renewal (or what I, as a Christian, have learned by honoring my religious Jewish roots)

Yesterday, at sundown, the sounding of the shofar signaled Rosh Hashanah, literally head of the year; to be followed, at sunset on Friday, September 29, by Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The central themes of these annual High Holy Days of Judaism are repentance for the sins, personal and communal, of the past year and reconciliation with God, others, and one’s self.

As a Christian, I long have acknowledged my eternal debt to Judaism from whence cometh Jesus of Nazareth.[1] And, o’er the years, reflecting on the High Holy Days, I have become profoundly aware, perhaps even more than through the Christian penitential season of Lent, of my constant need for spiritual and ethical renewal so to love God, others, and myself more faithfully, freely, fully. Moreover, I have come to understand that renewal is elemental to all relationships and chiefly expressed in mutual responsibility, literally the response-ability to act benevolently one with another.

This came to mind during my morning’s Bible study. I’ve been rereading the Book of Exodus; today, one of many encounters between God and Moses.[2]

Moses at Mount Sinai (1655), Jacques de Létin (1597-1661)

For forty days and nights, Moses was on Mount Sinai listening to God and receiving the Commandments. The people, growing anxious in the absence of Moses, appealed to Aaron, Moses’ brother and spokesperson, to make a visible symbol of the divine presence to comfort them. A golden calf was fashioned.

The Adoration of the Golden Calf (1633-1634), Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665)

How easily, I believe, humans become confused, attaching their affections to a symbol and not the reality to which it points. And God, in anger, disowned the people, referring to them in speaking to Moses as “your people”, and deciding to destroy them.

In this harrowing moment, the response-ability of God and Moses was mightily manifest. God, the Almighty Judge, didn’t act against the people without first telling Moses. Moses didn’t leave the mountain at God’s command, but remained as an attorney for the defense; yet neither explaining nor excusing the people’s actions, but rather reminding God of who God is: “Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel…”

Moses reminded God that God, beginning with Abraham, made a people and when that people fell captive in Egypt, God sent Moses to save them and, in saving them, proving that God makes and keeps promises to God’s people. God, being reminded, recanted, revising the divine plan of action.

God and Moses, in their faithful exercise of mutual responsibility, were renewed; each and both. God in remembrance of the divine identity as Liberator and Moses in his re-awareness of his vocation as God’s instrument of liberation.

Taking this personally, I am led to see afresh how I, as human, oft, when anxious and confused, take my thoughts and feelings, my desires and needs and, making them supreme, fashion them into my gods. Not if, but whenever this happens I cannot fail to note how unbenevolent I become toward others, verily, toward my truest self, and, thus, need renewal – always and in all ways.

 

Illustrations:

Moses at Mount Sinai (1655), Jacques de Létin (1597-1661)

The Adoration of the Golden Calf (1633-1634), Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665)

Footnotes:

[1] Without Judaism, there is no Christianity. For this reason, I believe that for a Christian to be anti-Semitic is a malevolent expression of self-hatred.

[2] Exodus 32.7-14 (my emphases): The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely. They have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them. They have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshipped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’” The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.” But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’” And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

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Dear Sarah

Sarah Cobb is one of the brightest, most earnest, impassioned, and forthright people I, for the past nearly 20 years, have had the privilege of knowing and calling my friend. Sarah is Jewish. She is more than a friend and Jewish or a friend who is Jewish. Sarah, from time to time, serves as…is my external righteous conscience, especially about Christianity’s attitude toward Judaism; in my view, at times, in some lands, and in some sectors of Christendom, rising to the heights or, more accurately, sinking to the depths of antipathy and, historically, largely, I think, characterized by the lethargy of indifference (save, of course, among those Christian evangelists who discern that their primary vocation is to convert all Jews to Christianity).

Over the past few days, Sarah’s various reflections on the so-called “Unite the Right” rally and ensuing violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, have centered on her searing observation that a particularly putrid element of the platform of white supremacy is blatantly anti-Semitic (who, watching and listening to the news accounts, could have missed the out-in-the-open bearing of the swastika-festooned Nazi flag and the ferociously, transparently intentioned chant of the neo-Nazi demonstrators: “You will not replace us! Jews will not replace us!”?) and her eloquent remonstrations about Christians who, at best, have been slow and, at most, have been silent in their, our, my repudiations of the virulent and vile hatred that is anti-Semitism.

Dear Sarah,

I thank you, once again, for reminding me, summoning me to this aspect of my sacred duty as a Christian, as a follower of the Jesus of unconditional love and justice, to denounce any and all anti-Semitic prejudicial hatred and hostility against my Jewish sisters and brothers and in any and all of its forms, cultural and economic, racial and religious.

As one who wills to do, to be unconditional love and justice, yes, I pray that those who harbor anti-Semitic beliefs repent and renounce them. Yet, whether they do or do not, I will not be silent or slow to speak again in opposition to anti-Semitism.

One final word, Sarah, for now…

I do not excuse, but rather explain my silence or slowness to speak. What happened in Charlottesville terrified me. And, in my fear, I, as an African American, perhaps barely consciously, narrowed my vision, focused my passion primarily, solely on the issue, the reality of white-over-black supremacy. Anxiety, I feel, always stirs the fires of individual (and often selfish) self-interest. Hence, I thank you again, Sarah, for you, in your reminder, your summons to me, illumine and compel me to see anew something I already know. Enlightened, indeed, truest human self-interest embraces the sanctity and the safety of all people.

With deepest love and highest respect,

Paul

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)