Every day is the last judgment

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There’s no need to hang about
waiting for the Last Judgement —
it takes place every day.

Albert Camus, The Fall (1956)

The Influenza Pandemic of 1918-19

The COVID-19 pandemic was not the first and will not be the last. Historical contexts, memory, and what we believe make a difference to how we live/die in the 2020 pandemic.The influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 killed between 20 and 40 million people, more than all the deaths in World War I. “It has been cited as the most devastating epidemic in recorded world history. More people died of influenza in a single year than in four-years of the Black Death Bubonic Plague from 1347 to 1351” – Stanford Encyclopedia.

In the United States, 195,000 Americans lost their lives in the month of October, 1918 alone. The influenza of 1918-19 became known as “the Spanish Flu” after it took the life of the King of Spain, but it was no more Spanish than COVID-19 is Chinese. A virus is a virus. It pays no attention to nations or the propensity of nations and peoples to target a scapegoat — another nation unlike one’s own — as though a virus knows the difference.

Chart showing mortality from the 1918 influenza pandemic in the US and Europe, courtesy of the National Museum of Health and Medicine

The Parable of the Last Judgment (Matthew 13:31-46)

First appearances can be deceptive, few more so than the teachings of Jesus. The Parable of the Last Judgment is not what it seems –it is not about future end of time. It’s a parable inviting the listeners to get their heads out of the clouds and put their feet on the ground. Its message? Pay attention to people in front of you, or nearby, living under the interstate bridge in the dead of winter. Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick, visit the prisoners — put yourself squarely in the midst of human suffering.

We might say, the measure of life is compassion in the midst of a world that makes no good sense. What happens at the end is not yours to know. Pay attention to today. Every day is the Last Judgment.

But there’s something else that goes unnoticed in individualistic cultures. Jesus’s parable it is not about the individual. The parable is not about you. It’s not about me. It’s a story that calls the nations to account for their behavior. In that sense, the parable is political. It’s about the polis and its values. There are no privileged nations. All are measured by one standard. The last judgment– the judgment of compassion, kindness, and humility — takes place every day.

The Opportunity of Trouble

Like the Influenza pandemic of 2018-19, the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 is a crisis in the Chinese sense of the word — danger and opportunity. The danger seems obvious, but perhaps the opportunity is greater. We are at war with each other across the U.S.A., shouting across a deep chasm that the other is a goat. We are in very deep trouble, but we’re in it together because of a deadly virus. In hopes we will come to the deeper knowledge of who we are.

“The human mind and the human heart move to truth through trouble,” said Irish Anglican priest G.A. Studdert Kennedy. “It does not really matter what sort of truth you seek. Bunyan faced with the problem of the soul, and Newton faced with the problem of the stars, are both alike in this: they are troubled spirits. They brood over a mass of apparently unconnected, unrelated, and meaningless facts. Bunyan mutters, ‘There is no health in me’; and Newton mutters, ‘There is no sense in them.’ For both it is dark, and they do not know the way. Both walk at times into the dungeon of despair. The pilgrim’s progress of the scientist and of the saint is made along much the same road, and it begins with a troubled brooding, and a heavy heavy burden at the back of the mind and heart. We must all start there. Life begins in Lent. But there comes to both a supreme and splendid moment, the moment when they cry, ‘I see! I see!’ Bunyan sees a Cross and a Man who hangs in agony upon it. Newton sees an apple falling to the ground. But into the minds of both there comes a blaze of light.” — G.A. Studdert Kennedy (“Woodbine Willie”) sermon “The Word with God.”

Perhaps a blaze of light will flood this moment of trouble, we will rediscover each other, find our better selves, and cry out with fresh joy, “I see! I see!”

1918 flu epidemic: the Oakland Municipal Auditorium in use as a temporary hospital. The photograph depicts volunteer nurses from the American Red Cross tending influenza sufferers in the Oakland Auditorium, Oakland, California, during the influenza pandemic of 1918.

Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017, Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR), Chaska, MN, March 21, 2020.

Truth-making and the Lie-making Machine

Special Counsel Robert Mueller

Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s appearance before Congress brings a sliver of hope that truth will prevail. Living in a surreal era where absurdity is the rule rather than the exception led me back to words from an earlier time and another country, the description offered by French novelist and absurdist philosopher Albert Camus (1913-1960).

Never before has the individual stood so alone before the lie-making machine. We used to wonder where war lived, what it was that made it so vile. And now we realize that we know where it lives, that is inside ourselves.

Albert Camus, Notebooks

If you see a turtle on top of a fencepost, you can be sure it didn’t get there by itself.

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, July 24, 2019

Reflections along the way of a terminal illness

Katie and Maggie sharing a moment of sadness. Maggie knew!

Katie and Maggie sharing a moment of sadness. Maggie knew!

Today, three years to the day after Katherine’s (“Katie’s”) death (May 9, 2010), we inter her cremains.

IT’S RAINING, IT’S POURING” was written the day we learned that Katie’s incurable Leiomyosarcoma had taken a turn for the worse. In memory of Katherine (“Katie”) Elizabeth Slaikeu Nolan.

Gordon C. Stewart Feb. 11, 2009

It’s raining, it’s pouring
The old man is snoring
He went to bed and he bumped his head
And couldn’t get up in the morning

It’s a day like that. I bumped my head on the illness of a 33 year-old loved one. It’s raining sadness. I’m having trouble getting out of bed in the morning.

Terminal illness has a way of doing that unless you believe in miracles of divine intervention or you have extraordinary powers of denial.

My spirituality has become increasingly like that of Rebbe Barukh of Medzobaz, an old Hasidic master in Elie Wiesel’s tale of Four Hasidic Masters and Their Struggle Against Melancholy. When he prayed the customary Jewish prayer, “Thank you, Master of the Universe, for your generous gifts – those we have received and those we are yet to receive” – he would startle others with his weeping. ‘Why are you weeping?” one of them asked. “I weep,” he said, “in thanksgiving for the gifts already received, and I weep now for the gifts I have yet to receive in case I should not be able to give thanks for them when they come.”

For my family at this critical time, the real miracle has already occurred – the shared gift of love – and it will come again in ways I cannot now anticipate when the last page of the final chapter of our loved one’s life is over.

The miracles are more natural, nearer to hand. Although I don’t believe in selective divine intervention, I am on occasion a sucker for denial – except on days like this when it’s raining and gray and I’ve bumped my head on the hard fact that cancer is ransacking my loved one’s body. A certain amount of denial, too, is a blessing in disguise, one of God’s generous gifts to keep us sane when the rain pours down and clouds are dark.

Faith comes hard sometimes. In college mine was challenged and refined by Ernest Becker‘s insistence that the denial of death lies at the root of so many of our problems. My faith has been refined along the way by the courage of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre to face the meaninglessness of the plague, the faith and courage of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Paul Tillich who stuck their fingers in the gears of Nazism, and the humble witness of Mother Teresa working in the slums of Calcutta with more questions than answers and some anger at God.

The job of faith, as I see it, is to live as free as possible from illusion with a trust in the final goodness of Reality itself, despite all appearances to the contrary. Faith is the courage and trust to look nothingness in the eye without blinking or breaking our belief in the goodness of mortal life.

When I look into my loved one’s eyes I see that courageous kind of faith that defies the cancer to define her, and a resilient spirit that makes me weep tears of joy over the gifts we’ve already received and the ones we have yet to come.

It’s still raining and it’s still pouring, but I refuse to snore my way through this. I’ve bumped my head on the news of a loved one’s terminal illness, but I’m getting up in the morning.

POSTSCRIPT March 21, 2012

Conversation yesterday about “The List” posted on Bluebird Boulevard:

Karen:

My mother died of cancer eight years ago. Her loss is still visceral. She is in every bird I see.

Me:

The morning of Katherine’s memorial service Kay, Katherine’s mother, was standing by the large picture window gazing out at the pond in our back yard. Out of nowhere, it seemed, two Great Blue Herons flew directly toward the window and swooped upward just before they got to the house. “She’s here. That’s Katie,” said Kay without a second’s hesitation. On her last day of hospice care, Kay and I each remarked that her face looked like a baby bird. I’m a skeptic about such things. I’ve always been, and always will be, a doubting Thomas. My assumptions and conclusions come the hard way. But on the day the herons flew directly at Kay from across the pond, I saw it with my own eyes…and HAD to wonder.

Within a minute a third Great Blue Heron perched on the log by the edge of the pond and stood alone for a LONG time. It reminded me of a gathering on the steps of the State Capitol in Saint Paul following the tragic deaths of school children at Red Lake, MN. The crowd stopped listening to the speaker. They were looking up. “What’s going on?” I asked Richard, the Red Lake American Indian advocate and my co-worker at the Legal Rights Center.org. “Eagles,” he said. “Where?” “WAY up. They’re circling.”

I learned later that the eagles were also circling at that same moment over the grieving families gathered at Red Lake. I asked American Indian colleague what he took it to mean. “We don’t ask. That’s the white man’s question,” he said. “We just accept it. We live in the mystery.”

It’s Raining, It’s Pouring

Today, three years to the day after Katherine’s (“Katie’s”) death (May 9, 2010), we inter her cremains, an appropriate time to re-post the effect of Katie’s illness along the way. This is a re-posting of a piece written along the way of Katie’s illness.

I wrote this piece when we learned that my stepdaughter Katherine’s incurable Leiomyosarcoma had taken a turn for the worse. In memory of Katherine (“Katie”) Elizabeth Slaikeu Nolan.

Gordon C. Stewart   Feb. 11, 2009

It’s raining, it’s pouring
The old man is snoring
He went to bed and he bumped his head
And couldn’t get up in the morning

It’s a day like that.  I bumped my head on the illness of a 33 year-old loved one.  It’s raining sadness. I’m having trouble getting out of bed in the morning.

Terminal illness has a way of doing that unless you believe in miracles of divine intervention or you have extraordinary powers of denial.

My spirituality has become increasingly like that of Rebbe Barukh of Medzobaz, an old Hasidic master in Elie Wiesel’s tale of Four Hasidic Masters and Their Struggle Against Melancholy.  When he prayed the customary Jewish prayer, “Thank you, Master of the Universe, for your generous gifts – those we have received and those we are yet to receive” – he would startle others with his weeping.  ‘Why are you weeping?” one of them asked.  “I weep,” he said, “in thanksgiving for the gifts already received, and I weep now for the gifts I have yet to receive in case I should not be able to give thanks for them when they come.”

For my family at this critical time, the real miracle has already occurred – the shared gift of love – and it will come again in ways I cannot now anticipate when the last page of the final chapter of our loved one’s life is over.

The miracles are more natural, nearer to hand.  Although I don’t believe in selective divine intervention, I am on occasion a sucker for denial – except on days like this when it’s raining and gray and I’ve bumped my head on the hard fact that cancer is ransacking my loved one’s body.  A certain amount of denial, too, is a blessing in disguise, one of God’s generous gifts to keep us sane when the rain pours down and clouds are dark.

Faith comes hard sometimes.  In college mine was challenged and refined by Ernest Becker‘s insistence that the denial of death lies at the root of so many of our problems.  My faith has been refined along the way by the courage of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre to face the meaninglessness of the plague, the faith and courage of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Paul Tillich who stuck their fingers in the gears of Nazism, and the humble witness of Mother Teresa working in the slums of Calcutta with more questions than answers and some anger at God.

The job of faith, as I see it, is to live as free as possible from illusion with a trust in the final goodness of Reality itself, despite all appearances to the contrary.  Faith is the courage and trust to look nothingness in the eye without blinking or breaking our belief in the goodness of mortal life.

When I look into my loved one’s eyes I see that courageous kind of faith that defies the cancer to define her, and a resilient spirit that makes me weep tears of joy over the gifts we’ve already received and the ones we have yet to come.

It’s still raining and it’s still pouring, but I refuse to snore my way through this.  I’ve bumped my head on the news of a loved one’s terminal illness, but I’m getting up in the morning.

POSTSCRIPT March 21, 2012

Conversation yesterday about “The List” posted on Bluebird Boulevard:

Karen:

My mother died of cancer eight years ago. Her loss is still visceral. She is in every bird I see.

Me:

The morning of Katherine’s memorial service Kay, Katherine’s mother, was standing by the large picture window gazing out at the pond in our back yard. Out of nowhere, it seemed, two Great Blue Herons flew directly toward the window and swooped upward just before they got to the house. “She’s here. That’s Katie,” said Kay without a second’s hesitation. On her last day of hospice care, Kay and I each remarked that her face looked like a baby bird. I’m a skeptic about such things. I’ve always been, and always will be, a  doubting Thomas. My assumptions and conclusions come the hard way. But on the day the herons flew directly at Kay from across the pond, I saw it with my own eyes…and HAD to wonder.

Within a minute a third Great Blue Heron perched on the log by the edge of the pond and stood alone for a LONG time.  It reminded me of a gathering on the steps of the State Capitol in Saint Paul following the tragic deaths of school children at Red Lake, MN. The crowd stopped listening to the speaker. They were looking up. “What’s going on?” I asked Richard, the Red Lake American Indian advocate and my co-worker at the Legal Rights Center.org. “Eagles,” he said. “Where?” “WAY up. They’re circling.”

I learned later that the eagles were also circling at that same moment over the grieving families gathered at Red Lake. I asked American Indian colleague what he took it to mean. “We don’t ask. That’s the white man’s question,” he said. “We just accept it. We live in the mystery.”