I've always liked quiet. And, like most people, I've experienced the world's madness. "Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness" (Wipf and Stock Publishers, Jan. 2017) distills 47 years of experiencing stillness and madness as a campus minister and Presbyterian pastor (IL, WI, NY, OH, and MN), poverty criminal law firm executive director, and social commentator. Our dog Barclay reminds me to calm down and be much more still than I would without him.
The comforter feels heavy. My body is sore. So is my spirit. I shift from one side to the other and turn on my back, but it doesn’t help.
I look over to the night table at the old digital clock that once told my parents the time of day or night — the inheritance with the BIG red numbers that glow in the dark to help old folks read them.
The red numbers read 3:13.
I throw off the covers, stumble down the 18 steps to the first floor, make a pot of coffee, pour myself a cup, turn on the small table lamp by the fireplace, and sit down for an early morning conversation with the psalmist in the copy of The Book of Common Prayer Sue Kahn put in my hand years ago.
MEDITATION ON PSALM 5 (SELECTED VERSES)
In the morning, Lord, you hear my voice; early in the morning I make my appeal and watch for you.[v.3]
I will put my trust in You. I will not surrender to powers that know no higher power.
You, Lord, are the Breath that breathes in all and makes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on the just and unjust — “Lord of lords and King of kings,” the Eternal One from Whom the little kings and usurpers cannot flee.
I make my appeal to You for Whom the darkness is as light. Things are dark here in America. We are divided. The future looks dark. Although my faith tells me You are present everywhere, I do not feel hopeful. It seems as though You have left us to our own devises.
For You are not a God who takes pleasure in wickedness, and evil cannot dwell with You. [v.4]
Though it feels as though You are hiding, I have to believe You do not take pleasure in wickedness, and that the partisan evil, as bold and obvious as the big red numbers on my parents’ digital clock at 3:13 A.M, will not prevail. Evil cannot dwell with You.
Braggarts cannot stand in your sight; you hate all those who work wickedness. [v.5]
Does it matter to You?
If braggarts cannot stand in Your sight, come into sight. Show Yourself. Take Your seat on the judgment throne to hold the braggarts accountable for their treason against You and all that breathes. Summon the braggarts to stand before You before it is too late.
Do You hate wickedness? Does Love also hate? Do You shrug and let it go?
But as for me, through the greatness of your mercy I will go into your house; I will bow down toward your holy temple in awe of you. (v.7)
I will bow down in awe of You. The good green Earth is Your temple. I will look to the greatness of Your mercy. When it feels as though You are hiding, I will seek You. I will remember the wisdom of the Hasidic grandfather teach his grandson about You, when young Yechiel came home in tears because his friend had stopped looking for him in a game of hide-and-seek.
“Rebbe Barukh caressed Yechiel’s face, and with tears welling up in his eyes, he whispered softly, ‘God too Yechiel, God too is weeping. For, He too has been hidden with no one looking for Him’.” (Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim).
i used to run through fields laughing, blowing bubbles floating up, up, away off to Who-knows-where … now I watch the bubbles burst, burst, burst – dreams, illusions, hopes, bursting into air … time and death bursting all our bubbles for we are puffs of air but for a time … till some child runs again through fields of green, blowing bubbles that float … up and up … swelling, rising, not yet bursting each bubble its own never to be repeated self precious beyond belief … while we in our old age move toward the end of time evaporating into eternity Whence we came.
In times like these, it helps to step outside the box.
My canine friend Barclay and his predecessors, Maggie and Sebastian (RIP), offered an opportunity to see ourselves and others differently.
REFLECTIONS OF AN ALPHA DOG
I love dogs. No one loves dogs more than I, except for Mark, and he and his latest golden retriever are in Maine. Like Mark, I have to have a dog! Living with Barclay, I’ve noticed the same thing I saw with Maggie and Sebastian.
Barclay is calmest when the Alpha Dog establishes and maintains authority: Heel Sit! Stay. Down. Off. Leave it. Fetch. Get the ball! Drop it.
Barclay loves his human Alpha Dog. It’s in his nature to submit to the pack’s Alpha Dog.
Without an Alpha Dog, Barclay is a mess.
We tell ourselves we’re not canines; we’re human beings. We’re not members of a pack, and we don’t have Alpha Dogs. We arethe Alpha Dogs who give the commands that house-train Maggie not to look you in the eye and squat on the Persian rug, and Sebastian and Barclay to lift their legs on fire hydrants instead of the legs of the dining room table. The Alpha Dog’s house is not their ‘loo‘, as the British say.
Dogs seem happiest when the pack’s Alpha Dog has established clear limits and boundaries.
HUMANS, PACKS, AND ALPHA DOGS
Living with Maggie, Sebastian, and Barclay while obsessing over events in the U.S.A. recently lead me to wonder: Is there much difference between canines and humans? Are we also pack animals in need of an Alpha Dog?
Members of 12-Step groups answer yes. They join anonymous packs whose participants recognize that an addiction has taken over their lives — “My name is Bob/Harriet, and I’m an alcoholic/heroin addict” — and encourage each other in their shared day-by-day surrender to a higher power, however each member defines it.
Twelve-Step programs do not have a theology, but they do have an anthropology and a philosophy that runs counter to a dominant culture which, if is certain about anything, it’s that we’re not members of a dog pack. We don’t submit to anything; we’re the Alpha Dogs!
PARTS TWO and THREE
Part Two will look through the eyes of Paul Tillich, Willem Zuurdeeg, and Karl Barth as their wisdom applies the American scene in 2019.
Thanks for dropping by. Leave a comment, if you wish, to widen and deepen the conversation.
From the pulpit I could see him in the last pew. He always arrived late — usually during the first hymn — and left early, during the last hymn. Some people prefer to be anonymous, for all kinds of reasons.
For months, I wondered who he was.
Then, one day, he stayed through the closing hymn, the benediction, and what we Presbyterians call “The Charge” to follow in the way of Christ that begins, “Go into the world in peace; have courage . . . .”
“Go into the world in peace; have courage; hold to what is good; do not return evil for evil; strengthen the faint-hearted; support the weak; help the suffering; honor all people; love and serve the Lord rejoicing in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.”
He heard the words but left as quickly as before.
Then, one day, he found the courage to introduce himself at the door. As best I can recall, he said with a smile, “You may have wondered who I am. “My name is Sam. I’m dying of AIDS.”
Sam was my up-close-and-personal introduction to AIDS and the HIV/AIDS community. Months later, he became the first and only patient to offer me the Charge and Benediction.
Thank you, Sam, for your courage, for keeping the light of faith burning where others sought to blow it out, and for your gracious Charge and Benediction. Rest in peace.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
— “Morning Mist Over the Creek” by Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL Feb. 6, 2013
Steve Shoemaker (RIP) was the Views from the Edge colleague whose verses and poems, written in the middle of the night, were sent to “his publisher” from his iPhone before dawn. Five of Steve’s verses/poems are republished in Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness. At six-feet eight inches, he towered above the crowd. In this photo, his 6’8″ frame rests on a 1,000+ year-old Bristlecone Pine above the tree line. – GCS
“Poetry is the impish attempt to paint the color of the wind.” –Maxwell Bodenheim, quoted in Ben Hecht’s play Winkelberg (1958).
This sermon was written for a congregation of one the first Sunday after stepping out of the pulpit five years ago.
First Sunday in Advent, 2014 Texts: Isaiah 64:1-9 Mark 13:24-37
“And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” [attributed to Jesus, Gospel of Mark 13:37].
It’s hard to stay awake in times like these. To be conscious includes grief, helplessness, anger at the state of the nation and world, and the stupidity of the human race.
“Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” is supposed to bring comfort but it doesn’t, unless the heaven and earth of which Jesus speaks are the ones our pride has created. The imaginary ones. The heavenly and earthly projects that rise out of human insecurity as in the Genesis story of Babel, the story of what never was but always is, according to which the building of the ideal city is interrupted and the tower “with its top in the heavens” is “left off”. But the Word – the story about it – has not passed away. It endures. As fresh today as it was when first shared around a campfire as a way of telling each generation the respective places of God and man (humankind).
Fourteen years after the World Trade Towers collapsed in NYC, a new tower, “One World Trade Center” – taller, stronger, bolder – stands where the old towers fell on 9/11. One World Trade Center, symbolizes a resurrection of the crashed myth. Standing a few blocks from Wall Street, where the global economy is reconstructed every day, One World Trade Center resurrects the myth of national supremacy, benign goodness, and virtue of the American economic system.
We could have left Ground Zero empty of monoliths. Turned it into a memorial and monument to the error of pride, a turning away from global arrogance. A repentance from the economic-military-religious complex that has expropriated the oil fields in the Middle East, assassinated the elected President of Iran in 1958, installed the Shah in his place, ignored the human rights of Palestinians, supported and installed western-friendly oligarchies and strong men in Saudi Arabia, Iraq (Saddam Hussein), Libya (Muammar Gaddafi), and Egypt (Hosni Mubarak) until, except for Saudi Arabia, they turned against us.
Instead of listening to the word that does not pass away, we Americans, to the sorrow of New Yorkers like Michael Kimmelman (NY Times, Nov. 29, 2014), opted for the old words and worn-out scripts that had failed us. The Democratic Spring in Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia did not do what the NeoCon exporters of Western democracy had imagined. It unleashed a seething volcano of anti-American resentment. Meanwhile, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, have become desert quagmires – Vietnams without the jungles.
Eisenhower’s last speech to the nation warning of an emerging military-industrial complex is all but forgotten as One World Trade Center stands like a phoenix raised up…and up…and up from the ashes, symbol of global dominance resurrected from the horrifying deadly collapse of 9/11.
Words and symbols are everything in this world.
Mr. Kimmelman opines, “But it [i.e. the World Trade Center] never really connected with the rest of Lower Manhattan. There had been talk after Sept. 11 about the World Trade Center re-development including housing, culture and retail, capitalizing on urban trends and the growing desire for a truer neighborhood, at a human scale, where the windswept plaza at the foot of the twin towers had been.”
It’s all about human scale. A plaza. Not a tower with its top in the heavens.
Staying awake is hard. Being attuned to what is not passing away takes faith. It takes hope. Maybe even love.
“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near.” [Mark 13:28]
Jesus often seems to have said that the word we need to hear is spoken by nature. Learn from the fig tree. It waits through the dormant season to become tender again, to put forth its leaves toward summer and the production of figs. Nature is calling. Nature is our home. Nature is what is – the real heaven and earth – the word that will not pass away, the word that will survive when we are gone. We need to love nature again. Awaken to nature. Re-imagine ourselves as part of nature, “creatures” among the multitude of creatures. Our words will pass away, even the best of them. Our Creator’s will not.
During this most puzzling of seasons – the Season of Advent, the season of wakeful, wait-ful anticipation of a Coming in fullness – I find myself crying out like Isaiah. It feels something as though “you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.” [Isaiah 64:7]
“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence—as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil– to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations [the ethnoi in NT Greek, i.e. the peoples] might tremble at your presence!” [Isaiah 64:1-2]
The “nations” have always been God’s adversaries, closed in on themselves, puffed up, defensive against intruders foreign and domestic, plunderers of nature and other nations, hostile to the foreigner, both human and Divine.
In this season of “economic recovery” when the poor continue to get poorer, the rich get richer, and the middle class shrinks, and the climate change clock ticks closer to midnight, deliver us, Good Lord, from “the hand of our own iniquity”.
Remember, “O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.” [Isaiah 64:8]
This word is the only word that lasts. Stay awake, my soul. Stay awake to the whole of it – all of it: the sorrow and the grief of it, the loneliness of it, the anger of it, the guilt of it, the finger pointing out and away and the finger pointing back at me, a nation to myself, and the presence of the Potter – and my soul will be well, new and fresh every morning.
Gordon C. Stewart, Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (Wipf and Stock, 2017) available on Amazon in kindle and paperback, Chaska, MN, First Sunday of Advent, November 30, 2019.
“Every violation of truth is not only a sort of suicide in the liar, but is a stab at the health of human society,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson in “Prudence,” Essays: First Series (1841).
I imagine Emerson quietly applauding Fiona Hill boldly calling out the false narrative that stabs at the health of democracy in her testimony before the U.S. House Intelligence Committee’s Trump impeachment inquiry.
PARTISAN PROPAGANDA: THE BIG LIE
“The great masses of people . . . will more easily fall victim to a big lie than to a small one.”
Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf (1924), 1.10.
MAKING THE WIND APPEAR SOLID
“Political language . . . is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to the wind.”
George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language,” Shooting the Elephant (1950).
TRUTH AND FALSEHOOD
“Man can certainly keep on lying (and does so), but he cannot make truth falsehood.”
Karl Barth quoted in The New York Times obituary, December 11, 1968.
TRUTH NEEDS NO PROPAGANDA
If there has always been propaganda in some form, from the time of the modest newspapers of the seventeenth century it has developed with a new speed and to a new degree, as new and more effective instruments have been found and brought into use. One should note that the truth needs no propaganda and does not engage in it. As the truth, it simply speaks for itself and opposes falsehood. Propaganda is a sure sign that what is at issue is not the truth but an ideology which needs it, to whose nature it corresponds, and which is not ashamed to make use of it.
Karl Barth, “The Lordless Powers,” The Christian Life, translated by Geoffrey W. Bromley, p.227.
Propaganda and National Security
Continued promotion of a self-serving false narrative under the guise of patriotic concern for national security puts American national security at risk.
A subsequent Views from the Edge commentary will explore what Karl Barth‘s “lordless powers” and Christian scripture calls “principalities and powers.”
Gordon C. Stewart, November 23, Chaska, MN, Nov. 23, 2019.
Guys don’t do sleepovers. Or so I thought reading A Plan this morning . . . until I stopped to think.
Four (4) ‘Old Dogs’ (seminary classmates who have maintained friendship through the years) do five-night sleepovers every year. Once there were seven (7). Now there are four (4).
We arrive at the annual ‘Gatherings’ limping on replaced knees with hips and memories in need of repair, bearing matches to light the fire, a Book of Common Prayer, and a Fifth or two . . . to make four equal seven again.
There’s nothing like a sleepover celebration with old friends. Some are confident that the departed — Wayne, Steve, and Dale — are still with us around the fire. Others need the help of a Fifth or a few Seven-and-Sevens to get four to equal seven.
What I had come to know (by feeling only) was that the [GATHERING]’s true being, you might say, was a sort of current, like an underground flow of water, except that the flowing was in all directions and yet did not flow away. When it rose into your heart and throat, you felt joy and sorrow at the same time, and the joining of times and lives. To come into the presence of the [Gathering] was to know life and death, and to be near in all your thoughts to laughter and to tears.
“Mr. Trump did not directly tell me to lie to Congress. That’s not how he operates. He doesn’t give you questions, he doesn’t give you orders, he speaks in a code. And I understand the code, because I’ve been around him for a decade.”
— Michael Cohn, Feb. 27, 2019 testimony before Congress.
SPEAKING IN CODE
Although Michael Cohen knew of his boss’s business dealings in Russia, Mr. Trump often said in Michael’s presence that he had no business ties in Russia. Michael, his lawyer-fixer for 10 years, understood what he meant. It wasn’t a statement of fact. It was code for an order: Deny any connection with Russia.
“They’ve got him — credible witnesses, documents, and who knows what else. In all my years as a prosecutor, I’ve never seen such an open-and-shut case.” — U.S. Attorney General Elliot Richardson’s announcement to President Nixon of the results of the federal investigation of bribery. The case was resolved with a quid pro quo: Quid: Vice President Agnew would resign with a plea “no contest”; Quo: the Vice President would not go to prison.
Today is the day after an exhausting day for many Americans. It’s the day after the day that began with congressional impeachment hearings and ended with the latest presidential candidates debates. The day after our heads spun seems a good day to reach back to taste the sweetness of wisdom.
THE ART OF WORLDLY WISDOM
Never exaggerate. It is a matter of great importance to forego superlatives, in part to avoid offending the truth, and in part to avoid cheapening your judgment. Exaggeration wastes distinction and testifies to the paucity of your understanding and taste. Praise excites anticipation and stimulates desire. Afterwards when value does not measure up to price, disappointment turns against the fraud and takes revenge by cheapening both the appraised and the appraise. For this reason let the prudent go slowly, and err in understatement rather than overstatement. The extraordinary of every kind is always rare, wherefore temper your estimate.”