Every day is the last judgment

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There’s no need to hang about
waiting for the Last Judgement —
it takes place every day.

Albert Camus, The Fall (1956)

The Influenza Pandemic of 1918-19

The COVID-19 pandemic was not the first and will not be the last. Historical contexts, memory, and what we believe make a difference to how we live/die in the 2020 pandemic.The influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 killed between 20 and 40 million people, more than all the deaths in World War I. “It has been cited as the most devastating epidemic in recorded world history. More people died of influenza in a single year than in four-years of the Black Death Bubonic Plague from 1347 to 1351” – Stanford Encyclopedia.

In the United States, 195,000 Americans lost their lives in the month of October, 1918 alone. The influenza of 1918-19 became known as “the Spanish Flu” after it took the life of the King of Spain, but it was no more Spanish than COVID-19 is Chinese. A virus is a virus. It pays no attention to nations or the propensity of nations and peoples to target a scapegoat — another nation unlike one’s own — as though a virus knows the difference.

Chart showing mortality from the 1918 influenza pandemic in the US and Europe, courtesy of the National Museum of Health and Medicine

The Parable of the Last Judgment (Matthew 13:31-46)

First appearances can be deceptive, few more so than the teachings of Jesus. The Parable of the Last Judgment is not what it seems –it is not about future end of time. It’s a parable inviting the listeners to get their heads out of the clouds and put their feet on the ground. Its message? Pay attention to people in front of you, or nearby, living under the interstate bridge in the dead of winter. Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick, visit the prisoners — put yourself squarely in the midst of human suffering.

We might say, the measure of life is compassion in the midst of a world that makes no good sense. What happens at the end is not yours to know. Pay attention to today. Every day is the Last Judgment.

But there’s something else that goes unnoticed in individualistic cultures. Jesus’s parable it is not about the individual. The parable is not about you. It’s not about me. It’s a story that calls the nations to account for their behavior. In that sense, the parable is political. It’s about the polis and its values. There are no privileged nations. All are measured by one standard. The last judgment– the judgment of compassion, kindness, and humility — takes place every day.

The Opportunity of Trouble

Like the Influenza pandemic of 2018-19, the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 is a crisis in the Chinese sense of the word — danger and opportunity. The danger seems obvious, but perhaps the opportunity is greater. We are at war with each other across the U.S.A., shouting across a deep chasm that the other is a goat. We are in very deep trouble, but we’re in it together because of a deadly virus. In hopes we will come to the deeper knowledge of who we are.

“The human mind and the human heart move to truth through trouble,” said Irish Anglican priest G.A. Studdert Kennedy. “It does not really matter what sort of truth you seek. Bunyan faced with the problem of the soul, and Newton faced with the problem of the stars, are both alike in this: they are troubled spirits. They brood over a mass of apparently unconnected, unrelated, and meaningless facts. Bunyan mutters, ‘There is no health in me’; and Newton mutters, ‘There is no sense in them.’ For both it is dark, and they do not know the way. Both walk at times into the dungeon of despair. The pilgrim’s progress of the scientist and of the saint is made along much the same road, and it begins with a troubled brooding, and a heavy heavy burden at the back of the mind and heart. We must all start there. Life begins in Lent. But there comes to both a supreme and splendid moment, the moment when they cry, ‘I see! I see!’ Bunyan sees a Cross and a Man who hangs in agony upon it. Newton sees an apple falling to the ground. But into the minds of both there comes a blaze of light.” — G.A. Studdert Kennedy (“Woodbine Willie”) sermon “The Word with God.”

Perhaps a blaze of light will flood this moment of trouble, we will rediscover each other, find our better selves, and cry out with fresh joy, “I see! I see!”

1918 flu epidemic: the Oakland Municipal Auditorium in use as a temporary hospital. The photograph depicts volunteer nurses from the American Red Cross tending influenza sufferers in the Oakland Auditorium, Oakland, California, during the influenza pandemic of 1918.

Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017, Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR), Chaska, MN, March 21, 2020.

Quarantined to Find Each Other

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photo of Food and Drug Administration poster warning milk trucker not to pick up milk on farms with contagious diseases

Everything is shutting down. Almost. But not memory, and not love.

This story of a quarantine is not from the 1930s or the quarantines social-distancing of 2020. It happened in 1950, but, in some respects, it feels the same.

THE ROOM WITH NO LIGHT

Live & Learn‘s post quoting Pat Schneider’s “Blessing of a Writer” (see below) brought back the memory of a two-week quarantine as an eight year-old diagnosed with Scarlet Fever.

For the next 14 days, the second floor bedroom of the 120 year-old house on Church Lane was dark. Pulled shades and extra drapes blocked the light. Fourteen dark days and nights of enforced solitude.

May you hear in your own stories
the moan of wind around the corners
of half-forgotten houses
and the silence in rooms you remember…

– Pat Schneider, from “Blessing for a Writer” 

“DURATION OF THE INFECTION IN SCARLET FEVER,” JANUARY 1, 1950, ANNALS OF INTERNAL MEDICINE

Abstract

In Illinois after the diagnosis of scarlet fever and other hemolytic streptococcal infections of the upper respiratory tract is made, "Isolation is required for a minimum period of 14 days after onset and thereafter until the nose, throat, glands, and ears are normal on inspection or until the physician reports complete clinical recovery."1
Other states have essentially the same regulation except that the minimum quarantine period is 21 days instead of 14. 

SILENCE IN THE HALF-FORGOTTEN HOUSE

The house on Church Lane was in Pennsylvania, not in Illinois, but the Scarlet Fever and the quarantines were the same. No baseball. No backyard games of hide-and-seek or tag. No evenings with the fireflies. No school. Not everything felt like a curse.

To prevent blindness, the room was dark. Other than Mom delivering meals, checking the fever, and reminding me not to scratch, the room was empty and quiet with one exception: the purring of Buddy, the cross-eyed cat with the crooked tail. Even a cat needs company sometimes. I like silence. A lot! But not that much. We’re not meant to be alone. Everyone needs a friend like Buddy.

FINDING OURSELVES IN SOLITUDE

Old memories return in times that awaken them. Live & Learn’s gift of a “Blessing for a Writer” came at just the right time. I fancy myself a writer, but words worth writing have been hiding during the spread of the latest pandemic when the fever and isolation are everywhere..

Might the solitude lead us to find each other?

“Only in solitude do we find ourselves;
and in finding ourselves,
we find in ourselves
all our [neighbors] in solitude.”

— Miguel de Unamuno, “Solitude,” Essays and Soliloquies (1924), tr. J.E. Crawford Finch.
  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, March 16, 2020.

Casting out myself

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Narcissus of the Greek myth slowly wastes away. Refusing to look away from his reflection in the pond, he dies of thirst and starvation.

The myth assumes that the pond is placid. There are no ripples. But what if a storm troubles the waters, rippling the pond –something like a virus that does not notice Narcissus’s need to see his own reflection in the pond.

Narcissus mutters to himself until, at last, his voice falls silent, except for Echo, repeating his words, forgetful of what she had surrendered to his power: the confidence and beauty that come only from within.

Teach me, like you, to drink creation whole
And, casting out myself, become a soul.

- Richard Wilbur, “The Aspen and the Stream,”
Advice to a Prophet (1961)

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, March 12, 2020.

Woolly Mammoths and Woodbine Willie

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Coronavirus & the truth we rarely face

There is Only One House

Legitimate fears, on the one hand, and the false assurances, on the other, expose a truth we rarely face. The coronavirus (COVID-19) pays no attention to political parties, economic status, or national borders. Viruses do not discriminate. One human being is the same as the next. Viruses like this are familiar with homo sapiens stupidity that ignores our mortal frailty. They know better than we that there is only one economy — one house, one planet — in which what happens in one room (one class, one race, one culture, one nation) affects everyone in every room of the house.

A Time for Solitude

The closing of schools, businesses, sports venues, cancellations of political rallies, social gatherings et.al. will separate us until the current siege passes. But is it too much to hope that the threat of a virus would bring our species to its senses and rouse us to action in the face of the bigger pandemic threat, the health and habitability of the planet itself? The viruses will be fine; we may become the latest Woolly Mammoths to die of thirst.

The experience of separation will be either lonely or solitary. Loneliness is its own kind of despair; solitude offers opportunity to step away to reflect. How much we reflect deeply depends in part on learning from previous generations the kind of wisdom that does not shrink or shrivel when there are real reasons to fear. One of those sources of wisdom is G.A. Studdert Kennedy (1883-1929), the Irish Anglican priest, poet, author, and World War I British Army chaplain affectionately known as ‘Woodbine Willie’.

‘Studdert Kennedy became ‘Woodbine Willie’ after insisting on serving in the trenches, moving among the injured and dying, distributing “Willis’s Woodbine’ cigarettes as part of his pastoral care. “Our first job,” he advised a newly commissioned chaplain, “is to go beyond the men in self-sacrifice and devotion. . . . There is very little spiritual work — it is all muddled and mixed — but it is all spiritual. Take a box of [cigarettes] in your haversack, and a great deal of love in your heart, and go to them, live with them. You can pray with them sometimes, but pray for them always.”

The modern cult of cheeriness: deadly fear of sadness

G. A. Studdert Kennedy left behind a word for our troubles in 2020. He called called people to think and feel. He demands that we get real. “Thinking, he said, “begins with trouble in the mind.

“Thinking begins with trouble in the mind. There is no thought without tears. ‘Blessed are they that mourn.’ The modern cult of cheeriness is largely due to the fact that we are deadly afraid of being sad. We want Easter without Lent. But we cannot have it. The human mind and the human heart — you cannot separate one from the other — God has joined them together and no one can put them asunder.”

There’s no such thing as thought which does not feel,
If it be real thought, and not thought’s ghost
All pale and sicklied o’er with dead conventions,
Abstract truth, which is a lie upon this
Living, loving, suffering Truth which pleads
And pulses in my very veins. The blue
Blood of all beauty and the breath of life itself.

--G.A. Studdert Kennedy sermon, The Word with God, 1926.

Coming Next: more wisdom from ‘Woodbine Willie’

In days to come, Views from the Edge will feature more of G. A. Struddert Kennedy as it applies to this moment for thoughtful solitude to reflect on who we are and who we choose to become. Coming next:

“There is, and must be, a plane upon which we can think and reason together upon the questions. . . apart from . . . the prejudices and passions that arise in party strife.”

Thanks for coming by,

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, March 10, 2010.

Elijah’s Super Market Tuesday Letter to the President

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Dear Mr. President,

My Gamma and Bumpa helped me with this letter. I love Gamma and Bumpa! Please don’t tell them that I changed it a little. I don’t want to hurt their feelings. When I showed it to the kids at daycare in show and tell, they said it was too nice. They hurt my feelings. I told them we’re Minnesotans. We’re nice here in Minnesota. We don’t say mean things. They say our generation needs to be more honest and pretend we’re not Minnesotans.

Anyway, Bumpa and Gamma don’t like you. They say you need to see the doctor and lie on the couch. I don’t know why. I’ve been to the doctor and she doesn’t have a couch. Maybe you need sleep? Sometimes I do. Like last night. I couldn’t sleep, so I climbed out of my bed and woke up Mommy. Mommy said it’s important to get a good night’s sleep. Then we cuddled in her bed. I wish you could sleep better. Do you get to cuddle?

You have a lot on your mind. Like all the germs from China and the Bidens. That’s a lot! I’m glad I’m not president. I think the germs are coming from Russia. Whatever! You said on tv not to worry. It’s just a bad cold. But then, yesterday, Mr. Pence said you’ve put all hands on deck. I asked Mommy what that means. She just shook her head and told me to go back to sleep.

Today is Super Market Tuesday here in Minnesota. Amy quit yesterday, so you don’t need to worry about Amy anymore. She didn’t want to come in second or third behind Bernie and Joe, and Elizabeth in her own state. That wouldn’t be very nice. So she quit and flew to Texas to help Joe and stop Bernie. That’s kinda weird, don’t ya think? But maybe not. Bumpa thinks she’s sucking up to Joe so Joe will pick her for his wife.

Anyway, the kids at day care are mad at you and Mr. Pence. You say climate change is a hoax. We like the Green New Deal! It’s not a hoax. You said not to worry about the germs from China and blamed the Democrats and television ’cause it’s just another way to make you look bad. You’re not saying that anymore. You lied. I’m just 2, but I know that.

The doctors say the crownaviris germs will go after old people. Yesterday Bumpa and Gramma got masks. They’re going to wear them to vote today. They won’t tell me whether it’s Joe, Bernie, or Elizabeth they’re voting for, but definitely not you. They say you’re not very nice.

I don’t like you, but we’re Christians. We will pray for you to get a good night’s sleep, or sleep on the doctor’s couch if you have a tummy ache, or cuddle with your mommy at home.

Your fellow American.

Elijah

The Lure of Splendor

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Cliff Notes of Being Human

Some stories never happened but are always happening. Like the Matthew and Luke stories of the 40 day temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. If everything in Christian scripture should become lost, except for the narratives of the wilderness temptation, we would still have the story to glean what it means, and does not mean, to be human.

The narratives of Jesus in the wilderness are a kind of Cliff Notes on the ways mortal life gets twisted. They condense the challenges of the Christ and of all of us. The Devil is a Trickster, the Liar, twisting the good out of shape.

Is it about power? Or is it about splendor?

As many times as I have read and preached about them, the word ‘splendor’ has seemed incidental to the temptation of power. Or so I thought until this morning.

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if . . . .”

Gospel according to Matthew 4:8-9 NRSV

The genius of scripture is that it brings fresh things to light that speak to new socio-reliigious-political circumstances. Perhaps it is the dark and darkening sky of 2020 that drew my eye to the ‘splendor’ of the kingdoms (nations) as more than incidental. The Greek word is ‘doxa’ (glory, splendor). Perhaps power is not an end in itself, but a means to the end of self-glorification. There could be no greater splendor than owning/controlling all the nations of this world. Yet the Gospel writers knew what we easily forget, until the illusion of power vanishes into nothing. “Glory is like a circle in the water/ which never ceaseth to enlarge itself/ till by broad spreading it disperse to naught.” — William Shakespeare, Henry VI.

The Lure of Splendor

The effort to be splendid or glorious arises from the human condition, but isn’t it a fair guess that the search for splendor by means of power is not the temptation of migrants in detention camps, or starving children and parents, or patients suffering a pandemic? They find within and among themselves whatever shreds of hope and self-regard remain. The third wilderness temptation visits the abundant who are tempted to get to the very high mountaintop of personal power and splendor.

It is no accident that ‘splendor’ caught my attention the First Sunday of Lent following the news of the coronavirus, the threat if a global pandemic, the president’s attempts at minimization or denial, the plunge of the stock market, and the apparent preoccupation of the world’s most powerful man with his own splendor. No person or kingdom is divine, no matter how hard we imagine. Deep down, something in us knows.

“All these [kingdoms] I will give you, if you will bow down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'”

Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him

Gospel of Matthew 4:9-11 NRSV

Prayer for Public Officials

Walter Rauschenbusch’s “Prayer for Public Officials” is preserved by Prayers of the Social Awakening, published in 1909.

We give the thanks that by the free institutions our country the tyrannous instincts of the strong may be curbed to the patient service to the commonwealth.

Strengthen the sense of duty in our political life. Grant that the servants of the state will feel ever more deeply that any diversion of their public powers for private ends is a betrayal of their country. Purge our cities and states and nation of the deep causes of corruption which have so often made sin profitable and uprightness hard. Bring to an end the stale days of party cunning.”

Walter Rauschenbusch, “For Public Officers,” Prayers of the Social Awakening, 1909.
  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, Minnesota, First Sunday of Lent, March 1, 2020.

Music for the Whirling Soul

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Leonard Bernstein’s “Simple Song” is a rendering of Psalm 121. It also calls to mind “Blessed are the pure of heart” — the Beatitude from Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. It’s music that calms my whirling soul among the clanging cymbals.

A Simple Song — The Bernstein Mass

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Feb. 29, 2020.

Plagiarism or a Blank Page?

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Today, Ash Wednesday, is a solemn day that calls for distraction from frivolous distractions, you might say.

Photo of Steve Shoemaker welcoming  President Clinton to Champaign-Urbana, IL.

Entertainment cultures shun solemnity. Ash Wednesday interrupts our flight from the knowledge of our mortality: “You are dust and to dust you shall return.”

Steve Shoemaker, seen here welcoming President Clinton to Champaign-Urbana, shared a poem that leads me a decision Ash Wednesday: plagiarize or leave the page (Views from the Edge) blank?

I HAVE NOTHING

I have nothing…
nada…zilch…zero…

no thoughts, no ideas
no inspiration.

Worse, only clichés
crowd my mind:

stock images
standard phrases,

or remembered words
wielded by real writers.

Feeling only frustration,
tempted by alliteration,

or worse, rhyme…
Theft?

Is it worse to plagiarize
than to leave a blank page?

— Steve Shoemaker, Feb. 6, 2013
Photo of ashes drawn on a forehead

In memory and thanksgiving for Steve’s faithful solemnity and smile,

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Ash Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020

I will give up ______ for Lent?

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photo of 6'8" poet Steve Shoemaker crammed into seat of an airplane.

Seen here with his 6’8″ frame squeezed into his seat on a flight to somewhere, Steve Shoemaker (1942-2016) wrote poetry. Often the verses came to him in the dark. At 3:00 or 4:00 A.M. Steve would turn to his right side so as not to disturb Nadja, and commit the verses to his iPhone. The poem was waiting in the in-box in the morning.

Often he led the reader through the lines to a surprising last line that shined a humorous light on all that had come before.

LENT

I will give up writing poems for Lent.

I will give up eating desserts for Lent.

I will give up sex for Lent.

I will give up thinking about sex for Lent.

I will give up lying for Lent.

I will give up bragging for Lent.

I will give up exaggerating for Lent.

I will give up self-centeredness for Lent.

________________________________

I will give up self-denial for Lent.

— Steve Shoemaker RIP, Ash Wednesday, March 5, 2013.

Steve Shoemaker sitting on an ancient bristlecone pine at 1,000+ feet in Colorado.

In this era of ill-humor and self-indulgence, Steve’s tongue-in-cheek verses ring the bell on the distortions of our best intentions and our shared need to focus on what lies beyond the self.

This photograph shows Steve sitting on an ancient bristlecone pine at 11,000+ feet in Colorado. — GCS, Feb. 25, 2020.

John Lewis — “what did you do?”

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MARTIN LUTHER KING AND JOHN LEWIS

Photo of John Lewis (1964)

Behind every Moses is an Aaron. John Lewis was Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Aaron. If Dr. King was the face and voice of the civil rights movement, John Lewis was, and still is, its soul.

PANCREATIC CANCER AND A MEMORY OF SELMA

News of his Stage IV pancreatic cancer was a sad day that calls for national reflection, thanksgiving for his witness, and prayers of intercession that “his suffering be minor and his transition easy.”

Pancreatic cancer is no stranger to the seven old seminary friends who gather annually for friendship and study. Steve Shoemaker and Wayne Boulton pancreatic cancer diagnosis preceded John Lewis. We are down to four and counting, but the memories of walking from Selma to Montgomery in March,1965 did not pass with Steve and Wayne; they are alive and fresh among the busload of seminary students who rode the bus from Chicago to Selma, AL to walk with Moses (Martin Luther King Jr) and Aaron (John Lewis) across the Pettus Bridge to Montgomery.

CANCER, CALENDARS, AND CLOCKS

John Lewis knows that some cancers metastasize. America’s “original sin,” i.e., deep-rooted and omnipresent, never quite goes away. It may appear to be in remission. It may hide awhile, but it is always there.

“WHAT DID YOU DO?”

Day after day — hour by hour, now — the calendar and clock are turned back against the dream. But there is different calendar and clock beyond the control of white nationalism. Until his last breath, John Lewis will bear witness to a better life on the other side of America’s original sin. It falls to all of us afflicted to walk across the bridge Pettus Bridge with confession resistance, and joyful hymns of praise.

BE THOU OUR GUARD WHILE TROUBLES LAST

Thy Word commands our flesh to dust,
Return, ye sons of men:
All nations rose from earth at first,
And turn to earth again.

A thousand ages in Thy sight
Are like an evening gone;
Short as the watch that ends the night
Before the rising sun.

Time, like an ever rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly, forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day.

Like flowery fields the nations stand
Pleased with the morning light;
The flowers beneath the mower’s hand
Lie withering ere ‘tis night.

O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Be Thou our guard while troubles last,
And our eternal home.

— Isaac Watts

What did you do?” – Congressman John Lewis. “Come on, now. We can do better than this!” – Congressman Elijah Cummings (RIP), Chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform.

Gordon C. Stewart, Feb. 22, 2020.