Two Personal Reflections on Despair and Faith


This post comes in two parts. The first was written Holy Saturday (the day between Good Friday and Easter); the second was written yesterday, the second Sunday of Easter.

The Silence of Holy Saturday

Everything falls into silence today. Jesus is crucified, dead, and buried behind the heavy rock of a borrowed tomb. Armed guards stand on either side of the stone that secures the tomb; the governor’s seal — the occupying empire’s official seal —warns against tampering with this tomb. The seal is unbroken; everything else is broken.

Holy Saturday is the day after the victory of death on the Hill of Skulls. There is no Easter. No reason to trust that the clouds will blow over, the sun shine through, the shivering stop. Life is frozen stiff. Only the loneliness within my frozen self remains.

To protect themselves against the fear of death, two bullies twist truth into lies, and station their guards to keep the rock in place and the seal unbroken. The piercing of his side; thorns cutting into his skull; the ridicule of vision; the soldiers’ taunts to come down to prove he is the king he never claimed to be; the cynic-sneer that takes the place of innocence; the barren blindness to what was once my sense of beauty; the indictment of hope and trust; the gnarling of beauty, truth, and goodness into tangled knots that are neither truthful nor social, hammer in my head from Moscow, Mar-a-Lago, and now from the state house of Tennessee.

My soul is not still today. The stone has not been moved. The seal stays put. Only Pilate’s questions and sneer remain:”So you’re a king!” “What is truth?”

Thomas and his Twin

I’m a lot like Thomas. Neither of us was there to verify what others told us. We were not in the room when the others reported that the crucified Jesus had come through their locked door. Thomas wasn’t into ghosts. Neither am I. Although my grandmother claimed the old house on Church Lane was haunted by a previous resident named ‘Gus’, and although I often heard the creaking steps outside my bedroom, I’ve always been like Thomas. I’ve never believed in Gus or the Jesus-ghost other apostles say they’d seen and heard.

My Holy Saturday experience this year was just my latest recurring argument with my grandmother and with the surviving apostles who made up fairytales to keep us from doing what Judas did when despair and guilt overwhelmed him.

I like fairytales. I love Wendy, Peter Pan, and Tinker Bell, but I don’t confuse them with the way things are. Neither Wendy’s wand or Jiminy Cricket could wish upon a star and make the Pied Piper drop by Gus’s house to rid the rats that scampered through the walls at night.
This year reminded me of that; it’s the year of the rats, another year of the plague with no Pied Piper to lead the rats out of town. In 2023, there is no longer anywhere that is out of town.

Thomas is called ‘The Twin’ with no further explanation or elaboration. People of my ilk carry Thomas’ DNA! We’re Thomas’ identical twin. When Thomas arrives at the upper room to join the other surviving apostles, a week has passed. The difference between Thomas and Judas is that despair has not yet severed Thomas’ sense of connection. Loneliness, not belief, drives him back to what remains of his circle of friends. All hope is gone for Thomas. There is only the grieving: the sounds of nails being driven into Jesus’ hands, the horror of a soldier thrusting a spear into his side, the shouts of mockery and insult, his final declaration that it was over. His Lord is dead and buried, never to return. His friends have told him that things are not as they seem. The rock, they said, had been rolled back, the imperial seal broken, the guards lay on the ground like dead men, an encounter with Mary as a gardener, instruction to meet him in Galilee. All of it a fairytale!

The Incredulity of Thomas – Carravagio

“Put your finger here; reach out your hand”

What happens to Thomas and others like him is more tangible than magic wands and pixie dust. “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and throw it into my side” is not an ethereal invitation. To be a disciple of Jesus means not only to see and hear, but to touch his physical wounds. The new community is born of his wounds and their transformation, commanded to throw ourselves into the sufferings and open wounds from which blood and water still flow. Resurrection is not pixie dust.

In the world it is called Tolerance, but in hell it is called Despair…the sin that believes in nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, interferes with nothing, enjoys nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing, and remains alive because there is nothing for which it will die.

Dorothy Sayers

Gordon C. Stewart, Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017, Wipf and Stock), 49 short meditations on faith and the news; Brooklyn Park, MN, Second Sunday of Easter, April 16, 2023

Going home without my burden

Some things are too close. Too personal. As Leonard Cohen put it in his songs Going Home and If It Be Your Will, my best friend over the past 55 years has “gone home without his burden, [gone] home behind the curtain without the costume that he wore.”

Wayne Granberry Boulton — click HERE for the obituary — died peacefully at home in Indianapolis under the tender care of the love of his life — his one and only wife — and their older son Matthew (Matt).

The costumes Wayne wore were academic (Duke Ph.D.) and ecclesiastical (McCormick Theological Seminary M.Div.) robes, but these costumes were faint glimpses into his underlying character.

Harry Strong, Vicki Boulton, Wayne Boulton, Gordon, Nadja Shoemaker, Steve Shoemaker (seated), Divide CO, 2006

Knowing the hospice drugs soon would ease him into wherever people go at the end of life, I visited Wayne and Vicki, Matt and Chris and all the Boulton family in Indianapolis two weeks ago. Wayne’s mind was still clear and sharp. His heart, which was always big, without ever being sloppy, was closer to his sleeve.

If it be your will
That I speak no more
And my voice be still
As it was before
I will speak no more
I shall abide until
I am spoken for
If it be your will [Leonard Cohen, If It Be Your Will]

“Hi, my name’s Wayne Boulton,” said the new roommate in 1964, where we had been assigned to Alumni Hall Room 312 by the housing office at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago. Although he had arrived hours before my key opened the door, he had not yet chosen which of the two beds, desks, and dressers would be his. That was the first clue that my roommate was un-selfish.

We were roommates for two years until he exchanged vows with Vicki in 1966. I was to be Wayne’s Best Man, but that was before the Chicago Chapter of the Experiment in International Living sent me packing to Czechoslovakia that summer, reducing my status to “would-have-been/ could-have-been/ should have been” Wayne’s Best-Man. When I returned to the States, Vicki had become the roommate to whom he had pledged his troth.

If it be your will
That a voice be true

Wayne’s word was his bond. He was loyal. Honoring his family and friends came second only to honoring the First Commandment to have no other gods but I AM. Wayne knew that we are covenantal creatures whose joy is found in steadfast love, a voice that is true to itself. Wayne did not sing of himself. Self-promotion was not his thing. Close to being fitted for the MBA costume of Northwestern University’s School of Business, he left the fitting room to prepare for a different robe in service to the church and the academy.

From this broken hill
All your praises they shall ring
If it be your will
To let me sing

It was during the Lafayette College choir concert at Westbury High School that Wayne and Vicki met. The love at first sight led to the births of Matthew and Christopher, and stayed fresh until there were no more costumes. What began with the twinkling of an eye ended the same way — with thanksgiving washed by tears.

Going home
Without my sorrow
Going home
Sometime tomorrow
Going home
where it’s better
Than before

No compassionate person would wish that a loved one with terminal pancreatic cancer continue to wear the patient’s costume. “I’m dying,” he wrote to the members of the wide circle of friends he had gathered. Former students, faculty colleagues, and neighbors in Holland, Michigan and in Richmond, Virginia;  members of the churches he’d served in Maryland, New Jersey, and Massachusetts, and the  latest friends in Indianapolis. He embraced the coming end of life, neither denying death’s finality nor betraying his deepest conviction: “in life and in death, we belong to God.”

Going home
Without my burden
Going home
Behind the curtain
Going home
Without this costume
That I wore. [Leonard Cohen]

The loss of of a best friend hits hard, no matter how much we expected it. “Hey, Roomie” was the way he began our phone calls. Choking through the tears on this side of the curtain, I give thanks that my roommate has “gone home/Without [his] burden/Behind the curtain/Without the costume/That [he] wore,” and pray against all my doubts, that some other strangers may be greeted the way I was:

“Hi, my name’s Wayne Boulton.”

Wayne wearing Chicago Dogs shirt in honor of seminary friends who call ourselves “The Dogs”

And draw us near
And bind us tight
All your children here
In their rags of light
In our rags of light
All dressed to kill
And end this night
If it be your will

If it be your will [Leonard Cohen, If It Be Your Will]

— Gordon C. Stewart, one four remaining Dogs “bound tight . . . . in our rags of light,” Chaska, MN, February 4, 2019.

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

Fear and Faith

The resurrected
Jesus was a man
and not a Zombie.
He was raised to be
alive, and not both
dead and living when
God seized him by his soul
and set him free.

He was not thirsting
after blood, was no
Vampire, did not become
immortal, but eternally
had life–there is, you know,
a difference… Jesus
spoke and drank and ate

with all his students,
the Disciples, though
they had all run away
when those with sword
and club, the Roman
soldiers, came to show
this upstart Rabbi
Caesar still was Lord.

The undead try to scare,
but Jesus said
“Have peace–you do not need
to be afraid.”

– Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL, April 21, 2014

Communio Sanctorum

As a boy I thought of All Saints Day and the Communio Sanctorum, the Communion of Saints, the way I felt about Halloween. It was spooky.

Today it’s no longer spooky. I’m thinking about all the people who have touched my life along the way. Few of them are saints in the sense our culture has come to understand the word, but they were all saints in my book. The extraordinary thing about saints is that they know they are not extraordinary. They refuse to believe they are exceptional.

The people I’m remembering drew little attention to themselves, for the most part. Some of them, like Uncle Dick Lewis, who was an uncle not by blood but by affection only, were people of few words. Uncle Dick stood under the maple tree every Sunday morning waiting for our weekly routine: nothing more than a handshake, the strength of which tested and honored my growing toward manhood. The handshake is the only speech I remember. During the week Uncle Dick’s hands painted houses. On Sunday morning he clasped his hands together after painting a boy into a man under the maple tree.

The place where I grew up was a working class community with a working class church. Its members were house painters, plumbers, carpenters, and bus drivers with a few middle management people sprinkled in, and one generous rich man named George. George and Phoebe always sat in the front row.

Marple Presbyterian Church, Broomall, PA

Marple Presbyterian Church, Broomall, PA

George decided one day to donate a stained glass window. Although much of the money for the new building had come from George, a stained glass window was inappropriate for Colonial architecture. The church board, with some fear and trepidation, refused the proposed gift. George left the church in a huff. He moved his and Phoebe’s membership to the wealthy church in Bryn Mawr, leaving the carpenters, plumbers, and bus drivers with a clear message: “Good luck. You won’t have George to kick around any more! You’re on your own.”

Karl Marx observed that the rich will do anything for the poor but get off their backs, and that the ruling ideas of any society are the ideas of its ruling class. After George left, they didn’t love Karl, the man everyone at Marple loved to hate, any less than before, but they re-discovered the Beatitudes of Jesus: “Blessed are you poor. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are you who mourn.” Blessed are the peacemakers.”

George was always kind to me in a distant kind of way. He got a chuckle watching the mischievous tow-head preacher’s kid break the rules he didn’t dare break. My only pictures from childhood were taken by Phoebe’s camera. I still see George in his three-piece suit with a big cigar, looking like a statue of William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper magnate – not quite that rich, but likely every bit as lonely before and after the church refused his stained glass window.

Approaching All Saints’ Day this year, I see them all compacted, you might say, into a single communion, the communion of the dead who have left behind every illusion that they were exceptional to the common lot of humankind. I see them gathered again at Marple Church, but gathered differently: George in Uncle Dick’s painter’s coveralls and Uncle Dick dressed in George’s three piece suit smoking George’s Cuban cigar, and Phoebe still taking her snapshots of a community now repaired by the common threads of love and death, dragged kicking and screaming into the Communion of Saints that knows no exceptions.

Sermon – The Divided House

A sermon at Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska, Minnesota. It could also be called “Take a Risk – Stand for Something!”