a funny thing happened on the way to the protest (or “it seems to me”)

Symbol. A visual image or word that points beyond itself indicating, signifying an idea or object, verily, a reality oft unseen, but not unknown, which allows the beholder of the symbol, truly, the believer in the reality to which it points to comprehend it and communicate it with others.

And, it seems to me, in order for a symbol to be a symbol, that is, to perform the function of pointing beyond itself to a reality, at least two people (preferably more, of course) have to behold the symbol more or less in the same way, that is, perceiving it as pointing (believing it to point) to a similar reality.

And that’s the funny thing about symbols, whether images or words. No two people, it seems to me, necessarily see the same thing in the image or mean the same thing by the word. We humans, each and all, based on our individual histories and memories, thoughts and feelings, desires and needs, philosophies and theologies, intentions and actions, beliefs and behaviors (in other words, all this and more that constitutes being human; one’s sense of self and life’s experience) are entitled to our views of an image or word and the values that we associate with it.

Therefore, it seems to me, it’s important for humans, especially when we disagree, to be able and willing to engage in conversation or dialogue (literally, dia [through or across] logue [speech or words]) to communicate our potentially manifold understandings of a symbol.

And, it seems to me, such conversation requires respect; literally, re (again or anew) spect (look or see). With respect, I can see you no longer through the lenses of my sense of self and life’s experience, but rather, having listened to you as much, if not more than I have spoken to you, I can, that is, I am able (and, I would pray, willing) to see a symbol and its attendant reality through your eyes.

All this, it seems to me, applies to our current raging and divisive protest about protest involving the symbols of the American flag and the Star-Spangled Banner.

American flag against blue sky

Person One, based on her/his sense of self and life’s experience, beholding the flag and hearing the national anthem, believing they signify American liberty and equality, stands, salutes, and sings.

Amercian flag, tattered, behind fence and barbed wire

Person Two, based on her/his sense of self and life’s experience, believing these symbols to be signs of personal and systemic denial of liberty and equality, sits or kneels, locks arms or raises a fist.

Person One criticizes Person Two for disrespecting the flag and anthem, indeed, denigrating America.

Person Two criticizes Person One for pledging allegiance to a system in which the equality of opportunity, indeed, “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” are oft deferred, at times, denied based on inherent human qualities of race and gender.

It seems to me that Person One and Person Two are entitled to their points of view and to behave in ways, short of violence, that reflect their perspectives.

It seems to me that if Person One and Person Two could and would dialogue they might arrive at a new place of mutual understanding.

Now, this doesn’t seem to me, for this, based on my sense of self and life’s experience, I know. Whenever I, with respect, listen to another, I, at the end of our dialogue, may not be able to say, “I agree with you”, but, and it never fails, I can say, “I understand your point of view, indeed, I understand you and, therefore, why and how you stand and sing or sit or kneel, lock arms or raise a fist.”

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the practice of peace

Note: On this 16th anniversary of 9/11, I post the text, in the main, of the sermon, referencing, in the end, John 14.25-29, that I preached at A Service of Healing in a Time of Tragedy, at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Washington, DC, on Sunday, September 16, 2001.

I apologize for the length. However, in the course of the days between Tuesday, September 11, 2001 and that following Sunday, there was much on my mind and heart and in my soul and spirit that took shape in many words.

This morning, as I reread and reflected on what I wrote and preached on that day, I discern that much of what I thought and felt and said then about the quest for peace through the active labor of reaching across barriers not only remains true for me, but is at the heart of my life’s calling as a human and as a Christian.

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September 11. Ninth month. Eleventh day.  9-1-1. Emergency. One need not put stock in numerology, the science or pseudo-science of finding sense in or of making sense of numbers, to see a sickening coincidence.

September 11. The day of a massive, coordinated, sophisticated terrorist assault. Targeting the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. A towering New York City skyline and that ultra-familiar pentagonal shape, both boldly distinctive and unmistakable, in an instant, tragically transformed.

September 11. An assault that targeted, more greatly still, before and beyond buildings, human lives. Thousands killed and injured. Families and communities torn asunder.

September 11. An assault long predicted, long prophesied by military and civil intelligence communities, ethnic fundamentalists and religious zealots the world o’er, homegrown groups of disaffected extremists and insurrectionists. A prediction, a prophecy now terribly fulfilled…

But who could have foreseen its form? Nothing – not the murderous bombings of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, the World Trade Center eight years ago, the Oklahoma City federal building, the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the U.S.S. Cole[1] – could have prepared us. Hijacked passenger planes pointed as assassin’s arrows, again, at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, symbols of economic strength and military might. As the targets were symbols, then these were arrows aimed at the heart of a people, perhaps, in an attempt, to strip us of our sense of economic stability and personal and national security.

Although this tragedy is characterized as our national crisis, termed by the news media and others as an “Assault on America” or “America under Assault”, I do not agree. The magnitude of the violence and the breadth of the barbarism make it an assault not on the heart of America alone, but on the soul of humanity. All humanity, whether of good or ill will, is touched by this tragedy.  And all who long to live in that good creation, described by Howard Thurman,[2] and oft quoted by our own beloved Verna Dozier,[3] of “a friendly world of friendly folk beneath a friendly sky”,[4] by this tragedy, once again, rudely have been roused from a dream of God into a waking, living nightmare. We are left to imagine, at least for us on these American shores, previously unimaginable terrorist possibilities – walk-in individual suicide bombings and biological weaponry. We are left to reflect on our history and to rethink, perhaps, to repent of what we as a nation have done to provoke such unrestrained hostility. Our psyche is wounded deeply. We yearn for healing. We search for peace.

In our quest for a restoration of wholeness, tensions, those simultaneous and powerful counter pulls-and-pushes of thought and feeling within society and within our individual selves, abound.

On one side, anguish and anger will evolve into action. Our President, George W. Bush, in his September 11 address to the nation, directed our national resources “to find those responsible and bring them to justice.” Yesterday, signaling our country’s preparation for retaliation, he said, “We’re at war…and we will respond accordingly.” A normally partisan Congress and much of the country stand in accord with the pursuit and punishment of the perpetrators of this heinous act. On another side, fearing how anger and action can ripen into rage and revenge, how vengeance can perpetuate the very violence we hate, others advocate a different course. Our Presiding Bishop, Frank Griswold, in a September 11 statement, while affirming that justice must be done, declared that “people of faith…are called to another way…(a way of)…transformation…where swords can become plowshares and spears are changed into pruning hooks.”

In our search for peace, tensions abound.

On one side, we yearn to live in a free society “of the people, by the people, for the people”, where one’s words and actions are not overly circumscribed or overtly constrained by law. On another side, in such a society not only are the just and the righteous free, but also the unjust and the unrighteous. And we have been reminded tragically that terrorism is no longer, if it ever was, only in some land far away, but daily festers and can flare up on our doorstep. Hence, we long to feel safe, to be safe, which, if past responses to tragedy are any indication, often requires the imposition of restrictions on our freedom and perhaps on our privacy.

In our search for peace, tensions abound.

On one side, we desire to get to the other side of our grieving, to reach, once again, that state of normalcy, that sense of personal safety. On another side, we recognize, even now, that when we get there, our senses of normalcy and safety will be illusory. We always are personally vulnerable, our choices notwithstanding, to changing circumstance and uncontrollable chance.

In our search for peace, tensions abound.

On one side, there are those who, in the midst of crisis, seek the sustaining hand of God with a faith that continues to hope in the constancy of divine care in spite of or even because of all appearances to the contrary. On another side, there are those who have no use for God. If religion, a theological enterprise concerned with the relationship between divinity and humanity, can be seen in any way to have been a trigger for this tragedy, as has been proven to be so in multiple tragedies in human history, then one might fairly ask what good can come out of religion?  Indeed, what good is God? Or one may wonder who is this God in whose name such violence is inspired or perhaps what is this very human hubris that fashions so vengeful a face of God?

We search for peace.

Jesus speaks of a peace “not as the world gives.” This is a spiritual peace that points to the end, for it is the peace of eternal salvation, of Jesus’ abiding presence, of an unassailable, inseparable connection between earth and cosmos, humanity and divinity, now and forever. Today, however, I am not looking to eschatological end times, but rather at our now times. Hence, I look for a pathway to this peace.

This peace has nothing to do with the avoidance of trial or the absence of tribulation, but rather with our acknowledgement of our troubles. This peace has nothing to do with our bringing an end to our tensions and a beginning of some sentimental spirit of well being, but rather with our facing and our wrestling with all that torments us, both from without and from within. This peace has everything to do with our reaching constantly around the barriers we erect to keep out all that disturbs us, reaching across boundaries of difference. Around barriers and across boundaries internal and external, between our faith and our fears, between our hunger for security and our acknowledgement of countless circumstances beyond the reach of our control. Around barriers and across boundaries racial and cultural, among black, brown, red, white, and yellow and, yes, between America and the Arab world. Around barriers and across boundaries philosophical and theological, among Christians, Jews, Muslims, and others. This peace has everything to do with our constant embrace of “the other” beyond tolerance in a bond of mutual acceptance, understanding, and respect, even celebration. This peace has everything to do with a vision of radical diversity and inclusivity.

This is the peace of God that passes all understanding,[5] for it makes no sense to embrace difference, particularly at times of turmoil and tragedy when our human instinct is not diversity and inclusion, but rather seclusion and exclusion. Is the pathway to this peace comfortable? No. Is it even desirable, in accord with our human druthering? No. Yet, in the words of the hymn, this is “the peace of God (that) is no peace, but strife closed in the sod.” Yet, also in the words of that hymn and in the words of our hearts, “let us pray for but one thing – the marvelous peace of God.”[6]

 

Footnotes:

[1] Occurring in 1988, 1993, 1995, 1998, and 2000, respectively.

[2] Howard Washington Thurman (1899-1981), African American author, civil rights leaders, educator, philosopher, theologian, and mystic

[3] Verna Josephine Dozier (1917-2006), African American biblical scholar, theologian, teacher, and writer.

[4] The Dream of God – A Call to Return (Cambridge, MA: Cowley, 1991), page 31

[5] Philippians 4.7

[6] From the hymn, They cast their nets in Galilee; words by William Alexander Percy (1885-1942)

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)

“and” – a personal reflection on human behavior

Donald Trump’s unremitting Twitter tirades about anything and everything that irks him and anyone and everyone who besmirches him and last week’s release of an 2005 Access Hollywood video of his hot-mike (didn’t he know he was being recorded?) self-revelatory ruminations about his view of women stirs in me a number of thoughts.

One. The difference between the public square and one’s private space. In the former, our social mores and laws (rooted, flowering, and ever-evolving throughout an ongoing human history of life lived in community) demand more of us in terms of civility and that nebulous designation (though, I think, most know it when they see it) of “common decency.” In the latter, we enjoy more freedom and, indeed, oft take greater liberties to say aloud and show outwardly our innermost thoughts and feelings.

Two. The occurrence is frequent enough to be commonplace when the boundary evaporates between the public realm and our private worlds and we say and do in communal space what ought to be cloistered (again, in the light of a shared sense of civility and common decency) within the our most personal spheres of existence.

Three. When that happens, and with Mr. Trump’s aforementioned vulgar tour de force in mind, I find myself responding in two vastly dissimilar ways: shock and sympathy (yes, sympathy). I am shocked at the crudity of his language and, even more, his brutalizing dehumanizing objectification of women. I sympathize, looking at myself through the bright lens of searing self-confession, as I recall moments when I exhibited in word or deed less than virtuous attributes of compassion and care, less than righteous attitudes of love and respect for the God-given dignity others.

Four. At the risk of seeming to trivialize Mr. Trump’s comportment as an object lesson, I am led to a renewed consideration of what constitutes – not mature (for I view the word as wholly subjective, its definition easily given to individual experience and example, observation and opinion), but rather – healthy and helpful (meaning that which benefits, indeed, blesses all) conduct.

Five. One idea among many (and speaking always and only for myself)… Healthy, helpful behavior commends, commands that I, concerning my thoughts and feelings, my wants and needs, develop and maintain knowledge (that they exist) and understanding (how they manifest themselves) and express them in ways that strengthen and sustain my relationships with others, verily, that strengthen and sustain others, both of which only others can confirm.

Six. What for you constitutes healthy, helpful behavior?

Seven. Asking the question of myself, I will continue to think about it. More to come…