Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska preserved some of the sermons from our seven years together. This sermon on Pharaoh’s midwives’ rescue of Moses from the bullrushes in defiance of the pharaoh’s order to kill Hebrew babies was preached in 2014. The biblical story speaks for itself in every time and place. In 2020 it again calls compassionate people to resist the policies of cruelty in the name of a compassionate God.
Footnote: the story of Katherine (Katie) refers my late stepdaughter, Katherine Slaikeu (RIP).
This re-blogged post featuring Bill Moyers’ interview with American poet W.S. Merwin (1927–2019) caught my attention while preparing a Views from the Edge reflection (yet to be published) that will draw from Albert Camus’ statement about war living inside ourselves.
The YouTube featured by this blogger was an unexpected gift. Ponder and enjoy!
[.. BILL MOYERS: When we confirmed this meeting, you suggested that I read a poem in here called “Rain Light.” Why did you suggest that one?
W.S. MERWIN: I don’t know, I just — that seems to be a very close poem to me.
BILL MOYERS: Here it is.
“All day the stars watch from long ago
my mother said I am going now
when you are alone you will be all right
whether or not you know you will know
look at the old house in the dawn rain
all the flowers are forms of water
the sun reminds them through a white cloud touches…
During 3+ years in the Oval Office, Donald Trump has succeeded in doing what no president before him had accomplished. He’s told more lies than the cumulative lies of all his predecessors, an accomplishment that history will remember as his singular achievement.
The stories we tell about ourselves shape our reality. Facts may or may not matter. Objective reality may or may not matter. The trustworthiness of the story-teller may or may not matter. It’s the narrative that matters. Even the best convictions are vulnerable to burglary.
Burglars rob houses that belong to other people. They don’t claim to own the houses they’ve burgled. They don’t occupy the houses they burgle. They don’t break tradition by making nationally televised speeches on the lawn of the house they’ve burgled.
The 2020 Campaign Speech — a Burglar’s Narrative on the People’s Lawn
Last night some owners of the burgled house on Pennsylvania Avenue heard the “law-and-order” candidate for re-election sound the alarms against “violent anarchists, agitators, and criminals” who threaten to occupy the house he thinks he owns.*
*There were no chairs on the South Lawn for former National Security Advisors Michael Flynn, H.R. McMaster, and John Bolton, Defense Secretary “Mad Dog” Maddox, long-time attorney-fixer Michael Cohen, old friends Jeffery Epstein (RIP) and Ghislaine Maxwell, family members Mary Trump (niece) and older sister Maryanne, grieving relatives of police shootings and of the 175,000 Covid-19 dead, or Dr. Anthony Fauci.
Let the earth rejoice;
Let the multitude of the isles be glad.
- Psalm 97, Book of Common Prayer
There is no multitude of isles here. I see instead a multitude of cattails, and lily pads waiting to splash bursts of yellow on this off the map wetland pond, this place like no other among the multitude of wetlands, marshes, and fens. It calls no attention to itself. Perhaps that’s why I like it so.
Eared Grebe caution and curiosity
This morning an Eared Grebe teenager is playing hide-n-seek, surveilling the stranger on the dirt road. I see only one. It darts behind the cattails and shows itself again, paddling among the lily pads with eyes trained on the stranger, its head turning left, to right, and straight ahead again before diving out of sight and rising here and there, looking and hiding until, suddenly, three siblings who’d slept in late turn the caution and curiosity of one into the daily familiarity of four — life without strangers.
Eared Grebes and the fine arts
I wonder whether Eared Grebes hear and see what only children, painters, musicians, and poets of my kind know, stopping to see and listen and rejoice with the isles themselves: “The LORD is King; let the earth rejoice; let the multitude of the isles be glad!” (Psalm 97:1).
Troubles and the gladness of another day
Do Eared Grebes know of kings and queens, of gods and goddesses? Do they shudder and call for momma, huddling in their nest when thunder rolls and lightening flashes to light the starless sky? Do they smell the far-off smoke or hear the crackling fires from the Outback? Do they rue the death of ‘Roos? Do they despair of fires, earthquakes, winds, rising seas, floods, and dried up ponds? Do they imagine the mountains melting like wax? Do they have phonies who plunge them into despair or the ‘truehearted’ who raise their spirits to the gladness of awakening to another sunrise over the wetland?
The wonder of cattails and lily pads
Are Eared Grebes more attuned than the stranger to the wonder of this isle of cattails and lily pads, this isle with no distractions, where LIFE Itself— beginning, middle, and ending — is “Lord and King”?
The LORD is King; let the earth rejoice;let the multitude of isles be glad!
Gordon C. Stewart, by the wetland isle, August 12, 2020.
So runs my dream, but what am I?
An infant crying in the night
An infant crying for the light
And with no language but a cry.
-- Alfred Tennyson,"In Memoriam"
Some things change; some things stay the same
George Floyd died face-down under a police officer’s knee, his hands in handcuffs behind his back, crying for help. Without the video taken by a distraught citizen, neither George Floyd’s cries nor the Minneapolis police officers’ behavior would have come to the world’s attention. The cries from pavements, walking paths, and apartments in Minneapolis, Atlanta, Louisville, Aurora and elsewhere in the U.S.A. are nothing new. What’s different now is that we have mobile phones with cameras.
What has not changed is Jesus’s rebuke of his disciples. Children raised in a Christian tradition, no matter how different their doctrines and practices, hear the story early in life. The story of Jesus’s love of children and rebuke of his disciples is a source of comfort. The story stayed with me through 40 years of ministry in higher education and prominent Presbyterian churches until life took a turn that led from the pulpit to the streets.
The Crosshairs of Race and Class
Legal Rights Center is the storied institution founded in 1970 by the American Indian Movement (AIM) and African American civil rights activists with the go-to street lawyer for Black and urban Indian communities of Hennepin County, Doug Hall. Legal Rights Center was one of a kind — an independent law office that belongs to communities of color for the purposes of social advocacy for and quality legal representation of low-income people of color that challenged the explicit and implicit white racism embedded in the court system. Seven years as Legal Rights Center’s executive director put me in the cross-hairs of systemic racism and the Minneapolis Police Department.
The Swastika on a Black man’s back
A young Black man comes to the Legal Rights Center to tell his story. All LRC attorneys and community advocates are in court. “Would you like to speak with the executive director?” asks the receptionist.
In the privacy of my office, he pulls up his shirt to show the swastika a police officer etched into his back.
The swastika, he says, was etched into his flesh after he had witnessed two MPD Fourth Precinct officers’ necessary use force during an arrest. No police officer wants a witness; no cop wants a complaint to be filed. The officers threw him, the witness, to the street and held him face-down. One of the officers took out his keys and scratched something into his back.
You should take this to the FBI
After the young man and I have reviewed his options, he chooses to do the unthinkable: tell his case directly to the Commander of the MPD Fourth Precinct. At Fourth Precinct headquarters, the commander leads us back to his office and asks what brought us there. I introduce myself as LRC’s new executive director and tell him why we’re there. The commander rarely looks up, takes phone calls, and shuffles papers on his desk. Just another Black kid who hates cops; just another clueless white do-gooder. Until the young man stands, turns his back to the commander’s desk, pulls up his shirt and shows him.
The swastika gets his full attention. He asks for information. Did he get the badge numbers or the squad car number? Did he hear any names? “Are you sure you can’t remember? Did one of the names begins with a ‘B’?”
“This goes way beyond Internal Affairs,” he says. “You should take this to the FBI.” The young man trusts the FBI no more than the Minneapolis Police Department. End of story.
Urination on an Ojibwe back
Residents of Little Earth of United Tribes housing report an incident involving an off duty Minneapolis Police Department officer working a second job as a Little Earth nightshift security officer. The outside temperature was below zero when the officer drove into the back parking lot and turned out the lights. Through their apartment window they watch him throw an inebriated man and woman onto the snow-covered pavement. The woman manages to run to an abandoned car. The man is lying on his back. The officer stands over the man, unzips his fly, and relieves himself. The witnesses do not recognize the man or the woman as Little Earth residents.
The Little Earth housing director reported the incident to Clyde Bellecourt (pictured here on the left), Vice President of the Legal Rights Center Board. Two days later Clyde learns the man’s identity and brings him to a small gathering to tell his story.
He’s not sure the blue denim jacket he’s wearing is the one on which the officer relieved himself at Little Earth. It could be someone else’s jacket. There are lots of blue denim jackets at detox. They try to give you the right one when you leave, but it’s not a clothing store. There’s no guarantee. All he can say is it looks like his. Even so, in hopes the jacket is the same, snd that it may provide DNA evidence matching the officer’s, the jacket is placed in our hands for safe-keeping. We put the jacket in an air-tight sealable bag, take it to a secure place no one will suspect (the trunk of my old Toyota) and proceed to arrange a meeting with the MPD Chief of Police.
The meeting is more than we expected. Eight senior officers, including the Deputy responsible for Internal Affairs. This is not normal. Somebody smells a rat. The police union has the MPD and the city administration in a strangle hold. The Chief agrees to get a urine sample from the officer in question and consents, with no protest, to our proposal that the DNA be done out of state at the MPD’s expense. During the two-hour meeting, we have the distinct feeling that the Chief has reasons to seek evidence of this officer’s alleged behavior. The urine sample and the jacket are sent to an independent lab in Maryland for DNA testing.
The report from the lab seems to disappoint the Chief as much as it does us. The jacket has been compromised by multiple layers of vomit and other materials accumulated over a number of years. The lab cannot establish evidence of a match. We return to the initial question whether the jacket given him when he left detox belonged to someone else. The detox center coatrack is filled with frayed blue denim jackets from Goodwill or Catholic Charities. A cashmere overcoat from Nordstrom’s never hangs on the detox rack.
Until broken systems cease to be
Unlike the more recent scene from Aurora, neither George Floyd, nor the man whose back now carries a swastika, nor the man and woman dumped in the dimly-lit parking lot at Little Earth was a child, but they were all met with the same condescension that Jesus rebuked. People with ears to hear recognize the echo and those with trained eyes see the distant light from another time and place. The rebuked disciples of Jesus know what Tennyson knew and live toward day this winter turns to spring when no child of God is hindered, “…for the kingdom of heaven belongs to these.” (Matthew 19:14b)
Our little systems have their day;
They have their day and cease to be:
They are but broken lights of thee,
And thou, O Lord, art more than they.
-- Alfred Tennyson, "In Memoriam" (Prelude)
Gordon C. Stewart, author, Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), Chaska, Minnesota, August 9, 2020.
Smiling East-West spirit, You move with sun and Son, Shining Peace on us.
Like a child piling blocks Your words construct new dreams, Towering poet.
Gentle and strong, as trees Bend gracefully in wind, You stand – and I bow.
— In memory of Kosuke Koyama, Peggy Shriver, NY, NY
Meeting Kosuke Koyama
One of the great pleasures in life has been the unexpected friendship with Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama.
Ko, as his friends called him with great affection, and his wife Lois, a native Minnesotan, came to Minneapolis following retirement from a distinguished teaching position at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York. I knew him only by reputation: John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Professor of World Christianity Emeritus; cutting edge Asian liberation theologian and leader in Thailand, Singapore, New Zealand, and the United States; author of Water Buffalo Theology, No Handle on the Cross, Three Mile an Hour God, Mt. Fuji and Mt. Sinai, among others; pioneer in Buddhist-Christian intersection and inter-religious dialogue; spell-binding keynote speaker at the Fifth Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Nairobi, Kenya.
The Firebombing of Tokyo
The friendship that developed, if friendship can be defined to include mentors and those they mentor, great minds and ordinary ones, people of stature and those who look up to them, the wise and the less wise, was particularly impactful because my father had been an Army Air Force Chaplain in the South Pacific in World War II.
During the March, 1945 firebombing of Tokyo, the planes came from my father’s air base. Though my father rarely spoke about the war, a sullenness came over him when I would ask him for stories. All these years later I was learning from Ko what the war had meant to him, the 15-year-old Japanese boy being baptized in Tokyo while the bombs dropped all around his church.
Neighbor-Love — “Even the Americans”
The pastor who baptized him took Ko’s face in his hands to instruct him: “Kosuke, you are a disciple of Jesus Christ. You must love your enemies…even the Americans.”
For the rest of his life Ko pursued the daunting question of what neighbor love means. Who is the enemy? Who is the neighbor? Are they one and the same? Late in his life, before he and Lois moved from Minneapolis to live with their son in Massachusetts, he had come to the conclusion that there is only one sin: exceptionalism. At first it struck me as strange. Can one really reduce the meaning and scope of sin to exceptionalism? What is exceptionalism, and why is it sinful?
The Sin of American Exceptionalism
At the time of our discussion, the phrase “American exceptionalism” – the claim that the United States is exceptional among the nations – was making the news. It was this view that led to the invasions and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – the unexamined belief that the Afghanis and the Iraqis would welcome us with open arms as liberators – that captured in a phrase the previously largely unspoken popular conviction that America is exceptional.
In this American belligerence Ko heard the latest form of an old claim that had brought such devastation on his people and the people of the world. The voices from the White House, the State Department, and the Department of Defense, though they spoke English, sounded all too familiar, impervious to criticism and restraint on the nation’s military and economic adventures.
Hiroshima Day in Minneapolis 2006
Fourteen years ago today, on Hiroshima Day, 2006 he spoke to a small crowd at the Peace Garden in Minneapolis at the exact hour the bomb incinerated Hiroshima. His voice rang with a quiet authority that only comes from the depths of experience. Here’s an excerpt from that speech:
“During the war (1941-45) the Japanese people were bombarded by the official propaganda that Japan is the divine nation, for the emperor is divine. The word ‘Divine’ was profusely used.This was Japanese wartime ‘dishonest religion’, or shall we call it ‘mendacious theology’? This ‘god-talk’ presented an immature god who spoke only Japanese and was undereducated about other cultures and international relations. Trusting in this parochial god, Japan destroyed itself.
“Then, dear friends,”” he said to make his point to his American listeners, “do not trust a god who speaks only English, and has no understanding of Arabic or islamic culture and history. If you follow such a small town god you may be infected with the poison of exceptionalism: ‘I am ok. You are not ok.’ For the last 5,000 years the self-righteous passion of ‘I am ok. You are not ok’ has perpetuated war and destruction. War ’has never been and it will never be’ able to solve international conflicts, says Pope John Paul II.”
Two paragraphs later, Koyama spoke in terms that speak to the policy of drones and other advanced military technology:
“In spite of the remarkable advances humanity has made in science/technological [sic], our moral and spiritual growth has been stunted. Humankind seems addicted to destruction even with nuclear weapons and biological weapons. Today there are 639 million small arms actively present in the world (National Catholic Reporter, June 30, 2006). Fear propaganda always kills Hope. Violence is called sacrifice. Children killed in war are cruelly called a part of the ‘collateral damage’.”
This Hiroshima Day I wish I could break bread with Ko and my father to discuss the meaning of it all and share with Dad the haiku poems published in The New York Times following Ko’s death, written in his honor by his colleague at Union, Peggy Shriver, testaments to hope in belligerent times.
John Lewis and Rush Limbaugh were miles apart, but they shared the distinction of having been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a recognition as close to sacred as the American republic gets.
Today in America: Selma and Palm Beach
Six months after First Lady Melania Trump draped the medal around Mr. Limbaugh’s neck, the Freedom Rider beaten by the law-and-order enforcers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge (see photo below) made his last trip from Selma to Montgomery. The other Medal of Freedom honoree is holed up in a Palm Beach mansion, pontificating about “the Leftists” conspiring to take away your guns and strike your Second Amendment rights from the Constitution.
Whether John Lewis and Rush Limbaugh ever occupied the same space before or after the 2020 State of the Union Address, I imagine Mr. Lewis greeting Mr. Limbaugh with the courtesy and kindness that shows due regard toward a precious, wounded, soul hidden somewhere behind the blabbering vitriol. There is a part of us — a divine spark within — that cannot be erased, no matter how hidden from our eyes.
Tears are flowing among those who have lived long enough to see the terrifying difference between the two presidents, two awards, and two men who symbolize such different bridges: one from Selma to Montgomery, and the newer one that leads a democratic republic to fascism. From some of us a prayer is offered that when our time comes to cross over, our crossing may be worthy of renaming some bridge where we made our sacrifices for humankind.
Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Monday, July 26, 2020, in honor of Congressman John Lewis (RIP) and the way of love.
What is happening in Portland and American cities where Black Lives Matter continues to oppose the violence and lawlessness of those sworn to protect and serve. A search through previous Views from the Edge posts led back to August 22, 2014.
Click THIS LINK to read “Homeland Militarization — tanks in Ferguson, Blackhawks in Minneapolis — must be stopped” published by MinnPost.com. The conversation — 38 comments — was more telling than the piece. In 2017 the MinnPost commentary became the 30th of the 48 brief social commentaries of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness(2017, Wipf and Stock).
Today’s NYT sounds an alarm with a picture from the June 6, 2020 cover of Der Spiegel (6.6.20) depicting Donald Trump with a match. What German readers see feels chillingly familiar. They still smell the smoke from 1933.
Thanks for coming by. Be careful out there. Wear a mask to stay safe, and tonight –while mourners pay their respects to John Lewis in sanctuary of the African-American Episcopal Church of Selma and prepare for his last trip across the Edmund Pettus Bridge — make some good trouble, the only kind that heals a broken world.
Pardon, please, the posting of an old sermon. It’s the best I can do this morning.
With “thanks, thanks, and ever thanks” to the gentle people of Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska, MN — Gordon C. Stewart, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), a collection of 49 brief reflections written from inside the furnace of the refiner’s fire; Chaska, MN, July 25, 2020.