Monday, April 13, 2015

The Song of Daniel and Selected Poems

International Acclaim for

The Song of Daniel and Selected Poems

By Kathryn Ann Hill

The writing and reading of poetry has fallen on hard times in our all too superficial society in which texting is the common method of communication. That is understandable, because much poetry is discredited by its obscurity. Yet nothing else can take its place for us as Christians who prize the incarnation of our Lord. Religious poetry can say what nothing else can say. And better! Like no other kind of speech, it is able to touch us more deeply and lead us more fully, body and soul and spirit, into the mystery of God’s word and the wonder of life in God’s world. For that reason I commend the religious poems written by Kathryn Hill and published in The Song of Daniel and Selected Poems. While none of these is obscure and hard to fathom for those who are biblically literate, they are all spiritually rich in what they say. In the first part of this anthology she vividly and faithfully retells the book of Daniel in sprung, alliterative verse. Her cycle of twelve chapters make this demanding book imaginatively, emotionally and spiritually accessible to the reader. Since it is narrative verse it must be read aloud to have its full dramatic impact on the religious imagination. In the second part of the book she sings God’s saving word sacramentally by meditating on it devotionally and so moves the reader to prayer and praise in 35 winsome poems which are distinguished by their spiritual profundity and theological wit.

Dr. John W. Kleinig
Adelaide, South Australia

Writing poetry that contemplates and draws others to the great acts of God as revealed in his Word is as old as the Psalms. This collection of poems by Kathryn Hill continues the tradition in modern alliterative verse by allowing readers to think about the biblical text of Daniel chapter by chapter and thereby gain from her insight. Also included are additional poems, mostly based on New Testament texts, that will inspire and strengthen faith. This collection stands in the tradition of psalmists and Christian writers from antiquity to the present day and promises to enrich all who read it.

Dr. Andrew Steinmann
Distinguished Professor of Theology and Hebrew
Concordia University Chicago

“Our gentle Lord comes cloaked” (p. 90)—in the waters of baptism, in the bread and the wine of the supper, and in words of history and poetry. His gentleness results in the forgiveness and restoration of those burdened by guilt and disease who touch his cloaks with all their senses. The words of history and poetry in the divine Scriptures have been reread and retold over centuries in order to bring this gentle Lord to each new generation of burdened and suffering sinners. Christians sing and say the old biblical stories and poems over and over again in new songs, that is, new wordings, new cloaks—and yet it is always the same Christ and gentle Lord who comes newly cloaked.

The poetry of Kathryn Hill is a wonderful example for how the readers are vividly drawn into the old biblical texts and stories and thus enabled to experience the trustworthiness and gentleness of the triune God. How he keeps and protects his flock in the midst of heathenism and throughout the turmoils of the history of the kingdoms of this world can fruitfully be meditated throughout the book of Daniel. The extensive and detailed poetic rendering of this whole prophetic and at the same time apocalyptic book of the Old Testament fills more than half of the book at hand.

All the other poems on many more biblical stories and texts about the gentle Lord who comes cloaked to sinners—in the muddy waters of the Jordan River, in the crumbs that fall from the Lord’s table, in the service of his angels, in the coming of the Spirit, in the office of the shepherds, in the intercession for the needy of this world—are tiny yet precious and powerful pieces of spiritual literature that will in the best sense nourish and enrich our Christian faith, love and hope. This will happen even more so if these texts are read aloud. For reading aloud will enable the reader’s senses and heart to be touched and moved by the contents and the rhythm not only of the poems as such but also of the gentle Lord at work in them.

The Reverend Dr. Armin Wenz
Lutheran Pastor in Halle (Saale), Germany

Kathryn Hill’s The Song of Daniel and Selected Poems is a brilliant recasting of the book of Daniel in alliterative verse (Part One) and selected poems on biblical themes that have not been published before (Part Two). The Song of Daniel is a heroic tale that both captures the twelve chapters of the biblical story in unrhymed verse and allows the poet’s sensitivities and piety to shine through. The 35 poems of the book’s second half are mainly musings upon such biblical themes as Jesus’ changing water into wine, meeting the woman of Samaria at the well, John the Baptist’s thunderous preaching, Jairus’ daughter, the cleansing of Naaman the Syrian, Eve’s fall into sin, the Holy Trinity, etc. Here a more varied metrical structure prevails: four-line stanzas with rhyming second and fourth lines, rhyming couplets, rhyming iambs, and forms approximating haiku. Several could be sung as hymns, and all show painstaking attention to detail, love for the things of God, and faithfulness to one’s cross while here on earth. The book is perfect for private devotions and reading to children.

Dr. John G. Nordling
Associate Professor of Exegetical Theology
Concordia Theological Seminary
Fort Wayne, IN

Kathryn Hill’s new collection of poetry includes a retelling of the tale of the Old Testament prophet and hero Daniel. The second section of the book offers short works reminiscent of the spiritual verse of C. S. Lewis and G. K. Chesterton. “A Word in Our Defense,” “The Dogs under the Table,” and “The Woman of Samaria” are especially noteworthy. The first poem, “Song for a Wedding Mass,” merits being used as just that.

Mike Foster
Retired English Professor, Writer, and member of the eclectic cover band, A Find Kettle of Fish.
Metamora, Illinois

The Song of Daniel is a rich narrative treatment of its subject, the great quality of which is a convincing power to surprise us with a fresh, dramatic perspective and to subtly guide us to new insights while remaining true to the story we know so well. One can feel here a poetic expression formed by biblical piety and imprinted intuitively with the rhythm of the form. In Kathryn Hill’s capable hands, the old alliterative verse form reveals its ability to carry a contemporary voice and its great aptitude for painting musical and emotional tapestries. Mrs. Hill’s lines can wander, shuffle, or leap, and yet the reader is never lost. (Anyone who has tried to follow the sense of an Old English poem will especially appreciate this.) Far from being any sort of pastiche, The Song of Daniel happily lacks any of the linguistic archaism or amateur sensibilities that unfortunately mar some of the recent attempts to renew the form. Here is really a living, organic procession of a natural voice that is simultaneously direct and devout, imaginative and respectful.

Mrs. Hill’s personal insights also add an attractive power to her Selected Poems, so that what might otherwise be admired simply as disarmingly straightforward and pious summaries of Sunday readings and meditations on Christian themes turn out, on inspection, to repel any accusation of naivety or sentimentality. These poems are judiciously invested with a certain lightness, astuteness, and assurance in the poet’s natural voice, in the simplicity of which one is reminded of the better Agrarians, and which in musicality invokes the rhythms of Longfellow. In the great concluding bookend—an alliterative Song of the Three Young Men—Mrs. Hill deftly ties together the collection and brings it to a triumphant culmination.

Matthew Carver, MFA
Translator of German and Latin poetry and prose
Editor of Walther’s Hymnal (CPH, 2013)

Order The Song of Daniel and Select Poems at:

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Court to East Side: Report It, Record It, and We Will Ignore It


The lights were off because we were watching a movie; otherwise, I doubt I would have noticed the spotlight from the police van. I let the movie run for my wife and went to the porch. A police officer was walking in front of our house. He looked like he was not finding what he was looking for.

“Good evening. Can I help you?” I like police officers. They carry guns so that I do not have to.

“I am looking for 2845 N. Farwell.”

“This is it.”

He had two subpoenas for me. I signed for them and bid him a good and safe night.

There was not much to the subpoenas. The head of one read:

“City of Milwaukee, Plaintiff –vs – JESSE J. TODD W4000 Linden Dr Malone, WI 53049, Defendant.”

Opposite this information was the Case Number: 13052759, Citation: 48910111189, Offense Date: 05/07/2013, and Violation: Excessive Noise Prohibited.”

The head of the second read:

“City of Milwaukee, Plaintiff –vs – CHRISTOPHER MICHAEL GILSON, 2694 Lavender Ln, Green Bay, WI 54313, Defendant.”

This subpoena had the Case Number: 13052708 and Citation Number: 48910111190, but the offense date and violation were the same.

I do not practice law, but I suspect the subpoena proper is what followed. What followed were my name, address, and this:

“Pursuant to Section 885.01 of the Wisconsin Statutes, you are hereby commanded to appear in person before the judge of the Milwaukee Court, 951 N James Lovell St, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in Branch 3 on Monday, November 18, 2013 at 1:30 pm to give evidence in an action between the City of Milwaukee, Plaintiff, and [ Jesse J. Todd or Christopher Michael Gilson, depending on the subpoena], Defendant. Failure to appear may result in punishment for contempt, which may include monetary penalties, imprisonment, and other sanctions.”

The subpoenas were dated September 19, 2013, and signed (illegibly) by Philip Chavez, Municipal Judge, City of Milwaukee.

This fairly represents the subpoenas in wording, punctuation, and typeface without giving actual facsimiles.

First Reading

I am not often served subpoenas. When I am, I do not let it get in the way of a fine movie. The subpoenas were put aside. My wife and I finished watching Wim Wender’s Paris, Texas. We did not find it as interesting as Wings of Desire or the equally surprising Faraway, So Close! Nevertheless, it was delightfully challenging. All of these movies and more are available from the Milwaukee Public Library. We love living in Milwaukee.

After the movie, I turned my attention to the command of Honorable Judge Philip Chavez.

What was this all about?

The first thing I noticed was how little there was to notice. Who is Christopher Michael Gilson? I have not been to Green Bay in over a decade. As for Malone, Wisconsin, I have never heard of it. The name Jesse was familiar, unfortunately.

It seemed odd that while Mr. Todd and Mr. Gilson were the defendants, I was the one threatened with “monetary penalties, imprisonment, and other sanctions.” I am sure Judge Chavez meant no harm by these words. There probably is a legal reason for this threat. It is no doubt nothing more than legal boilerplate – words to suit all occasions of the court summoning a citizen to testify. I doubt Judge Chavez considered the citizen he was addressing with these words. He probably did not even read the words at all. Still, since Mr. Gilson and Mr. Todd were the defendants it seemed odd.

The violation of “excessive noise prohibited” was not much of a clue. Excessive noise is the plague of the East Side. Nevertheless, with Mr. Jesse Todd, the violation, and the violation date as clues I looked into my records.

Yes, there it was.

May 7, 2013, was a pleasant day. The windows were strategically opened for a nice breeze. No need for an air conditioner by day or the furnace at night. The sun shone, the birds sang, the Bose in the dining room played Bach as I read contentedly in my study. Then the occupants of 2851 N. Farwell broadcasted obscene, misogynic rap into the neighborhood.

It is “rap” not “rap music.” Rap is not music. Rap is excrement. Rap is not experimental. It is not daring. There is nothing commendable about rap. Of course, this is my opinion and I do not expect everyone to accept the justice and wisdom of this opinion. When it comes to “obscene” and “misogynic,” however, few would defend the vulgarities “rapped” in the hearing of families with children, and the abuse of women is intolerable in fact or in “rap.”

And so I remembered. And so I recorded of what I reported on May 7, 2013.

Report It, Record It

From the Murray Hill Neighborhood Association: “The City of Milwaukee Code of Ordinances, Chapter 80-63, prohibits excessive noise, or that which is disturbing at 50 feet outside the property line. The Milwaukee East Side Neighborhood Associations have an excellent working relationship with the 1st District of the Milwaukee Police Department and have adopted a program to enhance police response and outcomes in our community. This program is called Report It, Record It.”

And then there is this: “Record It: Take detailed notes about the situation (date, time, addresses, etc.). Your notes may be needed in the event that you are asked to testify in court or to provide valuable information to the City and MPD when they seek to follow up with landlords.”

So Report It, Record It, and tell the police that you will be a witness. They will issue the ticket even if they have observed nothing. The police cannot be everywhere all the time. The disturbance reported may have ended hours before an officer can respond. There are other matters more important than “Excessive Noise Prohibited” to which the police must attend. Every mature citizen not only understands that “Excessive Noise Prohibited” is not a high priority for the police, but he also does not want it to be a high priority. Still, there must be a way to address even the broken window so that minor acts of incivility do not fester and grow into gross criminality.

Report It, Record It is supposed be the answer. There is no reason to worry. On a citizen’s willingness to be a witness, the police will issue a ticket for $ 230.00 per occupant for “Excessive Noise Prohibited.” One must record it on the off chance the reprobates will plead not guilty.

Well, Mr. Todd and Mr. Gilson pleaded not guilty. This resulted in Judge Chavez issuing subpoenas commanding my presence on Monday, 18 November, at 1:30, complete with threats if I failed to appear. The threats were unnecessary and even comical since I have a good understanding of my civic responsibility.

I understand, but the Murray Hill Neighborhood Association does not understand. They do not understand that some neighbors do not want to risk being compelled to attend court hearings. They do not understand that some neighbors do not have the time for court appearances. They do not understand that many neighbors do not want to expose themselves to the anger of immature and unruly students. They do not understand that most people do not keep a record of what happened on May 7, 2013, for presentation six months later on November 18, 2013.

I did keep a record of what I reported. It made no difference.

In Court

It is best not to be simply “on time” for any important event. One must be there before time. For the 1:30 p.m. court session, I registered sometime around 1:00 p.m. I checked in and was given instructions. When Mr. Todd and Mr. Gilson were called, I was to enter branch three. I asked the clerk where branch three is.

“Right around the corner,” she said pointing.

“Oh. Where that large sign says ‘Branch Three,’” I responded self-mockingly.

She smiled and laughed maybe just a bit. I enjoyed the moment. This was not a place where she, or many others, smiled or laughed very much. This brief exchange was the only enjoyable moment of my visit to the Milwaukee Municipal Court.

My name was not going to be called. I was a witness for the city of Milwaukee. Not a plaintiff, not a defendant. Mr. Todd and Mr. Gilson were going to be called. However, they were not called immediately. Defendants for branch one were called. Then branch two. I had been sitting in the waiting area for at least a half hour and had not seen Mr. Gilson or Mr. Todd arrive. I looked around. Perhaps they had arrived before me. They were not there.

Finally, defendants for branch three were called “including witnesses.”

The courtroom was wood-paneled with pews. About ten police officers sat on the left of the nave. I took a place behind eight of them, two sat to my right. Most of the defendants would be sitting in the pews to the left and behind me. The prosecutor was front left at a computer. The judge had not entered. It was quiet as the defendants gathered. I began to think that Mr. Gilson and Mr. Todd would not make an appearance. The thought entered my mind that they might accrue court costs in addition to their fines. It would be somewhat annoying to have made the trip for nothing. Then again, it would not be a total waste. They would be fined, receiving due punishment for disturbing the peace, and I would be home early.

I glanced to the back. Mr. Todd was taking a place to the left and rear of me. He saw me and I him. I would not be home early. The game began.

Enters the Judge

Mr. Gilson and Mr. Todd were late, but present before Judge Chavez entered to begin the business of the afternoon. Branch three of the Municipal Court of Milwaukee had many cases to dispatch. Every single one of them was more important than a case of “Excessive Noise Prohibited.” The presence of ten police officers prepared to give testimony indicated as much.

When Judge Philip Chavez entered, the command was given, “all rise,” etcetera as we have all seen in the movies, ending with, “Your silence is commanded.”

From that point on, forget the movies. There was no impaneled jury. The cases did not warrant it. There were defense attorneys. They came and went quickly. The prosecutor interviewed defendants and a few other witnesses at his perch to the left of the judge’s bench. Or he took them out to the hall. Most of the court’s business took place at the prosecutor’s computer or in the hallway in hushed tones that few heard and fewer understood. Only English was spoken, but the abbreviations were quickly spoken and learned by the common citizen in attendance only by repetition. Disorderly conduct is DC for those familiar with the court. The common citizen hears, “DC” and wonders what the District of Columbia has to do with cases tried in Milwaukee. He learns his mistake only by carefully listening. The rubrics of this temple of justice are secret and the liturgy strange.

The Honorable Judge Philip Chavez runs an efficient court. Fines were paid, sentences rendered, cases rescheduled with aplomb. The judge is a kind man. A young African American woman, without a lawyer, made her case the best way she could, pleading that sending her to jail again made no sense. The reply of the judge was strictly logical according to the law and baffling to any citizen witnessing the exchange; in the end, the woman was not given jail time. A young white man charged with DWI did not fare as well, but was dealt with fairly and raised no objections.

The Municipal Court is not a pleasant place. It is a place where many citizens find themselves in the maw of the law because they have fallen on hard times. Most people wisely try to avoid being in court for any reason. This day three elected to be there. One had a lawyer and thought he had a case. He was mistaken, but it was his right. The other two who elected to be at court were Mr. Gilson and Mr. Todd. They too had the right to contest their fine. They were not mistaken, however. They had no lawyer, the law was not on their side, but this court would bless them.

Copping the Plea

I am not a lawyer, but this was not the first time I had been in a courtroom. I am familiar with its strangeness. I know its peculiar rules serve a kind of fairness and objectivity even if at times justice suffers. I do not know its rubrics. I have not mastered its liturgy.

I knew the court would not be interested in the fact that Mr. Todd and his companions woke me early one winter morning because he was so drunk he did not know the difference between his clapboard blue-painted abode and my brown brick home. I knew the court would not be interested in an altercation on 30 April, when the tenants of 2851 were told that broadcasting music from an SUV was not acceptable and replied in vulgar terms that I was the rude one. They turned off the “music” only when I returned to take down the license number of the SUV.

I knew that the court would not be interested in the fact that Mr. Todd, on May 7, having received his citation, came to my door to tell me that I should be more tolerant since I was living “on university property.” The court would not be interested that he then became so angry, abusive, and incoherent I order him off the porch, fearing he would get violent. The court would not be interested in the fact that Mr. Todd once shouted that I was “so damn Jewish.” The court would regard it as irrelevant hearsay that the occupants of 2851 refer to me as “the Rabbi.” The court would not be amused by the idea that I was accused of being intolerant by a nest of anti-Semite UWM students.

For the record, I am not Jewish nor do I live on university property.

In addition, I could offer no proof to the court that the vandalism that occurred after Mr. Gilson and Mr. Todd were cited came from them. Without proof, it did not matter that I could think of no one else who would delight in committing vandalism except the occupants of 2851 N. Farwell.

All of these are “quality of life” issues that the Murray Hill Association assures us that Report It, Record It is supposed to address. The court was not going to be interested. I knew this.

The court was concerned with this narrow point of law.

Ordinance 80-63: It shall be unlawful for any person occupying or having charge or control of any building or premises, or any part thereof, to cause, suffer or allow any loud, excessive or unusual noise in the operation of any radio, stereo or other mechanical or electrical device, instrument or machine, which loud, excessive or unusual noise tends to unreasonably disturb the comfort, quiet or repose of persons therein or in the vicinity.

 The “vicinity” is defined elsewhere as “50 feet outside the property line.” Outside of that vicinity a neighbor must not “unreasonably disturb the comfort, quiet or repose of” their neighbors.

The prosecutor conducted one short interview with me at his place to the left of the bench. He stated his name in hushed tones. I do not know it. He was not interested in the vulgarity and the misogyny of the rap broadcast. He did not care that it was rap. All this is fair and legal. He only cared that it could be heard “50 feet outside the property line.” I assured him that it was so and that would be my testimony. There was no defense for Mr. Gilson or Mr. Todd. They had done the deed.

All the other things these students had done, all the other incidents where they negatively affected the “quality of life” in our East Side neighborhood before, during, and after 7 May 2013 would not be brought before the court. On this narrow point of law, however, they were guilty.

The afternoon dragged on. Cases were brought, testimony given, judgments made. I had one interview with the prosecutor. Time was running out. The prosecutor called Mr. Gilson and Mr. Todd out into the hallway several times. A middle-age couple that I took to be Mr. Todd’s parents was also present. Mr. Todd and Mr. Gilson were pressing for a hearing to defend themselves. Time was running out because Mr. Gilson and Mr. Todd registered late for their court appearance. The prospect of a rescheduled hearing presented itself. Mr. Gilson alerted the prosecutor that he might not be available for a later hearing. All of this was discussed behind my back, and then between the prosecutor and Judge Chavez. The prosecutor interviewed me once and ignored me otherwise.

The prosecutor had a solution. The defendants would change their pleas from “not guilty” to “no contest.” The fine of $230 would be set aside for one year. If after one year neither defendant received another ticket (aside from a parking ticket) all would be forgiven. If they were ticketed again, then they would have to return to Judge Chavez’s court. There was no indication what would happen if they were forced to return by another infraction. Perhaps a serious tongue lashing.

Bottom line: Mr. Todd and Mr. Gilson committed the crime and did not pay the fine.

I asked to address the court. I should not have asked to address the court. Hours of sitting and waiting and seeing it all go down wrong made me angry. When I am angry, like most of humanity, I lose all claim to eloquence. I told Judge Chavez that he let these two off. He denied it. I recovered some degree of calm and said something to the effect that this was wrong for the East Side. Whatever I said to Judge Chavez was pathetic and stupid and I regret opening my mouth. I was angry.

I made my way to the door. The prosecutor stopped me and waved me to the side door. In the hallway, he took pity on me and attempted to correct my impression of events by restating the terms of the plea that I had already heard and understood. He added this one bit. If either defendant was ticketed again within the next year, they would be compelled to appear before Judge Chavez but I would not be so compelled. So if there was another infraction, I would not know about it. If the defendants did appear in court again, I would not know the outcome of the hearing.

It made no sense. The defendants broke the law and walked with no fine imposed. The prosecutor was more solicitous of the defendants than of the resident who came forward to testify on behalf of the City. He did not care in the least about the “quality of life” issues of the East Side.

What the Court Teaches UWM Students

I have lived on the East Side for over fifteen years. For fifteen years, I have heard that UWM owns this neighborhood and the students of UWM are entitled to violate city ordinaries with impunity. There are many tales I could tell, but I will focus on the lessons learned in the court of Judge Philip Chavez.

First: It does not matter what the law says; if you contest it, you have a good chance of walking away without a fine. Just show up for the hearing. You do not even need a lawyer. You just need the time. Since you are a student, you have plenty of time. Residents do not have the flexibility with their schedules that you have. (Every resident knows that students have plenty of time. Weekend parties begin on Wednesday night on the East Side.)

Second: Show up late. The court is busy. There are really serious cases to address. The concerns of those uppity East Side residents pale by comparison. The prosecutor in the Gilson and Todd cases worked the plea agreement because they were late in the queue because of their late arrival. To reschedule the hearing is too much bother.

Third: This is not where you live. Any delay works in your favor. The court understands that to reschedule will not work for you. By the time the court has a convenient date, you will be in Green Bay or Malone. You probably will not receive another ticket in Milwaukee, and thus trigger a return to Judge Chavez’s courtroom. You do not live here.

The Failure of East Side Neighborhood Associations

There are parts of the East Side that are at a tipping point now. In the 2800 block of Farwell there is one house in foreclosure, a second that has been empty for more than a year, a third that is now listed for sale. Three additional properties on this block could be for sale in 2014. This block was once predominantly owner occupied. This once stable block is now susceptible to being dominated by irresponsible absentee landlords who will greedily rent space to transient students.

We have been told that Report It, Record It is the answer to preserving the quality of life on the East Side. This simply is not true.

First, the program asks too much of citizens. In many instances, the business of recording it requires citizens to get up out of bed, dress, walk to the place causing the disturbance, record the address without being seen and call it in. It does not take much imagination to understand the hazard a citizen exposes himself to in attempting to make an accurate record.

Second, who keeps a record of anything for six or more months? I witnessed a police officer having difficulty giving accurate testimony in court. He was a trained professional and admirable in his decorum. The widow living across the street would not be so accurate, nor would anyone expect her to be.

Third, students are transients. Students invest nothing in the East Side community. We count ourselves fortunate if they rouse themselves from their late night carousing to shovel the snow any time during the day. Right now 2851 N. Farwell has an upholstered sofa rotting in the back yard, a nice nest for nocturnal vermin. The front yard is decorated with the de rigueur discarded beer cans. Transients take no pride in their temporary abode.

Fourth, I reported it. I recorded it. And Mr. Gilson and Mr. Todd walked without paying the fine. They will no doubt share their experience with friends. In addition, according to one reliable source, where the judge does not completely set aside the small $230 fine, he will often reduce it.

Finally, the cases of Mr. Gilson and Mr. Todd are my second and third before the court. The first was years ago, and the court was presided over by Judge Valarie Hill (no relation). In that case, the police officer who issued the ticket did not comply with the subpoena issued to him. The case melted away. The scoundrels, who also occupied 2851 N. Farwell, danced off without paying a fine.

It Comes to This

Report It, Record It is only a partial answer to the lawlessness that UWM students bring to the East Side. The University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee needs to be a full partner in preserving the quality of life for both residents and students on the East Side. That means capping enrollment. That means suspending and expelling students who will not behave as responsible citizens.

The proud posturing of Murray Hill Neighborhood Association aside, it is the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee that needs to reform and become a good neighbor.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

In Memoriam Stephen R. Wiest

22 September anno Domine 1951 – 4 October anno Domine 2003

Princes also did sit and speak against me:
The wicked have waited for me to destroy me.
Help Thou me, Lord my God:
For I have kept Thy testimonies.
Introit, Saint Stephen, Martyr

There were other witnesses. One might say that Stephen was surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses except that Stephen was an exegete and he would be the first to tell us that this is an abuse of the text. For the witnesses that I speak of were all terrestrial: family and friends from over five decades of Stephen’s pilgrimage on this earth. There were Lutherans – lapsed and otherwise – Episcopalians, Roman Catholics, a couple of Buddhists and some who might charitably be called pagans.

Stephen knew more people, engaged more different kinds of people, than anyone I know. If there is one simple fact that explains why Stephen did not fit in the cultural ghetto that is the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod it is this: he could enjoy the company of just about anybody from East Side bohemians to noted theological scholars. In his last days – by which I mean the days from the day of ordination on which God claimed him to be the servant of Christ and steward of the mysteries of God until the day the Lord took him to eternal rest – Stephen was a true evangelist largely misunderstood and unwelcomed in a church body that strains to be evangelical.

He was misunderstood and unwelcome because he was the kind of man who knew how to engage many people in different walks of life. This and the offense of the Gospel that he faithfully preached did not endear him to an ecclesiastical hierarchy that is all too white, middle class, suburban, and not too subtly focused on the Sunday morning offering plate.

So, at the end there were other witnesses. With the multiplication of witnesses, there is a multiplication of facts. Some witnesses are more reliable than others; some facts are fictions. I will attempt to record here what I know and no more. The bad I will not make worse by this record, neither will I augment the good. The Lord by His grace made Stephen a saint. He needs no hagiography.

The Reverend Dr. Stephen Richard Wiest entered St. Mary’s Hospital on the Feast of St. Michael, Monday, 29 September anno Domine 2003. He had been at war with lymphoma since February 2001. That had been battles won and battles lost. There had been a period of remission in 2002. By the end of that year he was sick again. We had been given hope that he would remain among us after a vigorous treatment of chemotherapy in Minneapolis that began early in 2003.

“Brother, this is what they are going to do to me,” he told me over the phone before he left. “They are going to kill me with chemo and bring me back to life again with a bone marrow transplant.” He delighted in the typology of death and resurrection that was going on in his own life. After treatment and one hundred days of observation he prepared to return to Milwaukee. He wrote home:

Dear Brothers and Sisters of our Lord Jesus Christ:

I write on the eve of our mid-July departure from Minneapolis to return to Milwaukee. My bone marrow transplant is progressing reasonably well although my immune system still has a long way to go before it is strong. There will be several more weeks of convalescence ahead for me in Milwaukee and probably a month of follow-up radiation treatment, to commence as soon as my low immunity level can tolerate it.

At this point, I feel the same strange mixture of agony and rapture reflected by the Patriarch Jacob right after his wrestling match with the Angel of God: I’ve gotten all beat up and been thoroughly blessed in the same bout! His rigorous rescue of me from my relapse of lymphoma could be termed my own personal “Peniel,” for in the medical maelstrom “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved!” (Gen. 32:30). Like Jacob, I have been left not a little maimed but also renamed and reclaimed by Him with Whom I had to do.

It is fitting that I should borrow Jacob’s language, too, to describe how I look forward to my longed for reunion with all of you. “For truly to see your face is like seeing the Face of God – since you have received me with such favor!” (Gen. 33:10). I could never repay all that God’s people have done for me in my affliction with their unceasing petitions and patronage, so I shall not even attempt it. Instead, I offer you some small fruit of the meditations on the Word granted me during these many months. Though we now see through a glass darkly, soon we shall see that Perfect Word Himself face to face. Therefore, I submit what follows in meek confession that in all my distress He was distressed and that the Angel of God’s Face has saved me (Isa. 63:9). …

Thus Stephen began his missive to his friends. Thus he introduced a meditation on the Angel of the Lord in Holy Scriptures. For the most part, what he wrote was published post-mortem in Higher Things. His understanding of the Word of the Lord was not one bit dimmed by his physical trials. He did not tire of preaching the Word. The Word is Christ and not any biblically warmed legalistic piety. Stephen would have no part of any variety of triumphalism. He did not deserve deliverance. The cross of Christ was his proclamation.

He returned home. He was tired, but the treatment seemed to have worked. He wanted to work. He was restless. He was impatient. He was petulant. He was back to his old self and maybe even a little more so. He would rail against legalism in all the forms he saw inflicting his church body.

He ranted against the idolatry of the Harley-Davidson 100th Anniversary. He wrote a brilliant denunciation against the same and it was published in the Shepherd Express. This, it must be admitted, was a sad example of casting pearls before hog-lovers, a rant that his audience would not understand.

It was what he could do.

His body rebelled against his efforts. The cancer returned. Or perhaps it had never left him. By 19 September we learned that there would be no further treatments.

On Saturday 20 September, I telephoned him. I called not knowing what to say and not looking forward to the awkwardness. Stephen knew what to say.

“Brother, I have a job for you,” he said immediately when the phone was given to him.

“What is that?”

“I want you to feed cigars and brandy to a dying reprobate.”

Stephen would have no awkwardness. Earlier there may have been a time when in his room at St. Mary’s Hospital overlooking all his East Side haunts he held my hand and pleaded for strength to face his dear wife and not weaken before his daughters. There was no time for self-pity now. He robbed the moment of its awkwardness. He had thought it all through before I called. He knew that he would be encouraging others with the sure and certain hope that he had by the grace of God. I, of course, felt ashamed that in my good health I could not give so courageous a voice to the faith we shared.

Stephen knew all the battles were lost and his victory was near.

He had been reading Job in the days before entering hospice. Eclectic to the end, he had been listening to the last recorded album of the recently deceased Johnny Cash. He lay on his couch and took some nourishment, took some pain medicine, and weakly received numerous visitors until it was too much and he entered hospice.

Then came the Feast of St. Michael.

The significance of the day was not lost on Stephen. The Reverend Peter Bender came and read the lessons, sang some hymns, and prayed. Pastor Bender brought with him a statue of St. Michael, armored, wings spread, trampling on the old evil foe, holding a spear at the throat of our accuser. The devil, defeated and still defiant, stared up at the Prince of our people, his fanged visage manifesting futile violent rage. Stephen had purchased this statue for the St. Michael Evangelical-Lutheran Mission, his peripatetic effort to do evangelism from an East Side coffee house in defiance of the Mission Board of the South Wisconsin District. Pastor Bender and his congregation had supported Stephen at that time. I doubt an account of Stephen’s steadfast faithfulness and this quixotic mission will be written. That the Lord blesses the preaching of His Word and the right administration of the Sacraments no one should doubt.

The statue was there, Pastor Bender having placed it at the table under the window where Stephen could see it from his bed. On Monday, Stephen could look from his bed and see the statue and the blue sky stretching over Lake Michigan.

The sensitive might wonder if this was an appropriate icon to place before the face of Stephen as he lay upon his deathbed. Would it not remind him of certain dark days when he struggled to continue to be faithful to his calling on the East Side? Would it not remind him of his days under the discipline of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod when he was slandered by the mission board, vilified by the so-called princes of the church, and left to preach to ever dwindling numbers of parishioners? Would not this statue, which he purchased to instruct and lead the faithful, remind him of a mission that he finally had to give up?

A nurse entered the room.

“What a nice statue,” she said.

His eyes were nearly closed – either from the medicine that gave him some succor or from the fatigue of the disease within no one knows – he said, “Yes, but do you know who it is?”

He was ready to tell her.

He was ready to tell her that it was St. Michael. He wanted to tell her about St. Michael and the Angel of the Lord. He wanted to run from one end of Scripture to the other and demonstrate to her that St. Michael and every other instance of the Angel of the Lord pointed us to the Second Person of the Trinity, to no one else but the pre-incarnate Son of God who is our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

He wanted to preach.

“It is St. Michael,” she said.

He smiled, his eyes closed. He was tired. He could say no more. He smiled, she left and someone spoke in his ear, “You are still at it, aren’t you. Still preaching even here.” And he smiled.

Pastor Bender chuckled. Stephen was his good friend.

Someone said to Stephen, “Well, I see you are still up to your old tricks, Stephen. Here it is the first day of the South Wisconsin Pastors Conference and here you are tempting your brethren to play hooky.”

Father Bender mouthed, “I forgot,” with raised eyebrows. (He was unconvincing. He had no use for district pastors conferences.)

Stephen, with mock indignation that almost sounded effeminate, “I don’t know why you say that about me.” The joke was in the tone of voice and they laughed and Stephen smiled.

Donna, his faithful wife and mother of their daughters, Evangeline and Sophia, returned and Pastor Bender begged his leave.

Donna had been with Stephen in Minneapolis. She had nursed him at home on his return. She was his wife in good times and bad. She had taxied him about when the cancer seemed to be cured and he was simply too weak to drive himself. She would be by his side throughout the days in the hospice. No wife could be more devoted to her husband. In the last days there was little one could do for Stephen except give his faithful wife a little time away, to eat, get a change of clothes, or look after their daughters.

Throughout Monday afternoon and evening Stephen slept, spoke a little with anyone who visited and took some nourishment from his wife’s hand. By Tuesday the word had spread and more gathered about his bed. By Tuesday evening a congregation of brother pastors, parishioners, and family had gathered. The Lutheran Hymnal was passed out and a service of hymns began. Stephen with eyes closed moved his lips to the sing hymns.

There were words spoken to Stephen, heard by others that are not to be shared here. Thanksgiving for his counsel, his hearing of confession and the succor of absolution he gave in keeping with his Holy Office. He could still speak. He said simply, “You’re welcome.”

A prayer of thanksgiving was offered for his faithful preaching of the Word, even to this very time. He added his word to the prayer. He could barely be heard. He prayed for “felicitous expression …”. It was the last thing heard by many that would attend him through the days.

By Wednesday Stephen entered a deep sleep. A tube for palliative medicine was attached to a port in his chest. When he moved, it was taken to be an indication of discomfort, and it probably was. He would be given an extra dose of the medicine by the press of a button, which was probably good.

More people came.

The nurses indicated that there should be a limit to how many were let in the room. Tuesday night the hymn singing was a mixed blessing. No one could raise a voice against the singing of hymns in such a place. There were, however, others on the floor to consider.

On Wednesday morning the Reverend Kenneth Wieting prayed with Stephen the Commendation of the Dying. It was the only administration of this rite I know of, though there may have been others. In addition to Pastor Bender and Pastor Wieting, Pastor Gary Gehlbach, Pastor Aaron Koch, and of course his colleague and pastor the Reverend Karl Fabrizius attended to Stephen in his last days and heard his witness.

I am told that South Wisconsin District President Ronald Meyer visited on the morning of Saturday, 4 October. There may have been other clergy who visited. There is no numbering of lay people, as I have said at the beginning of this remembrance.

From Wednesday, 1 October, to Saturday, 4 October, Stephen slept. To my knowledge, he said nothing. Whatever movements he made were unconscious movements and I do not believe that anything for certain can be attributed to them. There was little, if any, indication of pain.

Stephen was a big man. Not tall, but broad through the shoulder with arms as big as a small man’s leg. He had a large head with hair that was thinning long before the chemotherapy did its work. He wore a full beard that was now thin and grey, giving even more prominence to his strong jawline and sharp chin.

On Saturday, 4 October, Fr. Fabrizius and a companion encouraged Donna to go and refresh herself at home. It was dark outside and the hospice, as was its practice, had the lights dimmed in the hallway.

Soon after Donna left, Stephen’s breathing became erratic and seemed to stop.

Fr. Fabrizius called for the nurse.

She touched Stephen and he revived. His heart was still bounding. She left.

Fr. Fabrizius called for his companion to read the Psalms.

“Where do I begin?”

“Anywhere,” Fr. Fabrizius stated firmly as he stood over Stephen, his hand on Stephen’s forehead in benediction, “they are all good. And I need to hear them.”

“Unless the Lord builds the house,” Psalm 127 was begun and read though.

“Blessed is everyone who fears the Lord,” continued Psalm 128.

The reading went through 129.

The reader faltered, wiped his eyes and read Psalm 130.

Stephen struggled to breathe and did not breathe and breathed again.

The reader read on through Psalm 132. …

He looked at Psalm 133, “Behold how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity” and he could not read.

He stopped reading.

Fr. Fabrizius looked only at Stephen. The reader reached out and touched Stephen’s chest. That strong heart was still.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Remembering Abraham Lincoln


Lately I have been spending time in the nineteenth century. My conveyance has been the massive two-volume biography, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, by Michael Burlingame (2008, John Hopkins University Press). Professor Burlingame’s work supersedes poet Carl Sandburg’s six-volume biography of our sixteenth president because it is scholarly, with endnotes referring to primary sources. By way of those endnotes, I discovered that I have acquired a respectable Lincoln library over the years.

(Yes, that is the kind of dilatory reader I am. I read endnotes. I love footnotes. I read not only the prefatory matter, but also the acknowledgments. Then I skim the bibliography. All this before I actually begin reading the book. Having nibbled a bit, I begin the feast, because that is the kind of dilatory reader I am.)

My interest in Abraham Lincoln began when I was a wee lad. We had in our small bookcase a book of American history in pictures. I was too young to read, but I could spend an hour going from Jamestown to World War II. It was then I discovered that I was related to Abraham Lincoln. I was very young, probably had not been speaking intelligibly for very long, but I could see that my paternal grandfather looked remarkably like the clean-shaven Lincoln. Eventually, I grew out of this childish fantasy – for the most part.

My interest was encouraged further at public school as the country observed the centenary of the Civil War (1861-1865). Of course, the Civil Rights Movement and the general turmoil of the 1960s also turned my attention to all unresolved problems of the great fratricidal war. I never became a Civil War buff, but did join the forty million viewers who watched Ken Burns’ The Civil War. Later I read Shelby Foote’s three-volume history from which Mr. Burns learned much.

I own – and have read – David Herbert Donald’s unsurpassed single-volume biography, Lincoln. Donald was Burlingame’s mentor. Now they are both in my library, along with Harold Holzer’s masterful work on Lincoln’s Cooper Union speech, Ronald C. White Jr.’s noteworthy single-volume biography, Gary Wills’ wonderful monograph on the Gettysburg Address, and perhaps a half-dozen other books on subjects relating to Lincoln or the Civil War. No, I have not read all of them. Who wants a library of books one has already read?


Significantly, one of my unread books was Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings, edited by Don E. Fehrenbacher (Library of America, 1989).

An endnote in Burlingame’s biography drew me to take Fehrenbacher off the shelf. Burlingame recounted the events culminating in an October 1854 speech by Lincoln. This speech he indicated was Lincoln’s first significant speech, even before the famous 1856 “House Divided.” I found the full speech in Fehrenbacher. I found it, however, after I had first stumbled across this:

Fragments on Government

The legitimate object of government, is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but can not do, at all, or can not, so well do, for themselves – in their separate, and individual capacities.
In all that the people can individually do as well for themselves, government ought not to interfere.
The desirable things which the individuals of a people can not do, or can not well do, for themselves, fall into two classes: those which have relation to wrongs, and those which have not. Each of these branch off into an infinite variety of subdivisions.
The first – that in relation to wrongs – embraces all crimes, misdemeanors, and non-performance of contracts. The other embraces all which, in its nature, and without wrong, requires combined action, as public roads and highways, public schools, charities, pauperism, orphanage, estates of the deceased, and the machinery of government itself.
From this it appears that if all men were just, there still would be some, though not so much, need of government.

Lincoln kept no diary. He wrote notes to himself. The Collected Works of Lincoln, from which Fehrenbacher drew this fragment, suggests that this was written in 1854. It was the year the Republican Party was formed. Lincoln was forty-five years old. It is one of three memoranda covering the topics of government and slavery. He was writing this for himself. He was writing for reasons unknown. The fragment was not meant for publication. It was not meant for our eyes.

The first thing that we see is that the sixteenth president of the United States of America thinks very much like the forty-fourth president of the United States of America. Both Barack Obama and Abraham Lincoln hold that there is a positive role for government to play in the life of its citizens that goes beyond mere defense against internal and external enemies of the peace. This is just one fragment. It is not a full treatise. This alone proves little. If one spends just a little time in the nineteenth century, however, it becomes clear that the Republican Party of the twenty-first century not only is not the party of Lincoln, but also would oppose the party of Lincoln.

There is something more about Lincoln shown here. It is the felicity of expression in this personal memorandum. Regardless of any assessment of the wisdom conveyed here, one should appreciate the grammar of clarity, the logical progression of thought, the dialectic that includes and excludes. All of this done in the audacious pursuit of the the “object of government.”

A recent discovery of a math notebook page suggests that Lincoln may have had more formal education than previously thought. From what he admitted in official campaign biographies, people have speculated the he attended school for between three to nine months. He may have attended school for up to two years.

It is doubtful that “Honest Abe” misled the public on this point. The difference between nine months and two years is negligible in terms of formal education in the untamed West – which was Indiana at the time. In all probability, they were two very irregular years. The family was poor. Young Abe had to work and bring all his earnings to his father until he reached majority.

Lincoln benefited little from formal schooling. He taught himself grammar, geometry, and trigonometry. He read history. He read the Bible. He read Shakespeare and Robert Burns. He read. Abraham Lincoln attended no high school. He mastered the liberal arts without receiving a bachelor of arts. He read the law, not in a school, but with a lawyer.

Abraham Lincoln received no encouragement from his father. In youth, his father neglected him. As an adult, Abraham refused to visit his father’s deathbed. Abraham Lincoln did not ascend from a pastoral farming life to the head of the nation. By constant effort, he lifted himself up from grinding rural poverty to practice law, to participate in local and national politics, and eventually to the presidency of the United States of America.

Abraham Lincoln esteemed George Washington, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson. Not one of them was the self-made man of the American dream that was Abraham Lincoln.

Abraham and the Will of God

The heart of Lincoln’s opposition to slave power was his the faith that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Lincoln did not hold some utopian ideal of equality of intellect, talent, political rights, or even race. He did fervently hold to equality of opportunity. Even as he had improved his station in life by his own effort, so too he held that even “the negro” equally deserved this opportunity. Slave labor was a denial of the Declaration of Independence’s proclamation of the Divine endowment of all men.

Speech in Cincinnati

I hold that if there is any one thing that can be proved to be the will of God by external nature around us, without reference to revelation, it is the proposition that whatever any one man earns with his hands and by the sweat of his brow, he shall enjoy in peace. I say that whereas God Almighty has given every man one mouth to be fed, and one pair of hands adapted to furnish food for that mouth, if anything can be proved to be the will of Heaven, it is proved by this fact, that that mouth is to be fed by those hands, without being interfered with by any other man who has also his mouth to feed and his hands to labor with. I hold that if the Almighty had ever made a set of men that should do all the eating and none of the work, he would have made them with mouths only and no hands, and if he had ever made another class that he had intended should do all the work and none of the eating, he would have made them without mouths and with all hands. But inasmuch as he has not chosen to make man in that way, if anything is proved, it is that those hands and mouths are to be co-operative through life and not to be interfered with. (Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, p. 567)

While we may think we recognize Abraham Lincoln, the self-made man, we will not know Lincoln the man if we stop with his estimation of equality. When asked to sum up what was singular about Lincoln, Michael Burlingame responded, “modesty.” Power corrupts. In the estimation of Professor Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln was extraordinary in that power did not corrupt him. The self-made man Abraham Lincoln did not completely own his success. The paradox emerges in the 1860 election.

Abraham Lincoln lived at a time when the office sought the man. He did not stump for his election. Stephen Douglas did tour the country in a desperate attempt to win the presidency and suffered correspondingly. Lincoln knew that “events” not a “man’s efforts on his own behalf” made a president.

His fatalism went deeper. The epigraph to David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln is a comment of Lincoln to Albert G. Hodges on 4 April 1864: “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me.”

No one can subtract in the least the accomplishment of Abraham Lincoln’s assent from ignorance and poverty to the presidency of the United States of America. No one, that is, except Mr. Lincoln himself. Theodore Roosevelt was born to privilege and preached virtues of “the strenuous life.” Abraham Lincoln was born to poverty and had no choice but to exert himself, if he was to accomplish anything. Mr. Roosevelt was imperious and oblivious of the evils of war. Abraham Lincoln was humble his whole life and hated violence.

There are many such paradoxes in the life of Abraham Lincoln. It begins with the self-made man who does not succumb to hubris. It continues with Abraham Lincoln the infidel who humbles himself under the will of an almighty God.

The Lord Almighty and Abraham Lincoln

No one can make a Christian out of Abraham Lincoln – except the Lord Himself in his mercy. That said, no one can deny that no president was more of a theologian than Abraham Lincoln. In his letters and speeches, Lincoln repeatedly shows that he has read the Bible and understands the sense of it. This fear of the Lord was not simply a matter for public display. During the darkest moments of the Civil War, when no one was watching, and with no anticipation that his thoughts would be read, Abraham Lincoln thought in long hand.

Meditation on the Divine Will

The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be wrong. God can not be for, and against the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God's purpose is something different from the purpose of either party---and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect His purpose. I am almost ready to say this is probably true---that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet. By his mere quiet power, on the minds of the now contestants, He could have either saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest. Yet the contest began. And having begun He could give the final victory to either side any day. Yet the contest proceeds. (Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings, Don Fehrenbacher, LOA, p. 359 )

Abraham raised himself up from dismal poverty, took the reins of the government of the greatest nation on earth at the time of its greatest trial, and exerted all the power within his grasp to sustain that nation, believing all the while that he did not control events.

Abraham Lincoln was no infidel. He believed in a God who was just and merciful. In the great scheme of things, he knew he had only a part to play. He hoped it was a beneficent part.

From the slight vantage point we have of the great scheme of things we must concluded that Abraham Lincoln was a man divinely destined for our nation’s greatest trial. Any less assessment touches upon apostasy.

The End

I began with reminiscence. Some might think that egotistical. Others might perceive that I spoke of the time of my youth, what I saw, what I experienced, what I received. For all our efforts, much of what we achieve is in what we receive.  Even as Abraham Lincoln knew that for all his efforts, he was not the master of his fate or captain of his soul, so it is with me.

So it is with us all.

We are all beggars.