Memorial Day and the Soldier’s Helmet

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“Memorial Day and the Soldier’s Helmet” is read aloud here from Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (p. 10f.). This recording is not as professional as it will be this weekend when it airs on Minnesota Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.” This practice run starts out a little mushy! But it’s good enough that Day1.org posted it yesterday on their site.

Many thanks to Chuck Lieber for making it possible to turn “Be Still!” into a podcast.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, May 24, 2017.

Mom’s Handkerchief – Good Friday

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Mom

Muriel Titus Stewart

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

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

A soloist would sing:

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

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

Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

Mom would dab her cheeks and eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

The Dog Park

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Every day at 4:00 the 91 year-old with the weathered face and halting gate – we’ll call her Mabel – arrives at the dog park. She walks slowly, but more or less steadily, on her cane with her elderly companion Missy – the 16 year-old Pomeranian-Yorkie mix.

56199a5048cdf96c4318a36d9271153cMissy, who suffered a stroke a year ago and walks with difficulty, sniffs the grass. She dutifully does her business, looking up at Mabel. She stays very close, almost like a shepherd caring for an aging sheep whose needs she lives to tend.

Mabel and her dog. Companions for life. For now. And, it seems, each thankful for the other for whatever time they have.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, April 7, 2017.

When the hearing aid goes dumb

I have two hearing aids. I need them both.

All of a sudden there was no sound in the left ear. Nada! The hearing aid just quit while listening to a sermon in church. No idea what was said from that point on.

I went home. Changed the battery. Nada. Changed the little white insert at the end of the receiver thinking it might be clogged. Still no sound.

Monday morning, while waiting at the hearing clinic for a verdict on the problem, an older man and his daughter took the seats across from me in the waiting area. They started a conversation. I pointed to my left ear, saying I couldn’t hear. The daughter said something and pointed to her father who also said something I couldn’t understand. Then I said, “I can’t hear,” and smiled. “Sometimes I like the silence. The world is very noisy.” The man laughed. The daughter nodded and smiled knowingly.

It was a momentary communion of glorious shared silence.

The result? The hearing aid has been sent off to the manufacturer for repair of a twisted wire inside the hearing mold. My left ear now wears a loaner, a rental from Herz until my vehicle returns at the cost of $250. I re-imagine the text of the sermon I couldn’t hear:

“Even fools are thought wise when they keep silent; with their mouths shut, they seem intelligent.” – Proverbs 17:28

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, March 28, 2017.

America @ Middleburg: the Celebration of Ignorance

Allison StangerThis NYT Op Ed piece by Middlebury College Professor Allison Sanger (L) – now in a neck brace resulting from this attempted civil conversation with Charles Murray – is a must read for our time.

Not good! Not good!

Learning to trust my eyes and ears took years. But now, I’m old, and I do.

What I see looking at the President’s face and body language and what I hear from his mouth send chills down my spine. I’ve seen and heard it before . . . inside the gates of  locked down psychiatric institutions.

As the President said during Friday’s press conference to shut up a reporter:

“Not good! Not good! Not good!”

Lord help us all.

 

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Feb. 18, 2017.

Tuesday’s Tide Pool

High tide washed a wondrously diverse group of sea creatures into the same small tide pool last Tuesday, and at low tide (7:00 p.m.), we began to discover and celebrate each other.

Thanks to Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church for hosting the Tuesday Dialogue and Book Launch for Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness.

By 9:30 p.m. the momentary tide pool was empty. But the brief time we had together refreshed us all with hope for better times and with a greater appreciation for the larger ocean and the tides of history.

As the author whose book publication the rest of us creatures came to celebrate, I could look from my old pulpit at the faces in the tide pool, a gathering unique to its moment in time. Not better than other times. Not exceptional. No tide pool or creature is exceptional – no group, no nation, no race, no religion, no class, no gender, no culture, no species – but each one, like this one, is distinct to its moment in time.

There were star fish large and small, green, pink, red, and brown; crabs and lobsters, sea anemones, periwinkles, muscles, a young salmon, and a bunch of old barnacles.

This tide pool is a small church existing along the shore of eternity, a place of Christian worship that washes up a bunch of Presbyterians every Sunday morning.

But Tuesday there were agnostics, atheists, seekers, and other Christians (Catholics, Baptists, Lutherans, Methodists, and Episcopalians); white, black, and red; venture capitalist and struggling to survive in the trailer court; Democrat, Republican, Socialist, and Communist; Ph.Ds and high school drop-outs; co, a five year-old and a 96 year-old; the co-founder of the American Indian Movement, other Standing Rock campers, and couch potatoes; those with TVs and those without them, with cell phones and without them, those who’ve been homeless and those who haven’t, the able and the less abled, the hard of hearing and the sound of hearing; a group of creatures such as will never again be in the same tide pool.

Time in the tide pool meant the world to me.

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

 

 

 

 

Steve Shoemaker’s Legacy

Click After husband’s death, wife steps in as teen’s mentor for the story of Steve Shoemaker’s continuing legacy through Nadja, Steve’s life partner, and their mentee.

Well done, good and faithful servant. Your works do follow you. RIP.

Thank you, Nadja, for continuing the legacy.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, January 29, 2017.

Sermon: The Year Everything Shook

The theme of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness represents a life-long search. Yesterday the sermon below reappeared from a lost  thumb-drive. Like Be Still!’s first chapter, “Of Tides and the Ocean,” the metaphor is the shoreline. Here’s the sermon preached at Olivet Congregational Church in Saint Paul, MN in 2004 on the text of Isaiah 6:1-8. “On the Shore of Time” was the original title.

It’s not uncommon for people to have a favorite spot for peace and mediation.  Mine is a rock in Rockport, Massachusetts.  For as long ago as I can remember I have perched on Old Table Rock on Old Garden Beach.  The rock was large to a child’s eyes. Big enough for my cousin Gina and I to saunter down the street to Old Table to spread out the feast of gourmet peanut butter and jelly sandwiches my mother had made for the just the two of us.

In part, my fondness for Old Table Rock no doubt was the companionship of Gina, nine years old than I, and the abundant, tangible evidence of my mother’s love.  Old Table represents a kind of safe place hard to find in this world.

But that memory is only one of many memories of sitting on the rock.  When I sit on Old Table I am much more alert – and, at the same time, peaceful – than is normal for my anxious soul.  As a teenager Old Table offered a familiar place that knew me when my body was much less complicated than it had become.  It was a place that never seemed to change in spite of the waves that lapped or crashed against it, secure on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean’s ever-changing tides and currents, protecting the creatures that nestled beside it in the tide pools but never keeping them from going back out to sea.

I would sit on Old Table and watch the world go by: the great sea creatures, the lobsters and the crabs, the star fish and the periwinkles, the seaweeds and the mosses, green and yellow and the waving red kelp, the seagulls hovering over a lobster boat returning to the harbor or a single gull perched on the rock next door, waiting in vain hopes that we would throw it the sacramental elements of peanut butter and bread the signified my mother’s love.  It was a magical place.  Actually, not magical at all.  It was a place to ponder reality as it was and as it could be.

If Isaiah saw the Lord high and lifted up in the Temple, I saw the Lord high and lifted up by the edge of the Atlantic.  It is as though the world had stopped.  And the vast ocean that reached farther over the horizon than my eyes could see or my ears could hear was a mere teacup in the hand of the Creator.  The whole earth was filled with God’s glory.

When Isaiah saw the Lord high and lifted up, it was the year that King Uzziah died.  It was a time of national crisis.  The people had lost their king.  After years of comfortable living, everything was in flux.  Everything was swirling.   But in that anxious moment for the people of Judah, Isaiah turned his eye to something else.  He turned his eye to the One whose throne is in the heavens, high and lifted up, the mere train of whose robe fills the temple.  Just the train, the outskirt of his robe, just the hem of his garment, completely fills the temples human hands have made.  This is no domesticated god.  This is the Creator of the heavens and the earth, who spun the planets and put them in their places.  And Isaiah saw the heavenly creatures covering their faces from the glorious light of God’s holiness, hovering above the throne, singing in chorus a song of praise:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;

“The whole earth is filled with his majesty.”

And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke.”

All this was in the year that King Uzziah died.  It was the death of the old earthly king that cleared the way for Isaiah to see the heavenly King, the Lord of hosts.  Perhaps it could have been said of Isaiah and his people that their lips were unclean because they had forgotten the King of kings and had relied instead on Uzziah for their peace and security.  Perhaps their lips were unclean because of Uzziah’s arrogance.  Or because they had not had the courage to speak their own truth to the old king.  Or perhaps their lips were unclean because no human mouth is ever quite capable of expressing the praise properly due God’s Name.  Perhaps Isaiah was thinking along the lines of Soren Kierkegaard who recoiled at the banality of his conventional Christian countrymen for whom morality was the highest virtue, but who never felt a even a twinge of awe or reverence.  Perhaps Isaiah could say of the lips of his people in the year that King Uzziah died what Kierkegaard would later say of his Danish countrymen:

Their ethics are a short summary of police ordinances; for them the most important thing is to be a useful member of the state, and to air their opinions in the club of an evening; they have never felt homesickness for something unknown and far away, nor the depth which consists in being nothing at all, of walking out of Norreport with a penny in one’s pocket and a cane in one’s hand…” (The Journals, July 14, 1837)

In the year that King Uzziah died, the state itself was in jeopardy.  There was a growing sense of homesickness for something unknown and far away, a sense of the depth of the threat of being nothing at all, of having nothing but a penny and a cane in one’s hand.  Everything was at risk.

It had been Uzziah who had mended the defenses of Jerusalem.  It had been Uzziah who had reorganized and reequipped the Judean army.  It had been Uzziah who had won and maintained control over the caravan routes to the South.  It had been Uzziah who had extended Judah’s frontiers at the expense of neighboring Philistines and Edomites.

When Uzziah had become king at the age of 16, a tutor named Zechariah had “instructed him in the fear of God” (2 Chronicles 26:5) and Uzziah had found favor in the eyes of God.  But somewhere toward the end of his 53-year reign, the king’s pride led to his own undoing (26:16).

Here’s how the Chronicler of Second Chronicles tells the story of how the great King Uzziah became a leper.

“But when (Uzziah) was strong he grew proud, to his destruction.  For he was false to the Lord his God, and he entered the temple of the Lord to burn incense on the altar of incense.”  Burning incense in the temple was the sole responsibility and privilege of the priests, whose role Uzziah now usurped.  His political and military grandiosity now spilled over into spiritual entitlement and boundless authority.  Uzziah no longer needed the priests.  Uzziah no longer needed anybody but himself, and perhaps the God whose blessing he could commandeer by offering the incense.  There was still a part of Uzziah that was homesick for something unknown and far away. But his habits as commander and chief confused him into believing that everything was within his control.

Well, as the king entered the sanctuary of the temple – the place where only the priests had authority to enter – to burn the incense, “Azariah the priest went in after him, with eighty priests of the Lord who were men of valor, and they withstood King Uzziah, and said to him, ‘It is not for you, Uzziah, to burn incense to the Lord, but for the priests the sons of Aaron, who are consecrated to burn incense.  Go out of the sanctuary; for you have done wrong, and it will bring you no honor from the Lord God.’

“Then” says the Chronicler, “Uzziah was angry.  Now he had a censer in his hand to burn incense, and when he became angry with the priests, leprosy broke out on his forehead, in the presence of the priests in the house of the Lord, by the altar of incense.  And Azariah the chief priest, and all the priests looked at him, and behold, he was leprous in his forehead!  And they thrust him out quickly, and he himself hastened to go out, because the Lord had smitten him.  And King Uzziah was a leper to the day of his death, and being a leper dwelt in a separate house, for he was excluded from the house of the Lord.” (2 Chronicles 26:16-21a).

In the year that King Uzziah died, Isaiah, by way of contrast, stands humbly in the temple.  He smells the sweet incense offered by the priests.  He sees the Lord high and lifted up.  He is struck dumb by the infinite distance between all human claims to power and authority and the power and authority of the King of kings and Lord of hosts.  He feels the foundations shaking, senses that he is lost and cries out “Woe is me, for I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”

The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” – Isaiah 6:1-5.

Who of us has not shared something of Isaiah’s and Uzziah’s experience?  Who of us, like Uzziah, has not confused God’s favor for a blank check to do our bidding?  Yet who has not sensed the imponderable distance between God’s holiness and our unworthiness?  Who of us has not been jolted and jarred by the infinite distinction and discrepancy between the majestic holiness and rule of God sung by the seraphim and our banality as thankless children of privilege? Who of us has not felt the foundations of the threshold shake?  Who of us has not smelled the smoke and whispered, if not cried out loud, with Isaiah “Who is me!”

Ours is a time like that.  No king has died.  But there is a sense that things are out of our control.  There is also the sense that those who would lead us and those who campaign for them have used religion to further their own political ambitions.  Where are the eighty priests who will call them up short to stop them from burning the incense on a national altar. And, if truth be told, we are as angry as Uzziah was the day he broke out in leprosy.  Anger eats away at our souls.

Troubled by the impending death of a dear friend and mentor, and angry about an election that seems to slay truth more often than honoring it, Kay and I recently welcomed the opportunity to spend a few days with some old friends on the shores of Lake Superior.

The days on Lake Superior were reminiscent of the days in Rockport.  The granite rock formations, the clearness of the water like the clearness of the North Atlantic of my childhood.  Walking to the point of rocks that reminded me of my favorite place to meditate, my eyes fell upon a fragment of jawbone, washed white by the lake that had washed onto the shore.  I picked it up and cupped it in my hand as if its life had been my own.

Sitting on the rock, the animal fragment and I sat in the gentle stillness and rhythm of wave on rock.  I held in my hand the tiny physical reminder of a creature once wild, searching, finding, running, pulsing with life, now long since gone, and contemplated what it was and how it went.

Did you love this vast lake as I?  Enjoy its calm?  Scurry for cover in a storm?  Did you once sit upon this rock in stillness and wonder?

Did you stare, transfixed, into the endless motion of this inland sea and wonder how it came to be, and who you are to be a witness to it all, a tiny, momentary witness to it all?  Did you smell the sweetness of the temple’s incense?

Did you ever watch the rock and waves, lost in wonder at the beauty and the miracle of having eyes to see it just for today, just for now?  Did you ever hear the seraphim’s song that the whole earth is filled with God’s glory?

Slowly as I meditated, the distress and importance of this election slipped away as insignificant.  The liturgy of lies and half-truths, of innuendo and character assassination gave way to an older hymn of the Christian liturgy, Isaac Watts’ “Our God, our help in Ages Past”:

            Our God, our help in ages past,

Our hope for years to come,

Our shelter from the stormy blast

And our eternal home.

 

Time, like an ever-rolling stream,

Soon bears us all away;

We fly forgotten as a dream

Dies at the opening day.

 

Waves lapping,

Swelling, washing over Rock

Impervious, indifferent

To all change,

No dreams dying or forgotten.

 

Rock and water,

Yin and Yang,

Solid and fluid,

Changeless, ever changing,

Bear us all away.

 

One swirling, constant movement

Quarks on quarks in symphony,

Storm and calm, dark and light

Play each upon the other

All in motion without emotion.

 

On the shore of time

A jawbone relic of what once was

A creature of the movement

Lies in whitewashed stillness,

Inert, returning quark to quark.

 

Our God, our help in ages past,

Our hope for years to come,

Be Thou our guard while troubles last,

And our Eternal Home.

In the end, there is only the Holy One whose train fills the temple.  Therefore, Jesus said to his disciples, “Do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat, nor about your body, what you shall put on.  For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing.  Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them.  Of how much more value are you than the birds!  And which of you by being anxious can add a cubit to your span of life?

“Do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be of anxious mind.  For all the nations of the world seek these things; and your father knows that you need them.  Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things shall be yours as well.”

Then I thought I heard the Lord’s call to Isaiah in the temple, asking “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN,  January 18, 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

ON THE SHORE OF TIME

Gordon C. Stewart

October 17, 2004

 

Isaiah 6:1-8

Psalm 104:1-4, 24-35

Luke 12:22-34

 

It is not uncommon for people to have a favorite spot for peace and mediation.  Mine is a rock in Rockport, Massachusetts.  For as long ago as I can remember I have perched on Old Table Rock on Old Garden Beach.  The rock was large to a child’s eyes.  Big enough for my cousin Gina and I to saunter down the street to Old Table to spread out the feast of gourmet peanut butter and jelly sandwiches my mother had made for the just the two of us.

 

In part, my fondness for Old Table Rock no doubt was the companionship of Gina and the abundant evidence of my mother’s love.  It represents a kind of safe place hard to find in this world.

 

But that memory is only one of many memories of sitting on the rock.  When I sit on Old Table I am much more alert – and, at the same time, peaceful – than is normal for my anxious soul.  As a teenager Old Table offered a familiar place that knew me when my body was much less complicated than it had become.  It was a place that never seemed to change in spite of the waves that lapped or crashed against it, secure on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean’s ever-changing tides and currents, protecting the creatures that nestled beside it in the tide pools but never keeping them from going back out to sea.

 

I would sit on Old Table and watch the world go by: the great sea creatures, the lobsters and the crabs, the star fish and the periwinkles, the seaweeds and the mosses, green and yellow and the waving red kelp, the seagulls hovering over a lobster boat returning to the harbor or a single gull perched on the rock next door, waiting in vain hopes that we would throw it the sacramental elements of peanut butter and bread the signified my mother’s love.  It was a magical place.  Actually, not magical at all.  It was a place to ponder reality as it was and as it could be.

 

If Isaiah saw the Lord high and lifted up in the Temple, I saw the Lord high and lifted up by the edge of the Atlantic.  It is as though the world had stopped.  And the vast ocean that reached farther over the horizon than my eyes could see or my ears could hear was a mere teacup in the hand of the Creator.  The whole earth was filled with God’s glory.

 

When Isaiah saw the Lord high and lifted up, it was the year that King Uzziah died.  It was a time of national crisis.  The people had lost their king.  After years of comfortable living, everything was in flux.  Everything was swirling.   But in that anxious moment for the people of Judah, Isaiah turned his eye to something else.  He turned his eye to the One whose throne is in the heavens, high and lifted up, the mere train of whose robe fills the temple.  Just the train, the outskirt of his robe, just the hem of his garment, completely fills the temples human hands have made.  This is no domesticated god.  This is the Creator of the heavens and the earth, who spun the planets and put them in their places.  And Isaiah saw the heavenly creatures covering their faces from the glorious light of God’s holiness, hovering above the throne, singing in chorus a song of praise:

 

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;

The whole earth is filled with his majesty.”

 

“And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke.”

 

All this was in the year that King Uzziah died.  It was the death of the old earthly king that cleared the way for Isaiah to see the heavenly King, the Lord of hosts.  Perhaps it could have been said of Isaiah and his people that their lips were unclean because they had forgotten the King of kings and had relied instead on Uzziah for their peace and security.  Perhaps their lips were unclean because of Uzziah’s arrogance.  Or because they had not had the courage to speak their own truth to the old king.  Or perhaps their lips were unclean because no human mouth is ever quite capable of expressing the praise properly due God’s Name.  Perhaps Isaiah was thinking along the lines of Soren Kierkegaard who recoiled at the banality of his conventional Christian countrymen for whom morality was the highest virtue, but who never felt a even a twinge of awe or reverence.  Perhaps Isaiah could say of the lips of his people in the year that King Uzziah died what Kierkegaard would later say of his Danish countrymen:

 

Their ethics are a short summary of police ordinances; for them the most important thing is to be a useful member of the state, and to air their opinions in the club of an evening; they have never felt homesickness for something unknown and far away, nor the depth which consists in being nothing at all, of walking out of Norreport with a penny in one’s pocket and a cane in one’s hand…” (The Journals, July 14, 1837)

 

In the year that King Uzziah died, the state itself was in jeopardy.  There was a growing sense of homesickness for something unknown and far away, a sense of the depth of the threat of being nothing at all, of having nothing but a penny and a cane in one’s hand.  Everything was at risk.

 

It had been Uzziah who had mended the defenses of Jerusalem.  It had been Uzziah who had reorganized and reequipped the Judean army.  It had been Uzziah who had won and maintained control over the caravan routes to the South.  It had been Uzziah who had extended Judah’s frontiers at the expense of neighboring Philistines and Edomites.

 

When Uzziah had become king at the age of 16, a tutor named Zechariah had “instructed him in the fear of God” (2 Chronicles 26:5) and Uzziah had found favor in the eyes of God.  But somewhere toward the end of his 53-year reign, the king’s pride led to his own undoing (26:16).

Here’s how the Chronicler of Second Chronicles tells the story of how the great King Uzziah became a leper.

 

“But when (Uzziah) was strong he grew proud, to his destruction.  For he was false to the Lord his God, and he entered the temple of the Lord to burn incense on the altar of incense.”  Burning incense in the temple was the sole responsibility and privilege of the priests, whose role Uzziah now usurped.   His political and military grandiosity now spilled over into spiritual entitlement and boundless authority.  Uzziah no longer needed the priests.  Uzziah no longer needed anybody but himself, and perhaps the God whose blessing he could commandeer by offering the incense.  There was still a part of Uzziah that was homesick for something unknown and far away. But his habits as commander and chief confused him into believing that everything was within his control.

 

Well, as the king entered the sanctuary of the temple – the place where only the priests had authority to enter – to burn the incense, “Azariah the priest went in after him, with eighty priests of the Lord who were men of valor, and they withstood King Uzziah, and said to him, ‘It is not for you, Uzziah, to burn incense to the Lord, but for the priests the sons of Aaron, who are consecrated to burn incense.  Go out of the sanctuary; for you have done wrong, and it will bring you no honor from the Lord God.’

“Then” says the Chronicler, “Uzziah was angry.  Now he had a censer in his hand to burn incense, and when he became angry with the priests, leprosy broke out on his forehead, in the presence of the priests in the house of the Lord, by the altar of incense.  And Azariah the chief priest, and all the priests looked at him, and behold, he was leprous in his forehead!  And they thrust him out quickly, and he himself hastened to go out, because the Lord had smitten him.  And King Uzziah was a leper to the day of his death, and being a leper dwelt in a separate house, for he was excluded from the house of the Lord.” (2 Chronicles 26:16-21a).

In the year that King Uzziah died, Isaiah, by way of contrast, stands humbly in the temple.  He smells the sweet incense offered by the priests.  He sees the Lord high and lifted up.  He is struck dumb by the infinite distance between all human claims to power and authority and the power and authority of the King of kings and Lord of hosts.  He feels the foundations shaking, senses that he is lost and cries out “Woe is me, for I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

 

Who of us has not shared something of Isaiah’s and Uzziah’s experience?  Who of us, like Uzziah, has not confused God’s favor for a blank check to do our bidding?  Yet who has not sensed the imponderable distance between God’s holiness and our unworthiness?  Who of us has not been jolted and jarred by the infinite distinction and discrepancy between the majestic holiness and rule of God sung by the seraphim and our banality as thankless children of privilege? Who of us has not felt the foundations of the threshold shake?  Who of us has not smelled the smoke and whispered, if not cried out loud, with Isaiah “Who is me!”

 

Ours is a time like that.  No king has died.  But there is a sense that things are out of our control.  There is also the sense that those who would lead us and those who campaign for them have used religion to further their own political ambitions.  Where are the eighty priests who will call them up short to stop them from burning the incense on a national altar. And, if truth be told, we are as angry as Uzziah was the day he broke out in leprosy.  Anger eats away at our souls.

 

 

Troubled by the impending death of a dear friend and mentor, and angry about an election that seems to slay truth more often than honoring it, Kay and I recently welcomed the opportunity to spend a few days with some old friends on the shores of Lake Superior.

 

The days on Lake Superior were reminiscent of the days in Rockport.  The granite rock formations, the clearness of the water like the clearness of the North Atlantic of my childhood.  Walking to the point of rocks that reminded me of my favorite place to meditate, my eyes fell upon a fragment of jawbone, washed white by the lake that had washed onto the shore.  I picked it up and cupped it in my hand as if its life had been my own.

 

Sitting on the rock, the animal fragment and I sat in the gentle stillness and rhythm of wave on rock.  I held in my hand the tiny physical reminder of a creature once wild, searching, finding, running, pulsing with life, now long since gone, and contemplated what it was and how it went.

 

Did you love this vast lake as I?  Enjoy its calm?  Scurry for cover in a storm?  Did you once sit upon this rock in stillness and wonder?

 

Did you stare, transfixed, into the endless motion of this inland sea and wonder how it came to be, and who you are to be a witness to it all, a tiny, momentary witness to it all?  Did you smell the sweetness of the temple’s incense?

 

Did you ever watch the rock and waves, lost in wonder at the beauty and the miracle of having eyes to see it just for today, just for now?  Did you ever hear the seraphim’s song that the whole earth is filled with God’s glory?

 

Slowly as I meditated, the distress and importance of this election slipped away as insignificant.  The liturgy of lies and half-truths, of innuendo and character assassination gave way to an older hymn of the Christian liturgy, Isaac Watts’ “Our God, our help in Ages Past.

 

Our God, our help in ages past,

Our hope for years to come,

Our shelter from the stormy blast

And our eternal home.

 

Time, like an ever-rolling stream,

Soon bears us all away;

We fly forgotten as a dream

Dies at the opening day.

 

 

Waves lapping,

Swelling, washing over Rock

Impervious, indifferent

To all change,

No dreams dying or forgotten.

 

Rock and water,

Yin and Yang,

Solid and fluid,

Changeless, ever changing,

Bear us all away.

 

One swirling, constant movement

Quarks on quarks in symphony,

Storm and calm, dark and light

Play each upon the other

All in motion without emotion.

 

On the shore of time

A jawbone relic of what once was

A creature of the movement

Lies in whitewashed stillness,

Inert, returning quark to quark.

 

Our God, our help in ages past,

Our hope for years to come,

Be Thou our guard while troubles last,

And our Eternal Home.

 

In the end, there is only the Holy One whose train fills the temple.  Therefore, Jesus said to his disciples, “Do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat, nor about your body, what you shall put on.  For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing.  Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them.  Of how much more value are you than the birds!  And which of you by being anxious can add a cubit to your span of life?

 

“Do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be of anxious mind.  For all the nations of the world seek these things; and your father knows that you need them.  Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things shall be yours as well.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Be Still! Departing from Collective Madness

Writing Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (scheduled for release by Wipf and Stock Publishers in January), I had a growing sense of its prescience. The subtitle “departure from collective  madness” is anchored in the works of Elie Wiesel and Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, and the Gospel of Matthew’s story of the Wise Men (sic) who “departed” for their own country by another way.

As the date for final submission of the Be Still! manuscript drew near, I saw a madman running for the highest office of the land but underestimated the extent of the collective madness that would be drawn like iron to a magnet. The billionaire television personality who puts his name on everything his hands have touched, gave voice to people who have felt groped by the system.

Michael Moore, a champion of America’s forgotten working class, saw this coming. He was in touch with the many sources of anger that found a voice in Donald Trump, and he warned the Democratic Party to get in touch with it before it was too late.

Now it is history. I felt sick Wednesday morning. By yesterday evening, I was able to calm down. Today’s sense of nausea is worse than yesterday’s after reading “Meet Trump’s Cabinet-in-Waiting” – a cabinet which will put the country back into the hands Wall Street, big oil, climate change-deniers, and the likes of Chris Christie, Jeff Sessions (R-AL), Rudy Gulliani (Attorney General candidate), loose-talking groper Newt Gingrich (Secretary of State candidate), and CEOs.

President Obama and Secretary Clinton have called for the country to unite for an orderly transition. I believe in orderly transitions. I applaud them. A democratic republic depends upon such transitions. I support that. But I will not be united behind a madman or absorbed into a collective madness that bodes evil. I will not turn over cars. I will not stop traffic. I will not burn things. I will write. And write. And write knowing, as this election has reaffirmed, that words DO matter.

I will do my best to be still. I will follow the example the biblical Wise Men (sic) who “being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, . . . departed into their own country another way”[Matthew 2:12 KJV]. Herod was a strongman in whom there was no refuge. There was and is another way.

God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
God will help it when the morning dawns.

The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.

The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.

Come, behold the works of the Lord;
see what desolations he has brought on the earth.
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.

“Be still, and know that I am God!
I am exalted among the nations,
I am exalted in the earth.”

The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.

[Psalm 46]

Amen. May it be so.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, November 10, 2016