at some point (thinking ahead, thinking back)…

William John Abernathy

On this first day of August, I think six days ahead to August 7, which, if my father, William John Abernathy, were alive, would be his 106th birthday. In thinking ahead, I think of him, which, at some point, I do every day.

His was a circuitous story of the quest for identity. (Thus, is mine. Truly, I am the fruit of his existentialist seed…need.) His life’s chronicle is laden with half-written chapters and missing, irreplaceable and irreclaimable, pages, which he, to the extent that he knew, for much of his life, sought to conceal. (Why? I don’t know. Disappointment? Anger? Despair? All this and more?)

Whilst I live, my days are darkened by shadows, within and without; my gossamer, ghostly imaginings of all I wish I knew, but do not, cannot know. (This lack, perhaps, explains why I alway have loved history.) What little I have are the sketchiest details, discovered, after my father’s death on April 27, 1996, among a cache of unlabeled papers and undated photographs.

This is a part of what I (think I) know…

Pedro Silva, paternal grandfather

My grandfather, my father’s father was Pedro Silva, born at some point in the late 19th century in Santiago de Cuba. At some point, Pedro migrated to the United States. At some point, he changed his surname to DeLacey (perhaps, and this is only my surmise, “Silva”, whether spoken or written, was a barrier to American assimilation, at least, as much as possible as that might have been)…

Edith Blondell Abernathy, paternal grandmother

At some point and somewhere, Pedro met and married Edith Abernathy. Their union bore two children, my father and his younger sister, my aunt, Benita… Dad and Aunt Benita (Becky)

 

At some point and from somewhere, the family moved to Portland, Oregon…

At some point, Pedro and Edith died…

William Henry Abernathy, paternal great-grandfatherAt some point, Edith’s father, my paternal great-grandfather, William Henry, adopted my father and my aunt, declaring, in so many words, “Those who dwell under my roof will bear my name”, and changing their surnames to Abernathy.[1] 

There is much that I do know about my father from the time of my birth to his death. Today, one thought dominates. My father was plagued by an abiding, angering melancholia that nothing – not his faithful love of his wife, my mother, Lolita, not his dutiful devotion to the care and provision for his family, not his ardent patriotism, not his loyalty to the church, not his daily prayer and Bible study, not his artful mastery of avocations as diverse as model railroading and photography, not, in his darkest moments, his alcoholic binges and the pseudo-cathartic raging that always followed, nothing – could ease, much less exorcise. His quest for his identity – his longing to know and, in that knowing, to be comforted with who he was and where he belonged – ne’er came to a restful place in this world.

So, it is that I, at some point during every day for the past 21+ years since my father’s death, have prayed his peace:

Dad, in the loving presence of God, your story is complete.

You are complete.

Love, Paul

 

Footnote:

[1] This occurred at some point in my father’s 11th or 12th year, for the inscription on the inside cover of his Book of Common Prayer (1892) reads: To William DeLacey – Because you have been so loyal and faithful as “cross bearer” I am exceedingly proud of you and I know all the members of the congregation of St. Phillip’s (the Deacon Episcopal Church) feel the same. Clarence Porter, Lay Reader, Christmas 1922

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)

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

About Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, South Carolina

On February 1, 2015, I entered my retirement.

Before that date, countless were the times, o’er my over 35 years of full-time active ministry, when I sat at the feet of my revered elder clergy, who, having led large congregations, spoke of the joys in retirement of serving smaller communities where pastoral relationships took on the character of a proximate, transparent intimacy. I oft wondered whether that would be my lot, indeed, whether I’d want it to be my lot! Or would I, in retirement, be ready, even needful of stepping away from exercising any form of clerical ministry?

On December 20, 2015, I entered my “rehirement” as the priest-in-charge, part-time, of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, South Carolina.[1]

Epiphany, Laurens, SC, facade

A year and a half into this still new ministry, I reflect…

What my elders told me has proven true for me. I love being a part of my Epiphany-community. Every Sunday, I have the exquisite pleasure of looking out at 30 or so souls and saying to myself, “You, each and all, belong to me and I belong to you.” Frequently enough, I say aloud to them, individually and collectively, “I love you.” Equally often, I open my sermons saying, “Once again it is my privilege to preach with[2] you in the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.” (And they seem, so far, to put up with this Episcopal Church-born-and-bred, but black Baptist-rooted, coming by it honestly on my mama’s side, noisy-preacher!)

Moreover, I sense and receive from my folk a gentle, unconcealed deference for the ordained ministry (I haven’t been called “Father” this often since…since!) that, given much of my remembrances of my prior experiences and my reflections on the testimonies of my colleagues in other places, is a still-treasured characteristic of the South.

Still more, and most especially, I believe that God, who, in a Christian Trinitarian understanding, eternally dwells in the communion of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in creating humankind in the imago Dei, the image of God,  hath hard-wired us, in our bodily, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual being-ness, for relationship. In this, I rejoice to be in relationship with the folk of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, South Carolina.

 

Footnotes:

[1] The Doric-columned edifice, built in 1846, listed in the National Register as part of Laurens Historic District, and the oldest actively-used church structure in Laurens County, South Carolina, is the home of a generously, generations-old loving community of people. The warmth of their affectionate care, person to person, permeates and emanates from the very brick and mortar and wood of the place.

[2] Long have I believed that I, as a preacher, do not preach at people, which, in my sense of things, means that I, endowed with especial Spirit-inspired wisdom, have the answers about God and life that I share with those who would not have the benefit and blessing of knowing save that I tell them. Nor do I preach to people, which, in my sense of things, is a kinder-and-gentler (read: more self-effacing, less arrogant) form of preaching at people. Rather, I, seeking alway to be in community, indeed, to be in communion with people, preach with them; the sermon, again, in my sense of things, being a form of ongoing communal conversation among God, people, and priest.

a call and a claim

a sermon, based on Matthew 9.35-10.23, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, June 18, 2017

Jesus called his disciples, before saying, “Follow me”,[1] declaring the purpose, the reason for the call, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is near.”[2]

Jesus Commissions Disciples, James Tissot (1836-1902)

This same good news he sends them out on a missionary journey to proclaim. But his accompanying instructions are hardly as appealing. A declaration dripping with danger: “I send you as sheep among wolves.” Then a mystifying, difficult (impossible?) to operationalize message: “Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” Then a terrifying statement: “Beware…you will be beaten…and dragged before rulers.” Then a consoling, but, given what has been said, confusing word: “Don’t worry.”

Jesus, the way you treat your friends it’s a wonder you have any followers!

Now, in Jesus’ time and in the historical context of Matthew’s gospel, a half-century after Jesus when the church was under persecution, these words of warning were necessary. To go into the world with his counter-cultural, contra-status quo message of unconditional love and justice inevitably would lead to trouble with secular and religious authorities. And Christian conversion could erupt in discord within one’s family.

Moreover, Jesus’ message of hardship was part of a prophetic tradition woven into the cultural and spiritual fabric of his people’s understanding of what happens when one stands up, stands out in the name of God.

Still, what sense do we make of these biblical insights into the hard texture of discipleship?

In our day and time, Jesus’ words seem, sound alien. Mainline American Christianity, in which the Episcopal Church is firmly rooted, generally knows little about bold prophetic proclamations that provoke persecution. Verily, there have been historical moments when Christian reticence to speak in the public square from the stance of faith to the raging cultural, political, and social issues of the day justifiably has led to the charge that the church is a non-prophet organization! However, our Christian sisters and brothers in some regions of Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East can testify to the truth of Jesus’ words. To be his disciple can and does put them in direct, at times, violent confrontations with governments and the followers of other faith and secular traditions.

Nevertheless, I believe that we can attest to the vivid reality of Jesus’ warning that proclamation brings trouble, particularly in the recent past and current generations when the divisions between conservative and progressive Christians have been and are so pronounced; the right denouncing the left as so inclusive and relativistic that it stands for nothing and, indeed, is no Christianity at all and the left decrying the right as narrow and doctrinaire, far from Jesus’ all-embracing love.

Today, putting all this aside, I focus solely on Jesus’ message. For if we take it and him seriously, there is, in his instructions for the missionary journey, an unmistakable and immutable call and claim on any, every disciple, of any and every age, in any and every age. A call to us, a claim upon us to go forth into the world – and, in the concrete daily circumstances of our lives, through our profession in word and deed of God’s love and justice – proclaiming that the kingdom of heaven is near.

 

Illustration: Jesus Commissions Disciples, James Tissot (1836-1902)

Footnotes:

[1] Matthew 4.19

[2] Matthew 4.17a

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

A conversation…a confession about race

Two men.

Different as different could be. Save for gender. And age. Both 60-something. And stage of life. Both retired. And, both Episcopalians, religious upbringing.

One. White. An attorney. The child of an old Southern family with roots tracing back to mid-17th century English colonists. His mother, a painter of note and an author. His father, a prominent attorney from a long, generational line of prominent attorneys.

The other. Black. An Episcopal priest. Midwestern born. His mother, an elementary school teacher. His father, a postal clerk.

Two men, largely different as the proverbial day and night, in an unlikely, serendipitous (Spirit-led?) encounter in a quiet corner of a coffee shop of a local bookstore, engaging in an unlikely, serendipitous (Spirit-led?) conversation about race…

A conversation that, once he discovered my vocation, became his chosen opportunity for his confession. “I’ve wanted, I’ve needed to share this with someone for a long time…”

He sat forward, clutching his coffee cup in his hands, first, looking down, averting his gaze, telling me of his formative years. His parents had taught him that his privileged life bore an obligation to care for those who were needy, which, he acknowledged, as he understood their instruction, meant those who were lesser endowed with the material blessings of life, which, he further admitted, meant those who weren’t white. His parents, “Good people,” he quickly asserted, did not teach him that they were “better than other people.”

Still, certain moments in his childhood were indelibly, painfully imprinted on his memory.

His nanny, “a lovely, kind lady”, who cared for him from his earliest days, wasn’t allowed to enter their home through the front door. One morning, he, then at the age of 8, seeing her approach the house and turning, preparing “to go around to the back”, opened the front door, happily welcoming her; an impertinence, his parents made clear, that prompted an unpleasant scene of his being corrected and of her being chastised…

On another occasion, he, accompanied by his nanny, rode the bus downtown. He could not understand why she had to leave him and go to the rear when there were plenty of empty seats in the front. When he asked her, she declined to say more than, “That’s the way it is.” When he later asked his parents, they simply affirmed, “She is right.”

But somehow, even as a child, he knew it wasn’t right. “What is right,” he looked up at me, his lips trembling, yet his voice firm, “is that we’re all equal because God made us that way.”

Then, as best as I can recall, he said something like this: “For a long time, I’ve thought about Jesus on the cross asking his Father to forgive those who were killing him. I finally decided if he, who died for me, could do that, I needed to forgive my parents for their ignorance. But,” he held out his hands to me, “I need to be forgiven for my silence. All these years, I’ve known what was right and I never said or did anything to make it right. I promised God I would do something, whatever I can, but right now I want you to ask God to forgive me. Please.”

Taking his hands, we said the Confession of Sin that Episcopalians pray every Sunday. Then, making the sign of the cross, I pronounced the absolution of sin. Tears rolled down his cheeks. He mouthed a silent, “Thank you,” stood, and departed.

For a while, I sat motionless; moved, stunned by the experience of his transparent honesty, his naked humility, his patent sorrow, and his evident need, and by the swiftness of our entry into the depths of our encounter and the abruptness – yet, in its own way, timeliness – of its end. I do not know whether we will see each other again. It’s doubtful, I think. But, if we do, I will say to him, “Thank you.”

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

On preaching (Part 2 of 2)

“Paul, is preaching different in the South?” By many and many times I have been asked this question.

Prior to retirement, I last served an Episcopal parish in Washington, D.C.; making that tenure of nearly 17 years my immediate and distinctive frame of reference for preaching in the South.[1] It is in the light of contrast that I wrote: “(W)hat I have found, what I have felt in the bones of my soul is people’s hunger to have an experience of God through the Bible. In this, I recognize the difference of preaching in the South.”

My life and labor with the good folk of that D.C. congregation were interesting and vital, at times, taxing, yet never dull! The people, to a person, were accomplished in their varied vocations, well-traveled and well-read, intellectually inquisitive and insightful, and passionate in their engagement of the issues of the day and times. They were and are those who desire to make and do make a difference in the world for good.

A heartbeat of that community was a tolerance, verily, an acceptance of ideological difference, particularly in the welcome and embrace of skepticism. Questioning was a high and fine art, cherished for its probative value in the investigation of all things, including the Christian doctrine and biblical lore of “the faith once delivered to the saints.”[2] Within this milieu, the communal view of the scriptures[3] was more as ancient literature and less as sacred text; more as chronicles of the human quest for God and less, in the language of the Catechism, as “the Word of God (Who) inspired their human authors and…still speaks to us.”[4] In this, I make no judgment of good or bad, right or wrong. Rather, this is simply, only my observation.

In preaching with this community, I sought to make a conscious connection between ancient scripture, which I do believe is holy writ, and, I also believe, the sacred texts of our lives daily being written through our every thought and feeling, intention and action; and this in an effort to help us all make sense and find meaning in our human existence. Here, too, I make no judgment of good or bad, right or wrong. Yet, for me, this approach to preaching was something (I hasten to add not less, but rather) other than inviting folk into a shared experience of listening for the vox Deus, the Voice of God. This distinction is but one of the ways that I understand the difference of preaching in the South.

Footnotes:

[1] For years and for some, it has been a matter of debate whether Washington, D.C., is, in fact, a Southern city (or, to be precise, district). President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was noted to have said, “Washington is a city of Southern efficiency and Northern charm.” Though what he meant is open to speculation, his observation raises the consideration that Southern-ness is an expansive idea; one that can be understood in other ways than the place or the geography of the eleven states comprising the olden Confederacy or what some term the “Deep South”, generally including Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina. Southern-ness can encompass the historical socio-economic terms, among them, rural landscapes, agrarian-based economies, fewer large cities, political conservatism, and large English and African-American populations; this latter, through the 19th century, being visible evidence of the thriving institution of slavery. On this last count, before the Civil War, Washington, D.C., I would aver, was quite Southern; since then, not quite so and on the other counts, never quite so.

[2] The Letter of Jude 3

[3] I stress the communal view to indicate my sense of how the congregation as a whole, therefore, not each and every individual, approached the Bible.

[4] From An Outline of the Faith commonly called the Catechism, The Book of Common Prayer, page 853