That would Ted do?

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Conversations with a best friend newly diagnosed with pancreatic cancer led to me back this morning to Ted Gill, whose obituary we republish here.

Why? Because my friend, like Ted Gill, served as president of an institution of theological education, participated in the civil rights movement, and is finding fresh meaning in the communion of saints, that strange article of the Christian creed that connects the living and the dead as we have never been gathered in time.

People in Minnesota often ask “What would Wellstone do?” Paul Wellstone was a child of the Iron Range. So was Ted Gill who was born in the town where the Wellstone’s plane crashed.

In light of Ted Gill’s obituary — “Late in his life, Ted Gill remarked that ‘the high point of my career in the ministry was the week that I cost my seminary five million dollars’” — we might well ask, “What would Ted do?”

Theodore A. Gill, Sr.
Presbyterian Pastor, Theologian, and Educator

Rev. Dr. Theodore Alexander GillThe Rev. Dr. Theodore Alexander Gill, a former president of San Francisco Theological Seminary and later provost of John Jay College of Criminal Justice in the City University of New York (CUNY), died at the age of 85 on Friday, June 10 following a lengthy illness, in Princeton, New Jersey.

Born in Eveleth, Minnesota on January 7, 1920, Ted Gill was educated at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Princeton Theological Seminary, Union Seminary in New York City, and the University of Zurich where he wrote his doctoral dissertation on “Recent Protestant Political Theory.” His teachers included Emil Brunner, Karl Barth, Josef Hromadka, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Paul Tillich. He was awarded six honorary doctorates during his career. In his time at the San Francisco seminary, he became one of the founders of the Graduate Theological Union based in Berkeley.

After serving Presbyterian parishes in New Rochelle, New York and West End Presbyterian church in New York City, he became professor of religion and dean of the chapel at Lindenwood College in St. Charles, Missouri, and subsequently managing editor of The Christian Century magazine in Chicago and editor of its sister publication The Pulpit. He was president of San Francisco Theological Seminary from 1958 to 1966, leaving that position to occupy the higher education desk of the World Council of Churches in Geneva, Switzerland. Following a return to the parish in Detroit, he joined the faculty of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, a CUNY college in midtown Manhattan, where he remained from 1971 through 1989. In retirement, he served as theologian in residence at Nassau Presbyterian Church in Princeton, New Jersey.

Ted Gill’s passion was for the link between religion and the arts, and over the years he served as a part-time leader of such organizations as Art, Religion, and Contemporary Culture – founded by Paul Tillich – and American Summer Institutes, a series of annual seminars on theology and the arts in locations that included Rome, Berlin, Budapest, and St. Andrews. As president of the San Francisco seminary, he organized a ground-breaking program on theology and theatrical arts. He also served on Presbyterian judicial commissions in the northeast and on national church committees that produced The Worshipbook of 1970 and commissioned the seal or logo of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in 1985. At the time of his death, he was a retired member of the Presbytery of New York City.

From the early days of the US civil rights struggle, Ted Gill publicly supported equal rights for all and openly opposed segregationist practices in both southern and northern states. In 1963-64, he was regional chair of California’s “No on Proposition 14” campaign against discriminatory housing legislation, and in 1965 he marched with Martin Luther King from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in support of voting rights. As he and dozens of students and faculty members from San Francisco Theological Seminary participated in the Selma to Montgomery civil rights march of 1965, promises of millions of dollars in endowments to the institution he led were withdrawn in protest by potential donors. Late in his life, Ted Gill remarked that “the high point of my career in the ministry was the week that I cost my seminary five million dollars.” In later years, he voiced support for the full participation of gays and lesbians in church and society.

51N4rqkX+bL._AC_UL320_SR240,320_He was the author or editor of numerous books, journals, and articles. Among his books were The Sermons of John Donne (1958), Memo for a Movie: A Short Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1971), and, with Robert Bellah and Krister Stendahl, Religion and the Academic Scene (1975).

He was noted for editorial columns and sermons that were featured in church magazines and on radio’s “The Protestant Hour.” Preaching in a sermon series titled “Christian Clichés,” Ted Gill told his listeners:

“I have known and loved too many of the victims of the old-fashioned version of the ‘Christian’ life: wonderful, juicy human beings who were persuaded by a misguided church that they had to veil their vividness, bank their fires, dehydrate their interest, denature their enthusiasms, if they wanted to be Christian. No, the old idea will not do… The Christian life is not the life that is made to fit the legalistic box, that is forced to fit into the pattern. The Christian life is life lived in a certain direction – in, through, around, above whatever temperamental, physical, psychological obstacles any of us may have. But always in that direction – the direction which is assigned to us by what we know of God, by what we know in Jesus Christ of the character and nature of the realest real, by what we know in Jesus of God and the love of God. The Christian life is life lived in appropriate reaction to God’s action for us. The Christian life will be described in terms of the direction we are headed, and of how well we keep going in that direction, no matter how often we trip and fall.”

At the 1968 assembly of the World Council of Churches, Ted Gill gave a speech on “The Great Convergence” of education and the churches. Reflecting on student demonstrations in universities that spring, he revealed his discomfort with patterns of conformity in higher education:

“On the campuses, a generation erupted, an important piece of society let fly. The protest might have begun on the field of general education, but it was a wild shout, a rough rejection of education-in-general, of everything taken for granted by all the elements now molding people, coercing society, determining the future. The real adversary was not this or that administrator or this or that teacher or this or that course. The real adversaries were that rigid vice-chancellor, the status quo; those sternly directive professors, government and industry; that intolerable bore, academic tradition; those long courses in accommodation… Some of the brightest and best of our youth flame now in revolutionary dissatisfaction with the goals they see accepted by those who teach them, affect them, direct them. They distrust the values commonly invoked. They defy the system which ever more efficiently instructs the new generation in means that they see leading straight to inhuman ends: unendurable inequities, intolerable narrowing of human possibilities, blasphemous vulgarizations of spirit.” (“The Great Convergence,” The Ecumenical Review 20.4 [Oct. 1968], 385-94.)

In the April 1958 issue of The Pulpit, editor Gill reflected on the intricacies of theology in light of his father’s recent death: “We squabble and we rant about all the picayune details we assign to mysteries completely beyond our assessing, when all we really have to tell the world, all we really have to live on is the good news that God is love… But now, the love of God that gets us through our hard days is for more than funerals. It is for living along. When you know in your bones that the most real knows you and loves you, that beyond the vicissitudes of experience and the catastrophes of existence the ground of all being has declared itself for you, there should be a relief and a release in your living, a new inventiveness and zest in your living, a new pleasure, a more confident participation in life and its precious fascinations.”

Due to a blockage of his carotid artery in May 1994, he lost the capacity for speech and began a gradual decline in health. His wife of 57 years, Katherine Yonker Gill, died in July 2002. He is survived by a daughter, Laurie Melissa Keeran of Brewster, Massachusetts; a son, the Rev. Theodore A. Gill, Jr. of Geneva, Switzerland; a grand-daughter, Elizabeth Katherine Gill of Durham, North Carolina; and longtime caregiver Ben Mensah of New York City. A memorial service will be held at Nassau Presbyterian Church in Princeton, New Jersey and is being planned for Monday, June 20.

Click HERE to read the NYT obituary.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, September 20, 2017.

Book Review of “Be Still!”

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A gloomy, rainy day in Chaska is brightened by today’s posting of Donald Shriver’s review of Be Still! in the digital edition of The Presbyterian Outlook.

Thanks to editor and to Donald Shriver for the sunshine.

 

The Light Show

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The moonless night beyond the picture window contrast with the candles that wash a warm glow on the orange rough-cut pine walls inside the A-frame cabin in a place without a name.

flightA flock of Canadian geese flew over the wetland before dusk, honking their way south before winter comes to the Upper Midwest, while inside the cabin walls the Blue Jays had flown south from Toronto to Minneapolis over the radio to play a ballgame with the Twins. Unlike the Canadian geese, the Blue Jays are going nowhere; the Minnesota Twins are preparing for a long flight to the World Series.

votive-candlesThere is something strange about being alone in a remote wilderness cabin without a remote or internet, but some things stay close. Like the radio I bring to listen to the Twins games, and my canine companion Barclay who doesn’t care about the Twins or the radio but does care about candlelight. Barclay had headed for his kennel for the night an hour after the Twins had broken the sacred silence—until the sound of a match drew him back to the sofa to watch the candlelight flicker against the walls.

Sometimes I wish I were a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel instead of a lone silly goose who needs a radio to stay sane in an otherwise silent night in a warm-lit cabin in a place without a name.

d6dbdcca-1865-4dbf-b1dc-9cfda368e47d.1By the seventh inning stretch, I’m tired of the Twins game, blow out all the candles, see Barclay to his kennel, and head up the ladder to the loft in the darkness. Only then do I notice the light show beyond the cabin walls: the Northern Lights dancing across the sky, a natural light show no World Series can match. Through the loft window I watch the light that knows nothing of matches, candles, or our whereabouts off the human map.

Sometimes, when awe reduces me to lightening bug, it feels good to be human.

 

Nothing to say

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These last few days have been days like that.

I’m still learning in the quiet of the woods without phone or internet access. When I have nothing to say . . .  it’s best not to say it! 🦉

– Gordon C. Stewart, Speechless-in-Minnesota.

An Absence of Humility

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Hold to the Good

153 Evangelical leaders convened recently in Nashville under the auspices of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Biblical Womanhood and issued a statement on sexuality. Signers include some of the most prominent and influential leaders in the Evangelical family: James Dobson, Richard Land, James Robinson, Tony Perkins. The statement targets gay, lesbian and transgender persons but also Christians, Christian churches and organizations that do not exclude gay, lesbian and transgender people from membership and leadership, and everyone who comes to different conclusions about sexuality and sexual morality.

The first section of the statement reads:

“We affirm that it is sinful to approve of homosexual immorality or transgenderism and that such approval constitutes an essential departure from Christian faithfulness and witness.”

The hubris of that statement is breathtaking. Not only does it reaffirm the traditional evangelical position that any sexual relationship outside of heterosexual marriage is sinful, it also sweeps anyone…

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Respite off the map

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Sanity demands solitude.

thoreau quoteHenry David Thoreau withdrew to Walden Pond to come to his senses. His time was much simpler than mine. He never got out of bed to check his emails or search the internet. But even in that less over-stimulated time he felt the need to leave everything that distracts the human spirit from the deeper truth about itself.

Solitude loves silence.

The wilderness cabin in northern Minnesota feels a bit like Henry’s place on Walden Pond. The wetland separates it from the small pond that has no name on a map. There are no sounds here other than the loons’ calls, Barclay’s bark, and the occasional mooing from a mile or two away when the wind is right.

Solitude puts me in touch with nature.

Not all the sounds are calming. In the night darkness, the howls of a nearby coyote and the scratching sounds of skunks digging for grubs remind me that nature is not as altogether sweet as romantics sometimes make it out to be. The cabin provides a respite from the human howls and odors that startle me in the world beyond these woods.

I ponder with the psalmist the societal ills that drove Henry to Walden Pond and have driven me here.

Their idols are silver and gold,
the work of human hands.

They have mouths, but they cannot speak;
eyes have they, but they cannot see;

They have ears, but they cannot hear;
noses, but they cannot smell;

They have hands, but they cannot feel;
feet, but they cannot walk;
they make no sound with their throat.

Those who make them are like them,
and so are all who put their trust in them.
[Psalm 115:4-8, The Book of Common Prayer]

fd102fe612128b9da9857f58e5286d30I become aware of the light dancing on the aspen leaves in a gentle breeze, the yellow oak leaf signaling the turn of summer toward fall, the sudden gust of wind from across the nameless pond, the osprey circling overhead on currents I cannot see, the ice-cold water hand-pumped from the well, the warmth of the fire in the wood stove, the feel of dirt from the flower beds—the living silence of a dead stop.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Walden Pond, MN, September 2, 2017.

When the news goes away

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Days away from internet access brings a calmer reflection. Being in touch isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Out of touch with bad news is relief to the body.

220px-Tipi_bij_daglichtIf living in the developed world means being on edge all the time, I’d prefer a less developed one — maybe a teepee with smoke signals for communication. Anxiety is real enough without the constant sting of bad news from far away and beyond my small sphere of influence.

Madison Avenue loves my anxiety. Admen prey on what can only be prayed about. An ad agency is no praying mantis! It’s color is green but its antennae look for the anxious selves who will buy the things we do not need if we believe we only exist by buying them.

Stillness and being are not their thing. Selling is their game. They don’t pray. They prey on well-trained dogs, ringing Pavlov’s bell for manufactured tastes and smells, while down on Wall Street Monday’s opening bell opens the hornets’ nest for the frenzy.

Praying_mantis_indiaLike the praying mantis, the non-preying prayers live far from the bells. In touch with what’s worth much more than it’s cracked up to be: a less bad news world where humans live teepee- lives in touch with the body . . . in the stillness of time.

“Their aim is to confound the plans of the afflicted, but the LORD is their refuge.” [Psalm 14:6, The Book of Common Prayer]

  •  Gordon C. Stewart, wilderness cabin, northern Minnesota, September 3, 2017

Harvey, Houston, and the Holy

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The urgency of a rescue operation is not the time for anything but compassion.

Timing and perception are everything in this startling time of Hurricane Harvey, 500-year floods, and the chemical plant explosions now taking place in Houston. Watching a helicopter rescue the elderly and disabled from the rising waters of a flood that has put people at risk is not the time to say I told you so.

But sooner or later it is time to speak about the unnatural crisis hidden behind the crisis of nature. In times like this, everyone becomes a socialist, and, if we’re seeing straight, no one stays a climate change-denier in the city big oil built.

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Chemical plant explosions are the latest horrific news that graphically illustrate a national crisis that is more than ‘natural’. The crisis is anthropological and theological.

“Man over nature” was always an illusion. A hoax. A faux understanding of the human species’ relationship with the rest of nature — “man (sic.) over nature,” as though the first were separate from the latter — that leads to destruction and self-destruction.

The chemicals are exploding because the plants that make them cannot keep them cool. Keeping them cool requires an operative electrical grid, or, when the grid goes down, an emergency generator that isn’t vulnerable to flooding. When the grid and backup generators fail, the chemicals heat and explode.

Timing and perception are everything.

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Not much more than a year ago Standing Rock was being touted as the emerging symbol of the revised understanding, the shift in consciousness, and the new behavior required of humankind in the age of climate departure. The oil pipeline from Canada to Texas refineries was stopped in the name of nature itself.

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That was before the 2016 election, and the 2017 appointment of a climate change-denier to gut the EPA, presidential executive orders stripping away regulations on the fossil fuel industry, and America’s spiritual retreat from the Paris Accord on Climate Change. Texas, not Standing Rock, was in charge again. Or so it seemed until Harvey came ashore to wash away the illusion of “man over nature.”

It’s time now for a clearer perception. Time to hold next to each other a picture of flooded Texas chemical plant explosions and the peaceful protest of Standing Rock,  and ask ourselves which picture is truer than the other. Or perhaps the truth is better seen when both are held together side-by-side: two anthropologies and two theologies. According to the one, humankind and the human city are the measure of reality itself. According to the other, God (i.e. the Eternal, Being-Itself) is the “natural” context — the mysterium tremendum et fascinans* — in which we live, and move, and have our being.

Today is, and tomorrow will still be, time for compassion and help for the people of Houston. It is also time to perceive something much deeper and wider. The rescued people of Houston, southeast Texas, and Louisiana are but the latest victims of the tragedy of the human mind and spirit: the fanciful illusion and creation of an alt-world of species superiority to nature.

Could the trembling of this horrific moment lead us to a holier fascination with reality itself?

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Rudolf Otto (1869-1937)

The people of Standing Rock and Rudolf Otto are watching.

*Rudolf Otto‘s Latin term for the human experience with the Mystery beyond all taming that both fascinates and causes us mortals to tremble. (Rudolf Otto (1869–1937), The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-Rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and its Relation to the Rational.)

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, August 31, 2017

 

 

 

 

A Hymn for Houston

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Watching rescue workers, the Red Cross, FEMA workers, and volunteers serving in Houston brings to mind a rare hymn that focuses on the city in a time of despair.

Click HERE for the lyrics.

Erik Routley’s rendering of Charleston, an American folk tune, honors all who love and serve the city, all who bear its daily stress.

Across America — from tiny churches in Appalachia, the bayous of Louisiana, and Sitka, Alaska to Memorial Church at Harvard — prayers are lifted and hymns are being sung in thanks for all who love and serve the city.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, August 30, 2017.

 

 

A Moment of National Decision

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Pastors sometimes view the world differently. Pondering the President’s visit to Houston today, the lines from three hymns come to mind.

“In an age of twisted values we have lost the truth we need. In sophisticated language we have justified our greed.”

“We have built discrimination on our prejudices and fear. Hatred swiftly turns to cruelty if we hold resentments dear.”

And these lines from James Russell Lowell‘s old chestnut, “Once to Every Man and Nation”:

“Once to every man and nation/ Comes the moment to decide/ In the strife of truth with falsehood/ For the good or evil side;/ Some great cause, some great decision/ Offering each the bloom or blight,/ And the choice goes by forever/ ‘Twixt that darkness and that light.”

If John Newton, the former slave ship captain, could be turned into an abolitionist by the amazing grace “that saved a wretch like me,” who’s to say amazing things can’t happen on August 29, 2017?

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, August 29, 2017.