25 November 2009

The Singer's Voice

There is a person I have considered a good friend...at least from my place of relationship. She began her career as a singer -- and she had a quality voice that would have taken her possibly to the Met. But something happened. It doesn't seem to have been so much physical as it was other factors in her life. Whatever it was, she lost her voice. No, she did not lose the ability to speak, or even to sing, the qualities of her voice that produced the wonderful operatic tones did something like "lock up." I am not a physical or psychological diagnostician, so I cannot evaluate. I simply know that she is a wonderful person who lost the fullness of her singing voice.

I share this because life is fragile. What we have and value most is so easily lost. It is part of the human condition. I have a rare and privileged vocation that puts me fully in the place of the most fragile of human conditions. No amount of education, training or expertise ever prepares a person for the impact of the kinds of crises where loss of treasured resources of personhood are threatened or removed. God seems to have given me a gift to walk in those places with calmness and vision. There are no words to describe what I have experienced and the profound thankfulness I have for the privilege to be on such a life-journey.

As this Thanksgiving holiday approaches, I share both a reflection and an announcement. I awoke early this morning, made a cup of coffee and withdrew to my place of prayer with a heaviness of heart uncommon to my mornings. I began shedding tears of thanksgiving for those who have mentored me over the past 59 years (I'll be 59 on 30 Nov.). My parents -- both gone from this life. Bill Harben, my Scoutmaster in the Boy Scouts -- an ex-Marine from WWII, who was tough but loving and caring. He believed in me when it counted. Mrs. Sheffield, Mrs. Ting, Mrs. Ruth, Dr. Gordon, Dr. Kandzer and those teachers/professors who encouraged me to go far beyond what I thought possible in my growing years. Coach Bill Duncan, who I hated but came to love for teaching me athletic and personal stamina. Dr. Sidney Jourard, under whom I studied at the University of Florida in psychology for introducing me to and encouraging me in the farther reaches of the human mind and heart. Dr. William Maples who awakened a deep love for human life....past and present...in all its forms. Fathers/Drs. Louis Weil, Ignatius Hunt, James Griffis, William Peterson, Richard Greatwood, John Ruef, Robert Cooper and Dr. James Dunkly who opened the doors of theology, liturgy, biblical literature and pastoralia in shaping my vocation as a priest at Nashotah House. They saw vocation more clearly than I did. LCDR John McCarthy, MMC Frame, Adm. Albert Kelln, CDR Walter Hubbell, YNCS Hank Buermeyer, Vice Adm. Rickover, Adm. Lewis and those of my Navy experience for discipline, courage in the face of big odds, stamina and a striving for excellence that I will always carry with me. Bishop William Folwell, who brought me into this vocation, ordained me and never let me (and many others) feel alone in the field of parish ministry. Bishops Vogel (who ordained me a priest), Gray, Little, Barry Howe, and others who have been either my authorities or colleagues (or both) for wisdom, patience and perseverance in the stresses of parochial leadership.

Then there are colleagues, parishioners and friends outside the Church who are too numerous to mention: save these, Dr. Kern Trembath and Fr. Paul Wolfe (at whose funeral I preached in March...my brother whose voice I deeply miss). Both have almost literally saved my life and my voice when I despaired the most. Don and Ron, who are current dear friends not in the Church, who caught me when I fell and raised me up. Ed, my spiritual director who challenges and holds me up. Larry, who believed in me when others did not. There are parishioners in my current cure, who are more precious to me than they know. I especially give thanks to Fr. Richard ("Dad") Bowman. He was my spiritual director for 16 years and "adopted" me as a son he never had, and I as a dad to fill a wounded place. I grieve that I could not be with him when he died three years ago. Fr. Tom Schultz, a monk of OHC who started teaching me deeper truths of the Spirit in 1980, and still teaches me whenever we can get together.

The above litany moved through my head and heart in the pre-dawn hours. Each had a story that became vivid in my inner light. I weep thanksgiving for each of them -- and the many others who individually came to consciousness. Childhood and adult friends...known and lost in the jumble of life. They are all out there.

Each of those persons gave me voice. They encouraged me to "sing my song" -- which is a way of saying "speak my truth in love." They gave me voice, and I owe it to them to use it. But, there is a catch.

Something is stuck. I've suddenly found it very hard to speak...that is, to express my deeper thoughts and feelings. It is the priest's craft and responsibility to speak -- even the things that are probably too hard to hear (even for the one speaking). I have run aground on the shoals of current opinion and judgment. The singer has lost his voice.

My craft is my life -- at least the biggest part of it. A vocation is a gift from God that is nurtured through education, training and experience....lots of experience. My capacity for this is being tested. If I talk too much, I may lose my voice altogether. I cannot risk that.

So, at this point, in the early hours of this morning, I made the decision: I am suspending the sharing of my thoughts, opinions, theological reflections and commentary on life events for a period of time. I need to conserve what I have to practice my craft from the pulpit and podium of my parish. What I have momentarily is small enough that (as my friend Kern Trembath says) I risk "using my seed corn" to keep the voice I need to do my primary work.

Chances are, I'll be back with articles, blogs and daily reflections on Facebook and other places. But, not for a time. Not until I figure out if my voice carries anything of real value and what shape it will take.

May your Thanksgiving be one of remembrance, gratefulness and joy. Make the season of Advent one of expectation. Slow down and live the experience. It's worth it.

Much love,


17 November 2009


The newest member of my staff at St. Andrew's is Ric Shewell. He began his work as our new Youth and Family Ministries Director on 1 September. Ric fits the image of a young, twenty-something guy who is up on technology and involved in life as a relatively newlywed. He reminds guys like me (getting extremely close to age 59) that we did, indeed, once possess that kind of energy, resilience and spunk. He is just a year older than our elder daughter. It's a scary thing!

Ric enthusiastically announced yesterday that the New Oxford American Dictionary had chosen as its Word of the Year for 2009 -- "unfriend." This word, he shared, was brought into contemporary useage by Facebook. It describes the action by which a person can disconnect from another person who has been designated a "friend" in the Facebook community. While I could not immediately find the said named item on my Facebook page or those of my list of friends, I decided there had to be something to this.

I did what my best scientific and theological training prepared me to do: research. Monday evening found me reading a variety of articles from places like "SFGate" and "The Week," etc. Sure enough, all those sites had articles reporting that the NOAD had, indeed, named "unfriend" the Word of the Year for 2009. And, yep, it was due to the community building Facebook system that this word found its origin. Or, I wonder, had it?

More research. This time I accessed tools that one still has to gather on the shelves of one's personal library or the library of a college or public library (yes, Ric, books can still be found that are not electronic...take it from a geezer like me who has hundreds of them). Lo, I found the term "unfriended" as a 19th century word that reflected what happens when one is berieved after losing a family to calamity. Example: One journal from an 1848 wagon train on the California Trail reads, "The sickness swept through our numbers so fast that men and women were unfriended in the loss of their entire families..." What goes around, comes around.

In this case, I sat for a long time in my special prayer place early this morning and pondered this word, "unfriend." It is a singularly cold word. It has such finality. It has such abruptness. In my reflection, I could see how, in the years of westward expansion on this continent, life could truly have abruptness and finality. It was a harsh, unforgiving and often downright hostile environment. The term "unfriend" would aptly describe the almost instant desolation of something like cholera or murder (attacks of various kinds) or drowning in a river crossing. Then the word seems to lose visibility. It is almost never used until the past three years -- with the advent of cyber-systems created to bring folks together. Without any kind of prelude or warning, a person can be "unfriended" by a whole host of those who had, until that moment, been listed as "friends." One young person describes being "unfriended" by his college roommate, because they had an argument over leftovers in the refrigerator. Not only did his roommate unfriend him; but he convinced most of his other friends to use the "delete button" on their cyber-relationships. Massively cold!

We live in a world where people can be unfriended in a heartbeat: a click of the mouse, a shot from a weapon triggered by someone a half a world away, a "word" put out that destroys an individual's character, family and career. We have become very impersonal in the manner of our relationships. If we can unfriend with the click of a mouse, why can't we just turn our relationship with another person on or off like a switch. The term, "I'm off you," is something like saying, "I hereby unfriend you." Relationships these days seem really cheap and extremely fragile at best.

Lest I spiral into a place of sounding cynical, I want to offer some hopeful thoughts. Words carry power, but we don't have to be enslaved to those words. It's our choice. For instance, getting out of cyberspace and into a regular book keeps one honest in terms of touching what we learn and come to know. Even my Kindle needs to be put away, so that I can grapple with the weight of a good book.

Every human being is like me. I want to be loved, appreciated, held, touched and enjoyed across the table with a cup of coffee or a meal. Every one of us essentially wants the same thing. We need those things in order to have a truly authentic self-concept.

When things aren't going well, try taking a pen and applying it to real paper in order to reflect thoughts. Better yet, sit down with a person who seems to have generated bad feelings and dare ask the question: "What has changed in our relationship that seems to be causing pain?" The hard work of coming face-to-face is essential to maintaining a sense of true Self and an appreciation of the reality and fragility of another.

Even on Facebook, wouldn't it be better to write the person a personal message letting them know you need to break off the cyber-relationship for a time and why. THEN, give them the opportunity to reply? Give it some thought. Better yet, give it a try.

Maybe this Word of the Year will be short-lived.