Do newborns smile?

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Taking his first bath, newborn Elijah Andrew smiled his deep dimple smile, looking toward his mother cooing to him from her hospital bed following emergency surgery.

Newborns don’t really smile, I’ve been told. Their faces change because of gas or for some other bodily reason. But, looking at Elijah’s face, how can anyone doubt that Elijah is smiling at the sound of his mother’s voice?

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Elijah Andrew, 8.1 lbs., 21 inches with huge shoulders and smile and dimpled smile.

After smiling at his mother, Elijah was heard to say to the nurse who was bathing him, “What you talking about? Baby’s DO smile! I’d know that voice anywhere. I’ve been with her everywhere she’s gone for almost nine months.”

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, May 24, 2017.

Shout! Shout! Elijah rocks!

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Elijah fought his way into the world yesterday with the push of a very weary mother. His middle name is Andrew, named after his uncle, his mother Kristin’s younger brother.

Excited by the birth, I phoned a friend. “Hey,” I said, “I’m a grandson! Kristin just had a grandfather!” The grandson weighs 190. The grandfather 8.1.

Shout! Shout!

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Mah 23, 2017

The woman outside the window

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She paces the sidewalk a few feet beyond our kitchen window, talking loudly to someone who’s not there, smoking a joint to calm her down, moving in sudden jolts as though someone has driven a spike through her less than cogent mind.

I watch and wonder who she is, this neighbor who lives behind us still three weeks after being served by the authorities with an eviction notice following the psychic “break” when she tore loose two towel bars and poked holes in the bathroom wall as uninvited as the screams of rage that harmonized with the spikes in the wall.

The police at the time of the incident told the owners there was little they could do without pressing charges, which they declined to do. She is a guest in their house, the girlfriend “of sorts” of their 35-year old son, a young man of consummate compassionate who had taken pity on her homelessness and invited her in.

Responding to the 911 call, the police had been greeted by an altogether sane young woman who presented a calm, cool, and collected self who came downstairs wondering what the fuss was all about. The 50-something year-old homeowners and the police agreed to call it a night on the “domestic dispute,” the young woman in question going peacefully upstairs to lock herself in her room, the three squad cars driving back to the police station where the officers would write up their incident reports, the husband and wife homeowners sitting in the living room staring past each other into blank space, and their generous adult son who lives in denial stepping outside for a much-needed smoke of something.

His invited houseguest had been institutionalized a number of times but he doesn’t know why or for what. Her father, he says, is some sort of pentecostal preacher. She’s badly scarred by her home experience – the “black sheep” of the family of Christian sheep wounded by the ram who rules the household.

A lamb spiked by the ram in her old sheep-fold, she looks for other pastures and sheep-folds where her damaged soul might find repose beyond a 911 call. But the spikes of terror keep coming, as they will, until, by some process of grace and merciful intervention, her reality breaks open the self that now wanders in torment outside our kitchen window.

Until then, she walks in the valley of the shadow of her own kind of death, as do the members of the family which has given her temporary shelter, crying out for green pastures and still waters that would restore their wounded souls.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, April 21, 2017.

 

 

 

The Widower and the Wife

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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.

 

Ode to a Bi-Polar Cousin

Mourning Doves among the Trees

Earth no longer hears bellowing laughs and
Anguished shrieks from the yo-yoed hand
That yanked him up to ecstatic heights and
Dropped him low as dirt, rebounding and
Recoiling in cycling rounds of joy and dread.

His earthy songs and shrieks are quiet now
In air we breathe where once with dog his feet
Did walk the woods alone in search of deer
Or trout or own real self among the trees and
Streams where fawn and fish were found.

Between the poles of rapture and lament
He in momentary pride would stride and
Just as quickly in despair would sullen weep,
his smile widen with hope and flatten in
Despairing search of light he could not see.

And we his kith and kin left upon the field
Of ashes on the ground lift up the torch
He left for friend and foe alike whose yo-yo
Minds and meds cannot raise hope to life or
Hear coos of mourning doves among the trees.

In memory of first cousin Dennis Smith (b. 02/03/1942 in South Paris, Maine; d. Norway, Maine 02/09/2017).

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Feb. 28, 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.

Prayer for the New Year

I invite you to consider lighting a candle and offer a prayer this New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day in the quiet style of the Friends (Quakers) or by using a format such as the one below, slightly adapted from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Prayer For The New Year

On New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day, the household gathers at the table or at the Christmas tree or manger scene. Many people make New Year’s Day a day of prayer for peace.

Leader: Let us praise the Lord of days and seasons and years, saying:
Glory to God in the highest!
Response: And peace to his people on earth!

The leader may use these or similar words to introduce the blessing:

Our lives are made of days and nights, of seasons and years,
for we are part of a universe of suns and moons and planets.
We mark ends and we make beginnings and, in all, we
praise God for the grace and mercy that fill our days.

Then read the the Scripture from the Book of Genesis 1:14-19:

God said: “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky, to separate day from night. Let them mark the fixed times, the days and the years, and serve as luminaries in the dome of the sky, to shed light upon the earth.” And so it happened: God made the two great lights, the greater one to govern the day, and the lesser one to govern the night; and he made the stars. God set them in the dome of the sky, to shed light upon the earth, to govern the day and the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. God saw how good it was. Evening came, and morning followed—the fourth day.

(The family’s Bible may be used for an alternate reading such as Psalm 90:1-4.)

Reader: The Word of the Lord.
Response: Thanks be to God.

After a time of silence, members of the household offer prayers of thanksgiving for the past year, and of intercession for the year to come …. In conclusion, all join hands for the Lord’s Prayer.

Then the leader continues: “Let us now pray for God’s blessing in the new year.”

After a short silence, parents may place their hands on their children in blessing as the leader says:

Remember us, O God;
from age to age be our comforter.
You have given us the wonder of time,
blessings in days and nights, seasons and years.
Bless your children at the turning of the year
and fill the months ahead with the bright hope
that is ours in the coming of Christ.
You are our God, living and reigning, forever and ever.
R/. Amen.

Another prayer for peace may be said:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.
O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Response: Amen.

—Attributed to St. Francis of Assisi

Leader: Let us bless the Lord.

All respond: Thanks be to God.

The prayer may conclude with the singing of a Christmas carol.

Whether or not you choose to light a candle and no matter how you do it, if you do, my old friend Steve Shoemaker and his surviving Views from the Edge seminary friend wish you peace of heart and mind as we enter the storm tossed-sea of 2017.

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, December 30, 2016.

Steve Shoemaker “Last” verse

“The Man Who Loved the Graves”

– Steve Shoemaker, April 24, 2012

When I was just a young and naive pastor,

an old man in the congregation

would always arrive long before the rest

of the people at the grave site. He’d shun

the funeral, but haunt the cemetery…

Standing by the open grave, he’d state

his opinion of the deceased and share

with me the type, style and brand of casket

he’d told his wife he wanted when he died.

As the morticians say, he “predeceased”

his spouse, and when we met to plan, she tried

to grant his wishes to the very last

She blessed their common gravestone with her tears,

but smiled through life for many happy years…

NOTE: Steve predeceased Nadja, the love of his life all the way back to high school.

Tonight at 7:00 p.m. CST, Nadja and a host of Shoemaker relatives and friends will gather at First Presbyterian Church of Champaign, Illinois for Steve’s memorial service followed by a dessert potluck to smile “for many happy years.”

Blessed are the dead who die in the LORD, for they rest from their labors, and their works follow them: A Sin a Week: Fifty-two Sins Are Described Here in Loving Detail for Folks With the Inclination and Ability to Do Wrong, but Who Have Run Out of Bad Ideas  Order a copy in honor of Steve and for some good ideas!

-Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, October 15, 2016

 

 

 

Steve Shoemaker at Peace

With deep sadness but with great thanksgiving for his life and friendship, we share Steve’s CaringBridge post for readers of Views from the Edge:

Daddy died last night on October 10th, the anniversary of his own father’s death.

He is survived by his wonderful wife of 51 years, Nadja, two marvelous children, Daniel and Marla (as well as their spouses, Rachael and Craig), and two fabulous grandchildren, Carter and Grace.

Born and raised in Urbana, he played trombone and basketball at Urbana High School, while also wooing his future wife, Nadja. He then attended Wheaton college, where he participated in pranks, such as padlocking the chapel doors before a service. After becoming more serious about his studies (and receiving an ultimatum from his wife), he received a Master of Divinity Degree and Master of Sacred Theology Degree in 1969 from McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago. In a further pursuit of education, he then earned a PhD in Religion from Duke University in 1979.

Steve Shoemaker served as pastor at Pittsboro and Mount Vernon Springs Presbyterian churches in Pittsboro, NC, as well as campus pastor at North Carolina State University and McKinley Presbyterian Church in Champaign. He finished his career as Director of the University YMCA at the University of Illinois. For many years, Steve also taught one course a semester in Religious Studies at either Parkland College or The University of Illinois.

Devoted to his community, Steve served as Chair of the Committee for the Homeless, Co-Chair of the Men’s Emergency Shelter Steering Committee, member of the Dr. Martin Luther King Committee, member of the Muslim Committee, and served on the Champaign County Board, the United Way Board, and the local ACLU Board. He was also an active Urbana Rotary Club member since 1982 and acted as president in 2013.

With a passion for writing, particularly poetry, Steve was nominated for Illinois Poet Laureate in 2003 and has been published in a plethora of journals ranging from Christian Ministry to Judaism. After his cancer diagnosis, he published his first book titled “A Sin A Week.” He has also received thousands of Likes for poems posted through social media. In addition to the printed word, Steve reached out to the community through his weekly radio program, Keepin’ The Faith on WILL AM 580, which provided interviews and discussions highlighting relevant social topics.

Steve donated his rich bass voice to various choirs and was a member of the Real Fire band. He also donated his time to be an integral part in the lives of others as he joined couples in marriage, performed funerals, and provided counseling and support (while never accepting payment).

However, to this writer, Steven Robert Shoemaker’s greatest accomplishment was his role within his family. In over 50 years of blissful marriage, he modeled how to sincerely love and respect another. He gave corsages, coached soccer, and cooked Cheese Surprise. He took his children out of school to see baseball games and go to museums. And although his children did not always recognize it in the moment (as they were dragged to organ concerts or tours of Frank Lloyd Wright houses), Steve Shoemaker demonstrated how to embrace life (Fly kites! Eat dessert first!) and how to make the world a better place.

Despite a host of shortcomings, including but not limited to leaving used toothpicks around the house and eating other people’s chocolate bars, Steve was an accomplished author, compassionate pastor, devoted leader, and loving husband and father. He is greatly missed.

Memorial gifts may be made to the University YMCA, 1001 S. Wright Street, Champaign, IL 61801.

Services will be arranged and announced as soon as possible.

There is a deep stillness in the Stewart household this morning. Even when I know death is coming, it still stops me in my tracks. The world is a smaller today.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, October 11, 2016