19 December 2012


Note:  I haven't published in quite a while.  A number of incidental events have kept me away from the computer and out of my study.  I am doing some work for a parish nearby...including teaching a couple of classes, preaching and presiding at various Sunday and weekday liturgies.  Also, I am moving through some shifts and changes, which seem to have curtailed my desire to set experiences to words.  More on that another time.  Glad to be writing today.

We have been official Florida residents (again) for a little over eight months.  Both of us know that this was the right move and the right place, and that we are being and doing what is best for us.  Retirement isn't boring.  The word "bored" has not been in my vocabulary over the 62 years of life I recently celebrated.  I like too many things and can almost always find something of interest, or to distract me when I am not "on my game."  Life is good most of the time.

However, when we left Kansas City, I left something behind of great importance to me:  Barbecue!  Yes, I truly enjoy (love?) good barbecue.  Now, I have a lot of friends in places that make claims about their ability to produce top rated barbecue, and I mean no disrespect to those places (Texas, Memphis, North Carolina among the top), but I found Kansas City barbecue to be simply outstanding...the best in my personal opinion.

Kansas City has an abundance of excellent places to get delectable barbecue, and the annual masters competition happens in Kansas City.  A number of parishioners at St. Andrew's have been top rated in their creative genius with the Smoker.  My very good friend, Bruce Bower, is right up on top of that group of masters not in the business full time.  He has a team of guys  who specialize in smoked pork butts.  Their motto:  "You can smell our butts for miles."

A couple of months ago, I was having a chance chat with a long time Sarasota resident in a supermarket checkout line.  I happened to audibly lament the fact that I really missed Kansas City barbecue.  The guy brightened up and said, enthusiastically, "Oh, you obviously haven't run into Perry yet."  No, the name and identity were unknown to me.  I was told that the Phillippi Creek Farmers Market would open in a few weeks, and he always had his smoker there.  "Can't miss it...either by sight or smell."  He was right!  (Note:  "Phillippi" is pronounced with a long "e" at the end.  One will be immediately corrected if one ends the name with "pie" sound.  Same as the name of the biblical city after which one of St. Paul's letters is written).

Florida farmers markets are most active between October and the end of May.  Our growing seasons here are different, due to climate and rainfall.  Fresh produce is to be had here in mid-December.  I was just at Phillippi Creek outdoor market a couple of hours ago.

Three weeks ago, I was out running errands.  It was a little past normal lunch time, and I was getting more than just a might peckish.  As I came upon the Phillippi Creek bridge on Tamiami Trail (US Hwy 41), I could see a plume of smoke raising from the grouping of white tarps that shaded the temporary market stalls.  This is on a park lawn that was once part of a plantation.  As I got up to the market area, there, near the highway, was a smoker about the size of a three-quarter ton pickup truck.  It might be the biggest of its kind I have seen.

Winding through the entrance drive and into the parking area, I avoided all temptations to  study the various foods, handicrafts and products being sold at the various stalls.  My destination was across the sizable tent village....straight to the booth that fronted Perry's smoker.  Perry isn't a small man either.  He obviously enjoys his work.  He is an affable, always smiling black man, who has had some kind of laryngeal problem.  His voice is strained and pitched a bit high.  Nonetheless, he loves to talk and greets everyone with a traditional southern, "howdy," when you get to the front table of his stall.  He usually has a helper, who fills orders, while he chats away and tends the various cuts of meat in the smoker:  pork butts, beef brisket, ribs and chicken...and lots of them.

Perry is a very generous man.  First and foremost, he is generous with a great smile and kind words.  Someone told me he never forgets a face.  I was to learn this.  "What's to our likin' pardner?"  A whiteboard menu hangs from the support rod.  Not only does he have smoked meats; he has an array of side dishes:  collards, mac and cheese, cole slaw, green beans, baked beans and potato salad.  On my first visit in mid-November, he noted immediately that I was new to his enterprise.  "Here, try some of this, walk around and come on back when you decide."  On a small paper plate he deposited a small beef rib and a piece of pork butt.  The young person helping him squirted a generous portion of sauce on the plate.  Sauce, the substance that can make or break good barbecue.  I was skeptical.

Nevertheless, I took my samples and ambled along the various stalls.  At my second bite of rib meat, I was hooked!  I simply stopped all forward movement, finished the samples...and the sauce...and headed straight back to Perry's booth.  Damn!  That was good barbecue!

I was greeted with a big smile, as Perry looked over the shoulder of the person serving the food.  "That was quick, buddy."  "I'm hungry, and this just can't wait any longer," I exclaimed with obvious eagerness.  I ordered and received a rib lunch special...four large ribs and two sides for $9.00.  There was a lot of meat on those ribs too.  It was really hard to wait until I got home to eat.  The sauce was obviously a work of love as well.  Perry doesn't have it for sale.  It sits in big plastic jugs that are carefully emptied into the squirt bottles used to create the desired meal.

Today, I was running errands again.  I have been off my feed for a few days...just not feeling much like eating and drinking mostly water and tea.  I turned from Clark road north on Tamiami Trail, and, within a quarter mile, I could smell Perry's work.  Oh, yeah, it's Wednesday.  The farmers market is happening.  I had someplace to be, so I kept moving.

On the way back, I found my way into the Phillippi Creek Park parking area and ambled to Perry's stall.  This time I went via the very large produce area to pick up fresh veggies and some assorted fruit.  When I got to Perry's place, he was busily slicing brisket for a customer.  He pitched me his broad, welcoming smile and said, "Hey pardner, I haven't seen you in about three weeks.  You been doin' okay?"  Uh, it has been exactly three weeks.  He remembered me...not my name...but he had me pegged.  As we made some small talk, he kept throwing up a hand to wave at a passerby...calling them most always by name...same huge smile.

Today, I chose the pulled pork sandwich.  No sides.  A good amount of sauce on the side.

As I was paying and preparing to leave, a lady walked up.  Perry greeted her by name.  "What can I do for ya' today, dear one?"  She said that she had promised her husband that she would pick up some brisket and mac & cheese.  "That would be his favorite..."  Yep, Perry knows his folks  AND his barbecue.

Florida has barbecue, but it isn't noted for that.  Let me tell you...my friends from the barbecue states...Perry is a contender...A SERIOUS contender.  To my dear friend Bruce Bower:  You best get your boys together and get down here.  Watch your butts.  Perry is certainly watching his.

With sauce on the 'stash, I send much love,


12 October 2012

Mato Paha (Bear Butte)

Mato Paha, 27 September 2012
It rises out of the shelf of land between the Black Hills and the High Plaines of SW South Dakota.  Just five miles northeast of the town of Sturgis, SD...a location made famous by its annual motorcycle rally in August.  The picture to the right is taken from about a mile away -- on the approach road.  From certain angles, this butte does look like a resting bear.  It is why the Cheyenne and Lakota peoples called it Mato (Bear) Paha (Hill/Butte)

The land on this shelf is at about 3400 feet above sea level.  Mato Paha (Ma-toh Pah-hah) rises another 1200 feet above the surrounding plain.  It was formed eons ago by action of subsurface magma pushing upward into the granite.  It pushed these rocks to a probable peak of about 2000 feet, but no volcano was formed, and the magma subsided.  The entire  Black Hills was formed by such action, which is an anomaly of sorts.  The surrounding plains were scraped flat by advancing and retreating ice...the most recent ice age.

To say that Mato Paha is sacred is to understate both its significance and the experience one has when ascending to its peak.  Geologists attest to the unusual electro-magnetic activity here.  Archealogists attest to the fact that it has been sacred to a number of indigenous peoples dating back at least 10,000 years.  In our time, it has been continuously used as a place of pilgrimage, prayer and sacred ceremony by the Cheyenne, Lakota, Arapaho, Crow and other First Nations in the upper plains.  Crazy Horse, the Oglala Lakota war chief, made his home at its base in the 1870s.  The largest ever gathering of First Nations peoples happened here in the 1850s.  Today, prayer flags and ties hang from the scrubby trees and shrubs on the switch back, scree-covered trail that ascends to the summit.  It is one of the four major gathering places for the annual ceremonial procession of the Lakota people (dating back to the 1700s and still being done).

One does not ascend to the summit of Mato Paha and not be transformed in some way...or not meet a challenge within one's soul.  It does have that kind of power.

I departed Sarasota on 24 September -- flying to Kansas City, MO, where I met my dear friend Don Palmer.  We drove his Ford F150 extended cab truck (lovingly called "Big Bertha") the 750 miles from Kansas City to the center of the Black Hills....the Pe Sla (Pay-shlah).  There we spent 12 days at Borderlands Ranch...in a set of two cabins at the rear of the ranch property.  At 6500 feet, it is an area of wonder, beauty and unique features.  It is also a sacred place to the First Nations people.

I had a task -- or series of tasks -- related to the project of writing a book.  In the work I am doing, one does not simply do a lot of reading and technical research and write an opinion.  I began this journey in 2007 with a Vision Quest (Hanblecheya) in the Pe Sla...four days in length with an overnight of vigil at the top of a hill clothed only in a pair of gym shorts and wrapped in a blanket...barefoot and restricted to an area no larger that 6 square feet.  It was one of the most powerful experiences of my life.  And, it defies description.  It must be experienced.

The task with each visit is a pilgrimage to one of the sacred areas.  This puts one in touch with the inner self, God and the earth.  I made my first pilgrimage to the top of Mato Paha also in 2007.  One does not do this pilgrimage unless one feels the compelling invitation from within.  I knew, several weeks before going, that I was called to begin this time in the Black Hills by ascending Mato Paha.   It would be my fifth time in six visits (I was specifically "told" from within not to climb last fall, when I went.  I did not realize at the time that I was getting sick with the infection in my right shoulder...but, obviously, One knew).

The trail up the Mato Paha is a narrow, winding path of scree rock and granite stone that winds and switches back as it skirts two lower peaks and eventually to the top of the main peak.  The path is a little more than two miles, but it is rugged and demanding.  It takes about 1 hr, 45 minutes to ascend and about 1 hr, 15 minutes to descend.  I am always sore for a couple of days afterward....and I prepare well in advance with lower body strength training.  Altitude requires regular intake of water and probably a small power bar at the top to re-energize.

Some people make the trip in "tourist fashion" -- zipping up and back to show their "mastery of the mountain."  It is typical of our culture.  Challenges demand conquest.  Before I made my first ascent, I was carefully advised by my mentors to do so "in a sacred manner."  "Mato Paha speaks to one's spirit, and the resulting internal conversation leads to healing and vision," said my mentor in 2007.  I am here to say that, after five pilgrimage ascents, I have never returned the same person that started.  Something has always shifted.  Just as an example:  I have a genetic coronary diagnosis that included cardiac ischemia.  This is heart tissue that no longer functions ... or functions at severely reduced efficiency.  During my 2008 (2nd) pilgrimage, I had experienced chest pain on the  ascent.  A nuclear cardiac stress/CT study later showed that the ischemia had disappeared.  This simply does not happen -- unless one is healed "in a sacred manner."

As I made this pilgrimage on 27 September, it was our second day in the Black Hills.  I left with concern about my ability to do the project that we have been designing and engaging for almost five years.  Now that I am a year retired, healed from my recent surgeries, moved into our new location and an official father-in-law to a wonderful young man who married our younger daughter in June, it is time to begin this work in earnest.  This time, Mato Paha and I needed to have a conversation.

I will not (and cannot) describe my climb up to the top or my descent.  Suffice it to say, it included a very vivid intuitional conversation with a Lakota medicine man, an encounter with two young prairie rattlesnakes (In my five times of doing this, I had never seen a snake of any kind on the Mato Paha), and a challenge I did not expect to have in the mix of all that.  For the record, snakes and I get along fine.  I have handled a couple of rattlesnakes as a teenage amateur herpetologist (which annoyed my dad immeasurably).  But the appearances and the fact that I encountered them and Don didn't bears sharp note.

In this journey I had tears, laughter, pain, doubt, and peace.  It didn't happen in any order and not just once.  I had things to learn about myself and "charges" (emotional baggage) to engage.  Mato Paha was true to character.  By the time I returned to the parking lot of the  Visitor Center, at the base, I was not the same guy in character that I was when I arrived at the center. Besides it being four hours later and being physically wiped slick, my internal being had been permanently rearranged in important areas.  It totally shaped my next 10 days of work.

There are many ways to encounter and experience the Transforming Spirit of God (Wakan-Tanka, Yahweh, Tankashila).  The Holy One, who created and continues to create within us, is all pervasive.  Our First Nations brothers and sisters never lost that sense as we "westerners" have (in large measure).  It is in our genetics, and our forebearers knew of it.  St. Francis spent his life teaching this...as did the Celtic Christians.  One of my goals is to expand our experience and vision in sharing the experiences I have been so privileged to have over the past five years...as well as what may be ahead of me.

Oh, more on the "iconology" of animals at another time.  I am still processing my experiences from this latest journey -- in a sacred manner.

Blessings in the Love of Jesus,

Silent reflection atop Mato Paha
27 September 2012
Fr. Fred+

16 September 2012

On the Ledge

[nb:  for those receiving by email automatically at publication -- this is a corrected version of the original. Two errors in syntax and three spelling errors were corrected. One new sentence was added at the end of the second-to-the-last paragraph]

One of the places that can cause my body to feel as though it may go into instant "free fall" is the observation floor of the Hancock Building in Chicago.  The building itself is instantly recognizable in the city-scape.

I have made several trips to the top of that building over the years, and my sense of free fall has never abated.  One can walk from the elevator right to the edge of the glass wall that looks out over any of the four directions.  Look down.  Knees feel wobbly.  Stomach seems to get queezy.  Head feels light.  It is all as if one is about to step into the air itself outside the building.  On a really windy day, the addition of "building sway" enhances the experience.

There are folks who do not have that sensation, but i suspect most of us do.  One instinctively wants to take at least a step back and hold on to something.  I have spent time on that observation floor watching the phenomenon with hundreds of folks. Nevertheless, people like me go back again and again for the experience of incredible views.  Being up there seems to bring the world together in some way.

Frankly, I really don't like driving in Chicago (and I refuse to drive in NYC or downtown Boston...the latter just being plain dangerous).  I have driven many times through and into Chicago, during the eleven years I was Dean of St. James Cathedral in South Bend, IN.  Whether business ventures or family outings, Chicago was a destination place.  For sure, going up to the observation floor of the Hancock would be on someone's list of "musts"....especially during Christmas season.  Being above the vehicle and pedestrian traffic, the noise and the commerce, one could see the rich tapestry of districts, neighborhoods, industry and connective "tissue" that make the human community.  The top of the Hancock (or Sears Tower, which is no longer called the Sears tower) was the only way to get the big picture.

I have acrophobia in a form that doesn't mind heights when I am, say, in a passenger jet or light airplane.  I have problems with heights where I am standing near the edge with minimal, or lattice railing or full floor to ceiling glass panels.  The sensations described above are immediate for me, in those circumstances.  I want to be in a safe place immediately.  I can will myself to stand close; but it is a powerful and constant battle of will to remain....and I must be holding on to something.  If there is no safety railing...forget it.  Not going there!

I use this as a primary frame of reference for yet another kind of ledge.   This kind is internal more than external -- though it can have external modalities.  One does not know it.  One has to experience it.  I have spoken of the Self on several occasions in these posts.  It is the core of being....deeper than the self we know and express.  The self of consciousness engages the senses and the part of environment that we call reality.  But, it is only a very small...and not totally accurate...part of the Reality that is who and what we are.  That bigger part is what is "beyond the ledge" of our conscious experience.

I like the Hancock Building analogy because:  a) the observation floor is a finite "platform" that feels safe and secure; b) if we get really paralyzed by the sudden expanse of space beyond the floor, we can go down the elevator and be on "terra firma"....this is an illusion of which I will speak a bit more; c) from the observation floor we can see the more complete reality of the surroundings for about 20 miles in any direction on a good day.  It puts us and our environment in perspective.   On the ground and outside the Hancock Building, we are in a seemingly vast concrete jungle filled with noise, and the commerce of fellow beings.

I had a colleague once tell me that he did not do or teach contemplative practices.  When I asked the reason, he simply responded, "Folks can't deal with the idea of nothing."  What he meant by this is that the necessary suspension of the self leaves one with the seemingly endless landscape that goes in any direction for what seems to be an infinite distance.  Now that is a ledge!

Here is where the Hancock analogy breaks down.  If it were possible to literally stand on the ledge of the observation floor of the Hancock Building (99 floors above the street) with no glass wall or barrier, the consequences of one slip or bad move would mean plummeting down those hundreds of feet in free fall at the rate of 32 ft/second squared....the gravitational pull on your body.  NO, we are not built to free float in the atmosphere.  NO, we are not designed to fly by our own anatomical means.

However, stepping off the ledge into the vastness of the unconscious and into that reality is, in fact, part of our nature and being.  In our essence, we are designed for that journey.  Read any master of prayer, saint or mystic who has written about contemplative discipline in Christianity or Judiasm ... or any historically solid spiritual tradition... and one gets the immediate sense that we belong to something much bigger than our daily "awake" world incorporates.

I learned that being a priest in my own Episcopal tradition carries with it the sensate reality that I am an accomplished scholar in the theological and pastoral disciplines that ordination allows me to utilize to engage the daily commerce of what we call the Church Militant.  It is called that, because it is the corporate, business and organizational element of the Church Triumphant.  This latter designation is the Church that resides in that  reality  known as the Kingdom of God.  It is the place where the Divine is actually encountered.

I like very much Fr. Richard Rohr's analogy.  Since I was a Boy Scout, it makes a lot of sense to me.  In his book, Jesus' Plan for a New World, Fr. Rohr says, "In this now and not-yet Reign of God is the foundation for our personal hope and our cosmic optimism, but it is also the source of our deepest alienation from the world as it is, which is all based on merit badges, and various forms of win or lose....Living in this Big Picture of God will leave you in many ways as a 'stranger or pilgrim' on this earth."  (here he cites Hebrews 11:13.  This quote is on pages 3-4 of the above book).

I have spent most of my lifetime building a resume' that gives me credibility and stability in this reality.  It has earned me the benefit of a retirement income.  It gives me introduction to a variety of religious and social venues.  I am known as a "religious professional" (which means basically that I can run a religious based organization), and a "spiritual leader" (more complicated, but it usually means I can make the prayers that get stuff done and lead worship).  What is left out is that we most always stop with these descriptors.  

When a priest, for instance, begins to dig deeply into the relational elements of one's experiences of God in Jesus or the deep pool of actual spiritual reality, we are told that we are "meddling" in private matters.  Folks don't want to go there.  A lot of clergy don't want to go there.  It's as if pirates had warned us that, beyond that ledge of sensate reality, "there be dragons!"

Yep, there are dragons.  These are known variously as neuroses, emotional charges, baggage, etc.  It's the stuff we have accumulated that needs to be jettisoned before we can engage a truly enriched experience of the Holy One...in whatever form that needs to take for us.  That is God's work.  We don't design it.  We simply "fall" into it.

Meantime, we use words, pictures, ideologies, and all kinds of systems to make our case.  Evangelism becomes a "tool" for making Christians (or any other tradition for that matter).  No one likes the answer to evangelism that reads or recites:  "I have plumbed the depths of being, found God, who has filled me, and I simply am....that is enough."  Well.....it is enough.  Since we don't want to go there, we can't say that; so we invent "tools" and "programs."

The Bible becomes not a source of rich relationship and opportunity, but a handhold or railing to keep us from going over the edge.  We hang on to words and hope like crazy we aren't asked to actually experience what the folks in Scripture are sharing.  "Just tell me what to do..."   The Christian mystic would respond, "do nothing...and in nothing you will find yourself in God's love."  The writer of Hebrews says, "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the Living God" (Hebrews 10:31). That is exactly the experience of which I am speaking!

That's enough for now.  My next post will go further and become much more contemporary in its reflection.  Thanks for being here.

Much love in Jesus,

Fr. Fred+

17 August 2012

Sacred Space

Someone asked me, just recently, what I missed most about being a parish priest.  Now that I have a little better than a year's distance from retirement, I am rested enough to consider what I valued most about those 34 years.   Everything was important, but not everything was necessary.  There is often a lot of trivia and fabricated intensity in daily parish life.  Our seminary moral theology professor would say, "the emotional intensity of a typical parish day depends almost entirely upon whose ox is getting gored."  I can now say he was absolutely right.

But it begs the question to consider what I am happy to leave behind.  I truly miss planning and doing liturgy.  Running a close second is catechesis.  I love to teach and explore ideas with folks.  I have not presided at a liturgy since 11 March (this year), when I supplied for a colleague in Independence, MO.  I'm not yet on the supply list in this diocese (where I reside) but will be soon I suspect.  However, it is one thing to preside at sacramental worship.  It is quite something else to be daily invested in planning, creating and engaging worship....seeing and feeling the liturgical seasons flow and be actively tuned in to that flow.

I am well suited to liturgical life, preaching and teaching.  My mind works that way.  I am as much a right brain intuitive as I am a left brain logician....perhaps more.   I research, gather data and prepare with resources.  Then, I let my mind go free to create what will be presented.  That's why I preach and teach with few notes.  It is why liturgy simply moves along in a flow.  I do miss that.

Saying all of that is the preamble to what I have come to realize in the last few weeks.  Sacred space isn't built.  It does not depend on an architectural design or contain set rules of physical organization.  Those things have become iconic in culture as a way of "speaking" sacred space to its people.   Sacred space is created by intention and subsequent action.  It can be anywhere.

I am forever, in this life, blessed to have been mentored in liturgy and sacramental theology by two holy men:  The Rev. Dr. Louis Weil and The Rev. Dr. Leonel Mitchell.  Fr. Weil was my professor and on-campus spiritual director in seminary.  He was both brilliant and articulate.  He obviously loved working with his students and spent a huge amount of time interacting on a lot of levels in our vocational formation.  We became close friends, and I valued his vast knowledge, his practical approach and his patient tutorials.  He taught me to pray with motion....how I stand at the Altar; how I use my hands and create gestures to impart prayer in a physical manner; how not to waste motion; how to use voice and how to make what is happening at the Altar alive to those gathered.   There are no tricks or "shell games" to liturgy.  The priest is a vessel of Grace and gives both voice and movement to the deep workings of liturgical prayer.  Fr. Weil is now retired and living in the San Francisco Bay area.

I was truly blessed to learn that Fr. Mitchell owned a home in South Bend, IN.  When he retired as professor of liturgics and sacramental theology from Seabury-Western Seminary in Chicago, he and his wife came back to South Bend.  He was an Honorary Canon of the cathedral, where I was Dean, and became my liturgical adviser and close friend during the last eight of my eleven years at St. James.  I will always remember his words, as we planned special liturgies for the cathedral:  "Will what we do and how we do it make sense to anyone present at this liturgy?"  Again, words and actions needed to synchronize and speak the intention at the heart of why we were there.  Lee was also a person of great wisdom and infinite patience.  He died in May this year, and I already miss him...even though I am retired.

Louis and Lee travel with me in the manner by which I conduct daily life.   Both taught and lived the creation of sacred space and time by virtue of presence and intention.  You see, sacramental moments happen all around us and with a great deal of regularity.  We don't recognize them because we are not looking or living with an attitude of "sacredness."

To engage this concept more completely, I like to use the Lakota way of experiencing life.   When I am with my mentors, one might say something like, "Climb Bear Butte, in a sacred manner."  Or, "As you are looking up at the sky, do so in a sacred manner."   We all look at things, but do we really see them?   The first time I climbed Bear Butte (near Sturgis, S. Dakota...just outside the Black Hills), I knew this was a sacred site for a number of First Nations tribes.  Taking my mentor's counsel to heart, I literally suspended my expectations and normal orienteering skills.  I simply allowed the mountain to "speak" to me.  Small, and usually insignificant things began to take on a new interest or focus.  It was an unspoken conversation.  I completed that climb wiser than when I started.  Popping back into chronological sequence was a jolt.

What I did was allow the entire Bear Butte to be sacred space.  I allowed myself to suspend chronological time and to, instead, experience kairos...holy time...creation time. Over the past few years, it has gotten easier to suspend the process of organizing data and allowing myself to simply let the experience happen.  It's something like looking at one of those multi-colored grouping of dots and being asked to see the picture embedded therein.  Once one learns how to "de-focus" the eyes, the picture seems to pop right out.  Engaging sacred space is a defocusing of the data gathering and analytical thought processes and allowing intuition to take charge....flipping from left brain to right brain.  Suddenly, leaves are not just leaves.  Creatures are not just creatures.  Smells are not just smells.  Sounds are not just sounds.  They have different features and deeper textures and personalities.  We are, for that moment, experiencing their true nature.

If God has created all things and is invested in us, sacred space is walking and engaging life at that level.  Now, if we are convinced that there is no God and, therefore, no reality beyond the physical presentation of what is around us, we are simply like the metal balls careening off energized objects in a pinball machine.  We are existing, or living an existence without depth.   Everything around us is, then, frightening or potentially harmful.  If we are experiencing our surroundings "in a sacred manner," we know immediately, that all creation is our friend.  We know how to respect what is more powerful; but the more powerful does not threaten us or do us harm.

In October 2007, I made an Hanbleceya (han-blay-chayah) at the center of the Black Hills...under the direction of a Lakota elder and those who assisted him.  It was a three-day experience at the center of which was a night alone at the top of a hill in a place I had never been before...and miles from anything resembling civilization.   It was me, clad only in a pair of shorts and equipped only with a blanket, sitting in a space that had been set apart as a place of vigil and prayer.  I am told this space has been used for centuries by Lakota and other First Nations people.  Hanbleceya means, "crying for a vision."  It is a process toward encountering one's holy center and experiencing the holiness and sacredness of one's surroundings.

The center of the Black Hills (the Pe sla) is a prairie dotted with wooded areas and lined with streams at an altitude averaging 5,000 feet.  As sacred space, it literally throbs with Presence and transcendent reality.  It almost sparkles.  I remember that night hearing what are normal night sounds -- owls, coyotes, cattle lowing in the distance, the rustle of bushes with the movement of night creatures seeking a meal.  It was a cloudless night and, because the nearest town is 17 miles away, the stars were brighter than I had ever seen them.  The moon was in it's first quarter.  Yet, my sight seemed clearer.  I had absolutely no fear.  I knew, somehow, that I was in sacred space and surrounded by those who would care for me.  I eased into that trust and had the most powerful night of my life in terms of revelation and engagement (yep, one must stay awake and keep vigil...I slept after my hanbleceya ended around 11am the next day).

Our new home is sacred space for us.  When we moved here, we determined that we wanted to begin this part of our life by being intentional about that.  We prayed our way into our new home and asked that we might be more aware of ourselves, one another and all that is holy in every room.  We have designated spaces for prayer and meditation outside the daily routine.  When we enter from outside, we remove our shoes and either go around barefooted or with house shoes (or socks).  Taking into account that God told Moses to remove his sandals, because he was stepping on holy ground, we are following that custom used by a number of cultures.

This is just a thought.  Perhaps we don't get as much out of going to church as we could, because we do not treat it as sacred space.  We simply see it as a necessary (or tangential) extension of daily life...analytical and mundane.  I wonder...just wonder mind you...what would happen if we had to remove our shoes at the door and become quiet as we entered the worship space?  What would happen if, in a sacred manner, we tuned out the chatter of analysis and data collection and simply allowed ourselves to be present to whatever may be around us?

Then, what would happen if we took that attitude into our homes....then into our work spaces...then into the routine of our movements about our communities.   I wonder.....

Love and Blessings,


15 August 2012

Grits and Eggs

Grits:  The most misunderstood food in America.  Even the grammar is misunderstood.  Grits IS a food.  The plural word describes A food.  I made a mistake in my teenage years that taught me this lesson.

My Dad, an eighth generation Georgia native, grew up with grits.  One morning, he was making breakfast for my brother and me.  He often did this, because Mom was an RN and, at that time, night charge nurse for emergency services (i.e. boss of the emergency room).  Dad was creative, but his favorite breakfast, by far, included grits.  On this particular day, he asked if I wanted some grits.  Typical smart-ass teenager that I could be, I responded, "I'll have a grit."  Well, Dad obliged me.  He meticulously picked out one grain of the cereal from the pot and carefully placed it on my plate...right next to the eggs.  "Eat that, and you can have more."  My Dad was very quick on the come-back.  It is one reason I avoided being a smart-ass with him  most of the time.

I did not realize just how misunderstood this food is until I started traveling north of the Mason-Dixon line (that now imaginary boundary between the cultures of south and north).  The first time I ordered grits in a northern restaurant, one would have thought I had asked for a moon rock.  "What?!!  What are grits?!"  I knew I was in trouble. First, the verb tense was wrong.  Second, the look on the waitress' face told me I had spoken a foreign language to her.  "You know, it's sort of like cream-of-wheat...."   That didn't help.  "Sir, we don't have anything like that here."

Grits:  Corn that is washed and milled (ground) into granules about the size of a large grain of sand.  Thus, the origin of the name.  Rub the ground corn in your hands and it feels "gritty"....just like coarse sand.   Grits can also be known a "hominy" or "hominy grits."  It's the same substance.

In the food world, grits is the universal solvent. One can have it with anything, because, by itself, grits doesn't have a lot of taste.  To cook grits, one cup of water is brought to the boil and one-quarter cup of grits is stirred into the roiling water.  Turn the stove temperature to low, cover the pot and cook for about 15 or so minutes.  Stir occasionally and add about a quarter teaspoon of salt (or to taste).  Once the texture of the grits is less than soupy and not yet thick, they are done.  This point is problematic for some.

Texture is important in cooking grits.  If I am served a cup of grits in a restaurant, and want to put it on my plate, the cooked substance needs to pour thickly but steadily.  If it comes out in a clump, this is a true cooking error.  Same is true if it runs like.....well, if it is really runny.

Once the grits is ready, anything can happen....and I do mean that.   That's why it is the universal solvent of foods.  Personally, the basic way of eating grits for me is to add coarse ground pepper, some butter and whatever kind of hot sauce I happen to be enjoying at the moment.  Right now, it is a particularly tasty wing sauce.

Hot Sauces:  I want to digress here a moment.  If one is going to use hot sauce on grits...or any food for that matter....DO NOT (and this is important) buy anything that is made north of an imaginary line between Kansas City, MO and Richmond, VA.  That's on this side of the  Rocky Mountains (my north-south line that divides east and west...not the Mississippi).  West of the Rockies, don't by a hot sauce made anyplace north of a line from San Diego to the Four-Corners.

Why do I say this?  Because hot sauces are made from a variety of peppers that are not grown north of those places.  Peppers that I am talking about grow in temperate or tropical climates.  Those folks understand the temperament of their produce and what spices/herbs/etc. are best added to bring out the best in that particular kind of pepper.  No one in New York City will begin to understand this process...or Los Angeles...or Omaha...or Chicago.  Just trust me on this.

Grits and...:  The universally understood southern breakfast is grits, eggs, bacon (or ham) and toast.  Of course, coffee and maybe a juice on the side.  Grits is often served with various fish dishes.  Grits and seafood is an old southern standard.  Ham and grits with greens is a long-standing farm meal.  One can find grits being served with a variety of game food.  My maternal grandfather's favorite hunting food was either rabbit or squirrel with grits.  During the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, southerners could be found eating grits with possum or armadillo.  Gator tail with grits is another meal along the bayous and rural areas near swamps [note:  if you are in Central Florida and want a truly traditional southern meal, there is a restaurant on the Black Creek that any long-time local can tell you about.  There's some good victuals there, let me tell ya'].

My favorite way of eating grits is with eggs.   Now, there are ways to do this that are probably as varied as the people who eat grits and eggs.  I will forgo that level of discussion and tell you my two favorite grits and egg dishes.

1) A serving of grits with two fried eggs.  A serving of grits is the recipe I provided above...a quarter cup of uncooked grits and a cup of water.  I like two fried eggs done sunny-side up...very runny.  Stay with me here.  I put the serving of grits on a plate or shallow bowl and put the two eggs smack on top of the grits (if you are around me, you will hear the expression, "a wad of grits."  Heck, one has to call that summary food something).  I cut the eggs up and mix the whole shebang together.  Don't forget the salt, pepper, butter and hot sauce.  I love ketchup, but, no, I don't put ketchup on grits.  Hot sauce.  That's a tasty meal with bacon or ham.  I forgo the toast to watch the carbohydrate intake (grits is a carb).

2)  A serving of grits with two eggs cooked into the grits.  I have been on this kick for a couple of weeks now.  Cook the grits as described above.  Just as the cooking cycle is being completed, add the salt, pepper, butter and hot sauce.  Stir until well mixed.  Pour two eggs into the pot and stir vigorously into the grits...insure that you break the yolks so that the mixture has a smooth and uniform consistency.  On low heat, it takes about three minutes of gentle stirring to insure the eggs are cooked into the mixture.  Pour into a cereal bowl.  Voila!  A protein packed breakfast.  It takes about 17 minutes start to finish. Very small cleanup.   To add some adventure to this recipe, I will occasionally sprinkle in a mixture of shredded parmessan, asiago and mozzerella cheeses.  Continue stirring until the  cheese is melted and is uniform in consistency.  I had that this morning.  Also, I will occasionally cook bacon crisp and crumble it on top of the bowl of grits with this recipe.

As I said, variations are only as limited as the imagination.  That's why grits are so much fun.  Oh, what to buy:  Quaker Traditional Grits is more universally found in grocery stores.  The absolute best is Dixie-Lily Grits.  That brand seems harder to find, since I have returned to Florida.  DO NOT....NEVER, EVER...buy instant grits.  No, no, no.  Some things just aren't right.  Two of those things are instant grits and instant oatmeal.  Just think of those instant foods as poison, and you will be fine.

Okay, my friends, get your grits in your local supermarket cereal section and have at it.  You will not be disappointed.  Let me know what you come up with.

Love and Blessings,


08 August 2012

Mitakuye Oyasin: All my Relations

It may seem like I am on a sudden roll with these postings.  It is more appropriate to say that the world is moving quickly, and the experiences are coming at us more intensely than usual.  As my heading suggests, I see this blog site as a place to reflect on events as they impact me, and as I process them using the gifts and skills of my craft.  Usually, some days may pass while I ruminate on an issue or event.  Sometimes, the scene gains resolution quite quickly.  This morning, an offer came my way that triggered a sudden organization of several thoughts.

For about ten years, I have been working on my ancestry.  This has not been the usual hunting the trail of grandparents and lineage.  This has been a DNA project that was begun by the geneticist, Dr. Spencer Wells, and the National Geographic Society.  It also included IBM and the University of Arizona.  It has morphed a bit over the years, but the National Geographic and Dr. Wells are still doing the project....known as the Genographic Survey.

Behind the Genographic Survey, has been the Human Genome Project, which began in 1989 and concluded in 1994.  It explored decoded the entire human DNA.  Cyber-systems and programming allowed this mind-boggling process to be accomplished in half the time they thought...such is the speed of computing evolution.  That project was overseen by Dr. Francis Collins, a physiologist and genetics expert.  He is now head of NIH in Bethesda, Maryland.  Collins' book, Language of God, and Wells' books, Journey of Man & Deep Ancestry are important reading in this field.

In a paragraph:  The male Y chromosome does not replicate when sperm and egg meet.  It is complete and is passed from father to son intact.  The female mitochondrial DNA, likewise does not replicate in reproduction but passes from mother to daughter intact.  As generations move forward, there are occasional errors in transfer...like a typographical error.  These are called "markers" in genetics and act as "bread crumbs" -- allowing the geneticists to trace backward.  Once a marker is present, it remains in subsequent generations -- along with any new markers that occur.  What was discovered is that ALL human beings (Homo sapiens) come from a single source...in eastern Africa...about 65,000 years ago.  As migration began, groups moved along different routes that eventually populated the planet.  All humans have the same first marker...male and female.  So, the person next to you is ultimately related to you -- regardless of ethnic origin, "race," or geographic origin.  Our physical differences are the result of thousands of years of geographic, environmental and genetic conditions.  If one's family of origin lived along the  equatorial regions, their skin is darker.  If one's family settled and lived its generations in the colder northern climates, their skin is lighter.

I started this project, because I expressed interest in what was being done by the Genographic Survey at the very early stages of that work.  I got to get a basic Y-Chromosome panel done for free.  Since that time, I have upgraded twice.  The advancing technology has allowed geneticists to further identify haplogroups and fine-tune marker identification.  In summary, my ancestral (and that of all my paternal relatives) route of journey from Africa included the middle east (possibly the Canaan Valley), the area of the Phoenician empire (at about that time, so my ancestors were Phoenicians) and, after the conquest by Alexander the Great, the journey moved to what is now Spain and then integrated into Celtic clans and eventually migrating to what is now Scotland.

Always the scientist, a year ago I tested this by having a Y-Chromosome analysis done by a private company (Genelex).  Alas, the same results.  PLUS, I now know that my haplogroup is in the northern European category.  This means, at least twenty generations have lived in that area and thus providing me -- and my relatives -- our physical characteristics.   I also did this, because I had been told that one of my early 19th century ancestors was Cherokee.  The Genelex study showed no evidence of markers that would validate  that claim.

Today, I ordered the latest in the Genographic Survey chromosomal study.  In about 8 weeks I will have an even tighter model of the migration track my paternal ancestors took.  It will also evaluate my maternal ancestral path (which I have not had to date).  This is very exciting.  With the first three sets of Genographic data, I have connected with a Jewish guy in eastern Europe, two people in Scotland, a person in northern England and three people in the United States whose markers are so close as to make their ancestors and mine the same folks....in two of those contacts, the branch off was about the time the Phoenician Empire was scattered by Alexander the Great.  This makes history truly real and alive!

The contact with National Geographic this morning precipitated this blog post.  Like the Aurora, CO shooting tragedy, the Oak Creek shootings at the Sikh temple touched me deeply.  My way of spirituality allows me the to explore these feelings beyond simply the human indignation, but also on the level of the transcendent nature of who these victims really are.  In spirit, they are me.  We share the intimacy of God's image implanted in us to make us uniquely human.  That's the other piece of the "Adam/Eve" journey.

It is a unique kind of fear that drives persons to bigotry and hate for someone physically different than ourselves.  We have used those differences to justify wars, slavery, abuse and genocide.  I have trouble wrapping my head around how a person, like the shooter in Oak Creek, WI, looks at a group who looks and acts differently and concludes they are another race and, therefore, not at all like him.

As I continue to grow in a lot of ways, I almost do not notice skin color, ethnic differences or different physical characteristics.  Beyond, "gosh, their ancestral migration path went in that direction" (looking at a world map), they are essentially me...sharing the same early markers that identify us as uniquely human.  I am enriched by their backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives that they bring into relationship.

The First Nations people seemed to know this intuitively.  The title of this post is "Mitakuye Oyasin."  It means 'All My Relations.'  The Lakota medicine wheel is divided into four quarters with four colors:  white, yellow, red and black.  Even before they began to know immigrants into their lands, they called these the "four main groups" of the earth's people.  Mitakuye Oyasin isn't just a recognition of their own family.  It is a recognition that we are ALL related.  My learning this in my early studies with the Lakota opened a whole new dimension of understanding the spirituality behind our being human.  God is Love.  When we go there, we find no differences.   They're just folks like me...and you.


Fr. Fred+

07 August 2012

Pushing the Envelope

Like many people, I suspect, I have been engrossed in watching the Olympics.  It's the first time I have had a chance to see both daytime and prime time events that are being televised....at least the first time since I have been a priest.  For 16 days, I become an Olympics junkie.  The summer games are my favorite by far.

Growing up, I was not an athlete.  I was more of an academic.  I did the usual physical education classes, played sandlot baseball and football and did my share of running about.  I seemed always to "run out of steam" at some point.  It was frustrating.  Then, I gained a little weight in middle school.  I didn't understand that, because I was not a "couch potato."  I was a Boy Scout in a troop that was very active.  I grew up in Central Florida, so I swam daily.  Our troop hiked (did the fifty mile hike once), did extended bike trips (80 miles per trip), and canoed most of the rivers north of Lake Okeechobee.   I had long-term endurance.

In high school, I learned to run and ran distances and cross country relays.  I could not sprint for the life of me.  I simply had no speed for short races.  I trimmed down considerably in high school, but I battled a self-esteem issue.  My coach (Bill Duncan) pushed me hard, but I could not deliver.  I was strong and could run relentlessly in rough terrain (cross-country) but don't count on me in the flats...the final race to the line.   Finally, in frustration, I simply quit.

Beyond the required courses in college, physical education and endurance exercise did not exist from me during those years between 1968 and 1972.  I did quite a bit of hiking, however.

Then came my entry into the military.  People in the Army and Marine Corps like to joke about the other armed services not having their toughness and preparation.  My eleven weeks of training in the U.S. Navy  had a huge amount of physical training.  By the time I graduated from A-School, I was lean, hard and could endure long periods of physical exertion.   It was there I found out about teamwork.

My training company had 72 young men.  At age 21, I was almost the oldest...two guys were older than me.  One of the hallmarks of military training is learning to work as a team.  Ultimately, everyone helps everyone else in some way...encouragement, teasing, teaching techniques and other ways we each gave to the others that capacity to keep trying a little harder.  I was able to go farther, faster and longer because my shipmates were there to encourage and support....as I did for them.  As an individual, I became more than I was, but I did not not it by myself.

As a result, I developed a life-long love for running and weight training.  I found out in 1995, that the reason I could not run fast was due to a congenital heart condition called coronary ectasia.  My coronary arteries are 2.5 times larger than normal with "wavy' walls.  Once my heart hits a certain pace, the coronary arteries lose efficiency, and I "hit the wall."  HOWEVER, I could get to a pace good for me (around a 10 minute mile) and then run for miles -- usual 8 to 10 miles -- at a stretch.  I loved it!

My muscles responded to weights, and I learned to stretch through hatha yoga.  For a number of years I "worked the pile" three times a week (the "pile" is slang for free weights and their accompanying equipment).

I usually had a partner with whom I would both run and workout.  Free weights require a "spotter," so two or three of us would meet at the gym and spot for each other.  This included encouragement and the occasional correction to form.

One day, while stationed at the submarine base in Holy Loch, Scotland (1974), I found myself at the gym at the shore facility at an odd time.  I had to be back for an "evolution" (military slang for an event that has many parts) and had only a short time to get my weight training  accomplished.  I got cocky and tried overhead pressing more weight than usual.  After only four reps, I got the weight over my head and began losing control.  The rule, at such times, is to throw the weight bar away...let go of it so it will fall in front of the lifter.  I tried a control drop down without letting go and twisted my right shoulder...very nearly dislocating it.  I was in a sling for two weeks.

Jump ahead twenty years to 1995.  I had decided to run a half marathon and was training with a couple of friends in South Bend.  I went on a private retreat at the seminary where I did my graduate work and decided, on the spur of the moment, to do a special run/workout on my own.  I set out on a road I had not been on.  Less than a mile out, I somehow stepped in a depression in the road, began to fall and twisted my left knee -- tearing the meniscus cartilage.  Surgery was the only solution.

In both of those scenarios, I was working alone and trying to accomplish training tasks best done with at least one other person.  The long-term results are obvious.  A second meniscus tear on my right knee in 2000 and a second injury to my right shoulder with weight training led to no more running and arthritic knees; and a prosthetic right shoulder joint with arthritis in the left joint.

I grieve the loss of the activities I had come to love, but I have found replacements that, when everything is working right, allow me to achieve the goals of proper weight, muscular tightness, and healthy cardio-vascular efficiency.  Now, I work with a trainer who monitors my activity and occasionally jumps in to adjust my form on machines (no more working the pile...ever).  I work out aerobically on an elliptical rider or stationary bike.

A couple of days ago, the Jamaican runner Usain Bolt, won the 100 meter dash...becoming the fastest man in the world.  Right behind him -- placing second -- was fellow Jamaican, Yohan Blake.  Therein is a wonderful story.   Bolt and Blake train together.  They are close friends.  Blake is obsessive about training, which sometimes frustrates Bolt, who has given his friend the nickname, "the Beast."   However, Blake, the Beast, says that his friend encourages him.  In turn, Bolt says that Blake's obsessive training style, calls him to push the envelope of his endurance -- becoming a better runner.

Yohan Blake ran to win that 100 meter dash.  So did Usain Bolt.  Each encouraged the other to push through.  At the end, they hugged, laughed and shed tears of joy together.  It was a true Olympic moment.

I watched the new world record holder in the men's 400 meter race, Kirani James, remove his name badge and trade it for Oscar Pistorius' name badge after the semi-final of that race.  Kirani James won and Pistorius came in last.  Pistorius runs on double leg prostheses.  This trade of badges is a sign of deep respect for another athlete in a race.  James, of Grenada, giving respect and admiration to Pistorius, of S. Africa.  No dry eyes in the stands Sunday evening.

Every athlete who speaks with reporters or commentators doesn't simply talk about how they won but also about those who trained, encouraged, loved and supported them in the process.  They pushed the envelope of human capacity in league with a host of people in that process.

In a society that has come to value the power of individual effort, the goal of being an individualist has been raised to a place of near worship.  At a time in our society where, suddenly, folks are misusing the Bible to create a false standard, they fail to see how the disciples and the early community supported, encouraged and engaged in a mutuality of spiritual development.  Their individual efforts to share the Good News was supported by the larger community's prayers and investment.

Sportsmanship is the art and craft of teamwork.  When I hear of parents who attack coaches and referees because their son/daughter not getting what they believe they should have (individual stardom), I realize our society is, in fact, in some trouble.  One person is not the definition of a sport, or a business, or a family.  I am a priest, because folks in my home parish saw something that they believed to be the work of the Holy Spirit in me.  That continues to this day...even in retirement.  My vocation is only an aspect of community...not simply "my priesthood."

When we find ourselves in a place of success, or enriched lives, or new opportunities, take a look around.  There are those known to us...and unknown to us...who have given us support in unique ways.  I have been building a list of those who have been part of me being who and what I am now.  That list gets longer daily.  Daily I give thanks for all of them.  Thanks!


Fr. Fred+

31 July 2012


When Denise and I moved from Lee's Summit, MO to Sarasota, FL, we gave all our living houseplants away to folks we knew would love and care for them.  It was quite a large selection.  We like to have living, growing things around us.  However, in establishing ourselves in our new townhome, we decided not to have live houseplants...a way to further simplify our lifestyle.

That lasted about two months.  We purchased a Basil and a Chocolate Mint plant in pots that live on our lanai (screen enclosure at the back of our first floor living room).  These herbs are hardy and generally vigorous.  In this  part of Florida, they generally live year-round.

For me, this turned out not to be enough.  My study needed the addition of a living plant...something unique and different from my former choices.  I spent weeks quietly searching and finally came across a list of plants that benefit the air quality and environment of the rooms in which they are placed.  One such plant that caught my eye was the Sansevieria.  It had sturdy, thick leaves that grow upward from its pot and is known to absorb nitrogen oxide and formaldahyde.  While I don't believe these chemicals are present in my environment, with any hardy plant, one gets a reduction in CO2 and additional O2.  Also, this plant has several common names.  Here, it is known as the "snake plant."  You would have to know my background to understand the attraction to that...that's another blog.

I found just the plant I wanted at one of our local Lowe's.  It took a while of exploring the home garden center, but, as soon as I saw it among a number of easy care houseplants, it was like a rescue dog speaking, "take me to your house."  So, on 23 July, the Sansevieria, aka Snake Plant, came to live on the temporary bookcase in my study.

Now...this may be a southern thing...it is important to find a suitable personal name for a plant that will live in close proximity.  For instance, in seminary, I had a very happy varigated red/green coleus that simply screamed the name "Claudius" to me.  It thrived and stayed with me through my first curacy in Springfield, MO...a total of almost six years.  I gave it to a good friend when I made the move back to Central Florida in 1980.

Naming is a sacred act.  Something about a plant or animal emerges...a kind of character...which a name provides a descriptor for that character.  When I got my snake plant settled in my study, I sat looking at it...studying its features...asking what impact it had upon me and what characteristics is reflected in its new surroundings.  Without warning, the name popped into my head.   "Dirksen."   After further reflection, it established itself, and, in a simple gesture of gently placing my hands around the plant, I pronounced that it would henceforth be known as "Dirksen Sansevieria."
Sansevieria (Snake Plant):  Dirksen

Like anyone, I have persons I count as heroes in my life.  People whose lives and work have exemplified what I believe to be important attributes and contributions to our culture.  They have provided me with inspiration for my own growth, development and vocation.  This may come as a surprise from one who has already admitted to being a moderate/progressive Democrat; but one of my heroes is Senator Everett McKinley Dirksen (1896-1969), a Republican from Illinois.

Senator Dirksen's story is like many folks of that period.  The son of German immigrants, he grew up on a farm in Perkin, IL....not far from Peoria.  He attended college and was in law school, when WWI erupted.  He left school to serve in  the Army.  To cut to the chase, he entered national politics as a member of the House of Representatives in Congress in 1933 and served until 1949.  After overcoming a health issue, he was elected to the Senate in 1950 and served until his untimely death from cancer in 1969.

My admiration for Senator Dirksen began in the 1960s.  In Jr. High School I had a teacher in 7th grade who introduced us to daily news through the "Weekly Reader."  This is where I met the rumpled, fiery orator with hair that never seemed combed much.  I learned that, while he stood on the ground of being a "conservative Republican," he was always at work building bridges between where his ideology could meet the ideology of those of at the other end of the spectrum.  He crafted, or help craft, a number of key legislation that shaped the changes and the reshaping of our society in the 1960s.   He is most famous for his role in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Open Housing Act of 1968.  He helped break a nearly deadly filibuster during the crafting of the Civil Rights Act and created a compromise with the hold out southern Democrats that allowed the legislation to pass into law.  Whenever debate in the Senate would become convoluted, he would introduce legislation to make the marigold the national flower.  He was wise, humorous and didn't take himself so seriously that he couldn't find a means to get the important work of the people accomplished.  He wasn't afraid to change his mind, if he found a way to create a compromise that would make the legislative process work.  For all his time in the Senate, he was the Minority Leader.  He could be found consulting with Mike Mansfield or Lyndon Johnson (both Senate Majority Leaders) when legislation seemed stuck or heading for defeat.  I could go on, but I think you get the point.   I so identified with Dirksen's style, that I think I subconsciously adopted aspects of it in my own professional development.
Senator Everett M. Dirksen

Now, what does my plant named Dirksen have to do with the historically significant statesmen Everett Dirksen?   Absolutely nothing.  It isn't my wife's favorite indoor plant, but she knows I have an attachment to it.  Compromise...it stays in my study.  It looks a bit unruly and "rumpled."   Somehow, it inspires me to think outside the box...even in choosing it from among other "handsomer" indoor plant possibilities.  It's intuitive, but that's where most creative energy comes from...our right brain intuition.  I don't know what it is, but when I sit and look at this plant, I begin to get ideas.  It seems to invite that internal journey.

We are in an era of uncommon politics and radical shifting.  A lot of what we see happening in our electoral process is disconcerting.  Pundits and various personalities say simply off the wall, dumb stuff.  Yet, they are coming very close to possibly being elected.  Compromise?  No work is getting done in Congress, because there is no hint of a desire to compromise on the part of radical parts of both sides of the aisle.  We don't have a Dirksen anywhere in sight to help us fashion a legislative process that will lean us forward...into the wind of needed change and growth as a culture and a nation.  We are now becoming the laughing stock of other nations....losing our stature as a wise and advancing culture.

It isn't the fault of one or two people.  When things aren't going well, we immediately want to find someone to blame.   Just look at the campaign ads and the Facebook rhetoric.  It is as much our fault as it is the fault of any branch of state or federal government.  Everett Dirksen helped folks with legislative and governmental responsibility see the need to put aside ideology, roll up their sleeves and create ways to find common language and purpose.

We will continue sliding and stumbling on this slippery slope until we can find a common voice that puts aside differences and looks for the common good.  Jesus told us to look among the poor in spirit to find the blessing of the Kingdom of Heaven.  It is the place of healing and wholeness.  Perhaps all of us are suffering from poorness of spirit at some level.


Fr. Fred+

23 July 2012


I knew, the moment I got the news on Friday morning, that the shootings in Aurora would strike a national chord of pain and grief.  Murders and shootings happen everyday in a vast number of communities throughout the United States.  The ones that hurt us the most are the inexplicable acts of violence that are perpetrated on a number of innocent folks who are simply doing what any of us would do on a given day.  We go to work, to school, to the mall, to the movies and many other events that bring large numbers of folks together. This was one such event that all of us could feel.  Who hasn't been to the movies on any given evening to simply enjoy a good flick and an outing with family and/or friends?

I was sitting in my cardiologist's office waiting room...prepared to have an aortic duplex scan ... a routine ultra-sound procedure to check on the health of my aorta.  I have a genetic condition that makes checking key arteries part of my "routine" medical year (it was fine, btw).  While sitting there, at 8:45am, CNN was on the waiting room television and they were talking about a tragedy in Aurora, CO.  My internal dialogue halted, and I became riveted to the television.  I was dumbstruck!  This can't be happening again....was what my head kept wanting to say.  But, there it was, a sickening and disturbing event at a movie premier....a movie that is popular enough to pack a theatre at a midnight first showing (it actually nearly packed three theatres in Aurora that night).

Like most all of us, I was filled with a string of emotions...anger, grief, and a kind of sullenness that flattened the affect of the balance of the day.  Because of the way I'm "wired," I connect quickly with tragic events.  Something in me attaches to the event and begins to find ways to pray and think through it.  Perhaps it is part of my theological and pastoral training; or 35 years of engaging local tragedies in parish ministry; or simply the empathic character of who I am; or a combination thereof.  I simply wanted to sit and hold all of those folks....those killed, wounded and their loved ones ... in a large embrace.  The only way I could do this was via a contemplative time of prayer.

I cleared my afternoon of planned projects (this is where retirement helps), closed the door to my study, put on a string of chants I use for quieting my mind and began a long period of deep reflection on what came to me as needed support in this attitude.  Channeling blessing and Divine Energy is a process anyone can accomplish with practice.  It allows us to be present to folks...especially when physical presence and hands-on care isn't possible or feasible.  It connects us in a community network for which God has designed us.

CNN, MSNBC and other news networks do a lot to cover the details of national tragedies.  Sometimes, it gets to be a little too much.  I have never been one to "rubber neck" at a traffic accident or where emergency vehicles are gathered.  I know that my best way to help in those times is by being out of the way and being part of keeping traffic moving.  We have a natural curiosity to want to see what has happened to others...sometimes, it borders on the macabre.  I have seen, and do see, enough by virtue of my work as a priest. I have been part of emergency room trauma teams and emergency response teams.  I have blessed the dead, prayed with and comforted the dying and seen things that disturbed me to my core (there was even an emergency room doctor in one of my parishes who would see if he could rattle me or see me look pale at some disturbing situations...I don't disturb easily when in crisis mode).

I have watched the news and put together the story, as it is being told by survivors, the wounded and first responders.  Unlike the people of Aurora, I do want to know about the shooter.  As sick/disturbed as he may be to perpetrate such an act, he is a human being who entered a broken place in his life and did not emerge without a rage that spread like a virus into the surrounding community...an instantly deadly virus.   [Here, I am using the term "virus" metaphorically...to speak of the suspect's yet to be known motivations and subsequent deadly actions].  We need to try to understand the cause and effect level of this tragedy in order to provide guidance for seeing such things before they happen in the future.

More important to me, however, is the pain of losing 12 people...most of whom had only begun to make an impact on the larger community through their vocations and ideas.  No one knows what the world would have been like had they been allowed to continue the journey of life among us.  Their stories and the stories of those who were wounded and directly traumatized by those long minutes of insanity in theater 9, are forever altered or shifted.  I try to wrap my head around what that is like and how to engage it on a larger level...since I am 1500 miles away.

Then, there is the matter of "gun control."  Now, this is something to which I can speak directly and have some affect on the whole.  Up front, I own two pistols:  A Sig-Sauer 9mm, P226 Navy, and a Remington .22 calibre revolver...collector's model.  They remain locked away and only the Sig-Sauer comes out for a trip to an indoor shooting range.  I was a marksman with a .45 calibre pistol in the military.   I consider this "skill" only a part of my life journey and not something a talk much about.   It simply is.

My grandfather taught me how to shoot and hunt.  The Boy Scouts also taught me to shoot.   Both were with rifles.  My grandfather taught me to use a shotgun.  His training came with stern warnings and an admonition:  "Never shoot anything unless to you intend to eat it."  He was damned serious about this.  It was as stern a face as I ever saw on him, when he spoke it.  

Saying all this, I am also an advocate of gun control.   It makes me extremely upset to hear people say stuff like, "Several armed folks in that theatre could have stopped this..."  Let me use as strong a phrase as I can in print to respond to this:  Bullshit!   I was trained to operate under pressure of surrounding fire and tear gas in the Navy.  I would not consider pulling a weapon in a crowded theatre to "go after" someone committing an act of terror. If less trained folks tried that, the death toll would have been higher.  I guarantee it.  Things change instantly when adreneline and the environment get racheted up in a crisis.  With only some exception, the witnesses had no way of knowing that the perpetrator was wearing kevlar based combat gear over most of the "kill shot" areas of his body.  All that would have been accomplished by random folks shooting at him would have been to piss him off even more.  Sick stuff people are saying in general about all this.

Without injury to the constitutional right to "bear arms,"  it is essential that we consider the process by which licensing of weapons sold to the public happens.  It is essential that we consider the reasoning behind marketing high-powered and technically sophisticated combat weapons to the public.  Every modern, advanced country has such laws -- except for the United States.  My point also is that, by virtue of human nature, we are all capable of becoming murderers in a moment of heated anger or irrational emotional reactivity.  We need to prioritize our consideration of responsible gun control laws.  It is a moral imperative... not simply a legal or constitutional matter of "rights."

Finally, moral law trumps civil law.  Our founding fathers understood this and wrote passionately about the moral basis for creating a democratic society.  At the heart of moral law (moral theology) is the principle of Love.  I capitalize this word, because it isn't a manufactured, conditional emotion.  Love is the guiding force of life itself.  It is the ongoing action of an invested Creator.  God is Love, and our basis for life and engaging the world around us is living out of that place of Divine Love.  The bottom line for me in understanding and coping with the tragedy in Aurora is how to be a better vessel of Love. How do I engage my local community in light of what we have witnessed in this past weeks actions?  If Divine Love is not the principle upon which all our actions and interactions are based, we are lost for sure, in my opinion.  The "go forward" from Aurora is to love better and for real!

In the Love of Christ Jesus,


19 July 2012

Who's Child Am I Anyway?

Lately, I have had at least three occasions where I have had to reflect more deeply on biblical theology than I am generally want...especially in retirement.  In all three situations, it has almost come down to "dueling scriptures" in terms of "what the Bible says" and the lack of authenticity if not rendering my conception of what the Bible is actually saying the same as the person with whom I am in conversation.  I have to tell you, that this is frustrating for me.  I have a passion for catechetics (teaching and having community discourse) but I don't enjoy debate...especially the kind where someone "has" to be either right or wrong.  In all three of these situations, the manner of engagement assumes there will either be a winner or a loser.   Yuck!!

I have often told parishioners, during my parochial working years that, "if someone begins a conversation with, 'the Bible says,' simply run away very fast."   I don't mean that to be nasty.  The truth is, the Bible says a whole lot of really important and necessary things.  I have found, however, that, when a conversation begins that way, the person saying it has a pre-conceived, totally cooked and unrecantable position of belief about what they are about to quote from the Bible.  The point of fact is, they want to often beat others over the head with their agenda (or axe, as one of my colleagues suggests) at the expense of "winning souls for Christ."  This is roughly the same thing the Jesuits did in the jungles of South America in the 16th/17th centuries (see the movie, "The Mission" to get my meaning on this...outstanding film!).

Let me be totally up front here.  I read the Bible regularly.  It is part of my daily prayer cycle, which utilizes the Episcopal Lectionary for the Daily Offices.  Reading that two year cycle and the weekly Eucharistic readings, one gets a little over four-fifths of the Bible in a three year cycle.  I think I have now read pretty much all the Bible about 17 times since ordination alone.

Oh, I do hear it.  Someone is going to say, "You read it, but did you believe it?"   Lord, Have Mercy!  There is never a way out of the traps.  YES!  Salvation history is the central theme of all biblical literature.  It is the ongoing and unfolding relationship between the Transcendent God and His People.  It culminates in the fullness of that expression in the Person of Jesus Christ.  I started that journey when I was in my teen years, and it has deepened considerably over the years.  I don't have anything I need to prove.  I DO need to live my journey and experience what that relationship means....each day of my life.  So, no more "yes, but..." kinds of inquisitions....please!

The Bible is also revelatory.  What?   It reveals truths and challenges us in the current moments in ways that call us to see the world more like God engages it.  Not much has changed about being human, in terms of the basic questions of life:  Who am I?  Where am I going?  Where did I come from?  Why am I here?  From the first breathe of the first "inspired" human (I'll explain the quotes), those questions have had to be addressed in each person's life.

Each generation of humans brings new information.  We are an evolving people.  Otherwise, we would still be living in caves, using rudimentary implements and being afraid of everything that was beyond our immediate grasp.  Today, we are (allegedly) highly sophisticated, scientifically adept and technologically skilled humans.  We still have the same questions to answer.  It's like the user name and password of life itself for us.

What frustrates me is that we who call ourselves Christian spend almost more time beating each other with proof-texting  than we do engaging the core of our being and learning how to be a righteous and fulfilling community.  The foundation of faith journey...any faith journey that is healthy...is that it drives us (almost literally) into community.  We don't function alone.  When we do, we get way out in a field of psychoses and neuroses that really does define what sin is all about.  Now I have come to the very crux of this blog post.

Read the first five chapters of Genesis...slowly and deliberately.  You will find that there are, in fact, two creation stories.  Why?  Because, as the oral tradition became written, there were four "schools" of hermeneutics (interpretative renditions).  Oral histories use a lot of metaphors and images to help the mind hold the facts encased in those metaphors and images.  Every seminarian can recite the J E P D lines of presentation in the Penteteuch (first five books of the Bible)....Jewish or Christian.

The God of Abraham is a revealed, transcendent God...beyond the scope of our capacity to comprehend.  Yahweh (Hebrew name...."I AM WHO I AM" also, "I Will Be Who I Will Be")
reveals the aspect of human engagement with the Living God.  The story is told.  At the center of the Creation Narrative is the emergence of a sentient being that God basically says, 'This is the one in whom I will manifest my essence.'  Genesis says the breath (Spirit) of God was breathed into this being and filled with God (the moment of awakening).

One of my challengers skips over this and comes directly to chapter 5 of Genesis and says that we are created in the image of Adam.  Well, sorry to say, the word 'image' used in the creating narrative and the word 'image' used to define the son (Seth) of Adam are different words in Hebrew.  One denotes spirit and the other is flesh.  One superimposes itself on the other so that the Hebrew writer can say, in summary, that all children of Adam had everything given to Adam....flesh and spirit.  Bingo.

Now comes the truly sticky part.  SIN.  I hate this word.  It is troublesome and abused in so many ways to make it imcomprehensible.  What we call sin is not really sin.  Sin is not a separate entity created by an evil being.  Sin is a part of our "equipment" and is actually the result of God's gift to us.  It begins as Divine Prerogative, which is God wanting a relationship with us.  Sin is us refusing to return the desire or respond to the gift.

Sin is not a condition so much as it is a working out of relationships.  To be created in the image of God gifts us with the ability to engage creation at a level of making choices and 'naming' things.  To name is to have some level of authority.  When we chose to misuse that authority, we "bend" the relationships...both with God and the offended person(s) or element(s) of creation.  The Cain and Abel story is a teaching on what happens when we begin to place ourselves in the position of God.  It can get ugly very quickly.

Here's the next part:  Every single human being has the same DNA, which means we come from the same place.  This is now not just a function of biblical creation story; it is a function of scientific investigation.  Read Francis Collins, who, at the completion of the human genome project said, "We have seen the fingerprint of God (in the fundamental genetic formula) in humankind."  There is a homo sapiens "Adam and Eve" in the sense that all humans on earth share the basic gene pattern that marks our beginning.  The Y chromosomes in males is passed from one generation to another without replicating.  Only occasional markers (kind of like "typos") occur that can tell us which path from the root we have been on.  It's the mitochondrial DNA in females.  Good stuff!!

So, yes, we are in the image of Adam; BUT, we are each bearing God in our fundamental Self (true Self)...or soul.  We come from God; we go to God.  Now, we may get caught off the path a little by how we engage God.  We can (and do) minimalize God by trying to make Him over into our image (this reversal is the basis of the sin of "hubris"....spiritual pride..."my god is bigger and better than your god"...that is no God at all...just a rude projection of small "s" self...ego).

All of this is why, as I have grown older and , hopefully, a little wiser, I am far less inclined to make a wall around my conception of who is "in" and who is "out" when it comes to faith journeys.  It is why I cringe deeply when I hear someone say "me and my God" or simply, "my Lord."  God is the God of all creation.  Jesus is the Lord of Heaven and Earth...we are all sons and daughters of God.

If we have gone awry anywhere, it is that we have privatized our spirituality into tight little groups of like minded folks and call it "religion."  Religion is not spirituality.  Religion, at its worst, is a mutual admiration, ego-feeding, celebration of what is "Mine."  Spirituality is the inward journey that experiences the Love, Forgiveness and Joy of God...and the mutuality of that as we look into the face of another human being.  That's at the heart of the worst of us.  Our sin is what we have put on over that Truth.  That can get might ugly as well.

A perfect example appeared in a headline today:  George Zimmerman, who murdered Trayvon Martin in February (Sanford, FL) told reporters that it was "God's Plan" for him to kill Trayvon.    Ooooh my!   It reveals hubris and a self-absorbed definition of God.  It reveals the sin of narcissistic cultism.....NOT faith or spirituality or the humility that comes with encounter with the Living God.

I close by saying that I engage every other individual and faith tradition in a manner that, to the best of my ability, seeks to seek God within them.  I have found God in remarkable places.  How do I know?  Because, when I do that, what I experience is a deep love that is incomprehensible to me.  It just is.  That's because it's God, not me, doing the loving.

My love in Jesus,


14 July 2012

Black, White and Gray All Over

When I wrote the title for today's thoughts, it almost sounded like a visual description of our dog...a 14 yr old Schnoodle named "Duchess."  Alas, such is not the case.  Duchess and I have just completed a long walk, and she is now sleeping soundly just outside the door to my study.  She has not a worry in the world.  On the other hand....

The Episcopal Church completed its triennial work of General Convention with the adjournment of both Houses (Bishops and Deputies) late Thursday afternoon...12 July.  I did not travel to Indianapolis for this convention.  It is the first one I have missed, since I began being part of that element of our Church in 1991.  I was a Deputy at six General Conventions (GC) -- except 1994 -- when I had arrived in Northern Indiana too late to be considered for election to their deputation.  I went as a volunteer for several days that time.  It was, oddly enough, in Indianapolis as well.

As I read the Bible (yes, I read it -- carefully and daily), the Apostles began this Body of Christ with many pressures and concerns.  First and foremost, they were illegal...both to the Sanhedrin and the Roman government.  They met quietly and secretly.  Their first Bishop (those not among the Twelve...called Apostles), James, was martyred in Jerusalem not many years after he was chosen.  Most of the Apostolic core lost their lives to martyrdom.  Nevertheless, the fledgling Church grew.

Acts records what is now called the First Council in Jerusalem to deal with a number of issues.  There was a famine.  How were the followers of Jesus (not yet called the Church) to meet the pressing needs of so many hungry people.  The "thirteenth" Apostle, Paul, was busily collecting money from new faith communities and bringing back funds to help the starving in Judea.  This is clearly a black/white issue.  There is a problem and solution process.

But, other considerations were "on the table" for deliberation.  This new community needed to signify how folks would be recognized as part of the community.  It came down to two choices (or a combination thereof):  Baptism or Circumcision.  Now we are in the arena of what I call "gray."  Moral theology -- whether in its infancy or after 2000 years -- is not a black/white process.  God does know that we try to make it that by believing we speak God's own mind in our pronouncements.  But the Apostles were smarter than that in the beginning.  They knew that no one person had the Mind of Christ or the Wisdom of God.  As far back as Moses, God was firm in telling him that we could not see the fullness of God but only a very small aspect as God passed by (the Hebrew language is more graphic than that...God actually tells Moses to behold his rear-end, as He passes by...English cleaned it up by calling it God's "train").

The Apostles realized that, together, they were more of God's Mind; and that their humanness would get in the way of the purity of revelation.  Their solution?  They debated this issue (rather hotly) for a good, long time.  When it seemed they had all registered an opinion, James stood and gave "judgment."  That was a rendering of the mind of the body gathered.  They had sought the guidance of the Spirit, and come to a place of consensus.

James then announced to the assembled (assumed to be beyond those in council), "It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us..."  Circumcision wold not be required of Gentiles.  This was a giant step in, a) making baptism the sole rite of entry into the community, and, b) moved the community beyond Judaism and into the cultures beyond them.  It was now "official."

I unpack this story for two reasons.  First, the Church, at its healthiest, has never been a static entity with a single mindset.  The Bible itself isn't even written that way.  The relationship between God and His People is hugely dynamic and moves all over the place at times.  The gift of human will creates a set of problems that make it necessary to chose the path and seek Holy Counsel.   Thus the Apostles employed the technique that worked best at that time.  Now, we in the Episcopal Church employ techniques suitable for a modern council.

Secondly, some folks always go away disappointed.  Do you think everyone left that first council in Jerusalem a happy camper?  I'll wager a lot that more than one went away groaning that the fledgling Body was already straying from the path by not staying dead on target with its Jewish origins.  Their conflict would have been their version of "my Church has left me."  Note, however, that they went about the business at hand.  No one is recorded as having left the group, or founded their own Church of the True Incorporation (Circumcision).   The same is true in a healthy context of contemporary Church.

The Episcopal Church's model of governance is about as inclusive as a body can be.  It has a bicameral legislative body that incorporates equal representation from each diocese...both lay and ordained in equal numbers.  The Bishops constitute the other House.  Both Houses must agree in order for legislation to pass.  Careful rules of engaging issues are set forth and legislation is enacted by a majority vote with both Houses concurring.  About as New Testament as one can get in a society as complex as ours.

Moral theology is fairly gray all over.  It has black and white parts that are represented by the Ten Commandments.  The rest of what is known as Law, was to guide the people in the conduct of daily life...a life that was lived in the midst of several cultures.  Cultures came and went.  Change in living arrangements shifted and evolved.  The community of the Hebrew people seen in Exodus is very different from the one in which Jesus grew up and in which Jesus established a new and different way of being in relationship ... with God and with one another.  This was a radical departure from the fundamental laws of his time.  That's what led to his crucifixion.

No instructions were left regarding how succeeding generations and cultures were to meet the particular conditions of their time.  A lot of what we now know as science was, to the  folks of the First Century, the work of demons or a punishment from God.  Leprosy can be cured.  In Jesus day, it was a sign of uncleanness and warranted expulsion from the faith community.  Jesus incorporated all kinds of folks into his circle of teaching.  Some of those folks had already been excluded from the Jewish faith community.

The current exclusivity of the Church is part of what one might call its "demise."  I don't see demise.  I see reordering and restructuring.  It's a gray area, because moral theology is a messy business.  Always has been.  Someone always goes away disappointed at the outcome.

Human sexuality is really not much a part of biblical teaching.  The Levitical Code was responding to surrounding cultures who thought it just fine to abuse boys...and girls...treat women as chattel...and engage in activity that was outside that of faithfulness.  That part has not changed.  What has changed is our understanding of sexual orientation.  In early Greek and Roman cultures, dalliances in the public baths with same sex members was an often abusive game.  Now, we understand abuse, can legislate against it and separated being gay or lesbian from that behavior...knowing that orientation to be something that isn't a choice and can lead to healthy, lifelong partnerships.

Do I get it?  No, not altogether.  I am a theologian and pastor by trade.  That does not make me able to know the depth and breadth of God any more than Moses could or did.  I say my prayers and live in community...trusting the Holy Spirit in the greater councils.  The Holy Spirit still speaks and, to borrow from Paul, creation is still groaning toward its full birth.  Things are still unfolding.

No, I am not on a slippery slope here.  Most official moral theologians will say something similar.  I've been reading and studying for years.  There is a "right" and "wrong" based upon both our relationship with God and with one another.  "That's the function of the Ten Words (10 Commandments).  Jesus summed it up thusly:  You shall love the Lord your God, with all your heart, soul and mind; You shall love your neighbor as you love yourself."  Pretty straight forward foundation for a moral code.  We simply are not doing this very well right now.  We get this right, and I truly believe the rest will come round right.

Love and Blessings,