If you love him, why not serve him?

Fourth in a series on “Jacob’s Ladder at Almost 75”

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The time with Tony on Green Street changed my life in ways I could not have expected when the junior high youth group had left Broomall that morning to do a good deed for “the less fortunate” — an act of Christian service, as we would have called it — in north Philadelphia.

Romanelli_Chronos_and_his_child

Chronos and his Child by Giovanni Francesco Romanelli, National Museum in Warsaw, a 17th century depiction of Titan Cronus as “Father Time,” wielding a harvesting scythe

Time is a funny thing. Chronos (clock time) and Kairos (existential time) both happen on the clock but they are not the same.

Chronological time ticks forward, leaving every previous moment behind; Kairos stops time and re-orients the future.

The hours on Green Street are as fresh at the three-quarter century mark as the day they happened.

“If you love him, why not serve him, soldier of the cross?” asks Jacob’s Ladder of all who aspire to follow Jesus. If Jesus could stoop down to wash his disciples’ feet, surely we could go down to Green Street for a day.

The kids from Marple Church in Broomall left that morning to do just that. We went to serve as a different kind of army, the philanthropic foot-washing soldiers of goodness giving up a Saturday to carry heavy furniture at a ghetto settlement house with other young soldiers of the cross from the inner city African-American Berean Presbyterian Church.

“If you love him, why not serve him?”

We put on our work clothes, travelled to Green Street, and rolled up our sleeves in the strange new world of the Green Street Settlement House.

Although we knew spirituals like “Jacob’s Ladder” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” we had little if any idea of their socio-economic-policitical origins or implications. Although we were conscious of their origins in chattel slavery, we were northerners. We knew nothing of W.E. DuBois, and Michael Harrington’s The Other America, William Stringfellow’s My People Is the Enemy, James Cone’s The Spirituals and the Blues and Black Theology and Black Power were years away from being published. Reading them would come years later.

During an afternoon break, the woman who organized the day asked Tony to go home to get something they needed. Perhaps it was a screwdriver. Or maybe a rubber band. It doesn’t matter. I went “home” with Tony. “When we get home,” said Tony as best I can recall it, “my brother might be there. If he’s there, he’ll be sitting in the corner. Just ignore him and you’ll be okay. He won’t like you being there.”

What_s_in_a_name_-_The_Problem_with_the__Nation_of_Islam__(part_1_of_2)_001Tony’s older brother Danny didn’t like white people. He had left the church to become a convert to The Nation.

The furthest thing from the mind of the loving servants of Jesus from Broomall was that someone might not like white people.  Or that Tony’s brother would see Christian “service” as servile — a demeaning attack on black dignity and pride — or see the “soldiers of the cross” as the problem, not the solution. Danny didn’t look up during our brief visit to the Lewis’s home.

The day with Tony shook my sense of innocence to its foundations. It was a Kairos moment — a deconstruction and reconstruction of faith and consciousness that continues at age 75.

But each person’s autobiography is distinct. I didn’t realize until this morning how much my memory of the day is a guy‘s memory of it. I was lifting heavy furniture with a kid named Tony, getting to know each other carrying sofas and chairs from one location to the next. Although neither Tony nor I was big or strong, my diminutive friend Carolyn was smaller . . .  and she was a member of the “weaker sex,” as it was called by some back then.

Only yesterday did I learn that my dear Broomall friend Carolyn was having anything but a Kairos moment scrubbing a toilet on Chronos time all by herself. Carolyn’s email reads as follows:

I had a very strange time. It seemed to them, and I’m sure they were correct, that I couldn’t do some of the heavy lifting, so they set me to sandpapering a few layers of awful paint off the toilet seat. I worked hard at it all day, and only got about half done when they remembered I was there and I was embarrassed that in all that time I had not finished my only project. They were very nice about it. But I didn’t get a chance to meet any of the Berean folks except the lady who gave me the job.

Reading Carolyn’s memory takes me in different directions that change the intent of this reflection: the difference gender, as well as racial privilege, seems to have made scraping multiple layers of paint and who knows what else from a crusty toilet seat, a task that may have been all too familiar to the woman who assigned the job to Carolyn.

maidSome Chronos moments are Kairos moments, as the day with Tony was for me. Others are time bent over a toilet seat. The difference is as clear as black and white, poor and rich. How many of the women from Berean rose every morning to put on their maid uniforms to catch the subway and the Red Arrow bus to become invisible, forgotten “soldiers of the cross” in the wealthy homes on the Main Line an hour’s ride west of Philadelphia?

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, August 9, 2017.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Every round goes higher, higher”

Part 2 of “Jacob’s Ladder at Almost 75”

As a child and youth, Jacob’s Ladder touched something deep within me. I couldn’t have described what it was or why at the time.

Looking back, it was a happy song. We were all climbing. Getting older meant climbing higher, getting taller, becoming mature, successful adult “soldiers of the cross.”

“Every round goes higher, higher.”

It expressed a joyful innocence and confidence. I had no knowledge of the economic-political origins of the ‘spiritual’ until much later.

The connection between the slaves’ faith, or their understanding of what it meant to be a “soldier of the cross” — the struggle for economic-political liberation, climbing “higher” to freedom in the North — was as far from consciousness as white is from black.

As a 13 year-old, Jacob’s Ladder expressed an innocent childhood hope during those hormone-challenging years when ascending the ladder toward adult self-sufficiency felt like a fireman trying to save  an 800-pound gorilla in a raging fire. All I could do was stay on the ladder, hoping that human equivalents of angels might be there to catch me when I fell.  The closest thing to angels were people like Mr. and Mrs. Kidder and friends who encouraged my upward progress from childhood to adulthood. Surely some progress must be made.

Faith still meant climbing higher on a ladder that was going someplace, as the Genesis story (Genesis 28:10-19a) of the ladder between heaven and earth seemed to say. We were on the upward ladder.

Then, something happened.

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

 

Jacob’s Ladder at almost 75

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.

 

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 Ladder

I’m working this morning on the familiar spiritual of Jacob’s Ladder, trying to unpack why it is so meaningful to people at different life stages and in all sorts of circumstances. I’m looking back now over 72 years of singing it or – or shunning it at one point along the way. I didn’t like the “soldier” part.

We are climbing Jacob’s ladder
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder,
Soldiers of the cross.

 

We are climbing higher, higher….

Why did it mean so much to me as a teenager “climbing higher, higher”? It was a spiritual journey, a confusing one that tried to connect the war-torn, racist world of Earth with heaven, and the call to climb higher, higher to close the gap. But I suspect psychologically it also gave me some assurance about the challenges of growing up, getting wiser perhaps, more independent, climbing into adulthood. The journey was a struggle that made me feel sometimes like a soldier inside my own skin and the world around me.

But long before I sang it in church camp, it was sung by American slaves. It expressed the faith and hope of liberation from chattel slavery. They sang without apology as “soldiers of the cross” (beaten, tortured and crucified like Jesus), on their way up “every rung” going higher, higher (farther north) to a land that lured them like heaven itself.

I go to YouTube and find Pete Seeger’s wonderful, cheerful rendition that replaces the original “soldier of the cross” with “brothers, sisters, all” and remember that I, too, have joined him in feeling the need to eliminate the military language. “Soldier” and “cross” are oxymoronic. It was the soldiers who did the crucifying, and it was the soldiers of the white militias who terrorized the slaves’ hopes.

No sooner do I listen to Peter’s rendition than I listen to Paul Robson who found no reason to eliminate the “soldiers of the cross” – perhaps because Robson knew that he and we are engaged in a kind of combat and the strange pairing of soldier and cross carries its own power and meaning. Robson, as you may know, was a Communist who would have seen every rung going higher, higher the way Pete saw it – steps on the upward course of human progress toward a kind of heaven conceived as classless society, a kinder world. “Thy kingdom come on earth, as it is in heaven.”

I have been in all of these places a thousand times. Youthful, hopeful, visionary, climbing. But now I concentrate on things I missed in the earlier stages of youth, building a career, rising higher and higher on the professional and economic ladders of “success” or imagining and hoping the world was getting better.

I notice now as never before that the biblical text of Jacob’s dream is not of Jacob’s upward climb. Jacob never steps on the ladder. Angels (messengers) do, ascending to the heavens and descending to where he is in a kind of no-man’s land where everything he has ever known is at risk, the way I am in an in-between time between the today’s earthly beauty and climate departure, the scorching of the planet. Like Jacob, I have an “Aha!” moment: “Surely YHWH (the un-pronounable Hebrew name for G-d) is in this place, and I did not know it!”

So I’m reflecting now on the importance of this temporary, mortal, finite “place” in time where YHWH (the Breath of Life) is already present, and the need to surrender the idea that I need to climb to somewhere else.

Jacob’s Dream: the Great Reversal

This sermon at Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska, Minnesota focuses on what is commonly known as Jacob’s Ladder, Jacob’s dream of a ladder set up between heaven and earth, ending with his exclamation “Surely God was in this place and I did not know it.”