Four Tubes in a Wind Chime

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Ring the bells (ring the bells) that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything)

That’s how the light gets in

– Leonard Cohen, “Anthem”

Four old friends — we call ourselves the Old Dogs — descended last week on the Minnesota cabin by the wetland for our annual Gathering. The lyrics and recorded voice of Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem” became the focal point for reflection one week ago tonight. 

We gave up the illusion of a perfect offering years ago, though a stifled striving for it continues just the same. The “perfect offering” has gone underground where the sirens of perfection hide when those they’ve beckoned plug their ears to block the torment of lost ideals and shattered aspirations. None of us occupies a pulpit any longer, and the folks whose hands we once shook at the church door are shaking other hands where we once stood. Any dream of a perfect offering was cracked a long time ago, and it was the crack in our respective egos that let the light come in. 

Old Dogs from Arizona, Indiana, Illinois, and Minnesota know there’s a crack in everything, and we know we never were what we were cracked up to be. We’re not so sure the bells still can ring. Much of the social progress we worked for during five decades of ministry is being overturned. The separation of children from their parents at the Mexican border; the insults of neighboring nations and traditional allies; the admiration for Vladimir Putin; the twisting of fact and disregard for truth; the “fake news” war of words against the American Fourth Estate; the blatant encouragement of white supremacist movements; the shifting of blame to the opposing party and past administrations for present policies and actions; the resurgence of the Christian right and American exceptionalism, and so much more gave worn us down, leaving us wondering whether it makes any difference to still ring the bell.

Leonard Cohen’s gravely voice fills the cabin by the wilderness wetland.

We asked for signs

The signs were sent

The birth betrayed

The marriage spent

Yeah the widowhood

Of every government

Signs for all to see

I can’t run no more

With the lawless crowd

While the killers in high places

Say their prayers out loud

But they’ve summoned, they’ve summoned up

A thundercloud

And they’re going to hear from me

Leonard Cohen’s’ “Anthem” brought a sliver of light into The Gathering of Old Dogs. Leonard’s gone, of course, without his suit — gone home without his burden behind the curtain without the costume that he wore — but we heard his voice deep and drear and true — like a wind chime rung by a breeze from the far side of the wetland. Then came the thundercloud summoning the weary to ring the bells again while the killers in high places say their prayers out loud.

I love to speak of Leonard

He’s a sportsman and a shepherd

He’s a lazy bastard

Living in a suit

But he does say what I tell him

Even though it isn’t welcome

He just doesn’t have the freedom

To refuse.

– Leonard Cohen, “Going Home”

Four lazy bastards depart for separate states to ring the bells anew — four tubes of a larger wind chime.

– Gordon C. Stewart on the Minnesota wetland, June 20, 2018

March for Our Lives

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Yesterday’s conversation with the rheumatologist took an unexpected turn. “I need some positive energy,” he said. “The kids from Parkland are amazing. I’m going to the march to the State Capitol tomorrow.”

The weather forecast called for heavy snow in Saint Paul. “I don’t care,” he said. He was going. No matter what! He would be there at 9:00 a.m. and stay until the crowd disperses in the afternoon. (Click this link for CNN’s coverage of the March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C. and around the world.)

“I’m so tired. I want to do something positive,” said my doctor. “The younger generation will lead us. You stay home! It wouldn’t be good for you. I’ll do the marching for both of us.”

Leaving the doctor’s office, I felt better. My thoughts turned to Siyahamba, the marching song that helped end Apartheid in South Africa. This morning I found Siyahamba‘s hopeful sound in this children’s choir in Westminster, Maryland.

He gives power to the faint,
    and strengthens the powerless.
 Even youths will faint and be weary,
    and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
    they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
    they shall walk and not faint. – Isaiah 40:28-31 [NRSV]

Thank you, Doctor. Thank you, Isaiah. Thank you, students from Parkland. Thank you, all who will march today in the light of God.

Siyahamba! March for our lives!

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, March 24, 2018.

 

Women’s Day Tribute to Two Women

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Celebrating International Women’s Day we celebrate two artists whose female identity was kept in the shadows because only men were published.

So far as the general public knew, Mel Bonis was a guy, another Mel like Mel Brooks and Mel Torme. Only later did it become known that Mel was a woman, Mélanie Hélène Bonis (1853-1937), composer of more than 300 compositions, who had shared the piano bench with Claude Debussy at the Paris Conservatoire.

Then there was the poet Lydia H. Sigourney (1791-1865) who first published as L.H. Sigourney before she “came out” as a woman. Lydia did unthinkable. She started a seminary for women.

Her poem “To the Ocean” are the very first words on page one of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness.

Therefore, I bend to thy resounding tides,

And list the echo of they countless waves,

A lone disciple, if perchance, my soul

That poor shell-gatherer, on the shores of time,

May by thy lore instructed, learn of God

  • L. H. Sigourney (1850)

Thanks for dropping by on International Women’s Day.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, March 8, 2018

 

To Initiate a Contemplative Mood

Thom Hickey’s The Immortal Jukebox is like no other jukebox. Tune out the noise and turn up the volume. Enjoy this gift for the season from a blogger in Surrey, England. Click the link at the bottom for all the music of this lovely post.

And breathe! To initiate the contemplative mood I turn to the contemporary Estonian Composer, Arvo Part with his luminous, liminal setting of Mary’s eternal prayer, ‘The Magnificat’. Part has been labelled a Minimalist and a retro Medievalist. I prefer to think of him as having the gift to make time past, time present and time […]

via Contemplative Christmas 1 — The Immortal Jukebox

The World at Christmas

“He rules the world with truth and grace, and makes the nations prove….” (“Joy to the World“) will ring out again this Christmas. But, does “He”?

Isaac Watts‘ Christmas carol celebrates faith in the future by looking back at the most unlikely of places: an animal feeding trough, a manger, in Bethlehem, on the outskirts of the Roman Empire.

He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders, wonders, of His love.

In 2017 it’s hard to sing. In too many ways, it’s not true. Not yet. Herod’s search for the child, Herod’s lies and the slaughter of children that led Mary and Joseph to become refugees in Egypt feel more familiar than the rule of grace and truth. The nations do not prove the glories of His righteousness or the wonders of His love. The world continues to be ruled by deception and greed.

Even so, whether singing “Joy to the World” or listening to Handel’s Messiah, as Martha Ann Kennedy shared in her “The Messiah” post, we sometimes find ourselves going where only music takes us — the longing of the human heart whose aching seems to echo a promise that evokes it, a subjectivity inspired by a longer objectivity, as it were — the victory of goodness over evil, beauty over ugliness, and truth over falsehood.

The curse is not yet removed, but it is countered by a promise and a command: the hope for the rule of grace and truth over the nations.

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as, the curse is found.

It falls to us to act responsibly in the face of the sins and sorrows that still grow, the thorns that infest the ground and threaten the planet; to be channels of truth and grace through which His blessings flow, far as the curse is found.

He rules the world with truth and grace
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness
And wonders of His love
And wonders of His love
And wonders, wonders, of His love.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Dec. 22, 2017.

Grandpa, what’s joy?

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Grandpa, what’s joy? Is it like happiness?

Good morning, Elijah! What brought that up?

Mom keeps singing “Joy to the world”! What’s joy? What’s the world?

Joy is deep gladness, Elijah. Happiness is like joy, but joy is deeper. It has to do with who you and and an inexplainable assurance about you, your Mom, and the world. It’s a deep inner gladness. You show it to me every day.  Don’t let the world take away your gladness, Elijah!

Okay, Grandpa! But what’s with that third stanza, that thing about the curse?

Oh, that! “No more let sins and sorrows grow, Nor thorns infest the ground; He comes to make his blessings flow Far as the curse is found, Far as the curse is found, Far as, far as, the curse is found.”

Yeah, that. What’s the curse, Grandpa? We’re not supposed to curse, right?

Right. But this is a different kind of curse. It’s the curse of selfishness and greed that bring sorrow to the world.

Isaac Watts — he’s the one who wrote the words to “Joy to the World” for Christmas — knew all about selfishness and greed when he wrote “Joy to the World” way back in 1719. Isaac was English. He knew all about colonialism and the nations.

Yeah, my baby-sitter really loves that last stanza about the nations! She says American exceptionalism is a curse. She really likes that fourth stanza. “He rules the world with truth and grace, And makes the nations prove The glories of His righteousness, And wonders of His love, And wonders of His love, And wonders, wonders, of His love.”

  • Grandpa Gordon, Chaska, MN, December 20, 2017.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Hymn for Houston

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

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.

Singing through the storm?

Watching the floods in Texas, I don’t feel like singing. But, while weeping for the people of south Texas, I hear the song of Pete Seeger wading through the storms and lamentations.

When Robert Lowry (1826-1899) wrote “How Can I Keep from Singing,” Pete Seeger (1919-2014) hadn’t been born, but Lowry’s music found a voice in Pete and others who listen amid life’s storms and lamentations.

Robert_Lowry

Rev’d Robert Lowry, preacher and hymn writer

A reporter once asked him what was his method of composition— “Do you write the words to fit the music, or the music to fit the words?” His reply was:

“I have no method. Sometimes the music comes and the words follow, fitted insensibly to the melody. I watch my moods, and when anything good strikes me, whether words or music, and no matter where I am, at home or on the street, I jot it down. Often the margin of a newspaper or the back of an envelope serves as a notebook. My brain is a sort of spinning machine, I think, for there is music running through it all the time. I do not pick out my music on the keys of an instrument. The tunes of nearly all the hymns I have written have been completed on paper before I tried them on the organ. Frequently the words of the hymn and the music have been written at the same time.”

Robert Lowry regarded “Weeping Will Not Save Me” as the best hymn he ever wrote.

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

 

Big Yellow Taxi and climate science

Songs like “Big Yellow Taxi” rise from memory so many years later when an EPA climate scientist report reaches the New York Times before it gets edited or killed and all the scientists get the word “You’re fired!”

We won’t know what we’ve got till it’s gone.

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, August 9, 2017.