Gratitude in Place and Time

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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

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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

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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

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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.

 

 

 

 

Trapped in the Schemes They Have Devised

 

Carl Jung

Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961)

Over the years I’ve had a problem with the “us versus them” voice of some psalms of the Book of Psalms. The division of humankind into the ‘righteous’ and the ‘wicked’ leaves me cold. Often I have wanted to recommend to the psalmist a session or two on a Jungian analyst’s couch to get in touch with the ‘shadow’. But, in other times, like the one through which we’re living in America, the psalmist’s poetry is without parallel in giving voice to what I feel. Psalm 10 is one of them.

Psalm 10 is a cry for help in a time of trouble when God seems far off, as though hiding, while “the wicked arrogantly persecute the poor” (v.1), but it also holds a conviction that the persecution is only for the moment. Why? Because, already, the arrogant “are trapped in the schemes they have devised” (verse 2).

Their ways are devious at all times; 

Your judgments are far above out of their sight; 

they defy all their enemies.

They say in their heart, “I shall not be shaken;

no harm shall come to me ever” (v.5).

….

Their mouth is full of cursing, deceit, and oppression;

under their tongue are mischief and wrong (v. 7).

…. 

They lurk in ambush in public squares

and in secret places they murder the innocent;

they spy out the helpless. 

They lie in wait, like a lion in a covert,

they lie in wait to seize upon the lowly

they seize the lowly and drag them away in their net.

The innocent are broken and humbled before them;

the helpless fall before their power (vs. 7-9).

Sometimes the most poignant insights come from the psalmist’s couch. I read the Psalms most every day. I still remember what I’ve learned from Jung about my ‘shadow’ and the fear within me that paints ‘the other’ as wicked, wrong, or wretched. I know that the finger that accuses others often points back at my own sorry self. But the faith I was taught and still practice equally reminds me that anger has a rightful place when the lowly are broken, humbled, and dragged away in the net of the powerful. I remember the ‘righteous’ anger of Amos and the rest of the prophets. I remember Jesus.

Elijah in high chair

Grandson Elijah safe at home.

I see my grandson, Elijah, safe at home with his family in Minnesota, and think of all the children wrenched from their parents arms at the Mexican border. I live in hope that, though innocent children have been carried away to unknown places by the Administration’s net, it is only a matter of time before those who have made them orphans are themselves “trapped in the schemes they have devised.”

– Gordon C. Stewart in the wilderness, August 29, 2018.

Mother Earth and the devil’s dung

Pope Francis documentaryOn Mothers Day 2018, “60 Minutes” featured an interview with the film-maker of “A Man of His Word,” the new documentary on Pope Francis in which Pope Francis speaks boldly about Mother Earth, the mother of all life.

Views from the Edge visitors and the readers of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness will recognize our long-standing position that all other moral, social, economic, political, and spiritual issues pale in comparison with the stewardship of the web of life we call nature. Like Pope Francis, we have contended that the planetary crisis is not just one issue among others; it is the singular overarching challenge to everyone everywhere all the time. We agree with Pope Francis. It is a faith crisis like no other.

In advance of the release of the documentary, we offer this excerpt of Franciscan Media summaries of Pope Francis’s previously published statements.

“Our common home is at risk. Time, my brothers and sisters, seems to be running out; we are not yet tearing one another apart, but we are tearing apart our common home. Today, the scientific community realizes what the poor have long told us: harm, perhaps irreversible harm, is being done to the ecosystem.

“The earth, entire peoples, and individual persons are being brutally punished. And behind all this pain, death and destruction there is the stench of what Basil of Caesarea—one of the first theologians of the Catholic Church—called “the dung of the devil.” An unfettered pursuit of money rules.

“This is the ‘dung of the devil.’ The service of the common good is left behind. Once capital becomes an idol and guides people’s decisions, once greed for money presides over the entire socioeconomic system, it ruins society, it condemns and enslaves men and women, it destroys human fraternity, it sets people against one another and, as we clearly see, it even puts at risk our common home, Sister and Mother Earth.” – Pope Francis.

The Pope’s position also reminds us of another man of his word, Bolivian President Evo Morales who observed the following relation between Mother Earth, the devil’s dung” (money/greed), and the human species.

“Sooner or later, we will have to recognise that the Earth has rights, too, to live without pollution. What mankind must know is that human beings cannot live without Mother Earth, but the planet can live without humans.” – Evo Morales.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, May 14, 2018.

Good Friday Kind of Grief

Good Friday is not a happy day. It’s a day to stand at the abyss of hopelessness and to turn what Otis Moss III and his father Otis Moss, Jr. call “pathetic grief” into “prophetic grief” that lifts up others.

Good Friday is a day for heart-felt reflection. A day to stop talking. A day to listen carefully to the Gospel readings and the Requiems of Gabriel Fauré or Maurice DurufléA day to let the tears well up in us. A day to stop pretending. A day to experience afresh the pathetic grief that links us with all the world until is becomes the prophetic grief that turns the world right-side up.

I wish you a meaningful Good Friday.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Good Friday, March 30, 2018.

Truth Be Told

 

Steve Shoemaker

Steve Shoemaker

Steve Shoemaker rushed into mind today. I searched for what Steve had to say on Palm Sunday here on Views from the Edge. Little could Steve have known in 2012 that Palm Sunday in 2018 would be topped off by a “60 Minutes” interview with a porn star refuting claims of “fake news” coming from the man in the Oval Office.

The Donkey: a Kid’s Verse

The coats the folks are throwing down

sure make it hard for me to walk

especially carrying this clown

whose feet are almost to the ground.

“Hosannah King!” is all the talk,

but this guy seems to be as poor

as I am–no one could mistake

him for a Royal–he’s just a fake!

They wave palm branches, and they roar,

but my long ears can hear the real

parade across the city square:

the General, the Priests, the score

of war horses–the whole grand deal.

This pitiful parade will fail

to save a soul, and soon the yell

will change from “Hail!” to…”Kill!”

[Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL, March 28, 2012]

Jesus and Barabbas

Release of Barabbas – artwork by Wenceslas Coehergher

The donkey that carried “the clown” stands in deliberate contrast to Caesar’s war horses. All these years later, Jesus of the donkey and the donkey continue to speak truth to power. Today I lay my coat on the road for the humble king of kings.

Thank you, Steve. RIP.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Palm Sunday/Passion Sunday, March 25, 2018.