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

have we understood?

preaching-epiphany-laurens-1-22-17 a sermon, based on Matthew 13.31-33, 44-52, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 8th Sunday after Pentecost, July 30, 2017

“Have you understood all this?” Jesus asks. They answer, “Yes!”

Sometimes I wonder about Jesus’ disciples. So quick to reply to a question of cosmic significance of the meaning of life, the nature of God, the character of the kingdom of heaven; all said, the meaning, nature, and character of life with God.

But the disciples were disciples. Students. They had come to Jesus to learn from him. And sometimes they seem like the children of any classroom. Faced with a question and with the approval of the teacher hanging in the balance, they either remain silent hoping one of them will speak up, usually the impetuous Peter, bearing for all of them the weight of judgment or, in boisterous solidarity, blurt out an answer hoping their unanimity will count for something.

“Have you understood all this?” Jesus asks. All these parables piled one upon another? (Parable, as I shared with you last Sunday, from the Greek, parabole; literally a thing tossed alongside. Not the reality itself, but a story, a parallel image to help us understand that reality; here, the kingdom of heaven.)

“Have you understood?” “Yes,” they answer. Then comes the point of the question. “Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

Huh? I confess that I don’t know what this means. I do have some guesses. And that, too, is the point.

None of us knows the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. About anything. About people. Others or ourselves. About life. This one or any other. All we have is our guesses. Our perceptions and presumptions about the reality around us, which are like parables; things we toss alongside to help us understand our experience.

Looking again at this odd saying of Jesus, my guess is that he is the scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven. He is the master of the household who, in his teaching, brings what is new out of what is old; new interpretations, new meanings from old, well known images and ideas.

Therefore, the kingdom of heaven, the life of God, our life with God is like a tiny mustard seed that grows expansively, invasively everywhere or yeast that makes bread rise in bountiful measure or hidden treasure or fine pearls, priceless and worth every effort to obtain or fish nets that catch and hold all fish or all of the above.

So, let me toss some things alongside our reality.

The kingdom of heaven is like this Sunday morning when we, all alike in our shared humanity, yet each of us different in our individuality, come together to make community, gathered in this sacred space that, like a net, holds us all.

The kingdom of heaven is like this morning’s Holy Eucharist when we take what is familiar, bread and wine that we have made from creation’s ancient gifts of grain and grapes, and offer them to God with timeless words, “take, bless, break, give”, that we might partake of spiritual food to be strengthened anew to be like Jesus…that we may go out into the world as scribes trained for the kingdom, sharing with all the treasure of life with God.

Have we understood all this?

I…We believe

a sermon, based on John 20.19-31, that I planned to preach with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 2nd Sunday of Easter, April 23, 2017. However, as happens on occasion, another word was given to me, I pray and I trust by the Spirit, to share with the folk. As it was extemporaneous, I have no text of this word to post.

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In our Book of Common Prayer, among many prayers, there is one bidding that God grant a wise heart, sound mind, and righteous will.[1] This supplication, for me, expresses a common human longing for right perceiving, thinking, and acting that is the heart of the quest for truth. Truth in which we can believe. Truth on which we can stake our lives.

Who among us in our life’s pursuits, in our pursuit of life doesn’t seek to know what’s true? And who can know what’s true without knowing how it will be found? And who can know that it has been found without frequently, perhaps constantly entertaining, risking doubt?

Thomas is my ideal human being, indeed, my ideal of being human. For Thomas was a faithful doubter. Faithful in asking questions.[2] Faithful in refusing to accept the testimony of others of a “truth” outside of his experience. Faithful in his soundness of mind in knowing what would constitute proof, therefore, truth for him: “Unless I see…unless I touch”, in other words, unless I experience, then “I will not believe.”[3]

Thomas, his way of perceiving, thinking, and acting, highlights what I consider to be one of life’s inherent tensions; that simultaneous, internal counter-pull between our desire and need as individuals to think and feel, discern and learn for ourselves and, in all of our relationships and in every realm of our existence, personal or professional, to share common beliefs and concerns.

Concerning the latter, Thomas also exhibits an ideal humanity. For Thomas was faithful in more than his doubting. He wasn’t a contrarian. He didn’t doubt simply to prove he had a point of view, but rather to find truth. Thomas could have dismissed his fellow disciples’ testimony, “We have seen the Lord” as a collective sympathetic hallucination stirred by their loss and longing. He could have denied it all and continued on his path of singular, solitary grieving.

But no. A week later, Thomas rejoined his fellow disciples, choosing to put their testimony to the test. Daring to see if there was a truth with a larger “t” than his reality. Daring to see if there was a truth more than individual, but also relational. Verily, daring to question his doubt.

Doubting Thomas, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610)

In his daring, Thomas saw for himself what he desired, what he needed to see. In seeing, he believed. In believing, he staked his life on it. According to one legend, Thomas proclaimed the gospel of Jesus Christ as far eastward as India; there being martyred at the point of a spear.

I treasure our individual pursuit and discernment of truth; enabling, empowering each of us to say, “I believe!” Yet, speaking specifically as Christians in community, it is equally important, I daresay necessary that we always pursue and discern the truth of God in Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit so that we, staking our lives on it unto the point of our dying, can say, “We believe!”

 

Illustration: Doubting Thomas, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610)

Footnotes:

[1] The full text of the prayer For those who Influence Public Opinion (The Book of Common Prayer, page 827): Almighty God, you proclaim your truth in every age by many voices: Direct, in our time, we pray, those who speak where many listen and write what many read; that they may do their part in making the heart of this people wise, its mind sound, and its will righteous; to the honor of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

[2] See John 14.1-6a (my emphasis), where, as I read it, Thomas dared to ask aloud the question that resounded in the hearts of all the disciples: (Jesus said) “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”

[3] John 20.25

“and…or…” – a personal reflection on human behavior, part 3

Continuing to contemplate healthy and helpful behavior in the sphere of human relationships, other characteristics or qualities come to mind. Verily, I think of the word “power” and in much the same way the Apostle Paul speaks of the spiritual gift of love;[1] that is, an ability or a capacity to do something and, even more, a proficiency to do something well and most of the time.

I say “most of the time,” for I do not believe there are or can be any absolutes in human behavior, save perhaps for our idealized visions of how we should act. For none of us, whatever the standard, is faultless in her/his conduct. None of us is perfect, that is, complete in her/his being and becoming. None of us, again by whatever criterion, is completely good or bad. None is us is immune to the effect of that immutable aspect of human living: inconsistency. None of us, in the Apostle Paul’s language, “understands all mysteries and all knowledge”,[2] save perhaps for our acute awareness that among life’s variables of circumstance, chance, and choice, we, at best, most of the time have governance only over the third.[3]

Now, in the light (or under the shadow) of ungovernable circumstance and chance, a healthy, helpful power, I believe, and always only speaking for myself, is my ability to respond to life’s twists and turns, ups and downs with wisdom so to act wisely. By “wisdom”, I mean more than my knowledge or my intellectual grasp of an idea, but rather also my understanding, that is, my capacity to put into practice what it is I (think I) know.

In this, wisdom is multidimensional. It is grounded in experience and experience is the fruit of history, both my own and my observations of and conclusions drawn from that of others and, in regard to the latter, requiring my humility to be open and willing to learn from others.

Looking at my life, honesty compels my confession that my unhealthiest and most unhelpful behaviors have a common character of impetuousity. When I make a decision before I discern what’s real and true about the circumstance and chance confronting me or when I forsake reason and act largely on my feelings or when I ignore history’s lessons from others and trust only in my experience or when I repeat errors of my past and, thus, reaffirm the counsel of that proverbial saying from the annals of 12-step programs that the greatest form of insanity is doing the same thing again and again and expecting a different result.

More to come…

 

Footnotes:

[1] 1 Corinthians 13.1-13; regarding what love does (and doesn’t do) see especially verses 4-7.

[2] 1 Corinthians 13.2

[3] However, even our command of/over our choices is partial, given that our discernments about what’s real and true and our decisions/actions based on those determinations always are in response to those always wholly uncontrollable determinants of circumstance and chance.