In Memory of Phil

Sunday, June 21, the text from Faith in Minneapolis reached us in Montana.

“6:15 p.m. – A great soul has passed.”

Phil Brown and I go back 55 years when we met as freshmen at Maryville College in Maryville, Tennessee. Within two weeks we were doing something entirely juvenile. We were running for President of the best class the college had ever admitted or would ever see again. J 😇

From the day I met Phil, I knew him as a person of dignity and stature. He carried himself with an outward confidence that belied an inner self-doubt. His posture was erect, shoulders back with a disgustingly athletic physique and stride, a classically chiseled face, and the brains to go with it. He was a Big Man on Campus from the day he set foot on campus to the day he left it for Law School at Indiana University in 1964. When he left law school to prepare for a vocation in ministry, we again became classmates at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago.

In ways we only later came to understand and celebrate, in spite of the early competition, we were tied by similar family histories and destinies, although anyone who knows us well could easily call us the Odd Couple, one of us like Felix Unger, the always well-groomed, meticulously tidy maintainer of order and propriety played in the film by Jack Lemon; the other more like the unpredictable, care-free, disorganized, careless slob named Oscar Madison, played by Walter Matthau. Can there be any doubt who was whom?

At Phil’s retirement party as Synod Executive of the Synod of Lakes and Prairies, his beloved sons, Ian and Jess, delivered a comical roast of their Dad who, they said, had taught them many things, not the least memorable of which had to do with tools from Phil’s workshop. “If you took it, put it back where you got it!” was his consistent teaching. I always wondered, though, why Phil didn’t put the special microbrewery beers that Ian mailed him back in the refrigerator where we’d gotten them.

Phil and Faith are Kay and my best friends in the Twin Cities. Our tears have fallen for more than two months, as we have watched with Faith the inexplicable, undiagnosed loss of energy that came on like an sudden thunderstorm that drenched him in night sweats the evening he returned from a North Oaks Association Board Meeting.

Always the most gracious of hosts, he and Faith hosted newcomers to North Oaks in their home a few weeks later with the understanding that if Phil grew weary, he should retire early. He did. It was not like Phil to call attention to himself or to bow out on a promise, a duty, or a commitment. He had to be restrained from overdoing, but restraining a race horse committed to doing the right thing takes a trainer with strength not even the strongest life partner or lifelong friend could muster.

At Maryville Phil chose Economics for his major. His academic advisor and mentor, Bob Lynn, was a professor known equally for his brilliance and his demands for academic excellence. At McCormick Theological Seminary, Phil again chose to study with the very best, Jack Stotts, Professor of Christian Ethics. Phil was always drawn to the highest standards of excellence.

As Presbytery Executive with Blackhawk and Milwaukee presbyteries and as Synod Executive of the Synod of Lakes and Prairies, he embodied that combination of ardor and order, grace and discipline that is the signature of the Presbyterian theological and ecclesiastical tradition where all things are to be done “decently and in order”. In that respect Phil and I each followed in our father’s footsteps. Phil succeeded at it much better than I.

But, if our friendship began as student competitors and friends wandering in the night through the foothills of the Smokey Mountains around Maryville, my last memories will be of Phil as the patient at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis. Though so weak that he could barely speak aloud, he unexpectedly joined me in saying the 23rd Psalm. His faith was on his lips, bubbling up from a deep, trusting heart, the secret place of the son of Victor and Francis Brown. I’m sure he noticed, as did his son Jess, my omission of the line “He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his Name’s sake” — an omission made, whether consciously or unconsciously, I suppose in retrospect, because I wanted him to give up the struggle for righteousness in order to rest peacefully beside the still waters there beside the valley of the shadow of death.

There are no still waters here in Montana where I am committed to serve as summer minister at St. Timothy’s Memorial Chapel in the ghost town of Silver Cross where we prayed for Phil, Faith, and the Brown family this morning. After receiving Faith’s message this evening, Kay walked to the backyard of the Manse and returned with a bouquet of wild purple irises and other wild flowers in honor of Phil. We read the Psalms and prayers from The Book of Common Prayer and found some solace there in the company of the saints in light.

Good friendships last a lifetime. Over time, the tears of loss and mourning will be turned, by God’s grace, into the tears of great thanksgiving.

– Gordon C. Stewart, Georgetown Lake, MT, June 23, 2015

 

Verse — Chicago’s Southside, 1965

The First Presbyterian Church
and the Blackstone Rangers

All stores and resturants must serve all
after the Civil Rights law passed
in 1964. But real
change comes, that has a chance to last,
as power shifts. Our Church began
to work with gangs to help get blacks
to vote. When Stones said everyone
should register, they did! Then folks
began to see that City Hall
responded to their needs: new trucks
to fix the streets appeared, to haul
away the piles of garbage. Police
still threw around their white might, but
some liberal lawyers, black and white,
were found to fight for the release
of innocent poor folks. Some peace
between gangs even came at night…

The Reverend John Fry, ex-Marine,
on Sunday could inspire wood pews
to organize for holy fights.
On Monday words that were not clean
scorched any sinners who refused
to honor all black civil rights.

– Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL, Jan. 26, 2015

NOTE: This is a memoir of Steve’s years at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago when Steve and Nadja Shoemaker sat in the inspired wood pews listening to the Rev. Dr. John Fry’s preaching at First Presbyterian Church. Click HERE for information on the Reverend John Fry, First Presbyterian Church of Chicago, the Blackstone Rangers, and the Chicago Police Department. John Fry was an inspiration to us at McCormick, a bold preacher in the social gospel tradition who put his life where his mouth was.

Beyond Fundamentalism

The influence of New Testament scholar Floyd Filson

The influence of New Testament scholar Floyd Filson

Conversion at Seminary”

Four years Wheaton College tried
to make a fundamentalist
Christianity the first
and last thought on my searching mind.
Then a liberal McCormick
Dean Filson took a chance on me–
I learned Bible truth could be
much wider, deeper, than mere fact:
changing this world was our call!
From civil rights to stopping war,
social justice cried for more
of faithful love, that holy force
learned by the Apostle Paul
when Jesus knocked him off his horse.

– Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL, May 25, 2013

Dean Floyd V. Filson was an internationally renowned New Testament scholar. A prolific writer, Filson published his own original New Testament commentaries and articles in scholarly journal, but he did not operate in a silo. He collaborated with co-authors and co-editors Oscar Cullman, G. Ernest Wright, and other world-class scholars. He also translated Rudolph Otto’s The Kingdom of God and the Son of Man, a book which, like Otto’s The Idea of the Holy represented a landmark shift in the understanding of God and of Jesus’s own consciousness. But more than a scholar, at least for the likes of Steve, was his unfailing kindness and belief in us. If he was aware of his stature in the world of academia, it was never apparent in the classroom or in his office. He was the definition of Christian humility. A ready smile, gentleness, respect for others, and a hearty “Good Morning!” were his signatures.

Monday six McCormick grads on whom Dean Filson took a chance will gather at the seminary for our annual Gathering. Steve and Don Dempsey were Class of ’68; Wayne Boulton, Harry Strong, Bob Young and I were the Class of ’67.

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.

The Surrogate Voice

Some moments last a lifetime.

Chicago Seven - Dale Hartwig in red shirt

My friend Dale has Parkinson’s. He has boarded a train in Michigan (he’s now in a long-term care center there) to be with “The Chicago Seven” – the seven former classmates who gather annually at McCormick Theological Seminary. This year, Dale’s speech is hard to comprehend. He is reduced to listening. Death and dying are sitting at the table.At the morning reflection and round-table sharing, Dale is sitting to my right. When his turn comes, we look at Dale. There is an awkward silence. He hands me something. He wants me to read aloud what he’s written. I read his words aloud.

Gordon C. Stewart  – written in thanksgiving for the Chicago Gathering, 2004:

“THE SURROGATE VOICE”

The surrogate voice reads on,

the author sits and sobs

wrenching tears from primal depth:

from some abyss of joy or nothingness…or both.

The author’s sighs and piercing sobs

arrest routine,

invoke a hush,

dumb-found the wordy room.

He cannot speak,

his Parkinsons’ tongue tied,

his voice is mute, in solitude confined,

all but sobs too deep for words.

Another now becomes his  voice

offering aloud in a dummy’s voice

the muted contribution

in poetic verse the ventriloquist’s voice has penned.

The abyss of muted isolation ope’d,

his words, re-voiced aloud,

hush the seven to sacred silence,  all…

except from him, their author.

Whence comes this primal cry:

From depths of deep despair and death,

from loneliness, or depths of joy

We do not know.

The surrogate voice reads on

through author’s signs and sobs,

through his uncertain gasps for air

and our uncertain care.

The iron prison gates – the guards

of his despair – unlock and open out

to turn his tears from prison’s hole

to tears of comrade joy.

His word is spoken, his voice is heard,

a word expressed

in depth and Primal Blessing,

pardoned from the voiceless hell.

The stone rolls back,

rolls back, rolls back,

from the brother’s prison’s tomb,

the chains of sadness snap and break!

At one, at one, we Seven stand,

in Primal Silence before the open tomb,

as tears of loss, of gain, of tongues released

re-Voice unbroken chords of brotherhood.

 All moments are sacred. Some last a lifetime.

A Sermon on Suffering

The post of my friend Steve Shoemaker’s poem “Murillo’s Christ after the Flagellation” and the comments that you posted prompted the sermon I delivered this morning at Shepherd of the Hill Presbterian Churchin Chaska, MN. The sermon never would have happened without your thoughtful, penetrating comments on the earlier post. THANK YOU. Here’s the sermon.

THE FLAGELLATION

“Now the men who were holding Jesus mocked him and beat him; they also blindfolded him and asked him ‘Prophesy! Who was it that struck you?’ And they spoke many other words against him and reviled him.”  Gospel of Luke 22:63

Two months ago I created a blog. One of my seminary classmates, Steve Shoemaker, wrote the other day to say that he was impressed by how prolific I was. I thought maybe he meant “wordy” until he said that my productivity embarrassed his laziness as a poet. So, he said, “Here’s the deal I’ve made with myself. For every piece you put up on your blog, I’ll write a poem.” Steve is 6’8 and a basketball player in college. Clearly, he hasn‘t lost his competitive spirit.

A poem arrived last Friday. It’s a reflection on a painting by sixteenth century Spanish artist Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. In the painting, Jesus is bent over on all fours after he being mocked and beaten.

Christ after the Flagellation

Steve’s poem, “Murillo’s Christ after the Flagellation” changed the direction of the sermon this morning.  Here’s the poem.

The human had been tied to the whipping

post, a pillar that had been used many

times before by the Romans (and ages

earlier by the Greeks–but for a much

different purpose). Now, his pale skin looks

translucent (should it not have been darker,

with more blood?) His mother recalled his bris.

They had both cried then, too.

A strong young man, broad back, thick arms, now on

hands and knees, but head raised with eyes open:

seeing a cross that’s even worse ahead…

Still, unflinching, resigned–no, determined

to go on, face more pain, indignities,

shame, even death (there is no sign of God.)

Shortly there arrived a brief comment from a blogger who blogs about the daily struggle with mental illness.

“This poem brought tears to my eyes.”

Score one for my friend Steve.

Later in the day another comment arrived on the blog in response to Steve’s poetry. Like the first comment, this one also comes from someone with a history of some kind of long-term suffering. It reads as follows.

I have a response to the stories of Christ’s beating that often leaves others aghast. So brace yourselves:

He was beaten for several hours, or a day or two? Big deal. Those of us who have suffered years of abuse and terror know what real suffering is.

I don’t find focusing on Jesus’ suffering, or any of that 12 stages of the cross crap, to be helpful at all. I find it to be insulting. As if there is something noble and glorious about suffering. Nope, not a damn thing to recommend it. I know that Jesus voluntarily placed himself in the position for that to happen. So? Doesn’t help.

Please, fellow readers, don’t think that I am an isolated one, or few. There are lots and lots of us feeling this way.

The world is full – FULL – of people who have suffered much worse for decades or lifetimes. Think of people who live in North Korea. Or poor girls growing up in India. Or young girls in Fundamentalist Church of the Latter Day Saints settlements who get married off to much older men and are then raped daily for the rest of their lives. Jesus’ few days of humiliation are nothing in comparison.

The Lenten/Easter season is my favorite church season because I am reminded of how deeply I am loved and how quickly I am forgiven. Jesus’ brief beating plays no role in that….

The writer is hardly alone in his thinking about this. What do we say about those whose tenures of torture and suffering far exceed the relatively short period of Jesus’ suffering?  Is focusing on Jesus’s suffering and the stations of the cross insulting to those who have suffered, and continue to suffer, for decades or for a lifetime?

How would you reply to the writer?

Here’s how I responded:

Your thoughtful response calls for an equally thoughtful reply. So I’ll try.

The cross, in my theology, in no way minimizes or disrespects the suffering of others. Nor does it say, as it is too often understood by sacrificial atonement theology, that suffering itself is noble or glorious. The cross was an instrument of Roman torture and execution. The Jesus who was tortured and executed, as were thousands of his Jewish contemporaries, is not somehow God masquerading in human flesh. That being said, moving the cross to the sidelines of Christian faith and reflection is, in my view, a mistake. Well meaning because it reacts against the twisted theology that understood it to be separate from, and above, all other human suffering, but mistaken nonetheless.

When I look at the cross, I see all these people. And I see myself there as both the crucified and the crucifier. What I see in the crucifix is total abandonment. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!” And in some way I hear not only the cry of Jesus but the cry of the God Dietrich Bonhoeffer described as the Divine Center we push to the edge of the world.  I see in the Christ-event the tragedy and the hope of the divine-human encounter.

Sebastian Moore (The Crucified Jesus Is No Stranger and The Inner Loneliness) and Joseph Campbell awakened me to this richer Christology. Moore: “We have to think of God as closer to our evil than we ever dare to be. We have to think of God not as standing at the end of the way we take when we run away from our evil in the search for good, but as taking hold of us IN our evil, as the sore point which the whole idealistic thrust of man is concerned to avoid

“Redemption through the blood of Christ is (wrongly!) interpreted as the bending of Reality itself to man’s great dream of himself. And it is exactly the reverse. It is the ending of the dream. It is the beautiful collapse of the whole enterprise. It is the invasion of man by himself, with God at the center as love.” (Bolding added  for emphasis.)

Closer to home, another great theologian, my wife, Kay, reflected on the cross the other night at a Lenten series on “The Place of the Cross”:

“The Apostle Paul used to talk about all of his theology in terms of transformation at the foot of the cross. If a theological insight couldn’t go to the foot of the cross and be transformed there, then it wasn’t of God. This darkness is not for lightweight faith statements or testimonies. The annihilation of all goodness and all love which takes place in the action of one human being in violence to another human being—it cannot be redeemed by any other force but God’s pure love. That is a faith statement that lives inside a vacuum until manifested. There is no meeting of love and abandonment, they are mutually exclusive realities. We are lost. Period. And if God is to find us, then it is all about God’s initiative.”

From today’s perspective, Moore’s language is too gender- specific, not inclusive. But the substance of his Christology is totally inclusive. We’re all there. Anything short of that either drifts off into a new utopian project or into some new rendition  of the power of positive thinking. The power of Christian theology is its gravitas: it doesn’t turn away.

I told the blogger, “Love to hear more…. Hope we can keep the conversation alive.”

Hours later, an email arrived from the second blogger who had watched “The Leper” on the blog saying s/he was moved and grateful for the sermon.

If I could sit down in a coffee shop or in a living room by the fire to continue the conversation, this is what I would say.

The cross of Jesus does not minimize other suffering. It casts a light backward and forward into all darkness for all time. From inside the light we see the darkness of all human violence and abuse, and at the foot of the cross, we look up to realize that the protest against the suffering we impose on others and our own self-imposed suffering – our own reviling of others and our reviling or ourselves — is not just our protest. It is God’s. It is the suffering of God at the hands of a godless world. And the word for “they reviled him” is the same as the word “blasphemed” him.  Whenever we treat others cruelly, or treat ourselves cruelly, we blaspheme God. We are reviling and whipping the back of God.

From Jesus’s cry to God – “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” – there comes an echo from the heavens: “My children, my children, why have you abandoned me? My children, how could you forsake Me?”

The cross calls for an end to the reviling of others and our own sorry self-flagellation, as though those we revile, or we ourselves, would be or should be beyond love’s reach.

Who is the “the human tied to the whipping post”? Who puts her there?

Will you join the suffering of the God who wants it all to stop? Will you rejoice in the inevitable, eternal reach of God’s love and redeeming grace?

Footnote: Here is Steve, the poet, among the Bristle Cone Pines at 11,000 feet in Colorado:

Steve Shoemaker

..

A fellow student at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, we’ve continued the friendship for 47 years. A published poet, Steve was the Senior Minister of the McKinley Presbyterian Church and Director of the McKinley Foundation (campus ministry) at the University of Illinois for many years. He hosts “Keepin’ the Faith” on WILL, Illinois Public Radio,. He and his wife, Nadja, a research biologist, live in a geo-thermally-heated house on the prairie outside Urbana, IL where his neighbors often spot Steve’s kites riding the winds of the prairie skies.