a restless prayer in perilous times

my-hands-2-27-17O Lord, our God, our times are perilous; our days o’ershadowed by threat of war, our nights, enshrouded by fear of what sorrow, whether on this land or half a world away, may befall before next light. Rocketry’s spears aim skyward, targets in sight, tipped with bombs; the only purpose of launch to rain doom and death. Leaders, comme des enfants terribles, trumpeting infantile bellicose threats of annihilation, disfigure the face of diplomacy and threaten to make nonviolent, even if uneasy resolution less an imagined ideal and more an impossibility.

O Lord, our God, though You ne’er herald our liberty from all trial and tribulation nor that our hearts ne’er will be made anxious by what transpires in time and space at the hands of despotic human wills, You alway assure, come what may, come whene’er, as Your Apostle saith, “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from (Your) love in Christ Jesus our Lord.”[1] By Your Spirit, O Lord, our God, speaking, breathing through us “with sighs too deep for words,”[2] let us pray for Your presence and power to cleave to the impregnable peace of this Your eternal promise.

Amen.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Romans 8.38-39

[2] Romans 8.26

an epistemological epiphany about life and legacy

My mother named me after St. Paul. (Perhaps she knew something!) I’ve always had a kinship with the Apostle; one of his words long being a touchstone for me: Now we see in a mirror dimly…Now I know only in part.[1]

It never ceases to amaze me how much I don’t know. About anything. God. The creation. Others. Myself. In this daily state of conscious ignorance, I also always am amazed when an epiphany, especially about myself (which, of the four aforementioned things, I think I should know most well, but oft do not!) dawns. It usually happens in a moment of sheer serendipity, verily, from that proverbial realm “out of nowhere.”

It happened today. I was in conversation with a friend, Carolyn. Our subjects of interest, covering a wide range – meditation, prayer, God, eternal life, reincarnation – had a common core of spiritual beliefs and practices and, even more, epistemology, and that, still more, in its most basic sense concerning how we know what we know.

I spoke of my life as a writer, mostly sermons, but also poetry, novellas, and my blog. I told Carolyn that usually I never know where the words will take me until I arrive at an “Aha!” moment of deepened self-awareness.

William John Abernathy

As an aside, I referenced my blog post of yesterday – at some point (thinking ahead, thinking back)… – a personal reflection about my father, which Carolyn had read.

And then, it happened. “Aha!”

For years, truly, so long ago that I cannot recall my first awareness, I’ve loved history; the chronicle of human life in time and space is a principle lens through which I perceive reality. And as a philosophical and theological existentialist, I long have been enamored by the questions of identity and destiny; constantly asking myself who am I and who am I becoming as a person, as a creation of God?

PRA 6-19-16

In yesterday’s blog post, I wrote of my father’s largely vain pursuit of his history and identity. And it wasn’t until today as Carolyn and I talked that I realized that I bear in my blood and in my bones my father’s legacy. I now know that I, on my father’s behalf and for myself, live to fulfill his quest.

 

 

Footnote:

[1] 1 Corinthians 13.12

reputation

Trinity Episcopal Church, Washington, DC

On January 10, 1989, I was installed as rector of Trinity Episcopal Church, Washington, DC. The presider at that grand occasion was the then Bishop of Washington, the late, great John Thomas Walker.[1]

John Thomas Walker

John, a man of abiding faith and unassailable courage, was an institutional and social reformer of the first order; waging the good fight of inclusion in a church and a world that then wrestled, and sadly still grapples, at times, unrepentantly, with the issues, the realities of discrimination of all sorts. Though having risen to a lofty position, John, genuinely humble, did not think of himself, in the words of the Apostle, more highly than he ought.[2] He also was exceedingly insightful and gracious; able to make his point with a subtle turn of phrase and an earnest smile and without bludgeoning the hearts and minds of those with whom he disagreed (a characteristic mournfully missing from today’s American public political and ecclesial arenas).

This last noble trait comes to mind. During my installation, John, discerning (and keen to temper) my then overweening sense of self, whispered in my ear, “Remember, Paul, one’s good reputation in the eyes of the world is oft maintained by the silence of family and friends.” I recall being taken aback, not sure entirely what he meant, yet sensing an inner resonance of truth. O’er the years, many times, I’ve reflected on John’s good counsel. Indeed, those who know, for better and for worse, one’s behind-the-scenes persona, by their reticence, serve to uphold one’s best-foot-forward public image. And, a long time ago, I added “the silence of one’s enemies”, who, I believe, view us sometimes with a less than charitable clear-eyed honesty than our families and friends.

A friend and fellow priest, Rob Brown, recently shared a perception he had received from another, which I, in pondering, consider searingly, starkly spot-on: “Everyone has three selves. A public self known to the world, a private self known by kith and kin, and a secret self known only to one’s self.”

Speaking always and only for myself, this is true for me. I have a public face, which, though I’d like to believe in major part is sincere, is an outward expression of how I’d like to be viewed by others. I have a private face, which exposes more of my shadow-world, my ignoble traits, chiefly selfishness. And, yes, I have a secret self of thoughts and feelings, reflections and reminiscences to which I dare not give air and, deeper, those that are beyond the reach of my daily consciousness, appearing in the startling, scarifying images of dreams, nightmares. In this, how well I know, how oft I pray the words of the psalmist: Who can detect their errors? Cleanse me from my hidden faults.[3]

I wonder, too, as I look at myself in the mirror, knowing all that I know about me, including my awareness of what may lurk unseen and unknown within, how do I, who can maintain no silence from myself, preserve my good reputation with myself? In this, how well I know, how oft I pray the words of my namesake Apostle: I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?[4] And, in this, believing, knowing I cannot maintain my good reputation, for I have none, I, throwing myself afresh on the grace and mercy of a loving God, sing with Paul: Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord![5]

 

Footnotes:

[1] The Right Reverend John Thomas Walker (1925-1989), Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington (1977-1989) and Dean of the Washington National Cathedral (1978-1989).

[2] Romans 12.3

[3] Psalm 19.12

[4] Romans 7.21-24

[5] Romans 7.25

Paul’s (not my, but the Apostle’s!) law

1-22-17 a sermon, based on Romans 7.15-25 and Matthew 11.16-19, 25-30, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 5th Sunday after Pentecost, July 9, 2017

“When I want to do good, evil lies close at hand.”

Portrait of the Apostle Paul

I wish Paul had written autobiographically. Only for himself. Only about himself. But, no. Paul reflects on an aspect of our universal human experience, so constant in occurrence and comprehensive in influence that he calls it “a law.” Overlooking the potential confusion he creates by using “law” in multiple ways, his point is simply, profoundly this: We can’t keep the law!

The law. Guiding, governing rules that frame our lives and focus our living; whether the Mosaic law, Paul’s particular point of reference, or another set of precepts transcendent in origin, spiritual in scope or natural laws deduced from keen observation about the way things are in the world around us or some philosophical ethical civil code. Whatever. It doesn’t matter what the law is. For in our efforts to follow it, we repeatedly discover that we, in practice, according to the prayer, following “the devices and desires of our own hearts”,[1] won’t keep the law!

Here is the power of the law. It’s a two-edged sword, simultaneously cutting both ways. The law points to a higher truth, whether God or some honored virtue; enabling us to imagine it and, striving to do good, reach for it. And, as we always fail to do good always, the law reveals, exposes our inherent capacity to do what is not good, indeed, what is sinful.

Hence, here is the paradox of the law. It’s our finest dream and worst nightmare; a useful tool and a weighty burden.

I believe that everyone – whether individual, family, community, nation, me! – experiences this blessing and bane of the law.

Speaking for myself, as I age, I am clearer, nearly by the day, about the person I want to be and become. Wise. Knowledgeable about the world. Understanding. Able to apply that knowledge in the concrete circumstances of my daily living. Passionate for justice. Compassionate. Loving and patient, especially with those with whom I disagree. However, the more I behold who I want to be I also see how often I don’t reach for it, but rather retreat to the known and narrow confines of my present perspectives and prejudices. “When I want to do good, evil lies close at hand.”

I think of historically battle-scarred lands and peoples where the long, mutually recognized “good” of justice and peace is overshadowed by intractable conflict fraught and fought with the endless sins of generational resentment, rage, and revenge. “When humans want to do good, evil lies close at hand.”

I think of America. Once again, we have celebrated our nation’s birth. In recalling our founding principles, “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness”, we are reminded afresh and our honesty compels our confession of how far short we fall in guaranteeing these rights to all. We are a nation of enormous wealth where poverty resists resolution; making Jesus’ observation, “You always have the poor with you”,[2] stubbornly, sorrowfully true. We are a nation increasingly pluralistic where bigotry continues to raise its ugly head and to cry out in angry voice resisting the spirit of universal tolerance. “When we want to do good, evil lies close at hand.”

Whether the scale is large or small, whether the scope is personal, communal, national, or international, the same dis-ease infects and afflicts us all. Paul is right, “wretched” we are!

Here’s some good news. Whenever we come anew to this realization, we can cry with Paul, hoping there’s an answer, “Who will rescue us from this body – that is, this inherent, inescapable way of our living in this world – of death!” Whenever we ask that question, we can sing with Paul, knowing there’s an answer. “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” We with Paul praise God for Jesus, who, through his life and ministry, death and resurrection redeems us that through him we can fulfill the law!

This, I think, I believe, is what Jesus means: “Come to me, all you weary and heavy burdened…” Referring to the manifold stipulations of the Mosaic Law and any legal code, hard to remember, harder to do, Jesus offers in their place, one law, his law, his love. “Take my yoke (my love) upon you and learn (to love) from me…For my yoke (of love) is easy, my burden (of love) is light.”[3]

Double yoke for oxen, Musée de la civilisation à Québec

 

Illustrations:

Saint Paul, James Tissot (1836-1902)

Double yoke for oxen, Musée de la civilisation à Québec

Footnotes:

[1] From the Confession of Sin, Morning Prayer: Rite I, The Book of Common Prayer, page 41

[2] John 12.8

[3] Matthew 11.29a, 30, my parenthetical and italicized additions

discerning the Body

a sermon, based on 1 Corinthians 11.23-26, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on Maundy Thursday, April 13, 2017

“I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you.”

The Apostle Paul speaks of the tradition bestowed by Jesus that the Christian church, ever since, has understood as instituting the Eucharist.

On this Maundy Thursday, I bid that we focus on why Paul wrote as he did.

Looking at the biblical context at Paul’s immediately preceding words,[1] we see that his reference to the received tradition is an admonition to the Corinthians who had forgotten the table hospitality of the common agape or love feast. The Christians of Corinth, during their weekly gatherings for Eucharist, also would partake of a common meal (consider it an ancient potluck supper!), the food and drink brought by the various members. However, the practice, thus, the problem arose when folk ate and drank all of their provisions, leaving nothing to share with late arrivers, often slaves, servants, or laborers, in other words, the poor, who, thus, would be deprived of anything to eat.

Paul’s point about tradition, therefore, isn’t about Eucharistic etiquette. He isn’t instructing us to use the words, “This is my body…This cup is the new covenant in my blood”, over the bread and the wine (though we do!) or that we must use bread and wine (though we do!). And Paul’s point isn’t about Eucharistic theology. He isn’t theorizing about why we do Eucharist in remembrance of Jesus (though we do!). Paul’s point is about love and justice or rather its lack. He challenges the Corinthians’ indifference to the unconditional and universal care for all within the life of the community.

Looking again at the biblical context at Paul’s immediately succeeding words (words that the lectionary framers must have considered too harsh to be read in the polite company of the Christian community gathered for Eucharist!), we see the seriousness, the severity of his challenge to the Corinthians and to us: “All who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves.”[2]

One meaning of “discerning the body” is to see that the Eucharistic bread is the body, the real presence of Jesus through which he provides us with a physical means for our spiritual consumption of his very nature. Yet I believe that Paul wants us to see the holy presence, the sacred body of Jesus not only in the bread, but also in the gathered community, which is the body of Christ.[3]

Look around you. Behold the body of Jesus in us. Behold the body of Jesus is us.

Therefore, this Maundy Thursday and every time we gather, three things I pray…

That we see Jesus in us

That we see in the bread and wine spiritual food that we partake to strengthen our souls and spirits to love one another…

That, in that strength, we leave this place to seek, to see, and to love Jesus in every person we meet.

 

Footnotes:

[1] See 1 Corinthians 11.17-22

[2] 1 Corinthians 11.29 (italics added)

[3] See 1 Corinthians 12.27: Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.

a-Lenten-prayer-a-day, day 38, Maundy Thursday, April 13, 2017

my-hands-2-27-17Note: As a personal, spiritual discipline, I write a prayer for each of the forty days of Lent; each petition focusing on a theme, truly, relating to a care or concern weighing on my mind and heart, at times, vexing my soul and spirit…

The Last Supper (La Céne) (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902)

On Maundy[1] Thursday: O Jesus, on this day, recalling Your words, “My flesh is true food and My blood is true drink,”[2] I reverence Your institution of Your Supper, the Sacrament of the sacrifice of Your Body and Blood. As I partake of Your precious gift of Your Self, by Your Spirit, renew in me Your promise that “Those who eat My flesh and drink My Blood abide in Me, and I in them.”[3] Amen.

 

Illustration: The Last Supper (La Céne) (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902)

Footnotes:

[1] This day in Holy Week, in some Christian locales and practices, is called Holy Thursday. The word “maundy” is derived from the Latin mandatum; the first word of the phrase, Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos, “A new commandment I give unto you: That you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another” (John 13.34); that statement by which Jesus explained the significance of washing the feet of his disciples. “Maundy”, also drawn from the Latin mandare, meaning “to command”, references Jesus institution or establishment of the Lord’s Supper, saying, “Do this in remembrance of Me” (Luke 22.19; 1 Corinthians 11.24, 25).

[2] John 6.55

[3] John 6.56

a-Lenten-prayer-a-day, day 37, Wednesday in Holy Week, April 12, 2017

my-hands-2-27-17Note: As a personal, spiritual discipline, I write a prayer for each of the forty days of Lent; each petition focusing on a theme, truly, relating to a care or concern weighing on my mind and heart, at times, vexing my soul and spirit…

On dying & death in the spirit of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux (subtitle: I believe):[1] O Lord, I believe in mortality…

Daily, I examine the progression of life in this world and, e’en when peering through a lens of light and joy, there is, undeniably, “change and decay in all around I see.”[2]

And, daily, I experience the inexorable procession of mine aging; the “change and decay” in me of slower thought and shorter memory, sinew less supple and strength swifter spent.

Yea, so it is I believe that this life in this world is an inherently terminal proposition, and, one day, I know that I will die.

Yet, O Lord, I believe also (and more!) in You. I believe that You have not brought me this far to leave me.[3] I believe that on my dying day, as I have known what is temporal and spatial, physical and perishable, I forever finally fully will know what is spiritual and eternal.[4]

O Lord, by Your Spirit, grant me greater faith that, on my goin’ up yonder[5] day, I, with gratitude undying, fail not to fear not coming to You to behold You by sight face to face. Amen.

Footnotes:

[1] Saint Thérèse of Lisieux Saint Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897), Roman Catholic Carmelite nun revered for the simplicity and practicality of her approach to the spiritual life, on her deathbed was heard to have murmured, “I am not dying. I am entering into life.”

[2] From one of my favorite hymns, Abide with me, by Henry Francis Lyte (1793-1847). The full text of verse 2:

Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;

Earth’s joys grow dim; its glories pass away;

Change and decay in all around I see;

O Thou who changest not, abide with me.

[3] From the gospel song, I Don’t Feel No Ways Tired (1978) by Curtis Burrell:

I don’t feel no ways tired,

I come too far from where I started from.

Nobody told me that the road would be easy,

I don’t believe He brought me this far to leave me.

[4] This prayer is born out of my understanding of two of the Apostle Paul’s teachings: For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens…For while we are still in this tent, we groan under our burden, because we wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee (2 Corinthians 5.1, 4-5) and Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable…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” (1 Corinthians 15.50b, 53-54).

[5] My reference to the gospel song Goin’ Up Yonder (1994) by Walter Hawkins, especially the words: As God gives me grace I’ll run this race until I see my Savior face to face. I’m goin’ up yonder to be with my Lord.