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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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).

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.

stigmata

This past week, I underwent surgery to correct longstanding, ever-worsening GI concerns. It was a success. I look forward to a future free of the past two year’s sudden, serial, severely debilitating intestinal attacks.

When Dr. Richard Rinehardt, as fine a person and as competent a surgeon as life occasions and skill provides, explained the procedure, I knew it would leave permanent marks. The day after, I wouldn’t look, choosing to forego immediate verification that this body I have inhabited for 60+ years, this body that I have watched mature along aging’s universal arc, overnight had been altered.

(I’m not vain. Well, not Muhammad Ali-vain, who, bless his puckish wit, once said, “I’m actually a pretty man. I’m not conceited, I’m just convinced!” Still, for much of my adult years, I wrestled with my body image, yo-yoing down and mostly up the scale. Recently, by some latter day biological accident or metabolic miracle, I find myself stabilized at the weight I carried during my college days 40+ years ago. Finally, I like and can live peaceably with the way I look.)

Tentatively, I ran my hands over my belly, stopping at each new protrusion and indentation. The next morning, I roused my courage to look…

My first thought. “This puts an end to my beach going days!” Then I laughed. The last time I publicly stripped to bare waist at water’s edge (or anywhere!) was far beyond my memory’s reach.

Then I thought of two dear friends, Loretta Woodward Veney and Leslie Ferguson (Fergie) Horvath, who, long having undergone major surgeries, have spoken with passion about their senses of their altered physical realities, each with a broadly expansive self-awareness and deeply grounded self-respect.

Then I thought of an article Fergie wrote last year for our local newspaper, Spartanburg (SC) Herald-Journal, Scars are Outward and Visible Signs of Life Changing Events, in which she writes with poignant eloquence of significant moments involving the risk of death and the possibility of life and her consciousness of her connection with Jesus who bore the painful scars of his crucifixion and death, truly signs of his life-giving love.

Then I thought of the Apostle Paul’s stirring testimony: “I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.”[1] The Greek, stigmata, also translated “wounds”, referred to the brand borne by slaves signifying the ancient deity to which they belonged. Paul, through the trials of his apostleship,[2] his flesh bearing the signs of his faithful service, declares his unassailable loyalty to Jesus, his Lord.

Verna Thomas McGehee’s poem, I Carry a Cross in My Pocket, attests, in part, “When I put my hand in my pocket…The Cross is there to remind me of the price He paid for me. It reminds me too, to be thankful for my blessings day by day and to strive to serve Him better in all that I do and say.”

I have been a Christian all of my life. As I review my history, I confess countless moments when I fell far short, in Richard of Chichester’s words, of seeing Jesus more clearly, loving him more dearly, following him more nearly day by day.[3]

My surgery reminds me afresh of my mortality. In this, I reaffirm that I have more life in this world behind than in front of me. In this, I resolve that every time I see my torso or run my hands over my belly, whether in naked privacy or in public secrecy through my clothes, I will remember that I am doulos, a servant, a slave of Christ.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Galatians 6.17

[2] In another epistle, Paul enumerates his tribulations, speaking of “greater labors…imprisonments…countless floggings, and often near death. Five times I have received…the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked. For a night and a day, I was adrift at sea. On frequent journeys, in danger from rivers…bandits…my own people…Gentiles…in the city… the wilderness…at sea…from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked” (2 Corinthians 11.23-27, abridged).

[3] Richard of Chichester (1197-1253).  A fuller text of his prayer:

Thanks be to Thee, my Lord Jesus Christ

For all the benefits Thou hast given me,

For all the pains and insults Thou hast borne for me.

O most merciful Redeemer, friend and brother,

May I know Thee more clearly,

Love Thee more dearly,

Follow Thee more nearly.

illimitable limitations: 3 philosophical ponderings on human mortality

On recent early mornings, I’ve felt an autumnal coolness in the air (though within spare hours, it’s gotten hot as the dickens!)…

butterfly - Clevedale.jpghummingbird-moth-clevedale

 

 

 

 

I’ve also noticed the butterflies and hummingbird moths that for weeks have flitted and fluttered around our bushes appear progressively fewer in number and in increasingly less moments during the day…

Both signal summer’s inevitable close, leading me to think about limits, verily, limitations. Human ones. My ones.

I am mortal. It occurs to me (no new thought, doubtlessly, others have considered it, but it’s new to me) that being aware of my end grants me the possibility of boundless freedom from the constraints of care and concern, worry and woe about this life (chiefly, these days, my anxieties provoked by November’s presidential election!). Yes, my life in this world and the fine company of those with whom I’m privileged to share this earthly pilgrimage are important to me. Very. Yet, as I am limited by death, this life will not always have me in it.

I am a thinker. My thoughts aren’t particularly profound, breaking new ground in human contemplation or piercing yet unknown realms of human consciousness. However, as an enthusiast of the Enlightenment, I delight in reason. I spend gobs of time frolicking, romping with reason; thinking about theses and theories, issues and ideas, people and places. (I oft answer Pontheolla when she, incessantly, calls me from what appears to her to be idleness to do something: “Baby, I was born to think!”) In so doing (though I’d love to be able to claim the quality the Apostle Paul describes of “understanding all mysteries and all knowledge”[1]), I am constantly, relentlessly reminded of the limits of my intellect. The fullness of existence – whether what is known, can be known, or will be known and whether I use the term “God”, “Truth”, or “Reality” – escapes the grasp of my comprehension. Always.

I am a body. Despite the freedom I experience in my awareness of my death and my unbounded flights of thought, because I am mortal with a mind enwrapped in flesh and blood, I want things; among them, food and drink (on occasion, water!), exercise and rest, money and security, calm of heart and peace of mind. Always. There is nothing I want of which I do not want more. Always. There is nothing I want of which I can get enough to satisfy my want. Ever.

I am a mortal thinker in a body. Three elements of my existence, each characterized by illimitable limits or limited illimitability.

I will, must think more about this. For now, I will enjoy the butterflies and hummingbird moths for as long as they last, for even in their lessening numbers and decreasing daily appearances, they provide unlimited fascination and satisfaction.

 

Footnote: 

[1] 1 Corinthians 13.2

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