honesty

For the past few months or so, whilst approaching, then turning, now being 65 (and all the American societal associations that attend this historic age-marker), I’ve spent a goodly part of my daily morning meditations focusing, increasingly more than I have before, on my mortality. My reflections have been deepened by the July 17th first anniversary of the death of Tim Veney, my dearest male friend, truly my proverbial “brother from another mother”, who departed this life at the far-far-too-soon age of 66. Taken together, I, an inveterate existentialist, have been led to ask myself, more than I have before, that conventional question of identity: Who am I?

On the beneficial side, sensing an internal movement, I’m aware that I’m progressing farther along my personal pilgrimage of continuing to become my authentic, honest-to-goodness, honest-with-others, honest-to-God self. In this, I’ve also encountered disappointment with myself that I’m not better than I would like to be; indeed, that, by now, I’m not better than I already would have liked to have been. At times, when good health and God’s help seem, are beyond my grasp, I confess that my despair overwhelms my prayers.

Yesterday, Pat, an old (or rather I should, I’d better say long-lived) friend, called. She asked me to pray with her about a pressing concern. Being dear friends, I felt free to respond honestly. “I’m in a dark place,” adding, only somewhat in jest, channeling Voltaire, “God and I may not be on speaking terms today.” Pat, one of the most compassionate, discerning, and prayerful people I know, laughed and said, “I understand.” Then, without a hint of self-righteousness, she told me that when she’s in a similar place she prays with greater earnest. “I dare to face of my own disappointment, even disbelief, because it’s about me being honest, yes, with God, and with me.”

I thank my dear friend for her helpful, healing word. She, perhaps without intending it, reminded me that the risk of honesty is not in risking honesty or, at least, the risk of honesty doesn’t end once honesty is risked. Rather, it begins and remains. Even more, Pat reaffirmed for me that being honest, which, at times, rather paradoxically, feels like, is like dying, is one essential element of the truest living of continuing to become who I am meant to be, might be, can be.

presents of mind

Whenever I drive into town via Main Street, there he is sitting always on the same public bench. His wizened body swaddled in baggy trousers and a shirt as large as a tent, and long-sleeved, no matter the heat. By turns, he is calm, perfectly still, his arms folded across his chest, then agitated, flinching, fidgeting, running his hands through his silver mane. Oft I’ve wondered. Who are you? Why are you there? What are you doing?

He always catches my attention and, now, my imagination…

During last night’s waning moments (or was it in the small hours of this morning?), I dreamed about him, which really means, I think, that my unconscious had welcomed him, embraced him as a symbol of something both reflective and restless living (looming? lurking?) within me.

Having spent this day deep in reverie, I believe I know what that something is…

As of late, in the course of my nearly daily contemplation of aging and mortality, across my mind’s screen, I’ve beheld kaleidoscopic images of the faces of people I’ve known or, having lost touch (for a variety of reasons, uncontrollable circumstance and acts of commission and omission, some mutual, some not) people I used to know. Depending on the memory, when our last meeting and parting was pleasant, I am calmed by a spirit of serenity and when not, my soul is o’ershadowed by twin specters of discontent and lament that painfully afresh reveal, expose my flaws, my failings to have been the person I long wish I already was.

Either way, even, perhaps especially the latter, I accept these images as presents, gifts of my mind, which, when opened, compel me to remember, to reflect, and to repent. In this last, perhaps I, one day, before I die, will draw closer, will be closer to the image of God I’d like to see in me.

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.

stigmata

This past week, I underwent surgery to correct longstanding, ever-worsening GI concerns. It was a success. I look forward to a future free of the past two year’s sudden, serial, severely debilitating intestinal attacks.

When Dr. Richard Rinehardt, as fine a person and as competent a surgeon as life occasions and skill provides, explained the procedure, I knew it would leave permanent marks. The day after, I wouldn’t look, choosing to forego immediate verification that this body I have inhabited for 60+ years, this body that I have watched mature along aging’s universal arc, overnight had been altered.

(I’m not vain. Well, not Muhammad Ali-vain, who, bless his puckish wit, once said, “I’m actually a pretty man. I’m not conceited, I’m just convinced!” Still, for much of my adult years, I wrestled with my body image, yo-yoing down and mostly up the scale. Recently, by some latter day biological accident or metabolic miracle, I find myself stabilized at the weight I carried during my college days 40+ years ago. Finally, I like and can live peaceably with the way I look.)

Tentatively, I ran my hands over my belly, stopping at each new protrusion and indentation. The next morning, I roused my courage to look…

My first thought. “This puts an end to my beach going days!” Then I laughed. The last time I publicly stripped to bare waist at water’s edge (or anywhere!) was far beyond my memory’s reach.

Then I thought of two dear friends, Loretta Woodward Veney and Leslie Ferguson (Fergie) Horvath, who, long having undergone major surgeries, have spoken with passion about their senses of their altered physical realities, each with a broadly expansive self-awareness and deeply grounded self-respect.

Then I thought of an article Fergie wrote last year for our local newspaper, Spartanburg (SC) Herald-Journal, Scars are Outward and Visible Signs of Life Changing Events, in which she writes with poignant eloquence of significant moments involving the risk of death and the possibility of life and her consciousness of her connection with Jesus who bore the painful scars of his crucifixion and death, truly signs of his life-giving love.

Then I thought of the Apostle Paul’s stirring testimony: “I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.”[1] The Greek, stigmata, also translated “wounds”, referred to the brand borne by slaves signifying the ancient deity to which they belonged. Paul, through the trials of his apostleship,[2] his flesh bearing the signs of his faithful service, declares his unassailable loyalty to Jesus, his Lord.

Verna Thomas McGehee’s poem, I Carry a Cross in My Pocket, attests, in part, “When I put my hand in my pocket…The Cross is there to remind me of the price He paid for me. It reminds me too, to be thankful for my blessings day by day and to strive to serve Him better in all that I do and say.”

I have been a Christian all of my life. As I review my history, I confess countless moments when I fell far short, in Richard of Chichester’s words, of seeing Jesus more clearly, loving him more dearly, following him more nearly day by day.[3]

My surgery reminds me afresh of my mortality. In this, I reaffirm that I have more life in this world behind than in front of me. In this, I resolve that every time I see my torso or run my hands over my belly, whether in naked privacy or in public secrecy through my clothes, I will remember that I am doulos, a servant, a slave of Christ.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Galatians 6.17

[2] In another epistle, Paul enumerates his tribulations, speaking of “greater labors…imprisonments…countless floggings, and often near death. Five times I have received…the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked. For a night and a day, I was adrift at sea. On frequent journeys, in danger from rivers…bandits…my own people…Gentiles…in the city… the wilderness…at sea…from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked” (2 Corinthians 11.23-27, abridged).

[3] Richard of Chichester (1197-1253).  A fuller text of his prayer:

Thanks be to Thee, my Lord Jesus Christ

For all the benefits Thou hast given me,

For all the pains and insults Thou hast borne for me.

O most merciful Redeemer, friend and brother,

May I know Thee more clearly,

Love Thee more dearly,

Follow Thee more nearly.

recollections & reconnections, news & blues

At 64 years, there are more people I’ve known than with whom I remain in touch; even in this expansive, explosive era of 24/7/365 (366 in leap years!) cyber-communication.

On occasion, for whatever reasons (probably, at least those of which I’m conscious, having to do with my daily reflections on my mortality and my frequently accompanying recollections of my childhood and young adult years), many of these folk come to mind. With my images of them frozen in time, remembering them as they were, I wonder what they are doing, where they are, how they are.

Today, one of my St. Louis childhood friends, Marsha, whom I’ve known nearly 60 years, shared the news of the death of one of our contemporaries, Christopher. Immediately, I was struck. Hard.

Recently, Ronald, with whom I graduated from high school and with whom I share a surname (though we’re not related, he definitely is the fruit of a far more artistically and athletically productive branch of the Abernathy tree!) and I reconnected via the miracle of Facebook. Today, he apprised me of the news of the deaths of two of our former classmates. One, David, I first knew in kindergarten. Again, immediately, I was struck. Hard.

My mind and heart, soul and spirit burst forth in a bluesy dissonant four-part harmony of sorrowing prayer for Christopher, David, and me. I know I’ve arrived at a new stage (stop?) on my life’s journey when those with whom I share a generation die.

One of my favorite poets, R. S. Thomas,[1] with lucid, austere verse, reflected on his entry into a new year, resolving to face each day, with the courage of acknowledgment, his inexorable movement toward his death, which he termed “the betrayal of birth.”

As I pray eternal peace for Christopher and David, I also beseech the heavens for the determination to live each day with an audacious acceptance of my inevitable end, come whene’er, howe’er.

 

Footnote:

[1] Ronald Stuart Thomas (1913-2000). See his poem, Resolution, R. S. Thomas Collected Poems, 1945-1990 (Phoenix Giant Publications), page 309.

stuff

This past Sunday, my dearest friend, Tim Veney died. Since then, my nearly hourly musings have been flooded with fondest remembrances of him and, far more than usual, ruminations about my mortality and death. (Around the time I turned 50, I gave up my childhood-long notion that I was immortal, and then began to contemplate daily, not morbidly, but rather honestly, my aging and its inevitable end.)

Today, I’m thinking about stuff. Things. Earthly treasure.

Though I don’t think I have an overabundance of stuff, I do confess I have less than I sometimes want and far more than I ever need.

And looking at the 2015 revenues of the five largest self-storage operators in the United States, totaling $4.184 billion, clearly a lot of us have more stuff than our homes can hold!

And I remember when my father died and later when we moved my mother from the home they had lived in since March 1952, one of our primary tasks was emptying the house of their veritable mountains of stuff, much of it time-worn and outdated or broken and inoperable.

And the words of Jesus come to mind:

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.[1]

and…

Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?”[2]

I suppose that Jesus counsels we not worry about our lives because he knows we do. As mortals who dwell in time and space, we necessarily are concerned about material matters of the flesh, like our health, and our creature comforts, our stuff. I also suspect that Jesus bids we not worry as a way of advising that we not cling to our things and surely that we not find our self-worth and much less our salvation in them. Even more, his imperative word, “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well,”[3] is his prescription for his diagnosis of our dis-ease of worry. The cure for care about many things is to care for one thing – God’s kingdom and right relationship with God.

Tim

Tim, like all of us, had stuff, things, earthly treasure. Yet he also possessed (or was possessed by!) a joyousness of heart and a blithe buoyancy of spirit. Traveling through this life lightly, his stuff never defined him. Therefore, for me, Tim was a model of kingdom-living and I want to be like him.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Matthew 6.19-21

[2] Matthew 6.25-31

[3] Matthew 6.33

theologizing & learning about aging & ailing

IMG_0069

a personal reflection…

Pierre Teilhard de ChardinThe great 20th century French polymath, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin,[1] believed we are not so much human beings in search of spiritual experience, but rather spiritual beings immersed in human experience. Teilhard de Chardin’s view, verily, vision of our ontology helps me, a Christian believer, understand that God, who is Spirit,[2] became incarnate in our flesh in Jesus of Nazareth and through the same Spirit, in us. His perspective also liberates me from the Platonic dualism, still evident in some Christian circles, that perceives humankind’s truest self as the soul, which, in this fallen, broken world, has been imprisoned, entombed, however temporarily, in the physical body.

Rather, for me, all of creation, including this world and our human bodies, is God’s handiwork and, therefore, good.[3] With our bodies, when our physical senses are operative, we can hear, see, smell, taste, and touch; perceiving, delighting in the riches of the world around us. Through our bodies, we are recognized and known one to another; sharing and delighting in the joys of companionship.[4]

Yet, through it all, one thing remains ineluctably, repeatedly demonstrably true. Our bodies are mortal (or, as my namesake, the Apostle Paul would say, “perishable”[5]). Our experience of, in this life is transitory. (As a wise soul – or souls, for the bon mot has been attributed to many – expressed, “No one gets out of life alive!) We are born and we die; in between we age.

Perhaps because a week or so ago I celebrated my latest birthday (one more to go and I’m eligible for Medicare!) or because 2015, in its entirety, was the sickliest year of my life or because 2015 seems to have been but a prelude to another year of major health concerns (or because of all of it and more than of which I am or can be conscious), these days, I think a good bit about aging.

So far, I have learned or, better, more truly said, I am learning more about gratitude and compassion…

I am grateful I am alive, aging and ailing and all. I have compassion for the lives of the dying and the souls of the dead, especially as the evil act of one man in Orlando this past Sunday hideously reminds us of life’s uncertainty and fragility, and some of the dead and wounded being young enough to be my children and grandchildren. (Indeed, whenever I know or hear of one who died young, I mourn and realize anew that no matter how my life is and is not, I have the luxury of its ongoing experience, now four years into my seventh decade.)

I am grateful for Pontheolla who, among many things, loves fiercely and cares about me deeply, even and especially when I don’t care for myself. I have compassion for those of my sisters and brothers in this life and world who do not enjoy the marvelous grace of companionship.

I am grateful for having health insurance and a number (ever increasing!) of fine physicians. I have compassion for those who do not.

As I live, I continue to learn. As I learn, my compassion for others deepens. For this and for more, as my Momma would say, “than I can say grace over”, I am grateful.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (May 1, 1881-April 10, 1955), over his richly varied lifetime, among many things, was a paleontologist and geologist, professor of chemistry and physics, Jesuit priest, philosopher and theologian, cosmologist and evolutionary theorist, and mystic.

[2] “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4.24)

[3] “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good” (Genesis 1.31a). Nevertheless, I do not disregard the reality of sin and evil and that humans can and will conceive and commit bad acts.

[4] Here, I do not, cannot deny that there are difficult aspects of all relationships that through our bodies we endure, and, sometimes, suffer!

[5] 1 Corinthians 15.53