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

Keep Calm and…

I love T-shirts. I’ve never been flashy (save, perhaps, for an emotive personality!) in dress; preferring an über-casual mien. And now, in retirement, except for Sundays and special occasions, rarely will I so much as don slacks and a laundered shirt; favoring jeans and, yes, again, T-shirts.

And though tending toward an understated appearance, eschewing the display of labels or slogans, this T-shirt, showing all the signs of repeated wearing and washing, is my favorite.

my fav T-shirt

For a variety of reasons…

It plays on the theme of the British government’s World War II word of inspiration, Keep Calm and Carry On; meant to bolster the morale of the English people under the gravest threat posed by the German aerial blitzkrieg. Nowadays, multiple are the words following Keep Calm and…, ranging from the wondrously sublime to the supremely humorous; all advocating a serene and steely perseverance in the face of trial and tribulation.[1]

And it bears the image of the fish; long a symbol for Christianity.[2] As such, it proclaims to others without my having to say a word that I am a Christian.

And it completes Keep Calm and… with Love Your Neighbor, which, further in keeping with the Christian lore I hold dear, is the second part of Jesus’ summation of the Law, generally, the Torah and, specifically, the 10 Commandments.[3] As such, it expresses my daily conscious intent to love[4] my neighbor, who, in the light of Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, is everyone.

And it sparks immediate responses and impromptu conversations with my neighbors, whether known or unknown, of all manners of humankind and in all places where I go…

I’ve been approached by Jews, Muslims, and Christians who, in a variety of ways, remark of their theological and ethical identification with the summons to love neighbors rooted in the Torah, the Koran, and the Bible…

I’ve been asked by some what I believe it means to love my neighbor, which, on one occasion, in a grocery store aisle, led to the inquirer’s confession of his struggle to love and forgive a relative whose words and actions had inflicted grave harm…

I’ve been hailed by folk, all strangers, walking by me on the street, once from a lady, smiling and waving to me, driving by in her car, with this astounding (at the first occurrence, but, now, it’s come again and again) greeting: “I love you, too!”

I treasure each and all of these encounters and interactions, especially given my awareness and sensitivity to what I consider the bitter-and-blaming-difference-disparaging-either-you’re-for-me-or-against-me zeitgeist of our days and times.

As T-shirts and banners of self-declaration go, Keep Calm and Love Your Neighbor is my favorite.

 

Footnotes:

[1] For example, Keep Calm and…Be Honest, Be Yourself, Call Batman, Dab On ‘Em, Dream On, Eat A Cookie, Game On, Go To Hogwarts, Hakuna Matata, Innovate, Just Do It, Make A Change, Never Grow Up, Party All Night, Press CTRL ALT DET, Stay Strong, Use The Force… The possibilities are endless!

[2]The fish (or, in the Greek, ichthys) was adopted as a Christian symbol prior to the 2nd century of the Common Era; some suggest as a secret sign of identification during periods of the state persecution of Christians. Through the 3rd and 4th centuries, as it grew in popular recognition and use, the letters (i – ch – th – y – s) were viewed as forming an acronym for the phrase, Iēsous Christos, Theou Yios, Sōtēr, Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.

[3] A lawyer asked Jesus a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22.35-40).

[4] By “love”, I do not mean my expression of kindly affection, which arises from how I feel about others, but rather, for me, always something more spiritual and substantial; that is, exercising my Spirit-bestowed power in active benevolence toward and for others. Do I fail in doing this? Yes. Usually when I am hurt and angry, and then allow my not-so-considerate-feelings toward another to get in the way of my loving that person. Nevertheless, Jesus’ call to love my neighbor ever rings in my mind and heart, soul and spirit, summoning me to act.

behold our God!

a sermon, based on Genesis 1.1-2.4 and Matthew 28.16-20, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on Trinity Sunday, June 11, 2017

A story is told that Voltaire,[1] that French Enlightenment philosopher known, among many things, for his complicated relationship with religion, once doffed his hat at the passing of a funeral procession. A friend, surprised, said, “I thought you did not believe in God.” Voltaire replied, “We acknowledge each other, though we are not on speaking terms.”[2]

We, declining to share Voltaire’s sensibilities, claim the annual grace of Trinity Sunday (if not on any other day, then surely this day!) to acknowledge and speak of the threefold nature of God: alway transcendent, beyond all things, immanent, with all things, and spiritually in all things.

The Trinity - Fernando Yáñez de la Almedina

The word “trinity” is not found in the Bible. Still, the Bible, in one sense, is our record of our religious ancestors’ encounters with what 20th century German theologian Rudolph Otto[3] termed the mysterium tremendum et fascinans; that mystery called “God” before which we, in fascinated reverence and fear, tremble. Therein, we behold their attempts to make sense of that mystery, putting into language their experiences and perceptions.

Through the lens of this understanding, let us see what our spiritual forebears have to tell us about God and about us.

Before we do, I share a word about words. Words are symbols. Whether spoken or written, they are meant to conjure up the in the minds of the speaker and hearer, the writer and reader the realities to which they point. Hence, the word “God”, as a symbol, is not God, but only the term we use in our attempt to communicate our understanding of the reality of that mysterium tremendum et fascinans. And, as God is mystery (not a riddle to be resolved, but that which, in its totality, is beyond the reach of our reason), try as we might, we never can comprehend God completely. In a word (pun intended!), we never fully “get”, grasp God. Yet, in our continued quest for understanding, we hope, we believe that what we do get is fully God. For that reason, through prayer, study, and worship, we keep trying, remaining steadfast in the quest to behold our God!

Now, back to the Bible!

The first Genesis creation story is a rhapsodic Hebrew poem testifying that God is almighty! For through the agency of “wind”, in the Hebrew, ruach, Spirit, “sweeping over the face of the waters”, God creatio ex nihilo, creates out of the nothing of “formless void and darkness.” Whenever we humans “create” we always must take things that already exist to fashion something new. God begins with nothing and, through word, “Let there be…”, comes light, sky, earth, and sea, suns and stars, flora and fauna, and humankind. And this unfolding differentiation continues unto this day. Our God always is creating and we, made in God’s image, are called to create, not destroy. Our dominion over the earth is not, is never to be domination, but rather creative caretaking, loving stewardship.

In the Gospel of Matthew, the risen Jesus declares unto his first disciples the Great Commission, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” As important as this mission of baptizing and teaching has been and is for the spread of Christianity, the most important word Jesus says is “therefore.” Jesus can  (is able to) command his disciples because “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Jesus claims the authority, the right to exercise power, of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, the God of whom Genesis speaks as the almighty Creator.

It is this God revealed in this Jesus who, in the Spirit, is “with (us) always, to the end of the age.”

Behold our God!

 

Illustration: The Trinity, Fernando Yáñez de la Almedina (1475-1536)

Footnotes:

François-Marie Arouet (Voltaire) (1694-1778)

[1] Voltaire, the nom de plume of François-Marie Arouet (1694-1778) famous or infamous, depending on one’s point of view, for his attacks on the established church, and his advocacy of freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and separation of church and state.

[2] Recorded in David Head’s He Sent Leanness: a book of prayers for the natural man (The MacMillan Company, 1959), page 36.

iottoru001p1

[3] Rudolf Otto (1869-1937), German Lutheran theologian and philosopher.

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

“Bless your heart”

Living in the South for the past 2½ years, how often have I heard this phrase? Dwelling in the realm of time and space where much is measured numerically, though I cannot truthfully say “countless times”, truly I can say, “I’ve lost count!”

And hearing it daily, repeatedly in many a (every?) setting, I have learned that this über-utilitarian aphorism has manifold circumstantial uses and contextual meanings; the majority of which fall into two major categories…

As a pitying or insulting negative judgment of a person, whether behind the back or to the face. For example, “She/he/you had such good intentions, but her/his/your performance was sadly underwhelming, bless her/his/your heart.” When employed in this instance, usually the speaker arrives at that closing phrase with lowered tone and soft voice, having the effect of tempering the harshness of the critique and, at times, masking barely the passive-aggression of the criticism.

Blessedly, I have heard or overheard these three words used far more as an expression of earnest kindness. One does a good deed for another and the recipient of that grace says to the giver, “Thank you and bless your heart.” A loved one dies and one, seeking to offer a word of consolation, says, “Bless her/his and your heart.” In each case, the phrase oft is uttered with a breathy sincerity that infuses, inspirits the words, in the first instance, with genuine gratitude and, in the second, with sincerest sympathy. And in each case, the phrase oft is preceded by the sacred word, “God”.

I digress…

A word, as a symbol, points beyond itself to a reality (at times, in the instant moment of its utterance or script, unobservable), which the word, both for the speaker/writer and the listener/reader, brings into the view of the mind’s eye, thus, giving shape to and making sense of the reality. In this act of communication, usually, indeed, I think, always the speaker/writer and the listener/reader, each with her/his own experience and perception, do not, cannot mean the same thing. Hence, the necessity of their engaging in deepening interaction, frequently (always?) entailing the employ of more words to define the one word.

That said, here in the South, I discern a remarkable similitude in people’s use of the word “God” in reference to a reality, indeed, a Being, thus, not something, but rather Someone to whom is ascribed the agency of the power to create and sustain life. Moreover, in Christian circles of faith, I observe that folk speak and write of God in various ways, yet, again, with a notable likeness, as the principal actor on the stage of the universe and the primary protagonist of scripture’s sacred story as revealed through the life and mission of the people Israel, in the life and ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, and by the eternally illuminating presence of the Holy Spirit.

In this, I experience an inner, spiritual, nearly ineffable resonance; indeed, a kindred person-to-person blessing of hearts.

Independence Day reflection, 3 of 4

I also wonder about patriotism (from the Greek patriōtēs, “fatherland”); that love of country, pride in its history and customs, and devotion to its welfare.

American flag image

Our colonial forebears were not agreed about what constituted patriotism. Today, we are no less conflicted. One person’s fidelity to one position is another’s unreasoned zealotry or craven disloyalty, and vice-versa. (The swiftness with which folk cite their differences one from another is a chief sign, I think, of an earnest hunger for certainty. Though sincere, one still can miss the mark of truth, which, I also think, always is larger, greater than, beyond the bounds of the perimeter of a particular, even multiplex perspective.)

Bible

At times like these I read the Bible with a particular eye. Not casually, seeking personal, private spiritual insights. Nor as an always incipient student, probing ancient languages searching for deeper meaning. Rather I look for my reflection, yearning to know more about who I am to be and what I am to do at this time in this world.

African American History Month – reflection 3

As a part of my commemoration of African American History Month, I remember those whose living witness shaped me as a person of love and justice.

Audia Mae Hoard Roberts (1890-1979). My maternal grandmother. Ever vibrant. Not the proverbial “force of nature,” but, in her intentional, incarnational living in the spirit of the God she believed and knew, verily, she was nature itself. When my older brother Wayne, and then I was born, she made it clear in her kindly, though firmly matriarchal way that she didn’t desire to be called “grand”, asking that all refer to her as “Mom.” So, we did!

Mom, Baptist born and bred, from the moment she learned to read was a Bible student and, until her dying day, an adult class teacher. Many a Sunday, I accompanied her to First Baptist Church on the corner of Cardinal and Bell Avenues in St. Louis. I, in the deference of my youth, sat in the rear pew of her well-subscribed class, awed at her scholarship and appreciative of her encouragement of questions from the attendees, always assuring that “we, in the end, can have no certain answers, for only God knows.” In her personal tutelage, during my brother’s and my much anticipated weekend stays, Mom would have us read aloud a selected Bible passage, invite us to memorize and recite it, offer commentary on its context (“lest we fall,” she admonished, “into the proof-texting pit of error”), and then, ask, “Now, how do you interpret it?” (My cradle-born Episcopal Church liturgies are laden with scripture, but I truly learned the Bible at my grandmother’s knee!)

In 1970, during the post-Civil Rights Era and the beginning of the Black Power movement, I entered high school. At a time when I (thought I) knew everything and, in my omniscience, felt self-assured of the docility of my elders regarding matters of advancements in the cause of racial equality, my mother quietly encouraged me to “talk to Mom.” I did, learning an invaluable lesson, one that has borne resonance within me to this day, though at the time I didn’t know how and possibly couldn’t know how much.

Mom was strikingly fair-skinned. She could have passed for white (in those days, an attribute for blacks who hungered to taste the fruits of the equalities of the then dominant race). She didn’t. Proudly claiming her black heritage (though clearly with ancestors born to master-slave conscribed concupiscence), she, never one of a retiring spirit, took early part in civil rights activism. For more than fifty years, through the St. Louis branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), first as a membership recruitment division leader, and then as an executive committee member, she shared in strategizing and public protests against inequalities in education, housing, and political (minority voter) disenfranchisement.

Looking back, I am ashamed that I, in my youthful arrogance and ignorance,  discounted her humble recount of her times and her experiences as not enough; for how could the world, my then current world still be as awful as I perceived it to be if she and others had done all they could have done? Perhaps Kurt Vonnegut, who I quoted in the previous blog post, is right. Even when we humans remember our history, we, as an ineluctable aspect of being alive, will repeat it. For here I stand, having reached my retirement, looking at a church I love and have served for nearly 40 years still riddled with tenacious inequalities regarding age, gender, race, and sexuality. Clearly I didn’t do all I could have done.

Perhaps, then, that is why African American History Month is (and all sacred observances are) fitting and faithful, for they can remind us of our higher vocations of love and justice, the clamor of which our daily preoccupations and predilections often make mute.

a meditation via Moses on presence & pastoral care

shepherd and sheepI was minding my business, tending my father in law Jethro’s sheep. He’s been good to me, taking me in when I was a mess; in the throes of a major identity crisis.

After all, I was born of a Hebrew mother, then adopted by pharaoh’s daughter, who named me Moses (from the Egyptian word, meaning, “son”, but some say derived from the Hebrew, meaning “deliver” – how’s that for a diviner of destiny?) and who unknowingly hired a Hebrew nursemaid, who happened to be my own mother, to care for me! As a child, my mother told me the story, the whole story, of the patriarchs and matriarchs: Abraham and Sarah and Hagar, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah and Rachel and their maids, Zilpah and Bilhah (Jacob was busy!), Jacob’s twelve sons, Joseph being sold by his brothers into slavery in Egypt, and his reconciliation with his family (Joseph was a lot more forgiving than I am!), all who came to live in Egypt because of the great famine. My mother told me all about it, for she wanted me to know my heritage.

But talk about difficult formative years: Israelite by birth, but living in the household of pharaoh who had enslaved my people! For years, I watched their suffering. One day, I saw an Egyptian beating one of my Hebrew brothers. In repressed rage, I slew that Egyptian! (I’m not that impulsive. Before I killed him, I first glanced about to see if anyone was watching!) The next day, I saw two Israelites quarreling. Bad enough to be oppressed without also fighting each other. I called out to them, “My brothers, love one another.” One of those ingrates shouted at me: “Who made you judge? You gonna kill us like that Egyptian?”

Who knew anyone knew? I was flummoxed and frightened! Immediately, I fled Egypt, heading for Midian. Jethro took me in. I married his daughter, Zipporah. I was set for life!

Moses & burning bush2As I said, I was minding my business, tending sheep, near a mountain, when I saw a strange sight. A blazing bush. Afraid that the underbrush would catch fire and scatter the sheep, I rushed to put it out, but I noticed the bush wasn’t burned. I heard a voice: “Moses, Moses.” I thought it might’ve been Jethro. He loves practical jokes and he’s a fairly good ventriloquist. “Yeah! Who’s calling?” But looking around, I didn’t see him and there wasn’t any place he could’ve been hiding.

Then the voice said, “I am God,” telling me I was on holy ground and to take off my shoes in reverence. Terrified, I almost ran away! Then I thought, God who?

“The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”

That got my attention! The next thing I knew God was telling me about my people suffering in Egypt and that I should go tell pharaoh to let them go! Before I could catch myself, I yelled, “Are you crazy?” The flame flared up. I could feel the heat on my face. “Uh…um, I’m sorry…uh, God, I…I meant to say, ‘What was that again?’ Did you say Egypt? Pharaoh? Rescue? Uh, I beg your pardon, God, but who am I that I should go?”

“It’s not about you, Moses. It’s about me and doing my will, and, know this, I will be with you.”

“But who are you? What’s your name?” (I don’t know about anyone else, but, speaking always only for myself, when someone, with a voice I don’t recognize, calls me by name, I always ask, “Who are you?”)

“I am who I am.”

What kind of answer is that? I’m begging for clarity and all I get is some cute crypticism. I asked again, “What’s your name?”

“I will be who I will be.”

What? I was frustrated. “What does that mean?”

“I can be and I can do anything.”

“OK, then you go to Egypt and you tell pharaoh, ‘Let my people go!’ If you’re really God, then my people were your people before they were my people!” Instantly the flame flared, this time singeing my face. “OK, OK, I’ll go!”

I left the mountain with all of my doubts and fears, but also with continued deep concern for my people. I may not, I may never have it all together, but I believe that the most important thing is showing up. So, I went!

And the rest is history…

thinkingIn over 40 years of daily, serious Bible study, I delight in re-imagining, often whimsically (so to highlight deeply human dimensions of) the stories of the Hebrew scripture and New Testament. I am especially drawn to towering figures of the sacred narrative. Moses is a favorite, for in re-envisioning his experience, I often see my life and work more clearly.

For nearly 40 years, I, as a Christian minister, have engaged in the act of pastoral care; truly, an art of great depth and difficulty. Depth as I am allowed access to enter the lives of others, frequently in extremis. Difficulty as it’s not easy ever to be with another human being in sickness and suffering, whether involving, paraphrasing an old prayer, “the adversities that happen to our bodies or those that assault and hurt our souls.”

To offer pastoral care is to be like Moses, faced with self-doubt, asking, “Who am I that I should go?”

To offer pastoral care, like Moses, is to be called from a shepherd’s life, with clear duties and responsibilities, which is true of so much else that my vocation calls me to do, to take on an enormous, overwhelming task.

To offer pastoral care is to stare into the face of pharaoh, the symbol of all that oppresses, always standing amidst human need far more vast and complex than anything for which I could have prepared.

To offer pastoral care, like Moses, is to be driven by soul-deep concern for people that weighs powerfully on mind and heart, forcing me to wrestle with whether to remain in the safety of professional detachment, steeling myself against being overcome by the flood of my feelings of sympathy and sorrow. In this constant struggle, to offer pastoral care is to face my own nakedness and need, fragility and vulnerability.

To offer pastoral care is to do the most important thing. Show up. For ministry often involves neither doing nor saying anything, but rather being present.

In all the years of ordained ministry, when I reflect on the countless folk with whom I have been privileged to share pastoral care (many whose faces I, through my mind’s eye, see clearly and whose life-situations I remember) two primary needs have lain beneath their various circumstances and specific concerns. The first. Acceptance. That universal, undying human yearning to be received, as the hymn says, “Just as I am without one plea.” The second. Communion. That equally communal, continual need to hear, to know, to believe that one is not, is never alone.

Above all else, acceptance and communion are what I have sought to share with others. Day by day, as I approach my retirement from active ministry, this I pledge: As long as I have breath and strength, I pray God that I will continue to offer these gifts, these graces.