at some point (thinking ahead, thinking back)…

William John Abernathy

On this first day of August, I think six days ahead to August 7, which, if my father, William John Abernathy, were alive, would be his 106th birthday. In thinking ahead, I think of him, which, at some point, I do every day.

His was a circuitous story of the quest for identity. (Thus, is mine. Truly, I am the fruit of his existentialist seed…need.) His life’s chronicle is laden with half-written chapters and missing, irreplaceable and irreclaimable, pages, which he, to the extent that he knew, for much of his life, sought to conceal. (Why? I don’t know. Disappointment? Anger? Despair? All this and more?)

Whilst I live, my days are darkened by shadows, within and without; my gossamer, ghostly imaginings of all I wish I knew, but do not, cannot know. (This lack, perhaps, explains why I alway have loved history.) What little I have are the sketchiest details, discovered, after my father’s death on April 27, 1996, among a cache of unlabeled papers and undated photographs.

This is a part of what I (think I) know…

Pedro Silva, paternal grandfather

My grandfather, my father’s father was Pedro Silva, born at some point in the late 19th century in Santiago de Cuba. At some point, Pedro migrated to the United States. At some point, he changed his surname to DeLacey (perhaps, and this is only my surmise, “Silva”, whether spoken or written, was a barrier to American assimilation, at least, as much as possible as that might have been)…

Edith Blondell Abernathy, paternal grandmother

At some point and somewhere, Pedro met and married Edith Abernathy. Their union bore two children, my father and his younger sister, my aunt, Benita… Dad and Aunt Benita (Becky)

 

At some point and from somewhere, the family moved to Portland, Oregon…

At some point, Pedro and Edith died…

William Henry Abernathy, paternal great-grandfatherAt some point, Edith’s father, my paternal great-grandfather, William Henry, adopted my father and my aunt, declaring, in so many words, “Those who dwell under my roof will bear my name”, and changing their surnames to Abernathy.[1] 

There is much that I do know about my father from the time of my birth to his death. Today, one thought dominates. My father was plagued by an abiding, angering melancholia that nothing – not his faithful love of his wife, my mother, Lolita, not his dutiful devotion to the care and provision for his family, not his ardent patriotism, not his loyalty to the church, not his daily prayer and Bible study, not his artful mastery of avocations as diverse as model railroading and photography, not, in his darkest moments, his alcoholic binges and the pseudo-cathartic raging that always followed, nothing – could ease, much less exorcise. His quest for his identity – his longing to know and, in that knowing, to be comforted with who he was and where he belonged – ne’er came to a restful place in this world.

So, it is that I, at some point during every day for the past 21+ years since my father’s death, have prayed his peace:

Dad, in the loving presence of God, your story is complete.

You are complete.

Love, Paul

 

Footnote:

[1] This occurred at some point in my father’s 11th or 12th year, for the inscription on the inside cover of his Book of Common Prayer (1892) reads: To William DeLacey – Because you have been so loyal and faithful as “cross bearer” I am exceedingly proud of you and I know all the members of the congregation of St. Phillip’s (the Deacon Episcopal Church) feel the same. Clarence Porter, Lay Reader, Christmas 1922

going to do better v. doing better

This morning I telephoned one of our dearest friends. We speak often, yet this was an especial conversation on an especial day of commemoration after a year of great, grave loss. Our friend, one of the most honest, resilient, and courageous people we know, shared a variety of her thoughts and feelings about her grief and her growth.

Though acknowledging life’s difficulties and she’s known far more than her fair share, she’s never dwelled on her disappointments. (As one who long has wrestled with the overweening power of his inner grudge-bearing spirit, I could, perhaps should take or at least borrow this good page from her book!) Still, referring to occasions when she had received less than the support she desired and needed, she mentioned a conversation with a relative who, conceding that lack, confessed, “I’m going to do better.”

This particular encounter, for me, is a lens peering into the matrix of our universal human experience.

Who among us has not felt discontent with family members, however short-or-long-lived, however once-and-done or damnably repeated (thereby painfully validating the observation attributed to American author Edna Buchanan, “Friends are the family we choose for ourselves”)? I have.

And who among us, at one point or another, has not been that relative or friend who, in a time of another’s desire or need, could have done more, but didn’t or wouldn’t? I have.

And who among us, in her or his life’s pilgrimage, has not journeyed along the path of penitence whilst needing to take that road always less traveled of repentance? I have.

Penitence and repentance, as two heavily theologically freighted and weighted words, oft are confined to conversations about the relationship between humanity and divinity, between us and God, and used interchangeably. However, on both counts, I discern a need for the deepening of our understanding, thus, purposefully applying penitence and repentance to all of our human interactions and distinctly. On this latter point, penitence and repentance are related, but not the same.

Penitence connotes my regretting something I’ve said or done or not said or not done that has caused harm to another. Repentance (as the younger word, entering language-use roughly around the 13th century, a hundred years or so after penitence, thus, I think, remarkably, revealingly indicating a secondary, necessary enhancement of meaning) signifies my attempt to alter my behavior; no longer leaving undone things that I ought to have done and no longer doing things that I ought not to have done.[1]

By way of simplistic, yet concrete clarifying example…

I step on your foot (whether my act is careless or deliberate, your pain is the same).

You: Ouch!

Me: I’m sorry!

Later, I step on your foot.

You: Ouch!

Me: I’m sorry!

I, at still another subsequent moment, step on your foot.

You: Ouch!

Me: I’m sorry!

You: Paul, I appreciate your penitence, but what I really desire and need is your repentance.

Penitence and repentance. The difference between “I’m going to do better” and doing better.

 

Footnote:

[1] A paraphrase of the Confession of Sin, Morning Prayer: Rite I, The Book of Common Prayer, pages 41-42

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

On preaching (Part 2 of 2)

“Paul, is preaching different in the South?” By many and many times I have been asked this question.

Prior to retirement, I last served an Episcopal parish in Washington, D.C.; making that tenure of nearly 17 years my immediate and distinctive frame of reference for preaching in the South.[1] It is in the light of contrast that I wrote: “(W)hat I have found, what I have felt in the bones of my soul is people’s hunger to have an experience of God through the Bible. In this, I recognize the difference of preaching in the South.”

My life and labor with the good folk of that D.C. congregation were interesting and vital, at times, taxing, yet never dull! The people, to a person, were accomplished in their varied vocations, well-traveled and well-read, intellectually inquisitive and insightful, and passionate in their engagement of the issues of the day and times. They were and are those who desire to make and do make a difference in the world for good.

A heartbeat of that community was a tolerance, verily, an acceptance of ideological difference, particularly in the welcome and embrace of skepticism. Questioning was a high and fine art, cherished for its probative value in the investigation of all things, including the Christian doctrine and biblical lore of “the faith once delivered to the saints.”[2] Within this milieu, the communal view of the scriptures[3] was more as ancient literature and less as sacred text; more as chronicles of the human quest for God and less, in the language of the Catechism, as “the Word of God (Who) inspired their human authors and…still speaks to us.”[4] In this, I make no judgment of good or bad, right or wrong. Rather, this is simply, only my observation.

In preaching with this community, I sought to make a conscious connection between ancient scripture, which I do believe is holy writ, and, I also believe, the sacred texts of our lives daily being written through our every thought and feeling, intention and action; and this in an effort to help us all make sense and find meaning in our human existence. Here, too, I make no judgment of good or bad, right or wrong. Yet, for me, this approach to preaching was something (I hasten to add not less, but rather) other than inviting folk into a shared experience of listening for the vox Deus, the Voice of God. This distinction is but one of the ways that I understand the difference of preaching in the South.

Footnotes:

[1] For years and for some, it has been a matter of debate whether Washington, D.C., is, in fact, a Southern city (or, to be precise, district). President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was noted to have said, “Washington is a city of Southern efficiency and Northern charm.” Though what he meant is open to speculation, his observation raises the consideration that Southern-ness is an expansive idea; one that can be understood in other ways than the place or the geography of the eleven states comprising the olden Confederacy or what some term the “Deep South”, generally including Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina. Southern-ness can encompass the historical socio-economic terms, among them, rural landscapes, agrarian-based economies, fewer large cities, political conservatism, and large English and African-American populations; this latter, through the 19th century, being visible evidence of the thriving institution of slavery. On this last count, before the Civil War, Washington, D.C., I would aver, was quite Southern; since then, not quite so and on the other counts, never quite so.

[2] The Letter of Jude 3

[3] I stress the communal view to indicate my sense of how the congregation as a whole, therefore, not each and every individual, approached the Bible.

[4] From An Outline of the Faith commonly called the Catechism, The Book of Common Prayer, page 853

this psalm, our song

Psalm 23 (2)a sermon, based on Psalm 23, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 4th Sunday of Easter, May 7, 2017

Jesus the Good Shepherd, James Tissot (1836-1902)

The theme of the Fourth Sunday of Easter always is Jesus the Good Shepherd.[1] So appropriate in this season of the resurrection as we continue to proclaim, “Alleluia! Christ is risen!” in gratitude for the One who, through his dying and rising, leads and guides us, shepherds us from the wasteland of sin and death to the realm of life eternal.

So appropriate that we read one of the most, if not the most beloved and well-known of the psalms: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

Three observations…

This song embraces the rhythm and flow of life. Therefore, it is a truthful observation about the way things are, the way we are. Our lives are characterized by constant movement. Any notion that we ever are motionless is an illusion. Even when standing still, we, bound to this Earth, are moving at hundreds of miles an hour. And our perpetual motion, in thought and feeling, intention and action, at times, perhaps largely, is by our choosing in accord with our beliefs and values and, at other times, at the compulsion of chance and circumstance beyond our control. Point is, we always are being led and guided by something.

This song encompasses deeply comforting images and the starkest, darkest realities. Therefore, it is an honest commentary on our experience of life in this world. Our life as a journey is replete with the poetic joys of verdant, not barren pastures, calm, not raging waters, and right, not crooked pathways and the proverbial sorrows of valleys overshadowed by death and enemies, appearing in the presence of problematic people and times of trial and tribulation.

This song echoes, resounds with confidence in God. Therefore, it is a believer’s testament, and, for us, as Christians, a disciple’s witness to a life of faithful pilgrimage with the One we follow, Jesus the Good Shepherd.

Let us then, as human and Christian, pray this psalm as the song of our lives. And when we reach our earthly end, “the house of the Lord”, it is God’s goodness and mercy that “follow” (the Hebrew literally translates “pursue”![2]) us. For as we, in this life, ever are on the move, we, in the fullness of eternity, forever will be on the move. Therefore, any notion that at death we are at rest is also an illusion!

One of the petitions in our Burial Office captures the mystery and beauty of our continual becoming in the presence of God: Grant (Almighty God) that, increasing in knowledge and love of Thee, (we) may go from strength to strength in the life of perfect service in Thy heavenly kingdom.[3]

We, in our journeying through this world, draw ever closer to that inexorable moment when we cross the threshold to the next. We, even now, by faith, delighting in the foretaste of eternal life, then, by sight, will partake of its fullness of the presence of Love, Who is God.[4]

Geneva Watkins

This past Wednesday, we buried my mother-in-law, Geneva Theodosia Reynolds Mack Watkins. “Theodosia” means “gift of God”. And that, surely, Geneva was…is! For she, for me, personified the heart, the soul of the gospel of Jesus Christ. That is, that we are to be as he is – the Word, the Spirit of God in flesh; enfleshed in our thoughts and feelings, our intentions and actions. I experienced this embodiment of the being and nature of God in Geneva’s unconditional love and kindness and in her unstinting forgiveness. No finer person and woman have I known. And I believe, I know that Geneva, pursued by God’s goodness and mercy, dwells in the house of the Lord forever, going from strength to strength in her life in the perfect service of God’s praise.

And as she knew in this life and now knows in the fullness of God’s glory, I pray we, too, know every time we sing this psalm of our lives that “The Lord” – only God Almighty in Christ Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit; not anyone or anything else! – “is our shepherd!”

 

Illustration: Jesus the Good Shepherd, James Tissot (1836-1902)

Photograph: Geneva Watkins standing at the flowered cross, Jamestown Road Church of God, Bishopville, SC, Easter Day, March 27, 2016.

Footnotes:

[1] John 10.1-10 is the day’s appointed gospel.

[2] I find this – the conception that God’s goodness and mercy, as a zealous hunter chases prey, pursue us; though not to harm us, but rather and only to have and to hold us in loving, eternal embrace – an endearing, enduring idea!

[3] The Burial of the Dead: Rite I, The Book of Common Prayer, page 481

[4] A reference to 2 Corinthians 5.1-7 (my emphasis): For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling; if indeed, when we have taken it off we will not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan under our burden, because we wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight.

I…We believe

a sermon, based on John 20.19-31, that I planned to preach with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 2nd Sunday of Easter, April 23, 2017. However, as happens on occasion, another word was given to me, I pray and I trust by the Spirit, to share with the folk. As it was extemporaneous, I have no text of this word to post.

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In our Book of Common Prayer, among many prayers, there is one bidding that God grant a wise heart, sound mind, and righteous will.[1] This supplication, for me, expresses a common human longing for right perceiving, thinking, and acting that is the heart of the quest for truth. Truth in which we can believe. Truth on which we can stake our lives.

Who among us in our life’s pursuits, in our pursuit of life doesn’t seek to know what’s true? And who can know what’s true without knowing how it will be found? And who can know that it has been found without frequently, perhaps constantly entertaining, risking doubt?

Thomas is my ideal human being, indeed, my ideal of being human. For Thomas was a faithful doubter. Faithful in asking questions.[2] Faithful in refusing to accept the testimony of others of a “truth” outside of his experience. Faithful in his soundness of mind in knowing what would constitute proof, therefore, truth for him: “Unless I see…unless I touch”, in other words, unless I experience, then “I will not believe.”[3]

Thomas, his way of perceiving, thinking, and acting, highlights what I consider to be one of life’s inherent tensions; that simultaneous, internal counter-pull between our desire and need as individuals to think and feel, discern and learn for ourselves and, in all of our relationships and in every realm of our existence, personal or professional, to share common beliefs and concerns.

Concerning the latter, Thomas also exhibits an ideal humanity. For Thomas was faithful in more than his doubting. He wasn’t a contrarian. He didn’t doubt simply to prove he had a point of view, but rather to find truth. Thomas could have dismissed his fellow disciples’ testimony, “We have seen the Lord” as a collective sympathetic hallucination stirred by their loss and longing. He could have denied it all and continued on his path of singular, solitary grieving.

But no. A week later, Thomas rejoined his fellow disciples, choosing to put their testimony to the test. Daring to see if there was a truth with a larger “t” than his reality. Daring to see if there was a truth more than individual, but also relational. Verily, daring to question his doubt.

Doubting Thomas, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610)

In his daring, Thomas saw for himself what he desired, what he needed to see. In seeing, he believed. In believing, he staked his life on it. According to one legend, Thomas proclaimed the gospel of Jesus Christ as far eastward as India; there being martyred at the point of a spear.

I treasure our individual pursuit and discernment of truth; enabling, empowering each of us to say, “I believe!” Yet, speaking specifically as Christians in community, it is equally important, I daresay necessary that we always pursue and discern the truth of God in Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit so that we, staking our lives on it unto the point of our dying, can say, “We believe!”

 

Illustration: Doubting Thomas, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610)

Footnotes:

[1] The full text of the prayer For those who Influence Public Opinion (The Book of Common Prayer, page 827): Almighty God, you proclaim your truth in every age by many voices: Direct, in our time, we pray, those who speak where many listen and write what many read; that they may do their part in making the heart of this people wise, its mind sound, and its will righteous; to the honor of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

[2] See John 14.1-6a (my emphasis), where, as I read it, Thomas dared to ask aloud the question that resounded in the hearts of all the disciples: (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. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”

[3] John 20.25

a-Lenten-prayer-a-day, day 7, Wednesday, March 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 the certainty of my ignorance and my trust in God: Everlasting God, as a child, from a time before I can remember, when night fell, whether soft or hard upon my sense of the state of the world, my world, I oft prayed as I was taught, “Now, I lay me down to sleep, I pray Thee, Lord, my soul to keep.” Yea, as I grew, oft confident – arrogantly, ignorantly – of my self, my will, my way, I prayed less and less for Your guardianship at night and still less for your guidance during the day. Yet, for years, and surely now, at these current and latter days of my pilgrimage through this earthly realm, as I know more of my self and of life in this world, I am certain that I know less about each. Now, O Everlasting One, in chiefest trust, I turn to You, throughout the hours of each day and night, praying, “Guide me waking and guard me sleeping that awake I may watch with Christ, and asleep I may rest in peace.”[1] Amen.

Footnote:

[1] My personal paraphrase of the antiphon, Guide us waking, O Lord, and guard us sleeping; that awake we may watch with Christ, and asleep we may rest in peace, from An Order for Compline, The Book of Common Prayer, page 135.