A Clear and Present Danger

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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.

The Eleventh Commandment

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“Thou shalt not even think about using a chain saw.”

IMG_9456At the cabin next to the wetland we love quiet candle-lit evenings by the wood-burning stove. The candles are easy. We buy them. The wood for the fires is harder. We gather the logs and the kindling from the surrounding woods, drag them next to the deck, and break or cut them into pieces to fit the dimensions of the small wood stove. In a week or two, a friend and I will get out the chain saw to cut up large oaks that have fallen in the woods. But that will come later.

This morning Kay and I gathered what we could carry from the woods and were breaking the breakable pieces into kindling. It felt good to be making progress on our first spring work day. Barclay, the five year-old ever cheerful, light-chasing Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, was entertaining himself on the ground above the septic system. He doesn’t know there’s a sceptic system under there, and, if perchance he did know, wouldn’t care as long as there were light and shadows, squirrels, chipmunks, birds flitting around him and soaring over the wetland. Back by the deck, Kay and are enjoying the creative act of turning twigs into kindling and tree limbs into logs for the wood stove. It occurred to only one of us to stand at the edge of the pile instead of in the center of the cluster branches twisting every which way. The other who is typically less aware of his surroundings suddenly lost his balance and hit the deck, so to speak.   

Unruffled by my failure at even the smallest of tasks, I lay still for a moment as Kay rushed to my side, asked if I had hurt myself, and extended a loving hand to pull me to my feet. Barclay never noticed. Then came the eleventh commandment:

ten commandmentsThou shalt not even think of using a chain saw, for in the day that you use it, you shall surely die! 

“No chain saw for you,” said Kay. “Don’t even think about it!”

  • Gordon C. Stewart writing from the wilderness, April 29, 2018.

Good Friday Kind of Grief

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

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

I wish you a meaningful Good Friday.

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

Addition by Subtraction: Leveling the Playing Field

Today levels the playing field. Our differences make no difference today.  Whether you are religious, agnostic or atheist is beside the point today. All the quarrels and distinctions are beside the point.

“One is still what one is going to cease to be,” wrote Jean-Paul Sartre in Nausea, “and already what one is going to become. One lives one’s death. One dies one’s life.”

Today is Ash Wednesday, the leveler. The eraser. The reminder that we are mortal. That I am living my death as you are living yours and dying my life while you are dying yours.

This year more close friends and classmates are closer to dust and ashes. As I ponder the meaning of it all, my appreciation of the religion into which I was born increases. “I have always said that often the religion you were born with becomes more important to you as you see the universality of truth.” — Ram Dass. Born into and raised in the Christian faith has led me to the universality of truth.  Today the church’s practice reduces the size of my ego. Ash Wednesday levels me to a universal truth: the baseline of zero.

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Ash Wednesday ashes

The imposition of ashes — “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return” — is the reminder of the universal truth of our shared mortality.  Wisdom embraces the math of addition by subtraction: the erasure of every source of hubris and division. Today, I will offer my forehead for the imposition of ashes and pray that in the citadels of power someone else will experience the same, for the sake of life itself.

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

Grandpa, Is this the End?

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Grandpa and Elijah

Grandpa, is this the end?”

The end of what, Elijah? You seem anxious. That’s not like you. End of what?

End of the world! Don’t you know? You’re the preacher!

You didn’t hear that from me. Where’d you hear about the end of the world? Who said that? Who got you all stirred up?

Mom did! I heard her!

What exactly did Mom say? And to whom did she say it?

She said it to Grandma. I heard it. I hear stuff, Grandpa. I don’t need hearing aids. You miss a lot of stuff. I heard it with my own ears.

Touché! But let’s step back a second to make sure you got it straight. What did Mom say?

Mom said “It’s over. Our world’s coming to an end!

What were you doing when Mom said that?

I was just crawling like I have all day, and playing with some wires. Mom didn’t like it.

Aha! I see. “Our world’s coming to an end” is different from the world coming to an end.

Uh-uh! She called me a terrorist! I’m not, Grandpa!

Oh, my! There are terrorists and there are terrorists, Elijah. Was Mom laughing when she said you were a terrorist and that the world had come to an end?

Yes. She was. But before she laughed, she’d been crying a lot. That’s when she called Grandma.

What did Mom say to Grandma? How did the conversation start?

NagasakibombShe said, “Mom, I’m so tired! He’s getting into everything! He started crawling! I have to follow him every second. I can’t let him out of my sight; I’m exhausted! Our world’s coming to an end!”

Well, Elijah, there are worlds and there are worlds. And one person’s terrorist is another person’s child. It’s confusing to a little guy.

Yeah! This morning I pulled myself up. Pretty soon I’m going to walk. The beginning of life for me. The end of the world for Mom.

— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, February 13, 2018.

 

 

 

Prayer for the Nation 1/20/18

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.

 

 

Darwinian Creationism

original-545728-1Irony is the word for this out-of-sorts time where the anti-Darwinian creationists are the proponents of the survival of the fittest. Think net neutrality. Think tax policy that favors the strongest. Think disregard for the weak, those less able to survive if left to the forces of a survival of the fittest free market. Think selective readings of the Bible.

Think rabbits and owls. Not the way we usually think of them, but the way I thought of them the other night after hearing what I thought was a child screaming. It was a blood-curdling cry from the sidewalk just outside our home.

Going outside to see what had happened, what did I see but a large bird (an owl) flying from the tree overhead, dropping the rabbit it had just attacked for dinner. The rabbit never had a  chance. Aside from its kin somewhere in a nearby briar patch and the “superior species” who heard the screams, the rabbit’s disappearance was without consequence. It’s nature doing its thing.

buboLike the economy of Darwinian creationists. There is a mindset beneath the surface of the socio-economic policies being enacted into law by Congress. Creation versus science when it comes to climate change. Creation versus compassion when it comes to the human equivalents of rabbits and owls, hawks and field mice, coyotes and puppies. The strongest will survive. The weak will not. And it’s all part of God’s plan. It must be. Or it wouldn’t be. And, as for the Hebrew prophets who say otherwise — Amos, who thundered divine judgment of the rich who slept of beds of ivory made from the tusks of slaughtered elephants while they trampled on the poor; Micah, who summarized good religion as doing justice, loving kindness/mercy, and walking humbly; and Jesus of Nazareth, who gathered 5,000 hungry people for a free lunch, lifted up the poor, reached out to the maimed, the sick, the leper, the foreigner, and declared “Woe to you are rich!”and ““Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions” — their cries on behalf of the rabbits fall on the deaf ears of the Darwinian creationists.

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Pieter Bruegel the Elder (ca. 1525–1569) – Greed

“Let those with ears hear,” said Jesus. Who among us has ears to hear and eyes to see?

“Pieter Bruegel Bruegel . . .  castigated  human weakness . . .  with avarice and greed as the main targets of his criticism that was ingeniously expressed in the engraving The Battle Between the Money Bags and Strong Boxes” (Encyclopedia Britannica).

The great irony of the theological creationist-economic Darwinians is that the human species has developed talons but lost our ears as the strong who are meant to have dominion over the weak and over nature itself.

 

So long as we avoid the faith issue here, the rabbit will lose. It fall to those of us who espouse the Judeo-Christian faith and biblical tradition, to do in our time what Pieter Bruegel the Elder did in his: engage the discussion with those within the same tradition whose hearing seems impaired.

Without that discussion, the rabbits in America and around the globe will be left to predators whose ironic Darwinian economics have nothing to do with informed biblical faith, the survival of anything worth saving, or reality itself. All will be left to the battle between empty money bags and rusted strong boxes.

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Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Battle of the Money Bags and the Strong Box

— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, December 15, 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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Thanksgiving for The Boston Declaration

This Thanksgiving I’m thankful for The Boston Declarationissued several days ago by 300+ Christian theologians on the state of Christianity in the United States in 2017 and a call for repentance by evangelical Christians.

Susan Thistlethwaite’s Huffington Post article gives the background and more detail on The Boston Declaration. Click Original Signatories for a listing of the original signers of the Declaration.

Boston Declaration original signatories.

I’m thankful for Rev. Dr. Reggie Williams, Associate Professor of Ethics at my alma mater, McCormick Theological Seminary, and author of Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic of Resistance, one of the original signers. Reggie is the tall one in the center of the photo.

Rev. Dr. Reggie Williams, professor of ethics at McCormick Theological Seminary, talked of the heavy hearts carried by himself and other African-Americans in this current moment. “These are sinister times, but they are not new. As a black person educated in Evangelical Christian institutions, I am familiar with a Christianity that has a history of ignoring my being, and providing theological justification for my non-being.”

But, he emphasized, what is “new in my lifetime to have such an over embrace of it.” How can people say it is Christianity “to proclaim good news to the rich or push the differently embodied person to the margins? Now is the time to follow Jesus the poor Jewish prophet whose teaching of the Kingdom was the inspiration for the Boston Declaration.” – Susan Thistlethwaite, Huffington Post.

The Trump Administration’s 18-month deadline for 60,000 Haitian refugees to leave the U.S. strikes me as the latest confirmation of white supremacy as the nation’s “original sin.” The order makes no sense apart from shoring up a base that sees white supremacy in peril. What’s happening in America today is only secondarily ‘political’. The primary  issue is theological and ethical — how we understand ultimate reality (God) and ourselves. It is what the Boston Declaration says it is.

Grace and Peace to all on this Thanksgiving holiday.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, November 23, 2017.

 

 

Between Here and There

A CNN report caught my attention this morning. Anticipating today’s Congressional vote on the president’s $36.5 billion disaster relief aid package, Rep. Tom Cole, R-Oklahoma, said the following.

“People want to be helpful here. They’ve turned on the television. They know these are awfully genuine needs,” he said, arguing that Republicans simply want to fund the measure in a “prudent” way.

Early this morning the president took to twitter with a series of tweets about Puerto Rico.

“Puerto Rico survived the Hurricanes, now a financial crisis looms largely of their own making.” says Sharyl Attkisson. A total lack of…..

..accountability say the Governor. Electric and all infrastructure was disaster before hurricanes. Congress to decide how much to spend….

We cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders, who have been amazing (under the most difficult circumstances) in P.R. forever!

Rep. Cole spoke truth that “people want to be helpful here. They’ve turned on the television. We  “know these are awfully genuine needs….” But the “here” is a question. Where is “here“? Is “here” Houston, northern California, Puerto Rico? All of them? Or only some of them?

Or is “here” Congress and the Oval Office, the seats of authority and power in a constitutional republic — the branches of government where the television-watching American public hopes against hope that those we elect to represent us get their information from something other than their televisions.

The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, unlike Houston and the wine country of northern California, is poor. Its history is that of a pawn in the chess game of powerful nations.

The Smithsonian website article “Puerto Rico — History and Heritage” — offers a brief history of Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico remained an overseas province of Spain until the Spanish-American war, when U.S. forces invaded the island with a landing at Guánica. Under the Treaty of Paris of 1898, Spain ceded Puerto Rico (along with Cuba, the Philippines and Guam) to the U.S.

As a result, the turn of the century saw Puerto Rico under United States sovereignty. At that time, Puerto Rico’s economy relied on its sugar crop, but by the middle of the century, an ambitious industrialization effort, called Operation Bootstrap, was underway. Cheap labor and attractive tax laws attracted American companies, and soon the Puerto Rican economy was firmly grounded in manufacturing and tourism. Today, Puerto Rico is a leading tourist destination and manufacturing center; the island produces high-tech equipment and many top-selling American pharmaceuticals.

Puerto Ricans received U.S. citizenship in 1917 and Puerto Rico officially became a U.S. Commonwealth in 1952. The issue of political status is one under constant debate, with some in favor statehood, others independence, and still others the continuation of commonwealth status.

During World War II, the U.S. Navy purchased two thirds of the island to use as a naval base. The Navy used the area for military exercises and bombing practice for nearly 60 years until a civilian was killed during a bombing exercise in the 1990s. This sparked a wave of protests that finally ended when the base closed in 2003. Since then, the Navy’s lands have become wildlife reserves.

Today Congress faces a moral issue that begins with the question of where “here” is and with a couple of early morning tweets that divide the world between here and there, and want to leave “there” behind, ignoring the wisdom of The Letter of James:

If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” [i.e., the world divided by here and there; us and them; rich and poor]. – James 1:26-27.

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