The Normalization of Evil

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Can you hear the tablets breaking? Does it matter anymore?

As soon as [Moses] came near the camp and saw the [Golden] calf and the dancing, Moses’ anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets from his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain. — Book of Exodus 32:19 NRSV

Gustave Doré (1832-1883), Moses breaks the tablets of the Law – Exodus 32:19

The artist’s in the portrait below seems to be wondering how we will answer in this election: Can you still hear the shattering of common decency? Is it making you sick?

Port
Portrait of Gustave Doré (1832-1883),

You shall not take the Name of the Lord your God in vain ( Exodus 20:7) explained

According to Hebrew Bible scholar W. Gunther Plaut, the commandment against using the divine Name for vain purposes “forbids man [sic] in every respect to use God’s name wrongly or in vain. [M]urder, adultery and theft are circumscribed by opportunity and fear, but misuse of God’s name, once it becomes a habit will proliferate ‘and in the end one’s every assertion will be preceded by using the Name’. The result is a devaluation of awe and respect, and in time the holiness of God has no further meaning.

“On the whole… Jewish tradition treated the prohibition with utmost regard. It frowned on a all secular or self-serving use of the Name.” — The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Union of American Hebrew Congregations, NY, 1981.

President Donald Trump holding Bible in front of St. John’s Church after clearing clearing Lafayette Square, Washington, D.C. and declaring, “I am your law and order President.”

And hast thou sworn on every slight pretense,
Till perjuries are common like bad pence,
While thousands, careless of the damning sin,
Kiss the books outside, who never look’d within.

– W. Cowper (1731-1800 CE) cited by The Torah: A Modern Commentary

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor (Ninth Commandment)

Michael Caputo

According to a report in Politico, Caputo, along with scientific adviser Paul Alexander, pressured officials to alter the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports, a long-running weekly journal that features the latest science-based research and data on infectious diseases. Known as MMWR, the report has long been a sacred government information resource for doctors, scientists and researchers tracking outbreaks. Caputo has often publicly pushed back on CDC statements about the coronavirus and said falsely in a Facebook video on Sunday that the CDC has a “resistance unit” against Trump, according to The New York Times. His Facebook page has since been made private. The officials pressured CDC to change the reports, at times retroactively, to better align them with Trump’s often rosier public statements about the coronavirus, Politico reported. — Excerpts from article by Andrew O’Reilly, Fox News

Yesterday Mr. Caputo apologized to CDC staff for his accusations and disrespect for CDC scientists.

Attorney General Bill Barr

In Barr’s eyes . . . it’s the Democrats who are actually doing what Barr’s critics allege of him.

“You know [how] liberals project,” Barr told Kass. “All this bullshit about how the president is going to stay in office and seize power? I’ve never heard of any of that crap. I mean, I’m the attorney general. I would think I would have heard about it. They are projecting. They are creating an incendiary situation where there will be loss of confidence in the vote.” In a moment of supreme irony, Barr then immediately hypothesized a fanciful scenario where unnamed figures rigged the vote in a battleground state. —Matt Ford, The New Republic, “Bill Barr’s Titanic Lack of Self-Awareness, The New Republic, Sept. 17, 2020.

Human Nature and the Normalization of Wickedness: Wisdom from Hannah Arendt

Arendt considers one particularly pernicious breed of liars — “public-relations managers in government who learned their trade from the inventiveness of Madison Avenue.” In a sentiment arguably itself defeated by reality — a reality in which someone like Donald Trump sells enough of the public on enough falsehoods to get gobsmackingly close to the presidency — she writes:

“The only limitation to what the public-relations man does comes when he discovers that the same people who perhaps can be ‘manipulated to buy a certain kind of soap cannot be manipulated — though, of course, they can be forced by terror — to ‘buy’ opinions and political views. Therefore the psychological premise of human manipulability has become one of the chief wares that are sold on the market of common and learned opinion…

“The self-deceived deceiver loses all contact with not only his audience, but also the real world, which still will catch up with him, because he can remove his mind from it but not his body.”

Maria Popova, Lying in Politics, Hannah Arendt on Deception, Self-Deception, and the Psychology of Defactualization.

Election 2020: Who are we? What shall become of us? Who is “us”?

November 3, 2020 is about who we have become and who we choose to be.

The sound of Moses’ tablets breaking was heard again within minutes of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death. Justice Ginsburg’s dying wish was that her seat on the Court remain empty until after January 2021 — after the inauguration of 46th President.

Before prayers could be offered for the dead, we could see a vulture swooping to prey on a fresh corpse before the family had time to offer prayers for the dead and for themselves. Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell broke the respectful silence most Americans observe following a death, no matter your differences. You show respect for the dead and for the grieving.

McConnell immediately announced his disagreement with a dying wish that her seat on the Court remain empty until after inauguration of the 46th President in January 2021. Justice Ginsburg’s request had precedent. The Majority Leader had prevented President Obama from appointing a successor to Justice Scalia on the grounds that no SCOTUS vacancy should be filled during the last year of a president’s term. In the waning days of President Trump’s term of office, McConnell announced he would welcome an appointment and put it on the Senate floor for a vote.

There are no principles. Not even a trace of common decency, not a moment of silence that normal follows death –in this case, a momentary suspension of the politics of deceit and the worship of power.

With a crassness that breaks the common observance of respectful silence following a death in the community, practice Senator Mitch McConnell Senate and President Trump immediately declared his disagreement with Justice Ginsburg’s last wish. Her desire has precedent. The Senate will welcome a nomination during the remainder of President Trump’s term of office — an “about face” from his refusal to honor the nomination of President Barack Obama 11 months before the next President would take office.

There are no principles. Not even a trace of common decency that shows compassion for those who grieve and that respect for the deceased — a momentary suspension of the politics of deceit and the worship of power.

“@GOP We were put in this position of power and importance to make decisions for the people who so proudly elected us, the most important of which has long been considered to be the selection of United States Supreme Court Justices. We have this obligation, without delay!”

– DJP tweet

VOTE on or before November 3. It matters. Our character and this experiment in democracy are on the ballot as never before.


Every day is the last judgment

There’s no need to hang about
waiting for the Last Judgement —
it takes place every day.

Albert Camus, The Fall (1956)

The Influenza Pandemic of 1918-19

The COVID-19 pandemic was not the first and will not be the last. Historical contexts, memory, and what we believe make a difference to how we live/die in the 2020 pandemic.The influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 killed between 20 and 40 million people, more than all the deaths in World War I. “It has been cited as the most devastating epidemic in recorded world history. More people died of influenza in a single year than in four-years of the Black Death Bubonic Plague from 1347 to 1351” – Stanford Encyclopedia.

In the United States, 195,000 Americans lost their lives in the month of October, 1918 alone. The influenza of 1918-19 became known as “the Spanish Flu” after it took the life of the King of Spain, but it was no more Spanish than COVID-19 is Chinese. A virus is a virus. It pays no attention to nations or the propensity of nations and peoples to target a scapegoat — another nation unlike one’s own — as though a virus knows the difference.

Chart showing mortality from the 1918 influenza pandemic in the US and Europe, courtesy of the National Museum of Health and Medicine

The Parable of the Last Judgment (Matthew 13:31-46)

First appearances can be deceptive, few more so than the teachings of Jesus. The Parable of the Last Judgment is not what it seems –it is not about future end of time. It’s a parable inviting the listeners to get their heads out of the clouds and put their feet on the ground. Its message? Pay attention to people in front of you, or nearby, living under the interstate bridge in the dead of winter. Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick, visit the prisoners — put yourself squarely in the midst of human suffering.

We might say, the measure of life is compassion in the midst of a world that makes no good sense. What happens at the end is not yours to know. Pay attention to today. Every day is the Last Judgment.

But there’s something else that goes unnoticed in individualistic cultures. Jesus’s parable it is not about the individual. The parable is not about you. It’s not about me. It’s a story that calls the nations to account for their behavior. In that sense, the parable is political. It’s about the polis and its values. There are no privileged nations. All are measured by one standard. The last judgment– the judgment of compassion, kindness, and humility — takes place every day.

The Opportunity of Trouble

Like the Influenza pandemic of 2018-19, the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 is a crisis in the Chinese sense of the word — danger and opportunity. The danger seems obvious, but perhaps the opportunity is greater. We are at war with each other across the U.S.A., shouting across a deep chasm that the other is a goat. We are in very deep trouble, but we’re in it together because of a deadly virus. In hopes we will come to the deeper knowledge of who we are.

“The human mind and the human heart move to truth through trouble,” said Irish Anglican priest G.A. Studdert Kennedy. “It does not really matter what sort of truth you seek. Bunyan faced with the problem of the soul, and Newton faced with the problem of the stars, are both alike in this: they are troubled spirits. They brood over a mass of apparently unconnected, unrelated, and meaningless facts. Bunyan mutters, ‘There is no health in me’; and Newton mutters, ‘There is no sense in them.’ For both it is dark, and they do not know the way. Both walk at times into the dungeon of despair. The pilgrim’s progress of the scientist and of the saint is made along much the same road, and it begins with a troubled brooding, and a heavy heavy burden at the back of the mind and heart. We must all start there. Life begins in Lent. But there comes to both a supreme and splendid moment, the moment when they cry, ‘I see! I see!’ Bunyan sees a Cross and a Man who hangs in agony upon it. Newton sees an apple falling to the ground. But into the minds of both there comes a blaze of light.” — G.A. Studdert Kennedy (“Woodbine Willie”) sermon “The Word with God.”

Perhaps a blaze of light will flood this moment of trouble, we will rediscover each other, find our better selves, and cry out with fresh joy, “I see! I see!”

1918 flu epidemic: the Oakland Municipal Auditorium in use as a temporary hospital. The photograph depicts volunteer nurses from the American Red Cross tending influenza sufferers in the Oakland Auditorium, Oakland, California, during the influenza pandemic of 1918.

Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017, Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR), Chaska, MN, March 21, 2020.

World AIDS Day – a Memory

From the pulpit I could see him in the last pew. He always arrived late — usually during the first hymn — and left early, during the last hymn. Some people prefer to be anonymous, for all kinds of reasons.

For months, I wondered who he was.

Then, one day, he stayed through the closing hymn, the benediction, and what we Presbyterians call “The Charge” to follow in the way of Christ that begins, “Go into the world in peace; have courage . . . .”

“Go into the world in peace; have courage; hold to what is good; do not return evil for evil; strengthen the faint-hearted; support the weak; help the suffering; honor all people; love and serve the Lord rejoicing in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.”

He heard the words but left as quickly as before.

Then, one day, he found the courage to introduce himself at the door. As best I can recall, he said with a smile, “You may have wondered who I am. “My name is Sam. I’m dying of AIDS.”

Sam was my up-close-and-personal introduction to AIDS and the HIV/AIDS community. Months later, he became the first and only patient to offer me the Charge and Benediction.

Thank you, Sam, for your courage, for keeping the light of faith burning where others sought to blow it out, and for your gracious Charge and Benediction. Rest in peace.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN Dec. 1, 2019

Rest in Peace, Dennis

This remembrance of Dennis Aubrey, written by Dennis’s brother for Via Lucis, touches the heart and soul, and the expansive brilliance known by those whose lives have been deepened and enriched by him. There is opportunity to comment or leave your condolences for PJ and members of PJ and Dennis’s family.

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It is with infinite sadness that I must tell you that Dennis passed away suddenly last Friday. I write this on behalf of his wife and partner, PJ.

With his passing, Dennis leaves a gaping abyss in our lives. He was a man larger than life, zestful in his embrace of all that life offered. Readers of this blog enjoyed the excellence of PJ and Dennis’s photographic art, and the enlightening and entertaining musings that accompanied those featured photographs.

The power of Dennis’s writing derived from his encyclopedic brain: he brought his vastly read knowledge to every subject he wrote about, whether history, or philosophy, religion or geometry, music or poetry. Via Lucis isn’t simply a photography blog. It isn’t simply an art and architecture blog. It is a brief—and intriguing—glimpse into the mind of one of the artists who brings these Romanesque churches to life through photograph and word.

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The Miracle of Reconciliation– Two Memories of Good Friday

MY M0THER AND THE THREE MARYS

I remember my mother’s tears on this day, Good Friday, and wondering why she was so sad. Jesus had been crucified a long, long time ago. It wasn’t happening now. But, to Mom, it was. Like the three Mary’s at the foot of the crosses, Mom was weeping in her pew. I remember the white handkerchief dabbing the cornerS of her eyes.

I was five or six years old the first time I saw Mom at the foot of the cross with the three Marys. The Marys were all gone. Only Mom and her white handkerchief continued the vigil, and it happened every year on Good Friday. It was in junior high school that I began to get under the tears and weep them for myself. I “got” the cruelty of it.

The pounding of nails into wrists and feet. The soldiers laughing at him while they gambled for his clothes. If they were gambling for his clothes, was Jesus naked in front of the whole world? Was the crown of thorns the only thing he wore? Were the thorns cutting into his head? “I thirst.” They give him vinegar on the end of stick! He looks down at John. “Behold your mother; woman, behold your son.” Take my mother home! Mary doesn’t go home. She stays by him until the end. She winces at the nightmare she cannot end: “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabstachtani?” (My God, my God, why have You abandoned me?), watches as a soldier puts a hole in his side; weeps inconsolably when it is finished, and they take him away.

How could Mom not cry hearing that? How could anyone not reach for a handkerchief?

“GOD WAS IN CHRIST, RECONCILING THE WORLD TO HIMSELF”

Years later, Ken and Ilse Beaufoy and I observed Good Friday in the pews of Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church. Aside from one or two others who dropped by for a short time each year, we were alone in the church. Beginning at noon, at half hour intervals, we read aloud a portion of the Passion narratives paused in silence, listened to the corresponding movement from Rutter’s Requiem, spoke a brief prayer, and sat in the silence until the next half hour.

The Good Fridays with Ken (and Ilse, before she died) were unique. An American Presbyterian minister with a married couple, Ken a former Biitish soldier, and Ilse, a former member of the Luftwaffe, one of only two women awarded the Iron Cross. Ken and Ilse met at a dance sponsored by the occupying forces following WW II. Ilse was one of two women Luftwaffe soldiers awarded the Iron Cross for standing her post during the Allied bombing of Hamburg.

Despite objections and death threats from family members, Ken and Ilse committed themselves to the bonds of marriage. What else but the reconciling love of God could bridge the gulf of former enemy combatants? Five decades later, Ilse died moments after hearing the words of permission that would only have meaning to a decorated war hero who had stayed at her anti-aircraft post atop the Hamburg bunker to protect the civilians below. “You no longer need to stand your post. You no longer need to fight. It’s time to go home. Go in peace.” From that day on, there were just the two of us staying by the cross from noon to 3:00 on Good Friday.

Rutter’s “Pie Jesu” did not explain the crucifixion or the peace it brought Ken and Ilse Beaufoy. It didn’t need to. Some things cannot be explained. They can only be lived…with thanksgiving for abounding grace while dabbing the corner of your eyes with a handkerchief.

— Gordon C. Stewart by the wilderness, Minnesota, Good Friday, April 19, 2019

That’s how the light gets in

There’s nothing like old friends. Once there were seven. Now there are four. We call ourselves The Dogs, old friends and classmates at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago. Yesterday Harry Strong, Bob Young, Don Dempsey, our spouses, and I, gathered with Vicki Boulton and the Boulton family and friends at Second Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis to sing God’s praise and to give thanks for the classmate who brought us all together again in 2004 for what we call The Gatherings.

L to R: Bob Young, Gordon, Don Dempsey & Harry Strong with photo of Wayne.

Wayne Boulton was my best friend, dating back to 1964 when we were assigned to be roommates in Alumni Hall. Wayne has been the Dean of the Dogs who arranged our gatherings over the years: places, dates, the daily schedule, books and topics, and guests who would join us for a morning or afternoon. Since 1964, Wayne and Vicki, the love of his life, have been a continuous thread of friendship.

As much as I wanted to sing the hymns that are as close as the next drawn breath — O God, Our Help in Ages Past; Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee; There Is a Balm in Gilead; and For All the Saints Who from their Labors Rest — I couldn’t. I shut my mouth (which is rare), and opened my ears to hear the deep resonance of the organ and the congregation singing the hymns. I trusted the gathered community to lift me from the sorrows of dust and ashes. And lift me they did — without knowing it, except for Kay, and with no other intention than to sing to the glory of God and give thanks for Wayne.

The next day, the four surviving friends gathered for our own time of remembrance, wearing the Chicago Dogs t-shirts Don had given us all. We sang hymns. We read from Wayne’s books and email exchanges with us, prayed, and hung on the edges of laughter and, and listened to Leonard Cohen’s Anthem, Going Home, If It Be Your Will. Leonard reminded us again that there is a crack in everything, and “that’s how the light gets in.”

L to R: Harry Strong, Gordon, Don Dempsey & Bob Young gathered around Wayne’s photo.

In this period of Narcissism, it is a matter of no small thanksgiving that Wayne did not call attention to himself. He was without guile, and as playful as a child. “Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:2-4 NRSV). Would that the same might be true for all of us lesser lights.

As the four old friends and our wives took Vicki to dinner the night following the memorial service, the crack in us had been wedged open wider, but, against the cynic’s logic, the light was brighter. As Leonard said, “That’s how the light gets in.”

With Vicki Boulton following dinner, March 19, 2019. Old friends since 1964. In 1966, Vicki became Wayne’s roommate … for life.

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

Anthem, Leonard Cohen

Between the Banks of Time

Matthew Arnold‘s poem The Future came to mind this week in light of the eulogy for local artist and gardener Lynn NiskanenClick HERE for the obituary. Scroll down for her brother-in-law’s poem honoring Lynn’s life.

The Future [excerpt]

But what was before us we know not, 
And we know not what shall succeed. 

Haply, the river of Time— 
As it grows, as the towns on its marge 
Fling their wavering lights 
On a wider, statelier stream— 
May acquire, if not the calm 
Of its early mountainous shore, 
Yet a solemn peace of its own. 

And the width of the waters, the hush 
Of the grey expanse where he floats, 
Freshening its current and spotted with foam 
As it draws to the Ocean, may strike 
Peace to the soul of the man on its breast— 
As the pale waste widens around him, 
As the banks fade dimmer away, 
As the stars come out, and the night-wind 
Brings up the stream 
Murmurs and scents of the infinite sea. 

Looking out at the infinite sea

In your abandoned garden

Lynn, in your abandoned garden
your presence - like sunlight - can still be felt.


At your invitation
the butterflies, hummingbirds and cardinals 
your absence still unknown to them,
keep returning.


In your abandoned garden
the purple iris - by your own hand planted,
sleeps tonight beneath her snowy cover,


and awaits the divine kiss of rain.

-- Will Niskanen, brother-in-law. Excerpt from Will's Eulogy for Lynn Niskanen, Feb. 18, 2019, at Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church Chaska, MN

Although Lynn was “a practitioner and bringer of light,” as Will described her, she did not draw to attention to herself. The pews and church parking lot overflowed their banks.

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Feb. 21, 2019.

Going home without my burden

Some things are too close. Too personal. As Leonard Cohen put it in his songs Going Home and If It Be Your Will, my best friend over the past 55 years has “gone home without his burden, [gone] home behind the curtain without the costume that he wore.”

Wayne Granberry Boulton — click HERE for the obituary — died peacefully at home in Indianapolis under the tender care of the love of his life — his one and only wife — and their older son Matthew (Matt).

The costumes Wayne wore were academic (Duke Ph.D.) and ecclesiastical (McCormick Theological Seminary M.Div.) robes, but these costumes were faint glimpses into his underlying character.

Harry Strong, Vicki Boulton, Wayne Boulton, Gordon, Nadja Shoemaker, Steve Shoemaker (seated), Divide CO, 2006

Knowing the hospice drugs soon would ease him into wherever people go at the end of life, I visited Wayne and Vicki, Matt and Chris and all the Boulton family in Indianapolis two weeks ago. Wayne’s mind was still clear and sharp. His heart, which was always big, without ever being sloppy, was closer to his sleeve.

If it be your will
That I speak no more
And my voice be still
As it was before
I will speak no more
I shall abide until
I am spoken for
If it be your will [Leonard Cohen, If It Be Your Will]

“Hi, my name’s Wayne Boulton,” said the new roommate in 1964, where we had been assigned to Alumni Hall Room 312 by the housing office at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago. Although he had arrived hours before my key opened the door, he had not yet chosen which of the two beds, desks, and dressers would be his. That was the first clue that my roommate was un-selfish.

We were roommates for two years until he exchanged vows with Vicki in 1966. I was to be Wayne’s Best Man, but that was before the Chicago Chapter of the Experiment in International Living sent me packing to Czechoslovakia that summer, reducing my status to “would-have-been/ could-have-been/ should have been” Wayne’s Best-Man. When I returned to the States, Vicki had become the roommate to whom he had pledged his troth.

If it be your will
That a voice be true

Wayne’s word was his bond. He was loyal. Honoring his family and friends came second only to honoring the First Commandment to have no other gods but I AM. Wayne knew that we are covenantal creatures whose joy is found in steadfast love, a voice that is true to itself. Wayne did not sing of himself. Self-promotion was not his thing. Close to being fitted for the MBA costume of Northwestern University’s School of Business, he left the fitting room to prepare for a different robe in service to the church and the academy.

From this broken hill
All your praises they shall ring
If it be your will
To let me sing

It was during the Lafayette College choir concert at Westbury High School that Wayne and Vicki met. The love at first sight led to the births of Matthew and Christopher, and stayed fresh until there were no more costumes. What began with the twinkling of an eye ended the same way — with thanksgiving washed by tears.

Going home
Without my sorrow
Going home
Sometime tomorrow
Going home
where it’s better
Than before

No compassionate person would wish that a loved one with terminal pancreatic cancer continue to wear the patient’s costume. “I’m dying,” he wrote to the members of the wide circle of friends he had gathered. Former students, faculty colleagues, and neighbors in Holland, Michigan and in Richmond, Virginia;  members of the churches he’d served in Maryland, New Jersey, and Massachusetts, and the  latest friends in Indianapolis. He embraced the coming end of life, neither denying death’s finality nor betraying his deepest conviction: “in life and in death, we belong to God.”

Going home
Without my burden
Going home
Behind the curtain
Going home
Without this costume
That I wore. [Leonard Cohen]

The loss of of a best friend hits hard, no matter how much we expected it. “Hey, Roomie” was the way he began our phone calls. Choking through the tears on this side of the curtain, I give thanks that my roommate has “gone home/Without [his] burden/Behind the curtain/Without the costume/That [he] wore,” and pray against all my doubts, that some other strangers may be greeted the way I was:

“Hi, my name’s Wayne Boulton.”

Wayne wearing Chicago Dogs shirt in honor of seminary friends who call ourselves “The Dogs”

And draw us near
And bind us tight
All your children here
In their rags of light
In our rags of light
All dressed to kill
And end this night
If it be your will

If it be your will [Leonard Cohen, If It Be Your Will]

— Gordon C. Stewart, one four remaining Dogs “bound tight . . . . in our rags of light,” Chaska, MN, February 4, 2019.

Yes Mary. Everything Does. And Too Soon. Way Too Soon. (RIP)

David Kanigan’s tribute to Mary Oliver arrived this morning while waiting for word of the end of a best friend’s life that will die too soon from pancreatic cancer. His family and friends are paying close attention, kneeling down in the grass for a holy rest and peace at the last.

— Gordon

Live & Learn

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell…

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A Walk Down the Hall

There are for most of us those rare moments that give definition to one’s life. Such singular moments cast a wider light on all the other moments on calendars and clocks.

These are moments of the heart that touch us deeply — like Sunday’s return to Cincinnati to preach the sermon for the ordination of David Annett who was a boy when I served as his pastor at Knox Church 25 years ago, and the Monday and Tuesday times with my best friend Wayne as he nears the end of life in Indianapolis. Jean-Paul Sartre’s words from Nausea were never far away:

“One is still what one is going to cease to be,
and already what one is going to become.
One lives one’s death, one dies one’s life.”

The friendship with Wayne began at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago where the housing director had assigned us to room together in Room 311 of Alumni Hall. No friendship has been longer or deeper since that day in 1964. We have lived our deaths together over the years, and now one of us is in hospice care dying his life. The visits last Monday and Tuesday were what they have always been: moments described by the old hymn “Blest be the ties that bind Our hearts in Christian love.”

Front row: Don. Back row: Harry, Wayne, Bob, and Gordon at Wrigley Field

Sometimes a singular moment of time reveals one’s continuing character. I cannot yet find the moment that would open the window into who Wayne is or what our friendship has meant over the years since we met in Room 311. Memory will open it when the time is right, as it did when David invited me to preach his ordination sermon.

Our life stories rise out of the meeting points when our separate journeys converge as a dramatic moment that feels like fiction. As I spiraled back to the 11 years with David here at Knox, a singular moment in time seemed to put a frame around who you have ceased to be but still are, David, and who you will become after we have prayed over you with the laying on of hands.

The day I’m remembering happened years ago. You were eight years-old the day I’m remembering. Your grandmother was dying, You asked me to take you to see you grandmother one last time. We drove to Mercy Hospital and talked about what it’s like to visit a hospital, what he was likely to see in preparation for David’s visit with his Grandma.

At the hospital, David punched the elevator button for Grandma’s floor. When the doors opened, we exited the elevator, and walked side=by-side down the long hall toward her room. As I recall, I had to slow you down! You marched down that hall like a soldier, brave and true, a soldier of love for you grandma. You went directly to your grandmother’s hospital bed and stood there, refusing to submit our culture’s denial of death. You didn’t run. You put your hand on her arm and stayed awhile in the silence. And, when you’d taken in the sober reality of it, you spoke the words you had come to say, “I love you, Grandma.” We offered a brief prayer by her bedside and walked back down the hall in the kind of silence that comes over you when you’ve said good-bye to a loved one.

I was so proud of you that day! That moment will stay etched in my memory so long as my memory lasts. I feel that same pride now as you become the pastor who takes a walk down the hall with the other Davids of this world — the children here at Knox and at Cranston Memorial, and their parents; and the Syrian, Yemeni, and Guatemalan children and parents who have been left to fend for themselves. That brave, compassionate walk down the hall that is behind you is the ministry before you. As your train makes the curve around the bend to ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament, the connections slowly emerge, and the way you’ve come is the way ahead. Long before today, David, you were already what you would become.

Excerpt from Ordination sermon, Knox Church, Cincinnati, OH 1/13/19


The Monday following David’s ordination, I drove two hours to Indianapolis, knowing it likely would be the last time with Wayne. But funny things happen on a walk down the hall to the room that soon will be empty. To my surprise, the one dying his life was more cheerful than the one who expects to continue living his death. Sometimes, the one who’s dying becomes the pastor to the boy.

— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, January 20, 2019.