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.”
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.
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.
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
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
Matthew Arnold‘s poem The Future came to mind this week in light of the eulogy for local artist and gardener Lynn Niskanen. Click HEREfor 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.
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.
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 HEREfor 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.
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.”
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.
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.
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…
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.”
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.
I’ve never been a big fan of habits. In spite of what Octavia Butler believes — “Habit will sustain you, whether inspired or not” — I have scorned habits in favor of a more creative, spontaneous, non-habitual life. But this morning I came to my senses. I’ve not been inspired, and I’ve gotten out of a habit that sometimes brings inspiration.
I’ve felt like the psalmist . . .or like poor little Elijah just 24 hours ago when he couldn’t keep anything down. Not even the Gatorade. When a joyful 19 month-old child gets sick, he doesn’t know what hit him. Sometimes his 76 year-old grandfather doesn’t know either.
Some viruses can’t be seen under a microscope. Some illnesses require more than an Internist’s diagnosis. Their origins defy medical explanation and resist our usual remedies: a stiff drink, an anti-depressant, vitamin and mineral supplements, exercise, or a change of diet. Which is where habits come in.
It’s been weeks since I got out of the habit of morning prayer. Flailing about at four o’clock this morning, I remember the line from Chaim Potok’s The Chosen: it’s the four-o’clock-in-the-morning questions that trouble us over a lifetime. I’ve gotten out of the habit of greeting the day with readings from the Book of Common Prayer (BCP), spending a quiet time pondering the psalms and other readings assigned by a calendarprescribed by doctors of the soul. I need to return to a healthy diet.
My best friend is hospitalized, awaiting surgery required by complications from pancreatic cancer. His time is limited. So is mine. Fifty-four years of friendship soon to vanish like the morning mist. Whatever happens today on the operating table, it won’t be long before one of us is gone. I open the BCP. “What profit is there in my blood, if I go down to the Pit? Will the dust praise you or declare your faithfulness? Hear, O LORD, and have mercy upon me; O LORD, be my helper,” cries the psalmist (Psalm 30:10-11, BCP), recognizing that there is no quick fix for what ails him.
My friend knows this feeling. He also has a habit that serves him well when the raindrops keep falling on his head. When the four-o’clock-in-the-morning clouds and torrential rains come over him, he turns, as do I this morning, to that which he has not made up, and crawls inside the psalmist’s faith that “weeping may spend the night, but joy comes in the morning” (Ps. 30:6, BCP).
Returning to the habit I’d neglected, I read the psalm again and pray for my friend. But I’m not seeing my friend. I’m seeing someone else. I’m looking at Elijah. He has crawled inside his mother’s watchful care…in the bathtub. He is smiling, playing, and splashing the bath water with no hint of memory of last night when he couldn’t even keep down the Gatorade.
“You have turned my wailing into dancing; you have put off my sack-cloth and clothed me with joy. Therefore my heart sings to you without ceasing; O LORD my God, I will give you thanks for ever” (Ps. 30:12-13. BCW).
— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, December 15, 2018.
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.
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.
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.
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.