The Dream of Brain Surgery

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It was just a dream. Or was it?

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‘Josef K.’ in the film rendition of Franz Kafka’s The Trial

It woke me three nights ago, but it won’t go away. Against every conscious attempt to push it away, it is still demanding my full attention.

I had a headache that wouldn’t go away. A surgeon opened my brain and was pulling an animal from the side of my head: a big, brown rat, resisting the surprised surgeon’s efforts, and then another, while the other part of me in the dream watched and cringed. That was it. That was the dream.

From the time I was very young, nothing frightens me as much as a rat. I was five years old when I saw my first rat after the family moved into the 120 year-old house on Church Lane — the one with the open cistern and the huge hole in the basement wall. A rat would scurry across the kitchen floor after leaping from the kitchen cabinet my mother had just opened. At night I could hear the rats moving in the wall next to my bed in the upstairs bedroom. Occasionally a family cat would kill one and offer it to my mother as a present; the sight of the gift sent chills up my mother’s spine as much as if it had been alive. Mom was scared to death of rats. So was I.

The rats I learned to hate were not pet rats or the white rats of laboratory experiments. They were sewer rats who lived in the open cistern with the tunnel to our basement, like the beady-eyed creature that leaped at my father when he blew him out of the opening in the basement wall with a shotgun. I’ll be 76 in a few days, but in my mind, it happened yesterday. 

Which brings me back to the brain surgery dream three nights ago. The pain in my head came from the rat that lived there. The rat wasn’t leaping from a cupboard or scurrying through the walls; it lived inside my head. I was helpless to remove it. It took surgical intervention, and its presence in my head surprised the surgeon as much as the part of me that was observing the procedure.

The rat represents everything I don’t want to be. It’s ugly. It’s dirty. It’s sneaky. It’s vile. It doesn’t operate in the daylight. It does it’s business in the dark of night. And, if you don’t kill it, it may kill you. Even if you shoot it, it will leap for your jugular.

It doesn’t take a Jungian dream interpreter to “get” the symbolism of the rat inside my head. I have been, and still am, my own worst enemy. You can run from the evil inside you, but the guilt remains. Betrayal, deceit, denial, divorce, hiding in kitchen cupboards, scurrying in bedroom walls, living in the cistern beside the house where the human beings live.

I’ve long known the truth of Carl Sandburg’s poem “The Wilderness”: “O, I got a zoo, I got a menagerie, inside my ribs, under my bony head…”. Like the rest of the human race, I, too, have a wolf in me, and a fox, a hog, a baboon, a fish, an eagle, and a mockingbird in me. But I have an animal not listed in Sandburg’s menagerie. I got a rat inside my bony head.

Childhood fears never die. And, like a former pope who hated his predecessor so much that he became him, if one isn’t careful, one becomes what one fears and hates.

Where is the surgeon who can remove it? What practices can pull the rat from my head and the free me of the horror inside my ribs? Or, is the challenge to live with it the same way I’ve come to terms with the other members of the menagerie of me — to go face-to-face, eyeball-to-eyeball, and, after all these years of running from it, muster the courage to make friends with my own worst enemy?

Rat on a green background

The rats of my childhood disappeared when the opening in the basement wall was closed with brick and mortar and the cistern was filled with concrete. It will take more than bricks and concrete to remove the one in my head, but the process has started, and for that, I’m thankful.

“The self is a relation which relates itself to its own self,” wrote Soren Kierkegaard in The Sickness Unto Death. I was both the subject and the object in the dream, the self relating to its own self. There is light in the darkness. Hope abounds.

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, August 2, 2018.

Fred Was Right

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A father sometimes knows his son better than his son knows himself. Occasionally — but rarely — he knows him better than the boy’s mother. Parental conversations leading to decisions about a troubled child’s welfare are private. But the outcomes of  decisions are sometimes a matter of public record.

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Mary Anne

Imagine, for instance, a conversation between Fred and Mary Anne about their difficult son whose behavior at school was bringing shame to the family name. Mary Anne, a Scottish-born immigrant raised in a small fishing village on the Outer Hebrides’ Isle of Lewis, was aghast at her son’s rude behavior.

A product of her Scottish Presbyterian heritage, Mary Anne had a high sense of right and wrong, and a low sense of human nature — and of the British crown. “Fred,” she said, “I don’t like the Queen! Donald thinks he’s a king! I don’t like that! I didn’t raise my son to be a Brit, let alone a monarch!”

“Mary,” said Fred, “it is troubling and he’s troubled. He needs discipline. He needs boundaries. If we don’t act soon, he’ll be sent off to reform school by the end of the year.”

“Fred, if your strict discipline here at home hasn’t reformed him,” said Mary, ”a reform school won’t do any better. I think we need to think outside the box. I can’t take it anymore. I’m tired of his insults, and the faces he makes. He makes fun my work with kids who have cerebral palsy and adults with intellectual disabilities. They’re not ‘crips’ and ‘morons’! And I’m not ‘illegal’. He thinks he’s the Queen! If you don’t agree with him, you’re just a Scot from the Outer Hebrides, a chamber maid working in his palace.”

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“Well, dear, it’s hard to remember that you were working as a maid when we met at the dance. Donald knows right where to get you. He knows your Achilles heel. He’s taken that ability with him to school and that’s what’s getting him in trouble: finding people’s sore points, their weaknesses, and calling them names. The only times he responds to my discipline is when I call him a name.”

“Like what, Fred? I can’t hear your conversations from the kitchen.”

“I hesitate to tell you. I don’t want to hurt your feelings more than he’s already hurt them. I’ve tried different names. Some work; some don’t. I thought calling him ‘Adolf’ or ‘Benedetto’ might get to him, but he didn’t take it as an insult. He’s a chip off the old block. He likes being strong like Hitler and Mussolini. But he hates it when I call him ‘Scottie’! He thinks Scots are sissies — crossdressers, running around in tartan kilt and knee socks. Sorry to say, dear. He’s not proud to be a MacLeod.”

“That breaks my heart, Fred. I know he doesn’t respect me. He treats me like dirt. He treats me the same way he bullies vulnerable kids at school.

“There’s only one answer I can see, Mary. A military academy. I put in a call to New York Military Academy this morning. They’ve agreed to take him on probation on condition that we not interfere with their discipline. We can visit once a month on the weekend and take him to church.”

“He doesn’t like church, Fred. He hated confirmation class. He says church is for losers.”

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Norman Vincent Peale

“I know. We won’t take him back to First Pres. The neighborhood is changing. I’ll take him into Manhattan to hear Norman Vincent Peale. We’re dealing with some hard facts, Mary. So is Donald. He needs some positive thinking. Like Dr. Peale says, ‘Any fact facing us is not as important as our attitude toward it, for that determines our success or failure. The way you think about a fact may defeat you before you do anything about it. You are overcome by the fact because you think you 

“Norman Vincent Peale is President Eisenhower’s favorite preacher, Mary. Who knows? If someone like Donald learns to face facts by thinking positively about himself, he could become president.”

“God forbid, Fred! How could we have raised a son like that?”

Years later, the son returned to Scotland. Over dinner he paid tribute to his mother at the Turnberry Hotel of his Turnberry Golf Club.

“Her loyalty to Scotland was incredible,” he said. “She respected and loved the Queen.”

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  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, July 11, 2018.

 

Fireworks and a Fifth on the Fourth

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This Fourth of July we retreated from the parades and fireworks to the wilderness cabin by the wetland. Although the trumpeter swans left several weeks ago, heading north to Canada for friendlier, cooler climes, the loons and hooded mergansers are still our nearest neighbors — along with the newest arrivals: Yellowjackets!

Last night was quiet. The only sounds were the bull frogs, the loon calls and the faint rustling of the aspen leaves heard through the screen doors and windows. The only light came from the soft rays of the setting sun. It was peaceful. Quiet. Natural. Until the sun went down and the sound and flashes of firecrackers from distant neighbors preferring a noisy celebration of bombs bursting in air lit up, and echoed across, the wetland from afar.

As we were wondering how the loons and mergansers were managing the Fourth of July, we turned on the lights inside the cabin, and were joined by a Yellowjacket that had made its way through the screens that protect us from unwanted neighbors. While the fireworks exploded and flashed outside, the Yellowjacket was drawn to the reading light next to my chair. Reaching for the flyswatter, I took a swipe but missed, and then another before losing sight of the invader. Until, wham! I felt the sting through my shirt!

Suddenly I wished I had a Fifth on the Fourth!

Gordon C. Stewart, on the wetland, the Fifth of July, 2018.

Four Tubes in a Wind Chime

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Ring the bells (ring the bells) that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything)

That’s how the light gets in

– Leonard Cohen, “Anthem”

Four old friends — we call ourselves the Old Dogs — descended last week on the Minnesota cabin by the wetland for our annual Gathering. The lyrics and recorded voice of Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem” became the focal point for reflection one week ago tonight. 

We gave up the illusion of a perfect offering years ago, though a stifled striving for it continues just the same. The “perfect offering” has gone underground where the sirens of perfection hide when those they’ve beckoned plug their ears to block the torment of lost ideals and shattered aspirations. None of us occupies a pulpit any longer, and the folks whose hands we once shook at the church door are shaking other hands where we once stood. Any dream of a perfect offering was cracked a long time ago, and it was the crack in our respective egos that let the light come in. 

Old Dogs from Arizona, Indiana, Illinois, and Minnesota know there’s a crack in everything, and we know we never were what we were cracked up to be. We’re not so sure the bells still can ring. Much of the social progress we worked for during five decades of ministry is being overturned. The separation of children from their parents at the Mexican border; the insults of neighboring nations and traditional allies; the admiration for Vladimir Putin; the twisting of fact and disregard for truth; the “fake news” war of words against the American Fourth Estate; the blatant encouragement of white supremacist movements; the shifting of blame to the opposing party and past administrations for present policies and actions; the resurgence of the Christian right and American exceptionalism, and so much more gave worn us down, leaving us wondering whether it makes any difference to still ring the bell.

Leonard Cohen’s gravely voice fills the cabin by the wilderness wetland.

We asked for signs

The signs were sent

The birth betrayed

The marriage spent

Yeah the widowhood

Of every government

Signs for all to see

I can’t run no more

With the lawless crowd

While the killers in high places

Say their prayers out loud

But they’ve summoned, they’ve summoned up

A thundercloud

And they’re going to hear from me

Leonard Cohen’s’ “Anthem” brought a sliver of light into The Gathering of Old Dogs. Leonard’s gone, of course, without his suit — gone home without his burden behind the curtain without the costume that he wore — but we heard his voice deep and drear and true — like a wind chime rung by a breeze from the far side of the wetland. Then came the thundercloud summoning the weary to ring the bells again while the killers in high places say their prayers out loud.

I love to speak of Leonard

He’s a sportsman and a shepherd

He’s a lazy bastard

Living in a suit

But he does say what I tell him

Even though it isn’t welcome

He just doesn’t have the freedom

To refuse.

– Leonard Cohen, “Going Home”

Four lazy bastards depart for separate states to ring the bells anew — four tubes of a larger wind chime.

– Gordon C. Stewart on the Minnesota wetland, June 20, 2018

Wilbur and the New Neighbors

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We have new neighbors.

They poked their heads up from under the deck outside the screen door of the a-frame. Woodchuck (groundhog) pups making themselves at home.

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Woodchucks at the cabin

It was Groundhog day all over again at the cabin. Years before we inhabited the place, a woodchuck had decided to come inside the cabin. The humans were away when Wilbur  — we’ll call him Wilbur — abandoned the family under the deck to settle more comfortably inside the cabin. Maybe Wilber needed to get away awhile.

Kay and I come to the cabin to get away. Now we want to get away from the woodchucks — or have Wilbur and his family taken far away from us in traps baited with luscious carrots, fresh lettuce, celery, and other yummies that doesn’t grow naturally here along the marsh’s edge.

The pups are kind of cute, in a non-dog kind of way, if you love all Nature. “Something there is that loves a [woodchuck],” wrote Robert Frost one night, revising his “Mending Wall” poem when three woodchuck pups after he’d had too much wine. Or maybe Frost had just read Psalm 50, as I did this morning, the day after the pups introduced themselves to Kay: “All the beasts of the forest are mine…. I know every bird in the sky, and the creatures under your deck are in my sight” (Psalm 50:10-11).

Many years ago a woodchuck was eating all the lettuce in the Broomall Nursing Home garden up the street from my boyhood home on Church Lane. When Wade, the nursing home caretaker, complained about the disappearing lettuce, two excited eight year-olds decided to become the good stewards of Wade’s garden. With Wade’s help, Ted Bonsall and I built a box trap of wood and hardware wire, and caught the woodchuck. But, hey, what do you do with the woodchuck you just removed from the nursing home garden? Ted and I were advanced planners, we had built a large cage of wood and chicken wire in the backyard. Having succeeded as trappers, we turned the woodchuck loose from the box-trap into the large cage loaded with carrots, broccoli, and lettuce. The next morning, the cage was empty!

There’s a reason they call a woodchuck a woodchuck. It had gnawed through the wood and the chicken wire on its way to freedom, relieving us of having to answer the bigger question of what to do with a woodchuck when the snow starts falling. The woodchuck got away from us before we wanted to get away from it.

Sixty-seven years later, I wonder whether the Wilbur in Minnesota ever made a prison break in Pennsylvania.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, northern Minnesota, June 8, 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.

Elijah’s ninth birthday wish

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Elijah in his high chair

Grandpa, my ninth birthday’s coming up next week! Are we going to have a party and stuff?

Well, Elijah, we only celebrate birthdays annually. That means once a year. You’re going to be nine months old, not nine years old.  The day you turn one year old, we’ll do something special for your birthday. I promise.

That’s not right! I have to wait for my presents?

Not necessarily. Grandma and I love to give presents. Do you have something special in mind?

Yeah! I’ve been thinking a lot about it. So can I have it now?

Sure, what have you been dreaming about?

Safety.

Okay. What about it.

Can I have a bomb like Kim Jun un and the President?

Oh for heaven’s sake, Elijah, where’d you get the idea you could have a bomb?

The Second Amendment, Grandpa. The right to bear arms!

Remember our discussion yesterday about the origins of the Second Amendment? 

The Supreme Court doesn’t agree with you. The Supreme Court says I have the “right to bear arms”. “Arms” are weapons, Grandpa, so why are we just talking about guns? Arms are what armies and state militias have. I’m stickin’ up for my rights! This is America, Grandpa! We get to protect ourselves. I need a bomb to protect Mom and the family!

  • Elijah and Grandpa, Chaska, MN, February 16, 2018.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Visual Poetry: Go fly a kite

A kite flying above the Illinois prairie invites the viewer to hear the Sound of Silence.

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“Visual Poetry” – Photo by Steve Shoemaker, 2014

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Steve Shoemaker welcoming President Bill Clinton to Champaign-Urbana. IL

Steve Shoemaker, the 6’8″ kite-flying poet whose poetry blessed Views from the Edge readers, shared this photo from the Shoemaker prairie home near Urbana, Illinois in 2014.

Steve didn’t live to see the changing of the guard one year ago today. On the anniversary of the 2017 inauguration, pancreatic cancer has silenced Steve’s Views from the Edge posts, but his poetry and “Visual Poetry,” as he called this photograph, still speak clearly. Like the kite in the photograph and the photo of Steve towering over President Bill Clinton, Steve still invites us to “go fly a kite” for a better time. RIP.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, January 20, 2018.

 

Grandpa, who’s chasing you?

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Grandpa being chased

What are you talking about, Elijah? No one’s chasing me.

You just said you were being chased. So, who’s chasing you?

No, I didn’t say I was chased. I said I was chastened.

What’s that? Isn’t that like a pluperfect of chased?

No, it’s different, but it does make me want to run away. I don’t like being chastened. You won’t either when you’re old enough to be chastened, although, come to think of it, I’ve already chastened you for keeping Mom up all night.

I remember that. You made me feel bad. That wasn’t right, Grandpa! I just needed to eat! You don’t care about my needs! Mom’s going to chasten you!

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Elijah & 7.5 months

You’re right, Elijah. You just chastened me and I feel rightly chastened.

Good. So you won’t do that again, right?

I wish I could promise you that I won’t, but it wouldn’t be right to promise. I’m sure you’ll be chastened many times over your lifetime. Sometimes you’ll be chastened even by your Mom. And, if I think you’re doing something hurtful, I will chasten you for your own good.

Okay, Grandpa. I’ll do the same.

That’s a deal.

So who made you feel chastened this week? Was it Grandma?

No, it was two professional colleagues. Bill chastened me on Facebook for something I’d written on Views from the Edge. Here’s what Bill said on Facebook. It hurt my feelings.

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Andy Borowitz

“Borowitz does satire better, and this piece is just wishful thinking, which isn’t really satire. We need people to focus on actually changing our national discourse.”

That’s over my head, Grandpa? Who’s Borowitz? What’s wishful thinking? What’s satire? What’s national discourse?

We’ll get to those questions later, Elijah. We don’t have time now. Here’s the second chastening.

Kara Root — she’s another minister here in Minneapolis — wrote something to her congregation that made me feel chastened. She invited the members of Lake Nakomis Presbyterian Church to join her in prayer for our country every Friday morning.

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Kara Root

Here’s what Kara said:

“I’m going to pray for the nation this morning. Every Friday morning this is happening in our sanctuary. It helps me remember what I know to be true. It helps me let go of the noise, and the vitriol, and the division we feed, and feed on, so eagerly.

“This practice feels brave. And healing. And important. Sometimes I find gratitude, and even tenderness, for the people that make up this country, every single one of them.”

Yeah! Every single one of them! That’s good, Grandpa. Not like President You-Know-Who!

Ahhhh, but here’s the thing, Elijah. It does include President Trump. “Every single one of us” includes Donald. That’s what makes me feel chastened. All my life I’ve felt chased by Adolf Hitler. I always wondered whether I would have had the courage to stand up against him. Standing up to Hitler has been like a lifelong preoccupation. Anytime I see things that remind me of Adolf, I go a little crazy.

So someone IS chasing you, but you’ve stopped running! That’s good.

No, it’s not. Like Bill’s criticism of me on Facebook said, we need to change our national discourse.

I’m not praying for President You-Know-Who! I’m standing my ground!

You can’t stand your ground yet, Elijah. You can’t even stand without help. None of us can. Jesus talked about loving our enemies. He said we should love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.

Okay, I’ll pray for Bill and Kara ’cause they chastened you, but I won’t pray for You-Know-Who!

You have to, Elijah. We all have to.

No we don’t. I’m not do it! I don’t like You-Know-Who!

Praying for President Trump doesn’t mean you like him or accept his behavior. It means hoping for a change in his character. It means hoping that Donald will have a change of heart and mind, that he’ll stop running from whoever’s chasing him. That he’ll settle down. Be calm.

Maybe Donald also being chased by Hitler. I don’t know.

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If we refuse to pray for ALL people, instead of just the people we like, we’re running away from our best selves. That doesn’t do any good, Elijah. It allows evil to chase us. It contributes to evil, and we should be chastised. If we don’t pray like Kara and the good people of Lake Nakomis Presbyterian Church, all our talk about faith, love, and hope is meaningless.

Kara Root, Lake Nakomis Presbyterian Church, Minneapolis, MN, 2018

Okay, Grandpa. If I have to, I’ll try to be more like Kara. I want to be good, but this faith, love, and hope stuff is really, really hard!

— Gordon C. Stewart (Granda), Chaska, MN, January 14, 2018.

Grandpa, what’s faith?

Grandpa, who’s Faith?

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Elijah reading

She’s our good friend, Elijah. We don’t see her very often. You’ve only met her once. You were too little to remember Faith. You were just a newborn.  Why are you asking about Faith? Was Grandma talking with Faith on the phone?

No. You were just talking about her! Sometimes I wonder, Grandpa. You just said her name! Remember?

Oh, THAT faith! That’s not Faith. That’s faith.

Are you in love with Faith, Grandpa?

No, THAT kind of faith isn’t Faith, it’s right next to love, but it’s not that kind of love.

Grandma says you sometimes preached over peoples’ heads. I asked Grandma what preaching over peoples’ heads means. She told me. I think you’re doing it again in retirement. Grandma says you can’t help yourself. I bet Faith thinks the same thing. That’s why she doesn’t come around anymore.

Elijah, you’re getting a little sassy this morning. That diminishes my faith in our ability to have a good conversation. Maybe we put faith away for awhile until after we’ve taken our naps.

Okay. What’s sassy?

Sassy is smart-alecky, being too big for your britches. It’s not nice. It’s not like love.

I’m sorry, Grandpa. What are britches?

They’re pants. They’re what you wear over your Huggies. Being too big for your britches is like forgetting you’re little.

Okay. What about Hope? Is she coming over?

No, hope isn’t a person. Hope is like the faith Grandpa was reading about this morning. It’s what Paul was talking about: faith, hope, and love.

I don’t mean to be sassy, but Paul wasn’t here this morning! Only Grandma, you, and me, Grandpa!

Oh, not THAT Paul. Not our next door neighbor. This Paul’s been dead now for two thousand years, but he’s still speaking. We still read his letters from Corinth, Galatia, and Ephesus. I was reading from his letter about faith, hope, and love. Remember?

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Probably Valentin de Boulogne – Saint Paul Writing His Epistles – Google Art Project

Yeah. But I still don’t know what faith is. What’s faith?

You know how when you wake up in the morning you trust that Mom’s going to take good care of you? That’s faith. Faith is trust. And faith doesn’t stop after we’re out of our diapers. Faith lasts a lifetime; it’s one of life’s essentials. We all have faith of some sort or another. But like Paul says, it’s still not as great as love. Love’s the best.

“Now faith, hope, and love remain—these three things—and the greatest of these is love.” – Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians 13:13  [CEB]

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I love you, Grandpa, and I have faith in you. But you’re making me really tired. And, because you love me, too, I hope we can take a nap sooner rather than later before things get sassy again.

  • Gordon C. Stewart (Grandpa Gordon) with seven-and-a-half-month-old Grandson, Elijah, Chaska, MN, January 10, 2018.