an epistemological epiphany about life and legacy

My mother named me after St. Paul. (Perhaps she knew something!) I’ve always had a kinship with the Apostle; one of his words long being a touchstone for me: Now we see in a mirror dimly…Now I know only in part.[1]

It never ceases to amaze me how much I don’t know. About anything. God. The creation. Others. Myself. In this daily state of conscious ignorance, I also always am amazed when an epiphany, especially about myself (which, of the four aforementioned things, I think I should know most well, but oft do not!) dawns. It usually happens in a moment of sheer serendipity, verily, from that proverbial realm “out of nowhere.”

It happened today. I was in conversation with a friend, Carolyn. Our subjects of interest, covering a wide range – meditation, prayer, God, eternal life, reincarnation – had a common core of spiritual beliefs and practices and, even more, epistemology, and that, still more, in its most basic sense concerning how we know what we know.

I spoke of my life as a writer, mostly sermons, but also poetry, novellas, and my blog. I told Carolyn that usually I never know where the words will take me until I arrive at an “Aha!” moment of deepened self-awareness.

William John Abernathy

As an aside, I referenced my blog post of yesterday – at some point (thinking ahead, thinking back)… – a personal reflection about my father, which Carolyn had read.

And then, it happened. “Aha!”

For years, truly, so long ago that I cannot recall my first awareness, I’ve loved history; the chronicle of human life in time and space is a principle lens through which I perceive reality. And as a philosophical and theological existentialist, I long have been enamored by the questions of identity and destiny; constantly asking myself who am I and who am I becoming as a person, as a creation of God?

PRA 6-19-16

In yesterday’s blog post, I wrote of my father’s largely vain pursuit of his history and identity. And it wasn’t until today as Carolyn and I talked that I realized that I bear in my blood and in my bones my father’s legacy. I now know that I, on my father’s behalf and for myself, live to fulfill his quest.

 

 

Footnote:

[1] 1 Corinthians 13.12

at some point (thinking ahead, thinking back)…

William John Abernathy

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

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

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

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

Pedro Silva, paternal grandfather

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

Edith Blondell Abernathy, paternal grandmother

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

 

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

At some point, Pedro and Edith died…

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

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

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

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

You are complete.

Love, Paul

 

Footnote:

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

conventional wisdom

This past weekend, as priest-in-charge (fully knowing God is in charge!) of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, I attended the annual convention of the Diocese of Upper South Carolina.

94th-edusc-convention-st-johns-columbia-11-45-16

In nearly 40 years of ordained ministry, I’ve taken part in many conventions and, truth to tell, often with little enthusiasm. I acknowledge the importance of governance; the need to translate the interpreted mandates of scripture and tradition via the gift of prayerful reason into the organization of the life of the ecclesial community. However, occasionally (often?) I find these gatherings overladen with individual human desirings masquerading (unconsciously and consciously) as divine will.

john-h-dozier

This convention was different. For many reasons. One. The person and presence of the guest speaker, Dr. John H. Dozier, Chief Diversity Officer of the University of South Carolina.

Dr. Dozier’s address on diversity and inclusion and his workshop, Talk Isn’t Cheap: Why Cross Cultural Communication is Important, were powerfully provocative

At Friday’s end, three of us, reflecting a diverse demographic of race and ethnicity, gender and sexuality, formed a panel of responders to questions posed by Dr. Dozier.

His queries and my responses…

Describe some of the elements of your identity.

I am an African American male of Hispanic ancestry, my paternal grandfather being Cuban (hence, and it’s a long story, being named Abernathy by coincidence!), a husband and a father, a Christian, an Episcopal priest, and, since my retirement and resettlement, a South Carolina apologist[1] in response to all who consider our state racially regressive and politically and socially reprobate. For, here, among you and from you, I have experienced the warmest and widest of welcomes.

What are you most proud about your identity?

I was raised by a father who didn’t have familial or societal support to pursue his dream of being a mathematician, who urged me “to become all I could be”, adding, “You have to be twice as good as white people to be equal.” (The downside of that counsel? If I had to be twice as good, then I never could be equal!) I also was raised by a family of educators who commended that I read and write, as my father demanded, “the King’s English.” My grandmother oft asked, “Why is the English language one of the most efficient?” immediately answering her own question, “Because it has one of the largest vocabularies. The more words you know and use, the more nuanced your expression of your ideas and your understanding of others.” I’m proud of my capacity to write and speak well, with precision, and my attendant ability to think with breadth and depth.

What about your identity causes you difficulty?

I believe in Jesus’ love and justice; unconditional benevolence and fairness toward all. Always. I fail to do this. Always. Nevertheless, it is my calling. Always. And whenever I encounter one who, in my judgment (and, I confess, in light of my prejudices), does not perceive the world around her/him with breadth, and think and process information so to form thought and opinion with depth, I, tending toward negative judgment, struggle to be loving and just.

What does the church need to do better?

Acknowledging my prejudices, I strive to stretch and reach across the boundaries and barriers existing between me and “the other” – one who doesn’t look, think, act like me. Case in point, we’re about to elect the 45th President of the United States. I plan to vote for Hillary Clinton. I’m not enamored with my choice, but I cannot vote for Donald Trump. Nevertheless, I’ve sought out folk who are voting for Mr. Trump, asking them why. I have come away from these conversations, though not agreeing, with an appreciation for the thought and passion that has formed and framed their choice and without a desire or need to denigrate that choice. Not to universalize my experience, but this sort of effort of stretching and reaching is what, I believe, the church need do always and in all ways.

 

Photograph: The clergy and laity meeting at the 94th Convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Upper South Carolina, November 4-5, 2016, at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Columbia, SC.

Footnote:

[1] By “apologist”, I do not infer that I make excuses or express regret (being, in common parlance, standard meanings of “apology”) for South Carolina. Rather, drawing on the Greek, apologia, “speaking in defense”, I am an advocate and supporter of South Carolina, at times, in response to well-meaning folk who, in wonder, sometimes in worry, have asked, in so many words, “Why, in heaven’s name, are you living there?” On occasion, I’ve employed the rejoinder and reality check of Malcolm X to people who believed that life, in regard to race and racism, always was better in the north than in the south, “As long as you are South of the Canadian border, you are South.”

a meditation on race, repost

I am honored to serve as a member of the Diocese of Upper South Carolina’s Race and Reconciliation Committee. The initial planning and team-building retreat was held on Saturday-Sunday, August 27-28, at Camp Gravatt, Aiken, SC.

In the light and shadow of my immediate post-retreat reflections, I repost a meditation on race (here, revised more lyrically, for this is how the words willed themselves to be heard by my heart this day) that I wrote on my blog page on August 13, 2014. The sentiments herein continue to represent my sense of things.

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What is race? A thing to run? If so, how?

 

A thing to run toward as a shelter of safety

in which one’s identity

dwells secure?

A ground on which one’s integrity,

the maintenance of that identity,

is assured?

 

Or is race a thing to run through to get to the other

side to stand with “the other”

so to see one another

through the lens of our common humanity,

as in that generation ago

liberal-minded goal

of a color-blind society?

(A laudable ideal in theory;

one, however, beset by an insoluble reality:

Even when color-blind, we still see black and white. Thus, we can’t run through race

to some mythological place

of color unconsciousness.)

 

Or is race a thing from which to run, afraid of “the other”,

conscious of what we’ve been taught and learned,

and so consider,

or rather

believe about “them”, about “those people”?

 

Or is race a thing from which to run from ourselves, refusing to be identified,

vilified

by our race, in fear of rejection

and isolation

by the prejudice that prejudges without benefit of information

about us?

 

Or is race

a thing from which to run from ourselves, fearing to face

our prejudice

our prejudgments of others based

on evidence other

than what we can garner

only through our encounters personal,

our engagements with individuals?

 

Race. A thing to run? No. Rather a thing to be

as an expression of diversity…

 

A diversity – seen from a theological perspective of divine intention

and from an anthropological point of view of the creation –

paradoxically, best shown

and seen as one.

For there is but one race, whose name is holy.

And that race is wholly

human…

 

So Jesus told the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

An essential element of a life of justice and compassion

is our knowing

our neighbor

and honoring

our neighbor,

who is anyone

and our being a neighbor to everyone.

 

Then why,

O why

do we, in fear, still divide

ourselves one from another,

color by color?

 

Despite our ideals greatest

and intentions best,

our history and sociology

continually trump our theology and anthropology.

 

Let us pray

and struggle still that we may find a more excellent way.

breathing new life into old words

preaching a sermon, referencing Psalm 8, Romans 5.1-5, John 16.12-15, and Proverbs 8.1-4, 22-31,  preached with the people of Trinity Episcopal Church, Washington, DC, on Trinity Sunday, May 22, 2016

Since the 10th century in western Christendom (which is to say, from Rome and toward the west as opposed to Constantinople or now Istanbul and toward the east), the Sunday following the Day of Pentecost is Trinity Sunday. The only day of the church year devoted to a doctrine, an articulation of belief. Concerning the Trinity, the nature of God. The God who is transcendent, above, beyond us, as the psalmist sings of the Lord, our Governor, whose Name is exalted, immanent, with us in Jesus through whom Paul declares, “we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand…hav(ing) peace with God,” and within us through the Spirit who John describes as source and speaker of truth and, according to Proverbs, the wisdom of creation.

Adoration of the Trinity (1511), Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Trinity, the word, not found in the Bible, was first used in the third century by the African Carthaginian scholar Tertullian.[1] In the fourth century, the belief “in one God, one Lord, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit” was codified in the Nicene Creed; which, honesty compels the confession, was the product of a political process at the Council of Nicaea, involving majority vote. Therefore, some beliefs about God, Jesus, and Spirit were not included! Nevertheless, the doctrine of the Trinity helps us comprehend and communicate the nature of God.

But how?

How does the doctrine of the Trinity, by necessity using human language, help us grasp the exalted majesty, the ineffable mystery of God?

Even more, how can our words, which, as symbols, point beyond themselves, help us to conceptualize and convey with any adequacy and clarity the reality of the wonder that is God’s nature? To wit, hear again the words of this morning’s Collect: “Almighty and everlasting God, you have given to us your servants grace, by the confession of a true faith, to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, and in the power of your divine Majesty to worship the Unity…” This is the sort of prayer that I, after having recited it, feel compelled to exclaim: “What?”

Still more, how can a nearly 1700-year old doctrine help us post-modernists who, in every aspect of our lives, are schooled and shaped by scientific inquiry and analysis, Enlightenment rationalism, astrophysics, cybernetics, quantum mechanics; all expanding our horizons of understanding, all exploding ancient, traditional categories of meaning?

It seems to me that we have some choices. We can ignore the Trinity as nonsense, unworthy of consideration. We can consider it an archaism and consign it to the proverbial dustbin of the dim past. Or, as true of all present-time wrestling with history’s inheritance, we can strive to breathe new life into old words, re-envisioning the Trinity so it becomes anew what we profess as the heart of our belief and confess as the truth of our hearts.

To do this, I heed the counsel of the 20th century French philosopher and Jesuit priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin,[2] who believed we are not human beings in search of spiritual experience, but spiritual beings, created by God who is Spirit,[3] immersed in human experience. So, I bid that we contemplate what the doctrine of the Trinity says about God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and about us.

Each of us has a religious impulse. Surely, we have heard or, from time to time, may have said of ourselves, “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” When folk say that, I think they mean that they seek spiritual enlightenment, spiritual growth, or spiritual depth, but not via institutional religion. Fair enough. Nevertheless, I believe, again, that each of us, by virtue of being alive, is embarked on a religious quest. For the word “religion” is derived from the Latin, religare, meaning “to bind” (which, by the way, produces the word “ligament”, which ties our bones together). We all need to formulate principles to hold things together. We all desire to make sense of this seemingly often random experience called “existence”. And this need, this desire, at its core, is religious.

Why do we need, desire to do this? Because we were conceived without our choice or control, born within boundless time and fathomless space, and brought into the grand continuum of history, with much coming before us, and, given our mortality, much coming after us. Perforce we must believe in something greater than we.

Speaking always, only for myself, I choose not something, but rather Someone: God. To paraphrase Voltaire, if God didn’t exist, I’d have to invent God[4] or some idea to express my unerring sense of the enormity of existence and my gratitude, with the psalmist, for how fearfully and wonderfully we are made.[5]

Now, once ushered into life in this world, we were launched on that universal existential quest for identity, each of us asking repeatedly, in one way or another: Who am I? Given my family of origin, later, my life’s vocation, and daily profession as a Christian, I chose and choose to follow Jesus. For I behold in him and his love, especially for the least, the last, the lost, his courageous commitment to his cause unto death, his redemptive resurrection, the incarnation of a righteous life that fulfills God’s intention from the dawn of creation.

But how do we follow him? How can we embody his love so that our lives, our words and our deeds, answer our question of identity? For Jesus embodies an unconditional love that humbles us. For we, even in our deepest desires to love others, if we are honest, must confess that our preferences, our affections and disaffections, our likes and dislikes, verily, our prejudices get in our way.

As for me, I’m intolerant of intolerance. If there is one thing I cannot understand it is our human incapacity to comprehend another, divergent point of view and, thus, our inability to accept the reality of those who are different. Yet, in this admission, I reveal my bias that with no subtle irony rejects those I deem biased!

So, how is it possible for us to reconcile our unrighteousness (I just shared one aspect of mine and I know y’all [that’s the Southern influence!] got some!) with the righteousness of Jesus who welcomes us without condition, to paraphrase the hymn, “just as we are without one plea”?

With gratitude, giving thanks for our creation by God as spirits enfleshed in human experience. That spirit, given the One by faith we follow is the Spirit of Jesus. His Spirit, who, greater than our preferences and prejudices, speaks to our conscience; challenging and confronting us, correcting and converting us. His Spirit, as Paul counsels us, who pours God’s love into our hearts,[6] empowering us to fulfill the hope of our hearts to do, to be love.

There is an ancient story told of a rabbi, who, in the manner of Jesus, taught whilst walking down the road, his disciples figuratively and literally following him. He asked, “How do you know when darkness hath given way to light?” The first disciple answered, “Rabbi, you know that darkness gives way to light when you can look in the distance and see a tree and know whether it is a fig tree or an olive tree.” The rabbi answered, “No”, and continued walking. After a while, he stopped, asking again, “How do you know when darkness hath given way to light?” The second disciple, secretly delighted that his brother disciple had failed in his attempt to answer correctly, and now pleased with his opportunity to prove his acumen, responded, “Rabbi, you know that darkness gives way to light when you can look in the distance and see an animal and know whether it is a sheep or a goat.” The rabbi answered, “No”, and continued walking. After a long while, he stopped and said, “You know when darkness hath given way to light when in the distance you see any man, woman, or child and there behold one whom God hath sent to you for you to love. Until you can do that, even at high noon, you dwell in darkness.”

By the presence and power of God and Jesus through the Holy Spirit, let us love. For that is how we breathe new life into old words!

 

Illustration: Adoration of the Trinity (1511), Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

The oil on panel painting (for it originally was affixed over an altar in a chapel) depicts the Trinity; God the Father wearing an imperial crown and a wide gilt cloak, lined in green and supported by angels, and holding a crucifix with a still-alive Jesus, above, the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove in a cloud of light surrounded by cherubim.

A host of heavenly saints are gathered, led by John the Baptist, cloaked in brown and green on the right, and the Virgin Mary, adorned in blue, on the left.

Below them, earthly multitudes of religious, led by the pope (on the left), secular authorities, led by the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire (on the right), and the mass of humanity (in the middle).

On the lower right, a self-portrait of Dürer holding a banner with the signature and date inscription: ALBERTUS DURER NORICUS FACIEBAT ANNO A VIRIGINIS PARTU 1511

Footnotes:

[1] Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus (anglicized as Tertullian), 160-225

[2] French philosopher and Jesuit priest, paleontologist and geologist (May 1, 1881-April 10, 1955). The quote, a paraphrase taken from The Phenomenon of Man (Le Phénomène Humain, 1955).

[3] “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4.24)

[4] Voltaire, nom de plume of the French Enlightenment philosopher François-Marie Arouet (1694-1778). The quote, taken from “An Epistle to the author of The Three Imposters”, a poem in which Voltaire defends the idea of God’s existence as necessary for the maintenance of social order.

[5] Psalm 139.14

[6] Romans 5.5

an Advent meditation: sue God?

Over 2500 years ago, Isaiah, to a people captive in a foreign land, proclaimed they would be freed to go home. However, their land remained scarred with the destruction wrought years earlier by armies of their conquerors. So, Isaiah prophesied:

I (the Lord God) am about to create new heavens and a new earth…Be glad and rejoice forever…No more shall (there be)…weeping…or the cry of distress. No more shall there be…an infant that lives but a few days or an old person who does not live out a lifetime…They shall not labor in vain or bear children for calamity…Before they call, I will answer…The wolf and the lamb shall feed together.

By contrast, stories in our current news cycle declare:

Daily, deadly revivals of ancient enmities in the Middle East and elsewhere…

Civil wars in the Central African Republic and South Sudan…

Incessant drumbeats of provocation between North and South Korea, between North Korea and, it seems, everyone else, between China and freedom activists in Hong Kong, between Russia and the Ukraine…

Renewed American racial tensions in Ferguson, Cleveland, Staten Island, and, given increasing, expanding protests, from sea to shining sea.

Between the lines of these stories, also in contrast to Isaiah, infants and children in many lands cry and die amid violence in many forms, others, having lived beyond their youth, nevertheless die far short of a lifetime, prayers ascend to seemingly unhearing heavens, and wolves of all kinds devour sheep of all sorts.

What happened? Whether I apply Isaiah’s prophecy to the Holy Land or generally to the world, I think God’s had plenty of time to bring it to light. This morning, during my usually quiet reflection, I, in a bit (frankly, a fit) of anguished arrogance, shouted: “We should sue God for breach of promise!”

Catching myself, lest I disturb the entire household, I considered that maybe Isaiah intends, portends something other than waiting on God to do something. To paraphrase a line from the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer: “From primal elements (we were) brought forth, blessed with memory, reason, and skill (and) made the rulers of creation.” We humans, in relationship with creation, are co-creators with the Creator, sharing responsibility for the world. Sue God? Perhaps more honestly (not to mention more contritely) we should sue ourselves, then declare moral bankruptcy and throw ourselves on the mercy of the Court of Cosmic Claims (or Crimes)!

Saying this, boundary issues arise. We are responsible. But for what, when, where, and how much? Qualitatively, we can debate endlessly the noble principles to which we ascribe. Love? Justice? Something else? Quantitatively, we can debate equally endlessly about innumerable, measurable, painfully prevailing human conditions: domestic violence, gun violence, hate crimes against women, lesbian and gay persons, and people of color, HIV/AIDS, hunger and homelessness, war. I want to help, but I (whether one individual, one community, or one nation) am limited in energy and resources. I want to maintain the integrity of my authentic self and not be stretched beyond recognition in my attempts to respond to the world’s need.

Here, John, a biblical paradigm of one who knew who he was and constantly rehearsed, thus reclaimed his identity, helps me. To the question, “‘Who are you?’ he did not deny, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah’” Apparently it is as honest and heartfelt an expression of identity for one to say who one is not as it is to say who one is.

Then John described himself in terms of his mission and reminded the people of their calling: “I am a voice crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight God’s way.’” If Isaiah’s prophecy was not fulfilled, perhaps it was because the people had not done all they could do to bring it to light.

It serves well, I think, for us to be mindful of our identity as expressed in our personal missions and responsibilities. It isn’t about whether we always fulfill them. We never always fulfill anything. Ultimately, that’s God’s job. Our job as individuals, communities, and nations is to be alert to human need, knowledgeable of our resources, conscious of our commitment and our choices about where and when to respond, and then to act.

Sue God? Sue ourselves? No. Better to remember not to try to be God (always a temptation for me, especially when I think I know best!) and to wrestle constantly with living into that much more fulfilling role, verily reality of being ourselves.