vocation & vacation


Early July through mid-August, generally associated with the rising of Sirius (the Dog Star), encompasses much of the summer’s hottest, most inclement “dog days.” All South Carolinians know this. Latter-July through August also is the occasion of the final flings of summer travel and recreation before the annual reality of the return to school and work. This puts me in mind of the essential, ineradicable connection between labor and rest.

Vocation, from the Latin vocare, “to call”, refers to our working occupations or professions, and vacation, from the Latin vacare, “to empty” or “to vacate”, to our leisure or release, usually temporary, from our labors.

A full and well-rounded life, I believe, embraces both. In this, I am reminded of the gospels’ witness to the rhythmic cycle of Jesus’ public ministry of teaching, preaching, and healing always preceded and followed by his moments of prayerful solitude. In this recognition, I confess that for much of my life, I’ve been far more generous in giving my time and energy, my careful attention, even conscious appreciation to vocation than vacation.

During most of the 35+ years of my full-time ministry, I had the benefit of 4 weeks of vacation; the days of which, being thoughtful (or so I thought!), I sought to intersperse throughout the calendar year – a few days, a long weekend, and week or two here or there. It was my bride and ever-sage counselor Pontheolla who encouraged (read: required!) that we use the bulk of our annual leave at one time, saying, expressive of her enlightened self-interest, “Paul, it takes you at least a week, sometimes more to unwind. When we go away for only a few days, it’s no vacation for either of us!” True. Very true.

Epiphany, Laurens, SC, facade

Still, now in retirement, as I shared previously in this space, I’ve entered my “rehirement”, serving the marvelous community of folk of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, as their part-time priest-in-charge. I love them. I love what I do. And though long ago I realized I am a human being and not a human doing, what I do forms and frames a large part of my sense of who I am. Always has. Always, I presume, will. This means “vocating” remains easier for me to do and to be than “vacating.”


Photographs: Sirius by Akira Fujii and my photograph of the facade of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC (October 2015)

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.



[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.

more on aging

Clevedale front porch, 5-30-17

On a sultry South Carolina afternoon, following a hyper-busy, exhilarating, but also enervating past two weeks at our bed and breakfast and near the end of a day of chores (this demonstrably repetitive reality is why I term my retirement “my rehirement”), I plop my aching body into a comfy rocking chair. Sipping from a glass of my favorite Sauvignon Blanc, I consider that in a week or so, I will reach my 65th birthday (which, in truth, means that I simultaneously will have completed my 65th year and will enter my 66th year in this world). In light of this life’s milestone, at least, as humans reckon time, I contemplate mine aging (truth to tell, daily I reflect, not morbidly, but rather matter-of-factly, on this inexorable existential state of being).

Three immediate thoughts…

One, I don’t like aging. (Who does?) I’d prefer that my body was as supple, my mind and vision as sharp, my potentialities as boundless as my imagination as in my yesteryears.

Two, this said, I accept aging. I am neither angry about it nor discontent with it. Verily, there are moments of gleeful recognition that only an older one can know.

Last October, I went to the hospital for a pre-op visit in preparation for my November colon surgery. The intake nurse, a 30-something, bright-eyed, warm-hearted, highly-skilled, and unreservedly kind soul, among many questions, asked me, “Mr. Abernathy, do you have any pain?” Though I understood her intent in seeking to discern whether I was experiencing any discomfort in the subject area of my procedure, I couldn’t restrain myself from bursting out in raucous laughter. She smiled, I surmised, waiting, wanting to be let in on the joke. I replied, “My dear sister, I’m sixty-four years of age! Of course, I have pain!”

Three, I am fairly well assured (with no need or hope of refutation) that, as I’m wont to say, I have more life and labor behind me than ahead of me. As such, with the instant of my dying far closer than the day of my birth, I don’t have enough years of life left to try to remember all the things that I’ve lived long enough to have forgotten. In this awareness (perhaps enhanced by a second glass of wine), my soul is warmed by a spirit of the peace of the release from one more care, the relief from one more worry. And that is not a bad thing, not a bad thing at all.

as long as there is breath and strength…

…there is life and labor – a personal reflection on the changing course of retirement

Earlier this year, after 37½ years of active service as an Episcopal parish priest, I retired.[1] For the first time in years (really ever) Pontheolla and I have attended church services together. (Being next to her and listening to her mellifluous speaking and singing voice is a godsend to my worship experience!)

Over the past months, I also have been invited by a number of churches to serve as a guest priest. I might have been able to imagine that I’d miss priestly ministry. Still, I didn’t (perhaps couldn’t) know existentially (in my breathing and being) and spiritually (in those ineffable parts of me that respond to the emanations of the divine) how much of a void retirement would be. Now, I know.

I love God (even when God’s mystery confounds me, Jesus calls me to do what, given my obstinate ego, I’d rather not, and the Holy Spirit’s “comfort” challenges me to become more of who God wills me to be than I’m ready to engage!).

I love God’s people (even when we annoy one another!).

I love preaching (not to, much less at, but rather with people) – reading, praying, and wrestling with scripture seeking to discover what a mentor oft called “an enabling word” for God’s people.

I love to preside at the Holy Eucharist; this sacrament of sharing bread and wine, Christ’s body and blood that we, in partaking, can become Who we eat.

I love words. I love to talk and communicate (one of the few things I do well!).

I also love to listen to people with an open heart so to hear in the silences and sighs between their words the depth of their joys and sorrows, desires and cares, hopes and fears.

I love collaborative leadership; sharing in consensus-building and decision-making with God’s people. (Regarding the notion that clergy “run churches”, I’ve said for years, “I’ve never wanted to run anything, but rather run with God’s people!”)

Given these loves, my passions of thought and feeling, intention and action, recently, via the office of Bishop W. Andrew Waldo of the Diocese of Upper South Carolina, I’ve been in conversation with the good people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC.[2]

With our mutual agreement and the bishop’s consent, I will begin my service as part-time Priest-in-Charge on Sunday, December 20, 2015.

Prior to receiving the bishop’s approval, I mentioned this possibility to a clergy colleague. His response was encouraging: “That’s great! You clearly still have gas in your tank.”

My prayer: May the fuel that I still have to burn be kindled solely by the Holy Spirit. Amen.



Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, façade, Nave, sign


[1]Immediately, my wife, Pontheolla, rehired me to work at our Spartanburg, SC, bed and breakfast, Clevedale Historic Inn and Gardens. Regarding my “rehirement”, when I tell folk, “I’m the minority owner of Clevedale,” it is decidedly a double entendre!

[2] Founded in 1785, Laurens, SC, a picturesque town and home to some 9,000 folk, serves as the seat of Laurens County.

self-check – a retirement reflection

The one whom I love and with whom I live and those with whom I worked before retiring at the end of January – aka those who know me best (and at my worst!) – know how I occasionally, spontaneously call out from where’er I am in the house, “Pontheolla”, and would call out from where’er I was in the office, “Angela”, “Ed”, “Jeff”, “Justi”, “Marcella”, or “Susan”. The response? Usually, “Yes?” or “Yes, Paul.” My usual reply. “Oh, I just wanted to call your name.”


I believe in the power of a name. To be given another’s name is to receive the gift of access and to call one’s name gives the gift of the acknowledgement of another’s presence, existence.

Now, as one born on June 8, I suffer from the Gemini-esque twin personality disorder of embodying a variety of polar opposite traits (which, fortunately, largely dwell together peaceably!). Thus, I also know that in calling out one’s name, I hope to hear an acknowledgment of me; that I exist, that I am worthy of a response.

We all, I believe, have life-issues. For as there are no perfect parents and no perfect children, no one arrives at adulthood without psychic hurts and wounds, as well as benefits and blessings. I was raised by loving, yet demanding parents who, striving to mold me into a replica of their projections of “the good child”, never quite acknowledged my individual person; who I was and who I might become. Hence, that recognition of my essential beingness remains, resides as a quintessential element of my daily consciousness.

This said, in retirement, I have begun to notice that the tension of my need for acknowledgement has lessened. Perhaps it is that – now separated from the daily sphere of compensated work with its implicit demand to prove myself worthy of the financial remuneration I received from others – I am free…to be…me, as the hymn says, “just as I am without one plea.”

arrested development & growing up – a personal reflection on being & becoming

integrationIn my newfound, barely three-month old state of retirement’s liberty from the all-consuming labor of active ministry, I have begun to take (find?) the time and give the energy to face an inner struggle between Paul the person and Paul the priest. Long have I experienced these two facets of my ontological self-understanding as distinct; at times, as close as “kissin’ cousins” and, at other times, nearly polar entities. In the latter state of association (or disassociation), usually I allowed the priestly image (i.e., the outward projection of what I believed a priest should be and do) to overwhelm, consume my identity as a person. Great confusion would erupt when the natural drives and desires of my will as a person came to the surface, beckoning, demanding access to the persona, that channel of the expression of myself (my self) to the world.

Now, in the vigor of retirement, I believe that I see finally, and with the confidence of consistency, how to reconcile these two parts of me; welcoming my “person” home from the land of aimless wanderment, at times, estrangement that exists somewhere in the recesses of my unconscious.

I, Paul, am a person with all the history and memory, thoughts and feelings, wants and needs, intentions and actions, words and deeds appertaining to my humanness, thus, akin to and distinct from all persons in that these appurtenances are of the hue and texture of my individual mental and emotional, physical and spiritual fabric and makeup. I also am a priest who was first and always created by God to be this particular person.

If I am to be whole or as I, by the grace of God’s Spirit-guidance, will to be and become (and remain) whole, then the priest is to be expressed through this, my person and not the other way ‘round.

i wonder why – musing on Easter Day afternoon

For the first time in over 40 years, I wasn’t in, at, with the church, the gathered community, on Easter Day. An inveterate, zealous observer of time (believing it to be a useful tool, really, a gift of necessity aiding my being who I am and being where I intend to be and when), I was dressed and heading toward the door. A step away from crossing the threshold, I stopped. Something clicked or didn’t click.

This afternoon, I’ve given time to reflection. I wonder why.

As human, I believe that I am (dare I think each of us is?) an “iceberg” with my unconscious, that ever present “underwater”, under the surface realm of my unknowing, being the larger part of my self. Hence, as the Apostle Paul’s observation, “now we see in a mirror, dimly,” applies, there is much that I do not, cannot know about my motivation or, in this instant case, demotivation.

Still, I wonder why.

The obvious reason is that I am retired clergy. This was my first Easter Day when I didn’t have to be in, at, with the church. I was free to be “off the clock.”

But that’s not it. Of all the aspects of ministry, worshiping (truly, being) with the community is one of my chiefest joys. I thrill at the sight of the people gathered. The sound of many voices raised in song and prayer. The rhythm of the liturgy, both ancient in origin and form and, in the actualized moment of day and time, made modern through the real-time participation of flesh-and-blood folk.

Yet, as my mind and heart continue to circle, like a moth to flame, around the reality of my retirement, I think I see the proverbial and virtual light of self-understanding.

This was my first Easter Day that I had no hand in planning (also a chiefest joy!) – dreaming and designing, crafting and carrying out – the liturgy, from the Greek, leit ‘ourgia, “the work of the people.” And I missed it. Truth to tell, I missed, lost a part of me that matters. And in that loss, grieving that loss, I chose, perhaps unconsciously, but no less intentionally, to be alone today.

I trust that I shall adjust; finding again my bearings, my being. But for now, and at the least, having discovered, as I oft do, what I am thinking and feeling, indeed, where and who I am once I’ve said or written it, I no longer wonder why.

retirement = change & transition – reflections on the first days, concluded (for now!)

Transition modelReflecting personally on William Bridges’ model, there are three stages of transition that accompany change:

*The end of the familiar,

*The neutral zone. The bridge stage between the end of the familiar and the new beginning; characterized by desiring the old and dreaming of (imagining, imaging) the new. (No surprise that the Exodus story of the Israelites’ journey from Egypt, that neutral, interim preparatory period of pilgrimage, contains the 10 Commandments and other laws to govern the people’s conduct in their coming new life in the Promised Land), and

*The new beginning. The stage of acceptance of change, openness to learning, and commitment to engage (to shape and to be shaped by) the new environment, which will become the next familiar.

I’m at the beginning of the end of my familiar. In 37½ years of parish ministry, despite the cultural and racial, time and place differences among the congregations I’ve served, my role and responsibilities generally were similar.

Now, it’s done. But it’s not been done long enough (only since last Sunday) for me to have a daily sense of its done-ness. Intellectually, I know I’m retired, but existentially, regarding what I think and how I feel, I might well be on a vacation week looking to return to work next Sunday (though to the surprise, doubtless the shock of the people of St. Mark’s!).

Nevertheless, as I continue to traverse this stage of the end of my familiar, with its inevitable increases in the introductions of change, with its accompanying uncertainties, what I think I can anticipate is my emotional discomfort and resistance.

I like to think of myself as an adaptable person, able and willing to adjust to change. Still, as human, I’m subject to what I term the “pleasure principle” of finding comfort in the familiarity of no surprises and few unknowns. Moreover, I confess that I’m somewhat of a negativist. I tend to expect the worst (a life’s lesson learned at my mother’s knee). I look at the world rarely as a glass half empty and almost never half full (but, truth to tell, in search of the glass!). Hence, I predict (although remaining mindful that what I envisage may become a self-fulfilling prophecy) that I’ll experience some anxiety, perhaps a bit of denial of change with a desire to clutch tightly the known, and maybe a bit of frustration, even fear and anger. Over the past several weeks, so many kindly well-intentioned folk have said, “Paul, you must be excited!” “Yes,” I’ve replied, “and I’ve come to understand that excitement, like so many of life’s realities, exists on a continuum. Elation on one end, terror on the other, with gradations between.” So, as the final days and hours counted down to this moment in time, I found myself thinking about feeling delight and dread, and visualizing the varying degrees on the scale.

All this said, day by day, as I enter more deeply into the end of my familiar, I pledge:

*To acknowledge all of my thoughts and feelings, whether hopeful or unhappy, cheery or dyspeptic;

*To accept my resistance (for, as a wise soul once said, “Resistance is energy, which beats apathy any day and can be turned toward good ends!”); and

*To allow time and opportunity to express what I think and feel to myself and with others, especially those I perceive to be thoughtful and empathetic listeners and particularly those who, as successful retirees enjoying retirement, can advise me that though one world has come to an end, as long as I have breath and strength, another has dawned, awaiting my presence and participation.

As for the neutral zone and the new beginning, I plan to write about those stages of change and transition when I get there!

retirement = change & transition – reflections on the first days

37½ years of active ministry. From my July 1977 ordination as a deacon in the Episcopal Church, then as a priest in April 1978. Service in five congregations in Missouri, Chicago, Charleston, SC, and Washington, DC. To this last weekend’s wondrously generous, warmly loving Saturday night party and final Sunday liturgies at St. Mark’s, Capitol Hill, a community of spiritual breadth, intellectual and emotional depth, and rambunctious vitality, expressed in free-thinking, open-questioning, liberal-mindedness, that I’ve been privileged to serve as rector for the past 16½ years.

It’s been a grand run. All of it. The good and bad moments, the successes and failures, the times of clarity and crisis. I am grateful for it. All of it. For all of it constitutes shared life freely, fully, faithfully lived.

Yes, it’s been a grand run. Now, it’s done. And, with my wife Pontheolla, in co-owning and operating our B&B in Spartanburg, SC, Clevedale Historic Inn and Gardens, I have a place to go and a wealth of things to do. Yet that will come soon enough. For now, right now, I have a moment or rather I will take a moment, a few moments to think about change and transition.

No one likes change. Or so I’ve oft heard folk say. I’m not sure I believe that. I think that none of us likes certain changes. Discomfiting change for one is another’s long sought transformation, and vice-versa. (Here, I use “one” in a universal way; believing that the principle of what works for one may not work for another is equally applicable whether the subject is one person, one family, tribe, or clan, one community or culture, one city, state, region, nation, continent, or world.)

Applying this to myself in my here-and-now-state-of-retirement, I anticipate that, at one moment, I will be comfortable with change and, in the next, not. I also imagine that it is possible that at another moment I will experience both ease and unrest!

I am calmed by a distinction made by William Bridges, author of Managing  Transitions (which, though written with organizations in mind, given my universal use of “one”, I consider true for me as an individual): Change and transition are necessarily related, but essentially not the same.

Change (I think of aging) is beyond my intent and control, my want and need. And whether I adjudge change good or bad, it happens. Transition is an internal process regarding how I think and feel about the change I experience. Change also can occur speedily; transition usually more slowly.

More tomorrow…