waiting for Jesus – an Advent-season-prayer-a-day, Day 7, Saturday, December 9, 2017

 

Note: Advent, from the Latin, adventus, “coming”, is the Christian season of preparation for Jesus’ birth, the heart of the Christmas celebration, and, according to scripture and the Christian creeds, his second appearance on some future, unknown day and also according to scripture and Christian tradition, his daily coming through the Holy Spirit. Hence, the theme of waiting for Jesus is Advent’s clarion call.

O Lord Jesus, I wait this day for the wonder of Your Wind. Nicodemus, a Pharisee, yes, righteous in the manner of the knowledge of God’s Law, yet aware of his lack of understanding of You and of God, came to You under the cover of night. So, I, by earthly standards, learned and practiced in the fields of theology and ministry, oft lie awake in the small hours of the morning seeking You, awaiting Your coming to comfort me in my waging, warring struggle against the principal question that rages within me: Why, in a world wrought from nothing(1) by Your benevolent-almighty-all-gracious-giving Father’s will, does evil dwell? As You spoke to Nicodemus, so You speak to me: “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above…The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”(2) Yea, O Lord Jesus, as I believe, so I know that only inspired by the Wind, inspirited with the breath of Your Spirit can I be…am I reborn so to behold, to know the mind of God and, thus, to know this truth: I, even I am to stand for the light of right in the shadow of wrong. I, even I am to be an active agent for good, lest evil prosper. Amen.

 

Footnotes:
(1) The idea of creatio ex nihilo (Latin, literally, creation out of nothing; as opposed to creatio ex materia, literally, creation out of material, that is, pre-existing elements) postulates that God formed the universe from nothingness.
(2) John 3.3, 8

 

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

On the passage of death

Daily, I read the obituary page of my local newspaper, memorializing those, most of whom I do not know, who have died. I proffer as much care and attention as, perhaps more than I render to the A section, op/ed, business, local news, and sports pages. For I, believing in the sacred, shared kinship of humankind – or, à la John Donne, “No man is an Island, entire of itself…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind”[1] – reflect on the text associated with each name and photograph; the words constituting a brief biography of familial roots and relationships, associations and achievements; these summations of multiple journeys in and through this world shaping the larger story of the life of a community.

Daily, nearly every announcement, after listing the resident’s South Carolina town or city, her/his name, age, address, and date of death, contains the following wording, representative of a decidedly Christian religious ethos: “passed peacefully into eternity” or “went home to be with the Lord” or “gained her/his wings”.

cross

There was a time, now long past, when I, at best, that is, charitably, eschewed (and, honesty compels the confession, at worst, that is, disparaged) such language; considering it sentimentalizing metaphor of the stark fact of death. When rising to the heights (or rather falling into the depths) of my theological elitism (truly, alway a pseudo-sophistication, for I ne’er possess the last or first and surely not the only word on anything!), I opined: “Passed? Passed where?” orHome? Home is hereorWings? Angels, if there are angels, have wings.”

Daily, as I continue my inexorable journey toward the threshold of my death, I have come to appreciate these phrases. I read and interpret them as expressions of hope. The hope of those who live that their loved ones abide forever in the nearest presence of God. The hope that the Apostle Paul’s words are true:

We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died…Therefore encourage one another with these words.[2]

and

So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable…It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body…For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: “Death has been swallowed up in victory!”[3]

Yes, I have come to appreciate, indeed, favor “passed peacefully into eternity”, “went home to be with the Lord”, and “gained wings”, for these phrases capture my hope, too. My hope, again, à la Donne, that: All mankind is of one Author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one Chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language.[4]

 

 

Footnotes:

[1] From Meditations XVII, John Donne (1572-1631), English poet, lawyer, and Church of England cleric

[2] 1 Thessalonians 4.13-14, 18

[3]  1 Corinthians 15.42, 44, 53-54

[4] From Meditations XVII. The full text of this passage: All mankind is of one Author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one Chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every Chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God’s hand is in every translation; and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again, for that Library where every book shall lie open to one another.

for all the saints

a personal and biblical reflection for All Saints’ Day, November 1, 2017, based on Isaiah 25.6-9 and Revelation 21.1-6a.

All Saints, Albrecht Durer, 1511

Lord, I want to be a Christian in my heart,

In my heart, in my heart.

Lord, I want to be a Christian in my heart.[1]

But Lord, it’s hard to be a Christian!

And why wouldn’t that be so? For it’s hard to be a person. Everyone, no matter our family of origin and upbringing, our nature and nurture, believes something. And every one of us, living in a world of every other one of us, from time to time, rubs shoulders, at times, exchanges sharp elbows with those who believe differently.

So, yes, it’s hard, speaking for myself, to be a Christian in my heart; loving unconditionally all people. Yet, this I know for the Bible tells me so.

Isaiah paints a lofty vision. A mountaintop banquet prepared for the hungry. Tears dried forevermore from cheerless eyes. This is a vision for the disenchanted, the disenfranchised. For what is another table of food and wine for the overfed or the hand of solace to those who have never wept? Yet, who among us, even with bellies full, cannot admit to spaces of the emptiness within us? Who among us, even in the most balled-fist courage in difficulty’s face, does not cry out for comfort and release? This, then, is a vision for all! A vision of salvation. From the Latin, salvus. Wholeness. The healing that comes only in the acknowledgement of brokenness. Brokenness that each of us shares with all people, for all people are broken.

Isaiah issues a clarion call and Revelation resoundingly replies with another portrayal of salvation so all-encompassing (heaven, earth, sea) that all is gathered up (mourning, crying, dying) and life is made new in a city, the gates of which are open to all people.

Isaiah and Revelation together help me see what All Saints’ Day is.

Since the 10th century, Western Christendom has set aside November 1 to honor all those through the ages who claim Christ as Lord. Yet, throughout Christianity’s history and surely in this era, there has been and is fighting and dying, crying and mourning all in the name of partisan ideologies, divisive and exclusive theologies.

So, today, I, with an inclusive eye, behold All Saints’ Day as a celebration for all who follow the Way[2] of Jesus. All who claim love as their chiefest value. All who confess their brokenness, their inability always to love all. All who, in their brokenness, cry for salvation – not freedom from self, but freedom to be self fully, faithfully. Freedom to live, not in the absence of death, but in its very midst. For only those who can, who will claim their own wholeness – the feasting and the hungering, the laughing and the crying, the living and the dying that we each do every day – can know salvation and, thus, can dare share it with others, even those with whom we, from time to time, rub shoulders and, at times, exchange sharp elbows.

 

Illustration: All Saints, Albrecht Durer, 1511

Footnotes:

[1] From the traditional Negro spiritual, Lord, I want to be a Christian.

[2] A reference to Acts 9.2, “the way” being the designation for the earliest followers of Jesus before they became known as Christians (see Acts 11.26); a designation that inferred more a way of life, a way of being than an intellectual assent or adherence to an ideology or theology.

I’m sorry…(I’m sorry, but) one more (final? maybe!) thought

My friend Sandra Koenig, responding to my previous blog post (October 27, 2017: I’m sorry…still, another thought), wrote poignantly and eloquently of the relationship between apology and forgiveness. I replied to her, “Thank you, Sandy. It has occurred to me that there is a decided connection between apologizing and forgiving. Perhaps another blog post is in the offing!”

Well, Sandy, here you are!

Given my natural drift of thought, there is much I might write about the developmental theological and philosophical, biblical and historical sweep of the acts and, again, I say, the arts of apology and forgiveness. However, for whatever reason or reasons, today, grounded in a wholly existential state of mind, one conspicuous thought arises. That is, the result, both immediate and ongoing, when one does or does not regularly engage (assuming in every relationship, whether personal or professional, collegial or adversarial, manifold are the occasions that arise of the necessity for) the practice of apology and forgiveness.

Three points…

First, I digress. It seems to me that both apology and forgiveness ontologically (by nature) are risk-taking acts, arts that require, demand visceral courage and fortitude to look inward acknowledging the fault, the friction, and the fracture in one’s relationship with one’s self and with another, and then to look outward to another, saying, I’m sorry” and “I forgive you” (or “I ask for your forgiveness”).

Second, the result of the practice of apology and forgiveness, I believe, is the expansion of one’s capacity for personal growth. Not to practice apology and forgiveness is personally diminishing, lessening one’s capacity for growth.

Third, at least I have found this – the first and second points – to be true for, in me.

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

behold our God!

a sermon, based on Genesis 1.1-2.4 and Matthew 28.16-20, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on Trinity Sunday, June 11, 2017

A story is told that Voltaire,[1] that French Enlightenment philosopher known, among many things, for his complicated relationship with religion, once doffed his hat at the passing of a funeral procession. A friend, surprised, said, “I thought you did not believe in God.” Voltaire replied, “We acknowledge each other, though we are not on speaking terms.”[2]

We, declining to share Voltaire’s sensibilities, claim the annual grace of Trinity Sunday (if not on any other day, then surely this day!) to acknowledge and speak of the threefold nature of God: alway transcendent, beyond all things, immanent, with all things, and spiritually in all things.

The Trinity - Fernando Yáñez de la Almedina

The word “trinity” is not found in the Bible. Still, the Bible, in one sense, is our record of our religious ancestors’ encounters with what 20th century German theologian Rudolph Otto[3] termed the mysterium tremendum et fascinans; that mystery called “God” before which we, in fascinated reverence and fear, tremble. Therein, we behold their attempts to make sense of that mystery, putting into language their experiences and perceptions.

Through the lens of this understanding, let us see what our spiritual forebears have to tell us about God and about us.

Before we do, I share a word about words. Words are symbols. Whether spoken or written, they are meant to conjure up the in the minds of the speaker and hearer, the writer and reader the realities to which they point. Hence, the word “God”, as a symbol, is not God, but only the term we use in our attempt to communicate our understanding of the reality of that mysterium tremendum et fascinans. And, as God is mystery (not a riddle to be resolved, but that which, in its totality, is beyond the reach of our reason), try as we might, we never can comprehend God completely. In a word (pun intended!), we never fully “get”, grasp God. Yet, in our continued quest for understanding, we hope, we believe that what we do get is fully God. For that reason, through prayer, study, and worship, we keep trying, remaining steadfast in the quest to behold our God!

Now, back to the Bible!

The first Genesis creation story is a rhapsodic Hebrew poem testifying that God is almighty! For through the agency of “wind”, in the Hebrew, ruach, Spirit, “sweeping over the face of the waters”, God creatio ex nihilo, creates out of the nothing of “formless void and darkness.” Whenever we humans “create” we always must take things that already exist to fashion something new. God begins with nothing and, through word, “Let there be…”, comes light, sky, earth, and sea, suns and stars, flora and fauna, and humankind. And this unfolding differentiation continues unto this day. Our God always is creating and we, made in God’s image, are called to create, not destroy. Our dominion over the earth is not, is never to be domination, but rather creative caretaking, loving stewardship.

In the Gospel of Matthew, the risen Jesus declares unto his first disciples the Great Commission, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” As important as this mission of baptizing and teaching has been and is for the spread of Christianity, the most important word Jesus says is “therefore.” Jesus can  (is able to) command his disciples because “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Jesus claims the authority, the right to exercise power, of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, the God of whom Genesis speaks as the almighty Creator.

It is this God revealed in this Jesus who, in the Spirit, is “with (us) always, to the end of the age.”

Behold our God!

 

Illustration: The Trinity, Fernando Yáñez de la Almedina (1475-1536)

Footnotes:

François-Marie Arouet (Voltaire) (1694-1778)

[1] Voltaire, the nom de plume of François-Marie Arouet (1694-1778) famous or infamous, depending on one’s point of view, for his attacks on the established church, and his advocacy of freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and separation of church and state.

[2] Recorded in David Head’s He Sent Leanness: a book of prayers for the natural man (The MacMillan Company, 1959), page 36.

iottoru001p1

[3] Rudolf Otto (1869-1937), German Lutheran theologian and philosopher.

a meditation on race, repost

I am honored to serve as a member of the Diocese of Upper South Carolina’s Race and Reconciliation Committee. The initial planning and team-building retreat was held on Saturday-Sunday, August 27-28, at Camp Gravatt, Aiken, SC.

In the light and shadow of my immediate post-retreat reflections, I repost a meditation on race (here, revised more lyrically, for this is how the words willed themselves to be heard by my heart this day) that I wrote on my blog page on August 13, 2014. The sentiments herein continue to represent my sense of things.

+

What is race? A thing to run? If so, how?

 

A thing to run toward as a shelter of safety

in which one’s identity

dwells secure?

A ground on which one’s integrity,

the maintenance of that identity,

is assured?

 

Or is race a thing to run through to get to the other

side to stand with “the other”

so to see one another

through the lens of our common humanity,

as in that generation ago

liberal-minded goal

of a color-blind society?

(A laudable ideal in theory;

one, however, beset by an insoluble reality:

Even when color-blind, we still see black and white. Thus, we can’t run through race

to some mythological place

of color unconsciousness.)

 

Or is race a thing from which to run, afraid of “the other”,

conscious of what we’ve been taught and learned,

and so consider,

or rather

believe about “them”, about “those people”?

 

Or is race a thing from which to run from ourselves, refusing to be identified,

vilified

by our race, in fear of rejection

and isolation

by the prejudice that prejudges without benefit of information

about us?

 

Or is race

a thing from which to run from ourselves, fearing to face

our prejudice

our prejudgments of others based

on evidence other

than what we can garner

only through our encounters personal,

our engagements with individuals?

 

Race. A thing to run? No. Rather a thing to be

as an expression of diversity…

 

A diversity – seen from a theological perspective of divine intention

and from an anthropological point of view of the creation –

paradoxically, best shown

and seen as one.

For there is but one race, whose name is holy.

And that race is wholly

human…

 

So Jesus told the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

An essential element of a life of justice and compassion

is our knowing

our neighbor

and honoring

our neighbor,

who is anyone

and our being a neighbor to everyone.

 

Then why,

O why

do we, in fear, still divide

ourselves one from another,

color by color?

 

Despite our ideals greatest

and intentions best,

our history and sociology

continually trump our theology and anthropology.

 

Let us pray

and struggle still that we may find a more excellent way.