a death of my unconscious

My friend Melinda McDonald, reading my post of yesterday, a World AIDS Day tribute (reposted from December 1, 2016), really, a poem in commemoration of my brother Wayne and his courageous facing of his dying and death at the insidious hand of AIDS, wrote to me, in part: How you have been formed in the refining fires of love and loss and grief. These are what make us what we are, hopefully better and more pure of heart.

On this morning’s reflection, I realize that I read her words as a question – How have you been formed in the refining fires of love and loss and grief? – and recognize the irony that Melinda’s comment stirred and brought to light (to life?) something, a thought, an idea that, doubtless, for some time, since Wayne’s death in 1995, had lain in the recesses of my unconscious. That is, what happens after people die; not only to them, but for those who live on?(1)

I responded to Melinda, writing (again, now it is clear to me something I had been pondering unawares, but now, due to her gracious word, has died to my unconscious, flowering fully in the light and life of my consciousness): Wayne’s death has taught me that grief – though, yes, there are stages – has no end. I will mourn his death until I die. Something else I believe I have learned… I used to think that when a person died s/he remained frozen in time (that is, as s/he was at the time of death) in the memories of living loved ones. In Wayne’s case, I, amazingly, have discerned that he has continued to be and to become – perhaps, yes, as I would have imagined and envisioned his development; nevertheless, o’er the years, I have heard him speaking to me of things in my ongoing experience. Perhaps, for me, this is proof, tho’, by faith, I need it not, of the life everlasting.

Thank you, Melinda. Thank you, Wayne. Thank you, God.

Wayne & me

Footnote:

(1) In this, I think of the Apostle Paul’s grand assurance to the living both about those who have died and those who live on: We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord for ever. Therefore encourage one another with these words (1 Thessalonians 4.13-18).

Photograph: Wayne and me, c. 1956/7

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a prayer for a breezy, chilly, bluesy Wednesday

Lord, my body’s weary, but I didn’t sleep well last night or the night before last night or the night before the night before last night. Rather, hour after hour, through teary eyes, I stared above, watching ambient light dance across the ceiling, but really, trying to see…trying to find You…

For my weariness and teariness, Lord, are conditions, disorders, now, seemingly chronic, begotten of my feeling about, fretting over situations in this world. This world that Your Father made and gave into human care. This world that Your Father sent You to save. This world, it’s clear to me, for which we humans have not cared very well. This world where it’s sometimes unclear to me where I must look (having longed, yet failed) to see evidences of Your salvation.

This past Sunday, Lord (though I know You know), twenty-six of Your disciples, gathered in Your Name, were shot to death, half of them children, Lord, and twenty more wounded. I remember Your word about those Galileans who, when offering ritual sacrifice to Your Father, were slain on the order of Pontius Pilate.[1] So, yes, Lord, I know that to gather in worship, whether in a Baptist church in Texas, the temple in Jerusalem, or anywhere is no bulwark of safety from violence wrought by human will, whether at the hand of a lone gunman, at the point of a soldier’s spear, or by any other means. Yet, Lord, their murders, any murders, all murders grieve my soul.

So, today, Lord, after sleepless Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday nights, on this breezy, chilly, bluesy Wednesday, I, weary and teary, feeling…being lost, am trying to find You. Yet, Lord, even…especially amid my weariness and teariness, I have faith in You and Your Love. I remember Your parable about having a hundred sheep, losing one, and leaving the ninety-nine to go in search for that wandering one.[2] Lord, I’ve often wondered about this. It doesn’t make sense to me for You to do that. But, then again, my faith doesn’t make sense, for it (as is true of its object; that’d be You, Lord!) is beyond the fullest, even faintest comprehension of my reason. So, Lord, though it makes no sense, in faith in You and Your Love, please, I pray You, come find me.

Amen.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Luke 13.1

[2] Luke 15.3-7

the politicization of death

On October 4, 2017, Staff Sergeant Bryan Black, Staff Sergeant Jeremiah Johnson, Sergeant La David Johnson, and Staff Sergeant Dustin Wright, members of a 12-man unit on routine patrol in Niger, were ambushed and killed by a larger force of ISIS militants.

This past week, we have borne witness to what I consider the sordid politicization of death.

First, believing no two people ever mean the same thing when employing the same words and, thus, as the firmest believer in the necessity of defining one’s terms, I digress.

Politicization, in my lexicon, is the act or process of becoming politically conscious. Here, I understand “politically” in the primary sense, derived from the Greek polis (city) and, broadly applied, the human community (which is as expansive – locally, regionally, nationally, globally – as one’s imagination allows). Thus, to be politicized is to be aware and to practice with effective, respectful care the art of human relationships.

In the clutch of human selfish self-interest, politicization can be distorted. An example: One’s negative description and definition of the word or action (or unspoken word or untaken action) of another so to depict, so to diminish that person as lacking in character or virtue or falling short of accepted ethical norms.

This, for me, is when politicization is made sordid. This is what we witnessed this past week.

President Donald Trump telephoned Mrs. Myeshia Johnson, wife of Sergeant La David Johnson, to express his condolences and those of a grateful nation, saying, in part, as it has been reported, “He knew what he signed up for, but it still hurts.” U.S. Congresswoman Frederica Wilson of Florida and a friend of the Johnson family criticized Mr. Trump as lacking empathy. Mr. Trump defended himself, denying Representative Wilson’s characterization.

I am no fan of Donald Trump. I consider him zealously egoistic and injudicious in speech and action, at times, dangerously, given his role and responsibilities. (However, I am not one who claims, “He’s not my President.” I am an American. Mr. Trump is the American president. Therefore, he is my president.)

I also am less than sanguine about Representative Wilson’s public and repeated declarations of her discontent with the content of Mr. Trump’s words to Mrs. Johnson. For her criticisms, in my view, precipitated a furious round of point-and-counterpoint because of which the primary attention has been given to the politicization of death and not on the lives and legacies, the memories of and the memorials to the dead.

I never served in the military. In World War II, my father, William, served honorably in the army in the Philippines. Through his recounts of his experiences and his revelations of the scars he bore, some invisible, but no less abiding, I, at an early age, learned to honor the sacred sacrifice of all who wear the uniform and bear arms, whether near or far, to maintain the liberties Americans enjoy (though, yes, it must be confessed, imperfectly and unequally).

Thus, this day, I want to – I will – do nothing but pray:

O gracious God, Sovereign Source of all life, Supreme Solace for the dead, I pray You receive into Your nearest, dearest Presence in Your heavenly habitations the souls of Staff Sergeant Bryan Black, Staff Sergeant Jeremiah Johnson, Sergeant La David Johnson, and Staff Sergeant Dustin Wright: Heal their wounds, bind them fast and forever in Your peace. And, by the living breath of Your Spirit, comfort, come with strength upon the families and friends of these fallen brothers in arms, guiding them through the shadowy valleys of their grief with the grace of the light of Your everlasting love; through Jesus Christ. Amen.

predictable patterns?

On October 1, 2017, in another American mass shooting, 59 people were killed (one being the assailant from a self-inflicted gunshot wound) and over 500 injured. By the numbers, this is the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history.

Still, I think, I feel that all whose loved ones died last year in Orlando, Florida or in San Bernardino, California in 2015 or in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012 or in Blacksburg, Virginia in 2007 (or in any other incident in our ongoing national saga of mass violence), for as long as they grieve, which will be for as long as they live, may consider those the deadliest mass shootings.

Since Sunday, as in the instances of all mass shootings, I observe a predictable pattern; some, not all of the elements being…

Every one of us of goodwill, regardless of race or religion or no religion, class or culture, personal philosophy or opinion, decries the murders.

Some of us demand and some of us resist renewed efforts to enact tighter gun control laws; and, in this, some of us in either camp vilify the motives and the morals of some of those in the other.[1]

Still others of us contend that, for the sake of compassion for the mournful, the immediate aftermath of the tragedy is not the time to engage in political combat.

And, inevitably, all of us who live will “get on with it”, going back to living our lives as we have known them, that is, until the next mass shooting.

However, on this last score, something for me, something in me has changed. Perhaps it is because, as I age, I find myself more attuned to and pained by our human trials and tribulations, worries and woes, sufferings and sorrows. Yes, mine own, yet, even more, those of others, all others.[2] Thus, though I will “get on with it”, I won’t, can’t get over it.

What I think, feel, believe this means for me is that my awareness of human mortality and life’s fragility, suddenly, shockingly, sickeningly renewed this past Sunday, will not, will never fade…

What this means is that I, every day, will be more conscious that all of us are mortal, we will die, and that all of us are fragile, our lives, whether by natural calamity or human violence, accident or disease, can be tragically transformed in an instant…

What this means is that I pledge to live with more intention than I ever dared to dream…

And, on this feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, I can think of no greater, grander guide than to live my life in the conscious keeping of the prayer attributed to him:

Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace!

That where there is hatred, I may bring love.

That where there is wrong, I may bring the spirit of forgiveness.

That where there is discord, I may bring harmony.

That where there is error, I may bring truth.

That where there is doubt, I may bring faith.

That where there is despair, I may bring hope.

That where there are shadows, I may bring light.

That where there is sadness, I may bring joy.

Lord, grant that I may seek rather to comfort, than to be comforted.

To understand, than to be understood.

To love, than to be loved.

For it is by self-forgetting that one finds.

It is by forgiving that one is forgiven.

It is by dying that one awakens to Eternal Life.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Here, I think, in political terms, it has become all too facile to cast Democrats as gun control advocates and Republicans as gun rights activists. For it seems to me that either the stance of gun control or that of the Second Amendment “right of the people to keep and bear Arms” is not the sole interest or desire of any party or persuasion. Indeed, I have been surprised, which, confessedly, reveals more about my biases and assumptions, when discovering that a friend, an avid hunter and combat veteran, is a longtime believer in strict gun laws and another friend, who has never owned or desired to own a gun, is a staunch supporter of individual gun rights.

[2] I wrote about this in a previous blog post, continuing becoming… (August 30, 2017).

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.

Charles Carrington Herbert, Sr.

Yesterday, at Epiphany Church, Laurens, SC, where I am privileged to serve as priest-in-charge, part-time, I was honored to preside at the funeral of Charles Carrington Herbert, Sr. (March 14, 1922-August 11, 2016), with his wife Mary long-lived members of Epiphany and the greater Laurens community.

In part because of my vocation as a priest and pastor and in part because of my passionate respect for life and mortality, the death of anyone at any time through any cause always provokes in me the deepest reflection, pondering anew the inevitability of life’s end and, thus, life’s meaning.

I this spirit, I share the text of the homily I preached yesterday.

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In this life, I have noticed the occurrence, rather frequent when I am observant, of coincidences; moments when time in space and infinity coincide. Or what Celtic spirituality refers to as “thin places” of minimal separation between earthly and eternal realities, when one can experience, as the Apostle Paul commends, “the peace of God that surpasses all understanding.”[1]

Such was my experience, many times over, these past few days and much of it related to Carrington Herbert.

First, Jane, you called advising me of your father’s downturn in health. Near the end of our conversation, you asked, “Have you visited my parents?” “No,” I said, “it’s on my list of ‘to-dos’.” Then I added, “Given what you’ve shared, I may need to accelerate my timing.” You gently replied, “Yes, you might want to do that.” Your kindly honest urgency was, for me, a thin place of a divine summons uttered through a human voice compelling me to act.

And Jane, when I met you and blessed Mary this past Sunday here at Epiphany, I happily could report to you that I had made plans to go out to the farm that coming, now this past Tuesday. And the entirety of that time in space was, for me, an experience out of time in space and, therefore, a thin place.

There, in that historic 19th century home, all of the materials of construction, Carrington proudly telling me, borne by the land, I sat at his bedside. I didn’t say much. Not because I couldn’t. Yes, Carrington was quite voluble as I was advised, as I was warned he would be. Yet, though quite garrulous myself, I didn’t want to talk, but only to listen to Carrington tell me, with humor and candor, among many things, about growing up, about meeting Mary, about serving in the military, about coming home in one piece “with all my parts in the right places,” he said, thus able to fulfill his pre-war promise of marrying his Mary, with whom, after seventy years, he added, “I’m still in love,” about having children and a growing family, by each and all of whom he was deeply blessed and for whom he was richly proud.

Carrington also spoke with fondness about the Episcopal Church in general and about Epiphany Church in particular, about the history and the building, which he had a large hand in bringing to life, about the people, “good people,” he said, “some gone” (always the probability, I thought, when one lives long and, thus, outlives others), “many still here,” about the clergy, “a few good,” he smiled, “and others…” his voice trailed off, the clarity of his less than enthusiastic opinion needing not the clutter of more words.

He looked at me, “I hear you’re pretty good,” I blushed, “so I’m glad we met.” In that word, “met,” I heard in his voice a wistful air, like a breath from a thin place, longing for more time, yet at peace in knowing, accepting the unlikelihood of that prospect. A peace that was confirmed as I listened to you, Bill, talk with your father of a moment about a year ago when he was near dying, both of you speaking of “the peace of God that surpasses all understanding,” for, as it is of God, we neither can conceive it nor can we create it, but we can receive it and, in our reception of God’s gracious gift, relish it.

Carrington and I made a date for another visit. It was to be this coming Tuesday. He may have known something, for, this past Tuesday, as I was leaving, he called me back to give me a list of the things he wanted to talk about when we met again, then saying, repeatedly, “I’ve had a good life.” That, I believe, is as fitting and as faithful a closing word to this world as there can be before passing through that thin place to the fullness of eternity.

So, as we have gathered to commemorate and to celebrate a great life and our great God, in the words of Paul, let us: Rejoice in the Lord always…The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything…And the peace of God surpassing all understanding will guard our hearts and our minds in Christ Jesus.[2]

 

Footnotes:

[1] Philippians 4.7

[2] Philippians 4.4, 5b-7, amended and paraphrased

God or god? (part 2 of 2)

David Hume, 18th century Scottish philosopher, historian, economist, and essayist, staring unblinkingly into the face of evil, speculated about the nature of God (in my view, rearticulating the psalmist’s ardent plea: “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?”): “Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence evil?”[1]

American poet and writer Archibald MacLeish breathed new life into this ancient and abiding protest, placing this tart riposte on the lips of a character in one of his plays, a modernist retelling of the Bible’s story of Job: “If God is God He is not good. If God is good He is not God.”[2]

I treasure these words of zealous uncertainty about the existence of God, and, if not that, then the benevolence of God. As a lifelong inveterate inquirer with a deep-seated streak of iconoclasm, I have faith in (I hasten to write, not disbelief or mistrust, but rather) doubt. Doubt is a companion of my faith, allowing, encouraging me to question and question again the validity of the truths of God I hold dear. And nothing, absolutely nothing stirs my impassioned, angst-ridden wonderment more or at all than evidences of incarnate evil; gazing steadily, like Hume, in the contorted face of which I join the sorrowing song of the psalmist: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?[3]

In this, I am comforted by the psalmist’s rediscovery of faith; in the shadows of the ills of evil, sounding, singing a righteous “Nevertheless!”:

Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel.

In you, our ancestors trusted.

They trusted and you delivered them.

To you they cried, and were saved.

In you they trusted and were not put to shame.[4]

For me and my faith, God’s deliverance is not, cannot be found in freedom from want and need, suffering and sorrow, no matter how earnestly, sometimes desperately we yearn for it; at least not in this life in this world where mortality is an ineluctable reality. Rather I see God’s salvation whenever I, in the words of the hymn, “survey the wondrous cross on which the Prince of glory died.”[5] For me and my faith, Jesus’ crucifixion and death is both God’s response to my and the psalmist’s cry – “I am with you always and, in life and in death, in all ways” – and God’s rejoinder to evil – “You can kill me, but you cannot defeat me, for nothing can conquer unconditional love.”

Deo gratias.

 

Footnotes:

[1] From Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779) by David Hume (1711-1776)

[2] The character Nickles in J.B.: A Play in Verse (1959) by Archibald MacLeish (1892-1982)

[3] Psalm 22.1a

[4] Psalm 22.3-5

[5] Words (1707) by Isaac Watts (1674-1748)