106 and counting…

Dad & me, Tuesday, 7-29-86, Charleston Int'l Airport

Note: Today would have been my dad’s 106th birthday. William John Abernathy (August 7, 1911-April 27, 1996) and I had a difficult relationship; one fraught with the daily tension and enduring mutual resentment of the clash between his irresistible force of an alway-authoritarian, at times, arbitrary disposition and my ever-immovable object of adolescent rebellion (which continued well into my adulthood). O’er the years and o’er many trails of solemn reflection and trials of sober regret and sincerest repentance for my great part in our brokenness, I’ve come to understand, love, and respect my father. Today, the thought occurring (Why? I’m not entirely sure) to leaf through one of my journals, I found this forgotten (and astonishingly dated) twenty year old entry…

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Thursday, August 7, 1997: On Sunday evening, August 3, Pontheolla and I attended a Healing Eucharist at the Washington National Cathedral. At the time worshipers were invited to come forward, we went and knelt at the altar rail. I asked “to be delivered from my long held bitterness against my departed father so that I can be free and so that he might be free!” I was anointed with oil and received the laying-on-of-hands by the celebrant, Ted Karpf, who prayed a prayer for my healing. I experienced then and continue to experience an ever-deepening sense, spirit of relief and of release. I wept a single, slow-moving tear of thankfulness as I sat with Pontheolla, holding hands, praying my healing would abide.

Ironies, painful and heart-rending, abound…

Ted had preached a homily, speaking eloquently and provocatively of the human condition, which finds self-worth in work and does not (cannot!) hear and respond to God’s gracious word of worth in being…simply being. Ted couldn’t have known that he was speaking so directly to one of my life’s issues, hurts, questions! (I pray my healing will abide.)

Moreover, the service was held in the War Memorial Chapel. Perhaps what I perceive as the irony of setting a service of healing in the place memorializing those who have died honorably in defense of country in times of war, if not intentional, was, at the least, purposeful. Verily, those who have endured the wars of acceptance and rejection in wounded, broken relationships need healing, for they have died a 1000 deaths and perhaps have killed others a 1000 times in those recurring mental scenarios of vengeance. (I pray my healing will abide.)

 

Photograph: Dad and me at the Charleston (SC) International Airport, Tuesday, July 29, 1986 (one of the few pictures of my father and me in which we are more or less smiling)

going to do better v. doing better

This morning I telephoned one of our dearest friends. We speak often, yet this was an especial conversation on an especial day of commemoration after a year of great, grave loss. Our friend, one of the most honest, resilient, and courageous people we know, shared a variety of her thoughts and feelings about her grief and her growth.

Though acknowledging life’s difficulties and she’s known far more than her fair share, she’s never dwelled on her disappointments. (As one who long has wrestled with the overweening power of his inner grudge-bearing spirit, I could, perhaps should take or at least borrow this good page from her book!) Still, referring to occasions when she had received less than the support she desired and needed, she mentioned a conversation with a relative who, conceding that lack, confessed, “I’m going to do better.”

This particular encounter, for me, is a lens peering into the matrix of our universal human experience.

Who among us has not felt discontent with family members, however short-or-long-lived, however once-and-done or damnably repeated (thereby painfully validating the observation attributed to American author Edna Buchanan, “Friends are the family we choose for ourselves”)? I have.

And who among us, at one point or another, has not been that relative or friend who, in a time of another’s desire or need, could have done more, but didn’t or wouldn’t? I have.

And who among us, in her or his life’s pilgrimage, has not journeyed along the path of penitence whilst needing to take that road always less traveled of repentance? I have.

Penitence and repentance, as two heavily theologically freighted and weighted words, oft are confined to conversations about the relationship between humanity and divinity, between us and God, and used interchangeably. However, on both counts, I discern a need for the deepening of our understanding, thus, purposefully applying penitence and repentance to all of our human interactions and distinctly. On this latter point, penitence and repentance are related, but not the same.

Penitence connotes my regretting something I’ve said or done or not said or not done that has caused harm to another. Repentance (as the younger word, entering language-use roughly around the 13th century, a hundred years or so after penitence, thus, I think, remarkably, revealingly indicating a secondary, necessary enhancement of meaning) signifies my attempt to alter my behavior; no longer leaving undone things that I ought to have done and no longer doing things that I ought not to have done.[1]

By way of simplistic, yet concrete clarifying example…

I step on your foot (whether my act is careless or deliberate, your pain is the same).

You: Ouch!

Me: I’m sorry!

Later, I step on your foot.

You: Ouch!

Me: I’m sorry!

I, at still another subsequent moment, step on your foot.

You: Ouch!

Me: I’m sorry!

You: Paul, I appreciate your penitence, but what I really desire and need is your repentance.

Penitence and repentance. The difference between “I’m going to do better” and doing better.

 

Footnote:

[1] A paraphrase of the Confession of Sin, Morning Prayer: Rite I, The Book of Common Prayer, pages 41-42

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.

drawing the line, part 4 (and done, for now!)

Amid conflict with others where do I draw the line between compassion, recognizing and respecting their right to their views, and challenging their positions, confronting them?

The more I reflect on my question, an essential, perhaps the most important word is “I”. Desiring to live faithfully, responsibly, I am accountable and answerable for my intentions and my actions to my Creator, all creation, and all with whom I am in relation, which, for me, means everyone – however alike or dissimilar, whether at peace or in conflict. This realization (or re-realization) leads me to review and revise (for brevity’s sake) Principles of Engagement of “The Other”, which I composed following my sabbatical some years ago.[1] These principles are the bedrock of my practice of living as I seek to do, to be the love and justice of Jesus in my relations with others.

Personal Encounter – meeting and being with another, seeking mutual understanding via sharing our individual stories that reflect our life experiences, revealing who we are and how we perceive reality.

Empathy – feeling, being in (in addition to sympathy’s feeling with) another.

Suspension of Judgment – empathy’s fruit; listening intently “outside my box” of my worldview, the framework of my history and memory, native instinct and attained insights, and established patterns of discernment.

Commonality – another fruit of empathy; seeking, listening for common elements of our human experience.

Inevitability of Conflict – as it is impossible for me to step completely outside of my self, any encounter with another always reveals differences and the potential for disagreement.[2]

Self-Examination – being able and willing to be self-critical in the awareness that I do not possess all (or the) truth, but rather only my truth.

Footnotes:

[1] During my August 2006-January 2007 sabbatical (Twenty-First Century Evangelism: Conversation, Not Conversion), I went out into a pluralistic world of competing, at times, conflicting peoples and perspectives seeking to discern whether the Christian church (a) could re-imagine or re-envision evangelism, the primary aim no longer, as traditionally understood, being the conversion of “the other” to Christianity, but rather, conversing with “the other” for purposes of mutual understanding, (b) without sacrificing the integrity of Christian identity, and (c) whilst remaining attuned to the voice, which in the midst of the conversation may say, “Please tell me more about your Jesus,” thereby signaling the possibility of a transition from an engagement in conversation to an experience of conversion.

[2] In this awareness, I can choose to engage conflict creatively: (a) recognizing conflict as unremarkable, indeed, normal, (b) responding with calm acceptance, and (c) using conflict as a lens to see myself more clearly, that is, through the eyes of another.

drawing the line, part 3

I appeal to my namesake, the Apostle Paul: Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions…We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Each of us must please our neighbor for the good purpose of building up the neighbor.[1]

Amid conflict with others, Paul, writing to the Christians in Rome, seems to advocate choosing the compassion of the acceptance of different views rather than challenging or confronting them.

I think the terms “weak” and “strong”, falling on the post-modern ear, bear a distinctly judgmental ring; the former and the latter, less and more favorably, respectively. Doubtless, I also think, Paul would see himself and encourage others to be “strong” in their faith, thus, able to tolerate differences in attitude and perspective. Still, the thrust of his admonition is to urge folk, whatever their personal views, to put others first and to welcome one another across the dividing lines of their opinions and practices.

That said, whatever the issues in dispute, Paul addressed his exhortation, again, to the Christians in Rome; a community of people bonded by their shared faith in Jesus. He well could have written, to paraphrase a now standard and overused phrase: “That which (verily, the One who) unites us is greater than anything that divides us.”

In this, my appeal to Paul finds its flaw. For when I am in conflict with another and our objects of belief, our foundational understandings of life and existence, or our worldviews are wholly other,[2] then we have no common ground on which to stand, save being human, which, throughout history, has not seemed to be enough to stem the tide of hatred and hostility.

So, now what?

 

Footnotes:

[1] Romans 14.1, 15.1-2

[2] Thinking of myself, who and what I am, I would characterize as wholly other to me one who espouses views of white supremacy (thus, considering me, an African American, inherently inferior), xenophobic nationalism (thus, viewing one country, say, America and Americans, innately superior to all other nations and peoples), or theological/philosophical nihilism (thus, rejecting all moral principles as meaningless, literally, nothingness).

drawing the line, part 2

Yesterday, I asked, in the midst of conflict with others where do I draw the line between offering  my compassion that recognizes and respects their right to their views and challenging their positions, indeed, confronting them?

On reflection, I can make a case that these two approaches are not mutually exclusive. I can do both. When in conflict with others, I can be compassionate in understanding their life’s circumstances and appreciating how they arrived at and adhere to their beliefs and challenge their views.

However, to do the latter always, I think, infers a degree of judgment. When I contest another’s opinion or point of view, whether or not using the words “right” or “wrong”, I am (and, as important, I may be perceived to be) implying that I consider that person’s position flawed in some way – deficient in knowledge, faulty in logic and reasoning (indeed, irrational[1]), narrow in scope, short in vision, even “missing the mark” (which, derived from the Greek ‘amartia, means sinful).

Such a circumstance can make continuing in civil conversation, perhaps continuing in relationship difficult.

So, now what?

 

Footnote:

[1] In using the word “irrational”, I hasten to add that I consider some circumstances and occasions when being irrational (or operating beyond the realm or aside from the field of reason) to be sensible (my irony intended). When I listen to a piece of music (say, Gustav Holst’s The Planets, especially the 4th movement, Jupiter: The Bringer of Jollity, which always reminds me of my beloved brother Wayne) that touches the heart of my soul and I am moved to tears, my response is beyond the grasp of my reason. If one were to see me crying and ask, “Paul, why the tears, for what you are hearing is but a series of musical notes arranged in an orderly mathematically discernible sequence”, I would understand that to be a reasonable view, but one without the depth of an impossible to articulate irrational comprehension.

drawing the line

Where do I draw the line? This question keeps coming to my conscious awareness, calling, clamoring for my response. In this blog post, I share my struggle. Before clarifying what I mean, let me state how and why this question presents itself and matters to me.

drawing the line

Our world, as I perceive it, is ever-increasingly disharmonious. Where personal and political, theological and philosophical ideologies rage, sometimes with death-dealing violence. Where proponents of ideas competing for space in the public square of debate come into conflict, and then resort, often enough, to mischaracterization and demonization of “the other” point of view and person(s). Where (and this ever hath been true of life in this world) none of us, even the most conflict-averse, is immune to (sometimes extended and extensive) moments of disagreement and dispute with others.

I am a Christian. I believe Jesus is the embodiment of love and justice, active unconditional benevolence and fairness that seeks to do good for all at all times. I believe the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Jesus empowers me so that I am able (I can) and willing (as able, I can choose) to act with love and justice in thought and intention, word and deed. (As human, I am characteriologically self-interested and consistent in my inconsistency, thus I fail at my labor to live the life of Jesus as I understand it. Nevertheless, the same Spirit continually strengthens me to strive again and again to fulfill my calling.)

Now, when (for it is inevitable) others with whom I am related[1] profess their beliefs and I adhere to differing, opposing perspectives,[2] where do I draw the line between offering my compassion, whether spoken or in silence, that (seeking to understand others, to see others from their point of view, indeed, to stand in their life’s shoes) recognizes and respects their right to their views and challenging their positions, indeed, no matter how kindly my approach, confronting them?

Where do you draw the line?

 

Footnotes:

[1] Regarding relationships, I define myself as a theistic existential universalist, which is to say, I believe God created all of us, hence, I am related to all now and eternally whether my family by blood, my friends (my family by choice), acquaintances and associates of whatever cause and for whatever reason, strangers I encounter in the daily course of living, and those who have died, are living, and are yet to be born.

[2] I am thinking here about significant issues of this or any day, e.g., climate change, gender work-pay parity, genetic engineering, gun rights, health care, human sexuality, immigration law, just war, marriage equality, pro-choice/pro-life, race.