Warning: Danger Ahead

If you’re interested in a homiletic case consistent with Bernie Sanders, check out the Rev. Ed Martin’s sermon at Shepherd of the Hill Church in Chaska, MN. It’s superb.

A Disciple for Our Times

Thomas has been much maligned. Faith includes both belief and doubt. Belief without doubt is gullible. Doubt without belief does not exist. Here’s the sermon from last Sunday at Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska, MN.

Verse – No doubt

No Doubt

I know he is guilty,
I know what he did.
He was wrong,
He was wicked,
He lied and deceived.
I’ll never forgive him,
I’ll never forget.
My resentment I’ll
Hold in my heart
Till I shrivel and die.
I know I am innocent,
I know I am right.

“The opposite of faith
is not doubt–
the opposite of faith
is certainty.”*

* Anne Lamott

– Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL, April 28, 2014

The First Duty of Love

Paul Johannes Tillich

This morning’s crossword quote is from theologian Paul Tillich:

“The first duty of love is to listen.”

To learn more about Paul Tillich click THIS LINK.

Most weeks I return to the works of Tillich. Paul Tillich has rescued many a faith, including my own, when doubt had been mis-perceived to be faith’s enemy.

“Doubt is not the enemy of faith; it is one element of faith.”

– Paul Tillich, The Dynamics of Faith

Tillich’s statement about faith and doubt go hand-in-glove with listening as the first duty of love. If you missed “Staying Together” on Views from the Edge’s, scroll down.  Steve’s poem puts these two Tillich quotes into practice of listening. Here’s a sip:

“Listen, learn, respect, rephrase, repeat

before you even start to speak.”

I Live with doubt

I live with doubt

A hymn by Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL, In honor of John Newton (1725-1807), author of “Amazing Grace.”

I live with doubt:  my faith is weak,
Dark clouds are what I see.
A God of love is all I seek,
Can such a good God be?

The world is full of greed and lies,
Of war and talk of war.
Can any savior hear my cries
And hope and peace restore?

When Jesus met the man born blind,
He touched his eyes with clay.
He bid him wash and he did find
His sight and a new day,

The sun breaks through, I see ahead
My task to feed the poor.
I still have doubts, but grace instead
Of fear I feel much more!

My thoughts and feelings come and go
Like sun dissolves the snow;
But God is firm, and now I see,
That God has faith in me.
Garrison Keillor’s “The Writer’s Almanac”posting on the anniversary of the birthday of John Newton, converted slave ship captain, prompted Steve to write these stanzas in honor of the author of “Amazing Grace.”  Steve’s hymn can be sung to the same tune. The meter is the same.

A Song from the Cross?

“Before 1400 A. D., all music sung in church was in 3/4 time–the Trinity, you know…” –  OLLI class on Madrigals.

“A Song from the Cross?” – Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL, March 22, 2012

On the cross, Jesus sang (maybe) the first words from the XXII Psalm,

(most Psalms were sung by the Jews), “My God, my God, Why have you forsaken me?”

The words showed his humanity:

doubt, fear, loneliness.  That he (perhaps) sang, showed divinity.

These words being in the Bible at all are one more reason we can trust

the Bible to tell us what happened:  if this was made up, it would

have been Psalm XXIII put in his mouth, “The Lord is my shepherd…”

If Jesus sang then, why does the Gospel writer not tell us he did?

I propose because everybody knew then that most Psalms were sung.

And music surrounded Jesus:  angel choirs at his birth, and the

disciples singing a hymn with him at the last supper…

Before my mother died four months ago at (almost) 91, we sang together

old church songs for kids:  “Jesus Loves Me,” “Jesus Loves the Little

Children, All the Children of the World.”

It comforts me to think that Jesus might also have sung before he died…

Doubting Thomas

Thomas “the doubter” – Thomas “the Twin” – is my favorite Apostle. He is I. I am he.

Why do I love Thomas?  He’s slow to believe. There are many doubts, too much conflicting evidence that begs the questions. The questions come easily. The answers come harder and are few. “Unless I see the nail prints in his hands and place my own hand where the soldier’s sword had pierced his side,” said Thomas to the too credulous others in the Upper Room, “I will not believe.”

This Holy Thursday “I believe. Lord, help my unbelief.”

Poem “THOMAS THE TWIN” – Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL, April 4, 2012

To be a twin is to prove every day

How seeing is not believing.  And so,

Of course, I doubted when my friends would say

Many had seen the Lord.  I said, “If so,

A finger in his nail-pierced hand or where

Sword cut his side will prove he lives for sure.”

Then Jesus came into the room and said

He would let me touch him!  My doubt then was

Overcome by his presence.  And he said

Many would be blessed who believed he was

Alive without the benefit of sight…

Seeing may not lead us into the light.

Tonight, Holy Thursday, at 7:00 p.m. Shepherd of the Hill we will gather around the Lord’s Table. Ruth Janousek has drawn us at the Table.

God's Table at Shepherd of the Hill

God's Table at Shepherd of the Hill

Following the simplest Service of Holy Communion, the church will be darkened, lit only by candles held by individual worshiper representing the light of faith. As the Gospel narratives are read aloud … with long silences between them…the candles will be blown out, one by one, as the worshipers recognize ourselves in the story of the betrayal, denial, and flight of the Jesus’ closest friends and followers. It’s an ancient service called Tenebrae, the service of light and shadow.  By the end of the readings, the room will be dark. The only light will be from the Christ candle – the light of God’s faithful mercy and grace that cannot be extinguished.

“Easter Morning”

Steve Shoemaker

It’s Monday of Holy Week. I’m walking with Jesus as best I can toward the cross and  toward the celebration of Easter. This year I’m walking with members of the congregation who are  suffering, in great pain, sick, dying people, trying the best I can to be with them fully in ways that, by the grace of God, might help. This is not head stuff. It’s heart stuff. I get tangled in my head too often. I open the morning email. There’s this double acrostic poem from my old friend Steve Shoemaker, the 6’8″ and shrinking Ph.D. kite-flyer theologian and poet. Thank you, Steve.EASTER MORNING

Either Jesus really did rise or

All his followers made up the worst

Series of lies in history…  Poor

Thomas certainly was right to doubt

Even after hearing tales:  what four

Reached the tomb (or five?)  Who saw him first?


Matthew says two women, Mark says three;

Or was it just one, as said by John?

Reports of what eye-witnesses can see

Never can be trusted.  Luke said one

In the road joined two who could not see–

Not until he broke the bread…  No one

Got the story straight! Conspiracy?


Even grade school kids could do as well.

And Luke throws in Peter saw him too–

Somewhere unreported…  Who could tell

That this jumble of accounts could do

Enough to give faith and hope to all.

Resurrection?  Who could think it true?


Maybe just the simple:  those whose eyes

Open to the light through grief, through tears…

Reminded of love, of truth, of grace…

Needing to be fed, hands out for bread…

Inspired by the scriptures, in whose head

Grow visions:  life can come from the dead.

I’m adding this visual: “Disciples John and Peter on their way to the tomb”:

Disciples John and Peter Run to the Tomb

Burnand, Eugène, 1850-1921. Disciples John and Peter on their way to the tomb on Easter morning, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.  http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55038 [retrieved April 2, 2012].

Steve and I would love to hear your reflections and responses to Steve’s poem or Burnand’s painting. Thanks for coming by.

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:


My mother died of cancer eight years ago. Her loss is still visceral. She is in every bird I see.


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.”