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)

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

seemingly

(Jesus) entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10.38-42)

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (1655), Jan Vermeer van Delft (1632-1675)

Today, according to the Episcopal Church calendar, is the feast day of Mary and Martha of Bethany. I love these two sisters and the Bible’s honest portrayal of a bit of domestic discord; a seemingly fussy Martha fuming at a seemingly indolent Mary for not lending a hand in the kitchen.

I say “seemingly”, first, in defense of both. Each, in her way, offered the sacred duty of hospitality to Jesus. Martha in her meal preparation (though perhaps in her harried state, raising a banging-pots-and-pans ruckus!). Mary in her attentive (and, in her era, as a woman sitting at the feet of a rabbi, radical) act of listening to Jesus’ teaching.

I say “seemingly”, secondly, in defense of Mary. For many years, whenever I’ve preached this text, whatever my intended point, most folk (their perceptions, I think, consciously or unconsciously influenced by a Protestant work ethic) take sides, applauding Martha’s industry whilst demeaning Mary’s lethargy; though there are a few who see in Mary a model disciple of one who sits to learn God’s word, eventually rising to do God’s will.

Whether Martha or Mary, in this choosing, championing one over the other, I observe that we humans have an affection or at least an appreciation for the seeming (ah, there’s a form of that word again!) certainty of either-or. As I read and reflect on this story, I choose both-and; Martha and Mary representing, respectively, the active and contemplative aspects of our human nature.

By application, I experience daily, no, constantly an inner tension between my human doing and my human being. To date, given my formative and engrained familial tutelage, my doing has framed my sense of my self far more than my being; though my intuition tells me it should be the other way ‘round! So, refusing to choose one or the other, what if I sought to become an active contemplative and a contemplative actor? What if, in all of my doing, I always sought to bring to conscious remembrance and guidance the teachings of Jesus? What if, in all of my study of God’s word, I always sought to envision what it would look like if, when I was doing it?

My dearest sisters, Martha and Mary, whether in the scripture or within me, I love you. Each and both. Equally. So, together let us sit to learn and rise to do, always and in all ways.

 

Illustration: Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (1655), Jan Vermeer van Delft  (1632-1675)

honesty

For the past few months or so, whilst approaching, then turning, now being 65 (and all the American societal associations that attend this historic age-marker), I’ve spent a goodly part of my daily morning meditations focusing, increasingly more than I have before, on my mortality. My reflections have been deepened by the July 17th first anniversary of the death of Tim Veney, my dearest male friend, truly my proverbial “brother from another mother”, who departed this life at the far-far-too-soon age of 66. Taken together, I, an inveterate existentialist, have been led to ask myself, more than I have before, that conventional question of identity: Who am I?

On the beneficial side, sensing an internal movement, I’m aware that I’m progressing farther along my personal pilgrimage of continuing to become my authentic, honest-to-goodness, honest-with-others, honest-to-God self. In this, I’ve also encountered disappointment with myself that I’m not better than I would like to be; indeed, that, by now, I’m not better than I already would have liked to have been. At times, when good health and God’s help seem, are beyond my grasp, I confess that my despair overwhelms my prayers.

Yesterday, Pat, an old (or rather I should, I’d better say long-lived) friend, called. She asked me to pray with her about a pressing concern. Being dear friends, I felt free to respond honestly. “I’m in a dark place,” adding, only somewhat in jest, channeling Voltaire, “God and I may not be on speaking terms today.” Pat, one of the most compassionate, discerning, and prayerful people I know, laughed and said, “I understand.” Then, without a hint of self-righteousness, she told me that when she’s in a similar place she prays with greater earnest. “I dare to face of my own disappointment, even disbelief, because it’s about me being honest, yes, with God, and with me.”

I thank my dear friend for her helpful, healing word. She, perhaps without intending it, reminded me that the risk of honesty is not in risking honesty or, at least, the risk of honesty doesn’t end once honesty is risked. Rather, it begins and remains. Even more, Pat reaffirmed for me that being honest, which, at times, rather paradoxically, feels like, is like dying, is one essential element of the truest living of continuing to become who I am meant to be, might be, can be.

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.

my defenses: my protection or my prison – a personal reflection on human behavior, part 7

Yesterday, I considered myself done, at least for the moment, in reflecting on human behavior. Yet, as oft happens with me, I had the proverbial second thought. Something else came to mind…

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Years ago, I had the privilege of working with a wonderful therapist, who (at times, working me over, pummeling, sometimes gently, sometimes not, my defense mechanisms into submission) helped me continue my journey toward that psychic land of a larger, more authentic me.

At the end of one of our weekly sessions, she asked me what I had learned about myself. I looked at her, my eyes wide with incredulity. I couldn’t believe that she wanted the always loquacious me to (try to) compress my ever-expanding-thoughts-and-exploding-feelings into the limitations of the final five minutes of our standard 50-minute-hour. “OK,” she laughed, nodding knowingly, “when we meet next week, first thing, tell me.”

I had seven days to prepare; the same time frame in which I composed weekly sermons. I could do it, but, with that much time, my native skepticism arose. Would my response be what I thought she wanted to hear (chameleonic behavior being one of my trusty default positions)[1] or a word of heartfelt honesty? Or a bit of both? And, if that, then how much of each? Indeed, even if that, would I know how much of each? After days of wrestling, like Jacob with the angel (perhaps, for me, with the devil!), I decided to be truthful or, truth be told, as truthful as I knew how to be.

At our appointed time, we met. I said (I know this, for I read from notes I had scribbled in a journal that still sits tucked away on the end of the bottom shelf of my bookcase): “I have learned that I’m good, very good at two things. Repression. I bury painful thoughts and feelings, believing I can make myself unaware of them. But they arise in my dreams, sometimes nightmares. Sometimes the symbols are difficult to decipher, but, given how I react in the dream, I know what they represent. And rationalization. I justify my behavior, especially the worst of it (for example, when I disregard another person’s feelings) by citing acceptable reasons (for example, what I’m doing at the time is more important because it involves the greater good of serving more people). In doing this, I disavow my real motivations, which usually are selfish.”

Resting her pensive chin on her folded hands, she said, “Good.”

Good? (I thought, but didn’t dare say) That’s it? Good? No accolades? No praise? No brownie-and-a-gold-star prize for perspicacity?

Reading my thoughts, she said softly, “Paul, you don’t need my approval. Even if I gave it, what would it matter? This is about you. And what you’ve named for yourself are defenses we all have. Now, are you ready and willing to let them go?”

What? Now, I did speak. “Let go of my defenses and be defenseless? No!”

Even softer, she said, “Paul, you’re one of the most well-defended people I know. What I suggest is that you assess when your defenses, which we all need, no longer serve as protection, but have become your prison.”

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That conversation on a Tuesday afternoon over twenty years ago, gave me an enduring image and an abiding awareness, both of which continue to guide me to my healthier self.

The image. Protective armor that serves, verily, that suits me well as I remain a given size. As I continue to grow in the depth of my knowledge of myself, the world around me, others, and God, and, concomitantly, in the breadth of my personality, that defensive armor, becoming, being too small, constrains, suffocates, imprisons me.

The awareness. That a healthy, helpful behavior is the power – the ability and willingness – to respond to life’s fluctuating circumstances and fickle chance not rigidly following my old-once-effective-patterns-and-habits, but rather with flexibility in accord with my ever-evolving understandings of who I am and how life is.

Through the light of this consciousness, I saw and see that I am (and I daresay we are) alway in the simultaneous process of being who we are and becoming who we will be. This realization also gave and gives to me new meaning to the words of my namesake, the Apostle Paul: “…as for knowledge, it will come to an end…when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.”[2] In one sense, Paul, speaking of “the complete”, alludes to that future time, truly out of time, when God’s eternal kingdom of righteousness is fully realized. In another sense, I perceive in Paul’s observations of the movement from partial to complete, from childhood to adulthood the daily, existential cycles of growth in knowledge and awareness that are possible in this life in this world…if I choose to embark and remain on that journey.

Amen.

 

Footnotes:

[1] See my previous post, October 18: “and…authenticity & toxicity” – a personal reflection on human behavior, part 6 (and last), paragraph 2, where I wrote of “a chameleonic trap (of) adjusting what I do and say, even what I think to adapt to others’ expectations.”

[2] 1 Corinthians 13.8b, 10-12

hate: a Christian family value?

preaching a sermon, based on Luke 14.25-33, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 16th Sunday after Pentecost, September 4, 2016

“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife (though not stated in the passage, I shall assume “and husband” is included!), children, brothers and sisters, even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”

How’s that for a Christian family value?

After two millennia, this saying still startles the ear, jars the soul, especially given the importance, the preeminence Christians place on love, agape, unconditional benevolence that is “patient (and) kind…that bears and believes, hopes and endures all things”[1] as the fundamental manifestation of our redemption and the principal demonstration of our faith in “God (who) is love,”[2] “God (who) so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son.”[3]

So, what’s up with hate? Or to paraphrase a contemporary song, what’s hate got to do with it? (As an aside, sometimes I think we need to gather for worship wearing padded protective clothing and crash helmets, and strapping ourselves into our pews with seat belts for the ride’s bound to be bumpy!)

Now, sharing “a secret” hidden in the Greek text, the word, miseō, translated “hate,” literally means “to love less.” Thus, Jesus isn’t calling us to dislike, much less despise our loved ones; whether understood literally or as metaphors for anything we hold dear. Rather, we are to love them – in attitude and action, how we feel and what we do – less than we love Jesus.

In the earliest days of the Jesus-movement, this was necessary counsel. To follow Jesus meant leaving one’s historical, inherited cultural patterns and ritual practices, provoking conflict with one’s entire society. However, most western post-modernists have no such concerns. When was the last Sunday morning any of us, even in our time of heightened terrorism, some of it religious in origin and nature, fretted, feared being hated, killed because we planned to be here?

So, how do we interpret: “Whoever does not hate family, even life cannot be my disciple”?

Among myriad interpretations, this saying highlights the tension between our values, symbolized by family and life, where we find our identity and security and a larger life beyond the boundaries of our identity and security, symbolized by discipleship. The tension between the realities that we won’t, we can’t hate or love less our values because they define and determine who we are and a life of discipleship that constantly calls into question our always self-oriented, therefore, inherently, no matter how big and wide, small values. Living with (not seeking to escape) the tension, we need to hold on to what we value lest we lose our sense of who we are and to Jesus who calls us to follow him lest we lose sight of who we can become.

The point? You and I, I believe, always are doing two things at once – being who we are and, ever changing, evolving, growing, becoming who we will be. Thus, there is meaning, a sense of the significance of our existence that we make and find in our closest, dearest relationships. Meaning also is revealed in moments when life’s mystery breaks into our ordered lives and we perceive something greater than or at least as real as anything we already know. Said another way, there is meaning in who we are and what we have or possess. There also is meaning in what we wish we were, but are not yet; disclosed in moments of mystery when the difference between our “real” self and our “ideal” self comes to light.

Early in my ministry, I thought the most important thing was to be capable. For me, that meant being especially knowledgeable of theology and history, the Bible and its application to our lives, so to be for the people I served a living, breathing repository of certainty, a walking, talking storehouse of answers to life’s most critical questions.

The Reverend Wayland Edward Melton, Diocesan Staff, Diocese of Southern Ohio, 4-15-78

A dearest friend, fellow seminarian, and later, fellow priest, the late, great Wayland Edward Melton,[4] who taught me more than anyone about the act and the art of being a priest, preacher, pastor, and person, at one moment in time, was in crisis. The details, as sacrosanct, I cannot and dare not share. Suffice it to say that what he had thought was true about himself and God, about life and the world was brought into agonizing question. Weeping, his body shaking, his voice breaking, Wayland poured out his spiritual and existential struggle to me. One tick of a second after he finished his saga, I “answered” with an on-point and brilliant discursus on the human quest for truth based on the epistemology of that great 13th century Doctor of the Church, Thomas Aquinas…

St Thomas Aquinas, Sandro Botticelli (1444-1510)

Wayland listened intently, a single, silent tear trailing down his cheek. With kind eyes, he looked at me and said softly, “Paul, I never worry about your competency, but I often wonder about your compassion.” In that instant, I realized ruefully I’d dreadfully missed the point. Wayland didn’t need or want me to do or say anything, but rather to be with him in his pain so that he would be assured that he was not alone. Wayland, in his compassionate response, was an ‘angelos, an angel, God’s messenger, speaking a word of life’s mystery breaking into my orderly sense of my reality to reveal the ideal.

That one experience among many confirms for me that to follow Jesus, to love him more and to love less everyone and everything else, even my precious point of view is to live in the tension of always holding on to the real while always reaching for the ideal, and always being prepared to relinquish the real that the ideal may become real.

 

Photograph: Saturday, April 15, 1978, Calvary Episcopal Church, Columbia, Missouri, the occasion of my Ordination to the Sacred Order of Priests. Wayland was the preacher.

Illustration: St. Thomas Aquinas, Sandro Botticelli (1444-1510)

Footnotes:

[1] 1 Corinthians 13.4a, 7

[2] 1 John 4.16

[3] John 3.16

[4] The Very Rev. Dr. Wayland Edward Melton (1949-1997), sometime dean of the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral (1996-1997).