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.”

behold our God!

a sermon, based on Genesis 1.1-2.4 and Matthew 28.16-20, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on Trinity Sunday, June 11, 2017

A story is told that Voltaire,[1] that French Enlightenment philosopher known, among many things, for his complicated relationship with religion, once doffed his hat at the passing of a funeral procession. A friend, surprised, said, “I thought you did not believe in God.” Voltaire replied, “We acknowledge each other, though we are not on speaking terms.”[2]

We, declining to share Voltaire’s sensibilities, claim the annual grace of Trinity Sunday (if not on any other day, then surely this day!) to acknowledge and speak of the threefold nature of God: alway transcendent, beyond all things, immanent, with all things, and spiritually in all things.

The Trinity - Fernando Yáñez de la Almedina

The word “trinity” is not found in the Bible. Still, the Bible, in one sense, is our record of our religious ancestors’ encounters with what 20th century German theologian Rudolph Otto[3] termed the mysterium tremendum et fascinans; that mystery called “God” before which we, in fascinated reverence and fear, tremble. Therein, we behold their attempts to make sense of that mystery, putting into language their experiences and perceptions.

Through the lens of this understanding, let us see what our spiritual forebears have to tell us about God and about us.

Before we do, I share a word about words. Words are symbols. Whether spoken or written, they are meant to conjure up the in the minds of the speaker and hearer, the writer and reader the realities to which they point. Hence, the word “God”, as a symbol, is not God, but only the term we use in our attempt to communicate our understanding of the reality of that mysterium tremendum et fascinans. And, as God is mystery (not a riddle to be resolved, but that which, in its totality, is beyond the reach of our reason), try as we might, we never can comprehend God completely. In a word (pun intended!), we never fully “get”, grasp God. Yet, in our continued quest for understanding, we hope, we believe that what we do get is fully God. For that reason, through prayer, study, and worship, we keep trying, remaining steadfast in the quest to behold our God!

Now, back to the Bible!

The first Genesis creation story is a rhapsodic Hebrew poem testifying that God is almighty! For through the agency of “wind”, in the Hebrew, ruach, Spirit, “sweeping over the face of the waters”, God creatio ex nihilo, creates out of the nothing of “formless void and darkness.” Whenever we humans “create” we always must take things that already exist to fashion something new. God begins with nothing and, through word, “Let there be…”, comes light, sky, earth, and sea, suns and stars, flora and fauna, and humankind. And this unfolding differentiation continues unto this day. Our God always is creating and we, made in God’s image, are called to create, not destroy. Our dominion over the earth is not, is never to be domination, but rather creative caretaking, loving stewardship.

In the Gospel of Matthew, the risen Jesus declares unto his first disciples the Great Commission, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” As important as this mission of baptizing and teaching has been and is for the spread of Christianity, the most important word Jesus says is “therefore.” Jesus can  (is able to) command his disciples because “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Jesus claims the authority, the right to exercise power, of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, the God of whom Genesis speaks as the almighty Creator.

It is this God revealed in this Jesus who, in the Spirit, is “with (us) always, to the end of the age.”

Behold our God!

 

Illustration: The Trinity, Fernando Yáñez de la Almedina (1475-1536)

Footnotes:

François-Marie Arouet (Voltaire) (1694-1778)

[1] Voltaire, the nom de plume of François-Marie Arouet (1694-1778) famous or infamous, depending on one’s point of view, for his attacks on the established church, and his advocacy of freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and separation of church and state.

[2] Recorded in David Head’s He Sent Leanness: a book of prayers for the natural man (The MacMillan Company, 1959), page 36.

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[3] Rudolf Otto (1869-1937), German Lutheran theologian and philosopher.

we (yes, we!) are apostles

a sermon, based on John 20.19-23, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the Day of Pentecost, June 4, 2017

Pentecost. The word means “fiftieth”. For Christians,[1] the fiftieth day after Easter Day on which we commemorate the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise to send the Holy Spirit upon his disciples,[2] those he called to follow him to learn from him so to become apostles sent out by him to preach and teach his gospel, his good news of God’s unconditional, redeeming love.

Today, as we reflect on the nature and work of the Holy Spirit, rather than focus on the stirring, spellbinding scene in Acts with its sudden, violent heaven-sent wind, tongues of fire, disciples filled with the Spirit proclaiming in manifold languages God’s deeds of power,[3] I bid we take the proverbial “road less traveled” and look at John’s gospel.

It is the evening of the first Easter Day.[4] The disciples, grieving the death of Jesus and fearing for their lives, are in hiding. The resurrected Jesus appears…

The Appearance of Christ at the Cenacle (upper room) (Apparition du Christ au cénacle) (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902)

He proclaims peace; not freedom from tribulation (for this is the peace of One who was crucified; thus, if nothing else, bearing bloody witness that life in this world is not free from trial!), but rather that greatest comfort of eternal union with him.

He entrusts them with his mission: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

Knowing they need power to fulfill that mission, he breathes on them: “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

Then he defines their mission, and, by extension, ours: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

What? Who among us, including the first disciples, as human and honestly confessing our subjection to the temptation of the abuse of authority, would want to wield that kind of power over anyone (or anyone over us!)? Not I? As a priest, when I pronounce the absolution of sin, thank goodness, it is neither on my merit, which there is little, nor in my name, which is wholly lacking, that I proclaim it, but alway only by the grace and mercy of God! Now, I will concede that sometimes I have difficulty forgiving those who hurt me. And I do not believe I’m alone! So, it seems that we humans, at some visceral level, like the notion of releasing and retaining the sins of others!

Nevertheless, God forbid, I don’t think Jesus aims to appoint us as judges of humanity. Rather, we are to do something else in relation to sin.

(In over forty years as a daily Bible student, what I am about to share never has occurred to me, thus, as it hath come to me, for whatever reasons beyond my knowing, I consider it a Spirit-given revelation!)

By “sin”, I do not mean our human, innate moral frailty and failure of virtue leading us into temptation. Nor our acts of commission and omission in disobedience to God’s commandments. Yes, these are definitions of sin, yet, in John’s gospel, the chiefest sin is unbelief; not believing in God as revealed in Jesus.[5]

Therefore, for a disciple of Jesus to retain the sins of any is to refuse to be an apostle, to refuse to share with others the good news of Jesus. To forgive the sins of any is to strive to liberate others from their unbelief by witnessing to the gospel of Jesus.

Therefore, this Day of Pentecost, to commemorate the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the first disciples and to celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit upon us is, in the words of the hymn, to “claim the high calling angels cannot share – to young and old the Gospel gladness bear!”[6]

Jesus breathes on us, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” commissioning us as apostles sent out to share with others, through the words of our lips and the deeds of our lives, his good news of God’s unconditional, redeeming love.

 

Illustration: The Appearance of Christ at the Cenacle (upper room) (Apparition du Christ au cénacle) (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902). Note: Tissot portrays the resurrected Christ appearing to his followers in the upper room where they had shared the Last Supper exposing his glowing wounds as the disciples, in the foreground, and the servants, in the background, look on in wonder.

Footnotes:

[1] Pentecost first was and is a Jewish harvest festival, Shavuot; referred to as the Festival of Weeks (Exodus 34.22 and Deuteronomy 16.10), the Festival of Harvest (Exodus 23.16), and the Day of First Fruits (Numbers 28.26). As Shavuot is the fiftieth day after the Day of Passover (the annual celebration of the emancipation of the Hebrew captives from bondage in Egypt and their journey to the Promised Land, and, according to Jewish tradition, commemorating God’s giving of the 10 Commandments on Mount Sinai as a sign of new, liberated life), Hellenistic Jews called it Pentecost. This historical Jewish antecedent of Passover-Pentecost enlightens Christian understanding. God’s gift of the Holy Spirit is the signification of resurrected life in Jesus freed from captivity to sin and death so to journey to the Promised Land of eternal life.

[2] See John 14.15-17, 25

[3] See the Book of Acts 2.1-21

[4] The New Testament witness of the coming of the Holy Spirit gives evidence of more than one tradition, for, according to the Book of Acts, the event is located on the Day of Pentecost and, via the Gospel of John, on Easter Day evening. To explain the latter, for John the evangelist, the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise of the gift of the Holy Spirit (John 14.15-17, 26) is tied to his glorification (his crucifixion, death, and resurrection).

[5] I arrive at this view given my interpretation of Jesus’ prayerful definition of eternal life: “This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17.3). In a recent sermon, Easter People (May 28, 2017), I said, in part: “Our knowing is more than our intellectual assent to the idea of God, more than our cognitive awareness of something, Someone greater than we, more than our understanding of the ways and workings of God. To know God and Jesus is to be in relationship with God as Jesus makes God known to us.” Believing this to be true, I define “sin” (that spiritual and existential state of separation or estrangement from God), from a Johannine point of view, as an active non-knowing of (an active not being in relationship with) God.

I think, too, of Jesus’ healing of the man born blind (John 9.1-41), especially his scathing critique of those who, though beholding his saving work, were what I term “the sighted blind”, for they refused to believe that was the Messiah: Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see’, your sin remains” (John 9.39-41).

Further, I think of Jesus’ testimony to his disciples prior to his departure from them about the work of the Holy Spirit, one aspect of which is in regard to the indelible linkage between sin and unbelief: “Now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, “Where are you going?” But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgement: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned” (John 16.5-11; my emphases). Note: The phrase “prove the world wrong” (John 16.8) also can be translated from the Greek “convict the world of”, which is to say that the Holy Spirit corrects the world’s viewpoint, say, of the nature and substance of sin, thus clarifying what it is, that is, unbelief.

[6] From the hymn, Come, labor on; words by Jane Laurie Borthwick (1813-1897)

Easter people

a sermon, based on John 17.1-11, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 7th Sunday of Easter, May 28, 2017

Jesus looked up to heaven and said…[1]

On the night before Jesus’ betrayal and arrest, trial and condemnation, crucifixion and death, he gathers with his disciples for a last supper. Following John the evangelist’s narrative of that night, Jesus washes their feet, giving them an example of self-sacrificial, slavish service that he bids they imitate.[2] He tells them again and again who he is in relation to them: “I am the way, the truth, and the life”[3] and “I am the true vine, you are the branches.”[4] In preparing to depart, in preparing them for his departure from them, he gives them his final instructions, chiefly his one and only commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you,”[5] his promise of his abiding presence with them, within them in the Advocate, the Holy Spirit,[6] and his warning of their coming sufferings for his sake.[7]

After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said…

Here, Jesus prays to God not in some faraway place, not on a mountaintop, not in a garden not apart and away from his disciples, but right there, at table with them, in their presence, in their hearing. And there, in prayer, Jesus defines for them and for us the heart, the point, the greatest gift of Easter: “This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”

Eternal life is to know God and Jesus. Our knowing is more than our intellectual assent to the idea of God, more than our cognitive awareness of something, Someone greater than we, more than our understanding of the ways and workings of God. To know God and Jesus is to be in relationship with God as Jesus makes God known to us.

And what, Who is the God Jesus makes known? Following the revelations unfolded in the Gospel of John…

God is divine logos, Word; the animating power of the universe. The Word that became our flesh and dwelled among us in Jesus, no longer to be far off, but ever near.[8]

Jesus who went to a wedding feast and changed limpid, life-giving water into vibrant, soul-stirring wine, revealing that God wills to be at the center of our times of joy as well as our moments of sorrow.[9]

Jesus who met with Nicodemus[10] and the Samaritan woman,[11] speaking to both of spiritual things, revealing that God reaches out to all people, the high and the low, the greatest and the least.

Jesus who healed those with broken bodies,[12] fed those with hunger-bloated bellies,[13] forgave the woman caught in adultery, saying, “sin no more”,[14] raised Lazarus from the dead,[15] revealing that God wills all be restored to wholeness and righteousness.

Jesus who promised another Advocate, the Holy Spirit, to abide with us, within us,[16] revealing God’s presence and power to continue Jesus’ ministry of love and justice.

Jesus who prays, “I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world. I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”

There is an ancient legend of Jesus’ ascension into heaven. All the heavenly hosts, angels and archangels, cherubim and seraphim, greet his arrival, welcoming him home. The angel Gabriel asks, “O Son of God, what have you done to continue your work on earth?” Jesus answers, “I have disciples whom I called to learn from me. Now, as apostles, I have sent them into the world to teach.” Gabriel, alert to a potentially serious, perhaps fatal flaw in the plan, frowns, asking, “O Son of God, what if they, frail and fearful, forget and fail? What then?” Jesus answers, “I have no other plan.”

We are Easter people. We know God and Jesus. We have eternal life. Therefore, we, in this world, in this day, in this time, in our generation, with God at the center of our lives at all times, are to reach out to all people with hands and hearts that heal and feed and forgive and give life to the dead.

 

Footnotes:

[1] John 17.1

[2] John 13.1-15

[3] John 14.6

[4] John 15.5

[5] John 13.34, 15.12, 17

[6] John 14.16-17, 26

[7] John 15.18-21, 16.2

[8] John 1.1-4, 14

[9] John 2.1-11

[10] John 3.1-17

[11] John 4.7-42

[12] John 5.1-9, 9.1-7

[13] John 6.1-13

[14] John 8.1-11

[15] John 11.1-44

[16] John 14.16, 26

love, the only…

a sermon, based on John 14.15-21, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 6th Sunday of Easter, May 21, 2017

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments…They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me.”

In this Easter season, as we continue to contemplate the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection, today, we are invited to consider the immediate, incarnate, in-the-flesh-of-our-daily-living connection between loving Jesus and being obedient to Jesus. Thus, it is important to ask, “What commandments?” And Jesus reminds that it is easy to remember, for there is only one: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”[1] Lest we miss the point, he tells us: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”[2]

Love – and though we’ve said and shared this many times before, let us recall that by “love” we are not talking about our feelings about others or our affections for others, but rather the power to act in benevolent regard on behalf of others – is the only commandment of Jesus…

Love is the only measure of obedience to Jesus…

Therefore, at the proverbial end and beginning and middle of every day, there is only one question that a disciple, a follower, a lover of Jesus need ask: How did I love and (given our human weakness, unable always to fulfill our best intentions, and our human waywardness, able always to follow our self-interest) how did I not love?

To ask and answer this question, honestly, confessionally, especially the “not” part, is to open ourselves to judgment. Yet, praise God, this judgment is not that often most debilitating human disapproval of us by others or, at times, even worse, ourselves! No! This is the judgment of Jesus. The One who loves us unconditionally! The One who died for us self-sacrificially! The One who was raised from the dead for us that we have life eternally![3] And whenever Jesus points a judging finger at us it is always to help us see more clearly who we are, where we are in relation to him, all so that he can call us to come closer to him. How close? Abidingly, abundantly, inseparably, interminably close: “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth…(who) abides with you, and…will be in you.”[4]

“Advocate”, from the Greek parakletos, variously translated comforter, counselor, teacher, testifier, and, literally, one who comes alongside. Jesus, the Word of God in flesh,[5] was, is our first Advocate. Because of Easter, because of the resurrection of Jesus, he promised to send and has sent another Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whose coming we will commemorate two Sundays from now on the Day of Pentecost, who, as God’s presence and power, abides within us.

It is by, for, in, through, with (pick any preposition, the truth is the same!) the Holy Spirit that we can love Jesus and can keep his commandments and can ask ourselves that critical question “How have I loved and how have I not loved today?” and can place ourselves under his judgment and all that we can believe, can know that we are loved by God now through eternity.

Because of the everlasting Easter-love of God in Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit, let us in gratitude declare again, “Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen, indeed! Alleluia!”

 

Footnotes:

[1] John 13.34-35

[2] John 15.12-13

[3] Here, I have in mind the Apostle Paul’s grand declaration that the One who can (is able to) condemn us is the same One who has saved us, thus, we need not, need never fear: If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ?…I am convinced that…(nothing) in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8.31b-35a, 38a, 39b, abridged and amended).

[4] My emphasis

[5] See John 1.1, 14a: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh and lived among us.

 

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

On politics, religion, and presidential elections (subtitle: fill in the blank; sub-subtitle: WWJD?[1])

The American socio-political climate is as sizzling and sweltering as a South Carolina spring morning when long before noon the temperature and humidity climb to the high-80s (or higher!). The unrest, characteristic of the 2016 presidential campaign (which was, I think, in part, a bitter fruit of the rising, roiling ideological conservative-liberal tensions of the prior decade), pestilentially persists. Those who voted for _______,[2] some of whom rather would have voted for _______,[3] with the election of Donald Trump, are _______, _______, and _______ .[4]

In the light of this heat, here, in the South, I hear political speech with religious undertones (or is it religious speech with political overtones?). To wit (with each successive declarative or interrogative statement, from whatever side of the political spectrum, uttered with increasing certainty and stridency):

“Jesus would have voted for _______.”

“Jesus told me to vote for _______.”

“How in God’s name could you vote for _______?”

“How can you call yourself a Christian and vote for _______?”

I am a Christian. I love and follow Jesus. I strive, praying the strength of the Holy Spirit, to obey his one commandment: to love unconditionally.[5] Daily, I try. Daily, I fail. Daily, I pray the Spirit’s presence and guidance to try again.

Given my existential and spiritual orientation, at first, I was taken aback by what I deem unabashed and unbridled hypercritical politico-religio language.[6] Then, catching myself (or, rather, the Spirit catching me) falling prey to judging others, I stepped back from the precipice of that pit so to look and to listen with the eyes and ears of love. What or rather who I see and hear are my sisters and brothers, some of whose expressions correspond with mine and some not. Yet my agreement or disagreement does not, must not affect my ability and willingness to tolerate, even more, to accept, and still more, to honor their thoughts and feelings, their wants and needs, their hopes and fears that are the ground, the heart from which spring their words. And in that tolerance, acceptance, verily, reverence for their God-given human dignity, I can “lay down my life” – my preferences and prejudices – for their sake.

 

Footnotes:

[1] What would Jesus do?

[2] Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump

[3] In the case of Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders or, in the case of Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina, Jim Gilmore, Lindsay Graham, Mike Huckabee, Bobbly Jindal, John Kasich, George Pataki, Rand Paul, Rick Perry, Marco Rubio, or Scott Walker or, with the choice of voting for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, did not vote.

[4] happy, hopeful, and compliant or sorrowful, fearful, and defiant

[5] Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13.34-35) and “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15.12-13).

[6] During my many years of living and laboring in and around Capitol Hill, Washington, DC, where the lingua franca is über-partisan, self-authenticating, other-vilifying speech, I do not recall hearing anything like this.

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.