14 December 2011

"I Was So Much Older Then......"

My thanks to the song, "My Back Pages," originally written and recorded by Bob Dylan and later done by The Byrds (I have both on iTunes).  This song provided inspiration for a meditation I did earlier this morning, and I recommend either version for some thoughtful reflection....especially for us Boomers.

There are some questions that just need not be asked.   The reason for this is that there are no true, definitive answers.  This was brought home to me in a recent conversation with my friend and confidant, Rainbow Mooon (her actual name...no misspellings...a story not mine to tell).  There are five valid types of questions to ask in any given situation:  Who, What, When, Where & How.   Any question framed in those five categories will provide concrete data.  The missing question type is, Why. 

To ask a "why" question seems fundamental to our nature from the time we are old enough to speak and gather information around us.  We who are parents well remember the incessant, "But why mommy/daddy?" to any of our directions or instructions.  We often ended it in frustration by stating, "because I am your mom/dad and said so, that's why."   So, the nature of command and authority begin to be ingrained in our inquisitive child.

What's wrong with a "why" question anyway?   Simply put:  There is no true data to support an answer.  The ultimate "why" of anything is a mystery.  In parish ministry, the most common question to come to a priest is in the form of "why."  Most of the time, it is a misuse of language.  What the asker means is one of the other five types of questions.  Example:  "Why do we have to do premarital counseling?"  Really, it is a "what" question.  "What rules or authority guides your requirement that we have premarital counseling?"

So, you think I am parsing the language too thinly here?  Not so fast.  Using the example above.  If one followed the string created by the "why" question of premarital counseling, one would have to take in the entire history of canon law; the data that supports the experiences of countless marriages and pastoral preparations; the moral and ethical standards of couples actually lying in order to facilitate their marriage in the Church (happens all the time folks...especially these days); and a host of other factors that may be lost to us.  This does not even take into consideration the non-spatial reality of the Holy Spirit's engagement in the process of Christian Marriage.  The answer, "Because I am the Rector and the Church says so," doesn't cut it in truth.  In fact, the "what" of this example is the very fact that the Canons of the Church require it, and I, as the Rector, am charged by my bishop to enforce said Canons.  That's what guides the decision.

Applying a geometric approach:  Our use of "why" questions is precipitated by linear thinking, which is "cause and effect."  In asking "why," one expects to have a "because" answer that follows a logical, linear path.  If one cannot answer definitively, then one is not doing his/her job or is incompetent in that job.  Church Vestries (or boards) are masters at demanding answers to why something isn't working, or why numbers aren't up.  I have never, in 33 years found the real answer to that question to be satisfying to any Vestry member.  In fact, I stopped answering "why" questions altogether some years ago.  That really pissed people off.   However, the answer, "because it seemed right to the Holy Spirit to not go in that direction..." (or some equally biblically sound but seemingly nebulous answer) created a room full of glazed over eyes.  The true agnosticism of the modern Church comes out in those moments.  Not pretty.  So, I would simply remain quiet or say, "I have no response to that at this time."  Better for leadership to be seething with anger rather than risking the exposure of a shallow spirituality.  I gave them the former "out."

To complete the geometric approach, the five authentic types of questions have a constellation of approaches in achieving an answer.  They are questions that create and sustain community ownership and challenge relational integrity.  Parishes often go through priests almost as fast as the NFL and NCAA go through head football coaches.  The "why" blames a person, whereas the other five types of questions call the entire system to accountability.  We are a scapegoat people.

While recently at Mayo Clinic for a consult and tests on my right shoulder, I picked up the most recent "Spirituality and Health" magazine.  One of the regular contributors is Thomas Moore.  Moore is a theologian, former Roman Catholic monk, therapist and writer.  He is most widely known for his ground breaking work, "Care of the Soul."   He has just published a new book, "Care of the Soul in Medicine."  I had noted some material of his in one of the Mayo departments during my moving around for tests.

Moore's article was entitled, "Natural Mysticism."  His premise is that institutional religion is diminishing.  He cites a number of factors but summarizes by stating, "I believe and hope that the objectifying, mechanistic, materialistic, disenchanting, fully secular philosophy that has dominated much of modern life is ending."  He had already stated that the Church (as a total tradition) had bought into this, and the world is passing it by. 

What replaces this?  According to Moore, a mystical approach the likes of which has not yet been seen (not a return to a past experience).  He acknowledges, in another article, that a profound shift has already taken place in created order.  This shift in energy is much like going from digital to HD.  It is subtle, but powerful.

When I was a young adult student of theology and a new priest, I believed I did have all the answers...neatly bundled and based on all I had learned up to the point of my ordination.  I lived in that heady fog of assurance for quite some time.  Just ask me "why," and I could give you assured reasons and the books to prove my points. 

Along the way, I have come to realize that the mystical way, described by Thomas Moore as being the causal and sacred spaces behind and just underneath our spatial based reality.  We might think of mysticism as some kind of easy, fluffy, puffy kind of spirituality.  In fact, the natural mystical experience is "the most grounded, intelligent and challenging kind" of spirituality (quote is Thomas Moore the the above cited article).

I was seemingly so much older and wiser at the beginning of this journey.  I am younger than that now.  The freshness of seeing the world as sacred space holding our reality ever so tenderly and surrounding it lovingly has given me a broader perspective and a deeper appreciation for the life I have been given.  To ask "why" is to enter this mystery and to create a balance with it and the daily world in which we live.  It is the tradition of Meister Ekhart, Julian of Norwich, Thomas Merton, Henry David Thoreau, and many more who could see where we were heading and dared to give us a peek.

Now is the time of our awakening!

In the Joy of the Nativity of Christ Jesus,

Fr. Fred
Sat Nam

03 December 2011

The Coming

The Christian season of Advent really does seem to sneak up on us.  I think it has something to do with the activities of the late summer/fall seasonal cycle of school, work, sports and the many preoccupations that make the days seem to pass all too quickly.  I just celebrated my 61st birthday and awoke to the reality that, just yesterday, I was thinking I still had three months until the event.  The "yesterday" was three months ago.  Now, here I was, driving to meet a dear friend for a birthday lunch and caught with the realization that it was now.  It also meant that we had crossed into that season called "Advent"... the Coming.

Since my retirement, at the end of June, from active parish ministry, I have operated outside the intimacy of the liturgical year.  As a parish priest, my life was driven by the engine of liturgical planning and the liturgical year....the inexorable cycle of moving through the calendar year in a sacred manner.  Even with retirement, I have noticed that the "liturgical clock" keeps working somewhere deep inside.  I just no longer have to plan and structure the environment in which that will be expressed.  Now, I simply walk with it.  As I step into the parish at which I happen to be worshipping (either Saturday evening or Sunday morning), I am now a passenger and sojourner in the environment created by others.  For a guy like me, it took some getting used to .... turning my mind from planning, design, teaching, preaching to opening my heart for the experience into which I step.

Entering this Advent season, I carry some burdens that drive my daily schedule.  There is the sale of our home and keeping everything at prime readiness for the next potential buyer's visit with an agent.  There is always tweeking, touching up and cleaning up to keep everything as close to readiness as possible.

There is the purchase of our townhome in Sarasota, FL.  It is in the process of being built as part of the development's final stage of completion.  Not as much is required of us at this point.  The major work was accomplished between the end of July and the first part of October.  We are now in something of a waiting stage...being kept informed at every stage of building by the really good staff of folks who have guided us through the process.  This is an anticipatory experience.  It is the coordination of the sale of this house with the closing on the townhome that creates the minor anxiety.

Then, there is the change in my "new" shoulder joint.  Even though the surgery was almost fourteen months ago, I really felt that I was only beginning to know this new titanium friend connecting my arm to my torso.  Something began to change in the latter part of July, and mobility decreased from about 95% to probably about 40% in the space of a month.  Pain began to replace the relative calm of post healing life with a replaced joint.  At first, it was thought to be scar tissue forming (which happens).  Renewed therapeutic exercises did nothing to help.  Then, with xrays, it seemed as though I might have torn part of the rotator cuff system...much of which has to be cut during surgery to get to the bones that make the joint.  A CT scan and other tests showed no tears but a lot of inflammation and fluid build up.  Infection?  Two aspirations and cultures showed no infection.  Now, I am heading to Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN for an evaluation and consult with the orthopedist considered the best in the country for this kind of thing.  My surgeon here set this up.

Three words move through my mind as I experience life in this season:  Now, Should, Ought.  One might rightly ask what these words can possibly have in common.  My experience of them come after years of living sacred cycles and now exercising the contemplative practices.

Let's start with the future tense words.  Should suggests that there may be some directive to accomplish an act or  a task in a specific manner or time frame.  How often have we said to ourselves, "I should go to the grocery store tomorrow."  Or, "You should rethink your decision about that job."  It implies that self or the one speaking has the correct end result in mind and/or there is some kind of law "out there" that demands our movement in that particular direction.

Ought suggests that there is an obligation to function in a specific manner.  It is a stronger word than "should."  It implies that the one using the word knows exactly what must be done and lays the obligation upon the receiver to do it.  The speaker is also suggesting that he/she knows what is best for the other, and the other risks rejection if it is not done.  Examples:  "You ought to take that job offer."  "As a good Christian, you ought to believe this way (name it)."  Of course, we can "ought" ourselves...as if there is an internal policeman or judge enforcing a law.

It is my earnest opinion that the words "should" and "ought" need to be removed from our active language.  Someone recently told me that, in my retirement, I should engage in a specific program of activity for my future.   While still in parish ministry, a parishioner sat in my office and told me, "You should never have been a parish priest."  This, after 31 years of doing that work.  What omniscience do these folks possess that they know the direction of the Holy Spirit.  Should and ought border on blasphemous language.

What about "now?"   The suggestion is obvious.  It is the moment.  It is the time, space, and action that is taking place as we engage life in "real time."  It is an unfolding.  And, now is eternal.

That last statement above may catch us out a bit.  Now is eternal?  Yes, because it is always now.  Now never leaves us.  It call us to be present to ourselves, to our environment and to one another in the moment.  That moment is always here.  How  much time is spent bemoaning what we "should have done" or "ought to have done."  It's wasted energy and time.  It calls us to realize that we are not perfect or omniscient.  If so, we would have known and done what we now regret.  Instead, why not simply affirm the thoughts and actions of the past and determine what needs to be done now to adjust the actions of this moment.  The past becomes a resource for being now.

We do have some obligation to plan and prepare for the future, but cannot write the script.  Life -- both spatial and eternal -- is fluid.  I could not have anticipated that the work ahead of me would include probably having my "new" shoulder replaced and undergoing whatever procedure and process will lead to healing the mess in that joint.  We had no idea that we would be moving to Florida until literally 10 days before I retired.  Even then, it didn't become a more solid reality until late July.  The future of life is always fluid.  All that we have that is concrete are the actions, thoughts and engagement of now.

While Advent literally means "Coming."  It is what we do now that makes us ready to receive the Grace of God in Christ Jesus.  It is now that opens us to the full experience of God's Love.  It is now that awakens us to the presence of the Kingdom and the insight into our purpose for being.

As I write this, I look out the window at the barren maple tree in our front yard and the pin oak, whose bronze leaves hold tenaciously to the branches until spring buds or strong winds push them away.  In the moment, they look dead.  But they simply sleep for a time.  They are in the moment of their reality.

Can we be so present to our moment that we respond with the fullness of life and light?  Every moment is a now to be embraced and celebrated.  Only if the lamps remain lighted will we be present for the bridegroom's arrival.  Our destiny is always......now!

In Christ's Love,

Fr. Fred+
Sat Nam

16 November 2011

Sit In It

In the 1991 movie, Fisher King, Robin Williams plays the part of a once successful married man whose wife was one of a number of persons killed by a rampant gunman in a restaurant.  Williams' character loses himself after a period of catatonia and lives as a homeless guy.  Jeff Bridges plays the radio personality who believes himself the cause of the psychotic gunman going on the rampage.  It is a movie worth seeing for a lot of reasons.

Occasionally, in the movie, Robin Williams' character is confronted by the vision of a fiery red knight on horseback charging him.  Williams' character is terrified and flees for his life each time.  As my wife and I watched this movie in a theater, she finally had to punch me, because, each time the red knight appeared I would audibly exclaim, "turn and face him dammit!"  My advanced psychology training is a combination of Jungian analysis and Bowen Theory.

Writer, Ursula Leguin, created a series in the late 1970s that has come to be known as The Earthsea Trilogy.  The books are about a wizard named Ged and his journey through life.  The first book centers on his development.  His mentor sends him to the special school for those gifted as wizards.  In the cockiness of his youth, he conjures a deeply dark figure that kills one of his teachers and begins pursuing Ged all over Earthsea.  Finally, exhausted and near death, Ged finds himself at the home of his childhood mentor.  After nursing him to health, the mentor tells Ged that he must cease running and turn to face this hideous dark creature.  When Ged and his conjured dark monster finally meet and grapple, Ged's eyes are opened to the reality that the creature is his own dark side and ultimate death...the two aspects of being we are most afraid to encounter.

We recently celebrated All Saints' in the Christian calendar of festivals.  We have done serious injustice to the saints by placing them on pedestals and pronouncing them as perfect...as if they had no shadow side or capacity for error, anger, fear or maliciousness.   Thomas Merton called our common view of saints as "plaster casts that only represent a false reality."  For many years, I was one of those that Merton was speaking to.

Shortly after the death of my mother in late 1987, I felt myself stuck in what seemed like a thick, sucking mud.  I went to see a psychotherapist friend for insight.  Her first question to me was, "what do you most want to be when you finish here?"  Without blinking or hesitating, I blurted, "...A Saint!"  I found myself in gales of tears.  Her measured response to my stunning revelation was, "Well, my friend, you have set yourself a rather impossible goal don't you know..."

My father had died suddenly of a heart attack just a few weeks prior to graduation from high school in 1968.  It was a huge loss for a 17 year old, who actually treasured his dad (though we did have our disagreements).  It took me 19 years to realize that I had been running from his death...and...thereby...from my own.  He was only 54 years old.  Mom was 64 when she died.  The monster was stalking me, and I was next in line!

This may not be an admission for a theologian to make, but it was my "red knight" and conjured dark monster.  I didn't really know it for a long time, but fear is the beginning of wisdom..if one is willing to make the journey.   And, the journey begins with confronting the spectre and asking, "who are you and what do you want?"

I won't rehearse the full details of what amounts to a 43 year journey.  However, I will tell you what I learned.  Like Jacob wrestling with the angelic being, I have ultimately turned on my pursuers, asked the questions above, grabbed them and wrestled them to the ground of my being.  There I sat with them until they would speak.   A conversation then could ensue.  Fear dissipated.

Now I face a new challenge.  In retirement, the road upon which I journey makes a curve.  The vista shifts and becomes unfamiliar.  It isn't quite the same horizon.  The shoulder that was expertly replaced a year ago with a titanium joint has a "spectre" within it....yet to be definitively diagnosed.   When I shared my fear with a wise friend last week, she gave me gracious counsel and insight.   The shoulder is a symbol of carrying weight or a load.  What are the aspects of your inner reality (she asked) that would create a joint failure and possible infection of this magnitude?  She did not answer the question for me, when I couldn't (I stood looking, I think, like a deer in the headlights....very unusual for me).  Instead, she smiled, rested a caring hand on mine and said, "Go sit in it."

I knew exactly what she meant.  Enter the contemplative place, face the shadowy figures and ask for direction.  What part of me am I avoiding?  The answer is, as yet, only partial.  The initial emerging "red knight" in my second contemplative period this past Friday (11/11) was my own mantra as a young priest:  "Nothing dies on my shift!"  The second "red knight" appeared later that day...out of the blue while working around the house:  "We do not raise quitters.

Well, when did this new problem begin with a shoulder that was healing so nicely?  About a month after my retirement.  Obviously, I have some things that need to be wrestled down and engaged.  I am now "sitting in" this morass of renewed and resurrected monsters. 

Grace is a good weapon.  Of equal importance is the capacity to integrate one's life experiences...see them all as part of a continuum that is all loved and necessary.  There is no failure.  Nothing dies.  One doesn't quit, because there is nothing to quit.  It is a constant evolution and growth.  This current frontier is nothing less than the integration of soul with mind and body.  

Oh, but you say, you are a priest.  Didn't you do that  long time ago?  I've done a lot of things and traveled a long road.  Now the fullness of it confronts me.  I am my only measure of meaning at this juncture.  Oneness is the capacity to be an authentic self in concert with all other authentic selves.  It's the definition of the Kingdom of Heaven.  Jesus said that the "Kingdom is at hand."  Meaning:  It can happen among us now.  The unfolding begins!   Digital to HD for techies.....

My love in Christ,

Sat Nam

30 October 2011

The Seventy/Fifty-Five Rule of Life

Our mother lived on Anna Maria Island (just off Bradenton, FL...south end of Tampa Bay) from 1980 until her unexpected death near the end of 1987.  Her favorite restaurant on the island was a place called "Fast Eddie's."  It was known for great seafood with an enjoyable family atmosphere.  At some point in almost every visit to mom's house, we found ourselves at that restaurant.  It is no longer there, but I have great memories.

At "Fast Eddie's" there was a sign posted over the pass-through from the kitchen area to where the wait-staff would pick up orders for customers that read:  "If you are not proud of it, don't serve it."

Think about that.  The folks waiting tables did not buy the seafood, vegetables, etc.  They were not involved in either cooking it or arranging the plates for presentation.  The only thing the servers did was to deliver the product of that process from the kitchen to the customer.  Yet, the sign suggests that the servers had a stake in those dishes being served.  They needed to be proud of what they delivered.  It meant that they had to know what it needed to look and taste like.  That's a pretty big responsibility.  Plus, how did they know what their customer would experience with the delivered product?  What my experience of foods, spices and cooking methods calls forth from me on a particular menu item may not be at all like that of the person sitting at the next table with the exact same menu item.  If I tell my server that the dish is wonderful, and my next table neighbor sends his/her dish back, because its not suitable, who is right?   Is it the buyer, distributor, fisherman or farmer?  Ah, the conundrum of ethics and diversity.

Let me provide one more example.  On 6 October 2010, an orthopedic surgeon replaced the joint in my right shoulder with a titanium prosthetic joint....a procedure that took a bit more than 4 hours due to the level of joint deterioration and collateral muscle/tendon damage.  The surgeon is considered to be one of the best in his field for this kind of surgery in the KC area. 

In early summer, I began to experience pain and reduced mobility in that shoulder.  The surgeon's office examination shows a shift in the prosthetic joint indicative of a muscle/tendon breech.  Lab tests and a CT scan (can't do MRIs with a metal system) will indicate if there is an infection or if one of the four muscles that make up the rotator cuff has torn.   Fact is, it is quite likely that I will face a second surgery on the same shoulder to correct whatever went wrong and the damage that it may have caused the overall system. 

The questions here include:  Did I do something wrong in my overall rehab process to create this new problem?  Did the surgeon do something in the first surgery that caused a muscle/tendon not to heal properly?  Did the maker of the prosthesis system miss a flaw in the titanium product that caused this new problem?   Do I blame one or both of my parents -- or ancestors -- for the degenerative arthritis that destroyed the joint?  How about the places I did weight training and the two accidents I had in doing military presses that damaged my shoulders years ago?  Ah, an ethical and diversity conundrum of a different nature!

These two examples may seem very different.  However, close examination points to a number of similarities.  The first is in a social dimension (restaurant and consumer communities).  The second is more internal or personal (me, my surgeon, the product and family of origin).  Otherwise, the process and resulting questions are identical.  That means there is a "rule" involved.  Here, the term "rule" means "measure."  Ethics involves the rule or measure by which standards are created.  Within those standards, there is the flexibility of individual experience and the evaluation of that experience.  It sounds somewhat complicated...and it is.  That's why being human and living in human community can often be a messy business. 

The recent clashes between police and the Occupy folks reflects such messiness.  If we understand the function of our democracy and the system framed in the Constitution for the culture we call the United States of America, it guarantees the freedom of expression and assembly.  Even though each of us enjoys the benefits of this system, it often happens that our neighbor has an entirely different experience of that system and its interpretation than we do personally.  The Tea Party folks call Occupy folks "Socialists."  The Occupy folks could call the Tea Party folks "Neo-Nazis" (I have not heard this, but socialism is considered to be the extreme "left" of the spectrum and neo-nazism is considered extreme right on that scale in political theory).  Name calling is a nasty and un-called-for business.  It presumes we know exactly what the other person is thinking and what motivates his/her actions.  It implies the danger that one person is more correct than the other.  Did my enjoyment of my restaurant meal mean that the customer at the next table, with the same meal, is wrong for not appreciating the same dish?  Or, vice-versa?   Is my experience of facing another surgery making me a better or worse patient than the person who has had the exact same surgery with the same surgeon and equipment and had no problems whatever since the first surgery?

One way to approach a workable platform in this apparent knot is in the marriage of Christian theology and Family Emotional Process (aka Bowen Theory).  Without a dissertation on either, I will summarize this way:  We can only really experience and engage the world through healthy self-definition  (personal experience and expression).  Each person has to know where he/she ends and the other person begins (boundaries).  We can only be responsible for our own actions.  We need to have a common ground for what are appropriate limits (ethics).  The healthy community is one that stays connected...even when expression of self  has diverse manifestations (as many as there are persons much of the time).  Spirituality is the experience of God in a person's life, and theology is the articulation of that experience.  So that we can tell the difference between a true experience of God and simply a behavioral projection of a person's mental content (dysfunction), the community uses the combined experiences to create a "system" to objectify and find common ground in the expression of  what we call Christianity.  We embrace diversity within that system.

My mentor in Family Emotional Process -- Dr. Edwin Friedman -- provided me with a socio-theological way of dealing with all this.  This is what I call the "70/55 Rule of Life." 
     1.  On a scale of 100, no one gets better than 70% in this life.  It means that 30% of the time we are in a willful modality (stuggling to have things our way on our terms). 
     2.  Those who function at 70% consistently are considered to be "saints." That means that even those we hallow, have been willful 30% of the time.
     3.  The average, healthy person functions at a 55% level.  Astounding as it may seem, this means that most of us are in a willful mode 45% of the time. 
     4.  Below an average of 55%, dysfunction begins to occur (neuroses, psychoses, spiritual and psychological disorders).  Going too low can lead to severe mental/spiritual dysfunction and institutionalization (to prevent danger to self or others).
     5.  To maintain a healthy spiritual and relational life, one needs to speak in clear "I" statements (self-definition); set limits (healthy boundaries); remain as emotionally neutral as possible in normal relationships (avoiding visceral responses/keeping healthy emotional distance); stay connected with others in healthy ways (staying in conversation, even with disagreement, and avoid cutting-off from others because they are different); practice a disciplined connection between one's mental and spiritual internal realities.

The last part of item #5 above is probably the hardest.  It is called by several names:  contemplative prayer, mindfulness, transparency, self-actualization -- to name a few.  As a priest in the Episcopal tradition, my vows include holding as valued the life of every person as well as holding before them the reconciling/healing Grace of God.  In a parish, that meant (I'm retired...reason for past tense) seeing each person who entered the church building on a Sunday morning as equally loved and embraced by God....regardless of socio-economic, cultural, political, theological, gender, orientation.   While not suspending my own orientations (political party, doctrinal parity, personal issues), I needed to create a space for everyone to feel both welcomed and safe.  No personal "axes" or agendas from the pulpit.  No "holding hostages" emotionally (eg., 'if you are a good Christian, you will do ___).  In large measure, I was able to achieve that. 

Now that I am retired, I am freer to express my own "take" on the issues of the moment.  I still find myself defending the right of Tea Party and Occupy folks to be vocal in the same system.  It is our system...called a democracy.  I find myself embracing those of different experiences of spirituality and exploring what that means to them...and ultimately to me.   It is quite a journey.

Okay, so who am I in all this?   A political progressive who is conservative on some issues and liberal on others.  I don't have a strict "party line" (though I am registered with a political party).  A theological centrist.  Most of my clergy colleagues might call me a tad conservative.  A social liberal.  It is a big tent and everyone is invited to be part of it.  I am an advocate for the social minorities and those who feel disenfranchised or marginalized.  I am commited to speaking my truth in love and to embracing those, whose positions/points of view, are different.   I defend their right to that opinion...even if it bothers the hell out of me.  I am committed to constant research and review so that my opinions and stances can shift and change to be more accountably accurate.  That is, to me, both the Gospel and my take on democracy...trying to live in the tension of  both.

In Christ's Love,

Fr. Fred
At Large and Running Amok
Lee's Summit, MO

13 October 2011

"First Law of Lethargy"*

*The title of this article is taken from the CREDO Eclectic article title by Herb Gunn.  His article in that newsletter (on Facebook) inspired my thinking along similar lines.

Background:  Sir Isaac Newton's first law of motion:  An object at rest will remain at rest unless acted on by an unbalanced force. An object in motion continues in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.

Retirement is an interesting endeavor.  Since I have never done it before, the only references as to the experience comes from those who have and are retired.  I am quickly learning that retirement is like fingerprints -- no two are alike.  For those not yet retired:  it is okay to listen to the experiences of others, or to watch those experiences emerge in others; but don't believe it will be the same for you.  It won't.

The first two months (July & August) were spent at a near frantic pace as we changed our entire plan for being settled in our Lee's Summit, MO home and community and shifted to the purchase of a not-yet-built townhome in Sarasota, FL.  This was not on our familial radar until literally days prior to my date of retirement. 

By the end of July, we had had made two trips to Sarasota -- the first at the very beginning of the month to look at opportunities and existing condos, villas and townhomes -- the second at the end of the month to finalize the contract on a townhome, which is part of a final phase of a condominium development.  In between, we completed enough paperwork to reforest the Amazon basin; spent countless time on telephones and emails; got to know the FedEx office folks on a first name basis (overnighting parts of contracts and mortgage initiating docs); had work done and did work ourselves on our current home to prepare it for the real estate market; divested ourselves -- room by room -- of thirty plus years of accumulated materials that did not meet our mutually agreed criteria:  do we absolutely love it; have we used it in the past two years; when we move, do we want to take it with us to the new home?   In the end, we are probably a good 2,500 lbs lighter in our earthly load.  I have to readily admit.  I don't miss anything and the house feels much larger and more peaceful.

The work of July continued into August.  Work on our current home moved outside.  While we have kept the house and yard in very good shape over the past eight years, fine-tuning, reworking and replacing schedules suddenly became compacted into these first two months.  While it placed a fair strain on the budget, we managed to complete about 95% of what we planned.  The other 5%?   They comprise our two basement storerooms.  We have a finished basement that is multi-use.  Off of it, there is the mechanical room with a lot of storage space and another room that could be made into almost any kind of space, but is used to store things that belong to our two daughters and items which have been categorized "undecided" in our sweeping simplification of life and belongings project of July/August.  We figure three days work max to complete the entire project.

We are now approaching mid-October.  Folks are looking at our current home, but no offers yet.  They have poured the foundation for the building of which our townhome will be a part in Sarasota (they send pictures almost weekly of the progress).  I have done Sunday supply occasionally, and we have worshipped in parishes in Lee's Summit and Independence.  We made a trip to South Bend, IN to co-host an engagement party for our younger daughter and her fiance.  I spent nine days in the Black Hills doing interviews that will, hopefully, lay the platform for a book I want to write (part of my original retirement plan).  I was accompanied on this trip by my dear friend, Don Palmer.  It was sacred time and space to be sure, as I showed him parts of the Hills not seen by tourists...but known to current Native Americans (Lakota, Cheyenne, and others) and indigenous peoples for at least the past thousand years.  Denise and I just finished a four-day trip to St. Louis for time together and sightseeing in celebration of our 30th wedding anniversary.  Oh, and I went to our diocesan priests' conference in between the Black Hills trip and our St. Louis trip.

So, my experience thus far of retirement has not included anything like "puttering about," or quiet days of reading, or even sleeping late for that matter.  Lethargy has not been a word to be applied to my experience to this point.  HOWEVER,  there is something unsettling about this particular manner of sustained motion.  It wobbles!

I never experienced a consistent routine in 33 years of parish ministry.  Parochial life has a certain rhythm, but it is regularly broken by the unexpected, the crisis, the emergency, or the issue that mark most days.  One really has to be a priest to know what a priest enounters.  Regardless of the jokes about "working only one day a week," a parish priest's life is not really his/her own.  After three months of not being in parish work, I look out the back door of our home, while sitting at our breakfast nook table and see the same scenes I have seen countless times in our eight years here.  BUT, it looks very different.  I realize that, for the first time, I am REALLY seeing the details, hearing the sounds of life, smelling the fragrances coming to me on the breeze wafting through the screen door.  I am engaging my environment.  I am becoming mindful.

I actually realized I was spiritually lethargic while on sabbatical in 2008.  My mentors, Ben Rhodd (Leading Eagle), Lyle Noisy Hawk and Martin Brokenleg patiently opened my eyes, ears, nose and heart to the vastness of and engagement with creation...as the Creator wants us to experience it.  I lived those three months of June-August 2008 in what the Celtic Christians called the "thin place" -- where heaven and earth touch.  It is vastly transformative.  It is also easily lost.

The expectations of daily life in the current culture do not recognize nor much permit walking in this thin place...even in the Church.  It is considered non-productive.  However, deeper exploration of scriptures and tradition show us that it is exactly the place God would have us live.  It is the place of transformative growth.  I thought I had lost that place after sabbatical.  I suddenly realize it has always been here.  It was I who was lost to it!

My forward movement is being impacted by forces that are actually balancing in nature -- contrary to Newton's first law of motion.  My lethargy has not been one of lack of motion but lack of mindfulness -- non-attention to the deeper realities around me. 

Folks I regularly engage tell me that my eyes are brighter, my walk is more relaxed, I laugh more easily, and I have a more laid-back attitude.  My friends who work at the local Starbuck's have started calling me "The Dude."  My hairstyle and demeanor remind them of the Jeff Bridges character in "The Big Lebowski" (a Cohen Brothers movie that has re-emerged as a cult classic for young adults).  I have promised to wear my bathrobe over my clothing on Halloween...and I will do it.  My hair is now touching my shoulders, I've dropped a few pounds of weight.  Mostly, I am becoming the real me...the one God knows, and I am getting to know again.   Welcome home Fred!

My love in Christ,

"The Dude"
At Large and Running Amok
Lee's Summit, MO

30 August 2011

Remembering: Reflections on 9/11/01

Like everyone else, I can remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I learned that airline jets had struck the Twin Towers in NYC.  I was Dean of St. James Cathedral, South Bend, IN.  It was one of those bright September mornings that had just a hint of the approaching fall.  I had just finished a breakfast meeting with my Bishop....planning activities for the coming months that would involve the cathedral's leadership and resources.  Our business and meal completed, I was heading to the cathedral office, when I got a call from one of our parishioners.  He was nearly breathless, and I first thought he was in a personal crisis.  Finally, he was able to ask me, "Are you the only person in the United States who doesn't know that we are under attack?!!!." 

He told me what he knew as I raced to the cathedral office.  Once in my office, I booted my laptop and turned on the television we had connected to local cable.  The images were graphic, and I stood motionless for a long time watching what I could only describe as a surreal unfolding of events.  Then, the unthinkable began to happen.  First, an airliner entered one side of the Pentagon at almost ground level...like a bullet fired from a gun.  Then, one tower collapsed.  Then, the other tower collapsed.  Then, the news of the airliner diving into a field in rural southeast Pennsylvania.  My thought at that time:  'life as we know it has just changed dramatically.'

For us at St. James Cathedral, the day very quickly shifted out of its relative normalcy (nothing is really ever "normal" in parish ministry), into a modality of response.  Within eight hours, we had developed a full liturgy for gathering the community, notified television and radio stations of the time of worship that evening, gathered our personnel resources and prepped them for what we were about to do and designed the high altar and chapel altar to reflect what we seemed to be experiencing (beyond the numbness).  As soon as I had gathered enough clarity of the implications, I had called our Bishop (whose office is directly upstairs from the Dean's office) and told him what I thought needed ot be done.  He readily agreed, and we began marshalling the resources.  To this day, I do not know how we did all that we accomplished between 10am and 7pm that day.

That evening, the cathedral was full...not just with our parishioners but with people from all over the  South Bend metro.  The next 90 minutes embraced sacred time that seemed to cement our diversity into a single cry for peace, understanding and the souls of all those lost.  I only remember the opening words of my homily:  "My sisters and brothers, this day we have entered the surreal..."

In the days that followed, the cathedral joined with our Christian, Jewish and Muslim urban communities in daily prayer...each day in a different house of worship.  The Cathedral Chapel remained open 24 hours with persons in prayer around the clock -- martyr lights burning on the Altar (large, red glass candles that burn for 8 days) -- one candle for each tower, one for the Pentagon and one for the crashed airliner in Shanksville, PA. 

On Saturday morning, 15 September, I was part of a representative clergy group that gathered on the south parking lot of  Notre Dame to pray for a team of EMTs and fire department personnel from South Bend and four other area communities that were heading to Ground Zero to provide assistance.  The University of Notre Dame had a number of programs linked to businesses with offices in the NYC Twin Towers.  Friends and family were among those whose lives were lost that day.  We realized that it was really close to home; and that this was probably true for hundreds of communities around the country.

For months following that fateful Tuesday in September, we engaged in pastoral counseling, reflective teaching and preaching, special times of prayer -- all while trying to find that place of normalcy that seemed so elusive.  It did slowly come, but the toll on our individual and common psyches was larger than we perhaps realized. 

Just four months prior to 9/11/2001 the North American Conference of Cathedral Deans had convened in Oklahoma City, OK -- hosted by the Cathedral for the Episcopal Diocese of Oklahoma that year.  Our focus was on the terrorist bombing that destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building on 19 April 1995.  The explosion lifted and moved the entire roof system of the cathedral, which was five blocks away!   People who were injured or lost loved ones in that tragic event spent the weekend with us -- sharing their experiences and the work of healing in their lives and in Oklahoma City itself.  Without knowing it, we were experiencing a preparation for what would soon take place and would rock our entire country to its core.

Remembering is not simply thinking back and touching on points of pain.  Think about the word:  re-member.  In the New Testament, this word is anamnesis and means "to make present again."   Why would we want to do this?  To engage again on a seminal level is to incorporate and learn in the experience.  The National Geographic Channel is running a week long series leading up to 9/11 that engages the tragedies of the day itself; the experiences of NYC and national leaders; the stories of those who were involved on many levels of the events and recovery; and the story of those who promulgated the acts of terror and subsequent attempts. 

Remembering isn't just the day and those hours but all that surrounded it and followed from it.  It continues to unfold.  It is part of who we are -- both individually and as a culture.  We can only be whole as we sit in the moment.  It is the experience of Christian Eucharist and contemplative prayer.  It is also the experience of Buddhist meditation, Oneness Deeksha, and other spiritual disciplines.  In the Lakota tradition, the opening and closing of prayer with Mitakuye Oyasin ("All My Relations" or "We are all connected") embraces making all things present.  It is a common thread of prayer that binds humanity and all creation. 

To remember is to bring healing and to burn away the anger, pain and fear.  Once all that is is gone, what is left are the acts of love and selflessness that define true human nature...that created in God's image.  In Christian Eucharist, Christ Jesus becomes present to us in the act of re-membering.  That presence heals, restores and sharpens our focus on what it means to be truly human.

I sit in the midst of the flames, destruction and cries of the suffering and dying.  I connect with all that is in that moment...embracing it with love, seeking forgiveness and restoration of peace, remembering so I might be renewed.


Fr. Fred+

03 August 2011

Billy the Chameleon

In the process of weeding out my files and moving my remaining office materials home at retirement, I ran across the file that contained all the liturgical materials for my ordination to the Priesthood on 29 December 1978.  One document stood out in that file:  the text of the sermon preached by Fr. C. Lee Gilbertson at my ordination.  Lee was the Rector of St. Paul's, Winter Haven, FL (where I grew up) during my teen years and most of my college years.  He was my mentor during the early stages of my vocational journey...mainly the years prior to seminary.

In that ordination sermon was a story about a rather unusual chameleon named "Billy."  His owner -- an English farmer -- was very proud of Billy, because he had a rather special gift.  No matter what color upon which the farmer placed Billy, the chameleon would quickly change to match that exact color....not just the greens, browns or grays; but any color. 

The farmer delighted in taking Billy to pubs in the evening.  He would place Billy on the bar and invite anyone to place any color cloth on the bar.  Billy would scoot over to the cloth, settle in the midst of it and -- in the time it took to blink twice -- he would shift to that exact color.  The brightest blues, reds, purples; it didn't matter.  There was no color Billy could not acquire.   Tourists and visitors would make bets, and the farmer always won.

Until one fateful night.  The farmer entered his favorite pub with Billy riding in his shirt pocket -- head poked out and taking in the view.  The farmer ordered a pint of his favorite bitters and settled down.  Very soon, a group of his buddies came up with a stranger in tow.  Would he be willing to show this stranger Billy's rare gift?  The farmer readily agreed and placed Billy on the bar.  The chameleon puffed out and made himself ready.  A line of brightly colored cloths were laid out in a line along the bar.  Sure enough, as Billy settled on each piece of fabric, he would change to that color.  Things were going swimmingly well, and there were hoots of joy and clapping as Billy moved along the bar. 

The stranger looked awed and, toward the end of Billy's act, asked if he might put his own cloth down for the chameleon to walk on.   The farmer allowed as to how that would only be fair.  The stranger had a thick, Highland Scottish brogue.   From his jacket pocket, he pulled a brightly colored neckerchief -- in the tartan of his clan.  It had five different colors in an elaborate pattern typical of ceremonial tartans.  He laid his neckerchief on the bar for Billy.

True to form, Billy walked onto the neckerchief and settled near the center.  Then something very strange happened.  Billy began to breathe heavily and rapidly.  He puffed up and then let go.  He raised himself on his legs and twisted -- first one way and then another.  His actions became wilder and more erratic.  Finally, Billy heaved in a spasmodic convulsion the likes of which completely startled the farmer.  Then, in an instant, poor Billy simply burst and died.

There was an erie silence in the bar.  The Scottish visitor as aghast and tried to utter apologies through stutters of shock and dismay.  He had meant no harm.  He had fully expected to see Billy become the most beautiful blend of tartan colors imaginable.  But this?!  There were no words possible.

As his astonishment abated, the farmer took on an unusual visage of circumspection and calm.  After many moments, he finally spoke in the otherwise silent pub.  "Billy was the most special and  admirable of his species," he reflected.  "I know what has happened here.  Billy always did his best with his rare gift of changing to any color of the rainbow.  One by one, he could become what was needed at that moment.  However, when he settled down on that lovely tartan, poor Billy couldn't become all those colors at once.  Try as he might, his body just couldn't respond appropriately.  Finally, in a valiant effort, he tried to make all those colors appear -- and, as you see, it just caused him literally to come apart."   With that, he reverently gathered up the remains of his beloved chameleon, wrapped him in his handkerchief  and left the pub to bury him in the garden of his cottage.

While I knew at the time what the moral of this story was all about, it took me a number of years to really embrace and own it for myself.  In my vocation, the parish priest is the last of the true "generalists" in our culture.  At given moments, we are theologians, psychologists, educators, preachers, liturgists, contemplatives, business persons, managers, historians and several other roles.  We take these on in succession -- sometimes rapid succession.  We can meet the unique needs of individuals in a variety of pastoral circumstances.  None of us are good at all of those things, and we may have great gifts in one or several of them.

However, none of us -- aboslutely none of us -- can be all of those things at the same time.  Absolutely none of us are able to meet everyone's expectations for what priest "should" or "ought" to be doing.  There is no benchmark, I learned the hard way.   There was a time -- a number of years ago -- when, like Billy, I almost burst in a metaphorical manner.  Trying to meet all the needs and expectations at once led me to the very edge of an ugly abyss.  It was a place God had never intended me -- or anyone -- to be. 

The final decade of parish ministry for me was one of doing each job in succession and "majoring" in the areas I was best suited with my particular vocational gifts.  Anger often ensues in folks who demand a veritable tartan of actions -- all at the same time.

I speak from the perspective of my own life and work.   Needless to say, almost any vocation has a tartan of expectations.  In our increasingly mobile and information driven society, we are expected to be more present, more informed, provide more answers, cover more ground with greater speed and alacrity than anytime in history.  Is it surprising that we consume more pyschotropic medications and suffer from more stress related illnesses than any other time in human history?

One of the "graces" of retirement -- even after a month -- has been simplifying my life and taking on only one project at a time.   And, I have been quite busy.   My goal is to be a voice for the responsible simplification of vocational life...no matter what vocation is may be.

Next:  Simplification

In Christ's Love,

Fr. Fred
Retired -- At Large and Running Amok
Lee's Summit, MO

30 July 2011

Are the Ideal and the Practical Mutually Exclusive?

In the struggle that raged within me about the possibility of becoming an Episcopal Priest, I most often had a romanticized picture in my head of what life in that vocation might be like.  For a guy like me...immersed in the life sciences and heading for medicine or some kind of research...my initial fear was the relevence of being a priest in a culture that had, at that time, declared that "God is dead."  In my own heart and head, I knew that to be a great falsehood.  However, I did not know then how to square that with the world around me.

I remember a trip just after graduation from the University of Florida (1972), when I drove my mom to Miami to see her Aunt Esther (my great aunt).  Mom's family comes from a long line of Anglicans...going back as far as they had traced...and Aunt Esther had done a great deal of geneology.  It was one reason for the visit.  Aunt Esther and Aunt Clarise (my grandfather's two sisters) both lived in Miami and were wonderful people to visit...even for a 21 year old recent college graduate.
Aunt Esther was very involved in her little Episcopal Church not far from her home.  On our second afternoon with her, she took me with her to the church to deliver some material for a program they were having that evening.  When I arrived, the place was a beehive of activity.  The priest was in the courtyard preparing to climb a ladder to the roof with some shingles for the three parishioners who were doing repairs.  When he came down, he introduced himself and proceeded to show me around the small but well maintained complex.  He was what I had idealized as the quintessential parish vicar...doing ministry but having time to "putter about" the church, study, pray, write and effectively engage his particular niche in the surrounding environment.  That visit helped "sell" me on life as an Episcopal Priest.

Three years and three months later, I was in seminary.  The time between the Miami visit with Aunt Esther and my being in on the threshold of graduate studies in a seminary had been filled with an intense and rewarding life in the U.S. Navy Submarine Corps.  I had been engaging the world in a rather unique way.  I had emerged a good bit wiser for sure, but I was still embracing a totally romanticized image regarding the life of a priest.  Seminary would not help that framed ideal.  I loved academics and the seminary routine of study, prayer, writing and living daily with my fellow students.   In fact, even though professors (most of whom were priests themselves) warned that seminary was a "laboratory environment," my image of working in the larger Church simply grew more idealistic.  I would have this same routine "out there!"

Of course it didn't happen.  First, the invitation to continue my studies, earn a Ph.D. and teach Sacramental Theology, was met with me saying I needed to have at least three years of parish experience before doing that.  I never left parish ministry...for the 33 years that completed that cycle fo my life just a month ago today. 

Second, parish ministry was nothing like I had convinced myself it would be.  It didn't even match my observations.  Was I wrong?  No, but I was only seeing the parts that were presented at the various times I engaged the professional elements of that life.  AND, it continued to change during the years I was actively engaged in that work.

My first six or seven years somewhat floated my ideal of the parochial life of a priest.  I did a lot of pastoral work; taught classes in the parish and for the diocese; ran a diocesan institute for advanced studies (and preparing men and women for ordination to vocational Diaconate); celebrated liturgies; studied on seveal levels and preached -- often.  There was a rhythm, though I found the capacity to pray at the depth and to the extent I had experienced in seminary limited by daily expectations.  This troubled me ... and would for all the years leading to retirement.

As our culture devalued sabbath time and stores began being open on Sundays for shopping, the shift began to widen to include organized community activities that competed for the time that a faith community normally came together to deepen their common life through worship, prayer and formation.  A reality emerged very different form the ideal held by a 21 year old freshly minted college graduate who had struggled with vocation.

This story is only a snapshot testimony of what has become normal for our culture.  We see it happening momentarily in our federal legislative system.  What allowed me to survive, thrive and adapt to the rapid changes of a culture in parish ministry was the ability to be flexible enough to find places to compromise and engage my parishioners on ground that could be called "mutual" rather than rigidly insisting on things being what they "should" be.  Sure, I had moments of railing about it (still do); but the daily operational life of  the parish adapted to meet the largest possible needs of an increasingly secular society.

Now, in Congress and the White House, we have  folks who see society and legislative process as having a single ideal...which must be attained regardless of the collateral damage it might create or the well-being of the largest breadth of the balance of the nation.  In this statement, I am not defending a particular political party or ideology.   The entire system is stuck in a place of all factions wanting only their particular needs met without regard to the needs of any other group.  The system certainly isn't taking in the concerns and needs of the average, "broad middle" section of our population. 

Now that I am retired, I take more time to have simple, "what gives with you" kinds of conversations with folks in the grocery store, the bank, Starbuck's, the hardware store...anywhere there are a few moments to chat with good, average working folks.  Very few of these folks occupy radical ends of the political spectrum (either end).  They are working to pay their bills, take care of their families, raise their children, make ends meet on social security and medicare and have a decent sense of security in life.

Are the ideal and the practical mutually exclusive?  No, not at all!  They come together in a place called compromise.  It happens in a parish when the vocational ideals that define a faith community engage the practical elements of life in the world in which people now live.  We find ways to celebrate and honor both.

It comes together in our political/legislative system with ideals of the various elected groups engage each other to find the ground that serves the largest measure of the common good of the people the system serves.  There is no waiting until the next election.  It will simply be the same thing with a different set of faces and rhetoric.  We need to learn how to find the middle and celebrate our common measure of life.  If not, we risk losing what we have spent 235 years building.  


Fr. Fred
Retired -- At Large and Running Amok
Lee's Summit, MO

24 July 2011

The Surreal Becomes Reality in Norway

Norway is not a newcomer to international tragedy. In World War II, the Nazi's used Norway as a major hub for launching their submarine warfare. While trying to maintain neutrality, they were pushed directly into the path of Nazi Germany's juggernaut of European domination.
However, for the past sixty-five years, Norwegians have known both peace and a kind of internal stability that keeps them well out of world news. Norwegians tend to be happy, healthy and friendly people. No act of internal terrorism has occured in over sixty-five years. Until Saturday, 23 July.
AndresBehring Breivik, 32, a native Norwegian, detonated a high yield explosive in front of the government offices in Osolo; then proceeded to an island youth camp, where he indescriminately killed and wounded a number of teenagers...most of them children of government workers attending a special week-long camp.
In a statement written before the attacks, Breivik reflects on the growing threat of Islam and the liberal European political systems that tolerate Islamic religion in established Christian cultures. One assumes that he sees his own government as being part of the problem -- and the teenagers as the future permissive group that will allow it to continue and spread. This is truly sick thinking and heinous action!
While not new to our culture, such moments come as a complete shock when they happen in cultures where the norm is debate or, at worse, a pie in the face. I was, frankly, shocked at the number of death threats Casey Anthony received when the sworn jury acquitted her of murder in the death of her daughter. Do I think she is guilty? I have absolutely no idea. Evidence presented by the talking heads of television had led me to believe she might be. Obviously a jury of her peers weighed the evidence and found it wanting in terms of her culpability. There simply was not the kind of irrefutable evidence needed to convict.
Now, in all the civics and political science books I have read, our system of government and justice rests on one being innocent until found (with substantiating evidence) guilty by a seated and sworn jury of fellow citizens. Yet, the media and many citizens had her tried, convicted and executed months before the real trial ever convened.
Spreading this out over history, group dynamics have played a powerful role in fostering reactivity of the kind that creates lynch mobs, character assassinations, death threats, and various manifestations of judgementalism. Even in the Church, these things happen with far greater regularity than one would be comfortable admitting. Recently, for example, a colleague was put through a terrible ordeal, when a member of his congregation accused him of malfeasance. He was almost forced to resign before an auditor was engaged to check the books. As it turns out, there was absolutely no evidence of malfeasance. Still, there are parishioners who remain convinced that my colleague is "guilty of something neferious." This is character assassination and, in moral theology, a grave sin.
Because I am both a son of the Church and a retired priest with 33 years of experience in these things, I long since accepted as a very sad commentary that the "Church shoots its wounded." I heard that indictment long before I was ordained and have, myself, experienced its truth on a few occasions. It is not the place one would expect to find such behavior, yet, I bring it up to show that the Church is a human community, and human nature seems to thrive on the pain and mistakes of others. Why else would Nancy Grace spend three years villifying Casey Anthony...without due process? While Casey and the whole Anthony family can be diagnosed as a "toxic mess," I think folks like Nancy Grace only reflect their own toxicity in the way she hounded that family.
In this latest and sickening tragedy in Norway, we see this dynamic played out in a way that reflects the actions of Timothy McVeigh in Okalahoma City (1995). Because one sees, experiences or hears about an injustice, it justifies the jumping to the conclusion that institutions and folks not even attached to those injustices are to blame and must be punished. Or, they clearly are not to blame, but the person passing judgement sees that group as a platform for setting an example for addressing the injustice. "At least it will get their attention," goes the thinking.
It is truly tragic and sad that we live in a world made unsafe more by seemingly regular people jumping to conclusions than by those who are actually equipped and bent on harm. Gossip, judgementalism and their attendant actions of jumping to conclusions and making threats (that often enough become a reality) have, throughout history, cost the lives of promising and talented adults and young people. They have ended or shortened the active careers of people whose gifts could have accomplished major good for many. I only point to Jesus for a truly tragic scenario that was made right only by the act of God -- who knew what human nature would do -- and entered into our moment of reality anyway in the person of Jesus.
While the work of salvation opens our hearts and minds to new possibilities, it does not change willful human nature determined to have its own way and exert its own control. Obviously, it is still happening on way too many levels.
Anybody want to take bets on a debt ceiling crisis?
Fr. Fred
Retired -- At Large and Running Amok
Lee's Summit, MO

17 July 2011

Last Ride

I left my empty office at St. Andrew's for the last time on Thursday, 30 June at 4:30pm. All I had with me was my briefcase containing my laptop and the materials with which I normally travel on a daily basis. All my office belongings had been boxed and taken to our home in Lee's Summit the day before by Two Men and a Truck. They were fast and efficient.

Retirement days are bittersweet (I learned). There is a strong feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction of stepping away after 33 years of parish work. There is a certain pleasure in knowing that certain parts of that work can now be left behind for others.

The other part is a feeling of sadness and disconnection. For a parish priest, the days, weeks and years have been defined by a routine of prayer, worship, pastoral care, teaching, preaching and program that becomes ingrained -- no matter what parish one is part of. It is a continuum that has consistent rhythm and cycles. I knew, as a walked from the church building to my car, that I would deeply miss this part of my life. I was ordained at age 27 and went immediately into parish work. At age 60, at one day longer than the day I was ordained in 1978 (29 June), I was stepping out of that rhythm and cycle.

When we came to St. Andrew's on 1 January 2004, we had purchased a home in nearby Lee's Summit -- in the southeast section of the greater metro of Kansas City. There were two primary reasons for the choice. First, we had a daughter still in high school. We were advised to live in one of the surrounding communities to get the best school experience for her. Then, there was the matter of housing. Close-in area costs for homes were inflated and beyond our comfort level of both what we could afford and what we needed. After an intense search in October 2003, we found what met an agreed, three-point criteria: a) Our daughter would like the school; b) all three of us would like the community; c) all three of us would like the house (style, size and cost). After making a "horseshoe" search that began in Olathe, KS and moved around the north of Kansas City, we found all three criteria met in the home we now own in Lee's Summit. Our elder daughter was in her first year of college and was not part of this journey.

There were folks who were concerned about the distance from the church. Truth is, the drive averaged 25 minutes from my driveway to the parking lot of St. Andrew's. If I timed my drives well, I was not part of the rush hour traffic. But, still, the occasional raised eyebrow, when I mentioned the commute, let me know that folks generally thought that was something of a long ride.

Two things happened on those drives. One was just the time to "gear up" or "unwind" -- depending on the direction. By the time I arrived at the office, the structured part of my day was already set and active in my mind. By the time I arrived home, I would have made internal closure, set some notes (I use a memory stick recorder or, now, my smartphone) and be ready to spend quality time with my wife.

The other thing that happened was prayer...informed prayer. I would habitually listen to either "Morning Edition" or "All Things Considered" on NPR. I would take in the news on the hour/half-hour, turn off the radio and spend time in reflective prayer...for the concerns of the world and those of my parish. This quickly became a much loved and anticipated routine. Over the 7.5 years as Rector I made this trip on the average of six days each week (excluding vacations or times away on business).

On this warm Thursday afternoon, on the last day of June, I began the last ride. I spent it giving thanks for parishioners, opportunities, experiences and all that had shaped the years here. I did not turn on the radio but made the trip in silence (which I had done many times) -- allowing my mind and heart to absorb the experience completely. This was a transition ride. It marked a distinct and dramatic shift in both my life and the life of the parish. I was moving into uncharted territory. The parish would make a transition to new leadership. This last ride was both a making and a breaking. Both are essential for spiritual growth. Change is good, and this change had been so carefully planned and competently executed that the ride seemed natural -- unfettered by doubt or negativity.

I write this from a perspective of having now been retired 17 days. Folks in the parish who have chatted with me have asked if I am enjoying sleeping late and relaxing. In general, my patterns have not changed. I have always risen early. I am a morning person. Not being a night person, I have enjoyed the absence of evening meetings and the ability to ease into a reasonable hour of going to bed. The days have been filled with many projects. I have a "Benedictine" personality. Building a daily routine that has prayer, study, work, exercise and quality family time has always been a goal. But, more on that another time.

Suffice it to say, life continues to be full. I still miss the commute/prayer time. I miss the liturgical and parish daily work cycle. Nope, sorry, I don't miss meetings -- especially the ones in the evening. It is time for a new balance and a new mantra, which I have adopted as part of my email signature line. I close with it.

In Christ's Love,

Fr Fred
Retired - At Large and Running Amok
Lee's Summit, MO

03 June 2011

Wisdom and the Pe Sla

As I write, I am sitting in my cabin on the campus of Borderlands Ranch and Spiritual Education Center. Borderlands is 253 acres of rolling prairie hills in the very center of the Black Hills in South Dakota. It is the highest elevation of the Hills at nearly 5200 feet. It is now completely ranchland or land owned by the National Forestry Service. It is covered with prairie grass and dotted with various trees…usually alongside the numerous streams that flow through the hills and down to the rivers at lower altitude.

This prairie area can be seen from satellite photos as a bare area in the central part of the Black Hills. The Lakota call this area the “Pe Sla.” It means “Peace in the Bare Spot.” As with all the Black Hills, this is an historically (and current) sacred area. The Pe Sla may be the most sacred, because, for centuries it has been a place where Lakota, Cheyenne, Arapaho and other high plains First Nations groups came to worship, pray and “cry for a vision.” The latter is one of the Pe Sla’s central purposes. “Hanblecheya” means to “Cry for a Vision” or simply to make a “Vision Quest.” The Borderlands property has two places where Vision Quest has been made…archeologists say for at least 500 years. They are still used by Lakota leaders.

The Rev. Linda Kramer is the owner of Borderlands. She is a “Hunka” of the Lakota…one who is not Lakota but adopted into the Oyate (family). Her Lakota father is Fr. Robert Brokenleg (now deceased) who was an Episcopal Priest and council leader of the Sicangu Lakota Council Fire (tribe)…one of seven Council Fires that make up the Lakota Nation. (btw, Euro-Americans may know the Lakota by the name given by the French in the early 1700s….”Sioux”.) Non-First Nations persons can be adopted into a Nation and be part of life and culture. Mother Linda (an Episcopal Priest) spent several years working in parishes on both the Pine Ridge and Rosebud Reservations of the Lakota.

I am not adopted into the Lakota Oyate (Oh-yah-teh). However, since 2007, I have been welcomed and accepted as both a friend and trusted sojourner among these gracious, generous and good humored people. I currently have four Lakota mentors. One is an archeologist and former professor of field archeology. One is an Episcopal Priest and psychotherapist living and working as co-director at the mental health facility in Kyle, a town on the Pine Ridge Reservation. One is an Episcopal Priest and Rector of the Lakota Parish (St. Matthew’s) in Rapid City. One is an Episcopal Priest & retired professor of developmental psychology and education and, until his retirement two years ago, was the Dean of Indigenous Studies and Vancouver School of Theology at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC. He still lives there.

How did I get here? It’s a long story. The key points: I was introduced to Mother Linda Kramer by reference. I shared my vision with her for a project, and she graciously invited me to make a retreat at Borderlands in August 2007. She spent five days of her schedule taking me to meet three of the four persons noted above, who would become mentors. The fourth (Fr. Martin Brokenleg in Vancouver, BC) I met via email and phone conversation that week. The archeologist, Ben Rhodd, became my chief mentor and spiritual advisor. He is an acknowledged leader within the Lakota community. In hearing my personal story…along with my project vision…he strongly suggested I make an Hanblecheya (Vision Quest) before any decision could be made. This suggests the depth of his own spirituality.

I made the Vision Quest in early October 2007…a three-day intense time of prayer, fasting and spending a day and a night “crying for a vision” on one of the spots where this has been done for centuries…at the far east end of Borderlands. In the end, the elders gathered in the sweat lodge (at the end of my time of fasting and being “on the hill”) spoke to the visions I had and the visions seen in their own prayers and welcomed me to engage in this journey. After further preparation, I spent most of three months in the summer of 2008 (sabbatical) either in the Black Hills or Vancouver, BC.

I was invited to experience the Sun Dance and have returned each year…until this year. I am at Borderlands for 6 days to accomplish a pre-retirement retreat (suggested by my advisor from Church Pension Group) and to spend time with two of my mentors. This time will form the vision for the next phase of what this journey becomes. It is a full three weeks before Sun Dance…and that week is my last week prior to retirement. These last 21 days before retirement will be critical.

Sitting here today, an Episcopal Priest, husband, father, friend and seeker of knowledge, 60 years and 6 months old, I have been slowed by a rather awesome wind storm. The sky is bright, deep blue with no clouds. The wind howls at gusts of at least 50 miles an hour. This has been going on for several hours. Down below, in Hill City (still in the Black Hills but about 2000 feet below us and 16 miles away), the wind may be only light with occasional gusts. This is part of life in the Pe Sla. The horses across the road are gathered in a bunch on the leeward side of a barn. They don’t like the wind either. It has been like an aviary here since my arrival Monday evening. I have counted 17 different species of birds that are very active. They are quiet and hidden this day.

The very deep, centuries-old spirituality of this place draws me into a contemplative space, and that is what I have mostly done over the past four days. I have taken breaks to walk the hills, drive to two other Pe Sla locations of Vision Quest and travel to Hill City to do email/phone business. There is no cell or internet connection here. Mother Linda has a phone and satellite dish internet connection (with television) in the “big house” (her house). I like the challenge of silence and its requirement that I listen, observe and experience myself and life on a very basic level. I cook my own meals in this cabin. It is a “complete” home in the sense I have all I need to have a daily life routine….kitchen, bathroom, living/sleeping room and a porch with a rocking chair.

Today, I experience and reflect on the wind. I cannot see it. It is invisible. However, I can certainly observe the emerging prairie grasses bending and shifting; the trees bending and branches moving wildly; dust from the gravel road; the manes and tails of the horses blowing briskly. I feel the wind in my face and hear it whistling through the eves of the cabin roof.
Wisdom is the same. It is not seen and cannot be contained or created. It moves, and we experience its impact in our lives. Knowledge comes by learning the elements of our craft, reading a book, hearing a lecture watching someone accomplish a task. Wisdom comes from engaging what we know and by experiencing both successes and failures; by conversation and experiences of others and taking those into our own experiences…thus expanding our horizons. Wisdom comes with time…age and embracing all aspects of life’s joys, sorrows and encounters. How we manage those moments, what we learn, how we incorporate past, present and future into our journey…all of these make for wisdom.

In Lakota culture, there is no word for “authority” or “war.” In strict, pre-reservation Lakota culture, there was a Council of Elders…older men who had experienced all life could offer and were of an age to give advice. They would meet to discuss and pray about issues and problems. At the end, they would share their combined opinions and advice on action. However, it was never as authority but as counsel. Because of their combined experiences (hundreds of years combined ages), the advice was usually taken.

Because of our revisionist history, we think of Native Americans as warlike people. War is not in any of the plains nations languages. One goes into battle to settle issues or fight over territory (land ownership was not known among Native Americans before reservations were forced upon them). A battle wasn’t won or lost. It was ended when the redress was made. “Warpath” is something Euro-Americans made up for our books and movies. No Indian ever went on a warpath. There were occasional renegades…just as there were/are among Euro-Americans (whites). They were dealt with handily by their Oyate.

I am here, because I am on the doorstep of being an elder by most standards. In general American culture, being an elder most often means being pushed aside for “younger folks.” Interesting to think, when one defines wisdom, just why our culture is in the mess it finds itself. We fracture wisdom rather than drawing upon it for the current moment and future of our culture. I am here, because I look for the next road of my journey and how the Holy One will use what I have learned, experienced and observed over these 60.5 years of life. Like the wind, I don’t see it, but I feel it. Such is the onset of Wisdom and encounter with the Spirit.


Fr. Fred+

19 May 2011

Is This the End....or Just a New Beginning?

Holy Apocalypse! It has made the CBS, NBC and CNN news networks. It is all over the internet and radio. I have now heard or seen eight separate stories on the impending Judgement Day. Sure enough! This morning at 7:00am I was driving my wife to the airport for a trip to see one of our daughters for a few days. On I-435, just before the Missouri River bridge, there was a billboard emblazend with the words, "Judgment Day....May 21, 2011....Are You Ready?"

The billboard work is part of a "ministry" of Harold Camping, who owns and directs Family Radio (headquartered in Oakland, CA). It is an international broadcasting system. Camping -- a retired engineer -- claims to have done the math, after fifty years of study, and determined that the Rapture (a term used by evangelical Christians to denote the moment when the chosen will be taken into heaven) will take place on the above date. Further, his calculations indicate that there will be five months of torment following this event until the end of the world as we know it on October 21, 2011.

Speaking of the end times, there is also a claim that an important transition for humankind will happen on 11-11-11 (November 11, 2011). Then, there is the Mayan calendar research and event that is locked in for 12-21-12 (December 21, 2012). This creates an abundance of confusion.

Already, thousands of people (not exaggerating according to a CNN report) in the United States alone have sold their property, liquidated retirement and life savings, and taken themselves to places either to assist in getting the word out or to prepare themselves for this Saturday's apocalyptic event --scheduled for 5:58pm. This is a potentially dangerous and disasterous situation. Where is the Church and its leadership in all this?

Let's clear up some terms first:

  1. Apocalypse - Literally means to "unveil" or "reveal." In both Old and New Testaments, apocalyptic literature was written to unveil the mysteries surrounding the actions of God in creation. The Book of Daniel (OT) and the Book of Revelation (NT) are two such writings.

  2. Rapture - Literally means "moment of pure joy" or "jubilation." This is neither a biblical nor a theological term. It does not even appear until the late 19th century among strongly evangelical groups presenting a uniquely literalistic approach to biblical writings. Adherents to the Rapture say that a select group of chosen people will be taken into heaven before the end of the world.

  3. Eschatology - Literally means "last discourse." It is a biblical term and connotes the part of systematic theology dealing with the final destiny of both the individual soul and of mankind in general. Albert Schweitzer and Karl Barth were primary architects in the modern theological investigation into eschatological events. In orthodox (eastern and western Christian systematic theology) terms, the Church has taught about the "four last things: death, judgment, heaven and hell." Modern biblical theology has continued to fine tune what this means in light of further language and cultural discoveries from the time of original biblical texts.

  4. Judgment Day - Literally the day where humans will be "sifted" into the "saved" and the "damned." There is no biblical material to support this and, again, the term only appears in the latter 19th century.

Jesus makes a strong reference to a place, which in Aramaic (the Hebrew of the New Testament) is call "Gehenna." Dante later translated that into "Hell" in his book Inferno. Truth is, Gehenna was a valley about three miles outside Jerusalem...kind of cut in the rocky earth that went on about two miles. It was where refuse was taken after being removed from the city. One end of Gehenna was marked off as a leper colony. It was a place forbidden by those who were "clean." The garbage end of Gehenna was (it seems) always smoldering. Thus is had an acrid and putrid stench. It was a place of disease.

In describing sin as separation from God's abiding love, Jesus used Gehenna as a picture symbol for what that might seem like. His manner of teaching almost always used pictographic elements and metaphors to aid the hearer in remembering the parable or teaching.

Does hell exist? Separation from God's Love can happen...but only at our instigation and choice. We consign ourselves to that state of loneliness and isolation. The torment of the Evil One (Satan) is two-pronged: our tireless, egocentric willfullness at work with the fractured element of creation that rebels against God's love. It can be and is easily enough defeated with a proper sense of who we are in relationship to God -- and the humility to be reconciled.

Now, is the end of life as we know it upon us? My absolute true answer is: I have no idea whether it is or not. Truthfully, I do not bother myself or my folks with such speculation. Why? Jesus is pretty clear: It's not our business to know the time or season of the eschatological events. I think it will happen, and I have sound theological and deep internal senses to support my thinking and believing.

What God expects (and I am utterly convinced of this), is that we should live faithful, loving, honest and productive lives -- using our gifts and talents in such ways that foster both community and goodwill. To the extent that we do that, we are honoring who we are as people created in the image of God.

Pray: Daily time of true prayer (not a mouthful of words spewed forth as we hasten into our self-important busy-ness) that invites a strong time of listening for the soft words of God's love and purpose in our lives and the world around us is vital. It reduces anxiety and gives us appropriate perspective. I do find myself spending more time in quiet, contemplative prayer daily of late...as if I am being drawn into a deeper relationship.

This leads me to say that I believe a shift and changes are underway. We, as humanity, are moving into a new place of community, oneness and enlightenment. I see strong signs of this in a number of venues. It is comforting. BUT, it is not anything like Judgment Day or Rapture.

While I practice a Benedictine style Rule of prayer, study and work; I am Franciscan in my attitude about the eschatological events. St. Francis was weeding a vegetable garden, when one of the monks asked what he would do, if he knew that Christ Jesus' coming was imminent. Without missing a stroke, Francis responded, "I would hope to be able to finish this row of weeds."

God loves creation with all capacity. God brought us forth and will take us back into that place of enlarged being. It will be on God's terms and in God's time. Maybe this Saturday and maybe a thousand years from now. If I am alive, I want to be found faithfully doing what most pleases God...which is what I have been equipped to do.

Blessings in the Risen Christ,

Fr. Fred+

10 May 2011


Since my last blog posting, I have had a few questions about praying for situations and people...especially for people who have lived "notoriously evil lives" (to quote one questioner). These are excellent questions, because we throw that word "pray" around a lot -- so much in fact that it may have lost its real meaning and impact.

My guess is that, when an image of prayer is conjured, any number of folks will visualize Albrecht Drurer's "Praying Hands" as a universal symbol. Others might produce the image of a person kneeling with hands clasped before them. Still others might see the image of Jesus kneeling at a rock in Gethsemane with hands clasped and resting on the rock in front of him. There is nothing wrong with any of these images. They are part of our western cultural history...but all of them are post-Reformation works of art conceived with a certain cultural and theological perspective.

My liturgics and sacramental theology professor and graduate studies mentor, Fr. Louis Weil, strongly suggested that our disposition and conditioning often limit the capacity to engage in the full power of what it means to pray. The result of that is that, in turn, we fail to be fully empowered for both enlightenment and action. Enlightenment, here, means the encounter with the Holy in such ways that show us more of our true nature and capacities. All prayer leads to some kind of action. We are moved/motivated to engage the environment around us or, many times, within us in ways that create positive shift and change.

This last week was difficult for many people. The death of a terrorist and criminal released all kinds of emotions around the globe. After the initial impact, people began asking questions about whether bin Laden was even dead; the efficacy of the decision to send the SEAL team in; political fallout with Pakistan; new reactions from al-Qaeda; factional rhetoric in our own Congress. And this is just that event. We are still dealing with financial recovery issues; soaring fuel prices; unemployment; and a host of domestic concerns that can create stress and deep concern.

Then, we begin to get close to home. For me -- with only 51 days until retirement -- I face the uncertainty of what that will mean to me vocationally and within the context of having been 33 years in a particular aspect of ordained life. The financial shift in our household and the preparations in completing the pre-retirement process. Yesterday (Monday), I began "collapsing" my office. I did so by throwing away materials in my desk, filing cabinets and closet that no longer serve a purpose and/or won't be useful at home. I sat and looked at several things that have journeyed with me since seminary. I then began the daunting task of thinning out my professional library -- reducing the nearly 800 volumes of books that have defined my vocation for more than three decades. Books are dear friends to me, and saying goodbye is a rough experience.

Yet, in all this shift and change, I kept hearing my own voice advising me as I advise others: Pray! In the foxholes of life, prayer can take on the images I cited early on in this posting. Those images indicate supplication: me beseeching God to make something better; change a situation; or provide something I believe I need (strength, guidance, etc.). So, if that isn't it, what do I do, when I hear the counsel to pray?

First, I closed my office door -- a sign for those around my office that I "need a minute." I am not disturbed when the door gets shut all the way. Next, I sat upright in a chair...straight but comfortable and placed my hands out on my lap and turned my palms up. This is called the modified "orans" position. It is the most ancient form of prayer. It is also the kind that Jesus would have used in his culture. It is the classic pre-medieval/reform style in Christianity. It signifies a conversation and an openness to receive as well as to offer. I'm here for a conversation....which is the definition of prayer....conversation with the Holy One.

Since I was up to my nose in concerns of my own and in response to events that shape our world (and, subsequently, my life as a priest and citizen), I simply sat in silence for quite some time. Silence is also an essential characteristic of prayer. What?! Say nothing?!! One might think that a waste.

NO, to pray well is to empty one's head of all the noise, bright ideas, critiques and busy-ness that occupy it. Shut down the machinery and find placidness. Once that has been achieved as much as possible (and it takes a lot of practice), simply lay out what the problems seem to be. I took whatever time it was to simply say, "this is where I find myself right now...scared, worried, overwhelmed, unsure...(name what those things are that go with those feelings)." I then simply stated, "I need order and direction." Then, I SHUT UP.

In the ensuing quiet, I let myself drift using a mantra to distract the thinking elements of mind. A mantra is simply a word or phrase that keeps me focused on why I am here in this time. I use several, depending upon what is going on. Yesterday, it was simply, "Jeshua" (the Hebrew name for Jesus). This I said quietly and rhythmically with my breathing...slowing things down as much as possible. I didn't focus on the mantra, and it gradually became a background repitition. Images, and moments of insight began flashing. I simply let that happen. Take no notes. Just be still and stay with the silence. At some point, your heart knows when it is time to be done. I utter a prayer of thanks for whatever gift of God's Love I have received and the ability to do what has been purposed in this time.

THERE, I have actually had a conversation. The truth is, I felt compelled to shut my office down for the afternoon, go home, take a short nap and make dinner for my wife...who was arriving home late from her work. As this day (Tuesday) unfolded, I began having some insights into what I need to do with my books. My hands seem more purposeful in choosing what stays and what goes. I have been rather creative in working with the staff and doing some long-range planningn with them for the time after I retire. I feel calm, happy and peaceful within. Stuff around me hasn't changed much, but I seem to have changed in relationship to them.

Prayer is conversation. When I suggest that we pray for something or someone, I am not suggesting that we squeeze out some kind of dissertation to God about what to do or what we need. After all God already knows what is needed. Take Osama bin Laden. None of us know what torment and torture he was dealing with in his psyche that produced what we witnessed over the years. Yet, in simply giving him over to God for what God knows needs to happen to bring balance to the world and to deal with a broken human being, we have shown compassion -- solidarity with God. I note that, as soon as I did that last week, I suddenly realized that bin Laden isn't our problem any longer. Let go of him -- the anger -- the fear -- all of it. God has all that and knows exactly what comes next in the context of creator-creature relationship. That's not my paygrade. Move on to what lies ahead.

Blessings in the Risen Christ,

Fr. Fred+