The church shoppers

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According to recent polls the “nones” (people who indicate no religious preference) are growing quickly. It’s an interesting phenomenon explainable in many ways. The causes are many.

Protestant Christian churches once considered “mainline” or mainstream (e.g, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, Congregational) have fallen on hard times. Their numbers have decreased precipitously as the more conservative evangelical and fundamentalist churches and the nones have increased.

So what is church exactly in the shopping market of consumer capitalism?

This video offers a delightful, humorous look at a young couple looking for a church that fits their needs and tastes.

 

  • Gordon C. Stewart, snobby happily returned preacher with shirt still tucked in believer in women in ministry, lover of Bach, Buxtehude, John Rutter, and traditional liturgy.

 

It feels like years ago

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Already it feels like years.

It was just 13 months ago – Feb. 16, 2016 – that Pope Francis made news in Mexico after then candidate Donald Trump spoke of building a wall and making the Mexican government pay for it.

After saying Mass at the Mexican-U.S. border in February, the kindly Pope who named himself after Francis of Assisi, the advocate for the poor who prefers the Vatican guest house to the Pontiff’s palatial quarters, offered his view of the Christian life:

“A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not in the Gospel.”

Francis’s statement has firm roots in Christian Scripture and the tradition. Ambrose (c. 340 – 397), Bishop of Milan, one of the four early Doctors of the Church, for instance, declared that “giving to the poor was repayment of resources bestowed on everyone equally by the Creator but which have been usurped by the rich.”

It’s not just a matter of charity. It’s a matter of economic justice.

In a June 28, 2016 CNN interview candidate Mr. Trump said that, compared to the fortune the Mexicans are making off the the U.S., paying for a wall “is a tiny little peanut compared to that. I would do something very severe unless they contributed or gave us the money to build the wall.”

Today the billionaire candidate who promised “something very severe” if Mexico didn’t “give us the money to build the wall” is President of the United States and the Pope is still the Pope. Mexico has refused to pay for the wall. The President’s proposed budget includes money for the wall while cutting funding for programs on which low and middle-income Americans depend and funding for the State Department, the builder of diplomatic bridges among nations like Mexico and the United States.

As the President spends his weekend at Mara-Larg-O  with the bill sent to the tax-payers, I recall Francis’s response to Mr. Trump’s criticism. “At least I am a human person,” he said, adding that, as for being a pawn of the Mexican government, he’d leave that “up to your judgment and that of the people.”

The judgment was made on November 8, 2017. Four months later it feels like years.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, March 18, 2017.

 

 

 

Murmuration? You gotta be kidding!

Today I was challenged to write something original on the word murmuration.

My mind immediately went to a biblical text when, after the Hebrew slaves (laborers with no rights), led by Moses and Aaron, have escaped their Egyptian taskmasters (“management” with absolute power), they find themselves in a state of murmuration and a sudden attack of nostalgic longing in the wilderness.

“And all the congregation lifted up their voice, and cried; and the people wept that night. And all the children of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron: and the whole congregation said unto them, Would God that we had died in the land of Egypt! or would God we had died in this wilderness! And wherefore hath the LORD brought us unto this land, to fall by the sword, that our wives and our children should be a prey? were it not better for us to return into Egypt? And they said one to another, Let us make a captain, and let us return into Egypt. – Numbers 14: 1-4, KJV.

A forgetful people is nostalgic for “the fleshpots of Egypt” – the place they had murmured against while bending their welted laboring backs to their taskmasters’ whips – eager to exchange their uncertain future for security.

So today, in the United States of America, we’re in two states of murmuration. One believes we’ve just left Egypt (the regulation society of the Obama and previous Administrations) and now murmurs for security – build the wall, stop the Muslim immigrants, make America great again from the previous Administrations that were, shall we say, Pharaohic? – while the other murmurs that we’re being led by a murmuring madman and Administration that keep us in a constant state to twittering murmuration on the way not to the promised land but to a land led by the Egyptian taskmaster security.

Such is life on this Sunday evening, March 12, 2017. I’m sticking with Moses and Aaron. I’m not so big on the captain or the Egypt that is ahead of us if we keep up the murmuration.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN.

Somebody has my ashes!

Views from the Edge

It’s Ash Wednesday. I put on my ministerial robe 15 minutes before the traditional Service that marks the beginning of Lent with the imposition of ashes and go the drawer of the credenza.

Ash Wednesday“They’re missing! Where are the ashes?!” 

Every year I store the ashes in the credenza in my office. I’ve forgotten that we’d moved the credenza from my office last fall. I rush downstairs to look for it. No credenza anywhere. Then…I remember. We sold it at the Annual Fall Festival!

“Somebody has our ashes!”

What to do with no ashes? Burn some newspapers? Smoke a cigar and use the ashes? No time.

I grab a pitcher and pour water into the baptism font.

We begin the Service with the story of the missing ashes. Smiles break out everywhere. Maybe even with signs of relief. “Instead of the imposition of ashes this year, we will go to the…

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Let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes!’

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If the choice in the 2016 Presidential election had been between Donald Trump and Senator Bernie Sanders, I believe now, as I did then, that Sanders would have won.

What the two had in common was that they were “outsiders” to the political status quo. Both spoke about strengthening the working class, creating jobs, bolstering the economy with infrastructure investment, getting Washington, D.C. out of the Wall Street bedroom, refusing to take big donor money. Both spoke with passion. Both sometimes spoke like unvarnished straight-talking guys comfortable in the “no B.S.” Truck Stop locker rooms. They said what they meant and they meant what they said.

Bernie was the first democratic socialist since Eugene Debs to capture the attention of the American electorate. Many believe his socialist views, the opposite of the billionaire capitalist, would have condemned him to defeat in the 2016 election.  I argued that, to the contrary, Bernie would have exposed Trump as a fraud, a phony whose business record proves him to be the opposite of the working class – a spoiled brat member of the Billionaire Class, a 1 % beneficiary of crony capitalism. Bernie was the straight-talking common man and woman’s candidate who spoke truth to power and presented himself as the candidate who would take back the power on behalf of a fairer society.

The straight-talking democratic socialist Bernie was and is my guy.

But listening to him on “State of the Union” yesterday, I found myself wanting to whisper into his headset: “Just let your ‘Yes’ be a simple ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ a simple ‘No’; anything more than this has its origin in evil” (Matthew 5:37, CJB).

Like the political insiders he had opposed, Bernie wasn’t answering the question.

“State of the Union” Moderator Jake Tapper’s question was simple and direct.

“Are you going to give your list (of campaign donors) to the Democratic National Committee so that you can help them become more grassroots?”

I hoped for a straight ‘yes or ‘no’, followed by an explanation, but got neither. Bernie was answering like a politician with an answer that, in effect, said ‘no’ without saying ‘no’, playing the cat-and-mouse game straight-talking truck drivers and folks at the union hall and the neighborhood bar-and-grille voted against in the 2016 election.

“Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men,” said Lord Acton (1834-1902) more than a century ago. Bernie is a good man. But he was exercising his power against corruption by controlling the large list of small donors who had contributed to the campaign of the candidate whose ‘yes’ was ‘yes’ and whose ‘no’ was ‘no’.  And while the DNC and the Sanders campaign engage in a political trade war over the list, the Billionaire Class that controls the DNC, the RNC and Congress, and the billionaire behind the desk in the Oval Office obfuscate reality, refusing the hear that “anything more than (‘Yes’ or ‘No’) has its origin in evil,” and contributing further to the erosion of trust and hope for something better.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Feb. 17, 2017.

 

 

 

Our Father who art in heaven…

It began with “Let us pray,” and a one person recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. The First Lady was flawless. The crowd went wild.

It wasn’t a worship service. It was something else – a post-election presidential campaign rally not far from the home of Mickey and Minnie Mouse, and Goofy.

When was the last time you saw a political campaign rally begin with “Let us pray”? And, if you’re a church-goer, when was the last time the Lord’s Prayer was “recited” by a single voice rather than prayed in unison by the entire congregation?

It was a political stunt. Chills ran up and down my spine as I watched the prayer of Jesus being used to rally fellow Christians for purposes other than political purposes antithetical to the purpose of prayer.

Ecce homo -  "Here is the man" Albrecht Durer

“Ecce Homo” (Behold the Man) -Albrecht Durer

Yet, as I watched the First Lady in front of the crowd, it was hard not to feel sympathy for her as well as apoplexy over the abuse of Jesus’s prayer. “Give us this day our daily bread,” she prayed – a line that presumes a humble dependence upon divine providence. “Give us today the bread we need just for today” is another way to say it. It assumes a kind of poverty. An ultimate dependence.

The New Testament Gospel stories of the wilderness temptation of Jesus begin with the need for bread and the control of it. After forty days of fasting, Jesus is hungry. “If you are the Son of God,” says the Devil in the story, “turn these stones into bread.” Jesus responds that human beings do not live by bread alone but by every word (bread) that proceeds from the mouth of God.

The Devil takes him to a high mountain where the hungry Jesus can see all the kingdoms (empires and nations) of the earth. “These can all be yours!” says the Tempter. Jesus replies that the kingdoms of the world do not belong to mortals. “Get behind me, Satan!” Then the Devil leaves him.

Watching the First Lady praying the Lord’s Prayer with the crowd cheering left me, for a moment, wondering what the wilderness must be like for Melania Trump. Despite the smile, it’s hard to imagine a hell farther removed from “Our Father in heaven” than performing the Lord’s prayer all by yourself in an Orlando airport hangar on the way back to living among the gilded stones of a New York penthouse.

“…lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For Thine is the kingdom, and the power and the glory forever.”

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Feb. 19, 2017

 

God will not be found in our mirror

I crave solitude.

I’m tired of public conflict. Tired of politics. Tired of the parades of vanity. Turned off by the newspaper headlines. Turned off by the stories that pop up when I turn on the internet. Tired of visual and verbal assaults that dissipate the capacity for solitude and ridicule losers.

Ralph Waldo Emerson must have felt something like this when he wrote

“The people are to be taken in very small doses. If solitude is proud, so is society vulgar.” – Society and Solitude (1870).

We pick our poison: the pride of solitude or the vulgarity of society. Today the vulgarity of society is driving me deeper into the pride of solitude.

Views from the Edge is a title that seeks to balance society and solitude. The views are from the edge of society. It is a proud title that assumes a place apart from the vulgarity of mass movements of society’s collective madness.

But so often lately the voice that seeks to speak from the edge echoes the whirlwind into which I had sought to speak. My voice is proud in its solitude and as vulgar as the society to which I wish to speak. It’s a rare accomplishment to do both at the same time!

Pondering Emerson’s aphorism led me to think more about pride. Pride is vanity. Vanity is pride. The equivalence of pride and vanity led me to one of the Ten Words Moses brought down from Mr. Sinai: “You shall not take the Name of the LORD (YHWH – the Name that cannot be spoken aloud because it is too holy, too sacred, too hidden from human knowing, for human naming) your God in vain.” ‘Vain’ as in proud?

The commandment about vanity is commonly misunderstood as a commandment against vulgar speech, i.e, You shall not curse. That would be easy. Just use the word “God” carefully and you will have fulfilled the commandment.

But the Ten words of Moses are not that cheap, this one perhaps least of all because it speaks to how, and whether or not, we honor the Reality that is beyond every reason for human pride, individually or collectively, in our solitude or in society itself.
Solitude is proud and society is vulgar, not the other way around, according to Emerson, and we need to get away. “The people are to be taken in very small doses.”

Elie Wiesel’s story of a Hasidic Rabbe’s conversation with his grandson Yahiel expresses the dilemma of solitude and society (Four Hasidic Master sand Their Struggle Against Melancholy, University of Notre Dame Press, 1978).

Yahiel comes to his grandfather in tears. He’s been playing Hide-and-Seek with his friend. “He cheats!” says Yahiel. “I hid so well that he couldn’t find me. So he gave up; he stopped looking. And that’s unfair!”

“Rebbe Barukh began to caress Yahiel’s face, and tears well up in his eyes. ‘God too, Yahiel,’ he whispered softly,. . . God too is unhappy. He is hiding and man is not looking for Him. Do you understand, Yahiel? God is hiding and man is not even searching for Him.’”

Yahiel had been playing the game our society loves to play. His friend had left him alone in solitude. His friend was a cheater because he abandoned the search.
Meantime, we in 2017 play our own games of Hide-and-Seek. We seek to balance solitude and society, self and nation, individual liberty and national security, personal responsibility and care of the neighbor. So often the voices are proud and the society is vulgar.

Vulgarity and pride are Siamese twins. They go together. Pride point to Vulgarity as sinful; Vulgarity shifts the blame to Pride. Each is the mirror image of the other. They spend their time looking in the same mirror. All the while they abandon the search for the God whose Name is used and abused by mortal Pride and mortal Vulgarity alike.

God will not be found in our mirror.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Feb. 5, 2017.

An American in a Strange Land

The title of Jim Yardley’s essay in the latest New York Times Magazine –“An American in a Strange Land“–reminds me of William Stringfellow’s book An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land and the biblical roots of “the strange land” metaphor. But the longer I pondered Yardley’s montage of American life, my heart went back to Jesus’s familiar, albeit misunderstood, invitation to the weary.

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
[Gospel of Matthew 11:28-29 NRSV].

On his month-long trip across America in search of answers to what had changed during his 10 year absence, Yardley pieced together the vastly different experiences he encountered into a montage that cries out for further explanation. The montage includes the residents of El Paso, Texas, no more than a long baseball throw across the border from Ciudad Juárez, who disdain Donald Trump’s claims about the border.

Jesus’s invitation is offered to the anxious. The church gets that. Trump gets that. They know we are anxious. Anxiety fills the pews and packs the rallies. Anxiety sends folks running to the gun shops and to the offices of the very same government whose existence they decry for permits to conceal-and-carry or for open carry licenses. Anxiety feeds on itself until the size of it no longer fits within the small confines of a king size bed. Few of us in America fit well in our beds these days.

Churches, gun shops, and politicians who thrive on feeding this frenzy sometimes appeal to Jesus’s call to the weary faithful, ignorant of the specific audience to which Jesus invitation was issued—laborers! The “weary” were the landless poor, ploughing the fields the landowner’s field, driven cruelly like an ox-teams (the word “you” is plural) whose yoke chafes and hurts. Their yoke is anything but “easy”; it is ill-fitting. It chafes. It hurts. The landowner’s yoke allows no rest.The burdens are “heavy” (crushing). ‘They are “heavy-laden.”

“Come to me…for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Placed in its First Century context, it is an invitation to what many now describe as the underclass. Its audience is not the middle class, and certainly not the upper class. The invitation is issued to the working poor of a top-down economic system that offered cushions to landowners and yokes for everyone else.

In Jesus’s time the line between the landless poor and the wealthy landowners was more obvious perhaps. You were either in the field, so to speak, or you owned the field managers who managed the laborers. But, as I’ve pondered Yardley’s article about the America that strikes him as strangely different, and as I ponder my own anxiety, it strikes me that most of us share a common sense of having become dispossessed.

The pace of change and the nature of change leave us in a state of conscious, subconscious, and unconscious turmoil. The anxiety that is intrinsic to the human condition – we are mortals who die no matter how hard we fight against death —quickly turns in one of two directions. Both directions spiritualize what was not an individual invitation to block out the world’s realities. In the one, we sweep aside its political-economic reference point (the collective ‘you’) and use it to anesthetize ourselves against the unsettling social realities of our time. No one appreciates that more than the one-percent who own the land. In the other, sharing the misappropriation of Jesus’s words as spiritual only, we run to the gun shops and the politicians who feed the frenzy, hoping to defend and secure ourselves against the coming calamity of an Armageddon bought on by our own government’s “rigged electoral system” that favors Muslims, Mexicans, and LBGTQ over Christians, Euro whites, and heterosexuals.

Reading Jim Yardley’s article days before the 2016 election, I realize how anxious and irritable I have become. I’ll go to church this morning hoping for a word that sends me home with a less anxious heart and mind but that also charges to take sides with the landless poor. Our numbers are growing in America. The greatest irony of all is that a billionaire businessman who doesn’t pay federal taxes, views women as “bitches” in heat, exploits cheap foreign labor, out-sources jobs to the countries he decries as America’s cheating enemies, and has Hitler’s speeches in his bedroom is drawing the landless poor to the voting booth of the democracy he says is fake.

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.Take my yoke upon. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

I’m trying, as best I know how, to dismantle the old yoke and the old yoke system and to replace it with the more easy, gentle yoke that better fits us all. In the meantime, we all are foreigners and strangers in a strange land.

-Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN 55318

The devil’s playground

Be embraced, you millions!
This kiss is for the entire world!
Brothers! over the starry canopy
Must a loving Father dwell!.

Beethoven’s 9th, Movement III.

Retired University of Pennsylvania music librarian and lifelong friend Carolyn brought Beethoven’s line to our attention in response to today’s earlier post, “Now (regretfully) I Know.”

“Hitler,” she said, “was purportedly extremely partial to Beethoven’s 9th,” especially to the lines above. Her comments remind me again that even beauty itself can become the source of ugliness. Good and evil lie next to each other in this world, just a breath away from the other.

It’s not just an idle mind that is the devil’s workshop. [H. G. Bohn, “Hand-Book of Proverbs,” 1855]. It’s also a lofty mind, propelled by the best in us.

High ideals – a world at one, a world at peace; feel the embrace, you millions, this kiss is for the entire world – are not just lofty. They are also the devil’s playground where light is turned into darkness, love into hate, hope into despair, hugs into gropings, and kisses into kisses of death.

Thank you, Carolyn, for the comment. The physically blind Beethoven surely would cherish the prospect that the world will not allow Hitler’s distortion to become the the last interpretation of the last movement of Beethoven’s 9th.

It is left to us to redeem the hug and the kiss with the spirit of hope and contrition we know by heart:

“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread.” (Just enough bread for one day.) “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who have trespassed against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, November 5, 2016.

 

 

 

 

All Saints Day

This  All Saints Day —the first without Steve Shoemaker, a lifelong Chicago Cubs fan whose life ambition was to see the Cubs win the World Series –I took the liberty of re-writing a stanza of the signature hymn sung on All Saints Day, Sine Nomine, “For All the Saints Who from their Labors Rest”. Tonight the Cubs try to even the World Series at 3-3 in Cleveland, OH.

Oh, may Thy Cub-bies, faithful, true and bold,
Fight as the saints who nobly fought of old
And win with them the victor’s crown of gold.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

With apologies. Go Cubs! Do it for Steve on All Saints Day.

Gordon C. Stewart, Nov. 1, 2016