A Reckoning for Older Men

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When sin — I call it ‘sin’ but, if you use some other word without a religious ring to it, you know what I mean — becomes the prevailing topic from which we cannot break away, it feels good to take a break from the news, and from ourselves.

So we pass along Lloyd Omdahl’s column “Reckoning has arrived for older men” in the Nov. 27 Grand Forks Herald in hopes it might bring a chuckle at some point, but also knowing that some people think any sort of chuckle on this topic is downright sinful.

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Lloyd Omdahl

94 year-old Lloyd Omdahl, the man with the twinkle in his eyes,  served as Lieutenant Governor of North Dakota and is professor emeritus of  political science at the University of North Dakota. He continues to write a weekly column for The Grand Forks Herald. His former student, Gary Severson, brought this column to our attention today as a comment on Views from the Edge‘s morning post.

In case you missed it the first time, here’s the link: “Reckoning has arrived for older men“. Sexual harassment is not funny. It’s ugly. It’s sinful. Even so, if you can’t find a laugh somewhere in Lloyd’s column, take a nap, take a walk, or see a priest, rabbi, imam, or guru, and, by all means, go back and read Norman Cousins before you’re taken by a stroke.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, November 30, 2017.

 

Elijah: “Dear Mr. President”

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Elijah’s Letter to the President

September 30 , 2017

Dear Mr. President,

I’m in my carseat for my first road trip to the cabin up north, but Grandpa shared with me the letter he just sent you. I’m proud of my grandpa and I want to be proud of you. Grandpa says you’re sort of like an uncle because you went through Presbyterian confirmation class like grandpa.

But my babysitter doesn’t like you. She speaks Spanish. During the day with Marissa, we’ve been watching CNN for news from Puerto Rico, and she’s said a lot of bad words about you.

She clapped when Mayor of San Juan Carmen Yulín Cruz called you out. Then, this morning, she cursed again after you admonished the Carmen. Marissa’s with Carmen.

I’m only 18 weeks old. I’m still trying to understand what’s real and what’s not. Right now I’m not sure of much of anything. I trust Grandpa and I trust Marissa. They both love me and take care of me. Both Grandpa and Marissa are as upset with you as the Mayor of San Juan in Puerto Rico.

I see the pictures from Puerto Rico and think you must, too, because you watch a lot of television, even if you consider CNN fake news. I’m little and don’t know much yet, but the pictures don’t look fake to me. And it’s not just pictures. It’s all over the radio. Marissa listens to NPR.

NPR’s Manadalit del Barco spoke to 8-year-old Yan Anthony Hernandez who is staying at a shelter in the city of Aguadilla on Puerto Ruco’s northwestern coast. The boy had a message for Trump.

“Stop tweeting and come help the people.”

Marissa wants to know whether you really care about Yan, the Mayor, and the rest of the people of Puerto Rico or just want them to go away like the undocumented workers you’re sending back to Mexico.

Sometimes Marissa sings to me. “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world — red and yellow, black and white — all are precious in his sight. Jesus loves the little children of the wold.” Grandpa says maybe your babysitter sang that song for you when you were little like me, but I wonder.

If you have time to write back, I’ll share your response with Marissa and Grandpa and have them make another copy to send to Carmen in Puerto Rico.

Respectfully,

Elijah (18 weeks old)

Grandson of Grandpa Stewart

 

 

 

Dear Brother Donald

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Letter to President Donald J. Trump

September 30, 2017

Dear Don,

I hope you don’t mind me calling you Don. You can call me Gordy; only those close to me in grade school called me that, but, so did the kids in my confirmation class. Since we were both confirmed in Presbyterian churches, I think it makes sense to call each other Don and Gordy.

brown-psr-3-300-394After writing you yesterday, I wondered whether your confirmation class read the same book mine did. Did you read Robert McAffee Brown‘s The Bible Speaks to You? I have to confess I didn’t read much of it at the time. I faked it. Maybe you did, too. I think we were probably a lot alike that way, don’t you think?

Anyway, this morning I went online and found The Bible Speaks to You in Google Books — Google, like Twitter, is amazing, don’t you think? — to see what we were supposed to be reading and to get a sense again of what we were being taught. Even way back when we were in confirmation class, we were being taught that Jesus was killed by the coalescence of two mistakes that seem to be the opposite of each other: nationalism, on the one hand, and imperial rule, on the other. They went hand-in-hand in deciding Jesus has to go.

Do you remember that?

Jesus wasn’t big on either nationalism or or empire; he saw both as substitutes for God, idols manufactured by the human heart to provide a false sense of security and importance. I suspect you may have skipped those chapters of the New Testament, but this wouldn’t be the first time the crucifixion was erased from consciousness. It happened in the German Church in the 1930s when the majority Christian population blamed the Jews, the Gypsies, the communists, and homosexuals for Germany’s fall from greatness. Make Germany great again was the agenda back then and Jesus was weeping all the way through it — in the concentration camps and in the cattle cars of the trains that removed from the nation everyone who wasn’t of the Aryan race, an idol of exceptionalism that, like all idols, had no foothold in reality itself.

Do you remember how we hated Hitler and all that stuff in confirmation class, how we thought of ourselves as Christians who would never do that because we were disciples of Jesus, and as Americans who would never do that because … well, we were Americans? We were better than that!

Funny how things change sometimes if we don’t pay attention, don’t you think? Maybe we paid too much attention to that period of world history and not enough attention to Robert McAfee Brown and the Bible. Long after we finished confirmation class to become disciples of Jesus, Robert McAfee Brown said something I’m remembering now:

Who we listen to determines what we hear. Where we stand determines what we see. What we do determines who we are.

I wonder who you’re listening to, where you stand on all of this, and write you now because, as your brother in Christ, I went on to listen to Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his American friends,Paul Louis Lehmann, William Sloane Coffin, and, yes, our old confirmation class author Robert McAfee Brown, who all claimed that what we do determines who we are.

The Bible speaks to you

Original cover of The Bible Speaks to You used in Presbyterian church confirmation classes in the 1950s and ’60s.

Don, if you can find a moment this morning, you can click this  Amazon LINK to The Bible Speaks to You, click “Look Inside” and scroll down to what neither of us can remembers now that we’re over 70 years old and forgetting much of what we learned. Take a look at pages 11 and 12 about the Marine Corporal following Robert McAfee Brown, the Marine Chaplain, back to his quarters after a Bible study on the Gospel of John story of Lazarus:

“Chaplain,” he said, “I felt as thought everything we read this morning was pointed right at me. I’ve been living in hell for the last six months, and for the first time I feel as though I’ve gotten free.”

You’ve been in the White House for nine months now, and I suspect it may feel like a hell you’ve never experienced. Maybe the same thing can happen with you as happened with the Marine.

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“The Raising of Lazarus” — Duccio di Buoninsegna (c. 1318-1319)

Remember, Don, every one of us has had at least a taste of hell these last nine months, but I’m looking to you for something different to rise from the ashes of our confirmations: a refutation of nationalism and empire. As Robert McAfee Brown said when he was much older, “What you do determines not only who you are but who we are. ” Take a close look at the picture of Robert McAfee Brown and at . It feels as though he’s looking at us to see whether we’re with Jesus and Lazarus.

Grace and Peace,

Gordon C. Stewart (“Gordy”), Your Brother in Christ

Chaska, Minnesota

A Brother’s Letter to the President

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September 25, 2017

Dear Mr. President:

I write to introduce myself as the brother you didn’t know you had.

baby_baptism_1368526cAs my grandson Elijah’s letter to you following your speech to the United Nations mentioned, you and I were baptized as infants in churches of the Presbyterian Church (USA) — you in New York City and I in Pennsylvania. Your parents and mine both answered ”We do” to the question “Do you promise, in dependence on the grace of God, to bring up your child in the nurture and admonition of the Lord?”

As Elijah said, we don’t use the word ‘nurture’ much these days and ‘admonition’ has disappeared from our vocabulary — not the kind of positive-thinking that fits well with the prosperity gospel that has displaced what you and I were taught in Confirmation Class. But maybe the old church had it right that both nurture and admonition are essential to Christian faith and practice.

One of your home church’s pastors, Ray Schwartzbach, served as senior minister of the College Church and Pastor to The College of Wooster before going to First Presbyterian Church of Jamaica where you were baptized and confirmed. When Ray returned to Wooster for a visit, I had become his successor.

I remember his description of your church as the most diverse congregation of the Presbyterian Church (USA) with 32 different languages spoken among its membership. That was the church where your parents promised to nurture and admonish you in the faith. It is also the church whose members committed to partner with your parents as the extended family that would raise you in the way of Christ.

Among his peers in the Presbyterian Church, Ray was to his ministerial colleagues what John Gresham’s “Street Lawyer” was among his peers. He was a rough and ready street minister more at home among the poor — on the streets among the homeless and in the tenements and public housing — than in the places of white privilege in Wooster or downtown Manhattan. He admonished the rich and nurtured the powerless in the name of Christ. Ray Schwartzbach was bigger on the cross and resurrection than he was on Norman Vincent Peale and the power of positive thinking that came to influence you as an adult at Marble Collegiate Church.

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McGaw Chapel

It was into this “nurture and admonition of the Lord” as Ray understood them that you and I were baptized as brothers in Christ before either of us could raise a finger to protest it. As the great Christian ethicist Paul Lehmann, may he rest in peace, told the students from the pulpit of McGaw Chapel at The College of Wooster during my tenure there, “Your parents played a dirty trick on you. They baptized you as a child of God and a disciple of Christ before you could object to it. Whatever you would do from that day forward, the declaration made at your baptism will always identify you.”

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Inauguration of Donald J. Trump as President of the United States of America – Getty Image.

Since our infant baptisms, you have gone on to become the President of the United States of America, a position without peer. But, as a brother, we are still peers in the same family. I write you in that spirit, remembering an exchange years ago between a new president of St. Olaf College here in Minnesota and a lowly faculty member just before the new president’s inauguration.

The new president from Norway with a heavy accent and a young faculty member, each in his impressive academic garb, found themselves standing next to each other in the men’s room moments before the ceremony. “In yust a moment,” said the soon-to-be installed Norwegian President of St. Olaf, “I will be the president and you will still be yust a yunior faculty member, but here we are both yust peers.”

849537016As your brother in Christ, your speech at the United Nations took a toll on me. I watched and listened, hoping to see and hear something that might reflect the spirit of the faith tradition we share. Instead I saw finger pointing and frowns, and heard harsh words of admonition of North Korea that embarrassed me, my church, and my country.

I am just a junior faculty member five years your senior, retired, and without question the less accomplished of the two of us. Although we have never stood next to each other, we do know each other from a distance through the shared history of our baptisms in the Presbyterian Church (USA). Whether or not either of us likes it, I am your brother in Christ, a peer.

In that spirit, I owe it to you to speak a gentle word of admonition. As the brother you didn’t know you have, I wished you had remembered your baptism. I wish you had remembered that we’re all just peers before you missed the urinal and hit the whole world we were nurtured and admonished to love.

Your Brother in Christ,

Gordon C. Stewart

 

 

 

 

 

Elijah’s letter to the President

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Seventeen week old Elijah dictated the following letter for Grandpa to send to President Trump after hearing the President’s United Nations speech. Here’s the letter:

September 21, 2017

Dear Mr. President:

I’m little but my Grandpa says I have rights under the First Amendment and that I should exercise my right of free speech to tell you what’s on my mind. I hope that’s okay with you. Grandpa says you’re bigger on the Second Amendment than the First Amendment, but they’re all part of the U. S. Constitution, right?

I’ve thought many times of writing you but decided not to until hearing your speech to the United Nations this week.

You may wonder why a kid like me would send a letter to the President, but there’s more than one good reason.

Infant_Baptism_Christian-217x300We have a connection you may not about, although my Grandpa is very famous, like you. You and Grandpa were baptized as babies in the Presbyterian Church. Your pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Jamaica in Queens took you in his arms and baptized you “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” But before your parents put you in the pastor’s arms, they had to answer a question: “Do you promise, in dependence on the grace of God, to bring up your child in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.”

I asked Grandpa what nurture and admonition meant. He said nurture is like when Mom breastfeeds me. Admonition, he says, is an old word we don’t use anymore and that’s a shame because you could use a good admonishing. Admonition, Grandpa says, is a way of setting boundaries on a child’s behavior; it’s part of the discipline necessary to raising a child toward responsible adulthood. Admonishing is telling a child “No. You can’t do that. You’re a child of God, but you’re not the only one.” Grandpa tells me that all the time. I wonder if your mother and father ever did that with you before they sent you off to the military academy.

So you and Grandpa are both baptized Christians. But there’s even more of a connection!

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McGaw Chapel, The College of Wooster

Grandpa became a Presbyterian minister. He knows one of your church’s former pastors at First Presbyterian Church of Jamaica. Before Rev. Dr. Raymond Schwartzbach (Grandpa calls him ‘Ray’) came to your church in New York City, he served the college church at The College of Wooster which Grandpa served six years after Ray.

Grandpa says Ray was really special and that he left Wooster because he wanted to get back to the city. He told Grandpa that your church was the most multicultural church in the Presbyterian Church (USA) with 32 different languages — the most in the whole country!

Trump at United NationsWatching you speak to all those different languages at the United Nations made me wonder what happened to you after your pastor held you in his arms and baptized you into the way of Christ. Did your parents nurture you? Did they admonish you? Or were you left on your own? Did they teach you not to call people names? Did they admonish you when you did? Did they teach you the first article of the Westminster Catechism, that  “the chief end of man is to glorify God…” and not yourself? Did they teach you the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the meek? Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are the poor. Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness”? Did they teach you that Presbyterians value simplicity and modesty, and that they dislike ostentation? Did they teach you to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you? Did they teach you the difference between loving your country and worshiping it? Did they teach you that nationalism is sin, that the nation is not God?

I’m just little and I haven’t been baptized yet like you and Grandpa. But I have questions. I’m not sure I want to be baptized if being baptized means I have to be admonished as well as nurtured. Maybe you feel the same.

Please answer if you have time. I know you’re very busy with Kim Jung un and Robert Mueller stuff, but Grandpa says some things in life are too important to ignore.

Respectfully yours,

Elijah

 

 

 

 

Book Review of “Be Still!”

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A gloomy, rainy day in Chaska is brightened by today’s posting of Donald Shriver’s review of Be Still! in the digital edition of The Presbyterian Outlook.

Thanks to editor and to Donald Shriver for the sunshine.

 

Nothing to say

These last few days have been days like that.

I’m still learning in the quiet of the woods without phone or internet access. When I have nothing to say . . .  it’s best not to say it! 🦉

– Gordon C. Stewart, Speechless-in-Minnesota.

The World as a Waiting Room

ERB-logo-Color-SmallToday The Englewood Review of Books published its book review of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness.

Click The World as a Waiting Room to read the review.

Thanks to Chris Smith, The Englewood Review‘s editor, for including Be Still!, and to Madeline Cramer, the reviewer, for close attention to its themes and substance.

Be StillMs. Cramer’s review is the first to lift up the deep affinity between the book’s cover, Vincent Van Gogh’s “Prisoners Exercising”, and the book’s elaboration of the less obvious forms of imprisonment, and our searches, alone and together, for sanity and stillness.

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

 

 

When the news goes away

Days away from internet access brings a calmer reflection. Being in touch isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Out of touch with bad news brings relief to the body.

220px-Tipi_bij_daglichtIf living in the developed world means being on edge all the time, I’d prefer a less developed one — maybe a teepee with smoke signals for communication. Anxiety is real enough without the constant sting of bad news from far away and beyond my small sphere of influence.

Madison Avenue loves my anxiety. It preys on what can only be prayed about. An ad agency is no praying mantis! It loves green but its antennae hunt for the anxious selves who confuse wants with needs, buying the things we do not need if we believe we only exist by having them.

Stillness and being are not their thing. Selling is their game. They don’t pray. They prey on well-trained animals, ringing Pavlov’s bell for manufactured tastes and smells, while down on Wall Street Monday’s opening bell opens the door of hornets’ nest.

Praying_mantis_indiaLike the praying mantis, the non-preying prayers live far from the bells. In touch with what’s worth much more than it’s cracked up to be: a less bad news world where humans live teepee-lives in touch with the body . . . in the stillness of time.

“Their aim is to confound the plans of the afflicted, but the LORD is their refuge.” [Psalm 14:6, The Book of Common Prayer]

  •  Gordon C. Stewart, wilderness cabin, northern Minnesota, September 3, 2017

Square pegs and round holes?

Are you a square peg in a round hole, or a round one in a square hole?

squarePegWith apologies to Kermit the Frog, “it’s not easy being square . . .  or round” or whatever other strange shape we may be.

It takes years to understand who we are or, for that matter, what your book is really about.

“What’s the book about?” folks ask, and I stammer away, fumbling to answer in a word or two. How do you summarize a collection of 48 essays on multiple themes and topics other than to answer, “Well . . .  it’s a collection of 48 essays on multiple themes and topics. It’s about blah, blah, blah”?

Readers find what they’re looking for by selecting an aisle or category in a book store or on an online menu that fits their taste.

But what if a book doesn’t fit the square and round hole categories into which publishers and the book-sellers squeeze a book?

More perplexing, what if an author himself doesn’t know whether he’s square or round? Doesn’t know why he writes, and can’t explain what the book’s about, or why, in this world of verbal assaults, anyone should pick his blah-blah-blah off a book-seller’s shelf? What if the author wakes up in the morning looking in the world’s square/round-peg-square/round hole mirror and sees only a confused face looking back?

Then, suddenly, after 75 years of wondering, six months after his book has hit the shelves, he looks into the brand new mirror created by readers and reviews, and sees something altogether new and different.

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An octopus!

Be Still! and I are an octopus! A searching digesting center with tentacles reaching out in all directions gathering food for thought, spitting out the toxins, and growing more or less mature in the sea of societal madness.

But wait! Wait! Maybe not! Maybe they’re Kermit on a lily pad.

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Frog on a lily pad

“Have you ever stopped to wonder how a frog, obviously heavier than a lily pad, can manage to stay above water and not sink a lily pad?” – Frog on a Lily Pad

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, August 25, 2017.