From the pulpit I could see him in the last pew. He always arrived late — usually during the first hymn — and left early, during the last hymn. Some people prefer to be anonymous, for all kinds of reasons.
For months, I wondered who he was.
Then, one day, he stayed through the closing hymn, the benediction, and what we Presbyterians call “The Charge” to follow in the way of Christ that begins, “Go into the world in peace; have courage . . . .”
“Go into the world in peace; have courage; hold to what is good; do not return evil for evil; strengthen the faint-hearted; support the weak; help the suffering; honor all people; love and serve the Lord rejoicing in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.”
He heard the words but left as quickly as before.
Then, one day, he found the courage to introduce himself at the door. As best I can recall, he said with a smile, “You may have wondered who I am. “My name is Sam. I’m dying of AIDS.”
Sam was my up-close-and-personal introduction to AIDS and the HIV/AIDS community. Months later, he became the first and only patient to offer me the Charge and Benediction.
Thank you, Sam, for your courage, for keeping the light of faith burning where others sought to blow it out, and for your gracious Charge and Benediction. Rest in peace.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
North American culture of 2019 is like a house on fire. Words like ‘holy’ and holiness’ are . . . well… relics of tradition. We’re free thinkers, not … not like that!
It was, I suppose, a coincidence that this post caught my eye while reading G.K. Chesterton’s view of democracy and tradition, yet the two readings strike me leading upstream to the same source.
“Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead,” wrote 34 year-old Chesterton nearly a century ago in a book with an arcane title (Orthodoxy) that sends us free thinkers running from a house fire.
Although it seemed outdated at the time, I now remember with nostalgia the rest I knew as a child on Sundays when the noise and distractions were stilled. We opened the windows, breathed fresh air, gave thanks we were still breathing, and went down for a long afternoon nap.
Saint Peter: Greetings, Donald. I’ve been expecting you, but not so soon. I have a few questions before you go through the Pearly Gates to the streets of gold.
Donald: Sure, fire away. I’m very familiar with pearly gates. It can’t be much better than Mar-a-Lago. Fire away!
Okay, Donald. But I have to warn you–everyone up here is equal. There are no private clubs. No towers. No penthouses. No White Houses. No barrios. No borders. No trade restrictions. No nations. No classes other than the de-programming and re-training classes. Everyone has free medical care. No one is rich. No one is poor. It’s a lot like Karl Marx hoped society would be … except for God. Karl was surprised. Are you ready?
Are you serious!!! Why would I want to go in there? This is crazy. Karl Marx was evil. Communism was evil. Socialism is evil. Obama’s evil. Nancy’s evil! Are they here?
Barack and Nancy haven’t arrived yet, but, when their time comes, we’ll treat them the same way we treat everyone else. Lots of your friends are here in the re-training course: Joe[McCarthy], Roy [Cohn], other members of the Trump family.
What about Karl? He’s been dead a long time.
Karl is enjoying the pleasures of the equality he preached while still with you. Karl’s big surprise was that there is a God.
I don’t want to be any place where Karl is welcome. Jerry [Falwell] andFranklin [Graham] told me all about the Judgment. No way Karl is here! No way!
I guess that’s a matter of judgment, don’t you think?
Right. I’m President. I make the judgments. I decide.
I see. It seems you don’t quite get it, Donald. There are no presidents here. No one owns any property here. Everyone here is a child, just like Jesus said. Can I call you ‘Donnie’?
No. I hate that! Mother called me ‘Donnie’. My dad called me ‘Don’.
Okay, Don, I won’t call you ‘Donnie’.
And don’t call me ‘Don’. Dad kicked me out of the house and sent me away to a military academy. I hated that!
Do you still have them? Show me your foot. Everyone up here has bare feet. There are no shoes. Nothing is hidden. Let me see your foot.
No, they’re gone!
Donald, bone spurs don’t just go away, and, when they’ve been removed, the foot will bear the scars from surgery. Show me your foot.
I don’t have a scar! My sister came to the rescue with EZorb. It went away! I’m not hiding anything. I don’t hide things like the fake news and the whistleblowers.
I see. Donald we have a truth problem. Your sister couldn’t have given you EZorb. It didn’t exist when the draft board gave you the deferments. Truth is truth up here, Donald.
That’s fake news! Fake news! You’re part of the deep state that was out to get me.
I’m sorry you feel that way, Donald. Here it doesn’t matter how you feel. It matters what you did. Only facts matter here.
I was making America great again. I’m not like you. I never let a maid expose me out in the courtyard!
You’re in for a great surprise. This is not Mar-a-Largo. Here the maids who spoke truth in the courtyards and cleaned the toilets, and all the undocumented workers, are equal to everyone else. It’s only a matter of time before your family’s driver and all those people at the border join the maids and me up here.
You believe everything you read in the Times? What driver?
I don’t know anything about that! It’s all fake news. All fake news!
I’m sorry, Donald. You’ve failed the test. But, like I said, there’s grace here. Feel free take a seat here outside the Pearly Gates until your family’s driver and all the other ICE detainees arrive. In the meantime, a little scripture might help prepare you for the re-training.
I don’t need re-training by a loser, a big time lose just like Judas! Anyway, I didn’t bring my Bible.
I know! You don’t have a Bible, Donald. So…Click THIS LINK for Jesus’s surprising story of the sheep and the goats, the parable of the Last Judgment, to help you understand why people go through re-training here. The Losers turn out to be Winners, and the Winners are Losers. We do our best up here to keep hell empty!
— Gordon C. Stewart. public theologian, Chaska, MN, October 16, 2019
Americans say the word ‘love’ a lot! Nearly all of us do. But, except for members of the armed forces, we don’t much like the word ‘duty‘. How is it, then, that one of the greatest intellects of the 20th century known for his often inscrutable philosophical theology, Paul Tillich, put ‘love’ and ‘duty’ together in one short sentence?
The first duty of love is to listen.
Perhaps Tillich’s German culture might help explain his coupling duty and love. Duty is higher on German culture’s ladder of human virtues than in Tillich’s adopted home in the United States where ‘freedom’ rather than ‘duty’ is seen as love’s companion.
WATCHING LESTER HOLT AT THE RESTAURANT BAR
Lester Holt of NBC’s Nightly News is on the television screens behind the bar. Kay sits to my left; a stranger is on my right. We can’t hear the sounds, but the visuals leave no doubt about the day’s lead stories:
Sixteen year-old climate change activist Greta Thunberg is at the podium of the United Nations, issuing an urgent call for action now, before it’s too late.
The President of the USA drops by the meeting on climate change . . . for 15 minutes;
Speaker Nancy Pelosi announces an impeachment inquiry, a decision taken in consideration of the Trump-appointed Inspector-General’s finding that a whistleblower’s complaint appears credible and is of urgent concern to national security.
The guy sitting to my right watches in silence. He looks neither happy nor unhappy. He seems perplexed, staring at Lester and the verbal summaries of each news item.
Finally he shakes his head and breaks the silence. “Just like that Mueller thing. They already wasted thirty-million dollars on that Russian thing, and they got nothing. Now they’re going to waste our tax money again.” I shake my head “No” and ask whether he knows that the Mueller report does not exonerate the president on the question of obstruction of justice. He listens and says he didn’t know that. I continue, rather politely, or so I thought, until reading the note my wife slipped in front of me:
You’ve just ruined this place for us.
The 20-something bartender chimes in from behind the bar. “I don’t care about politics. All I know is — any politician who doesn’t take a paycheck is okay by me. I’m good with that.” I bite my lip and order a second Manhattan. Being human is hard!
LOVE’S FIRST DUTY: JESUS, A PHARISEE, AND W.H. AUDEN
The guys at the bar don’t know I’m a Presbyterian and couldn’t care less if they did. But I should have told them! A bit like the Friends (“Quakers”), we hold a high respect for the right and duty of conscience. We stand up for what is right, true, and good, as we understand it. In doing so, we are often guilty of ignoring the log in our own eye while pointing to the speck in our neighbor’s. Given that I’d ruined our favorite place, it’s not likely we’ll see each other again. And that’s a shame, all because I’d forgotten that the deepest duty of conscience is to love, and the first duty of love is to listen.
The Pharisee was right when he answered Jesus’s question about the summary of the Law. “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.” Or, as W.H. Auden put it:
You shall love your crooked neighbor, with your crooked heart.
“Either we serve the Unconditional/Or some Hitlerian monster will supply/ An iron convention to do evil by.”
It’s four o’clock in the morning. He’s wide awake, his mind swirling. He puts on the hoodie disguise to walk from his white house to the tenement in the ‘hood’ he’s visited before. He avoids the Secret Service and television cameras. He enters the building, takes a deep breath, and lowers himself to climb the rusting metal stairs to the fifth floor walk-up apartment in hopes no one will recognize him.
The tenement-dweller has been waiting for him since their last visit months before. The door is ajar. The tenement-dweller never locks the door. No one needs to knock. The homeless, “women of the night”, pimps, people on the other side of the law, and cops who enforce it, alcoholics and drug addicts, the opioid and heroin dealers, and people in high white places are always welcome here.
The Tenement-Dweller: the Man in the Hood
“Welcome, friend,” says the tenement-dweller. “I’ve wondered when you might come for another visit.” He points to the dumpster chairs — the folding wood chair with the missing slat and the torn red leather wingback to the left and right of the small cardboard box end table. The night visitor chooses the high wingback.
“Can I get you something to drink?” asks the tenement dweller. “I have a nice variety of perfectly good teas. Not to worry; they’re from the dumpster, but they’re still in their wrappers,” he says with a smile. “Camomile is good for a restless night.” The night visitor nods his assent and watches his counselor walk past the rat traps to the Coleman stove and return with the kettle, an assortment of tea bags, two chipped cups, and a small plate of ginger snaps he’d put together for whatever guest might come that morning.
“There’s not much room on this table,” says the tenement dweller, pointing to the cardboard box with the small lamp between the chairs. “Would you mind removing that book to make room for the tray?” The tenement dweller pours the hot water into the cups, and, with a warm smile, gestures toward the tea bags and ginger snaps.
A Privileged Conversation
“Things haven’t gone so well for you since our last visit. You’re still wearing that hoodie! I like that! So … what brings you this morning?”
The night visitor removes his hood.
“I’m a stranger in my own house. I’m more alone than ever. My beautiful wife and beautiful daughter are upset about the thing at the border, and now the Epstein thing. And . . . yesterday the Scaramucci thing. And who knows what’s going to come out of Michael’s big mouth! I can’t even trust FOX any more.”
There is a silence before the tenement-dweller responds.
“Well, that’s a lot to carry.”
“It is. I’m weary and heavy-laden.That’s why I’m here. I’m taking you at your word.”
“I see. I’m glad you remembered, and I’m glad you came back to lay your burden down. But first, I need to clear the air a bit. You hurt my feelings when you attacked Elijah Cummings with those tweets about his district and his character. You called his district a rat and rodent-infested mess. Take a look around, Donald. What do you see? That’s where you are. Take a look at me. What color do you think I am?
“And all those people in concentration camps at the border, the wink-winks toward the gun lobby after all these mass shootings, and the cruelty of calling poor people fleeing for their lives ‘invaders.’ You know as well as I do that there is no invasion at the border. The people in those camps and the people in my neighborhood are as dear to me as you are. And now this thing with Israel and two Muslim congresswomen. It’s off the rails, Donald. If I didn’t know your need, I would have assumed you’d never put on the hoodie again.
The Book on the Box
“That book from the table, the one on your lap, I got just for you, Donald. I want you to take it home and read it.”
“I don’t read much. I’m a slow reader.”
“I know, and you hide it. You’re embarrassed by it. But it’s just the two of us here. So, let’s do this. You don’t have to read the whole book. Just turn to the bookmarked page and read the highlighted sections I marked for you after our last visit. Read it out loud while we’re still together.”
Donald opens the book and reads aloud:
“The more insecure, doubtful, and lonely we are, the greater our need for popularity and praise. Sadly … the more praise we receive, the more we desire. The hunger for human acceptance is like a bottomless barrel….The search for spectacular glitter is an expression of doubt in God’s complete and unconditional acceptance of us. It is, indeed, putting God to the test. It is saying, ‘I am not sure that you really care, that you really love me, that you really consider me worthwhile. I will give you a chance to show it by soothing my fears with human praise and by alleviating my sense of worthlessness by human applause….’ The….experience of God’s acceptance frees us from our needy self and thus creates new space where we can pay selfless attention to others. This new freedom in Christ allows us to move in the world uninhibited by our compulsions….”
Henri Nouwen, The Selfless Way of Christ: Downward Mobility and the Spiritual Life
“You got this thinking of me? You think I’m insecure? You think I’m moving in the world compulsively? I don’t need praise, but look at the applause! They love me. They support me. I could shoot somebody in broad daylight standing in the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue, and they’d still love me. I can do whatever I want.”
“Take the book with you, Donald. What I know that you don’t yet know is in the other sections I highlighted just for you. Applause is not love. If applause were love, you wouldn’t have disguised yourself. You wouldn’t have risked coming here. Love is something else. In the end, love is all there is. Think about that on your walk back, and read those pages over and over. Read them every morning before you think about tweeting. Only then will you not feel homeless.”
— Gordon C. Stewart, by the wetland, MN, August 16, 2019.
How we look at the world is a matter of personal experiences and how we integrate them. Each new experience confirms or changes how we see and what we see. Reading exchanges about Baltimore took me back to a shattering of perception at the end of a summer internship as a street outreach worker with Corinthian Avenue Chapel in North Philadelphia. The acknowledgements of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness take the reader back to “the Brothers of Opal Street”:
Last, but by no means least, is a group of men who would be shocked to find themselves mentioned anywhere but in a courtroom. “The Brothers of Opal Street,” as they called themselves — eight black homeless former inmates of Eastern State Penitentiary in North Philadelphia — had a farewell conversation in late August 1962, with me, a naive nineteen year-old street outreach worker. As we sat on the stoop of a boarded up tenement on Opal Street, they said good-bye with a startling instruction not to return to the ghetto. “Go back to ‘your people’ and change things there. Only when things change there will there be hope for the people here.”
What they called “my people” lived in the white western suburbs of Philadelphia. I have come to believe that last day on Opal Street was its own kind of ordination. This book is in memory of them.
Opal Street was one-block long with no traffic. The far end of the street was boarded in the same way the street’s tenements were. At the far end was the yellow chalk outline of a body. Half way between the entrance to Opal Street and the police chalk mark sat the men on wood orange crates, passing the bottle or the jug to numb themselves against the world that had no regard for their dignity or the stories that had brought them there.
“‘Go back to your people and change things there” sent me home and off to college asking existential questions about who ‘my people’ were and what the relationship was between the manicured lawns, rash-free streets, and country clubs of the Mainline western suburbs and the “rat and rodent infested mess” I had left behind in North Philadelphia.
Some moments last a lifetime. Some experiences forever change what we see as much as how we see. It’s hard to see Opal Street over drinks at the 19th hole.
“I’m having a hard time ...”
he said with a scowl
coming through the line
to shake the hand
of the preacher who had
preached his first sermon
at the church judged
to be the leading voice in
the civil rights and peace
movements in the city.
“I’m having a hard time
not hitting you,” he said,
holding back his right arm
with his left hand as the
new 26 year-old anti-war
pastor reached to shake
“Pools of Blood” had packed
a punch with the chair of the
City Human Rights Commission.
GCS, July 20, 2019
Written in response to today’s Weekend Writing Promptchallenge to write a poem or prose on the word “judge” with exactly 95 words.
Harvard Divinity School New Testament Professor Krister Stendahl taught his students to think of the world as a beautiful tapestry in need of mending. A tapestry is comprised of a diversity of threads. It’s beauty is marred whenever a thread is broken or falls away from the whole. ‘Sin’ is both a condition — a torn tapestry — and an act of tearing the tapestry.
To be human is to be part of this tapestry, never the whole of it! Sin is the tearing of the tapestry. The human vocation is to mend creation.
Morning Chapel with Krister Stendahl
The morning I’m remembering, a Japanese Buddhist monk — one of four residents Divinity Hall residents who cooked and shared dinner together each evening — asked to go with me to experience the chapel service.
Krister presided at a weekly Chapel service at Harvard Divinity School. Thirty participants was a crowd. It was a quiet gathering that required a sense of humility: speaking aloud the Prayer of Confession of Sin; hearing Krister’s gracious Asssurance of Pardon; singing in unison the sung responses; listening for a word from God in the readings of Holy Scripture brought to life by Krister’s gentle and bold interpretaton; and the Liturgy of the Eucharist, gathered in the single circle surrounding the Table to which Christ had invited us; receiving the consecrated elements of bread and wine in a sacred silence when we could feel the mending by the Weaver of the tapesty of Creation.
The Japanese Buddhist at the Communion Table
When it came time to form the circle around the table, my Buddhist friend showed no hesitation. He took his place and stood erect and still in a quiet posture of prayer, his fingers pointing skyward, his palms together in the center of his chest. When Krister offered him the consecrated bread and wine of this uniquely Christian sacrament, he bowed to Krister, his neck and torso bending low, a sign of respect for Krister and reverence for the sacrament itself.
Koyama bowing to his junior
Years later Japanese Christian theologian Kosuke (“Ko” to his friends) Koyama and I stood together behind the Lord’s Table at Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska, MN. As we took our places behind the table, Ko did what the Buddhist monk had done with Krister.
Two ordained Ministers of Word and Sacrament around whom the circle was formed and by whom the worshipers were offered bread and wine . . . in a sacred silence.
Two ordained Ministers of Word and Sacrament around whom the circle was formed and by whom the worshipers were offered bread and wine . . . in a sacred silence like the one I’d experienced with my Japanese friend in circle at Andover Chapel years ago.
Sympathy and Civilization
Kosuke Koyama died in 2009, but he still speaks. He still teaches us Americans to bow. Sorting through old files, a personal letter and 28 page manuscript — Ko’s lecture notes, “How Many Languages does God speak? — Sympathy and Civilization,” the six-week course Ko had taught — leaped from the drawer.
How strange that the author of a book dedicated to his memory would have forgotten the treasure of Ko’s letter and unpublished manuscript. Peggy Shriver’s tribute to Ko is the first thing to meet the eyes of a reader of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness:
In Memory of Kosuke (Ko) Koyama
Gentle and strong as trees
Bend gracefull in wind,
You stand — I bow.
— Peggy Shriver, 2009 oo
In the weeks ahead, Views from the Edge will feature excerpts from “How Many Languages Does God Speak? — Sympathy and Civilization.”
The three trumpeter swan goslings are a sight to behold. I look through the field glasses for a closer look. The parents are huge; they are tiny. Their parents are protectors; they need protection. The parents are trustworthy; the goslings are trusting.
Watching the trumpeter swan family slowly paddling on the wetland’s open water next to the cabin makes me stop my restless paddling. I come to a dead stop to drink in the serene beauty of the swans on the wetland waters.
Later in the day I remember Mrs. Thomas. Ninety-one years old Mrs. Thomas who introduced my kindergarten Vacation Bible School to the Psalm 100. David, Alex, Woody, Teddy, Ronnie, Bobby, Dottie, Carolyn and I were the goslings. Old Mrs. Thomas was not our parent, and she knew it. She was building our trust in what would endure long after she was gone.
Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all ye lands. Serve the LORD with gladness: Come before his presence with singing.
It’s ‘the lands’ — all the lands, not just the lands’ human inhabitants, red and yellow, black and white — that are summoned to sing and give praise. The LORD — in upper case LORD is speaking, the LORD whom our Lord (lower case) Jesus revealed and served. It’s every square inch of Earth that is called to be joyful and to serve the One who cannot be seen but must be trusted.
Know ye that the LORD, he is God: It is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves: We are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
“Ninety-one year old Mrs. Thomas, the old lady with a big hat and a dead mink with its head still on draped around her shoulders like Grandma, talks funny! Nobody says ‘ye’ or ‘hath’ anymore. We say ‘you’, not ‘ye’. We know more than Mrs. Thomas”. But something gets lost when ‘ye’ becomes ‘you’. ‘You’ doesn’t distinguish between singular and plural, the way Hebrew does. ’Ye’ makes it clear the psalmist is talking to ‘us’, not just ‘I’, not just ‘me’.
“Know ye” — David, Alex, Woody, Teddy, Ronnie, Bobby, Dottie, Carolyn and Gordy! — what Mrs. Thomas knows: that the LORD is God, and that we didn’t make ourselves. The LORD is the Creator; we are among the creatures of the land. Like sheep safely grazing in the shepherd’s pasture, or goslings paddling under their parents’ watchful care.
Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, And into his courts with praise: Be thankful unto him, and bless his name.
Mrs. Thomas calms our fears. She assures us we’re not going to jail, and that God is not mean like the school principal or his ‘safety patrol’ prowling the schoolyard at recess to find the rule-breakers.
God wasn’t sending us to Pops Warfel’s office and we weren’t going to prison. The “courts of the LORD” are not courtrooms; they’re something else. What they are remains a mystery, like heaven! Or maybe they’re not a mystery. Maybe the ‘lands’ — the nations and places of Earth — are the courts of the LORD. Who really knows? Who can know the Breath that blows the breath of life into every living creature and land and sea everywhere all the time?
For the LORD is good: his mercy is everlasting: And his truth endureth through all generations.
The goslings place their trust in their parents. It does not occur to them to distrust them. We kindergartners paddle along by Mrs. Thomas’ side, learning the difference between ‘us’ and ‘me, ‘we’ and ‘I’, and the mercy that is much older and much longer-lasting than Mrs. Thomas.
Today my brother Bob and sister-in-law Janice will drive to Indiantown Gap National Cemetery to lay flowers on Dad’s grave.
Our father served as the Army Air Force chaplain for troops in the South Pacific before, during, and after the bombing of Tokyo. During Dad’s absence, my mother and I lived with my grandparents in Boston and South Paris, Maine, where Dad’s safe return was foremost in prayers before every meal.
I was three-and-a-half when Dad came home at the end of the war. The memory is clear as a bell. I watched as my father emerge from the B-29 bomber, walked down the ramp and across the tarmac at Boston’s Logan Airport. When he picked me up and took me in his arms, I reared back and asked “Are you really my Daddy?” “I am,” he said, “and I’m never going away again.”
All these years later, my hair has turned white, my skin is wrinkled, the world is mute without the hearing aids, my bones ache, and my head hurts most days. But I’m still the three year-old who felt the heavy weight of concern around my grandparents’ table listening for news from the South Pacific
Today I’m remembering again that night when the burly WWII Marine veteran unburdened himself of the locked box of hidden artifacts from the Japanese soldier he’d killed in hand-to-hand combat during the American invasion of Saipan. The ending of the story written just a few years ago is sorely incomplete.
So…today I observe Memorial Day by returning to the original sense of Memorial Day as a day to remember the fallen – ALL of them – but even more, a day to re-commit to ending the insanity of war itself. It’s a day when I remember the in-breaking of sacredness – three men in the living room – two live Americans and one Japanese – and pray for something better for us all.
Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness, p.12
This Memorial Day the three-year-old who waited for his father’s return remembers how strange memory is. As Bob and Janice lay flowers on Dad’s grave today, I am more conscious of a glaring omission. There were not three men in the living room that night. There were four. Dad was the first man there. Bless you, Dad. RIP.