29 June 2010

On The Track

It was 29 June 1978, and I was still 27 years old (I am a November baby born in 1950). 26 days earlier, I had received my Master's Degree at Nashotah House and moved my then relatively meager belongings and collection of professional books to my new job at Christ Church, Springfield, MO. I then drove to Orlando, FL, which was the See City of my home diocese (Central Florida).

On 22 June all of us who had just graduated from seminaries from Central Florida gathered with Bishop Folwell and a staff of clergy and lay specialists in the canonical areas of proficiency at Camp Wingman. A four day series of oral exams followed. At that time, our diocese required the Master's Degree, the successful completion of the General Ordination Exams (on the same level of law or med boards...given to all senior seminarians in the Episcopal Church in January....seven grueling days of in-class examination and writing of essays in all seven canonical essays) and the successful completion of the diocesan oral examination. These exams were anything but objective, but examiners could tell how well we functioned under pressure and how our knowledge could be flexed with convoluted questions.

Now, on the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul -- 29 June -- I stood at the Altar Rail of St. Luke's Cathedral, Orlando with six other candidates. We were about to be ordained to the Transitional Diaconate. With assignments in various places, we would work as Deacons for a period of six months. If all went well, we would then be ordained to the Priesthood. The vocational journey was now almost underway!

There were seven of us ordained to the Transitional Diaconate that evening in Orlando. Three of us had graduated from Nashotah House. The other four from one of the other ten seminaries in the Episcopal Church USA. I no longer remember which ones. We were about to be scattered to almost the four corners of the United States. Central Florida was turning out a lot of priests in those years. I was the average age of seminary graduates, and jobs were not plentiful at that time. Central Florida had one postion for an Assistant open. My dear friend, Paul Wolfe, got that position by actually doing a summer internship in the parish that hired him. West Missouri had no one emerging from seminary, and I got "loaned" to Christ Church, Springfield. Therein lies a story fit only for memoirs...not a blog.

Of the seven of us ordained on 29 June 1978, four of us are still active in parochial ministry. One left the Episcopal Church for a breakaway entity. One retired due to health issues. My friend and "co-conspirator" in both serious endeavors and occasional hijinks, Paul Wolfe, died from cancer in March 2009.

My "pay entry date" for retirement purposes was 1 July 1978. It is when I technically started at Christ Church. I drove back to Missouri two days after ordination and began actual work on 5 July. June 1978 was a whirlwind month of proportion that astounds me upon reflection as an older person. I was known for high energy, quick response, dogged determination and theological acumen. I ran 10 miles a day, ate sparingly and practiced Hatha Yoga faithfully...at 5:00am every morning but Sunday. My long runs were five days a week and worked into either lunch hours or after my workday....rain, shine, snow, heat and cold -- sometimes at 10:00pm through the Southwest Missouri State University campus that was less than five blocks from my apartment. Stamina was the name of the game. My ordination picture from those days appears on my Facebook photo page.

I was ordained a Priest six months -- to the day -- later. Bishop Arthur Vogel ordained me on 29 December 1978 at Christ Church....on a cold, icy Friday morning. Even with the weather, the church was full. I will never forget either of those ordination days! Powerful and unusual things happen during those sacramental rites. Something inside changed. For me, it was a palpable and rather radical shift in character...state of being.

I began my vocational struggle (it's like a caterpillar trying to emerge from a cocoon...those years of preparation for ordination) with a plan NOT to be a parish priest. My plan was to finish a Ph.D. and teach in a seminary or university setting. God is much bigger than we are, and, as my journey unfolded, one parish experience led to another and yet another. I developed specialties for which I never believed I had gifts. I learned to compensate for areas where it was clear I was not gifted. There is an "economy" of spirituality that creates balance -- if the individual and community are patient and willing to seek complementary functions in community. I found this to be the hardest lesson for both priest and people.

Today, I sit in my office at St. Andrew's, Kansas City, MO -- Diocese of West Missouri. I have come full circle in my travels, without ever meaning or intending to do so. When I went back to Central Florida in 1980, I thought that was it in terms of general place. Today is the 32nd anniversary of my ordination to the Transitional Diaconate, and I have been down a long road.

I no longer run...having shattered miniscus cartilidge in both knees (requiring surgery). I'm on borrowed time for a prosthetic right shoulder joint. My power lifting days are over. I still stretch and use yoga techniques. I now get aerobic with bicycles and elliptical machines. I deal with the kinds of limitations that age creates -- though I still have a lot of energy and stamina. Stamina can now be also measured by how much crisis I can absorb and maintain both objectivity and balance. That comes only with experience.

My office now has a library of almost 800 books....35 years of reading, research and shifting interests in the theological disciplines. I love these books. They are extensions of experience and define a good portion of my universe. I have written extensively; been published a few times; taught thousands of hours; preached hundreds of sermons; faithfully followed my Benedictine Rule of contemplative prayer and in-depth study. I have been been married almost 30 years, and we have raised two wonderful, bright and engaging daughters. They are launched into life apart from us. We have lost parents, siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles. We have gained second and third cousins, nieces, nephews and countless dear friends.

My hair is now silvered, slightly thinner and not quite (but almost) as long as when I was ordained. I carry some extra weight and struggle with the issues of genetics....heart, vascular and joint conditions. Medco pharmaceuticals, providing our clergy insurance with long-term prescriptions, knows me well. I hate this part. I have always loved my self-sufficiency. It is now more restricted. I am dependent on others for my well-being. An important lesson is being learned here.

Parish Priesthood has hugely opened my vistas. I have no patience for prejudice, bigotry and closed minds. I have almost no patience with passive-aggressive and passive-dependent behaviors. I am barely tolerant of those caught up with self-importance. My love for persons in general has expanded exponentially...regardless of culture, creed, orientation or socio-economic place. I soak up their wisdom and reflections like a sponge. Constantly confronting pain, grief, brokenness, and transformation has made me more progressive, tolerant and accepting. Like Desiderata suggests, I do walk more placidly amidst the noise and haste.

When I knelt before the Altar at St. Luke's Cathedral, Orlando and awaited Bishop Folwell's hands to rest on my head and his prayer of ordination...calling down the Holy Spirit...I wondered what others might think. Now, I am blessed with not worrying about that much at all. I am God's person. Period.

Thirty-two years, six parishes, thousands of people, weddings, funerals, Eucharists...teaching, proclaiming, caring, counseling, directing, praying, laughing, crying and walking in places most others might not care to tread both in the world and deep within souls. It is the ordained life. One gift given: I am rarely frozen in fear. I keep moving. My spiritual feet still seem quite agile. It is truly a gift!


Fr. Fred+

02 June 2010

Paying the Price

Today's edition of the "Kansas City Star" has an article that begins at the bottom right of the front page. Its author, Amy Sherman is a licensed mental health counselor and has a website at http://www.bummedoutboomer.com/ . We Baby Boomers may not consider ourselves "bummed out," but her article certainly makes a point worthy of reflection: "Come on Baby Boomers, Get Happy!"

Sherman shares that a Pew Research on Demographic Trends has found that, of all generations, Baby Boomers are the unhappiest and most discontent. I checked into this research and found that the data is overwhelming in this regard. It also reveals that Boomers are the biggest consumers of prescription antidepressants and have the largest number of stress and anxiety related physical illnesses. Reading this study made me both somewhat depressed and anxious....but, hey, I am a Baby Boomer.

Amy Sherman provides several ways to "get happy." To see these, one can go to http://www.kansascity.com/ and type "Baby Boomers get happy" in the search box. Her suggestions are good and reflect practical therapeutic approaches. As I thought about the article (while driving from home to the office), it occurred to me that something more profound has been happening over the past three decades of my vocation as a parish priest.

First, we boomers are those born from immediately after World War II (1945) through 1964. Our parents' generation had experienced the Great Depression, a massive war and stress/anxiety of proportions larger than anything since the Civil War, and nothing since has equaled their experiences as a culture. Yet, that generation seemed to have a resilience and capacity to deal with adversity that, frankly, staggers the imagination if considered for a moment.

Second, boomer parents tended to be more emotionally reserved and possessed a work ethic that was balanced with a reliance upon both societal and faith communities. As we grew, boomers tended to find our parents' style to be too restricting and emotionally constricting. The decade of the 1960s was both a psychological and cultural backlash to those and other perceived problems with the "establishment."

Third, boomers tend to think that our "rebellion" established new norms for culture. Actually, while we were altuistic, it was our parents' generation that enacted most of the culture-shift laws. It was also that generation that provided most of the sources of what would be considered "wealth" that we boomers tended to reject in those heady days of the late 60s and early 70s.

Fourth, inheriting that wealth from our parents, experimenting with communes and a society of love turned into a kind of driven, hedonistic quest for individualism the likes of which America had not known until its emergence in the mid/late 1970s. I may be overstating it a bit here, but research would bear out my observations I am sure.

The truth is, our (boomer) quest for a society of beauty, love and peace was very shallow. As we pressed for new freedoms, we also tended to reject the balance that our parents knew to be essential for healthy culture.....spiritual depth. For sure, we thought we were taking that next step into "deep awareness" and "communing with the cosmos." But that was actually only drug induced...a little help from LSD and other "mind blowing" and reality altering concoctions. I'm not making this up. I was there.

As we boomers were forced to take our place as the adults of society, and as our parents' generation began to phase out, our kneejerk reaction was to replace the quest for an altruistic society with a quest for individual authentication. Spiritual depth (now left behind in the flotsam and jetsam of our youthful rebellion) was replaced with possessions as the statement of ultimate worth and meaning. Remember the bumper sticker? "He Who Dies with the Most Toys Wins." Well, who's winning?

We boomers tended to raise our children (again, tending toward some generalization here) with our values...with a venere of expectation for making more, building more, achieving more and expecting more. Our parents left us a legacy, and we turned that legacy into an empire dedicated to "Me." Adult boomers with teenage children expect those children to be baptised, confirmed and married in churches that they, themselves, do not attend. After all, "Sunday is My only free day." Who's fault is that? We created the ethic that now powers our culture to be a 24/7 super mall of consumer choices.

While a vast majority of our parents worked hard to make it possible for the highest percentage of its offspring to attend institutions of higher learning at any time in history up until then; we boomers believe that such gifts were owed to us. Our offspring tend largely to be spoiled into believing that they need do nothing to attain what previous generations considered luxuries. My brother and I had parents who worked hard; and we enjoyed vacations, good food, good educations and relative security. I still had to earn the money for my first car and pay for my graduate studies. Our generation of children have expected (and most often received) their first cars, "full boat" educations at top ranked schools and high paying jobs right out of college.

We boomers have done so much...and all on a value system that is deprived of depth and spiritual empowerment. Some are opening eyes to that error, as the end of life draws closer. We wake up feeling as though we have gone to hell already. Well, if we have, it is our own fault. God, like an ever-loving parent, continues to wait for us to realize just how far astray we have gone. .

I realize that I wax somewhat cynical. It is generally not my way of doing things. The cup, for me, tends to be always half-full. As Memorial Day came upon us this year, I watched several movies that reflected a level of values and character that opened to me the reality of what we have squandered and the shallow legacy we are leaving our children. I tend to note that our children are seeing that shallowness.

One of my parishioners called my office this past fall and berated my administrative assistant about my refusal to allow his son to be confirmed at the same age he was. He bemoaned the fact that his son was now exploring Buddhism and blamed me for making this happen. Good try! The truth is, his son probably looks at his parents' generation (mine) as being shallow with expectations that do not fit with their reality. To wit: this son's parents never exhibit a depth of spirituality commensurate with their expectations for their children. This shallowness is transparent. Our children want more. If the Church of their parents can't do it, another faith tradition just might. We are not post-Christian my friends. We are post-boomer. It's our own fault.

I am passionate in my love for the Living, Transcendent God...revealed in Jesus. I have not always shown that to my own children, and I am a priest. Somewhere in the early 1970s, I awoke to the reality that where my generation was going tended toward a kind of nosedive. Did I escape? Not really. Enough rejection existed in me to expect more of my own children than was healthy. There is a cost to that.

As I approach age 60, I'm working toward a shift. Perhaps Alvin Toffler was right. I hope not totally. Now, I am working to create spaces of spiritual depth and creative exploration of Reality that is balanced...making folks whole. There is a price to pay for that as well. I am beginning to pay my share of the cost for living and teaching the Truth. It is not God who is exacting the price. Guess who?


Fr. Fred+