Taking Heart in Heartless Times

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1Nessan

Rev. Dr. Craig L. Nessen

by Craig L. Nessan

Wartburg Theological Seminary

Dubuque, Iowa

“I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take heart; I have conquered the world!” John 16:33

We live in unprecedented times. Polarizing discourse, red versus blue, the failure of public reasoning, name calling, and denial of facts are the order of the day. The post-modern yields to the post-truth era. Some political leaders simply make it up as they go along.

There is a public heartlessness evident about the needs of others, especially the most vulnerable, that concludes with repeated assertions of privileged self-interest. Public discourse is diverted daily from focusing on the needs of those in harm’s way, including the well-being of creation. In the church many contend that it is useless even to try and engage in civil conversation about what makes for the common good.

All this unfolds in a world of enormous and increasing disparity in wealth between an economic elite and those struggling to make ends meet. This economic disparity is visible everywhere, in every state and local community. Moreover, it is the secret in plain sight behind the movement of people across borders, the unprecedented numbers of displaced persons and refugees.

The need for political advocacy is urgent. Yet it is extremely hard to know where to begin. There appear a dozen new issues or tweets each day against which to react. It becomes crucial to search out reliable information, as from church based advocacy organizations, to help us discern wisely in this political moment. In my own analysis I seek to distinguish between what might be considered the “substantive agenda” of the current administration, which primarily has to do with executive orders and legislative initiatives intended to increase private profit for a few, and the symbolic agenda, especially designed to daze, distract, and confuse us.

To make this distinction is not, however, to minimize the harmful effects of the symbolic agenda, grounded in a white male identity politics that operates in binary categories to incite fear, anger, and hatred against all categories of difference, whether based on race, gender, sexual orientation, immigration status, or religion, especially against Muslims. By contrast to this white male identity politics, we seek to articulate and enact a neighbor politics, embracing of all, especially the marginalized.

In these heartless times we are called actively to participate in spiritual disciplines, in order to reduce our reactivity and seek to remain oriented to the mind and character of Jesus Christ. How does one remain centered and grounded in these heartless times? How does one remain rooted in the peace of Jesus Christ, taking heart and courage amid the whirlwind?

The mystical and political always belong together. Consider the witness of Mahatma Gandhi and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., Gustavo Gutiérrez and Elsa Tamez, Walter Brueggemann and Elizabeth Johnson. As with Jesus, prayer and praxis belong together. Retreat for prayer leads to prophetic engagement: acts of healing, feeding, exorcizing, welcoming, sharing, and publicly demonstrating. The rhythm of the Christian life is both inward and outward.

“Radix,” the origin of “radical” means going to the root of the matter in a twofold movement—the mystical as inward movement and the political as outward movement. Both movements are needful. Counter-intuitively, a heartless political climate makes the inward mystical movement even more needful.

The Mystical

How do we move ever more deeply into relationship with God?

Spiritual practices draw us into the depths of classical disciplines. Personal practices include prayer, meditation, walking, breathing. Communal practices encompass worship, study, dwelling in the Word. Practices that involve colleagues lend us encouragement and accountability in life-giving relationships

Spiritual practices and worship contribute to a mysticism of the ordinary, by which we detect the holy in what is right in front of us, even in what may appear chaotic in these heartless times. We need to attune the eyes to see and the ears to hear.

Hearing the Word of Christ in Scripture stories and participating in sacraments at worship provide the lens for recognizing divine presence in the everyday. Liturgy entails formation in life practices: truth telling, peacemaking, listening, confessing, interceding, offering thanks, welcoming, feeding, and blessing. At worship we participate in the divine economy where all are welcome and there is enough for all. All of this provides the means for us to perceive the shalom of God in the commonplace, even in heartless times like these.

The Political

The mystical movement toward God always turns us inexorably toward political movement for the sake of our neighbors. In the Great Commandment the vertical and horizontal dimensions are inextricable. Should we persist in efforts to provoke change from above? Yes, advocacy at the national and state levels remains essential. Following the guidance of trusted organizations—denominational advocacy organizations, Fellowship of Reconciliation, Bread for the World, 350.org, Amnesty International, and many others—remains imperative.

Even more in heartless times, however, we need to redouble efforts at change through organizing at the grassroots in local communities. Not only by making financial donations or sending advocacy letters, this means engaging people in one’s community. For all their limitations, congregations remain the most intact neighbor-directed communities on the local level, faith communities such as already exist in every locale across the country. We need to become very intentional and proactive in building coalitions with others in local communities—through one on one conversations, writing personal viewpoints for social media or in newspapers, and engaging in symbolic actions. When asked by a reporter whether he really thought that he could change the world by lighting a candle in a demonstration, A.J. Muste replied: “Oh, you’ve got it all wrong. I’m not doing this to change the country. I do it so the country won’t change me.”

The theory and practices of active nonviolent resistance are still in their infancy in human history, but these offer our best hope for lasting change in establishing the foundations for democracy and building up an equitable civil society. In this regard the research of Erica Chenowith and Maria Stephan published in their book, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, needs to become widely known.

I encourage us not to underestimate the ripples of difference our efforts can make, as we remain spiritually centered and especially as we join together in ecumenical and interfaith groups, as well as with all those ethically engaged but not religiously affiliated people who are committed to common good, reaching out to one neighbor at a time. We are called to create safe places and spaces of trust where people can be together, listen to each other, and learn from one other.

Taking Heart

While through the mystical movement we put on the mind and character of Christ—which is peacemaking, social justice, eco-justice, and respect for the inalienable dignity of each person—in the political movement we engage through reasoned and persuasive arguments that are not overburdened by religious jargon. In our public articulation we remain deeply grounded in faith, as strategically we may choose to express our political convictions in categories not freighted with explicit religious references. We do so to communicate effectively in the public square and to transcend the off-putting rhetoric of the religious right.

There are times and occasions for making explicit theological claims, as did Dr. King. Yet in this heartless time of excessively hyperbolic discourse, including that by religious people, we are called to communicate clearly through reasoned, publicly accessible language. In this polarized climate, where Christians are assumed to take regressive political stances, it is of even more value for Christians to make compelling arguments that are understandable to those who may not share our theological categories. This helps us move beyond the religious identity politics of the religious right to an expansive neighbor politics. This honors too what Bonhoeffer meant by the nonreligious interpretation of biblical concepts.

Finally, we are on this journey for life. We may not now see many signs of effectiveness, yet we take heart in even small signs of the kingdom’s appearance. As our bottom line we seek to live by integrity, searching to align our lives with the things of God in Christ, especially in times like these when we cannot see that it makes a difference. We trust that the things that make for peace, like generosity, a healthy creation, and human respect, are the things that last forever. In the words of Carrie Newcomer, in the end, only kindness matters.

 “And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”  Hebrews 10:24-25

  • Rev. Dr. Craig L. Nessan is Academic Dean & Professor of Contextual Theology and Ethics, The William D. Streng Professor for the Education and Renewal of the Church at Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa. Views from the Edge is pleased to have the honor of being the first to publish “Taking Heart in Heartless Times” with the author’s permission.

 

I want to be an olive tree

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I love olives. I love the Psalms. Well . . . some of them . . . some times. Partly. Like the Psalm that greeted me this morning at the cabin far from the news.

Old_olive_tree_in_Karystos,_Euboia,_Greece

Old olive tree in Karystos, Euboia, Greece

Maybe you’ll like it too.

Why do you boast of evil, you mighty man?
Why do you boast all day long,
you who are a disgrace in the eyes of God?
Your tongue plots destruction;
it is like a sharpened razor,
you who practice deceit.
You love evil rather than good,
falsehood rather than speaking the truth;

You love every harmful word,
O you deceitful tongue!

Surely God will bring you
down to everlasting ruin:
He will snatch you up and
tear you from your tent:
He will uproot you from
the land of the living.

The righteous will see and fear;
they will laugh at him, saying
“Here now is the man
who did not make God his stronghold
but trusted in his wealth
and grew strong by
destroying others!”

But I am like an olive tree
flourishing in the house of God . . . .
(Psalm 52:1-8a, NIV)

I am not righteous. But I do fear.

I just want to be an olive tree. Like the olive tree that produced the twig the dove brought back to the ark signaling to Noah that the flood was over.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, truck stop near cabin in northern MN, November 3, 2017.

 

Sermon: You shall see My back

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A sermon on The Book of Exodus 33:12-23 for Reformation Day celebrating the 500th Anniversary of the 16th Century Reformation, preached at Central Presbyterian Church, St. Paul, Minnesota.

With all that’s happening in the world these days, many thoughtful people wonder about the nature of God, or conclude there is no God, that the whole thing is a made-up story to serve our own purposes rather than seeing something real that cannot be seen.

“See, there is a place by Me” [says God to Moses in the wilderness] “where you shall stand on the rock; and while My glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with My hand until I have passed by; then I will take away My hand, and you shall see My back; but My face shall not be seen” (Ex. 33:22-23).

This strange reading from the Book of Exodus which puts a face on God —  God has no face, no hands, no feet — may just be the text to help us get reality straighter than we had before the crisis that imperils the human species itself: the onset of climate departure. Not just climate change, but climate departure, the point of no return to nature as we have known it. Maybe God has put us again in the cleft of the rock and is passing by. We only get to see God’s back.

While our hearts and minds are reeling on the edge of the abyss of despair over the rise of the KKK and the alt-right in Charlottesville, the hurricanes, floods, fires, and earthquakes in Houston, Puerto Rico, northern California, and Mexico City to say nothing of the inexplicable massacre of more than 500 concert-goers in Las Vegas while two little boys with matches in Washington and Phnom-pen play chicken with nuclear toys, we are like Moses in the wilderness pleading to see God’s glory. We are teetering on the edge of an abyss into which we dare not look.

“To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world,” wrote Karl Barth. Elsewhere he insisted that the God we know in Jesus Christ is essentially unknowable. So today we clasp our hands again asking about God, asking about what, if anything, is ultimately and finally Real. We only see God from the back, clasping our hands in prayer — the beginning of an uprising against the present disorder of the world.

Like Moses in the cleft of the rock — between a rock and a hard place — in the wilderness where nothing is certain — we have forgotten, to paraphrase our Lord, that “Humankind does not live by tweets alone…but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.”

In the Hebrew mind, to see someone’s face is to know them. But God says to Moses, “You cannot see My face and live. I will put you in the cleft of the rock, cover you with My hand and passed by. Only after I have passed by can you see My back.”

Why the back? Why not the face?

We are mortals who don’t want to be mortal, mammals who don’t want to be mammals. We are part of nature, not the masters of nature, not the exception to it. “You are dust,” says the Creator in Genesis, “and to dust you shall return.” Mammals are not meant to wake up with morning tweets from a mortal who can’t sleep and needs to hear Echo’s voice before breakfast and coffee.

We are living in the period of Narcissus of the Greek myth who dies because he cannot take his eyes off his reflection in the pond — his own face, his own image, his own glory.  A mere a mortal who must eat and drink to survive, Narcissus dies because to drink would have disturbed the pond in which he sees only himself. And, when he dies, a flower blooms on that very spot.

On this Reformation Sunday and the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, we do well to pay heed to a declaration that may strike us as curious: “Human nature is, so to speak, a perpetual factory of idols.”

Wait! Wait! Don’t tell me!     Who said that:

Bill Maher, Christopher Hitchens, or someone else?

Would you believe it was John Calvin, the much misunderstood 16th century reformer whose work was turned into stone by the Calvinists who mistook his face for God’s, turning his work into an idol?

The issue for Calvin and the Reformed theological tradition which is Central’s tradition, was not atheism. It wasn’t unbelief. It was idolatry. It was misplaced worship of the products, phantasms and fantasies produced by the human heart and mind, the substitutes for ultimate reality that command our worship.

Wait! Wait! Don’t tell me! Who said:

“The human mind, stuffed as it is with presumptuous rashness, dares to imagine a god suited to its own capacity; as it labors under dullness, nay, is sunk in the grossest ignorance, it substitutes vanity and an empty phantom in the place of God. To these evils another is added. The god whom man has thus conceived inwardly he attempts to embody outwardly. The mind, in this way, conceives the idol, and the hand gives it birth” —

Bill Maher, Christopher Hitchens, William Barber II, Cornel West, Elizabeth Warren, or John Calvin?

“I will cover you with My hand while I pass by. You can see me from the back.”

There is in the Hebrew Bible, and in the writings of Holocaust survivor Eli Wiesel, a profound sense of God’s absence as well as presence. By the time Moses gets to see God from the back, God has already passed by.

In the Lutheran and Reformed tradition from Luther to Calvin to Bonhoeffer to Bill McKibben, there is a long-standing recognition of God’s absence or hiddenness.  Listen to Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us. The God who makes us live in this world without using God as a working hypothesis is the god before whom we are standing. Before God and with God we live without God. God allows Himself to be edged out of the world and on to the cross. God is weak and powerless in the world, and that is exactly the way, the only way, in which God can be with us and help us. …

 Man’s religiosity makes him look in his distress to the power of God in the world; he uses God as a deus ex machina. The Bible, however, directs us to the powerlessness and suffering of God; only a suffering God can help. To this extent we may say that the process we have described by which the world came of age was an abandonment of the false conception of God, and a clearing of the decks for the God of the Bible, who conquers power and space in the world by his weakness. . .

 Humans are challenged to participate in the sufferings of God at the hands of a godless world. One must therefore plunge oneself into the life of a godless world, without attempting to gloss over its ungodliness with a veneer of religion or trying to transform it. . . To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way, to cultivate some particular form of asceticism. . . but to be a human being. It is not some religious act which makes a Christian what he is, but participation in the suffering of God in the life of the world.. . .

One must abandon every attempt to make something of oneself, whether it be a saint, a converted sinner, a churchman . . . This is what I mean by worldliness—taking life in stride, with all its duties and problems, its successes and failures, its experiences and helplessness. It is in such a life that we throw ourselves utterly in the arms of God and participate in his sufferings in the world and watch with Christ in Gethsemane. That is faith, and that is what makes a human and a Christian. —Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison.

 The world may be God-less, but it is not without gods. The idols are everywhere. And the chief idol of our time is the prosperity gospel: the gospel of greed that escapes all suffering.

These small gods our hearts have manufactured are not real but they are no less powerful. When they are unmasked, we see their ashen faces – the faces we have created because we refuse to live as mortals who cannot see God’s face, discontent to spend time in the cleft of the rock in order to see God from the back, the scarred back of God, whipped and lashed by the hands of Narcissus’s god-filled world.

Presbyterians and others of the Reformed theological tradition often ask why our membership is declining. Are we dying?

On this Reformation Sunday in the year of the 500 Anniversary of the Reformation, could it be not because we haven’t kept up with the latest cultural trends and fads but because we’ve forgotten our identity? Could it be, in part, not because other churches have bands and are better at entertainment, and make God more accessible to a tweeting culture, but because we have surrendered the one thing that makes us Reformed Christians: humility before God — a profound sense of awe before the holiness of God whose face we cannot see?

Could it be that we have mis-translated the rallying call of the Reformed tradition to mean that the church must always be changing itself, that we are the agents of our own change. Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda! is properly translated “The church reformed and always being reformed!” Which is to say, under the judgment and guidance of the Holy Spirit of the Living God, not changing our image in Narcissus’s reflecting pond. It is a theological-ethical perspective which, as McCormick Theological Seminary’s Anna Case-Winter wrote in Presbyterians Today (May, 2017), “neither blesses preservation for preservation’s sake nor change for change’s sake.”

Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda . . . calls us to something more radical than we have imagined. It challenges both liberal and conservative impulses and the habits and agendas we have lately fallen into. It brings a prophetic critique to our cultural accommodation—either to the past or to the present—and calls us to communal and institutional repentance. It invites us, as people who worship and serve a living God, to be open to being “re-formed” according to the Word of God and the call of the Spirit.”

“Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty! All the saints adore Thee, Casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea; Holy, holy, holy!  Though the darkness hide Thee; Though the eye of sinfulness Thy glory cannot see, Holy, holy, holy! All Thy works shall praise Thy Name in earth and sky and sea!”

We don’t get to see God’s face. We cannot see God’s full glory.  But, as the disciples of Jesus Christ, we do see God’s back! And for mortals, that’s plenty good enough! And from the darkness of this cleft in the rock, we join with Luther in trembling before the Holy One, and join Barth and Bonhoeffer by clasping our hands together in the dark as the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.

And though this world, with devils filled,

Should threaten to undo us,

We will not fear, for God hath willed

His truth to triumph through us:

The Prince of Darkness grim,

We tremble not for him;

His rage we can endure,

For lo! his doom is sure,

One little word shall fell him.

 

That word above all earthly powers,

No thanks to them, abideth;

The Spirit and the gifts are ours

Through Him who with us sideth:

Let goods and kindred go,

This mortal life also;

The body they may kill:

God’s truth abideth still,

His Kingdom is for ever.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, October 29, 201

2017 in the Cleft of the Rock

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This 500th Anniversary of the 16th Century Reformation is also the onset of climate departure. Not just climate change, but climate departure, the tipping point beyond which there is no way back.

1529MartinLuther

Martin Luther (1483-1546)

Preparing to preach on Reformation Sunday at Central Presbyterian Church in St. Paul leads to reflection on a strange text and several great hymns.

The text (Exodus 33:12-23) pictures Moses in the cleft of the rock with God’s hand covering him while God passes by with the reminder that no mortal can see the face of God and live. The hymns that come to mind are “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” and “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise.”

Perhaps, like Moses in the wilderness, we are in the cleft of the rock — between a rock and a hard place — and more than a little humbled as the Creator of all that is, Being-Itself, passes by while we are in the dark.

This moment of climate departure demands a new reformation, beginning with the recognition that we, homo sapiens, are mammals with the horses, cows, dogs, lions, cheetahs, and elephants — and that our future is imperiled by the gods of greed and prosperity our hearts have manufactured.

“Human nature is, so to speak, a perpetual factory of idols,” wrote the 16th Century Reformer John Calvin.

cd6353be60481a08737fdf1555f0973e--john-calvin-reformed-theology

2017 is a far cry from 1517, but it is, in this respect, the same.

A difference this year is that Martin Luther’s Ein feste Burg — “A Mighty Fortress” — will be sung in Catholic masses as well as protestant celebrations, bearing witness to the reconciling love of God over centuries of time.

Meanwhile the prosperity gospel — based on the idol of property — will go unchallenged in many churches, a departure from the truth that can only be found between a rock and a hard place: this cleft of the rock in 2017 while God passes by.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, October 27, 2017.

 

Things too hard for me

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Momentary access to the world-wide-web leads away from many words toward reflection on an ancient text.

O Lord, I am not proud;

I have no haughty looks.

I do not occupy myself with great matters

or with things that are too hard for me.

But I still my soul and make it quiet,

like a child on its mother’s breast;

my soul is quieted within me.

O Israel, wait for the Lord,

from this time forth and for evermore. 

[Psalm 33, Book of Common Prayer psalm for the morning]

sunrise-over-lake-superior

I wake before dawn to see the sun rise over the far horizon beyond Lake Superior, shining its rays across the waves, a beauty beyond compare. I do not occupy myself with “great things” that matter less and things too hard for me. I am not proud.

— Gordon C. Stewart, Encampment Forest, Two Harbors, MN, October 5, 2017.

Dear Brother Donald

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Letter to President Donald J. Trump

September 30, 2017

Dear Don,

I hope you don’t mind me calling you Don. You can call me Gordy; only those close to me in grade school called me that, but, so did the kids in my confirmation class. Since we were both confirmed in Presbyterian churches, I think it makes sense to call each other Don and Gordy.

brown-psr-3-300-394After writing you yesterday, I wondered whether your confirmation class read the same book mine did. Did you read Robert McAffee Brown‘s The Bible Speaks to You? I have to confess I didn’t read much of it at the time. I faked it. Maybe you did, too. I think we were probably a lot alike that way, don’t you think?

Anyway, this morning I went online and found The Bible Speaks to You in Google Books — Google, like Twitter, is amazing, don’t you think? — to see what we were supposed to be reading and to get a sense again of what we were being taught. Even way back when we were in confirmation class, we were being taught that Jesus was killed by the coalescence of two mistakes that seem to be the opposite of each other: nationalism, on the one hand, and imperial rule, on the other. They went hand-in-hand in deciding Jesus has to go.

Do you remember that?

Jesus wasn’t big on either nationalism or or empire; he saw both as substitutes for God, idols manufactured by the human heart to provide a false sense of security and importance. I suspect you may have skipped those chapters of the New Testament, but this wouldn’t be the first time the crucifixion was erased from consciousness. It happened in the German Church in the 1930s when the majority Christian population blamed the Jews, the Gypsies, the communists, and homosexuals for Germany’s fall from greatness. Make Germany great again was the agenda back then and Jesus was weeping all the way through it — in the concentration camps and in the cattle cars of the trains that removed from the nation everyone who wasn’t of the Aryan race, an idol of exceptionalism that, like all idols, had no foothold in reality itself.

Do you remember how we hated Hitler and all that stuff in confirmation class, how we thought of ourselves as Christians who would never do that because we were disciples of Jesus, and as Americans who would never do that because … well, we were Americans? We were better than that!

Funny how things change sometimes if we don’t pay attention, don’t you think? Maybe we paid too much attention to that period of world history and not enough attention to Robert McAfee Brown and the Bible. Long after we finished confirmation class to become disciples of Jesus, Robert McAfee Brown said something I’m remembering now:

Who we listen to determines what we hear. Where we stand determines what we see. What we do determines who we are.

I wonder who you’re listening to, where you stand on all of this, and write you now because, as your brother in Christ, I went on to listen to Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his American friends,Paul Louis Lehmann, William Sloane Coffin, and, yes, our old confirmation class author Robert McAfee Brown, who all claimed that what we do determines who we are.

The Bible speaks to you

Original cover of The Bible Speaks to You used in Presbyterian church confirmation classes in the 1950s and ’60s.

Don, if you can find a moment this morning, you can click this  Amazon LINK to The Bible Speaks to You, click “Look Inside” and scroll down to what neither of us can remembers now that we’re over 70 years old and forgetting much of what we learned. Take a look at pages 11 and 12 about the Marine Corporal following Robert McAfee Brown, the Marine Chaplain, back to his quarters after a Bible study on the Gospel of John story of Lazarus:

“Chaplain,” he said, “I felt as thought everything we read this morning was pointed right at me. I’ve been living in hell for the last six months, and for the first time I feel as though I’ve gotten free.”

You’ve been in the White House for nine months now, and I suspect it may feel like a hell you’ve never experienced. Maybe the same thing can happen with you as happened with the Marine.

634px-Duccio_di_Buoninsegna_-_The_Raising_of_Lazarus_-_Google_Art_Project

“The Raising of Lazarus” — Duccio di Buoninsegna (c. 1318-1319)

Remember, Don, every one of us has had at least a taste of hell these last nine months, but I’m looking to you for something different to rise from the ashes of our confirmations: a refutation of nationalism and empire. As Robert McAfee Brown said when he was much older, “What you do determines not only who you are but who we are. ” Take a close look at the picture of Robert McAfee Brown and at . It feels as though he’s looking at us to see whether we’re with Jesus and Lazarus.

Grace and Peace,

Gordon C. Stewart (“Gordy”), Your Brother in Christ

Chaska, Minnesota

In stillness I wait

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fd102fe612128b9da9857f58e5286d30I see things in the wilderness I do not notice at home.

Last night the sky was lit by lightning on every side —north and south, east and west— but the lightning was flashing from far away. There was no sound. There was no thunderstorm within miles of the A-frame under the stars.

The cabin by the wetland is like that — a place apart for a news-weary soul. A humble shelter of rough-cut pine without electronic devices among the crows, owls, white-tailed deer, skunks, and swans. Yes, the skunks are here, digging for grubs at night, but the skunks here don’t stink up the place like humans do back home, and, like the crows, owls, deer, and swans, they know nothing of the world I’m trying to leave behind.

1928_bcpThis morning’s Psalm from the Daily Office of The Book of Common Prayer brings its own kind of light from afar.

We give you thank, O God, we give you thanks,
calling upon your Name and declaring your wonderful deeds.

“I will appoint a time,” says God,
“I will judge with equity.

“Though the earth and all its inhabitants are quaking,
I will make its pillars fast.

“I will say to the boasters, ‘Boast no more,’
and to the wicked, ‘Do not toss your horns;

“‘Do not toss your horns so high,
nor speak with a proud neck.’”

[Psalm 75:1-5, Book of Common Prayer]

The lightning flashes from ages ago, calling me to hope for such a time.

In the morning stillness of the wilderness, I wait.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, uploading at the truck stop 12 miles away, September 23, 2017.

 

The owl in the wilderness

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An owl greeted Kay this morning from a tree outside the door of the wilderness cabin next to the wetland with the swans’ nest before we turned to the wisdom of the Psalm assigned for today by The Book of Common Prayer.

But as for me, my feet had nearly slipped;
I had almost tripped and fallen;

Because I envied the proud
and saw the prosperity of the wicked:

For they suffer no pain,
and their bodies are sleek and sound;

In the misfortunes of others they have no share;
they are not afflicted as others are;

Therefore, they wear their pride like a necklace
and wrapt their violence about them like a cloak.

Their iniquity comes from gross minds,
and their thoughts overflow with wicked thoughts.

They scoff and speak maliciously;
out of their haughtiness they plan oppression.

They set their mouths against the heavens,
and their evil speech runs through the world.

And so the people turn to them
and find in them no fault.

They say, “How should God know?
Is there knowledge in the Most High?”

So then, these are the wicked;
always at ease, they increase their wealth.
….

Like a dream when one awakens, O Lord,
when you arise you will make their image vanish.

[Psalm 73:2-12, 20]

Having almost tripped and fallen into despair, I hear in the psalmist’s voice the hoot of the owl in the wilderness and pray that the evil speech that ran through the world from the podium of the United Nations and the mage of the violent and the haughty will vanish.

Respite off the map

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Sanity demands solitude.

thoreau quoteHenry David Thoreau withdrew to Walden Pond to come to his senses. His time was much simpler than mine. He never got out of bed to check his emails or search the internet. But even in that less over-stimulated time he felt the need to leave everything that distracts the human spirit from the deeper truth about itself.

Solitude loves silence.

The wilderness cabin in northern Minnesota feels a bit like Henry’s place on Walden Pond. The wetland separates it from the small pond that has no name on a map. There are no sounds here other than the loons’ calls, Barclay’s bark, and the occasional mooing from a mile or two away when the wind is right.

Solitude puts me in touch with nature.

Not all the sounds are calming. In the night darkness, the howls of a nearby coyote and the scratching sounds of skunks digging for grubs remind me that nature is not as altogether sweet as romantics sometimes make it out to be. The cabin provides a respite from the human howls and odors that startle me in the world beyond these woods.

I ponder with the psalmist the societal ills that drove Henry to Walden Pond and have driven me here.

Their idols are silver and gold,
the work of human hands.

They have mouths, but they cannot speak;
eyes have they, but they cannot see;

They have ears, but they cannot hear;
noses, but they cannot smell;

They have hands, but they cannot feel;
feet, but they cannot walk;
they make no sound with their throat.

Those who make them are like them,
and so are all who put their trust in them.
[Psalm 115:4-8, The Book of Common Prayer]

fd102fe612128b9da9857f58e5286d30I become aware of the light dancing on the aspen leaves in a gentle breeze, the yellow oak leaf signaling the turn of summer toward fall, the sudden gust of wind from across the nameless pond, the osprey circling overhead on currents I cannot see, the ice-cold water hand-pumped from the well, the warmth of the fire in the wood stove, the feel of dirt from the flower beds—the living silence of a dead stop.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Walden Pond, MN, September 2, 2017.

The Shadow of Fred Trump

150202142706-new-york-times-profit-780x439To a degree greater than his Oval Office predecessors, President Trump is waging perpetual war with the press, especially the New York Times.

Why?

Like Father, Like Son

Sons who reflect deeply on what makes them tick eventually wade in the muddy waters of their relationships with their fathers.

Although psychotherapists warn against armchair diagnosis, especially by those not trained in the DSM and diagnostic practice, some things have always been in the public domain of human wisdom. Among them is the existential relationship of a father and a son.

It’s taken 75 years of self-reflection to reach the little clarity I have about my father and me. Along the way I have listened to men, young and old, wrestling with — or refusing to wrestle with —their fathers.

Sometimes the fathers are alive. Sometimes they’re dead. But a father never dies. He lives on in the son who looks to him for approval, for legitimacy, for love.

The Story of Jacob

Although we are not trained in clinical diagnosis like our psychology counterparts, rabbis, priests, ministers, and imams, rabbis, priests, ministers, and imams are privileged to wade in these sacred waters with other waders and wrestlers.

We are schooled in a companion tradition to the DSM, the ancient wisdom passed on from generation to generation by the Torah like the story of Jacob wrestling with the night visitor by the ford of the Jabbok.

The back story of Jacob’s night of wrestling is Jacob’s tricking his blind father Isaac into giving him the father’s blessing meant for Esau and Jacob’s crafty theft of Esau’s birthright.

“After that Esau hated Jacob because of the blessing from Isaac. He thought to himself, ‘My father will soon die, and I will be sad for him. Then I will kill Jacob.’” [Genesis 27:41.]

Esau’s fury has sent Jacob into flight fearing for his life. Now, after years of running for his life, Jacob is about to meet the brother he assumes intends to kill him.

300px-Eugène_Ferdinand_Victor_Delacroix_061

Jacob wrestling with the angel – Eugene Delacroix 

It is the night before Jacob’s encounter with Esau.

“Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.  When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’

So he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ Then the man said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’ Then Jacob asked him, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’ And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’ The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.” [Genesis 32:24-31 NRSV.]

Jacob’s dark night of the soul appears at first to be his unresolved sin against his brother Esau. But beneath the obvious, what the Genesis narrator sets up as a life-and-death moment between the two estranged brothers is a night-dream resolution of Jacob’s very being — his grounding in God . . . and his father.

Jacob is not the only one who has wrestled alone in the night. No night is bleaker than the absence of love, and the darkest of them come when the absence comes from one’s mother or father.

The memory of a father like Isaac casts a long shadow over a man like Jacob. No matter how far Jacob runs from his brother, he cannot walk outside the shadow of Isaac’s disapproval. So long as we run, we miss the holy limp that results from the wrestling.

Perhaps in the light of a son’s relationship with his father we see something much deeper than politics in the behavior and speech of Donald j. Trump.

Walking with a Limp

Jacob’s night of wrestling leaves him permanently injured. Forever after he walks with a limp. After his night by the ford of the Jabbok and the next day when Esau embraces him against every expectation, Jacob and Esau join together to bury their dead father.

For Donald Trump’s sake and for all the brothers and sisters the president has managed to estrange across the world in 2017, one can pray, and hope against hope, that Fred Tump’s heir would finally bury his father’s fight with the New York Times.

FredTrumpArrest

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