Monday, January 20, 2020

The Prophet Who Fascinated and Terrified Me

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Most of the parades and festivals occurred over the weekend. There’s not a lot to do on this rather cool day here in Central Florida but simply reflect.

I was both fascinated as well as terrified by King during my childhood. Terrified because so many around me found him threatening. Everything about our entire “way of life“ seemed in jeopardy to hear folks my parents’ age talk.

But even then I was already questioning whether that “way of life” was worth preserving. And here is where King fascinated me. He spoke deliberately, choosing his words with care. He endured abuse that I don’t think I could endure even now. He was eloquent. He was passionate. His words made me think. And the crowds he drew suggested he was hitting a nerve in the very soul of an America just starting to come to grips with its malevolent love affair with racism.

By the time I got to high school, King had broadened his vision to include the injustices of the Vietnam War. Now he had become public enemy number one, well beyond the racist backwoods and bayous of the South. King was tackling the behemoth of the military-industrial complex of which Eisenhower, a military man himself, had warned us. He was calling us on the lies we told ourselves about falling dominos and protecting democracy. He knew that the profits of the chemical and munitions companies were being paid in blood of Southeast Asian peasants and American teenagers, teenaged boys like me who were looking at the draft.

King could not stand it. He boldly said, Enough!”

And so they killed him, putting him out of our misery.

A Smoldering Pot Erupts

The news of his assassination traveled quickly around the track meet at Groveland that dark night in April 1968. Groveland had long been the site of racist strife which a mere 19 years previously had erupted into riot that nearly destroyed its black section on the east side of town across the tracks. Before it was over, four young black men falsely accused of raping a white woman would be railroaded into prison, only three of whom would survive to see even a modicum of justice.

By coincidence, my Father happened to be in Groveland the night of those riots. He had come up SR 33 from Polk City to Groveland on his way back to Gainesville where he was a graduate student at the University of Florida only to be greeted by Sheriff Willis McCall, himself a Klansman, his deputies and national guardsmen who had been called in to restore the peace (though not the justice). My Dad often recalled how terrifying it had been to come face to face with soldiers manning a machine gun in the middle of the street and being ordered to turn his car around and head back the direction from which he had come. Groveland was under martial law, the soldiers told him.

My Father did not question their decree, turning his car around to head back the 27 miles to Polk City. He’d need to find a new route back to Gainesville that night.

When news of King’s murder filtered around the stadium that night in Groveland, the tensions that smoldered there on a good day had exploded into outrage. Bands of young men began gathering, picking up rocks, sticks and bottles as they went. Our coach ordered all of us to our bus immediately. The track meet was over.

Thereafter occurred one of the most terrifying moments of my life. The young boys blocked the entrance to the gated parking lot, sticks, bottles and rocks in hand. Our coach, a white man, screamed at us to get down on the floor of the bus and cover our heads. He then screamed out the window “Get out of the way or I’ll run your fucking asses over!”

And then he gunned the engine.

The bus lurched toward the narrow opening in the fence. At the last moment, the young men scattered. But not before launching a volley of bottles, rocks and sticks at the bus, breaking a number of windows. Rocks and bottles came flying through open windows into the bus and onto the floor where we lay huddled. But no one was hurt badly. No one was run over. And suddenly we were free of the confrontation and on our way home.

It was a very quiet half hour bus ride back to our school that night.

This would be the prelude for Days of Rage that would erupt across the country. Entire black business districts of inner cities would be put to the torch. And the repercussions of this angry response would be the exodus of many white residents from the inner cities of our country. The interior of many cities still bear the scars of this moment in our country’s history.

I cannot imagine Martin Luther King, Jr. would have felt honored by this response. But I have no doubt he would have understood it. “Justice delayed is justice denied,” he often said. And his slaying in Memphis so many years ago was simply one point along a seemingly endless line of ongoing justice denied.

The next day at school a young black girl would collapse on the floor in tears when a callous white male classmate came up to her, pointed his fingers at her like a gun, and said “Bang, bang. You’re dead.” We had no riots at our school then though a couple of years later racial tensions would come to a boil over our school mascot, the Rebels, and school song, Dixie. But that day, I felt very little, numb with disbelief and overwhelmed by a very heavy sadness.

Come So Far, So Far Yet to Go

I look back on those tense days of so long ago and sigh. In many ways, we have come so far from the days of segregation and Jim Crow. In other ways, we have so far to go. We live in a time when racism – both that which is unrecognized and disowned by so many as well as that gladly celebrated in this age of Trumpism with its calling of our national Shadow out to play – seems to be making a comeback. In some ways, the journey toward justice feels like it is in reverse.  

The hopes so many of us held that America was gradually coming to grips with its original sins of slavery and the Conquest have been dimmed by marches in Charlottesville and a president who legitimizes white supremacists as “nice people.” The legacy of an ongoing diet of thinly veiled dog whistles and blatant appeals to violence against those designated as enemies has been an explosion of hate crimes across a wide spectrum of non-WASP targets from immigrant children on our borders to mosques and synagogues in our nation’s cities.

I continue to believe that love always wins. But I know it will not just happen on its own. We will not be delivered of our fear and loathing by a deity who swoops down to intervene in our history of racism, doing our hard work for us. If we are to come to grips with our Shadow, we are going to have to look it directly in the eyes. And we don’t have to look far to find it; it resides within the confines of every human soul.

This day I give thanks for the prophetic life and witness of Martin Luther King, Jr. All these years later, he continues to fascinate me though he no longer terrifies me. What does terrify me is the fear driven responses that continue to be evoked by his call for justice, a call that will not and cannot ever go away, no matter how ignored, denied or suppressed it may become. The only way past these fears is through them.

The arc of the moral universe may be long, indeed, but I continue to believe it bends toward justice. This day I pledge to continue doing my part in that struggle.

Happy Birthday, ferocious gentle prophet. 

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)

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. - 
Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993)

 © Harry Coverston, 2020

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Hiding Behind a Green Wall

I ran into a neighbor from down the street at the Winn-Dixie grocery store today. I tried to avoid being seen but she spied me and immediately pulled her cart up next to me.

I would not escape.

The Usual Interrogation

She’s a nice woman, really. She’s totally deaf and I always try to make sure I can see her face and vice versa when we talk so she can read my lips. She’s quite nosey. And she’s not always the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree.

I encounter her whenever I work on the outer perimeter of my jungle which faces onto the street. The moment she spots me she always stops her car in the middle of the street and yells at me. “You!” she always says. Thereupon she begins her usual interrogation about “my buddy” and I and our lives inside the Green Curtain. It’s one of the names I give the jungle I have grown to limit my contact with the world.

I don’t know how to tell her that “my buddy” is my husband, that we had to wait 37 years after falling in love to actually get married. I don’t think she’d get the symbolism in our taking our final vows on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court under the inscription “Equal Justice Under Law.” Given her Baptist affiliations, I’m pretty sure that “my buddy” is as far as she can go with all that. '

And so, I bite my tongue and go on with our chat keeping it as superficial as possible.

I am always circumspect in how I interact with her. I can hear my sweet Momma’s voice echoing in my ears, 

“Now, Son, don’t be ugly.” 

And I never am. I remember to call her Ma’am and respect her rather limited boundaries. Sometimes she tells me she is on the way to or from church and I know better than to talk about that. Or to tell her that I am, myself, a clergyman.

What she generally inquires about is the neighbors. Who’s moving in? How much did they get for their house? And who are all these people who cut through our neighborhood at rush hour?

They’re fair questions. We all worry about a neighborhood that has transitioned from aging USAF veterans who stayed here after the war (the Executive Airport across Lake Underhill at the top of our street was part of the Orlando Air Force Base during WWII) and gradually died off giving way to young families with children. Some of their grandchildren have sold their properties which quickly flipped into rentals.

On the positive side (at least from my perspective), the complexion of our little neighborhood has changed in the process. People of color now make up about a quarter of our residents reflecting the diversity of a small citrus and tourist town that has mushroomed into the nation’s 22nd largest metropolitan area.  

Today with a captive audience my neighbor was much more direct. Pointing her finger directly at me, like a resident of Salem pronouncing an accusation of witchcraft, she stated with absolute certitude “You hide!”


Truth be told, I was taken off guard by that one. It was all I could do to refrain from coming back with one of my classic smart-ass rejoinders:

You think? What was your first clue?”

I didn’t say that. I could almost feel my Mother’s hand already beginning to box my ear.

So I simply replied, “Yeah, I do.”

“Why?” she exclaimed with all due incredulity.

In that split second it became abundantly clear to me that we inhabited very different worlds. And it was unlikely I could get her to cross over into mine long enough to understand it - or me.

So, I simply answered, “Because I want to.”

Methods to the Madness

Of course, that’s not entirely true. I grew this jungle in the middle of an urban center of 2.5 million souls primarily due to the 2.5 million souls. Nothing personal. Just an arboreal response to an overwhelming crush of people and cars all around me.

Of course, that says a lot more about me than them.  

Anyone familiar with my life at all knows I literally grew up in the woods my Father, Brother and I cleared to build our home outside a small town of then 800 souls. For me, the woods have always been my true home. My corner lot jungle, though an anomaly in the middle of a city, is simply the best version of Home I can now manage.

Within the Green Wall, I am able to meditate, to think, to read, to write. I light candles and incense before religious icons to pray for the world here. In the mornings I touch the good Earth and reach upward to the blessed sky above me, giving thanks for another day as I honor the four directions.

I honor the West where life comes to fruition....

It is here that I can lose myself in the planting, watering, feeding and maintaining of the lush flora that shields me from a noisy, overwhelming world and I gladly share it with ospreys, owls, birds of all kinds, squirrels, possums and the occasional garter snake. Inside this verdant barrier of trees, bushes and vines, the front windows of our home do not need blinds to screen us from the eyes of by-passers on the street. 

It is an oasis of sanity in a world of noise, competition and conflict.

Some of the neighbors have told a joke about our place for a few years now. Or at least we hope it’s a joke:

“Rumor has it there is a house in there.”


The Frat Boy Did Not Go Gently Into the Night

In truth, I was not always so asocial. For most of my life I would have described myself as a screaming extravert who lived for social gatherings, political campaigns, grandiose liturgies at church and lively parties in our home. It was a life that reflected a man afraid to be himself, constantly seeking the affirmation of others.

The frat boy in me (I was president of the house at UF where my Father had lived) did not go gently into that good night. Even into my 40s I was still the rabble-rouser party animal. It would take a DUI accident in California on the night I was accepted into my Ph.D. program at FSU to wake me up and break me out of that pattern.

But I learned.

That loss of innocence was part of a larger pattern of change. Perhaps it was a function of getting older. Perhaps the industrial strength social life is what I traded in for the ongoing process of spiritual development that began prior to my time in seminary and has only become ever more compelling since.

Perhaps it was my departure from teaching, a retirement that occurred much sooner than I would have ever guessed or desired. There were no gold watches upon my leaving. I was driven from the classroom by heartbreak, resigned to the death of a profession as I had known and loved it, and its replacement by a soulless bureaucratic process of stamping out largely unthinking, obedient worker drones.

To this day I mourn that death.

Perhaps it was all the other deaths I survived, the first being our home, Coverleigh,  in the heart of Orlando, destroyed by Hurricane Charley in 2004. The original, more limited  jungle I had planted was leveled to remove debris and begin a four year rebuilding process. The result was a beautiful new home we call New Coverleigh. With the city water still available during the rebuilding, I worked out my grief by growing a replacement jungle that made the original look tame.

Perhaps it was the loss of both parents within an eight year period which ultimately precipitated the sale of our family home, Edenfield, where I grew up. That was the site of the Ur-jungle where I developed my arboreal predilections, in the heart of a rural Sumter County which is itself now dying, its rolling pastures and canopy roads rapidly replaced by soulless tract housing of wealthy white retirees.

Maybe it was just a combination of all those things, an ongoing learning experience about an ultimate Buddhist truth: life is impermanent. Whatever it was, I look out the window of my office this morning to a wall of green that shields me from a world I increasingly engage in limited measure, mostly on my own terms.

And I am grateful.

Fortune Teller Road, Sumter County, Florida

The Aha! Moment

Trying to convey even a small slice of that 25-year process of evolution and change in the produce section of a busy grocery store to a nosey neighbor would have been difficult at best on a good day. Moreover, to do so would have presumed that I had a listener with ears to hear that story. That was simply not the case. So I punted. And changed the subject.

“Is your family nearby?” 

Standing there among the dried fruits and root vegetables, my neighbor began to tell me about her children. Her son is having trouble making payments on his home in Waterford Lakes, an older subdivision near the university on the east side of town which endures daily gridlock on the highways and surface streets. Her daughter lives nearby but also struggles to deal with the commute from mid-town where we live to the Sand Lake Road commercial district where she works halfway out to Disney, virtually all of it under construction.

Both complain about how overwhelmed they feel, my neighbor said, as does she. And for a brief moment, after that extended litany, we honored that truth with silence.

At that point, I smiled and pointed directly to my neighbor and said, “And that’s exactly why I hide.”

In that moment, I could almost see the light bulb flicker over her head. My neighbor simply smiled. And then she turned to begin pushing her cart into the wine section.

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)

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. - Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993)

 © Harry Coverston, 2020

Friday, January 10, 2020

Revealing the Divine Light

“Grant that this light, enkindled in our hearts, may shine forth in our lives…”

The Prologue of John is a reading made for a Christmas season which comes at the time of the Winter Solstice. With its imagery of light and darkness, of new creations at the start of a new year, John’s Prologue reflects this season of hope. Not surprisingly, it has a very interesting history.

Biblical scholars believe that the opening to John’s Gospel was a hymn that long predated the writing of the gospel itself. It may well have been used in communal celebrations much as we use the Gloria today. Called the Prologue because it is distinctly different from the remainder of the gospel which follows, this opening meditation on creation, order and revelation of the divine is a masterful use of thought from two different cultures: the Hebrew culture, whose account from Genesis it retells, and the Greek culture from which its images and language come. The author of this gospel has done a masterful job of interweaving the values, symbols and words from these two cultures which will become the basis for a new religion called Christianity.

We hear this Prologue through distinctly modern ears. The hymn that is the Prologue is offered as reverence for the logos. While that term can be translated as “word,” in the Prologue, that is at best a secondary translation. When we only translate logos as “word,” we lose its depth and its richness. And when we confine logos to the written word found in the scriptures themselves, we have missed the point entirely. 

Logos comes from the Greek world in which 700 years before the birth of Jesus philosophers spoke of a rational and spiritual power that permeated the universe from its very creation. The Greeks saw the logos as providence, nature, god, the soul of the universe. The Greeks believed that the logos was the emanation of god into a space where nothing previously existed and where it was then put into order by reason. It was the logos as emanation of god that created the cosmos and the logos as the ordering principle of the universe that put it all into place to form the world we know. 

We hear echoes of that Greek thinking in today’s Gospel. Let me reword it using the Greek word:

In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God. The Logos was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through the Logos, without whom not one thing came into being.

So the first act of Creation is the pouring out and ordering of the very essence of G-d  whose very nature is to flow out in ongoing creation, a process that we see all around us all the time. Even in winter we know there is a Spring coming. Even as our elderly loved ones die, leaving us behind, new children are being born into our world whose very images reveal the Holy One who is the source of all Creation.

We Franciscans have long called Creation the First Testament. It is the place where G_d’s creative power, emanating from the Source of all Being, can readily be observed by those who have eyes to see.  It is in the Creation that we see the goodness of G-d’s creative power, the providence that ensures that there is always enough to meet all human need even as there will never be enough to satisfy human greed. 

But the marvels of Creation alone have never proven sufficient to remind human creatures of the G-d from which they and all Creation have come. As the Gospel writers tell us,

“The Logos was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. The Logos came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.”

It is our very human tendency to be self-focused and to look only to one another for affirmation. We often baptize that myopia with the description “common sense.” But in doing so, we lose sight of our origins. And so, the writers of John’s Gospel tell us, our Creator sends messengers to humanity to call us to remember the G-d who resides in the depth of every human soul, the G-d whose image is borne on the faces of all living beings. G-d knows that it is when we come to see ourselves as somehow cut off from our holy source that the worst of human depravity – including that which becomes coded into tyrannical religious ideologies – comes into being.

In today’s Gospel reading from John, there are two messengers. The first is John the Baptist. The writers of John’s Gospel feel it is essential to tell us two things here. First, John the Baptist is G-d’s messenger who has come to tell us to wake up, to pay attention, something new is happening in the world. He does so faithfully and pays with his life. But, John is not the final act – he’s just the warmup. And he points toward Jesus.

This is precisely the point in the Gospel that we see a decided switch from the abstract philosophical language of the Greeks to the earthy, material language of the  Hebrews:

And the Logos became flesh and lived among us…

While all that abstract, ideal language of the Greeks is all fine and good, for the Hebrew people, the Holy is only taken seriously when it takes material form. And that is true for many of us as well. A G-d who is tangibly present with us in our lives and particularly in our hearts will always be more compelling than one who remains bound to the mere conceptual realms of our minds.

But what makes Jesus different from John is the scope of his ability to reveal the G-d from whom all Creation comes. Jesus was so attuned to the will of G-d and so open to G-d’s calling to him that he became transparent and the G-d that was within him – and within all of us as well – shone through. Again, the writers of John put it very elegantly:

“We have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth.”

Almost immediately, humanity lost sight of Jesus’ calling to us once we saw the divine within him. Jesus tried to convince us over and over: “YOU are the salt of the earth….YOU are the light of the world….Don’t look here nor there for the Kingdom of G-d. It is right here among you, indeed, within you!” The G-d that Jesus revealed was neither confined to the heavens nor isolated to himself. The G-d that Jesus revealed is all around us in the Creation and within each living being, simply waiting to be revealed.

Jesus knew he was not going to be with his followers forever. And so when he departed, he deputized them to take up his calling, to be revealers of G-d in the world. Because a world that does not recognize the divine even when it is staring them in the face is never going to become conscious of the holy within themselves unless the followers of Jesus live into their own calling to be the revealers of G-d.

Wow. That’s a pretty big calling. So what does that look like? I think I have an idea.

About six years ago, a dear friend of mine had been evicted from his Section 8 housing in downtown Orlando because, as a legally blind man, he was unable to see how filthy and infested his apartment had become. His friend from the Society for a Creative Anachronism, the group that produces the medieval fairs, took him into his place near here on Howell Branch Road. 

Charles didn’t make very good first impressions. His clothes, which came from charities, rarely matched and often were not clean. He couldn’t see to shave and his hair was wild and out of control. That reflected a life of having been in and out of eight different foster placements as a child, a number of them which forced him to endure physical and sexual abuse. The medication he took for his glaucoma had a psychotropic effect that prompted Charles to utter things that most of us, without knowing him, would have presumed were the rantings of a mentally questionable homeless person.

I had met Charles while a parishioner at the Cathedral downtown. Given his love for the church, I proposed to him that I take him to church on Sundays to get him out of the house and ensure he got at least one good meal a week. St. Richards was the closest parish and so we began attending the main service each Sunday.

This was at a point in my life when I had come to believe that the Episcopal Church and I had said everything to one another that we needed to say. To say I was tentative about any dealings with the church is an understatement. As I have often told people, in my life in the church, I always stand near the exits.

But I was more concerned about how Charles would be treated. I watched carefully as people interacted with him here. They treated him with respect. When I asked him how he was experiencing his time here, he always said, “These people are kind to me, little brother.” And so we began to come on a regular basis until Charles got sick and disappeared into the maze of elderly indigent health care. Two years later we consecrated a brick in our memorial garden to celebrate the life of Charles Miller. And four years later, I am still here, in your pulpit today.  

This is how the light of the logos is revealed in the world. It does not come from getting the theology right, though theology is not unimportant. It does not come from zealously upholding moralistic standards that define the elect from the great unwashed, though morals and ethics are important as well. Rather, it comes from the willingness to be the revealers of G-d’s love in this world, to let your light shine in the vibrant ministries you carry out here. And it comes when you let the warmth of G_d’s love embrace all who might come through your doors.

Presiding Bishop Edmund Browning articulated this challenge you have undertaken well when he said,

“I want to be very clear – this church of ours is open to all – there will be no outcasts…”  

Our collect today reflects this task to which we are called and so I close with it:

Almighty God, you have poured upon us the new light of your incarnate Word: Grant that this light, enkindled in our hearts, may shine forth in our lives; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. AMEN.

[N.B., A sermon preached December 29, 2019, First Sunday of Christmas, at St. Richard’s Church, Winter Park, 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)

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. - Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993)
 © Harry Coverston, 2020