I watch the news. I listen. I am lonely and confused, like a street person hearing the
garbled voices of the public address system blaring over the loudspeaker and the
thunderous cheers and jeers from the sports stadium blocks away from where I live
under the bridge.
When the well runs dry, you sit down at your typewriter “staring at a blank sheet of
paper,” said journalist Gene Fowler, “until drops of blood form on your forehead.”
Fowler, like famed sportswriter Red Smith, knew that “There’s nothing to writing. All
you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.”
Opening a vein is hard when what’s in the vein is grief. It’s even harder when you’re
alone and silent on the street, bombarded by all the noise from the stadium.
Only as I begin to write again do I realize the grief. I don’t recognize the world in
which I live. I live under the bridge with a cheap bottle of wine. I hear the shouts
from the stadium and recognize the passion in their voices, like fans from Green Bay
and Minnesota rooting for the Packers and the Vikings: loud cheers and boos from
the spectators, shouting the old platitudes, participating vicariously in what’s really
happening between the two professional teams down on the playing field.
I don’t know this world. All the rules that favor the middle class and the poor are up
for grabs. I’m not sure I want to learn this new game.
I am a man of faith informed by the Hebrew prophets, Jesus of Nazareth and the faith
and labor movements of the 20th century that ended child labor; stopped employers
from working their employees 12 hours a day, seven days a week; closed the sweat
shops that were taking advantage of immigrants from Italy, Poland and Ireland;
bridled the horses of runaway greed—the banks, the robber barons and corporations—
that profiteered at public expense; won the right of collective bargaining; demanded
basic financial security for retirees (Social Security); established a woman’s right
to vote; enacted the Civil Rights Act; ended the war in Vietnam; and called for
ecological sense, the protection of our natural habitat, the air and the water on which
life on the planet depends. I grieve that Jesus’ and the prophets’ vision of turning the
upside down world right-side up is gasping for air.
Like Gene Flower, the journalist who described writing with drops of blood
forming on his forehead, I’m losing it the way he did when a stranger who claimed
to be a healer suddenly appeared at the hospital room of his dear friend John
Barrymore. “Just give me three minutes with Mr. Barrymore,” said the charlatan, and
I will cure him!” Fowler grabbed him by the collar and threw him down the stairs,
calling after him, “Physician, heal thyself!”
I want to throw the impostor healers who have suddenly appeared outside the national
hospital room down the stairs, which is not a good thing for one who claims to follow
Jesus and the prophets. I’m mildly comforted that Jesus lost it when he threw over the
money-changing tables of the financial establishment of his time. But then, I’m not
Opening a vein may not change the world. I’m still walking the street three blocks
from the stadium. But as I think about where I come from and wipe the beads of
blood that are forming on my forehead, a hymn that was ripped from the Presbyterian
hymnal rises from deep wells of childhood memory:
God of the prophets, bless the prophets’ heirs;
Elijah’s mantle o’er Elisha cast;
Each age its solemn task may claim but once;
Make each one nobler, stronger, than the last.
Anoint them prophets! Make their ears attent
To Thy divinest speech; their hearts awake
To human need; their lips make eloquent
To gird the right and every evil break.
I am strangely consoled.
The vision and the call are still alive and well in my soul. I pass the homeless shelter
near the bridge and hear the faint sound of other street people singing another old
Be Thou my vision, O Lord of my heart;
Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art –
Thou my best thought, by day or by night,
Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.
I’m bleeding. But warm blood is a sign of life. Lord, keep me in the light.
Gordon C. Stewart (Honorably Retired) serves as part-time Stated Supply of Shepherd
of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska, Minn. His written commentaries air
on “All Things Considered” on Minnesota Public Radio (MPR, 91.1 FM) and