Who are we? Can we suspend shouting long enough to reflect on who and what we in the United States aspire to be? By what social norms do we measure a person’s or a nation’s well-being? A culture’s shared values form the foundation on which a society is built. Every culture is both an inheritance and a work in process. Without thoughtful care, time and neglect eat away the mortar between the foundation’s bricks.
FOUNDATIONS OF A DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC
The Constitution represents the boundaries of that consensus. If we didn’t know it before, we know in 2019 that the constitutional republic we call the United States of America is no Eden. Lord knows, Abel’s blood still cries out from our history and Cain’s inexplicable, impulsive violence will stain our hands again. Repeatedly. Sin is like that. It crouches at the door as in the Genesis legend. There is no perfect culture or society. Although we miss the mark (which is what the biblical word ‘sin’ means) by intention or by inattention, it falls on each of us to reaffirm and refresh the cultural code and ethical norms by which we measure ourselves personally and collectively. These measures are not abstract.
TRADITIONAL CULTURAL’S MORTAR — NORMS AND MEASURES
Don’t call people names.
Don’t make fun of people
Be honest/tell the truth
Your word is your bond
Deal fairly with each other
Empathize with those less fortunate than yourself
Be generous with your money
Help those who suffer
Be true to yourself, but be ready to compromise
Settle disagreements peacefully
Don’t get too big for your britches
Do not show off
Be above board in your dealings with others
Love your family
Respect the individual right to religious belief and practice
Honor the principle of free speech
Protect a free press
Be courageous and patient
TUCKPOINTING THE MORTAR
Check out the mortar. Is it holding? Where does it need tuck pointing? Re-assess traditional culture’s tangible ways of measuring the quality of human life. Delete those you consider outdated. Add other measures you believe should be added. Then look in the mirror. Look at your behavior. Look at what you choose to watch and hear. Think again about who and what you want us to be. See the mortar crumbling. But don’t stop there. Despair is no excuse. Get up and do something to repair the foundation of humankind’s best nature.
— Gordon C. Stewart by the wetland, September 16, 2019
“Watching Dorian’s devastation of the Bahamas while being hit by an avalanche of tweets that treat tragedy as a television opportunity has left me speechless. Nothing from the White House connects the dots — the growing frequency of 100 year storms, floods, and fires (weather) — with an urgent call to act now on climate change. The planet’s lungs are on fire in the Amazon while the man who promises to make american great again shreds established regulations put in place to protect water, air, our forests, and soil. Meanwhile $3.1 B are stripped from FEMA and national security to pay for the wall for which we were promised the Mexican government would pay. I feel like the psalmist. ‘How long, Lord? How long?'”
Those words went up on FB yesterday, breaking a long silence on FB and here on Views from the Edge. That was before reading Katha Pollitt’s piece in The Nation. “Almost Everything Bad that Trump Did This Summer” details some of the Trump Administration behavior between June 3 and September 1, 2019.
“To rest is to give up on the already exhausted will as the prime motivator of endeavor, with its endless outward need to reward itself with established goals. … To rest is to give up on worrying and fretting and the sense that there is something wrong with the world unless we are there top put it right.” - David Whyte, Consolations: the Solace, Nourishment, and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words.
In search of rest, I retreat from the world of 2019 and my “already exhausted will”. The walls inside the cabin by the wilderness are rough-cut pine, the natural color of the president’s orange hair. Alas! The world comes with me, even by the wetland: I cannot rest from comparisons and disdaining thoughts of orange hair and Greenland.
I’m worrying and fretting, wanting to put the world right: rescue the English language from the words that paint the world orange: words like ‘bad’…’good’ … ’nasty’ … ‘nice’ …’not nice’ … ‘loyal’ … ‘disloyal’, that divide, blame, simplify, stereotype, scapegoat, and choke the best in us. Words do matter. The unexamined underlying meaning of words matters most.
First thing in the morning, while Barclay is still asleep in his kennel, I do what I once disdained as flight from action. The word ‘devotional’ has a different meaning now. A ‘devotional’ is not an escape from responsibility. The half-hour devotional is what it says: to devote attention to the Source of consolation and solace in the world that makes my head hurt. Here at the cabin, I devote my attention to the Psalm before checking the mouse trap.
Sometimes the Psalm consoles; other days it does not. When something in the Psalm whets my appetite for the underlying meaning of the words, I turn to the Paraphrases of the Church of Scotland. The Paraphrases, like scripture itself, take me to an earlier time that knew nothing of the United States, Greenland, Denmark, or Mexico, orange hair, or the “summer camps” for migrant children along the border. I read the Paraphrase of Psalm 146:
The stranger’s shield, the widow’s stay,
the orphan’s help is he:
But yet by him the wicked’s way
turned upside down shall be.
— Psalm 146:9, Paraphrases
Consoled and nearly comforted by David Whyte and the old Scot paraphrase of the ancient Psalm, I put down the Paraphrases to fill Barclay’s bowl with fresh dog food before freeing him from his kennel, remembering the One,
Who righteous judgment executes
for those oppress’d that be,
Who the hungry giveth food;
God sets the pris’ners free.
-- Ps. 146:7
But first I free from the trap the orange mouse my dog shall never see.
– Gordon C. Stewart, by the Minnesota wetland, August 22, 2019.
Consider the contrast between Live and Learn‘s appreciation for Earth’s seasons and Franklin Graham’s focus on heaven in a recent Fox radio interview chastising public figures who openly reject or express doubts about their Christian faith.
“I’m going to keep telling people how they can have a relationship with God how they can have their sins forgiven and how it can make and have that hope of heaven one day by putting their faith and trust in Jesus Christ.”
Franklin Graham, Fox radio interview with Todd Starnes Click THIS LINK for more.
Although the Live and Learn quote from Sarah Dessen’s That Summer is not specifically theological, it captures the contrast between two kinds of religion. One celebrates life (“So much in one summer, stirring up like the storms that crest at the end of each day, blowing out all the heat and dirt to leave everything gasping and cool”) and seeks to live responsibly on the planet.
The other kind of religion sees faith as the ticket to heaven (a paradisal life after life), instead of eternal punishment in you know what, while the sweet smell of honeysuckle is overcome by the smell of sizzling asphalt and the porpoises wash ashore because of plastic.
How and why the mind works the way it does came to mind these past few days. My mind has been like a river pouring over rapids and waterfalls, splitting into two or three paths around the islets that still rise from the riverbed, and then returning from two or three to one river with a single flow.
Integrating one’s plunges over the falls, side trips around the islets, and tumbling over rapids is what the mind does as it looks back upstream from down river. More often than not, one’s life is a blur. We move with the flow downstream. But once in while, what happened upstream invites or demands reflection.
No moment in the river’s journey is superfluous. Daily routines in periods of calm dull our awareness of the river itself and lay aside questions of its whence and whither until another event, or a memory, moves us to clear the blur. One event or memory leads to others we thought we had forgotten, pushed aside, or left behind.
The path of descent is the path of transformation. Darkness, failure, relapse, death, and woundedness are our primary teachers, rather than ideas or doctrines.
Richard Rohr, Yes
Think a moment of all the events and encounters that have shaped you most deeply and lastingly. How many did you see coming? How many did you engineer, manufacture, chase down? How many were interruptions? . . . The span between life as we intend it and life as we receive it is vast. Our true purpose is worked out in that gap. It is fashioned in the crucible of interruptions.
Mark Buchanan, The Rest of God: Restoring Your Soul by Restoring Sabbath.
All moments are part of the river of whence that flows over rocks and waterfalls, splits, and returns to one on its way to a whither beyond our knowing.
Gordon C. Stewart, by the wetland, Minnesota, August 12, 2019.
Robert McAfee Brown is not a household name for most folks, but it is for a dwindling multitude shaped by his life and teaching. Few of us sat in his classes at Macalester College, Union Theological Seminary in New York, or at Stanford, and few of us marched with him for civil rights or an end to the Vietnam War. Although we never met him, he seemed to know who were, and spoke of God in ways that struck a chord with adolescent ears itching to change the world.
One of the people who did know him personally was Jo Bede. Jo knew him up close as his student assistant at Macalester College, typing the manuscripts for the books he published. All these years later, Jo is in a Memory Care Center here in Minnesota. Like many other members of the multitude, she no longer remembers his name or the name of her alma mater.
Unlike many members of the Robert McAfee Brown multitude, Jo remembered everything until Alzheimer’s stole’s her powers of recognition. Many other members remain unaware of their membership, though they read (or didn’t read) Brown’s book used in Presbyterian confirmation classes all across the United States. Like most kids that age, we didn’t pay attention to the author. We didn’t want to be ‘churchy’. But if The Bible Speaks to You sounds ‘churchy’ to you today, it’s likely because ‘church’, as Robert McAfee Brown understood it, bore no resemblance to the churches that decades later would replace intelligent faith with platitudes in the era of Donald Trump.
Some things are stranger than strange. In 2019 few things feel as strange as the likelihood that a young Donald Trump had become part of the multitude as a member of the confirmation class at First Presbyterian Church of Jamaica Heights, NYC. He was just another kid who didn’t give a thought to Robert McAfee Brown or crack the book we were supposed to read.
“We can be sure that ‘Trouble’ is God’s middle name,” he wrote, “and that such a God will be alongside us in the midst of trouble rather than off in a remote heaven practicing neutrality. And if we begin to make that most difficult switch of all — away from the gods of middle-class values and upward mobility, and gilt-edged retirement plans — and if we can explore, even tentatively and gingerly, what it would be like to think and act for those who are the victims, we just might uncover ‘the most unexpected news’ of all: that God got there before we did.”
All these years later, I imagine Bob Brown inviting all of us to his home in Palo Alto for a reunion of the crowd we didn’t know. Jo, Donald, and I are in the Browns’ living room. He begins the welcome by turning to Jo, whose head is down and who appears to be asleep. “Jo, it’s so good to see you after all these years! Do you still have that typewriter?” Jo lifts her head and smiles at the sound of her old teacher’s voice. “And, Donald and Gordon, Carolyn, Woody, Ted, Bob, Dottie, and David, I can’t wait to hear what you’ve done with your lives.” We go around the circle, introducing ourselves to each other from across the country. After the last of introduction, there is a silence while all eyes return to our host.
“So . . .,” he begins with a kindly smile, “how are all of you doing with the God whose middle name is ‘Trouble?'” All eyes lower into a deafening silence. Before any of us speak, he asks the second question for which he has brought us together:
“‘How are you doing with the switch?”
Gordon C. Stewart, from the wilderness, August 10, 2019.
Toni Morrison, the 1993 Nobel laureate and beloved national treasure Americans mourn today, wrote and spoke words fit for the crowd of people who will stand before the president today in Dayton, OH.
“Anger … it’s a paralyzing emotion … you can’t get anything done. People sort of think it’s an interesting, passionate, and igniting feeling — I don’t think it’s any of that — it’s helpless … it’s absence of control — and I need all of my skills, all of the control, all of my powers … and anger doesn’t provide any of that — I have no use for it whatsoever.”
anybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to mind…. Not just work, kill, or maim you, but dirty you. Dirty you so bad you couldn’t like yourself anymore. Dirty you so bad you forgot who you were and couldn’t think it up
“The silent colossal National Lie that is the support and confederate of all the tyrannies and shams and inequalities and unfairnesses that afflict the peoples—that is the one to throw bricks and sermons at.” — Samuel Clemmons (Mark Twain).
The National Lie of white supremacy may lie silent for a time, but it doesn’t die easily. It was the unspoken lie behind the invasion and slaughter of people it called ‘savages’ to justify stealing America’s indigenous peoples’ continent and herding them onto federal reservation. The conquerers were white. The indigenous peoples were ‘red’. The invaders spoke English. Those they conquered did not. The same colossal National Lie rationalized the invasion of “the dark continent” to capture men, women, and children as slave labor to work the plantation owners’ cotton fields. The faces of the Lie wore white hoods, lit crosses on lawns, and hanged their former slaves from the lynching trees. And on and on it goes. It lives on in 2020, no longer silent, branding brown, Spanish-speaking migrants fleeing for safety “invaders” who must be stopped.
It’s a long way from El Paso TX to Dayton OH — a 22-hour drive through Oklahoma, Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana. It took less than 13 hours for El Paso and Dayton to become twin cities suffering together “all the tyrannies and shams and inequalities and unfairnesses that inflict the people” while the lie of White Nationalism carries on.
“A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” — Mark Twain.
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.