Of life in the still-Christian South (a retired cleric’s occasional reflections)…

Keep Calm and…

I love T-shirts. I’ve never been flashy (save, perhaps, for an emotive personality!) in dress; preferring an über-casual mien. And now, in retirement, except for Sundays and special occasions, rarely will I so much as don slacks and a laundered shirt; favoring jeans and, yes, again, T-shirts.

And though tending toward an understated appearance, eschewing the display of labels or slogans, this T-shirt, showing all the signs of repeated wearing and washing, is my favorite.

my fav T-shirt

For a variety of reasons…

It plays on the theme of the British government’s World War II word of inspiration, Keep Calm and Carry On; meant to bolster the morale of the English people under the gravest threat posed by the German aerial blitzkrieg. Nowadays, multiple are the words following Keep Calm and…, ranging from the wondrously sublime to the supremely humorous; all advocating a serene and steely perseverance in the face of trial and tribulation.[1]

And it bears the image of the fish; long a symbol for Christianity.[2] As such, it proclaims to others without my having to say a word that I am a Christian.

And it completes Keep Calm and… with Love Your Neighbor, which, further in keeping with the Christian lore I hold dear, is the second part of Jesus’ summation of the Law, generally, the Torah and, specifically, the 10 Commandments.[3] As such, it expresses my daily conscious intent to love[4] my neighbor, who, in the light of Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, is everyone.

And it sparks immediate responses and impromptu conversations with my neighbors, whether known or unknown, of all manners of humankind and in all places where I go…

I’ve been approached by Jews, Muslims, and Christians who, in a variety of ways, remark of their theological and ethical identification with the summons to love neighbors rooted in the Torah, the Koran, and the Bible…

I’ve been asked by some what I believe it means to love my neighbor, which, on one occasion, in a grocery store aisle, led to the inquirer’s confession of his struggle to love and forgive a relative whose words and actions had inflicted grave harm…

I’ve been hailed by folk, all strangers, walking by me on the street, once from a lady, smiling and waving to me, driving by in her car, with this astounding (at the first occurrence, but, now, it’s come again and again) greeting: “I love you, too!”

I treasure each and all of these encounters and interactions, especially given my awareness and sensitivity to what I consider the bitter-and-blaming-difference-disparaging-either-you’re-for-me-or-against-me zeitgeist of our days and times.

As T-shirts and banners of self-declaration go, Keep Calm and Love Your Neighbor is my favorite.

 

Footnotes:

[1] For example, Keep Calm and…Be Honest, Be Yourself, Call Batman, Dab On ‘Em, Dream On, Eat A Cookie, Game On, Go To Hogwarts, Hakuna Matata, Innovate, Just Do It, Make A Change, Never Grow Up, Party All Night, Press CTRL ALT DET, Stay Strong, Use The Force… The possibilities are endless!

[2]The fish (or, in the Greek, ichthys) was adopted as a Christian symbol prior to the 2nd century of the Common Era; some suggest as a secret sign of identification during periods of the state persecution of Christians. Through the 3rd and 4th centuries, as it grew in popular recognition and use, the letters (i – ch – th – y – s) were viewed as forming an acronym for the phrase, Iēsous Christos, Theou Yios, Sōtēr, Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.

[3] A lawyer asked Jesus a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22.35-40).

[4] By “love”, I do not mean my expression of kindly affection, which arises from how I feel about others, but rather, for me, always something more spiritual and substantial; that is, exercising my Spirit-bestowed power in active benevolence toward and for others. Do I fail in doing this? Yes. Usually when I am hurt and angry, and then allow my not-so-considerate-feelings toward another to get in the way of my loving that person. Nevertheless, Jesus’ call to love my neighbor ever rings in my mind and heart, soul and spirit, summoning me to act.

a call and a claim

a sermon, based on Matthew 9.35-10.23, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, June 18, 2017

Jesus called his disciples, before saying, “Follow me”,[1] declaring the purpose, the reason for the call, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is near.”[2]

Jesus Commissions Disciples, James Tissot (1836-1902)

This same good news he sends them out on a missionary journey to proclaim. But his accompanying instructions are hardly as appealing. A declaration dripping with danger: “I send you as sheep among wolves.” Then a mystifying, difficult (impossible?) to operationalize message: “Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” Then a terrifying statement: “Beware…you will be beaten…and dragged before rulers.” Then a consoling, but, given what has been said, confusing word: “Don’t worry.”

Jesus, the way you treat your friends it’s a wonder you have any followers!

Now, in Jesus’ time and in the historical context of Matthew’s gospel, a half-century after Jesus when the church was under persecution, these words of warning were necessary. To go into the world with his counter-cultural, contra-status quo message of unconditional love and justice inevitably would lead to trouble with secular and religious authorities. And Christian conversion could erupt in discord within one’s family.

Moreover, Jesus’ message of hardship was part of a prophetic tradition woven into the cultural and spiritual fabric of his people’s understanding of what happens when one stands up, stands out in the name of God.

Still, what sense do we make of these biblical insights into the hard texture of discipleship?

In our day and time, Jesus’ words seem, sound alien. Mainline American Christianity, in which the Episcopal Church is firmly rooted, generally knows little about bold prophetic proclamations that provoke persecution. Verily, there have been historical moments when Christian reticence to speak in the public square from the stance of faith to the raging cultural, political, and social issues of the day justifiably has led to the charge that the church is a non-prophet organization! However, our Christian sisters and brothers in some regions of Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East can testify to the truth of Jesus’ words. To be his disciple can and does put them in direct, at times, violent confrontations with governments and the followers of other faith and secular traditions.

Nevertheless, I believe that we can attest to the vivid reality of Jesus’ warning that proclamation brings trouble, particularly in the recent past and current generations when the divisions between conservative and progressive Christians have been and are so pronounced; the right denouncing the left as so inclusive and relativistic that it stands for nothing and, indeed, is no Christianity at all and the left decrying the right as narrow and doctrinaire, far from Jesus’ all-embracing love.

Today, putting all this aside, I focus solely on Jesus’ message. For if we take it and him seriously, there is, in his instructions for the missionary journey, an unmistakable and immutable call and claim on any, every disciple, of any and every age, in any and every age. A call to us, a claim upon us to go forth into the world – and, in the concrete daily circumstances of our lives, through our profession in word and deed of God’s love and justice – proclaiming that the kingdom of heaven is near.

 

Illustration: Jesus Commissions Disciples, James Tissot (1836-1902)

Footnotes:

[1] Matthew 4.19

[2] Matthew 4.17a

Of life in the still-Christian South (a retired cleric’s occasional reflections)…

A conversation…a confession about race

Two men.

Different as different could be. Save for gender. And age. Both 60-something. And stage of life. Both retired. And, both Episcopalians, religious upbringing.

One. White. An attorney. The child of an old Southern family with roots tracing back to mid-17th century English colonists. His mother, a painter of note and an author. His father, a prominent attorney from a long, generational line of prominent attorneys.

The other. Black. An Episcopal priest. Midwestern born. His mother, an elementary school teacher. His father, a postal clerk.

Two men, largely different as the proverbial day and night, in an unlikely, serendipitous (Spirit-led?) encounter in a quiet corner of a coffee shop of a local bookstore, engaging in an unlikely, serendipitous (Spirit-led?) conversation about race…

A conversation that, once he discovered my vocation, became his chosen opportunity for his confession. “I’ve wanted, I’ve needed to share this with someone for a long time…”

He sat forward, clutching his coffee cup in his hands, first, looking down, averting his gaze, telling me of his formative years. His parents had taught him that his privileged life bore an obligation to care for those who were needy, which, he acknowledged, as he understood their instruction, meant those who were lesser endowed with the material blessings of life, which, he further admitted, meant those who weren’t white. His parents, “Good people,” he quickly asserted, did not teach him that they were “better than other people.”

Still, certain moments in his childhood were indelibly, painfully imprinted on his memory.

His nanny, “a lovely, kind lady”, who cared for him from his earliest days, wasn’t allowed to enter their home through the front door. One morning, he, then at the age of 8, seeing her approach the house and turning, preparing “to go around to the back”, opened the front door, happily welcoming her; an impertinence, his parents made clear, that prompted an unpleasant scene of his being corrected and of her being chastised…

On another occasion, he, accompanied by his nanny, rode the bus downtown. He could not understand why she had to leave him and go to the rear when there were plenty of empty seats in the front. When he asked her, she declined to say more than, “That’s the way it is.” When he later asked his parents, they simply affirmed, “She is right.”

But somehow, even as a child, he knew it wasn’t right. “What is right,” he looked up at me, his lips trembling, yet his voice firm, “is that we’re all equal because God made us that way.”

Then, as best as I can recall, he said something like this: “For a long time, I’ve thought about Jesus on the cross asking his Father to forgive those who were killing him. I finally decided if he, who died for me, could do that, I needed to forgive my parents for their ignorance. But,” he held out his hands to me, “I need to be forgiven for my silence. All these years, I’ve known what was right and I never said or did anything to make it right. I promised God I would do something, whatever I can, but right now I want you to ask God to forgive me. Please.”

Taking his hands, we said the Confession of Sin that Episcopalians pray every Sunday. Then, making the sign of the cross, I pronounced the absolution of sin. Tears rolled down his cheeks. He mouthed a silent, “Thank you,” stood, and departed.

For a while, I sat motionless; moved, stunned by the experience of his transparent honesty, his naked humility, his patent sorrow, and his evident need, and by the swiftness of our entry into the depths of our encounter and the abruptness – yet, in its own way, timeliness – of its end. I do not know whether we will see each other again. It’s doubtful, I think. But, if we do, I will say to him, “Thank you.”

behold our God!

a sermon, based on Genesis 1.1-2.4 and Matthew 28.16-20, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on Trinity Sunday, June 11, 2017

A story is told that Voltaire,[1] that French Enlightenment philosopher known, among many things, for his complicated relationship with religion, once doffed his hat at the passing of a funeral procession. A friend, surprised, said, “I thought you did not believe in God.” Voltaire replied, “We acknowledge each other, though we are not on speaking terms.”[2]

We, declining to share Voltaire’s sensibilities, claim the annual grace of Trinity Sunday (if not on any other day, then surely this day!) to acknowledge and speak of the threefold nature of God: alway transcendent, beyond all things, immanent, with all things, and spiritually in all things.

The Trinity - Fernando Yáñez de la Almedina

The word “trinity” is not found in the Bible. Still, the Bible, in one sense, is our record of our religious ancestors’ encounters with what 20th century German theologian Rudolph Otto[3] termed the mysterium tremendum et fascinans; that mystery called “God” before which we, in fascinated reverence and fear, tremble. Therein, we behold their attempts to make sense of that mystery, putting into language their experiences and perceptions.

Through the lens of this understanding, let us see what our spiritual forebears have to tell us about God and about us.

Before we do, I share a word about words. Words are symbols. Whether spoken or written, they are meant to conjure up the in the minds of the speaker and hearer, the writer and reader the realities to which they point. Hence, the word “God”, as a symbol, is not God, but only the term we use in our attempt to communicate our understanding of the reality of that mysterium tremendum et fascinans. And, as God is mystery (not a riddle to be resolved, but that which, in its totality, is beyond the reach of our reason), try as we might, we never can comprehend God completely. In a word (pun intended!), we never fully “get”, grasp God. Yet, in our continued quest for understanding, we hope, we believe that what we do get is fully God. For that reason, through prayer, study, and worship, we keep trying, remaining steadfast in the quest to behold our God!

Now, back to the Bible!

The first Genesis creation story is a rhapsodic Hebrew poem testifying that God is almighty! For through the agency of “wind”, in the Hebrew, ruach, Spirit, “sweeping over the face of the waters”, God creatio ex nihilo, creates out of the nothing of “formless void and darkness.” Whenever we humans “create” we always must take things that already exist to fashion something new. God begins with nothing and, through word, “Let there be…”, comes light, sky, earth, and sea, suns and stars, flora and fauna, and humankind. And this unfolding differentiation continues unto this day. Our God always is creating and we, made in God’s image, are called to create, not destroy. Our dominion over the earth is not, is never to be domination, but rather creative caretaking, loving stewardship.

In the Gospel of Matthew, the risen Jesus declares unto his first disciples the Great Commission, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” As important as this mission of baptizing and teaching has been and is for the spread of Christianity, the most important word Jesus says is “therefore.” Jesus can  (is able to) command his disciples because “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Jesus claims the authority, the right to exercise power, of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, the God of whom Genesis speaks as the almighty Creator.

It is this God revealed in this Jesus who, in the Spirit, is “with (us) always, to the end of the age.”

Behold our God!

 

Illustration: The Trinity, Fernando Yáñez de la Almedina (1475-1536)

Footnotes:

François-Marie Arouet (Voltaire) (1694-1778)

[1] Voltaire, the nom de plume of François-Marie Arouet (1694-1778) famous or infamous, depending on one’s point of view, for his attacks on the established church, and his advocacy of freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and separation of church and state.

[2] Recorded in David Head’s He Sent Leanness: a book of prayers for the natural man (The MacMillan Company, 1959), page 36.

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[3] Rudolf Otto (1869-1937), German Lutheran theologian and philosopher.

good grief

IMG_1001

Mom’s cancer, with relentless, rapacious appetite, spread from her lungs to her brain, then to her brain lining. Her decline, swift, over the sparest number of weeks, and savage, instant by inexorably passing instant, stripping her of bodily function and proffering only pain.

On April 28, 2017, Geneva Theodosia Reynolds Mack Watkins, the mother of my wife, my mother in law, a proverbial force of nature, yea, verily, nature itself in the immensity of her love, died.

IMG_1002

Since then, I have watched and continue to watch Geneva’s daughter, my wife, Pontheolla, grieve, embracing her sorrowing, weeping heart and soul…

through those initial moments of her acknowledgement of the inevitable; the oncologist saying those dreaded, yet essential and candid words, “There is nothing more we can do”…

through the calling of family members and friends, receiving, responding to their questions, “How?” “When?” “Why?”, accepting, answering their expressions of concern with a  gracious “Thank you”, a slight and earnest nod, a sympathizing falling tear, soon followed by a pitying flood…

through the planning of mom’s funeral, truly, justly a celebration of her life supremely, freely, fully, faithfully well lived; the testimonials from persons from ev’ry path of her earthly being and doing; the songs of praise and the prayers to God, all bidding, believing in her gladsome greeting in the heavenly habitations…

through engaging mom’s affairs – initiating probate, closing accounts, and cleaning her home, sorting through the years of the daily accumulations of living, but more, existentially, spiritually, moving through her space still warm and welcoming with the manifold memories of times spent luxuriating in the wealth of her hospitality…

and through every day and counting since, Pontheolla hails as blessed her ev’ry reminiscence, honors as the bounty of her holy sorrow her ev’ry tear, holds fast to her ev’ry thanksgiving for the nonpareil grace of God incarnate in the life and love of her mother…

Hers is good grief.

my birthday tributes

June 8, 2017. My 65th birthday. As humans reckon time, an important historical, social, and personal benchmark.

I am in a contemplative, and, in part, melancholy mood.

Yes, I am happy (not a word, given my intense early-in-life-and-unto-this-day-awareness of an inner shadowy specter of sadness, I oft employ) to be alive at this time in this world with, all things told, a preponderance of blessed memories, present contentment, and future hopes.

Yet, thinking of my immediate family, I ponder being an orphan and wonder why, beyond the reality of my being the youngest of the four, I am alive, whilst they are not.

WRA 1976

My brother Wayne. Between the two of us, the finer human being. Daily he abides with me in the harrowing (sorrowing) absence of his presence and the hallowing (sanctifying) presence of his absence. I love you, Wayne. Because of you, I have a resident, resonant sense of my better self.

Lolita & William c 1940My father, William, and my mother, Lolita. It took quite the while for me, well into my forties, to see through the veil of my childhood and adolescent disappointments, ever looming, actual and imagined, as haunting reminiscences of the deprivations of my want and need, to behold and honor how rich and real was your love for me. I love you, Dad. I love you, Momma. Because of you, I am.

Of life in the still-Christian South (a retired cleric’s occasional reflections)…

More on public prayer

On each of the past two weekends, here, in Spartanburg, South Carolina, at Clevedale Historic Inn and Gardens, Pontheolla and I have had the pleasure of hosting and housing a bride, her maid of honor and her bridesmaids.

On both occasions, on Saturday morning, in the serving of breakfast, whilst expeditiously ushering hot plates of freshly and lovingly (that is, Pontheolla-) prepared culinary fare to the table, I was brought to an abrupt and dutiful halt by the voice of prayer – the bride and her entourage, with hands joined and heads bowed, sharing in supplications to God…

On each occasion, though different the groups in nearly every ostensible social category, in their eloquent prayers, I found, I heard a striking similitude – if I had to (and I will!) characterize – of praise to God for being God, of thanksgiving to God, the Giver of all gifts, especially life and love, and of oblation to God in the offering of themselves in service to glorify God and to edify all whose lives they touched.

As both groups were 20-and-30-somethings, I offered to God a silent prayer of gratitude for the gift of renewed hope for the next generation, which these women, to a person, embodied.