That the Rabbits Might Live

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This morning’s headlines drew me back to the conversation with Psalm 55. Reflecting on the Psalm led to think of myself as a rabbit. Thinking of the rabbit brought to mind Brer Rabbit. Brer Rabbit led to think of the Africans, Cherokees, and African-Americans who identified with Brer Rabbit in the briar patch.

And I said, “O that I had wings like a dove!
    I would fly away and be at rest;
truly, I would flee far away;
    I would lodge in the wilderness;Selah
I would hurry to find a shelter for myself
    from the raging wind and tempest.”

I am not at rest. I want to get away. To another place. Another time when the wind is not raging and I am not enraged. A place and time that no longer hurts my ears and my eyes red. Like a rabbit, I freeze, hoping I will not be seen. When they see me on the sidewalk of their civilization, I scurry away in search of the briar patch.

Confuse, O Lord, confound their speech;
    for I see violence and strife in the city.

I love words. I know the power of words. They heal, and they destroy. They honor truth and trust; they lie and deceive, and boast of what they have. The preponderance of words are not civil. They are not kind. They dish out strife with a smile. They keep us in turmoil. They despise the rabbits. They erase the line between truth and falsehood, reality and hallucination, America the beautiful and America the ugly. “O Lord, confound their speech.”

10 Day and night they go around it
    on its walls,

The Lady in the harbor and Emma Lazarus are weeping. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore, Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”” The lamp burns dimly. ICE and the border patrol walk the walls like prison guards.

and iniquity and trouble are within it;
11     ruin is in its midst;
oppression and fraud
    do not depart from its marketplace.

The walls where the lamp once stood beside the golden door are not built to keep others out. Nor do they protect us. They protect the market of oppression and fraud. A system gone awry. The road of generous compassion is paved over with fear and greed, iniquity and fraud, inside imaginary walls patrolled by guards of wealth and power. Oppression and fraud are not outside the walls. They are within them. They never leave the marketplace of Wall Street and Washington where commercial entertainment displaces the traditional landmarks of character. The human city is a mess mesmerized by the lies we mistake for truth, the delusional reality for reality itself. The ruin is in the city’s midst. “We have seen the enemy, and he is us,” said Pogo.

It is not enemies who taunt me—
    I could bear that;
it is not adversaries who deal insolently with me—

If it were those from beyond the city walls that were intent on doing us harm, I could bear that. But It’s what’s happening within the walls — the rule of entertainment and nihilism across all divisions; the loud applause for what is insolent and vile — that taunt me, drip by drip, tweet by tweet, byte by byte. We all know what Pogo said, but we don’t believe it: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

I would lodge in the wilderness;
I would hurry to find a shelter for myself
    from the raging wind and tempest.”

Hope cannot be overcome. Like a cork on water, hope always bobs to the surface. Brer Rabbit lives in the briar patch.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, June 11, 2019

America as Babylon

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THE BACK STORY: Introduction to Martin Gonzalez Sostre

It was during our weekly Wednesday evening program with prisoners in Dannemora, NY  that I first learned about the case of Martin Gonzalez Sostre, held in solitary confinement in resistance to dehumanizing prison practices, and joined the campaign for his release.

A year later at the Gunnison Memorial Chapel of St. Lawrence University I delivered a sermon inspired by a fresh reading of the Book of Revelation and what I had learned about Martin. The sermon – “Worship and Resistance: the Exercise of Freedom” – was  published by The Christian Century in March, 1974.

The first half of the “Worship and Resistance: The Exercise of Freedom” introduces the hearer/ reader to Martin Sostre’s resistance as a political prisoner incarcerated in solitary confinement at Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, NY, known as “New York’s Siberia” or, as the inmates refer to it, “the Hell Hole of the New York Prison system”.

THE CONTINUING STORY: resistance as worship

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 God and sing joyful hymns of praise.”

….

“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.”

….

“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).

THE FRONT STORY: 2017

I see more clearly now what I took into the pulpit at St. Lawrence in 1974, magnified a thousand times over in the name of a false patriotism that turns love of country into worship of America. “We’re going to make America great again!”

In the Book of Revelation Babylon is the mythic city that dehumanizes its people, the “bad” city (to use a favorite word of our current president) which people of faith and conscience are called to resist. Worship requires it. Without resistance, worship is dead. So is the U.S. Constitution and a democratic republic.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, April 1, 2017

The Trumpeter Swans and I

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At daybreak, far from the ranting and raving that hurt my ears, I’m alone with The Book of Common Prayer. I’ve come here for silence, interrupted only by the calls of the loons and the pair of trumpeter swans that return every spring.

For generations the swans’ inner compasses have brought them back to this unspoiled place to hatch their young before flying south again for winter. The swans and I are a lot alike; we both come back when the ice is almost gone.

My Rocking Chair

I settle into the hickory Amish rocker Jacob Miller crafted to fit my slim dimensions 40 years ago back in Millersburg, Ohio. Though its measurements are the same, It feels narrower. But we’re still made for each other. The rocker is where I rock awhile, like Jacob on his front porch after a hard day’s work, until he had to light the kerosine lamps inside.

I reach to the lamp table next to the rocker for The Book of Common Prayer that belonged to Sue Kahn until the day she gave it to me. Sue had relocated to Cincinnati to be nearer her daughter after macular degeneration had left her functional sightless. A lifelong Episcopalian who savored the language of The Book of Common Prayer, she joined her her daughter for worship with the Presbyterians. She asked one day whether I had a copy of the Book of Common Prayer. A week later, Sue stayed after worship. “I want you to have this,” she said, placing it in my hands. “I know you’ll treasure it as much as I.”

I open to the appointed Psalm for this Wednesday of Holy Week, Psalm 55.

Hear my prayer, O God;
do not hide yourself from my petition.

It’s the day before release of the redacted report of Special Counsel Robert Mueller III, a report that may answer my prayer for full disclosure of the truth I suspect has been hidden.

Listen to me and answer me;
I have no peace because of my cares.

The arrogance — “listen to me; answer me!” — disturbs me. Prayer is not an exercise in telling God what to do! The psalmist is arrogant and it’s selfish, more than a little Narcissistic, like the man in the Oval Office who might push the button on the red phone after typing the letters into th unsecured iPhone he uses to tweet.

But I have come to the wilderness because I have no peace watching Ari and Rachel and waiting for the nightmare to end.

I am shaken by the noise of the enemy;
and by the pressure of the wicked…

I don’t like talk of ‘enemies’; it puts me off. “Love your ememies and do good to them who persecute you.” Framing one’s opponents as ‘wicked’ is the less develped morality that has not yet recognized the inertwining of good and evil. But the psalms express the vicseral feelings of the heart unfiltered by the cerebral cortex. Like the psalmist, I am shaken to the core by the noise of an enemy; the pressure of the wicked. The noise hurts me ears.

For they have cast an evil spirit upon me,
and are set against me in fury.

l do not stand on solid ground. The cloud of evil and wickedness I routinely ascribe to ‘them’ hangs over me. I cannot claim to be righteous, right, or good as opposed to the unrighteous, wrong, and evil. I live under an ‘evil spell’ – the fall from essential goodness that comes with the presumption of the knowledge of good and evil — the knowledge that belongs to God alone. There is no escape from the pressure and the fury.

My heart quakes within me,
and the terrors of death have fallen upon me.
Fear and trembling have come over me,
and horror overwhelms me.

I quake as a fish caught in a net. I thrash and tremble in darkness at noon as at midnight. The snare of terrors encompasses me.

And I said “Oh, that I had wings like a dove!
I would fly away and be at rest.
I would flee to a far off place
and make my lodging in the wilderness.”

The crackling from the fire and the trumpet calls of the trumpeter swans across the wetland break the silence of daybreak. In this far off place, I am at rest. II make my lodging in the wilderness beyond the snare and blare of right and wrong, good and evil.

— Gordon C. Stewart by the thawing weland, April 18, 2019

Cracked heads in need of mending

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“…Heaven have mercy on us all – Presbyterians and Pagans alike – for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending.” — Herman Melville, Moby Dick.

Watching BBC/Netflix series The Fall — all three seasons in one huge gulp — led me to recall Arthur Miller’s play by the same title, the Genesis story, and the works of Herman Melville, William Golding … or even John Calvin. The brief appearance mid-way through the series of a 20£ bill with a note scrawled across it in red ink — He who does not love abides in death — and its unanticipated re-appearance in the series’ final scene seemed to this Presbyterian preacher like the subtext from which Allan Cubitt create The Fall.

Great literature likeMoby Dick, and insightful sermons, films and television series are sometimes rooted in, and explicate, a text, a line, an aphorism. Allan Cubitt’s choice of the series’ title calls to mind Arthur Miller’s The Fall and the Hebraic biblical story of humankind’s attempt to master paradise by the raid on what belongs to the Creator alone — the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 3:1-8) — that quickly results in fratricide between humankind’s first children.

Cain murders his brother Abel. Abel is blown away. Only Cain remains. But the echo of Abel’s horror remains to spoil the good earth: “Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!” (Genesis 4:10). Allan Cubbit’s title points to the Genesis story. Likewise, his work, The Pool of Bethesda, is taken from Christian scripture.

Film critic reviews like Sophie Gilbert’s “Netflix’s ‘The Fall’ Comes to a Maddening End in its Third Season” (Nov. 5, 2016) in The Atlantic — express disappointment that The Fall “forgot” to answer “the questions [The Fall] raises about misogyny, madness, and obsession.” They see the bill as a glimpse into the deranged mind of Paul Spector, the serial killer, but nothing more.

The final scene of the final episode of the series begs for more. Stella, the detective who has cracked the case, has returned to solitude in her bloodless London flat. She pours herself a glass of red wine and reads again the red ink message: ”He who does not love abides in death,” the verbatim biblical quotation carefully plucked from the New Testament epistle that focuses on love as life itself, and lovelessness as death (I John 3:14). The note’s reappearance is more than a reminder of the bloody horror Stella seems to have escaped, or a return to the vexing inner workings of Paul Spector’s lethal psyche. It serves a larger purpose: to expose the series’ subtext, throwing a light backward on the inexplicable darkness and obsession with death and raising the question of Stella’s own loveless psyche and future, leaving the viewers to ponder for ourselves the complexities of love and life, lovelessness and death.

Works of art do not give answers. Neither does Cubitt’s The Fall. They do not explain reality; they describe it — the mystifying entanglement of lovelessness and love, of evil and goodness, the inexplainable complexity of all the sisters and brothers of Cain. Cubitt’s own reflection on the BBC calls attention to another scene midway through the series in which the serial killer’s Intensive Care nurse, Sheridan, tells him she will pray for him. “My idea is that the line ‘I will pray for you’ is provocative,” said the author. “Surely he is beyond redemption? It seems Sheridan [Spector’s ICU nurse] doesn’t think so. Has anyone ever prayed for Spector before?”

This and other scenes are, by design, “subtle and nuanced and ambiguous, open to all kinds of interpretations, replete with possibilities.”

“…and Heaven have mercy on us all – Presbyterians and Pagans alike – for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending.”
― Herman Melville, Moby Dick.

— Gordon C. Stewart, a Presbyterian cracked head, Chaska, MN, April 15, 2019.

Forget your perfect offering

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The line from Leonard Cohen’s Anthem came to mind while digging into the encounter between Jesus and the people of the perfect offerings. That’s right, the Jewish Leonard and the Jewish Jesus drank from the same well: Jewish scripture and tradition.

It was Leonard Cohen’s line about a “perfect offering” that led me to think of Jesus’s encounter with the perfectionists about terrorism — see James Tissot’s The Tower of Siloam — and the parable of the withered fig tree.

Jesus’s parable then led to the memory of Professor Lewis (Lew) Briner who would have read the text the way he read everything else in the New Testament — in Greek. As students, Wayne Boulton and I sat in the Briner kitchen to discuss theology or the news of the day. If we didn’t knock on their door, Lew would come to get us.

Following the memorial service for Wayne, Vicki asked if I had any pictures of Lew and Mil Briner. I did not. She entrusted two photographs to my keeping. Years after those nightly conversations over a beer or scotch, only one of us remains. Memories of Lew’s hospitality, scholarship, wit . . . and facial expressions are un-forgettable.

L to R: Wayne Boulton, Mil Briner, Lew Briner

Lew chaired the ecumenical committee that resulted in the Revised Common Lectionary. Discussing a New Testament text was an education in itself. Seeing his picture again with Wayne, I wondered what Lew might say about this week’s Gospel — Jesus’s encounter with the “perfect offering” folks who compared themselves with sinners, like the 18 terrorists killed in the sabotage of the Tower of Siloam. What might Lew say about that, and the parable of the the withered fig tree that follows his confrontation with the perfect (innocent) people?

“Do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?

“No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none.” –Luke 13:4-6 NRSV

Sometimes Lew would shift our attention to something he’d noted in the Greek New Testament text that English translators sanitized because it didn’t pass Miss Manners’ Victorian sense of moral propriety. It disturbed him when a Greek word was mis-translated into what the translators considered the English vernacular. Words like “manure”!

You want to know what it really says?” Lew would ask, lowering his head to peer over the top of his glasses, slightly raising and lowering his eyebrows several times with a twinkle in his eye, with an unmistakably mischievous smile. We knew something earthy was coming.

I can see the twinkle in Lew’s eyes. “Give me a year and let me dig around it and throw s—t on it!” If you really want to translate the Greek into the vernacular, use the vernacular! Sanitizing it wipes it clean. It removes the jolt. Besides, only farmers use the word “manure” these days, and the farmers have become fewer and fewer. Unless they have a garden, urban and suburban people might have to look up “manure”. No one needs a dictionary to look up “s—t”!

Ring the bells (ring the bells) that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything)
That’s how the light gets in

anthem, leonard cohen
In the Orchard, Vincent van Gogh, 1883.

— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, March 23, 2019

A Razor Tongue and Razor Wires

A Razor Tongue and Razor Wires is the fruit of an unexpected conversation this morning between the news from Nogales, Arizona, and Psalm 52 on faith and politics. The Psalm texts are from The Book of Common Prayer.

You tyrant, why do you boast of wickedness
against the godly all day long? -Psalm 51:1

Why do you rip innocent children from their parents’ arms? Why do the babies and toddlers yell for their parents at the southern border? Why do you paint yourself as godly when the godly weep and cry out to you from the holding camp?

You plot ruin;
your tongue is like a sharpened razor,
O worker of deception.

Huffington Post, 02/07/2019 11:31 pm ET:

The City Council of Nogales, Arizona, has voted unanimously on a resolution ordering Trump administration officials to rip out new ‘lethal’ razor wire coiled on a border fence along the downtown shopping district.

“Such wire is ‘only found in a war, prison or battle setting’ and is highly inappropriate for an urban area, states the resolution the council passed Wednesday. The bristling concertina wire is now attached to the fence from top to bottom.

“‘Placing coiled concertina wire that is designed to inflict serious bodily injury or death in the immediate proximity of our residents, children, pets, law enforcement and first responders is not only irresponsible but inhuman, the resolution states.”

You love evil more than good
and lying more than speaking the truth.

State of the Union Address:

President Trump 2019 State of the Union Address to Congress

You paint political opponents as enemies of the Country (with a capital ‘C’) and speak hate in the name of making America Great Again. You hold rallies where your base yells “Lock her up” and applaud your hoax that the Mueller investigation is a “witchhunt” like the Massachusetts Bay Colony burning the alleged witches of Salem.

You love all words that hurt,
O you deceitful tongue.

You prey on our emotions. You carefully select the people in the balcony whose stories tug at our heart strings and demonstrate your humaneness. You position yourself as our only sure defense against all enemies foreign and domestic, pointing to the white family left to cope with their loved one’s murder by an illegal immigrant you call an“alien”. Your tactics are clever and effective. You say nothing about the killing of 17 students and one staff member and wounding of another 17 at the Parkland school shooting, or the alleged Russian contributions to the NRA. You divert the nation’s attention from the real world by pointing to heroes and victims who fit your purposes. Your words hurt and deceive by what you have spoken and what you have left unaddressed. You say nothing about climate change and a sustainable energy policy, claiming victory that we are now the world’s largest net exporter of fossil fuel energy. You ignore having turned you back on America’s closest friends and allies, and our withdrawal from international treaties that leave us more vulnerable. You say nothing about anything of substance.

O that God would demolish you utterly,
topple you, and snatch you from your dwelling,
and root you out of the land of the living.

O that Congress would act to stop you! O that your cabinet would invoke the 25th Amendment. O that Melania would abandon you and divorce you for your infidelities and bullying schemes. O that the Supreme Court would rule that you may be indicted while occupying the White House. O that God would snatch you from your opulent dwellings in Trump Tower and at Mar-a-Largo where only the one percent can golf. 

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.

O that we shall see and tremble at the greatness of his fall, saying,“This is the maker of the Tower of Babel who seeks to make his name great and confuses our speech. This is the one who claims of great wealth, surrounds himself with fixers and cabinet members sent to prison, arranges agreements with his mistresses to keep them silent and The National Enquirer to keep the stories in a vault, while concealing from public scrutiny the tax returns he promised to provide two and a half years ago.”

But I am like a green olive tree in the house of God;
I trust in the mercy of God for ever and ever.

I will give You thanks for what You have done
and declare the goodness of Your Name 
in the presence of the godly.

I am old and gnarly. Prune back my cynicism. Make me green again, drinking from Your mercy, trusting what I cannot see, and pay You the homage due Your Name alone.

— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, reflecting on Psalm 52 and the state of the nation, January 8, 2019.

Treat Yourself This Morning

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.

Escape at Dannemora

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

Tell that Fox

Most every day I get up around 4:30, go downstairs, brew a pot of coffee, and begin to percolate. The percolations always sound about the same. With one difference. Coffee doesn’t stew. I do.

Looking in from the outside, you might say “You can take a man out of the pulpit, but you can’t take the pulpit out of the man,” and you would be partly right. But I have no desire to stand in a pulpit. I loved the early mornings when a sermon began to percolate — pausing over a biblical text while world events swirled around my head. I still do. You can’t take that part of the pulpit out of the man.

SWIRLING AND STEWING

The world is always swirling, but these days the swirling feels different. More like a tornado. I go to bed with the news storming in my head and I get up early with it still swirling. But, no matter how ominous the news is, I know I can always take time out to get a better grip, to settle the spinning, to go into the eye of the storm I have become. 

Some mornings, it’s a word that pops up to hold my attention. Yesterday it was two words: serpents and doves. This morning there are three: serpents, doves, and a fox. Stay with me. Views from the Edge is my pulpit in retirement; it’s my pulpit, and I’ll cry if I want to! But this morning the words don’t lead me to cry. They inspire hope and define the way forward.

It began yesterday with serpents and doves. “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves,” says Jesus to his disciples. 

“WISE AS SERPENTS”?  

Get yourselves educated. Become intimately familiar with the world you’re walking into. Be wise to the culture of cunning.” 

“INNOCENT AS DOVES”? 

Become like the dove that brings the olive branch back to the ark; work on whatever is not peaceful in your own hearts.”

Then this morning, along came the fox. “Go and tell that fox. . . ,” says Jesus to those who have come to warn him. 

“GO AND TELL THAT FOX”?

It’s not quite what it seems. The word is hard to render in English. In the culture of the times, it was a derogatory term, a slap in the face, according to biblical linguist Randall Both. Sort of like ‘pipsqueak’. Or small-fry, usurper, poser, clown, insignificant person, cream puff, nobody, weasel, jackass, tin soldier, peon, hick, pompous pretender, jerk, upstart. 

The ‘fox’ is Herod Antipas, the despised tetrarch, a Jewish national who feathered his own nest, a turncoat who served at the pleasure of the Roman Emperor Tiberias. He had ingratiated himself to Tiberias by changing the name of the Sea of Galilee to the Lake of Tiberias and by building a new city with a lush vacation palace on the site of a Jewish cemetery. Herod was a turncoat to his faith and his country. Herod was a usurper. 

“Go tell that fox, ‘I will keep on driving out demons and healing people today and tomorrow . . . .”

“DEMONS AND HEALING”?

The ‘demons’ in the New Testament are not creepy little creatures, although they are creepy. They are twisters of goodness and truth, liars and tricksters who take possession of a person or a society. Sometimes they hold power and authority, building palatial palaces and private clubs, ingratiating themselves to a foreign power by changing the name and language of a local treasure. The demons make us sick. Healing comes as a result of throwing out the demons to end the demonic occupation. Driving out demons and healing is the continuing work of the community gathered around Jesus.

Like I said, you can take the man out of the pulpit, but you can’t take the pulpit out of the man. Sometimes in the storm that is America today, a word pops up and percolates with the coffee: serpents, doves, and foxes. Five minutes before going back upstairs for my afternoon nap, I hear the words with which Jesus often ended an obscure parable:

“Let those with ears hear.” Хорошего дня.

–Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, November 30, 2018.

Tree of Life and All Souls

Day of the Dead William Adolphe Bouguereau(1825-1905)

“Day of the Dead” – William Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905)

The death of 11 worshipers in the sacred space of Tree of Life in Pittsburgh is no longer the latest heinous act of gun violence in America. There is more to come in a country where the rhetoric of fear and hate divide us with lies and diatribes.

All Souls Day on the Christian calendar calls for deeper reflection about the living and the dead — not just some of us, but all of us: Jewish (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform); Muslim (Shia, Sunni, Sufi); Christian (Eastern Orthodox, Western Catholic, Protestant); Hindu, Buddhist, Jaianist, humanist, animist, agnostic, and atheist — all of us.

There is only one of us. Humankind. A species free to eat from the Tree of Life that blesses or the Tree of Death that turns us into twos and threes, this or that, with words and arms that send 11 Tree of Life worshipers to their graves with forked tongues about good and evil and the planet itself.

Old_olive_tree_in_Karystos,_Euboia,_GreeceThe people of the Tree of Life know this. They named their place or worship after the Torah story of Humankind (Book of Genesis 2-3). Now in the deadly silence following the death of Abel, the people of the Tree of Life hear the different Voice that cries out, in love, for Cain. “Humankind, who are you? Your brother’s blood is crying out to Me from the ground. There is only one Earth. There is only One of you — one Soul, one Breath — not two, or three, or….” (Genesis 4).

“We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meanwhile within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty to which every part and particle is related, The Eternal One.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson , Essays.

Grace and Peace,

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, November 3, 2018