A Search for Comfort and Courage

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After an extended period of dismay and bewilderment, Psalm 39 opened a vein to write again.

Image of hermit crab crawling inside an empty shell.
Hermit Crab crawling into an abandoned shell

A Psalmic Meditation of a Hermit Crab

I said, “I will be careful how I act
    and will not sin by what I say.

I have been careful. A hermit crab at low tide, I sidle into a borrowed shell, not too big and not too small, to hide from birds of prey. I stuff myself inside. When the tide comes in, I may leave this shell. But not now. The sand is hot. The gulls are feeding.

 I will be careful what I say
    around wicked people.”

It’s not just the birds of prey that keep me here. Whatever I say outside will make it hotter for crabs like me. I’m crabby and cranky. “Keep your words to yourself! The world doesn’t need more heat. We all need to cool down.” 

So I kept very quiet.
    I didn’t even say anything good,
    but I became even more upset.

Despair is a horrible thing. “If you can’t  say something nice, don’t say it. Stay in your room until you have something nice to say. You have to be positive.” I have nothing good to say. Nothing calm. Nothing of value. Nothing to cool the beach at noon. Nothing to lower the blistering heat rising in me.

I became very angry inside,
    and as I thought about it, my anger burned.

Glass shattering, Stop the Steal, Hang Mike Pence, Execute Nancy, Make America Great Again, sounds of threats and violence, cries for help, and the silence from the White House still hurt my ears.

Then I remember how Jeremiah wept. Truth, he said, was dark and deep, and bought a worthless plot of land where hope could live. 

The prophet Jeremiah, Michelangelo fresco, Sistine Chapel

So I spoke:

“Lord, tell me when the end will come
    and how long I will live.
    Let me know how long I have.

You have given me only a short life;
    my lifetime is as nothing in your sight;
    Even those who stand erect are
but a puff of wind.

It’s hard alone outside the shell. The wind is stiff. The sky is dark. Light is White and right; Black is dark and wronged again. Truth sways by a noose from the lynching tree.

When will this end? When will it stop? How will it stop? I’m an old man; my time is short, this short puff of air, soon to disappear.

People are like shadows moving about.
    All their work is for nothing;
    they collect things but don’t know who will get them.

My kind and I are like ghosts sidling along the wall of shadows we faintly see in Plato’s cave. We find no respite from the heat and clamor into which we once could crawl — or thought we could. We leave behind a scorched gift to generations yet to come.

“So, Lord, what hope do I have?
    You are my hope.”

Sea levels have rise, the tides are higher, the forests burning, the rivers drying, fields once lush and green now parched and brown, the planet spinning out of control, like a top our hands have spun. These mortal selves, this factory of gods our hearts conceive, cannot hide from Thee, O Lord, the “I AM” without end, the Breath of Life that breathes a breath through me.

Gordon C. Stewart, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017, Wipf and Stock), host of Views from the Edge: To see More Clearly, Brooklyn Park, MN, January 23, 2023.

A Slip of the Tongue

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Gordon C. Stewart, January 22, 2022

“Better to trip with the feet than with the tongue."
— Zeno of Citium (c. 300 BCE)

About stumbling and slipping

We all stumble occasionally. Who hasn’t slipped while trying to say what we mean? But some slips aren’t slips. Those slips reveal what we mean.

After last night’s Senate blocked the voting right bill from moving forward to debate, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s tongue slipped when trying to tamp down any concern about Black voter suppression.

The concerns are misplaced, he demurred. Why? Because “African American voters are voting in just as high a percentage as Americans.”

About Speech

“I hate all bungling like sin, but most of all bungling in state affairs, which produces nothing but mischief to thousands and millions.”

GOETHE, quoted in Peter Eckermann’s Conversations with Goethe, March 1832.

“We all stumble in many ways,” wrote the James of The Epistle of James. “Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check.” (James 3:2 NIV). There is no such person, he writes, for no human being can tame the tongue. The tongue’s small size is disproportionate to it power. It’s like the rudder of a ship. It guides the ship in whatever direction the pilot directs. In yet another metaphor, the tongue is a little member of the body, “and boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small spark!”

A restless evil

With the tongue we praise God and curse others created in God’s image; “it is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.”

“Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? Can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water….”

Wisdom and hypocrisy

“Let those who desire wisdom show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such ‘wisdom’ is not wisdom. It does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.”

A Life’s project on the tip of the tongue

Martin Luther King, Jr. is dead. John Lewis is dead. Their life project is not. It will sit on the tip of my tongue long after the slip that wasn’t a slip, however long it takes.

O, yet we trust that somehow good
Will be the final goal of ill.

— Alfred, Lord Tennyson,
In Memoriam A.H. H. (1850)

Faith and the Administered Consciousness

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“To what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market places and calling to their playmates, ‘We piped to you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.'”

Gospel according to Matthew 11:16-17.

Having nothing new to say on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I scrolled back to this sermon on Faith and Patriotism which re-awakened my appreciation for Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man and his analysis of a culture of “administered consciousness”.

“Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel” — Eugene Debs/Thomas Paine?

Love of country is a good thing. Worshiping it is not. In the hands of a scoundrel, patriotism becomes an idol.

Faith and Patriotism

Gordon C. Stewart, Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, January 19, 2022

When Truth Has Stumbled in the Streets

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“Truth has stumbled in the streets, honesty cannot enter. Truth is nowhere to be found, and whoever shuns evil becomes a prey.” — Book of Isaiah 59: 14b-15a

The Press Conference

Moments ago House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy performed a Fred Astaire song-and- dance act, after which a “press corp” composed of theater critics, ballet dancers, singers, and actors from Broadway had time to asked embarrassing questions. The Minority Leader was frequently off-key. Every other step was a diversion. Some taps were an About-Face. It’s hard to tap dance in hip-boot waders.

Tap dancing in hip-boots

Mr. McCarthy offered no explanations for his well-documented changes of mind, reversals and U-Turns. If you were listening carefully, you might have heard an off-stage prompter’s cue from an unhappy puppeteer: “A b o u t Face!” But the tap dancer didn’t know which way to face. Without a moral compass it’s easy to get lost.

"No one calls for justice; no one pleads his case with integrity." -- Isaiah 59:4a

I watched it live on C-Span. No pundit told me what I was seeing and hearing, and no “Breaking News!” announcements made my heart race.

Truth is not an artifact

Truth-telling never was popular. Yet it was a founding virtue in American culture. “We hold these truths to be self-evident….” We didn’t, of course, but we said we did. Truth was the premise of all that followed in the Declaration of Independence. In 2022 truth is a relic, a dead virtue like Latin, rolling in the dust; nothing is self-evident. Or could it be that truth abides in America; you just have to hunt for it? Yet, even hunting for truth for the sake of goodness can be a u-turn toward evil, as it did seven decades ago until a truth-teller named Welsh and a truth-seeking reporter named Murrow confronted the demonic crusading behind the pretense of goodness.

"They rely on empty arguments and speak lies; they conceive trouble and give birth to evil." -- Isaiah 59:4

A sense of decency

When Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-WI) attacked a young attorney in Mr. Welsh’s law firm as a suspected communist or communist sympathizer, Welsh had had enough, and said so: “Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?“

“See It Now”

March 9, 1954 Murrow’s “Report on Sen. Joseph McCarthy” aired on his popular CBS program “See It Now” featuring excerpts in which the junior Senator from Wisconsin repeatedly contradicted himself. Joseph Welsh’s rebuke — “Let us not … Have you left no sense of decency”— swept across the country. Viewer letters to CBS ran 15-1 in favor of Murrow’s report.

Attack on the Press as “a Jackal Pack”

When Murrow offered the senator a full half-hour on “See It Now” to respond to the report in any way he might choose, McCarthy delayed his appearance until April 6. McCarthy did not appear in person. Instead, he provided CBS with a filmed response, accusing Murrow of being a communist-sympathizer, or worse. The transcript of McCarthy’s defense included an attack on the press as “jackal pack”:

Ordinarily, I would not take time out from the important work at hand to answer Murrow. However, in this case I feel justified in doing so because Murrow is a symbol, a leader, and the cleverest of the jackal pack which is always found at the throat of anyone who dares to expose individual Communists and traitors.

Excerpt, Sen. Joseph McCarthy rebuttal on “See It Now” (April 6, 1953)
"They hatch the eggs of vipers, and spin a spider's web." -- Isaiah 59:5a

Murrow later noted that McCarthy “made no reference to any statements of fact that we made” and addressed McCarthy’s accusations against himself. If the best defense is a good offense, McCarthy’s single-note smear strategy was no match for truth. Senator McCarthy was censured by the Senate, but his spirit and appeal to fear never left.

Common Decency

This sordid history is embedded in American culture. We’ve become a culture of distrust, suspicion, accusation, and division. There is no Edward R. Murrow, and if there is one or many, the multiplicity of news sources insures that the American public will no longer see or hear the same things across the political divide.

"So justice is far from us, and righteousness does not reach us. We look for light, but all is darkness; for brightness, but we walk in deep shadows. Like the blind we grope along the wall, feeling our way like those without eyes." -- Isaiah 59:10a

The descendants of Joseph McCarthy are feeding truth, decency, and the Constitution through the shredder. If you want to see reality with your own eyes and hear it with your own ears, tune in to C-Span and C-Span 2 to discern truth from falsehood, good from evil, transparency from obfuscation, a ballet from a tap dance in hip boots.

— Gordon C. Stewart, Brooklyn Park, MN, Jan. 12, 2022.

Thunder and a Gentle Breeze (Clyde Bellecourt)

Yesterday the thunder stopped. This morning’s Star Tribune announced the death of Clyde Bellecourt —Nee-gon-we-way-we-dun — (“Thunder Before the Storm”). Time will not silence the echo of his thunder. History will not erase the evidence that Clyde was here.

America’s First People see and hear things I do not. Ojibwe spirituality says the Clyde is not gone. Not yet. Before he “departs” from us, his spirit will hover for three days, visiting loved ones and friends. If the Ojibwe have it right, perhaps I’ll sense a presence wafting across my path.

Stephanie Autumn and Clyde Bellecourt honoring Doug with Indian blanket

Clyde Bellecourt (L) watching Stephanie Autumn honor Legal Rights Center co-founder and first Director Doug Hall during MN Restorative Justice Campaign picnic in Wabasha, MN.

A Living Legacy

Clyde’s obituary is long and storied. He was here, he was there, he was everywhere. Every chapter of his life will paint him as the warrior that he was, fighting in the streets and speaking truth to power in courts, city halls, governors’ offices, Congressional offices, and the United Nations, standing for the rights of America’s First People and an end to the myth of White superiority and supremacy. His voice was the voice of the American Indian Movement (A.I.M.) Football fans in Washington, D.C. no longer rout for “the Redskins” and baseball fans in Cleveland will forget over time that it was Clyde who led the national campaign to change the teams’ names. The results of the Storm will not blow away.

Thunder Is the Sound of Kindness

What will not be said of him is more important than his victories. Clyde Bellecourt did thunder, but his thunder came from kindness. When my life had fallen into public shame, it was Clyde and the board of the law center he co-founded whose kindness lifted me from life under the bridge. For seven-and-a-half years I came to know him in ways the public did not. He did not always thunder; he was also quiet. The demonstrations, marches, and speaking the truth to power were only the loudest moments of his life. In quiet moments it was Clyde who searched for people living under the viaduct and became their trusted friend and advocate.

Thunder and Wind-Chimes

After an off-duty MPD policer officer had reportedly dumped an intoxicated man on the pavement behind Little Earth Housing and defiled him, those who had witness it turned to Clyde and the Legal Rights Center. No one knew the victim. In the days that followed, it was Thunder-Before-the-Storm who worked the grapevine to find the man, and when he found him, he quietly arranged a meeting with the Chief of Police and MPD investigators re: the case, and to change how things are for people of color on the streets. In those moments, Clyde worked quietly out of kindness. The sound was more like wind-chimes.

If you feel a gentle breeze and hear the sound of wind-chimes, who knows? It just may be the Thunder Before the Storm.

Gordon C. Stewart, Brooklyn Park, MN, January 12, 2022.

January 6 — Epiphanies

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A Day of Infamy

The day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, POTUS Franklin Delano Roosevelt addressed a joint session of Congress. “Yesterday, December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy…” he began. His oft-cited words could have been repeated the day after the attack on the U. S. Capitol January 6, 2020.

The POTUS defeated in the 2020 election called no special session of Congress on January 7, 2021. The day before (Jan. 6, 2021) the President stayed in the Oval Office dining room watching the rampage through the halls of Congress, and Capitol Police rushing Members of Congress, the Vice President and their staff members into hiding. He kept his eyes glued to the unfolding images as if watching contestants on Jeopardy.

When finally he spoke after 187 minutes of silence, he told those who had breached the Capitol “…So go home. We love you, you’re very special. We’ve seen what happens, you see the way others are treated that are so bad and so evil. I know how you feel. But go home, and go home in peace.” There was no special session of Congress, as on the day after Pearl Harbor. Congress impeached Mr. Trump for the second time over the objection of Jim Jordan (pictured below), Marjorie Taylor Greene, and others. Loyalist senators voted to acquit him. January 6, 2020 will be remembered as the day the Big Lie and Stop the Steal almost stole democracy.

Marjorie Taylor Greene 🇺🇸
@mtgreenee

  1. We must remove Adam Schiff from Congress.
    It’s not enough to take him off committees.
    He has heinously abused power & LIED repeatedly to the American people to weaponize the government to attack his political enemies.
    He’s a Communists.
    All Communists must be expelled.
    10:03 AM · Dec 15, 2021·Twitter for iPhone

Blacklisted – on the LIST (Click Here)

Painting public figures as Communists has a history. In 1952 and following, the right wing of the Republican Party created a “blacklist” of Communists and Communist sympathizers.

The List

10 PUBLIC FIGURES

Helen Keller
Leonard Bernstein
Burl Ives
Pete Seeger
Artie Shaw
Zero Mostel
Charlie Chaplin
Langston Hughes
Orson Welles
Dolores del Rio

+Adam Schiff (added 12/15/22

Epiphany

The date of the 2021 Capitol insurrection coincided with the Feast of the Epiphany which my church celebrates every January 6th, no matter the current circumstances. On Epiphany the heart is lifted by the Gospel of Matthew’s story of the Magi (wisdom figures) who have come from afar, kneeling before a newborn as fragile as any newborn to offer their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

It was and is a question of kneeling

Prior to their arrival at Bethlehem, these sages from the East go to “Herod the king” asking for directions to the place where the new king has been born. A “troubled” King Herod summons his advisors to gather information. He then summons the “wise men” secretly to ascertain from them when the star had appeared. Herod gives them directions to Betlehem, and tells them to come back to him when they have found the child, “that I too may come and worship him.”

The Magi do not return to Herod. “And warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their own country by another way.” Herod is furious. Herod never disappears. Cunning and deceit never end. Darkness remains. But the Light –the star shining over an animal shelter — remains. Last year Epiphany there was darkness and there was light. A would-be king trembles and flies into a slaughter of innocents. For years to come, January 6 the memory of a violent insurrection and the Feast of the Epiphany will sit side-by-side. May we have the wisdom to follow the Light that cannot overcome the darkness.

Pete Seeger

The two competing images of the wise visitors to Bethlehem and of Herod’s cunning will through light on reality as it is. If Burl Ives and Pete Seeger were branded as Communists, I wonder about Dolly Parton. Dolly did appear with Big Bird on Sesame Street.

“What a Friend We Have in Jesus” is an old favorite of Protestant Christians. Pete Seeger (RIP) knew what happens when we look to Congress to save us.

For more information on the history of blacklisting, click Blacklisting by the House Un-America Affairs Committee.

Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), Brooklyn Park, MN 55443.

Isabell’s Smile

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious,” wrote Albert Einstein. “It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.” 

Albert Einstein

Isabell’s Wonder and her Grandfather’s Wondering

Christmas felt different this year. Until four-month-old granddaughter Isabell smiled, gurgled, and giggled back from the blanket on the floor. Before that I had been stuck in the soul-wrecking kind of wonder, not the wondrous kind of wonder Einstein described. No sugar plums danced in my head.

Photograph of Isabell Smiling
Four-month-old Isabell, Christmas day, 2021

Events of the past year were tumbling over each other. I hear the sound of a paper shredder and wonder whether any copies of the Constitution will survive the shredders. I see the Mother of Exiles, her lamp still held high, but dimming, while the torches of hate grow bright to erase Emma Lazarus’s poem welcoming “the poor, huddled masses, and tempest-tost, yearning to be free.” I hear the torch-bearers chanting in Charlottesville “You will not replace us! Jews will not replace us!” and hear the Munich Beer Hall Putsch in my language. I see the party of Lincoln riding the wave of the Big Lie and wonder when patriotism became treasonous and “open carry” the closest synonym of freedom. I see the gallows outside the Capitol, hear the shouts “Hang Mike Pence” and “Execute Nancy,” and wonder how individual freedom was severed from responsibility, and who decided only whites neighbor. I wonder what happened to the Golden Rule and the parable of the Good Samaritan. I wonder whether the demons of national exceptionalism and white supremacy can be exorcized, and if and when the 100-year fires, hurricanes, tornadoes, droughts, and floods will knock sense into climate change-deniers before the murder-suicide pact leaves no one to be replaced. I wonder what will become of us. I have to wonder.

Bethlehem and an Empty Chair for Elijah

We are no closer to Isaiah’s vision of the peaceable kingdom than the day Jesus was born in Bethlehem. The Hebrew prophets’ “Day of the Lord” or its New Testament equivalent, “the Kingdom of God” is harder to imagine when Herod seems closer than the wisdom of the Wise. Elijah’s empty chair at the annual Seder meal is kept empty as a sign of hope against hope that the Messianic kingdom of Isaiah’s vision and Jesus’ preaching are more than pipe dreams.

Isabell knows nothing about any of this. She does not wonder the way I do. Shel smiles back at her grumpy grandfather, wiggling, gurgling, and giggling with joy. Isabell is no stranger to Einstein’s “beautiful thing” — the ‘thing’ that is not a ‘thing’.

The Experience of the Sacred

Fred and Jo never met Isabell. They were in their mid-90s and mid-80s when she first opened her eyes. She never saw Jo and Fred walking hand-in-hand around the retirement center. If it weren’t for the gray hair and hint of a limp, on onlooker might mistake them for teenagers. Their love was as fresh as the morning dew. The luster of love’s delight had not dimmed or faded until Jo’s daily greeting —“Good morning, Dear. How are you today?”— stopped. Two years later, her heart stopped also.

When the funeral home attendants arrived at the Memory Care Center, Fred had settled himself in the chair at the foot of the bed. Respecting his grief and wanting to protect him from viewing their work, the attendants invited him to leave the room until they were finished. Fred declined their invitation. He stayed in the room to watch each step of the process of preparing the deceased’s body, and followed the attendants and the body down the elevator and out to the hearse.

When asked later what his experience had been watching the whole process while deep in grief, Fred looked at me and paused. . . for a long time. The look on his face was quizzical. “I’m looking for the right words,” he said. “I can’t explain it. “‘Wondrous’ is the only word that comes to mind.” “I can’t explain it.” “It was ‘wondrous’!”

In that moment 90-year-old Fred and four-month-old Isabell were on the same page, alive and pausing in wonder at the beauty of it all.

“There are in life a few moments so beautiful that even words are a sort of profanity.” (Diana Palmer)

Diana Palmer

Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (217 Wipf & Stock), Brooklyn Park, MN, Dec. 29, 2021.

Star of Wonder

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Adam Fronczek’s “Star of Wonder” sermon at Knox Church – Cincinnati comes as healing balm after a year when truth and wonder have been hard to come by. I needed this. Perhaps you do, too. You are not alone. Thank you, Adam. Thank you Knox.

Scroll forward to 22:58 to listen.

YouTube broadcast of Knox Church-Cincinnati, OH, Fourth Sunday of Advent, 2021

Best wishes for a truthful, wonder-filled Christmas,

Gordon. C. Stewart, Brooklyn Park, MN, December 24, 2021.

Have We Forgotten How to Listen?

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About the Author

Thanks to Janet Morrison of Harrisburg, NC for accepting our invitation to elaborate on her comment on Harry Strong’s Biases series. Janet is a writer, blogger, and published author. Information about Janet and her work is available on Janet’s Writing Blog or Janet Morrrison Books.com. Views from the Edge added the headings and graphics to the original text of “Have We Forgotten How to Listen?”

Have We Forgotten How to Listen?

by Janet Morrison

Throughout much of 2021 I participated in an online group discussion of LEAPFROG: How to Hold a Civil Conversation in an Uncivil Era, by Janet Givens, M.A. The recent “Blind Biases” series of posts by Harry L. Strong on Gordon C. Stewart’s “Views from the Edge” blog reminded me of Ms. Givens’ thought-provoking book. 

How do we have that difficult conversation with someone with whom we disagree? 

Our nation is more polarized now than in any other time in my life. The assassination of a U.S. President, the Civil Rights Movement, the racial desegregation of the public school I attended, the “Cold War,” the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, the near-eradication of polio, the “space race” with the U.S.S.R., the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, the breaking up of the Soviet Union, the advent of the internet, 9/11, global warming, and an attempted coup at the U.S. Capitol have been the soundtrack of my life.

From verbal filters to open floodgates

Whereas, polite society used to dictate a level of restraint in public discourse, social media and a former U.S. President who demonstrated no such verbal filter, opened the floodgates for anyone and everyone to voice their opinions as often and as loudly as they desired. 

The result of this shift is that the individuals with the most extreme views feel emboldened to not only voice their opinions but to launch vile personal attacks against anyone who dares to disagree. With all filters turned off, we have transitioned into a country in which everyone is expressing their opinions and no one is listening.

LEAPFROG

The “L” in Ms. Givens’ LEAPFROG book stands for listening. It made me think about the necessity of listening if we’re to have a productive conversation on any level.

In our compulsion to force our ideas down the throats of others, we’ve lost our ability to listen. 

When’s the last time you listened to someone whose views on politics differed from yours? No. I mean, did you really listen? Or were you so wrapped up in your viewpoint and your desire to convert the other person to your way of thinking that you didn’t genuinely listen to the other party?

We’re all guilty. We’ve not only brought all our biases to the table; we’ve forgotten our table manners. 

We’ve forgotten how to listen.

Alert and ready for the Unexpected 

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition, 2001 defines the word listen as follows: “(1) to pay attention to sound…; (2) to hear something with thoughtful attention:  give consideration…; (3) to be alert to catch an expected sound.” If I may be so bold, I would add a fourth: to be alert to catch an unexpected sound, or word, or explanation. 

Our modern lives are filled with noise. The TV is always on at home. The radio is always on in the car, often tuned into talk radio. Music or a cellphone conversation is always playing in our ears. We’re so attuned to hearing something 24/7 that we can’t go grocery shopping or jogging without having earbuds in our ears. Silence makes us uneasy. Without being aware of it, we’ve trained ourselves to listen to what we want to hear, and this training has conditioned us not to have to listen to anything we don’t want to hear.

Our modern lives are filled with noise. The TV is always on at home. The radio is always on in the car, often tuned into talk radio. Music or a cellphone conversation is always playing in our ears. We’re so attuned to hearing something 24/7 that we can’t go grocery shopping or jogging without having earbuds in our ears. Silence makes us uneasy. Without being aware of it, we’ve trained ourselves to listen to what we want to hear, and this training has conditioned us not to have to listen to anything we don’t want to hear.

Let that sink in. Has our desire to surround ourselves and our very ears only with those sounds we want to hear led us to become closed-minded to truly listening to “the other side” when it comes to the difficult issues of the day? Have we lost our ability to listen? Have we lost our curiosity?

I’m Guilty

I’m guilty. I don’t watch the cable news channels that I know espouse political views with which I disagree. When I hear someone whose viewpoints are in opposition to mine, my knee-jerk reaction is to get angry and make judgments. I admit that I don’t care why their world view is so different from mine. I can’t fathom why they think the way they do, and I’m guilty of not trying to see things from their perspective.

I grew up in a fairly homogeneous community. There weren’t any rich kids in my school. Most people went to church. Most people obeyed the law. As far as I knew, until a few years ago, everyone I grew up with saw the world pretty much the way I did. When I was growing up, I knew there were Republicans and Democrats, but people rarely advertised their political affiliation.

People of various political leanings could be friends. Those who made a point to reveal their political party registration didn’t demonize those of the other party. They could socialize and attend church together. They could even discuss politics and remain friends. They could display the American flag at their homes without being labeled as agreeing with a particular political party. They could get vaccinated against diseases without being ostracized.

One of the sad things for me in this era of polarization is learning that people I thought I knew well, I don’t really know. How can children who were raised like I was raised become adults with whom I have nothing in common?

The most frightening thing about this is that we each love our country; however, we love it in ways that mean we can’t have a civil conversation about it. We not only aren’t listening to each other, we have lost the patience, the energy, the tolerance, and the curiosity to listen to one another.

Until we listen

Two people in a heated argument about religion when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke at Columbia University. Photo by David Shankbone, uploaded from Wikimedia, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Until we learn to listen, family gatherings will escalate into shouting matches and hurt feelings. Congregations will divide into cliques and inflict wounds on our collective Body of Christ. Knowing another person’s political affiliation will influence all our dealings and interactions with them.

Until we recapture our ability to listen and want to know why the other person sees things the way they do, we’re spinning our wheels.

Until both parties to the conversation bring honesty, frankness, and a genuine curiosity to the discussion, our country is not going to move out of this predicament we find ourselves in.

Until we are willing to listen, we can’t call it a conversation. 

Until we listen, we won’t discover what we have in common. 9/11 did that for us. I pray it doesn’t take such a tragedy to reunite us.

Tell us what you’re thinking. Let’s talk.

Gordon C. Stewart, host of Views from the Edge, author of Be Still: Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf & Stock), Brooklyn Park, MN, Dec. 20, 2021.

To bow or not to bow is not the question

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Rising of a Thunderstorm (Washington Allston)

Reverence is an ennobling sentiment; it is felt to be degrading only
by the vulgar mind, which would escape the sense of its own littleness
by elevating itself into an antagonist of what is above it. He that has
no pleasure in looking up is not fit so much as to look down.

Washington Allston (1779—1843)

Human Beings and Being Human

Not everyone believes in God, and those of us who do call the Ineffable different names. But doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly (Micah 6:8) expresses in a few words the shared moral foundation of healthy common life. Some treasures — soul-sized things that neither moth nor rust consume — cannot be bought or stolen by wealth, privilege, or power. An economy and culture that enshrine greed, ownership and domination bow before and dance around a Golden Calf.

Jesus’s question about treasures is front and center in 2021. “What profit is there if a person [or nation] gains the world but loses its soul?” What difference does it make if we’re standing in quicksand? “The rain fell dow, and the floods came up, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell–and great was its fall!”

Cathedral of St. Lazare, Autun, France — Relief sculpture, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

Bowing Lower

It has taken a lifetime to see more clearly what I believe and why I believe it. Some stories are so deeply embedded in our psyches that we are barely conscious of them until experience brings them back into focus. The parable of the wise and foolish builders has been bedrock for me as far back as memory can reach. I heard it as a child. I sang it as a child. I moved my arms and hands to the rain pouring down and the flood coming up. Mrs. Thomas, our 90-year-old Vacation Bible School teacher laid out the choice between standing on the firm foundations of wisdom or sinking on the quicksands of foolishness.

A Larry David Teaching Moment

Jesus’ parable meant more to old Mrs. Thomas than it did to wide-eyed kindergartners with our whole lives ahead of us. Closer now to Mrs. Thomas’ age, experience has taught me that I am never far from foolishness.

But I didn’t quite “get it” until this year watching an old episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” in which a clueless Larry David insults a Korean shop owner with his bow. Bowing has a protocol of who bows lower.

A child bows lower to an adult; the younger of two adults bows lower to an elder. A student bows lower to a teacher as the outward sign of respect and honor. Larry had his purchases; what he didn’t have was his wallet. He couldn’t buy a thing.

The honorable Korean shop owner trusts Larry to take the goods and to return later to cover the cost. When Larry returns, the shop owner bows to Larry. Larry mirrors the shop owner’s bow. The two exchange bows repeatedly, but the shop owner grows angry with Larry’s persistent mirroring. Larry insulted the shop owner. Out of respect, Larry should have bowed lower.

My Clueless Insult of Kosuke Koyama

My own Larry David insult took place as Professor Emeritus theologian of World Christianity Kosuke Koyama and I moved to our places behind the communion table at Shepherd of the Hill Church in Chaska, Minnesota to celebrate the Sacrament of Holy Communion. I’m not used to bowing. I shake hands, but we Americans don’t bow. We bow to no one.

Professor Koyama’s greeting caught me by surprise. He honored me with a bow. The internationally respected Japanese liberation theologian twenty years my senior, author of 100+ books and scholarly articles, bowed low to his lesser colleague. I did what I thought was good and right. I returned the bow. But I did not bow lower! If my superior was offended, he never showed it. He never shamed me. Ten years after Ko’s death, Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” taught me what I had done. have been a to reflect on faith itself as bowing lower, to the Highest, the God of Mount Fiji and Mount Sinai, and Golgotha, the Hill of Skulls.

Photo of Professor Kosuke Koyama

If Kosuke had taken offense, he never showed it. He never shamed me. Ten years after Ko’s death, Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” taught me what I had done.

The years since have been a reflection on faith itself as bowing lower, to the Highest, the God of Mount Fiji and Mount Sinai, and Golgotha, the Hill of Skulls.

Bowing while Refusing to Bow

To be human is to bow. Before whom or what we are bowing — not whether we will bow —is a different rendering of Jesus’s challenging question. What is happening today in the United States and across the world — the storms that turn democratic republics into footstools for totalitarians hoisted to their thrones by myths of racial and national exceptionalism — widens the chasm between guarded white communities and the homeless shelters and detention camps at our southern border; and builds more prisons that house a disproportionally low percentage of people who look like me, the people of white privilege.

But most important is the ravaging of nature — unprecedented forest fires reducing natural habitats to ash heaps, homes and towns in Washington, Oregon, and California, New Orleans, and Texas; hurricanes, tornadoes and straight-line winds — puts the parable of the wise and foolish builders squarely before us We are the species that always bows to someone or something, but refuses to bow lower. “Evil is in antagonism with the entire creation,” wrote German-Swiss author and civil servant Heinrich Zschokke (1771-1848). What is humankind that you are mindful of us, asked the Hebrew psalmist.

Bowing with Jesus to the Origin and End of Life Itself

“The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” is the traditional shorthand for Christian faith. The Jewish Jesus bows before that which is greater than he: the Creator and Sustainer of life.

The “I AM” of the burning bush — YHWH, a Name/Reality so holy, so Other, so far beyond human comprehension that the children of Moses would not speak the Name aloud — is the Origin and End of life itself. It was I AM — the source and end of life itself — before whom Jesus of Nazareth bowed in prayer and daily decision-making. Jesus was a faithful member of the covenant community born at the burning bush that dropped Moses to his knees.

Bowing before the Ineffable

The Jesus of history and the Jesus of faith cannot be understood apart from this bowing. Jesus bows before his Lord and Father, the Holy One of the First Commandment and the Shema of his Jewish faith tradition. The Christian confession “Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior” is a one-line cliff note for “the Jesus who bowed low in reverence and humility before the Eternal and Ineffable” is the human one people like me seek to follow. The bowing Jesus is for Christians called Lord and Savior — because he bows lower to the Origin and End of life itself, the I Am of the bush that burns but is not consumed.

Let More of Reverence in Us Dwell

Let knowledge grow from more to more,
But more of reverence in us dwell;
That mind and soul, according well,
May make one music as before.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam
Prologue, st. 7

Gordon C. Stewart, Public Theologian, Brooklyn Park, MN, Dec. 9, 2021