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