27 May 2009


A member of my parish (and a good friend) recently went golfing with her 13 year old son for the first time. As they were coming close to completing the eighteen holes, it was clear that her son was going to win this match. Being in obvious despair, her son gave her a loving look and asked, "Mom, would you like to take a mulligan?"

It is a bit disconcerting when, having played golf for a number of years, a relative neophyte to the game comes along and gives us a spanking on the first round of play. Maybe even a bit more humiliating is the gift of a mulligan. For those not familiar with the game of golf, a mulligan is a "do over." If one has hit a bad shot (or series of them when I play), those playing with us can offer to allow us to play a hole over again...in hopes of correcting the mistake. In tournament play, often one can buy or be given a certain number of mulligans before play commences...taking them when they may be most needed. I simply like to call a mulligan a "do over."

The nice thing about a mulligan is that, when it is taken, no one gives it any further consideration. I have never heard good golfers say anything like, "well, you only scored as well as you did because of that mulligan on #11." Or, "if it hadn't been for that mulligan, I would have really romped all over you." A real lady or gentleman golfer never mentions a mulligan once given and received. It is what it is. It is, in reality, a kind of forgiveness for a bad shot. It is as if it never happened. (In reflecting on this, I am aware of the book The Mulligan: A Parable of Second Chances, by Wally Armstrong and Ken Blanchard. I have not read this book but have come across it in bookstores and thumbed the pages. It looks like a good read!).

In an age when we are caught up in quantity, performance and perfection, it is hard to grasp that our being created in the image of God is all about second chances. Without taking anything away from old duffers, God was giving mulligans from the very beginning of creation. What we call the Doctrine of Grace comes down to God loving us so very much that forgiveness....complete and unconditional...is the hallmark of relationship. Folks have had to create a vengeful God as a means to justify their self-hatred and overwhelming sense of unworthiness. Vengefulness is not part of Love or redemption.

It is, admittedly, hard for us to wrap our heads around this concept of "Divine Mulligan." We have been conditioned to look for the worst...the bad...and the blame for anything that goes awry. If all else fails, we blame God. After all, in a perfect world, we should have perfect days...and when we don't, it has to be somebody else's fault.

Truth is, most of what happens is simply a bad shot on our parts off the tee. We put ourselves in the rough or out of play. When those times do happen that pain is induced by the action of another, it is because that perpetrator is blaming others for where he/she finds him/her self. In all cases, there is a mulligan waiting to be offered. Hard to believe that we are both loved and loveable just like we are. Perfection is not in our genes...ever.

Next time a bad day is in the making, take a moment and ask for a mulligan. Then, try again. Hey, like Jimmy Durante with his jokes...God is with Divine Mulligans. He's got a million of 'em! Just for you! And, me.

20 May 2009

Worry Much?

The following is a well researched lineal progression: anxiety leads to fear; fear leads to anger; anger leads to hatred; hatred leads to destruction.

After spending eight years working with Dr. Murray Bowen via Dr. Edwin Friedman, the above progression became like a prayer mantra. Murray Bowen was a psychiatrist who began his work at the Menninger Institute and then went on to found the Georgetown Family Center as part of the Georgetown University School of Medicine. During his long and very active career, Dr. Bowen developed what is now known as "Family Emotional Process." One of his many students was Rabbi Edwin Friedman. Dr. Friedman took the tools of Family Process and began working with church/synagogue systems. His seminal book, Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue, became a best-seller in the mid 1980s. I became a student in Dr. Friedman's clergy seminar and studied with him for eight years -- until his sudden death in 1996.

After the horrible events of 9/11/2001, our cultural anxiety rate spiked radically. In those weeks following the attacks, reports of terrorists erupted everywhere. Incidents of prejudice toward anyone who looked as though they came from the Middle East were rampant. It took months for us to come out of a fear-based state of being. Some of this is natural. It is good to be more observant and wary with the threat of futher violence; but fear-based actions lead to judgments that condemn innocent persons and do irreversible harm.

We are now in an economic crisis unlike any we have experienced since the Great Depression. I was born in 1950, and my parents grew up during the depression years. My dad fought with McArthur's army in the Pacific. My mom was an army nurse. What I noted from both of them was an almost mystical calm in the face of daily crises. They had seen what, for them, was the worst. Anxiety was not part of their repertoire of responses.

Those of us who have known relative security, and the lifestyle of mobility, abundance and ultimate convenience unparalleled by any previous or concurrent civilization are suddenly stunned by the loss of the resources making a lot of that possible. Our level of anxiety is higher than any time known in my lifetime. That anxiety has tripped easily into fear. What we see on television and hear on the radio only feeds that anxiety and fear. We have become a culture of increasing sensationalism -- over-reacting at the slightest hint of a new crisis. The first reaction is to look for a scapegoat...someone or something to blame for our predicament. We have many contemporary incarnations of the old western "lynch mob."

I am an Episcopal Priest of almost 31 years ordained experience. It has always amazed me how simple decisions or actions can become huge crises in a faith community. It only takes one highly anxious person to set off a firestorm of rumor, innuendo and actions of irreversible harm. I have done an experiment twice wherein, at the beginning of a sermon, I will share a statement with the first person in the front pew on my right...asking that the statement be passed from person to person from front to back and then across the aisle and back to the front on the left side. At the end of the sermon (about 15 minutes), I will ask the first person in the pew on the left side to repeat the statement. Not one word of it was part of the original statement! I have also started a scheduled class with a room of about 50 people and staged an interaction between two people (unknown to the group at large). The interaction contained loud words and obvious actions...some of which were threatening. I then randomly picked 10 people to share what they saw and heard -- writing it in journal form. Never more than one person saw and heard what actually transpired. Most saw physical blows (and no blows were ever struck).

Whether we like it or not, we see and hear what we want to see and hear. The Bowen rule is that all responses to real or perceived actions are emotional. We may believe ourselves to be logical, analytical folks; but the first response comes from the limbic portions of our brain...raw emotion. It's how we are wired. What makes us a higher form of creation is that we are also equipped to monitor that emerging response, check it and ask "data questions" that will reduce the emotional response and dampen the attendant anxiety. Doing so lowers the level of cortisol and other stress hormones and engages the portion of our brain that seeks homeostasis in the face of potential disruption.

What I have tried to describe is the state called "mindfulness." John Kabat-Zinn's book, Full Catastrophe Living, is a wonderful way to explore the dynamics of reducing anxiety and stopping the progression toward judgments and actions that are potentially destructive. Friedman's book, Generation to Generation, explores how we can understand our actions as part of our families of origin and investment in faith communities. The Gospels and New Testament Epistles are replete with examples and teachings on balanced living in the face of anxious environments (I can't imagine an environment any more stressful than first century Mediterranean Basin cultures).

All of this is an invitation to practice a kind of mindfulness that asks questions of ourselves and our environments that gathers meaningful and truthful information. For me, as a Christian, it is an invitation to "pray before you say." The act of prayer is simply to place one's self in the space of listening and seeking deeper truth. More on this will be forthcoming. Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam!

19 May 2009

Kindle In Us...

I have been taking a number of steps recently to become more electronically engaged. For a number of years, it has been my two computers (home and work) and my cell phone. Two years ago, I graduated to a smartphone that would allow me to keep up with office email. In March, I traded in my Treo smartphone and purchased a Blackberry smartphone. Now I can monitor both office and home email accounts and do several other tricks that speed up and simplify my ever expanding communication needs.
Within the past two months, I opened a Facebook account and began working with LinkedIn. I now also Twitter a bit. My Associate, Fr. John Spicer, and I also began blogging. Admittedly, my daily life is filled with enough real-time work that I don't spend a whole lot of time on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter or my weblog. There are only so many hours in a day, and I am very guarded about time with my wife and being at home and "in the moment" -- especially with increasingly nice evenings sitting on the patio and soaking in the sounds of wildlife, children playing and the smells of late spring.
In beginning my preparations for what summer will bring, I began to look at the material I will have to lug with me to continue my research in the Black Hills (a week in June of continuing education) and to the General Convention of the Episcopal Church (being a deputy from our diocese....5 - 18 July). I'm getting old enough that hauling books, laptop and various other paraphernalia presents more of a challenge. So, I did it. I made another step into the 21st century.
I purchased a Kindle from Amazon.com!
Now, I need to admit that I was encouraged in this purchase by two colleagues who are senior to me in both years and "time in service." Both are at least nine years older than me and have been priests quite a bit longer than my 30+ years. Both of them travel a bit, are heavy readers and like to travel light. They both own a Kindle. Each of them has said to me on more than one occasion, "Fred, you have to get one of these....it is an essential tool in your arsenal of staying both current and light." I would smile, nod affirmingly and mumble something like, "Yeah, I'll look into it." Then, yesterday, the means were made available for me to make the purchase.
For stuff like this, it feels like coming to the edge of a precipice. Even with a parachute, why would one want to jump off perfectly good, solid ground? I love the feel of a good book -- turning pages, experiencing the binding, ink and thumbing the pages. Much of what I read, however, is not small. I read fast enough that it takes four or five books to cover being away a couple of weeks. That adds up quickly. Now airlines are getting cranky about weight and charging for luggage. So, I stood on the edge of the cliff and pondered the leap.
As my fingers sat poised on the keys of my computer, I thought about the product name, "Kindle." Meaning: ignite, set afire, arouse, inspire. Immediately, I thought about a prayer I have been saying for the better part of 30 years at the beginning of sermons. It includes the line, "...kindle in us the fire of your love...." The image of me as a senior in my final semester of undergraduate work at the University of Florida suddenly becoming aware that I might become a priest. No way!! No!! There was that precipice. I was 21, not 58 years old. That was my future ahead of me, not an electronic device. Yet, the issues of trust and possibility are not dissimilar. A leap is a leap. Life is a series of changes and transformations. Without these moments there is death. We cease to be in the dynamic flow. Just as I could have shut down my computer, I could have refused the call to vocation and gone on with my original, seemingly safe (and certainly more lucrative...potentially) life plans.
Taking the leap in 1972 was not without pain and sacrifice. It was costly in its own way. But what was kindled on that day was a kind of passion and love that has never left and has led in directions never dreamed possible. It led to a marriage that might not have otherwise happened; children that I adore; friends and colleagues that are faithful, challenging and engaging; places that have inspired and shaped me. What was kindled on the day I took the leap and said "yes" to this vocation was the fire of God's love...the fire spoken by the psalmist I quote each time I preach.
So, my fingers continued to move along the keyboard of my office laptop. Soon, the screen affirmed the purchase of a Kindle -- which will hold up to 1500 books, magazines and newspapers; will be only about a half inch thick and no larger than a standard sheet of paper folded in half. Will it renew my passion for reading -- heavily and widely. Possibly. It will certainly cut down on the weight of my briefcase and luggage.
Now, if only I could cut down on the weight of clothing needed for two weeks.....

07 May 2009

Being Mindful

Earlier this week I was forced to be home and off my feet for two days, while dealing with an infection in my foot (the one upon which I had surgery in February...a long and painful story). My wife checked out some movies for me so that I would keep the promise to my doctor and stay put. One of them was "Peaceful Warrior," a movie based on the book by the same name. The author, Dan Millman, is also one of the central figures in both book and movie.

At the heart of the movie is the message that the full meaning of life begins to come alive when one realizes that "there is never nothing happening..." and that "taking out the trash" is the process of emptying the mind of the clutter one believes is so essential to taking care of the business of life. Most of our response to life is a morass of emotional responses that carry very little real data and even less true meaning. It is a movie both worth seeing and pondering.

Much of my own life has been somewhat like that of Dan Millman's. I was never a star athlete, but I was very active in Scouting as well as any outdoor activity I could generate (and here I could be very creative). I have always loved nature and learning about how the "stuff of life" works. I could be found deep in the woods...off beaten paths...watching insects, reptiles and other creatures doing what they do best in the wild. It was much better than a zoo!

Somewhere along the line, I lost that deep awareness of my surroundings and intense focus on what was happening literally under my feet. I retained a strong sense of history and a strange sense of presence about things unseen. It is what the Lakota call "touching the Mystery." Even in the discipline of theology, this can be lost; and I came dangerously close to losing this gift.

Priesthood has a sacramental reality that shifts the fundamental character of the person ordained. it carries with it the outward responsibility to maintain a discipline of mindfulness regarding the presence of the Kingdom of God that literally surrounds our every moment. This is where it gets dicey. Most folks -- even in well-meaning faith communities -- regard the breaking in of the Kingdom as an invasion of personal space and a meddling with things over which they wish to maintain strict, personal control. In our culture especially, we are fearful of change and easily set off by critical events that call for measured response (check out the reaction to the H1N1 virus). Modern journalism is little help in creating a calm, measured environment. Society is most often like a washing machine in constant spin cycle.

Churches in general...and Episcopal Parishes in particular...focus well on the business of being a community but are easily threatened when we begin talking about the power of Mystery and the affect of the Holy upon our individual and common lives. For that reason, I have often opined that a parish priest could better lead a parish with an MBA rather than an MDiv or MTh. This isn't a rant, just an observation based upon nearly thirty-one years of parish ministry. I have long ago learned how to circumvent the attempts to keep clergy tied into business and away from prayer; but I have to admit, folks are getting craftier at keeping us "tied down" to the rigors of the kind of parish life measured by the statistics of secular business practices. If there is a "post-Christian" era (and I don't think there is really), it has been promulgated by the Christian community itself.

I came to realize, in my early twenties, that my way of being was just a tad different than many others. Simple prayer, structured prayer or the external elements of worship simply wouldn't work for me. It was what was happening below those events that drew me. Archbishop Michael Ramsey (100th Archbishop of Canterbury...retired in 1975) became my spiritual director in seminary, while he was in residence as our theologian. It was he who, on a walk one day, told me, "Fred, you are a natural contemplative....develop this gift and live faithfully in it." Though I have endeavored to do so, it has been the case that I have been tripped up by the temptation to simply "run the parish" (whichever one I was in) and "keep folks happy." Contemplative life is like exploring the woods. Once one opens both mind and eyes, there is never nothing happening. Countless things are always happening....right under foot! Once one opens one's right brain, becomes truly vulnerable and "empties the trash" of needless distractions (analytical data), truly remarkable things are experienced.

When I have allowed this kind of contemplative space, being a theologian begins to make perfect and practical sense. Holiness appears everywhere and in the most unexpected places. The ordinary becomes extraordinary. It becomes profoundly important to shut up, watch and listen.

That is what this blog will explore...being mindful...and, out of that mindfulness, seeing what we call "issues" in light of larger reality. Hopefully, we will see things less emotionally and more objectively. It's definitely worth the risk. It may be that, in the end, our true humanity will be learned through this experience: The "aha" of what it means to be created in the image of God.