Four and two fifths make seven

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SLEEPOVERS? REALLY?

Guys don’t do sleepovers. Or so I thought reading A Plan this morning . . . until I stopped to think.

Four (4) ‘Old Dogs’ (seminary classmates who have maintained friendship through the years) do five-night sleepovers every year. Once there were seven (7). Now there are four (4).

Photograph of four 'Old Dogs' with holding a picture of Wayne Boulton.
Four ‘Old Dogs’ (L to R): Harry, Gordon, Don, Bob, with photograph of Wayne (RIP).

THE ‘GATHERINGS’

We arrive at the annual ‘Gatherings’ limping on replaced knees with hips and memories in need of repair, bearing matches to light the fire, a Book of Common Prayer, and a Fifth or two . . . to make four equal seven again.

There’s nothing like a sleepover celebration with old friends. Some are confident that the departed — Wayne, Steve, and Dale — are still with us around the fire. Others need the help of a Fifth or a few Seven-and-Sevens to get four to equal seven.

Original ‘Chicago Seven’ Gathering (L to R): Old Dogs Wayne Boulton, Harry Strong, Yours Truly, Steve Shoemaker, Dale Hartwig, Don Dempsey, Bob Young.

What I had come to know (by feeling only) was that the [GATHERING]’s true being, you might say, was a sort of current, like an underground flow of water, except that the flowing was in all directions and yet did not flow away. When it rose into your heart and throat, you felt joy and sorrow at the same time, and the joining of times and lives. To come into the presence of the [Gathering] was to know life and death, and to be near in all your thoughts to laughter and to tears.

Wendell Berry, “A Gathering,” Jayber Crow, p. 205-206.

Thanks to Beth of ‘I didn’t get my glasses on‘ for turning Gatherings into sleepover celebrations.

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, November 23, 2019.

Elijah with Grandpa and the Postage Stamp Monologue

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Two year-old grandson Elijah engages grampa in a telling conversation

Good morning, Elijah. Whatcha doin’?

Playing etch-a-sketch on our iPad. Did you draw when you were liddle?

I did. But not like that.

Like what, then? Was it a different App? What kind of Mac did you play with in your carseat on the way to day care?

It was a long time ago, Elijah. A very long time ago. It was a different world. We didn’t have day care. We didn’t have iPads and cell phones. We used to lick postage stamps back in the day.

picture of U.S. postage stamps

What’s a stamp and why did you have to lick it? Were you being punished for being bad?

No, it wasn’t anything like that. We didn’t tweet back then. The only thing that tweeted in our world was Tweetie Bird on Loony Tunes.

How’d you talk if you couldn’t tweet? I tweet all the time. Watch! Mom hates it when I do this. I like FaceTime better. It’s more personal.

We sent letters. We wrote them with a pencil or a pen, put them in envelopes, licked the back of the postage stamps — if you had lots of letters, it took a long time — and we took them to the Post Office. The letters would arrive in two or three days, sometimes a week. We had to be patient back then. Everything was slower.

And we dialed phone numbers on rotary phones. I still remember our number on Church Lane, EL6-1490. Teddy Bonsall’s was EL6-1476. And sometimes, when I’d pick up the phone to dial Teddy, somebody else was already talking to somebody else on our phone. It was called “a party line“.

Wow! Did you have parties every day?

It’s hard to explain, Elijah. Maybe this will help. Search for the Postage Stamp Monologue on Mom’s iPad for a better feel for how grampa feels most of the time in your world.

“The Postage Stamp Monologue” from Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, a play by Christopher Durang, performed at the Goodman Theater.

Wow! He’s really mad, grampa! I’m glad you don’t have to lick postage stamps anymore or dial 999-999-9999, like Vanya. I got an idea! Let’s FaceTime Uncle Andrew and Calvin!

Uncle Andrew and cousin Calvin answering FaceTime call.

Gordon C. Stewart (Grandpa), Chaska, MN, Nov. 7, 2019.

The Vegetable Prayer

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Max Coots was our family’s John Muir, Robert Frost, and Wendell Berry. He was a naturalist and poet whose whimsy and wit lifted people from the doldrums of the harsh winters of the New York North Country. Max’s Seasons of the Self spoke to me years ago. His poem “A Harvest of People” — found during an internet search — put me again in the presence of his wit, wisdom, and gentle spirit.

Let us give thanks for a bounty of people:

For generous friends, with smiles as bright as their blossoms.
For feisty friends as tart as apples;
For continuous friends who, like scallions and cucumbers, keep reminding us that we’ve had them.
For crotchety friends, as sour as rhubarb and as indestructible;
For handsome friends, who are as gorgeous as eggplants and as elegant as a row of corn; and the others as plain as potatoes and as good for you.
For friends as unpretentious as cabbages, as subtle as summer squash, as persistent as parsley, as endless as zucchini, and who, like parsnips, can be counted on to see you through the winter.
For old friends, nodding like sunflowers in the evening-time.
For young friends, who wind around like tendrils and hold us.

We give thanks for friends now gone, like gardens past that have been harvested, but who fed us in their times that we might live.


Rev’d Max Coots (1927-2009) “A Harvest of People” Canton, New York

Max Coots was Minister of the Unitarian-Universalist Church in Canton, New York for thirty-five years. Every August, he found solitude along the Grasse River in the barn board retreat he’d built with materials he’d rescued from the dump. Max had a solar shower in 1973.

The other twelve months, Max was an old beech tree, providing shade in summertime and dropping beech nuts from the pulpit that kept alive a host of chipmunks and squirrels in wintertime.

— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, October 22, 2019.

The Riddle in the Mirror

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It’s 4:02 A.M. I should be asleep. I’m wrestling with an enigma, the one that looks back from the mirror. Shortly before calling it a day last night, I came upon the enigma, and having found it, couldn’t let it go, or it could be said that finding me, it wouldn’t let me go.

Looking at the clock next to the bed moments ago brought to mind the line from Chaim Potok about the “four-o’clock-in-the-morning questions.” Potok’s four-o’clock-in-the-morning questions arose from the dissonance of a traditional Hasidic Jew in a modern culture that does not know the Torah and the Talmud.

I brew a pot of coffee, pour a cup, sit down with my MacBook Air, and return to the enigma I met last night.

The riddle in my mirror

For now [in our immaturity] we see in a mirror [an αίνιγμα — ‘enigma/riddle’], but then [when we come to maturity] we will see face to face. Now I know in part [in fragments], but then I will know fully, just as I have been fully known [by God].

First Corinthians 13:12, GCS Greek to English translation

The Greek word αίνιγμα has nothing to do with dimness or poor eyesight (“now we see in a mirror dimly“). It’s deeper than that. It’s vexation. We are puzzles to ourselves, knowing some pieces of ourselves, but not having all the pieces of the puzzle(s). And the Greek text is better translated as ‘mature’ rather than ‘perfect’.

No question is more puzzling than the ancient question of who we are. Who am I, the man who cuts himself shaving in the mirror? Who are we, this evolving species changing day by day in this time of climate departure when the future of life on the planet is uncertain? Who and what are we becoming?

Sixteenth Century reformer John Calvin began his theological opus with these laser-like sentences at the tender age of 27 years old:

Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other.

Jean Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion

How I came to see life is rooted in this theological tradition. Like the characters of Potok’s novels who feel alone wrestling with the ancient Hebrew texts (Torah and Talmud), in one hand, and the culture of a very different time and place, those of us who still get up early in the morning with excitement of exploring an ancient Greek text highjacked by the Christian Right often feel placeless. Vexation is not popular, but, like Chaim Potok, I tell myself that wrestling with the riddle is who we are.

The face of my father

Looking in the mirror, I know less than I once thought, about the huge vexing questions of 2019. I’ll never have all the pieces or solve the enigma, but I do have some guiding fragments. I see my father’s kindly face looking back at me and reach up to the bookshelf to fetch the Bible which contains a pearl of great price: the prayer written by his own hand in pencil:

photo of prayer by Kenneth Campbell Stewart (my father) written in his Bible in pencil.

O Thou before whom ages pass away like minutes and in whose sight the mighty hosts of men are like a sparrow in the hand, keep our faith strong in Thee, confidence unshaken — Give clear insight as [we] face the days ahead. Help us so to entrust ourselves to Thy hands that in the awareness of Thy faithfulness we find all the security we need and in Thy service all our peace.

Elijah Cummings

Then the news broke in that Elijah Cummings died at approximately 2:45 A.M. this morning at Johns Hopkins Medical Center in Baltimore. Congressman Cummings was a man of deep faith, a beacon of compassion and integrity who spoke kindly words of hope to Michael Cohen about the power of forgiving grace while chairing a House of Representatives Oversight Committee hearing. Elijah Cummings died in the city he loved and served as a public servant in service to his Lord.

First Corinthians 13 concludes with words of consolation and hope, the clue to living the riddle. “So faith, hope, and love abide, but the greatest of these is love.”

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

Three Guys in a Bar

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THE FIRST DUTY OF LOVE

Americans say the word ‘love’ a lot! Nearly all of us do. But, except for members of the armed forces, we don’t much like the word ‘duty‘. How is it, then, that one of the greatest intellects of the 20th century known for his often inscrutable philosophical theology, Paul Tillich, put ‘love’ and ‘duty’ together in one short sentence?

The first duty of love is to listen.

Perhaps Tillich’s German culture might help explain his coupling duty and love. Duty is higher on German culture’s ladder of human virtues than in Tillich’s adopted home in the United States where ‘freedom’ rather than ‘duty’ is seen as love’s companion.

WATCHING LESTER HOLT AT THE RESTAURANT BAR

Lester Holt of NBC’s Nightly News is on the television screens behind the bar. Kay sits to my left; a stranger is on my right. We can’t hear the sounds, but the visuals leave no doubt about the day’s lead stories:

  • Sixteen year-old climate change activist Greta Thunberg is at the podium of the United Nations, issuing an urgent call for action now, before it’s too late.
  • The President of the USA drops by the meeting on climate change . . . for 15 minutes;
  • Speaker Nancy Pelosi announces an impeachment inquiry, a decision taken in consideration of the Trump-appointed Inspector-General’s finding that a whistleblower’s complaint appears credible and is of urgent concern to national security.
  • Away from the television cameras and microphones, President Trump and Ukrainian President Zelenskiy meet to discuss matters of common interest.

FAILING LOVE’S FIRST DUTY AT THE BAR

The guy sitting to my right watches in silence. He looks neither happy nor unhappy. He seems perplexed, staring at Lester and the verbal summaries of each news item.

Finally he shakes his head and breaks the silence. “Just like that Mueller thing. They already wasted thirty-million dollars on that Russian thing, and they got nothing. Now they’re going to waste our tax money again.” I shake my head “No” and ask whether he knows that the Mueller report does not exonerate the president on the question of obstruction of justice. He listens and says he didn’t know that. I continue, rather politely, or so I thought, until reading the note my wife slipped in front of me:

You’ve just ruined this place for us.

The 20-something bartender chimes in from behind the bar. “I don’t care about politics. All I know is — any politician who doesn’t take a paycheck is okay by me. I’m good with that.” I bite my lip and order a second Manhattan. Being human is hard!

LOVE’S FIRST DUTY: JESUS, A PHARISEE, AND W.H. AUDEN

The guys at the bar don’t know I’m a Presbyterian and couldn’t care less if they did. But I should have told them! A bit like the Friends (“Quakers”), we hold a high respect for the right and duty of conscience. We stand up for what is right, true, and good, as we understand it. In doing so, we are often guilty of ignoring the log in our own eye while pointing to the speck in our neighbor’s. Given that I’d ruined our favorite place, it’s not likely we’ll see each other again. And that’s a shame, all because I’d forgotten that the deepest duty of conscience is to love, and the first duty of love is to listen.

The Pharisee was right when he answered Jesus’s question about the summary of the Law. “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.” Or, as W.H. Auden put it:

You shall love your crooked neighbor, with your crooked heart.

“Either we serve the Unconditional/Or some Hitlerian monster will supply/ An iron convention to do evil by.”

W.H. Auden

— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, September 30, 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.

Rest in Peace, Dennis

This remembrance of Dennis Aubrey, written by Dennis’s brother for Via Lucis, touches the heart and soul, and the expansive brilliance known by those whose lives have been deepened and enriched by him. There is opportunity to comment or leave your condolences for PJ and members of PJ and Dennis’s family.

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It is with infinite sadness that I must tell you that Dennis passed away suddenly last Friday. I write this on behalf of his wife and partner, PJ.

With his passing, Dennis leaves a gaping abyss in our lives. He was a man larger than life, zestful in his embrace of all that life offered. Readers of this blog enjoyed the excellence of PJ and Dennis’s photographic art, and the enlightening and entertaining musings that accompanied those featured photographs.

The power of Dennis’s writing derived from his encyclopedic brain: he brought his vastly read knowledge to every subject he wrote about, whether history, or philosophy, religion or geometry, music or poetry. Via Lucis isn’t simply a photography blog. It isn’t simply an art and architecture blog. It is a brief—and intriguing—glimpse into the mind of one of the artists who brings these Romanesque churches to life through photograph and word.

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Mending the Torn World: Sympathy and Civilization

A Ripped Tapestry in Need of Mending

Harvard Divinity School New Testament Professor Krister Stendahl taught his students to think of the world as a beautiful tapestry in need of mending. A tapestry is comprised of a diversity of threads. It’s beauty is marred whenever a thread is broken or falls away from the whole. ‘Sin’ is both a condition — a torn tapestry — and an act of tearing the tapestry.

To be human is to be part of this tapestry, never the whole of it! Sin is the tearing of the tapestry. The human vocation is to mend creation.

Morning Chapel with Krister Stendahl

The morning I’m remembering, a Japanese Buddhist monk — one of four residents Divinity Hall residents who cooked and shared dinner together each evening — asked to go with me to experience the chapel service.

Krister presided at a weekly Chapel service at Harvard Divinity School. Thirty participants was a crowd. It was a quiet gathering that required a sense of humility: speaking aloud the Prayer of Confession of Sin; hearing Krister’s gracious Asssurance of Pardon; singing in unison the sung responses; listening for a word from God in the readings of Holy Scripture brought to life by Krister’s gentle and bold interpretaton; and the Liturgy of the Eucharist, gathered in the single circle surrounding the Table to which Christ had invited us; receiving the consecrated elements of bread and wine in a sacred silence when we could feel the mending by the Weaver of the tapesty of Creation.

The Japanese Buddhist at the Communion Table

When it came time to form the circle around the table, my Buddhist friend showed no hesitation. He took his place and stood erect and still in a quiet posture of prayer, his fingers pointing skyward, his palms together in the center of his chest. When Krister offered him the consecrated bread and wine of this uniquely Christian sacrament, he bowed to Krister, his neck and torso bending low, a sign of respect for Krister and reverence for the sacrament itself.

Koyama bowing to his junior

Kosuke Koyama (1926 - 2009)

Years later Japanese Christian theologian Kosuke (“Ko” to his friends) Koyama and I stood together behind the Lord’s Table at Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska, MN. As we took our places behind the table, Ko did what the Buddhist monk had done with Krister.

Two ordained Ministers of Word and Sacrament around whom the circle was formed and by whom the worshipers were offered bread and wine . . . in a sacred silence.

Two ordained Ministers of Word and Sacrament around whom the circle was formed and by whom the worshipers were offered bread and wine . . . in a sacred silence like the one I’d experienced with my Japanese friend in circle at Andover Chapel years ago.

Sympathy and Civilization

Kosuke Koyama died in 2009, but he still speaks. He still teaches us Americans to bow. Sorting through old files, a personal letter and 28 page manuscript — Ko’s lecture notes, “How Many Languages does God speak? — Sympathy and Civilization,” the six-week course Ko had taught — leaped from the drawer.

How strange that the author of a book dedicated to his memory would have forgotten the treasure of Ko’s letter and unpublished manuscript. Peggy Shriver’s tribute to Ko is the first thing to meet the eyes of a reader of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness:

In Memory of Kosuke (Ko) Koyama
(1929–2009)

Gentle and strong as trees
Bend gracefull in wind,
You stand — I bow.

— Peggy Shriver, 2009 oo

looking ahead

In the weeks ahead, Views from the Edge will feature excerpts from “How Many Languages Does God Speak? — Sympathy and Civilization.”

Gordon C. Stewart 6-21-19

Elijah’s Second Birthday . . . Again

Happy Birthday, Elijah!

Thanks, Bumpa! I’m two again for the first time!

I know. Grandma and I are coming over to celebrate your second birthday with you and Mom.

Right now?

First I have to finish cooking the bacon.

Why?

Why what?

I was already two!

I know. You were. You were two MONTHS old. It’s confusing. Today you’re two YEARS!

Yeah, I don’t know stuff like that yet. I’m still liddle. But I’m not a baby!!!

So . . . Whatcha doin’, Elijah?

Baking cookies!

You’re baking cookies?

Well . . . Mom’s baking the cookies. I’m helping. I love Mom!

That makes me happy. How are you helping?

I’m gonna take the cookies out of the oven, Bumpa! You’ll see when you come over.

Wow! You couldn’t do that the first time you were two. Be careful, okay?

I am, Bumpa. HOT, HOT! I’ll put my mittens on. Happy Birthday to me!!!

Elijah and Mom baking cookies for Elijah’s second birthday party

Gordon C. Stewart (Bumpa), Chaska, MN, May 19, 2019

The Miracle of Reconciliation– Two Memories of Good Friday

MY M0THER AND THE THREE MARYS

I remember my mother’s tears on this day, Good Friday, and wondering why she was so sad. Jesus had been crucified a long, long time ago. It wasn’t happening now. But, to Mom, it was. Like the three Mary’s at the foot of the crosses, Mom was weeping in her pew. I remember the white handkerchief dabbing the cornerS of her eyes.

I was five or six years old the first time I saw Mom at the foot of the cross with the three Marys. The Marys were all gone. Only Mom and her white handkerchief continued the vigil, and it happened every year on Good Friday. It was in junior high school that I began to get under the tears and weep them for myself. I “got” the cruelty of it.

The pounding of nails into wrists and feet. The soldiers laughing at him while they gambled for his clothes. If they were gambling for his clothes, was Jesus naked in front of the whole world? Was the crown of thorns the only thing he wore? Were the thorns cutting into his head? “I thirst.” They give him vinegar on the end of stick! He looks down at John. “Behold your mother; woman, behold your son.” Take my mother home! Mary doesn’t go home. She stays by him until the end. She winces at the nightmare she cannot end: “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabstachtani?” (My God, my God, why have You abandoned me?), watches as a soldier puts a hole in his side; weeps inconsolably when it is finished, and they take him away.

How could Mom not cry hearing that? How could anyone not reach for a handkerchief?

“GOD WAS IN CHRIST, RECONCILING THE WORLD TO HIMSELF”

Years later, Ken and Ilse Beaufoy and I observed Good Friday in the pews of Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church. Aside from one or two others who dropped by for a short time each year, we were alone in the church. Beginning at noon, at half hour intervals, we read aloud a portion of the Passion narratives paused in silence, listened to the corresponding movement from Rutter’s Requiem, spoke a brief prayer, and sat in the silence until the next half hour.

The Good Fridays with Ken (and Ilse, before she died) were unique. An American Presbyterian minister with a married couple, Ken a former Biitish soldier, and Ilse, a former member of the Luftwaffe, one of only two women awarded the Iron Cross. Ken and Ilse met at a dance sponsored by the occupying forces following WW II. Ilse was one of two women Luftwaffe soldiers awarded the Iron Cross for standing her post during the Allied bombing of Hamburg.

Despite objections and death threats from family members, Ken and Ilse committed themselves to the bonds of marriage. What else but the reconciling love of God could bridge the gulf of former enemy combatants? Five decades later, Ilse died moments after hearing the words of permission that would only have meaning to a decorated war hero who had stayed at her anti-aircraft post atop the Hamburg bunker to protect the civilians below. “You no longer need to stand your post. You no longer need to fight. It’s time to go home. Go in peace.” From that day on, there were just the two of us staying by the cross from noon to 3:00 on Good Friday.

Rutter’s “Pie Jesu” did not explain the crucifixion or the peace it brought Ken and Ilse Beaufoy. It didn’t need to. Some things cannot be explained. They can only be lived…with thanksgiving for abounding grace while dabbing the corner of your eyes with a handkerchief.

— Gordon C. Stewart by the wilderness, Minnesota, Good Friday, April 19, 2019