Tuesday’s Tide Pool

High tide washed a wondrously diverse group of sea creatures into the same small tide pool last Tuesday, and at low tide (7:00 p.m.), we began to discover and celebrate each other.

Thanks to Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church for hosting the Tuesday Dialogue and Book Launch for Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness.

By 9:30 p.m. the momentary tide pool was empty. But the brief time we had together refreshed us all with hope for better times and with a greater appreciation for the larger ocean and the tides of history.

As the author whose book publication the rest of us creatures came to celebrate, I could look from my old pulpit at the faces in the tide pool, a gathering unique to its moment in time. Not better than other times. Not exceptional. No tide pool or creature is exceptional – no group, no nation, no race, no religion, no class, no gender, no culture, no species – but each one, like this one, is distinct to its moment in time.

There were star fish large and small, green, pink, red, and brown; crabs and lobsters, sea anemones, periwinkles, muscles, a young salmon, and a bunch of old barnacles.

This tide pool is a small church existing along the shore of eternity, a place of Christian worship that washes up a bunch of Presbyterians every Sunday morning.

But Tuesday there were agnostics, atheists, seekers, and other Christians (Catholics, Baptists, Lutherans, Methodists, and Episcopalians); white, black, and red; venture capitalist and struggling to survive in the trailer court; Democrat, Republican, Socialist, and Communist; Ph.Ds and high school drop-outs; co, a five year-old and a 96 year-old; the co-founder of the American Indian Movement, other Standing Rock campers, and couch potatoes; those with TVs and those without them, with cell phones and without them, those who’ve been homeless and those who haven’t, the able and the less abled, the hard of hearing and the sound of hearing; a group of creatures such as will never again be in the same tide pool.

Time in the tide pool meant the world to me.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Feb. 9, 2017

 

 

 

 

Time is what we have

“What is time?” asked the 11 year-old son of his father.  Finally, the father, who was supposed to know about such things, offered the briefest of answers. “Time is what we have.”

The answer  begged for more explanation, but it spoke out loud the frailty and wonder of the human condition. What is time? It’s what we have but, like everything else mortals have, or think we have, time runs out. Time is like the sand in the hour-glass. It sifts slowly through the funnel from top to bottom until there is nothing left. Dust to dust, ashes to ashes. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

The relation of time to eternity is the relation between mortality and immortality. Our hour-glass contains eternity but it does not define it or confine it. We experience eternity in the now of time as we look at the heavens on a starry night, feel a gentle breeze or the rush of a mighty wind, or watch the shorelines of human construction eroding, pushing back the illusion of ownership and control of nature and of time.

My poet friend and Views from the Edge colleague Steve Shoemaker is coming to the end of his time. After many decisions that prolonged his life far beyond the original prognosis, he opted last Saturday to give way to time. Steve chose to spend whatever days are left at home at Prairie Haven on the plains of Illinois.

The news came less than a week after five old friends who call ourselves the Dogs traveled from Texas, Arizona, Illinois, Indiana, and Minnesota to gather one last time with Steve at Steve’s room in the care center. We barked and growled watching the first presidential debate. We laughed. We sang some hymns. We prayed with and for Steve, Nadja, and their children, Daniel and Marla. We prayed for ourselves. The time was right.

When news arrived only days later that Steve had opted to end further medical treatment to go home, the conversation with my 11 year-old son years ago and Steve’s verse “When to Stop Praying” (April 2, 2016) came quickly to mind. The prayer now is for an end of striving. An end of pain. “Pray for my peace, not my life.” The end of time.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, October 5, 2016.

 

 

 

 

On the Cusp of Wonder

New Year’s Eve.

Every calendar with its years is a culture’s invention, a way of breaking the eternal rolling of sunrises and sunsets into an order that suits our needs for what?

For celebration? For budgets? For control? For forgiveness? For hope?

All of the above and more?

Between the passing of one year and the dawning of another we sense a shifting, the movement of something that does not exist: time, the human way of marking turf in the eternal rolling of the spheres.

The tides of time pay no attention because, like time itself, the tides are timeless. They know nothing of us. They ebb and flow in ceaseless rounds of who knows what. And we, standing on the shore’s edge between two tides awaken again to the sense of wonder before what we do not control.

Perhaps Isaac Watts had something like that in mind when he paraphrased Psalm 90:

Before the hills in order stood,
or earth received its frame,
from everlasting thou art God
to endless years the same.

A thousand ages in thy sight
are like an evening gone,
short as the watch that ends the night
before the rising sun.

Time, like an ever rolling stream,
bears all its sons away;
they fly forgotten as a dream
dies at the opening day.

Our God, our help in ages past,
our hope for years to come,
be thou our guard while life shall last,
and our eternal home.

– Isaac Watts, 1719

Since the middle of the 19th century, Watt’s paraphrase has been sung to the tune of St. Anne, named after the London parish where Watts was organist. Click HERE for more on Sir Isaac Watts.

The Sacredness of Time

A Sermon at Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska, Minnesota.

EXCERPTS

“I have always been bemused by time and place. I am a toddler on a train listening in the night to the eerie sound of the train whistle and the constant click-clacking of the wheels. Where were we? Where are we going – and why, just my mother and I?”

“We are all in transit. But from where to where and from when to when have become less and less my questions.”

Bemused by Time

Gordon C. Stewart, August 8, 2013 copyright.

I have always been bemused by time . . . and place. I am on a train listening in the night to the eerie sound of the train whistle and the constant click-clacking of the wheels. Where were we? Where are we going – and why, just my mother and I?

We were between times and places. My father had shipped out for war in the South Pacific. Hewas somewhere on a ship and might not return. My mother and I were on our way from LA to Boston. Two different places: one hours behind, one many hours ahead. But for the time being, there was only the now of the train, the whistle, and the steady clickety-clack from the track carrying us from there to here to there, from then to now to then. Perplexity with time and place is my earliest memory.

We are all in transit. But from where to where and from when to when have become less and less my questions.

I do not share the popular view that time is an illusion or that the material world is the prison from which we will be released at death. Time and place are gifts of creaturely existence, boundaries within which we live our lives appreciatively or scornfully in the midst of the Eternal. To scorn them is to deprecate existence itself in the Promethean hope that we can steal fire from the gods to become what we are not: timeless and placeless.

Time and place are set within the larger Mystery that Rudolph Otto called the Mysterium tremendum et fascinans – the Mystery that makes us mortals tremble and fascinates us at the same time, the Mystery of the Eternal without which we are nothing that draws us to itself like iron to a magnet. Time and place – birth, finite life, death – exist within the Mystery of that which does not die: Eternity.

I am not amused by the denial of death that is so rampant in our culture. Surveys show that roughly 90% of Americans, regardless of religious affiliation, believe in life after death, by which they do not mean that life will go on without them, but that they themselves will never die.

I have come to believe that the denial of death and the fear of death lie close to the core of American culture at its worst. Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death informs how I see the world and myself; Becker sits beside me as I turn to the Scriptures in the morning.

Psalm 90:1-5, paraphrased by Isaac Watts (1719) and sung as the hymn “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” is as much in my early memory bank as the train whistle on the ride to Boston. It has always represented a mature faith that takes seriously Otto’s Mysterium:

Before the hills in order stood,
Or earth received its frame,
From everlasting Thou art God,
To endless years the same.

A thousand ages in Thy sight
Are like an evening gone;
Short as the watch that ends the night
Before the rising sun.

Time, like an every rolling stream
Bears all its sons away;
They fly forgotten, as a dream
dies at the opening day.

O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Be Thou our guard while life shall last
And our eternal home.

Standing at the gravesites over the years, I have prayed the same prayer so many times that it has become an essential part of me. I confess that I don’t know what it means exactly but it expresses the sentiment of good faith as I have come to understand it for myself.

O Lord, support us all the day long,
until the shadows lengthen,
and the evening comes,
and busy world is hushed,
and the fever of life is over,
and our work is done.
Then, in Your mercy,
grant us a safe lodging,
a holy rest,
and peace at the last.

The shadows have grown longer since the trip to Boston and the first time I sang the hymn. Evening is closer now. The sense of the Mysterium tremendum et fascinans is different but no less real now than it was on the train to Boston. The hush of the busy world will come soon enough. Between now and the day my work is done, I want to listen more attentively for the Hush in the midst of time, and give thanks that the Silence is not empty. It is full of Eternity. I am bemused by time.

Click O God, Our Help in Ages Past for a video that captures the spirit of the hymn and the prayer.

Time

My son once asked me “What is time?”

I answered, “I don’t know. It’s a perennial question of philosophers and theologians. But, so far as I can tell, time is what we have.”

Some people think that time isn’t real. It’s a human construct and only eternity is real. They think of time and place as the prison of the soul, the antithesis of, or the prelude to, eternal life.

It always seemed a bit strange to me. Like the imaginary friends children make up because they’re afraid of being alone in the dark. I could never understand.

“Time is what we have.”

The animals know what time is. They also know eternity. They wake and sleep with the rhythms of the sun – rising and setting daily – the markers of what we call time. They know nothing about clock time or the names of days, months, seasons or years, but they live in the reality of time.

Time is what we have between birth and death. Eternity is the depth of time, the Mystery beneath, within, and beyond the limits of time. We participate in the eternal, but we are not eternal. To think otherwise is to consider ourselves the exception to nature itself.

The illusion of superiority to nature – the idea that the human species is nature’s singular exception – is a fabrication peculiar to the species that considers itself conscious. The imaginary friend of eternal life may help us sleep better at night, but it leads to slaughter and, eventually, to species suicide.

Ernest Becker (The Denial of Death) saw the denial of death as bedrock to American culture. The denial of death – the refusal to acknowledge it as real; the flight from the knowledge of our mortality – not only deprecates life here and now; it takes into its hands the life and death of those different from ourselves. It builds towers to itself that reach toward the heavens while it plunders an earth it considers too lowly for its aspirations.

Time is our friend and time is our limit. We are meant for this. “Grace and pride never lived in the same place,” says an old Scottish proverb, for pride always seeks to exceed what is given (grace).

Time is what we have. Time is a participation in the glory of God. If there’s more, it will only by grace.

The “Nones” at the coffee shop

The “Nones” are the fastest growing group in the United States religious landscape. Time publicized the story in its March 12, 2012 issue.

Last week Rose French, religion editor of the Star Tribune here in Minneapolis, personalized the Pew Forum research in  “Fastest growing group in religious circles? The ‘Nones’”  (10.15.12).

The story begins with Marz Haney, a young woman who grew up attending an evangelical Christian church every Sunday. But she had questions. And, it appears, the church she attended wasn’t big enough for her big questions.

Questions and doubts are not enemies of faith. They are the friends of faith. They refine, correct, expand, and reform faith. They challenge what Jean-Paul Sartre called “bad faith.”

Sartre, of course, thought that all religious faith was bad. Some of the “Nones” agree with Sartre. Others still profess faith or “spirituality” but live it outside the boundaries of the traditional institutions that no longer hold meaning for them.

“I had some doubts all along. I was sort of in continual doubt about my personal salvation,” says Marz Haney.

That Marz and others have concluded that spirituality/faith/religion is all about personal salvation brings me great sadness. That she would think so is a reflection of the right turn that began to dominate the American religious landscape beginning in the 1950s.

To many of the “Nones”, fear and hate have become the face of Christianity. Sometime in the late ’50s, the televangelists began to change the face of Christianity to the world. Those who tuned in watched and heard the voices of snake oil salesmen selling purple handkerchiefs that would heal, if only you purchased one and put the hanky on your television screen while the evangelist prayed for you. Intelligent faith was turned into an oxymoron. One either is intelligent and without faith, or full of faith and without intelligence.

At the coffee shop recently, the proprietor who greets me “Good Morning, Your Reverence” with a smile, invited me to join a conversation he was having with two other coffee drinkers. “You can help us here,” Mike said. His grin told me this was a set up. “If God created the world, who created God?”

“Hmmm. Interesting question. Really good question. Really, really, really good question. It assumes, of course, that everything is created. That’s the way we think. If something’s here, it has to have been created. But that begs the question endlessly. So….maybe some things are not created. Whatever that is ultimate reality. In theology, the word we use for the ultimately real is ‘God’.”

Several weeks later a young couple sat at the table at The School of the Wise, a coffee shop and wine bar humorously named after the euphemism for speakeasies during the era of Prohibition. The couple had sent a message through the church’s website inviting a conversation about their needs and whether Shepherd of the Hill Church might be a good fit.

They were “Nones”. I love this couple! They made my evening. So honest. So genuine. So open. Wondering and hoping that perhaps Shepherd of the Hill might be a place unlike that mega-church up the road whose very small print declares belief in “the intention, eternal punishment of the wicked”. They were cautious but feeling the need for a community that welcomes rather than scorns, unites rather than divides, thinks as well as feels, and moves them beyond self-absorption in the comfortable but confining precincts of economic privilege.Sitting in a coffee shop with The New York Times on Sunday Morning over a cup of coffee was no longer enough.

Which, of course, is what the gospel is about, as I understand it.

Jesus had one message: “the Kingdom of God/Heaven is at hand.”  A “Kingdom” is a society, a commonwealth. A society is people in relationship. “At hand” means “Now!” The kingdom of Heaven was something like the heaven the young couple and I were experiencing right there at the back table in The School for the Wise – real people in real relationships, exploring ultimate reality over delicious mocha-mint-lattes, looking beyond our privilege and celebrating the magnificence of a moment that is at the very heart of  creation as we know it.

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What You Cannot Have (A List)

What You Cannot Have (A List). This insightful piece, by the same poet who wrote “The List” (posted here several days ago, was in my email inbox this morning. I quickly posted a comment on Bluebird’s blog. This writer is REALLY good. After last night, I needed this more than my morning coffee. As I said on the blog, “A bluebird just flew by my window(s program).” Whoever you are, Bluebird, thanks for flying by, and…thanks for this delicious cookie.

Dust to Dust, Muscles to Mush

Ash Wednesday: Muscles to Mush

Gordon C. Stewart. MPR commentary. Feb. 17, 2010. (The family had vacationed in theKatie in Costa Rica jungle of Costa Rica at step-daughter Katherine’s request after a diagnosis of terminal cancer.)

Dust to dust, ashes to ashes.  It’s an Ash Wednesday kind of week. It puts me in mind of another Ash Wednesday, two years ago:

“You want to go down to the waterfall?  Come on – I’ll show you a shortcut!”  The invitation comes from Ryan somebody-or-other, who lives next to Las Aguas, our home deep in the jungle ofCosta Rica.  We’re having fun now.  We’re on vacation!  At 65, shortcuts sound good.

Ryan leads the way to a steep and narrow jungle trail.  “Hang onto the rope with your left hand. The railing on your right is only there in case you lose your balance.”  The blue rope is thin and slack.  The railing is two inch round bamboo.  Ryan – in his mid-30s and fit as a fiddle – leads the way down the steep ravine, followed by Chris, Kay and Katherine.  I bring up the rear. I tell myself that I’m last because this way I get to protect Katherine in case she falls or needs me.  Everyone else knows that I’m last in line because I’m like an old tortoise trying to climb down stairs.

The “shortcut” — this great adventure we’re all enjoying — is steep, 60 degrees or so.  My legs, whose only regular exercise is climbing the stairs in our house or the one step up into the chancel on Sunday mornings, are turning to jelly.  By the time we climb down 75 jungle steps,  Katherine, whose fingers are either numb or painful these days because of her chemo, declares something uncharacteristic of her: “I don’t think I can do this.”  I don’t think I can either.

Dust to dust, ashes to ashes, muscles to mush.

I’m thinking that we’re going to have to go back up this trail.  I’m thinking that we should turn around now while we can.  I’m thinking about Katherine’s hands, her cancer, her exhaustion, and how badly she wants to do everything that has brought us here, to this trail.   “It’s not far,” Ryan assures us.  But like George Bush, Ryan is from Texas.  “Sure!” I mutter to myself.  “Sure it’s just a little farther.  Even if it was a mistake, we have to stay the course.”  There’s no turning back now.  I wonder if everyone fromTexas stretches the truth.

Sure enough, it turns out we are only halfway there. But we trust Ryan and keep climbing down to the falls, Katherine ahead of me, the helper tortoise, sliding and slipping downward and sideways, leaving several cracked bamboo railings as a reminder that I’d been there.

At the falls Ryan and Chris, both as agile as the Costa Rican howler monkeys that swing in the trees, scale the falls to perch on a ledge with the waterfall cascading over their bodies.  “Just one little slip of the foot from death” is what I’m thinking, trying to remember when my body was well-toned.  Kay takes her camera and has a field day.  Katherine and I hang out, breathe, and agree that it’s beautiful — and that it would be a lot more beautiful if someone sent a helicopter or just beamed us up.

The way back to Las Aguas is easier, perhaps because it isn’t a shortcut.  This other trail takes no more time than the shortcut, and it’s much easier on the thighs, the hands and the brain.

I conclude that shortcuts aren’t all they’re cracked up to be – like stimulating the economy by depleting the national bank account. Like giving ourselves quick fix tax rebates so we can spend the receipts and leave the long-term debt for our grandchildren.

By the time we get home, our legs have turned to mush.  It reminds me of Ash Wednesday, when the sign of the cross is made on one’s forehead with ashes.  Dust to dust.  Ashes to ashes.  Muscle to mush. For us Christians, there is no shortcut through this season, no Easter without Lent.

In the hours following our return to Las Aguas, Kay assures me that some soreness is a good thing.  I’m tired, woefully out of shape, sore, and a likely candidate for a heart attack, which, as Kay reminds me, means … I’m not dead.  While the dust and ashes that I am still have some muscle left, the soreness reminds me that I’m alive.

Someday everything that I now claim to be my self will turn to mush.  The pain will go away.  On the jungle floor below the falls, the waterfall will wash over us and carry what’s left downriver to wherever the river goes. Then there’ll be no shortcuts and no illusions of time.  Just the long river into eternity.

The Deeper Memory

“At New Year’s, a Visit with the Deeper Memory”

by Gordon C. Stewart – January  1, 2012

At the end of a year and the beginning a new one, I visit a memory care center.

 

I walk into Red’s room — the room where he has been now for more than a year. His short-term memory is gone. He doesn’t know his wife or his children. He doesn’t know me. He doesn’t recognize anyone.