24 March 2010


Denise and I recently returned from a five day trip to San Diego, CA, where we had a wonderful visit with our elder daughter, Mary, who is currently living and working there. We also had a wonderful visit with dear friends, Fr. Jim and Laneta Carroll. Jim retired as Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral, San Diego in the mid 1990s and was a mentor for me in my early days as a cathedral dean. He is now becoming a mentor for my own approaching retirement. Besides all that, the weather cooperated wonderfully to make for a very satisfying week.

San Diego is also home for a big chunk of the United States Navy. That may not mean much to most folks, but, I was in the Navy from 1972-78 and served in the Submarine Force Atlantic Fleet (SUBLANT) as part of Submarine Squadron 14 in Holy Loch, Scotland. At that time, SUBRON 14 was home for ten fleet ballistic missile submarines -- lovingly known as "Boomers." As I was completing that tour of duty and preparing to enter graduate studies, the Navy offered me an opportunity for a career the likes of which almost dissuaded me from my vocational path toward priesthood. There is still a part of me that is connected to all things Navy -- especially submarines. Being in San Diego was something akin to a wide-eyed kid at Christmas.

San Diego is home to the Naval 3rd Fleet...a large number of surface war ships and support vessels. North Island Naval Air Station is home for a number of helicopter squadrons and fixed wing attack and support squadrons -- as well as the port for three of the Navy's latest aircraft carriers (all of which are now powered by nuclear reactors). Also on Coronado Island is the Naval Amphibious Base, which is also home to the Navy SEALS training center. Across the harbor, on Point Loma, is a Submarine Fast Attack Squadron. Fast Attack submarines do not carry missiles. They are built for speed and at-sea warfare. The Los Angeles and Seawolf class subs are part of the San Diego squadron (
Boomers are located in other ports). About 95,000 Navy personnel make up the crews and shore support for these vessels and bases...as well as communications and research facilities. San Diego is a Navy town!

I share all of this because it is the environment in which I had a revelation. In the midst of all these vessels...surface, air and sub-surface...I became aware that NOT A SINGLE ONE of these vessels were in use at the time I was in the Navy. All of the submarines (and I mean every single one) of both missile and fast-attack class have either been dismantled or decommissioned and used for training or museum purposes. The USS Midway, as well as all more advanced Essex class aircraft carriers, are decommissioned. The Midway is at San Diego and is now a museum (an extremely good one). As I became transfixed with nostalgia, I did so amidst a technology that did not exist 35 years ago. The technology with which I was familiar and trained to engage is the stuff of Clancy's book, Hunt for Red October. Yes, that technology existed -- and has been almost totally superseded.

None of this stopped me from being excited about watching the return and deployment of three submarines; the deployment of the USS Carl Vinson -- one of the two aircraft carriers in port; the coming and going of several destroyer frigates; the training of amphibious boat crews; a glimpse of SEALS in the midst of BUD/S training (a rare sight, since they work in a secluded part of the pacific beach coast of Coronado); and the constant coming and going of Sea Hawk, Sea Knight and Cobra helicopters (the Sea Hawks are the Navy version of the Army's Black Hawks). I think Denise grew weary of my rather regular chatter describing what I was seeing.

There was a temptation in all of this to say to myself, "I wish it could be like it was when I was on active duty." This occurred especially while I was touring aboard the USS Midway. Her last deployment was Desert Storm in 1991. She was decommissioned in 1992. It was the technology at work when I was active. Two compartments aboard the Midway caught me up short. The communications compartment was huge and contained several rows with stacked receivers and transponders. The tactical warfare station was large and contained desk-sized screens for fixing aircraft and surface craft positions in deployment. In a modern aircraft carrier, all of this equipment is located in a few systems no larger than a standard computer network tower (a little larger than a good-sized briefcase) and screens are mobile with laptop-style equipment. Everything is digital and high definition. Engines are streamlined turbines running on clean fuels or nuclear power.

Now for the revelation. Having been ordained in the Episcopal Church for nearly thirty-two years, I have exceeded a generation of church history. We have grown in our understanding of the technologies of human behavior and relational dynamics. We have been able to grasp more of the capacity and capability of the human body, mind and spirit in the past 30 years than has been able to be understood in almost all of human history prior to our time. Any of us ordained over 25 years ago has
experienced a huge shift in how ecclesial life is both lived and led. Priesthood, while still the bastion of the "last of the generalist" vocations, requires more skill in each of the areas included in that "generalist" category. Everyone wants a priest who can be a business leader, spiritual master, brilliant teacher, competent psychologist, capable sociologist, investment capitalist, engaging conversationalist and skilled politician. Yet, I do not know a priest who has all (or even most) of those skills.

I love being a generalist. It fits my personality and range of interests and capabilities. Yet, there are still times I think of what it might have been like to be a Naval officer specializing in surface intelligence...having only one discipline. Nostalgia does that to a person. I chose not to do that. Later, as a priest, I was, once again, offered a commission to be a Chaplain in the Navy. Again, I turned it down. I had a new wife, and we were planning a family. Deployment for long periods did not suit our relationship. Long hours were enough.

Real growth means change. Change is the only constant in human life and community. Sorry, folks, but that is the absolute, unavoidable truth. Yet, in the Episcopal Church especially, the slogan seems to be "Forward to the 1950s" (or 60s...pick your decade or century). We want new, young people filing our parishes, but we want to do so with technologies and environments that have no meaning to them. Many folks of my age and older eagerly grab up the latest cell phones, televisions, DVR and Blue Ray players, and the host of programs constantly emerging.

While doing all that, we doggedly hold onto a black & white, medieval, analog-style spirituality. One might say that spirituality is the one thing that never changes. WRONG. God is dynamic. The human spirit has limitless potential and capacity. In all the centuries of Judaism and Christianity, we have only scratched the surface of the dynamics of the human connectivity to God and all things spiritual. It never ceases to amaze me just how much there is to learn about this thing we call "spirituality" and its expression in worship and relationships. My sadness comes from not having the time to engage it all in what is left of my lifetime (at age 59, limitation is becoming part of my thinking).

I have determined that "being old" is not a condition of relationship with God. Age is non sequitur to being old. Old has to do with disconnection and loss of vision -- and as such might be termed a sin (that's a moral theology leap). It has to do with black and white/analog thinking in an HD color/digital reality. Being old has to do with looking backward for the Living God, rather than forward for the emerging Kingdom -- where the Living God beckons us. Age is a reality, and with it comes wisdom. Old is a self-imposed refusal to continue growth. I have aged, but I refuse to be old -- ever.

At what latitude do we dwell in life? As I sat on the beaches, rocks and in the parks of San Diego and watched the modern Navy at work, I felt proud to have been part of that community. While the technology has progressed beyond my time of training and engagement, I deeply appreciate what the men and women now "at the helms" can accomplish in providing protection and security. The only way I can be a spiritual mentor to these folks is to be an intrepid explorer of spiritual landscape...alive in this moment of God's revelation. Living in another time and place is simply being old.


Fr. Fred+