14 April 2010

What Goes Around Comes Around (Maybe)

Off and on, for a number of years, I have uttered the word "huzzah!" as an expression of excitement or approbation. I never really gave it much thought, because my Dad had used the word on occasion in my youth. In the meantime, there were words like, "yeeha!" or "Yeeess!" or (in the Navy), "Hooyah!" Yesterday, I was caught up short in a Facebook conversation with a parishioner, when I used the word in one of my posts.

The parishioner expressed surprise saying, "It's funny to see you say that, because it's a word that 20s age folks use....not someone in their 50s.." "Not so!" I responded. Then I began to think about language. Later language led to thinking about the Church. Theology, as a discipline, tends to do that sort of thing.

The word "huzzah" actually has its origins in Shakespeare's era. It ducks in and out of English speaking culture and makes a big appearance in America during the Revolution. The word stays present and gets really popular again in the Civil War and western expansion era of the middle late 19th century. It then disappears, except in various regions and among individuals (or in period movies). Now, it seems, it is gaining new popularity among young adults.

In 1988, I read a book that provoked thinking in this area of cyclical popularity. John Snow, the retired Dean of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, MA, published a study in vocation entitled, The Impossible Vocation: Ministry in the Mean Time. It is a study of the nature of modern pastoral theology and how the church has adapted to cultural trends.

In one of Dr. Snow's pivotal conclusions he states, "The central social function of all religions is to build a culture which mitigates the fear of death, freeing its members from suspicion and fear of one another so that compromise, cooperation and consensus can result in a moral and peaceful world." (Snow, pg 145). How the Church goes about this task has taken many identities. The book rehearses these and concludes that the clinical counseling methodology that began to be used in the late 1950s and through the early 1980s simply did not work as a comprehensive modality for pastoral care. Being trained largely in that model (and owning an undergraduate degree in psychology myself), I wondered immediately where that conclusion might leave me in the professional work of a parish priest.

Reading on, I learned that the ultimate goal would be a return to the parish priest as spiritual director and "shaman" (holy person) in community. This reflects another pivotal book of a few years earlier by the late Urban Holmes (Dean of St. Luke's School of Theology, University of the South, TN) entitled, The Priest in Community: Exploring the Roots of Ministry (1979). Fr. Holmes takes the entire scope of human disciplines to reflect on the role of priest in community. Like John Snow later, Holmes shows that holding a particular discipline as definitive for priestly ministry limits the reality of the sacramental character of priesthood.

Even though these two books functioned to shape a large measure of my 3+ decades of parish ministry, I nearly forgot all about that in the more recent struggles of understanding the contemporary function of priest in community. For the past decade or so, the Church has been sliding into a role of "religious business enterprise." That is not a personal assessment but one noted by several theologians in the larger Church. The successful business model of the "roaring 90s and early 2000s" has become the measure by which many local parochial agencies judge success. A colleague told me several years ago that, "all we need is to turn our graduate degrees in theology in and pick up an MBA...that would qualify us to be parish leaders." Reluctantly, I must agree.

Back to the "shaman." This is a scary term for most folks. It raises images of witchdoctor types dancing around with rattles and incantations...or using strange potions and powders to work some kind of weird magic. That's a pretty limiting view. It's a product of too much of the wrong kind of television. Of course, most modern education is at the level of what one sees or hears in the mass media...but I digress.

The shaman in history is one who creates vision; is steeped in the prayer of his/her tradition; is a steward of the mysteries that shape the inner life; and has been gifted with the power to affect change...as a channel or vessel...never as the source. But, in the Episcopal Church, does that define a priest?

There could be no better authority for answering this question than Archbishop Arthur Michael Ramsey -- the 100th Archbishop of Canterbury (retired 1975, deceased 1984). In his powerful little book, The Christian Priest Today, Archbishop Ramsey sums up priesthood: "Man of theology, man of reconciliation, man of prayer, man of the Eucharist -- displaying, enabling and involving the life of the Church -- such is the ordained priest." Look familiar? It almost mirrors the textbook definition of the shaman.

If one wants to wax skeptical regarding the Anglican theological perspective, one just needs to open The Priesthood by Fr. Karl Rahner. Rahner is considered one of the greatest theological minds of the 20th century...and a Roman Catholic Priest. In this short but dense book, Rahner creates a litany of the character of priesthood. At once the guardian of mystery; the journeyer into the life of the Spirit; the vessel of Grace in community; the shape changer of culture. Again, this is looking very familiar. Rahner published this work under the title Einubung Priesterlicher Existenz in 1970.

What has happened to us? Largely, I conjecture, we have become fearful of falling into the hands of the Living God and, thereby, have created a more convenient means by which we can measure the Church's relative worth and success. A person recently told me, "Today’s businessperson / vestryperson believes that if they can measure it, they can influence it. And they are willing to measure the success of your parish. So what is today’s rector to do? Fight? Fold? Follow? Fret? "

This is an important statement and series of questions. Given the definitions I have shared above, I want to suggest some things: 1) Today's Rector remains a priest, regardless of the intentions of non-ordained leaders. 2) If regression analysis is necessary, consider that the reasons for the Church's being may have been compromised by a kind of rationalism that works to avoid mystery. 3) The future of the Church depends on the ontological transformation of its people. That means plunging deeply into the mystery of human nature as it is defined in the image of God. 4) We need to pray like crazy that the current pre-occupations with secular models gives way to the definitions that visionaries like Ramsey, Holmes, Rahner and Snow placed before us decades ago. These were men of prayer....shape changers in the relationship between Christ and culture.

Finally, Katherine Tyler Scott, noted business consultant and deeply rooted Episcopalian published an article in the 9 April edition of The Washington Post. It can best be summarized in her own words: "Sheer intellectual ability and objectivity are insufficient to determine the moral good and responsible action. They must be accompanied by the adaptive capacity to hold the tension of the opposites together long enough to understand the problems and the appropriate response....At its core, the Episcopal Church believes in the compatibility of tradition and reform, the partnership of faith and reason. If the church can remember and reclaim this charism, it will help those who follow to navigate the present currents of complexity, chaos and change with reasoned and mature judgment and action. It will enable the church, and all of us, to exhibit the courage to move from the margin, to stand in the gap, to hold the tension of the opposites together, and to take the risk to tell our truths in the world--a world that desperately needs to shed itself of the tendency to demonize differences....Leaders cannot sequester congregants in beautiful spaces of worship with glorious music and liturgy without also engaging them in deeper reflection about what it means to live one's faith responsibly in the world."

Huzzah! Perhaps Katherine Tyler Scott is a prophet of our times. If so, maybe what has gone around will once again come around....just maybe.


Fr. Fred+

06 April 2010

The Flight of Fear

One of the most powerful reflective words in the English language is "fear." It strikes a discordant note in the hearts of the most stalwart persons. Accusing another of being afraid has caused wars and untold pain. The emotion that is described as "fear" can paralyze entire groups of people and obscure/distort the images and events directly in front of them.

On the other side of this coin, "fear" is the most misunderstood and misused word in the English language. It is adequate to describe one type of emotional response to a circumstance, but the word is used to describe a whole range of emotions that really aren't fearful. It is a word used to provoke others into actions that may have absolutely no grounding in the reality of the moment. Human emotions are the most shallow and least trustworthy bases for action known in creation. The law describes certain types of murder as "crimes of passion" (read: emotion).

In his first inaugural address in 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt stated, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself..." Those words were spoken at a time considered to be the worst of the Great Depression. Fear was rampant, and the American spirit at one of its lowest in history. Yet, Roosevelt -- himself suffering the slow but steady ravages of polio -- stood tall and spoke those words with a kind of authority that began to transform society and move it to a place of confidence and security.

Theologians and psychologists have been trying to get at the roots of human fear for generations. Both Carl Jung and Murray Bowen (MD, Psychiatrist who began his research at Menninger Clinic and later founded the Center For Family Process at Georgetown University Medical School) have been modern pioneers in placing fear appropriately within the frame of human character and sequential actions. It was Murray Bowen who isolated the "lineage" of fear, which is: anxiety leads to fear; fear leads to anger; anger leads to hatred; hatred leads to destruction. (Star Wars fans will remember Yoda quoting an abridged version of this).

To state this in a more practical way: We get worried, which raises a lot of fearful responses regarding the outcome of events about which we are worried. Fear festers like an inflammatory infection and finally bursts. This bursting forth is recognized as anger, which can take a variety of ugly forms. Anger can also fester and, like bone cancer, strike at the very heart of our character. The product of that process is hatred. Hatred can be expressed from benign neglect or prejudice to an outright hostile bigotry, judgmentalism and targeted aggression. Hatred, once released, is always destructive....to persons, property, environment, civilizations. Pure hatred knows no bounds in its destructive rampage.

The next time you get anxious, think of the experience as being the embryo of what could become a murderous debacle. Remember, also, murder includes actions which have nothing whatever to do with ending a physical life.

As I cast my thoughts and prayers toward Easter last week (I was preparing the sermon I preached on Easter Day), a little bit of sociology emerged. In the last three decades I have noticed that the generation represented by my parents ("The Greatest Generation" as termed by Tom Brokaw), were very invested in the totality of what we call the Triduum of Holy Week. These are the Holy Three Days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and The Great Vigil of Easter. As a child, the church would be nearly filled on these days...and then again for the Sunday Easter liturgies.

Now that The Greatest Generation is thinning out, we still see a number of folks at the Maundy Thursday Liturgy. It is bright and has a ring of confidence as we reflect upon and respond symbolically to the three commands of Jesus (servanthood, remembrance, watch/pray). Good Friday has become a truly lightly attended day of rites. Our subsequent generations are anxious and fearful people, when it comes to dealing with death, emptiness and desolation. There is a question to this that I will post out later.

Realizing the above is an over generalization, it reflects the reality that we are Easter people who don't have any idea what makes Easter happen. When I was a cathedral dean, we were having Easter Vigil after sunset on Saturday evening. The lights would be out, and ushers helped folks find seats in the darkened cathedral nave. One year, a newcomer who had never been to an Easter Vigil, entered the dimmed Narthex and looked into the dark, cavernous space. With wide eyes, he looked at us and exclaimed, "Wow, it's like a tomb in there!" Without missing a beat, my Honorary Canon (Leonel Mitchell, retired professor of sacramental theology at Seabury-Western Seminary) smiled broadly and said, "Yes, isn't it?" That was the idea.

We fear the dark, because we often fear what we cannot see. That's why agnosticism, cynicism and complacency about things spiritual gains a foothold in our lives. St. Paul said it well, "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the Living God." Try this line of logic: compassion leads to healing; healing leads to threat to the control of others; threat to control leads to conspiracy; conspiracy leads to uprising; uprising leads to false accusation; false accusation leads to death; death leads to resurrection. THAT is the Easter logic. It continues to often be the way of humanity and, unfortunately, the Church (take this on faith).

The compassion of Jesus created the circumstances around which many were healed. It was an outward sign of spiritual wholeness. This infuriated the Sanhedrin, because it threatened the control they had over the general population in Israel. The Sanhedrin conspired to have Jesus brought up on trumped charges (sedition). That conspiracy stoked the fires of doubt and judgment. Jesus was condemned, crucified and laid to rest, by his friends, in a tomb. There it is, the bloody tomb! Can't get around it folks.

The gateway to healing was opened by an act of God's very deep love for every person. Consider how small we are in the scope of the universe...possibly smaller than the size of the smallest bacteria on our planet. We cannot fathom that we are microscopic in the larger scheme of things. YET, we are not lost to God, who infuses us with love so intense that God invested Self among us in Jesus and opened the gate to experience the expanse of Kingdom. Ponder this for a time. It is transformational.

I close with part of a blessing attributed to St. Clare. Clare with the dear friend of St. Francis. She founded the Order of the Poor Ladies as a companion order for Francis's Order of Poor Friars. Both were later known as the Order of St. Clare and the Order of St. Francis. The quote below was part of a reflection by Clare, completed around 1249.

"Live without fear: your Creator has made you holy, has always protected you, and loves you as a mother. Go in peace to follow the good road, and may God's blessing be with you always."

Easter Blessings!

Fr. Fred+

01 April 2010

Three Days

Some events stand out in life as if they happened just yesterday. One can remember the sights, sounds, smells, people, places and feelings as if they were coursing through the senses at this very moment. Such was my experience on 30 March, when I prayed for my Dad, who died on that date in 1968. I was 17 years old, a senior in high school, at our senior prom. Just a shade more than two months before my graduation from Winter Haven High School (Central Florida). In a moment, that whole evening and following day flooded into the present.

My Dad turned 54 just four days prior to his untimely death (26 March). He was in the hospital, after having a heart attack on 22 March. It was a second major heart attack that struck him down in the hospital that Saturday night 42 years ago. Had he lived, he would be 96 years old now.

Last night, Denise and I went to one of our favorite pizza parlors to celebrate her Dad's birthday. He was born on 31 March 1919 (Frank Dama was a first generation Italian-American and made the best pizza I have ever had). Somewhat like my Dad, "Dad Frank" died two weeks after we announced Denise's pregnancy with our first child. Somewhat like my Dad, he and Denise's Mom were on a trip and in a hotel room in Richmond, VA -- where he quietly and suddenly succumbed to a heart attack. That was on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend 1984. Frank would be 91 had he lived to this moment.

These are not macabre stories but life events that have shaped members of my family and framed my own journey as a son, friend, brother, husband and father. As I experienced the "re-membering" of my Dad's death on 30 March 1968, it wasn't me going back to that moment and those times. I have done that (years ago) and found myself only wallowing in the sentiment of a 17 year old who had no experiences of life by which to compare the tragedy that seemed to overpower me at that time. Instead, the event came to me as a "presence of moment" -- and I was placing myself, the 59 year old son who did graduate from high school, graduated from college, served in the armed forces, completed graduate school and engaged the world as a parish priest for better than three decades. Now, having wrestled with death and witnessed the deaths of colleagues, friends, parishioners and patients too numerous to count, my perspective is different.

I am not immune to the pain of death. If anything, I have become much more sensitive to it. I know it by sight, sound, smell and touch. I've journeyed with those who have grieved their losses. I have grieved with them in my own heart...privately in order to be fully present to them in their moment.

In the early morning hours of 3 March 2009, I received a call I had dreaded for several weeks. It was the younger brother of one of my very dearest friends and colleagues, Fr. Paul Wolfe. Paul had died shortly before...after nearly four years of struggle with cancer. This was really close to home. Paul and I were only four months apart in age. Both of us grew up in Central Florida. We were classmates during our graduate studies at Nashotah House Seminary. We partnered in the operation of a consulting organization for the Church until I left to be Dean of the Cathedral in South Bend, IN in 1993. We talked and emailed regularly over the years...and almost daily over the four years of his illness. When one looks into the coffin of a friend like that, it is much like looking into a mirror.

I was a patient at St. Luke's Hospital the two days prior to the first anniversary of Paul's death. Chest pain and vascular issues had created concern for my cardiologists, and they determined that I would have a cardiac catheterization....immediately. It would be my third such procedure, since the discovery of the genetic condition that laid me out in the cathedral, January 1995. The results showed nothing new...in fact, remarkably clear coronary arteries and very good heart pressures. The problem? A change in medication that led to coronary artery spasms....chest pain. Back on the original med and no more chest pain.

The morning after my release from the hospital, I was engaged in contemplative prayer and giving thanks for renewed health. Paul "came to me" without my specifically thinking of this being the anniversary date. Again, this moment was not going back to the feelings and experiences of that week a year ago (I preached at his Requiem liturgy). Instead, the event came to me as an invitation into the present. What have I learned about myself and my life since that week? What have I learned about others and the capacity to be open to the painful moments of their journeys? Have I grown and changed? Or, have I simply wallowed in the mire of self-pity, fear and attendant anxieties surrounding the inevitabilities of this life journey?

From that, I took the mantra that I put forth in my last blog. I am aging --- NOT getting old.

Now that we have entered the holiest three days of the Christian Year (known historically as the Triduum Sacrum), the temptation is to engage the liturgies of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and the Great Vigil of Easter as us looking back at the historical moments of those three days of Jesus' life. Nothing could be farther from the truth!

Nothing has changed in history about the human condition. We may be more sophisticated intellectually. We may have become a more compassionate and just people (MAYBE, but that is for the next blog). We still, however, must answer questions about who we are; why we are here; and what is our ultimate purpose.

If we are to do this in a manner that points us forward, we must place ourselves in these liturgies as a participant in the event as it is being made present to us right now...in the moment. "Love one another, as I have loved you." "Do this in remembrance of me." "Watch and pray with me." We must do that this Maundy Thursday night. "Why have you forsaken me." "I thirst." "Into your hands I commend my spirit." We must engage this struggle and pain on Good Friday. "He is not here, he has risen." "Why do you seek the living among the dead." "Touch me and know the truth." We must embrace what it means to be healed, restored and incorporated into the Body (salvation).

These Three Holy Days are our days. It is the "Presence of Moment" that brings all that has transpired into the experiences we are now having in this moment of our history. It is what we will take away from this that will determine how we grow forward....grow forward.


Fr. Fred+