Gratitude in Place and Time

Featured

Blake_jacobsladder

William Blake, Jacob’s Dream

Thanksgiving 2018 arrives as a welcome interruption. It invites us into a sacred pause in this time and place of national division. One place to pause is the story of Jacob wrestling with God, the Nameless Presence (Genesis  ), and the song “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder.” The Genesis story is Jacob’s dream the night before he would come face-to-face with the estranged brother he had every reason to fear. After many years of separation, Jacob is about to face the brother he had tricked and had stolen Esau’s right to the family inheritance. Jacob does not want to meet his brother. Neither do we Americans who will sit down to a turkey dinner with family members on the other side of the political fence from us. Discussion of Jacob’s Ladder might bring an insightful Thanksgiving 2018 around the tables where Donald Trump is the turkey the family is afraid to carve .

The origins of “Jacob’s Ladder”origins — African slaves singing in the cotton fields under the plantation owner’s nose — gives a different meaning to the song. Jacob’s Ladder and the biblical text from which it comes represent a great reversal in human consciousness. After Jacob was defeated by the Nameless Presence, his spirituality took a 180 degree turn. “Surely God was in this place, and I did not know it!” His encounter wth his estranged brother turns the tables from fear and the rule of violence to the unexpected gift of reconciling love.

Gratitude Doubled

Featured

Human_Infant_in_Incubator

Infant in incubator photo by Chris Horry, 2002.

As our way of offering Thanksgiving greetings, we share John Buchanan’s “Gratitude Doubled” reflection on becoming a great-grandfather of new-born twins in an incubator.

This Thanksgiving also marks the 18-month anniversary of grandson Elijah’s birth. Great-grandfather joy will have to wait a few years, but the sense of life as John speaks of it is immediate. Wishing you a grateful Thanksgiving.

Hold to the Good

Yesterday I experienced the most unlikely, most wonderful thing that has ever happened. I carefully extended my sanitized hand through the small, round opening in the incubator and, with my forefinger, gently touched the cheek of my brand new great-granddaughter, just 18 hours old. And then I did it again, reached through the small, round opening and touched the cheek of her identical twin sister, my second great-granddaughter.

I never thought much about great-grandparenthood. No one did. My great-grandparents were long gone when I was born and I have only vague memories of my parents talking about them, their grandparents. They were remote, to say the least.

But now, I am one, a great-grandfather and my new status has set me to ruminating – on, among other things, my own age. Unlike my great-grandparents, I’m still here, alive, well and reasonably active and healthy. And – I have seen and…

View original post 227 more words

Open Letter to President Trump

Featured

November 15, 2018

Dear Mr. President,

I’m concerned for the country. I’m also worried about you. The two go hand-in-hand, yet they are not the same. Though we have never met, we share something: we were baptized in Presbyterian churches. Neither of us can remember that moment. We were infants. We had no choice.

Because we do have a choice now, I write to share with you the story of another person who, unlike us, was old enough to choose.

Kosuke Koyama was 15 years old at the time. Japan was his country. Tokyo was his home. The United Church of Japan was his church family. The scene of his baptism could not be more different from ours. It was 1945 during the American fire bombing of Tokyo. The worshipers could hear the bombs exploding all around the church. Through the windows they could see the flames.

His pastor gently took  Koyama’s face in his hands, looked him in the eye, and charged him with words that succinctly say what baptism into Christ means:”Kosuke, you are a disciple of Jesus Christ. You must love your enemies. Even the Americans.” It was a defining moment for the rest of Kosuke’s life.

Kosuke Koyama - RIP

Kosuke Koyama (1929-2018 “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Mt. 25:23) RIP

Through the eyes of faith, Koyama later plumbed the depths of that moment, and came to a deeper understanding of what had happened to his native country. Japan had come to regard itself as exceptional — a singularly superior nation and culture. Japan had made itself into its own house god. It had twisted love of country (patriotism) into nationalism, and nationalism gave license for imperialist adventures that led to unimaginably horrific consequences. In 1967 the United Church of Japan issued a Confession of Responsibility During World War II as a way of restoring the church’s integrity.

Kosuke Koyama died in 2009 after a distinguished professional career that officially ended with his retirement from the John D. Rockefeller Chair of World Religion at Union Theological Seminary in your home city. Robert McAfee Brown, who wrote the book you and I were assigned to read in confirmation class, The Bible Speaks to You, was Koyama’s faculty colleague. During his 14 years at Union Seminary, and following his retirement, Dr. Koyama created a legacy that lives on in his books (Water Buffalo Theology, Mount Fuji and Most Sinai, No Handle on the Cross, and others) and in the lives of those he influenced by his teaching and humble character.

World War I centenary

World War I Centenary, Paris, France, Nov. 11, 2018

Today you call yourself a nationalist. You have embraced the great sin that Kosuke came to see so clearly in his native country. Watching you at the Arc de Triomphe last week for the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I, I saw you through Koyama’s lens of faith. You sat among the company of other world leaders, but you looked very alone. Sitting very nervously away from the spotlight, you waved back to someone, as if to assure yourself of your importance. I saw a very lonely man without the company of friends and allies. In that moment, I felt a bit of sympathy for you. I wished you could slip away to a nearby cafe where we could talk, just the two of us as pastor and president.

Trump and Macron III July 2017Then I heard the President of France, Emmanuel Macron, step to the podium to issue a rebuke to nationalism as “a betrayal of patriotism” that eliminates what makes a nation great: its moral compass. While my heart leaped for joy, I wondered what you were feeling and thinking all alone there in Paris.

Patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism. Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism. By saying “our interests first, who cares about the others,” we erase what a nation holds dearest, what gives it life, what makes it great and what is essential: its moral values. I know there are old demons which are coming back to the surface. They are ready to wreak chaos and death. History sometimes threatens to take its sinister course once again.

I thought again of Koyama and wondered whether it would have made a difference if your pastor had baptized you during a bombing raid when you were old enough to choose, looked you in the eye, and said, “Donald, you are a disciple of Jesus Christ. You must love your enemies [and friends], even the French.” New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, a short walk from the White House. It was President Abraham Lincoln’s home church during his presidency. Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln worshiped there to hear a word from a free pulpit which they knew they could not command. It could become a home for you, Melania, and Baron, too.

I will pray for you. I will love our country. But I will not worship it. Neither should you.

Respectfully,

Gordon C. Stewart

Retired Minister (HR), Presbyterian Church (USA), Chaska, MN

 

 

 

No other gods — Je suis Français!

Featured

Je suis Français! Remember when Je suis Français (I am French) was everywhere on Facebook? That was three years ago after the November 13, 2015 terrorist attack in Paris. Americans identified with the French. Yesterday I felt like that again.

Marking the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I — “the War to End all Wars” — at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, French President Emmanuel Macron spoke of the chaos and death unleashed by nationalism. Here’s an English translation of an excerpt:

Patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism. Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism. By saying “our interests first, who cares about the others,” we erase what a nation holds dearest, what gives it life, what makes it great and what is essential: its moral values. I know there are old demons which are coming back to the surface. They are ready to wreak chaos and death. History sometimes threatens to take its sinister course once again.

One need not be French to applaud Mr. Macron’s statement. Days before the national election in America, I wrote a piece on nationalism as the rising god of our time.  A wise friend advised against publishing it. He likely was right at the time. But Mr. Macron’s words at the Arc de Triomphe lead me to share a bit of what has been burdening my conscience.

Kosuke Koyama - RIP

Kosuke Koyama (1929-2009) RIP

Those of you who have followed Views from the Edge know how I see the world through the lens of faith. Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017, Wipf & Stock) is dedicated to Japanese theologian Kosuka Koyama. “There is only one sin,” he said during a casual lunch. “Exceptionalism.” Born in 1929, Koyama had grown up with the myth of Japanese exceptionalism. The emperor could do no wrong. Japan had become its own god. Ko saw the same myth rising in America where he had settled with his his wife, Lois, a native Minnesotan.

Paul Tillich observed that whatever is one’s “ultimately concern” is a person’s or nation’s god. Tillich was one of earliest critics of the rising god of German nationalism that led to World War II and the Holocaust. Dismissed from his professorship at the University of Frankfurt i 1933, Paul Tillich, like Koyama, was invited to join the faculty of Union Theological Seminary in New York. It was Reinhold Niebuhr of Moral Man and Immoral Society who paved the way for Tillich, and later, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, to join the theological work of the academy on American soil.

My Christian understanding of faith and life is rooted in Niebuhr, Tillich, Bonhoeffer, Bonhoeffer’s friend Paul Lehmann, and Koyama. Only Koyama lived long enough to observe the old dead god rising to life again on American soil. All of them would have applauded Mr. Macron’s statement that nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism. “History sometimes threatens to take its sinister course again.”

To be human is by nature to be anxious. We know we are not God. We are mortal. Our time is mortal. “Time, like an ever-flowing stream, Soon bears us all away. We fly forgotten as a dream Dies at the opening day.” People who profess faith in the tradition of Abraham — Jews, Christians, Muslims — understand how quickly we turn to the “other gods” for our identity and security.

Rembrandt Moses and Commandments

Rembrandt’s painting of Moses crashing the Ten Commandments

“I am the LORD your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage,” says the First Commandment. “You shall have no other gods before Me” (Exodus 20:2-3).

The “house of bondage” is not limited to geography or time. It is any nation that exalts itself as exceptional, any nation that practices hardness of heart to the foreigner, the alien, and sojourner. The First Commandment identifies “the house of bondage” as a god from which the LORD God of heaven and earth sets a person, a nation, and a planet, free.

I am an American. I love my country. But I don’t worship it. Today I say, again, “Je suis Français!”

— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, November 12, 2018

 

Two Minute Silence

Featured

Veterans Day poster 2018

Veterans Administration poster

I remember standing with my classmates at Marple Elementary School for a period of silence on November 11. It was Armistice Day, the anniversary of the end of World War I.

Observing the silence was hard! It wasn’t happy; it was sad. It was an enforced unhappy silence to remember what none of us kids wanted to remember: those who had died in an antique time in service to their country, and the horrors of war itself. I must have wondered why our teachers would enforce a sad silence that made us unhappy. In 1954 Armistice Day became Veterans Day in America. (Click HERE for information about the change.)In Canada, Europe, Great Britain, and Australia, November 11 is called Remembrance Day.

Malcolm Guite — Anglican priest, song writer and poet in Cambridge, England — recalls his experience of the public Two Minutes Silence of Remembrance Day in Silence: a Sonnet for Remembrance Day,

On Remembrance Day I was at home listening to the radio . . . when the time came for the Two Minutes Silence. Suddenly the radio itself went quiet. I had not moved to turn the dial or adjust the volume. There was something extraordinarily powerful about that deep silence from a ‘live’ radio, a sense that, alone in my kitchen, I was sharing the silence with millions. I stood for the two minutes, and then, suddenly, swiftly, almost involuntarily, wrote this sonnet. You can hear the sonnet, as I recorded it on November 11th three years ago, minutes after having composed it, by clicking . . . clicking on the title.

Silence

November pierces with its bleak remembrance
Of all the bitterness and waste of war.
Our silence tries but fails to make a semblance
Of that lost peace they thought worth fighting for.
Our silence seethes instead with wraiths and whispers,
And all the restless rumour of new wars,
The shells are falling all around our vespers,
No moment is unscarred, there is no pause,
In every instant bloodied innocence
Falls to the weary earth, and whilst we stand
Quiescence ends again in acquiescence,
And Abel’s blood still cries in every land
One silence only might redeem that blood
Only the silence of a dying God.

— Malcolm Guite, Sounding the Seasons

Blake_Cain_Fleeing_from_the_Wrath_of_God_(The_Body_of_Abel_Found_by_Adam_and_Eve)_c1805-1809

William Blake painting of “Cain fleeing from the wrath of God “as Adam and Eve look on in horror following the fratricide.

All these years later, I still struggle with silence on November 11, and on days like yesterday, the 80th anniversary of The Night of Broken Glass (Kristallnacht). Yet, as a person of faith who knows darkness as well as light, I have learned over the years to silence the radio for an unenforced Two Minute Silence.

Abel’s blood still cries in every land
One silence only might redeem that blood
Only the silence of a dying God

— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, November 11, 2018.

The Night of Broken Glass

Featured

Krystallacht Magdeburg

Photo from Magdeburg, Germany, Nov. 9-10, 1938, Kristallnacht (The Night of Broken Glass)

Today marks the 80th anniversary of The Night of Broken Glass (Kristallnacht).

The smiling man and woman in the photo are strolling past the broken glass of raided shops of the Jewish shopkeepers in the otherwise tranquil city of Magdeburg, Germany. The passers-by likely have never heard of Mechtild of Magdeburg, the 13th Century mystic beguine who had declared that “No one can burn the truth,” nor had they heard the screams or seen the tears of the shopkeepers or synagogue worshipers. Those screams are silent now. (Scroll down for information on  Krystallnacht, The Night of Broken Glass.)

Like the synagogues of Germany, Austria, and the Sudetenland, the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh had been a quiet place. The sound of broken glass were heard only during from the traditional breaking of a glass at Jewish weddings. Tree of Life was a sacred place of worship. But the memory of Kristallnacht and the long history of anti-Semitic pograms were, and are, never far away.

The 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht deserves greater attention in the U.S.A. this year when the evil of white nationalism has shattered the glass of the ‘others’ in synagogues, churches, and public gathering places with the weapons of destruction. Today I hear the echoes from The Night of Broken Glass and see the faces of smiling passers-by.  I stand still again in the face of evil and bow my knee before the Eternal Silence of the compassionate God we cannot kill.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, November 10, 2018.

U.S. Holocaust Museum account of Kristallnacht

On the night of November 9, 1938, violent anti-Jewish demonstrations broke out across Germany, Austria, and the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia. Nazi officials depicted the riots as justified reactions to the assassination of German foreign official Ernst vom Rath, who had been shot two days earlier by Herschel Grynszpan, a 17-year old Polish Jew distraught over the deportation of his family from Germany.

Over the next 48 hours, violent mobs, spurred by antisemitic exhortations from Nazi officials, destroyed hundreds of synagogues, burning or desecrating Jewish religious artifacts along the way. Acting on orders from Gestapo headquarters, police officers and firefighters did nothing to prevent the destruction. All told, approximately 7,500 Jewish-owned businesses, homes, and schools were plundered, and 91 Jews were murdered. An additional 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and sent to concentration camps. Nazi officials immediately claimed that the Jews themselves were to blame for the riots, and a fine of one billion reichsmarks (about $400 million at 1938 rates) was imposed on the German Jewish community.

The Nazis came to call the event Kristallnacht (“Crystal Night,” or, “The Night of Broken Glass”), referring to the thousands of shattered windows that littered the streets afterwards, but the euphemism does not convey the full brutality of the event. Kristallnacht was a turning point in the history of the Third Reich, marking the shift from antisemitic rhetoric and legislation to the violent, aggressive anti-Jewish measures that would culminate with the Holocaust.

 

 

 

Daily Riches: Religion and Established Privilege (Thomas Merton)

Featured

Thomas Merton’s quotation on religion and privilege arrived following a national campaign with loud cheers and boisterous rallies that turn Christianity into white nationalism. “…Faith in God . . . becomes in fact faith in [one’s] own nation, class or race.”

Richer By Far

“Of course, it is true that religion on a superficial level, religion that is untrue to itself and to God, easily comes to serve as the ‘opium of the people.’ And this takes place whenever religion and prayer invoke the name of God for reasons and ends that have nothing to do with him. When religion becomes a mere artificial facade to justify a social or economic system–when religion hands over its rites and language completely to the political propagandists, and when prayer becomes the vehicle for a purely secular ideological program, then religion does tend to become an opiate. It deadens the spirit enough to permit the substitution of a superficial fiction and mythology for this truth of life. And this brings about the alienation of the believer, so that his religious zeal becomes political fanaticism. His faith in God, while preserving its traditional formulas, becomes in fact faith…

View original post 291 more words

Tree of Life and All Souls

Featured

Day of the Dead William Adolphe Bouguereau(1825-1905)

“Day of the Dead” – William Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905)

The death of 11 worshipers in the sacred space of Tree of Life in Pittsburgh is no longer the latest heinous act of gun violence in America. There is more to come in a country where the rhetoric of fear and hate divide us with lies and diatribes.

All Souls Day on the Christian calendar calls for deeper reflection about the living and the dead — not just some of us, but all of us: Jewish (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform); Muslim (Shia, Sunni, Sufi); Christian (Eastern Orthodox, Western Catholic, Protestant); Hindu, Buddhist, Jaianist, humanist, animist, agnostic, and atheist — all of us.

There is only one of us. Humankind. A species free to eat from the Tree of Life that blesses or the Tree of Death that turns us into twos and threes, this or that, with words and arms that send 11 Tree of Life worshipers to their graves with forked tongues about good and evil and the planet itself.

Old_olive_tree_in_Karystos,_Euboia,_GreeceThe people of the Tree of Life know this. They named their place or worship after the Torah story of Humankind (Book of Genesis 2-3). Now in the deadly silence following the death of Abel, the people of the Tree of Life hear the different Voice that cries out, in love, for Cain. “Humankind, who are you? Your brother’s blood is crying out to Me from the ground. There is only one Earth. There is only One of you — one Soul, one Breath — not two, or three, or….” (Genesis 4).

“We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meanwhile within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty to which every part and particle is related, The Eternal One.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson , Essays.

Grace and Peace,

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, November 3, 2018

 

 

Tikkun Olam

Featured

Fourth Presbyterian chicago

Fourth Presbyterian Church – Chicago

John Buchanan looks to the Jewish concept “tikkun olam” amid the alarms of 2018. Dr. Buchanan is Pastor Emeritus of Fourth Presbyterian Church-Chicago, past Moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA), and former editor of the The Christian Century. “Hold to the Good” is now his pulpit in retirement.

Hold to the Good

For years, at the conclusion of public worship, I have used words that come from St. Paul, written 2,000 years ago.

“Go into the world in peace and courage.
Hold to the Good.
Honor all God’s children.
Love and serve the Lord,
Rejoicing in the power of the Spirit.”

Last Sunday, as a guest preacher at Westminster Presbyterian Church, Grand Rapids, Michigan, when I came to the words “Hold to the Good” I almost couldn’t go on. The news from Pittsburgh Saturday morning stood as a contradiction to those words and to everything I hold dear and regard as essential to our life together….

…the trust that in the eternal struggle between good and evil, good will ultimately prevail,

…the trust that the heart of the nation I love, its government and politicians, is essentially fair, honest and good,

…the hope that the long arc of history bends, as Martin…

View original post 521 more words

The Press and the People

Featured

 

Breckwoldt prüfung

The Ordeal – Sculpture by Edith Beckwoldt, St. Nikolai, Hamburg, Germany.

“No man in the whole world can change the truth. One can only look for the truth, find it and serve it. The truth is in all places.” —  Dietrich Bonhoeffer quotation inscribed on Edith Beckwoldt’s sculpture “The Ordeal”.

“There is great anger in our Country caused in part by inaccurate, and even fraudulent, reporting of the news. The Fake News Media, the true Enemy of the People, must stop the open & obvious hostility & report the news accurately & fairly. That will do much to put out the flame…” — Donald J. Trump tweet, 6:03 AM – 29 Oct 2018.

 

 

Mein Kampf dust jacket“It is the press, above all, which wages a positively fanatical and slanderous struggle, tearing down everything which can be regarded as a support of national independence, cultural elevation, and the economic independence of the nation.” ― Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf.

Many advise against any and all such comparisons. As a public theologian raised on Bonhoeffer’s witness, theology and ethics, I ask, “How, in good conscience, can we not?” The playbook today is the same as it was in Bonhoeffer’s time. According to The Art of the Deal’s ghost writer, the speeches of Hitler were prominent in the penthouse bedroom of Trump Tower.

Enter Charlie Chaplin’s parody of the unlikely rise of the Fuhrer and the call to national unity.

“Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

“We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, October 31, 2018