Fred Was Right

A father sometimes knows his son better than his son knows himself. Occasionally — but rarely — he knows him better than the boy’s mother. Parental conversations leading to decisions about a troubled child’s welfare are private. But the outcomes of  decisions are sometimes a matter of public record.


Mary Anne

Imagine, for instance, a conversation between Fred and Mary Anne about their difficult son whose behavior at school was bringing shame to the family name. Mary Anne, a Scottish-born immigrant raised in a small fishing village on the Outer Hebrides’ Isle of Lewis, was aghast at her son’s rude behavior.

A product of her Scottish Presbyterian heritage, Mary Anne had a high sense of right and wrong, and a low sense of human nature — and of the British crown. “Fred,” she said, “I don’t like the Queen! Donald thinks he’s a king! I don’t like that! I didn’t raise my son to be a Brit, let alone a monarch!”

“Mary,” said Fred, “it is troubling and he’s troubled. He needs discipline. He needs boundaries. If we don’t act soon, he’ll be sent off to reform school by the end of the year.”

“Fred, if your strict discipline here at home hasn’t reformed him,” said Mary, ”a reform school won’t do any better. I think we need to think outside the box. I can’t take it anymore. I’m tired of his insults, and the faces he makes. He makes fun my work with kids who have cerebral palsy and adults with intellectual disabilities. They’re not ‘crips’ and ‘morons’! And I’m not ‘illegal’. He thinks he’s the Queen! If you don’t agree with him, you’re just a Scot from the Outer Hebrides, a chamber maid working in his palace.”


“Well, dear, it’s hard to remember that you were working as a maid when we met at the dance. Donald knows right where to get you. He knows your Achilles heel. He’s taken that ability with him to school and that’s what’s getting him in trouble: finding people’s sore points, their weaknesses, and calling them names. The only times he responds to my discipline is when I call him a name.”

“Like what, Fred? I can’t hear your conversations from the kitchen.”

“I hesitate to tell you. I don’t want to hurt your feelings more than he’s already hurt them. I’ve tried different names. Some work; some don’t. I thought calling him ‘Adolf’ or ‘Benedetto’ might get to him, but he didn’t take it as an insult. He’s a chip off the old block. He likes being strong like Hitler and Mussolini. But he hates it when I call him ‘Scottie’! He thinks Scots are sissies — crossdressers, running around in tartan kilt and knee socks. Sorry to say, dear. He’s not proud to be a MacLeod.”

“That breaks my heart, Fred. I know he doesn’t respect me. He treats me like dirt. He treats me the same way he bullies vulnerable kids at school.

“There’s only one answer I can see, Mary. A military academy. I put in a call to New York Military Academy this morning. They’ve agreed to take him on probation on condition that we not interfere with their discipline. We can visit once a month on the weekend and take him to church.”

“He doesn’t like church, Fred. He hated confirmation class. He says church is for losers.”


Norman Vincent Peale

“I know. We won’t take him back to First Pres. The neighborhood is changing. I’ll take him into Manhattan to hear Norman Vincent Peale. We’re dealing with some hard facts, Mary. So is Donald. He needs some positive thinking. Like Dr. Peale says, ‘Any fact facing us is not as important as our attitude toward it, for that determines our success or failure. The way you think about a fact may defeat you before you do anything about it. You are overcome by the fact because you think you 

“Norman Vincent Peale is President Eisenhower’s favorite preacher, Mary. Who knows? If someone like Donald learns to face facts by thinking positively about himself, he could become president.”

“God forbid, Fred! How could we have raised a son like that?”

Years later, the son returned to Scotland. Over dinner he paid tribute to his mother at the Turnberry Hotel of his Turnberry Golf Club.

“Her loyalty to Scotland was incredible,” he said. “She respected and loved the Queen.”

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, July 11, 2018.


An NRA Christmas

But Mary was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Conceal and carry!

Luke 1: 26-28  NRAV [National Rifle Association Version]

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Dec. 22, 2015

Joseph the Widower – Christmas Eve

Steve’s poems and verses often capture something very large in a few short lines. His “In the Stable” manages to keep the earthly and the heavenly together: an iconic smile at the end offered to a grief-stricken Joseph in the shame-filled, smelly stable. We publish “In the Stable” again for those of you who, like Steve’s Joseph, are dealing at the same time with grief and hope on Christmas Eve:

The shame that old man Joseph felt
in taking Mary to the barn
was mainly that, of course, it smelt:
it reeked with sheep shit, donkey dung,
and cattle plops. The widower
knew wives who whelped were never clean
themselves until the midwives pour
the well water over their loins
and legs, wash front and back. His first
young wife had died in giving birth
to their third child. He shook his fist
at heaven as she lay in filth
and breathed no more. Sweet Mary mild
step-mother, virgin, pushed and smiled…

– Verse by Steve Shoemaker; introduction by Gordon.

CLICK “Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols” to hear today’s live BBC broadcast (10:00 a.m. EST) from King’s College, Cambridge England.  Merry Christmas to all our readers.

The Angel Gabriel and Mary

A sermonic reflection for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Dec. 21, 2014, Gordon C. Stewart.

Text: Luke 1:26-38

The Annunciation {El Greco]

The Annunciation {El Greco]

Mary has every reason to fear the appearance of Gabriel. Every demure depiction to the contrary, the Angel Gabriel’s “annunciation” to Mary is no private affair. It’s a public matter of the first order. Gabriel  is the archangel commissioned to destroy the offspring of the rebellious angels and human women. (see below). Mary shrinks back.

“Do not be afraid,” says Gabriel.

Why should she not be afraid? This is not just any angel.

This is the Angel Gabriel, whose trumpet will summon the people, sweep away the occupation forces that substitute their rule for the Kingdom of love and delight. This is an angel of revolution. The Archangel of conflict who inspires both hope and fear.

”Do not be afraid!”

El Greco’s painting of the Annunciation illustrates the problem of textual interpretation.
Gabriel’s appearance is not frightening. It’s very…how shall we say? Feminine. Even to the point of appearing perhaps pregnant himself. The great masters did not paint an angel messenger as male, even when his name is Gabriel or Michael, the only two angels named in Holy Scripture.

Gabriel in Hebrew means “God is my Warrior”. Gabriel is a warrior angel, announcing to Mary that she too is to become a warrior, a mother whose birth-giving will lead to conflict with the Empire and the religious authorities who collaborate with it.

As described by New Testament scholar Carol Newsom, any annunciation by Gabriel inspires fear.

In the Book of Daniel, Gabriel is preeminently an angel of eschatological revelation. He is sent to Daniel to explain a vision of ‘the time appointed for the end’ (Dan. 8:15-26)…. Gabriel’s functions are more varied in I Enoch. In the Book of the Watchers (I Enoch 1- 36) he is listed as ‘the one of the holy angels who is in charge of paradise and the dragons and the cherubim (20:2). He is commissioned to destroy the offspring of the rebellious angels and human women (10:9-10)….

In the War Scrolls from Qumran (IQM) the names of 4 archangels, Michael, Gabriel, Sariel, and Raphael, are written on the shields of the 4 towers of the army. The positioning of the 4 archangels around the throne of God or other sacred space has a long subsequent history in both Jewish and Christian tradition…. [Carol Newsom, “Gabriel.” The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. 2]

So why does Gabriel look the way he does in the art museums and literature of Christian interpretation? Why does the original Gabriel look so benign? And why does Mary look so calm, perhaps even demure, as in El Greco’s Annunciation?

The Jesus story has been neutered. The End Time has been re-interpreted by the Constantinian Church as a paradise beyond time, a state of afterlife, not this life. In no way political. In no way economic. In no way conflictual. Peaceful. Serene. Calm. Quiet Passive. “Let it be to me according to your word.” Never disquieting. Never disrupting. Never revolutionary.

Gabriel has been transformed, neutered, emasculated, rendered harmless by the Constantine religion whose adherents can no longer see the conflict between Christ, or his mother, Mary, and his father, Joseph, with the systems of unbridled greed and poverty under which they live. The Gabriel spoken of in most pulpits is not the Angel Gabriel that came to Mary.

We’ve turned Gabriel into our own image. But though we may tame him in our hearts and minds, our paintings and our sermons, we can erase neither the need to be afraid nor his invitation to fear not. Gabriel’s finger points at us, asking whether we will rally to the trumpet sound, the sound of his coming. We can repaint the young girl Mary as an icon of passive obedience and tranquility. But it will be a different Mary than the courageous one painted by the Gospel of Luke.

Luke and his Mary know that “Do not be afraid!” makes no sense unless there really is something to fear, and that we cannot overcome fear unless we hear Gabriel’s word of favor, “Hail, O favored one! The LORD is with you. Blessed are you among women…You shall conceive….”Do not be afraid…. For with God nothing will be impossible.”

“Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.’

“Then the angel departed from her” for parts unknown to make his visits down through the ages, making the impossible possible.  Word has it he appeared last week in Washington, D.C. and Havana, Cuba to turn the impossible into the possible, a new Order being born from the old.

If you listen with faith, you might hear him. If you look, you will see him.


In the Footsteps of Mary

A sermonic reflection on America today, Dec. 14, 2014.

Today’s texts speak indirectly to the national outrage over the deaths in Ferguson, Cleveland, and Staten Island and to the larger context of the economic Law – Capitalism – under which they’ve taken place.

The Spirit falls upon Isaiah

…to provide for those who mourn in Zion– to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit….They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations. (Is. 61:2-4)

I am in mourning. Even in the midst of Zion. Though I already taste the fruit of the Kingdom of God which is yet to come in fullness, I am in mourning. In ashes. Faint in spirit. Living among the ancient ruins, the former devastations, the ruined cities, the devastations brought on by many generations including my own.

There is anger out there. Lots of it. There are calls for justice out there. There are “die-ins” on Interstate Highways blocking traffic, interrupting business as usual. And it’s good. It’s right. It’s an American thing to do.

But, like most movements, this one will pass in a few weeks or maybe months. It will go the way of Occupy Wall Street.

For while protesters were were being hand-cuffed for “die-ins”, Congress was taking the hand-cuffs off Wall Street and the “too-big-to-fail” banks. The Dodd-Frank restrictions enacted following the 2008 meltdown were being quietly removed by hidden-away paragraphs in the down-to-the-wire spending bill. There will be no more hand-cuffs. No more probation. No more accountability to the American people. The legal limits on dealing in the “derivatives” market were being deleted on Capitol Hill, and, perhaps worse, the Dodd-Frank provision prohibiting a second government bailout was replaced by a commitment to bail them out again.

While on Capitol Hill the Law was being re-written to deliver automatic bail to Wall Street, individuals protesting law enforcement tyranny on the streets were hauled off to jail hoping a friend would bail them out.

Only within the larger economic puzzle do the various pieces begin to make sense.

For all of America’s national wealth, we are among the poorest of nations. We are a classist society bordering on a caste society. Class has always been the issue in America. Race and class have always gone hand-in-hand, but classism has other hands as well.

The wider context surrounding the law enforcement racial divide is the classism embedded in a global capitalist economic structure.

We are living still amid the “ancient” devastations brought on by rich white slave traders who captured Africans like animals for a zoo to work their plantations for profit. Racism is a class issue, an ownership issue, an issue of economic privilege, before it is anything else. The coupling of race and class is as clear now as it ever was, despite the Civil Rights Movement and the election of America’s first African American president.

Capitalism is the issue. The accumulation of wealth. The increasing concentration of wealth. The hoarding of wealth. Wealth disparity, power disparity, racial disparity, electoral disparity, legal disparity; what’s enforced and what’s not; who’s in handcuffs and who’s not; who’s bailed out and who’s not; who’s charged and who isn’t; who’s in prison for what and who’s not; who’s on probation or parole and who’s not; who’s elected to Congress and who’s not; who owns what and who doesn’t; who can pay for an election and who can’t – are all about class, the control of the means of production and capital and the expropriation of cheap labor and natural resources that can’t talk back.

Enter now into this world the psalmist of today’s readings who dared to dream of a great reversal of fortunes:

When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.

Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, “The LORD has done great things for them.”

“The LORD has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.

Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like the watercourses in the Negeb.

May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.

Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.”[Psalm 126:1-6]

The tears of weeping bear the seeds for sowing and reaping of the sheaves of the new economic order. It is no accident that the psalmist mixes the metaphors of weeping, seeds, sowing, and shouts of joy, and sheaves. It is, as it were, a vision for the Earth itself. Honest weeping is the beginning – the sowing – that leads to earthly transformation and shouts of joy.

Mary, the newly pregnant peasant girl, becomes the representative, singing her song amid the ancient devastations, announcing the hope that will engage the powers of class “to provide for those who mourn” [Is.61:1]:

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” [Luke 1:46b-55]

Put differently by Philip Clayton, Ingraham Professor of Theology at Claremont School of Theology, we are living

“…at the dawn of a new form of human civilization. Individuals, societies, and nations are now deciding whether to keep fighting to preserve the dying order, or whether to take leadership in building the new. It’s not a matter of waiting for more data; we already know what the old practices are doing to our planet, and we know what it takes to build a global society that is socially, economically, and environmentally sustainable. The ones who make the greatest difference are those who work and live with wisdom, with diplomacy, and with restraint, placing the good of the whole planet first.” [Philip Clayton and Justin Heinzekehr, Organic Marxism: An Alternative to Capitalism and Ecological Catastrophe, Process Century Press, 2014]

I’m still mourning. But I feel better. I know that the mourning is a holy thing, the hint of a coming “garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit” and so, I write. I pray. I sing. I mourn to the tune of Isaiah. I march to the dream of the Psalmist. I walk in the footsteps of Mary.

– Rev. Gordon C. Stewart, Honorably Retired, Views from the Edge, Third Sunday of Advent, Dec. 14, 2014.

Blessed Mary

The CHOIR magnificently sang
Bach’s LOUD complex “Magnificat!”
The orchestra was small, but rang
Out BRASS and DRUMS and ORGEL that
Reverberated through the Hall.

That GOD was GREAT there was no doubt,
The fugue repeated that till all
Could not help but join in the SHOUT!

(but then the oboe d’ amour stood
and quietly began with D
a tune of slave and poverty…
the cello cello cello droned

as pure and sweet soprano voice
recalled the Virgin’s humble choice.)

– Steven R. Shoemaker & Margaret R. Grossman

Note: Peggy Grossman is a Biochemistry professor at the University of Illinois who plays oboe in the Champaign-Urbana Symphony. She and Steve shared the experience of the Bach Magnificat.

The Angel Announcements

Not like Barocci’s kneeling pink-cheeked girl

(who’d be afraid of her?) with white lace wings

that gazes up at Mary with a smile…  


No, warrior Gabriel had frightened kings

and generals when he appeared:  “Fear not!”

had been his necessary words to all.


More likely it was Mary fell prostrate

as holy light threw shadows on the wall,

and words that she was blest and would give birth


without knowing a man clouded her mind.

To Joseph came the same confounding truth:

an angel in a dream said he would find


her pregnant without sex.  The angel’s word

from God caused them to accept the absurd.

– Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL, December 27, 2012


Mary pondering

Mary pondering

Mary did not think about these things,

(she did not weigh pros and cons, did not

analyze, dissect, or speculate),

no…”But Mary kept all those sayings

and pondered them in her heart.”

“Peace in earth, & towards all good will,” said

heavenly soldiers, messengers from God.

Shepherds spread the news of Mary’s child;

she reflected, (undistracted), mulled

and wondered when peace would start…

– Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL, December 21, 2012

Just Joseph

My children have had children, yet this week

this widower may take a teenager

to be a wife.  Her family did not seek

a younger, handsome  man.  A carpenter

I am, not an Adonis– I worship

just Adonai, and follow in the way

of Torah,  righteousness.

Did Mary slip

from  following the way, from purity?

She is with child, yet I have had a dream

like Joseph did of old:  an angel said

I should not fear to wed though it may seem

absurd.  The child in her has been conceived

by holy spirit, not by sex.  His name

should be Emmanuel, yes, God with us,

for he will save his people from their sins.


I will take Mary for my wife; Jesus

will be his name.  God can speak in a dream.

– Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL, Dec. 4, 2012