The Miracle of Reconciliation– Two Memories of Good Friday

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MY M0THER AND THE THREE MARYS

I remember my mother’s tears on this day, Good Friday, and wondering why she was so sad. Jesus had been crucified a long, long time ago. It wasn’t happening now. But, to Mom, it was. Like the three Mary’s at the foot of the crosses, Mom was weeping in her pew. I remember the white handkerchief dabbing the cornerS of her eyes.

I was five or six years old the first time I saw Mom at the foot of the cross with the three Marys. The Marys were all gone. Only Mom and her white handkerchief continued the vigil, and it happened every year on Good Friday. It was in junior high school that I began to get under the tears and weep them for myself. I “got” the cruelty of it.

The pounding of nails into wrists and feet. The soldiers laughing at him while they gambled for his clothes. If they were gambling for his clothes, was Jesus naked in front of the whole world? Was the crown of thorns the only thing he wore? Were the thorns cutting into his head? “I thirst.” They give him vinegar on the end of stick! He looks down at John. “Behold your mother; woman, behold your son.” Take my mother home! Mary doesn’t go home. She stays by him until the end. She winces at the nightmare she cannot end: “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabstachtani?” (My God, my God, why have You abandoned me?), watches as a soldier puts a hole in his side; weeps inconsolably when it is finished, and they take him away.

How could Mom not cry hearing that? How could anyone not reach for a handkerchief?

“GOD WAS IN CHRIST, RECONCILING THE WORLD TO HIMSELF”

Years later, Ken and Ilse Beaufoy and I observed Good Friday in the pews of Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church. Aside from one or two others who dropped by for a short time each year, we were alone in the church. Beginning at noon, at half hour intervals, we read aloud a portion of the Passion narratives paused in silence, listened to the corresponding movement from Rutter’s Requiem, spoke a brief prayer, and sat in the silence until the next half hour.

The Good Fridays with Ken (and Ilse, before she died) were unique. An American Presbyterian minister with a married couple, Ken a former Biitish soldier, and Ilse, a former member of the Luftwaffe, one of only two women awarded the Iron Cross. Ken and Ilse met at a dance sponsored by the occupying forces following WW II. Ilse was one of two women Luftwaffe soldiers awarded the Iron Cross for standing her post during the Allied bombing of Hamburg.

Despite objections and death threats from family members, Ken and Ilse committed themselves to the bonds of marriage. What else but the reconciling love of God could bridge the gulf of former enemy combatants? Five decades later, Ilse died moments after hearing the words of permission that would only have meaning to a decorated war hero who had stayed at her anti-aircraft post atop the Hamburg bunker to protect the civilians below. “You no longer need to stand your post. You no longer need to fight. It’s time to go home. Go in peace.” From that day on, there were just the two of us staying by the cross from noon to 3:00 on Good Friday.

Rutter’s “Pie Jesu” did not explain the crucifixion or the peace it brought Ken and Ilse Beaufoy. It didn’t need to. Some things cannot be explained. They can only be lived…with thanksgiving for abounding grace while dabbing the corner of your eyes with a handkerchief.

— Gordon C. Stewart by the wilderness, Minnesota, Good Friday, April 19, 2019

Forget your perfect offering

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The line from Leonard Cohen’s Anthem came to mind while digging into the encounter between Jesus and the people of the perfect offerings. That’s right, the Jewish Leonard and the Jewish Jesus drank from the same well: Jewish scripture and tradition.

It was Leonard Cohen’s line about a “perfect offering” that led me to think of Jesus’s encounter with the perfectionists about terrorism — see James Tissot’s The Tower of Siloam — and the parable of the withered fig tree.

Jesus’s parable then led to the memory of Professor Lewis (Lew) Briner who would have read the text the way he read everything else in the New Testament — in Greek. As students, Wayne Boulton and I sat in the Briner kitchen to discuss theology or the news of the day. If we didn’t knock on their door, Lew would come to get us.

Following the memorial service for Wayne, Vicki asked if I had any pictures of Lew and Mil Briner. I did not. She entrusted two photographs to my keeping. Years after those nightly conversations over a beer or scotch, only one of us remains. Memories of Lew’s hospitality, scholarship, wit . . . and facial expressions are un-forgettable.

L to R: Wayne Boulton, Mil Briner, Lew Briner

Lew chaired the ecumenical committee that resulted in the Revised Common Lectionary. Discussing a New Testament text was an education in itself. Seeing his picture again with Wayne, I wondered what Lew might say about this week’s Gospel — Jesus’s encounter with the “perfect offering” folks who compared themselves with sinners, like the 18 terrorists killed in the sabotage of the Tower of Siloam. What might Lew say about that, and the parable of the the withered fig tree that follows his confrontation with the perfect (innocent) people?

“Do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?

“No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none.” –Luke 13:4-6 NRSV

Sometimes Lew would shift our attention to something he’d noted in the Greek New Testament text that English translators sanitized because it didn’t pass Miss Manners’ Victorian sense of moral propriety. It disturbed him when a Greek word was mis-translated into what the translators considered the English vernacular. Words like “manure”!

You want to know what it really says?” Lew would ask, lowering his head to peer over the top of his glasses, slightly raising and lowering his eyebrows several times with a twinkle in his eye, with an unmistakably mischievous smile. We knew something earthy was coming.

I can see the twinkle in Lew’s eyes. “Give me a year and let me dig around it and throw s—t on it!” If you really want to translate the Greek into the vernacular, use the vernacular! Sanitizing it wipes it clean. It removes the jolt. Besides, only farmers use the word “manure” these days, and the farmers have become fewer and fewer. Unless they have a garden, urban and suburban people might have to look up “manure”. No one needs a dictionary to look up “s—t”!

Ring the bells (ring the bells) that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything)
That’s how the light gets in

anthem, leonard cohen
In the Orchard, Vincent van Gogh, 1883.

— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, March 23, 2019

That’s how the light gets in

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There’s nothing like old friends. Once there were seven. Now there are four. We call ourselves The Dogs, old friends and classmates at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago. Yesterday Harry Strong, Bob Young, Don Dempsey, our spouses, and I, gathered with Vicki Boulton and the Boulton family and friends at Second Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis to sing God’s praise and to give thanks for the classmate who brought us all together again in 2004 for what we call The Gatherings.

L to R: Bob Young, Gordon, Don Dempsey & Harry Strong with photo of Wayne.

Wayne Boulton was my best friend, dating back to 1964 when we were assigned to be roommates in Alumni Hall. Wayne has been the Dean of the Dogs who arranged our gatherings over the years: places, dates, the daily schedule, books and topics, and guests who would join us for a morning or afternoon. Since 1964, Wayne and Vicki, the love of his life, have been a continuous thread of friendship.

As much as I wanted to sing the hymns that are as close as the next drawn breath — O God, Our Help in Ages Past; Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee; There Is a Balm in Gilead; and For All the Saints Who from their Labors Rest — I couldn’t. I shut my mouth (which is rare), and opened my ears to hear the deep resonance of the organ and the congregation singing the hymns. I trusted the gathered community to lift me from the sorrows of dust and ashes. And lift me they did — without knowing it, except for Kay, and with no other intention than to sing to the glory of God and give thanks for Wayne.

The next day, the four surviving friends gathered for our own time of remembrance, wearing the Chicago Dogs t-shirts Don had given us all. We sang hymns. We read from Wayne’s books and email exchanges with us, prayed, and hung on the edges of laughter and, and listened to Leonard Cohen’s Anthem, Going Home, If It Be Your Will. Leonard reminded us again that there is a crack in everything, and “that’s how the light gets in.”

L to R: Harry Strong, Gordon, Don Dempsey & Bob Young gathered around Wayne’s photo.

In this period of Narcissism, it is a matter of no small thanksgiving that Wayne did not call attention to himself. He was without guile, and as playful as a child. “Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:2-4 NRSV). Would that the same might be true for all of us lesser lights.

As the four old friends and our wives took Vicki to dinner the night following the memorial service, the crack in us had been wedged open wider, but, against the cynic’s logic, the light was brighter. As Leonard said, “That’s how the light gets in.”

With Vicki Boulton following dinner, March 19, 2019. Old friends since 1964. In 1966, Vicki became Wayne’s roommate … for life.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

Anthem, Leonard Cohen

The Day the Ashes Were Turned into Water

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We are drowning in a sea of lies, but the ocean has a way of caring for itself. Without exception, all life is part of the Ocean. If it seems strange to be talking about water on Ash Wednesday, perhaps a memory will bring water and ashes together for you, as it did for me.

The Ash Wednesday I’m remembering, I robed 20 minutes or so before the 7:00 PM Ash Wednesday. There was plenty of time. I went to fetch the the little ZipLock bag of ashes. I’d forgotten that the credenza where I’d always stored the ashes had been moved from my office to the church basement. I rushed to the basement to where the credenza had re-located. There was no credenza. Finally it dawned me that the credenza had been sold at for a couple of bucks at the annual festival-flea market last fall.

“Somebody has my ashes,” I thought, “and they’ll probably treat them like dirt! Or maybe they’ll freak out, thinking the ashes are somebody’s cremains!”

What to do? Burn some newspapers! Smoke a cigar! No time for that. There would be no imposition of ashes. No outward, visible sign that we are dust and we return to the dust — the thing we never want hear. It was then that the missing ashes were turned into water.

We filled the baptismal font with water and marked each worshiper with the waters of baptism. “[Carol, Bob, Judi, Clyde], you are a disciple of Jesus Christ. Live in his love and serve him. And never forget to be grateful.”

The last worshiper to leave that Ash Wednesday Service offered to do for me what had been done for her.

“Gordon,” she said, marking my forehead with water, “you are a disciple of Jesus Christ. Live in his love and serve him. And never forget to be grateful.”

Like the miracle at Cana where water was turned into wine at a wedding, the turning of ashes into water became an unexpected moment of joy in the communion of saints.

Today, when we feel overwhelmed by a sea of lies, remember that everything empties in the Ocean. I wish you an Ash Wednesday when your ashes are turned to water, and a few drops of the vast Ocean wash away what you’ve lost and welcome you home for a sacred communion.

— Gordon C. Stewart, Ash Wednesday, March 6, 2019, in Chaska, MN.

Photograph is the baptistery in the Church of the Sacred Heart in Monza, Italy, uploaded from Wikipedia.

I’m sorry to disturb you again!

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When was the last time you had time to waste before boarding a flight? The uber drops you off at the curb in plenty of time. You check your bag. You pass through security. You have an hour or so to kill before the 11:10 boarding of your flight on Concourse C.

You haven’t had breakfast. You go to the food court, buy a coffee and a breakfast sandwich, and take a seat at a small table in the food court. You reach for your iPhone to check the time, read the texts and tweets, and read the e-edition of your favorite news source. But it’s missing! You rummage though your pockets or your purse. You’ve forgotten or, God forbid, lost your iPhone. You never do that. Never, never, never!

You scarf down the coffee and croissant sandwich and go across the hall for a newspaper. You buy a copy of today’s New York Times, return to the table in the food court, read the front page headlines, open to the sections of interest, and get absorbed in the latest news or this morning’s crossword puzzle or sudoku.

Suddenly, you realize you’ve lost track of time. You reach for your iPhone and remember. You look for a clock, but there are no clocks. You leave the food court in search of a clock. There are no clocks.

You race down the concourse toward your gate, looking for a clock to see whether you’re late for your flight. But there are no clocks. None. Anywhere. Not even on the flight arrival and departure boards. The flight boards display the schedule and whether your flight is on time, delayed, or cancelled, but they do not tell you what time it is now.

Arriving at the gate, there is no line for boarding. You breathe a sigh of relief when you learn you’re not too late. You sit down in the waiting area and sheepishly ask a stranger for the time. She checks her phone and gives you the time, while you explain that you’ve left home without your new iPhone6, or maybe you’d lost it, as though she cares.

On board the flight, you fasten your seat belt and break the rule of privacy. “Hi, my name’s Bob. Is this home, or do you live in Denver?” “Denver,” he says without looking up from his smartphone. You might as well have asked for his Social Security number. This flight will be a long exercise with silence, a chance for meditation, but you can’t do meditation without the meditation app on your iPhone.

After take-off, you take out the New York Times. It’s been awhile since you read a newspaper in print, and you’d missed out on an aisle seat where you could spread out. Your left arm is flush against the window. As you unfold the newspaper, you intrude again into the space of the guy from Denver in the middle seat. He looks up and shakes his head. You apologize for your rudeness and carefully fold the newspaper in half the way commuters do on trains on their way to work in the city. You settle down with the properly-folded newspaper. A headline leaps from the page:

Do Not Disturb: How I Ditched my Phone and Unbroke My Brain”(Kevin Roose, Feb. 23, NYT) comes to the rescue. It begins:

“My name is Kevin, and I have a phone problem. And if you’re anything like me — and the statistics suggest you probably are, at least where smartphones are concerned — you have one, too.”

I do! Yes! I do! you say to yourself. You wonder whether Kevin also has a clock problem. Whether he’ll lament our isolation in a world missing the one thing we all had in common before smartphones: public clocks on the tower of the old village square . . . and in airports!

On the way to baggage claim, the problem is bigger than the absence of a friendly clock. You’re in a strange city without information on where you’re supposed to go. The address of your hotel, how to get there, contacts, e-mail and text information, phone numbers, and the name of the restaurant where you’re to meet the headhunter for the job interview are carefully stored on your iPhone.

What to do? At baggage claim, a stranger takes pity on you. She lends you her smartphone. A family member answers your call, finds your phone, follows your instructions for unlocking your iPhone, and begins to give you the information you’ve asked for. But the phone to take down the information, you’re still helpless!

“Hold on a minute,” you tell the family member back home, and return to the stranger. “I’m sorry to disturb you again, but do you have a pencil and a piece of paper?”

Elijah and the Missing Children

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Bumpa, you’re mean! Why do you keep saying that?

Say what, Elijah?

That there’s no national emergency?

Because there isn’t.

Yes there is.

No, there isn’t. How would you know? You’re only 21.

You’re cruel, Bumpa! POTUS is kinder than you!

What’s gotten into your little head?

My head’s not little! My head’s bigger than 96 percent. Doctor said so! I’m in the top four percent!

I know. That’s good. But you shouldn’t get a big head about that! So, tell me, why do you think there’s a real national emergency? 

POTUS declared it. I saw it on PBS!

On Sesame Street? Did Big Bird tell you?

No. It came on after Sesame Street. I saw it!

What did you see, Elijah?

MISSING children, Bumpa! Don’t you know? 1,475 kidnapped children, Bumpa! That’s a national emergency! We need to help rescue all those kidnapped children!

I hear you. We do. But the kidnappers didn’t come from south of the border. The kidnappers are not here illegally.

Uh-huh!

No, they aren’t. They’re legal. Homeland Security took them!

I like security. So there’s no national energency? The children are safe?

Well, no, Elijah. Homeland Security took them away from their parents, and then Homeland Security lost them

So the President called a national emergency to find them, right?

No, Elijah. POTUS hasn’t said one word about the missing children.

Why, Bumpa? Why? That’s not right! Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world, right?

Right! It’s not right! 

Right, I told you! You’re wrong! There is a national emergency.

— Bumpa and Elijah, Chaska, MN, Feb. 18, 2019

You CAN go home again

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Thomas Wolfe had it right. “You can’t go home again.” But he was only half right. Memory is the gauge of the deepest affections that feel like home. For 11 years Knox Church in Cincinnati was my spiritual home. That was 25 years ago (1983-1994), but by memory and affection, it was yesterday. Calendars and clocks mean nothing to the time of the heart.

Preparing for the visit, I recalled Charlie Chaplin‘s surprise when he reportedly entered a Charlie Chaplin Look-Alike Contest in Monte Carlo and came in third. Would I come in third in my own look-alike contest? Whose faces would I recognize after all these years? Would they recognize me? Would my slow pace and weathered face contradict memory’s sense of home-coming?

Back at the Minneapolis-Saint Paul Airport (MSP), a golf cart driver who assists less abled passengers had given me a ride to the farthest gate of Concourse E. “Where you headed?” he’d asked. “Gate so-and so, Terminal E,” I answered. “Hop on. You’d never been able to walk that far,” he said with a smile, and began to weave through the pedestrian passengers down the interminable corridor to the last gate of Concourse E.

Knox members Bob and Connie had been assigned to welcome home their old friend at baggage claim. At the Cincinnati Airport, there was not a golf cart in sight for passengers with a bad back or hips. Limping along the long concourse toward baggage claim, the story of Charlie in Monte Carlo lightened my load.

Tired and sore from the second long walk, I spotted a man on a balcony looking down at the arriving passengers. By the time I came into his view, the other passengers from Delta Flight 5277 had come and gone. The Bob I knew years ago was immaculately dressed — gray suit, white shirt and tie, and a well-polished pair of Allen Edmonds. The man on the balcony was casually dressed in a polo shirt and khakis. As I drew closer, I looked up; he looked down. I squinted. He squinted. After a closer look, visions of Simon and Garfunkel singing “Old Friends” danced in my head. I waved to Bob. Bob waved to me, two old retired friends together again after 25 years.

Walking to the car, I noticed something unusual. Bob was wearing my shoes! I’d had my mousy-looking Ecco walking shoes for five years. Never, never, never had I seen them on someone else’s feet. They’re ugly, and as far from Allen Edmonds as my Gate was from baggage claim! “Most comfortable shoe I’ve ever worn,” said Bob.


After all these years, Knox fit like an old shoe. Thomas Wolfe never had it so good. Thomas Wolfe never flew home to Cincinnati!

— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, February 11, 2019.

Dynamite at the Sushi Bar

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I go to Sake Sushi‘s Happy Hour and strike up a conversation with a stranger. We look to be the same age. Turns out it’s his birthday. “Well, happy birthday!” I say. “How old?”

“A lot older than you,” he says. “I don’t think so,” I reply and ask “How old?” “Seventy-two,” he says. “Gotcha by four years,” say I. “I thought you were maybe 65,” he says. I love this guy! So began last night’s friendly conversation that took us outside our respective comfort zones.

We live in bubbles that burst even while celebrating a birthday — separate bubbles that collide when CNN is served with drinks on the big TV screen in front of the sushi bar.

“Fake news,” he says. “Just a pack o’ lies.” I have a feeling this isn’t going to go well. “So where do get your news?” “I don’t pay much attention to politics,” he says. “As long as the economy is good. That’s all I care about. Business is booming. I’ve made a lot of money the last two years.” 

What little news he gets is from a different bubble from the one I live in. “We’re in big trouble,” I say. “What you’re calling an economy is not an economy; economics is not measured by the stock market. There is only one economy — the planet and everything in it — and it’s not doing well. It’s only a matter of time.” 

“Where do you get your news?” he asks. I answer that I get it from as many sources as I can. “Ever watch FOX News?” “Every once in a while. As little as possible,” I say, and now we’re both out of our bubbles that make us both “Bubble Boys”. The conversation turns to the occupant of the Oval Office he credits with the booming economy. “He’s going down,” I say. He laughs. ‘No way,” he says, and changes the subject to Barack Obama as a failed president. “He almost destroyed the military,” he says. “Obama made us weaker. Trump inherited a mess. He’s turned it around. America’s strong again.” He’s ex-military, a former Marine once stationed for eight year in Okinawa.

General Jim Mattis

I call his attention to the number of Generals who have left the Trump Administration. He knows nothing about that. I mention General Mattis. “Mad Dog? Great General! The best!” he says. “What about him?” I ask whether he’s read Secretary of Defense Mattis’ letter of resignation. He hasn’t. He has no knowledge of Mattis’ disagreement with the president’s policies. I urge him to read it. He says he will.

The wait person brings a large paper sack with a take-out order of his favorite Japanese dish. “It’s not on the menu,” he says. “Just ask for ‘Dynamite’. I guarantee you’re gonna love it!” “So it’s the ‘Dynamite Roll’?” I ask. “No, it’s different. You have to ask for it.” “So, if I ask for ‘Dynamite’, will they know what I’m talking about?” “The American girl won’t. Ask one of the Japanese guys. They’ll know. Get some and take it home. I guarantee you’re gonna love it!”

The mere thought of Dynamite puts us in the same bubble. We’re Bubble Boys in one bubble: the global economy of shared taste buds. As he rises to leave for home, I thank him for his Dynamite recommendation and the conversation, shake his hand, and wish him a Dynamite 72nd Birthday.

Next time I wander over to the bar at Sake Sushi, I’ll ask for Dynamite . . . and two Martinis.

— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, February 1, 2019.

The Hostages 2019

Going through airport security recently, I thanked the TSA employees for working. Other passengers did the same. It’s an odd thing to do. We expect employees to show up for work. We also expect their employers to pay them for their work. No one can expect employees to work without compensation.

New flag of the TSA unveiled at the TSA’s 2018 commemoration of the 9/11 attacks.

These TSA workers have families. Their needs are not shut down. Only the paychecks that pay the rent and utility bills, the public transportation to and from work, groceries, insurance, prescriptions, and day care for their families are shut down.

Denver Airport security

“Thank you for working,” said the passengers going through the security procedures put in place to prevent another high-jacking like those on 9/11. Their work is essential to national security. Looking back on it, I’m ashamed of myself. You don’t thank hostages for being hostages. You free them from their hostage-taker . . . without paying the $5.1 Billion ransom to make America safe again.

— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, Minnesota, January 20, 2019

The Bluster Contest

Readers who aren’t geezers didn’t watch the Howdy Doody Show Monday through Friday from their TV dinner trays.

I was never a big fan of Uncle Bob, the emcee, or the mindless Peanut Gallery that broke into frenzies of foolish applause, but I always chuckled when Mr. Bluster appeared.

In this episode Mr. Bluster insists on the impossible — a ROUND mailing envelope to contestants in the “Bluster Contest.

All these years later, I wonder whether another Howdy Doody fan in Queens sat like the rest of my generation in front of his television, eating a Swanson’s TV dinner on a TV dinner tray.

–Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Jan. 10, 2018, the 20th day of the federal government shutdown.