Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Stepping Back to Take a Second Look – Part II

(continued from Part I)

The Mother of the Bride

I left the Franciscans after lunch to attend a wedding of one of my former students. She is one of the brightest young people I have ever taught and her performances in my classes were inevitably stellar. I had the pleasure of supervising an independent study with this young woman on the subject of torture and human rights just as the atrocities at Bagram and Abu Ghraib were breaking. This student brilliantly synthesized the increasingly depressing news accounts with the cultural perceptions of the same as they were being portrayed in the Fox television program 24 and as well as the Battlestar Galactica program on the then Science Fiction channel. Her Honors in the Major presentation on rape, cultural presumptions and legal standards by which the accused is too often placed on trial was provocative, well-written and well-defended.

She had invited me to her wedding yesterday and I had put it on the back burner of a psychic stovetop brimming with pressing obligations to Fulbright reporting and Florida Humanities Council presentations. When I saw this woman at the Occupy Orlando march a few weeks ago, I asked her when the wedding was to occur and promised her I’d come. While I don’t generally like weddings, I figured I owed this one to my former student.

The wedding was truly beautiful. In perhaps typical Unitarian unconventional style, it began with a procession of the couple’s dog on leash down the aisle to an incredibly beautiful rendition of the Lord’s Prayer in Swahili, Baba Yetu. It opened with a lyrical reading from the Massachusetts’ Supreme Court’s decisions Goodridge v. Department of Public Health in which the Court there struck down the restrictions of marriage to different sex couples and continued with readings from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” and a very moving excerpt from an interview with the widow of Carl Sagan upon his death.

All members of the family participated and the couple essentially married themselves, proclaiming as much in their exchange of rings. The recognition of the marriage was pronounced by the community assembled: “We who are gathered here today join you…in the name of love.” It was just beautiful. And it was unique, much what I would have expected from my former charge.

What I had not anticipated was what her mother told me. She thanked me profusely for attending the wedding, saying that I had no idea how much her daughter appreciated it. She then went on to say how much my teaching had meant to her, that I had been her life-line at the university and that her finishing her degree there was due in no small part to my role in that process.

Again, an embarrassing and humbling place to be. It came at the end of a day in which I had been taken back to a prior time in my life when my interactions with a legally blind impoverished man had been used as the example in a sermon of “feeding my sheep.” It also came at the end of a long week in which my enrollments for classes in the fall hovered in the single digits prompting me to fear those classes may yet not make for the spring. In a consumerist university, diligence and hard work are not necessarily values, they are frequently liabilities.

To be faithful, not successful

What has occurred to me over these past few hours of trying to make sense of yesterday’s events is that the calling to feed the sheep – the people of G-d I feel I am called to serve – is different from dealing with the flock. The former speaks to relationships with individuals, the latter to popular affirmation. And what I have struggled with all of my life is the balancing of the need for authenticity and devotion to the calling I perceived with the need for a sense of effectiveness, for reaching every single student that crosses the threshold of my classroom, indeed, for changing the world – the goal that drove me into public school teaching, the practice of law and the ordained ministry, all with some fairly disastrous consequences. Most of all, I have struggled with trying to be authentic in the pursuit of that calling even as the affirmation I so badly wanted has often eluded me.

These things are not comfortable for me to confront, much less to state publicly. But confession is good for the soul. And ENFP types often reason out loud to find their way.

For the record, I am grateful for the many sheep whose lives have touched my own and whom I have had the privilege of touching in return. I need to quickly point out that I do not see them as sheep in any blind following sense of that archetype – my sheep have been quick to ignore my advice and to call me on my crap historically - nor do I ever take them for granted. Even as I sting from the ridicule and abuse my own enthusiasm and zeal seem to draw from the flock to which I am assigned each semester, I am grateful for the privilege to know, teach and hopefully inspire the handful I will actually reach. And I live in hope that this will prove sufficient consolation for the wounds left by so many of their classmates.

Often in my adult life I have found myself returning to a statement by Mother Theresa, one of the great saints in my own life, a statement I understand intellectually even as I grapple with living into it existentially. In her usual simple but powerful manner, the saint of Calcutta said, “G-d does not call me to be successful. G-d calls me to be faithful.” That message came back to me Saturday with the force of a tsunami. As usual, I find myself standing on the edge of the chasm, hoping to find a way to make that leap of faith, to bridge the gap between what my intellect recognizes as sound advice even as my wounded heart stands timidly, self-pityingly at the lip of the abyss.

May Charles Simeon pray for us who follow in your way.
May Mother Theresa pray for us who like her seek to be faithful
And may the Holy Mother pray for us
now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando


If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

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