Insurgency and Faith (Part 1)

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THE BACK STORY 

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

World AIDS Day – a Memory

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.”

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN Dec. 1, 2019

What if resting, all by itself, is the real act of holiness?

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.

Click THIS LINK to open Live and Learn’s post featuring Margaret Renkl, from “What if resting, all by itself, is the real act of holiness?” (NY Times, October 21, 2019).

Thanks for dropping by Views from the Edge to see more clearly,

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Nov. 10, 2019.

My People and the 19th Hole

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.

Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), p. xiv

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.

entrance gate to Mar-a-Largo

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.

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, July 29, 2019.

I’m having a hard time . . .

“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 
 his hand.  

 “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 Prompt challenge to write a poem or prose on the word “judge” with exactly 95 words.

We sat down over coffee later that week.

A Memorial Day Memory Re-visited

Today my brother Bob and sister-in-law Janice will drive to Indiantown Gap National Cemetery to lay flowers on Dad’s grave.

Protestant Service on Saipan led by my father, Kenneth Campbell Stewart, end of WWII.

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

It takes a lifetime for some memories to become clear. “Memorial Day and the Soldier’s Helmet,” published two years ago in Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), offers a Memorial Day example.

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.

photo of Indiantown Gap National Cemetery
Entrance to Indiantown Gap National Cemetery, East Hanover Township, PA

Grace and Peace,

Gordon

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, May 31, 2019

The Miracle of Reconciliation– Two Memories of Good Friday

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

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

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

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.