American Crisis

Featured

THE AMERICAN CRISIS TODAY

Whether the American constitutional republic survives the present crisis depends on us no less than it did when Thomas Paine challenged the American public at the beginning of the American experiment.

THE AMERICAN CRISIS: THOMAS PAINE

Photograph of original text of The American Crisis Number 1 by the author of COMMON SENSE, Thomas Paine.

These are the times that try men’s souls: the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. – Common Sense.

Thomas Paine was the American Revolution journalist whose pamphlets by the title “Common Sense” supported independence from the British crown. Paine published those words on December 19, 1776 in Pennsylvania Journal. He spoke them to the American Continental Army one week later.

SHRINKING OR STANDING

The American crisis then was the survival of a dream. Would the American people stand up or would they be fair-weather patriots — summer soldiers and sunshine patriots?

In April 1775 the colonists had begun the rebellion against King George and all things royal, but the temptation to return to monarchical rule has never be far away. The result of the revolution was a democratic republic based on a non-monarchical constitution that divided the powers of government into three separate and equal branches — congressional, executive, and judicial. The U.S. Constitution was crafted to establish limits on executive authority. There would be no king in the new American democratic republic.

BEN FRANKLIN WARNING

In these sentiments, Sir, I agree to this Constitution, with all its faults, – if they are such; because I think a general Government necessary for us, and there is no form of government but what may be a blessing to the people, if well administered; and I believe, farther, that this is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic government, being incapable of any other.

BEN FRANKLIN, SPEECH TO THE CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION, JUNE 28, 1787.

“WHEN THE PEOPLE SHALL BECOME SO CORRUPTED”

Well-administered government is necessary for us. The success of the American experiment. i.e. a non-monarchical democratic republic, depended on an uncorrupted electorate and uncorrupted administration of the three equal branches under the new U.S. Constitution.

Government itself is not evil. Despotism is. Despotic government is the end product of a corrupted people incapable of the uncertain complexities of the separation of powers. The desire for a strong man in times of uncertainty like ours is only checked by the protections of the U.S. Constitution. A strong man is not King George. Franklin saw the elevation of a corrupt despot by a corrupted people above the equal powers of Congress and the judiciary as the nation’s greatest threat. The longing for the return of King George was the stuff of summer soldiers and sunshine patriots.

THE KNOT OF CRUELTY AND RECKLESSNESS

The knot in my stomach has a history. I remember the same knot while watching Joseph McCarthy and Roy Cohn until Joseph Welch spoke the lines that would stop McCarthy: “Until this moment . . . . I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness. . . . . You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency? Have you no sense of decency left?”

The U.S. Senate later censured McCarthy for his reckless character assassinations of his fellow citizens whose left-of-center politics he suspected of communist sympathies or allegiances. McCarthy all but disappeared. Roy Cohn did not. Cohn went on to become the lawyer for media mogul Rupert Murdoch ; Mafia figures Tony SalernoCarmine Galante, and John Gotti;and real estate developer Donald Trump. “In 1986, a five-judge panel of the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court disbarred Cohn for unethical and unprofessional conduct, including misappropriation of clients’ funds, lying on a bar application, and pressuring a client to amend his will.” (Roy Cohn, Wikipedia)

CONSCIENTIOUS PERSISTANCE

Only an informed electorate that persistently demands uncorrupted government under the division of powers of the U.S. Constitution will save us from the despotic government a corrupted people deserve. This is a time that tries our souls. Those who stand now will be loved and thanked by their children and grandchildren.

— Gordon C. Stewart, author, Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (Jan. 2017, Wipf & Stock, Eugene, OR), Chaska, MN, October 15, 2019.

Collective Delusion

Featured

AN UNLIKELY COINCIDENCE

“What’s the book about?” asked friends while preparing Be Still! for publication. I would scratch my head and answered as best I could: “It’s about a certain kind of calm and resistance in a world gone mad.” The release of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness, through no intention of the publisher or the author, coincided with the inauguration of a new president (January 2017).

QUIET! BE STILL!

The title “Be Still!” is taken from Psalm 46 — “Be still, and know that I am God” — and from the Gospel according to Mark story of the command to the storm-tossed sea: “Quiet! Be still!” Both the psalm and “the stilling of the storm” address our plight — the mass dehumanization which Holocaust surviver Elie Wiesel called “collective madness”.

How to explain the Holocaust is a life-long question for my generation. Elie Wiesel‘s “collective madness” comes as close as any other to the daunting question of why the German people fell for a madman and stayed quiet.

COLLECTIVE SELF-DELUSION

[F]ew Germans after the war would confess having given any loyalty to the Nazi movement. This was not a lie in the soul of the German nation; it was a part of a collective delusion that all the fascist movements brought upon their followings. It was as if the movements themselves, as things independent of the men that embodied them, were responsible for the things that happened.

Gilbert Allardyce, The Place of Fascism in European History (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1971)

SOMEDAY THEY WILL SAY, “WE DID NOT KNOW”

Well-publicized among Germans, already before Hitler came to power and during a period when he still depended on their consent rather than coercion, were the many actual deeds of butchery…. Some day the same Germans, now cheering Hitler’s strut into Paris, will say to their American friends and to their brave German anti-Nazi friends: “We did not know what went on, we did not know” and when that day of know-nothing comes, there will be laughter in hell.

Peter Viereck, German-American Scholar, Metapolitics: The Roots of the Nazi Mind, rev. ed. (1941; New York: Capricorn, 1965), 318

PRINCIPALITIES AND POWERS

For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.

Epistle to the Ephesians 6:12 (KJV)

The language of the Bible regarding principalities – the ruling authorities, the angelic powers, the demons, and the like – sounds, I suppose, strange in modern society, but these words in fact refer to familiar realities in contemporary life. The principalities refer to those entities in creation which nowadays are called institutions, ideologies, and images. Thus a nation is a principality. Or the Communist ideology is a principality. Or the public image of a human being, say a movie star or a politician, is a principality. The image or legend of Marilyn Monroe or Franklin Roosevelt is a reality, distinguishable from the person bearing the same name, which survives and has its own existence apart from the existence of the person.

William Stringfellow, Instead of Death (Expanded version)

THIRTY-THREE MONTHS AND COUNTING

Thirty-three months after the release of Be Still!, many of my generation hear echos from 1933. Though the “enemies” are different, the tactics and the language of national purification are the same, defying rational explanation. The principalities and powers which survive have their own existence apart from the persons who come under the spell of collective delusion and collective madness.

DISARMING THE PRINCIPALITIES AND POWERS

We humans are social creatures. but we are do not do well when herds become the substitute for self-critical community. The still, small Voice is heard away from the clamor. The life of a nation and every other principality and power is a spiritual matter before and after it is a political matter.

“Be still! Shut up! and know that I am God. I am exalted among the nations” (Psalm 46).

Three Guys in a Bar

Featured

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.

Elijah asks about craters and creezin

Featured

A conversation between two year-old Elijah and old Grandpa (Bumpa)

Bumpa, you’re old. You know LOTS of stuff. What’s a crater?

Where’d you hear about craters, Elijah? Have you been watching the nature channel at daycare?

We don’t have the nature channel at daycare. We watch stuff for kids on PBS.

I don’t think we have any craters here in Minnesota.

Whew! So we don’t have to look out for craters?

Are you sure you have the right word?

Yeah. It’s all over the news this week. Didn’t you watch Adam Sniff?

Let’s make sure we’re talking about the same thing. Let’s look it up.

Yeah, let’s look it up. You want to do it? Or you want me to do it?

Let’s do it together on my iPad. I’ll be right back.

You don’t to have go upstairs, Bumpa. I don’t want ya falling. I have Mom’s iPhone right here. I use it all the time.

Okay, just google the word ‘crater’ and let’s see what comes up.

I don’t spell yet. I’m still liddle, but I know my ABCs. Sometimes in my car seat I punch a bunch of buttons and somebody Mom doesn’t know talks to me on FaceTime!

Okay. Let Bumpa do it. I’m 77. Okay?

Okay.

Let’s just google crater and see what we learn.

Finding Wikipedia satellite photo in Google search

There we go, Elijah. Here’s a picture of Crater Lake in Oregon. Gandpa and Grandma have been to see it.

Crater Lake satellite photo.

Here’s what it says on Wikipedia:

Around 7,700 years ago, Mount Mazama erupted in Oregon, disgorging 15 cubic miles of magma over the western United States. It took a quarter of a millennium of snow and rain to fill the caldera with the serene waters wanderlust hikers now know as Crater Lake. Image from a RapidEye satellite.

Wikipedia Crater lake description.

I don’t get it, Bumba! So why would anyone call somebody a ‘crater’? We’re not sposed to call people names, right?

Right! Maybe you have the wrong word. Or the wrong spelling. What was the other word you asked about?

Elijah asks about creezins

Yeah. Creezin! It’s like craters! Don’t you ever listen to the news?

I do. I listen to MPR when I’m driving.

Yeah, Mom and I do too on the way to daycare and on the way home. We get lots of news. It’s an hour drive each way. It’s like ‘crater’.

I see. Was there a volcanic eruption? I must have missed it.

Geez! It’s all over the news. Creezin! Everybody’s talking about it. Don’t ya know?

You mean raisins? Granpa eats raisin bran every morning.

Uh-oh! Are they going to throw you and Gamma out? Are they going to de-peach you cause you eat raisin bran? You’re white, but don’t live in a white house, right? Did you commit creezin?

Not to worry, Elijah. We’re safe. Grandma and are not going to be de-peached. Any other word you don’t understand?

Elijah asks Bumpa about cranes

photo of U.S.  Postage 3-cent Wildlife Conservation postage stamp of whooping cranes.

Yeah. Ucrane. We have sandhill cranes and trumpeter swans at the cabin, right? Are there any ucranes?

We have sandhill cranes and frumpeter swans on the wetland, Elijah. So far as we know, there are no cranes by rhe cabin. It’s a long way from the news.

We’re like Greta, right? We’re conservationists, right, Bumpa? Do ucranes whistle? Or do they also whoop and honk?

–Conversation between Grandpa (Bumpa) and 2 yr.-old grandson (Elijah), Chaska, MN, September 28, 2019.

The Measures of Ourselves

Featured

Midtown Manhattan viewed from Weehauken, NJ, photo by Dmitry Avdeev.

THE FOUNDATION AND THE MORTAR

Who are we? Can we suspend shouting long enough to reflect on who and what we in the United States aspire to be? By what social norms do we measure a person’s or a nation’s well-being? A culture’s shared values form the foundation on which a society is built. Every culture is both an inheritance and a work in process. Without thoughtful care, time and neglect eat away the mortar between the foundation’s bricks.

FOUNDATIONS OF A DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC

The Constitution represents the boundaries of that consensus. If we didn’t know it before, we know in 2019 that the constitutional republic we call the United States of America is no Eden. Lord knows, Abel’s blood still cries out from our history and Cain’s inexplicable, impulsive violence will stain our hands again. Repeatedly. Sin is like that. It crouches at the door as in the Genesis legend. There is no perfect culture or society. Although we miss the mark (which is what the biblical word ‘sin’ means) by intention or by inattention, it falls on each of us to reaffirm and refresh the cultural code and ethical norms by which we measure ourselves personally and collectively. These measures are not abstract.

TRADITIONAL CULTURAL’S MORTAR — NORMS AND MEASURES

  • Be respectful
  • Don’t call people names.
  • Don’t make fun of people
  • Be kind
  • Be honest/tell the truth
  • Your word is your bond
  • Deal fairly with each other
  • Show compassion
  • Empathize with those less fortunate than yourself
  • Be generous with your money
  • Help those who suffer
  • Be true to yourself, but be ready to compromise
  • Settle disagreements peacefully
  • Don’t get too big for your britches
  • Be humble
  • Do not show off
  • Be above board in your dealings with others
  • Love your family
  • Respect the individual right to religious belief and practice
  • Honor the principle of free speech
  • Protect a free press
  • Be courageous and patient

TUCKPOINTING THE MORTAR

stone mason tuck pointing the mortar

Check out the mortar. Is it holding? Where does it need tuck pointing? Re-assess traditional culture’s tangible ways of measuring the quality of human life. Delete those you consider outdated. Add other measures you believe should be added. Then look in the mirror. Look at your behavior. Look at what you choose to watch and hear. Think again about who and what you want us to be. See the mortar crumbling. But don’t stop there. Despair is no excuse. Get up and do something to repair the foundation of humankind’s best nature.

— Gordon C. Stewart by the wetland, September 16, 2019

Rubbing My Eyes: How Long, Lord? How Long?

Featured

“Watching Dorian’s devastation of the Bahamas while being hit by an avalanche of tweets that treat tragedy as a television opportunity has left me speechless. Nothing from the White House connects the dots — the growing frequency of 100 year storms, floods, and fires (weather) — with an urgent call to act now on climate change. The planet’s lungs are on fire in the Amazon while the man who promises to make american great again shreds established regulations put in place to protect water, air, our forests, and soil. Meanwhile $3.1 B are stripped from FEMA and national security to pay for the wall for which we were promised the Mexican government would pay. I feel like the psalmist. ‘How long, Lord? How long?'”

Those words went up on FB yesterday, breaking a long silence on FB and here on Views from the Edge. That was before reading Katha Pollitt’s piece in The Nation. “Almost Everything Bad that Trump Did This Summer” details some of the Trump Administration behavior between June 3 and September 1, 2019.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, September 6, 2019

Elijah on The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig

Featured

ELIJAH WATCHING THE BIG BAD PIG ON MOM’s iPAK

Photo of Elijah in bed watching the story of The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig on an iPad.
Two year old Elijah learns of The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig

CONVERSATION OF ELIJAH AND BUMPA (GRAMPA) ABOUT THE BIG BAD PIG

Good morning, Elijah! You look happy this morning. Whatcha doin’?

Watchin’ a story on Mom’s iPak. I love Mom’s iPak. This one’s REALLY good, Bumpa!

You mean ‘iPad’. What’s it about?

Three liddle wolves and the big bad pig. You know the story!

Hmmm. Well, I do know a story, but I think you have the characters backwards. It’s three little PIGS and a big bad WOLF!

Uhuh! I’m watching it right now, Bumpa. It’s real! The Big Bad Pig destroys the three houses of the three liddle wolves.

There’s a story Bumpa and Gamma grew up with, but it’s the Big Bad Wolf who’s bad. The Big Bad Wolf huffs and he puffs and he blows down two of the three little pigs’ houses but can’t blow down the third little pig’s house because the third little pig build his house of brick. The Big Bad Wolf couldn’t blow it down.

Nope! Different story! This is about the Big Bad Pig. Pigs are greedy, Bumpa. Pigs are nasty! The Big Bad Pig blows up all the houses, even the one made with brick and the one made of concrete. But then the three liddle wolves give up on security. They build a house made of flowers!

So they’re hippies!

What?

Hippies. Hippies were the “flower children.” People who wanted to make America better by ending the Big Bad Pig’s war in Vietnam. Hippies wanted peace.

That’s over my head, Bumpa! I don’t know about Vietnam! Gamma doesn’t talk like that. She knows I’m just liddle. She still changes my diapers. You never ever change my diapers! I like Gamma better!

I’m so sorry, Elijah. Gamma is a much better person than Bumpa.

But here’s the thing. The Big Bad Pig is at the G-7 meeting insulting America’s friends, and we’ll be stuck with his mess!

READ ALONG WITH ELIJAH ON MOM’S IPAK.

Gordon C. Stewart (Bumpa), Chaska, MN, August 24, 2019

Who owns Greenland?

Featured

The Song in My Head

Have you ever found yourself humming a tune when you wake up in the morning? Sometimes the tune reaches back to childhood. My small church in the small town west of Philadelphia sang hymns that became childhood favorites. As I grew into adulthood, some of them drop away as childish.

One answer to why I would hum “This Is my Father’s world” all these years later suggested itself over coffee. The featured story of The Washington Post’s National Weekly: “Extreme climate change is here” accompanied by a map of rising temperatures across the United States.

front page, Washington Post National Weekly in collaboration with Star Tribune, 8/18/19

Climate Change and the Illusion of Property

While the planet’s oceans warm, the glaciers of Glacier National Park, polar ice caps melt beyond the tipping point, fires ravage the redwood forests, hundred year floods have become frequent, and the pale blue dot turns brown, “our listening ears” hear talk of buying Greenland. The Greenlanders and the Danes are too occupied with the melting ice and rising sea levels to be distracted by a foolish real estate offer.

The simple childhood hymn no longer sounds childish. It feels more child-like, full of the wonder that is the antidote to adult presumptions of property ownership. “This is my Father’s world, and to my listening ears all nature rings the music of the spheres. This is my Father’s world: I rest me in the thought of rocks and trees, of skies and seas, his hand the wonders wrought.”

Faith, Nature, and God

Climate change is the challenge of our time. Not just one of many challenges. It is both the most urgent, i.e., it cries out for action NOW, and the most important to the future of all that lives on this planet hanging among the spheres. Believing that Earth is a divine gift placed in our hands as stewards of nature, and wanting to remember the words of “This is my Father’s world,” I took out the Presbyterian hymnal of my childhood and the 1982 hymnal of the Episcopal Church.

From Wonder to Responsible Action

The last stanza in both hymnals ends with our responsibility, as though a century ago Maltbie Babcock (1858-1901), the lyric’s author, had anticipated the island of trash the size of Texas floating in the Pacific Ocean. This hymn on which my childhood friends and I were raised moves from wonder (awe) through recognition that “the wrong is great and strong” toward responsibility for the planet. “This is my Father’s world, oh let us not forget that though the wrong is great and strong, God is our Father yet. He trusts us with his world, to keep it clean and fair, all earth and trees, all skies and seas, all creatures everywhere.”

It is likely that Maltbie Babcock did not think what he wrote overlooking Niagara Falls was worthy of dissemination. It remained private until published by his wife after his death. Maltbie Babcock seems to have viewed “This is my Father’s world” as a personal expression of wonder beneath the literary standards of good poetry. But ”This is my Father’s world” strikes a chord at the tipping point of climate departure.

photo of Niagara Falls

It is likely that Maltbie Babcock did not think what he wrote overlooking Niagara Falls was worthy of dissemination. It remained private until his wife published it after his death. Maltbie Babcock seems to have viewed “This is my Father’s world” as a personal expression of wonder beneath the literary standards of good poetry. But ”This is my Father’s world” strikes a child-like chord standing at the tipping point of climate departure in 2019.

No one owns Niagara Falls. No one owns Greenland. No one owns the world.

— Gordon C. Stewart, heading north to the wilderness retreat, August 19, 2019.

The Hoodie in the Hood

Featured

The Hoodie at Four A.M. – Washington D.C.

It’s four o’clock in the morning. He’s wide awake, his mind swirling. He puts on the hoodie disguise to walk from his white house to the tenement in the ‘hood’ he’s visited before. He avoids the Secret Service and television cameras. He enters the building, takes a deep breath, and lowers himself to climb the rusting metal stairs to the fifth floor walk-up apartment in hopes no one will recognize him.

The tenement-dweller has been waiting for him since their last visit months before. The door is ajar. The tenement-dweller never locks the door. No one needs to knock. The homeless, “women of the night”, pimps, people on the other side of the law, and cops who enforce it, alcoholics and drug addicts, the opioid and heroin dealers, and people in high white places are always welcome here.

The Tenement-Dweller: the Man in the Hood

“Welcome, friend,” says the tenement-dweller. “I’ve wondered when you might come for another visit.” He points to the dumpster chairs — the folding wood chair with the missing slat and the torn red leather wingback to the left and right of the small cardboard box end table. The night visitor chooses the high wingback.

“Can I get you something to drink?” asks the tenement dweller. “I have a nice variety of perfectly good teas. Not to worry; they’re from the dumpster, but they’re still in their wrappers,” he says with a smile. “Camomile is good for a restless night.” The night visitor nods his assent and watches his counselor walk past the rat traps to the Coleman stove and return with the kettle, an assortment of tea bags, two chipped cups, and a small plate of ginger snaps he’d put together for whatever guest might come that morning.

“There’s not much room on this table,” says the tenement dweller, pointing to the cardboard box with the small lamp between the chairs. “Would you mind removing that book to make room for the tray?” The tenement dweller pours the hot water into the cups, and, with a warm smile, gestures toward the tea bags and ginger snaps.

A Privileged Conversation

“Things haven’t gone so well for you since our last visit. You’re still wearing that hoodie! I like that! So … what brings you this morning?”

The night visitor removes his hood.

“I’m a stranger in my own house. I’m more alone than ever. My beautiful wife and beautiful daughter are upset about the thing at the border, and now the Epstein thing. And . . . yesterday the Scaramucci thing. And who knows what’s going to come out of Michael’s big mouth! I can’t even trust FOX any more.”

There is a silence before the tenement-dweller responds.

“Well, that’s a lot to carry.”

“It is. I’m weary and heavy-laden.That’s why I’m here. I’m taking you at your word.”

“I see. I’m glad you remembered, and I’m glad you came back to lay your burden down. But first, I need to clear the air a bit. You hurt my feelings when you attacked Elijah Cummings with those tweets about his district and his character. You called his district a rat and rodent-infested mess. Take a look around, Donald. What do you see? That’s where you are. Take a look at me. What color do you think I am?

“And all those people in concentration camps at the border, the wink-winks toward the gun lobby after all these mass shootings, and the cruelty of calling poor people fleeing for their lives ‘invaders.’ You know as well as I do that there is no invasion at the border. The people in those camps and the people in my neighborhood are as dear to me as you are. And now this thing with Israel and two Muslim congresswomen. It’s off the rails, Donald. If I didn’t know your need, I would have assumed you’d never put on the hoodie again.

The Book on the Box

“That book from the table, the one on your lap, I got just for you, Donald. I want you to take it home and read it.”

“I don’t read much. I’m a slow reader.”

“I know, and you hide it. You’re embarrassed by it. But it’s just the two of us here.  So, let’s do this. You don’t have to read the whole book. Just turn to the bookmarked page and read the highlighted sections I marked for you after our last visit. Read it out loud while we’re still together.”

Donald opens the book and reads aloud:

“The more insecure, doubtful, and lonely we are, the greater our need for popularity and praise. Sadly … the more praise we receive, the more we desire. The hunger for human acceptance is like a bottomless barrel….The search for spectacular glitter is an expression of doubt in God’s complete and unconditional acceptance of us. It is, indeed, putting God to the test. It is saying, ‘I am not sure that you really care, that you really love me, that you really consider me worthwhile. I will give you a chance to show it by soothing my fears with human praise and by alleviating my sense of worthlessness by human applause….’ The….experience of God’s acceptance frees us from our needy self and thus creates new space where we can pay selfless attention to others. This new freedom in Christ allows us to move in the world uninhibited by our compulsions….”

Henri Nouwen, The Selfless Way of Christ: Downward Mobility and the Spiritual Life

“You got this thinking of me? You think I’m insecure? You think I’m moving in the world compulsively? I don’t need praise, but look at the applause! They love me. They support me. I could shoot somebody in broad daylight standing in the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue, and they’d still love me. I can do whatever I want.”

“Take the book with you, Donald. What I know that you don’t yet know is in the other sections I highlighted just for you. Applause is not love. If applause were love, you wouldn’t have disguised yourself. You wouldn’t have risked coming here. Love is something else. In the end, love is all there is. Think about that on your walk back, and read those pages over and over. Read them every morning before you think about tweeting. Only then will you not feel homeless.”

— Gordon C. Stewart, by the wetland, MN, August 16, 2019.

‘Trouble’ is God’s middle name

Featured

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.