I’m not ready for this. I’m not wired for a world gone haywire. Like the psalmist, I am “old and gray” (Ps. 71:18), living in a frantic world that makes no sense, knowing that speaking what little I think I have come to know will not reach beyond what remains of a shrinking circle of influence. Even so, I continue to write in the vain hope it may make a difference.
Listening through the stethoscope
Sitting in front of a blank sheet of paper/blank computer screen is the morning exercise to find my deeper self again. Writing is like a stethoscope to hear what’s inside my chest. Writing taps into the deeper stream of consciousness — sighs and groans too deep for words.
Some days begin and end with a blank page. Other mornings the groaning and sighing summon me to write. Not just for myself, but for others as well. That’s what public theologians do.
Reality and illusion
The Psalter is always close by. The psalms take me deeper. Only then can I go wider. The Psalms are poetry. They are not prescriptions. They are the naked, honest, unfiltered, uncensored expressions of what the psalmist feels and thinks in that moment. The psalmist is exposed. No secret is hidden. No pride left unmasked. Every Illusion of grandeur blown away by the wind.
The three year-old and the-man-in-the-radio
The poet of Psalm 71 is old and gray. So am I. Listening through the stethoscope, I hear unresolved sighing and groaning from early childhood.
I am three years-old, sitting around the dining room table with my grandparents and my mother. My mother and I are living with Grandpa and Grandma Stewart in Chestnut Hill, MA. My father is in the big war somewhere far, far away. Every night, Grandpa looks at his watch, stops eating, leaves the table, and walks over to the big brown radio. He pushes a button to let the man-in the-radio talk to us. “Shhhhh,” says Grandpa, as I continue talking. “We need to be real quiet so we can hear the news.” The man-in-the-radio begins to talk. He’s serious. He’s not fun, but no one is afraid of him. Everyone listens carefully.
Some nights the man-in-the-radio stops to let another man in the radio talk. The other man is not nice. He’s not kind. He’s mean. He’s angry. He’s scary. Even for Grandpa! I watch the faces of my mother, grandpa and grandma as they listen for news about the big war far, far away where my father is the Army Chaplain. My father is the only one on Saipan who doesn’t have a gun. He may not make it home or he might come home dead.
Honoring a promise
I am old and gray and hard of hearing, but I have a stethoscope. I still hear the groaning and sighing in my chest and I still hear the madman in the radio. I determined early in life that if Adolf Hitler won the war and came to Chestnut Hill, I would not be silent. I would not stay seated. I would stand up. I would speak up! I would tell what I know and not let go, for the sake of generations yet to come.
And now that I am old and grey-headed, O God, do not forsake me, til I make known Your strength to this generation and Your power to all who are to come. (Ps. 71:18 BCP).
Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf & Stock), Brooklyn Park, MN, October 3, 2021.
Appreciate your reflection! Grief and despair…your words speak hope, shared! The alchemy of trust? Doesn’t change situation, but refocuses on purpose? Glad the heartbeat is heard!
I’m so glad you are still speaking up!
Thank you for the encouragement. Most days I prefer not to pick up the stethoscope. What I would hear in my chest needs to stay there, I think, and I don’t want to be overwhelmed by grief and despair any more than I am when not writing. But…despair is not an option. Faith is courage. Too often my courage falters into despair. If nothing else, this period of American culture and history leads me look again at Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Paul Tillich, and Willem Zuurdeeg. It’s like panning for gold. The gold is always right there in front of me.
All so beautifully said. A gift for the early morning. The blank sheets are filling with wise words that often can only come from a man old and gray but able to embrace the three year old inside. Your readers are grateful.
(My dad was a SeaBee as well. A chief petty officer on the ship the USS Alcyone, also docked on Saipan.
What a coincidence that you and Gary’s dads were SeaBees and in that same “theater” as my father. The world is very small…and shrinking.
I think I told you that long ago, when we wondered if my dad had heard your dad do a service. What I didn’t know until I was doing a play a few years ago, was that the ship was named for Alcyone, the brightest star in the Pleiades cluster, and for my literary interest, the beautiful myth of the goddess Alcyone and Ceyx:
Alcyone is the goddess of the moon,the sea, calm, and tranquility.
Alcyone and her husband Ceyx were so madly in love that they called each other Zeus and Hera. Well that did not make Zeus and Hera very happy so that night Zeus gave Ceyx a dream that he needed to come to Mount Olympus to discuss a subject with the gods. So the next day Ceyx told Alcyone that he would set out that day without her. She was infuriated! She demanded that she come with him but he refused for her own saftey then he left. As he was left a big storm was starting to come in but Ceyx did not notice because Hera made it so he could not notice it no matter how hard he tried. Finally the storm came in and Ceyx was killed in a shipwreck. Artimes and Aphrodite were totally against this so they made sure that Alcyone could see her husband one last time. When Alcyone saw her husband dead on the sea shore she tried to commit suicide many times. The Gods and Goddesses were so touched by the way Alcyone was so willing to die because her husband died that they brought Ceyx back to life and turned them both into Kingfisher birds. Now for one week out of winter her father The West Wind calms the water and the wind so that his daughter Alcyone may lay her eggs in peace.
Halcyon Days (mid January)
Thank you, Mary, for that explanation of “halcyon”. I have wondered ever since encountering it for the first time in Jane Eyre in high school.
You say you will keep writing hoping someone’s mind will change as a result of something you say. I agree you need to do that writing. It occurred to me some time ago that even though it sometimes feels as though no one is listening bc there is little direct feedback on what one says or writes, in fact I believe people usually won’t give that feedback but will change without you ever knowing they changed. As a former high school teacher & counselor it goes with the turf that you don’t get much feedback until much later if ever. We all have memories of teachers we learned from but never told them so but they did change us, usually for the better.
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Thank you, Gary. One of your Kennedy students — Khazir — who remembers you fondly.
My dad was a Seabee & built the runway the church service is held on.
Small world! He must have built it right after Allied Forces took Saipan?