Fourth of July Sermon @ St. Timothy’s Chapel

St. Timothy’s Memorial Chapel, Southern Cross, Montana, July 3, 2004.

“Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight. It was full of violence,” wrote the Genesis writer. “The LORD was grieved that he had made man and His heart was full of pain.” (Genesis 6, the story of Noah and the flood)

The question this morning is: “Do we share God’s grief and heartbreak over the violence of our time?”

Elie Wiesel, the great novelist survivor of the Holocaust, who died yesterday, was familiar with God’s anguish. In his book Four Hasidic Masters, he wrote a tribute to a famous Hassidic Jewish rabbi known affectionately as Rebbe Barukh:

The beauty of Rebbe Barukh is that he
could speak of faith not as opposed to
anguish but as part of it. “Faith and the
abyss are next to one another,” he told
his disciple. “I would even say: one
within the other. True faith lies beyond
questions; true faith comes after it has
been challenged.
[Elie Wiesel]

Today across the world there is more than enough anguish to go around to challenge faith. But only faith that has faced the questions, only a faith that understands that it is not apart from the anguish is truly faith.

This Fourth of July weekend is one of those times to reflect on who we are as Christians and Americans in a world that teeters next to the abyss of violence and nothingness.

One month ago today, June 3rd, Kay and I arrived in Paris. When we arrived at the apartment we’d rented through Vacation Rental by Owners, we were struck immediately by the bookcases lining the long hallway, the living room, dining room and bedroom walls. Some of the books stood out as particularly beautiful — whole sections of beautiful red leather-bound volumes with gold Arabic calligraphy on the bindings.

Among the books was tucked away an award recognition from the University of the Philippines in recognition of Abdelwahab Meddeb, Professsor, University of Paris, for his wise counsel and assistance in creating an atmosphere of mutual respect and peaceful discourse among the different religions of the people of the Philippines.

Little did we know when we had rented the apartment that we would be staying in the apartment of the Tunisian-born Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Paris and former Visiting Professor at Yale — a Sufi poet and novelist who had published 20 books in French, two of which had been translated into English: The Malady of Islam and Islam and the Challenge of Civilization.

We learned from his daughter that Professor Meddeb had died in March, 2014, two months after being diagnosed with stage four cancer, but his wisdom was everywhere in that lovely apartment. After 9/11 he had devoted his writing and lecturing to a Koranic critique of Islamist extremism and the violence rooted in a flawed reading of the Koran.

In a book published by his friends and colleagues following his death, a professor from the University of Albany wrote that Meddeb’s “moral stance was best expressed by the words of Ibn ‘Arabi:

“I believe in the religion of love; whatever direction its caravan may take — for love is my religion and faith.”

Back in the States, my friend Steve Shoemaker put me in touch with Jane Kuntz, Meddeb’s English translator for Islam and the Challenge of Civilization. Steve had interviewed her on “Keepin’ the Faith,” his weekly radio interview program on the University of Illinois Public Radio station. It’s a very small world!

His translator wrote to say how glad she was that we had been introduced to Abdelwahab, albeit too late, but that in one way it was perhaps a blessing that he had died before the ISIL attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the Paris night club. “They would have broken his heart,” she said.”

“Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight. It was full of violence,” wrote the Genesis writer. “The LORD was grieved that he had made man and His heart was full of pain.”

________

Shift now to our first Saturday morning in Paris. We step outside the Meddebs’ apartment building to wait for an Uber.

Two French soldiers with machine guns across their chests are guarding the building next door. We wonder why they’re there — next to the professor’s apartment building.

I ask one of the soldiers. “Terrorism?” “Qui,” he says. “Jews.”

They’re guarding the synagogue.

A man walks by, ignoring us and talking loudly into the air. “Crazy man,” says the soldier. He points to the taser he will use on the crazy man if he becomes a nuisance or threat. It occurs to me that the whole world is no less crazy than the crazy man.

The French soldier’s English is much better than my French. He asks where I’m from. I tell him I’m from the United States. He asks where. I tell him Minnesota. He knows where Minnesota is in the U.S. “I like the U.S.A.,” he says, “Patriotic!”

I wonder what he has in mind. I wonder how a 20-something-year-old French soldier guarding a Jewish synagogue against a Islamist extremist terrorist attack in Paris next to the Islamic French professor’s home defines patriotism.

My mind flashes back home to my grandchildren in the U.S., wondering what kind of people they will become.

I wonder whether Jack, Mimi, and Ruby are they learning the faith that participates in the grief and pain of God over the world’s violence? Is their young faith the kind that is not opposed to anguish, but part of it? Does it sit next to the abyss? Will they grow into a faith that is mature because it has been challenged?

That likelihood is challenged by a fundamentalist alternative to that kind of faith near where they live in Kentucky.

A new theme park called Ark Encounter opens its gates to the public this Thursday, July 7.

Ark Encounter was developed by Answers in Genesis, the same faith-based for-profit corporation that developed The Creation Museum showing humans and dinosaurs living together on a planet that’s 6,000 years old, a kind of Disneyland for the biblically and scientifically illiterate. Answers in Genesis willfully disregards the Cro Magnon caves in France Kay and I visited — magnificent paintings by our human ancestors that date back 17,000 years — 11,000 years before Answers in Genesis and the Creation Museum claim the planet was created.

If Jack, Mimi, and Ruby go the literalist routs of The Creation Museum and Ark Encounter, they might find himself like the little boy who asked whether Noah did a lot of fishing on the ark.

“No,” he said, “because they only had two worms!”

While my grandchildren’s friends are being bussed to see the young giraffes in Noah’s ark — “We think that God would probably have sent healthy juvenile-sized animals that weren’t fully grown yet,” said the head of the Ark Encounter project, “so there would be plenty of room.” I hope Jack, Mimi, and Ruby stay off the busses and learn to read the Bible literately, not literally.

More than one person’s faith has been destroyed by encounters that pit faith against reason.

Of equal concern on this Fourth of July weekend is the relation of church and state. The State of Kentucky has granted $18 million dollars in tax breaks to a religious theme park, a case still in the federal courts. Meanwhile, the State of Kentucky has already spent millions of tax-payers money expanding the entrance and exit ramps from the interstate to and from Ark Encounter.

The value of a secular republic here in the United States and in France where religious freedom is guarded by Constitutional guarantees against the establishment of any one religion over is in danger. The French soldiers were protecting a vulnerable religious minority as a way of exercising the French constitution’s guarantees of religious freedom.

The issue is not only in Paris, Kentucky, Syria, Afghanistan, or Iraq. It’s everywhere people read their sacred literature literally, calling for their own versions of jihad in God’s name instead of reading them the way they are meant to be read: literately. The text may be sacred literature but it is literature. It does not substitute for thoughtful inquiry that challenges it.
“Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight. It was full of violence,” wrote the Genesis writer. “The LORD was grieved that he had made man and His heart was full of pain.”

The question this morning is whether we share God’s grief and heartbreak over the violence of our time. Will we shrink faith to the size of certainty apart from God’s anguish, swallowing the camel of violence while straining a gnat, or will we join Jesus and the Professor from Paris in affirming the generosity and kindness which is true religion?

“I believe in the religion of love; whatever direction its caravan may take — for love is my religion and faith.”

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Guest Minister-in-Residence, St. Timothy’s Memorial Chapel, Southern Cross, MT, July 3, 2016

Hope from the Bowels of Forsakenness

Vulnerable. Weak. Lonely. Frightened. Anxious. Forlorn. Forsaken.

The hospitalized teenager suffering a sudden, undiagnosed illness of the bowels, wondering whether he’s dying, fearful there is no cure, came to my attention during the day. The consciousness of it remain through the night. Awakening in the morning, I look for something that will speak to the helpless feeling of his parents and grandparents.

Opening the Psalter, the opening verse of Psalm 22 leaps from the page — “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” — the tortured cry from the cross Jesus quoted many centuries after Psalm 22 had embedded itself in the collective consciousness of the Jewish people.

That the Newer Testament Gospels would put these words on Jesus’s lips is, it strikes me this morning, a Jewish code to look deeper for something much more complex, both tragically realistic and surprisingly hopeful in the psalm’s entirety. Though the forsakenness cry repeats itself immediately — “Why are You so far from helping me, and from the words of my groaning?” — Psalm 22 goes on to recall poetically the existential-spiritual history of Israel’s suffering at the hands of the nations and its deliverance from the same, ending with “They (i.e., our descendants) shall come and make known to a people yet unborn the saving deeds that He has done.”

Jesus’s cry from the cross strikes me as the kind of cry we might read or hear in the writings of Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel – honest yet faithful to the Jewish tradition because the tradition itself expresses the horror of god-forsakenness and faith in the absent God at the same time.

Jesus on the cross has this history in his bowels and his bones. The teenager in the hospital has no active faith community, no wisdom tradition or practice, except for the faith and prayers of his grandparents whose faith has been kept at a distance for many years.

The week before learning of the teenager’s plight I had been filled with questions about another young man: the 26 year-old who gunned down the nine students in Oregon who suffered a nano-second of god-forsakenness in the classrooms where they had presumed to be safe from death at the community college that became their execution chamber. The grizzly scene of the shooter asking people about their faith, telling those who rose that they were about to meet their Maker, chilled me to the bone, raising the question of what the shooter’s experience of Christians had been that would so fill him with anger at them and their religion. Was he one of the many in America who, for reasons explainable or inexplicable, feel forsaken and despised? Alone. Isolated. Scorned. Forlorn. Angry.

To be human is to be intrinsically vulnerable. We are all at risk; all headed inevitably toward death. We are not immortal, eternal, timeless, invulnerable. Was the young man turned executioner mocking his death row victim’s belief in an afterlife? Was he saying loudly that there is nothing on the other side of death – a message to the world that this is all there is and that religion is a cruel hoax?

Death is our common lot, but the irony is that it does not wait until the end; it takes hold of us in the middle – between birth and death – as much as at the end. The foreshadowing of it sends us running for cover, running for relief, for an escape. It appears under the guises of control, power, invulnerability. Sometimes its disguise is a pistol or an assault rifle. Other times its disguise is religion that entertains illusions of immortality, belief systems that include and exclude, like “are you a Christian?”

This morning I’m freshly struck by the entire Psalm whose first line has echoed through the centuries every Good Friday: “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachtani?” —“My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?”. I’m wishing our bowels could hear it, feel it, digest it, weep it, and find the hope and trust that smiles the conviction that the forsakenness we feel is not the final word.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN October 8, 2015

Do not forget! We ARE Nature – Nature Is Us

Text of sermon on sanity and madness visa a vis ourselves (homo sapiens) and the rest of nature preached at Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska, MN.

We need stories to keep us sane in a culture whose sanity is madness.

In Souls on Fire Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Peace Prize concentration camp survivor, tells the story of “prophetic madness” that challenges the collective madness of a people who ignore the coming calamity of impending crop failure. “Good people…What is at stake,” says the prophetic messenger, “is your life, your survival! The summons falls on deaf ears and the calamity of starvation is not averted.”

Wiesel concludes, “God loves madmen. They’re the only ones he allows near him.

Late in the year of 1964 a young geography student working toward his doctorate came upon a grove of Bristlecone Pines while doing research searching on Ice Age glaciers.

Wheeler Peak, on Nevada’s eastern border with Utah, reaches an altitude of 13,063 feet with a spectacular glacial cirque on its northeast side. Wheeler Peak cycles through five life zones, from the hot stony desert to alpine tundra, all within a five mile line. Along the edge of this cirque is the home of colossal bristlecone pines. Standing as they have for millennia, in their fields of stone, they overlook the desert far below.

When this student and his associate came upon the bristlecones at the timberline, they began to take core samples from several trees, discovering one to be over 4,000 years old! Needless to say they were excited, and at some point, their only coring tool broke. The end of the field season was nearing. They asked for, and were granted permission, by the U.S. Forest Service to cut the tree down.

They had just cut down one of the oldest living organism on the planet. An earlier group of researchers at Wheeler Peak and given names to the these ancient creatures whose lives reach back to the third century before Christ. They had named some of these trees. Ancient names like Socrates and Buddha. And then there was Prometheus, named after the god in Greek mythology who was punished for stealing fire from the gods and giving it to humankind. Zeus has Prometheus chained to a rock for an eternity of perpetual torment.

It was the tree named after Prometheus that the geology students had killed. They had cut down a tree that was 4,844 year old.

What happened that day on Wheeler Peak is now viewed as a kind of martyrdom by some of the Bristlecone Pine researchers – in inexplicable horror of Prometheus’ death served to save the other Bristlecone Pines from extinction at human hands. You might even say it is to the Bristlecone Pines what the cross of Jesus is to the human species, a death that brings life to the rest of us.

The death of a 4,844 year-old tree and the death of Christ are two sides of a single coin. The death of Prometheus at the tree line on Wheeler Peak is the death of nature at human hands. The death of Jesus on The Hill of Skulls is the death of humankind itself, and out of both deaths, by God’s grace alone, a new human awareness – a new humanity within nature – is awakened.

In the death of that old Bristlecone Pine the other researches came to a new appreciation of nature itself. Not only its magnificence. Not only our dependence upon nature. But our oneness with nature. Homo sapiens do not stand above nature; we stand within it. We are nature; nature is us.

Elie Wiesel reminds us that there are two kinds of madness. There is the societal madness that continues business as usual but is actually insane; the other is what he calls “prophetic” madness that challenges the madness which sees the Earth as a landfill or playground with no value in itself apart from its use to us. Prophetic madmen cry out, “Good people, do not forget! What is at stake is your life, your survival! Do not forget!”

As we remember that story out of which our faith awareness is born around the Lord’s Table, I close with another story from Elie Wiesel.

When the great Rabbi Israel Baal Shem-Tov saw misfortune threatening the Jews it was his custom to go into a certain part of the forest to meditate. There he would light a fire, say a special prayer, and the miracle would be accomplished and the misfortune averted.

Later, when his disciple, the celebrated Magid of Mezritch, had occasion, for the same reason, to intercede with heaven, he would go to the same place in the forest and say, “Master of the Universe, listen! I do not know how to light the fire, but I am still able to say the prayer.” And again the miracle would be accomplished.

Still later, Rabbi Moshe-Leib of Sasov, in order to save his people once more, would go into the forest and say, “I do not know how to light the fire, I do not know the prayer, but I know the place ad this must be sufficient.” It was sufficient and the miracle was accomplished.

Then it fell to Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn to overcome misfortune.

Sitting his his armchair, his head in his hands, he spoke to God: “I am unable to light the fire and I do not know the prayer; I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is to tell the story, and this must be sufficient. And it was sufficient.

God made man because he loves stories.

Remember, Good people. Do not forget. God loves “prophetic madmen” who challenge the madness. Remember Prometheus. Remember the Hill of Skulls. Do not forget. We are not above nature. We are part of nature; nature is us. Thanks be to God.

 

 

 

 

 

Climate Change: Changing the Way we Think

Video

“We are nature; nature is us. We are NOT the exception to nature.” Rev. Gordon Stewart looks at basic religious assumptions of Western culture and the need to reinterpret the stories that got us here. He looks at the stories of creation, Cain and Abel, and the Wise Men who “departed by another way” as holding clues to the change in consciousness that is required in our time.

The Gift of Encouragement

“You’re going to like Via Lucis this morning,” said Kay, as I came down for coffee.

She knows that I share much in common with the Hasidic rabbis described in Elie Wiesel’s Four Hasidic Masters and their Struggle against Melancholy. Like Rabbe Barukh of Medzebozh, anguish is part of my faith and character. “Faith and the abyss are next to one another,” said Barukh to one of his students. There are times, especially lately, when the abyss has been so close that I have considered silence, not speech and not writing, to be the better part of wisdom.

One of the benefits of creating Views from the Edge has been the discovery of Dennis Aubrey and PJ McKey through their blog Via Lucis Photography. Their posts speak to me in the way that little else does, in no small part, I think, because they combine art photography, careful research, and exquisite commentary on the Romanesque and Gothic church architecture. Their work elevates the discussion in a world filled with so many needless words. Their post this morning (click below on “Our Personal Favorites” left me speechless, humbled, and encouraged. Thank you, PJ and Dennis. One of these days we’ll meet face-to-face.

Our Personal Favorites.

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.”

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.”

Elie Wiesel on Mormon Proxy Baptisms

Elie Wiesel, Nobel Prize and Pulitzer Prize winning author and survivor of the Holocaust, has called on Mitt Romney to join him in calling on the Church of Latter Day Saints (“Mormons”) to stop baptizing Jews who have died.  I wrote the following comment on the Huffington Post story:

We’re taught, and rightly so, to be respectful of religions and views different from our own. But that does not erase the responsibility to think critically about one’s beliefs and practices or those of others. I have the greatest respect for Elie Wiesel and am grateful to him for exposing a practice that insults every Jew, every Christian, every Muslim, every Buddhist, everyone who could not in good conscience embrace any religion at all, by imposing Mormon baptism. Nothing could be more arrogant. The proxy baptisms are not the only beliefs and practices that deserve thoughtful examination. More troublesome to me is the underlying Mormon assumptions that make the United States of America the very center of all human history – the alleged geography of a real Garden of Eden (in Missouri) and of the Second Coming of Christ (also in Missouri). As much as the proxy baptisms, those beliefs should send chills down the spines of everyone whose God belongs to no one nation, no one culture, no one religion – the God of the heavens and the Earth “Whose ways are not our ways and Whose thoughts are not our thoughts.”

An earlier commentary on the matter (posted earlier) addresses the matter moer fully. It’s a reflection that includes a visit to the Mormon Visitation Center in NYC. Let me know what you think.

The God of American Exceptionalism

Gordon C. Stewart          February 7, 2012

Jacket of My People Is the Enemy

“The stairway smelled of piss….

This [a tenement apartment in East Harlem] was to be my home.  I wondered, for a moment, why. Then I remembered that this is the sort of place in which most people live, in most of the world, for most of the time. This or something worse. Then I was home.”  – William Stringfellow, My People Is the Enemy: An Autobiographical Polemic.

I’ve been holding my breath, wrestling with whether to speak aloud what I hear and see.

I’m a disciple of Jesus, a Christian, in the debt to the bold witness of the late William Stringfellow, lay theologian. I’m also a religious pluralist. I believe with Chief White Calf of the Blackfeet that there is not just one way, there are many sides to the mountain and many paths on which the Divine Mystery is experienced.

I have learned over the years to respect the multiplicity of ways different sides of the mountain experience the living God. I work hard to understand my Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, and Jewish neighbors. I often experience these discussions as encounters with God whose vastness, like the ocean, is so much greater than any of the tea cups in which we hold a few drops of the sea.

I also know that some forms of religion are just plain nuts. The religion of Jim Jones whose followers drank the purple Kool Aid in shared suicide in the jungle of Guyana is only the most ludicrous example of why we need to join comedian Lewis Black’s raging objection to political distortions of the truth: “You can’t just make s—t up!” Religion represents the best and the worst of the human psyche (the Greek word for ‘soul’).

Joseph Campbell, among others, long ago opened the aperture on my theological camera. He helped me to see that what we are all dealing with, on all sides of the mountain, is myth, the human spirit’s uniquely creative meaning-making activity that expresses both the grandeur and the terror of finite experience. Myth is not the opposite of truth; it is the story that points us beyond ourselves to the transcendent and the eternal.

My way of looking at the world is shaped by a vast variety of voices. Among them are Fyodor Dostoevsky, Friedrich Nietzsche, Franz Kafka, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose experiences of the horror of the absence of God caused them to poke their fingers in the eyes of prevailing religious traditions whose tidy moral worlds turn God into a cosmic sadist.

Any religion worth its salt in the 21st century has to pass through the existential protests of these thinkers and of the shrieks and cries that still echo across the world from Auschwitz and Buchenwald that poke holes in every theory of a morally ordered universe. The Garden of Eden was lost a long time ago and, in the wake of the closing of the gates to it, any religion has to take account of the human history that looks much more like the trail of tears paved by Cain’s slaying of Abel than like two innocent people in Paradise before the fall.

Yet there is a deep longing for something more tangible, more trustworthy than myth. Something one can touch, see, feel, smell – a story that is not a story but fact. The longing is strongest when we experience great uncertainty and insecurity.

With this perspective, I have been looking again at the fastest growing religion in America, Mormonism, and the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (LDS).

My first experience with the Mormons came quite by accident thirty years ago. I was riding a bus in New York City on my way uptown to visit African-American theologian James Cone at Union Theological Seminary in Harlem when I noticed the sign “Mormon Visitation Center.”  Already stressed by an unfamiliar transit system and feeling quite alone, I decided to get off the bus and take the tour.

Unlike the streets outside that were filled with trash and lit by flashing neon signs, the Visitation Center was spick-and-span. Everything was in perfect order, complete with a hologram of a Mormon family in a tranquil woods sitting in a circle, listening to the white upper-middle-class family’s father sitting on a stump higher than the other members of the family, reading from the Book of Mormon to an enthralled wife and two perfect, obedient, happy children. The hologram elicited two responses. One was amazement. I had never seen or even heard of a hologram. The other was a sense of outrage at the perpetration of a promise that was, in short, nothing but a hologram, the illusionary projection of someone’s idea of Eden that would strike a chord with visitors who long for the lost woods of the Garden of Eden. It offered a world of perfection: orderly, tidy, white, rural – nothing like the urban world on the street outside – the antidote to the realities and complexities of life in New York City.

When I left the Mormon Visitation Center it never crossed my mind that the Mormon vision or mythology would become the fastest growing mythology in America in the 21st Century. I was relieved to get back on the bus on my way to Harlem.

I ask myself now why this is so. I look again at Mormon beliefs and practices to try to understand.

In Mormon teaching, the Garden of Eden was a historical place, and it was not in the Mesopotamian Valley by the Euphrates River, as in the original biblical myth of Genesis. It was in North America…in Missouri .

“According to Joseph Smith [Mormonism’s founder] the Garden of Eden was located in Jackson County, Missouri and following his expulsion from the Garden, Adam traveled northward to a place near modern-day Gallatin, Missouri. Mormon Apostle Orson Pratt stated that the name Adam-ondi-Ahman “is in the original language spoken by Adam, as revealed to the Prophet Joseph” (Journal of Discourses 18:343) – Bill McKeever, Mormon Research Ministry.

It is to this very spot of physical geography that Jesus will return at the Second Coming. None of this is in the realm of myth. It’s fact. You can go there to touch it and  walk on it, knowing that Adam was there long before you and that, after you have walked there, it will prove to be the epicenter of the universe, the very spot where Christ will return.

Why is the Mormon myth gaining such traction in America? And why would I break the code of silence, the well-advised reticence to those of us who share White Calf’s belief that the Divine Mystery is known differently on different sides of the mountain?

Some things are too important to leave unaddressed. The Mormon mythology is quintessentially American.

The myth that America is the center of transcendent goodness and power, the world’s epicenter, the original Garden of Eden and the place of Christ’s return, the people of “Manifest Destiny”, the one exception to the rising and falling of empires and nations, is losing its hold on us at home and abroad. We are losing our sense of innocence. Yet there lurks the nostalgia for the secure home provided by the illegitimate marriage of Jesus’ gospel of the Kingdom of God with America, “the City set upon a hill” of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and of John Winthrop’s sermon to English settlers on their voyage to the new world.

As Nietzsche knew, such gods don’t die easily, even when they’re already dead. When the town crier takes his lantern into the darkened town square at midnight crying “God is dead! God is dead!” in Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, the rest of the town regarded him as a madman. But it would be only a matter of time before the news would reach their ears.  It was the god of Western civilization that Nietzsche’s madman pronounced dead.

When something dear to us dies, especially when it is the prevailing religious myth of a nation about its own holiness and invulnerability, we become like starving people who continue to look in the same old bare cupboard for bread.

What better place to go than the reassurance that America is still the center – the ancestral home of a real man named Adam, who came complete with his own (now lost language, the special place to which Jesus (who visited the lost tribe of Israel in the Americas between his resurrection and bodily ascension into heaven) will return? When the Christian story the story is concretized to a finite, mortal place, it power as myth – pointing us beyond ourselves to the transcendent and the eternal – is not only lost but turned on its head.

There are many sides of the mountain, and it behooves all of us to approach people of different religious traditions with open ears and open minds. But approaching another’s religious beliefs respectfully does not require that we pretend not to see what we see or that we conclude that all religions are really the same or that one opinion is as good as another in the free market of religious truth claims. “You can’t just make stuff up!”

Let me say without hesitation that what I see in Mormonism is but the most exaggerated illustration of the idolization of the nation that includes so much of the American churches of whatever stripe where the nation is enshrined as God and where patriotism is the unspoken highest virtue with the cross wrapped in a flag.

The American wars of foreign intervention in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan could not have happened without this widespread faith in American goodness and exceptionalism. It is the cardinal sin that afflicts us across all denominational and religious lines. Whenever the Jesus executed by the Roman Empire becomes the Imperial King of a new empire, those who continue to hear the shrieks and cries of the world that suffers – and who continue to smell the piss on the stairway in the place we call “home”- are obliged to break the silence, violate the code, and get back on the bus to Harlem.