A Red Leather Gift

Featured

At daybreak far from the maddening world on CNN, MSNBC, Politico or — God fobid! . . .FOXNews — I’m alone with The Book of Common Prayer. I’ve come here for the silence interrupted only by the calls of the loons and the pair of trumpeter swans that return every spring. For generations the swans’ inner compasses have brought them back to this unspoiled place to hatch their young before flying south again for winter. The swans and I are a lot alike; we both come back when the ice is almost gone.

Back home in the Twin Cities, the shouting turns me ice-cold or red-hot, depending on the moment. Here ice and heat are natural: the ice on the wetland pond is almost gone; the only red-hot thing is the fire in the wood stove. There’s something sacred about the synchronicity of the fire inside and the melting ice just outside the A-frame. It’s peaceful here.

I settle into the hickory Amish rocker Jacob Miller crafted to fit my slim dimensions 40 years ago back in Millersburg, Ohio. Though its measurements are the same, It feels narrower. But we’re still made for each other. The rocker is where I rock awhile, like Jacob on his front porch after a hard day’s work, until going inside to make the fire or light the kerosene lamps. Jacob Miller’s Amish rocking chair is where the world slows down.

I reach to the lamp table next to the rocker for my copy of the Book of Common Prayer. It hasn’t always been mine. It belonged to Sue Kahn, a lifelong Episcopalian, before the day she gave it to me. Sue had suffered the inelegance of Presbyterian language after failing eye sight had led her to Cincinnati to be with her Presbyterian daughter. She could no longer read her prayerbook, but had committed to memory many of its prayers. After two years of worshiping with the Presbyterians, Sue began to refer to me an ‘Episcoterian” — a high Presbyterian — who also appreciated fine language. Looking back it, I think she may have hoped it would improve my prayers from the lecture Sunday mornings. “I want you to have this,” she said, placing her small red leather-bound Book of Common Prayer in my hands. “I know you’ll treasure it.” Sue sits beside me in Jacob’s rocker every morning.

I open to the appointed psalm Sue would have contemplated today, this Wednesday of Holy Week, Psalm 55.

Hear my prayer, O God;
do not hide yourself from my petition.

It’s the day before release of the redacted report of Special Counsel Robert Mueller III, a report that may answer my prayer for full disclosure of the truth I suspect has been hidden.

Listen to me and answer me;
I have no peace because of my cares.

The arrogance — “listen to me; answer me!” — disturbs me. Prayer is not an exercise in telling God what to do! The psalmist is arrogant and it’s selfish, more than a little Narcissistic, like the man in the Oval Office who might push the button on the red phone after typing the letters into th unsecured iPhone he uses to tweet.

But I have come to the wilderness because I have no peace watching Ari and Rachel and waiting for the nightmare to end.

I am shaken by the noise of the enemy;
and by the pressure of the wicked…

I don’t like talk of ‘enemies’; it puts me off. “Love your ememies and do good to them who persecute you.” Framing one’s opponents as ‘wicked’ is the less developed morality that has not yet recognized the intertwining of good and evil. But the psalms express the vicseral feelings of the heart unfiltered by the cerebral cortex. Like the psalmist, I am shaken to the core by the noise of an enemy; the pressure of the wicked. The noise hurts me ears.

For they have cast an evil spirit upon me,
and are set against me in fury.

l do not stand on solid ground. The cloud of evil and wickedness I routinely ascribe to ‘them’ hangs over me. I cannot claim to be righteous, right, or good as opposed to the unrighteous, wrong, and evil. I live under an ‘evil spell’ – the fall from essential goodness that comes with the presumption of the knowledge of good and evil — the knowledge that belongs to God alone. There is no escape from the pressure and the fury.

My heart quakes within me,
and the terrors of death have befallen upon me.
Fear and trembling have come over me,
and horror overwhelms me.

I quake as a fish caught in a net. I thrash and tremble in darkness at noon as at midnight. The snare of terrors encompasses me.

And I said “Oh, that I had wings like a dove!
I would fly away and be at rest.
I would flee to a far off place
and make my lodging in the wilderness.”

Before ending the morning prayer time made possible by the gifts from Sue and Jacob, I turn again to the back page of Sue’s red-leather prayer book to read again the words she had written in her own hand before she gave it to me:

Christ was the Word who spake it. He took the bread and broke it. And what his Word did make it – that I believe. . . and take it.

The crackling of the fire and the trumpeting of the trumpeter swans from the far side of the wetland break into the fading darkness at dawn. I fly away again to where I really live — a far-off place — and make my lodging in the wilderness beyond the snare and blare of right and wrong, good and evil, us and them.

— Gordon C. Stewart by the thawing weland, April 18, 2019

Two Presidents – November 22, 2014

Today is the anniversary of the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy (JFK), 35th President of the United States of America.

Who killed JFK remains a question for the ages. Someday, perhaps, we will learn the truth of why and by whom he died, but for now the story must be told again, remembered for what it was and for what might have been.

Some things are,
or, so it seems,
“not meant
to be”

Things like
Jack and us
that almost
were

Yet some things,
I repose,
never fade
or die away

Some things not
“meant to be”
like Jack and me,
live on

As things that are,
I surmise,
not meant
to die

For love is not
a thing,
an object that
can die

It hangs around,
like time,
in spaces all
its own

– GCS, Nov. 22, 2014

 

It must be remembered and mourned afresh today when hatred for his successor runs rampant and “lapses” in White House security inexplicably abound. One theory of President Kennedy’s assassination includes not only a rogue element of the CIA but also the Secret Service, charged to protect the President. Prayers are in order for the President who stood tall this week in his speech on immigration reform.

For our President, Barack, for the leaders of the nations, and for all in authority, let us pray to the Lord. Lord have mercy.

For the poor and the oppressed, for the unemployed and the destitute, for prisoners and captives, and for all who remember and care for them, let us pray to the Lord. Lord have mercy.

Defend us, deliver us, and in Thy compassion protect us, O Lord, by Thy grace. Lord have mercy.

[Excerpts from The Book of Common Prayer, Form I, 1979 Pew Edition, page 384.]

Into the Cocoon of Sorrow

The return of the prodigal son - Rembrandt drawing

The return of the prodigal son – Rembrandt drawing

During seven years as Executive Director of the Legal Rights Center, Inc. a nonprofit public defense corporation founded in 1970 by American Indian and African-American civil rights leaders, there were sacred moments when the lawyers would call me in to meet a suicidal client in a jail cell. Sometimes the person in the cell was guilty of murder or manslaughter. They were beside themselves. All I could do was be there with them as a kind of quiet presence of hope and the possibility of forgiveness and new life.

I knew then that we were sitting right in the middle of the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Gospel of Luke 15:11-32). In Jesus’ parable, the son, who has convinced his generous father into giving him his inheritance before his father’s death, has squandered it all, and, after finding himself in desperation, eating the left-overs in the pig sty of “the far country”, he staggers home to his father. He comes beating his breast with remorse and shame. “But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him, and kissed him,” and orders the finest robe for him and a magnificent feast to celebrate his son’s return from “the far country.” When the older brother who has stayed home obediently objects, the father of the two sons declares: “It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, but is alive, was lost, and is found!”

Only after returning to parish ministry did I discover The Book of Common Prayer’s rite for the reconciliation of a penitent that is constructed on the story of the return of the son to the father. For those in the bowels of despair, remorse, and guilt, there is no word from inside one’s own self that can crack open the cocoon of horror, self-disgust, and condemnation. When I found this rite, it moved me deeply. I adapted parts of it for the Prayer of Confession in morning worship at Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska, MN.

RITE FOR THE RECONCILIATION OF A PENITENT from The Book of Common Prayer (The Episcopal Church)

The priest and penitent begin as follows

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving-kindness;
in your great compassion blot out my offenses.
Wash me through and through from my wickedness,
and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions only too well,
and my sin is ever before me.

Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One,
have mercy upon us.

Penitent: Pray for me, a sinner.

Priest: May God in his love enlighten your heart, that you may remember in truth all your sins and his unfailing mercy. Amen.

The Priest may then say one or more of these or other appropriate verses of Scripture, first saying:: Hear the Word of God to all who truly turn to him.

Come unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you. Matthew 11:28

This is a true saying, and worthy of all to be received, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. I Timothy 1:13

If any man sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the perfect offering for our sins, and nor for ours only, but for the sins of the whole world. I John 2:1-2

The Priest then continues:

Now, in the presence of Christ, and of me, his minister, confess your sins with a humble and obedient heart to Almighty God, our Creator and our Redeemer.

The Penitent says:

Holy God, heavenly Father, you formed me from the dust in your image and likeness, and redeemed me from sin and death by the cross of your Son Jesus Christ. Through the water of baptism you clothed me with the shining garment of his righteousness, and established me among your children in your kingdom. But I have squandered the inheritance of your saints, and I have wandered far in a land that is waste.

Especially, I confess to you and to the Church . . . . (Here the penitent confesses particular sins)

Therefore, O Lord, from these and all other sins I cannot now remember, I turn to you in sorrow and repentance. Receive me again into the arms of your mercy, and restore me to the blessed company of your faithful people; through him in whom you have redeemed the world, your Son our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

The Priest may then offer words of comfort and counsel.

Priest: Will you turn again to Christ as your Lord?

Penitent: I will.

Priest: Do you, then, forgive those who have sinned against you?

Penitent: I forgive them.

Priest: May Almighty God in mercy receive your confession of sorrow and faith, strengthen you in all goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit keep you in eternal life. Amen.

The Priest then lays upon the penitent’s head (or extends a hand over the penitent) saying:: Our Lord Jesus Christ, who has left power to his Church to absolve all sinners who truly repent and believe in him, of his great mercy forgive you all your offenses; and by his authority committed to me, I absolve you from all your sins; in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The Priest concludes: Now there is rejoicing in heaven; for you were lost, and are found; you were dead, and are now alive in Christ Jesus our Lord. Go (or abide) in peace. The Lord has put away all your sins.

Penitent: Thanks be to God.