Our Dwelling Place and the Wrath of God

Six old friends have arrived from Indiana, Minnesota, and Illinois for New Year’s Eve in the Dempsey’s living room. A seventh unbidden visitor — pancreatic cancer managed by chemotherapy — makes us freshly aware of our mortality.


We read aloud Psalm 90 (NRSV), pausing to reflect on each section.

Lord, you have been our dwelling place
    in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth,
    or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
    from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

The great theologian Paul Tillich called this dwelling place “Being-Itself” or “the Ground of Being.”

You turn us back to dust,
    and say, “Turn back, you mortals.”
For a thousand years in your sight
    are like yesterday when it is past,
    or like a watch in the night.

We are increasingly aware that we are dust. We are mortals. Our yesterdays far outnumber any tomorrows. But the friend threatened by the cancer that almost always kills is quietly at peace with being turned back to dust. He has always known we are dust.

You sweep them away; they are like a dream,
    like grass that is renewed in the morning;
in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;
    in the evening it fades and withers.

Like our late friend Steve, whose life ended with pancreatic cancer, his faith is in something greater than himself, not because he is certain of what will happen when he takes his last breath, but because he is thankful for the days he has been given and trusts that whatever his place may be now, or then, it lies within the Dwelling Place. It is as it should and will be.

For we are consumed by your anger;
    by your wrath we are overwhelmed.
You have set our iniquities before you,
    our secret sins in the light of your countenance.

For all our days pass away under your wrath;
    our years come to an end  like a sigh.


We are unaccustomed to talk of the the wrath of God or the fear of it. We talk of the love of God. We are not of the religion right.

But California Governor Jerry Brown’s recent use of the word springs to the center of the conversation. After a year of a public cancer — lies, name-calling, climate change denial, Charlotteseville, the alt-Right, obscene wealth, greed, and narcissistic grandiosity of little boys with toys threatening nuclear holocaust while eating away the healthy institutional cells on which a democratic republic depends — we have a fresh sense of wrath.

“I don’t think President Trump has a fear of the Lord, the fear of the wrath of God, which leads one to more humility,” said Jerry Brown in a ’60 Minutes’ interview. “And this is such a reckless disregard for the truth and for the existential consequences that can be unleashed.”

The days of our life are seventy years,
    or perhaps eighty, if we are strong;
even then their span is only toil and trouble;
    they are soon gone, and we fly away.

Who considers the power of your anger?
    Your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you.
So teach us to count our days
    that we may gain a wise heart.

We are students of aging, learning to count our days, aware of the dust to which we turned a blind eye in younger years while establishing ourselves as adults, raising children, and making names for ourselves. In our late 60s and mid-70s life is less a matter of the mind than it is of the heart. We are more aware of the Dwelling Place. Counting our days — and giving thanks for this one day — is the new arithmetic of the wisdom of the heart.

Turn, O Lord! How long?
    Have compassion on your servants!
Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
    so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
Make us glad as many days as you have afflicted us,
    and as many years as we have seen evil.
Let your work be manifest to your servants,
    and your glorious power to their children.
Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us,
    and prosper for us the work of our hands—
    O prosper the work of our hands!

  • Gordon C. Stewart, January 1, 2018.

Verse – Vanity, Cancer & Chemo

Well yes, I’ve lost weight in a flash,
But I’ve spent all my cash–my skin has a rash,
My Mother won’t feed me,
My wife doesn’t need me,
I’ve lost hair (pubic), beard, and mustache.

  • Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL, May 23, 2016

Verse – The Last Months

I ain’t bein’ brave…
I’m just sleepin’ at night,
an’ waking up with the sunrise
so far…

I’m livin’ each day,
sayin’ thanks
for food brought by friends,
for stories, for memories,
for jokes fresh or tired…

I ain’t livin’ by faith,
or swearin’ at God.
I’m breathin’ by day
and conked out more hours
by night…

This is still life.

  • Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL, March 24, 2016

Verse – Healthy as a Horse

Profs have found that it helps cancer’s pain
To take puffs of that old Mary Jane,
And our State says it’s great,
Docs write scrips for our trips,
But what cancer symptoms can I feign?

  • Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL, March 16, 2016

Tribute to Steve Shoemaker

Steves prairie haven (400x300)

Steve talks about his battle with stage 4 pancreatic cancer last  Tuesday at his home south of Urbana, IL.

‘Lucky to have had the life I had’

Sun, 03/06/2016 – 7:00am | Melissa Merli,The News-Gazette

Steve Shoemaker talks about his battle with stage 4 pancreatic cancer on Tuesday at his home south of Urbana.

URBANA — Steve and Nadja Shoemaker’s contemporary-style home lies on a ridge south of Urbana, overlooking the prairie.

Through its tall windows, they enjoy magnificent sunrises and can see 30 miles into the distance. Even on an overcast day, they can pick out the wind turbines over in the next county, etched in light gray against the darker sky.

“If you’re going to die, this is a great place to be,” Steve says, sitting in a comfortable sofa on the south end of Prairie Haven, the architect-designed house he and his wife, a retired University of Illinois microbiologist, had built 10 years ago.

“I love the house,” Steve adds. “We have great neighbors and friends. I’ve been very fortunate. I feel like Lou Gehrig — lucky to have had the life I had.”



The retired Presbyterian minister and University YMCA director, former Champaign County Board member, ex-radio host, poet and outspoken advocate for the less fortunate uses those words often.

He avoids “blessed” — he doesn’t believe in the “prosperity gospel” — as he reflects on his life of 73 years and the fact it might come to an end sooner than he would like.

Shoemaker was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer three months ago.

His doctors told him with chemotherapy he had six months to live.

He tells people he’s now into Month 3. He tries not to dwell on his cancer but will answer questions — though his daughter set up a CaringBridge website so his many friends and family can go there for updates.

He says his main symptom had been stomach pain, due to a growth that cut off oxygen to his intestines. Pancreatic cancer is usually deadly because the pain doesn’t come until it’s too late.

“In my case, it had already spread to the lungs and liver. The chemotherapy has reduced some of it so that’s a good sign,” he says.

Most days now, he’s without pain. But he feels the side effects of chemotherapy. Low energy. Fatigue.

He sometimes needs a walker or wheelchair. And he finds that his emotions swing.

“I’ll probably cry before you leave,” he says.

But he doesn’t, not until he points to two tangible markers of what he’s most proud of in his life besides his two children, Daniel and Marla, and his friends, among them self-described agnostics and atheists.

One trophy is heavy and glass and set on a windowsill. It’s the Intercultural Dialogue Award, given to Shoemaker in 2006 by the Intercultural Friendship Foundation for his efforts to bring together Muslims, Christians and Jews in a post-9/11 world, when he was director of the University YMCA.

The other, also made of glass, came from the Martin Luther King Jr. Advocacy Committee for Shoemaker’s 20 years of service.

“I’m pleased that part of the local black community felt that I did something worthwhile,” he says, choking up.

Many communities here, both off and on campus, feel the same way about Shoemaker. For years, he’s been one of the most visible, outspoken ministers in Champaign-Urbana, advocating for the poor, homeless, minorities, gays and most recently immigrants.

In 1998, he was designated a “Point of Light” for his work with the homeless while pastor at McKinley Presbyterian Church, where he helped set up a basement shelter for homeless men.

Besides his outspokenness, Shoemaker is visible for other reasons: At 6-foot-8, he usually towers above everyone else in a room.

And for most of the past 50 or so years, he’s worn a full beard. It’s gone now as a result of his medical treatment.

Earlier in his life, he didn’t get a pastor’s job in the Durham, N.C., area because he wouldn’t shave his beard.

“It was 1969, a time of hippies, protesters, malcontents,” he says. “One of the messages (of the beard) would be to accept other people,” Shoemaker told the pastor who was interviewing him.

“Sorry, that’s not a battle I want to fight,” the minister responded.

At the time, Shoemaker was working on a doctorate in religion at Duke University. He ended up preaching at two North Carolina churches for four years and spent eight as a Presbyterian minister on the North Carolina State University campus.

Then he and his wife, Nadja — they had dated while attending Urbana High School — returned to their hometown so Steve could take the pastor position at McKinley in 1981.

He doesn’t regret having become a minister, saying a Presbyterian campus ministry suited his liberal leanings.

He doesn’t regret returning to his hometown to live and work.

“I still have some friends here and still see some of them,” he says. “I played basketball with Gary Storm in high school. He moved back after he retired, and I see him fairly regularly.”

The only regrets he would mention: He wishes he would have been more organized and had made better grades in college.

Shoemaker, who played center on Urbana High’s basketball team, went to Wheaton College, a private Christian liberal arts school, though he had offers to play the sport at the NCAA Division I level. He played for two years at Wheaton.

“I wasn’t very interested in playing basketball,” he says. “I didn’t want to devote my whole life to basketball. It’s just a game. I never could care who won. I didn’t have the right attitude.”

He was more interested in literary pursuits. He had begun writing poetry in high school. At Wheaton, he worked for the school newspaper and literary magazine.

At the time, he didn’t want to be a minister. He wanted to be a writer.

He applied to writing programs but was rejected. His grades weren’t good enough.

So he applied to seminary, feeling he would like to be a social worker in a church agency. But he realized he wouldn’t like the bureaucracy.

At the time, he and Nadja were attending a Presbyterian church in Chicago, where 60 percent of the congregation was black.

“We loved the pastor and what he was doing in the neighborhood, trying to improve it,” Steve says. “I decided then I wanted to be that kind of pastor.”

Both Shoemaker’s father and grandfather had been fundamentalist Baptist preachers. At age 13, Steve began questioning that faith.

Eventually, he and his father mutually decided they wouldn’t discuss religion and would instead focus on the grandchildren.

Recently, though, Shoemaker’s three brothers came to visit Steve. They hired a Baptist pianist to accompany them as they sang the Baptist gospel hymns of their youth.

Steve has always loved to sing. He sang in many choirs, including The Chorale, a mixed-voice community choir.

He’s too sick now, he says, to sing with choral groups but he continues to write poetry, which he enjoys as an intellectual challenge more than emotional outlet.

Since his diagnosis, he’s writing mostly limericks. He titled a recent one “Ol’ Fuzzy Head.”

The nurse said I had “Chemo Brain,”

From writing, I just should refrain;

But I have the notion

That writing’s the potion

To retrain the brain to be sane.

He calls another one “When Cancer Patients Cry.”

It may mean nothing when you see

The tears, or when you hear the voice

Begin to catch and whisper. The

Strong drugs for pain remove the poise

And self-control. Emotions rule


The patient, for some reason, may

regret the loss of family

And friends … Feel sorrow, not to stay

In this the known world, possibly

The only world. Hope fades, Faith flees.

Actually, his faith — Shoemaker’s 14-year WILL-AM radio show was called “Keepin’ the Faith” — fluctuates, just like anyone’s, he says.

“I hope for an afterlife, but I don’t think it matters much what I believe,” he says. “I think what matters is if there is a God that he’s loving, compassionate and merciful, and what that God thinks of me. I think God is beyond us, and we can’t comprehend it.

“How I live. I think that’s what matters.”

He also likes the Catholic belief that God has a “preferential option” for the poor.

“God’s eye is on the sparrow, not the eagle, on the people who are hurting,” he says. “That’s the God that makes sense to me.”

He admits to feeling doubt, fear and worry at times.

“Sometimes I’m scared thinking about how my spouse will do after I pass away and my kids and my two grandkids.”

But he says he’s not afraid to die.

“I’ve had a good life, and I’m grateful for it. I hope there’s an afterlife, especially for people who have not been as lucky as I have. I hope they will be compensated.”


Verse – When Cancer Patients Cry

It may mean nothing when you see
The tears, or when you hear the voice
Begin to catch and whisper. The
Strong drugs for pain remove the poise
And self control. Emotions rule.


The patient, for some reason, may
Regret the loss of family
And friends… Feel sorrow not to stay
In this the known world, possibly
The only world. Hope fades, Faith flees.

  • Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL, Feb. 11, 2016

Note: Views from the Edge followers recall that Steve was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer in November with death expected no later than mid-January. He’s outlived the original prognosis by a month. His home   on the Illinois plains has become a hotel for family and friends from around the world.

Steve posted this verse last night on his CaringBridge page. The sentence that introduced it said:

[Bad day. 2nd in a row. I’ll try to be funny tomorrow…]



Verse – Bending Down, Looking Up

As readers of Views from the Edge (VFTE) may know, Steve Shoemaker, my poet colleague on VFTE has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. His sense of humor remains strong. This verse recalls a moment with Steve and four other seminary classmates following a rare Cubs’ win at Wrigley Field in Wrigleyville, Chicago.



A towering 69 year-old figure standing
six-feet-eight, Steve saunters slowly
through the post-game crowd outside
“the Friendly Confines” of Wrigleyville
like a watchtower on skates, looking
far and near for who knows what.

A very happy young woman as high
as he is tall pulls on his sleeve, asking
a question only he, bending far down,
can hear. He smiles but shakes his head
to whatever offer threatened to bring
him down to a lower happiness high.

Two years later at 72, he might be
looking again for the Wrigleyville fan
for something to ease the pain, settle
his stomach, give some relief from
the newly diagnosed cancer, a pill
or toke or two to raise him back up
to the watchtower, now six-feet-seven.

We who couldn’t hear the question
now smile, bend down low, and look up
beyond Steve’s lofty height with prayers
for courage, strength, whatever will keep
him tall in the game where everyone wins
and loses, and quite unexpectedly,
feels a gentle tug on an old shirtsleeve.

– Gordon C. Stewart, Dec. 8, 2015

Huckleberry Finn and Steve

Steve Shoemaker, my poet colleague on Views from the Edge, is at Mayo Clinic here in Rochester getting a second opinion on newly diagnosed pancreatic cancer and silent heart attack. He recently shared the news with his friends, many of whom had applauded his recent advocacy for welcoming Syrian refugees.

Here’s what Steve wrote:

In Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn,” the young rascal lets his family, and the whole small Missouri town, think he was drowned in the Mississippi River & his dead body carried down stream… And then Huck snuck back into town in disguise and attended his own funeral.

The frequent truant was amazed at all the nice things said about him–even by his school teachers.

This has been my experience the last few days as my serious cancer diagnosis became known, along with a surprisingly positive article in our partisan Republican News-Gazette about Democrat me being critical of Illinois’ Republican Governor refusing State aid, public or private, to vetted Syrian refugees.

As I spoke & wrote about welcoming Syrians, the outpouring of support & personal praise has been amazing…some of the positive words coming even from my grown children (who seeing me up close for years could have written very differently.)

Of course I know after bad news, and at a funeral, critics are silent or absent. I am grateful for both the good words, and the silence!

Illness, diagnoses, prognoses and treatments are personal. Some keep them not only from others but from themselves. Not so with Steve. This is typical Steve. What’s not to love about a humble rascal?

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Nov. 28, 2015

A Hopeful Prayer for Healing

A prayer for a sick person named “C______”:

Gracious God,

We know how to pray for sick C______, and, indeed, for anyone (including ourselves). Your child, Jesus, taught us to pray for daily bread, forgiveness, for You not to lead us into temptation, AND TO DELIVER US FROM EVIL!

Cancer is evil (as are heart attacks, brain tumors, diseases beyond number, and your last enemy, death.) Deliver C______, and us all. We pray for healing and full health.

We also know, however, even Jesus did not heal everyone, that not all His prayers were answered, even His prayer “If possible, may this cup pass from me.”

If healing is impossible, remind us of Psalm 23, and that in the shadow of death, we can know You are with us, fear no evil, and be comforted. Amen.

  • Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL, October 7, 2015

The Corpse

the face and hands are grey
even under the pink
lights by the big casket

no life is in the lips
the eyes are not asleep
the hands will never move

he hid himself from us
as the cancer got worse
he had said goodbye

his voice i still can hear
his raspy laugh echoes
in my memory

I did not need to see
the artificial body

– Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL, April 11, 2014