Treat Yourself This Morning

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

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

Merry Christmas from our home to yours.

God bless us, every one,

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

Escape at Dannemora

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

Clinton_correctional_facility,_Dannemora,_NY,_2007

Clinton Correctional Facility, Dannamora, NY

How I learned of Martin Sostre

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

Martin Sostre and the Book of Revelation

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

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

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

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

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

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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.”
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“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

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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

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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

 

 

Remember me according to . . .

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Opening up the cabin after a month away, the temperature was a bit chilly before we built the fire in the wood-burning stove. What warms me more than the fire is the stillness of the place. I read the Psalms differently here. I take time to ponder them.

Psalm 25 is the one I pondered this morning. At first it struck me as the kind of religion that’s killing us — the prayer of religious pride. A second and third reading took me deeper. 

BCP“Let none who look to you be put to shame; let the treacherous be disappointed in their schemes. Show me your ways, O LORD, and teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth and teach me…” (Psalm 25:2-4a, Book of Common Prayer paraphrase). 

Truth and falsehood. The ways of shamelessness and its opposite — treacherous schemes — collide in this psalm. I come to the cabin to get away from the treacherous schemes. I’m for truth and goodness, not treacherous schemes! That’s Trump, not I! Like the psalmist, I claim what no one can honestly claim: “in you have I trusted all the day long” (25:4c) But the psalmist is wiser.

Truth and Falsehood

Truth and Falsehood, Iza Bella [CC BY-SA 2.0 uk (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/uk/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s as though the psalmist suddenly realizes it’s not true. He shifts his eyes from himself to the One who forgives sin. Maybe s/he’s confused? Maybe he has a split personality? Or maybe just a concrete thinker whose immaturity leaves no room for shades of gray? Or maybe he suddenly remembers something beyond the self and its righteous posturing.

“Remember, O LORD, your compassion and love, for they are from everlasting. Remember not the sins of my youth and my transgressions; remember me according to your love and for the sake of your goodness, O LORD” (Psalm 25:5-6). 

When you look at me, see me through the eyes of eternal compassion, the eyes of your steadfast love. See me the way a grandfather can’t help but see his 17 month-old grandson, Elijah, after Elijah has opened the kitchen cabinets he’s been told repeatedly not to open. See the look on the grandson’s face when he’s caught and his mother tells him “NO!” Watch Grandpa cover his face with his hand to hide to his smile and giggle as he sees the defiant look on Elijah’s little face. 

Perhaps God is like that. The LORD of life (the Breath) is Mishomis —Ojibwe for ‘Grandfather’! See grandson Elijah playing  peek-a-boo with his Mom from his car seat.

Remember me according to your love and for the sake of your goodness, Mishomis.

  • Grandpa Gordon, in the wilderness with The Book of Common Prayer, October 22, 2018

Trapped in the Schemes They Have Devised

 

Carl Jung

Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961)

Over the years I’ve had a problem with the “us versus them” voice of some psalms of the Book of Psalms. The division of humankind into the ‘righteous’ and the ‘wicked’ leaves me cold. Often I have wanted to recommend to the psalmist a session or two on a Jungian analyst’s couch to get in touch with the ‘shadow’. But, in other times, like the one through which we’re living in America, the psalmist’s poetry is without parallel in giving voice to what I feel. Psalm 10 is one of them.

Psalm 10 is a cry for help in a time of trouble when God seems far off, as though hiding, while “the wicked arrogantly persecute the poor” (v.1), but it also holds a conviction that the persecution is only for the moment. Why? Because, already, the arrogant “are trapped in the schemes they have devised” (verse 2).

Their ways are devious at all times; 

Your judgments are far above out of their sight; 

they defy all their enemies.

They say in their heart, “I shall not be shaken;

no harm shall come to me ever” (v.5).

….

Their mouth is full of cursing, deceit, and oppression;

under their tongue are mischief and wrong (v. 7).

…. 

They lurk in ambush in public squares

and in secret places they murder the innocent;

they spy out the helpless. 

They lie in wait, like a lion in a covert,

they lie in wait to seize upon the lowly

they seize the lowly and drag them away in their net.

The innocent are broken and humbled before them;

the helpless fall before their power (vs. 7-9).

Sometimes the most poignant insights come from the psalmist’s couch. I read the Psalms most every day. I still remember what I’ve learned from Jung about my ‘shadow’ and the fear within me that paints ‘the other’ as wicked, wrong, or wretched. I know that the finger that accuses others often points back at my own sorry self. But the faith I was taught and still practice equally reminds me that anger has a rightful place when the lowly are broken, humbled, and dragged away in the net of the powerful. I remember the ‘righteous’ anger of Amos and the rest of the prophets. I remember Jesus.

Elijah in high chair

Grandson Elijah safe at home.

I see my grandson, Elijah, safe at home with his family in Minnesota, and think of all the children wrenched from their parents arms at the Mexican border. I live in hope that, though innocent children have been carried away to unknown places by the Administration’s net, it is only a matter of time before those who have made them orphans are themselves “trapped in the schemes they have devised.”

– Gordon C. Stewart in the wilderness, August 29, 2018.

Ancient wisdom on the art of deception

sojourner_truth_with_lincoln_a

Sojourner Truth and President Abraham Lincoln

Monday, after we’d read aloud Psalm 52, Kay proposed we create T-shirts with a simple message: ‘Psalm 52’. She was joking, of course. We’re not the sort to wear our religion on our chests! She had in mind the following lines.

You tyrant, why do you boast of wickedness

…all day long?

You plot ruin;

your tongue is like a sharpened razor,

O worker of deception.

You love evil more than good

and lying more than speaking the truth.

You love all words that hurt,

O you deceitful tongue.

O that God would demolish you utterly,

topple you, and snatch you from your dwelling…!

Yesterday we picked up a copy of the latest Star Tribune. The editorial, “Trump practices art of deception,” called Sunday night’s sharpened razor tweet from the White House to Iranian President Rouhani “another alarming distraction to take the spotlight from other news, such as the fiasco in Helsinki…” (Star Tribune, July 24, 2018).

Ancient wisdom is called ‘ancient’ because it’s old. It’s called ‘wisdom’ because it speaks plainly to things that never seem to go away. But you can’t put a whole psalm or an editorial on a T-shirt! The above picture of President Lincoln and Sojourner Truth would get the truth part. But a simple psalm # points to the ongoing tension between truth and the practiced art of deception.

‘PSALM 52!’

  • Gordon C. Stewart on the wetland, July 25, 2018

Leave Rage Alone

Stillness defines life at the cabin. It’s quiet. The only sounds are bird calls. It is this stillness that draws us here by the wetland. But my heart is not still. It’s preoccupied with evil. This morning’s assigned psalm from The Book of Common Worship (BCW) speaks to my condition.

Do not fret yourself because of evildoers…

For they shall soon wither like the grass…

Be still before the LORD…

Do not fret yourself over the one who prospers,

the one who succeeds in evil schemes.

Refrain from anger, leave rage alone;

do not fret yourself; it leads only to evil. (Ps. 37, BCW)

“Leave rage alone.” 

Last night, after a quiet swim, I put my hearing aids back in, returned to the cabin for dinner, and listened to last Monday’s episode of The Beat, a podcast downloaded from a to Kay’s iPhone by means of WiFi earlier in the day. Back home in Chaska, we watch The Beat with Ari Melber because it suits our outrage over what is happening to America. But listening to the podcast welcomed back the toxic rage I forsake for the quiet beauty of the disconnected cabin on the wetland. It felt like a fatal assault.

1947 Pontiac hearse

Steve Shoemaker’s 1947 Hearse

Midway through the podcast, I removed my hearing aids to distance myself from the sceptic fret of rage. I was swimming in poison. It was the tone of voice that felt like death or a foreign invasion. 

The pond and the wetland are changing every day. So is the world. The Trumpeter Swans that brought such joy a month ago are gone. So are the red-wing blackbirds that earlier had feasted on the cat-n-nine tails. And the grass? Like the cat-n-nine tails, the grass is green and growing again. But the psalm reminds me that the green grass will fade to brown this autumn about the time the Trumpeter Swans return from Canada.

Meanwhile the calendar reminds me to call the company that empties the sceptic tank before it gets full and no longer works.

  • Gordon C. Stewart by the wetland, July 19, 2018.

Remember me according to …

Frederick Buechner

Frederick Buechner

Frederick Buechner’s invitation to “listen to your life” is wise counsel any day, but especially the day after a jarring dream has screamed about what the psalmist called “the sins of my youth.” 

The psalmist was lucky. The sins for which he prayed for release happened in his youth; mine are the less innocent ones of adulthood. But the final plea is the same: “Remember not the sins of my youth and my transgressions; remember me according to Your love, and for the sake of Your goodness…” (Psalm 25:6).

Dreams have a different way of remembering. They have a logic of their own, a logic of the unconscious fetching from the hidden reservoir of past experience the guilts and griefs we sought to drown from conscious awareness. Dreams remind us that nothing is lost. Sometimes a dream is its own kind of prayer — the Spirit bearing witness within our spirits; a kind of holy groaning — to be remembered “according to Your love, and for the sake of Your goodness” rather than according to our sins and transgressions.

FranzKafka

Franz Kafka

Franz Kafka wrote in a letter to his father, “Life is more than a Chinese puzzle.” Kafka knew that life is at least that — a perplexing puzzle. The pieces of one’s life are hard to fit together into a cohesive whole, perhaps because some of them have shapes and sharp edges we can’t remember or refuse to recognize.

Sometimes these pieces appear in a dream according to a different logic of the deeper listening that remembers us according to a Goodness greater than our own. Only by such grace could the psalmist imagine the recovery of integrity, i.e., the re-integration of the disparate parts of his life history: “Let integrity and uprightness preserve me, for my hope has been in You” (Psalm 25:20).

“Listen to your life…because in the last analysis, all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace” (Frederick Buechner, Now and Then).

  • Gordon C. Stewart, on the wetland, July 16, 2018.

You’re reading from MY book!

Six trumpeter swan cygnets (babies) have joined their parents on the pond next to the cabin by the wetland. Their family is intact. It’s as beautiful to behold as separating children is ugly. The swans are lucky. So am I.

IMG_9456The cabin by the wetland is a place of privilege. There are no other humans here. But the news has a way of following me to this natural sanctuary that invites a deeper silence. The world doesn’t need another political honker, I tell myself. But my head hurts keeping inside me the need to cry out against cruelty, dishonesty, and bad religion in the nation’s capitol.

I respond to Attorney General Sessions’ twisting of the Bible (Romans 13) the way Jewish comedian Lewis Black responded to Christian televangelists who pretend to know the Jewish Bible: “You’re reading from MY book! If you want to know about MY book, ask a Jew, and he will tell you! You Christians don’t see one of my guys reading YOUR book (i.e. the New Testament) and telling you what it means. Do you?”

Like Lewis Black, I’m not big on televangelists who misuse the Hebrew Bible. I’m even less fond of institutional powers and authorities that use MY book, the New Testament, to justify a policy that is beyond justification.

Romans 13 commends to its first century C.E. readers a proper respect for the civil order represented by the office of the emperor. But it is respect for the office, not its occupant, and not an endorsement of illegitimate uses of the office, nor of unjust laws promulgated by the civil authorities. To presume otherwise, as Mr. Sessions does, ignores the location from which the Letter to the Romans was written and why its author was there. Paul was in jail. Paul was a prisoner of conscience.

The current U.S. Administration’s abuse of Holy Scripture hurts my ears, even on the wetland. If you’re going to use Romans 13, continue to read beyond what you claim supports your argument. “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves the neighbor has fulfilled the law. … The commandments … are summed up in this one rule: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law” (Rom. 13: 8-10). A thoughtful reader of the letter penned from a Roman jail cell might conclude that it was Saul of Tarsus (Paul), who gave Cornel West his definition of justice: “Justice is love made public”.

Love made public does not separate children from their parents. Love doesn’t do it anywhere in any century. Cruelty does. Fascism does. Hypocrisy does. White privilege does. National idolatry does. Willful religious ignorance does.

Before you site MY book as your authorization for cruelty, zoom in on the scene of Jesus’ rebuke of his mistaken disciples:

“When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.’ And he took them in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them” (Gospel of Mark 10:14-16).

jesus-weptImagine Jesus taking the children on his knee again — the loving, crucified Jesus —in an ICE detention center on the Mexican border. Or buy yourself a ticket to the Minnesota wetland to spend a day with the trumpeter swans who do better than we at caring for children.

—  Gordon C. Stewart with the trumpeter swans on the wetland beyond our boundaries, June 20, 2018.