About Gordon C. Stewart

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.

This incessant business

Featured

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

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

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

Henry David ThoreauHenry David Thoreau wrote in 1863:

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

[Henry David Thoreau, Life Without Principle, 1863]

 

 

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

  • Gordon C. Stewart, April 27, 2017,

 

Reviews as a dating service

Featured

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grace and Peace,

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

Christopher Smart was Smart

Featured

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then the fifth stanza:

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

O Solitude again command your host from heaven restored!

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

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

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

Christopher Smart was smart.

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

Vive la France?

Featured

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Earth Day 2017 in France and the USA

Featured

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Albert Einstein

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

The woman outside the window

Featured

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

The Make-Up Artist

Featured

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

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

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

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

I wish to Heaven this was all made up.

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

A Review and a Request

Featured

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

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

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

Thanks for considering and have a great day!

Gordon in Chaska, MN, April 19, 2017.

 

 

Jesus’s Last Wish

Featured

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

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

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

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

Brooklyn_Museum_-_What_Our_Lord_Saw_from_the_Cross_(Ce_que_voyait_Notre-Seigneur_sur_la_Croix)_-_James_Tissot

“What Jesus saw from the cross” – James Tissot

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

1.”I thirst,”

2.”It is finished,” and

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Beyond an intelligent hell or a stupid paradise

Featured

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dothan writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ye Choirs of New Jerusalem” Charles V.  Stanford

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

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

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

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