Church With Rachel

What can be said that isn’t being said over and over and over again and that adds something of value to public reflection on our time? Fellow Presbyterian minister John Buchanan’s personal story of worshiping with his granddaughter took me by the hand and led me home to church.

Hold to the Good

I sat beside Rachel in worship Sunday. Rachel is my 24-year-old granddaughter. She is a young woman with Down Syndrome. She is part of a remarkable program at National Louis University, lives in university housing, works part time with infants and toddlers in a day care center. She rides the El and the Chicago Transport Authority buses, loves to sing, knows the titles and words to every Beatles song and can dance for hours. Rachel starred in a motion picture, The Spy Who Knew Me, in which all the actors have special needs. It was produced by A.B.L.E.- Actors Breaking Limits and Expectations, which also puts on several stage productions per year including Shakespearean plays and original work. Many of the volunteers who work with the actors are from the Chicago theater community. 

Rachel greets me with more enthusiasm than anyone else, throws her arms around me as if…

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A Cry for Help!

G.K. Chesterton‘s lyrics come to mind again in this strange year of 2019. Our earthly rulers falter, and the wall of gold entomb us.

O God of earth and altar,
bow down and hear our cry,
our earthly rulers falter,
our people drift and die;
the walls of gold entomb us,
the swords of scorn divide,
take not thy thunder from us,
but take away our pride.

From all that terror teaches,
from lies of tongue and pen,
from all the easy speeches
that comfort cruel men,
from sale and profanation
of honour and the sword,
from sleep and from damnation,
deliver us, good Lord!

G.K. Chesterton, O God of Earth and Altar. stanzas 1 and 2.

The God to Whom Chesterton cried out was not a god that never says “No!”. Nor was it the god of Western culture that justified colonial invasions and occupations, the god of God in Christ shrunk to fit the mortal confines of creed, race, and nation rolled into one. Brutal terrors of white supremacy and white nationalism like the attacks on mosques and synagogues, and the terrors in high places gilded in gold and wrapped in lies of tongue and tweet drive us to our knees. They lead us to speechlessness, or to cry out for the God Who does say “No!”

O God of Earth and Altar hymn Y0uTube reproduction.

“Bow down, O God of earth and altar; bow down, and hear our cry. Good Lord, deliver us!”

— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, March 19, 2019.

For further reflection, see “Only One Sin: Exceptionalism” p. 110-13, Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf & Stock, Eugene, OR).

The Level Playing Field: Ash Wednesday

Today levels the playing field. Our differences make no difference today.  What you have become is beside the point today. All the quarrels and distinctions are beside the point. Ash Wednesday is the leveler. The eraser. The antidote. The reminder that we are mortal. That I am living my death as you are living yours and dying my life while you are dying yours. Today, the roosters comb their heads with ashes and stop crowing.

Roosters strutting and crowing in the barnyard

If it often seems that the roosters are in charge of the barnyard, today reminds them and us that, in the end, they are not. Neither are we. Ash Wednesday levels us all to the baseline of zero. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” No matter whether you’ve crowed or cowered, no matter the story you tell yourself about yourself in comparison to others, you are no exception. Every reason for pride or self-loathing, and division, is erased by a pencil bigger than our mortal selves.

Whether our stories are re-written by a better Author will continue to be one more matter of dispute and division, but there can be no reasonable doubt about our mortality. “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” In the meantime, before the roosters stop strutting and crowing and all the cock combs fall to the leveling plain, those who see the face of God in the compassion of Jesus remember the ethic appropriate to those still living in the barnyard:

“As they were arguing over who was the greatest, Jesus said to his disciples, ‘The roosters strut and crow, and you think you are dependent on them. Don’t be like them. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who leads like the one who serves.”– (Luke 22: 24-26, GCS translation)

Today, I offer my forehead for the imposition of ashes and pray that in the citadels of power someone else will do the same, for the sake of life itself.

— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Feb. 14, 2018.

Amid the Flood

Days before reading and re-publishing Linn Ullman’s lines about memory and the loss of it (“You just can’t think too deeply about it”), one of the four remaining classmates of what we’ve called The Chicago Seven, The Gathering, and now The Old Dogs, sent the rest of us an article on Alzheimer’s our latest deceased brother, Wayne, had published years ago.

Chicago Seven Gathering L to R: Wayne Boulton, Harry Strong, Gordon, Steve Shoemaker, Dale Hartwig, Don Dempsey, Bob Young@ McCormick Theological Seminary, Chicago, IL, 2004.

As Wayne had imagined his ship going over the far horizon, his worst thought was not death. It was that he would live on, like his father had, without remembering how to tie his shoelaces and without recognizing Vicki, the love of his life, his sons Matt and Chris, daughters-in-law Liz and Libby, and the grandchildren who brought him such joy.

That nightmare didn’t happen. He went out with his mind in tact, as much as a hospice patient’s mind is ever fully there. Aside from his last few days, Wayne’s mind was clear and his heart was full. The article Harry sent the three other surviving Dogs is a reflection on Psalm 90:10, 12 (RSV):

The days of our life are seventy years,
    or perhaps eighty, if we are strong;
even then their span is only toil and trouble;
    they are soon gone, and we fly away. teach us to count our days
that we may gain a wise heart.

When he died in 1989, the sum of Dad’s years came closer to fourscore than to threescore and ten. With the psalmist, I attribute this number to his strength, but I would not wish the manner of his death on anyone. He died of complications due to Alzheimer’s disease.

It was my first experience with the death of an immediate family member, so I was no veteran. I found myself up against a more complicated reality than I had anticipated. I remember thinking at the time that some portion of this is just plain death: nasty, sad, the way death always is. But it is not natural death. It is something else. In the words of Martin Luther’s signature hymn, the disease threw every member of Dad’s little nuclear family—his wife, daughter-in-law, and myself—into a “flood of mortal ills prevailing.”

Amid the Flood,” Wayne G. Boulton, Reformed Review, Western Theological Seminary, December 1, 2000.

Wayne died the way he lived and lived the way he died. Faithful son, husband, grandfather, and friend. Wise. Compassionate. Pastoral. Realistic. Hopeful. Consoler. Prayerful. Private. Counselor. Social critic. Political wonk. Brilliant Christian theologian-ethicist. Follower of truth wherever it led him. All of that and so much more. But, if I had the pen to engrave his epitaph on the simple grave stone in the cemetery of the Mount Vernon Presbyterian Church, if might read,

A sheep of Your own fold, a lamb of Your own flock, a sinner of Your own redeeming, humble servant his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ amid the flood of mortal ills.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, March 5, 2019.

Gratitude in Place and Time

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.

Open Letter to President Trump

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

 

 

 

Tikkun Olam

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…

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Hope in dark times

In times like these, I often turn to the hymn “O God, Our Help in Ages Past,” Isaac Watts’ paraphrase of Psalm 90 from 1719. Today I turned to it again for solace and hope. All the singers are white, but, hey, so am I, and there is hope even for the likes of I.

Psalm 90 in its entirety is a song of lament, but hope — and a call to personal responsibility — rise from despair.

Years ago I was given a copy of The Book of Psalms and Scottish Hymnal (1879) with the cursive signature of the man who used it: “John Campbell, Blair Mill, 1886.” (My middle name is Campbell.) I dusted it off this morning to read it through. The rendition of Psalm 90 John Campbell sang in 1886 ends with a prayer that recognizes our own responsibility for “the works of our hands”:

“And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us: Our handy-work establish Thou, establish them each one” (Psalm 90:17).

  • Gordon Campbell Stewart, Chaska, MN, October 7, 2018.

Hope is IN SPITE OF Troubles!

Kosuke Koyama - RIP

Kosuke Koyama (1929-2009)

“You have to be hopeful; you have to give them hope.”

“Okay,” I said, “but I can’t give anyone else hope. Hope comes from within.”

Hope seems harder in 2018 than it was when Kosuke Koyama advised the younger preacher to stay positive. Years later, it was to Dr. Koyama that Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness was dedicated for many reasons. Maintaining hope was one of them. His humility was another. His characteristic kindness and compassion reached out when friends were scarce. But nothing became more impactful than the statement he made over lunch: “There is only one sin: exceptionalism.”

Years before his death in 2009, Koyama (“Ko”) had begun to view the environmental crisis through the lens of humankind’s presumption: the mistaken belief that we, the human species, are the exception to Nature. For Ko it was a form of idolatry.

In light of this week’s avalanche of news, I’ve wondered what Ko would say. He still would bless us with his smile. He would encourage us to resist the claim of American exceptionalism, the confusion of nationalism (worship of country) with patriotism (love of one’s country), any border policy that takes children from their parents arms in the name of national security, every energy policy that feeds the coffers of the fossil fuel industry (“God is green,” said Ko), every exaltation of greed, every distortion of truth, every tax policy that keeps the poor poor while lining the pockets of the 1%, and any President and Congress that reminded him of Emperor Hirohito and the cult of national exceptionalism he grew up with in Tokyo. The god of empire, he observed, never says no. The God of the Bible says no: “You are a stiff-necked people!”

But amid all the issues that deserve our attention, I believe Ko would urge us to keep our eye on the biggest of sin — the mega sin — the sin against Nature that imperils the planet as we know it. His legacy invites us to bow our stiff necks to that which is bigger, longer lasting, and more encompassing than ourselves. Everything less is built on sinking sand.

Ko spoke in metaphors and parables. I believe he would remind us of Jesus’ parable of the wise man who built his house upon the rock versus the foolish one who built his house upon the sand. “And the rains came down, and the floods came up, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it.”

256px-ShipTracks_MODIS_2005may11

NASA satellite photo of clouds created by the exhaust of ship smokestacks.

 

He would rally behind Bill McKibben’s declaration that “climate change is the single biggest thing that humans have ever done on this planet. The one thing that needs to be bigger is our movement to stop it.” The only way to stop it is to turn from the the mega sin — the idol of human exceptionalism, the worship of ourselves.

“[T]hrough endurance, to feel that life is surrounded by the warm approval of God, will that not be the experience of hope? Hope is in spite of troubles. There is not hope apart from troubles. There is no automatic hope, no easy hope. Hope is hope against all odds.” — Kosuke Koyama, Three Mile an Hour God.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, September 25, 2018.

 

Bumpa, what’s faith?

Elijah and Bumpa (i.e. Grandpa) are talking after the Vikings-Packers game.

Elijah and Grandpa talking

Bumpa, what’s faith?

Why are you asking about faith, Elijah?

Mom just said it. She said that word again, just like she did last week.

Said what?

She said “You gotta have faith.” Maybe you should turn up your hearing aids.

I see. Mom was talking about Bumpa’s attempt to lose weight.

Yeah. I hate to wait!

Well, waiting is different but it does require faith. Bumpa can’t just wait to lose weight. I have to work at it.

You’re drivin’ me crazy! I asked you a simple question: “What’s faith?”

Okay. Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

What’s assurance?

It’s a little like confidence, Elijah. Or believing things will turn out well even when everything looks bad.

So that rookie kicker needed faith, right?

Yes. He lost his faith right there on the football field…THREE times. He lost his confidence. He didn’t believe it was going to turn out well, and he blew nine points. Nine points!!! All because he lacked faith.

Yeah, his coach lost faith in him and he lost faith in himself, right Bumpa?

Right. But faith is about more than football, Elijah. It’s about life. It’s the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen.

What’s conviction? So we believe in ghosts?

No, Elijah. Remember when Barclay let you play with his ball and didn’t bite? It’s a little like that. Faith is trust. I hope you never lose your faith!

  • Bumpa and Elijah, Chaska, MN, September 17, 2018.