more on aging

Clevedale front porch, 5-30-17

On a sultry South Carolina afternoon, following a hyper-busy, exhilarating, but also enervating past two weeks at our bed and breakfast and near the end of a day of chores (this demonstrably repetitive reality is why I term my retirement “my rehirement”), I plop my aching body into a comfy rocking chair. Sipping from a glass of my favorite Sauvignon Blanc, I consider that in a week or so, I will reach my 65th birthday (which, in truth, means that I simultaneously will have completed my 65th year and will enter my 66th year in this world). In light of this life’s milestone, at least, as humans reckon time, I contemplate mine aging (truth to tell, daily I reflect, not morbidly, but rather matter-of-factly, on this inexorable existential state of being).

Three immediate thoughts…

One, I don’t like aging. (Who does?) I’d prefer that my body was as supple, my mind and vision as sharp, my potentialities as boundless as my imagination as in my yesteryears.

Two, this said, I accept aging. I am neither angry about it nor discontent with it. Verily, there are moments of gleeful recognition that only an older one can know.

Last October, I went to the hospital for a pre-op visit in preparation for my November colon surgery. The intake nurse, a 30-something, bright-eyed, warm-hearted, highly-skilled, and unreservedly kind soul, among many questions, asked me, “Mr. Abernathy, do you have any pain?” Though I understood her intent in seeking to discern whether I was experiencing any discomfort in the subject area of my procedure, I couldn’t restrain myself from bursting out in raucous laughter. She smiled, I surmised, waiting, wanting to be let in on the joke. I replied, “My dear sister, I’m sixty-four years of age! Of course, I have pain!”

Three, I am fairly well assured (with no need or hope of refutation) that, as I’m wont to say, I have more life and labor behind me than ahead of me. As such, with the instant of my dying far closer than the day of my birth, I don’t have enough years of life left to try to remember all the things that I’ve lived long enough to have forgotten. In this awareness (perhaps enhanced by a second glass of wine), my soul is warmed by a spirit of the peace of the release from one more care, the relief from one more worry. And that is not a bad thing, not a bad thing at all.

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Easter people

a sermon, based on John 17.1-11, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 7th Sunday of Easter, May 28, 2017

Jesus looked up to heaven and said…[1]

On the night before Jesus’ betrayal and arrest, trial and condemnation, crucifixion and death, he gathers with his disciples for a last supper. Following John the evangelist’s narrative of that night, Jesus washes their feet, giving them an example of self-sacrificial, slavish service that he bids they imitate.[2] He tells them again and again who he is in relation to them: “I am the way, the truth, and the life”[3] and “I am the true vine, you are the branches.”[4] In preparing to depart, in preparing them for his departure from them, he gives them his final instructions, chiefly his one and only commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you,”[5] his promise of his abiding presence with them, within them in the Advocate, the Holy Spirit,[6] and his warning of their coming sufferings for his sake.[7]

After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said…

Here, Jesus prays to God not in some faraway place, not on a mountaintop, not in a garden not apart and away from his disciples, but right there, at table with them, in their presence, in their hearing. And there, in prayer, Jesus defines for them and for us the heart, the point, the greatest gift of Easter: “This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”

Eternal life is to know God and Jesus. Our knowing is more than our intellectual assent to the idea of God, more than our cognitive awareness of something, Someone greater than we, more than our understanding of the ways and workings of God. To know God and Jesus is to be in relationship with God as Jesus makes God known to us.

And what, Who is the God Jesus makes known? Following the revelations unfolded in the Gospel of John…

God is divine logos, Word; the animating power of the universe. The Word that became our flesh and dwelled among us in Jesus, no longer to be far off, but ever near.[8]

Jesus who went to a wedding feast and changed limpid, life-giving water into vibrant, soul-stirring wine, revealing that God wills to be at the center of our times of joy as well as our moments of sorrow.[9]

Jesus who met with Nicodemus[10] and the Samaritan woman,[11] speaking to both of spiritual things, revealing that God reaches out to all people, the high and the low, the greatest and the least.

Jesus who healed those with broken bodies,[12] fed those with hunger-bloated bellies,[13] forgave the woman caught in adultery, saying, “sin no more”,[14] raised Lazarus from the dead,[15] revealing that God wills all be restored to wholeness and righteousness.

Jesus who promised another Advocate, the Holy Spirit, to abide with us, within us,[16] revealing God’s presence and power to continue Jesus’ ministry of love and justice.

Jesus who prays, “I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world. I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”

There is an ancient legend of Jesus’ ascension into heaven. All the heavenly hosts, angels and archangels, cherubim and seraphim, greet his arrival, welcoming him home. The angel Gabriel asks, “O Son of God, what have you done to continue your work on earth?” Jesus answers, “I have disciples whom I called to learn from me. Now, as apostles, I have sent them into the world to teach.” Gabriel, alert to a potentially serious, perhaps fatal flaw in the plan, frowns, asking, “O Son of God, what if they, frail and fearful, forget and fail? What then?” Jesus answers, “I have no other plan.”

We are Easter people. We know God and Jesus. We have eternal life. Therefore, we, in this world, in this day, in this time, in our generation, with God at the center of our lives at all times, are to reach out to all people with hands and hearts that heal and feed and forgive and give life to the dead.

 

Footnotes:

[1] John 17.1

[2] John 13.1-15

[3] John 14.6

[4] John 15.5

[5] John 13.34, 15.12, 17

[6] John 14.16-17, 26

[7] John 15.18-21, 16.2

[8] John 1.1-4, 14

[9] John 2.1-11

[10] John 3.1-17

[11] John 4.7-42

[12] John 5.1-9, 9.1-7

[13] John 6.1-13

[14] John 8.1-11

[15] John 11.1-44

[16] John 14.16, 26

love, the only…

a sermon, based on John 14.15-21, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 6th Sunday of Easter, May 21, 2017

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments…They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me.”

In this Easter season, as we continue to contemplate the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection, today, we are invited to consider the immediate, incarnate, in-the-flesh-of-our-daily-living connection between loving Jesus and being obedient to Jesus. Thus, it is important to ask, “What commandments?” And Jesus reminds that it is easy to remember, for there is only one: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”[1] Lest we miss the point, he tells us: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”[2]

Love – and though we’ve said and shared this many times before, let us recall that by “love” we are not talking about our feelings about others or our affections for others, but rather the power to act in benevolent regard on behalf of others – is the only commandment of Jesus…

Love is the only measure of obedience to Jesus…

Therefore, at the proverbial end and beginning and middle of every day, there is only one question that a disciple, a follower, a lover of Jesus need ask: How did I love and (given our human weakness, unable always to fulfill our best intentions, and our human waywardness, able always to follow our self-interest) how did I not love?

To ask and answer this question, honestly, confessionally, especially the “not” part, is to open ourselves to judgment. Yet, praise God, this judgment is not that often most debilitating human disapproval of us by others or, at times, even worse, ourselves! No! This is the judgment of Jesus. The One who loves us unconditionally! The One who died for us self-sacrificially! The One who was raised from the dead for us that we have life eternally![3] And whenever Jesus points a judging finger at us it is always to help us see more clearly who we are, where we are in relation to him, all so that he can call us to come closer to him. How close? Abidingly, abundantly, inseparably, interminably close: “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth…(who) abides with you, and…will be in you.”[4]

“Advocate”, from the Greek parakletos, variously translated comforter, counselor, teacher, testifier, and, literally, one who comes alongside. Jesus, the Word of God in flesh,[5] was, is our first Advocate. Because of Easter, because of the resurrection of Jesus, he promised to send and has sent another Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whose coming we will commemorate two Sundays from now on the Day of Pentecost, who, as God’s presence and power, abides within us.

It is by, for, in, through, with (pick any preposition, the truth is the same!) the Holy Spirit that we can love Jesus and can keep his commandments and can ask ourselves that critical question “How have I loved and how have I not loved today?” and can place ourselves under his judgment and all that we can believe, can know that we are loved by God now through eternity.

Because of the everlasting Easter-love of God in Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit, let us in gratitude declare again, “Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen, indeed! Alleluia!”

 

Footnotes:

[1] John 13.34-35

[2] John 15.12-13

[3] Here, I have in mind the Apostle Paul’s grand declaration that the One who can (is able to) condemn us is the same One who has saved us, thus, we need not, need never fear: If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ?…I am convinced that…(nothing) in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8.31b-35a, 38a, 39b, abridged and amended).

[4] My emphasis

[5] See John 1.1, 14a: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh and lived among us.

 

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

On politics, religion, and presidential elections (subtitle: fill in the blank; sub-subtitle: WWJD?[1])

The American socio-political climate is as sizzling and sweltering as a South Carolina spring morning when long before noon the temperature and humidity climb to the high-80s (or higher!). The unrest, characteristic of the 2016 presidential campaign (which was, I think, in part, a bitter fruit of the rising, roiling ideological conservative-liberal tensions of the prior decade), pestilentially persists. Those who voted for _______,[2] some of whom rather would have voted for _______,[3] with the election of Donald Trump, are _______, _______, and _______ .[4]

In the light of this heat, here, in the South, I hear political speech with religious undertones (or is it religious speech with political overtones?). To wit (with each successive declarative or interrogative statement, from whatever side of the political spectrum, uttered with increasing certainty and stridency):

“Jesus would have voted for _______.”

“Jesus told me to vote for _______.”

“How in God’s name could you vote for _______?”

“How can you call yourself a Christian and vote for _______?”

I am a Christian. I love and follow Jesus. I strive, praying the strength of the Holy Spirit, to obey his one commandment: to love unconditionally.[5] Daily, I try. Daily, I fail. Daily, I pray the Spirit’s presence and guidance to try again.

Given my existential and spiritual orientation, at first, I was taken aback by what I deem unabashed and unbridled hypercritical politico-religio language.[6] Then, catching myself (or, rather, the Spirit catching me) falling prey to judging others, I stepped back from the precipice of that pit so to look and to listen with the eyes and ears of love. What or rather who I see and hear are my sisters and brothers, some of whose expressions correspond with mine and some not. Yet my agreement or disagreement does not, must not affect my ability and willingness to tolerate, even more, to accept, and still more, to honor their thoughts and feelings, their wants and needs, their hopes and fears that are the ground, the heart from which spring their words. And in that tolerance, acceptance, verily, reverence for their God-given human dignity, I can “lay down my life” – my preferences and prejudices – for their sake.

 

Footnotes:

[1] What would Jesus do?

[2] Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump

[3] In the case of Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders or, in the case of Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina, Jim Gilmore, Lindsay Graham, Mike Huckabee, Bobbly Jindal, John Kasich, George Pataki, Rand Paul, Rick Perry, Marco Rubio, or Scott Walker or, with the choice of voting for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, did not vote.

[4] happy, hopeful, and compliant or sorrowful, fearful, and defiant

[5] Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13.34-35) and “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15.12-13).

[6] During my many years of living and laboring in and around Capitol Hill, Washington, DC, where the lingua franca is über-partisan, self-authenticating, other-vilifying speech, I do not recall hearing anything like this.

Easter means…

a sermon, based on Acts 7.55-60 and John 14.1-14, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 5th Sunday of Easter, May 14, 2017

Continuing our Easter season celebration at length and contemplation at depth of the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection, today, I offer one word: home. Easter means finding and knowing, going and being home.

Stephen, before stoned to death, beheld a vision of “Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” His dying testimony anticipated our creedal affirmation that Jesus “came down from heaven…became incarnate…was crucified…suffered death…was buried…rose again…ascended into heaven…seated at the right hand of (God).”[1]

Martyrdom of St. Stephen (c. 1560), Giorgio Vasari

Easter means that Jesus found his way back home.

Now, if Easter is all and only about Jesus, then we have little reason to celebrate. Blessedly, there’s more! Jesus declares that finding home is about us. On the night before he died, Jesus bid his disciples be not troubled by his departure, promising that he would welcome them into God’s infinitely roomy house. So also testifies our creed: “(Jesus) will come again in glory…and his kingdom will have no end.”

Easter means that we go home to God.

Where is this home? Stephen “gazed into heaven.” Presuming a first century cosmology of a spherical earth suspended in space at the center of a series of concentric heavens, Stephen looked up. Yet I think God’s “many dwelling places” is not a description of celestial space or heavenly architecture. The question, therefore, is not where, but rather what is home? As we’re talking about the realm of God, indeed, God’s being and nature, “many dwelling places” is a symbol of the infinite capaciousness of God’s Love.

Easter means we always are at home in God, Who, as Love, allows nothing to keep us apart, not even we ourselves.

George Herbert[2] understood this. In his enchanting poem, Love Bade Me Welcome,[3] he writes of God who, as Love, unconditionally bids him come…

Yet he, aware of his mortality and iniquity, resists…

Love perceiving his hesitancy, draws closer; swift to erase any distance, to ease any dis-ease between them…

Herbert, desiring to be a worthy guest, honestly confesses that he is not…

Love replies in future tense, “you shall be”; for Herbert’s sense of his present unworthiness does not, cannot prevent Love from loving…

Herbert, perhaps disbelieving for joy, counters with specificity, naming his chiefest sins, unkindness and thanklessness; his guilt so great that he dares not look at God…

Love draws closer still, taking Herbert’s hand, smiling, speaking Self-referentially that the Creator of the eye best can decide whose eyes shall see God…

Herbert presses the point, declaring his shame in misusing the gift of sight; begging to be given what he deserves: the punishment of banishment from God’s presence…

Ah, says Love, shame, Herbert’s and ours, already has been embraced and embodied in Jesus; God, our Lover, living with us as we live and die, being in us for all time and beyond time…

Herbert, persuaded, agrees to come to table as Love’s servant…

Ah, no, says Love, it alway is I who serves…

Herbert, all of his protests overcome, finally accepts Love’s welcome; sitting with Love, supping, partaking of Love.

Easter means we become Who we receive: Love.

In our Anglican ethos, scripture, tradition, and reason proclaim God’s existence. Yet it is my life’s experience that proves God’s Love. Herbert’s experience is my experience! I have known moments of painful glory when unconditional love welcomed me. When others (and I’m not talking about people who didn’t and don’t know me, but rather people who knew and know me well, very well; knowing things about me that I despise and wouldn’t want them or anyone to know!) embraced me without regard or reserve, overcoming every obstacle of my sense of my unworthiness, calling me to accept, to love myself just as I am. Though never a constant state (indeed, what is?), I have known moments of being so loved that I love.

In my pastoral ministry, listening to, loving others, I also know that everyone has not had moments of this pained glory when, in spite of their poor self-esteem, indeed, in some cases, self-loathing, the love of others bade them welcome. I have grieved with those who, in their experiences of judgment and rejection, largely only know pain and no glory.

Easter means finding and knowing, going and being home. Easter means we are called to rise in new life here on earth, being and becoming, and giving what we have received that all will know God’s Love.

If Easter ain’t about that, then Easter ain’t about anything!

 

Illustration: Martyrdom of St. Stephen (c. 1560), Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574)

Footnotes:

[1] From the Nicene Creed. The full text:

We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified. He has spoken through the Prophets.

We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

[2] George Herbert, Portrait by Robert White (1674), National Portrait Gallery George Herbert (1593-1633), Welsh-born Anglican priest, orator, and poet (Portrait by Robert White, 1674, National Portrait Gallery)

 

[3] Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,

Guiltie of dust and sinne.

But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack

From my first entrance in,

Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,

If I lack’d any thing.

A guest, I answer’d, worthy to be here:

Love said, You shall be he.

I the unkinde, ungratefull? Ah my deare,

I cannot look on thee.

Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,

Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marr’d them: let my shame

Go where it doth deserve.

And know you not, sayes Love, who bore the blame?

My deare, then I will serve.

You must sit down, sayes Love, and taste my meat:

So I did sit and eat.

 

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

“Bless your heart”

Living in the South for the past 2½ years, how often have I heard this phrase? Dwelling in the realm of time and space where much is measured numerically, though I cannot truthfully say “countless times”, truly I can say, “I’ve lost count!”

And hearing it daily, repeatedly in many a (every?) setting, I have learned that this über-utilitarian aphorism has manifold circumstantial uses and contextual meanings; the majority of which fall into two major categories…

As a pitying or insulting negative judgment of a person, whether behind the back or to the face. For example, “She/he/you had such good intentions, but her/his/your performance was sadly underwhelming, bless her/his/your heart.” When employed in this instance, usually the speaker arrives at that closing phrase with lowered tone and soft voice, having the effect of tempering the harshness of the critique and, at times, masking barely the passive-aggression of the criticism.

Blessedly, I have heard or overheard these three words used far more as an expression of earnest kindness. One does a good deed for another and the recipient of that grace says to the giver, “Thank you and bless your heart.” A loved one dies and one, seeking to offer a word of consolation, says, “Bless her/his and your heart.” In each case, the phrase oft is uttered with a breathy sincerity that infuses, inspirits the words, in the first instance, with genuine gratitude and, in the second, with sincerest sympathy. And in each case, the phrase oft is preceded by the sacred word, “God”.

I digress…

A word, as a symbol, points beyond itself to a reality (at times, in the instant moment of its utterance or script, unobservable), which the word, both for the speaker/writer and the listener/reader, brings into the view of the mind’s eye, thus, giving shape to and making sense of the reality. In this act of communication, usually, indeed, I think, always the speaker/writer and the listener/reader, each with her/his own experience and perception, do not, cannot mean the same thing. Hence, the necessity of their engaging in deepening interaction, frequently (always?) entailing the employ of more words to define the one word.

That said, here in the South, I discern a remarkable similitude in people’s use of the word “God” in reference to a reality, indeed, a Being, thus, not something, but rather Someone to whom is ascribed the agency of the power to create and sustain life. Moreover, in Christian circles of faith, I observe that folk speak and write of God in various ways, yet, again, with a notable likeness, as the principal actor on the stage of the universe and the primary protagonist of scripture’s sacred story as revealed through the life and mission of the people Israel, in the life and ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, and by the eternally illuminating presence of the Holy Spirit.

In this, I experience an inner, spiritual, nearly ineffable resonance; indeed, a kindred person-to-person blessing of hearts.

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

On preaching (Part 2 of 2)

“Paul, is preaching different in the South?” By many and many times I have been asked this question.

Prior to retirement, I last served an Episcopal parish in Washington, D.C.; making that tenure of nearly 17 years my immediate and distinctive frame of reference for preaching in the South.[1] It is in the light of contrast that I wrote: “(W)hat I have found, what I have felt in the bones of my soul is people’s hunger to have an experience of God through the Bible. In this, I recognize the difference of preaching in the South.”

My life and labor with the good folk of that D.C. congregation were interesting and vital, at times, taxing, yet never dull! The people, to a person, were accomplished in their varied vocations, well-traveled and well-read, intellectually inquisitive and insightful, and passionate in their engagement of the issues of the day and times. They were and are those who desire to make and do make a difference in the world for good.

A heartbeat of that community was a tolerance, verily, an acceptance of ideological difference, particularly in the welcome and embrace of skepticism. Questioning was a high and fine art, cherished for its probative value in the investigation of all things, including the Christian doctrine and biblical lore of “the faith once delivered to the saints.”[2] Within this milieu, the communal view of the scriptures[3] was more as ancient literature and less as sacred text; more as chronicles of the human quest for God and less, in the language of the Catechism, as “the Word of God (Who) inspired their human authors and…still speaks to us.”[4] In this, I make no judgment of good or bad, right or wrong. Rather, this is simply, only my observation.

In preaching with this community, I sought to make a conscious connection between ancient scripture, which I do believe is holy writ, and, I also believe, the sacred texts of our lives daily being written through our every thought and feeling, intention and action; and this in an effort to help us all make sense and find meaning in our human existence. Here, too, I make no judgment of good or bad, right or wrong. Yet, for me, this approach to preaching was something (I hasten to add not less, but rather) other than inviting folk into a shared experience of listening for the vox Deus, the Voice of God. This distinction is but one of the ways that I understand the difference of preaching in the South.

Footnotes:

[1] For years and for some, it has been a matter of debate whether Washington, D.C., is, in fact, a Southern city (or, to be precise, district). President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was noted to have said, “Washington is a city of Southern efficiency and Northern charm.” Though what he meant is open to speculation, his observation raises the consideration that Southern-ness is an expansive idea; one that can be understood in other ways than the place or the geography of the eleven states comprising the olden Confederacy or what some term the “Deep South”, generally including Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina. Southern-ness can encompass the historical socio-economic terms, among them, rural landscapes, agrarian-based economies, fewer large cities, political conservatism, and large English and African-American populations; this latter, through the 19th century, being visible evidence of the thriving institution of slavery. On this last count, before the Civil War, Washington, D.C., I would aver, was quite Southern; since then, not quite so and on the other counts, never quite so.

[2] The Letter of Jude 3

[3] I stress the communal view to indicate my sense of how the congregation as a whole, therefore, not each and every individual, approached the Bible.

[4] From An Outline of the Faith commonly called the Catechism, The Book of Common Prayer, page 853