Jacob’s Ladder at almost 75

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Sometimes I can’t get it out of my head. I go to sleep with it. Wake up with it. Walk the dog with it. It’s been over a month now.

“We are climbing Jacob’s ladder” begs for my attention.

So this morning I surrender. What will come out on the page is a mystery until it’s written.

I ask myself, “Why this song?”

This stretch of time has been anxious. Unsettling, restless, down, bored, and struggling with my own inner demons and the bigger demons of human madness around the world.

Jacob’s Ladder has been with me my whole life, like an old friend who shows up when I need her. Like her cousins “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho,” there’s something about the tune that brings comfort, placing me in the good company of the slaves whose faith and hope are timeless though they themselves are long gone.

It’s the melody, the music – the language of the soul – that gets me. But it’s also the words. Words like ‘climbing, ‘higher’, ‘soldier’, ‘cross’, ’sinner’, ‘love’, ‘Jesus’, ‘serve’. Words that have stuck in my throat at different times in my life journey as either highly objectionable or as deeply expressive of what I know and feel to be ‘true’. “Jacob’s Ladder” feels like a summary of where I’ve been, where I am now, and a strange kind of invitation to resolve the contradictions as I move forward after three-quarters of a century.

So this morning and in the days to come I will have a conversation with Jacob and his ladder, stopping at each stanza and phrase to dig deeper into what is crying for attention.

Chagall_jacobs-ladder2_Nice-medium

Chagall, Marc, 1887-1985. Jacob’s Dream, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54650 [retrieved August 6, 2017]. Original source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/abeppu/.

“Listen to your life,” wrote Frederick Buechner in Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation. “See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”

At almost 75 and no longer climbing, I’ve been pondering grace itself.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, August 6, 2017.

 

Thank you, Frederick Buechner

Today Day1.org features “The Seagull and the Rainbow” right beside Frederick Buechner, whose writings influenced me as a young preacher and pastor.

Frederick Buechner

Frederick Buechner

Thanks to Peter Wallace of Day1 for putting the student next to a man he unconsciously aspired to be. I’m older now . . .  and the distant iconic mentor who had no reason to know his mentee’s name is older still but no less alive to faith and life!

Years ago the Council of Churches in Cincinnati invited a Canadian publisher to publish “The Cincinnati Prayer Book,” a collection of prayers for the year by Cincinnati religious leaders. I was Pastor of Knox Presbyterian Church at the time. The publisher asked whether I would be interested in publishing a collection of sermons.

I recall the conversation in my office as if it were yesterday. I thought I smelled a rat.

“Are you a vanity press?” I asked.

They assurance me they were not. “The Startling Kindness of God” moved forward, including an endorsement from Frederick Buechner. But Fred’s letter to me included a private comment that changed how I preached and wrote. The sermons were good, he said, followed by a devastating “but”: “but I find them rather bloodless. I want to see some of your blood in them.”

Listening to your lifeI learned laster that he was working on Listening to Your Life. Reading my sermons, he seemed to sense I was not listening to mine. I wasn’t.

When the final contract appeared, the publisher required that I sell 300 copies of the sermon collection. I tore up the contract. The bloodless sermons are in a box in my closet, wondering why they were never published.

I have no reason to believe Fred Buechner has any recollection of that or that he remembers my name. But his combination of affirmation and warning began to change the way I preach and write. To appear next to Frederick Buechner today is a serendipitous occasion of joy and thanks. Thank you, Fred. I’m holding out a goldfish after all these years.

Thank you, Peter, for posting “The Seagull and the Rainbow” on Day1.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, May 20, 2017, Chaska, MN.

 

 

 

 

An Obvious Conclusion

Author Frederick Buechner puts into words the feeling at the 55th high school reunion last weekend.

ON AGING

As time goes by, you start picking [your contemporaries] out in crowds. There aren’t as many of them around as there used to be. More likely than not, you don’t say anything, and neither do they, but something seems to pass between you anyhow. They have come from the same beginning. They have seen the same sights along the way. They are bound for the same end and will get there about the same time you do. There are some who by the looks of them you wouldn’t invite home for dinner on a bet, but they are your companons de voyage even so. You wish them well.

It is sad to think that it has taken you so many years to reach so obvious a conclusion.

– Frederick Buechner, originally published in Whistling in the Dark. Re-published today by The Frederick Buechner Center.

55th class reunion

55th class reunion

The Song in My Head

Sometimes I can’t get it out of my head. I go to sleep with it. Wake up with it. Walk the dog with it. It’s been over a month now.

“We are climbing Jacob’s ladder” seems to be begging for my attention. So this morning I surrender. What will come out on the page is a mystery until it’s written.

I ask myself, Why this song?

This stretch of time has been anxious. Unsettling. I’ve been restless, down, bored, and struggling with my own inner demons and the bigger demons of human madness around the world. Jacob’s Ladder has been with me my whole life, like an old friend who shows up when I need her. Like her cousins Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child and Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, there’s something about the tune that brings me comfort, placing me in the good company of the slaves whose faith and hope are timeless though they are long gone.

It’s the melody, the music – the language of the soul – that gets me. But it’s also the words. Words like ‘climbing, ‘higher’, ‘soldier’, ‘cross’, ’sinner’, ‘love’, ‘Jesus’, ‘serve’. Words that have stuck in my throat at different times in my life journey as either highly objectionable or as deeply expressive of what I know and feel to be ‘true’. Jacob’s Ladder feels like a summary of where I’ve been, where I am now, and a strange kind of invitation to resolve the contradictions as i move forward in this precarious time.

So this morning and in the days to come I will have a conversation with Jacob’s Ladder, stopping at each stanza and each phrase to dig deeper into what is crying out in my soul.

“Listen to your life,” wrote Frederick Buechner in Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation. “See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”

The Tender Voice of Frederick Buechner

In the aftermath of Robin Williams’ death I turned to author Frederick Buechner who has reached me in the dark times of my life. Fred here preaches on Thomas, the Twin, whom he identifies as his twin, my twin, your twin. Like Anne Lamott’s piece posted on Views from the Edge last week, this is the life of faith at its best. Peace!