The woman outside the window

She paces the sidewalk a few feet beyond our kitchen window, talking loudly to someone who’s not there, smoking a joint to calm her down, moving in sudden jolts as though someone has driven a spike through her less than cogent mind.

I watch and wonder who she is, this neighbor who lives behind us still three weeks after being served by the authorities with an eviction notice following the psychic “break” when she tore loose two towel bars and poked holes in the bathroom wall as uninvited as the screams of rage that harmonized with the spikes in the wall.

The police at the time of the incident told the owners there was little they could do without pressing charges, which they declined to do. She is a guest in their house, the girlfriend “of sorts” of their 35-year old son, a young man of consummate compassionate who had taken pity on her homelessness and invited her in.

Responding to the 911 call, the police had been greeted by an altogether sane young woman who presented a calm, cool, and collected self who came downstairs wondering what the fuss was all about. The 50-something year-old homeowners and the police agreed to call it a night on the “domestic dispute,” the young woman in question going peacefully upstairs to lock herself in her room, the three squad cars driving back to the police station where the officers would write up their incident reports, the husband and wife homeowners sitting in the living room staring past each other into blank space, and their generous adult son who lives in denial stepping outside for a much-needed smoke of something.

His invited houseguest had been institutionalized a number of times but he doesn’t know why or for what. Her father, he says, is some sort of pentecostal preacher. She’s badly scarred by her home experience – the “black sheep” of the family of Christian sheep wounded by the ram who rules the household.

A lamb spiked by the ram in her old sheep-fold, she looks for other pastures and sheep-folds where her damaged soul might find repose beyond a 911 call. But the spikes of terror keep coming, as they will, until, by some process of grace and merciful intervention, her reality breaks open the self that now wanders in torment outside our kitchen window.

Until then, she walks in the valley of the shadow of her own kind of death, as do the members of the family which has given her temporary shelter, crying out for green pastures and still waters that would restore their wounded souls.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, April 21, 2017.

 

 

 

Freed from the leash on 9/11

Yesterday, on the anniversary of  9/11, Kay and I hiked on the Echo Trail near Ely, MN with 2 year-old Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Barclay. Barclay knows nothing about airplanes, falling buildings, religion, economics, terror, or war. He makes friends with everyone. He rejoices in the present, leaping in the air, joyful for no particular reason.

On the hike we set him free from his leash and watch him romp along the trail, out and away from us – but not too far – and then galloping back like a race horse when called. Unfortunately, Kay’s slow motion video wouldn’t load for viewing.

Freed of his leash

he runs and leaps

his feathery coat

and flopping ears

fill the stale air

with the breeze

of joy unleashed.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, September 12, 2015

Since we couldn’t upload yesterday’s slo-mo video, here’s a different view of Barclay’s playful spirit.

9/11 Anniversary Reflection

“I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” [Bhagavad Gita XI.32]

We live under the reign of death – under the threat of death, the fact of death, the fear of death, the practice of death, the way of death. We are reminded of it on the 13th anniversary of 9/11, the day after President Obama’s speech about ISIS.

One might suppose J. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientific director of the Manhattan Project, the United States’ World War II program to develop the first nuclear weapons, thought he and his colleagues were taking humanity higher up the ladder of human progress. Whatever he may have thought at the beginning, he sensed a fall into the arms of the destroyer of worlds while watching the first nuclear explosion in 1945.

Twenty years later, during a visit to Japan, Oppenheimer reflected on his immediate reaction watching the Trinity explosion at Alamogordo that unleashed the genie of atomic power on the world, knowing it could never be put back in the bottle.

“We knew the world would not be the same,” he said. His eyes were sullen, like someone who was remembering a great horror, his voice quiet, his speech slow, pensive, sorrowful. Maybe even penitential. The way some people talk who suffer post traumatic stress syndrome.

“A few people laughed, a few people cried . . . most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.”

Oppenheimer is long gone. So is Edward R. Murrow, the courageous journalist who stood up to the right wing’s insidious attacks on J. Robert Oppenheimer and others using the verbal weaponry to which we have become accustomed: innuendo, guilt by association, sentences taken out of context, and the imputation of scurrilous motives, character assassinations the destroy the reputations of thoughtful people deemed by the dutiful to be less than dutiful patriots.

Today, the 13th Anniversary of the horror of 9/11, we pause to remember. We do so in the post-nuclear world of mass destruction first observed by Oppenheimer at Alamogordo where Death has become the destroyer of worlds, where ISIL beheads journalists and President Obama commits to destroying ISIL from the face of the earth. We all hold our breath at the sight of the multi-armed, ever-changing form of the power of Death and its summons to duty.

In America the arms industry stands alone as exempt from consumer protection laws, beyond congressional review. The guns at the gun shows, the military vehicles that patrolled the streets of Ferguson, the arms and other military equipment our government supplies to regimes around the world, the bombs dropped from drones, and the drones themselves constitute an unaccountable cabal of money and power like no other in the American economy. Ours has become a war economy, an economy that profits from death.

“A few people laughed,” said Oppenheimer with deep sadness. “Most people were silent.”

Once the destroyer of worlds is loosed, the genie can never be put back in the bottle. But those who have witnessed the explosions, or heard of them, here at home in Ferguson, and abroad in Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, Palestine, or Syria have a responsibility to honor the likes of J. Robert Oppenheimer and other brave men and women who refused to remain silent about the tragic climb up the ladder toward divine power that always leads to the fall into a hell of our own making.

Two Kinds of Religion

“How a Single Voice Threatened to Spark a Forest Fire”

Gordon C. Stewart, September 28, 2010

Minnesota Public Radio (MPR, 91.1 FM) published this commentary after a Florida pastor threatened to burn the Quran. The same Rev. Jones is part of the story of the toxic video that has inflamed the Muslim world today. Some things never change.

Everyone from time to time feels insignificant. As I did, while watching fires burn across the world, lit by the words of one pastor in Florida. I felt like a spectator in the stands watching the game I care about go terribly wrong, a hostage of verbal terrorism uttered in the name of Christ.

I would imagine that the Rev. Terry Jones and his small congregation also had felt insignificant before they announced the 9/11 Quran burning, and that they were stunned when their pastor’s voice, although terribly misguided, lit the forest on fire without ever burning a Quran.  One of their own, one who had felt insignificant, had raised his voice and now had the ear of a commanding general, the secretary of defense and the president of the United States.

The difference between the Rev. Jones and most people is that he has a pulpit.  On any given Sunday he speaks and a few people actually listen.  Most of us do our ranting and raving in the shower, at the water cooler or with like-minded people at the coffee shop, but we don’t much expect anyone to listen.

But as the Jones story developed, those of us with pulpits were feeling no less beside the point.  Then, as I prepared for worship, I was drawn by some old lines about spiritual arson. “Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue is a fire … a restless evil, full of deadly poison” and “the seeds of righteousness are sown in peace by those who make peace” (Letter of James 3).

The thought crossed my mind: We could invite a Muslim friend to join me in the pulpit, perhaps my neighbor Muhammad or Abdi or one of their children, whom I meet daily while walking the dogs.  I decided to invite Ghafar Lakanwal, a Pashtun Afghan-American cultural diversity trainer, a Muslim and naturalized U.S. citizen, to bring greetings of peace and share some passages about peacemaking from the Quran in our Sunday worship on 9/12.

Our little church in Chaska welcomed Ghafar, and his words about the spiritual “obligation to learn, not burn” still ring in our ears. Our service drew media attention, and Ghafar’s words were heard on the evening news  and noticed by a stranger in Australia, who sent a message through the church website. “I was touched,” he wrote, “when I read about your recent Sunday service in the news. …  I for one can testify that it has certainly comforted a far away Muslim to know that there are neighbors who will stand together in difficult times.  My salaam [to you].  May we all grow together to attain Allah’s pleasure.”

“Ah!” someone will say. How can any Christian rejoice when the author uses the name “Allah” for God?  But the reaction to the “name” is misbegotten.  It is not the name of God; it’s the Arabic word for what we in English call God.   The forest fire lit in defense of “God” in advance of the anniversary of 9/11 reminds us that two kinds of religion potentially exist everywhere people gather to practice their faith. One kind burns. The other kind learns.  One hates; the other loves.

As James, writing to those who would follow Jesus, put it: “With [the tongue] we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so” (James 3:9-10).  We can set the forest ablaze with our small spark or we can use it to light a candle of hope and peace. But, after the events of this month, none of us can again think that what we say is insignificant.