The Riddle in the Mirror

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

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

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

The riddle in my mirror

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

First Corinthians 13:12, GCS Greek to English translation

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

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

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

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

Jean Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion

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

The face of my father

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

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

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

Elijah Cummings

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

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

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

Fake news from the Pearly Gates

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

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

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

Mar-a-Lago Club entrance gate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay, Don, I won’t call you ‘Donnie’.

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

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

I did have bone spurs! They were terrible!

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

No, they’re gone!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

American Crisis

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THE AMERICAN CRISIS TODAY

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

THE AMERICAN CRISIS: THOMAS PAINE

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

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

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

SHRINKING OR STANDING

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

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

BEN FRANKLIN WARNING

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

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

“WHEN THE PEOPLE SHALL BECOME SO CORRUPTED”

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

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

THE KNOT OF CRUELTY AND RECKLESSNESS

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

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

CONSCIENTIOUS PERSISTANCE

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

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

Collective Delusion

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AN UNLIKELY COINCIDENCE

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

QUIET! BE STILL!

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

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

COLLECTIVE SELF-DELUSION

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

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

SOMEDAY THEY WILL SAY, “WE DID NOT KNOW”

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

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

PRINCIPALITIES AND POWERS

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

Epistle to the Ephesians 6:12 (KJV)

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

William Stringfellow, Instead of Death (Expanded version)

THIRTY-THREE MONTHS AND COUNTING

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

DISARMING THE PRINCIPALITIES AND POWERS

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

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

Elijah and Mr. Quisling

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UNCLE GARY’S LETTER

Photo of Mr. Quisling (c. 1919)

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

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

CONVERSATION BETWEEN BUMPA AND ELJAH

How was daycare today, Elijah?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why’s that?

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

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

Three Guys in a Bar

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THE FIRST DUTY OF LOVE

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

The first duty of love is to listen.

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

WATCHING LESTER HOLT AT THE RESTAURANT BAR

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

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

FAILING LOVE’S FIRST DUTY AT THE BAR

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

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

You’ve just ruined this place for us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

W.H. Auden

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

Elijah asks about craters and creezin

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are you sure you have the right word?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay. Let Bumpa do it. I’m 77. Okay?

Okay.

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

Finding Wikipedia satellite photo in Google search

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

Crater Lake satellite photo.

Here’s what it says on Wikipedia:

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

Wikipedia Crater lake description.

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

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

Elijah asks about creezins

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

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

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

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

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

You mean raisins? Granpa eats raisin bran every morning.

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

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

Elijah asks Bumpa about cranes

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

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

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

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

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

The Measures of Ourselves

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

THE FOUNDATION AND THE MORTAR

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

FOUNDATIONS OF A DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC

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

TRADITIONAL CULTURAL’S MORTAR — NORMS AND MEASURES

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

TUCKPOINTING THE MORTAR

stone mason tuck pointing the mortar

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elijah on The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig

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ELIJAH WATCHING THE BIG BAD PIG ON MOM’s iPAK

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

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

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

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

You mean ‘iPad’. What’s it about?

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

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

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

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

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

So they’re hippies!

What?

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

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

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

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

READ ALONG WITH ELIJAH ON MOM’S IPAK.

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

In Search of Rest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who owns Greenland?

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The Song in My Head

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

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

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

Climate Change and the Illusion of Property

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

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

Faith, Nature, and God

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

From Wonder to Responsible Action

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

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

photo of Niagara Falls

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

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

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

Something about long, lazy days and whirring air conditioners

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hoodie in the Hood

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

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

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

The Tenement-Dweller: the Man in the Hood

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

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

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

A Privileged Conversation

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

The night visitor removes his hood.

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

There is a silence before the tenement-dweller responds.

“Well, that’s a lot to carry.”

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

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

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

The Book on the Box

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

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

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

Donald opens the book and reads aloud:

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

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

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

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

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

The River of Consciousness

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

Niagara Falls

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

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

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

Richard Rohr, Yes

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

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

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

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

‘Trouble’ is God’s middle name

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“‘How are you doing with the switch?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Toni Morrison

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

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

The “invaders” — a psalmic reflection

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The Power of Language for good and for evil

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

Introducing an exercise

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

Psalm 79: How Long, O Lord?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

America’s silent colossal National Lie

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

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

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

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

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN

My People and the 19th Hole

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How we look at the world is a matter of personal experiences and how we integrate them. Each new experience confirms or changes how we see and what we see. Reading exchanges about Baltimore took me back to a shattering of perception at the end of a summer internship as a street outreach worker with Corinthian Avenue Chapel in North Philadelphia. The acknowledgements of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness take the reader back to “the Brothers of Opal Street”:

Last, but by no means least, is a group of men who would be shocked to find themselves mentioned anywhere but in a courtroom. “The Brothers of Opal Street,” as they called themselves — eight black homeless former inmates of Eastern State Penitentiary in North Philadelphia — had a farewell conversation in late August 1962, with me, a naive nineteen year-old street outreach worker. As we sat on the stoop of a boarded up tenement on Opal Street, they said good-bye with a startling instruction not to return to the ghetto. “Go back to ‘your people’ and change things there. Only when things change there will there be hope for the people here.”

What they called “my people” lived in the white western suburbs of Philadelphia. I have come to believe that last day on Opal Street was its own kind of ordination. This book is in memory of them.

Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), p. xiv

Opal Street was one-block long with no traffic. The far end of the street was boarded in the same way the street’s tenements were. At the far end was the yellow chalk outline of a body. Half way between the entrance to Opal Street and the police chalk mark sat the men on wood orange crates, passing the bottle or the jug to numb themselves against the world that had no regard for their dignity or the stories that had brought them there.

“‘Go back to your people and change things there” sent me home and off to college asking existential questions about who ‘my people’ were and what the relationship was between the manicured lawns, rash-free streets, and country clubs of the Mainline western suburbs and the “rat and rodent infested mess” I had left behind in North Philadelphia.

entrance gate to Mar-a-Largo

Some moments last a lifetime. Some experiences forever change what we see as much as how we see. It’s hard to see Opal Street over drinks at the 19th hole.

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, July 29, 2019.

Silence and Faith

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Views from the Edge is pleased to share this recording of Max Picard’s The World of Silence read aloud by David Juda of Voetica Poetry Spoken.

Here’s a taste of Picard:

The silence of God is different from the silence of men. It is not opposed to the word: word and silence are one in God. Just as language constitutes the nature of man, so silence is the nature of God; but in that nature every- thing is clear, everything is word and silence at the same time.

Excerpt from Silence and Faith of Max Picard, read by David Juda on Voetica Poetry Spoken

Click Silence and Faith and turn up the volume.

Thank you, David!

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, July 29, 2019

Before the gods I will sing

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Many gods? More than one?

Why does the psalmist speak of ‘gods’ — “before the gods I will sing Your praise” (Ps.138:1) –as though there is more than the One the psalmist proclaims? Why does the First Commandment of the Ten Commandments say, “You shall have no other gods before Me”?

These ‘gods’ are real. They do not exist only in our imagination. They make their appeals to our human need and aspirations in the midst of time. Like the First Commandment, Psalm 138 recognizes the ‘gods as contenders with the One God of heaven and earth. It goes to the heart of the human longing for closer-at-hand gods, the imposters of God that charm us with their melodies and promises.

...before the gods I will sing Your praise.” (Ps. 138:1 NIV)

We live among the ‘gods’. We see them with our own eyes. We hear them with our own ears.

  • Children held in squalid ‘detention’ camps in the name of national security. Parents whose children have been kidnapped and lost in the name of national security. The multitudes walking on blistered feet in hopes of crossing the Rio Grande to safety. The asylum-seekers fleeing cruel regimes. They are all living under the siege of the ‘gods’, resistance to which is commanded the First Commandment.
  • I will sing Your praise before the gods. I will not sing in silence. I will not praise You in hiding. I will publicly defy the ‘gods’ that solicit my praise and obedience. I will place my hope and trust where it belongs. Before the gods that divide and terrorize I will sing Your praise.
  • I will sing Your praise before the gods of national security that kidnap babies, separate families, and stereotype those seeking safety as criminals, drug runners, rapists and terrorists.
  • I will sing Your praise before the gods and not be silent when my president deceives the public, announcing that asylum-seekers may now apply for asylum in Guatemala, one of the nations from which the poor flee for safety because of human rights violations, whose military we train and whose arms we supply.
  • I will sing Your praise before the gods of homophily that erase the American aspiration of e pluribus from e pluribus unum, leaving the unum of whiteness.
  • I will sing Your praise before the gods of my country’s original sins: stealing the continent from its indigenous peoples’, and stealing African men, women, and children to become slaves.
  • I will sing Your praise before the gods under which the constitutional checks and balances that protect a democratic republic from totalitarian rule are eroded.
  • I will sing Your praise before the gods of fossil fuel profiteers and a government that denies climate change, removes restraints protecting clean air and water, and scorns international cooperation necessary for responsible action in the face of climate change.
  • I will sing Your praise before the gods of greed that amass wealth, consolidate power, and skirt Congress to proved arms to Saudi Arabia in spite of an American journalist’s dismemberment and supplying arms for continuance of a proxy war in Yemen.
  • I will sing Your praise before the gods of racist nationalism that excite the masses — Mein Kampf, the speeches of Hitler, and strategies for the seizure of power — now echoing from the Oval Office and campaign rallies.
  • I will sing Your praise before the gods that divert attention from atrocities at the Southern border with tweets describing the congressional district represented by the Chair of the House of Representatives’ Committee on Oversight and Government Reform as a “disgusting rat and rodent infested mess” immediately following the Rep. Elijah Cummingspointed criticism of inhumane conditions for which the Trump Administration is responsible.
I will praise You, LORD, with all my heart;
      before the gods I will sing Your praise. (Ps/ 138:1 NIV)
 For though the Lord is high, he regards the lowly,
      but the haughty he knows from afar. (Ps. 138:6 NRSV)

Before the gods: Jesus of Nazareth

One of them . . . tested [Jesus] with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:35-40 NIV)

Before these ‘gods’ — and so many more — I will sing Your praise.

  • So help me God, in the name of Jesus, Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, July 28, 2019

Truth-making and the Lie-making Machine

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Special Counsel Robert Mueller

Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s appearance before Congress brings a sliver of hope that truth will prevail. Living in a surreal era where absurdity is the rule rather than the exception led me back to words from an earlier time and another country, the description offered by French novelist and absurdist philosopher Albert Camus (1913-1960).

Never before has the individual stood so alone before the lie-making machine. We used to wonder where war lived, what it was that made it so vile. And now we realize that we know where it lives, that is inside ourselves.

Albert Camus, Notebooks

If you see a turtle on top of a fencepost, you can be sure it didn’t get there by itself.

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, July 24, 2019

Rest in Peace, Dennis

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This remembrance of Dennis Aubrey, written by Dennis’s brother for Via Lucis, touches the heart and soul, and the expansive brilliance known by those whose lives have been deepened and enriched by him. There is opportunity to comment or leave your condolences for PJ and members of PJ and Dennis’s family.

IMG_2049

It is with infinite sadness that I must tell you that Dennis passed away suddenly last Friday. I write this on behalf of his wife and partner, PJ.

With his passing, Dennis leaves a gaping abyss in our lives. He was a man larger than life, zestful in his embrace of all that life offered. Readers of this blog enjoyed the excellence of PJ and Dennis’s photographic art, and the enlightening and entertaining musings that accompanied those featured photographs.

The power of Dennis’s writing derived from his encyclopedic brain: he brought his vastly read knowledge to every subject he wrote about, whether history, or philosophy, religion or geometry, music or poetry. Via Lucis isn’t simply a photography blog. It isn’t simply an art and architecture blog. It is a brief—and intriguing—glimpse into the mind of one of the artists who brings these Romanesque churches to life through photograph and word.

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I’m having a hard time . . .

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“I’m having a hard time ...”
 he said with a scowl
 coming through the line
 to shake the hand 
 of the preacher who had
 preached his first sermon
 at the church judged
 to be the leading voice in
 the civil rights and peace
 movements in the city.
 
 “I’m having a hard time
 not hitting you,” he said,
 holding back his right arm
 with his left hand as the
 new 26 year-old anti-war 
 pastor reached to shake 
 his hand.  

 “Pools of Blood” had packed 
 a punch with the chair of the
 City Human Rights Commission.

GCS, July 20, 2019

Written in response to today’s Weekend Writing Prompt challenge to write a poem or prose on the word “judge” with exactly 95 words.

We sat down over coffee later that week.

Criticism and Dissent: Why don’t you just leave?

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It’s almost always wise to take a deep breath. Step back as though you’re looking in from the outside, rather ‘objectively’ you might say, in order to see more clearly what’s happening.

“Why don’t you just leave/ go back where you came from?” has a certain logic and a history. Click HERE for the entire Wikipedia article on propaganda.

Ergo decedo (traitorous critic fallacy)

Ergo decedoLatin for “therefore leave” or “then go off”, a truncation of argumentum ergo decedo, and colloquially denominated the traitorous critic fallacy,[1] denotes responding to the criticism of a critic by implying that the critic is motivated by undisclosed favorability or affiliation to an out-group, rather than responding to the criticism itself. The fallacy implicitly alleges that the critic does not appreciate the values and customs of the criticized group or is traitorous, and thus suggests that the critic should avoid the question or topic entirely, typically by leaving the criticized group.[2]

Argumentum ergo decedo is generally categorized as a species of informal fallacy and more specifically as a species of the subclass of ad hominem informal fallacies.

In politics

Argumentum ergo decedo is directly related to the tu quoque fallacy when responding to political criticism. As whataboutism is used against external criticism,  is used against internal criticism.

Examples

Critic: “I think we need to work on improving Nauru‘s taxation system. The current system suffers from multiple issues that have been resolved in other places such as Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands.

Respondent: Well, if you don’t like it, why don’t you just leave and go somewhere you think is better?”

Critic: “Our office’s atmosphere is unsuitable for starting constructive conversations about reforms for the future of the company. A number of improvements are needed.

Respondent: “Well, if you don’t like the corporate system, then why are you here? You should just leave!”

A Personal Reflection

A Personal Reflection

Last night’s campaign rally in North Carolina sent chills up my spine. “Send her back! Send her back!” has a history. It paints criticism of the nation’s policies and behavior as unpatriotic. But patriotism (love on one’s country) is not nationalism. Patriotism is love of country. Nationalism makes the nation god.

We’ve heard these words before. I heard them used during the reign of terror fired up by Sen. Joseph McCarthy. II heard them in response to Ruby Bridges in Little Rock. I heard them from George Wallace and sheriffs, Selma, and Chicago. I heard them again when criticizing our policy in Vietnam War. Back then it was “America: Love it or leave it!” Now, as then, the cry to go home is not a criticism; it’s ergo deceto –a bullying response to criticism. Constitutional democratic republics assume a baseline of respect between and among people who disagree. No scapegoating. No name calling. No dismissal of each other as enemies, and a full, thoughtful discussion of policy and criticism. Wherever criticism is met with the traitorous critic fallacy, constitutional democratic republics are put to the brink of fascism.

Flash back: March 9, 1954: Dissent and Loyalty

We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. . . . (McCarthy’s actions) “have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad and given considerable comfort to our enemies. And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn’t create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it — and rather successfully. Cassius was right. ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.’ Good night and good luck.

Edward R. Murrow, March 9, 1954, CBS; Commentary credited with stopping McCarthyism.
  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, July 18, 2019.

You bet your life! Who said it?

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photo of Groucho Marx, host of You 
Bet Your Life
Publicity photo portrait of Groucho Marx, host of You Bet Your Life

“Humanitarianism is the expression of stupidity and cowardice.”

“Do not compare yourself to others. If you do so, you are insulting yourself.”

“The victor will never be asked if he told the truth. ”

“The only preventative measure one can take is to live irregularly.”

“I use emotion for the many and reserve reason for the few.”

“______________ will start winning again, winning like never before.

“The receptivity of the masses is very limited, their intelligence is small, but their power of forgetting is enormous. In consequence of these facts, all effective propaganda must be limited to a very few points and must harp on these in slogans until the last member of the public understands what you want him to understand by your slogan.”

“. . . People can be made to see paradise as hell, and also the other way round, to consider the most wretched sort of life as paradise.”

“I know that fewer people are won over by the written word than by the spoken word and that every great movement on this earth owes its growth to great speakers and not to great writers.”

“It is the press, above all, which wages a positively fanatical and slanderous struggle, tearing down everything which can be regarded as a support of national independence, cultural elevation, and the economic independence of the nation.”

“We will build new roads, and highways, and bridges, and airports, and tunnels, and railways all across our wonderful nation.”

“We share one heart, one home, and one glorious destiny.”

“The highest form of vanity is love of fame.”

Don’t be shy! Who said what?

photograph of grandson Elijah asking you to send your answers to grandpa before he takes his nap.

Thought for the day.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”– George Santayana, The Life of Reason.

Tell me what ya know. I’m still little. I just learned my ABC’s. I’ll take history when I’m three! Send Grandpa your answers. quick. . . before he takes his nap!

S

Dennis Aubrey – Via Lucis

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Light through a window of the Basilica of the Madeline in Vézelay, France – Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Reason only partially explains why and how some people become friends.

“Reason, you’ll always be half blind,” said Mechtild of Magdeburg, the 13th century German mystic beguine, author of The Flowing Light of Divinity.

Friendship

There are reasons that partially explain why and how Dennis Aubrey and I became friends. Cyberspace is how we met. I can’t recall which of us started the conversation. I do know that finding Via Lucis: Photography of Religious Architecture was like a window opening a dark room to light and air. Why one of us reached out to comment on the other’s site had its reasons. Each of us was wading in the same waters, asking the same questions. Dennis did it by means of professional photography and commentaries on Romanesque and Gothic churches in France and Germany. I did it through commentaries on faith and public life.

Wading in the same waters differently led us to each other. Although I have always loved beautiful architecture, I knew little about Romanesque and could not have cared less about the Medieval period when the Romanesque cathedrals, basilicas, and churches were built. These structures were the waters in which Dennis sought and found light. The ancient texts of Hebrew and Christian scripture were the waters in which I did the same. Discovering each other wading in the same waters differently led to an eight year friendship in person at Dennis and PJ’s new home in Ohio, by internet comments on each other’s work, and the kind of phone calls peculiar to close friends.

Last Saturday I called Dennis to discuss his latest posted on Via Lucis. There was no answer. Perhaps I’d called too early. Perhaps he and PJ were in France. Perhaps they had driven to the Amish farm stand where the Amish adolescent sold them organic vegetables or had gone to the Amish auction. Or maybe Dennis had silences his cell phone. I left a voicemail. An hour later at 9:43 A.M. the return call came from Dennis’s cell phone number. But the voice was not Dennis’s, it was PJ’s. “I can’t believe you called,” she said. “Dennis died last night.” Our worlds suddenly became smaller.

As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after Thee, O God. My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God: when shall I come and appear before God? [Psalm 42:1-2 KJV]

Panting after the water brooks

Faith takes many forms. Which forms, if any, are grounded in reality is a lifelong quest for some of us. A cynic may dismiss all forms of faith as ungrounded — floating in the clouds of human imagination and illusion. Yet there remain those murmurings from within or the majesty one sees outside the self in nature or great works of art. Dennis and PJ posted an an announcement and invitation to a new exhibit July 29 bearing the artists’ witness to imagination: “This exhibition is not about the iconographic programs of medieval historiated capitals, but rather an appreciation of the human imagination that created these sculptures.”

The search for authentic faith — trust in something greater than the self and all that we can see, feel, taste, smell, or touch — is not a straight line. It spirals between opposites. We disbelieve and believe. We believe and disbelieve. We fall and we get back up. We gasp for air and we gasp in awe. We turn our backs on the past and embrace it again as though we’d never met it.

When shall I come before Thee?

St. Augustine wrote that our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee. Like faith itself, what the Hebrew psalmist called the soul’s ‘panting’’ and Augustine called ‘restlessness’, takes many forms. Sometimes, as in the parable of the lost son, it takes us far away from the water brooks; sometimes it goes numb; sometimes it draws us closer to the water brooks. But even there by the side of the water brooks, like Narcissus, we refuse to drink.

Dennis was on a lifelong search for what the psalmist likened to a deer thirsty for water — longing for union with the Ineffable that was shrouded in mystery but given to his eyes in a shaft of light reflecting on a stone wall at dusk, or on one of the capitals the craftsmen of a by-gone time invited his imagination and research. He shared in photography and commentary moments where his panting desire for God was quenched by the stones themselves: the song of Mary Magdeline echoing from the stones of the Basilique Sainte Madeleine in Vézelay, and the sounds of uncluttered simplicity and beauty of Gregorian chant that calls us to remember who and Whose we are.

His last words on Via Lucis were posted in reply to his latest and most personal post. “Judy, thank you so much. It is the ineffable sensation of that spirituality that drives both PJ and me when we photograph.”

Deep calleth unto deep at the sound of Thy waterspouts.

Dennis was joyful. He was attuned to the calling of the Deep. He was reverent before the abyss, the yawning hole in existence itself, the nights haunted by the 3:00 o’clock in the morning questions that beg for answers. He shared those times of wrestling with PJ and with Rudy, the cat on his lap in whom he took such delight, and, sometimes, with readers of Via Lucis. I could only say “Yes! Yes! Yes!” Opening one of his posts on Via Lucis was like meeting the twin brother I didn’t know I had. No matter how deep into the Deep his blog posts would go, there was always the echo of the Divine calling to him from the depths.

My soul is cast down within me.

Dennis had an eye for beauty and the camera and words to reflect what he saw when he took the shot. It was a rare gift. The antidote to sleepless nights was a day with PJ in a Romanesque Basilica like the one at Vezelay, waiting for the precise moment when the light and shadows would be just right. The beauty was already there in the stone walls and buttresses, the choirs, chancels, the side chapels built to the glory of God by artisans whose names were forever lost to future generations. I think Dennis saw himself as one of them, creating works of art that drew attention not to himself but to his subject.

Only wonder comprehends anything

Looking back after he has left us, it occurs to me that Dennis’s faith was of the Eastern (Byzantine) tradition of Christianity much more than of the Western (Roman) tradition in which he was raised. Dennis could well have spoken the words of Gregory of Nyssa.

“Concepts create idols; only wonder comprehends anything. People kill one another over idols. Wonder makes us fall to our knees.”

He was horrified by what had been done in the name of Christ: the Crusades that swept through the world like a wild fire, destroying towns and villages, and disobedient monastic sites because their concepts were not right.

The kind of thing that sunshine is

Concepts are ‘cataphatic’; wonder is ‘apophatic’. Cataphatic religion is logical — it lives in the head. Apophatic spirituality is awake to what cannot be reduced to a concept. Dennis’s artistic spirit was apophatic — awake to the beauty all around him and cringing at human cruelty produced by the idols in our heads.

Just as many questions might be started for debate among people sitting up at night as to the kind of thing that sunshine is, and then the simple appearing of it in all its beauty would render any verbal description superfluous, so every calculation that tries to arrive conjecturally at the future state will be reduced to nothingness by the object of our hopes, when it comes upon us.

Gregory of Nyssa (c.335-c.395 CE)

Dennis’s writing respected the ineffability of sunshine with words that helped us see the beauty his apophatic eyes had seen.

“I shall yet praise him”

The poetry of Psalm 42 was akin to the poetic imagination by which the Hebrew prophet Isaiah described his experience in the temple:

In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple. Above it stood the seraphim: each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly. And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory. And the posts of the door moved at the voice of him that cried, and the house was filled with smoke.

Isaiah 6:1-4 (KJV)

In the 20th and 21st centuries Isaiah’s temple was a Romanesque church Dennis and PJ experienced in ways best expressed in poetic prose and photograph. Their art brought to life our sense of the seraphim soaring above the throne of the Holy One. Those gasping for air found ourselves gasping with awe at what the eye of this gentle soul had seen. Sometimes the Ineffable takes our breath away and drops us to our knees in an empty church where the sun still shines its light on the stones, the stones cry out, and the Magdeleine still sings.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, July 15, 2019.

Pepé Le Pew and the Big Parade

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Pepé Le Pew in our back yard

A strange thing happened this morning, July 4. I kid you not. True story. We had a visitor in our yard for the very first time in the two years we’ve been coming to the cabin by the wetland. Pepé Le Pew chose July 4 to say hello — a skunk just beyond the deck in broad daylight, strolling toward the woods.

American Civics 101

We’re nowhere near a television this Fourth of July, and that’s a good thing. It allows for memory and imagination. I remember all those years when we prided ourselves in not doing what they were doing in Red Square during the Cold War. Tanks and missile rolled through Red Square, a demonstration of military might in a world of nuclear threats. The generals sat and stood in the places of honor.  In Washington, D.C. there was no show of military power on the Fourth of July. We didn’t do that in a democracy. I “knew” that because my teachers, parents, and church all told me so. We prided ourselves that in America the military was under civilian rule; the Secretary of Defense was a civilian, not a general. That was just who we were, and who we were not, said our teachers, parents, faith communities, and those we elected to represent us in Congress or the White House. They’re all dead now.

The Big Parade years later

The Fourth of July parades in our nation’s capitol, like the thousands of smaller parades in American cities and towns, had no special VIP section for the wealthier folks who could afford the price of sittting there. The thought never crossed our minds. We were one nation that declared E pluribus unum. The rest of the year we were poor, middle class, or rich, eating in soup kitchens, Big Boy’s, or country clubs, but on this day we were the same. We were just Americans. We had no caste system like India. And we were all the same, irrespective of political affiliations, at the ballot box. No one’s vote was greater or smaller than another’s.

The only people who made money at Fourth of July parades stood behind the hot dog stands and the popcorn stands, but even then, most of the profits went to charity. No one made money on the Fourth of July. I knew this because our teachers, parents, faith communities, and elected officials told us so. 

How soon we forget

President Dwight David Eisenhower’s last speech to the nation warned us. The retired General who had commanded the largest military force in history during Word War II was a military hero who hated war. The greatest threat to democracy, he said was not communism or any other threat from beyond our borders. The great threat to democracy itself was the “the military-industrial complex.” 

Yesterday Eisenhower’s latest successor communicated with the nation in a tweet:

Big 4th of July in D.C. ‘Salute to America.’ The Pentagon & our great Military Leaders are thrilled to be doing this & showing to the American people, among other things, the strongest and most advanced Military anywhere in the World. Incredible Flyovers & biggest ever Fireworks!

Donald J. Trump, July 3, 2019
  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN July 4, 2019.

Independence Day 2019: Who shall we become?

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A NATIONAL HOLIDAY: “WHO ARE WE? WHAT HAVE WE BECOME?

image 0f U.S. Department of Homeland Security Customs and Border Patrol logo

Pulitzer Prize critic photographer Philip Kennicott‘s “We used to think photos like this could change the world. What needs to change is who we are” discusses the disparate responses to the photograph of the father and daughter who drowned trying to cross the Rio Grande. This Fourth of July it raises questions that deserve a thoughtful national conversation.

Kennicott’s op ed was a week ago, which means it’s mostly out-of-mind. Other photos, video coverage, and news stories have come to the fore, but our responses to them are as different as Kennicott described:

There is a fundamental difference between these two interpretations: One requires time and effort, an act of engaged empathy, while the other is a quick judgment that reaffirms an existing sense of the world. The power of a photograph like this depends on the time we devote to it and our basic sense of who these people are.

PhilipKennicott, Who are we? What have we become?, Washington Post, June 36, 2019

People of my ilk gasp with horror at the sight of real people lying face down on the shore of the river they had hoped to cross, the exodus from hopelessness to a better life in the land of promise on this side of the shore. Others see the father and child as the consequence of having paid the price for breaking the law.

THE FAULTLINE AND ABYSS

Stories that have replaced the photo from the shore of the Rio Grande come so quickly we don’t have time to stop and think about what we’re seeing, or hearing, and why we’re seeing or hearing them the way we are. The focus of the faultline of public perception is Donald Trump. We either love him or hate him with little room between visceral disgust and vociforous affirmation. Bridging the two sides of the chasm is anathema to both sides of the political-cultural chasm. If we don’t stop and find a way forward in the USA, all of us will fall into the abyss.

OXYMORONIC PERCEPTIONS

News of Mr. Trump crossing into North Korea last week is a case in point. The US President breaks precedent by stepping across the dividing line between the two halves of the Korean Penninsula.

Perception One:

People of my persuasions immediately dismiss it as one more stunt. The North Korean leader who called Mr. Trump a baby and threatened a nuclear attack and the American President who called Mr. Kim “Little Rocket Man” have laid aside their schoolyard name-calling and bullying. But it’s confusing. We are the anti-war people. We stand for peace. We are the peacemakers who likely would applaud if it were some other president. Mr. Trump just did what my faith tradition called for in 1967:

The church, in its own life, is called to practice the forgiveness of enemies and to commend to the nations as practical politics the search for cooperation and peace. This search requires that the nations pursue fresh and responsible relations across every line of conflict, even at risk to national security, to reduce areas of strife and to broaden international understanding. Reconciliation among nations becomes peculiarly urgent as countries develop nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, diverting their manpower and resources from constructive uses and risking the annihilation of humankind.

Confession of 1967, Presbyterian Church (USA)

Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim shocked the world by doing what the Confession of 1967 called for. Whatever reasons underlie what happened, whether the handshakes were genuine or disingenuous, when something happens that we see as good, should we not encourage more, not less, of the same?

PERCEPTION TWO:

People who support President Trump applaud him for singularly bold leadership, daring to do what no previous president has done. Mr. Trump has once again defied the operations of “the deep state” in a way that puts the faux news media back on their heels. Calling Mr. Kim “Little Rocket Man” and threatening to obliterate North Korea were strategic steps that made the breakthrough possible. This is no ordinary president. Mr. Trump is a patriot’s patriot, strong, strategic, and deserving of the nation’s unconditional support.

But it’s confusing.This support rises from historic Cold War perceptions of North Korea, China, and the Soviet Union as godless enemies of all that is good in the West. Being tough on communism was required to make us secure in a world where softness would mean surrender — the end of freedom, free markets, religious freedom. Insuring national security comes first, and national security means elimination of the enemy, not accommodation.

MOSQUITOES AND FLY SWATTERS

When a people becomes anxious, when up is down one day and left is up is down the next day, the mind gets scrambled in search of solid ground.

Reason and civility become the pests in the living room. The fly swatters come out. Hard lines get drawn. Some of us are mosquitoes; some of us are fly swatters. There is no room for conversation between mosquitoes and fly swatters.

INDEPENDENCE DAY

The Fourth of July comemorates the Declaration of Independence, the birth of the American Republic. There will be parades in cities and small downs across America, and a huge parade in the nation’s capitol sure to further divide an indivisible nation. The American flag will fly everywhere. Who we are, what we have become, and who we shall become beg for reasonable discussion. Without it we will be a swarm of mosquitoes with fly swatters and a nuclear arsenal.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, July 3, 2019

Mr. Slicker and the Egg Robbers

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REMEMBER CITY “SLICKERS” AND COUNTRY “BUMPKINS”?

Mickey Mouse comicstrip panel of Mickey reading invitation to Blaggard Mansion at 10o'clock tonight.
Comic strip panel from Mickey Mouse, “In the Interest of Science,” created by Floyd Gottfredson and published December 1932

Remember when folks who lived in the country called people from the city “city slickers” and the city slickers called the people on farms and in small towns “country bumpkins”? Stereotypes contain some kernel of truth, which makes it harder to make sense of what is happening in America today.

HONESTY AND NEIGHBORLINESS

When was the last time you went shopping for groceries, went to checkout only to discover you’d forgotten your wallet or purse — you have no plastic or cash — and the clerk says, “No problem. Just pay me when you can. We only take cash”?

It happens in the country where “a man’s word is his bond.” Yes, means ‘yes’ and No means ‘no’. Honesty is expected. Country folks don’t take kindly to snake oil salesmen all gussied-up in fancy Sacks Fifth Avenue suits, custom-made white shirts, silk ties, gold Gucci watches, and highly polished black Louis Vuitton Manhattan Richelieu Men’s Shoes. The city slickers don’t usually wear tractor hats or track in manure from the fields and barn on their boots.

Driving on a country road where the Trump campaign flag has replaced the American flag on a home’s front yard flagpole, I wonder what’s happening. The folks who expect honesty are following a city slicker — not just any city slicker — a really slick city slicker. The house with the flagpole is as down-to-earth as Trump Tower is uppity. Rusted-out pick-up trucks litter the yard amid the weeds. The “lawn” is worlds away from manicured fairways of Mar-a-Largo. I scratch my head, wondering how it happens that someone whose bond is his word hoists a slicker’s flag.

MR. SLICKER AND THE EGG ROBBERS — 1930 AND 2019

Looking back to Floyd_Gottfredson‘s Great Depression comic strip “Mr. Slicker and the Egg Robbers,” I wonder whether the Trump supporters in 2019 have noticed that someone’s been stealing the eggs from the old fashioned honor code roadside stand his children replenish every morning.

“Mr. Slicker and the Egg Robbers” was set in Mouston, where Mickey Mouse opens up a miniature golf course on his farm. Soon a very tall mouse, Mr. Slicker, wows the citizens of Mouston, tries to woo Minnie away from Mickey, steals Minnie’s family’s farm eggs, and comes to Marcus Mouse’s (Minnie’s father) rescue when a draught and the egg thefts leave him unable to pay the mortgage. Mr. Slicker offers to pay off the family’s debt, but only if Minnie will marry him. When Mickey comes to the rescue with savings from his miniature golf course, a stange thing happens. The Mouston Bank is robbed. Mr. Slick goes to the police to pin the robbery on Mickey.

Long story short — if you want the full story, click THIS LINK — Mickey, surmising that Mr. Slicker is behind the egg thefts and the bank robbery, convinces Slicker’s right hand man that Mr. Slicker has no intention of cutting the robbers in on the heist. Slicker and the robbers are arrested, and Minnie throws a dinner party for Mickey, her hero!

REDEEMING THE COIN OF THE REALM

It’s an old story from 1930 but it still brings a smile to those who are not fooled by slickers in high places who seem never to have learned what most country folks have always known but now seem to have forgotten: honesty is the coin of the realm. Please, take Slicker down from the flagpole where the American flag once waved.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, June 27, 2019.

NO WAR AGAINST IRAN

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Hours before authorization for military strikes oft Iran (and sudden reversal), an email from RABBI ARTHUR WASKOW‘s arrived in my inbox. Views from the Edge republishes it without further comment.

Although the focus of Rabbi Waskow’s epistle is Iran, the opening paragraph distills into a few words a perspective we share. There are “three urgent impending disasters:” war with Iran; the war that threatens to deport “millions” of immigrants; and the war against Mother earth.

EMERGENCY: NO WAR AGAINST IRAN

“Dear Gordon, This morning I started writing a Shalom Report letter that addressed three urgent impending disasters: A Trumpist war against Iran; a Trumpist war against immigrants living in American cities and towns, whom he just threatened with imminent sudden mass deportations of “millions”; and an escalation of the Trumpist war against Mother Earth.

“The Trumpist obsession with subjugating others is at a tipping point – between utter lethal disaster or the deepening and broadening of resistance.

“I thought we had about a week. I went to an eye-doc appointment. It turned out we had only hours. setting aside the other emergencies. Still with dilated eyses, I am trying to see clearly, and I am for the moment

“I ask you right now, as soon as your receive this, to act against the Trumpists’ plans to attack Iran. After that, please read the rest of this letter where I will outline what I think is going on..

“What to do now:

{“contact.first_name, please call your members of Congress. Here’s what I invite and encourage you to do:

“1) Call the Congressional Switchboard at 202-224-3121. Call three times, for your two Senators and one Congressperson. (If you live in DC and have no Senators, call Senator Schumer, the Minority Leader.)

“2) Ask the Capitol operator for your representative/senators, and when connected say your own version of this:

“‘My name is _ and I am a constituent living at [your address]. I’m calling to urge [Congressperson/Senator X] to publicly oppose U.S. military attacks on Iran. I urge [her/him] to tell the president he does not have constitutional authority for any attacks.’

“‘[Congressperson/ Senator X ] should point out any retaliatory strike on Iran for what happened to the U.S. drone could spiral out of control. Instead, I strongly urge [[Representative/Senator X] to call for the U.S. to return to diplomacy, including supporting a convening of the UN Security Council to work to defuse tensions in this global crisis.'”

“Gordon, I urge you to step up your activism today to prevent all-out war with Iran. The Shalom Center will have a number of suggestions for actions you can take over the next few days, but today I urge you to call Congress right away as critical meetings are happening in D.C. right now.

“A potential U.S. retaliatory strike is likely being discussed in the White House as I write this. The White House has said they will be briefing Congressional leaders later today and that is often a sign that an attack is imminent. Meanwhile, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has called a caucus meeting of Democrats for later today. Members of Congress will be the key here and active peace-loving people need to push them to stand in Trump’s way.

“The only way to pull us out of this spiral toward war is for supporters of peace like you to get active and push Congress to stand up to the president and tell him clearly that he has no authority to go to war.

“Please call now.

“Background:

“But the Trumpist Regime worsened the sanctions. They were aimed at totally disrupting the Iranian economy and literally starving the Iranian people. They were beginning to damage daily life –- all because the Trumpists could not bear an Obama-initiated agreement that offered hope for bringing Iran back into the international community. Faced with enormous US pressure, the Europeans began to cave in.

"Third big step on the road to war: Trump threatened nuclear war if Iran were to resist by interfering with oil shipments in its Gulf.

 "It is not clear whether the claims of such interference are lies as blatant as the “Tonkin Gulf attacks” in 1964 that never happened; but even if they were real, they were defenses against a devastating economic war imposed by the Trump regime.

"Now it is clear – Iran and the US agree – that Iran shot down an unmanned drone. Iran says it was flying over Iranian territory.The Trumpist regime claims it was over the Gulf. No matter where it was, cause not for war but for diplomacy. And given the history of those in Washington now unleashing the mad dogs of war, veterans of the lies about Iraqi nuclear weapons, and given the history of Trumpist efforts to provoke a war, I very much doubt the US claim. It would fit Trumpist policy to send a drone over Iranian territory.

“There are more thoughts about the past that few Americans remember but practically all Iranians do:

“The CIA’s overthrow of a democratically elected New Dealish Iranian government in 1953 to prop up a tyrannical Shah who used torture against his critics. Why this CIA/ US action? Because the Mossadeq government intended to nationalize American oil companies that were draining Iran of its resources for US profits.

“When the Islamic Revolution succeeded in 1979 and the Shah fled, the US refused to extradite him to stand trial for his crimes. Americans remember only that Iranians reacted by detaining dozens of Embassy staff for a year.

“In 1980, Iraq under the rule of Saddam Hussein invaded Iran. The US supported Saddam, even aiding him in using chemical weapons against Iran. The war ended in 1988. The death toll on both sides was about 500,000.

“This is not a history likely to inspire trust for the US government on Iran’s part. Add the
Trumpist abandonment of the nuclear-disarmament agreement so painstakingly negotiated and enforced.

“And the history of Trumpism does not inspire much trust among most of the American people in the truthfulness of the Trump regime.

“That’s the background. If you have not already made your calls to Congress, please do so now: 1202-224-3121

“Thanks!! And given the burdens this unfolding disaster is liable to put upon our ability to resist, please contribute through the maroon “Contribute” budget just below
sohl [that is “peace” in Farsi, the language of Iran], paz, peace! — Arthur
With blessings of shalom, salaam, peace.”

Thank you, Arthur,

Gordon

GORDON C STEWART, CHASKA, MN, JUNE 21, 2019

Mending the Torn World: Sympathy and Civilization

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A Ripped Tapestry in Need of Mending

Harvard Divinity School New Testament Professor Krister Stendahl taught his students to think of the world as a beautiful tapestry in need of mending. A tapestry is comprised of a diversity of threads. It’s beauty is marred whenever a thread is broken or falls away from the whole. ‘Sin’ is both a condition — a torn tapestry — and an act of tearing the tapestry.

To be human is to be part of this tapestry, never the whole of it! Sin is the tearing of the tapestry. The human vocation is to mend creation.

Morning Chapel with Krister Stendahl

The morning I’m remembering, a Japanese Buddhist monk — one of four residents Divinity Hall residents who cooked and shared dinner together each evening — asked to go with me to experience the chapel service.

Krister presided at a weekly Chapel service at Harvard Divinity School. Thirty participants was a crowd. It was a quiet gathering that required a sense of humility: speaking aloud the Prayer of Confession of Sin; hearing Krister’s gracious Asssurance of Pardon; singing in unison the sung responses; listening for a word from God in the readings of Holy Scripture brought to life by Krister’s gentle and bold interpretaton; and the Liturgy of the Eucharist, gathered in the single circle surrounding the Table to which Christ had invited us; receiving the consecrated elements of bread and wine in a sacred silence when we could feel the mending by the Weaver of the tapesty of Creation.

The Japanese Buddhist at the Communion Table

When it came time to form the circle around the table, my Buddhist friend showed no hesitation. He took his place and stood erect and still in a quiet posture of prayer, his fingers pointing skyward, his palms together in the center of his chest. When Krister offered him the consecrated bread and wine of this uniquely Christian sacrament, he bowed to Krister, his neck and torso bending low, a sign of respect for Krister and reverence for the sacrament itself.

Koyama bowing to his junior

Kosuke Koyama (1926 - 2009)

Years later Japanese Christian theologian Kosuke (“Ko” to his friends) Koyama and I stood together behind the Lord’s Table at Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska, MN. As we took our places behind the table, Ko did what the Buddhist monk had done with Krister.

Two ordained Ministers of Word and Sacrament around whom the circle was formed and by whom the worshipers were offered bread and wine . . . in a sacred silence.

Two ordained Ministers of Word and Sacrament around whom the circle was formed and by whom the worshipers were offered bread and wine . . . in a sacred silence like the one I’d experienced with my Japanese friend in circle at Andover Chapel years ago.

Sympathy and Civilization

Kosuke Koyama died in 2009, but he still speaks. He still teaches us Americans to bow. Sorting through old files, a personal letter and 28 page manuscript — Ko’s lecture notes, “How Many Languages does God speak? — Sympathy and Civilization,” the six-week course Ko had taught — leaped from the drawer.

How strange that the author of a book dedicated to his memory would have forgotten the treasure of Ko’s letter and unpublished manuscript. Peggy Shriver’s tribute to Ko is the first thing to meet the eyes of a reader of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness:

In Memory of Kosuke (Ko) Koyama
(1929–2009)

Gentle and strong as trees
Bend gracefull in wind,
You stand — I bow.

— Peggy Shriver, 2009 oo

looking ahead

In the weeks ahead, Views from the Edge will feature excerpts from “How Many Languages Does God Speak? — Sympathy and Civilization.”

Gordon C. Stewart 6-21-19

What’s wrong with the world?

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Photograph of G.K. Chesterton
G.K. Chesterton

The look on G.K. Chesterton‘s face could be ours. But who would think to give Chesterton’s answer to the question raised by a London newspaper, “What’s wrong with the world”? Chesterton wrote back two words: “I am“.

Dear Sir:

Regarding your article “What’s wrong with the world.”

I am.

Sincerely Yours,

G.K. Chesterton

The Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton

Chesterton knew intuitively and by study that there’s something not right that defies description and prescription, a kind of universal virus that included him.

What ever happened to sin?

Psychologist Karl Menninger of the Menninger Clinic began his book Whatever Became of Sin with a funny story:

“On a sunny day in September, 1972, a stern-faced, plainly dressed man could be seen standing still on a street corner in the busy Chicago Loop. As pedestrians hurried by on their way to lunch or business, he would solemnly lift his right arm, and pointing to the person nearest him, intone loudly the single word ‘GUILTY!’

“Then, without any change of expression, he would resume his still stance for a few moments before repeating the gesture. Then, again, the inexorable raising of his arm, the pointing, and the solemn pronouncing of the one word ‘GUILTY!’

“The effect of this strange accusatory pantomime on the passing strangers was extraordinary, almost eerie. They would stare at him, hesitate, look away, look at each other, and then at him again; then hurriedly continue on their ways.

“One man, turning to another who was my informant, exclaimed: ‘But how did he know?’”

The sense of broken relatedness

“No word in the Christian vocabulary is so badly understood, in the world and in the church, as the word sin” (Douglas John Hall, The Cross in Our Context). Sin is a condition — the state of separation, broken relationship, estrangement from the Other, other people, and one’s self. This state manifests itself in particular acts of broken relatedness, “an active nonbeing, a refusal, a rejection, a no to the other: the other who is God, the author of life; the other who is the neighbor, he partner in life; the other that is creation itself, the context of life. … The recovery of relationality in Christian preaching and teaching is not a” concession to modernity or postmodernity; it is a recovery of the original Hebraic and early Christian ontology . . . .

To sin is to act in defiance of this essential relatedness of all living creatures. It is characteristic of sinful acts that the sinner points away from one’s self to shift responsibility elsewhere — the political, economic, or cultural system that shapes our behavior, or another person. It is only a mature soul who would think to answer the question “what’s wrong with the world” with two words: “I am”.

The Seven Social Evils of the World

Mohandas Gandhi made popular the “The Seven Social Evils of the World” first spoken by the Rev’d Canon Frederick Lewis Donaldson in a sermon at Westminster Abbey on March 20, 1925. Gandhi re-published them seven months later in his weekly newspaper, The Young Indian:

  1. Wealth without work.
  2. Pleasure without conscience.
  3. Knowledge without character.
  4. Commerce without morality.
  5. Science without humanity.
  6. Religion without sacrifice.
  7. Politics without principle.

The Seven Social Evils “Blunders” of the World

Mohandas Gandhi’s grandson later re-named them “The Seven Social Blunders of the World.”

The grandfather knew they were more than blunders. A blunder is a momentary slip — a mistake resulting usually from stupidity, ignorance, or carelessness. Mohandas Gandhi knew what Frederick Lewis Donaldson knew: there is something within each and all of us that makes our heads turn when the man on the street corner points in our direction and says, “Guilty.” No other word compares with the word ‘sin’ to describe what’s wrong with the world. We all are. “I am.”

Few people make much difference to the shape of the world. But every one of us, by turning from the seven social sins, contributes to the mending of the world.

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

The Oath: “I do solemnly swear….”

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Interview in the Oval Office

George Stephanopoulos’ Oval Office interview with President Trump is going viral. For the first time in history an American president sees nothing wrong with a candidate for public office accepting a foreign government’s dirt on an opponent.

Oaths of office

Every member of Congress knows that’s illegal. However how wide the chasm between Republicans and Democrats on this president or the Report on the Investigation into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election (“Mueller Report”), there should be no question about this one. President Trump handed Congress an issue on which its members are sworn to act. Either the President was ignorant of the federal law that protects the integrity of the American electoral system or he was consciously defying the rule of law.

Republicans for the rule of law and the Constitution

Today Republicans for the Rule of Law begins airing “THE OATH” — a TV ad calling on Congress to act. Click HERE for more on THE OATH. Bill Kristol, serves as director of Republicans for the Rule of Law

photo go Bill Kristol, Director of Republicans for the Rule of Law

Today Republicans for the Rule of Law begins airing “THE OATH” — a TV ad calling on Congress to take action. Click HERE for more on THE OATH.

Bill Kristol, a conservative highly respected in Republican Party circles, is director of Republicans for the Rule of Law.

Previous Views from the Edge commentaries on impeachment

As always, leave a comment to join the conversation, if you wish.

If you’ve come by Views from the Edge, you know where we stand. If you haven’t visited us before today, Click our May 25 commentary In the winkling of an Eye: Impeach or Wait? Or click Impeach or Wait: It’s an Oath of Office Question for MinPost’s republication and reader comments.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, June 14, 2019.

That the Rabbits Might Live

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This morning’s headlines drew me back to the conversation with Psalm 55. Reflecting on the Psalm led to think of myself as a rabbit. Thinking of the rabbit brought to mind Brer Rabbit. Brer Rabbit led to think of the Africans, Cherokees, and African-Americans who identified with Brer Rabbit in the briar patch.

And I said, “O that I had wings like a dove!
    I would fly away and be at rest;
truly, I would flee far away;
    I would lodge in the wilderness;Selah
I would hurry to find a shelter for myself
    from the raging wind and tempest.”

I am not at rest. I want to get away. To another place. Another time when the wind is not raging and I am not enraged. A place and time that no longer hurts my ears and my eyes red. Like a rabbit, I freeze, hoping I will not be seen. When they see me on the sidewalk of their civilization, I scurry away in search of the briar patch.

Confuse, O Lord, confound their speech;
    for I see violence and strife in the city.

I love words. I know the power of words. They heal, and they destroy. They honor truth and trust; they lie and deceive, and boast of what they have. The preponderance of words are not civil. They are not kind. They dish out strife with a smile. They keep us in turmoil. They despise the rabbits. They erase the line between truth and falsehood, reality and hallucination, America the beautiful and America the ugly. “O Lord, confound their speech.”

10 Day and night they go around it
    on its walls,

The Lady in the harbor and Emma Lazarus are weeping. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore, Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”” The lamp burns dimly. ICE and the border patrol walk the walls like prison guards.

and iniquity and trouble are within it;
11     ruin is in its midst;
oppression and fraud
    do not depart from its marketplace.

The walls where the lamp once stood beside the golden door are not built to keep others out. Nor do they protect us. They protect the market of oppression and fraud. A system gone awry. The road of generous compassion is paved over with fear and greed, iniquity and fraud, inside imaginary walls patrolled by guards of wealth and power. Oppression and fraud are not outside the walls. They are within them. They never leave the marketplace of Wall Street and Washington where commercial entertainment displaces the traditional landmarks of character. The human city is a mess mesmerized by the lies we mistake for truth, the delusional reality for reality itself. The ruin is in the city’s midst. “We have seen the enemy, and he is us,” said Pogo.

It is not enemies who taunt me—
    I could bear that;
it is not adversaries who deal insolently with me—

If it were those from beyond the city walls that were intent on doing us harm, I could bear that. But It’s what’s happening within the walls — the rule of entertainment and nihilism across all divisions; the loud applause for what is insolent and vile — that taunt me, drip by drip, tweet by tweet, byte by byte. We all know what Pogo said, but we don’t believe it: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

I would lodge in the wilderness;
I would hurry to find a shelter for myself
    from the raging wind and tempest.”

Hope cannot be overcome. Like a cork on water, hope always bobs to the surface. Brer Rabbit lives in the briar patch.

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

Old Mrs. Thomas and the Goslings

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The three trumpeter swan goslings are a sight to behold. I look through the field glasses for a closer look. The parents are huge; they are tiny. Their parents are protectors; they need protection. The parents are trustworthy; the goslings are trusting.

Watching the trumpeter swan family slowly paddling on the wetland’s open water next to the cabin makes me stop my restless paddling. I come to a dead stop to drink in the serene beauty of the swans on the wetland waters.

photo of the wetland pond viewed from the cabin in the wilderness.
View from the cabin in autumn

Later in the day I remember Mrs. Thomas. Ninety-one years old Mrs. Thomas who introduced my kindergarten Vacation Bible School to the Psalm 100. David, Alex, Woody, Teddy, Ronnie, Bobby, Dottie, Carolyn and I were the goslings. Old Mrs. Thomas was not our parent, and she knew it. She was building our trust in what would endure long after she was gone.

Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all ye lands.
Serve the LORD with gladness:
Come before his presence with singing.

It’s ‘the lands’ — all the lands, not just the lands’ human inhabitants, red and yellow, black and white — that are summoned to sing and give praise. The LORD — in upper case LORD is speaking, the LORD whom our Lord (lower case) Jesus revealed and served. It’s every square inch of Earth that is called to be joyful and to serve the One who cannot be seen but must be trusted.

Know ye that the LORD, he is God:
It is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves:
We are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.

“Ninety-one year old Mrs. Thomas, the old lady with a big hat and a dead mink with its head still on draped around her shoulders like Grandma, talks funny! Nobody says ‘ye’ or ‘hath’ anymore. We say ‘you’, not ‘ye’. We know more than Mrs. Thomas”. But something gets lost when ‘ye’ becomes ‘you’. ‘You’ doesn’t distinguish between singular and plural, the way Hebrew does. ’Ye’ makes it clear the psalmist is talking to ‘us’, not just ‘I’, not just ‘me’.

“Know ye” — David, Alex, Woody, Teddy, Ronnie, Bobby, Dottie, Carolyn and Gordy! — what Mrs. Thomas knows: that the LORD is God, and that we didn’t make ourselves. The LORD is the Creator; we are among the creatures of the land. Like sheep safely grazing in the shepherd’s pasture, or goslings paddling under their parents’ watchful care.

Enter into his gates with thanksgiving,
And into his courts with praise:
Be thankful unto him, and bless his name.

Mrs. Thomas calms our fears. She assures us we’re not going to jail, and that God is not mean like the school principal or his ‘safety patrol’ prowling the schoolyard at recess to find the rule-breakers.

School Safeties

God wasn’t sending us to Pops Warfel’s office and we weren’t going to prison. The “courts of the LORD” are not courtrooms; they’re something else. What they are remains a mystery, like heaven! Or maybe they’re not a mystery. Maybe the ‘lands’ — the nations and places of Earth — are the courts of the LORD. Who really knows? Who can know the Breath that blows the breath of life into every living creature and land and sea everywhere all the time?

For the LORD is good: his mercy is everlasting:
And his truth endureth through all generations.

The goslings place their trust in their parents. It does not occur to them to distrust them. We kindergartners paddle along by Mrs. Thomas’ side, learning the difference between ‘us’ and ‘me, ‘we’ and ‘I’, and the mercy that is much older and much longer-lasting than Mrs. Thomas.

  • Gordon C. Stewart by the wetland, June 6, 2019

A Feel Good Story: It’s not about me anymore

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The grateful nine year-old

Devin Smeltzer had never expected to pitch in the Major Leagues. He was diagnosed with cancer at the age of nine. A softball-sized tumor required surgery, chemotherapy, and a feeding tube. Since leaving Philadelphia’s St. Christopher Hospital for Children, wrote Ben Rohrbach after Devin started pitching in the minor leagues two years ago,

he’s scrawled the names of those who have inspired him on his cap — friends and family members diagnosed with cancer and the many children he’s seen pass through the doors at St. Christopher’s upon volunteering each month.

Ben Rohrbach

Then it happened. The Twins called him up from the Pensacola Wahoos, the Twins’ Double-A affiliate in Florida, to stand in for the fifth member of their pitching rotation who’d been placed on the Disabled List for a short while.

Twenty-three year-old lefty Devin Smeltzer, the cancer patient in remission, blew through six innings against the Milwaukee Brewers, one of the toughest lineups in the League. He performed like an Ace — think Sandy Koufax, Ryan Nolan, Steve Carleton — allowing no runs, just three hits, and seven strikeouts in six full innings.

A second start

Tonight in Cleveland, Devin Smeltzer will take the mound for a second start in a Minnesota Twins uniform. As he has done since rejoining his Little League team following his release from St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children, Devin will not take the mound alone. The cancer patients, his family, and medical staff will go with him under the bill of his cap.

Devin Smeltzer is a singularly remarkable life story. Equally remarkable, no matter how he pitches tonight or whether he makes it as a major league pitcher, is his humility and gratitude.

“My story’s not about me anymore.”

“My story isn’t about me anymore,” he told CBS Philadelphia this past spring. “My story is about giving hope to other people. There was a kid almost the same age as me. He didn’t make it. The hardest thing about going through cancer is meeting all these amazing people, and those people passing away and you moving on. I remember Frankie. There was Baby Lea, and it was hard to hear when she passed away. She was under 2. That’s the hard part. I beat cancer, but the battle is still there. I’ll always have it. You have to help the people that have helped you — and there are a lot of people that have been there for me.”

Ben Rohrbach, Yahoo Sports

Not many of us write the names of others under the bills of our caps or make it to the Big Leagues. But there are more like him. Mostly unseen. Behind the scenes showing the same gratitude, humility, courage, and compassion that quietly bless others every day without the cheering of the crowd.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, June 2, 2019

A Red Leather Gift

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At daybreak far from the maddening world on CNN, MSNBC, Politico or — God fobid! . . .FOXNews — I’m alone with The Book of Common Prayer. I’ve come here for the silence interrupted only by the calls of the loons and the pair of trumpeter swans that return every spring. For generations the swans’ inner compasses have brought them back to this unspoiled place to hatch their young before flying south again for winter. The swans and I are a lot alike; we both come back when the ice is almost gone.

Back home in the Twin Cities, the shouting turns me ice-cold or red-hot, depending on the moment. Here ice and heat are natural: the ice on the wetland pond is almost gone; the only red-hot thing is the fire in the wood stove. There’s something sacred about the synchronicity of the fire inside and the melting ice just outside the A-frame. It’s peaceful here.

I settle into the hickory Amish rocker Jacob Miller crafted to fit my slim dimensions 40 years ago back in Millersburg, Ohio. Though its measurements are the same, It feels narrower. But we’re still made for each other. The rocker is where I rock awhile, like Jacob on his front porch after a hard day’s work, until going inside to make the fire or light the kerosene lamps. Jacob Miller’s Amish rocking chair is where the world slows down.

I reach to the lamp table next to the rocker for my copy of the Book of Common Prayer. It hasn’t always been mine. It belonged to Sue Kahn, a lifelong Episcopalian, before the day she gave it to me. Sue had suffered the inelegance of Presbyterian language after failing eye sight had led her to Cincinnati to be with her Presbyterian daughter. She could no longer read her prayerbook, but had committed to memory many of its prayers. After two years of worshiping with the Presbyterians, Sue began to refer to me as an ‘Episcoterian” — a high Presbyterian — who appreciated fine language. Looking back at it, I think she may have hoped it would improve my pastoral prayers Sunday mornings. “I want you to have this,” she said, placing her small red leather-bound Book of Common Prayer in my hands. “I know you’ll treasure it.” Sue sits beside me in Jacob’s rocker every morning.

I open to the appointed psalm Sue would have contemplated today, this Wednesday of Holy Week, Psalm 55.

Hear my prayer, O God;
do not hide yourself from my petition.

It’s the day before release of the redacted report of Special Counsel Robert Mueller III, a report that may answer my prayer for full disclosure of the truth I suspect has been hidden.

Listen to me and answer me;
I have no peace because of my cares.

The arrogance — “listen to me; answer me!” — disturbs me. Prayer is not an exercise in telling God what to do! The psalmist is arrogant and selfish, more than a little Narcissistic, like the man in the Oval Office who might push the button on the red phone after typing the letters into the unsecured iPhone he uses to tweet.

But I have come to the wilderness because I have no peace watching Ari and Rachel and waiting for the nightmare to end.

I am shaken by the noise of the enemy;
and by the pressure of the wicked…

I don’t like talk of ‘enemies’; it puts me off. “Love your ememies and do good to them who persecute you.” Framing one’s opponents as ‘wicked’ is the less developed morality that has not yet recognized the intertwining of good and evil. But the psalms express the vicseral feelings of the heart unfiltered by the cerebral cortex. Like the psalmist, I am shaken to the core by the noise of an enemy; the pressure of the wicked. The noise hurts me ears.

For they have cast an evil spirit upon me,
and are set against me in fury.

l do not stand on solid ground. The cloud of evil and wickedness I routinely ascribe to ‘them’ hangs over me. I cannot claim to be righteous, right, or good as opposed to the unrighteous, wrong, and evil. I live under an ‘evil spell’ – the fall from essential goodness that comes with the presumption of the knowledge of good and evil — the knowledge that belongs to God alone. There is no escape from the pressure and the fury.

My heart quakes within me,
and the terrors of death have befallen upon me.
Fear and trembling have come over me,
and horror overwhelms me.

I quake as a fish caught in a net. I thrash and tremble in darkness at noon as at midnight. The snare of terrors encompasses me.

And I said “Oh, that I had wings like a dove!
I would fly away and be at rest.
I would flee to a far off place
and make my lodging in the wilderness.”

Before ending the morning prayer time made possible by the gifts from Sue and Jacob, I turn again to the back page of Sue’s red-leather prayer book to read again the words she had written in her own hand before she gave it to me:

Christ was the Word who spake it. He took the bread and broke it. And what his Word did make it – that I believe. . . and take it.

The crackling of the fire and the trumpeting of the trumpeter swans from the far side of the wetland break into the fading darkness at dawn. I fly away again to where I really live — a far-off place — and make my lodging in the wilderness beyond the snare and blare of right and wrong, good and evil, us and them.

— Gordon C. Stewart by the thawing weland, April 18, 2019

A Memorial Day Memory Re-visited

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Today my brother Bob and sister-in-law Janice will drive to Indiantown Gap National Cemetery to lay flowers on Dad’s grave.

Protestant Service on Saipan led by my father, Kenneth Campbell Stewart, end of WWII.

Our father served as the Army Air Force chaplain for troops in the South Pacific before, during, and after the bombing of Tokyo. During Dad’s absence, my mother and I lived with my grandparents in Boston and South Paris, Maine, where Dad’s safe return was foremost in prayers before every meal.

I was three-and-a-half when Dad came home at the end of the war. The memory is clear as a bell. I watched as my father emerge from the B-29 bomber, walked down the ramp and across the tarmac at Boston’s Logan Airport. When he picked me up and took me in his arms, I reared back and asked “Are you really my Daddy?” “I am,” he said, “and I’m never going away again.”

All these years later, my hair has turned white, my skin is wrinkled, the world is mute without the hearing aids, my bones ache, and my head hurts most days. But I’m still the three year-old who felt the heavy weight of concern around my grandparents’ table listening for news from the South Pacific

It takes a lifetime for some memories to become clear. “Memorial Day and the Soldier’s Helmet,” published two years ago in Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), offers a Memorial Day example.

Today I’m remembering again that night when the burly WWII Marine veteran unburdened himself of the locked box of hidden artifacts from the Japanese soldier he’d killed in hand-to-hand combat during the American invasion of Saipan. The ending of the story written just a few years ago is sorely incomplete.

So…today I observe Memorial Day by returning to the original sense of Memorial Day as a day to remember the fallen – ALL of them – but even more, a day to re-commit to ending the insanity of war itself. It’s a day when I remember the in-breaking of sacredness – three men in the living room – two live Americans and one Japanese – and pray for something better for us all.

Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness, p.12

This Memorial Day the three-year-old who waited for his father’s return remembers how strange memory is. As Bob and Janice lay flowers on Dad’s grave today, I am more conscious of a glaring omission. There were not three men in the living room that night. There were four. Dad was the first man there. Bless you, Dad. RIP.

photo of Indiantown Gap National Cemetery
Entrance to Indiantown Gap National Cemetery, East Hanover Township, PA

Grace and Peace,

Gordon

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, May 31, 2019

Commentary Published Today

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Publication of Views from the Edge social commentary

Thanks to MinnPost.com for today’s publication of Views from the Edge commentary on impeachment. Click Impeach or Wait? It’s an Oath-of-Office Question to read the piece and reader comments.

About MinnPost

MinnPost is a nonprofit online newspaper in Minneapolis, founded in 2007, with a focus on Minnesota news. “MinnPost is a nonprofit, nonpartisan enterprise whose mission is to provide high-quality journalism for people who care about Minnesota. We publish online at http://www.minnpost.com Monday through Friday with a limited edition on Saturday and a Sunday Review.” Wikipedia’s description adds further information.The site does not endorse candidates for office or publish unsigned editorials representing an institutional position. MinnPost encourages broad-ranging, civil discussion from many points of view, subject to the discretion of a moderator.

Thanks for visiting,

Gordon

May 30. 2019, Chaska, MN

Elijah and Mom’s iPhone

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Good morning, Elijah!

Morning, Bumpa!

Whatcha doin’ there?

Just playin’.

But we’re on FaceTime!

Yeah, we’re on the way to work and daycare.

Aha! You’re playing with Mom’s iPhone?

Yeah. Playin’ with Mom’s fone is fun. Mom doesn’t need it. She doesn’t need the GPS. We do this every day.

I see. How long’s the drive?

You k n o w, Bumpa! You’re playing’ with me! Forty-five minutes ’til Mom drops me off at day care. Depends on traffic.

That’s a long time to be alone in the back seat strapped in your car seat.

Yeah, but it’s fun! I get to play! Mom just drives. I have to bigger before I can drive, right, Bumbpa?

Right. You just turned two last Wednesday.

Yeah, I’m two! Two YEARS this time, not two months.

Yes, and we’re so proud of you!

Yeah, I get to do adult stuff like you and Mom.

I hope you won’t take this as an insult, Elijah, but how did you get me on FaceTime?

Don’t ya know, Bumbpa? I push the buttons on Mom’s iPhone. I love talking with people! It’s fun. They’re always surprised! Sometimes they come up on FaceTime. That’s really fun!

So. . . You’re just scrolling through Mom’s contact list?

We don’t use the stroller anymore! I’m two!

I’m sorry. I didn’t say ‘stroller‘. I said ‘scroller‘ with a ‘c’.

Yup. And I’m only through the ‘C’s! ABCDEFG, HIJKLMNOP. QRS TUV! Hold it, Bumpa. I got another call coming’ in. Can I put you on hold?

— Gordon C. Stewart (Bump) with Elijah, May 28, 2019.

What’s happening to us: Postman, Orwell, and Huxley

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INTRODUCTION

Funny how things come together, crisscross, intersect, lead us down roads no one has ever walked before. Neil Postman offers insight into what’s happening. I read it one morning last week at the cabin, away from everything that entertains and distracts me from that little plot of land on the edge of the wetland in Central Minnesota.

William Britton’s Wisdom from the Margins: Daily Readingsexcerpts from Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business painted a picture that felt true, like a revelation pealing back the curtain to find that Lewis Carroll’s walk down the yellow brick road with Alice, the lion, the tin man, and the scarecrow is outdated. Oz is no longer a harmless little old man.

Neil Postman on Orwell and Huxley

Contrary to popular belief. . . Huxley [Brave New World] and Orwell [1984] did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacity to think.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley fears was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much those that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centripetal bumblepuppy . . . . In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us. This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.
—Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death

Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death

The wetland pond, the flyway, and return home

At the cabin, the water in the wetland is unusually high this year because of record-breaking rainfall. The flocks of Buffleheads and other non-diving ducks have by-passed their familiar stop on the flyway; the water is too deep to for them to reach the food sources below. Only the long-necked Trumpeter Swans, Sandhill Cranes, and Canadian Geese, and the diving Loons and Mergansers that can reach the bottom have stopped by this year.

Leaving the cabin and the wetland lead home to the world Huxley feared where the truth is drowned in a sea of irrelevance. We settle back into the lounge chairs in front of the television and flip through Netflix, YouTube, and other means of entertainment in what Postman later called the Technopolis in which our capacity for critical thought is numbed.

The new normal

We turn on the evening news and see two very different versions of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi speaking to the press. One is real. The other is altered by technology that deceives viewers into believing the Speaker is drunk, on drugs, or mentally impaired by slowing and altering the pace of her speech. The culture of amusing ourselves to death in the Technopolis distorts truth into propaganda, the first wave of what will become the new normal.

The culture of amusing ourselves to death in the Technopolis distorts truth into propaganda, the first wave of ... the new normal.

We’re not in make-believe Mayberry anymore. What we love — entertainment — is drowning us. In the world foreseen by Huxley, Orwell, and Postman, truth is hard to find. “Where there is no critical perspective, no detached observation, no time to ask the pertinent questions, how can one avoid being deluded and confused?” wrote Thomas Merton in Faith and Violence: Christian Teaching and Christian Practice.

Only the long-necked Trumpeter Swans, Sandhill Cranes, and Canadian Geese, and the smaller, deep-diving Loons and Mergansers can reach or swim to the bottom to see what’s real and what’s not in the Technopolis. William Britton’s Wisdom from the Margins with Neil Postman, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, and Thomas Merton took me there this morning.

— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, May 26, 2019

In the Twinkling of an Eye: Impeach or Wait?

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A Constitutional Republic

It’s no longer a partisan question. It becomes clearer every day. It’s not a strategic question. It’s no longer a question of how much more, or when is enough enough. It’s a constitutional question. It’s an oath of office question, the oath taken by every member of Congress under the U.S. Constitution.

Image "We the People" from original U.S. Constitution

U.S. Constitution Article VI. clause 3

“The Senators and Representatives … and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution . . .”— U.S. Constitution, Article VI, clause 3.

U.S. Constitution, Article VI, clause 3

Oath of Office, Article VI, clause 3

“I, __, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion, and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.”

The Integrity of Office and Democratic Republic

With every passing day, some who have taken the oath of office side-step the duties of their offices by “purpose of evasion” in the face of the growing constitutional crisis. It is no longer a question of which side of the aisle you are on. Supporting and defending the U.S. Constitution means, at very least, upholding the constitutional checks and balances among executive, congressional, and judicial branches designed to protect a democratic republic from its implosion. Assaults and circumventions around that division of powers are assaults on the Constitution and the rule of law it protects.

Purpose of evasion

EVASION. A subtle device to set aside the truth, or escape the punishment of the law; as if a man should tempt another to strike him first, in order that he might have an opportunity of returning the blow with impunity. He is nevertheless punishable, because he becomes himself the aggressor in such a case. Wishard, 1 H. P. C. 81 Hawk. P. C. c. 31, Sec. 24, 25; Bac. Ab. Fraud,

Loyal Opposition and Loyal Majority

The British idea of “loyal opposition” — loyalty to the nation and to the oath to “support and defend” the Constitution — is a long-standing tradition. The loyalty is to the Constitution. Faithfulness to one’s oath of office, not loyalty to a person. Loyal opposition holds the party in power accountable. Loyal opposition infers loyalty to the Constitution by members of whatever party is the majority.

Patisan stone-walling against the Constitutional duty of Constitutional oversight — whether by a President, the House of Representatives, or the U.S. Senator — constitutes violation of the oath of office by “purpose of evasion”.

The Twinkling of an Eye: No time to blink

Some argue that an impeachment inquiry by the House of Representatives, regardless of its findings, is destined to fail because the majority party in the Senate will exonerate the President of the majority party.

We do well to remember the wisdom of an earlier American President:

Democracy… while it lasts is more bloody than either aristocracy or monarchy. Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There is never a democracy that did not commit suicide.

John Adams

Some things cannot wait. Some things have time limits. Constitutions, the rule of law, and democratic republics can disappear in the twinkling of an eye.

This is no time to blink.

— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, May 25, 2019

Synchronizing tolerance and intolerance

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Holding together two opposite thoughts and feelings is a challenge these days.

I’m trying to synchronize very different things I “know” to be true.

So far, I’m failing –one is almost always taller and stronger than the other.

Or maybe being out of sync isn’t a failure. Perhaps insisting on synchronicity is childish. Maybe being all grown up and stuff means being able to listen to Beethoven while watching a baseball game. Some things you don’t have to synchronize. Some contrasts don’t have to be resolved. Some opposites are worth maintaining for one’s mental health.

Take, for instance, tolerance and intolerance. Is it possible, or morally permissible, to be tolerant or intolerant, or do we have to synchronize them, and, if we do, what would that look like? You can’t be tolerant and intolerant of everything! Some decisions must be made. But maybe you still can synchronize them according some deeper sense of self and world — like the search for beauty, truth, and goodness.

Intolerant people whip up my intolerance for intolerance.

It’s very hard to synchronize when you feel like your country is drowning!

Gordon C. Stewart, May 24, 2019, “drowning in Chaska” MN.

The Inland Sea

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Black-eyed Susans

Do the Black-eyed Susans
above the seawall hear
the pounding of the waves
or do they only see the
tumult of the Inland Sea?

Do they know their October
eyes are only for a season
while they themselves abide
through winter storms to
bloom again in summer?

Do they resent the coming
freeze that buries them all
above the wall or do they
wait in a Black-eyed Susan
Inland Sea for eyes to see?

— Gordon C. Stewart, North Shore of Lake Superior, Two Harbors, MN, copyright, 2014

Elijah’s Second Birthday . . . Again

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Happy Birthday, Elijah!

Thanks, Bumpa! I’m two again for the first time!

I know. Grandma and I are coming over to celebrate your second birthday with you and Mom.

Right now?

First I have to finish cooking the bacon.

Why?

Why what?

I was already two!

I know. You were. You were two MONTHS old. It’s confusing. Today you’re two YEARS!

Yeah, I don’t know stuff like that yet. I’m still liddle. But I’m not a baby!!!

So . . . Whatcha doin’, Elijah?

Baking cookies!

You’re baking cookies?

Well . . . Mom’s baking the cookies. I’m helping. I love Mom!

That makes me happy. How are you helping?

I’m gonna take the cookies out of the oven, Bumpa! You’ll see when you come over.

Wow! You couldn’t do that the first time you were two. Be careful, okay?

I am, Bumpa. HOT, HOT! I’ll put my mittens on. Happy Birthday to me!!!

Elijah and Mom baking cookies for Elijah’s second birthday party

Gordon C. Stewart (Bumpa), Chaska, MN, May 19, 2019

Smiling on the Way Home

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Readers of Views from the Edge know we’ve been offline for a while. There’s enough gloom in the world, and I’ve been feeling kind of gloomy. No one needs one more Gloomy Gus. So I’ve kept the words to myself, reading and writing for edification and a character adjustment.

You might say, I haven’t been home lately. Except for moments with grandson Elijah, whose latest word is ‘home’, laughter has come harder than words. Elijah sends me home to the self I’d almost lost — the childlike self not yet weighed down by adult concerns. Then, this morning, something akin to Elijah’s joy hit me. Turning again to William Britton’s Wisdom from the Margins: Daily Readings, it was almost as though I had been commanded home to joy.

The Laughing Christ

“When I imagine Jesus, it is not simply as a person who heals the sick, raises the dead, stills the storm, and preaches good news. It’s also as a man of great goodwill and compassion, with a zest for life . . . brimming with generous good humor. Full of high spirits. Playful. Even fun. Interestingly, in the past few decades two images of a joyful Jesus have enjoyed some popularity. The first is The Laughing Christ by Willis Wheatley, a sketch that shows Jesus’s head throw back in open-mouthed laughter. The second is The Risen Christ by the Sea, a colorful portrait of Jesus wearing a broad smile and standing beside a fishing net, painted by Jack Jewell, a seascape artist in the 1990s. These two paintings, among others, serve to counteract countless images of the gloomy Messiah. . . . But I wonder if some eschew these portraits because of . . . their subject material. Is there something about a smiling Jesus that threatens our understanding of the man?”

James Martin, Between Heaven and Mirth

“Okay, “I said. I’ve been AWOL for a while, painting myself in the likeness of the faithful man of sorrows who weeps over the city, a serious, joyless man who didn’t smile much and laughed rarely, if at all, on the way to the cross.

Reading Jesus’ response to his critics gives a clue to a different character more like The Laughing Christ. Jesus’s rebuke to his critics — “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners “(Mt 11:18 NIV) — offers a clue to a laughing Jesus. There’s a glimpse of truth in most criticisms. Many Christians quickly rise to Jesus defense. We’re okay with the criticism that he ate and drank with sinners; we’re not okay with the accusation that he was a glutton and a drunkard. We become like my six year-old cousin and I charging up the stairs to tell Aunt Gertrude (Dennis’s mother) we’d discovered a six-pack in the basement refrigerator we were forbidden to go near: “I didn’t know my father was a drinkin’ man!” said Dennis. Surely Jesus was not a drinking man! “ There was never any beer in Jesus’s refrigerator. “Jesus was not a glutton and a drunkard!”

Both criticisms must have had a hint of truth to them. “Why do the disciples of John fast often, and make prayers, and likewise the disciples of the Pharises; but yours eat and drink?” (Luke 5:13.) Jesus must have savored the taste of a home-cooked meal, and lifted a glass or two in light-hearted moments at a party, not just at the Last Supper. The alternative to Jesus’s critics is not that Jesus never got a little tipsy or ate too much at a party. It would be ludicrous to criticize a tea-totaller on Weight Watchers for being “a glutton and a drunkard”! Jesus was no Gloomy Gus who never laughed. He wasn’t solemn or holy enough for his critics.

So here I am today, back online, opening my eyes to “The Laughing Christ” and “The Risen Christ by the Sea” that challenge the gloomy spirituality of gloom and doom, on my way home to a more buoyant joyful spirit the news can’t take away.

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

By the Rivers of Babylon (Dennis Aubrey)

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Dennis Aubrey of Via Lucis became a friend after we found each other’s work through the web. As he has many times before, Dennis has spoken for me.

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down
Yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.
For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song;
And they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.
How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

Psalm 137:1-4 (King James Version)

When I lived in Los Angeles from 1972 to 2000, the city was filled with men and women who lived and died on the streets. It seemed an inevitable part of urban life, where displaced humanity would collect in the hidden corners of our cities. Facilities for the mentally ill had closed, prices for homes had accelerated and more people lost their ability to own or even rent. I knew what was happening in the rust…

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Two Birds of the Secret Heart

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59476eb9d98ab50256137e216d23f129--scripture-art-psalms

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

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

The Inward Being

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Response to Accusation

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

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

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

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

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

Two Small Birds

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

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

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

Release Into the Open Field

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

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

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

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