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.”

a-Lenten-prayer-a-day, day 34, Saturday, April 8, 2017

my-hands-2-27-17Note: As a personal, spiritual discipline, I write a prayer for each of the forty days of Lent; each petition focusing on a theme, truly, relating to a care or concern weighing on my mind and heart, at times, vexing my soul and spirit…

On what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions, again (subtitle: Now):[1] O Jesus, dearly do I love You, and, now, through the lens of this Lenten praying labor of my love for You, more clearly do I see You (and me!).

What is lacking in Your afflictions for my sake? Oft I have wondered, worried about this; fearing, for my sake, that if anything was missing in Your sacrifice for me, the lessening, the loss of my salvation.

Now, seeing You more clearly, I now know more surely that what is lacking in Your afflictions for my sake is my sharing in Your suffering for Your sake…

For all my days, e’en now, despite my best intentions, I have been slow to repent (and some days and moments of days, I confess, I do not)…

For though I claim and call You as my way, my truth, my life, I, e’en now, love to go my own way in league with the truth as I know it for my self, so to liken my life unto mine own image.

O Jesus, I pray You, by Your Spirit, bind my wandering mind, bend my wayward heart, bolster my wavering soul, break my willful spirit that I now, at least, on some days and moments of days, may…canwill sacrifice my self wholly unto You. Amen.

Footnote:

[1] See Colossians 1.21-24 and yesterday’s blog post, a-Lenten-prayer-a-day, day 33, Friday, April 7, 2017: On what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions

a-Lenten-prayer-a-day, day 28, Saturday, April 1, 2017

my-hands-2-27-17Note: As a personal, spiritual discipline, I write a prayer for each of the forty days of Lent; each petition focusing on a theme, truly, relating to a care or concern weighing on my mind and heart, at times, vexing my soul and spirit…

On beholding the Image of God’s new creation: O Lord, all that is, yea, too, humankind is fashioned in Your Image, even more, redeemed by Your Son, still more, through Your Spirit, made a new creation.[1]

Yet, for the longest time, at least for me and at least much of the time, I found it hard to see Your Countenance in the faces of others, verily, too, in the face I beheld in my mirror…

confess - regret

For, despite Your creating, saving, sanctifying work, I, oft trusting more (most? only?) in my observation and opinion, continued to regard others and myself from a human point of view of judgment as alway failing, falling short of Your will.[2]

Today, I, in my being entire – my mind and heart, soul and spirit – am convicted of my sin of denying Your goodness and grace.

In my repentance, I give You thanks for being granted new eyes to see others and myself as You see us.

In this, I also need praise You for Your merciful, infinite patience with me. Amen.

Footnotes:

[1] See 2 Corinthians 5.17-18a: (The Apostle Paul writes) So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ.

[2] See 2 Corinthians 5.14-16a (my emphasis): For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view. Note: The Greek, kata sarka, here, translated “human point of view”, literally means “according to flesh”, which, in light of the Apostle Paul’s theology, as I interpret it, connotes more than human perception, but rather the inherent opposition of sinful flesh to God’s work in and through the Spirit. Thus, to view others, indeed, myself, as I write in my prayer “from a human point of view of judgment” is to perceive all things and everyone “as alway failing, falling short of (God’s) will.” So, again, I thank God for being given new eyes to see life and creation, others and myself no longer (not only) from “a human point of view” of judgment, but rather, as God sees, with mercy and grace!

a-Lenten-prayer-a-day, day 12, Tuesday, March 14, 2017

my-hands-2-27-17Note: As a personal, spiritual discipline, I write a prayer for each of the forty days of Lent; each petition focusing on a theme, truly, relating to a care or concern weighing on my mind and heart, at times, vexing my soul and spirit…

On following Jesus: O Jesus, You call me to follow You; in my life’s walk, setting the metaphorical feet of my mind and heart, soul and spirit only where You trod; being as You are and doing as You do with unconditional love and justice for all, at all times. O Jesus, You know how incomprehensible, how impossible this is for me! Because You are You and I am me with the unfathomably boundless distance between Your Being and mine. And because of the nature of the repentance, my repentance necessary in order to follow You; the repentance that is following You – daily, hourly, moment by moment turning away from my way toward You. This is incomprehensible, impossible for me concerning my conscious thoughts and feelings, intentions and actions, and still more inconceivably irresoluble regarding my unconscious self! O Jesus, knowing that I cannot do this, I pray, in Your Spirit, with the psalmist, “Have mercy on me, O God…and cleanse me from my sin”[1] and “cleanse me from my secret faults.”[2] And whilst I pray, by Your same Spirit, deepen my faith, my trust in You and Your salvation that I may know that I follow You not beseeching You to save me, but rather because You already have. Amen.

Footnotes:

[1] Psalm 51.1a, 2b

[2] Psalm 19.12b

a-Lenten-prayer-a-day, day 11, Monday, March 13, 2017

my-hands-2-27-17Note: As a personal, spiritual discipline, I write a prayer for each of the forty days of Lent; each petition focusing on a theme, truly, relating to a care or concern weighing on my mind and heart, at times, vexing my soul and spirit…

On following Jesus & repentance: O Jesus, as You called Your first disciples, so, throughout the ages, You continue to call, and, daily, hourly, moment by moment, You call unto me: “Follow me.” O Jesus, I relish these words of your summons; receiving them as confirmation that You love me and want me to be with You where You are.[1] Yet I must and do confess that I am not fond of that first word with which You inaugurated Your earthly ministry, that first word, which Your call, “Follow me,” alway follows, therefore, that first word, which You also daily, hourly, moment by moment speak unto me: “Repent.”[2] But You know, as You alway have known, that following You requires repentance, my repentance. For I am rarely innocent prey to my own devices and desires, as if my heart, somehow, imposes its ravening, separate will upon my unwavering God-fearing soul. No, I choose to follow my own path, thus, forsaking Your gracious leading and guiding.[3] O Jesus, then, I pray You, in Your Love and Desire for me, continue to call unto me, “Follow me”, and, aye, alway first saying, “Repent.” Amen.

Footnotes:

[1] My reference to John 14.1-3: (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.”

[2] See Matthew 4.17 (From that time, Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near”) and Mark 1.14b, 15 (Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news”) (my emphases). Repentance, from the Greek metanoia, meaning “to think again”, is an act of regret for one’s way or path of life leading to a decision to turn around, in theological terms, toward God and away from the dictates of one’s self-will or in the language of the prayer, “the devices and desires of the heart” (from Confession of Sin, Evening Prayer: Rite I, The Book of Common Prayer, page 62).

[3] My reference to Doris Akers’ gospel song, Lead Me, Guide Me, especially the words of the refrain: “Lead me, guide me, along the way, for if You lead me I cannot stray…”

it’s about righteousness

Washington Diocese of the Episcopal Church

a sermon, based on Matthew 3.13-17, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 1st Sunday after the Epiphany, January 8, 2017

Of this life, it hath been said that there are two significant moments from which all else comes. Without the first, one’s birth, the inauguration of life in this world, there is nothing else. Without the second, what I will term one’s rebirth, the revelation or awareness of who one is and why one was born, nothing else matters.

So, for Jesus. It is no accident that the church first celebrates his birth at Christmas and follows immediately with the season of Epiphany, the principal proclamation being who Jesus is and why he was born. Epiphany declares that Jesus’ life and Messianic ministry are unconditional and universal. For all people. To the whole world.

So, for the church, Epiphany is a prime season to celebrate baptism. Yes, the initiatory rite of welcome into the life of the community of the followers of Jesus, yet it is more! Through baptism, we ritually, symbolically point to this truth of our lives. We are to be like Jesus and to do as Jesus for all people, to the whole world. We remind ourselves of this reality, our reality every time we ask, in the words of the Baptismal Covenant, will we “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves and will we strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being”?[1]

To accentuate this point about the unconditionality and universality of Jesus’ life and ministry and our share in it, today we read Matthew’s gospel account of Jesus’ baptism that recounts a conversation no other evangelist – Mark, Luke, or John – recalls.

the-baptism-of-jesus-bapteme-de-jesus-1886-1894-james-tissot-1836-1902-brooklyn-museum

John the baptizer proclaimed that God’s Messiah was coming, the preparation for which was a baptism of repentance; washing in water as a sign of one’s cleansing and choosing to forsake selfish self-interest for the sake of God’s will. Jesus is God’s Messiah. Yet he, who needs no repentance, submits to baptism. Why? John, surprised, shocked by the irony, the nonsense of it, would refuse. But Jesus says, “Just do it, John! It’s about righteousness!”

Righteousness. Not merely a moral quality of virtue, even rightness, but rather that state of being in line, in league with God’s purposes for humankind. In other words, Jesus submitted to a baptism that he didn’t need to signify his decision to share in the truth – the “who” and the “why” – of human life.

That truth is about righteousness. About being aligned with God’s will. About whether you and I dare decide daily to submit to the strength of the Holy Spirit to be and do as Jesus is and does.

Our earthly nativity, being born in flesh in this world happens once for each of us. Our epiphany, our revelation of who we are and why we are born is a repeatable historical event. As long as life lasts, there are epiphanies, revealing to us, clarifying for us, deepening our awareness of why we were born.

My sense of why I was born, which I began to appreciate more fully and understand more deeply a bit more than ten years ago (for I am a slow learner!), is grounded in my interpretation of Jesus’ gospel of love and justice. I was born to do, to be love and justice for all people, always, and when I fail, trusting in the ever-present strength of the Holy Spirit to strive to love justly and just love again.

That is righteousness for me. What is righteousness for you? Why have you been born?

 

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

Illustration: The Baptism of Jesus (Baptême de Jésus) (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902), Brooklyn Museum

Footnote:

[1] The Book of Common Prayer, page 305 (my paraphrase and emphases)

when Jesus advents

Washington Diocese of the Episcopal Church

a sermon, based on Matthew 11.2-11, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on 3rd Sunday of Advent, December 11, 2016

Whenever I consider this world’s sickeningly repetitive demonstrations of inhumanity, I say, I shout, “This must stop!” And whenever I feel this rise of righteous indignation, I know I share spiritual kinship with John the baptizer who preached to all who dared listen:

Bear fruit worthy of repentance…

for the ax is at the root of the trees.

Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down

and thrown into the fire…

One who is mightier than I is coming…

His winnowing fork is in his hand.

He will clear the threshing floor,

gather the wheat into the granary,

and burn the chaff with unquenchable fire.[1]

st-john-the-baptist-in-the-prison-1565-1570-juan-fernandez-de-navarrete

Jesus, whose advent John proclaimed, arrives, but without the expected judgment. John, arrested for disturbing the peace, huddled in a dark prison, still harbors hope for the fulfillment of his prophecy. Hearkening for word that the ax has swung, the winnowing fork has swept, he hears news of Jesus’ ministry, taking sad note that the world continues on its weary, wicked way as though nothing had happened or would happen.

I share John’s disappointment whenever I imagine how life could be or, arrogantly, ought to be or whenever I join in countless prayers and efforts to bring dreams to light and to life, yet behold the vision evaporate in the heat of the world’s stubborn resistance to change. (Truth be told, sometimes my desolation is about my reluctance to engage and enact my vision to do something different, to be someone different.)

Long ago, at moments like these, I’d cry out to God, giving God another chance to prove that God is God, in charge of the world and in control of me. But God always declined my graciously offered opportunities to fulfill my visions. (My disillusionment with God often led to my deeper, personal discouragement, for I believed my dreams were flawed or, worse, false, thus unworthy of being fulfilled as, indeed, I myself, the dreamer of my dreams, must have been.)

Today, I no longer wishfully theologize about a god of my imagining. Yet, after 2000 years of Christianity, in the face of sadly abundant signs of humanly sinful, sin-fueled suffering, I still share John’s soulful lamentation: Jesus, are you the one or must I look for another? Usually, I raise the question in curiosity. For John, imprisoned, awaiting execution, it was a matter of life and death: Jesus, are you the Messiah or has my ministry, my life been a lie?

Now, there are times when John’s cry is an issue of critical concern. Whenever the hungry again plead for bread and the homeless for a bed and an uncaring world shrugs, “There’s no room in the inn!” Whenever a prayer for peace again is drowned out by the deafening sound of war. Whenever the call of the oppressed for freedom again is reduced to a whisper under the weight of bondage. Whenever visions of love again are vanquished and dreams of justice again denied. Whenever and wherever, we might cry: Jesus, are you the Messiah or have we been fools to follow you?

Nevertheless, I believe that John asked his poignant question, yes, in despair, yet also with hope that Jesus would answer. Jesus did answer. Though not saying, “Tell John who I am, that I am the Messiah!” or “Tell John what I say!” but rather, “Tell John what I do. The disabled, diseased, deaf, dead are made whole.”

Yes, the world goes on its weary, wicked way. Jesus never promised anything else. ‘Til Judgment Day, there will be sin and suffering, hunger and homelessness, war and strife. Yet whenever and wherever we, who follow Jesus, do what he did – feed the hungry, clothe the naked, pray and work for freedom and peace, act in love where there is hatred, welcome and acceptance where there is exclusion – there and then Jesus advents, he comes with hope and healing.

John was God’s messenger proclaiming the coming of the Messiah. Yet he could not perceive that Jesus, as Messiah, rules with love, not force, governs with justice, not judgment, whose power is revealed in service and sacrifice, not violence. Therefore, “the least in the kingdom of heaven”, the least of Jesus’ followers, those who behold, however imperfectly, who Jesus is and those who do, however partially, what Jesus does, even we, are greater than John.

 

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

Illustration: St. John the Baptist in the Prison (1565-1570), Juan Fernández de Navarrete (1538-1579), The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia. Note: John is depicted with his wrists bond, his head bowed and eyes downcast in disconsolation. His camel hair garment (Matthew 3.4, Mark 1.6) lay at his side, above which, partially visible is the head of the staff, often associated with John the Baptist in art, bearing the scrolled Latin inscription, Ecce Agnus Dei, “Behold, the Lamb of God” (see John 1.29, 35).

Footnote:

[1] Matthew 3.8, 10, 11b, 12. From the gospel passage appointed for the 2nd Sunday of Advent.