A Leg up on the FBI

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It happened on Block Island, RI years ago on the driveway of William (“Bill”) Stringfellow and Anthony Towne’s home, the temporary home of fugitive war protester Father Daniel Berrigan, S.J.ap_7307250162_271648b88100da8bfbf05ff0fe92116d-nbcnews-ux-2880-1000

As the FBI loaded Dan into the back  of the squad car, Marmaduke, the canine member of the household, walked to the passenger side of the vehicle, and – as if on behalf of Bill and Anthony and all things just – lifted his left leg on the front passenger side tire.

“It was,” said Bill, a theologian as well as Father Berrigan’s lawyer, “an act of God.”

maxresdefaultNoting the FBI Director’s selective decisions that may affect the outcome of the 2016 national election, I lift my glass to Mamaduke, the latter day biblical prophet, for getting a leg up on the FBI.

`- Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, November 3, 2016

The FBI and Marmaduk

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As the FBI was placing the newly arrested Father Daniel Kerrigan, S.J. in the back seat of the FBI SUV, Marmaduke, the canine member of the William Stringfellow and Anthony Towne household on Block Island, walked to the passenger side of the vehicle, and – as if on behalf of Bill and Anthony and all things just – lifted his left leg on the front passenger side tire.

It was, said Bill, an act of God.

On this day, I join Marmaduke, the latter day prophet. Noting the FBI Director’s meddling in this year’s election campaign, I lift my glass to Mamaduke, the latter day prophet, and my leg to the FBI.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, November 3, 2016

“Making America ‘Great’ Again!”

Donald Trump’s refrain begs for interpretation. What does he mean by ‘great’? Is there a synonym for ‘great’ in Trump’s speech and demeanor?

“Make America the BULLY again!”

Mr. Trump – Mr. You’re Fired! – acts like a bully and talks like a bully. “We’re going to make America great again! You’re going to love it!”

Need we say more? Yes, we do. Because people are falling for it.

imposters-of-godImagine the voice of William Stringfellow coming from the same stage as Mr. Trump:

“The sheer arrogance of the idolatrous claims of nations, perhaps especially those possessed of enormous economic and military strength, is so starling that the fascination of men (sic) with idolatry can be explained in no other conceivable manner than as moral insanity….

“More than one President of the United States, not to mention other lesser orators, have propounded, with sober face, the theme that America’s extraordinary power evidences an erstwhile holy dispensation and constitutes God’s partisanship for American dominance in the world.”- William Stringfellow, Imposters of God: Inquiries Into Favorite Idols, Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2006. [Imposters for God was original written as a confirmation curriculum for confirmands in the Episcopal Church in America.]

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Presbyterian minister, Chaska, MN, Feb. 27

Quote Me: More than Words

“The characteristic place to find Christians is among their enemies. The first place to look for Christ is in Hell.” – William Stringfellow (1928–1985), author, My People Is the Enemy.

WIPFSTOCK_TemplateThese aren’t just words. After Harvard Law School, Constitutional attorney Bill Stringfellow moved into an East Harlem tenement apartment on the block the New York Times then called the “worst” in the city, turning down lucrative NYC corporate law firm job offers. The first of his many books, My People Is the Enemy – a theological reflection on racism and poverty in America- opens with an unusual sentence:

“The stairway smelled of piss.”

All these years later, Stringfellow’s words sound strange to many Christians and non-Christians alike who see the Christian life as the search for moral purity and the climb into a Hell-free afterlife. You want to meet Christ? According to the author of An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land, Christ will meet you from among your enemies and in the Hell of human suffering racism and wealth create.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, January 27, 2016

Another Use for Vaseline in 2016

Three gifts are mentioned in the story of the Three Kings, aka the Wise men, and the Magi: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Moments ago, on Epiphany, three seminary friends arrived at Steve and Nadja Shoemaker’s home on the prairie near Urbana, Illinois. It’d be a stretch to call Harry, Bob, and Don the Three Kings or the Wise Men. More like three wise guys, not from the East, but from the West and North – Corsicana, Texas; Prescott, Arizona; and Highland Park, Illinois – bringing a lighter touch to Steve, the patient with the terminal diagnosis of pancreatic cancer.

Harry, the musician among them, will lead them in his own freshly-written lyrics to the tune of the Epiphany hymn “We Three Kings” – a trio of bass and baritone voices – bringing laughter to the room Kay and I can hear all the way in Minnesota.

Many years ago, a similar thing happened in New York City where Episcopal lay theologian William (Bill) Stringfellow was in Surgical Intensive Care following near fatal pancreatic surgery.

Entering the room following the surgery, Stringfellow’s close friend Bishop James A. Pike exclaimed, “Well, I’m a bishop. I should do something!” He promptly disappeared. Moments later he returned with Bill’s attending nurse and a large bottle of petroleum jelly. He consecrated the jelly, declaring to the nurse with typical Pike humor that “this substance has now been set apart for uses other than those ordinary and familiar for Vaseline.”

“Taking a thumbful of this freshly made urgent, he came to the bedside and anointed me,” wrote Stringfellow, “signing my forehead with the cross, and saying:

“‘I anoint you in the name of God; beseeching the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all your pain and sickness of body being put to flight, the blessing of health may be restored to you. Amen.'” [William Stringfellow, A Second Birthday, Doubleday & Company, 1970]

The bishop’s prayer of unction for the sick was near verbatim from The Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church.

When the surgeon told the patient that his recovery was spectacular, Stringfellow replied, “That doesn’t surprise me at all. I was anointed by Bishop Pike! – what else would you expect?”

This Day of Epiphany, I hope the Three Wise Men, Steve and Nadja may enjoy the same fellowship, humor, and prayer all these years later. They bring no gold, frankincense or myrrh, but everyone in the Urbana gathering tonight knows that when the end is in sight, only the frankincense, the myrrh, and telling stories only dear friends call tell are appropriate. The third gift – gold – no longer matters, if it ever did!

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Epiphany, Jan. 6, 2016

 

Being Human – nothing more, nothing less

The ISIL fundamentalist extremists who terrorized Paris, San Bernardino, Beirut, and elsewhere in the name of God believe in an eternal reward for sacrificing themselves for a holy cause. Though it may seem strange to many of us in the West, they share two beliefs widely held by others who are not terrorists:

  1. God (Allah, in Arabic) is a being — the Supreme Being, but ‘a being’ nonetheless.
  2. Death is not the end of mortal life; we are destined for immortality – Heaven or Hell, eternal states of bliss or punishment.

It’s not just the jihadists who deny our mortality, our perishable nature within the order of Nature.

In Man Before Chaos: Philosophy Is Born in a Cry, philosopher of religion Willem Zuurdeeg wrote:

“Threatened by nonbeing, by chaos, and meaninglessness, man looks for a foothold in the Imperishable.”

The “soldiers of the caliphate” are young. Paradoxically, as hideous, grotesque, and deranged as their thinking is, their massacres are performed in the name of an ideal. They are idealists claiming “a foothold in the Imperishable”.

Seeking to rid the world of evil, they succumb to evil. In the name of heaven and the Imperishable, they create hell on earth.

But what if God is not a being? What if, as Paul Tillich argued, God does not “exist” as a thing or person exists, but instead is Being-Itself or the Ground of Being or the God above god?

What if we are mortal? What if death is the end, not a doorway to heavenly reward or eternal punishment? What if no St. Peter stands at the pearly gates to separate sheep and goats? What if no vestal virgins are waiting? What if life and death are what they seem?

John Lennon’s “Imagine” strikes a chord in the aftermath of the attacks in Paris, Beirut, and Mali. Imagine there’s no religion. But imagining won’t erase the problem of religion or the anxiety endemic to the human condition. We are suckers for certainty desiring the end of complexity and ambiguity.

“Finitude,” wrote Paul Tillich, “means having no definite place; it means having to lose every place finally, and with it, to lose being itself.”  [Systematic Theology, Vol. I., p. 195, University of Chicago Press]

The appeal of fundamentalist certainty, whatever its form, is the promise of a secure foothold, place in immortality – a purpose bigger than life itself, the escape from ambiguity.

When faith is ill-conceived as acting to end the ambiguities represented by the enemies of God, instead of as coping with life’s inherent ambiguities, we create what we seeks to escape. We create a foothold in what will not hold.

What if to be human is not to escape mortality, but to embrace it thankfully and to live courageously within the boundaries of time, of mortal flesh filled with the Eternal in the midst of time?

“Being holy . . . does not mean being perfect but being whole; it does not mean being exceptionally religious or being religious at all; it means being liberated from religiosity and religious pietism of any sort; it does not mean being morally better, it means being exemplary; it does not mean being godly, but rather being truly human.” ― William Stringfellow, A Keeper of the Word: Selected Writings.

 

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, January 9, 2016

Sermon: Christus Victor: the Harrower of Hell

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My memory played a trick on me. The title of Richard Beck’s book is The Slavery of Death. I picked up the book in a bookstore to find that Beck is heavily influenced by William Stringfellow and Ernest Becker, two writers who have heavily influenced my developing view of life and death. It was Beck’s contrast between the Western Church’s accent on sin and the Eastern Church’s accent on death – or the fear of death – that brought the “Aha!” for this preacher.

Remembering Will Campbell

Will Campbell

Will Campbell

Will Campbell (1924-2013) is unforgettable. Beyond unusual, he was idiosyncratic. In death, he calls us to the deeper selves we so easily lose.

Will Campbell was that rare person of integrity who seemed to fulfill the hard calling described once by his friend William Stringfellow – “to be the same person everywhere all the time” – and his different places still blow the mind.

He was idiosyncratic. Who else would or could march at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and ‘60s, once the law was changed, turn his ministry to sipping whiskey with the Good Ol’ Boys on the front porches of the Ku Klux Klan?

Campbell was a son of the Deep South, a white Southern Baptist preacher raised in Mississippi, who betrayed his white privilege as a matter of Gospel discipleship. He became one of the closest friends of the youth Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the only white person present at the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference that led the charge for Civil Rights in America. He was trusted that much.

His life was threatened repeatedly. He gained national prominence as a field worker for the Department of Racial and Cultural Relations of the National Council of Churches, the nation’s largest ecumenical council that suffered heavy criticism from anti-civil rights forces across the country, but especially in the Deep South. The National Council of Churches and Will Campbell were to their critics what the KKK was to those who worked to eliminate segregation in America.

When the nine black school children walked through hostile crowds to integrate the public school system in Little Rock, Arkansas, Will Campbell was one of four people at their side.

He became Director of the Committee of Southern Churchman, a position he used to promote racial reconciliation, his vocation until the day he died.

With the passage of the Civil Right Act, the man who spent his ministry to help win freedom for blacks did something no one could have imagined. He chose to re-direct his ministry to the new lepers of society, the defeated hooded enemies of integration, the Ku Klux Klan.

No one but Will Campbell would have done this, and few others could have done this. But he did. He became known as the chaplain to the KKK. Campbell wrote in Brother to a Dragonfly, one of 26 publications that bear his name:

“I had become a doctrinaire social activist without consciously choosing to be. And I would continue to be some kind of social activist. But there was a decided difference. Because from that point on I came to understand the nature of tragedy. And one who understands the nature of tragedy can never take sides.”

Will Campbell was not a hater. He was a reconciler who loved people. All kinds and conditions of people, even his ‘enemies’. He was the same person everywhere all the time.

He confused his critics – first the Right and then the Left – by insisting that his soul did not belong to any team – racial, political, religious, cultural. It belonged to the Kingdom of God. There was only one team, and that was the family of ALL God’s children everywhere. Compassion came first in his hierarchy of values. Compassion led him to campaign for justice in the Civil Rights Movement, and compassion led him to sip whiskey with the cross-burners in the rocking chairs on their front porches. His was a ministry of reconciliation, a living, idiosyncratic expression a bold declaration of the biblical gospel that God was in Christ reconciling the world to God’s own Self.

The notice of Will’s death (June 3, 2013) at the age of 88 in Nashville, Tennessee reminded me of just how hard it is to be a disciple of Jesus, how hard it is to love my neighbor as myself, especially when the neighbor is the enemy of my own claims to righteousness. Would that all of us were as idiosyncratic as Will.

Out of the Mouth of William Stringfellow

Jacket of "My People Is the Enemy"

Jacket of “My People Is the Enemy”

“Let all religious people beware. Their earnest longing for God is predicated on the reservation on their part that it is necessary for them to do something to find God. The Word of God in the Bible, however, is that God does not await human initiative of any sort but seeks and finds [people] where they are, wherever it be.”

– William Stringfellow, Count It All Joy (Eerdman’s, 1967).

Inspired by Stringfellow’s writings, six students at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago gathered weekly at 6:00 a.m. on Wednesday mornings with Professor Bruce Rigdon to reflect together on our late-night (10: p.m. – 2:00 a.m.) “bar ministry” at Poor Richard’s, a “secular” place, in light of Stringfellow’s writings. God was already present everywhere; our privilege was to recognize it in the world.

Outside the fence at the seminary students from the Moody Bible Institute targeted McCormick people with tracts that threatened Hell for the liberal “sinners” who didn’t recognize the depth of human depravity. They wanted to save the “wretched” seminarians who scorned every hint of a shame and guilt as the starting point of the Christian faith. We believed that grace was amazing and that it was everywhere, but Amazing Grace‘s “saved a wretch like me” was the language of Moody, a wallowing in shame and guilt from which we were proud to have been freed.

It’s 1966 in Chicago’s Old Town entertainment district. Kay Zimmerman, a dear friend and classmate who lost her sight at the age of nine, and I walk into Poor Richards arm-in-arm. The bar is unusually full. A young man jumps up on a table with his guitar and starts to strum out  the hymn we seminary students ridiculed for it’s wretched theology of human wretchedness: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound That saved a wretch like me…” and everyone rose to their feet to join . “I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.”

Several years following ordination, the Chaplain of Milliken University (Decatur, IL) invited me to an evening with “Bill” Stringfellow. It was two weeks before Stringfellow was to undergo major exploratory surgery for a misdiagnosed illness that threatened his life. During an evening in Bill Bodamer’s home Stringfellow spoke in terms that captured my attention in a new way.

It was during that visit that I began to move theologically from the prevalent paradigm of good v. evil to what Stringfellow argued was the biblical paradigm of life v. death. Even yet today, I am still moving from under the spell of my own form of pietistic slavery to “goodness” into the freedom for which Christ has set me free.

Over the years that followed, Bill became a guest in our home during his visits to campus ministry programs at University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, Northern New York Campus Ministry (Canton, NY), and The College of Wooster (Wooster, OH). My children remember this frail man with the searching eyes, sensing perhaps that his physical frailty not only revealed a human frailty he never denied but a powerful faith in God’s great extravagance.

The absolution from pietism is that there is no way at all to please God, no way to strike a bargain  with Him, no necessity to meet Him half-way,…no way in which His godliness can be diluted in dependency upon human enterprise. The futility of pietism, ending as it does in honoring death in the name of fidelity to God, is that God has triumphed over death already, in the here and now of this life. What is given to men, in that triumph, is not to add to God’s achievement, since it is decisive, and it is not to complete His work, since God is not negligent, and much less to ridicule God’s passion for this world by resort to moralistic legalism, mechanistic ritualism, doctrinaire meanness or any similar religious exercises.

“The vocation of men is to enjoy their emancipation from the power of death wrought by God’s vitality in this world. The crown of life is  the freedom to live now, for all the strife and ambiguity and travail, in the imminent transcendence of death, and all of death’s threats and temptation. This is the gift of God to all in Christ’s Resurrection.

“Men of this vocation count all trials as joys, for, though every trial be an assault of the power of death, in every trial is God’s defeat of death verified and manifested.”

– William Stringfellow,  conclusion of Count It All Joy

“Let all religious people beware.”