Prayer in Public Schools – Letter to the Editor

Uncle Bob's letter to the Editor - 1963

Uncle Bob’s Letter to the Editor – 1963

Does this look old? It is. Typed on a manual typewriter in 1963. Some things are worth their weight in gold. This Letter to the Editor is one of them.

Robert Smith, my Uncle Bob, sent this Letter to the Editor of the local paper in South Paris in Oxford County, the poorest county in the State of Maine.  A native of Kennebunk, Maine, he was a relative of John Smith of the legendary tale of Pocahontas, who  married my mother’s sister, Gertrude, after graduating first in his class at Harvard Law. He opened a law office in South Paris, met the love of his life and courageously raise a family: my first cousins Alan (who never spoke a word because of Cerebral Palsy), Dennis, and Gwen.

He became the District Attorney and then the Probate Judge in Oxford County. A Republican of the Nelson Rockefeller brand, he wrote his Letter to the Editor after the U.S. Supeme Court ruled that prayer in the public schools was unconstitutional. To the chagrin of many of his neighbors, he supported the Supreme Court decision.

His daughter, my cousin, Gwen, sent this to me. with a note:

“I am amazed at how ‘global’ his thinking was, especially when you think of South Paris! I couldn’t wait to get out as I saw it as being so insulated from the real world…knew there was something better out there. Dad would be drummed out of the Republican party he so strongly supported with this thinking, but all politicians could take a lesson in civility from this!”

Bob Smith died of a cerebral hemorrhage leading a congregational meeting of the First Congregational Church of South Paris where he was the President of the Congregation, Choir Master and Organist. He died the way he lived – with the courage of his convictions and a faith in Divine providence that does not depend upon or favor the tyranny of the majority.

An acrostic verse: Missa Solemnis

“Missa Solemnis”

LORD HAVE MERCY begins the Mass
Under the baton of Maestro
Dean Craig Jessop. The last word: PEACE.
Wisdom and beauty from solo
Instrument, the mass choir, voice
Go to the top of Cathedral.

Vast walls of sound show pain also,
Arising from those who are cruel.
Nothing human escapes alto,

Bass and tenor and soprano.
Even a skeptic like Ludvig
Enlisted to create music,
Tries to make out of the tragic:
Hope, faith, love, kindness, and courage.
Overwhelmed by suffering, he
Values still signs of human will.
Even though stone deaf, he can be
Nurturing peace and harmony.

– Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL August 7, 2013

EDITOR’S NOTE: Craig Jessop is Dean of the College of the Arts at Utah State University, and former Director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

The Prophets: Parents of Newtown

The parents of the murdered children of Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown are back in Washington, D.C today and tomorrow. They are meeting with our nation’s law-makers.

Like Jeremiah, “the Weeping Prophet” who cried over the plight of his people, these mourning parents are courageous spokespersons for sanity, compassion, and an end to America’s love of violence.

May the Spirit that inspires these grieving parents to leave home for meetings in the center of American power and public scrutiny stir the consciences of the Congressional Representatives and Senators with whom they meet.

A friend brought to my attention “Thank God, I’m Alive” on the latest tragedy of gun violence to garner national attention in Santa Monica, California.

As Moses said when Joshua wanted to silence two people (Eldad and Medad) who were speaking out without authorization: “I wish that all God’s people were prophets!” (Book of Numbers 11:29, Torah, Hebrew Bible).

I invite your prayers and well wishes for the parents of Newtown as they carry forward the prophetic tradition. Let no one silence you. Speak the truth with love, and let the Spirit do its work.

Please share your comments.

When help doesn’t come

“If you believe in GOD’s powers and you ask for help and he doesn’t help you right away, it means he believes in you!

It only takes 20 seconds of insane courage to do the impossible.”

– Ruth J., 9 yrs. old.

After worship at Shepherd of the Hill in Chaska, Ruth and Lily hand me their reflections on the sermon – either in words or in drawings and symbols printed on the backs of yellow visitor/prayer request cards. Their insights blow me away. I look at their cards and ask myself, “Why didn’t I think of that?”

Ruth is a young Paul Tillich:

“Faith is the courage to be. Courage can show us what being is, and being can show us what courage is.” – Terry Lectures delivered at Yale University, The Courage To Be, Yale University Press, 1952.

Pete Seeger and the HUAC

Pete Seeger is an American legend. But it wasn’t always so. Pete just turned 94.

Spadecaller posted the video on YouTube. He also wrote the following history behind “Where have all the flowers gone?”

On July 26, 1956, the House of Representatives voted 373 to 9 to cite Pete Seeger and seven others (including playwright Arthur Miller) for contempt, as they failed to cooperate with House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in their attempts to investigate alleged subversives and communists. Pete Seeger testified before the HUAC in 1955.

In one of Pete’s darkest moments, when his personal freedom, his career, and his safety were in jeopardy, a flash of inspiration ignited this song. The song was stirred by a passage from Mikhail Sholokhov’s novel “And Quie Flows the Don”. Around the world the song traveled and in 1962 at a UNICEF concert in Germany, Marlene Dietrich, Academy Award-nominated German-born American actress, first performed the song in French, as “Qui peut dire ou vont les fleurs?” Shortly after she sang it in German. The song’s impact in Germany just after WWII was shattering. It’s universal message, “let there be peace in the world” did not get lost in its translation. To the contrary, the combination of the language, the setting, and the great lyrics has had a profound effect on people all around the world. May it have the same effect today and bring renewed awareness to all that hear it.

Click HERE for the transcript of Pete’s testimony before a sub-committee of the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Pete is an American patriot. He stands for the very best of the American character. He has never been intimidated by the likes of Senator Joseph McCarthy whose accusations turn people of courage into quivering jelly. He wrote and sang the songs that still stand up to the bullies who assassinate the character of others by means of innuendo and association. His joyful resilience exposes the demonic (the twisting of the good) character of public manipulation, mass hysteria, scapegoating, and the misplaced patriotism that marches to the drumbeats if war.

Happy birthday, good Sir! Your voice still echoes around the world.

We try to win the game

Yes, I’m very tall–and yes,

I do play basketball.  

I can dunk, but have to jump,

not just stand and reach up.

 

 I am seven-two, and do

hit my head many times.

Weather up here is just fine:

sun shines on me and you.

 

My team does not win all games–

you fans remember those.

Other teams have tall guys, too,

who fight hard not to lose.

 

Coaches push us hard each day,

and we each have our pride.

When we lose we sometimes cry:

it’s tempting to slink by…

 

Courage, fortitude, it takes

to lose and face you fans.

Our team sticks together tight–

no one else understands.

 

-Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL, January 17, 2012

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.”