How the doubting father’s son became a shouter


John the Baptist
John the Baptist

Ever wondered why John comes out of nowhere with a fiery message?

He has a bone to pick. Why? With whom? What’s his story?

The Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition preserves a story about John’s father, Zechariah, a Temple priest, sending his wife, Elizabeth, and their son, John, into hiding. Zechariah hides his son to protect him from Herod’s “Slaughter of the Innocents” by which all males below the age of two were to be killed following rumors of a newly-born king, a threat to Herod’s rule.

According to the story told by The Infancy Gospel of James [the mid-Second Century C.E.], John and Elizabeth remain in hiding – far away from their husband and father, Zechariah – until John is five or six years old when Zechariah risks visiting their hiding place. The result is the brutal murder of Zechariah by Herod’s soldiers.

As the son of a Temple priest, John descended from the priestly lineage of Aaron. John was destined to be a Temple priest. Father-son dynamics become more difficult when the father is a public religious figure. Zechariah’s son sounds like an angry preacher’s kid.

When [John] saw the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to be baptized, he said to them, "You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit that befits repentance, and do not presume to say to yourselves 'We have Abraham as our father ....'" (Mt. 3:7-9a).

The Pharisees were lay people with a more liberal religious bent than the Sadducees. The Sadducees were Temple authorities and Temple supporters, the folks who aligned themselves with John’s father Zechariah and a conservative reading of the Torah. The Pharisees and the Sadducees were in conflict during the time of John and Jesus. Only the Pharisees survived the later destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in the Roman-Jewish War of 70 C.E.

By the time the Gospels are written, the Temple had been destroyed. So we have the Temple priests and their supporters, the Sadducees, and John the Baptist in the Gospel of Matthew scolding both the Pharisees, who will carry on their tradition without accepting one of their likely members, Jesus of Nazareth, as the awaited Anointed One (Messiah), and the Sadducees who have disappeared into history.

Whether the Orthodox tradition and The Infancy Gospel of James are taken as historical fact or mythic truth, John’s real fight was with his father and the Sadducees who had compromised Jewish identity and integrity by their accommodations to Rome.

John is certain, bold, and in-your-face. His father, Zechariah, according to Matthew’s Gospel, had doubted the news of John’s conception. As a result of his doubt, Zechariah was struck dumb. He remained unable to speak until Elizabeth had named their son ‘John’, at which point his mouth was opened. “Yes,” said Zecahariah, “his name is John.”

Zechariah had been a doubter; John was no doubter. Zechariah sent John into hiding. The John who returned from safety was no hider. John became a shouter who minced no words. Far from Jerusalem and the Temple, out in untamed space by the Jordan River, he took his stand for the return of his people from the false choice of the pious laity (the Pharisees) and his father’s priestly class (the Sadducees): “You brood of vipers!”

Baby vipers were said to eat their mother’s stomachs. Israel was the Mother whom the Pharisees and Sadducees were eating from the inside out.

John wanted nothing to do with the killing of his Mother or with those who had killed his father. In the interest of protecting his Mother from the vipers, he had run from the Temple into the wilderness, returning to the place where his Mother, Israel, had been born after the Exodus. He did not go into the wilderness to hide. He went out to rescue his Mother from being eaten by her children. When the vipers arrived, he shouted in ways his mute father never did. Yet, in the end he died by the same hands as his father when Herod delivered his head to Salome on a platter.

Like father, like son. His younger cousin Jesus carried on.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, January 7, 2015

Father and Son – Bob and Alan

Bob Smith and his first-born child, my cousin Alan, never had what you and I would call a normal conversation. But I suspect they “talked”more deeply in their own father-son ways.

Alan’s tongue and body were held captive from birth by Cerebral Palsy. He never spoke a word that I could understand.

Each morning Alan’s mother, my Aunt Gertrude, and his father, my Uncle Bob, lifted Alan from his bed, cared for his morning needs with tender respectfulness, carried him downstairs to the kitchen for breakfast. Sitting on his father’s lap, the spoon and fork came to his mouth from the hand of his father. Uncle Bob would then carry Alan to the parlor, the back room on the first floor of the house on Porter Street, where Alan would lie until lunch. Uncle Bob came home from the Oxford County Court House for lunch every day  to be with Alan, Gertrude, and Alan’s young brother and sister, my cousins Dennis and Gwen. He would go to the den, lug Alan to the kitchen, feed him lunch…. Repeat, repeat, repeat at dinner. Carry Alan upstairs, prepare him for bed, and, as I imagine it, say a prayer that Alan could hear and understand but could not speak. He did that for 14 years.

My time with Uncle Bob and Alan dates back to my earliest years. Every summer I stayed at my uncle and aunt’s house for a week while the rest of my family stayed with my grandparents. My relationship with my cousin Dennis, only six months older than I, was special enough to separate me out for special time at the house on Porter Street.

Looking back on it now awakens me to the sense of heaviness that came over me watching Alan, seeing the joy in his eyes and the contorted smile that broke out on his face, and listening to the moans of greeting and sheer delight that came from his palsied vocal chords whenever he and I would see each other after the long year’s absences between my family’s vacations.

There was a bond deeper than words. The bond of eyes and smiles. The bond of kinship and shared joy, as well as sorrow. I always wondered what was going on in Alan’s head. Aunt Gertrude, an elementary school teacher, claimed he was very intelligent, but there was no way to measure it. Had he been born 40 years later Alan might have been a Stephen Hawking “talking” by other means, but he wasn’t. He was born in 1939. And if there was a silent bond of awkwardly expressed love between two cousins whose visits were annual, how much deeper and familiar was that bond between the father and his son?

I’ve often wondered what it was like being Alan. I’ve scolded myself in times of self-pity, and sought the deep courage and joy that emanated from Alan.

I’ve also marveled at Uncle Bob, a wrrior in the trenches, fighting despair over Alan’s plight, what might have been and would never be for him, rising to the daily-ness of it all, some days resenting it, some days wishing he could take his family of vacations like other families, some days finding comfort and courage playing a great sacred music piece on the organ of First Congregational Church of South Paris where he served as Organist and Choir Master for 40 years. Perhaps the familiar hymn tune “Serenity” set to John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem “Immortal Love, Forever Full”, encouraging the love he bore for his speechless son:

Im-mort-al Love, for-ev-er full,
For-ev-er flow-ing free,
For-ev-er shared, for-ev-er whole,
A nev-er ebb-ing sea!

The heal-ing of [Christ’s] seamless dress
Is by our beds in pain;
We touch Him in life’s throng and press,
And we are whole a-gain.

At the end of really good days when joy was high with thanksgiving for the father-son bond with Alan, I imagine him walking down Main Street to the darkened church, taking his seat on the organ bench with the lights out except for the organ light, his feet pumping the pedals, his fingers flying over the keyboards and reaching for the stops to play the Widor Toccata he played every Easter, a lush oasis “in life’s throng and press.”

Father and Son – the Audi

2005 Audio A4 2.0 AWD Quattro Wago

2005 Audio A4 2.0 AWD Quattro Wagon

Anxiety wears many masks. Sometimes it looks like a car shopper. Sometimes the car shopper is like his Dad.

I’m at a new stage in life. Our income will be cut by 40% in 27 days when we are both retired. We are excited by the freedom to enjoy life together without the obligations and distractions but are also anxious about finances and the unknown.

So what am I doing at a car dealership, trading the 11 year old Toyota Avalon for a nine year old Audi?

I rationalize laying out $9,000 with reasoning that I “know” is convoluted and self-defeating. It goes like this.

We’ll be on the road for two months. The Avalon has 120,000 miles on it. Can we trust it?

The Avalon needs $1,000 worth of body work to repair the damage done when it’s getting-older driver swiped the side of the garage.

But… we could leave the scrape the way it is and save the $1,000. After all, it’s 11 years old, and we don’t even know whether we will need two cars in retirement. We could sell the Avalon and pocket the $7,500 to add to our small nest egg.

The Audi has only 83,000 miles on it. It’s All Wheel Drive, great for driving in winter conditions. It gets better gas mileage. Sure it takes Premium fuel, but that’s only 30 – 40 cents more than regular.

But it is an Audi. I’ve never owned an Audi.

It’s confusing for a guy who loves cars, a guy addicted to car shopping. My brother does it too. It runs in the family.

Dad's 1983 Buick Skylark

Dad’s 1983 Buick Skylark

When my father could no longer walk without a walker and long after my mother had (sort of) prevailed to stop him from getting behind the wheel of the 12 year-old Buick Skylark, Dad continued to insist he could still drive. He suffered increasing dementia as the Parkinson’s wore on. He also continued to insist he could still play golf. “Ken,” Mom would say, “You can’t even stand up. How are you going to swing a golf club?” “Just take me over. I can still hit the ball.” He also never gave up his role as a Minister of Word and Sacrament, wanting to preach until a few months before he died.

Despite the very limited financial resources which my mother managed like a cookie-baker who hides the cookie jar from kids on sugar highs, Dad always wanted to buy a new car. “Skip, let’s run over and look at that new Buick. I saw it on TV. It’s a beauty!”

Dad dropped by car dealerships as naturally as a sex addict drops by the adult store. Maybe there’s a relationship. The both sell toys.

Tom, the Audi dealer, is a very nice guy. No pressure. “Take it home and show Kay. She’s going to love it. It’ll be the perfect fit for your retirement road trips. Keep it overnight. Just bring it back tomorrow. We can finish up the paper work in the morning.” I leave the Avalon with Tom and leave with the Audi.

Driving the Audi home I begin to notice that the suspension is sportier, which makes for a great driving machine – the Germans make the best – but also means that the ride is stiffer. I remember how I’ve always come back to an Avalon because of the seat and the soft ride. But this is an Audi. I’ve never owned an Audi, and it has all at the bells and whistles. Like the Audi guy says, “You’re retired; you deserve a great car! You goin’ to feel really good in this.”

On the way home, it dawns on me: “So…that’s what this is about.

As of November 10 I no longer have a position. I no longer have a public roll. I am no longer capable of confusing public standing with personhood. I’m anxious, unconsciously fearful. “Retirement” means old age. Loss. Hearing loss. Teeth in a cup. Memory loss. The road to the loss of everything.

The next morning, I take the Audi back to Tom.

Buying an Audi has its own kind of logic, but it makes no good sense, given our finances.  Even with an extended warranty. Because we, the drivers, don’t have “extended warranties”. Getting older can also mean getting wiser. Getting more comfortable being ourselves without status or position and their sex symbols. It’s time to practice what I’ve always preached: We don’t own a thing. We wear out beyond repairs and maintenance. It’s all about anxiety.

I chuckle and imagine a smile on Dad’s face. God doesn’t need an Audi or a Buick. Neither did Dad. Neither do I! I’ll ease on down the road in the Avalon.

– Gordon C. Stewart, Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 27, 2014

Father and Son – the Pasternaks

Leonid Pasternak painting of his sons Boris and Alex

Leonid Pasternak painting of his sons Boris and Alex

Thinking about father – son relationships led me to the Pasternaks, starting with the son, Boris.  Boris is seated to the left in this painting, done by his father. One wonders whether Boris and Alex were as angry as the father has painted them, or whether the father only imagined them to be resentful about sitting for the portrait. Father-son relationships are often hard to figure out. They’re about perceptions.

The name Boris Leonidovich Pasternak (1890-1960), the Nobel Laureate who declined the award in 1958, is etched in the annals of Russian literature.

So is the name of his father, Leonid (1865-1945), the revered Russian painter and illustrator, friend of Rainer Maria Rilke and Leo Tolstoy, among others. Leonid’s drawings illustrated Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Resurrection.  

Can you see the father in the sons, and the sons in the father who painted them?

Photo of Leonid Pasternak, Russian painter.

Photo of Leonid Pasternak, Russian painter.

Why, then, would the sons’ father leave them behind?

In 1921 when Leonid Pasternak left Russia for eye surgery in Berlin, he took his wife and two daughters, Lydia and Josephine, leaving Boris and Alex behind in Russia. He never returned. He, his wife, and the girls remained in Berlin until 1938 when he fled from the Nazis to England. The sons remained in Russia.

According to the Pasternak Trust, “Leonid Pasternak was the friend and illustrator of Tolstoy.

Leonid Pasternak illustration in Tolstoy's Resurrection.

Leonid Pasternak illustration in Tolstoy’s Resurrection.

His portraits include studies from life of writers (Tolstoy, Gorky, Rilke, Remizov, Hauptmann); musicians in performance (Scriabin, Chaliapin, Busoni, Rachmaninov); other distinguished contemporaries including Einstein, Hoffman, Gordon Craig and Lenin.

“Sketches of family scenes – his wife at the piano, and their four children reading and playing – are among his most intimate and charming works. His landscapes stretch from the Black Sea to the Bavarian Alps and Palestine.” – Excerpt from The Pasternak Trust.

Although Leonid never returned to Russia, it was his brush that painted Boris into life as a painter whose brush was words, and one can imagine it was his mother’s music that lulled him to sleep even as an adult His mother was a concert pianist.

“‘What is history?” wrote Boris in Doctor Zhivago.

“Its beginning is that of the centuries of systematic work devoted to the solution of the enigma of death, so that death itself may eventually be overcome. That is why people write symphonies, and why they discover mathematical infinity and electromagnetic waves.”


Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago (English translation by Nikolay Nicholayevich, 1957), Chapter 1, Section 5.