The sight of a white police officer pressing his knee on George Floyd’s neck is horrific, and because it is so egregious, it is a teachable moment of why and how different people see things differently. Things like law enforcement. . . or the Bible . . . or the news. Black churches in America are likely to rejoice in biblical texts that white Christians avoid as too harsh, too “us v. them,” too black and white, so to speak.
This morning I’m hearing Psalm 70 as the voice George Floyd’s brother Philonise bearing testimony before a committee of the United Sates Congress 401 years after Jamestown.
Be pleased, O God, to deliver me; *
O LORD, make haste to help me.
Let those who seek my life be ashamed
and altogether dismayed; *
let those who take pleasure in my misfortune
draw back and be disgraced.
Let those who say to me "Aha!" and gloat over me turn back, *
because they are ashamed.
Let all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you; *
let those who love your salvation say for ever,
"Great is the LORD!"
But as for me, I am poor and needy; *
come to me speedily, O God.
You are my helper and my deliverer; *
O LORD, do not tarry.
-- Psalm 70, Book of Common Prayer Daily Office Lectionary, p.970.
Seeing America from on Top or from Below the Knee
“My concern is to understand America biblically,” wrote street lawyer theologian William Stringfellow, “– not the other way around, not (to put it in an appropriately awkward way) to understand the Bible Americanly.” — William Stringfellow, An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land (Reprint, Wipf and Stock, 2004).
Be pleased, O God, to deliver me. I, a child of privilege, need help. Let me not be ashamed. O Lord, do not tarry.
Gordon C. Stewart, by the wetland, Minnesota, June 14, 2020.
At daybreak, far from the ranting and raving that hurt my ears, I’m alone with The Book of Common Prayer. I’ve come here for silence, interrupted only by the calls of the loons and the pair of trumpeter swans that return every spring.
For generations the swans’ inner compasses have brought them back to this unspoiled place to hatch their young before flying south again for winter. The swans and I are a lot alike; we both come back when the ice is almost gone.
I settle into the hickory Amish rocker Jacob Miller crafted to fit my slim dimensions 40 years ago back in Millersburg, Ohio. Though its measurements are the same, It feels narrower. But we’re still made for each other. The rocker is where I rock awhile, like Jacob on his front porch after a hard day’s work, until he had to light the kerosine lamps inside.
I reach to the lamp table next to the rocker for The Book of Common Prayer that belonged to Sue Kahn until the day she gave it to me. Sue had relocated to Cincinnati to be nearer her daughter after macular degeneration had left her functional sightless. A lifelong Episcopalian who savored the language of The Book of Common Prayer, she joined her her daughter for worship with the Presbyterians. She asked one day whether I had a copy of the Book of Common Prayer. A week later, Sue stayed after worship. “I want you to have this,” she said, placing it in my hands. “I know you’ll treasure it as much as I.”
I open to the appointed Psalm for this Wednesday of Holy Week, Psalm 55.
Hear my prayer, O God; do not hide yourself from my petition.
It’s the day before release of the redacted report of Special Counsel Robert Mueller III, a report that may answer my prayer for full disclosure of the truth I suspect has been hidden.
Listen to me and answer me; I have no peace because of my cares.
The arrogance — “listen to me; answer me!” — disturbs me. Prayer is not an exercise in telling God what to do! The psalmist is arrogant and it’s selfish, more than a little Narcissistic, like the man in the Oval Office who might push the button on the red phone after typing the letters into th unsecured iPhone he uses to tweet.
But I have come to the wilderness because I have no peace watching Ari and Rachel and waiting for the nightmare to end.
I am shaken by the noise of the enemy; and by the pressure of the wicked…
I don’t like talk of ‘enemies’; it puts me off. “Love your ememies and do good to them who persecute you.” Framing one’s opponents as ‘wicked’ is the less develped morality that has not yet recognized the inertwining of good and evil. But the psalms express the vicseral feelings of the heart unfiltered by the cerebral cortex. Like the psalmist, I am shaken to the core by the noise of an enemy; the pressure of the wicked. The noise hurts me ears.
For they have cast an evil spirit upon me, and are set against me in fury.
l do not stand on solid ground. The cloud of evil and wickedness I routinely ascribe to ‘them’ hangs over me. I cannot claim to be righteous, right, or good as opposed to the unrighteous, wrong, and evil. I live under an ‘evil spell’ – the fall from essential goodness that comes with the presumption of the knowledge of good and evil — the knowledge that belongs to God alone. There is no escape from the pressure and the fury.
My heart quakes within me, and the terrors of death have fallen upon me. Fear and trembling have come over me, and horror overwhelms me.
I quake as a fish caught in a net. I thrash and tremble in darkness at noon as at midnight. The snare of terrors encompasses me.
And I said “Oh, that I had wings like a dove! I would fly away and be at rest. I would flee to a far off place and make my lodging in the wilderness.”
The crackling from the fire and the trumpet calls of the trumpeter swans across the wetland break the silence of daybreak. In this far off place, I am at rest. II make my lodging in the wilderness beyond the snare and blare of right and wrong, good and evil.
— Gordon C. Stewart by the thawing weland, April 18, 2019
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.
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 calendarprescribed 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.
Opening up the cabin after a month away, the temperature was a bit chilly before we built the fire in the wood-burning stove. What warms me more than the fire is the stillness of the place. I read the Psalms differently here. I take time to ponder them.
Psalm 25 is the one I pondered this morning. At first it struck me as the kind of religion that’s killing us — the prayer of religious pride. A second and third reading took me deeper.
“Let none who look to you be put to shame; let the treacherous be disappointed in their schemes. Show me your ways, O LORD, and teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth and teach me…” (Psalm 25:2-4a, Book of Common Prayer paraphrase).
Truth and falsehood. The ways of shamelessness and its opposite — treacherous schemes —collide in this psalm. I come to the cabin to get away from the treacherous schemes. I’m for truth and goodness, not treacherous schemes! That’s Trump, not I! Like the psalmist, I claim what no one can honestly claim: “in you have I trusted all the day long” (25:4c) But the psalmist is wiser.
It’s as though the psalmist suddenly realizes it’s not true. He shifts his eyes from himself to the One who forgives sin. Maybe s/he’s confused? Maybe he has a split personality?Or maybe just a concrete thinker whose immaturity leaves no room for shades of gray? Or maybe he suddenly remembers something beyond the self and its righteous posturing.
“Remember, O LORD, your compassion and love, for they are from everlasting. Remember not the sins of my youth and my transgressions; remember me according to your love and for the sake of your goodness, O LORD” (Psalm 25:5-6).
When you look at me, see me through the eyes of eternal compassion, the eyes of your steadfast love. See me the way a grandfather can’t help but see his 17 month-old grandson, Elijah, after Elijah has opened the kitchen cabinets he’s been told repeatedly not to open. See the look on the grandson’s face when he’s caught and his mother tells him “NO!” Watch Grandpa cover his face with his hand to hide to his smile and giggle as he sees the defiant look on Elijah’s little face.
Perhaps God is like that. The LORD of life (the Breath) is Mishomis —Ojibwe for ‘Grandfather’! See grandson Elijah playingpeek-a-boo with his Mom from his car seat.
Remember me according to your love and for the sake of your goodness, Mishomis.
Grandpa Gordon, in the wilderness with The Book of Common Prayer, October 22, 2018
I see things in the wilderness I do not notice at home.
Last night the sky was lit by lightning on every side —north and south, east and west— but the lightning was flashing from far away. There was no sound. There was no thunderstorm within miles of the A-frame under the stars.
The cabin by the wetland is like that — a place apart for a news-weary soul. A humble shelter of rough-cut pine without electronic devices among the crows, owls, white-tailed deer, skunks, and swans. Yes, the skunks are here, digging for grubs at night, but the skunks here don’t stink up the place like humans do back home, and, like the crows, owls, deer, and swans, they know nothing of the world I’m trying to leave behind.
This morning’s Psalm from the Daily Office of The Book of Common Prayer brings its own kind of light from afar.
We give you thank, O God, we give you thanks,
calling upon your Name and declaring your wonderful deeds.
“I will appoint a time,” says God,
“I will judge with equity.
“Though the earth and all its inhabitants are quaking,
I will make its pillars fast.
“I will say to the boasters, ‘Boast no more,’
and to the wicked, ‘Do not toss your horns;
“‘Do not toss your horns so high,
nor speak with a proud neck.’”
[Psalm 75:1-5, Book of Common Prayer]
The lightning flashes from ages ago, calling me to hope for such a time.
In the morning stillness of the wilderness, I wait.
Gordon C. Stewart, uploading at the truck stop 12 miles away, September 23, 2017.
It’s startling when you see your own name on the obituary page!
But there it is, right there, posted on the internet.
Published in the The Argus on 10 May 13
STEWART Gordon On 3rd May 2013, Gordon aged 86 years. Resident of Sussex Heights sadly missed by family and friends. Funeral Service at Hove Cemetery on Wednesday, 22nd May at 10.00 a.m. (Graveside service) Flowers or if desired donations for the Martlets Hospice may be sent to S.E Skinner and Sons, 145 Lewes Road, Brighton, BN2 3LG Tel. 01273 607446.
Condolences to the family of the older Gordon in Sussex Heights this Wednesday. Some day it will be this Gordon Stewart…with the middle initial ‘C’ on the obituary page, but I won’t be reading it. For Gordon’s family and for all who will eventually stands at the grave, this lovely graveside prayer from The Book of Common Prayer offers consolation and call us to live our days with meaning, thanksgiving, and hope:
O Lord, support us all the day long
until the shadows lengthen, and the busy world is hushed,
and the fever of life is over, and our work is done.
Then, in Your mercy, grant us a safe lodging
and peace at the last.