The Leap from the Wall

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Mutter Erde photo of “thinking nude boy” at the entrance of Friedrich-Paulsen-Gymnasium, Berlin-Steglitz, Gritznerstr uploaded from Wikimedia Commons.

A childhood memory flashed to mind watching the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings this week.

I’m seven years old again. My mother is screaming. She has gone down to the cellar to do the laundry. A rat stared at her from the huge hole in the cellar wall that connects our home to the open cistern. My mother is terrified.

My father grabs the shotgun he’d borrowed for just such an occasion. Dad goes down the stairs to the cellar. I follow him. It’s scary, but it’s exciting. What if the rat leaps at my father before my father shoots? Filled with fear, I watch from the bottom step.

The rat is staring from the wall, his beady yellow eyes shining in the dimly lit cellar. My father is perhaps eight feet away. He takes aim and fires the shot. The rat leaps through the air for my father’s jugular. My father ducks. The rat died. My father cements shut the hole and the cistern.

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Sen. Amy Klobuchar official portrait

Yesterday Sen. Amy Klobuchar fired the question at Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. The Judge leaped for her jugular. Amy ducked. Senator Klobuchar survives. The nominee is alive on the floor, but badly wounded.

I’ll always be a “thinking nude boy” trying to make sense of life.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, September 29, 2018.

9/11/18: A Defining Moment

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WTCmemorialJune2012Today, the 17th anniversary of 9/11, the subway station that was buried by the fall of the World Trade Center towers, has reopened to loud cheers. Hope survives! So does the question “What have we learned since we trembled in horror and disbelief 17 years ago?”

The 9/11 Anniversary in 2018 coincides with the release of Bob Woodward’s FEAR exposing the moral abyss that is the White House; National Security Advisor John Bolton’s “America First” attack of the legitimacy of the international court; and United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’s statement urging immediate action on climate change.

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U.N Secretary General Antonio Guterres

Climate change is the defining issue of our time, and we are at a defining moment. … Far too many of leaders have refused to listen.

If we do not change course by 2020, we risk missing the point where we can avoid runaway climate change. [Antonio Guterres]

The collapse of the World Trade Center brought us to a dead stop. We could see it. First responders touched it. NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani became “America’s mayor”.

We Americans wondered what sense of morality would lead someone to highjack commercial aircrafts and turn them into weapons of mass destruction. All these years later, morality is still the question. “America’s mayor” today declares that truth is not truth, while we ignore a greater threat, less visible to the naked eye — climate change — exceeds the geographically limited horror of 9/11. 9/11/18 is a defining moment in a sea of moral amnesia requiring a voice from beyond the spiritual-moral morass America has become.

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Václav Havel

“The worst thing,” wrote the Czech writer and former President Václav Havel, as though peering ahead into the American of 9/11/18, “is that we live in a contaminated moral environment. We feel morally ill because we became used to saying something different from what we thought. Concepts such as love, friendship, compassion, humility or forgiveness lost their depth and dimension” (bold added by Views from the Edge).

In this defining moment, hope again rises against hope with its own kind of prayer for the end of the planetary moral madness:

“There is only one thing I will not concede: that it might be meaningless to strive in a good cause.”
― Vaclav Havel, Summer Meditations

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, 9/11/18.

 

 

 

A Window of Opportunity: Rosh Hashanah

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Today is Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year that celebrates the birth of humankind with the blowing of the shofar (AUDIO LINK).

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Rosh Hashanah’s meaning takes me back to last week’s Jewish wedding in Boston Symphony Hall, the kind of joyful occasion that’s good for the weary soul. Although I might have anticipated meeting a Holocaust survivor in his/her 90s, I did not expect the survivor to be my age.

Stephen and I were born two months apart in very different words — the Warsaw ghetto under Nazi occupation, and the U.S.A., respectively. Stephen and his mother survived. His father and the rest of his family died in the gas ovens of Auschwitz. His father arranged for two-year-old Steve and his mother’s to escape and survive under the clandestine protection of Polish Christian. How Stephen’s father made the arrangements is a mystery lost in time and the ashes of Auschwitz.

Rosh Hashanah is marked by the blowing of the shofar that starts the 10 High Holy Days leading up to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

What is Rosh Hashanah all about? In addition to its meaning as the “head of the year”, we also refer to it as the “Day of Judgment”. What, in fact, did the Rabbis tell us to do on Rosh Hashanah? Curiously, there is virtually no mention of our own personal judgment in the Rosh Hashanah prayers. Instead, the prayers are all about the general condition of the world. – Rabbi Asher Resnick.

The Jewish sense of time is different from the dominant understanding of time in the West. Time spirals. It loops back and forward. Rosh Hashanah cycles back in order to spiral forward. It is, like every other Jewish holiday, “a metaphysical window of opportunity” (Rabbi Asher Resnick).

Meeting Stephen, the retired doctor in Princeton, New Jersey, in Boston at a Jewish wedding opened a different kind of metaphysical window of opportunity. The rapport was immediate, the window of opportunity opened between us as if we were long-lost friends. Such times redefine time. They spiral back to fetch hope for a new humanity and carry it forward in another dark time. This Rosh Hashanah I sound the shofar for Stephen, his family, all victims and survivors of the Holocaust, and the Polish Christian family that protected Stephen and his mother until the horror was (more or less) over and a mad world repents.

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the shofar (ram’s horn)

Shana Tova!

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, September 10, 2018.

 

 

 

 

Spam, Scrapple, and Stocks

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“We’re having SPAM tonight!” my mother would announce, as if it were a rare treat.

Spam_can By Qwertyxp2000 [CC BY-SA 4.0  (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Mom was a genius at making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear at the end of the month. Her children never knew our family lived from paycheck to paycheck, or that the paychecks were often late. When they were late, she’d announce with enthusiasm, “Tonight, we’re having Scrapple!”

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Spam and Scrapple were part of our vocabulary. Stocks? Only from the news. Mom’s shopping at the Acme in working class Broomall created little family interest in the stock market. Wall Street and stock portfolios were for people a few miles away in Bryn Mawr, Merion, and Wynnwood on Philadelphia’s Main Line.

My brothers and I had no idea what Spam and Scrapple were. We knew Mom bought them at the Acme. They came in cans. They smelled delicious while frying, and we devoured them as though they were filet mignons. It was many years later we learned that scrapple is made from hog offal, i.e., what remains of a pig after the ham and bacon are removed, and the makings of Spam are only a little better.

We knew even less about the stock market than about the Spam and Scrapple Mom served up in a pinch. People with stocks didn’t pinch pennies at the Acme or buy their children’s back-to-school clothes at the Bryn Mawr Hospital Thrift Shop. We didn’t feel bad about having no stocks; we just knew stocks weren’t meant for us. The closest we got to the stock market was driving through wealthier Philadelphia Mainline neighborhoods, admiring the Christmas light displays of showcase homes. At school we imagined living in one of those wealthier communities.

Today, all these years later, I have a stock portfolio. I no longer eat Scrapple or Spam. But I know spam when I see it. It arrives every morning in tweets that equate the country’s wellbeing with today’s stock market value, and spams illusions of filet mignons to the Acme- and thrift shop-shoppers who still pinch pennies on Spam and Scrapple.

MomMom would have a cow!

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, September 5, 2018

 

 

 

GROWING UP WITH McCARTHY – Garry Armstrong

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Massachusetts Broadcasters Hall of Fame journalist Garry Armstrong shares a very personal memory that casts a light on the current moment of American history.

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Antoine (l) and Gary (r) Armstrong at the Massachusetts Broadcasters Hall of Fame ceremony.

Like Garry, I remember Eric Sevareid. I also remember Garry for his reporting from Vietnam during the Vietnam War.

Garry’s SERENDIPITY memory came to my attention this morning after a McCarthy type threatening comment appeared in response to Views from the Edge‘s post contrasting the character and behavior of Senator John McCain and the president who disdained him. Garry and I are the same generation. Our experiences are parallel. We both wear hearing aids, but we still believe our eyesight is as keen as it was when Joe McCarthy threatened a democratic republic. – Gordon C. Stewart, August 28, 2018.

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This is one I never intended to share. It had been buried in the deepest part of the memory chest I never planned to revisit.

I was branded a “pinko” as a kid.

I grew up in an era when the name McCarthy was first associated with Edgar Bergen’s puppet pal,  Charlie McCarthy. We followed Bergen and McCarthy on their radio show, religiously, along with Jack Benny, Fred Allen, Bob Hope and the other funny people of a more innocent era.

All of that changed when “Tail Gunner Joe” McCarthy unleashed his witch hunt of everyone in the guise of ferreting out Communist sympathizers. It was part of a bleak period when Cold War angst followed World War 2.

McCarthy is news again because of the current White House occupant and his apparent fondness for McCarthy’s tactics.

I didn’t understand why people shied away from talking about something called “The…

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The Day My Head Hurt

images_headache-drawing-12You’ve had days like this. I know you have. Days when everything hurts. Days when you open your eyes and can’t see, or wish you couldn’t see. Days when, if you have hearing aids, you put them away. Days when your head hurts, though you have no headache. Days when what you cherish is belittled, twisted, misrepresented, and assaulted.

The dedication of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem was a day like that. NPR ran the story that gave voice to why it hurts so badly in 2018. The American Administration’s selection of Robert Jeffress and John Hagee, both evangelical religious exclusivists with views that are marginal to the American mainstream, rubbed against the grain of traditional American values of respect, propriety, and decency. At no time in my memory has the United States handed the people’s microphone to representatives know for insulting the host nation’s religion and way of life. But NPR can’t voice the part that hurts this writer.

I look and listen as a retired Christian pastor who claims the same tradition President Trump calls his own. We were both confirmed in the Presbyterian Church (USA). Some of us remember what the president seems to have forgotten in confirmation classes. The Presbyterian-Reformed tradition of the Christian faith does not claim exceptional status among the world’s many religions. It calls for respect. The Presbyterian Church’s Confession of 1967 expresses it this way.

Christians find parallels between other religions and their own and must approach all religions with openness and respect. Repeatedly God has used the insight of non-Christians to challenge the church to renewal. But the reconciling word of the gospel is God’s judgment upon all forms of religion, including the Christian. [Confession of 1967, 9.24]

God is bigger than any belief, creed, or religion. Claims to divine favoritism that confine the Divine within the borders of national or religious geography blaspheme God’s ubiquitous presence and freedom. As the late Kosuke Koyama put it, the God of Jesus is a spacious God! Not a house god or national god.

We also believe that the reconciling gospel of Christ calls the church and its people search actively  for cooperation and peace, “even at risk to national security“.

C 67The president’s overtures to North Korea and Russia have given reason to wonder whether perhaps he is following that spirit of The Confession of 1967. But, then, I hear the name calling, the insults, the braggadocio, and remember the dedication of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, and the headache threatens to become a migraine. But I have learned over the years since confirmation class that, though the loudest voices often hold the microphone, there is an inverse relation between loudness and truth, volume and good sense, loud clashing cymbals and the still small Voice that cannot be silenced.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, August 20, 2018,

 

The Dream of Brain Surgery

It was just a dream. Or was it?

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‘Josef K.’ in the film rendition of Franz Kafka’s The Trial

It woke me three nights ago, but it won’t go away. Against every conscious attempt to push it away, it is still demanding my full attention.

I had a headache that wouldn’t go away. A surgeon opened my brain and was pulling an animal from the side of my head: a big, brown rat, resisting the surprised surgeon’s efforts, and then another, while the other part of me in the dream watched and cringed. That was it. That was the dream.

From the time I was very young, nothing frightens me as much as a rat. I was five years old when I saw my first rat after the family moved into the 120 year-old house on Church Lane — the one with the open cistern and the huge hole in the basement wall. A rat would scurry across the kitchen floor after leaping from the kitchen cabinet my mother had just opened. At night I could hear the rats moving in the wall next to my bed in the upstairs bedroom. Occasionally a family cat would kill one and offer it to my mother as a present; the sight of the gift sent chills up my mother’s spine as much as if it had been alive. Mom was scared to death of rats. So was I.

The rats I learned to hate were not pet rats or the white rats of laboratory experiments. They were sewer rats who lived in the open cistern with the tunnel to our basement, like the beady-eyed creature that leaped at my father when he blew him out of the opening in the basement wall with a shotgun. I’ll be 76 in a few days, but in my mind, it happened yesterday. 

Which brings me back to the brain surgery dream three nights ago. The pain in my head came from the rat that lived there. The rat wasn’t leaping from a cupboard or scurrying through the walls; it lived inside my head. I was helpless to remove it. It took surgical intervention, and its presence in my head surprised the surgeon as much as the part of me that was observing the procedure.

The rat represents everything I don’t want to be. It’s ugly. It’s dirty. It’s sneaky. It’s vile. It doesn’t operate in the daylight. It does it’s business in the dark of night. And, if you don’t kill it, it may kill you. Even if you shoot it, it will leap for your jugular.

It doesn’t take a Jungian dream interpreter to “get” the symbolism of the rat inside my head. I have been, and still am, my own worst enemy. You can run from the evil inside you, but the guilt remains. Betrayal, deceit, denial, divorce, hiding in kitchen cupboards, scurrying in bedroom walls, living in the cistern beside the house where the human beings live.

I’ve long known the truth of Carl Sandburg’s poem “The Wilderness”: “O, I got a zoo, I got a menagerie, inside my ribs, under my bony head…”. Like the rest of the human race, I, too, have a wolf in me, and a fox, a hog, a baboon, a fish, an eagle, and a mockingbird in me. But I have an animal not listed in Sandburg’s menagerie. I got a rat inside my bony head.

Childhood fears never die. And, like a former pope who hated his predecessor so much that he became him, if one isn’t careful, one becomes what one fears and hates.

Where is the surgeon who can remove it? What practices can pull the rat from my head and the free me of the horror inside my ribs? Or, is the challenge to live with it the same way I’ve come to terms with the other members of the menagerie of me — to go face-to-face, eyeball-to-eyeball, and, after all these years of running from it, muster the courage to make friends with my own worst enemy?

Rat on a green background

The rats of my childhood disappeared when the opening in the basement wall was closed with brick and mortar and the cistern was filled with concrete. It will take more than bricks and concrete to remove the one in my head, but the process has started, and for that, I’m thankful.

“The self is a relation which relates itself to its own self,” wrote Soren Kierkegaard in The Sickness Unto Death. I was both the subject and the object in the dream, the self relating to its own self. There is light in the darkness. Hope abounds.

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, August 2, 2018.

Four Tubes in a Wind Chime

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

– Leonard Cohen, “Anthem”

Four old friends — we call ourselves the Old Dogs — descended last week on the Minnesota cabin by the wetland for our annual Gathering. The lyrics and recorded voice of Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem” became the focal point for reflection one week ago tonight. 

We gave up the illusion of a perfect offering years ago, though a stifled striving for it continues just the same. The “perfect offering” has gone underground where the sirens of perfection hide when those they’ve beckoned plug their ears to block the torment of lost ideals and shattered aspirations. None of us occupies a pulpit any longer, and the folks whose hands we once shook at the church door are shaking other hands where we once stood. Any dream of a perfect offering was cracked a long time ago, and it was the crack in our respective egos that let the light come in. 

Old Dogs from Arizona, Indiana, Illinois, and Minnesota know there’s a crack in everything, and we know we never were what we were cracked up to be. We’re not so sure the bells still can ring. Much of the social progress we worked for during five decades of ministry is being overturned. The separation of children from their parents at the Mexican border; the insults of neighboring nations and traditional allies; the admiration for Vladimir Putin; the twisting of fact and disregard for truth; the “fake news” war of words against the American Fourth Estate; the blatant encouragement of white supremacist movements; the shifting of blame to the opposing party and past administrations for present policies and actions; the resurgence of the Christian right and American exceptionalism, and so much more gave worn us down, leaving us wondering whether it makes any difference to still ring the bell.

Leonard Cohen’s gravely voice fills the cabin by the wilderness wetland.

We asked for signs

The signs were sent

The birth betrayed

The marriage spent

Yeah the widowhood

Of every government

Signs for all to see

I can’t run no more

With the lawless crowd

While the killers in high places

Say their prayers out loud

But they’ve summoned, they’ve summoned up

A thundercloud

And they’re going to hear from me

Leonard Cohen’s’ “Anthem” brought a sliver of light into The Gathering of Old Dogs. Leonard’s gone, of course, without his suit — gone home without his burden behind the curtain without the costume that he wore — but we heard his voice deep and drear and true — like a wind chime rung by a breeze from the far side of the wetland. Then came the thundercloud summoning the weary to ring the bells again while the killers in high places say their prayers out loud.

I love to speak of Leonard

He’s a sportsman and a shepherd

He’s a lazy bastard

Living in a suit

But he does say what I tell him

Even though it isn’t welcome

He just doesn’t have the freedom

To refuse.

– Leonard Cohen, “Going Home”

Four lazy bastards depart for separate states to ring the bells anew — four tubes of a larger wind chime.

– Gordon C. Stewart on the Minnesota wetland, June 20, 2018

Visual Poetry: Go fly a kite

A kite flying above the Illinois prairie invites the viewer to hear the Sound of Silence.

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“Visual Poetry” – Photo by Steve Shoemaker, 2014

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Steve Shoemaker welcoming President Bill Clinton to Champaign-Urbana. IL

Steve Shoemaker, the 6’8″ kite-flying poet whose poetry blessed Views from the Edge readers, shared this photo from the Shoemaker prairie home near Urbana, Illinois in 2014.

Steve didn’t live to see the changing of the guard one year ago today. On the anniversary of the 2017 inauguration, pancreatic cancer has silenced Steve’s Views from the Edge posts, but his poetry and “Visual Poetry,” as he called this photograph, still speak clearly. Like the kite in the photograph and the photo of Steve towering over President Bill Clinton, Steve still invites us to “go fly a kite” for a better time. RIP.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, January 20, 2018.

 

Into a dense fog: Sinner, do you love my Jesus?

The descent from my suburban home in Broomall to serve the “less fortunate” on Green Street sent me home looking into a dense fog.

The Wanderer

Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog –  Caspar David Friedrich, c.1818

I had given up a Saturday as a youthful answer to the song I learned has a child. “If you love him, why not serve him?”  Serving Jesus meant serving those who were less fortunate than we, as we used to describe the difference.

The kids from Marple Presbyterian Church in Broomall were aware that Jacob’s Ladder and the other spirituals we sang rose from the slave fields of the white Southern plantations, but the plantations were in the south. We were northerners. We were the abolitionists. We were part of the solution, not the problem.

The day on Green Street knocked me off my ladder. Those few hours on the calendar time of Chronos were a pivotal Kairos moment that placed me before a dense fog searching for answers to how and why life was so different for the two junior high youth groups from Marple Presbyterian Church in Broomall and Berean Presbyterian Church in north Philadelphia.

How and why was it that Tony was born into poverty while I was born into relative economic wellbeing in a suburb became a daunting question. I was looking into a dense fog.

Prior to the plunge to Green Street I hadn’t paid much attention to the first word of the stanza about loving Jesus: “Sinner… do you love my Jesus?” Although I knew myself to be a sinner — I had told a lie or two and not been kind to my younger brothers — I was no Judas! I was a soldier of the cross. “If you love him, why not serve him, soldier of the cross?”

Suddenly, the fog was not just outside of me. It was inside me, a jarring sense that I and “my people” were self-deceived sinners.

But what is sin and what is a sinner? Institutional slavery was sinful.  The slaveowners were sinners. I knew that. The slaveowners were white. The slaves were black. I knew that. The slaveowners were Christians. I knew that. The slaves were Christians. I knew that — or thought I knew it.

I didn’t learn until much later that the slaves were forced into the Christian faith no less than they had been herded like cattle onto slave ships, or that the difference in the churches was as different as it had been on the slave ships. The difference was that on board the slave ships, the slaves were chained together in the hold while the slave traders were up above; in the churches, the slaves were up above in the rear balcony, looking down on the sea of whiteness on the main floor. Until Richard Allen led the revolt from the balcony to form the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

But the kids from Berean Presbyterian Church were not African Methodist Episcopalians. They were Presbyterians in the theological tradition of the Protestant Reformation, John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, and the doctrine of predestination.

Was Tony predestined to poverty in north Philadelphia? Was I predestined to white privilege in Broomall? Or was predestination a hoax, the idea of sinners washing their hands like Pilate that had nothing to do with the will of God?

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Frau am Fenster
Caspar David Friedrich, 1818–1822
Öl auf Leinwand
44,0 × 37,0 cm
Alte Nationalgalerie Berlin

I was no longer standing on the heights of innocence overlooking the landscape. I was a child of privilege, confined and alone, looking through a very small window at the world beyond what had belonged to “my Jesus”. I was pondering the ships of past and future and the dense fog that went on as far as my eye could see. It has lasted my whole lifetime.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, August 11, 2017.