Monday, June 22, 2015

Charleston: Where there is despair, may we sow hope….

I heard the news of the church shooting in Charleston while in France to pray with the community at Taize. It was a particularly bittersweet day.

It had been a breath taking experience with the world at prayer at Taize, 2000 people singing, chanting and praying in their own languages and in four part harmony, the universal language of music. But one of the prayers the community offered that morning was for the victims of the shootings I had learned of just the night before. 

I had found the BBC on the French cable in my hotel room to catch up on the news before beginning my long journey home. The horrific news out of Charleston would make my stomach turn and chill my heart. It would give me the same kind of cognitive dissonance I heard from many Americans living in Europe: I know America is home but do I really want to go back to that place? 

A Calloused Heart

At some level I suppose I have grown callous about these things, like many of my countrymen and women. On the one hand, I respond in horror to the latest atrocity, this one committed in a house of prayer. On the other, I experience a sad resignation to the fact that enduring such atrocities increasingly seem to be the cost one must be willing to pay as a condition of living in America.

I am sure such resignation provides the public relations wing of the world’s largest gun industry a great delight to know their efforts to spin such events as expectable, just the way things are,  have met with such success.

We are an adolescent culture with a teenaged obsession over rights and freedom from any kind of regulation, an adolescence fed by an infantilizing consumerist culture and an opportunistic political culture only too willing to pitch their appeals to our lowest levels of moral reasoning. Our culture has yet to mature into adulthood, accepting the duties to others that come with the exercise of any true rights. When a right is exercised without regard for how it impacts others it is little more than an arbitrary privilege and almost inevitably occurs at the expense of someone else.

“What the Hell is wrong with the Americans?”

The chatter around me in the cafes of Geneva that evening and in the airport restaurant in Montreal the next day during my layover there revealed a decidedly different view of this event. The common theme of the reactions was simply “What in the hell is wrong with the Americans?”

My sense is that America is seen in the parts of Europe I visited (Switzerland, France, Scotland and Britain) with a mixture of admiration and fear. The Europeans have hardly lost sight of America’s role in helping Europe deliver itself from the authoritarian regimes of both the right (Nazi Germany) and the left (Soviet Russia) in the 20th CE. And the products of the American culture industry dominate the European imagination as the huge, inescapable megatron previews of Jurassic World in the Glasgow train station evidenced.

But they also view the world’s only remaining superpower with apprehension, both from the ever tightening grasp of its finance and global corporate talons as well as from an armed forces larger than the next seven nations combined with knee jerk tendencies to employ force as its first response rather than its last resort.

That’s why events like Charleston spook the world outside our borders. How can a nation with such high flung ideals of equality, liberty and justice for all – not to mention so much power -  be the matrix for a relentless parade of xenophobic, hate-fueled events like the slaughter of vulnerable people of faith who accepted their killer into their midst in good faith? And how can any modern nation-state watch this latest incidence of public slaughters occur without the exercise of even a modicum of social responsibility?

When the world’s greatest superpower proves unable or unwilling to protect its own most vulnerable citizens from preventable harm, how can it be trusted with the welfare of the rest of the world it dominates?

Wrestling with our souls

At the early service at my parish Sunday, the priest informed the congregation that the bishop of the diocese had issued a statement on Charleston in conjunction with his fellow bishops in the Episcopal Church. The statement asked parishioners to contact their local AME church to express their sorrow, to remember the dead and their survivors in their personal prayers this week, and finally to use the Prayer Attributed to St. Francis in the worship services of all parishes during the week.

He is to be commended for this forthright response.

Of course, St. Francis himself did not write this famous prayer that often is thought to be his. The prayer dates to an early 20th CE French religious journal but its elements of selfless love of others and its call to work for justice and peace have made it a prayer routinely used by Franciscan orders and evinces the spirit of Francis and Claire.

Sunday those words seemed most appropriate:

Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.

Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.

The events of Charleston have presented us with much hatred to be overcome with love. They reveal long, festering injuries in desperate need of pardon and have caused deep sadness over losses that will never completely heal.

That is why it is important to be intentional about thinking about  these events, naming them for the evils they represent. More importantly, our commitment to be in solidarity with the victims of these events and their survivors charges all of us with the wrestling with our own souls that will be necessary to change the conditions that give rise to this and all the other atrocities that Americans like me have come to take for granted.

There is much darkness to overcome with light indeed. That begins with acknowledging our weariness of this endless parade of senseless violence and the callousness of our own hearts it engenders.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., M.Div., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Professed: Third Order Society of St. Francis (TSSF)
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. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Sunday, June 21, 2015

His Kind of Day

He doesn’t move as quickly as he used to, his knee causing him to slow down and lean on his cane. He doesn’t spend as much time as he used to in his 12 acre yard, tending his plants, proudly harvesting the citrus from trees we spent years fertilizing and protecting from freezes with smudge pots. These days he mainly sits in his chair, often fixed to the unlimited fight or flight pumped into the home courtesy of Fox and the local cable company. 

He is lonely. He misses his life partner of 52 years, my saintly mother, gone now these eight years. She lies just outside of town in the carefully manicured Veteran’s Cemetery, rows of granite stones amidst copses of live oaks and palmettoes. He will join her there one day. The three of us children live within an hour of our father. But our busy lives mean we don’t visit as often as he’d like. He telephones his 93 year old sister up in Tallahassee, his only remaining sibling, every day. 

For now, at 88 years of age, his mind remains as sharp as ever, a steel trap retaining knowledge of the world he has assiduously collected over the years, much of it from his time as a sailor in the Pacific in WWII and his many visits as a retiree that have taken him to five of the seven continents. He is a veritable walking history book of this region of Florida where he was born, grew up and returned to make his living, much in demand by local history buffs and teachers at the local high school to which he devoted the vast majority of his life. 

He was rough on me, the oldest child of three, as I grew up in that little town where I was routinely called Sammy, the name my father bore in his childhood there. But I always knew he loved me and only wanted the best for me. And when he heard my life was in danger that second year of teaching in that small town a half hour away, he simply drove his pickup truck over to my rented house and informed me I was moving home that day. My guess is that he probably saved my life. He has often said he does not understand why I have pursued the various paths in life I have, but he has always supported me. 

He has been a very fine father. And I am very grateful for my nearly 62 years as his oldest child.

My Dad will be coming to our home this day for an afternoon lunch. My sister is picking him up to bring him the hour’s drive to Orlando. My brother is picking up the food to bring over. Daddy will be surrounded by his three children, their life partners and two of his grandchildren.  We will eat together, tell stories, laugh a lot and silently acknowledge the painful gaping hole that our Mother once filled. It will be his kind of day. And on this Father’s Day, that’s what he deserves.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., M.Div., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Professed, Third Order Society of St. Francis (TSSF)
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. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Monday, June 01, 2015

Seeking Vision in a Thin Place

“Without a vision, the people perish.” – Proverbs 29:18  

New Year's Eve walk along the beach
Cape Canaveral

In just a few minutes my taxi will arrive to take me to the airport. I am headed to Geneva this day to meet a group of European Franciscans whom I will accompany to the Scottish isle of Iona this weekend.

Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart,
Be all else but naught to me, save that thou art;
Thou my best thought in the day and the night,
Both waking and sleeping, thy presence my light.

Iona has a long history of being a deeply spiritual place. Inhabited by Celts long before the coming of the Irish monks, evidence of pre-Christian Iron Age religious practice are to be found all over the island. With the coming of St. Columba, a Benedictine monk from Ireland, in the 6th CE, Iona became a very generative place for Celtic Christianity which eventually would missionize the entirety of Britain.

Be thou my wisdom, be thou my true word,
Be thou ever with me, and I with thee Lord;
Be thou my great Father, and I thy true son;
Be thou in me dwelling, and I with thee one.

It is on Iona that the Indo-European fertility symbols of lingam and yoni were combined to create the beloved Celtic Cross with its symbols of the four directions and universality. And it is on Iona that the Book of Kells would be created, having been spirited off to Ireland in advance of one of the many waves of invading Norsemen who periodically swept in off the North Sea to destroy the monastery on the island.

An interfaith community now inhabits the rebuilt monastery with a long history of musical and liturgical innovation. We will be staying with them.

Iona is a routinely described as a magical place, a place where the veil between the material and spiritual realms is very thin. At these thin places, pilgrims have reported visions of the divine, many of which have changed the lives of those who experienced them.

Riches I heed not, nor man's empty praise:
Be thou mine inheritance now and always;
Be thou and thou only the first in my heart;
O Sovereign of Heaven, my treasure thou art.

I awoke yesterday morning with my favorite hymn playing in my head. Be Thou My Vision is set to an old Celtic melody, Slane, a traditional favorite in Ireland. The link here will take you to a beautiful Youtube instrumental rendition of this melody. Treat yourself to the four minutes this video will take to soothe your soul if but for a moment.

My family roots lie deeply embedded in Celtic soil and so it is little wonder this music appeals to me. But my memories of singing this hymn are tied to my time in California. It was the hymn we sang in my multicultural parish in San Jose on the Kirking of the Tartans in which the cloth from every culture represented there was placed on the altar in a riot of color and symbols. It was also the hymn sung at my ordination to the priesthood.

The lyrics of this hymn well describe the stage of life at which I find myself, seeking vision for a new phase of life that I seem unable to avoid. The wheel is turning and the door behind me appears to be closing. No new door ahead has appeared. The way forward is unclear, murky and frightening. I am praying that the thin places of Iona might provide me with some kind of direction.

For those of you who pray, I shamelessly ask your prayers. For those of you who don’t, I shameless ask for you to keep me in your thoughts these next couple of week. I depart for this encounter with the divine with no small amount of trepidation. Pray not only that I find a vision of what I am to do.  Pray I find the strength and courage to engage that vision and a peace that has eluded me for these last few years in seeking it.

High King of Heaven, thou Heaven's bright sun,
O grant me its joys after victory is won!;
Great heart of my own heart, whatever befall,
Still be thou my vision, O Ruler of all.

There’s the taxi….

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., M.Div. Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Professed Member, Third Order Society of St. Francis (TSSF)

Asst. Lecturer: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
Osceola Campus, University of Central Florida, Kissimmee

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. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++