Of life in the still-Christian South (a retired cleric’s occasional reflections)…

Keep Calm and…

I love T-shirts. I’ve never been flashy (save, perhaps, for an emotive personality!) in dress; preferring an über-casual mien. And now, in retirement, except for Sundays and special occasions, rarely will I so much as don slacks and a laundered shirt; favoring jeans and, yes, again, T-shirts.

And though tending toward an understated appearance, eschewing the display of labels or slogans, this T-shirt, showing all the signs of repeated wearing and washing, is my favorite.

my fav T-shirt

For a variety of reasons…

It plays on the theme of the British government’s World War II word of inspiration, Keep Calm and Carry On; meant to bolster the morale of the English people under the gravest threat posed by the German aerial blitzkrieg. Nowadays, multiple are the words following Keep Calm and…, ranging from the wondrously sublime to the supremely humorous; all advocating a serene and steely perseverance in the face of trial and tribulation.[1]

And it bears the image of the fish; long a symbol for Christianity.[2] As such, it proclaims to others without my having to say a word that I am a Christian.

And it completes Keep Calm and… with Love Your Neighbor, which, further in keeping with the Christian lore I hold dear, is the second part of Jesus’ summation of the Law, generally, the Torah and, specifically, the 10 Commandments.[3] As such, it expresses my daily conscious intent to love[4] my neighbor, who, in the light of Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, is everyone.

And it sparks immediate responses and impromptu conversations with my neighbors, whether known or unknown, of all manners of humankind and in all places where I go…

I’ve been approached by Jews, Muslims, and Christians who, in a variety of ways, remark of their theological and ethical identification with the summons to love neighbors rooted in the Torah, the Koran, and the Bible…

I’ve been asked by some what I believe it means to love my neighbor, which, on one occasion, in a grocery store aisle, led to the inquirer’s confession of his struggle to love and forgive a relative whose words and actions had inflicted grave harm…

I’ve been hailed by folk, all strangers, walking by me on the street, once from a lady, smiling and waving to me, driving by in her car, with this astounding (at the first occurrence, but, now, it’s come again and again) greeting: “I love you, too!”

I treasure each and all of these encounters and interactions, especially given my awareness and sensitivity to what I consider the bitter-and-blaming-difference-disparaging-either-you’re-for-me-or-against-me zeitgeist of our days and times.

As T-shirts and banners of self-declaration go, Keep Calm and Love Your Neighbor is my favorite.

 

Footnotes:

[1] For example, Keep Calm and…Be Honest, Be Yourself, Call Batman, Dab On ‘Em, Dream On, Eat A Cookie, Game On, Go To Hogwarts, Hakuna Matata, Innovate, Just Do It, Make A Change, Never Grow Up, Party All Night, Press CTRL ALT DET, Stay Strong, Use The Force… The possibilities are endless!

[2]The fish (or, in the Greek, ichthys) was adopted as a Christian symbol prior to the 2nd century of the Common Era; some suggest as a secret sign of identification during periods of the state persecution of Christians. Through the 3rd and 4th centuries, as it grew in popular recognition and use, the letters (i – ch – th – y – s) were viewed as forming an acronym for the phrase, Iēsous Christos, Theou Yios, Sōtēr, Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.

[3] A lawyer asked Jesus a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22.35-40).

[4] By “love”, I do not mean my expression of kindly affection, which arises from how I feel about others, but rather, for me, always something more spiritual and substantial; that is, exercising my Spirit-bestowed power in active benevolence toward and for others. Do I fail in doing this? Yes. Usually when I am hurt and angry, and then allow my not-so-considerate-feelings toward another to get in the way of my loving that person. Nevertheless, Jesus’ call to love my neighbor ever rings in my mind and heart, soul and spirit, summoning me to act.

Of life in the still-Christian South (a retired cleric’s occasional reflections)…

A conversation…a confession about race

Two men.

Different as different could be. Save for gender. And age. Both 60-something. And stage of life. Both retired. And, both Episcopalians, religious upbringing.

One. White. An attorney. The child of an old Southern family with roots tracing back to mid-17th century English colonists. His mother, a painter of note and an author. His father, a prominent attorney from a long, generational line of prominent attorneys.

The other. Black. An Episcopal priest. Midwestern born. His mother, an elementary school teacher. His father, a postal clerk.

Two men, largely different as the proverbial day and night, in an unlikely, serendipitous (Spirit-led?) encounter in a quiet corner of a coffee shop of a local bookstore, engaging in an unlikely, serendipitous (Spirit-led?) conversation about race…

A conversation that, once he discovered my vocation, became his chosen opportunity for his confession. “I’ve wanted, I’ve needed to share this with someone for a long time…”

He sat forward, clutching his coffee cup in his hands, first, looking down, averting his gaze, telling me of his formative years. His parents had taught him that his privileged life bore an obligation to care for those who were needy, which, he acknowledged, as he understood their instruction, meant those who were lesser endowed with the material blessings of life, which, he further admitted, meant those who weren’t white. His parents, “Good people,” he quickly asserted, did not teach him that they were “better than other people.”

Still, certain moments in his childhood were indelibly, painfully imprinted on his memory.

His nanny, “a lovely, kind lady”, who cared for him from his earliest days, wasn’t allowed to enter their home through the front door. One morning, he, then at the age of 8, seeing her approach the house and turning, preparing “to go around to the back”, opened the front door, happily welcoming her; an impertinence, his parents made clear, that prompted an unpleasant scene of his being corrected and of her being chastised…

On another occasion, he, accompanied by his nanny, rode the bus downtown. He could not understand why she had to leave him and go to the rear when there were plenty of empty seats in the front. When he asked her, she declined to say more than, “That’s the way it is.” When he later asked his parents, they simply affirmed, “She is right.”

But somehow, even as a child, he knew it wasn’t right. “What is right,” he looked up at me, his lips trembling, yet his voice firm, “is that we’re all equal because God made us that way.”

Then, as best as I can recall, he said something like this: “For a long time, I’ve thought about Jesus on the cross asking his Father to forgive those who were killing him. I finally decided if he, who died for me, could do that, I needed to forgive my parents for their ignorance. But,” he held out his hands to me, “I need to be forgiven for my silence. All these years, I’ve known what was right and I never said or did anything to make it right. I promised God I would do something, whatever I can, but right now I want you to ask God to forgive me. Please.”

Taking his hands, we said the Confession of Sin that Episcopalians pray every Sunday. Then, making the sign of the cross, I pronounced the absolution of sin. Tears rolled down his cheeks. He mouthed a silent, “Thank you,” stood, and departed.

For a while, I sat motionless; moved, stunned by the experience of his transparent honesty, his naked humility, his patent sorrow, and his evident need, and by the swiftness of our entry into the depths of our encounter and the abruptness – yet, in its own way, timeliness – of its end. I do not know whether we will see each other again. It’s doubtful, I think. But, if we do, I will say to him, “Thank you.”

Of life in the still-Christian South (a retired cleric’s occasional reflections)…

More on public prayer

On each of the past two weekends, here, in Spartanburg, South Carolina, at Clevedale Historic Inn and Gardens, Pontheolla and I have had the pleasure of hosting and housing a bride, her maid of honor and her bridesmaids.

On both occasions, on Saturday morning, in the serving of breakfast, whilst expeditiously ushering hot plates of freshly and lovingly (that is, Pontheolla-) prepared culinary fare to the table, I was brought to an abrupt and dutiful halt by the voice of prayer – the bride and her entourage, with hands joined and heads bowed, sharing in supplications to God…

On each occasion, though different the groups in nearly every ostensible social category, in their eloquent prayers, I found, I heard a striking similitude – if I had to (and I will!) characterize – of praise to God for being God, of thanksgiving to God, the Giver of all gifts, especially life and love, and of oblation to God in the offering of themselves in service to glorify God and to edify all whose lives they touched.

As both groups were 20-and-30-somethings, I offered to God a silent prayer of gratitude for the gift of renewed hope for the next generation, which these women, to a person, embodied.

Of life in the still-Christian South (a retired cleric’s occasional reflections)…

On public prayer

In South Carolina, folks pray publicly (hence, doubtlessly, I imagine, privately). Saying grace at mealtimes, oft joining hands in a physical and psychic circle of union. Giving audible air to petitions and intercessions at events of commemoration and celebration, moments of tribulation and tranquility, instances extraordinary and mundane. And alway expressing thanksgiving to the God in whose hands abide all times and from whose hands all blessings flow.

Now, with sincerity’s speed, I neither suppose nor suggest that inhabitants of other regions of America do not pray, privately or publicly (or even that the discipline of prayer, given my sense of the manifold individual and, at times, wholly self-serving intentions of those and I who pray, necessarily makes one a better person). I do contend that, here in South Carolina, I have observed more people on more (most!) occasions praying.[1] In a word, in my view prayer is an inherent and ineffaceable part of the sitz im leben, the social context or life setting of the South.

 

Footnote:

[1] Honesty compels my confession that prior to coming South my public profession of prayer usually was restricted to those circumstances when I functioned in a clerical role, whether within the church on Sunday mornings, officiating at weddings, presiding at funerals or other ecclesiastical rites or in the world offering an invocation or benediction at some community gathering. On reflection, I think my reticence stemmed from my desire not to discomfit others – or myself in the company of others – who, consonant with their beliefs, either eschewed devotional practices or reserved them for their individual and familial moments.

Of life in the still-Christian South (a retired cleric’s occasional reflections)…

On politics, religion, and presidential elections (subtitle: fill in the blank; sub-subtitle: WWJD?[1])

The American socio-political climate is as sizzling and sweltering as a South Carolina spring morning when long before noon the temperature and humidity climb to the high-80s (or higher!). The unrest, characteristic of the 2016 presidential campaign (which was, I think, in part, a bitter fruit of the rising, roiling ideological conservative-liberal tensions of the prior decade), pestilentially persists. Those who voted for _______,[2] some of whom rather would have voted for _______,[3] with the election of Donald Trump, are _______, _______, and _______ .[4]

In the light of this heat, here, in the South, I hear political speech with religious undertones (or is it religious speech with political overtones?). To wit (with each successive declarative or interrogative statement, from whatever side of the political spectrum, uttered with increasing certainty and stridency):

“Jesus would have voted for _______.”

“Jesus told me to vote for _______.”

“How in God’s name could you vote for _______?”

“How can you call yourself a Christian and vote for _______?”

I am a Christian. I love and follow Jesus. I strive, praying the strength of the Holy Spirit, to obey his one commandment: to love unconditionally.[5] Daily, I try. Daily, I fail. Daily, I pray the Spirit’s presence and guidance to try again.

Given my existential and spiritual orientation, at first, I was taken aback by what I deem unabashed and unbridled hypercritical politico-religio language.[6] Then, catching myself (or, rather, the Spirit catching me) falling prey to judging others, I stepped back from the precipice of that pit so to look and to listen with the eyes and ears of love. What or rather who I see and hear are my sisters and brothers, some of whose expressions correspond with mine and some not. Yet my agreement or disagreement does not, must not affect my ability and willingness to tolerate, even more, to accept, and still more, to honor their thoughts and feelings, their wants and needs, their hopes and fears that are the ground, the heart from which spring their words. And in that tolerance, acceptance, verily, reverence for their God-given human dignity, I can “lay down my life” – my preferences and prejudices – for their sake.

 

Footnotes:

[1] What would Jesus do?

[2] Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump

[3] In the case of Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders or, in the case of Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina, Jim Gilmore, Lindsay Graham, Mike Huckabee, Bobbly Jindal, John Kasich, George Pataki, Rand Paul, Rick Perry, Marco Rubio, or Scott Walker or, with the choice of voting for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, did not vote.

[4] happy, hopeful, and compliant or sorrowful, fearful, and defiant

[5] Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13.34-35) and “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15.12-13).

[6] During my many years of living and laboring in and around Capitol Hill, Washington, DC, where the lingua franca is über-partisan, self-authenticating, other-vilifying speech, I do not recall hearing anything like this.

Of life in the still-Christian South (a retired cleric’s occasional reflections)…

“Bless your heart”

Living in the South for the past 2½ years, how often have I heard this phrase? Dwelling in the realm of time and space where much is measured numerically, though I cannot truthfully say “countless times”, truly I can say, “I’ve lost count!”

And hearing it daily, repeatedly in many a (every?) setting, I have learned that this über-utilitarian aphorism has manifold circumstantial uses and contextual meanings; the majority of which fall into two major categories…

As a pitying or insulting negative judgment of a person, whether behind the back or to the face. For example, “She/he/you had such good intentions, but her/his/your performance was sadly underwhelming, bless her/his/your heart.” When employed in this instance, usually the speaker arrives at that closing phrase with lowered tone and soft voice, having the effect of tempering the harshness of the critique and, at times, masking barely the passive-aggression of the criticism.

Blessedly, I have heard or overheard these three words used far more as an expression of earnest kindness. One does a good deed for another and the recipient of that grace says to the giver, “Thank you and bless your heart.” A loved one dies and one, seeking to offer a word of consolation, says, “Bless her/his and your heart.” In each case, the phrase oft is uttered with a breathy sincerity that infuses, inspirits the words, in the first instance, with genuine gratitude and, in the second, with sincerest sympathy. And in each case, the phrase oft is preceded by the sacred word, “God”.

I digress…

A word, as a symbol, points beyond itself to a reality (at times, in the instant moment of its utterance or script, unobservable), which the word, both for the speaker/writer and the listener/reader, brings into the view of the mind’s eye, thus, giving shape to and making sense of the reality. In this act of communication, usually, indeed, I think, always the speaker/writer and the listener/reader, each with her/his own experience and perception, do not, cannot mean the same thing. Hence, the necessity of their engaging in deepening interaction, frequently (always?) entailing the employ of more words to define the one word.

That said, here in the South, I discern a remarkable similitude in people’s use of the word “God” in reference to a reality, indeed, a Being, thus, not something, but rather Someone to whom is ascribed the agency of the power to create and sustain life. Moreover, in Christian circles of faith, I observe that folk speak and write of God in various ways, yet, again, with a notable likeness, as the principal actor on the stage of the universe and the primary protagonist of scripture’s sacred story as revealed through the life and mission of the people Israel, in the life and ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, and by the eternally illuminating presence of the Holy Spirit.

In this, I experience an inner, spiritual, nearly ineffable resonance; indeed, a kindred person-to-person blessing of hearts.

Of life in the still-Christian South (a retired cleric’s occasional reflections)…

On preaching (Part 2 of 2)

“Paul, is preaching different in the South?” By many and many times I have been asked this question.

Prior to retirement, I last served an Episcopal parish in Washington, D.C.; making that tenure of nearly 17 years my immediate and distinctive frame of reference for preaching in the South.[1] It is in the light of contrast that I wrote: “(W)hat I have found, what I have felt in the bones of my soul is people’s hunger to have an experience of God through the Bible. In this, I recognize the difference of preaching in the South.”

My life and labor with the good folk of that D.C. congregation were interesting and vital, at times, taxing, yet never dull! The people, to a person, were accomplished in their varied vocations, well-traveled and well-read, intellectually inquisitive and insightful, and passionate in their engagement of the issues of the day and times. They were and are those who desire to make and do make a difference in the world for good.

A heartbeat of that community was a tolerance, verily, an acceptance of ideological difference, particularly in the welcome and embrace of skepticism. Questioning was a high and fine art, cherished for its probative value in the investigation of all things, including the Christian doctrine and biblical lore of “the faith once delivered to the saints.”[2] Within this milieu, the communal view of the scriptures[3] was more as ancient literature and less as sacred text; more as chronicles of the human quest for God and less, in the language of the Catechism, as “the Word of God (Who) inspired their human authors and…still speaks to us.”[4] In this, I make no judgment of good or bad, right or wrong. Rather, this is simply, only my observation.

In preaching with this community, I sought to make a conscious connection between ancient scripture, which I do believe is holy writ, and, I also believe, the sacred texts of our lives daily being written through our every thought and feeling, intention and action; and this in an effort to help us all make sense and find meaning in our human existence. Here, too, I make no judgment of good or bad, right or wrong. Yet, for me, this approach to preaching was something (I hasten to add not less, but rather) other than inviting folk into a shared experience of listening for the vox Deus, the Voice of God. This distinction is but one of the ways that I understand the difference of preaching in the South.

Footnotes:

[1] For years and for some, it has been a matter of debate whether Washington, D.C., is, in fact, a Southern city (or, to be precise, district). President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was noted to have said, “Washington is a city of Southern efficiency and Northern charm.” Though what he meant is open to speculation, his observation raises the consideration that Southern-ness is an expansive idea; one that can be understood in other ways than the place or the geography of the eleven states comprising the olden Confederacy or what some term the “Deep South”, generally including Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina. Southern-ness can encompass the historical socio-economic terms, among them, rural landscapes, agrarian-based economies, fewer large cities, political conservatism, and large English and African-American populations; this latter, through the 19th century, being visible evidence of the thriving institution of slavery. On this last count, before the Civil War, Washington, D.C., I would aver, was quite Southern; since then, not quite so and on the other counts, never quite so.

[2] The Letter of Jude 3

[3] I stress the communal view to indicate my sense of how the congregation as a whole, therefore, not each and every individual, approached the Bible.

[4] From An Outline of the Faith commonly called the Catechism, The Book of Common Prayer, page 853