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