a message for my people…

Note: Following my February 1, 2015, retirement, I entered, as I’ve written in this space previously, my “rehirement;” since December 20, 2015, being privileged to serve the good and gracious folk of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, as their part-time Priest-in-Charge.

At the start of each month, we publish an e-newsletter, The Epiphany Star (well, by what other name would a missive from Epiphany Church be called?). Usually, my message pertains to the seasons of the church year or a coming event. For September, given the tremulous tenor of our times, I have been given different words.

Epiphany, Laurens, SC, facade

My Dear Sisters and Brothers,

As I survey the world around us, the words of Thomas Paine, who wrote at a time when the American Revolution seemed unsure, come to mind, which I paraphrase: These are the times that try (our) souls…

Though every historical age has its weight of woe, our time seems…feels to me particularly burdened.

Globally, we Americans are engaged in our longest war, in Afghanistan, with no sign of its end, and

The terrorists’ malevolence, which, save for 9/11, not so long ago seemed still far beyond our shores hath drawn closer, indeed, hath come ashore…

Nationally, however you voted in our last presidential election and whatever your political sympathies, daily we are witnesses to the roiling, tempestuous waters of our federal government in which the Leviathan of rank factionalism swallows the fair seagoing spirit of bipartisanship, and

We behold a renewed rise of cultural and racial turmoil that perhaps many of us, surely I, had thought, had hoped that we, as a nation, had resolved, and

The storm with a benign name, Harvey, has unleashed catastrophic horror on Texas cities and towns, especially Houston, and damaging the home of our own dear Bill and Marilyn Ladd.

At times like these that try our souls, one thing we, each and all, can do is pray; lifting our minds and hearts, souls and spirits in petition and intercession to God.

Recently, during a Sunday announcement, I shared this 6-fold pattern upon which most of the Collects in our Book of Common Prayer are constructed:

  • Our call or address to God
  • Our citation of an attribute or act of God
  • Our prayerful request
  • Our anticipated result should God grant our prayer
  • Our invocation of the Name of Jesus (or of the Trinity)
  • Our “Amen”, meaning, “so be it”

I offer this prayer for our daily use (I also encourage you to write and pray your own):

O God of glory and grace, from your almighty hand all good gifts are given to your children and your creation: We pray you spread abroad your Spirit of solace and strength that we, empowered and emboldened, in all our living may do your will, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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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.

questing for equilibrium in a querulous age – a personal reflection

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On November 8, 2016, Donald Trump was elected President of the United States; this following a tediously contentious (or was it a contentiously tedious?) presidential campaign season. Through it all, myriad political pundits, social savants, mass media, and people spanning the spectrum of humankind seemed to be able, even willing to assent to one thing: the zeitgeist, the spirit of this age of America is tempestuous.

I agree. Wholeheartedly. Meaning completely, not enthusiastically. Two words I have begun to employ when describing my sense of the dis-ease affecting, afflicting America: calamitous and fractious.

On June 16, 1858, Abraham Lincoln, accepting the Illinois Republican Party’s nomination as United States senator (an election he lost), gave an address that has come to be known as The House Divided Speech. Casting an image of American disunion rooted in powerful antipathies regarding institutional slavery, Lincoln said, in part: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

It may be an overreach to aver that the current state of contention in our nation is comparable, whether in the depth of animus or the breadth of involvement of the populace, to Lincoln’s time. However, as I wasn’t around in the mid-19th century so to assess by experience the possible equivalence, I’d say it’s close enough.

And I seek equilibrium. Not peace necessarily, if by peace I desire and define it as a countrywide calming of the roiling waters of our national temperament. I don’t see that happening. Rather I long for balance, a personal equipoise in our querulous age. For, as one who, with soul-deep and heartfelt compassion, strives, at times struggles to understand and accept “the other”, all others who think and feel differently than I…

I am disturbed by the clamor of strident voices on all sides. Many (blessedly not all), as I listen, seem to belong to folk who seem to see the world through a monocular lens. Seemingly able to espouse one point of view or one set of points of view, they seem unable to acknowledge as valid or principled any other. For example, as I have friends and associates on each side of our national political divide (and, truth be told, they always have been on each side), I’ve heard it said or written: “To vote for Donald Trump is to vote for an isolated America.” and “To vote for Hillary Clinton is to vote for a perpetuation of politics as usual.” These are the kinder statements. For to paraphrase what I’ve also heard said and seen written: “To (how could you?!) vote for Trump is a sign of a mean-spirited, sexist, racist, nativist mentality.” “If you’re not outraged and taking to the streets in protest, you’re not paying attention (read: “You’re either blind and deaf or dumb!).” and “To (how could you?!) vote for Clinton is a sign of a capitalistic, godless immorality.” “If you’re in the streets protesting, you need to get over it and let us get on with it (read: “We won and you didn’t!).”

In this, I am distressed that many (again, blessedly not all) seem to have parted company with family and friends, associates and acquaintances – seeing and speaking with one another less or not at all, disengaging from long standing activities, traveling no longer in the same circles, unfriending one another on Facebook.

Now, it’s not that I don’t have deeply rooted opinions, strong beliefs, and durable political preferences. I do. And it’s not that I don’t think and feel, speak and act on them. I do. Still, at the proverbial end (and beginning and middle) of this day and age, praying we survive it, people and relationships are more important to me. Hence, by my faith in the Jesus I follow who, in the most unconditional expression of love, in the name of his and my God, forgave those who were killing him, I, at the least, choose to love and to listen to “the other”, all others. And in my loving and listening, I find my equilibrium.

facing another way, part 3 of 5

thinkinga personal reflection in anticipation of the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, 2017

When I look back to 2016 for epiphanies or revelations of change for others and for myself, among many things, I think about…

Election Day, November 8, and the culmination of a tumultuous, rancorous presidential campaign and the ongoing ramifications, reverberations for America and, I daresay, the world…

I grow more fretful (fearful?) about the incoming administration, which, given Donald Trump’s continuing and consistent airing of his stump-speech rhetoric and his choices for Cabinet and governmental posts, appears to be more politically and socially conservative, indeed, regressive than I find fitting or faithful to our American identity as expressed in our national motto, E pluribus unum.

The rise of nationalism, nativism in the politics of many countries in Europe and America[1] as governments sought to grapple with numerous concerns; prominent among them, the explosion of violent ideological extremism and terrorism, immigration and the migrant crisis of millions of dislocated peoples, and cyber-insecurity and its immediate effects on domestic and economic security…

I wonder whether America, both concerning our presidential administration and we as a people, particularly in regard and response to extremism and terrorism, can and will sharpen the line between justice and vengeance, between increased safety and the loss of our personal liberties, between self-defense and, if vengeance is our course, self-destruction of our national soul’s health.

The continued minority community-law enforcement tensions, heightened by police-involved killings of black men and what seem to be retaliatory shootings of police officers…

I worry that the trust-mistrust of the police, which distinctly divides along racial lines, may be, if not conclusive evidence, then a dreadfully proverbial canary-in-the-coal-mine-warning of America’s yet to be resolved societal and systemic inequality in the respect for human life.

The Bethelehemic experience of birth, bearing the joy of new and innocent life and a renewal of hope for the growth of love, peace, and justice in this world…

I have shared, often through the “miracle” of Facebook, in the wonder of the births of babies of friends around the nation and world. Still, I worry about the world into which these new lives have come; a world where, as I perceive it, hatred often overrides love, war outweighs peace, and inequity outbalances justice.

Illness

I witnessed and walked with others through their bouts with sundry sicknesses from moderate to severe and their rounds of various treatments. Late in the year, I, and later still, my daughter underwent surgeries to correct longstanding conditions. The infirmities of friends and family, and my own brought me face to face afresh with my unhappiness, sometimes, I confess, my bitterness about life’s often sudden and always uncontrollable turns of chance and circumstance and gratitude for the restoration to health whene’er and for whom it came and a commitment to live as well as I can for as long as I can.

Death

I joined with countless others with saddened sentiments of the deaths in 2016 of many notable persons and personalities; the accumulation of their departures seeming to pick of speed in the last months of the year. Most near and dear, Timothy MacBeth Veney, my brother from another mother, died in July. That Tim was Pontheolla’s and my forever “frienily” (a friend who is family) and married to Loretta, also our forever “frienily”, stirred and still stirs sorrow. Yet, given Tim’s especially virtuous love, verily, righteous lust for life, I have come to a higher appreciation for the content of human character of others and my own, a broader attention to crafting and caring for my legacy to the next generation, and a deeper acceptance and less fearful respect for the enduring reality of human mortality.

Continuing to look back, again I ask, what do you see? How have you been changed?

More to come…looking forward

 

Footnote:

[1] Sometimes I think of this development as a Western expression or perhaps reaction to what has been termed, rather misleadingly, I think, as the “Arab Spring” of late 2010 forward; a time when multiple Middle Eastern countries witnessed the advent of citizen demonstrations protesting the way things were and compelling change. What makes Arab Spring a confusing or, at the least, an ambiguous descriptor is that the political transformations largely have been away from an Arab nationalism toward a Muslim identity.

persevering hope

Washington Diocese of the Episcopal Church

a sermon, based on Luke 21.5-19, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 26th Sunday after Pentecost, November 13, 2016

Jesus and his disciples are in Jerusalem, the Holy City. They stand near the temple, God’s House, the most revered site of ancient Judaism. Some look up, marveling at its majesty.

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The temple, history testifies, was magnificent, yet laden with terrible contradiction. King Herod the Great, a despotic puppet of the Roman Empire, spent massive amounts of capital to build and to beautify the temple. Thus, as a testament to the grandeur of God and Herod, the temple, all at once, was hallowed and unholy.

Jesus prophesies its destruction, alarming those who hate Herod, yet revere the temple and, even more, the God it glorifies. In anguish, they ask, “When will this terrible moment be and how will we know?” Jesus breathlessly speaks of natural calamities, political and social chaos, internecine warfare, betrayals, persecutions, martyrdom, and then, strangely, a promise of peace amid the strife…

This last, a reminder of the necessity of perseverance in trying times…

An indispensable message for our day…

This past Tuesday, we, the American people, elected our 45th president. Or did we? Was it not only some of us? For this election was the culmination, perhaps only the next stage of a historically divisive campaign season, distinguished, tarnished by shocking elements of the vilification and demonization of persons and positions, the shattering of relationships among families and friends, neighborhoods and communities, the splintering of any façade of national unity, and perchance, for some, by some, whether in praise or in protest, setting aside our vaunted inauguration traditions of upholding our world-respected peaceful transition of power. Though not on the cosmic scale of Jesus’ prophecy, nevertheless it was, is deeply disturbing, highly destructive with long-lasting (unending?) consequences.

I fret, I fear for America. As I pray for our perseverance and the preservation of our national fabric, I find solace and strength in scripture.

the-destruction-of-the-temple-of-jerusalem-1867-francesco-hayez-1791-1882

Reading on in Luke’s gospel, Jesus continues, speaking of the destruction of Jerusalem, all fleeing in terror, yet imploring his listeners, as God’s faithful people, to lift their heads in expectation of their redemption.[1]

simeons-prophecy-to-mary-1628-rembrandt-harmenszoon-van-rijn-1606-1669

Reflecting on the beginning of Luke’s gospel, I recall that moment, eight days after the birth of Jesus, when a thankful Mary and Joseph, according to custom, brought their infant son to the temple. Two aged souls, Simeon and Anna, having waited long for the fulfillment of God’s promise of salvation, witnessed, welcomed the presentation of Jesus as a sign that the time had come.[2]

Throughout human history, Simeon’s and Anna’s faithful, hopeful watching for the coming of the Lord has been emulated, particularly when the horizon was dark with the gloom of disaster, the doom of defeat.

I think of generations of slaves who died longing to breathe free, who left a legacy of hope fulfilled by those who tasted the fruit of the Emancipation Proclamation, and who gave birth to Martin Luther King, Jr., who, on the night before he was assassinated, spoke of his hope for something yet to be; a hope not then, and not yet fully realized: “We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop…I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But…we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land! So I’m happy…I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”[3]

I think of generations of our Native American sisters and brothers who for centuries have decried the long-on-the-books liability of the dignity of human equality charged and yet unpaid against the account of American justice. Still, those of this day, continue to hope.

I think of the words of one of my favorite anthems that give glorious voice to the exquisite anguish of waiting in ardent hope for something not yet come: “Lord of feasting and of hunger, give us eyes to see your bread in the miracle of wonder, till all tables will be fed…See the silent ones who wait when the blessing seems too late.”[4]

Whenever the day is dark and the night darker still, Jesus calls us to lift our heads, look around, and see, yes, our fears, yet also that “great cloud of witnesses”[5] who lived and died in hope of beholding their salvation. Thus, we know that we never hope alone!

 

Photograph: me preaching at The Washington National Cathedral, Friday, January 27, 2006 (by Walt Calahan)

Illustrations:

A model of the Jerusalem Temple

The destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem (1867), Francesco Hayez (1791-1882), Accademia of Venice. Note: In tragic fulfillment of Jesus’ prophesy, in 70 CE, the Second Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Roman army during the First Jewish-Roman War.

Simeon’s Prophecy to Mary (1628), Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669). Note: Mary and Joseph appear surprised when Simeon tells them, “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel…” (Luke 2.34). The prophet Anna, “at that moment…began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2.38).

Footnotes:

[1] See Luke 21.20-36, especially verse 28.

[2] See Luke 2.21-38.

[3] From I’ve Been to the Mountaintop, delivered at Mason Temple (Church of God in Christ Headquarters), Memphis, Tennessee, on April 3, 1968.

[4] From Lord of Feasting and of Hunger, Herbert F. Brokering (1926-2009)

[5] The Epistle to the Hebrews 12.2, referencing the models of faith, specifically, in the Hebrew Bible (mentioned in Hebrews 11) and, generally, all those of past generations.

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.

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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.

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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.”

guns & loss

This morning, following my yesterday’s blog post, gun uncontrol, I continue to think about guns. From what I glean from news reportage, personal reading, and my encounters with gun owners in public and private conversations, a chief motivator for desiring to carry arms is personal security. I accept and respect what I consider a basic, intrinsic human want, need to self-protect, particularly as we live in an era when mass shootings have become sorrowfully repeatable historical events.

On a recent occasion when I probed further and the dialogue went deeper, what I heard from a proud, years-long, law-abiding gun owner was wistful longing, as I perceived it, for “a back in the day time” when safety was a general, almost taken for granted daily aspect of societal life. Reflecting on what I heard, the passion and the pathos, I understood, I felt a sense of the loss of yesterday.

I have a bias against owning a firearm. In my view, my mere possession of it would increase the possibility of my using it and the risk of an accidental injury or worse. I would feel less safe with a gun in the house and at hand.

In confessing my prejudice, I deem not to make too much of one conversation with one gun owning person. I dare not generalize one person’s testimony of loss to speak for anyone but that one.

Still, I wonder.

Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy has engendered great enthusiasm among his supporters. I think especially of his appeal to his voter base declaring that “Hillary Clinton will take away your Second Amendment gun rights.” In May, speaking to the National Rifle Association, he advocated that Clinton’s security detail “disarm.” Last night in Miami, following his now predictable pattern of doubling down on what is, I think, at best sarcastic innuendo and at worst demagogic invective, Trump urged that Clinton’s bodyguards “lose their weapons,” adding, “Let’s see what happens to her.” These remarks, always campaign stop rallying points, provoke zealous cheering and booing (on its face, oddly perhaps, both expressions of intense agreement).

So, I wonder. Are there other Americans who make a connection between their sense of security in gun ownership, their fear, I think, irrational of having their guns taken away, and their anxiety at the loss of former times, however defined? Highly probable? I don’t know. At all possible? Of course, yes.

Pondering that possibility, I also wonder whether yearning for the past coupled with gun ownership has anything to do with power; the gun at or in hand being a symbol not only of the restoration of personal security and safety, but also the reclamation of individual control in an out of control world.

Here, I dare not universalize my sense of things, but if I believed that more people were carrying more guns more often in more public places, then I would feel less secure.