Verse – Ash Wednesday

The palms had been saved for 11 months,
then burned to ashes. Thin tapers all lay
like kindling near the Christ candle. Our mouths
moved silently reciting sins. Today
we wear a black plus on foreheads:
it means we have forgiven all of those
who sinned against us, and even ourselves.

We light a taper, place it in the sands
surrounding Christ, shifting under us.
We tell the skeptical that God forgives
them–they tell us the same absurd good news.
Our Pastor prays and lays upon our heads
a blessing undeserved. We leave this place
each marked by two crossed lines of dirty grace.

– Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL, March 6, 2014

God the Stranger

I “know” less and less of what I thought I knew. The world has driven me into the unknowing silence out of which James A. Whyte spoke at the funeral in Lockerbie, Scotland in 1989.

During his term as Moderator of the Church of Scotland, The Right Rev. Dr. Professor James A. Whyte , still grieving the death of his wife, was called upon to lead the memorial service after Pan Am Flight 103 was blown out of the sky over Lockerbie. Among the most quoted parts of the sermon is this excerpt:

“That such carnage of the young and of the innocent should have been willed by men in cold and calculated evil, is horror upon horror. What is our response to that?

The desire, the determination, that those who did this should be detected and, if possible, brought to justice, is natural and is right. The uncovering of the truth will not be easy, and evidence that would stand up in a court of law may be hard to obtain.

Justice is one thing. But already one hears in the media the word ‘retaliation’. As far as I know, no responsible politician has used that word, and I hope none ever will, except to disown it. For that way lies the endless cycle of violence upon violence, horror upon horror. And we may be tempted, indeed urged by some, to flex our muscles in response, to show that we are men. To show that we are what? To show that we are prepared to let more young and more innocent die, to let more rescue workers labour in more wreckage to find the grisly proof, not of our virility, but of our inhumanity. That is what retaliation means.”

For James Whyte God is often silent. We are called to enter the space of God’s silence, the silence of the cross, the confusion and horror of the suffering of God at the hands of a world filled with man-made gods: security, freedom, nationalism, religion, muscle, revenge and self-righteousness, cultural supremacy. In the Jesus of the cross, Whyte’s eyes saw not only a naked man but God’s nakedness – a naked God stripped of all power, his arms roped to a cross-beam paradoxically spread wide to embrace the whole world of human suffering and folly.

James Whyte took time out of his busy life in 1991 to act as a conversation partner and mentor for an American pastor whose congregation had granted its pastor a sabbatical leave in St. Andrews. They met twice weekly for two months in his flat over tea and scones, the young American absorbed in the vexations of Christian claims to Christ’s uniqueness and universality, on the one hand, and religious pluralism, on the other, the good Right Rev. Dr. Professor listening attentively, maintaining a poignant silence that respected his mentee’s process. When the pastor left Scotland, he asked his mentor for a copy of prayers James Whyte had offered during worship at the Hope Park Church in St. Andrews. Each of the prayers was as thing of beauty. Each began with a quotation from the Book of Psalms.

James Whyte’s spirituality echoes that of an old Hasidic Rabbi (Barukh of Medzebozh [1757-1811]) reflecting on Psalm 119.

“I live as an alien in the land;
do not hide your commandments from me”
– Psalm 119:19

Rabbi Barukh of Medzebozh said of this psalm:

“The one who life drives into exile and who comes to an alien land has nothing in common with the people there and has no one to talk to. But if a second stranger appears, even though that person may come from quite a different place, the two can confide in each other. And had they not both been strangers, they would never have known such a close relationship. That is what the psalmist means: ‘You, even as I, are a sojourner on earth and have no abiding place for your glory. So do not withdraw from me, but reveal your commandments, that I may become your friend.”
– Martin Buber, <a href="

” title=”Link to information on Tales of the Hassidim”>Tales of Hassidim – the Early Masters.

Thanks you, James Whyte, good and faithful servant and friend of God the Stranger. RIP.

The Donkey’s Questions

Matthew’s Gospel has two asses (donkeys), not one, in its Palm Sunday narrative. “They brought the ass and the colt, and put their garments on them, and he sat thereon.” Steve Shoemaker’s versed ponders the scene from the standpoint of the colt.

Verse – The Donkey’s Questions on Palm Sunday,
according to St. Matthew

He searched for just the right stick…
but then he never hit me? Why
go to all that trouble? Pick
the answer: 1. that he would try
directing the singing? 2.
to lean on when the day was through?

Why does he ride on my mom
while I’m just trotting alongside?
What does “Halleluja” mean?
Who’ll pick up clothes after the ride?
Now he shifts and rides on me–
he breaks the stick and makes a “T.”
His face looks like he’s had a loss…
Is he thinking of that cross?

– Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL,

Good Friday 2013

Today is Good Friday.

Two pieces enriched the silence today. The first arrived early this morning.


In Mark, the earliest account, the name
is given of the man who from the crowd
was forced to lift and carry the crude wood
cross that some carpenter had made the same
day. Simon of Cyrene is named, and then
the names of his two sons–as if they were
still living and could testify that their
father was one of the witnesses when
Jesus was crucified. Women were named
who saw the body buried in the grave,
and later returned to the empty cave
and found the heavy round stone had been rolled
away. Joseph of Arimathea
had given his own family tomb away.

But you are skeptical and full of doubt
that Christ is risen–you should check it out.
See that his followers who ran away
now risk their own lives when they sing and pray.
His students now have students. Many saw
him after death. They live and testify.
His movement grows, and some react with awe
and pass the story on, still testify…

– Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL, Good Friday, 2013

The second arrived this afternoon.

Click HERE to read Dr. Matthew Boulton’s Good Friday reflection in the Indianapolis Star. Matthew carries on the story as President of Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, Indiana. Matt is the son of Wayne, my seminary roommate and best friend since 1964. “They live and testify. His movement grows, and some react with awe and pass the story on, still testify…”

Next up: IRAN?

Gordon C. Stewart, April 3, 2012

So…Iran is next. First Afghanistan. Then Iraq. Now Iran… where does it stop?

I feel helpless, like a parent watching a hopped up teenager taking the car. I know I’m not alone.

This afternoon an email invites me to add my name to a statement and show up at the State Capitol in Saint Paul on April 24.  Here’s the email:

In 2008, over 50 Minnesota politicians and religious leaders signed a statement opposing U.S. military action against Iran.  We held a press conference on the steps of the Capitol in St. Paul that generated articles around the world because of the presence of a  delegation of Middle Eastern journalists.

Unfortunately, four years later we are again faced with even more threats of attacks against Iran.

While politicians are pushing for military action, several prominent military leaders are encouraging caution.  The Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, General Martin Dempsey has said that, “It’s not prudent at this point to decide to attack Iran.  A strike at this time would be destabilizing and wouldn’t achieve long-term objectives.”  Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has stated that Iran is NOT developing a nuclear weapon.  (Meet the Press, 1/08/12)

If Iran is attacked, Dempsey has said the results would destabilize not only that country, but the entire region.  Other analysts have written of the possibility of war on Iran escalating to a third world war.  However, Ron Burgess, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told Congress that “the agency assesses Iran is unlikely to initiate or provoke a conflict.”

Yet the media continues to give more coverage to the politicians and pundits who are claiming that Iran is a grave threat to world peace and must be stopped.  The U.S. is just beginning to withdraw from the devastating wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – conflicts that destabilized those countries and cost hundreds of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars.

Minnesotans have spent nearly $5 billion to fund the Iraq and Afghan wars in 2011 alone, bringing total Minnesota taxpayer spending for these wars to more than $37 billion.  At a time of cutbacks for education, healthcare, jobs, and housing, we cannot afford another costly military adventure.

Please add your name to the list of Minnesota leaders who advocate diplomacy over military attacks as the way to deal with Iran.  We will hold a press conference at noon on Tuesday, April 24, as part of our campaign to work for a peaceful resolution.

Sponsored by:   Middle East Committee (WAMM), Middle East Peace Now ,  Minnesota Peace Project, Twin Cities Peace Campaign, Women Against Military Madness

I signed the statement. I’ll be there again on April 24. It’s Holy Week. My faith was born on a cross, the Roman state’s instrument of torture and execution during a military occupation. I’m a disciple of the crucified Jesus. How can I do anything else?


A Sermon on Suffering

The post of my friend Steve Shoemaker’s poem “Murillo’s Christ after the Flagellation” and the comments that you posted prompted the sermon I delivered this morning at Shepherd of the Hill Presbterian Churchin Chaska, MN. The sermon never would have happened without your thoughtful, penetrating comments on the earlier post. THANK YOU. Here’s the sermon.


“Now the men who were holding Jesus mocked him and beat him; they also blindfolded him and asked him ‘Prophesy! Who was it that struck you?’ And they spoke many other words against him and reviled him.”  Gospel of Luke 22:63

Two months ago I created a blog. One of my seminary classmates, Steve Shoemaker, wrote the other day to say that he was impressed by how prolific I was. I thought maybe he meant “wordy” until he said that my productivity embarrassed his laziness as a poet. So, he said, “Here’s the deal I’ve made with myself. For every piece you put up on your blog, I’ll write a poem.” Steve is 6’8 and a basketball player in college. Clearly, he hasn‘t lost his competitive spirit.

A poem arrived last Friday. It’s a reflection on a painting by sixteenth century Spanish artist Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. In the painting, Jesus is bent over on all fours after he being mocked and beaten.

Christ after the Flagellation

Steve’s poem, “Murillo’s Christ after the Flagellation” changed the direction of the sermon this morning.  Here’s the poem.

The human had been tied to the whipping

post, a pillar that had been used many

times before by the Romans (and ages

earlier by the Greeks–but for a much

different purpose). Now, his pale skin looks

translucent (should it not have been darker,

with more blood?) His mother recalled his bris.

They had both cried then, too.

A strong young man, broad back, thick arms, now on

hands and knees, but head raised with eyes open:

seeing a cross that’s even worse ahead…

Still, unflinching, resigned–no, determined

to go on, face more pain, indignities,

shame, even death (there is no sign of God.)

Shortly there arrived a brief comment from a blogger who blogs about the daily struggle with mental illness.

“This poem brought tears to my eyes.”

Score one for my friend Steve.

Later in the day another comment arrived on the blog in response to Steve’s poetry. Like the first comment, this one also comes from someone with a history of some kind of long-term suffering. It reads as follows.

I have a response to the stories of Christ’s beating that often leaves others aghast. So brace yourselves:

He was beaten for several hours, or a day or two? Big deal. Those of us who have suffered years of abuse and terror know what real suffering is.

I don’t find focusing on Jesus’ suffering, or any of that 12 stages of the cross crap, to be helpful at all. I find it to be insulting. As if there is something noble and glorious about suffering. Nope, not a damn thing to recommend it. I know that Jesus voluntarily placed himself in the position for that to happen. So? Doesn’t help.

Please, fellow readers, don’t think that I am an isolated one, or few. There are lots and lots of us feeling this way.

The world is full – FULL – of people who have suffered much worse for decades or lifetimes. Think of people who live in North Korea. Or poor girls growing up in India. Or young girls in Fundamentalist Church of the Latter Day Saints settlements who get married off to much older men and are then raped daily for the rest of their lives. Jesus’ few days of humiliation are nothing in comparison.

The Lenten/Easter season is my favorite church season because I am reminded of how deeply I am loved and how quickly I am forgiven. Jesus’ brief beating plays no role in that….

The writer is hardly alone in his thinking about this. What do we say about those whose tenures of torture and suffering far exceed the relatively short period of Jesus’ suffering?  Is focusing on Jesus’s suffering and the stations of the cross insulting to those who have suffered, and continue to suffer, for decades or for a lifetime?

How would you reply to the writer?

Here’s how I responded:

Your thoughtful response calls for an equally thoughtful reply. So I’ll try.

The cross, in my theology, in no way minimizes or disrespects the suffering of others. Nor does it say, as it is too often understood by sacrificial atonement theology, that suffering itself is noble or glorious. The cross was an instrument of Roman torture and execution. The Jesus who was tortured and executed, as were thousands of his Jewish contemporaries, is not somehow God masquerading in human flesh. That being said, moving the cross to the sidelines of Christian faith and reflection is, in my view, a mistake. Well meaning because it reacts against the twisted theology that understood it to be separate from, and above, all other human suffering, but mistaken nonetheless.

When I look at the cross, I see all these people. And I see myself there as both the crucified and the crucifier. What I see in the crucifix is total abandonment. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!” And in some way I hear not only the cry of Jesus but the cry of the God Dietrich Bonhoeffer described as the Divine Center we push to the edge of the world.  I see in the Christ-event the tragedy and the hope of the divine-human encounter.

Sebastian Moore (The Crucified Jesus Is No Stranger and The Inner Loneliness) and Joseph Campbell awakened me to this richer Christology. Moore: “We have to think of God as closer to our evil than we ever dare to be. We have to think of God not as standing at the end of the way we take when we run away from our evil in the search for good, but as taking hold of us IN our evil, as the sore point which the whole idealistic thrust of man is concerned to avoid

“Redemption through the blood of Christ is (wrongly!) interpreted as the bending of Reality itself to man’s great dream of himself. And it is exactly the reverse. It is the ending of the dream. It is the beautiful collapse of the whole enterprise. It is the invasion of man by himself, with God at the center as love.” (Bolding added  for emphasis.)

Closer to home, another great theologian, my wife, Kay, reflected on the cross the other night at a Lenten series on “The Place of the Cross”:

“The Apostle Paul used to talk about all of his theology in terms of transformation at the foot of the cross. If a theological insight couldn’t go to the foot of the cross and be transformed there, then it wasn’t of God. This darkness is not for lightweight faith statements or testimonies. The annihilation of all goodness and all love which takes place in the action of one human being in violence to another human being—it cannot be redeemed by any other force but God’s pure love. That is a faith statement that lives inside a vacuum until manifested. There is no meeting of love and abandonment, they are mutually exclusive realities. We are lost. Period. And if God is to find us, then it is all about God’s initiative.”

From today’s perspective, Moore’s language is too gender- specific, not inclusive. But the substance of his Christology is totally inclusive. We’re all there. Anything short of that either drifts off into a new utopian project or into some new rendition  of the power of positive thinking. The power of Christian theology is its gravitas: it doesn’t turn away.

I told the blogger, “Love to hear more…. Hope we can keep the conversation alive.”

Hours later, an email arrived from the second blogger who had watched “The Leper” on the blog saying s/he was moved and grateful for the sermon.

If I could sit down in a coffee shop or in a living room by the fire to continue the conversation, this is what I would say.

The cross of Jesus does not minimize other suffering. It casts a light backward and forward into all darkness for all time. From inside the light we see the darkness of all human violence and abuse, and at the foot of the cross, we look up to realize that the protest against the suffering we impose on others and our own self-imposed suffering – our own reviling of others and our reviling or ourselves — is not just our protest. It is God’s. It is the suffering of God at the hands of a godless world. And the word for “they reviled him” is the same as the word “blasphemed” him.  Whenever we treat others cruelly, or treat ourselves cruelly, we blaspheme God. We are reviling and whipping the back of God.

From Jesus’s cry to God – “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” – there comes an echo from the heavens: “My children, my children, why have you abandoned me? My children, how could you forsake Me?”

The cross calls for an end to the reviling of others and our own sorry self-flagellation, as though those we revile, or we ourselves, would be or should be beyond love’s reach.

Who is the “the human tied to the whipping post”? Who puts her there?

Will you join the suffering of the God who wants it all to stop? Will you rejoice in the inevitable, eternal reach of God’s love and redeeming grace?

Footnote: Here is Steve, the poet, among the Bristle Cone Pines at 11,000 feet in Colorado:

Steve Shoemaker


A fellow student at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, we’ve continued the friendship for 47 years. A published poet, Steve was the Senior Minister of the McKinley Presbyterian Church and Director of the McKinley Foundation (campus ministry) at the University of Illinois for many years. He hosts “Keepin’ the Faith” on WILL, Illinois Public Radio,. He and his wife, Nadja, a research biologist, live in a geo-thermally-heated house on the prairie outside Urbana, IL where his neighbors often spot Steve’s kites riding the winds of the prairie skies.