A Red Leather Gift

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

5 thoughts on “A Red Leather Gift

  1. Gordon, I appreciated the Psalm, and your comments on it. Despite the anxiety brought on by the current political situation and our President and his Administration, the psalm , despite having been written so many years ago, was certainly apropos. The visual imagery you described was calming in it’s beauty. I am reassured that we can get through this period, and return to a saner, more benevolent society.


    • Roger, So good to hear from you, and to read words that encourage me to publish more reflections on the Psalms. The Psalms, as you know, are heart language, poetry without varnish. They do what no modern poetry can do, no matter how great the poetry may be: they speak from a different time and preoccupation. I trust and hope with you that sanity will return to our public life. Best to you and Charlotte, Gordon


  2. Marilyn, I just wrote a long reply and it disappeared — vanished like vapor. The short version is 1) we share delight that the Hebrew text is accurately rendered in translation. Some times, too often, that’s not the case, as you know. 2) Re: enemies: sometimes the best love can do is not kill them, or just ratchet the anger down a peg, and pull a tooth 🦷 or 🦷🦷. I’m sorry, these things require a sense of humor, eh?


  3. I went and looked up the modern translations of those lines (they are straight from the Torah and Matthew’s gospel is the most “Jewish” of the gospels), but it is word-for-word the same in all the various translations. I was surprised. I was sure there would be a new way of saying the same thing.

    I suppose we have enemies, even if we don’t think of them that way and even if we do not know them personally. Certainly — as far as I can see it — most of our current government are my enemies, though I’ve never met them.

    Love them? I can’t do that. I do not hate them, but I cannot love them.


    • Marilyn, Good morning to you and the sun bather. I replied to this TWICE but neither of them shows up on WordPress! Maybe a sign I should give up the blog and this writing thing and join the squirrel.

      Anyway, I’m glad you took the time to compare translations from the Torah and Matthew and found congruence between them. I’m often disturbed by translations that play foot loose with words that obviously repeat the refrains of the Hebrew Bible.

      On the enemies thing, sometimes the best we can do is to do no harm, to keep our distance in order not to violate the commandment.😜


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