Monday, January 18, 2016

People, Not Politicians: Dealing With an Abusive Mother Church

I received a number of responses to my original post about the actions of the Anglican bishops to suspend the American church from the ill-defined body called the Anglican Communion. They are prompting me to think further about this situation. I always consider that a gift.

No time to play the role of victims

One response came from the former rector of the parish in California in which I was ordained. Jerry is a long-time mentor and currently heads a mission in San Jose to refugees from the conflict in the Sudan. He has been an indispensable advocate and ombudsman for the “lost boys” of the Sudan who have been resettled in the South Bay for a couple of decades now. It is truly a remarkable ministry.

In his reflections on the suspension of the American church, Jerry recalls the history of the Anglican worldwide experience with the locus of power and influence passing from the UK to the US church in the 1950s but by the 1990s moving to the churches of the Global South. As he well puts it, “It is to be expected that the new center would exercise its muscles.”

Indeed. And it’s not necessarily a bad thing for us Americans to be in a place where we are no longer in control of things. Some of my most important lessons in life have arisen from circumstances where as a first world white man of privilege I was in the control of others.

Jerry raises an important point about how the American church should respond: “The danger would be to fall into the role of being a victim, which would be to act out the role assigned to us by the accusers.” Indeed. This is precisely the point I was making in my previous blog entry suggesting that the American church place some safe distance between itself and the institution that insists upon abusing it.

As I have thought about this it has occurred to me that at some level, the “sanctions” the bishops approved are not necessarily a bad thing. The American church will not be chairing committees or helping hammer out issues of policy through voting presence there. Truth be told, to a recent retiree that sounds like a welcome relief from a lot of responsibility.  The To Do list for the American church is hardly empty.

The final sanction is the prohibition of the American church from representing the Communion in interfaith dialogues and gatherings. In all fairness, that probably is also a blessing in disguise. On the one hand, why would the American church want to represent a body marked by its resolute embrace of sexism and homophobia? On the other hand, how could the American church authentically represent such a body given its own long and painful spiritual journey through those very demons of prejudice to become a more inclusive church?

Photo by UNHCR UN Agency 

Of course that leaves people like Jerry and Pam, a fellow parishioner who has done a beautiful job in creating solar lighting and windmill projects in Tanzania, in a difficult place. The ministries that they and thousands of other Episcopalians are doing in the very places whose bishops have just approved this hateful action are way too important to be abandoned.  The needs of the people are a much greater concern than the fragile egos of church leaders, both in the Global South and here at home.

“We love your people even as we fear your government…”

As I was thinking about this distinction between the people in a given place and the leadership which presumes to speak for them and act on their behalf, I was taken back to my own visits to Latin America. One of the most painful days of my life came in April 1992 in the countryside of El Salvador at the end of the war there. As an Episcopal seminarian, I was there under the auspices of the Episcopal Church in El Salvador and the World Council of Churches whose volunteers were monitoring the ceasefire which had just taken effect.

One of our observations took us into the Conflicted Zone well outside the capital, San Salvador, whose demilitarized limits were patrolled by the blue helmeted United Nations peacekeepers. As we drove past the UN troops with a wave, we headed into countryside marked by signs warning us not to leave the highway because of the mines planted there, houses and churches destroyed by artillery and hillsides blackened right down to the bare stone by napalm dropped from helicopters.

                                        Photo from

One of the base communities we visited had become a safe haven for Salvadoreños burned by the napalm. The scar tissue on their exposed arms and faces was horrific, painful to even look at. The napalm had been dropped from government helicopters which, along with the napalm, had been provided by the US government. Our so-called “freedom fighters” had been very effective angels of death.

But how had these folks survived? Their burns had clearly been third degree, life-threatening wounds. “The Cuban doctors saved us,” they responded to a person.

Suddenly my own world spun out of orbit. I was taken back to my childhood in Central Florida where we fourth graders were being taught to duck and cover, to stick our heads in our desks when we heard the explosion of nuclear bombs to prevent our eyes from being put out by glass and debris. And over and over we were reminded that the bombs in Castro’s Cuba were only a mere 90 minutes from us. To paraphrase the question Jesus’ disciples pose about becoming his disciples in John’s Gospel, How could anything good come out of Havana?

Later that afternoon we visited a base community named for the daughter of the housekeeper of the Jesuit professors at the University of Central America who had been slaughtered along with her mother and the priests by paramilitary assassins trained in and armed by the US funded and directed School of the Americas. One of the villagers saw us coming, raced up and took my hand and said, “Come with us, we want to show you something.”

Photo by Amando Trull/WAMU

At the top of the hill there was a fuselage of a helicopter which had been raised up and affixed to the tops of a copse of trees. This was the helicopter that had dropped the napalm on them, they told us, shot down by an FMLN rebel rocket. My former LA cop (and now bishop) classmate looked over the helicopter and immediately noted its origin: “It’s a Hughey. It’s one of ours,” he said.

Again, my world went spinning out of control. It was no longer possible to avoid the implications of the revelations of this day. It was the Cuban doctors, the people from the country I had learned to hate and mistrust, who had been the agents of healing here. And it was the people from my own country, the American “security” agents who had taught the military and paramilitary these techniques of terrorism and supplied them with the weaponry to carry it out, who had been the angels of death.

For the remainder of my time in El Salvador I struggled to come to grips with how these embattled people who housed us, fed us and so graciously shared their lives with us could even countenance citizens of the country which had done so much harm to their families, friends and communities. But when I asked that question, I was told repeatedly, “Your government is one thing. Your people are another. We love your people even as we fear your government.”

 Clearly, it is possible to separate the people of a country from the leadership who purports to speak for them and act on their behalf. The needs of the suffering to which every follower of Jesus is called to respond do not go away because the religious leaders feel the need to “exercise [their] muscle” in an international body.

There is no small amount of irony in the recognition that as concerns about how the American church deals with issues of sexuality have become the obsession of the Global South bishops, it is the faithful work of first world projects, many of them led and funded by American Episcopalians, which have sought to respond to the many needs of the peoples of the Global South. Daily these volunteers directly confront the nightmares of HIV, poverty, a flood of war refugees and massive environmental degradation which threaten to swallow up the very people the bishops supposedly represent and they often do so at no small risk to their own lives.

Love in conflict with power often leads to crucifixion

Jerry ended his note to me with this statement: “We are not about to abandon our relationships with South Sudanese because of the actions of the primates.” I suspect that’s true of every American partner of a Global South people including the work my own parish is doing in the Diocese of Kondoa, Tanzania. This will hardly be the first time the imperative of loving one’s neighbor as oneself has trumped the imperatives of religious authorities intent on reassuring themselves of their own importance.

But it is essential to remember that when love comes into conflict with power, the result is often some form of crucifixion. As Massachusetts Bishop Barbara Harris once remarked, “They didn’t kill Jesus for asking the little children to come to him.” The question that we Episcopalians are now answering is simply how much our hard won principles are worth to us.

In that light, it is highly encouraging to see our own leadership’s response to this action by the Anglican bishops. The Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church, Michael Curry, has been very candid in acknowledging the painfulness of the bishops’ actions as well as the resolute determination of the American church to both remain present in the Communion even as it refuses to walk away from the progressive changes in our church polity which prompted the suspension in the first place.

This is not the outcome we expected, and while we are disappointed, it’s important to remember that the Anglican Communion is really not a matter of structure and organization. The Anglican Communion is a network of relationships that have been built on mission partnerships; relationships that are grounded in a common faith; relationships in companion diocese relationships; relationships with parish to parish across the world; relationships that are profoundly committed to serving and following the way of Jesus of Nazareth by helping the poorest of the poor, and helping this world to be a place where no child goes to bed hungry ever. That’s what the Anglican Communion is, and that Communion continues and moves forward.

This has been a disappointing time for many, and there will be heartache and pain for many, but it’s important to remember that we are still part of the Anglican Communion. We are the Episcopal Church, and we are part of the Jesus Movement, and that Movement goes on, and our work goes on. And the truth is, it may be part of our vocation to help the Communion and to help many others to grow in a direction where we can realize and live the love that God has for all of us, and we can one day be a Church and a Communion where all of God’s children are fully welcomed, where this is truly a house of prayer for all people. And maybe it’s a part of our vocation to help that to happen. (“Presiding Bishop and Primate speaks on actions at Primates Meeting” ENS,  January 15, 2016)

In the bigger picture, while the actions of the Anglican bishops are hurtful to an American church whose commitment to inclusivity has been hard won and painfully realized over the last half century, they are simultaneously a source of shame for the bishops who pounded out this resolution. In a world where sexism and homophobia are increasingly unacceptable vestiges of cultural understandings whose time has passed, drawing a line in the sand to hold onto values no longer seen as tenable by increasing numbers of people today is a losing gambit. This is particularly true of the rising Millennial generation who want no part of any church which confuses common social prejudices with religion. This reality, too, is slowly but surely coming to a Global South church near you.

The leadership of the churches of the southern hemisphere, whose politics reveal a failure to develop beyond the limited understandings of the evangelical missionaries of the 19th CE who planted those churches, will increasingly find themselves within circled wagons talking only among themselves. Such a reality will make an ever greater mockery of any claims to be a world-wide communion.

Perhaps the witness of the American Presiding Bishop and bishops from the churches in Canada, the UK, New Zealand and Australia can make a difference in this reality over time. If the experience of The Episcopal Church is any indication, it will be a long, painful process. There may be multiple crucifixions before this is over. 

I admire Michael Curry’s sense of dedication to this calling. I wish him well in the process. And my prayers, contributions and energies will remain with all of those who seek to love mercy, do justice and walk humbly with G-d among the peoples of the Global South.

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

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

Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)

Friday, January 15, 2016

Keeping a Safe Distance from an Abusive Mother Church

 The news from the UK is that the convened primates of the Anglican churches throughout the world have voted to suspend the US Episcopal Church from that body for three years:

A majority of Anglican primates Jan. 14 asked that the Episcopal Church, for a period of three years, “no longer represent us on ecumenical and interfaith bodies, should not be appointed or elected to an internal standing committee and that while participating in the internal bodies of the Anglican Communion, they will not take part in decision making on any issues pertaining to doctrine or polity.”

Photo: Matthew Davies/Episcopal News Service

In short, we American Episcopalians have essentially just been voted off the Anglican Island.

Just the Latest in a Long History of Abuse

This trial separation was less severe than the permanent divorce a large minority of Anglican primates (arch or presiding bishop of a national church) wanted. A vote on a canonically questionable motion for outright suspension of the American church failed on a 15-20 vote. But the closeness of the vote clearly demonstrates the animosity toward the American (and to a lesser extent the Canadian and English) church brewing in many corners of the worldwide Anglican tradition, predominately among its southern hemisphere churches.

Of course, this is hardly the first time that our bishops, clergy and laity have been run over roughshod at Canterbury. At the Lambeth Council gathering of Anglican bishops in 1998, American bishops were shouted down from the floor and essentially silenced during the debates over the final resolutions passed by the conference. Newark Bishop John Spong was widely castigated for describing such behaviors and the attitudes they reveal as tribalistic even as an African bishop physically assaulted openly gay Anglican clergy and sought to cast out their “demons” outside the conference halls.

Hearings allowing gay and lesbian Anglicans to offer their testimony to the committee on sexuality were cancelled while self-proclaimed “healed” gays and lesbians, many who were not Anglican, were provided space and time to speak. For most Americans present, it was a nuclear nightmare.

The bone of contention with American prelates in 1998 was two-fold: One, the American church’s proceeding with the ordination of women clergy and bishops and, two, the steady movement toward insuring first class citizenship for LBGTQ people in the American church already underway then which came to culmination last summer in the General Convention’s vote to perform same sex marriages. Women bishops were particularly poorly treated at the 1998 Lambeth, greeted with demeaning sexist commentary and often not permitted to speak. The shabby treatment of the American presiding bishop, Katherine Jefferts-Schori, by these bishops in the past decade, has been an ongoing expression of this sexist behavior since then.

The slow but steady decision making to end systemic discrimination against LBGTQ people by the American church has been matched by the increasing level of vitriol against American Episcopalians in the more conservative quarters of Anglicanism around the world. In the US a handful of bishops and parishes left The Episcopal Church (TEC) over the decision to marry same sex couples following similar minor departures by those opposed to women’s ordination and prayer book revisions in the past. Last year, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the spiritual (though not juridical) head of the communion, announced that the 2018 Lambeth Conference would be cancelled in the face of widespread opposition among African bishops to even meet with American prelates because of TEC’s stance on LBGTQ issues.

At the same time, the occupants of the primacy of Canterbury have routinely engaged in politics of avoidance which have largely served to exacerbate this pattern. The abusive behaviors of bishops at Lambeth 1998 occurred under the watch of George Carey, himself an evangelical, whose tacit agreement with the bullying tactics of the gathering’s conservative quarters allowed them to occur with abandon. Rowan Williams, Carey’s successor, spent the entirety of his archbishopric desperately trying to keep the fragile communion from coming apart on his shift, empowering conservatives to make ever greater demands on the body. Now Justin Welby has called a meeting of the bishops after just saying he would not convene Lambeth two years from now for fear of schism only to see the Americans voted off the island.

Whatever other qualities are required of an Archbishop of Canterbury, integrity in the face of demagoguery and courage in the face of existential crisis are clearly not among them. The apology offered by the current Archbishop to LBGTQ persons today may be comforting but it occurs in the wake of yet another round of institutional gay bashing this very week.

Photo: Episcopal News Service

Only Certain Fathers Actually Know Best

Of course, it is hardly unusual to see conservative religious people confusing religion with common social prejudices.  Whatever else one might want to say about sexism and homophobia, they always remain common social prejudices in both inception and in substance. It’s hardly surprising that people with fear and control-driven constructs of religion would hold prejudices that reflect an abiding fear of those who are different.

Projecting these prejudices into the mind of G-d exacerbates the sin of failing to love one’s neighbor as oneself with the blasphemy of attempting to require G-d to do the same. Writer Anne Lamott hits the nail on the head regarding attempts to rationalize this disingenuous misanthropy with her observation “You can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

The goal of the conservative bishops over the last two decades has always been to whip the American and egalitarian Canadian and English bishops into line. The basic demand was that these churches not proceed with any plans to lift centuries old discrimination against women and LBGTQ people, both lay and ordained, until the other bishops agreed to permit them to do so. Like most conservative thinking, this reflects no small amount of paternalism:

Father knows best but only certain fathers.

Mixed in with this paternalism is no small amount of well-deserved resentment toward the northern hemisphere churches generally and the American church specifically regarding its own paternalistic tendencies historically. The majority of Anglican missionaries to the southern hemisphere came from evangelical quarters of the church whose evangelizing always begins with the incredibly self-serving presumption “We have what you need.” Indeed, the recent tying of huge “gifts” of American evangelical money to Anglican support for homophobic legislation in numerous jurisdictions in Africa has made that presumption quite literal.

Spiritualties Talking Past One Another

The vote of the bishops also reveals disparate levels of spirituality in conflict. Religiosity based in believing is the lowest level of any spirituality. It is dualistic by definition (us v. them, right v. wrong), tribal in its function (true believers v. the great unwashed) and highly exclusive in result. Belief-driven spiritualties seek to nail down the mystery of the divine into manageable tenets of belief and resulting behavioral regulations. Those who buy into the set of beliefs become the self-appointed guardians of absolute truth and those who do not must by definition be seen as anathema. Once we presume that our god holds our understandings, then by definition that god has no obligation to anyone outside the tribe and neither do the members of that tribe. This is both the most common expression of religion historically and its most dangerous.

While mystic spiritualties which focus on Being are the highest level of spiritual development at which few human beings ever arrive, Belonging-based religion is the middle level of spirituality. It is less focused on the litmus tests for true believers and more focused on membership, being a part of something larger than oneself. In the terms of sociologist Ernst Troeltsch, belonging based religion is more likely to be expressed in denominational terms than the more sectarian belief-driven expressions.

In theory, this notion of catholicity in its truest sense - universality - which writer James Joyce described as “Here comes everybody,” is the concept which originally under laid the Anglican Communion. Disparate churches held together by a common history rooted in the British Empire and a common prayer using variations of a Book of Common Prayer, the communion was designed to be less a body driven by power - like its counterpart in Rome - than a body driven by desires for communion, shared prayer and work. Sadly, today’s Anglican Communion has lost sight of that original vision, its majority invoking the control issues of a more tribal expression of spirituality, as the statement from the majority of bishops well reflects.

I have to admit that the Presiding Bishop of TEC has done a very fine job at adeptly responding to this latest round of abuse from his fellow prelates. Refusing to bow to the demands that TEC turn back the hands of time as a condition of first class citizenship, Michael Curry said yesterday:

"Our commitment to be an inclusive church is not based on a social theory or capitulation to the ways of the culture, but on our belief that the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross are a sign of the very love of God reaching out to us all. While I understand that many disagree with us, our decision regarding marriage is based on the belief that the words of the Apostle Paul to the Galatians are true for the church today: All who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, for all are one in Christ."
TEC’s commitment to inclusivity is reflected by the fact that Curry is an African-American in a predominately white, Anglo tradition and follows the first woman presiding bishop of any church within the Anglican Communion. His belonging focused church is a stark contrast to the more sectarian believing focused Anglican churches where toeing the party line – in this case the relegation to second class citizenship of women and LBGTQ people - is the litmus test for one’s ongoing place at the table.

As in many cases where parties of differing developmental stages encounter one another, there is little real contact between their divergent patterns of thinking. As theorists from Fowler and Peck to Kohlberg and Wilber have observed, those operating out of higher stages of understanding – which both incorporate and transcend those stages they have already passed through - inevitably understand the thinking of lower stages because they once shared it. But the reverse is rarely if ever true.

In short, these folks are talking past one another and, absent some kind of event to destabilize the lower stage thinking enough to prompt further growth and development, are likely to continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

Withdrawing from an Abusive Family

To its credit, the leadership of TEC has endured now two decades of abuse from their supposed brothers in Christ with amazing dignity and aplomb. I am not sure I could do the same, frankly. To the degree that the Anglican Communion can be compared to family systems, there is a point where the abused must claim its own dignity, insist it be respected and, failing that, respond in whatever manner is necessary to place enough distance between abused and abuser that the pattern of abuse can be arrested.

I think of a young man I know who came out as a gay man while in college. Unlike my parents who dealt with my own extended coming out process much more healthily than I did, his parents, who are fundamentalists, did not deal with this reality well. “They chose the church over their child,” the young man often said. His final years of high school were stormy and when he got a chance to escape to college, he did – all the way out to the west coast, “As far away as I could get,” in his own words.

His contact with his family is limited these days. He generally leaves a phone message on holidays and actually talks with his family members once in a while. He has briefly visited only twice in the last  eight years. Otherwise, he has chosen to move on with his life, marrying his life partner and making the west coast his home. I doubt there will ever be much more substantial contact with any of his family. It is a very tragic loss for all the parties involved.

There are a lot of LBGTQ people who know this story only too well. At some point, they have had to choose between their own dignity – if not sanity – and their abusive families. And when churches reveal themselves to be abusers in institutional form, LBGTQ people have often walked away from their once spiritual homes in sorrow. Respect for their very dignity demands nothing less and under the circumstances, it was the most loving thing they could do.

It is ironic that TEC as a whole now finds itself in the role that so many of its own women clergy and LBGTQ members have had to endure historically. Discrimination has become very real for one of America’s ultimate establishment religious bodies which once was described as “the Republican Party at prayer.” The question now before it is how it should respond to this new reality.

I am an ordained clergyman who stands with one foot still inside the institution
at the very farthest margins of this church, unable to function as priest in one of the last inveterately homophobic dioceses in TEC. As such, I think the young man’s example mentioned above offers some direction for our national church.

While I strongly believe that we always need each other and that devolving into circled wagons of the like-minded is always potentially dangerous, for TEC there is a question of how much more mental and spiritual energy should be poured down this black hole of fear, anger, ignorance and obsession with control. While admittedly it sounds more than a little cheesy to say this, the reality is that the Anglican Communion needs the American church much more than the reverse. TEC resources and personnel have long helped keep the Communion afloat. What TEC does NOT need is any more holier-than-thou pronouncements of perhaps well-intentioned prelates whose own constructions of religion are so brittle that they require the ongoing affirmation of everyone on board with them to actually continue being able to believe them.

Truth is, there are a lot of people who need the undivided attention of TEC right here at home and in the Latin American nations where it has been transplanted. There are a lot of needs for spiritual wisdom in a nation which has lost its way and currently seems intent on splitting at its seams and disintegrating into internecine fighting. The opportunities to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with G-d have probably never been greater here at home and they cry out for attention. At the bottom line, TEC has better things to do with its time, energy and resources than to worry about currying the favor of bible-thumping petty tyrants.

Sadly, it may be that, like the young man and his family, TEC will need to find a way to maintain enough distance from its abusive family that its dignity can be respected and its abuse limited. Indeed, that may prove the only means it can remain a part of a body whose current state makes a mockery of its very name, Communion. It is a sad reality our church faces in the face of the devolution of this once venerable tradition. But it is a reality we must take seriously and prayerfully.  

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.
For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Saying Goodbye to a Purgatorial Year - Part III

[concluded from Parts I, II]

In many ways, the next chapter of my life began when I was accepted into the Living School of Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, NM. Ironically, the school is a mixed mode presentation with intensive week-long on-site sessions in the fall and the spring and online readings, video lectures and discussions in between. In addition, our entering cohort of 160 students was broken into groups of 10. Our group, which has dubbed ourselves “My People,” meets by video conferencing about every six weeks to check in and discuss our process.

But the reading, lectures and discussions are only a part of this process. We are asked to engage in daily meditation, preferably using the Centering Prayer which arose out of the thought of Thomas Merton. The idea is that through contemplation we connect to our true selves, rooted in the G_d who created us, and from that beginning place then we move to action in the world around us to serve the good creation to which we are all connected.

Not unlike so many of my former students, while I have found the material very interesting, I have found it difficult to keep pace with the schedule without the human contact and rhythm of live classes. There is a whole dimension of engagement that is simply lost in online settings. Many of us simply need human companionship to learn.  

I also have found it difficult to consistently engage in contemplative prayer. On a good day I manage to settle myself, sit for the 20 minutes and be present with the divine. Other days, I have to seek non-dual consciousness in my garden as I pull weeds, clip bushes and plant avocado seeds, hands and bare feet blending into damp earth and vegetation. I also seek the divine in my daily walk around Lake Underhill where I take time to stop and watch the wading birds, the migrating flocks, the cypress trees with their aprons of knees rising from the muck and the homeless people who sometimes sleep along the banks of the lake. Amidst all the craziness we endure each day, it is still a beautiful world.

So, depending on how you define contemplation, I guess I’m doing OK. Overall, I give myself a C on this process. I’m taking the ideas seriously and thinking about them even as I am about three weeks behind in my reading and viewing. I am engaging the group process well. And if you look at the whole picture of my contemplative process, perhaps I’m doing OK there as well. But I do know I am growing.

Outside my commitments to the Living School, life in retirement has meant slowing down. I have spent hours sifting and sorting through the boxes of materials I brought home from work and others which have sat untouched since we moved them from storage back into our rebuilt home in 2008 four years after Hurricane Charley destroyed it. It has been an emotional process going through boxes of letters and photographs, cards from loved ones who have died, buttons and badges from conferences once thought to be earth-shattering only to find myself throwing their notes and materials into the recycle bin. I find myself smiling, laughing, feeling my stomach clench, weeping, sometimes in rapid order.

Life reviews are never easy. 

I am just beginning the process of weeding out and organizing the born-again garage that now serves as my library. Books are stacked by topic on the floor with boxes of books I no longer need in my car enroute to libraries which will actually take them, bookstores which might sell them or collection stations in shopping center parking lots which promise to “recycle” them. (I don't want to think too long about that...)

My plan is to organize my books and the materials I have retained into a working order so that I may actually begin writing the books I’ve long promised myself I would write. I long ago realized that I have led a rather unusual life and have some insights that many other people simply may not have. 

Perhaps there is some wisdom there that can be shared with those who are willing to consider it. I’ll never know unless I try.

I hope to write about the concerns that have absorbed my attention over my lifetime – education, spirituality, and what it means to be human in specific context of America at the 21st CE. I hope to write about the unusual life experiences I have had growing up in a small town, teaching school in yet another small town and my observations from many visits to Latin America. I suspect writing will be an important part of the next stage of my life.

I am grateful that my public scholarship endeavors are able to continue with gigs at the Orange County Library System and the Florida Humanities Council. These are important lifelines to a public life I once so happily led which allow me to periodically emerge from my voluntary isolation in this sabbatical year.

What will happen after this year is not clear to me. I sense that something new and challenging looms on the horizon but has not made itself clear yet. Though I grow anxious to know what lies ahead, increasingly I am taken back to my experience of August 1991, driving across the brilliant, sunny wheat fields of South Dakota enroute to seminary in California, with no guarantee of ordination and no idea of where all this might be going, earnestly praying to G-d to “Tell me what this is all about. I have to know.” The answer then, as now, was always couched in a chuckle: “If I told you, you might not do it.” And, trust me, knowing what I know now, that was probably true.

I followed him, bearing my brow like one whose thoughts have weighed him down, who bends as if he were the semiarch that forms a bridge, and then I heard: “Draw near; the pass is here,” said in a manner so benign and gentle, as in our mortal land, one cannot hear. And I: “What makes me move with such misgiving is a new vision: it has so beguiled me that I cannot relinquish thoughts of it.” Now go your way: I’d not have you stop longer… - Purgatorio Canto 19

Retirement has meant time to engage what I love – my home full of books and art from around the world, the beautiful jungle garden surrounding our home and shielding this temporarily anti-social and exhausted ex-teacher from the world. 

It has meant the wonderful company of Oscar, the dachshund who loves to meditate with his Daddy; Daisy, the beagle who lies at my feet as I write these missives; Romero, the black cat who thinks he’s actually a panther; Magdalena, my grey tabby, who is the house drama queen; and Frida, my little orange tabby, a once-feral cat who has become her Daddy’s little golden dew drop, one of the gifts I most cherish from my time at the university where she had been abandoned. 

It has meant time to spend with my Dad who turns 89 in March. He is holding his own despite his loneliness without my mother and the occasional health problems that make his walking increasingly difficult. I find myself cherishing the time I spend at our homestead which he, my brother and I carved out a thicket 45 years ago, woods which even in rural Sumter County, are now beginning to give way to shopping centers and tract housing. I am always amazed to see the stars in the night skies there, stars I knew on a first name basis during my childhood, the same stars that are largely invisible in the downtown core of an urban area of 2.5 million where we live.

It has also meant time to spend with my siblings and their families. My nephews and one niece are growing up, the youngest now 15. My brother, David, also finds himself at a turning point in life as his wife, Rose, struggles with chronic illness and he seeks new employment after his local computer services company closed their Orlando operations. My sister, Carole, and her fiancé, Gene are doing well, and Carole continues to excel in her leadership of the Pace School in Ocala.

Though my circle of local friends has greatly dwindled over these last few years through deaths and people moving away, I am still able to spend time with people whose friendships are dear to me. Many of those friendships center around my parish life at St. Richards Episcopal which continues to amaze me with the many beautiful souls in its diverse congregation and the opportunities our lives together continually provide to grow individually and ultimately to change the world together.

Sam Coverston 88th Birthday, Ruby Tuesday, Orlando

Perhaps the greatest joy of retirement has proven to be the increased time I have to spend with this man with whom I take these yearly walks down the beach, my life partner of now 42 years and legal husband of five years. It’s amazing what a sudden loss of ongoing extraneous stress can do for a relationship. It was largely Andy’s encouragement that tipped the balance in favor of my retirement even as he continues to enjoy his work at Valencia College where he is valued and appreciated currently planning to remain employed until 2019.

We find ourselves eating at home a lot more these days. I enjoy cooking our dinners and eating together accompanied only by our 
menagerie, able to look out our windows to the lush vegetation of the garden outside. It is a joy to have time to take walks around our lake together, to talk about what is going on in our lives.


One of the results of time to reflect is the recognition of the many things for which I am grateful. Truth be told, I have never lived a particularly ordinary life. I have had opportunities to go and see things few people will ever have. I have had chances to learn and grow that have left me with insights that few people will ever have the chance to develop. And despite the difficulties that unusual souls like my own confront in the world they encounter, I have had the gift of loving people around me from my very beginnings. I have a loving, supportive family that is hardly a given for anyone, a husband without whose love and support I could not have become who I am and a wealth of beloved friends who love me despite my craziness and call me on my shit when I go off the rails.

As I often tell myself these days, I am a very fortunate man. And I take none of that for granted.

The same numerology site that confirmed the purgatorial year I was experiencing has predicted that, like the year I have personally just stumbled through, the coming year for our world in 2016 also adds up to a nine year: a year of completion, unraveling, and letting go of the old to make space for change. I sense that our world is on the threshold of enormous change.

I do not expect that change to occur gently or gradually. I believe our country and our world will look very different from its appearance today in a very few years. Standing at the brink of Purgatory, our path ahead can look very daunting. 

For those of you who have made it all the way through this rambling recounting of the past year, I thank you. If you have any thoughts about any of the ideas I have raised here, I’d love to hear from you. I strongly hope that our paths will cross this year. But, one of the bitter lessons I learned this past year is that we are not guaranteed anything in the coming year as the recent death of my dear friend, Ron Talley, readily demonstrates.

Ron was one of the sweetest human beings I have ever known. I always adored him from our days working together at Disney’s Magic Kingdom. His indefatigable passion for life was inspiring and contagious. I had not seen him in 25 years and had just located him on Facebook. He had come home from Boston to deal with some health concerns.

I had to beg off the invitation to his 58th birthday celebration as I recovered from my skin cancer surgery. When he failed to respond to my invitation to have coffee the following week I went to his site to check in with him. There I found the notice of his memorial service. As big and dear a heart as Ron had, it sadly proved unable to keep him alive for more than 58 years.

Life is not a given. Last year, the awareness of increasingly fewer days ahead of me than behind me drove me to leave a job that had taken the thing I loved most in the world and making it a source of my greatest misery. But, in the wake of that meltdown, it now inspires me to be open to what is yet to come, ready to answer whatever new calling my life may provide me. I await that calling with bated breath.

Loving relationships are not a given, either. 
One of the many ways I have realized that I enjoy what Buddhists call a fortunate birth is the love I have felt from my family and my many friends over the years. Even if our paths do not cross this coming year, please know that I cherish the life we have held in common. I am the person I have become because of people like you and for that, I thank you.

May the coming year be good to you and all the many lives you will touch this year. May you weather the coming year of completion, unraveling, and letting go with gratitude and aplomb. Blessings to you and those you love from all the folks at the New Coverleigh Zoological Gardens in the heart of Orlando, Florida.  

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

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

Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)