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.

my Momma: a portrait of a lady – a personal reflection on the occasion of her death

Clara Lolita Roberts AbernathyClara Lolita Roberts Abernathy (December 10, 1915-January 13, 2015) was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the first of two daughters of James Henry Roberts and Audia Mae Hoard Roberts. A few years after the birth of her sister, Evelyn, in November 1920, the Roberts family moved to St. Louis where they joined First Baptist Church.

From her earliest days known by her middle name, Lolita was educated in the St. Louis public school system, graduating from Charles Sumner High School in 1932; three years later, receiving her diploma as a certified music teacher from Kroger School of Music, then, within two years, a Bachelor of Arts degree from Stowe Teachers College.

On March 23, 1943, Lolita married William John Abernathy. To their union, my brother Wayne and I were born. A great sadness of my mother’s life was Wayne’s death in March 1995. A bit more than a year later in April 1996, her grief deepened immeasurably with the death of her beloved Bill.

Lolita was an educator, devoting the whole of her vocational life as an elementary school teacher in the St. Louis public school system. The church was the other major center of her life’s labor. She was a pianist at First Baptist Church and, teaching herself to play the organ, she became the youngest choir accompanist. Shortly after her marriage to Bill, they forged a compromise between her Baptist and his Methodist roots, joining All Saints’ Episcopal Church.

Lolita possessed a warm and welcoming spirit. Though soft-spoken and self-effacing, she was quick of wit, with a charming smile and an engaging lyrical laugh. A gracious host and a grand chef, her kitchen was the origin of varied epicurean delicacies, her oven producing many baked delights. A beautiful mezzo-soprano, Lolita, as she was wont to say (so typical of her penchant for diffidence), “was graced for choral, not solo singing.” Although her voice is stilled, long before by the inexorable encroachments of Alzheimer’s disease and now death, the glory of her life’s melody of love and laughter shall linger as impassioned breath in the heart of my soul.