Living with Myself

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Antoni-de-melo

Anthony de Mello (1931-1937)

Living with myself is hard sometimes. Almost as hard as it is to live with me. I need lots of help to be a better person.

This morning, Anthony de Mello‘s and Dietrich Bonhoeffer‘s reflections featured in William Britton’s Wisdom from the Margins: Daily Readings brought me up short.

Saʿdī of Shiraz tells this story about himself: “When I was a child I was a pious boy, fervent in prayer and devotion. One night I was keeping vigil with my father, the Holy Koran on my lap. Everyone else in the room began to slumber, and soon was sound asleep. So I said to my father: ‘None of these sleepers opens his eyes or raises his heart to say his prayers. You would think that they were all dead.’ My father replied, ‘My beloved son, I would rather you were asleep like them than slandering.’” (Anthony de Mello, The Song of the Bird)

My own father and Saʿdī’s father were much the same. I can’t help wondering what Dad might say today of all the slandering and the sleeping.

To my unredeemed slandering heart and mind, the sleepers (those who refuse to stay awake to what is happening in America) are readily identifiable by their choice of a news channel. The sleepers, I say to myself, are not awake…like me. Oops! The voices of Saʿdī’s father and mine alert me to my habitual slandering. They call me to a lead a more gracious, fuller, life.

Bundesarchiv_Bild_146-1987-074-16,_Dietrich_Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945)

But the way of living with myself and others consciously and respectfully seems impossible. It’s not simple. Slander is a sin of commission. Consenting to evil is the sin of omission. One is still called to act, but without slandering.

“Who stands firm?” asked Dietrich Bonhoeffer from his German prison cell following a failed plot to assassinate Hitler to end World War II. “Only the one for whom the final standard is not his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom, his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all these, when in faith and sole allegiance to God he is called to obedient and responsible action: the responsible person, whose life will be nothing but an answer to God’s question and call” (Letters and Papers from Prison).

While the masses had fallen asleep to the horror of the German Third Reich, Bonhoeffer “stood firm” and paid the ultimate price — state execution — for committing the sin of commission: resistance to Hitler and mass madness and slaughter. One might suppose that a man like Bonhoeffer’s disdained the character of those who fell asleep. But it was this same Bonhoeffer who instructed the students of his underground seminary the lesson Saʿdī’ father and mine tried to teach us.

“By judging others, we blind ourselves to our own evil and to the grace to which others are just as entitled as we are” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship).

It’s hard to live with myself! I need all the help I can get. Bill Britton’s Wisdom from the Margins: Daily Readings is a hidden treasure worth the price for anyone feeling the need to “stand up” without slandering.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, on the wetland with the Trumpeter Swans, September 12, 2018.

The Paradox of Pentecost — Presence and Absence

A stranger than strange text for today’s Feast of Pentecost, the day the Church celebrates the coming of the Spirit, the Advocate, reads:

“I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you…” [Gospel according to John 16:7].

It is Jesus in John’s Gospel who speaks these words to his disciples. They scratch their heads, like confused children being dropped off at camp against their will. They already sense the homesickness that will come. The thought of being abandoned brings anguish, the foreboding of oncoming forlornness.

The experience of absence, endemic to the human condition, is essential to faith. The feeling of anguished forlornness builds courage, and faith, of one sort or another, with or without an advocate.

Enter Jean-Paul Sartre’s reflections on anguish and forlornness. Fully conscious without religious crutches, I experience the anguish of my responsibility for myself and others, and the forlornness that realizes that I am alone in my decision-making. The decisions are mine along. No one but I am responsible.

Like the disciples, we want it to be otherwise. Some of us pray as though the feelings were a hoax, the Devil’s trickery or God’s pre-ordaining, as though our course were charted by another decision-maker disbelieved by Sartre. But regardless of our faith or faith denials, the truth is that to be human is to know this sense of anguish and forlornness.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the brilliant theologian imprisoned and executed by the Third Reich, caught the sense of it in a letter he wrote from a prison cell.

“The only way to be honest is to recognize that we have to live in the world etsi deus non daretur. And this is just what we do see — before God! So our coming of age forces us to a true recognition of our situation visa a vis God. God is teaching us that we must live as [people] who can get along very well without him. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark 15:34). God who makes us live in the world without using him as a working hypothesis is the God before whom we are ever standing. Before God and with him we live without God. God allows himself to be edged out of the world and onto the cross. God is weak and powerless in the world, which is exactly the way, the only way, in which he can be with us and help us. Mark 8:17 makes it crystal clear that it is not by his omnipotence that Christ helps us, but by his weakness and his suffering.” [Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, pp 219-220, McMillan Company, 1953, translated from German by Reginald H. Fuller.]

Bonhoeffer’s writing acknowledges the anguish and forlornness that precede the disappearance of the divine usurper of human freedom and responsibility. In place of the bad-faith God who keeps her children in diapers, there comes the advantage of Christ’s going away — the arrival of the Advocate who brings the unexpected joy of coming of age.

“I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” [Gospel according to John 16:7].

– Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, May 24, 2015 – Feast of Pentecost.

God wounded in Paris

Today’s news from Paris is chilling. Still reeling from the Charlie Hebdo attack, hostages are taken in a Kosher (Jewish) market in Paris. Fear of extremist Islamic terrorism spreads across France.

During a gathering of twelve of us at The Reformed Roundtable in Indianapolis two days ago, South African anti-Apartheid leader  the Rev. Dr. Allan Boesak quoted none other than John Calvin, according to whom whenever a human being wounds another, God is wounded.

The killers and hostage-takers in Paris claim the name of Allah. Their abuse of the name is an affront to faithful Muslims who reject violence and terror as much as adherents of Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Religion itself, whatever its form and doctrine, is to be measured by its compassion.

Events in Paris remind me of Dr. Boesak’s statement and the Very Rev. James A. Whyte‘s sermon at the January 9, 1989 memorial service after Pan Am flight 103 carrying 259 passengers exploded over Lockerbie December 22, 1988. Eleven more were killed on the ground in the small town of Lockerbie.  The Church of Scotland reluctantly called it’s Moderator, James Whyte, out of mourning his wife’s death for his to preach at the memorial service for the victims of the terror at Lockerbie.

In that sermon he proposed a vexing answer to the vexing question: Where was God when the plane went down? “God,” he said, “was on the plane.” 

“Justice, yes; retaliation no,” he declared. “For if we move in the way of retaliation we move right outside of the fellowship of Christ’s suffering, outside of the Divine consolation. There is nothing that way but bitterness and the destruction of our own humanity.”

Four hundred years after Calvin’s statement and decades before James Whyte’s sermon at Lockerbie, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote the following from his prison cell before he was hanged by the Nazi’s whose “God” was without compassion. Bonhoeffer wrote as a disciple of Jesus, the Crucified, but his picture of God as suffering and the call to stand with God in God’s suffering int he world of human cruelty represents the compassionate faith shared by compassionate people of every stripe.

Christians range themselves with God in his suffering; that is what distinguishes them…. As Jesus asked in Gethsemane, “Could ye not watch with me one hour?” That is the exact opposite of what the religious man expects from God. Man is challenged to participate in the sufferings of God at the hands of a godless world. He must therefore plunge himself into the life of a godless world, without attempting to gloss over its ungodliness with a veneer of religion or try to transfigure it. He must live a ‘worldly” life and so participate in the suffering of God. He may live a worldly life as one emancipated from all false religions and obligations. To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way, to cultivate some particular form of asceticism (as a sinner, a penitent or a saint), but to he a man. It is not some religious act which makes a Christian what he is, but participation in the suffering of God in the life of the world.  [Bolded type added]

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison

Today God is wounded again…in Paris, and we participate in the suffering of God at the hands of a cruel world.

 

Reflections along the way of a terminal illness

Katie and Maggie sharing a moment of sadness. Maggie knew!

Katie and Maggie sharing a moment of sadness. Maggie knew!

Today, three years to the day after Katherine’s (“Katie’s”) death (May 9, 2010), we inter her cremains.

IT’S RAINING, IT’S POURING” was written the day we learned that Katie’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.”

Sermon: The Man of Silence

A sermon for Palm Sunday/ Passion Sunday at Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska, MN, reflecting on the passion of Jesus in light of the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Sermon: “Blogging on the Cross”

Sermon, Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church, Chaska, MN March 18, 2012.

Click HERE for the YouTube re-broadcast.

The Leper

Ever been a leper? I have. I still am.

Lepers are people separated from the mainstream society. Isolated. Beaten. Pushed to the side. Shamed. Ashamed. I have met the leper many times. I meet him every morning shaving. I meet her as the abused woman, the taunted gay teenager, the child who has trouble in school, the sentenced murderer,  the hooker, the heroin addict, the young person and the tenured professor who took their own lives, the depressed, oppressed, repressed, and suppressed souls who live in quiet despair. Sometimes we break the chains of the psychic and social code. Sometimes we move out of the leper colony, push our way through the crowd and cry out.

That’s what this sermon is about.  Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska, MN.

Let me know what you think. Better yet, let me know what you feel. Peace.

 

On and off my rocker

My Rocking Chair

My Amish Rocker

“WHY, in a world filled with yelling and screaming, would you ‘PREACH’? Are you off your rocker?”

I can’t help it. I’m a preacher. I have to preach. But it’s the time in the rocking chair that matters most, times when I sit in Jacob Miller’s Amish rocker preparing for Sunday that I love the most. Jacob made the rocker just for me in his Amish shop in Millersburg, Ohio on a farm that spoke volumes about peace and love.

I approach the pulpit in fear and trembling, knowing that it is sacred space where people expect to hear a different kind of word, its sacredness only as real as the humanity that walks into it. The requirements of preaching result in a daily discipline: a fresh cup of strong coffee with the Scriptures in one hand the newspaper in the other.

We live in a crazy world where religion is a source of great sorrow as well as a source of joy. Religion divides and religion unites. It opens us up to the Other, or it walls us off. It broadens us or narrows us.  It increases our circulation or it constricts our arteries.

Not long ago American Christians seemed to take for granted that Christianity and our country were simply flip sides of the same coin (a curious blending of the Judeo-Christian idea of an “elect” people and the national misappropriation of Jesus’ “city set upon a hill”  as a light to the other nations). That bogus idea is dead, but the news is still reaching our ears, like the news of the town crier in Frederich Nietzsche’s The Gay Science:

Have you heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly, “I seek God! I seek God!” As many of those who do not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter…Whither is God,” he cried. “I shall tell you. We have killed him – you and I.   All of us are murderers…. God is dead.  God remains dead. And we have killed him….

– Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (1882), Section 126.

That god is already dead, but the message is still reaching our ears. The death of this god “clears the decks for the God of the Bible,” wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer in a letter from a prison cell July 18, 1944 before his execution by the Third Reich:

Christians range themselves with God in his suffering; that is what distinguishes them….  As Jesus asked in Gethsemane, “Could ye not watch with me one hour?” That is the exact opposite of what the religious man expects from God. Man is challenged to participate in the sufferings of God at the hands of a godless world. He must therefore plunge himself into the life of a godless world, without attempting to gloss over its ungodliness with a veneer of religion or try to transfigure it. He must live a ‘Worldly” life and so participate in the suffering of God. He may live a worldly life as one emancipated from all false religions and obligations. To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way, to cultivate some particular form of asceticism (as a sinner, a penitent or a saint), but to he a man. It is not some religious act which makes a Christian what he is, but participation in the suffering of God in the life of the world.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison

I’m no Dietrich Bonhoeffer. But his words and life frame the way I look at the world. To whatever extent the sermons and commentaries that appear here reflect Bonhoeffer’s spirit, I am grateful to him and to others who have shaped my ministry: Ted Campbell, Paul Louis Lehmann, Lewis Briner, William Sloan Coffin, Jack Stotts, William Stringfellow, James Cone, Sebastian Moore, and a host of others. When my attempts fail to keep faith with their examples, they reflect my shortcomings and foibles. If and when any of them manages to speak a Word through my human frailty, it is because I have stood on their shoulders on the watchtower, grasped again by the Spirit of the Living God.

“I will take my stand to watch, and station myself on the tower, and look forth to see what G-d will say to me, and what G-d will answer concerning my complaint. And the LORD answered me, ‘Write the vision; make it plain…so those who run may read it. For still the vision awaits its time….'” (Habakkuk 2:1-3a)

Jacob Miller’s Amish rocker is my watchtower. A cup of coffee, Habakkuk, and the morning newspaper. Thank you, Jacob, for the place to be on your rocker when I’m about to go off mine!

“The Leper” sermon video

Given today’s story about Lesbian Presbyterian Pastor Jane Spahr and Lisa Bove, and comments made on Huffington Post’s story,that impugn the authenticity of gay and lesbian clergy and others who read the Bible differently, last Sunday’s Sermon “The Leper” is posted here for all who would like a more generous way of living the faith.

Whitney Houston, the Leper, and Us

Two news stories caught my eye this week: The death of Whitney Houston and Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton’s visit to the Hospital for the Criminally Insane in St. Peter, Minnesota. The New Testament Gospel text for this morning was the story of Jesus and the leper (Mark 1:40-45). The title of the Sermon was simply “THE LEPER” preached at Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church, Chaska Minnesota, February 12, 2012. Here’s the text of the sermon:

Just another leper,

the better left unseen.

“Surely it is their own fault

for not keeping clean.”

Just another AIDS case

now hidden well away,

“They must have brought it on themselves

promiscuous or gay.”

 Just another boat person

sponging on me and you,

“They’ve only got themselves to blame

by trying to jump the queue.”

Just another drug addict

shooting up behind the shed,

“Don’t waste your pity on such trash

they’re better off dead.”

Just one determined Jesus

coming through our lands,

welcoming all the unclean mob

with warm, saving hands.

–      Copyright B D Prewer 2002, “Lepers, Jesus and Us”

Who is the leper?  Could he be me? Could he be you?

I’ve spent a lot of time with the leper.  I live inside his body. The sense of nausea with my own sorry self, and I’ve met him a thousand times in the same sense of leprosy I’ve experienced in the lives of others.

This disease is part of the human condition itself. The sense that there’s something wrong with us, something that doesn’t belong, isn’t worthy, needs to stay hidden, closed off from the rest of the world, a leper kept at arms length from full participation in the fullness of life.

Sometimes the disease is so clear it slaps you in the face.  We see it clearly in others.

Whitney Houston, that beautiful soul – the god-daughter of Aretha Franklin and cousin of Dione Warwick – is found dead somewhere in Beverly Hills. “Cause of death unknown.” But what we do know is that she struggled for years with the horrors of addiction, this sense of isolation and self-accusation that was the lot of the leper who came to Jesus that day.

Some of the lepers are people of fame and apparent success, like Whitney.

Others are people of infamy. Like the psychotic mother who took the life of her nine-year-old son when the voices told her to kill him. As we did at The Legal Rights Center, we took her case not because she was innocent, but because she was a human being – the most obvious of lepers, a decrepit sinner who had stabbed her son more than a hundred times. She had gone off her medication, and the “voices of the Devil” had taken over. After rhe State had committed her to the Minnesota Department of Corrections’ Hospital for the Criminally Insane, a sorry place, if ever there was one, I visited her. I listened to her sobs. I watched the tears streaming down her face, looking through the glass of the prison visitation room tha t stood between us. The walls of her inner prison were thicker and higher than the walls of the hospital that housed her. Back on the medication that put her back in her right mind, she was inconsolable, a leper who could never undo what the voices had told her to do.

But it’s not just the likes of Whitney,whose sense of leprosy was hidden by success, or the likes of Mary, the pitiful victim of criminally insanity, who is the leper.

We all are.

Listen to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the great heroes of the Christian faith, in words of Voices in the Night, preserved from his prison cell where he was imprisoned for his participation in a failed conspiracy to assassinate Adolf Hitler. He is alone in the middle of the night, restless, ill at ease, in dis-ease, you might say, with the dis-ease of spiritual leprosy, lying there, listening in the night for the sounds inside and beyond the prison.

         Night and silence.

Only footsteps and shouts of the guards.

Do you not hear it in this silenced house,

Shaking, breaking and collapsing,

As hundreds kindle the glowing ember of their hearts?

Their songs they hide,

My ears are open wide.

“We who are old, and we who are young,

We children of every tongue,

We who are strong, and we who find it hard,

We who sleep, and we who guard,

We who are poor, and we who have all,

         Together into failure fall, (italics mine)

We who are good and we who are unclean,

Whatever we have been,

We…with scars we cannot hide,

We witnesses of those who died,

We who are defiant and we who are bemused,

By long isolation, sorely abused.

            Brother, we seek and call for thee!

            Brother, do you hear me?”

Who was the man who broke the rules to force his way through the clean crowd, shouting “Unclean! Unclean!”  while he coveed his face until he got to Jesus?

Could he be me? Could he be you?

“If you will it,” he says to Jesus, “you can make me clean!”

And stretching out his hand with great compassion, he touches the untouchable, and says, “I will!  Be clean!”

“Just one determined Jesus coming through our lands, welcoming all the unclean mob with warm, saving hands.” And the cleansed man ran and told everyone what Jesus had done for him.

How about you?