Boundary-breaking God

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Kosuke Koyama - RIP

Kosuke Koyama (1929-2009) R.I.P.

INTRODUCTION: The Japanese theologian to whom Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness is dedicated delivered these words a decade ago from the pulpit of House of Hope Presbyterian Church in St Paul, Minnesota. Contrary to popular misconception, the biblical prophets did not fore-tell the future; they rather forth-told a word greater than their own. Kosuke Koyama‘s experience led him to hear something quite clearly – a word he could not have known would be more important in 2017 than the day he spoke it.

THE SERMON, June 6, 2006. Texts: Leviticus 19:33, Psalm 139: 7-10, and Luke 14: 1-6. [Bold type added by Views from the Edge.]

Dear Sisters and Brothers in Jesus Christ,

When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. – Lev. 19:33.

This is a challenging suggestion for the immigration and naturalization policy of any nation. God does not discriminate between citizens and aliens. The God of the Bible is more concerned about the welfare of the aliens, the weak, than of citizens, the strong.

Remember your own experience in Egypt! “Love the alien as yourself!” Jesus is even more emphatic when he says, “Love your enemies!” We think of aliens and enemies as potential threats to our community. They must be kept outside of our boundaries.

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” observes the New England poet, with sharp insight. Something there is in the gospel of Christ that dismantles walls. Jesus “has broken down the dividing walls,” we read in the Epistle to the Ephesians. (2:14)
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“In the beginning was the Word” (John 1:1) – This Word, the truthful Word, “breaks down the dividing walls” by making honest dialogue possible. When communication breaks down peace breaks down. It takes a great deal of dialogue to come to mutual understanding between peoples of different language, religions, racial and cultural practice. Often the choice is between dialogue and mutual destruction, between diplomacy and war. The alternative to dialogue is taking the sword. Jesus says; “all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Mt.26:52). Our “sword” today is incredibly destructive! Our fear, today, is of nuclear proliferation. We fear it because we started it! “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live”! (Dt.30:19)
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The brief gospel text for this morning is a record of a profound dialogue. The story is honest and transparent. We can understand it very well. The dumfounded lawyers and Pharisees only reveal the sincere quality of the story. In conversation with Jesus, the man of total honesty, human hypocrisy is exposed and expelled.

On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the Sabbath, they were watching him closely. Just then, in front of him, there was a man who had dropsy. Jesus asked the lawyers and Pharisees, “Is it lawful to cure people on the sabbath, or not?” but they were silent. So Jesus took him and healed him, and sent him away. Then he said to them, “If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a Sabbath day?” And they could not reply to this (Luke 14:1-6).

How boldly Jesus simplifies and zeroes-in on the central issue! “Is it lawful to cure people on the Sabbath, or not?” This is the question that distinguishes the gospel from religion. This story is only one of a number of “Sabbath controversies” told in the gospels. The gospel breaks boundaries. Religion often insists on boundaries. The gospel opens windows in hope. Religion may shut windows in fear. The gospel is “scandalously” inclusive. Religion often is piously exclusive. “You shall love the alien as yourself” expresses the spirit of the gospel. Religion tends to question whether everyone deserves to be loved.

The Sabbath is a holy institution commemorating the holy rest God has taken after creating “heaven and earth.” Sabbath is mentioned as one of the Ten Commandments:

“Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work – you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it” (Ex.20: 8-11).

“On another Sabbath he entered the synagogue and taught, and there was a man there whose right hand was withered” (Lk. 6:6) “Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight” (13:10,11).

“On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the Sabbath, … Just then, in front of him, there was a man who had dropsy” (the disease of the swelling from abnormal fluid retention ). A man of withered hand, a woman who is bent over, and a man with dropsy appear “on the Sabbath in front of him.”

Jesus cures them. Jesus “works” on the Sabbath! Some for whom it is important to “keep” the sabbath complain, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day”(Lk.13:14). Jesus, for whom the persons with need are more important than the rule, responds, “If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a Sabbath day?”

Jesus comes to heal the broken human community. He is the embodiment of direct love-action and action-love. He cures sick people publicly on the Sabbath with unassailable authority and freedom. The people are amazed – ecstatic – and praise God. Representing the God of compassion, Jesus breaks the boundary attached to the sacred Sabbath tradition. In his “boundary breaking” he restores the authentic purpose of the sabbath – that is, to bring health to human community. The Sabbath is for healing. “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath,” says Jesus (Mk.2:27). What a freedom he exhibits!

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The gospel of Jesus Christ is “scandalous,” says the apostle Paul in his letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 1: 18-25) for he is “the man who fits no formula” (Eduard Schweizer, (Jesus, chap. 2). Creeds, doctrine, theology, or tradition cannot domesticate Jesus. No one can confine Jesus within walls. Let me quote from a Swiss New Testament scholar:

“…teaching in itself does not convey the living God. It may even hinder his coming, though it (the teaching) may be totally correct. It is exactly the most correct and orthodox teaching that would suggest that we had got hold of God. Then he can no longer come in his surprising ways” (Eduard Schweizer, Luke: A Challenge to Present Theology p.58)

We feel uneasy when Jesus breaks the boundaries we make, because boundaries are a part of our accepted culture. “Good fences make good neighbors.” Yet, fences can never be the final word. Tragically in our real lives fences work more in the direction of mutual alienation than mutual embrace. “Before I build a wall I’d ask to know what I was walling in or walling out” – says the poet. That is a good question!

When I was in my early teens, Japan followed her gods who were rather poorly educated in international relations. They were parochial. They spoke only Japanese. They did not criticize Japanese militarism. They endorsed the inflated idea that Japan is a righteous empire. Trusting these parochial gods, the people recited, to paraphrase: “If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, behold the glory of the divine emperor of Japan is there!” Japan broke international boundaries in pursuit of self-glorification and aggrandizement. Without any threat from her Asian neighbors, Japan attacked and invaded them. The Japanese gods approved and Japan ruined herself. Blessed are nations that have a God who criticize what they do! The God of Israel said to God’s own people: “You are a stiff-necked people!”

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The infant Jesus “was placed in a manger – “for there was no place for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7). Being thus edged out even from a human birth place, Jesus breaks a boundary. When he “eats with sinners and tax collectors” (Mk.2:16) he breaks a boundary. Crucified, nailed to the cross, – completely immobilized – he breaks a boundary. Dying between two criminals, becoming a member of this community of three crosses, he breaks a boundary. Being “numbered with the transgressors”, to quote from the Book of Isaiah (53:12), he breaks boundaries. This is an amazing story. The one who is totally vulnerable, disarmed, non-violent, and immobilized and humiliated has broken all the boundaries, which threaten the health of human community.

With our geopolitical realities, we may think that the way of Christ is romantic and not realistic. Then we must know that the alternative is the historical fact of 5000 years of human civilization replete with constant warfare. Should we continue this state of endless destruction for another 5000 years? Gandhi’s practice of non-violence has done more to increase the welfare of humanity upon the earth than many wars put together. Martin Luther King Jr. says: “Far from being the pious injunction of a Utopian dreamer, the command to love one’s enemy is an absolute necessity for our survival”! (Strength to Love, p.47) “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God‘s weakness is stronger than human strength” cries the apostle Paul (1 Cor.1:25).

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“Look at the birds of the air,” Jesus says. “They neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (Matt. 6:26). The birds of the air and the Father who feeds them are free from all boundaries. Climate change – global warming – has no boundaries. The light of the sun and the air that sustain all living beings know no boundaries. The Berlin Wall of 96 miles was there for 28 years up to 1989. The racial wall of the South African Apartheid existed for 46 years and ended in 1994. In their limited existence, these walls have done immeasurable damage to humanity on the both sides of the wall. The Orthodox Church of the East and the Catholic Church of the West did not speak to each other for 911 years from 1054 to 1965. The Great Wall of China and Check Point Charlie in Berlin are tourist spots today. “One cannot dehumanize others without dehumanizing oneself” says James Baldwin. “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” we pray. It is this prayer that breaks the boundaries in a way that is pleasing to God.

 

Elijah’s face

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Elijah calm

Five day old Elijah

Looking at the contentment on Elijah’s face, do you suppose he’s already read grandpa’s Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness or has memorized grandpa’s favorite psalm, Psalm 46? I wish I could be this calm, this cool, this collected, this still.

God is our refuge and strength,
    a very present help in trouble.
 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
    though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
    though its waters roar and foam,
    though the mountains tremble with its tumult.Selah

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
    the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
    God will help it when the morning dawns.
The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
    he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord of hosts is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our refuge.

Come, behold the works of the Lord;
    see what desolations he has brought on the earth.
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
    he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;
    he burns the shields with fire.
“Be still, and know that I am God!
    I am exalted among the nations,
    I am exalted in the earth.”
 The Lord of hosts is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our refuge.

[Psalm 46, NRSV]

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, May 26, 2017

The Amish Pope with the Trumps

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The Amish don’t like cameras. Humility tells them to shun photographs. Why? Because a photograph draws attention to oneself. Christ calls a human being to be humble. Christ calls a person to be modest. Christ calls a person to take a place in the community and to shun “the English” love of ostentation and self-aggrandizement.

There are no Bentleys or Fords among the Amish, no one-percent and 99 percent, or, if there is the latter, no one can tell it by the buggies they drive. It’s the community that counts. They all wear black.

Maybe the president and his family thought the Pope was Amish? Although the Pope is robed in white linen, the Pope’s facial expression leaves one to wonder whether perhaps the Trumps were right.

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American Gothic and the Amish Pope

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, May 26, 2017.

A very sad little man

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A video is worth a thousand words. A push. A “get outta my way” shove. The quickly changing facial expression. The peacock fanning his tail. So much for the conversation with Pope Francis: “The first shall be last, and the last shall be first.” It stuck like silly putty. Or…like water off the back of a very sad little man. The President misunderstood the Pope’s quotation from John 14. “In my Father’s house there’s only enough room for me.”

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, May 26, 2017.

Do newborns smile?

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Taking his first bath, newborn Elijah Andrew smiled his deep dimple smile, looking toward his mother cooing to him from her hospital bed following emergency surgery.

Newborns don’t really smile, I’ve been told. Their faces change because of gas or for some other bodily reason. But, looking at Elijah’s face, how can anyone doubt that Elijah is smiling at the sound of his mother’s voice?

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Elijah Andrew, 8.1 lbs., 21 inches with huge shoulders and smile and dimpled smile.

After smiling at his mother, Elijah was heard to say to the nurse who was bathing him, “What you talking about? Baby’s DO smile! I’d know that voice anywhere. I’ve been with her everywhere she’s gone for almost nine months.”

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, May 24, 2017.

Memorial Day and the Soldier’s Helmet

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“Memorial Day and the Soldier’s Helmet” is read aloud here from Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (p. 10f.). This recording is not as professional as it will be this weekend when it airs on Minnesota Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.” This practice run starts out a little mushy! But it’s good enough that Day1.org posted it yesterday on their site.

Many thanks to Chuck Lieber for making it possible to turn “Be Still!” into a podcast.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, May 24, 2017.

Shout! Shout! Elijah rocks!

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Elijah fought his way into the world yesterday with the push of a very weary mother. His middle name is Andrew, named after his uncle, his mother Kristin’s younger brother.

Excited by the birth, I phoned a friend. “Hey,” I said, “I’m a grandson! Kristin just had a grandfather!” The grandson weighs 190. The grandfather 8.1.

Shout! Shout!

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Mah 23, 2017

Naming the (step)grandchild

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When the Chinese waitperson who has mixed two Kettle One martinis with twists and a yellowfin tuna roll listens carefully to the reason you’re at Sake Sushi — your pregnant step-daughter is being induced into labor two weeks before her due date because of high blood pressure — responds to your inappropriate question about a good name for the baby (it’s a boy) with “PETER!”, could she be the voice of God?

Just wondering. I’ve enjoyed two Kettle One martinis!

By morning I expect the baby to leave the womb. We shall see whether he is Jackson, Elijah, Eli, Micah. . . or Peter!

Pray for the mother, the child, and the weary grandmother at the hospital.

  • Gordon, safely home from Sake Sushi in Chaska, MN, May 20, 2017.

When a megalomaniac is cornered

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150th anniversary logo of The Nation

Sasha Abramsky’s article “Trump is a Cornered Megalomaniac — and That’s a Grave Danger to the Country” (The Nation, May 21) examines the growing crisis in the White House and the clear and present danger it poses.

“Men like Trump,” says Abramsky, “do not fade gently into their political night. Rather, with all nuance sacrificed in pursuit of their senescent need for the spotlight, they scrabble and scratch, lash out and fight. With no self-limiting or self-correcting moral gyroscope, they go down whatever paths they believe offer them the best chance of survival.”

I read Abramsky’s article yesterday and recalled a brief conversation last December aboard ship on The Nation Annual Cruise.

This morning the President was playing from the script, doing Abramsky warned he would: fighting back, lashing out at the “fake media” who don’t want him to “drain the swamp of Washington bureaucrats” in order to “make America great again,” the media who have treated him worse than anyone in American history, against those who keep making stuff up like “the Russian thing.” Donald Trump was using “all the tricks of the demagogue as he fights for his survival” (Abramsky).

A Facebook “Friend” posted a Trump call for readers to rise up in support of the victimized people’s President. This afternoon I can’t seem to find it and wonder whether perhaps Facebook, which revised its policy that allowed splattering false news in the 2016 election, had censored the post as faux news. Whatever the reason for the post’s disappearance, the reason for its initial appearance was clear.

But three things seem clear.

  1. The game is on. “Donald Trump’s grotesque presidency now hangs by a thread. By the hour, it seems, the possibility of impeachment, of him being declared incompetent to govern—or, at the very least, of his own party bringing irresistible pressure on him to resign—grows.” (Abramsky)
  2. This President has shown repeatedly that he is capable of almost anything, including, God forbid, creating or exacerbating an international crisis of epic proportions, in the megalomaniacal struggle to survive.
  3. My Facebook “Friend” doesn’t agree with any of that. She still believes in the President. She’s a good person, a fallen-away Catholic. We’re still “friends” on Facebook and in real life.

But, hey, who knows what may happen?

The President’s trip includes a meeting with the Pope. Maybe Pope Francis will hear his confession, convince the beleaguered, lapsed Presbyterian president to resign, and convince the likes of my lapsed Catholic Facebook Friend that wise people don’t confuse demagogues with victims.

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

 

 

 

 

Thank you, Frederick Buechner

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Today Day1.org features “The Seagull and the Rainbow” right beside Frederick Buechner, whose writings influenced me as a young preacher and pastor.

Frederick Buechner

Frederick Buechner

Thanks to Peter Wallace of Day1 for putting the student next to a man he unconsciously aspired to be. I’m older now . . .  and the distant iconic mentor who had no reason to know his mentee’s name is older still but no less alive to faith and life!

Years ago the Council of Churches in Cincinnati invited a Canadian publisher to publish “The Cincinnati Prayer Book,” a collection of prayers for the year by Cincinnati religious leaders. I was Pastor of Knox Presbyterian Church at the time. The publisher asked whether I would be interested in publishing a collection of sermons.

I recall the conversation in my office as if it were yesterday. I thought I smelled a rat.

“Are you a vanity press?” I asked.

They assurance me they were not. “The Startling Kindness of God” moved forward, including an endorsement from Frederick Buechner. But Fred’s letter to me included a private comment that changed how I preached and wrote. The sermons were good, he said, followed by a devastating “but”: “but I find them rather bloodless. I want to see some of your blood in them.”

Listening to your lifeI learned laster that he was working on Listening to Your Life. Reading my sermons, he seemed to sense I was not listening to mine. I wasn’t.

When the final contract appeared, the publisher required that I sell 300 copies of the sermon collection. I tore up the contract. The bloodless sermons are in a box in my closet, wondering why they were never published.

I have no reason to believe Fred Buechner has any recollection of that or that he remembers my name. But his combination of affirmation and warning began to change the way I preach and write. To appear next to Frederick Buechner today is a serendipitous occasion of joy and thanks. Thank you, Fred. I’m holding out a goldfish after all these years.

Thank you, Peter, for posting “The Seagull and the Rainbow” on Day1.

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

 

 

 

 

Glooming Gus at the Precipice

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This otherwise cheerful morning – the sun is bright, the sky is blue, the air is brisk, the flowers are blooming – I open my eyes to find myself standing again before the precipice.

“I don’t know whether we’re on the edge of the precipice,” said Louis de Guidos, “but we’re in in a very, very, very difficult situation.”

He was speaking of the Spanish and European economy, but his description is suited to the crisis in which the world now finds itself in the aftermath of a global cyber attack and men-children in North Korea and the U.S.A. with nuclear arsenals at their fingertips.

“At times, we forget the magnitude of the havoc we can wreak by off-loading our minds onto super-intelligent machines, that is, until they run away from us, like mad sorcerers’ apprentices, and drag us up to the precipice for a look down into the abyss.” – Richard Dooling.

A lesser known author wrote on this topic:

“It’s one thing to play with toys. It’s something else when the toys are nuclear bombs and missiles.

“Our time is perilously close to mass suicide. Unless and until we get it straight that I and we are not the center of the universe, the likes of Kim Jong-un – and his mirror opposites but like-minded opponents on this side of the Pacific – will hold us hostage to the madness that lurks in human goodness.

“‘Have we not come to such an impasse in the modern world that we must love our enemies – or else?’ asked Dr. King. ‘The chain reaction of evil – hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars – must be broken, or else we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation.'” -“Mysterium Tremendum et Fascinans: Little Boys with Toys,” Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness, p. 77.

Just because a person’s a gloomy Gus doesn’t mean it’s not gloomy. 🙄

  • Gordon C. Stewart, gloomy Gus, at the precipice in Chaska, MN, May 17, 2016.

Hinges: Wisdom and Discretion

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Yesterday’s “Why do we feel so unhinged?” – an attempt at a philosophical post outside the partisan political fray – cries out this morning for a less dispassionate follow-up.

Much of the reason for feeling unhinged is unhinged behavior in the White House that violates prudence (wisdom) and temperance (restraint, self-control), two of the Four Cardinal Virtues featured in “Why do we feel so unhinged?”

trump-lavrov2.jpg.size.custom.crop.1086x724The latest Washington Post news concerning the POTUS’s off-script conversation with the Russian Foreign Minister and the Russian Ambassador about a highly sensitive foreign intelligence and national security matter offers the latest evidence of Mr. Trump’s imprudence and lack of restraint.

The American people and the people of the world should expect wisdom and self-control (restraint) from the most powerful man in the world. But when a society’s traditional values get obliterated by an entertainment culture whose entertainment President gets his news from watching “Good Morning, Joe” and Fox News and tweets warning shots at the FBI Director he’s just fired, the greater tragedy may be that America got a mirror image of ourselves. Until finally the question former First Lady Michelle Obama asked after the new president signed an executive order undoing the Obama Administration’s healthy school lunch program: “What is wrong with you?”

The question goes all the way back to Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero in ancient Greece and Roma, and to Thomas Aquinas, who was schooled in the Four Cardinal Virtues at the University of Paris in the 12th Century.

As previously noted (see “Two Universities: Paris and Liberty” in Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness, p. 101-102), it’s a long way from the University of Paris to Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia where the the new president delivered his first commencement address last Saturday.

Trump and FalwellLiberty President Jerry Falwell, Jr. urging Liberty students and faculty to buy guns to teach the Muslims a lesson when they show up at Liberty is a far cry from Jesus’s teaching that those who live by the sword will perish by the sword. While Liberty’s President, like the Liberty’s commencement speaker, measures life by what is the greatest and the biggest – Liberty boasts of being the biggest university in the world – Jesus spoke about “the least of these,” by which he did not mean the least qualified, the least accredited and least academically respected educational institution. No, he was talking about the down-trodden, the poor, the meek of the earth, the sick, the dying, the friendless, not the successful elect, the saved, the righteous, the true believers, or the well-off. This is the school President Trump chose to address last week.

Here again are the Four Cardinal Virtues on which the western moral tradition claims the good life and the good society hing. They are called ‘cardinal’ from the Latin word cardo (‘hing’) because the door to the good life and the healthy society hinges on them.

Prudence/Wisdom. In Greek and Roman philosophy – the works of Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero – and in subsequent Christian teaching, all other moral virtues depend on prudence or wisdom (Greek: φρόνησις, phronēsis; Latin: prudent): the ability to judge between appropriate (i.e. virtuous as opposed to vicious) actions in a given time and circumstance.

Temperance (Greek: σωφροσύνη, sōphrosynē; Latin: temperantia) – restraint, self-control, abstention, discretion, and moderation – is the practical exercise of prudence/wisdom.

Today is another day in America. Another day in whatever as yet un-masked country provided the highly classified intelligence report to which the President off-handedly referred in the Oval Office while bragging about his “great intel” to the dismay of an onsite witness wise enough to blow the whistle on the latest example of imprudence and intemperance that put the world at risk.

O God, who would fold both heaven and earth in a single peace:
let the design of your great love
lighten upon the waste of our wraths and sorrows:
and give peace to thy Church,
peace among nations,
peace in our dwellings,
and peace in our hearts…. Amen
[Book of Common Prayer]

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, May 16, 2017.

 

Why do we feel so unhinged?

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Vertus cardinales par Germain Pilon (Louvre)

Yesterday a friend reminded me of the Four Cardinal Virtues:

  1. prudence (wisdom),
  2. justice,
  3. temperance, and
  4. courage.

They are called ‘cardinal’ (Latin cardo; English: ‘hinge’) because they are the ‘hinges’ of the good life and the good society. These are the hinges on which the door to the good life opens.

We don’t think much about ‘virtue’ in the Ayn Rand society. We have learned to recoil at the smugness of those who claim to be virtuous. Even so, one is led to wonder whether we recoil at the imprudent, ill-tempered tweetings and firings in the news because of lingering respect and yearning for the Four Cardinal Virtues, the traditional moral hinges of our cultural heritage.

Prudence/Wisdom. In Greek and Roman philosophy – the works of Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero – and in subsequent Christian teaching, all other moral virtues depend on prudence or wisdom (Greek: φρόνησις, phronēsis; Latin: prudent): the ability to judge between appropriate (i.e. virtuous as opposed to vicious) actions in a given time and circumstance.

Temperance (Greek: σωφροσύνη, sōphrosynē; Latin: temperantia) – restraint, self-control, abstention, discretion, and moderation – is the practical exercise of prudence/wisdom.

Justice (Greek: δικαιοσύνη, dikaiosynē; Latin: iustitia) is the moral and economic balance between selfishness and selflessness, between having more and having less than one’s fair share.

Courage (Greek: ἀνδρεία, andreia; Latin: fortitude) means not only fortitude/strength, but forbearance, endurance, and the ability to confront fear, uncertainty, and intimidation.

Could it be that the daily unhinged violation of the Four Cardinal (hinge) Virtues is why we feel so unhinged?

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, the Ides of March, 2017

 

Hammer-strokes against the darkness

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My heart aches over what J. C. Blumhardt called “the wasted fields of mankind.” The fields of humankind are being laid waste in our time, as they were in his (1805 – 1880). What to do?

I’ve made phone calls. I’ve written. I’ve posted here and on FaceBook. I’ve written a book on collective madness. But none of it seems to have mattered much until I remembered the words of Johann Christoph Blumhardt, the German pastor who pioneered in the field of religion and mental illness at Bad Boll.

Our prayers are hammer-strokes against the princes of darkness; they must be oft repeated. Many years can pass by, even a number of generations die away, before a breakthrough occurs. However, not a single hit is wasted; and if they are continued, then even the most secure wall will fall. Then the glory of God will have a clear path upon which to stride forth with healing and blessing for the wasted fields of mankind.

Write. Write, Write. Make phone calls to congressional representatives, the White House, the princes who exercise public power and authority. Phone again if the voicemail box is full. Write again. But sustain all the activity with the hammer-strokes of prayer against the princes of darkness for the healing and blessing of the wasted fields of humankind. Live by the hope that not a single hit is wasted and that even the most secure wall will fall.

Thank you, Mom, for the faith to hammer on. RIP.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Mother’s Day, May 14, 2017

Whoo-woo! I hear a rumblin’

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Some days, when I’m weary, I hear the rumblin’ wheels of the gospel train rolling through the land. The song of the American slaves speaks its hope to me in this later age of collective madness.

The Gospel train’s comin’
I hear it just at hand
I hear the car wheel rumblin’
And rollin’ thro’ the land

Get on board little children
Get on board little children
Get on board little children
There’s room for many more

I hear the train a-comin’
She’s comin’ round the curve
She’s loosened all her steam and brakes
And strainin’ ev’ry nerve

The fare is cheap and all can go
The rich and poor are there
No second class aboard this train
No difference in the fare

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Whoo-wooing for the fairer train from Chaska, MN, May 11, 2017.

 

Day One – and the Last Day

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Peter Wallace, Day1.org

Good news came early this morning from Peter Wallace of Day1.org.

“It (i.e. The Seagull and the Double Rainbow, previously published on Views from the Edge) will be on our homepage Saturday May 20—Saturdays are our biggest traffic day.”

Thanks to Bob Todd for introducing Peter Wallace to Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness and to Peter for featuring “Homeland Militarization” on Day1 several weeks ago.

seagull in ScarboroughEarlier today we published Dan Balz Washington Post piece on the firing of James Comey and the need to search for the truth behind the firing. Maybe the insistent seagull that kept banging away on the glass door is a model for people seeking the truth behind the curiously-timed, sudden firing that sent White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer into hiding in the White House bushes.

Maybe at the same time we could look at the beauty of the rainbow for a quieter critical perspective. Stillness comes hard on days like this. Anger and confusion come more easily. But the friendly word from Peter Wallace, and that moment last week on the Maine coast with the seagull and the double rainbow remind me that no day, in the end, belongs to the darkness or the proud.

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

 

The Firing of James Comey

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danbalz_0Dan Balz has always struck me as among the best of professional journalists. He asks the questions and searches for truth wherever it may lead.

At 8:49 P.M. last night, within hours of President Trump’s surprising firing of FBI Director James Comey, he managed to write and publish the piece that greeted readers of The Washington Post this morning.

Click HERE to read Dan Balz’s hastily gathered thoughts on the curious firing of the controversial FBI Director, its historical context and future implications. Anyone who can write that cogently in a little more than a heartbeat is a writer’s writer.

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

 

Never judge a book by its cover

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The location of the Maine bed and breakfast we’d booked for Friday night stumped the GPS. The voice kept saying “Stop and walk from here,” but we couldn’t just stop – we were driving 55 mph in traffic in the rain, and there was no place to pull over – and we had not a clue where “there” was.

After being lost for half-an-hour in who-knew-where, Kay called the owner . . . who turned out to be at a wedding 2,000 miles away in Colorado. Her husband (we’ll call him “Bob”) would be expecting us, she said, but she could reach him. “He might be down with the chickens.”

Bed and Breakfast slippersBob was nowhere in sight. Still uncertain we were “there”, we let ourselves in through the big green door. Kay called Colorado again to confirm we were at the right house – the one with a green door. Yup! We were “there” but there was no Bob. A pair of men’s slippers at the foot of the staircase told us he couldn’t be far.

Twenty minutes later Bob, in his early 30s, appeared from the basement. His long flowing hair and “Oh, Wow!” come whatever may persona flashed our memories back to Woodstock and Haight-Ashbury in the ’60s. We were staying in the palatial home of a 30 year-old hippie. Some things don’t compute easily.

BandB upstairsThe chicken-tender turned out to be a great host, and the land and house far exceeded our expectations – 16 pristine acres of meadow and woods, and an 8,200 square feet mid-century modern house with indoor swimming pool, hot tub, Wifi, old phonograph, and an enormous suite with a to-die-for kind bed and a huge beautifully tiled bathroom.

The next morning over coffee, Bob and I had an hour alone where he began to unfold his story which, at the beginning, bore little likeness with the anti-war counter-culture I’d known in the 1960s. Bob had served in the U.S. Air Force!

After a year-long immersion in Pashtun in Monterey, CA, he had served as an Air Force translator based in Qatar, flying reconnaissance missions over Afghanistan. Of the 25 member crew on flights that listened in on the Afghan conversations on the ground, Bob was the only one who could translate the language which advanced technology allowed them to overhear.

I asked him how good his language skills were, whether he was confident in the accuracy of his translations. He smiled and shook his head. There were so many colloquialisms that were not part of his year-long Air Force Pashtun language immersion, he could not be certain. His job, as he came to see it, was to keep innocent people from getting killed.

After discharge from Air Force, Bob returned to Maine and got involved in politics.

Were you a Bernie guy?” I asked. “No,” he said, “I worked for the Ron Paul campaign.” Later he made a run for State Assemblyman in 2012, but his libertarian positions on gay rights and legalization of marijuana cut into his popularity with his Republican base. “I’m done with politics!”

When I said we need to get money out of politics, Bob suggested another way of seeing it –  “We need to get politics out of money” he said – and described the alternative Bitcoin economy of which he is a member, complete with the Bitcoin Visa card he uses to buy groceries and other purchases in the controlled world of the Fed and other national and international monetary systems.

After his 2012 run for the Assembly, Bob and his girlfriend lived two years in Chile, followed by two more years in Colorado before before bringing their world experience home to Maine.

Now trusted old friends, Bob asked, “Would you like to go down to see the chickens?”

Maine chickensThe chickens were in the basement – 30 young chicks being raised under the lights – next to an equal number of cannabis plants.

Bed and Breakfast pot

Bob was as tender with the chickens as he’d been watchful for the Pashtun peasants below his reconnaissance flights in Afghanistan.

“Oh, Wow!” I said.

Moral of the story? “Never judge a book by its cover. The story is much more interesting and worth the read. It’s a short walk from here to there. “Stop and walk from here.”

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

 

 

 

 

Two Shores – the wands of joy and pain

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monheganharbor

I left Maine behind with the DownEaster’s dream of being on Monhegan Island yet to be. Knowing how way leads on to way (Frost), I wondered whether I ever would.

Mysterious shapes, with wands of joy and pain,
Which seize us unaware in helpless sleep,
And lead us to the houses where we keep
Our secrets hid, well barred by every chain
That we can forge and bind: the crime whose stain
Is slowly fading ’neath the tears we weep;
Dead bliss which, dead, can make our pulses leap—
Oh, cruelty! To make these live again!
They say that death is sleep, and heaven’s rest
Ends earth’s short day, as, on the last faint gleam
Of sun, our nights shut down, and we are blest.
Let this, then, be of heaven’s joy the test,
The proof if heaven be, or only seem,
That we forever choose what we will dream!

“Dreams” – Helen Hunt Jackson, Amherst, MA (1830)

 

I’ll imagine Mohegan’s lure from the North Shore of Lake Superior, putting off the dream to welcome two new-born Minnesotans who might use a DownEast step-grandfather’s softened hand to guide them into the knowledge of themselves toward the choices they alone will dream.

North Shore

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, May 8, 2017.

 

 

A Burst of Yellow

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Four days with old friends on the coast of Maine is tonic for the weary soul.

sometimes I feel all blue
sad sorry blue
all down in minor key
a rhapsody in blue.

Purple yellow Iris

Purple-Yellow Iris

sometimes when blue
begins to play in me
its melody the minor
turns to major key –

blue bursts into purple
and, leaping into joy,
a burst of sun-burst yellow
pushes the blues away

and I feel un-blued
almost whole, more up,
a purple-yellow rhapsody,
an off-beat Ode to Joy.

The days with Ted Campbell, McGaw Professor (Emeritus) of Old Testament at our alma mater, became a burst of yellow joy for us all. We awarded Ted an honorary dogtorate and made him an honorary member of the Dogs with a Goofy yellow hat.

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Goofy hat

The Seagull and a double rainbow

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seagull in ScarboroughA double rainbow appeared last evening over the tidal river beyond the house where five seminary classmates and our spouses are staying this week on the coast of Maine.

It happened after a full day feasting with our seminary Old Testament professor, Edward F. (Ted) Campbell, Jr. and poet J. Barrie Shepherd on William Greenway’s For the Love of All Creatures: the Story of Grace in Genesis in this time of climate departure. The five seminary friends, once seven, who call ourselves “The Old Dogs” or “The Gathering” have convened annually from Texas, Indiana, Illinois, Arizona, and Minnesota for study and fellowship for the past 20 years.

pepperidge-farm-goldfish-cheddar-DbXv3l-clipartJust moments before the rainbows appeared, we were entertained by two seagulls begging for treats. One of them ate a Pepperidge Farm “goldfish” our of my hand – twice. Snatch! The goldfish was gone. Down the seagull’s gullet. My hand was fine.

Then the first rainbow appeared. Followed by another. Almost as beautiful was the reflection of the sun from the yellow grasses on the far shore of the tidal river at the foot of the rainbows. The seagull and the rainbows were like exclamation points to Greenway’s case that we are seized by the love of all creatures.

“Maybe there really IS a God 😂!” I said to my seminary roommate. “You know there is,” Mr. Stewart,” said Wayne.

Early this morning at dawn there is a very aggressive seagull incessantly banging on the sliding glass door between my living room chair and the deck demanding more cheddar goldfish!

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Scarborough, Maine, May 2, 2017.

 

The 101st Day – What to do?

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Today, following the first 100 days of President Trump’s inauguration, we offer a non-partisan invitation to focus on a phrase from a familiar prayer:

deliver us from evil“and lead us not into temptation,

but deliver us from evil.” 

Most days we pray the prayer without much reflection. Like many other things we repeat by rote memory, we give little thought to temptation or the need to be delivered from evil. But today the phrase calls out for deeper self-examination and reflection about the world in which we live.

“This was the most divisive speech I’ve ever heard from a sitting American president,” said Republican former advisor to four presidents David Gergen in response to President Trump’s speech celebrating his first 100 days in office in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

“He treated [those who are disturbed about him or oppose him] basically as ‘I don’t care, I don’t give a damn what you think, because you’re frankly like the enemy,'” said Gergen. “I think it was a deeply disturbing speech.”

The Lord’s Prayer (aka “the Our Father” and “the Jesus Prayer”) will be prayed in churches throughout the world today.

“Thy will be done on Earth as it is in heaven…”

“Forgive us our sins (the acts and states of mind that separate/divide us from/ hurt others) as we forgive those who sin against us.” 

“Lead us not into temptation (or “the time of testing”/”time of trial”), but deliver us from evil.”

Amen. May it be so! Lord, save us, and the world You love, from our worst selves.

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

 

Last TGIF of April – Day One

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day1 logo

Day1.org logo

The best advertisements are the ones that aren’t paid for. Thanks to Day1 for featuring a chapter from “Be Still!” Departure from Collective Madness” today. Click THIS LINK to read “Homeland Militarization” on Day1.

spare-change-lg-300x199Then, If you like it . . . . buy it and let me know. I’ll gladly send a rebate of 99 cents to complete the purchase of the kindle edition, or 98 for the paperback.

coffeeBetter yet, next time we see each other, I’ll spring for a cheap cup of coffee and a rich conversation.

Wishing you a happy Day1 this last Friday of April!

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, April 28, 2017.

This incessant business

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John MuirJohn Muir, father of America’s National Park System, wrote:

God has cared for these trees,
Saved them from drought, disease,
and a thousand tempests and floods,
but he cannot save them from fools.
[John Muir, Our National Parks, 1903]

President Donald Trump spoke at the U.S. Department of Interior yesterday and signed an executive order freeing up use of public lands, land “which belongs to the people, which truly belongs to us.”

Henry David ThoreauHenry David Thoreau wrote in 1863:

I think there is nothing, not even crime,
more opposed to poetry, to philosophy, ay, to ay, to life itself, than this incessant business.

[Henry David Thoreau, Life Without Principle, 1863]

 

 

The Muir and Thoreau quotes lead the chapters  “A Joyful Resting Place in Time” and “The Bristlecone Pines” of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness. God bless the memory of John Muir and Henry David Thoreau. We are increasingly without principle. They’d turn over in their graves. It’s up to us to honor their principles.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, April 27, 2017,

 

Reviews as a dating service

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Reviews and re-republication do for books what dating services do. They match books and readers who might like each other.

Thanks to James A. Cox, publisher of Midwest Book Review and MBR reviewer Able Greenspan for this review in the April 2017 edition:

Synopsis: “Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness” by Gordon C. Stewart (a public theologian and an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church USA) echoes the call of the Navajo sage and the psalmist who invited their hearers to stop — “If we keep going this way, we’re going to get where we’re going” — and be still — “Be still, and know. . . .”

Like pictures in a photo album taken from a unique lens, these essays zoom in on singular moments of time where the world is making headlines, drawing attention to the sin of exceptionalism in its national, racial, religious, cultural, and species manifestations. Informed by Japanese Christian theologian Kosuke Koyama, Elie Wiesel, Wendell Berry, and others, Stewart invites the reader to slow down, be still, and depart from “collective madness” before the Navajo sage is right.

Told in the voice familiar to listeners of All Things Considered and Minnesota Public Radio, these poetic essays sometimes feel as familiar as an old family photo album, but the pictures themselves are taken from a thought-provoking angle.

Critique: Informed and informative, thoughtful and thought-provoking, inspired and inspiring, “Be Still!: Departure from Collective Madness” is a consistently engaging and impressively memorable read from cover to cover. Thoroughly ‘reader friendly’ in organization and presentation, “Be Still!: Departure from Collective Madness” is unreservedly recommended and will prove to be an enduringly popular addition to community and academic library Religion/Spirituality collections and supplemental studies reading lists. It should be noted for seminary students and the general reading public with an interest in the subject that “Be Still!: Departure from Collective Madness” is also available in a paperback edition (9781532600654, $20.98) and in a Kindle format ($9.99).

This Friday, April 28, Day1 will feature “Homeland Militarization,” a chapter from the book.

Day1 describes itself as “the voice of the mainline Protestant churches, presenting outstanding preachers from the mainline Protestant denominations, including the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, the Episcopal Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), United Church of Christ, United Methodist Church, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), American Baptist Churches, and others.” It began as “The Protestant Hour” in 1945.

Thanks to Peter Wallace, Day1’s executive producer and host, for introducing “Be Still! to a new audience. And thanks to Bob Todd of Bob Todd Publicity for making the connections.

And, if you haven’t yet dated “Be Still!” . . . . make a lonely author happy over steak with the paperback for $20.98 or over an expensive cup of coffee with the Kindle/eNook, only $9.99 on AmazonBarnes & Noble or your local bookstore.

Grace and Peace,

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, April 25, 2017.

Christopher Smart was Smart

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Christopher_Smart_Pembroke_portraitChristopher Smart (1722-1771) was an English incurable pauper poet institutionalized in Saint Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics whose poetry, like Vincent Van Gogh’s art, continues long after his death in spite of, or perhaps because of, what we now call mental illness.

Smart’s poetry is not as widely known as Van Gogh’s Starry, Starry Night. But it is well-known among other poets, musicians like Benjamin Britten, and worshipers who sing from the Episcopal Church Hymnal, as I did yesterday on the Second Sunday of Easter.

The fourth stanza of “Awake, Arise, Lift up your Voice” leaped from the page, as fresh today as it was the day Smart wrote it:

His [Christ’s] enemies had sealed the stone as Pilate gave them leave,

lest dead and friendless and alone he should their skill deceive.

Smart sees Christ as “dead and friendless and alone” under his enemies’ lock and key as the authorities of collective madness had given them leave, lest Christ – locked away dead and friendless and alone – should deceive their power to seal shut the tomb (or asylum cell).

And then the fifth stanza:

O Dead, arise! O Friendless stand by seraphim adored!

O Solitude again command your host from heaven restored!

At the very moment Christopher Smart was coming to my attention, the French were casting their votes, confused and fearful in the wake of England’s Brexit, wailing sirens on the Champs-Élysées, and candidates loudly debating whether sanity demands sealing the nation’s borders.

St_Lukes_Hospital_for_Lunatics,_LondonChristopher Smart’s biographers suggest that today Christopher would be diagnosed as bi-polar. He was committed to the Saint Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics after episodes when, it is said, Christopher would suddenly drop to his knees on the street in prayer, loudly inviting by-standers to join him, a different kind of street preacher who causes saner people to cross to the other side of the street.

But sometimes “the lunatics” are smarter than we. They see what those of us who avoid them often fail to see: the Dead and Friendless One meeting us, like Christopher and Vincent, in times of lock-down madness, until we sing Smart’s hymn two-and-a-half centuries later on the Second Sunday of Easter.

Christopher Smart was smart.

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, April 24, 2017.

Vive la France?

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French soldier & GOne year ago the French soldier in Paris said, “I love America. Very patriotic!” I wondered what he meant. You Americans love your country? Or something else?

Today’s French election offers a moment to reflect more philosophically about the social, cultural and political dynamics that divide the French and Americans alike.

For starters, there is the age old question of the relation of the part to the whole. In this case, the part is a particular, and often unique, culture: French! French culture shares many similarities with its European neighbors, but the old joke about Hell – “Hell is a place where the police are German, the chefs are English, the car mechanics are French, the lovers are Swiss and it’s all organized by the Italians” – has some grounding in the real differences in the distinctive history and culture of each national culture.

The European Union is the sum of its distinctive parts; the parts make up the whole. The European Union created a common currency, relaxed the borders, and eliminated trade barriers among the member states of the E.U., a thing to celebrate in a world where it becomes increasingly clear that the planet itself is our home.

But what happens when the distinctiveness of the parts – the French in this case – are morphing quickly into something unrecognizable? What happens to the psyche of the traditional French citizen when the languages in the cafe, on the Metro, and in the apartment next door are not French – or the visiting German, Italian, English, and Spanish of tourists on holiday at the Louvre or on the beaches of Nice – but Arabic, Parsi, or Urdu spoken by Syrians, Moroccans, Indians, or Pakistanis?

A culture is a home, a kind of safe nesting place. A cardinal is not a robin, a wren, or flicker, and it’s not easy for any of them when they perceive their nests as under threat by the European Starling that would rousts them from their nests.

“I love America. Very patriotic!” said the Parisian French soldier guarding the Jewish synagogue against a terrorist attack while the headlines from America featured Donald Trump’s rise in the polls in May 2016. “Make America great again!” was the word from the  across the pond. “Which America?” I wondered then, as I wonder now what “Make France great again” means today in the French election.

Was the patriotic America in the mind of the French soldier the America that speaks Spanish, Parsi, Urdu, and Arabic as well as English or the one that speaks only English? The one that is white European in origin? The one where African-Americans take their seats again in the back of the bus? The America where there are no mosques; no sombreros; no anti-American leftists or immigrants – only starlings?  The America where being “very patriotic” means returning the U.S.A. to what it was before the starlings raided its nest?

Philosophically, the issues are not as simple as they sometimes seem. The question of the relation of the parts to the whole is as vexing today as at time in the course of human development. A year ago the world celebrated the signing of the Paris Accord on climate change in recognition that the whole is bigger than its parts and that every part depends on the well-being of the whole.

A parable of Jesus holds together the relation between the part and the whole: distinctive nests (cultures) in the the branches same shrub (world):

“The kingdom of heaven [the whole] is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” – Gospel of Matthew 13: 31-32.

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, April 23, 2017.

Earth Day 2017 in France and the USA

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Today on Earth Day 2017 it’s hard to believe it was just one year ago today (April 22, 2016) that the world celebrated 195 nations signing of the Paris Accord on climate change.

Marine Le PenExactly one year later to the day, it is both Earth Day and Election Day in Paris, where the French go to the polls following another chilling terrorist attack that boosts the candidacy of far right nationalist candidate Marine Le Pen who would “Make France great again!”

Here on the other side of the Atlantic and across the world, scientists and supporters of science are casting their votes with their feet, signs, and speeches in the wake of the 2016 American election of a climate change-denying President and Congress unravelling the Paris Accord while concentrating of erection of a border wall.

March for ScienceThe March for Science stands with Albert Einstein. “We cannot,” said Einstein, “solve our problems with the same thinking by which we created them.”

The thinking that has led to our problems includes bad religion, bad scientific, bad politics, and bad economics that ignore reality, bend and shrink reality to the size of the human will to power, and sacrifice creative imagination beyond the boundaries of the thinking that had led to our problems.

Today it will take prayerful people on both sides of the Atlantic to vote for the Earth in whatever way we can. Good science, good religion, good politics, and good economics go hand-in-hand.

On Earth Day 2017 pray for the Earth. Pray for yourself, for others, and for all creatures great and small. The Planet has no borders. It’s all the same house.

Albert Einstein

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Earth Day 2017.

The woman outside the window

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She paces the sidewalk a few feet beyond our kitchen window, talking loudly to someone who’s not there, smoking a joint to calm her down, moving in sudden jolts as though someone has driven a spike through her less than cogent mind.

I watch and wonder who she is, this neighbor who lives behind us still three weeks after being served by the authorities with an eviction notice following the psychic “break” when she tore loose two towel bars and poked holes in the bathroom wall as uninvited as the screams of rage that harmonized with the spikes in the wall.

The police at the time of the incident told the owners there was little they could do without pressing charges, which they declined to do. She is a guest in their house, the girlfriend “of sorts” of their 35-year old son, a young man of consummate compassionate who had taken pity on her homelessness and invited her in.

Responding to the 911 call, the police had been greeted by an altogether sane young woman who presented a calm, cool, and collected self who came downstairs wondering what the fuss was all about. The 50-something year-old homeowners and the police agreed to call it a night on the “domestic dispute,” the young woman in question going peacefully upstairs to lock herself in her room, the three squad cars driving back to the police station where the officers would write up their incident reports, the husband and wife homeowners sitting in the living room staring past each other into blank space, and their generous adult son who lives in denial stepping outside for a much-needed smoke of something.

His invited houseguest had been institutionalized a number of times but he doesn’t know why or for what. Her father, he says, is some sort of pentecostal preacher. She’s badly scarred by her home experience – the “black sheep” of the family of Christian sheep wounded by the ram who rules the household.

A lamb spiked by the ram in her old sheep-fold, she looks for other pastures and sheep-folds where her damaged soul might find repose beyond a 911 call. But the spikes of terror keep coming, as they will, until, by some process of grace and merciful intervention, her reality breaks open the self that now wanders in torment outside our kitchen window.

Until then, she walks in the valley of the shadow of her own kind of death, as do the members of the family which has given her temporary shelter, crying out for green pastures and still waters that would restore their wounded souls.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, April 21, 2017.

 

 

 

The Make-Up Artist

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Make-up artists in show business are the cosmeticians in the off-stage dressing rooms who paint the performers. In plays and films they make sure the actors look their parts. In television they apply make-up to the likes of Chuck Todd and Megyn Kelly.

Donald TrumpBut today ‘make-up artist’ takes on different meaning: “one who makes stuff up.” Like a Commander-in-Chief whose administration tells the world the USS Carl Vinson and its Navy fleet are headed for the coast of North Korea, knowing full well they’re still headed toward Australia. When the crews heard the news from news outlets, they must have wondered. Who or what was lying: their compasses or their Commander-in-Chief and his administration?

Make-up artists serve a purpose in stage productions and television programs like “The Apprentice”; they have a role to play behind the scenes of make-believe.

DI-Chicken-Little-9But when a made-up president makes stuff up that causes the armed forces he commands to choose between their compasses and their commander, the Commander-in-Chief becomes the Liar-in-Chief who commands as much credibility as did Chicken Little after announcing too many times that the sky was falling.

I wish to Heaven this was all made up.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, April 19, 2017.

A Review and a Request

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Today marks the first public review of the book that was born three months ago.

Click “Essays to explain collective madness” to read former Kansas City Star columnist Bill Tammeus’s review of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness. And HERE for his citation from Be Still! in his column yesterday “When the forces of fear rule”.

Then, if you’re feeling kind toward a postpartum depression author dependent on the kindness of friends to help his baby grow up, use your email or FB page to share the review. If you’re on FaceBook, you can also “Share” the review from Bill Tammeus’s or Bob Todd’s FB pages.

Thanks for considering and have a great day!

Gordon in Chaska, MN, April 19, 2017.

 

 

Jesus’s Last Wish

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As Kay and I walked through the passion narrative in the Gospel according to John Friday night in the quiet of our living room, we paused a number of times to share questions or observations about what we were reading.

Few of the church’s traditional “seven last words” from the cross appear in John, the last written of the New Testament Four Gospels. Four of the “words” we expect to hear from having read Matthew, Mark, and Luke are missing in John:

  1. Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do. (Luke 23:34)
  2. Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise. (Luke 23:43)
  3. My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? (Matthew 27:46 & Mark 15:34)
  4. Father, into Your hands I commit my spirit. (Luke 23:46)

The first three are altogether missing. A fourth “word” – the seventh of the traditional last words, becomes a third person description by the narrator, as it had been in Mark and Matthew: “. . .  he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.”

Brooklyn_Museum_-_What_Our_Lord_Saw_from_the_Cross_(Ce_que_voyait_Notre-Seigneur_sur_la_Croix)_-_James_Tissot

“What Jesus saw from the cross” – James Tissot

But while John’s Gospel offers less of what we have come to expect in light of the earlier Synoptic Gospels, it adds three words:

1.”I thirst,”

2.”It is finished,” and

3. this strikingly intimate conversation with his mother and an un-named “disciple whom he loved” within the hearing of “his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas (i.e. Jesus’s aunt), and Mary Magdalene:

“‘Woman, behold, your son!’ Then he said to the un-named disciple, ‘Behold, your mother!’ And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.” (John. 19:27-28)

This startling exchange – this strangely intimate “last wish” normally reserved for the bedside of a dying patient – shifts the focus of John’s crucifixion narrative from the horror of Jesus’s torment to the primacy of the community: the familial bond between his mother and the beloved disciple which would survive him.

It is this beloved and loving community which carries forward the teaching and ministry of the Logos, the Word made flesh in him and in us, by the creative working of the Spirit of the Living God. “Woman, behold your son!” “Disciple, Behold your mother!”

The Good Friday conversation in our living room shifted from the anticipated tears of torment to the hope that rises whenever the invitation from the cross becomes reality, whenever we, in our time, become the beloved community of the un-named disciple: the transformed and transforming home for Mary and all her un-named children.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, April 18, 2017.

 

 

 

Beyond an intelligent hell or a stupid paradise

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“Rebranding, long a strategy in the business world, is taking off in congregations hoping to attract newcomers, update their images and shed any negative perceptions of their denominations.” – Jean Hopfensperger, “Churches trade old names for new and younger members,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, April 15, 2017.

 

Perhaps a retired Presbyterian minister might be forgiven for weighing in on a religious controversy. Or, maybe not, since insatiable controversy has led many faithful church-goers to spend Sunday mornings over coffee, and has created the growing negative perceptions of church as a perpetual civil war and a societal curse. But, for just these reasons, this controversy seemed to beg for comment.

It is the churches that have shed their traditional denominational names that have been growing. No more off-putting denominational names. Like Baptist. Or Presbyterian. Hopfensperger writes:

Evangelical churches have been at the forefront of the trend, with two-thirds of those surveyed by the National Association of Evangelicals saying their names no longer include their denominations.

The Baptists are a case in point. About 160 of the 253 Baptist churches in Minnesota and Iowa don’t have the “Baptist” on their doors, said the Rev. Dan Carlson, executive minister at Converge North Central — previously called the Baptist General Conference.

10yugo-630opBut here’s the thing — unless a car is re-engineered under the hood, it’s the same old car. If a Yugo is re-branded the Go-Go, it’s still a Yugo. It may have more chrome, a new eye-catching paint color, a less tinny-sounding horn, a sexy model standing beside it on the showroom floor, and an American flag draped over it, but, under the hood, it’s still a Yugo.

Many of the fast-growing churches in America are wrapped in the flag with sexy come-ons, but under the hood is a belief kept under wraps from buyers except in the fine print Affirmation of Faith locked away in a private compartment in the trunk: belief in “the eternal felicity of the righteous,” and “the endless perpetual suffering of the wicked.” The church’s public gatherings celebrate God’s love with rousing Christian music, but they don’t tell you that if you don’t come ’round, God will roast you for eternity, a thought that leaves many loving un-churched people to conclude with Victor Hugo that

“an intelligent hell would be better than a stupid paradise.”

But buyers who haven’t done their homework on what’s under the hood and behind the praise music enjoy an apparently benign celebration that, so far as they can tell, leaves the old negative doctrines in the dust.

If that sounds judgmental, it is. Just because Jesus said “judge not that you not be judged,” doesn’t translate to the abandonment of the search for good judgment – the critical thought process that assesses what we see, think, and feel. We use our best judgment at the grocery store, comparing cost, food quality, and the consequences of our purchases for our health. We do the same when kicking the tires of a car. Whether we realize it or not, we do the same with religion. With churches. With teachings and ideas. Like the folks who have left church, or would never darken the door of one because of their “negative perceptions”, a retired Presbyterian minister makes judgments all the time. I’m as tired of the controversies as anyone else, but I am, after all, an un-rebranded Presbyterian in search of personal and societal health.

Just as I’m thinking these thoughts, along comes the New York Times Sunday Review Op-Ed piece Save the Mainline by an unabashed self-identified Roman Catholic, Ross Dothan, calling for those who have left the traditional “mainline” Protestant churches to get back to church this Easter, and inviting those who espouse the liberal cultural and political values to return to the mainline protestant religious roots on which a genuine liberal spirit’s continuing future depends.

Dothan writes:

The campus experience of late suggests that liberal Protestantism without the Protestantism tends to gradually shed the liberalism as well, transforming into an illiberal cult of victimologies that burns heretics with vigor. The wider experience of American politics suggests that as liberalism de-churches it struggles to find a nontransactional organizing principle, a persuasive language of the common good. And the experience of American society suggests that religious impulses without institutions aren’t enough to bind communities and families, to hold atomization and despair at bay.

Then, yesterday on Easter, a FaceBook “friend” posted the following about one of those un-rebranded denominational churches.

Worshipped at Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago. They had a 6:00 a. m. Sunrise service and three morning services – 8:00 a. m., 9:30 a. m., 11:30 a. m. – and a 4:00 p. m. jazz service. The three morning services were preceded with people lining up for admission up to an hour before the service. The order, preaching and music was great and inspiring.

Why were people lined up and waiting before a worship service at Fourth Presbyterian?

What leads people to stand on the sidewalk in downtown Chicago for “admission”? A good show? A great concert? Being with the aesthetically elite of high culture and a sermon laced with literary references? Or something else?

The answers are as varied as the people who stood in line. But the Order for Worship for Easter morning gives a peek into what they found once inside.

Was it the classical music by great composers: Dietrich Buxtehude, G. F. Handel, and Charles-Marie Widor, and the excellence of its organ and choral music?

Was it an entertaining sermon that palliates the conscience of the upper classes and invites the upwardly mobile young to join its exclusive club, or was it the thoughtful, gracious, biblical Word for which Fourth is known which they expected to hear from its pulpit?

Was it a theology of the righteous few? Or a theology in which the horror of eternal punishment of the wicked has been overthrown along with the money-changers’ tables, devouring every hell, as reflected in Charles Stanford’s Choral Anthem?

“Ye Choirs of New Jerusalem” Charles V.  Stanford

Ye choirs of new Jerusalem, your sweetest notes employ, the Paschal victory
to hymn, in strains of holy joy. For Judah’s lion bursts his chains, crushing the serpent’s head; and cries aloud through death’s domains to wake the imprisoned dead. Devouring depths of hell their prey at his command restore; his ransomed hosts pursue their way where Jesus goes before. Triumphant in his glory now to him all power is given; to him in one communion bow all saints in earth and heaven. While we, his people, praise our King, his mercy we implore, within his palace bright to bring and keep us evermore. All glory to the Father be, all glory to the Son, all glory, Holy Ghost, to thee; while endless ages run. Alleluia. Amen.

There is no sourness of eternal punishment hidden between the sweet notes of the Paschal victory hymn. Fourth Church offers a place for the likes of Victor Hugo where you the choice is not between an intelligent hell or a stupid paradise, a place where the people on the sidewalk get what they otherwise might not: a God Who, though crucified by human hands and pierced by imperious swords, eternally refuses to yield to the baser instincts of our negative perceptions of God, others, and ourselves.

The grace and peace of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, be with you all this Easter Monday!

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

 

 

Easter

Aside

Artists often say it best. Jacopo da Pontormo‘s painting of the peaceful Christ rising above “the guards who shook and became like dead men” (see text below) invites us this Easter to ponder afresh Christ’s hidden reign in the world in which violence, militarism, and imperial ambitions still feign to rule.

Jacopo_Pontormo_026-medium

Jacopo da Pontormo (1494-1556)

For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead,and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me”  [Gospel according to Matthew 28:4-10]

Jacopo da Pontormo helps me see what the mind cannot fathom. Christ is Risen! In spite of all appearances to the contary, Christ is Risen! Alleluia! He is risen, indeed!

Gordon C. Stewart, in Galilee of Chaska, MN, Easter, April 16, 2017.

A world holding its breath

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Today the world is holding its breath, waiting in helpless silence as we’ve done many times before.

Last year we published a reflection following news of the terror in Brussels, Belgium. Today the darkness that clouds our hearts and minds comes from the madness of a two little boys playing with nuclear toys. (See “North Korea hits back at Trump ahead of Day of the Sun“.)

Nuclear-explosionNot since Hiroshima and Nagasaki has a nuclear bomb been used, but, today, Holy Saturday, the people of Japan are living in the memory of that holocaust, holding their breath as the bellicose standoff between Kim Jong-un and the man who promises to take care of him plunges them again under the nuclear cloud of post-traumatic stress of 1945, their peculiar Friday and Holy Saturday.

On Holy Saturday, the day between Good Friday and Easter, we experience the silence of nothingness.

The sounds of hammers, taunts, and screams, and the sight of three dead men very different in life but equal now in death leave us face-to-face with all that is cruel, hopeless, meaningless – the darkness of despair.

This Holy Saturday the world is on full alert. Dread and fear spread. We who live in the aftermath of the latest terror in Brussels experience Holy Saturday – the day between Good Friday and Easter, knowing that only a resurrection can redeem a Good Friday world. – Views from the Edge, Holy Saturday, 2016

One short year ago on Holy Saturday the world knew of one little boy playing with nuclear toys. This year there are two. And the Easter story of the empty tomb remains either a fanciful illusion or the good news of a deeper reality beneath the silence: the descent from the cross by a Word greater than every reason for dark despair.

Pontormo, Jacopo da, 1494-1556. Descent from the Cross,

Descent from the Cross – Jacopo da Pontormo (1494-1556)

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Holy Saturday, April 15, 2017.

 

Good Friday 2017 in light of 1553

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In his Ten Rules for Writing author Elmore Leonard advised,

“Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.”

Good Friday is one of those parts in the Christian story. Who wouldn’t want to skip over betrayal, denial, abandonment, and brutality, the opposite of happiness? But we don’t get to joy without going through them. Steve Martin’s Happy Feet offers a memorable parody of faux happiness. You don’t get to Easter with happy feet.

In a sermon preached on Good Friday, 1553, the Rev. John Bradford asked his hearers to draw close to the cross, inviting them to look upon the death of Christ as the very presence of God, the part “that we people want to skip”.

As the very pledge of God’s love toward thee,
whosoever thou art, how deep so ever thou hast sinned,
See, God’s hands are nailed, they cannot strike thee;
his feet also, he cannot run from thee.
His arms are wide open to embrace thee.

Happy feet are no remedy for sore feet. Whatever view one takes of the classical Christian formula of Christ’s full humanity and divinity, John Bradford, Elmore Leonard, and Steve Martin’s Happy Feet invite the imagination to stop and pay attention to the God who embraces humankind in the very darkness we deny.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Good Friday, April 14, 2017.

Mom’s Handkerchief – Good Friday

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Mom

Muriel Titus Stewart

As a child, I wondered why they called Good Friday ‘good’. It wasn’t. It was awful.

At the annual Good Friday service my mother’s cheeks were wet. She’d hold her handkerchief in one hand and, without drawing attention to herself — Mom was shy and shunned attention — she would dab the tears, hoping no one would notice.

A soloist would sing:

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

Were you there when the crucified my Lord? Oh……

Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

Mom would dab her cheeks and eyes.

As I grew older I began to understand why they called the Friday of the crucifixion ‘good’. It wasn’t good because they nailed him to the tree, or because they took him down and laid him in a borrowed tomb. It was good because, in that deep darkness, tears fall in grief and in hopes of something else. Tears that recognize both the betrayal, denial, flight — our  own and others’ – and the steadfast love, courage, and magnanimity of the man on the cross.

Both sides of the human condition are front and center on Good Friday. So is the sense of god-forsakenness – the wrenching cry from the cross, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) — the gnawing feeling of senselessness, meaninglessness, and helplessness, hanging alone, tortured and mocked, over the abyss of nothingness.

Over the years, I’ve learned that a healthy sense of denial is sometimes a good thing. So is truth-telling. Good Friday brings me face-to-face with myself at my worst and my best. And at the heart of it all is a man with arms spread wide, looking out at us who still crucify him — ours is a Good Friday world — with eyes that reach my soul. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. Into Your hands I commit my spirit.”

On Easter Mom would dab her eyes for joy because she’d brought her handkerchief with her from Good Friday.

— Gordon C. Stewart. Chaska. MN, April 14, 2017. Originally published April 3, 2015.

The Widower and the Wife

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THE WIDOWER

Ninety-year old “John” still drives to church. He comes alone now, one month after his wife died.

He parks his car on the street, as he has for forty years.

“Good morning, John! Good to see you. Am I remembering correctly that you lost your wife recently?”

“Yes,” he says. It would have been 62 years next month.”

“I’m so sorry for your loss. These days must be very lonely.”

“Yes. Very,” he says, his gentle eyes seemingly thankful for the momentary recognition of his plight, followed by a pause. “I don’t know why I’m still here,” he says.  “I’m ready to go. I’m not saying I want to go, but I’m ready.”

“Old age ain’t for the faint of heart, is it, John?” “It sure isn’t,” he says.

THE WIFE

During his wife’s long illness, she, too, had spoken about being “ready to go.”

“I want to die,” she’d said, “before you have to put me in memory care.”

The thought of transfer from independent living to the lock-down memory care unit seemed worse than death. She’d made too many visits there. Seen too many old friends get lost in there, taking food that no longer nourishes, spoonfuls of institutional food administered for the purpose of keeping inmates alive for no reason but to prolong bodies that can’t remember their own names.

“I wish I could just walk off into the woods,” she’d said, “the way other animals do. This is unreal. I’m not afraid to die. I’m afraid of becoming a burden.”

“DEATH IN THE WOODS”- Thomas MacDonagh

When I am gone and you alone are living here still,
You’ll think of me when splendid the storm is on the hill,
Trampling and militant here — what of their village street?–
For the baying of winds in the woods to me was music sweet.

Oh, for the storms again, and youth in my heart again!
My spirit to glory strained, wild in this wild wood then,
That now shall never strain — though I think if the tempest should roll
I could rise and strive with death, and smite him back from my soul.

But no wind stirs a leaf, and no cloud hurries the moon;
I know that our lake to-night with stars and shadows is strewn–
A night for a villager’s death, who will shudder in his grave
To hear — alas, how long! — the winds above him rave.

How long! Ah, Death, what art thou, a thing of calm or of storms?
Or twain — their peace to them, to me thy valiant alarms?
Gladly I’d leave them this corpse in their churchyard to lay at rest,
If my wind-swept spirit could fare on the hurricane’s kingly quest.

And sure ’tis the fools of knowledge who feign that the winds of the world
Are but troubles of little calms by the greater Calm enfurled:
I know then for symbols of glory, and echoes of one Voice dread,
Sounding where spacious tempests house the great-hearted Dead.

And what but a fool was I, crying defiance to Death,
Who shall lead my soul from this calm to mingle with God’s very breath!–
Who shall lead me hither and perhaps while you are waiting here still,
Sighing for thought of me when the winds are out on the hill.

  • Thomas MacDonagh (1 February 1878 – 3 May 1916 / Cloughjordan / Ireland), executed by firing squad 3 May 1916 at the age of 39 for participation in the Irish rebellion called “Easter Rising”.

John now visits his wife among the ashes he’s scattered in the wooded glen behind their home, in the greater Calm under the old oak tree, among the animals, “sighing for thought of [her] when the winds are out on the hill.”

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

 

Toward a Deeper Self-Knowledge

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In two days Christian churches will observe Maundy Thursday, focusing on Jesus’s last meal with this disciples, “the Last Supper”.

A QUESTION

Reading the Gospel texts afresh each year often raises new questions and, occasionally, yields fresh insight. This year it was a line in Matthew’s text.

Jesus and the twelve apostles are at table. They have all washed their hands before the meal, a ritual practice before the meal. They will all use their hands to eat and share the food in common. All hands must be clean. Or, perhaps, Matthew is referring to the bowl of herbs and spices into which they had all dipped their hands.

Jesus has been speaking of betrayal. “‘Truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.’ And they were greatly distressed and they began to say him one after another, ‘Surely not I, Lord?’ He answered,

“‘the one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me.'” – Matthew 26:21-23 NRSV.

ONE? Only ONE?

All of them – all 12 – had dipped their hands into the bowl.

Matthew does not say “One of you.” It says “the one.”

The reply “Surely not I, Lord,” assumes innocence. “Not I!”

THE WIDER MEANING OF ‘BETRAY’

The Greek word we translate into English as ‘betray’ has multiple meanings: hand over/arrest/betray. “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will hand me over” or “. . .  arrest me” are alternative translations to the “. . . betray me” preferred by Christian translators.

But, whereas Judas alone asks the question that begs a positive reply – “Is it I, Lord?” – the story that follows shows all the apostles handing him over. The possible exception is Peter who cuts off the ear of the High Priest’s servant at Jesus’s arrest, but following the arrest, Peter, like Judas, betrays him. “I do not know the man!” he says three times in the the High Priest’s courtyard.

Only Judas at the last supper responds in a way that indicates guilt. “Is it I, Lord?”

Jesus responds, “You have said so.”

A DEEPENING SELF-KNOWLEDGE

The dominant interpretations of Judas’s act of handing Jesus over to the authorities single him out as the one betrayer, the one who has dipped his hand into the bowl. But is it not worth considering that Matthew’s narrative offers every one of us a somber reflection on universal culpability and a window into one’s own denial and lack of self-knowledge?

Every person, therefore, on coming to the knowledge of himself, is not only urged to seek God, but is also led as by the hand to find him.” – John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book I, Chapter 1.

“The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me.”

“Is it I, Lord? Is it I?”

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Tuesday of Holy Week, April 11, 2017.

 

 

John Doe, Judas, and a Secure Promise: Potter’s Field

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Sermon on Judas’s Great Legacy

Text: Gospel of Matthew 27:3-8

Then Judas the traitor, seeing that Jesus had been condemned, repented and took the thirty silver pieces to the chief priests and elders of the people. “I have sinned by betraying an innocent man!” he said. But they replied, “How does that concern us? That is your affair.” Throwing down the silver pieces toward the Most Holy Place, he withdrew and went away and hanged himself. Picking up the silver pieces, the chief priests said, “It is unlawful to put this into the treasury, for it is blood money.” Therefore, after coming to an agreement about it, they used the money to buy Potter’s Field as a burying place for foreigners, and to this day that field is known as “The Field of Blood.” – Matthew 27:3-8, Anchor Bible translation by W.F. Albright and C.S. Mann

I have always felt that Judas got a bum rap.

The tradition has not treated him well, even according to its own standards. Yes, he bore responsibility for betraying his Lord with a kiss in exchange for 30 pieces of silver. And, yes, he committed suicide. But little or no attention has been paid to the small detail of Judas’ repentance or the depth of the sorrow that led to his suicide.

Matthew’s Judas is repentant. Listen:

When morning came, all the chief priests and the elders of the people took counsel against Jesus to put him to death; and they bound him and led him away and delivered him to Pilate the governor.

When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, Judas repented…and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders, saying “I have sinned in betraying innocent blood.” But they said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” And throwing down the pieces of silver toward The Holy Place, Judas departed; and he went out and hanged himself. (Matthew 27:1-5)

Judas’ suicide, like most if not all suicides, issues from an irrecoverable despair.
He had changed his mind and had tried to turn back, but the dice had already been thrown, as they would be thrown again by the soldiers, rolling the dice over who would get to keep Jesus’ clothing. Not even throwing down the silver pieces at the feet of the religious authorities could change the course of events his betrayal had set in motion.

Some believe the deal Judas cut with the ruling religious authorities was a craps shoot. He had gambled that leading Jesus’s opponents to the secret place where Jesus gathered with his apostles would force Jesus to be the kind of violent revolutionary king he had wrongly supposed he would become. By arranging a face-to-face confrontation between Jesus and the Temple police, he imagined he could force Jesus’s hand toward a violent insurrection, and it appears he was not alone in that expectation. For, after Judas had led the temple police to him, Peter had drawn his dagger and cut off an ear of the high priest’s slave, only to hear Jesus rebuke the way of violence with an order to put away the sword. As a result, says Matthew, “all the disciples abandoned him and fled.” No one remained to stand with him as the witness to a different course than the way violence and terror. Jesus alone is innocent of the way of blood-taking.

By the time we see Judas throwing down the silver coins at the feet of the temple authorities his head was spinning. His expectation of a grand seizure of power – a kind of coup d’état that would overthrow the Roman colonizers and replace their temple collaborators – had crashed. What does one do when one’s great dream dies? What does one do when a grandiose scheme crumbles?

Either you revise the dream or you fall hopelessly into despair. We might wonder whether perhaps Judas’ biggest mistake was not the betrayal so much as it was not subsequently trusting a divine providence greater than his sin and more powerful than his ability to thwart it. Awash in guilt and sorrow, he threw down what Matthew calls “the blood money” toward the Most Holy Place – that is, the Holy of Holies, regarded as the most sacred of all places in the universe – and took his life.

The “blood money” never went back into the sacred treasury. It was dirty. So instead, the chief priests and the elders, not wanting to be sacrilegious, took the money that had secured Judas’s cooperation in the plot against Jesus – the “blood money” that purchased Jesus’s crucifixion – to buy “the potter’s field, to bury strangers in.” What is called the “Field of Blood “is also called “the Potter’s Field.” Why?

Why the Potter’s Field?

Matthew does a strange thing. He quotes a text found in the Book of  Zechariah (Zech. 10:12-13) but attributes its source to Jeremiah. Although the Book of Zechariah speaks of the Field of Blood which is also called the Potter’s Field, the text there never explains why it is called a potter’s field.

What would a potter’s field be? A potter uses clay to make pottery. The site referred to in Matthew is known traditionally as Akeldama, in the valley of Hinnom, which was a source of potters’ clay. It’s where the potter, the sculpting artist, gets the clay.  It’s an artist’s field. Jeremiah compares God to a potter and of us as the potter’s clay. So perhaps it is called Potter’s Field as a witness to the truth that the John and Mary Doe’s who eventually will land in the pauper’s cemetery belong to the Potter every bit as much as those society regards as worthy of burial in a more distinguished cemetery, a sacred place, if you will.

There is a great irony here in Matthew’s telling of the story: Judas returns the soiled holy money taken from the temple treasury, throws it back at the inner sanctum where only Oz was allowed to enter, the Holy of Holies from which the chief priests pulled the levers intended to keep Judas and Dorothy and every other mystified traveler in line with fear – and that soiled not-so-sacred money buys the Field of Blood for the less than holy, also known as “the Potter’s Field”.

Potter’s Field in New York City

In the City of New York there is a cemetery called Potter’s Field. It’s the place where the indigent are buried. It’s the place where the homeless and the unidentified, the John Doe’s and the Jane Doe’s , are buried by the City of New York. One might call it Pauper’s Cemetery, an act of charity for those who, at the end, like the Son of Man, had nowhere to lay their heads.

Potter’s Field has been moved four times since it was founded early the 19th century.
Today Potter’s Field is managed by the City of New York Department of Corrections. The Department’s website describes its history.

The City of New York has undertaken the responsibility of laying to rest the bodies of those in the City who died indigent or un-befriended, since the early part of the 19th century, when they were interred at Washington Square in Greenwich Village. In 1823, these remains were removed to Fifth Avenue and 40 – 42 Streets, Manhattan. When this site was selected for a reservoir, the remains were again removed to Fourth Avenue and 50th Street, this ground being later granted to the Women’s Hospital. In 1857, the remains of 100,000 paupers and strangers were transferred to Ward’s Island, 75 acres of which were allocated for this purpose.

Today Potter’s Field, the latest place for the internment of the un-befriended poor is on Hart’s Island where it has been since n 1869, next to a prison.

Thirty inmates from the N.Y.C. Reception and Classification Center for Men… are charged with burial and upkeep of the entire cemetery at present. They are carefully interviewed to ascertain that they can perform these services without becoming emotionally upset.

In 1948 the inmates of the prison next door to Potter’s Field on Hart Island, many of whom were without friends and families, appealed to the Warden and offered to build a monument to the un-befriended dead. In cooperation with the custodial staff, they erected a 30-foot high monument in the center of the burial site. On one side is engraved a simple cross, on the other is the word ‘Peace.'”

In my mind’s eye Judas is buried there – on the ground sanctified for the outcasts for whom Christ lived and died. He’s buried in some Potter’s Field where the Potter in mercy welcomes the broken pieces of the pottery He has made, gathers up the shards of broken schemes and grandiose schemes, and takes whatever is left to make something altogether beautiful.

“The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord:  ‘Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.’  So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel.  The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.

Then the word of the Lord came to me:  Can I not do with you . . . just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand . . . . [Jeremiah 18:1-6].

Christ’s words – “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” – are a plea to the Father, the Potter, for his beloved, betraying friend, Judas, and for every other Judas to come down the pike through all the centuries since. By God’s strange providence alone the 30 silver pieces of “blood money” that Judas threw back down toward the Most Holy Place became the unwitting source of the witness to God’s unconditional love and mercy, “Potter’s Field.”

Judas made two mistaken bets. The first ended in Jesus’s execution, the end of a grandiose dream. The second was concluding too early that despair and guilt have the final word – that there was no mercy strong enough to re-claim him.

The learning for us latter-day Judases? Perhaps it is that, although life is full of risk-taking and tragedy, its meaning and destiny are more than a craps-shoot. The destiny of every broken dream and every broken soul is not determined by our gambling or our failures. It’s determined by a secure promise that now and at the end we are in the hands of the Potter Who owns all the clay of Potter’s Field.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, April 11, 2017

The Unusual Trio – Maher, King, and Thomas – singing in one accord.

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Bill Maher

Bill Maher

Freedom isn’t free. It shouldn’t be a bragging point that ‘Oh, I don’t get involved in politics,’ as if that makes someone cleaner. No, that makes you derelict of duty in a republic. Liars and panderers in government would have a much harder time of it if so many people didn’t insist on their right to remain ignorant and blindly agreeable. – Bill Maher.

“Willful Ignorance” (Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness, p.103-105) begins with an excerpt from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” (April 16, 1963):

Martin Luther King, Jr.“Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”

The essay concludes with the hope of something better than being blindly agreeable:

aquinas -Botticelli

Thomas Aquinas by Botticelli

“Placed under the scrutiny of a public that refuses to be willfully ignorant, the loud shouts of demagoguery will be swept up by the vacuum of a citizenry schooled in due diligence. And the United States of America, refusing to wallow in the mire of purposeful ignorance, of which Thomas Aquinas, and we ourselves, can be proud.” – Be Still!, p.105.

Wouldn’t Thomas Aquinas and Bill Maher be surprised to be on the same page? Martin Luther King, Jr. is a bridge between the two. Maher, King, and Thomas: a tenor, baritone, and bass in one accord.

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, April 11, 2017, responding to The Daily Post invitation to write something on today’s Daily Prompt word, “Blindly“.

 

 

The Stubborn Donkey and the Asses

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“[T]hey brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them.” – Matthew 21:7

In advance of today’s annual Palm Sunday parade through downtown Excelsior, Trinity Episcopal‘s e-newsletter issued the sad, tongue-in-cheek announcement:

Between services the Trinity community will come together in a joyful parade, with music, laughter, and bubbles! Unfortunately, the donkey that was going to lead us is being a bit stubborn so he will not be with us.

Jesus on two donkey’s – Jean de Limbourg (c. 1385-1416)

Perhaps today’s cancellation serves as a reminder that the donkey is stubborn by nature, and that, if you manage to tame one, there will always be another nearby waiting to take its place.

Some churches today celebrate only Palm Sunday – “the Triumphal Entry” into Jerusalem. It’s all about palm-waving and “Hosannas!” shouted and sung to the victorious King of kings and Lord of lords.

Other churches honor the paradox of palms and fists, stubborness and spears, appearance and reality: the king who refused to be King who rode an ass (or two) into the city that wanted something more than the mortal it could raise on a cross.

Today there will be no donkey on the streets of Excelsior. The donkey is just being stubborn. Or perhaps it refuses to participate in this year’s re-enactment when palms and hosannas take her rider to the cross again in a world where asses still rule.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Passion/Palm Sunday, April 9, 2017.

 

Barclay and his Big Sister

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Barclay and his Big Sister

Barclay and his big sister pausing on the walking path.

Lonely folks cruise the internet hoping for a good match. Websites pair strangers looking for love. They meet in coffee shops, bars, parks, and restaurants.

On rare occasions the two make for a good match. NEVER are they better matched than Barclay and his big sister.

We should all be so lucky! Forget the internet. Get a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel and some pink shoes, and enjoy the mutual admiration on a good walk, healing and heeling at the same time.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Barclay’s Dad, Chaska, MN, April 9, 2017, responding to The Daily Post invitation to share a photograph and commentary on the theme “A Good Match“.

Rover and his Master

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The English language can be very confusing. Some English words are pronounced identically, but their meanings are altogether different.

Take the words ‘heal‘ and ‘heel‘, for instance.

A walk in the parkYou might say, “I sure hope you heal quickly” to someone with an injured heel.” But you might also say to Rover,”I sure wish you’d learn to heel,” which could really confuse Rover; or say to Rover’s master – who’s healing slowly from an injured achilles heel – and to Rover, “Good morning, Sir! Good morning, Rover! So good to see you both he-ling so well,” but it wouldn’t be the same – all because of one little letter that doesn’t get pronounced. Then again, you might call Rover’s master with the healing achilles heel a real heel if he beats Rover with the heel of his hand or heel of his shoe when Rover fails to heel.

Tell me again. Why do we speak English? Wait! Wait! Don’t tell me!

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, written this April 8, 2017 when, while healing from PMR, I had nothing better to do than respond to The Daily Post‘s invitation to write a post on the word ‘heal’.

 

 

The Outlier

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Here I lie inside, peering painlessly through pane-glass window at the world of trees and paths, signs and pavement . . . and the cardinal’s and robin’s nests.

9781118143308.pdfI am, by nature itself, an outlier to the virtual sights and sounds of the iMac, phones, microwave, iPads, and ringtones of “messages” to and from other insiders.

I am an outlier, trained to lie to myself, peering in pain through pane-glass virtual Windows in search of the world outside my window.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, April 7, 2017. Written in reply to The Daily Prompt invitation to write a post on the word ‘outlier’.

Blessed are the not so pure

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There is a kind of purity that is not pure: partisan purity, which bears no resemblance to the purity of the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are the pure in heart . . . .”

The U.S. Senate is poorer today because of partisan purity on both sides of the political aisle. Politics is a brutal game made more civil by rules that seek to set boundaries on partisan purity. The 60-40 rule was one of those long-standing Senate rules that helped insure some measure of long-term wisdom by the 100 members of the U.S. Senate.

The onus of responsibility for weakening the Senate – lowering the bar for simple majority votes on matters once believed to be of such gravity as to require a higher threshold – falls to both purist parties. The one for pushing the envelope knowing the consequences, the other for rescinding the rule. From now on, whichever party is in the majority shall rule without restraint.

The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA) asks officers to promise “to further the peace, purity, and unity” of the church in recognition that though, in an ideal world, peace, purity, and unity are in accord, they are often in conflict in the real world.

This week the U.S. Senate exercised a different kind of purity that violates all three values – peace and unity, as well as purity – leaving the country the poorer in restraint and wisdom.

Blessed are the not so pure.

 

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

 

 

The Dog Park

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Every day at 4:00 the 91 year-old with the weathered face and halting gate – we’ll call her Mabel – arrives at the dog park. She walks slowly, but more or less steadily, on her cane with her elderly companion Missy – the 16 year-old Pomeranian-Yorkie mix.

56199a5048cdf96c4318a36d9271153cMissy, who suffered a stroke a year ago and walks with difficulty, sniffs the grass. She dutifully does her business, looking up at Mabel. She stays very close, almost like a shepherd caring for an aging sheep whose needs she lives to tend.

Mabel and her dog. Companions for life. For now. And, it seems, each thankful for the other for whatever time they have.

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

Like a Mustard Seed

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I needed John Buchanan’s commentary this morning. Maybe you do too.

Hold to the Good

I was in a pew with in the Kensington Community Church, United Church of Christ, with our San Diego family last Sunday. The preacher, the Rev. Darryl Kistler, reminded us that Jesus talked a lot about the Kingdom of God and that whenever he was asked about the Kingdom, when it was coming and what it would look like, his answers were enigmatic, not at all what people expected or wanted. “The Kingdom of God is among you,” he said once. On another occasion he said that the Kingdom would be quiet, almost invisible: like a tiny mustard seed or like the yeast that does its important work in bread baking without fanfare.

It was the reminder I needed this morning because I am worried about the particular kingdom I am currently living in. It has not been an easy, hopeful time since the presidential inauguration in January. Not long…

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To all my cheap friends . . .

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display-graeters01With nothing else to say today, I take this anniversary eve (see below) to beg all my cheap friends: “Get out your credit card and spring for Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness, and I’ll buy you a Graeter’s ice cream Sundae next time I’m in a state that has Graeter’s.” Otherwise, I’ll just owe you. I’m as cheap as I am vain.

Be Still! costs $20.98 in paperback or $9.99 on kindle. But if you subtract the cost of a free Graeter’s Sundae ($5.25 + tax), the kindle would only cost you a net $4.74 (even less when including the tax on the Sundae)!

Publishers increasingly depend on their authors’ vanity – the sinful self-promotion that has consumed me since Be Still!‘s release January 6, 2017, three months ago tomorrow.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, begging in vain without apology from Chaska, MN, April 5, 2017.

 

Alt-Facts and the ‘Anti-Christ’

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Talk radio host

Talk radio host

Views from the Edge re-publishes this piece on Maundy Thursday, 2017. It first appeared here on March 24, 2010. Sadly, nothing much has changed. The U.S. was sucker-punched by the apocalyptic spirituality of the alt-right politics of Rush Limbaugh and Steve Bannon.

Something from the Christian tradition – the idea of ‘the Anti-Christ’ – is lifting its ugly head, a word and concept that could trigger unthinkable tragedy unless we clean up our civil discourse.

According to Harris Interactive Poll taken between March 1 and 8, “more than 20% believe [President Obama] was not born in the United States, that he is ‘the domestic enemy the U.S. Constitution speaks of,’ that he is racist and anti-American, and that he ‘wants to use an economic collapse or terrorist attack as an excuse to take dictatorial powers.’ Fully 20% think he is ‘doing many of the things that Hitler did,’ while 14% believe ‘he may be the anti-Christ’ and 13% think ‘he wants the terrorists to win.”

The poll reflects what we all know: our civic health as a nation is being poisoned by inflammatory rhetoric from both sides of the political aisle. This toxic disregard for truth lies behind the results of the Harris Poll. Trigger words like ‘socialist,’ ‘communist,’ ‘terrorist,’ ‘anti-American,’ and ‘the Anti-Christ’ and the allegation that America’s first black president is the nation’s chief domestic enemy take us beyond the McCarthyism of the ‘50s. This cocktail is lethal.

As a Christian pastor I rue the use of Christian scripture to stoke the fires of fear and hate. The Christian life – or spiritual life of any sort, for that matter – is a life of discernment about the powers that shape ordinary life. It is not blind to evil. But loud spirituality is an oxymoron. We need to be reminded that all the great religions hold some version of the essential tenet expressed in the First Letter of John. “Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is in the darkness still” and “If any one says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar, for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him, that he who loves God should love his brother also.”

Labeling the President of the United States ‘the Anti-Christ” gives deranged minds a license to kill . . . in the name of the non-violent, crucified Jesus. If some deranged American patriot like the Marine who plotted to assassinate the President should succeed . . . God forbid! . . . the blood will be on the hands of all who remained silent when the hate speech was being poured into the public stream of consciousness. And if you claim to be a disciple of Jesus, get yourself to church Maundy Thursday and Good Friday to ground yourself again in the love that conquers hate and fear.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Maundy Thursday morning, Chaska, MN.