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Although it seemed outdated at the time, I now remember with nostalgia the rest I knew as a child on Sundays when the noise and distractions were stilled.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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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, Knoxfit 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.