Peace and Hope after the Election


El Greco‘s “Pantocrator – Christ” feeds my anxious soul in a way words do not this Sunday after the American national election.

Christ’s eyes are knowing, sorrowful yet composed, searching deep within me. The right hand offers the blessing of peace while the left hand rests gently on the globe, the assurance that he is still the pantocrator (“all-ruler”) whose reign, though hidden, is trustworthy and real.

We republish El Greco‘s “Pantocrator – Christ” with thanks to the Vanderbilt Divinity School Library with the following attribution:

Greco, 1541?-1614. Pantocrator – Christ, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. [retrieved November 13, 2016]. Original source:

I didn’t attend worship this morning. I didn’t want any more words. I stayed home with El Greco and a brief word from Isaiah (Is. 65:19).

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, November 13, 2016.

Quote Me: More than Words

“The characteristic place to find Christians is among their enemies. The first place to look for Christ is in Hell.” – William Stringfellow (1928–1985), author, My People Is the Enemy.

WIPFSTOCK_TemplateThese aren’t just words. After Harvard Law School, Constitutional attorney Bill Stringfellow moved into an East Harlem tenement apartment on the block the New York Times then called the “worst” in the city, turning down lucrative NYC corporate law firm job offers. The first of his many books, My People Is the Enemy – a theological reflection on racism and poverty in America- opens with an unusual sentence:

“The stairway smelled of piss.”

All these years later, Stringfellow’s words sound strange to many Christians and non-Christians alike who see the Christian life as the search for moral purity and the climb into a Hell-free afterlife. You want to meet Christ? According to the author of An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land, Christ will meet you from among your enemies and in the Hell of human suffering racism and wealth create.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, January 27, 2016

O Radix, A Third Advent Reflection and Sonnet

We’re pleased to re-blog Malcolm Guite’s poem “O Radix“[Latin for Root], a movement from “the surface of the wide-world screen” to “the forgotten root…of every living thing.”

Malcolm Guite The third Advent antiphon,inmy Advent Anthology fromCanterbury PressWaiting on the Word, O Radix, calls on Christ as the root, an image I find particularly compelling and helpful. The collect is referring to the image of he ‘tree of Jesse the family tree which leads to David, and ultimately to Christ as the ‘son of David, but for me the title radix, goes deeper, as a good root should. It goes deep down into the ground of our being, the good soil of creation. God in Christ, is I believe, the root of all goodness, wherever it is found and in whatsoever culture, or with whatever names it fruits and flowers, a sound tree cannot bear bad fruit said Christ, who also said, I am the vine, you are the branches. I have tried to express some of my feelings for Christ as root and vine more…

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The Reign of Christ

I’ve often wondered
why he included

in parables of goat
and sheep, of tare and

of a woman on a floor
to find her one
lost coin

of a manly crowd
with stones to throw at

of ramming rams and
bleating ewes and one
little lamb

of pride and loathing
of specks and logs in

of sight and light
of day and sleepless

of father running to
greet his son from
empty sty

of water and wine
and miracles that healed
the sick and

called forth Lazarus
from the tomb, unwrapping
him and me

– GCS, Nov. 24, 2014 – early Monday morning the day following Christ the King (Reign of Christ) Sunday.

A Mother’s Love

Katie and Kay (Mom) at Katie's graduation.

Katie and Kay (Mom) at Katie’s graduation.

Today Kay shared this at the cemetery as we laid to rest the ashes of her first-born daughter Katherine (“Katie”)

For Christ to have gone before us,
To have kept us from ultimate sadness,
To be our brother, our advocate,
The One who ushers in the Kingdom,
And the One to come,

Does not keep us from our digging today.
We still gather here and throw the dirt on our sacred dust,
We take the shovel like all those gone before us
And surrender to the Unknowable—
The place where
Love and Beauty and Kindness grow wild.
Where sorrow has no needs,
Where there is all beginning and
Nothing ends.

I know this Love of hers lives on. I feel it.
I watch it in many streams of synchronicity,
Where my heart leaps from memory’s knowing,
Where I share a breath from her beyond.

And then I cry in secret,
Begging that she return

On my terms.

But if my begging is selfish,
The answer to it is not.
If I but knew the splendor of that Place where Love lives,
I would marvel in her good fortune
And ponder her grace inside a timeless waiting for us,
A begging for our good fortune
To come on her terms.

We live our lives in time.
She lives all time as Splendor.
We are bound between this stalemate
And the mystery that is our promise.

Until then we have no other luxury than
To shout her precious memories to the sky
In loud thanksgiving that Love herself lived with us awhile.

Then, because we live with fuller hearts
From knowing more than before our loss,
We turn our shovels over
As those with little other choice for now.
For now we dig.
And shed our tears
With greater Trust.

Thy Kingdom come,
Thy will be done,
On earth as it is
In heaven.

– Kay Stewart, Chaska, MN, May 9, 2013,
the third anniversary of loss and fuller hearts.

Out of the Mouth of William Stringfellow

Jacket of "My People Is the Enemy"

Jacket of “My People Is the Enemy”

“Let all religious people beware. Their earnest longing for God is predicated on the reservation on their part that it is necessary for them to do something to find God. The Word of God in the Bible, however, is that God does not await human initiative of any sort but seeks and finds [people] where they are, wherever it be.”

– William Stringfellow, Count It All Joy (Eerdman’s, 1967).

Inspired by Stringfellow’s writings, six students at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago gathered weekly at 6:00 a.m. on Wednesday mornings with Professor Bruce Rigdon to reflect together on our late-night (10: p.m. – 2:00 a.m.) “bar ministry” at Poor Richard’s, a “secular” place, in light of Stringfellow’s writings. God was already present everywhere; our privilege was to recognize it in the world.

Outside the fence at the seminary students from the Moody Bible Institute targeted McCormick people with tracts that threatened Hell for the liberal “sinners” who didn’t recognize the depth of human depravity. They wanted to save the “wretched” seminarians who scorned every hint of a shame and guilt as the starting point of the Christian faith. We believed that grace was amazing and that it was everywhere, but Amazing Grace‘s “saved a wretch like me” was the language of Moody, a wallowing in shame and guilt from which we were proud to have been freed.

It’s 1966 in Chicago’s Old Town entertainment district. Kay Zimmerman, a dear friend and classmate who lost her sight at the age of nine, and I walk into Poor Richards arm-in-arm. The bar is unusually full. A young man jumps up on a table with his guitar and starts to strum out  the hymn we seminary students ridiculed for it’s wretched theology of human wretchedness: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound That saved a wretch like me…” and everyone rose to their feet to join . “I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.”

Several years following ordination, the Chaplain of Milliken University (Decatur, IL) invited me to an evening with “Bill” Stringfellow. It was two weeks before Stringfellow was to undergo major exploratory surgery for a misdiagnosed illness that threatened his life. During an evening in Bill Bodamer’s home Stringfellow spoke in terms that captured my attention in a new way.

It was during that visit that I began to move theologically from the prevalent paradigm of good v. evil to what Stringfellow argued was the biblical paradigm of life v. death. Even yet today, I am still moving from under the spell of my own form of pietistic slavery to “goodness” into the freedom for which Christ has set me free.

Over the years that followed, Bill became a guest in our home during his visits to campus ministry programs at University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, Northern New York Campus Ministry (Canton, NY), and The College of Wooster (Wooster, OH). My children remember this frail man with the searching eyes, sensing perhaps that his physical frailty not only revealed a human frailty he never denied but a powerful faith in God’s great extravagance.

The absolution from pietism is that there is no way at all to please God, no way to strike a bargain  with Him, no necessity to meet Him half-way,…no way in which His godliness can be diluted in dependency upon human enterprise. The futility of pietism, ending as it does in honoring death in the name of fidelity to God, is that God has triumphed over death already, in the here and now of this life. What is given to men, in that triumph, is not to add to God’s achievement, since it is decisive, and it is not to complete His work, since God is not negligent, and much less to ridicule God’s passion for this world by resort to moralistic legalism, mechanistic ritualism, doctrinaire meanness or any similar religious exercises.

“The vocation of men is to enjoy their emancipation from the power of death wrought by God’s vitality in this world. The crown of life is  the freedom to live now, for all the strife and ambiguity and travail, in the imminent transcendence of death, and all of death’s threats and temptation. This is the gift of God to all in Christ’s Resurrection.

“Men of this vocation count all trials as joys, for, though every trial be an assault of the power of death, in every trial is God’s defeat of death verified and manifested.”

– William Stringfellow,  conclusion of Count It All Joy

“Let all religious people beware.”

“The Birth of Freedom” and the NYSE

The New York Stock Exchange was closed down. For two full days the trading bell on Wall Street did not ring. But on Main Street the bells that mis-identify American freedom with Wall Street were ringing in our living rooms, flooding the airwaves with campaign ads about freedom and the loss of it.

In front of Westminster Presbyterian Church on the Nicollet Mall at the heart of downtown Minneapolis stands an eye-catching sculpture called “The Birth of Freedom.”. The figures are naked, emerging from primal slime, evolving, reaching toward the heavens.

The Birth of Freedom, Paul Granlund

The late Paul Granlund was the sculptor. Westminster commissioned him to give visual expression to the words of the Apostle Paul:

“For freedom Christ has set you free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”  (Galatians 5:1)

There is a freedom from and there is a freedom for.

“For your were called to freedom; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you bite and devour one another take heed that you are not consumed by one another.” (Letter to the Galatians 5:13-15)

I listen to the campaign speeches. I hear the freedom talk. I see crowds cheering. I hear loud applause. And I wonder…what kind of freedom is being cheered? What kind of slavery is feared?

The advertisers who write the ads for the candidates and the PACs know the answers to these questions. They know that the psyche of American generations that grew up in the Cold War defines freedom as freedom from “Communism” or “Socialism.” They also know that the Christian Right fears submission to the “godless” whom they believe threatens their religious freedom.

But no one can take away my freedom or yours, and it is misleading to paint one’s political opponent as intending to take it way. For me, as a Christian, the freedom for which we are released (set free) is not freedom from but freedom for communion with my neighbors. It applies not only to personal relationships. It applies equally to the political and economic systems.

This morning the bell rang again at the stock exchange. The biting, devouring, and consuming of each other becomes a way of life again, the adored substitute for freedom. To condone it is to submit again to a yoke of slavery, the most widespread violence where, to quote Jacques Ellul,

“in this competition ‘the best man wins’ – and the weaker, more moral, more sensitive people necessarily lose.

The violence done by the superior may be physical (the most common kind, and it provokes hostile moral reaction), or it may be psychological or spiritual, as when a superior makes use of morality and even of Christianity to inculcate submission and a servile attitude; and this is the most heinous of all forms of violence.”

– Jacques Ellul, Violence: Reflections from a Christian Perspective, Seabury Press, 1969.

Meanwhile Paul Granlund’s “The Birth of Freedom” still stands silently in downtown Minneapolis, calling for the birth of something as yet beyond our imagination.  “Stand fast therefore [in the freedom for which Christ has set you free], and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” The Apostle Paul often wrote his letters from jail cells, charged with disturbing the Pax Romana.

The Shadow of the Grand Inquisitor

Conscience is the “still, small voice” (a whisper) that makes ancient truth appear uncouth. Conscience and dissent change the world.

It is a great sadness to learn of Archbishop Nienstadt’s reported threat of disciplinary measures against priests in the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis who openly dissent from the proposed amendment to the Minnesota State Constitution that would restrict marriage to a man and a woman (“Priests told not to voice dissent,” Star Tribune, 1/18/12).

The protest of the priests and parishes under Archbishop Niensted’s jurisdiction will be mostly silent. They will simply go on about the business of being the church. Their Protestant brothers and sisters either stand by in quiet support or choose to speak out loud what they cannot.

It is customary practice – and a good one – to regard the internal matters of another church as off limits to non-members. Both as a person of significant frailty and as a Presbyterian minister, Jesus’ injunction to take the log out of my own (Presbyterian) eye before reaching for the speck in my (Roman Catholic) neighbor’s eye gives me great pause.

I choose to speak out of great love and respect fore the Roman Catholic Church, my priest colleagues and friends. I tremble that my words will be mistaken as disrespect or that they will turn the clock back to the era before the Second Vatican Council (“Vatican II”) that blew fresh air across the whole Christian world. Before Vatican II, Protestants and Catholics lived in self-imposed religious ghettos on opposites sides of the main street. Today the dividing line has been erased. People are talking, and what many of them are saying is the same…whether out loud or in the chain of whispered protest that happen when the old authoritarian patterns squelch conscientious dissent.

Jesus the Prisoner and the Cardinal, the Grand Inquisitor

We all do well to remember Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov where it is the Church, not Satan, that puts Jesus on trial in the parable of the Grand Inquisitor. The setting is the City of Seville during the 16th Century Spanish Inquisition. The night sky is lit with the fires of heretics being burned at the stake.

Christ has returned to the City of Seville – an unexpected Second Coming without notice or fanfare – to take his place once again among the poor and destitute. As at the first coming, his love for human dignity and freedom of conscience threaten the civil and religious order that has lit the fires of heretical burning martyrs – in his name and for his sake, at the command of the Cardinal of Seville.The Cardinal takes Jesus prisoner – a prisoner of the Church. He tells him that since his departure, the Church has corrected each mistake he had made in the temptations in the wilderness. He tells Jesus that he is a fool for failing to provide the people with what they most want – a hero who will take away their dread of standing alone in freedom before God.

“You thought too highly of them (i.e. ordinary people),” says the Cardinal, “for they are slaves, though rebellious by nature. Look around and judge, Jesus; fifteen centuries have passed. Look at them!   Who have you raised up to yourself?  I swear, man is weaker and baser by nature than you have believed him to be! Can he do what you did? By showing them so much respect, you failed to feel for them; you asked too much from them – you who loved them more than yourself!”

In the end the Cardinal does not execute him. With loss from his “bloodless lips” he sends the Church’s Prisoner off into the night and tells him never to return.

The Archbishop of the Diocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis is not the Cardinal of Seville. But the Grand Inquisitor’s dark shadow has fallen across the Diocese among those sworn to obedience to the Archbishop’s authority. It has also fallen over their parishes and their Protestant friends. A pall of silence has fallen over the parishioners for whom the Prisoner had “too much respect.” The conversations take place in whispers and in privacy over back fences, or in parish councils where priests and Catholic lay leaders discuss how to be faithful to their own consciences while living under the vow of obedience.

It is one thing for the Church to promulgate an official position on marriage; it is quite another for an Archbishop to tell a priest he must be silent if he dissents on a theological matter, much less on a political and possibly partisan matter.

The Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) strongly re-affirmed the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers.  It made clear that the entire baptismal community constitutes the Church, and that the Church’s teaching office and hierarchy exist to serve the people, not the people the hierarchy. Vatican II lifted up doctrines that date back to the Early Church Fathers: the sensus fidelium (the sense of the faithful) and the sensus fidei (the sense of the individual’s faith).

Among the documents produced by Vatican II was Dignitatis Humanae that celebrated the dignity and freedom of religious conscience. The document opened the Church’s arms to other religions, and there was a great swelling of joy within the Roman Catholic Church and in other Christian churches touched by the Spirit of respect for other views and practices.

No longer were conscience and dissent regarded ipso facto as enemies of the Gospel or of the Church. Those of us in churches separated during the 16th Century Protestant Reformation were embraced by our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters as partners in ministry.  The Second Vatican Council’s spirit of ongoing reform (“aggiornamento”) re-awakened in Protestant communions the call to continual renewal and reform by the Holy Spirit, a 20th Century reformation that refreshed us all.

The proposed Marriage Amendment is a moral question, and the Church’s leadership has a right and responsibility to address it, in light of Traditio (sacred tradition, or the movement of the Holy Spirit among earlier disciples) and the movement of the Holy Spirit among disciples today.

Priests, ministers, and lay people – Roman Catholic and Protestant – on both sides of the pre-Vatican II divide – do not share a single view on the question of the proposed Marriage Amendment that Minnesota voters will decide next November. What we do share is a deep belief in the freedom of the pulpit, the freedom of conscience, and the freedom of the Holy Spirit to work through an informed laity and the church’s ordained leadership in together interpreting Scripture and tradition. We share a deep belief in the sensus fidelium embraced by the Second Vatican Council.

Jesus leaving the city never to return

“By the light of burning martyrs, Jesus’ bleeding feet I track, Toiling up new Calvaries ever With the cross that turns not back; new occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient truth uncouth; They must upward still and onward, Who would keep abreast of truth” (James Russell Lowell, 1845).