book, “and for most of my life I’ve been a monk. My life as a monk has been, for the most part, a search for God as real.”

Dom Sebastian Moore, OSB, Remembered Bliss (2014, Lapwing Publications)
  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, August 6, 2019

America’s silent colossal National Lie

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“The silent colossal National Lie that is the support and confederate of all the tyrannies and shams and inequalities and unfairnesses that afflict the peoples—that is the one to throw bricks and sermons at.” — Samuel Clemmons (Mark Twain).

The National Lie of white supremacy may lie silent for a time, but it doesn’t die easily. It was the unspoken lie behind the invasion and slaughter of people it called ‘savages’ to justify stealing America’s indigenous peoples’ continent and herding them onto federal reservation. The conquerers were white. The indigenous peoples were ‘red’. The invaders spoke English. Those they conquered did not. The same colossal National Lie rationalized the invasion of “the dark continent” to capture men, women, and children as slave labor to work the plantation owners’ cotton fields. The faces of the Lie wore white hoods, lit crosses on lawns, and hanged their former slaves from the lynching trees. And on and on it goes. It lives on in 2020, no longer silent, branding brown, Spanish-speaking migrants fleeing for safety “invaders” who must be stopped.

It’s a long way from El Paso TX to Dayton OH — a 22-hour drive through Oklahoma, Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana. It took less than 13 hours for El Paso and Dayton to become twin cities suffering together “all the tyrannies and shams and inequalities and unfairnesses that inflict the people” while the lie of White Nationalism carries on.

“A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” — Mark Twain.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN

Two Minute Silence

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Veterans Day poster 2018

Veterans Administration poster

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.

Malcolm Guite — Anglican priest, song writer and poet in Cambridge, England — recalls his experience of the public Two Minutes Silence of Remembrance Day in Silence: a Sonnet for 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.

Silence

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.

— Malcolm Guite, Sounding the Seasons

Blake_Cain_Fleeing_from_the_Wrath_of_God_(The_Body_of_Abel_Found_by_Adam_and_Eve)_c1805-1809

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.

Two Birds of the Secret Heart

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59476eb9d98ab50256137e216d23f129--scripture-art-psalms

“Create in me a clean heart, O God…” is a well-known prayer from the Psalms.  It’s context — its back-story — is not so familiar.

Psalm 51 is a prayer attributed to David. It is not a quiet prayer. It is a wrenching, sobbing prayer, the words tumbling from David’s mouth in halting phrases and stammers with tears flooding his eyes, streaming down his cheeks.

The Inward Being

“Behold, You seek truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.” (Psalm 51:6)

Is the secret heart the deepest place in us, the place where God is: the equivalent or synonym for “the inward being” – a poetic parallelism of Hebrew poetry? Or is it, perhaps, the secret place where we hide from God: the hiding place where we go off to a different heart than the Divine heart? Or could it be both at the same time?

David’s secret heart is dirty and he knows it. He cannot wash the stain of blood from his hands. “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,” he cries out, “and cleanse from my sin! For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.” It is a scene from Shakespeare’s Macbeth:

“Out, damn spot! OUT, I say…. all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. Oh, oh, oh!”

The Hebrew Psalms are like that. They are not sanitized. They plunge the reader into the conflict between the reader’s inmost being, the true secret heart, you might say – the heart that pumps life into us – and the secret heart of our flight from truth and goodness, the heart of deception and self-deception.

Why is David crying out? What has he done? What is the sin that is ever before him, the blood he can’t wash from his own hands?

A Response to Accusation

Psalm 51 comes in response to an accusation that has exposed the bloody behavior his secretive heart has produced. It is Nathan, David’s commander on the battlefront, who confronts David with the truth.

Nathan has just returned from the front to tell David that Uriah, the King’s next door neighbor, a man of impeccable loyalty valor, Bathsheba’s husband, whom David’s scheming heart has sent off to war, is dead! His blood is on David! Nathan has spoken the truth to power.

There is no wisdom in David’s secret heart. There is treachery there.

“Purge me!” cries David. Imagine Richard Burton at his most dramatic. “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me and I shall be whiter than snow!” (Ps. 51:7)

Hyssop, the foliage of an aromatic plant named in the Passover story (Exodus 12:21-27), was used in the cleansing of a leper (Leviticus 4:51).

Two Small Birds

The rite of cleansing centers on two small birds. One bird is killed. The other bird is washed in the blood of the other under the flow of water and the sweetness of hyssop. The one bird dies. The second bird lives.

“Thus he (the priest) shall cleanse the house with the blood of the bird, and with the running water, and with the living bird, and with the cedarwood and hyssop and the scarlet stuff; and he shall let the living bird go out of the city into the open field; so he shall make atonement for the house, and it shall be clean.” (Lev. 14:52-53)

“Deliver me from blood-guiltiness, O God, the God of my salvation” cries Uriah’s killer curled up in a ball, hoping against all hope, “and my tongue will sing aloud of Your deliverance.” (Ps. 51:14)

Release Into the Open Field

David is both birds. He is the one who deserves to die. He is also the one who is living. He lives not because of the secretive heart that had conspired against Uriah, betraying his own inward being – “Against You only have I sinned…” (Ps. 51:4). He lives on because there is more mercy in God (the inward being) than there is sin in him.

“The sacrifice acceptable to God,” he concludes with tears, is “a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.”

His body quivers as he imagines himself as the bird released into the open field by mercy alone, “according to Your steadfast love; according to Your abundant mercy.” (Ps. 51:1)

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Nov. 27, 2017