My Dearest Readers…

In the wake of another terror-inspired attack on American soil, I share excerpts of the sermon, The Practice of Peace, A Service of Healing in a Time of Tragedy, that I preached whilst rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Capitol Hill, Washington, DC, on September 16, 2001, the Sunday immediately following 9/11.

As I review and reflect on the words I uttered then, they continue to resonate within me as expressive of what I believe to be God’s way and will in what I perceive to be our increasingly dangerously wildly woolly world – replete, generally I see, with violence of all sorts in all places at all times and, particularly I think, with an American presidential campaign laden with elements of isolationism and nationalism of a prejudicial kind.

At the least, these words bespeak how I strive to live, which, in the truest sense, is always the most I daily can do.

Love, Paul

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…In our quest for a restoration of wholeness, tensions – those simultaneous, powerful counter pulls and pushes of thought and feeling within society and within our individual selves – abound…

On one side, we yearn to live in a free society “of the people, by the people, for the people”, where one’s words and actions are not overly circumscribed or overtly constrained by law. On another side, in such a society not only are the just and the righteous free, but also the unjust and the unrighteous. And we have been reminded tragically that terrorism is no longer…in some land far away, but daily festers and can flare up on our very doorstep. Hence, we long to feel safe, to be safe, which, if past responses to tragedy are any indication, often requires the imposition of restrictions…on our freedom and perhaps on our privacy…

On one side, we desire to get to “the other side” of our grieving, to reach, once again, that state of normalcy, that sense of personal safety. On another side, we recognize, even now, that when we get there, our senses of normalcy and safety will be illusory. We always are personally vulnerable, our choices notwithstanding, to changing circumstance and uncontrollable chance…

On one side, there are those who, in the midst of crisis, seek the sustaining hand of God with a faith that continues to hope in the constancy of divine care in spite of or even because of all appearances to the contrary. On another side, there are those who have no use for God. If religion, a theological enterprise concerned with the relationship between divinity and humanity, can be seen in any way to have been a trigger for this tragedy, as has been proven in multiple tragedies in human history, then one might fairly ask what good can come out of religion? Indeed, what good is God? Or one may wonder who is this God in whose name such violence is inspired or what is this human hubris that fashions a vengeful face of God?

We search for peace.

Jesus speaks of a peace “not as the world gives.” [1] This is a spiritual peace that points to the end, for it is the peace of eternal salvation, of Jesus’ abiding presence, of an unassailable, inseparable connection between earth and cosmos, humanity and divinity, now and forever. Today, however, I look not to eschatological end times, but rather at our now times, looking for a pathway to this peace.

This peace has nothing to do with the avoidance of trial or the absence of tribulation, but rather with our acknowledgement of our troubles. This peace has nothing to do with our bringing an end to our tensions and a beginning of some sentimental spirit of well-being, but rather with our facing and our wrestling with all that torments us, both from without and from within.

This peace has everything to do with our reaching constantly around the barriers we erect to keep out all that disturbs us, reaching across boundaries of difference…internal and external between our faith and our fears, our hunger for security and our acknowledgement of countless circumstances beyond…our control.  Around barriers and across boundaries racial and cultural, among black, brown, red, white, and yellow and, yes, between America and the Arab world.  Around barriers and across boundaries philosophical and theological, among Christians, Jews, Muslims, and others.

This peace has everything to do with our constant embrace of “the other” beyond tolerance in a bond of mutual acceptance, understanding, and respect, even celebration. This peace has everything to do with a vision of radical diversity and inclusivity…

This is the peace of God that passes all understanding,[2] for it makes no sense to embrace difference, particularly at times of turmoil and tragedy when our human instinct is not diversity and inclusion, but rather seclusion and exclusion.

Is the pathway to this peace comfortable? No. Is it even desirable in accord with our human druthering? No. Yet, in the words of the hymn, this is “the peace of God (that) is no peace, but strife closed in the sod.” Yet, also in the words of that hymn and in the words of our hearts, “let us pray for but one thing — the marvelous peace of God.”[3]

 

Footnotes:

[1] John 14.27

[2] Philippians 4.7

[3] From the hymn, They cast their nets in Galilee, The Hymnal 1982, #661, verse 4.

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right & wrong place & time

Last night, Pontheolla and I joined friends at a local eatery and bar to listen to Coconut Grove, a Charlotte, NC, based (but-close-enough-to-consider-Spartanburg-SC-home) band. They were great. The song list, wide and varied. The musicianship, literally and figuratively electric. The vocal harmonies, rich. The place was packed. The mood, highly spirited and responsive; folk happily singing along with the band. The proverbial good time was had by all.

And then, I don’t know why, the thought occurred to me. What if one of us in that room had a gun? And what if that one (or more?) of us with a gun, driven by whatever motivation – conscious and unconscious, whether long-ago experienced hurt coupled with misplaced, misguided anger or focused, targeted rage at someone or multiple ones there and elsewhere or for some other cause, clear or inchoate – opened fire?

Again, I don’t know why I thought it, but I did think it, if only for an instant, and then, I let it go, allowing myself to be reabsorbed by the celebratory atmosphere. So, it was that I was in the right place at the right time.

The same sadly cannot be said for my sisters and brothers in our human family of Orlando, Florida. They did not have the freedom to be festive, verily, to remain free from fear. For a gunman, Omar Mateen, was that one in a crowd who opened fire. They, 49 murdered, 53 wounded, were the victims in the latest mass shooting; for now (for a sorrowful, even cursory review of our recent national past raises the specter that it will happen again) the worse incident, as we humans count carnage, in American history.

The investigation continues. It may be proved that Mateen, who openly espoused Islamic State sympathies, engaged in an act of domestic terrorism. Or that he, driven by animus toward the gay community, sought to strike at the heart of our American liberties to love and live with those of our calling and choosing (for the murders took place at the Pulse nightclub whose mission, in addition to human joyful, peaceful celebration, is the promotion of awareness of the LGBTQIA community). At the proverbial end (and at the beginning and at the middle) of the day, I believe unfettered, unfiltered hatred was the defining impulse.

As I grieve for the dead and the wounded, for their families and friends, and for all who love the law of liberty and who, in mutual respect, are lawful in the pursuit of the liberties they love, I believe that the hostilities that inspired Omar Mateen to open fire also beat, pulse in the hearts of many. Thus, who among us knows or can know where and when will be the next wrong place, wrong time? I don’t know. You don’t know. No one knows. Perhaps it will be where and when Pontheolla and I or those we love or you and those you love will be some anywhere at some anytime.

When I was growing up, my father frequently advised, “Son, you’re only as good as your last good deed.” By that he meant to encourage me to do good (although his counsel also had the unintended effect of teaching me that my value rested on what I did, not on who I was; that action, indeed, achievement as the world judges accomplishment was greater than character). Moments in space and time of mass murder, coupled with all other catastrophes nature made or at human hands, reaffirm my belief that my last good deed, indeed, might be my last deed. Hence, this day forward, I renew my pledge to pray the strength of God’s Spirit to live conscious of and committed to love with unconditional benevolence toward all.