A strange lullaby?

Last night I sang the refrain of this song to a dying woman. I sang it softly, followed by “Swing low, sweet chariot.” Her breathing became calmer. She raised an eyebrow.

Earlier in the day a Roman Catholic friend poured out her heart about the state of the church and her hopes that the Spirit that refreshed the Church in the Second Vatican Council will breathe fresh air into the conclave to select the successor to Benedict XVI. She was bemoaning the loss of respect for the right of conscience. I thought of Rosa Parks sitting alone in the front of the bus, changing the world, one woman at the time. All afternoon “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me ’round” kept playing in my head. It bubbled up from deep in my soul.

It’s a familiar tune to everyone in the Civil Rights Movement. It was meant to urge us to keep on walking…keep on marching to the Promised Land of racial justice and freedom. But at Lorraine’s bedside last night, it took on a whole new meaning. It became a lullaby. “You’re goin’ home now. Ain’t nobody gonna turn you ’round.”

Five hours later, after years of walking, the chariot swung low. Rest in Peace.

Dialogues cancelled

A Public Letter from the Board of Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church, host of “First Tuesday Dialogues” – Feb. 8, 2013:

“This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the LORD of hosts….” – Zechariah 4:6 (NRSV)

In this spirit we at Shepherd of the Hill – the church with the rocking chair – have chosen to cancel the First Tuesday Dialogues previously announced for Feb. 19 and March 5 on Gun Violence in America.

The First Tuesday Dialogues serve a single purpose: examination of critical public issues locally and globally with respectful listening and speaking in the search for common ground and the common good. The program expresses our own Christian tradition (Presbyterian) whose Preliminary Principles of Church Order (adopted in 1789) call us to honor individual conscience and direct us toward kindness and mutual patience.

The First Principle -“God alone is Lord of the conscience…“- upholds “the still, small voice” in the midst of social earthquakes, winds and fires. It requires us to listen. Ours is a tradition that honors dissent. The voice of one may be where the truth lies. The Dialogues are meant to give space for that voice on critical public issues.

The Fifth Principle declares that “There are forms and truths with respect to which people of good character and conscience may differ, and, in all these matters, it is the duty of individuals and of societies to exercise mutual forbearance”  It is our tradition’s answer to Rodney King’s haunting question: Can’t we all just get along?

These historical principles are not only our historical tradition. They represent a daily interpretation of Jesus’ teaching to love our neighbors in the present moment. One can only love God, whom no man or woman has seen, wrote the Apostle Paul, if we love the neighbor we do see.  How we treat the neighbor is how we treat God.

The success of Shepherd of the Hill’s community programs depends upon a wider acceptance of these principles of respectful listening and exchange among individuals in dialogue. They also assume a group small enough to engage each other more personally and thoughtfully.

If numbers were the only measure of success, last Tuesday’s Dialogues event on gun violence featuring Chaska Chief of Police Scott Knight and Carver County Sheriff Jim Olson was a huge success. 138 people attended. The Chapel was filled. I thought perhaps it was Easter!  But it wasn’t Easter. There was tension in the room. The established habit of the Dialogues program – one person speaks at a time without interruption or rebuttal, no clapping, and respectful listening –gave way to a sense of one team versus another. When a woman dared to stand to ask how many people there had lost a loved one to gun violence and proceeded to tell her story of personal tragedy, she was not met with compassion. She was met with shouts that her story was irrelevant. By the time the other voices had been quieted, the woman had finished her story of a horrible tragedy. She deserved better.

We all deserve better than to be shouted down, no matter what our experiences or views are. One first-time visitor who was there to oppose gun control shared his puzzlement over the treatment of the woman. “How could anyone not have compassion for her pain?” he asked. “Everyone should be moved to compassion by her story of personal tragedy, no matter what we think about the Second Amendment.”

America always jeopardizes its promise as a place of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness when might and power rule. To the extent that we fear that we are unsafe, it will be because we have chosen to ignore the wise word to Zerubbabel to live not by might, nor by power, but by God’s spirit reflected in the commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Lots of people have asked about the rocking chair on the front lawn. Why is it there? What does it stand for?

After the Amish school room massacre in Pennsylvania several years ago – very much akin to what happened at Sandy Hook – Minnesota Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” aired a commentary called “My Amish Rocker.” It was about a more peaceful, forgiving, and loving way of life, the amazing picture of the Amish buggies clip-clopping their way past the home of the man who had murdered their children, tipping their hats respectfully to the killer’s family, on the way to the funeral of their own slaughtered children. The story on MPR was about my Amish rocking chair, made for me by Jacob Miller of Millersburg, Ohio and the opportunity it gives me to think again about who I am in a violent world.

The chair on Shepherd of the Hill’s lawn is there to invite the world to a different way of life. It reminds passers-by to slow it down. Stop speeding through life on the way to who-knows-where. Take a seat.  Rock a while. Breathe deeply. Get in touch with the deep things of the human spirit. Be quiet and listen, like the Amish, for the still, small voice which, in the end, is the only Voice at all.

A Journey of Faith into Economics

 – Gordon C. Stewart Feb. 12, 2012

North Philadelphia street scene

Where I grew up Karl Marx was the enemy of all that was good and true. The United States and the Soviet Union were in a dead heat in the Cold War between the Christian and capitalist West, and the atheistic, Communist East. In elementary school we dove under our desks during air raid drills to prepare us for the atomic bomb that would be dropped on Broomall, Pennsylvania, population 1,000. We began the school day reciting the Pledge of Allegiance – “one nation under God” – and a prayer that asked for God’s blessing. In World War II our fathers had beaten back the evil of Nazism. Now, evil was threatening once again from fascism’s opposite, godless Communism. It was either us or them.

It took a while before I asked about the coupling of Christian faith and capitalism or read Marx himself. To read him or to entertain the idea of a classless society was heretical treason, or treasonable heresy. Church and nation were two sides of the same thing. But the more I recited the Pledge of Allegiance, went to worship and youth group,  and became acquainted with the poverty of north Philadelphia, I began to realize that “freedom and justice for all” was, at best, an aspiration, not a fact.  At worst, it was a compelling myth that allowed us to think of ourselves as the chosen whose job was to eliminate evil from a fallen world.

Two summers working as a street worker for the Presbytery of Philadelphia in the poorest neighborhoods rattled my world and shook me to my knees. Every Monday through Friday during the summers of 1961 and ’62, I traveled an hour-and-a-half by bus and subway from my suburban home in Broomall to north Philadelphia and back trying to make some sense of these two very different worlds. How and why did they exist – one white; one black? One materially satisfied; one not? Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement were answering that it was because of  the politics and economics of white privilege.

When I read the work of Willem Zuurdeeg, a Dutch philosopher of religion who grew up as part of the underground resistance during World War II, I found the philosophical mind that looked below the surface to the deeper convictions that hold our hearts and minds captive. The rest of the story is too long to tell.

Capitalism, like Communism, is an idol manufactured by the human heart, one of the convictions, often unexamined, that vie for our worship and allegiance. No economic system is now, or ever will be, perfect. Its efficacy and utility are to be judged by what it does to the people who live under its mindset and institutions.  Today, I hear strident voices that sound like the voice of the late Senator Joe McCarthy who turned over the tables looking for America’s internal enemies. I would like it to be said when I am gone that I honored the memories of Edward R. Murrow whose courageous reporting exposed McCarthyism, and of Joseph Walsh, the attorney for the Army who spoke aloud the words that brought an end to the power of the McCarthy Hearings to destroy decent, dissenting American citizens: “Have you no decency, Sir? Have you no decency left?”

Ours is a later time. The issues of our day are complex. But underneath the debates, the “us against them” mindset of World War II and the Cold War is no less alive than it was then. However and wherever McCarthy’s eyes flash while his finger points and his voice rises again, those of us who hear a Deeper Voice must not be silent. The Deeper Voice is the “still small Voice” of conscience and dissent.