As the sun rose this [Easter] morning, a few of us warmed ourselves around a fire outside the church. Two charcoal fires were recalled, involving Peter, “the Rock” who crumbled like a piece of shale, and the risen Christ, who would re-create the scene to change the story from denial to welcome, forgiveness, and a commissioning to love.
Steve Shoemaker Verse, “The Charcoal Fire”
THE CHARCOAL FIRE
I do not know the man
I do not know the man
I do not know the man
Do you love me?
Do you love me?
Do you love me?
Feed my sheep
Feed my sheep
Feed my sheep
April 8, 2012
Gordon C. Stewart, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), April 23, 2022. This piece from 2012 is edited and republished in memory of Steve Shoemaker. Steve is sitting on a Bristlecone Pine stump above the tree line in Colorado during a gathering of seminary friends. Mutual friend Anna Strong and canine companion stand by him.
“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious,” wrote Albert Einstein. “It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.”
Isabell’s Wonder and her Grandfather’s Wondering
Christmas felt different this year. Until four-month-old granddaughter Isabell smiled, gurgled, and giggled back from the blanket on the floor. Before that I had been stuck in the soul-wrecking kind of wonder, not the wondrous kind of wonder Einstein described. No sugar plums danced in my head.
Events of the past year were tumbling over each other. I hear the sound of a paper shredder and wonder whether any copies of the Constitution will survive the shredders. I see the Mother of Exiles, her lamp still held high, but dimming, while the torches of hate grow bright to erase Emma Lazarus’s poem welcoming “the poor, huddled masses, and tempest-tost, yearning to be free.” I hear the torch-bearers chanting in Charlottesville “You will not replace us! Jews will not replace us!” and hear the Munich Beer Hall Putsch in my language. I see the party of Lincoln riding the wave of the Big Lie and wonder when patriotism became treasonous and “open carry” the closest synonym of freedom. I see the gallows outside the Capitol, hear the shouts “Hang Mike Pence” and “Execute Nancy,” and wonder how individual freedom was severed from responsibility, and who decided only whites neighbor. I wonder what happened to the Golden Rule and the parable of the Good Samaritan. I wonder whether the demons of national exceptionalism and white supremacy can be exorcized, and if and when the 100-year fires, hurricanes, tornadoes, droughts, and floods will knock sense into climate change-deniers before the murder-suicide pact leaves no one to be replaced. I wonder what will become of us. I have to wonder.
Bethlehem and an Empty Chair for Elijah
We are no closer to Isaiah’s vision of the peaceable kingdom than the day Jesus was born in Bethlehem. The Hebrew prophets’ “Day of the Lord” or its New Testament equivalent, “the Kingdom of God” is harder to imagine when Herod seems closer than the wisdom of the Wise. Elijah’s empty chair at the annual Seder meal is kept empty as a sign of hope against hope that the Messianic kingdom of Isaiah’s vision and Jesus’ preaching are more than pipe dreams.
Isabell knows nothing about any of this. She does not wonder the way I do. Shel smiles back at her grumpy grandfather, wiggling, gurgling, and giggling with joy. Isabell is no stranger to Einstein’s “beautiful thing” — the ‘thing’ that is not a ‘thing’.
The Experience of the Sacred
Fred and Jo never met Isabell. They were in their mid-90s and mid-80s when she first opened her eyes. She never saw Jo and Fred walking hand-in-hand around the retirement center. If it weren’t for the gray hair and hint of a limp, on onlooker might mistake them for teenagers. Their love was as fresh as the morning dew. The luster of love’s delight had not dimmed or faded until Jo’s daily greeting —“Good morning, Dear. How are you today?”— stopped. Two years later, her heart stopped also.
When the funeral home attendants arrived at the Memory Care Center, Fred had settled himself in the chair at the foot of the bed. Respecting his grief and wanting to protect him from viewing their work, the attendants invited him to leave the room until they were finished. Fred declined their invitation. He stayed in the room to watch each step of the process of preparing the deceased’s body, and followed the attendants and the body down the elevator and out to the hearse.
When asked later what his experience had been watching the whole process while deep in grief, Fred looked at me and paused. . . for a long time. The look on his face was quizzical. “I’m looking for the right words,” he said. “I can’t explain it. “‘Wondrous’ is the only word that comes to mind.” “I can’t explain it.” “It was ‘wondrous’!”
In that moment 90-year-old Fred and four-month-old Isabell were on the same page, alive and pausing in wonder at the beauty of it all.
“There are in life a few moments so beautiful that even words are a sort of profanity.” (Diana Palmer)
Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (217 Wipf & Stock), Brooklyn Park, MN, Dec. 29, 2021.
Adam Fronczek’s “Star of Wonder” sermon at Knox Church – Cincinnati comes as healing balm after a year when truth and wonder have been hard to come by. I needed this. Perhaps you do, too. You are not alone. Thank you, Adam. Thank you Knox.
Scroll forward to 22:58 to listen.
Best wishes for a truthful, wonder-filled Christmas,
Gordon. C. Stewart, Brooklyn Park, MN, December 24, 2021.
A singular moment between 7 year-old Ben and his school bus driver, landscape artist J.R Hopkins (John), during the Sower Gallery‘s opening of John’s exhibit in Chaska, MN inspired Touching the Light.
Thanks for dropping by Views from the Edge,
Gordon C. Stewart, former pastor of Shepherd of the Hill in Chaska. MN and MPR guest commentator, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), Brooklyn Park, MN, October 8, 2021.
It’s Christmas Eve 2020. The issues have not changed much in the last seven years. The gospel is like that! Economics and politics are spiritual matters. I’m no longer in the pulpit, but, thanks to the generous people of Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska, some of the sermons are preserved.
A Sermon: It’s All There in the Christmas Story
May you find confidence in the light, walk in the light, and hold to the good,
Campaigns in the 2000s have a way of repeating themselves. So do sermons, like this one from the week before the 2012 election that draws on a Jewish legend about Satan’s sense of loss after being expelled from heaven. What he missed the most was the sound of the trumpet in the morning.
This moment in American history is like no other. We are living under the cloud of the diabolical. The New Testament word “diabolos” gets translated as “the devil.” I’m not into the Devil but I encounter the diabolical reading the news every morning. I find hope listening for the sound of the trumpet (the shofar).
Reading Psalm 87 recently was one of those “Aha” moments when eyebrows raise at the sound of music you did not expect to hear. This psalm of Zion struck a different chord.
On the holy mount stands the city he founded;
the Lord loves the gates of Zion
more than all the dwellings of Jacob.
Glorious things are spoken of you,
O city of God.
A Memory of Willie
Willie got the willies when the congregation sang “Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken” in McGaw Chapel at The College of Wooster. The professor of German language and literature, a naturalized American citizen, was flashing back to “the Fatherland” where he’d been born, momentarily paralyzed by the memories that haunted him. The Third Reich of Willie’s childhood had usurped Josef Haydn‘s musical setting of Psalm 87 for its own grandiose purposes. Deutschland had become the new Zion, the city of God, of which glorious things are spoken.
A Rebuke of nationalist exceptionalism
Psalm 87 is the poetry of a different theology and politics that startles those looking for religious and national exceptionalism. No nation, especially those that hide their sin behind the lofty goals of “unity, justice, and freedom,” is the Holy City Uber Alles.
Among those who know me I mention Rahab and Babylon;
Philistia too, and Tyre, with Ethiopia —
‘This one was born there,’ they say.
And of Zion it shall be said,
‘This one and that one were born in it’;
for the Most High himself will establish it.
Psalm 87 is striking for what it is and for what it is not
This Hebrew psalm looks above and beyond the pretensions of nation, ethnicity, and religion. Not everyone in the glorious city if God is Hebrew. Not everyone is a Moses, Aaron, or Joshua. Sure, it names Rahab — the Canaanite prostitute who provided cover for the Hebrew spies as they prepared to conquer Canaan. But Rehab in Psalm 87, say the biblical scholars, represents Egypt, the nation of Hebrew enslavement prior to the exodus. And there are Babylon, the land of exile, and Philistia, whose better armed giant Goliath fell with a thud from the shot from little David’s slingshot? What are the Philistines doing in this Hebrew song? And Tyre and Ethiopia?
The Most High will build the city into which, looking back from the future, all nations will see and know they were born there.
The Lord records, as he registers the peoples,
‘This one was born there.’
Singers and dancers alike say,
‘All my springs are in you.’
No nation is ‘Uber Alles.” No nation is accountable only to itself. The One whose Name is too Other, too Holy, to be spoken aloud — the eternal Presence, “I Am Who I Am” — registers the disparate peoples as citizens of Zion, the birthplace of the world.
The likes of Willie will no longer despair of a sacred hymn turned into a national anthem that idolizes a nation as the city of God, deluding its citizens to believe that “this one or that one” from elsewhere was not born there. Is it too much to imagine a day when all the peoples will sing and dance alike and say of Zion, “All my springs are in You”?
So much can and should be said following the death of Congressman John Lewis, but every attempt to pay tribute to him here on Views from the Edge fails to reach the high bar of tribute and thanksgiving to which he is entitled. Into this wordless void came a message sharing Eric Whitacre’s virtual global choir singing “Sing Gently” – the sound of hope and gentleness that sings what words cannot say.
The Congressman’s words after watching video of George Floyd’s death reach are as deep and wide as Eric Whitacre’s musical testimony (scroll down).
“We’re one people,” he said, “we’re one family. We all live in the same house, not just the American house but the world house.”
They cracked his skull at the Pettus Bridge; his character remained unbroken
John Lewis’s skull was cracked by officers enforcing the law-and-order of white supremacy and white nationalism, but his faith and Christ-like character could not be broken. He was as gentle as he was strong.
Sing boldly. Sing gently. If John Lewis found the strength and courage to sing his way through all the troubled waters his world was making, who am I to keep from singing?
Gordon C. Stewart, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock) available on the publisher’s website and on Amazon, Chaska, MN, July 20, 2020.
Sharing comes naturally to Elijah. In this scene recorded by Gramma, Elijah surprises Grampa (Wumpa) with a piece of his pizza. Elijah has no knowledge of hoarding. He demonstrates the generosity of the widow of Zarephath who shared her last provisions with Elijah.
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
-Isaiah 58:6a-7 NRSV
Gordon C. Stewart (“Wumpa”) with Elijah and Gramma in Chaska, MN, March 26, 2020 in this period of social distancing.
In Illinois after the diagnosis of scarlet fever and other hemolytic streptococcal infections of the upper respiratory tract is made, "Isolation is required for a minimum period of 14 days after onset and thereafter until the nose, throat, glands, and ears are normal on inspection or until the physician reports complete clinical recovery."1
Other states have essentially the same regulation except that the minimum quarantine period is 21 days instead of 14.
SILENCE IN THE HALF-FORGOTTEN HOUSE
The house on Church Lane was in Pennsylvania, not in Illinois, but the Scarlet Fever and the quarantines were the same. No baseball. No backyard games of hide-and-seek or tag. No evenings with the fireflies. No school. Not everything felt like a curse.
To prevent blindness, the room was dark. Other than Mom delivering meals, checking the fever, and reminding me not to scratch, the room was empty and quiet with one exception: the purring of Buddy, the cross-eyed cat with the crooked tail. Even a cat needs company sometimes. I like silence. A lot! But not that much. We’re not meant to be alone. Everyone needs a friend like Buddy.
FINDING OURSELVES IN SOLITUDE
Old memories return in times that awaken them. Live & Learn’s gift of a “Blessing for a Writer” came at just the right time. I fancy myself a writer, but words worth writing have been hiding during the spread of the latest pandemic when the fever and isolation are everywhere..
Might the solitude lead us to find each other?
“Only in solitude do we find ourselves; and in finding ourselves, we find in ourselves all our [neighbors] in solitude.”
— Miguel de Unamuno, “Solitude,” Essays and Soliloquies (1924), tr. J.E. Crawford Finch.