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

On the passage of death

Daily, I read the obituary page of my local newspaper, memorializing those, most of whom I do not know, who have died. I proffer as much care and attention as, perhaps more than I render to the A section, op/ed, business, local news, and sports pages. For I, believing in the sacred, shared kinship of humankind – or, à la John Donne, “No man is an Island, entire of itself…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind”[1] – reflect on the text associated with each name and photograph; the words constituting a brief biography of familial roots and relationships, associations and achievements; these summations of multiple journeys in and through this world shaping the larger story of the life of a community.

Daily, nearly every announcement, after listing the resident’s South Carolina town or city, her/his name, age, address, and date of death, contains the following wording, representative of a decidedly Christian religious ethos: “passed peacefully into eternity” or “went home to be with the Lord” or “gained her/his wings”.

cross

There was a time, now long past, when I, at best, that is, charitably, eschewed (and, honesty compels the confession, at worst, that is, disparaged) such language; considering it sentimentalizing metaphor of the stark fact of death. When rising to the heights (or rather falling into the depths) of my theological elitism (truly, alway a pseudo-sophistication, for I ne’er possess the last or first and surely not the only word on anything!), I opined: “Passed? Passed where?” orHome? Home is hereorWings? Angels, if there are angels, have wings.”

Daily, as I continue my inexorable journey toward the threshold of my death, I have come to appreciate these phrases. I read and interpret them as expressions of hope. The hope of those who live that their loved ones abide forever in the nearest presence of God. The hope that the Apostle Paul’s words are true:

We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died…Therefore encourage one another with these words.[2]

and

So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable…It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body…For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: “Death has been swallowed up in victory!”[3]

Yes, I have come to appreciate, indeed, favor “passed peacefully into eternity”, “went home to be with the Lord”, and “gained wings”, for these phrases capture my hope, too. My hope, again, à la Donne, that: All mankind is of one Author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one Chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language.[4]

 

 

Footnotes:

[1] From Meditations XVII, John Donne (1572-1631), English poet, lawyer, and Church of England cleric

[2] 1 Thessalonians 4.13-14, 18

[3]  1 Corinthians 15.42, 44, 53-54

[4] From Meditations XVII. The full text of this passage: All mankind is of one Author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one Chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every Chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God’s hand is in every translation; and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again, for that Library where every book shall lie open to one another.

Advertisements

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

In Christ…

The St. Louis of my birth and formative years of the 1950s and 1960s was a segregated town. Blacks lived principally in the neighborhoods of the inner city and those running west and on the near north side. Whites lived largely on the south side, the far north side and, beyond the municipal boundaries, in the suburban areas.

In 1982, I was called to serve a church in Charleston, South Carolina. As I toured the city in search of housing, wherever I looked, though there were areas that were chiefly black or white, in the main, the neighborhoods were integrated. The realtor, noting my surprise, pointed out, in an airy, matter-of-fact fashion, a conspicuous reality of institutional slavery: “The distance between the master’s big house and the slave shacks was never that far.” His point. In the South, blacks and whites always lived in proximity. In this, I recall a Civil Rights Era maxim: “In the South, the white man doesn’t care how close the Negro gets, as long as he doesn’t get too high.”[1]

This apparent, what I deem, Southern racial/relational closeness comes to mind in light of a number of weddings that have been held at Clevedale Historic Inn and Gardens, Pontheolla’s and my Spartanburg, SC, bed and breakfast and events facility.

On more than one occasion, I’ve had my assumptions (read: biases) overthrown when white couples and black couples have commissioned black clergypersons and white clergypersons, respectively, to officiate at their nuptials. In speaking with the clerics, almost to a person, I discover that their affiliations with those to be wed extend far back into the years and are rooted in long-lived familial and neighborhood connections. Although the church communities of the South (everywhere?), by and large, remain racially segregated, personal relationships of deep affection across color lines have stood the test of time. In this, for me, a blessedly beatific counter-image in these days of rising racial animus, I, with gratitude, sing:

In Christ there is no east or west,

in him no south or north,

but one great fellowship of love

throughout the whole wide earth.[2]

Amen, I say! Again, I say, amen!

 

Footnotes:

[1] “High” used interchangeably with “big”; meaning socio-economically prosperous and/or politically prominent. The other part of the saying is: “In the North, the white man doesn’t care how high the Negro gets, as long as he doesn’t get too close.” I don’t know the author of this aphorism, but Dick Gregory (Richard Claxton Gregory, 1932-2017), a comedian and social critic of no mean genius, and a fellow St. Louisan, was fond of repeating it.

[2] Words by John Oxenham (aka William Arthur Dunkerley), 1852-1941

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

On Labor Day and the letter and the spirit of the law

About a mile from my home, on one of the main thoroughfares that runs through Spartanburg and, east and west, beyond, is a lawyer’s office. The building, an attractive cottage, nestled in a stand of mostly crepe myrtle trees and well-manicured shrubbery, sits 50 yards from the road. Zipping by, one might not notice it, save for the conspicuous curbside sign advertising the attorney’s name and contact information and, for me, more…most prominently, in bright flashing crimson neon, a scripture citation. This past week, Isaiah 43.2: When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. The “I” of the Isaian prophetic reference, of course, is God.

I don’t know the attorney or his intent in publicizing biblical references. Nevertheless, allowing my imagination free rein to run, I assume that it’s an expression of his scripture-rooted beliefs and values[1] and that it may prove (has proven?) a boon to his business, attracting clients who ascribe to faith-based commerce, in this case, legal services.

As I muse about this, I recall the counsel of a dear friend, Woodley Beal Osborne, a very fine person and lawyer. He once said to me, “Paul, there’s a reason it’s called law school and not justice school.” Yes, there’s a difference, sometimes, I think, vast between the law as a system of behavioral regulatory rules established and enforced by society and government (the fitting and fruitful application of which can be governable by time and place, person and circumstance, and degrees of personal and financial resources) and justice, which, whether rooted in natural law or sacred principle, connotes an ethical, universal, and unconditional quality of righteousness, indeed, the rightness of fairness for all people.

So, I – who, back in the proverbial day, entered college as a political science major with his sight set on becoming an attorney and who, through a nocturnal vision from God, was called into Christian ministry and who, as a follower of Jesus, seeks to fulfill His gospel-call of love and justice for all people – wonder where this South Carolina barrister draws the line between conventional jurisprudence and scriptural justice. My hunch is, again, as the law and justice, though related, are not the same, that he must. My hope is that he has discerned an unassailable bond between the law and justice and, thus, in a word, seeks to do just law.

Perchance one day, driven by more than merest curiosity, but rather sincerest interest, I may stop by his office and inquire.

 

Footnote:

[1] Another biblical reference I have seen is 1 Peter 3.15: In your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you. Here, I assume his conspicuous and clever emphasis, in a legal sense, is on the phrase “make your defense”, though I also suppose that he means to affirm his Christian hope.

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

About Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, South Carolina

On February 1, 2015, I entered my retirement.

Before that date, countless were the times, o’er my over 35 years of full-time active ministry, when I sat at the feet of my revered elder clergy, who, having led large congregations, spoke of the joys in retirement of serving smaller communities where pastoral relationships took on the character of a proximate, transparent intimacy. I oft wondered whether that would be my lot, indeed, whether I’d want it to be my lot! Or would I, in retirement, be ready, even needful of stepping away from exercising any form of clerical ministry?

On December 20, 2015, I entered my “rehirement” as the priest-in-charge, part-time, of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, South Carolina.[1]

Epiphany, Laurens, SC, facade

A year and a half into this still new ministry, I reflect…

What my elders told me has proven true for me. I love being a part of my Epiphany-community. Every Sunday, I have the exquisite pleasure of looking out at 30 or so souls and saying to myself, “You, each and all, belong to me and I belong to you.” Frequently enough, I say aloud to them, individually and collectively, “I love you.” Equally often, I open my sermons saying, “Once again it is my privilege to preach with[2] you in the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.” (And they seem, so far, to put up with this Episcopal Church-born-and-bred, but black Baptist-rooted, coming by it honestly on my mama’s side, noisy-preacher!)

Moreover, I sense and receive from my folk a gentle, unconcealed deference for the ordained ministry (I haven’t been called “Father” this often since…since!) that, given much of my remembrances of my prior experiences and my reflections on the testimonies of my colleagues in other places, is a still-treasured characteristic of the South.

Still more, and most especially, I believe that God, who, in a Christian Trinitarian understanding, eternally dwells in the communion of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in creating humankind in the imago Dei, the image of God,  hath hard-wired us, in our bodily, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual being-ness, for relationship. In this, I rejoice to be in relationship with the folk of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, South Carolina.

 

Footnotes:

[1] The Doric-columned edifice, built in 1846, listed in the National Register as part of Laurens Historic District, and the oldest actively-used church structure in Laurens County, South Carolina, is the home of a generously, generations-old loving community of people. The warmth of their affectionate care, person to person, permeates and emanates from the very brick and mortar and wood of the place.

[2] Long have I believed that I, as a preacher, do not preach at people, which, in my sense of things, means that I, endowed with especial Spirit-inspired wisdom, have the answers about God and life that I share with those who would not have the benefit and blessing of knowing save that I tell them. Nor do I preach to people, which, in my sense of things, is a kinder-and-gentler (read: more self-effacing, less arrogant) form of preaching at people. Rather, I, seeking alway to be in community, indeed, to be in communion with people, preach with them; the sermon, again, in my sense of things, being a form of ongoing communal conversation among God, people, and priest.

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

On the air

There are 300 or so FCC[1]-licensed radio stations in South Carolina. Of them, 50 or so or a healthy 16% of market share are religious (read: Christian);[2] their perspectives tending, trending toward the conservative evangelical end of the theological continuum. The programming runs the gamut of biblical studies, sacred music, both traditional and largely contemporary, church services, especially sermons, and religious oriented talk and news formats, covering topics of local, national, and international interest.

Since February 2015, retiring to South Carolina from Washington, DC (the last nearly 17 years spent on Capitol Hill where everything was within walking distance[3]), I have done more driving. Lots more.

I describe myself (well, one of my self-descriptions) as a religious progressive. I am more suspicious of certainties or declarations of certainty and more trusting in life’s ambiguities. I believe most, perhaps all things are open to doubt and question, even the existence of God and, if not, then, given my ceaseless wrestling with the reality of evil in this world, God’s benevolence. (In all of this, I also believe that if or as God is God, then God can handle, perhaps even welcome my wonderments!) In league with my native (for I’ve been this way for as long as I can recall) propensity to think, then rethink, then think again about any and all things, I once described myself as “flamingly liberal” by which I meant and mean that the older I get my list of “negotiables”, things that are open to review and revision, gets longer and my list of “non-negotiables” grows shorter.

All this is to say that, as I drive, I listen to religious radio, especially those stations whose raison d’être it is to espouse a bedrock of unassailable belief in an immutable God. Why? My reasons, at least those of which I am conscious, are legion.

Mini interior

In the unswerving articulation of Christian conviction, I am confronted, at times convicted in my bewilderments and called to rethink my questions…

In the fundamentalist interpretations of biblical texts, I find myself deepening in my admiration and respect for what I consider a purity of understanding and application of foundational truths. I also marvel at how a text can be interpreted in myriad ways…

In listening to the sacred music, especially olden gospel tunes, I, remembering the melodies taught by my stalwart, sanctified Baptist grandmother, give full-throated assent in song; sometimes, in the face of my doubts, yearning to reclaim what I wish I used to believe…

In a word, I’m happy for the existence and happier still to listen to the many religious radio stations.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Federal Communications Commission

[2] In South Carolina, oft it is said that to throw a rock in any direction is to hit a church building. So, it seems is true of the radio dial, nearly every turn, whether clockwise or counterclockwise, tuning into a religious broadcast.

[3] By “everything, I mean everything – homes and apartments, stores and shops of all sorts, markets and restaurants, doctors and dentists, lawyers and realtors, banks and financial centers, post offices and commercial shipping offices, and in proverbial accord with that 18th century English nursery rhyme, “butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers”, and, when occasion necessitated, two stations on the fine Metro subway system that stretched throughout the DC and near Maryland and near northern Virginia region.

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.”