a monumental issue

In an August 13 missive, my bishop, the Right Reverend Mariann Edgar Budde of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington,[1] shared her reflections on the recent conflict in Charlottesville, Virginia, involving a demonstration by groups of white supremacists centered on their protest against the removal of a statue of General Robert E. Lee.[2] Opening with the words of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Hatred cannot drive out hatred. Only love can do that”, Bishop Budde wrote with clear-eyed passion about “our nation’s demon of racism” that “(spews) hatred and (incites) violence.” She continued with her approbations of the heartfelt convictions of those in the Charlottesville community who mobilized and marched in peaceful counter-demonstration; their presence in the streets a public incarnation and witness to the value of human equality.[3]

Bishop Budde ended her reflections, writing: “…the symbols and monuments of the Confederacy serve as touchstones and rallying sites for racial hatred…There are, in my mind, only two morally defensible options: either remove Confederate symbols and monuments or contextualize them with the truth of their origins and a broader narrative of our past to include the voices we’ve silenced and the stories we’ve never heard.”

I am a historically-minded-and-hearted person. History, the chronicle of human events, words, and deeds in time and space, is a primary lens through which I perceive reality. I also, perhaps as a congenital Gemini-esque quality, strive to understand the perspectives of others, all others, even and especially those with whom I disagree.

Given these aspects of my nature, as elemental to me as breath, I wrestle with the issue of what to do with monuments to the Confederacy and the Confederate flag.[4] For I understand that these symbols represent, for some, the reprehensible reality of institutional slavery and, for others, irrefutable and irreplaceable markers of their treasured history and heritage. Hence, I understand the impassioned cry to remove them and the stalwart call to keep them in place. I also understand (or I think I do) how difficult, perhaps well-nigh impossible it is to separate attitudes and feelings of animus from either position, thus, to leave the monuments in place or to remove them is for one or the other an act of oppression.

All this said I am not an indifferent observer. I am a person who identifies – in part by choice, in part perforce by the classifications of society – as an African American. Yet I am the literal fruit from Hispanic roots on my father’s side blended, on my mother’s side, less than five generations past, with white seed.

All this said, having run back and forth many times along the continuum of thought and feeling, I believe that the monuments to the Confederacy are to be removed[5] from parks and streets. This, for me, is one of the lessons of Charlottesville. For it is one thing to behold in a statue of General Lee a historical figure, no more, no less. It is another thing to see a symbol of the subjugation of a people. It is still another thing to remember with reverence a past cause. And it is yet another thing to perceive an anamnetic[6] rallying cry that compels the calling of that past cause into the living present, which, I believe, the forces of white supremacy seek to do.

And if any of the monuments are not demolished, then let them be displayed in museums or perhaps on a Civil War battlefield, in each case, affixed with plaques and other memorabilia detailing the histories of those who lived and fought and died on both sides of the war and the stories of those who lived and died in slavery.

For, it seems to me, that sometimes the best or, perhaps better said, wisest way to address the past, particularly a troubled past is not to parade its images in the public square unembellished by critical commentary, but rather to present them, if at all, in the simplest, starkest light of truth.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Although I have retired and reside in South Carolina, I remain canonically (that is, by the rule of law of the Episcopal Church, officially) resident in the Diocese of Washington, where I served two parishes in Washington, DC, for a total of nearly 27 years, the bulk of my active full-time ministry.

[2] Robert Edward Lee (1807-1870) American Civil War commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia (1862-1865)

[3] The complete text of Bishop Budde’s reflections can be read at: https://www.edow.org/about/bishop-mariann/writings/

[4] Also known as the rebel flag, the Dixie flag, and the Southern cross.

[5] By “removed”, I mean through the decision-making processes of elected and representative municipal bodies and not via the self-authorized vigilante actions of citizens.

[6] My made-up word drawn from the Greek anamnesis, which generally infers an act of remembrance that goes beyond a cognitive recollection of a past event or era, but rather actively seeks to recall, indeed, to recreate that past event or era in the present.

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)

Paul’s (not my, but the Apostle’s!) law

1-22-17 a sermon, based on Romans 7.15-25 and Matthew 11.16-19, 25-30, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 5th Sunday after Pentecost, July 9, 2017

“When I want to do good, evil lies close at hand.”

Portrait of the Apostle Paul

I wish Paul had written autobiographically. Only for himself. Only about himself. But, no. Paul reflects on an aspect of our universal human experience, so constant in occurrence and comprehensive in influence that he calls it “a law.” Overlooking the potential confusion he creates by using “law” in multiple ways, his point is simply, profoundly this: We can’t keep the law!

The law. Guiding, governing rules that frame our lives and focus our living; whether the Mosaic law, Paul’s particular point of reference, or another set of precepts transcendent in origin, spiritual in scope or natural laws deduced from keen observation about the way things are in the world around us or some philosophical ethical civil code. Whatever. It doesn’t matter what the law is. For in our efforts to follow it, we repeatedly discover that we, in practice, according to the prayer, following “the devices and desires of our own hearts”,[1] won’t keep the law!

Here is the power of the law. It’s a two-edged sword, simultaneously cutting both ways. The law points to a higher truth, whether God or some honored virtue; enabling us to imagine it and, striving to do good, reach for it. And, as we always fail to do good always, the law reveals, exposes our inherent capacity to do what is not good, indeed, what is sinful.

Hence, here is the paradox of the law. It’s our finest dream and worst nightmare; a useful tool and a weighty burden.

I believe that everyone – whether individual, family, community, nation, me! – experiences this blessing and bane of the law.

Speaking for myself, as I age, I am clearer, nearly by the day, about the person I want to be and become. Wise. Knowledgeable about the world. Understanding. Able to apply that knowledge in the concrete circumstances of my daily living. Passionate for justice. Compassionate. Loving and patient, especially with those with whom I disagree. However, the more I behold who I want to be I also see how often I don’t reach for it, but rather retreat to the known and narrow confines of my present perspectives and prejudices. “When I want to do good, evil lies close at hand.”

I think of historically battle-scarred lands and peoples where the long, mutually recognized “good” of justice and peace is overshadowed by intractable conflict fraught and fought with the endless sins of generational resentment, rage, and revenge. “When humans want to do good, evil lies close at hand.”

I think of America. Once again, we have celebrated our nation’s birth. In recalling our founding principles, “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness”, we are reminded afresh and our honesty compels our confession of how far short we fall in guaranteeing these rights to all. We are a nation of enormous wealth where poverty resists resolution; making Jesus’ observation, “You always have the poor with you”,[2] stubbornly, sorrowfully true. We are a nation increasingly pluralistic where bigotry continues to raise its ugly head and to cry out in angry voice resisting the spirit of universal tolerance. “When we want to do good, evil lies close at hand.”

Whether the scale is large or small, whether the scope is personal, communal, national, or international, the same dis-ease infects and afflicts us all. Paul is right, “wretched” we are!

Here’s some good news. Whenever we come anew to this realization, we can cry with Paul, hoping there’s an answer, “Who will rescue us from this body – that is, this inherent, inescapable way of our living in this world – of death!” Whenever we ask that question, we can sing with Paul, knowing there’s an answer. “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” We with Paul praise God for Jesus, who, through his life and ministry, death and resurrection redeems us that through him we can fulfill the law!

This, I think, I believe, is what Jesus means: “Come to me, all you weary and heavy burdened…” Referring to the manifold stipulations of the Mosaic Law and any legal code, hard to remember, harder to do, Jesus offers in their place, one law, his law, his love. “Take my yoke (my love) upon you and learn (to love) from me…For my yoke (of love) is easy, my burden (of love) is light.”[3]

Double yoke for oxen, Musée de la civilisation à Québec

 

Illustrations:

Saint Paul, James Tissot (1836-1902)

Double yoke for oxen, Musée de la civilisation à Québec

Footnotes:

[1] From the Confession of Sin, Morning Prayer: Rite I, The Book of Common Prayer, page 41

[2] John 12.8

[3] Matthew 11.29a, 30, my parenthetical and italicized additions

“and…or…” – a personal reflection on human behavior, part 3

Continuing to contemplate healthy and helpful behavior in the sphere of human relationships, other characteristics or qualities come to mind. Verily, I think of the word “power” and in much the same way the Apostle Paul speaks of the spiritual gift of love;[1] that is, an ability or a capacity to do something and, even more, a proficiency to do something well and most of the time.

I say “most of the time,” for I do not believe there are or can be any absolutes in human behavior, save perhaps for our idealized visions of how we should act. For none of us, whatever the standard, is faultless in her/his conduct. None of us is perfect, that is, complete in her/his being and becoming. None of us, again by whatever criterion, is completely good or bad. None is us is immune to the effect of that immutable aspect of human living: inconsistency. None of us, in the Apostle Paul’s language, “understands all mysteries and all knowledge”,[2] save perhaps for our acute awareness that among life’s variables of circumstance, chance, and choice, we, at best, most of the time have governance only over the third.[3]

Now, in the light (or under the shadow) of ungovernable circumstance and chance, a healthy, helpful power, I believe, and always only speaking for myself, is my ability to respond to life’s twists and turns, ups and downs with wisdom so to act wisely. By “wisdom”, I mean more than my knowledge or my intellectual grasp of an idea, but rather also my understanding, that is, my capacity to put into practice what it is I (think I) know.

In this, wisdom is multidimensional. It is grounded in experience and experience is the fruit of history, both my own and my observations of and conclusions drawn from that of others and, in regard to the latter, requiring my humility to be open and willing to learn from others.

Looking at my life, honesty compels my confession that my unhealthiest and most unhelpful behaviors have a common character of impetuousity. When I make a decision before I discern what’s real and true about the circumstance and chance confronting me or when I forsake reason and act largely on my feelings or when I ignore history’s lessons from others and trust only in my experience or when I repeat errors of my past and, thus, reaffirm the counsel of that proverbial saying from the annals of 12-step programs that the greatest form of insanity is doing the same thing again and again and expecting a different result.

More to come…

 

Footnotes:

[1] 1 Corinthians 13.1-13; regarding what love does (and doesn’t do) see especially verses 4-7.

[2] 1 Corinthians 13.2

[3] However, even our command of/over our choices is partial, given that our discernments about what’s real and true and our decisions/actions based on those determinations always are in response to those always wholly uncontrollable determinants of circumstance and chance.

musing about mystery in Advent, continued…

Mystery. Whether about God or Jesus, nature or life, or me – not a riddle to be resolved by reason, but a reality beyond my completest understanding. The more I know, the more I know I don’t know. Nevertheless, I hear mystery’s constant call to me, “Come.” As Advent beckons me to answer, “Yes,” I ask myself: What does that “yes” look like?

In the human encounter with mystery, a common desire, I think, I feel is light. I have an image in mind. I’m peering into the mouth of a long, serpentine, seemingly endless corridor. Though, for whatever reasons, I must enter, I have a choice. I can forge on with only my native eyesight, by which, at best, I, with every step, can see only a foot or two ahead or, with the aid of a trusty flashlight in hand, I can follow its bright beam. Facing mystery, yes, please, let there be light!

In Advent, the church addresses this desire, on each of the four Sundays igniting an additional candle, symbolizing, as Christmas nears, drawing closer to the coming of Jesus, the embodiment of that ineffable mystery of God in flesh and the Light of the world. Light.

As I muse, being always a questioner and, perhaps, too, a contrarian, I also think of darkness.

I came across a poem, Sweet Darkness, by anthropologist and naturalist, philosopher and poet David Whyte that afforded me some insight (pun intended!). Whyte speaks to me, for me of moments when I can’t see. When more looking yields no better recognition. When more thinking reaches no deeper comprehension. When more words spoken in conversation or argument achieve no greater understanding. When sense and nonsense, clarity and confusion appear as one. Moments when I come to that agonizing realization that nothing I can do brings me closer to truth. Yet, there, in the dark, if I would but embrace it, accept it, I can be and I am called and comforted, known and loved. There, in the limitless darkness, I see more than I could have imagined or would dare to have believed.

To walk into darkness, hoping to see light. This, I believe (though confessing my always desire to have light in all ways), is what my “yes” in response to mystery’s call looks like.

And, now, typical of my usually biblically-based contemplation, I ask myself: What figure, what character portrays, models for me this willingness to enter the dark hoping, praying to see light?

More to come…