I’m sorry…still, another thought

Apologizing is more than an act, more than the auditory human activity of uttering the words, “I’m sorry”, but rather, at its heart, is an art – like any work of art – requiring ingenuity, integrity, and initiative.

Ingenuity. For me to apologize, I must[1] exercise my imagination to dream my way into the worldview of another, so to comprehend a perspective other than my own. To apologize, I must be able not only to realize that another is hurt, so to be able to say, at minimum, “I understand that you’re hurt”, but also to recognize her/his manner of thinking and feeling, so to be able to say, at more than minimum, “I understand (see) you, thus, why and how you are hurt.”

Integrity. For me to apologize, I must examine myself, indeed, my self (my psyche, soul), so to claim honestly my role and responsibility, so to be able to say, “I understand (see) what I have done (or not done), said (or not said) that caused you hurt.”

Initiative. For me to apologize, I must extend myself, moving beyond my ability to apologize into that essential state of willingness to say, “I’m sorry.”

 

Footnote:

[1] I employ the word “must” (which, in league with “ought” and “should”, I consider to be a heavily-weighted-and-freighted moral term), for apology, given that the occasion of its necessity always originates in the realm of human relationships, bears an inherently ethical dimension.

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good grief

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Mom’s cancer, with relentless, rapacious appetite, spread from her lungs to her brain, then to her brain lining. Her decline, swift, over the sparest number of weeks, and savage, instant by inexorably passing instant, stripping her of bodily function and proffering only pain.

On April 28, 2017, Geneva Theodosia Reynolds Mack Watkins, the mother of my wife, my mother in law, a proverbial force of nature, yea, verily, nature itself in the immensity of her love, died.

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Since then, I have watched and continue to watch Geneva’s daughter, my wife, Pontheolla, grieve, embracing her sorrowing, weeping heart and soul…

through those initial moments of her acknowledgement of the inevitable; the oncologist saying those dreaded, yet essential and candid words, “There is nothing more we can do”…

through the calling of family members and friends, receiving, responding to their questions, “How?” “When?” “Why?”, accepting, answering their expressions of concern with a  gracious “Thank you”, a slight and earnest nod, a sympathizing falling tear, soon followed by a pitying flood…

through the planning of mom’s funeral, truly, justly a celebration of her life supremely, freely, fully, faithfully well lived; the testimonials from persons from ev’ry path of her earthly being and doing; the songs of praise and the prayers to God, all bidding, believing in her gladsome greeting in the heavenly habitations…

through engaging mom’s affairs – initiating probate, closing accounts, and cleaning her home, sorting through the years of the daily accumulations of living, but more, existentially, spiritually, moving through her space still warm and welcoming with the manifold memories of times spent luxuriating in the wealth of her hospitality…

and through every day and counting since, Pontheolla hails as blessed her ev’ry reminiscence, honors as the bounty of her holy sorrow her ev’ry tear, holds fast to her ev’ry thanksgiving for the nonpareil grace of God incarnate in the life and love of her mother…

Hers is good grief.

a-Lenten-prayer-a-day, day 22, The Annunciation, Saturday, March 25, 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…

The Annunciation (1898), Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937)

On The Annunciation:[1] O Jesus, as Gabriel, messenger of God, appeared to Your Mother-to-be, the Blessed Virgin Mary, saying, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you” and proclaiming Your coming birth, may this angelic announcement rekindle my faith that You, through Your Spirit, are conceived in the womb of my soul and that, in my living and doing, I may bear the likeness of Your lovingkindness in the world. Amen.

 

Illustration: The Annunciation (1898), Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937). Of the many, nearly countless depictions of The Annunciation, I favor Tanner’s, in historical part because he is one of the first African American painters to gain international renown and in artistic part because of his imaginative visualization of the angel Gabriel not in human form, but rather as a vertical white line of celestial luminescence and of Mary with a posture and countenance that capture her wonderment in doubtful expectation.

Footnote:

[1] See Luke 1.26-38

a-Lenten-prayer-a-day, day 16, Saturday, March 18, 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 God’s confounding Love:[1] O God, Your Love confounds me. You confound me.

In Love, You give me the breath and strength of life…

In Love, You grant me the sun’s shine to brighten my days and the star’s light to delight me in the dark of night…

In Love, You bestow upon me a mind to think of You, a heart to feel You, a soul and spirit to seek You, and hands to serve You…

In Love, You surround me with the fellowship of family and friends alway to care and to comfort me, at times, to challenge and to confront me…

In Love, You continuously pour out bounteous blessings, seen and unseen, known and unknown by me, and all beyond my power to name or to number.

All this surpasses mine merit. Yea, even when I, in the vanity of my human hubris, would want to claim some (any!) deserving for myself, You love me. When I am at the best of my being and doing, all still far short of Your worthiness (as I, in my human limitations of knowledge and wisdom, would value it), You love me. When I am at my worst, surely the depth (and height and breadth) of my unworthiness, You love me.

O God, I am left with but one reckoning. You love me. In this, I find my worth. Amen.

Footnote:

[1] For a related post, see a-Lenten-prayer-a-day, day 1, Ash Wednesday, March 1, 2017, On the incomprehensibility of the Divine

innocence lost

a sermon, based on Genesis 2.15-17, 3.1-7 and Matthew 4.1-11, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 1st Sunday in Lent, March 5, 2017

Innocence lost…

So I interpret this second creation story in the Book of Genesis.[1] The man and woman are confronted by a wily serpent scheming to disrupt the perfect life of guiltless and shameless nakedness, happiness with self and harmony with God. Falling prey to temptation, they partake of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Immediately, they recognize their nakedness, and, no longer, no more at ease with their vulnerability, immediately they cover themselves.

the-fall-and-expulsion-from-the-garden-1426-1427-masaccio-1401-1428

And so, ever since, for all humankind, it has been. None of us dare go nakedly vulnerable, literally or metaphorically, into the public square. There is too very much at stake. Our sense of safety and security. The experiences of others teach us and our experiences tell us (something the first man and woman, newly created, didn’t have!) that other people can and will hurt us. So, it is best that we don the mask, wear a façade lest we reveal too much of ourselves…

A common, daily scenario, verily, the social convention governing a chance, passing encounter between friends:

Me (I don’t feel so well): Hi, how are you?

You (you don’t feel so well): Hi! Fine! How are you?

Me: Fine! Have a great day!

You: You, too! Have a great day!

Me: Bye!

You: Bye!

All because we parade the pretense of our well-being, lest we reveal too much. Or have you ever experienced that awkward series of moments when a friend asked, “How are you?” You, not feeling so grand, demur, “Well…” Your friend, sensing something deeper, some state of your dis-ease, presses, “Really, how are you?” You, torn, desiring to be open and authentic, but not sure of the invitation and sure that you desire not to be a burden, again, demur, “Oh…I’m alright.” Your friend, now convinced all is not okay, offers the encouragement, “Please, tell me.” You, relieved, divulge your deepest worries and woes, only to be met, almost immediately, by the eyes of your friend glazing over in retreat. And all because we humans largely have lost our capacity for fullest self-disclosure and acceptance of another.

Would that it would stop there, but it doesn’t. It never does. For, as the Apostle Paul saith, “Now we look in a mirror, dimly”,[2] unable to see and know ourselves clearly, fully.

How is it, then, that we reclaim our innocence so to live with naked, shameless transparent vulnerability, viewing life with eyes wide in wonder, not in fear?

One way to read and interpret the Bible’s Jesus-story is to see it as a paradigm, a model for our lives…

As Jesus was baptized in the River Jordan, the Holy Spirit descending in the form of a dove upon him,[3] we, as followers of Jesus, baptize, presenting lives to be washed in the waters of baptism and praying the bestowal of the Holy Spirit.

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

And as Jesus, after his baptism, “was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Mark, in his recount of Jesus’ baptism, writes more forcefully, “the Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness”,[4] clearly giving indication that this was to be no proverbial joy-ride or blissful moment in solitary retreat!), so Lent calls us to enter the inner wilderness of our souls.

jesus-tempted-in-the-wilderness-jesus-tente-dans-le-desert-1886-1894-james-tissot-1836-1902-brooklyn-museum

Wilderness. Where, in its naked bleakness, all things, we are laid bare to our own eyes and we can ourselves as we are.

Whether we view Jesus’ wrestling with the devil as a struggle with an objectifiable, outward enemy or an inner battle between conflicting desires, one thing remains true. Jesus was forced to face himself, to know himself, to confess and possess all of himself. Courage and cowardice. Humility and hubris. Longing for peace with God and lust for earthly power. Then he could begin his ministry.

So, I believe it is for us. And, as my namesake, the Apostle Paul, oft gave examples so that his readers would know of what he spoke,[5] so I, in the light and shadow my experience, do the same today…

When I think of God’s grace in my life, I rejoice in the Spirit-gift I have been given to love you with affection, yes, yet more, with the benevolence of kindness through which I will to do the best for you. Still, I am prideful. I have few abilities, but one (I think!) is the power to think thoughts, deeply. Now, in this, is it possible that I, thinking less well of how you think about an issue or subject or concern, might be tempted, indeed, might fall prey to the temptation to be disappointed with you and to treat you less lovingly, less than as an equal? Yes! Yet knowing I cannot relinquish what I have not possessed, it has been through my soulful wilderness experience that I have beheld this aspect of my being, named and claimed it as my own, and, therefore, have been able to offer it, relinquish it to the Holy Spirit that I might be free of the burden of its influence.

In this holy season of Lent, we, again I say, are summoned into the wilderness of our souls, where all things are laid bare and can be seen as they are. Where we can face ourselves and know all of our selves.

What do you see?

 

Illustrations:

The Fall and Expulsion from the Garden (1426-1427), Masaccio (1401-1428)

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

Jesus Tempted in the Wilderness (Jésus tenté dans le désert) (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902), Brooklyn Museum

Footnotes:

[1] See Genesis 2.4-3.24

[2] 1 Corinthians 13.12

[3] See Matthew 3.13-17

[4] Mark 1.12 (my emphasis). The Greek, ekballei, is better translated “thrusts forth”, which, I think, more than “drove”, indicates the force of the Spirit’s coercion that Jesus enter the wilderness for what was to be a harrowing experience.

[5] See, for example, Paul’s 1 Corinthians 12 discourse on spiritual gifts, especially verses 8-10, 28.

to bear or not to bear?

Lent. The Christian 40-day season of preparation for Easter. It’s chief character and call, penitential self-reflection and spiritual renewal. A primary image, wilderness.

jesus-tempted-in-the-wilderness-jesus-tente-dans-le-desert-1886-1894-james-tissot-1836-1902-brooklyn-museum

Jesus, after his baptism, was thrust by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan[1] (or, interpreted existentially, to wrestle with his own inner tensions between sharing power with others or seeking it for himself, sacrificing himself for others or seeking to serve himself).

Following Jesus, Lent, then, is an annual opportunity to reenter the inner desert of one’s soul, where, in its stark barrenness, one may see again one’s self clearly so to emerge with a renewed sense of self and of life’s purpose.

Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, this year falls on March 1. However, I feel as though I’ve been in my personal Lenten season for quite a while. It’s been and continues to be a time of intense wrestling with myself in thought and feeling, intent and action…

Some of it in relation to externals. A big part being the current roiling temperament of support-and-resist-Trump people and parties[2] and what I perceive as the resultant sorrowful broken relationships among families and friends, associates and acquaintances and the seeming woeful incapacity of folk on all sides to speak with clarity, listen with charity, and reason fairly with those with whom they disagree and the dreadful rise in anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, and racist hate crimes and civil rights violations…

Most of my wrestling, however, is with me…

Some years ago, at a weekend retreat focusing on team building and personal self-awareness, participants were invited to take part in a small-group activity, The Animal Game. The scenario: You are in a group of different animals gathering at a watering hole. You watch the other animals, their appearance, their manner. The task: Name and describe the animal you perceive each person to be.[3]

Of all the descriptions of me, I remember only one. It was spot-on in accuracy. A member of my group said, “Paul, you are a circus bear.” Surprised and uncertain as to the meaning, I could feel my eyebrows rise above my hairline. He continued, “You are bright and glib, attractive and entertaining, and inviting. People want to draw near to you, but they need to remember you have claws. If they get too close, you’ll swat them.”

graffitie-put-on-your-happy-face-the-boyds-collection

How true. Then and now…

In public, I tend to wear a wide-eyed, brightly smiling countenance of accessibility and availability to others. This persona is true. For as long as I have strength, verily, breath, I am a Christian minister who has pledged his life and labor in the service to, for, and with others. Nevertheless, those who know me well have beheld my private self (veiled in the still powerful, in some measure, not so healthy elements of my familial formative years). The alway self-questioning Paul who wonders whether I am loved, respected, and valued as a person and who often enough worries that I am not (that I cannot be!), and who, therefore, is cautious of being too well known, for those drawing near will see and dislike who I fear (believe?) is the “real” unlovable, unrespectable, and unvalued me.

All this comes up for me, for recently I lashed out, “swatted” some friends for failing, as I viewed it, to give me the care I desired. In this instance, as oft is the case (because of which Pontheolla always advises me to wait and to think through what I’m feeling before I react, for almost always, I, intemperately, don’t pause and give loud air to my hurt!), my friends, given their über-busy lives with myriad stresses and strains, hadn’t had a chance to respond. In this and all other instances when this pattern prevails, I am thrown back on myself to ponder anew my faulty inner psycho-wiring, to reexamine my flawed internal emotional workings.

To bear or not to bear the bear within? My internal, eternal question. Suffice it to say, Lent, for me, is no annual 40-day interval, but rather a lifelong sojourn in the wilderness of my soul…

Lent is my life…

My life is Lent.

 

Illustration: Jesus Tempted in the Wilderness (Jésus tenté dans le désert) (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902), Brooklyn Museum

Photograph: Graffitie…Put on your happy face, The Bearstone Collection®; a collectible, capturing well my circus bear persona, I purchased some years ago

Footnotes:

[1] Matthew 4.1-11

[2] Though, on this score, I believe that for some time this American political distemper has been brewing, then boiling, now bubbling over in the election of Donald Trump. For as a student of history, I also believe that nothing, whether predictable or unprecedented, happens in the course of the proverbial “overnight”, but rather always is years in the making. Thus, I further believe, those who could not anticipate, even conceive of Mr. Trump’s election were not giving due attention to the growing seeds of conservative and disestablishment discontent in our national political soil.

[3] An underlying socio-psycho-political aspect of this “game” involved the self-question: Will I choose to be (will I risk being!) transparently honest in my assessments of others or will I, if, when my judgments may be deemed (heard) as harsh, not wanting to cause dismay to others or fearing the reprisals of others, choose to speak less candidly?

war zone?

preaching a sermon, based on Galatians 5.1, 13-25, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 6th Sunday after Pentecost, June 26, 2016

thinking

(Note: On occasion, I preach what I term “a theological sermon” – though all sermons are innately theological as they speak of God and address the relationship between God and creation – in which I take a concept I find in scripture and reflect on it, proverbially “run with it”, rethink it to see whether I see something new or, at least, new for me!)

Philosophy, the age-old love and pursuit of wisdom, and Christian theology, for two millennia the philosophical engagement with doctrine, seek to interpret and make sense of human experience.

On many matters, they diverge. On one, they agree.

Within the human soul there is a war between competing, conflicting forces; for the Apostle Paul, flesh and Spirit, which “are opposed to each other.”

Paul wasn’t the first to recognize an inherent human inner conflict…

Centuries earlier, Jewish phenomenology identified within us a good nature calling us upward and an evil nature pulling us downward…

The Great Flood (1864), Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky (1817-1900), The State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

Some ancient rabbis, reading the story of Noah and the ark,[1] interpreted God’s lament for creating humankind leading to the decision to flood the world[2] (in effect, to start over) as a divine admission, confession, a heavenly “Oops!” for having implanted evil in the human soul…

Chariot-CharioteerIn Greek thought, Plato described the soul as a charioteer struggling to control two horses; one noble, named reason, running skyward; the other, called passion pulling the chariot to earth[3]

Recall, too, the dramatic scene of Jesus’ forty-day wilderness journey; on one  side, beleaguered, bedeviled by Satan’s incessant temptations and on the other, bolstered by the ministrations of angels.[4]

The Temptation of Christ on the Mountain (1308-1311), Duccio di Buoninsegna (1255-1319)

The idea of the soul as a playground, a war zone between good and evil is ancient and seemingly universal. As Christians, in our quest for understanding, let us turn again to Paul’s “flesh” and “Spirit.”

Flesh, from the Greek sarx, points to our mortality. As Janis Hoffman, a dear friend 95-years young and one of my favorite practical theologians, oft says, “Once you’re born, you’re done for.” Once, at birth, we “begin”, we can experience the joys and are exposed to the sorrows creation holds until we “end” in death. Even more, flesh signifies that we are susceptible to the sway of temptation and ruin, abandoning God’s way and following, as the prayers laments, “the devices and desires of our own hearts.”[5]

Spirit (whether with an upper or lower case “s”) is that life-giving, animating power within us most akin to God, who is Spirit.[6]

Reflecting on Paul’s dualism of flesh and Spirit, I see the sense of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s notion that we are not so much human beings seeking to become spiritual, but rather spiritual beings immersed, enfleshed in earthly experience.[7] Through the lens of this viewpoint, which rejects that dominant idea in Greek thought that the body is evil, I look beyond a standard interpretation of Galatians that considers flesh as bad requiring subjugation and spirit as good.

Indeed, I reinterpret Paul!

Yes, the spirit is inherently good, yet the flesh is not innately bad. Both are essential. Spirit needs flesh in order that its fruit, principally love, has a body through which it can be revealed, literally become real. Flesh needs spirit for self-control to restrain, even transcend, if only on occasion, our selfish self-interest, our impulsive passions that make vice more appealing than virtue.

Paul makes a case for war. This Paul calls for a ceasefire; that we, as spirits working not against, but through flesh, call a truce so not to be at war with ourselves. If, as Paul says, the whole law is fulfilled in loving neighbor as self, then for us to share,  spread the fruit of the Spirit, each of us first must know it, taste it, savor it ourselves. We, in the Spirit, are empowered to love ourselves, to find joy in ourselves, to be at peace and patient with ourselves, to be kind and good to ourselves, to keep faith and to be gentle with ourselves.[8]

Good idea. It’s the implementation that’s hard. At least, for me. I often am at war with myself whether it’s a clash between Paul’s flesh and spirit or my values of love and justice and my sometimes very conflicting desires to be and do otherwise. Yet I behold one saving grace: I can choose. It’s no accident that when Paul speaks of the fruit, the outer manifestation of inner Spirit, he begins with love – not merely emotion that feels kindness toward another, usually because of shared experience and perspective, but rather active unconditional goodwill that does kindness for another however different. So, even when I am most at war with myself, I still can choose to do love and to do justice for the sake of others whether I like it (or them!) or not.

 

Illustrations: The Great Flood (1864), Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky (1817-1900), The State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg; The Temptation of Christ on the Mountain (1308-1311), Duccio di Buoninsegna (1255-1319)

Footnotes:

[1] Genesis 6.5-8.22

[2] Genesis 6.6-7

[3] Plato’s Phaedrus (246 B)

[4] See Matthew 4.1, 11 and Mark 1.13

[5] From the Confession of Sin, Evening Prayer: Rite I, The Book of Common Prayer, page 62

[6] John 4.24

[7] Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), French paleontologist, Jesuit priest, philosopher, and mystic.

[8] A reference to Galatians 5.22-23 and our bearing the fruit of the Spirit in our lives