31 December 2009

Be It Resolved

While I don't think it a pastoral matter, I do often get the question, "What are your New Year's resolutions?" There was a time that I would get rather elaborate in my response -- laying out a game plan for the coming year that seemed impressive and genuinely transformational. I don't do that anymore.

A couple of years back, I went to the local gym, where I work out, right after the new year. The place was packed (when usually it was not). Since I had been a member only a few months, I asked one of the trainers what had happened. His response was in three words: "New Year's Resolutions." For the next three or so weeks, the place continued to be crowded at the times I could work into my schedule. By the middle of February, however, the numbers had dwindled to the point that I could move about with my earlier accustomed ease. What changed?

While opening the subject of resolutions, it is also a good place to mention the close relative of the New Year's Resolution. It is the Lenten Discipline. What!? Hey, it is only 1.5 months away. It will be here before you know it. Folks do the same thing with Lent. A complicated and robust plan for the keeping of a Holy Lent is set forth by the well-meaning Christian. When the question is asked by equally well-meaning clergy, "How's your Lenten Rule going?" The answer is often a mumbled something akin to "I blew it."

What is happening here? Simply put, the human will follows the same principles of physics as do other entitities: a body in motion tends to move toward a state of rest (inactivity). One can research this through the first two laws of thermodynamics and following the research that produced the Heisenberg Principle of Uncertainty. It takes energy to do work. The dissipation of that energy will render the object less and less effective in the function of that work. Other dynamics can produce forces that will also hinder the object's effective ability to perform work. This is a psychological (behavioral) truth as well as one of physics.

Why this "mumbojumbo?" As a pastoral statement: Any attempt to will one's self into a permanent resolve (resolution) will ultimately fail as the internal and external forces dissipate the energy to uphold the initial resolve. St. Paul said it a bit differently: "For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do." (Romans 7:15 NIV). Does this not mean that, all things being equal, we end up a lump? Yes! We have a term for it: Couch Potato.

My point here is to suggest that, any resolution that we make as an act of will is going to be rendered ineffective over time. In fact, it will cease be be an action at all. That's why the resolve to exercise daily at the beginning of the year lasts only about six to eight weeks for most folks. That's why the Lenten Rule, so energetically embraced on Ash Wednesday, is toast by the third week of Lent. We want to do it, but we end up not doing it well or even at all. That was St. Paul's point exactly.

Now that I have produced the conundrum, how do we deal with the need to make positive, healthy and useful changes in our lives? We look at ourselves in the mirror and say, "I need to lose 20 lbs." or, "I need to quit smoking." The list goes on. The motivating question is, "For what reason do I need to do these things?" We may have great intentions. Our spouse is urging us. We don't like what we see or what we are doing. We have other feelings of angst or pain that might be motivating us. But, any effort to make any change in any part of our lives is, by definition, work. It requires us to think and act on a new and regular level. It requires energy. The dissipation of energy reduces our resolve by a mathematically measured amount. Over time, we quit doing or being that resolve and return to the former, "easier" state of being and doing.

UNLESS, something deeper motivates us. About three years ago, my blood chemistry went haywire. I have genes (it seems) that mitigate against a normal level of cholesterol and triglycerides. Somewhere between visits to my primary care physician, both of those jumped to an alarmingly high number....way above normal. Within the space of a year, I was pre-diabetic with cholesterol levels at 400 and triglycerides at 960. Blood sugar ratios were dangerously high. I resolved to do something about it. I exercised, ate sensibly and willed myself to avoid foods that would exacerbate the problem. It wasn't enough. Holidays would come. With them came the confections and homemade comfort foods that were high in fats and sugars. My will collapsed. Being a priest, the constant temptations from well-meaning parishioners simply could not be avoided (I used the rationale: 'I'll hurt their feelings.').

In late November 2008, my cardiologist connected me with one of his associates who specializes in vascular problems (blood stuff). He was very forthright and honest, as he carefully read my chart and drew on his dry erase board. "Fred, you are a man on a course that will lead to certain death unless you can pull out of this mess. You are on the verge of becoming a full-blown Type II diabetic. You are pumping sludge with the amount of cholesterol and triglycerides in your system. You are allergic to statin medications. There are a few things left, and we can help." Thereupon, he sent me to a vascular nutritionist. I have met the model for what all drill sargeants become in the military. I also met a deeper motivation for what I now work on earnestly.

Going deep means finding the place where energy and motion are generated. I do not mean physical energy and motion. I mean the kind that shapes the human will. Even with the background, training and experience of my vocation, I had failed to go to that place with this issue. After all, this is about physiology and genetics.

In the quiet of my centering and contemplative prayer practices, I laid forth this issue....simply laid it there. It is the way of this kind of prayer work. In a space of time (for me, about 6 weeks), I became acutely aware that the only one whose pleasure I care about is the One who created me. What really matters is what I do by extension of that createdness. Okay, here's another analogy (after all, Jesus taught exclusively with metaphors). In the reality of God, God is perpetually in motion and constantly creating. God is like the perpetual fuel atomic reactor. If we recognize our true nature as created with God at the center of our being, that energy is what motivates us and provides the kind of resolve that never quits.

This is not a longshot. This is as fundamental to spirituality as thermodynamic laws are to physics...even more so. St. Paul concluded that, in order to do ultimate good, he had to surrender to the Spirit of God desiring to work in him. We must be in partnership with our true Self in that created image.

I did the ultimate no-no. I played Gideon on this one. I was doing really well with all of this in the spring and summer. I was even doing really well with an untimely and rather disturbing stressor in my professional life that came along in late summer. Then, in November, I said (seriously), "Okay, I'm backing off a bit. I think I've got this. I can do it myself now."

Disaster! I just got my numbers today for the latest vascular workup. My blood chemistry is out of whack again. I've gained weight (which is what happens when triglycerides are running unchecked at high levels) and become tired a lot. My blood sugar jumped to the "pre..." level again. The Physician's Assistant who monitors me for the cardiologists scowled at me this morning in disturbed disbelief at what her computer showed her. I had to tell her, using the metaphor I've employed above, "I simply ran out of gas here...and out of resolve."

As I sipped a cup of coffee and ate a light breakfast (a totally legal breakfast mind you) after that session, I knew what my new year will entail. I will return to that place where I open myself to Grace and admit that I don't have a boundless will (I already knew this, but, remember, I played Gideon for six weeks). I know where true resolve is generated and the energy to sustain it. It is only meaningful if I am the vessel being launched .... without being dissuaded by temptations or promises of rest. I'm not ready for THAT kind of rest! Neither is God it appears. Neither am I willing to listen to other voices. Read how Paul interprets that in the latter part of Romans 7. I'm not going for a strike three.

Blessings this New Year of Grace!


15 December 2009

Prophets and Sages

I just finished writing a Christmastide article for our parish newsletter, The Messenger, in which I shared a conversation I had with one of the employees at the local, Lee's Summit Starbuck's -- where I often get coffee in the morning on the way to the parish office (a drive of ca. 25 minutes from home). Jason is a young adult who is tall with long, dark hair that is neatly combed and in a ponytail. He always has a smile and a wave, whenever I come in. For some time, we have shared witicisms, comments on events of the moment and occasional short conversations around the global issues of the moment. He is relaxed and always has a perspective that stimulates further thought. He reminds me of a quiet philosopher-type. He obviously has solid roots. (to get information on the circumstances of this blog, please read my reflections at http://www.standrewkc.org/RectorsReflections.htm . It is entitled "Christmastide: "Living on the Edge" and will be online by Friday, 18 December).

Today I made a stop at "my" Starbuck's to grab a coffee, and Jason was at the counter. As he poured, I told him I had quoted him in my parish newsletter article. He seemed surprised and somewhat humbled. In reflection, I said to him, "It's not often one encounters a straight-forward prophet." He stood rigidly upright as he turned from the coffee urn. "I am not even close to being a prophet! I don't have those credentials," he stated firmly. At this response, I was not surprised nor offput. In fact, it is what I had hoped to hear.

A prophet is not self-proclaimed. It is a gift that happens and/or becomes entwined with a particular style of being in relationship that opens the doors to "insight possibilities." Prophecy is not fortune-telling, future-telling, or simple intellectual insight. It is a coming together of the current moment with spiritual, emotional and mental alertness to a vista that suddenly opens to how this moment can/will play out. It is at once multi-dimensional and all embracing. The door can shut as quickly as it opens -- leaving things much as they were. The prophet then moves on...maybe oblivious to how he/she has just been utilized by forces well beyond his/her control.

If someone proclaims him/her-self a prophet, go in the other direction. Self-proclamation is an act of hubris (spiritual pride) that can be both dangerous and deceptively manipulative. In true prophecy, one is a vessel or instrument and never the generator of what is being shared. Jason had no idea that our November conversation revealed something very important and precious to me -- and that the revelation from his words would set me on an internal journey of deeper theological truth. For him, what he shared was a moment of simple, insightful observation....nothing more.

Being a sage is much the same as being a prophet. The term "sage" renders the modern term "sagacious" and refers to wisdom. Wisdom is not intelligence or being smart or having an education. Like prophecy, wisdom can have those components; but wisdom is the capacity to see deeply into the larger field of reality and, from that observation, speak a deeper and more profound Truth about life and the world around us. It is the sense of "bedrock truth" one experiences in conversing with someone who is sharing wisdom. Like prophecy, wisdom is a gift of the moment. However, wisdom can often "walk with" a person for a long period of time.

One might think that a prophet or a wise person (one given to wisdom as defined above) possesses maturity or a kind of place in life where he or she is not prone to mistakes, frivolity, goofiness or simplicity. We might think of wisdom and prophecy as belonging to the serious, very mature and "stately" person. Nope. Think of the laughing monk, or the "buffoon" who is full of practical jokery and fun. Think of Yoda in Star Wars. Who would imagine such a goofy looking, impish little creature possessing extreme wisdom and the capacity for prophecy. Yoda captures it all in essence.

Prophets and Sages inhabit all levels of society and can be found in the most unlikely places. In fact, one doesn't necessarily find them at all. In my time with the Lakota, I have learned the power and simplicity of the "Medicine Man." Such a person, in Lakota culture, is not self-proclaimed. In fact, they will deny it if asked, "Are you a Medicine Man?" The term "medicine" in Lakota means spiritual depth and the recognition of God at work both in what is unseen as well as what is visible and useful in the world about us. The Medicine Man sees and can use these things as tools for teaching, healing and worship. They recognize and utilize the power of holy things in ways that benefit those in their community. It is the community, in seeing this, that bestows the title, "Medicine Man," on the individual. The Medicine Men that I have met are given to joking, laughing and behaving in a manner that may seem either frivilous or simple. Nothing could be farther from the truth. They possess depth, keen intelligence and insight that can be almost frightening when set loose. Then they simply go back to being themselves...genuine.

At this time of year, it is good to reflect on the prophets of the Hebrew Old Testament and Christian New Testament. John the Baptizer cried in the wilderness to prepare the way for one who would change the world. That tradition of momentary insight and proclamation still happens. This is the time of year to listen, look and slow down to encounter real moments of deeper Truth. Maybe the next conversation with someone in a coffee shop will create an opportunity to turn a corner in your life.

Blessings in this Holy Season,