Preaching to Myself

The longer I live, the less I know. The less I have lived, the more I think I know.

“Knowledge puffs up; but love builds up.”(I Cor. 8:1b)

These words seem strange to those of us who value education. But peeking into the internal squabble within the First Century CE Corinthian church (First Corinthians 8:1-13) may also give us an unexpected peek into ourselves in 2015.

There is a tension between knowledge and love. The better educated among us see the relation between knowledge and love as complimentary. Love and knowledge grow together into ever expanding circles of freedom, like snakes shedding their skins and lobsters shedding their shells for bigger skins and shells that can hold their more mature selves.

Yet we are sometimes scornful of the less educated, the concrete thinkers, the legalists who are certain about what little knowledge they have. We are quick to join Paul’s opinion that “Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge ….” (I Corinthians 8:2). A little knowledge is a very dangerous thing. True education leads not only to increasing knowledge but to increasing awareness of one’s own vast ignorance.

We think of Copernicus and Galileo who challenged the prevailing knowledge, and those who judged them for their unbelief, a new “knowledge” that has changed the human view of our place in a vast, expanding universe. Or we think of Darwin and the Scopes Trial – the showdown between the knowledge of evolution and the ignorance of the creationists. We think of the difference between enlightened biblical scholarship that interprets Scripture through the eyes of love’s expansion and the biblical inerrantists who insist that the Bible be taken literally, such that the book is closed on matters of human sexuality.

“‘All of us possess knowledge.’ Knowledge puffs up; but love builds up.” 

Paul makes a masterful move here in the chess game of the knowers. He says that all the “knowers” know little, and that those who know more – the stronger in faith – are in greater danger than those who know less – the weaker in faith.

He is writing to the strong, the ones who are more advanced in the knowledge of the liberty to which Christ has set them free. “But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.” Knowledge itself puts us on trial, the trial of humility, the trial of love. Paul calls for the stronger to be humble lest what they assume to know become the new idolatry that places Christ’s weaker followers on the cross of educated privilege.

The Christian claim of faith is not our knowledge, no matter how great or small. The claim of the disciples of Jesus is God’s knowledge of us. It is God’s knowing us that is the heart of faith for followers of the crucified, risen Christ. It is God’s knowledge -the wisdom of love – into which we are baptized as novices. One might even say, we die to every claim but love.

We are saved by grace through faith, not by works. For the likes of me and my progressive friends and colleagues in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and for members of the church who are choosing to leave the PC(USA) because of what they regard as excessive liberty, knowledge sometimes becomes the new “works” that substitute for justification by grace.

To be justified (i.e. made “right” with God) by grace through faith, as Paul understood it, represents a 180 degree repentance, a reversal of the direction and flow of the human-divine encounter from us to God to from God to us. Paul later speaks of the practical implications of love with respect to all claims of knowledge:

“And if I ….understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” (I. Co. 13:2)

“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it his not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (I Corinthians 4-7)

I am among those who remain puzzled by what to do. It’s far from simple. Paul’s description of the Christ-like life is centered, but it’s not simple. The patience and kindness come hard when faced with what I am sure are the weaker, more homophobic folks whose view of Scripture supports their opposition to the full inclusion of LGBTQ members. I boast of a greater knowledge based on love. In the name of love, I become arrogant. I am rude. I have a short fuse. I want to separate myself and the more enlightened from the less enlightened, the weaker, as Paul might say. In their presence I quickly become irritable, resentful of their presence in the Body of Christ. I do not bear all things. I do not believe all things, hope all things, endure all things. I do not believe that if I understand all mysteries and have all knowledge but have not love, I am nothing.

Though Paul was writing his letter to the tumultuous church at Corinth in the middle of the First Century CE, his words still speak. They arrive unexpectedly like a surgeon’s scalpel removing a cancer for the sake of the Body of Christ. The gospel cuts with a knife, but it is always for the sake of healing, a dying to ego for the sake of the resurrected Body of Christ.

Gracious Lord, by your healing mercy, keep me in the knowledge of Your love.

– Gordon C. Stewart, Sunday, Feb. 1, 2015.

Joy and Gratitude – my cousin Alan

Over lunch today my 89 year-old friend asked what had drawn my attention to my paralyzed first cousin Alan who never spoke a word due to Cerebral Palsy (see Views from the Edge’s  post “Father and Son – Bob and Alan”).

Alan was completely helpless. His body was rigid. He had no control over his bodily functions or anything else. He was utterly dependent on his family. He could not feed himself. He couldn’t speak. Even so, his eyes communicated joy.

The joy of kinship and love came from inside himself in spite of all.  I want the joy and gratitude that emanated from Alan’s eyes and smile whenever we came into each other’s presence. Control is a debilitating disability – an isolating illusion – among the “abled”.

You might not believe this

Mark Andrew after shopping at the Mall of America

Mark Andrew after shopping at the Mall of America

A year ago Mark Andrew was beaten within an inch of his life. We commented on the assault at the Mall of America at the time and are moved to comment now on the unusual sentence handed down yesterday in the case of his primary assailant.

Click “Young woman who beat Mark Andrews receives no jail time – at his request” – for the story aired yesterday by All Things Considered on Minnesota Public Radio.

Mark Andrew, man of compassionate wisdom

Mark Andrew, man of compassionate wisdom

There is judgment and there is mercy. Mark Andrew is a man of faith. He was taught and he believes that God’s judgment is always a function of God’s love, and, as Cornel West puts it, that “justice is what love looks like in public.”

 

Give up your faith

“For 40 years,” writes Steve, “I had been a Pastor on college campuses where many students were of the marrying age, and perhaps because I would not accept money for weddings, was often asked to officiate.”

Verse -“Give Up Your Faith”

was what I told several Christians
who were wanting to marry
someone of another Faith.
“It’s the Christian thing to do,”
I said. “Give up what you love
for the person you love.”
(“Remember the Golden Rule?”)

Only a very few became Muslim,
or Buddhist, or Hindu or Jewish,
but I felt those who did were
showing clearly the love of Jesus…
I was glad to be an evangelist.

– Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL, October 11, 2013

An acrostic verse: Missa Solemnis

“Missa Solemnis”

LORD HAVE MERCY begins the Mass
Under the baton of Maestro
Dean Craig Jessop. The last word: PEACE.
Wisdom and beauty from solo
Instrument, the mass choir, voice
Go to the top of Cathedral.

Vast walls of sound show pain also,
Arising from those who are cruel.
Nothing human escapes alto,

Bass and tenor and soprano.
Even a skeptic like Ludvig
Enlisted to create music,
Tries to make out of the tragic:
Hope, faith, love, kindness, and courage.
Overwhelmed by suffering, he
Values still signs of human will.
Even though stone deaf, he can be
Nurturing peace and harmony.

– Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL August 7, 2013

EDITOR’S NOTE: Craig Jessop is Dean of the College of the Arts at Utah State University, and former Director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

Remembering Will Campbell

Will Campbell

Will Campbell

Will Campbell (1924-2013) is unforgettable. Beyond unusual, he was idiosyncratic. In death, he calls us to the deeper selves we so easily lose.

Will Campbell was that rare person of integrity who seemed to fulfill the hard calling described once by his friend William Stringfellow – “to be the same person everywhere all the time” – and his different places still blow the mind.

He was idiosyncratic. Who else would or could march at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and ‘60s, once the law was changed, turn his ministry to sipping whiskey with the Good Ol’ Boys on the front porches of the Ku Klux Klan?

Campbell was a son of the Deep South, a white Southern Baptist preacher raised in Mississippi, who betrayed his white privilege as a matter of Gospel discipleship. He became one of the closest friends of the youth Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the only white person present at the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference that led the charge for Civil Rights in America. He was trusted that much.

His life was threatened repeatedly. He gained national prominence as a field worker for the Department of Racial and Cultural Relations of the National Council of Churches, the nation’s largest ecumenical council that suffered heavy criticism from anti-civil rights forces across the country, but especially in the Deep South. The National Council of Churches and Will Campbell were to their critics what the KKK was to those who worked to eliminate segregation in America.

When the nine black school children walked through hostile crowds to integrate the public school system in Little Rock, Arkansas, Will Campbell was one of four people at their side.

He became Director of the Committee of Southern Churchman, a position he used to promote racial reconciliation, his vocation until the day he died.

With the passage of the Civil Right Act, the man who spent his ministry to help win freedom for blacks did something no one could have imagined. He chose to re-direct his ministry to the new lepers of society, the defeated hooded enemies of integration, the Ku Klux Klan.

No one but Will Campbell would have done this, and few others could have done this. But he did. He became known as the chaplain to the KKK. Campbell wrote in Brother to a Dragonfly, one of 26 publications that bear his name:

“I had become a doctrinaire social activist without consciously choosing to be. And I would continue to be some kind of social activist. But there was a decided difference. Because from that point on I came to understand the nature of tragedy. And one who understands the nature of tragedy can never take sides.”

Will Campbell was not a hater. He was a reconciler who loved people. All kinds and conditions of people, even his ‘enemies’. He was the same person everywhere all the time.

He confused his critics – first the Right and then the Left – by insisting that his soul did not belong to any team – racial, political, religious, cultural. It belonged to the Kingdom of God. There was only one team, and that was the family of ALL God’s children everywhere. Compassion came first in his hierarchy of values. Compassion led him to campaign for justice in the Civil Rights Movement, and compassion led him to sip whiskey with the cross-burners in the rocking chairs on their front porches. His was a ministry of reconciliation, a living, idiosyncratic expression a bold declaration of the biblical gospel that God was in Christ reconciling the world to God’s own Self.

The notice of Will’s death (June 3, 2013) at the age of 88 in Nashville, Tennessee reminded me of just how hard it is to be a disciple of Jesus, how hard it is to love my neighbor as myself, especially when the neighbor is the enemy of my own claims to righteousness. Would that all of us were as idiosyncratic as Will.

Alt-Facts and the ‘Anti-Christ’

Talk radio host

Talk radio host

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.

A Mother’s Love

Katie and Kay (Mom) at Katie's graduation.

Katie and Kay (Mom) at Katie’s graduation.

Today Kay shared this at the cemetery as we laid to rest the ashes of her first-born daughter Katherine (“Katie”)

For Christ to have gone before us,
To have kept us from ultimate sadness,
To be our brother, our advocate,
The One who ushers in the Kingdom,
Here
And the One to come,

Does not keep us from our digging today.
We still gather here and throw the dirt on our sacred dust,
We take the shovel like all those gone before us
And surrender to the Unknowable—
The place where
Love and Beauty and Kindness grow wild.
Where sorrow has no needs,
Where there is all beginning and
Nothing ends.

I know this Love of hers lives on. I feel it.
I watch it in many streams of synchronicity,
Where my heart leaps from memory’s knowing,
Where I share a breath from her beyond.

And then I cry in secret,
Begging that she return

On my terms.

But if my begging is selfish,
The answer to it is not.
If I but knew the splendor of that Place where Love lives,
I would marvel in her good fortune
And ponder her grace inside a timeless waiting for us,
A begging for our good fortune
To come on her terms.

We live our lives in time.
She lives all time as Splendor.
We are bound between this stalemate
And the mystery that is our promise.

Until then we have no other luxury than
To shout her precious memories to the sky
In loud thanksgiving that Love herself lived with us awhile.

Then, because we live with fuller hearts
From knowing more than before our loss,
We turn our shovels over
As those with little other choice for now.
For now we dig.
And shed our tears
With greater Trust.

Thy Kingdom come,
Thy will be done,
On earth as it is
In heaven.

– Kay Stewart, Chaska, MN, May 9, 2013,
the third anniversary of loss and fuller hearts.

Just leave me alone!

JESUS CHRIST!
(An Acrostic Conversation
for Holy Week, 2013 A.D.)

Just leave me alone!
Enough already!
Stay out of my life!
Useless you! I have
Success on my own!

Come unto me all you
Heavy burdened.
Receive my peace.
I give you life,
Salvation…
Then love one another.

– Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL, March 26, 2013

FURTHER REFLECTION (gcs)

In the tradition of Nietzsche’s parable of The Mad Man who enters the public square at midnight to cry out “God is dead! God is dead! And we have killed him, you and I,” Willem Zuurdeeg (author of An Analytical Philosophy of Religion, and Man Before Chaos: Philosophy Is Born in a Cry), declared that

Christ has been crucified by an Order which refused to be disturbed by him (Dostoevsky’s legend of the Grand Inquisitor). Christ historically was killed by the justifying Order of the Law. We establish similar Orders!

Zuurdeeg was part of the compassionate underground in The Netherlands that provided refuge for Jews fleeing the horrors of the Order of the German Third Reich. He spent his life in search for an answer to the question of how such a proud and sophisticated culture could become the perpetrator of unthinkable evil. During his years in the United States, he saw once more a social, economic, political, religious Order (Western Democracy and Capitalism) that muzzles the shameless crying out for what we so desperately need (Freud).”Contrasted to modern man (sic) who cannot cry, primitive man (sic) was not ashamed to cry, and his culture provided him with living, vital forms of crying out.”

We are offered a significant choice, namely between two ways of being human. The difference between logical necessities or physical necessities and vital necessities is made clear in that in the latter we have the possibility of refusing ‘to turn away from a disaster’ – we can in fact choose a lesser way of being human over a fuller way. What is at stake in the necessity of cry is one’s own humanity, the meaning of one’s own existence, and to turn away from crying is to turn away from decision and responsibility. This is to deny the very possibility of becoming genuinely human.

Man Before Chaos , published after Zuurdeeg’s untimely death at the age of 57, ends with the unedited notes from the sermon he preached to his students and faculty colleagues in the McGaw Chapel of McCormick Theological Seminary. Here is the conclusion of his sermon.

God is dead (II). This is now turned around. In principle the man gods, of the Primitive Order, the Law, of the Founding Fathers, o9f Democracy, of Reason, of Being (Necessary Being, Being-Itself), of a moral World Order – these are the gods who are dead. They are “idols in the sense that they exist only because we believe in them. They are dead, in principle, in hope, though the present reality is different…. And the God who is alive is Jesus Christ.

Jazz – the language of love and awe

“Who is your favorite jazz pianist?”

“Bill Evans,” came the quick reply from Ted Godbout, the jazz pianist who came to us out of the blue as a candidate for the music position at the little church in Chaska, MN where jazz is the language of love and awe.

In the news Michael Jordan is defending himself against a young man’s claim that he is Air Jordan’s “love child” who deserves more of Michael’s time. Listening to Ted Godbout at his audition, I wondered….

We sent Ted’s DNA to the lab for testing :-). He’s that good. And only 29! Ted leads the music at Shepherd of the Hill for the first this Sunday, March 10.

Extracts from the Visitors page of the church website speak of the language of jazz.

Imagine a place…

a church, actually, your church,……

where it is a safe place to land, for a bit of time

while you marvel….

and wonder, and revel in

love…..

and justice…..

and mercy….

where the questions get clearer and

better questions replace them….

where your heart burns to return

Again and again……

where jazz is the language of love……

and love, the language of

Awe…….

where God is a three letter word again….

spoken to soothe your tired feet…

On your journey of becoming

more of who Love intended you to be,

(since you have heard it said, “fear not….”)