The Burning Bush and Alzheimer’s

Christ Hospital, Cincinnati, OH

Christ Hospital, Cincinnati, OH

It had been three years since I’d seen Polly.

“Mom’s had a heart attack,” said Polly’s daughter. “She’s at Christ Hospital. There’s really no reason to visit. Most days she doesn’t even know me anymore.”

For eleven years we had shared the same church in Cincinnati. Polly had been chair of the Pastor Search Committee that invited me to candidate for the position of Pastor at Knox Presbyterian Church, and over the years the times together over cocktails and dinner had been frequent before we moved to Minneapolis.

I walk into her room in the cardiac care center expecting nothing.

I say her name. She opens her eyes and stares. “Well, Gordon Campbell Stewart, what are you doing here?”

“Well, that’s not the question. The question is what are you doing in a place like this?” We both chuckle, as we so often had done over something that had struck our shared funny bone.

She asks about the boys and how things are in Minneapolis. She’s clear as a bell for a good three minutes until she goes away to wherever people with Alzheimer’s go when they’ve had enough of consciousness.

Buried somewhere deep in the depths of Alzheimer’s are sacred memories that bubble up for a just a moment before they slip back down into the reservoir from which they’ve been drawn. When they bubble up, we know we are standing on holy ground. The bush is burning but it is not consumed.

Communio Sanctorum

As a boy I thought of All Saints Day and the Communio Sanctorum, the Communion of Saints, the way I felt about Halloween. It was spooky.

Today it’s no longer spooky. I’m thinking about all the people who have touched my life along the way. Few of them are saints in the sense our culture has come to understand the word, but they were all saints in my book. The extraordinary thing about saints is that they know they are not extraordinary. They refuse to believe they are exceptional.

The people I’m remembering drew little attention to themselves, for the most part. Some of them, like Uncle Dick Lewis, who was an uncle not by blood but by affection only, were people of few words. Uncle Dick stood under the maple tree every Sunday morning waiting for our weekly routine: nothing more than a handshake, the strength of which tested and honored my growing toward manhood. The handshake is the only speech I remember. During the week Uncle Dick’s hands painted houses. On Sunday morning he clasped his hands together after painting a boy into a man under the maple tree.

The place where I grew up was a working class community with a working class church. Its members were house painters, plumbers, carpenters, and bus drivers with a few middle management people sprinkled in, and one generous rich man named George. George and Phoebe always sat in the front row.

Marple Presbyterian Church, Broomall, PA

Marple Presbyterian Church, Broomall, PA

George decided one day to donate a stained glass window. Although much of the money for the new building had come from George, a stained glass window was inappropriate for Colonial architecture. The church board, with some fear and trepidation, refused the proposed gift. George left the church in a huff. He moved his and Phoebe’s membership to the wealthy church in Bryn Mawr, leaving the carpenters, plumbers, and bus drivers with a clear message: “Good luck. You won’t have George to kick around any more! You’re on your own.”

Karl Marx observed that the rich will do anything for the poor but get off their backs, and that the ruling ideas of any society are the ideas of its ruling class. After George left, they didn’t love Karl, the man everyone at Marple loved to hate, any less than before, but they re-discovered the Beatitudes of Jesus: “Blessed are you poor. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are you who mourn.” Blessed are the peacemakers.”

George was always kind to me in a distant kind of way. He got a chuckle watching the mischievous tow-head preacher’s kid break the rules he didn’t dare break. My only pictures from childhood were taken by Phoebe’s camera. I still see George in his three-piece suit with a big cigar, looking like a statue of William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper magnate – not quite that rich, but likely every bit as lonely before and after the church refused his stained glass window.

Approaching All Saints’ Day this year, I see them all compacted, you might say, into a single communion, the communion of the dead who have left behind every illusion that they were exceptional to the common lot of humankind. I see them gathered again at Marple Church, but gathered differently: George in Uncle Dick’s painter’s coveralls and Uncle Dick dressed in George’s three piece suit smoking George’s Cuban cigar, and Phoebe still taking her snapshots of a community now repaired by the common threads of love and death, dragged kicking and screaming into the Communion of Saints that knows no exceptions.

Teaching my Daughter how to Drive

Her brother let the clutch out much too fast
the first time he tried to start up the van
in the parking lot of the store that closed.
I told her how he lurched and jerked and ran
over the orange cones that I took to use
from soccer practice as a parking space.
The VW died, he swore, but tried
again and then again–giving more gas
and slooowly letting up the clutch. She learned
and did the opposite: the engine roared
as she held in the clutch and mashed the gas
pedal to the floor. I yelled to be heard
above the engine noise, “Let up, let up!”
and as she pulled both feet up, the car died,
of course. She threw the keys at me and cried.

She took the class at school and got an “A.”

– Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL, October 9, 2013

Pete Seeger and the Story of Abiyoyo


Nobody told a story the way Pete Seeger did! Pete always lifted people up. “Lift up your hearts!” he seemed to say, and then he would dance and play. The whole world was his communion table. The child in him never faded. He still calls up the child in us.

The Prenuptial Dinner


Describing  the prenuptial dinner in Bend, Oregon calls to mind my niece’s twinkle-in-the-eye declaration after her first experience with Japanese Sushi (raw fish): “It was,” you might say, “an experience!” The memorable “experience” was the company more than the food.

Scene 1

The room in the back of the Middle Eastern restaurant in cosmopolitan downtown Bend, Oregon was hard to find, but well-prepared for the 16 family members.

We introduce ourselves to Bonnie, the bride’s mother, and Mike, the bride’s second step-father. The next 25 minutes is a tag-team Bonnie and Mike monologue. We learn all the places they have lived, why they are now moving from Maryland – on the Chesapeake Bay – to Texas, Bonnie’s ancestral home. They have put their house on the market…and their boat with a listing price higher than the market value of our house in Minnesota. Third marriage for both Mike and Bonnie. No interest in knowing anything about us. Monologue. Texas monologue. The first taste of what is to come.

Scene 2 

The bride’s 65 year-old gregarious Uncle Billy Bob (“Uncle Bill”) – married to the bride’s Aunt Frances – makes his grand entrance. Uncle Bill is very large – 6’4” 280 lbs. of massive  proportions wearing a khaki work shirt tucked into suspendered khaki work pants hiked up high above his waistline and a tractor hat.

Uncle Bill’s voice is as loud as his body is big. He is a commanding presence. We’d met the night before when the families were gathering from Oregon, New York, Texas, and Minnesota. He’s been told I’m a minister.

“Have s seat,” he says, glad to see me, pulling a chair from the long table and slapping it with his hand like a command from a drill sergeant. “So you’re a minister. What kind?”

Uncle Bill and Gordon

“Yes sir. Presbyterian,” I say, wondering where this is leading.

“Well, lemme tell ya a story,” says Uncle Bill. “Ma Granddaddy was a Hah Babtist. He married my Grandmomma who was a Hah Church of Chrast.”

“What’s ‘high’ mean?” I ask.

Uncle Bill’s face tells me he’s astonished by my ignorance, a man of the cloth and all that. “Well, sir, there are Hah Babtists and Low Babtists; Hah Church of Chrast and Low Church of Chrast. ‘Hah’ means ‘mine is the only way.’ So my Grandaddy and Grandmomma’s son, ma Daddy, was a heathen. He married a Hah Babtist.

“I was raised Hah Baptist, like ma Momma. Now here’s where the story begins…….”

The waiter interrupts by putting a large platter of hummus and Lebanese pita bread in the middle of the wide table. Billy Bob looks at it. He’s hungry. He’s never seen anything like this. He’s wondering what it is and what to do with it. “Frances!” he calls out to the other side of the room. Frances, who’s recovering from hip surgery, walks to where we’re sitting. “What’s this?” “I don’t know,” says Frances, “I’ll ask Bonnie, maybe she’ll know,” and walks across the room to Bonnie and Mike.

“Now, as I was startin’ to say…you take Frances and me. I was a Hah Babtist; Frances was a Hah Church o’ Chrast.  Now I’m a Low Babtist and she’s a Low Church o’ Chrast.”

Frances returns from the other side of the room.  “It’s chick peas,” says Frances. “Well, I’ll be,” says Uncle Bill, pulling the whole platter in front of him from the middle of the table where others could share it. “Now, what do I do with it?” Before Frances can answer, the large serving spoon is filled with hummus in Uncle Bill’s mouth. “You take the bread and dip it in the chick peas,” says Frances. “Where’s the bread?” “It’s right there,” says Francis, “it’s Middle Eastern.”

“Now the story gets really interesting,” he says. “This is where it begins.”

I’m thinking to myself it’s been 20 minutes and all I’ve said was “What’s high mean?” Uncle Bill doesn’t seem to notice or care. He’s reeled in a minister. Ministers are supposed to be nice people who listen. They just smile, nod, and show interest. This is a monologue by a Texas story-teller with a captive audience.

“I go to my Babtist church and Frances goes to her Church o’ Chrast church. Been doing it for 35 years. Now my minister went off to the Holy Land, I guess they call it and went to the seminar. And you know what the other students told him about why they was at the seminar? Money! They was there for the money. What kinda minister’d you say you was?”

“Presbyterian,” I repeat, “and we’re required to go to seminary in order to be ordained. For us it’s not about money. No one gets more money by going to seminary. Every candidate for ministry goes to seminary because we want our ministers to learn the original biblical languages – Hebrew and Greek – and spend three years in graduate school before serving a congregation.”

“How big was your church?” asks Bill. What was the biggest?”


“See that’s what I mean? Now we’re just a little church o’ 35 people. We pay our minister $1500 a month which seems pretty dang good to me.”

Apparently Bill has concluded that his audience is a money-grubber, although he never says so. He’s Low Babtist; I’m Presbyterian. I’m sipping a vodka martini; he’s drinking lemonade-iced-tea. He’s livin’ the low life; I’m living the hah life.

Scene 3

I’m thinking to myself,

“Funny how Hah (the only way OR the superior way, religion, culture, accent) manages to find an open door even when we think we’ve locked it behind us. High just re-defines itself according to whatever ways my life seems superior to Billy Bob’s or Billy Bob’s seems to him to be superior to mine.”

I poke fun at Billy Bob’sTexas drawl and monologue and laugh at his call across the room to Frances to rescue him in a Middle Eastern restaurant which is stranger to him than the money-grubbing Presbyterian “seminar” graduate from Minnesota. Each of us has managed to place himself on the perch of Hah looking down at the Low.

But there’s something about the two of us sitting there sipping our different drinks, eating the hummus and pita bread, that unifies us. We kind of like each other…maybe the way opposites are attracted to each other, if for no other reason than that they’re interesting.

“Now lemme tell ya another story… As I was startin’ to say…”

“Bill, I’m sorry, I need to catch up with my wife. It’s been a pleasure.”

“You bet. We got a w h o l e evening to get acquainted. We’ve got plenty o’ time.”

Scene 4

As we sit down for the meal, I sit at one end of the long table of 16 people with Kay on the left and Frances to my right. Uncle Bill sits to France’s right.

At the opposite end of the table sits my son Doug with his partner and two of the bride’s relatives, all now living in New York City. They’re on their second bottle of wine, having a great time, as the waiter brings the entrees to our end of the table. Doug flashes a wave to his Dad.

Uncle Bill turns to the head of our table and asks the money-grubbing Presbyterian minister from the seminar, “Would you say the blessing’ for our end of the table?” I offer the blessing on behalf of all the hah and low Baptists, Church of Christ, and Presbyterian people at our end of the table – thankful for new food and friends, for family, and for grace bigger than any of our highs – thankful, you might say, for “the experience.”

Ephemera (Dennis Aubrey)

Profound and humorous personal story by Dennis Aubrey of Via Lucis.. “…And so I read these books in the library, but I carried them around the school halls in order that young women would be impressed.”  Lessons from Bertrand Russell, Alfred North Whitehead, Das Capital, libraries, books, and the raging hormones of  “the juvenile medieval monks who worked diligently in the scriptorium.”

Click Ephemera (Dennis Aubrey) for the photos and the story. Well worth the read.