Our Only House — John Lewis and Kosuke Koyama

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Introduction

John Lewis never knew and had no reason to care that we held some things in common. We shared a point of view that comes from reading the Psalms (“The earth is the LORDS’s and the fullness thereof…”[Ps. 24:1]), and the Book of Micah (“What does the LORD require of you but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God?” [Micah 6:8]), singing the same hymns in our Baptist and Presbyterian hymnals, and finishing theological educations at Fisk and McCormick.

John Lewis knew what a cracked head was

Yesterday’s Views from the Edge’s post pointed to what might be considered the centerpiece of John Lewis’s life — the conviction that “we all live in the same house.” John Lewis lived that conviction before and after the batons cracked his skull at Edmund Pettus Bridge.

John Lewis knew what a cracked skull was, and he knew that the Crackers’ skulls were cracked worse than his.

John Lewis and Kosuke Koyama

There is no evidence that John Lewis met Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama or read any of Koyama’s books on the anguished heart of God. But focusing on the Congressman’s witness in word and action brought the two of them together in my cracked head. I’m even more confident that John Lewis never knew of or read “The Economy: Only One House,” “Only One Sin: Exceptionalism” or “The World in an Oyster” in Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness, the collection of essays dedicated to Koyama. (Note: Click the above link to Amazon, click “Look Inside,” open the Table of Contents, and click the titles to glimpse the essays, or read “Just One Country” published May 2, 2012 by Views from the Edge.

A Poet’s bow to gentleness and strength — Peggy Shriver’s Haiku to Koyama

The haiku tribute to Koyama by his friend and faculty colleague at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York featured on Be Still!‘s dedication page, expressed how I felt after Ko’s death in 2009. Today the last stanza of Peggy’s haiku puts words to what I feel about John Lewis.

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

Peggy Shriver, 2009

Gordon C. Stewart, author Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), Chaska, Minnesota, July 21, 2020.

Elijah with Grandpa and the Postage Stamp Monologue

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.

‘Trouble’ is God’s middle name

Robert McAfee Brown is not a household name for most folks, but it is for a dwindling multitude shaped by his life and teaching. Few of us sat in his classes at Macalester College, Union Theological Seminary in New York, or at Stanford, and few of us marched with him for civil rights or an end to the Vietnam War. Although we never met him, he seemed to know who were, and spoke of God in ways that struck a chord with adolescent ears itching to change the world.

One of the people who did know him personally was Jo Bede. Jo knew him up close as his student assistant at Macalester College, typing the manuscripts for the books he published. All these years later, Jo is in a Memory Care Center here in Minnesota. Like many other members of the multitude, she no longer remembers his name or the name of her alma mater.

Unlike many members of the Robert McAfee Brown multitude, Jo remembered everything until Alzheimer’s stole’s her powers of recognition. Many other members remain unaware of their membership, though they read (or didn’t read) Brown’s book used in Presbyterian confirmation classes all across the United States. Like most kids that age, we didn’t pay attention to the author. We didn’t want to be ‘churchy’. But if The Bible Speaks to You sounds ‘churchy’ to you today, it’s likely because ‘church’, as Robert McAfee Brown understood it, bore no resemblance to the churches that decades later would replace intelligent faith with platitudes in the era of Donald Trump.

Some things are stranger than strange. In 2019 few things feel as strange as the likelihood that a young Donald Trump had become part of the multitude as a member of the confirmation class at First Presbyterian Church of Jamaica Heights, NYC. He was just another kid who didn’t give a thought to Robert McAfee Brown or crack the book we were supposed to read.

“We can be sure that ‘Trouble’ is God’s middle name,” he wrote, “and that such a God will be alongside us in the midst of trouble rather than off in a remote heaven practicing neutrality. And if we begin to make that most difficult switch of all — away from the gods of middle-class values and upward mobility, and gilt-edged retirement plans — and if we can explore, even tentatively and gingerly, what it would be like to think and act for those who are the victims, we just might uncover ‘the most unexpected news’ of all: that God got there before we did.”

All these years later, I imagine Bob Brown inviting all of us to his home in Palo Alto for a reunion of the crowd we didn’t know. Jo, Donald, and I are in the Browns’ living room. He begins the welcome by turning to Jo, whose head is down and who appears to be asleep. “Jo, it’s so good to see you after all these years! Do you still have that typewriter?” Jo lifts her head and smiles at the sound of her old teacher’s voice. “And, Donald and Gordon, Carolyn, Woody, Ted, Bob, Dottie, and David, I can’t wait to hear what you’ve done with your lives.” We go around the circle, introducing ourselves to each other from across the country. After the last of introduction, there is a silence while all eyes return to our host.

“So . . .,” he begins with a kindly smile, “how are all of you doing with the God whose middle name is ‘Trouble?'” All eyes lower into a deafening silence. Before any of us speak, he asks the second question for which he has brought us together:

“‘How are you doing with the switch?”

  • Gordon C. Stewart, from the wilderness, August 10, 2019.