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.”

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a-Lenten-prayer-a-day, day 5, Monday, March 6, 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 sin and absolution: O merciful God, in Your Love, hold not my sin against me, lest I, dwelling now and, worse, dying eternally, in the wrong I have done, forego the wonder of Your Presence. Yet, I beseech You, by Your same Love, hold me against my sin, lest I, for sake of my egoistic ease, forget it; that in my deserved discomfort, I, today and alway, learn only to delight in the unfathomable depth of Your pardon. Amen.

my crucified Lord, crucify me!

thinking a personal reflection, based on Luke 23.33-43, for the Last Sunday after Pentecost, November 20, 2016.

(Note: Tomorrow, November 16, 2016, I will undergo a long overdue, much needed surgery. I’ll not be up and around on Sunday, November 20, to preach with my dear folk of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC. Oh, how I’ll miss seeing and being with them! Nevertheless, this personal reflection is something akin to what I might have said were I able to be up and about this coming Sunday!)

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The Last Sunday after Pentecost ends the half-year trek from the Day of Pentecost (this year, May 15, 2016); a period set aside to review and reflect more deeply on the Christian story told from Advent through the Easter season that will begin to be retold starting next Sunday, the First Sunday of Advent.

The Last Sunday after Pentecost, also known as Christ the King Sunday, bids the contemplation anew of who Jesus is as Lord, how Jesus reveals his Lordship, and, in that revelation, how to follow him.

a-view-from-the-cross-aka-what-our-lord-saw-from-the-cross-1886-1894-james-tissot-1836-1902-brooklyn-museum-new-york

Jesus, hanging on the cross, said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing”, repeating this word of pardon throughout his dying…

As “the people stood by watching.” “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.”

As “the leaders scoffed at him, ‘He saved others, let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!’” “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.”

As “the soldiers mocked him, offering him sour wine, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!’” “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.”

As “one of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him, ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’” “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.”

The leaders scoffing, the soldiers mocking, and the criminal deriding, sarcastically address Jesus with honorific titles, “God’s chosen one”, “the King of the Jews”, “the Messiah”, for they, beholding him die and believing the only demonstration or proof of his identity is that he saves himself, doubt him.

The second criminal, in contrast, speaks to his fellow sufferer with the intimacy of his name, “Jesus,” then in his request, an astonishing statement of faith, acknowledges who Jesus is, “remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answering, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise”, promises salvation in that eternal realm of God’s nearest, dearest presence.

That Jesus’ kingly throne is a cross, that his crucifixion and his dying are his demonstrations, his proofs of his kingly identity, that his last will and testament are words of forgiveness to those who witness and will his death and of salvation to a criminal who confesses that he deserves to die (“I have been condemned justly”), cause me, call me, command me to believe that all receive God’s mercy.[1]

In truth, I do believe that the universality of God’s forgiveness is precisely what Jesus, in his life and ministry, death and resurrection, reveals. Yet I, a self-interested and biased person, am not as unconditionally inclusive as Jesus. Not even close! If I was in Jesus’ place, it would be difficult, no, well-nigh impossible for me to forgive those who were watching me die and willing my death or, more truth to tell, to forgive even an honest criminal or, most truth to tell, to forgive anyone who judges another as unequal and lacking in human dignity based on gender and sexuality, race and ethnicity, religion and spirituality, class and ability/disability or anyone who harms another creature or the creation.

In writing this, my soul shudders. For it means nothing more or less than that my will is so unaligned with Jesus, that my way of being and doing is so far removed from his, that he, in his way of being and doing, challenges, confronts how I think and feel, believe and act. This means that had I been there, as that haunting spiritual inquires, “when they crucified my Lord?”, I would have crucified him, too. This means, thanks be to God, that as the people watching, the leaders scoffing, the soldiers mocking and the criminal deriding Jesus, he would have forgiven me, verily, today, in my willful human sinfulness, he does forgive me! This means that what I am given, I am to give to others.

What? To anyone who judges another as unequal and lacking human dignity, who harms another creature or the creation, forgive them? Though, in following Jesus, I believe that I am to live and labor to challenge and confront those who, for any reason or cause, would demean others and destroy the creation, yes, I am to forgive them for they, I also believe, in relation to the way and will of God, know not what they are doing.

Jesus, my crucified Lord, crucify my prejudices that they may die that I may live to be as you are. Amen.

 

Illustration: A view from the cross (aka What Our Lord Saw from the Cross) (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902), Brooklyn Museum, New York. Note: Many gather at the feet of Jesus, including Mary, his mother, Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James, John, his disciple, Roman soldiers and a centurion robed in red, and Jewish leaders on horseback. In the background is a tomb where Jesus’ body is to be interred.

Footnote:

[1] Here, I define mercy as God’s compassionate forbearance in withholding the condemnation that sinful humankind deserves; as opposed to grace being God’s unconditional benevolence in granting salvation that sinful humankind does not deserve.

is there a lawyer in the house? – a Lenten meditation

judge's gavelEarly this morning, earlier than usual, around 3, I awoke. Stirred from sleep by a troubling dream. The scene. A courtroom. I was on trial for failing to be the best me I could be. I stood alone, anxious, praying for a lawyer.

More than once, I’ve had (I wonder whether others – many? most? – have had) this dream. Always it rouses me. Always in the middle of the night. Always with a memory that I’ve done something I shouldn’t or I’ve left undone something I should. Always making me newly aware of an inner separation between the person I want (or believe I was meant) to be and the person I am. A separation so deeply internal that I can’t fathom how far it runs; only that it cuts through every aspect of my life. A separation so timelessly inherent that I can’t know whence it began; only that, as far as I can remember, it always was. A separation revealed in every disconnection between my good intentions and my less than noble actions. A separation demanding that I condemn myself.

I arose from bed, retired to my study, pulled a Bible from my shelf, and poured over Paul’s words: “Who will bring a charge against us? Christ Jesus intercedes for us” (Romans 8.33, 34). I found renewed comfort in the apostle’s testimony that I have a divine attorney. I continued reading: “I am convinced that…(nothing can) separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8.38-39).

Ah, love. The attorney. How simple and profound, and how real and true to my experience!

I thought about moments when another, in her/his very human being and doing, incarnating Paul’s witness to the work of Christ Jesus, loved me with:

  • Kindness (kinship) that, with no thought or desire for repayment, went out of its way to help me;
  • Patience that did more than tolerate me, but genuinely accepted and celebrated my God-given human dignity (even when I felt sadly odd or different and especially when I acted in less than dignified ways!);
  • Forgiveness that sought to soothe a wrong done and to salvage our shattered relationship.

And I thought about moments when I had shown to, for, and with another this same kindness, patience, and forgiveness.

Dreams, haunting in their power to evoke, provoke guilt and shame, will come. Thank goodness, thank God that love that “bears…believes…hopes…endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13.7) stays.

emancipation – a son’s reflection on his mother’s death

There are some things, discerned through my experience as a pastor, for years having paid attention to what people have told me about themselves, and as a person, for longer paying attention to what I’ve told myself about me, I’ve come to believe are true.

There are no perfect parents. (“Perfect” meaning to intuit and respond to every desire and need of children always in ways most fitting for individual development and fulfillment.)

There are no perfect children. (“Perfect” meaning to receive what is offered, both praise and discipline, with the openness of understanding, the obedience of acceptance.)

There are no children who arrive at adulthood (though, yes, one hopes, bearing many gifts and graces bestowed during formative years) without “holes in the soul” – those valleys of unfilled desire and need, things one wishes to have received, but were not, which, paradoxically, sometimes can appear as hills, mountains of things one did receive that one wishes not to have been given. All of which means that children as adults need come to terms with themselves – the fruits and failings, the lights and shadows of others, and how it all manifests itself in their being and living.

I am reminded of words of the song, You Are Not Alone, from Stephen Sondheim’s imaginative musical, Into the Woods, based on Grimm’s Fairy Tales:

People make mistakes,
Fathers,
Mothers.
People make mistakes…
Everybody makes one another’s terrible mistakes…
You decide what’s right.
You decide what’s good.

All of this comes to mind and heart two days after the death of my blessed mother Lolita. In my blog post, my Momma: a portrait of a lady – a personal reflection on the occasion of her death, I spoke of her as “soft-spoken and self-effacing…(with a) penchant for diffidence.” The blessing of my mother’s reticence was her genuine care for others. Truly, she was a practitioner of the adage that unless you can say something kind, please refrain from speaking. However, the blight of her quietude, being conflict-averse, was that she did not intervene to protect my brother and me from our father’s angry, at times, alcohol-fueled outbursts. O’er the years, I have come to understand my father’s melancholia and outrage rooted in his lack of vocational, indeed, life’s opportunities as an African American man of Cuban heritage born in 20th century’s first decade. Still, his manner of addressing his inner anguish left severe scars on my psyche, deepened by what I considered to be my mother’s silent collusion.

For much of my life, I have held in conscious awareness my bitterness about my upbringing and its sour fruit – my mistrust and, at times, my aversion to closeness with others. I also have labored long to overcome my angst, which has involved the discovery (and rediscoveries) that I cannot fill the holes in my soul with more work, more good deeds, more glasses of wine, more plates of food, or any other excesses indulged in the vain attempts to anesthetize my inner pain. I have learned to be wide-eyed, open-hearted, open-handed, that is to say, honest with myself so to confess: With help and, yes, hurt along the way, I, without blaming others, claim that I am who I am and will become who I will be.

Still, at the moment of my mother’s dying, I experienced emancipation. At her bedside, without conscious thought, I began to recite the prayers At Time of Death of my Episcopal Church tradition, sometimes referred to as Last Rites, which end:

Into your hands, O merciful Savior, I commend your servant Lolita. Acknowledge, I humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Receive her into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light.

Praying for her soul to be received, I had to let her go, which included forsaking all resentment. In that instant, forgiving her of everything, I sensed liberation from all past pain. The memory of my bitterness remains, but its sting, even a tingling ache is no more.

How can this be? I’m not sure. I must reflect at length and at depth. Will it last? I don’t know. I will discern as I go. What I, right now, do know is that I feel…I am free.