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