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

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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.

 

My lifelong Quest

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Some things take a lifetime. More or less.

It took until a few days before my 75th birthday to become clear about my lifelong quest. Some would call it my “vocation” in life, my “calling” as we say. Others might call it an obsession. In either case, it’s taken this long to say a word about it.
In a nutshell, my life’s occupation has been, and still is — are you ready? — theological anthropology.
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“Whoah! What’s that?” my 11-week-old grandson Elijah is asking.
Theological anthropology, like all anthropology, is the search for understanding of the human species. The term  ‘anthropology’ is the combination of the Greek words  anthropos (human) and logos (word). Anthropo-logy is ‘the word’ about ‘humankind’.
Theological anthropology is the study of humankind in the context of ‘theos’, i.e. ‘G-d’ — which Paul Tillich translated as Being-Itself, the Ground of Being, that which is ultimately Real.
Anthropos is contingent; Being-Itself is not. Like all species, ours has a very short lifespan in the aeons of eternity. We are a small part of the All or the Whole (Friedrich Schleiermacher), creatures of time with the rest of moral nature who can be understood, if at all, only in light of this larger timeless Whole.
The Psalmist question –“What is man that Thou art mindful of him?” (Ps. 8:4 KJV) — is my life-long question.
Who are we as a species? Who am I as a member of it? Who are the Andrews, the Tituses, the Campbells, the Stewarts among the vast assortment of homo sapiens? Who am I in relation to Barclay, my Cavalier King Charles Spaniel friend, the forests, the flowers, the birds, and the rest of the species of dust and ashes holding our breath before the majesty of life itself?
Why theological anthropology?
You can take the human species out of the universe and the universe will go on as it did aeons before anthropos came along. We can’t say the opposite. Essential to the human experience is the terror of contingency and the wonder of of it all, what Rudolf Otto called “mysterium tremendous et fascinans”.
The idea of “man (the human species) over nature” is a deadly illusion, a flight from reality itself, an escape from the trembling that comes with our vulnerability, our transience, our mortality, the final limit of all human creativity (the “image of God”).
After only one cup of coffee on my 75th birthday, that’s the best I can do.
Mom

Muriel Titus Stewart

This afternoon I’ll be in the Philosophy Lounge at Macalester College in Saint Paul, MN at the invitation of a philosophy professor, a long way away from the delivery room and the loving, laboring mother who pushed me into the world (the philosopher’s lounge) back in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. Thanks, Mom!
– Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, August 10, 2017.

If you love him, why not serve him?

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Fourth in a series on “Jacob’s Ladder at Almost 75”

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The time with Tony on Green Street changed my life in ways I could not have expected when the junior high youth group had left Broomall that morning to do a good deed for “the less fortunate” — an act of Christian service, as we would have called it — in north Philadelphia.

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Chronos and his Child by Giovanni Francesco Romanelli, National Museum in Warsaw, a 17th century depiction of Titan Cronus as “Father Time,” wielding a harvesting scythe

Time is a funny thing. Chronos (clock time) and Kairos (existential time) both happen on the clock but they are not the same.

Chronological time ticks forward, leaving every previous moment behind; Kairos stops time and re-orients the future.

The hours on Green Street are as fresh at the three-quarter century mark as the day they happened.

“If you love him, why not serve him, soldier of the cross?” asks Jacob’s Ladder of all who aspire to follow Jesus. If Jesus could stoop down to wash his disciples’ feet, surely we could go down to Green Street for a day.

The kids from Marple Church in Broomall left that morning to do just that. We went to serve as a different kind of army, the philanthropic foot-washing soldiers of goodness giving up a Saturday to carry heavy furniture at a ghetto settlement house with other young soldiers of the cross from the inner city African-American Berean Presbyterian Church.

“If you love him, why not serve him?”

We put on our work clothes, travelled to Green Street, and rolled up our sleeves in the strange new world of the Green Street Settlement House.

Although we knew spirituals like “Jacob’s Ladder” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” we had little if any idea of their socio-economic-policitical origins or implications. Although we were conscious of their origins in chattel slavery, we were northerners. We knew nothing of W.E. DuBois, and Michael Harrington’s The Other America, William Stringfellow’s My People Is the Enemy, James Cone’s The Spirituals and the Blues and Black Theology and Black Power were years away from being published. Reading them would come years later.

During an afternoon break, the woman who organized the day asked Tony to go home to get something they needed. Perhaps it was a screwdriver. Or maybe a rubber band. It doesn’t matter. I went “home” with Tony. “When we get home,” said Tony as best I can recall it, “my brother might be there. If he’s there, he’ll be sitting in the corner. Just ignore him and you’ll be okay. He won’t like you being there.”

What_s_in_a_name_-_The_Problem_with_the__Nation_of_Islam__(part_1_of_2)_001Tony’s older brother Danny didn’t like white people. He had left the church to become a convert to The Nation.

The furthest thing from the mind of the loving servants of Jesus from Broomall was that someone might not like white people.  Or that Tony’s brother would see Christian “service” as servile — a demeaning attack on black dignity and pride — or see the “soldiers of the cross” as the problem, not the solution. Danny didn’t look up during our brief visit to the Lewis’s home.

The day with Tony shook my sense of innocence to its foundations. It was a Kairos moment — a deconstruction and reconstruction of faith and consciousness that continues at age 75.

But each person’s autobiography is distinct. I didn’t realize until this morning how much my memory of the day is a guy‘s memory of it. I was lifting heavy furniture with a kid named Tony, getting to know each other carrying sofas and chairs from one location to the next. Although neither Tony nor I was big or strong, my diminutive friend Carolyn was smaller . . .  and she was a member of the “weaker sex,” as it was called by some back then.

Only yesterday did I learn that my dear Broomall friend Carolyn was having anything but a Kairos moment scrubbing a toilet on Chronos time all by herself. Carolyn’s email reads as follows:

I had a very strange time. It seemed to them, and I’m sure they were correct, that I couldn’t do some of the heavy lifting, so they set me to sandpapering a few layers of awful paint off the toilet seat. I worked hard at it all day, and only got about half done when they remembered I was there and I was embarrassed that in all that time I had not finished my only project. They were very nice about it. But I didn’t get a chance to meet any of the Berean folks except the lady who gave me the job.

Reading Carolyn’s memory takes me in different directions that change the intent of this reflection: the difference gender, as well as racial privilege, seems to have made scraping multiple layers of paint and who knows what else from a crusty toilet seat, a task that may have been all too familiar to the woman who assigned the job to Carolyn.

maidSome Chronos moments are Kairos moments, as the day with Tony was for me. Others are time bent over a toilet seat. The difference is as clear as black and white, poor and rich. How many of the women from Berean rose every morning to put on their maid uniforms to catch the subway and the Red Arrow bus to become invisible, forgotten “soldiers of the cross” in the wealthy homes on the Main Line an hour’s ride west of Philadelphia?

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, August 9, 2017.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“My Jesus”

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Part 3 of “Jacob’s Ladder at Almost 75”

“Sinner, do you love my Jesus?”

The day I met Tony Lewis, “my Jesus” fell off the ladder.

Ladder-5The Jesus of my childhood was white. He was kind and loving, having descended from heaven, like the angels on the ladder between heaven and earth.  My Jesus had made me a soldier of the cross whose job it was to stay on the ladder to heaven and carry others with me.

Until the day I met Tony, I had no idea my faith in the descended Jesus also was condescending, the creation of white privilege.

The day my love for “my Jesus” died was the day my church’s junior-high youth group from Marple Presbyterian Church spent helping move furniture at the Green Street Settlement House in Philadelphia.

Opal Street

North Philadelphia street scene

Green Street was the ghetto. We had gone there from our middle-class suburb of Broomall, the home of all things white and Christian, to help those less fortunate than ourselves. We had no knowledge that our Minister and the Minister of the Berean Presbyterian Church on Green Street had conspired to join together the white Marple and the black Berean church youth groups with the excuse of “helping” move the Green Street Settlement House furniture down the street to its newly purchased location.

That was the day I met Tony, whose Jesus was not a suburban white guy with blue eyes and blond hair taking me up the ladder to a white heaven.

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Tony’s Jesus had descended from God the Father and had made him a “soldier of the cross” — but the Jesus Tony loved was neither white nor condescending.

“Sinner,” he seemed to ask without an once of hubris, “do you love my Jesus?”

I became conscious of sin.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, August 7, 2017.

 

 

 

 

 

Jacob’s Ladder at almost 75

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Sometimes I can’t get it out of my head. I go to sleep with it. Wake up with it. Walk the dog with it. It’s been over a month now.

“We are climbing Jacob’s ladder” begs for my attention.

So this morning I surrender. What will come out on the page is a mystery until it’s written.

I ask myself, “Why this song?”

This stretch of time has been anxious. Unsettling, restless, down, bored, and struggling with my own inner demons and the bigger demons of human madness around the world.

Jacob’s Ladder has been with me my whole life, like an old friend who shows up when I need her. Like her cousins “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho,” there’s something about the tune that brings comfort, placing me in the good company of the slaves whose faith and hope are timeless though they themselves are long gone.

It’s the melody, the music – the language of the soul – that gets me. But it’s also the words. Words like ‘climbing, ‘higher’, ‘soldier’, ‘cross’, ’sinner’, ‘love’, ‘Jesus’, ‘serve’. Words that have stuck in my throat at different times in my life journey as either highly objectionable or as deeply expressive of what I know and feel to be ‘true’. “Jacob’s Ladder” feels like a summary of where I’ve been, where I am now, and a strange kind of invitation to resolve the contradictions as I move forward after three-quarters of a century.

So this morning and in the days to come I will have a conversation with Jacob and his ladder, stopping at each stanza and phrase to dig deeper into what is crying for attention.

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Chagall, Marc, 1887-1985. Jacob’s Dream, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54650 [retrieved August 6, 2017]. Original source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/abeppu/.

“Listen to your life,” wrote Frederick Buechner in Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation. “See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”

At almost 75 and no longer climbing, I’ve been pondering grace itself.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, August 6, 2017.

 

The Hiding Place

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Visiting St. John’s Abbey for the first time years ago just before noon, one of the Benedictine monks invited the guest to join the monks for mid-day prayer.

Abbey Church, St. John's University | Collegeville, MN | Marcel

St. John’s Abbey Church, Collegeville, Minnesota

Moments after declining the offer, I changed my mind. Risking the embarrassment of unfamiliarity with the Benedictine rite, I quietly made my way up the right side aisle toward the Chancel choir loft where the monks were gathering.

St John's Abbey hurch

Interior of St. John’s Abbey Church, Collegeville, Minnesota

Anxious and wanting to be as invisible as possible, I slid up the steps of the choir loft like a cockroach and found a suitable hiding place, the seat in the far corner of the top row (far right in the photograph).

I felt a tug on my left shirt sleeve. “I don’t think you want to sit there,” said the kindly Benedictine Brother with a twinkling eye, “unless you want to be the Abbot!”

Any early childhood protestant prejudice that monasteries are places where people of lesser faith go to hide came tumbling down! There is no hiding place in a Benedictine monastery. No one is a cockroach.

During a crisis years later, I returned to St. john’s for spiritual guidance and took a more lowly place in the choir loft.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, July 12, 2017.

 

 

 

An Echo from Lockerbie

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Pan_Am_Flight_103._Crashed_Lockerbie,_Scotland,_21_December_1988With the explosion of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in the news yesterday, we share this excerpt from James Whyte’s sermon for the mourners at the Lockerbie Memorial Service 1988.
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That such carnage of the young and of the innocent should have been willed by men in cold and calculated evil, is horror upon horror. What is our response to that?

The desire, the determination, that those who did this should be detected and, if possible, brought to justice, is natural and is right. The uncovering of the truth will not be easy, and evidence that would stand up in a court of law may be hard to obtain.

Justice is one thing. But already one hears in the media the word ‘retaliation’. As far as I know, no responsible politician has used that word, and I hope none ever will, except to disown it. For that way lies the endless cycle of violence upon violence, horror upon horror. And we may be tempted, indeed urged by some, to flex our muscles in response, to show that we are men. To show that we are what? To show that we are prepared to let more young and more innocent die, to let more rescue workers labour in more wreckage to find the grisly proof, not of our virility, but of our inhumanity. That is what retaliation means.

The  Right Rev. James Whyte was the Moderator of the Church of Scotland, still suffering from grief and physical fatigue following his wife’s death. He had recently retired as Principal and Professor of Practical Theology at the University of St. Andrews’ divinity school, St. Mary’s. The full text of the Lockerbie Memorial  sermon was published in Laughter and Tears: Thoughs on Faith (Reflections), pp. 92–5.

Every Thursday afternoon in the summer of 1991 the Right Rev. Professor James (“Jim”) Whyte brewed a pot of tea and served scones to the complete stranger he’d welcomed to St. Andrews, an American Presbyterian minister seeking his tutelage in practical theology during a sabbatical from pastoral duties at Knox Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati. His hand-written prayers delivered at Hope Park Church in St. Andrews remain a priceless treasure.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, July 5, 2017.

 

Revelation at Andrews Hollow

After several days away from writing for Views from the Edge, today’s Daily Post invitation to write something about ‘revelation’ struck a familiar chord, so to speak.

Andrews Casket Company mill in Woodstock, ME

Andrews Casket Company mill in Woodstock, ME

Earlier this week an email arrived from a complete stranger who believed we were family. In a google search she had come across Views from the Edge’s photograph of the Andrews’ family property.

What’s that have to do with ‘revelation’?

It revealed a blood relative I didn’t know existed and led to the correspondence with the second-cousin I’d only met once on the old Andrews’ homestead years ago but had never forgotten.

The emails we’ve exchanged have removed the cover (i.e., ‘revealed’) from family origins that had remained hidden for almost 75 years.

The reflections of the second-cousin who grew up on the ancestral property of the Andrews family help explain both the sense of homesickness and forlornness I felt while visiting “The Hollow” last month. The latest visit confirmed the feeling expressed in “The Forlorn Children of the Mayflower” in “Be Still!”

Until this week’s correspondence, I hadn’t know the property was “The Hollow” to the relatives who grew up there, or as “Andrews Hollow” to the those whose relatives’ funerals had been handled by the Andrews family. It all came as a revelation.

So, today I take time out to write this post in reply to The Daily Post’s invitation. Perhaps life itself is a life-long pilgrimage of revelation – the unveiling of the deeper chords and cords of the DNA that lives on in the tissues and bloodstreams of later generations.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, June 10, 2017.

MEMORIAL DAY 2017 – REMEMBERANCE

Moment after learning that “Memorial Day and the Soldier’s Helmet” was too long to air today on MPR’s “All Things Considered,” Marilyn Armstrong’s SERENDIPITY Memorial Day 2017 stood out from the in-box. Best wishes for a thoughtful Memorial Day.

SERENDIPITY

Memorial Day


Memorial Day (formerly Decoration Day ) is observed on the last Monday of May. It commemorates the men and women who died in military service. In observance of the holiday, many people visit cemeteries and memorials, and volunteers place American flags on each grave site at national cemeteries.

A national moment of remembrance takes place at 3:00 p.m. local time.

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Three years after the Civil War ended, on May 5, 1868, the head of an organization of Union veterans — the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) — established Decoration Day as a time for the nation to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers. Maj. Gen. John A. Logan declared that Decoration Day should be observed on May 30. It is believed that date was chosen because flowers would be in bloom all over the country.

The first large observance was held that year at…

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Memorial Day and the Soldier’s Helmet

“Memorial Day and the Soldier’s Helmet” is read aloud here from Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (p. 10f.). This recording is not as professional as it will be this weekend when it airs on Minnesota Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.” This practice run starts out a little mushy! But it’s good enough that Day1.org posted it yesterday on their site.

Many thanks to Chuck Lieber for making it possible to turn “Be Still!” into a podcast.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, May 24, 2017.