continuing becoming…

“Honey, is something the matter with me?”

This is the question I asked Pontheolla after another restless, sleepless night channel-surfing among CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC following, fretting over the news of Hurricane Harvey’s relentless approach to the Texas coast, then, making landfall, stubbornly, punishingly, injuriously, fatally dumping catastrophic amounts of rain…

And this after equally fretful, restless, sleepless nights following the August 11-12 unrest in Charlottesville perpetrated by an unabashed and public display of vociferous and violent white supremacy and neo-Nazism…

And this after equally restless, sleepless nights and weeks and months of following what I view to be, at its heart and in its soul, a feckless, reckless presidential administration driven by the impulses of a man enamored by the self-manufactured mythology of the power of his personality.

Me: Honey, is something the matter with me?

Pontheolla: Why do you ask?

Me: I’m struggling. It feels like…it is like everything troubles me.

Pontheolla: What do you mean?

Me: Down in my belly and in my bones. I’m angry, but mostly sad.

Pontheolla: About what?

Me: Not what. Who.

Pontheolla: Who then?

Me: Those…all those hurt by the force of nature and human hands.

Pontheolla: Nothing’s wrong with you. You’re becoming who you were meant to be.

For 40 years, since my ordination in 1977 as a deacon in the Episcopal Church, then, in 1978, as a priest, I have served as a Christian minister. Knowing that I possess (or…and am possessed by!) an irrepressible selfish streak (ask Pontheolla!), oft I’ve thought, somewhat self-deprecatingly, that God called me into ministry knowing that the self-sacrificial nature of the work would…just might be a sanctifying, sanity-inducing balance to my overweening egocentricity.

Pontheolla’s incisive observation has helped me to see that one of my prayers truly, painfully has been answered…

During this past Lenten season, as a personal, spiritual discipline, I wrote a prayer a day. On Saturday, April 8, 2017, the 34th day of Lent, reflecting on Colossians 1.21-24,[1] I wrote, in part:

O Jesus…seeing You more clearly, I now know more surely that what is lacking in Your afflictions for my sake is my sharing in Your suffering for Your sake…For though I claim and call You as my way, my truth, my life, I…love to go my own way…so to liken my life unto mine own image. O Jesus, I pray You, by Your Spirit, bind my wandering mind, bend my wayward heart, bolster my wavering soul, break my willful spirit that I now, at least, on some days and moments of days, may…can…will sacrifice my self wholly unto You. Amen.

With joyous pain and painful joy, I believe that Jesus has answered my prayer. And though I also believe that I cannot be rid of all of my, at times, selfish self-interest, for such is the character and curse of the life of the flesh in this world, I pray that I, down in the depths of my belly and bones, continue to become, in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s[2] description of Jesus, “a man for others.”

 

Footnotes:

[1] Colossians 1.21-24 (my emphasis): And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, (Christ) has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him; provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven. I, Paul, became a servant of this gospel. I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), German Lutheran pastor and theologian executed by the Nazis for resisting the racial and military policies of Adolf Hitler’s totalitarian regime. In Bonhoeffer’s self-sacrificial living and dying, as he described Jesus, so he was, too, “a man for others.”

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seemingly

(Jesus) entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10.38-42)

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (1655), Jan Vermeer van Delft (1632-1675)

Today, according to the Episcopal Church calendar, is the feast day of Mary and Martha of Bethany. I love these two sisters and the Bible’s honest portrayal of a bit of domestic discord; a seemingly fussy Martha fuming at a seemingly indolent Mary for not lending a hand in the kitchen.

I say “seemingly”, first, in defense of both. Each, in her way, offered the sacred duty of hospitality to Jesus. Martha in her meal preparation (though perhaps in her harried state, raising a banging-pots-and-pans ruckus!). Mary in her attentive (and, in her era, as a woman sitting at the feet of a rabbi, radical) act of listening to Jesus’ teaching.

I say “seemingly”, secondly, in defense of Mary. For many years, whenever I’ve preached this text, whatever my intended point, most folk (their perceptions, I think, consciously or unconsciously influenced by a Protestant work ethic) take sides, applauding Martha’s industry whilst demeaning Mary’s lethargy; though there are a few who see in Mary a model disciple of one who sits to learn God’s word, eventually rising to do God’s will.

Whether Martha or Mary, in this choosing, championing one over the other, I observe that we humans have an affection or at least an appreciation for the seeming (ah, there’s a form of that word again!) certainty of either-or. As I read and reflect on this story, I choose both-and; Martha and Mary representing, respectively, the active and contemplative aspects of our human nature.

By application, I experience daily, no, constantly an inner tension between my human doing and my human being. To date, given my formative and engrained familial tutelage, my doing has framed my sense of my self far more than my being; though my intuition tells me it should be the other way ‘round! So, refusing to choose one or the other, what if I sought to become an active contemplative and a contemplative actor? What if, in all of my doing, I always sought to bring to conscious remembrance and guidance the teachings of Jesus? What if, in all of my study of God’s word, I always sought to envision what it would look like if, when I was doing it?

My dearest sisters, Martha and Mary, whether in the scripture or within me, I love you. Each and both. Equally. So, together let us sit to learn and rise to do, always and in all ways.

 

Illustration: Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (1655), Jan Vermeer van Delft  (1632-1675)

reputation

Trinity Episcopal Church, Washington, DC

On January 10, 1989, I was installed as rector of Trinity Episcopal Church, Washington, DC. The presider at that grand occasion was the then Bishop of Washington, the late, great John Thomas Walker.[1]

John Thomas Walker

John, a man of abiding faith and unassailable courage, was an institutional and social reformer of the first order; waging the good fight of inclusion in a church and a world that then wrestled, and sadly still grapples, at times, unrepentantly, with the issues, the realities of discrimination of all sorts. Though having risen to a lofty position, John, genuinely humble, did not think of himself, in the words of the Apostle, more highly than he ought.[2] He also was exceedingly insightful and gracious; able to make his point with a subtle turn of phrase and an earnest smile and without bludgeoning the hearts and minds of those with whom he disagreed (a characteristic mournfully missing from today’s American public political and ecclesial arenas).

This last noble trait comes to mind. During my installation, John, discerning (and keen to temper) my then overweening sense of self, whispered in my ear, “Remember, Paul, one’s good reputation in the eyes of the world is oft maintained by the silence of family and friends.” I recall being taken aback, not sure entirely what he meant, yet sensing an inner resonance of truth. O’er the years, many times, I’ve reflected on John’s good counsel. Indeed, those who know, for better and for worse, one’s behind-the-scenes persona, by their reticence, serve to uphold one’s best-foot-forward public image. And, a long time ago, I added “the silence of one’s enemies”, who, I believe, view us sometimes with a less than charitable clear-eyed honesty than our families and friends.

A friend and fellow priest, Rob Brown, recently shared a perception he had received from another, which I, in pondering, consider searingly, starkly spot-on: “Everyone has three selves. A public self known to the world, a private self known by kith and kin, and a secret self known only to one’s self.”

Speaking always and only for myself, this is true for me. I have a public face, which, though I’d like to believe in major part is sincere, is an outward expression of how I’d like to be viewed by others. I have a private face, which exposes more of my shadow-world, my ignoble traits, chiefly selfishness. And, yes, I have a secret self of thoughts and feelings, reflections and reminiscences to which I dare not give air and, deeper, those that are beyond the reach of my daily consciousness, appearing in the startling, scarifying images of dreams, nightmares. In this, how well I know, how oft I pray the words of the psalmist: Who can detect their errors? Cleanse me from my hidden faults.[3]

I wonder, too, as I look at myself in the mirror, knowing all that I know about me, including my awareness of what may lurk unseen and unknown within, how do I, who can maintain no silence from myself, preserve my good reputation with myself? In this, how well I know, how oft I pray the words of my namesake Apostle: I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?[4] And, in this, believing, knowing I cannot maintain my good reputation, for I have none, I, throwing myself afresh on the grace and mercy of a loving God, sing with Paul: Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord![5]

 

Footnotes:

[1] The Right Reverend John Thomas Walker (1925-1989), Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington (1977-1989) and Dean of the Washington National Cathedral (1978-1989).

[2] Romans 12.3

[3] Psalm 19.12

[4] Romans 7.21-24

[5] Romans 7.25

discerning & deciding

I awoke early this morning; the bright numbers of my Fitbit glaring at me: 4.30. In a reflective mood, unable to return to sleep, I arose. Sauntering into the kitchen, thirsting for the first cup of coffee (next to water, truly nature’s nectar), this sobering thought followed, chased me: The worst choices I’ve made in my life – those that yielded less than auspicious results, near or long term, and led me onto a path of life’s struggles – were the direct result of my having confused, indeed, conflated discerning and deciding. One of the most sterling, sagacious moments of my life involved my learning the difference.

Discerning and deciding, in common parlance, are treated as synonyms. However I now know, with a readily, daily conscious conviction, that they are related, but hardly, indeed, never the same.

Discern, from the Latin discernere, meaning “to separate” or “to distinguish”, produces the word discernment. Familiar in church circles, discernment oft is used (sometimes overused, I think, as if everyone is operating in the same realm of understanding, and, in my experience, we aren’t!) regarding processes through which folk are called to ordained ministry and to the various positions of service (read: employment).

For me, discernment, an operative term in my everyday vocabulary, is that ever-recurring, never-ending practice (as long as I live and breathe) – all at once, involving a synthesis of my thoughts and feelings, my observations and opinions, my reflections via memory upon my history, and my intuition through the lenses of soul and spirit – by which I arrive at my truth. By “my truth”, I mean my beliefs about God, who God is, what God does, about life, the way things are in the world and are not (in relation to who God is and what God does), and about myself, who I am and who I am becoming, what I desire and need (in relation to who God is and what God does).

Whenever I first discern, then I can (am able) to decide. Decide, from the Latin decidere, meaning literally “to cut off.” So it is, when I choose one thing or choose to venture in one direction, I cannot also choose the other. And so it is, whenever I’ve not discerned my truth and, nevertheless, decided, my choices have been characterized, corrupted by my ever-human-always-subject-to-selfishness-self-interest. I want it all. Everything at the same time, at all times, on my terms. Simply because this (for me and for anyone!) is impossible doesn’t mean I haven’t tried to do it. And, in trying, I’ve always succeeded in harming myself and others.

Lord, have mercy upon me that, praying alway that grand song of thanksgiving, I will discern, and then do aright:

Happy are those whose way is blameless,

who walk in the law of the Lord.

Happy are those who keep his decrees,

who seek him with their whole heart,

who also do no wrong, but walk in his ways.

You have commanded your precepts to be kept diligently.

O that my ways may be steadfast in keeping your statutes!

Then I shall not be put to shame,

having my eyes fixed on all your commandments.

I will praise you with an upright heart,

when I learn your righteous ordinances.[1]

 

Footnote:

[1] Psalm 119.1-7

going to do better v. doing better

This morning I telephoned one of our dearest friends. We speak often, yet this was an especial conversation on an especial day of commemoration after a year of great, grave loss. Our friend, one of the most honest, resilient, and courageous people we know, shared a variety of her thoughts and feelings about her grief and her growth.

Though acknowledging life’s difficulties and she’s known far more than her fair share, she’s never dwelled on her disappointments. (As one who long has wrestled with the overweening power of his inner grudge-bearing spirit, I could, perhaps should take or at least borrow this good page from her book!) Still, referring to occasions when she had received less than the support she desired and needed, she mentioned a conversation with a relative who, conceding that lack, confessed, “I’m going to do better.”

This particular encounter, for me, is a lens peering into the matrix of our universal human experience.

Who among us has not felt discontent with family members, however short-or-long-lived, however once-and-done or damnably repeated (thereby painfully validating the observation attributed to American author Edna Buchanan, “Friends are the family we choose for ourselves”)? I have.

And who among us, at one point or another, has not been that relative or friend who, in a time of another’s desire or need, could have done more, but didn’t or wouldn’t? I have.

And who among us, in her or his life’s pilgrimage, has not journeyed along the path of penitence whilst needing to take that road always less traveled of repentance? I have.

Penitence and repentance, as two heavily theologically freighted and weighted words, oft are confined to conversations about the relationship between humanity and divinity, between us and God, and used interchangeably. However, on both counts, I discern a need for the deepening of our understanding, thus, purposefully applying penitence and repentance to all of our human interactions and distinctly. On this latter point, penitence and repentance are related, but not the same.

Penitence connotes my regretting something I’ve said or done or not said or not done that has caused harm to another. Repentance (as the younger word, entering language-use roughly around the 13th century, a hundred years or so after penitence, thus, I think, remarkably, revealingly indicating a secondary, necessary enhancement of meaning) signifies my attempt to alter my behavior; no longer leaving undone things that I ought to have done and no longer doing things that I ought not to have done.[1]

By way of simplistic, yet concrete clarifying example…

I step on your foot (whether my act is careless or deliberate, your pain is the same).

You: Ouch!

Me: I’m sorry!

Later, I step on your foot.

You: Ouch!

Me: I’m sorry!

I, at still another subsequent moment, step on your foot.

You: Ouch!

Me: I’m sorry!

You: Paul, I appreciate your penitence, but what I really desire and need is your repentance.

Penitence and repentance. The difference between “I’m going to do better” and doing better.

 

Footnote:

[1] A paraphrase of the Confession of Sin, Morning Prayer: Rite I, The Book of Common Prayer, pages 41-42

a little BIG thing

Another hot and humid South Carolina day…

I stood, more or less (more, I confess, less) patiently, in a line at the store; my cart half-filled. The air-conditioning system on the blink (really?) offered no respite from the sweltering weather.

Before me, a young black man, a can of soda in his hand; his pants slung low, exposing more (too much more!) than the waistband of his brightly-colored boxer shorts, his tank top at least two sizes too large, hanging loosely from his narrow shoulders.

Before him, an older, portly white man, his suspendered trousers high on his waist, with two carts, each a psalmic “cup running over” with groceries.

“What a contrast in age, race, and style,” I thought to myself, that is, when I wasn’t grumbling about the heat and the length of the line moving at the pace of a geriatric arthritic tortoise.

Finally, we neared check-out.

The older gentleman turned to the young man behind him, looking up-and-down, his countenance quizzical (I imagined: curious? disdainful?). “My dear young sir,” he said, his Southern drawl molasses-thick, “you only have one item. You go ahead of me.” I couldn’t see the young man’s face, but I heard his voice, his tone registering surprise. “Thanks. Appreciate it.”

America’s tenaciously long-lived racial divide wasn’t healed. Nor the ill of ageism overcome. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help myself. Spontaneously, I smiled. This little act, both in the giving and in the receiving, in a big way, fortified my hope, my trust that, in a world and time of increasing anxiety and anger, particularly in the public square and directed at “the other”, civility lives.

the penance of penitence

thinking

I closed my most recent blog post (February 21, 2017: to bear or not to bear) with these words – Lent is my life…My life is Lent – by which I meant that the penitential character of this annual pre-Easter season resounds within my soul, boring down to the core of my viscera. Since then, I’ve been given, called by some inner urging to ponder why. Today, reflecting on some aspects of my life that I believe I have known and some new insights, which arose as I pushed, punished myself through at least one sleepless night to discern something, anything new, I write…

I was raised in a household encompassed about by the expanse and limitations of American history (true, of course, for any person or family, though each and all, by necessity, I think, need define the nature and range of each)…

lolita-william-c-1940

My father, William John Abernathy, discouraged by a society and his family, each and both constrained by racism, to pursue his dream of becoming a mathematician (as he was possessed of a highly analytical mind), for the sake of providing for his family, settled for being a postal clerk. Moreover, his father, my paternal grandfather, Pedro Silva, was Cuban; that identification, evidenced outwardly in my father’s dark complexion and straight black hair added to his exclusion from circles white and black. My father lived a frustrated, melancholy, and angry life; his essential and volatile ire fueled by his alcoholism (also a symptom of his essential ire). He also was a deeply religious man, given to daily Bible study and prayer (his pietism and alcoholism being, for me, two contrary dimensions of existence that were difficult, well-nigh impossible for me, as a child, to comprehend; though, as an adult, I can conceive and, in my own life, perceive a similar discomfiting coalescence of contradictory elements of human ontology)…

My mother, Clara Lolita Roberts, raised in an austere Baptist household, a schoolteacher by vocation and by avocation, under the strict tutelage of her mother, my grandmother, Audia Hoard Roberts, always to be a saint-on-earth-in-training, was, in her quiet and reserved, but no less demonstrative way, a puritanical disciplinarian.

To these two folk, I was born. Each, in his and her abiding care and near constant reminders that I be upright in my behavior, my doing (though, in my view, much less, indeed, seemingly little concerned for who  I was, my being) held for me a certain awe, in reverence and in fear.

My father, raised a Methodist, and my mother, believing the adage that “a family that prays together stays together”, determined that the Episcopal Church, with its ordered liturgy built on a biblical foundation, was a fair, middle-way compromise.[1] All Saints’, St. Louis, was our parish home; during my youth, a vibrant community and the largest African American Episcopal Church west of the Mississippi River. There, I was tutored in The Book of Common Prayer 1928, through which I was steeped in the annual custom of a 70-not-40-day Lenten season beginning not on Ash Wednesday, but including the three prior Sundays of Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima,[2] by which, my parents having instilled in me that I was defined by my good-doing (which never would amount to enough that I might become good), I found an oddly discomfiting solace, indeed, likeness. Penitence was my life. My life was penitence.

soren-aabye-kierkegaard-unfinished-sketch-by-his-cousin-niels-christian-kierkegaard-c-1840

As I reflect, long possessed of (by!) a brooding spirit, it is little surprise to me that I, seeking to see and to know myself as a self, gravitated toward the discipline of existentialism with its central concern for the meaning of existence and its core questions of identity (Who am I?) and destiny (Where am I going?). It surprises me less that, in my ongoing pilgrimage toward my understanding of life and myself, one of my chosen companions, verily, champions is Søren Kierkegaard;[3] philosopher, poet, theologian, considered the Father of Existentialism (and, along with Hamlet, a melancholy Dane!) whose life’s vocation was his apprehension of individual truth and whose life’s journey was that of always becoming a Christian.

I am a follower of Jesus through the story of his life and ministry, death and resurrection. A story made my own, revealed to me and incarnate in me through the presence of God’s Holy Spirit. A story I daily strive and fail to live fully, for which I am grateful for the grace of the correction and the consolation of penitence.

 

Illustration: Søren Aabye Kierkegaard, unfinished sketch by his cousin, Niels Christian Kierkegaard, c. 1840

Footnotes:

[1] Earlier and during my parent’s era, The Episcopal Church, historically the church of many of America’s “founding fathers”, also for some middle class (both aspiring and having arrived) black folk was “a destination church” (long before that term became popular to describe a religious community’s raison d’être to fill a particular cultural/societal or theological/liturgical niche).

[2] Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima, derived from the Latin meaning “seventieth”, “sixtieth”, and “fiftieth”, respectively, were the names given to the Sundays coming seventy, sixty, and fifty days before Easter Day. Because of this, for most, esoteric knowledge, I recall handily winning an elementary school Spelling Bee when the final word was Quinquagesima!

[3] Søren Aabye Kierkegaard (1813-1855)