today and every day, I remember…

a personal reflection for All Souls’ Day,[1] November 2, 2017

cemetery - church

For all the saints who from their labors rest,

Who Thee by faith before the world confessed,

Thy name, O Jesus, be forever blest,

Alleluia! Alleluia![2]

Today and every day, I remember with gratitude, O God, alway to You…

my mother Lolita and my father William through whose loving union You granted unto me the gracious gift of life in this world…

my mother through whose unassailable forbearance, You granted unto me the inestimable gift of the revelation of unflagging faith come what may, come whene’er, come howe’er…

my father through whose fiery temperament and his paradoxically simultaneous acknowledgement and disregard for the odds against him, You granted unto me the discomfiting gift of an abiding intestinal impatience with injustice…

my brother Wayne through whose abundant compassion for all in travail, especially the disenfranchised, the least and the last, and his indomitable courage in the face of his own tribulation unto his dying day, You granted unto me the splendid gift of the vision of the noblest humanity of Your Son Jesus.

Almighty God, with whom still live the spirits of those who die in the Lord, and with whom the souls of the faithful are in joy and felicity: (I) give you heartfelt thanks for the good examples of all your servants, (especially, on this day, my parents and my brother) who, having finished their course in faith, now find rest and refreshment. May (I), with (them and) all who have died in the faith of your holy Name, have perfect fulfillment and bliss in your eternal and everlasting glory; through Jesus Christ (my) Lord. Amen.[3]

 

Footnotes:

[1] All Souls’ Day, also known as the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed, following All Saints’ Day (November 1), since the 11th century, has been a part of the Western Christian calendar of observances.

[2] Words by William Walsham How (1823-1897)

[3] The Book of Common Prayer, page 503 (my emendations)

#MeToo

In the immediate aftermath of the daily increasing revelations of Harvey Weinstein’s decades-long sexual predation against women, the #MeToo campaign was launched with a simple, straightforward, profoundly compelling message:

If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote “Me too” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.

Carried aloft on the wings of social media, the response or rather, truly, sadly, the manifold responses of many, many women, some chronicling, detailing particular personal experiences of harassment and assault has been…is an unassailable testament to “the magnitude of the problem.”

My fear – perhaps, I confess, rooted in my prevailing pessimism about the perfectibility (or rather my persuasion about the imperfectability) of human nature – is that little to nothing will change; that, in days, weeks, months, years to come, #MeToo will have proven to be a powerfully cathartic, personally transformative, but not a communally revolutionary experience.

Why?

Because sexual predation, as, I believe, is true of all oppression, is an expression of the exercise of power, and…

Power is that capacity for one, always within the context of an enabling system, structure, society, to will and to do something, in this case, to harass and to abuse women, and…

As I read and reflect on human history, I cannot think of a time when the powerful, for the sake of the justice of equality, relinquished their privilege, however ethically bankrupt, to will and to do.

In the spirit of the Magnificat,[1] Mary’s song of praise to God in her reverent recognition of the One she bore in her womb, especially her words – He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly – I, in faith, hope, and love, shall pray fervently that I am wrong. For I, and I trust in league with many, many women and men, with the help of God and helping God, shall pray and labor for change.

 

Footnote:

[1] The full text of the Magnificat or The Song of Mary (Luke 1.46-55):

My soul magnifies the Lord,

and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,

for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.

Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

for the Mighty One has done great things for me,

and holy is his name.

His mercy is for those who fear him

from generation to generation.

He has shown strength with his arm;

he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,

and lifted up the lowly;

he has filled the hungry with good things,

and sent the rich away empty.

He has helped his servant Israel,

in remembrance of his mercy,

according to the promise he made to our ancestors,

to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.

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.

still more on God waiting…

Hosea is one of my favorite Hebrew scripture prophets. Courageously, faithfully, he went into the dire circumstance into which God called him.

The kingdom of Israel, also known as Ephraim, of the 8th century Before the Common Era, was in gravest tumult. Many of the people had turned away from the worship of God, threatening domestic solidarity. Royal politics were in upheaval; the secure succession from king to king violently disrupted by a series of internecine assassinations and usurpations. At the borders, foreign armies were poised to strike.

The Prophet Hosea (1309-1311), Duccio di Buoninsegna (1255-1319), Cattedrale Metropolitana di Santa Maria Assunta, Siena, Italy

In one particular passage, Hosea speaks of an aggrieved God withdrawing from the people “until they acknowledge their guilt and seek my face.”[1] The people, in desperation in their rapidly deteriorating national situation, seek divine deliverance, crying, “Come, let us return to the Lord!”[2] and bringing to God the proper and prescribed ritual observances. But God requires something more than perfunctory sacrifice prompted by suffering: “What shall I do with you, O Ephraim? Your love is like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes away early.”[3] God wants, God waits for the people to bear in their living “steadfast love, not sacrifice, the knowledge of God, not burnt-offerings.”[4]

Though this prophetic word was uttered nearly 3000 years ago, it remains for me singularly compelling. Every day, every moment of the day, God wants, God waits for me, to use an image of my namesake, the Apostle Paul, to offer the living sacrifice[5] of steadfast love, constant devotion to God and benevolence toward all people, and the knowledge of God, active, unassailable faith in God’s presence and power.

As I cannot attempt this on my own (verily, even my awareness of what God wants of me and waits for me to bear is a revelation to me of the work of the Holy Spirit on my consciousness), in the words of the spiritual, every day, every moment of the day, may I learn to sing, to pray:

Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.

Melt me, mold me, fill me, use me,

Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.[6]

 

Illustration: The Prophet Hosea (1309-1311), Duccio di Buoninsegna (1255-1319), Cattedrale Metropolitana di Santa Maria Assunta, Siena, Italy

Footnotes:

[1] Hosea 5.15

[2] Hosea 6.1

[3] Hosea 6.4

[4] Hosea 6.6

[5] I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12.1-2, my emphasis). Note: Paul uses the Greek sómata (translated into English as “bodies”), which means the whole of one’s being or self – mind and heart, soul and spirit.

[6] Words (1926) by Daniel Iverson (1890-1977)

the practice of peace

Note: On this 16th anniversary of 9/11, I post the text, in the main, of the sermon, referencing, in the end, John 14.25-29, that I preached at A Service of Healing in a Time of Tragedy, at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Washington, DC, on Sunday, September 16, 2001.

I apologize for the length. However, in the course of the days between Tuesday, September 11, 2001 and that following Sunday, there was much on my mind and heart and in my soul and spirit that took shape in many words.

This morning, as I reread and reflected on what I wrote and preached on that day, I discern that much of what I thought and felt and said then about the quest for peace through the active labor of reaching across barriers not only remains true for me, but is at the heart of my life’s calling as a human and as a Christian.

+

September 11. Ninth month. Eleventh day.  9-1-1. Emergency. One need not put stock in numerology, the science or pseudo-science of finding sense in or of making sense of numbers, to see a sickening coincidence.

September 11. The day of a massive, coordinated, sophisticated terrorist assault. Targeting the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. A towering New York City skyline and that ultra-familiar pentagonal shape, both boldly distinctive and unmistakable, in an instant, tragically transformed.

September 11. An assault that targeted, more greatly still, before and beyond buildings, human lives. Thousands killed and injured. Families and communities torn asunder.

September 11. An assault long predicted, long prophesied by military and civil intelligence communities, ethnic fundamentalists and religious zealots the world o’er, homegrown groups of disaffected extremists and insurrectionists. A prediction, a prophecy now terribly fulfilled…

But who could have foreseen its form? Nothing – not the murderous bombings of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, the World Trade Center eight years ago, the Oklahoma City federal building, the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the U.S.S. Cole[1] – could have prepared us. Hijacked passenger planes pointed as assassin’s arrows, again, at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, symbols of economic strength and military might. As the targets were symbols, then these were arrows aimed at the heart of a people, perhaps, in an attempt, to strip us of our sense of economic stability and personal and national security.

Although this tragedy is characterized as our national crisis, termed by the news media and others as an “Assault on America” or “America under Assault”, I do not agree. The magnitude of the violence and the breadth of the barbarism make it an assault not on the heart of America alone, but on the soul of humanity. All humanity, whether of good or ill will, is touched by this tragedy.  And all who long to live in that good creation, described by Howard Thurman,[2] and oft quoted by our own beloved Verna Dozier,[3] of “a friendly world of friendly folk beneath a friendly sky”,[4] by this tragedy, once again, rudely have been roused from a dream of God into a waking, living nightmare. We are left to imagine, at least for us on these American shores, previously unimaginable terrorist possibilities – walk-in individual suicide bombings and biological weaponry. We are left to reflect on our history and to rethink, perhaps, to repent of what we as a nation have done to provoke such unrestrained hostility. Our psyche is wounded deeply. We yearn for healing. We search for peace.

In our quest for a restoration of wholeness, tensions, those simultaneous and powerful counter pulls-and-pushes of thought and feeling within society and within our individual selves, abound.

On one side, anguish and anger will evolve into action. Our President, George W. Bush, in his September 11 address to the nation, directed our national resources “to find those responsible and bring them to justice.” Yesterday, signaling our country’s preparation for retaliation, he said, “We’re at war…and we will respond accordingly.” A normally partisan Congress and much of the country stand in accord with the pursuit and punishment of the perpetrators of this heinous act. On another side, fearing how anger and action can ripen into rage and revenge, how vengeance can perpetuate the very violence we hate, others advocate a different course. Our Presiding Bishop, Frank Griswold, in a September 11 statement, while affirming that justice must be done, declared that “people of faith…are called to another way…(a way of)…transformation…where swords can become plowshares and spears are changed into pruning hooks.”

In our search for peace, tensions abound.

On one side, we yearn to live in a free society “of the people, by the people, for the people”, where one’s words and actions are not overly circumscribed or overtly constrained by law. On another side, in such a society not only are the just and the righteous free, but also the unjust and the unrighteous. And we have been reminded tragically that terrorism is no longer, if it ever was, only in some land far away, but daily festers and can flare up on our doorstep. Hence, we long to feel safe, to be safe, which, if past responses to tragedy are any indication, often requires the imposition of restrictions on our freedom and perhaps on our privacy.

In our search for peace, tensions abound.

On one side, we desire to get to the other side of our grieving, to reach, once again, that state of normalcy, that sense of personal safety. On another side, we recognize, even now, that when we get there, our senses of normalcy and safety will be illusory. We always are personally vulnerable, our choices notwithstanding, to changing circumstance and uncontrollable chance.

In our search for peace, tensions abound.

On one side, there are those who, in the midst of crisis, seek the sustaining hand of God with a faith that continues to hope in the constancy of divine care in spite of or even because of all appearances to the contrary. On another side, there are those who have no use for God. If religion, a theological enterprise concerned with the relationship between divinity and humanity, can be seen in any way to have been a trigger for this tragedy, as has been proven to be so in multiple tragedies in human history, then one might fairly ask what good can come out of religion?  Indeed, what good is God? Or one may wonder who is this God in whose name such violence is inspired or perhaps what is this very human hubris that fashions so vengeful a face of God?

We search for peace.

Jesus speaks of a peace “not as the world gives.” This is a spiritual peace that points to the end, for it is the peace of eternal salvation, of Jesus’ abiding presence, of an unassailable, inseparable connection between earth and cosmos, humanity and divinity, now and forever. Today, however, I am not looking to eschatological end times, but rather at our now times. Hence, I look for a pathway to this peace.

This peace has nothing to do with the avoidance of trial or the absence of tribulation, but rather with our acknowledgement of our troubles. This peace has nothing to do with our bringing an end to our tensions and a beginning of some sentimental spirit of well being, but rather with our facing and our wrestling with all that torments us, both from without and from within. This peace has everything to do with our reaching constantly around the barriers we erect to keep out all that disturbs us, reaching across boundaries of difference. Around barriers and across boundaries internal and external, between our faith and our fears, between our hunger for security and our acknowledgement of countless circumstances beyond the reach of our control. Around barriers and across boundaries racial and cultural, among black, brown, red, white, and yellow and, yes, between America and the Arab world. Around barriers and across boundaries philosophical and theological, among Christians, Jews, Muslims, and others. This peace has everything to do with our constant embrace of “the other” beyond tolerance in a bond of mutual acceptance, understanding, and respect, even celebration. This peace has everything to do with a vision of radical diversity and inclusivity.

This is the peace of God that passes all understanding,[5] for it makes no sense to embrace difference, particularly at times of turmoil and tragedy when our human instinct is not diversity and inclusion, but rather seclusion and exclusion. Is the pathway to this peace comfortable? No. Is it even desirable, in accord with our human druthering? No. Yet, in the words of the hymn, this is “the peace of God (that) is no peace, but strife closed in the sod.” Yet, also in the words of that hymn and in the words of our hearts, “let us pray for but one thing – the marvelous peace of God.”[6]

 

Footnotes:

[1] Occurring in 1988, 1993, 1995, 1998, and 2000, respectively.

[2] Howard Washington Thurman (1899-1981), African American author, civil rights leaders, educator, philosopher, theologian, and mystic

[3] Verna Josephine Dozier (1917-2006), African American biblical scholar, theologian, teacher, and writer.

[4] The Dream of God – A Call to Return (Cambridge, MA: Cowley, 1991), page 31

[5] Philippians 4.7

[6] From the hymn, They cast their nets in Galilee; words by William Alexander Percy (1885-1942)

in Irma’s wake, a Christian prayer

 

hurricane eye

From lightning and tempest…fire and flood…, Good Lord, deliver us.[1]

In the face of Hurricane Irma, this petition comes to mind…

In part because I am a person of prayer. By faith, I believe in God’s existence, God’s eternal presence. By faith, I also believe in God’s benevolence, God’s immeasurable kindness…

And in part because this petition and this urgent plea, “Good Lord, deliver us,” has not been answered as I desire.

Irma, a titanic force of nature, the product of the environmental collusion of tropical disturbance and depression, water and wind, heat and humidity, sweeping through the Caribbean, has done and is doing what hurricanes, without the existential consciousness of cause or realization of reason, do. People have died and the homes and businesses of people’s living and livelihoods have been destroyed. And those of us on the southeast and eastern shores of the American mainland await Irma’s coming, and beyond human power to control, to continue to do what hurricanes do.

So, now, I pray: O God, I trust in Your existence because of which I exist and I trust in Your benevolence because of which most of the days of my life in this Your world have been illumined by sunlight and few darkened by the shadows of sorrow. Still, I know that all Your children, my sisters and brothers of my human family, are not so keenly blessed by worldly circumstances of peace and ease; and more do I know that Nature’s unrests in lightning and tempest, fire and flood make equals of us all in the dread of suffering. By Your ever-hovering, alway-brooding Spirit, O God, grant us the courage of strength and the strength of courage to face without fear whatever comes; knowing that our hearts abide in the hand of the assured everlasting future of Your Love; through Jesus Christ. Amen.

 

Footnote: [1] From The Great Litany, The Book of Common Prayer, page 149

 

 

a lesson learned

Epiphany 1-22-17a sermon, based on Matthew 15.10-28, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 11th Sunday after Pentecost, August 20, 2017

I am a man. Though, as an African American intimately, painfully familiar with the societal deprivations experienced by people of color, both in human chronicles and in my own history, I, however sensitive and sympathetic I may and can be, cannot know firsthand the strivings and sufferings of our sisters of our human family who, from time immemorial unto this day, have had their dreams deferred and denied.

For women, in every arena or field of endeavor – athletics and the sciences, politics and the military, commerce and the church, medicine and the law, the entertainment and service industries – patriarchal hegemonies remain; pay equity still an ideal and glass ceilings still firmly in place, some hardly clear, but rather cloudy, opaque, leaving the women below unable to behold as possibilities the riches of opportunities long relished as realities by the men above.

This comes to my mind and heart, my soul and spirit as I reflect on the encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite woman.

Christ and the Canaanite Woman, Ludovico Carracci (1555-1619)

Jesus enters the district of Tyre and Sidon. Her territory. And she, with the urgency of gravest necessity, greets him with a shout, “Lord, Son of David!”

Incredible!

This non-Jewish woman recognizes who Jesus is, demonstrating a greater awareness of his messianic identity than his disciples have shown so far…

Even more, she, for the sake of her love for her daughter, captive in the thrall of demonic-possession, dares beg the mercy of this Jewish messiah; her very request expressing her belief that he can do something and hoping he will

Still more, she, as a non-Jew and a woman, in the audacity of her appeal has stepped over, kicked over the even then ancient barriers of race and gender, status and authority that bar her from receiving any help.

Jesus, a Jewish man and rabbi, observing those time-honored boundaries, says nothing, need say nothing. His disciples, men, no matter their societal stations – most as fishermen, one a hated tax collector, another a religious zealot – surely standing higher than she, beg Jesus to “send her away.” Jesus answers, and it’s not clear he is speaking to her, sharing only his ultra-exclusionary understanding that his mission and ministry are intended only for Israel.

She persists, adding to her words of respect, “Lord” and “Son of David” a universally understood deed of deference, kneeling at Jesus’ feet; again asking, begging, “Lord, help me.”

Jesus responds with a demeaning word of cultural difference and distance, likening the woman and her daughter to dogs hungering underfoot at the table.

She persists, voicing her belief, her confidence that even a crumb of the mercy of Jesus can conquer the demon laying claim to her daughter’s soul.

Jesus, praising her faith, finally grants her desire.

This encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite woman is a bold witness to the persistent power of faith, especially in response to the rejections of silence and dismissal of the status quo.

I also see that even Jesus, who taught that what is internal, not external, bears the fruit of wickedness, had to be shown how not to fall prey to his perspectives, his prejudices about the outward features of culture and class, race and gender. Bless you, Jesus, for having the humility to listen and learn.

May all who follow Jesus, in every arena and field of endeavor, athletics and the sciences, politics and the military, commerce and the church, medicine and the law, the entertainment and service industries, no longer look on “the other” as “other” and, thus, no longer offer crumbs of mercy, if even that, but rather invite all to have a chosen seat at the table.

 

Illustration: Christ and the Canaanite Woman, Ludovico Carracci (1555-1619)