the push and pull of mystery

I awoke this morning in a melancholy mood thinking about the cares that beset any human under the sun, the daily reminders of our limitations, the not (never?) having enough time, energy, or money (or any two or all three), in the face of our desires and needs, to complete, compete, or compensate.

Then I pushed beyond my personal, largely small cares, thinking about greater current woes of the world. Among them:

  • The horrific destruction of hearth and health and hope wrought by the winds and waves of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, and the tectonic tumult of earthquakes; turning verdant lands barren, bringing darkness, save for still-shining stars, to what seem endless nights, cancelling the coming day for the final closing of the eyes of the dying, and
  • The dread specter of rising, billowing nuclear clouds, and
  • The social, cultural unrest of an America stirred by the symbols of flags, anthems, and statues, and actions, whether to stand and salute or lock arms and kneel.

Then pulling back from these painful thoughts, as I oft do, I meditated on mystery – not a riddle to be resolved by human reason, but rather the reality of all things beyond human power to control, perhaps even human ability to understand and, thus, to amend.

mystery - Hubble telescope

My meditations provoked, as they always do, questions. Among them:

  • Why do, must people suffer?
  • Why, after centuries of observing and studying the futility of war to resolve disputes, do we, as peoples and nations, continue to lust for combat and long for conquest; the latter, given the superior and spreading nuclear capacity to destroy both enemy and self, being a fool’s goal?
  • Why, despite our best ambitions toward equality, do we continue to separate ourselves along lines, some invisible, yet all seemingly inerasable, of race and class, culture and clan, party and perspective; resulting in our apparent inability and unwillingness to acknowledge the existence of another point of view?
  • Why, long recognizing the incontestable truth that we occupy one planet (notwithstanding the dreams of lunar and Martian colonization) and that we form a global community of inseparable, interlocking interests, do we remain blinded by our prejudices, refusing to see the common humanity that we all irrefutably share?

Underneath these realities, as I behold them, lies unfathomable mystery. Understanding so little, I cannot answer my questions. One thing I do know. I cannot end suffering, war, inequality, prejudice, and a legion of human ills. However, as a person of faith, I can and do pledge to repent, daily, praying the Holy Spirit to make me more conscious of my:

  • time, energy, and money and how to use what I do have to serve, to share with my sisters and brothers of greater need;
  • anger, oft rooted in my sense of an affront to my personal honor and how to channel its virulent energy toward efforts to make peace with others and myself;
  • individuality of self and my commonality with all, so that in acknowledging the former I never disavow the latter;
  • biases and how to peer more deeply into the eyes of “the other” and mine own to behold our common God-given image.

I am not sure how this does, can, or will work. For I perceive it as mystery. By faith, I shall trust God, the greatest Mystery, to bring it to pass.

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Of life in the still-Christian South (a retired cleric’s occasional reflections)…

In Christ…

The St. Louis of my birth and formative years of the 1950s and 1960s was a segregated town. Blacks lived principally in the neighborhoods of the inner city and those running west and on the near north side. Whites lived largely on the south side, the far north side and, beyond the municipal boundaries, in the suburban areas.

In 1982, I was called to serve a church in Charleston, South Carolina. As I toured the city in search of housing, wherever I looked, though there were areas that were chiefly black or white, in the main, the neighborhoods were integrated. The realtor, noting my surprise, pointed out, in an airy, matter-of-fact fashion, a conspicuous reality of institutional slavery: “The distance between the master’s big house and the slave shacks was never that far.” His point. In the South, blacks and whites always lived in proximity. In this, I recall a Civil Rights Era maxim: “In the South, the white man doesn’t care how close the Negro gets, as long as he doesn’t get too high.”[1]

This apparent, what I deem, Southern racial/relational closeness comes to mind in light of a number of weddings that have been held at Clevedale Historic Inn and Gardens, Pontheolla’s and my Spartanburg, SC, bed and breakfast and events facility.

On more than one occasion, I’ve had my assumptions (read: biases) overthrown when white couples and black couples have commissioned black clergypersons and white clergypersons, respectively, to officiate at their nuptials. In speaking with the clerics, almost to a person, I discover that their affiliations with those to be wed extend far back into the years and are rooted in long-lived familial and neighborhood connections. Although the church communities of the South (everywhere?), by and large, remain racially segregated, personal relationships of deep affection across color lines have stood the test of time. In this, for me, a blessedly beatific counter-image in these days of rising racial animus, I, with gratitude, sing:

In Christ there is no east or west,

in him no south or north,

but one great fellowship of love

throughout the whole wide earth.[2]

Amen, I say! Again, I say, amen!

 

Footnotes:

[1] “High” used interchangeably with “big”; meaning socio-economically prosperous and/or politically prominent. The other part of the saying is: “In the North, the white man doesn’t care how high the Negro gets, as long as he doesn’t get too close.” I don’t know the author of this aphorism, but Dick Gregory (Richard Claxton Gregory, 1932-2017), a comedian and social critic of no mean genius, and a fellow St. Louisan, was fond of repeating it.

[2] Words by John Oxenham (aka William Arthur Dunkerley), 1852-1941

my crucified Lord, crucify me!

thinking a personal reflection, based on Luke 23.33-43, for the Last Sunday after Pentecost, November 20, 2016.

(Note: Tomorrow, November 16, 2016, I will undergo a long overdue, much needed surgery. I’ll not be up and around on Sunday, November 20, to preach with my dear folk of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC. Oh, how I’ll miss seeing and being with them! Nevertheless, this personal reflection is something akin to what I might have said were I able to be up and about this coming Sunday!)

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The Last Sunday after Pentecost ends the half-year trek from the Day of Pentecost (this year, May 15, 2016); a period set aside to review and reflect more deeply on the Christian story told from Advent through the Easter season that will begin to be retold starting next Sunday, the First Sunday of Advent.

The Last Sunday after Pentecost, also known as Christ the King Sunday, bids the contemplation anew of who Jesus is as Lord, how Jesus reveals his Lordship, and, in that revelation, how to follow him.

a-view-from-the-cross-aka-what-our-lord-saw-from-the-cross-1886-1894-james-tissot-1836-1902-brooklyn-museum-new-york

Jesus, hanging on the cross, said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing”, repeating this word of pardon throughout his dying…

As “the people stood by watching.” “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.”

As “the leaders scoffed at him, ‘He saved others, let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!’” “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.”

As “the soldiers mocked him, offering him sour wine, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!’” “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.”

As “one of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him, ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’” “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.”

The leaders scoffing, the soldiers mocking, and the criminal deriding, sarcastically address Jesus with honorific titles, “God’s chosen one”, “the King of the Jews”, “the Messiah”, for they, beholding him die and believing the only demonstration or proof of his identity is that he saves himself, doubt him.

The second criminal, in contrast, speaks to his fellow sufferer with the intimacy of his name, “Jesus,” then in his request, an astonishing statement of faith, acknowledges who Jesus is, “remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answering, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise”, promises salvation in that eternal realm of God’s nearest, dearest presence.

That Jesus’ kingly throne is a cross, that his crucifixion and his dying are his demonstrations, his proofs of his kingly identity, that his last will and testament are words of forgiveness to those who witness and will his death and of salvation to a criminal who confesses that he deserves to die (“I have been condemned justly”), cause me, call me, command me to believe that all receive God’s mercy.[1]

In truth, I do believe that the universality of God’s forgiveness is precisely what Jesus, in his life and ministry, death and resurrection, reveals. Yet I, a self-interested and biased person, am not as unconditionally inclusive as Jesus. Not even close! If I was in Jesus’ place, it would be difficult, no, well-nigh impossible for me to forgive those who were watching me die and willing my death or, more truth to tell, to forgive even an honest criminal or, most truth to tell, to forgive anyone who judges another as unequal and lacking in human dignity based on gender and sexuality, race and ethnicity, religion and spirituality, class and ability/disability or anyone who harms another creature or the creation.

In writing this, my soul shudders. For it means nothing more or less than that my will is so unaligned with Jesus, that my way of being and doing is so far removed from his, that he, in his way of being and doing, challenges, confronts how I think and feel, believe and act. This means that had I been there, as that haunting spiritual inquires, “when they crucified my Lord?”, I would have crucified him, too. This means, thanks be to God, that as the people watching, the leaders scoffing, the soldiers mocking and the criminal deriding Jesus, he would have forgiven me, verily, today, in my willful human sinfulness, he does forgive me! This means that what I am given, I am to give to others.

What? To anyone who judges another as unequal and lacking human dignity, who harms another creature or the creation, forgive them? Though, in following Jesus, I believe that I am to live and labor to challenge and confront those who, for any reason or cause, would demean others and destroy the creation, yes, I am to forgive them for they, I also believe, in relation to the way and will of God, know not what they are doing.

Jesus, my crucified Lord, crucify my prejudices that they may die that I may live to be as you are. Amen.

 

Illustration: A view from the cross (aka What Our Lord Saw from the Cross) (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902), Brooklyn Museum, New York. Note: Many gather at the feet of Jesus, including Mary, his mother, Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James, John, his disciple, Roman soldiers and a centurion robed in red, and Jewish leaders on horseback. In the background is a tomb where Jesus’ body is to be interred.

Footnote:

[1] Here, I define mercy as God’s compassionate forbearance in withholding the condemnation that sinful humankind deserves; as opposed to grace being God’s unconditional benevolence in granting salvation that sinful humankind does not deserve.