Getting Older

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256px-George_Burns_1961INTRODUCTION: There’s nothing like an old friend when you have nothing worth saying, as though you ever really do, and are focused on getting back to writing a novel instead of your blog. One such old friend is the Rev. John M. Miller, or “the Least Reverent John Miller,” as I call him, whose sermon from The Chapel Without Walls arrived by email this morning. John remembers a Pickles comic strip. I think of George Burns.

FOR OLDER AMERICANS WHO ARE GETTING OLDER

Text – “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die.” – Ecclesiastes 3:1-2 (RSV)

This sermon has taken many years to germinate. In one sense, it has taken almost seventy-nine years for it to come to full fruition. Thus the first reason for preaching this sermon is that the preacher himself is an older American who increasingly realizes he is getting older. The other reason which prompts this sermon is that Lois and I have lived in a retirement home for almost three years. That has given me the opportunity to have observed more than three hundred other older people getting older. That leads someone such as I to reflect on what all that means.

Hilton Head Island has a much older average population than the average American community. That has been true for at least the past fifty or sixty years. Over time we had three large retirement homes built here, plus several other smaller facilities of various types for various older people. The Seabrook, where we live, has 225 residents. Of those people, a hundred are ninety or older. We even have eight centenarians, people who are a hundred years of age or more.

Americans are getting older. Of course everybody is getting older, even newborns. However, by means of advancements in medical care, nutrition, and physical activity, many millions of Americans are going to make it into old age, whether they like it or not. Are we thinking about that? Are we consciously and conscientiously preparing for it? Or shall we just let it happen, come what may, with little or no thought given to it and what it might portend?

A member of The Chapel Without Walls sent me an email piece which he received as an email from someone else who no doubt received it as an email. It is called Ramblings of a tired mind. Among other things, it said these things: “I was thinking about old age and decided that old age is when you still have something on the ball, but you are just too tired to bounce it….The older you get the tougher it is to lose weight because by then your body and your fat have become really good friends….Aging: Eventually you will reach a point when you stop lying about your age and start bragging about it.”

But what happens if you realize you are old and you’re not bragging about it, or you fear it, or you wonder what is going to happen to you because of it? What if you’re older and not feeling well, and you think you are probably going to feel worse and worse, or you are fairly certain you’re going to run out of money because you lived too long and you see no way out of that heretofore unforeseen eventuality? Old age isn’t for sissies, they say, but must it be a severe trial for everyone who makes it into old age? For everyone, no, but for many, sadly, yes.

 When I was young, I didn’t like the Book of Ecclesiastes. I thought the writer, who is variously known as Ecclesiastes, Koheleth, or The Preacher, was too skeptical and cynical and sour. Now that I’m old I am more positively drawn to the unquestionably older person who wrote Ecclesiastes than to any other writer in the entire Bible. I suggest all of you take an hour or two this week to read this short book, and then ponder it and ruminate upon it. It is directed especially to older people who are getting older, and it has multitudes of golden nuggets for golden-agers. I’m serious. Read Ecclesiastes. Throughout this sermon I will use isolated quotes from Ecclesiastes. I won’t identify them as such, but if you listen closely, you’ll recognize them when you hear them, because you heard two readings earlier from this outstanding book.

I have said this before in several different ways, but I want to say it again: God does not determine when or how or why anyone dies. In my opinion, it is a serious mistake for anyone to believe God determines those things, because it can turn people into puppets or doormats. “Nature,” terminal illness, or longevity may terminate our lives, or we ourselves may do that, but it is never God who settles when anyone dies. Young or old, we die when we die. There is no explaining when or how or why it happens, other than medically or forensically. Theology can’t unveil why death happens when it happens. We die when we die, and faith cannot explain why.

That having been said, it behooves all of us, particularly as we get not only older but actually old, to contemplate everything we need to do to prepare for death. This may sound morbid, but what is really morbid is not to prepare for death by merely waiting passively for death to negate our existence. When we are living is the only time we have to prepare for death.

So what do we need to do? We need to have a written will, and a living will, and a medical power of attorney, whereby we designate someone to make medical decisions for us if we are physically and/or mentally incapable of expressing our own wishes for ourselves. We need to make sure somebody knows where all our important papers are, and to have access to them if they are under lock and key. We should establish a legal power of attorney for someone we trust who can handle our financial affairs if we are unable to handle them ourselves. We need to let our spouse or children or other relatives or attorney or somebody know what our wishes are concerning some sort of official recognition of our life soon after we have died.

I’m going to give you an opinion about which I have thought a great deal, probably more than most people. In my vocation, one is thrust into thinking about these things more than most other people. My advice? Please don’t tell your children or your lawyer that you don’t want any kind of service after you die. That is unfair to those who have known you and loved you, even if you are an irascible or ornery old coot, which of course no one here is. Everyone is a child of God, and as such, other children of God should be granted the opportunity and privilege to acknowledge and give thanks for the life of everyone who dies. Those who know they are going to die may not want a service, but a memorial service or celebration of life is for those who have lost the one who has died, and not for the deceased.  Everyone dies, and everyone else should have the  option of giving thanks to God for that person’s life when anyone dies. In my long-considered opinion, it is unseemly for a dying individual to prevent others from joining into a celebration of that person’s life, and also in a witness to the resurrection for those who are Christians.

Half a century in the ministry has convinced me that sadly, many people live too long. Most such people are not happy about that situation, but slowly or rather suddenly, there they are. For many oldsters, their quality of life declines into oblivion. It is my three years in a retirement home that have alerted me as nothing else could to the heart-wrenching reality of how relatively quickly too many Americans discover themselves to be living too long. Laws, customs, and faulty theology all contribute to their dilemma. The long-running British comedy on PBS called Waiting for God accurately describes this sober circumstance in a humorous but also telling manner.

Last Monday evening Turner Classic Movies showed a bittersweet film called Whales in August. It was about some elderly people on the Maine coast, and it starred Betty Davis in her final role, Lillian Gish, Ann Southern, Vincent Price and a couple of other loveable, colorful geezers. In the movie, Betty Davis and Lillian Gish play elderly sisters. The sister who is nearly blind says to her more positive and able-bodied sibling, “We have outlived our lives.” That was an honest, but sober, statement. We have outlived our lives. “So I hated life, because what is done under the sun is grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind” – Ecclesiastes 2:17).

Outliving one’s life in advanced age is a circumstance no one would ever choose. Nonetheless it is a situation confronted by increasing numbers of older people. Where once they were hale and hearty, now they are frail and weak. Where once their funds were sufficient, now they wonder which shall give out first, their money or them. Is it wise or prudent  — or ethical — to run out of money in old age? In any event, can it always be avoided? “In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider; God has made the one as well as the other, so that man will not find out anything that will be after him” Ecc. 7:14).

Countless older people have told me that wherever they are living is the last place in which they shall live. They say they are too old for another move. Don’t count on it. Circumstances may force older people to move to a nursing home or to be closer to children in other quarters or in a nursing home there. We like to think we are in control of our lives, but we may not be.

Thus far society has not made sufficient preparations for the legions of oldsters who are confronting the viability of the American health system. Social Security, pensions, and 401Ks cannot handle the costs of maintaining everyone who needs to be maintained. Here is an extremely sober and sobering question: Is it valid for any of us, if we are very old and sick, to keep on living? Voluntary, not mandatory answers to that question are the only valid ones.

Illness of any sort becomes a growing concern for older people. Dementia is a far greater concern. The older we get, the more likely we are to be afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease or some other form of dementia. Dementia requires more care than almost any other form of illness. If one spouse in a marriage begins to lose memory, demands inevitably shall increase for the other spouse who is still doing relatively well. Both can only try to make the best of it.

A few days ago I saw my longest-term close friend on the island. I hadn’t seen him for a couple of years. I was astonished at how much he had aged in that time. He has lost weight and is stooped and uncertain in his gait. His wife has had dementia for perhaps eight to ten years, and he is at the point where he simply is no longer able to give her the care she needs, but he has not found a suitable and affordable memory care facility for her. And so they both toddle along into a darker and ever more uncertain future. “Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of countenance the heart is made glad” (Ecc. 7:3) Was Koheleth correct when he wrote that?

One of my favorite comic strips is Pickles. It features flinty Earl, his wife Gladys, and their grandson Nelson. Earl and Gladys look to be in their seventies, and Nelson is about six or seven. Last Monday Earl was in the kitchen with his hand on his chin. Gladys asked him what he was doing there. “I came here to get something,” he said. “To get what?” she asked. “I don’t know. It slipped my mind. But I’m not leaving until it comes to me!” Exasperated, Gladys disappears. Earl looks after her, saying, “How about bringing me a chair?” On Tuesday he was still in the kitchen, trying to remember why he came there. She offered him a cookie while he waited. “Now I know why I came here!” he said, happy that the mystery of his muddled memory had been solved.

It is wise for older people to do what they can while they can still do it. Take trips. Go on cruises. See relatives, or have relatives come to see you. Visit friends. Go to the movies. Walk.  Play games, especially “thoughty” games like bridge. Have fun. Enjoy life. “I have seen the business that God has given to the sons of men to be busy with. He has made everything beautiful in its time; also he has put eternity into man’s mind, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end” Ecc. 3:10-11). Life becomes more of a mystery in old age.

On the cover of the bulletin today is a quote from an article wisely entitled Old, frail, called by God (Christian Century July 17, 2017. It was written by Joyce Ann Mercer, who teaches pastoral theology at Yale Divinity School. The author quoted the psychologist Erik Erikson. “Old age in one’s eighties and nineties brings with it new demands, revelations, and daily difficulties.” He said it is the time of the struggle between integrity and what he ruefully identified as “despair and disgust.” He went on, “Loss of capacities and disintegration may demand almost all of one’s attention. One’s focus may become thoroughly circumscribed by concerns of daily functioning so that it is enough just to get through a day intact, however satisfied or dissatisfied one feels about one’s previous life history.” To me, Erik Erikson sounds a lot like Ecclesiastes, Koheleth, the Preacher.

Commenting on this, Dr. Mercer writes, “Perhaps at no other time…does the body occupy such a premier place in defining the contours of life….The heightened body consciousness of older adulthood critiques the cultural overvaluing of independence and autonomy.” How true that is! Why should anybody imagine, as we get older, that we should be physically able to do all the things we could do when we younger? Can a fifty-year-old Triumph sports car still do 140 miles per hour for four hours? Can a century-old clock still keep perfect time? Why do we think we can do what we always did? Why do younger people expect us to do more than we can do?

Joyce Ann Mercer ended her article with these words: “God’s call in older adulthood sometimes takes place in a receptive-dependent mode, a vocation of forming others in faith by evoking in them the practices, habits, and dispositions of faithful people….God’s call for older adults to receive care from others is also a call to experience the care and presence of God.” Or, as Koheleth put it, “That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already has been; and God seeks what has been driven away” (Ecclesiastes 3:15).   

 It has often been said that in old age people are “cramming for their finals.” That phrase is meant to be humorous, but it is also very serious. Many who are older feel closer to God. If that is true, we should make the most of it. Cram away! Carpe diem; Seize the day! If you didn’t do it before, do it now; get as close to God as you can, because God is getting ever closer to you.

Some of you have met my wife’s sister, Millie Ruhl. Millie has been visiting us for the past three weeks. In December, she will moving into The Seabrook. Lois has the second-best memory of anyone I have ever known, but Millie is the unquestionable Number One Rememberer.

When Loie and her two sisters were in grade school, their parents were the counselors for three summers at the Nottingham Camp in northern Maryland, near the headwaters of the Chesapeake Bay. It was a very fine camp which attracted girls and boys from wealthy families all over the Northeast. The three Seifried girls had a free ride there for those idyllic years. Millie was reminiscing about the prayer the entire camp recited every morning. It was composed by the camp director, Cal Burley, a remarkable man about whom I have heard much through the past twenty years. “O God, forasmuch as without Thee we are not able to please Thee in anything we may undertake, mercifully grant that Thy Holy Spirit will direct and rule our hearts and minds in all that we do this day, so that, at the end of the day we shall hear the eternal benediction: Well done, thou good and faithful servant.” He is now gone, but well done yourself, Calvin Burley.

“If a man begets a hundred children, and lives many years, so that the days of his years are many, but he does not enjoy life’s good things, and also has no burial, I say that an untimely birth is better off than he” (Ecc. 6:3). Mr. Burley taught values to his campers, and his life continues to live on in them. May we also live on in those who shall live after us long after we are gone.

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Rev. John M. Miller, Chapel Without Walls

The Rev. John M. Miller, Chapel Without Walls, Hilton Head, N.C., Nov. 12, 2017 sermon.

John Miller has written and published six books including The Irony of Christianity: A Pastor’s Appeal for a Higher Theology and a Lower Christology, which was published by The Institute for Religion in 2002. The book remains available thru Amazon.

DOOM DESTRUCTION AND THE DNC. AGAIN! – BY TOM CURLEY

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Like Tom Curley of SERENDIPITY, I get apocalyptic, or hyped, emails every day that assume I’m a member of a certain club.

SERENDIPITY

I wrote this on election day 2017. It reminded me of a post I wrote a while back that sadly is still as current as it was back then. And it will be current next year too. And the year after that.

I don’t know about anybody else but I usually spend about five minutes every day deleting the junk email from my account.

I’ve had an AOL account from literally when they first started. I briefly worked for them and got the account for free. Yes you had to pay for an email account back in those dark early days.

I have other email accounts, but I like this one. I’ve had it for over 20 years. I know that if you have an AOL email account millennials think it’s funny and it means you’re old.  And do you know what I say to that? Fuck you, you little…

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Pope Francis gets it!

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I love this Pope. I’m a non-hierarchical Presbyterian, but I love Pope Francis.

TOPSHOT – Members of the faithful take photos of Pope Francis, as he arrives to lead the Liturgy of Penance in St Peter’s basilica at the Vatican on March 17, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / VINCENZO PINTO (Photo credit should read VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images)

He “gets” relationships as well as he “gets” worship. He “gets” distraction and what a “60 Minutes” investigative report exposed: a form of technological addiction built into cell phones to make the user as anxious as a nursing infant torn away from its mother when you’ve put down your cell phone for more than eight minutes.

Lift up your hearts,” he said, not “Lift up your cell phones to take a picture,” referring to the use of cell phones in worship. “Mass is not a show!”

Francis is not an abstainer. He has a cell phone and he uses it.

Susan Hogan of The Washington Post reminds readers of Pope Francis’s Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) in which he urged Catholics last year to use discretion in using electronic devices. “We know that sometimes they can keep people apart, rather than together, as when at dinner time everyone is surfing on a mobile phone, or when one spouse falls asleep waiting for the other who spends hours playing with an electronic device.”

Pope Francis might have added the fact that we humans are mammals, not invisible spirits. Mammals are flesh and blood creatures who use all five senses. For tactile creatures who live in a single place in real time, cyberspace relationships and distractions are no substitute for face-to-face, body-to-body, eye-to-eye, hand-in-hand physical presence to each other. Whales don’t take pictures. Neither do dogs, cats, or chimpanzees.

“Lift up your hearts! Not your cell phones!” says the author of The Joy of Love.

Three cheers for the pope who took the name of Francis of Assisi whose community included other mammals — whales, dogs, cats, chimps, and humans — and, of course, birds who found a resting place on his shoulder.

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

 

Stepping Up: Running for Congress

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Moments ago Tabitha Isner, a highly respected friend and ministerial colleague, sent an email announcing she’s running for Congress.

You can meet Tabitha and learn why she’s running on her campaign website Tabitha Isner for Congress, on FaceBook, or that thing that issues early morning messages that make us groan: Twitter.

Tabitha is the only Tabitha I’ve ever met in person. I do remember another Tabitha whose Bewitched TV  sit-com daughter Samantha could change the world with the twitch of her nose. Tabitha is no Samantha! knows it will take more than the twitch of a nose to make democracy work in America.

Thank you, Tabitha, for stepping up and stepping out.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN

 

Elijah reviews his Mom

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Grandpa, what’s a ‘review’?

Where’d you get that word, Elijah? How are you spelling it? There are two spellings and they’re very different. One I can tell you about. The other I can’t until you’re old enough to handle it.

IMG_5767I don’t know how to spell yet! All I know is Mom picked me up from work this afternoon and she was really happy. She told Marissa she had a really good review.

That’s wonderful, Elijah! I knew her review was coming and that she was a little anxious about it. Everyone’s anxious before a review.

Sometimes I worry, Grandpa, that you’re not completely tuned in. You go off on tangents and forget the question. You don’t even remember. I asked you a QUESTION! Like I said — What’s a review?

Well, it’s a time when a boss and an employee sit down to discuss how work is going. How well the employee is doing at her job.

So which is Mom, the boss or an employee? I think Mom must be the boss.

No, she’s the employee. She works for the boss.

Okay, I think I get it. So Mom did really well?

She did, Elijah. She got a raise and the boss said all kinds of good things about your Mom.

Yeah, she’s the best Mom in the whole world, Grandpa! She’s really smart and she’s pretty and stuff but she’s also the best diaper-changer. Don’t tell Grandma I said that, okay? I don’t want to give Grandma a bad review. I don’t want to hurt Grandma’s feelings. But Mom knows me best. She knows just how I want my diapers changed. And she doesn’t get mad when I wake her up all night every hour ‘cause I’m hungry and can’t turn myself over and stuff like that. Well, sometimes, she gets maybe a little unhappy, but I bet she’s way more patient than any other Mom.

That’s a great review, Elijah. You’ve got the hang of it.

Okay! There’s one more thing, Grandpa, just between us guys.

IMG_8782 Elijah

Mom says she’s not pretty any more. She says none of her clothes fit and she thinks she’s fat. She’s not, Grandpa! She’s beautiful! She’s the most beautiful woman I’ve ever met. Don’t tell Grandma I said that, okay? She’s pretty too, and she’s Mom’s Mom, so I bet she was really pretty, too, before she got old and wrinkly like you. Don’t tell her I said that, okay? You can take it, ‘cause you’re a guy and you know you’re old and wrinkly and fat and you don’t care. Anyway, we’re reviewing Mom here, not Grandma. Grandma’s second best in the whole world. But Mom’s a superstar. As her boss, I’d give her a big raise!

IMG_7979You just did, Elijah. You just gave her the kind of big raise a mother lives for. Now, if you can just start sleeping through the night, that would be an even bigger raise you could give Mom. You’ll be her most favorite boss ever. Her one and only!

 

  • Grandpa Gordon with 5 month old Elijah, November 4, 2017.

 

Giovanni’s Buffet Mirror

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“Buffet Lunch: All You Can Eat” says the sign.

I decide to try it. “Eight dollars with soda; $7 with water,” says the woman at the counter.

Sugar makes me fat and frantic. I choose the water.

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The buffet is loaded. Full salad bar. Spaghetti with meatballs and your choice of meat or meatless marinara sauce. Garlic toast. And four kinds of pizza – fattening … and more fattening.

I pass up the salad bar and load up on spaghetti with meatballs, meat sauce, and, of course, garlic toast. I love garlic toast.

Since I’m alone, there’s plenty of time to look around while I eat. You’re not supposed to stare at people, so I don’t. I’m careful not to stare. But I can’t help but look. There’s no one to talk with. My dog’s outside in the car. So is my MacBook Air. There are no distractions. So my eyes scan the room for something of interest.

Eventually I realize a common characteristic to the buffet diners — obesity. I think of Richard Simmons, Oprah, and Michelle Obama, and their attempts to get people to eat better and less.

I fill up my plate with a second helping of spaghetti, and add two slices of pizza. It’s good. Really good! All that gooey cheese, and a great crust — just like the pizza I’d had as a child at Fonzo’s Pizzeria in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. But this isn’t Philadelphia and this isn’t the 1950s. I’m at Giovanni’s Pizza in Staples, Minnesota almost a year after Michelle’s White House school obesity initiative went the way of all flesh.

“They’re all fat!” I think to myself. I take another sip of water before getting up to pay my bill.

Next to the cash register is somebody’s idea of a joke: a full-length mirror. I see an ugly guy with a belly staring back at me and think I hear a voice scream: “You’re fat too!”

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I pay the $7 with tip, swallow hard, and begin to digest an old biblical teaching:

“Before you criticize the pounds on others, first remove the ton from your own abdomen.”

  • Gordon C. Stewart, November 3, 2017.

I want to be an olive tree

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I love olives. I love the Psalms. Well . . . some of them . . . some times. Partly. Like the Psalm that greeted me this morning at the cabin far from the news.

Old_olive_tree_in_Karystos,_Euboia,_Greece

Old olive tree in Karystos, Euboia, Greece

Maybe you’ll like it too.

Why do you boast of evil, you mighty man?
Why do you boast all day long,
you who are a disgrace in the eyes of God?
Your tongue plots destruction;
it is like a sharpened razor,
you who practice deceit.
You love evil rather than good,
falsehood rather than speaking the truth;

You love every harmful word,
O you deceitful tongue!

Surely God will bring you
down to everlasting ruin:
He will snatch you up and
tear you from your tent:
He will uproot you from
the land of the living.

The righteous will see and fear;
they will laugh at him, saying
“Here now is the man
who did not make God his stronghold
but trusted in his wealth
and grew strong by
destroying others!”

But I am like an olive tree
flourishing in the house of God . . . .
(Psalm 52:1-8a, NIV)

I am not righteous. But I do fear.

I just want to be an olive tree. Like the olive tree that produced the twig the dove brought back to the ark signaling to Noah that the flood was over.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, truck stop near cabin in northern MN, November 3, 2017.

 

Saint Giovanni of the Pillows

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John Thomas Stewart appears on no other list of Saints but mine. I called him Grandpa.

He wasn’t famous like Saint John of the Gospel or Saint John of the Cross, but his life quietly bore witness. To sacred silence. And laughter.

By the time I came into his life he’d retired from driving his team of horses through the streets and alleys of east Boston to deliver fifty gallon drums of oil to the mostly Italian-speaking shop owners.

Grandpa Stewart was not Italian. But the shop owners wouldn’t have guessed. He learned to speak Italian while making his daily rounds. “Buongiorno, Giovanni!”

giovani

And so his day went until he drove the horses and his wagon back to the company barn, fed them, groomed them, put them in their stalls for the night, and walked home to #11 Tremont Street.

In retirement he had moved from Tremont Street to live in my Uncle Harold’s palatial home in Chestnut Hill across the street from Boston College. It was to the house on Hobart Road that my fondest memories return.

During the years my father was in the South Pacific, my mother and I lived with Grandpa and Grandma Stewart in the house of Hobart Road in Chestnut Hill. Uncle Harold, too, was in the war, somewhere on a ship. We never knew where.

We didn’t know much of anything in those years between 1943 and the end of the war. Everything was uncertain. But at least two things I could count on put my grandfather on the list of Saints worth remembering.

PILLOWS IS ONE.

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We played a game with pillows. On the floor with the Persian rug that filled the living room on Hobart Road, I’d cover Grandpa’s entire body with all the pillows we could gather from everywhere. Once I’d completely covered him — “no peeking, Grandpa — he’d lie there for various amounts of time until the time seemed just right. Then — “Boo!” — he’d say suddenly throwing off the the pillows. “Boo!” To a two year-old, his resurrection from the dead was always a surprise. We’d laugh and laugh and laugh. Then I would take my turn under the pillows to scare Grandpa: “Boo!” He’d act surprised every time. It never got old.

“Boo!” never sounded so good. Grandfathers are like that.

Otherwise, he didn’t say much. “Boo!” was one of the few words I remember Grandpa speaking. Most of the time, he didn’t say boo. He was quieter than quiet, like a rock to a family at the edge of quick sand — one news story from the radio away or a knock on the door that might tell us Harold or my father had been killed in the war.

CHURCH IS THE OTHER.

During the summers we lived in Uncle Harold’s cottage on Harridan Avenue in Rockport, Massachusetts, just a block up from Old Garden Beach and a mile from Dock Square, Bearskin Neck, and the First Congregational Church in the heart of Rockport.

My mother and Grandma failed in their first attempt to take me to church when the otherwise quiet two year-old suddenly interrupted the long sacred silence that followed the minister’s “Let us pray” with words of my own — “Mom!! Big grunt!!!” — sending the church into giggles that seemed to irk the minister by bringing everyone back to earth, so to speak. My older cousin Gina snatched my up and ushered me out. That was the end of church for awhile. They were not about to cause a scene again.

Grandpa was a different story.

I remember walking with him to church in Rockport. He didn’t say boo; he just walked. But it was the way he walked, and why he was walking on a Sunday morning, that puts him in my catalogue of saints. He walked with dignity and purpose.

Grandpa’s posture was erect. Perfectly straight. Dressed in a starched white shirt, tie, dark suit, and wearing a fedora, the man with a sixth grade education who’d run away from domestic abuse when he was 12 years old seemed like what I imagined President Roosevelt must look like. Dignity was everywhere: his posture, his gate, his attire — on the way to the place and time that gave substance, shape, and meaning to his life: Sunday morning worship, “The Lord’s Day,” as he called it.

Sunday morning was sacred time.

Fifty years after the walk to church with Grandpa in Rockport, I visit a small, white, wood-frame church on the Isle of Skye in Scotland, the land from which Grandpa’s father had emigrated to Prince Edward Island where Grandpa was born.

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I arrive ten minutes before the beginning of worship. The usher in the tiny 6’x8’vestibule welcomes me with a wordless smile, gives me a copy of The Book of Psalms and Paraphrases, opens the door to the large sanctuary that looks out on the natural beauty of Loch Snizort, and quietly ushers me to a pew among the silent members of the congregation. The man to my left smiles and nods. In a minute or two he offers his copy of The Book of Psalms and Paraphrases, opened to the first hymn posted on the small hymn board.

No one speaks in these minutes before worship. There is no prelude. No music plays. Even the children are quiet and seem at home in it. The silence is not empty. It is as full as any place I’d ever been or ever would be again: the fullness of faith, hope, and love waiting to break into song together as one voice in four-part harmony:

Praise God from Whom all blessings flow!
Praise Him all creatures here below!
Praise Him above, ye heavenly host!
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost!

I stand erect, like Grandpa, to sing God’s praise and sense a faint echo of a joyful chuckle time cannot erase — “Boo!” — rising from under the pillows of the Communion of Saints.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, at the cabin, November 1, 2017, All Saints Day.

 

 

Sermon: You shall see My back

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A sermon on The Book of Exodus 33:12-23 for Reformation Day celebrating the 500th Anniversary of the 16th Century Reformation, preached at Central Presbyterian Church, St. Paul, Minnesota.

With all that’s happening in the world these days, many thoughtful people wonder about the nature of God, or conclude there is no God, that the whole thing is a made-up story to serve our own purposes rather than seeing something real that cannot be seen.

“See, there is a place by Me” [says God to Moses in the wilderness] “where you shall stand on the rock; and while My glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with My hand until I have passed by; then I will take away My hand, and you shall see My back; but My face shall not be seen” (Ex. 33:22-23).

This strange reading from the Book of Exodus which puts a face on God —  God has no face, no hands, no feet — may just be the text to help us get reality straighter than we had before the crisis that imperils the human species itself: the onset of climate departure. Not just climate change, but climate departure, the point of no return to nature as we have known it. Maybe God has put us again in the cleft of the rock and is passing by. We only get to see God’s back.

While our hearts and minds are reeling on the edge of the abyss of despair over the rise of the KKK and the alt-right in Charlottesville, the hurricanes, floods, fires, and earthquakes in Houston, Puerto Rico, northern California, and Mexico City to say nothing of the inexplicable massacre of more than 500 concert-goers in Las Vegas while two little boys with matches in Washington and Phnom-pen play chicken with nuclear toys, we are like Moses in the wilderness pleading to see God’s glory. We are teetering on the edge of an abyss into which we dare not look.

“To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world,” wrote Karl Barth. Elsewhere he insisted that the God we know in Jesus Christ is essentially unknowable. So today we clasp our hands again asking about God, asking about what, if anything, is ultimately and finally Real. We only see God from the back, clasping our hands in prayer — the beginning of an uprising against the present disorder of the world.

Like Moses in the cleft of the rock — between a rock and a hard place — in the wilderness where nothing is certain — we have forgotten, to paraphrase our Lord, that “Humankind does not live by tweets alone…but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.”

In the Hebrew mind, to see someone’s face is to know them. But God says to Moses, “You cannot see My face and live. I will put you in the cleft of the rock, cover you with My hand and passed by. Only after I have passed by can you see My back.”

Why the back? Why not the face?

We are mortals who don’t want to be mortal, mammals who don’t want to be mammals. We are part of nature, not the masters of nature, not the exception to it. “You are dust,” says the Creator in Genesis, “and to dust you shall return.” Mammals are not meant to wake up with morning tweets from a mortal who can’t sleep and needs to hear Echo’s voice before breakfast and coffee.

We are living in the period of Narcissus of the Greek myth who dies because he cannot take his eyes off his reflection in the pond — his own face, his own image, his own glory.  A mere a mortal who must eat and drink to survive, Narcissus dies because to drink would have disturbed the pond in which he sees only himself. And, when he dies, a flower blooms on that very spot.

On this Reformation Sunday and the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, we do well to pay heed to a declaration that may strike us as curious: “Human nature is, so to speak, a perpetual factory of idols.”

Wait! Wait! Don’t tell me!     Who said that:

Bill Maher, Christopher Hitchens, or someone else?

Would you believe it was John Calvin, the much misunderstood 16th century reformer whose work was turned into stone by the Calvinists who mistook his face for God’s, turning his work into an idol?

The issue for Calvin and the Reformed theological tradition which is Central’s tradition, was not atheism. It wasn’t unbelief. It was idolatry. It was misplaced worship of the products, phantasms and fantasies produced by the human heart and mind, the substitutes for ultimate reality that command our worship.

Wait! Wait! Don’t tell me! Who said:

“The human mind, stuffed as it is with presumptuous rashness, dares to imagine a god suited to its own capacity; as it labors under dullness, nay, is sunk in the grossest ignorance, it substitutes vanity and an empty phantom in the place of God. To these evils another is added. The god whom man has thus conceived inwardly he attempts to embody outwardly. The mind, in this way, conceives the idol, and the hand gives it birth” —

Bill Maher, Christopher Hitchens, William Barber II, Cornel West, Elizabeth Warren, or John Calvin?

“I will cover you with My hand while I pass by. You can see me from the back.”

There is in the Hebrew Bible, and in the writings of Holocaust survivor Eli Wiesel, a profound sense of God’s absence as well as presence. By the time Moses gets to see God from the back, God has already passed by.

In the Lutheran and Reformed tradition from Luther to Calvin to Bonhoeffer to Bill McKibben, there is a long-standing recognition of God’s absence or hiddenness.  Listen to Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us. The God who makes us live in this world without using God as a working hypothesis is the god before whom we are standing. Before God and with God we live without God. God allows Himself to be edged out of the world and on to the cross. God is weak and powerless in the world, and that is exactly the way, the only way, in which God can be with us and help us. …

 Man’s religiosity makes him look in his distress to the power of God in the world; he uses God as a deus ex machina. The Bible, however, directs us to the powerlessness and suffering of God; only a suffering God can help. To this extent we may say that the process we have described by which the world came of age was an abandonment of the false conception of God, and a clearing of the decks for the God of the Bible, who conquers power and space in the world by his weakness. . .

 Humans are challenged to participate in the sufferings of God at the hands of a godless world. One must therefore plunge oneself into the life of a godless world, without attempting to gloss over its ungodliness with a veneer of religion or trying to transform it. . . To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way, to cultivate some particular form of asceticism. . . but to be a human being. It is not some religious act which makes a Christian what he is, but participation in the suffering of God in the life of the world.. . .

One must abandon every attempt to make something of oneself, whether it be a saint, a converted sinner, a churchman . . . This is what I mean by worldliness—taking life in stride, with all its duties and problems, its successes and failures, its experiences and helplessness. It is in such a life that we throw ourselves utterly in the arms of God and participate in his sufferings in the world and watch with Christ in Gethsemane. That is faith, and that is what makes a human and a Christian. —Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison.

 The world may be God-less, but it is not without gods. The idols are everywhere. And the chief idol of our time is the prosperity gospel: the gospel of greed that escapes all suffering.

These small gods our hearts have manufactured are not real but they are no less powerful. When they are unmasked, we see their ashen faces – the faces we have created because we refuse to live as mortals who cannot see God’s face, discontent to spend time in the cleft of the rock in order to see God from the back, the scarred back of God, whipped and lashed by the hands of Narcissus’s god-filled world.

Presbyterians and others of the Reformed theological tradition often ask why our membership is declining. Are we dying?

On this Reformation Sunday in the year of the 500 Anniversary of the Reformation, could it be not because we haven’t kept up with the latest cultural trends and fads but because we’ve forgotten our identity? Could it be, in part, not because other churches have bands and are better at entertainment, and make God more accessible to a tweeting culture, but because we have surrendered the one thing that makes us Reformed Christians: humility before God — a profound sense of awe before the holiness of God whose face we cannot see?

Could it be that we have mis-translated the rallying call of the Reformed tradition to mean that the church must always be changing itself, that we are the agents of our own change. Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda! is properly translated “The church reformed and always being reformed!” Which is to say, under the judgment and guidance of the Holy Spirit of the Living God, not changing our image in Narcissus’s reflecting pond. It is a theological-ethical perspective which, as McCormick Theological Seminary’s Anna Case-Winter wrote in Presbyterians Today (May, 2017), “neither blesses preservation for preservation’s sake nor change for change’s sake.”

Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda . . . calls us to something more radical than we have imagined. It challenges both liberal and conservative impulses and the habits and agendas we have lately fallen into. It brings a prophetic critique to our cultural accommodation—either to the past or to the present—and calls us to communal and institutional repentance. It invites us, as people who worship and serve a living God, to be open to being “re-formed” according to the Word of God and the call of the Spirit.”

“Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty! All the saints adore Thee, Casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea; Holy, holy, holy!  Though the darkness hide Thee; Though the eye of sinfulness Thy glory cannot see, Holy, holy, holy! All Thy works shall praise Thy Name in earth and sky and sea!”

We don’t get to see God’s face. We cannot see God’s full glory.  But, as the disciples of Jesus Christ, we do see God’s back! And for mortals, that’s plenty good enough! And from the darkness of this cleft in the rock, we join with Luther in trembling before the Holy One, and join Barth and Bonhoeffer by clasping our hands together in the dark as the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.

And though this world, with devils filled,

Should threaten to undo us,

We will not fear, for God hath willed

His truth to triumph through us:

The Prince of Darkness grim,

We tremble not for him;

His rage we can endure,

For lo! his doom is sure,

One little word shall fell him.

 

That word above all earthly powers,

No thanks to them, abideth;

The Spirit and the gifts are ours

Through Him who with us sideth:

Let goods and kindred go,

This mortal life also;

The body they may kill:

God’s truth abideth still,

His Kingdom is for ever.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, October 29, 201

H.L. Mencken — American prophet

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H.L. Mencken wrote it in The Baltimore Evening Sun, Sunday, July 26, 1920:
“As democracy is perfected, the office of the President represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day, the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be occupied by a downright fool and complete narcissistic moron.”
23353-004-D77B30AD Mencken

Henry Louis Mencken @The Baltimore Evening Sun

Mencken was known as “the Sage of Baltimore.” These days, I listen to Bill Moyers, Christopher Hedges, and watch the PBS News Hour Friday nights with Mark Shields and David Brooks.
David Brooks’ “The Week Trump Won” (Oct. 26 NYT) confirms — in chilling detail  — H.L. Mencken’s status as a prophet. Yet it ends with the faint hope that the better angels of the American character still lie buried in the people’s DNA, waiting for a spokesperson, a leader, to give voice to sanity and vision.
– Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Oct. 28, 2017.