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