Taking Heart in Heartless Times

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1Nessan

Rev. Dr. Craig L. Nessen

by Craig L. Nessan

Wartburg Theological Seminary

Dubuque, Iowa

“I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take heart; I have conquered the world!” John 16:33

We live in unprecedented times. Polarizing discourse, red versus blue, the failure of public reasoning, name calling, and denial of facts are the order of the day. The post-modern yields to the post-truth era. Some political leaders simply make it up as they go along.

There is a public heartlessness evident about the needs of others, especially the most vulnerable, that concludes with repeated assertions of privileged self-interest. Public discourse is diverted daily from focusing on the needs of those in harm’s way, including the well-being of creation. In the church many contend that it is useless even to try and engage in civil conversation about what makes for the common good.

All this unfolds in a world of enormous and increasing disparity in wealth between an economic elite and those struggling to make ends meet. This economic disparity is visible everywhere, in every state and local community. Moreover, it is the secret in plain sight behind the movement of people across borders, the unprecedented numbers of displaced persons and refugees.

The need for political advocacy is urgent. Yet it is extremely hard to know where to begin. There appear a dozen new issues or tweets each day against which to react. It becomes crucial to search out reliable information, as from church based advocacy organizations, to help us discern wisely in this political moment. In my own analysis I seek to distinguish between what might be considered the “substantive agenda” of the current administration, which primarily has to do with executive orders and legislative initiatives intended to increase private profit for a few, and the symbolic agenda, especially designed to daze, distract, and confuse us.

To make this distinction is not, however, to minimize the harmful effects of the symbolic agenda, grounded in a white male identity politics that operates in binary categories to incite fear, anger, and hatred against all categories of difference, whether based on race, gender, sexual orientation, immigration status, or religion, especially against Muslims. By contrast to this white male identity politics, we seek to articulate and enact a neighbor politics, embracing of all, especially the marginalized.

In these heartless times we are called actively to participate in spiritual disciplines, in order to reduce our reactivity and seek to remain oriented to the mind and character of Jesus Christ. How does one remain centered and grounded in these heartless times? How does one remain rooted in the peace of Jesus Christ, taking heart and courage amid the whirlwind?

The mystical and political always belong together. Consider the witness of Mahatma Gandhi and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., Gustavo Gutiérrez and Elsa Tamez, Walter Brueggemann and Elizabeth Johnson. As with Jesus, prayer and praxis belong together. Retreat for prayer leads to prophetic engagement: acts of healing, feeding, exorcizing, welcoming, sharing, and publicly demonstrating. The rhythm of the Christian life is both inward and outward.

“Radix,” the origin of “radical” means going to the root of the matter in a twofold movement—the mystical as inward movement and the political as outward movement. Both movements are needful. Counter-intuitively, a heartless political climate makes the inward mystical movement even more needful.

The Mystical

How do we move ever more deeply into relationship with God?

Spiritual practices draw us into the depths of classical disciplines. Personal practices include prayer, meditation, walking, breathing. Communal practices encompass worship, study, dwelling in the Word. Practices that involve colleagues lend us encouragement and accountability in life-giving relationships

Spiritual practices and worship contribute to a mysticism of the ordinary, by which we detect the holy in what is right in front of us, even in what may appear chaotic in these heartless times. We need to attune the eyes to see and the ears to hear.

Hearing the Word of Christ in Scripture stories and participating in sacraments at worship provide the lens for recognizing divine presence in the everyday. Liturgy entails formation in life practices: truth telling, peacemaking, listening, confessing, interceding, offering thanks, welcoming, feeding, and blessing. At worship we participate in the divine economy where all are welcome and there is enough for all. All of this provides the means for us to perceive the shalom of God in the commonplace, even in heartless times like these.

The Political

The mystical movement toward God always turns us inexorably toward political movement for the sake of our neighbors. In the Great Commandment the vertical and horizontal dimensions are inextricable. Should we persist in efforts to provoke change from above? Yes, advocacy at the national and state levels remains essential. Following the guidance of trusted organizations—denominational advocacy organizations, Fellowship of Reconciliation, Bread for the World, 350.org, Amnesty International, and many others—remains imperative.

Even more in heartless times, however, we need to redouble efforts at change through organizing at the grassroots in local communities. Not only by making financial donations or sending advocacy letters, this means engaging people in one’s community. For all their limitations, congregations remain the most intact neighbor-directed communities on the local level, faith communities such as already exist in every locale across the country. We need to become very intentional and proactive in building coalitions with others in local communities—through one on one conversations, writing personal viewpoints for social media or in newspapers, and engaging in symbolic actions. When asked by a reporter whether he really thought that he could change the world by lighting a candle in a demonstration, A.J. Muste replied: “Oh, you’ve got it all wrong. I’m not doing this to change the country. I do it so the country won’t change me.”

The theory and practices of active nonviolent resistance are still in their infancy in human history, but these offer our best hope for lasting change in establishing the foundations for democracy and building up an equitable civil society. In this regard the research of Erica Chenowith and Maria Stephan published in their book, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, needs to become widely known.

I encourage us not to underestimate the ripples of difference our efforts can make, as we remain spiritually centered and especially as we join together in ecumenical and interfaith groups, as well as with all those ethically engaged but not religiously affiliated people who are committed to common good, reaching out to one neighbor at a time. We are called to create safe places and spaces of trust where people can be together, listen to each other, and learn from one other.

Taking Heart

While through the mystical movement we put on the mind and character of Christ—which is peacemaking, social justice, eco-justice, and respect for the inalienable dignity of each person—in the political movement we engage through reasoned and persuasive arguments that are not overburdened by religious jargon. In our public articulation we remain deeply grounded in faith, as strategically we may choose to express our political convictions in categories not freighted with explicit religious references. We do so to communicate effectively in the public square and to transcend the off-putting rhetoric of the religious right.

There are times and occasions for making explicit theological claims, as did Dr. King. Yet in this heartless time of excessively hyperbolic discourse, including that by religious people, we are called to communicate clearly through reasoned, publicly accessible language. In this polarized climate, where Christians are assumed to take regressive political stances, it is of even more value for Christians to make compelling arguments that are understandable to those who may not share our theological categories. This helps us move beyond the religious identity politics of the religious right to an expansive neighbor politics. This honors too what Bonhoeffer meant by the nonreligious interpretation of biblical concepts.

Finally, we are on this journey for life. We may not now see many signs of effectiveness, yet we take heart in even small signs of the kingdom’s appearance. As our bottom line we seek to live by integrity, searching to align our lives with the things of God in Christ, especially in times like these when we cannot see that it makes a difference. We trust that the things that make for peace, like generosity, a healthy creation, and human respect, are the things that last forever. In the words of Carrie Newcomer, in the end, only kindness matters.

 “And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”  Hebrews 10:24-25

  • Rev. Dr. Craig L. Nessan is Academic Dean & Professor of Contextual Theology and Ethics, The William D. Streng Professor for the Education and Renewal of the Church at Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa. Views from the Edge is pleased to have the honor of being the first to publish “Taking Heart in Heartless Times” with the author’s permission.

 

Getting Older

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256px-George_Burns_1961INTRODUCTION: There’s nothing like an old friend when you have nothing worth saying, as though you ever really do, and are focused on getting back to writing a novel instead of your blog. One such old friend is the Rev. John M. Miller, or “the Least Reverent John Miller,” as I call him, whose sermon from The Chapel Without Walls arrived by email this morning. John remembers a Pickles comic strip. I think of George Burns.

FOR OLDER AMERICANS WHO ARE GETTING OLDER

Text – “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die.” – Ecclesiastes 3:1-2 (RSV)

This sermon has taken many years to germinate. In one sense, it has taken almost seventy-nine years for it to come to full fruition. Thus the first reason for preaching this sermon is that the preacher himself is an older American who increasingly realizes he is getting older. The other reason which prompts this sermon is that Lois and I have lived in a retirement home for almost three years. That has given me the opportunity to have observed more than three hundred other older people getting older. That leads someone such as I to reflect on what all that means.

Hilton Head Island has a much older average population than the average American community. That has been true for at least the past fifty or sixty years. Over time we had three large retirement homes built here, plus several other smaller facilities of various types for various older people. The Seabrook, where we live, has 225 residents. Of those people, a hundred are ninety or older. We even have eight centenarians, people who are a hundred years of age or more.

Americans are getting older. Of course everybody is getting older, even newborns. However, by means of advancements in medical care, nutrition, and physical activity, many millions of Americans are going to make it into old age, whether they like it or not. Are we thinking about that? Are we consciously and conscientiously preparing for it? Or shall we just let it happen, come what may, with little or no thought given to it and what it might portend?

A member of The Chapel Without Walls sent me an email piece which he received as an email from someone else who no doubt received it as an email. It is called Ramblings of a tired mind. Among other things, it said these things: “I was thinking about old age and decided that old age is when you still have something on the ball, but you are just too tired to bounce it….The older you get the tougher it is to lose weight because by then your body and your fat have become really good friends….Aging: Eventually you will reach a point when you stop lying about your age and start bragging about it.”

But what happens if you realize you are old and you’re not bragging about it, or you fear it, or you wonder what is going to happen to you because of it? What if you’re older and not feeling well, and you think you are probably going to feel worse and worse, or you are fairly certain you’re going to run out of money because you lived too long and you see no way out of that heretofore unforeseen eventuality? Old age isn’t for sissies, they say, but must it be a severe trial for everyone who makes it into old age? For everyone, no, but for many, sadly, yes.

 When I was young, I didn’t like the Book of Ecclesiastes. I thought the writer, who is variously known as Ecclesiastes, Koheleth, or The Preacher, was too skeptical and cynical and sour. Now that I’m old I am more positively drawn to the unquestionably older person who wrote Ecclesiastes than to any other writer in the entire Bible. I suggest all of you take an hour or two this week to read this short book, and then ponder it and ruminate upon it. It is directed especially to older people who are getting older, and it has multitudes of golden nuggets for golden-agers. I’m serious. Read Ecclesiastes. Throughout this sermon I will use isolated quotes from Ecclesiastes. I won’t identify them as such, but if you listen closely, you’ll recognize them when you hear them, because you heard two readings earlier from this outstanding book.

I have said this before in several different ways, but I want to say it again: God does not determine when or how or why anyone dies. In my opinion, it is a serious mistake for anyone to believe God determines those things, because it can turn people into puppets or doormats. “Nature,” terminal illness, or longevity may terminate our lives, or we ourselves may do that, but it is never God who settles when anyone dies. Young or old, we die when we die. There is no explaining when or how or why it happens, other than medically or forensically. Theology can’t unveil why death happens when it happens. We die when we die, and faith cannot explain why.

That having been said, it behooves all of us, particularly as we get not only older but actually old, to contemplate everything we need to do to prepare for death. This may sound morbid, but what is really morbid is not to prepare for death by merely waiting passively for death to negate our existence. When we are living is the only time we have to prepare for death.

So what do we need to do? We need to have a written will, and a living will, and a medical power of attorney, whereby we designate someone to make medical decisions for us if we are physically and/or mentally incapable of expressing our own wishes for ourselves. We need to make sure somebody knows where all our important papers are, and to have access to them if they are under lock and key. We should establish a legal power of attorney for someone we trust who can handle our financial affairs if we are unable to handle them ourselves. We need to let our spouse or children or other relatives or attorney or somebody know what our wishes are concerning some sort of official recognition of our life soon after we have died.

I’m going to give you an opinion about which I have thought a great deal, probably more than most people. In my vocation, one is thrust into thinking about these things more than most other people. My advice? Please don’t tell your children or your lawyer that you don’t want any kind of service after you die. That is unfair to those who have known you and loved you, even if you are an irascible or ornery old coot, which of course no one here is. Everyone is a child of God, and as such, other children of God should be granted the opportunity and privilege to acknowledge and give thanks for the life of everyone who dies. Those who know they are going to die may not want a service, but a memorial service or celebration of life is for those who have lost the one who has died, and not for the deceased.  Everyone dies, and everyone else should have the  option of giving thanks to God for that person’s life when anyone dies. In my long-considered opinion, it is unseemly for a dying individual to prevent others from joining into a celebration of that person’s life, and also in a witness to the resurrection for those who are Christians.

Half a century in the ministry has convinced me that sadly, many people live too long. Most such people are not happy about that situation, but slowly or rather suddenly, there they are. For many oldsters, their quality of life declines into oblivion. It is my three years in a retirement home that have alerted me as nothing else could to the heart-wrenching reality of how relatively quickly too many Americans discover themselves to be living too long. Laws, customs, and faulty theology all contribute to their dilemma. The long-running British comedy on PBS called Waiting for God accurately describes this sober circumstance in a humorous but also telling manner.

Last Monday evening Turner Classic Movies showed a bittersweet film called Whales in August. It was about some elderly people on the Maine coast, and it starred Betty Davis in her final role, Lillian Gish, Ann Southern, Vincent Price and a couple of other loveable, colorful geezers. In the movie, Betty Davis and Lillian Gish play elderly sisters. The sister who is nearly blind says to her more positive and able-bodied sibling, “We have outlived our lives.” That was an honest, but sober, statement. We have outlived our lives. “So I hated life, because what is done under the sun is grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind” – Ecclesiastes 2:17).

Outliving one’s life in advanced age is a circumstance no one would ever choose. Nonetheless it is a situation confronted by increasing numbers of older people. Where once they were hale and hearty, now they are frail and weak. Where once their funds were sufficient, now they wonder which shall give out first, their money or them. Is it wise or prudent  — or ethical — to run out of money in old age? In any event, can it always be avoided? “In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider; God has made the one as well as the other, so that man will not find out anything that will be after him” Ecc. 7:14).

Countless older people have told me that wherever they are living is the last place in which they shall live. They say they are too old for another move. Don’t count on it. Circumstances may force older people to move to a nursing home or to be closer to children in other quarters or in a nursing home there. We like to think we are in control of our lives, but we may not be.

Thus far society has not made sufficient preparations for the legions of oldsters who are confronting the viability of the American health system. Social Security, pensions, and 401Ks cannot handle the costs of maintaining everyone who needs to be maintained. Here is an extremely sober and sobering question: Is it valid for any of us, if we are very old and sick, to keep on living? Voluntary, not mandatory answers to that question are the only valid ones.

Illness of any sort becomes a growing concern for older people. Dementia is a far greater concern. The older we get, the more likely we are to be afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease or some other form of dementia. Dementia requires more care than almost any other form of illness. If one spouse in a marriage begins to lose memory, demands inevitably shall increase for the other spouse who is still doing relatively well. Both can only try to make the best of it.

A few days ago I saw my longest-term close friend on the island. I hadn’t seen him for a couple of years. I was astonished at how much he had aged in that time. He has lost weight and is stooped and uncertain in his gait. His wife has had dementia for perhaps eight to ten years, and he is at the point where he simply is no longer able to give her the care she needs, but he has not found a suitable and affordable memory care facility for her. And so they both toddle along into a darker and ever more uncertain future. “Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of countenance the heart is made glad” (Ecc. 7:3) Was Koheleth correct when he wrote that?

One of my favorite comic strips is Pickles. It features flinty Earl, his wife Gladys, and their grandson Nelson. Earl and Gladys look to be in their seventies, and Nelson is about six or seven. Last Monday Earl was in the kitchen with his hand on his chin. Gladys asked him what he was doing there. “I came here to get something,” he said. “To get what?” she asked. “I don’t know. It slipped my mind. But I’m not leaving until it comes to me!” Exasperated, Gladys disappears. Earl looks after her, saying, “How about bringing me a chair?” On Tuesday he was still in the kitchen, trying to remember why he came there. She offered him a cookie while he waited. “Now I know why I came here!” he said, happy that the mystery of his muddled memory had been solved.

It is wise for older people to do what they can while they can still do it. Take trips. Go on cruises. See relatives, or have relatives come to see you. Visit friends. Go to the movies. Walk.  Play games, especially “thoughty” games like bridge. Have fun. Enjoy life. “I have seen the business that God has given to the sons of men to be busy with. He has made everything beautiful in its time; also he has put eternity into man’s mind, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end” Ecc. 3:10-11). Life becomes more of a mystery in old age.

On the cover of the bulletin today is a quote from an article wisely entitled Old, frail, called by God (Christian Century July 17, 2017. It was written by Joyce Ann Mercer, who teaches pastoral theology at Yale Divinity School. The author quoted the psychologist Erik Erikson. “Old age in one’s eighties and nineties brings with it new demands, revelations, and daily difficulties.” He said it is the time of the struggle between integrity and what he ruefully identified as “despair and disgust.” He went on, “Loss of capacities and disintegration may demand almost all of one’s attention. One’s focus may become thoroughly circumscribed by concerns of daily functioning so that it is enough just to get through a day intact, however satisfied or dissatisfied one feels about one’s previous life history.” To me, Erik Erikson sounds a lot like Ecclesiastes, Koheleth, the Preacher.

Commenting on this, Dr. Mercer writes, “Perhaps at no other time…does the body occupy such a premier place in defining the contours of life….The heightened body consciousness of older adulthood critiques the cultural overvaluing of independence and autonomy.” How true that is! Why should anybody imagine, as we get older, that we should be physically able to do all the things we could do when we younger? Can a fifty-year-old Triumph sports car still do 140 miles per hour for four hours? Can a century-old clock still keep perfect time? Why do we think we can do what we always did? Why do younger people expect us to do more than we can do?

Joyce Ann Mercer ended her article with these words: “God’s call in older adulthood sometimes takes place in a receptive-dependent mode, a vocation of forming others in faith by evoking in them the practices, habits, and dispositions of faithful people….God’s call for older adults to receive care from others is also a call to experience the care and presence of God.” Or, as Koheleth put it, “That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already has been; and God seeks what has been driven away” (Ecclesiastes 3:15).   

 It has often been said that in old age people are “cramming for their finals.” That phrase is meant to be humorous, but it is also very serious. Many who are older feel closer to God. If that is true, we should make the most of it. Cram away! Carpe diem; Seize the day! If you didn’t do it before, do it now; get as close to God as you can, because God is getting ever closer to you.

Some of you have met my wife’s sister, Millie Ruhl. Millie has been visiting us for the past three weeks. In December, she will moving into The Seabrook. Lois has the second-best memory of anyone I have ever known, but Millie is the unquestionable Number One Rememberer.

When Loie and her two sisters were in grade school, their parents were the counselors for three summers at the Nottingham Camp in northern Maryland, near the headwaters of the Chesapeake Bay. It was a very fine camp which attracted girls and boys from wealthy families all over the Northeast. The three Seifried girls had a free ride there for those idyllic years. Millie was reminiscing about the prayer the entire camp recited every morning. It was composed by the camp director, Cal Burley, a remarkable man about whom I have heard much through the past twenty years. “O God, forasmuch as without Thee we are not able to please Thee in anything we may undertake, mercifully grant that Thy Holy Spirit will direct and rule our hearts and minds in all that we do this day, so that, at the end of the day we shall hear the eternal benediction: Well done, thou good and faithful servant.” He is now gone, but well done yourself, Calvin Burley.

“If a man begets a hundred children, and lives many years, so that the days of his years are many, but he does not enjoy life’s good things, and also has no burial, I say that an untimely birth is better off than he” (Ecc. 6:3). Mr. Burley taught values to his campers, and his life continues to live on in them. May we also live on in those who shall live after us long after we are gone.

miller

Rev. John M. Miller, Chapel Without Walls

The Rev. John M. Miller, Chapel Without Walls, Hilton Head, N.C., Nov. 12, 2017 sermon.

John Miller has written and published six books including The Irony of Christianity: A Pastor’s Appeal for a Higher Theology and a Lower Christology, which was published by The Institute for Religion in 2002. The book remains available thru Amazon.

Geoengineering and the Climate Crisis

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Rex Tillerson clearly stated his views of climate change during remarks in 2012 at an event sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations.

“And as human beings as a — as a — as a species, that’s why we’re all still here. We have spent our entire existence adapting, OK? So we will adapt to this. Changes to weather patterns that move crop production areas around — we’ll adapt to that. It’s an engineering problem, and it has engineering solutions. And so I don’t — the fear factor that people want to throw out there to say we just have to stop this, I do not accept.” 

earthwrenchGeoengineering now seems to have become the de facto climate policy of the Trump White House and the GOP as they, on the one hand, deny the apparent fact of climate change, and on the other hand, prepare to fight it by employing poorly tested technology with unknown long term effects! 

In Conservative circles, seductive but superficial reasoning exists for Geoengineering being so popular.  One is that on a large scale, it can make several corporations and individuals very rich.  Another is that the effects of carbon based fuels can be downplayed by government and industry now.  After all, any atmospheric heating caused by burning fossil fuels and a buildup of carbon dioxide can be minimized by employing geoengineering technologies.  In short, the current state of Conservative thinking, Jobs, Jobs, Jobs translates into Burn, Burn, Burn.

Globally, the atmospheric carbon dioxide level reached 403 ppm this year (it held between 180 ppm and 290 ppm for the previous 800,000 years).  Even so, fossil fuels still reign supreme as the power source of world economies.  With no end in sight for the abatement of atmospheric carbon dioxide levels or the employment of alternative/renewable power sources, carbon dioxide levels will continue to rise.  Planet cooling by geoengineering will just mask the warming effects of elevated carbon dioxide levels.  At some point, as yet undetermined, Earth will depend upon geoengineering to remain within livable limits.  It is apparent that once we are hooked on geoengineering in a world with high atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, any cessation of geoengineering efforts will be accompanied by rapid and severe global climate changes to unacceptable levels.

Obviously, clear thinking is in short supply.  At best, geoengineering is the environmental equivalent of the opioid crisis and at its worst it is applied asininity, if not a downright “Faustian Bargain” of epic proportions.

If you want deeper insight into geoengineering and the climate emergency, please read the following:

https://cleantechnica.com/2017/11/09/new-computer-modeling-helps-scientist-analyze-effects-geoengineering

http://www.mcclatchydc.com/news/nation-world/national/article183547911.html

http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/11/02/561608576/massive-government-report-says-climate-is-warming-and-humans-are-the-cause

https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2017/11/08/pruitt-says-alarming-climate-report-not-deter-replacement-clean-power-plan/839857001

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/nov/06/how-indias-battle-with-climate-change-could-determine-all-of-our-fates

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/nov/08/seven-megatrends-that-could-beat-global-warming-climate-change

https://qz.com/index/1116160/for-800000-years-carbon-dioxide-levels-moved-between-180-ppm-and-290-ppm-last-year-they-got-to-403-ppm/

DOOM DESTRUCTION AND THE DNC. AGAIN! – BY TOM CURLEY

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Like Tom Curley of SERENDIPITY, I get apocalyptic, or hyped, emails every day that assume I’m a member of a certain club.

SERENDIPITY

I wrote this on election day 2017. It reminded me of a post I wrote a while back that sadly is still as current as it was back then. And it will be current next year too. And the year after that.

I don’t know about anybody else but I usually spend about five minutes every day deleting the junk email from my account.

I’ve had an AOL account from literally when they first started. I briefly worked for them and got the account for free. Yes you had to pay for an email account back in those dark early days.

I have other email accounts, but I like this one. I’ve had it for over 20 years. I know that if you have an AOL email account millennials think it’s funny and it means you’re old.  And do you know what I say to that? Fuck you, you little…

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HOLLYWOOD SEX AND OTHER DISTASTEFUL STUFF

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SERENDIPITY

I’m afraid there won’t be any men left in Hollywood. The way things are going, they will all be out on sexual assault charges. This is not me saying this stuff didn’t happen. I’m positive it did. I always thought it was going on. Everything I knew about people in show business said that powerful men abused women pretty much all the time and got away with it because … they were powerful men.

Some guy I know suggested he had thought that it was a mutual thing. Sort of humorous.

No, it wasn’t. Not mutual nor humorous. Guys who force women to have sex don’t look like a young Robert Redford. Guys who can have any woman by saying “Hey baby … ” and she faints in his arms, don’t need to force anyone to have sex. Okay, well, there are some pretty weird guys out there, so who…

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Pope Francis gets it!

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I love this Pope. I’m a non-hierarchical Presbyterian, but I love Pope Francis.

TOPSHOT – Members of the faithful take photos of Pope Francis, as he arrives to lead the Liturgy of Penance in St Peter’s basilica at the Vatican on March 17, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / VINCENZO PINTO (Photo credit should read VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images)

He “gets” relationships as well as he “gets” worship. He “gets” distraction and what a “60 Minutes” investigative report exposed: a form of technological addiction built into cell phones to make the user as anxious as a nursing infant torn away from its mother when you’ve put down your cell phone for more than eight minutes.

Lift up your hearts,” he said, not “Lift up your cell phones to take a picture,” referring to the use of cell phones in worship. “Mass is not a show!”

Francis is not an abstainer. He has a cell phone and he uses it.

Susan Hogan of The Washington Post reminds readers of Pope Francis’s Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) in which he urged Catholics last year to use discretion in using electronic devices. “We know that sometimes they can keep people apart, rather than together, as when at dinner time everyone is surfing on a mobile phone, or when one spouse falls asleep waiting for the other who spends hours playing with an electronic device.”

Pope Francis might have added the fact that we humans are mammals, not invisible spirits. Mammals are flesh and blood creatures who use all five senses. For tactile creatures who live in a single place in real time, cyberspace relationships and distractions are no substitute for face-to-face, body-to-body, eye-to-eye, hand-in-hand physical presence to each other. Whales don’t take pictures. Neither do dogs, cats, or chimpanzees.

“Lift up your hearts! Not your cell phones!” says the author of The Joy of Love.

Three cheers for the pope who took the name of Francis of Assisi whose community included other mammals — whales, dogs, cats, chimps, and humans — and, of course, birds who found a resting place on his shoulder.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Nov. 10, 2017.

 

Stepping Up: Running for Congress

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Moments ago Tabitha Isner, a highly respected friend and ministerial colleague, sent an email announcing she’s running for Congress.

You can meet Tabitha and learn why she’s running on her campaign website Tabitha Isner for Congress, on FaceBook, or that thing that issues early morning messages that make us groan: Twitter.

Tabitha is the only Tabitha I’ve ever met in person. I do remember another Tabitha whose Bewitched TV  sit-com daughter Samantha could change the world with the twitch of her nose. Tabitha is no Samantha! knows it will take more than the twitch of a nose to make democracy work in America.

Thank you, Tabitha, for stepping up and stepping out.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN

 

The Pruitt Bible and The Jefferson Bible

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You’ve heard of the Jefferson Bible. But you may not have heard of the Pruitt Bible.

Today’s Daily Beast brings the Pruitt Bible to the public’s attention. It’s well worth the read.

The Jefferson Bible is missing whole sections. Thomas Jefferson, a produce of the Age of Enlightenment, a Deist who believed in science, took a penknife or some other sharp instrument and cut out passages of the four Gospels that made no sense to him. He didn’t twist their meanings. He just cut them. But he did so only after studiously comparing six different copies of the New Testament in King James English, Latin, French . . .  and Greek, the language of the New Testament.

The Pruitt Bible is different. It’s the bible of twisted meanings that serves the interests of eliminating real scientists from serving at the EPA. Here’s Jay Michaelson’s “EPA Director Scott Pruitt Sites Bible for Industry-Led Science Boards and Gets the Bible Exactly Wrong in today’s Daily Beast.

There’s a big difference between the Pruitt Bible and the Jefferson Bible. One of them took the texts seriously. The other twisted them.

We may also suggest that only one of the authors read Shakespeare’s Richard III, or F. Jacox:

Shakespeare embodies in Richard of Gloucester a type of the political intriguer; as where the usurper thus answers the gulled associates who urge him to be avenged on the opposite faction: —

“But then I sigh, and with a piece of Scripture

Tell them that God bids us do good for evil.

And thus I clothe my naked villainy

With old odd ends, stolen forth of holy writ;

And seem a saint when most I play the devil.”

An unmitigated scoundrel in one of Mr. Dickens’s books is represented as openly grudging his old father the scant remnant of his days (on the ground that “Three-score and ten’s the Bible-mark”); whereupon the author interposes this parenthetical comment: “Is any one surprised at Mr. Jonas making such a reference to such a book for such a purpose? Does any one doubt the old saw that the devil quotes Scripture for his own ends? If he will take the trouble to look about him, he may find a greater number of confirmations of the fact in the occurrences of a single day than the steam-gun can discharge balls in a minute.”

 – F. Jacox

 

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Nov. 6, 2017.

Elijah reviews his Mom

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Grandpa, what’s a ‘review’?

Where’d you get that word, Elijah? How are you spelling it? There are two spellings and they’re very different. One I can tell you about. The other I can’t until you’re old enough to handle it.

IMG_5767I don’t know how to spell yet! All I know is Mom picked me up from work this afternoon and she was really happy. She told Marissa she had a really good review.

That’s wonderful, Elijah! I knew her review was coming and that she was a little anxious about it. Everyone’s anxious before a review.

Sometimes I worry, Grandpa, that you’re not completely tuned in. You go off on tangents and forget the question. You don’t even remember. I asked you a QUESTION! Like I said — What’s a review?

Well, it’s a time when a boss and an employee sit down to discuss how work is going. How well the employee is doing at her job.

So which is Mom, the boss or an employee? I think Mom must be the boss.

No, she’s the employee. She works for the boss.

Okay, I think I get it. So Mom did really well?

She did, Elijah. She got a raise and the boss said all kinds of good things about your Mom.

Yeah, she’s the best Mom in the whole world, Grandpa! She’s really smart and she’s pretty and stuff but she’s also the best diaper-changer. Don’t tell Grandma I said that, okay? I don’t want to give Grandma a bad review. I don’t want to hurt Grandma’s feelings. But Mom knows me best. She knows just how I want my diapers changed. And she doesn’t get mad when I wake her up all night every hour ‘cause I’m hungry and can’t turn myself over and stuff like that. Well, sometimes, she gets maybe a little unhappy, but I bet she’s way more patient than any other Mom.

That’s a great review, Elijah. You’ve got the hang of it.

Okay! There’s one more thing, Grandpa, just between us guys.

IMG_8782 Elijah

Mom says she’s not pretty any more. She says none of her clothes fit and she thinks she’s fat. She’s not, Grandpa! She’s beautiful! She’s the most beautiful woman I’ve ever met. Don’t tell Grandma I said that, okay? She’s pretty too, and she’s Mom’s Mom, so I bet she was really pretty, too, before she got old and wrinkly like you. Don’t tell her I said that, okay? You can take it, ‘cause you’re a guy and you know you’re old and wrinkly and fat and you don’t care. Anyway, we’re reviewing Mom here, not Grandma. Grandma’s second best in the whole world. But Mom’s a superstar. As her boss, I’d give her a big raise!

IMG_7979You just did, Elijah. You just gave her the kind of big raise a mother lives for. Now, if you can just start sleeping through the night, that would be an even bigger raise you could give Mom. You’ll be her most favorite boss ever. Her one and only!

 

  • Grandpa Gordon with 5 month old Elijah, November 4, 2017.

 

Giovanni’s Buffet Mirror

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“Buffet Lunch: All You Can Eat” says the sign.

I decide to try it. “Eight dollars with soda; $7 with water,” says the woman at the counter.

Sugar makes me fat and frantic. I choose the water.

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The buffet is loaded. Full salad bar. Spaghetti with meatballs and your choice of meat or meatless marinara sauce. Garlic toast. And four kinds of pizza – fattening … and more fattening.

I pass up the salad bar and load up on spaghetti with meatballs, meat sauce, and, of course, garlic toast. I love garlic toast.

Since I’m alone, there’s plenty of time to look around while I eat. You’re not supposed to stare at people, so I don’t. I’m careful not to stare. But I can’t help but look. There’s no one to talk with. My dog’s outside in the car. So is my MacBook Air. There are no distractions. So my eyes scan the room for something of interest.

Eventually I realize a common characteristic to the buffet diners — obesity. I think of Richard Simmons, Oprah, and Michelle Obama, and their attempts to get people to eat better and less.

I fill up my plate with a second helping of spaghetti, and add two slices of pizza. It’s good. Really good! All that gooey cheese, and a great crust — just like the pizza I’d had as a child at Fonzo’s Pizzeria in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. But this isn’t Philadelphia and this isn’t the 1950s. I’m at Giovanni’s Pizza in Staples, Minnesota almost a year after Michelle’s White House school obesity initiative went the way of all flesh.

“They’re all fat!” I think to myself. I take another sip of water before getting up to pay my bill.

Next to the cash register is somebody’s idea of a joke: a full-length mirror. I see an ugly guy with a belly staring back at me and think I hear a voice scream: “You’re fat too!”

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I pay the $7 with tip, swallow hard, and begin to digest an old biblical teaching:

“Before you criticize the pounds on others, first remove the ton from your own abdomen.”

  • Gordon C. Stewart, November 3, 2017.

I want to be an olive tree

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I love olives. I love the Psalms. Well . . . some of them . . . some times. Partly. Like the Psalm that greeted me this morning at the cabin far from the news.

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Old olive tree in Karystos, Euboia, Greece

Maybe you’ll like it too.

Why do you boast of evil, you mighty man?
Why do you boast all day long,
you who are a disgrace in the eyes of God?
Your tongue plots destruction;
it is like a sharpened razor,
you who practice deceit.
You love evil rather than good,
falsehood rather than speaking the truth;

You love every harmful word,
O you deceitful tongue!

Surely God will bring you
down to everlasting ruin:
He will snatch you up and
tear you from your tent:
He will uproot you from
the land of the living.

The righteous will see and fear;
they will laugh at him, saying
“Here now is the man
who did not make God his stronghold
but trusted in his wealth
and grew strong by
destroying others!”

But I am like an olive tree
flourishing in the house of God . . . .
(Psalm 52:1-8a, NIV)

I am not righteous. But I do fear.

I just want to be an olive tree. Like the olive tree that produced the twig the dove brought back to the ark signaling to Noah that the flood was over.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, truck stop near cabin in northern MN, November 3, 2017.

 

Saint Giovanni of the Pillows

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John Thomas Stewart appears on no other list of Saints but mine. I called him Grandpa.

He wasn’t famous like Saint John of the Gospel or Saint John of the Cross, but his life quietly bore witness. To sacred silence. And laughter.

By the time I came into his life he’d retired from driving his team of horses through the streets and alleys of east Boston to deliver fifty gallon drums of oil to the mostly Italian-speaking shop owners.

Grandpa Stewart was not Italian. But the shop owners wouldn’t have guessed. He learned to speak Italian while making his daily rounds. “Buongiorno, Giovanni!”

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And so his day went until he drove the horses and his wagon back to the company barn, fed them, groomed them, put them in their stalls for the night, and walked home to #11 Tremont Street.

In retirement he had moved from Tremont Street to live in my Uncle Harold’s palatial home in Chestnut Hill across the street from Boston College. It was to the house on Hobart Road that my fondest memories return.

During the years my father was in the South Pacific, my mother and I lived with Grandpa and Grandma Stewart in the house of Hobart Road in Chestnut Hill. Uncle Harold, too, was in the war, somewhere on a ship. We never knew where.

We didn’t know much of anything in those years between 1943 and the end of the war. Everything was uncertain. But at least two things I could count on put my grandfather on the list of Saints worth remembering.

PILLOWS IS ONE.

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We played a game with pillows. On the floor with the Persian rug that filled the living room on Hobart Road, I’d cover Grandpa’s entire body with all the pillows we could gather from everywhere. Once I’d completely covered him — “no peeking, Grandpa — he’d lie there for various amounts of time until the time seemed just right. Then — “Boo!” — he’d say suddenly throwing off the the pillows. “Boo!” To a two year-old, his resurrection from the dead was always a surprise. We’d laugh and laugh and laugh. Then I would take my turn under the pillows to scare Grandpa: “Boo!” He’d act surprised every time. It never got old.

“Boo!” never sounded so good. Grandfathers are like that.

Otherwise, he didn’t say much. “Boo!” was one of the few words I remember Grandpa speaking. Most of the time, he didn’t say boo. He was quieter than quiet, like a rock to a family at the edge of quick sand — one news story from the radio away or a knock on the door that might tell us Harold or my father had been killed in the war.

CHURCH IS THE OTHER.

During the summers we lived in Uncle Harold’s cottage on Harridan Avenue in Rockport, Massachusetts, just a block up from Old Garden Beach and a mile from Dock Square, Bearskin Neck, and the First Congregational Church in the heart of Rockport.

My mother and Grandma failed in their first attempt to take me to church when the otherwise quiet two year-old suddenly interrupted the long sacred silence that followed the minister’s “Let us pray” with words of my own — “Mom!! Big grunt!!!” — sending the church into giggles that seemed to irk the minister by bringing everyone back to earth, so to speak. My older cousin Gina snatched my up and ushered me out. That was the end of church for awhile. They were not about to cause a scene again.

Grandpa was a different story.

I remember walking with him to church in Rockport. He didn’t say boo; he just walked. But it was the way he walked, and why he was walking on a Sunday morning, that puts him in my catalogue of saints. He walked with dignity and purpose.

Grandpa’s posture was erect. Perfectly straight. Dressed in a starched white shirt, tie, dark suit, and wearing a fedora, the man with a sixth grade education who’d run away from domestic abuse when he was 12 years old seemed like what I imagined President Roosevelt must look like. Dignity was everywhere: his posture, his gate, his attire — on the way to the place and time that gave substance, shape, and meaning to his life: Sunday morning worship, “The Lord’s Day,” as he called it.

Sunday morning was sacred time.

Fifty years after the walk to church with Grandpa in Rockport, I visit a small, white, wood-frame church on the Isle of Skye in Scotland, the land from which Grandpa’s father had emigrated to Prince Edward Island where Grandpa was born.

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I arrive ten minutes before the beginning of worship. The usher in the tiny 6’x8’vestibule welcomes me with a wordless smile, gives me a copy of The Book of Psalms and Paraphrases, opens the door to the large sanctuary that looks out on the natural beauty of Loch Snizort, and quietly ushers me to a pew among the silent members of the congregation. The man to my left smiles and nods. In a minute or two he offers his copy of The Book of Psalms and Paraphrases, opened to the first hymn posted on the small hymn board.

No one speaks in these minutes before worship. There is no prelude. No music plays. Even the children are quiet and seem at home in it. The silence is not empty. It is as full as any place I’d ever been or ever would be again: the fullness of faith, hope, and love waiting to break into song together as one voice in four-part harmony:

Praise God from Whom all blessings flow!
Praise Him all creatures here below!
Praise Him above, ye heavenly host!
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost!

I stand erect, like Grandpa, to sing God’s praise and sense a faint echo of a joyful chuckle time cannot erase — “Boo!” — rising from under the pillows of the Communion of Saints.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, at the cabin, November 1, 2017, All Saints Day.

 

 

Sermon: You shall see My back

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A sermon on The Book of Exodus 33:12-23 for Reformation Day celebrating the 500th Anniversary of the 16th Century Reformation, preached at Central Presbyterian Church, St. Paul, Minnesota.

With all that’s happening in the world these days, many thoughtful people wonder about the nature of God, or conclude there is no God, that the whole thing is a made-up story to serve our own purposes rather than seeing something real that cannot be seen.

“See, there is a place by Me” [says God to Moses in the wilderness] “where you shall stand on the rock; and while My glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with My hand until I have passed by; then I will take away My hand, and you shall see My back; but My face shall not be seen” (Ex. 33:22-23).

This strange reading from the Book of Exodus which puts a face on God —  God has no face, no hands, no feet — may just be the text to help us get reality straighter than we had before the crisis that imperils the human species itself: the onset of climate departure. Not just climate change, but climate departure, the point of no return to nature as we have known it. Maybe God has put us again in the cleft of the rock and is passing by. We only get to see God’s back.

While our hearts and minds are reeling on the edge of the abyss of despair over the rise of the KKK and the alt-right in Charlottesville, the hurricanes, floods, fires, and earthquakes in Houston, Puerto Rico, northern California, and Mexico City to say nothing of the inexplicable massacre of more than 500 concert-goers in Las Vegas while two little boys with matches in Washington and Phnom-pen play chicken with nuclear toys, we are like Moses in the wilderness pleading to see God’s glory. We are teetering on the edge of an abyss into which we dare not look.

“To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world,” wrote Karl Barth. Elsewhere he insisted that the God we know in Jesus Christ is essentially unknowable. So today we clasp our hands again asking about God, asking about what, if anything, is ultimately and finally Real. We only see God from the back, clasping our hands in prayer — the beginning of an uprising against the present disorder of the world.

Like Moses in the cleft of the rock — between a rock and a hard place — in the wilderness where nothing is certain — we have forgotten, to paraphrase our Lord, that “Humankind does not live by tweets alone…but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.”

In the Hebrew mind, to see someone’s face is to know them. But God says to Moses, “You cannot see My face and live. I will put you in the cleft of the rock, cover you with My hand and passed by. Only after I have passed by can you see My back.”

Why the back? Why not the face?

We are mortals who don’t want to be mortal, mammals who don’t want to be mammals. We are part of nature, not the masters of nature, not the exception to it. “You are dust,” says the Creator in Genesis, “and to dust you shall return.” Mammals are not meant to wake up with morning tweets from a mortal who can’t sleep and needs to hear Echo’s voice before breakfast and coffee.

We are living in the period of Narcissus of the Greek myth who dies because he cannot take his eyes off his reflection in the pond — his own face, his own image, his own glory.  A mere a mortal who must eat and drink to survive, Narcissus dies because to drink would have disturbed the pond in which he sees only himself. And, when he dies, a flower blooms on that very spot.

On this Reformation Sunday and the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, we do well to pay heed to a declaration that may strike us as curious: “Human nature is, so to speak, a perpetual factory of idols.”

Wait! Wait! Don’t tell me!     Who said that:

Bill Maher, Christopher Hitchens, or someone else?

Would you believe it was John Calvin, the much misunderstood 16th century reformer whose work was turned into stone by the Calvinists who mistook his face for God’s, turning his work into an idol?

The issue for Calvin and the Reformed theological tradition which is Central’s tradition, was not atheism. It wasn’t unbelief. It was idolatry. It was misplaced worship of the products, phantasms and fantasies produced by the human heart and mind, the substitutes for ultimate reality that command our worship.

Wait! Wait! Don’t tell me! Who said:

“The human mind, stuffed as it is with presumptuous rashness, dares to imagine a god suited to its own capacity; as it labors under dullness, nay, is sunk in the grossest ignorance, it substitutes vanity and an empty phantom in the place of God. To these evils another is added. The god whom man has thus conceived inwardly he attempts to embody outwardly. The mind, in this way, conceives the idol, and the hand gives it birth” —

Bill Maher, Christopher Hitchens, William Barber II, Cornel West, Elizabeth Warren, or John Calvin?

“I will cover you with My hand while I pass by. You can see me from the back.”

There is in the Hebrew Bible, and in the writings of Holocaust survivor Eli Wiesel, a profound sense of God’s absence as well as presence. By the time Moses gets to see God from the back, God has already passed by.

In the Lutheran and Reformed tradition from Luther to Calvin to Bonhoeffer to Bill McKibben, there is a long-standing recognition of God’s absence or hiddenness.  Listen to Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us. The God who makes us live in this world without using God as a working hypothesis is the god before whom we are standing. Before God and with God we live without God. God allows Himself to be edged out of the world and on to the cross. God is weak and powerless in the world, and that is exactly the way, the only way, in which God can be with us and help us. …

 Man’s religiosity makes him look in his distress to the power of God in the world; he uses God as a deus ex machina. The Bible, however, directs us to the powerlessness and suffering of God; only a suffering God can help. To this extent we may say that the process we have described by which the world came of age was an abandonment of the false conception of God, and a clearing of the decks for the God of the Bible, who conquers power and space in the world by his weakness. . .

 Humans are challenged to participate in the sufferings of God at the hands of a godless world. One must therefore plunge oneself into the life of a godless world, without attempting to gloss over its ungodliness with a veneer of religion or trying to transform it. . . To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way, to cultivate some particular form of asceticism. . . but to be a human being. It is not some religious act which makes a Christian what he is, but participation in the suffering of God in the life of the world.. . .

One must abandon every attempt to make something of oneself, whether it be a saint, a converted sinner, a churchman . . . This is what I mean by worldliness—taking life in stride, with all its duties and problems, its successes and failures, its experiences and helplessness. It is in such a life that we throw ourselves utterly in the arms of God and participate in his sufferings in the world and watch with Christ in Gethsemane. That is faith, and that is what makes a human and a Christian. —Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison.

 The world may be God-less, but it is not without gods. The idols are everywhere. And the chief idol of our time is the prosperity gospel: the gospel of greed that escapes all suffering.

These small gods our hearts have manufactured are not real but they are no less powerful. When they are unmasked, we see their ashen faces – the faces we have created because we refuse to live as mortals who cannot see God’s face, discontent to spend time in the cleft of the rock in order to see God from the back, the scarred back of God, whipped and lashed by the hands of Narcissus’s god-filled world.

Presbyterians and others of the Reformed theological tradition often ask why our membership is declining. Are we dying?

On this Reformation Sunday in the year of the 500 Anniversary of the Reformation, could it be not because we haven’t kept up with the latest cultural trends and fads but because we’ve forgotten our identity? Could it be, in part, not because other churches have bands and are better at entertainment, and make God more accessible to a tweeting culture, but because we have surrendered the one thing that makes us Reformed Christians: humility before God — a profound sense of awe before the holiness of God whose face we cannot see?

Could it be that we have mis-translated the rallying call of the Reformed tradition to mean that the church must always be changing itself, that we are the agents of our own change. Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda! is properly translated “The church reformed and always being reformed!” Which is to say, under the judgment and guidance of the Holy Spirit of the Living God, not changing our image in Narcissus’s reflecting pond. It is a theological-ethical perspective which, as McCormick Theological Seminary’s Anna Case-Winter wrote in Presbyterians Today (May, 2017), “neither blesses preservation for preservation’s sake nor change for change’s sake.”

Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda . . . calls us to something more radical than we have imagined. It challenges both liberal and conservative impulses and the habits and agendas we have lately fallen into. It brings a prophetic critique to our cultural accommodation—either to the past or to the present—and calls us to communal and institutional repentance. It invites us, as people who worship and serve a living God, to be open to being “re-formed” according to the Word of God and the call of the Spirit.”

“Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty! All the saints adore Thee, Casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea; Holy, holy, holy!  Though the darkness hide Thee; Though the eye of sinfulness Thy glory cannot see, Holy, holy, holy! All Thy works shall praise Thy Name in earth and sky and sea!”

We don’t get to see God’s face. We cannot see God’s full glory.  But, as the disciples of Jesus Christ, we do see God’s back! And for mortals, that’s plenty good enough! And from the darkness of this cleft in the rock, we join with Luther in trembling before the Holy One, and join Barth and Bonhoeffer by clasping our hands together in the dark as the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.

And though this world, with devils filled,

Should threaten to undo us,

We will not fear, for God hath willed

His truth to triumph through us:

The Prince of Darkness grim,

We tremble not for him;

His rage we can endure,

For lo! his doom is sure,

One little word shall fell him.

 

That word above all earthly powers,

No thanks to them, abideth;

The Spirit and the gifts are ours

Through Him who with us sideth:

Let goods and kindred go,

This mortal life also;

The body they may kill:

God’s truth abideth still,

His Kingdom is for ever.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, October 29, 201

Only the Splendor of Light

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What we now see through the Hubble telescope is poetry written on a grand scale much larger than our mortal minds can fathom.

A deep infrared view of the Orion Nebula from HAWK-ILong before the Hubble and long before the onset of climate departure that rocks our illusion of the human species’ exception to nature, Walter Chalmers Smith‘s poetry gave voice to the sense the Hubble elicits, the sense of mortal awe looking at what we cannot fathom.

How do you express the inexpressible mystery of the Creator whose name was unutterable in Hebrew Scriptures, save the self-described “I AM”? How do you put into words what cannot be known? How do you sing about the One who is ineffable — beyond all words? —  Professor C. Michael Hawn, Perkins School of Theology, “History: ‘Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise’.”

Poetry is the language of faith. Perhaps it is also the language of God, the Ineffable.

To all, life Thou givest, to both great and small,
in all life Thou livest, the true life of all;
we blossom and flourish as leaves on the tree,
and wither and perish, but naught changeth Thee.

Great Father of glory, pure Father of light,
Thine angels adore Thee, all veiling their sight;
all praise we would render, O help us to see
’tis only the splendor of light hideth Thee!

— Walter Chambers Smith (1824-1908), “Immortal, Invisible God Only Wise” (1867), stanzas three and four.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, October 30, 2017.

H.L. Mencken — American prophet

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H.L. Mencken wrote it in The Baltimore Evening Sun, Sunday, July 26, 1920:
“As democracy is perfected, the office of the President represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day, the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be occupied by a downright fool and complete narcissistic moron.”
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Henry Louis Mencken @The Baltimore Evening Sun

Mencken was known as “the Sage of Baltimore.” These days, I listen to Bill Moyers, Christopher Hedges, and watch the PBS News Hour Friday nights with Mark Shields and David Brooks.
David Brooks’ “The Week Trump Won” (Oct. 26 NYT) confirms — in chilling detail  — H.L. Mencken’s status as a prophet. Yet it ends with the faint hope that the better angels of the American character still lie buried in the people’s DNA, waiting for a spokesperson, a leader, to give voice to sanity and vision.
– Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Oct. 28, 2017.

2017 in the Cleft of the Rock

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This 500th Anniversary of the 16th Century Reformation is also the onset of climate departure. Not just climate change, but climate departure, the tipping point beyond which there is no way back.

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Martin Luther (1483-1546)

Preparing to preach on Reformation Sunday at Central Presbyterian Church in St. Paul leads to reflection on a strange text and several great hymns.

The text (Exodus 33:12-23) pictures Moses in the cleft of the rock with God’s hand covering him while God passes by with the reminder that no mortal can see the face of God and live. The hymns that come to mind are “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” and “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise.”

Perhaps, like Moses in the wilderness, we are in the cleft of the rock — between a rock and a hard place — and more than a little humbled as the Creator of all that is, Being-Itself, passes by while we are in the dark.

This moment of climate departure demands a new reformation, beginning with the recognition that we, homo sapiens, are mammals with the horses, cows, dogs, lions, cheetahs, and elephants — and that our future is imperiled by the gods of greed and prosperity our hearts have manufactured.

“Human nature is, so to speak, a perpetual factory of idols,” wrote the 16th Century Reformer John Calvin.

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2017 is a far cry from 1517, but it is, in this respect, the same.

A difference this year is that Martin Luther’s Ein feste Burg — “A Mighty Fortress” — will be sung in Catholic masses as well as protestant celebrations, bearing witness to the reconciling love of God over centuries of time.

Meanwhile the prosperity gospel — based on the idol of property — will go unchallenged in many churches, a departure from the truth that can only be found between a rock and a hard place: this cleft of the rock in 2017 while God passes by.

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

 

Elijah: Grandpa, what’s surreal mean?

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The Elephant Celebes by Max Ernst. Oil on canvas. 125.4 x 107.9 cm. Tate Gallery, London.

Grandpa, what’s surreal?

Where’d you get that word? You’re only five months old!

I heard it on the news. Some flake from Arizona said it.

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Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ)

Well, it wasn’t “some flake,” Elijah! It was Senator Jeff Flake, and he’s not a flake. Flakes are like snowflakes. You haven’t seen snowflakes yet but it’s supposed to snow tomorrow. You’ll see. Snowflakes fall from the sky, turn everything white, and then they disappear.

Did Jeff Flake disappear? He’s white. Is he surreal?

No, Elijah, he hasn’t disappeared and he’s not about to disappear.

So…what are you talking about? You’re not making sense, Grandpa!

Well, Jeff Flake was saying what thinking people know: what’s happening in the world right now is surreal.

That’s what I asked you!!! What’s ‘surreal’?

Life is, Elijah! You’re only five months old.  You’ve never known anything but the surreal world. It’s the world that has “the disorienting, hallucinatory quality of dream; unreal; fantastic” (Dictionary.com). Life itself has become surreal.

Grandpa, are elephants real?

Yes, why?

‘Cause Marissa doesn’t’ like elephants. She says they’re mean and out of touch with reality. Are elephants like snowflakes?

No, Elijah. Elephants are real. But some elephants, like the one Marissa is talking about, are . . .  well . . .  surreal and deranged. They want the whole world to be white. They’re snowflakes.

Yeah, but not like Jeff Flake. Jeff Flake’s no flake!

Right, Elijah. He’s like Max Ernst and the Surrealists who exposed the underlying insanity by painting it. Jeff Flake painted it with words.

IMG_1779 E 5 monthsThanks, Grandpa. This whole conversation has been surreal. I love words!

  • Grandpa Gordon, Chaska, MN, Oct. 26, 2017.

 

 

 

 

Elijah and his sitter’s text

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Grandpa, my babysitter was crying today.

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Elijah (five months old)

I’m sorry, Elijah. Why was she crying?

Marissa’s cousin in Puerto Rico sent a text five days ago but Marissa didn’t get it until this morning. She was crying hard, Grandpa! It was really sad.

What did the text say, Elijah?

I thought you’d ask, so I asked Marissa to print it out ’cause you’re old. You don’t text so good.

‘Well’, Elijah, I want you to learn to speak proper English. You should say, “You don’t text so well” — not “you don’t text so good.”

Yeah, well, you say ‘well’ a lot. That’s not good. Well, here’s what Marissa’s text from Puerto Rico said. It’s not good.

Month 2. Day 1.

No power

We have running water

Telecommunications are fair on the best of days. I consider it successful if I can consistently get 2mb down. Today it’s about 0.13mb.

Traffic is insane

Fuel lines are better

Shopping takes hours

We are the lucky ones, the privileged ones. It’s not better, progress is slow, medical care is impossible for many.

We are here. We need your help. Keep pressure on news organizations, on elected officials, and aid organizations. Use your voice for people who have been silenced.

Grandpa! We’re gonna help, right? Are we ‘privileged’?

  • Grandpa Gordon, Chaska, MN, October 24, 2017

“A Soulless Coward”

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The President’s lies about former presidents Obama and Bush in reaction to criticism that he had not made presidential calls to the families of four soldiers killed in Niger struck me as just one more example of his unfitness for office.

Then The Nation exclusive interview — “‘A Soulless Coward’: Coach Gregg Popovich Responds to Trump” — popped into my inbox. “[T]o lie about how previous presidents responded to the deaths of soldiers—is as low as it gets. We have a pathological liar in the White House.”

Gregg Popovich, the United States Air Force Academy alumnus and head coach of the San Antonio Spurs, is affectionately called “Pop” but one has to wonder how long the affection will last after calling the president a soulless coward.

The interviewer, Dave Zirin, The Nation‘s sports writer, concludes the article: “Should be one hell of an NBA season.”

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, October 17, 2017.

 

 

 

Open Letter to NFL Owners

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To: Mark and Zygi Wilf, owners, Minnesota Vikings
Cc: NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell

October 17, 2017

Today’s NFL owners meeting is a watershed moment. The agenda item  that would change the NFL’s rules limiting player behavior during the national anthem requires a courage stance informed by history.

As the sons of parents who were survivors of the Holocaust in Nazi occupied Poland, you are in a unique position to lead this discussion as owners of the Minnesota Vikings.

I applaud your initial response to the issue of taking a knee during the national anthem. By linking arms with Vikings management and players, and by your official statement on the matter, you supported players’ First Amendment right to free speech. You refused to buckle to the White House demagoguery that confuses taking a knee on behalf of racial justice with disrespect for the country.

I was pleased that you and the NFL stood up for a bedrock American principle. Principle trumped profits . . . momentarily. Now filling pockets threatens to empty the initial commitment to the U.S. Constitution.

If the NFL owners today accede to the president’s bullying, I, for one, will take a knee. I will turn off the television Sundays, Mondays, and Thursdays . . . as a matter of principle . . . and will invite everyone I know to do the same. Some things are more important than football. They learned that in Germany. I thought we had, too.

Perish the thought, but . . . if the national anthem pre-game ritual requires the equivalent of a “Sieg Heil!” salute that abrogates the right to free speech, maybe it’s time to end the pre-game ritual and just play football.

I hope and pray this morning that our Jewish friends lead the way today to honor the dead from the history we dare not forget and to stand up for the principle of First Amendment rights to freedom of speech.

And, while you have the floor, I hope you will bring to the league’s attention the duplicity of having defended the league against the president’s criticism of taking the knee while, at the same time, the owners appear to collude to exclude the original kneeler, Colin Kaeppernick, from taking the practice field.

Sincerely,

Gordon C. Stewart
Chaska, Minnesota

Neighborly Economics

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Mindfulness —the latest topic around the water coolers — helps in times like these. While some use Yoga or some other eastern meditation to become more mindful, my practice is to contemplate the poetry of the Book of Psalms. I open Psalm 146 in hopes of putting my anxious soul at ease from this moment of history.

Praise the LORD, O my soul,
I will praise the LORD as long as I live;
I will sing praises to my God as long as I have my being.

Put not your trust in rulers, nor in any child of earth,
for there is no help in them.

When they breathe their last, they return to the earth,
and in that day their thoughts perish. (Ps. 146:1-3)

The psalmist assures me that this moment will not last forever. The elevation of the rich and the assault on the poor, the game of matches lit near the fuses of nuclear devices on two sides of a vast ocean, the name calling between the two narcissists whose Echoes sound the same despite the differences in language, the scenes from Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Maria, the burned-out forests, homes, and vineyards in northern California, the undermining of the hope for universal health care, and the disregard for the Paris Accord addressing climate change have ground me down. There is no help in the White House or Capitol Hill. But, their time, the psalmist declares, is but a breath, a moment. Their thoughts will perish.

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cabin by the wetland

In the solace of the cabin by the wetland far from the news, I am breathing easier. Away from the rulers in whom the psalm urges me to place no trust, my mind is calmer. I am in need of no great thing.

But, after lighting the fire in the wood stove, it dawns on me that we’ve forgotten some supplies for the weekend. We have no bread. Or ice cream!

I remember a sign for “DON & DAVE’S: Groceries and Gas — 4 Miles.”

IMG_8514Don & Dave’s is a throw-back to the day Don founded it 70 years ago. From the looks of the exterior, although it is well-kept, I imagine little except for the “ATM Inside” sign has changed since 1947.

“You must be Don or Dave,” I say to the man inside. “I’m Dave,” he says with a smile. I’m Don’s son.” Dave is in his late ‘60s. Don was his father, killed in a car accident years ago. Dave joined his father in the business in 1977. I introduce myself as the owner of the A-frame by the wetland, but he already knows from Shirley, our only neighbor within a quarter of a mile of the cabin.

I take a look around the store, pick up a $1.59 loaf of locally made wheat bread, notice the ice cream freezer, pick up a large tub of Neopolitan ice cream, notice a Hershey milk chocolate with almonds bar, and take them to the check-out counter where Don meets me.

I take out my credit card. “We don’t take plastic,” says Don. “Just cash or check.” I tell him I don’t have either. “Well, we have an ATM,” he says. “I don’t do ATM’s,” I say. You need a PIN for that. I have no idea what the PIN is; Kay does that. I don’t have a clue.” He laughs and invites me to take the bread, ice cream, and Hershey bar without paying. “No problem. Please take it. You can pay me when you come back.”

He takes out a slip of scrap paper, writes down my name, the amount I owe, and the date, and wishes me a good weekend.

Four hours later I return with the cash just before 6:00 P.M., hoping Don and Dave’s is still open on a Saturday night. Turns out they open at 8:00 A.M. and closes at 10:00 P.M. seven day a week! I learn from the young woman who greets me that Don has left for the day, and explain that I’m here to pay my bill. She asks my name, and fetches the piece of paper from a shelf below the cash register. “What should I do with this? Tear it up?”

“No,” I say, “I want Don to know I came back and I want to say thanks. Just write ‘paid’ with today’s date and let me add a word of thanks.”

I had learned earlier from Don that there are four Walmarts with a 60 mile radius of Don & Dave’s. I wonder when the last time was Walmart sent an empty-handed customer away with so much as a loaf of bread, a tub of ice cream, and a candy bar.

I’m very mindful. In the moment. 1947 never looked better!

Between Here and There

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A CNN report caught my attention this morning. Anticipating today’s Congressional vote on the president’s $36.5 billion disaster relief aid package, Rep. Tom Cole, R-Oklahoma, said the following.

“People want to be helpful here. They’ve turned on the television. They know these are awfully genuine needs,” he said, arguing that Republicans simply want to fund the measure in a “prudent” way.

Early this morning the president took to twitter with a series of tweets about Puerto Rico.

“Puerto Rico survived the Hurricanes, now a financial crisis looms largely of their own making.” says Sharyl Attkisson. A total lack of…..

..accountability say the Governor. Electric and all infrastructure was disaster before hurricanes. Congress to decide how much to spend….

We cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders, who have been amazing (under the most difficult circumstances) in P.R. forever!

Rep. Cole spoke truth that “people want to be helpful here. They’ve turned on the television. We  “know these are awfully genuine needs….” But the “here” is a question. Where is “here“? Is “here” Houston, northern California, Puerto Rico? All of them? Or only some of them?

Or is “here” Congress and the Oval Office, the seats of authority and power in a constitutional republic — the branches of government where the television-watching American public hopes against hope that those we elect to represent us get their information from something other than their televisions.

The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, unlike Houston and the wine country of northern California, is poor. Its history is that of a pawn in the chess game of powerful nations.

The Smithsonian website article “Puerto Rico — History and Heritage” — offers a brief history of Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico remained an overseas province of Spain until the Spanish-American war, when U.S. forces invaded the island with a landing at Guánica. Under the Treaty of Paris of 1898, Spain ceded Puerto Rico (along with Cuba, the Philippines and Guam) to the U.S.

As a result, the turn of the century saw Puerto Rico under United States sovereignty. At that time, Puerto Rico’s economy relied on its sugar crop, but by the middle of the century, an ambitious industrialization effort, called Operation Bootstrap, was underway. Cheap labor and attractive tax laws attracted American companies, and soon the Puerto Rican economy was firmly grounded in manufacturing and tourism. Today, Puerto Rico is a leading tourist destination and manufacturing center; the island produces high-tech equipment and many top-selling American pharmaceuticals.

Puerto Ricans received U.S. citizenship in 1917 and Puerto Rico officially became a U.S. Commonwealth in 1952. The issue of political status is one under constant debate, with some in favor statehood, others independence, and still others the continuation of commonwealth status.

During World War II, the U.S. Navy purchased two thirds of the island to use as a naval base. The Navy used the area for military exercises and bombing practice for nearly 60 years until a civilian was killed during a bombing exercise in the 1990s. This sparked a wave of protests that finally ended when the base closed in 2003. Since then, the Navy’s lands have become wildlife reserves.

Today Congress faces a moral issue that begins with the question of where “here” is and with a couple of early morning tweets that divide the world between here and there, and want to leave “there” behind, ignoring the wisdom of The Letter of James:

If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” [i.e., the world divided by here and there; us and them; rich and poor]. – James 1:26-27.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, October 12, 2017.

 

 

 

 

Liddle Elijah and Grandpa

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Grandpa, we’re supposed to respect people, right?

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Elijah asks about the president and senator corker

Yes, Elijah, that’s part of growing up.

Yeah, I’m not growed up yet. I’m liddle.

Well, yes, but it’s “grown” up, and you spell ‘little’ with two ‘t’s not two ‘d’s.

That’s not how the president spells it. Who am I supposed to respect more, you or the president?

 

Hmm. When it comes to spelling and not calling people names, I think Grandpa may deserve a little more respect, but that’s just Grandpa’s opinion. But the president called Senator Bob Corker ‘liddle’ and meant it as an insult. Senator Corker is short; he’s little compared to the President. But a person’s physical stature shouldn’t matter to grown-ups. Do you understand?

And what about that IQ thing?  What’s an IQ?

Lots of people are asking that question these days.

Is having a higher IQ like being taller? I’m tall. Dr. Smith said I’m in the top 94 percentile of four-month-olds! What’s a percentile?

It’s a way of measuring, Elijah. It’s complicated. It’s just a statistic. But it gives me comfort that the percentage of people approving of the president seems to have become littler in all 50 states between last January and September.

We like little, right Grandpa?

We do, Elijah. Sometimes we do.

“I look to a day when people will not be judged by [their height], but by the content of their character.” — Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

  • Grandpa Gordon, Chaska, MN, October 11, 2017.

The Planet and Puerto Rico: Unincorporated Territories

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Much of Puerto Rico is still without power. But it may be that Puerto Rico will lead the way for the U.S. mainland by developing a renewable energy power grid that replaces its dependence on fossil fuels.

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While Elon Musk of Tesla proposes building a new renewable energy power grid to replace the destroyed carbon-producing fossil fuel-dependent grid, the Trump administration is shoring up the fossil fuel grid back on the U.S. mainland.

The Environmental Protection Agency administrator, Scott Pruitt, on Monday said he would sign a proposed rule Tuesday rescinding Obama’s Clean Power Plan, established in 2015 to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions.

Pruitt spoke at an event with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in Hazard, Kentucky — coal country.

“Here’s the president’s message: The war on coal is over,” Pruitt said. “Regulatory power should not be used by any regulatory body to pick winners and losers.” – Yahoo Finance, Oct. 9, 2017

Coal and oil are shipped at great expense to Puerto Rico from the mines of Hazard, Kentucky and the oil refineries of Houston. Puerto Rico, an unincorporated third world U.S. Territory, has been the loser. So have the people of Hazard who’ve been led to believe that winning the the war on coal will secure their future.

In the world of climate departure — not just climate change, but departure with no way back to what we considered normal — we’re all losers when the departure is denied.

elon-musk-rossello-400x240

Governor Ricardo Rosselló and Elon Musk

The sun, on the other hand, is indigenous to Puerto Rico.

Could it be that a poor unincorporated Territory in the dark without power would lead the world by building a new grid lit by a source that shines without discrimination on winners and losers in Puerto Rico and in Hazard?

Perhaps, if the Governor of Puerto Rico comes to an agreement with the Elon Musk and the Tesla Corporation, the light may yet go on across the world that the planet itself is an unincorporated territory.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, October 10, 2017.

 

 

The beginning of an uprising

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“To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.”

Question: Who said that?

Wait! Wait! Don’t tell me! Choose one (click the names for more information):

 

Or . . . someone else?

Answer: We know it’s not Bill Maher, though Bill does call for an uprising, but the uprising would be against religion itself as the source of disorder, even though Bill often invites Cornel West to be his guest on Real Time with Bill Maher.

Cornel West clasps his hands in prayer and, like Bill, rises up to resist the present order/disorder, but it’s not Cornel.

So maybe it’s Karl Barth. The statement often is attributed to Barth, the Swiss theologian who resisted Hitler and the Third Reich in the name of Christ. But a more-or-less careful internet search yields no confirmation of its source.

Because no one really seems to know for sure, perhaps the correct answer is someone else from an altogether unexpected different source.

Like someone’s twitter account.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, October 9, 2017.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Fly that Would not Flee

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In the pre-dawn pastel glow

Outside the lakeside window,

The fly inside is very still.

pre-sunrise glow

Lake Superior pre-dawn pastel glow.

 

For the half hour before the sun

Pokes its yellow head over

The brim of Superior’s horizon,

The fly does not move.

 

Perhaps the fly is dead, I think,

And gently touch it from below.

It does not fly away.

200px-Simulium_trifasciatum_adult_(British_Entomology_by_John_Curtis-_765)

It takes a few steps forward,

An inch or two higher on the window —

This oratory the intruder has disturbed

In the hour of morning prayer.

 

Only after the sun has risen

Does it leave the window

But not before completing

 

Its sun-dance: turning from east

To south, to west, to north, and

Back to East again to greet the day.

 

The observing intruder from whose

Finger the fly did not flee reads

from The Book of Common Prayer:

 

“Deliver me, O Lord, from evil-doers;

Protect me from the violent,

Who desire evil in their hearts

And stir up strife all day long.”

[Psalm 140:1-2]

 

A fly lands on the prayer book.

I swat the fly away.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, the intruder, Encampment Forest, Lake Superior, MN, October 6, 2017

 

 

 

 

Things too hard for me

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Momentary access to the world-wide-web leads away from many words toward reflection on an ancient text.

O Lord, I am not proud;

I have no haughty looks.

I do not occupy myself with great matters

or with things that are too hard for me.

But I still my soul and make it quiet,

like a child on its mother’s breast;

my soul is quieted within me.

O Israel, wait for the Lord,

from this time forth and for evermore. 

[Psalm 33, Book of Common Prayer psalm for the morning]

sunrise-over-lake-superior

I wake before dawn to see the sun rise over the far horizon beyond Lake Superior, shining its rays across the waves, a beauty beyond compare. I do not occupy myself with “great things” that matter less and things too hard for me. I am not proud.

— Gordon C. Stewart, Encampment Forest, Two Harbors, MN, October 5, 2017.

Elijah, Las Vegas, and The Big Truck

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Elijah recoiled at the pictures from Las Vegas.

“Marissa, estamos seguros? Estamos en Las Vegas?” (“Marissa, are we safe? Are we in Las Vegas?”)

las-vegas-shooting-carry-gty-ps-171002_12x5_992Marissa assured him that he wasn’t in Las Vegas. Las Vegas is far, far away, and they were nowhere near a casino.

Elijah was feeling calmer until Marissa’s husband came home for lunch.

Ese hijo de puto! Sólo le interesan los casinos,” said Pablo. “¿Qué tiene que ver un casino con Dios? ¡No habla de Dios cuando habla de Puerto Rico! Él no es un creyente. Es un falso. Es todo gringo!” (“That son-of-a-bitch! He only cares about casinos. What’s a casino got to do with God? He doesn’t talk about God when he talks about Puerto Rico! He’s not a believer. He’s a fake. He’s all gringo.”)

Later that evening, 19-week-old Elijah visited his grandparents.

¿Abuelo, qué es un casino?” he asked.

“Elijah, I’m sorry. Grandpa doesn’t speak Spanish. What did you say?

“Grandpa,” he asked, “I forgot. ‘What’s a casino?'”

Las_Vegas_slot_machines

Las Vegas casino slot machines

“Well, let me tell you a story about a casino, Elijah. A casino is a place where people gamble.”

“What’s ‘gamble’?”

“Actually gamble is a verb; the noun is gambling. You’ll learn the difference later. Gambling is when a person takes a risk with their money. Gamblers get a charge out of taking the risk that they’ll make lots of money, but they usually lose what they have. The casino is the business that makes lots and lots of money from gamblers.”

“Yeah, it’s like uncle Bob. He’s a gambler. He goes to the casino, right?”

“Right. Grandpa doesn’t like it, but, yes, he does. He’s gambled at casinos in Las Vegas and Atlantic City.

“Why don’t you like gambling?”

“Well, that’s the story I want to tell you.”

“I love stories! Is this the one about the Big Truck?

“No, it’s different. It’s a story that kinda rhymes with ‘big truck’ but it’s not a happy story. Years ago Grandpa went to a casino here in Minnesota to pick up a big check – thousands of dollars – that the casino was donating to Grandpa’s nonprofit poverty law firm.

“Because the casino belonged to an American Indian tribe, I asked an American Indian who worked with me at the law firm to go with me to pick up the check. I wanted the tribal chief, who was also the CEO of the casino, to hand the check to Richard instead of me.

“But you know what happened, Elijah?”

“What? You saw the Big Truck! I bet you saw the Big Truck on the way to the casino.”

“No, but it does rhyme with big truck. Here’s what happened. When Richard and I started to go into the casino, Richard wouldn’t go in.  He just stood there! Like he was frozen. Like he’d had a stroke or something.

“I asked what was happening.

“‘I can’t go in there,’ he said. ‘My wife’s going to be in there at the slot machines. She’s here every day. We’re separated. We’re losing our house. We’re going bankrupt. I hate this place!!!’

“Richard’s wife took the casino bus from downtown Minneapolis every morning and spent the day at the casino hoping she’s get rich. She just got poorer day by day, week by week.

“That’s what a casino is, Elijah. A place that takes people’s money by making false promises that they’ll get rich.”

“Marissa’s husband’s like Richard. He hates casinos, but what’s a casino got to do with the President?”

“Well, Elijah, before Donald Trump became President, he was a real estate developer. He built a casino in Atlantic City in 1990 and put his name on it. Trump Taj Mahal cost $1.2 billion! He called Trump Taj Mahal ‘the eighth wonder of the world.’”

TAJ-MAHAL-LIQUIDATION-SALE“But it failed, Elijah. It failed. The deal failed. He sold it for $50 million to a company named Hard Rock International.”

“Wow, Grandpa! No wonder Pablo called the President a hijo de puto. Pablo said the President only understands business. He doesn’t care about people like the poor in Puerto Rico who are stuck between a rock and a hard place. So, did you ever get the check from the casino?”

“We did, Elijah. I was Richard’s boss. I convinced him to go in. We went in and got the check from the Big Truck.”

  • Grandpa Gordon, October 3, 2017.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Elijah: “Dear Mr. President”

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Elijah’s Letter to the President

September 30 , 2017

Dear Mr. President,

I’m in my carseat for my first road trip to the cabin up north, but Grandpa shared with me the letter he just sent you. I’m proud of my grandpa and I want to be proud of you. Grandpa says you’re sort of like an uncle because you went through Presbyterian confirmation class like grandpa.

But my babysitter doesn’t like you. She speaks Spanish. During the day with Marissa, we’ve been watching CNN for news from Puerto Rico, and she’s said a lot of bad words about you.

She clapped when Mayor of San Juan Carmen Yulín Cruz called you out. Then, this morning, she cursed again after you admonished the Carmen. Marissa’s with Carmen.

I’m only 18 weeks old. I’m still trying to understand what’s real and what’s not. Right now I’m not sure of much of anything. I trust Grandpa and I trust Marissa. They both love me and take care of me. Both Grandpa and Marissa are as upset with you as the Mayor of San Juan in Puerto Rico.

I see the pictures from Puerto Rico and think you must, too, because you watch a lot of television, even if you consider CNN fake news. I’m little and don’t know much yet, but the pictures don’t look fake to me. And it’s not just pictures. It’s all over the radio. Marissa listens to NPR.

NPR’s Manadalit del Barco spoke to 8-year-old Yan Anthony Hernandez who is staying at a shelter in the city of Aguadilla on Puerto Ruco’s northwestern coast. The boy had a message for Trump.

“Stop tweeting and come help the people.”

Marissa wants to know whether you really care about Yan, the Mayor, and the rest of the people of Puerto Rico or just want them to go away like the undocumented workers you’re sending back to Mexico.

Sometimes Marissa sings to me. “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world — red and yellow, black and white — all are precious in his sight. Jesus loves the little children of the wold.” Grandpa says maybe your babysitter sang that song for you when you were little like me, but I wonder.

If you have time to write back, I’ll share your response with Marissa and Grandpa and have them make another copy to send to Carmen in Puerto Rico.

Respectfully,

Elijah (18 weeks old)

Grandson of Grandpa Stewart

 

 

 

Dear Brother Donald

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Letter to President Donald J. Trump

September 30, 2017

Dear Don,

I hope you don’t mind me calling you Don. You can call me Gordy; only those close to me in grade school called me that, but, so did the kids in my confirmation class. Since we were both confirmed in Presbyterian churches, I think it makes sense to call each other Don and Gordy.

brown-psr-3-300-394After writing you yesterday, I wondered whether your confirmation class read the same book mine did. Did you read Robert McAffee Brown‘s The Bible Speaks to You? I have to confess I didn’t read much of it at the time. I faked it. Maybe you did, too. I think we were probably a lot alike that way, don’t you think?

Anyway, this morning I went online and found The Bible Speaks to You in Google Books — Google, like Twitter, is amazing, don’t you think? — to see what we were supposed to be reading and to get a sense again of what we were being taught. Even way back when we were in confirmation class, we were being taught that Jesus was killed by the coalescence of two mistakes that seem to be the opposite of each other: nationalism, on the one hand, and imperial rule, on the other. They went hand-in-hand in deciding Jesus has to go.

Do you remember that?

Jesus wasn’t big on either nationalism or or empire; he saw both as substitutes for God, idols manufactured by the human heart to provide a false sense of security and importance. I suspect you may have skipped those chapters of the New Testament, but this wouldn’t be the first time the crucifixion was erased from consciousness. It happened in the German Church in the 1930s when the majority Christian population blamed the Jews, the Gypsies, the communists, and homosexuals for Germany’s fall from greatness. Make Germany great again was the agenda back then and Jesus was weeping all the way through it — in the concentration camps and in the cattle cars of the trains that removed from the nation everyone who wasn’t of the Aryan race, an idol of exceptionalism that, like all idols, had no foothold in reality itself.

Do you remember how we hated Hitler and all that stuff in confirmation class, how we thought of ourselves as Christians who would never do that because we were disciples of Jesus, and as Americans who would never do that because … well, we were Americans? We were better than that!

Funny how things change sometimes if we don’t pay attention, don’t you think? Maybe we paid too much attention to that period of world history and not enough attention to Robert McAfee Brown and the Bible. Long after we finished confirmation class to become disciples of Jesus, Robert McAfee Brown said something I’m remembering now:

Who we listen to determines what we hear. Where we stand determines what we see. What we do determines who we are.

I wonder who you’re listening to, where you stand on all of this, and write you now because, as your brother in Christ, I went on to listen to Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his American friends,Paul Louis Lehmann, William Sloane Coffin, and, yes, our old confirmation class author Robert McAfee Brown, who all claimed that what we do determines who we are.

The Bible speaks to you

Original cover of The Bible Speaks to You used in Presbyterian church confirmation classes in the 1950s and ’60s.

Don, if you can find a moment this morning, you can click this  Amazon LINK to The Bible Speaks to You, click “Look Inside” and scroll down to what neither of us can remembers now that we’re over 70 years old and forgetting much of what we learned. Take a look at pages 11 and 12 about the Marine Corporal following Robert McAfee Brown, the Marine Chaplain, back to his quarters after a Bible study on the Gospel of John story of Lazarus:

“Chaplain,” he said, “I felt as thought everything we read this morning was pointed right at me. I’ve been living in hell for the last six months, and for the first time I feel as though I’ve gotten free.”

You’ve been in the White House for nine months now, and I suspect it may feel like a hell you’ve never experienced. Maybe the same thing can happen with you as happened with the Marine.

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“The Raising of Lazarus” — Duccio di Buoninsegna (c. 1318-1319)

Remember, Don, every one of us has had at least a taste of hell these last nine months, but I’m looking to you for something different to rise from the ashes of our confirmations: a refutation of nationalism and empire. As Robert McAfee Brown said when he was much older, “What you do determines not only who you are but who we are. ” Take a close look at the picture of Robert McAfee Brown and at . It feels as though he’s looking at us to see whether we’re with Jesus and Lazarus.

Grace and Peace,

Gordon C. Stewart (“Gordy”), Your Brother in Christ

Chaska, Minnesota

A Brother’s Letter to the President

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September 25, 2017

Dear Mr. President:

I write to introduce myself as the brother you didn’t know you had.

baby_baptism_1368526cAs my grandson Elijah’s letter to you following your speech to the United Nations mentioned, you and I were baptized as infants in churches of the Presbyterian Church (USA) — you in New York City and I in Pennsylvania. Your parents and mine both answered ”We do” to the question “Do you promise, in dependence on the grace of God, to bring up your child in the nurture and admonition of the Lord?”

As Elijah said, we don’t use the word ‘nurture’ much these days and ‘admonition’ has disappeared from our vocabulary — not the kind of positive-thinking that fits well with the prosperity gospel that has displaced what you and I were taught in Confirmation Class. But maybe the old church had it right that both nurture and admonition are essential to Christian faith and practice.

One of your home church’s pastors, Ray Schwartzbach, served as senior minister of the College Church and Pastor to The College of Wooster before going to First Presbyterian Church of Jamaica where you were baptized and confirmed. When Ray returned to Wooster for a visit, I had become his successor.

I remember his description of your church as the most diverse congregation of the Presbyterian Church (USA) with 32 different languages spoken among its membership. That was the church where your parents promised to nurture and admonish you in the faith. It is also the church whose members committed to partner with your parents as the extended family that would raise you in the way of Christ.

Among his peers in the Presbyterian Church, Ray was to his ministerial colleagues what John Gresham’s “Street Lawyer” was among his peers. He was a rough and ready street minister more at home among the poor — on the streets among the homeless and in the tenements and public housing — than in the places of white privilege in Wooster or downtown Manhattan. He admonished the rich and nurtured the powerless in the name of Christ. Ray Schwartzbach was bigger on the cross and resurrection than he was on Norman Vincent Peale and the power of positive thinking that came to influence you as an adult at Marble Collegiate Church.

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McGaw Chapel

It was into this “nurture and admonition of the Lord” as Ray understood them that you and I were baptized as brothers in Christ before either of us could raise a finger to protest it. As the great Christian ethicist Paul Lehmann, may he rest in peace, told the students from the pulpit of McGaw Chapel at The College of Wooster during my tenure there, “Your parents played a dirty trick on you. They baptized you as a child of God and a disciple of Christ before you could object to it. Whatever you would do from that day forward, the declaration made at your baptism will always identify you.”

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Inauguration of Donald J. Trump as President of the United States of America – Getty Image.

Since our infant baptisms, you have gone on to become the President of the United States of America, a position without peer. But, as a brother, we are still peers in the same family. I write you in that spirit, remembering an exchange years ago between a new president of St. Olaf College here in Minnesota and a lowly faculty member just before the new president’s inauguration.

The new president from Norway with a heavy accent and a young faculty member, each in his impressive academic garb, found themselves standing next to each other in the men’s room moments before the ceremony. “In yust a moment,” said the soon-to-be installed Norwegian President of St. Olaf, “I will be the president and you will still be yust a yunior faculty member, but here we are both yust peers.”

849537016As your brother in Christ, your speech at the United Nations took a toll on me. I watched and listened, hoping to see and hear something that might reflect the spirit of the faith tradition we share. Instead I saw finger pointing and frowns, and heard harsh words of admonition of North Korea that embarrassed me, my church, and my country.

I am just a junior faculty member five years your senior, retired, and without question the less accomplished of the two of us. Although we have never stood next to each other, we do know each other from a distance through the shared history of our baptisms in the Presbyterian Church (USA). Whether or not either of us likes it, I am your brother in Christ, a peer.

In that spirit, I owe it to you to speak a gentle word of admonition. As the brother you didn’t know you have, I wished you had remembered your baptism. I wish you had remembered that we’re all just peers before you missed the urinal and hit the whole world we were nurtured and admonished to love.

Your Brother in Christ,

Gordon C. Stewart

 

 

 

 

 

In stillness I wait

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fd102fe612128b9da9857f58e5286d30I see things in the wilderness I do not notice at home.

Last night the sky was lit by lightning on every side —north and south, east and west— but the lightning was flashing from far away. There was no sound. There was no thunderstorm within miles of the A-frame under the stars.

The cabin by the wetland is like that — a place apart for a news-weary soul. A humble shelter of rough-cut pine without electronic devices among the crows, owls, white-tailed deer, skunks, and swans. Yes, the skunks are here, digging for grubs at night, but the skunks here don’t stink up the place like humans do back home, and, like the crows, owls, deer, and swans, they know nothing of the world I’m trying to leave behind.

1928_bcpThis morning’s Psalm from the Daily Office of The Book of Common Prayer brings its own kind of light from afar.

We give you thank, O God, we give you thanks,
calling upon your Name and declaring your wonderful deeds.

“I will appoint a time,” says God,
“I will judge with equity.

“Though the earth and all its inhabitants are quaking,
I will make its pillars fast.

“I will say to the boasters, ‘Boast no more,’
and to the wicked, ‘Do not toss your horns;

“‘Do not toss your horns so high,
nor speak with a proud neck.’”

[Psalm 75:1-5, Book of Common Prayer]

The lightning flashes from ages ago, calling me to hope for such a time.

In the morning stillness of the wilderness, I wait.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, uploading at the truck stop 12 miles away, September 23, 2017.

 

The owl in the wilderness

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An owl greeted Kay this morning from a tree outside the door of the wilderness cabin next to the wetland with the swans’ nest before we turned to the wisdom of the Psalm assigned for today by The Book of Common Prayer.

But as for me, my feet had nearly slipped;
I had almost tripped and fallen;

Because I envied the proud
and saw the prosperity of the wicked:

For they suffer no pain,
and their bodies are sleek and sound;

In the misfortunes of others they have no share;
they are not afflicted as others are;

Therefore, they wear their pride like a necklace
and wrapt their violence about them like a cloak.

Their iniquity comes from gross minds,
and their thoughts overflow with wicked thoughts.

They scoff and speak maliciously;
out of their haughtiness they plan oppression.

They set their mouths against the heavens,
and their evil speech runs through the world.

And so the people turn to them
and find in them no fault.

They say, “How should God know?
Is there knowledge in the Most High?”

So then, these are the wicked;
always at ease, they increase their wealth.
….

Like a dream when one awakens, O Lord,
when you arise you will make their image vanish.

[Psalm 73:2-12, 20]

Having almost tripped and fallen into despair, I hear in the psalmist’s voice the hoot of the owl in the wilderness and pray that the evil speech that ran through the world from the podium of the United Nations and the mage of the violent and the haughty will vanish.

Elijah’s letter to the President

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Seventeen week old Elijah dictated the following letter for Grandpa to send to President Trump after hearing the President’s United Nations speech. Here’s the letter:

September 21, 2017

Dear Mr. President:

I’m little but my Grandpa says I have rights under the First Amendment and that I should exercise my right of free speech to tell you what’s on my mind. I hope that’s okay with you. Grandpa says you’re bigger on the Second Amendment than the First Amendment, but they’re all part of the U. S. Constitution, right?

I’ve thought many times of writing you but decided not to until hearing your speech to the United Nations this week.

You may wonder why a kid like me would send a letter to the President, but there’s more than one good reason.

Infant_Baptism_Christian-217x300We have a connection you may not about, although my Grandpa is very famous, like you. You and Grandpa were baptized as babies in the Presbyterian Church. Your pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Jamaica in Queens took you in his arms and baptized you “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” But before your parents put you in the pastor’s arms, they had to answer a question: “Do you promise, in dependence on the grace of God, to bring up your child in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.”

I asked Grandpa what nurture and admonition meant. He said nurture is like when Mom breastfeeds me. Admonition, he says, is an old word we don’t use anymore and that’s a shame because you could use a good admonishing. Admonition, Grandpa says, is a way of setting boundaries on a child’s behavior; it’s part of the discipline necessary to raising a child toward responsible adulthood. Admonishing is telling a child “No. You can’t do that. You’re a child of God, but you’re not the only one.” Grandpa tells me that all the time. I wonder if your mother and father ever did that with you before they sent you off to the military academy.

So you and Grandpa are both baptized Christians. But there’s even more of a connection!

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McGaw Chapel, The College of Wooster

Grandpa became a Presbyterian minister. He knows one of your church’s former pastors at First Presbyterian Church of Jamaica. Before Rev. Dr. Raymond Schwartzbach (Grandpa calls him ‘Ray’) came to your church in New York City, he served the college church at The College of Wooster which Grandpa served six years after Ray.

Grandpa says Ray was really special and that he left Wooster because he wanted to get back to the city. He told Grandpa that your church was the most multicultural church in the Presbyterian Church (USA) with 32 different languages — the most in the whole country!

Trump at United NationsWatching you speak to all those different languages at the United Nations made me wonder what happened to you after your pastor held you in his arms and baptized you into the way of Christ. Did your parents nurture you? Did they admonish you? Or were you left on your own? Did they teach you not to call people names? Did they admonish you when you did? Did they teach you the first article of the Westminster Catechism, that  “the chief end of man is to glorify God…” and not yourself? Did they teach you the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the meek? Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are the poor. Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness”? Did they teach you that Presbyterians value simplicity and modesty, and that they dislike ostentation? Did they teach you to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you? Did they teach you the difference between loving your country and worshiping it? Did they teach you that nationalism is sin, that the nation is not God?

I’m just little and I haven’t been baptized yet like you and Grandpa. But I have questions. I’m not sure I want to be baptized if being baptized means I have to be admonished as well as nurtured. Maybe you feel the same.

Please answer if you have time. I know you’re very busy with Kim Jung un and Robert Mueller stuff, but Grandpa says some things in life are too important to ignore.

Respectfully yours,

Elijah

 

 

 

 

Grandpa, did the president say that?

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Elijah and HarveyElijah and I were watching the President’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly when suddenly Elijah sat bolt upright.

Grandpa, did he really say that?

Say what, Elijah? He’s said a lot of things.

Trump at United NationsDid he just call Kim Jung Un “Rocket Man”?

Yes, he did, Elijah.

That’s not right! You told me never to call people names. Then he said he would destroy his country! He sounds like a bully. You taught me bullying’s bad, right Grandpa?

Right. Bullying is bad. It’s always bad. The president just embarrassed every American.

And then he insulted all our allies whose countries are socialist. All our European allies are socialist, right Grandpa? Israel’s socialist, right Grandpa?

That’s right, Elijah. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He still believes in the Boogeyman.

Boogeyman_posterWell, I think he’s acting like the Boogeyman. Don’t ever leave me in the same room with the president, Grandpa. He’s mean. He’s scary!

Don’t worry, Elijah, President Trump will never take care of you. Mom will. Grandma and I will. Your baby sitter will. And the world leaders will babysit Mr. Trump.

  • Grandpa Gordon, Chaska, MN, September 21, 2017.

 

That would Ted do?

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Conversations with a best friend newly diagnosed with pancreatic cancer led to me back this morning to Ted Gill, whose obituary we republish here.

Why? Because my friend, like Ted Gill, served as president of an institution of theological education, participated in the civil rights movement, and is finding fresh meaning in the communion of saints, that strange article of the Christian creed that connects the living and the dead as we have never been gathered in time.

People in Minnesota often ask “What would Wellstone do?” Paul Wellstone was a child of the Iron Range. So was Ted Gill who was born in the town where the Wellstone’s plane crashed.

In light of Ted Gill’s obituary — “Late in his life, Ted Gill remarked that ‘the high point of my career in the ministry was the week that I cost my seminary five million dollars’” — we might well ask, “What would Ted do?”

Theodore A. Gill, Sr.
Presbyterian Pastor, Theologian, and Educator

Rev. Dr. Theodore Alexander GillThe Rev. Dr. Theodore Alexander Gill, a former president of San Francisco Theological Seminary and later provost of John Jay College of Criminal Justice in the City University of New York (CUNY), died at the age of 85 on Friday, June 10 following a lengthy illness, in Princeton, New Jersey.

Born in Eveleth, Minnesota on January 7, 1920, Ted Gill was educated at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Princeton Theological Seminary, Union Seminary in New York City, and the University of Zurich where he wrote his doctoral dissertation on “Recent Protestant Political Theory.” His teachers included Emil Brunner, Karl Barth, Josef Hromadka, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Paul Tillich. He was awarded six honorary doctorates during his career. In his time at the San Francisco seminary, he became one of the founders of the Graduate Theological Union based in Berkeley.

After serving Presbyterian parishes in New Rochelle, New York and West End Presbyterian church in New York City, he became professor of religion and dean of the chapel at Lindenwood College in St. Charles, Missouri, and subsequently managing editor of The Christian Century magazine in Chicago and editor of its sister publication The Pulpit. He was president of San Francisco Theological Seminary from 1958 to 1966, leaving that position to occupy the higher education desk of the World Council of Churches in Geneva, Switzerland. Following a return to the parish in Detroit, he joined the faculty of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, a CUNY college in midtown Manhattan, where he remained from 1971 through 1989. In retirement, he served as theologian in residence at Nassau Presbyterian Church in Princeton, New Jersey.

Ted Gill’s passion was for the link between religion and the arts, and over the years he served as a part-time leader of such organizations as Art, Religion, and Contemporary Culture – founded by Paul Tillich – and American Summer Institutes, a series of annual seminars on theology and the arts in locations that included Rome, Berlin, Budapest, and St. Andrews. As president of the San Francisco seminary, he organized a ground-breaking program on theology and theatrical arts. He also served on Presbyterian judicial commissions in the northeast and on national church committees that produced The Worshipbook of 1970 and commissioned the seal or logo of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in 1985. At the time of his death, he was a retired member of the Presbytery of New York City.

From the early days of the US civil rights struggle, Ted Gill publicly supported equal rights for all and openly opposed segregationist practices in both southern and northern states. In 1963-64, he was regional chair of California’s “No on Proposition 14” campaign against discriminatory housing legislation, and in 1965 he marched with Martin Luther King from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in support of voting rights. As he and dozens of students and faculty members from San Francisco Theological Seminary participated in the Selma to Montgomery civil rights march of 1965, promises of millions of dollars in endowments to the institution he led were withdrawn in protest by potential donors. Late in his life, Ted Gill remarked that “the high point of my career in the ministry was the week that I cost my seminary five million dollars.” In later years, he voiced support for the full participation of gays and lesbians in church and society.

51N4rqkX+bL._AC_UL320_SR240,320_He was the author or editor of numerous books, journals, and articles. Among his books were The Sermons of John Donne (1958), Memo for a Movie: A Short Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1971), and, with Robert Bellah and Krister Stendahl, Religion and the Academic Scene (1975).

He was noted for editorial columns and sermons that were featured in church magazines and on radio’s “The Protestant Hour.” Preaching in a sermon series titled “Christian Clichés,” Ted Gill told his listeners:

“I have known and loved too many of the victims of the old-fashioned version of the ‘Christian’ life: wonderful, juicy human beings who were persuaded by a misguided church that they had to veil their vividness, bank their fires, dehydrate their interest, denature their enthusiasms, if they wanted to be Christian. No, the old idea will not do… The Christian life is not the life that is made to fit the legalistic box, that is forced to fit into the pattern. The Christian life is life lived in a certain direction – in, through, around, above whatever temperamental, physical, psychological obstacles any of us may have. But always in that direction – the direction which is assigned to us by what we know of God, by what we know in Jesus Christ of the character and nature of the realest real, by what we know in Jesus of God and the love of God. The Christian life is life lived in appropriate reaction to God’s action for us. The Christian life will be described in terms of the direction we are headed, and of how well we keep going in that direction, no matter how often we trip and fall.”

At the 1968 assembly of the World Council of Churches, Ted Gill gave a speech on “The Great Convergence” of education and the churches. Reflecting on student demonstrations in universities that spring, he revealed his discomfort with patterns of conformity in higher education:

“On the campuses, a generation erupted, an important piece of society let fly. The protest might have begun on the field of general education, but it was a wild shout, a rough rejection of education-in-general, of everything taken for granted by all the elements now molding people, coercing society, determining the future. The real adversary was not this or that administrator or this or that teacher or this or that course. The real adversaries were that rigid vice-chancellor, the status quo; those sternly directive professors, government and industry; that intolerable bore, academic tradition; those long courses in accommodation… Some of the brightest and best of our youth flame now in revolutionary dissatisfaction with the goals they see accepted by those who teach them, affect them, direct them. They distrust the values commonly invoked. They defy the system which ever more efficiently instructs the new generation in means that they see leading straight to inhuman ends: unendurable inequities, intolerable narrowing of human possibilities, blasphemous vulgarizations of spirit.” (“The Great Convergence,” The Ecumenical Review 20.4 [Oct. 1968], 385-94.)

In the April 1958 issue of The Pulpit, editor Gill reflected on the intricacies of theology in light of his father’s recent death: “We squabble and we rant about all the picayune details we assign to mysteries completely beyond our assessing, when all we really have to tell the world, all we really have to live on is the good news that God is love… But now, the love of God that gets us through our hard days is for more than funerals. It is for living along. When you know in your bones that the most real knows you and loves you, that beyond the vicissitudes of experience and the catastrophes of existence the ground of all being has declared itself for you, there should be a relief and a release in your living, a new inventiveness and zest in your living, a new pleasure, a more confident participation in life and its precious fascinations.”

Due to a blockage of his carotid artery in May 1994, he lost the capacity for speech and began a gradual decline in health. His wife of 57 years, Katherine Yonker Gill, died in July 2002. He is survived by a daughter, Laurie Melissa Keeran of Brewster, Massachusetts; a son, the Rev. Theodore A. Gill, Jr. of Geneva, Switzerland; a grand-daughter, Elizabeth Katherine Gill of Durham, North Carolina; and longtime caregiver Ben Mensah of New York City. A memorial service will be held at Nassau Presbyterian Church in Princeton, New Jersey and is being planned for Monday, June 20.

Click HERE to read the NYT obituary.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, September 20, 2017.

Book Review of “Be Still!”

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A gloomy, rainy day in Chaska is brightened by today’s posting of Donald Shriver’s review of Be Still! in the digital edition of The Presbyterian Outlook.

Thanks to editor and to Donald Shriver for the sunshine.

 

Deputizing the Cisco Kid and Poncho

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Pancho and the Cisco Kid

Troubled by criticism that he doesn’t love all the children — red and yellow, black and white, the way he was taught in Sunday School — and with loud cries criticizing his pardon of convicted former sheriff Joe Arpaio still haunting his sleep, President Trump had one of those “Aha!” moments from childhood television last night.

First thing this morning he tweeted an order to his Secretary of Homeland Security to look for help across the Mexican border from Cisco and Poncho of The Cisco Kid.

Be sure to watch to the end.

Then he broke out in song and sent the selfie to the faux news media and his newest friends, Charlie and Nancy: “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white, all are precious in His sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.'”

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, September 17, 2017.

 

The Light Show

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The moonless night beyond the picture window contrasts with the candles that wash a warm glow on the orange rough-cut pine walls inside the A-frame cabin in a place without a name.

flightA flock of Canadian geese flews over the wetland before dusk, honking their way south before winter comes to the Upper Midwest, while inside the cabin walls the Toronto Blue Jays had flown south to Minneapolis over the radio to play a ballgame with the Twins. Unlike the Canadian geese, the Blue Jays are going nowhere; the Minnesota Twins are preparing for a long flight to the World Series.

votive-candlesThere is something strange about being alone in a remote wilderness cabin without a remote or internet, but some things stay close. Like the radio I bring to listen to the Twins games, and my canine companion Barclay who doesn’t care about the Twins or the radio but does care about candlelight. Barclay had headed for his kennel for the night an hour after the Twins had broken the sacred silence—until the sound of a match drew him back to the sofa to watch the candlelight flicker against the walls.

Sometimes I wish I were a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel instead of a lone silly goose who needs a radio to stay sane in an otherwise silent night in a warm-lit cabin in a place without a name.

d6dbdcca-1865-4dbf-b1dc-9cfda368e47d.1By the seventh inning stretch, I’m tired of the Twins game, blow out all the candles, see Barclay to his kennel, and head up the ladder to the loft in the darkness. Only then do I notice the light show beyond the cabin walls: the Northern Lights dancing across the sky, a natural light show no World Series can match. Through the loft window I watch the light that knows nothing of matches, candles, or our whereabouts off the human map.

Sometimes, when awe reduces me to lightening bug, it feels good to be human.

 

Nothing to say

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These last few days have been days like that.

I’m still learning in the quiet of the woods without phone or internet access. When I have nothing to say . . .  it’s best not to say it! 🦉

– Gordon C. Stewart, Speechless-in-Minnesota.

An Absence of Humility

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Hold to the Good

153 Evangelical leaders convened recently in Nashville under the auspices of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Biblical Womanhood and issued a statement on sexuality. Signers include some of the most prominent and influential leaders in the Evangelical family: James Dobson, Richard Land, James Robinson, Tony Perkins. The statement targets gay, lesbian and transgender persons but also Christians, Christian churches and organizations that do not exclude gay, lesbian and transgender people from membership and leadership, and everyone who comes to different conclusions about sexuality and sexual morality.

The first section of the statement reads:

“We affirm that it is sinful to approve of homosexual immorality or transgenderism and that such approval constitutes an essential departure from Christian faithfulness and witness.”

The hubris of that statement is breathtaking. Not only does it reaffirm the traditional evangelical position that any sexual relationship outside of heterosexual marriage is sinful, it also sweeps anyone…

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The World as a Waiting Room

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ERB-logo-Color-SmallToday The Englewood Review of Books published its book review of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness.

Click The World as a Waiting Room to read the review.

Thanks to Chris Smith, The Englewood Review‘s editor, for including Be Still!, and to Madeline Cramer, the reviewer, for close attention to its themes and substance.

Be StillMs. Cramer’s review is the first to lift up the deep affinity between the book’s cover, Vincent Van Gogh’s “Prisoners Exercising”, and the book’s elaboration of the less obvious forms of imprisonment, and our searches, alone and together, for sanity and stillness.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, September 7, 2017.

 

 

The Dreamers’ Psalm

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da2dbf9601aa6f870584206f878d8ba8Steve Shoemaker’s poetry reminded Views from the Edge readers that there is “A Song for Each Kind of Day” [April 12, 2012].

On an ordinary day, today’s assigned reading from The Book of Common Prayer would have sent me scurrying for something brighter. But today is darkened by the cruelty of the announced intention to end legal protection of the ‘Dreamers’.

I hear in the psalmist’s voice the cries of the Dreamers.

 tThose who seek after my life lay snares for me;

those who strive to hurt me speak of my ruin

and plot treachery all the day long. [Ps. 38:12]

Blitzer-Trump-DACAThose who are my enemies without cause are mighty,

and many in number are those who hate me. [Ps. 38:19]

There is a song for each kind of day.

“O Lord, you know all my desires,

and my sighing is no hidden from you.” [Ps. 38:9]

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“Make haste to help me,

O God of my salvation.” [Ps. 38:22]

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, September 6, 2017.

Respite off the map

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Sanity demands solitude.

thoreau quoteHenry David Thoreau withdrew to Walden Pond to come to his senses. His time was much simpler than mine. He never got out of bed to check his emails or search the internet. But even in that less over-stimulated time he felt the need to leave everything that distracts the human spirit from the deeper truth about itself.

Solitude loves silence.

The wilderness cabin in northern Minnesota feels a bit like Henry’s place on Walden Pond. The wetland separates it from the small pond that has no name on a map. There are no sounds here other than the loons’ calls, Barclay’s bark, and the occasional mooing from a mile or two away when the wind is right.

Solitude puts me in touch with nature.

Not all the sounds are calming. In the night darkness, the howls of a nearby coyote and the scratching sounds of skunks digging for grubs remind me that nature is not as altogether sweet as romantics sometimes make it out to be. The cabin provides a respite from the human howls and odors that startle me in the world beyond these woods.

I ponder with the psalmist the societal ills that drove Henry to Walden Pond and have driven me here.

Their idols are silver and gold,
the work of human hands.

They have mouths, but they cannot speak;
eyes have they, but they cannot see;

They have ears, but they cannot hear;
noses, but they cannot smell;

They have hands, but they cannot feel;
feet, but they cannot walk;
they make no sound with their throat.

Those who make them are like them,
and so are all who put their trust in them.
[Psalm 115:4-8, The Book of Common Prayer]

fd102fe612128b9da9857f58e5286d30I become aware of the light dancing on the aspen leaves in a gentle breeze, the yellow oak leaf signaling the turn of summer toward fall, the sudden gust of wind from across the nameless pond, the osprey circling overhead on currents I cannot see, the ice-cold water hand-pumped from the well, the warmth of the fire in the wood stove, the feel of dirt from the flower beds—the living silence of a dead stop.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Walden Pond, MN, September 2, 2017.

When the news goes away

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Days away from internet access brings a calmer reflection. Being in touch isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Out of touch with bad news brings relief to the body.

220px-Tipi_bij_daglichtIf living in the developed world means being on edge all the time, I’d prefer a less developed one — maybe a teepee with smoke signals for communication. Anxiety is real enough without the constant sting of bad news from far away and beyond my small sphere of influence.

Madison Avenue loves my anxiety. It preys on what can only be prayed about. An ad agency is no praying mantis! It loves green but its antennae hunt for the anxious selves who confuse wants with needs, buying the things we do not need if we believe we only exist by having them.

Stillness and being are not their thing. Selling is their game. They don’t pray. They prey on well-trained animals, ringing Pavlov’s bell for manufactured tastes and smells, while down on Wall Street Monday’s opening bell opens the door of hornets’ nest.

Praying_mantis_indiaLike the praying mantis, the non-preying prayers live far from the bells. In touch with what’s worth much more than it’s cracked up to be: a less bad news world where humans live teepee-lives in touch with the body . . . in the stillness of time.

“Their aim is to confound the plans of the afflicted, but the LORD is their refuge.” [Psalm 14:6, The Book of Common Prayer]

  •  Gordon C. Stewart, wilderness cabin, northern Minnesota, September 3, 2017

What would Bill say?

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What_Would_Wellstone_Do_-254x300“What would Wellstone do?” is a question often heard in Minnesota after the un-timely death of Senator Paul Wellstone. Most people can make a well-educated guess at the answers.

What would Bill say?” is the question I’m pondering this morning, looking for light in the darkness of the chemical eco-catastrophe  in Crosby, Texas.

Bill Gibson — click William E. Gibson to read Bill’s obituary — was a campus ministry colleague in the mid-’70s.

41XX644YJ4L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_One of 27 campus ministers in New York State under the auspices of United Ministries in Higher Education*, Bill was “doing his own thing” at Cornell. His own thing — “eco-justice“– resulted in Eco-Justice — the Unfinished Journey. Click the title to read from the book Bill edited.

 

Like Paul Wellstone, Bill Gibson was a trailblazer. Unlike the senator, he worked away from the floodlights, quietly taking the path less taken on what has proven to be humanity’s great unfinished business.

Thank you, Bill. Rest in Peace.

Bill-Gibson-1Your joy and light still shine.

 

 

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, September 1, 2017.

*Click HERE for the history of United Ministries in Higher Education (UMHE), the ecumenical ministry jointly funded by the American Baptist, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Episcopal, Moravian, Reformed Church in America, Presbyterian Church (USA), United Brethren, United Church of Christ, and United Methodist churches.

Harvey, Houston, and the Holy

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The urgency of a rescue operation is not the time for anything but compassion.

Timing and perception are everything in this startling time of Hurricane Harvey, 500-year floods, and the chemical plant explosions now taking place in Houston. Watching a helicopter rescue the elderly and disabled from the rising waters of a flood that has put people at risk is not the time to say I told you so.

But sooner or later it is time to speak about the unnatural crisis hidden behind the crisis of nature. In times like this, everyone becomes a socialist, and, if we’re seeing straight, no one stays a climate change-denier in the city big oil built.

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Chemical plant explosions are the latest horrific news that graphically illustrate a national crisis that is more than ‘natural’. The crisis is anthropological and theological.

“Man over nature” was always an illusion. A hoax. A faux understanding of the human species’ relationship with the rest of nature — “man (sic.) over nature,” as though the first were separate from the latter — that leads to destruction and self-destruction.

The chemicals are exploding because the plants that make them cannot keep them cool. Keeping them cool requires an operative electrical grid, or, when the grid goes down, an emergency generator that isn’t vulnerable to flooding. When the grid and backup generators fail, the chemicals heat and explode.

Timing and perception are everything.

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Not much more than a year ago Standing Rock was being touted as the emerging symbol of the revised understanding, the shift in consciousness, and the new behavior required of humankind in the age of climate departure. The oil pipeline from Canada to Texas refineries was stopped in the name of nature itself.

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That was before the 2016 election, and the 2017 appointment of a climate change-denier to gut the EPA, presidential executive orders stripping away regulations on the fossil fuel industry, and America’s spiritual retreat from the Paris Accord on Climate Change. Texas, not Standing Rock, was in charge again. Or so it seemed until Harvey came ashore to wash away the illusion of “man over nature.”

It’s time now for a clearer perception. Time to hold next to each other a picture of flooded Texas chemical plant explosions and the peaceful protest of Standing Rock,  and ask ourselves which picture is truer than the other. Or perhaps the truth is better seen when both are held together side-by-side: two anthropologies and two theologies. According to the one, humankind and the human city are the measure of reality itself. According to the other, God (i.e. the Eternal, Being-Itself) is the “natural” context — the mysterium tremendum et fascinans* — in which we live, and move, and have our being.

Today is, and tomorrow will still be, time for compassion and help for the people of Houston. It is also time to perceive something much deeper and wider. The rescued people of Houston, southeast Texas, and Louisiana are but the latest victims of the tragedy of the human mind and spirit: the fanciful illusion and creation of an alt-world of species superiority to nature.

Could the trembling of this horrific moment lead us to a holier fascination with reality itself?

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Rudolf Otto (1869-1937)

The people of Standing Rock and Rudolf Otto are watching.

*Rudolf Otto‘s Latin term for the human experience with the Mystery beyond all taming that both fascinates and causes us mortals to tremble. (Rudolf Otto (1869–1937), The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-Rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and its Relation to the Rational.)

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, August 31, 2017

 

 

 

 

A Hymn for Houston

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Watching rescue workers, the Red Cross, FEMA workers, and volunteers serving in Houston brings to mind a rare hymn that focuses on the city in a time of despair.

Click HERE for the lyrics.

Erik Routley’s rendering of Charleston, an American folk tune, honors all who love and serve the city, all who bear its daily stress.

Across America — from tiny churches in Appalachia, the bayous of Louisiana, and Sitka, Alaska to Memorial Church at Harvard — prayers are lifted and hymns are being sung in thanks for all who love and serve the city.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, August 30, 2017.

 

 

A Moment of National Decision

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Pastors sometimes view the world differently. Pondering the President’s visit to Houston today, the lines from three hymns come to mind.

“In an age of twisted values we have lost the truth we need. In sophisticated language we have justified our greed.”

“We have built discrimination on our prejudices and fear. Hatred swiftly turns to cruelty if we hold resentments dear.”

And these lines from James Russell Lowell‘s old chestnut, “Once to Every Man and Nation”:

“Once to every man and nation/ Comes the moment to decide/ In the strife of truth with falsehood/ For the good or evil side;/ Some great cause, some great decision/ Offering each the bloom or blight,/ And the choice goes by forever/ ‘Twixt that darkness and that light.”

If John Newton, the former slave ship captain, could be turned into an abolitionist by the amazing grace “that saved a wretch like me,” who’s to say amazing things can’t happen on August 29, 2017?

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, August 29, 2017.

Singing through the storm?

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Watching the floods in Texas, I don’t feel like singing. But, while weeping for the people of south Texas, I hear the song of Pete Seeger wading through the storms and lamentations.

When Robert Lowry (1826-1899) wrote “How Can I Keep from Singing,” Pete Seeger (1919-2014) hadn’t been born, but Lowry’s music found a voice in Pete and others who listen amid life’s storms and lamentations.

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Rev’d Robert Lowry, preacher and hymn writer

A reporter once asked him what was his method of composition— “Do you write the words to fit the music, or the music to fit the words?” His reply was:

“I have no method. Sometimes the music comes and the words follow, fitted insensibly to the melody. I watch my moods, and when anything good strikes me, whether words or music, and no matter where I am, at home or on the street, I jot it down. Often the margin of a newspaper or the back of an envelope serves as a notebook. My brain is a sort of spinning machine, I think, for there is music running through it all the time. I do not pick out my music on the keys of an instrument. The tunes of nearly all the hymns I have written have been completed on paper before I tried them on the organ. Frequently the words of the hymn and the music have been written at the same time.”

Robert Lowry regarded “Weeping Will Not Save Me” as the best hymn he ever wrote.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, August 29, 2017.