Why I Stayed Home this Christmas

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Christmas felt different this year. I did not feel the Light shining in darkness. It feels as though the darkness has overcome the light. I feel the heaviness of bombed out, homeless Ukrainians more than Zelenkov’s resistance lightens my spirit. “Faith, hope, and love abide, but the greatest of these is love.” Love overflows the banks of hope, and no hope that ignores reasons for despair is worth a damn.

So I stayed home on Christmas Eve. In the morning, the NPR annual broadcast of the Festival of Lessons and Carols that lifted my soul in years past, was silent. I didn’t turn it on. Everything was off. Fairy tales can be true, or they can be delusive. Ludwig Feuerbach, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud’s critiques of religion as illusion crashed the place where sugar plumbs once danced in my head.

Faith is a Leap — Reality is Existential

So much of what passes for Christian faith is nonsense. It doesn’t take a Ludwig, a Karl, or a Sigmund to ask what is real; it’s not a head trip. The difference between illusion and reality is existential — a disturbance of the stomach, a migraine, or a numbness that won’t go away.

Eight years into retirement, I have stopped looking for a church home. Nowhere is the darkness darker than in the churches that profess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior while following a stand-in savior who fabricates and perpetuates the lie that he has been robbed of his legitimate authority. The embrace of QAnon conspiracy theory — the latest iteration of the division of the world between the saved Bible-believing patriots, and the damn pedophiles, child kidnappers, and sex traffickers of the Deep State — fits like a glove, but it is a betrayal the churches profess.

I was never big on Satan. Over the years, the division of the human species between good (heaven-bound) and evil (hell-bound) made less and less sense until it made no sense at all. Belief in life after death, or, as William Stringfellow called it, “after-death life,” struck me as a comforting delusion, the fanciful escape from death, the limit of every mortal creature.

Who we are, and what we’re not

The Book of Genesis parable of humankind’s tragedy in the Garden of Eden goes straight to the heart of the matter. The temptation is to know what only God knows, namely, the difference between good and evil that would make them like God, i.e., the illusion that they, the human creatures, would never die. The great sin is refusing to be what we are — trying to be what we are not.

The Day after Christmas in Minnesota

December 26, 2022, marked the 160th anniversary of the Mankato Massacre when 38 Dakota were hanged on a platform built for public shaming. The white European settlers gathered to observe the largest execution ever to take place on American soil.

They came to watch the ultimate shaming, but, before the execution, they heard what they did not expect. The heard voices from the gallows, chanting a prayer to the Great Spirit:

Wakantanka taku
nitawa
tankaya qaota;
mahpiya kin eyahnake ca,
makakin he duowanca.
Mniowanca sbeya wanke cin,
hena ovakihi.

Dakota hymn

Many and great, O God, are Thy works,
Maker of earth and sky;
Thy hands have set the heavens with stars,
Thy fingers spread the mountains and plains.
Lo, at Thy word the waters were formed;
Deep seas obey Thy voice.
Grant unto us communion with Thee,
Thou star-abiding One;
Come unto us and dwell with us:
With Thee are found the gifts of life.
Bless us with life that has no end,
Eternal life with Thee.

Mankato was not calm the day after Christmas in 1862. No bright star shone down on the gallows. No angels sang. No babe in swaddling cloths. No shepherds knelt. No cattle were lowing. No ‘kings’ brought gifts. No carols rang out from the churches.

The day after Christmas was a time for crucifixion (a state execution) by White Christian Nationalists. Even so–or perhaps because it was a crucifixion — a Dakota hymn of faith, hope, and love still echoes from a gallows in Mankato. Love overflows the banks of hope, and no hope that ignores reasons for despair is worth a damn.

Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian and social commentator, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), Brooklyn, MN, December 26, 2022.

When the bough breaks

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Rock a bye baby on the tree top,
When the wind blows the cradle will rock,
When the bough breaks the cradle will fall,
And down will come baby, cradle and all.

Multiple drafts of a reflection on “Rock a reflection on the Baby” missed the mark. I was aiming at humor, but I’m no Andy Borowitz. None of them was funny. Some I ripped up. They’re on the floor of my office. The most embarrassing I stuffed in the toilet.

The drafts had been attempts to take “Rock a Bye Baby” as the template for a commentary on American public life in February, 2022. The Baby and cradle on the top of the tree is rocked by gale force winds. We hear the boughs of the old tree creaking. But if and when the bough breaks and Baby and cradle do fall, we can only hope the Baby-lovers with chain-saws don’t cut down the tree and turn it into sawdust.

The Origins of “Rock a Bye Baby”

The oldest copy of “Rock a Bye Baby” is found in “Mother Goose’s Melody” in London in 1765. One story of origins locates it in a London pub on the occasion of the birth of King George II’s son, the prince who would continue the royal line they detested. The first known copy of “Rock a Bye Baby” has a hand-written note:

"This may serve as a warning to the proud and ambitious, who climb so high that they generally fall at last."

Foreshadowing in The Image

Daniel Boorstin’s book, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-events in America (1662), was a ground-breaker. Historian and Librarian of the U.S. Congress. Here are a few excerpts from Daniel Boorstin’s The Image in 1962.

“We [Americans] suffer primarily not from our vices or our weaknesses, but from our illusions. We are haunted, not by reality, but by those images we have put in their place.”

photo of Trump baby balloon over a crowd in London.

“Celebrity-worship and hero-worship should not be confused. Yet we confuse them every day, and by doing so we come dangerously close to depriving ourselves of all real models. We lose sight of the men and women who do not simply seem great because they are famous but are famous because they are great. We come closer and closer to degrading all fame into notoriety.”

A sign of a celebrity is often that his name is worth more than his services.

The image, more interesting than its original, has become the original. The shadow has become the substance.

The American citizen thus lives in a world where fantasy is more real than reality, where the image has more dignity than its original. We hardly dare face our bewilderment, because our ambiguous experience is so pleasantly iridescent, and the solace of belief in contrived reality is so thoroughly real. We have become eager accessories to the great hoaxes of the age. These are the hoaxes we play on ourselves.

By a diabolical irony the very facsimiles of the world which we make on purpose to bring it within our grasp, to make it less elusive, have transported us into a new world of blurs.

Thanks for coming by,

Gordon

Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), Brooklyn Park, MN, February 12, 2022.

A Radiating Presence Everywhere

We Saw No Tears – gods are strong and cold

We saw no tears during the daily coronavirus updates. Narcissus could not lift his head from his image in the pond. The inner well of empathy was empty. Eternal and solitary, he was imperial and impervious to suffering. Gods don’t cry. Narcissus is strong and cold. He bows to no one but himself. To him every knee must bow. He does not know the truth: Illusion always dies.

A Daffodil Blooms Where Illusion Died

Photo of daffodil

The Resurrection of Empathy

On the spot where vanity dies of thirst, beauty raises its head again. A daffodil breaks through the tamped-down place where Narcissus bowed to himself, and lifts its head to the sky as a silent Ode to Joy.

Compassion floods the Reflecting Pool and radiates from candles on the White House steps in honor of the dead. The wordy self is hushed. Heads are bowed in solemn silence in recognition of what is greater than ourselves. Tears flow. The well of empathy is full again.

Hanging by a Thread — The Pressure of Being and Holiness

One moment I was alone in the room, myself the centre of my own little self-constructed world, the next it was as though I had been flung an infinite distance to some edge or margin, to make room for the enormous  presence and pressure of sheer Being and Holiness that filled the room. I felt the ground go from beneath my feet and suddenly realized that I was utterly dependant, that I was hanging by a thread. But I was content to hang by a thread if only to know that there was, at the heart of things, and radiating everywhere, this Holy Presence.

Malcolm GuiteInterview series with Malcolm Guite — Part I, May 2012.

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), 49 brief reflections on faith and life, available from the publisher HERE and from Amazon HERE; Chaska, MN, March 5, 2021.