Between Here and There

Featured

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.

 

 

 

 

The beginning of an uprising

Featured

“To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.”

Question: Who said that?

Wait! Wait! Don’t tell me! Choose one (click the names for more information):

 

Or . . . someone else?

Answer: We know it’s not Bill Maher, though Bill does call for an uprising, but the uprising would be against religion itself as the source of disorder, even though Bill often invites Cornel West to be his guest on Real Time with Bill Maher.

Cornel West clasps his hands in prayer and, like Bill, rises up to resist the present order/disorder, but it’s not Cornel.

So maybe it’s Karl Barth. The statement often is attributed to Barth, the Swiss theologian who resisted Hitler and the Third Reich in the name of Christ. But a more-or-less careful internet search yields no confirmation of its source.

Because no one really seems to know for sure, perhaps the correct answer is someone else from an altogether unexpected different source.

Like someone’s twitter account.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, October 9, 2017.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dear Brother Donald

Featured

Letter to President Donald J. Trump

September 30, 2017

Dear Don,

I hope you don’t mind me calling you Don. You can call me Gordy; only those close to me in grade school called me that, but, so did the kids in my confirmation class. Since we were both confirmed in Presbyterian churches, I think it makes sense to call each other Don and Gordy.

brown-psr-3-300-394After writing you yesterday, I wondered whether your confirmation class read the same book mine did. Did you read Robert McAffee Brown‘s The Bible Speaks to You? I have to confess I didn’t read much of it at the time. I faked it. Maybe you did, too. I think we were probably a lot alike that way, don’t you think?

Anyway, this morning I went online and found The Bible Speaks to You in Google Books — Google, like Twitter, is amazing, don’t you think? — to see what we were supposed to be reading and to get a sense again of what we were being taught. Even way back when we were in confirmation class, we were being taught that Jesus was killed by the coalescence of two mistakes that seem to be the opposite of each other: nationalism, on the one hand, and imperial rule, on the other. They went hand-in-hand in deciding Jesus has to go.

Do you remember that?

Jesus wasn’t big on either nationalism or or empire; he saw both as substitutes for God, idols manufactured by the human heart to provide a false sense of security and importance. I suspect you may have skipped those chapters of the New Testament, but this wouldn’t be the first time the crucifixion was erased from consciousness. It happened in the German Church in the 1930s when the majority Christian population blamed the Jews, the Gypsies, the communists, and homosexuals for Germany’s fall from greatness. Make Germany great again was the agenda back then and Jesus was weeping all the way through it — in the concentration camps and in the cattle cars of the trains that removed from the nation everyone who wasn’t of the Aryan race, an idol of exceptionalism that, like all idols, had no foothold in reality itself.

Do you remember how we hated Hitler and all that stuff in confirmation class, how we thought of ourselves as Christians who would never do that because we were disciples of Jesus, and as Americans who would never do that because … well, we were Americans? We were better than that!

Funny how things change sometimes if we don’t pay attention, don’t you think? Maybe we paid too much attention to that period of world history and not enough attention to Robert McAfee Brown and the Bible. Long after we finished confirmation class to become disciples of Jesus, Robert McAfee Brown said something I’m remembering now:

Who we listen to determines what we hear. Where we stand determines what we see. What we do determines who we are.

I wonder who you’re listening to, where you stand on all of this, and write you now because, as your brother in Christ, I went on to listen to Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his American friends,Paul Louis Lehmann, William Sloane Coffin, and, yes, our old confirmation class author Robert McAfee Brown, who all claimed that what we do determines who we are.

The Bible speaks to you

Original cover of The Bible Speaks to You used in Presbyterian church confirmation classes in the 1950s and ’60s.

Don, if you can find a moment this morning, you can click this  Amazon LINK to The Bible Speaks to You, click “Look Inside” and scroll down to what neither of us can remembers now that we’re over 70 years old and forgetting much of what we learned. Take a look at pages 11 and 12 about the Marine Corporal following Robert McAfee Brown, the Marine Chaplain, back to his quarters after a Bible study on the Gospel of John story of Lazarus:

“Chaplain,” he said, “I felt as thought everything we read this morning was pointed right at me. I’ve been living in hell for the last six months, and for the first time I feel as though I’ve gotten free.”

You’ve been in the White House for nine months now, and I suspect it may feel like a hell you’ve never experienced. Maybe the same thing can happen with you as happened with the Marine.

634px-Duccio_di_Buoninsegna_-_The_Raising_of_Lazarus_-_Google_Art_Project

“The Raising of Lazarus” — Duccio di Buoninsegna (c. 1318-1319)

Remember, Don, every one of us has had at least a taste of hell these last nine months, but I’m looking to you for something different to rise from the ashes of our confirmations: a refutation of nationalism and empire. As Robert McAfee Brown said when he was much older, “What you do determines not only who you are but who we are. ” Take a close look at the picture of Robert McAfee Brown and at . It feels as though he’s looking at us to see whether we’re with Jesus and Lazarus.

Grace and Peace,

Gordon C. Stewart (“Gordy”), Your Brother in Christ

Chaska, Minnesota

A Brother’s Letter to the President

Featured

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.

eb99e59f70afe61cb5ee14bb23b4bfc4

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.”

inaug-trump-oath-GettyImages-632194654-s800-c80

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

 

 

 

 

 

Elijah’s letter to the President

Featured

Seventeen week old Elijah dictated the following letter for Grandpa to send to President Trump after hearing the President’s United Nations speech. Here’s the letter:

September 21, 2017

Dear Mr. President:

I’m little but my Grandpa says I have rights under the First Amendment and that I should exercise my right of free speech to tell you what’s on my mind. I hope that’s okay with you. Grandpa says you’re bigger on the Second Amendment than the First Amendment, but they’re all part of the U. S. Constitution, right?

I’ve thought many times of writing you but decided not to until hearing your speech to the United Nations this week.

You may wonder why a kid like me would send a letter to the President, but there’s more than one good reason.

Infant_Baptism_Christian-217x300We have a connection you may not about, although my Grandpa is very famous, like you. You and Grandpa were baptized as babies in the Presbyterian Church. Your pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Jamaica in Queens took you in his arms and baptized you “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” But before your parents put you in the pastor’s arms, they had to answer a question: “Do you promise, in dependence on the grace of God, to bring up your child in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.”

I asked Grandpa what nurture and admonition meant. He said nurture is like when Mom breastfeeds me. Admonition, he says, is an old word we don’t use anymore and that’s a shame because you could use a good admonishing. Admonition, Grandpa says, is a way of setting boundaries on a child’s behavior; it’s part of the discipline necessary to raising a child toward responsible adulthood. Admonishing is telling a child “No. You can’t do that. You’re a child of God, but you’re not the only one.” Grandpa tells me that all the time. I wonder if your mother and father ever did that with you before they sent you off to the military academy.

So you and Grandpa are both baptized Christians. But there’s even more of a connection!

1928-1

McGaw Chapel, The College of Wooster

Grandpa became a Presbyterian minister. He knows one of your church’s former pastors at First Presbyterian Church of Jamaica. Before Rev. Dr. Raymond Schwartzbach (Grandpa calls him ‘Ray’) came to your church in New York City, he served the college church at The College of Wooster which Grandpa served six years after Ray.

Grandpa says Ray was really special and that he left Wooster because he wanted to get back to the city. He told Grandpa that your church was the most multicultural church in the Presbyterian Church (USA) with 32 different languages — the most in the whole country!

Trump at United NationsWatching you speak to all those different languages at the United Nations made me wonder what happened to you after your pastor held you in his arms and baptized you into the way of Christ. Did your parents nurture you? Did they admonish you? Or were you left on your own? Did they teach you not to call people names? Did they admonish you when you did? Did they teach you the first article of the Westminster Catechism, that  “the chief end of man is to glorify God…” and not yourself? Did they teach you the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the meek? Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are the poor. Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness”? Did they teach you that Presbyterians value simplicity and modesty, and that they dislike ostentation? Did they teach you to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you? Did they teach you the difference between loving your country and worshiping it? Did they teach you that nationalism is sin, that the nation is not God?

I’m just little and I haven’t been baptized yet like you and Grandpa. But I have questions. I’m not sure I want to be baptized if being baptized means I have to be admonished as well as nurtured. Maybe you feel the same.

Please answer if you have time. I know you’re very busy with Kim Jung un and Robert Mueller stuff, but Grandpa says some things in life are too important to ignore.

Respectfully yours,

Elijah

 

 

 

 

Religion and Race in America

20160327_ResurrectionSunday_rp_374

A.R. Bernard, Easter Sunday, Christian Cultural Center, NYC.

“Megachurch pastor resigns from Trump’s evangelical council” reads the headline in today’s Washington Post about the resignation of A.R. Bernard. Other council members are staying put for now.

The term ‘evangelical‘ is a hot word for folks like me from what were once called America’s ‘mainline churches“. We understand the gospel differently from our Christian sisters and brothers who claim the term and sit on the President’s evangelical advisory council.

Mainline Protestants were a majority of all Christians in the United States until the mid-20th century, but they now constitute a minority among Protestants. Mainline churches include the so-called Seven Sisters of American Protestantism—the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (not to be confused with Confessional Lutheranism), the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Episcopal Church, the American Baptist Churches, the United Church of Christ, and the Disciples of Christ—as well as the Quakers, Reformed Church in America, African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) and other churches. – –  “Mainline Protestant” Wikipedia.

Among the differences between the evangelical churches and the mainline churches is the meaning of euangelion (the Greek New Testament word which translates into English as ‘good news’ or ‘gospel’).

From this writer’s perspective, the Good News/Gospel is the conquering of sin by the power of Love, the victory of love over hate, of compassion over cruelty, of oneness over division, of mercy over viciousness, of reconciliation over racism.

Or, as I have more recently come to think of it, the gospel of Jesus Christ is the counter-narrative to every exceptional or superior claim — national exceptionalism, racial exceptionalism, cultural exceptionalism, gender exceptionalism, species exceptionalism, and — yes — religious exceptionalism.

A.R. Bernard’s decision to leave the the President’s evangelical advisory council in the wake of the news in Charlottesville is worthy of national news coverage. A.R. Bernard’s decision bears witness to the gospel’s counter-narrative.

gettyimages-682637522_wide-47040a0ed3f4dd41fc01c544653aed86be13e28a-s900-c85

President Trump and Rev. Jerry Falwell, Jr.

While the members of the President’s evangelical advisory council like Jerry Falwell, Jr. have stayed put, mainline church leaders like Herbert Nelson of the Presbyterian Church (USA) have stepped up with statements that fly beneath the attention of national publicity.

Here’s an excerpt from Herbert Nelson’s word to leaders of the Presbyterian Church (USA) in the aftermath of President’s remarks following the white nationalist, white supremacist nightmare in Charlelottesville, “Are we complicit in the racism of the alt-right?” (August 14, 2017) .

jhn_preaching_cropped_flipped_medium250

Dr. Herbert Nelson, Stated Clerk, Presbyterian Church (USA)

“Jesus reminds us in the gospel of John, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father and he will give you another Advocate to be with you forever” (John 14:15–16).This word advocate comes from the Greek word advocare, which means to “stand beside or stand with.” Its connotation is akin to a lawyer standing beside a client. Jesus is preparing them to live a life in faith without his physical presence, while reminding them that the spiritual presence that guided him will still be with them; will stand beside them; will be an advocate for them. We use the words justice advocacy to explain the power of walking beside the victimized in our society. Racism represents a historic ill and victimization of people of color in this nation. It is a cancer in the soul of our country that can be driven out only by love. This love makes both the believer and nonbeliever uncomfortable, because it causes us to recognize that we can do more when we take our eyes off ourselves and place them on the Almighty.

“White supremacy will not be eradicated until faith leaders become willing to risk their very lives (professional and otherwise) for the sake of the gospel. The Scriptures remind us that “Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life will preserve it” (Luke 17:33). Our denomination must be willing to lose its life for the sake of eradicating more than 400 years of white supremacy in the United States.

Perhaps today I may be forgiven for taking a little comfort — very little — in being part of a non-exceptional dying church that bears witness to the counter-narrative gospel in spite of itself.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Hiding Place

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.

DAmoavwXsAA69JL

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.