Taps in different keys

Sixty-three years ago, the American Legion recruited two 12 year-old trumpet players to play “Taps” for the Memorial Day Service at the Glenwood Memorial Cemetery in Broomall, Pennsylvania.

It was a rare privilege granted the few. One of us would play a short refrain — “da ta daaaah…”; the other would echo it from below the wall.  The next refrain would follow, as would the echo until the special rendering of “Taps” had moved everyone to the respectful silence appropriate to Memorial Day.

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It was a nice idea. We practiced. All went well. Very dramatic! Until Memorial Day when Alex’s echo came back in a different key.

The 12 year-olds lost it!!! The only sounds were a few choked back laughs. There was no “Taps” that year. The 12 year-old weren’t invited back when they were 13.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, May 29, 2017

Memorial Day – a Call to Silence

Memorial Day calls more for silence than for speeches — the silence of the living standing before the graves of fallen soldiers.

Silence alone is golden today — a deep silence broken only by the haunting sound of a bugle calling us into the presence of that which is deeper than many words.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Memorial Day, May 29, 2017.

When the hearing aid goes dumb

I have two hearing aids. I need them both.

All of a sudden there was no sound in the left ear. Nada! The hearing aid just quit while listening to a sermon in church. No idea what was said from that point on.

I went home. Changed the battery. Nada. Changed the little white insert at the end of the receiver thinking it might be clogged. Still no sound.

Monday morning, while waiting at the hearing clinic for a verdict on the problem, an older man and his daughter took the seats across from me in the waiting area. They started a conversation. I pointed to my left ear, saying I couldn’t hear. The daughter said something and pointed to her father who also said something I couldn’t understand. Then I said, “I can’t hear,” and smiled. “Sometimes I like the silence. The world is very noisy.” The man laughed. The daughter nodded and smiled knowingly.

It was a momentary communion of glorious shared silence.

The result? The hearing aid has been sent off to the manufacturer for repair of a twisted wire inside the hearing mold. My left ear now wears a loaner, a rental from Herz until my vehicle returns at the cost of $250. I re-imagine the text of the sermon I couldn’t hear:

“Even fools are thought wise when they keep silent; with their mouths shut, they seem intelligent.” – Proverbs 17:28

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, March 28, 2017.

The night visitor

He slinks down Pennsylvania Avenue, head down in a knit cap, at 3:00 A.M. disguised as a homeless man escaping the watchful eye of the Secret Service, his administration, and the cameras, on his way to a dilapidated tenament in the poorest part of the city.

The tenement dweller who owns nothing has been waiting for him. For a long time. The door is ajar, as it always is, in anticipatory welcome of his and others’ coming.

“Welcome, Donald,” he says. “It’s been years. I wondered whether we’d ever have a visit.” He lifts the visitor’s heavy coat from his burdened shoulders. The tenement dweller points to two chairs he’s rescued from a dumpster in the wealthier part of the city, and, without words, invites his guest to choose between the small wood folding chair and the high red-leather wingback that face each other in the small room. The guest pauses …and then, reluctantly, chooses the small folding chair.

The room is dimly lit by a small table lamp, the kind of late-night or early morning ambiance that engenders a kind of intimate calm. They sit in silence.

“I’ve been concerned, Donald. I see you’ve been tweeting a lot – more than normal. What’s that about?”

“It’s all I have. My mind won’t stop. I don’t sleep. I don’t rest. I watch television to distract me but it’s only making things worse. I’m a mess. I feel very alone.”

But you’re not. You’re surrounded by people in the White House. Why did you come here?”

“I remembered you from childhood. My mother taught me the song I used to sing about you. I used to end my bedtime prayers on my knees in your name.

Jesus is silent.

“And now? What brings you here at this hour of the morning?

“I don’t know.”

The table lamp next to the chairs flickers.

“It feels pretty dark, doesn’t it?”

“Very dark. Very dark!”

“Why is that?”

“I have all the power in the world but I’m helpless to help myself. I can’t stop tweeting. It’s like it’s not real. I could destroy the world with the push of a button. The power scares me. So do my advisors. My mind never stops.”

Silence. The silence of truth.

The tenement dweller’s eyes  look through him, but are soft and compassionate, as well as penetrating. His posture is relaxed but completely attentive to the man-child in the smaller, folding chair. Finally he speaks quietly.

“Maybe it’s time to get down on your knees again? Time to recognize that your homeless disguise is not just a disguise? You’ve been homeless in that gilded tomb of a tower. Time to sing the song you loved to sing in Sunday School, submit yourself to a power greater than your self, and get a good breakfast in the morning instead of tweeting. And, do something about Steve Bannon. He got it all wrong. He’s thrives on anxiety. I’ve been waiting for him, too.”

They sit together in silence. The tenement dweller reaches out his hands; the president extends his hands in response. They sit in silence – a wordless kind of prayer of the Deeper Silence – by the flickering light until they rise from their respective chairs. The host lifts Donald’s heavy coat up to his lightened shoulders and watches the homeless president leave for another day on Pennsylvania Avenue, humming in the silence, “Jesus loves me, this I know… Little ones to him belong. He is great but I am small” in anticipation of a return visit, and a word at the White House with his lesser advisors.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, March 12, 2017.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Daily Riches: Cutting Through Political and Religious Illusions (Vernon Howard, Thomas Merton and Dietrich Bonhoeffer)

Richer By Far

“Every day that you attempt to see things as they are in truth is a supremely successful day.” Vernon Howard

“It seems to me that the most basic problem is not political, it is apolitical and human. One of the most important things to do is to keep cutting deliberately through political lines and barriers and emphasizing the fact that these are largely fabrications and that there is another dimension, a genuine reality, totally opposed to the fictions of politics…. My own peculiar task in my Church and in my world has been that of the solitary explorer who, instead of jumping on all the latest bandwagons at once, is bound to search the existential depths of faith in its silences, its ambiguities, and in those certainties which lie deeper than the bottom of anxiety. In those depths there are no easy answers, no pat solutions to anything. It is…

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The Punishment and Rescue of the Talkative

You’re reading a blog post. Blogging is talking. Sometimes it’s downright t-a-l-k-a-t-i-v-e. Chatty. Pointless. Silence is to be preferred to word pollution.

Two photographs in The Wood of Our Lady, Dennis Aubrey’s Via Lucis post, give reason to talk about talkativeness. Open the link and scroll down near the bottom to see two capitals: 1) two figures with their heads in their hands, weeping, and 2) what Dennis calls “The Punishment of the Talkative”.

The weeping figures of 12th century Église Notre-Dame-de-la-Nativité strike a chord of familiarity.  How many times a day does the news cause us to put our head in our hands in despair? But “the punishment of the talkative” capital evokes no such sympathy. It strikes us moderns as barbaric, the art of a Christian first-cousin of ISIL with grotesque figures excising the tongue of the talkative. Yet it served to remind the worshipers in the 12th century, as it still does in its startling way, that talkativeness is no virtue. Words are sacred. Dennis Aubrey puts it this way:

Perhaps the most famous capital represents the punishment of the talkative, presumably by excising the tongue with tongs. I don’t know if this condemns lying, calumny, or verbal abuse, or if it is a more generalized censure of chattiness or language in general. While this punishment somehow seems fitting for the slanderers who fill our public lives, I would prefer these thoughts of Voltaire, … les anges m’ont tué par leur silence. Le silence est le just chatiment des bavard. Je meurs, je suis mort. “The angels have killed me with their silence. Silence is the just punishment for the talkative. I’m dying. I’m dead.”

It was poet Kahlil Gibran, author of The Prophet, whose first published book (1918) was titled The Madman, who used words to say, “I have learned silence from the talkative, tolerative from the intolerant, and kindness from the unkind; yet strange, I am ungrateful to those teachers.”

Thank you, Dennis Aubrey and P.J. McKey for bringing the teachers to light.

– Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, April 20, 2015.

My Soul Waits in Silence

A contemplative reflection on Psalm 62 at Saint Augustine Beach, Saint Augustine, FL.

For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him. I wait in silence. [Psalm 62:5 NRSV]

I wait in silence.

Withdrawing from the noisy men next door in Saint Augustine, I am like the Hermit Crab crawling into the borrowed snail shell on Saint Augustine Beach.

This is the same beach brave souls dared to integrate in 1964, a place where then there was no place to hide, the public white beach where the Hermit Crabs refused to hide when the billy clubs swing to drive them from the white man’s beach. There are no billy clubs on the beach today but the shouting of the world we call civilized still hurts by ears.

How long will you assail a person,
will you batter your victim, all of you,
as you would a leaning wall, a tottering fence? [Ps. 62:3 NRSV]

The world is noisy. Loud. Cacophonous. Bellowing blasts, bewailing, and bedlam in Beirut, Baghdad, and Boston hurt my ears. Hoping to leave it, I come to the beach where the tides know nothing of the color of my skin, my income, my worries or fears.

For God alone my soul waits in silence,
for my hope is from him.
He alone is my rock and my salvation,
my fortress; I shall not be shaken.
On God rests my deliverance and my honour;
my mighty rock, my refuge is in God.  [Ps. 62: 5-7 NRSV]

Hermit Crab crawling into abaondoned snail shell

Hermit Crab crawling into abaondoned snail shell

At low tide I crawl inside the borrowed shell looking for a respite from the noonday heat, my deliverance, my refuge, my fortress. But, even here, the noise follows me.

The blasts, buzzes, and bellowing echo inside the shell. Silence eludes me. Even here, I am a poor man, a mere breath, walking among the vendors and hawkers, resentful, angry, beset, a man of low estate.

Those of low estate are but a breath,
those of high estate are a delusion;
in the balances they go up;
they are together lighter than a breath.
Put no confidence in extortion,
and set no vain hopes on robbery;
if riches increase, do not set your heart on them. [Ps. 62:9-10 NRSV]

Here I am a breath stripped from the delusions of high estates indulged on the other side of the sand dunes that separate the beach from the street.

I wait in silence.

I ponder the speed outside the Hermit Crab’s temporary home, the abandoned snail shell, the speed that is itself an illusion, a flight of hubris washed away by the tides of time. I remember the race to nowhere, the myths of ownership, invulnerability, control, and superiority that race through the minds of low and high estates alike.

I hear the distant shouts and screams from the integration of Saint Augustine Beach that still plunge the despondent men next door into the oblivion of cheap booze, dope, and, maybe, crack. But the longer I wait and listen, my heart grows strangely calmer. Quieter. More at peace.

I come into the deeper Silence of the Breath once heard by the psalmist.

Once God has spoken;
twice have I heard this:
that power belongs to God,
and steadfast love belongs to you, O Lord.
For you repay to all
according to their work. [Ps. 62: 11-12 NRSV]

In the wordless silence I hear the Word I’ve come to the beach to hear:

“Be still, and know that I am God.” [Ps. 46:10 NRSV]

– Gordon C. Stewart, Saint Augustine, Florida, January 31, 2015

 

iPhones and Baseball

It’s baseball season in the era of the iPhone.

There’s silence in the Minnesota Twins clubhouse, wrote StarTribune sports writer Jim Souhan last week while covering the Twins preparing for the new season during spring training.
The players sit quietly in front of their lockers before and after games glued to their iPhones. Right next to each other… on a TEAM. The clubhouse that once rocked with laughter, card games, and the loud voices of Twins leaders Kirby Puckett and Kent Hrbek on their way to a World Series is now like a morgue.

Teams that win have chemistry. You don’t build chemistry on iPhones. You don’t win a World Series playing with phantoms or staring into the pool for your own reflection – reading what the sports writers are saying about your individual performance. You win by bonding with the people around you. Men who play 162 games over a season find ways to keep the clubhouse loose. Boyish pranks like filling David Ortiz’s undershorts with ice so he wouldn’t notice that you had smeared his trousers with peanut butter. Stunts like reserve catcher Mike Redmond strutting naked through a tense clubhouse bellowing out a solo that cracks open the ice after a bad game. A baseball season is a long time, a long grind with losing streaks and winning streaks and long road trips where your only friends are your teammates.

Baseball teams that make it to the World Series are not quiet. They have some fun. They play. Not just on the field but on the buses, the planes, and in the restaurants and hotels where the team stays for a week or more far from home.

Twins fans can hope that when the new generation of Twins players sit by their lockers with their iPhones, they will come across Jim Souhan’s advice in this morning’s StarTRibune.

“Show us something this year.
“Heck, show us anything.
“Show us some fire, some grit; some passion, some promise.
“Show us that three years of unprofessional play was a detour, not a destination.

“Show us that you care about something other than paychecks and per diems.

Joe Mauer is the best player on the Twins, a future Hall of Famer. But he’s as emotionally flat as flatbread or a flat tire. He’s predictable. No strolls through the clubhouse singing an aria to break open the silence, no shaving cream pies, no jokes, no ice in another players under shorts or peanut butter, just a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on white bread eaten along in front of his locker, waiting to take hie new position at first base. If there’s passion in Joe, it doesn’t show.

Give us some passion. Bring on Kirk Gibson coming to the plate in the World Series on knees so bad he could barely walk, throwing his fire into a swing that pushed the ball over the fence with nothing but the pure grit from the fire in his belly, hobbling around the bases like a man recovering from hip surgery. Give me Kirk, Joe.

New rule: No iPhones, iPads, or any other such distractive devices in the clubhouse. Put ’em down. Get to know each other before you take the field. I’d wager that the first team to institute that rule would go the World Series not because they’re the most talented but because they care about each other and they care about playing as a team.

God the Stranger

I “know” less and less of what I thought I knew. The world has driven me into the unknowing silence out of which James A. Whyte spoke at the funeral in Lockerbie, Scotland in 1989.

During his term as Moderator of the Church of Scotland, The Right Rev. Dr. Professor James A. Whyte , still grieving the death of his wife, was called upon to lead the memorial service after Pan Am Flight 103 was blown out of the sky over Lockerbie. Among the most quoted parts of the sermon is this excerpt:

“That such carnage of the young and of the innocent should have been willed by men in cold and calculated evil, is horror upon horror. What is our response to that?

The desire, the determination, that those who did this should be detected and, if possible, brought to justice, is natural and is right. The uncovering of the truth will not be easy, and evidence that would stand up in a court of law may be hard to obtain.

Justice is one thing. But already one hears in the media the word ‘retaliation’. As far as I know, no responsible politician has used that word, and I hope none ever will, except to disown it. For that way lies the endless cycle of violence upon violence, horror upon horror. And we may be tempted, indeed urged by some, to flex our muscles in response, to show that we are men. To show that we are what? To show that we are prepared to let more young and more innocent die, to let more rescue workers labour in more wreckage to find the grisly proof, not of our virility, but of our inhumanity. That is what retaliation means.”

For James Whyte God is often silent. We are called to enter the space of God’s silence, the silence of the cross, the confusion and horror of the suffering of God at the hands of a world filled with man-made gods: security, freedom, nationalism, religion, muscle, revenge and self-righteousness, cultural supremacy. In the Jesus of the cross, Whyte’s eyes saw not only a naked man but God’s nakedness – a naked God stripped of all power, his arms roped to a cross-beam paradoxically spread wide to embrace the whole world of human suffering and folly.

James Whyte took time out of his busy life in 1991 to act as a conversation partner and mentor for an American pastor whose congregation had granted its pastor a sabbatical leave in St. Andrews. They met twice weekly for two months in his flat over tea and scones, the young American absorbed in the vexations of Christian claims to Christ’s uniqueness and universality, on the one hand, and religious pluralism, on the other, the good Right Rev. Dr. Professor listening attentively, maintaining a poignant silence that respected his mentee’s process. When the pastor left Scotland, he asked his mentor for a copy of prayers James Whyte had offered during worship at the Hope Park Church in St. Andrews. Each of the prayers was as thing of beauty. Each began with a quotation from the Book of Psalms.

James Whyte’s spirituality echoes that of an old Hasidic Rabbi (Barukh of Medzebozh [1757-1811]) reflecting on Psalm 119.

“I live as an alien in the land;
do not hide your commandments from me”
– Psalm 119:19

Rabbi Barukh of Medzebozh said of this psalm:

“The one who life drives into exile and who comes to an alien land has nothing in common with the people there and has no one to talk to. But if a second stranger appears, even though that person may come from quite a different place, the two can confide in each other. And had they not both been strangers, they would never have known such a close relationship. That is what the psalmist means: ‘You, even as I, are a sojourner on earth and have no abiding place for your glory. So do not withdraw from me, but reveal your commandments, that I may become your friend.”
– Martin Buber, <a href="http://www.amazon.com/Tales-Hasidim-Early-Masters-Later/dp/0805209956(

” title=”Link to information on Tales of the Hassidim”>Tales of Hassidim – the Early Masters.

Thanks you, James Whyte, good and faithful servant and friend of God the Stranger. RIP.

Sermon: The Man of Silence

A sermon for Palm Sunday/ Passion Sunday at Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska, MN, reflecting on the passion of Jesus in light of the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.