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…


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)


(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)

she speaks up…finally!

Martha and MaryJesus visits Martha and Mary. Martha’s in the kitchen breaking a sweat, bustin’ pots and pans to prepare a meal for her guest as Mary listens to his teaching. Martha wants her sister’s help. Jesus reproves her fussy hospitality, praising the generosity of Mary’s attention.

The quality of greeting, offering what the guest most wants, is essential. Still, I sympathize with Martha. As human, I believe my qualitative sense of worth comes from being created in imago Dei, in God’s image. Yet I also still hear an inner voice (after all these years, sounding like my parents!) that counts my value in quantitative terms of doing – the more, the better.

I side with Martha for another reason. Kindness. The host’s responsiveness to the guest is important. So, too – when the host has given the best she can – is the guest’s mutual hospitality and generosity expressed in the gratitude of offering a heartfelt “thank you”; surely never a reprimand, however mild, well-intended, and instructive.

In the Cain and Abel story, another tale of rejection and acceptance, God, without cause, dismissed Cain’s harvest fruits, gladly receiving Abel’s lambs from his flock. A dispirited Cain committing fratricide, the Bible’s first murder. Martha had good sense not to throttle Mary, at least not in front of Jesus, who, as the authority, perhaps is less callous, but no less capricious than the God of Genesis. And though he, in a first century counter-cultural act, welcomes Mary, a woman, as his student, he, in dismissing Martha, acts in a decidedly culturally commonplace manner.

I don’t know what Martha thought or felt, or what she may have wanted to say in her defense. Standing with her, I offer this possibility…

Martha spun on her heel, storming back into the kitchen, the rebuke of her friend ringing in her ears. She tried her best. Wasn’t that good enough?

And what was the learned rabbi trying to teach her? She had overheard his word to her sister. A parable about a “neighbor” being anyone in need and being a good neighbor by lending help. That was provocative, especially with a Samaritan in the starring role, and worthy of consideration. After all, Mary wasn’t the only one given to prayerful contemplation. But now was not the time for idle hands! Besides, being helpful was what she was trying to do. And there was a meal to finish and the stew almost burned. What would Jesus have her do? Throw it out and start over? Serve nothing at all? Never!

Martha took the pot off the fire and headed out of the kitchen. For a moment, standing in the doorway, she gazed at Jesus speaking to Mary, who adoringly looked into his eyes. She cleared her throat.

“Jesus, I’m very sorry, but I’m still distracted by many tasks! And I’ve thought about what you said. ‘Martha, come out of the kitchen. And don’t fuss. Mary has chosen the better part.’ Chosen? Ha! Who wouldn’t choose the ‘one needful thing’ if she had a choice and if only one thing was needful and if there wasn’t a houseful of people? You and your hungry disciples! Mary chooses to listen to you. Great! Who feeds you and, I repeat, all your disciples? You who fed 5000 at a time because they were hungry and you loved them enough not to send them away. You who told a parable about sheep and goats, the sheep inheriting God’s kingdom because they, welcoming and feeding the neediest, welcome and feed you! “See, I have paid attention! And that is what I’m trying to do! Welcome and feed you!

“And here’s another needful thing. It’s all about love. Food and drink. Pots and pans. Preparing and setting the table, and cleaning up after you. That’s one way I show my love for you. That, Jesus, is my instruction about what’s going on here.

“Now, you didn’t ask me, but let me give you some advice. I think you need to re-think your teaching so it makes sense out here in the kitchen. In fact, Mary, stay right where you are. Jesus, you get up and follow me!”