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).

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honesty

For the past few months or so, whilst approaching, then turning, now being 65 (and all the American societal associations that attend this historic age-marker), I’ve spent a goodly part of my daily morning meditations focusing, increasingly more than I have before, on my mortality. My reflections have been deepened by the July 17th first anniversary of the death of Tim Veney, my dearest male friend, truly my proverbial “brother from another mother”, who departed this life at the far-far-too-soon age of 66. Taken together, I, an inveterate existentialist, have been led to ask myself, more than I have before, that conventional question of identity: Who am I?

On the beneficial side, sensing an internal movement, I’m aware that I’m progressing farther along my personal pilgrimage of continuing to become my authentic, honest-to-goodness, honest-with-others, honest-to-God self. In this, I’ve also encountered disappointment with myself that I’m not better than I would like to be; indeed, that, by now, I’m not better than I already would have liked to have been. At times, when good health and God’s help seem, are beyond my grasp, I confess that my despair overwhelms my prayers.

Yesterday, Pat, an old (or rather I should, I’d better say long-lived) friend, called. She asked me to pray with her about a pressing concern. Being dear friends, I felt free to respond honestly. “I’m in a dark place,” adding, only somewhat in jest, channeling Voltaire, “God and I may not be on speaking terms today.” Pat, one of the most compassionate, discerning, and prayerful people I know, laughed and said, “I understand.” Then, without a hint of self-righteousness, she told me that when she’s in a similar place she prays with greater earnest. “I dare to face of my own disappointment, even disbelief, because it’s about me being honest, yes, with God, and with me.”

I thank my dear friend for her helpful, healing word. She, perhaps without intending it, reminded me that the risk of honesty is not in risking honesty or, at least, the risk of honesty doesn’t end once honesty is risked. Rather, it begins and remains. Even more, Pat reaffirmed for me that being honest, which, at times, rather paradoxically, feels like, is like dying, is one essential element of the truest living of continuing to become who I am meant to be, might be, can be.

presents of mind

Whenever I drive into town via Main Street, there he is sitting always on the same public bench. His wizened body swaddled in baggy trousers and a shirt as large as a tent, and long-sleeved, no matter the heat. By turns, he is calm, perfectly still, his arms folded across his chest, then agitated, flinching, fidgeting, running his hands through his silver mane. Oft I’ve wondered. Who are you? Why are you there? What are you doing?

He always catches my attention and, now, my imagination…

During last night’s waning moments (or was it in the small hours of this morning?), I dreamed about him, which really means, I think, that my unconscious had welcomed him, embraced him as a symbol of something both reflective and restless living (looming? lurking?) within me.

Having spent this day deep in reverie, I believe I know what that something is…

As of late, in the course of my nearly daily contemplation of aging and mortality, across my mind’s screen, I’ve beheld kaleidoscopic images of the faces of people I’ve known or, having lost touch (for a variety of reasons, uncontrollable circumstance and acts of commission and omission, some mutual, some not) people I used to know. Depending on the memory, when our last meeting and parting was pleasant, I am calmed by a spirit of serenity and when not, my soul is o’ershadowed by twin specters of discontent and lament that painfully afresh reveal, expose my flaws, my failings to have been the person I long wish I already was.

Either way, even, perhaps especially the latter, I accept these images as presents, gifts of my mind, which, when opened, compel me to remember, to reflect, and to repent. In this last, perhaps I, one day, before I die, will draw closer, will be closer to the image of God I’d like to see in me.

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

stuff

This past Sunday, my dearest friend, Tim Veney died. Since then, my nearly hourly musings have been flooded with fondest remembrances of him and, far more than usual, ruminations about my mortality and death. (Around the time I turned 50, I gave up my childhood-long notion that I was immortal, and then began to contemplate daily, not morbidly, but rather honestly, my aging and its inevitable end.)

Today, I’m thinking about stuff. Things. Earthly treasure.

Though I don’t think I have an overabundance of stuff, I do confess I have less than I sometimes want and far more than I ever need.

And looking at the 2015 revenues of the five largest self-storage operators in the United States, totaling $4.184 billion, clearly a lot of us have more stuff than our homes can hold!

And I remember when my father died and later when we moved my mother from the home they had lived in since March 1952, one of our primary tasks was emptying the house of their veritable mountains of stuff, much of it time-worn and outdated or broken and inoperable.

And the words of Jesus come to mind:

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.[1]

and…

Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?”[2]

I suppose that Jesus counsels we not worry about our lives because he knows we do. As mortals who dwell in time and space, we necessarily are concerned about material matters of the flesh, like our health, and our creature comforts, our stuff. I also suspect that Jesus bids we not worry as a way of advising that we not cling to our things and surely that we not find our self-worth and much less our salvation in them. Even more, his imperative word, “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well,”[3] is his prescription for his diagnosis of our dis-ease of worry. The cure for care about many things is to care for one thing – God’s kingdom and right relationship with God.

Tim

Tim, like all of us, had stuff, things, earthly treasure. Yet he also possessed (or was possessed by!) a joyousness of heart and a blithe buoyancy of spirit. Traveling through this life lightly, his stuff never defined him. Therefore, for me, Tim was a model of kingdom-living and I want to be like him.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Matthew 6.19-21

[2] Matthew 6.25-31

[3] Matthew 6.33