I’m having a hard time . . .

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“I’m having a hard time ...”
 he said with a scowl
 coming through the line
 to shake the hand 
 of the preacher who had
 preached his first sermon
 at the church judged
 to be the leading voice in
 the civil rights and peace
 movements in the city.
 
 “I’m having a hard time
 not hitting you,” he said,
 holding back his right arm
 with his left hand as the
 new 26 year-old anti-war 
 pastor reached to shake 
 his hand.  

 “Pools of Blood” had packed 
 a punch with the chair of the
 City Human Rights Commission.

GCS, July 20, 2019

Written in response to today’s Weekend Writing Prompt challenge to write a poem or prose on the word “judge” with exactly 95 words.

We sat down over coffee later that week.

Dennis Aubrey – Via Lucis

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Light through a window of the Basilica of the Madeline in Vézelay, France – Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Reason only partially explains why and how some people become friends.

“Reason, you’ll always be half blind,” said Mechtild of Magdeburg, the 13th century German mystic beguine, author of The Flowing Light of Divinity.

Friendship

There are reasons that partially explain why and how Dennis Aubrey and I became friends. Cyberspace is how we met. I can’t recall which of us started the conversation. I do know that finding Via Lucis: Photography of Religious Architecture was like a window opening a dark room to light and air. Why one of us reached out to comment on the other’s site had its reasons. Each of us was wading in the same waters, asking the same questions. Dennis did it by means of professional photography and commentaries on Romanesque and Gothic churches in France and Germany. I did it through commentaries on faith and public life.

Wading in the same waters differently led us to each other. Although I have always loved beautiful architecture, I knew little about Romanesque and could not have cared less about the Medieval period when the Romanesque cathedrals, basilicas, and churches were built. These structures were the waters in which Dennis sought and found light. The ancient texts of Hebrew and Christian scripture were the waters in which I did the same. Discovering each other wading in the same waters differently led to an eight year friendship in person at Dennis and PJ’s new home in Ohio, by internet comments on each other’s work, and the kind of phone calls peculiar to close friends.

Last Saturday I called Dennis to discuss his latest posted on Via Lucis. There was no answer. Perhaps I’d called too early. Perhaps he and PJ were in France. Perhaps they had driven to the Amish farm stand where the Amish adolescent sold them organic vegetables or had gone to the Amish auction. Or maybe Dennis had silences his cell phone. I left a voicemail. An hour later at 9:43 A.M. the return call came from Dennis’s cell phone number. But the voice was not Dennis’s, it was PJ’s. “I can’t believe you called,” she said. “Dennis died last night.” Our worlds suddenly became smaller.

As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after Thee, O God. My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God: when shall I come and appear before God? [Psalm 42:1-2 KJV]

Panting after the water brooks

Faith takes many forms. Which forms, if any, are grounded in reality is a lifelong quest for some of us. A cynic may dismiss all forms of faith as ungrounded — floating in the clouds of human imagination and illusion. Yet there remain those murmurings from within or the majesty one sees outside the self in nature or great works of art. Dennis and PJ posted an an announcement and invitation to a new exhibit July 29 bearing the artists’ witness to imagination: “This exhibition is not about the iconographic programs of medieval historiated capitals, but rather an appreciation of the human imagination that created these sculptures.”

The search for authentic faith — trust in something greater than the self and all that we can see, feel, taste, smell, or touch — is not a straight line. It spirals between opposites. We disbelieve and believe. We believe and disbelieve. We fall and we get back up. We gasp for air and we gasp in awe. We turn our backs on the past and embrace it again as though we’d never met it.

When shall I come before Thee?

St. Augustine wrote that our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee. Like faith itself, what the Hebrew psalmist called the soul’s ‘panting’’ and Augustine called ‘restlessness’, takes many forms. Sometimes, as in the parable of the lost son, it takes us far away from the water brooks; sometimes it goes numb; sometimes it draws us closer to the water brooks. But even there by the side of the water brooks, like Narcissus, we refuse to drink.

Dennis was on a lifelong search for what the psalmist likened to a deer thirsty for water — longing for union with the Ineffable that was shrouded in mystery but given to his eyes in a shaft of light reflecting on a stone wall at dusk, or on one of the capitals the craftsmen of a by-gone time invited his imagination and research. He shared in photography and commentary moments where his panting desire for God was quenched by the stones themselves: the song of Mary Magdeline echoing from the stones of the Basilique Sainte Madeleine in Vézelay, and the sounds of uncluttered simplicity and beauty of Gregorian chant that calls us to remember who and Whose we are.

His last words on Via Lucis were posted in reply to his latest and most personal post. “Judy, thank you so much. It is the ineffable sensation of that spirituality that drives both PJ and me when we photograph.”

Deep calleth unto deep at the sound of Thy waterspouts.

Dennis was joyful. He was attuned to the calling of the Deep. He was reverent before the abyss, the yawning hole in existence itself, the nights haunted by the 3:00 o’clock in the morning questions that beg for answers. He shared those times of wrestling with PJ and with Rudy, the cat on his lap in whom he took such delight, and, sometimes, with readers of Via Lucis. I could only say “Yes! Yes! Yes!” Opening one of his posts on Via Lucis was like meeting the twin brother I didn’t know I had. No matter how deep into the Deep his blog posts would go, there was always the echo of the Divine calling to him from the depths.

My soul is cast down within me.

Dennis had an eye for beauty and the camera and words to reflect what he saw when he took the shot. It was a rare gift. The antidote to sleepless nights was a day with PJ in a Romanesque Basilica like the one at Vezelay, waiting for the precise moment when the light and shadows would be just right. The beauty was already there in the stone walls and buttresses, the choirs, chancels, the side chapels built to the glory of God by artisans whose names were forever lost to future generations. I think Dennis saw himself as one of them, creating works of art that drew attention not to himself but to his subject.

Only wonder comprehends anything

Looking back after he has left us, it occurs to me that Dennis’s faith was of the Eastern (Byzantine) tradition of Christianity much more than of the Western (Roman) tradition in which he was raised. Dennis could well have spoken the words of Gregory of Nyssa.

“Concepts create idols; only wonder comprehends anything. People kill one another over idols. Wonder makes us fall to our knees.”

He was horrified by what had been done in the name of Christ: the Crusades that swept through the world like a wild fire, destroying towns and villages, and disobedient monastic sites because their concepts were not right.

The kind of thing that sunshine is

Concepts are ‘cataphatic’; wonder is ‘apophatic’. Cataphatic religion is logical — it lives in the head. Apophatic spirituality is awake to what cannot be reduced to a concept. Dennis’s artistic spirit was apophatic — awake to the beauty all around him and cringing at human cruelty produced by the idols in our heads.

Just as many questions might be started for debate among people sitting up at night as to the kind of thing that sunshine is, and then the simple appearing of it in all its beauty would render any verbal description superfluous, so every calculation that tries to arrive conjecturally at the future state will be reduced to nothingness by the object of our hopes, when it comes upon us.

Gregory of Nyssa (c.335-c.395 CE)

Dennis’s writing respected the ineffability of sunshine with words that helped us see the beauty his apophatic eyes had seen.

“I shall yet praise him”

The poetry of Psalm 42 was akin to the poetic imagination by which the Hebrew prophet Isaiah described his experience in the temple:

In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple. Above it stood the seraphim: each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly. And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory. And the posts of the door moved at the voice of him that cried, and the house was filled with smoke.

Isaiah 6:1-4 (KJV)

In the 20th and 21st centuries Isaiah’s temple was a Romanesque church Dennis and PJ experienced in ways best expressed in poetic prose and photograph. Their art brought to life our sense of the seraphim soaring above the throne of the Holy One. Those gasping for air found ourselves gasping with awe at what the eye of this gentle soul had seen. Sometimes the Ineffable takes our breath away and drops us to our knees in an empty church where the sun still shines its light on the stones, the stones cry out, and the Magdeleine still sings.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, July 15, 2019.

Mr. Slicker and the Egg Robbers

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REMEMBER CITY “SLICKERS” AND COUNTRY “BUMPKINS”?

Mickey Mouse comicstrip panel of Mickey reading invitation to Blaggard Mansion at 10o'clock tonight.
Comic strip panel from Mickey Mouse, “In the Interest of Science,” created by Floyd Gottfredson and published December 1932

Remember when folks who lived in the country called people from the city “city slickers” and the city slickers called the people on farms and in small towns “country bumpkins”? Stereotypes contain some kernel of truth, which makes it harder to make sense of what is happening in America today.

HONESTY AND NEIGHBORLINESS

When was the last time you went shopping for groceries, went to checkout only to discover you’d forgotten your wallet or purse — you have no plastic or cash — and the clerk says, “No problem. Just pay me when you can. We only take cash”?

It happens in the country where “a man’s word is his bond.” Yes, means ‘yes’ and No means ‘no’. Honesty is expected. Country folks don’t take kindly to snake oil salesmen all gussied-up in fancy Sacks Fifth Avenue suits, custom-made white shirts, silk ties, gold Gucci watches, and highly polished black Louis Vuitton Manhattan Richelieu Men’s Shoes. The city slickers don’t usually wear tractor hats or track in manure from the fields and barn on their boots.

Driving on a country road where the Trump campaign flag has replaced the American flag on a home’s front yard flagpole, I wonder what’s happening. The folks who expect honesty are following a city slicker — not just any city slicker — a really slick city slicker. The house with the flagpole is as down-to-earth as Trump Tower is uppity. Rusted-out pick-up trucks litter the yard amid the weeds. The “lawn” is worlds away from manicured fairways of Mar-a-Largo. I scratch my head, wondering how it happens that someone whose bond is his word hoists a slicker’s flag.

MR. SLICKER AND THE EGG ROBBERS — 1930 AND 2019

Looking back to Floyd_Gottfredson‘s Great Depression comic strip “Mr. Slicker and the Egg Robbers,” I wonder whether the Trump supporters in 2019 have noticed that someone’s been stealing the eggs from the old fashioned honor code roadside stand his children replenish every morning.

“Mr. Slicker and the Egg Robbers” was set in Mouston, where Mickey Mouse opens up a miniature golf course on his farm. Soon a very tall mouse, Mr. Slicker, wows the citizens of Mouston, tries to woo Minnie away from Mickey, steals Minnie’s family’s farm eggs, and comes to Marcus Mouse’s (Minnie’s father) rescue when a draught and the egg thefts leave him unable to pay the mortgage. Mr. Slicker offers to pay off the family’s debt, but only if Minnie will marry him. When Mickey comes to the rescue with savings from his miniature golf course, a stange thing happens. The Mouston Bank is robbed. Mr. Slick goes to the police to pin the robbery on Mickey.

Long story short — if you want the full story, click THIS LINK — Mickey, surmising that Mr. Slicker is behind the egg thefts and the bank robbery, convinces Slicker’s right hand man that Mr. Slicker has no intention of cutting the robbers in on the heist. Slicker and the robbers are arrested, and Minnie throws a dinner party for Mickey, her hero!

REDEEMING THE COIN OF THE REALM

It’s an old story from 1930 but it still brings a smile to those who are not fooled by slickers in high places who seem never to have learned what most country folks have always known but now seem to have forgotten: honesty is the coin of the realm. Please, take Slicker down from the flagpole where the American flag once waved.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, June 27, 2019.

What’s wrong with the world?

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Photograph of G.K. Chesterton
G.K. Chesterton

The look on G.K. Chesterton‘s face could be ours. But who would think to give Chesterton’s answer to the question raised by a London newspaper, “What’s wrong with the world”? Chesterton wrote back two words: “I am“.

Dear Sir:

Regarding your article “What’s wrong with the world.”

I am.

Sincerely Yours,

G.K. Chesterton

The Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton

Chesterton knew intuitively and by study that there’s something not right that defies description and prescription, a kind of universal virus that included him.

What ever happened to sin?

Psychologist Karl Menninger of the Menninger Clinic began his book Whatever Became of Sin with a funny story:

“On a sunny day in September, 1972, a stern-faced, plainly dressed man could be seen standing still on a street corner in the busy Chicago Loop. As pedestrians hurried by on their way to lunch or business, he would solemnly lift his right arm, and pointing to the person nearest him, intone loudly the single word ‘GUILTY!’

“Then, without any change of expression, he would resume his still stance for a few moments before repeating the gesture. Then, again, the inexorable raising of his arm, the pointing, and the solemn pronouncing of the one word ‘GUILTY!’

“The effect of this strange accusatory pantomime on the passing strangers was extraordinary, almost eerie. They would stare at him, hesitate, look away, look at each other, and then at him again; then hurriedly continue on their ways.

“One man, turning to another who was my informant, exclaimed: ‘But how did he know?’”

The sense of broken relatedness

“No word in the Christian vocabulary is so badly understood, in the world and in the church, as the word sin” (Douglas John Hall, The Cross in Our Context). Sin is a condition — the state of separation, broken relationship, estrangement from the Other, other people, and one’s self. This state manifests itself in particular acts of broken relatedness, “an active nonbeing, a refusal, a rejection, a no to the other: the other who is God, the author of life; the other who is the neighbor, he partner in life; the other that is creation itself, the context of life. … The recovery of relationality in Christian preaching and teaching is not a” concession to modernity or postmodernity; it is a recovery of the original Hebraic and early Christian ontology . . . .

To sin is to act in defiance of this essential relatedness of all living creatures. It is characteristic of sinful acts that the sinner points away from one’s self to shift responsibility elsewhere — the political, economic, or cultural system that shapes our behavior, or another person. It is only a mature soul who would think to answer the question “what’s wrong with the world” with two words: “I am”.

The Seven Social Evils of the World

Mohandas Gandhi made popular the “The Seven Social Evils of the World” first spoken by the Rev’d Canon Frederick Lewis Donaldson in a sermon at Westminster Abbey on March 20, 1925. Gandhi re-published them seven months later in his weekly newspaper, The Young Indian:

  1. Wealth without work.
  2. Pleasure without conscience.
  3. Knowledge without character.
  4. Commerce without morality.
  5. Science without humanity.
  6. Religion without sacrifice.
  7. Politics without principle.

The Seven Social Evils “Blunders” of the World

Mohandas Gandhi’s grandson later re-named them “The Seven Social Blunders of the World.”

The grandfather knew they were more than blunders. A blunder is a momentary slip — a mistake resulting usually from stupidity, ignorance, or carelessness. Mohandas Gandhi knew what Frederick Lewis Donaldson knew: there is something within each and all of us that makes our heads turn when the man on the street corner points in our direction and says, “Guilty.” No other word compares with the word ‘sin’ to describe what’s wrong with the world. We all are. “I am.”

Few people make much difference to the shape of the world. But every one of us, by turning from the seven social sins, contributes to the mending of the world.

— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, June 17, 2019.

That the Rabbits Might Live

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This morning’s headlines drew me back to the conversation with Psalm 55. Reflecting on the Psalm led to think of myself as a rabbit. Thinking of the rabbit brought to mind Brer Rabbit. Brer Rabbit led to think of the Africans, Cherokees, and African-Americans who identified with Brer Rabbit in the briar patch.

And I said, “O that I had wings like a dove!
    I would fly away and be at rest;
truly, I would flee far away;
    I would lodge in the wilderness;Selah
I would hurry to find a shelter for myself
    from the raging wind and tempest.”

I am not at rest. I want to get away. To another place. Another time when the wind is not raging and I am not enraged. A place and time that no longer hurts my ears and my eyes red. Like a rabbit, I freeze, hoping I will not be seen. When they see me on the sidewalk of their civilization, I scurry away in search of the briar patch.

Confuse, O Lord, confound their speech;
    for I see violence and strife in the city.

I love words. I know the power of words. They heal, and they destroy. They honor truth and trust; they lie and deceive, and boast of what they have. The preponderance of words are not civil. They are not kind. They dish out strife with a smile. They keep us in turmoil. They despise the rabbits. They erase the line between truth and falsehood, reality and hallucination, America the beautiful and America the ugly. “O Lord, confound their speech.”

10 Day and night they go around it
    on its walls,

The Lady in the harbor and Emma Lazarus are weeping. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore, Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”” The lamp burns dimly. ICE and the border patrol walk the walls like prison guards.

and iniquity and trouble are within it;
11     ruin is in its midst;
oppression and fraud
    do not depart from its marketplace.

The walls where the lamp once stood beside the golden door are not built to keep others out. Nor do they protect us. They protect the market of oppression and fraud. A system gone awry. The road of generous compassion is paved over with fear and greed, iniquity and fraud, inside imaginary walls patrolled by guards of wealth and power. Oppression and fraud are not outside the walls. They are within them. They never leave the marketplace of Wall Street and Washington where commercial entertainment displaces the traditional landmarks of character. The human city is a mess mesmerized by the lies we mistake for truth, the delusional reality for reality itself. The ruin is in the city’s midst. “We have seen the enemy, and he is us,” said Pogo.

It is not enemies who taunt me—
    I could bear that;
it is not adversaries who deal insolently with me—

If it were those from beyond the city walls that were intent on doing us harm, I could bear that. But It’s what’s happening within the walls — the rule of entertainment and nihilism across all divisions; the loud applause for what is insolent and vile — that taunt me, drip by drip, tweet by tweet, byte by byte. We all know what Pogo said, but we don’t believe it: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

I would lodge in the wilderness;
I would hurry to find a shelter for myself
    from the raging wind and tempest.”

Hope cannot be overcome. Like a cork on water, hope always bobs to the surface. Brer Rabbit lives in the briar patch.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, June 11, 2019

Old Mrs. Thomas and the Goslings

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The three trumpeter swan goslings are a sight to behold. I look through the field glasses for a closer look. The parents are huge; they are tiny. Their parents are protectors; they need protection. The parents are trustworthy; the goslings are trusting.

Watching the trumpeter swan family slowly paddling on the wetland’s open water next to the cabin makes me stop my restless paddling. I come to a dead stop to drink in the serene beauty of the swans on the wetland waters.

photo of the wetland pond viewed from the cabin in the wilderness.
View from the cabin in autumn

Later in the day I remember Mrs. Thomas. Ninety-one years old Mrs. Thomas who introduced my kindergarten Vacation Bible School to the Psalm 100. David, Alex, Woody, Teddy, Ronnie, Bobby, Dottie, Carolyn and I were the goslings. Old Mrs. Thomas was not our parent, and she knew it. She was building our trust in what would endure long after she was gone.

Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all ye lands.
Serve the LORD with gladness:
Come before his presence with singing.

It’s ‘the lands’ — all the lands, not just the lands’ human inhabitants, red and yellow, black and white — that are summoned to sing and give praise. The LORD — in upper case LORD is speaking, the LORD whom our Lord (lower case) Jesus revealed and served. It’s every square inch of Earth that is called to be joyful and to serve the One who cannot be seen but must be trusted.

Know ye that the LORD, he is God:
It is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves:
We are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.

“Ninety-one year old Mrs. Thomas, the old lady with a big hat and a dead mink with its head still on draped around her shoulders like Grandma, talks funny! Nobody says ‘ye’ or ‘hath’ anymore. We say ‘you’, not ‘ye’. We know more than Mrs. Thomas”. But something gets lost when ‘ye’ becomes ‘you’. ‘You’ doesn’t distinguish between singular and plural, the way Hebrew does. ’Ye’ makes it clear the psalmist is talking to ‘us’, not just ‘I’, not just ‘me’.

“Know ye” — David, Alex, Woody, Teddy, Ronnie, Bobby, Dottie, Carolyn and Gordy! — what Mrs. Thomas knows: that the LORD is God, and that we didn’t make ourselves. The LORD is the Creator; we are among the creatures of the land. Like sheep safely grazing in the shepherd’s pasture, or goslings paddling under their parents’ watchful care.

Enter into his gates with thanksgiving,
And into his courts with praise:
Be thankful unto him, and bless his name.

Mrs. Thomas calms our fears. She assures us we’re not going to jail, and that God is not mean like the school principal or his ‘safety patrol’ prowling the schoolyard at recess to find the rule-breakers.

School Safeties

God wasn’t sending us to Pops Warfel’s office and we weren’t going to prison. The “courts of the LORD” are not courtrooms; they’re something else. What they are remains a mystery, like heaven! Or maybe they’re not a mystery. Maybe the ‘lands’ — the nations and places of Earth — are the courts of the LORD. Who really knows? Who can know the Breath that blows the breath of life into every living creature and land and sea everywhere all the time?

For the LORD is good: his mercy is everlasting:
And his truth endureth through all generations.

The goslings place their trust in their parents. It does not occur to them to distrust them. We kindergartners paddle along by Mrs. Thomas’ side, learning the difference between ‘us’ and ‘me, ‘we’ and ‘I’, and the mercy that is much older and much longer-lasting than Mrs. Thomas.

  • Gordon C. Stewart by the wetland, June 6, 2019

A Feel Good Story: It’s not about me anymore

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The grateful nine year-old

Devin Smeltzer had never expected to pitch in the Major Leagues. He was diagnosed with cancer at the age of nine. A softball-sized tumor required surgery, chemotherapy, and a feeding tube. Since leaving Philadelphia’s St. Christopher Hospital for Children, wrote Ben Rohrbach after Devin started pitching in the minor leagues two years ago,

he’s scrawled the names of those who have inspired him on his cap — friends and family members diagnosed with cancer and the many children he’s seen pass through the doors at St. Christopher’s upon volunteering each month.

Ben Rohrbach

Then it happened. The Twins called him up from the Pensacola Wahoos, the Twins’ Double-A affiliate in Florida, to stand in for the fifth member of their pitching rotation who’d been placed on the Disabled List for a short while.

Twenty-three year-old lefty Devin Smeltzer, the cancer patient in remission, blew through six innings against the Milwaukee Brewers, one of the toughest lineups in the League. He performed like an Ace — think Sandy Koufax, Ryan Nolan, Steve Carleton — allowing no runs, just three hits, and seven strikeouts in six full innings.

A second start

Tonight in Cleveland, Devin Smeltzer will take the mound for a second start in a Minnesota Twins uniform. As he has done since rejoining his Little League team following his release from St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children, Devin will not take the mound alone. The cancer patients, his family, and medical staff will go with him under the bill of his cap.

Devin Smeltzer is a singularly remarkable life story. Equally remarkable, no matter how he pitches tonight or whether he makes it as a major league pitcher, is his humility and gratitude.

“My story’s not about me anymore.”

“My story isn’t about me anymore,” he told CBS Philadelphia this past spring. “My story is about giving hope to other people. There was a kid almost the same age as me. He didn’t make it. The hardest thing about going through cancer is meeting all these amazing people, and those people passing away and you moving on. I remember Frankie. There was Baby Lea, and it was hard to hear when she passed away. She was under 2. That’s the hard part. I beat cancer, but the battle is still there. I’ll always have it. You have to help the people that have helped you — and there are a lot of people that have been there for me.”

Ben Rohrbach, Yahoo Sports

Not many of us write the names of others under the bills of our caps or make it to the Big Leagues. But there are more like him. Mostly unseen. Behind the scenes showing the same gratitude, humility, courage, and compassion that quietly bless others every day without the cheering of the crowd.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, June 2, 2019

A Red Leather Gift

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At daybreak far from the maddening world on CNN, MSNBC, Politico or — God fobid! . . .FOXNews — I’m alone with The Book of Common Prayer. I’ve come here for the silence interrupted only by the calls of the loons and the pair of trumpeter swans that return every spring. For generations the swans’ inner compasses have brought them back to this unspoiled place to hatch their young before flying south again for winter. The swans and I are a lot alike; we both come back when the ice is almost gone.

Back home in the Twin Cities, the shouting turns me ice-cold or red-hot, depending on the moment. Here ice and heat are natural: the ice on the wetland pond is almost gone; the only red-hot thing is the fire in the wood stove. There’s something sacred about the synchronicity of the fire inside and the melting ice just outside the A-frame. It’s peaceful here.

I settle into the hickory Amish rocker Jacob Miller crafted to fit my slim dimensions 40 years ago back in Millersburg, Ohio. Though its measurements are the same, It feels narrower. But we’re still made for each other. The rocker is where I rock awhile, like Jacob on his front porch after a hard day’s work, until going inside to make the fire or light the kerosene lamps. Jacob Miller’s Amish rocking chair is where the world slows down.

I reach to the lamp table next to the rocker for my copy of the Book of Common Prayer. It hasn’t always been mine. It belonged to Sue Kahn, a lifelong Episcopalian, before the day she gave it to me. Sue had suffered the inelegance of Presbyterian language after failing eye sight had led her to Cincinnati to be with her Presbyterian daughter. She could no longer read her prayerbook, but had committed to memory many of its prayers. After two years of worshiping with the Presbyterians, Sue began to refer to me as an ‘Episcoterian” — a high Presbyterian — who appreciated fine language. Looking back at it, I think she may have hoped it would improve my pastoral prayers Sunday mornings. “I want you to have this,” she said, placing her small red leather-bound Book of Common Prayer in my hands. “I know you’ll treasure it.” Sue sits beside me in Jacob’s rocker every morning.

I open to the appointed psalm Sue would have contemplated today, this Wednesday of Holy Week, Psalm 55.

Hear my prayer, O God;
do not hide yourself from my petition.

It’s the day before release of the redacted report of Special Counsel Robert Mueller III, a report that may answer my prayer for full disclosure of the truth I suspect has been hidden.

Listen to me and answer me;
I have no peace because of my cares.

The arrogance — “listen to me; answer me!” — disturbs me. Prayer is not an exercise in telling God what to do! The psalmist is arrogant and selfish, more than a little Narcissistic, like the man in the Oval Office who might push the button on the red phone after typing the letters into the unsecured iPhone he uses to tweet.

But I have come to the wilderness because I have no peace watching Ari and Rachel and waiting for the nightmare to end.

I am shaken by the noise of the enemy;
and by the pressure of the wicked…

I don’t like talk of ‘enemies’; it puts me off. “Love your ememies and do good to them who persecute you.” Framing one’s opponents as ‘wicked’ is the less developed morality that has not yet recognized the intertwining of good and evil. But the psalms express the vicseral feelings of the heart unfiltered by the cerebral cortex. Like the psalmist, I am shaken to the core by the noise of an enemy; the pressure of the wicked. The noise hurts me ears.

For they have cast an evil spirit upon me,
and are set against me in fury.

l do not stand on solid ground. The cloud of evil and wickedness I routinely ascribe to ‘them’ hangs over me. I cannot claim to be righteous, right, or good as opposed to the unrighteous, wrong, and evil. I live under an ‘evil spell’ – the fall from essential goodness that comes with the presumption of the knowledge of good and evil — the knowledge that belongs to God alone. There is no escape from the pressure and the fury.

My heart quakes within me,
and the terrors of death have befallen upon me.
Fear and trembling have come over me,
and horror overwhelms me.

I quake as a fish caught in a net. I thrash and tremble in darkness at noon as at midnight. The snare of terrors encompasses me.

And I said “Oh, that I had wings like a dove!
I would fly away and be at rest.
I would flee to a far off place
and make my lodging in the wilderness.”

Before ending the morning prayer time made possible by the gifts from Sue and Jacob, I turn again to the back page of Sue’s red-leather prayer book to read again the words she had written in her own hand before she gave it to me:

Christ was the Word who spake it. He took the bread and broke it. And what his Word did make it – that I believe. . . and take it.

The crackling of the fire and the trumpeting of the trumpeter swans from the far side of the wetland break into the fading darkness at dawn. I fly away again to where I really live — a far-off place — and make my lodging in the wilderness beyond the snare and blare of right and wrong, good and evil, us and them.

— Gordon C. Stewart by the thawing weland, April 18, 2019

A Memorial Day Memory Re-visited

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Today my brother Bob and sister-in-law Janice will drive to Indiantown Gap National Cemetery to lay flowers on Dad’s grave.

Protestant Service on Saipan led by my father, Kenneth Campbell Stewart, end of WWII.

Our father served as the Army Air Force chaplain for troops in the South Pacific before, during, and after the bombing of Tokyo. During Dad’s absence, my mother and I lived with my grandparents in Boston and South Paris, Maine, where Dad’s safe return was foremost in prayers before every meal.

I was three-and-a-half when Dad came home at the end of the war. The memory is clear as a bell. I watched as my father emerge from the B-29 bomber, walked down the ramp and across the tarmac at Boston’s Logan Airport. When he picked me up and took me in his arms, I reared back and asked “Are you really my Daddy?” “I am,” he said, “and I’m never going away again.”

All these years later, my hair has turned white, my skin is wrinkled, the world is mute without the hearing aids, my bones ache, and my head hurts most days. But I’m still the three year-old who felt the heavy weight of concern around my grandparents’ table listening for news from the South Pacific

It takes a lifetime for some memories to become clear. “Memorial Day and the Soldier’s Helmet,” published two years ago in Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), offers a Memorial Day example.

Today I’m remembering again that night when the burly WWII Marine veteran unburdened himself of the locked box of hidden artifacts from the Japanese soldier he’d killed in hand-to-hand combat during the American invasion of Saipan. The ending of the story written just a few years ago is sorely incomplete.

So…today I observe Memorial Day by returning to the original sense of Memorial Day as a day to remember the fallen – ALL of them – but even more, a day to re-commit to ending the insanity of war itself. It’s a day when I remember the in-breaking of sacredness – three men in the living room – two live Americans and one Japanese – and pray for something better for us all.

Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness, p.12

This Memorial Day the three-year-old who waited for his father’s return remembers how strange memory is. As Bob and Janice lay flowers on Dad’s grave today, I am more conscious of a glaring omission. There were not three men in the living room that night. There were four. Dad was the first man there. Bless you, Dad. RIP.

photo of Indiantown Gap National Cemetery
Entrance to Indiantown Gap National Cemetery, East Hanover Township, PA

Grace and Peace,

Gordon

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, May 31, 2019

Elijah and Mom’s iPhone

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Good morning, Elijah!

Morning, Bumpa!

Whatcha doin’ there?

Just playin’.

But we’re on FaceTime!

Yeah, we’re on the way to work and daycare.

Aha! You’re playing with Mom’s iPhone?

Yeah. Playin’ with Mom’s fone is fun. Mom doesn’t need it. She doesn’t need the GPS. We do this every day.

I see. How long’s the drive?

You k n o w, Bumpa! You’re playing’ with me! Forty-five minutes ’til Mom drops me off at day care. Depends on traffic.

That’s a long time to be alone in the back seat strapped in your car seat.

Yeah, but it’s fun! I get to play! Mom just drives. I have to bigger before I can drive, right, Bumbpa?

Right. You just turned two last Wednesday.

Yeah, I’m two! Two YEARS this time, not two months.

Yes, and we’re so proud of you!

Yeah, I get to do adult stuff like you and Mom.

I hope you won’t take this as an insult, Elijah, but how did you get me on FaceTime?

Don’t ya know, Bumbpa? I push the buttons on Mom’s iPhone. I love talking with people! It’s fun. They’re always surprised! Sometimes they come up on FaceTime. That’s really fun!

So. . . You’re just scrolling through Mom’s contact list?

We don’t use the stroller anymore! I’m two!

I’m sorry. I didn’t say ‘stroller‘. I said ‘scroller‘ with a ‘c’.

Yup. And I’m only through the ‘C’s! ABCDEFG, HIJKLMNOP. QRS TUV! Hold it, Bumpa. I got another call coming’ in. Can I put you on hold?

— Gordon C. Stewart (Bump) with Elijah, May 28, 2019.