The Measures of Ourselves

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Midtown Manhattan viewed from Weehauken, NJ, photo by Dmitry Avdeev.

THE FOUNDATION AND THE MORTAR

Who are we? Can we suspend shouting long enough to reflect on who and what we in the United States aspire to be? By what social norms do we measure a person’s or a nation’s well-being? A culture’s shared values form the foundation on which a society is built. Every culture is both an inheritance and a work in process. Without thoughtful care, time and neglect eat away the mortar between the foundation’s bricks.

FOUNDATIONS OF A DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC

The Constitution represents the boundaries of that consensus. If we didn’t know it before, we know in 2019 that the constitutional republic we call the United States of America is no Eden. Lord knows, Abel’s blood still cries out from our history and Cain’s inexplicable, impulsive violence will stain our hands again. Repeatedly. Sin is like that. It crouches at the door as in the Genesis legend. There is no perfect culture or society. Although we miss the mark (which is what the biblical word ‘sin’ means) by intention or by inattention, it falls on each of us to reaffirm and refresh the cultural code and ethical norms by which we measure ourselves personally and collectively. These measures are not abstract.

TRADITIONAL CULTURAL’S MORTAR — NORMS AND MEASURES

  • Be respectful
  • Don’t call people names.
  • Don’t make fun of people
  • Be kind
  • Be honest/tell the truth
  • Your word is your bond
  • Deal fairly with each other
  • Show compassion
  • Empathize with those less fortunate than yourself
  • Be generous with your money
  • Help those who suffer
  • Be true to yourself, but be ready to compromise
  • Settle disagreements peacefully
  • Don’t get too big for your britches
  • Be humble
  • Do not show off
  • Be above board in your dealings with others
  • Love your family
  • Respect the individual right to religious belief and practice
  • Honor the principle of free speech
  • Protect a free press
  • Be courageous and patient

TUCKPOINTING THE MORTAR

stone mason tuck pointing the mortar

Check out the mortar. Is it holding? Where does it need tuck pointing? Re-assess traditional culture’s tangible ways of measuring the quality of human life. Delete those you consider outdated. Add other measures you believe should be added. Then look in the mirror. Look at your behavior. Look at what you choose to watch and hear. Think again about who and what you want us to be. See the mortar crumbling. But don’t stop there. Despair is no excuse. Get up and do something to repair the foundation of humankind’s best nature.

— Gordon C. Stewart by the wetland, September 16, 2019

Elijah on The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig

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ELIJAH WATCHING THE BIG BAD PIG ON MOM’s iPAK

Photo of Elijah in bed watching the story of The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig on an iPad.
Two year old Elijah learns of The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig

CONVERSATION OF ELIJAH AND BUMPA (GRAMPA) ABOUT THE BIG BAD PIG

Good morning, Elijah! You look happy this morning. Whatcha doin’?

Watchin’ a story on Mom’s iPak. I love Mom’s iPak. This one’s REALLY good, Bumpa!

You mean ‘iPad’. What’s it about?

Three liddle wolves and the big bad pig. You know the story!

Hmmm. Well, I do know a story, but I think you have the characters backwards. It’s three little PIGS and a big bad WOLF!

Uhuh! I’m watching it right now, Bumpa. It’s real! The Big Bad Pig destroys the three houses of the three liddle wolves.

There’s a story Bumpa and Gamma grew up with, but it’s the Big Bad Wolf who’s bad. The Big Bad Wolf huffs and he puffs and he blows down two of the three little pigs’ houses but can’t blow down the third little pig’s house because the third little pig build his house of brick. The Big Bad Wolf couldn’t blow it down.

Nope! Different story! This is about the Big Bad Pig. Pigs are greedy, Bumpa. Pigs are nasty! The Big Bad Pig blows up all the houses, even the one made with brick and the one made of concrete. But then the three liddle wolves give up on security. They build a house made of flowers!

So they’re hippies!

What?

Hippies. Hippies were the “flower children.” People who wanted to make America better by ending the Big Bad Pig’s war in Vietnam. Hippies wanted peace.

That’s over my head, Bumpa! I don’t know about Vietnam! Gamma doesn’t talk like that. She knows I’m just liddle. She still changes my diapers. You never ever change my diapers! I like Gamma better!

I’m so sorry, Elijah. Gamma is a much better person than Bumpa.

But here’s the thing. The Big Bad Pig is at the G-7 meeting insulting America’s friends, and we’ll be stuck with his mess!

READ ALONG WITH ELIJAH ON MOM’S IPAK.

Gordon C. Stewart (Bumpa), Chaska, MN, August 24, 2019

In Search of Rest

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“To rest is to give up on the already exhausted will as the prime motivator of endeavor, with its endless outward need to reward itself with established goals. … To rest is to give up on worrying and fretting and the sense that there is something wrong with the world unless we are there top put it right.” - David Whyte, Consolations: the Solace, Nourishment, and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words.
photograph of cabin by the wetland showing orange wall with morning light.

In search of rest, I retreat from the world of 2019 and my “already exhausted will”. The walls inside the cabin by the wilderness are rough-cut pine, the natural color of the president’s orange hair. Alas! The world comes with me, even by the wetland: I cannot rest from comparisons and disdaining thoughts of orange hair and Greenland.

I’m worrying and fretting, wanting to put the world right: rescue the English language from the words that paint the world orange: words like ‘bad’…’good’ … ’nasty’ … ‘nice’ …’not nice’ … ‘loyal’ … ‘disloyal’, that divide, blame, simplify, stereotype, scapegoat, and choke the best in us. Words do matter. The unexamined underlying meaning of words matters most.

First thing in the morning, while Barclay is still asleep in his kennel, I do what I once disdained as flight from action. The word ‘devotional’ has a different meaning now. A ‘devotional’ is not an escape from responsibility. The half-hour devotional is what it says: to devote attention to the Source of consolation and solace in the world that makes my head hurt. Here at the cabin, I devote my attention to the Psalm before checking the mouse trap.

Sometimes the Psalm consoles; other days it does not. When something in the Psalm whets my appetite for the underlying meaning of the words, I turn to the Paraphrases of the Church of Scotland. The Paraphrases, like scripture itself, take me to an earlier time that knew nothing of the United States, Greenland, Denmark, or Mexico, orange hair, or the “summer camps” for migrant children along the border.  I read the Paraphrase of Psalm 146:

The stranger’s shield, the widow’s stay,
     the orphan’s help is he:
  But yet by him the wicked’s way
     turned upside down shall be. 
  — Psalm 146:9, Paraphrases

Consoled and nearly comforted by David Whyte and the old Scot paraphrase of the ancient Psalm, I put down the Paraphrases to fill Barclay’s bowl with fresh dog food before freeing him from his kennel, remembering the One,

Who righteous judgment executes
   for those oppress’d that be,
 Who the hungry giveth food;
   God sets the pris’ners free.
-- Ps. 146:7

But first I free from the trap the orange mouse my dog shall never see.

– Gordon C. Stewart, by the Minnesota wetland, August 22, 2019.

Something about long, lazy days and whirring air conditioners

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Consider the contrast between Live and Learn‘s appreciation for Earth’s seasons and Franklin Graham’s focus on heaven in a recent Fox radio interview chastising public figures who openly reject or express doubts about their Christian faith.

“I’m going to keep telling people how they can have a relationship with God how they can have their sins forgiven and how it can make and have that hope of heaven one day by putting their faith and trust in Jesus Christ.”

Franklin Graham, Fox radio interview with Todd Starnes Click THIS LINK for more.

Although the Live and Learn quote from Sarah Dessen’s That Summer is not specifically theological, it captures the contrast between two kinds of religion. One celebrates life (“So much in one summer, stirring up like the storms that crest at the end of each day, blowing out all the heat and dirt to leave everything gasping and cool”) and seeks to live responsibly on the planet.

The other kind of religion sees faith as the ticket to heaven (a paradisal life after life), instead of eternal punishment in you know what, while the sweet smell of honeysuckle is overcome by the smell of sizzling asphalt and the porpoises wash ashore because of plastic.

Click HERE for he post “Something about long, lazy days and whirring air conditioners” on Live and Learn.

The River of Consciousness

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How and why the mind works the way it does came to mind these past few days. My mind has been like a river pouring over rapids and waterfalls, splitting into two or three paths around the islets that still rise from the riverbed, and then returning from two or three to one river with a single flow.

Niagara Falls

Integrating one’s plunges over the falls, side trips around the islets, and tumbling over rapids is what the mind does as it looks back upstream from down river. More often than not, one’s life is a blur. We move with the flow downstream. But once in while, what happened upstream invites or demands reflection.

No moment in the river’s journey is superfluous. Daily routines in periods of calm dull our awareness of the river itself and lay aside questions of its whence and whither until another event, or a memory, moves us to clear the blur. One event or memory leads to others we thought we had forgotten, pushed aside, or left behind.

The path of descent is the path of transformation. Darkness, failure, relapse, death, and woundedness are our primary teachers, rather than ideas or doctrines.

Richard Rohr, Yes

Think a moment of all the events and encounters that have shaped you most deeply and lastingly. How many did you see coming? How many did you engineer, manufacture, chase down? How many were interruptions? . . . The span between life as we intend it and life as we receive it is vast. Our true purpose is worked out in that gap. It is fashioned in the crucible of interruptions.

Mark Buchanan, The Rest of God: Restoring Your Soul by Restoring Sabbath.
Aerial view: confluence of the Yukon River (lighter color) and the Koyukuk River (darker), Alaska

All moments are part of the river of whence that flows over rocks and waterfalls, splits, and returns to one on its way to a whither beyond our knowing.

Gordon C. Stewart, by the wetland, Minnesota, August 12, 2019.

Toni Morrison to Dayton: “Just turn your backs!”

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Toni Morrison, the 1993 Nobel laureate and beloved national treasure Americans mourn today, wrote and spoke words fit for the crowd of people who will stand before the president today in Dayton, OH.

“Anger … it’s a paralyzing emotion … you can’t get anything done. People sort of think it’s an interesting, passionate, and igniting feeling — I don’t think it’s any of that — it’s helpless … it’s absence of control — and I need all of my skills, all of the control, all of my powers … and anger doesn’t provide any of that — I have no use for it whatsoever.”

[Interview with CBS radio host Don Swaim, September 15, 1987.]”
― Toni Morrison

anybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to mind…. Not just work, kill, or maim you, but dirty you. Dirty you so bad you couldn’t like yourself anymore. Dirty you so bad you forgot who you were and couldn’t think it up

Toni Morrison

Remember that Narcissus depends on applause and cameras. “Don’t get mad. Don’t yell and scream and lose control. STAND TALL and speak with single voice. JUST TURN YOUR BACKS when he speak!

— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, August 7, 2019.

The “invaders” — a psalmic reflection

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The Power of Language for good and for evil

According to the New York Times, the Trump 2020 re-election campaign has run 2,000+ Facebook ads framing the national conversation by calling the migration at our southern border “an invasion”.

Introducing an exercise

It gets harder every day. The carnage is in full sight. So are the tweets. It’s depressing. In times like this a Psalm sometimes comes along that expresses the emotions. They laments. The anger at cruelty. Hope for something better beyond what we can see as possible.

Psalm 79: How Long, O Lord?

 O God, the nations have come into Your inheritance;
    they have defiled your holy temple;
    they have laid Jerusalem in ruins.

America today is not the sweet land of liberty of whom we sing. We grieve amid the latest ruins in El Paso and Dayton. We lament the human sacrifice that defile the good green Earth,Your holy temple, the inheritance of global grace.

  They have given the bodies of your servants
    to the birds of the heavens for food,
    the flesh of your faithful to the beasts of the earth.

They trade doves for vultures, and olive branches for military materiele on the streets of Baghdad and Kabul, El Paso, and Dayton, Virginia Beach, Aurora, Thousand Oaks, Pittsburgh, Annapolis, Santa Fe, Parkland, Sutherland Springs, Las Vegas, Orlando, Fort Lauderdale, Burlington, Orlando, San Bernardino, Roseburg, Chattanooga, Charleston, Sandy Hook . . . . Mankato and Wounded Knee.

They have poured out their blood like water
    all around Jerusalem,
    and there was no one to bury them.

  We have become a taunt to our neighbors,
    mocked and derided by those around us.

The invaders call the tired and the poor, yearning to breathe free; the homeless, and tempest-tossed “invaders” — caravans of an invasion crossing the southern border. The vultures prey on fathers and daughters drowned and lying face-down on the Texas bank of the Rio Grande. In the name of national security they take nursing children far from their mothers’ breasts, separate families, and forget where they have placed the invaders’ children, while the authorities retreat to golf courses and sent their children to fancy summer camps.

Let the groans of the prisoners come before You;
    according to Your great power, preserve those doomed to die!

May the groans that hurt Your ears rouse the nation’s conscience to close the prisons and preserve all those White Nationalism dooms to die.

“National extremists are idealists. Racial and religious extremists are idealists. ISIL is idealist. American exceptionalism is idealist. . . . Idealistic terrorism lives to rid the world of evil as its adherents understand it, projecting evil as ‘the other’ while flying ‘the sore point’ in ourselves that we conscious animals seek to avoid.”

“Idealism and Terror,” Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), p. 33-39

Return sevenfold into the lap of [their captors]
    the taunts with which they have taunted You, O Lord!
But we Your people, the sheep of your pasture,
    will give thanks to You forever;
    from generation to generation we will recount Your praise.

“I’m ninety-six,” wrote Benedictine monk Sebastian Moore of Downside Abbey, introducing his last book, “and for most of my life I’ve been a monk. My life as a monk has been, for the most part, a search for God as real.”

Dom Sebastian Moore, OSB, Remembered Bliss (2014, Lapwing Publications)
  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, August 6, 2019

America’s silent colossal National Lie

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“The silent colossal National Lie that is the support and confederate of all the tyrannies and shams and inequalities and unfairnesses that afflict the peoples—that is the one to throw bricks and sermons at.” — Samuel Clemmons (Mark Twain).

The National Lie of white supremacy may lie silent for a time, but it doesn’t die easily. It was the unspoken lie behind the invasion and slaughter of people it called ‘savages’ to justify stealing America’s indigenous peoples’ continent and herding them onto federal reservation. The conquerers were white. The indigenous peoples were ‘red’. The invaders spoke English. Those they conquered did not. The same colossal National Lie rationalized the invasion of “the dark continent” to capture men, women, and children as slave labor to work the plantation owners’ cotton fields. The faces of the Lie wore white hoods, lit crosses on lawns, and hanged their former slaves from the lynching trees. And on and on it goes. It lives on in 2020, no longer silent, branding brown, Spanish-speaking migrants fleeing for safety “invaders” who must be stopped.

It’s a long way from El Paso TX to Dayton OH — a 22-hour drive through Oklahoma, Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana. It took less than 13 hours for El Paso and Dayton to become twin cities suffering together “all the tyrannies and shams and inequalities and unfairnesses that inflict the people” while the lie of White Nationalism carries on.

“A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” — Mark Twain.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN

My People and the 19th Hole

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How we look at the world is a matter of personal experiences and how we integrate them. Each new experience confirms or changes how we see and what we see. Reading exchanges about Baltimore took me back to a shattering of perception at the end of a summer internship as a street outreach worker with Corinthian Avenue Chapel in North Philadelphia. The acknowledgements of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness take the reader back to “the Brothers of Opal Street”:

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 in North Philadelphia — had a farewell conversation in late August 1962, with me, a naive nineteen year-old 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” lived in the white western suburbs of Philadelphia. I have come to believe that last day on Opal Street was its own kind of ordination. This book is in memory of them.

Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), p. xiv

Opal Street was one-block long with no traffic. The far end of the street was boarded in the same way the street’s tenements were. At the far end was the yellow chalk outline of a body. Half way between the entrance to Opal Street and the police chalk mark sat the men on wood orange crates, passing the bottle or the jug to numb themselves against the world that had no regard for their dignity or the stories that had brought them there.

“‘Go back to your people and change things there” sent me home and off to college asking existential questions about who ‘my people’ were and what the relationship was between the manicured lawns, rash-free streets, and country clubs of the Mainline western suburbs and the “rat and rodent infested mess” I had left behind in North Philadelphia.

entrance gate to Mar-a-Largo

Some moments last a lifetime. Some experiences forever change what we see as much as how we see. It’s hard to see Opal Street over drinks at the 19th hole.

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, July 29, 2019.

Truth-making and the Lie-making Machine

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Special Counsel Robert Mueller

Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s appearance before Congress brings a sliver of hope that truth will prevail. Living in a surreal era where absurdity is the rule rather than the exception led me back to words from an earlier time and another country, the description offered by French novelist and absurdist philosopher Albert Camus (1913-1960).

Never before has the individual stood so alone before the lie-making machine. We used to wonder where war lived, what it was that made it so vile. And now we realize that we know where it lives, that is inside ourselves.

Albert Camus, Notebooks

If you see a turtle on top of a fencepost, you can be sure it didn’t get there by itself.

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, July 24, 2019