106 and counting…

Dad & me, Tuesday, 7-29-86, Charleston Int'l Airport

Note: Today would have been my dad’s 106th birthday. William John Abernathy (August 7, 1911-April 27, 1996) and I had a difficult relationship; one fraught with the daily tension and enduring mutual resentment of the clash between his irresistible force of an alway-authoritarian, at times, arbitrary disposition and my ever-immovable object of adolescent rebellion (which continued well into my adulthood). O’er the years and o’er many trails of solemn reflection and trials of sober regret and sincerest repentance for my great part in our brokenness, I’ve come to understand, love, and respect my father. Today, the thought occurring (Why? I’m not entirely sure) to leaf through one of my journals, I found this forgotten (and astonishingly dated) twenty year old entry…

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Thursday, August 7, 1997: On Sunday evening, August 3, Pontheolla and I attended a Healing Eucharist at the Washington National Cathedral. At the time worshipers were invited to come forward, we went and knelt at the altar rail. I asked “to be delivered from my long held bitterness against my departed father so that I can be free and so that he might be free!” I was anointed with oil and received the laying-on-of-hands by the celebrant, Ted Karpf, who prayed a prayer for my healing. I experienced then and continue to experience an ever-deepening sense, spirit of relief and of release. I wept a single, slow-moving tear of thankfulness as I sat with Pontheolla, holding hands, praying my healing would abide.

Ironies, painful and heart-rending, abound…

Ted had preached a homily, speaking eloquently and provocatively of the human condition, which finds self-worth in work and does not (cannot!) hear and respond to God’s gracious word of worth in being…simply being. Ted couldn’t have known that he was speaking so directly to one of my life’s issues, hurts, questions! (I pray my healing will abide.)

Moreover, the service was held in the War Memorial Chapel. Perhaps what I perceive as the irony of setting a service of healing in the place memorializing those who have died honorably in defense of country in times of war, if not intentional, was, at the least, purposeful. Verily, those who have endured the wars of acceptance and rejection in wounded, broken relationships need healing, for they have died a 1000 deaths and perhaps have killed others a 1000 times in those recurring mental scenarios of vengeance. (I pray my healing will abide.)

 

Photograph: Dad and me at the Charleston (SC) International Airport, Tuesday, July 29, 1986 (one of the few pictures of my father and me in which we are more or less smiling)

Paul’s (not my, but the Apostle’s!) law

1-22-17 a sermon, based on Romans 7.15-25 and Matthew 11.16-19, 25-30, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 5th Sunday after Pentecost, July 9, 2017

“When I want to do good, evil lies close at hand.”

Portrait of the Apostle Paul

I wish Paul had written autobiographically. Only for himself. Only about himself. But, no. Paul reflects on an aspect of our universal human experience, so constant in occurrence and comprehensive in influence that he calls it “a law.” Overlooking the potential confusion he creates by using “law” in multiple ways, his point is simply, profoundly this: We can’t keep the law!

The law. Guiding, governing rules that frame our lives and focus our living; whether the Mosaic law, Paul’s particular point of reference, or another set of precepts transcendent in origin, spiritual in scope or natural laws deduced from keen observation about the way things are in the world around us or some philosophical ethical civil code. Whatever. It doesn’t matter what the law is. For in our efforts to follow it, we repeatedly discover that we, in practice, according to the prayer, following “the devices and desires of our own hearts”,[1] won’t keep the law!

Here is the power of the law. It’s a two-edged sword, simultaneously cutting both ways. The law points to a higher truth, whether God or some honored virtue; enabling us to imagine it and, striving to do good, reach for it. And, as we always fail to do good always, the law reveals, exposes our inherent capacity to do what is not good, indeed, what is sinful.

Hence, here is the paradox of the law. It’s our finest dream and worst nightmare; a useful tool and a weighty burden.

I believe that everyone – whether individual, family, community, nation, me! – experiences this blessing and bane of the law.

Speaking for myself, as I age, I am clearer, nearly by the day, about the person I want to be and become. Wise. Knowledgeable about the world. Understanding. Able to apply that knowledge in the concrete circumstances of my daily living. Passionate for justice. Compassionate. Loving and patient, especially with those with whom I disagree. However, the more I behold who I want to be I also see how often I don’t reach for it, but rather retreat to the known and narrow confines of my present perspectives and prejudices. “When I want to do good, evil lies close at hand.”

I think of historically battle-scarred lands and peoples where the long, mutually recognized “good” of justice and peace is overshadowed by intractable conflict fraught and fought with the endless sins of generational resentment, rage, and revenge. “When humans want to do good, evil lies close at hand.”

I think of America. Once again, we have celebrated our nation’s birth. In recalling our founding principles, “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness”, we are reminded afresh and our honesty compels our confession of how far short we fall in guaranteeing these rights to all. We are a nation of enormous wealth where poverty resists resolution; making Jesus’ observation, “You always have the poor with you”,[2] stubbornly, sorrowfully true. We are a nation increasingly pluralistic where bigotry continues to raise its ugly head and to cry out in angry voice resisting the spirit of universal tolerance. “When we want to do good, evil lies close at hand.”

Whether the scale is large or small, whether the scope is personal, communal, national, or international, the same dis-ease infects and afflicts us all. Paul is right, “wretched” we are!

Here’s some good news. Whenever we come anew to this realization, we can cry with Paul, hoping there’s an answer, “Who will rescue us from this body – that is, this inherent, inescapable way of our living in this world – of death!” Whenever we ask that question, we can sing with Paul, knowing there’s an answer. “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” We with Paul praise God for Jesus, who, through his life and ministry, death and resurrection redeems us that through him we can fulfill the law!

This, I think, I believe, is what Jesus means: “Come to me, all you weary and heavy burdened…” Referring to the manifold stipulations of the Mosaic Law and any legal code, hard to remember, harder to do, Jesus offers in their place, one law, his law, his love. “Take my yoke (my love) upon you and learn (to love) from me…For my yoke (of love) is easy, my burden (of love) is light.”[3]

Double yoke for oxen, Musée de la civilisation à Québec

 

Illustrations:

Saint Paul, James Tissot (1836-1902)

Double yoke for oxen, Musée de la civilisation à Québec

Footnotes:

[1] From the Confession of Sin, Morning Prayer: Rite I, The Book of Common Prayer, page 41

[2] John 12.8

[3] Matthew 11.29a, 30, my parenthetical and italicized additions

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

About Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, South Carolina

On February 1, 2015, I entered my retirement.

Before that date, countless were the times, o’er my over 35 years of full-time active ministry, when I sat at the feet of my revered elder clergy, who, having led large congregations, spoke of the joys in retirement of serving smaller communities where pastoral relationships took on the character of a proximate, transparent intimacy. I oft wondered whether that would be my lot, indeed, whether I’d want it to be my lot! Or would I, in retirement, be ready, even needful of stepping away from exercising any form of clerical ministry?

On December 20, 2015, I entered my “rehirement” as the priest-in-charge, part-time, of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, South Carolina.[1]

Epiphany, Laurens, SC, facade

A year and a half into this still new ministry, I reflect…

What my elders told me has proven true for me. I love being a part of my Epiphany-community. Every Sunday, I have the exquisite pleasure of looking out at 30 or so souls and saying to myself, “You, each and all, belong to me and I belong to you.” Frequently enough, I say aloud to them, individually and collectively, “I love you.” Equally often, I open my sermons saying, “Once again it is my privilege to preach with[2] you in the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.” (And they seem, so far, to put up with this Episcopal Church-born-and-bred, but black Baptist-rooted, coming by it honestly on my mama’s side, noisy-preacher!)

Moreover, I sense and receive from my folk a gentle, unconcealed deference for the ordained ministry (I haven’t been called “Father” this often since…since!) that, given much of my remembrances of my prior experiences and my reflections on the testimonies of my colleagues in other places, is a still-treasured characteristic of the South.

Still more, and most especially, I believe that God, who, in a Christian Trinitarian understanding, eternally dwells in the communion of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in creating humankind in the imago Dei, the image of God,  hath hard-wired us, in our bodily, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual being-ness, for relationship. In this, I rejoice to be in relationship with the folk of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, South Carolina.

 

Footnotes:

[1] The Doric-columned edifice, built in 1846, listed in the National Register as part of Laurens Historic District, and the oldest actively-used church structure in Laurens County, South Carolina, is the home of a generously, generations-old loving community of people. The warmth of their affectionate care, person to person, permeates and emanates from the very brick and mortar and wood of the place.

[2] Long have I believed that I, as a preacher, do not preach at people, which, in my sense of things, means that I, endowed with especial Spirit-inspired wisdom, have the answers about God and life that I share with those who would not have the benefit and blessing of knowing save that I tell them. Nor do I preach to people, which, in my sense of things, is a kinder-and-gentler (read: more self-effacing, less arrogant) form of preaching at people. Rather, I, seeking alway to be in community, indeed, to be in communion with people, preach with them; the sermon, again, in my sense of things, being a form of ongoing communal conversation among God, people, and priest.

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

Keep Calm and…

I love T-shirts. I’ve never been flashy (save, perhaps, for an emotive personality!) in dress; preferring an über-casual mien. And now, in retirement, except for Sundays and special occasions, rarely will I so much as don slacks and a laundered shirt; favoring jeans and, yes, again, T-shirts.

And though tending toward an understated appearance, eschewing the display of labels or slogans, this T-shirt, showing all the signs of repeated wearing and washing, is my favorite.

my fav T-shirt

For a variety of reasons…

It plays on the theme of the British government’s World War II word of inspiration, Keep Calm and Carry On; meant to bolster the morale of the English people under the gravest threat posed by the German aerial blitzkrieg. Nowadays, multiple are the words following Keep Calm and…, ranging from the wondrously sublime to the supremely humorous; all advocating a serene and steely perseverance in the face of trial and tribulation.[1]

And it bears the image of the fish; long a symbol for Christianity.[2] As such, it proclaims to others without my having to say a word that I am a Christian.

And it completes Keep Calm and… with Love Your Neighbor, which, further in keeping with the Christian lore I hold dear, is the second part of Jesus’ summation of the Law, generally, the Torah and, specifically, the 10 Commandments.[3] As such, it expresses my daily conscious intent to love[4] my neighbor, who, in the light of Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, is everyone.

And it sparks immediate responses and impromptu conversations with my neighbors, whether known or unknown, of all manners of humankind and in all places where I go…

I’ve been approached by Jews, Muslims, and Christians who, in a variety of ways, remark of their theological and ethical identification with the summons to love neighbors rooted in the Torah, the Koran, and the Bible…

I’ve been asked by some what I believe it means to love my neighbor, which, on one occasion, in a grocery store aisle, led to the inquirer’s confession of his struggle to love and forgive a relative whose words and actions had inflicted grave harm…

I’ve been hailed by folk, all strangers, walking by me on the street, once from a lady, smiling and waving to me, driving by in her car, with this astounding (at the first occurrence, but, now, it’s come again and again) greeting: “I love you, too!”

I treasure each and all of these encounters and interactions, especially given my awareness and sensitivity to what I consider the bitter-and-blaming-difference-disparaging-either-you’re-for-me-or-against-me zeitgeist of our days and times.

As T-shirts and banners of self-declaration go, Keep Calm and Love Your Neighbor is my favorite.

 

Footnotes:

[1] For example, Keep Calm and…Be Honest, Be Yourself, Call Batman, Dab On ‘Em, Dream On, Eat A Cookie, Game On, Go To Hogwarts, Hakuna Matata, Innovate, Just Do It, Make A Change, Never Grow Up, Party All Night, Press CTRL ALT DET, Stay Strong, Use The Force… The possibilities are endless!

[2]The fish (or, in the Greek, ichthys) was adopted as a Christian symbol prior to the 2nd century of the Common Era; some suggest as a secret sign of identification during periods of the state persecution of Christians. Through the 3rd and 4th centuries, as it grew in popular recognition and use, the letters (i – ch – th – y – s) were viewed as forming an acronym for the phrase, Iēsous Christos, Theou Yios, Sōtēr, Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.

[3] A lawyer asked Jesus a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22.35-40).

[4] By “love”, I do not mean my expression of kindly affection, which arises from how I feel about others, but rather, for me, always something more spiritual and substantial; that is, exercising my Spirit-bestowed power in active benevolence toward and for others. Do I fail in doing this? Yes. Usually when I am hurt and angry, and then allow my not-so-considerate-feelings toward another to get in the way of my loving that person. Nevertheless, Jesus’ call to love my neighbor ever rings in my mind and heart, soul and spirit, summoning me to act.

my birthday tributes

June 8, 2017. My 65th birthday. As humans reckon time, an important historical, social, and personal benchmark.

I am in a contemplative, and, in part, melancholy mood.

Yes, I am happy (not a word, given my intense early-in-life-and-unto-this-day-awareness of an inner shadowy specter of sadness, I oft employ) to be alive at this time in this world with, all things told, a preponderance of blessed memories, present contentment, and future hopes.

Yet, thinking of my immediate family, I ponder being an orphan and wonder why, beyond the reality of my being the youngest of the four, I am alive, whilst they are not.

WRA 1976

My brother Wayne. Between the two of us, the finer human being. Daily he abides with me in the harrowing (sorrowing) absence of his presence and the hallowing (sanctifying) presence of his absence. I love you, Wayne. Because of you, I have a resident, resonant sense of my better self.

Lolita & William c 1940My father, William, and my mother, Lolita. It took quite the while for me, well into my forties, to see through the veil of my childhood and adolescent disappointments, ever looming, actual and imagined, as haunting reminiscences of the deprivations of my want and need, to behold and honor how rich and real was your love for me. I love you, Dad. I love you, Momma. Because of you, I am.

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.