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)

my Lord, what a morning!

thinking

a personal reflection on inauguration ceremonies and the Women’s March on Washington…

This morning, I watched the live television broadcast of the inaugural prayer service. In commemoration of Donald John Trump becoming the 45th President of the United States and America’s praised and prized peaceful transfer of power, a few thousand folk gathered under the towering pointed arches, flying buttresses, and ceiling vaulting of the Washington National Cathedral. There, for an hour, they listened to numerous voices praying and singing in varied traditions of faith and hymnody, all celebrating the glories (and summoning all people to recommit to the promotion of the causes) of peace and justice.

This morning, I also watched and through this day continue to watch live news coverage of the Women’s March on Washington (and around the globe!) as hundreds of thousands (millions?) of women and men gather to proclaim that “women’s rights are human rights”, to protect the dignity of women and girls of all ages, anywhere and at any time, and to protest any infringement on the sanctity and security of women’s rights. And, as is true of all marches to (and all marchers who) proclaim, protest, and protect, numerous are the causes, varied are the interests that call people forth. Hence, under the towering, flying, vaulted banner of women’s rights, many peoples and concerns gather in blessed solidarity; among them, Native Americans and colored folk, immigrants of whatever legal status, those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersexual, and asexual (acronymically rendered as LGBTQIA) – in a word, any and all who historically have been and unto this day are marginalized, thrust to the widening circumference of our society far from the centers of power and influence and, thus, in the language of the Declaration of Independence, disenfranchised, divested of their Creator-endowed “certain unalienable Rights…(of) Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

In the words of that grand Negro spiritual:

My Lord, what a morning,

My Lord, what a morning,

My Lord, what a morning

When the stars begin to fall.

You’ll hear the trumpet sound,

To wake the nations underground,

Looking to my God’s right hand,

When the stars begin to fall.

This song is a commemoration of God’s deliverance; a celebration of the coming of that eschatological end-time when sin and death, hate and war, discrimination and oppression finally are defeated. Still, in this day and time, when all is not right, when sin and death, hate and war, discrimination and oppression are ruefully alive and unrepentantly unwell, I think, feel that “morning” can be supplanted by “mourning.”

On this day, in prayer and song, by watching and marching, I commit anew to live and labor so that, even in this world, before God’s Kingdom come in its glorious fullness, mourning’s veil is lifted, however slightly, by the morning’s dawn.

“slaves”?

Every Tuesday, I am blessed to join several of my sister and brother clergy in a Christian ecumenical, biracial group for Bible study. Our camaraderie is high and, concerning our shared ministry as preachers, our scholarship of the Word, broad, and our pastoral sensitivity regarding our people, deep.

Today, one of our passages of study was Luke 17.5-10:

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea’, and it would obey you. Who among you would say to your slave who has come in from ploughing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? Would you not rather say, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink and later you may eat and drink’? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves. We have done only what we ought to have done!’.”

One of us commented that given her awareness that many black folk share a painful and indelible memory of institutional slavery as a part of their familial inheritance and their sense of our national history, she has difficulty saying the word, “slaves”, preferring to substitute “servants.” Our conversation expanded to encompass our considerations that the Greek doúlos can be translated “slave” or “servant”, that the principle meaning of the text focuses on what it is to be a slave or servant of Christ, thus making either term applicable, and that “worthless” does not mean “valueless” or “useless”, but rather “unprofitable”, signifying that in following and seeking to do Jesus’ will, we, as Christian slaves or servants, fulfill our calling; no more, no less.

All this I understand and accept. Still, as one who need trace back only five generations to find ancestors who were slaves, the word problematic for me. (I feel the same way about “master”, often the English rendering of the Greek kúriós [lord], which, when I encounter it [e.g., Luke 16.3, 5, 8], I favor “owner” [that is, of land or of a business, but not of people].)

For the remainder of this day and into this night, I have mused on this portion of this morning’s Bible study conversation.

In today’s mail, I received from a dear friend the program of God’s gonna trouble the water, a presentation of readings and spirituals in celebration of the opening of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, held last week at the Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC. One of the recitations particularly arrested my attention:

In consequence of (my master’s) decease, it became necessary to sell the estate and the slaves, in order to divide the property among the heirs…My brothers and sisters were bid off one by one, while my mother…looked on in an agony of grief…My mother was then separated from me, and…was bought by a man named Isaac R(iley)…and then I was offered to the assembled purchasers. My mother, half distracted with the parting forever from all her children, pushed through the crowd…to the spot where R(iley) was standing. She fell at his feet, and clung to his knees, entreating him in tones that a mother only could command, to buy her baby as well as herself, and spare to her one of her little ones at least. Will it, can it be believed that this man, thus appealed to, was capable not merely of turning a deaf ear to her supplication, but of disengaging himself from her with such violent blows and kicks, as to reduce her to the necessity of creeping out of his reach, and mingling the groan of bodily suffering with the sob of a breaking heart…[1]

Reading and rereading these words, my soul wept. Yes, I’ve not known so horrendous an experience. Yet I am the fruit in my day and time of those in my family tree who, in their generations, bore the brunt of the lash, the choke of the chain, the brutality of daily inhumanity. Therefore, when reading scripture aloud in worship, I will not, I cannot say, “slaves.”

 

Footnote:

[1] The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself (1849), pages 3-4, by Josiah Henson (1789-1883); here, text amended for brevity

beware

Biblea biblical reflection, based on Mark 12.38-40, for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost, November 8, 2015

Scribes. The learned scriptural scholars and teachers, editors and copyists of ancient Israel. Jesus warns against them.

Malheur à vous, scribes et pharisiens (Woe unto You, Scribes and Pharisees), James Tissot, 1886-1894

From the beginning of his ministry Jesus struggled with the scribes. (Perhaps they were envious of the crowd’s acclamation that Jesus “taught as one having authority, and not as the scribes,”[1] who instructed via memorization and repetition.) The tension deepens as Jesus calls out those scribes who hunger for public honor, pray at length for appearances’ sake, and worse, burden widows by demanding lodging and food, if not also depriving them of their homes.

“Beware.” A worthy caution in Jesus’ time and now. For the confrontation between Jesus and the scribes, I think, was not primarily, if at all personal (Jesus had at least one wholesome, gracious encounter with a scribe[2]), but rather a conflict between a movement and an institution.

Movements and institutions are fundamentally different. Movements move. Movements, rooted in a cause, a commitment, in response to the way things are, seek to share and spread a message of transformation, even redemption.[3] Institutions, though spawned by movements, over time, stand still. As such, institutions invariably undermine the cause, the commitment by altering the raison d’être from sharing and spreading a message to preserving organizational structures and systems, traditions and conventions, practices and privileges.[4]

On Sunday, November 1, 2015, in Washington, DC, the Most Reverend Michael Bruce Curry was installed as the 27th Presiding Bishop of the American Episcopal Church; the first African American to be so honored and laden with so great a calling and challenge. At the heart of his sermon, Michael[5] spoke of the Jesus movement. He said, in part:

The Reverend Michael Bruce Curry applauds as he begins his sermon after his Installation ceremony, at the Washington National Cathedral, in Washington, November 1, 2015. Curry becomes the first African-American Episcopal presiding bishop, after previously serving as Bishop of North Carolina.               REUTERS/Mike Theiler - RTX1UA7D

“…Jesus did not come into this world to found a religion, though religious faith is critical. Nor did he come to establish an institution or an organization…(but) to inaugurate, to begin, to catalyze a movement…that would change and transform this world from the nightmare it often is into the dream that God intends for all of us…”

I don’t believe it was lost on Michael or anyone else that he preached in the presence of a packed house in the Washington National Cathedral, the world’s 6th largest Gothic cathedral; a magnificent and undeniably material manifestation of an institution.

Michael also said, “…organizations and institutions can serve (Jesus’) cause.” Hearing and heeding these words personally, I pray that the church, particularly my Episcopal Church, and I, though in retirement, in the service I continue to offer through the church, will remain true to Jesus’ cause. For ne’er would I want to hear Jesus, in reference to my church or to me, ever say, “Beware.”

Illustration: Malheur à vous, scribes et pharisiens (Woe unto You, Scribes and Pharisees), James Tissot, 1886-1894

Photograph: The Most Reverend Michael Bruce Curry preaching – REUTERS/Mike Theiler – RTX1UA7D

Footnotes:

[1] Mark 1.22

[2] See Mark 12.28-34

[3] This is the nature of movements at their best, which, at their worst, can do harm, bringing suffering, even death to those who do not agree.

[4] This, of course, is unavoidable (as a movement shares and spreads its message and gains adherents, inevitably the order of organization needs to be established to fulfill the cause, the commitment). For this reason, all institutions, to remain true to (to remember) their causes and commitments also need to engage regularly in periods of revival and renewal.

[5] Having known our Presiding Bishop for years, I refer to him by his first name.

African American History Month – reflection 8

Continuing my personal reflections on African American History Month, I have become who I am through the helping hearts and hands of so many. Yet another…

Verna Josephine DozierDr. Verna Josephine Dozier (1917-2006). Teacher and theologian. Preacher and prophet. Author and mentor.

September 1975. The beginning of my second seminary year. I remember a classmate, the late Wayland Edward Melton, who one day would be dean of Philadelphia Cathedral in the Diocese of Pennsylvania, returning from summer break with a breathlessly exuberant report about Verna Dozier. “This itty-bitty Black woman biblical scholar” had conducted a late summer retreat for clergy and ordination candidates.  “She was brilliant”, he enthused, his face abeam with wonder, “and she is a lay person who schooled the clergy about the Bible!”

I carried that memory until the moment I met Verna in 1992. She was the guest instructor on the Book of Genesis at a week-long teaching series at the former College of Preachers of the Washington National Cathedral. I especially recall her lecture on the Creation story. At the close, a member of the audience asked, “Dr. Dozier, scripture tells us that shortly after God completed his work of creation, he commanded of the woman, saying,” reading from his pocket Bible, he lowered his voice for emphasis, “‘your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.’ As I read it, Dr. Dozier, this is a part of God’s plan. What do you, particularly as a woman, say?” The standing room only crowd fell silent, both in response to the inquirer’s impertinence and with bated breath awaiting Verna’s reply. She bowed her head, sitting still, her hands clasped on her lap. After several moments, she looked up, turned her head to face her questioner, saying, her voice soft and low, rich with resonance, “Yes, that is a part of the story, but it was a condition of life after the Fall.” Another hush fell over the gathered throng, our voices stilled by the implication of her answer, plain to hear for all who would receive it, that the subordination of women was the result of human disobedience and defiance of God’s plan, thus not an aspect of the genius of creation. After another several moments, Verna said, her voice rising in conviction, “And it is our work, the people of God, with God’s help, to correct it!”

Later, Verna, who in the mid-1950s was the first African American member of St. Mark’s, Capitol Hill, where I served as rector (1998-2015), became a treasured mentor. Always sensible. Ever sagacious. Verna was one of very few in my experience in whom common sense and uncommon intellect dwelled in daily harmony. In this, she was equally adept in offering the encouragement of candid praise and the correction of principled critique.

Verna’s lessons of God’s love and justice live in me. Whenever I need a refresher, I reach to my bookshelf to retrieve, read, and reflect anew on her writings, particularly the autographed, dogged-eared copy of her seminal work, annotated with sundry self-inscribed marginal notes, The Dream of God: A Call To Return (1991). In these pages, Verna speaks with the timbre of her favorite biblical figure, the prophet Amos, who declared, “let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” Decrying how the Christian church has abandoned God’s dream to follow (and not merely to worship) Jesus, she advocates for the reclamation of this truest of callings. Through these pages, I always hear Verna’s voice, saying, “Paul, do not tell me what you believe. Show me the difference it makes, the difference you make that you believe.”