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.

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