To bow or not to bow is not the question

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Rising of a Thunderstorm (Washington Allston)

Reverence is an ennobling sentiment; it is felt to be degrading only
by the vulgar mind, which would escape the sense of its own littleness
by elevating itself into an antagonist of what is above it. He that has
no pleasure in looking up is not fit so much as to look down.

Washington Allston (1779—1843)

Human Beings and Being Human

Not everyone believes in God, and those of us who do call the Ineffable different names. But doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly (Micah 6:8) expresses in a few words the shared moral foundation of healthy common life. Some treasures — soul-sized things that neither moth nor rust consume — cannot be bought or stolen by wealth, privilege, or power. An economy and culture that enshrine greed, ownership and domination bow before and dance around a Golden Calf.

Jesus’s question about treasures is front and center in 2021. “What profit is there if a person [or nation] gains the world but loses its soul?” What difference does it make if we’re standing in quicksand? “The rain fell dow, and the floods came up, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell–and great was its fall!”

Cathedral of St. Lazare, Autun, France — Relief sculpture, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

Bowing Lower

It has taken a lifetime to see more clearly what I believe and why I believe it. Some stories are so deeply embedded in our psyches that we are barely conscious of them until experience brings them back into focus. The parable of the wise and foolish builders has been bedrock for me as far back as memory can reach. I heard it as a child. I sang it as a child. I moved my arms and hands to the rain pouring down and the flood coming up. Mrs. Thomas, our 90-year-old Vacation Bible School teacher laid out the choice between standing on the firm foundations of wisdom or sinking on the quicksands of foolishness.

A Larry David Teaching Moment

Jesus’ parable meant more to old Mrs. Thomas than it did to wide-eyed kindergartners with our whole lives ahead of us. Closer now to Mrs. Thomas’ age, experience has taught me that I am never far from foolishness.

But I didn’t quite “get it” until this year watching an old episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” in which a clueless Larry David insults a Korean shop owner with his bow. Bowing has a protocol of who bows lower.

A child bows lower to an adult; the younger of two adults bows lower to an elder. A student bows lower to a teacher as the outward sign of respect and honor. Larry had his purchases; what he didn’t have was his wallet. He couldn’t buy a thing.

The honorable Korean shop owner trusts Larry to take the goods and to return later to cover the cost. When Larry returns, the shop owner bows to Larry. Larry mirrors the shop owner’s bow. The two exchange bows repeatedly, but the shop owner grows angry with Larry’s persistent mirroring. Larry insulted the shop owner. Out of respect, Larry should have bowed lower.

My Clueless Insult of Kosuke Koyama

My own Larry David insult took place as Professor Emeritus theologian of World Christianity Kosuke Koyama and I moved to our places behind the communion table at Shepherd of the Hill Church in Chaska, Minnesota to celebrate the Sacrament of Holy Communion. I’m not used to bowing. I shake hands, but we Americans don’t bow. We bow to no one.

Professor Koyama’s greeting caught me by surprise. He honored me with a bow. The internationally respected Japanese liberation theologian twenty years my senior, author of 100+ books and scholarly articles, bowed low to his lesser colleague. I did what I thought was good and right. I returned the bow. But I did not bow lower! If my superior was offended, he never showed it. He never shamed me. Ten years after Ko’s death, Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” taught me what I had done. have been a to reflect on faith itself as bowing lower, to the Highest, the God of Mount Fiji and Mount Sinai, and Golgotha, the Hill of Skulls.

Photo of Professor Kosuke Koyama

If Kosuke had taken offense, he never showed it. He never shamed me. Ten years after Ko’s death, Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” taught me what I had done.

The years since have been a reflection on faith itself as bowing lower, to the Highest, the God of Mount Fiji and Mount Sinai, and Golgotha, the Hill of Skulls.

Bowing while Refusing to Bow

To be human is to bow. Before whom or what we are bowing — not whether we will bow —is a different rendering of Jesus’s challenging question. What is happening today in the United States and across the world — the storms that turn democratic republics into footstools for totalitarians hoisted to their thrones by myths of racial and national exceptionalism — widens the chasm between guarded white communities and the homeless shelters and detention camps at our southern border; and builds more prisons that house a disproportionally low percentage of people who look like me, the people of white privilege.

But most important is the ravaging of nature — unprecedented forest fires reducing natural habitats to ash heaps, homes and towns in Washington, Oregon, and California, New Orleans, and Texas; hurricanes, tornadoes and straight-line winds — puts the parable of the wise and foolish builders squarely before us We are the species that always bows to someone or something, but refuses to bow lower. “Evil is in antagonism with the entire creation,” wrote German-Swiss author and civil servant Heinrich Zschokke (1771-1848). What is humankind that you are mindful of us, asked the Hebrew psalmist.

Bowing with Jesus to the Origin and End of Life Itself

“The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” is the traditional shorthand for Christian faith. The Jewish Jesus bows before that which is greater than he: the Creator and Sustainer of life.

The “I AM” of the burning bush — YHWH, a Name/Reality so holy, so Other, so far beyond human comprehension that the children of Moses would not speak the Name aloud — is the Origin and End of life itself. It was I AM — the source and end of life itself — before whom Jesus of Nazareth bowed in prayer and daily decision-making. Jesus was a faithful member of the covenant community born at the burning bush that dropped Moses to his knees.

Bowing before the Ineffable

The Jesus of history and the Jesus of faith cannot be understood apart from this bowing. Jesus bows before his Lord and Father, the Holy One of the First Commandment and the Shema of his Jewish faith tradition. The Christian confession “Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior” is a one-line cliff note for “the Jesus who bowed low in reverence and humility before the Eternal and Ineffable” is the human one people like me seek to follow. The bowing Jesus is for Christians called Lord and Savior — because he bows lower to the Origin and End of life itself, the I Am of the bush that burns but is not consumed.

Let More of Reverence in Us Dwell

Let knowledge grow from more to more,
But more of reverence in us dwell;
That mind and soul, according well,
May make one music as before.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam
Prologue, st. 7

Gordon C. Stewart, Public Theologian, Brooklyn Park, MN, Dec. 9, 2021

Finally Climate Change Is on the Front Burner

Climate change just jumped from the back of the stove to the front burner of our national conversation, where it belongs. Without weighing in on this bizarre campaign seasons, we bring re-post this commentary of October 10, 2018.

CLIMATE CHANGE AND THE GOLDEN HOUSE — October 10, 2018

256px-ShipTracks_MODIS_2005may11Have you sometimes felt you’d be better off not knowing? But you can’t help knowing what you know, or think you know?

This is a time like that. It doesn’t just feel like that. It is a time like that. I know, for instance, that the over-riding challenge of our time is climate change. I also know that the ruling party in my country denies that climate change is real, and that neither major party sees climate change action as Priority #1. I know from articles like the one in yesterday’s Phys.org (“Carbon tax gets renewed attention but still faces resistance“) and the U.N. report that the clock is ticking. We’re fiddling while the Earth burns.

NeroThe story of Nero burning down Rome appears to be apocryphal. I know that now. But before I knew that, I wondered what the Roman Senate was doing. Did the members of the Senate follow Nero’s lead? Did they light their own matches? Did they applaud? Did any of them head for the well for the water buckets to douse the fire?

The real Nero Claudius was much different, but also, it turns out, much the same as the one I thought I knew. Britannica speaks as “infamous for his personal debaucheries and extravagances.” Its biography of Nero offers the following on the burning of Rome and the aftermath.

The great fire that ravaged Rome in 64 illustrates how low Nero’s reputation had sunk by this time. Taking advantage of the fire’s destruction, Nero had the city reconstructed in the Greek style and began building a prodigious palace—the Golden House—which, had it been finished, would have covered a third of Rome. During the fire, Nero was at his villa at Antium 35 miles (56 km) from Rome and therefore cannot be held responsible for the burning of the city. But the Roman populace mistakenly believed that he himself had started the fire in Rome in order to indulge his aesthetic tastes in the city’s subsequent reconstruction. — “Nero: Biography and Accomplishments,” Britannica.com.

Las-Vegas-Trump-Hotel-8480

Trump Hotel with gold-infused glass, Las Vegas, NV

Today, Nero and the U.S. Senate mock what I know: climate change is real and action on climate change should be priority #1 for every political political party and nation. Knowing Jesus’ parable about the foolish man who built his house upon the sand, and the wise one who built his house upon the rock, I keep hammering on the door of the Golden House that’s built on sand. “Our prayers are hammer-strokes against the princes of darkness,” said Jacob Christoph Blumhardt long ago. “They must oft be repeated. Not a single stroke is wasted.”

I add my little hammer-strokes to those of Governor Jerry Brown, Bill McKibben, 350.org, the Sierra Club for the rescue of the rain forests, the oceans, and all things green from the Golden House that threaten to entomb us. I can only live by what I know: the cry and hope that the hammer-strokes are not too late.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “In Memoriam,” canto 54

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, October 10, 2018.

Climate Change and the Golden House

256px-ShipTracks_MODIS_2005may11Have you sometimes felt you’d be better off not knowing? But you can’t help knowing what you know, or think you know?

This is a time like that. It doesn’t just feel like that. It is a time like that. I know, for instance, that the over-riding challenge of our time is climate change. I also know that the ruling party in my country denies that climate change is real, and that neither major party sees climate change action as Priority #1. I know from articles like the one in yesterday’s Phys.org (“Carbon tax gets renewed attention but still faces resistance“) and the U.N. report that the clock is ticking. We’re fiddling while the Earth burns.

NeroThe story of Nero burning down Rome appears to be apocryphal. I know that now. But before I knew that, I wondered what the Roman Senate was doing. Did the members of the Senate follow Nero’s lead? Did they light their own matches? Did they applaud? Did any of them head for the well for the water buckets to douse the fire?

The real Nero Claudius was much different, but also, it turns out, much the same as the one I thought I knew. Britannica speaks as “infamous for his personal debaucheries and extravagances.” Its biography of Nero offers the following on the burning of Rome and the aftermath.

The great fire that ravaged Rome in 64 illustrates how low Nero’s reputation had sunk by this time. Taking advantage of the fire’s destruction, Nero had the city reconstructed in the Greek style and began building a prodigious palace—the Golden House—which, had it been finished, would have covered a third of Rome. During the fire, Nero was at his villa at Antium 35 miles (56 km) from Rome and therefore cannot be held responsible for the burning of the city. But the Roman populace mistakenly believed that he himself had started the fire in Rome in order to indulge his aesthetic tastes in the city’s subsequent reconstruction. — “Nero: Biography and Accomplishments,” Britannica.com.

Las-Vegas-Trump-Hotel-8480

Trump Hotel with gold-infused glass, Las Vegas, NV

Today, Nero and the U.S. Senate mock what I know: climate change is real and action on climate change should be priority #1 for every political political party and nation. Knowing Jesus’ parable about the foolish man who built his house upon the sand, and the wise one who built his house upon the rock, I keep hammering on the door of the Golden House that’s built on sand. “Our prayers are hammer-strokes against the princes of darkness,” said Jacob Christoph Blumhardt long ago. “They must oft be repeated. Not a single stroke is wasted.”

I add my little hammer-strokes to those of Governor Jerry Brown, Bill McKibben, 350.org, the Sierra Club for the rescue of the rain forests, the oceans, and all things green from the Golden House that threaten to entomb us. I can only live by what I know: the cry and hope that the hammer-strokes are not too late.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “In Memoriam,” canto 54

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, October 10, 2018.

Rizpah and her children

As the snowstorm cancelled schools in Minnesota last week, 90 year-old Lorraine Garrison was surrounded by family and friends who celebrated her life.

Lorraine’s grandson, Jeff, reminded the minister of the story of Rizpah, the diligent mother who perched her body on the rock after two of her children were hanged by the Gibeonites, and stayed there for five months to keep the birds and animals of prey away. Lorraine was a Rizpah, watching over her adult children and her grandchildren from her room in the nursing home in Chaska.

“Rizpah” – Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809–1892)

Sin? O, yes, we are sinners, I know—let all that be, 60
And read me a Bible verse of the Lord’s goodwill toward men—
“Full of compassion and mercy, the Lord”—let me hear it again;
“Full of compassion and mercy—long-suffering.” Yes, O, yes!
For the lawyer is born but to murder—the Saviour lives but to bless.

He’ll never put on the black cap except for the worst of the worst, 65
And the first may be last—I have heard it in church—and the last may be first.
Suffering—O, long-suffering—yes, as the Lord must know,
Year after year in the mist and the wind and the shower and the snow.

Heard, have you? what? they have told you he never repented his sin.
How do they know it? are they his mother? are you of his kin? 70
Heard! have you ever heard, when the storm on the downs began,
The wind that’ll wail like a child and the sea that’ll moan like a man?

Election, Election, and Reprobation—it’s all very well.
But I go to-night to my boy, and I shall not find him in Hell.
For I cared so much for my boy that the Lord has look’d into my care, 75
And He means me I’m sure to be happy with Willy, I know not where.

The story comes from Second Book Samuel 21:10-11: “And Rizpah the daughter of Aiah took sackcloth, and spread it for her upon the rock, from the beginning of harvest until water dropped upon them out of heaven, and suffered neither the birds of the air to rest on them by day, nor the beasts of the field by night. And it was told David what Rizpah the daughter of Aiah, the concubine of Saul, had done.”

Thank God for the Rizpahs of this world who will never let Willy get lost.

The Refiner’s Fire

While reflecting on Malachi’s strange metaphor of  the refiner’s fire, Via Lucis’  post “Stillness Crieth Out” (re-posted here last week) re-focused the sermon. Here are the words from Malachi:

“Behold, I send my messenger to prepare the way for me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? “For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap….” – Malachi 3:1-2.

Thank you, Dennis Aubrey and PJ McKay, for you splendid insights to to these grand Romanesque and Gothic sacred spaces that still bring the soul to stillness and wonder.