the miraculous, every day in winter, not 15 feet from my window

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To the Editor:

Re “The Solace of Birds in Winter” (Op-Ed, Dec. 15): I am smitten with my backyard birds. What is it about the industrious little souls leaping delicately about my tray feeder that so lifts the spirit? Their spunk? Their equanimity no matter the weather? The variety in their eating habits?

Mourning doves plunk themselves down in the center of the tray to chow down. The red-bellied woodpecker grips the edge and won’t yield his position. The chickadees and nuthatches take a seed each, one at a time, to a nearby branch to nibble.

A chickadee weighs less than half an ounce. Its coat of feathers, half an inch thick, keeps its tiny body at about 90 degrees even when the air temperature is zero. It is this, then, that takes my breath away and is the source of my affection — the miraculous, every day in winter, not 15…

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A Lover’s Quarrel with the World

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Robert Frost epitaph, Bennington, NH

Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall” springs up over morning coffee in winter time. It’s white outside, dark, and cold. I think of “Mending Wall” where, after a hard winter, two neighbors repair the gaps in the stone wall between the pine side and the apple orchard side of the wall.

There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, "Good fences make good neighbours."
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
"Why do they make good neighbours? Isn't it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down."
-- Robert Frost, "Mending Wall" lines 24-37

From the pine side of the wall, Christmas Eve, 2018:

"I am all alone (poor me) 
in the White House
waiting for the Democrats
to come back and make
a deal on desperately needed
Border Security,"
  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, December 27, 2018.

“and there arose such a clatter. . . “

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The Word that cannot be domesticated keeps showing up in the strangest places, even where the culture has turned the crucified Jesus into a plastic babe in a manger. Or Santa Claus, at whose coming “there arose such a clatter . . . .” (A Visit from Saint Nicholas). But sometimes the Word that makes such a clatter comes from a pulpit, as it did this Christmas Eve where two unexpected visitors came to kneel before the manger at the National Cathedral (Episcopal) in Washington, D.C.

Click HERE to read and listen Ari Shapiro’s interview with Bishop Mariann Budde on NPR.

Nativity scene, date unknown (Meister von Hoenfurth)

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as, the curse is found.

He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders, wonders, of His love. – Joy to the World.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night,

— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, December 26, 2018.

You Tyrant!

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Recalling Steve Shoemaker’s post “A Song for Each Kind of Day” after returning to the habit of reading the Psalms each morning, I am stunned by the aptness of the Psalm for today.

The Psalms are existential in nature. They are profoundly personal, but they also address public life. They give voice to the heart’s desire in a given time and place — our thanksgivings, yearning, exultations, lamentations, and cries against injustice. Often they are the poet’s responses to public life in the light of faith.

THAT’S NOT NICE!

You tyrant, 

why do you boast of wickedness 

against the godly all day long?

 You plot ruin;

Your tongue is like a sharpened razor,

O worker of deception.

 You love evil more than good

and lying more than speaking the truth.

You love all words that hurt,

O you deceitful tongue.

 Oh that God would demolish you utterly,

topple you, and snatch you from your dwelling,

and root you out of the land of the living!

 The righteous shall see and tremble, 

and they shall laugh at him, saying,

“This is the one who did not take God for a refuge,

but trusted in great wealth

and relied upon wickedness.”

  • Psalm 52:1-7 (Book of Common Prayer)

Psalm 52 isn’t nice. The psalmist knew nothing of Watergate or the Mueller investigation, or Donald J. Trump. Nor was he imbued with an ethic that told him not to judge, to be kind, to watch his tongue, to believe that all’s right with the world because God’s in His heaven or the claim everything happens for a reason.The psalmist is not a fatalist or a determinist. He holds sacred his personal responsibilty for public life. His life is not his own. He knows himself to be a member of a commonwealth. When the integrity of the commonwealth comes under threat, his heart must speak.


BREAKFAST WITH A PSALMIST

Former U.S. Attorney General Elliot Richardson is remembered for “the Saturday Night Massacre” when he resigned his office, refusing to obey President Richard Nixon’s order to fire Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox. 

NYTimes_Saturday_Night_Massacre.jpegYears later, Elliot Richardson came to Minneapolis as the featured speaker at the Westminster Town Hall Forum. As was the custom, he moderator and the guest speaker enjoyed conversation over breakfast the morning of the Forum. At his initiation, the convsersation turned to religion. He was writing a book, occasioned in part by the growing public agreement with John Lennon’s “Imagine There’s No Religion,” arguing that, if the slate of human history were wiped clean of religion, we would re-create it in a heartbeat because it’s in our nature. Searching Amazon’s listing of Richardson’s books, it appears it was never published. If we had the opportunity again all these years later, I would ask him if he had crawled inside Psalm 52 before he took the leap of faith that made him a hero of personal conscience and public intergrity.

ONLY A POEM (A PSALM) 

Some things are matters of the heart. Some things in public life pierce the heart so deepLy; some sins against the commonwealth are so egregious; some wealth is so obscene; some abuses of power against the commonwealth so obvious, that only a poem (a psalm) says what we feel. There is a psalm for this kind of day.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, on the wetland, Dec. 18, 2018

Habits and Inspiration

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I’ve never been a big fan of habits. In spite of what Octavia Butler believes — “Habit will sustain you, whether inspired or not” — I have scorned habits in favor of a more creative, spontaneous, non-habitual life. But this morning I came to my senses. I’ve not been inspired, and I’ve gotten out of a habit that sometimes brings inspiration.

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Elijah

I’ve felt like the psalmist . . .  or like poor little Elijah just 24 hours ago when he couldn’t keep anything down. Not even the Gatorade. When a joyful 19 month-old child gets sick, he doesn’t know what hit him. Sometimes his 76 year-old grandfather doesn’t know either.

Some viruses can’t be seen under a microscope. Some illnesses require more than an Internist’s diagnosis. Their origins defy medical explanation and resist our usual remedies: a stiff drink, an anti-depressant, vitamin and mineral supplements, exercise, or a change of diet. Which is where habits come in.

It’s been weeks since I got out of the habit of morning prayer. Flailing about at four o’clock this morning, I remember the line from Chaim Potok’s The Chosen: it’s the four-o’clock-in-the-morning questions that trouble us over a lifetime. I’ve gotten out of the habit of greeting the day with readings from the Book of Common Prayer (BCP), spending a quiet time pondering the psalms and other readings assigned by a calendar prescribed by doctors of the soul. I need to return to a healthy diet.

My best friend is hospitalized, awaiting surgery required by complications from pancreatic cancer. His time is limited. So is mine. Fifty-four years of friendship soon to vanish like the morning mist. Whatever happens today on the operating table, it won’t be long before one of us is gone. I open the BCP. “What profit is there in my blood, if I go down to the Pit? Will the dust praise you or declare your faithfulness? Hear, O LORD, and have mercy upon me; O LORD, be my helper,” cries the psalmist (Psalm 30:10-11, BCP), recognizing that there is no quick fix for what ails him.

My friend knows this feeling. He also has a habit that serves him well when the raindrops keep falling on his head. When the four-o’clock-in-the-morning clouds and torrential rains come over him, he turns, as do I this morning, to that which he has not made up, and crawls inside the psalmist’s faith that “weeping may spend the night, but joy comes in the morning” (Ps. 30:6, BCP).

Returning to the habit I’d neglected, I read the psalm again and pray for my friend. But I’m not seeing my friend. I’m seeing someone else. I’m looking at Elijah. He has crawled inside his mother’s watchful care…in the bathtub. He is smiling, playing, and splashing the bath water with no hint of memory of last night when he couldn’t even keep down the Gatorade.

“You have turned my wailing into dancing; you have put off my sack-cloth and clothed me with joy. Therefore my heart sings to you without ceasing; O LORD my God, I will give you thanks for ever” (Ps. 30:12-13. BCW).

— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, December 15, 2018.

It’s about time!

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TIMELY REFLECTIONS OF AN ANACHRONIST

Original movie poster for Being ThereRobert Mueller III’s and the Southern District of New York’s court filings, and the President’s response, confirm that “Individual-1” never should have been administered the oath of office “to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States of America.”

The people around the Oval Office are the only brakes on the man who, like Chauncey (“Chance”) Gardner, played by Peter Sellers, in the humorous film Being There, spends his days watching his favorite television shows, doesn’t read, and reduces complexity to the simplest of terms. 

Ron Steigler: Mr. Gardner, uh, my editors and I have been wondering if you would consider writing a book for us, something about your um, political philosophy, what do you say?

Chance: I can’t write.

Ron Steigler: Heh, heh, of course not, who can nowadays? Listen, I have trouble writing a postcard to my children. Look uhh, we can give you a six figure advance, I’ll provide you with the very best ghost-writer, proof-readers…

Chance: I can’t read.

Ron Steigler: Of course you can’t! No one has the time! We, we glance at things, we watch television…

Chance: I like to watch TV.

Ron Steigler: Oh, oh, oh sure you do. No one reads!

MY SON’S QUESTION

Wooden_hourglass_3Soon after my young son learned to read, he asked a philosophical question: “What’s time?” “Time is what we have” was the best I could do. The other day a photograph of an ill-cared for, deteriorating church with a clock that still works led me back to Douglas’s question. I’m older now. Not wise. Just older. But I tell myself that length of years sometimes brings us closer to the outskirts of wisdom than when our years were few and our days seemed longer. At my age, when speed and virtual reality fill our lives, I would add an addendum: “Time is what we have but refuse to recognize.

A MATTER OF PERSPECTIVE

In Being There, Louise, who has raised Chance from early childhood, is watching Chance on television with other poor black seniors.

Louise: “It’s for sure a white man’s world in America. Look here: I raised that boy since he was the size of a piss-ant. And I’ll say right now, he never learned to read and write. No, sir. Had no brains at all. Was stuffed with rice pudding between th’ ears. Shortchanged by the Lord, and dumb as a jackass. Look at him now! Yes, sir, all you’ve gotta be is white in America, to get whatever you want. Gobbledy-gook!”

Chance and Donald are a lot alike. Neither reads. Both watch television all day. Both are white. Both are stuffed with rice pudding between their ears. Both speak gobbeldy-gook. Yet they are also very different. One strikes us as funny. The other does not. One is a pure soul. The other is cunning. One is entertaining. The other is dangerous. 

IT’S ABOUT TIME!

256px-Constitution_of_the_United_States,_page_1It’s time to recognize what time it is. Time for Congress to speak aloud the real name of Individual-1.  Time to act on the sworn testimonies of Michael Flynn, Michael Cohen, Manafort, et. al. alleging behavior that “subverts and attacks the Constitution of the United States of America.” Time to care for, and restore, the deteriorating rule of law under the Constitution.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, December 8, 2018,

Sunday Morning

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I’d never heard of Pico Iyer or his views on the urgency of slowing down, and I’ve only traveled to Japan in my imagination while listening to Dave Brubeck’s Kyoto Song. But I like how Pico thinks.

“I can soon begin to tell the time by how the light is slanting off our walls at sunrise and when the darkness falls” describes what happens in the cabin next to the wetland in Minnesota. Like Pico in Kyoto, I become more essentially human in the midst of real time.

Thanks to David Kerrigan for featuring the On Being interview with Krista Tippett.

Yes, and I think we all know that sensation. We have more and more time-saving devices but less and less time, it seems to us. When I was a boy, the sense of luxury had to do with a lot of space, maybe having a big house or a huge car. Now I think luxury has to do with having a lot of time. The ultimate luxury now might be just a blank space in the calendar. And interestingly enough, that’s what we crave, I think, so many of us.

When I moved from New York City to rural Japan — after my year in Kyoto, I essentially moved to a two-room apartment, which is where I still live with my wife and, formerly, our two kids. We don’t have a car or a bicycle or a T.V. I can understand. It’s very simple, but it feels very luxurious. One…

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Gratitude in Place and Time

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William Blake, Jacob’s Dream

Thanksgiving 2018 arrives as a welcome interruption. It invites us into a sacred pause in this time and place of national division. One place to pause is the story of Jacob wrestling with God, the Nameless Presence (Genesis  ), and the song “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder.” The Genesis story is Jacob’s dream the night before he would come face-to-face with the estranged brother he had every reason to fear. After many years of separation, Jacob is about to face the brother he had tricked and had stolen Esau’s right to the family inheritance. Jacob does not want to meet his brother. Neither do we Americans who will sit down to a turkey dinner with family members on the other side of the political fence from us. Discussion of Jacob’s Ladder might bring an insightful Thanksgiving 2018 around the tables where Donald Trump is the turkey the family is afraid to carve .

The origins of “Jacob’s Ladder”origins — African slaves singing in the cotton fields under the plantation owner’s nose — gives a different meaning to the song. Jacob’s Ladder and the biblical text from which it comes represent a great reversal in human consciousness. After Jacob was defeated by the Nameless Presence, his spirituality took a 180 degree turn. “Surely God was in this place, and I did not know it!” His encounter wth his estranged brother turns the tables from fear and the rule of violence to the unexpected gift of reconciling love.

Gratitude Doubled

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Infant in incubator photo by Chris Horry, 2002.

As our way of offering Thanksgiving greetings, we share John Buchanan’s “Gratitude Doubled” reflection on becoming a great-grandfather of new-born twins in an incubator.

This Thanksgiving also marks the 18-month anniversary of grandson Elijah’s birth. Great-grandfather joy will have to wait a few years, but the sense of life as John speaks of it is immediate. Wishing you a grateful Thanksgiving.

Hold to the Good

Yesterday I experienced the most unlikely, most wonderful thing that has ever happened. I carefully extended my sanitized hand through the small, round opening in the incubator and, with my forefinger, gently touched the cheek of my brand new great-granddaughter, just 18 hours old. And then I did it again, reached through the small, round opening and touched the cheek of her identical twin sister, my second great-granddaughter.

I never thought much about great-grandparenthood. No one did. My great-grandparents were long gone when I was born and I have only vague memories of my parents talking about them, their grandparents. They were remote, to say the least.

But now, I am one, a great-grandfather and my new status has set me to ruminating – on, among other things, my own age. Unlike my great-grandparents, I’m still here, alive, well and reasonably active and healthy. And – I have seen and…

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What We Have in Common

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Over coffee at Starbucks following the 2018 American mid-term election, a psychiatrist observed an epidemic of stress among his patients, regardless of their political leanings. They’re like inexperienced swimmers doing the doggie paddle in a tsunami.

The tension, the angry tone, the incivility, the name-calling, the smirks, the mocking impersonations, the barrage of lies and twisted truth are leading many of us to Sigmund or Anna Freud’s couch. Or to a fifth. Or pills. And to acts of verbal or physical violence of our own. We’re brawling in America and we wonder how we got here.

Sigmund and Anna Freud, Carl Jung, Alfred Adler and today’s practitioners of therapy know something about stress. So do the wisdom traditions of religion — the Tao that bridges the differences that divide us. It is this deeper sense of the Tao that is the source of human goodness. The Tao (Way) of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism guides individuals, cultures, and nations to flourish across all the walls we erect to separate us from each other.

C.S.Lewis Belfast

In his The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis, to whom Ross Wilson‘s  statue pays tribute, wrote that without the perspective of the Tao, which calls us to something more than brute emotion, “…the world of facts, without one trace of value, and the world of feelings without one trace of truth or falsehood, justice or injustice, confront one another, and no rapprochement is possible.”

Today in America, emotions are displacing the Tao. Narcissim and nihilism increasingly divide us into what Lewis called “trousered apes” and “urbane blockheads” who call each other names from different sides of a dividing wall. Like Lewis in his time and place, public philosopher-theologian Cornel West identifies nihilism as the plague let loose in America in his book Race Matters. “Nihilism is a natural consequence of a culture (or civilization) ruled and regulated by categories that mask manipulation, mastery and domination of peoples and nature.

Cornel West by Gage Skidmore

Cornel West photo by Gage Skidmore

“We need … the courage to be impatient with evil and patient with people, the courage to fight for social justice. In many instances we will be stepping out on nothing, and just hoping to land on something. But that’s the struggle. To live is to wrestle with despair, yet never allow despair to have the last word.”

When the common ground binding a society together is shopping, we step out on nothing, just hoping to land on something. Everything is up for grabs. A culture which turns its back on a spiritual-moral compass we didn’t make up, and that connects us to something greater than oneself, soon leaves its people flailing in an emotional and cognitive tusanami.

We [America]are at a crucial crossroad in the history of this nation–and we either hang together by combating these forces that divide and degrade us or we hang separately,” says West. “Do we have the intelligence, humor, imagination, courage, tolerance, love, respect, and will to meet the challenge? Time will tell. None of us alone can save the nation or world. But each of us can make a positive difference if we commit ourselves to do so.”

The therapist’s couch in my friend’s office will never be empty. Some stress is part of life. But is it too much to hope that his clients may go there in sesarch of the Tao hidden beneath the false choice of being a trousered ape or an urbane blockhead, less patient with evil and more patient with people to meet the challenge of our time?

— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, November