The Hiding Place

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Visiting St. John’s Abbey for the first time years ago just before noon, one of the Benedictine monks invited the guest to join the monks for mid-day prayer.

Abbey Church, St. John's University | Collegeville, MN | Marcel

St. John’s Abbey Church, Collegeville, Minnesota

Moments after declining the offer, I changed my mind. Risking the embarrassment of unfamiliarity with the Benedictine rite, I quietly made my way up the right side aisle toward the Chancel choir loft where the monks were gathering.

St John's Abbey hurch

Interior of St. John’s Abbey Church, Collegeville, Minnesota

Anxious and wanting to be as invisible as possible, I slid up the steps of the choir loft like a cockroach and found a suitable hiding place, the seat in the far corner of the top row (far right in the photograph).

I felt a tug on my left shirt sleeve. “I don’t think you want to sit there,” said the kindly Benedictine Brother with a twinkling eye, “unless you want to be the Abbot!”

Any early childhood protestant prejudice that monasteries are places where people of lesser faith go to hide came tumbling down! There is no hiding place in a Benedictine monastery. No one is a cockroach.

During a crisis years later, I returned to St. john’s for spiritual guidance and took a more lowly place in the choir loft.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, July 12, 2017.

 

 

 

The Amish Pope with the Trumps

The Amish don’t like cameras. Humility tells them to shun photographs. Why? Because a photograph draws attention to oneself. Christ calls a human being to be humble. Christ calls a person to be modest. Christ calls a person to take a place in the community and to shun “the English” love of ostentation and self-aggrandizement.

There are no Bentleys or Fords among the Amish, no one-percent and 99 percent, or, if there is the latter, no one can tell it by the buggies they drive. It’s the community that counts. They all wear black.

Maybe the president and his family thought the Pope was Amish? Although the Pope is robed in white linen, the Pope’s facial expression leaves one to wonder whether perhaps the Trumps were right.

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American Gothic and the Amish Pope

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, May 26, 2017.

Beyond an intelligent hell or a stupid paradise

“Rebranding, long a strategy in the business world, is taking off in congregations hoping to attract newcomers, update their images and shed any negative perceptions of their denominations.” – Jean Hopfensperger, “Churches trade old names for new and younger members,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, April 15, 2017.

 

Perhaps a retired Presbyterian minister might be forgiven for weighing in on a religious controversy. Or, maybe not, since insatiable controversy has led many faithful church-goers to spend Sunday mornings over coffee, and has created the growing negative perceptions of church as a perpetual civil war and a societal curse. But, for just these reasons, this controversy seemed to beg for comment.

It is the churches that have shed their traditional denominational names that have been growing. No more off-putting denominational names. Like Baptist. Or Presbyterian. Hopfensperger writes:

Evangelical churches have been at the forefront of the trend, with two-thirds of those surveyed by the National Association of Evangelicals saying their names no longer include their denominations.

The Baptists are a case in point. About 160 of the 253 Baptist churches in Minnesota and Iowa don’t have the “Baptist” on their doors, said the Rev. Dan Carlson, executive minister at Converge North Central — previously called the Baptist General Conference.

10yugo-630opBut here’s the thing — unless a car is re-engineered under the hood, it’s the same old car. If a Yugo is re-branded the Go-Go, it’s still a Yugo. It may have more chrome, a new eye-catching paint color, a less tinny-sounding horn, a sexy model standing beside it on the showroom floor, and an American flag draped over it, but, under the hood, it’s still a Yugo.

Many of the fast-growing churches in America are wrapped in the flag with sexy come-ons, but under the hood is a belief kept under wraps from buyers except in the fine print Affirmation of Faith locked away in a private compartment in the trunk: belief in “the eternal felicity of the righteous,” and “the endless perpetual suffering of the wicked.” The church’s public gatherings celebrate God’s love with rousing Christian music, but they don’t tell you that if you don’t come ’round, God will roast you for eternity, a thought that leaves many loving un-churched people to conclude with Victor Hugo that

“an intelligent hell would be better than a stupid paradise.”

But buyers who haven’t done their homework on what’s under the hood and behind the praise music enjoy an apparently benign celebration that, so far as they can tell, leaves the old negative doctrines in the dust.

If that sounds judgmental, it is. Just because Jesus said “judge not that you not be judged,” doesn’t translate to the abandonment of the search for good judgment – the critical thought process that assesses what we see, think, and feel. We use our best judgment at the grocery store, comparing cost, food quality, and the consequences of our purchases for our health. We do the same when kicking the tires of a car. Whether we realize it or not, we do the same with religion. With churches. With teachings and ideas. Like the folks who have left church, or would never darken the door of one because of their “negative perceptions”, a retired Presbyterian minister makes judgments all the time. I’m as tired of the controversies as anyone else, but I am, after all, an un-rebranded Presbyterian in search of personal and societal health.

Just as I’m thinking these thoughts, along comes the New York Times Sunday Review Op-Ed piece Save the Mainline by an unabashed self-identified Roman Catholic, Ross Dothan, calling for those who have left the traditional “mainline” Protestant churches to get back to church this Easter, and inviting those who espouse the liberal cultural and political values to return to the mainline protestant religious roots on which a genuine liberal spirit’s continuing future depends.

Dothan writes:

The campus experience of late suggests that liberal Protestantism without the Protestantism tends to gradually shed the liberalism as well, transforming into an illiberal cult of victimologies that burns heretics with vigor. The wider experience of American politics suggests that as liberalism de-churches it struggles to find a nontransactional organizing principle, a persuasive language of the common good. And the experience of American society suggests that religious impulses without institutions aren’t enough to bind communities and families, to hold atomization and despair at bay.

Then, yesterday on Easter, a FaceBook “friend” posted the following about one of those un-rebranded denominational churches.

Worshipped at Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago. They had a 6:00 a. m. Sunrise service and three morning services – 8:00 a. m., 9:30 a. m., 11:30 a. m. – and a 4:00 p. m. jazz service. The three morning services were preceded with people lining up for admission up to an hour before the service. The order, preaching and music was great and inspiring.

Why were people lined up and waiting before a worship service at Fourth Presbyterian?

What leads people to stand on the sidewalk in downtown Chicago for “admission”? A good show? A great concert? Being with the aesthetically elite of high culture and a sermon laced with literary references? Or something else?

The answers are as varied as the people who stood in line. But the Order for Worship for Easter morning gives a peek into what they found once inside.

Was it the classical music by great composers: Dietrich Buxtehude, G. F. Handel, and Charles-Marie Widor, and the excellence of its organ and choral music?

Was it an entertaining sermon that palliates the conscience of the upper classes and invites the upwardly mobile young to join its exclusive club, or was it the thoughtful, gracious, biblical Word for which Fourth is known which they expected to hear from its pulpit?

Was it a theology of the righteous few? Or a theology in which the horror of eternal punishment of the wicked has been overthrown along with the money-changers’ tables, devouring every hell, as reflected in Charles Stanford’s Choral Anthem?

“Ye Choirs of New Jerusalem” Charles V.  Stanford

Ye choirs of new Jerusalem, your sweetest notes employ, the Paschal victory
to hymn, in strains of holy joy. For Judah’s lion bursts his chains, crushing the serpent’s head; and cries aloud through death’s domains to wake the imprisoned dead. Devouring depths of hell their prey at his command restore; his ransomed hosts pursue their way where Jesus goes before. Triumphant in his glory now to him all power is given; to him in one communion bow all saints in earth and heaven. While we, his people, praise our King, his mercy we implore, within his palace bright to bring and keep us evermore. All glory to the Father be, all glory to the Son, all glory, Holy Ghost, to thee; while endless ages run. Alleluia. Amen.

There is no sourness of eternal punishment hidden between the sweet notes of the Paschal victory hymn. Fourth Church offers a place for the likes of Victor Hugo where you the choice is not between an intelligent hell or a stupid paradise, a place where the people on the sidewalk get what they otherwise might not: a God Who, though crucified by human hands and pierced by imperious swords, eternally refuses to yield to the baser instincts of our negative perceptions of God, others, and ourselves.

The grace and peace of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, be with you all this Easter Monday!

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

 

 

Mom’s Handkerchief – Good Friday

Mom

Muriel Titus Stewart

As a child, I wondered why they called Good Friday ‘good’. It wasn’t. It was awful.

At the annual Good Friday service my mother’s cheeks were wet. She’d hold her handkerchief in one hand and, without drawing attention to herself — Mom was shy and shunned attention — she would dab the tears, hoping no one would notice.

A soloist would sing:

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

Were you there when the crucified my Lord? Oh……

Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

Mom would dab her cheeks and eyes.

As I grew older I began to understand why they called the Friday of the crucifixion ‘good’. It wasn’t good because they nailed him to the tree, or because they took him down and laid him in a borrowed tomb. It was good because, in that deep darkness, tears fall in grief and in hopes of something else. Tears that recognize both the betrayal, denial, flight — our  own and others’ – and the steadfast love, courage, and magnanimity of the man on the cross.

Both sides of the human condition are front and center on Good Friday. So is the sense of god-forsakenness – the wrenching cry from the cross, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) — the gnawing feeling of senselessness, meaninglessness, and helplessness, hanging alone, tortured and mocked, over the abyss of nothingness.

Over the years, I’ve learned that a healthy sense of denial is sometimes a good thing. So is truth-telling. Good Friday brings me face-to-face with myself at my worst and my best. And at the heart of it all is a man with arms spread wide, looking out at us who still crucify him — ours is a Good Friday world — with eyes that reach my soul. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. Into Your hands I commit my spirit.”

On Easter Mom would dab her eyes for joy because she’d brought her handkerchief with her from Good Friday.

— Gordon C. Stewart. Chaska. MN, April 14, 2017. Originally published April 3, 2015.

The Stubborn Donkey and the Asses

“[T]hey brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them.” – Matthew 21:7

In advance of today’s annual Palm Sunday parade through downtown Excelsior, Trinity Episcopal‘s e-newsletter issued the sad, tongue-in-cheek announcement:

Between services the Trinity community will come together in a joyful parade, with music, laughter, and bubbles! Unfortunately, the donkey that was going to lead us is being a bit stubborn so he will not be with us.

Jesus on two donkey’s – Jean de Limbourg (c. 1385-1416)

Perhaps today’s cancellation serves as a reminder that the donkey is stubborn by nature, and that, if you manage to tame one, there will always be another nearby waiting to take its place.

Some churches today celebrate only Palm Sunday – “the Triumphal Entry” into Jerusalem. It’s all about palm-waving and “Hosannas!” shouted and sung to the victorious King of kings and Lord of lords.

Other churches honor the paradox of palms and fists, stubborness and spears, appearance and reality: the king who refused to be King who rode an ass (or two) into the city that wanted something more than the mortal it could raise on a cross.

Today there will be no donkey on the streets of Excelsior. The donkey is just being stubborn. Or perhaps it refuses to participate in this year’s re-enactment when palms and hosannas take her rider to the cross again in a world where asses still rule.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Passion/Palm Sunday, April 9, 2017.

 

The church shoppers

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

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!’

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.