A Red Leather Gift

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At daybreak far from the maddening world on CNN, MSNBC, Politico or — God fobid! . . .FOXNews — I’m alone with The Book of Common Prayer. I’ve come here for the silence interrupted only by the calls of the loons and the pair of trumpeter swans that return every spring. For generations the swans’ inner compasses have brought them back to this unspoiled place to hatch their young before flying south again for winter. The swans and I are a lot alike; we both come back when the ice is almost gone.

Back home in the Twin Cities, the shouting turns me ice-cold or red-hot, depending on the moment. Here ice and heat are natural: the ice on the wetland pond is almost gone; the only red-hot thing is the fire in the wood stove. There’s something sacred about the synchronicity of the fire inside and the melting ice just outside the A-frame. It’s peaceful here.

I settle into the hickory Amish rocker Jacob Miller crafted to fit my slim dimensions 40 years ago back in Millersburg, Ohio. Though its measurements are the same, It feels narrower. But we’re still made for each other. The rocker is where I rock awhile, like Jacob on his front porch after a hard day’s work, until going inside to make the fire or light the kerosene lamps. Jacob Miller’s Amish rocking chair is where the world slows down.

I reach to the lamp table next to the rocker for my copy of the Book of Common Prayer. It hasn’t always been mine. It belonged to Sue Kahn, a lifelong Episcopalian, before the day she gave it to me. Sue had suffered the inelegance of Presbyterian language after failing eye sight had led her to Cincinnati to be with her Presbyterian daughter. She could no longer read her prayerbook, but had committed to memory many of its prayers. After two years of worshiping with the Presbyterians, Sue began to refer to me an ‘Episcoterian” — a high Presbyterian — who also appreciated fine language. Looking back it, I think she may have hoped it would improve my prayers from the lecture Sunday mornings. “I want you to have this,” she said, placing her small red leather-bound Book of Common Prayer in my hands. “I know you’ll treasure it.” Sue sits beside me in Jacob’s rocker every morning.

I open to the appointed psalm Sue would have contemplated today, this Wednesday of Holy Week, Psalm 55.

Hear my prayer, O God;
do not hide yourself from my petition.

It’s the day before release of the redacted report of Special Counsel Robert Mueller III, a report that may answer my prayer for full disclosure of the truth I suspect has been hidden.

Listen to me and answer me;
I have no peace because of my cares.

The arrogance — “listen to me; answer me!” — disturbs me. Prayer is not an exercise in telling God what to do! The psalmist is arrogant and it’s selfish, more than a little Narcissistic, like the man in the Oval Office who might push the button on the red phone after typing the letters into th unsecured iPhone he uses to tweet.

But I have come to the wilderness because I have no peace watching Ari and Rachel and waiting for the nightmare to end.

I am shaken by the noise of the enemy;
and by the pressure of the wicked…

I don’t like talk of ‘enemies’; it puts me off. “Love your ememies and do good to them who persecute you.” Framing one’s opponents as ‘wicked’ is the less developed morality that has not yet recognized the intertwining of good and evil. But the psalms express the vicseral feelings of the heart unfiltered by the cerebral cortex. Like the psalmist, I am shaken to the core by the noise of an enemy; the pressure of the wicked. The noise hurts me ears.

For they have cast an evil spirit upon me,
and are set against me in fury.

l do not stand on solid ground. The cloud of evil and wickedness I routinely ascribe to ‘them’ hangs over me. I cannot claim to be righteous, right, or good as opposed to the unrighteous, wrong, and evil. I live under an ‘evil spell’ – the fall from essential goodness that comes with the presumption of the knowledge of good and evil — the knowledge that belongs to God alone. There is no escape from the pressure and the fury.

My heart quakes within me,
and the terrors of death have befallen upon me.
Fear and trembling have come over me,
and horror overwhelms me.

I quake as a fish caught in a net. I thrash and tremble in darkness at noon as at midnight. The snare of terrors encompasses me.

And I said “Oh, that I had wings like a dove!
I would fly away and be at rest.
I would flee to a far off place
and make my lodging in the wilderness.”

Before ending the morning prayer time made possible by the gifts from Sue and Jacob, I turn again to the back page of Sue’s red-leather prayer book to read again the words she had written in her own hand before she gave it to me:

Christ was the Word who spake it. He took the bread and broke it. And what his Word did make it – that I believe. . . and take it.

The crackling of the fire and the trumpeting of the trumpeter swans from the far side of the wetland break into the fading darkness at dawn. I fly away again to where I really live — a far-off place — and make my lodging in the wilderness beyond the snare and blare of right and wrong, good and evil, us and them.

— Gordon C. Stewart by the thawing weland, April 18, 2019

That’s how the light gets in

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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

Amid the Flood

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Days before reading and re-publishing Linn Ullman’s lines about memory and the loss of it (“You just can’t think too deeply about it”), one of the four remaining classmates of what we’ve called The Chicago Seven, The Gathering, and now The Old Dogs, sent the rest of us an article on Alzheimer’s our latest deceased brother, Wayne, had published years ago.

Chicago Seven Gathering L to R: Wayne Boulton, Harry Strong, Gordon, Steve Shoemaker, Dale Hartwig, Don Dempsey, Bob Young@ McCormick Theological Seminary, Chicago, IL, 2004.

As Wayne had imagined his ship going over the far horizon, his worst thought was not death. It was that he would live on, like his father had, without remembering how to tie his shoelaces and without recognizing Vicki, the love of his life, his sons Matt and Chris, daughters-in-law Liz and Libby, and the grandchildren who brought him such joy.

That nightmare didn’t happen. He went out with his mind in tact, as much as a hospice patient’s mind is ever fully there. Aside from his last few days, Wayne’s mind was clear and his heart was full. The article Harry sent the three other surviving Dogs is a reflection on Psalm 90:10, 12 (RSV):

The days of our life are seventy years,
    or perhaps eighty, if we are strong;
even then their span is only toil and trouble;
    they are soon gone, and we fly away. teach us to count our days
that we may gain a wise heart.

When he died in 1989, the sum of Dad’s years came closer to fourscore than to threescore and ten. With the psalmist, I attribute this number to his strength, but I would not wish the manner of his death on anyone. He died of complications due to Alzheimer’s disease.

It was my first experience with the death of an immediate family member, so I was no veteran. I found myself up against a more complicated reality than I had anticipated. I remember thinking at the time that some portion of this is just plain death: nasty, sad, the way death always is. But it is not natural death. It is something else. In the words of Martin Luther’s signature hymn, the disease threw every member of Dad’s little nuclear family—his wife, daughter-in-law, and myself—into a “flood of mortal ills prevailing.”

Amid the Flood,” Wayne G. Boulton, Reformed Review, Western Theological Seminary, December 1, 2000.

Wayne died the way he lived and lived the way he died. Faithful son, husband, grandfather, and friend. Wise. Compassionate. Pastoral. Realistic. Hopeful. Consoler. Prayerful. Private. Counselor. Social critic. Political wonk. Brilliant Christian theologian-ethicist. Follower of truth wherever it led him. All of that and so much more. But, if I had the pen to engrave his epitaph on the simple grave stone in the cemetery of the Mount Vernon Presbyterian Church, if might read,

A sheep of Your own fold, a lamb of Your own flock, a sinner of Your own redeeming, humble servant his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ amid the flood of mortal ills.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, March 5, 2019.

You CAN go home again

Thomas Wolfe had it right. “You can’t go home again.” But he was only half right. Memory is the gauge of the deepest affections that feel like home. For 11 years Knox Church in Cincinnati was my spiritual home. That was 25 years ago (1983-1994), but by memory and affection, it was yesterday. Calendars and clocks mean nothing to the time of the heart.

Preparing for the visit, I recalled Charlie Chaplin‘s surprise when he reportedly entered a Charlie Chaplin Look-Alike Contest in Monte Carlo and came in third. Would I come in third in my own look-alike contest? Whose faces would I recognize after all these years? Would they recognize me? Would my slow pace and weathered face contradict memory’s sense of home-coming?

Back at the Minneapolis-Saint Paul Airport (MSP), a golf cart driver who assists less abled passengers had given me a ride to the farthest gate of Concourse E. “Where you headed?” he’d asked. “Gate so-and so, Terminal E,” I answered. “Hop on. You’d never been able to walk that far,” he said with a smile, and began to weave through the pedestrian passengers down the interminable corridor to the last gate of Concourse E.

Knox members Bob and Connie had been assigned to welcome home their old friend at baggage claim. At the Cincinnati Airport, there was not a golf cart in sight for passengers with a bad back or hips. Limping along the long concourse toward baggage claim, the story of Charlie in Monte Carlo lightened my load.

Tired and sore from the second long walk, I spotted a man on a balcony looking down at the arriving passengers. By the time I came into his view, the other passengers from Delta Flight 5277 had come and gone. The Bob I knew years ago was immaculately dressed — gray suit, white shirt and tie, and a well-polished pair of Allen Edmonds. The man on the balcony was casually dressed in a polo shirt and khakis. As I drew closer, I looked up; he looked down. I squinted. He squinted. After a closer look, visions of Simon and Garfunkel singing “Old Friends” danced in my head. I waved to Bob. Bob waved to me, two old retired friends together again after 25 years.

Walking to the car, I noticed something unusual. Bob was wearing my shoes! I’d had my mousy-looking Ecco walking shoes for five years. Never, never, never had I seen them on someone else’s feet. They’re ugly, and as far from Allen Edmonds as my Gate was from baggage claim! “Most comfortable shoe I’ve ever worn,” said Bob.


After all these years, Knox fit like an old shoe. Thomas Wolfe never had it so good. Thomas Wolfe never flew home to Cincinnati!

— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, February 11, 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.

My Dog’s Happy Hour

Barclay smiling

Barclay smiling in the car

There’d been no intention of a Happy Hour yesterday when I decided to go to Target for a short errand. “Barclay,” I asked, “wanna go for a ride in the car?” Barclay cocked his head, ran for the door to the underground garage, and leaped for joy. We drove to Target. I cracked open the windows, left Barclay in the car. In the parking lot, I see my friend Chuck, whom I’d been with an hour earlier on a business matter where I’d asked whether he’d ever been to Ike’s. He hadn’t. “Why do you ask? Is it good?” “I don’t know. I’ve never been there,” I’d said. “My neighbor Michael tells me it has the best Martini in town — not one of those tiny Martinis you get at most places around here. It’s big, and they give you the shaker, too.”

Inside Target, Chuck and I take our places in the line for picking up prescriptions. The line is long. Neither of us is good at waiting. We decide, on the spur of the moment, to go to Ike’s Happy Hour for a different prescription. We leave Target and join Barclay for the trip to Ike’s. At Ike’s I again leave Barclay in the car, opening all four windows a little more than I had at Target. As he always does, Barclay smiles. He knows the routine. He lies down on the driver’s seat.

Sitting at the bar for our nonprescription drugs, we notice the wind has come up and it’s pouring rain outside. “Do you think Barclay’s okay?” asks Chuck. “He’ll be fine,” I say, “nothing flusters him. He’s not afraid of storms.” The Martini is everything Michael had said it would be. So is the Happy Hour food he’d recommended: two mouth-watering beef tenderloin sliders with grilled onions and horseradish sauce, one on pumpernickel, the other on sourdough, for $7.50. We love this place!

We pay the tab and head back to the car. Barclay is calm until Chuck opens the passenger door. Barclay sits up, smothers Chuck with kisses, and says, “I was worried about you guys!” Both seats are partially wet from the storm. Barclay is dry. We are not.

Barclay on chest

Barclay

We leave Ike’s parking lot and drive back to Target where Chuck had left his car. Chuck goes in for his prescription. Barclay and I call it a day and head home. Safe at home in the underground garage, Barclay stays put like a petulant child. “Dad, why can’t I stay in the car? I love Happy Hour!”

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, October 4, 2018

 

 

A Uniquely Grateful Graduate

Some people’s stories are priceless. Austin Wu’s is one of those. Austin shared his last night at Chaska High School’s commencement.

Austin is a neighbor and friend recognized in Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness, published in 2017. He will begin his undergraduate studies at Macalester College in September.

– Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, June 9, 2018.

Tribute to Slowness

Toronto_Star_paperboy_Whitby

Earlier we published “Reflections of a Paper Boy” by 78 yr. old John Miller who still delivers newspapers as he did when he became a paper boy way back when.

John’s reflections struck me as evidence that it’s a good thing a human lifespan is short. No one wants to hear another lament about “the way it was when I was a kid.”

Like my old friend, John, I’m getting long in the tooth. I’m not as quick as I used to be. Much of what I once did I can no longer do.  I no longer wear the catcher’s mask, and i couldn’t make the throw back to the pitcher, let alone to second base to catch a base-stealer. My body won’t cooperate. And the mind? Oh yes, the mind. Never mind!

coffin_memorial

William Sloane Coffin memorial photo

But slowing down has its advantages. Civil rights and peace movement leader William Sloan Coffin. Jr. observed toward the end of his life,

“I find I am less intentional and much more attentional.”

Click HERE for information on Bill Coffin, one of the great spiritual and moral leaders of our time.

‘Attentional’ isn’t in the dictionary but it should be. Paying attention means being where you really are — a very specific place like no other — right now –– not future or past. Attentiveness to mortal things like place and time is soul food for the speed-sick mortal. The slowness of delivering newspapers on a bicycle or on foot seems good for the soul.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, August 20, 2018.

 

Living on the Edge

An email from Joshi Daniel Photography arrived today, the first anniversary of the publication of 40,000 words. Searching back into the site’s archives, Joshi’s self-portrait “Living on the Edge” seemed to capture the sense of the 40,000 words of Be Still! in one photograph. Joshi and I share a heritage. We are both preacher’s kids who met at The College of Wooster where Joshi was a student. Joshi perched himself on the rock at arms length from my perch on the pulpit of McCaw Chapel. All these years later, Joshi’s still living on the edge with photographs worth a thousand words.

Joshi Daniel Photography

Self-portrait of joshi daniel sitting on the cliff by Bondi beach in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia Self-portrait | Bondi beach, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

A GoProSelf-portrait taken on the cliff by Bondi beach in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia.

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Seasons Greetings

This Christmas Eve we write to thank you for reading Views from the Edge and to share with our readers this Seasons Greetings letter and photos sent to those nearest and dearest to us.happy-holidays

Dear Friends,

2017 brought into our lives two new grandsons, Elijah (7 mos.) and Calvin (one mo.) and the joy that comes with the innocence of children. Fortunately for us, Kristin (with Elijah), and Andrew and Alice (with Calvin) live 20 minutes from Chaska. We only wish we could shower the same affection on outstate grandkids Jack (17), Amelia (14) KY, and Ruby (4) CA, and sons John (CA) and Doug (NYC, VT) and their spouses, Jen and Jason.

Other notable events?

These two news events have long-lasting importance: 1) Last January’s publication of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (click the link), Gordon’s collection of essays, and 2) August’s moment of temporary insanity when we raided our retirement funds to buy a small four-season A-Frame on a wetland two and a half hours north in Minnesota.

Buying the cabin while we grow closer to buying the farm felt a bit foolish. But, hey, we got the impulse, acted on it, and are loving the simplicity of rough-cut pine, wildlife (trumpeter swans, beaver, deer, skunks, and owls), and total isolation from all electronic distractions. We build a fire in the wood stove, break out a book, write what we feel like writing, take naps, and walk Barclay (Cavalier King Charles Spaniel now 4 yrs. old) down the dirt road to see what’s happening. It’s a simpler life that we savor as novel and precious.

Although Season’s Greetings normally steer clear of things political, we would be untrue to ourselves without commenting on the over-riding fact of daily life since January 20. Elijah calls the president “You-Know-Who” because we refuse to name him except in blog posts of conversations between Elijah and Grandpa about what faith calls for in the face of greed and collective madness. The cover of Be Still! — Vincent van Gogh’s, Prisoners Exercising, painted during his time in Saint-Paul asylum in Saint-Rémy — could not have been better chosen.

We count ourselves among the fortunate who have family and dear friends whose love and kindness keep our spirits focused on justice, mercy, and humility. We are so grateful for your friendship, and wish you and yours the very best of life in the Second Year of the You-Know-Who Era. Fortunately, God’s patience is longer than ours, but, as California Governor Jerry Brown said recently about climate change denial, so is God’s wrath. 😳

In the belief and hope that the cries in the wilderness count and that Love wins,

Seasons Blessings and Happy New Year,

Gordon and Kay

 cabin IMG_6563

Cabin

Andrew and Calvin

Andrew and Calvin

Gordon and Kay

Kay and Gordon

IMG_9456

Cabin wetland

Kristin and E

Kristin and Elijah

  • Gordon and Kay Stewart, Chaska, MN, Dec. 24, 2017.