I’m not ready for this. I’m not wired for a world gone haywire. Like the psalmist, I am “old and gray” (Ps. 71:18), living in a frantic world that makes no sense, knowing that speaking what little I think I have come to know will not reach beyond what remains of a shrinking circle of influence. Even so, I continue to write in the vain hope it may make a difference.
Listening through the stethoscope
Sitting in front of a blank sheet of paper/blank computer screen is the morning exercise to find my deeper self again. Writing is like a stethoscope to hear what’s inside my chest. Writing taps into the deeper stream of consciousness — sighs and groans too deep for words.
Some days begin and end with a blank page. Other mornings the groaning and sighing summon me to write. Not just for myself, but for others as well. That’s what publictheologians do.
Reality and illusion
The Psalter is always close by. The psalms take me deeper. Only then can I go wider. The Psalms are poetry. They are not prescriptions. They are the naked, honest, unfiltered, uncensored expressions of what the psalmist feels and thinks in that moment. The psalmist is exposed. No secret is hidden. No pride left unmasked. Every Illusion of grandeur blown away by the wind.
The three year-old and the-man-in-the-radio
The poet of Psalm 71 is old and gray. So am I. Listening through the stethoscope, I hear unresolved sighing and groaning from early childhood.
I am three years-old, sitting around the dining room table with my grandparents and my mother. My mother and I are living with Grandpa and Grandma Stewart in Chestnut Hill, MA. My father is in the big war somewhere far, far away. Every night, Grandpa looks at his watch, stops eating, leaves the table, and walks over to the big brown radio. He pushes a button to let the man-in the-radio talk to us. “Shhhhh,” says Grandpa, as I continue talking. “We need to be real quiet so we can hear the news.” The man-in-the-radio begins to talk. He’s serious. He’s not fun, but no one is afraid of him. Everyone listens carefully.
Some nights the man-in-the-radio stops to let another man in the radio talk. The other man is not nice. He’s not kind. He’s mean. He’s angry. He’s scary. Even for Grandpa! I watch the faces of my mother, grandpa and grandma as they listen for news about the big war far, far away where my father is the Army Chaplain. My father is the only one on Saipan who doesn’t have a gun. He may not make it home or he might come home dead.
Honoring a promise
I am old and gray and hard of hearing, but I have a stethoscope. I still hear the groaning and sighing in my chest and I still hear the madman in the radio. I determined early in life that if Adolf Hitler won the war and came to Chestnut Hill, I would not be silent. I would not stay seated. I would stand up. I would speak up! I would tell what I know and not let go, for the sake of generations yet to come.
And now that I am old and grey-headed, O God, do not forsake me,
til I make known Your strength to this generation
and Your power to all who are to come. (Ps. 71:18 BCP).
Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf & Stock), Brooklyn Park, MN, October 3, 2021.
This “conversation” between Grandpa (Bumpa) and Elijah took place during the Senate’s first impeachment trial. It’s been buried in the draft file. Elijah was two-and-a-half at the time. But some things are still true when Elijah is four.
Elijah: I don’t get it, Bumpa! I have questions.
Grandpa: What questions, Elijah? Shoot!
I don’t want to! We don’t like guns at daycare!
I’m sorry, Elijah. I don’t mean shoot. I meant it as a “figure of speech”.
Yeah! We like figures. One, two, free, four, . . . l, m, n, o, p. . .
I’m so proud of you!, Elijah! You know your numbers and your ABCs! But “a figure of speech” is different, it’s an idiom.
Like . . . you might say that somebody “lies like a rug.” So what are your question?
We hate lying, We like facts, right Bumpa?
Yes. We do, Elijah.
So we don’t like the Publicans. They lie like rugs, right?
Yeah, Publicans, like the ones on TV who hate facts and get all angry on TV.
We’re not Publicans! We like Jesus, right?
Well, yes, sort of. You’ll come to your own faith as you grow older. The Publicans collected taxes for the Romans. It would be like Americans working for a foreign government.
Okay. But we’re not publicans. We don’t like craters and creezin, right?
Creezin? Are you sure you have the right words?
Geez, Bumpa! Don’t ya know? C r e e z i n ! Like you and Grandma have for breakfast every morning.
Ah, now I get it. We eat Raisin Bran. R a i s i n B r a n. You mean treason! T r e a s o n.
Yeah! Are they going to de-peach you? Did you commit creezin? Are you and Gamma craters who should be de-peached? Publicancraters?
Those are big words you’ll learn about in school. No, we can’t be impeached, and we’re not Publicans. We try to stick with the facts, not lie like a rug. Any other questions?
Yeah. Ucranes. We have Ucranes at the cabin. Do Ucranes whistle?
After the Newtown school massacre, the church in Chaska hosted a carefully prepared program of respectful conversations on The Episode of Gun Violence. The first of three consecutive Tuesday evenings would begin with the local police chief and sheriff who represented pro- and anti-gun control positions.
The three of us met over morning coffee to go over last-minute details of that first event, but the conversation took a different turn. The chief and sheriff recommended we cancel the program because of real threats of organized disruption and, perhaps, violence. The good news was they were coming. The bad news was they were coming with guns. The church decided to proceed, and declined the chief’s offer of uniformed officers to ensure peace and security. Later that day, I did as I was taught. I held a meeting with myself to clear my head and prepare for what might come. The letter from myself to myself is still on file. The rubrics have been added.
LETTER TO MYSELF (THE MODERATOR)
How do we have this conversation? Can we talk? Can we all get along?
Every word, every phrase, is a powder keg. All speech is suspect. We listen not with open ears to hear a different point of view. We approach each other with suspicion, reacting defensively or aggressively to any hint that the conversation might be prejudiced against one’s own point of view. Even a title is a land mine.
Guns and I
I love the U.S. Constitution. I also don’t like guns. My only experiences with guns have been negative. The assassinations of President Abraham Lincoln in the Booth Theater and JFK in Dallas; Martin Luther King, Jr. supporting the striking sanitation workers in Memphis; presidential candidate Senator Robert Kennedy. A gun has only one purpose: to shoot something or someone. It has no other use. Violence is often committed with one’s own fist. But capacity to hurt or destroy does not define a hand. A foot may kick, but that’s not why we have feet. A baseball bat picked up in a moment of rage is a lethal weapon, but it is not by definition a weapon; its purpose is to hit a baseball within the rules of baseball. A car can become a lethal weapon in the hands of a car bomber, but its purpose is transportation, to get us from here to there and back.
Prone to evil and slothful in good
The human capacity for violence is deep and ineradicable. It’s in our DNA. The story of Cain’s slaying of his brother Abel is not about the beginning of human history; it is one of the defining facts of human nature itself. As my tradition puts it in a Prayer of Confession, “We are prone to evil and slothful in good.”
My tendency toward evil is often the conviction that I am right. I need to be reminded that my experience with guns is not the same as it is for those who grew up on a farm or a ranch where guns serve the purpose of killing a wolf or coyote or of putting down an injured horse out of mercy. The experience in rural America is different from the small town outside a major city in which I was raised, and it is different from urban centers by reason of low population density. My ownership of a gun on the farm is not a threat to the person next door in a tenement or in the housing development of the suburb. Guns in rural America serve different purposes. And, it seems to me, the split and the suspicion regarding guns and violence in America is to a great extent defined by these two very different social experiences, demographics, and cultures. You cannot love God unless . . .
Beyond fear and suspicion
Having spent the past two weeks trying to organize a series of respectful conversations in the wake of Newtown has brought home how difficult it is to have conversation. Fear of the other is rampant. “I won’t appear on the same program with him. He’s an extremist.” Or, “I don’t think I’ll come. I don’t like trouble.” Or, “You bet I’ll be there. We’re going to pack the house!”
But the gospel of Jesus which is the center of Christian faith calls us to live by the Spirit of the Living God, not by fear or suspicion. Christ himself was the human “other” – the one on whom every side projected its hatred of the other side – and ultimately the representative of the “Wholly Other” who is other to us all.
Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also. (First Letter of John 4:20-21).
First Letter of John 4:20-21 NRSV
Mutual Respect and Forbearance
I also find wisdom in the organizing principles of my religious tradition. The Preliminary Principles of Church Order (adopted in 1789) give some advice for how to conduct ourselves when we strenuously disagree. They are called preliminary because they lay the theological-ethical foundation for life together. They are aspirational principles to guide church members and local churches in how we interact as disciples of Jesus. As children of God, we believe:
…” that there are truths and forms with respect to which people of good character and principles may differ. In all these it is the duty both of private Christians and societies to exercise mutual forbearance toward each other.”
Preliminary Principles of Church Order (adopted at the organizing of the Presbyterian Church USA in 1789).
Can we have a respectful conversation?
I’m trying my best to do my duty. Can the pastor with strong personal views also serve as the Moderator? Can I exercise and promote mutual forbearance toward each other? Can we talk? Tonight we will give our own answer to Rodney King’s haunting question: “Can’t we all just get along?”
Lord, take my hand, and lead us on toward the light.
The question remains and has become more urgent now. Stay tuned for the rest of the story, Gordon. February 2, 2021
We’ve had chipmunks and mice join us in the cabin next to the wetland, but never a woodpecker. Until last night.
The A-frame cabin is a quiet place. On an autumn day, we open all the doors and windows to let the breezes in, and to hear the sounds of trumpeter swans, ducks, geese . . . and various sorts of woodpeckers, like the Pileated Woodpecker that left a stump where an old oak tree stood three years ago.
This time of year there is a different sound: the pinging of acorns falling against the metal siding. It has no beat, rhythm, or staccato, like the rat-a-tat-tat of a woodpecker. Last night the pecking was coming from near the apex of the rough-cut pine walls inside the A-frame.
How does a woodpecker get inside a cabin? We concluded it had come through the screen door we had mistakenly left open. The woodpecker spent the night and next day with us until it came down from the rafters and flew back outside.
Early this morning, living with a woodpecker felt like a metaphor America before, and perhaps after, the November election.
Woodpeckers don’t belong inside the people’s house. If, by our neglect or a fluke of nature, a woodpecker should fly in through the screen door (the Electoral College) and is destroying the house peck by peck, the owners must usher him out before he does further damage. If they refuse to remove him, or he refuses to leave, the woodpecker will turn the rough-cut pine interior walls of a constitutional republic into sawdust. The metal siding may continue to stand, but the structure will be an empty shell occupied by a woodpecker.
Woodpeckers use their beaks to communicate as much as they do to find food. In a code all its own, a pecker’s Morse Code may signal personal distress or warn others of the same ilk against the cabin-dwellers conspiracy to take away their freedom and their Second Amendment right to defend themselves.
How the story unfolds is in our hands. If you’re a person of faith who has not decided how to cast your ballot, here’s some pointed guidance: Vote the Golden Rule rather than the Rule of Gold. You cannot serve two masters.
God help us all!
Gordon C. Stewart, by the wetland, September 22, 2020.
So runs my dream, but what am I?
An infant crying in the night
An infant crying for the light
And with no language but a cry.
-- Alfred Tennyson,"In Memoriam"
Some things change; some things stay the same
George Floyd died face-down under a police officer’s knee, his hands in handcuffs behind his back, crying for help. Without the video taken by a distraught citizen, neither George Floyd’s cries nor the Minneapolis police officers’ behavior would have come to the world’s attention. The cries from pavements, walking paths, and apartments in Minneapolis, Atlanta, Louisville, Aurora and elsewhere in the U.S.A. are nothing new. What’s different now is that we have mobile phones with cameras.
What has not changed is Jesus’s rebuke of his disciples. Children raised in a Christian tradition, no matter how different their doctrines and practices, hear the story early in life. The story of Jesus’s love of children and rebuke of his disciples is a source of comfort. The story stayed with me through 40 years of ministry in higher education and prominent Presbyterian churches until life took a turn that led from the pulpit to the streets.
The Crosshairs of Race and Class
Legal Rights Center is the storied institution founded in 1970 by the American Indian Movement (AIM) and African American civil rights activists with the go-to street lawyer for Black and urban Indian communities of Hennepin County, Doug Hall. Legal Rights Center was one of a kind — an independent law office that belongs to communities of color for the purposes of social advocacy for and quality legal representation of low-income people of color that challenged the explicit and implicit white racism embedded in the court system. Seven years as Legal Rights Center’s executive director put me in the cross-hairs of systemic racism and the Minneapolis Police Department.
The Swastika on a Black man’s back
A young Black man comes to the Legal Rights Center to tell his story. All LRC attorneys and community advocates are in court. “Would you like to speak with the executive director?” asks the receptionist.
In the privacy of my office, he pulls up his shirt to show the swastika a police officer etched into his back.
The swastika, he says, was etched into his flesh after he had witnessed two MPD Fourth Precinct officers’ necessary use force during an arrest. No police officer wants a witness; no cop wants a complaint to be filed. The officers threw him, the witness, to the street and held him face-down. One of the officers took out his keys and scratched something into his back.
You should take this to the FBI
After the young man and I have reviewed his options, he chooses to do the unthinkable: tell his case directly to the Commander of the MPD Fourth Precinct. At Fourth Precinct headquarters, the commander leads us back to his office and asks what brought us there. I introduce myself as LRC’s new executive director and tell him why we’re there. The commander rarely looks up, takes phone calls, and shuffles papers on his desk. Just another Black kid who hates cops; just another clueless white do-gooder. Until the young man stands, turns his back to the commander’s desk, pulls up his shirt and shows him.
The swastika gets his full attention. He asks for information. Did he get the badge numbers or the squad car number? Did he hear any names? “Are you sure you can’t remember? Did one of the names begins with a ‘B’?”
“This goes way beyond Internal Affairs,” he says. “You should take this to the FBI.” The young man trusts the FBI no more than the Minneapolis Police Department. End of story.
Urination on an Ojibwe back
Residents of Little Earth of United Tribes housing report an incident involving an off duty Minneapolis Police Department officer working a second job as a Little Earth nightshift security officer. The outside temperature was below zero when the officer drove into the back parking lot and turned out the lights. Through their apartment window they watch him throw an inebriated man and woman onto the snow-covered pavement. The woman manages to run to an abandoned car. The man is lying on his back. The officer stands over the man, unzips his fly, and relieves himself. The witnesses do not recognize the man or the woman as Little Earth residents.
The Little Earth housing director reported the incident to Clyde Bellecourt (pictured here on the left), Vice President of the Legal Rights Center Board. Two days later Clyde learns the man’s identity and brings him to a small gathering to tell his story.
He’s not sure the blue denim jacket he’s wearing is the one on which the officer relieved himself at Little Earth. It could be someone else’s jacket. There are lots of blue denim jackets at detox. They try to give you the right one when you leave, but it’s not a clothing store. There’s no guarantee. All he can say is it looks like his. Even so, in hopes the jacket is the same, snd that it may provide DNA evidence matching the officer’s, the jacket is placed in our hands for safe-keeping. We put the jacket in an air-tight sealable bag, take it to a secure place no one will suspect (the trunk of my old Toyota) and proceed to arrange a meeting with the MPD Chief of Police.
The meeting is more than we expected. Eight senior officers, including the Deputy responsible for Internal Affairs. This is not normal. Somebody smells a rat. The police union has the MPD and the city administration in a strangle hold. The Chief agrees to get a urine sample from the officer in question and consents, with no protest, to our proposal that the DNA be done out of state at the MPD’s expense. During the two-hour meeting, we have the distinct feeling that the Chief has reasons to seek evidence of this officer’s alleged behavior. The urine sample and the jacket are sent to an independent lab in Maryland for DNA testing.
The report from the lab seems to disappoint the Chief as much as it does us. The jacket has been compromised by multiple layers of vomit and other materials accumulated over a number of years. The lab cannot establish evidence of a match. We return to the initial question whether the jacket given him when he left detox belonged to someone else. The detox center coatrack is filled with frayed blue denim jackets from Goodwill or Catholic Charities. A cashmere overcoat from Nordstrom’s never hangs on the detox rack.
Until broken systems cease to be
Unlike the more recent scene from Aurora, neither George Floyd, nor the man whose back now carries a swastika, nor the man and woman dumped in the dimly-lit parking lot at Little Earth was a child, but they were all met with the same condescension that Jesus rebuked. People with ears to hear recognize the echo and those with trained eyes see the distant light from another time and place. The rebuked disciples of Jesus know what Tennyson knew and live toward day this winter turns to spring when no child of God is hindered, “…for the kingdom of heaven belongs to these.” (Matthew 19:14b)
Our little systems have their day;
They have their day and cease to be:
They are but broken lights of thee,
And thou, O Lord, art more than they.
-- Alfred Tennyson, "In Memoriam" (Prelude)
Gordon C. Stewart, author, Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), Chaska, Minnesota, August 9, 2020.
As a child you may have scanned the shoreline for just the right flat rock to skip. When you were lucky, the stone you picked skimmed the the water, skipping five, six, seven or —if you had thrown it side-arm like the ageless Satchel Paige — eleven or twelve times, or more. Some day you might make it to the Bigs!
You lost all sense of time. It was you, the water, and the latest stone you had freed from among the millions of unremarkable rocks and pebbles on the shoreline. The stone couldn’t be too big or too small. It couldn’t be too heavy or too light. It couldn’t be round, rough, or jagged.. It had to be flat to skim across the water, or it would sink like a stone and disappear. Or cause a loud splash that only losers make.
Last Friday, in the darkness, a little boy picked a jaggest stone, hoping against reason, that, if he commuted its sentence as worthy of skipping its sentence, it would draw little attention. The boy leaped for joy until the splash was heard around the shoreline. The Stone did not skip or sink. It floats like styrofoam. The boy insists the Stone was flat and worth the skip. The ripples from the splash grow wider by the hour.
Three days later: Washington, D.C.
A federal judge on Monday demanded more information about the boy’s selection of the stone for special treatment.
Later in the day, the boy told reporters that he was getting “rave reviews” for picking Stone and restated his position that the Russia investigation “should have never taken place.”
I was five years old the morning I screamed from the top of the new chain-link barbed-wire fence that separated my next door buddy, Buddy Singleton, and me. Moments before, we had been speaking through the fence Buddy’s father had just put up to protect his property. We were friends. We wanted to play.What to do? One of us had to scale the chain-like fence. Clinging to the chain links, I climbed to the top where the barbed wire was. I lost my footing and screamed, hanging by one hand from the barbed wire that had spiked my hand. I hung there until my mother heard the screams and rushed to take me down. I never climbed a chain-link barb-wire fence again. The scar on my left hand reminds me every day.
Making Mistakes and the Consequences
Making mistakes is part of life. It’s just human. Sometimes our mistakes hurt ourselves, sometimes they hurt others. Sometimes they hurt both. But mistakes also teach us to look closely before trying to climb over a fence, no matter how lofty our intentions.
Today the fence I’d like to get over is harder to scale. “C’mon over,” says Buddy. “I can’t!” I say. “Sure you can. Just climb over the fence!” I’ve learned not to listen to a dangerous invitation. Having made that mistake, I now look up to the top, see the barbed wire, and decide to stay safe in my yard on my side of the fence. I don’t understand the Singletons, the Singletons don’t understand me, but each of us is sure we do.
Fences and neighbors
Today the invitations to “c’mon over” are hard to find. It’s not so much that we’re cowards; it’s that we don’t want each other in our yards. The Shadow’s question “What evil lurks in the hearts of men?” is no longer a question about all of us; it has become specific: “What evil lurks in the hearts of the Singletons?” “What evil lurks in the hearts of the Stewarts?” We no longer talk through the chain links. We call each other names, sure that, whatever evil is, its place is the other side of the fence. We get our news from different sources. We tell stories about the fence that separates good and evil, and the people on the other side of it. We don’t just see things differently. We see different things. We buy the stories about the fence and the people on the other side of it. The Stewarts watch MSNBC and listen to NPR; the Singletons tune into FOXNews and Rush Limbaugh. We’re worlds apart. Or so it seems, but . . .
“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall [a chain-link barb-wire fence] (Robert Frost in “Mending Wall”) bubbles up from a deeper memory in the year a virus locks us in our homes on both sides of the fence. COVID-19 knows nothing about fences and walls, good and evil, or state and national borders. Sometimes it takes a poet to take us to our deeper selves.
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
- Robert Frost, "Mending Wall"
Gordon C. Stewart, at home in Chaska, MN, March 31, 2020.
Click HERE to view the current photographs of the real estate listing ($85,000) for the Mill and 2.7 acres on Mill Pond in my ancestral home of Andrews Hollow, the same property described in “The Man Who Loved Graves” (Views from the Edge, 2012) back when the battery was fresh. The photographs did more than take me back to childhood. They took where I’ve never been: inside the Mill, which I’d assumed had gone to rot — and living quarters that come as a complete surprise.
By January 13 the number of Views from the Edge daily visits had fallen to an all-time low of 20. The battery was dead. But life is a funny thing. The next day the number jumped to 495. All because a stranger dropped by with jumper cables that jump-started a dead battery down by the old Mill stream.
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.