Monday, May 29, 2017

When Earth’s Axis Shifted Under My Feet

Forty three years ago this weekend, a young man said something to me that was totally unexpected. 

It came from out of the blue. It left me breathless. And it would change my life forever.

Under the Influence 

He was my big brother in the Kappa Sigma fraternity at the University of Florida, the same fraternity my father and the uncle I was named for had belonged to. The back of my jersey read Covey 3. He was working that summer in South Florida but had come up for the weekend. So I took him to a party thrown by the staff of the Alligator, the student paper at UF for which I was a reporter.

Alligator parties were notoriously industrial strength and this one was no exception. There was no shortage of booze but that was hardly all that was available. At the time the region had its own brand of locally grown marijuana called Gainesville Green readily available from the Micanopy Marijuana Grower’s League just 10 miles down the highway from campus. 

This night’s supply was particularly potent. We called it Gangster Weed. 

We’d only been partying about a half hour when I noticed that my big brother wasn’t doing so well. He was laughing at inappropriate times and occasionally crying for no apparent reason. The woman I was living with at the time who had hosted the party was worried and suggested I might want to take him upstairs just in case he was going to get sick. 

We went upstairs and I had him lie down. I told him I’d be right downstairs if he needed me, and then went to the door. “I’ll check back on you in a few minutes.”

“Don’t leave me alone,” he said. “Please. Stay here with me a little while. Please.” 

So I stayed. And within minutes, a lifetime of repression from living in the gall bladder of the South, Augusta, Georgia, (“They call it Disgusta back home,” he said) came bubbling up. 

At one point he began talking about a high school football player, a classmate whom he had admired greatly. Seems that one night this star athlete had wrapped his car around a big live oak in the front yard of my big brother’s grandfather’s house. 

“I’m really sorry,” I said. 

He went on to describe visiting his grave to mourn but always when no one else was around. I just listened as he told me the story between sobs. After he had calmed down, I asked, “So what is going on with you tonight? And why are you telling me all these things?” 

“Because tonight I realized that I love you as much as I loved him.”

I swear the axis of the Earth shifted at that moment.

Bear in mind this was 1974. Fraternity brothers did not tell each other that they loved each other. That kind of talk could get you kicked out of your house in a heartbeat. 

Or worse.

“Do you think you can sleep a little bit?” I asked. “I need to go back down to the party.” He said no but he thought he could drive home at that point. I was dubious but he persisted and soon thereafter he came downstairs, made his apologies and took off.

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” he said. And out he went into the night.

I was absolutely wrecked. And I proceeded to get even more wrecked the minute the door closed behind him.

He Wreaked of Establishment

Truth be told, it had taken me awhile to even like this young man. He came from a wealthy family in Georgia and his clothes and car evidenced that. He had come to UF by way of Mercer University, a snotty private school in central Georgia. Worse yet, his family was Baptist!

They belonged to the Augusta Country Club of Masters Tournament fame. He spoke of watching Arnold Palmer practice his putting game during the Masters across the brick wall separating his home from the neighbors’. His house was at the top of a street named Chipandy Drive on which his developer father had built all the lavish homes of up and coming Augustans. (Andy’s older brother’s name was Chip.) Andy was the baby of the family, boyishly handsome with beautiful skin, golden blonde hair, brown eyes. 

He wreaked of Establishment. 

Indeed, he was everything I was not – oldest child of a professional middle-class family who had to rely on scholarships, loans and part-time work to attend college. I’d come to UF by way of a community college, hailing from a small town in Central Florida, completely at home in the woods where I grew up. And there were few places where I felt more uncomfortable than country clubs - where Rotarians and Kiwanis Clubs met – except for Baptist churches. 

Truth be told, in the summer of 1974, I was more of a fading hippie than anything else. Anything that even remotely smelled of Establishment was suspect in my book.

But over time, I began to realize that first impressions were not reliable when it came to this young man. He was soft-spoken and had developed a highly introverted interactive style over his formative years in Georgia. This, no doubt, served to protect his incredibly gentle spirit, thoughtful mind and the good heart that he only showed to those he trusted. And he had come to Florida precisely to escape the very things I had wrongly judged him for – the racist, classist Baptist matrix he had endured so much of his life. 

I knew he had grown to like me despite my hippie self-righteousness. And I soon decided I was lucky to have him for a big brother, the other possibilities largely being the hive minded business and pharmacy majors common to most fraternities of the 1970s when being Greek on America’s college campuses was decidedly not cool. Indeed, I had joined primarily to please my father. 

But over the months, I began to realize my feelings about him were not simply fraternal. And I had absolutely no idea of how to understand or to deal with what I was feeling. 

I was dating a beautiful, smart young woman I’d met in community college. We dreamed dreams of my becoming a lawyer and us both going to work in state government, living in one of the many neo-antebellum miniature Taras dotting the hills surrounding Tallahassee and raising little Stepford children. 

I loved her deeply. But more importantly, this was the way things were supposed to be. 

But they wouldn’t be that way. It was a hard lesson to learn that love alone would not be enough. My girlfriend figured it out first and left me right out of college. She ultimately did realize all of her dreams but with another young man from another fraternity. The unraveling of the dreams she and I had shared began that Memorial Day weekend with the revelations of an intoxicated big brother at an Alligator party. 

By the point, Andy told me that he loved me, I realized that I was falling in love with him as well. I denied it. I told myself it wasn’t true -  it couldn’t be true. But that night I was brought face-to-face with my darkest secrets.

Now what?

Twice in as many days.

My roommate and I went down to the pool at the apartment complex the next day to swim. I’ve often found that swimming is one of the few comforts available for raging hangovers and Lord knows I had a real whopper that next day. 

She asked what had happened upstairs. “Everyone was worried about him,” she said. 

“With good reason,” I said. 

I told her the story of what had happened. She asked what I thought about it. I said, “I am just praying he won’t remember any of it. He was pretty loaded.”
Just at that moment as if on cue, up walked Andy. My friend swam to the other end of the pool. 

“I’m just going to leave you two to talk,” she said. 

“Thanks a lot,” I muttered under my breath.

“So you got home OK last night,” I said. 

“Yep. I told you I was all right to drive.”

Figuring it better to not postpone the inevitable, I plunged right in: “So do you remember what you told me last night? 


“All of it?” 


“And did you mean it….” (gulp….)


Once again, I felt the axis of the Earth shifting beneath me. Twice in as many days.

What Advice Would You Have Given Yourself?

Now, flash forward 43 years. 

Saturday night over Thai food and Malbec at one of our favorite neighborhood places, we remembered that night long ago and the 43 years since then. They have been challenging to say the least. 

We have lived apart from each other five different times for a year or more. There have been other people in our lives, both male and, in my case, female as well. Despite Woody Allen’s attempt at humor that having your sexual orientation fall close to the middle of the scale doubles your chances for a date on Friday night, truth be told, it can be very, very confusing to be bisexual in a homophobic culture like our own. The pressure is always to pretend that the part of yourself that doesn’t meet the norm doesn’t exist. 

It took me awhile to figure out who I was and who I loved. Thank G-d for Andy’s patience.

We survived the loss of our home to a hurricane resulting in a painful four year process of rebuilding. We have moved numerous times all over the state from north to south and back to central as well as across the country to California and back. We learned to endure the creative hostility of his Baptist parents even as my own family embraced Andy from the beginning as one of their own. 

Seven years ago we celebrated the end of America’s discriminatory marriage laws that allowed us to finally become legally married,  an event that took place on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court under the inscription “Equal Justice Under Law.”  (“We’re here to get ours,” this former lawyer remarked) 

Like many older gay couples, we now celebrate two anniversaries, one for when we agreed to be a couple and the other for when we got legal. Indeed, it was the concern for legal issues from hospital visitations to the ability to make legal decisions at the end of life that prompted our decision to get married. 

As we laughed and occasionally lapsed into painful silence as we remembered our 43 improbable years together, I asked a question that had been on my mind a lot recently. “If you could go back and give some advice to your then 21 year old self that night, what would it be?” 

Andy agreed to answer it only if I did the same. Between the two of us, here’s what came up in the conversation:

·         Be patient. You have a lot of growing up yet to do. A lot! This will be painful at times. Sometimes it may seem like there is no way ahead. But you can make it through if you will work at it.

·         You are going to have to figure a lot of things out on your own. There are no books for you to read and there are no public examples for you to emulate. If anything, you’ve been taught to lie and hide your lives together. Your love will be anathema to most people for at least the first half of your lives together. You really are on your own. But you can get through. 

·         Hold onto each other. There are some major challenges that are coming that you have no way of knowing yet. They will shake you and your relationship to your core. People are going to be petty and nasty to you because they don’t understand you and don’t want to. But you will have each other.

·         You’ll need to be careful. Fearful people can be cruel. Don’t presume the best of people, particularly those you don’t know. Your lives could be in danger. Never underestimate them. Fear and ignorance make for a toxic cocktail.

·         Ignore the people who arrogantly presume to speak for G-d at your expense as best you can. You’ll find your own way to G-d’s presence only to discover G_d was there waiting for you all along. And you’ll realize that their willingness to invoke the powers of heaven to vilify and destroy you are little more than an attempt to baptize their own fears and prejudices. They point toward gods not worth worshipping and religions not worth respecting. 

·         It’s going to take a long, long time to get to the point where your love for each other will feel solid, stable and mature. You’re engaged in a life-long process of on-job-training here. But your relationship can get there if you just keep trying. 

·         Don’t look now but before it’s all over there will be a number of people who will look to you for a model of how such a relationship can make it against the odds. You may not have asked for this role but this was never just about you. Take that responsibility seriously.

·         Finally, don’t give up. Ever. Your love is worth fighting for. It’s worth suffering for. It’s worth waiting for its full blossoming into something absolutely wonderful. 

So, Would I Have Walked Away?

Of course, it’s easy to see these things in retrospect. Hindsight is invariably 20/20. Perhaps it’s better we did not know all of what was to come that night 43 years ago. I’m not sure either of us could have begun to comprehend it, much less have been willing to engage it. My guess is that despite my tendency to enjoy a challenge, had I known what was coming I might well have walked away. 

But here at the other end of that 43 years, I can say that knowing everything I know now, I’d do it all over again. 

I am who I am today largely because I was willing to undertake an unlikely journey with my fraternal big brother that night and stay the course all these years, however imperfectly. I am who I am because he was able to love me into adulthood and wait for me to work through all my many demons even as I afforded him the same opportunities in return. 

As a result, I have known love, understanding and forgiveness that I could never have predicted and perhaps did not always deserve. I have had the unflinching support and inevitably wise counsel of a life partner who has believed in me through all the many undertakings into which I have plunged both of our lives and who has helped me to survive the many disappointments I have met along the way. 

This love has proven to be the most precious component of an unusual, unpredictable life that has been chock full of love, laughter, surprises and sorrows. A love like this is a rare jewel. I never take it for granted. And for this love of my life, I will always be profoundly grateful. 

Happy 43d Anniversary, Andy. This day I give thanks to a very generous G-d for the gift of you and our lives together. 

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)

© Harry Coverston 2017

Thursday, May 25, 2017

“On Earth as in Heaven” - Taking it Seriously

[Sermon preached at St. Richard’s Episcopal, Winter Park, Ascension Day, May 25, 2017)

When I was a teenager growing up in Central Florida, my Dad used to awaken my brother and I early in the morning to take us out to the back of a sprawling cow pasture near our house. Across the pasture there was an unobstructed view of the horizon. With transistor radio in one hand and a camera in the other, we would watch the horizon with its first faint hints of sunrise for a tiny red glare, the fiery lift-off of a rocket from across the state at Cape Kennedy, headed for outer space.

My guess is that a lot of you who grew up in this part of Florida have similar stories. Our lives were filled with the seemingly magical ability of humanity to escape the field of gravity which encircles our Earth and fly away into the solar system taking men to the moon and later taking unmanned flights to the edges of the solar system. 

Ascension was a notion that was very real for Central Floridians.

So imagine my surprise as I sat in a humanities course at Valencia years later watching a film in which scholar of world religions Joseph Campbell discussed the Ascension narrative from Luke’s Gospel. In tonight’s gospel reading, Jesus takes the disciples out to Bethany, withdraws from them and then just takes off, rising into the sky, much like the Saturn rockets taking men to the moon. I’ll never forget Campbell’s assessment of that account:

Given his lift off speed and the time that has elapsed since this event, Jesus is probably passing Saturn’s rings right about now.

Of course Luke is wrestling with a problem that all the Gospel writers are facing: If a crucified Jesus rises from the grave to resume some kind of normal life activities, how does the writer finally get Jesus off the stage? How does Jesus exit the scene?

Mark avoids that problem with his ending at an empty tomb. Matthew ends with Jesus on a mountain preaching while the credits roll. John’s gospel ends with an et cetera clause, saying Jesus did a lot more things but it would take several books to account for them. Among the gospel writers, Luke alone feels the need to have Jesus make a dramatic exit, ascending into the skies like a Saturn rocket.

One of the more regrettable effects of the Enlightenment era with its focus on observable, empirical evidence as the sole arbiter of truth has been the tendency to treat our scriptures as factual accounts recorded by eyewitnesses on the spot. This has been particularly true in Protestant circles whose Reformation, which focused on the authority of the scriptures, occurred on the eve of the Enlightenment. The result has been varying degrees of literalism in the reading of scriptures that were never intended by the communities who generated these writings to be read in that manner.  The point Joseph Campbell was making in his facetious comment about the Ascension was that anytime you take a symbol literally, you kill it and it loses the power that all symbols have to touch us in ways and at depths that literal accounts simply can’t.

Of course, the writers of Luke’s Gospel understood this implicitly. They knew only too well that their targeted audience in the Roman world with its Greek language and rich mythological imagery would understand implicitly that this Ascension of Jesus was not a historical event. It would not show up on the front page of The Jerusalem Times the next day.

The Greek world took for granted gods and goddesses who could descend from the heavens to interact with human beings - sometimes spawning children with human women, offspring who would be seen as both human and divine - only to ascend back into the heavens. Indeed, where might we have heard such a narrative before? Consider the words of our creed: “For us and for our salvation, he came down from heaven….[and then, after his crucifixion and resurrection,] he ascended into heaven.”     

At a very basic level, Luke’s writers knew what images would sell to their Greco-Roman audience. It is a classic example of good marketing – if you want to sell your ideas, use the language and the imagery of your customers’ lifeworld.

Now this is what I would pose to my students at the university were I teaching a class on this Gospel. It is a critical, academic examination of the text being studied. But I believe that there is much more to Luke’s Ascension narrative worth considering.

To begin with, it is critical to note that the Ascension takes place after the crucifixion. Jesus has been subjected to the worst suffering that human beings know how to impose on one another. For his Roman executors, it was a suffering driven by fear, by a grasp for power, by concern for economic privilege combined with an abject disregard for human life. 

When Jesus ascends to be reunited with the G-d from whom he came, he takes the suffering of humanity with him. Not only is it suffering he has experienced first-hand, it is also the very suffering he has devoted his life to addressing - healing the sick, reassuring the poor that G-d loves them and embracing the outcast. In doing these things Jesus challenged the holders of power in his society, those whose privilege was a direct result of that suffering. As Bishop Barbara Harris often says, “There is a reason they killed Jesus and it wasn’t because he asked the little children to come to him.”

Of course, a G-d who is as close to us as the very breath we breathe already knows about human suffering. One of the characteristics of G-d frequently referenced in the Hebrew Scripture is compassion, the ability to suffer with the other. But with the ascension of Jesus back into the heart of G-d, the sufferings of human existence become very real, immediate and inescapable. As a result, the compassion of G-d is now complete. G_d our Creator shares completely in our suffering.

But I believe there is a more important reason the writers of Luke felt the need to remove the resurrected Jesus from the Earth. Luke’s Gospel is the first part of a two volume writing which concludes with the Acts of the Apostles. The Gospel part ends with the disciples atop the Mount of Olives just across the Kidron Valley from Jerusalem. The Acts of the Apostles begins with the disciples walking across that valley, returning to the Upper Room where the followers of Jesus including a number of women are gathered. Immediately they begin the business of shoring up a battered community which has just lost its beloved leader and who face a hostile Temple establishment and a Roman occupying force with the power to annihilate them.

From Luke’s perspective, as long as Jesus was with them, the disciples relied upon him for leadership and guidance. Once he is gone, it is up to the disciples to figure out how to ensure that this Way of Jesus will survive and hopefully thrive. No doubt, the words of Jesus still ring in their ears about a Kingdom of G-d where the poor are blessed, the hungry fed and those who weep will laugh. If that Kingdom is going to come on earth as in heaven, as Jesus taught them – and us - to pray, it will be because his disciples have themselves taken up Jesus’ ministries of healing, lifting up the lowly and embracing the outcasts. And they will assume those ministries knowing that the cost of challenging the values of the Roman Empire - dominating power and the protection of the privilege of the few attained at the expense of the many – may well be the same cross that Jesus himself faced.

This is where the Ascension narrative becomes real for us. We live in a world where access to healing turns on one’s income in a society with more than enough resources to easily treat all of its sick and injured. We live in a world where the lowly are often demonized, where their poverty is attributed to them as somehow a lack of their own initiative and hard work, even as many of them work more than one job with few benefits and whose wages put together still do not produce a living wage. We live in a world in which the outcasts from foreign 

lands and different religions are demonized, the image of G_d they bear lost beneath the caricature of the Other we impose upon them. And we live in a world where one out of three nation-states including our own continue to use the power of the state to kill those just like Jesus who violate their laws, a practice Pope Francis recently recognized to be “a mortal sin.”

Truth be told, the values of the Roman Empire are largely our values. If Jesus descended once again to our world this very night, he would readily recognize the power dynamics and unequal social relations that he would encounter. Indeed, they are very much like the dynamics of the world he left behind that day on the Mount of Olives.  

Jesus entrusted his followers to ensure G-d’s kingdom would come on earth as in heaven. But his Way of Jesus all too quickly became a religion about the Christ, a religion which now comes in 34,000 different denominational flavors. While the religion of Jesus focused on a way of living which recognized duties to oneself, to others, to the good Creation and to the G_d from whom all things come, the religions we have constructed about the Christ have largely focused on the next world and what we must do to ensure ourselves a good afterlife. At a very basic level, these religions are largely about us, not Jesus or the kingdom of G-d he envisioned.

So, what might happen if we took Luke’s Ascension narrative seriously though not literally? What might happen if we realized that in departing from this Earth, Jesus left us in charge of the Way of being the people of G-d he had taught and modeled? What might happen if we took seriously the words we pray with regularity that G-d’s kingdom come on earth as in heaven?

I think I might know. See if these questions sound familiar:

·         Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
·         Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

I hope you recognized them. These are the questions we pose to all those we baptize into the Episcopal Church and at the celebration of every baptism thereafter we recite them together as a community. These questions reflect the very heart of the Way of Jesus. They are the values of Jesus’ kingdom of G-d. And the response to these questions our liturgy asks us to make is simple: I will, with God's help.

Luke’s message of the Ascension is crucial for the followers of Jesus: If there is going to be a Kingdom of G-d, on earth as in heaven as we pray, it will be because we who would follow Jesus prove faithful in living into the Way he modeled, entrusted to us and ultimately gave his life for. Let us answer the call of an ascended Jesus to us this night to be faithful to that Way. Let us remember that while our own affirmative response to that calling must always come first- “I will” - we can never do it alone. We always need God’s help.

Tonight let us answer Jesus’ call to us with this simple response: I will with God’s help. AMEN.

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)

© Harry Coverston 2017