good grief

IMG_1001

Mom’s cancer, with relentless, rapacious appetite, spread from her lungs to her brain, then to her brain lining. Her decline, swift, over the sparest number of weeks, and savage, instant by inexorably passing instant, stripping her of bodily function and proffering only pain.

On April 28, 2017, Geneva Theodosia Reynolds Mack Watkins, the mother of my wife, my mother in law, a proverbial force of nature, yea, verily, nature itself in the immensity of her love, died.

IMG_1002

Since then, I have watched and continue to watch Geneva’s daughter, my wife, Pontheolla, grieve, embracing her sorrowing, weeping heart and soul…

through those initial moments of her acknowledgement of the inevitable; the oncologist saying those dreaded, yet essential and candid words, “There is nothing more we can do”…

through the calling of family members and friends, receiving, responding to their questions, “How?” “When?” “Why?”, accepting, answering their expressions of concern with a  gracious “Thank you”, a slight and earnest nod, a sympathizing falling tear, soon followed by a pitying flood…

through the planning of mom’s funeral, truly, justly a celebration of her life supremely, freely, fully, faithfully well lived; the testimonials from persons from ev’ry path of her earthly being and doing; the songs of praise and the prayers to God, all bidding, believing in her gladsome greeting in the heavenly habitations…

through engaging mom’s affairs – initiating probate, closing accounts, and cleaning her home, sorting through the years of the daily accumulations of living, but more, existentially, spiritually, moving through her space still warm and welcoming with the manifold memories of times spent luxuriating in the wealth of her hospitality…

and through every day and counting since, Pontheolla hails as blessed her ev’ry reminiscence, honors as the bounty of her holy sorrow her ev’ry tear, holds fast to her ev’ry thanksgiving for the nonpareil grace of God incarnate in the life and love of her mother…

Hers is good grief.

more on aging

Clevedale front porch, 5-30-17

On a sultry South Carolina afternoon, following a hyper-busy, exhilarating, but also enervating past two weeks at our bed and breakfast and near the end of a day of chores (this demonstrably repetitive reality is why I term my retirement “my rehirement”), I plop my aching body into a comfy rocking chair. Sipping from a glass of my favorite Sauvignon Blanc, I consider that in a week or so, I will reach my 65th birthday (which, in truth, means that I simultaneously will have completed my 65th year and will enter my 66th year in this world). In light of this life’s milestone, at least, as humans reckon time, I contemplate mine aging (truth to tell, daily I reflect, not morbidly, but rather matter-of-factly, on this inexorable existential state of being).

Three immediate thoughts…

One, I don’t like aging. (Who does?) I’d prefer that my body was as supple, my mind and vision as sharp, my potentialities as boundless as my imagination as in my yesteryears.

Two, this said, I accept aging. I am neither angry about it nor discontent with it. Verily, there are moments of gleeful recognition that only an older one can know.

Last October, I went to the hospital for a pre-op visit in preparation for my November colon surgery. The intake nurse, a 30-something, bright-eyed, warm-hearted, highly-skilled, and unreservedly kind soul, among many questions, asked me, “Mr. Abernathy, do you have any pain?” Though I understood her intent in seeking to discern whether I was experiencing any discomfort in the subject area of my procedure, I couldn’t restrain myself from bursting out in raucous laughter. She smiled, I surmised, waiting, wanting to be let in on the joke. I replied, “My dear sister, I’m sixty-four years of age! Of course, I have pain!”

Three, I am fairly well assured (with no need or hope of refutation) that, as I’m wont to say, I have more life and labor behind me than ahead of me. As such, with the instant of my dying far closer than the day of my birth, I don’t have enough years of life left to try to remember all the things that I’ve lived long enough to have forgotten. In this awareness (perhaps enhanced by a second glass of wine), my soul is warmed by a spirit of the peace of the release from one more care, the relief from one more worry. And that is not a bad thing, not a bad thing at all.

a-Lenten-prayer-a-day, day 40 and final, Holy Saturday, April 15, 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 Dead Christ, Philippe de Champaigne (1602-1674)

On Holy Saturday: O Jesus, on this day, dead, Your Body lay in the tomb.[1] I pray You, by Your Spirit, fortify my faith, granting unto me peace with my death, whene’er and howe’er it is to come; and, as God, Your God, my God, raised You from the dead, also give unto me the sureness of trust of my rising to Life with You in Your eternal Presence of Love. Amen.

 

Illustration: The Dead Christ, Philippe de Champaigne (1602-1674)

Footnote:

[1] See John 19.38-42: Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus…asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.

a Good Friday faith

a sermon, based on John 18.1-19.37, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on Good Friday, April 14, 2017

Jesus, according to John the evangelist, was not a prophet, preacher, healer, rabbi, even miracle worker. Jesus was the divine logos, the divine word. The creative, animating power of the universe. The cosmic intelligent designer incarnate. Jesus was the human enfleshment of all that is holy; all that is greater, other than everything else. Jesus was God’s son, verily, God.[1]

Words fail us, as they failed John, in attempting to articulate this mystery (not a riddle to resolve by reason, but a reality beyond the reach of fullest comprehension) of a God who creates, who is life and who dies a death that we, this Good Friday, gather to contemplate.

Crucifixion (1880), Thomas Cowperthwait Eakins (1844-1916)

I wonder. As Jesus was God’s Son (if he was only a prophet, preacher, healer, rabbi, or miracle worker, I wouldn’t wonder!), why did he have to die?

Why didn’t legions of angels come and rescue him? Satan, during the wilderness temptations, posed the possibility; suggesting to Jesus that God’s angels wouldn’t allow any harm to come to him, thereby proving he was God’s Son.[2] Jesus refused to put God to the test.[3]

So, if not that, why didn’t Jesus supernaturally, triumphantly dislodge the nails in his hands and feet and come down from the cross; astounding the soldiers, electrifying the crowds, gladdening the hearts of his mother and disciples? If Jesus, with a cosmic flourish, had leapt from the cross that would have been a story worth remembering and retelling, rivaling the church’s two millennia-old proclamation of Jesus’ crucifixion, death, and resurrection!

Imagine! What if that had happened? What if, in response to the contemptuous catcalls of the crowd (“He saved others, but he can’t save himself. Let him come down from the cross, so we may see and believe”[4]), he had come down? There would be no ambiguity or uncertainty, no doubt about his identity. Therefore, no need for faith.

Ah, that’s precisely the point. The need, our need for faith.

Jesus’ death was an act of faith. His faith in God expressed, enfleshed in his life and ministry of seeking the outcast and oppressed, siding with the least and last as first in the heart of God. His faith that inevitably led him into conflict with secular and religious authorities, whose insatiable political appetites for the mutual appeasement of quid pro quo and the maintenance of the status quo could not tolerate Jesus’ radically revolutionary message. His faith that compelled him to follow the course of his chosen destiny all the way to the end: Death. No half steps, back steps, or side steps. No cheap, even spectacular theatrics like coming down from the cross. No. Death. Only death.

On this Good Friday, as we contemplate Jesus’ death, let us read his story as our own. As Jesus needed faith, so do we. There is much in life beyond our control. We need faith. There is much around life’s proverbial corner, in the next day, hour, moment that we don’t, can’t see. We need faith. There is much about ourselves we don’t, can’t know. We, as the Apostle Paul reminds us, “look into a mirror dimly.”[5] We cannot always, perhaps ever be sure of who it is we see. We need faith in something, Someone greater than we.

Still, we do know that we are creatures with a consciousness of our mortality. Like Jesus, our lives, our journeys to Jerusalem, include a Golgotha – that moment of our dying. Thus, though we gather this day to reflect on the death of Jesus, let us contemplate our own. For our awareness of the inevitability of death means that dying always is present in our living. As such, what difference can, does that make in how we live?

If our consciousness of our dying can be more than an occasional haunting reflection, more than a sudden, unbidden and unwanted flash of recognition, more than a momentary reminder that life in this world is an inherently terminal reality…

If our awareness that each passing moment brings us nearer to our dying is a sign of our acceptance that we share in the universal experience of all humankind…

Then perhaps we can live with greater, more faithful purpose. Like Jesus. Less selfishly and more selflessly. Less for ourselves and more for others. Then we can reach our life’s end like Jesus, saying, “It is finished.”[6]

If that is so, then I believe that our “Fridays”, our dying days, will be good.

 

Illustration: Crucifixion (1880), Thomas Cowperthwait Eakins (1844-1916)

Footnotes:

[1] See John 1.1-5, 10-14, 16-18: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it…He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God… And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

[2] Matthew 4.6; Luke 4.9-11

[3] Matthew 4.7; Luke 4.12

[4] Mark 15.31-32

[5] 1 Corinthians 13.12

[6] John 19.30

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.

facing another way, part 3 of 5

thinkinga personal reflection in anticipation of the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, 2017

When I look back to 2016 for epiphanies or revelations of change for others and for myself, among many things, I think about…

Election Day, November 8, and the culmination of a tumultuous, rancorous presidential campaign and the ongoing ramifications, reverberations for America and, I daresay, the world…

I grow more fretful (fearful?) about the incoming administration, which, given Donald Trump’s continuing and consistent airing of his stump-speech rhetoric and his choices for Cabinet and governmental posts, appears to be more politically and socially conservative, indeed, regressive than I find fitting or faithful to our American identity as expressed in our national motto, E pluribus unum.

The rise of nationalism, nativism in the politics of many countries in Europe and America[1] as governments sought to grapple with numerous concerns; prominent among them, the explosion of violent ideological extremism and terrorism, immigration and the migrant crisis of millions of dislocated peoples, and cyber-insecurity and its immediate effects on domestic and economic security…

I wonder whether America, both concerning our presidential administration and we as a people, particularly in regard and response to extremism and terrorism, can and will sharpen the line between justice and vengeance, between increased safety and the loss of our personal liberties, between self-defense and, if vengeance is our course, self-destruction of our national soul’s health.

The continued minority community-law enforcement tensions, heightened by police-involved killings of black men and what seem to be retaliatory shootings of police officers…

I worry that the trust-mistrust of the police, which distinctly divides along racial lines, may be, if not conclusive evidence, then a dreadfully proverbial canary-in-the-coal-mine-warning of America’s yet to be resolved societal and systemic inequality in the respect for human life.

The Bethelehemic experience of birth, bearing the joy of new and innocent life and a renewal of hope for the growth of love, peace, and justice in this world…

I have shared, often through the “miracle” of Facebook, in the wonder of the births of babies of friends around the nation and world. Still, I worry about the world into which these new lives have come; a world where, as I perceive it, hatred often overrides love, war outweighs peace, and inequity outbalances justice.

Illness

I witnessed and walked with others through their bouts with sundry sicknesses from moderate to severe and their rounds of various treatments. Late in the year, I, and later still, my daughter underwent surgeries to correct longstanding conditions. The infirmities of friends and family, and my own brought me face to face afresh with my unhappiness, sometimes, I confess, my bitterness about life’s often sudden and always uncontrollable turns of chance and circumstance and gratitude for the restoration to health whene’er and for whom it came and a commitment to live as well as I can for as long as I can.

Death

I joined with countless others with saddened sentiments of the deaths in 2016 of many notable persons and personalities; the accumulation of their departures seeming to pick of speed in the last months of the year. Most near and dear, Timothy MacBeth Veney, my brother from another mother, died in July. That Tim was Pontheolla’s and my forever “frienily” (a friend who is family) and married to Loretta, also our forever “frienily”, stirred and still stirs sorrow. Yet, given Tim’s especially virtuous love, verily, righteous lust for life, I have come to a higher appreciation for the content of human character of others and my own, a broader attention to crafting and caring for my legacy to the next generation, and a deeper acceptance and less fearful respect for the enduring reality of human mortality.

Continuing to look back, again I ask, what do you see? How have you been changed?

More to come…looking forward

 

Footnote:

[1] Sometimes I think of this development as a Western expression or perhaps reaction to what has been termed, rather misleadingly, I think, as the “Arab Spring” of late 2010 forward; a time when multiple Middle Eastern countries witnessed the advent of citizen demonstrations protesting the way things were and compelling change. What makes Arab Spring a confusing or, at the least, an ambiguous descriptor is that the political transformations largely have been away from an Arab nationalism toward a Muslim identity.

a World AIDS Day tribute

wra-1976

Wayne Roberts Abernathy, December 21, 1950-March 20, 1995

numbered among the 1st generations of martyrs slain

by a killer, then, by most, barely known,

tho’ still, by some, bravely named,

Wayne,

with mind and heart, soul and spirit,

weathered the firstly gradual, then rapaciously fleet

& inexorable descent

into death’s shadow;

yet neither cursing nor clenching closed his eyes to the enveloping darkness,

rather gazing fast at his Lord’s, his greatest Love’s Light;

Whose promise of eternal keeping

he ne’er spent a moment doubting;

tho’ some – e’en family and church,

oft misunderstanding and unaccepting –

questioned, given his “lifestyle” choosing,

which he boldly, surely knew

was no more his free electing

than any other manner of God’s creative bestowing…

 

in this, aye, verily, Wayne, in his dying,

damning not the imposing, yet impostering darkness,

loved, longed, lived into Life’s unbounded Light

and now forever walks by blessed sight.