The Day the Ashes Were Turned into Water

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We are drowning in a sea of lies, but the ocean has a way of caring for itself. Without exception, all life is part of the Ocean. If it seems strange to be talking about water on Ash Wednesday, perhaps a memory will bring water and ashes together for you, as it did for me.

The Ash Wednesday I’m remembering, I robed 20 minutes or so before the 7:00 PM Ash Wednesday. There was plenty of time. I went to fetch the the little ZipLock bag of ashes. I’d forgotten that the credenza where I’d always stored the ashes had been moved from my office to the church basement. I rushed to the basement to where the credenza had re-located. There was no credenza. Finally it dawned me that the credenza had been sold at for a couple of bucks at the annual festival-flea market last fall.

“Somebody has my ashes,” I thought, “and they’ll probably treat them like dirt! Or maybe they’ll freak out, thinking the ashes are somebody’s cremains!”

What to do? Burn some newspapers! Smoke a cigar! No time for that. There would be no imposition of ashes. No outward, visible sign that we are dust and we return to the dust — the thing we never want hear. It was then that the missing ashes were turned into water.

We filled the baptismal font with water and marked each worshiper with the waters of baptism. “[Carol, Bob, Judi, Clyde], you are a disciple of Jesus Christ. Live in his love and serve him. And never forget to be grateful.”

The last worshiper to leave that Ash Wednesday Service offered to do for me what had been done for her.

“Gordon,” she said, marking my forehead with water, “you are a disciple of Jesus Christ. Live in his love and serve him. And never forget to be grateful.”

Like the miracle at Cana where water was turned into wine at a wedding, the turning of ashes into water became an unexpected moment of joy in the communion of saints.

Today, when we feel overwhelmed by a sea of lies, remember that everything empties in the Ocean. I wish you an Ash Wednesday when your ashes are turned to water, and a few drops of the vast Ocean wash away what you’ve lost and welcome you home for a sacred communion.

— Gordon C. Stewart, Ash Wednesday, March 6, 2019, in Chaska, MN.

Photograph is the baptistery in the Church of the Sacred Heart in Monza, Italy, uploaded from Wikipedia.

Tell Out My Soul

Tell out, my soul, the greatness of His might!
Powers and dominions lay their glory by;
Proud hearts and stubborn wills are put to flight
;
The hungry fed, the humble lifted high.

“Tell Out My Soul” rang out across the world yesterday, the last Sunday of Advent and the first Sunday of the government shut-down in the USA. The third stanza (above) expresses a timeless and timely hope.

In the immortal words of Timothy Cratchet (Tiny Tim) to Ebenezer Scrooge’s “Bah, humbug!” (A Christmas Carol): “God bless us, every one!”

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, December 23, 2018.

You Tyrant!

Recalling Steve Shoemaker’s post “A Song for Each Kind of Day” after returning to the habit of reading the Psalms each morning, I am stunned by the aptness of the Psalm for today.

The Psalms are existential in nature. They are profoundly personal, but they also address public life. They give voice to the heart’s desire in a given time and place — our thanksgivings, yearning, exultations, lamentations, and cries against injustice. Often they are the poet’s responses to public life in the light of faith.

THAT’S NOT NICE!

You tyrant, 

why do you boast of wickedness 

against the godly all day long?

 You plot ruin;

Your tongue is like a sharpened razor,

O worker of deception.

 You love evil more than good

and lying more than speaking the truth.

You love all words that hurt,

O you deceitful tongue.

 Oh that God would demolish you utterly,

topple you, and snatch you from your dwelling,

and root you out of the land of the living!

 The righteous shall see and tremble, 

and they shall laugh at him, saying,

“This is the one who did not take God for a refuge,

but trusted in great wealth

and relied upon wickedness.”

  • Psalm 52:1-7 (Book of Common Prayer)

Psalm 52 isn’t nice. The psalmist knew nothing of Watergate or the Mueller investigation, or Donald J. Trump. Nor was he imbued with an ethic that told him not to judge, to be kind, to watch his tongue, to believe that all’s right with the world because God’s in His heaven or the claim everything happens for a reason.The psalmist is not a fatalist or a determinist. He holds sacred his personal responsibilty for public life. His life is not his own. He knows himself to be a member of a commonwealth. When the integrity of the commonwealth comes under threat, his heart must speak.


BREAKFAST WITH A PSALMIST

Former U.S. Attorney General Elliot Richardson is remembered for “the Saturday Night Massacre” when he resigned his office, refusing to obey President Richard Nixon’s order to fire Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox. 

NYTimes_Saturday_Night_Massacre.jpegYears later, Elliot Richardson came to Minneapolis as the featured speaker at the Westminster Town Hall Forum. As was the custom, he moderator and the guest speaker enjoyed conversation over breakfast the morning of the Forum. At his initiation, the convsersation turned to religion. He was writing a book, occasioned in part by the growing public agreement with John Lennon’s “Imagine There’s No Religion,” arguing that, if the slate of human history were wiped clean of religion, we would re-create it in a heartbeat because it’s in our nature. Searching Amazon’s listing of Richardson’s books, it appears it was never published. If we had the opportunity again all these years later, I would ask him if he had crawled inside Psalm 52 before he took the leap of faith that made him a hero of personal conscience and public intergrity.

ONLY A POEM (A PSALM) 

Some things are matters of the heart. Some things in public life pierce the heart so deepLy; some sins against the commonwealth are so egregious; some wealth is so obscene; some abuses of power against the commonwealth so obvious, that only a poem (a psalm) says what we feel. There is a psalm for this kind of day.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, on the wetland, Dec. 18, 2018

Open Letter to President Trump

November 15, 2018

Dear Mr. President,

I’m concerned for the country. I’m also worried about you. The two go hand-in-hand, yet they are not the same. Though we have never met, we share something: we were baptized in Presbyterian churches. Neither of us can remember that moment. We were infants. We had no choice.

Because we do have a choice now, I write to share with you the story of another person who, unlike us, was old enough to choose.

Kosuke Koyama was 15 years old at the time. Japan was his country. Tokyo was his home. The United Church of Japan was his church family. The scene of his baptism could not be more different from ours. It was 1945 during the American fire bombing of Tokyo. The worshipers could hear the bombs exploding all around the church. Through the windows they could see the flames.

His pastor gently took  Koyama’s face in his hands, looked him in the eye, and charged him with words that succinctly say what baptism into Christ means:”Kosuke, you are a disciple of Jesus Christ. You must love your enemies. Even the Americans.” It was a defining moment for the rest of Kosuke’s life.

Kosuke Koyama - RIP

Kosuke Koyama (1929-2018 “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Mt. 25:23) RIP

Through the eyes of faith, Koyama later plumbed the depths of that moment, and came to a deeper understanding of what had happened to his native country. Japan had come to regard itself as exceptional — a singularly superior nation and culture. Japan had made itself into its own house god. It had twisted love of country (patriotism) into nationalism, and nationalism gave license for imperialist adventures that led to unimaginably horrific consequences. In 1967 the United Church of Japan issued a Confession of Responsibility During World War II as a way of restoring the church’s integrity.

Kosuke Koyama died in 2009 after a distinguished professional career that officially ended with his retirement from the John D. Rockefeller Chair of World Religion at Union Theological Seminary in your home city. Robert McAfee Brown, who wrote the book you and I were assigned to read in confirmation class, The Bible Speaks to You, was Koyama’s faculty colleague. During his 14 years at Union Seminary, and following his retirement, Dr. Koyama created a legacy that lives on in his books (Water Buffalo Theology, Mount Fuji and Most Sinai, No Handle on the Cross, and others) and in the lives of those he influenced by his teaching and humble character.

World War I centenary

World War I Centenary, Paris, France, Nov. 11, 2018

Today you call yourself a nationalist. You have embraced the great sin that Kosuke came to see so clearly in his native country. Watching you at the Arc de Triomphe last week for the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I, I saw you through Koyama’s lens of faith. You sat among the company of other world leaders, but you looked very alone. Sitting very nervously away from the spotlight, you waved back to someone, as if to assure yourself of your importance. I saw a very lonely man without the company of friends and allies. In that moment, I felt a bit of sympathy for you. I wished you could slip away to a nearby cafe where we could talk, just the two of us as pastor and president.

Trump and Macron III July 2017Then I heard the President of France, Emmanuel Macron, step to the podium to issue a rebuke to nationalism as “a betrayal of patriotism” that eliminates what makes a nation great: its moral compass. While my heart leaped for joy, I wondered what you were feeling and thinking all alone there in Paris.

Patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism. Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism. By saying “our interests first, who cares about the others,” we erase what a nation holds dearest, what gives it life, what makes it great and what is essential: its moral values. I know there are old demons which are coming back to the surface. They are ready to wreak chaos and death. History sometimes threatens to take its sinister course once again.

I thought again of Koyama and wondered whether it would have made a difference if your pastor had baptized you during a bombing raid when you were old enough to choose, looked you in the eye, and said, “Donald, you are a disciple of Jesus Christ. You must love your enemies [and friends], even the French.” New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, a short walk from the White House. It was President Abraham Lincoln’s home church during his presidency. Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln worshiped there to hear a word from a free pulpit which they knew they could not command. It could become a home for you, Melania, and Baron, too.

I will pray for you. I will love our country. But I will not worship it. Neither should you.

Respectfully,

Gordon C. Stewart

Retired Minister (HR), Presbyterian Church (USA), Chaska, MN

 

 

 

Daily Riches: Religion and Established Privilege (Thomas Merton)

Thomas Merton’s quotation on religion and privilege arrived following a national campaign with loud cheers and boisterous rallies that turn Christianity into white nationalism. “…Faith in God . . . becomes in fact faith in [one’s] own nation, class or race.”

Richer By Far

“Of course, it is true that religion on a superficial level, religion that is untrue to itself and to God, easily comes to serve as the ‘opium of the people.’ And this takes place whenever religion and prayer invoke the name of God for reasons and ends that have nothing to do with him. When religion becomes a mere artificial facade to justify a social or economic system–when religion hands over its rites and language completely to the political propagandists, and when prayer becomes the vehicle for a purely secular ideological program, then religion does tend to become an opiate. It deadens the spirit enough to permit the substitution of a superficial fiction and mythology for this truth of life. And this brings about the alienation of the believer, so that his religious zeal becomes political fanaticism. His faith in God, while preserving its traditional formulas, becomes in fact faith…

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Tikkun Olam

Fourth Presbyterian chicago

Fourth Presbyterian Church – Chicago

John Buchanan looks to the Jewish concept “tikkun olam” amid the alarms of 2018. Dr. Buchanan is Pastor Emeritus of Fourth Presbyterian Church-Chicago, past Moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA), and former editor of the The Christian Century. “Hold to the Good” is now his pulpit in retirement.

Hold to the Good

For years, at the conclusion of public worship, I have used words that come from St. Paul, written 2,000 years ago.

“Go into the world in peace and courage.
Hold to the Good.
Honor all God’s children.
Love and serve the Lord,
Rejoicing in the power of the Spirit.”

Last Sunday, as a guest preacher at Westminster Presbyterian Church, Grand Rapids, Michigan, when I came to the words “Hold to the Good” I almost couldn’t go on. The news from Pittsburgh Saturday morning stood as a contradiction to those words and to everything I hold dear and regard as essential to our life together….

…the trust that in the eternal struggle between good and evil, good will ultimately prevail,

…the trust that the heart of the nation I love, its government and politicians, is essentially fair, honest and good,

…the hope that the long arc of history bends, as Martin…

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The Press and the People

 

Breckwoldt prüfung

The Ordeal – Sculpture by Edith Beckwoldt, St. Nikolai, Hamburg, Germany.

“No man in the whole world can change the truth. One can only look for the truth, find it and serve it. The truth is in all places.” —  Dietrich Bonhoeffer quotation inscribed on Edith Beckwoldt’s sculpture “The Ordeal”.

“There is great anger in our Country caused in part by inaccurate, and even fraudulent, reporting of the news. The Fake News Media, the true Enemy of the People, must stop the open & obvious hostility & report the news accurately & fairly. That will do much to put out the flame…” — Donald J. Trump tweet, 6:03 AM – 29 Oct 2018.

 

 

Mein Kampf dust jacket“It is the press, above all, which wages a positively fanatical and slanderous struggle, tearing down everything which can be regarded as a support of national independence, cultural elevation, and the economic independence of the nation.” ― Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf.

Many advise against any and all such comparisons. As a public theologian raised on Bonhoeffer’s witness, theology and ethics, I ask, “How, in good conscience, can we not?” The playbook today is the same as it was in Bonhoeffer’s time. According to The Art of the Deal’s ghost writer, the speeches of Hitler were prominent in the penthouse bedroom of Trump Tower.

Enter Charlie Chaplin’s parody of the unlikely rise of the Fuhrer and the call to national unity.

“Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

“We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, October 31, 2018

No one can burn the truth

The most telling point in yesterday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing was the sudden shift away from Rachel Mitchell, the experienced prosecutor of sex crimes whom the Republican all male majority had appointed to examine the accuser and the accused on their behalf. It was an unprecedented protocol.

Dr_Christine_Blasey_Ford

Professor Christine Blasey Ford

All morning, during the testimony of Professor Christine Blasey Ford, the members of the majority ceded their five-minutes to Ms. Mitchell. She, not they, did all the questioning. Then, early in the afternoon session with Kavanaugh, the protocol disappeared.

Ms. Mitchell’s impartial inquiry came to a sudden end when Sen. Lindsay Graham lit the match that shifted the focus from Ms. Mitchell’s methodical inquiry. The protocol for “getting at the truth” went up in flames. Ms. Mitchell never was called upon again. The men who had brought her from Arizona to Washington, D.C. brushed her aside without explanation or comment by anyone of the committee. She was no longer useful to the majority’s purposes.

256px-Lindsey_Graham,_Official_Portrait_2006

Sen. Lindsay Graham (R)

Experts in the field of sexual violence have eyes and ears — and a sixth sense — most of us don’t have. They know the typical behaviors of victims and perpetrators. Belligerence is one of the behaviors of perpetrators. Judge Kavanaugh’s less than judicial demeanor — his unrestrained anger and belligerent attack on Sen. Klobuchar’s legitimate, pertinent  questions about the use of alcohol — would have rung a familiar bell. Ms. Mitchell’s attempt to get at the truth had gotten too close.

The Judiciary Committee appears ready to recommend confirmation. Majority Leader McConnell has pledged to push it through the full Senate.

Hildegard_von_Bingen_Liber_Divinorum_Operum

The Universal Man, Liber Divinorum Operum of St. Hildegard of Bingen (1165)

Last night the American Bar Association, which endorsed Judge Kavanaugh as highly qualified, called for what the chair, majority members, and the nominee himself have steadfastly refused to do: suspend the process and call for the FBI to re-open its independent investigation of the facts.

It’s enough to make me hope that Mechtild von Magdeburg, the lesser known medieval mystic contemporary of Hildegard von Bingen was right:

“No one can burn the truth.”

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, September 28, 2018.

A Window of Opportunity: Rosh Hashanah

Today is Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year that celebrates the birth of humankind with the blowing of the shofar (AUDIO LINK).

Jemenittisk_sjofar_av_kuduhorn

Rosh Hashanah’s meaning takes me back to last week’s Jewish wedding in Boston Symphony Hall, the kind of joyful occasion that’s good for the weary soul. Although I might have anticipated meeting a Holocaust survivor in his/her 90s, I did not expect the survivor to be my age.

Stephen and I were born two months apart in very different words — the Warsaw ghetto under Nazi occupation, and the U.S.A., respectively. Stephen and his mother survived. His father and the rest of his family died in the gas ovens of Auschwitz. His father arranged for two-year-old Steve and his mother’s to escape and survive under the clandestine protection of Polish Christian. How Stephen’s father made the arrangements is a mystery lost in time and the ashes of Auschwitz.

Rosh Hashanah is marked by the blowing of the shofar that starts the 10 High Holy Days leading up to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

What is Rosh Hashanah all about? In addition to its meaning as the “head of the year”, we also refer to it as the “Day of Judgment”. What, in fact, did the Rabbis tell us to do on Rosh Hashanah? Curiously, there is virtually no mention of our own personal judgment in the Rosh Hashanah prayers. Instead, the prayers are all about the general condition of the world. – Rabbi Asher Resnick.

The Jewish sense of time is different from the dominant understanding of time in the West. Time spirals. It loops back and forward. Rosh Hashanah cycles back in order to spiral forward. It is, like every other Jewish holiday, “a metaphysical window of opportunity” (Rabbi Asher Resnick).

Meeting Stephen, the retired doctor in Princeton, New Jersey, in Boston at a Jewish wedding opened a different kind of metaphysical window of opportunity. The rapport was immediate, the window of opportunity opened between us as if we were long-lost friends. Such times redefine time. They spiral back to fetch hope for a new humanity and carry it forward in another dark time. This Rosh Hashanah I sound the shofar for Stephen, his family, all victims and survivors of the Holocaust, and the Polish Christian family that protected Stephen and his mother until the horror was (more or less) over and a mad world repents.

512px-Frank-oil-shofar_(14088680963)

the shofar (ram’s horn)

Shana Tova!

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, September 10, 2018.

 

 

 

 

A Clear and Present Danger

We Americans are living in the face of evil. I do not speak easily of ‘evil’. Even now, I hesitate using the word.

But I can find no better word to describe what I hear in the tone of voice and the language that distorts truth, idolizes the nation, insults neighbors and allies, reveres the strong men of North Korea and Russia, presents himself as superior to all his predecessors, withdraws from multinational peacemaking and climate accords, divides the world into winners and losers, refuses to criticize white supremacists, separates poor children of color from their parents at the border, demonizes his adversaries, puts an anti-Semitic preacher from the farthest edge of the religious right on the world stage to represent the American people at the dedication of the U. S. embassy’s re-location to Jerusalem, and does it all in the name of making America secure and great again.

In Christian theology, evil has no standing of its own. It is the twisting of the good, the warping of truth, the abandonment of self-knowledge, the rebellion against accountability, the transfer of free-floating anxiety onto an object of fear that can be defeated, and the illusion of the power of the strong man’s to rescue the good.
Th strong man is the opposite of the preacher from Nazareth who lifted up the poor, the meek, the mourning, the leper, the alien, the foreigner, the religiously different (the ‘good’ Samaritan), declaring that the kingdom of God belongs to them, not to the rich, the proud, the well, the patriots, the people of his religion.

How a disciple of Jesus hears the voice of Jesus in the voice of the strong man is a puzzle whose pieces remain hidden until they are exposed for review. Promotion of the good includes the unmasking of evil, the wisdom to discern when the good is turned upside down, and when truth is twisted by the serpent’s trickery.

“Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” is the cry from the pews of most every Christian church across the world, the echo of the prayer the soon to be crucified Jesus taught his disciples. Tempted to surrender better selves into the hands of evil, how does a disciple of Jesus manage to salute the strong man in the Oval Office and the party that obeys his will? Every day, I scratch my head, but also try to remember.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.”

  • Gordon C. Stewart on the wetland, June 27, 2018.