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.

Miracle. All of it. (This Year on Earth)

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Live & Learn’s post “Miracle. All of It. (This Year on Earth” brings together changes to Earth in 2018  with the ancient wonder of Ptolemy and Albert Einstein.

In 2018,

  • Earth picked up about 40,000 metric tons of interplanetary material, mostly dust, much of it from comets.
  • Earth lost around 96,250 metric tons of hydrogen and helium, the lightest elements, which escaped to outer space.
  • Roughly 505,000 cubic kilometers of water fell on Earth’s surface as rain, snow, or other types of precipitation.
  • Bristlecone pines, which can live for millennia, each gained perhaps a hundredth of an inch in diameter.
  • Countless mayflies came and went.
  • More than one hundred thirty-six million people were born in 2018, and more than fifty-seven million died.
  • Tidal interactions are very slowly increasing the distance between Earth and the moon, which ended 2018 about 3.8 centimeters further apart than they were at the beginning. As a consequence, Earth is now rotating slightly more slowly; the day is a tiny fraction of a second longer.
  • Earth and the sun are also creeping apart, by…

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The Return of the Night Visitor

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He slinks down Pennsylvania Avenue, head down in a hoodie at 3:00 A.M., disguised as a homeless man, escaping the watchful eye of the Secret Service and the television cameras, returning to the dilapidated tenement in the poorest part of the city.

FBI Unabomber sketch

The tenement dweller who owns nothing has been waiting for him since their last visit. The apartment door is ajar, as it always is, in anticipatory welcome of all the homeless.

“Welcome, Donald. I wondered when we’d have another visit.” As he had during the first visit, he lifts the Donald’s heavy coat from his slumping shoulders, and points to the two chairs he’s rescued from dumpsters in the city’s wealthier neighborhoods. A diminutive folding wood chair and the high red-leather wingback face each other in the small room. The guest pauses … and, unlike the first visit, chooses the high wingback.

As at the first visit, the room is dimly lit by a small table lamp, the kind of late night or early morning ambiance that creates calm and invites intimate conversation. The tenement dweller takes his seat in the folding chair. They sit in silence, the visitor’s hoodie still covering his head, not wanting to be seen, but wanting to be seen.

“I’ve been concerned, Donald. You’ve been tweeting a lot again. You’re feeling very alone. And you’ve shut down the government over the wall. What’s that about?”

“I can’t sleep. The family’s left for Florida. I’m alone here with the maids, the cooks and the butlers. My mind won’t stop. I watch television but it’s only making things worse. Even my favorite news channel has begun to turn on me.”

“What brings you here at this hour of the morning?

“I don’t know.” The table lamp flickers.

“It feels pretty dark, doesn’t it?”

“Very dark. Very dark! The darkest ever!”

“Why is that?”

The visitor lowers his head, like a guilty child confessing to his parents. “I have all the power in the world but I’m helpless to help myself. I can’t stop tweeting. It’s like it’s not real. I could destroy the world with the push of a button. I’ve shut down the government. The power scares me. And there are all these investigations. My mind never stops. I can’t sleep.”

The tenement dweller in the small folding wood chair sits quietly in the hush that comes when truth has been spoken. His eyes are full of compassion for the homeless man who had opted for the big red leather wingback. The visitor has regressed since their first visit. His need for self-assurance has grown worse. The walls have gone up.

“Remember our last visit, Donald? Your disguise is not a disguise? Do you watch ‘Ray Donovan‘?

Ray Donovan

“No. Why? Who’s Ray Donovan?”

“Ray’s a lot like you, Donald. He’s running from what happened in childhood. Ray was abused by the man he most trusted: his parish priest. He’s not been the same since. Ray built a wall around his heart. He became a hit man. He’s cruel. But inside those high walls? He’s very tender. He’s homeless within his own wall.”

From his small, folding wood chair, the tenement dweller reaches out his hand; the night visitor responds from the big red leather wingback. They sit quietly in the silence before the host lifts Donald’s heavy coat up to his lightened shoulders and watches the night visitor return to his homeless place on Pennsylvania Avenue. He hears Ray Donovan singing on the street outside his tenement:

“Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling—
  Calling for you and for me;
Patiently Jesus is waiting and watching—
  Watching for you and for me!
“Come home! come home!
  Ye who are weary, come home!
Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling,
    Calling, O sinner, come home!”
Will Lamartine Thompson (1847-1909)

The tenement dweller smiles at the sound. But he knows it won’t be long before he comes back.

Nicodemus and Jesus on a rooftop, Tanner, Henry Ossawa, 1859-1937
Nicodemus and Jesus on a rooftop, Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937)

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, March 12, 2017.

the miraculous, every day in winter, not 15 feet from my window

red-birds-at-feeder

To the Editor:

Re “The Solace of Birds in Winter” (Op-Ed, Dec. 15): I am smitten with my backyard birds. What is it about the industrious little souls leaping delicately about my tray feeder that so lifts the spirit? Their spunk? Their equanimity no matter the weather? The variety in their eating habits?

Mourning doves plunk themselves down in the center of the tray to chow down. The red-bellied woodpecker grips the edge and won’t yield his position. The chickadees and nuthatches take a seed each, one at a time, to a nearby branch to nibble.

A chickadee weighs less than half an ounce. Its coat of feathers, half an inch thick, keeps its tiny body at about 90 degrees even when the air temperature is zero. It is this, then, that takes my breath away and is the source of my affection — the miraculous, every day in winter, not 15…

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A Lover’s Quarrel with the World

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Robert Frost epitaph, Bennington, NH

Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall” springs up over morning coffee in winter time. It’s white outside, dark, and cold. I think of “Mending Wall” where, after a hard winter, two neighbors repair the gaps in the stone wall between the pine side and the apple orchard side of the wall.

There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, "Good fences make good neighbours."
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
"Why do they make good neighbours? Isn't it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down."
-- Robert Frost, "Mending Wall" lines 24-37

From the pine side of the wall, Christmas Eve, 2018:

"I am all alone (poor me) 
in the White House
waiting for the Democrats
to come back and make
a deal on desperately needed
Border Security,"
  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, December 27, 2018.

“and there arose such a clatter. . . “

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The Word that cannot be domesticated keeps showing up in the strangest places, even where the culture has turned the crucified Jesus into a plastic babe in a manger. Or Santa Claus, at whose coming “there arose such a clatter . . . .” (A Visit from Saint Nicholas). But sometimes the Word that makes such a clatter comes from a pulpit, as it did this Christmas Eve where two unexpected visitors came to kneel before the manger at the National Cathedral (Episcopal) in Washington, D.C.

Click HERE to read and listen Ari Shapiro’s interview with Bishop Mariann Budde on NPR.

Nativity scene, date unknown (Meister von Hoenfurth)

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as, the curse is found.

He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders, wonders, of His love. – Joy to the World.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night,

— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, December 26, 2018.

Treat Yourself This Morning

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The morning of Christmas Eve is a treasured moment in our household. We listen to The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, England on National Public Radio (NPR).

The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols airs live this morning at 10:00 EST in the USA. Put on the headphones, tune out everything else, and enjoy the sounds of reverence and praise.

Merry Christmas from our home to yours.

God bless us, every one,

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, December 24, 2018.

Tell Out My Soul

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Tell out, my soul, the greatness of His might!
Powers and dominions lay their glory by;
Proud hearts and stubborn wills are put to flight
;
The hungry fed, the humble lifted high.

“Tell Out My Soul” rang out across the world yesterday, the last Sunday of Advent and the first Sunday of the government shut-down in the USA. The third stanza (above) expresses a timeless and timely hope.

In the immortal words of Timothy Cratchet (Tiny Tim) to Ebenezer Scrooge’s “Bah, humbug!” (A Christmas Carol): “God bless us, every one!”

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, December 23, 2018.

You Tyrant!

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Recalling Steve Shoemaker’s post “A Song for Each Kind of Day” after returning to the habit of reading the Psalms each morning, I am stunned by the aptness of the Psalm for today.

The Psalms are existential in nature. They are profoundly personal, but they also address public life. They give voice to the heart’s desire in a given time and place — our thanksgivings, yearning, exultations, lamentations, and cries against injustice. Often they are the poet’s responses to public life in the light of faith.

THAT’S NOT NICE!

You tyrant, 

why do you boast of wickedness 

against the godly all day long?

 You plot ruin;

Your tongue is like a sharpened razor,

O worker of deception.

 You love evil more than good

and lying more than speaking the truth.

You love all words that hurt,

O you deceitful tongue.

 Oh that God would demolish you utterly,

topple you, and snatch you from your dwelling,

and root you out of the land of the living!

 The righteous shall see and tremble, 

and they shall laugh at him, saying,

“This is the one who did not take God for a refuge,

but trusted in great wealth

and relied upon wickedness.”

  • Psalm 52:1-7 (Book of Common Prayer)

Psalm 52 isn’t nice. The psalmist knew nothing of Watergate or the Mueller investigation, or Donald J. Trump. Nor was he imbued with an ethic that told him not to judge, to be kind, to watch his tongue, to believe that all’s right with the world because God’s in His heaven or the claim everything happens for a reason.The psalmist is not a fatalist or a determinist. He holds sacred his personal responsibilty for public life. His life is not his own. He knows himself to be a member of a commonwealth. When the integrity of the commonwealth comes under threat, his heart must speak.


BREAKFAST WITH A PSALMIST

Former U.S. Attorney General Elliot Richardson is remembered for “the Saturday Night Massacre” when he resigned his office, refusing to obey President Richard Nixon’s order to fire Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox. 

NYTimes_Saturday_Night_Massacre.jpegYears later, Elliot Richardson came to Minneapolis as the featured speaker at the Westminster Town Hall Forum. As was the custom, he moderator and the guest speaker enjoyed conversation over breakfast the morning of the Forum. At his initiation, the convsersation turned to religion. He was writing a book, occasioned in part by the growing public agreement with John Lennon’s “Imagine There’s No Religion,” arguing that, if the slate of human history were wiped clean of religion, we would re-create it in a heartbeat because it’s in our nature. Searching Amazon’s listing of Richardson’s books, it appears it was never published. If we had the opportunity again all these years later, I would ask him if he had crawled inside Psalm 52 before he took the leap of faith that made him a hero of personal conscience and public intergrity.

ONLY A POEM (A PSALM) 

Some things are matters of the heart. Some things in public life pierce the heart so deepLy; some sins against the commonwealth are so egregious; some wealth is so obscene; some abuses of power against the commonwealth so obvious, that only a poem (a psalm) says what we feel. There is a psalm for this kind of day.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, on the wetland, Dec. 18, 2018

Habits and Inspiration

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I’ve never been a big fan of habits. In spite of what Octavia Butler believes — “Habit will sustain you, whether inspired or not” — I have scorned habits in favor of a more creative, spontaneous, non-habitual life. But this morning I came to my senses. I’ve not been inspired, and I’ve gotten out of a habit that sometimes brings inspiration.

Elijah joy IMG_9566

Elijah

I’ve felt like the psalmist . . .  or like poor little Elijah just 24 hours ago when he couldn’t keep anything down. Not even the Gatorade. When a joyful 19 month-old child gets sick, he doesn’t know what hit him. Sometimes his 76 year-old grandfather doesn’t know either.

Some viruses can’t be seen under a microscope. Some illnesses require more than an Internist’s diagnosis. Their origins defy medical explanation and resist our usual remedies: a stiff drink, an anti-depressant, vitamin and mineral supplements, exercise, or a change of diet. Which is where habits come in.

It’s been weeks since I got out of the habit of morning prayer. Flailing about at four o’clock this morning, I remember the line from Chaim Potok’s The Chosen: it’s the four-o’clock-in-the-morning questions that trouble us over a lifetime. I’ve gotten out of the habit of greeting the day with readings from the Book of Common Prayer (BCP), spending a quiet time pondering the psalms and other readings assigned by a calendar prescribed by doctors of the soul. I need to return to a healthy diet.

My best friend is hospitalized, awaiting surgery required by complications from pancreatic cancer. His time is limited. So is mine. Fifty-four years of friendship soon to vanish like the morning mist. Whatever happens today on the operating table, it won’t be long before one of us is gone. I open the BCP. “What profit is there in my blood, if I go down to the Pit? Will the dust praise you or declare your faithfulness? Hear, O LORD, and have mercy upon me; O LORD, be my helper,” cries the psalmist (Psalm 30:10-11, BCP), recognizing that there is no quick fix for what ails him.

My friend knows this feeling. He also has a habit that serves him well when the raindrops keep falling on his head. When the four-o’clock-in-the-morning clouds and torrential rains come over him, he turns, as do I this morning, to that which he has not made up, and crawls inside the psalmist’s faith that “weeping may spend the night, but joy comes in the morning” (Ps. 30:6, BCP).

Returning to the habit I’d neglected, I read the psalm again and pray for my friend. But I’m not seeing my friend. I’m seeing someone else. I’m looking at Elijah. He has crawled inside his mother’s watchful care…in the bathtub. He is smiling, playing, and splashing the bath water with no hint of memory of last night when he couldn’t even keep down the Gatorade.

“You have turned my wailing into dancing; you have put off my sack-cloth and clothed me with joy. Therefore my heart sings to you without ceasing; O LORD my God, I will give you thanks for ever” (Ps. 30:12-13. BCW).

— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, December 15, 2018.

Escape at Dannemora

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Watching the first episode of Showtime’s new series Escape at Dannemora was a de ja vu experience. The small town of Dannemora, tucked away in the far northeast corner of New York State, had been invisible to the public eye until June 6, 2015 when two inmates escaped from the town’s principal employer, the state penitentiary, Clinton Correctional Facility.

Clinton_correctional_facility,_Dannemora,_NY,_2007

Clinton Correctional Facility, Dannamora, NY

How I learned of Martin Sostre

It was during the weekly Wednesday evening programs and visits with inmates at Dannemora that I learned about the case of Martin Gonzalez Sostre. Martin, who had owned and operated a radical black liberation bookstore in Buffalo, NY, insisted on his innocence, claiming he was a prisoner of conscience framed by a police set-up. Before his transfer to Dannemora from Attica, Martin he had filed and won the human rights court case — Sostre v. Rockefeller — that ruled against the routine practice of rectal searches following prisoner visitations with family and friends. Transferred from Attica to “New York’s Siberia” Dannemora, Martin continued to refuse all visitations. He was held in solitary confinement without access to anyone beyond the prison walls. A campaign for Martin’s release and pardon was happening without the benefit of direct access to Martin.

Martin Sostre and the Book of Revelation

No book of Christian scripture is more egregiously abused than the last book in the New Testament. The Apocalypse of John (Book of Revelation) is read as though it were a palm reader or a crystal ball. It wasn’t. Its author was a prisoner of conscience held by the Roman Empire on the Isle of Patmos. It was then, and is now, a work of social criticism expressed in the strange apocalyptic literary genre of its time. It’s not about the future. It’s about now.

The new series on the escape from Dannemora takes me back to my time with the inmates and guards within the prison walls, and the published sermon that came from that experience. Below are excerpts from the sermon at the Gunnison Memorial Chapel of St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York inspired by a prisoner of conscience named Martin Sostre and a fresh reading of The Book of Revelation through the eyes of the oppressed. The sermon “Worship and Resistance: the Exercise of Freedom,” was published soon after by The Christian Century (March, 1974).

“Worship and Resistance” links the case of Martin Gonzalez Sostre’s imprisonment in solitary confinement at Clinton Correctional Facility with the witness of faith by the prisoner of conscience in his own kind of solitary confinement on the Isle of Patmos. Dannemora is its own kind of island, known by inmates across the State of New York Correctional System, as “New York’s Siberia” — “the Hell Hole” of the New York prison system.

Excerpts from “Worship and Resistance: The Exercise of Freedom”

“Incarcerated on the Aegean Island of Patmos, a penal settlement of the Roman Empire in the first century A.D., was a political prisoner named John. He wrote a political-religious manifesto declaring open resistance to the Roman Empire. The Revelation to John – the Apocalypse, the last book of the Bible – is the earliest extant Christian tract deliberately and openly directed against the pretensions of the world’s greatest power. In the Revelation to John, resistance to Roman power and authority is so inextricably bound together with worship of God that they constitute two sides of the same coin. Worship and resistance are the twin sides of faith’s freedom to celebrate God’s gift of life. The unity of resistance and worship is expressed with notable clarity in the passage where the fall of mighty Babylon occasions a celebration in heaven. The destruction of Babylon is joined to the salvation of the world itself and is the sign of God’s power and righteous rule over the nations. Only those who profit by Babylon’s wealth, power and injustice have reason to mourn her fall, while those who have ‘come out of her’ – who have disentangled themselves from her oppression, corruption and imperial claims – have cause to worship and sing joyful hymns of praise.”

+++

William Stringfellow

William Stringfellow

“Babylon is the state or nation in its presumption to be God. Babylon is any state, nation, or constellation of principalities and powers, which attempts to rule as final judge of persons and nations. Babylon is any such power – in any time or place – which makes its people subjects, calling them into idolatry of the nations, and any state or nation that persecutes its prophets of righteousness, peace and justice while rewarding the aggressive supporters and the silent ones who acquiesce. America is Babylon.” –William Stringfellow, An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land.

“Envision once more a visit to Clinton Correctional Facility. Remember the disorienting sensation of having left everything familiar on the other side of the wall, the feeling of walking out of a real world into a nightmare, the shock induced by the size of the walls and the presence of the guards – strange and terrifying.

“But the closer one gets to the prison reality, the more one comes to realize that it is not so strange, that it is simply a more exaggerated and visible form of our own everyday reality in the face of death. Here on the outside, the walls are not visible, but they are much higher. Out here the guards do not stand poised with machine guns, but they are real and far more powerful – the guards our own fears provide.”
+++
“Then I heard another voice from heaven saying, ‘Come out of her, my people, lest you take part in her sins…’” (Rev. 18:4 RSV).

Meeting Martin Face-to-Face

Martin Sostre

Martin Gonzalez Sostre

Sometime following the sermon at Gunnison Memorial Chapel, a Dannemora guard informed us during the Wednesday visits with prisoners that Martin had been transferred temporarily to the Federal Detention Center in lower Manhattan, NYC, as a witness in someone else’s trial.  Unlike the state system, there are no body searches after visitations in the federal system. Martin would be free to accept visitors.

As a “man of the cloth” it fell to me to attempt a face-to-face visit on behalf of the committee working for Martin’s release. I drove the eight hours to lower Manhattan,  put on my clerical collar and presented myself to the kindly woman at the Detention Center reception desk as Martin’s pastor, hoping that 1) the prison officials would be unaware that Martin was not a Christian, and 2) Martin himself would accept the visitation from a complete stranger who claimed to be his pastor. A description of the experience just before the face-to-face visit appeared previously on Views from the Edge. Click “Robert” Who? for that part of the story.

The Release of Martin Sostre

In December 1973 Amnesty International put Sostre on its “prisoner of conscience” list, stating: “We became convinced that Martin Sostre has been the victim of an international miscarriage of justice because of his political beliefs . . . not for his crimes.” In addition to numerous defense committees in New York State, a Committee to Free Martin Sostre, made up of prominent citizens, joined in an effort to publicize Sostre’s case and petition the New York Governor Hugh Carey for his release. On December 7, 1975, Russian Nobel Peace Laureate Andrei Sakharov added his name to the clemency appeal. Governor Carey granted Sostre clemency on Christmas Eve of 1975; Sostre was released from prison in February 1976. Governor Carey eventually issued a pardon. — Wikipedia.

Worship and resistance are two sides of the same coin.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, December 16, 2018