Two Minute Silence

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Veterans Day poster 2018

Veterans Administration poster

I remember standing with my classmates at Marple Elementary School for a period of silence on November 11. It was Armistice Day, the anniversary of the end of World War I.

Observing the silence was hard! It wasn’t happy; it was sad. It was an enforced unhappy silence to remember what none of us kids wanted to remember: those who had died in an antique time in service to their country, and the horrors of war itself. I must have wondered why our teachers would enforce a sad silence that made us unhappy. In 1954 Armistice Day became Veterans Day in America. (Click HERE for information about the change.)In Canada, Europe, Great Britain, and Australia, November 11 is called Remembrance Day.

Malcolm Guite — Anglican priest, song writer and poet in Cambridge, England — recalls his experience of the public Two Minutes Silence of Remembrance Day in Silence: a Sonnet for Remembrance Day,

On Remembrance Day I was at home listening to the radio . . . when the time came for the Two Minutes Silence. Suddenly the radio itself went quiet. I had not moved to turn the dial or adjust the volume. There was something extraordinarily powerful about that deep silence from a ‘live’ radio, a sense that, alone in my kitchen, I was sharing the silence with millions. I stood for the two minutes, and then, suddenly, swiftly, almost involuntarily, wrote this sonnet. You can hear the sonnet, as I recorded it on November 11th three years ago, minutes after having composed it, by clicking . . . clicking on the title.

Silence

November pierces with its bleak remembrance
Of all the bitterness and waste of war.
Our silence tries but fails to make a semblance
Of that lost peace they thought worth fighting for.
Our silence seethes instead with wraiths and whispers,
And all the restless rumour of new wars,
The shells are falling all around our vespers,
No moment is unscarred, there is no pause,
In every instant bloodied innocence
Falls to the weary earth, and whilst we stand
Quiescence ends again in acquiescence,
And Abel’s blood still cries in every land
One silence only might redeem that blood
Only the silence of a dying God.

— Malcolm Guite, Sounding the Seasons

Blake_Cain_Fleeing_from_the_Wrath_of_God_(The_Body_of_Abel_Found_by_Adam_and_Eve)_c1805-1809

William Blake painting of “Cain fleeing from the wrath of God “as Adam and Eve look on in horror following the fratricide.

All these years later, I still struggle with silence on November 11, and on days like yesterday, the 80th anniversary of The Night of Broken Glass (Kristallnacht). Yet, as a person of faith who knows darkness as well as light, I have learned over the years to silence the radio for an unenforced Two Minute Silence.

Abel’s blood still cries in every land
One silence only might redeem that blood
Only the silence of a dying God

— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, November 11, 2018.

The Straw that Breaks the Camel’s Back

256px-John_McCain_official_photo_portraitIt’s a familiar idiom from the old proverb that “it’s the last straw that breaks the camel’s back.”

The last straw is not the only straw. It’s the seemingly insignificant weight added to all the accumulation of straws. Wikipedia describes it as “the seemingly minor or routine action that causes an unpredictably large and sudden reaction, because of the cumulative effect of small actions. This gives rise to the phrase ‘the last straw’ or ‘the final straw’, meaning the last in a line of unacceptable occurrences, provoking a seemingly sudden strong reaction.”

 

The American public is deeply divided. Though the number of straws placed on the president’s back increased daily with the straws of guilty pleas and convictions of his inner circle, his support remains strong among his base. The president can do no wrong. He can lie. He can cheat. He can slam the press. He can belittle the disabled. He can blame ‘the deep state’. He can paint himself as a victim. But, then, something happens. One more straw appears that draws a gasp. Even on FOXNews, as in Brit Hume tweet yesterday, “Still not a kind word about McCain himself.”

Whatever one’s political leanings, people have learned that you respect the dead. You don’t speak ill of the dead. However much you may not have liked the deceased, common decency demands something different.

Donald Trump, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi

President Donald Trump listens to a question during a town hall with business leaders in the South Court Auditorium on the White House complex in Washington, Tuesday, April 4, 2017. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

This morning the Washington Post reports that an official White House tribute prepared in advance of John McCain’s expected death, was squelched by the president. In its place the president issued the insensitive tweet that may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

No matter what other news the president creates this week, John McCain’s casket in the capitol rotunda and the funeral to which the president has been disinvited will dominate the news irrespective of any particular medium’s political bent. John McCain, the POW whom the Donald Trump viewed as a loser, the former Republican Party candidate for president, will lie in state with nothing more than a disrespectful tweet from the President and Commander-in-Chief.

Some things are deeper than politics. Some things we can all understand. Some things — like the violation of the most basic civil code most Americans understand — have a way of provoking a seemingly sudden reaction.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, August 27, 2018.

 

A Profile in Cowardice

News of Senator John McCain’s death highlights the contrast between John McCain and Donald Trump, who belittled McCain’s service, never mentioned his name at the recent announcement of the defense bill that bears McCain’s name, and sent a terse condolence to the McCain family on the occasion of his death:

My deepest sympathies and respect go out to the family of Senator John McCain. Our hearts and prayers are with you!

The ‘respect’ was for the family, not for the Senator, one more back-handed slap at the now deceased senator. What kind of person expresses ‘respect’ for a grieving family?

JFK

President John Fitzgerald Kennedy

President Trump’s disrespectful tweet calls to mind President Kennedy’s autobiography, Profiles in Courage. Whatever one thought of JFK’s claim of war heroism, and whether or not one supported John McCain’s politics and candidacies for president, the chasm between the two men of courage and Donald J. Trump is unfathomable. But fathom it we must.

Can you imagine John McCain announcing his decision to fire a staff member with a tweet without a face-to-face meeting? Announcing a firing in a tweet, as Trump has done repeatedly, violates the most basic moral norms of common decency. Firing someone in cyberspace without meeting eyeball-to-eyeball in real space and time is not only insensitive. It is everything John McCain was not; it is cowardly.

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President Donald Trump

Senator John McCain was no fan of Donald Trump and Donald Trump was no fan of John McCain. The late Senator criticized Mr. Trump openly on matters of public policy; the president impugned McCain’s character as a loser. Big difference.

Before his death, Senator McCain requested that President Trump not attend his funeral and asked that Mr. Trump’s predecessors, Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush deliver the eulogies. Click this link for more information.

President Obama’s condolences to the McCain family include the following tribute to Senator McCain:

[W]e shared, for all our differences, a fidelity to something higher — the ideals for which generations of Americans and immigrants alike have fought, marched, and sacrificed.

Few of us have been tested the way John once was, or required to show the kind of courage that he did. But all of us can aspire to the courage to put the greater good above our own. At John’s best, he showed us what that means. And for that, we are all in his debt.

The American people salute John McCain’s honest character, and his courageous service to his country before and after he endured five years as a POW. The late senator leaves office as a winner.

115th_Congress_Freshman_Class

Photo of newly elected members of Congress.

Meanwhile, the president who disrespected him remains in the White House until Congress fires him face-to-face, and Presidential historian Michael Beschloss publishes the biography of Donald J. Trump, Profile in Cowardice: High Crimes and Misdemeanors.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, August 26, 2018.

 

No one owns a woodpecker!

Pileated_Woodpecker_(9597212081),_crop

Pileated Woodpecker

It was only a matter of time. Its girth was huge — much too big to get our arms around. Its top had fallen off. What remained was filled with gaping holes, but still standing at the southwest edge of the land with the cabin by the wetland. 

The tree had stood here decades before we imagined ourselves to be its owners last August. We paid good money to buy the property, including the naked tree that had not yet fallen. It was only a matter of time before it fell. It concerned us that it would topple on someone playing on the back of the yard — Barclay, the canine member of the family, one of the grandchildren, or the grounds-keeper who comes by every three weeks — but not enough to take it down. It continued to stand there with a still attached heavy limb causing it to lean slightly toward he east. It would fall of its own weight or by a lightning strike in due time. 

IMG_1546Tom, the Mennonite grounds-keeper, found the upper parts of the dead tree on the lawn last week while we were away. Its five-feet girth logs now serve as a barrier between the woods and the open space where the cabin sits. There’s no one left to remember how old the tree was, and what remains of it is too rotten to identify the rings. But the fallen tree that once fed the pileated woodpeckers continues to serve the community as a grocery for ground-feeding birds and other animals that feast on the termites and carpenter ants that once drew the woodpeckers.

IMG_1547Property is only a matter of time. No one owns a woodpecker. No one owns an insect!

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

Good Friday Kind of Grief

Good Friday is not a happy day. It’s a day to stand at the abyss of hopelessness and to turn what Otis Moss III and his father Otis Moss, Jr. call “pathetic grief” into “prophetic grief” that lifts up others.

Good Friday is a day for heart-felt reflection. A day to stop talking. A day to listen carefully to the Gospel readings and the Requiems of Gabriel Fauré or Maurice DurufléA day to let the tears well up in us. A day to stop pretending. A day to experience afresh the pathetic grief that links us with all the world until is becomes the prophetic grief that turns the world right-side up.

I wish you a meaningful Good Friday.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Good Friday, March 30, 2018.

Getting Older

256px-George_Burns_1961INTRODUCTION: There’s nothing like an old friend when you have nothing worth saying, as though you ever really do, and are focused on getting back to writing a novel instead of your blog. One such old friend is the Rev. John M. Miller, or “the Least Reverent John Miller,” as I call him, whose sermon from The Chapel Without Walls arrived by email this morning. John remembers a Pickles comic strip. I think of George Burns.

FOR OLDER AMERICANS WHO ARE GETTING OLDER

Text – “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die.” – Ecclesiastes 3:1-2 (RSV)

This sermon has taken many years to germinate. In one sense, it has taken almost seventy-nine years for it to come to full fruition. Thus the first reason for preaching this sermon is that the preacher himself is an older American who increasingly realizes he is getting older. The other reason which prompts this sermon is that Lois and I have lived in a retirement home for almost three years. That has given me the opportunity to have observed more than three hundred other older people getting older. That leads someone such as I to reflect on what all that means.

Hilton Head Island has a much older average population than the average American community. That has been true for at least the past fifty or sixty years. Over time we had three large retirement homes built here, plus several other smaller facilities of various types for various older people. The Seabrook, where we live, has 225 residents. Of those people, a hundred are ninety or older. We even have eight centenarians, people who are a hundred years of age or more.

Americans are getting older. Of course everybody is getting older, even newborns. However, by means of advancements in medical care, nutrition, and physical activity, many millions of Americans are going to make it into old age, whether they like it or not. Are we thinking about that? Are we consciously and conscientiously preparing for it? Or shall we just let it happen, come what may, with little or no thought given to it and what it might portend?

A member of The Chapel Without Walls sent me an email piece which he received as an email from someone else who no doubt received it as an email. It is called Ramblings of a tired mind. Among other things, it said these things: “I was thinking about old age and decided that old age is when you still have something on the ball, but you are just too tired to bounce it….The older you get the tougher it is to lose weight because by then your body and your fat have become really good friends….Aging: Eventually you will reach a point when you stop lying about your age and start bragging about it.”

But what happens if you realize you are old and you’re not bragging about it, or you fear it, or you wonder what is going to happen to you because of it? What if you’re older and not feeling well, and you think you are probably going to feel worse and worse, or you are fairly certain you’re going to run out of money because you lived too long and you see no way out of that heretofore unforeseen eventuality? Old age isn’t for sissies, they say, but must it be a severe trial for everyone who makes it into old age? For everyone, no, but for many, sadly, yes.

 When I was young, I didn’t like the Book of Ecclesiastes. I thought the writer, who is variously known as Ecclesiastes, Koheleth, or The Preacher, was too skeptical and cynical and sour. Now that I’m old I am more positively drawn to the unquestionably older person who wrote Ecclesiastes than to any other writer in the entire Bible. I suggest all of you take an hour or two this week to read this short book, and then ponder it and ruminate upon it. It is directed especially to older people who are getting older, and it has multitudes of golden nuggets for golden-agers. I’m serious. Read Ecclesiastes. Throughout this sermon I will use isolated quotes from Ecclesiastes. I won’t identify them as such, but if you listen closely, you’ll recognize them when you hear them, because you heard two readings earlier from this outstanding book.

I have said this before in several different ways, but I want to say it again: God does not determine when or how or why anyone dies. In my opinion, it is a serious mistake for anyone to believe God determines those things, because it can turn people into puppets or doormats. “Nature,” terminal illness, or longevity may terminate our lives, or we ourselves may do that, but it is never God who settles when anyone dies. Young or old, we die when we die. There is no explaining when or how or why it happens, other than medically or forensically. Theology can’t unveil why death happens when it happens. We die when we die, and faith cannot explain why.

That having been said, it behooves all of us, particularly as we get not only older but actually old, to contemplate everything we need to do to prepare for death. This may sound morbid, but what is really morbid is not to prepare for death by merely waiting passively for death to negate our existence. When we are living is the only time we have to prepare for death.

So what do we need to do? We need to have a written will, and a living will, and a medical power of attorney, whereby we designate someone to make medical decisions for us if we are physically and/or mentally incapable of expressing our own wishes for ourselves. We need to make sure somebody knows where all our important papers are, and to have access to them if they are under lock and key. We should establish a legal power of attorney for someone we trust who can handle our financial affairs if we are unable to handle them ourselves. We need to let our spouse or children or other relatives or attorney or somebody know what our wishes are concerning some sort of official recognition of our life soon after we have died.

I’m going to give you an opinion about which I have thought a great deal, probably more than most people. In my vocation, one is thrust into thinking about these things more than most other people. My advice? Please don’t tell your children or your lawyer that you don’t want any kind of service after you die. That is unfair to those who have known you and loved you, even if you are an irascible or ornery old coot, which of course no one here is. Everyone is a child of God, and as such, other children of God should be granted the opportunity and privilege to acknowledge and give thanks for the life of everyone who dies. Those who know they are going to die may not want a service, but a memorial service or celebration of life is for those who have lost the one who has died, and not for the deceased.  Everyone dies, and everyone else should have the  option of giving thanks to God for that person’s life when anyone dies. In my long-considered opinion, it is unseemly for a dying individual to prevent others from joining into a celebration of that person’s life, and also in a witness to the resurrection for those who are Christians.

Half a century in the ministry has convinced me that sadly, many people live too long. Most such people are not happy about that situation, but slowly or rather suddenly, there they are. For many oldsters, their quality of life declines into oblivion. It is my three years in a retirement home that have alerted me as nothing else could to the heart-wrenching reality of how relatively quickly too many Americans discover themselves to be living too long. Laws, customs, and faulty theology all contribute to their dilemma. The long-running British comedy on PBS called Waiting for God accurately describes this sober circumstance in a humorous but also telling manner.

Last Monday evening Turner Classic Movies showed a bittersweet film called Whales in August. It was about some elderly people on the Maine coast, and it starred Betty Davis in her final role, Lillian Gish, Ann Southern, Vincent Price and a couple of other loveable, colorful geezers. In the movie, Betty Davis and Lillian Gish play elderly sisters. The sister who is nearly blind says to her more positive and able-bodied sibling, “We have outlived our lives.” That was an honest, but sober, statement. We have outlived our lives. “So I hated life, because what is done under the sun is grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind” – Ecclesiastes 2:17).

Outliving one’s life in advanced age is a circumstance no one would ever choose. Nonetheless it is a situation confronted by increasing numbers of older people. Where once they were hale and hearty, now they are frail and weak. Where once their funds were sufficient, now they wonder which shall give out first, their money or them. Is it wise or prudent  — or ethical — to run out of money in old age? In any event, can it always be avoided? “In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider; God has made the one as well as the other, so that man will not find out anything that will be after him” Ecc. 7:14).

Countless older people have told me that wherever they are living is the last place in which they shall live. They say they are too old for another move. Don’t count on it. Circumstances may force older people to move to a nursing home or to be closer to children in other quarters or in a nursing home there. We like to think we are in control of our lives, but we may not be.

Thus far society has not made sufficient preparations for the legions of oldsters who are confronting the viability of the American health system. Social Security, pensions, and 401Ks cannot handle the costs of maintaining everyone who needs to be maintained. Here is an extremely sober and sobering question: Is it valid for any of us, if we are very old and sick, to keep on living? Voluntary, not mandatory answers to that question are the only valid ones.

Illness of any sort becomes a growing concern for older people. Dementia is a far greater concern. The older we get, the more likely we are to be afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease or some other form of dementia. Dementia requires more care than almost any other form of illness. If one spouse in a marriage begins to lose memory, demands inevitably shall increase for the other spouse who is still doing relatively well. Both can only try to make the best of it.

A few days ago I saw my longest-term close friend on the island. I hadn’t seen him for a couple of years. I was astonished at how much he had aged in that time. He has lost weight and is stooped and uncertain in his gait. His wife has had dementia for perhaps eight to ten years, and he is at the point where he simply is no longer able to give her the care she needs, but he has not found a suitable and affordable memory care facility for her. And so they both toddle along into a darker and ever more uncertain future. “Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of countenance the heart is made glad” (Ecc. 7:3) Was Koheleth correct when he wrote that?

One of my favorite comic strips is Pickles. It features flinty Earl, his wife Gladys, and their grandson Nelson. Earl and Gladys look to be in their seventies, and Nelson is about six or seven. Last Monday Earl was in the kitchen with his hand on his chin. Gladys asked him what he was doing there. “I came here to get something,” he said. “To get what?” she asked. “I don’t know. It slipped my mind. But I’m not leaving until it comes to me!” Exasperated, Gladys disappears. Earl looks after her, saying, “How about bringing me a chair?” On Tuesday he was still in the kitchen, trying to remember why he came there. She offered him a cookie while he waited. “Now I know why I came here!” he said, happy that the mystery of his muddled memory had been solved.

It is wise for older people to do what they can while they can still do it. Take trips. Go on cruises. See relatives, or have relatives come to see you. Visit friends. Go to the movies. Walk.  Play games, especially “thoughty” games like bridge. Have fun. Enjoy life. “I have seen the business that God has given to the sons of men to be busy with. He has made everything beautiful in its time; also he has put eternity into man’s mind, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end” Ecc. 3:10-11). Life becomes more of a mystery in old age.

On the cover of the bulletin today is a quote from an article wisely entitled Old, frail, called by God (Christian Century July 17, 2017. It was written by Joyce Ann Mercer, who teaches pastoral theology at Yale Divinity School. The author quoted the psychologist Erik Erikson. “Old age in one’s eighties and nineties brings with it new demands, revelations, and daily difficulties.” He said it is the time of the struggle between integrity and what he ruefully identified as “despair and disgust.” He went on, “Loss of capacities and disintegration may demand almost all of one’s attention. One’s focus may become thoroughly circumscribed by concerns of daily functioning so that it is enough just to get through a day intact, however satisfied or dissatisfied one feels about one’s previous life history.” To me, Erik Erikson sounds a lot like Ecclesiastes, Koheleth, the Preacher.

Commenting on this, Dr. Mercer writes, “Perhaps at no other time…does the body occupy such a premier place in defining the contours of life….The heightened body consciousness of older adulthood critiques the cultural overvaluing of independence and autonomy.” How true that is! Why should anybody imagine, as we get older, that we should be physically able to do all the things we could do when we younger? Can a fifty-year-old Triumph sports car still do 140 miles per hour for four hours? Can a century-old clock still keep perfect time? Why do we think we can do what we always did? Why do younger people expect us to do more than we can do?

Joyce Ann Mercer ended her article with these words: “God’s call in older adulthood sometimes takes place in a receptive-dependent mode, a vocation of forming others in faith by evoking in them the practices, habits, and dispositions of faithful people….God’s call for older adults to receive care from others is also a call to experience the care and presence of God.” Or, as Koheleth put it, “That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already has been; and God seeks what has been driven away” (Ecclesiastes 3:15).   

 It has often been said that in old age people are “cramming for their finals.” That phrase is meant to be humorous, but it is also very serious. Many who are older feel closer to God. If that is true, we should make the most of it. Cram away! Carpe diem; Seize the day! If you didn’t do it before, do it now; get as close to God as you can, because God is getting ever closer to you.

Some of you have met my wife’s sister, Millie Ruhl. Millie has been visiting us for the past three weeks. In December, she will moving into The Seabrook. Lois has the second-best memory of anyone I have ever known, but Millie is the unquestionable Number One Rememberer.

When Loie and her two sisters were in grade school, their parents were the counselors for three summers at the Nottingham Camp in northern Maryland, near the headwaters of the Chesapeake Bay. It was a very fine camp which attracted girls and boys from wealthy families all over the Northeast. The three Seifried girls had a free ride there for those idyllic years. Millie was reminiscing about the prayer the entire camp recited every morning. It was composed by the camp director, Cal Burley, a remarkable man about whom I have heard much through the past twenty years. “O God, forasmuch as without Thee we are not able to please Thee in anything we may undertake, mercifully grant that Thy Holy Spirit will direct and rule our hearts and minds in all that we do this day, so that, at the end of the day we shall hear the eternal benediction: Well done, thou good and faithful servant.” He is now gone, but well done yourself, Calvin Burley.

“If a man begets a hundred children, and lives many years, so that the days of his years are many, but he does not enjoy life’s good things, and also has no burial, I say that an untimely birth is better off than he” (Ecc. 6:3). Mr. Burley taught values to his campers, and his life continues to live on in them. May we also live on in those who shall live after us long after we are gone.

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Rev. John M. Miller, Chapel Without Walls

The Rev. John M. Miller, Chapel Without Walls, Hilton Head, N.C., Nov. 12, 2017 sermon.

John Miller has written and published six books including The Irony of Christianity: A Pastor’s Appeal for a Higher Theology and a Lower Christology, which was published by The Institute for Religion in 2002. The book remains available thru Amazon.

That would Ted do?

Conversations with a best friend newly diagnosed with pancreatic cancer led to me back this morning to Ted Gill, whose obituary we republish here.

Why? Because my friend, like Ted Gill, served as president of an institution of theological education, participated in the civil rights movement, and is finding fresh meaning in the communion of saints, that strange article of the Christian creed that connects the living and the dead as we have never been gathered in time.

People in Minnesota often ask “What would Wellstone do?” Paul Wellstone was a child of the Iron Range. So was Ted Gill who was born in the town where the Wellstone’s plane crashed.

In light of Ted Gill’s obituary — “Late in his life, Ted Gill remarked that ‘the high point of my career in the ministry was the week that I cost my seminary five million dollars’” — we might well ask, “What would Ted do?”

Theodore A. Gill, Sr.
Presbyterian Pastor, Theologian, and Educator

Rev. Dr. Theodore Alexander GillThe Rev. Dr. Theodore Alexander Gill, a former president of San Francisco Theological Seminary and later provost of John Jay College of Criminal Justice in the City University of New York (CUNY), died at the age of 85 on Friday, June 10 following a lengthy illness, in Princeton, New Jersey.

Born in Eveleth, Minnesota on January 7, 1920, Ted Gill was educated at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Princeton Theological Seminary, Union Seminary in New York City, and the University of Zurich where he wrote his doctoral dissertation on “Recent Protestant Political Theory.” His teachers included Emil Brunner, Karl Barth, Josef Hromadka, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Paul Tillich. He was awarded six honorary doctorates during his career. In his time at the San Francisco seminary, he became one of the founders of the Graduate Theological Union based in Berkeley.

After serving Presbyterian parishes in New Rochelle, New York and West End Presbyterian church in New York City, he became professor of religion and dean of the chapel at Lindenwood College in St. Charles, Missouri, and subsequently managing editor of The Christian Century magazine in Chicago and editor of its sister publication The Pulpit. He was president of San Francisco Theological Seminary from 1958 to 1966, leaving that position to occupy the higher education desk of the World Council of Churches in Geneva, Switzerland. Following a return to the parish in Detroit, he joined the faculty of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, a CUNY college in midtown Manhattan, where he remained from 1971 through 1989. In retirement, he served as theologian in residence at Nassau Presbyterian Church in Princeton, New Jersey.

Ted Gill’s passion was for the link between religion and the arts, and over the years he served as a part-time leader of such organizations as Art, Religion, and Contemporary Culture – founded by Paul Tillich – and American Summer Institutes, a series of annual seminars on theology and the arts in locations that included Rome, Berlin, Budapest, and St. Andrews. As president of the San Francisco seminary, he organized a ground-breaking program on theology and theatrical arts. He also served on Presbyterian judicial commissions in the northeast and on national church committees that produced The Worshipbook of 1970 and commissioned the seal or logo of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in 1985. At the time of his death, he was a retired member of the Presbytery of New York City.

From the early days of the US civil rights struggle, Ted Gill publicly supported equal rights for all and openly opposed segregationist practices in both southern and northern states. In 1963-64, he was regional chair of California’s “No on Proposition 14” campaign against discriminatory housing legislation, and in 1965 he marched with Martin Luther King from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in support of voting rights. As he and dozens of students and faculty members from San Francisco Theological Seminary participated in the Selma to Montgomery civil rights march of 1965, promises of millions of dollars in endowments to the institution he led were withdrawn in protest by potential donors. Late in his life, Ted Gill remarked that “the high point of my career in the ministry was the week that I cost my seminary five million dollars.” In later years, he voiced support for the full participation of gays and lesbians in church and society.

51N4rqkX+bL._AC_UL320_SR240,320_He was the author or editor of numerous books, journals, and articles. Among his books were The Sermons of John Donne (1958), Memo for a Movie: A Short Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1971), and, with Robert Bellah and Krister Stendahl, Religion and the Academic Scene (1975).

He was noted for editorial columns and sermons that were featured in church magazines and on radio’s “The Protestant Hour.” Preaching in a sermon series titled “Christian Clichés,” Ted Gill told his listeners:

“I have known and loved too many of the victims of the old-fashioned version of the ‘Christian’ life: wonderful, juicy human beings who were persuaded by a misguided church that they had to veil their vividness, bank their fires, dehydrate their interest, denature their enthusiasms, if they wanted to be Christian. No, the old idea will not do… The Christian life is not the life that is made to fit the legalistic box, that is forced to fit into the pattern. The Christian life is life lived in a certain direction – in, through, around, above whatever temperamental, physical, psychological obstacles any of us may have. But always in that direction – the direction which is assigned to us by what we know of God, by what we know in Jesus Christ of the character and nature of the realest real, by what we know in Jesus of God and the love of God. The Christian life is life lived in appropriate reaction to God’s action for us. The Christian life will be described in terms of the direction we are headed, and of how well we keep going in that direction, no matter how often we trip and fall.”

At the 1968 assembly of the World Council of Churches, Ted Gill gave a speech on “The Great Convergence” of education and the churches. Reflecting on student demonstrations in universities that spring, he revealed his discomfort with patterns of conformity in higher education:

“On the campuses, a generation erupted, an important piece of society let fly. The protest might have begun on the field of general education, but it was a wild shout, a rough rejection of education-in-general, of everything taken for granted by all the elements now molding people, coercing society, determining the future. The real adversary was not this or that administrator or this or that teacher or this or that course. The real adversaries were that rigid vice-chancellor, the status quo; those sternly directive professors, government and industry; that intolerable bore, academic tradition; those long courses in accommodation… Some of the brightest and best of our youth flame now in revolutionary dissatisfaction with the goals they see accepted by those who teach them, affect them, direct them. They distrust the values commonly invoked. They defy the system which ever more efficiently instructs the new generation in means that they see leading straight to inhuman ends: unendurable inequities, intolerable narrowing of human possibilities, blasphemous vulgarizations of spirit.” (“The Great Convergence,” The Ecumenical Review 20.4 [Oct. 1968], 385-94.)

In the April 1958 issue of The Pulpit, editor Gill reflected on the intricacies of theology in light of his father’s recent death: “We squabble and we rant about all the picayune details we assign to mysteries completely beyond our assessing, when all we really have to tell the world, all we really have to live on is the good news that God is love… But now, the love of God that gets us through our hard days is for more than funerals. It is for living along. When you know in your bones that the most real knows you and loves you, that beyond the vicissitudes of experience and the catastrophes of existence the ground of all being has declared itself for you, there should be a relief and a release in your living, a new inventiveness and zest in your living, a new pleasure, a more confident participation in life and its precious fascinations.”

Due to a blockage of his carotid artery in May 1994, he lost the capacity for speech and began a gradual decline in health. His wife of 57 years, Katherine Yonker Gill, died in July 2002. He is survived by a daughter, Laurie Melissa Keeran of Brewster, Massachusetts; a son, the Rev. Theodore A. Gill, Jr. of Geneva, Switzerland; a grand-daughter, Elizabeth Katherine Gill of Durham, North Carolina; and longtime caregiver Ben Mensah of New York City. A memorial service will be held at Nassau Presbyterian Church in Princeton, New Jersey and is being planned for Monday, June 20.

Click HERE to read the NYT obituary.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, September 20, 2017.

The Widower and the Wife

THE WIDOWER

Ninety-year old “John” still drives to church. He comes alone now, one month after his wife died.

He parks his car on the street, as he has for forty years.

“Good morning, John! Good to see you. Am I remembering correctly that you lost your wife recently?”

“Yes,” he says. It would have been 62 years next month.”

“I’m so sorry for your loss. These days must be very lonely.”

“Yes. Very,” he says, his gentle eyes seemingly thankful for the momentary recognition of his plight, followed by a pause. “I don’t know why I’m still here,” he says.  “I’m ready to go. I’m not saying I want to go, but I’m ready.”

“Old age ain’t for the faint of heart, is it, John?” “It sure isn’t,” he says.

THE WIFE

During his wife’s long illness, she, too, had spoken about being “ready to go.”

“I want to die,” she’d said, “before you have to put me in memory care.”

The thought of transfer from independent living to the lock-down memory care unit seemed worse than death. She’d made too many visits there. Seen too many old friends get lost in there, taking food that no longer nourishes, spoonfuls of institutional food administered for the purpose of keeping inmates alive for no reason but to prolong bodies that can’t remember their own names.

“I wish I could just walk off into the woods,” she’d said, “the way other animals do. This is unreal. I’m not afraid to die. I’m afraid of becoming a burden.”

“DEATH IN THE WOODS”- Thomas MacDonagh

When I am gone and you alone are living here still,
You’ll think of me when splendid the storm is on the hill,
Trampling and militant here — what of their village street?–
For the baying of winds in the woods to me was music sweet.

Oh, for the storms again, and youth in my heart again!
My spirit to glory strained, wild in this wild wood then,
That now shall never strain — though I think if the tempest should roll
I could rise and strive with death, and smite him back from my soul.

But no wind stirs a leaf, and no cloud hurries the moon;
I know that our lake to-night with stars and shadows is strewn–
A night for a villager’s death, who will shudder in his grave
To hear — alas, how long! — the winds above him rave.

How long! Ah, Death, what art thou, a thing of calm or of storms?
Or twain — their peace to them, to me thy valiant alarms?
Gladly I’d leave them this corpse in their churchyard to lay at rest,
If my wind-swept spirit could fare on the hurricane’s kingly quest.

And sure ’tis the fools of knowledge who feign that the winds of the world
Are but troubles of little calms by the greater Calm enfurled:
I know then for symbols of glory, and echoes of one Voice dread,
Sounding where spacious tempests house the great-hearted Dead.

And what but a fool was I, crying defiance to Death,
Who shall lead my soul from this calm to mingle with God’s very breath!–
Who shall lead me hither and perhaps while you are waiting here still,
Sighing for thought of me when the winds are out on the hill.

  • Thomas MacDonagh (1 February 1878 – 3 May 1916 / Cloughjordan / Ireland), executed by firing squad 3 May 1916 at the age of 39 for participation in the Irish rebellion called “Easter Rising”.

John now visits his wife among the ashes he’s scattered in the wooded glen behind their home, in the greater Calm under the old oak tree, among the animals, “sighing for thought of [her] when the winds are out on the hill.”

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, April 12, 2017.

 

The larks still bravely sing

The unexpected news of my cousin Dennis’ death came as a surprise but it was not a shock.

Late last spring Dennis “went dark”, disappearing except for occasional appearances at the grocery story in the his childhood hometown to which he had returned in hopes of going home again, forgetting Thomas Wolfe’s wisdom.

May 29 – days before his bipolar disorder led him to lock out the world – he wrote on FaceBook. “Today the choir at South Paris Congregational Church will sing an arrangement of the poem ‘In Flanders Field’. It is a very moving arrangement of this well known poem. So proud to be a member of this talented choir.”

Here’s the text of the poem:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

  • John McCrae, Canadian physician and poet.

It was at the South Paris Congregational Church that Dennis’ father, my Uncle Bob, had dropped dead of a cerebral hemorrhage while moderating an annual congregational meeting. Dennis and I were in our 30s when it happened; we flew back to South Paris for the funeral. First in his class at Harvard College and Harvard Law and a direct descendent of John Smith of the Mayflower, Bob Smith was also the Choirmaster-Organist at the church when we wasn’t on the bench or discretely institutionalized out of public view for what we now call bipolar disorder.

Dennis had more than his share of tragedy in his life. Dennis’s older brother Alan, locked inside the body by cerebral palsy, was entirely dependent on the family for the most basic needs, although we knew from his eyes and his moans how attuned he was to those he loved. After Dennis and Sandy began their own family, their one-year old son Christopher was found dead in his crib. Many years later their son Sean died in a car accident after Sean’s sophomore year at Colorado College. Death, grief, and sorrow were woven into the warp and woof of the Smith family’s life. But so were faith and hope – the larks, still bravely singing, flying overhead, scarce heard amid the guns below.

Rest in Peace, Dennis.

 

  • Gordon C. Stewart, six-month younger first cousin, kindred flesh and spirit of Dennis Smith of South Paris, Maine, in Memoriam, Feb.13, 2017. Prayers for my all the Smith family – Gwen, Kelly, Stacy, and Sandy, among others – and the dear people of the South Paris Congregational Church and Choir.

Old Friends on FaceBook

Ted Bonsall and I became lifelong friends back in Kindergarten in Broomall, Pennsylvania. We played ball in each other’s yards every day for years. I have pictures to prove it!

All these years later, FaceBook invited me to wish Ted (“Russell”) Happy Birthday!”

FaceBook wasn’t around way back in 1947 in Broomall. It didn’t know Ted then and doesn’t seem to know him now. Although Ted died of cancer several years ago, his Facebook page is still up. Like memory itself, his page can never be erased by time.

Miss you, good buddy!

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, Minnesota, December 22, 2016