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

A conversation…a confession about race

Two men.

Different as different could be. Save for gender. And age. Both 60-something. And stage of life. Both retired. And, both Episcopalians, religious upbringing.

One. White. An attorney. The child of an old Southern family with roots tracing back to mid-17th century English colonists. His mother, a painter of note and an author. His father, a prominent attorney from a long, generational line of prominent attorneys.

The other. Black. An Episcopal priest. Midwestern born. His mother, an elementary school teacher. His father, a postal clerk.

Two men, largely different as the proverbial day and night, in an unlikely, serendipitous (Spirit-led?) encounter in a quiet corner of a coffee shop of a local bookstore, engaging in an unlikely, serendipitous (Spirit-led?) conversation about race…

A conversation that, once he discovered my vocation, became his chosen opportunity for his confession. “I’ve wanted, I’ve needed to share this with someone for a long time…”

He sat forward, clutching his coffee cup in his hands, first, looking down, averting his gaze, telling me of his formative years. His parents had taught him that his privileged life bore an obligation to care for those who were needy, which, he acknowledged, as he understood their instruction, meant those who were lesser endowed with the material blessings of life, which, he further admitted, meant those who weren’t white. His parents, “Good people,” he quickly asserted, did not teach him that they were “better than other people.”

Still, certain moments in his childhood were indelibly, painfully imprinted on his memory.

His nanny, “a lovely, kind lady”, who cared for him from his earliest days, wasn’t allowed to enter their home through the front door. One morning, he, then at the age of 8, seeing her approach the house and turning, preparing “to go around to the back”, opened the front door, happily welcoming her; an impertinence, his parents made clear, that prompted an unpleasant scene of his being corrected and of her being chastised…

On another occasion, he, accompanied by his nanny, rode the bus downtown. He could not understand why she had to leave him and go to the rear when there were plenty of empty seats in the front. When he asked her, she declined to say more than, “That’s the way it is.” When he later asked his parents, they simply affirmed, “She is right.”

But somehow, even as a child, he knew it wasn’t right. “What is right,” he looked up at me, his lips trembling, yet his voice firm, “is that we’re all equal because God made us that way.”

Then, as best as I can recall, he said something like this: “For a long time, I’ve thought about Jesus on the cross asking his Father to forgive those who were killing him. I finally decided if he, who died for me, could do that, I needed to forgive my parents for their ignorance. But,” he held out his hands to me, “I need to be forgiven for my silence. All these years, I’ve known what was right and I never said or did anything to make it right. I promised God I would do something, whatever I can, but right now I want you to ask God to forgive me. Please.”

Taking his hands, we said the Confession of Sin that Episcopalians pray every Sunday. Then, making the sign of the cross, I pronounced the absolution of sin. Tears rolled down his cheeks. He mouthed a silent, “Thank you,” stood, and departed.

For a while, I sat motionless; moved, stunned by the experience of his transparent honesty, his naked humility, his patent sorrow, and his evident need, and by the swiftness of our entry into the depths of our encounter and the abruptness – yet, in its own way, timeliness – of its end. I do not know whether we will see each other again. It’s doubtful, I think. But, if we do, I will say to him, “Thank you.”

movin’ on – a meditation for the 3rd Sunday of Easter, April 19, 2015

This morning, I was privileged to share in a weekly Bible study with an ecumenical gathering of clergy – as convivial and compassionate a group of sisters and brothers as I can imagine on this side of (or in) heaven. As most are engaged in sermon preparation, we read and reflect on the scripture lessons appointed for the coming Sunday. Today, per the norm, one of us asked, “Who’s preaching this Sunday?” When it came to me, I answered, “Not I.” One of our merry band, Rob, then, in the kindliest spirit of inclusion, asked, “OK, Paul, if you were preaching, what would you talk about?”

Rob, I’ve given your question more prayer and thought and feeling. If I was preaching this Sunday, I’d say something like this…

preachingEaster Day has come. Again. And gone. Again. Great events don’t last. They come and go.

Sometimes life is simple. We anticipate the coming of a grand event, greet its arrival, gently or not so gently feel letdown at its passing, and inevitably return to life as it was…is.

What is not simple is that grand events tend to bring together – sometimes in tentative embrace, sometimes in painful collision – our highest hopes that something, that we will be different, changed for the better and our deepest fears that nothing ever changes, that all will be as it always has been.

Years of Easters and years of being alive in this world can teach us not to be too optimistic. Perhaps the best we can expect is a momentary rush, a transient thrill, and then a return to the norm.

Or is it? Is that really all there is?

The very human reactions of Jesus’ disciples to his post-resurrection appearances offer clues about answering the question: How do we move on from yesterday and today toward tomorrow?

On that first Easter Day evening, the disciples gather reminiscing about their life with Jesus, grieving his death, wondering what to do next.

Earlier, Mary Magdalene reported that the tomb where Jesus’ body was buried was empty and that angels had told her Jesus rose from the dead. The disciples considered her announcement foolishness. Then two other disciples burst into the room, having come to Jerusalem from Emmaus seven miles away in the middle of the night, breathlessly exclaiming, “We have seen Jesus!”

Whilst all are abuzz about this news, suddenly Jesus appears. The disciples, thinking they see a ghost, are terrified.

Jesus responds to the disciples’ fear with visual and physical proof: “Look at me…Touch me.” The disciples, now joyful, still have doubts. Jesus offers another proof. “Got food?” They offer a piece of fish. Ghosts don’t eat, but Jesus does. The disciples are convinced of Jesus’ identity and reality. He’s not an apparition, but flesh and blood. He had died and now he is risen!

Jesus then teaches them, “opening their minds to understand the scriptures.” In this, I see how acceptance or belief opens a door of possibility to deeper, greater revelation. Jesus, in the illumining light of his resurrection, interprets the words of scripture and those he preached and prophesied during his earthly ministry. He calls them to witness to others what they have come to know and believe, to share with others the challenge of change and the power of repentance and forgiveness.

I’m not a biblical literalist. Thus I don’t view the Bible is an infallible guidebook of practical, applicable principles for all of life’s circumstances. What I do behold in this story is a helpful, hopeful pattern that responds to the question, again: How do we move on from yesterday and today toward tomorrow?

Three stages…

Being honest about who and where we are. The disciples didn’t deny their fear and confusion. (Terror and disbelief are difficult to conceal!) Yet how many ways do we, do I master the art of deception, donning and hiding behind masks, disguising our distress or dis-ease? Not the disciples.

Embracing our immediate experience. The disciples didn’t run away in fear, but remained in that room. How many times have we, have I, when afraid or skeptical, fled the moment, abandoning the encounter. Like Pilate, who at the end of his poignant conversation with Jesus before sentencing him to death, asked that question pregnant with possibility, “What is truth?”, then immediately walked out of the room neither wanting nor waiting for a reply. The disciples stayed.

Receiving whatever the experience has to teach. When Jesus first appeared, the disciples, joyful and doubtful, couldn’t accept what he offered as proofs of his identity and reality. Only when they, again, neither denied their state of being nor fled in fear, could Jesus teach, “opening their minds.”

In my life, I think of my yearning for love, which touches my greatest hope that I will be loved and my deepest fear that I won’t, can’t be loved. I think of moments when I have been shown love, when it was proven that I am loved – moments when the worst of me was challenged, embraced, and forgiven. I also think of how often I’ve questioned these “proofs” only to be offered yet another demonstration of love, until finally I was convinced, at least for a moment. Every time I come to that conviction, I hear an inherent call to witness (which I’m still working on!) to the world what I have come to know and believe.

Strikingly, the Greek word translated “witness” is martus, from which we derive martyr. In this, I discern the necessity of dying to be born anew. This cycle of dying and rising is at the heart, is the heart of the Easter story. This cycle of dying and rising also, I believe, is the “what” and “how” of moving on.