“Every round goes higher, higher”

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Part 2 of “Jacob’s Ladder at Almost 75”

As a child and youth, Jacob’s Ladder touched something deep within me. I couldn’t have described what it was or why at the time.

Looking back, it was a happy song. We were all climbing. Getting older meant climbing higher, getting taller, becoming mature, successful adult “soldiers of the cross.”

“Every round goes higher, higher.”

It expressed a joyful innocence and confidence. I had no knowledge of the economic-political origins of the ‘spiritual’ until much later.

The connection between the slaves’ faith, or their understanding of what it meant to be a “soldier of the cross” — the struggle for economic-political liberation, climbing “higher” to freedom in the North — was as far from consciousness as white is from black.

As a 13 year-old, Jacob’s Ladder expressed an innocent childhood hope during those hormone-challenging years when ascending the ladder toward adult self-sufficiency felt like a fireman trying to save  an 800-pound gorilla in a raging fire. All I could do was stay on the ladder, hoping that human equivalents of angels might be there to catch me when I fell.  The closest thing to angels were people like Mr. and Mrs. Kidder and friends who encouraged my upward progress from childhood to adulthood. Surely some progress must be made.

Faith still meant climbing higher on a ladder that was going someplace, as the Genesis story (Genesis 28:10-19a) of the ladder between heaven and earth seemed to say. We were on the upward ladder.

Then, something happened.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, August 6, 2017.

 

A Good Kick from a stagnant place

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This idea that sometimes we need a good kick in order to advance from a stagnant place is not new and does not always find biblical inspiration. Nietzsche said in 1888 “Aus der Kriegsschule des Lebens – was mich nicht umbringt, macht mich starker”– “From the war school of life – what doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger.” – Peter Luijendijk, Dec. 21, 2016.

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Friedrich Nietzsche

How I got to Peter Luijendijk, the rabbinical student at Leo Baeck College, and the controversial philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), he quotes would take too long to explain. Suffice to say it was a serendipitous event inspired by a 3:30 A.M. awakening. I didn’t know of Peter Luijendijk, until this morning when I rushed off a “friend” request on FaceBook.

Although a good kick is always good for advancing me from my stagnant place on the couch with my best friend, the MacBook Air, it was a search for the source of the Nietzsche quote that introduced me, so to speak, to Peter.  “Aus der Kriegsschule des Lebens – was mich nicht umbringt, macht mich starker” had caught my attention moments before as one of three quotations featured on a college religion professor’s faculty page.

Not many religion professors quote Nietzsche to introduce themselves on a college website. Nietzsche is one of those philosophers pious religious types love to hate, in no small part because of his parable of the prophetic madman — the eccentric town crier who announces to the town that God is dead and “we have killed him!”– in Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

Go back now to where this reflection started — the quotation by Peter Luijendijk is part of a Chanukah reflection on the Leo Baeck College (London) online publication. It appeared there as part of a commentary on the Genesis story of Joseph’s survival (Parashat Vayeshev, Genesis 37:1 – 40:23).

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Overbeck, Johann Friedrich, 1789-1869. Joseph sold into slavery, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=47452 [retrieved August 2, 2017]. Original source: http://www.yorckproject.de.

It turns out that Peter, like Joseph’s painter, Johann Friedrich Overbeck, and Willem Zuurdeeg, the pioneering philosopher of  religion whose work so heavily influences me, is Dutch. Nietzsche’s parable of the madman was pivotal for Zuurdeeg as well. Is there something about being Dutch that leads a Jewish or Christian scholar back to Nietzsche for a good kick in order out of a stagnant place?

This morning the world is making us all Dutch, sending us back to Nietzsche and the town crier who announces that the god of our illusions is dead, leading us to post the quote on a faculty page intro in hopes of a being stronger, more courageous, and perhaps . . . therefore even more biblical.

Peter Luijendijk’s online reflections on the Joseph story concludes with a word of hope in a time of deep darkness like our own:

I guess what I am trying to say is “Kol zeh ya’avor” this all will pass – it will become better. When Rabbi Lionel Blue z’’l talked about the festival of Chanukah in 2013 at the Chanukah reception in Parliament he “commented on a modern miracle – the social change that is leading to widespread acceptance for LGBT people in our society – by saying “Chanukah is a festival of wonder, and tonight is truly a wonder”.*  Chanukah celebrates survival, hope and the promise that the world’s natural AND spiritual light WILL come back. That, my friends, is the hope imbedded in Chanukah and that is the hope imbedded in the story of Joseph and his family.

At 3:30 A.M. this morning, I feel stronger and very, very Dutch.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, August 2, 2017.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Grandpa, you gonna answer that?

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When the area code on the caller ID is unfamiliar, do you take the call or let it to go into voicemail?

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“Grandpa, did you put your hearing aids in this morning?”

“Yes, Elijah. Why?”

“‘Cause the phone’s ringing!”

“I know. It’s annoying.”

“Then why don’t you answer it?”

“I don’t recognize the number on the caller ID. I get lots of calls from solicitors.”

“What’s a solicitor, Grandpa?”

“Well, a solicitor can be lots of things. But, in this case, it’s someone who’s selling something over the phone. They intrude on my privacy.”

“Yeah, we like privacy, right, Grandpa? Just you and me! just the two of us after I’ve been fed.”

“Right.”

“But the phone keeps ringing. Just because you don’t recognize the area code doesn’t mean it’s a solicitor. It could be good news, like you won the Lottery or something! Maybe it’s the New York Times Book Review or The New Yorker telling you they’re going to review your book!”

 

“Okay, good point, Elijah!”

I pick up the phone.

“Mr. Stewart, this is Jane from the Anglican Journal. I’m calling to let you know that we’ll be reviewing Be Still! this fall.”

Eli C43CF607-9499-4D51-BF55-CFCEB806711C“Wow, Grandpa! What’s the Anglican Journal? Is it like the New York Times?”

“No, Elijah, it’s Canadian. Jane was calling from Toronto.”

“From Canada?! You got a call from the Anglicans in Canada and you almost didn’t take it? Next time the phone rings, you’d better answer it. It could be the New York Times!”

“It’s not going to be the New York Times, Elijah! Trust me!”

“Why? You’re a minister, right? You’re supposed to know your Bible!!! Jesus said you should listen to me. It says so right there in Matthew 21:16:

have you never read, ‘Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise for yourself?’?”

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, July 19, 2019

When Hope Wavers

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“We should ask God to increase our hope when it is small, awaken it when it is dormant, confirm it when it is wavering, strengthen it when it is weak, and raise it up when it is overthrown.”

Plugging the ears, closing the eyes, looking away have become standard practice in response to the growing sense of despair provoked by the bellicose behavior of current occupant of the Oval Office. Each day further chips away the objective grounds for hope that the insanity and inanity will stop. Hope grows smaller, wavers, goes into hiding, becomes weak, and, on the worst of days, feels overthrown.

Is it surprising that a word from the 16th Century serves to encourage the weary?

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Institutes of the Christian Religion

Is it surprising that it comes from the pen of Jean  Calvin, the lawyer-theologian of the Genevan branch of the protestant reformation, the author of the The Institutes of the Christian Religion who had more than his fair share of days when hope was small, and whose little hope was shrunk by the many haughty, small-minded people who claimed to follow him?

I was always exceedingly delighted with that saying of Chrysostom, “The foundation of our philosophy is humility”; and yet more pleased with that of Augustine: “As the orator, when asked, What is the first precept in eloquence? answered, Delivery: What is the second? Delivery: What is the third? Delivery: so if you ask me concerning the precepts of the Christian religion, I will answer, first, second, and third, Humility.

There is no inconsistency when God raises up those who have fallen prostrate.[John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion]

Holy One, increase our hope when it is small, awaken it when it is dormant, confirm it when it is wavering, strengthen it when it is weak, and raise it up when it is overthrown. Amen.

The Best and Worst Sellers Lists

Publishing is a pain in the neck; marketing what’s been published moves the pain down the spine to a lower place of an author’s anatomy. Unless, of course, the book makes the Best Sellers’ List because your publisher is one of the decreasing number of corporate giants who do the marketing and have the connections.

Small publishing houses like Wipf and Stock and its authors are ancestors of the poor man Lazarus left to pick up the crumbs from the rich man’s table. We do what we can to catch the reading public’s attention with an occasional success. But, without divine intervention, few, if any, make it to the New York Times Best Sellers list.

So, for the sake of all things just and fair, we herby propose an “alternative” list: The Worst Sellers List, and offer readers one of the “dog-eared” crumbs that fell from the table yesterday to a dog on The Worst Sellers List:

My reason for this email is to let you know that I have just finished reading your wonderful BE Still. We all need a “Departure from Collective Madness” and your book has been such a breath of sanity in the midst of this messy world. I’m grateful to you for your book. I read it, as someone else who has a copy is also reading theirs – one entry at a time on any given day.

I began to read your book and the very first thing I underlined was the instruction from “The Brothers of Opal Street.”*[see explanatory note below] I can’t tell you how many people I have told of that instruction of theirs, and the very wise pastor who passed on the message to us. The idea that we must change things where we live, instead of being the saviors to the poor in the ghetto, is such a powerful message.

Following from that, I went on to dog-ear the prayer from the Book of Common Worship. That prayer is so familiar to me and I love it. It’s not part of any prayers I learned in the Catholic school, but probably one I picked up from the “religion” of the other side of my family. As you may remember, or not, my parents came from two different backgrounds. Mom was very Catholic. My dad’s side followed no particular religious persuasion, with grandpa and my aunt never seeming to attend any church. My paternal Grandma Allie was Baptist, Presbyterian, or Congregational, depending on the Minister and the music. She loved the traditional hymns of her earlier years and they were often heard by me as she listened to her radio when she couldn’t get about and lived with us in our home. Also, Grandma had my mother join her Congregational church group aptly named The Friendly Circle, where every meeting began with a hymn and a Bible verse. I often went along to these meetings. There were probably no baby sitters available. As I grew older I went to baby sit the younger children there.

My underlining and “dog-earing” pages increased as I read of your liberal philosophy, your concern for the direction of this country and humanity as a whole, and your concern for all people of various colors, and persuasions. This diversity thing has become probably my greatest issue and concern. It’s so good to read the views of someone who shares the same perspective. With grandchildren who are half Afghan and whose Grandfather spent much time in Gaza working with USAID, a daughter who teaches the Ojibwe language and mentors Native students, another daughter married to a fellow who is Jewish, I have come to appreciate various perspectives and religions. I am thankful for all this learning. I find it goes a long way when dealing with folks who can be quite narrow in their thinking and really have no experience with other perspectives on a one to one basis.

Before this gets any longer I just want to say, “thanks again for the wonderful book.”

* The Brothers of Opal Street are honored in Be Still!‘s Acknowledgements. Remembering them again so many years later is appropriate to the date on the calendar: Juneteenth.

Last, but by no means least, is a group of men who would be shocked to find themselves mentioned anywhere but in a courtroom.

“The Brothers of Opal Street,” as they called themselves, eight black homeless former inmates of Eastern State Penitentiary, had a farewell conversation at the end of August, 1962 with me, a naive nineteen year-old church street outreach worker. As we sat on the stoop of a boarded up tenement on Opal Street, they said good-bye with a startling instruction not to return to the ghetto. “Go back to ‘your people’ and change things there. Only when things change there will there be hope for the people here.” What they called “my people” were in the white western suburb of Philadelphia. I have come to believe that lsat day on Opal Street was its own kind of ordination. This book is in memory of them. – Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness, p. xiv.

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, June 19 — Juneteenth — 2017.

I wish I were a newborn…

. . . like two-week-old grandson Elijah.

Without malice. Or guile. Insincerity. Envy. Or slanderous speech. A disciple of Jesus who has been fed by the Beatitudes, and by First Peter to:

“Rid yourselves . . . of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander. Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation . . . (I Peter 2:1-2a).

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, July 6, 2017.

Blind Christopher opens eyes

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Some things bring tears to even the hardest of hearts. Christopher Duffley, the blind autistic 11 year-old does that here. Even those with hearts of stone might shed a tear “seeing” Christopher sing “Open the Eyes of My Heart”.

Whoo-woo! I hear a rumblin’

Some days, when I’m weary, I hear the rumblin’ wheels of the gospel train rolling through the land. The song of the American slaves speaks its hope to me in this later age of collective madness.

The Gospel train’s comin’
I hear it just at hand
I hear the car wheel rumblin’
And rollin’ thro’ the land

Get on board little children
Get on board little children
Get on board little children
There’s room for many more

I hear the train a-comin’
She’s comin’ round the curve
She’s loosened all her steam and brakes
And strainin’ ev’ry nerve

The fare is cheap and all can go
The rich and poor are there
No second class aboard this train
No difference in the fare

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Whoo-wooing for the fairer train from Chaska, MN, May 11, 2017.

 

Day One – and the Last Day

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Peter Wallace, Day1.org

Good news came early this morning from Peter Wallace of Day1.org.

“It (i.e. The Seagull and the Double Rainbow, previously published on Views from the Edge) will be on our homepage Saturday May 20—Saturdays are our biggest traffic day.”

Thanks to Bob Todd for introducing Peter Wallace to Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness and to Peter for featuring “Homeland Militarization” on Day1 several weeks ago.

seagull in ScarboroughEarlier today we published Dan Balz Washington Post piece on the firing of James Comey and the need to search for the truth behind the firing. Maybe the insistent seagull that kept banging away on the glass door is a model for people seeking the truth behind the curiously-timed, sudden firing that sent White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer into hiding in the White House bushes.

Maybe at the same time we could look at the beauty of the rainbow for a quieter critical perspective. Stillness comes hard on days like this. Anger and confusion come more easily. But the friendly word from Peter Wallace, and that moment last week on the Maine coast with the seagull and the double rainbow remind me that no day, in the end, belongs to the darkness or the proud.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, May 10, 2017

 

A Review and a Request

Today marks the first public review of the book that was born three months ago.

Click “Essays to explain collective madness” to read former Kansas City Star columnist Bill Tammeus’s review of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness. And HERE for his citation from Be Still! in his column yesterday “When the forces of fear rule”.

Then, if you’re feeling kind toward a postpartum depression author dependent on the kindness of friends to help his baby grow up, use your email or FB page to share the review. If you’re on FaceBook, you can also “Share” the review from Bill Tammeus’s or Bob Todd’s FB pages.

Thanks for considering and have a great day!

Gordon in Chaska, MN, April 19, 2017.