Prayer for the Nation 1/20/18

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Fold your hands this January 20, 2018 — even if you think prayer is for the birds. The language is dated. But on the day of the shutdown one year after the Inauguration, Walter Rauschenbusch’s 1909 prayer “Against the Servants of Mammon” is as current as current can be.

Against the Servants of Mammon

We cry to thee for justice, O Lord, for our soul is weary with the iniquity of greed. Behold the servants of Mammon, who defy thee and drain their fellow men and women for gain; who grind down the strength of the workers by merciless toil and fling them aside when they are mangled and worn; who rack-rent the poor and make dear the space and air which thou has made free; who paralyze the hand of justice by corruption and blind the eyes of the people by lies; who nullify by their craft the merciless laws which nobler people have devised for the protection of the weak; who have made us ashamed of our dear country by their defilements and have turned our holy freedom into a hollow name; who have brought upon thy Church the contempt of men [and women] and have cloaked their extortion with the gospel of Christ.

“For the oppression of the poor and the sighing of the needy now do thou arise, O Lord; for because thou art love, and tender as a mother to the weak, therefore thou art the great hater of iniquity and thy doom is upon those who grow rich on the poverty of thy people.

O God, we are afraid, for the thundercloud of thy wrath is even now black above us. In the ruins of dead empires we have read how thou hast trodden the wine-press of thine anger when the measure of their sin was full. We are sick at heart when we remember that by the greed of those who enslaved a weaker race that curse was fastened upon us all which still lies black and hopeless across the land, though the blood of a nation was spilled to atone. Save our people from being dragged down into vaster guilt and woe by men who have no vision and know no law except their lust. Shake their souls with awe of thee that they may cease. Help us with clean hands to tear the web which they have woven about us and to turn our people back to thy law, lest the mark of the beast stand out on the right hand and forehead of our nation and our feet be set on the downward path of darkness from which there is no return.”

Walter Rauschenbusch, “Against the Servants of Mammon” published in Prayers of the Social Awakening, Pilgrim Press, 1910.

Like ‘thee’ and ‘thou’, most of us don’t use the word ‘Mammon’ anymore, but its odor is no less foul than when Jesus spoke of it in the first century of the Common Era. “You cannot serve God and Mammon.”

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— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, January 20, 2018.

 

 

Grandpa, what’s faith?

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Grandpa, who’s Faith?

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Elijah reading

She’s our good friend, Elijah. We don’t see her very often. You’ve only met her once. You were too little to remember Faith. You were just a newborn.  Why are you asking about Faith? Was Grandma talking with Faith on the phone?

No. You were just talking about her! Sometimes I wonder, Grandpa. You just said her name! Remember?

Oh, THAT faith! That’s not Faith. That’s faith.

Are you in love with Faith, Grandpa?

No, THAT kind of faith isn’t Faith, it’s right next to love, but it’s not that kind of love.

Grandma says you sometimes preached over peoples’ heads. I asked Grandma what preaching over peoples’ heads means. She told me. I think you’re doing it again in retirement. Grandma says you can’t help yourself. I bet Faith thinks the same thing. That’s why she doesn’t come around anymore.

Elijah, you’re getting a little sassy this morning. That diminishes my faith in our ability to have a good conversation. Maybe we put faith away for awhile until after we’ve taken our naps.

Okay. What’s sassy?

Sassy is smart-alecky, being too big for your britches. It’s not nice. It’s not like love.

I’m sorry, Grandpa. What are britches?

They’re pants. They’re what you wear over your Huggies. Being too big for your britches is like forgetting you’re little.

Okay. What about Hope? Is she coming over?

No, hope isn’t a person. Hope is like the faith Grandpa was reading about this morning. It’s what Paul was talking about: faith, hope, and love.

I don’t mean to be sassy, but Paul wasn’t here this morning! Only Grandma, you, and me, Grandpa!

Oh, not THAT Paul. Not our next door neighbor. This Paul’s been dead now for two thousand years, but he’s still speaking. We still read his letters from Corinth, Galatia, and Ephesus. I was reading from his letter about faith, hope, and love. Remember?

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Probably Valentin de Boulogne – Saint Paul Writing His Epistles – Google Art Project

Yeah. But I still don’t know what faith is. What’s faith?

You know how when you wake up in the morning you trust that Mom’s going to take good care of you? That’s faith. Faith is trust. And faith doesn’t stop after we’re out of our diapers. Faith lasts a lifetime; it’s one of life’s essentials. We all have faith of some sort or another. But like Paul says, it’s still not as great as love. Love’s the best.

“Now faith, hope, and love remain—these three things—and the greatest of these is love.” – Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians 13:13  [CEB]

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I love you, Grandpa, and I have faith in you. But you’re making me really tired. And, because you love me, too, I hope we can take a nap sooner rather than later before things get sassy again.

  • Gordon C. Stewart (Grandpa Gordon) with seven-and-a-half-month-old Grandson, Elijah, Chaska, MN, January 10, 2018.

 

 

 

Epiphany 2018

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One day in advance of Epiphany, we bring you a reading from an unauthorized revision of the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) Gospel according to Matthew 2:13-23, which some call the GCS Translation:

Now after the wise men from Iran had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to José in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Canada, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then José got up, took the child and his mother, Maria, by night, and went to Canada, and remained there until the impeachment of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Canada I have called my son.”

The Round-Up of the Infants

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men from Iran, he was infuriated, and he sent orders to round up all the children in and around Charlottesville who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

“A voice was heard in Ramah,
    wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
    she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

The Return from Canada

After Herod had been impeached, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to José in Canada and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go back to the U.S.A., for those who were seeking the child’s life are no more. Then José got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the U.S.A. 

But when José heard that Pence was ruling in place of Herod, he was afraid to go there.

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Statue of Liberty in Nazareth, Texas

And after being warned in a dream, he withdrew to the high plains of the Llano Estacado of Castro County in the State of Texas. There José made his home in a town called Nazareth (pop. 311), so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”

 — GCS, Chaska, MN, January 5 (the Eve of the Epiphany), 2018.

 

Our Dwelling Place and the Wrath of God

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Six old friends have arrived from Indiana, Minnesota, and Illinois for New Year’s Eve in the Dempsey’s living room. A seventh unbidden visitor — pancreatic cancer managed by chemotherapy — makes us freshly aware of our mortality.

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We read aloud Psalm 90 (NRSV), pausing to reflect on each section.

Lord, you have been our dwelling place
    in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth,
    or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
    from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

The great theologian Paul Tillich called this dwelling place “Being-Itself” or “the Ground of Being.”

You turn us back to dust,
    and say, “Turn back, you mortals.”
For a thousand years in your sight
    are like yesterday when it is past,
    or like a watch in the night.

We are increasingly aware that we are dust. We are mortals. Our yesterdays far outnumber any tomorrows. But the friend threatened by the cancer that almost always kills is quietly at peace with being turned back to dust. He has always known we are dust.

You sweep them away; they are like a dream,
    like grass that is renewed in the morning;
in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;
    in the evening it fades and withers.

Like our late friend Steve, whose life ended with pancreatic cancer, his faith is in something greater than himself, not because he is certain of what will happen when he takes his last breath, but because he is thankful for the days he has been given and trusts that whatever his place may be now, or then, it lies within the Dwelling Place. It is as it should and will be.

For we are consumed by your anger;
    by your wrath we are overwhelmed.
You have set our iniquities before you,
    our secret sins in the light of your countenance.

For all our days pass away under your wrath;
    our years come to an end  like a sigh.

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We are unaccustomed to talk of the the wrath of God or the fear of it. We talk of the love of God. We are not of the religion right.

But California Governor Jerry Brown’s recent use of the word springs to the center of the conversation. After a year of a public cancer — lies, name-calling, climate change denial, Charlotteseville, the alt-Right, obscene wealth, greed, and narcissistic grandiosity of little boys with toys threatening nuclear holocaust while eating away the healthy institutional cells on which a democratic republic depends — we have a fresh sense of wrath.

“I don’t think President Trump has a fear of the Lord, the fear of the wrath of God, which leads one to more humility,” said Jerry Brown in a ’60 Minutes’ interview. “And this is such a reckless disregard for the truth and for the existential consequences that can be unleashed.”

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.

Who considers the power of your anger?
    Your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you.
So teach us to count our days
    that we may gain a wise heart.

We are students of aging, learning to count our days, aware of the dust to which we turned a blind eye in younger years while establishing ourselves as adults, raising children, and making names for ourselves. In our late 60s and mid-70s life is less a matter of the mind than it is of the heart. We are more aware of the Dwelling Place. Counting our days — and giving thanks for this one day — is the new arithmetic of the wisdom of the heart.

Turn, O Lord! How long?
    Have compassion on your servants!
Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
    so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
Make us glad as many days as you have afflicted us,
    and as many years as we have seen evil.
Let your work be manifest to your servants,
    and your glorious power to their children.
Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us,
    and prosper for us the work of our hands—
    O prosper the work of our hands!

  • Gordon C. Stewart, January 1, 2018.

New Year’s Gift from the Lutherans

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The First Quarter 2018 Issue of Currents in Theology and Mission published today a review of Be Still!. Currents is the quarterly theological journal of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago and Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa. Click Book Reviews for the review by Edward F. (Ted) Campbell, McCormick Theological Seminary Professor of Old Testament Emeritus.

ELCA-Logo-VerticalThanks to Currents in Theology and Mission editors Craig Nessan (Wartburg Theological Seminary) and Kathleen Billman (Lutheran Theological Seminary at Chicago), and “Book Reviews” editors Ralph Klein, Troy Troftgruben, and Craig Nessen for featuring Be Still! as the first among Currents‘ “Book Reviews” for the First Quarter 2018.

Prayers for grace, peace, stillness, and for small victories of “prophetic” madness over collective madness in 2018.

  • Gordon C. Stewart,  Chaska, MN, December 29, 2017.

 

To Initiate a Contemplative Mood

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Thom Hickey’s The Immortal Jukebox is like no other jukebox. Tune out the noise and turn up the volume. Enjoy this gift for the season from a blogger in Surrey, England. Click the link at the bottom for all the music of this lovely post.

And breathe! To initiate the contemplative mood I turn to the contemporary Estonian Composer, Arvo Part with his luminous, liminal setting of Mary’s eternal prayer, ‘The Magnificat’. Part has been labelled a Minimalist and a retro Medievalist. I prefer to think of him as having the gift to make time past, time present and time […]

via Contemplative Christmas 1 — The Immortal Jukebox

Two Birds of the Secret Heart

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“Create in me a clean heart, O God…” is a well-known prayer from the Psalms.  It’s context — its back-story — is not so familiar.

Psalm 51 is a prayer attributed to David. It is not a quiet prayer. It is a wrenching, sobbing prayer, the words tumbling from David’s mouth in halting phrases and stammers with tears that flood his eyes and stream down his face.

“Behold, You seek truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.” (Psalm 51:6)

Is the secret heart the deepest place in us, the place where God is: the equivalent or synonym for “the inward being” – a poetic parallelism of Hebrew poetry? Or is it, perhaps, the secret place where we hide from God: the hiding place where we go off to a different heart than the Divine heart? Or could it be both at the same time?

David’s secret heart is dirty and he knows it. He cannot wash the stain of blood from his hands. “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,” he cries out, “and cleanse from my sin! For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.” It is a scene from Shakespeare’s Macbeth:

“Out, damn spot! OUT, I say…. all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. Oh, oh, oh!”

The Hebrew Psalms are like that. They are not sanitized. They plunge the reader into the conflict between the reader’s own inmost being, the true secret heart, you might say – the heart that pumps life into us – and the secret heart of our own flight from truth and goodness, the heart of deception and self-deception.

Why is David crying out? What has he done? What is the sin that is ever before him, the blood he can’t wash from his own hands?

Psalm 51 comes in response to an accusation that has exposed the bloody behavior his secretive heart has produced. It is Nathan, David’s commander on the battlefront, who confronts David with the truth.

Nathan has just returned from the front to tell David that Uriah, the King’s next door neighbor, a man of impeccable loyalty valor, Bathsheba’s husband, whom David’s scheming heart has sent off to war, is dead! His blood is on David! Nathan has spoken the truth to power.

There is no wisdom in David’s secret heart. There is treachery there.

“Purge me!” cries David. Imagine Richard Burton at his most dramatic. “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me and I shall be whiter than snow!” (Ps. 51:7)

Hyssop, the foliage of an aromatic plant named in the Passover story (Exodus 12:21-27), was used in the cleansing of a leper (Leviticus 4:51).

The rite of cleansing centers on two small birds. One bird is killed. The other bird is washed in the blood of the other under the flow of water and the sweetness of hyssop. The one bird dies. The second bird lives.

“Thus he (the priest) shall cleanse the house with the blood of the bird, and with the running water, and with the living bird, and with the cedarwood and hyssop and the scarlet stuff; and he shall let the living bird go out of the city into the open field; so he shall make atonement for the house, and it shall be clean.” (Lev. 14:52-53)

“Deliver me from blood-guiltiness, O God, the God of my salvation” cries Uriah’s killer curled up in a ball, hoping against all hope, “and my tongue will sing aloud of Your deliverance.” (Ps. 51:14)

David is both birds. He is the one who deserves to die. He is also the one who is living. He lives not because of the secretive heart that had conspired against Uriah, betraying his own inward being – “Against You only have I sinned…” (Ps. 51:4). He lives on because there is more mercy in God (the inward being) than there is sin in him.

“The sacrifice acceptable to God,” he concludes with tears, is “a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.” His body quivers as he imagines himself as the bird released into the open field by mercy alone, “according to Your steadfast love; according to Your abundant mercy.” (Ps. 51:1)

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Nov. 27, 2017

 

 

 

 

 

Christ the King

Poet Malcolm Guite’s poetry holds the essential paradox of the Christian faith and life. Open the re-blogged piece to read and listen to his poem for the last Sunday of the Christian liturgical year, Christ the King Sunday.

Malcolm Guite

20111119-111210We come now to a feast of Ends and Beginnings! This Sunday is the last Sunday in the cycle of the Christian year, which ends with the feast of Christ the King, and next Sunday we begin our journey through time to eternity once more, with the first Sunday of Advent. We might expect the Feast of Christ the King to end the year with climactic images of Christ enthroned in Glory, seated high above all rule and authority, one before whom every knee shall bow, and of course those are powerful and important images, images of our humanity brought by him to the throne of the Heavens. But alongside such images we must also set the passage in Matthew (25:31-46) in which Christ reveals that even as He is enthroned in Glory, the King who comes to judge at the end of the ages, he is also the hidden King…

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2017 in the Cleft of the Rock

This 500th Anniversary of the 16th Century Reformation is also the onset of climate departure. Not just climate change, but climate departure, the tipping point beyond which there is no way back.

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Martin Luther (1483-1546)

Preparing to preach on Reformation Sunday at Central Presbyterian Church in St. Paul leads to reflection on a strange text and several great hymns.

The text (Exodus 33:12-23) pictures Moses in the cleft of the rock with God’s hand covering him while God passes by with the reminder that no mortal can see the face of God and live. The hymns that come to mind are “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” and “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise.”

Perhaps, like Moses in the wilderness, we are in the cleft of the rock — between a rock and a hard place — and more than a little humbled as the Creator of all that is, Being-Itself, passes by while we are in the dark.

This moment of climate departure demands a new reformation, beginning with the recognition that we, homo sapiens, are mammals with the horses, cows, dogs, lions, cheetahs, and elephants — and that our future is imperiled by the gods of greed and prosperity our hearts have manufactured.

“Human nature is, so to speak, a perpetual factory of idols,” wrote the 16th Century Reformer John Calvin.

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2017 is a far cry from 1517, but it is, in this respect, the same.

A difference this year is that Martin Luther’s Ein feste Burg — “A Mighty Fortress” — will be sung in Catholic masses as well as protestant celebrations, bearing witness to the reconciling love of God over centuries of time.

Meanwhile the prosperity gospel — based on the idol of property — will go unchallenged in many churches, a departure from the truth that can only be found between a rock and a hard place: this cleft of the rock in 2017 while God passes by.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, October 27, 2017.

 

A Brother’s Letter to the President

September 25, 2017

Dear Mr. President:

I write to introduce myself as the brother you didn’t know you had.

baby_baptism_1368526cAs my grandson Elijah’s letter to you following your speech to the United Nations mentioned, you and I were baptized as infants in churches of the Presbyterian Church (USA) — you in New York City and I in Pennsylvania. Your parents and mine both answered ”We do” to the question “Do you promise, in dependence on the grace of God, to bring up your child in the nurture and admonition of the Lord?”

As Elijah said, we don’t use the word ‘nurture’ much these days and ‘admonition’ has disappeared from our vocabulary — not the kind of positive-thinking that fits well with the prosperity gospel that has displaced what you and I were taught in Confirmation Class. But maybe the old church had it right that both nurture and admonition are essential to Christian faith and practice.

One of your home church’s pastors, Ray Schwartzbach, served as senior minister of the College Church and Pastor to The College of Wooster before going to First Presbyterian Church of Jamaica where you were baptized and confirmed. When Ray returned to Wooster for a visit, I had become his successor.

I remember his description of your church as the most diverse congregation of the Presbyterian Church (USA) with 32 different languages spoken among its membership. That was the church where your parents promised to nurture and admonish you in the faith. It is also the church whose members committed to partner with your parents as the extended family that would raise you in the way of Christ.

Among his peers in the Presbyterian Church, Ray was to his ministerial colleagues what John Gresham’s “Street Lawyer” was among his peers. He was a rough and ready street minister more at home among the poor — on the streets among the homeless and in the tenements and public housing — than in the places of white privilege in Wooster or downtown Manhattan. He admonished the rich and nurtured the powerless in the name of Christ. Ray Schwartzbach was bigger on the cross and resurrection than he was on Norman Vincent Peale and the power of positive thinking that came to influence you as an adult at Marble Collegiate Church.

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McGaw Chapel

It was into this “nurture and admonition of the Lord” as Ray understood them that you and I were baptized as brothers in Christ before either of us could raise a finger to protest it. As the great Christian ethicist Paul Lehmann, may he rest in peace, told the students from the pulpit of McGaw Chapel at The College of Wooster during my tenure there, “Your parents played a dirty trick on you. They baptized you as a child of God and a disciple of Christ before you could object to it. Whatever you would do from that day forward, the declaration made at your baptism will always identify you.”

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Inauguration of Donald J. Trump as President of the United States of America – Getty Image.

Since our infant baptisms, you have gone on to become the President of the United States of America, a position without peer. But, as a brother, we are still peers in the same family. I write you in that spirit, remembering an exchange years ago between a new president of St. Olaf College here in Minnesota and a lowly faculty member just before the new president’s inauguration.

The new president from Norway with a heavy accent and a young faculty member, each in his impressive academic garb, found themselves standing next to each other in the men’s room moments before the ceremony. “In yust a moment,” said the soon-to-be installed Norwegian President of St. Olaf, “I will be the president and you will still be yust a yunior faculty member, but here we are both yust peers.”

849537016As your brother in Christ, your speech at the United Nations took a toll on me. I watched and listened, hoping to see and hear something that might reflect the spirit of the faith tradition we share. Instead I saw finger pointing and frowns, and heard harsh words of admonition of North Korea that embarrassed me, my church, and my country.

I am just a junior faculty member five years your senior, retired, and without question the less accomplished of the two of us. Although we have never stood next to each other, we do know each other from a distance through the shared history of our baptisms in the Presbyterian Church (USA). Whether or not either of us likes it, I am your brother in Christ, a peer.

In that spirit, I owe it to you to speak a gentle word of admonition. As the brother you didn’t know you have, I wished you had remembered your baptism. I wish you had remembered that we’re all just peers before you missed the urinal and hit the whole world we were nurtured and admonished to love.

Your Brother in Christ,

Gordon C. Stewart