Hope for light on Epiphany

Today is the Day of the Epiphany when western Christians celebrate the arrival of the Magi (the “Wise”) at the manger in Bethlehem.

In this dark time of anxiety we look again for the light of an epiphany – a new awakening, a dawning of the light through the shadows – that will help us to circumvent Herod’s cruel way.

Sometimes light comes from the blind, as it did from Fanny Crosby (1890-1920), a poet and hymn writer who lost her sight when she was six-weeks old. Ms. Crosby was educated at the New York Institution for the Blind. She went on to teach English grammar, rhetoric, and American history. She never learned to tweet, but she left us more than one worthy thought that seems apt for this Day of Epiphany when a meeting is taking place on gold-plated chairs in a New York City penthouse.

Oh, the unsearchable riches of Christ!
Wealth that can never be told;
Riches exhaustless or mercy and grace,
Precious, more precious than gold!

May God grant to our blindness the wealth that can never be told – the wisdom and light seen by Fanny Crosby.

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

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela


Forever
A mandala
Mandela’s
Black Center
Radiated
Warm light
To the cold
Perimeter
Of the circle
Of White
Darkness

A Light
In the
Dark night
His light
Does not
Dim.

– Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Dec. 5, 2013

The school bus driver

The white cane moving back and forth in front of him belongs to seven-year-old Sam. The little guy moves cautiously, as the blind must do, hand-in-hand with a young woman I presume to be his mother, on his way into the Artist’s Reception.

Many of the people here on this Friday night are school bus drivers for District 112 School District. I’m wondering if perhaps Sam’s mother is a school bus driver.

Turns out that the featured artist, John Lince-Hopkins, is Sam’s school bus driver. John has invited Sam to see “Morning has broken: a Celebration of Light”, the collection of oil painting that now hangs on the walls of the Gathering Space at Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska where I serve as pastor.

It’s an evening of revelation about a very special group of people who know their passengers by name, quietly welcome each child every morning, say good-bye to them in the afternoon, and watch to be sure that children like Sam with his white cane make it safely across the street no matter what dark clouds may cross their paths that day on their slow, daily journey toward adulthood.

Most of my teachers’ names are long forgotten. But I remember my school bus driver. Why we called Mr. Thompson “Tommy” is a sign of the time in which I grew up when, sadly, school bus drivers did not command the respect that lawyers and doctors do. “Good morning, Gordon.” “Good morning, Mr. Thompson.” All these years later Mr. Thompson stands out in my memory. Bus drivers are special people. Perhaps because they call no attention to themselves, they stand out in our memories as signs of light.

John welcomes Sam in that special way some bus drivers have. “Would you like to see a painting?”

John, whose art has sold for thousands of dollars in Texas, Alaska, New Mexico, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, is inviting Sam to do what most landscape artists most dread. He’s inviting Sam to touch his paintings, to “see” the only way Sam can: by touch.

Lifted high so he can touch the oils of the cloud formations and the light of “Morning Has Broken: a Celebration of Light” Sam reaches out his hand. Very carefully he runs his fingers over the dry paint that allows him to see the light and contours of the clouds and landscapes of his bus driver’s paintings, more raptly attentive to the art than those of us who presume to see what we are viewing.

On this night John’s art is a bus ride into the light of morning breaking into the darkness of night. A seven-year-old boy named Sam, whose eyes have never seen light, gets to touch it for himself.

Morning has broken like the first morning, blackbird has spoken like the first bird. Praise for the singing! Praise for the morning! Praise for them, springing, fresh from the Word!”

Alt-Facts and the ‘Anti-Christ’

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Views from the Edge re-publishes this piece on Maundy Thursday, 2017. It first appeared here on March 24, 2010. Sadly, nothing much has changed. The U.S. was sucker-punched by the apocalyptic spirituality of the alt-right politics of Rush Limbaugh and Steve Bannon.

Something from the Christian tradition – the idea of ‘the Anti-Christ’ – is lifting its ugly head, a word and concept that could trigger unthinkable tragedy unless we clean up our civil discourse.

According to Harris Interactive Poll taken between March 1 and 8, “more than 20% believe [President Obama] was not born in the United States, that he is ‘the domestic enemy the U.S. Constitution speaks of,’ that he is racist and anti-American, and that he ‘wants to use an economic collapse or terrorist attack as an excuse to take dictatorial powers.’ Fully 20% think he is ‘doing many of the things that Hitler did,’ while 14% believe ‘he may be the anti-Christ’ and 13% think ‘he wants the terrorists to win.”

The poll reflects what we all know: our civic health as a nation is being poisoned by inflammatory rhetoric from both sides of the political aisle. This toxic disregard for truth lies behind the results of the Harris Poll. Trigger words like ‘socialist,’ ‘communist,’ ‘terrorist,’ ‘anti-American,’ and ‘the Anti-Christ’ and the allegation that America’s first black president is the nation’s chief domestic enemy take us beyond the McCarthyism of the ‘50s. This cocktail is lethal.

As a Christian pastor I rue the use of Christian scripture to stoke the fires of fear and hate. The Christian life – or spiritual life of any sort, for that matter – is a life of discernment about the powers that shape ordinary life. It is not blind to evil. But loud spirituality is an oxymoron. We need to be reminded that all the great religions hold some version of the essential tenet expressed in the First Letter of John. “Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is in the darkness still” and “If any one says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar, for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him, that he who loves God should love his brother also.”

Labeling the President of the United States ‘the Anti-Christ” gives deranged minds a license to kill . . . in the name of the non-violent, crucified Jesus. If some deranged American patriot like the Marine who plotted to assassinate the President should succeed . . . God forbid! . . . the blood will be on the hands of all who remained silent when the hate speech was being poured into the public stream of consciousness. And if you claim to be a disciple of Jesus, get yourself to church Maundy Thursday and Good Friday to ground yourself again in the love that conquers hate and fear.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Maundy Thursday morning, Chaska, MN.

Clouds

green storm clouds – Kay Stewart photography

Tonight the storm blew in

Darkness covering the deep.

Green-sky funnel clouds

threatening everything that is

passed over, passed over

blew on past

while beauty rarely seen swept in

as morning follows night.

yellow puffs of mercy,

puffs of wonder,

yellow cotton-candy light

puffed across the sky

pushed by first-light breeze

that cooled the skin

refreshed the air and

took my breath away!

– Gordon C. Stewart, Mother’s Day, 2004

Yellow cotton-candy clouds – Kay Stewart Photography

Latest “All Things Considered” commentary

During campaign season, maintaining serenity is a good trick

by Gordon C. Stewart, “All Things Considered” guest commentary (MPR)

Aired August 20, 2012

Click HERE for the Minnesota Public Radio publication, including an Audio link. Here’s the text.
.

Some days are brightened by a trip to the nursing home.

Take last Monday, for instance.

The members of the group that meets every Monday at 10 a.m. shuffle in on their walkers, or roll in, in their wheel chairs.

Ninety-seven-year-old Frances (not her real name; nor are the others to follow) walks in without assistance. Her 78-year-old son is dying of cancer. Another relative, 30 years younger than she, is next door in the memory care unit. “Good morning!” she says.

Georgana has been confined to a wheelchair all her life. But her mind is as sharp as her sense of humor. Gwen, who’ll be 90 this week, is coming to the end with hospice care. Pat, recently moved from Assisted Living to the Care Center, is in a wheelchair. All 12 of them smile and offer each other greetings: “Good morning!”

This morning I’ve watched too many campaign ads brought to my computer by Unedited Politics, a website that republishes campaign ads and political speeches without editorial comment. I’m all stirred up.

The 12 people from the nursing home have been drawn here by their desire for light. “Rejoice!” says the reading for the morning. “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation ….”

I ask: How do you rejoice in a nursing home? What is the secret of being content when your body and your mind don’t do what they once did?

Listening to their reflections reminds me of how small our footprint is on the larger world. They share my distress about the news, but their years have taught them to recognize light wherever it meets them and to relish the little things of daily life: a smile, a kind word, the cardinal and the squirrels playing outside their windows, a sense of inner peace, a strange contentment. I hope to be more like them — to pay more attention to the things that are beautiful, admirable and lovely.

While they shuffle out on their walkers and roll out in their wheelchairs, Frances, Georgana, Gwen, Pat and the rest of the ad hoc community at the nursing home thank me for coming and wish me a good week. They have lightened my step. I’ll still pay attention to the news, but I’ll listen and watch with a greater lightness of being.

In remembrance of Leah Thomas

Leah Thomas was an attorney at the Legal Rights Center. Born and raised in southside Chicago, Leah’s older brother had been a member of the Black Panthers. She was raised with the cry for social justice in her bones, full of faith, smiles, laughter, and steadiness, a sturdy legal advocate and “mother” to the juvenile clients she defended in Hennepin County District Court.

She fainted one morning getting her coffee at Panera Bread. Days later she was gone. The funeral was held at her African-American church in Minneapolis. As Executive Director of the Legal Rights Center and Leah’s colleague and friend, I offered the following Tribute to Leah at the funeral.

Like light

Like joy

Like sun breaking through a storm

Her laughter

Brightens the room

Breaks the ice

Fills it with peace.

Mama walks lightly

Amid the trials and the cares

Quick as a black panther

Steady as a turtle

She coos with the tenderness

of the turtle-dove

walks with the strength of a lion.

With steady hand

With sturdy faith

And clarity of mind

She laughs

And soars her craft

Through clouds and storms

To lead us on and through.

Like light,

Like joy,

Like sun breaking through a storm,

She laughs,

She brightens the room,

She wipes our tears

She fills us with her peace.

– Gordon C. Stewart, Legal Rights Center, Inc., Feb. 1, 2005.

Take Away our Numbness – A Memorial to Sydney Mahkuk

These words were spoken on the sidewalk where 12-year-old Sydney Mahkuk died. Community leaders and Sydney’s family asked me to bring some kind of meaning and hope to the sidewalk where Sydney had been dumped from a car by the side of the funeral home.

November 4, 2005

Gordon C. Stewart

Executive Director, Legal Rights Center, Inc.

Once upon a time a proud people lived on this land. They called themselves Ojibwe, Anishinabe, Dakota, Lakota, and Winnebago. Occasionally a Menominee would visit.  They lived close to the land.  They hunted. They fished. They gave thanks to the Great Spirit for every day.  They saw themselves as part of nature. They rose with the sun. When the sun went down, they gathered in a circle by the light of the campfire.  By the light of the campfire, they listened to the elders, whose stories broke the silence to told the children who they were.  The children went to bed in safety.

Shabbona, Potawatami Chief, c. 1775 – 1859

They were people of great dignity.  Their ways were good ways.  They respected the land. They respected each other.  They honored their elders.  They cared for the children.  They trained their youth to become adults.  They died with dignity.  They were buried with honor. Earth was their mother. Gitchi Manitu, Wakan Tonka, the Great Spirit, was the common Grandfather of them all.

Then something terrible happened.  A plague came across their land.  It took their land.  It stole their culture.  It laughed at their spiritual practices.  It called them names.  It tore down their tepees, their longhouses and their sweat lodges.  And in their places the plague built big buildings – tall buildings, arrogant buildings, skyscrapers, they called them, that invaded the sky, turning the land into something it is not.  The Ojibwe and Dakota who lived here no longer rose with the sun.  They no longer gathered around the campfire.  They no longer heard the stories of who they were.  They knew only what the white plague had taught them – that unless they joined the plague, they were nobody, and that if they challenged it, they would lose.  They would die.

And so they lived in grief.  A sorrow too hard to bear.  A loss too great to carry.  And the plague offered them relief to numb the pain – firewater that would make them happy in spite of their despair.  Drugs to drive away the memories of who they were.  Escapes to make them numb.  To numb the pain.  Opiates to freeze their tongues.

The elders no longer acted like elders.  The parents were numb with grief.  There were no aunts.  No uncles. No cousins.  No grandparents.  Nobody dared to be a neighbor.  The children were left with no campfire at night – no community to tell them the stories of who they were and who they were not – and so the children and the youth drifted out into the night in search of themselves.  Locked in lonely prisons of confusion, the youth no longer knew Mother Earth as their Mother; they no longer knew how to give thanks to the Great Spirit for the day.  They no longer went to bed with the sun.  They wandered the night in search of the community they had lost and never known.  And the gangs and the drugs and the alcohol offered them the promises of a better life that was the kiss of death.  Ecstasy was no longer a way of life – it was a pill that would make them higher than the skyscrapers that ruined the once humble landscape.  And sometimes the alcohol and the drugs and the gangs that had promised to numb their pain took their lives and they were found in the morning as the sun came up.  They were found by strangers.

Sydney Mahkuk, RIP

Then one day a girl named Sidney, a 12 year-old Menominee-Portawatami, was found beside a funeral home on Columbus Avenue. How she got there nobody knew.  How she died, nobody knew.  But everybody knew why.

The community had unravelled.  It had become dry bones in the valley.

But on that day that the people gathered on the sidewalk on Columbus Avenue to mourn her death, there was a sound from heaven – a rattling, the sound of dry bones coming together, a resurrection of the once proud community. And as a result Sidney Mahkuk’s tragic death the community came together as it had not come together since the plague had begun.

On the day they gathered on Columbus Avenue – a street named after the European explorer who had not discovered their land – on that day, the community woke from its sleep.  It came together – Ojibwe, Dakota, Menominee, Potawatami, Lakota, African-American, Somali, Hispanic, Hmong …and, yes, even the descendants of Columbus.  And on that day, because of a little girl’s unexplained death, they stood together arm in arm and said “Enough” to the plague.  “Enough” to numbness.  They said, “No more. No more. No more death on Columbus’s Avenue.”  And it was more than words.  They looked up at the sun again and really saw it…as if for the first time. They looked down at Mother Earth and saw it, as if for the first time.  And they gave thanks.  Then they looked at each other and they said, “We are a proud people.  We will take back this land.  We will be the people who honor our elders.  We will be the people who support the parents and care for the children.  We will be the people who guide the youth.  We will be a people of hope, not despair.  We will be a people of love, not hate.  We are all Menominee-Potawatami. We are all grandchildren of one Grandfather.  We are the people who care for each other.  We are the people who refuse to go numb.  We are the people who will teach the children of Columbus – starting right here, right now… on Columbus Avenue – how to live in a good way with Mother Earth, in a good way with Iraq, in a good way with the rivers and the sky, the ozone and the sun.  We are the people whose spirituality will help to cure the cancer of the spiritual and economic plague that has left our people in despair.

From that day on, November 4, 2005 at twelve noon, 12 year-old Sidney Mahkuk – our daughter, our granddaughter, our little sister, our friend, our neighbor – would be forever remembered as the one whose deadly silence on this sidewalk spoke so loudly that we could not stay numb.  And we took the city back and brought it back to life.

Merciful God – Wakon Tonka, Gitchi Manitu, God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Jehovah, Allah, Grandfather, Great Spirit who breathes life into all things and receives all life at the end – Your’s is the air we breath, the land on which we walk.  Assure us that your love is stronger than every power to divide or hurt us.  Receive your child Sidney into your eternal care.  Wrap your arms around Glenda, around Sidney’s brothers and sisters, around all the defenseless children of the night, around all of us who mourn their plight and mourn Sidney’s death.  Re-kindle the light of faith and hope. Take from our souls the plague of hate, self-hatred and despair.  Take away the numbness and the apathy.  Make us a people of healing.  A humble and quiet people, but a proud people of love and spiritual strength. A people who are not afraid to feel the pain, who really feel the loss, who feel our feelings and do not fear them.  A people who dare to believe that every tear that falls from our eyes flows into the common stream of human suffering that leads into the ocean of community restored.  A people secure in the knowledge of your love.  Amen.

Heaven on the Bridge at Big Sur

Sometimes the present is heavenly. Click HERE for one of those times. This photo of the Bixby Bridge, Big Sur, California, by Max Granz posted on Photobotos.com is ethereal…and Eartlhy real. Leave the photo up for a few minutes to relax your day…or bring calm to your night.

You cover Yourself with a garment,

who has stretched out the heavens like a tent,

who has laid the beams of Your chambers on the waters    …who makes the winds Your messengers,

fire and flame (and headlights?) Your ministers.”

– Psalm 104

Leave a comment here or on the Photobotos site, as I did, to appreciate the photograph and to thank the patient photographer.