Going home without my burden

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Some things are too close. Too personal. As Leonard Cohen put it in his songs Going Home and If It Be Your Will, my best friend over the past 55 years has “gone home without his burden, [gone] home behind the curtain without the costume that he wore.”

Wayne Granberry Boulton — click HERE for the obituary — died peacefully at home in Indianapolis under the tender care of the love of his life — his one and only wife — and their older son Matthew (Matt).

The costumes Wayne wore were academic (Duke Ph.D.) and ecclesiastical (McCormick Theological Seminary M.Div.) robes, but these costumes were faint glimpses into his underlying character.

Harry Strong, Vicki Boulton, Wayne Boulton, Gordon, Nadja Shoemaker, Steve Shoemaker (seated), Divide CO, 2006

Knowing the hospice drugs soon would ease him into wherever people go at the end of life, I visited Wayne and Vicki, Matt and Chris and all the Boulton family in Indianapolis two weeks ago. Wayne’s mind was still clear and sharp. His heart, which was always big, without ever being sloppy, was closer to his sleeve.

If it be your will
That I speak no more
And my voice be still
As it was before
I will speak no more
I shall abide until
I am spoken for
If it be your will [Leonard Cohen, If It Be Your Will]

“Hi, my name’s Wayne Boulton,” said the new roommate in 1964, where we had been assigned to Alumni Hall Room 312 by the housing office at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago. Although he had arrived hours before my key opened the door, he had not yet chosen which of the two beds, desks, and dressers would be his. That was the first clue that my roommate was un-selfish.

We were roommates for two years until he exchanged vows with Vicki in 1966. I was to be Wayne’s Best Man, but that was before the Chicago Chapter of the Experiment in International Living sent me packing to Czechoslovakia that summer, reducing my status to “would-have-been/ could-have-been/ should have been” Wayne’s Best-Man. When I returned to the States, Vicki had become the roommate to whom he had pledged his troth.

If it be your will
That a voice be true

Wayne’s word was his bond. He was loyal. Honoring his family and friends came second only to honoring the First Commandment to have no other gods but I AM. Wayne knew that we are covenantal creatures whose joy is found in steadfast love, a voice that is true to itself. Wayne did not sing of himself. Self-promotion was not his thing. Close to being fitted for the MBA costume of Northwestern University’s School of Business, he left the fitting room to prepare for a different robe in service to the church and the academy.

From this broken hill
All your praises they shall ring
If it be your will
To let me sing

It was during the Lafayette College choir concert at Westbury High School that Wayne and Vicki met. The love at first sight led to the births of Matthew and Christopher, and stayed fresh until there were no more costumes. What began with the twinkling of an eye ended the same way — with thanksgiving washed by tears.

Going home
Without my sorrow
Going home
Sometime tomorrow
Going home
where it’s better
Than before

No compassionate person would wish that a loved one with terminal pancreatic cancer continue to wear the patient’s costume. “I’m dying,” he wrote to the members of the wide circle of friends he had gathered. Former students, faculty colleagues, and neighbors in Holland, Michigan and in Richmond, Virginia;  members of the churches he’d served in Maryland, New Jersey, and Massachusetts, and the  latest friends in Indianapolis. He embraced the coming end of life, neither denying death’s finality nor betraying his deepest conviction: “in life and in death, we belong to God.”

Going home
Without my burden
Going home
Behind the curtain
Going home
Without this costume
That I wore. [Leonard Cohen]

The loss of of a best friend hits hard, no matter how much we expected it. “Hey, Roomie” was the way he began our phone calls. Choking through the tears on this side of the curtain, I give thanks that my roommate has “gone home/Without [his] burden/Behind the curtain/Without the costume/That [he] wore,” and pray against all my doubts, that some other strangers may be greeted the way I was:

“Hi, my name’s Wayne Boulton.”

Wayne wearing Chicago Dogs shirt in honor of seminary friends who call ourselves “The Dogs”

And draw us near
And bind us tight
All your children here
In their rags of light
In our rags of light
All dressed to kill
And end this night
If it be your will

If it be your will [Leonard Cohen, If It Be Your Will]

— Gordon C. Stewart, one four remaining Dogs “bound tight . . . . in our rags of light,” Chaska, MN, February 4, 2019.

Yes Mary. Everything Does. And Too Soon. Way Too Soon. (RIP)

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David Kanigan’s tribute to Mary Oliver arrived this morning while waiting for word of the end of a best friend’s life that will die too soon from pancreatic cancer. His family and friends are paying close attention, kneeling down in the grass for a holy rest and peace at the last.

— Gordon

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell…

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Elijah tells Grandpa “Pickle is good!”

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We’re in a real pickle this morning, Elijah. I don’t know how we’re ever going to get out it!

dill pickle

I like pickles! Pickles are good. You’re getting senile, Bumpa. You can’t get in a pickle!

No, no, we’re not inside a pickle. It’s is an idiom.

You said a bad word, Bumpa! I’m telling Mom! Mom says we’re not supposed to use that word.

I didn’t say idiot, Elijah. I said idiom. It’s a figure of speech, like “It’s raining cats and dogs.”

It’s raining cats and dogs? You must be senile, Bumpa. I’m little, but I’ve never seen it rain cats and dogs, and I know we can’t fit inside a pickle! You’re freaking me out!

I like pickles, too. Well, most kinds of pickles. Especially sweet pickles, like bread-and-butter pickles. I also like Jewish deli pickles. But this morning’s pickle is a real pickle that makes me sick.

Yeah, I hate that. I was sick last week. I hate throwing up.

Some pickles are sweet. Some pickles are sour. It’s the sour ones that sour my stomach.

So, are we in a sweet pickle or a sour pickle? Are we in a little pickle or a big pickle?

A BIG pickle, and it’s really sour.

You should only eat bread and butter pickles, Bumpa, and stop watching Rachel and Ari. Turn off the television and have a bread-and-butter pickle. Pickle is GOOD!

TURN UP THE SOUND and listen carefully as Elijah with his pickle tells his mother “Pickle is good!”

19 month old Elijah, notice the pickle in left hand, tells his Mom, “Pickle is good!”

— Bumpa Gordon, Chaska, Minnesota, January 29, 2019.

Why did Jesus have to go to hell?

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I’d forgotten the moment during the children’s sermon until David’s mother Jan refreshed the memory of everyone around the dinner table the night before David’s ordination. “Do you remember the time David asked you why Jesus had to go to hell?'” David is forty now. He was five or six when he asked the question on the chancel steps.

Who knows what goes on in a child’s mind? Who expects a Presbyterian church to become a comedy theater? When I turned to look back a my colleague for help, Jack smiled, shrugged, and said, “Your sermon!”

Jack was working toward his PhD. in semiitic langauges at Hebrew Union College at the time. Why Jesus had to go to hell wasn’t question of a Jewish education! Knox Church wasn’t big on hell either. The idea of Jesus in hell was strange enough, but David’s question was why Jesus had to go to hell.

David was a pure soul. A concrete thinker like others his age. He was also thoughtful. Curious. Questioning. Listening carefully to the words we adults spoke, like the Apostles’ Creed: “He was crucified, dead, and buried. He descended into hell.”

“Why did Jesus have to go to hell?”

The Eastern Orthodox tradition of the Christian faith celebrates “the Harrowing of Hell” — the descent of the crucified Jesus to open the gates of hell. The Harrowing of Hell expresses symbolically that no one is so far from God that they cannot be reached; there is more mercy in God than there is sin in us.

This preserved parchment scroll from the sixteenth century depicts Christ having “gone to hell,” taking the hand of Adam, a symbol of the unyielding persistence and sovereignty of reconciling Love.

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The Harrowing of Hell — Christ leads Adam out of Hell (1503-4)

David’s ordination took place on the same chancel where he had stumped the pastor. Now it’s his turn to field the questions. I’m retired!

— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, January 27, 2019.

A Walk Down the Hall

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There are for most of us those rare moments that give definition to one’s life. Such singular moments cast a wider light on all the other moments on calendars and clocks.

These are moments of the heart that touch us deeply — like Sunday’s return to Cincinnati to preach the sermon for the ordination of David Annett who was a boy when I served as his pastor at Knox Church 25 years ago, and the Monday and Tuesday times with my best friend Wayne as he nears the end of life in Indianapolis. Jean-Paul Sartre’s words from Nausea were never far away:

“One is still what one is going to cease to be,
and already what one is going to become.
One lives one’s death, one dies one’s life.”

The friendship with Wayne began at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago where the housing director had assigned us to room together in Room 311 of Alumni Hall. No friendship has been longer or deeper since that day in 1964. We have lived our deaths together over the years, and now one of us is in hospice care dying his life. The visits last Monday and Tuesday were what they have always been: moments described by the old hymn “Blest be the ties that bind Our hearts in Christian love.”

Front row: Don. Back row: Harry, Wayne, Bob, and Gordon at Wrigley Field

Sometimes a singular moment of time reveals one’s continuing character. I cannot yet find the moment that would open the window into who Wayne is or what our friendship has meant over the years since we met in Room 311. Memory will open it when the time is right, as it did when David invited me to preach his ordination sermon.

Our life stories rise out of the meeting points when our separate journeys converge as a dramatic moment that feels like fiction. As I spiraled back to the 11 years with David here at Knox, a singular moment in time seemed to put a frame around who you have ceased to be but still are, David, and who you will become after we have prayed over you with the laying on of hands.

The day I’m remembering happened years ago. You were eight years-old the day I’m remembering. Your grandmother was dying, You asked me to take you to see you grandmother one last time. We drove to Mercy Hospital and talked about what it’s like to visit a hospital, what he was likely to see in preparation for David’s visit with his Grandma.

At the hospital, David punched the elevator button for Grandma’s floor. When the doors opened, we exited the elevator, and walked side=by-side down the long hall toward her room. As I recall, I had to slow you down! You marched down that hall like a soldier, brave and true, a soldier of love for you grandma. You went directly to your grandmother’s hospital bed and stood there, refusing to submit our culture’s denial of death. You didn’t run. You put your hand on her arm and stayed awhile in the silence. And, when you’d taken in the sober reality of it, you spoke the words you had come to say, “I love you, Grandma.” We offered a brief prayer by her bedside and walked back down the hall in the kind of silence that comes over you when you’ve said good-bye to a loved one.

I was so proud of you that day! That moment will stay etched in my memory so long as my memory lasts. I feel that same pride now as you become the pastor who takes a walk down the hall with the other Davids of this world — the children here at Knox and at Cranston Memorial, and their parents; and the Syrian, Yemeni, and Guatemalan children and parents who have been left to fend for themselves. That brave, compassionate walk down the hall that is behind you is the ministry before you. As your train makes the curve around the bend to ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament, the connections slowly emerge, and the way you’ve come is the way ahead. Long before today, David, you were already what you would become.

Excerpt from Ordination sermon, Knox Church, Cincinnati, OH 1/13/19


The Monday following David’s ordination, I drove two hours to Indianapolis, knowing it likely would be the last time with Wayne. But funny things happen on a walk down the hall to the room that soon will be empty. To my surprise, the one dying his life was more cheerful than the one who expects to continue living his death. Sometimes, the one who’s dying becomes the pastor to the boy.

— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, January 20, 2019.

The Beloved Community

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Swiss theologian Karl Barth and Martin Luther King, Jr. enjoying a moment of laughter.

This year’s Martin Luther King, Jr. commemoration comes in the fifth week of the American federal government partial shut-down over a wall. In the name of the Beloved Community — the just and peaceable society — Dr. King and Dr. Barth had things to say about building walls.

Karl Barth and Martin Luther King, Jr. are formative influences on my life. I hadn’t realized until this morning how fully their theology and ethic were in the warp and woof of last Sunday’s sermon at Knox Church in Cincinnati. With apologies to these two great figures, we post an excerpt from a sermon of one of the many lesser lights who live in their long shadows.

Something there is in the Beloved that doesn’t love a wall. Something there is in Jesus that tears down the walls between neighbors and turns enemies into friends, brick by brick, stone by stone — between the Judeans and the Samaritans, and between the male apostles and the Canaanite woman; between the “righteous” who choose purity over compassion and the “good” Samaritan who binds up the wounds of the one in the ditch; between the publicly scorned blind beggar and the charitable nickel-and-dimers who passed by on their way to secure homes and lavish parties; the crowds on the street and the sinful Zacchaeus in the sycamore fig tree; between the Beloved Son and the hosts of sinners who flocked to him for acceptance, forgiveness, healing, hope, and compassion.

For Jesus, love was not a private thing. Love must be made public. As Cornel West puts it, “Justice is love made public.”

Sermon by GCS, Knox Presbyterian Church, Cincinnati, OH, Jan. 13, 2019

— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Jan. 20, 2019.

The Return of the Night Visitor

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He slinks down Pennsylvania Avenue, head down in a hoodie at 3:00 A.M., disguised as a homeless man, escaping the watchful eye of the Secret Service and the television cameras, returning to the dilapidated tenement in the poorest part of the city.

FBI Unabomber sketch

The tenement dweller who owns nothing has been waiting for him since their last visit. The apartment door is ajar, as it always is, in anticipatory welcome of all the homeless.

“Welcome, Donald. I wondered when we’d have another visit.” As he had during the first visit, he lifts the heavy coat from the visitor’s slumping shoulders, and points to the furniture he’d rescued from a dumpster — an old folding chair missing a slat, and the torn red-leather wingback, facing each other each as they had before. The night visitor pauses and chooses the high wingback.

The scene is the same as previously. The room is dimly lit by a small table lamp, the kind of late night or early morning light that creates an ambiance of calm and invites intimate conversation. The tenement dweller takes his seat in the folding chair. The visitor sits in silence, his hoodie still covering his head, not wanting to be seen, but wanting to be seen. The room is silent.

“I’ve been very concerned, friend. I see you’ve been tweeting a lot again. It must be lonely inside the wall. But it doesn’t show outside your wall. Others can’t see it. The you who’s visible to those outside the wall is cruel, vengeful, because in the world outside your wall And you’ve shut down the government over the wall. What’s that about? Tell me about that.”

“I can’t sleep. The family’s gone to Florida. I’m alone here with no one but the maids, the cooks and the butlers. My mind won’t stop. I watch television to settle down but now it only makes things worse. Even my favorite network may be turning on me.”

“What brings you here? It’s 3:30 A.M.

“I don’t know.” The table lamp flickers.

“Feels pretty dark, doesn’t it?”

“Very dark. Very dark! The darkest ever!”

“Why is that?”

The visitor lowers his head, like a child confessing to his parents. “I have all the power in the world but I’m helpless to help myself. I can’t stop tweeting. It’s like it’s not real. I could destroy the world with the push of a button. I’ve shut down the government. The power scares me. And there are all these investigations. My mind never stops. I can’t sleep.”

The tenement dweller in the small folding wood chair sits quietly in the hush that comes when truth has been spoken. His eyes are full of compassion for the homeless man who had opted for the big red leather wingback. The visitor has regressed since their last conversation. His need for self-assurance has grown worse. The walls have gone up.

“Remember our last visit, Donald? Your disguise is not a disguise. You’re hiding something. Do you ever watch ‘Ray Donovan‘?

Ray Donovan

“No. Why? Who’s Ray Donovan?”

“Ray’s’a fixer’, like Michael, but that’s not why I asked. Ray’s a lot like you, Donald. Ray’s running from what was done to him in childhood. He was molested by the man he trusted. His parish priest. He’s not been the same since. Ray built a wall around his heart. He’s cruel. He’s heartless. But inside the wall? He’s very tender, Donald. He’s homeless within his own wall. You can’t live inside the wall.”

From his small, wood chair, the tenement dweller reaches out his hand. They share a long silence before the host put Donald’s heavy coat back on his shoulders. In the pre-dawn darkness, the disguised night visitor returns to his homeless place on Pennsylvania Avenue. He hears singing from the street below.

“Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling—
  Calling for you and for me;
Patiently Jesus is waiting and watching—
  Watching for you and for me!
“Come home! come home!
  Ye who are weary, come home!
Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling,
    Calling, O sinner, come home!”
Will Lamartine Thompson (1847-1909)

The tenement dweller smiles at the sound, but h knows it won’t be long before he comes back.

Nicodemus and Jesus on a rooftop, Tanner, Henry Ossawa, 1859-1937
Nicodemus and Jesus on a rooftop, Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937)

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, March 12, 2017.

Gratitude Doubled

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Human_Infant_in_Incubator

Infant in incubator photo by Chris Horry, 2002.

As our way of offering Thanksgiving greetings, we share John Buchanan’s “Gratitude Doubled” reflection on becoming a great-grandfather of new-born twins in an incubator.

This Thanksgiving also marks the 18-month anniversary of grandson Elijah’s birth. Great-grandfather joy will have to wait a few years, but the sense of life as John speaks of it is immediate. Wishing you a grateful Thanksgiving.

Hold to the Good

Yesterday I experienced the most unlikely, most wonderful thing that has ever happened. I carefully extended my sanitized hand through the small, round opening in the incubator and, with my forefinger, gently touched the cheek of my brand new great-granddaughter, just 18 hours old. And then I did it again, reached through the small, round opening and touched the cheek of her identical twin sister, my second great-granddaughter.

I never thought much about great-grandparenthood. No one did. My great-grandparents were long gone when I was born and I have only vague memories of my parents talking about them, their grandparents. They were remote, to say the least.

But now, I am one, a great-grandfather and my new status has set me to ruminating – on, among other things, my own age. Unlike my great-grandparents, I’m still here, alive, well and reasonably active and healthy. And – I have seen and…

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Elijah plays Peek-a-Boo!

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256px-Kou-Kou_by_Georgios_Iakovidis

BOO! And a good day to you. Sixteen-month-old Elijah’s strapped in his carseat for the drive to day care. Mom initiates some fun. Elijah imitates her babbling. Then, on his own initiative, he suddenly takes off his knit cap to play Peek-a-Boo, like the children in Georgios Jakovides‘s 1895 Peek-a-Boo painting from Germany. Some games are timeless and ubiquitous. Peek-a-Boo!🤗

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, October 6, 2018

Elijah asks for Bumpa

During a recent visit to our house, Elijah’s mother had taped a moment between grandson and grandpa. Yesterday, Kristin wanted to show Elijah the video. He calls Grandpa Gordon “Bumpa” — take a peek.

 

  • Grandpa Gordon (Bumpa), Chaska, MN, October 4, 2018.