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 Staff Sargent 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.

Advertisements

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.

+

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)

God or god? (part 1 of 2)

My daily starting, mid, and ending point: I am a Christian believer. I ascribe to a faith, a conviction about, a confidence in the existence of a God as revealed in the life and ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus. As I read and reflect on Jesus’ story as recorded in the Bible’s gospel accounts, as I believe in Jesus, I behold in him the incarnation, the embodiment in space and time, the enfleshment in human life of divine love and justice, unconditional generosity and equality.

On most days, my faith holds together, makes sense to me and holds me together, allowing, encouraging me to act with love and justice toward all around me. (As human, I confess that I am limited by my perceptions and perspectives, my preferences and prejudices; how I view, understand, and respond to others and things. In this, my love and justice, even at my best, are provisional, falling short of the perfect impartiality of my God.)

By “on most days,” I mean that I can hold, sometimes in anguished tension, this world’s lights and shadows, joys and sorrows (or perhaps, truth to tell, I maintain this equilibrium largely less by conscious attention to life’s dichotomies and rather by focusing on whatever is before me, momentarily mindless of the ongoing cosmic clash between good and evil), so to remain upright and moving forward in seeking to do love and justice, in striving to be loving and just.

Then comes a day that disrupts, destroys my balance, painfully reminding me anew of life’s fragility and the friability of my equipose.

Sunday, June 12, was such a day in Orlando, Florida, and swiftly around the world. A person, driven by animus toward the LGBTQIA community and, perhaps as now speculated by some, psych-social/psycho-sexual maladjustments, and, doubtless, motivations unnamed and unknown, even to himself, murdered 49 people, wounding another 53.

There have been other days like this. Many. Too many.[1] More, it seems to me, as I age. Or maybe in my aging I am more aware of our inescapable mortality, thus more alert to the stages, especially when accelerated by vicious acts of human hands, along our inexorable human pilgrimage from birth to death.

In my grief, my hurt, my anger, my helplessness, I cry out, borrowing the psalmist’s words of eloquent despair:[2]

My God, my God, why have you forsaken us?

Why are you so far from helping us, from the words of our groaning?

O my God, we cry by day, but you do not answer and by night, but find no rest.

My God, is it because you do not hear or care or because you are not there? Are you God (more or less), the creator and judger and reconciler of all – good and evil – things? Or are you god (more or less), a creature of human invention, a figment of human imagination?

 

Footnotes:

[1] I am especially mindful of the approaching June 17 one-year anniversary of the murders of nine people at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Charleston, SC, by a person acting out of a virulent, violent racism.

[2] Psalm 22.1-2

emancipation – a son’s reflection on his mother’s death

There are some things, discerned through my experience as a pastor, for years having paid attention to what people have told me about themselves, and as a person, for longer paying attention to what I’ve told myself about me, I’ve come to believe are true.

There are no perfect parents. (“Perfect” meaning to intuit and respond to every desire and need of children always in ways most fitting for individual development and fulfillment.)

There are no perfect children. (“Perfect” meaning to receive what is offered, both praise and discipline, with the openness of understanding, the obedience of acceptance.)

There are no children who arrive at adulthood (though, yes, one hopes, bearing many gifts and graces bestowed during formative years) without “holes in the soul” – those valleys of unfilled desire and need, things one wishes to have received, but were not, which, paradoxically, sometimes can appear as hills, mountains of things one did receive that one wishes not to have been given. All of which means that children as adults need come to terms with themselves – the fruits and failings, the lights and shadows of others, and how it all manifests itself in their being and living.

I am reminded of words of the song, You Are Not Alone, from Stephen Sondheim’s imaginative musical, Into the Woods, based on Grimm’s Fairy Tales:

People make mistakes,
Fathers,
Mothers.
People make mistakes…
Everybody makes one another’s terrible mistakes…
You decide what’s right.
You decide what’s good.

All of this comes to mind and heart two days after the death of my blessed mother Lolita. In my blog post, my Momma: a portrait of a lady – a personal reflection on the occasion of her death, I spoke of her as “soft-spoken and self-effacing…(with a) penchant for diffidence.” The blessing of my mother’s reticence was her genuine care for others. Truly, she was a practitioner of the adage that unless you can say something kind, please refrain from speaking. However, the blight of her quietude, being conflict-averse, was that she did not intervene to protect my brother and me from our father’s angry, at times, alcohol-fueled outbursts. O’er the years, I have come to understand my father’s melancholia and outrage rooted in his lack of vocational, indeed, life’s opportunities as an African American man of Cuban heritage born in 20th century’s first decade. Still, his manner of addressing his inner anguish left severe scars on my psyche, deepened by what I considered to be my mother’s silent collusion.

For much of my life, I have held in conscious awareness my bitterness about my upbringing and its sour fruit – my mistrust and, at times, my aversion to closeness with others. I also have labored long to overcome my angst, which has involved the discovery (and rediscoveries) that I cannot fill the holes in my soul with more work, more good deeds, more glasses of wine, more plates of food, or any other excesses indulged in the vain attempts to anesthetize my inner pain. I have learned to be wide-eyed, open-hearted, open-handed, that is to say, honest with myself so to confess: With help and, yes, hurt along the way, I, without blaming others, claim that I am who I am and will become who I will be.

Still, at the moment of my mother’s dying, I experienced emancipation. At her bedside, without conscious thought, I began to recite the prayers At Time of Death of my Episcopal Church tradition, sometimes referred to as Last Rites, which end:

Into your hands, O merciful Savior, I commend your servant Lolita. Acknowledge, I humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Receive her into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light.

Praying for her soul to be received, I had to let her go, which included forsaking all resentment. In that instant, forgiving her of everything, I sensed liberation from all past pain. The memory of my bitterness remains, but its sting, even a tingling ache is no more.

How can this be? I’m not sure. I must reflect at length and at depth. Will it last? I don’t know. I will discern as I go. What I, right now, do know is that I feel…I am free.