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

On the air

There are 300 or so FCC[1]-licensed radio stations in South Carolina. Of them, 50 or so or a healthy 16% of market share are religious (read: Christian);[2] their perspectives tending, trending toward the conservative evangelical end of the theological continuum. The programming runs the gamut of biblical studies, sacred music, both traditional and largely contemporary, church services, especially sermons, and religious oriented talk and news formats, covering topics of local, national, and international interest.

Since February 2015, retiring to South Carolina from Washington, DC (the last nearly 17 years spent on Capitol Hill where everything was within walking distance[3]), I have done more driving. Lots more.

I describe myself (well, one of my self-descriptions) as a religious progressive. I am more suspicious of certainties or declarations of certainty and more trusting in life’s ambiguities. I believe most, perhaps all things are open to doubt and question, even the existence of God and, if not, then, given my ceaseless wrestling with the reality of evil in this world, God’s benevolence. (In all of this, I also believe that if or as God is God, then God can handle, perhaps even welcome my wonderments!) In league with my native (for I’ve been this way for as long as I can recall) propensity to think, then rethink, then think again about any and all things, I once described myself as “flamingly liberal” by which I meant and mean that the older I get my list of “negotiables”, things that are open to review and revision, gets longer and my list of “non-negotiables” grows shorter.

All this is to say that, as I drive, I listen to religious radio, especially those stations whose raison d’être it is to espouse a bedrock of unassailable belief in an immutable God. Why? My reasons, at least those of which I am conscious, are legion.

Mini interior

In the unswerving articulation of Christian conviction, I am confronted, at times convicted in my bewilderments and called to rethink my questions…

In the fundamentalist interpretations of biblical texts, I find myself deepening in my admiration and respect for what I consider a purity of understanding and application of foundational truths. I also marvel at how a text can be interpreted in myriad ways…

In listening to the sacred music, especially olden gospel tunes, I, remembering the melodies taught by my stalwart, sanctified Baptist grandmother, give full-throated assent in song; sometimes, in the face of my doubts, yearning to reclaim what I wish I used to believe…

In a word, I’m happy for the existence and happier still to listen to the many religious radio stations.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Federal Communications Commission

[2] In South Carolina, oft it is said that to throw a rock in any direction is to hit a church building. So, it seems is true of the radio dial, nearly every turn, whether clockwise or counterclockwise, tuning into a religious broadcast.

[3] By “everything, I mean everything – homes and apartments, stores and shops of all sorts, markets and restaurants, doctors and dentists, lawyers and realtors, banks and financial centers, post offices and commercial shipping offices, and in proverbial accord with that 18th century English nursery rhyme, “butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers”, and, when occasion necessitated, two stations on the fine Metro subway system that stretched throughout the DC and near Maryland and near northern Virginia region.

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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.

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 22, The Annunciation, Saturday, March 25, 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 Annunciation (1898), Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937)

On The Annunciation:[1] O Jesus, as Gabriel, messenger of God, appeared to Your Mother-to-be, the Blessed Virgin Mary, saying, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you” and proclaiming Your coming birth, may this angelic announcement rekindle my faith that You, through Your Spirit, are conceived in the womb of my soul and that, in my living and doing, I may bear the likeness of Your lovingkindness in the world. Amen.

 

Illustration: The Annunciation (1898), Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937). Of the many, nearly countless depictions of The Annunciation, I favor Tanner’s, in historical part because he is one of the first African American painters to gain international renown and in artistic part because of his imaginative visualization of the angel Gabriel not in human form, but rather as a vertical white line of celestial luminescence and of Mary with a posture and countenance that capture her wonderment in doubtful expectation.

Footnote:

[1] See Luke 1.26-38

a-Lenten-prayer-a-day, day 21, Friday, March 24, 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 waiting and persevering in prayer: O Jesus, Word of God, Word of Life, continuously, rhythmically, I call out, I cry out to You with every pulsation, exhalation, and contemplation; and I, as my heart for the next beat, my lungs for the next breath, my mind for the next thought, wait for You, trusting, by faith that as Your Word stands forever,[1] that as You are forever, You will answer. Amen.

Footnote:

[1] My reference to Matthew 24.35: Jesus said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will never pass away.”

a-Lenten-prayer-a-day, day 18, Tuesday, March 21, 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 waiting, doubting, and listening in prayer: O Lord, some (most? all?) of the time, when I call Your Name and wait for Your reply, sometimes patiently, sometimes not, I do not hear anything; not even Your still small Voice that, though the sheerest of silences, must, I (want to) think, bear a detectable sound. (Elijah heard it!)[1]

And I wonder: Are You there? Are You anywhere?

Or are You, Your Presence, Your Power, Your Person, only a thought that I was taught to believe, which, as ephemeral as vapor, now, as I draw e’er closer to the psalmist’s discernment of the length of years at this business of living,[2] my experience has convinced me to rule out of existence? (I confess that occasionally I allow my self this thought or rather this thought cannonades the citadel – sometimes the crumbling castle in need of shoring up! – of my faith in You, O Lord!)

O Lord, in the face of this, my wonderment, my doubt, nevertheless, within me, daily, hourly, moment by moment, I sense an urge, unquenchable and irresistible, emerging from the depths of me and rising to my conscious awareness, to call out to You.

O Lord, in this, as I continue alway to listen for Your Voice, I have learned to listen also for the echo of my voice as it grows fainter by the instant until I no longer can hear the sound of it. In this, in faith, I believe, I know that my plea has reached You. Amen.

Footnotes:

[1] I refer to God’s Word to Elijah (1 Kings 19.11-13a) (my emphasis): “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it

[2] My reference to Psalm 90.10a: The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong…