The Riddle in the Mirror

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It’s 4:02 A.M. I should be asleep. I’m wrestling with an enigma, the one that looks back from the mirror. Shortly before calling it a day last night, I came upon the enigma, and having found it, couldn’t let it go, or it could be said that finding me, it wouldn’t let me go.

Looking at the clock next to the bed moments ago brought to mind the line from Chaim Potok about the “four-o’clock-in-the-morning questions.” Potok’s four-o’clock-in-the-morning questions arose from the dissonance of a traditional Hasidic Jew in a modern culture that does not know the Torah and the Talmud.

I brew a pot of coffee, pour a cup, sit down with my MacBook Air, and return to the enigma I met last night.

The riddle in my mirror

For now [in our immaturity] we see in a mirror [an αίνιγμα — ‘enigma/riddle’], but then [when we come to maturity] we will see face to face. Now I know in part [in fragments], but then I will know fully, just as I have been fully known [by God].

First Corinthians 13:12, GCS Greek to English translation

The Greek word αίνιγμα has nothing to do with dimness or poor eyesight (“now we see in a mirror dimly“). It’s deeper than that. It’s vexation. We are puzzles to ourselves, knowing some pieces of ourselves, but not having all the pieces of the puzzle(s). And the Greek text is better translated as ‘mature’ rather than ‘perfect’.

No question is more puzzling than the ancient question of who we are. Who am I, the man who cuts himself shaving in the mirror? Who are we, this evolving species changing day by day in this time of climate departure when the future of life on the planet is uncertain? Who and what are we becoming?

Sixteenth Century reformer John Calvin began his theological opus with these laser-like sentences at the tender age of 27 years old:

Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other.

Jean Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion

How I came to see life is rooted in this theological tradition. Like the characters of Potok’s novels who feel alone wrestling with the ancient Hebrew texts (Torah and Talmud), in one hand, and the culture of a very different time and place, those of us who still get up early in the morning with excitement of exploring an ancient Greek text highjacked by the Christian Right often feel placeless. Vexation is not popular, but, like Chaim Potok, I tell myself that wrestling with the riddle is who we are.

The face of my father

Looking in the mirror, I know less than I once thought, about the huge vexing questions of 2019. I’ll never have all the pieces or solve the enigma, but I do have some guiding fragments. I see my father’s kindly face looking back at me and reach up to the bookshelf to fetch the Bible which contains a pearl of great price: the prayer written by his own hand in pencil:

photo of prayer by Kenneth Campbell Stewart (my father) written in his Bible in pencil.

O Thou before whom ages pass away like minutes and in whose sight the mighty hosts of men are like a sparrow in the hand, keep our faith strong in Thee, confidence unshaken — Give clear insight as [we] face the days ahead. Help us so to entrust ourselves to Thy hands that in the awareness of Thy faithfulness we find all the security we need and in Thy service all our peace.

Elijah Cummings

Then the news broke in that Elijah Cummings died at approximately 2:45 A.M. this morning at Johns Hopkins Medical Center in Baltimore. Congressman Cummings was a man of deep faith, a beacon of compassion and integrity who spoke kindly words of hope to Michael Cohen about the power of forgiving grace while chairing a House of Representatives Oversight Committee hearing. Elijah Cummings died in the city he loved and served as a public servant in service to his Lord.

First Corinthians 13 concludes with words of consolation and hope, the clue to living the riddle. “So faith, hope, and love abide, but the greatest of these is love.”

— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, October 17, 2019

‘Trouble’ is God’s middle name

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Robert McAfee Brown is not a household name for most folks, but it is for a dwindling multitude shaped by his life and teaching. Few of us sat in his classes at Macalester College, Union Theological Seminary in New York, or at Stanford, and few of us marched with him for civil rights or an end to the Vietnam War. Although we never met him, he seemed to know who were, and spoke of God in ways that struck a chord with adolescent ears itching to change the world.

One of the people who did know him personally was Jo Bede. Jo knew him up close as his student assistant at Macalester College, typing the manuscripts for the books he published. All these years later, Jo is in a Memory Care Center here in Minnesota. Like many other members of the multitude, she no longer remembers his name or the name of her alma mater.

Unlike many members of the Robert McAfee Brown multitude, Jo remembered everything until Alzheimer’s stole’s her powers of recognition. Many other members remain unaware of their membership, though they read (or didn’t read) Brown’s book used in Presbyterian confirmation classes all across the United States. Like most kids that age, we didn’t pay attention to the author. We didn’t want to be ‘churchy’. But if The Bible Speaks to You sounds ‘churchy’ to you today, it’s likely because ‘church’, as Robert McAfee Brown understood it, bore no resemblance to the churches that decades later would replace intelligent faith with platitudes in the era of Donald Trump.

Some things are stranger than strange. In 2019 few things feel as strange as the likelihood that a young Donald Trump had become part of the multitude as a member of the confirmation class at First Presbyterian Church of Jamaica Heights, NYC. He was just another kid who didn’t give a thought to Robert McAfee Brown or crack the book we were supposed to read.

“We can be sure that ‘Trouble’ is God’s middle name,” he wrote, “and that such a God will be alongside us in the midst of trouble rather than off in a remote heaven practicing neutrality. And if we begin to make that most difficult switch of all — away from the gods of middle-class values and upward mobility, and gilt-edged retirement plans — and if we can explore, even tentatively and gingerly, what it would be like to think and act for those who are the victims, we just might uncover ‘the most unexpected news’ of all: that God got there before we did.”

All these years later, I imagine Bob Brown inviting all of us to his home in Palo Alto for a reunion of the crowd we didn’t know. Jo, Donald, and I are in the Browns’ living room. He begins the welcome by turning to Jo, whose head is down and who appears to be asleep. “Jo, it’s so good to see you after all these years! Do you still have that typewriter?” Jo lifts her head and smiles at the sound of her old teacher’s voice. “And, Donald and Gordon, Carolyn, Woody, Ted, Bob, Dottie, and David, I can’t wait to hear what you’ve done with your lives.” We go around the circle, introducing ourselves to each other from across the country. After the last of introduction, there is a silence while all eyes return to our host.

“So . . .,” he begins with a kindly smile, “how are all of you doing with the God whose middle name is ‘Trouble?'” All eyes lower into a deafening silence. Before any of us speak, he asks the second question for which he has brought us together:

“‘How are you doing with the switch?”

  • Gordon C. Stewart, from the wilderness, August 10, 2019.

The “invaders” — a psalmic reflection

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The Power of Language for good and for evil

According to the New York Times, the Trump 2020 re-election campaign has run 2,000+ Facebook ads framing the national conversation by calling the migration at our southern border “an invasion”.

Introducing an exercise

It gets harder every day. The carnage is in full sight. So are the tweets. It’s depressing. In times like this a Psalm sometimes comes along that expresses the emotions. They laments. The anger at cruelty. Hope for something better beyond what we can see as possible.

Psalm 79: How Long, O Lord?

 O God, the nations have come into Your inheritance;
    they have defiled your holy temple;
    they have laid Jerusalem in ruins.

America today is not the sweet land of liberty of whom we sing. We grieve amid the latest ruins in El Paso and Dayton. We lament the human sacrifice that defile the good green Earth,Your holy temple, the inheritance of global grace.

  They have given the bodies of your servants
    to the birds of the heavens for food,
    the flesh of your faithful to the beasts of the earth.

They trade doves for vultures, and olive branches for military materiele on the streets of Baghdad and Kabul, El Paso, and Dayton, Virginia Beach, Aurora, Thousand Oaks, Pittsburgh, Annapolis, Santa Fe, Parkland, Sutherland Springs, Las Vegas, Orlando, Fort Lauderdale, Burlington, Orlando, San Bernardino, Roseburg, Chattanooga, Charleston, Sandy Hook . . . . Mankato and Wounded Knee.

They have poured out their blood like water
    all around Jerusalem,
    and there was no one to bury them.

  We have become a taunt to our neighbors,
    mocked and derided by those around us.

The invaders call the tired and the poor, yearning to breathe free; the homeless, and tempest-tossed “invaders” — caravans of an invasion crossing the southern border. The vultures prey on fathers and daughters drowned and lying face-down on the Texas bank of the Rio Grande. In the name of national security they take nursing children far from their mothers’ breasts, separate families, and forget where they have placed the invaders’ children, while the authorities retreat to golf courses and sent their children to fancy summer camps.

Let the groans of the prisoners come before You;
    according to Your great power, preserve those doomed to die!

May the groans that hurt Your ears rouse the nation’s conscience to close the prisons and preserve all those White Nationalism dooms to die.

“National extremists are idealists. Racial and religious extremists are idealists. ISIL is idealist. American exceptionalism is idealist. . . . Idealistic terrorism lives to rid the world of evil as its adherents understand it, projecting evil as ‘the other’ while flying ‘the sore point’ in ourselves that we conscious animals seek to avoid.”

“Idealism and Terror,” Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), p. 33-39

Return sevenfold into the lap of [their captors]
    the taunts with which they have taunted You, O Lord!
But we Your people, the sheep of your pasture,
    will give thanks to You forever;
    from generation to generation we will recount Your praise.

“I’m ninety-six,” wrote Benedictine monk Sebastian Moore of Downside Abbey, introducing his last book, “and for most of my life I’ve been a monk. My life as a monk has been, for the most part, a search for God as real.”

Dom Sebastian Moore, OSB, Remembered Bliss (2014, Lapwing Publications)
  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, August 6, 2019

Before the gods I will sing

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Many gods? More than one?

Why does the psalmist speak of ‘gods’ — “before the gods I will sing Your praise” (Ps.138:1) –as though there is more than the One the psalmist proclaims? Why does the First Commandment of the Ten Commandments say, “You shall have no other gods before Me”?

These ‘gods’ are real. They do not exist only in our imagination. They make their appeals to our human need and aspirations in the midst of time. Like the First Commandment, Psalm 138 recognizes the ‘gods as contenders with the One God of heaven and earth. It goes to the heart of the human longing for closer-at-hand gods, the imposters of God that charm us with their melodies and promises.

...before the gods I will sing Your praise.” (Ps. 138:1 NIV)

We live among the ‘gods’. We see them with our own eyes. We hear them with our own ears.

  • Children held in squalid ‘detention’ camps in the name of national security. Parents whose children have been kidnapped and lost in the name of national security. The multitudes walking on blistered feet in hopes of crossing the Rio Grande to safety. The asylum-seekers fleeing cruel regimes. They are all living under the siege of the ‘gods’, resistance to which is commanded the First Commandment.
  • I will sing Your praise before the gods. I will not sing in silence. I will not praise You in hiding. I will publicly defy the ‘gods’ that solicit my praise and obedience. I will place my hope and trust where it belongs. Before the gods that divide and terrorize I will sing Your praise.
  • I will sing Your praise before the gods of national security that kidnap babies, separate families, and stereotype those seeking safety as criminals, drug runners, rapists and terrorists.
  • I will sing Your praise before the gods and not be silent when my president deceives the public, announcing that asylum-seekers may now apply for asylum in Guatemala, one of the nations from which the poor flee for safety because of human rights violations, whose military we train and whose arms we supply.
  • I will sing Your praise before the gods of homophily that erase the American aspiration of e pluribus from e pluribus unum, leaving the unum of whiteness.
  • I will sing Your praise before the gods of my country’s original sins: stealing the continent from its indigenous peoples’, and stealing African men, women, and children to become slaves.
  • I will sing Your praise before the gods under which the constitutional checks and balances that protect a democratic republic from totalitarian rule are eroded.
  • I will sing Your praise before the gods of fossil fuel profiteers and a government that denies climate change, removes restraints protecting clean air and water, and scorns international cooperation necessary for responsible action in the face of climate change.
  • I will sing Your praise before the gods of greed that amass wealth, consolidate power, and skirt Congress to proved arms to Saudi Arabia in spite of an American journalist’s dismemberment and supplying arms for continuance of a proxy war in Yemen.
  • I will sing Your praise before the gods of racist nationalism that excite the masses — Mein Kampf, the speeches of Hitler, and strategies for the seizure of power — now echoing from the Oval Office and campaign rallies.
  • I will sing Your praise before the gods that divert attention from atrocities at the Southern border with tweets describing the congressional district represented by the Chair of the House of Representatives’ Committee on Oversight and Government Reform as a “disgusting rat and rodent infested mess” immediately following the Rep. Elijah Cummingspointed criticism of inhumane conditions for which the Trump Administration is responsible.
I will praise You, LORD, with all my heart;
      before the gods I will sing Your praise. (Ps/ 138:1 NIV)
 For though the Lord is high, he regards the lowly,
      but the haughty he knows from afar. (Ps. 138:6 NRSV)

Before the gods: Jesus of Nazareth

One of them . . . tested [Jesus] with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:35-40 NIV)

Before these ‘gods’ — and so many more — I will sing Your praise.

  • So help me God, in the name of Jesus, Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, July 28, 2019

That the Rabbits Might Live

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

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

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

“…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

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.