you’re in good hands with All…

(not state,[1] but rather) Souls – a personal reflection post-All Souls’ Day, November 2, 2017

In this recent annual 3-day cycle of All Hallow’s Eve (better known in common parlance as Halloween), All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day, I, as a Christian – and without the slightest disparagement of any other faith tradition or spiritual custom – have been put greatly in mind of those, commemorated by this last observance, who have died in the faith of Jesus as Lord.

O’er two millennia, some of these, whom Revelation refers to as having “died in the Lord”,[2] verily, a tiny few, are personally known to me and a few more only by historical record and reputation, and, clearly, most not at all. Nevertheless, perhaps it is my daily increasing awareness of my aging and, thus, my mortality that sharpens my focus on the inexorable journey’s end of all who dwell in this world: death. In this deepening recognition, the Spirit of God floods, as life’s blood, my heart with these words: Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.[3]

This late 1st century writer, seeking to bolster the determination and dedication of Christians living in Jerusalem and under persecution, recalls the examples of those, Hebrew heroes and heroines, who lived and died with faith, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”[4] – among them, Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Joseph, Moses, the Israelites in their exodus from Egyptian captivity and their trek to the Promised Land, the judges, David, and Samuel. As the ongoing arc of the epistle extends through and beyond any given historical era and as long as time in this world lasts, it is reasonable, indeed, a testament of conviction to expand and include in the “great cloud of witnesses” all who lived and died in faith.

saints (a great cloud of witnesses), Fra Angelico (1395-1455)

I find this a momentous thought – one that grants me the comfort of encouragement, especially in moments of trial and tribulation when life’s only surety seems to be (and, as it seems, so it is) struggle – that all who have gone before me:

  • wait for my eventual arrival that where they dwell in light eternal, there I will be and
  • watch me in my life’s journey and
  • watch over me, fretting over my failures and praying for my progress and, in all things,
  • willing me to carry on!

 

Illustration: Saints, Fra Angelico (1395-1455)

Footnotes:

[1] Since the 1950s, You’re in good hands with Allstate has been that insurance company’s reigning slogan expressing a commitment to customers’ wellbeing.

[2] Revelation 14.13

[3] The Epistle to the Hebrews 12.1-2a

[4] Hebrews 11.1

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today and every day, I remember…

a personal reflection for All Souls’ Day,[1] November 2, 2017

cemetery - church

For all the saints who from their labors rest,

Who Thee by faith before the world confessed,

Thy name, O Jesus, be forever blest,

Alleluia! Alleluia![2]

Today and every day, I remember with gratitude, O God, alway to You…

my mother Lolita and my father William through whose loving union You granted unto me the gracious gift of life in this world…

my mother through whose unassailable forbearance, You granted unto me the inestimable gift of the revelation of unflagging faith come what may, come whene’er, come howe’er…

my father through whose fiery temperament and his paradoxically simultaneous acknowledgement and disregard for the odds against him, You granted unto me the discomfiting gift of an abiding intestinal impatience with injustice…

my brother Wayne through whose abundant compassion for all in travail, especially the disenfranchised, the least and the last, and his indomitable courage in the face of his own tribulation unto his dying day, You granted unto me the splendid gift of the vision of the noblest humanity of Your Son Jesus.

Almighty God, with whom still live the spirits of those who die in the Lord, and with whom the souls of the faithful are in joy and felicity: (I) give you heartfelt thanks for the good examples of all your servants, (especially, on this day, my parents and my brother) who, having finished their course in faith, now find rest and refreshment. May (I), with (them and) all who have died in the faith of your holy Name, have perfect fulfillment and bliss in your eternal and everlasting glory; through Jesus Christ (my) Lord. Amen.[3]

 

Footnotes:

[1] All Souls’ Day, also known as the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed, following All Saints’ Day (November 1), since the 11th century, has been a part of the Western Christian calendar of observances.

[2] Words by William Walsham How (1823-1897)

[3] The Book of Common Prayer, page 503 (my emendations)

for all the saints

a personal and biblical reflection for All Saints’ Day, November 1, 2017, based on Isaiah 25.6-9 and Revelation 21.1-6a.

All Saints, Albrecht Durer, 1511

Lord, I want to be a Christian in my heart,

In my heart, in my heart.

Lord, I want to be a Christian in my heart.[1]

But Lord, it’s hard to be a Christian!

And why wouldn’t that be so? For it’s hard to be a person. Everyone, no matter our family of origin and upbringing, our nature and nurture, believes something. And every one of us, living in a world of every other one of us, from time to time, rubs shoulders, at times, exchanges sharp elbows with those who believe differently.

So, yes, it’s hard, speaking for myself, to be a Christian in my heart; loving unconditionally all people. Yet, this I know for the Bible tells me so.

Isaiah paints a lofty vision. A mountaintop banquet prepared for the hungry. Tears dried forevermore from cheerless eyes. This is a vision for the disenchanted, the disenfranchised. For what is another table of food and wine for the overfed or the hand of solace to those who have never wept? Yet, who among us, even with bellies full, cannot admit to spaces of the emptiness within us? Who among us, even in the most balled-fist courage in difficulty’s face, does not cry out for comfort and release? This, then, is a vision for all! A vision of salvation. From the Latin, salvus. Wholeness. The healing that comes only in the acknowledgement of brokenness. Brokenness that each of us shares with all people, for all people are broken.

Isaiah issues a clarion call and Revelation resoundingly replies with another portrayal of salvation so all-encompassing (heaven, earth, sea) that all is gathered up (mourning, crying, dying) and life is made new in a city, the gates of which are open to all people.

Isaiah and Revelation together help me see what All Saints’ Day is.

Since the 10th century, Western Christendom has set aside November 1 to honor all those through the ages who claim Christ as Lord. Yet, throughout Christianity’s history and surely in this era, there has been and is fighting and dying, crying and mourning all in the name of partisan ideologies, divisive and exclusive theologies.

So, today, I, with an inclusive eye, behold All Saints’ Day as a celebration for all who follow the Way[2] of Jesus. All who claim love as their chiefest value. All who confess their brokenness, their inability always to love all. All who, in their brokenness, cry for salvation – not freedom from self, but freedom to be self fully, faithfully. Freedom to live, not in the absence of death, but in its very midst. For only those who can, who will claim their own wholeness – the feasting and the hungering, the laughing and the crying, the living and the dying that we each do every day – can know salvation and, thus, can dare share it with others, even those with whom we, from time to time, rub shoulders and, at times, exchange sharp elbows.

 

Illustration: All Saints, Albrecht Durer, 1511

Footnotes:

[1] From the traditional Negro spiritual, Lord, I want to be a Christian.

[2] A reference to Acts 9.2, “the way” being the designation for the earliest followers of Jesus before they became known as Christians (see Acts 11.26); a designation that inferred more a way of life, a way of being than an intellectual assent or adherence to an ideology or theology.

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.

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)