Elijah’s letter to the President

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Seventeen week old Elijah dictated the following letter for Grandpa to send to President Trump after hearing the President’s United Nations speech. Here’s the letter:

September 21, 2017

Dear Mr. President:

I’m little but my Grandpa says I have rights under the First Amendment and that I should exercise my right of free speech to tell you what’s on my mind. I hope that’s okay with you. Grandpa says you’re bigger on the Second Amendment than the First Amendment, but they’re all part of the U. S. Constitution, right?

I’ve thought many times of writing you but decided not to until hearing your speech to the United Nations this week.

You may wonder why a kid like me would send a letter to the President, but there’s more than one good reason.

Infant_Baptism_Christian-217x300We have a connection you may not about, although my Grandpa is very famous, like you. You and Grandpa were baptized as babies in the Presbyterian Church. Your pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Jamaica in Queens took you in his arms and baptized you “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” But before your parents put you in the pastor’s arms, they had to answer a question: “Do you promise, in dependence on the grace of God, to bring up your child in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.”

I asked Grandpa what nurture and admonition meant. He said nurture is like when Mom breastfeeds me. Admonition, he says, is an old word we don’t use anymore and that’s a shame because you could use a good admonishing. Admonition, Grandpa says, is a way of setting boundaries on a child’s behavior; it’s part of the discipline necessary to raising a child toward responsible adulthood. Admonishing is telling a child “No. You can’t do that. You’re a child of God, but you’re not the only one.” Grandpa tells me that all the time. I wonder if your mother and father ever did that with you before they sent you off to the military academy.

So you and Grandpa are both baptized Christians. But there’s even more of a connection!

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McGaw Chapel, The College of Wooster

Grandpa became a Presbyterian minister. He knows one of your church’s former pastors at First Presbyterian Church of Jamaica. Before Rev. Dr. Raymond Schwartzbach (Grandpa calls him ‘Ray’) came to your church in New York City, he served the college church at The College of Wooster which Grandpa served six years after Ray.

Grandpa says Ray was really special and that he left Wooster because he wanted to get back to the city. He told Grandpa that your church was the most multicultural church in the Presbyterian Church (USA) with 32 different languages — the most in the whole country!

Trump at United NationsWatching you speak to all those different languages at the United Nations made me wonder what happened to you after your pastor held you in his arms and baptized you into the way of Christ. Did your parents nurture you? Did they admonish you? Or were you left on your own? Did they teach you not to call people names? Did they admonish you when you did? Did they teach you the first article of the Westminster Catechism, that  “the chief end of man is to glorify God…” and not yourself? Did they teach you the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the meek? Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are the poor. Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness”? Did they teach you that Presbyterians value simplicity and modesty, and that they dislike ostentation? Did they teach you to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you? Did they teach you the difference between loving your country and worshiping it? Did they teach you that nationalism is sin, that the nation is not God?

I’m just little and I haven’t been baptized yet like you and Grandpa. But I have questions. I’m not sure I want to be baptized if being baptized means I have to be admonished as well as nurtured. Maybe you feel the same.

Please answer if you have time. I know you’re very busy with Kim Jung un and Robert Mueller stuff, but Grandpa says some things in life are too important to ignore.

Respectfully yours,

Elijah

 

 

 

 

Into a dense fog: Sinner, do you love my Jesus?

The descent from my suburban home in Broomall to serve the “less fortunate” on Green Street sent me home looking into a dense fog.

The Wanderer

Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog –  Caspar David Friedrich, c.1818

I had given up a Saturday as a youthful answer to the song I learned has a child. “If you love him, why not serve him?”  Serving Jesus meant serving those who were less fortunate than we, as we used to describe the difference.

The kids from Marple Presbyterian Church in Broomall were aware that Jacob’s Ladder and the other spirituals we sang rose from the slave fields of the white Southern plantations, but the plantations were in the south. We were northerners. We were the abolitionists. We were part of the solution, not the problem.

The day on Green Street knocked me off my ladder. Those few hours on the calendar time of Chronos were a pivotal Kairos moment that placed me before a dense fog searching for answers to how and why life was so different for the two junior high youth groups from Marple Presbyterian Church in Broomall and Berean Presbyterian Church in north Philadelphia.

How and why was it that Tony was born into poverty while I was born into relative economic wellbeing in a suburb became a daunting question. I was looking into a dense fog.

Prior to the plunge to Green Street I hadn’t paid much attention to the first word of the stanza about loving Jesus: “Sinner… do you love my Jesus?” Although I knew myself to be a sinner — I had told a lie or two and not been kind to my younger brothers — I was no Judas! I was a soldier of the cross. “If you love him, why not serve him, soldier of the cross?”

Suddenly, the fog was not just outside of me. It was inside me, a jarring sense that I and “my people” were self-deceived sinners.

But what is sin and what is a sinner? Institutional slavery was sinful.  The slaveowners were sinners. I knew that. The slaveowners were white. The slaves were black. I knew that. The slaveowners were Christians. I knew that. The slaves were Christians. I knew that — or thought I knew it.

I didn’t learn until much later that the slaves were forced into the Christian faith no less than they had been herded like cattle onto slave ships, or that the difference in the churches was as different as it had been on the slave ships. The difference was that on board the slave ships, the slaves were chained together in the hold while the slave traders were up above; in the churches, the slaves were up above in the rear balcony, looking down on the sea of whiteness on the main floor. Until Richard Allen led the revolt from the balcony to form the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

But the kids from Berean Presbyterian Church were not African Methodist Episcopalians. They were Presbyterians in the theological tradition of the Protestant Reformation, John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, and the doctrine of predestination.

Was Tony predestined to poverty in north Philadelphia? Was I predestined to white privilege in Broomall? Or was predestination a hoax, the idea of sinners washing their hands like Pilate that had nothing to do with the will of God?

Caspar_David_Friedrich_018

Frau am Fenster
Caspar David Friedrich, 1818–1822
Öl auf Leinwand
44,0 × 37,0 cm
Alte Nationalgalerie Berlin

I was no longer standing on the heights of innocence overlooking the landscape. I was a child of privilege, confined and alone, looking through a very small window at the world beyond what had belonged to “my Jesus”. I was pondering the ships of past and future and the dense fog that went on as far as my eye could see. It has lasted my whole lifetime.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, August 11, 2017.

 

Even our best intentions…

As Sesame Street’s Kermit the Frog croaks that it’s not easy being green, today reminds me that it’s not easy being right, whatever “right” is.

The Presbyterian Church (USA) recently amended the Church’s constitutional definition of marriage as a commitment between two people. It was a good day for those of us who have discussed, debated, and advocated for full inclusion over the last 40 years.

It represents something akin to the civil rights movement – institutionalization of the same ethic that refused any longer to deny equal rights to African-Americans in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It was the right thing to do.

But nothing ever happens in a vacuum. Collateral consequences accompany every controversial decision, and sometimes those collateral consequences place us in conflict between two highly prized commitments.

No sooner did the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s constitutional change make the news than the National Black Church Initiative (NBCI) announced its decision to break fellowship with the Presbyterian Church (USA). Click HERE for the story. The NBCI claim that the PC(USA) has abandoned or “manipulated” sacred text is not a new charge, but it’s a mistaken one. Said NBCI’s President, the Rev. Anthony Evans:

“No church has the right to change the Word of God. By voting to redefine marriage PCUSA automatically forfeits Christ’s saving grace. There is always redemption in the body of Christ through confession of faith and adhering to Holy Scripture.

“In this case, PCUSA deliberately voted to change the Word of God and the interpretation of holy marriage between one man and one woman. This is why we must break fellowship with them and urge the entire Christendom to do so as well.”

But the PC(USA) did not alter Scripture. It amended its understanding of the Word of God, as we did when we repented of the biblically acceptable practice of slavery. Scripture and tradition without the guidance of the Holy Spirit are not the sine qua non of the Christian faith. It was and is through the guidance of the Spirit of the Living God that we are called to read the Bible through the eyes of Christ, the eyes of love and human dignity, to bring the church and society into a greater light.

It seems, as best I can tell, that there are two grounds on which opposition to the PC(USA)’s full embrace of GLBT members is based. One is psychological (fear). Whenever fear appears, we are called to be compassionate. To understand and walk in the fearful one’s shoes. The second ground is intellectual, as in arguing against biblical interpretation. To argue that one’s biblical literalism is the only faithful reading of the Bible is intellectually dishonest. It’s buried in denial, but it no less intellectually dishonest if it were spoken from unfettered consciousness.

Life is messy. Theology, ethics, and morality are messy. Every decision is contextual, and in that complex set of competing claims and valued, we stand responsible for our decisions of interpretation, faith, and action.

The “breaking of fellowship” by the National Black Church Initiative and its 36,000 African American congregations cuts to the bone of a church for whom racial justice and reconciliation has long been a mandate of the gospel of Jesus. Racism is America’s great sin. Its forms are personal and institutional.

The PC(USA) Confession of 1967 declared the ending of discrimination as of first important to the church’s mission of reconciliation, a confession of faith we now apply to discrimination against the GLBT community.  Section 4 on Reconciliation in Society, begins as follows:

In each time and place there are particular problems and crises through which God calls the church to act. The church, guided by the Spirit, humbled by its own complicity and instructed by all attainable knowledge, seeks to discern the will of God and learn how to obey in these concrete situations. The following are particularly urgent at the present time.

a. God has created the peoples of the earth to be one universal family. In his reconciling love he overcomes the barriers between brothers and breaks down every form of discrimination based on racial or ethnic difference, real or imaginary. The church is called to bring all men to receive and uphold one another as persons in all relationships of life: in employment, housing, education, leisure, marriage, family, church, and the exercise of political rights. Therefore the church labors for the abolition of all racial discrimination and ministers to those injured by it. Congregations, individuals, or groups of Christians who exclude, dominate, or patronize their fellowmen, however subtly, resist the Spirit of God and bring contempt on the faith which they profess.

It was in that same spirit of God’s reconciling love in Jesus Christ that the Presbyterian Church (USA) slowly moved over the last 40 years to the position of full inclusion of GLBT members, culminating in the marriage amendment.

It’s not easy being green. It’s not easy being right, whatever right means, especially when one right creates another wrong, or is perceived as sin.

This Wednesday  of Holy Week, we once again move with Jesus toward the cross. Green, black, white, yellow, red, and brown, straight and gay; the certain and the confused. Sin is everywhere, even in our best intentions, and often it hides in the corners of our own claims of righteousness. Only a vast love and mercy can overcome the gulfs of estrangement that divide us. Some sins are plain to us, some escape us, some we cannot face. Even our best intentions…. Johan Hermann’s text “Ah Holy Jesus, How Hast Thou Offended” (1630) set to music by Johann Cruger’s “Herzliebster Jesu” (1640) is a heartfelt prayer for the whole Church and for the world itself as we move through confession on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday toward Easter this Holy Week.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

American Religion and LGBT Rights

Common Good News, an online publication of Faith in Public Life  and Convergence, re-published and interesting piece today from ThinkProgress. Click The Rise of LGBT Rights is an Existential Threat to Conservative Religious Groups for a thoughtful read following the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s re-definiton of marriage and news of the election of a Lesbian Rabbi to lead the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

 

Marriage – a covenant between…

Yesterday the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) – PC(USA) – approved amending its constitution to define marriage as “a covenant between two people.

Click THIS LINK for the New York Times story, “Largest Presbyterian Denomination Gives Final Approval for Same-Sex Marriage”.

Many, such as I, welcome this change after many years spent in local and national discussion and debate over the nature of biblical authority, biblical interpretation, and the nature of human sexuality.  This morning passersby on State Highway 41 and Engler Boulevard in Chaska, MN will see two flags flying high at Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church: the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) flag and, beneath it, a rainbow flag signifying God’s welcome of all.

The church’s re-definition of marriage adds one more enlarging freedom to the Apostle Paul’s list in the Epistle to the Galatians:

“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, [gay or straight]; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.“- Galatians 3:8 {NRSV].

Thanks be to God.

– Rev. Mr. Gordon C. Stewart, Honorably Retired, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Chaska, MN; March 17, 2015.